The American Prospect

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The Missing Generation of Obama-Inspired Politicians

The 2008 Obama presidential campaign, you'll no doubt remember, was a marvel of social engagement, particularly among young people. They got involved in politics, they saw the potential for change, they sent emails and posted to Facebook and knocked on doors. But as Jason Horowitz reports in The New York Times, not too many of them decided to run for office. I'll solve that mystery in a moment, but here's an excerpt:

But if Mr. Lesser, who is on leave from Harvard Law School to run for office, is the face of the promised Obama political generation, he is also one of its few participants. For all the talk about the movement that elected Mr. Obama, the more notable movement of Obama supporters has been away from politics. It appears that few of the young people who voted for him, and even fewer Obama campaign and administration operatives, have decided to run for office. Far more have joined the high-paid consultant ranks.

Unlike John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who inspired virtual legislatures of politicians and became generational touchstones, Mr. Obama has so far had little such influence. That is all the more remarkable considering he came to office tapping into spirit of volunteerism and community service that pollsters say is widespread and intense among young people. Mr. Obama has come to represent that spirit, but he has failed, pollsters say, to transform it into meaningful engagement in the political process.

There are a bunch of empirical claims here that may be questionable. Are there actually fewer young people running for office six years after Barack Obama got elected than there were in 1966 or 1986? Perhaps, but I don't know that anyone has determined that for sure. And as for more of Obama staffers going into consulting than running for office, that always happens. You could without question say the same thing about every president since political consulting became an industry. Running for office is something very few people ever do, and for people who are working in politics and want to keep working in politics, the move from staffer to consultant is a natural career progression without huge risks.

More importantly, running for office is just one tiny part of "meaningful engagement in the political process." What other things have all those former Obama volunteers been doing? The answer may be that they've actually been doing quite a bit.

But if mounting a congressional campaign is the one thing they haven't been doing, it would be hard to blame them (and they may be running for other offices, but national reporters haven't noticed). The last five years haven't exactly made being a member of Congress look like the kind of fulfilling endeavor for which you'd make extraordinary life sacrifices. In fact, these days Congress looks like the last place from which important change is going to come. So if you're an idealistic young person and the prospect of spending the next few years voting against the 50th and 60th and 70th Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act doesn't stir you to the depths of your soul, it's hard to say that's Barack Obama's failure.

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Where the Wild Things Are

Picture a perfect Southwestern day: The air as clear as gin, the bright blue sky marked only by a few stray clouds. In this spot, the waters of the Colorado River are placid, cool green, with none of the muddy brown foam found in the rapids that, over millennia, have carved out the Grand Canyon. Redwall limestone cliffs stretch high above. They’re streaked with desert varnish—the stain left by manganese seeps—and lightly colored with the aquamarine of lichen. Eons of the planet’s history are visible from here, whole epochs rendered in the span of a few thousand vertical feet. It’s an awesome sight. 

Then I move my mouse over the river surface and click on a small circle of white in the water. The scene swirls in fast-forward, and I continue my trip downriver.

I’ve never rafted the Colorado River through the bottom of the Grand Canyon. My “experience” through that wonder of the world came courtesy of Google Treks, the information company’s effort to extend its popular Street View program to some of the world’s most remote locations. In place of an oar paddle, I navigated the canyon with a mousepad.

Colorado River Street View, which debuted last month, is part of Google’s “quest to map the Earth,” as the company explains it in a promotional video. So far Google has also sent explorers to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Mount Fuji, Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands, and on a “road to nowhere” in the Canadian Arctic community of Iqaluit. The tech giant promises more to come. It is recruiting individuals and organizations to take its backpack-mounted camera arrays into the backcountry, and aims to have hundreds of the 360-degree, 15-lens devices in the field within a year. Eventually, the company hopes to deploy its Trekker cams to all of the national parks in the U.S., archaeological sites worldwide, and remote villages that are nearly impossible to reach by automobile.

Like most technological innovations in our dot-com Gilded Age, news of Google’s latest offering was greeted with a uncritical, gee-whiz enthusiasm.  Here’s Amy Kober, communications director at the conservation organization American Rivers, which partnered with Google on the Colorado River mapping, writing in a National Geographic blog post: “The imagery features the iconic Grand Canyon—286 miles of the river, from Lee’s Ferry to Pearce Ferry. It marks the first time Google has used the Street View technology on a river in the U.S. The project brings renewed attention to the wonder and beauty of the Grand Canyon, as well as the challenges facing the Colorado River’s health.”

I agree that a virtual tour of the Grand Canyon is a nifty trick. At the same time, the idea of Google photo-mapping every square foot of the planet it can makes me worried. Do we really need—or want—to have a ground-eye-view map of the entire Earth? And, besides, who gave Google permission for such an all-encompassing endeavor, a map as big as the world?

Google’s quest to map the Earth is a classic example of technologists getting excited about the how before having asked the whether and the why. The digital cartographers at Google have proven they can capture and catalogue some of the planet’s wildest places. But that leaves unanswered the question of whether they should.

For me, at least, the answer is not so fast. Big Data in the backcountry? No thanks. As a longtime backpacker and wilderness enthusiast, it seems to me that Google Trek poses a real threat to spirit of the wild—that is, the wilderness as a refuge from the strictures of civilization. And as it shrinks the feeling of the wilderness as a place that is away and apart and largely unknown, Google Trek also threatens to undermine the civic value of wilderness. Especially in this age of the NSA’s PRISM program and Silicon Valley’s personal tracking, we need some places that are outside of the matrix. The mere knowledge that there are spots beyond human domination bolsters the ideal of personal liberty—even if that sense of freedom is only inside of our heads.   

