Archive for the ‘Domestic issues’ Category

Bloomberg: How To Use Immigration Policy to Save Detroit

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Three thoughts regarding this suggestion by Mayor Bloomberg on Meet the Press yesterday morning:

1) This is exactly the sort of sensible, pragmatic suggestion that Bloomberg is known for — that is business-focused but would never get through any Democratic or Republican legislature because of the anti-immigrant backlash.  But it’s a good idea — and one grounded in the American tradition — as Matt Yglesias explained a year ago — similar to the homesteading policies that the U.S. used to encourage settlers to move West. Which leads me to my next point.

2) When I heard Bloomberg say this, I thought: “Aha! I wonder if he reads Matt Yglesias too!” Probably a silly thought — as Bloomberg spends his days focused on urban policy. But when I first heard Bloomberg say it, I had thought this was one of Yglesias’s many excellent ideas — but as I read his original post, it was instead one of the many interesting ideas that Yglesias brings to his audience from other sources.

3) Bloomberg’s approach to government is so successful because it is pragmatic and businesslike. But this comment also reveals what he misses. He uses the rather obnoxious line that any business run as the government is would fail. Of course! That’s part of why we have a government — to perform tasks that aren’t profitable but are still necessary. Bloomberg explains how politicians fail to act like businessmen by focusing on “issues they can’t come together on.” For a company, it makes a lot of sense to steer your company away from any matter on which their isn’t agreement. But politics is precisely where these ideas are hashed out. Of course, the tendency of some purists to insist on halting all action until the other side gives in needs to be balanced with the pragmatism that all successful businessmen and politicians have in common.

AT&T Is Asking Us To Trust Them

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

Earlier this week, I noticed a bit of traffic hitting an old post of mine about AT&T’s unlikely sponsorship of libertarian ideologues as they attempt to stop net neutrality. (Unlikely given their history of constantly pleading for government intervention in their favor.) I followed the source to the AT&T’s forum but could find no link leading back to my rather critical post about AT&T.

So, today, I decided to check on what had happened. I didn’t see any easy way to contact the people posting or the moderators, so I posted myself asking if anyone knew what had happened. Tifa_Shines “answered” my question by censoring my link as “spam.”

Her message to me justifying her censorship said:

Links to material that contains political discussion and/or promotion of third party websites are violating the guidelines and will be removed.

And further that it is “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” to:

discuss[...] participant bans or other Moderator actions

I replied thanking her for “answering” my question — and that post was subsequently deleted. In my 5 minutes as a member of AT&T’s Community Forum, I discovered at least 2 rules:

  • Thou shalt not discuss the political activities AT&T engages in rather than providing decent service.
  • Thou shalt not discuss when AT&T censors you so as better to maintain the fiction of a ‘Community’ Forum.

Knowing that links AT&T, for whatever their reason, did not approve of were labeled “not relevant” and “spam,” I went back to the original page that was the source of traffic and found the offending, censored post — attempting to put AT&T’s bandwidth caps in the context of it’s efforts to fight net neutrality and their history of attacking every innovation from the Hush-A-Phone to the internet in their quest to create “the perfect system” without being distracted by that terrible thing called competition, and coincidentally, extracting the maximum profit from their customers.

In the scheme of things, the injustice of this censorship is rather small. AT&T is a private company and they can do whatever they want in a private forum that they run. Even the Westboro Baptist Church has rights.

But AT&T, by opposing net neutrality, is asking that we as a people trust them to not censor the internet.

They are asking for permission to change the structure of the internet by violating one of it’s foundational principles — net neutrality. (A principle that AT&T coincidentally opposed when government scientists were attempting to create the internet in the 1950s.)

They are asking that we trust them to not make websites that disagree with them slower and making those they approve of faster.

They are asking that we trust them as an ISP to provide access to content that criticizes them.

They are asking that we trust them not to quash the next disruptive technology that will use the internet in ways we haven’t yet thought of or that will be even better than the internet.

Their sordid history of pleading for special favors from the government to destroy any opponent or innovator (as detailed in many places, but most memorably and recently, in Tim Wu’s The Master Switch) – and their attempts to strangle the internet before it even existed — gives us little reason to trust them.

Their bankrolling of former libertarian economists and thinkers such as Adam D. Thierer (who before they sold out were vicious critics of AT&T) to lie about net neutrality gives us little reason to trust them.

AT&T’s attempts to game the political system with a “slush fund” sponsoring what former VP and Director of Communications, Dick Martin, called “so-called ‘grassroots’ organizations all over the place, astroturfing the countryside” give us little reason to trust them.

That various people AT&T has sponsored (including Grover Norquist) have now joined up with right wing religious fanatics to oppose net neutrality on the grounds that it will prevent the censorship of “obscenity and other objectionable content,” is yet another reason not to trust AT&T.

