28 February 2011

This is what democracy looks like

Around the world, the frustration of ordinary people with the economy, unemployment, corruption, and repression has reached critical mass. They're mad as hell, as the famous movie line goes, and they're not going to take it anymore. The people are taking to the streets in protest. And it's working -- maybe.

On February 27, Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi announced his resignation under pressure from the masses. This came just a few weeks after his ally, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was driven from power after weeks of intensive civil resistance from the grassroots.

Meanwhile, the people of Egypt have driven dictator Hosni Mubarak out of the country following 18 days of demonstrations.

And, in Libya, things are not looking good for Muammar Gaddafi, as of this writing. The people there, too, have had enough.

On the other side of the world, working folks in Wisconsin continue protesting Governor Scott Walker's proposed union-busting budget bill which would cut state workers' collective bargaining rights. And, on February 26, people all around the U.S. participated in solidarity rallies in support of the Wisconsin workers.

This is what democracy looks like.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya will result in true democracies that will be better for the people than the governments that sparked their revolutions.

Similarly, there is no guarantee that the protests in Wisconsin will prevent Governor Walker from eventually getting his way.

But it is a start.

It is the only truly practical way for the people to fight corruption and repression.

And it is the only way that true democracy can be born.

We spent the first eight years of this century hearing about how the Bush administration was going to spread democracy to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of the world. But history offers all too many examples to prove that you cannot spread democracy at the point of a gun.

Democracy has to start at the grassroots.

Like in Philadelphia in the 1770s.

Like in Tunisia today.

And in Egypt.

And in Libya.

And in Wisconsin.

This is where the people hold the power. And isn't that what democracy is all about?

25 February 2011

Two more welcome attacks on DOMA

Yesterday, I wrote about the wonderful fact that the U.S. Justice Department, under orders from President Obama, will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the courts. Obama had determined, and Attorney General Eric Holder agreed, that DOMA is discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional. But I'm afraid the issue could remain hung up in the courts for quite a while.

However, DOMA will soon be under attack from another direction - Congress!

On Wednesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) reacted to the Obama-Justice decision by announcing that she will introduce legislation that would repeal DOMA.

On the House side, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said he plans to reintroduce his Respect for Marriage Act, which would also repeal DOMA. Nadler had introduced the bill in the last Congress, but it got nowhere.

Unfortunately, I am afraid that it will get nowhere again, along with Sen. Feinstein's bill. After all, we're now looking at a much more conservative Congress than the one that repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell last December.

But it's worth a try.

24 February 2011

Obama, Justice Department declare DOMA unconstitutional

Good news from the Justice Department:

Yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that President Obama has ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the court system, having determined that it is discriminatory, and therefore unconstitutional.

It's about time! After all, just last month they had filed an appeal in response to two U.S. District Court rulings that DOMA was unconstitutional. So this is a welcome flip-flop.

This is a good first step towards dissolving DOMA. After all, we can't expect Congress to overturn DOMA any time soon. So now it's up to the courts, where it will probably remain tied up for some time - probably all the way to the Supreme Court, where anything could happen.

Regardless, it is a notable step forward towards equality.

23 February 2011

Warm and spoiled

I am feeling a bit ashamed of myself.

You see, two evenings ago, I arrived home from work to find that my apartment had no heat - just as a snowstorm was on its way along with sub-freezing temperatures. I called the emergency maintenance number, and someone arrived within 15 minutes to take a look. He could not diagnose the problem immediately,so he loaned me a space heater, with a promise that he and his supervisor (allegedly an HVAC specialist) would be back the next day and get it working - which they did.

But, for that one night, I was stressed. Although that space heater warmed my bedroom far above the 68 degrees where I usually keep my thermostat during the winter, I felt inconvenienced and irritated.

And for that I am ashamed.

Because it occurs to me that there are hundreds of thousands of homeless men, women, and children living on the cold streets of America right now who would love to find themselves in my unfortunate predicament. But they don't have that choice. Nobody is going to loan them a space heater - or an apartment to put it in.

And, for that, I'm not the only one who should be feeling very ashamed.

22 February 2011

Collective bargaining is a human right

The Wisconsin grassroots continue to make an impact, as thousands have camped out for days in and around the Capitol in Madison to protest Governor Scott Walker's union-busting budget bill.