 

Let’s get the various qualifiers out of the way. There are likely some real benefits to creating a virtual version of a wilderness trail. The physically disabled, for example, will now have the opportunity to see—in an intimate way that transcends snapshots or video—some incredible wild country. A wheelchair can’t make it down the Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail, but the 40-pound Trekker camera backpack did so just fine.

Practitioners in the field of conservation biology may also find some utility in the application. Academic and government wildlife biologists already use trail-cams to monitor the activity of wildlife. Usually set up near denning sites or animal’s hunting grounds, the motion-activated cameras have proven valuable for studying the behavior of wolves, cougars, bears, and other critters that shy away from human attention. Google’s backcountry Street View could supply a useful visual baseline for ecosystems at a given place in time.

And then there’s the public education angle, which is what motivated groups like American Rivers and Polar Bears International to collaborate with Google. Environmental campaigners figure that giving people a first-person-like glimpse of wild places they would never otherwise visit can help spark political action to protect those places. In a typical year, according to the National Park Service, about 22,000 people raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon; it’s a safe bet that the number of viewers of Google’s online river trip has already surpassed that figure by an order of magnitude. (Google did not respond to a list of written questions sent to a company spokeswoman.)

“It’s really just a great tool to bring rivers into the public eye,” American Rivers’ Amy Kober told me. “This reminds people of the importance of rivers in their lives, whether you are sitting in front of a computer or whether you are rafting on it, wherever you are. … If all people can do is see [the river] and appreciate it from a computer screen, and help to save it by clicking on an online action button, that is great.”

I get it. And I’m still skeptical. At best, a virtual tour of the Arctic tundra is going to be little more than a momentary diversion—cat videos for the REI set. At worst, Google Trek could do exactly the opposite of what Kober hopes for: By substituting mediated experience for the visceral experience one feels in the outdoors, this new application could draw us farther from the natural world. The frame of the computer screen becomes yet another veil between us and the riot of the planet.

A virtual rafting trip through the Grand Canyon seems to me like the adventurer’s version of online porn. There may be a kick at first, but it’s no comparison to the thrill of actually, well, doing it.

I don’t mean to be such a technological prude. We’re long past the point of having any reasonable expectation of a “pristine” wilderness, if such a place ever existed. It been nearly 60 years since the firmament was embellished with our satellites, and just as long since jet planes became a routine disruption in the most far-off places. Toward the end of his career, photographer Ansel Adams grumbled about the constant “sky worms,” as he called them, of contrails over his beloved Sierra Nevada. And when I read John Muir’s century-old worries about “thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people,” I can’t help but smile. Each generation’s complaints about technology eventually seem quaint to its successors. I’m sure that when every backpacker is wearing Google Glass, my rant here will be a charming anachronism.

And still. This is dangerous business, this ambition to put everywhere on the Internet.  In his small masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, the forester-philosopher Aldo Leopold wrote: “To those devoid of imagination, a blank space on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.” The line came to mind when I read Outside magazine’s write-up of Google Trekker. The article was practically a want-add for the tech giant, with the writer asking: “How do we get our hands on one?” When I saw that, I wanted to shout at all the dudes who read Outside, “Don’t do it, bro!” Because if we ever succeed in photo-mapping every last backcountry trail, we’ll end up sacrificing one of the most wonderful things about wild places—their mystery. 

 

Already our American wilderness is too tame. At the trailheads, signs from the Forest Service or Park Service sometimes warn, in a tone reminiscent of a nervous aunt, that falling trees and rocks can cause injury or death. In most places, the paths are well trod and marked by cairns to make sure you don’t get lost. It is illegal—punishable by a hefty fine—to sleep in the backcountry of our national parks without a permit. The wildlife is also carefully managed. Federal biologists implant wolves and grizzlies with ID micrcochips and place GPS collars around their necks, equipment sophisticated enough so that a technician sitting hundreds of miles away can tell whether a bear is sleeping or screwing. Even the animals, it seems, are stuck in the matrix.

Making the backcountry accessible to anyone with an Internet connection tames the wilderness even further. It may be a minor domestication, but it’s a domestication nonetheless.

Of course, cameras in the wild are nothing new. Just think of those now-iconic Ansel Adams photos or the pages upon pages of backwoods selfies that populate Flickr. What makes Google Trek different, and especially worrisome, is the intention behind it. Google aspires to collect all of the information it can about every place. Such a domineering instinct is antithetical to the wilderness ideal.

The Wilderness Act—signed into law 50 years ago this coming September, and now protecting some 110 million acres, including much of the national park territories that Google plans to photo-map—defines wilderness this way: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The problem with Google Trek is that it constitutes a kind of permanent human presence in the wild. Its virtual tours of the backcountry will be forever accessible to anyone anywhere, and in that sense the project threatens to dominate the mental landscape of wilderness—the way we experience wild places.            

(It’s worth pointing out that Google’s mapping may even be illegal in some places. The Wilderness Act is clear on its prohibition against “commercial enterprise” and “motorized equipment” in federally designated wilderness areas.)

