Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Thursday, November 5, 2015 9:36 pm

RIP J. Howard Coble — by Sam Rayburn’s standards, the last honest congresscritter

“Son, if you can’t take their money, drink their whiskey, screw their women, and then vote against ’em, you don’t deserve to be here.” — attributed to U.S. House Speaker Sam Rayburn, c. 1950.

Howard Coble, who represented North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District for 30 years, died late Tuesday evening — Election Night here in Greensboro, as it happened — and a tsunami of respect and even love has flooded the Internet as a consequence.

The News & Record’s news story called Coble a Republican icon who also was “beloved by area Democrats.” The News & Record’s editorial page said that Coble, popular though he was, “wasn’t appreciated enough.” My Facebook feed was filled with tributes from local folks from both parties and no party at all.

Like almost anyone who has lived in the district any length of time, I have my own Howard Coble story to tell, one that goes beyond our interactions as politician and journalist. He was extremely helpful to me when I was job hunting after I took the News & Record buyout in 2009 even though he had no particular reason to be. He got in touch on my behalf with people whose names you see regularly in the paper and on TV. I don’t owe my current jobs to him, but it certainly wasn’t because he wasn’t working for me.

And, yes, even by the standards of Congress, where good constituent service is considered the bare performance minimum for a congresscritter to have a hope of re-election, Coble’s constituent service — or, more precisely, that of the staff he hired and oversaw — was legendary.

But there was a big and important contradiction at the heart of Coble’s politics that all this outpouring overlooked. My friend Lynn Holt-Campbell, who runs an insurance agency in High Point with her husband, wrote something on Facebook that sums it up: ” I met Howard a few times (and yes, he told me to call him “Howard”) … though we were just about polar opposites on a lot of political issues, he was a very, very nice man who deeply loved his state.”

In a nutshell, Coble cultivated a tone of bipartisanship — arguably a necessity for a Republican politician who came of age when Democrats were still in control and who won his second term by only 79 votes — but from 1989 on he voted a very conservative line in Congress; if you look at his record, you’ll see that he was pretty much straight Gingrichite/Tea Party without the idiotic rhetoric. The result was that while he professed to love the people of his district, he voted for many things that hurt most of them.

He supported trade policies that ultimately decimated the 6th District’s predominant industries of furniture and textiles. A former N.C. state revenue secretary, he professed an emphasis on a balanced budget but voted consistently for budget-busting GOP tax cuts that benefited the very wealthy to the detriment of an overwhelming majority of his constituents. He once told me on the record that Congress ought to use its constitutional power of interstate-commerce regulation to ban the use of tax-paid economic incentives to lure employers across state lines, but in all his time in the House he never lifted a finger to do anything about it. And American intellectual-property law, with its gifts to behemoth content creators, became, on his watch as the chairman of the House subcommittee overseeing it, the place where creativity goes to die.

Moreover, a former federal prosecutor, he voted for Bill Clinton’s impeachment even when he knew (or should have known) that not all the elements for a perjury charge were present, but he utterly ignored the far more thoroughly documented war crimes (including torture) and crimes against humanity committed by the Bush administration after 9/11. He cast himself as favoring small government, but there was no big-government overreach he didn’t back, from the PATRIOT Act to warrantless domestic wiretapping. He never took sometimes declined to take a public position on gay marriage — ostensibly because, as a lifelong bachelor, he felt himself unqualified to do so. In point of fact, during his tenure Congress never had to vote on the issue he voted for a number of anti-gay marriage measures, including the Defense of Marriage Act..

But you have heard little of that these past couple of days. The Howard Coble who voted to screw the middle class and working class, who pushed the interests of big business over small business, who signed on to some of the government’s worst post-9/11 excesses, who consistently pushed tax and economic policies detrimental to the interests of the overwhelming majority of the 6th District’s residents, and who kept his mouth shut while supporting some of the most wild-eyed initiatives of the Gingrich crew and the Tea Party, didn’t make an appearance. The most the News & Record could bestir itself to say was that Coble was “a reliable conservative” who “voted for tax cuts and championed restrictive intellectual property bills beloved by large corporations.” That was it.

The contrast between Coble and the current crop of Republican presidential candidates is striking. They’re all talk, and they’re going nowhere. Coble talked rationally, even in nonpartisan fashion at times, but his votes did and are continuing to do enormous damage to his district and the people of North Carolina on behalf of a few wealthy backers, damage that will long outlive his 30-year tenure in Congress.

In short, I don’t know about drinking our whiskey and screwing our women, but he took our money and voted against us over and over and over again. And that, in the post-Citizens United era, is what being an honest politician has come to mean, and how low the bar has sunk.

Monday, October 12, 2015 8:17 pm

Odds and ends for Oct. 12

Stop the presses: Countries that spend money to reduce poverty actually reduce poverty. Go figure. (The Great Society, by the way, cut the U.S. poverty rate in half until retrenchment began in the ’70s under Nixon.)

So we deport migrants back to their Central American “homes,” where they are murdered shortly after. Great policy we’ve got there.

Angus Deaton, today’s winner of the Nobel Prize in economics (and congratulations to him!), warns that inequality is a big threat to our long-term economic well-being. Also? He says it’s a threat to democracy, as well.

The constitutional illiterates who want a 6-foot-tall 10 Commandments monument at the Oklahoma capitol apparently are more keen on wanting it than paying for it.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson once said of then-Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw that he couldn’t spell “cat” if you spotted him the C and the A. Which still makes Bradshaw, now a Fox Sports commentator, smarter than Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Speaking of the Dallas Cowboys, they certainly are hateworthy, but their fans are making a fair case for liquidation.

Louisiana Gov. (and GOP presidential candidate) Bobby Jindal thinks we should impose a no-fly zone on ISIS in Syria. Which would be peachy if, you know, ISIS had any aircraft.

Speaking of Louisiana, the only thing worse than the fact that U.S. Sen. David “Diapers” Vitter is running for governor is the fact that the Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans endorsed him.

Some good news for a change: California has become the second state, after Oregon, to automatically register people to vote when they are issued a driver’s license. This should happen nationwide so that legislators never have the chance to get up to the kind of vote-suppression fkery they’re up to here in N.C.

The American South lost the Civil War, but in so many ways, the former Confederacy has been winning the ensuing peace. Now it’s winning the battle to keep wages low … worldwide.

Speaking of the American South, since the flooding began in South Carolina, we’ve heard that some dams burst or had to be opened before they burst, and we’ve learned that the state’s dams are in pretty crummy shape. Well, no surprise, the same is true here in North Carolina.

The first rule of legislating ought to be “First, do no harm.” And would that the N.C. General Assembly had stuck to that with respect to the solar-energy industry. But it didn’t. And that will have real costs.

In North Carolina, the labor commissioner is best known as the name and face on elevator inspection placards. But the position must do other things, too, like seek restitution for unpaid workers — which incumbent Cherie Berry has pretty much failed to do.

The fascists at ALEC are now trying to water down American history as it is taught in North Carolina. My friend Mark Barrett (Governor’s School ’77, Davidson ’82) shines some light on the subject.

Saturday, September 12, 2015 7:49 am

Giving the government a do-it-yourself proctological exam

Hi, kids. Ever want to live the glamorous life of an investigative reporter but also wanted to, you know, eat? Well, know, and I are placing a powerful investigative tool in your hands, absolutely free. It’s the Freedom of Information Act! This graphic will tell you most of what you need to know to place a Freedom of Information Act request, what to do if your request is denied, and generally how to go about using this wonderful and powerful tool.

A couple of caveats, based on my experience:

The FOIA is not a panacea for several reasons. First, it applies only to the federal executive branch, not to Congress or the federal courts, nor to any level of state or local government. (Here in North Carolina, the law that applies to state/local governments starts at N.C. General Statute 132.1 and goes forward from there; that’s a subject for another post.)

Second, some agencies handle FOIA requests a lot more quickly and sincerely than others, which leads me to caveat 2A: sometimes you can get what you need a lot more quickly and easily by checking the agency’s website, or even chatting up a friendly clerk or secretary, than by going through the FOIA hoops, if you happen to be physically close to the federal agency you need info from. (For local folks, some regional U.S. government agencies are around here, notably the V.A. in Winston-Salem and the Department of Labor in Greensboro.)

Third, there ARE exceptions to the act; it’s not a blank check.

Fourth, your own FOIA request becomes a public document that someone else can request a copy of, so if you don’t want anyone to know you’re looking into something, you’ll want to think twice about going the FOIA route.

And then there’s the fact that if you can’t get into the agency’s face live and in concert, filing a FOIA request can be like flying a paper airplane into the Grand Canyon. True story: In 1991, I filed a FOIA request with the Health Care Finance Administration seeking information regarding federal payments to a local medical practice, Southeastern Eye Center. I nursed that request, calling and writing every few months, from then until I got out of the newspaper bidness in 2009. Southeastern Eye Center is now in receivership. My FOIA request technically remains open, to the best of my knowledge.

But don’t let that scare you. I once got a useful response from the Federal Aviation Administration within 48 hours. (Faxes were involved.)

So, hey, if you want to know what a federal executive-branch agency has been doing, knock yourself out. Why should starving reporters have all the fun? Besides, the National Security Agency, at the least, probably already knows everything you’ve been doing, so turnabout is fair play, right?


Friday, August 14, 2015 6:10 pm

Odds and ends for Aug. 14

U.S. Rep. Walter “Freedom Fries” Jones, a Republican who represents North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, voted for war against Iraq. However, unlike so many backers of that misbegotten expedition, he deeply and publicly repented of that decision. And he’s still repenting:

“I did not do what I should have done to read and find out whether Bush was telling us the truth about Saddam being responsible for 9/11 and having weapons of mass destruction. Because I did not do my job then, I helped kill 4,000 Americans, and I will go to my grave regretting that.”

Chelsea Manning committed a crime knowing prison would be the likely outcome. Still, the military’s threat to place her in indefinite solitary confinement strikes me as piling on.

Could we be seeing a “Central American spring”? I’ll believe it when/if it comes to pass, but I’m hopeful.

Connecticut has banned the death penalty, but I’m thinking that in this particular case the state Supreme Court may have overreached in doing so.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015 8:56 pm

Odds and ends for Aug. 12

Now where were we …?

There might be no more dangerous example of how corporate money corrupts politics than the case of the fossil-fuel industry giving money to candidates who are global-warming skeptics and/or opposed to increasing our renewable-energy supply.

Relatedly, today’s quote, from David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and “Treme”:

You know, I wasn’t offended that the Supreme Court decided that a corporation is a person. We crossed that river a long time ago. What freaked me out was money being equated to speech. That f—-d me up. Speech is speech. Nothing will make people say more stupid shit than money. When money is actually transformed into actual words, the words are, by in large, quite stupid, self-serving and disastrous. So money is speech — that to me was an obscenity.

If you doubt there’s a war against women, well, here it is.

Wisconsin Gov. and presidential candidate Scott Walker not only hates women, he also hates free speech.

I said after last week’s Republican presidential debate that Ohio Gov. John Kasich was the only one out of the 17 who sounded both sane and competent to govern. I spoke too soon.