To summarize, AT&T is making the argument that they should be trusted as a steward of the internet and that the government should not allowed to protect one of the foundational principles of the internet that has made it a libertarian utopia of competition and free markets in the name of…libertarianism. Yet it’s history and current incarnation betray a culture of censorship and anti-competitive behavior that extends down to an Orwellian policing of it’s ‘Community’ Forum — labeling links it disagrees with as “Spam” and forbidding any discussion of it’s own censorship.

If it succeeds in overturning net neutrality, how much longer will it be before any website criticizing them is labeled as spam — just as a link to my blogpost criticizing them was? And how long before any attempt to discuss such labeling will be forbidden as against the user agreement you accept by getting your internet through AT&T?

Mad? Want to do something? Take a moment and email your Congressperson today to tell them how important net neutrality is to you.

Capitalism in Practice

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

I’ve started Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, a history of information industries in America; and having read Ayn Rand’s fictional Atlas Shrugged earlier this year — I wonder what Rand would make of this history of industrial warfare.

One of the motifs of Wu’s history is a theme of Rand’s novel — the extreme lengths the rich and powerful will go to in order to quash a disruptive technology. In the novel, it was Rearden steel — a metal stronger, cheaper, and better in every way than ordinary steel; in Wu’s history, it is every technological innovation from the phone to FM radio to television to the internet. In both history and the novel, the established industry used corrupt scientific experts, intimidation of suppliers, government regulation, and the blocking of financing to prevent the disruptive technology from taking off.

Rand’s novel though divides the everyone into two categories: the productive who are proud, competitive, inventive individuals who make everything of worth; and the looters who are unproductive and seek to leach off of the productive using the government, religion, and pity.

Wu’s history reveals a rather different story. There is no figure in history to match the strong, creative, independent, self-made industrial magnate Dagny Taggart. There are few who resemble her brother, the weak, dependent, self-loathing James Taggart who adds nothing of worth to the business except to plead with the government to stop his competitors because their superiority is unfair,

Only rarely do the inventors become rich. More often, they are outmaneuvered by corporate titans who use every means at their disposal to win. When Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1934, he had pioneered a technology that allowed for better sound quality and that could fit more stations in the same radio spectrum with less interference. David Sarnoff, a major figure in the AM radio industry, was able to prevent FM radio from gaining wide acceptance until the 1970s through a combination of public propaganda, lobbying to change obscure rules relating to radio spectrum usage, and control over the manufacturing of radio players. David Sarnoff managed a vast business empire; he was at the cutting edge of innovations in radio and television. He won not because he was weak and unproductive (as Rand’s villains are) — but because he was ruthless.

Rand’s many fans aren’t typically the creative inventors. They are the very businessmen who see moral justification for their wealth in her philosophy. But they, like the businessmen in Wu’s history, are distinguished not for their purity of motive or love of competition, but their willingness to use any means at their disposal to achieve the corporate empire they seek. Unlike the fictional heroes of Rand’s novel, they do not seek competition. They seek a final victory and end to the competition.

In the theories of Rand and many of her acolytes, capitalism is about competition. In practice, capitalism has about brute strength and force used in restraint of competition.

[Image by Ron Schott licensed under Creative Commons.]

Paul Ryan’s America

Monday, April 18th, 2011

 

Paul Ryan launched an attack on Barack Obama’s deficit speech last week — calling it “excessively partisan.”

Which is interesting considering his own approach to the budget deficit which he called “an existential threat to all we hold dear”: Balance the budget without offending a single Republican.

Over a year ago, I described the conundrum Republicans faced as the deficit they were fuming against was largely a result of policies that benefited their own constituencies. Those over 55 who were the only demographic group to vote Republican (even in the Democratic wave years of 2006 and 2008) benefited the most from the trillion dollars spend on Medicare and Social Security. Our military spending nearly matched the rest of the world’s combined — and if you include other national security spending — totaling another trillion. And then there were the various tax incentives and loopholes for big corporations adding up to another few hundred billion dollars. Further, Republicans were committed to not raising taxes on anyone — especially the richest.

Paul Ryan was faced with the unenviable task of squaring this circle. In an effort that nearly everyone described as “serious,” Ryan managed to put forth a plan with no prospect of passing at all — and one that managed to place the entire burden of balancing the budget on the backs of Democratic constituencies. The military was left alone. The base of the Republican party and driver of most of the debt — the elderly — was left alone. Corporations were rewarded with a lower tax rate with some vague talk of eliminating their enormous tax subsidies.

