Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Will Amazon Take A Hit On J.K. Rowling's Latest?

The Silkworm, a new detective novel by Robert Galbraith, is the guaranteed hottest bestseller of the summer.  If you've never heard of Galbraith, try J.K. Rowling, who has now written two books under that nomme de plume since publishing the last book of her wildly popular Harry Potter series.  But what makes the buzz over this book different than the usual reviews of recommended beach-reading mystery fare is that Amazon, by far the world's largest bestseller, is taking a beating over its consumer-friendly image because of it's ongoing sandbox fight with Hachette Book Group, whose Mulholland Books imprint, a division of Little Brown, publishes The Silkworm

The exact nature of the sand throwing is itself a mystery, but has something to do with Amazon wanting a bigger cut of each Hachette e-book it sells.  Amazon has given customers trying to buy the 5,000 Hachette titles it lists the middle finger by telling them there will be lengthy delays before delivery, as opposed to its famous Prime service, which delivers e-titles immediately and most hardback and paperback titles to your doorstep within 48 hours, and sometimes less.  The initial wait time for The Silkworm was one to two months, now down to two to four weeks as of this writing.
I have been an Amazon Prime customer since the service began in 2005.  My recent purchases have included a garden hose nozzle, low-cut athletic socks, a hickory walking stick and another batch of racket balls, which are rugged enough and not too small for our brother-sister chocolate Labradors to fetch, chew to their heart's content and drool all over, but they eventually get lost when the current in the creeks and rivers where they swim carries them away.
But I digress. 
I will not be ordering The Silkworm from Amazon less because I don't want to wait up to a month (I've got a big unread book backlog as is), but as an author myself with some grasp of the publishing biz have become weary of its bullying. 
Retailers like Walmart are drooling at the anticipated sales bonanza because of Amazon's hissy fit.  Walmart is deep discounting The Silkworm, but I won't be buying the book there because of its abominable labor practices.  I'll probably eventually buy it from an indy seller like Third Place Books in Seattle, which happens to be where the vast Amazon empire is headquartered.
For the record, the Harry Potter books bored me, which is to say that I tried to read the first couple and then bailed on the last five, while Rowling's first post-Potter offer, The Casual Vacancy, was pretty bad, especially considering that she is one of the most successful authors evah.
As for The Silkworm itself, I anticipate it to be just as good as Rowling's . . . er, Galbraith's terrific No. 1 bestseller The Cuckoo's Calling, the inaugural offering in what is likely to be a long series of books featuring detective Cormoran Strike, who lost a leg to a landmine in Afghanistan, and his comely sidekick, Robin Ellacott.  (Think Holmes and Watson.)  Strike is endlessly described as a loveable Rubeus Hagrid type by critics who just can't let go of the Hogwarts analogies.  Somewhat ironically, Strike wades into the dark underbelly of book publishing in the new offering.
Anyhow, reviews of The Silkworm have been uniformly adulatory even if I do suspect that many critics not only have a hard time avoiding the Potter references, but judging Gailbraith on "his" own terms.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Obama 's Justification For Killing An American Abroad Doesn't Fly

