Author Archives: PB Goodfriend

Of heroes and liars – from Atticus Finch to Rachel Dolezal

When Harper Lee published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960, the concept of the White, Southern country lawyer defending a Negro accused of touching a White woman was inspirational. It showed how commitment to a moral cause could overcome social norms and bring justice to a community hungry for it.

It also showed something else about our nation’s social structure, that was, perhaps, more complex. If African Americans were to throw off the White oppression of generations, they would need the help of the ruling class, namely, Caucasian Catholics, Protestants and Jews, who were willing to stand up for every American’s fundamental human and civil rights to their neighbors, police, legislators and judges.

Some of those groups, namely the Catholics and the Jews, had also suffered the stigma of difference-ness, though, admittedly, not to the same extent. It was intolerance in different context. But those communities all understood there was a conscious decision by the bully class to forgo any effort at understanding, unwilling to share their economic and social superiority. Or their schools, bathrooms, water fountains and lunch counters.

The way to get past this willful ignorance, according to the hero of Lee’s story, Atticus Finch, was, as he told his daughter, “a simple trick:”

“[I]f you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things form his point of view-”


“-Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, Chapter 3, by Harper Lee

DolezalFinchRachel Dolezal, the Spokane, Washington, civil rights advocate who pretended to be the progeny of a mixed-race marriage, has gotten into a lot of trouble for taking Atticus’ advice literally. No one doubts her level of commitment. In fact, the N.A.A.C.P. issued a statement shortly after the story broke, remarking on how they “stand behind Ms. Dolezal’s advocacy record.”

In the statement, the group emphasizes that the organization “has held a long and proud tradition of receiving support from people of all faiths, races, colors and creeds.” They go on to say, “One’s racial identity is not a qualifying criteria or disqualifying standard for NAACP leadership,” and they urge all to “respect her privacy in this matter.”

That does not mean we are unable to draw our own conclusions from her choice to be inauthentic about her background, despite her ability to fight for a cause. She obviously strongly identifies with African American culture and history. One can choose their religious identity. One can choose their gender identity. Her misrepresentations not withstanding, Dolezal has chosen a cultural identity.

The lies mean she is no hero. Neither, according to some, was Atticus Finch. Some believe that because the case was thrust upon him, he had no choice. Twenty-three years ago, the New York Times ran a story about the controversial law professor, Monroe Freedman, who penned an article saying that any lawyer who considers regarding Lee’s protagonist “as someone to emulate…would be making a terrible mistake.”

The Times goes on to describe Freedman’s stand:

“Mr. Freedman asked, what had Finch done up to that point to combat the forces that brought [Tom] Robinson down?

“Far from attacking racism at its root, Mr. Freedman charges, Finch was complicit in it. For all his gentlemanliness, he does not complain that blacks attending court are relegated to the balcony. He eats in segregated restaurants; he walks in parks where signs say ‘No Dogs or Colored Allowed.'”

But it was the response to Freedman’s words by Tim Hall, a law professor at the University of Mississippi at the time, that one can envision a young Rachel Dolezal reading and taking to heart.

“What Monroe really wants,” he told the Times, perhaps presciently, “is for Atticus to be working on the front lines for the N.A.A.C.P. in the 1930’s, and if he’s not, he’s disqualified from being any kind of hero.”

What’s a hero? Someone who walks the talk? Then Dolezal qualifies. Her lie makes her imperfect. It’s certainly a lesson about integrity. But it doesn’t mean she cannot lead.

I’ve been close with people who have made cultural choices similar to the one that Dolezal made. Very close. Significant relationship close. The difference of course, is they did not deny their background, but they immersed themselves into the culture they chose very authentically, so there is no question about who they now are. They’re not pretending. They simply are their adopted culture. A bold choice, to be sure, but I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to declare whether or not it is a heroic one.


The surveillance state is on hiatus, sort of, except not really

UPDATE: The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives’ changes to sections of the PATRIOT Act, Tuesday evening, known as the USA FREEDOM Act, after GOP Senate leaders failed to get any of the changes they wanted to the House bill. The final vote was 67-32. It now heads to President Obama’s desk for his signature.

As of midnight Monday morning, three provisions of inappropriately acronymed PATRIOT Act expired, leaving the National Security Agency with limited power of spying, dragnet style, on everyday Americans. Limited, but not eliminated.

The disposition of the NSA’s powers could be delayed for only a few days, if in that time the Senate passes, as is, the PATRIOT Act revisions contained in the USA FREEDOM Act, sent to them by a bipartisan House of Representatives. Or, it could take up to several months, if the Senate sends back amendments and revisions to what Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California) called a “carefully crafted compromise.”

