Tuesday, April 29, 2014

This is why militias are dangerous

It seems Cliven Bundy's armed gang is making some of his neighbors nervous. The self-appointed militiamen allegedly have set up checkpoints to check whether drivers are residents of the area.

So much for respecting the local sheriff.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Craig Ferguson will leave CBS

He decided not to renew his contract and announced it on his show, according to Bill Carter at the New York Times.

It's a shame but not unexpected. Ferguson has always been the odd man out in late night: he doesn't seem interested in being a Carson clone, but he hasn't established a different model as Jon Stewart has. My guess is that the stripped-down, low-key atmosphere of his show turned off people before they could tune into his sly humor. Once Colbert was announced to be Letterman's replacement, with Letterman's blessing, Ferguson didn't have a future at CBS, and he knew it.

I hope he finds another gig that will allow more people to discover how talented and funny he is.

The gun lobby's smart-gun FUD

FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt. That's what the gun lobby is peddling to dissuade the marketing of smart guns.

Smart guns would tie the ability to fire a weapon to its owner. That, to me, certainly sounds like a decent compromise between the right to own a firearm and the right of the rest of us to be safe from that gun.

Yet here's the gun lobby's argument:

Firearms manufacturers and gun rights groups say the technology could malfunction and cause a weapon not to fire when someone needed it to work.
Um, yeah. And guns never misfire today.

(That was sarcasm, in case that wasn't clear.)

Cigarette manufacturers peddled rhetoric of similarly low quality when warnings of cigarettes' health risks surfaced decades ago. Big business is wont to throw off all restraint when its business model is threatened.

Here's what traditional gun manufacturers really worry about:

The National Rifle Association, in an article published on the blog of its political arm, wrote that “smart guns,” a term it mocks as a misnomer, have the potential “to mesh with the anti-gunner’s agenda, opening the door to a ban on all guns that do not possess the government-required technology.”
That argument plays into the fears of Second Amendment absolutists, too, who have talked themselves into a paroxysm of paranoia that the government is coming for their guns.

The truth, by the way, is that the more these absolutists go batty in their "defense" of their right to bear arms, the less the rest of us trust gun owners as a whole. Truly responsible gun owners have to embrace reasonable measures in order to keep more extreme anti-gun policies from gaining traction. But first, they have to throw off the suffocating embrace of the N.R.A. and similarly radical gun-rights groups that purport to represent all gun owners.

I can live (I hope) with only some guns being "smart", but I sure as hell don't see why none of them can be. The radical gun lobby is fucking over the entire country with its selfish and irrational zealotry. Are you a responsible gun owner? Then repudiate the kind of mindlessness that opposition to smart guns embodies.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Bundy and racism

A few good takes on the subject:
  • LZ Granderson at CNN has one of the smarter takes on Cliven Bundy's extremely ignorant remarks about "the Negroes".
    Bundy is just the lightning rod of the moment, just as Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame was before him, and Paula Deen before that.

    Meanwhile Racism 2.0 is busily working in the shadows, gerrymandering away voting rights and creating legislation that makes pre-emptively shooting dead a young black man who makes you nervous synonymous with standing one's ground. The longer the media allow ignorant relics like Bundy to continue to hog the spotlight -- and the public points at him as the face of conservative racism -- the longer the current incarnation can go unchecked.

    Yup. Bundy is a clownish sideshow whom smarter but equally unreconstructed racists can't thank enough for distracting the rest of us.

    Or at least he was the distraction of the hour, until Donald Sterling stole his thunder.

    Who will be next to tumble out of the clown car that is the far right these days? No idea. While we're waiting, though, let's shine an unwelcome light on the Republicans doing everything they can to shorten voting hours and to challenge likely Democratic-leaning voters at the polls, shall we?

  • The thing about Bundy, like a lot of people who get into trouble because they can't edit themselves, is that his repeated "clarifications" of his first press conference only dig him in deeper. Unfortunately, and again, like a lot of people who can't edit themselves, Bundy's "clarifications" also muddy the waters with sheer, confused verbiage. The Reverend Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlewaite peels back the layers of verbiage to show Bundy's multiple "sins of racism".
  • The estimable Charles Blow in the New York Times also confronts Bundy's vile "blacks were better off under slavery" rhetoric with pitiless numbers and simple declarative statements of the reality of slavery. This will not affect Bundy and his hardcore allies, of course, because their minds are closed, but one hopes a dose of reality will peel off any unthinking supporters who might be tempted to buy into the idiot freeloader's insipid "argument".

