Friday, May 30, 2014

Shinseki resigns

Eric Shinseki tendered his resignation as Secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department to the President.

The more I've heard about the VA, the less it seems like Shinseki was the root of the problem. He inherited a dysfunctional mess of a department. Firing him — sorry, "his resignation" — will not magically fix things. As USC professor of public administration Catherine G. Burke noted in a piece written prior to Shinseki's resignation,

A new secretary, even after the staggeringly long time it would take for nomination and confirmation, will take months more to learn who is who in the department: who is trustworthy, who is or is not competent, and which systems are the root cause of the problems. No one gets four stars without being extraordinarily capable; thus Shinseki may actually be the best person to identify the sources of the problems and to get them fixed.
If anybody, especially the blame-first, ask-questions-later Congresscritters who hopped aboard the stomp-Shineski bus, had any proof that Shinseki wasn't trying to fix things, or was even making things worse, I could see the point in dumping him. If there were a bureaucratic Superman waiting in the wings to solve the VA's problems, I could see the point in dumping him. As things stand, though, I think Burke's right: the best-case scenario is that any real effort to fix the VA has been set back by months or years. (As a side note, remember that it was Shinseki who correctly forecast the effort it would take to carry out the G. W. Bush administration's tragically misguided war in Iraq. He was derided by Rumsfeld, but that's one reason we consider Rumsfeld a blind, ideologically captured tool, isn't it? Shinseki has demonstrated he can think clearly and cogently, and surely deserves his four stars.)

Maybe he should have had more on the ball. Maybe he should have known more and done more. Or maybe the rest of us are too quick to look for easy scapegoats. There are too many unanswered questions about why the VA is in the sorry shape it's in to take comfort or satisfaction from Shinseki's ousting. I have little confidence that the idiot lawmakers who led the mob calling for his scalp have either the wit or tha steadfastness it will take to fix things. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some of them were complicit in allowing it to happen. They remind me of Claude Rains' Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca — "shocked, shocked" by the perfidy of the establishment, but anxious to conceal their own dirty hands.

It's at times like this that I throw up my hands in exasperation at our society's shortsightedness, impatience and thoughtlessness. No wonder we have so many intractable social problems.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Congress and blame

The disgraceful backlog at Veterans Affairs hospitals around the country has achieved a high enough profile in the national conversation that Congresscritters are sitting up and paying attention. A number of them have called for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Shinseki may or may not bear responsibility, wholly or in part, for the situation. That's the problem with calling for his resignation: we don't know if he's responsible. What good will it do to force Shinseki out if he's not part of the problem?

In fact, the problems ar the VA are so widespread that I can only see two possible underlying reasons for them: either a systemic culture of corruption and lying, or a shortfall of resources.

If the culture is rotten, Shinseki should be the first (but not the last) to go.

However, if the VA simply hasn't been given the resources it needs, the problem isn't with Shinseki. It's with Congress and its unwillingness to fund government services at proper levels. Funny how we don't hear Congress talking about that.

Fairness dictates we wait for the VA Inspector General's report. However, since some members of Congress have seen fit to demand action without knowing what's going on, I will, too.

I don't believe the VA's culture is that rotten. It's a lot easier to believe that the VA is underfunded and understaffed as a direct result of Congress' refusal to do its job.

"The common clay of the new West"

The ThinkProgress piece's title is, "'Cliven Bundy is my hero', says Nevada Congressional Candidate".
She described legislation that the Nevada State Legislature was considering that aimed to “transfer” federal land to Nevada. “It’s time that we are not longer serfs on the land in the State of Nevada. It is time that we become sovereign in our own state, our own sovereign state. It is long past time. We are not the servants of the BLM.”
Ah yes, it's spring and the kooks are blooming.

Actually, Janine Hansen, Bundy's newest fangirl, isn't a kook. She is, however, an abysmal ignoramus who has never learned to share. That's the problem with so many on the far, far right: they never learned that personal freedom is never absolute, that there are limits on what you can do and that there must be limits if we are to coexist peacefully. That's why the Bureau of Land Management exists. Hell, that's why government exists.

Bundy and Hansen would probably call their attitude "libertarian" or "laissez-faire". I consider libertarianism to be a synonym for selfishness so I'm inclined to lump them into that category. What's unquestionably true is, their attitude is infantile.

This is what the Bundys of the world are saying to the rest of us: "You won't let me do what I want on land that belongs to everyone! You're tyrannical meanies! Waaaah!"

If only Bundy and his supporters would just hold their breath til they turn blue.