What is clear is that there is no sudden gap in our intelligence gathering that leaves Americans particularly more vulnerable than we have been since the abuses of our liberties were originally enacted fourteen years ago. Indeed, there has been zero evidence that this unconstitutional activity has unearthed a single plot against the homeland. And, of course, they have workarounds in the intelligence community, for what may be just a dash of inconvenience served with a platter full of rhetoric.

“We call on the Senate to ensure this irresponsible lapse in authorities is as short-lived as possible,” Josh Ernest, the president’s press secretary, wrote in a statement, after Sunday’s vote in the Senate to move the House bill forward. “On a matter as critical as our national security, individual Senators must put aside their partisan motivations and act swiftly. The American people deserve nothing less.”

But, as the Washington Post reported, Monday:

“Three provisions that expired — allowing the bulk collection of phone records, the ability to investigate ‘lone wolf’ American terrorists and the ability to investigate suspects who switch phones — have grandfather clauses that let any investigation started before June 1 continue indefinitely.”(emphasis mine)

Any new investigations will have to wait, and so will the bulk phone data collection, because the Obama administration has chosen not to continue that extremely unpopular program until they see what the Senate will do to the House bill.

In the House’s FREEDOM Act, telecommunications companies would not have to turn over any data records of their customers without a warrant from a FISA court targeting a specific account. The Act gives the intelligence community six months to adapt to the new rules. The hawks in the Senate, though, have other ideas, including extending the transition period to a full year, and requiring the phone and data companies to let the NSA know if they keep records for less than a 18 months.

rand_nsaThe other issue for Mitch McConnell’s Senate is transparency. According to Bloomberg, the FREEDOM Act, passed by the House, calls for “the government to declassify significant decisions and legal interpretations” advanced by the FISA court. But the Republican majority leader tried to get through a revision, Sunday, that would have eliminated that provision.

That won’t fly on the other side of Capitol Hill. “The House is not likely to accept the changes proposed by Senator McConnell,” several high ranking Representatives, from both sides of the aisle, said in a statement, Monday afternoon. “Section 215 [which authorizes bulk data collection] has already expired. These amendments will likely make that sunset permanent,” they warned, implying that changes will mean the end of the PATRIOT Act, forever.

For Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), whose obstruction of the Senate even trying to get an extension passed, in whatever form, helped bring Congress to this point, these are heady times. He’s not going to be able to stop the Senate from passing some kind of a surveillance bill, Tuesday. But any changes his colleagues are likely to put in the legislation will become poison pills in the House.

And there’s this. A poll released Monday shows that twice as many people prefer Paul’s let-it-expire approach to McConnell’s extend-everything tack. although neither Kentuckian spoke for the poll’s plurality of extend-but-modify.

From this point on, it doesn’t matter, politically, which approach turns out to be the winner. In the battle of Bluegrass State leadership, at least, it seems the one who has the title finds himself closing the door to an empty barn, as the sound of galloping hooves recedes over the hill behind him, and the curly-topped rodeo clown, throat sore from hootin’ and hollerin’, smiles back at him knowingly, eyes glinting in the diminishing sliver of light, before the barn goes dark and the bar slides across the door.


Despite fighting setbacks, a doomed GOP still a distant dream

“… a cause on foot
Lives so in hope as in an early spring
We see the appearing buds, which to prove fruit
Hope gives not so much warrant, as despair
That frosts will bite them.”

-William Shakespeare, from Henry IV, Part 2, Act I, scene 3

Sometimes it feels like the news cycle poisons us with false hope. Certainly the frosts of last November killed the hopes raised by some in polling that the midterm elections would be closer than they were.

Today we find ourselves again hopeful in the spring of 2015, as Politico teases us with a pair of tempting morsels like, “The GOP Is Dying Off. Literally,” and “GOP: Business lobby blowing it on trade.

In the case of the former, it’s broken down to math. “The party’s core is dying off by the day,” writes Daniel J. McGraw, in Sunday’s Politico Magazine.

As he explains it:

“Since the average Republican is significantly older than the average Democrat, far more Republicans than Democrats have died since the 2012 elections. To make matters worse, the GOP is attracting fewer first-time voters.”

McGraw reaches that conclusion by multiplying the number of voters from 2012 exit polls who voted for Republican nominee Mitt Romney and are in their early sixties by the annual mortality rate, then multiplying that number by four, for each year between the last presidential election and 2016. He found that of the roughly 5.5 million Romeny-ites in the exit poll, there would be “229,900 Romney voters aged 60-to-64 who will be deceased by Election Day 2016.”