There was a familiar odor emanating from the Justice Department memo finally made public this week that sought to justify killing the American citizen and radical Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen: It was legal gobbledegook clearly designed to reach a desired conclusion, and the last time we saw antics on this scale was in the infamous Bush Justice Department memos justifying the use of torture despite it being clearly unconstitutional and a violation of the Geneva Conventions.
It took a while to me to conclude that the drone strike was justified.  Make no mistake about it, Awlaki was a terrorist. It can be argued that he was an American citizen in name only, but it is undeniable that he not only was the inspiration, but the strategic and tactical commander for terrorist operations that caused the death of U.S. citizens. He was in direct communication with Nadal Hasan, who killed 13 soldiers at Fort Hood. He personally recruited and trained Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to explode a bomb in his underwear aboard a flight with 290 passengers. When Senator Rand Paul claims Awlaki was "not directly involved in combat," he draws a distinction that seems out of touch with reality.
What is so troubling about the Obama administration memo is that, despite the need to carefully articulate the legal grounds on which to slay American citizens on foreign soil, it seemed hal-assed and was released only after an extensive legal fight led by The New York Times and American Civil Liberties Union.
As the Times notes in an editorial, "the memo turns out to be a slapdash pastiche of legal theories — some based on obscure interpretations of British and Israeli law — that was clearly tailored to the desired result. Perhaps the administration held out so long to avoid exposing the thin foundation on which it based such a momentous decision."
Perhaps.
The primary theory outlined in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel memo justifying the U.S. killing one of its own, if they pose a threat, is the "public authorities justification."
This is a legal concept that permits governments to take actions in emergency situations that would otherwise break the law. As the editorial notes, that's why fire trucks can break the speed limit and police officers can fire at a threatening gunman. But the justification opens the door wide to myriad government misdeeds, especially since Congress has never authorized an exception for killings like Awlaki's, while the concept of due rights that Americans typically are granted in criminal proceedings are given short shrift.
Besides which, drone strikes have killed innocent bystanders, which certainly are not comparable to the police shootings that the memo cites as precedent.
We still do not know how the U.S. knew that Awlaki was planning the "imminent" mayhem that the memo claims because that information was  redacted from the memo.  All it says is that Awlaki had joined Al Qaeda and was planning attacks on Americans, but the government did not know when or where these attacks would occur.
How ironic that President Obama has been repeatedly accused of being weak on fighting terrorism by the Republican national security choir, but has been far more successful in five-plus years than the bombastic and serially reckless Bush administration was in eight years.

The aggressive Obama administration pushback has included stepped up drone attacks and commando raids in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in the mountainous Wild West border region they share, the assassination by Navy SEAL team of Osama bin Laden, and the assassination by drone of Awlaki on September 30, 2011 in Yemen.
The justifications in the Awlaki memo are not the leaps of logic in the reverse-engineered opinions written by John Yoo for the Bush Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel to provide legal backfill and ass covering for torture regime policies already well in place.

Those leaps of logic included Yoo's disingenuous commingling of World War II prisoners of war with post-9/11 enemy combatants, as well as the assertion of Michael Mukasey, who was easily the most dangerous of the three Bush administration attorneys general, that Yoo and his brethren cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of the president and the president cannot commit crimes when he acts under the advice of his lawyers.
But that is small comfort.  No president should be able to pick and choose when to uphold and defend the Constitution, let alone Obama, who was once a constitutional scholar.  His legal eagles need to craft a redo on the Awlaki memo.  The alternative is to acknowledge that despite the fact Awlaki was a very bad man, a strong legal case wasn't made to take him out.  
And Obama needs to go to Congress for its blessing to authorize the killing of Americans overseas when they are viewed as threats to the homeland.  Yes, getting Congress to do anything is nearly impossible these days, but history will be less kind to the president for weak legal justifications and not giving Congress an opportunity to exercise its constitutional prerogative. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Why The Crisis In Iraq Is Like A Real-Life 'Game Of Thrones'


When the British diplomat Sir Mark Sykes sat down with Fran├žois George-Picot, his French counterpart, on May 16, 1916 in London for the last in a six-month series of tea-and-negotiation meetings, it was the pilot episode of a sort of a real-life Game of Thrones.

The diplomats had been negotiating on how to divvy up the spoils of the Ottoman Empire.  The conclusion of World War I was still two and a half years away, but the end of Turkish hegemony in the region was a foregone conclusion and the superpower governments in London and Paris, which were kind of like the Westeros and Essos of the time, wanted to leave as little as possible to chance in fulfilling their imperialist desiderata, least of all to make good on vague promises made to the Arabs -- and the legendary Lawrence of Arabia, the leading advocate of the Arab cause -- for their own homeland as a reward for their assistance in crushing the Turks in the arid western expanses of their empire.

Subsequent episodes of this real-life Game of Thrones, minus scantily clad maidens and a dwarf named Tyrion, but with plenty of civil wars and bloodshed to go around, have been playing out for nearly 100 years beginning with the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, which set the artificial boundaries of colonial Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (and eventually the state of Israel) and provoked never ending cycles of ethnic strife, poverty, disenfranchisement, religious extremism and, of course, terrorism.  Which brings us to the current episode -- the disintegration of Iraq -- where all that is on offer.
What will the next episode bring?