Although wilderness has a clear legal definition in this country, it remains a squirrely idea. Roderick Nash, an eminent environmental historian, points out that wilderness is a much a feeling about a place as it is the place itself; wilderness is a state of mind, a perceived reality. Like all of the technological intrusions that have come before it, Google Trek is likely to disrupt our feeling of wilderness. Our sense of the wild as that rare location where human intention doesn’t call the shots.

Certain cultural values are embedded in every technology. The assembly line is all about efficiency and uniformity, while the automobile expresses our desire to conquer distance with speed. If there is any cultural value inherent in the inherent, it’s the aspiration for omniscience. Omniscience, I’ll admit, is pretty awesome; I like as much as anyone being able to Google, say, the population of Reykjavik and getting the answer in a millisecond.

Omniscience, however, doesn’t jibe with the essence of wilderness. A large part of the wilderness experience is the sense of mystery and wonder we feel in the wild. When you’re in the wilderness and outnumbered by the critters, there is an acute sense that most of the action is passing unseen. It’s unknowable. Whatever’s out there resists our attempts at control. And in that resistance to human domination and human knowledge resides a kind of magic.

 

I know that if you’ve never spent a night miles away from blacktop these aesthetic complaints might seem esoteric. Then consider this: We also need wilderness as a physical guarantor of our liberties. Here again is Aldo Leopold, writing earlier in his career, “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

The wilderness—as a place that is just beyond the reach of civilization—has always served as a kind of escape valve. In American history the wild has served as a refuge for the fugitive slave, the apostate, and the non-conformist. “The geography of hope” is how the novelist Wallace Stegner described the wild. He was referring, in part, to the wilderness’s function as a hiding place from the dictates of the state and the corporation. If (or, as the case may be, when) every last river canyon and mountaintop is satellite mapped and photo-documented, that last resort of wilderness will be gone.

This political function of wilderness is more important than ever. We live in an age of permanent, perfect visibility. The litany of incursions into our privacy is all-too-familiar: Thousands of cameras mounted throughout our cities, real-time tracking of your cell phone’s location, government sweeps of email communications, corporate monitoring of your every web search and credit card purchase. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in our digital lives at least, we’re living in the Panopticon.         

The creeping sense of being watched is making people nervous. A vast majority of Americans—both Democrats and Republicans—say the NSA’s surveillance programs violate our right to privacy. Three quarters of people report that they are concerned about how much of their personal information is gleaned from their online activities. Some people—many of them, ironically, Silicon Valley swells — are paying good money to go to “digital detox” camps where they can unplug and, as it were, take a psychic exhale. Whether you’re concerned about Big Brother or Big Data, your reasonable expectation of privacy has shrunk to a space no bigger than your keyboard.

The Technorati try to wave away such concerns. Mark Zuckerberg says that Facebook users eventually get over their privacy anxieties. In an interview in Rolling Stone last month, Bill Gates blithely assured us that, “It's long since passed that a typical person doesn't leave footprints,” and declared that “having cameras in inner cities is a very good thing.”

Don’t be fooled. The shrinking of privacy undermines our democracy, since freedom requires not just openness, but also capaciousness—a sense of the world as big and wide. Google Trek is a part of that shrinkage. Thanks to Google, even the smallest details of the “road to nowhere” are stored in the mainframe. This constricts the imaginative space of wilderness, and in doing so hems us in further.

Google’s search engine, famously, tells us what we desire and what we hope to learn even before we’ve finished our query. The wild offers something totally different—and not at all compatible. For now, at least, the wilderness remains a stronghold of unpredictability in a programmed world. It’s a place where, because you are unwatched and unmonitored, you can actually feel free. Your options are your own, the routes are yours to choose, and no one will ever know which direction you head. The wild might be one of the few locations left to experience an unchecked feeling of personal autonomy.

Let’s commit, then, to keeping some landscapes undigitized. If nothing else, the great outdoors should be left outside the algorithm.

“In Wildness is the preservation of the World,” Thoreau wrote in his classic essays, “Walking.” The line is one of the founding axioms of the environmental movement. Author-activist Bill McKibben calls it “one of the great koans of American literature,” says that wildness has been “the key idea, the emotional trigger” for environmentalists. True enough. But in addition to the biological wildness of the physical world, there is also the wildness within — the wildness of the spirit, you could say. The wildness embedded in democracy’s inherent unruliness. 

When I think of Google Maps’s incursion into the backcountry, I understand Thoreau’s declaration differently. Maybe that line—“in wildness is the preservation of the world”—wasn’t written by Thoreau the naturalist. Perhaps instead it was written by the Thoreau who was the tax-resister, the political philosopher, the dissident. 

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Poof! Israelis and Palestinians Head for the Brink

On the El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wandered into the economy section looking for an aide, or perhaps just too tense after a long week in America to sit still. Lieberman wore the uncertain smile of a man in strange territory who doesn't know where he's going. The young muscular guy sitting next to me, wearing a dark jacket and a shirt open at the collar, the uniform of muscular men who accompany Israeli ministers, constituted an immediate warning against buttonholing his boss. He did mention, however, that no one in the foreign minister's party had slept in the past week.

In a much more basic way, Lieberman really doesn't know where he's going, nor does Secretary of State John Kerry, with whom Lieberman met in Washington, nor Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and sleepless anxiety is the proper state of mind for anyone involved in the triangular Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. non-negotiations. Abbas's logical, desperate dissatisfaction with a "process" proceeding nowhere has led him to try brinkmanship, a gambit that can either force an agreement—or lead over the brink into an abyss.