CapitolStylizedCarry that out to the 61 million who voted Republican in 2012, and “about 2.75 million will be dead by the 2016 election.” His math says the reaper will have taken almost half-a-million fewer Democrats.

While McGraw’s work sounds hopeful for Hillary – or whoever wins the Dem nomination in 2016 – it only represents, optimistically, just over a third of one percent of the 2012 electorate. It is possible that fewer Democrats decide to show up, next year. Couple that with the increase in voter suppression efforts in red states, and 453,000 people just doesn’t sound like a difference maker.

The only sure way to make sure Democrats win in 2016 is for their voters to come out and vote. That’s indisputable.

As far as Politico’s story on the GOP leadership’s disappointment in the business community for “getting outfoxed by Big Labor” because calls against the fast-track trade measure, known as trade promotion authority, are “running 10 to 1 against the TPA,” that’s less about citizen participation than it is about money.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with and applaud the success labor – and the progressive movements that support them – are having in this campaign. Their efforts, though, are filling the void because big business has long seen the TPA as a done deal. Why wouldn’t they? After all it’s supported by the White House and the leaders of the Republican majorities in both Houses of Congress.

According to the Politico article, Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) “call for the business community to engage more aggressively comes months after the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber and others formed a coalition called Trade Benefits America to push fast-track legislation through Congress.”

The question, then is what does “more aggressively” mean? For politicians, it usually means shaking down the business’ coalition for more money. That’s why this is another false hope of any positive change in our political process. Money being speech, as the Supreme Court says it is, has the ear of both parties, even among some of the members of Congress who want to get money out of politics.

So keep calling your representative and tell them you don’t want the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPA fast track to pass. For now, words are speaking louder than money, and that, at least, is something to cheer for.


Rumors of a Democratic rift are greatly exaggerated

“By definition, massive trade deals like the TPP override domestic laws written, debated, and passed by Congress. If fast-track passes, Congress will have given up its power to strip out any backroom arrangements and special favors…

“We will have also given up our right to strip out whatever other special favors industry can bury in new trade agreements – not just in the TPP, but in potential trade deals for the next six years.”

– Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) Op-Ed in the Boston Globe, May 11, 2015

Not only is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) the leading voice in Congress, right now, for sensible progressive causes, she can listen, too. And, of course, regulator that she is, she can count. She knew that ever since the trouncing the Democrats took in the 2014 midterm election, the passage of the TPP was a fait accompli.

It was obvious that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was one of only a small number of bills favored by the Obama administration that the Republican led U. S. Senate would get behind. Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) signaled as much right after the new Congress was gaveled into session.

“It’s an enormous grant of power, obviously, from a Republican Congress to a Democratic president,” he said in January, “but that’s how much we believe in trade as an important part of America’s economy.” And, he added in that classic passive aggressive McConnell way, “I’m happy the president has now become a born-again free trader. It’s high time.”

There were always going to be enough Democrats willing to back their president and maybe even some who legitimately believe in trade deals despite opposition by Sen. Warren and the AFL-CIO.

After all it was Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) who helped come up with bipartisan language for the bill, and he is hardly considered a conservative Democrat. That he and all but one Democrat voted against the fast-track legislation, Tuesday, didn’t indicate the TPP was dead. It was just held up until some other issues could be addressed.

Nor did it indicate, as the mainstream media seemed to charge, that there was, as Politico put it, a “meltdown” in the Democratic Senate Caucus. Neither does it indicate immutable friction between the minority party and the president, as in another Politico headline: “Barack Obama’s war on the left.”
TPP headers-markup
Other news outlets also used harsh language: “DEMS TURN ON OBAMA OVER ASIA TRADE,” screamed Wednesday’s USA Today; “Obama Foiled On Trade Pact By Democrats,” the New York Times chided.

“They just got throttled,” Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) gloated to the press, “‘President rebuked. Democrats defy president. President thwarted.’ Those were the headlines this morning.”

But here’s the thing. They were always going to get this one worked out. It was always going to pass. The deal reached Wednesday gives the Dems some votes on currency manipulation, sub-Sahran African trade, and Trade Adjustment Assistance, “to help,” according to Politico, “workers who lose their jobs as a result of expanded trade.”

Yet those votes mean nothing. Even if they pass the Senate, the House of Representatives will almost certainly balk at the bills, and only vote to give fast track trade authority to the president. That means the Executive Branch can negotiate secret deals that then get a vote.

