More Disturbing Ebola Hysteria

Now the Ebola panic has moved to a new level. Science magazine reported yesterday:

Ebola fears are interfering with the world’s premier scientific meeting on tropical diseases. Today, Louisiana state health officials asked anyone who has traveled to Liberia, Sierra Leone, or Guinea in the past 21 days, or has treated Ebola patients elsewhere, to stay away from the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH), which begins on Sunday in New Orleans.

ASTMH says that the annual meeting is its “flagship event” and “is the premier forum for the exchange of scientific advances in tropical medicine and global health.” The jindal and doctororganization also says it “is proud to be the professional home for scientists, clinicians and program professionals who lead the fight against infectious disease – in the lab and on the ground.”

Yet, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals—whose Secretary was appointed by the very right-wing Governor Bobby Jindal—and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness has taken the position that if anyone shows up, say, someone with expertise in Ebola transmission and who has actually been to West Africa, they will be given the Chris Christie treatment and quarantined for 21 days.

It’s bad enough that an Ebola-fighting nurse was imprisoned in a tent in New Jersey, now we have scientists and other infectious disease experts being treated like they are a threat to public health in Louisiana.

ASTMH had little choice but to warn those who were planning on attending the important event:

We deeply regret that some of our attendees are affected by Louisiana’s travel advisory and as a result, we have requested that people planning to attend the Annual Meeting cooperate with the state’s policy.

Science magazine quoted Daniel Bausch, a researcher at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, as saying, “This policy is fundamentally flawed and not evidence-based.” Who is surprised at that, given the dominance of the anti-science party in Louisiana? The magazine also offered us this quote from Peter Hotez, who is Founding Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine:

It’s very unfortunate and could potentially be counterproductive by preventing health care workers from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea from sharing their experiences and findings at one of the most important tropical disease meetings globally.

Yes, it is unfortunate. But it seems more than potentially counterproductive. It seems obviously counterproductive.

All of this Ebola fear and hysteria, all of this haste to quarantine healthy people, reminds me, for some reason, of the post-Pearl Harbor internment of U.S. citizens who happen to have had Japanese ancestry. That sad episode happened because large numbers of people, including people in power,  suspected that tens of thousands of Japanese Americans might actually have had some American-killing blood in their veins. That infamous interment order was signed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1942, but a commission authorized by Congress in 1980 found that the order  “was not justified by military necessity.” Further, the commission said:

The broad historical causes that shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership. Widespread ignorance about Americans of Japanese descent contributed to a policy conceived in haste and executed in an atmosphere of fear and anger at Japan. 

There may not be race prejudice involved in Americans’ reaction to Ebola here at home, but there is a whole lot of hysteria and a blossoming failure of political leadership, especially Republican leadership.

The Anti-Science Party And Ebola Politics

“I am scared about how health care workers will be treated at airports when they declare that they have been fighting Ebola in West Africa. I am scared that, like me, they will arrive and see a frenzy of disorganization, fear and, most frightening, quarantine.”

Kaci Hickox, nurse for Doctors Without Borders

Much of the Republican Party is at war with science, as its last political platform and other sources of Republican opinions would indicate. Consider:

♦ A majority of Republicans believe global warming is a hoax, therefore drill, baby, drill.

♦ The 2012 GOP platform expressly opposes embryonic stem cell research because, as many conservatives believe, embryos should be constitutionally protected people.

♦ That also means, of course, that the creation of surplus embryos used for in vitro fertilization is a no-no.

♦ Many religious conservatives falsely believe that IUDs and emergency contraception pills are abortifacients and, thus, baby-killers.

♦ Anti-choice Republicans also claim that abortion is more dangerous than childbirth, which is not only not true but its opposite is overwhelmingly true.

♦ A vast majority of white evangelical Republicans don’t believe in evolution and many want to teach a version of creationism in science classrooms.

So, because he wants to be his party’s presidential candidate in 2016, it should come as no surprise that Chris Christie is the first Republican governor in the country to do something utterly anti-scientific, if politically popular, regarding Ebola.

Not only did Christie forcibly quarantine Ebola-fighting super-nurse Kaci Hickox in a tent outside a hospital in New Jersey, but after receiving some fairly intense criticism from medical and health professionals, he actually defended his actions by appealing not to other health professionals in his state or elsewhere, but to the American people, who have been scared out of their wits by people like Chris Christie:

The American public believes this is common sense and we’re not moving an inch. Our policy hasn’t changed and our policy will not change.

It doesn’t matter that Christie and his policy of forcibly quarantining someone without symptoms of Ebola infection lacks any scientific or medical justification. Nor does it matter that forcibly quarantining Ebola-fighters might make it more difficult to fighkaci hickoxt the virus at its source in West Africa. What matters is that he has a frightened public behind him.

But this would be a great time for Christie to demonstrate his much-touted leadership skills and lead his party, and the American people, away from fear and misconceptions about the transmissibility of Ebola. Instead, he feeds those fears and, worse, feeds off those fears.

He ought to be ashamed of himself. But he won’t be, obviously. Maybe some journalist should shame him by asking him whether he would have ordered Kaci Hickox, who was not sick and did not test positive for Ebola, shot and killed should she have tried to leave that tent.


