Saturday, October 18, 2014

When In Danger Or In Doubt, Run In Circles, Scream and Shout

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion


OK, everybody, just calm the heck down. Ebola is not going to kill you.
You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than you are to die of Ebola. You’re more likely to die of food poisoning (as 3,000 people a year do) than you are of Ebola. You’re even more likely to get killed by a guy shooting up your workplace, school, or local McDonald’s than you are by Ebola.
Now, don’t you feel better?
It’s true that there have now been a whopping three reported cases of Ebola in the U.S. The first was Thomas Duncan, who apparently contracted the disease while visiting his relatives in Liberia. He then apparently lied about his exposure to the disease to Liberian authorities before returning here. (Liberia threatened to prosecute him for that, but the poor fellow died before they could.)
The other two victims are health care workers who treated Duncan, all of whom caught Ebola in the only way you can: by contact with the bodily fluids of a person showing symptoms.
This last part is key: You’re only infectious if you’re showing symptoms. This is why that second nurse, who got on an airplane to go to Cleveland to plan her wedding after treating Duncan, most likely hasn’t infected anyone.
Just to be on the safe side, the people on the plane with her are getting checked, but unless she was both (1) symptomatic; and (2) drooling, bleeding, spitting, sweating on, or otherwise enfluidizing her fellow passengers, they should be in the clear. (Yes, I made that word “enfluidizing” up. Maybe it’ll catch on.)
The biggest fear people have about Ebola seems to be the possibility that it will suddenly mutate and go airborne, meaning you wouldn’t have to come into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids to get it. If that happened, you could get it just by being in the same room with an infected person.
But, as Granddaddy used to say, “If a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his butt when he jumps.” Which is to say, Ebola’s not airborne, and the chances of it getting that way are — well, the aforementioned frog has about as good a chance of developing wings.
Don’t just take my word for it, or even Grandaddy’s. Dr. Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology and immunology in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, a man who’s been doing research on viruses since 1975, writes in his blog: “We can ask: Has any human virus ever changed its mode of transmission? The answer is no. We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we’ve never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted.”
HIV, he notes, can still only be transmitted via sex, dirty needles, or childbirth. Same for Hepatitis C. Both have infected millions, and they haven’t changed the way they do it. Ever.
Sure, you can say, “Just because we’ve never seen a virus change how it spreads before doesn’t mean it won’t this time.” But you could just as easily say, “Just because we’ve never seen a virus mutate so as to cause people to turn into flesh-eating zombies doesn’t mean one never will.”
This isn’t a scary thriller novel. It’s not a disaster movie. We don’t live in Africa. There’s no need to stock up on plastic sheeting and duct tape. This can be contained, and it will be.
The kind of hysteria we’ve seen, with CNN trotting out thriller author Robin Cook as not only an expert but as “the man who wrote the book on Ebola,” when what he wrote was an admittedly entertaining but fanciful novel, is irresponsible.
The man’s pre-author job was as an ophthalmologist, for crying out loud. For him to say, “This kind of an illness is probably the scariest thing we can deal with,” is not only not helpful, it’s downright dangerous. Hysteria, for example, is a lot scarier, because it makes people do terrible things.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” is as true a statement now as it was when FDR said it. Maybe even more so.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Curious Incident of the Supreme Court