“This is a bad deal,” AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka told PBS‘ Gwen Ifill, Tuesday, after the failed vote, but before Wednesday’s compromise. “This will hurt our economy. This will hurt our communities. It will hurt our country, and it shouldn’t be done in a fast track manner, where you only get to vote it up or down after it was negotiated in secret.”

As for the deal reached Wednesday, Trumka was unmoved. Passing the main fast track trade bill, he told reporters, should depend on the passage the measures that are now to be voted on separately. “What they demanded yesterday, they should continue to demand today,” he said.

Although it is true that progressive Democrats will be disappointed at the deal, nothing, of course, can be taken for granted when it comes to the machinations of Congress. Some fait accomplis surprisingly become fait peut-être accomplis. The actual vote is not supposed to happen until early next week. Plenty of time to change some minds. But will it be enough?


Common Cause calls on IRS to stop ALEC’s charity status


Common Cause, the national voter advocacy organization, has taken on the corporate interests of the American Legislative Exchange Council, by presenting evidence to the IRS that ALEC is a political lobbying group, and not an organization where membership is considered a charitable gift.

The organization wrote a letter to the IRS, Tuesday, urging them to take another look at ALEC’s “misclassification as a 501(c)(3) organization, in light of the group’s primary purpose to influence the passage of state legislation and operation for the private benefit of its corporate members.”

In an email blast to its supporters, Tuesday, Common Cause cited statements from some of ALEC’s member corporations as evidence that the organization should have its tax-exempt status revoked, and “demanding” the government “fine them for any violations, and make its corporate backers pay the back taxes they owe.”

“Though ALEC claims that it is now a legislator-driven, bottom-up enterprise,” Lisa Graves, Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which is partnering with Common Cause in the campaign, said in a statement, “our evidence shows that the corporations underwriting ALEC continue to drive its legislative priorities and do so to benefit their bottom lines.”

In calling for the IRS to take action against ALEC, Common Cause told supporters:

“Today, we and our allies at the Center for Media and Democracy gave the IRS new statements by ALEC corporations admitting that they too see ALEC for what it is: a corporate lobby, not a charity. Among the most telling examples:

“Pfizer: ‘Pfizer chose to continue this relationship [with ALEC] because our Company and its stakeholders have benefited directly from the organization’s model legislation and resolutions.’

“Verizon: ‘Our involvement with ALEC has been focused on legislative issues of direct importance to Verizon.’

“AT&T: Our ‘main focus within ALEC has been on state legislation aimed at achieving and maintaining a favorable business climate. . . [O]ur focus has been limited to those issues that may impact our company.'”

Common Cause has issued a call to action on the issue, urging its supporters to sign a petition to the IRS, and “blow the whistle on ALEC.”


The Most Dangerous Game, institutionalized

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general. ” So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’

“And the answer was, of course, `It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.'”

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one that can.”

“But you can’t mean–” gasped Rainsford.

“And why not?”

“I can’t believe you are serious, General Zaroff. This is a grisly joke.”

“Why should I not be serious? I am speaking of hunting.”

“Hunting? Great Guns, General Zaroff, what you speak of is murder.”

– from the short story, The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell

Humanity loses when we set up people to be prey, targets for bigoted hunters who’s survival in no way depends on an ethnicity’s destruction, but who choose to bait and pursue, both barrels up, as a bloodsport. Whether you’re an “ugly” American, White Supremacist or committed Jihadist, your group-think notions of a life-and-death struggle for cultural survival are too often distilled into self-aggrandizing, self-righteous assertions of moral superiority. culturecontest

“Our Judeo-Christian culture is far superior to the Islamic one,” Geert Wilders, the keynote speaker at the anti-Muslim cartoon contest that was attacked, Sunday, told the crowd in Garland, Texas, just before the shots rang out. “I can give you a million reasons. But here is an important one: We have humor and they don’t.” I guess no one ever explained to America’s indigenous peoples what jokers the European missionaries were. Cortez, particularly, was a barrel of laughs.

Pamela Geller, head of the hate group American Freedom Defense Initiative, which sponsored Sunday’s Texas event, told CNN Monday, that the shooting in Garland “illustrated” that there is “a problem in Islam.”

I think our Founding Fathers and Mothers would agree that while free expression is paramount, if one uses that right as bait to ensnare those who are tragically consumed by their religion, who are as zealous for their version of truth as you are to challenge it, even if it ends with them lying in a pool of their own blood, then you haven’t proven your point. You’ve proven theirs. You become the intolerant aggressors. They become the ones martyred for a cause.

