Political MoJo

More than a prayer: activists take on corruption and poverty today

| Tue Jun. 27, 2006 1:05 AM EDT

Progressive activists are launching new initiatives today that take on, in different ways, our distorted government priorities fueled by crony capitalism and a corrupted Congress. Hundreds of faith-based leaders, led by the Rev. Jim Wallis and his Sojurners-affiliated groups, will be marching to Capitol Hill before noon and lobbying members of Congress about specific goals to end poverty here and abroad.

Meanwhile, at hundreds of homes around the country tonight, activists led by Public Citizen and other clean government groups, will be screening a riveting new film, "The Big Buy," about how Tom DeLay helped sell off and gerrymander Congress to benefit special interests and Republican donors. (There's still time to join up and learn about both actions. Read more below.)
One goal of that "Clean Money Day" is to promote a new "Voters First" pledge by candidates to commit to public financing of federal campaigns and lobbying reform.

Even though the activists may be different, their reform efforts reflect a battle against an underlying wrong: a federal government and budget rigged on behalf of the rich at the expense of the poor and middle-class. The slashed funding for social needs that the progressive Christians are protesting was shaped by a Congress and federal government that was turned into a Republican money-making machine for special interests with earmarks, tax breaks and lucrative contracts from Iraq to Katrina.

But Wallis, though, is shrewdly seeking to make the ending of poverty a bipartisan moral crusade, so Republican Senator Sam Brownback and Senator Barack Obama will be addressing the faithful. Wallis and his allies are calling their effort a solutions-oriented Covenant for a New America, declaring that "poverty is not a family value."

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Don't Ask, Don't Tell, just spy

| Mon Jun. 26, 2006 8:21 PM EDT

The Pentagon has been conducting surveillance of groups who protest the U.S. military's ridiculous Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which has done nothing but make it as difficult as usual for gay soldiers to remain in the military. This revelation came out in a Freedom of Information request made by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

The surveillance, which was done on a more extensive level than previously reported, may have been part of an undercover operation. Emails sent by student groups in California, New Jersey and Connecticut, protesting Don't Ask, Don't Tell have been intercepted and monitored by the government, and at least one undercover agent attended a student protest (held at Southern Connecticut State University).

Says SLDN executive director C. Dixon Osborn:

Americans are guaranteed a fundamental right to free speech and free expression, and our country's leaders should never be allowed to undermine those freedoms. Surveillance of private citizens must stop. It is the suppression of our constitutional rights, and not the practice of them, that undermines our national security. It is patently absurd that this administration has linked sexual orientation with terrorism.

The Roots of American Unpopularity

Mon Jun. 26, 2006 6:42 PM EDT

According to this year's Pew Global Attitudes Project, the percentage of people with a favorable opinion of the United States has fallen in all but a handful of countries over the last five years (the winner is Turkey, where only 3 percent of the population has confidence in the U.S.). The interesting part is that the roots of discontent appear to run a lot deeper than the war in Iraq or recent actions by the Bush administration.

After serving on a discussion panel in London that turned into an "extended round-robin denunciation of American foreign policy," Robert Kagan wrote in the Washington Post that there was almost no mention of Bush or the war in Iraq among critics of the United States. Instead, he writes, the criticism focused on "American policy during the Cold War for imposing evil regimes, causing poverty and suffering throughout the world, and blocking national liberation movements as a service to oil companies and multinational corporations."

Meanwhile, the International Herald Tribune found that the United States' handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict concerned people at least as much as the war in Iraq. Some interviewees in Muslim countries told the Tribune that the contrast between the "blind eye" that the US turns to Israeli strikes on Palestinians and its condemnations of Palestinians who launch their own attacks "shows that the West is biased in dealing with Muslims." That doesn't mean the Iraq war is insignificant in affecting opinions (indeed, it's one major reason for the United States' plummeting popularity), although in truth it probably doesn't matter—it's hardly the shot in the arm that America's image abroad clearly needs.

Keep Guantanamo Open?

| Mon Jun. 26, 2006 4:39 PM EDT

Marty Lederman makes a good point here: Calls to shut down the military detention camp at Guantanamo are all well and good, but we want to make sure that if it ever does close that the prisoners won't get transferred to something even worse. Lederman suggests preserving Guantanamo, but actually bringing it under the rule of law and then transferring all the prisoners held in the CIA's "secret prisons" to Guantanamo. That would be better than the status quo, certainly, although Guantanamo is probably too notorious as a symbol of American human rights violations to stay open, period.

It also goes without saying that the Bush administration simply isn't going to bring its vast network of prisons under the rule of law anytime soon. One problem with the fact that the U.S. has been abusing a bunch of "suspects" in its custody is that, as Philip Carter argued, whatever evidence they may have offered up under torture is inadmissible in court. And that could make it harder to prosecute a number of terrorist suspects:

Evidence (such as a confession) gathered as a result of torturing a person like [alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik] Mohammed will be excluded at his trial, if he ever sees one. This is true both in federal courts, which operate under the Federal Rules of Evidence, and military courts, which operate under the Military Rules of Evidence. Both the Fifth Amendment's right against compulsory self-incrimination and the 14th Amendment's guarantee of due process preclude the use of a defendant's coerced statement against him in criminal court.