Though Ryan kept saying the pain of balancing the budget would be shared by everyone — his plan was really about cutting off support for those left behind in our society. The rich and elderly were rewarded — even as they accumulate more and more of the nation’s wealth; the middle class were mainly left alone; and the young and the poor were cut off.

That doesn’t sound like the path to a dynamic and prosperous society to me.

Paul Ryan’s future is one where my generation must be prepared to support our parents as they become the test subjects in the biggest social experiment in history: As Medicare becomes a voucher program growing at much lower than the rate of health care inflation, in the hopes that this will slow it down. Meanwhile, my generation must be saving more than any generation in history as we prepare to pay for our own medical costs.

Ryan’s plan is many things:  If taken seriously, it is an attack on all non-Republican constituencies. If implemented, it would be a grand ideological experiment that barely considers the lives of those it would affect which Republicans would normally call “social engineering.”

But most of all, the Ryan plan is (as Slate‘s John Dickerson said in Friday’s Political Gabfest), a “bold negotiating position.”

[Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore licensed under Creative Commons.]

 

Campbell’s Law

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein both posted today about Campbell’s Law, citing an article by Dana Goldstein in the Daily Beast about corruption in schools under Michelle Rhee’s chancellorship in Washington, D.C.:

In the social sciences, there is an oft-repeated maxim called Campbell’s Law, named after Donald Campbell, a psychologist who studied human creativity. Campbell’s Law states that incentives corrupt. In other words, the more punishments and rewards—such as merit pay—are associated with the results of any given test, the more likely it is that the test’s results will be rendered meaningless, either through outright cheating or through teaching to the test in a way that narrows the curriculum and renders real learning obsolete.

I can think of cooler things that might be called Campbell’s Law — but such as it is, it goes a long way to explaining the flaw in capitalism without enough regulation. Organizing an economy around the pursuit of currency is efficient but not in the way it was intended — as any shortcut or corruption is utilized, as every possible cost is externalized.

It also goes a helps explain — but not as completely — how government tax incentives subsidizing gasoline, corn, middle class mortgages, student loans, and health care costs has led to escalating demand for these resources — seemingly distorting the market more than a direct intervention would. There seems to be something about tax incentives that distorts markets more than direct interventions. (A topic that seems up Matt Yglesias‘s alley to explore.)

On a related note, when taxpayers demand their receipt for government services– it should reflect not only disbursements, but the cost of tax benefits and loopholes.

Right Wing Mythology

Sunday, March 27th, 2011

My normal tack — when seeing a political cartoon like this that is so clearly off-base — is to “Fact-Check” it.

For example, the cartoon might lead you to believe that there was no unemployment compensation in 1950 — but unemployment compensation began in in 1935.

It’s not clear under what program the rich banker is paying for the unhygienic poor man’s mortgage either now or then. Federal housing policy offers tax subsidies to anyone paying a mortgage — which means the man on the right probably receives a bigger subsidy.

The health care point is likewise odd. In the 1950s, there was no Medicaid for the very poor. But everyone who received health insurance from their employer received a tax subsidy [pdf] both then and now.

In terms of subsidizing car ownership — federal and state policies began encouraging car ownership in the 1950s — from zoning laws requiring large amounts of parking to bailouts given to the auto industry to the construction of the federal highway system. The artificially low price of gasoline is another subsidy — as the cost of pollution and of a foreign policy of ensuring stability in the Middle East is borne by the public at large and not factored into the price. As everyone pays for pollution cleanup and foreign policy, this is a redistribution of wealth from those who minimize their use of gas to those who use more than the average. However, the complaint of cartoonist seems to be a tax subsidy given to those who purchase hybrid cars that use less gasoline. Which — though significantly less than the various other subsidies — is apparently the real obscenity.

And of course, the biggest thing the cartoonist is missing between the man on the right in 1950 and the man on the right in 2010: In 1950, the top marginal tax rate was 91%. In 2010, it was 35%. And that 35% doesn’t include all of the tax subsidies that surely would be used to lower the rich man’s tax rate — from tax subsidies for his employer-provided health insurance to any interest on mortgages or student loans or the myriad of other exemptions someone with a good accountant can find. And of course any profits from investments would be taxed at a lower rate– of 15%. Which is why today, the billionaire Warren Buffett pays a lower percentage of his income in taxes than does his secretary.

All of this makes the cartoon all the more revealing — not of the facts, which it does not reflect — but of right-wing mythology. Why does the cartoonist choose 1950 — rather than a time such when his points would have been true such as 1920 or 1890? The answer is simply that no one wants to go back those eras. Those were periods of economic growth, but inherently unstable times — an instability created by the enormous inequality between the top-most and the bottom-most parts of society. Those periods of history are remembered for the top and the bottom. The 1950s though was the era of the great middle class — robust, strong, stable. In the contemporary conservative mythology, the era personifies the American values of family and hard work. Much of the conservative intelligensia’s opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war movement, the sexual revolution, the feminist movement, and the gay rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s came because they saw these movements as a threat to the stability of this status quo.