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Ah, the first Monday in October. A day of great interest to those of us in the law biz, because that’s the day the Supreme Court of the United States officially starts its term.
This year, the Supremes began by, like the dog in the Sherlock Holmes story, doing a curious thing: nothing. They decided not to review the decisions of lower courts which struck down bans on gay marriage in seven same-sex marriage cases.
Because those appeals courts also have jurisdiction over more than just the states the original cases came from, bans on same-sex marriage will almost certainly fall in those other states as well. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which struck down Virginia’s gay marriage ban on constitutional equal-protection grounds, also has jurisdiction over West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Therefore, while a challenge to North Carolina’s egregious Amendment One hasn’t yet reached the Fourth Circuit, it’s legally dead in the water, waiting only for the harpoon, and the Supreme Court isn’t going to try to resuscitate it.
On Tuesday, the mighty Ninth Circuit, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, struck down same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada. By the time the effects of the decisions are fully felt, 35 states will likely have to recognize the right of same-sex couples to enjoy the same legal rights the rest of us take for granted.
As one might expect, the haters and bigots went nuts. Sen. Green Eggs and Ham himself, Mr. Ted Cruz of Texas, referred to the decision of the SCOTUS not to intervene as “the worst kind of judicial activism.”
Get that? Doing nothing is now “activism.” Proof once again, as if you needed any, that the words “judicial activism,” like the words “liberal” and “leftist,” have been robbed of all meaning other than “anything I don’t like.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah fell back on the tired and hackneyed complaint about “unelected judges”: “Whether to change that definition [of marriage] is a decision best left to the people of each state — not to unelected, politically unaccountable judges.”
Sadly, Sen. Lee, like most right wingers claiming to be defenders and upholders of the Constitution, seems to know very little about it. See, according to that pesky old Constitution, federal judges, including those on the Supreme Court, aren’t elected, and therefore not “politically accountable.”
That’s how the whole thing was set up from the beginning, for the very reason that the interpretation of federal law (including the Constitution) shouldn’t be subject to the vagaries of political opinion, and that you can’t “leave it to the people of each state” if what they decide to do, even via popular vote, violates the Constitution. You got a problem with that, take it up with the Founding Fathers.
It’s particularly amusing because Sen. Lee himself used to work for one of those “unelected and politically unaccountable” judges, namely Justice Samuel Alito, for whom Mr. Lee clerked. So we can assume he knows better and is just playing to the rubes — sorry, I mean the “base.”
As of this writing, the rulings and others like them have not caused the collapse of so-called “traditional” marriage. Despite the fretting of Butch Otter, Idaho’s wonderfully named governor, allowing same-sex marriage has not led “opposite-sex couples to abuse alcohol and drugs, engage in extramarital affairs, take on demanding work schedules, and participate in time-consuming hobbies.” At least not any more than they already do.
As Ninth Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt drily observed in responding to that argument, “We seriously doubt that allowing committed same-sex couples to settle down in legally recognized marriages will drive opposite-sex couples to sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.” Dang it, I was so looking forward to that.
All that said, the issue isn’t completely over. It’s entirely possible that another federal circuit — say the Fifth (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas), Sixth (Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee), or Eleventh (Alabama, Florida and Georgia) — which still have cases on marriage equality pending, may decide differently than the ones whose decisions the Supreme Court left alone.
That would create the dreaded “split between circuits,” at which point the Supremes would almost certainly decide they needed to step in and resolve the question once and for all as to whether states can deny people the fundamental right to marry and equal protection of the law just because they’re different.
Let’s hope they decide to stay on the right side of history and tell them, “No, you can’t.”

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Latte Is The New Teleprompter

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Once again, the shrieking outrage over a photograph of President Barack Obama saluting with a cup of coffee in his hand as he steps off Marine One reveals that there is nothing too small or trivial but that the American right won’t throw a giant hissy fit over it.
It’s all very amusing — until you realize what it says about the state of right-wing thinking.
By now, I’m sure you’ve seen the photo: President Obama, on his way to the U.N., stepping off the helicopter, flanked by saluting Marines on either side. He has his coat slung over one arm and is returning the salute with, horror of horrors, a cup in his hand.
Of course, the right-wing hysteria machine, apparently made up of people who have nothing better to do than comb through every photograph of the president looking for something to be apoplectic about, leapt immediately into action.
“How disrespectful was that?” Republican strategist Karl Rove asked. Half-Term Governor Sarah Palin mocked Obama’s lack of military service in a speech to a “Christian values” convention, a speech in which she also identified the president’s home address as “1400 Pennsylvania Avenue” — actually the address of a park next to the historic Willard Hotel. (It should be noted that neither Rove nor Palin served in the military.)
The National Republican Senatorial Committee even created a website — yes, an entire website — to protest.
Thing is, the president isn’t required to salute at all, and in this situation probably shouldn’t have. According to the regulations published by the Department of the Army (and available online), a salute isn’t required when “carrying articles with both hands” and “when either the senior or the subordinate is wearing civilian clothes.”
In addition, for 192 years of our nation’s history, presidents (including war heroes like Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower) didn’t return the salute at all. The practice originally started with Ronald Reagan, who apparently ran around saluting everything in a uniform.
When a Marine aide let him know that that wasn’t standard protocol, Reagan went to the commandant of the Marine Corps, who told him, “You’re the [bad word] president. You can salute whoever you want.”
Of course, you can just imagine the howling that would have ensued if Obama hadn’t saluted at all. Or if, like the President Who Must Not Be Named, he was photographed, several times, saluting while holding his Scottish terrier in one hand. That’s different, we’re told by the Raging Right. Because — just because it is, OK?