Geller is careful not to dehumanize her enemy, in any obvious sort of way. Instead, she merely subhumanizes them with the antiquated terms of the Crusaders of old and the aforementioned colonialists. “I will not abridge my freedoms so as not to offend savages,” she said, in defense of her group’s actions in holding an event she knew would be offensive to Muslims.

It’s important to be clear, here, that while the actions of Geller’s group disgust me, they do have a right to give voice to their beliefs. The U.S. Constitution gives them that right. But my personal constitution does not. Their “contest” smells too much like the anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda that targeted my recent ancestors. It is used as a justification for murder.

But violence of the sort perpetrated by individuals claiming to represent the so-called Islamic State, in response to the Garland event, is also never, ever right.

Injustice, intolerance, racism – these should all be hunted down and destroyed, but advocating for the destruction of human behavior does not mean advocating for the murder of those who practice it. It is the practice itself that must end. That was the staff at Charlie Hebdo’s point. Geller, et al, have abandoned the French cartoonists’ nuance for a cudgel.

Finally, and I can’t say this loud enough, making Pamela Geller the bogey in this is not the right approach. Just as hatred of Islamist militants only empowers them because it gives them an “us against the world” determination, so too Geller, Wilders and the other racists’ voices only get louder the closer we put our ears to them. We should send them back to the fringe from whence they came. If we’re lucky, we won’t hear from them again, except as high squeaks in a distant, fading echo.


Don’t justify and call it justice; confront truth and discover justice

HK Central Statue Square Legislative Council Building n Themis s
Lady Justice is blindfold and scales, blind to the class and rank of those who stand before her and nonprejudicial in the absence of evidence.

But whether in the streets of our cities or in the skies over Asia and Africa, we have found a way to allow her a peak under the blindfold, and permitted her scales to be weighed with the thumb of the police and the heavy fist of the national security apparatus, as it suits us. In these arenas, Justice does not appear to be blind per se, but rather hiding behind the curtain of plausible deniability over how her sword is used to dispense that justice.

In a Department of Justice white paper obtained by NBC News, drones can be used anywhere, at anytime, against anyone who the U.S. deems “a senior operational leader of al-Qa’ida or an associated force,” who “poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States.” That goes for American citizens and other nationals, even if they are targeted in countries against whom we don’t even have a declaration of war.

“While both [American citizens unintentionally killed by drone strikes this year] Farouq and Gadahn were al-Qa’ida members,” the administration announced, April 23, “neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations.” The strike that killed Ahmed Farouq is the one that also took the lives of two captives, who the U.S. has admitted it also didn’t know were going to be where the drone struck.

The point of the white paper is that DoJ can justify killing Americans without due process, so we should be okay with it. Sure, it can be justified, but merely massaging a definition of justice does not make it just. It makes it an excuse for unethical, possibly immoral, action.

Police have justified a rash of recent attacks on unarmed African American men with a standard as low as “I felt threatened,” to Ferguson: “He grabbed for my gun;” North Charleston, SC: “He reached for my Taser;” or simply, like in Tulsa and Baltimore: “He ran.”

Justifying is not rectifying, and it remains an unsatisfying excuse to most Americans. Justifications in these cases come across as a little too convenient, and are nothing more than attempts to gloss over substantive social issues too difficult for most police departments to make an effort to address.

“I think it’s going to be important for organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police and other police unions and organization to acknowledge that this is not good for police,” President Obama told the press, Tuesday.

“I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching,” he added later, after acknowledging those who have moved beyond closing ranks to protect their own. “I think there are some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we, as a country, have to do some soul searching.”

There is a choice we make in our commitments, one that paves a path and drives us along it in pursuit of (hopefully) positive outcomes. Perhaps no other commitment invites scrutiny as much as the righteous pursuit of justice, for although we can all agree that we are resolved to achieve it, there is a gulf in the methods we use to get there. The importance of justice to our society is not something we are fed piecemeal. It is, rather, shoved done our throats in great gobs, and obedience to it is its own sweet reward.

Sadly, many conflate righteous pursuit and righteous justice, where ennobling the latter affirms the former, instead of the other way around. Righteous pursuit is peaceful pursuit, not only in resolving the truth of the circumstances of a tragedy that has already occurred, but in working toward the kind of understanding that prevents that tragedy from happening in the first place. The sense that everyone is on the same team, working toward the same ends, simply doesn’t exist.

Too often the virtue we like to think of as justice is dispatched thoughtlessly with a bullet in the back, or coldly dispensed by the state at the end of a needle, or by a soulless aircraft piloted by an invisible hangman, thousands of miles away.

