Mojo - July 2005

Is Free Speech Popular?

| Thu Jul. 14, 2005 11:06 AM PDT

The First Amendment Center just released its 2005 "State of the First Amendment" survey, and some of the results are fairly interesting. The headliner here is that 70 percent of Americans are fine with posting the Ten Commandments in government buildings—and 85 percent approve if such a monument is surrounded by "other historical documents"—which doesn't come as much of a surprise. But other finds include:

  • 63 percent of respondents oppose a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning, up from 53 percent a year ago. (Good thing Congress is in tune with the popular will on this issue, huh?)
  • 80 percent of respondents want Supreme Court proceedings televised. (Which seems unnecessary, since the transcripts are always available, and there's a risk that lawyers and judges could start mugging for the camera—but the reasons as to why this shouldn't be done don't seem particularly forceful. Most state appellate courts allow it.)
  • 75 percent think students in public school should be allowed to express offensive views. But only 27 percent think students should be allowed to wear t-shirts that offend people. (Huh?)
  • 64 percent endorse increasing fines to $500,000 on broadcasters who "violate government rules" governing content on broadcast television. But 60 percent don't think those rules should be applied to cable or satellite.
  • Only 23 percent of Americans agreed that "the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees," which is down from 49 percent after the 9/11 attacks.
  • So that's encouraging, and should help slow the long inevitable drift towards fascism, eh? Although when you flip some of the results around, they can look disheartening. 25 percent of Americans think that students in public schools should never express any sort of views that might offend others? 40 percent think the government should regulate content on cable and satellite? That's a lot of people.

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    The Motherhood Penalty

    | Thu Jul. 14, 2005 10:49 AM PDT

    In recent years it's been fashionable for conservatives and libertarians to tout "research" showing that the gender wage gap—the observed difference in pay between men and women—is supposedly due to women not wanting to work nearly as much, perhaps because of family demands. To some extent, even if this research was accurate, it isn't very satisfying: the question then becomes why women necessarily have to sacrifice their careers to raise a family. Why can't the fathers pitch in too? Why can't employers be more accommodating? Why don't we have paid family leave? And so on and so forth. Nevertheless, perhaps the research isn't accurate, and discrimination is in fact alive and well. A pair of sociologists at Cornell recently designed an experiment suggesting that, contrary to the libertarian line, employers may well actively discriminate against mothers:

    [W]e conducted a laboratory experiment in which participants evaluated application materials for a pair of same race, same gender, ostensibly real job applicants who were equally qualified but differed on parental status. The results strongly support the discrimination hypotheses. Relative to other kinds of applicants, mothers were rated as less competent, less committed, less suitable for hire, promotion, and management training, and deserving of lower salaries. Mothers were also held to higher performance and punctuality standards. Men were not penalized for being a parent, and in fact, appeared to benefit from having children on some measures.

    Add that to the research showing that pregnancy discrimination is very much alive and kicking. For more on the gender wage gap, Alas, a Blog ran a pretty comprehensive series on the subject awhile back that's worth reading.

    No Torture? No Problem!

    | Thu Jul. 14, 2005 10:09 AM PDT

    The military released the findings of its investigation into Guantanamo Bay today, and found humiliation but no torture. The New York Times and Washington Post are both running stories, but here's the Chicago Tribune's version:

    The Guantanamo detainee suspected of being the would-be "20th hijacker" for the Sept. 11 attacks was subjected to abusive treatment, including being forced to wear a bra and perform a series of "dog tricks" during interrogation, according to an official report made public during a Senate hearing Wednesday. .... The report said Mohamed al-Qahtani—labeled by U.S. officials as the "20th hijacker"—was forced to stand naked before a woman interrogator for at least five minutes and was made to wear thong underwear on his head and a bra.

    Qahtani also was told by interrogators that "his mother and sister were whores," according to the report, and he was led by a dog leash attached to his hand chains and made to do a "series of dog tricks" as part of the interrogation…

    Despite the harshness of these tactics, it is not clear that they violated any law. The Geneva Conventions prohibit sexually degrading tactics, but the Bush administration has said the Geneva Conventions don't apply to the Guantanamo detainees, saying they are suspected terrorists rather than prisoners of war.

    Let's assume the military didn't whitewash anything here (which is always a possibility). Then it does appear that the earlier FBI reports cited by Sen. Dick Durbin—of prisoners chained to the floor in the fetal position for 24 hours while allowed to wallow in their own feces—were inaccurate. Given the low bigotry of soft expectations at work here, that's good, although it's still, needless to say, extremely disturbing that legions of administration defenders thought that that was an acceptable way to treat human beings.

