Saturday, January 30, 2010

Obama makes nice, MSNBC makes not nice, Boehner follows suit

The President’s session with the House Republicans might have been the first step toward more civil political discourse and toward working together on the problems facing the American people. Might, but not if some have their say.
Many in the media paint all political activity as sport, with winners and losers. For example, Friday night MSNBC’s brain trust—Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Rachel Maddow—rushed to crown Obama the winner, the Republicans (of course) the losers. And—just to rub it in—pointed out that the Republicans had been outsmarted into letting America see the President’s triumph.
Then on Saturday, after generally constructive comments by Republicans who attended, the office of House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) put out a release headed,  "Rhetoric versus reality: President Obama repeats discredited talking points during dialogue with House GOP."
Once again, people on both sides of the political divide rush to keep anyone from bridging the divide for the benefit of the American people. Shame on MSNBC, and shame on John Boehner.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Clap your hands if you believe.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Maybe the single step was the invitation of Congressman Mike Pence (R-IN), chairman of the Republican Conference , to President Obama to address the Republican retreat in Baltimore today.  The President spoke for twenty minutes, then took questions for an hour.
He ended his introductory remarks this way: ”We've gotten caught up in the political game in a way that's just not healthy.  It's dividing our country in ways that are preventing us from meeting the challenges of the 21st century.  I'm hopeful that the conversation we have today can help reverse that.”
The session was—as diplomats describe difficult negotiations—frank. Even combative. But both sides—the President and the 140 Republican congressmen—appeared to listen. There was real conversation going on. The President wrapped up the session with this:
“And so the question is, at what point can we have a serious conversation about Medicare and its long-term liability, or a serious question about -- a serious conversation about Social Security, or a serious conversation about budget and debt in which we're not simply trying to position ourselves politically.  That's what I'm committed to doing.  We won't agree all the time in getting it done, but I'm committed to doing it.”
The ideal of Niebuhr—the political fight waged with good temper and integrity—seems a little closer today than it was yesterday. Clap your hands if you believe.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tebow or not Tebow

There’s a controversy about CBS’s decision to broadcast a pro-life commercial at the Super Bowl. It’s Tim Tebow, the Florida football star, and his mother, who was advised to have an abortion when she was pregnant with Tim. Several pro-choice organizations have called on CBS to reverse itself and not run the commercial.
Jack Marshall, in his Ethics Alarms blog analyzes the ethics of the opposing sides’ arguments. His article clarifies the arguments for me. It's worth reading.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The New York Times's unethical "Ethicist"

 The New York Times is as good a place as any to get your news, and better than most. But don’t get your ethics advice there—not from Randy Cohen, who writes in the Sunday Times magazine as “The Ethicist.” Cohen has been advising lying and dishonesty when such behavior brings a benefit to the liar or dissembler.
Our debt is to Jack Marshall, who blows the whistle on Cohen’s egregious advice. You can read Jack’s devastating analysis on his Ethics Alarms blog.

Education priorities: California right, Virginia wrong

Too bad about budding athletes in Fairfax County, Virginia, and throughout the Washington, D.C. area. The Washington Post reports today that schools there are cutting funding for various sports programs. Where are their priorities?
We Californians know what school is for. The University of California is raising tuition by 32 percent this year to cover budget shortfalls, but we’re not letting it harm UC’s sports programs: just this week the UC Board of Regents approved a $321-million renovation of Memorial Stadium, where the Golden Bears football team plays. And this on the heels of UCLA’s $185-million upgrade of Pauley Pavillon, home of Bruin basketball.
The university explains that no state money (well, hardly any) will go to these projects—they’ll be funded mainly from Bruin and Bear sports fans.
It goes to show: California sports fans are more dedicated than California education fans—even at the University of California.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

A Reinhold Niebuhr award for Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart gets a (mythical) Reinhold Niebuhr award* for bringing good temper and integrity into the political fight.
The highest level of political ethics is to call out members of one’s own party. We expect to see Republicans calling out leftish commentators like Keith Olbermann, just as we expect to see Democrats criticizing Bill O”Reilly.  And to see Bill-O and Keith ranting out each other. Ho hum, no surprise there, and no contribution to the integrity of the political fight.
But when liberal Jon Stewart calls out liberal Keith Olbermann, that’s BIG, and surprising, and a contribution.
Our civic society is being ripped by the bitter antagonism between left and right, the worst since the bad old days of Senator Joe McCarthy, red hunts, and leftish defenses of Soviet spies. It’s made worse by the ease of getting all one’s news from a kind of “Daily Me,” an assortment of media that reflect only one’s own bias.
Stewart’s fair and balanced skewering of fellow-liberal Olbermann is in the highest traditions of Niebuhr’s goal of a healthy society. And funny as all get-out. Watch it at
Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, ‘The temper of and integrity with which the political fight is waged is more important for the health of our society than the outcome of any issue or campaign.”

Friday, January 22, 2010

That darned Constitution…that darned Supreme Court

The United States Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the federal government may not ban political spending by corporations or unions in candidate elections.  The Court’s 5-4 majority opinion cited the First Amendment to the Constitution, which says,
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Darn the Constitution. Darn the Court. Everybody knows that this decision will wipe out restrictions on corporations spending huge sums to elect candidates who will do their bidding. The New York Times says so. So does the Washington Post. An ethical justice would have decided the opposite way, a decision that would have produced the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Moreover, that decision would have decreased the influence of money in politics, whereas the Court’s decision will surely increase it.
But hold on: what really does ethics require of the Supreme Court? The justices take the same oath as all federal officers:  “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”
The McCain-Feingold Act and other federal restrictions on political spending serve, I’m certain, an important public purpose: they make our politics a little more ethical. But they pretty obviously violate the First Amendment. Federal officers have an ethical duty to hold to their oath of office and overturn them, as they now have done. If we are to restrict corporations political spending we need a Constitutional amendment to do it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A REAL governing party wouldn’t need 60 votes

The Democrats were elected to govern, but they’re not governing.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, civil rights legislation was doomed by Southern Democrats’ filibusters. Strom Thurmond held the Senate floor for over 24 hours straight, filibustering against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which eventually passed. But filibusters and cloture motions—the vote to close debate—were rare: never more than seven motions filed in any two-year session until 1971. But now it’s received wisdom that it takes 60 votes to pass any bill in the Senate.
Pity the poor Democrats. They’ve had 60 Senators in their caucus. If they got all sixty into the Senate chamber—including poor 92-year old Bobby Byrd slouching in his wheelchair—they could get a matter like health care brought to a vote. But with Tuesday’s Massachusetts election they’re down to 59.
And there’s a lot of anger in the country. Tea partiers are angry that Obama is seizing the economy to socialize it. Progressives and independents in Massachusetts—far larger in number—just demonstrated their anger that the Dems, with a huge majority in both houses—256-178 in the House and now 59-41 in the Senate, aren’t getting things done.
The Dems need to make Americans angry at the Republicans, not at them. Back in the bad old days of Senators Bilbo and Thurmond, southerners actually filibustered: they read telephone books, the Bible, the comic pages, etc. Their pro-segregation constituents loved them for it, but most Americans hated what they were doing and turned against them.
By contrast, today's Dems quietly accept that 60 votes are needed in the Senate. The Reps don't have to actually filibuster, reading telephone books on national television.. If they did they’d become laughing stocks:, the public's anger would turn on them for denying democracy, instead of turning against the Dems for incompetence.

Time for the Dems to get serious. Or else, paraphrasing Lincoln’s plea to General McClellan, “If they’re not planning to use the majority, the Republicans would like to take it back.”

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Strip-search 18-28-year-old Muslim men? Unethical and dangerously ineffective

  "If you are an 18-28-year-old Muslim man then you should be strip searched. And if we don't do that there's a very high probability we're going to lose an airliner." So said retired Air Force Lieutenant General Tom McInerney to Fox newscaster Julie Banderas.
Most Americans, and all constitutional lawyers, would consider such religious discrimination to be wrong: unethical and probably illegal. But perhaps it’s okay to do unethical things to save 300 lives, as General McInerny recommends.
Hmmm, if you were Al Qaeda and planning an attack against an American airliner could you possibly counter this policy of strip-searching 18-28-year-old Muslim males? Let me count the ways:
1) Send a non-Muslim
2) Send somebody who looks like a non-Muslim
3) Send a 35-yr old Muslim, like the double agent who killed seven CIA agents in Afghanistan.
4) Send a woman
Get the idea? Profiling is a good thing for law enforcement people to do. It lets them concentrate their efforts on people who behave suspiciously. Like maybe several recent short trips to Yemen. Or buying a one-way ticket and having no baggage. Or a thousand other things.
But profiling on the basis of religion? That’s the worst of both worlds: it is unethical and ineffective, and as a bonus, would give millions of peaceful and friendly Muslims good reason to hate us. We should reject this advice as dangerously wrong-headed.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, reach new depths of hatefulness

The television is full of heartbreaking pictures of unspeakable, unwatchable human tragedy. Relief starts to arrive from all over the world, but especially from America: soldiers from the 82d Airborne Division, the super carrier Carl Vinson, C-130 cargo aircraft by the dozens, the Navy’s only hospital ship. President Obama announces that America will not forsake Haiti.
But two Americans, both heroes to millions, utter unimaginably vile language that makes one doubt their humanity.
Rush Limbaugh says the earthquake is “made to order” for the Administration, which will “use this to burnish their, shall we say, credibility with the black community.” He went on to discourage anyone from giving to the Red Cross for Haitian relief, saying that the President’s appeal would only lead to collecting names to solicit later for campaign contributions. “Besides, we've already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax.”
Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of The 700 Club, a Christian TV program syndicated throughout the U.S. and Canada, matched Limbaugh in his hate: “A long time ago in Haiti…they were under the heel of the French, and they got together and swore a pact with the devil. They said ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.”

Monday, January 11, 2010

Phony hysteria over Senator Reid saying "Negro"

Many Republicans are calling for Democrats to ditch Harry Reid as Senate majority leader. RNC chairman Michael Steele and Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) equate Reid’s recent use of the word “Negro” with former Republican Majority Leader Trent Lott’s saying that America would have been better off had arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond been elected President on his racist ticket in 1948.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Even chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover equating the behavior of Senator Reid, with his solid record of advancing the cause of civil rights, and who encouraged Obama to run for President, with that of ex-Senator Lott, who longed for the good old days of segregation.
I was brought up to say “Negro.” Or colored person. Somewhere in the last 40 years those terms went out of polite usage, to be replaced, usually, by African-American (although the NAACP is still working for the advancement of colored people).
Harry Reid didn’t get the memo. In 2008 he decided early to support Barack Obama’s Presidential run. He was quoted in “Game Change,” the new tell-all book about the campaign, as advocating Obama’s running, and explaining that America was ready to elect “a light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one.”
Reid is guilty—for the gazillionth time—of speaking awkwardly, and he apologized to Obama and everyone else he could think of. But to equate his awkward language expressing inter-racial fairness with Lott’s nostalgia for a racist America is deeply unethical.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

“Change we can believe in” would be on C-SPAN

Keep my commitments. That’s high on my list of unenforceables. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard. Candidate Obama made this commitment about health care reform:
"I'm going to have all the negotiations around a big table. We'll have doctors and nurses and hospital administrators. Insurance companies, drug companies -- they'll get a seat at the table, they just won't be able to buy every chair. But what we will do is, we'll have the negotiations televised on C-SPAN, so that people can see who is making arguments on behalf of their constituents, and who are making arguments on behalf of the drug companies or the insurance companies. And so, that approach, I think is what is going to allow people to stay involved in this process."
It would have been hard for the President to put the closed-door negotiations in the House and Senate on C-SPAN; after all, that’s the prerogative of those two houses. But the negotiations about a final bill?? They’re being held at the White House. It’s Obama’s house. It would be very easy for him to invite C-SPAN in.
So why hasn’t he done it? Looks like an ethics violation to me. And over the issue that’s gripped the political scene for the past eleven months. This isn’t change we can believe in.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Reinhold Niebuhr award for Bob Barr (ex-R-GA)

The President’s praiseworthy statement on strengthening intelligence was met by ridicule from the usual suspects: Cheney, Limbaugh, Beck, Bachmann. No news there. But some better news: most Republicans kept quiet, perhaps honoring President Bush’s statement in the early days of the new administration, “He deserves my silence.” And some, including Tom Ridge and John Negroponte, praised Obama.
But the best news comes from conservative ex-congressman Bob Barr (R-GA), who called the Republican sniping at  President Obama for his handling of the aftermath of the Christmas underpants bombing “asinine” and “irresponsible.” His indictment of the right is on the Atlanta Journal Constitution website at
The highest level of political ethics is to call out members of one’s own party. Bob Barr gets this month’s (mythical) Reinhold Niebuhr award for bringing good temper and integrity into the political fight.*
* Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, ‘The temper of and integrity with which the political fight is waged is more important for the health of our society than the outcome of any issue or campaign.’ 

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Self-terror: update from the President

I wrote this morning about self-terrorism:  the exaggeration and amplification of the threat from real terrorists that spreads more terror. Today the President, in his remarks on strengthening intelligence and aviation security, addressed the issue of self-terror with these words:
“Here at home, we will strengthen our defenses, but we will not succumb to a siege mentality that sacrifices the open society and liberties and values that we cherish as Americans, because great and proud nations don’t hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust. That is exactly what our adversaries want, and so long as I am President, we will never hand them that victory. We will define the character of our country, not some band of small men intent on killing innocent men, women, wnd children.”

What kind of people are we cheering for, anyway?

The Washington Wizards are a pretty sorry basketball team—11 wins, 22 losses so far this season—but their one bright spot has been all-star Gilbert Arenas, in the second year of a six-year, $111 MILLION contract to play for the Wizards. But not after last night, when Arenas was suspended indefinitely by David Stern commissioner of the NBA.
Before Christmas Arenas had brought several handguns to the Wizards’ locker room, and on December 21 he had brandished one at a teammate, who in response, according to anonymous reports from players who were there, pointed his loaded handgun at Arenas in a spat over a gambling debt.
When the incident came to light Arenas apologized, saying it was all in fun, but recognizing that “there’s no such thing as joking around” where guns are concerned. Not for a week or two, anyway. Last night as the players were being introduced, Arenas pointed his hands, mimicking handguns, at his teammates and went pop pop pop.
Stern immediately suspended Arenas, saying “His ongoing conduct has led me to conclude that he is not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game.” Stern is just right. To be fit to play big time sports a player ought to be somebody we’ll cheer for—at least some of us.  Sport can be ennobling, and some of its best are to be admired and cheered.
But it’s demeaning to cheer for players who lie, cheat, or commit crimes. Hooray for David Stern for taking this (belated) step. Let’s hope it encourages other sports commissioners and coaches to insist on behavior that we can cheer for without feeling ashamed.
Meanwhile I’m only going to cheer for people who don’t make me feel ashamed.

American self-terrorists

“Dramatic violence choreographed to create an atmosphere of fear and alarm, which causes people to exaggerate the threat.” That’s the definition of terrorism coined by Brian Jenkins, one of America’s foremost experts on the subject. Jenkins goes on to define another term, one we should become more familiar with: self-terrorism.
He writes that government officials, journalists, networks, talking heads, and believers in doom “all collaborate in creating a fission of fear.” They are self-terrorists. They terrorize us and themselves, like children telling horror stories after the lights go out
There ARE terrorists out there, and our government and allies of all faiths and many nations are searching it out and fighting it. So what are we to make of politicians who blast the President for avoiding the words “terrorism” and “war”?
Dick Cheney says the President’s pretending we’re not at war. Congressman Peter King (R-NY) says the one most important thing could do now is “to use the word  terrorism more often.”  Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), Virginia Fox (R-NC), Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC), Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, and others are all piling on in enthusiastic agreement.
They are amplifying the efforts of Al Qaeda and its collaborators to spread terror. They are self-terrorists. They are helping the enemies of civilization. They need to be repudiated.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dick Cheney: liar, liar, pants on fire

Dick Cheney has repeatedly accused President Obama of making America less safe by “trying to pretend we are not at war," Cheney recently went on: "He seems to think if he has a low-key response to an attempt to blow up an airliner and kill hundreds of people, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if he gives terrorists the rights of Americans, lets them lawyer up and reads them their Miranda rights, we won’t be at war. He seems to think if we bring the mastermind of Sept. 11 to New York, give him a lawyer and trial in civilian court, we won’t be at war.
Our favorite fact-checking blog, PolitiFact√com, has just published a review of Obama's statements of the past year that makes it clear he has repeatedly said—starting with his inaugural address right through to his West Point speech last month—that the United States is at war against terrorist organizations.
PolitiFact usually rules statements half true, mostly false, or false. Only the most outrageous falsehoods do they rate “Pants on fire.” And now Cheney’s statements have earned this most ignominious label. Well deserved, Cheney!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Virtue rewarded: Texas Tech 41-Michigan State 31

           Nice to see the Texas Tech Red Raiders come out on top tonight, 41-31 over the Spartans of Michigan State. Texas Tech risked losing a bowl game and perhaps a recruiting class when they fired coach Mike Leach for mistreating a player who had suffered a concussion in practice. For a big time football power like Tech, that was a strong statement for ethical behavior.
Coach Leach gave interviews to the New York Times and the Associated Press in which he denied ordering the injured player, Adam James, to be locked up in a dark place, but his account was refuted by trainer Steve Pincock, who signed an affidavit attesting that Coach Leach had directed him “to lock his [obscenity] in a place so dark that [series of obscenities].
So—unless there’s a massive conspiracy to frame Leach, it appears that he is guilty of lying, in addition to abusing an injured player. Hooray for Tech in acting boldly and ethically to fire him, even on the eve of a bowl game.But save a tear for Spartan coach Mark Dantonio, who suspended twelve players and fired two more for a campus brawl in December. Like the Tech authorities, he placed decent behavior above winning.