The Civil War was about slavery. But don’t take it from me. Take it from the head of West Point’s history department.

Aldona Wos finally has resigned as N.C. Secretary of Health and Human Services. It’s about damn time.

The N.C. Senate wants to take us into thermonuclear Koch budgeting mode, thus locking us into perpetual budget crises. Oh, goody. Also, they want to do it without any public hearings. Say it with me, kids: TABOR is the reason we can’t have nice things. Like, you know, roads and schools.

Relatedly, N.C. General Assemblyyou had one job: Pass a budget by July 1. But that was beyond you then, and apparently it’s still beyond you. Morons.

I don’t have a happy kicker with which to wrap up today, so y’all are dismissed. Go have a drink.


Friday, July 10, 2015 10:28 pm

On the evil of niceness

It has been suggested to me on more than one occasion that my ideas might get a better reception if I would say them a little more … nicely.

I get it. I am a Southerner, after all, and I was not born in a barn. I was raised and remain a Christian ( albeit, as shall become obvious in a moment, a deeply flawed one).

But I am, shall we say, disinclined to respond with niceness to those whose governmental policies carry a nontrivial body count, particularly when those bodies are defenseless.

I am, shall we say, disinclined to respond with niceness to bullies. Bullies deserve nothing more or less than a kick in the teeth.

I am, shall we say, disinclined to respond with niceness to sociopaths. Sane societies lock their sociopaths up where they can never harm anyone else again. Our society, by conscious choice, is not sane, and whatever else that is, it certainly isn’t nice.

And I am, we definitely shall say, disinclined to respond with niceness toward people who meet all three criteria.

There are a couple of reasons for my disinclination.

One is that, being from the South, I know firsthand how the premium we place on getting along and being civil is still, even today, used way too often to paper over legitimate grievances. The Duke University historian William Chafe literally wrote the book on that topic with respectd to my adopted hometown, “Civilities and Civil Rights.”

My 80-year-old mother grew up in Charleston. Girls of her generation were brought up to “be sweet.” Being sweet meant  not only being civil, courteous, and polite, but also, “Don’t rock the boat.” That was the case even if that boat needed torpedoing.

Long story short, my mother decided a good while back that being sweet was overrated, and my sibs and I are all better off for that decision.

Another reason for my disinclination is that in my experience in covering and living with the consequences of politics, I have found that pleas for civility are too often the last refuge of a scoundrel who, as they used to say in pro wrestling, desperately needs to be hit with the chair.

Which brings me to Pat Buchanan’s latest screed for one of the right wing’s more virulent fever swamps, World Net Daily, known among the sane as Wing Nut Daily for demonstrable reasons. For a former speechwriter, Pat has not the first goddamned idea what a topic sentence is, so he’s kind of hard to excerpt. So I’ll paraphrase, and feel free to click the link, read behind me, and tell me if I got this badly wrong:

He is predicting, and calling for, civil disobedience against the Supreme Court’s striking down of bans on same-sex marriage. And he is saying that such a movement would be morally equivalent to, among others:

  • Harriett Tubman’s work as part of the Underground Railroad.
  • Northern abolitionists’ support of John Brown.
  • The original 13 colonies’ rebellion against the English crown — to which, he goes out of his way to claim, the Confederate rebellion was morally identical.
  • The civil rights movement, particularly Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Yeah. He went there.

He concludes:

But are people who celebrate the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village as the Mount Sinai moment of their movement really standing on solid ground to demand that we all respect the Obergefell decision as holy writ?

And if cities, states or Congress enact laws that make it a crime not to rent to homosexuals, or to refuse services at celebrations of their unions, would not dissenting Christians stand on the same moral ground as Dr. King if they disobeyed those laws?

Already, some businesses have refused to comply with the Obamacare mandate to provide contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees. Priests and pastors are going to refuse to perform same-sex marriages. Churches and chapels will refuse to host them. Christian colleges and universities will deny married-couple facilities to homosexuals.

Laws will be passed to outlaw such practices as discrimination, and those laws, which the Christians believe violate eternal law and natural law, will, as Dr. King instructed, be disobeyed.

And the removal of tax exemptions will then be on the table.

If a family disagreed as broadly as we Americans do on issues so fundamental as right and wrong, good and evil, the family would fall apart, the couple would divorce, and the children would go their separate ways.

Something like that is happening in the country.

A secession of the heart has already taken place in America, and a secession, not of states, but of people from one another, caused by divisions on social, moral, cultural and political views and values, is taking place.

America is disuniting, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote 25 years ago.

And for those who, when young, rejected the views, values and laws of Eisenhower’s America, what makes them think that dissenting Americans in this post-Christian and anti-Christian era will accept their laws, beliefs, values?

Why should they?

I’ll give Buchanan the benefit of this doubt: As the late Molly Ivins said of his speech at the 1992 GOP National Convention, this piece probably sounded better in the original German. Leaving aside for a moment his claim that some things will happen that are by no means certain — ministers and chapels being “forced” to perform same-sex marriages being the big kahuna among a bunch that contains few small ones — what kind of moral illiterate equates the denial of rights with the expansion of rights? The phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei” comes to mind.

Scot Eric Kaufman poses that question and related ones in this essay at Salon, which I linked to earlier today on Facebook. My doing so brought a rebuke from a friend of mine, who wrote that Kaufman “sounds like one bigot bashing another.” Apparently he took that position because Kaufman dared to allude to the fact that we do not have conclusive proof that the man many of us (myself included) worship as the Son of God actually lived on Earth.

The implication of his remark, upon which I challenged him and to which he has not responded as I write, is that because Kaufman said something that hurt his feelings with respect to his Christian faith, nothing that Kaufman said about Buchanan is valid. Because Kaufman wasn’t nice enough.

That notion merits three words of basic Anglo-Saxon: Bull. Fcking. Shit.

Part of the reason that evil runs as unchecked in this country as it does is that too many people, including my friend, are too nice to call out evil for what it is. Too many are far too nice to do anything but accept any vice whatever as long as it is clothed in Christianity. And too many are willing to be so nice that they will accept the dangerous notion that false equivalence, particularly false moral equivalence, is still equivalence.

Pat Buchanan worked eagerly for, and to this day defends, Richard Nixon, the most soul-sickened individual to inhabit the White House in the 20th century. Buchanan’s entire career is a testament to bigotry, anti-Semitism — a word that, unlike many people all along the political spectrum, I do NOT use lightly — and opposition unto death to all of the highest and best aspirations this country ever has had for itself. As I observed earlier today, Buchanan seems hell-bent on becoming the first person to ruin his party’s presidential nominee’s chances singlehandedly in two different millennia. If there is anyone in America outside of a few neo-Nazi groups who deserves to wear the brown shirt, it’s Buchanan. And Buchanan has been richly rewarded for this evil. He writes columns. He publishes books. He appears on TV. He commands princely speaking fees.

For all I know, Kaufman is just as evil. But the odds are against it. Moreover, he has nowhere near Buchanan’s reach and platform, even if Buchanan’s reach isn’t (thank God) what it once was.

But some smart people who ought to know better, including my friend, apparently think that what Kaufman did is exactly as bad as what Buchanan did, because Kaufman dared to raise the same question that millions of honest, educated Christians already struggle with every day. Their position seems to be that not only was what Kaufman wrote “bigoted,” it also was just as bigoted, and just as morally flawed, as what Buchanan wrote and what Buchanan has been pretty much every day of his long and benighted adult life.

If you think this way, you are intellectually silly and morally obtuse. It is literally laughable to think that raising a question about the physical existence of Jesus Christ equates in any moral way with Buchanan’s likening of legalizing gay marriage to slavery and Jim Crow. And if you think this way, you don’t deserve “nice.” You deserve mocking. You deserve ridicule. And here in this little corner of the Interwebz and whatever other digital real estate I control, you’ll get it.

Because I’m a nice guy, but even nice guys can only tolerate so much bullshit before they turn mean.

Saturday, June 27, 2015 2:02 pm

Depending how your dream goes


(I don’t know who this artist is; if someone knows, please advise and I’ll be happy to give credit. Cartoon by Bob Englehart, Hartford Courant, but was Photoshopped; the original included only the first three panels.)

“This has been the best week for all Americans of good will since Richard Milhous Nixon fled the presidency.”

This post started out to be a lot of gloating about how badly so many different people of ill will have taken it in the teeth this week. I was going to write a lot about how the moral arc of karma is long but this week it bent toward a righteous, multifaceted ass-kicking. I was going to write about laughing as the people on the wrong end of these decisions cried their bitter, bitter tears of frustration and rage, and how I intended to fill goblets and flagons with those tears and how the whole damn house was going to enjoy several rounds on them and so on. And I particularly intended to review Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissents in two Supreme Court cases so that you could enjoy the spectacle of a right-wing hack’s head exploding.

But overnight, those feelings receded. They didn’t go away. They’re still there, and for all I know could come flowing back in all their fury given the right prompt. But they’re no longer top of mind.

Instead, what I’m feeling most right now is something that feels quite foreign to me: satisfaction. Why? Because without doubt this has been the best week for all Americans of good will since Richard Milhous Nixon fled the presidency more than 40 years ago. Not only is the Confederate battle flag likely coming down at the South Carolina Statehouse (at this writing no vote has been scheduled), but a number of large companies have pledged to stop selling Confederate-themed stuff. And at the Supreme Court, not only was the Affordable Care Act upheld (again), the court also ruled that same-sex couples have the right to marry in this country.

That last one, though not unexpected, was particularly delicious because the bad guys were hoisted on their own petard. The anti-SSM crowd had argued that marriage was so important an institution to our society that it had to be protected. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in a neat bit of judiciary jiujitsu, responded, in effect, “Yes, it IS important — so important that it is a basic right that belongs to ALL.” And then he dropped the mic.

Let’s look at who lost here:

So who won? Everybody, really, including the people who lost, because as a result of these changes, all of us, including them, are going to live in a better America. America is a little less bigoted, significantly more financially secure and a helluva lot more equal today than it was last weekend.

Now, this wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t point out a few caveats. For one thing, nice as it is to get the Dixie Swastika off the Statehouse grounds and to start a real conversation about the noxious culture surrounding it, we still have to start a real conversation about the larger culture of racism, of which the flag is only a symbol.

We would be morally obtuse if we didn’t grasp that the whole reason we’re even having a conversation about the Dixie Swastika is that a young man in the pernicious grasp of its culture walked into an old and beloved Charleston church and shot nine innocent people to death in cold blood. And we would be even more morally obtuse if we didn’t start that real conversation about the culture of racism. Oh, we’ve nibbled at it here and there — a number of politicians, including my own Sen. Thom Tillis, have been caught taking money from a white-supremacist group, the Conservative Citizens Council — but I’m afraid it’ll take even more bloodshed before we get serious about this.

We also need to talk about how easy it remains for crazy people to buy guns. I know that it looks like Gun America (including but not limited to the NRA) has shut down this conversation, and that more people will die needlessly as a result, but we need to keep having it anyway.

As for the Affordable Care Act and health insurance, we remain basically the only Western industrialized democracy where a health problem can bankrupt you. That still needs to change, for all the good, and it is a lot of good, that Obamacare has done in recent years (at lower cost than expected and with greater beneficial effects on the deficit than has been expected).