But the right wing was supported by forces equally opposed to the status quo — who sought a change every bit as dramatic as the radicals of the 1960s sought. Rather than free love, they sought free trade and deregulation. Rather than rights for gays and women, they sought favors for the financial industry. Rather than civil rights for people, they sought corporate rights to influence the political process. Rather than the naive dream of destroying bigotry, they sought the more practical dream of destroying the labor unions.

Since these twin political revolutions, the stability and the strong middle class of the 1950s are remembered with fondness — by mythologists of both the left and right. The conservative argument used to be that radicalism of Civil Rights for women, blacks, gays, and other minorities was what caused the unraveling of this mythological utopia. It has now evolved to blaming the government for redistributing too much to the poor and holding back business with taxes and regulation. The only problem with this story is that the past 60 years have seen a government retreat — with regulations being repealed and failing to keep up with changing times, with taxes having been more than halved, with the rich getting more and more of the wealth and power in the country and the poor less and less.

Which is how you can get a political cartoon such as this — harking back to a flatly false view of an era lost that never was.

The Sheeple of r/libertarian

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

The rantings of a self-proclaimed “Libertarian Asshole” who is so incredibly deluded as to think that the America is approaching something worse than a despotic government — an “Absolute Despotism!” — aren’t generally worth responding to. But I like reddit — and I like libertarians. Which is why I’ve been consistently frustrated with the regressive turn that the /r/libertarian has taken since Obama’s election.

How else to explain the popularity of the Libertarian Asshole’s factually-challenged post blaming “Liberals” for the Bush administration’s regulation being enforced in his story?

As a liberal, let me tell you that stories of government corruption and government idiocy, of victimless crimes prosecuted and overreach make me mad. I believe in good government — and not government and regulation for it’s own sake. I believe a law should not be unjustly applied. Liberals have made a strong showing in opposing regulatory capture – when organized lobbies of special interests (such as optometrists) are able to get a regulatory agency to act against the interests of the public and in favor of the lobby. That’s why liberals have fought against the FCC to allow for more competition on the radio waves and that’s why liberals pointed to the corruption in the Minerals Management Service. That’s why Matt Yglesias — one of the web’s most prominent liberals — focuses so much on opposing rent-seeking and unnecessary regulation. As a liberal, I believe the government is capable of acting in the public interest — but that citizens must always provide a check against the inevitable abuses.

I only state this because in the world of the Libertarian Asshole, the phantom “Liberals” are those who say the “Law’s the Law” as they turned in runaway slaves because they…are like “cheap whores” with no self esteem.

With that brilliant insight into the Liberal mind, this Asshole struck r/libertarian gold — as 268 redditors and counting demonstrate.

——–

One more thing: The Libertarian Asshole apparently wasn’t satisfied with a rather sympathetic story of a businesswoman who was busted for selling decorative contact lenses without prescriptions and made to sell her car.

He had to embellish. And by embellish, I mean, apparently, to lie. A few minutes on Google reveals the following:

  1. Lie: The Libertarian Asshole claims that Da Young Kim, who ran an internet store selling contact lenses, was “arrested” for doing so.
    Fact: The Court records and the FTC’s records both show that this was a “civil complaint” — not a criminal one. No where does the news or any other source support the out-of-the-blue claim that Kim was arrested.
  2. Lie: The Libertarian Asshole claims that the FTC spent “your tax dollars on an undercover sting operation.”
    Fact: There’s nothing in the news or in the record or elsewhere on the web to back this up. None of the evidence presented against Kim was from any sting operation.
  3. Lie: The FTC acted because they believed the internet store run by Da Young Kim “might not be checking every customer’s prescription.”
    Fact: According to the FTC complaint, Kim kept no records of prescriptions at all. This wasn’t a few contact lenses sold without prescription — this was a business plan.

Lies and Facts About the “Ground Zero Mosque”

Wednesday, August 25th, 2010

There has always been a strain in American politics of paranoia and intolerance grounded in the suspicion of people who are different from what we know, who seem to have a set of values we are not familiar with: beginning with the Masons, then the Catholics, Jewish bankers, Communists, gays, and now Muslims. A prominent  scholar, Richard Hofstadter, writing in the 1960s, explained these suspicions were fed by very similar conspiracy theories involving hidden agents of foreign powers insinuating themselves into American society while attempting to destroy it. These conspiracy theorists made their cases in similar ways, relying on in-depth citations to obscure tracts proving half-truths and outright falsehoods as well as the “confessions” of former members of the conspiracy. Yet the facts presented by these people were seen as ridiculous by those with personal knowledge of the targeted group, even as they were seen as plausible by those who were ignorant on the matter. Politicians and writers who knew better often attempted to use these suspicious ginned up by these false claims to further their own political ends.