Friday, April 25, 2014

The cancer that is Cliven Bundy

It turns out that Cliven Bundy is not just a liar and a deadbeat, he's also a bigot. I thought about quoting him, but his remarks have gotten so much play it doesn't seem necessary. The New York Times piece quotes him, and Media Matters found the video. (He also self-interestedly misconstrued MLK and Rosa Parks for CNN.)

As a handful of high-profile politicians and pundits scramble to distance themselves from his appallingly racist remarks (proof that rurals can be as unbelievably ignorant of urbans as urbans are of rurals), they're keen to argue that his racism has nothing to do with his fight against the Bureau of Land Management.

They're right. You don't have to conflate the two, and you shouldn't. It's possible to condemn Bundy for being an armed deadbeat and a bigot.

And you should. He's a contemptible lout.

Bundy's not contemptible because of his politics. He's contemptible because with every utterance, he proves himself to be the most ignorant man in the country, and he's impervious to fact, reason or logic. He's also convinced he's on the road to canonization as a patriotic saint in the mode of Thomas Paine.

His self-delusion would be pathetic were he not armed and completely indifferent to everybody else. His lack of concern for other people, a logical if deeply regrettable extension of his libertarian impulses, is sociopathic. The full weight of the justice system needs to fall on him because the rest of us can't afford to indulge people who have absolutely no interest in their duties as citizens. And yes, you have duties as a citizen, the chief of which is to follow the laws that are set up for our collective benefit. If you think that's "socialism" or somehow tyrannical and unfair, as I suspect Bundy and his ilk do, you are opposed to civil society, and like I said, the rest of us can't afford to indulge your sociopathy. You know what we call people who don't follow the minimal duties we ask of citizens? Criminals.

By the way, if you do business with Bundy, stop. That's the way to make him understand that it's not just the federal government that is pissed, it's all of us. The entire nation. Bring the pain to him in ways that his weapons can't stop. Show him that he isn't as self-reliant as he'd like to think, and that the rest of us expect — no, insist on — a minimum standard of civil behavior.

[UPDATE: Conor Friedersdorf makes one of the points I tried to make a lot more clearly than I did in his Atlantic piece, "Villains Can Be Right, You Know (Even If Cliven Bundy Isn't)".]

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Uncivil disobedience

I suppose that in a nation of over 300 million, statistically it's inevitable that you can find a few hundred people to support anything. That's the only explanation I can find for the support for Cliven Bundy.

He and his supporters seem to feel that the mere act of defying the federal government, whose existence he denies, is enough to justify their actions. Resist tyranny, seems to be their cry. They cloak themselves in the rhetoric of the American Revolution and the civil rights movement.

Here's a dose of truth: Bundy's a liar and a thief.

His family didn't own the land on which he illegally grazes his cattle before the federal government owned it.

He owes the United States government — and by extension, me and everybody else who pays taxes — those grazing fees he hasn't paid since 1993.

He owes his life and livelihood to the existence of the United States and its government. His citizenship is precious, but he doesn't recognize that. That makes him a moron or an ingrate as well.

He and his ignorant allies aren't patriots. They're armed thugs, no better than the average bank robber.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Give this man an exploding cigar

Bright young spark Paolo Pavone allegedly threw an M-80 onto a walkway at San Francisco's AT&T Park during a Giants-Dodgers game on Wednesday. He was arrested and has pleaded not guilty.

Nobody was seriously hurt, but I hope the D.A. throws the book at him. Such a large firecracker doesn't have to hit somebody to cause harm. I'm one of the minority of people who react far more strongly and badly to unexpected loud noises than normal folks do. Somebody like me could have been startled into a heart attack by his stupid stunt.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Linda Greenhouse on McCutcheon

Linda Greenhouse, the New York Times' former Supreme Court reporter, weighs in on what McCutcheon v. FEC says about the Roberts Court. In brief: nothing good.

