30 November 2008

Deadly consumerism

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving Thursday in the U.S., when many Americans have the day off from work and use it to begin their holiday shopping, is generally considered one of the busiest shopping days of the year. The day gets its name from the prospect that the heavy shopping on this date will push retailers' balance sheets out of the red and into the black.

Despite the bad economy this year, countless American consumers still camped out for hours after Thanksgiving dinner outside their favorite shops in order to be at the head of the queue when the shops opened early Friday.

OK, that's fine. If people have nothing better to do, and they have the money to spend, that's their business. Go for it.

But what happened this year on Black Friday at a Long Island Wal-Mart is bigger than that, and much more heinous, be it intentional or not. It demonstrated that some Americans will put their desire to be first in line for that limited inventory of 50-inch televisions above all else -- even if it means that another human being has to die in the process.

If you haven't heard the story, here is a summary, courtesy of the New York Daily News:
A Wal-Mart worker died early Friday after an "out-of-control" mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the Long Island store's front doors and trampled him, police said.

The Black Friday stampede plunged the Valley Stream outlet into chaos, knocking several employees to the ground and sending others scurrying atop vending machines to avoid the horde.

When the madness ended, 34-year-old Wal-Mart worker Jdimytai Damour was dead, and four shoppers, including a woman eight months pregnant, were injured.
This is America on shopping adrenaline, credit cards, selfishness, and competitive greed.

What seemingly matters to the American consumer -- even today, apparently -- is keeping up with the proverbial Joneses, and exceeding them at any cost. Shopping has become a sport, and consumerism has become a contest, even in what might be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

If your neighbor has a 40-inch television, you have to run out and buy a 50-inch TV with more proverbial bells and whistles -- whether or not you can afford it.

And, if someone stands in your way, trample him to death, damn it!

How cheap really is that big TV if it costs you your soul?

29 November 2008

With new Bush-Iraq treaty, are Obama's hands tied?

On Thursday, while Americans were enjoying their Thanksgiving feasts, the Iraqi parliament formally ratified a security agreement that the Bush administration and the Iraqi cabinet had reached earlier this month.

According to the Associated Press, the agreement will require U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq entirely by January 1, 2012.

That's a good bit longer than the 16-month timeframe for withdrawal that Barack Obama promised while on the campaign trail.

The deal will be put to an Iraqi referendum in 2009. In the meantime, some questions:

• Does this mean that Obama's hands are tied?

• Is this the Bush administration's way of ensuring continued wealth for their war profiteer friends and continued access to Iraq's oil supplies even after the Bushies have left the White House?

• Is this George W's way of stealing Obama's thunder and taking credit for ending the war, albeit later rather than sooner?

It will be interesting to see how the Obama administration deals with this. Along with the economy, this will be an important test for the new president.

We the American people voted for Obama because we're sick of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. We will be watching. And so will the rest of the world.

28 November 2008

Is Congress wasting its time on H.R. 1531 (re: Bush pardons)?

There is no question that the Bush administration has abused its power: Intelligence is manipulated. Science is silenced. Torture is routine. Bush's goons spy warrantlessly not only on foreigners of interest but on U.S. citizens as well. Signing statements are the norm. The Constitution is systematically dismantled. And White House advisors thumb their noses at Congressional subpoenas.

Now that Bush is less than two months away from a one-way ticket back to Texas, people are bracing themselves for more pardons in addition to the ones that Bush has already granted.

And some are wondering if Bush will abuse his presidential pardon power via preemptive pardons for administration officials, and possibly even for himself.

To that end, last week Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced H.R. 1531, "Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the President of the United States should not issue pardons to senior members of his administration during the final 90 days of his term of office."

Here are some excerpts from the bill:
Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the President of the United States should not issue pardons to senior members of his administration during the final 90 days of his term of office.


Whereas the Supreme Court has observed that '[a] pardon reaches both the punishment prescribed for the offence and the guilt of the offender; and when the pardon is full, it releases the punishment and blots out of existence the guilt, so that in the eye of the law the offender is as innocent as if he had never committed the offence. [...] ;

Whereas during the Constitutional convention, George Mason expressed the concern that a president could abuse his pardon power to 'pardon crimes which were advised by himself' or, before indictment or conviction, 'to stop inquiry and prevent detection';


Whereas investigations by Congressional committees, and press reports, raise serious concerns that senior officials of the administration of President George W. Bush may have committed crimes involving the mistreatment of detainees, the extraordinary rendition of individuals to countries known to engage in torture, illegal surveillance of United States citizens, unlawful leaks of classified information, obstruction of justice, political interference with the conduct of the Justice Department, and other illegal acts;

Whereas President George W. Bush has been urged to grant preemptive pardons to senior administration officials who might face criminal prosecution for actions taken in the course of their official duties; and


Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That--

(1) it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the granting of preemptive pardons by the President to senior officials of his administration for acts they may have taken in the course of their official duties is a dangerous abuse of the pardon power;

(2) it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the President should not grant preemptive pardons to senior officials in his administration for acts they may have taken in the course of their official duties;

(3) it is the sense of the House of Representatives that James Madison was correct in his observation that '[i]f the President be connected, in any suspicious manner, with any person, and there be grounds [to] believe he will shelter him, the House of Representatives can impeach him; they can remove him if found guilty';

(4) it is the sense of the House of Representatives that a special investigative commission, or a Select Committee be tasked with investigating possible illegal activities by senior officials of the administration of President George W. Bush, including, if necessary, any abuse of the President's pardon power; and

(5) the next Attorney General of the United States appoint an independent counsel to investigate, and, where appropriate, prosecute illegal acts by senior officials of the administration of President George W. Bush.
This all sounds good. In fact, it's music to my ears.

But will it fly? I doubt it.

After all, the Democratic majority in Congress has done little in the past four years to effectively curtail Bush's abuses of power. Whenever some have tried, they have failed.

And Bush doesn't follow the rules anyway. He makes them up as he goes along. In his mind, he and his cronies are above the law. And they always manage to get away with it.

So is H.R. 1531 just another waste of time?

