Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sotormayor fracas tells us more about Republicans these days

It's rather frustrating to see all the vitriol and racism charges being bandied back and forth regarding Judge Sonia Sotmayor. I have to say, however, that Fred Barnes wins the award for most racist comment, while G. Gordon Liddy wins the sexist award.

But let's do something most commentators are not willing to do, which is to let Judge Sotomayor defend herself with her own words and context of her now infamous remarks about a Latina judge compared to a white male judge (hat tip to Brad Delong on this one):

In our private conversations, Judge Cedarbaum has pointed out to me that seminal decisions in race and sex discrimination cases have come from Supreme Courts composed exclusively of white males. I agree that this is significant but I also choose to emphasize that the people who argued those cases before the Supreme Court which changed the legal landscape ultimately were largely people of color and women. I recall that Justice Thurgood Marshall, Judge Connie Baker Motley, the first black woman appointed to the federal bench, and others of the NAACP argued Brown v. Board of Education. Similarly, Justice Ginsburg, with other women attorneys, was instrumental in advocating and convincing the Court that equality of work required equality in terms and conditions of employment.

Whether born from experience or inherent physiological or cultural differences, a possibility I abhor less or discount less than my colleague Judge Cedarbaum, our gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging. Justice O'Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases. I am not so sure Justice O'Connor is the author of that line since Professor Resnik attributes that line to Supreme Court Justice Coyle. I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. First, as Professor Martha Minnow has noted, there can never be a universal definition of wise. Second, I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.

Let us not forget that wise men like Oliver Wendell Holmes and Justice Cardozo voted on cases which upheld both sex and race discrimination in our society. Until 1972, no Supreme Court case ever upheld the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case. I, like Professor Carter, believe that we should not be so myopic as to believe that others of different experiences or backgrounds are incapable of understanding the values and needs of people from a different group. Many are so capable. As Judge Cedarbaum pointed out to me, nine white men on the Supreme Court in the past have done so on many occasions and on many issues including Brown.

However, to understand takes time and effort, something that not all people are willing to give. For others, their experiences limit their ability to understand the experiences of others. Other simply do not care. Hence, one must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

It's not perfect, but now it's at least understandable. Justices Holmes and Cardozo were great jurists, but they had problems seeing their way past the official racism of their time. And let's recall the still recent opinion from Justice Roberts where he showed a glib and ignorant perspective regarding the pockets and subtleties of racism that continues to exist in our society (though our strides toward ridding our nation of racism have been outstanding compared to most other societies on the planet). The last paragraph of Sotomayor's speech brings her back to universal sensibilities, with a subtle understanding that her experience has some relevance.

I have to say I was not favorably dispossed toward Sotomayor, figuring Sotomayor was more like Ginsburg and Breyer, i.e., corporate Democrats who simply see cultural issues as the challenge in this world, and who wouldn't understand the feelings of a labor union organizer even if they had a "Freaky Friday" experience.

I think, however, my initial gut on Sotomayor is wrong. Here is an enlightening article from the NY Times about Sotomayor's ruling in the baseball strike case from 1994. That was a wise decision, especially for a Yankees fan.(:-) But does she understand what it's like to be a Cubs' fan?).

And here is a summary of Sotomayor's decision protecting homeless people from being exploited by a downtown business group. The homeless were getting $1 an hour to do clean up in the neighborhood.

So count me in as a supporter of Judge Sotomayor for the US Supreme Court. I know, I know, her temper may not be so great, but the way Roberts has acted along with Scalia and Thomas, maybe some hot blooded personality on the so-called liberal side is needed. Still, I pine for a William Brennan, who was a peacemaker above all else...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Amos Elon: He saw Israel and the surrounding nations clearer than most

Amos Elon passed away this week, away from Israel these past few years. Still, he was a sane voice and a wise one on many issues having to do with that cauldron of tribalism.

A nice eulogy essay by Bernard Avishai over at Josh Marshall's place is here.

This was his last review essay in the New York Review of Books, from February 14, 2008. It's not that we agreed on every nuance, but Elon had a basic understanding of the frustrations of both sides, and recognized fairly well the need for Israel to change its ways, too.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

California Supreme Court decision on Proposition 8

I have only read the news headlines, but offer up my previous posts which seem fairly prescient at least in part...

This post was from the time of the oral arguments before the California Supreme Court.

This post was from my review of Attorney General Jerry Brown's amicus brief.

This post was my brief post-mortem after Proposition 8 won at the polls.

This post summarizes my views on Proposition 8 before the election.

