Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Ill-Conceived Pandering Brings Senators’ Commitment to Democrats (and Democracy) into Question

The New York Sun is reporting that New York Senators Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton are considering—how should I put this?—not not supporting acting UN Ambassador John Bolton when his recess appointment is proffered for a re-up later this week. (The article isn’t quite clear on whether the Senators will actually vote for Bolton, or just de facto vote for him by voting for cloture.)

The change of heart, says the Sun, comes as a result of pressure from so-called pro-Israel lobbies during this period of Mideast conflict.

As a New York voter, I am disheartened by my purportedly Democratic Senators once again knuckling to the rubber stamp Republican majority. As a Jewish voter, I am offended by the crass political assumption that all of “us” would be pleased by a vote that would affirm the current Israeli government’s ill-conceived, ineffective, and brutal approach in Lebanon and Gaza, not to mention encourage the anti-diplomacy of Bush-Bolton,

It is time that all American politicos stop pandering to us Jewish-American voters with the simplistic equation that support for a sovereign Israel equals support for anything any particular Israeli government might undertake. I am able to believe in the possibilities of American democracy without endorsing Bush; I am able to believe in the possibilities of Israeli democracy without endorsing Olmert.

In addition, climbing into bed with the unprofessional and bellicose John Bolton in order to strengthen America’s hand in Middle East diplomacy is like smearing yourself with shit to show support for public sewers: you’ll disgust your friends and provide a graphic example of systemic failure. Bolton’s obstreperous presence on the Security Council makes it virtually impossible for the United Nations to take action in international trouble spots. At a time when the United States military is tied down in Iraq, our government can ill afford to hamstring UN peace-making and peacekeeping efforts in other theaters.

You’d think an administration that loves to outsource the hard stuff would know that. Certainly New York’s two Senators should.

Take action: Tell Senators Schumer and Clinton to block Bolton’s confirmation.

(Cross-posted at Daily Kos)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Morality Takes a Holiday

On a day when President Bush was vetoing the Stem Cell research bill because he said it “crosses a moral boundary,” and his press secretary, Tony Snow, said of the president’s rationale, “The simple answer is he thinks murder is wrong,” Snow also trumpeted the administration’s 2001 “compromise” (that allowed for some federally funded research on a small number of existing stem cell lines). Snow also pointed out that Bush’s veto did not make this research illegal, and, as ABC's Jake Tapper reported on NPR’s On the Media, the White House press office issued releases claiming that Bush had done more to forward the progress of stem cell research than any other president.

To paraphrase Tapper, you can make the “morally defensible” point that you think any destruction of fertilized human eggs is wrong, is murder, but then you can’t also claim that you are a champion of stem cell research. (i.e. Murder is wrong, but this president has done more for murder than any other president—more, of a sort, on that later.) The OTM piece also alludes to what so many other people have pointed out: specifically, that almost all of the IVF embryos that are not implanted are slated for the medical waste bin. . . a fate the administration has yet to differentiate from their “murder” rap.

But the Stem Cell conundrum is penny ante stuff, really, because the same administration that thinks rescuing donated blastocysts from the trash heap is murder thinks that the indiscriminant bombings of Lebanese and Israeli civilians are the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.”

That vile quote (and I do think it completely vile, to the point where I can’t believe the press corps did not hiss and spit) came last week from the mouth of the United States’ supposed chief diplomat, Condoleezza Rice, during a press conference where she attempted to justify America’s hands-off approach to the escalating crisis surrounding Israel and its neighbors (hands-off diplomatically, that is, since the Pentagon is complying with Israel’s request for expedited delivery of precision-guided munitions, possibly including “bunker-busters”). And while the hypocrisy of a White House that regards the death and displacement of living, breathing humans as just so many “birth pangs,” while defining scientific research on soon to be discarded frozen embryos as “murder,” is more than enough irony to last an entire election cycle, the dishonesty and ignorance in such statements forecast missteps could last for generations.

I will set aside the possible but still far off chance that stem cell research could someday provide some kind of help for those injured in armed conflicts, and instead focus on the reportedly educated Secretary of State and her utter inability or refusal to comprehend her job description.

The idea advanced by Rice that we can’t have a ceasefire just now because we’ll be forced to revisit the Israel-Hezbollah issue in the near future demonstrates that the head of the US diplomatic corps has zero understanding of what diplomacy actually is.

You don’t wait until after one side has achieved some sort of tactical or strategic advantage to call for a ceasefire—that’s called “victory” (or “surrender,” depending on your point of view)—you call for a ceasefire in order to stop the hot war, stop the killing, and let diplomats negotiate a solution that makes sense for all parties in the conflict. Civilized cultures talk because imposing one’s will through force is always a poor second choice. Enlightened peoples negotiate because killing fellow human beings, accidentally or purposefully, is morally odious. Mature nations rely on their diplomats because it’s preferable to relying on your soldiers—economically and strategically.

Diplomacy isn’t some box to be checked on your way to unilateral action any more than a ceasefire is a final settlement. That the US can’t grasp that you call for a ceasefire and negotiations shows either a complete ignorance of the way diplomacy works, or a complete disdain for the process.

Disdain is more likely, of course. For even where the Bush Administration lacks moral clarity, they are never less than completely certain that they, and only they, know what is right and true. If you posses such a certainty, then negotiations, discussions, inquiry, curiosity, and even, yes, research are, in the end, unacceptable, inconceivable, and, one might even say, immoral.

Of course, the hubris of such moral certitude is a moral failing all on its own. But that sort of “intellectual” argument is precisely the kind of thinking that keeps you from seeing the world as “simple,” that keeps you from seeing yourself as always good, and your detractors as always evil, that keeps you from seeing actors in the Middle East as friends, or as enemies, and that keeps you from seeing the use of unimplanted embryos as anything but murder. . . except when it isn’t.

Instant Update: While I’m reading this over, I hear that Secretary Rice now sees an "urgent" need for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. Is this because the US now understands it is the “moral” thing to do? Or is it because, as has been reported over the weekend, the war isn’t going so well for the Israelis? One need only note the change in Israel’s rhetoric (from “destroying Hezbollah,” to “crippling Hezbollah,” to establishing a situation on the ground that makes it difficult for Hezbollah to accurately launch missiles into Israel) to understand that Israel’s reportedly long-planned Operation Midwife is not going according to plan. So, maybe, it is now to the strategic or tactical advantage of Israel (and the US?) to take a "time out."

Thus Rice and the government she represents prove not to be moral actors after all—which is probably the point I wanted to make all along. This is realpolitik in morality’s clothing—though using an “intellectual” term like realpolitik is again probably giving this White House too much credit.

For realpolitik implies practicality, and while the Bush Administration is big on the politics, they continue to have trouble with the real—and (if you care about the future) their actions continue to be anything but practical.

Later Update: I should know to wait. The urgency that Rice saw this morning hasn’t actually translated into any actual policy change in terms of, you know, action. Maybe it’s because a ceasefire will just mess with the Rapture.

(Cross-posted over at Daily Kos.)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Update on Your Ever-Ebbing Rights (and the Folks You Elect to Protect Them)

Tuesday’s news that the New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Mayor Mike Bloomberg have unilaterally decided to restrict our right to free assembly caused Jake at Gothamist to break out the “F” word (Fascist), and compelled The Wonkster at Gotham Gazette to. . . well. . . it compelled her to link to Gothamist and me (thanks, Gail!).

I cross-posted my take and call to action over at Daily Kos yesterday, and I got this interesting bit of news from HatchInBrooklyn:

I spoke to someone in the office of David Yassky, my representative for district 33 in Brooklyn. The person who answered the phone was very knowledgeable about this issue and said that he had actually been arrested during the 2004 RNC protests. He basically said that the City Council feels powerless to do anything about this because the Mayor has promised to veto any legislation it passes that interferes with the NYPD's efforts to "protect the public." He said that while the NYPD is technically within the bounds of the law on this, a lot of people on the City Council feel strongly that Ray Kelly is abusing his authority in this instance. He said that he believes the best way to fight this is in court, and that the NYCLU's RNC-related lawsuit against the City should get things moving in the right direction.

I don’t doubt Council Member Yassky’s staffer’s take on the legality/constitutionality of Ray Kelly’s move (though I would pursue it further with other members of the City Council), but what occurs to me right off is that if many on the Council feel the police commissioner is “abusing his authority,” why are they waiting for the NYCLU to take the lead? These are the elected representatives of us NYC residents—they are our legislative branch—can they not hold hearings on Kelly’s actions? Can they not draft a new law to override the NYPD’s rule?

Come on, guys and gals of the New York City Council, this is your job! Grow a spine! Exercise some oversight!

Don’t start reminding us of our federal representatives.

Update: Counsel Speaker Quinn takes issue with the NYPD’s proposal.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Constitutional Crisis to Call Our Own

The New York City Police Department wants to require parade permits for groups of cyclists of 20 or more, and wants to unilaterally impose other rules on small groups that choose to protest in what until now seemed like legal expressions of First Amendment rights. As quoted in the New York Times, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union said the rules would “threaten to substantially restrict protests.”

The proposed rules seem to have roots in the NYPD’s persistent and absurd paranoia about Critical Mass (a monthly demonstration staged by Transportation Alternatives, a pro-bicycle, anti-auto traffic group, that, while often causing brief traffic tie-ups, is usually quite peaceful), and Commissioner Ray Kelly’s more generic fear of anything that might make “his” city look like some place edgier than, say, Scarsdale on Prozac, but they have the potential to give the police power to break up protests at will (for instance, as I read it, any group of two or more that disobeys a traffic rule can be deemed to be parading without a permit). As lawyer Norman Siegel puts it, “it’s antithetical to the principles and values of the right to protest that New York is associated with. This is simply unacceptable.”

But there is another problem with the NYPD’s proposal, namely, since when does a police commissioner have the authority to unilaterally change a law? Police Department spokesman Paul J. Browne, sounding like NYC’s very own version of Alberto Gonzales, thinks they do (or, at least, I think he thinks that’s what he’s saying):

A permit effectively allows activities that would otherwise be illegal, such as disregarding traffic signals or blocking pedestrian traffic, to go forward with the police making accommodations such as the rerouting of pedestrian or vehicular traffic. Nothing in the amendments changes the penalties.

However, I, like Mr. Siegel, think that under the city’s charter, it’s the City Council that legislates new laws—not Ray Kelly. “My instinctive reaction,” said Siegel, “is he cannot do this, it has to go to the City Council.”

There’s to be a public hearing on the proposed rule changes on August 23rd, but that’s not really the point. The point is that the NYPD doesn’t legally have the right to make the changes. Such moves, if necessary, have to be taken up by the City Council.

So, if you live in NYC, why not give 311 a call and ask for your Council Member’s office. Tell your elected representative in city government that you want him or her to stand up for democratic principles, the separations of powers, and the First Amendment rights of New Yorkers. Ask that the City Council go on record as opposing the NYPD’s unilateralism, and ask that the Council hold hearings on whether Ray Kelly even needs his "rule changes."

(Cross-posted over at Daily Kos.)

(More NYC action on guy2k.)

Monday, July 03, 2006

Why are Reporters So Bad at Math?

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen of Time is just the latest in a long string of print and broadcast journalists and editors to misread and misreport the results of a presidential approval poll. Just look at her opening paragraph:

A spate of good news at home and abroad has so far failed to boost how Americans feel about President Bush's job performance. Bush's approval rating slipped to 35% in a TIME poll taken this week, down from 37% in March (and 53% in early 2005). Only 33% of Americans in the survey said they approved of Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq, vs. 35% in March, and 47% in March 2005. His management of the U.S. economy lost supporters, too, as 36% approved, compared with 39% three months earlier. Bush's handling of the war on terror saw a slight gain in support, from 44% to 45%.

Now, I am the first person to scream at “the media” when they report something like a one percentage point increase in Bush’s approval rating as a “bounce,” so I want to be among the first to say that a two-point change in the opposite direction is not a “slip.”

Time has not published the raw data for each question, but I think I can say that a two-point move one way or the other in a poll of about 1,000 adults is not statistically significant. Moving to 35% from 37% is not really slipping, and a change from 44% to 45% in the approval of the President’s handling of the war on terror is not any kind of a “gain”—not even a “slight” one.

To the credit of Time and Cullen, the headline strikes the right tone (Poll: Good News Fails to Boost Bush’s Job Approval), as does the first sentence of the second paragraph (“Bush’s poll numbers remain stuck in a rut. . . .”). But, in general, though it may run against some J-school rule requiring language to be active and energetic, stories on polls need to avoid adjectives when the numbers are statistically flat (he was at “X” then, and he’s at “Y” now), and they need to provide some rudimentary explanation of how polls are analyzed and how numbers can fluctuate from week to week. Simply stating the “margin of error” (which, by the way, this story does not do) is neither academically accurate nor enough.

Now for the Real News

Of course, I, like Time, am guilty of burying the lead. From the third paragraph:

But continued pessimism about the situation in Iraq and a broad sense of unease about America's direction may be undermining Bush's popularity. In the TIME survey, 66% said the country is on the wrong track, vs. 28% who said it's going in the right direction. Those numbers have worsened since March, when the poll recorded a 60% to 34% split.

Putting aside the first sentence of this paragraph and its obfuscatory use of the word “may” (are the stated reasons born out in the poll’s findings, or just journalistic/artistic license?), I am guessing a six-point shift in this result is statistically significant, and a President ushering in a two-thirds “wrong track” number is historically so.

That 66% of those surveyed now think that Bush’s America is on the “wrong track”—even though we supposedly saw improvements in Iraq and in the domestic economy—makes me think that the public is out ahead of the journalists, headline writers, and, yes, Congress, when it comes to understanding the “facts on the ground.” That this right track/wrong track number is trending negative more significantly than the stagnant job approval numbers makes me think that this is the statistic that might be out ahead of others in measuring Americans’ increasing dissatisfaction with Bush and his rubberstamp Republican Congress and/or despair that we are only in for more of the same. . . and, thus, should be the lead in the story.

(cross-posted in a slightly different form at Daily Kos)