I hope not. I hope that having Barack Obama in the White House and more Dems in the Senate will help. But only time will tell. At this point, I've all but given up hope of seeing the Bush administration held accountable for its crimes against the Constitution, this nation, and the world.

But I will not be quiet.

27 November 2008

This year's Thanksgiving sentiments

Today is the annual Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.

Americans mark this holiday by sharing a feast with family and friends and giving thanks for the things they are grateful for.

This year, as always, I am thankful to the universe for my health and for my friends, especially those close friends who have become my surrogate family. But these thoughts are selfish, and so I want to move on from the personal stuff.

On a larger scale, a more nationwide and worldwide scale, I am thankful for the fact that the American people have woken up from their fear-induced coma of the past 7+ years and have elected an astonishingly intelligent, articulate, and thoughtful man as our next president -- one who happens to be African-American. There may be hope for this nation after all.

Above all, I am thankful for the fact that George W. Bush will vacate the White House in just 54 days, and that Dick Cheney will be right beside him. Maybe now we can put an end to the cowboy-style foreign policy, the lying, the smirking, the torture, and an executive branch that believes itself to be above the law.

Maybe. Hopefully. Fingers crossed.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

26 November 2008

Letter to Newt Gingrich from his gay sister

It's no secret that Newt Gingrich has a lesbian sister. Nevertheless, Newt's familial relationship with Candace Gingrich has apparently not enlightened him at all.

Just as he demonstrated his insensitivity to his ailing first wife by divorcing her while she was battling cancer, Newt has now demonstrated his insensitivity to his sister -- who happens to be a gay rights activist working for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) -- by essentially (and baselessly) calling Prop 8 protesters "gay and secular fascists".

But Candace wasn't going to sit back quietly and let her brother's ridiculous diatribe go unanswered.

So she fired off a brilliant response to her brother. Here is part of her letter to Newt:
Dear Newt,

I recently had the displeasure of watching you bash the protestors of the Prop 8 marriage ban to Bill O'Reilly on FOX News. I must say, after years of watching you build your career by stirring up the fears and prejudices of the far right, I feel compelled to use the words of your idol, Ronald Reagan, "There you go, again."

However, I realize that you may have been a little preoccupied lately with planning your resurrection as the savior of your party, so I thought I would fill you in on a few important developments you might have overlooked.

The truth is that you're living in a world that no longer exists. I, along with millions of Americans, clearly see the world the way it as - and we embrace what it can be. You, on the other hand, seem incapable of looking for new ideas or moving beyond what worked in the past.

Welcome to the 21st century, big bro. I can understand why you're so afraid of the energy that has been unleashed after gay and lesbian couples had their rights stripped away from them by a hateful campaign. I can see why you're sounding the alarm against the activists who use all the latest tech tools to build these rallies from the ground up in cities across the country.

This unstoppable progress has at its core a group we at HRC call Generation Equality. They are the most supportive of full LGBT equality than any American generation ever – and when it comes to the politics of division, well, they don't roll that way. 18-24 year olds voted overwhelmingly against Prop 8 and overwhelmingly for Barack Obama. And the numbers of young progressive voters will only continue to grow. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, about 23 million 18-29 year olds voted on Nov. 4, 2008 – the most young voters ever to cast a ballot in a presidential election. That's an increase of 3 million more voters compared to 2004.

These are the same people who helped elect Barack Obama and sent a decisive message to your party. These young people are the future and their energy will continue to drive our country forward. Even older Americans are turning their backs on the politics of fear and demagoguery that you and your cronies have perfected over the years.

This is a movement of the people that you most fear. It's a movement of progress – and your words on FOX News only show how truly desperate you are to maintain control of a world that is changing before your very eyes.
>> Read the full letter.

Well said, Candace.

It's easy to see which sibling has more class.

25 November 2008

Nov. 25 is Intl Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

The United Nations has designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and encourages individuals and organizations worldwide on this day to raise public awareness of this global problem.

I am here to do my part. And this year, to that end, I point you to the Violence Against Women section of the website of Amnesty International USA. There you can read some of AI's reports on violence against women here in the U.S. and around the world, and take action on current issues.

It's worth checking out. After all, with a little less luck, these cases could involve your own mother, daughter, sister, or wife.

Check it out: www.amnestyusa.org/violence-against-women

24 November 2008

Why Barack Obama should close the SOA

Over the weekend of November 21-23, thousands gathered outside Fort Benning, Georgia, to participate in an annual vigil to protest the School of the Americas (SOA).

Most Americans have probably never heard of the SOA, which was cleverly renamed a few years ago to "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)" to try to dodge the stigma surrounding the institution's reputation.

But changing the name doesn't change the fact that the school continues to use our tax dollars to train Latin American warlords and dictators in the art of torture and repression. The graduates then use their new skills to violate human rights in their home countries.

At an Amnesty International conference a few years ago, I had the privilege of meeting a Salvadoran victim of torture by the U.S.-trained death squads of the 1980s, and I heard his heart-wrenching story. Believe me, this is not how our tax dollars should be spent.

Amnesty International estimates that the WHINSEC-SOA has trained hundreds of Latin American officers who were later implicated in human rights violations.

Amnesty International has called for an independent commission of inquiry to investigate past activities of the SOA and its graduates, and for the school to be suspended pending publication of its findings.

We're still waiting.

Meantime, the crimes against humanity that originate there are free to continue, as long as the U.S.-trained militias and warlords can get away with it. God bless America.

President-elect Barack Obama has spoken out against the use of torture. That is certainly good, but it's not enough. Talk is cheap, so Obama needs to act on those words.

And, to do so, he must not only put an end to the use of torture by U.S. agents in the so-called "war on terror", but he must also call for closure of the WHINSEC-SOA. An end to torture by the CIA means little if we are still teaching the techniques to those who would propagate the atrocities overseas with our assistance.

After all, if we are to stand before the world and say truthfully (for a change) that the U.S. does not engage in torture, then we must guarantee that we are neither the instigators nor the enablers.

23 November 2008

The nuts are still challenging Obama's citizenship

The right-wing conspiracy theorists just won't give up. Rather than accept Barack Obama's election to the presidency and start to regroup for 2012, some of them are still trying to claim that Obama is ineligible for the presidency because, they say, he was born in Kenya.