Worst Than The Willie Horton Ad, Or Why You Should Vote Against Sam Brownback, Even If You Like His Reactionary Politics

It’s no secret that Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is a reactionary who is hell-bent on taking the state backwards in time. And it is no secret that many Kansans, including many Republican Kansans, don’t want to go back in time as far as Brownback wants to take them. Thus, his reelection is in some doubt, even in such a conservative state.

And that is why this weekend, as I watched local TV here in Joplin, Missouri (just a few miles from the state line), I finally saw Willie Horton come to Kansas.

As essential background for understanding the point of this post, a little history is in order. Willie Horton and two of his criminal friends robbed and brutally murdered a 17-year-old service station attendant in northeastern Massachusetts in 1974. The young man was stabbed 19 times and bled to death in a trash barrel where his body had been stuffed. Horton, who had previously served time in South Carolina for assault with intent to murder, was eventually convicted of actually committing murder in Massachusetts and sentenced to life without parole.

Except that as part of a weekend furlough program, which was designed to help rehabilitate criminals other than first-degree murderers (the state’s highest court eventually decided the program should also apply to those criminals too), Willie Horton was released in June of 1986 for a weekend of unsupervised freedom. It was his tenth such weekend out, and it was at that time he decided he wasn’t going back to prison. He fled instead.

The next year, still a free man, Horton went to a home in Maryland one evening, in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and pointed a gun at the man who came to the door. For seven hours, Horton tormented the 28-year-old by punching and kicking him and whipping him with his gun. He also sliced his torso multiple times with a knife. Horton bound and gagged the man, who then listened as his fiancée unfortunately came home during this horrific episode. Horton similarly abused her for four hours, but added to her torments by raping her. Twice.

Horton was eventually captured, after a police chase and shootout. He is still in prison today in Maryland, a judge there refusing to send him back to Massachusetts for fear officials would let him out again on another furlough.

It was in 1988 that Willie Horton was introduced to the nation via the following infamous—and effective—ad produced by a man who used to work for Roger Ailes and put out by supporters of the George H. W. Bush campaign that year:

After that ad was taken down, the official Bush campaign ran another one, which did not use Willie Horton’s image or mention his name. But the message was already out there. A vote for Dukakis was essentially a vote for Willie Horton’s freedom.

Now, the original ad makes two claims about Michael Dukakis, who was governor of Massachusetts from 1975-1979 and from 1983-1991. One, that Dukakis “opposes the death penalty,” and, two, that he “allowed murderers to have weekend passes.” Famously, Dukakis did (and presumably still does) oppose the death penalty, having hurt himself in the 1988 campaign by too-soberly answering a question related to the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife. But did he also allow murderers, murderers like Willie Horton, to have weekend passes?

Well, sort of. Like other states at the time and still today, Massachusetts had a furlough program in place when Horton killed that young service station attendant. And that program was signed into law by a Republican governor in 1972, although it was understood that the program would not be open to killers like Willie Horton who were serving life terms without the possibility of parole. No state had such a furlough program, all of them sensibly denying the benefit to first-degree killers.

As I mentioned, though, the state’s highest court ruled that the language of the law that established the program did not specifically prohibit first-degree murderers from benefiting from it. Soon after that ruling, the legislature passed a bill in 1976 that would have unequivocally prohibited Willie Horton-type criminals from getting weekend passes. But Michael Dukakis vetoed that bill and therefore the court’s interpretation of the law stood, resulting in Willie Horton’s tenth state-sanctioned weekend of freedom in June of 1986.

So, as far as raw electoral advertising goes, it was plausibly true that, as that ad claimed, Dukakis “allowed murderers to have weekend passes.” In politics, it is close enough to the truth to say he did, considering that if he had not vetoed that bill, it is quite unlikely that Willie Horton would ever have been out in 1987 to commit those awful crimes in Maryland. (By the way, Dukakis eventually gave into pressure and in 1988, the same year he was running for president, the questionable furlough program was abolished.)

But the point of that ad was, as Republican political strategist and “Southern strategy” proponent Lee Atwater said later, to make Willie Horton “Dukakis’ running mate.” The ad would not have been nearly as effective, in terms of appealing to the fear and angst of white people, if Willie Horton had been as white as they were. It is incontrovertible that Willie Horton’s likeness, more than the crimes he committed or the situation in which he was able to commit them, was the main reason that ad was conceived. The ad, after all, was initially limited to running on cable channels and ended up in the mainstream because of press attention to its overtones.

Having said all that, let’s look at the latest ad from Sam Brownback in Kansas, attacking his Democratic opponent Paul Davis with a Willie Horton-style ad:

Is there any doubt that the following image is really what this ad is all about:

carr brothers

No, there is no doubt. It is more their complexions than their crimes, as brutal and as awful as they were, that make them perfect stars of a Republican political campaign ad in mostly rural and mostly lily-white Kansas. And make no mistake about it, their crimes were bad, as The Wichita Eagle described them:

The brothers were convicted of murdering five people, including a brutal execution-style quadruple murder, during a weeklong crime spree of killing, rape and robbery in Wichita in December 2000.

