27 March 2013

SCOTUS, DOMA, and Prop 8: Now we wait

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage for all federal and interstate purposes as a legal union between one man and one woman.

Yesterday, they focused on California's Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage in that state.

Predictions by analysts are mixed. Many seem to think that the Supremes are more likely to overturn DOMA than Prop 8.

But, all things considered, anything could happen.

So now we wait. Decisions in both cases are expected in late June.

In the meantime, I hope the majority of the Court will recognize that denying to gays and lesbians basic rights that are available to everyone else is simply bigotry - and bigotry should not be the law of the land.

25 March 2013

Another Dem senator to retire; majority status at serious risk

It's looking more and more challenging for the Democrats to keep their majority in the U.S. Senate, let alone achieve a supermajority, in 2014.

Tomorrow, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-SD) will formally announce that he will be retiring from the Senate after his current term and will not seek reelection in 2014.

This comes on the heels of similar announcements by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Carl Levin (D-MI), and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

I can't say I blame them for wanting to get out of there. But the prospect of the GOP picking up some of their seats is frightening.

24 March 2013

Same-sex marriage goes to SCOTUS

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two important cases related to marriage equality:

• On Tuesday, March 26, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, they will consider the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage in that state. Their decision in this case could potentially set a precedent for other states and start a rippling effect through the court system nationwide.

• On Wednesday, March 27, in United States v. Windsor, they will hear about the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage for all federal and interstate purposes as a legal union between one man and one woman. The Obama administration and Justice Department stopped defending DOMA in 2011, having determined that it is discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. But House Speaker Boehner and his crew have taken the matter into their own hands, and they continue to spend our tax dollars in their fight to defend DOMA and uphold bigotry and inequality as the law of the land.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, a majority of Americans - 58 percent - now believe that same-sex marriage should be legal. But 58 percent of Americans won't be making the decisions in those two court cases. Given the current makeup of the Court, anything could happen in either case.

Decisions in both cases are not expected until late June. Stay tuned, with fingers crossed for equality.

22 March 2013

Today is World Water Day. Are you part of the problem?

Today, March 22, is World Water Day. This date is observed each year to promote public awareness about issues related to clean water resources. And I am going to reiterate some concerns that I shared on this day last year, because unfortunately they are still relevant.

Access to clean water has become a big problem in some highly populated areas of the world. A big part of the blame goes to bottled water companies, who have taken a natural resource that had always been free and turned it into a corporate commodity that westerners - particularly Americans - willingly pay for. As they do so, clean, drinkable water becomes a scarce resource for poor people in developing countries where much of our bottled water supply originates.

Think back 20, 30, or 40 years. When you were thirsty, you turned on the kitchen faucet and poured yourself a glass of water. You thought nothing of it.

These days, I don't know many people who would drink the water from their kitchen faucet without at least filtering it first. I myself use a Brita water filter pitcher at home.

But that's not convenient enough, or glamorous enough, for some people. So they buy their drinking water in bottles. By the case. I see it flying off the shelves every time I go to the supermarket.

These same people who complain so loudly whenever gasoline prices go up past $3 per gallon think nothing of paying $10 per gallon for their drinking water. And they won't listen to the fact that bottled water is no cleaner and no safer than tap water, and often comes from the very same sources. To them, carrying around a bottle of commercially sold water is a status symbol, just like their big, bloated, gas-guzzling SUVs. If it's expensive, then it must be better.

And, by supporting the commercialization of water - by willfully paying corporations for something that they could otherwise get for free - they are compounding the problem. If drinkable water is something you have to pay for, then the poor will not be able to afford it. And, without clean water, it is impossible to survive.

If you buy and drink bottled water, you are part of the problem.

Please invest in a nice refillable water bottle and fill it from your tap - filtered or otherwise. It's a much more responsible example to set.

20 March 2013

Join me this Saturday night in observing Earth Hour!

On Saturday, March 23, at 8:30 pm local time, individuals, businesses, and municipalities around the world will turn off their lights for one hour - Earth Hour - in a show of concern for climate change and commitment to finding solutions.

I have participated in Earth Hour the past five years, and it always felt good. I plan to participate again this year, and I hope you will join me.

Earth Hour was started in 2007, and has been growing larger year by year. According to the Earth Hour website, "Earth Hour 2012 took place in more than 7001 cities and towns in 152 countries and territories across all seven continents. Hundreds of millions of people switched their lights off for an hour, and the campaign experienced its biggest growth since 2009."

To find out more, go to www.earthhour.org.

19 March 2013

A shameful 10-year anniversary

Today, March 19, 2013, marks the 10-year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq - a country that played no part in the 9/11 terror attacks, and which posed no detectable threat to us. It was a war based on deceptions.