Regarding Catholics, for example, Jesuit priests were said to be “prowling” the countryside “in every possible disguise”  including as puppeteers to propagandize children. Nuns were said to take a vow of obedience to perform any sexual act a priest would demand. The pope was said to have the power to command any Catholic to do his will. All of this was seen as part of a vast plot to overthrow American democracy and replace it with a vassal state of the Vatican. Questions were raised regarding the funding of Catholic churches, hospitals, and schools. Anyone with a passing knowledge of Catholics or Catholicism could see how ridiculous this was: And yet, the Founding Fathers were casually anti-Catholic (or as they would call it anti-papist); and the best selling book of the pre-Civil War period next to Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an anti-Catholic memoir called Awful Disclosures by a woman who claimed to have escaped from a life of sexual slavery in a nunnery.

It was due to these rumors fueled by and fueling anti-Catholic bigotry that priests in Manhattan were subject to arrest and no Catholic Church was allowed to be built until St. Peter’s, just a block from the World Trade Center, was, in the 1780s as Mayor Bloomberg explained. President Millard Fillmore used anti-Catholicism as a political tool and later attempted to run for office as a member of the vehemently anti-Catholic Know Nothing Party. President U.S. Grant saw Catholic schools as unpatriotic and driven by “superstition, ambition and greed.” Anti-Catholicism was used against Alfred Smith’s opponents as he ran for president in 1928 and memorably against John F. Kennedy as the famous Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale declared in an essay for Newsweek, “Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake.”

It is hard not to see the parallels between this anti-Catholic bigotry and the claims of the most ardent opponents of the Ground Zero Mosque who regard the billion Muslims in the world as members of a cult which funds a conspiracy of sleeper cells waiting and working to destroy American democracy from within.

While the hardcore Islamophobes are the ones who have fanned the suspicions of many otherwise sensible Americans, they have only gained credibility as political and opinion leaders who should know better attempt to use these suspicious for their own end. They seek to play on the ignorance of the American public. About the Cordoba House, they have lied and told half-truths repeatedly, when they should have known better.

In light of this, I present a list of claims checked and evaluated about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Claim #1: A Lie: Ground Zero Mosque.
People Who Should Know Better: Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and almost every opponent who has commented on the matter.

The proposed Cordoba House is not located at Ground Zero. It is 2 blocks away located in a former Burlington Coat Factory which has been used as a prayer space by this imam for years. It has no view of Ground Zero. It is not “overlooking” the site. It is not “towering” over the site. A 13-story building in Lower Manhattan is typical. If you’re familiar with Lower Manhattan, you have some idea of how dense the neighborhood is and how distant each street feels from even the next street over given the narrow roads and cavernous buildings all around. To quibble for a moment though, the building proposed for Park 51 is not even a “mosque” but is modeled on the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, whose rabbi is close with Imam Rauf and his wife, and includes a swimming pool, an interfaith center, a gym, as well as a prayer room.

The branding of the community center in Downtown Manhattan that would include a prayer room as the “Ground Zero Mosque” started with right-wing, Islamophobe blogger Pamela Geller (See footnote) and did not enter the national conversation due to opposition among those in the area it was being being built. Rather it became front page news after Sarah Palin tweeted for “Peaceful Muslims” to “refudiate” the “Ground Zero Mosque.”

Claim  #2: A Lie: Opening date: September 11, 2011.
People Who Should Know Better: NY Post columnist Andrea PeyserPat Condell, along with many other blogs and commentators.

The Corboba House and its imam have both denied they ever planned on opening the mosque on September 11, 2011. In fact, that date would never have been feasible given that after all the necessary approvals were received, the project would take between 18 to 48 months to complete.

Update: A redditor, azdiscovery, sent me a link to an Associated Press story that may have served as the genesis of this claim in which Imam Rauf’s wife seems to have mentioned the possibility of a groundbreaking “later this year” (meaning September 11, 2010) on the tenth anniversary of September 11 (meaning September 11, 2011). Clearly some sort of an error regarding the date there. And the passage is not attributed as a quotation. But somehow, various opponents transformed this into an entirely false claim that the opening of the Cordoba House was scheduled for September 11, 2011 representing some sort of Islamic triumphalism.

Claim  #3: A Lie By Insinuation: Questions About Funding.
People Who Should Know Better: Republican candidate for NY Governor Rick Lazio; former NY Governor George Pataki; my own Congressman, Republican Pete King;
Glenn Beck.

