Mojo - September 2011

Liberals Fight Tea Party on Constitution Day

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 6:25 AM EDT

You probably didn't know it, but today is Constitution Day, a federally designated holiday created in 2004 by the late West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd (D). While no one gets the day off, the law does require all public schools to devote some time to teaching the Constitution on this day each year. The law, impossible to enforce in already overstretched schools, might have died with Byrd if it weren't for the tea party movement. Tea partiers have seized on the congressional mandate to try to force public schools to introduce the movement's version of constitutional history to impressionable youth.

The Tea Party Patriots especially have been working hard over the past six months to pressure school boards and school officials to teach constitutional history as written by Glenn Beck’s favorite author, W. Cleon Skousen, a rabid anti-Communist Mormon whose texts have been knocked for including white supremacist dogma and racist commentary. In Skousen's view, the US was founded as a Christian nation, possibly by descendants of a lost tribe of Israel, a view that might run into trouble in a public school.

It's unclear how many schools have actually taken the plunge, but the tea partiers have been successful in one respect: they've energized a bunch of liberal legal types who have been horrified at the way the tea party and its favorite legislators have been interpreting the Constitution.

To that end, this week, the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center and the People for the American Way Foundation, among others, launched a new project called Constitutional Progressives, with the intent of trying to correct the record. Doug Kendall, one of the main instigators of the project and head of the CAC, said in a conference call this week that they've decided to fight back because, "It seems tea party thinks the entire 20th century is unconstitutional."

The Constiutional Progressives certainly have plenty of material to highlight.

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Michele Bachmann's Gay Biblical Alter Ego

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) says she's a 21st-century version of Saul's son, Jonathan.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) has a habit of breaking out Old Testament references when she speaks to religious audiences. She has previously compared her (increasingly) small but determined band of followers to the Men of Issachar, one of the 12 Tribes of Israel that helped ward off the Canaanite invasion in the Book of Judges. Like Bachmann's teavangelicals, the Men of Issachar were reclaiming their godly inheritance after the Israelites had lost their way. It's also one of the only instances in the Bible in which men are led into battle by a woman—Deborah.

But now, with her presidential campaign on the ropes, the Minnesota congresswoman seems to have picked a new Biblical alter ego; we're not sure she really thought this one through. Via MinnPost, this is what she told the conservative activists at RightOnline last week in June:

I want to call to mind in remembrance a hero of mine. And he's from ancient Israel. And from history we know, in the recorded annals of time, that this was someone considered more inconsequential, but to me he had an inspiring, powerful story.

His name was Jonathan. And it was in ancient Israel. His father was king. He was the first king of ancient Israel and his name was King Saul.

And there was another battle that Israel faced. And that battle was with a group of people called the Philistines. And the Philistines had a position of power. And they were up on a cliff during the time of this battle.

Then, as the story goes, Jonathan and a comrade scaled the cliff and defeated the entire Philistine army by themselves.

If the story ended there, that would be a fantastic metaphor for what Bachmann would like to accomplish as a candidate. The story of Jonathan does not end there, however. Given his lineage and heroics in battle, Jonathan was considered the front-runner to become the next head of state. But another, more charismatic (literally) rural farm boy came along and won over the base by killing a coyote with a Rueger killing a giant with a slingshot. Jonathan and Saul died tragically in battle on top of Mount Gilboa; David became king.

Goliath's severed head can only watch.: Wikimedia CommonsGoliath's severed head can only watch. Wikimedia CommonsBut there's another twist: Jonathan's mostly famous because of his very close personal relationship with David, with some scholars going so far as to suggest that they might have been lovers. Jonathan and David have been cited by gay rights activists as proof that gay rights are biblically enshrined, as well as by Oscar Wilde—at his trial for homosexuality. The Book of Samuel describes the relationship thusly: "The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." Their friendship led to a falling out between Saul and his son, after Jonathan pleads with the king to stop trying to kill David.