This post summarizes my initial critique of the Marriage Cases opinion, which court opinion led to the backlash that produced Proposition 8.

My initial thought is that I give Justice Moreno credit for sticking to his position. The others who voted to legalize same sex marriage but voted to uphold Proposition 8 still owe an apology to the State citizens for misunderstanding that a majority of the people in this State felt very strongly there was a big difference between allowing same sex consenting adults to have a civil union and allowing them to enter into a "marriage" to be sanctioned by the State. I wish they didn't feel that strongly, but they do. And so we are back to the proposal that I and others support: Get the State out of the "marriage" sanctioning business. Everyone who is seeking government benefits of marriage get a civil union. Marriage is what people do in private and in their churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Garry Wills on Lincoln

Garry Wills' article on Lincoln in the New York Review of Books is an excellent, concise analysis of Lincoln's views towards slavery and African-Americans. Ironically, Gore Vidal was blasted nearly a quarter of a century ago for a similar analysis of Lincoln's views--but of course, Vidal understood Lincoln better than most of the historians of the time. See here and here for the juicy exchanges between Vidal and major Linclon or Civil War era historians in the NY Reivew of Books back in the late 1980s.

In any event, the most profound quote in the Wills article belongs, not suprisingly, to the iconic Frederick Douglass, when he said:

Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

The point here should be clear, but often needs repeating in a variety of ways. What Douglass recognized is that we have a right to judge a leader outside of his or her time. But we should not judge a leader outside of his or her time as if the time today is the same as the time then. That would be what alternative history writers call "presentism." It is "presentism," for example, that leads too many "Holocaust studies" historians to harshly criticize FDR and his response to the Holocaust against Europe's Jews in World War II. It is often found to be a problem of the specialist who really doesn't understand the sweep of history, but it can affect any of us--and so must be confronted when it arises.

Wills' article strikes a blow against presentism, and a blow for historical accuracy and understanding. Wills' article should be required reading in every high school or college class in American History.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Usury has deeply injured my country

Thomas Geoghegan makes a compelling case for how unbridled income at the top, financial interests superseding industrial interests in our nation, along with the legitimization of usury led us to our present economic collapse. The only clinker in this brilliant article is where Geoghegan strangely fails to comprehend how the NAFTA and WTO deals codified the trends that contributed to the destruction of our nation's industrial base. Otherwise, the article is a must-read and is an important backdrop to President Obama's recent call to begin (finally!) to reform the credit card industry.

And here, from the same issue of Harper's (April 2009), is a fascinating article about how the poor and lower income working classes are doubly and triply disadvantaged because of their inability to afford to maintain a simple bank account. The rise of check-cashing businesses is a sorry incident to the maldistribution of wealth in America today.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Netanyahu threatens more war instead of promoting peace

Abba Eban, former Foreign Minister of Israel in the 1960s, used to say the Palestinians never fail to miss an opporunity to miss an opportunity.

The Israelis are very good at following this quip themselves, and Netanyahu has just missed another opportunity to promote peace. See this article in Ha'aretz which starts out discussing the Palestinians' response, but about half way into the article starts to quote Israeli legislative officials who recognize Netanyahu's blunder. Meanwhile, President Obama is making clear he will move forward with peace proposals that include a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank, and Netanyahu may find himself with a vote of no confidence in Israel by the end of the year.

Some may wonder, why did Netanyahu travel to Washington, DC if he had nothing constructive about peace to say?

My sense is that he traveled to the Washington, DC to deliver his ultimatum to the U.S.: Either do something to stop Iran from perfecting a nuclear bomb or else Israel will attack Iran. See this article from Ha'artez today as that is the import I drew from it, especially the last third of the article. (ADDENDUM: See also this latest article in Ha'aretz for Foreign Minister Barak's statements supporting Netanyahu regarding attacking Iran.)

One may say this is all a kabuki dance, with each political leader playing a role to help foster a feeling among Iranian leaders that it is time to stop developing its nuclear bomb(s). But I doubt Iran will give up its quest for a nuclear bomb--it's just too temptingly close. Even opposition candidates in Iran, who favor detente with the West, and even peaceful relations with the US and probably eventually Israel, don't want to stop building a nuclear capability.

The key in Iran, especially in the past month, and repeating past patterns, is Refomist candidates ripping into Ahmadinejad. Here are the opening paragraphs from the NY Times article from April 7, 2009:

Rejecting the policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as “extremist,” a leading presidential candidate said Monday that he favored improved relations with the West and greater individual freedoms at home.