Many opponents of the Cordoba House have prominently insisted they are just “asking questions” about who is funding the project. This tactic is often used by the conspiratorial-minded. 9/11 Truthers for example “often maintain they are simply ‘raising questions’.” Glenn Beck has made a career out of such questioning with this method being ably mocked by the satirical website that was created  “to try and help examine the vicious rumour that Glenn Beck raped and murdered a young girl in 1990,” but that asking the probing question: “Why won’t Glenn Beck deny these allegations?”

Other opponents have gone as far as to claim that Cordoba House has refused to reveal who was funding it while insinuating it was Hamas, Iran, Al Qaeda, etc. In fact, to date “the developers [have] raised so little money, there [is] nothing to investigate: the most recent government filings show the organization has about $18,000.” Park51 itself has stated: “We have not launched our fundraising campaign.” They further guaranteed, “We will hire security consultants to assist us in the process of reviewing potential financiers and philanthropists. We will refuse assistance from any persons or institutions who are flagged by our security consultants or any government agencies.” These “questions” raised by opponents are a cynical attempt to plant blatantly false information that will incite outrage in your average American. They call them questions while they are merely insinuations which they call questions because they have no evidence to back them up but want to plant the seeds of misinformation.

Claim  #4: A Lie: The Name Cordoba Was Chosen As Because It Is “A Symbol of Islamic Conquest.
People Who Should Know Better:
Newt Gingrich; though subsequently repeated by many blogs and commentators.

Beware those who claim to know the secret reasoning of their opponents. Newt Gingrich wrote, “It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex.” (Newt apparently got his history lesson wrong in terms of the mosque at Cordoba’s significance in Islamic history.)

But more important: Imam Rauf himself explained that the caliphate in Cordoba represented, for “its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic, and tolerant society on earth” in which all three Abrahamic religions coexisted. This was the traditional view of Cordoba, though some revisionist historians have disputed this interpretation – but this is clearly the camp in which Rauf allies himself.

Claim  #5: A Lie: Imam Rauf Is An Extremist and Terrorist Sympathizer.
People Who Should Know Better: Sarah Palin;
Newt Gingrich; Rick Lazio; as well as most other opponents of Cordoba House.

First, Imam Rauf is a Sufi Muslim. There are no known Sufi terrorists. There are three main branches to Islam: Shiites, Sunnis, and Sufis, divisions that are as deep and profound as the differences between Orthodox Christians, Protestants, and Catholics. The theological and historical distinctions are too much to cover here, but to paint in broad strokes: Bin Laden and Al Qaeda subscribe to the most extreme version of Sunnism, Wahabbism; Hamas is Sunni as well; most Iranians including Ahmadinejad are Shiite. If one claims Imam Rauf bears a portion of the collective responsibility for September 11, then one must likewise logically claim that evangelical Pastor Rick Warren bears a portion of the collective responsibility for the abuse of children by Catholic priests.

Second, Imam Rauf has explicitlyrepeatedlyand emphatically condemned terrorism as well as “Islamic triumphalism” and “Islamic militancy” and many other variations on this.

Third, both the Bush and Obama administrations have sent Imam Rauf abroad to promote the idea that America was not at war with Islam and indeed that America is the home to many Muslims.

Fourth, Imam Rauf has claimed that America is a better country to be a Muslim in than countries with many Muslims because he believes the American Constitution and system of governance protects the core values shared by the Abrahamic faiths.

Fifth, Imam Rauf has gone further in promoting interfaith dialogue. His Cordoba Initiative’s board of advisors includes a Jewish rabbi, a Hindu, and a former Catholic nunIn memorial to the most prominent Jewish victim of Al Qaeda, Wall Street Journal writer Daniel Pearl, Imam Rauf, according to former Israeli Defense Forces soldier Jeffrey Goldberg, placed his own life in danger to say:

We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one Mr. Pearl.

And I am here to inform you, with the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, that to say La ilaha illallah Muhammadun rasulullah is no different.

It expresses the same theological and ethical principles and values.

In expressing this, Imam Rauf was restating an old Sufi idea that is considered heresy by Bin Ladin and his followers: “The great Sufi saints like the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi held that all existence and all religions were one, all manifestations of the same divine reality.” One Islamic scholar explained the role Sufis play in Islam:

In the most radical parts of the Muslim world, Sufi leaders risk their lives for their tolerant beliefs, every bit as bravely as American troops on the ground in Baghdad and Kabul do.

While you may disagree with Imam Rauf’s positions on Israel, Palestinians, the effect of America’s policies, to claim he is an “extremist” or a terrorist sympathizer or anything of the like is slander.