I'm reminded of a sage observation by a respected filmmaker:

You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know ... morons.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Isla Vista shooter and gun control

A trope making its way around so-called liberal outlets (TV and online) these days is that the Isla Vista shooter is the latest poster-boy for gun control. Clearly, the argument goes, this guy should never have been allowed to buy guns.

In retrospect, that's an easy call to make. Elliot Rodger, based just on his publicized video and writings, was a time bomb and an omniscient, objective observer would have scotched his every attempt to acquire anything more dangerous than a cotton swab.

Of course, no such observer exists. Rodger was smart enough to glide past his brushes with the authorities, so he didn't trigger any of the legal tripwires that would have kept him from buying guns. The laws, and the law enforcement and mental health infrastructure supporting them, worked as well as anyone could expect. Rodger hid his agenda effectively enough that unless we investigated thoughtcrime, Rodger's unfitness to own anything more lethal than the aforementioned cotton swab could not have been discovered.

So I'm going to reject what I wrote a few days ago:

We will never be able to stop all those who are troubled from lashing out.

We might, however, be able to make it harder for them to hurt as many people as they can right now because gun ownership carries such low barriers.

To use the Isla Vista rampage as a rallying cry for greater gun control is a bad tactic. Rodger was a deeply, deeply troubled young man who was cunning enough to fool everybody tasked with keeping this sort of thing from happening. The kind of gun control one would have to advocate to prevent a rampage like Rodger's wouldn't be so much gun control as people control.

Better gun control laws are sorely needed. However, even the best such laws would not have stopped Elliot Rodger. The only kind of "gun control" that would have stopped him would have been to make firearms illegal for private ownership. That may be your preferred solution, but it's a fantasy for right now.

I hope we get past the flawed, reductionist thinking that makes this rampage all about guns, and start asking ourselves about how we might intervene (without shredding our right to privacy, which I believe in even if certain far-right Supreme Court Justices do not) before the next Elliot Rodger comes along.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The most recent shooter

A young man went on a shooting rampage near the Univerity of California, Santa Barbara. Seven young people, including the shooter, are dead.

The gunman was described by police as "polite".

One fellow student was interviewed on TV and said "It's the quiet ones you need to worry about." She also said there was no sign the shooter was a threat. I presume she didn't see the now-infamous YouTube video with his deeply disturbed remarks.

Well, of course he seemed polite to police. Of course he exhibited no signs to fellow students of his inner turmoil. Why would a deeply troubled, self-loathing young man confess his inner turmoil to strangers? Why would he regard his fellow students as anything but strangers?

Newsflash, people: those who are alienated and desperately lonely aren't going to confide in you that they're alienated and lonely!

This is not really about gun rights or gun control, but I can't help remarking to those who clamor for greater attention to mental-health problems: those who suffer from such problems are the last ones who are going to tell you they're in trouble. Ergo, the call to address the mentally ill rather than fix our too-lax gun ownership standards is misplaced.

We will never be able to stop all those who are troubled from lashing out.

We might, however, be able to make it harder for them to hurt as many people as they can right now because gun ownership carries such low barriers.

[UPDATE: I've rethought that last paragraph. In fact, I've repudiated it. See my next post for why.]

Embarrassed by secularism

According to a recent Atlantic article:
Americans are today more likely to say they would vote for a Muslim or a gay or lesbian for president than an atheist.
I was going to sniff derisively at this assertion, but we'll never be able to test it. No Muslim, gay or lesbian will be a serious presidential candidate in my lifetime.

I say that with sorrow, not joy. God, I am so tired of pandering to the bigots in this benighted nation. Jesus H. Christ, grow up and join the 21st century, you throwbacks.

Questions for open-carry fans

In light of negative responses to fans of open-carry laws attempting to "sensitize" the rest of us to guns being openly carried in public, I can't help feeling, "Shouldn't you guys have seen this coming?"

However, being not opposed to private gun ownership philosophically but completely opposed to the in-your-face tactics of some gun owners, I have to ask fans of open-carry laws:

How the hell are the rest of us supposed to distinguish between you and the assholes who are planning to rob the local jewelry store?

How the hell are the cops supposed to distinguish between "the good guys with guns" and "the bad guys with guns"?

Do you guys understand just how dangerous the world you seek to create really would be?

It sure as hell doesn't seem like you've thought past the end of your nose about how your Second Amendment absolutism will change society as a whole if the rest of us give into you.

For Christ's sake, guys, stop and think about what you're doing.