Others say he is does not qualify as a natural-born citizen because his mother was too young.

I'm still receiving e-mail messages pointing to a petition to "uphold the Constitution" by requiring Obama to prove his citizenship. (Now all of a sudden the Republicans care about the Constitution.)

They repeat the same old debunked claim that Obama refuses to produce a valid U.S. birth certificate.

If you are at all tempted to entertain these conspiracy theories, please take a look at these facts:

• The State of Hawaii has once again issued verification of Obama's birth in Hawaii, making him a U.S. citizen.

FactCheck.org also believes that the Hawaiian birth certificate released by the Obama campaign is authentic.

• In October, a U.S. federal judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging Obama's eligibility for the presidency because he was either born in Kenya or is a citizen of Indonesia. (Yeah, it just keeps getting better.) By the way, the attorney who filed the suit is Philip Berg, who professes "that most mentally ill people are in fact not mentally ill, but are in fact possessed by evil spirits.... I believe that between 70 and 80 percent of all who live display 'abnormal behavior' at one time or another and that in most of those cases an invading spirit of evil is the cause."

• Meantime, Snopes debunks the theory about his mother's age.

This is no different from the Dems who tried to challenge McCain's citizenship because he was born in Panama (although maybe the Repubs are a bit wackier in their approach). No matter which party is doing it, it's a stretch -- and a desperate one at that. Would either candidate have gotten this far if his citizenship credentials hadn't already been vetted?

22 November 2008

The real problem with Traitor Joe's chairmanship

In looking back through some of the more recent developments on Capitol Hill, the one that raises my blood pressure the most is how Senator Joe Lieberman was so easily let off the hook.

Lieberman is now an Independent, but was a leading Democrat in the Senate for years, and even ran as Al Gore's VP nominee in 2000. But then he went all Zell Miller on us. He campaigned for John McCain this year and even made a prime-time appearance at the Republican National Convention, where he spoke very insultingly of Barack Obama.

At the RNC, he said, "Country matters more than party." Indeed. And that is precisely why I am disappointed that the Senate Democratic Caucus voted on November 18 to allow Lieberman to continue chairing the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

While I admit that my anger is partially due to a desire for vengeance (which, in this case, I prefer to think of as justice), I also have a far more pragmatic reason to oppose Lieberman's continued chairmanship.

You see, the American people elected Barack Obama because of his promise of change. And one very important change that Obama promises is in how we interact with the rest of the world. And a big part of that relates to homeland security -- the committee which Lieberman will continue to chair.

And this is the area in which Lieberman is most dangerous.

While Lieberman tends to vote with the Democrats on a lot of social issues, he is much more Republican when it comes to foreign policy and homeland security. He has been an enthusiastic supporter of George W. Bush's (and John McCain's) hawkish policies regarding the Iraq war and the homeland security issues that his Senate committee deals with.

And so I see his continued chairmanship as a potential impediment to the change we need in those areas.

Perhaps Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent of Vermont) said it best when he explained why he voted against allowing Lieberman to retain his chairmanship: "While millions of people worked hard for Obama, Lieberman actively worked for four more years of President Bush's policies."

The Republicans always say that the Democrats are weak on national security. Ironically, this latest development may have proven their point.

I hope I am wrong.

21 November 2008

Terrorists need an enemy

I've been thinking about the recent message from al-Qaeda's number two jerk, Ayman al-Zawahiri, criticizing Barack Obama and promising to give him problems.

Al-Zawahiri is really grasping at straws here.

He acknowledges that Obama's father was a Muslim, but slams Obama for being a Christian today.

He complains that Obama is not the right kind of African American.

And he criticizes Obama for respecting Jewish customs.

I used to naively assume that an Obama presidency would be a good thing as far as al-Qaeda is concerned. Obama is the opposite of Bush. He is not arrogant, he is not a war hawk, and he is not a bully. He is reasonable, sensible, and worldly. He would not play chicken with the terrorists, like Bush has. And his middle name is "Hussein".

But al-Qaeda has found a way to twist reality in order to make Obama look bad in their own minds.

Because terrorists need an enemy.

Without a specific enemy, the terrorists have no clear-cut purpose.

Without a specific enemy, the future of al-Qaeda is uncertain, as is the power of its leaders.

And this desperate stretch is a sign that they are now motivated as much by fear as by hate. And that may be their ultimate weakness.

20 November 2008

One president at a time

When 20 world leaders met last week in Washington to discuss the economic crisis, I suspect that many were disappointed that they had to deal with George W. Bush rather than Barack Obama.

Similarly, Obama has indicated that he will not attend the United Nations climate conference in Poland next month nor send a delegation on his behalf.

Obama's reason: "There is only one president at a time."

This is true. But it is frustrating.

There's so much that has to be done, and no time to waste.

It's so hard to be patient, knowing that positive change is right around the corner.

19 November 2008

Bureau of Prisons bans shackling of pregnant inmates

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has finally done something right. They recently updated their policies to bar the shackling of pregnant inmates in federal prisons in all but the most extreme circumstances.

Years ago, when I became involved with Amnesty International's campaign to stop violence against women, I first learned that pregnant inmates in U.S. prisons were often shackled during labor.

I remember telling my friend Ed about it. Ed is king of the witty one-liners, and responded in his typical fashion: "They should probably shackle all women in labor," referring to the stereotype of the pregnant woman in pain losing control and lashing out during childbirth.

Humor aside, in reality the shackling of women in labor is cruel, and can be dangerous. Here is just one of several accounts from Amnesty's report "Not part of my sentence" -- Violations of the human rights of women in custody, from a woman who was imprisoned on drug charges:
I told the nurse that my water broke, and the officer took off the handcuffs so that I could put on the hospital gown. I was placed on a monitoring machine with the leg shackles still on. I was taken into the labour room and my leg was shackled to the hospital bed. The officer was stationed just outside the door. I was in labour for almost twelve hours. I asked the officer to disconnect the leg iron from the bed when I needed to use the bathroom, but the officer made me use the bedpan instead. I was not permitted to move around to help the labour along.