And while same-sex marriage remains the law of the land, there are still some holdouts, including some county clerks or deed recorders who are saying they simply won’t marry anyone rather than marrying same-sex couples. (Remember when public pools were closed outright during the desegregation era rather than be opened to African Americans? Good times.) They’ll have to be sued individually. But they will be. And they, too, will lose. And there no doubt will continue to be lawsuits because in areas other than marriage, some people will continue to insist, in the face of law, logic, and morality, that LGBTQ folks don’t have the same rights as the rest of us.

All these challenges, and some nontrivial losses, still lie ahead of us. More blood and treasure will be spilled. Reactionaries gonna react. It’s what they do. It’s how they roll. And they tend to get worse, to escalate, every time they do; as Steve M. at No More Mister Nice Blog reminds us, “they vote, they dominate many American states, and they own guns.” And they’re getting at least some positive reinforcement from high places; as my friend Mark Costley observed on Facebook of the Supreme Court’s dissenters:

… they are — I believe consciously — furthering a right wing theme calculated to weaken the confidence of the citizenry in our government. The right wing of the Republican Party (commonly understood to be the right 11/12 of the party) has embraced an anti-intellectual populism in which the courage to be wrong and stick with your position is one’s greatest trait. This anti-intellectualism makes it impossible to engage in any effective discussion of policy making, national priorities, or governmental accountability.

Few politicians in U.S. history have gone broke inciting lack of confidence in the competence and good will of government, and there are a lot of scared, uninformed, armed people only too willing to believe the worst. So this, too, will be an issue even as we now have 35 years of experience in seeing what horrors so-called limited government inflicts upon our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

But I actually have some hope. As I observed above, this is going to be a better country for the losers as well as the winners in this week’s events, and it isn’t foolish to hope that because the country will be better, at least some of those who may see themselves on the losing end eventually will come to see that it all was for the best.

And I hope everybody else sees that, too, for this week has been as transformative in America as any in decades. And even as we begin to think about what lies ahead, it would be churlish of us not to celebrate it. It is uncharacteristic of me to say so, but I suggest we celebrate — not with the bitter, bitter tears of our opponents, but with champagne.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015 8:30 pm

Odds and ends for June 3

Thirty years ago today, what is still the weirdest true-crime story you’ll ever read concluded horrifically. My friend and former colleague Margaret Moffett checks in with some of the survivors. (EDITED to add: My friend Chris Knight, who grew up near some of the characters in this drama, adds his perspective.)

Perv, meet thief: Presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, the insufferable pecksniff whose most recent pronouncement was that he wishes he’d “felt like a girl” in high school so that he could have gotten to watch girls shower naked, makes it clear he’ll do anything to get close to Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s donors. Scott, of course, led the company that committed history’s largest Medicaid fraud.

No links with this one, just a thought: What if the Obama Justice Department had put as much effort into investigating banksters as it has into investigating FIFA?

Relatedly, no, South Africa, I’m sure your 2008 payment of $10 million had nothing to do with your getting the 2010 World Cup and was in no way a bribe. Perish the thought.

Every so-called “gay-conversion” operation in this country needs to be sued. Saying you can “convert” someone who’s gay is like saying drinking motor oil can cure cancer.

This week’s revamp of U.S. national security laws was a sorely needed first step — and never would have happened without Edward Snowden. So why is Snowden still a wanted criminal?

The first step in fixing a problem is admitting you have a problem. The U.S. government doesn’t want to admit that we have a problem with killer cops.

After seeing her in “Easy A,” I would watch Emma Stone in just about anything. But even I thought casting her as part-Asian in “Aloha” was boneheaded. Better late than never, director Cameron Crowe agrees.

N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory is staking his re-election effort in 2016 on $2.8 billion in transportation and infrastructure bonds. The only reason I’m not saying that the legislature is throwing McCrory under the bus by refusing to put them on the November ballot is that legislative Republicans don’t believe in mass transit.

And our lite gov, Dan Forest, is a moron. (Previously. Also previously.)

Speaking of morons, the legislature has overridden McCrory’s veto of HB 465, the “ag-gag” law. A court will toss it out eventually, but a lot of animals, and quite possibly some people as well, are likely to suffer before that  happens. So much for McCrory’s attempt to position himself politically as a moderate keeping the Visigoth right at bay. I would say that the legislature threw McCrory under the bus on this one, but that would imply that legislative Republicans favor mass transit.

And the Lege has given committee approval to a bill that will gut background checks on private in-state pistol sales by 2021, a bill so bad that many of the state’s sheriffs opposed it.

And lastly, my local paper and former employer, Greensboro’s News & Record, has laid off a bunch more people, including some true stalwarts, one of whom was just months from retiring. At this point, I think it’s fair to conclude that BH Media is no longer even trying to cut its way to profitability. It is now simply milking what it can for as long as it can, at which point it will shut down the papers one by one and sell off the real estate, some of it quite valuable, that those papers sit on. And it’s past time we in Greensboro start thinking about who or what will be able to provide the journalistic firepower to truly hold the powerful accountable in this community.





Wednesday, May 27, 2015 8:14 pm

Odds and ends for May 27

Back from vacation. Let’s get to work, shall we?

The U.S. government is still good for something — in this case, finally taking on the continuing criminal enterprise that is FIFA. (My daughter has been saying for two years that the organization’s leaders were committing fraud and worse. She’s 16.) I suspect the reason we’re doing it instead of, say, Switzerland, is that we can — because soccer’s popularity here is so low that no one will raise much of a defense of the indefensible.

I love this pope. He has been, in the opinion of this outsider, better for the Roman Catholic church than anything since Vatican II. But he still has a couple of enormous moral blind spots.

Paid Microsoft support for the U.K. government’s many computers still running Windows XP ran out in April 2015. The transition to Windows 7 or 8.1 was supposed to be complete by now, but it isn’t for many government agencies, which will have to negotiate their own, much more expensive service deal with Microsoft. Meanwhile, those machines aren’t getting any more security upgrades and thus could become vulnerable to hacking. (I have a perfectly good XP machine that isn’t powerful enough to run Win7, so when Microsoft stopped providing security updates to consumers a year ago, I turned it into a Linux machine. Still works like a charm.)

My heart and some of my money are going out to the victims of Texas tornadoes and flooding. But I’ve got to point out a couple of things. First, the increasing severity of storms such as this is a direct result of increased mean atmospheric temperature. As we learned in school, the warmer air is, the more moisture it can hold, and the more moisture is in the air, the more severe storms are. So global-warming denialists in Texas, particularly in its government, really need to sit down and shut up now. Second, I assume that all the hot air from Texas politicians about the Jade Helm military maneuvers will now cease while those same politicians ask the federal government for millions in disaster relief. Right?

Quasi-relatedly, as H.L. Mencken observed (sort of), it is difficult to make a man understand something when his bonuses depend on his not understanding it. That’s especially true of climate-science deniers and extraction-industry executives. (Note that the market value of remaining extractable carbon fuel runs into the dozens of trillions, and we’d only need to burn another $1 trillion worth to screw ourselves sideways, climate-wise.)

Related to that, crony capitalism continues in Raleigh as extraction interests continue using their bought-and-paid-for legislature to fight solar energy. They have become more vicious because they are more desperate: They know that solar will become economically feasible for replacing more than half of global electricity generation within the next 10 years.

The Supreme Court ruled debtors’ prisons unconstitutional more than 30 years ago, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of places from jailing people just because of fines and/or fees they couldn’t pay.

Pretty much everyone who isn’t working in the White House or Congress understands that the NSA’s vast warrantless data-hoovering surveillance program isn’t worth what it is costing us in liberty. So, of course, N.C.’s senior senator, Richard Burr, is arguing for more of it.

At what point is N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory going to realize that the person running the state Department of Health and Human Services, Aldona Wosis incompetent?

And at what point will N.C. voters realize that McCrory himself is incompetent? He has staked his re-election on two proposed bond issues, one for highways and the other for other infrastructure — and hoping that voters won’t realize that if not for his misguided leadership and that of his legislative pals, much of this work could have been done through the ordinary state budgeting process, rather than sinking the state $2.8 billion into debt.

North Carolina doesn’t want to kill messengers. It only wants to sue and/or imprison them.

State officials (which is to say, mainly, state Republicans) are now into their fifth year of arguing that climate change isn’t really a thing, apparently not realizing or caring that “the Atlantic isn’t waiting to see who wins the argument.

Speaking of resisting the inevitable, N.C. lawmakers are still trying to stop gay marriage by unconstitutional means.

The chairman of the UNC System’s Board of Governors, John Fennebresque, says he wants a “change agent” to replace politically fired UNC System president Tom Ross. But he won’t say what he wants changed and says the board doesn’t have a job description even as it runs a nationwide search for Ross’s successor. Let’s be real clear here: Fennesbresque and the board wouldn’t come out and say they fired Tom Ross for political reasons because they knew the public wouldn’t stand for it. And they aren’t saying what they want Ross’s successor to do for the very same reason.

Steven Long, vice chairman of the academic planning committee of the UNC System’s board of governors, says regarding program eliminations, “We’re capitalists, and we have to look at what the demand is, and we have to respond to the demand.” No, schmuck. Education is a public good, and the state university system has a duty to provide benefits to the state as a whole, not just students whose preferred  majors happen to be momentarily popular.

So Charter Communications may buy Time Warner Cable, my personal cable/Internet provider. Is there any reason to think this would mean anything but higher prices and crummier service? Thought not.

Whew. I need another vacation.


Tuesday, May 26, 2015 6:17 pm

Hey, Alabama judges, what part of the LAW don’t you understand? (Besides all of it, I mean.)

Earlier this year, a federal appeals court struck down Alabama’s ban on same-sex marriage, as federal district and appeals courts (with one exception) have been doing across the country. The day after that happened, a nondenominational Christian minister named Anne Susan DePrizio agreed to marry a same-sex couple, as the federal appeals court entitled her to do.

Which would be fine, except for the part where Alabama is Bat Country, a third-world morass of corruption, stupidity, willful ignorance, hyperpatriarchal theocracy, and outright dickitude that leaves Mos Eisley in the dust as a wretched hive of scum and villainy.

Because Alabama is Bat Country, etc., Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, a Shiite Christian and virulent homophobe, ordered all Alabama probate judges to ignore the federal appeals court’s ruling. This would be the same Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore who already got fired once, in 2003, by the Alabama Court of the Judiciary for disregarding a federal court order regarding establishment of religion, but was voted back into office in 2012 because Alabama voters haven’t got the brains God gave a billygoat. Not that I am bitter.)

So this judge, Al Booth, decided that Moore’s (illegal) order gave him the right to have DePrizio arrested on “disorderly conduct” charges. Booth even claimed he had a duty to do so in light of Chief Justice Moore’s (illegal) order. DePrizio turned the other cheek, pleaded guilty to the disorderly conduct charge May 18, and will serve 30 days.