So what next? Will Darell Issa convene hearings on “Latte-gate?” Will there be subpoenas demanding to know if the president took cream or sugar, and if so, was it an American brand? Will there be a breathless (and quickly debunked) expose on “60 Minutes”?
“Tonight on ‘60 Minutes,’ some guy you’ve never heard of who claims to have been a barista on Marine One has written a book in which he details his harrowing experiences on Sept. 23, 2014. He tells us how he would have heroically taken the cup from the president’s hand himself, but received a ‘stand down order’ for some reason we don’t know, but which we know is somehow Obama’s fault. I’m Lara Logan, and am as baffled as you are as to why I still have a job.”
More likely, “latte” will became the new “teleprompter”: a word wingnuts randomly drop into any conversation about the president in an attempt to craft a clever insult that only serves to point out how mindless and ill-informed the person delivering it actually is.
Example: “Wow, did you hear some guy jumped the fence and broke into the White House?” “Yeah, Obama was so surprised he nearly dropped his latte. Get it? Latte! HAW HAW HAW!”
It’s important, the wingnuts say, because it shows a pattern. They’re right, but not in the way they think. The real pattern is this: The right has certain narratives, certain themes they cling to. In this case, the theme is “Obama hates the military.” This is patently absurd, as anyone outside the right-wing anti-information bubble knows. But the truth doesn’t matter to these people. Any information that contradicts the narrative is rejected. Anything they come across, no matter how minor, is warped to fit the theme.
Fix the facts around the theory, instead of the other way around. Sound familiar? That’s the right-wing mindset that got us into the Iraq War. And that’s where it stops being amusing.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Whatever It Is, Blame Obama

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

The recent spate of stories coming out of the NFL regarding domestic violence, child abuse and other nastiness on the home front has led to a great deal of soul-searching and debate across this country.

What is the cause of all of this? Does our culture’s adoration of professional athletes lead them to believe they can get away with anything? Is it a symptom of some deeper societal problem?
To the right wing, however, the answer is clear, as it always is when the question “Who or what should we be angry at for this?” is raised. That answer is: President Barack Obama.
Fox News-harpy Andrea Tantaros, for example, leapt right to the attack after the now-infamous tape surfaced showing Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee’s lights out.
“I wanna know, where is the president on this one?” fumed Tantaros from inside the cloud of peevishness that enshrouds her at all times. “My question is, and not to bring it back to politics, but this is a White House that seems to bring up a ‘war on women’ every other week.”
Yeah, Andrea. We certainly wouldn’t want to bring it back to politics.
Meanwhile, washed-up actor Kevin Sorbo (of “Hercules” and “Andromeda” fame) tried to kick-start his new career as a right-wing wacko celeb (a la Ted Nugent, Adam Baldwin and Kirk Cameron) by going on Fox and parroting the same line.
“There’s no accountability in the White House with Benghazi, the IRS and all that kind of stuff,” he explained. “How do we expect to have accountability with something like a professional football team?”
The National Review’s Jim Geraghty went even further. He blamed not only the NFL’s failure to act promptly on the Rice scandal, but a laundry list of other bad things, on “The Obama Era of American Leadership.”
Those bad things ranged from GM’s recall of 2.6 million cars with defective ignition switches, to the chemical spill in West Virginia that poisoned the drinking water of 300,000 people, to NBC’s decision to hire Chelsea Clinton for “$600,000 a year for three years.” (I’m still scratching my head over why he’s so cheesed off about that last one.)
As I’ve pointed out before in this column, the right has even found ways to blame Barack Obama for the failed response to Hurricane Katrina (which occurred three years before Obama’s first election win); the recession that began the year before he took office; and high oil prices before the 2008 election.
Back in March of this year, former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (who used to seem like a pretty smart lady) blamed Obama for “dictators like Bashar al-Assad in Syria (who came to power in 2000) and Vladimir Putin in Russia (who first became president of that country in 1999).”
It’s a time-honored technique. Make your gripes about “leadership” or “tone-setting” broad enough, and you can blame the president for just about everything:
“I’m sorry, ma’am, we know you came in for a tonsillectomy, but we, um, amputated your left leg. We blame Obama’s lack of leadership. Gee, thanks, Obama!”
“Yeah, Your Honor, I beat up an elderly African-American storekeeper and robbed his cash register. If Obama hadn’t inflamed racial tensions by commenting on the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases, I wouldn’t have been so angry. Gee, thanks, Obama!”
“Yeah, I showed up three hours late for work, I smell like a distillery, and there’s an unconscious stripper in the back seat of my car in the parking lot. I’ve just been really depressed lately over Obama’s lack of accountability. Oh, I’m fired? Gee, thanks, Obama!”
And so on.
Sadly, it’s not just the right-wingers who blame Obama for everything. Far too many on the left are prone to what blogger Oliver Willis has dubbed “Green Lantern Liberalism”: the idea that, like the nearly omnipotent comic book character, the president could create all the things they want — single-payer health care, banking reform, minimum wage increases — through the sheer force of his will if he just wanted it enough.
Thankfully, the president isn’t omnipotent. He can’t travel through time. He’s not responsible for domestic violence, chemical spills, the fact that Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin are brutal thugs, or the fact that the Middle East is the same tangled mess it’s been for more than 2,000 years.
He’s not responsible for Republican obstructionism or the weak-kneed Democrats who fear it. That’s just the hand he was dealt, and he’s playing it pretty well, despite the silliness of the far right and their lapdog news network.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

