Mojo - January 2008

Be Careful, Kids - Monkey Business Can Start Wars

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 7:10 PM EST

It seems the recent close encounter between U.S. Navy warships and Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz was spurred on by a notorious radio wisecracker called the "Filipino Monkey." The Guardian reports that the elusive monkey—a "mythical guy out there who, hour after hour, shouts obscenities and threats" over Navy radio frequencies—was the creepy voice that American sailors heard muttering, "I am coming to you... You will explode in a few minutes," during their 20-minute standoff last week with the Iranians. (Click here for the monkey see, monkey do. Sorry, I couldn't resist.) For their part, the Iranians deny any aggressive behavior, claiming the video/audio released by the Pentagon is propaganda. Whatever the case, there's a surly monkey of a man out there somewhere, probably sitting alone in his basement with a toy radio set, who almost made our world much more complicated.

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The Brother From Another Planet: Good, and Bad, Reasons why Blacks Aren't in Lock Step with Obama

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 4:39 PM EST

I never cease to be amazed at how amazing it seems that blacks aren't in automatic, unthinking, en masse lockstep with Barack Obama. I did a BBC interview just after Obama's announcement from Springfield and nothing I said could penetrate that white woman's disgusted annoyance with me for pointing out that even black candidates have to earn black votes. I was only there to prove how baffling, and therefore ignoreable, Negroes are; she never heard a word I said. It was incomprehensible to her that we could at once do carthweels in the streets over him and keep our minds open about voting for him. Guess it's not just Asians who are inscrutable; it's all Others when they don't queue up in accordance with whites' lazy predictions about us.

This annoyance and assumption of black connivance (our coolness toward Obama can't possibly be defensible) against a shiny, clean black guy like Obama is particularly worrisome when it comes from other blacks. Most often, it's the same blacks who rail most vocally against white denial of black complexity, yet they know very well that you can't talk to any group of black folks without hearing a plethora of contradictory opinions (gee, just like 'real' people). We range from Bill Cosby to Michael Eric Dyson, Sec. Rice to Marian Wright Edelman. If we vote for any black just because they're black, we get dogged. If we vet all comers with equal scrutiny we're seen as, I dunno, stupid. Self-destructive. No need to pay us any mind; let the grown ups make the decisions.

The truth is that nobody weighs their vote as carefully as blacks, especially older blacks, and we've been voting for non-blacks a long time. You see, we want to see blacks get their due but, more than anything else, we get that we're minorities, often despised minorities, and that we'll only rarely be represented by folks who look like us. We wrote the book on making due and getting done what we can get done, symbolism aside. Without knowing more, black opposition to Obama is as worthy as black support of him regardless of what the black Politburo says.

Still, William Jelani Cobb, writing in The Washington Post, offers one of the few worthy versions of this argument re the civil rights establishment's ambivalence and hostility to Obama:

That's because, positioned as he is between the black boomers and the hip-hop generation, Obama is indebted, but not beholden, to the civil rights gerontocracy. A successful Obama candidacy would simultaneously represent a huge leap forward for black America and the death knell for the reign of the civil rights-era leadership -- or at least the illusion of their influence.

Cobb is still ignoring the obvious too much, I think, as to the role of black sagacity in weighing Obama, but his argument is among the most nuanced. I'm on record as highly critical of the Generation That Won't Go Away (Sharpton, Jackson, et al), much as I honor their role in my freedom. We'd still be in the back of the bus if I'd had to face Bull Connor. Still, I think they're getting something of a bum rap on Obama. And of course, Clinton shot herself in the foot with the dissing of MLK. Oh my, how the truth slipped out there. All you Negroes marchin' was fine, but it took white folks to seal the deal. Andrew Young et. al. will be thanking her for a long time for that one. And South Carolina's blacks have been given a little something to chew on while their hands are poised over the 'Clinton' button.

Hillary's Triangulation

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 4:02 PM EST

Pay no attention to the woman behind the curtain. Hillary Clinton has done it again, pulling a fast one even on those who are critical of her performance yesterday on "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert.

As part of what amounted to a free hour-long campaign commercial, the queen of triangulation took her usual something-for-everyone approach to Obama's record on the decision to launch the Iraq war, attacking him from both sides: On the one hand, his clear, firm, and thoroughly prescient opposition to the war expressed in a speech he gave in October 2002 is brushed off as "just a speech." On the other hand, this same opposition is used to depict him as being soft on Saddam, willing to do nothing to stop a dangerous maniac.

My colleague David Corn's earlier post, with its crystal clear parsing of Obama's true record and Clinton's various attacks on it, ought to be the last word on this subject—if only the millions of viewers of "Meet the Press" could be counted on to read it.