Which, you know, God bless her for living out her faith, but were I her, I’d not only be fighting the charge as far up the ladder as it took, I’d also be seeking judicial sanctions against Moore and Booth. I’m thinking 30 days apiece for contempt might make an impression. At the very least, it would make deserving examples of them.

Because the constitutional issue is straightforward here: DePrizio sought to act not only within the scope of what is permitted under civil law but also within the scope of her First Amendment right to free expression of her religious beliefs. She believes that it’s utterly cool with God for her to marry same-sex couples. The government has no right to interfere with that belief, let alone label it “disorderly conduct” as long as she’s not disrupting traffic or scaring the horses.

Me, I’d be willing to give Booth another chance, but Roy Moore has long since exhausted his right to be on the public tit. And since Alabama is a net taker of federal revenue, that means an assload of American taxpayers are subsidizing his salary. That boy needs an escort into the private sector. Yesterday. Can I get an amen?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015 8:34 pm

SB 36: Baby, meet bathwater

A couple of folks in the local blogosphere — e.g., George Hartzman, here — have suggested that SB 36, State Sen. Trudy Wade’s misbegotten monkeying around with the city of Greensboro’s election system, will be good for Greensboro because it will rid the city of a corrupt City Council. Their thinking is that because the redistricting that SB 36 calls for would place several council members in one district, forcing them to run against each other, several inevitably would be voted off the council.

If in fact most or all council members are corrupt, then this is a legitimate point. So let’s examine it.

Caveat: I’m not prepared right now to say as a fact that one or more members of the council are corrupt — or not corrupt, for that matter. So, for the purposes of this post, let’s posit that all nine of them are dirtier than a ’57 Buick’s oil pan. Let’s further posit that, for whatever reason, law enforcement cannot or will not deal with the corruption for us.

SB 36 still would be the wrong solution to the problem.

Why? Simple. Although it might get rid of some incumbent council members, there’s no guarantee that it would get rid of those who actually are corrupt. Moreover, because it would give voters a say over fewer seats on the council (one district member plus a mostly-non-voting mayor, as opposed to a district member, three at-large members and a voting mayor on the nine-member panel under the current system), it would make unseating future corrupt council members even more difficult than it is now — to say nothing of the fact that council members would face voters only every four years, instead of every two as they do now.

So SB 36 would be, at best, an uncertain and temporary solution to a problem that, history shows, tends to recur among politicians. And it would make dealing with recurrences of the problem even harder.

Look, if you think that a council member is corrupt, your path is clear: WORK TO GET HIM/HER VOTED OUT. Unlike congressional and legislative districts, Greensboro City Council districts aren’t gerrymandered. Nobody’s seat is safe, particularly if he or she is corrupt. We already have a sufficient mechanism in place to replace corrupt council members. SB 36 remains what it always has been: a solution in search of a problem and an attempt by anonymous corporate interests to win through their puppet legislature what they cannot win in Greensboro’s ballot boxes.

Sunday, April 5, 2015 10:35 pm

The post-mortem on Rolling Stone’s rape-at-UVa article: You say your mother loves you? Check it out.

UPDATED below.

Report by Columbia here; the key bits (emphasis mine):

The particulars of Rolling Stone‘s failure make clear the need for a revitalized consensus in newsrooms old and new about what best journalistic practices entail, at an operating-manual-level of detail. … The magazine’s records and interviews with participants show that the failure of “A Rape on Campus” was not due to a lack of resources. The problem was methodology, compounded by an environment where several journalists with decades of collective experience failed to surface and debate problems about their reporting or to heed the questions they did receive from a fact-checking colleague.

In retrospect, [Will] Dana, the managing editor, who has worked at Rolling Stone since 1996, said the story’s breakdown reflected both an “individual failure” and “procedural failure, an institutional failure. … Every single person at every level of this thing had opportunities to pull the strings a little harder, to question things a little more deeply, and that was not done.” …

Yet the explanation that Rolling Stone failed because it deferred to a victim cannot adequately account for what went wrong. [Article author Sabrina] Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie [the pseudonym the magazine used for the purported victim] had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position. …

In hindsight, the most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was to accept that Erdely had not contacted the three friends who spoke with Jackie on the night she said she was raped. That was the reporting path, if taken, that would have almost certainly led the magazine’s editors to change plans.

I may or may not have more to say about the details later, after I have re-read the report, but I can say this just as I did soon after questions about the report arose: Failure to independently verify a primary source’s claims is journalistic malpractice, and the article’s author, Sabrina Erdely, manifestly failed to independently verify her primary source’s claims — and in some instances didn’t even try. And the article’s editor, Sean Woods, and the magazine’s managing editor, Will Dana, were aware of holes in Erdely’s reporting and let the article run anyway.

Rolling Stone’s fact-checker assigned to the case raised questions that the editors ultimately failed to answer. The report quotes Coco McPherson, the fact-checking chief, as saying, “I one hundred percent do not think that the policies that we have in place failed. I think decisions were made around those because of the subject matter.” It’s not clear whether McPherson means “around” as a synonym for “about” (an increasingly common usage I despise precisely because it creates confusion like this) or whether she means that the policies are fine but were bypassed in this case.

At any rate, fact-checking is worthless if discrepancies that are found aren’t fully investigated. Rolling Stone’s fact-checker (who isn’t named in the report because she had no control over the ultimate content of the article) appears to have done her job — and to have been ignored by Erdely, with the complicity of Woods and Dana. McPherson, the fact-checking chief, is basically saying that Woods and Dana ignored her employee’s work because of the sensitivity of working with a primary source who claimed to have been a sexual-assault victim. If in fact that was the case, well, that’s not good enough.

I don’t think, contrary to some accusations, that Erdely fabricated the story. But she deferred excessively to a source whom even minimal attempts at verification would have shown to be questionable. And Wills and Dana didn’t demand enough documentation. The question remains why. McPherson has her theory, but Wills and Dana themselves don’t say. We may never know. We can only speculate. And I imagine that the culture warriors all along the spectrum are ready, willing, and able to serve up piping-hot scenarios that might or might not bear any relationship to reality.

Beyond that, this episode has probably made life harder for women who have been sexually assaulted — it provides fodder for people of bad faith who want to argue that sexual assault isn’t a big problem or a big deal, and that false reports are common. Erdely, Woods, and Dana owe their readers an apology, but they owe these survivors an even bigger one.

As of this writing, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner is saying no one at the magazine will be disciplined, and Erdely will continue to write for the magazine, because he believes that the errors were unintentional. Not that what I think matters, but I think all three should be fired. Checking facts is Journalism 101, even for news outlets without the resources and fact-checking infrastructure of a Rolling Stone. The quantity and quality of the unforced errors that led to the publication of this unsupported story are simply too egregious to be ignored.

UPDATE: Reaction from some others in or formerly in media.

UPDATE: Columbia Journalism Review interviews the report authors.

UPDATE: Erdely’s public apology. Note that she did not apologize to Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity named in the article and an organization that suffered real, albeit not life-shattering, consequences.

UPDATE: The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple summarizes the report and lists those victimized by the Rolling Stone article.

I also recommend that you read press critic Jay Rosen’s take whenever it appears on his site, As of midnight Sunday, he hadn’t posted yet, but he has said his take is in progress. UPDATE: It’s here, and I quote from it Rosen’s discussion of an important angle that the report authors didn’t consider in any depth:

5. The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative. The key term isemblematic. The report has too little to say about that fateful decision, probably because it’s not a breach of procedure but standard procedure in magazine-style journalism. (Should it be?) This is my primary criticism of the Columbia report: it has too little to say about the “emblem of…” problem.

6. Not that it’s entirely missing. The basic facts are there:

Erdely said she was searching for a single, emblematic college rape case that would show “what it’s like to be on campus now … where not only is rape so prevalent but also that there’s this pervasive culture of sexual harassment/rape culture,” according to Erdely’s notes of the conversation.

Idea: Maybe “a single, emblematic college rape case” does not exist. Maybe the hunt for such was ill-conceived from the start. Maybe that’s the wrong way for Rolling Stone to have begun.

7. This is from Paul Farhi’s Nov. 28 account in the Washington Post:

So, for six weeks starting in June, Erdely interviewed students from across the country. She talked to people at Harvard, Yale, Princeton and her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. None of those schools felt quite right. But one did: the University of Virginia, a public school, Southern and genteel, brimming with what Erdely calls “super-smart kids” and steeped in the legacy of its founder, Thomas Jefferson.

None of those schools felt quite right. What kind of “feel” is this? It’s feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative.

8. “Mr. Dana said the article stemmed from a feeling he and other senior editors had over summer that the issue of unpunished campus rapes would make a compelling and important story,” read Ravi Somaiya’s Dec. 7 report in the New York Times. There’s the prior narrative I mentioned. It didn’t start with Sabrina Rubin Erdely. She was sent on a search for where to set it.

Rosen also makes clear just how badly Rolling Stone screwed up in its reliance on “Jackie” as a primary source:

14. Part of what made Rolling Stone editors vulnerable to the “emblem of…” problem was some seriously dated thinking about credibility, in which it’s said to be sort of like charisma. You have charisma or you don’t. You “have” credibility or you don’t. If a source is felt to be credible, the entire story can ride on that. Your colleagues are credible, so it doesn’t occur you to ask if they could all be missing something.

A dramatic high point for this kind of thinking comes during Hannah Rosin’s incredible podcast interview with Sabrina Erdely. Rosin asks near the end of it: If you were Jackie’s lawyer, how would you prove her case? (Go to 6:35 on this clip and listen.) The author’s reply: “I found her story to be very— I found her to be very credible.”

15. It’s almost like, if you have credibility you don’t need proof. That’s an absurd statement, of course, but here’s how they got there (without realizing it.) Instead of asking: what have we done in telling Jackie’s story to earn the skeptical user’s belief? you say: I’m a skeptical journalist, I found her story believable, so will the users. Voilà! Credibility. Will Dana is one of the best editors in New York. Who “has” more credibility than him? No one! He finds her story believable. Doesn’t that “give” it credibility too?

In short, journalism is supposed to be built around the discipline of verification … and the people and process that led to Rolling Stone’s story were utterly undisciplined.

UPDATE: Mediagazer links to other sources on the story, some of which duplicate items above, here.

UPDATE: Several years ago, the Center for Public Integrity published a series of articles on campus sexual assault. While the details of the cases discussed might not be as spectacular as those in Rolling Stone’s article, the reporting is far better documented.

UPDATE: I should have disclosed earlier that I once sold an article to Rolling Stone, back in 1986. I’ve had no dealings with them since.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015 7:48 pm

Odds and ends for April 1

I hate April Fool’s Day. Morons spend the day trying to prank news outlets, it’s Amateur Night for everyone you know who has a bad sense of humor, and social media becomes absolutely worthless. That said, all these items either are factually true, untrue only by accident, or my opinion.

Again, this is not an April Fool’s “joke”: The Palestinian Authority is now a member of the International Criminal Court. I think I’ll just hold my breath while Hamas militants are prosecuted for war crimes. Not.

Also not a joke: Generous welfare benefits make people more, not less, likely to want to work, a study finds.

Surprise! N.J. Gov. Chris Christie’s privatized lottery plan has failed. And Big Chicken wants to take his “ideas” national.