OMG OMG OMG WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE AAAAAAAAAH!

The Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Anyone who says that President Barack Obama is not doing enough about ISIS, ISIL, whatever they call themselves, should be required to answer one simple question or forever hold their peace:
Do you or do you not advocate sending American ground combat troops into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS? Yes or no?
Let’s make no mistake: These ISIS people are bad news. They’re so vicious and crazy even al-Qaida disowned them. They've committed horrific atrocities against American and British citizens, not to mention against thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of their fellow Muslims.
They do not, however, pose a significant threat at this time to the U.S. homeland. Don’t just take my word for it. This is the assessment of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pentagon, even though Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did allow as how they may threaten our interests abroad.
That doesn’t stop the usual hysterical ranting from the usual gang of warmongers. Sen. Lindsey Graham, for example, looked as if he was about to bust a blood vessel on Fox News Sunday as he demanded ground troops, ground troops and more ground troops, while railing that President Obama “needs to rise to the occasion before we all get killed back here at home.”
Really? They’re going to kill all 314 million of us? No, Graham insists, it’s actually worse. According to him, ISIL, left unchecked, will “open the gates of hell to spill out on the world. … This is ISIL versus mankind.”
Meanwhile, you can always count on our old pal John McCain, a guy who never saw a crisis he didn’t want to carpet-bomb.
“We are now facing an existential threat to the security of the United States of America,” McCain said, possibly because he doesn’t understand what the words “existential threat” actually mean. Either that or he doesn’t care about anything other than the fact that the words sound scary.
It’s all poppycock. Also, codswallop and balderdash.
ISIS/ISIL doesn’t threaten the existence of the United States, which is what the words “existential threat” mean. They don’t hold the keys to “the gates of hell” like the Big Bad in a second-rate horror flick.
Yes, they need to be dealt with, before they get big enough to actually do some real damage to us. That’s going to take exactly the sort of broad-based plan we’re engaged in now: diplomacy with our allies who actually are on the front lines, combined with training and support for the people who rightly should be fighting the war for Iraq and Syria, namely Iraqis and Syrians.
It’s fear-mongering, pure and simple, from the party that realizes every issue it has counted on up to now to bring down the president and defeat his party has fizzled.
Obamacare is working as more and more people get access to health care. A Republican-led committee finally had to admit that its investigation of the Benghazi murders revealed no wrongdoing on the part of the administration. The economy continues to improve as the Dow rises and the jobless rate falls. And so on.
So they fall back on their tried and true tactic: scaring people into believing that Daddy McCain and Momma Lindsey and all their Republican pals will take care of us against the Scary Brown Supervillains Who Will Kill Us All. Pay no attention to how many of our own sons and daughters will be killed, maimed or broken to pay the cost of another war. After all, it won’t be their kids or grandkids bleeding and dying.
The kind of sustained freak-out the right is engaging in right now over an exaggerated threat is exactly the same sort of madness that led to this mess in the first place. Letting terrorists — well, terrorize us into committing troops to another quagmire in the Middle East is playing right into their hands.
They’d like nothing better than to have American troops in Iraq and Syria so they could go back to slowly bleeding us with IEDs and suicide bombers, while our inevitable reaction creates more and more resentment among the locals and more and more of them join the ranks of the terrorists.
Have we learned nothing?
But, hey, if the current group of Republican pols want to send division after division of Americans back into Iraq, make them say it. Don’t allow them to get away with their usual “we don’t want war, but we’ll call anything else failure” nonsense. Make them own up to it. See how the American people like them then.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