But here is the reason why I went to all the trouble of explaining the context of that original Willie Horton ad. There is absolutely no connection between what the Carr brothers did and Paul Davis. Unlike what Michael Dukakis did, which was veto a bill that would likely have kept Willie Horton in prison forever, Paul Davis had nothing to do, directly or indirectly, with the Carr brothers. As the Wichita paper reported, here is Brownback’s defense of the ad:

Brownback said during and after a debate Tuesday that he thinks it’s justified to link Davis to the Supreme Court decision because Davis would appoint judges who are more liberal than those Brownback would pick.

You see? Davis can be married to the Carr brothers in a political ad not for something he did as an elected official or as a lawyer, but because of something he might do as governor of Kansas. But of course that is not the real reason Brownback is using that ad. He is in a tough campaign. He needs every white vote. And as the Willie Horton ad proved so long ago, there isn’t a better way for a white candidate in a challenging campaign to get those extra white votes than by featuring images of psychopathic black killers in the same 30-seconds of air time in which your Democratic opponent also appears. It has become a classic sign of desperation.

If this ad doesn’t disgust even white Republicans in Kansas simply as a cynical attack on their intelligence, not to mention as a cynical appeal to their implied fear of black people, then all hope is lost in my old, fast-declining home state. The Brownbacks will have their way.

Finally, I must note that the former district attorney who prosecuted the Carr brothers, Nola Foulston, said this about Brownback’s ad:

It is beyond disgraceful that Sam Brownback would exploit this tragedy and make the victims’ families relive that horrific crime every time they turn on their television just for the sake of getting re-elected.

And I must note that the Carr brothers are not out roaming the streets of Kansas. They will spend the rest of their miserable lives in prison. The state supreme court, despite finding flaws in their sentencing, upheld a count of capital murder for each of them.

Dumb Republicans

Conservative Republicans, it being their nature, say and do some dumb things. Take, for instance, this one:

A Michigan Republican with a criminal record for breaking into cars and masturbating is urging residents to move out of state to avoid the “homosexual agenda.”

You’ll be happy to know that this guy is running for a seat in the Michigan legislature. And, if you live in Michigan, you’ll be happy to know that he thinks “as long as there are those that love God here, we can win souls and see God move in this city and state.” Yes, in case you didn’t know, legislating is all about winning souls watching God “move.”

And speaking of God moving, mysteriously he was moved yesterday to reveal to the Huffington Post a video he shot of Joni Ernst, the testicle-hating senatorial candidate from Iowa, telling folks at some gun rally in 2012 that she packed heat and reserved the right to use it against “the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.” As many have now pointed out, this is the same wacky ball-hater that wants to castrate the rights of women to control their own reproductive health.

But even slightly more sober conservatives say and do dumb things. Chris Christie recently said to his Chamber of Commerce pals that he is “tired of hearing about the minimum wage.” Then, after he realized how dumb it was to say something so dumb, he said something equally dumb:

My comments are never almost universally interpreted the way I mean them.

And we can see why.

But some Republican conservatives not only say dumb things, they say dumb and dangerous things, things that scare and mislead people. Rand Paul, plagiarist and self-certified ophthalmologist, said recently that the Obama administration has inaccurately described Ebola to the public and has “tried to downplay the transmissibility” of the disease, when, in the opinion of the self-certified ophthalmologist, Ebola “is something that appears to be very easy to catch.”

Man, that level of numb-headed irresponsibility makes Chris Christie look good, which is no small feat.

Speaking of small feats, there is my congressman Ozark Billy Long. Let me show you a still from a campaign commercial that is airing here in Hooterville, and I should tell you this commercial was actually “Approved by Billy Long. Paid for by Billy Long for Congress”:

billy long commercial

Shouldn’t the Democrat running against Long, Jim Evans, be running that ad? I mean, Long is bragging that he did something 56 times that failed. He was recently accused of being an ineffective legislator and it turns out his own ad proves it! Brilliant stuff that.

On the darker side of local politics around these parts, I present to you a scene from a campaign commercial running here in Joplin put out by Rep. Lynn Jenkins. She is a Republican from Kansas who represents my old home town and who, in August of 2009, told Kansans that “Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope.” Here is a screen shot of the ad I saw last night:

jenkins ad against wakefield

Just who is that woman in the ad? And who is that shifty and scary looking negro standing behind her? Well, the woman is Democrat Margie Wakefield, who happens to be Jenkins’ opponent and who happens to be giving Jenkins a run for her money. And I think you all know who the other guy is. He is The Scary Negro himself. And, man, doesn’t he really look like he’s up to no good? Maybe he has a gun in her back or maybe he’s about to stick a shiv in her. Maybe he’s about to rob her and take her money or, God forbid, something worse like force her to support ObamaCare. What other reason would he be standing so close and looking so creepy?

Sad thing is, this ad doesn’t really qualify as another dumb thing conservative Republicans are saying or doing these days. It’s actually pretty smart, in a Southern strategy political sense, to remind people in mostly rural Kansas that The Scary Negro is out there, ready to do something ugly. But whatever ugly thing that Barack Obama might do between now and the end of his term, it won’t be nearly as ugly as that ad.

Karma, Meet Glenn Greenwald

How ironic it is that Glenn Greenwald has found himself the victim of what he calls “distortions.” Not too long ago, Greenwald was one of those who encouraged the slander of Sam Harris as a “genocidal fascist maniac” for something Harris wrote that was, in my view, misrepresented and distorted. Today Greenwald himself is complaining about being misunderstood, as people read and interpret his latest anti-anti-terrorism piece (“CANADA, AT WAR FOR 13 YEARS, SHOCKED THAT ‘A TERRORIST’ ATTACKED ITS SOLDIERS”) published on his website The Intercept.

Writing about the death of a Canadian soldier on Monday, who, along with another soldier, was deliberately struck by a car driven by a convert to Islam, Greenwald said:

If you want to be a country that spends more than a decade proclaiming itself at war and bringing violence to others, then one should expect that violence will sometimes be directed at you as well. Far from being the by-product of primitive and inscrutable religions, that behavior is the natural reaction of human beings targeted with violence. Anyone who doubts that should review the 13-year orgy of violence the U.S. has unleashed on the world since the 9/11 attack, as well as the decades of violence and interference from the U.S. in that region prior to that.

If you think that sounds like Greenwald is justifying the attack on two Canadian soldiers, you are not alone. But Greenwald attempted to cover himself:

The issue here is not justification (very few people would view attacks on soldiers in a shopping mall parking lot to be justified). The issue is causation. Every time one of these attacks occurs — from 9/11 on down — Western governments pretend that it was just some sort of unprovoked, utterly “senseless” act of violence caused by primitive, irrational, savage religious extremism inexplicably aimed at a country innocently minding its own business. They even invent fairy tales to feed to the population to explain why it happens: they hate us for our freedoms.

I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether Greenwald adequately insulated himself from claims that he was blaming the Canadian government for not only the attack on Monday, but by extension the attacks yesterday on Canada’s National War Memorial and its Parliament, attacks that coincidentally occurred shortly after Greenwald published his controversial article. But given Greenwald’s willingness to distort the arguments of others, readers are not obliged to give him the benefit of the doubt. Referring to the attack on the Canadian soldiers, he wrote:

Except in the rarest of cases, the violence has clearly identifiable and easy-to-understand causes: namely, anger over the violence that the country’s government has spent years directing at others. The statements of those accused by the west of terrorism, and even the Pentagon’s own commissioned research, have made conclusively clear what motivates these acts: namely, anger over the violence, abuse and interference by Western countries in that part of the world, with the world’s Muslims overwhelmingly the targets and victims. The very policies of militarism and civil liberties erosions justified in the name of stopping terrorism are actually what fuels terrorism and ensures its endless continuation.

I’ll let Greenwald in on a secret that most of the civilized world is coming to know: there are violent Islamist extremists, whether primitive or not, whether irrational or not, whether savage or not, who want to kill Westerners simply for being greenwald on twitterWesterners. And Greenwald has become a man at war with those who think that doing something about those violent Islamist extremists is a bad thing, in fact a thing that is perpetuating terrorism.

Greenwald acts as if the terrorists would stop being terrorists if the West walked away from its responsibility to protect itself and others, including Muslims who are most victimized by militant religious extremism, either by death or oppression. He lashes out at the West’s “rage and demand for still more actions of militarism and freedom-deprivation,” while mostly ignoring the actions of militarism and freedom-deprivation done by Islamists who want to establish a theocratic state. He speaks of “the 13-year orgy of violence the U.S. has unleashed on the world since the 9/11 attack” without distinguishing between the just attempt to pursue the 9/11 killers in Afghanistan and the misguided war in Iraq. He mocks what he calls “the standard Churchillian war rhetoric about the noble fight against evil,” as if there is no evil to fight.

But there is evil to fight. And people like Greenwald make it harder to fight it.

Ozark Billy Ain’t Doin’ Much Legislatin’

Have you ever heard of the Legislative Effectiveness Project? Yeah, me neither.

Here is how its creators, political scientists Craig Volden of the University of Virginia and Alan E. Wiseman of Vanderbilt University, describe it:

The Legislative Effectiveness Project (LEP) is a joint research project that seeks to understand which members of the United States Congress are the most effective at lawmaking. We use a precise research methodology to calculate a Legislative Effectiveness Score for each member of the House of Representatives, where the average score in each two-year Congress is equal to 1.

Given the title of this blog post, I think you know where I’m going. From the Springfield News-Leader:

Rep. Billy Long was not a very effective legislator in the last Congress, according to a new analysis examining lawmakers’ legislative success.

Among Missouri’s nine House members, Long, R-Springfield, earned the lowest score from the Legislative Effectiveness Project, a new website developed by two political scientists at Vanderbilt University and University of Virginia.

Long scored “well below expectations,” said Craig Volden, one of the website’s creators and a professor at the University of Virginia.

Mr. Volden got one thing wrong. For some of us, Long’s legislative prowess is not “well below expectations.” It is pretty much what we expected. Although I would have to say he is performing somewhat better than I imagined he would. I thought he would be the least effective legislator in Congress. Turns out that among his 245 Republican colleagues, he comes in at 212. So I suppose that’s something he can be proud of. There are 33 Republicans who do less legislatin’ than he does.

He outscores many more, though, when it comes to spending campaign cash on vittles. As Randy Turner has been tracking,

Federal Election Commission (FEC) documents indicate the Billy Long For Congress campaign committee has spent nearly $100,000 for meals since the beginning of 2013, including more than $20,000 in the last three months.