Claim  #6: A Lie: The Cordoba House Opposes the Plan of a Fox News Host to Build a Gay Bar Next Door.
People Who Should Know Better:
Fox News host Greg Gutfeld; Allahpundit, though each merely presumed opposition.

Actually the group tweeted in response: “You’re free to open whatever you like.” This is what I like to call tolerance and I would guess that many other religious institutions would not be similarly tolerant under the circumstances.

Claim #7: True: Imam Rauf Said: “I wouldn’t say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States’ policies were an accessory to the crime that happened…[I]n the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”

This is actually true. It is widely known that US funds given to the Pakistani secret service (ISI) during the Cold War were used to fund Muslim militants of various sects in their jihad against Soviet occupation. It was here that Osama Bin Laden got his start (as the September 11 Commission Report further explained.) This is what Imam Rauf’s wife has explained he was referring to.

Even when read in their broadest sense — as claiming that American policies helped cause September 11 — it also happens to be a widely held view. Glenn Beck said almost the same thing earlier this year which he is now condemning Imam Rauf for. So have numerous US intelligence and national security officialsThe September 11 Commission Report as well supported this widely accepted view (large pdf, pg. 379):

[Islamic Terrorism is] fed by grievances stressed by Bin Ladin and widely felt throughout the Muslim world – against the U.S. military presence in the Middle East, policies perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim, and support of Israel.

Whether one agrees or not, using such an opinion as proof that Imam Rauf is a terrorist sympathizer is ridiculous.

Claim  #8: True: There Are No Churches or Synagogues in Saudi Arabia.

This is actually true. Though why Newt Gingrich thinks it is wise for Americans to adopt Saudi views on freedom of religion is beyond me.

Claim  #9: A Lie: There Are No Other Mosques Near the Areas Attacked on September 11! There Is No Shinto Shrine Near Pearl Harbor! Lower Manhattan is Sacred Ground!
People Who Should Know Better:
Charles Krauthammer; Rush Limbaugh. Implicitly, Newt Gingrich; Minnesota Governor and 2012 presidential aspirant, Republican Tim Pawlenty.

The Pentagon, attacked on September 11, in fact has a room where Muslims hold services and has celebrated Ramadan and other Muslim holidays. There are also 2 overcrowded mosques (one founded in 1970 before the World Trade Center was finished, and the other in 1985) only a short distance from the proposed location of the Cordoba House in downtown Manhattan. There is in fact also a Shinto shrine near Pearl Harbor. (I’ve read there are 2, but not been able to locate the second one.)

Those who claim that Lower Manhattan is sacred ground have not raised any issues with the strip clubs (2 within 4 blocks of Ground Zero), the porn stores, the many, many bars, or the overflowing stands of September 11 merchandise all over the neighborhood.

Claim #10: A Lie: The “Ground Zero Mosque” Is Part of a War of Civilizations of Muslims Against America.
People Who Should Know Better: Newt Gingrich;
Andrew C. McCarthy.

There are only 2 groups of people who use this “War of Civilizations” rhetoric: far right-wingers such as Newt Gingrich and supporters of Al Qaeda. The Wall Street Journal reports that counter terrorist analysts have stated that the rhetoric of some opponents to the Cordoba House has served as a recruiting tool for Al Qaeda.

Claim #11: A Lie: Imam Rauf Has Personal Connections to Terrorist-Sympathizers.
People Who Should Know Better: Stephen Schwartz; widely hinted at by those spreading Claim #5.

After weeks of attempting to find such connections, the right wing Weekly Standard ran a breathless article describing what they found: Imam Rauf’s wife’s uncle used to be a leader of a mosque whose website now links to an organization that some have claimed is linked to a political party in Pakistan which allegedly has links to terrorism. Fox News also connected Imam Rauf to Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who Rudy Giuliani famously refused to accept a donation from after September 11. Fox News neglected to mention that Prince Al-Waleed happens to also own 7% of Fox’s corporation, thus linking them even more closely to this purported extremist.

N. B. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show has been an excellent source of actual fact-checking combined with humor throughout this controversy with clips about Fox News’s connections to Prince Al-Waleed, Newt Gingrich’s various claims, the guilt-by-association techniques used to tar Imam Rauf, and the idea of collective religious guilt.

Footnote: Christopher Hitchens has decried the use of the term Islamophobe because he feels it denigrates both those who point to the many injustices within majority Muslim countries justified by Islam, most especially the treatment of women. While I agree with Hitchens that the term is overused, it is appropriate in this instance.

Edit: Numbering corrected.

[Image by Joshua Treviño licensed under Creative Commons and adapted with permission of the author.]