In addition, any evidence gathered because of information learned through torture (sometimes called "derivative evidence") will likely also be excluded. Furthermore, the Supreme Court suggested in its landmark Fifth Amendment case, Oregon v. Elstad, that it might exclude evidence gathered after the use of any coercion, regardless of attempts by police and prosecutors to offset the coercion with measures like a Miranda warning. If Mohammed were prosecuted, and a court followed the line of reasoning set forth in Elstad, he might well see the charges against him evaporate entirely for lack of evidence.So unless the federal government wants to face the possibility that Mohammed could be set free, it might have to keep him in some sort of extralegal detention center… well, forever. (Carter suggests that the Bush administration could still, potentially, bring al-Qaeda suspects before military tribunals and avoid this problem, but even that's not clear.)

Can Iraq Be Reconciled?

| Mon Jun. 26, 2006 2:48 PM EDT

Borzou Daraghai of the Los Angeles Times has the best coverage I've seen yet of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's new "national reconciliation plan" for Iraq. The plan, according to the Washington Post, was watered down after "several revisions"— after some hectoring on the part of U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, perhaps?—but it still contains an amnesty measure for insurgents along with proposals to build up the Iraqi security forces and dismantle the Shiite militias that are causing such havoc nowadays.

In other words, it's an attempt to convince disgruntled Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms and start participating in Iraq's fragile political system, which currently looks more like rule by gangsters and kleptocrats than it does any sort of democracy. Still, it's a step. So what's wrong with it? Most crucially, as Daraghai reports, the reconciliation plan is vague about laying down markers for U.S. troop withdrawal:

And Spitup is the New Black

| Mon Jun. 26, 2006 3:02 AM EDT

"I do think that children are becoming the new designer handbags," a baby-bling retailer tells the L.A. Times, a propos the run on the shirt that Shiloh J-P wore in her first public appearance. But then, what would you expect in a country where more than 500 people named their newborns Armani ? Then again, it beats Espn (pronounced Espin), yes, as in the channel.

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"A broader surge in populist organizing"

| Mon Jun. 26, 2006 2:51 AM EDT

Did the Times just happen to discover ACORN, and find someone to tell them that there's a trend here? Or is there, in fact, a "broader surge in populist organizing around the country centered on issues like wages, gentrification, environmental disputes and immigrant rights"?

"Over the last 10 years we've seen pretty explosive growth in the number and scale of community groups working in poor communities and with people of color," said Deepak Bhargava, of the Center for Community Change, a Washington-based support center for local organizers. Mr. Bhargava said the activism was "approaching a scale that could have a transforming effect on American politics and society."

Sure would be interesting (and encouraging) to see the numbers behind this.

Overthrow the Minimum-Wage Earners!

| Sun Jun. 25, 2006 2:25 AM EDT

Ted Kennedy's proposal to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 over three years, offered in the form of an amendment to the defense authorization bill, failed in the Senate last week; no surprise there, alas, though only in the U.S. Senate do you lose even when you win a majority (the measure would have needed 60 votes to pass, but garnered only 52). It was, you see, a vote against oppression: This is "a classic debate between two different philosophies,''
said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican. "One philosophy believes in the marketplace, the competitive system…and entrepreneurship. And secondly is the argument that says that government knows better, and the top down mandate works.''

The Haditha Soundtrack

| Sat Jun. 24, 2006 3:40 AM EDT

A lot of ink can, and will, be spilled on what makes young men blow childrens' brains out in a war that doesn't make sense. But a song is worth a thousand words, and there's no more chilling (if unintentional) soundtrack to the news from Iraq these days than a song by a Marine that has lots of defenders on conservative websites.

Now it's worth remembering that there's a long tradition of this kind of thing-there was a song in Vietnam called Napalm Sticks to Kids--and of course it's more metaphor than description; horror breeds its own kind of self-caricature. But what makes it work, what makes the Hadji Girl audience chuckle and guffaw, is how close the horror of caricature is to the horror of reality.

As the bullets began to fly
The blood sprayed from between her eyes
And then I laughed maniacally

The Cost of Superfund Neglect

| Thu Jun. 22, 2006 9:52 PM EDT

The 8000 residents living in the town of Glen Avon, California, are lucky; they get to live right next to a 17-acre toxic waste dump:

[The Stringfellow site] served as a hazardous waste disposal facility from 1956-1972, accepting over 34 million gallons of waste from metal refinishing, electroplating and pesticide manufacturing companies. This waste was dumped into surface evaporation ponds. Rainfall caused the ponds to overflow, sending streams of heavily polluted water into nearby neighborhoods. The population of the census tract around the site is 52 percent minority and has a median household income of $43,000.
And no one's cleaning it up. Then there are the 6,491 residents of Montgomery County, Ohio, who live near North Sanitary Landfill. Decades ago, engineers decided that the best way to dispose of liquid industrial waste was to pour it on top of ordinary household garbage, thinking that the garbage would soak up the liquid like a sponge and hold it in place. But then they realized that the landfills started leaking all that toxic liquid, and instead of keeping it in place, the garbage—which covered hundreds of acres—just spread it around:
[T]he 102-acre North Sanitary Landfill sits atop an aquifer used for drinking water, which is composed of highly transmissive sands and gravel. Portions of the site have caught fire several times. It is located in a census tract with a median household income of $25,000.