So were they actually lovers? It's hardly the mainstream view, but it's a theory that's out there: Dartmouth religion professor Susan Ackerman wrote a book about it. Here's how she synthesizes the "Jonathan and David were gay" (or at least bisexual) argument, seizing on the pair's falling out with Jonathan's father:

[A]s Schroer and Staubli particularly argue, the language Saul uses in his diatribe is extremely sexually charged, so much so that we may be meant to interpret it also in sexual terms; that is, to understand this charged language is used in Saul's insults because Saul perceives his son's misdeeds to be sexual as well as political. According, then, to Schroer and Staubli, Jonathan has not only engaged in "the political scandal of a royal son betraying father and kingdom for the sake of a stranger, but also the effrontery of homosexual love."

Bachmann, for her part, has described homosexuality as "personal bondage" and a "dysfunction" and alleged that gay marriage is an "earthquake issue" that could shake American society to its core. Given the way her campaign gone since Texas Gov. Rick Perry entered the race, though, perhaps Bachmann should have just gone with Job.

Front page image: Wikimedia; Davie Hinshaw/Charlotte Observer/Zuma

Rick Perry's Honorary Texans: Beck, Limbaugh, Hannity, Palin

| Fri Sep. 16, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Rick Perry makes Sarah Palin an honorary Texan.

Forget cowboy hats, wide vistas, or the mileage on the typical F-350 ranch truck. The biggest thing in Texas is the state's outsized sense of identity. Ever since the Battle of the Alamo immortalized Davy Crockett, the Lone Star State and its residents have loomed larger than life in popular mythology. Texas has its own rugged archetype in Hollywood, its own ethnic cuisines, and its own "national" beer and magazine. No state is better known as a cultural standout.

In Austin, where state identity is the manna of politics, governors have long upheld the tradition of naming worthy outsiders "honorary Texans"—a title that Crockett, a Tennessee native who died fighting for Texas, would have deserved. Foreign dignitaries, actors, and musicians have been the most popular picks, though some governors have gotten more creative. (Check out the stories behind 10 of the more unconventional picks.) Ann Richards named a breast cancer victim and a women's basketball star. George W. Bush named a Catholic nun and an insurance lobbyist. And Rick Perry named Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Sarah Palin.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 16, 2011

Fri Sep. 16, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

A soldier assigned to US Forces Afghanistan maintains security and returns fire as rain falls during an attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 13, 2011. Photo by the US Army.

BREAKING: Supreme Court Halts Texas Execution

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 10:41 PM EDT

The United States Supreme Court intervened at the eleventh hour to halt the scheduled execution of Duane Buck on Thursday, a rare move that will put the controversial execution on hold indefinitely until the justices can properly review Buck's petition for clemency. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles rejected a clemency petition from Buck's attorney on Monday, and petitions to Governor Rick Perry (and his deputy, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) to grant a 30-day reprieve to re-evaluate the sentence went unanswered. Buck's attorneys filed a writ of certiori with the Supreme Court on Wednesday. (The order came about two hours after the execution window opened at 7 p.m. eastern time; as CNN reported, Buck had already eaten what was supposed to be his last meal.)

For Perry, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, the decision threatens to reinject not just the issue of capital punishment, but also race into a campaign that in recent weeks has grown more contentious.

Buck was convicted in 1997 on two counts of murder after a shooting rampage at his ex-girlfriend's apartment. The case, which we've written about in more detail previously, is somewhat unusual in that Buck's guilt is not a point of contention by anyone (Buck included). The issue instead is whether his race (he's black) played a role in obtaining the capital punishment sentence. At Buck's trial, a psychologist summoned by the defense went on to testify, under cross-examination, that Buck's race made him more likely to commit violent acts in the future. To obtain a death penalty sentence in Texas prosecutors must prove a level of "future dangerousness," and the psychologist's testimony (although not its specifics) were cited in the prosecution's closing arguments.

When a similar case, brought by Argentinian Hugo Saldano, came before the Supreme Court in 2000, a much different group of justices ruled that the sentence was unconstitutional as it amounted to race-based discrimination. That led Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), then the state's attorney general, to re-examine past cases in which the same psychologist had been summoned and cited race as evidence of future dangerousness. Cornyn found six cases that matched the description—and Buck's is the only one of those six that has not received a re-trial. Cornyn stated at the time that the case had been "improperly decided." Last week, one of the former prosecutors in the case wrote to Perry asking him to commute the death sentence.