A day before meeting Lieberman, Kerry had committed honesty before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Describing how his effort to negotiate an extension of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations broke down, Kerry described Israel's delay in carrying out an agreed release of Palestinian prisoners and then its announcement of plans to build over 700 new apartments in East Jerusalem. "Poof!" he said, raising both hands, "So we find ourselves where we are. " Israel's actions, in other words, were what pushed Abbas to return to the international arena, asking to sign 15 international treaties in the name of the State of Palestine. Meeting Lieberman, Kerry reportedly walked that remark back a very small amount: He wasn't blaming Israel, he said; he was just describing what happened. (As in: "I didn't accuse you of robbery. I just said you walked in with a gun and walked out with a bag of money.")

To be clear: Though Kerry's reference to settlement building got heavy media play, it wasn't the whole story. As an anonymous official from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office told The New York Times, the original agreement to begin talks last summer did not include a settlement freeze, so Israel hadn't broken a promise on that. That's true. (Let us leave aside the willingness of news organizations to let an official remain anonymous "because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly" when it's obvious that he was assigned to be the prime minister's mouthpiece.) One of the original flaws of the negotiations is that they began without a settlement freeze, allowing Netanyahu's government to continue unilateral action to prevent a two-state agreement. In place of a freeze, Abbas settled for the Israeli gesture of freeing 104 Palestinians serving time in Israeli jails for terror attacks. Netanyahu's delay—under pressure from rightists in his government—in releasing the last batch of prisoners  already made Abbas look like a fool before his own public. The settlement announcement just drove home the message.

Netanyahu filled in more of the story in a cabinet communiqué: The talks had been going nowhere; the Palestinians had refused to even discuss his demand to recognize Israel "as a Jewish state." Let's translate: Netanyahu's precondition succeeded in preventing progress, and he wanted the U.S. administration to follow his script and blame the Palestinians. Netanyahu was outraged that Kerry refused to recite his assigned lines.

From Abbas's perspective, Israel wanted only to negotiate about more talks, which would lead to talks, which would fill time. Abbas is out of time. He's 79. He has been president of the Palestinian Authority for years longer than his elected term. He has become the strongman of a non-existent state. In some ways, a strongman is even more dependent on public opinion than a politician facing elections is: If the regime totally runs out of legitimacy, it can collapse.

It's true that signing 15 international treaties will not transform Palestine into an actual independent state, one that has, to quote Max Weber, "the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory." The name "Palestine" in the list of signatories won't make Israeli troops or construction crews vanish from the West Bank. But the implied threat is that Abbas's next move is joining the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Article 8 of the statue states it is a war crime for an occupying power "to transfer, directly or indirectly… parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." Prima facie, the court could seek to prosecute Israeli officials, including incumbents, for their role in any new settlement activity. In terms of international pressure, the European Union's sanctions against settlements would seem like a pleasant memory in comparison.  

Israel is already signaling that it also knows how to play brinkmanship. The government has stopped ministerial-level contacts with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, and announced it will stop transferring the tax revenues it collects for the PA. The U.S. Congress, some of whose members treat the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if they represented the parties of Israel's hard right, could freeze the American aid that also helps hold up the PA.

If the money stops flowing, the result could exceed what either Abbas or Netanyahu wants. The real Palestinian Authority, not the virtual State of Palestine, provides civil government in Palestinian cities and towns. It runs the schools and clinics (the PA, as part of the civilized world, has national health care). It has police and security services that cooperate with Israel in preventing terror, a reflection of the Abbas regime's commitment to reach independence by diplomacy rather than violence.

A sharp drop in funding could lead to the collapse of the PA. In February, the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, a Ramallah think-tank headed by prominent political scientist Khalil Shikaki, published a "Day After" report by 30 experts on what could happen if the PA shuts down. "Armed militias are likely to take the law into their own hand the report warns. Israel might be forced to resume direct rule over the Palestinian population, which would likely respond with a "mixture of civil disobedience and large-scale violence." In place of today's Palestinian majority for a two-state outcome,  "support for… the one-state solution… will gain momentum among Palestinians."

This isn't Abbas's goal. Palestine asked for and gained observer-state status in the United Nations as a state existing side by side with Israel. A single state isn't a solution; it's a plan for two national communities to keep fighting. If the Palestinian political balance—and the international consensus—shifts toward the one-state illusion, Israel and the Palestinians will together pay the price of brinkmanship.

Ah well, says conventional wisdom, the United States can't want an agreement more than the Israelis and Palestinians, so it's time for Kerry to quit. This is nonsense. If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turns violent again, Washington will face one more Middle East crisis for which it has no answer. A new round of Arab-Israeli fighting will weaken the American position in the entire region.

Realpolitik, not altruism, dictates that the administration push harder rather than walking away. Kerry's "poof" comment may be part of the push, a warning to Netanyahu that Israel won't be able to explain the collapse of talks as Palestinian intransigence and escape the consequences. Will it work? Who knows. Right now everyone involved is nervously flying into the unknown.  