That’s a heapin’ helpin’ of hospitality right there. You could fill Jethro Bodine’s belly on that kind of tab.

As an example, Turner reported that,

On August 27, the Long campaign reported two meals at the Capitol Hill Club, one for $116.12 and the other for $215.10, and a third meal at Nicolas Ristarante in Springfield for $1,062.41, for a total of $1,393.63.

nicolas in springfieldIn case you, like me, can’t afford to eat at Nicola’s Ristarante in Springfield and therefore have never been there, fortunately you can go online and check out its fancy dining room and allow your taste buds to dream of sampling the “Sea Bass with saffron sauce” for a mere $25 or the “8 oz. beef tenderloin with gorgonzola cheese sauce or green peppercorn sauce,” a steal at only $29.

This is not the time to once again remind everyone how depressed wages are in Billy Long’s district, but now is the time to ask out loud, as Deirdre Shesgreen did,

Where is Rep. Billy Long? His campaign won’t say

Shesgreen is the Washington correspondent for Gannett’s Ohio and Missouri papers, including the Springfield News-Leader. Her story began:

Springfield-area residents who want to talk to Rep. Billy Long in advance of Election Day might have a hard time finding the Republican congressman.

highland springsWell, only those residents who can’t dine at fine places like Nicola’s Ristarante or the Highland Springs Country Club in Springfield (where Long’s campaign spent $5,573.50 on August 13th for a “campaign event”) will have a hard time finding Ozark Billy. Those who do frequent such places get plenty of access to the former auctioneer. (For the record, Long was invited to a local event here in Joplin to discuss pending legislation related to the Postal Service. No one from his local office bothered to show up, even though the Postal Service is needlessly closing a plant in Springfield next year that will cost the local economy around 300 good-paying jobs.)

As for the rest of his constituents, Deirdre Shesgreen reported that Long’s campaign manager, no doubt a beneficiary of at least a few of those campaign-financed meals, said that Ozark Billy has many good reasons for not showing up to events—like last week’s League of Women Voters forum—in which he might get asked tough questions about his time in Washington. And according to Shesgreen, Long’s campaign manager “refused to give out any details of Long’s upcoming campaign schedule.”

Now, think about that. Deirdre Shesgreen is the area’s number one political reporter, in terms of telling the locals what their legislators are doing (or, as the study above indicates, not doing) in D.C. and around the district. Yet Billy Long, with the election just two weeks away, won’t even tell her what his campaign schedule is!

That is how politics works here in Republican-dominated southwest Missouri. Long has always had a strategy of lying low and keeping his mouth shut because he knows that come November, the locals will run not walk to their polling places and give him about 65% of the vote. So why shouldn’t he keep bellying up to the buffet and gambling tables and avoiding the press and his non-moneyed constituents?

Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. Try finding anything in the Joplin Globe about this stuff. You’d have an easier time finding Ozark Billy.

Ebola We Can Handle, But Fox Is Another Matter

Ebola, a nasty virus, is now being used by Fox “News,” a less-nasty virus, to do what it is that Fox usually does: create fear and infect gullible minds.

Bill O’Reilly started his Talking Points segment last night with this:

The Ebola situation gets even worse.

He went on to talk about the “growing Ebola chaos in the U.S.A.” 

As Media Matters reported, O’Reilly a few days ago attacked Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, for being a “chief propagandist,” saying he should resign for not doing what Dr. O’Reilly thinks he should have done.

We all know that Fox exists in order to tear down Democrats and promote Republicans. One way it tears down Democrats is by undermining trust in our governing institutions, since Democrats generally favor government and Republicans make a political living off attacking it. Dr. Frieden just happens to be Fox’s target at the moment.

The morning before O’Reilly talked about Frieden being a propagandist, Laura Ingraham had already beat him to it. On IQ-hating Fox and Friends, she shamefully said that Dr. Frieden “is on the verge of becoming the Baghdad Bob of the health care community.” Frieden’s sin, say Fox’s many preachers, is that he trying to sugar-coat what is going on and that the government is not only incompetent, but hiding from the public essential information about Ebola.

But there is one member of the Fox on-air clergy who, time and again, refuses to cast the first stone in situations like this. His name is Shepard Smith and here was his sermon yesterday:

Of course Shep couldn’t say it, but we all know that his message was mostly for his fellow Foxers, who have known little shame in their coverage of Ebola.

But stirring up irrational fear and institutional distrust over Ebola isn’t just confined to Fox. CNN has done it and so has MSNBC, most recently this morning. On Morning Joe—where Joe Scarborough has been mucking up the issue with irresponsible speculation—I heard Nicolle Wallace, former Bushie, ask with utter seriousness that since medical disaster movies like “Outbreak” were made 20 years ago,

Why couldn’t the medical community have had a plan on the shelf for 20 years?

Fortunately, a guest on the show, Dr. Emily Senay, was there to bring a little sanity to the discussion by essentially saying people like Wallace were promoting hysteria. And they should stop.

Here’s how that segment went:

At the center of the government’s response (which has been hampered by the right-wing’s budget-cutting mania) to Ebola is the guy Fox and others have attacked, the CDC’s director, Dr. Thomas Frieden. Guess what he did? He and his people made mistakes. And he was big enough to admit it. He came right out and said so. He has now sent a team of experts to Dallas and said, “I wish we had put a team like this on the ground the day the first patient was diagnosed.”

 I don’t know about you, but I want a guy like that, who is as competent as they come when it comes to working in public health and who is willing to admit it when he messes up, to be in charge of something as important as fighting Ebola.

As far as the hospital in Dallas where the two health care workers were infected—the only two in the country so far—they have also admitted, better late than never, that they made a lot of mistakes, too. And you know what? That’s the first step towards fixing things, towards getting it right.

And we will get this thing right. This isn’t Liberia or Sierra Leone. But what we may never be able to fix is right-wing journalism.

In Defense Of Sam Harris

I have followed fairly closely the ongoing controversy among liberals on the issue of how to talk about Islam in the context of what we see going on in the Middle East. Unfortunately, there are some contemporary liberals who are so enamored with the ideas behind multiculturalism (which is not a bad thing in itself; but context is everything) that they can’t bring themselves to see that there are precious few Muslim-majority countries in the world that are advanced enough to have accepted what most of us consider to be necessary and universal human rights.

On comedian and commentator Bill Maher’s HBO show recently, both he and Sam Harris, a liberal and a thinker I greatly admire even when I disagree with him, got into a rather heated (and now famous) debate with actor and liberal activist Ben Affleck and left-leaning journalist Nicholas Kristof. The background issue was “Islamophobia,” a term that liberals have invented to describe what they consider to be unfair and bigoted criticism of Muslims and Islam, found mostly among right-wingers. Maher and Harris, nobody’s right-wingers, were essentially accused of racism and bigotry for their outspoken views on the dangers inherent in not just radical Islam, but in its non-radical form.

Below is the segment, which you can watch and then return for my take on it all, but note the key point that Harris tries to make:

The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where criticism of the religion gets conflated with bigotry towards Muslims as people. It’s intellectually ridiculous.

“It’s gross and racist,” says Affleck of Maher’s and Harris’ views. To which Harris responds (my emphasis):

Ben, we have to be able to criticize bad ideas. And Islam at this moment is the mother lode of bad ideas.

Affleck says in response:

That’s an ugly thing to say.

Is it? Well, maybe it is. But at this moment it is not as ugly as denying that Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas. Much like Christianity was centuries before, Islam here in the 21st-century is truly the source of a lot of not only bad ideas but a lot of accompanying bad actions. And that is what many liberals find so hard to accept. They want to believe that there is room in the tent of civilization for all kinds of belief systems, and when it comes to Islam, liberals reflexively want to be inclusive. They don’t want to judge Muslim cultures too broadly or too harshly, even though they have little trouble criticizing conservative evangelicals who want to put their fingerprints on government and culture. Perhaps that is because so many conservative evangelicals not only make bigoted judgments about Muslims, but they also make bigoted judgments about liberals.

But the truth is that some belief systems inherently reject our Western notions of civilization, which, for instance, include a profound respect for women’s rights. There are some folks who don’t want to live in any social tent in which women are equal with men. And there are things in Islam, in book-based Islam, that encourage Muslims to shun such Western ideas, that encourage Muslims to not integrate into Western societies too deeply. In the worst cases, there are things in Islam that foster a desire on the part of a minority of Muslims to not just reject universal human rights, but embrace terrorists who want to destroy Western culture—one head at a time.

After the exchange on Maher’s show, Harris wrote:

Kristof made the point that there are brave Muslims who are risking their lives to condemn “extremism” in the Muslim community. Of course there are, and I celebrate these people too. But he seemed completely unaware that he was making my point for me—the point being, of course, that these people are now risking their lives by advocating for basic human rights in the Muslim world.

Harris followed with this:

Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group.

I have read most of Harris’ books and listened to many debates he’s been in. I completely understand where he’s coming from, even if many liberals don’t. There is room in liberalism for both critics of Islam and for critics of genuine bigots who lump all Muslims together and condemn them. Harris is the former without being the latter. But some liberals don’t see it that way and are unfairly attacking a fellow liberal. Here’s what Harris has to say about that:

One of the most depressing things in the aftermath of this exchange is the way Affleck is now being lauded for having exposed my and Maher’s “racism,” “bigotry,” and “hatred of Muslims.” This is yet another sign that simply accusing someone of these sins, however illogically, is sufficient to establish them as facts in the minds of many viewers. It certainly does not help that unscrupulous people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald have been spinning the conversation this way.

It turns out that Harris had good reason to go after Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (a man whom I have heavily criticized for his stance on the Edward Snowden leaks and his grossly unfair attacks on President Obama). In a post a few days ago that was titled, “On the Mechanics of Defamation,” Harris wrote:

Let me briefly illustrate how this works. Although I could cite hundreds of examples from the past two weeks alone, here is what I woke up to this morning: Some person who goes by the name of @dan_verg_ on Twitter took the most easily misunderstood sentence in The End of Faith out of (its absolutely essential) context, attached it to a scary picture of me, and declared me a “genocidal fascist maniac.” Then Reza Aslan retweeted it. An hour later, Glenn Greenwald retweeted it again.

Here is the Tweet:

You can read for yourself, in context, what Harris meant by the statement that was nicely fitted onto that eerie photograph of him and sent to millions of people around the world. But Harris points out,

Both Greenwald and Aslan know that those words do not mean what they appear to mean. Given the amount of correspondence we’ve had on these topics, and given that I have repeatedly bored audiences by clarifying that statement (in response to this kind of treatment), the chance that either writer thinks he is exposing the truth about my views—or that I’m really a “genocidal fascist maniac”—is zero. Aslan and Greenwald—a famous “scholar” and a famous “journalist”—are engaged in a campaign of pure defamation. They are consciously misleading their readers and increasing my security concerns in the process.

That two liberals would do this to another liberal is unconscionable. Harris ends his blog post with this:

Aslan and Greenwald know that nowhere in my work do I suggest that we kill harmless people for thought crimes. And yet they (along with several of their colleagues) are doing their best to spread this lie about me. Nearly every other comment they’ve made about my work is similarly misleading.

Both Aslan and Greenwald are debasing our public discourse and making honest discussion of important ideas increasingly unpleasant—even personally dangerous. Why are they doing this? Please ask them and those who publish them.

And that is why I decided to write about this issue. Last night, on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes, the host did a segment featuring Reza Aslan in which they discussed these issues. And he did that segment without once mentioning the slanderous tweet that both Aslan and Glenn Greenwald (who also appears as a guest on Hayes’ show from time to time) retweeted and disseminated around the world. I don’t know if Hayes knew about the tweet. But I was sorely disappointed in the liberal commentator, whom I much admire. If he did know, shame on him. If he didn’t know, he or his staff should have done better research.

Sadly, it is quite likely that Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald will continue to enjoy the support of liberals in the media, and Sam Harris will continue to endure the slander that is represented by that offensive tweet.

And liberalism is the lesser for all of it.

Is Representative Democracy Dead?

A challenging comment from a thought-provoking contributor to this blog, Herb Van Fleet (who also writes op-eds for the Joplin Globe), has prompted me to post the following.

Among other things, in his response to my piece on the Republican voter suppression scandal, Herb offered this:

Being the malcontented, cynical, outlier that I am, it seems to me that just because a person is a U.S. citizen of the right age, who is ambulatory enough to get to the local polling booth, that is not a justification for a “right” to vote.

Should we allow those who are illiterate to vote when they can’t even read the ballot. Should we allow those with very little education to vote if they can’t understand the issues? Should we allow those who are ignorant of our political system — who can name the Three Stooges but not the three branches of government — to vote?

My reply:


Of course I have to challenge your suggestion that a U.S. citizen “of the right age, who is ambulatory enough to get to the local polling booth, that is not a justification for a ‘right’ to vote.”

Oh, yes it is. You know why? Because the alternative is unthinkable in a democracy. Just who would get to decide if “those with very little education” can “understand the issues”? Or who would measure the level of ignorance “of our political system” and by what standards would they measure it? Would you apply your Three Stooges test or some other test?

We all agree that it is generally a good idea for folks to be informed and to make use of their rational faculties before doing anything, including casting their votes. But that tells us nothing, when you think about it, about how people might vote or whether they would cast what you or I might consider to be the right vote.

johnson on votingLet’s say we could devise a test that served the purpose you suggested. Then let’s suppose we gave our test to someone like Rush Limbaugh. He would likely pass such a test. Yet, he would certainly disappoint me and around half the country on his choice of candidates. Rush Limbaugh would vote for the dumbest, most clownish Republican on the planet if the alternative was a Democrat. I can guarantee you that, after two decades of listening to him. So, I would ask you: what would be accomplished by such a test? And how significant, in terms of one’s desired electoral outcome, is any testable notion of being “informed”? Therefore, why bother with such a test?

Maybe we could devise a test to sort out people whose minds have been poisoned by fundamentalist religion. We could call it the Ted Cruz or Michele Bachmann test. But what kind of democracy would we have if we arbitrarily decided that this person or that person shouldn’t vote? As much damage as I think the Ted Cruzes and Michele Bachmanns of the world are doing to our politics, in a democracy they both get to vote. And they should. The informed and the misinformed, the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the Christians and the pagans, all get to vote—if they want to. Who knows? Perhaps there is safety in numbers.

That leads me to this stunning argument you made:

It seems to me that an important predicate for a fully functional representative democracy is an informed electorate. On that point, I would argue that that is exactly what the founders gave us.

I had to read that a couple of times before I could react appropriately. The founders did not give us “an informed electorate,” since no one could guarantee that anyone casting a vote was informed (and, again, if being an “informed” voter is essential to good governance, why doesn’t it lead people to vote and think the same way? Why were there Federalists and Democratic-Republicans in our system as early as 1792?)

But even if the Founders could have given us such an informed electorate, please explain to me how limiting the vote to literate property owners—no blacks, women, or native Americans need apply—constituted a “fully functional representative democracy”? What it amounted to was essentially a fully functional oligarchy. Now, if you personally prefer oligarchies, just say so!

Which leads me to your point about what you call “the tyranny of the minority,” regarding the relatively small number of eligible people who actually vote and decide issues. Now, that is a strange kind of tyranny, don’t you think? I mean what you are describing is essentially a tyranny that people who don’t bother to vote foist on themselves, year after year, election after election. You can call that a lot of things, but it isn’t a tyranny of the minority, unless the minority (as Republicans are now doing) is actively and successfully engaged in voter suppression.

Finally, while I largely agree with you that in many ways, “Public policy is set by special interest groups, lobbyists, and the top one percent,” I think you go too far when you say,

…we have long since slipped from being a liberal representative democracy into a plutocracy.

Well, yes, there are plenty of plutocrats among us. Yes, those plutocrats have outsize influence over our politics. Yes, we are slouching toward something one might call a plutocracy. But as both Roosevelts demonstrated, the plutocrats don’t always have to win. They don’t “rule” in the sense that they control it all. They can always be defeated in a democracy. If we don’t think they can, if we have lost all public confidence in our electoral process (and Citizens United went a long way in undermining that confidence, I’ll admit), and if we no longer believe the people we elect are ultimately responsive and accountable to voters, then the American experiment is over. 

And if you think this great experiment is over, then you will have to admit that “a liberal representative democracy” is simply impossible to maintain. I, for one, am not ready to toss in the towel, and with all due respect, I hope there are more citizens like me than “malcontented, cynical” ones like you.


P.S. I read your recent and mostly admirable op-ed in the Joplin Globe, Herb. I agree with you that “our democracy is broken” and I would be the first to entertain “another form of government,” possibly a parliamentary republic just to name one I am fond of. But I was amazed at two things about your piece. One was that you managed to complain about the brokenness of government without mentioning the real culprit these days: the Republican Party. You tend to do that when you write op-eds for the Globe.

The other thing that amazed me was that you ended with a dubious quote from Abraham Lincoln, who allegedly trembled for the safety of the nation because of the reign of “the money power of the country.” As far as I can tell, Lincoln never said that. I wish to God he had because it would be the greatest prophecy in American history, given what the Republicans on the Supreme Court have lately enabled via Citizens United and other decisions. Next time, rather than leaving them with the impression that both sides are equally guilty for our broken system, maybe you can explain that partisan fact to your readers, as well as the fact that gumming up government has been a deliberate GOP tactic since 2009.


Krugman: “In Defense Of Obama”

Paul Krugman, of all people on the left, has done what should be done. He has actually come out with an in-your-face defense of President Obama.

The subhead for the excellent Rolling Stone piece is,

The Nobel Prize-winning economist, once one of the president’s most notable critics, on why Obama is a historic success

If you are a regular reader of Krugman you know very well that he has, at times, been fairly critical of the Obama administration. And I actually mean “fairly” critical. He hasn’t just taken cheap shots, as so many on both the right and left have done.

Now, after first admitting that he has “always been out of sync” with the President, Krugman says,

Obama has emerged as one of the most consequential and, yes, successful presidents in American history.

Yes. And here is why in a quick summary:

His health reform is imperfect but still a huge step forward – and it’s working better than anyone expected. Financial reform fell far short of what should have happened, but it’s much more effective than you’d think. Economic management has been half-crippled by Republican obstruction, but has nonetheless been much better than in other advanced countries. And environmental policy is starting to look like it could be a major legacy.

It’s too bad that other Democrats, including Allison Lundergan Grimes, who wants to unseat Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, don’t feel free to embrace Obama’s achievements, if not Obama himself. Grimes, famously now, couldn’t even bring herself to admit to the Louisville Courier-Journal editorial board that sgrimes obama vote answerhe actually voted for the President, even though she was born and raised a Democrat, and even though some 500,000 Kentuckians are benefiting from the Affordable Care Act, the same law that has driven Republicans nuts and the same law that McConnell wants to kill.

Yes, I understand she is running in Kentucky. I understand that Obama is very unpopular in that state. But Grimes didn’t help herself by being so obviously frightened to admit she voted for The Scary Negro. She even went so far as to say that she was a “Clinton” Democrat. We all know what that means, of course. There’s no mistaking either Bill or Hillary for an African-American.

But abandoning President Obama has become quite fashionable among Democrats and liberals these days, even if you don’t live in the Deep South and even if you’re not paper-white. Krugman mentions Cornel West, a black professor at Union Theological Seminary, who this summer was the subject of a Salon interview by lefty Thomas Frank. Frank, who wrote the influential book, What’s The Matter With Kansas, introduces West as,

one of my favorite public intellectuals, a man who deals in penetrating analyses of current events, expressed in a pithy and highly quotable way.

That being said, let’s look at what this public intellectual offered as penetrating analysis of President Obama:

Dr. Cornel West…the thing is he posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair. 

The black public intellectual actually called Obama “a brown-faced Clinton. Another opportunist.” And Thomas Frank baited him with elitist nonsense:

FRANK: There’s a lot of disillusionment now. My liberal friends included. The phrase that I have heard from more than one person in the last year is they feel like they got played.

WEST: That’s true. That’s exactly right. What I hear is that, “He pimped us.” I heard that a zillion times. “He pimped us, brother West.” That’s another way of saying “we got played.”

That’s just a sample of criticism coming from Obama’s left. Krugman answers it:

They’re outraged that Wall Street hasn’t been punished, that income inequality remains so high, that ”neoliberal” economic policies are still in place. All of this seems to rest on the belief that if only Obama had put his eloquence behind a radical economic agenda, he could somehow have gotten that agenda past all the political barriers that have constrained even his much more modest efforts. It’s hard to take such claims seriously.

No, it’s not hard to take such claims seriously. It is impossible.

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