Some very conservative Roman Catholic priests and lay people are rebelling against Pope Francis’s modest efforts to restore Christianity to the church. The Vatican’s response? “Excommunication is automatic.” Boom!

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has been indicted on public corruption charges in Florida, where he is accused of using his office to promote the business of a big donor.

First, Rep. Tom Cotton and the Gang of 47 tried to take over foreign policy with Israel. Now, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is trying to take over foreign policy as it relates to climate change. Fortunately for the world, McConnell seems to have the reverse Midas touch: Everything he touches turns to shit.

The liberal news/analysis magazine The Nation is suing the federal government over its monitoring of the magazine’s international communications. Seems a good time to remind folks that the Patriot Act sunsets this year unless Congress extends it. Now would be a good time to tell your congresscritter to consign that law to the scrap heap of history and for us all to remember that we’re Americans, not East Germans.

Indiana is discovering that “religious freedom” means different things to different people. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination has decided to move its 2017 convention from Indianapolis to some other, less benighted venue.

Arkansas follows Indiana’s lead with a so-called “religious freedom” bill that legalizes discrimination against LGBTQ folk, despite Walmart’s — Walmart’s! — plea for it not to do so. It’s so bad that pro-Tea Partier Asa Hutchinson, who is the governor and used to be a congresscritter, said he’ll veto the bill unless some of the most extreme parts are deleted. If you’ve gone so far off the deep end that Asa Hutchinson refuses to go with you, you really need to turn around.

North Carolina’s own version of that law has begun to attract opposition not only from Democrats and liberals but also from Republicans and some businesses, and Gov. Pat McCrory has said he won’t sign it. (That’s not an outright vow to veto, however.)

Within 30 years — within my kids’ lifetimes, and possibly within mine — North Carolina’s sea level could rise almost 10 1/2 inches, with widespread and expensive ramifications. The legislature has semi-crippled state government’s ability even to talk intelligently about the problem. But, as this blog is fond of saying, you can ignore reality, but reality will not ignore you.

To the extent that North Carolina is growing, it is doing so because of its urban areas, particularly Raleigh and Wake County. So why do state Republicans hate them so?

And although Republicans in the Lege claim their top priorities are jobs, roads, and education, the evidence shows that it’s actually regulating ladyparts and the ladies who use them.



Wednesday, March 25, 2015 10:19 pm

Odds and ends for March 25

I think it’s about damned time the president of the United States reminded Israel (as well as congressional Republicans) that we have no permanent allies and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.* It’s a position with which Israel should be familiar.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich says that if Sen. Elizabeth Warren isn’t seeking the Democratic nomination for president and no one else runs on economic issues, he might have to run. That’s an interesting development. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support is a mile wide and, on average, an inch deep (see this Meredith College poll re her N.C. standing), precisely because she’s not running against the GOP’s continued reaming and killing of the working class and strip-mining of the little remaining wealth of the middle class. If Reich jumps in soon — which he would have to do to win — he’d pose a formidable challenge to Hillary and would add some desperately needed real-world substance to the 2016 debate.

N.C. Republicans continue their war on equality. Serious question, guys: Why do you hate America? And spare me your “religious freedom” crap, please.

North Carolina’s private-school voucher program has met with, to be charitable, deeply mixed success. So what do the Republicans want to do? Quadruple it, duh.

And they want to privatize the state ferry system, an essential public service for Outer Banks residents. Look at the backers’ financial support and see what you find.

I usually try to end these posts with something lighthearted or at least satirical, but today I’ve got nothin’. Have a good evening.

*Attributed to Henry John Temple Viscount Lord Palmerston

Friday, March 20, 2015 5:17 pm

“What’s the recourse if you make a mistake?” redux; or, shouting Cameron Todd Willingham’s name from the rooftops

More than five years ago, I wrote about the Texas murder case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was facing the death penalty (and later was executed) for the arson murder of his three daughters. Now, misconduct charges have been filed against the prosecutor in the case.

A disciplinary petition in Navarro County, Texas, accuses then-prosecutor John Jackson of obstruction of justice, making false statements, and concealing evidence favorable to Willingham’s defense:

“Before, during, and after the 1992 trial, [Jackson] knew of the existence of evidence that tended to negate the guilt of Willingham and failed to disclose that evidence to defense counsel,” the [State Bar of Texas] investigators charged. …

The bar action was filed March 5 without any public announcement. It accuses Jackson of having intervened repeatedly to help a jailhouse informant, Johnny E. Webb, in return for his testimony that Willingham confessed the murders to him while they were both jailed in Corsicana, the Navarro County seat.

Webb has since recanted that testimony. In a series of recent interviews, he told the Marshall Project that Jackson coerced him to lie, threatening a long prison term for a robbery to which Webb ultimately pleaded guilty, but promising to reduce his sentence if he testified against Willingham.

The ironic thing is that Jackson told the New Yorker while Willingham was still alive that he personally opposes the death penalty. “What’s the recourse if you make a mistake?” he rhetorically asked an interviewer. Perhaps he’s about to find out, although he’s seeking a jury trial on his misconduct charges and I agree with him that it’s quite possible no Texas jury will vote to convict a prosecutor.

But even if he is convicted on all charges, what’s the worst that happens? He loses his law license. He gets fined. He quite possibly doesn’t spend a single day in jail. Frankly, next to executing an innocent man, that seems like pretty small beer.

So if we’re going to continue to have a death penalty — and I remain devoted to it in principle — then there needs to be a serious, serious penalty for prosecutorial misconduct in criminal cases. As I wrote in 2009:

The practical part of me thinks that it would be much the easiest choice simply to end capital punishment, making the maximum sentence life without parole. It would save dramatically on legal expenses for both states and defendants, it would cut the appeal time, it would bring cases to closure more quickly (which would be easier on victims’ families) and it would erase the possibility of the state’s making the one mistake it cannot unmake.

And yet philosophically I still believe there is value, in the cases of the most heinous murder cases, in an eye for an eye. I believe that on an emotional level that, after almost 50 years on this planet, I doubt fact and logic will ever change. But I also feel obliged to suggest a possible solution to the conundrum.

So here’s what I’ve come up with:

If it ever can be shown that the state has wrongfully executed an innocent person even though a fair exculpatory case existed before the execution, then we also should put to death the prosecutor and judge in the case. If a parole board ever commits the kind of dereliction of duty displayed in Willingham’s case with the result that an innocent person is executed, the board members who voted for execution should be put to death. If a governor can be shown to have denied clemency to an innocent prisoner even in the face of exculpatory evidence, as Texas Gov. Rick Perry appears to have done, the governor should be put to death.

Then and only then, my friends, will we know that the accused is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

It was true five years ago. It is true today. And I pray for John Jackson’s soul as I pray for the late Cameron Todd Willingham’s.



Thursday, February 12, 2015 7:09 pm

Odds and ends for Feb. 12

The proportion of Republicans who believe in evolution has decreased from 54% in 2009 to 43% in 2014. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate in 2016, “punted” on Wednesday when asked whether he believes in it. So much for evidence-based government. And Happy Darwin Day.

Jeb Bush, another likely 2016 presidential candidate, “didn’t have time to redact other people’s social security numbers but he did have time to redact his own dirty hands.

A thoughtful, nuanced article about what can happen when two people have sex who are both so drunk they can’t remember the next day what happened. Spoiler: nothing good.

And when an Iowa woman had to go into the hospital for cancer surgery, her miniature Schnauzer tracked her down, all the way to the hospital. *sniff* Dusty in here.

Saturday, January 31, 2015 9:10 am

“Massacre” vs. “shootout”; Mike Barber drags the discussion backward

The good news, I guess you can say, is that here in Greensboro we’re no longer arguing over whether we’ll have a state historical marker commemorating the killings of five Communist Workers Party members by Klansmen and Nazis in 1979. Instead, we’re arguing over whether the sign will say “massacre,” as the state advisory committee (trained historians) recommended, or something with fewer emotional overtones, like “killings” or “shootings.”

Any of those options is fine with me as long as the city takes this opportunity to come face to face with something it would rather forget. Nov. 3, 1979, was, pretty inarguably, the worst single day in Greensboro’s history. We’ve practically had to be forced at gunpoint to reckon with what happened that day and afterward, and how it happened, and why. But now, at least, the ground has shifted from “whether” to “how.” It’s not as much progress as I’d like, but it is progress.

Today’s story reminded me, though, of something from a story last week on this same issue, and an argument that cries out for a response. City Council member Mike Barber said:

“The bigger issue for me is that in a city of almost 300,000 people, we continue to have just a handful of people who live their lives looking in the rearview mirror. Other midsize cities are concentrating on the positive, marketing the positive, attracting jobs and businesses. We continue to discuss what happened when gas was 28 cents per gallon. That’s what holds Greensboro back — a small group of people who make an industry of racism and unhappiness, marketing all that’s unpleasant and negative no matter how long ago these things occurred.”

My initial response? Two syllables of basic Anglo-Saxon.

Who in the pluperfect hell is Mike Barber (whom, by the way, I’ve known since our daughters were in day care together) to decide that trauma suffered by other people is unworthy of thought, reflection, or mention? Who in the pluperfect hell is he to tell those who suffered that trauma to get over it? If his daughter had been killed in the shootout — or had died prematurely in any other way — would he be OK with me or anyone else telling him to get over it? Somehow I doubt it.

We’re supposed to believe that Greensboro is being held back, or even could be held back, by such a small group of people? Please. It’s OK for places from Andersonville to Auschwitz to “market all that’s unplesasant and negative no matter how long ago these things occurred,” but it’s not OK for Greensboro? Please. (And, boy, “market” is a revealing word, isn’t it?)

But, much worse, ridiculing and diminishing the tragedies in the lives of others displays, at the very least, a stunning lack of human sympathy. Doing so for political gain, as here, demonstrates nontrivial amounts of sociopathy. And because this kind of lack of sympathy and lack of empathy is at the heart of so many of the issues that divide us as Americans, it’s also bad for the country. White people tell victims of racism to get over it. Men tell women who have been raped, and/or whose rights are under assault in areas ranging from reproductive health to equal pay, to get over it. The wealthy tell Americans whose wealth has been stripmined where it hasn’t been swindled to get over it. People looking to capitalize on the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the Army Corps of Engineers tell longtime New Orleans residents who lost their homes to get over it. And on and on. It goes against everything that we have told ourselves about what the United States stands for — not least, that we’re all in this together. Yet that is where Barber has chosen to place himself.

Mike Barber could argue against the marker on historical grounds. (He says he’ll go with whatever a majority of the council decides.) He could argue against the word “massacre” on the marker on rhetorical grounds. I might or might not agree with him, but these are subjects over which reasonable people of good will can disagree even if many of the arguments we’ve seen so far have been disingenuous. But Barber’s comments, uttered from a place of race, gender, and class privilege and obviously aimed at strengthening that place politically, put him squarely in the middle of a stream of American political thought whose source lies somewhere between Bob Haldeman and Nathan Bedford Forrest. If anything is truly holding Greensboro back, it’s that kind of attitude. It’s despicable. It’s evil. And I just thought someone should say so.