I was given an epidural, and I carefully moved into a sitting position while dealing with the leg iron. While the needle was still in my back, I felt a strong contraction and I knew that the baby was coming. When I told the nurse, she told me not to push and said that the baby wasn't coming yet. I asked for the doctor and worked the leg chain around so that I could lay down again.

The doctor came and said that yes, this baby is coming right now, and started to prepare the bed for delivery. Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn't remove the lower part of the bed for the delivery, and they couldn't put my feet in the stirrups. My feet were still shackled together, and I couldn't get my legs apart. The doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn't open my legs.
So it's not only inhumane treatment of the mother, it's dangerous for the innocent child as well.

In the same Amnesty report, Dr. Patricia Garcia of North Western University's Prentice Women's Hospital explains the dangers as follows:
Women in labour need to be mobile so that they can assume various positions as needed and so they can quickly be moved to an operating room. Having the woman in shackles compromises the ability to manipulate her legs into the proper position for necessary treatment. The mother and baby's health could be compromised if there were complications during delivery, such as haemorrhage or decrease in fetal heart tones. If there were a need for a C-section (caesarian delivery), the mother needs to be moved to an operating room immediately and a delay of even five minutes could result in permanent brain damage for the baby. The use of restraints creates a hazardous situation for the mother and the baby, compromises the mother's ability post-partum to care for her baby and keeps her from being able to breast-feed.
Besides, it's unlikely that a woman in labor is going to try to escape, let alone get very far.

Fortunately, the Bureau of Prisons has finally seen the light. Kudos to them.

18 November 2008

Obama's election has sparked at least 200 racist incidents

Two weeks ago, we the American people elected our first African-American president. In response, the racists have been letting off steam in some very disturbing ways.

The Christian Science Monitor reported yesterday that racist and violent threats have spiked in response to the election.

Some excerpts:
In rural Georgia, a group of high-schoolers gets a visit from the Secret Service after posting "inappropriate" comments about President-elect Barack Obama on the Web. In Raleigh, N.C., four college students admit to spraying race-tinged graffiti in a pedestrian tunnel after the election. On Nov. 6, a cross burns on the lawn of a biracial couple in Apolacon Township, Pa.

The election of America's first black president has triggered more than 200 hate-related incidents, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – a record in modern presidential elections. Moreover, the white nationalist movement, bemoaning an election that confirmed voters' comfort with a multiracial demography, expects Mr. Obama's election to be a potent recruiting tool – one that watchdog groups warn could give new impetus to a mostly defanged fringe element.


In some parts of the South, there's even talk of secession.


Though postelection racist incidents haven't posed any real danger to society or the president-elect, law enforcement is taking note.

"We're trying to be out there at the cutting edge of this and trying to stay ahead of groups that are emerging," says Special Agent Darrin Blackford, a spokesman for the Secret Service, which guards the US president.

"Anytime you start seeing [extremist propaganda] floating around, you have to be concerned," adds Lt. Gary Thornberry of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, a member of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force.


Supremacist propaganda is already on the upswing. In Oklahoma, fringe groups have distributed anti-Obama propaganda through newspapers and taped it to home mail boxes. Ugly incidents such as cross-burnings, assassination betting pools, and Obama effigies are also being reported from Maine to Alabama.

The Ku Klux Klan has been tied to recent news events, as well. Two Tennessee men implicated for plotting to kill 88 black men, including Obama, were tied to the KKK chapter whose leader was convicted in a civil trial in Brandenburg, Ky., last week, for inciting violence. The murder last week in Louisiana of a KKK initiate, allegedly killed after trying to back out of joining, came at the hands of a new group called Sons of Dixie, authorities say.

"We're not looking at a race war or anything close to it, but ... what we are seeing now is undeniably a fairly major backlash by some subset of the white population," says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report in Montgomery, Ala. "Many whites feel that the country their forefathers built has been ... stolen from them, so there's in some places a real boiling rage, and that can only become worse as more people lose jobs."
>> Read more.

Which century are we living in?!

Obama's 50-state strategy may seem to have rendered the old Southern strategy obsolete, but some pockets of very angry, frightened, and dangerous insurgents remain. And they scare me.

17 November 2008

Bush finally agrees to a timeline (way too late)

For years, George W. Bush rejected any war funding bill that required a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.

"It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars," he told us. "Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure, and that would be irresponsible."

After all, he wanted to keep the war profiteers happy and in control of all that oil.

But now he's changed his tune.

Yesterday, you see, Iraq's cabinet approved a security agreement that calls for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.

And now that the lame duck is a mere 64 days away from a one-way ticket back to Texas, the New York Times tells us that the White House welcomed the vote as "an important and positive step" and attributed the agreement itself to security improvements in the past year.

And so he takes credit for it. Of course. Karl Rove must be so proud.

This timetable isn't yet set in stone, however. The Iraqi Parliament must now approve the deal, and some opposition is expected.

If it does pass, what does this mean for Barack Obama's plan to withdraw our troops within 16 months? Well, here Dubya has placed Obama between a rock and a hard place. According to the Associated Press, "U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office in January, has said he would pull U.S. troops out of Iraq within 16 months of moving into the White House. [Iraqi government spokesman] Al-Dabbagh said Iraq's government has received U.S. assurances that the Obama administration would honor the agreement, and pointed out that each side has the right to repeal it after giving a one year's notice."

Meantime, how many more U.S. troops will die? And how many more innocent Iraqi men, women, and children?

16 November 2008

Revoke the Mormons' 501(c)(3) status?

On November 4th, the people of California, arguably the nation's bluest state, voted in favor of Proposition 8, to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage in the so-called Golden State.

But, just as silence is not really so golden, especially in the face of oppression, neither is the Prop 8 outcome. After all, this is America, where constitutional amendments are typically enacted to grant new rights, not to take rights away from an arbitrarily selected minority group. Given this nation's founding proclamation that "all men are created equal" (that's all men, not just the straight ones), the latter seems to me to be downright un-American.