Maybe if you showed a modicum of good sense, the rest of us wouldn't be so horrified by you and your tactics.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Mass appeal

Mike Huckabee's pissed that Arkansas' gay marriage ban, which he signed into law as the state's governor in 1997, was struck down.
"Judge Chris Piazza, a circuit court judge in my home state of Arkansas, decided that he is singularly more powerful than the 135 elected legislators of the state, the elected Governor, and 75% of the voters of the state. Apparently he mistook his black robe for a cape and declared himself to be 'SUPER LAWMAKER!'" Huckabee wrote. "The dangerous precedent of elected officials allowing one single member of the judicial branch to become Lord God of law is dangerous and unconstitutional."
Huckabee is painfully ignorant of the Constitution. No, actually, it's worse than that: he holds the Constitution in contempt.

If we had wanted the majority to settle everything, we would never have added a Bill of Rights, or even drafted a Constitution. We did both. They enshrine principles against which our laws must be measured. If the laws don't measure up, they've got to go.

I'm sure Huckabee is thrilled with Constitutional safeguards when they protect the rights of Christians. He just can't accept that others might have that same privilege. He's as free to be a hypocrite as the next guy, but being a hypocrite kind of eliminates his credibility.

Huckabee's transparently self-interested tantrum over this ruling reminds us yet again that his appeal is rooted in our instinct to comfort a crying baby. But while we respond to the caterwauling, we don't ask the baby's opinion. We only solicit the opinions of grown-ups.

Maybe one day, Mike Huckabee will join our ranks.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Keep private conversations private

A couple more supposed private conversations with Donald Sterling have been released.

Are they genuine? I doubt it. But if they are, it's time to go after the schumucks who recorded and released them. Sterling's being a pariah doesn't excuse violating California law.

Wilmore snags Colbert's slot

Larry Wilmore is taking over the Daily Show follow-on slot, per the Hollywood Reporter.

Oh boy. Assuming Wilmore writes the bits he performs on the Daily Show and will bring the same comic sensibility to his new show, The Minority Report, I'll be hard-pressed to keep the habit of Colbert at 11:30. With respect and much affection for Colbert, I now hope his CBS show won't be as interesting (much less indispensable) as The Colbert Report: I don't have that much time to devote to late-night TV.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Kochs and secrecy

I don't like Sheldon Adelson's politics, but from what I can see, he at least doesn't try to hide how much money he spends on advocating his views. (I'm open to being proven wrong on that score.)

Why are the Koch brothers so allergic to others knowing how much they spend on advocating their views?

Could it be that they know just how unpopular, how downright detested, their views are?

The Topeka Capital-Journal ran a piece yesterday, "AFP state leader admits link to group opposing renewable energy law".

The Kansas Senior Consumer Alliance was formed shortly before the final House vote and sent mailers featuring concerned seniors staring at their energy bills to constituents of some Republican House members.
Reporters and targeted politicians wanted to know how this group came to be, given its high-profile, last-minute campaign tactic.

The creation of the new group was a bit tangled. W. Robert Alderson, the lawyer who filed the paperwork that created the group, initially said he had been "engaged by Americans for Prosperity". He later said that statement was a mistake. Since it had been the leader of the Kansas branch of AFP, Jeff Glendening, who had asked him to form the new group, Alderson said he wrongly assumed his client was AFP. Glendening himself claimed to have been a liaison for the Kansas Senior Consumer Alliance's actual founder, Virginia Crossland-Macha.

Alderson also said he shouldn't have discussed whom he was representing at all. That's probably true. What the slip revealed, though, wasn't just Glendening's involvement in the group's creation. It also showed the utter bogusness of Glendening's attempt to deflect responsibility from himself and AFP.

If you know nothing else about lawyers, you should know — odds are, you do know — that the one piece of information they always, always nail down before they do anything is the identity of their client.

Whose interests are you representing? Who's paying you? If you don't know those two things, you could be on your way to ethics charges and disbarment on the one hand, and/or personal bankruptcy on the other.

Glendening's story is the biggest crock.

The only plausible explanation for what happened is, Alderson correctly understood that the new group was being formed at the behest of AFP. However, Glendening never intended for that inconvenient truth to come out. The paperwork had an acquaintance's name as the new group's leader, but that was just a fig leaf whose flimsiness was never supposed to become public knowledge.

Oops.

The Kochs' well-known political action arm, Americans for Prosperity, itself spent $100,000 in media ads to defeat the renewable-energy provisions. Why didn't they spend a bit more to send out the mailers attributed to the so-called senior advocacy group?

Obviously, the Kochs didn't want to take the credit for the mailer. Or rather, the blame.

They wanted to pretend somebody else supported their cause.