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Don't Let the Bush Administration Off the Hook For Torture

There's a new report out today from McClatchey on the CIA's torture program based on that Intelligence Committee report. They got a closer look at it than journalists have before, so there are some more details. But there's a danger in how this could be interpreted that will serve to let people who were complicit in the torture program off the hook, so we need to be careful about how we deal with this information. But first, here are their bullets:

  • The CIA used interrogation methods that weren’t approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters.
  • The agency impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making regarding the program.
  • The CIA actively evaded or impeded congressional oversight of the program.
  • The agency hindered oversight of the program by its own Inspector General's Office.

And now to put this in context:

The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel found that the methods wouldn't breach the law because those applying them didn't have the specific intent of inflicting severe pain or suffering.

The Senate report, however, concluded that the Justice Department's legal analyses were based on flawed information provided by the CIA, which prevented a proper evaluation of the program's legality.

"The CIA repeatedly provided inaccurate information to the Department of Justice, impeding a proper legal analysis of the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program," the report found.

Several human rights experts said the conclusion called into question the program's legal foundations.

"Proper legal analysis" my ass. This paints a picture that is completely at odds with everything else we know about what was going on in the Bush administration at the time. The report would have us believe that Bush administration lawyers came up with a reasonable, well-grounded definition of torture that allowed the CIA to interrogate people in an "enhanced" way, but the CIA went rogue and tortured their prisoners. I'm sorry, but that's a joke.

The truth was this: the administration wanted to torture people. Lawyers in the White House Counsel's office, then run by Alberto Gonzales, wrote a series of memos justifying it, using positively laughable logic and arguments sending a clear message to any official who might have a prisoner in their custody that you could do just about anything you wanted to him, and we'll back you up by saying it wasn't really "torture." For instance, the infamous "Bybee memo" argued that it's only torture if you're acting with "specific intent" to cause pain and suffering, and if the causing of pain and suffering isn't the intent for its own sake, but rather that using the pain and suffering to extract information is your intent, then presto, you've only tortured with "general intent," and therefore you haven't actually tortured. Bybee also wrote that though the statute forbidding torture mentioned the infliction of "severe" pain, we could construe pain to be "severe" only if it rose "to the level of death, organ failure, or the permanent impairment of a significant bodily function." In other words, if I take a pair of pliers and tear out your fingernails, then I haven't actually inflicted "severe" pain on you, because you're still alive, your organs are intact, and you can still use your fingers. And therefore there hasn't been any torture.

And that wasn't even the only one; there was another infamous memo from John Yoo arguing that, in effect, if the president orders it, it's not torture. This is the kind of "legal guidance" the CIA was getting from the White House. So the idea that they just went too far and exceeded the legal justification for what they were doing is baloney. The CIA may have been lying about what kinds of intelligence the torture was yielding, and they may even have been lying about exactly what methods they were employing. But everything they did—every waterboarding session, every use of stress positions, every use of sleep deprivation, and even every impromptu beat-down that may have occurred—happened because George W. Bush, through the lawyers who reported to him, told the CIA that it was A-OK to torture prisoners.

Bureaucratic conflicts between agencies are certainly of interest to historians. But the last thing we should ever do is let a report like this make us absolve anyone of responsibility for the torture program. The President, the Vice-President, the lawyers, the CIA—they all dove into that moral sewer together.

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Daily Meme: Who's Afraid of Stephen Colbert?

Stephen Colbert

 

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Poof! There it Is

It was the “poof” heard ‘round the world. Or at least halfway ‘round the world. Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry described the sequence of events leading to the current crisis in talks between Israelis and Palestinians, which came to a head with the announcement of 700 new Israeli settlement homes.

“Poof, that was sort of the moment,” Kerry said. “We find ourselves where we are.”

To back up a bit, last July Kerry successfully got the two sides back to the table for nine months of talks by securing concessions from both. The Palestinians agreed to pause their efforts to gain membership in international organizations, which they are now able to do as a consequence of being accepted as a “non-member observer state” by the United Nations in 2012. The Israelis agreed to release 104 Palestinian prisoners held since before the 1994 Oslo Accords, in four tranches, the last of which was to have been released on March 29.

As March 29 approached, the Israelis made clear that they might not release the final group of prisoners if the Palestinians did not agree to extend the talks beyond the April deadline (which had not been a condition of the original agreement). March 29 came and went with no prisoner release. Kerry and his team worked diligently to fashion a deal that would extend the talks into 2015.

Then, on April 1, Israeli Minister of Housing Uri Ariel—a member of the right-wing party Jewish Home—signed tenders for 700 new homes in the Jerusalem-area settlement of Gilo. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded later that day by signing papers to join 15 international conventions.

It’s amazing how much coverage a single word can generate. Even though State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki attempted to clarify later that day that Kerry had placed responsibility on both sides, which indeed he had, the Israeli government declared itself “deeply disappointed” in his remarks. The suggestion that Israel might be at fault was also simply too much for some of its U.S. partisans to bear.

“By whoring after a deal he couldn’t get to satisfy his own wounded pride and fulfill his own vainglorious wants,” neoconservative pundit John Podhoretz vented in the New York Post, Kerry “has been exposed for all to see as a deceitful, pompous, self-righteous and vindictive fool—not to mention a world-historical two-time loser.”