Mir Hussein Moussavi, a former prime minister who announced his candidacy last month, lashed out at what he called “extremism” and “mismanagement” by Mr. Ahmadinejad, policies that he said were “jeopardizing the country’s interests.”

“We need to pursue an active foreign policy to achieve détente,” he said at a news conference here. “Extremism has cost us a high price. We have to work hard to build international confidence.”

Another potential presidential challenger, also a cleric, just ripped into Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial antics.

Who knows if the Iranian government will ban opposition parties the way it did last time? Regardless, the rumblings are there, and I am certain that peaceful overtures will work to defeat the war mongers in Iran more effectively than the type of rhetoric Netanyahu has favored thus far...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

California Nightmaring (with apologies to the Mammas and Pappas)

This Tuesday, May 19, 2009, we have a special election in California on five ballot measures supposedly designed to solve our State's continuing budget crisis. None of the ballot measures set forth anything but rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship. However, the rhetoric is laden with a dire sense of emergency as if these initiatives would plug the hole in the sinking ship or provide us all with lifeboats to get to a new ship coming by.

The real solutions to California's continuing budget crisis are these:

1. End the 67% rule to pass budgets and taxes. Make it a lower supermajority of 55% to pass a budget or raise taxes. Only CA, Arkansas and Rhode Island have 67% majority requirements. Do we really want to be like Arkansas? And Rhode Island, a State that is a fraction of California's population, has its own budget deficit problems, too. The 2/3ds rule doesn't solve problems, it creates delay and crisis and unfairly increases the power of the income tax-cut cultists (they don't really mind sales tax increases more often than not, since those burden regular folks, not their rich friends!) who don't give a damn about the functioning of State and local governments.

2. Repeal Proposition 13 ONLY for business-owned real property so that Disneyland can pay property taxes based upon market rates, not what their real property was worth before July 1, 1978. Insider columnist Dan Walters' article is important to read because the lame opposition arguments he raises show how obvious this solution really is from any rational public policy standpoint.

3. Reform the Three Strikes initiative in California to stop non-violent felonies (i.e. drug possession) from being included in the three strikes. This would bring California into conformity with many other States in the U.S. Why this reform? Because the largest increase in spending has come from prison spending and requirements attendant to prison building. Not schools.

4. Increase the State's income tax on the top 5% of income earners to 11% on the top margin of income, which is where it was under Republican Governor Pete Wilson in the 1990s. Somehow I didn't see the hammer and sickle flying over California during that time, did you?

5. Repeal or abolish the initiative (we can live with the recall, despite the circus that brought the Governator to power in 2003). Huh, you ask? Well, think about it. What caused this structural crisis? Initiatives. First, Proposition 13. Then, all the tinkering and nonsense that followed it, starting with Proposition 8, the draconian Three Strikes Initiative, Proposition 98 (gotta save the schools from the effects of the other initiatives!), and I'm sure you can add more if you've lived here or followed the State's political scene in the past 30 years.

Yet, much of the business elite and corporate media in California say these solutions 1 through 5, while meritworthy, are not "serious." On the other hand, the current rhetoric flying around is that we face a dire emergency unprecedented in our State's history. So, to mix metaphors, we're driving over a cliff, and we still can't talk about Proposition 13 reform or reforming the way budgets or taxes are decided? If you hear heads exploding among our elite and media, that may be the reason.

California voters, kept in the dark about these solutions, are angry and want to strike out against complicated solutions they properly recongize don't solve the problem. This is why California voters may wind up defeating most of the initiatives on Tuesday except the one that tells legislators and the governor they can't get a raise until they pass a budget (Proposition 1F).

So anyway, here is how I intend to vote on Propositions 1A through 1F, but first why I am voting the way I am. I vote the way I do because we California citizens should do something, and the harm from passing some of these initiatives is outweighed by not passing those particular initiatives. We'll have to pass additional initiatives later anyway--since we still won't face reality-- and whatever gets us through the real and current budget crisis is, with mixed emotions, worth the effort.

I recommend voting YES on Propositions 1A, 1B, 1E and 1F. I recommend voting NO on Propositions 1C and 1D.

are the initiatives and arguments pro and con from Secretary of State Debra Bowen's outstanding website (her Republican predecessor deserves credit as well since he initially put the website together that Bowen has somewhat improved).

Here are my simplistic arguments for my reasons for voting on these measures:

1A gives us breathing room, and yes, it does extend some current tax rates. So what? The cult of the income tax cutters is, again, a license for recklessness. Tax cutters are almost to a person more ignorant of how governments function than nearly any other interest group I've seen in my decades of following politics.

