Category Archives: Bad Politics

The King’s Terms

There is a scene in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart where the British and Scottish armies mass at a battlefield, ready to wage war.  Before the actual battle ensues, the head of the British army speaks with an underling who urges his superior to offer the Scottish army the “king’s terms” as a way to defuse the conflict without bloodshed.  The superior officer scoffs at the suggestion and questions the Scots’ ability to meet these terms.  The underling insists, and the superior officer grudgingly agrees, riding off to meet his Scottish counterparts mid-field to deliver to them the “king’s terms”.  The Scots, through their recently (self-) anointed commander, William Wallace, reject these terms and, under Wallace’s leadership, proceed to slaughter the British army despite being heavily outnumbered and under-equipped.

The arrogance and ineptitude of the Brits, as portrayed in this scene, is reminiscent of how the United States has conducted its foreign policy during this administration and ones that have preceded it in years past.  And no other person better embodies these traits than the current U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry.

When the Syrian government started gassing its own people to death, the United States, with Kerry as its representative on the world stage, rightly condemned the practice.  Obama himself drew the now infamous “red line” which he warned the Syrian government not to cross when it came to snuffing out its antagonists.  But once the Syrian government crossed this line, which almost everyone surely knew it would do, the United States had no meaningful response.  It engaged in a half-hearted effort to punish the Syrian regime with threats of missile strikes.

Then came the “king’s terms”.  As the deadline approached for what might have been a U.S.-led military strike, Kerry publicly dismissed the notion of an alternative non-military approach, pushed by the Russians, in which Syria would turn over all its chemical weapons to international authorities.

In Kerry’s words: ”Sure, he [Syrian President al-Assad] could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week — turn it over, all of it without delay and allow the full and total accounting [of it]. But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done.”

What is significant about all this is not that the Syrians ultimately agreed to a disarmament plan or how they have gone about complying with the terms of the plan or even the instrumental role played by Russia in making the plan a reality, but that such a high level official of the U.S. government would publicly cast judgment on what another government could or could not do without even a moment’s reflection as to the appropriateness of his remarks.  [Immediately after Kerry’s ill-fated statement, the State Department, in another foolish move, went into damage-control mode, describing it as a “rhetorical argument” rather than an actual proposal.]

The “shoot first, ask questions later” approach of U.S. foreign policy can also be seen in the events that have been unfolding in Ukraine and more recently the Middle East “peace process”, another brainchild of Kerry’s.  The Israeli government, which knows a thing or two about zealotry, called Kerry “messianic” in his determination to force an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  As the Israeli defense minister put it, “The only thing that can save us is if Kerry wins the Nobel prize and leaves us alone.”  The Israelis may have gotten their wish now that the peace talks are in shambles, but at the expense of the credibility of the United States, and Kerry specifically, who foolishly waded into the minefield that is Middle East politics without any kind of exit strategy.

It should be clear by now that when it comes to engaging nations abroad the U.S. has no coherent plan or vision.  It’s vision is that of the individuals who make up its foreign policy establishment, whose massive egos and petty political point-scoring blind them to the true interests of the people to whom they are sworn to serve.

And who could blame them?  Having made of mess of country after country for years on end, maybe the U.S. is finally coming to its senses: that the way to exert its moral authority abroad is with what Obama has called a “light footprint”.  Or maybe that is just another way of saying, we have no clue what to do next, and whatever it might be, just make sure it doesn’t look like another Iraq or Afghanistan.

 

 

 

No Party in Sweet Auburn

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

On Sunday I visited Dr. King’s memorial for the first time since moving to Atlanta and a deep sadness came over me.  Not because Dr. King is dead — we all kick the bucket sooner or later and Dr. King did it sooner than most.  That it came about because of Dr. King’s extraordinary deeds is a reflection of the esteem in which he was held domestically and abroad and the inviolability of his many messages advocating for social justice.  No, my sadness stemmed from what I have come to realize is the dawn and perhaps the twilight of a new generation in which a figure like Dr. King and the kind of movement that he was partly responsible for bringing to reality are increasingly considered relics and legends suitable only as exhibits in a museum and not as examples from which similar demonstrations of indignation and outrage may be provoked.  Today, such passions are instead openly and garishly displayed by those who perhaps embody beliefs and qualities almost diametrically opposed to those espoused and possessed by Dr. King.  I need not name names or bandy about labels to underscore this point; in any event, to do so would be a great undertaking if the showing at the most recent Tea Party rally in Washington D.C. is any indication.