And what do we have to show for it?

• Saddam Hussein and his two sons are long dead.

• Abu Ghraib is fading from the public memory.

• More than 4,000 American troops lost their lives, and more than 32,000 were wounded.

• Countless innocent Iraqi civilian men, women, and children were killed or maimed.

• More than $800 billion taxpayer dollars were wasted.

• And America lost its moral standing in the world.

Can anyone other than a stubborn neocon truly say that the war was was worth it?

15 March 2013

Maryland abolishes the death penalty - but...

Today, with a 82-56 vote in the House of Delegates, Maryland became the 18th state to abolish the death penalty - and the first state below the Mason-Dixon line to do so. The state senate had approved the measure last week. Governor Martin O'Malley, who sponsored the bill, is expected to sign it into law shortly.

NAACP President Ben Jealous (@benjealous) - formerly my Amnesty International colleague - tweeted: "We are keeping our promise to Troy Davis state by state."

Natasha Minster (@nminsker), Campaign Manager for Safe California, tweeted: "US standards of decency evolved"

Kevin (@GreenOctopus) tweeted: "One more victory against barbarism."

And Governor O'Malley shared the following words:"With today's vote to repeal the death penalty in Maryland, the General Assembly is eliminating a policy that is proven not to work. Evidence shows that the death penalty is not a deterrent, it cannot be administered without racial bias, and it costs three times as much as life in prison without parole. What's more, there is no way to reverse a mistake if an innocent person is put to death."

While I will certainly be raising a glass of wine in celebration, there is one possibility that could undo today's progress: According to the Baltimore Sun, "[d]eath penalty supporters could still petition the repeal bill to a referendum in the 2014 election, giving Maryland voters the final say. Polls show the death penalty still has the support of a narrow majority of voters."

Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope that doesn't happen.

And let's move forward towards ending the death penalty in every other state that still thinks it makes sense to kill a killer in order to show that killing is wrong.

14 March 2013

Blind faith, subservience, and the Church's survival

A television news show was interviewing some American tourists who had gathered outside the Vatican to celebrate the new pope. When asked for his thoughts on the new pontiff, one of the Americans - a young man - replied: "He's our pope! Of course we're behind him all the way!"

Of course. All the way.

Unquestioning subservience.

This leads me to believe that this young man was probably equally supportive of the previous pope - despite Benedict's leading role in covering up cases of child sex abuse by priests.

Or maybe the young man just turns his mind off whenever anything negative comes to light. Ignorance and denial are easier than critical thought. That's why Fox News has so many followers.

And that is why the hypocritical dinosaur we call the Catholic Church still manages to thrive.

Gays and the new pope: Bad news and "good" news

Yesterday, a new pope was chosen - Pope Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina.

The bad news: He has a reputation for being ultraconservative. Accordingly, he is strongly opposed to gay rights.

The "good" news: It could be worse. Another candidate whom some considered a frontrunner in the papal race was Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. And, while an African pope would have been quite the newsmaking novelty, other implications would have been disturbing at best.

For starters, as the Huffington Post reported last month, Turkson is a defender of Uganda's infamous "Kill the Gays" bill.

So, while gays and lesbians will continue to be second-class citizens in the eyes of the Vatican, at least it appears that we've avoided a new homophobic Inquisition. For now.

13 March 2013

New pope is ultraconservative

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Today, a new pope was selected - 76-year-old former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina. He will be called Pope Francis (the first).

Those who may have been hoping for a relatively progressive pope will likely be disappointed. According to CNN, Pope Francis is "a follower of the church's most conservative wing" and "has clashed with the government of [Argentina's] President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner over his opposition to gay marriage and free distribution of contraceptives." And, according to the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), he described adoption by same-sex couples as "a form of discrimination against children."

But he also has his good points. NCR described the new pope's apparent humility: "Bergoglio's reputation for personal simplicity also exercised an undeniable appeal - a Prince of the Church who chose to live in a simple apartment rather than the archbishop's palace, who gave up his chauffeured limousine in favor of taking the bus to work, and who cooked his own meals." He apparently is also into social justice, and is an advocate for the poor and for victims of HIV/AIDS (as long as they don't wear condoms!).

In his new role, probably his biggest challenge will be in dealing with the Church's ongoing sex abuse scandal. I hope he can do a better job of it than his predecessor.

10 March 2013

Bin Laden's legacy, and justice not served

Osama bin Laden would have turned 56 today. In a way, I wish he were here to observe the occasion from behind the bars of a federal prison, where he would be held accountable for his crimes against the West - like his son-in-law - and spend the rest of his days in an American cage.

Instead, he was killed by U.S. special forces, and his punishment quickly ended in a spray of bullets. His followers see him as a martyr, and are further energized in their jihad, even as their resources are weakening.

As relieved as I am that bin Laden himself poses no further threat to my nation, I can't help but think that assassination can't truly be called justice.

08 March 2013

Secretary of State Kerry's comments on International Women's Day

Today, March 8, is the annual observance of International Women's Day.

For this occasion, new Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement that gives too much credit to Condi Rice, but which otherwise is pretty good.

An excerpt:

It is a great and too often untold global success story that so much of the political, economic, and social progress of the last few decades could never have been imaginable without the leadership and courage of strong women. Over the past year alone, we’ve celebrated the landmark ascendance of women to the presidencies of Malawi and South Korea–and here in the United States, we saw the unprecedented election of 20 women to the U.S. Senate. That milestone was particularly meaningful to me, as someone who was sworn in to serve in the United States Senate in 1985, joined by my two teenage daughters and struck by the fact that I had twice as many daughters as there were women in the Senate. Today, with the service of 20 women, the Senate is a stronger, smarter place; more representative of our belief that we are a stronger nation when our leadership reflects our population. I am proud to benefit every day from the wisdom and example of my wife Teresa--who was born in Mozambique, marched against apartheid, speaks five languages and worked with the UN Trusteeship Council, and I am blessed by the lessons I’ve learned from my sister who worked for most of her career at the UN, and most recently at the UN Mission, and another sister who spent decades teaching young girls overseas.

Around the globe, whether they are creating and embracing new opportunities for education and entrepreneurship in Afghanistan, working for democratic reform in Burma, or advancing human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, more women are finding their voices, lifting up communities and nations, and paving the way for future generations to live a better life.

Yet, despite the significant gains women and girls have made, too many challenges and barriers remain...

>> Read the full statement.

05 March 2013

Progressive interview with Chavez

Controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has died at age 58 after a two-year battle with cancer. May he rest in peace (for a change).

In recent years, when I've thought about Chavez, I've usually immediately thought of his interview with investigative journalist Greg Palast, which appeared in the July 2006 edition of The Progressive, which happens to be my favorite magazine.

Palast's interview provided some needed insights to supplement and challenge the more hostile treatment of Chavez by the mainstream media.

>> Read the interview.

03 March 2013

The ex-pope and the holiness myth

So now Pope Benedict XVI has retired, and the cardinals will be choosing a new leader.

Meanwhile, sentimental Catholics and others have been praising the now-former pontiff. They call him a holy man. However, in looking back through his record, I see much that is downright unholy.

Perhaps most obvious is his role in the cover-up of clergy sex abuse.

Back in 2001, when we still knew him as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the British press leaked a confidential letter from Ratzinger to all Catholic bishops ordering that "the church's investigations into child sex abuse claims be carried out in secret," and asserting "the church's right to hold its inquiries behind closed doors and keep the evidence confidential for up to 10 years after the victims reached adulthood." In other words, keep it all under wraps until the statutes of limitations expire. How "holy" is that?

In 2002, he discounted the whole issue, referring to the media coverage of clergy sex abuse as a plot to discredit the Church. How "holy" is that?

In 2005, after he had assumed the papal throne, he asked then-President George W. Bush to grant him immunity from prosecution for covering up clergy sex abuse allegations in a Texas diocese. (Bush complied.) How "holy" is that?

Priests who molested children were not disciplined, fired, and turned over to the appropriate legal authorities. Instead, they were transferred to other parishes, where they were free to molest a whole new crop of young people. Victims were told to remain silent under threat of excommunication or hellfire. How "holy" is that?

Child sexual abuse is a crime, and Benedict knows it. Covering up a crime is also a crime in itself. But, instead of being held accountable, the former pope is praised as a holy man. Meanwhile, the victims of clergy sex abuse are left to suffer emotionally for the rest of their lives. How "holy" is that?

And then there is this ex-pope's reckless stance on condom use, which could result in unnecessary illness and death.

During a visit to Africa in 2009, Benedict said that condoms are not the answer to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In fact, he said condom use "increases the problem." This reminds me of the Catholic church of four centuries ago, which persecuted Galileo for his belief that the earth revolves around the sun. He apparently won't let science get in the way of his outdated ideology. How "holy" is that?

Fortunately, most practicing Catholics I know tend to reject the nonsense and embrace only the components of the religion that work for them and for the greater good. They use condoms and birth control pills. This former pope would probably call them sinners. But I think they're a lot holier than he is. They are, after all, taking responsibility for their actions.