Over at The Wall Street Journal, John’s dad Norman took his own swipe. “Provoked by the predictable collapse of the farcical negotiations forced by Secretary of State John Kerry on the Palestinians and the Israelis,” Podhoretz the Elder wrote, “I wish to make a confession: I have no sympathy—none—for the Palestinians.” (Does this actually qualify as a confession? Was anyone, anywhere, unclear on this point?)  The main reason for this lack of sympathy for the Palestinians, Podhoretz explains, is that “ever since the day of Israel's birth in 1948, they have never ceased declaring that their goal is to wipe it off the map.”

Now, this is odd. In 1993, the Palestinian Liberation Organization recognized Israel’s right to exist. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin stating, “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security.” In 2012, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations to gain recognition for the State of Palestine, in 22 percent of what had been British Mandate Palestine, alongside Israel, which takes up the remaining 78 percent. (One can agree or disagree with this approach—the U.S. and Israel strongly disagreed—but one really cannot seriously claim that it’s consistent with an effort to “wipe Israel off the map.”)

Both pieces, Podhoretz the Younger’s tantrum and the Elder’s defiant historical ignorance, reveal the vitriol unleashed when the U.S. actually assigns blame appropriately in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. There will undoubtedly be much more to come. It’s unfortunate that one word—“poof”—is drawing attention away from the fact that Kerry was, at the end of the day, genuinely even-handed in assigning responsibility to both sides for problematic steps, while also being quite clear in identifying one particular and longstanding problem—Israeli settlement construction—that continues to bedevil negotiations. This is precisely the sort of frankness that we’ll need more of if the process is going to progress.

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Get Ready for the Datapalooza of Election Performance!

During the brief time in the election cycle when the voting booths are actually open, we hear a lot how smoothly elections are going—where voters are waiting in long lines, where ballots are getting rejected, and the like. Elections expert Doug Chapin, who heads the University of Minnesota’s Elections Academy, calls it “anec-data”—anecdotes substituting for hard numbers.  In a presidential election, we tend to hear all about problems in swing states, since the national press corps is already there, but we’re less likely to hear about issues in Montana or Connecticut, where the election outcome is almost a foregone conclusion. Good data would make it easy to compare states’ election performance, and more importantly, let us see how states are improving or declining from one election to the next.

That’s why Pew’s 2012 Elections Performance Index is a big deal. Released this week, the index uses standardized data from the U.S. Census, the Elections Assistance Commission, and a major survey to assess states on 17 different variables and judge just how well they are running their elections. Because Pew offered an index for 2008 and 2010, we can now compare two different presidential elections to actually see whether election administration is getting better or worse—rather than just guess. It’s the first time such a tool has been available.

For the most part, the results are encouraging. A quick perusal shows 40 of the 50 states have improved since 2008—wait times are down an average of three minutes and online registration is spreading quickly, with 13 states offering online voter registration during the 2012 election, up from just two in 2008. (Since the election, another five states have started offering it.) Many of the top-performing states in 2008, like North Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Colorado, stayed on top in 2012 while low performers, like Mississippi, Alabama, California, and New York remained at the bottom.

The process of collecting and analyzing elections data, mundane though it may sound, is extremely important, and relatively rare. Without it, we cannot really assess how elections are functioning. For a long time, there was less pressure on states to fully report on important factors, like the number of returned absentee ballots or access for disabled voters. In the index, states are judged for the complete-ness of their data collection. “States are reporting better quality and more data but that doesn’t mean they’re all the way there,” says David Becker, who, as the director of Pew’s elections initiatives, oversees the index project.

“The fact that we have data as opposed to anec-data is really important,” says Chapin. If state officials take issue with the index, they’re more likely to produce more data to challenge Pew’s conclusions—which only gives citizens more information to use.

But the index is not the be-all-end-all in judging elections. Chapin compares the index to U.S. News and World Report’s ranking of college campuses—useful in broad strokes but certainly not the whole picture. “Not everything that’s good is in the Pew index,” he says. For instance, California, which ranks at the bottom, has a robust elections program for voters speaking different languages. The state offers elections information in 13 different languages, and tries to make sure communities that speak other languages have poll workers available who can communicate. There’s no category in the Pew index for such an effort.

More notable is the absence of the most controversial voting measures that have dominated debate in states—like voter ID and restrictions to early and weekend voting. There’s no mention of “voter fraud” or “voter suppression.” Pew has clearly chosen to steer clear of these issues, in part because we have so little data on their effects (and likely also to avoid a political row). Presumably, the potential ill-effects of such measures—many of which weren’t implemented in 2012—could come out in other parts of the index, like voter turnout next time around.

Meanwhile, Pew gives strong preference to certain reforms, like online voter registration and tools for looking up voting information. There are good reasons for that—online voter registration helps make the voter rolls more accurate while saving enormous amounts of money (as much as two dollars per registrant.) Tools for looking up voting information have obvious positive impact for the millions of Americans who can remember what precinct they’re in or where their polling places are.

But regardless of the methodology, any attempt to bring hard numbers into a field dominated by allegations and unfounded statements is a welcome change.

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How John Paul Stevens Would Amend the Constitution

What made John Paul Stevens's contributions in his 35 years on the Supreme Court so invaluable was not just the votes he cast but his fiercely intelligent idiosyncrasies. On issues ranging from the fundamental incoherence of trying to use different categories of scrutiny to apply the equal protection clause to the Establishment Clause, to problems presented by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to racial discrimination in the War on Drugs, Stevens carved out unique positions that have generally aged much better than the alternatives. So it's gratifying that Stevens has not retired in silence, instead providing valuable commentary on constitutional controversies including the right to vote and the American criminal justice system. Stevens's new book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution, represents another valuable and accessible contribution to the country's constitutional discourse.

The premise of the book is accurately captured by the title, which proposes six amendments to the Constitution. The one potential weakness of the genre is that the cumbersome amendment process set out by Article V (which has produced only 17 amendments, not all of them important, in more than 200 years since the ratification of the Bill of Rights) makes the amendment process generally unrealistic as a route to constitutional change. However, whether these amendments could obtain the 2/3rds of both houses of Congress and 3/4 of state legislatures necessary for ratification is not really the point. The purpose of the book instead is to show how recent Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution have reached questionable and sometimes indefensible results—and the good news is that we shouldn't need formal constitutional amendments to produce the sounder results suggested by Stevens.

I would endorse all six of Stevens's proposed amendments (the complete list can be found here.) Some, however, raise more pressing problems than others. For example, like many political scientists, I think the effects of political gerrymandering are overrated, and I also think that the Supreme Court's reading of the Second Amendment in D.C. v. Heller is far from the most important barrier to the passage effective gun control legislation. So while all six of Stevens's short essays are worth reading, I wanted to focus in particular on four of his proposed amendments:

The "Anti-Comandeering" Rule

Because of the challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the most well-known of the conservative attacks on federal power involves the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce. While the commerce clause challenge to the Affordable Care Act was extraordinarily week, these challenges are at least rooted in the text of the Constitution—statutes do have to fall under the enumerated powers given to Congress (or be necessary and proper to carrying out these powers.) Many of the other conservative challenges to federal power, however, lack such a clear footing in the text of the Constitution. One of these is the "anti-comandeering" rule. In the 1997 case Printz v. United States, the Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Brady Bill that required local officers to perform background checks of gun buyers until the federal system became operative. According to a bare majority of the Court, the federal government cannot "commandeer" state officials into carrying out federal law. As Stevens noted in his dissent and argues again here, the logic makes little sense. No such principle can be found directly in the text of the Constitution, and the principle is at war with the Supremacy Clause as well as more than a century of settled practice. (State courts have frequently been "commandeered" to carry out federal law.) The doctrine also has serious potential negative consequences, making it much more difficult to respond to emergencies.

Stevens also points out the hidden historical roots of the theory resurrected by the Rehnquist Court. Just as the mysterious "equal sovereignty of the states" doctrine Chief Justice Roberts used to justify his evisceration of the Voting Rights Act has historical roots only in the long-discredited antebellum pro-slavery constitutional theories, the "anti-commandeering" theory's roots can be found in a Taney Court opinion from the Civil War. As Stevens points out, in his opinion overruling that precedent, Justice Thurgood Marshall aptly observed about the Taney holding that "[t]he conception of the relation between the States and the Federal Government there announced is fundamentally incompatible with more than a century of constitutional development." It should have remained buried.

Sovereign Immunity

The "sovereign immunity" doctrine reintroduced by the Rehnquist Court—holding that state governments cannot be sued without their consent—is even more indefensible. The theory, as Stevens argues in Six Amendments, is an unattractive anachronism from monarchical England. The sovereign being above the law is consistent with the divine right of kings but not with democratic governance. This might not matter if the principle was clearly rooted in the Constitution, but the idea that a citizen of a state cannot sue her own government is not merely nowhere to be found in the text of the Constitution but is implicitly foreclosed by the text of the Constitution. The 11th Amendment does not state a broad principle like "cruel and unusual punishment" about whose application reasonable people can disagree. Instead, it specifically states that states cannot be sued by "Citizens of another State." Given the specific language, the fact that it would have been just as easy to say that state governments could not be sued by any citizen, and that Congress considered but rejected language that would have prevented anyone from suing a state without its consent, the text should settle the question of whether there is a principle of "sovereign immunity" that applies to citizens of the state facing a suit. There isn't. (The line of cases is a particular embarrassment for the alleged "textualism" of Antonin Scalia, who was notably silent in joining these opinions as the new doctrine was being developed.)

As Stevens shows, this doctrine also has roots in post-Reconstruction cases implicitly attacking the legitimacy of the Republican state governments of the Reconstruction era. This faulty line of cases has, among other things, obstructed enforcement of the Americans With Disabilities and Fair Labor Standards Acts. If the cases cannot be overruled, the doctrine should indeed be repudiated by constitutional amendment.

Campaign Finance

In light of last week's decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, it doesn't require elaborate argument to explain why Stevens's proposed amendment stating that "Neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns" would be salutary (although I suspect Setevens would now amend his own amendment to include reasonable limits on campaign donations.) As his amendment reflects, campaign spending is a form of speech protected by the First Amendment, but this does not mean that the right is absolute: "the [state] interest in preventing wealth from becoming the deciding factor in contested elections is valid and significant." The Supreme Court ignoring this interest starting with Buckely v. Valeo in 1976 has helped to produce a polity in which the interests of the wealthy are increasingly dominant.

Death Penalty

Observers of the Court will not be surprised to read Stevens declare that "even if the death penalty was justified in 1982, this is no longer the case." Stevens announced as much in a concurrence near the end of his tenure as a Supreme Court justice. Unlike the other constitutional arguments made by Stevens above, the argument that the death penalty is categorically unconstitutional has never had more than two adherents on the Supreme Court at any one time. Without the unlikely adoption of Stevens's proposed amendment of the 8th Amendment—" nor cruel and unusual punishments such as the death penalty inflicted"—it will take more than one or two personnel changes on the Court for Stevens's position to be adopted. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny that the death penalty constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" for the reasons Stevens eloquently explains.

With respect to the other three cases in particular, however, a constitutional amendment should not even be necessary. The arguments made by Stevens about the meaning of the Constitution are as strong or stronger than those made by the currently prevailing majority. This useful and engaging book reminds us that above all we need more Supreme Court justices with Justice Stevens's robust commitment to funadamental fairness and the equal protection of the laws.

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Stephen Colbert Isn't the Only One With a Fictional Character

So Stephen Colbert will be replacing David Letterman when Letterman retires next year, and you'll be shocked to learn that at least one conservative is spitting mad about it. "CBS has just declared war on the heartland of America," said Rush Limbaugh. "No longer is comedy going to be a covert assault on traditional American values, conservative values—now it's just wide out in the open." Funny, I thought Hollywood's assault on traditional American values was pretty overt already. But this is actually fitting, because I'll bet Limbaugh couldn't care less who's on CBS at 11:30. But Colbert's a liberal, so Limbaugh has to pretend to be angry about it. In other words, he's reacting exactly the way Stephen Colbert's character would.

Now it's true that Colbert based his character not on Limbaugh but (mostly) on Bill O'Reilly. And like Colbert, O'Reilly is himself playing a character named Bill O'Reilly, the only difference being that the Bill O'Reilly character is just a slight exaggeration of the actual Bill O'Reilly. Not that the man himself isn't a belligerent, arrogant right-wing bully, because he is. But no human being is that angry every minute of every day. (Interestingly enough, on those times O'Reilly went on Colbert or Jon Stewart's show, he was a dramatically different person—subdued, tentative, seemingly frightened in a situation where he wasn't in control).

But I find the idea that Colbert going to CBS is an assault on "the heartland" interesting, because "the heartland" has been eating up entertainment produced in New York and Los Angeles for quite some time now. It's also worth remembering that when he started, despite his Indiana roots Letterman himself was considered a radical, not politically but comedically. His ironic remove from the material, throwing in asides like "We're having more fun than humans should be allowed to have" after a mediocre joke, felt revolutionary and subversive. You wouldn't know it much to watch him now, when that kind of irony is old hat and his monologues are as dull and repetitive as everyone else's, but when Letterman first came on, he was considered the hip, rebellious host that only young people really "got." Their parents could watch Johnny Carson, but Letterman was cool.

I have no idea whether Colbert can make a network late-night show cool, but there's no doubt he's an extraordinary performer. To be honest, when I read about what The Colbert Report was going to be right before it began, I was skeptical about whether he would be able to sustain the character for an entire half-hour, four nights a week. But from the first episode, when he coined the word "truthiness" and uttered the immortal line, "Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you," his show was consistently funny and insightful. And it relied almost entirely on his performance; unlike Stewart, Colbert doesn't have correspondents to whom he passes off part of every show.

His character remained relevant because the people he was satirizing remained relevant. O'Reilly and Limbaugh and the rest of them are still going strong, enacting their kabuki of outrage every day and keeping their audience of angry elderly white people shaking their fists at their radios and televisions. Like Colbert, they're talented performers who have honed their personas over thousands of hours of practice. The only difference is, they pretend it isn't an act.

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Daily Meme: FutureSex Scandals/LoveSounds for Hillary

  • Our theme today is the future, where everyone is looking. To start, House conservatives are thinking that their future might involve a Speaker other than John Boehner. National Journal reports that a group of 40 to 50 Republicans are plotting to oust Boehner right after the November, or at least put the fear of the right into him.
  • Representative Vance McAllister's future is in serious doubt after he was caught on a security camera sucking face with one of his staffers; naturally, he responded to getting caught by firing her. But theWashington Post has crunched the numbers on sex scandals and found that there have been 14 sex-related scandals since 2000, but only two of the members kept their jobs. So maybe there's a Morning Zoo radio show co-hosted with Anthony Weiner in McAllister's future.
  • We all know that in a few decades, white people will become a minority of Americans, and we'll all sing in perfect harmony. Our old colleague Jamelle Bouie looks to the future of American demographics and wonders if, instead of looking like California, the country will look more like Mississippi, with white voters becoming more conservative and racial polarization defining our politics: "We would fracture like the Seven Kingdoms, with a politics governed by mutual suspicion. And you don't have to imagine this future. You can see it right now, in the Deep South, where our history weighs heaviest."
  • A super PAC preparing for a candidacy that exists only in the future—Ready For Hillary—announced that it has raised $5.75 million to date, mostly in small donations.
  • Independent Senator Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with the Democrats, looks to the future possibility of a Republican takeover of the Senate and says that if it happens, he might just switch over and caucus with the GOP. Which wouldn't be opportunistic and cynical at all.
  • Legislators in Florida want to make sure that in the aftermath of future disasters and emergencies, there's as much gunplay as possible. A bill moving through the legislature would ensure that during an emergency, you could take your gun wherever you like even if you don't have a concealed carry permit. But the short-sighted legislators have not considered a future zombie apocalypse, and we all know that in that eventuality, no weapon is as effective as the katana.

 

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