Walker says the state's budget cannot afford union negotiations. (And why is that? It's so that Wisconsin's richest residents won't have to pay their fair share of taxes.)

What Walker either will not or cannot recognize is that collective bargaining is a human right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), to which the United States is a signatory.

Article 23(4) of the UDHR states: "Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests."

Unions protect the workers from corporate and bureaucratic tyranny.

And that, I suspect, is one big reason why the Republicans are so against them.

21 February 2011

Another murder victim's parent speaks out against death penalty

Whenever I write or speak about my opposition to the death penalty, I invariably hear from death penalty proponents who argue that killing the killer serves the best interests of the victim's family, giving them closure.

But not all families are thirsty for revenge. In fact, there are at least two organizations in the U.S. - Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation (MVFR) and Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) - which actively work for abolition of the death penalty.

And there is Margaret Hawthorn, the mother of a murder victim who testified in New Hampshire on February 1 in opposition to a bill that would expand that state's death penalty

Below are some excerpts from Hawthorn's moving testimony, followed by a link to the complete text.
I am Margaret Hawthorn, mother of Molly Hawthorn MacDougall, who was murdered in her home on April 29, 2010.

Molly was two weeks from graduating from nursing school....


As tragic and senseless as Molly's death is, I am relieved this is not a capital case. Another death would only increase my family's trauma, and would not bring Molly back. I understand the bill being introduced today would make a case like hers capital because her murder was a home invasion.

As a child I came to my own conclusion that the death penalty was wrong. But, like anyone who believes the death penalty is wrong, I later had to consider the question, “Easy for you to talk of non-violence, but what if it were your loved one?”

Now it is my loved one. As a grieving mother, I have a voice I would never have chosen....


Revenge is tricky, self-destructive. It doesn't turn out sweet, seldom plays out the way one thinks it will. Too often family members find the execution of their loved one's murderer doesn't bring the hoped-for closure. I don't want to allow room for revenge to impose its disappointment on me.

I can't begin to describe how painful it is to learn to live in a world devoid of Molly's physical presence. I haven't begun to approach forgiveness. Trauma still wraps its armor around me, protecting me from taking in more than I can survive. In the meantime, I trust the state to make reasoned decisions that show compassion for all while I ride an emotional roller coaster I wouldn't wish on anyone.

There may never be a turn around in the murderer's heart, and I know not to count on it. My healing can't rest on what happens to or within another person. The state can best help me by funding ongoing private counseling and support groups with professional facilitators, and allowing me to go about the work of healing ... free from the specter of another death.

I do believe some people are so broken that for the safety of others they need to be contained, permanently. I am not naïve enough to think everyone can be rehabilitated and returned to society. On and off for nearly twenty years I have served as a facilitator with the Alternatives to Violence Program, a Quaker initiative that helps inmates - and groups on the outside - seek non-violent ways to respond to conflict. Having been inside New Hampshire prisons, I'm aware it is a grim existence. Eliminating the death penalty is not synonymous with letting people off the hook.


When I think about how to best honor Molly, I am certain it is by living into the values she embraced. She trained to do life-supporting work. Her love for people and deep compassion led her to choose a career of caring for others. She would not want anyone killed in her name.
What an amazing testimony by an obviously very strong woman!

>> Read her full testimony at: http://tinyurl.com/4tvwbef

18 February 2011

South Dakota shelves kill-the-doctors bill

Good news out of South Dakota, for a change:

The proposed bill I wrote about on Wednesday, which would expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus, has been shelved for now.

Many had feared that the bill could, in effect, legalize the killing of abortion doctors.

In response to the decision to take the controversial bill off the table, Michael Keegan, President of People for the American Way, issued the following statement:

"Republican legislators in states across the country and the GOP majority in the U.S. House are trying to use their positions to wage a war on women. These lawmakers are trying get away with extreme and unjustifiable anti-choice bills that place huge burdens on women seeking reproductive health care while making it more and more difficult for doctors to provide care. The successful backlash against South Dakota's abortion doctor murder bill sends a clear signal: they can't get away with it."

I hope he's right, and that this sets the stage for the defeat of other anti-choice measures that are springing up all across the nation. But we must remain vigilant, as those on the right seem determined to do all they can to undermine Roe v. Wade.

17 February 2011

Sarah is hiring

Well, at least someone is. For what it's worth.

CNN reported last week that Sarah Palin has hired a chief-of-staff for her political work. This, of course, has people thinking it's a precursor to an official 2012 presidential run.

Some people scoff at the prospect, saying that she has no chance of winning.

I hope they are right.

But George W. Bush found a loophole. Who's to say that Palin can't do the same?

The prospect scares the hell out of me.

16 February 2011

Will South Dakota legalize the murder of abortion providers?

The South Dakota State House of Representatives is considering a bill which some fear could, in effect, legalize the killing of abortion providers.

According to Mother Jones, the law "would expand the definition of 'justifiable homicide' to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus - a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions."

Think of the implications: This bill could be interpreted as making it "justifiable" to kill a physician who performs a legal medical procedure.

This bill, if passed, could open the door to vigilantism on steroids. And that would be very, very dangerous.

15 February 2011

The next budget war begins

Here we go again. The last time Congress debated finance, President Obama and the Dems had to "negotiate" by extending tax cuts for billionaires in order to get an unemployment benefit extension for the rest of us.

Now, Obama has presented a budget plan to reduce the deficit that was largely caused by those billionaire tax cuts.

The bad news: He'll do it by cutting federal programs that help us little people.

He says that we also need to let the billionaire tax cuts expire in 2012 - for real this time. As if the GOP will let that happen.

The good news: Obama's plan leaves Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security untouched (contrary to the recommendations of the cat food commission), and calls for investments in electric cars and other clean energy resources.

The catch is that those things would be paid for by eliminating tax breaks for oil, gas, and coal companies. As if the GOP will let that happen.

Meantime, the unemployed remain unemployed...

14 February 2011

Rights groups weigh in on Mubarak resignation

On February 11, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down, leaving the Egyptian military in charge until a new government can be established. Mubarak's resignation came after more than two weeks of protests in which the people of Egypt called for an end to Mubarak's repressive regime.

This is an impressive victory for the grassroots, but the hard work of building a new government now begins. And hopefully the new government will be worthy of the popular effort it took to get this far. Such is a recurring theme in statements by some of the world's leading human rights organizations.

Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, praised the resolve of the Egyptian people in demanding dignity, human rights, and social justice. But, he pointed out, "the departure of one man is not the end."

"Those in power must grasp this opportunity to consign the systematic abuses of the past to history," said Shetty. "Human rights reform must begin now."

Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, agrees, saying, "This is a dramatic victory for the Egyptians who showed courage and determination in demanding their rights. The army should seize this historic moment and ensure a speedy transition to a new era of democracy and human rights. There is still a long way to go."

Neil Hicks, International Advisor for Human Rights First, called on Washington to support the right kinds of changes in Egypt. "This is a critical moment for the U.S. government to make clear its intention to support the Egyptian people - not the next despot," he said.

Hicks continued: "[On February 9] in the U.S., 'Mubarakism without Mubarak' is what one witness said we needed at a Congressional hearing on developments in Egypt. This will not stand. The United States is not the arbiter of power in Egypt. It cannot appoint and dismiss presidents at its will, nor write and rewrite Egyptian laws. These powers belong to the Egyptian people. However, the Mubarak regime has relied on U.S. assistance to deny the Egyptian people basic rights and freedoms again and again. If the U.S. government continues the status quo, it will be endorsing the same despotism that has brought us to this point of crisis."

Human Rights First is calling on President Obama to take the following steps:

• Push for the transfer of power to a more representative, inclusive transitional authority, not solely composed of Suleiman and Mubarak's military advisors.

• Push for a new constitutional and legislative reform committee that is not made up of regime loyalists and Mubarak appointees. It should be nominated through a process of open consultation with the opposition and independent figures.

• Use our points of contact with the Egyptian military to help ensure a genuine, inclusive transitional process.

Time will tell if Obama will follow this very reasonable advice.

This is an opportunity for Obama to start earning that Nobel Peace Prize. I hope he will not let the people of Egypt down.

11 February 2011

Philly butcher does not represent all abortion docs

Here in Philadelphia, abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell is facing trial for running a butchery disguised as an abortion clinic. He is charged with the murder of seven viable newborn babies and an adult female patient.

The Associated Press described some of the horrors:
Prosecutors say Gosnell ran a filthy West Philadelphia abortion clinic where undertrained staff routinely took part in illegal late-term abortions. A grand jury report says Gosnell killed viable, live-born babies by stabbing them in the neck with scissors.
Some on the right are trying to use this case as a new talking point: "See? Abortionists have no morals!"

But that is like saying that we shouldn't visit any dentist because of the one in Georgia who killed his wife and another woman in two separate incidents more than a decade apart.

Evil is not specific to any given profession. Just as most dentists won't harm you beyond a root canal, most abortion doctors are there to provide a safe and legal medical procedure for women who need it. They are there to provide a safe and legal alternative to the pre-Roe back alley butchers.

Gosnell - if the allegations are true - was one such butcher who still exists in this day and age. We must not let the right-wing smear machine wrongly color a whole profession for the work of one disgusting criminal.

10 February 2011

Two wrongs don't make a vindication

USA Today reports that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld feels vindicated by President Obama's continuation of the Bush administration's policy of military commissions and indefinite detention at Gitmo.

While that may help Rummy sleep at night, the fact remains that two wrongs don't make a right.

By continuing those policies, the Obama administration is as much at fault as the Bush administration for violating international law and the human rights of our detainees in the so-called "war on terror".

There is no good excuse, no matter who is in charge.

09 February 2011

DADT, marriage, and choice

My Republican neighbor is up in arms over the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT). He is convinced that now all the gays will be scrambling to join the military so they can shower with the soldiers and convert them all to "the gay lifestyle".

He needn't worry. None of my gay friends have any intention of signing up. And the gays and lesbians who do sign up will likely do nothing differently than they did when DADT was in place. Except now they'll be able to share photos of their partners -- if they want to -- without risking dismissal.

The key thing is that they now have a choice.

No more double standard.

It's the same thing with same-sex marriage. In states where it is legal, we haven't seen the end of civilization (or the end of straight marriages) that the far-right scaremongers predicted. We just see some same-sex couples enjoying marriage equality and the social benefits that the institution brings.

And we see some same-sex couple choosing not to marry, just as many straight couples opt out of the M-word.

Again, it is a choice.

And it is only fair that everyone have that option.

No more double standard.

08 February 2011

GOP hypocrisy on government interference

Republicans keep telling us that they're for small government. They keep telling us that the federal government should not interfere in our lives.

What they do not tell us is that this philosophy only applies to government interference with the rich. The government, they believe, should allow Big Business to do its thing unfettered by pesky regulations that would protect the little people.

At the same time, they seem to love it when the government interferes in the lives of the rest of us.

They think that the government should control whom you can and cannot marry.

And they think that the government should dictate what a woman can and cannot do with her own body.

They say it's about "family values". But I think it's about greedy control-freak bigotry.

07 February 2011

More torture unpunished

In January, former Chicago police Cmdr. Jon Burge was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. He had been charged with perjury and obstruction of justice. But he has been accused of some things that are far more disturbing than those charges might suggest.

Burge, who is white, allegedly spent decades torturing black murder suspects - shocking, burning, and suffocating them - until they confessed. Kind of like what happens to the brown detainees at Gitmo, but in Chicago instead.

While I am pleased to see Burge behind bars, I am disappointed that he was convicted not for torturing the suspects but merely for lying about the torture.

But torture with impunity seems to be a recurring theme in this once-great nation these days.

Sure, little Lynndie England and some other low-level soldiers got prison time - and rightly so - when their abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to light. But their crime was simply having too much fun following the misguided orders they were given.

Meanwhile, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and their cohorts remain free despite having authorized the torture of detainees in the "war on terror" - a fact that Bush brags about in his memoir Decision Points. Abu Ghraib may have been the work of a few bad apples, as was an excuse at the time; but those apples happened to be sitting in the West Wing.

And clearly they knew that what they were doing was wrong. Why else would they have ordered their legal counsel to find a way to legally "justify" the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and other prisoner abuse? Why else would they have gone so far as to even redefine what constitutes torture?

The rest of the world sees this and wants some accountability for the Bush administration's war crimes. Spain, in fact, launched criminal proceedings in 2009 against six Bush administration officials. The case, however, has gone nowhere. I am not confident that similar investigations by other countries will lead to justice either, although Bush recently canceled a trip to Switzerland, where there was a chance that he might be arrested. Instead, he will stay home in his cushy Texas residence, outside the reach of international justice.