Thursday, January 29, 2015 7:42 pm

Open letter to John Hammer at the Rhino Times

John, if you’re going to accuse Susan Ladd of being factually inaccurate, it behooves you to point out where she was, you know, factually inaccurate.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015 7:17 pm

Boy Scouts, you keep using that phrase, “morally straight.” It doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Most days, all I ask of the world is that I not be forced to respond to outright asshattery before I’ve finished my first cup of coffee. Today, my modest request outstripped the capabilites of the Boy Scouts of America.

I received the weekly e-newsletter from my son’s Boy Scout troop, No. 101 here in Greensboro. And the very first item in it was an editorial titled, “California Supreme Court on the Offensive against the BSA.” It read:

Can we agree to disagree? Not in California, where self-appointed arbiters of public morality have chosen to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ignoring the legacy of a century of service to the country, the California Supreme Court unanimously chose to join the ranks of those who have chosen to vilify the Boy Scouts. In this, they join the current federal administratation, which has effectively barred Boy Scouts from using military bases for camping and travel, using the same argument that the BSA is “discriminatory.” In the corporate world, Disney has not given the Boy Scouts funding for many years. The company does, however, allow employees to do volunteer work in exchange for cash donations to the charities of their choice. That is, unless their charity of choice is the Boy Scouts. I, for one, do not have to agree with every administrative edict or policy statement issuued by BSA National. The core purpose of the BSA remains the same – building young men of character who will be responsible to their families and communities. The program as it stands today seeks to carry this out in a fair and good-hearted manner. It has been an integral part of the fabric of American life for years. Can it continue to be so in the face of mounting opposition?

This editorial, which seems to be purely local in origin, appeared to be a response to the California justices’ recent, unanimous vote to bar California state judges from belonging to all organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. That rule had been in effect since 1996, but with an exception for nonprofit youth groups. In February 2014 the state bar’s ethics advisory committee recommended scrapping the exception on the grounds that there was no good reason for it, and the high court unanimously agreed.

There was a link from the newsletter to, presumably, more of the editorial on the troop’s website. When I clicked the link, it appeared, however, that the page had been taken down. (And quickly; it looks as if no cached version is available.) I presume this means that cooler, by which I mean “less oxygen-deprived,” heads prevailed.

The first thing I did was email one of the troop’s longtime leaders (a friend of mine for 35 years) to express my concerns. But I also decided pretty much immediately that I wasn’t going to let this drop.

When you wade through the flawed logic, Orwellian diction and legal ignorance of the paragraph above, what you get to is this: The author doesn’t like gay people and, for whatever reason, thinks the Boy Scouts ought to be able to discriminate against non-hetero adults in its leadership ranks even though there’s no sound legal, scientific, or sociological reason for such a ban.

And this is just one small example of a much larger problem with American conservatives: They think that when the rights of others are protected, their own rights are threatened. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: Anyone who doubts the existence of eternity need only ponder the conservative capacity for playing the victim. You see it in this editorial:

  • The California Supreme Court is “on the offensive” against the BSA. Actually, it is holding itself and the state’s other judges to a clear standard of fairness that is consistent with the law and the Constitution. It is not interfering with the Boy Scouts or the organization’s mission in any way that any sentient human being would notice.
  • Duly elected California Supreme Court justices are “self-appointed arbiters of public morality” (no, that’d be YOU, jackass).
  • The justices have “thrown the baby out with the bathwater.” In fact they have protected the rights of adults not to be discriminated against by a non-church tax-exempt organization without materially affecting, let alone damaging, the organization’s mission or its ability to carry out that mission.
  • The justices have “ignored the legacy of a century of service to the country.” In fact, the justices are protecting the rights of all Americans to take part in, and add to, that legacy of service.
  • Upholding the rights of all equates to “vilifying the Boy Scouts.” (No, that’d be what I’m doing right here, and for damned good reason.)
  • The Boy Scouts seek to carry out their mission in a “fair” manner. In fact, the author is defending the right of the organization to behave UNfairly.
  • The Boy Scouts cannot carry out their mission “in the face of mounting opposition” — which isn’t opposition at all, but rather a demand that the organization comport with the laws and principles of the country it claims to love and support.

Jesus H. Christ on a turbocharged sidecar, I do SO wish stupid were painful.

I’m no one’s idea of Father of the Year, but I’ve tried very hard to raise my kids not to discriminate against people on the basis of inherent characteristics. I believe enough in fairness that I put my life on the line for it early in my journalism career. And God bless ’em, my kids have responded very well. Indeed, unknown author, let me give you a clue about today’s Boy Scouts, and today’s kids in general.

They know that people differ in their sexual orientations, and you know what? It’s only a big deal to them to the extent that their parents make it a big deal. In other words, in complying with both the law of the land (as enunciated in the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment) and its spirit, not only are the kids all right, they’re a damn sight better than you. They are the leaders. And you need to get in line.

Scouts take an oath to keep themselves “physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” You missed on two out of three, dude: Not only do you make nonfactual, illogical arguments, you also are trying to call yourself morally straight while discriminating. That’s ridiculous.

And what’s the Boy Scout motto? “Be prepared.” Your lack of preparedness for changing times is showing.

And so’s your ass.

Sunday, January 25, 2015 11:03 am

Odds and ends for Jan. 25

I’ve had trouble finding time to blog at length about anything lately. (Working two jobs will do that to you.) So instead I’m going to return to the birdshot approach I’ve used under similar circumstances in the past. Blogging experts will tell you this is not how to maximize your audience, but blogging experts usually have only one job.

The News & Record’s Janice Carmac, a part-time employee to whom the paper wisely grants column space to from time to time, has a well-grounded, understated column today on the literally life-and-death importance of health insurance in general and the Affordable Care Act in particular, based on her family’s experience. Naturally, the paper didn’t put it online. UPDATE: It’s now online here.

Also in the N&R and of particular interest to Greensboro folks, columnist Susan Ladd righteously dopeslaps both Earl Jones and Mike Barber for their egregiously ill-intentioned dialogue over the International Civil Rights Museum and the larger issue of race in Greensboro. This is one of the few times where “both sides do it” really is accurate and contextual criticism.

My Davidson Wildcats beat George Mason on the road in OT last night to go 5-2 in the Atlantic 10 and win their second straight game (the first was against No. 22 Dayton) without their starting point guard. Someone remind me again how the ‘Cats were supposed to finish in the conference cellar this year.

If I were in charge of the Republican Party’s presidential-election efforts, I think I’d be doing everything short of human sacrifice to make sure that the first good look the nation got at my candidate pool wasn’t watching the richest of them suck up to two sociopathic billionaires right out of a James Bond film followed by watching the lot of them pile out of a clown car to genuflect in front of Iowa’s batshit insane religious-right GOP base.

Even as a final Supreme Court decision likely affirming the constitutionality of same-sex marriage approaches, some politicians — primarily Southern Republicans — continue to fight, pardon the expression, rear-guard actions against fairness and equality, as by threatening the state salaries of public officials who facilitate such marriages. The heathen rage for they know the end is near. And although I know that anecdotes are not equal to data, I must say that my own, different-sex marriage appears to have been remarkably unaffected by the advent of same-sex marriage here in North Carolina.

My Braves appears to have written off 2016, perhaps in hopes of fielding a strong team in 2017 when they move to a suburban stadium. No link; this is  just my (very disappointed) impression.

Politics 1, science and the future of humanity, 0: The U.S. Senate pretended not to be insane by voting 98-1 for a resolution stating the climate changes is real, then spoiled the effect by failing to approve (60 votes were necessary) a resolution saying that it is largely driven by human activity.

“Why do people in positions of power ask so many stupid questions?”

We’ve finally got teleporters. But still no jet packs. Grrr.

That’s all I’ve got. Time to work. A good week to all.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015 7:34 pm

In which I invite Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter to sue me

I don’t want to say that Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter is dumb. But, to paraphrase the late Molly Ivins, I think he has reached the point at which we must start watering him twice a week.

See, Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter is zealously protective of his public image and reputation — so much so that, in the Land of Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter, it is illegal to publish Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter’s name without Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter’s permission.

Unfortunately for Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter, the Land of Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter has collided with the real world. And, well, as this blog’s motto says, you can ignore reality, but reality won’t ignore you.

Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter objected to the use of his name by a local reporter in a newspaper article and said on Facebook that he can sue anyone who uses his name without authorization.

And what is happening now is a perfect example of the “Streisand effect” (Google it). I’m using Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter’s name without authorization. And I dearly hope that Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter sues me. Because if he does, Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter will get a swift and expensive education in the First Amendment and end up looking even more stupid besides. Win-win.

And, because of the Streisand effect, I’m not the only one who finds this behavior egregious even by the standards of nutbag politicians. The “offending” newspaper has publicly ridiculed Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter (note the first letter of each paragraph in the editorial), #KirbyDelauter is trending on Twitter, and there’s a parody Kirby Delauter Twitter account. (Which raises the question: Did Kirby Delauter get Kirby Delauther’s permission to use the name Kirby Delauter on the parody Kirby Delauter Twitter account?)

Bad things that politicians do can move us to sadness or fury. But you’ve go to be really out there to move people to ridicule. Frederick County (Md.) Council Member Kirby Delauter has gotten out there. He needs to either eat some humble pie or get further on out there — as in out of public life.


Monday, November 17, 2014 8:38 am

UNC System tuition: “A failure of liberal thought” … and much more than that

Mike Konczal at the Roosevelt Institute writes:

“There was a quiet revolution in the University of North Carolina higher education system in August, one that shows an important limit of current liberal thought. … The UNC System Board of Governors voted unanimously to cap the amount of tuition that may be used for financial aid for need-based students at no more than 15 percent. With tuition going up rapidly at public universities as the result of public disinvestment, administrators have recently begun using general tuition to supplement their ability to provide aid. This cross-subsidization has been heralded as a solution to the problem of high college costs. Sticker price is high, but the net price for poorer students will be low.

“This system works as long as there is sufficient middle-class buy-in, but it’s now capped at UNC. As a board member told the local press, the burden of providing need-based aid “has become unfairly apportioned to working North Carolinians,” and this new policy helps prevent that. …

“The problem for liberals isn’t just that there’s no way for them to win this argument with middle-class wages stagnating, though that is a problem. The far bigger issue for liberals is that this is a false choice, a real class antagonism that has been created entirely by the process of state disinvestment, privatization, cost-shifting of tuitions away from general revenues to individual, and the subsequent explosion in student debt. As long as liberals continue to play this game, they’ll be undermining their chances.”

I get that it’s Konczal’s job to write about the strengths and limits of liberal thought, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if we focus only on the thought, we overlook the real-world consequences, which are: In a state in which the constitution requires UNC System tuition to be as nearly free as is practicable, we’re making it harder and harder for the state’s citizens to get a university education just so that we can keep the tax burden on the wealthy low.

That’s both immoral and, from a purely practical standpoint, very shortsighted. For 220 years, UNC has been the greatest economic driver North Carolina has. The education the system has provided has immeasurably enriched every sector of the state’s economy — agriculture, industry, medicine, tourism, you name it. The shortest way out of the problem of stagnating wages that Konczal describes is to invest in human capital. When we make it harder for the state’s citizens to get a university education, we are, economically speaking, cutting our own throats. That’s not just wrong, it’s asinine.