How did we get to this point?  Did our economic system not  just implode because of lax or nonexistent governmental oversight and a culture of greedy uber-competitiveness?  Do we not have the dubious distinction of having the highest incarceration and infant mortality rates among industrialized countries?  Is income inequality in this country not at its highest levels in American history?

And yet those rallying in Washington this past weekend, in arguing for greater deregulation and fewer public-conscious programs, effectively thumbed their noses at all those who don’t have an offshore bank account or fortified tax shelter — that is, perhaps 95% of the American pubic, or more depending on how skewed one views the current wealth distribution in this country. No demonstration of equal fervor or organization sought to offer a counter-message.  Al Sharpton and his contingent were present but that, for better or worse, is simply a non-event these days.

There are two theories, in my mind, that might explain the current state of affairs.  I imagine first that the folks who are most likely to disagree with the recent demonstrators at the Washington Mall consider them to be crazy reactionaries out to vent some long pen- up frustrations.  This being the case, we deem them to be mostly harmless; the human equivalent of a New Year’s noisemaker.  And I must admit, I would include myself in that camp.  Yet the truth is far less benign.  At the very least, regardless of how asinine and backward the messages and proclamations of the Tea Party-ers and their fellow travelers might be, their simple existence and circulation in mass media is bound to have some persuasive effect on some person.  To leave such messages unanswered and unchallenged is the equivalent of knowingly handing over the safe combination to a robber armed with a toy pistol.

The more puzzling phenomenon that seems to have enabled and is itself perhaps furthered by the recent rally is our current reluctance to advocate for the downtrodden and dispossessed, and to do so on a general scale without allegiance to a particular race or group.  One doing so, it appears, often risks being labeled a liberal or even worse socialist, the consequences of which may prove dire with the near indelible mark almost everyone leaves on the Internet, whether intended or not, and our country’s irrational and unfortunate distaste for all-things even hinting of Socialism.  Not that it is inappropriate to be outlandish or even radical in one’s messages as long as one leans to the right.  This, I would venture to guess, is why President Obama has thus far given our outlandish neighbors to the right free reign in their collective display of what can be described, simply, as a massive inferiority complex.  His weakness in this regard is unfortunate and concerning but by no means surprising.

It seems to me that until someone is able to discredit the Tea Party and similar groups in a systematic, comprehensive, and public fashion, their outrageously veiled message of apartheid (“taking back America”) will continue unabated and unchallenged.  I don’t imagine this will be a hard task, but perhaps labor and resource-intensive.  The more vexing issue is whether it will ever be possible for a Dr-King-like figure to dominate the public consciousness.  I do not see this happening any time soon.  As dire as our present circumstances are, most folks, even when confronted with the facts — a challenge in and of itself — are simply too oppressed by the rigors of day-to-day survival and distracted by the latest high-tech invention to give a damn.

Justice Denied

A recent report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department did little or nothing to enforce the civil rights of Americans during the Bush administration.  The Times has the story here.  This is by no means a surprise.  The press had reported early on during Bush’s tenure about the ineptitude and sheer corruption that had infected the division.  In fact, Charlie Savage, the reporter who wrote the Dec. 3rd Times article, had a hand in writing one of the earlier stories on the division.

Whether the division will be more effective under the Obama administration is an open question.  Yet one should also ask whether a governmental agency, one that is part of the bureaucratic behemoth that is the Department of Justice, should even be in the business of vindicating the civil rights of Americans.  Not that the intent and mission of the division aren’t laudable.  But getting the division to act, however more willing it may be to do so under the current administration, is, without question, a feat in itself, what with all the red tape to unravel and governmental inertia to counteract.  Perhaps the bus should be driven instead by a public-private partnership, where private attorneys enter into pacts with the Justice Department committing them to the civil rights cause, and, in turn, receive governmental support in the form of subsidizing the cost of litigation or even providing the use of governmental investigators.  Just a thought…

All the Prosecution’s Men

“At the end of the day, all we’re seeking is the same thing these students are: justice and truth.”

This was the response of the prosecutor’s office in Cook County, Illinois, when asked why they decided to subpoena academic records and emails of journalism students who worked at the Medill Innocence Project, an investigative journalism program affiliated with Northwestern University’s journalism school.  The N.Y. Times has the story here.

You see, the folks at Medill have had remarkable success in uncovering and establishing cases in which individuals have been wrongfully convicted.  This, of course, makes the prosecutors, who push for these convictions (some would say blindly) look bad.  So in an attempt to turn the tables on the students, the prosecutors are asking for records that they say may demonstrate that the students are motivated not by the search for truth but better grades through exonerations.  No doubt a serious charge.  Lawyers for the school are, of course, fighting the prosecutors tooth and nail.  And they should.

To be sure, the allegation that kids at Medill are motivated by grades is partially true.  But this, I think, has less to do with the ultimate result of their investigations, than with the work and effort that precede them.  I would venture to guess that there may be some correlation between the legwork that goes into a case and the prospect that it may result in an exoneration.  With their heavy caseloads, prosecutors may not have the ability to devote the amount of time and effort to a case that a group of journalism students can.  Yet that gives them no right to leech off of the students’ hard work, much less seek to intimidate them through subpoenas and unfounded accusations.  Moreover, if the prosecutor is going press for a person to be put away for years or life, he or she better damn well have the evidence to back it up.  If they don’t have the evidence then say so or don’t push for a conviction.  In fact, when Justice Black was a prosecutor in Alabama, he and his assistants would inform a jury whenever there existed reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt.  Imagine that.  A prosecutor who looks out for the innocent.  So it is no use shouting and pouting, like the Cook County prosecutors are doing, and certainly proper, when their sham of a trial is exposed and the innocent freed.

The link to the Medill Innocence Project is listed in my Links section.

No Camping Here

In a sort of deja vu moment for Georgia, courtesy of its neighbor to the east, Florida, controversy has erupted over an encampment of sex offenders in Cobb County (north Georgia).  After the Associated Press reported on the existence of the camp yesterday, officials in Georgia ordered the camp dismantled and moved citing “liability issues.”  I don’t think it would be a surprise to discover more camps like this one in Georgia or other states with strict sex offender residency laws.  Again, one has to wonder about the wisdom of segregating any and all sex offenders from the general population.  Why not designate an island in the mold of Guantanamo and shuttle all our country’s sex offenders there?  Again, one must ask what our government officials are aiming for with their sui generis policies on sex offenders.  Obviously, it isn’t reintegration into society or rehabilitation.  Then what is the point of having them released from jail at all?  Does allowing a convicted sex offender to linger on the outskirts of society make him or her any less dangerous than with a policy of perpetual banishment?

The AP article can be found here.  Today’s story on the closing of the camp can be found here, courtesy of the AJC.

Back to Square One

There is new news In the continuing saga of the infamous Julia Tuttle Causeway turned homeless shelter.  As reported today in the Miami Herald, a judge has rejected the ACLU’s attempt to block enforcement of the sex offender law that was responsible for creating the controversial shantytown of registered sex offenders who, because of the law’s restrictive provisions, were prohibited from living elsewhere.  It is interesting to see the spin the ACLU used in its argument before the court – that, it sought to block enforcement of the law because only then would officials be able to properly and effectively track the whereabouts of sex offenders.  I would argue that this is precisely the ill that has to be remedied.  But what do I know?

The story in the Herald can be found here.

The Morally Ambivalent Justice

Ronald Dworkin has a great piece in this week’s New York Review of Books on the Sotomayor confirmation hearings.  In it he criticizes the modern myth that judges are only supposed to apply the law rather than make “controversial judgements of political morality” – a point that I have made in the past.

Here is an excerpt from the article:

Sadly, practically everyone concerned in judicial confirmation hearings—senators and nominees—has an overriding interest in embracing the myth that judges’ own political principles are irrelevant. Sotomayor was, of course, well advised to embrace that myth. Her initial statement, and her constant repetition of it, made her confirmation absolutely certain; she could lose the great prize only by a candor she had no reason to display. She was faced by a group of Republican senators who had no interest in exploring genuine constitutional issues but wanted only to score political points, if possible by embarrassing her but in any case to preen before their constituents. They scoured her record of extrajudicial speeches for any sign that she actually doubts the myth so they could declare her a hypocrite who is not faithful to the law after all.

Democratic senators had no wish to challenge the myth either. They only wanted to protect her from questions that might supply ammunition to her opponents, so they offered her endless opportunities to repeat her empty promise to follow the law. Only President Obama, in a remarkably candid statement, seemed to challenge the myth. The law, he said, decides 95 percent of the cases but that leaves 5 percent to be decided in the judge’s “heart.” Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona asked Sotomayor if she agreed with Obama on this point. No, she roundly declared, I do not.

So the minuet was choreographed, and any illumination ruled out, before the hearings began. Both supporting and opposition senators asked Sotomayor whether she approved of recent Supreme Court decisions they believe of particular concern to their constituents: about abortion, of course, but also gun control, the president’s power to defy Congress, his power to detain suspected terrorists indefinitely, and the permissibility of a city taking private property for private development. They wanted to be seen as knowledgeable and concerned by what worried voters.

You can find the entire article here.