“Greater transparency is just the start of what we need,” an attorney for one human rights group said in a statement last week, acknowledging the administration’s admission of the tragic drone strikes. He went on to urge “a fundamental reassessment of whether the secret drone war does more harm than good.”

When he ran for president, and even as recently as January’s State of the Union speech, Barack Obama maintained that Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, remains “a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit,” because it exposes America’s capacity for hypocrisy, ignoring justice and human rights in exchange for a perception of security. But the United States’ drone program has turned the Middle East and Central Asia into a Gitmo without the razor wire, where terror in the guise of justice is dispensed silently from the skies. It is no less a recruiting tool than the indefinite detentions of the prisoners in Cuba.

Whether in distant lands or on the streets where we live, we cannot continue to excuse our behavior as justifiable, merely because we want it to be. If we remain silent, then we are left with a distorted version of Lady Justice who is not only blind, but is also deaf and dumb.


Bottoms up – starting a conversation for change in the rural South

“I’ve always believed that change doesn’t come from the top down; it comes from the bottom up.”

-President Barack Obama, September, 2009

It’s been Obama’s mantra since the beginning of his administration, and even before, when he first ran for president in 2008. Search for “top down bottom up,” and you will be overwhelmed by the number hits. Change comes from the bottom up. Politics comes from the bottom up. Economic growth comes from the bottom up. Innovation comes from the bottom up.

It’s a little bit ironic, then, that when the red states in the Old South take a bottom-up approach that appears to gain some traction in getting us out of the socio-political wilderness, the national party – seeing the potential for dollars and power – sweeps in to scoop us up, as if to say, “Thanks for all you’ve done. We’re professionals. We’ll take it from here.”

Jeana Brown, Dawn Collins, Haley Shank, Sharon Hill

Participants deliver their message at a conference for Team Rural in Brunswick, Georgia, March 21, 2015. Clockwise from top left: Jeana Brown, Dawn Collins, Haley Shank, Sharon Hill

That is exactly what happened in the 2014 midterms, according to a small group of rural progressives gathered in the coastal town of Brunswick, Georgia, Saturday, to lament about last year’s elections and the overall attitude state and national party officials have toward the folks who have a lot of passion about the direction of our communities but not enough money to be heard.

The sense of abandonment was palpable. “This shit’s got to stop,” railed an impassioned Jeana Brown, the Democratic activist from Georgia who organized the one-day event under her Team Rural banner. “We’re the ones [out here] doing this.”

“The messaging is pitiful with the Democratic Party,” complained Dawn Collins, a political consultant and former Democratic chair from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She described the passion of the party for the rural voter as milquetoast, at best. “They’re so afraid of upsetting the conservative base, so fearful that they won’t get [the votes of] a few conservatives,” she said, that they spent very few resources “preaching to the base and rallying up the base.”

The party’s message was “neither hot nor cold,” she said, quoting a verse in Revelations. Rather, she said it was “lukewarm,” as the passage goes, and so, she warned, we “will spew you out.”

It’s the kind of message that resonated with the mostly rural crowd. “What can we do,” a frustrated attendee asked, “to come back from this staggering stupidity?”

“We have to keep it real,” Haley Shank, a self-described Jewish Democrat from a small, southwest Georgia town, and a former candidate for the state legislature answered. “We cannot be holding on to [candidates who] are bringing down our hard work” just because of their lust for power. “Your candidates,” she advised, “if they’re not reaching out to you in between election seasons, then they’re not doing their job, and they’re not going to do it for you in [government].”

Collins agreed, and had a message for the state and national parties, and elected officials. “What we have to do different is operate in integrity,” she said. “Don’t sell your people out.”

Brown insisted that grassroots, rural movements can only succeed through action. “One of the first things we learned in the [2008] Obama campaign was strategy. If you get a roomful of people, get them to do an action.”

Getting involved and staying involved is “politics at its best,” agreed Sharon Hill, a political consultant from just outside Atlanta. She was advocating for growing the local Women’s Political Caucus. “We hold them accountable. That’s what we haven’t done.”

One way we can do that is to work together to fix things. “We have to reach across the aisle,” Shank said. “I think putting ourselves in that bright blue box can be kind of limiting at times, when a lot of our issues are not Democrat or Republican.

“Banning fracking in the United States is not a Democratic or Republican issue. Ending these pipelines and getting rid of eminent domain, this is not Democrat or Republican. In fact, Democrats will find that a lot of times, Libertarians line up with them on these things.”

The inaction and apathy isn’t just a problem for Democrats either, Shank told the group. It’s an issue for Republicans, too. After all, monied interest have also co-opted some of their grassroots groups. That puts the burden on all Americans who work to improve the future of our country. “We’re all kind of failing,” she added, near the end of the day. “We’re all kind of failing to meet each other where we are.”

