Political MoJo

BAMNed If You Do...

Tue Aug. 30, 2005 8:07 PM EDT

For the record, By Any Means Necessary, the group whose appearance on FBI watch lists motivated Diane's post post, isn't the most-cuddly bunch out there. BAMN is a front organization for the Trotskyite Revolutionary Workers League. And calling themselves a peace organization is a recent framing device; previously, they've made their hay on "defending" affirmative action.

Hard to believe that something deserving to be called a Communist front-group exists in the U.S. these days, but it's true. In a past life, BAMN activists worked to infiltrate a pre-September 11, 2001 leftish-student conference that I helped organize, once it became clear that they weren't going to make much headway at the Rainbow/PUSH conference held across town. They didn't get far with us either, beyond briefly seizing the mic at a plenary session. But it gave a bit of a scare for the few of us in the know.

Nathan Newman wrote a good piece on the group a couple of years ago. There's more info elsewhere. Of course, those who really believe in civil liberties must hold fast even when the most repugnant groups exercise them. BAMN is really no terrorist organization—and certainly isn't one in the usually-understood context. But they probably aren't the most strategic group to pick as a civil liberties poster child.

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FBI labels peace workers as potential terrorists

| Tue Aug. 30, 2005 4:23 PM EDT

The ACLU has released an FBI document that identifies a Michigan-based peace group as a potential terrorist organization.

A few months ago, the FBI declared that so-called eco-terrorists and certain animal rights anarchists are more dangerous to America than right-wing militia groups and militant anti-choice groups. The animal rights and environmental groups in question--though they do engage in vandalism and break the law--have never been responsible for the death or maiming of anyone. However, their goals--if achieved--would have detrimental effects on large and powerful American corporations who depend on environmental destruction and animal torture in order to make money.

This return to Nixonian and Reaganite government spying and name-calling is no surprise. Enemies of the State are those who promote peace over war (that is to say, a sound foreign policy over Halliburton profits) and who promote anti-corporate policies.

Too Clever By Half?

| Tue Aug. 30, 2005 3:44 PM EDT

No doubt the John Roberts attack strategy outlined by Eric Columbus in the New Republic today is quite ingenious:

[T]o date [the Democrats have] paid surprisingly little attention to [Roberts'] support for perhaps the oddest legacy of the Rehnquist Court: its unprecedented expansion of the "sovereign immunity" doctrine to greatly restrict the ability of private citizens to obtain money from states that violate their federal rights. Raising the issue at next week's Senate confirmation hearings won't, of course, sink Roberts's nomination. But it just might give Democrats a rare opportunity to claim the mantle of anti-government reform at a time when the whole nation will be watching.

But when I hear "claim the mantle," it's time to stop up short. First, and somewhat beside the point, why on earth do the Democrats want to come out in favor of "anti-government reform"? If anything, a master strategy for liberals should work to persuade people that, in fact, government works quite well, thank you very much, and those who take the kneejerk anti-statist approach, rather than try to fix the problems that exist, are usually wrong. But set that aside. What sort of "mantle" are they going to claim, in all reality? How many people will actually pay such close attention to the Roberts' hearings—so close that they would notice and be swayed by Democratic positioning on a rather complicated issue—besides the usual band of pundits, journalists, and political junkies? Very few, I would guess.

Digby wrote something similar last week, in a rather brilliant piece of analysis that nevertheless still seems completely far-fetched to me. (And I'd be happy to be proven wrong.) He noted that yes, Wesley Clark's recent suggestions for fixing Iraq, as outlined in the Washington Post, probably don't stand up on the merits. But, he says, that's besides the point:

Clark's piece should be seen for what it is --- laying a benchmark for Bush's failure. By the time any Democrats have a chance to implement any real plans for Iraq, Wes's plan will be moot. The doors that he sees as still being slightly open are closing very rapidly. The state of play in 2006 and 2008 is going to be very different. But it's useful for Wes Clark, retired General, to be on the record with an alternative in 2005 that clearly lays blame on the Bush administration and sets forth in exactly what ways they've failed -- militarily, politically and diplomatically.