They wanted to pretend somebody else was responsible for scaring seniors with utter bullshit.

They wanted to pretend their cause wasn't deeply reprehensible, greedy and destructive to the environment and to humanity's long-term well-being.

The Kochs love to hide how they spend their money because they know how much the rest of us hate the causes they espouse.

A lesson for North Korea

In a tirade, North Korea's Central News Agency called President Obama "a monkey".

That's just sad.

NK acts like its insults mean something in polite company. Ehh, not really. You want your gibbering to hurt? Build a time machine and go back a century.

NK, you desperately want attention. We get that. But you should take a lesson from Boko Haram. Kidnap a few hundred girls, threaten to sell them on the open market, and boom! Instant world attention.

Oh, but BH kidnapped Nigerians. That makes it largely a Nigerian internal matter. You guys could kidnap a bunch of North Korean girls, but judging by the blind eye the world has turned to your existing human rights abuses, the BH tactic wouldn't cut it for you. You guys would have to kidnap non-North Koreans — and if you did that it wouldn't be so much "attention-getting" as "war-mongering".

I guess there's no lesson for you guys after all. Well, other than "you're kind of pathetic".

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Returning the money

The headline: "NAACP returning all donations made by Donald Sterling".

I get why the president of the NAACP's L.A. branch had to resign: the man sold the NAACP's credibility. But why return the donations?

To burnish Sterling's reputation in return for his cash, that would have been repellent (and at this point, incendiary). However, the NAACP is dedicated to fighting the very racism that all but exudes from Sterling's pores. What could have been more fitting than to take his money and put it to a use that would gall him?

About those ancestral rights ...

Cliven Bundy already has taken up way, way more of my mindspace and time than he deserves, but I had to mention a piece in the Nation that demolishes his "ancestral rights" claim to the land on which he has been illegally grazing his cattle.
“My forefathers,” he has said, “have been up and down the Virgin Valley here ever since 1877. All these rights that I claim have been created through pre-emptive rights and beneficial use of the forage and the water and the access and range improvements.” A simple search of Clark county property records by KLAS-TV, a Las Vegas television station, however, revealed that his family had purchased the ranch in 1948 and had only begun grazing cattle on it in 1954—eight years after the founding of the BLM. KLAS reporters also received a map from the Moapa band of Paiute Indians showing how the land the Bundy ranch is on was promised to them by federal treaty.
Picking up on that last point, writer Jacqueline Keeler continues:
As a Native American, I find Bundy’s late-nineteenth-century claims of “ancestral rights” presumptuous, since by law all remaining pre-emptive rights in Nevada belong not to late arrivals like the Bundy family but to tribes that have lived in the region for thousands of years.
Keeler is remarkably restrained. The colossal hypocrisy and gall of Bundy's "ancestral rights" claim is breath-taking.

Then again, he is so ignorant that it shouldn't surprise me he not only cares nothing, but knows nothing, about better claims to "his" land. Common criminals like him often have the problem of being really, really ignorant.

Fox lashes out

Fox News — more specifically, Fox & Friends — didn't like Scientific American editor Michael Moyer's allegation that a F&F producer squelched Moyer's request to discuss slimate change. So how did the program respond? It called on its viewers to tweet at Moyer "if they didn't like the way he handled his appearance".

Moyer himself may have overstated his case against the network: he said that in response to his request, "a producer had sent him an email specifically asking, 'can we replace the climate change with something else?'" That's not a very forceful denial.

Moyer's climate-change complaint probably wasn't the real provocation. It's more likely Fox News didn't care for Moyer's other disgruntled tweets claiming "Every single segment was anti-Obama agitprop" and "Everyone's in a bubble [at Fox News]".

If you worked at Fox News, these tweets would probably have gotten under your skin, too. Moyer could have shown a little restraint, especially since his tweets didn't exactly tell us anything we didn't already know about the network. His impoliteness, however, is no excuse for siccing the mob on him.

It's one thing to call for communicating en masse to a big organization (Fox News, for instance). It's another to tell your big organization — or the followers of your big organization — to go after one person. That's not cute or funny. That's bullying.

Fox News' encouragement, nay, instigation, of bullying is of a piece with the corrosive resentment it stokes in its audience. Fox wants that audience to feel maligned and victimized. It's the most despicable kind of propagandizing.

Was Fox News genuinely irritated by Moyer's criticism? Did it see an opportunity to whip its audience up, just to keep the outrage simmering? Both? Whatever the reason, its call to action was irresponsible and abusive.

I guess we know how the bully reacts to a little criticism.