Mojo - April 2009

Another Miracle Brought to You By America's Unions (This Time With Pirates!)

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 11:25 AM EDT

Now that the American crew members of the Maersk Alabama have retaken the ship from four Somali pirates (USA! USA! USA!), it's important to note that like all the people involved with the safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January, the crew members of the Maersk Alabama are union members. (Thanks to Marcy Wheeler for the blog title and the meme.) The unions in question are the Seafarers International Union, which represents 12 of the 20-person crew, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), and the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P). As former safety chairman of the Airline Pilots Association, Chesley Sullenberger, the hero pilot of Flight 1549, fought to make sure his colleagues got the training they needed to do what he did in January. And as I just heard on Fox News (and confirmed with the SIU), crew members of the Maersk Alabama received anti-piracy training from (where else?) their union. You can see an SIU member at small arms training at the union's Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in the photo to the right (more photos here). In addition to small arms training, the Hall Center offers anti-terror, basic safety, first aid, and other security-related courses.

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Message to the Religious Right: Gay Marriage Has Nothing to Do With "Tyranny"

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 10:27 AM EDT

On the Daily Show last night, Jon Stewart had a killer bit about the conservative commentators who are shrieking about America's descent into tyranny. His central point: they're confused; what they're experiencing isn't tyranny, it's simply the very uncomfortable experience of being in the minority. When the federal government is doing all sorts of things that you disagree with, it doesn't mean that America is becoming a fascist state. It just means you lost.

Looking at the Christian Right's response to the Vermont gay marriage legislation and the Iowa gay marriage court ruling, I can't help but feel like Stewart's wisdom applies. Heads are exploding over this thing, folks. Think Progress rounds it up.

Tony Perkins, Family Research Council: "Same-sex 'marriage' is a movement driven by wealthy homosexual activists and a liberal elite determined to destroy not only the institution of marriage, but democracy as well."

Mathew Staver, Liberty Counsel: "By redefining marriage, the Vermont legislature removed the cornerstone of society and the foundation of government. The consequences will rest on their shoulders and upon those passive objectors who know what to do but lack the courage to stand against this form of tyranny."

And so on. Someone needs to explain to these people that the creeping acceptance of gay rights isn't the end of democracy. It isn't the onset of tyranny. It's simply a byproduct of a society's slow crawl toward tolerance. And please, let's drop this idea that if you stand against gay rights somehow you stand with democracy and liberty. You can be a devout Christian and on the right side of progress. It's not impossible. If you stand in opposition to the expansion of rights, you're far closer to tyranny than anyone on the American left.

How to Engage With Iran

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 9:49 AM EDT

President Obama has been preoccupied with Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently North Korea, but his attention will soon inevitably turn to one of Washington's greatest diplomatic wild cards: Iran. A new white paper (PDF) prepared by a group of former US ambassadors and progressive foreign policy experts urges the Obama administration not to succumb to hawks pushing an unduly harsh and counterproductive stance regarding Iran. At issue is how to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In clear reference to Iraq invasion (remember those elusive WMDs Saddam was supposedly stockpiling?), the Iran Nuclear Policy Group warns, "publicly assuming the worst in the absence of evidence--and issuing an ultimatum based on that assumption--is a singularly bad idea."

The Group instead suggests a three-part approach to the problem, emphasizing reliance on facts rather than hype (a novel idea), a clear expression of US foreign policy goals in a way that leaves Iran space to manuever and save face, and "true diplomacy" that emphasizes not "the bad things that American can do to Iran but... things that the United States can withhold," namely foreign investment, diplomatic respect, and help developing Iran's oil and gas sectors.

Really, First Read?

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 8:47 AM EDT

Yesterday, I noted how strange it was that MSNBC's First Read leavened their usual breathless coverage of polling and public opinion with the sentence, "But [Obama's] presidency won't be judged by what happened on this trip; rather, it will be judged on what happens afterward." Ordinarily, First Read would read deep into polls and proclaim a "public image problem" or a "public image triumph" (or some such) for some political actor. But yesterday the writers seemed to acknowledge that basing one's political journalism on day-to-day polling was silly; long-term events, they acknowledged, have far more to do with our leaders' successes and failures. Had First Read learned an important lesson about the way journalists do our work?

Nope. Here's the gang today:

[Republicans] have maintained (for the most part) a unified opposition to Obama and the Democratic agenda. All Republicans, save for three moderate GOP senators, voted against Obama's stimulus. And every single Republican voted against the Democratic budget. But looking at recent polls, we've got to ask: Where has this gotten the GOP so far? The recent New York Times/CBS poll showed the Republican Party's favorability rating at an all-time low, matching the result from last month's NBC/WSJ poll.

Guys, come on. If Obama will be judged not based on what he does now but on the long-term results of very major decisions, as you said yesterday, doesn't the same standard apply to the congressional opposition?

The FDA and Big Pharma: Watchdog or Lapdog?

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 3:17 PM EDT

Yesterday I wrote about the latest Big Pharma scandal to crawl out from under a rock. It shows, once again, the extent to which many doctors—in this case, psychiatrists—are compromised by their relationships with the drug companies, and the damage these conflicts of interest can do to patients. The same is true of the Food and Drug Administration—and in a way, that’s even worse, since the FDA is supposed to be our watchdog, and has instead too often become Big Pharma’s lapdog.

In an op-ed in yesterday’s Boston Globe, Marcia Angell offers a seven-point agenda to “restore the FDA to its purpose, which is to protect the public from unsafe food, drugs, and devices, not to accommodate the industries it regulates.” She sees the appointment of industry critic Joshua Sharfstein as deputy FDA commissioner as a promising sign—but only a beginning.

Angell, who teaches social medicine at Harvard Medical School and wrote a sharp book on how Big Pharma operates, suggests a series of changes to the system under which drugs are developed, approved, and marketed. Personally, I’d like to see something slightly more dramatic—maybe along the lines of replacing the lab animals used to test new drugs with pharmaceutical company executives. But as a realistic starting place for public policymaking in this area, Angell’s agenda is as sound as anything I’ve seen. 

Remembering Rwanda--and the Clinton Failure

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 2:25 PM EDT

This week the world--that is, those in the world who give a damn about such things--is marking the 15th anniversary of the horrific Rwanda genocide. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama released a to-the-point statement on the Rwanda nightmare. It's below. Read it, and tell me if you can spot what's missing:

This week marks the 15th commemoration of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It is a somber occasion that causes us to reflect upon the deaths of the more than 800,000 men, women, and children who were killed simply because of their ethnicity or their political beliefs. The memory of these events also deepens our commitment to act when faced with genocide and to work with partners around the world to prevent future atrocities. The figure of 800,000 is so enormous, so daunting, that it runs the risk of becoming a statistic. Today, we must remember that each of the 800,000 individuals who died in 1994 had their own story, their own family, and their own dreams. As we mourn their senseless passing, we must also acknowledge the courageous men and women who survived the genocide and have since demonstrated remarkable strength and generosity in forgiving those who committed these heinous acts. These individuals inspire us daily by working to restore trust and rebuild hope in Rwanda. The United States is committed to its partnership with Rwanda and will continue to support efforts to promote sustainable development, respect for human rights, and lasting peace in Rwanda.

What's not there? Any mention that the United States essentially did nothing at the time to halt the slaughter in Rwanda. At that crucial moment, Bill Clinton was president, and Hillary Clinton, the influential First Lady. In her memoirs, Living History, Hillary Clinton, the current secretary of state, does not write about what went on in the White House during those god-awful weeks in the spring of 1994, when human rights activists were begging the Clinton administration to do something--anything--to stop or slow the mass-murder frenzy underway, and the Clintonites steadfastly refused their entreaties. Clinton does note that later on she came to "regret deeply the failure of the world, including my husband's Administration, to act to end the genocide."

As Obama and others commemorate the tragedy of Rwanda this week, they ought not to shy away from reminiscing about the cowardly and consequential inaction of the United States, particularly that of President Clinton and his top aides and advisers.

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MN Update: Franken Lead Grows

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 1:44 PM EDT

As lawsuits and vote counting continue in the Minnesota Senate race, Al Franken is gaining votes. Many believe that Norm Coleman isn't going to give up until every legal recourse has been exhausted -- not because he thinks he can win, but becuase the longer he can wrangle with Franken in the courts, the longer the Democrats have to operate with 58 votes in the Senate. But if Coleman wants to run for governor or continue his political career in some other way, he may withdraw before he does too much more damage to his public image. I'd give this even odds for going to the Supreme Court.

'Fix CNBC' Petition Gaining Steam (Video)

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 9:40 AM EDT

Kevin, David, and I have all weighed in on CNBC and its problems. What none of us managed to mention in our posts is that the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) is running a campaign called 'Fix CNBC' that has gathered over 20,000 signers (me included!) for a petition that reads, in part:

Americans need CNBC to do strong, watchdog journalism – asking tough questions to Wall Street, debunking lies, and reporting the truth. Instead, CNBC has done PR for Wall Street. You've been so obsessed with getting "access" to failed CEOs that you willfully passed on misinformation to the public for years, helping to get us into the economic crisis we face today.

You screwed up badly. Don't apologize – fix it!

CNBC should publicly declare that its new overriding mission will be responsible journalism that holds Wall Street accountable.

PCCC just handed thousands of signed petitions over to CNBC's world headquarters in New Jersey, after a stop at Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. The results are below, and pretty funny.

Blackwater To Lose Up To Half Its Income

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 9:27 AM EDT

Blackwater is set to lose its State Department contract next month, the cash cow that transformed a small firearms training firm in North Carolina into a global private security concern. The loss of the contract, according to a State Department official quoted by the Middle East Times, means that Blackwater (recently renamed "Xe") will lose up to half of its income. As Dan Schulman and I have reported, the firm is looking to other crisis areas to make up the difference, namely Africa, but it's difficult to imagine that the dollar spicket there will ever rival security contracting's halcyon days in Iraq. The Middle East Times piece goes on to argue that the need for Blackwater, which ultimately undid itself by killing 17 Iraqis in a Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007, was the result of gross mismanagement and lack of preparation by American officials early on in the occupation. Worth a read.

'First Read' Folly

| Tue Apr. 7, 2009 9:04 AM EDT

I'm usually a fan of MSNBC's First Read, a newsletter written by NBC reporters Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, and Domenico Montanaro that drops in your email box every morning. It's heavily weighted toward politics and optics, and discusses virtually nothing about policy, but in that way it's a good guide to the daily obsessions of the mainstream media.

But this line from today's edition, about Obama's just-concluded overseas trips, strikes me as strange:

Was the trip a success? While the president didn't get Europeans to commit to a stimulus and didn't get more combat troops for Afghanistan, it's hard to say that it wasn't a P.R. triumph. The reception Obama got from world leaders was extraordinary, and the latest New York Times/CBS poll suggests he got a bump in his poll numbers. But his presidency won't be judged what happened on this trip; rather, it will be judged on what happens afterward.

Isn't that true about all polling? Why add this little disclaimer now? First Read cites polls all the time. Like I said, optics not policy. If the writers are going to note here that the public's opinion of Obama's trip is ultimately ephemeral and the long-term real-world effects of his governance are what really matters (which is obviously true), shouldn't they do that next time they tout an NBC poll? A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that in the wake of GM's bankruptcy, Obama's favorability has dropped 15 points. But that is not a crisis for the President; his presidency won't be judged on these events, but on whether or not the auto industry can eventually be saved and if the economy returns to form. I'm willing to bet I never see that sentence.