1B merely sets up a repayment plan for the 2009 budget cuts in local and county schools. It is Proposition 98, Part II. I reluctantly supported Proposition 98, passed in 1988 to protect schools, for the reason that it was, and remains, a deck chair rearranger that did not deal with the four above reforms I've supported for 20 years--but it was, in the 1980s, too easy for legislators to cut school spending (harder now, though still obviously easier than raising State income taxes on the top 5% of income earners). I am even more reluctantly supporting 1B, if you catch my drift, but let's make sure the State wide legislators know they should pay back the local communities for the cuts that were made this year.

1C expands the ability of the state lottery program to advertise. Are we going to become Las Vegas even more than we already are with the Indian Casinos and the like? Sorry, no dice. And yes, pun intended!

1D is punitive without giving us any reason to believe these children's health and education cuts are going to be effective to relieve the budget crisis. This is a power grab in the face of the crisis by those who just hated Rob Reiner's tobacco tax initiative known as Proposition 10.

1E is something I am very reluctantly supporting. It calls for a one time transfer of mental health monies from adults to children and saves $500 million over two years (when the budget crunch is in the area of $40 BILLION). So why do I support 1E? It's because the stupid initiative upon which it is based requires we voters have to approve this simple one time transfer during a crisis time. Ugh!

1F is very simple. No wage or salary increases for legislators and the Governor while they are bickering over the State's budget or when the State's running a deficit. Heck, the Legislature unanimously voted for it, but again, due to an inititative requirement, we voters have to approve it. Yup, love that initiative process!

So there you go, Californians. That's my take on California budget politics these days.


ADDENDUM: So much for people listening to me...Looks like people voted with their spleens (the spleen is...oh, just read Wikipedia). Well, maybe the Governor will finally level with people and stop these gimmicky propositions that dance around the edges. If he was really the tough and straight-talking guy he claimed to be, instead of just another scared politician, he'd be talking about the proposals that begin this post.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Saturday Afternoon Review of the NY Review of Books

First, here is a wonderfully written review by Sue Halpern tying together a bio of Warren Buffett, a sly but devastating attack on the glibness of Gladwell and a short mediation on success in America.

Second, Gershom Gorenberg (he who just wrote this article on the lack of a Palestinian Martin Luther King, Jr.) provides an excellent review of Israeli historian Benny Morris' latest book on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Third, one can't help read this article on Pakistan in the NY Review of Books and wonder how bad a decision it was for America to "tilt toward" Pakistan in 1971 against India. By leaving India essentially alone, we allowed it to develop without a militaristic bent--and its dictatorship was more easily overthrown. In Pakistan, of course, we backed militarily and economically, a series of strong men who turned their nation into a garrison state, and to placate people, fostered the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Wow, what an effective public policy that was (Please, please note the sarcasm!).

Sunday, May 10, 2009

It's about time someone else said this...

I have long said, oh 20 years or more, that Palestinians in Israel need a Martin Luther King, Jr. or Ghandi. Now, Gershom Gorenberg has said it (a progressive writing in The Weekly Standard, which should shame The Nation magazine*, I might add) and published on the web a rejoinder to critics and supporters here.

The article is fascinating because it reminds us of a Palestinian who could have played that role, Mubarak Awad. The Israelis deported him, which is one more example of how successive Israeli governments do not pursue peace. Unlike Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush Jr., America's new president, armed with Internet politics behind him, would be far less likely to allow Israel to deport the next Awad. Isn't it time for Palestinians to try non-violent civil disobedience in the West Bank and Gaza--and in Jerusalem in response to the Israeli government's bad faith actions like this?

* The Nation is where I read about Gorenberg's article (see here), but even the person at The Nation who endorses what Gorenberg says can't help saying it in a defensive manner. This is circumstantially damning evidence against The Nation magazine, which seems incapable of printing anything directly critical regarding the Palestinians.


Sunday night review of newspaper essays and book reviews

The London Times Literary Supplement contains a fascinating and surprising article about the novelist, Eudora Welty. I had no idea she worked for FDR's New Deal as a publicist for the Works Progress Association (WPA). And I had no idea she turned 100 years old this year had she not passed away several years ago. Heck, I may even read some of her work now!

In another article from the TLS, Jon Garvie explores, through a book review of Susan Freidberg's "Fresh," how talking about food has become almost as much of obsession is the overeating of it.

And for those who like highbrow gossip, here is a review of new book about Thomas Mann's miserable family (made miserable because of him, apparently).