The quintessential piece of Clintonian obfuscation, however, lies in the fact that now everyone is talking about just what she wants them to talk about: Barack Obama's record on the war. This, as opposed to Hillary Clinton's own record, as she described it yesterday—not for the first time, but in unusually direct terms. It's a description that ought to be producing astonishment and outrage, but in fact seems to be receiving relatively little coverage.

Where and When we Enter: Black Women and Election 2008

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 3:53 PM EST

Gloria Steinem was right: a black woman with Obama's exact pedigree wouldn't register as more than a blip in a presidential race; whether it was Achola or Jaquita Obama, she'd couldn't get elected Senator let alone seriously contend for the White House. Let alone be seen as The Great Black Hope who made white folks eurphoric at their own generosity. Obama's race is seen as unifying while Clinton's gender is seen as divisive.

It seems pretty obvious that, rather than deal with Steinem's potent argument, folks are focusing on what she (i.e. feminism) didn't do about Bill Clinton and on disparaging the "hierarchy of oppressions" (gender v race) angle when that's her very point; progress on race has always taken a back seat to progress on gender - black men did get the vote before women, however impossible it was to exercise. Let's not forget that non-white men benefit just as much from sexism as the white ones do, a reality that made my military years much more a battle against sexism than racism. Keeping women in their place is the one thing folks with a penis can agree on. How deeply we feel our own oppression, how blase we are about others'.

First 'Dems for Romney' Video Released; Plus Michigan Analysis

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 3:46 PM EST

More on the Michigan Democrats for Romney movement:

Tomorrow's the MI primary — here's your pocket analysis. Journalists and pundits who haven't been properly chastened by New Hampshire will tell you that if Romney doesn't win in the state where he was raised, his campaign is over. Don't believe them. Romney has a ton of money. He'll be around to fight another day. (That said, I've seen Romney on the stump multiple times and I'd be surprised if he wins a single state.) If McCain wins, the media will anoint him the frontrunner heading into the January 19 South Carolina primary. If Huckabee wins, the media will say he's "one of the frontrunners" because they don't like Huckabee as much as they like McCain, and because they don't believe someone who appeals so exclusively to evangelical Christians can win the big states on February 5th. Polling currently has Romney first, McCain second, and Huckabee third. But the polling is going to have to predict a bunch of these things correctly before the public or the press corps really trusts it again.

Clinton Supporter Who Slammed Obama on Race, Drugs Has Not-So-Progressive History

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 12:25 PM EST

robert_johnson.jpg After Hillary Clinton supporter Bob Johnson argued at a Clinton rally that Barack Obama has no standing on the issue of race because he was a teenager doing drugs "in the neighborhood" back when the Clintons were working on issues important to minorities, no one asked this question: What on earth is Hillary Clinton doing using Johnson, the founder of BET, as a campaign surrogate?

According to a 2001 profile in the New Republic, "Johnson is not a man with a deep sense of social obligation." He has a long history of teaming with the Bush Administration to fight against progressive goals (many of which would benefit the African-American community) in order to further his own financial ends. A few years ago, for example, he got a group of rich African-Americans together to falsify evidence and argue in favor of eliminating the death tax, a key Bush Administration goal. "As Robert Johnson of Black Entertainment Television argues," said President Bush, "the death tax and double taxation weighs heavily on minorities." This, of course, is false, and both Bush and Johnson knew it. The death tax only hits those who have large estates to leave to their children, a population far more white than black.

Johnson has engaged in union-busting. "On one occasion he laid off or reduced the hours of BET workers who joined an electricians' union, an action that a federal judge subsequently ruled illegal," writes Jonathan Chait in TNR.

And he fought for President Bush's Social Security privatization plan. Johnson served on the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security. From that post, he argued that blacks don't receive as much from the current Social Security system than whites because they are more likely to die before retirement age. That argument is specious for two reasons. I'll let Chait explain:

First, Social Security does more than pay benefits to retirees. It also gives benefits to the families of workers who die or are disabled at a young age. Since black workers are more likely to suffer workplace injuries, they benefit disproportionately from this part of the program. And the more Social Security tax dollars are drained away into private accounts--as Bush proposes to do--the less that is available for survivors' benefits.
Second, Social Security's retirement benefits are progressive: They offer a higher rate of return to lower-paid workers. Since black workers, on average, earn less than the population at large, they benefit from this redistribution. This more than makes up for any loss they suffer from dying younger. On the whole, then, Social Security redistributes money from whites to blacks. Most plans for private accounts do not. As with the estate tax, Johnson has his racial analysis backward.

Johnson also has a long history of refusing to give back to the black community, while shamelessly using his race to further his own ends (i.e. make more money). The TNR profile is worth reading in full. Hopefully someone in the Clinton campaign will do so, and reconsider their connection to Johnson.

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The Fight for Increased Transparency in Senate Campaign Finance Reports

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 11:44 AM EST

While presidential and House candidates file their campaign finance reports electronically, Senate candidates file theirs on paper. It takes the Federal Elections Commission months to process these paper records and put them online, where the public can see them. The upshot: voters don't know who donated to Senate candidates in the last three months of their campaigns. Did Republicans fund Joe Lieberman's last minute push, for example? You could only find out after you've voted.

The good folks at the Sunlight Foundation have identified which Senators are working for more transparency (primarily Russ Feingold) and which ones are working for less (primarily John Ensign). And they also know how you can take action. Check out their web video.

AFRICOM Enters the Blogosphere

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 11:20 AM EST

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The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was created last February to coordinate U.S. military activities on the continent; Africa had previously been the shared responsibility of the European, Central, and Pacific commands. Last December 21, AFRICOM added a blog to its website to better communicate its mission. According to the initial blog post from General William Kip Ward, AFRICOM's commander:

As we build U.S. Africa Command, we want to talk to people about what the U.S. military is doing in Africa. Just as importantly, I want everyone on the staff to also listen and learn. So we have launched a new forum called AFRICOM Dialogue as a way for members of the Africa Command staff to describe what we're doing.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for transparency and dialogue. But it struck me... aside from the Nigerian scammers who relentlessly pound away at my inbox, how many Africans actually have Internet access? Turns out, not that many—about 4 percent.

So, I wish AFRICOM all the best with its blog, but I suspect that most of its earnest declarations of "mutual trust, respect, and confidence" in its African partners will go unnoticed by ... well, almost everyone that counts.

At least one African, though, has already chimed in: "With all due respect, AFRICOM is not needed whatsoever in Nigeria or anywhere else in the West African Sub-sahara," wrote "Olaopin in Unspecified." Good luck, AFRICOM.

Living Large in Kabul

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 11:00 AM EST

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Taliban militants have attacked a luxury hotel in Kabul, the BBC reports. Wait a second, there's a luxury hotel in Kabul? Yep, the Kabul Serena. First opened in 1945 as the Kabul Hotel, it was destroyed during the Afghan civil war and rebuilt in January 2006 with help from the Aga Khan Foundation for Economic Development. And, hey, it looks pretty nice, certainly better than any hotel this reporter has ever stayed in. From the press release announcing the hotel's 2006 reopening:

An oasis of luxury in a war-ravaged city, the hotel offers such unheard of luxuries (by local standards) as: 177 rooms; all with stylish soft furnishings, marble bathrooms, satellite TV and Internet connections on demand. Guest amenities include a business center, health club, swimming pool and a beauty salon.
As for restaurants, the Café Zarnegar offers 24-hour international buffet services, while the exquisite Silk Route Restaurant specializes in a selection of Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian and Thai cuisine. Commenting on the initial success of the hotel, a spokesman for the Aga Khan Foundation for Economic Development, Aly Mawji, said, "mainstream tourism is still years away, but we hope the hotel will encourage some more adventurous travellers".

According to the BBC, four men armed with AK-47s, grenades, and suicide vests stormed the hotel earlier today. One of the attackers detonated his explosive inside the hotel, while the others exchanged gunfire with hotel guards before escaping. Adventure travel, indeed. Nightly rates at the Serena range from $277 for a standard room to $1,333 for the "presidential suite."

Reason #2,359 to Support Universal Health Care

| Mon Jan. 14, 2008 9:51 AM EST

American businesses seem to have a never-ending supply of creative ways for dropping people off their health care plans. The latest: employee insurance audits. Big companies have started demanding that employees prove that their dependents are really dependents and eligible for the company health care coverage. Naturally, consulting firms have sprung up to assist with the purges, demanding tax returns, marriage licenses and other personal documents from lowly service workers in the hopes of catching some cheaters, or at least people without good filing systems.

Newhouse News reporter Katherine Reynolds Lewis notes that the Ford Motor Company used audits to drop 80,000 people off its health care plan. Such numbers have apparently inspired a rush to audit. GM is currently auditing its entire 1 million strong workforce. A GM spokesperson told Lewis that the audits were worth the expense: "For every one that we drop, it's about a $1,000 savings," she said. If only the American auto industry managed to devote such innovation to producing cars! At some point, though, the auto makers and other big companies ought to just ask the government to take health care off their hands. At the rate they're going, it won't be long before none of their employees have health insurance anyway. They might as well just make it official and do something constructive about it.