Health Care Reform: A Test of Whether the Country Could Tackle Its Most Vexing, Long-Term, Systematic Problems

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Jonathan Cohn’s piece in The New Republic on how health care reform was passed is an excellent read. One of the most telling anecdotes was the story of how internally divided the administration was regarding pursuing health care reform at the start. The political advisers — Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod most prominently — favored avoiding the issue. And once significant push back was encountered, they favored abandoning comprehensive reform in favor of just tackling the problem of children without insurance. Of the prominent names in the White House who favored going forward through all these obstacles, the most famous and influential all opposed it. Save one — the one whose opinion mattered most. This particular passage probably best sums up the reason I saw health care reform as so essential:

Obama had come to view this debate as a proxy for the deepest, most systemic crises facing the country. It was a test, really: Could the country still solve its most vexing problems? If he abandoned comprehensive reform, he would be conceding that the United States was, on some level, ungovernable. Besides, several aides recall him saying, “I feel lucky.”

It’s only available in pieces currently to non-subscribers. But they’re releasing it in dribs and drabs to the rest: here’s Part OnePart Two, and Part Three. (Parts Four and Five have not yet been released.)

I have a feeling that when the retrospective histories of the Obama administration are written, the August-to-September 2009 period will be considered the turning point whereby Obama finally became comfortable in the office — and the moment the Obama administration began to gain some traction in making progress in this poisonous political environment — even against long-term systematic problems.

It was in this period that Obama made the Afghanistan policy his own — pushing back against the military forcefully even as he sided largely with their suggestions; and it was when Obama decided to go for health care reform even against a unified Republican opposition — and not just an easy bill, but one that went after the wrought issue of increasing health care spending.

This August-September period was when health care reform became about more than insuring millions of people — and instead became a test of whether or not Obama could break the hold of the idiocrats on our public conversation and make some small dent in tackling our systematic, long-term issues. It was tough; it was close; but the bill got done.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Some brief thoughts on Rand Paul

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

All those people who brand Rand Paul a racist and use this clip to prove it aren’t worthy of serious consideration. It is either ignorance of libertarian philosophy or partisan hackery to claim so. It isn’t racism to claim that the government has no right to intervene in private businesses to stop discrimination.

As Ezra Klein explains though, it is relevant:

Paul’s defense of himself is that his take on the Civil Rights Act has nothing to do with race and so he is not a racist. But by the same token, the fact that Paul’s view on the Civil Rights Act is so dominated by his libertarian ideology that he cannot even admit race and segregation into the calculus is exactly why this is relevant to Paul’s candidacy, why it’s an issue and why it’s among the best evidence we have in understanding how he’ll vote on legislation that comes before him. If this isn’t about race, then it is about all questions relating to federal regulation of private enterprise. As a senator, Paul will be faced with that question frequently. And his views on it are clearly very, very far from the mainstream.

These libertarian views do reflect accurately an ideology whose language is gaining prominence in the GOP in the form of the Tea Party movement. This movement in its different incarnations has been around for some time, and emerged as a populist right-wing backlash to John F. Kennedy, to Bill Clinton, and now to Barack Obama. In each instance, the movement died as soon as it gained a toehold on power as it had no real agreed-upon agenda other than opposition to “liberalism=socialism=communism.”  Andrew Sullivan puts his finger on an important aspect of this:

[T]he tea-party movement [is] un-conservative. It is dealing with the world as it would like it to be, not as it is. It has an almost adolescent ideal it cannot compromise. I think that makes the movement, in its more serious incarnation (like Paul), a useful addition to the public debate, especially in reminding the GOP of some core principles it threw away under Bush and Cheney… Its bright, fixed glare also helps us illuminate what we believe in – merely by revealing what we no longer believe in.

I agree with Connor Friedsdorf and Andrew Sullivan and Daniel Larison that Rand Paul’s nomination is a good thing. Even if he wins the Senate seat, I see this as a good thing. To have his voice, his ideological clarity, as 1 of 100 would improve the Senate. The fact that his extremism could lead him to side with the Democrats on some issues (if he was able to resist the partisan pressures in Washington, which is a big if) and that his extremism could simultaneously help discredit and marginalize the GOP are both bonuses. Even without these, I would see his election as a net positive as it would give some measure of power to those people whose inchoate anger has helped form the Tea Party movement and force its members to make hard decisions about what they actually want.

Rand Paul is the rare right-wing politician who doesn’t just bad-mouth government but wants to get rid of the Federal Reserve, who opposes the government encroachment represented by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the PATRIOT Act and the Affordable Care Act, who opposes Social Security and Medicare as well as any new additions from Obama. He would never campaign in favor of Medicare while calling Obamacare socialism — he would deride them both as such.

This is why I see Rand Paul as a clarifying figure who can help move our national debate forward — if he remains honest.

[Image by Gage Skidmore licensed under Creative Commons.]