"Damn," I thought, "that's good stuff! Clark's a clever one…" But no, wait a minute, who on earth is paying attention to what Clark's saying right now, besides political activists, the chattering classes, and the small handful of people who pore over the Washington Post? On the broader issue, Digby's absolutely right: trying to persuade Bush to shift course on Iraq is an exercise in futility at this point, and Democrats should worry only about how best to position themselves politically over the war, in order to crowbar the people who dragged us into this mess out of office. It's slimy, but necessary. But is there such thing as too clever?

As it happens, I suspect that the Democratic establishment has glommed onto a strategy of sorts for Iraq: lay out Clark-style critiques right now that argue that Bush isn't doing everything in his power to win the war, and then, come 2006, say, "Well, he blew his chance to win this thing, it's time to leave." Rally the base. But is anyone going to buy it? Is anyone paying attention? I don't know. I do know that there are an awful lot of people in this country who follow politics for maybe a week every two years—right before the election—and the only way for a party to claim any sort of "mantle" is probably just to pick some very basic things to stand for, repeat it over and over again ad nauseum (I recently saw someone suggest that the Democrats introduce a constitutional amendment that guaranteed the "right to privacy"—good stuff), and hope the basic message filters down to voters when it counts. Subtle political strategizing and positioning makes for a fun read, but it's hard to believe that this is what wins elections.

The Save Gitmo Movement

| Tue Aug. 30, 2005 2:10 PM EDT

In the National Review, Deroy Murdock doesn't want the Guantanamo prisoners transferred abroad. These "al-Qaeda assassin[s]," after all, could escape from prison in Yemen. No word, of course, on whether the prisoners in Guantanamo are actually as dangerous as he says they are. As far as we know, the truly nefarious prisoners in U.S. custody—including operations planner Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and recruiter Abu Zubaydah—are off in some undisclosed location around the world. Those left in Cuba, as one counterterrorism official told the New Republic's Spencer Ackerman, are "the ash-and-trash jihadi picked up in Afghanistan," and not the "honest-to-God, cardcarrying members of Al Qaeda--operatives who are worth a shit."

But no! Says Murdock! You don't understand! Army general and Southern Command chief Brantz Craddock recently told us, "We have and we are today still getting information that is relevant, that is actionable, and is supporting our service members in the field in the global war on terrorism." This might be true. On the other hand, it might not. Most of those prisoners have been lounging around in Cuba for three years. How much could they really know? As one official told Ackerman, they can still provide a decent amount of background knowledge—how al-Qaeda works, how people interact, which ethnic groups work with which ethnic groups—but after a time, this too becomes obsolete, as the face of al-Qaeda has changed and the center of the organization's gravity moves toward Iraq. Well, says Murdock, picture this little smoking gun scenario:

Imagine that the FBI caught a terrorist in March 2006 named Mustafa al-Fissi carrying detailed diagrams of the San Onofre, California, and Seabrook, New Hampshire, atomic energy plants. Today, no Gitmo interrogator could ask detainees about the still-undetected al-Fissi. Next March, however, one or more Gitmoites might be persuaded to sing about al-Fissi, his contacts, his bankers, etc. Sending these intelligence sources beyond U.S. control will, at best, delay our ability to connect these dots. If our foreign friends limit access to transferred Guantanameros, FBI agents might stare at al-Fissi without knowing what some of his terrorist brethren know about him.

Okay, that's scary, but really, what kind of argument is this? We can't keep people locked up forever because someday they might—might—know some dude who knows another dude who's related to a terrorist picked up in San Onofre. On the other hand, Murdock has one point right: the detainees will be much better off in Guantanamo than baking in some hellhole prison in Yemen or Saudi Arabia. But that's not an excuse to maintain an extralegal prison that undermines the rule of law and hampers law-enforcement efforts, it's an argument for sorting this stuff out.

Call for a Do-Over?

| Tue Aug. 30, 2005 1:49 PM EDT

Noah Feldman's New York Times op-ed on the Iraqi constitution lays out all the well-tilled reasons why the document may just lead to further bloodshed down the road, but this part near the end brought on a bit of head-scratching:

Although things look bad today, the game is not yet quite over. Should the constitution be rejected on Oct. 15, everyone can head back to the negotiation table and try again.

In an ideal world, everyone would get behind this option. Do the whole thing over, this time with the Sunnis fully included. On the other hand, I have serious, serious doubts that re-electing the Iraqi National Assembly all over again would fundamentally change the outcome. The Sunni provinces are still as violent as ever, and turnout, while perhaps better than last January, would still be quite low. Meanwhile, Shiite militias like Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and SCIRI's "Badr Organization" pretty much run southern Iraq at the barrel of a gun, and the potential for ballot tampering, or intimidation, is high. The odds seem pretty good that re-doing everything would only bring back to power the same cast of characters, with the same set of demands, only this time, the U.S. military would be even closer to the breaking point, and the Iraqi people would be even more impatient with a constitutional process that doesn't seem to be going anywhere. "Head[ing] back to the negotiation table and try[ing] again" may end up being one of the few options that can avert a civil war and seek out that much-discussed "political solution" for the Sunnis, but is it even practical?

Hooray for Hypocrites!

| Tue Aug. 30, 2005 1:30 PM EDT

So the census numbers are in: The official poverty rate rose to 12.7 percent last year. And as per our discussion below, those numbers might even understate matters. Interestingly, the number of uninsured Americans stayed the same only because Medicaid and S-CHIP, two liberal workhorses in the healthcare department, managed to pick up the slack. I'd just put that alongside an earlier Washington Post story, noting that, when they return to Congress next month to work on the budget, Republicans are going to have to look deep inside their souls for the courage to hack away at health insurance for children. So the picture is actually about to get much, much worse.

Which brings up a semi-important point: During the run-up to the election, liberals loved to mock Bush and the Republican Party for spending like—wait for it—a drunken sailor, despite the fact that the GOP is supposed to be the party of fiscal restraint. It was all good fun to watch self-proclaimed conservatives like the National Review throw confetti at Bush's feet, and then squirm uncomfortably when the topic of spending was broached, but if anything, I'd sort of like to see those taunts die down. Cuts to Medicaid and other state programs would be really, really bad, and while it's frustrating from a liberal point of view to see Bush, DeLay, Frist and other hypocritical Republicans get away with spending so lavishly while preaching restraint, really, the deficit isn't that bad, and it would be much better if the GOP just failed to curb spending.

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Rolling Back AIDS Progress

Tue Aug. 30, 2005 11:58 AM EDT

Shakespeare's Sister points to the disappointing (but not that surprising) news that Bush is cutting funding to Africa for condoms. The UN, naturally, is outraged.

A senior United Nations official has accused President George Bush of "doing damage to Africa" by cutting funding for condoms, a move which may jeopardise the successful fight against HIV/Aids in Uganda.

Stephen Lewis, the UN secretary general's special envoy for HIV/Aids in Africa, said US cuts in funding for condoms and an emphasis on promoting abstinence had contributed to a shortage of condoms in Uganda, one of the few African countries which has succeeded in reducing its infection rate.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the condom crisis in Uganda is being driven by [US policies]," Mr Lewis said yesterday. "To impose a dogma-driven policy that is fundamentally flawed is doing damage to Africa."

Numbers Matter

| Mon Aug. 29, 2005 11:57 PM EDT

The Washington Post's Jonathan Weisman critiques the poverty and health insurance statistics that will be released tomorrow, noting that the methodology is inevitably flawed and the numbers "overstate some problems and understate others." For instance:

[S]ince poverty levels are not adjusted for regional costs of living, the working poor in expensive urban centers like Washington are routinely excluded from federal programs because their income lifts them above the official poverty line. The rural poor in low-cost states like Arkansas often can afford considerably higher standards of living than their urban compatriots. Yet they may be eligible for food stamps, housing aid, free school lunches and other programs that exclude the urbanites.