As Hill noted, “This is a ‘we’ thing. When we join together, we get it done.”


Tom doesn’t cotton to Iran, Obama or the rest of the world

Diplomats around the world continue to scratch their heads over freshman Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Arkansas) stunt insulting the Iranians and upsetting the integrity of U.S. negotiated agreements with foreign governments. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate committee, Wednesday, the letter “risks undermining the confidence that foreign governments in thousands of important agreements commit to with the United States.”

As to the Iranians, Cotton certainly doesn’t care what they’re take on the letter was. “Our constituents elected us to the Senate, in part, to protect them from bad agreements like this and to help ensure their safety and security,” he wrote in an unapologetic op-ed in USA Today, “[a]nd that is what we intend to do.”

“What’s the point of writing to the Iranian mullahs,” Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asked the smug senator during an interview he had with her, Tuesday night. “They’ve dismissed it already as ‘pfft, whatever…'”

“We need to be crystal clear with the leaders of Iran,” Cotton explained to Kelly, “Any deal that’s not approved by Congress, won’t be accepted by Congress – not now and certainly not in the future.”

Tom Cotton and the other 46 members of the Republican Party who share his ignorance are having trouble distinguishing the difference between a treaty, which must be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate, and an executive agreement with a foreign government, which does not require Congressional approval. As the State Department explains on a web page titled “Treaty vs. Executive Agreement:”

“…there are two procedures under domestic law through which the United States becomes a party to an international agreement. First, international agreements… whose entry into force with respect to the United States takes place only after two thirds of the U.S. Senate has given its advice and consent… are ‘treaties.’ Second, international agreements brought into force with respect to the United States on a constitutional basis other than with the advice and consent of the Senate are ‘international agreements other than treaties’ and are often referred to as ‘executive agreements.'”

Many of the signatories to the letter are just waking up to the realization that their misguided enthusiasm to go all out against the international group negotiating the agreement with the Iranians has wider ranging implications, when all they really wanted to do was take a very public stand against Obama. They didn’t understand that confronting Obama challenges “more than two centuries of precedent in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy,” as the Secretary of State put it.

At Wednesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) admitted Obama was the target of the letter all along. “I signed the letter to Iran, but you know what, the message I was sending was to you. The message was to President Obama,” Paul said. “The letter was to Iran but it should have been CC’d to the White House.”

The GOP signers were just trying to be a bigger pain in Obama’s arse than they already are. In a piece on The Daily Beast, Tim Mak writes:

“Republican aides were taken aback by the response to what what they thought was a lighthearted attempt to signal to Iran and the public that Congress should have a role in the ongoing nuclear discussions. Two GOP aides separately described their letter as a ‘cheeky’ reminder of the congressional branch’s prerogatives.

“‘The administration has no sense of humor when it comes to how weakly they have been handling these negotiations,’ said a top GOP Senate aide.”

Yep, jeopardizing our international standing over domestic politics is a regular riot. It leaves our allies shaking their heads and the Iranians grinning from ear to ear.


Israel, Iran and the chutzpah of Netanyahu

Netanyahu campaign posters in Jerusalem

Netanyahu campaign posters in Jerusalem during 2009 Israeli elections. (By David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons)

The speech is over, in all its anti-climactic glory. Bibi stood up for Israel, and roughly ninety percent of the U.S. Congress stood up for him – over and over and over again – except when he praised President Obama and all he has done for the Jewish State, when only the Democrats in attendance stood up.

“I deeply regret that some perceive my being here as political. That was never my intention,” he insisted. But it was, and not only here, but in Israel, where elections are only two weeks away.

“The American Republican Party is intervening in our elections, and in return an Israeli party is intervening in their politics,” reads a January op-ed on Ynet, an online news site for the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth. “They are helping Netanyahu beat his rivals here, and he is helping them humiliate their rival there. It’s dangerous. It’s poisonous. It’s not so amusing anymore.”

A poke in the eye – that’s how the media is portraying Speaker of the House, John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) invitation to the Israeli Prime Minister to speak to the Congress of the United States on Iran, its nuclear program and the push for stronger sanctions against the Shi’ite Islamic Republic.

The ploy is as obvious to the White House as it is to the Israeli public. But it’s not so much to “humiliate” Obama that they want to hear from Bibi, as much as it is to remind us all what it was like in the Bush years, when we didn’t negotiate or have any kind of meaningful dialogue with the two remaining members of W’s “axis of evil,” Iran and North Korea. To them, any negotiation is appeasement, any dialogue a validation of a wretched regime.