An Open Letter to Mr. Obama

 Pilot Newspaper: Opinion

Dear Mr. President:

I heard recently that you plan to delay any executive action on immigration, such as delaying deportation of child refugees, until after the November elections — this in spite of your stated intention earlier to do something by the “end of the summer.”
I’m sure your advisers told you that this would be a smart political move. You may even believe it yourself. Well, they’re wrong, and so are you if you buy into that.
Oh, sure, it’s true that some of the more hotly contested races that could determine control of the Senate are in so-called “red” states. I know it looks like a bad idea to rile up the Republican “base” of xenophobes, bigots, Fox News-addicted outrage junkies, and various other angry, frightened old white dudes. My stars, taking executive action might even upset them enough to get to the polls to vote against Democrats.
But here’s the thing, Mr. President: They’re going to get riled up no matter what you do or don’t do. Riled up is their default state. They’ve been in a state of apoplectic rage since Nov. 4, 2008, when you sent the poster child for angry old white dudes and his empty-headed snowbilly running mate packing.
It only got worse four years later, when their supposed savior, Lord Mitt Romney, couldn’t get out of the way of his own feet and stumbled to a humiliating loss that everyone except them could see coming. All you have to do to upset the Republican base and get them to the polls is be a black Democrat in the White House.
You don’t believe me when I say that trying not to upset the Raging Right is a sucker’s game? Check out Newt Gingrich, who went on CNN’s “State of the Union” to call you “cowardly” and “indecisive” for delaying taking action on immigration.
Of course, no one on the program bothered to point out that on Aug. 3, Newt called such action “unconstitutional” and an example of “the Venezuelan-style, anything-I-want-is-legal presidency.
Look at the House, where the speaker, John Boehner, urged you to act on immigration “without the need for congressional action,” the day after his caucus voted to sue you for acting without congressional action — to delay implementation of a law that they repeatedly voted to repeal.
You cannot placate these people. You cannot calm them down, especially since there’s a billion-dollar industry dedicated to keeping them angry and so afraid of everything that they’re convinced that they’ll be robbed, raped or killed if they don’t have a gun on them every time they leave the house.
Instead of trying to soothe the Republican base, why don’t you pay some attention to your own? You seem so worried at the prospect of right-wingers going to the polls that you’re forgetting the people you need to go there.
Latinos, of course, are the fastest growing demographic in the nation. You also need to get young people fired up. But what I’m hearing from them is a growing sense of frustration, complaints that “politicians are all the same,” and a general apathy about voting.
Dems will probably still get a goodly portion of the female vote, but that’s mainly because several Republicans will inevitably say something incredibly stupid, misogynistic, or patronizing toward women before it’s over. But we need the rest of the constituency, too. So now is not the time for half-measures.
I know, Mr. President, that you’re called “No Drama Obama.” But maybe it’s time for something dramatic. For starters, use the power you have as the executive to delay or defer the deportation of refugee children.
For all the caterwauling about “tyranny” (which, remember, they’re going to do anyway), that power falls squarely within the scope of what’s called “prosecutorial discretion”: the recognition that you simply don’t have unlimited resources to prosecute every law, all the time, so the executive branch can allocate those resources as it sees fit. Prosecutorial discretion has long been recognized by the courts as a legitimate use of executive power.
The Teahadists have threatened impeachment if you try that? Let ’em bring it. Lawsuits? Bring those on, too.
Iowa Rep. Steve King has raised the idea of another government shutdown in protest if you take executive action. Tell him, “Please proceed, Congressman.” Because if there’s one thing that will get wavering Democrats and independents off the couch and into the voting booths, it’ll be the spectacle of the wingnuts once again waving their torches and pitchforks and threatening to destroy the country in order to save it.
So do the right thing, Mr. President, and dare the Republicans to do something about it. Thank you, and God bless.