You know where I stand.

The federal government exists

An Atlantic piece says that Cliven Bundy's argument with the federal Bureau of Land Management stems in part from his unique view of reality.
"I believe this is a sovereign state of Nevada," Bundy said in a radio interview last Thursday. "I abide by all of Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing."
I've got news for you, Mr. Bundy: the federal government exists. Just ask your militia buddies who used the interstate highway system, and very likely GPS, to race to your defense. In fact, I'd really like for you and them to spend a week in a world where the federal government didn't exist. I don't think you'd like what you saw.

Bundy may have legitimate grievances against the BLM and the rest of Washington, but all I see is a weasel who mooches off public lands, then foments armed insurrection when the government gets forceful about seeking payment. He doesn't look like a victim: he looks like a menace.

Our federal government is, in some ways, a mess. But these self-important anarchists make the government look good.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Free speech in schools

The Atlantic piece is "If a Student Says Homosexuality Is a Sin in School, Is It Bullying?", by Emma Green. It's about new legislation in Tennessee designed to create guidelines for students to mention religion without freaking out the faculty and staff.

Well-intentioned, or so I'm optimistically going to hope, but yet another sign that believers are too focused on their own (false) victimhood. Religious devotion is not an excuse for demeaning others. If your religion teaches that homosexuality is a sin, you're sufficiently at odds with civil society that you should consider either home-schooling or education at a private school.

The schools are a perilous place in which to play out our society's fiercest social debates.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Brendan Eich and tolerance

William Saletan's commentary on the Brendan Eich episode was "billboarded" elsewhere on Slate as, "The Excuses for Purging Brendan Eich are the Old Excuses for Firing Gays".
Losing your job for being gay is different from losing your job for opposing gay marriage. Unlike homosexuality, opposition to same-sex marriage is a choice, and it directly limits the rights of other people. But the rationales for getting rid of Eich bear a disturbing resemblance to the rationales for getting rid of gay managers and employees. He caused dissension. He made colleagues uncomfortable. He scared off customers. He created a distraction. He didn’t fit.
I don't agree with Eich's position on same-sex marriage (though I still think there was a way to avoid the same-sex marriage fight). From what I've read he hasn't disavowed his views. However, should keeping your job be conditioned on your politics? Shouldn't that really depend on your job performance?

In fact, in a different piece Saletan wrote that Eich had pledged to uphold Mozilla's existing progressive policies. Shouldn't he have been given time to live up to his promise?

Suppose Eich is bigoted against homosexuals. Does that automatically disqualify him from running the company?

We all struggle against our prejudices, or at least we would if we knew what they were, which a lot of us don't. You ought to be very careful before you declare that what a person believes is, on its own, a reason to act. It's what the person does that matters. I relish lambasting Paula Deen not because she's a bigot, but because she ruthlessly takes advantage of her fans. I detest Hobby Lobby's David Green not because of his views, but because he insists that his views trump his employees' legal rights.

Some people claim that Mozilla is a uniquely progressive company, and an avowedly anti-gay bias does disqualify Eich for the job. Maybe so. Maybe the Eich episode will be viewed as the unique reaction of a unique company (and its employees and customers) to the circumstances. I worry, though, that this won't be the view of those who, while they currently oppose same-sex marriage, might have been persuaded over time to shed their doubts and/or fears. Instead, they'll be driven into the arms of the blindly intolerant, lengthening the time it will take to marginalize mindless prejudice.

Attitudes on same-sex marriage — heck, attitudes toward non-heterosexuals generally — have changed more swiftly than most of us could have imagined merely a decade ago. It wouldn't hurt if those of us on the right side of history showed a little generosity of spirit, and forgave some of the less egregious trespasses of our ideological opponents. It's more than a lot of them showed us, but meeting antagonism with more antagonism isn't going to bring them around. And that's what we want, right?

[UPDATE: Conor Friedersdorf is similarly dismayed by the Eich spectacle, but he's more eloquent and covers the ground more thoroughly.]

[EDIT: Removed a spurious "not" that reversed the whole sense of the third sentence in the second-to-last paragraph.]