The talks are nothing more than “appeasement, conciliation, and concessions toward Iran,” and should be abandoned in exchange for a push toward “regime change” in the ancient Mideast power, freshman Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) told a Heritage Foundation conservative summit, earlier this year.

“We negotiate from a position of strength,” Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz told CNN, Monday. “We do not do this through appeasement and bickering.” And how would the sabre rattling Republican show strength? “If it was up to me,” he told Wolf Blitzer, “if I was the President of the United States — we would take out that threat.”

And it seems Netanyahu also was referring to Chamberlainization of Western nation negotiators when he said to Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel, who attended his speech to Congress, “I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past; not to sacrifice the future for the present; not to ignore aggression in the hopes of gaining an illusory peace.”

[Read the transcript of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to the U.S. Congress]

Bibi was explaining the importance of the post-Holocaust standard “Never Again!” He promised the Jewish people, through the great Elie Wiesel, “I can guarantee you this. The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.” And because we have Israel, and Israel has a strong army, “For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”

Listen, Bibi, you arrogant chutzpahnik, don’t think you can turn Jewish pride in Israel into pride of your defense of Israel, and don’t lecture me on the meaning of “Never again!” Your implication that those of us who disagree with you are the same as the passive faithful who were tragically led to the slaughter is wrong and insulting. Activism wears many hats in the Diaspora and in Israel, where this stunt of yours might not defeat you (regretfully), but it should make you think about what you’re saying and to whom you are speaking.

A Jew who does not stand with you, Mr. Prime Minister, is still a Jew. It could be argued that real passivity lies in the acquiescence to your leadership. It’s easy for a Jew to do. It involves pride in Israel, which most of us, including myself, were raised on. It’s cathartic, but the goal is for Israel to be a country that survives not only out of the strength of its army, but also out of the power of its diplomacy.

The problem for you and the Republicans is you both see negotiating with the enemy as a weakness. You both seek capitulation through intimidation. For Republicans, it’s the fantasy that it was Reagan’s powerful persona that ended the Cold War.

For you, it’s faith and birthright and the incredulous notion that security comes from the belief that Israel is most safe when it gives no quarter. It is true that as a people, Jews have none to give, but to be a respected player in the world of nations, the State of Israel must show a commitment to negotiate for peace. She cannot last forever as a country with her dukes up and her back against a wall. Other prime ministers have realized that. Why not you?

The weakness of the stance Netanyahu is taking was not lost on members of Congress, even the Jewish ones. “He seemed to say that there was no way, in any way, to ever trust Iran. Which says to me you can’t have a deal with Iran,” Sen Barbara Boxer (D-California) told reporters, “and then he said, ‘Well, why don’t you work for a better deal?'”

“I don’t know what he’s saying,” she added, “I think he had circular reasoning.”

Kentucky Democrat, Rep. John Yarmouth, who is also Jewish, called the speech “straight out of the Dick Cheney playbook,” and echoed many who found the prime minister’s tone “condescending,” as if “he didn’t think anybody in Congress or the country understood the threat that a nuclear, weaponized Iran poses to his country, to the region and to the world.”

Where Bibi sees this as a negotiation to avert war, negotiators are engaged only in talks to avert a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu’s idea of successful negotiation would be one where “world powers… insist that Iran change its behavior” in regard to what he called its role as the “foremost sponsor of global terrorism.”

Not surprisingly, it’s very similar to his attitude toward the dormant peace process between his government and the Palestinians. Some may say that arrogance is as Israeli as a kibbutz, but Netanyahu took it to a new level last summer, when, in a news conference conducted solely in Hebrew, he told reporters what he really thought of the two-state solution and any effort by the U.S. to negotiate peace in the region. As the Times of Israel reported:

“He made explicitly clear that he could never, ever, countenance a fully sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank. He indicated that he sees Israel standing almost alone on the frontlines against vicious Islamic radicalism, while the rest of the as-yet free world does its best not to notice the march of extremism. And he more than intimated that he considers the current American, John Kerry-led diplomatic team to be, let’s be polite, naive.”

That goes a long way to explaining his condescension to Congress, Tuesday, and I’m sad to say, confirms his unwillingness to be a partner for peace, as long as his party runs the Israeli government. Maybe it will all backfire, and Obama and the 60 or so Democrats who did not go to the joint session to hear Bibi, by not wanting to appear to interfere with the upcoming Israeli elections, will, by their absence, have done just that.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 624 other followers

%d bloggers like this: