Friday Talking Points -- Potholes on the Moral High Road

Due to the fact that Congress is still on vacation and also due to the fact that it has largely been a one-subject week in the political world, we are going to pre-empt our regular talking points for a discussion of where the country seems to be on the question of attacking Syria. But first, let's wrap up the week and hand out our awards, as usual.

Today's big economic news was that the unemployment rate is down to 7.3 percent, the lowest it has been since 2008. In the first year President Obama took office, the Great Recession spiked the rate to 10.0 percent, to put this figure into perspective.

In China, a wealthy CEO decided he had enough money for the moment, and gave his multimillion-dollar bonus to 10,000 of his hourly-wage employees, who (on average) received a bonus of a month's wages. Maybe this will start a trend in America, who knows? Not exactly holding my breath or anything, but hey, it could happen.

When the Supreme Court earlier ruled on gay marriage, many (ourselves included) predicted that in the future there would be more direct challenges in the courts which would eventually provide the sweeping civil rights victory that Loving v. Virginia gave to interracial couples. The high court was obviously giving the country enough time to get used to the idea before they proclaimed gay marriage as a civil right guaranteed to all under the Constitution. The federal government has been moving almost across the board to recognize gay marriage as valid, from the I.R.S. to the Pentagon. In the states, court cases are now moving slowly forward, as gay couples get married in one state and then move to another. A federal judge just ruled that Ohio must recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Look for many more of these cases to begin working their way through the federal court system -- and a Supreme Court case in perhaps four or five years.

On the subject of religion, a man in Texas won the right to appear on his driver's license wearing the religious headgear of his choice. The headgear in question was a pasta strainer, because the man is a worshipper of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. As a "Pastafarian," he should have the right to look as silly as he wants in his license photo (the colander does not obscure his face or hair color), and the state of (are you sitting down?) Texas agreed. So strike a blow for religious freedom! And may His noodly appendage touch you, too. Heh.

In New Jersey, a different sort of blow for religious freedom was struck, as a resident won the right (after initially being denied) to have "ATHE1ST" on his car's license plate. The motor vehicle folks initially told him this would be "considered offensive," but when pressured a supervisor overturned the decision and called it a "clerical error." So the motor vehicle departments in both Texas and New Jersey deserve acclaim for (eventually) doing the right thing.

In marijuana news over the past few weeks, the California firefighting folks initially told the media that "illegal pot growers" were likely responsible for the enormous Rim Fire which has burned a huge swath of land both in and adjacent to Yosemite National Park. Yesterday, they revised their story, and admitted that a hunter who had built an illegal fire was the only one responsible, and that pot had nothing to do with it.

While most Americans have focused in on the National Security Agency in the whole "vacuuming up all phone calls ever made" scandal, few are paying much attention to the even larger (and growing) scandal over the Drug Enforcement Agency's use of phone records. From a recent New York Times article:

For at least six years, law enforcement officials working on a counternarcotics program have had routine access, using subpoenas, to an enormous AT&T database that contains the records of decades of Americans' phone calls -- parallel to but covering a far longer time than the National Security Agency's hotly disputed collection of phone call logs.

The Hemisphere Project, a partnership between federal and local drug officials and AT&T that has not previously been reported, involves an extremely close association between the government and the telecommunications giant.

The government pays AT&T to place its employees in drug-fighting units around the country. Those employees sit alongside Drug Enforcement Administration agents and local detectives and supply them with the phone data from as far back as 1987.

And finally, there are some groups who are outraged at Attorney General Eric Holder's announcement that he's going to respect the will of the voters of Washington and Colorado, and let the two states go ahead and legalize recreational marijuana. Coincidentally enough (you could've knocked me over with a feather!), all of the groups who signed a letter to Holder decrying his decision seem to be directly financially dependent on the War On (Some) Drugs to some extent or another (example: "National Association of Drug Court Professionals"). They are annoyed that their particular government-funded gravy train may soon be coming to an end, apparently. Let's all have a pity party (boo hoo!) for these poor, put-upon drug warriors, shall we?

What else? Republicans in the state of Ohio may see the Tea Party splinter off and form an actual political party to challenge them, if The Daily Beast can be believed. Republicans have come up with a new and creative way to attempt to sabotage Obamacare -- call in all the organizations who have been tasked with getting the word out, and require them to do lots and lots of meaningless paperwork, right when they're needed to get the message out, before the exchanges open next month.

And finally, we leave you with the brave efforts of a group dedicated to providing the "Missing Wing" of the George W. Bush presidential library. Annoyed at how the Bush library glosses over (or completely ignores) several fiascos on Bush's watch (like Hurricane Katrina, for instance), they have set up the new website, to fill in all the gaps in Bush's library.