*
Business as usual for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki no matter how intense the domestic and international pressures on him are.  Much, although by no means all, of the world of hurts that Iraqis find themselves in stem from Al-Maliki using his office, with the acquiescence of the Bush administration, to install fellow Shiites in all the key posts while driving out Sunni politicians and generals.  That is not going to change.
* Because that is not going to change, the Obama administration's response to the disintegration of Iraq will take that into account.  Neocon dogs of war like Paul Wolfowitz, who misunderstand everyone and mismanage everything, drove the U.S. into the democracy-at-point-of-gun invasion in the first place (check out reruns of 2003 season episodes) and can bark about going back into Iraq until they go hoarse.  Shame on them.  And praise Barack Obama for his coolness under fire.
* Iran, which exerts major leverage in the region, will play a crucial role.  The feelers that the Great Satan have put out to the Iranian government, which include behind-the-scenes talks in Vienna regarding how these strange bedfellows might work together to try to defuse the crisis, are hugely important regardless of the natterings of those dogs, whose policies empowered Iran in the first place, as well as their Republican helpmates on Capitol Hill.
* Accentuating the positive.  The rapprochement between rival Kurdish factions, which has resulted in democratic elections and a flourishing economy, has brought an unprecedented stability to northernmost Iraq.  Kurds and the Arab and Turkmen ethnic minorities in the region like paved roads, decent schools and hospitals, having electricity 24 hours a day, and not being blown up by suicide bombers.  They do not like Al-Maliki or his central government.  Tough.
* Understanding that Iraq is not Syria and Syria is not Iraq.  While they share a border and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria jihadists are the major players in the civil war in Syria and the current upheaval in Iraq, as well as feeding Shiite-Sunni tensions throughout the region, a one-solution-fits-both-states outcome is not in the cards.  Nor will either country be unified in the foreseeable future.
* The offensive by hair-on-fire ISIS insurgents that precipitated the crisis central to the current episode is unsustainable.   Maintaining the Sykes-Picot borders are in the best short-term diplomatic interests of the U.S., but if three states with notional borders divided by ethnicity and faith -- Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish -- do emerge, future episodes might just reveal that they are more stable.  And that Joe Biden, who as a senator argued that sectarian states were preferable to recurring chaos, was right.
* The recriminations about who "lost" Iraq will rage on.  Well, Sykes and Picot lost Iraq, while the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld troika lost it even more.  Oh, and it was Bush who negotiated the agreement that would have left a residual U.S. force.  Obama just happened to have become president when Al-Maliki rejected the agreement because the U.S. wouldn't abide with a provision stripping U.S. troops of legal immunity from Iraqi prosecution, something that even John "A Hundred Years of War" McCain would not abide.
Stay tuned.
Photograph courtesy of HBO

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The O.J. Saga 20 Years On: So Why Did Why He Become A Murderer?

O.J. with friends two months before the murders
It was a balmy June evening on the East Coast, 20 years ago today to be exact.  We were watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets at Madison Square Garden on a Los Angeles television station because we were putting our recently installed 12-foot satellite dish through its paces and had swung it into a position where we could pull in California signals. 
It was about 10 p.m. and the Knicks were ahead by a basket in a lead-changing nail biter when the station suddenly cut away to a Los Angeles freeway, where a camera from a news helicopter showed a phalanx of police cruisers, their lights madly flashing, in pursuit of a white Ford Bronco.

Four days earlier, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, described in early press reports as an acquaintance of the estranged wife of legendary football star O.J. Simpson, had been found slashed to death outside her L.A. condominium. 
The TV announcer breathlessly intoned that O.J. had been charged with the murders, had reneged on a promise to turn himself in to the police, and his Bronco had been spotted on a southern L.A. freeway in what would become, according to one survey, the sixth "most universally impactful" TV moment of the last 50 years -- a suspenseful but in retrospect comical low-speed chase that paled next to other impactful moments, including the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
We were transfixed as we watched the chase.  Hell, all of America was transfixed as Domino's Pizza reported record home-delivery sales because the chase unfolded during dinner time on the West Coast.  This epic pursuit, with O.J. best friend Al Cowlings at the wheel and the Juice himself riding in the back, reportedly with a gun in hand, ground to a halt 50 miles, two hours and hundreds of thousands of consumed pizzas later later as Simpson, clutching family photos, staggered out of the Bronco in the driveway of his Brentwood home, collapsed into the arms of police officers and was handcuffed.
Moments after the chase ended, the phone rang.  It was the City Desk at the Philadelphia newspaper where I was working.  I was told that I was on the O.J. case full time.  Big Boss's orders.  As it turned out, I would be on the case full time for the next 16 months as I covered the murder investigation, pre-trial maneuvering and then the nine-month Trial of the Century.  Looking back on the whole sordid affair 20 years on, it was an unrelenting exercise in hyperbole that somehow nevertheless never became bigger than itself in laying bare our obsession with celebrity and the ugliness of our nation's racial divide, the vulnerability of single women, and the debut of an apparently foolproof new forensic technique involving DNA analysis, while revealing how little most of us knew about the criminal justice system, let alone how to game a jury into believing that O.J.'s blood-soaked gloves didn't fit him.
Yet for this career journalist and long time observer of the ebb and flow of American fads, interests and mores, the biggest story was and remains why Orenthal James Simpson became a murderer.
* * * * *
In a society that judges a person by the color of their skin, O.J. had something that very few black Americans could claim: He was so accomplished and at one time was so popular that, in advertising agency parlance, he was "race neutral."

That is to say that when most people looked at him they saw not a black man who happened to have overcome a disadvantaged childhood in a broken home, but a handsome and gifted athlete who found fame and fortune by parlaying outstanding college and professional football careers into a successful big-bucks life off the field selling everything from men's footwear to rental cars, and as a broadcaster and later a not-bad Hollywood actor who married a gorgeous blonde woman, had two beautiful children with her, seemed to be in a giving marriage in a multi-racial community not unusual for Southern California but at that time alien to the rest of the country, and was endlessly kind and considerate to his friends. 
Simpson’s acquittal on charges that he murdered his wife and Goldman at the conclusion of the storied 1995 criminal trial can be attributed, in large part, to black jurors who believed that he had been framed because of his skin color.  (The families of Brown Simpson and Goldman eventually were awarded a $33.5 million wrongful-death civil judgment.) 

Yet it appears that to most people O.J. still remains O.J. despite the bitterness and animosity that the verdict unleashed on both sides of the racial divide (although it was us white folks who were shocked, just shocked, that the divide existed, while it was an inescapable fact of life for blacks and other minorities).
Today O.J. still is not merely a black man gone bad.  Never mind that his good looks have faded, his waistline has exploded, and he is a long-term guest of the Nevada state prison system because of a 2008 conviction for a botched sports memorabilia robbery at a Las Vegas casino-hotel.  Which unlike the murder trial, did not become a racial flash point.
* * * * *
I had a great ride off of O.J.  Given free rein by the Big Boss, I wrote at least one story each weekday for 16 months, as well as a syndicated column of gossipy tidbits called "The Simpson File" that was wildly popular and published in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada.  There was no such thing as a slow news day, and I never ran out of material.
I was one of the few reporters to plumb the racial aspects of the jury early on -- 10 women and two men, nine of whom were black, two white and one Hispanic -- and while I did not predict the acquittal, I wrote that such an outcome would not necessarily be surprising because woman jurors seemed so sympathetic to O.J. and the truth stretching but convincing arguments of his Dream Team of defense lawyers, who had basically eaten Marsha Clark and her fellow prosecutors for lunch.

I was the only reporter, to my knowledge, to explore gender views of Nicole. 
In one story, I riffed off of trial testimony showing that after returning home with her two young children on the night of the murders, Nicole had put them to bed, then lit candles throughout her condo, put on soothing music and taken a long bath.  And that to most men, such a scenario indicated that she was getting ready to meet a lover, in this case Goldman, while most women believed that like many a mother, she just wanted to chill out after a long and stressful day, which had included an unpleasant encounter with O.J. at an ice cream parlor.  Meanwhile, Goldman just happened to show up to return a pair of reading glasses she had misplaced.  Men couldn't relate to the tired mom scenario.  Women could.

My one "big" scoop concerned the fact the Nicole's breasts had been surgically enhanced because O.J. liked 'em big, something I confirmed in an interview with the Main Line Philadelphia plastic surgeon who had done the deed.


Ahem.
* * * * *
Celebrity became O.J., but he could not overcome his humanness.  I claim no special insight into the demons that possessed this Hall of Famer.  All I know is that despite his accomplishments and exalted status, he was just another person vulnerable to the baser temptations of life in the fast lane who succumbed to the frailties – in his case outbursts of rage, jealousy and a fondness for illegal substances -- that bedevil many of us.

Perhaps no one knows when O.J. hit bottom -- possibly not even The Juice himself.  That occurred sometime in the run-up to the slayings, which probably were a result of a cocaine-fueled binge, a fit of jealousy, or most likely both.  As it turned out, he had severely beaten Nicole on New Years Day 1989 in an earlier fit of rage.

In any event, it is sadly obvious that Simpson had been bottom crawling since the double murders. I will leave it to greater minds to do the moral calculus on whether his convictions for the Las Vegas crime spree some 13 years to the day of his murder trial acquittal and a jail sentence somehow makes up for him getting off in 1995.

My own view is that life -- and death -- don't work that way.  Besides which O.J., even at the advanced age of 66, seems incapable of being chastened no matter how hard he once looked for "the real killers" of Nicole and Ron, and how much jail time he does.
 
Photo from Splash News/Cobris via Vanity Fair

Friday, June 13, 2014

As Iraq Spirals Out Of Control, Another Bush Mess Lands In Obama's Lap

Jihadists celebrate capture of U.S. vehicle from Iraqi Army
I would like to personally thank George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld.  I would like to thank them for creating the conditions that have led to the probability that militants will successfully establish an Islamist ministate straddling Syria and Iraq, which will further destabilize the most unstable region in the world.  And that President Obama will be forced, for political and not necessarily humanitarian reasons, to order air strikes against the militants to halt their advance toward Baghdad.

Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld worked hard to bring on this dire state of affairs:

They launched an invasion of Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses.  They starved the invasion of boots while draining the vital post-9/11 war in Afghanistan of resources.  They created the conditions for a protracted Iraqi civil war by propping up Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, an autocratic Shiite thug, while looking the other way as his "government" marginalized and persecuted the Sunni minority.  They tried to buy off Sunni militants by showering them with cash, weapons, pickup trucks and televisions rather than demanding that Al-Maliki establish a coalition government that reflected Iraq's historic sectarian and ethnic diversity.

They helped crash the American economy, driving it toward the worst recession since the Great Depression, by giving the rich tax cuts while simultaneously fighting two wars.  Then, after nearly 5,000 Americans died and tens of thousand more were injured (flooding the VA hospitals system and precipitating its current travails), as well as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties and an immense refugee crisis, the Obama administration washed its hands of the whole self-created mess.
But not until after Obama tried but failed to get Al-Maliki to accede to a residual U.S. force that would remain as a backstop against exactly what is now happening.  That, of course, predictably has been overlooked by John "A Hundred Years of War" McCain and other hawks who lust for war -- anytime and anywhere -- who have been quick to condemn the commander in chief and falsely accuse him of being unprepared. 
Come on, guys, it was the Iraqis who were caught flat footed although the advance led by fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a breakaway group of Al Qaeda, has been under way for more than a year, with the major city of Falluja falling in January.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and once a symbol of how Iraqis of all sectarian stripes could co-exist, also has now fallen.  Militants have occupied facilities in the strategic oil-refining town of Baiji, and having taken Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, are driving toward Baghdad.  Their only setback seems to have been in Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad, which has a Sunni majority but is home to a major Shiite shrine and is being defended by Shiite militias.
While the militants' offensive has been tactically sophisticated and thus far unstoppable, there is little likelihood of them taking the capital of four million people.  Still, they have scored a huge coup even if forced back by airstrikes, while it will only be a matter of time before they will be on the march again since history reminds us that jihadists can always outlast military powers.
The militants, who number no more than 5,000 in all, many of them foreign fighters, seem to have been emboldened by the capture of all the U.S.-supplied military equipment left behind by government forces as they fled.  The U.S. had spent about $25 billion to train and equip the Iraqi Army, while Iraq has spent billions more to buy fighter jets, helicopter gunships, battle tanks, missiles and other weapons.
Although the Iraqi Army vastly outnumbers the insurgents, entire divisions have collapsed without a semblance of a fight.

Desertions are rife as troops shed their uniforms and vanish.  A new refugee crisis is at hand.  Only Kurdish pesh merga forces, which took over control of oil-rich Kirkuk in the north as the Iraqi Army faded away, are hanging tough.  But while the Kurds were America's most trustworthy Iraqi partners during the war, their allegiance to the central government is limited and the current conflict is sure to accelerate their drive for independence from Baghdad.
Oil prices, of course, are spiking over concerns about the fighting.
Meanwhile, in a sign of desperation, senior Shiite leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior cleric in Iraq, issued a call to arms on Friday, urging his countrymen to assist the government in its halting fight against the Sunni militants.
Having broken Iraq, the U.S. is now being asked to fix it.  And so another consequence of a Bush Era mess -- an all-out sectarian war that could result in more American blood being shed -- is dumped in President Obama's lap.  Meanwhile, Al Qaeda seems to have Yemen in its grip, the Pakistani Taliban are newly resurgent and Syrian moderates are all but vanquished.  And all this is Obama's fault?

One sure result of the chaos in Iraq is that Al-Maliki will have yet another excuse to again put off making policy concessions that might begin to stabilize the country.  Then there is the wild card: Iran coming to the aid of its ally Al-Maliki. There already are said to be two battalions of crack Quds Forces, the overseas branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, on the ground in Iraq. 
Picture the U.S., Iran and Syrian strongman Bashar Al-Assad's forces fighting on the same side.  Are you ready for that John McCain?
Photograph from Reuters

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Media's Palinization: Why It Continues To Allow Itself To Be Co-Opted

I have been reading books about and by Sarah Palin lately.  Two reasons for this: I am contemplating collaborating with a scholar on a book about the Palin Birth Hoax and the mainstream media's cowardly retreat from the likelihood that she faked a pregnancy in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.  And although I do not believe that there is an ounce of genuineness in this woman, I continue to grapple with why she remains such a heroine for so many conservatives although her star in the Republican galaxy has faded, and remains such a powerfully divisive force on the national scene.

There are few, if any, better examples of a resume without a person than Palin, whose sheer vapidity and penchant for making over-the-top declarations; indeed, saying the wrong thing time and again, nevertheless makes her such a magnet for people who are convinced, as she is, that America has gone crazy.  (We actually kind of agree here, although for different reasons.) 
Palin and many of her acolytes believe that the end time is near.  They believe that Barack Obama is demon spawn and that government overreaches in everything from helping provide health care for those who need it most to confronting the menace of global warming.  They lie awake at night obsessing over America's fast shrinking white majority.  And they have an utter lack of curiosity about anything and everything that does not comport with their profoundly constipated world view.
It is this last aspect that perhaps most succinctly captures this self-anointed mama grizzly: Like her followers, Palin doesn't want to read or hear anything that conflicts with her beliefs.  More than that, people who disagree with her are not merely wrong, they are evil.  She could never acknowledge the existence of evolution, she has explained with utter seriousness, because she once saw pictures showing human footprints inside dinosaur tracks.
Why shouldn't we simply ignore Palin?  We don't really need yet another book, let alone another commentary, about her, right?
Wrong.
I don't care if John McCain, who confessed that he opted for Palin as a running mate in 2008 because she "made a strong impression," was put up to it.  His selection of Palin was incredible at the time based on what little we knew about her, and is appalling in retrospect now that we know so much about her.  This includes a disdain for any semblance of intellectual growth, her racism, and that she has had only one job in her entire life that she didn't quit, which at least is in keeping with a key tenet of the Tea Party that adores her and she loves back -- walking away from commitments, even if it means shutting down the government and putting people out of work.  Then there is Palin's well-documented vengefulness.  And some people still believe she would make a great president?
Palin remains fair game so long as she is afforded credibility by the mainstream media, let alone the posse at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and his ilk.  And indeed she was taken credibly in her short-lived run for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.  It wasn't that the "lamestream" media, as Palin calls it, had failed to catch on that she was a liar and a cipher based on the 2008 campaign experience and since then.  The media simply didn't care.  The media didn't care to question, let alone investigate, the birth hoax, among other glaring examples of her playing fast and loose with the facts, and as a result in effect vouched for her truthfulness.

When rarely confronted as to why it was cowed by Palin, the media hid behind the specious notion that it respected her family's privacy while at the same time she was using Trig, a Down Syndrome child whom I believe probably was not her own, and her other children as stage props.  Or when the privacy excuse didn't float, the media could smugly remind us that Palin would never be president, so
why bother to call her out?
Why bother to call her out when it was reported, in the wake of the nearly successful assassination attempt against Congresswoman Gabby Giffords in January 2011, that Palin's political action committee had targeted Giffords' congressional district at a website with gunsight crosshairs.  Palin not only went ballistic over the suggestion that she may have contributed in some way to the dementia of Jared Lee Loughner, who did succeed in killing six other people, including a federal judge and nine-year-old bystander, she recorded her own video message after Fox refused her airtime, accusing the media of a "blood libel" and releasing the video on Vimeo the very day of a memorial service for Loughner's victims.
Why bother to call her out when last month she endorsed waterboarding Muslim terrorists as an introduction to their captivity.  "Waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists," she spouted in conflating torture with a Christian sacrament.
"In the end, this story is not about Palin," wrote Andrew Sullivan, who virtually alone among bloggers with large audiences pursued the birth hoax story and continues to call her out.  "It's about the collapse of the press and the corrupt cynicism of a political system that foisted this farce upon  us without performing any minimal due diligence."
* * * * *
Click here for "Five Years On: Why The Sarah Palin Birth Hoax Story Still Shouldn't Go Away." 
Photograph from the Huffington Post

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Are The Supremes To Blame For Our Politics, Not The Other Way Around?

It turns out that the Founding Fathers got three things very wrong.  There are the absence of women's suffrage and resolving the issue of slavery in the U.S. Constitution.  The former, of course, was not on anyone's bewigged radar back in those days, while the latter was very much on the Founders' minds but was intentionally ignored in the service of crafting a document without endless dissent over the lightning-rod issue.  And today there is a third thing, as the Roberts Supreme Court has made clear: The absence of term limits for the court's justices.
That has become painfully obvious for anyone who cares about the core values that once made America great as Chief Justice John Roberts has taken the high court so far from its role as a check on the Executive and Legislative branches, as enshrined in that Constitution, and become so activist when it comes to conservative causes, that the court has become a de facto arm of the Republican Party

Many of the decisions rendered by Roberts and the three other conservative justices -- Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, frequently joined by so-called moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy -- are slavishly in the interests of corporations and wealthy oligarchs and against women and minorities in particular and civil rights in general.  The decisions in which Kennedy has sided with the liberal justices -- Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor -- have been increasingly few and far between.
The handwriting, as it were, was on the wall when the court, then led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, threw the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore.  But since Roberts became chief justice in 2005, the court has tacked harder to the right in a series of decisions that, in effect, confer second-class status on individuals and coddle those oligarchs, most notably in the Citizens United decision in 2010.

In Citizens United -- and in one sickening fell swoop -- the court's conservative activists put a stake through the heart of our most cherished civil right -- freedom of speech -- in a ruling that conflated spending with speech and was easily the most twisted in 150 years.  In doing so these justices tacitly acknowledged what clear-eyed observers of of our society have come to understand: America is now ruled by a corporatocracy that in some respects is even more powerful than the federal government, and at its head is a vampire elite represented by fascists like the Koch brothers who can now legally buy elections.

That was just the start. The McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission decision in March was the coup de grace to the last vestiges of judicial sanity in not just striking down campaign contribution limits, but allowing oligarchs to increase their reach by making unlimited contributions to an unlimited number of federal candidates anywhere they choose.
(Meanwhile, the court on Monday refused to clarify whether journalists can engage in a little free speech of their own -- the right to protect their confidential sources -- something that everyone who has ever written under a byline holds near and very dear, while deigning to rule on another case involving a love triangle.)
Alas, according to one study, the Roberts court is hearing fewer free speech cases in general and ruling in favor of free speech at a lower rate than any of the courts of the three previous chief justices, two of three of whom were the appointees of Republican presidents like the Roberts himself.
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In Washington almost all things shall pass.  John Boehner's abrogation of leadership and Mitch McConnell's unashamed lies will be memories in the not distant future, but those conservative Supreme Court justices will be running roughshod for a long, long time to come because they have lifetime appointments.
When the Founders granted the lifetime tenure privilege in 1783, something no other nation does today, it was considered an accomplishment to survive until adulthood.

As we live longer lives, it is not unreasonable to use 85 years as a median retirement age.  (The last justice to retire, liberal bulwark John Paul Stevens, took off his robes in 2010 two months after his 90th birthday, while he and the other last four justices to step down served an average 25 years.)  So with 85 years as the median, that means Roberts will be sticking around for 26 more years, Alito for 21 more years and Thomas for 19 more years, while both Scalia and Kennedy will reach age 85 in seven years.  Put another way, the first member of this bloc would not retire until 2021 and the last not until 2040.
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The primary argument for lifetime appointments is that they safeguard judicial independence and protect the high court from the political vagaries of  election cycles. 
"But lifetime appointments actually enable more politicking on the bench," writes Dahlia Lithwick, Slate magazine's legal affairs writer, whose view certainly is being borne out by the Robert court.
Lithwick and some legal scholars advocate 10-year terms.  (Roberts, in an unguarded moment of candor many moons ago, once advocated 15-year terms.)  Lithwick notes that term limits would undercut justices who want to exert some degree of control over their successors by waiting to retire until a president that shares their ideology has been elected, while term limits might benefit the court by creating more opportunities for gender and racial diversity. 
Not even the wildest-eyed advocate of term limits suggest that an amendment to Article III of the Constitution, which states that the justices shall hold their offices during good behaviour," in other words, for life, has the slightest chance of passing.  (In 1805, Samuel Chase became the only justice to be impeached when President Jefferson became alarmed over the claims that he and fellow Federalists' made regarding exclusive judicial review. The Senate acquitted Chase of all charges.)
The proposals on how to bypass Article III are ludicrous: Offer large cash bonuses to justices who retire after shorter periods of time, a requirement that they sit on lower court benches several times a year to keep in closer contact with mere mortals, and have the president ask court nominees for a informal commitment to leave after "a sensible period of time."
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Lithwick, who has written scathingly of the Roberts court, is in my estimation one of the three preeminent journalists writing about the Supremes these days.  The other two are Lyle Denniston, who had the court beat for the Associated Press for many years until starting the excellent SCOTUSblog and was and is very much a straight shooter, and Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times, who was the longtime dean of the court's press corps and now writes op-ed columns for the Gray Lady.

Greenhouse also was a straight shooter.  She held her nose when writing about Bush v. Gore, believed that law and not politics drives the court, and used to urge her editors to ban the routine practice of identifying judges by the president who appointed them.
But Greenhouse, to paraphrase Howard Beale in Network, is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore.

"I’m finding it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Republican-appointed majority is committed to harnessing the Supreme Court to an ideological agenda," she recently wrote in a fire-and brimstone column headlined "Polar Vision."

"I wrote 'ideological' rather than 'partisan' agenda because there's something deeper going on than mere partisanship," she continues.  "Congress, after all, reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 by overwhelming bipartisan majorities in both houses, in a bill signed into law by President George W. Bush. The Bush administration urged the court to uphold the law in one of the last briefs filed before the president left office. It was a small cadre of right-wing activists that pressed the opposing view on the court. Success took a while: The court lost its nerve . . . in 2009, but conspicuously kept the door open for a renewed challenge. The result was last term's Shelby County v. Holder, the 5-to-4 decision that cut the heart out of the Voting Rights Act – which had been the plan all along."
"It’s impossible to talk about the Roberts court without coming back to race," she adds. "The [conservative] majority just can’t leave it alone," cutting off affirmative action in university admissions at the knees in a recent decision in addition to neutering the Voting Rights Act.

"I wonder whether the Supreme Court itself has become an engine of polarization, keeping old culture-war battles alive and forcing to the surface old conflicts that people were managing to live with," Greenhouse writes in conclusion.  "Suppose, in other words, that instead of blaming our politics for giving us the court we have, we should place on the court at least some of the blame for our politics."
Not to excuse Boehner, McConnell and their ilk, but Greenhouse is onto some huge -- something equal parts tragic and alarming when viewed in the context of 230 years of American constitutional history.
Image from foodpolitics.com