When confronted with the issue, President Obama insists that we should "look forward and not backwards."

By doing nothing to hold the Bush administration accountable, the Obama administration is essentially signaling that torture is not worth punishing - at least not when the torturers are wealthy or powerful.

This, apparently, is Obama's idea of looking forward.

And this, sadly, is no change I can believe in.

04 February 2011

GOP Senator equates abortion with Holocaust

Republicans just can't trust women to manage our own bodies. So they have been scrambling to do all they can to undermine Roe v. Wade.

For his part, Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) last week introduced the Life at Conception Act, which would establish that human life begins at the moment of conception.

And, just before introducing the bill, Wicker compared abortion to the Holocaust. The Feminist Majority Foundation describes the incident:
"At the March for Life, held [January 24] at the National Mall, Senator Wicker pledged to overturn Roe v. Wade and stated, 'We believe Roe v. Wade has led to a three-and-a-half decades-long holocaust in the United States of America.'"
In other words, he equated Holocaust victims with unviable, pre-fetal clumps of cells.

I guess this lends a whole new meaning to their popular term "feminazi".

03 February 2011

Today: National day of action for Bradley Manning

As I have written previously, U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning has been held since last May in a 6-foot by 12-foot prison cell at the Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, under conditions that seem like harsh and cruel punishment, even though he has yet to be convicted of any crime. Manning is accused of being the source of the classified U.S. government documents that Wikileaks has been sharing with the world, but he still awaits his day in military court.

The case has captured the attention of Amnesty International, which recently wrote to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, calling for Manning's detention conditions to be reviewed. Amnesty does not do such things frivolously.

What you can do:

The Bradley Manning Support Network has designated today, February 3rd, a National White House Call-in Day to support Bradley Manning.

Supporters are asked to call the White House today (switchboard: 202-456-1414; comments: 202-456-1111), and ask that his human rights be respected by the Quantico authorities.

>> Get more info and recommended talking points.

Please join us, and help spread the word!

02 February 2011

Mubarak gives in, will not seek reelection

In Egypt, it appears that the will of the people is winning out.

Yesterday, after a week of demonstrations calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign, Mubarak announced that he will not seek reelection when his term expires in September.

This is a step in the right direction.

Chalk one up for the grassroots!

01 February 2011

Rights groups speak out on Egyptian protests

Things remain volatile in Egypt, where protesters have been filling the streets for several days calling for President Hosni Mubarak to resign. The military is even involved at this point. It's become violent. Some protesters have been killed. And, so far, Mubarak has shown no intention of leaving.

Human rights groups have been weighing in on the protests, defending the people's right to demonstrate, and condemning what appears to be unnecessary violence against the protesters.

Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director for Human Rights Watch (HRW), observed that "[p]olice and plainclothes agents seem to be shooting people without justification, using live bullets or firing teargas canisters straight at protesters." Stork called for those using excessive force be held to account, along with those giving the orders to shoot, "no matter how senior."

Amnesty International (AI) has also condemned Egyptian security forces' "disproportionate and unnecessary use of live rounds and lethal force against protesters." Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, called on the Egyptian authorities to "rein in the security forces to prevent bloodshed."

AI has pointed out that under international law "police may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty. In particular, they must not use firearms against persons except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury."

Some groups are calling on the Obama administration to take a tougher stance on the situation.

HRW has "urged the United States to immediately suspend all assistance to and cooperation with Egyptian law enforcement agencies because of the suspicion they opened fire on peaceful protesters."

According to Neil Hicks, International Policy Advisor for Human Rights First (HRF), "The Obama administration must signal that it has turned the page from the old policy of toleration of oppression by its Egyptian ally in the name of stability. As well as being contrary to principles of universal human rights and democracy which the administration has pledged to uphold everywhere, recent events in Tunisia and now in Egypt have shown that repression does not bring stability."

These are valid expectations indeed. However, we must keep in mind that the Obama administration is itself continuing many of the Bush administration's post-9/11 policies of repression and intimidation here at home, and may appear to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Talk, as they say, is cheap.

But, in cases like this, it is better than silence.