We're going to be scrupulously fair in handing out this week's two Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards, by giving one for making the case for war with Syria and one for making the case against.

Secretary of State John Kerry was put in a tough spot this week by his boss. By some accounts, Kerry last week had argued against asking for Congress to give their approval for attacking Syria, but he did not let any of this show in public. He was also accused of all sorts of things when he appeared before both House and Senate committee hearings, which included being a hypocrite. Kerry's rise to political prominence began in front of the same Senate committee he appeared at this week, back when he was a young anti-war veteran arguing against further involvement in the Vietnam War.

Without either agreeing or disagreeing with the case Kerry made (we're going to get to moralizing about war in a bit, never fear), we have to say we were impressed by how Kerry made the case in public and before the committees. He refused to get rattled by Republicans who wanted to drag all sorts of irrelevant issues in, and he forcefully pushed back when he felt it necessary. He quite obviously didn't convince everyone -- either in Congress or out in the country -- of the advisability of attacking Syria, but he did make the case he was given well enough that he gets our first Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. Kerry may have missed his chance at being president, but he seems to be doing a good job as Secretary of State so far.

Our second MIDOTW award winner is rather subjective, we must admit. We haven't seen every single anti-war Democrat on television making the case against war, so there may have been others equally deserving of notice which we inadvertently missed. However, Representative Alan Grayson has been very concisely and forcefully making the anti-war argument this week, most notably on the PBS program The NewsHour. Grayson does not mince words, and if Bill Clinton ever retires as the "Secretary of Explainin' Stuff," we'd like to nominate Grayson to take over instead. Grayson has a wonderful way of cutting straight to the heart of the matter, and we're not only glad he's back in the House of Representatives, we're also glad to award him his fourth Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week, for masterfully explaining why he'll be voting against attacking Syria.

[I couldn't find contact information on the State Department site, so you'll have to congratulate Secretary of State John Kerry via the White House contact page, but you can reach Representative Alan Grayson on his House contact page, if you'd like to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


OK, this one's admittedly kind of obscure, but we've failed to hand out the MDDOTW award for two weeks out of the past four, so we've got to ding someone this week. Missouri's state representative Jeremy LaFaver was pulled over by the highway patrol recently and charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He may face a pretty heavy penalty, as Missouri's drug laws are pretty harsh. LaFaver released a statement afterwards, stating:

I made a serious mistake, I apologize for it, and I am prepared to face the consequences of my behavior. I want to stress that I was not operating under the influence. I deeply regret the embarrassment I have caused my family and the people of the 25th District by this incident. I want to assure my constituents that I have received no special considerations, nor do I expect to be treated any differently than any other citizen in my situation.

That's all admirable enough, as far as political apologies go.

But the reason we're awarding LaFaver the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week is not actually for getting caught with his stash in his car. Even though LaFaver is a first-time representative, he has already co-sponsored a bill to reduce the state's marijuana penalties -- which shows that he is not a flaming hypocrite. Unlike many politicians (from both parties) who use certain issues (sex and drugs both immediately spring to mind) to make political hay and then later get caught doing exactly what they had been campaigning against, LaFaver shows political consistency, and is therefore ineligible for the MDDOTW award for being hypocritical.

Instead, we're awarding him the MDDOTW award for the reason he got pulled over in the first place: he was operating his vehicle with expired tags, and had blown off appearing in court to answer the charge.

Ask any judge, "FTA" (failure to appear) is considered not only disrespectful of the justice system itself, but also a very serious infraction of the law.

And LaFaver is a lawmaker.

A lawmaker who not only didn't renew his tags on time, but then ignored a court appearance and probably was carrying a "bench warrant" against him. Which is why the cop pulled him over. Not only is it stupid to show such casual disrespect for the law (and to ignore the courts) in this fashion, it is monumentally stupid to carry weed around in your car after doing so -- knowing full well that you could be pulled over at any time.

And for that alone, Jeremy LaFaver is our Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week.

[Contact Missouri Representative Jeremy LaFaver via his official contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Volume 272 (9/6/13)

As previously mentioned, there will be no talking points today. In the first place, it would be hard to offer up talking points for all Democrats on the subject of the week, since both parties are internally split over the war question (which I wrote about earlier this week, in fact). Rather than attempting to bridge this divide with three-and-a-half talking points for each side or something, instead I'd like to offer up my own commentary not directly addressing the Syrian question, but instead addressing the reason why Obama -- and America, for that matter -- now finds it hard to make what is essentially a purist moral argument for why Syria needs punishment from the United States military. And then, at the end, how the American public is reacting to the war drums beating in Washington.


Potholes On The Moral High Road

President Obama is trying to convince the country that attacking Syria is now the right thing to do. His argument is that Syria has broken international laws regarding the use of chemical weapons, and so the only moral course of action for America is to inflict a harsh enough punishment that it deters both the Syrian regime as well as other countries contemplating using weapons of mass destruction in the future. The idea is that the price for doing so should be a steep one, and America should be the arbiter of dishing out such punishments. You can even throw in a sentence including the phrase "the leader of the free world" here, or perhaps "the world's policeman."

But there's a large problem with taking this moral high road. America likes to see itself permanently on the moral high road -- always on the side of right -- and the American public tends to ignore anything which contradicts this righteous self-image. But the Middle East and indeed the entire rest of the world doesn't find it so easy to ignore the gaping potholes on that moral high road -- potholes of America's own making. This is part of the larger problem that Americans have of being almost completely blind to seeing ourselves as others see us. The shoe, for us, is never on the other foot.

Consider the following. What would America think if American citizens were imprisoned and then routinely subjected to brutal torture? What would we feel if these same Americans were displayed in the most degrading way possible in photos for the entire world to see? What would we say if the government of the country behind the torture refused to institute any legal proceedings against the torturers, for nothing more than political reasons? What would we say if the Americans who had been tortured later tried to take the torturers themselves to court, only to have their case thrown out of court because the country responsible declared that the torturers were outside of any law whatsoever when they did the torturing? And, as a final insult, how would America react if the people who were tortured were then instructed to pay the legal fees of the torturers, since they had lost their court case?

It's pretty easy to see that Americans of every political stripe would be outraged if that had happened to American citizens. But because Americans were behind the Abu Graib scandal, the final news story in that litany -- about Iraqi torture victims being charged what (to them) is an immense amount of money to pay the legal fees of the contractor they had sued -- barely registered even a tiny blip in the American consciousness this week.

Likewise ignored almost completely was the revelation a few weeks ago that the Central Intelligence Agency publicly admitted (after a Freedom Of Information Act request revealed it) that they were indeed behind the overthrow of a democratically-elected government in Iran, six decades ago. The Iranians are now considering filing a lawsuit of their own in America, seeking restitution, but in doing so they'd better be careful because they could wind up paying the C.I.A.'s legal fees if they lose.

While these stories barely scratched the surface of the American psyche, in the Middle East people not only pay attention to stuff like this, they also remember it for far longer than the normal American attention span.

People outside America are astonished that America now is trying to argue that the use of chemical weapons needs swift retribution, because they remember what America did when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons in the 1980s. In a word: nothing. Even worse, we were his ally at the time, encouraging him to make war with Iran. When Hussein used chemical weapons for the creative purpose of what can only be called committing genocide, we looked the other way. Hussein was free to gas his country's Kurds for a period of years -- and the United States not only said nothing, but we continued our alliance with Iraq.

People outside the United States remember stuff like this. Americans, not so much. Historical revisionists are now, in fact, making the case within America that somehow Hussein's use of chemical weapons was one of the reasons we invaded his country ten years ago -- when nothing could be farther from the truth (the subject was indeed barely mentioned in the war debate, which was all about what weapons Hussein supposedly had at the time -- not what he had done two decades earlier).

America now calls nerve gas attacks an atrocity, and all but equates them to terrorism. Not so when Ronald Reagan and Donald Rumsfeld were Saddam Hussein's buddies. We condemn blowing up vehicles as terrorism when the cause of the explosion is a car bomb -- but we do not feel the same way about blowing up a vehicle because some drone operator in Nevada has seen something considered suspicious over a television screen and decides to obliterate a car by dropping a bomb on it. Civilians die in both types of car bombing, but America ignores the parallels because it is a rather large pothole on the moral high road we prefer to take. We are much more comfortable congratulating ourselves on our own righteousness than those underneath the dropping bombs, to put this another way.

America's foreign policy towards the Middle East has always -- always -- been completely ideologically incomprehensible, when seen from the outside looking in. After all, the most heavily Islamist country in the entire region -- a country with not only an autocratic ruler, but one which fully believes there should be no separation whatsoever between Mosque and State -- has been one of our closest allies for decades. Ask a woman in Saudi Arabia whether her country is a bastion of democracy or not -- but be careful how you ask her, because the religious police might decide that the fact that you are even talking to her is an offense against both their religion and the state.

We support dictators in the Middle East, and long have -- while not supporting other dictators. Sometimes (as in the case of Saddam Hussein) we support them right up until we don't support them any more. The Arab Spring showed how widely this practice is used, in fact. We support secular governments and ultra-religious governments in the region. We used to have the yardstick of the Cold War, where we supported those countries who shunned the Soviet Union, but we don't even have that sorting process to rely on any more.

The only possible way to make any sense out of which countries we support and which we don't really comes down to the ones who agree to keep two things freely flowing out of the region: oil and American corporate profits. We really don't much care how leaders treat their own people beyond that crass metric, at least not in any real way. We're for "stability" in the region, even if that means propping up brutal dictators and benevolent despots alike. But "stability" really only translates to "keep the oil flowing, and we'll look the other way on everything else."

This is the problem with President Obama leading us down the moral high road as he tries to convince the public to support striking Syria. It's a dangerous road to travel, due to all of the gaping potholes in the surface. After all, even in Syria, we've stood by and done nothing while Assad slaughtered 100,000 citizens by conventional means, which makes it pretty tough to argue how important the deaths of 1,400 more are in the grand scheme of things. This, too, is nothing new, really. While it makes us uncomfortable to think about it, America stands by and watches tens of thousands of people die in civil wars all the time -- sometimes rising to "hundreds of thousands" or even "millions." The list of such ignored atrocities is a long one, in fact, even just in the past few decades.

This time around, however -- and much to my amazement -- the public seems pretty solidly against a new war adventure. President Obama surprised the entire political and media world last week by not acting as a "unitary executive," but instead asking Congress to vote on approving a strike on Syria. He is doing precisely what constitutionalists have previously demanded: giving Congress a voice in warmaking. And, by extension, giving the American people a voice as well.

But instead of a jingoistic rush to war this time around, there has instead been a war-weary rush to the anti-war side. The People seem to be leading, and it's even looking like the leaders might follow their lead (for once). Attacking Syria is not polling well with the public, even a week after Obama began making his case in earnest. Obama, to date, has gotten one Senate committee to approve the attack, but the full House and Senate will not vote until next week. The American public normally "rallies around" a war effort to varying degree, although in some instances the public didn't begin to show majority support until we were actually fighting (Bill Clinton had a tough time convincing the public over the Balkans, for instance). But I don't think I've ever seen such strong anti-war feelings in the American public in the run-up to any military campaign. The only one that's even remotely close would be Ronald Reagan attacking Grenada -- which happened two days after hundreds of American Marines were killed in Beirut by a truck bomb. Not only was it a pretty transparent attempt to distract the American public with a rousing war victory, but it was also the first time since Vietnam the American military had taken such overt action. Needless to say, it wasn't very popular with the public (at least as far as I remember -- haven't checked the actual polling numbers).

There have been anti-war movements since the beginning of our country's history, in every single war we've ever fought in. New England was so against the War of 1812 they actively considered seceding from the Union and making a separate peace with Britain. Even the two world wars of the last century had anti-war factions (especially notable in World War I, where a constitutional amendment was even proposed that any declaration of war be made via a national referendum, where anyone who voted "yes" would also be volunteering for the Army by doing so). Sometimes the anti-war portion of the public is quite vocal and eventually grows into a majority over time (as with Vietnam), and at other points in our history it has consisted of only a few voices crying in a very lonely wilderness.

But we seem to be in a rare moment in American history where the public is overwhelmingly against the idea of waging war. Members of Congress have been reporting that their phone calls are running anywhere from 90 to 100 percent against attacking Syria. That's pretty astounding, right there.

One week ago, the entire political and media universe was ready (indeed, for the media, even salivating) over the prospect of attacking Syria, which conventional wisdom stated would definitely happen before Obama flew off to the G-20 meeting. The inevitability of such action was agreed to by almost all inside the Beltway, no matter how they felt about whether it was a good idea or not. Now the country is having a massive debate over the issue -- a debate which has lasted one full week and may last another. The smart money is now betting that Congress (the House, especially) is going to vote the idea down. That's a fairly dramatic turnabout of events.

People who are against attacking Syria are not monolithic. There are many reasons why people are opposed to the idea -- too many to list here. Everything from rank partisanship to "give peace a chance" idealism, in fact. Nobody really now knows whether we will attack Syria or not, or how Congress will vote next week.

But what I find significant is that the argument that America must travel a high moral road and chastise another nation for not doing so is not turning out to be very convincing here at home. "We need to bomb, because we are in the right" is just not enough these days, it seems. The public's war-weariness is notable, and for once it seems that public pushback against a war may actually succeed before the fact, instead of after many have died on a battlefield. That, to me, is the most important development over the past week.


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