It's unclear how the Supreme Court may rule on Buck's petition; at this stage, simply the stay itself can be seen as a victory of sorts. Perry has presided over 234 executions as governor, a modern-day record, including 11 this year alone. He has commuted 31 sentences, but 30 of those came only after intervention by the Supreme Court, in cases involving the execution of minors and the mentally handicapped. And in at least one case, the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham, he ignored compelling evidence that the state had sentenced an innocent man to die.

GOP: Back to Health Care-Gutting Business

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 4:30 PM EDT
Rep. Henry Waxman (R-Calif.)

With all the Medicare-privatizing and debt ceiling hostage-taking this year, Republicans haven't had much bandwidth to spare on the priorities of last session—like killing health care reform.

But now they're back in the swing of things. House Republicans on the powerful energy and commerce committee released draft legislation this week that takes square aim at the patients' bill of rights and other bedrock consumer protections written into the Affordable Care Act. The bill would change the law so that insurance plans that existed before the passage of health care reform—i.e., the majority of private health care plans—don't have to comply with new consumer protection rules. 

So, under the Republican draft, what protections would no longer apply in grandfathered plans? Here are a few:

  • Insurance for Young Adults under the age of 26: Under the GOP bill, people under the age of 26 could no longer stay on their parents' plans if those plans existed before health reform passed.
  • Prohibition on recession of insurance: Grandfathered plans would be able to cancel coverage for people who get sick or make a mistake on an insurance application.
  • Prohibition on preexisting conditions: Plans could deny coverage to people with preexisting conditions or charge them more.

The bill would also impose lifetime and annual limits on coverage, dramatically restrict patient choice, and eviscerate patients' right to appeal denial of coverage. The GOP's push to undo what ACA did appears to be glommed into its overall anti-regulatory push. The title of Thursday's hearing on the draft legislation was "Cutting The Red Tape: Saving Jobs from PPACA's Harmful Regulations." In a nutshell: The bill looks to preserve the status quo for health insurance companies. 

The benefits of the patients' bill of rights are already being felt, and it is among the most popular parts of health care reform. But will Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.) and the other Dems on the committee win the spin war?

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The Limbaugh, Michael Moore, Bill Maher Convergence on Obama and Race

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 12:38 PM EDT

On Wednesday, I noted that Rush Limbaugh's latest stereotypical race parody featured President Barack Obama as blaxploitation detective John Shaft, even though just about the only two things they have in common is that they're both black.

Ta-Nehisi Coates observes that Michael Moore and Bill Maher, in expressing their disappointment with Obama, embrace the same basic idea. Unable to limit their criticisms to Obama's politics, on The View, (in a clip flagged by Angry Black Lady) Moore repeated Maher's statement that "I went into the polls voting for the black guy, and what I got was the white guy." Coates writes:

I know Michael Moore and Bill Maher think this is a great line...But it really isn't. In fact, it's racist, and Michael Moore would do well to stop repeating it. It really is no better than the Kenyan anti-colonial bit, and in fact is good deal worse. I said this yesterday on twitter, but it would be as if my Jewish accountant messed up my taxes and I said, "Dude, you're Jewish, what the hell?!?!"

One commenter on the post asks, "Did they think they were voting for Shaft?" Maher and Moore wish they had, and Limbaugh thinks they did.  The difference is that Limbaugh doesn't seem capable of discerning between Obama and the black monsters of his own fevered imagination, while Maher and Moore are depressed that Obama doesn't embody the stereotype.

What Limbaugh, Moore and Maher all have in common is a common, reductive expectation of what a "black man" is supposed to be—aggressive, belligerent, intimidating—and Obama doesn't fit the bill. All three are embracing a paternalistic social tyranny of trying to define the acceptable limits of people's behavior based on their racial background, something that still happens even in America even if you end up being president of the United States. If you're president, though, it's much easier to just brush your shoulders off—dealing with those kind of expectations when you're an average person is considerably more difficult. Especially when the "liberals" are the ones saying stuff like this.

That Islamophobic FBI Training Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 11:41 AM EDT

Agents at the FBI's Quantico, Virginia, training grounds are taught that all mainstream American Muslims are terrorist sympathizers in a cult that likes to donate money to killers. That's according to a scoop by Wired's Spencer Ackerman, who has exposed a series of amazingly clueless Powerpoint slides and documents from the federales' training on Islam. If you haven't read his story yet, do so now.