Finally, in the London Review of Books, a look at the torture scandal on the British side of the big Atlantic pond. I will never understand why Tony Blair went along with Bush on the Iraq War and the various and sundry crimes of the Bush administration.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

A rant on the subject of torture

In 1940, George Riley Scott, a British writer, wrote a book entitled "A History of Torture." In the book, Scott reviewed not merely the history of torture, but added an analysis of the arguments used to justify torture--and why those arguments are wrong. (Note: Scott discusses waterboarding as torture that dates back to the Spanish Inquisition, at pages 171-180 of his book). Reading at least some of the literature on this subject, I find the two most compelling reasons to oppose government use of torture are (1) the ineffectiveness of torture, and how guilt, extensive questioning or other non-tortuous methods are more effective at securing information, and (2) how torture distorts any sense of mercy or kindness in the community which tortures, in addition to cruelly injuring or killing those who are tortured. It's quite breathtaking that our Founders who led the enactment of the 8th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution against "cruel and unusual punishment would instantly recognize what is wrong with the arguments from those now trying to justify the use of torture after the events of September 11, 2001.

What we read, hear and see today among the pro-torture crowd is nothing new, as Scott recognized. Also, the arguments pro-torturers have asserted have been rejected by various international laws codified as recently as twenty years ago under Ronald Reagan (whose support for killers of priests and nuns apparently had its limits).

Glenn Greenwald, who cites in his blog post linked to above, the Reagan endorsed prohibitions of torture, also links to this smackdown of Charles Krauthammer by Washington Post writer Dan Froomkin. Krauthammer's second argument is precisely the type of argument that would legitimize torture.

I also find it troubling, yet strangely amusing, to learn that those who are ritually religious in attending weekly religious services are more likely to support torture. This finding, if true, turns on its head Dennis Prager's often made argument about ritualistically religious people being more "moral." And for those who fit that finding, let's ask them: If God is all powerful and plays even a small role in protecting and guiding us, then why not let God decide whether to torture someone? The contradiction that is glaring in such ritualistic religious people is, in fact, reconciled when we realize what animates such people is fear. These people see themselves as "hawks" and "tough," but they are not. They are afraid. They are also quite ignorant in thinking torture is only something that will happen to someone else.

But let's propose something to Krauthammer and Dick Cheney, who think torture is sufficiently effective to justify its use, and the odious Ann Coulter, who thinks waterboarding is akin to hazing or disciplining children: Let's waterboard George W. Bush and Dick Cheney and demand they confess to lying about Saddam Hussein's capacity to inflict harm on Americans or most of the world in 2002 and early 2003. Then, when we get their confessions--which the pro-torture people believe is legitimate evidence--the admissions will then be used against them in a war crimes trial. And if they are found guilty, well, I guess we'll have to execute them just like we often do with war criminals.

Oh wait. I forgot. Like so much that passes for "conservative" or "Republican" ideology, this would violate their most sacred principle: It's okay when we do bad things to others, but it's not okay when it's done to us. And these right-wingers wonder why a majority of Americans have had enough of their leadership?


Friday, May 01, 2009

FDR finally gets some credit for saving Jews

This article from the Associated Press summarizes a new book which explains how FDR was actively attempting to save European Jews in the 1930s. The book is called "Refugees and Rescue" (2009, Indiana University Press).

Too bad the article writer did not speak with Robert Rosen, who wrote an outstanding book on this subject called "Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust" (2006, Thunder's Mouth's Press (hardcover edition)).

Rosen's book explains how a majority of German Jews escaped Hitler's Germany during the 1930s and how FDR used most of the US immigration quotas for those coming from European nations to help German Jews escape Hitler. Rosen also notes an often forgotten fact: That almost 75% of those on the "Voyage of the Damned" survived the war. Rosen's book is an important corrective to the Wyman Institute, whose anti-FDR stance suffers from myopia and present-ism in failing to recognize that Congress, not just the State Department, was cruelly indifferent or outright anti-Semitic in the 1930s and 1940s, and the US government's restrictive immigration policies made bringing in Jews from Europe especially difficult, before and definitely after 1939, the start of World War II in Europe.

And as I say to those who defame FDR, "What? You think Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie or Thomas Dewey was going to be better?"

Finally, let's remember that if it was up to Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, and many leading American industrialists, the U.S. would have supported Hitler or stayed neutral. FDR did save Europe's Jews from complete annihilation. And it's time we stopped judging him from a perspective that is infused with the American civil rights movement and subsequent governmental anti-discrimination laws and programs that have favorably changed our culture in the last 45 years.