Colbert will succeed Letterman

David Letterman announced last week that he would be retiring no later than sometime in 2015. For about a week, everyone has been wondering who would take his place in the 11:35 time slot. Now we know it will be Stephen Colbert.

Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter says what we Colbert fans have known all along: Colbert is a fantastic replacement for the at-one-time-groundbreaking, now iconic Letterman. That, however, is little consolation for me.

It's possible that I'll follow my current routine of watching Stewart, then Colbert, with the only change being to pick up the remote sometime between 11:30 and 11:35. But what if Comedy Central finds a replacement for Colbert who's equally compelling? I admit, it seems unlikely. Still, who knows who's lurking in obscurity, just waiting for this chance to break out?

The other questions, of course, are whether Colbert will succeed in his new gig, and if he does, whether I'll still want to watch him.

As to the first, Colbert is an immensely talented, bright man. I don't believe he'll flop, unless he's the victim of overblown expectations.

The better question is whether what he'll be doing at CBS will interest me. The Big 3 network late-night shows are still very much in the Carson vein. Even if the host is on fire, the guests are unlikely to be anywhere near as good and the subject matter, pop culture, is stultifyingly dull night after night. Part of the allure of Stewart/Colbert is that they book a far wider variety of guests from many backgrounds: art, literature, science, sports, and politics, in addition to a smattering of TV, movie and music stars. I doubt Colbert will enjoy the same freedom of booking at CBS. And if he ends up doing a variant on what Fallon and Kimmel do, it won't keep my attention no matter how much better he does it.

I always knew we were — oops: still are — witnessing TV history in the making with the Stewart/Colbert pairing. It's a one-two punch as potent as the legendary CBS Saturday night lineups of the 1970s, icons back-to-back. I also knew, intellectually, it wouldn't last forever. Yet I'm already a little in mourning that it'll be over in less than a year.

Ah well. Nobody deserves the big chair more than Colbert.

(And as Goodman snarkily observed, "NBC, take note. This is what an orderly transfer of power looks like.")

Saturday, April 5, 2014

More classy behavior from Paula

I didn't think I'd be mentioning the self-absorbed food celebrity Paula Deen again after I said "good riddance" to her and accused her of lacking a conscience last year. Wouldn't you know, though, she finds herself in comment-worthy hot water again: her brother closed his restaurant, Uncle Bubba's, without warning. Employees were given two weeks' severance and vacation pay, and were referred to other area restaurants that might be hiring.

Deen's company, Paula Deen Enterprises, reportedly gave the restaurant significant financial backing, so she had to have been involved in the decision to close. Thus once again we're left to ask, what does this say about Deen herself?

The official excuse given for the closing was that Deen's brother, Bubba Hiers, wanted to "explore development options for the waterfront property on which the restaurant is located", according to the HuffPo piece. That's not an unforeseeable accident for which an owner can be excused for not giving employees a heads-up.

Business owners screw employees over all the time, but Deen's personal brand is built around her kindly, folksy persona. That persona doesn't jibe with what her brother did to his employees. If you cared about the folks working for you, you'd tell them in advance that you were planning to close your doors.

Deen's not her brother's keeper, of course, but she did set him up in the business, so her brand is implicated. Her reputation will suffer yet again. I think it's altogether right that she should take more PR lumps: the unexpected closing, apparently in order to make more profitable use of the land, is in keeping with her propensity for profiteering. She has earned these wallops to her reputation many times over.

Anyway, it's not like this episode will have lasting repercussions. The world was already divided into "her fans" and "the rest of us". The rest of us washed our hands of her last year (or earlier), while her fans continue to be blind to her unsavory opportunism. She would have to be proved guilty of child abuse to be in any danger of losing her base.

So no worries, Paula. Stay the classy lady you've shown yourself to be.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Fuck Salon

I like Salon's articles. But I'm no longer going to read them. Not unless I hear it has issued a very big, very public apology for foisting auto-playing ads on us. It's jarring as hell for a ridiculously loud ad to jump out of your speakers when you're just trying to read a fucking article.

Fuck you, Salon, for your greed and total disregard for your readers.

Our bought-and-paid-for Court

On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court struck down many campaign contribution limits in its ruling on McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. The so-called conservatives carried the day. As with many "conservative" decisions, the result is the very opposite of "conservative" in its true sense.

The majority's argument is that the First Amendment presented an insuperable obstacle to the laws that kept Shaun McCutcheon from donating as much as he wanted to election campaigns. Speech, in the form of money, simply can't be denied.

If you buy the premise of the majority's argument, that money is speech, it's nearly impossible to argue with it. Nor need the argument stop there: in his concurrence, Justice Thomas openly called any contribution limits unconstitutional. None of the other Justices signed on to his concurrence, but I doubt the other conservatives refuse to countenance the idea.

Yet most of us instinctively reject the majority's reasoning. And while I'm usually suspicious of the so-called wisdom of the masses, this time I think we're on to something, something the Court deliberately ignored and hoped we wouldn't notice.

You don't need to be a political scholar or historian to know that money corrupts governments. Unscrupulous politicians already can peddle themselves to the highest bidder so brazenly that it gets the attention of the F.B.I. (California is reeling from a messy corruption scandal right now), and that's with the remnants of some anticorruption laws on the books. How much worse will things get now that many of those laws have been rendered facially invalid under McCutcheon?

The corrupting influence of money was but one evil contemplated by the founding generation. They designed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to make government less susceptible to those evils. That overarching purpose is what the McCutcheon majority ignores.

Why did James Madison, and the Congress of 1789 that ratified most of his Bill of Rights, think freedom of speech was so important? Clearly, they wanted more speech, more debate, more argument, more commerce in the marketplace of ideas — all so as to educate and to enlighten the electorate as much as possible. Today, we unquestioningly accept that a vigorous exchange of viewpoints is the only way to secure good government.

It's that second part, about securing good government, that the First Amendment absolutists, along with those who want us to equate money with speech, would have us forget. (I notice you aren't bleating about originalism and the Founders in this context, Nino.) The First Amendment isn't valuable for its own sake. Rather, the First Amendment, like all the other elements of the Constitution, is a rule that exists to serve the underlying goal of the whole project: good government.

The Constitution exists to secure good government. That is the unwritten standard against which every innovation of governance must be judged.

And the definitely novel idea that "money is speech" is completely at odds with good governance.

We all instinctively understand that neither yelling nor incessantly repeating something makes it a better idea. To the extent that money is used to amplify one voice and to drown out others, money prevents the marketplace of ideas from being useful. By the same reasoning, to the extent that money allows one candidate to monopolize the avenues of communication with the electorate, making it difficult for other candidates and opinions to find an audience, money doesn't serve the primary good of securing good government.

(Money also corrupts politicians after they've been elected. That, too, makes good government impossible.)

So money is not (always) speech: that's too simplistic a principle. Yet without that principle, the McCutcheon decision (and Citizens United) cannot stand.

But of course, these decisions do stand. They will stand unless we undertake the arduous project of amending our Constitution to disavow the pernicious idea at their heart, that money is speech. An amendment is not just the least difficult solution, it's the only solution.

What about the Court, or rather, the majority in this and Citizens United and the other decisions stating the principle that money is speech? Does the Court have any responsibility to keep our government from disappearing beneath a fetid cesspool of big money wielded by a handful of very big contending interests?

The Court sees its role as deciding whether the nation's laws are consistent with the Constitution. The argument could therefore be made that the unwritten standard of securing good government, being literally not written into the Constitution, is and must always be beyond the Court's consideration. One could further (and justly) argue that it would be the height of folly to allow nine unelected judges to decide what is good government.

Yet what are we to make of an institution that purports to safeguard our Constitutional rights, but fatally weakens the government that exists to give those rights meaning?

The Court occasionally resorts to "common sense" to justify its conclusions. I haven't read McCutcheon yet, but I confidently predict that "common sense" is not mentioned. The decision is anything but sensible. It has handed our elections over to the highest bidders, and the majority knows that. (So does the minority, to be sure.)

Perhaps the sale of elections doesn't trouble the majority because those blindly partisan Justices long ago prostituted themselves to Big Money. That, at least, is the simplest explanation for their outrageous betrayal of our political system.

[EDIT: corrected McCutcheon's first name, from "Shane" to "Shaun"]