Also un-American is the force behind this abomination: A handful of religious groups, led in large part by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (aka the Mormons). The Mormons, based in Utah, pumped some $20 million into its campaign to pass California's Prop 8, thereby allowing them to catapult the propaganda to the point of passage.

The Mormons were allegedly joined in their agenda of intolerance by Catholic groups like the Knights of Columbus ($1.25 million) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ($200,000).

When I was a child growing up in a religious household, I was taught that churches (especially the Catholic Church, in my case) were the good guys, and that God was about love.

Later I grew up and came to understand that we are complex biological creatures, with natural biological attractions to either the opposite sex, the same sex, or both -- just like the pair of gay turtles I observed one day. God (i.e., nature) created them, and he/she/it created you, with your innate sexual orientation. That, dear reader, is a mere chromosomal detail -- much smaller indeed than the more widely applicable mandates to "love thy neighbor" and "do unto others..."

But these positive, pro-love portions of the gospel are apparently lost on those politically involved "religious" groups with an agenda.

For some reason, they saw fit to throw lots of money and energy into taking rights away from people whom they apparently do not understand.

All in the name of their invisible sky-god.

And that bottom line is where the rubber meets the road.

Churches enjoy 501(c)(3) status as tax-exempt religious organizations. But with privilege comes responsibility. And so with 501(c)(3) status comes the obligation to refrain from most types of political activity.

Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. tax code has this to say about the exemption requirements for churches and other organizations that enjoy tax-exempt status:
To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization [...] may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities.
Section 501(c)(3) organizations are restricted in how much political and legislative (lobbying) activities they may conduct.
Read it again: It may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities. But by throwing $20 million at Prop 8, that appears to be exactly what the Mormon Church is doing. The same applies to those smaller Catholic groups who also contributed a significant amount of money to the cause of inequality.

So is this enough to revoke the Mormons' tax-exempt status? I am not a tax attorney, but I can certainly hope so. And there already are various grassroots efforts in place to start the process. I hope these efforts work, but I am not optimistic. The Mormon Church is big, rich, and powerful. And the IRS code is worded somewhat vaguely when it says that an organization "may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities." The word "substantial" here is key, and it may be ambiguous enough to give the Mormons a semantic loophole to slide through.

Time will tell. But I believe that churches, or any other tax-exempt organization, should be subject to the rules.

There is good reason why our Founding Fathers fought so hard to write Church-State separation into this nation's Constitution.

15 November 2008

Bill Ayers defends Obama, criticizes "guilt by association" smear campaign

Yesterday, William Ayers appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" program and finally spoke out on the controversy surrounding his alleged relationship with Barack Obama.

Ayres, of course, was a co-founder of the 1960s radical anti-war group The Weather Underground, but is now a distinguished college professor in Chicago, and has served on some boards with Obama. Therefore, despite the fact that Ayers has redeemed himself since the '60s, and is now a respected educator, he was the inspiration for Sarah Palin's criticism of Obama for "palling around with terrorists."

On GMA, Ayers downplayed his relationship with Obama:
I knew [Barack Obama] probably as well as thousands of other Chicagoans.
And he zeroed in on the fact that he was villainized and then used by the McCain campaign to smear Obama:
I'm talking there about the fact that I became an issue, unwittingly and unwillingly, in the campaign.


It was such a profoundly dishonest narrative.


I don't buy the idea that guilt by association should be any part of our politics.


So the assumption that if two people share a cup of coffee, or take a bus downtown together, or have a thousand other types of associations, that that somehow means that they share politics, outlook, policy, or responsibility for one another's actions.
Later in the interview, Ayers made more excellent points:
What I'm saying about the guilt by association which, as you know, has a long and tragic history in this country, what I'm saying is that every one of us actually should talk to lots and lots of people, and especially our political leaders. Far from being a demerit on his record, the fact that he's willing to talk to a lot of people, from a lot of different walks of life, listen to a lot of opinions, and still have a mind of his own, is something we should honor and admire.


This idea that we need to know more, like there's some dark, hidden secret, some secret link, is just a myth, and it's a myth thrown up by people who wanted to kind of exploit the politics of fear. And I think it's a great credit to the American people that those politics were rejected. The idea that we should continue to be frightened, and worried, and, you know, barricaded, is falling down. And it should.

>> Watch a video of the interview.

14 November 2008

Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State?

Leaks from within Barack Obama's transition team suggest that Hillary Clinton is being considered for the role of Secretary of State.

This came as a surprise to me, and I have mixed feelings about it.

First of all, while I do believe that Hillary is well qualified for the role, and probably would do a fine job, I have to wonder why she is being considered at all, given that the more obvious choices of Bill Richardson and John Kerry are ripe for the picking.

After losing the Democratic nomination, Senator Clinton seemed content to remain in the Senate, where she can get things done and move up the ladder to a possible future gig as Majority Leader. That would be a good fit, in my opinion, as would the rumored possibilities of a run for New York Governor or a seat on the Supreme Court. So we thought we had the bases covered with respect to her political future. And now this Secretary of State speculation seems to have come out of left field.

And, while Hillary already has established relationships with many world leaders from her days as First Lady and her work in the Senate, which is certainly an asset, any cabinet role she finds herself in would likely be viewed to some extent -- both domestically and internationally -- as a continuation of the Bill Clinton administration. Is that the kind of change that more than 66 million of us voted for on November 4th?

You also have to wonder how far Bill Clinton would involve himself in his wife's work if she were Secretary of State.

And what is Barack's real motivation here? Would this be his way of rewarding Hillary for her post-primary help in herding her supporters into the Barack Obama tent? I can think of better ways.

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is for certain: Whomever he chooses for the job, Barack's choice will undoubtedly be an enormous improvement over Condoleezza Rice.

And, in the meantime, it's undeniably entertaining to watch it all unfold.

13 November 2008

Amnesty's human rights checklist for Obama's first 100 days

Given the mess that the Bush administration has created, President-Elect Obama will start his new job in January with a very full plate: The economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, our wounded Constitution, and so much more.

Accordingly, everyone has their own "to do" lists for President Obama.

And so Amnesty International has released its own human-rights-related checklist for Obama.

In the first 100 days of the presidency, Amnesty International is specifically calling on the new administration to:

• announce a plan and date for the closure of the detention center at Guantanamo;

• issue an executive order to ban torture and other ill-treatment, as defined under international law and applicable to all US agents; and

• set up an independent commission to investigate abuses committed by the USA in its war on terror, such as rendition and torture.

Amnesty also urges President-elect Obama to provide principled leadership in stopping mass atrocities against civilians in places such as Darfur, and in supporting human rights defenders and the international system of justice with the International Criminal Court at its heart.

>> Download the full checklist.

These are all important action items for our new president.

But, personally, I would add the redeployment of our troops out of Iraq because, as long as we stay there, we will continue to violate the human rights of the civilians, and the citizens in general, of that sovereign nation. And I have similar -- but different -- concerns regarding Afghanistan.

I feel more confident about the future of all of these issues now that we have a president-elect who has both a brain and a heart.

And I plan to hold him accountable each and every day.

12 November 2008

Saturday, Nov. 15: Protest Prop 8 and other anti-gay measures (nationwide)

On November 4, the American voters elected our first African-American president.

At the same time, however, voters in Florida, Arizona, Arkansas, and California voted down equal rights for gays and lesbians.

We're not going to sit back quietly while they try to write bigotry and inequality into their state constitutions.

Stand up for equality on Saturday, November 15, and protest these misguided and hateful measures.

Protests are being organized nationwide.

>> Find a protest location near you.

11 November 2008

On Veteran's Day, an appeal to President-Elect Obama

Today is Veterans Day in the U.S. This special holiday was set aside to honor our U.S. military veterans.

This is good, but we should honor our veterans every day, not just on November 11th. But the VA leaves much to be desired in that regard.

Our U.S. military veterans have it rough.

First, when Bush started the unnecessary Iraq war, he sent our troops over there without adequate equipment to protect them. Then, when they come home maimed, they have to wait for weeks to get the physical and mental health treatment that they need, and even longer -- sometimes up to a year or more -- to start receiving disability benefits.

Some cannot hold on that long, and so they commit suicide.

This is how we thank and reward our brave soldiers.

I hope that the Obama administration will give a high priority to veterans' issues. And to get the ball rolling, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) issued a press release after last Tuesday's election calling on President-Elect Obama to "act boldly on Veterans issues."

IAVA called for the Obama administration to convene a Presidential Summit of Veteran Leaders "to solicit input from the real experts: veterans."

And, in observance of Veterans Day, I would like to pass IAVA's message along.

Accordingly, below is the full text of IAVA's press release:
Today [November 5, 2008], Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the nation's first and largest nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, congratulated both candidates on a well-fought election and urged President-elect Barack Obama to move boldly to make veterans issues a top priority.

"President-elect Obama has a historic opportunity to lead America in supporting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. He has the power to finally turn the page on the way America treated veterans after Vietnam. In doing so, his first step must be to quickly convene a Presidential Summit of Veteran Leaders to solicit input from the real experts: veterans," said Paul Rieckhoff, Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). "IAVA is hopeful that the President-elect will make veterans' issues a top priority and reach out to legislators on both sides of the aisle to quickly implement our legislative priorities. IAVA looks forward to working closely with the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress to improve the lives of our newest generation of heroes and their families."

As the new President considers cabinet appointments, including the VA Secretary, he must bring together leading veterans' organizations, and specifically veterans of the current wars, to make sure he's getting the "ground truth". Candidates for appointed positions within the VA should have a proven track record of innovation and reform, and should be ready to address the urgent needs of new veterans. By having veterans involved in the decision-making process, we can ensure that potential contenders fulfill these qualifications and are best to lead this country forward.

In the coming months, the President-elect has the unique opportunity to make a series of critical decisions impacting Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Here are the 3 critical policies veterans need to see from the new Administration in the first 100 days:

Advance-fund VA Healthcare

Year after year, the VA budget is passed late, forcing hundreds of veterans' hospitals and clinics to ration care. IAVA believes that veterans' health care should be funded one year in advance and we ask that the President present to Congress an advance-funded VA budget that continues to match the Independent Budget recommendations made by leading Veterans Service Organizations.

Implement GI Bill Transferability

While the new GI Bill was passed several months ago, the Department of Defense has yet to release guidelines for the transferability of GI Bill benefits from service members to their spouses or children. The President must take action and direct the Secretary of Defense to issue the appropriate guidelines, so that GI Bill transferability can be implemented by August 2009.

Aggressively address the lack of access to Mental Health Professionals

The military and the VA need innovative strategies to recruit and retain more mental health professionals to combat the high rates of PTSD and major depression among returning troops. The President should issue a national call, urging mental health professionals nationwide to make their services more available to military members and their families. Those who answer the call should receive incentives and benefits for donating time to this valuable cause.

It's the least we can do for our veterans and their families.

10 November 2008

Post-election, the hate and ignorance continue

At 364 electoral votes for Barack Obama compared with the mere 163 votes for McCain, it appeared on Tuesday night as though America had set aside its petty prejudices in order to vote on the issues that really matter.

But apparently there is still much deep-seated ignorance and hate among the McCain supporters. This is not surprising, but it is sad and frustrating. And it is sometimes even frightening.

Case in point:

Over the weekend, I overheard a portion of a conversation between a 50-something man and his wife here in the Philly suburbs. The man was apparently very unhappy about the results of the presidential election. He was going on and on about how "that Hussein Obama -- or Barack Osama or whatever -- is a terrorist, and that wife of his is an angry colored woman."

Then he warned his wife that "come January, we'll have terrorists living in the White House. There will be race wars and more 9-11's every day all over this country."

But he assured his wife that they would be unlocking all their guns, and getting some more, so they'll "be ready when all his terrorist friends try and take over this country."


Obama isn't the scary one here.

09 November 2008

One step forward, three steps back

On Election Day, tolerance in the USA took a huge step forward with the election of our first African-American president.

On at least three other fronts, however, tolerance took a step backwards in a somewhat different direction. Californians passed Proposition 8, to ban same-sex marriage in that state. Similar marriage bans were approved in Florida and Arizona.

While an African American can now win election to the highest office in the land, gays and lesbians remain second-class citizens, and cannot enjoy all of the benefits that the state has to offer, simply because of whom they happen to be sexually attracted to. It is absurd.

I hear all kinds of excuses: If you allow a man to marry another man, the next thing you know, people will want to marry their pets. Sorry, folks, but that Rick Santorum slippery-slope argument is as ridiculous today as it was when it was used to oppose interracial marriage 45 years ago.

And I hear them say that it's God's word. However, the bible also condones slavery, and forbids working on the Sabbath under punishment of death. I have yet to see the homophobes in recent decades give equal time to these other words of God.

Conservatives point their fingers and denounce the "gay agenda". Yet, the gay agenda is nothing more than a desire for equal treatment under the law. No special rights, just the same rights that we heterosexuals enjoy.

Conservatives claim that same-sex marriage will destroy the institution of marriage. But they don't answer the question of how. Anyone who feels that his own heterosexual marriage would be threatened if gays could marry obviously has some very deep personal issues that cannot be fixed through legislation.

And their fears have already been proven baseless. For example, Massachusetts has permitted same-sex marriages since May of 2004, and that has not led to the end of civilization in that commonwealth as feared by the right-wing homophobes.

I have no doubt that the anti-gay double standards will fade over the coming generations, just as Jim Crow has become a thing of the past, at least on paper.

In the meantime, though, the bigots are hard at work trying to write inequality into their state constitutions.

And these extreme reactions to a nonexistent threat lead me to ponder: What are these people really afraid of?

08 November 2008

How Barack Obama cured my insomnia

For the past few years, I haven't been able to sleep through the night. Each night, I would wake up somewhere around 2:00 a.m., feeling wide awake. I would have to read or watch cable news for an hour or two before I could fall back to sleep.

I figured it was something that must come with middle age. So I learned to adjust to it, and it became just another part of my routine.

But this past week I discovered something: All of a sudden, I'm sleeping through the night! Ever since election night, I have slept straight through the night -- every night -- without my usual wee-hour awakening.



A weight has been lifted.

07 November 2008

ACLU releases blueprint of "Actions for Restoring America"

The Bush administration has been hard at work dismantling the U.S. Constitution.

Now that the neocons will soon be out of power, we need Congress and the Obama administration to piece it back together.

To that end, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has developed a blueprint called "Actions for Restoring America". It itemizes specific actions that the Obama administration must take "to launch a restoration of American values and to convey a clear rejection of the shameful policies of the Bush era."

It is divided into three sections:

Day One: Actions the President can take with the stroke of a pen on the first day in office (e.g., end torture, close Gitmo).

First 100 Days: Actions the President and his administration can take in the first 100 days in office (e.g., end warrantless spying, ban all workplace discrimination against sexual minorities by the federal government and its contractors).

First Year: Actions the President and Congress can take in the first year (e.g., restore scientific freedom, rein in the practice of issuing "signing statements", create a commission to study the DOJ politicization and get the DOJ back on track, declare a death penalty moratorium and study/fix the flaws in the system).

This blueprint is already in the hands of Obama's transition team.

>> Download your own personal copy.

It's worth reading, thinking about, and taking action.

06 November 2008

What's the matter with Alaska?

First Alaska gave us Sarah Palin. Enough said there.

And now the people of Alaska may have elected a convicted felon in Tuesday's senate race.

Incumbent Republican Senator Ted Stevens (of "bridge to nowhere" fame) was convicted last month on seven felony charges for failing to properly report gifts and expensive home renovations worth more than $250,000 and funded by an oil exec.

Stevens is now free on personal bond pending an appeal.

If you or I were convicted of such crimes, we'd be promptly thrown in jail. But Stevens, on the other hand, gets to run for reelection.

As of this writing, they're still counting the votes, but we should learn the results soon.

Meantime, I have ruled out Alaska as a place where I'd ever want to live.

05 November 2008

An American awakening

History has just been made. The people of the United States of America have elected our first African-American president.

But that is not the only historical factor at play here. Barack Obama's overwhelming victory over John McCain is a sign that America has finally awoken from its fear-induced coma. America has searched its soul. And America has recovered its conscience.

The American people have had enough of the politics of fear.

The American people have had enough of the partisan finger pointing.

The American people have had enough of the Karl Rove style of dirty campaign smear tactics.

The American people have had enough of the lies.

The American people have had enough of the "maverick" nonsense.

The American people have had enough of Sarah Palin.

The American people have had enough of the cowboy-style foreign policy and drunken-sailor spending habits that have turned this country from a glowing land of opportunity into a rogue nation with a huge pile of debt.

The American people have had enough of being held hostage to the oil companies.

The American people have had enough of paying taxes that will be spent to fund unnecessary wars, never-necessary torture, and warrantless wiretapping instead of on health care, education, and renewable energy.

The American people have had enough of the tax breaks for companies that send our jobs overseas.

The American people have had enough of the tax breaks for billionaires who can afford to pay their fair share.

The American people have had enough of the government bailouts of financial institutions that gambled away billions, without including safeguards to prevent the same from happening again.

The American people have had enough of a neocon-fueled White House run amok.

And perhaps -- dare I say? -- the American people may have had enough of knee-jerk racism, mindless bigotry, and senseless intolerance.

The tide is turning.

Let the cleanup begin.

04 November 2008


I am going to make this short today, as I want to get to my voting location early.

So all I am going to write today is this brief reminder to please vote, if you have not already done so.

If you do not vote in today's elections, I do not want to hear you complain about the results and the after-effects.

And one more quick (but very important) thing: I want to send out my condolences to Senator Barack Obama and his family on the death late Sunday night of his grandmother, Madelyn Payne Dunham. Mrs. Dunham died peacefully after a battle with cancer. She was 86.

Fortunately, Senator Obama was able to visit her last month. But, sadly, she was not able to hang on long enough to see her beloved grandson become President of the United States.

Hopefully the rest of us will.

So get out there and vote, no matter how long you must wait in line. Do it for Obama's grandma. Do it for this nation. Do it for the world. Do it for you.

03 November 2008

Tuesday's elections: Not just about the White House

The media, and most private citizens, seem to have been focusing on the Obama-McCain race as the key vote this November.

And it certainly is key.

However, it's not the end-all and be-all.

We must also focus our attention downballot.

In the unthinkable event that John McCain wins the presidency, we must be prepared to trump him in the legislature. That means that we need a filibuster-proof 60 seats on the Democratic side of the Senate, not counting sellout Joe Lieberman.

And if Obama wins, we will still need that buffer in the Senate to move his agenda forward without the kinds of Republican roadblocks that we've seen over the past two years.

And it wouldn't hurt to increase our margin in the House as well.

Maybe then we could finally start to get some things done.

Equally important are the propositions and other ballot initiatives being conducted in various states.

For instance, we've got California's Proposition 8 which, if passed, would ban same-sex marriage in that state. So gays and lesbians would, by law, become second-class citizens. Do we really want to write discrimination into the California constitution? I hope not. So, if you reside in California, please vote "No" on Prop 8, and encourage your friends, neighbors, and family members to do the same.

This is the tip of the iceberg. There are many other important ballot initiatives on the line -- too many to list.

So, please, if you've ever been tempted to sit out an election, please, please, PLEASE, do not let this be the one. There are too many critical issues on the ballot this time.

And the welfare of this whole planet hangs in the balance.

02 November 2008

The trouble with Nader

I've been hearing from a lot of progressives who insist on voting for Ralph Nader or the Green Party's Cynthia McKinney in this year's presidential election, even in the swing states. These third-party voters say that they cannot vote for Barack Obama because they feel that Obama is not a true progressive. And these people worry me.

It's not that I don't like what Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney stand for, because I do. These alternative candidates stand for things like universal healthcare, alternative energy, peace, civil liberties, fair labor, equal rights for women and minorities, and more -- all issues that are near and dear to my heart.

And it's not that I don't agree that Barack Obama's policies are less than ideal, because I do.

My problem with a third-party presidential vote is one of practicality. A vote for Nader or McKinney is a progressive vote flushed down the drain. If we are to believe the pollsters, the race between McCain and Obama is too close to justify a symbolic vote for a third-party candidate.

Many people blame Ralph Nader for Al Gore's loss in the 2000 presidential election. For that reason, many progressive pundits urged him not to run in 2004 and similarly jeopardize John Kerry's chances. But he ran anyway.

This year, it's deja vu all over again. And, all over again, I am frightened by it.

As much as I appreciate the idealism of these third-party voters, the electoral process isn't set up to work in their favor. We've got a two-party system in which third-party votes are potential spoilers.

But there is a way around this.

Some folks are advocating for widespread use of instant-runoff voting (IRV) as a way to eliminate the spoiler effect. In this system, voters do not vote for a single candidate. Instead, they rank the candidates in order of preference. The website FairVote.org describes the vote tallying process as follows:
IRV allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference (i.e. first, second, third, fourth and so on). Voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish, but can vote without fear that ranking less favored candidates will harm the chances of their most preferred candidates. First choices are then tabulated, and if a candidate receives a majority of first choices, he or she is elected. If nobody has a clear majority of votes on the first count, a series of runoffs are simulated, using each voter's preferences indicated on the ballot. The candidate who received the fewest first place choices is eliminated. All ballots are then retabulated, with each ballot counting as one vote for each voter's highest ranked candidate who has not been eliminated. Specifically, voters who chose the now-eliminated candidate will now have their ballots counted for their second ranked candidate -- just as if they were voting in a traditional two-round runoff election -- but all other voters get to continue supporting their top candidate. The weakest candidates are successively eliminated and their voters' ballots are redistributed to next choices until a candidate crosses a majority of votes.
This does seem to be the answer.

But, unfortunately, IRV is not currently an option for most American voters. So, for now, we have to live by the two-party system -- and vote by it.

If John McCain wins the presidency because of progressive votes squandered on third-party candidates, it's not just those third-party voters who will have to live with the consequences. We all will.

Therefore, unless and until IRV becomes the norm in this country, Ralph Nader should stick with what he does best: Advancing the progressive agenda as an activist, not as a spoiler candidate.

And the Greens should focus their efforts downballot, where they too can be effective.

01 November 2008

America's enduring culture of hate

This is 2008. The 21st Century. The Age of Aquarius. Harmony and understanding. Racial segregation went out the window more than four decades ago. Mixed-race couples are seen everywhere, along with their strikingly beautiful offspring. Same-sex marriage is now permitted in some states. It actually seems on some level as though some social progress has been made.

But then you pick up a newspaper, and the truth hits you in the face like duckshot from Dick Cheney's gun.

Hate and intolerance are alive and thriving, and in fact seem especially pronounced during this high-stakes election campaign season.

We've become accustomed to hearing the hateful outbursts at McCain-Palin rallies. When Barack Obama's name is mentioned, a member of the crowd screams "Kill him!", or "Bomb Obama!". Then there's the Monkey Man and his "Little Hussein". And these things all happened here in Pennsylvania alone -- north of the Mason-Dixon Line!

But a black presidential candidate with a strange name isn't the only thing that has the right-wing extremists in a tizzy. There is also California's Proposition 8 which, if passed, would ban same-sex marriage in that state. In other words, it would write discrimination into California's Constitution. In other words, "all men are created equal" -- except for the gays and the lesbians.

And if they constitutionally take rights away from gays and lesbians today, what group is next?

But I digress, so let's get back to the subject of homophobia.

It's been 10 years since the brutal murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, but society has apparently not grown any more enlightened since then. In fact, according to the FBI, while hate crime incidents in general decreased by 1 percent in 2007 from the previous year, hate crimes linked to prejudice based on sexual orientation had actually increased by about 6 percent!

I believe that hate and intolerance are primarily fueled by ignorance and fear. Therefore, only by addressing the underlying myths and fears that lead to irrational hate and distrust can we hope to progress as a society.

But, sadly, there is no time for all that between now and November 4th. Besides, some people just will not listen, and will not learn.