Ackerman's report brings new light to an alarming problem that's been well-documented since 9/11: American police officers, airport screeners, and soldiers have no freaking clue how to deal with the distinction between the vast majority of Muslims and the minisule minority that actively seek to do us harm. My MoJo colleague Adam Serwer points out that local cops around the country have been getting training that's even worse that the FBI's. He refers to an excellent March Washington Monthly story detailing how Islamophobic trainers are collecting homeland security dollars while spewing complete nonsense. For example: "When you have a Muslim that wears a headband, regardless of color or insignia, basically what that is telling you is 'I am willing to be a martyr," one trainer blathers.

But it goes way beyond that. Our Islamophobia-beat reporter, Tim Murphy, has detailed on this site how Rep. Allen West (R-Fla) is championing a skewed, conspiratorial vision of Islam to convince Americans that we're under attack. I've written about the meager cultural training offered to service members and contractors headed for Iraq and Afghanistan. The materials would be humorous if they weren't so disturbing: In them Arab men look suspiciously like Lego figures; they're described as "illogical or irrational," paranoid, and prone to extremes, "perhaps due to the harsh, desert environment that Arabs have lived in for thousands of years." And that's just Iraqi Arabs—just wait 'til you read what they say about those dirty Kurds.

All of which is to say that, 10 years after the US government got really preoccupied with Muslims of all stripes, from Iraqi Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites to  Afghan Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and a couple hundred other ethnic and tribal identities (not to mention Muslim-Americans)—our civil servants are still taking a reductive, unfair, and ultimately dangerous attitude toward them. Which may explain why we let foreign governments lock them up and torture them, even if they're American citizens. And perhaps it's why the FBI relies blindly on terrorism informants who walk the fine between tracking potential terrorists and making them. If we continue to miseducate the well-intending agents and soldiers who serve at the tip of the spear, we shouldn't be surprised when that spear misses its target.

The Elephant in the Room in the Duane Buck Case

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 9:47 AM EDT

Barring a last-minute reprieve from Governor Rick Perry, sometime after 7 p.m. on Thursday Duane Buck will become the 235th person to be executed in Texas in the last decade. Buck's case has drawn attention because of the role race-based testimony may have played in obtaining the death sentence. As I reported previously, a psychologist summoned by Buck's attorney testified under cross-examination that Buck's race (he's black) made him a greater threat to society; that testimony was then cited in the prosecutors' closing argument.

Buck's case is noteworthy because the racial argument was made so explicitly, and under oath. But the reality is that race is a determining factor in capital punishment sentencing whether a psychologist says so out-loud or not. As Amnesty International notes, "the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim." Among other things, they point out that:

  • A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American.
  • A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.
  • A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.

That kind of institutional bias means that it's a lot harder to point to specific cases, a la Buck, in which race impacted the sentence—which means that, unlike Buck, most defendants will have a hard time making the case that their sentencing was in any way mishandled. But taken in sum, the numbers are pretty damning.

Bachmann Adviser Calls Out Bachmann on Vaccines

| Thu Sep. 15, 2011 9:25 AM EDT
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) falsely suggested on Monday that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation.

Even Michele Bachmann's former chief strategist thinks Michele Bachmann went off the deep end on vaccines. On Monday, and then again on Tuesday, the Minnesota congresswoman and GOP presidential candidate repeated baseless claims that the HPV vaccine mandated by Texas Governor Rick Perry can cause mental retardation in adolescent girls. Her comments met swift rebuttals not just from pediatricians, but from conservative talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. And now you can add Ed Rollins, the long-time GOP strategist who is currently serving as a senior adviser role to the Bachmann campaign.

Via Politico:

"She made a mistake. The quicker she admits she made a mistake and moves on, the better she is," Rollins said in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday.

"Ms. Bachmann's an emotional person who basically has great feeling for people. I think that's what she was trying to project. Obviously it would have been better if she had stayed on the issue," he said.

Like his candidate, Rollins has a history of going off-message. Before he took a job with Bachmann, he told CNN that she was not a "serious candidate." In his first interview after joining the campaign, he boasted that he and his staff would fact-check everything Bachmann says to prevent her from going off the rails. Rollins stepped down from his post as chief strategist in early September for health reasons, but is still involved with the campaign in an advisory role.