That's all true, although I wouldn't say the rural poor have it good, especially in persistently depressed regions such as the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, or the lower Rio Grande Valley. Nor do the rural poor necessarily have a "cost of living" advantage. For one, job opportunities are much scarcer than in the cities, the physical infrastructure tends to be especially rotten, and the social-support services are considerably more limited than in urban areas. (Not that they're wonderful in urban areas.) Plus, transportation costs can be somewhat higher. On the other hand, concentrated poverty in urban areas comes with its own set of problems, including violence and crime. None of this contradicts Weisman, of course, who notes that poverty rates in any case are probably understated:

Officially, the poverty rate has drifted upward since 2000, from 11.3 percent to 12.5 percent in 2003. But a more sophisticated measurement that the Census also publishes, which accounts for variable costs of living, rising medical expenditures and more accurate price inflation, shows the official rate has consistently understated poverty. By that alternative measure, the percentage of Americans below the poverty line has risen from 12.8 percent in 2000 to 14.2 percent in 2003. Using such measurements, last year the Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee found poverty rates nearing 16 percent in the late 1980s.

At the same time, household incomes may be understated because they do not include non-cash income like food stamps. The earned income tax credit was created during the Reagan administration specifically to raise the working poor out of poverty. But by government counting, the program has not lifted a single person above the poverty threshold, Michael said. Since poverty rates are based on pre-tax income, refunds like the earned income credit do not count.

All of that makes sense—poverty statistics should take into account variable costs of living, etc.; non-cash benefits should count toward income—although this is also hardly the only way to count poverty. Some researchers prefer to look at consumption patterns rather than income—after all, if a family is spending little, that could indicate deprivation, although it could also indicate thriftiness—or even various self-reliance programs (at what point can families fend for themselves without government assistance). At any rate, there are a million different ways to slice these numbers up, and obviously the main story is that millions of Americans really are poor, and many more millions really don't have health insurance. Still, without an accurate grasp on the problem here, many who need assistance will be passed over, silently.

Covering property with swastikas may not be hate crime in city north of Atlanta

| Mon Aug. 29, 2005 5:02 PM EDT

Law enforcement officials in Lawrenceville, Georgia say they are not sure whether to classify the burning of a swastika into the lawn of a Jewish family as a hate crime.

Two swastikas were spray-painted onto the road in front of the house, a swastika was burned onto the lawn--along with some obscenities--the trees were wrapped with toilet paper, and someone had urinated and defecated on the porch.

Ginger Ragans, who lives in the vandalized house, says she thinks some adolescents were retaliating against her because of her position as a liason to a community watch program.

If the teens were indeed retaliating out of anger because Ragans had caught them violating their curfew, it doesn't make the painting and burning of swastikas any less an expression of bigotry than if the vandals had created the swastikas strictly out of hatred for Jews. To exempt the behavior from a hate crime category because there was a motive for retaliation would be like saying there is nothing racist about a cut-off driver yelling "That black son-of-a-bitch almost hit my car." Any time race, gender, or ethnicity is brought into play, it is bigotry, plain and simple.

A couple was recently driven from their Long Island community because of a barrage of anti-Jewish and anti-African American messages sent to them. A former dean at Southeastern Louisiana University has filed a lawsuit against the school, alleging--among many other things--that she was treated with scorn because she is Jewish. Last year, a synagogue in Denver was defaced by anti-Semitic vandals. Recently, there have been numerous reports of vandalized mosques.

Though hate crimes continue to be perpetrated against Jewish and Muslim citizens, it is the Christian majority that complains about persecution. However, the only churches harmed have been black churches, and they were not bombed, burned down, and vandalized because their members were Christian. The "persecution" felt by conservative Christians has been in the form of government enforcement of the Constitution. No paint has been sprayed, no windows broken, no fires put out, no rubble swept away, no lives lost.

New at Mother Jones

| Mon Aug. 29, 2005 4:50 PM EDT

The Fall of a True Believer
The casino millions. The congressional golf junkets. The Senate investigation. How Jack Abramoff gained the whole world and lost just about everything.
By Barry Yeoman