Unfortunately for the state, however, the GOP controls state government and the UNC System board, meaning that asininity, shortsightedness and greed are just the currency of the culture.

Thursday, October 23, 2014 8:45 pm

Someone needs to cut the legs from under Lieutenant Dan

As if we have not been subjected to far too much of Teh_Stoopid already with regard to same-sex marriage in North Carolina, now comes Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest to try to make political hay off the issue:

If you’ve been paying attention to the media, you’ve been told numerous times from opponents of North Carolina’s Marriage Amendment that the fight is over, and that they have won. That is not the case. The following is a realistic scenario that could lead to a constitutional showdown between the state and federal systems as to which court, outside the Supreme Court of the United States, has the legal authority to rule on North Carolina’s marriage amendment.

Last week, the Administrative Office of the Courts directed magistrates that they could not refuse to perform a same-sex marriage, no matter what the reason, including their personal moral and religious objections. This directive informed them that failure to comply could result in removal from office and criminal penalties. In response, our state needs but one magistrate to legally challenge the edict sent down from the Administrative Office of the Courts on two grounds.

The first ground is that the memorandum directs him to violate his religious conscience, thereby violating his right to religious freedom preserved by the North Carolina and United States Constitutions. In particular, the North Carolina Constitution provides that “all persons have a natural and inalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and no human authority shall, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

The second ground is to assert that the memo directs him to contravene the North Carolina Constitution by performing a ceremony that is not recognized by law, and is in fact, prohibited by the marriage amendment. You may wonder how that is possible after Judge Cogburn’s ruling purporting to strike down our amendment. That is one of the beauties of federalism. As succinctly stated by North Carolina’s Supreme Court in the case of State v. McDowell: “A state court should exercise and apply its own independent judgment, treating, of course, decisions of the United States Supreme Court as binding and according to decisions of lower federal courts such persuasiveness as these decisions might reasonably command.” North Carolina case law is clear. Decisions of the Fourth Circuit and federal district courts, while persuasive, are not binding on state courts.

Should this case reach the Supreme Court of North Carolina, a vote by our honorable justices exercising their own independent judgment to uphold the amendment overwhelmingly approved by the people would set up the very real possibility that the United States Supreme Court would hear arguments, having a split on the issue between a state court and the Fourth Circuit.

The constitutional showdown is a very real possibility. Supporters of marriage should not lose heart. The voice of the people will be heard.

So much legal FAIL here.

Just for starters, the mere fact that the wording of Amendment One, which banned same-sex marriage in this state, nominally remains a part of the N.C. Constitution does not mean that the prohibition has any legal force. Sodomy remains a felony under North Carolina law, even when it involves married heterosexual couples, but the Supreme Court’s ruling in Lawrence v. Texas rendered that statute unenforceable. The high court’s refusal to hear appeals of federal appeals courts’ strikedowns of same-sex marriage bans has the same effect on Amendment One, and no amount of clapping by Dan Forest changes that legal fact.

It’s entirely possible that Forest is ignorant of that fact, but the likelier scenario is that he’s playing to the mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging GOP base — to primary McCrory from the right if McCrory goes squishy on the Koch/Pope agenda between now and 2016, or to run in 2020 when McCrory is term-limited out (assuming McCrory wins re-election, which is by no means a lock at this point). The fact that this approach is about as cynical and disingenuous as a politician can get anymore without bringing up voter fraud is just icing on the cake for Forest.

Unsurprisingly, his blog isn’t accepting comments on that post. The good news, my Greensboro friends, is that we have an opportunity to speak directly to Dan Forest on this issue.

He’ll be holding a town hall at 6 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Oak Branch Conference and Events Center, 23 Oak Branch Drive (map). The purpose of the event is to drum up support for a Constitutional Convention — a gathering of the states for the purpose of wholesale rewriting of the U.S. Constitution. That way lies madness — no limit need be placed on any such convention’s agenda, so who knows what insanity might get put up to an instant vote without care or consideration — but it also is highly unlikely that anyone can rally enough votes to make such a convention happen anytime soon. Instead, this town hall offers the sane among the populace the opportunity to get up in Forest’s face, live and in concert, and ask him:

Just how goddamn stupid do you think we are?


Thursday, October 9, 2014 8:31 pm

No, both sides DON’T do it, Part the Infinity

Every time I or anyone else correctly points out the disproportionate influence of conservative spending on the American electoral process at both the federal and state levels, someone — either a liar or a useful idiot — usually pipes up with, “But the liberals do it, too!” In point of fact, a quick visit to will show you that while both sides might do it, one side does it far more than the other, and that just happens to be the same side that also has been working for more private money and less transparency with respect to money in the political system. That money, in turn, leads to necrosis of our one-person, one-vote system.

In particular, every time I or anyone else points out the disproportionate influence of the Koch Bros.’ spending on the system, someone — either a liar or a useful idiot — usually pipes up with, “But … but … SOROS!” And, yes, billionaire George Soros does contribute a fair bit of money to liberal candidates and causes.

But nowhere near as much as do the Kochs. From an objective, mathematical standpoint, the comparison is just silly.

So, all you both-siders: You now know that you’re wrong. If you’re going to continue to insist on being a both-sider, I’d like to know: Which are you, liar or useful idiot?

Monday, September 29, 2014 8:19 pm

Why English majors are the hot new hires. (And, no, that not an Onion headline.)

Hey, take it from the American Express website.

I never had a lot of patience with people who asked me why I was majoring in English.

For one thing, I enjoyed it. Duh.

But for another, the skills you develop as an English major are the skills American business always says it needs more of: critical thinking, analytical ability, and the ability to communicate clearly. That was true 32 years ago and it remains true today. Those skills will prepare you for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I know that’s true because they did for me.

In fact, American business’s global competitors are finding they need the same skills, and that their job-focused college educations aren’t providing the people they need who have those skills. So they’re retooling their higher education along the U.S.’s traditional liberal-arts model.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t major in STEM if that’s what sings to you and/or you’re really serious about getting a particular job in that field straight out of school.

But it does mean that an English degree has a world of applications in a broad variety of business contexts. So does practically any liberal-arts degree, because they all teach the same skills, just in different contexts. And that, Pat McCrory, is why English majors (and Art History majors and Women’s Studies majors and on and on) are the hot new hires.

Saturday, August 16, 2014 11:24 pm

Reality check, Ferguson, MO, edition

David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” points out just a few elements of the bullshit that has been thrown our way since Michael Brown was gunned down in the middle of a street in Ferguson, Mo.:

The notion that police officers are entitled to anonymity after such an action [taking a human life — Lex] is not merely anti-democratic; it is, in fact, totalitarian.  The idea that a police department, with all of its resources and sworn personnel, might claim to be unable to protect an officer from retribution, and therefore employ such anonymity to further protect the officer from his citizenry is even more astonishing.  And any police agency showing such institutional cowardice which might then argue its public should continue to come forward and cooperate with officers in police investigations and to trust in the outcome is engaged in little more than rank hypocrisy.  After all, if an armed and sworn officer — backed by all the sworn personnel of his agency, by the power of its prosecutorial allies, the law and the courts — is afraid, then why should any witness or party to any crime, unarmed and unallied as they are, be asked to come forward and participate publicly in the process?

Earlier tonight, I had an exchange on Facebook with someone claiming to be a police officer about the Ferguson case. I was polite until the point at which he suggested I do a ride-along sometime — as if I hadn’t done hundreds of hours worth in 25 years of journalism, as if I hadn’t, as he suggested, seen what they saw and smelled what they smelled.

He also argued, among other things, that the victim had been caught on videotape stealing cigars from a store (it has not been confirmed that the victim was in fact in the video), that the cop who shot him knew this (we now know the cop had no idea), that the victim was stopped for possessing the purportedly stolen cigars (again, way too many assumptions about facts that remain in question) and that the victim therefore probably thought he was going to be arrested for stealing some cigars (we have no idea what the victim thought) and thus behaved in a way that forced the officer to kill him (according to all available evidence thus far, utter horseshit).

So I called the guy out on all the assumptions he had made without any evidence. I said any “cop” who would handle a case as he was handling this one didn’t deserve the honor of wearing the badge bestowed by us taxpayers. And, because his writing suggesting that he was a lot younger than I am, I addressed him as “son.”

This gave him a case of the ass, apparently; according to Facebook, he deleted the thread. Whether he did or not, he certainly DM’ed me with a brief message: “Fuck you.”

Well, right back at you, “officer.” You made inaccurate assumptions about me, you behaved condescendingly and patronizingly, you spouted a bunch of crap about the Ferguson case that either was questionable or was flatly untrue, and then, when called on it, you accused those holding you accountable of being “rude.” Was I rude? I called you “son” because it’s statistically likely that if you’re still a working cop, you’re younger than I am, because your writing style suggested you are a LOT younger than I am, and because — I admit it — I knew it would piss you off. But you know what? As a sworn law enforcement officer, you’ve got to weigh some things sometimes, including damage to your ego vs. oh, I don’t know, BLOWING AWAY AN UNARMED MAN IN THE MIDDLE OF A STREET FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON.

And that’s before we even get into the race issue, which is deeply rooted in Ferguson, Mo.

I am not an expert at law enforcement, though I know a little more than the average civilian. But one thing I am kind of an expert on is how people respond to authority, particularly when it is abused. And that is what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

All you gun owners out there: What was the first rule your daddy taught you about guns? Don’t point your gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot. So if I’m a resident of Ferguson, Mo., and the police department my tax dollars support rolls up to me in an armored vehicle when I’m not doing anything and levels a machine gun at me, you tell me what in the pluperfect hell I’m supposed to think. You tell me whom in the pluperfect hell I’m supposed to trust.

Go on. I’ll wait.

Forget the racial angle, though I have no doubt it’s relevant in Ferguson, where the victim and two-thirds of the population are black and the police department is overwhelmingly white. Forget the political angle, too: I’m a white, middle-aged, male Republican. But if the cops in my city shot an unarmed 18-year-old white man down in the middle of my street, refused to answer questions about it, and then rolled an APC into my ‘hood and pointed a machine gun at me when I tried to get answers, I’d be pissed, too. I’d be wanting answers, too. And I’d be expecting somebody to be held accountable, too.

Understand, please, that anyone who actually rioted, committed vandalism, looted, or what-have-you in Ferguson should be prosecuted and jailed. But understand also that not everyone who is in the streets of Ferguson tonight has done that — indeed, most of them have not and some of them have tried to stop those who have.

But the bottom line is just as Spider-Man said: With great power comes great responsibility. Cops have the power of life and death. They have the responsibility to operate legally, competently, and transparently, and to have their transgressions treated transparently. Police in Ferguson, Mo., have been behaving as if this reality does not apply to them, and they’re taking shit for that from people nationwide (as well they should). And telling anyone who reminds you of this fact, “Fuck you,” is not going to change the situation. Indeed, it might only make it worse.