    Now, the actual humiliation tactics cited here arguably aren't torture in the same way, true, although that's also pretty much beside the point. They certainly fall well short of "humane," and they're still outside the law—"[t]he Geneva Conventions prohibit sexually degrading tactics." So once again for the Rush Limbaugh crowd: a person can believe that the Geneva Conventions aren't appropriate for this new and radical age of terrorism. Fair enough. But in that case, the president of the United States should go to Congress and get the law changed. That's how the Constitution works, that's how Civics 101 teaches us that a bill becomes law, and the idea that a group of bureaucrats and lawyers in the White House get to decide for themselves what interrogation tactics are legal and illegal, and what treaties the country is and is not bound by, is pretty unacceptable.

    The other elephant honking around in the torture chamber, meanwhile, is that we still have no idea whether smearing fake menstrual blood all over a fake detainee is even an effective to do business. Bush defenders keep chanting, "The Constitution isn't a suicide pact!" but does anyone know whether a "series of dog tricks" is actually saving us from suicide? In the American Prospect this month, Jason Vest interviewed a former interrogator, Jack Cloonan, who argued that humiliation and abuse just didn't work—that treating interrogation subjects humanely, and within the bounds of the Geneva Convention, could yield far more information than anyone could ever imagine. He's hardly the first to say so. And lest anyone bring up the infamous "ticking bomb scenario," consider this:

    Cloonan and a New York Police Department detective secured actionable intelligence from a suspect in the foiled millennium-bombing plot in just six hours on December 30, 1999 -- by following FBI procedure, and by encouraging a suspect to pray during his Ramadan fast. The suspect even agreed to place calls to his confederates, which led to their speedy arrests.

    Cloonan was literally faced with a ticking bomb scenario, but still followed FBI procedure, and defused said bomb. It's not unrealistic to think that Rumsfeld-approved smearing of menstrual blood all over the suspect's face could have alienated or angered the suspect and failed to stop the bombing. And then consider that "following FBI procedure" doesn't run the danger of sparking a backlash once news of dog tricks and menstrual blood spread through the Muslim world. (And unless the U.S. plans in keeping its detainees locked up forever, this news will emerge eventually, like it or not.) So just because the U.S. isn't technically torturing people in Guantanamo—and remember, Guantanamo was always the most benign chunk of this particular iceberg, and we've still heard nothing about very clear and horrific instances of torture elsewhere—that still doesn't mean that our detainee and interrogation policy makes any sense at all.

    McClellan Stonewalls

    Wed Jul. 13, 2005 5:13 PM PDT

    Despite the fact that the questions about the Rove/Plame affair at the last three days of White House Press conferences are actually on a serious matter, they still make for hilarious reading. Press Secretary Scott McClellan has stonewalled virtually every question the press corps has thrown at him with his answer that the White House refuses to comment on the ongoing investigation at the request of the special prosecutor.

    Which, frankly, is bullshit because: 1) the White House was happy to comment on the ongoing investigation when the information of the day was exculpatory rather than incriminating; 2) a good number of questions that have been shot down with this defense are actually not 'related to the investigation' in any legal sense of the words; and 3) the special prosecutor never asked the White House to clam up to begin with.

    But you've got to admire the press for nonetheless trying to get their quote. They've tried forcing McClellan to defend past statements. They've asked about McClellan's previous willingness to answer 'related questions.' They've asked the simple, deadly, question: does the president think Rove did something wrong? Does the President stand by his statement that anyone who he found was involved in the leak would be shown the door? They've asked about the President and the First Lady's personal feelings for their old buddy Karl, and whether they are "at this point, ebbing or flowing." It's all so creative. But as a wise man once said, you don't have take my word for it:

    MR. McCLELLAN: Again, this is a creative way to come out to the same kind of questions.

    Q: You're right, it is, and I want an answer.

    At least he's impressed by his adversaries. Let's hope their tenacity proves worthy of his admiration as well.

    Prayer is the Answer

    | Wed Jul. 13, 2005 1:47 PM PDT

    Yesterday, Eugene Oregon noted that the Senate has finally roused itself into "action" in response to the suffering and ongoing genocide in Darfur. And what did the chamber decide to do? Here's S.RES.186:

    A resolution affirming the importance of a national weekend of prayer for the victims of genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur, Sudan, and expressing the sense of the Senate that July 15 through July 17, 2005, should be designated as a national weekend of prayer and reflection for the people of Darfur.

    Words fail. See also Eugene's follow-up: "[I]t is a little ironic that Congress has passed a resolution that is intended to raise awareness of a genocide that it apparently doesn't want to deal with." Yeah. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has been working behind the scenes to spike an actual resolution to do something substantive about Darfur. Instead we get a "national weekend of... reflection," as if this is something that demands extended reflection.

    What Would Gonzales Do?

    | Wed Jul. 13, 2005 12:32 PM PDT

    Julie Saltman points out that, despite all the complaints by the right, Alberto Gonzales probably wouldn't make for a "moderate" Supreme Court justice, or anything resembling a future David Souter. That's true enough, although I doubt Gonzales' undying "loyalty to the president" matters much here. Supreme Court justices are obviously free to be independent, and at any rate, I doubt that George W. Bush himself cares much, personally, for banning contraception or overturning Roe v. Wade (although both he and Gonzales appear happy to allow so many restrictions on abortion as to make the "rights" virtually meaningless). So I doubt any future justice would be receiving marching orders to placate the religious right.

    The other thing to note is that from everything we know about Gonzales, he's someone who shifts with the wind, and isn't particularly principled in any way. That's not a good thing when it comes time to craft, say, memos allowing the torture of detainees. On the Supreme Court, though, it could mean—and it's always hard to predict, but let's grasp at straws—that Gonzales would move with prevailing public sentiment, as the average Supreme Court justice tends to do; and that public sentiment has steadily become more liberal over the years, at least in social issues, and should continue to trend in that direction. (Young people, after all, are far more liberal on abortion and gay marriage than the generation before them.) The same goes, perhaps, for some economic issues, although the prevailing public sentiment here is markedly less progressive.

    I don't think anyone should be under any illusion that Gonzales would be a very conservative Justice: friendly to business, placing undue burdens on a woman's right to choose, infringing on privacy, rendering affirmative action meaningless, chipping away at Congress' ability to regulate commerce, etc. etc. The complaints by the religious right about him are, to a large degree, ingenuous. Personally, I think Gonzales has shown enough disrespect for the rule of law that he does not deserve a Supreme Court appointment, now or ever. But what he does not appear to be, however, is a bull-headed, hell-or-high-water conservative like Antonin Scalia, who would stand athwart history and yell 'Stop!'. In many ways, that could make a difference.

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    The Other Plame Story

    | Tue Jul. 12, 2005 2:33 PM PDT

    Jeralyn Merritt asks a question:

    Will Karl Rove resign? Or continue to confidently maintain he's done nothing wrong and bank on escaping Fitzgerald's clutches? And if Rove goes down, who's going to go down with him? My bet is it will be Cheney's staff.

    I haven't followed the Plame scandal too closely—Salon's primer seems as good an intro as any—but don't the answers here seem obvious? "No, yes, no, no." Sorry to be so glib, but why on earth would Rove ever resign? Bush certainly didn't "accept" Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. At absolute best, Turd Blossom might get frog-marched off to prison, though that seems somewhat unlikely at this point, and at any rate, I'm sure Rove can still coordinate any and all upcoming White House smear campaigns from the comfort of his prison cell, via Blackberry. (And even in this case, there's always the possibility of a presidential pardon. Brazen? Of course. So it was when Pa Bush pardoned Casper Weinberger and the other Iran-Contra criminals he had been hobnobbing with only a few years prior.) I'd love to be wrong, but still.

    Anyway, the Rove frenzy is fun, though Billmon's line of inquiry here seems far more important, namely, Who was forging those original reports suggesting that Iraq had acquired yellowcake from Niger? One possible answer to this question, first floated by Seymour Hersh a while back, is that the fake documents were an inside job, forged by someone within U.S. intelligence who wanted the Iraq hawks to latch onto documents so ridiculous that they could be discredited when the issue became public. Indeed, Dick Cheney and other Iraq hawks did latch onto the documents, Bush repeated the yellowcake information in a 2002 speech in Cincinnati, and the ensuing flap with Joseph Wilson was a fairly serious roadblock on the march to war.

    Hersh's theory doesn't seem so far-fetched upon closer inspection, either. According to the Senate's investigation into the matter, the State Department had originally discredited a documents about Iraq, Niger, and yellowcake, because it was accompanied by another document—complete with the same "official" seal—claiming that Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Iran had allied together and were plotting against the world. That struck INR, State's intelligence agency, as "completely implausible," and the agency concluded that the documents were probably forged. But the Iraq hawks stuck by the documents all the same. Another later document specified that Iraq had agreed to purchase one-sixth of Niger's annual uranium production. Also ridiculous, and yet the hawks bought it. Presumably all of these reports came from a "foreign intelligence agency," which is thought to be SISMI, the Italian intel agency, but no one knows where SISMI got the documents.

    So is that it? An inside job? Why else would anyone forge documents so ridiculous? There's also the vague-but-disturbing possibility that the documents might have originated from certain Iranian businessmen with close ties to Tehran, who also happen to have a working relationship with SISMI. Indeed, Laura Rozen once observed that SISMI is fairly soft on Iran, having reportedly failed to crack down on Iran's efforts to acquire dual-use technology in the past. Hmmm... The theory that certain Iranian elements might have forged and then circulated the Niger documents through the Italians in order to draw the United States into war with Iraq is pretty wild, but who knows? We also know that Ahmed Chalabi, who fed the U.S.—and New York Times reporter Judith Miller—incorrect information about Saddam Hussein's WMD programs, was later revealed to have close ties with Iran, and possibly even spied on the CPA for Iranian intelligence. Meanwhile, one can't help but notice that Iran's in a strong position now—having signed a military alliance with its longtime regional rival, and having bogged down the United States right next door. Hmmm.... Maybe this is all idle speculation, but it seems much more fascinating to me than the non-possibility that Bush might fire Karl Rove.

    UPDATE: Josh Marshall points out there might also be a John Bolton angle to the document story. "Confidence in the documents kept getting knocked down. But someone or some group kept giving them fresh life. And, improbably, those someones seemed to be at the State Department." Could we spare, perhaps, another "Hmmm...."

    UPDATE: Argh, score one for lack of reading comprehension. I read Billmon's original post way too quickly and missed the real story. My speculation in the post above all has to do with the obvious Niger forgeries that everyone always talks about, the one INR dismissed as "completely implausible," whose origins are still unknown. But Billmon was asking about another set of Niger forgeries, a much better and more convincing set, ones provided to the CIA in winter of 2001-02. Which are also still mysterious in origins, but seem to be done by much more capable people. Certainly not CIA agents trying to discredit the hawks. But Iranian agents or, perhaps, someone connected to John Bolton's shop? You'd have to be crazy to believe that, right?

    On second thoughts

    | Tue Jul. 12, 2005 1:04 PM PDT

    The insta-reaction to last week's London bombings was long on speculation that the attacks, unimaginative and "small-bore" as they were (compared to 9/11), showed a falling off in terrorist capabilities. That theory looks ripe for at least partial revision, if this New York Times piece is to be believed.

    Because of the small size of the bombs, some investigators initially said last week that they were relatively crude.

    On Monday, a senior European-based counterterrorism official with access to intelligence reports said the new information on the material indicated that the bombs were "technically advanced." The official added: "There seems to be a mastery of the method of doing explosions. This was not rudimentary. It required great organization and was well put together."

    Exxon Boycott

    | Tue Jul. 12, 2005 12:23 PM PDT

    According to the International Herald Tribune, various liberal and environmental groups are planning a major boycott of everyone's favorite climate-change skeptics at ExxonMobil. It's been about a decade since a major single-company boycott has gotten underway, but then, Exxon has probably done more to set back the environmental and scientific cause on global warming than any other single organization. On that note, it's worth dredging up Chris Mooney's big expose of Exxon from the last issue of Mother Jones, which looked at the phony science being peddled on climate change, along with the Exxon money behind it. Not to mention our chart version too.

    Oh, and you can check out the boycott here.

    CostCo vs. Wal-Mart

    | Tue Jul. 12, 2005 11:18 AM PDT

    The Financial Times has a nice article on the classic CostCo vs. Wal-Mart head-to-head. Most notably, the vast differences in average wage—$17.41 per hour at Costco, $12 per hour at Wal-Mart's Sam's Club—don't seem to be hurting the former any. And the resulting lower employee turnover—17 percent at Costco compared to 70 percent in the rest of the sector—has probably helped the company's productivity. As anyone who's worked at a large retail chain can attest, you don't tend to put in much effort if you're only sticking around for a few months. The other key factor here, as Nathan Newman points out, is that about a fifth of Costco's workers are unionized, which in turn has had ripple effects for the rest of the chain's employees. (Though I believe Costco paid decent wages, and treated its workers fairly, before it acquired the unionized Price Club in 1993.)

    Anyway, this brings to mind an old-but-worthwhile Seattle Weekly article. In 2003, investors flipped out at Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal—he was treating his workers and customers much too well for Wall Street's tastes, you see. Sinegal held on, but he seems like the great exception here; most CEOs obviously won't rank "rewarding shareholders" as their fifth priority. The piece also quotes a number of experts squaring off on whether the CostCo model always makes good financial sense for companies to pursue on their own. Not every store can be like CostCo, after all, and consumers might be worse off if CostCo was all there was. The likely answer, then: it depends. If the federal minimum wage were raised, or if the country was running at full employment and wages started rising naturally, businesses like Wal-Mart might run into trouble, and companies such as CostCo would thrive. (Although, worth noting that Wal-Mart managed just fine during the tight labor market in the late '90s.)