Economist: You can’t vote for a sane conservative because there aren’t any; or, Caution: Contents may have disappeared during shipping..

Berkeley economist J. Bradford DeLong:


You can see this most clearly if you take a close look at Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke does not believe that Tradition is to be Respected. He believes that good traditions are to be respected. When Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France makes the argument that Britons should respect the organic political tradition of English liberty that has been inherited from the past, he whispers under his breath that the only reason we should respect the Wisdom of the Ancestors is that in this particular case Burke thinks that the Ancestors–not his personal ancestors, note–were wise.

Whenever Burke thought that the inherited political traditions were not wise, the fact that they were the inherited Wisdom of the Ancestors cut no ice with him at all. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that they would conquer, torture, and rob wogs whenever and wherever they were strong enough to do so. That tradition cut no ice with Edmund Burke when he was trying to prosecute Warren Hastings. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that all power flowed to Westminster. That tradition cut no ice with Burke when he was arguing for conciliation with and a devolution of power to the American colonists. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that Ireland was to be plundered and looted for the benefit of upwardly-mobile English peers-to-be. That tradition, too, cut no ice with Burke.

Even in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke doesn’t argue that Frenchmen should build on their own political traditions–the traditions of Richelieu and Louis XIV, that is. He argues–well, let’s roll the videotape:

Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: We [in Britain] procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age; and on account of those from whom they are descended…. You [in France] might, if you pleased, have profited of our example, and have given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. Your privileges, though discontinued, were not lost to memory. Your constitution… suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations. … In your old [E]states [General] you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe…. Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views…. [B]y pressing down the whole by the weight of a real monarchy, the separate parts would have been prevented from warping and starting from their allotted places.

You had all these advantages in your antient [E]states [General]…. If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom…. Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. You would not have chosen to consider the French as… a nation of low-born servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789…. [Y]ou would not have been content to be represented as a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage….

Would it not… have been wiser to have you thought… a generous and gallant nation, long misled… by… fidelity, honour, and loyalty… that you were not enslaved through any illiberal or servile disposition… [but] by a principle of public spirit, and that it was your country you worshipped, in the person of your king? Had you made it to be understood… that you were resolved to resume your ancient [liberties,] privileges[, and immunities]… you would have given new examples of wisdom to the world. You would have rendered the cause of liberty venerable in the eyes of every worthy mind in every nation. You would have shamed despotism from the earth…

Burke’s argument is not that France in 1789 should have followed its ancestral traditions. Burke’s argument is, instead, that France in 1789 should have dug into its past until it found a moment when institutions were better than in 1788, and drawn upon that usable past in order to buttress the present revolutionary moment. This isn’t an intellectual argument about how to decide what institutions are good. It is a practical-political argument about how to create good institutions and then buttress and secure them by making them facts on the ground.

So Edmund Burke, among the most revered conservative thinkers in Western thought, would have no truck with stupidity, insanity, or even counterproductivity. Point me to a single conservative political leader in the United States today about whom we can say the same. Go on. I’ll wait.

By the way, DeLong reposted this on Friday. He originally posted it in 2008. Plus la change …

Tuesday, August 12, 2014 7:08 pm

The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves matter. So does how we tell them.

America had been involved in World War II for almost two years before the government began releasing photos of American war dead to the public. Some of the first came from Tarawa atoll, where, in November 1943, a thousand Marines died in four days as their comrades killed almost 5,000 Japanese defenders. Those images were deeply disturbing to the American public — so much so that a documentary on the battle, With the Marines at Tarawa, wasn’t released until the following year, and then only after President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself signed off. (It’s a short documentary, 20 minutes, with no actors, covering the 4-day battle and its lead-up. You can watch the whole thing online at NPR’s website.)

By Vietnam, Americans had become accustomed to seeing bloody images of friend and foe, from wounded GIs being evacuated on tanks to Pulitzer Prize-winning photos of Vietnamese children burned by napalm and Vietcong being summarily executed.

But in 1991, a photographer named Kenneth Jarecke took a photograph of a dead Iraqi soldier who apparently had burned to death trying to escape his burning vehicle. The war, remember, was not an invasion of Iraq (although U.S. forces did cross the border), but an incursion intended to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait, which they had occupied the previous summer. In point of fact, there was only one way out of Kuwait for the Iraqi military there — a road later nicknamed “the Highway of Death” — and by some estimates 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died trying run the gantlet of U.S. and allied artillery, armor and air power to get back home, a story captured some time afterward in an article in The New Republic titled “Highway to Hell.” (Doesn’t seem to be online.)

Just before the cease-fire that ended combat in Operation Desert Storm, Jarecke stood on the Highway of Death and took his photo. He thought it would be a proper counter to the prevailing narrative, fostered by images from radio-controlled bombs and night-vision goggles, of Desert Storm as a “video-game” war. But the Associated Press and Time and Life magazines refused to run the photo; the AP’s decision essentially no U.S. newspaper would ever even have the chance to decide for itself. Only London’s Observer newspaper published it.

Should the AP and Time and Life have run the photo? Of course. American citizens have a right — and, I would argue, a moral obligation and a civic duty — to know what is done in their names, with their tax dollars, by their sons and daughters. The journalists’ call was the wrong one. The managing editor of Life then said that because Life had a fairly significant number of children in its readership, a photo that was “the stuff of nightmares” was inappropriate.

At this point, I’ll let Athenae speak (mostly) for me:

A family magazine. Yet that “family” magazine had no problem humping the next Iraq war, as if that’s not offensive to anybody’s family. As if what’s suitable for a family is to wage war without ever knowing the costs.

But how am I going to explain it to my children, the gentle reader asks. Well, let me throw this back at you: If you think it’s hard to explain a photo of a dead guy to your kids, imagine that guy’s kids. Imagine the explanation they must have needed. And then quit feeling so [expletive] sorry for yourself because it’s so hard for you to make sense of the world.

Moreover? It is not the journalist’s job to protect people from [expletive] thinking. It is not the journalist’s job to shield you from the consequences of your political actions. It is not the journalist’s job to decide, in advance, how upset you’re going to get about anything around you, and manage that upset carefully so as to ensure the circulation department receives no anguished calls.

It is the journalist’s job, as it always has been, to tell a story. If the journalist is brave that story’s about something you might not want to know about, like the human toll taken by even the shortest or “easiest” of wars. If the journalist is cowardly, or lazy, or stupid, or jus’ don’ wanna today, that story’s about how we can fight a war without really giving a [expletive] about it.

Surprisingly, we end up telling that story over and over and over again.

Things have gotten better in some ways. I would be remiss if I did not point out such examples as Carol Rosenberg, the McClatchy reporter who has pursued the truth about Guantanamo and its inmates like Hell’s own hound dog. And I don’t know that such photos wouldn’t be published today, if only because they’d be clickbait.

But the larger issue here, the issue of the news media shielding Americans from the consequences of their own decisions, remains alive and virulent, from war to job-killing trade agreements to Internet-killing FCC regulation to deadly refusal to expand Medicaid to global warming. That’s wrong. In fact, it’s evil. And it’ll stop only when enough people raise enough hell with enough news outlets that it’s forced to stop. To paraphrase Fredrick Douglass, evil doesn’t stop when you say “please.” It never has and it never will.

UPDATE, 8/14/2014: I’m elevating from the comments a link provided by my friend Nick Graham to an Iraq War poem, “A Cold Coming,” written by Tony Harrison and originally published in the Guardian newspaper alongside the photo. I had not read it before. Damn if it doesn’t rank up with anything by Sassoon or Owen or Jarrell.


Monday, August 11, 2014 9:21 pm

Noted almost without comment, voter-impersonation fraud edition

A comprehensive investigation of voter impersonation finds 31 credible incidents out of one billion ballots cast.

I was right. Again.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hayek

I read Friedrich A. von Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” several years ago, and although it wasn’t a total waste, I couldn’t understand how a guy whose thinking was so obviously messed up in some ways could be held in such high regard. It turns out that I was missing a whole bunch of backstory (an entire book’s worth, at least), as Robert Solow explained two whole years ago (h/t Brad DeLong for unearthing this), while I was in grad school and not reading much of anything not school-related:

The source of confusion here is that there was a Good Hayek and a Bad Hayek. The Good Hayek was a serious scholar who was particularly interested in the role of knowledge in the economy (and in the rest of society). Since knowledge—about technological possibilities, about citizens’ preferences, about the interconnections of these, about still more—is inevitably and thoroughly decentralized, the centralization of decisions is bound to generate errors and then fail to correct them. The consequences for society can be calamitous, as the history of central planning confirms. That is where markets come in. All economists know that a system of competitive markets is a remarkably efficient way to aggregate all that knowledge while preserving decentralization.

But the Good Hayek also knew that unrestricted laissez-faire is unworkable. It has serious defects: successful actors reach for monopoly power, and some of them succeed in grasping it; better-informed actors can exploit the relatively ignorant, creating an inefficiency in the process; the resulting distribution of income may be grossly unequal and widely perceived as intolerably unfair; industrial market economies have been vulnerable to excessively long episodes of unemployment and underutilized capacity, not accidentally but intrinsically; environmental damage is encouraged as a way of reducing private costs—the list is long. Half of Angus Burgin’s book is about the Good Hayek’s attempts to formulate and to propagate a modified version of laissez-faire that would work better and meet his standards for a liberal society. (Hayek and his friends were never able to settle on a name for this kind of society: “liberal” in the European tradition was associated with bad old Manchester liberalism, and neither “neo-liberal” nor “libertarian” seemed to be satisfactory.)

The Bad Hayek emerged when he aimed to convert a wider public. Then, as often happens, he tended to overreach, and to suggest more than he had legitimately argued. The Road to Serfdom was a popular success but was not a good book. Leaving aside the irrelevant extremes, or even including them, it would be perverse to read the history, as of 1944 or as of now, as suggesting that the standard regulatory interventions in the economy have any inherent tendency to snowball into “serfdom.” The correlations often run the other way. Sixty-five years later, Hayek’s implicit prediction is a failure, rather like Marx’s forecast of the coming “immiserization of the working class.”

So, basically, conservatives are reading Hayek the same way they read the Bible, which is to say selectively. Hayek imposed some limits and context on some of his ideas, just as Jesus imposed the same on the Law and the Prophets, and conservatives conveniently overlook them in both cases. Moreover, Hayek, not being divine and all, fell prey to overreach, as intellectuals of all political stripes have done throughout history, and conservatives have been unable or unwilling to recognize that when it happened.

It has become an article of faith among some progressives that Hayek, like Milton Friedman after him, is the enemy. I think it’s not quite that bad: Both men had both good and bad ideas; both men had ideas that would benefit the less-well-off (guaranteed basic income from Hayek; negative income tax, which amounts to almost the same thing, from Friedman) as well as some that would turn the economy radioactive. I think it’s only fair to treat the work of both with a combination of openness and skepticism: openness to that which already has been demonstrated to work, or that might work to the benefit of the poor; skepticism toward that which already has been shown not to work or that appears likely to harm the poor. I defer to economic experts as to how much of each constitutes each man’s oeurve while reserving the right to call BS on stuff I already know from experience is BS.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,343 other followers

%d bloggers like this: