a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Marijuana reform in Maryland — time to pitch in

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 19th, 2013

Substance abuse policy is hard; on the one hand, no one wants more harm from the overuse of alcohol or drugs.  Those harms vary in intensity from one substance to the next, but include both harms to users from addiction, risky behaviors like needle sharing, or direct physical effects on the body and brain, and harms to others from unsafe behavior or criminality to support the costs of substance abuse.

On the other hand, neither should anyone want drug policies that are unnecessary, ineffective, and/or unfair. While some drugs may warrant continued prohibition as too addictive and/or too harmful, there’s always the question: on exactly what basis does society arrogate to itself the right to tell individuals what they can or can not consume?

It’s instructive, I think, that U.S. constitutional history very much points to a “hands-off when possible” approach: the 18th Amendment experiment of alcohol prohibition, ratified in 1920, was followed, very quickly indeed, with its repeal by the 21st Amendment in 1935.  The American people considered the issue, and decided that alcohol — still by far the most widely abused substance of abuse reported by treatment admissions — is nevertheless not a substance that inevitably or usually brings about overconsumption, addiction, or long-term impairment, and that its prohibition caused problems worse than its legal availability ever had.  Instead, we regulate alcohol consumption and sales by taxation, by restrictions on when and where it can be sold, by seeing to it as best we can that minors can’t obtain it, and by cracking down on unsafe behaviors like driving under the influence.

It’s time we did the same with marijuana.

Racial disparities in marijuna possession arrests

Black/White marijuana possession arrest rate ratios, by Maryland
county, 2010. Source: “The Maryland War on Marijuana in Black and
,” ACLU Maryland. (2013).  Click image to enlarge.

Source: “The Maryland War on Marijuana in Black and White,”
ACLU Maryland. (2013).  Click image to enlarge.

Why? To me, the strongest argument is that marijuana laws are manifestly unequally enforced and thus manifestly unjust: in a recent national study, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,”  the ACLU has shown that in state after state, and county after county, black Americans*  are arrested for marijuana possession at rates generally anywhere from twice to eight times that of white Americans — despite basically identical marijuana usage:

The War on Marijuana has largely been a war on people of color. […] In 2010, the Black arrest rate for marijuana possession was 716 per 100,000, while the white arrest rate was 192 per 100,000.  […] In states with the worst disparities,  Blacks were on average over six times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white residents in the same county. […] These glaring racial disparities in marijuana arrests are not a northern or southern phenomenon, nor a rural or urban phenomenon, but rather a national one.

The ACLU of Maryland finds a similar picture in our state*:

In every county in the Free State, Blacks are disproportionately targeted for enforcement of marijuana laws. The glaring racial disparities are as staggering in the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington D.C. as they are on the Eastern Shore or in Western Maryland. They are as likely to exist in large counties as small, in counties with high median family incomes or low median incomes. They exist regardless of whether Blacks make up a large majority or small minority of a county’s population. And the disparities have only gotten worse over time.


The erosion of civil rights and civil liberties
Whether in Maryland or nationwide, these disparities are both huge wrongs in themselves, if we believe in equal justice under the law — guaranteed by the 14th Amendment — and strong indications that marijuana policy is far less about public health than effectively (and often purposely) about a race war by other means, featuring casualties and prisoners who are overwhelmingly black.

As author and former ACLU executive Michelle Alexander has put it, we’re witnessing “The New Jim Crow“:

Human Rights Watch reported in 2000 that, in seven states, African Americans constitute 80 to 90 percent of all drug offenders sent to prison.  In at least fifteen states, blacks are admitted to prison on drug charges at a rate from twenty to fifty-seven times greater than that of white men.

Ms. Alexander’s book is excellent in showing how these arrests and sentences ruin lives, and how punitive drug policies have driven the erosion of all of our constitutional rights.  Stop-and-frisk and racial profiling did not originate with Mayor Bloomberg’s NYPD; surveillance abuses did not begin with the NSA or Metro bag searches; erosion of the right to trial did not begin with the NDAA. Rather, all of these developments were foreshadowed more or less explicitly by judicial rulings, legislation, or executive actions connected to the “War on Drugs” — e.g., Operation Pipeline (DEA, 1984: profiling); Anti-Drug Abuse Act (1986; mandatory minimums); California v. Acevedo (1991; warrantless search);  Florida v. Bostick (1991; suspicionless search); Ohio v. Robinette (1993; “consent”); Deal v. United States (1993: ‘stacking’ of 924(c) charges enabling the threat of near-life sentences for combined drug/gun violations).  The net effect was to uphold and expand an allegedly “tough on crime” agenda advocated via racial “dog-whistle” rhetoric especially by Nixon and Reagan, and ratified by “me too” politicking and policies by Clinton.

Legalizing marijuana in Maryland won’t make these precedents, programs, and policies go away — but it will reduce their application.  That may be the first step to rebuilding a justice system built not for incarceration and volume, but for, well, justice.  Black, white, or Hispanic; Christian, Jewish, or Muslim; activist or not;  marijuana user or not: push back against the war on marijuana — both the biggest and arguably the least justified part of the War on Drugs — and the rights you restore or preserve will be your own.

Ways forward in Maryland
Fortunately, momentum is building in Maryland to do just that.  First, the ACLU of Maryland is re-committing to a strong push in the coming legislative session to decriminalize marijuana possession.  Reacting to the national ACLU report in June, Maryland’s ACLU legislative director Sara Love said,

“Marijuana decriminalization efforts in the Maryland General Assembly advanced further than ever before this past session. With this momentum and the new report, the ACLU of Maryland will continue advocating for reform of Maryland’s racially biased and aggressive penalization of marijuana possession, which has torn communities apart, not improved public safety, not eradicated use, and has been a colossal waste of money.”

At least as importantly, Maryland gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur announced that she will propose marijuana legalization if elected.  Her campaign issue pages and well-researched legislative plan lay out some of the same reasons noted above — and points out that between revenues from taxation and savings from reassigned law enforcement priorities, Maryland could benefit hugely from legalizing marijuana:

Adults 21 and over will be allowed to possess up to an ounce of marijuana without violating state law… Smoking of marijuana will not be allowed in public, indoor or out.  …It will continue to be illegal to drive under the influence of marijuana… It will continue to be illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to purchase, possess or consume marijuana. […] As governor, Heather Mizeur will legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana, generating up to $157.5 million in new annual revenue.  The revenue will be used to create a dedicated funding stream for her proposed expansion of Maryland’s early childhood education system.  […]  The financial cost of criminalizing marijuana is significant.  According to a 2009 study, our state wastes as much as $281.7 million per year enforcing overly punitive marijuana prohibition laws.

That’s a turnaround of nearly half a billion dollars — in a state forced in its last budget to cut mental health funding by $7 million and cut contributions to state employees and teachers pension fund by $100 million.  But above all:

Legalizing and regulating marijuana will save tens of thousands of people from misguided and unnecessary involvement in our debilitative criminal justice system – 43% of whom would likely end up becoming recidivists entangled in the system time and again.

Our choices
Like all Americans, we in Maryland have a choice.  We can sit idly by and agree with nay-sayers like Doug Gansler, one of Mizeur’s Democratic competitors, whose spokesman claimed there “does not appear to be a groundswell toward full scale legalization” — despite widespread, bipartisan support in the state for just that. We can shrug our shoulders and walk away from the chance to build bigger, better coalitions for our rights and civil liberties.  We can walk away from confronting what may well be the single biggest systematic injustice — in terms of unnecessary humiliations, arrests, derailed lives, and occupied jail cells — in Maryland and the country.

Or we can pitch in for marijuana reform in Maryland.

Let’s educate ourselves and others about this issue.  Let’s do all we can to support ACLU of Maryland’s marijuana decriminalization legislation this session.  And let’s do all we can to support and reward gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur for her bold support for marijuana legalization, for her political courage, and for her good sense.


* FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) data does not provide separate Hispanic arrest totals; these are likely counted as white in UCR data.
** Note that Montgomery County does not distinguish itself in this regard, either.  From the ACLU Maryland report: “Between 2001–2010, Black arrests went up by 45%, even though the Black population increased by less than half that much. By 2010, Blacks made up 18% of Montgomery County’s population, but 46% of all marijuana possession arrests. These statistics likely underestimate race disparities in marijuana possession arrests, as Montgomery County has Maryland’s largest Latino population, which was not accounted for in the data reviewed.”

With regrets, indeed: confessions of a one-time Iraq war supporter

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 19th, 2013

On the 10th anniversary of the single worst decision in U.S. history, my longtime online friend Aziz Poonawalla asked me to let him post a blog posting of mine from February 13, 2003 — With regrets: For war on Saddam — along with a few comments about how I came to repudiate my former position on Iraq …yet again… and what I know now.  I’ve done so a few times before — here, here, and here to name a few. But the occasion, and honesty, and sorrow at the debacle I too was a part of — however small — demand of me that I do so again.  Aziz is extremely gracious, and sees in my essay the culmination of an honest debate with myself that I came down on the wrong side of.   I don’t know.  All I know is lots of other people didn’t make my mistake, I shouldn’t have made it, and I wish I hadn’t.


I began realizing how wrong I was the day of the invasion.  One of my main reasons for supporting the war — after initial skepticism — was Iraq’s alleged stockpiles of chemical, biological, perhaps even nuclear “weapons of mass destruction” in the hands of a ruthless dictator and in defiance of UN resolutions.  Yet now that Iraq was being invaded, where were they?  So my support for the war was decaying from the outset, despite a rather elaborate set of arguments for the war — often merely counterarguments to peace, really — that I now see I was using as hedges.  Having made the leap to the “other side” of the argument, though, I was stubbornly unwilling to go all the way back; that seemed dishonest.  Yet over time new doubts reached a crescendo, from the uncontrolled looting after the fall of Baghdad, to the Shia uprisings of 2004 in a supposedly mending Iraq, to finally, irreconcilably, Abu Ghraib,which left me literally immobilized with shame, fury, and regret the morning I heard about it.  All of these things, but especially Abu Ghraib, convinced me I had nothing in common with the people who commanded and countenanced any of what had been done, by omission and commission, in Iraq, and by extension the policies they supported.

All I can say is: I’m so very, very sorry.  I’ll never do it again.  That’s no consolation whatsoever to the thousands of US soldiers who died, or the tens and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who died, so I don’t say it much, it’s inadequate and weak.  What is it I’ll never do again?  I’ll never accept at face value any administration’s claims for the need for war: given that there were no WMD to disarm Saddam of, the evidence for them should not have been accepted.  I’ll also never accept at face value again the idea that there’s an effective political opposition in Washington, or that the Beltway consensus represents some wisest possible sifting of the evidence, at least when things are as deadly serious as going to war.  In this respect, it was nearly as unforgiveable for Senators like Clinton, Edwards, or Kerry not to even look at intelligence estimates doubting Iraq’s WMD program as it was for Bush and Cheney to go to war.

And if I ever again find myself writing  — or reading — elaborate, hedging arguments for a war of choice, with pompously unforgiveable phrases like “come what may,”  I’ll remember 2003 and think: please, stop. Just stop.  Just shut up. Right now.

UPDATE, 3/21: crossposted at Aziz Poonawalla’s “City of Brass” blog; his prior post, “Iraq War retrospective: the liberal case for war #iraq10,” sets up the crosspost: “The debate over the Iraq war was not polarized according to liberal/conservative fault lines, but stretched across them. In fact, many liberals found themselves reluctantly swayed by the arguments for war, especially after Kenneth Pollack’s book “The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq was published in September 2002, roughly the one-year anniversary of 9-11 and 6 months prior to when the actual invasion began. In a nutshell, liberals were convinced by fear over the threat of Saddam Hussein possessing WMDs – nuclear and chemical; as well as humanitarian concerns. Both of these issues are still relevant in the recent and ongoing debates about action towards North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya.  […] Far from being reflexively anti-Bush, or as warblogger Steven den Beste claimed, “wanting America to lose“, liberals were genuinely driven by patriotism and humanitarian concern for the muslims of Iraq under Saddam’s rule. The betrayal of that trust in authority, exemplified by Colin Powell’s presentation at the UN, has led to a deep-seated skepticism on the liberal left against Barack Obama’s policies. Liberals such as Glenn Greenwald are far more critical of Obama than they ever were of Bush, in part because of their experience a decade ago.”   Aziz’s entire “#iraq10” series is well worth any reader’s time; I thank him both for that series and for his kind words about me.


Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 30th, 2012

That poor woman.

This has saddened the whole world. Today, UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon released this statement, and bless him for it:

The Secretary-General expresses deep sorrow at the death of the 23-year old Delhi student who was gang-raped by six men in a moving bus in New Delhi on 16 December. He offers his sincerest condolences to her parents, family and friends, and utterly condemns this brutal crime. Violence against women must never be accepted, never excused, never tolerated. Every girl and woman has the right to be respected, valued and protected.The Secretary-General welcomes the efforts of the Government of India to take urgent action and calls for further steps and reforms to deter such crimes and bring perpetrators to justice. He also encourages the Government of India to strengthen critical services for rape victims. UN Women and other parts of the United Nations stand ready to support such reform efforts with technical expertise and other support as required.”

This, from a Wall Street Journal article, was heart-breaking:

A 12-year-old girl wrote a message to the deceased rape victim in black crayon: “You are lucky. Many people pray for you.” The girl said there were countless women in India who get raped and assaulted daily, but few get any attention. She said she wanted to grow up in a society that is safe for women.

I hate for 12 year olds to need to know and worry about such things, let alone be surprised that a victim is even noticed and remembered.  I hate for 14 year olds to, too; I need to talk with ours, she’s been following the story and is of course upset by it.  I don’t know what we’ll tell her exactly, I guess I’ll wait to see what she wants to ask and say.

In the last few years I’m more reluctant than I used to be to be judgmental about other countries’ shortcomings – we have quite a lot of our own.  But like the Secretary General suggests, I think it’s fair to guess that more rapes happen the more women are disrespected, not valued, considered lesser human beings; we can try to resist that everywhere.  Things may (well) be worse in India than they are here, but it’s not the only place where there’s violence against women, or inadequate pursuit of justice against their assailants; yesterday, NPR reported “Years Delayed, Detroit Starts Testing Rape Kits For Evidence.

UPDATE: Also, what many Indian women are saying is no different from what any of us anywhere can agree with.  Via The speech that explains India’s outrage over a gang rape—and how women are treated every day (S. Mitra Kalita ,,  here’s just part of what Kavita Krishnan, secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) had to say:

…I believe even if women walk out on the streets alone, even if it is late at night, why should justifications need to be provided for this, like ‘she has to work late hours’ or ‘she was coming home from a BPO job or a media job’? If she simply wants to go out at night, if she wants to go out and buy a cigarette or go for a walk on the road — is this a crime for women? We do not want to hear this defensive argument that women only leave their homes for work, poor things, what can they do, they are compelled to go out. We believe that regardless of whether she is indoors or outside, whether it is day or night, for whatever reason, however, she may be dressed — women have a right to freedom. And that freedom without fear is what we need to protect, to guard and respect.

Read the rest of this entry »

The FBI and Occupy: sometimes it ain’t paranoia

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 30th, 2012

The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) has obtained FBI documents
detailing the agency’s national efforts to monitor the Occupy Wall Street
movement. Click here for more.

Last week, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) reported:

FBI documents just obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) pursuant to the PCJF’s Freedom of Information Act demands reveal that from its inception, the FBI treated the Occupy movement as a potential criminal and terrorist threat even though the agency acknowledges in documents that organizers explicitly called for peaceful protest and did “not condone the use of violence” at occupy protests.

At the time of the wave of crackdowns against Occupy Wall Street (OWS) encampments around the country, some writers — most prominently Naomi Wolf (“The shocking truth about the crackdown on Occupy,” 11/25/11) — argued that events showed “coordination against OWS at the highest national levels,” while others like Joshua Holland felt the “word “coordinated” is too vague to offer any analytic value.” 

In followups, many progressive commentators joined Holland in minimizing the federal role in the crackdowns.  First relying on Holland’s rebuttal, and later focusing on reports from Portland exonerating the Obama DHS in that city, Corey Robin, for instance, argued that the “Crackdown on Occupy [was] Probably Not Organized by the Obama Administration.”  To be clear: the motive wasn’t to minimize the crackdowns, but to question the need to invoke a driving federal role in them.*  As Scott Lemieux (“Lawyers, Guns & Money”) put it mockingly — he seems not to be able to help himself — Wolf’s position implied that “authoritarian actions could not be the result of our benevolent local overlords but must be the work of the big bad feds.    History does not provide much support for this assumption.”  Robin’s analysis was the same, if more circumspect: “political repression in the US tends to be decentralized and local.”  Call it the “They don’t need no steenkin’ federal badges” analysis.

The documents obtained by PCJF — in this “production” and previous ones throughout the year — make that view not wrong so much as uninteresting, even beside the point.

True, there’s no smoking gun directly tying the DHS or the FBI to the violent evictions or the decisions leading to them.*  But the documents show that focusing on the evictions per se was an analytic mistake of its own: federal agencies from the FBI to DHS to the National Park Service had laid the groundwork well before then.

PCFJ exec. director Mara Verheyden-Hilliard on “Democracy Now!”

A Democracy Now! segment summarizes the news of the document release:

…the FBI monitored Occupy Wall Street from its earliest days and treated the nonviolent movement as a potential terrorist threat. Internal government records show Occupy was treated as a potential threat when organizing first began in August of 2011. Counterterrorism agents were used to track Occupy activities, despite the internal acknowledgment that the movement opposed violent tactics. The monitoring expanded across the country as Occupy grew into a national movement, with FBI agents sharing information with businesses, local police agencies and universities.

Among the examples PCJF highlights:

  • As early as August 19, 2011, the FBI in New York was meeting with the New York Stock Exchange to discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests that wouldn’t start for another month. By September, prior to the start of the OWS, the FBI was notifying businesses that they might be the focus of an OWS protest. […]
  • The FBI in Anchorage reported from a Joint Terrorism Task Force meeting of November 3, 2011, about Occupy activities in Anchorage. Read the rest of this entry »

The “Zero Dark Thirty” interbranch torture propaganda war

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 24th, 2012

…followed by the highest-grossing propaganda effort in history?

The makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” may have just learned that there is such a thing as bad publicity.  Peter Bergen (CNN) reports:

On Wednesday, three senior U.S. senators sent Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures, a letter about “Zero Dark Thirty,” the much-discussed new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which described the film as “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

The letter, co-signed by Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and John McCain (R-AZ), states:

…We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative….

LA Times reporters Zeitchik and Keegan cut to the chase as far as Hollywood is concerned:

…a bipartisan thumbs-down from Washington may dim the once-bright Oscar chances for Kathryn Bigelow‘s fact-based thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden“You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. That’s not the case,” McCain said on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” adding that torture had yielded false information from detainees. The former prisoner of war explained that he was speaking out because “movies, particularly by very highly credentialed producers, directors and cast, [do] have an effect on public opinion — not only in the United States but around the world.”

Zeitchik and Keegan continue, apparently not ironically,

The slam — and on a subject as provocative as torture — is part of a public relations nightmare in an industry where perception often trumps reality.

…by which they seem to mean criticisms from the news cycle trumping box office receipts and cinematographic artistry.  If so, karma may be a bitch in this case, given that “perception trumping reality” is what the movie makers (arguably) did to position their movie as an Oscar-bait, kinda-sorta-documentary “based on first-hand accounts of actual events,” mainly-sorta-blockbuster in the first place.

Yet there’s something that doesn’t sit well about the senators’ position here either.  I don’t agree with the Washington Post’s  David Ignatius, who clutches at his pearls and calls  the senators’ letter “intemperate” and suggests the senators’ position “sounds like censorship.”  As to the former: good grief, who cares?  But as to the latter: first, “sounds like” ain’t “is.”  Second, it doesn’t even sound like it: the senators suggest setting the record straight — no more — about the movie’s lack of veracity, as they rightly (I suspect*) see it, on the subject of the paltry role that CIA depravity ultimately played in locating Bin Laden.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Monday after: “Stop the NRA” rally on Capitol Hill

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 20th, 2012

Stop the NRA Emergency March
(click for Facebook event page)

I’ve rarely been as upset by an event as by the Newtown killings; the only similar thing I can think of right now is 9/11.  On learning of the massacre on Friday, I’d thrown my papers at my computer screen, walked out of the office about for a minute, came back, angrily typed “FUCK THE GOD DAMNED NRA” on my Facebook page, hesitated for a moment, and posted it.

Deciding to go
Amid a variety of responses (mostly positive), one friend supplied some more coherent words to go with the sentiment:

“It’s like with the weather and global warming: We can’t say for certain that the NRA’s tooth-and-nail opposition to any sort of reasonable gun regulation anytime anywhere led directly to this particular incident. But we CAN say for certain that the NRA’s tooth-and-nail opposition to any sort of reasonable gun regulation anytime anywhere makes incidents like this one much more likely to happen. So, yes: FUCK THE GOD DAMNED NRA.” 

That’s it. This country has half the world’s firearms and 80% of the gun deaths among the 23 richest countries. Either we’re genetically crazier and meaner than anywhere else, or something else is going on.  I think it’s the militancy of the NRA, a combination lobbyist/chamber of gun commerce organization that helps make owning even the most absurdly overpowered gun seem virtuous to zealots, and that helps oppose even the most minimal of regulations.

So when I saw there was a plan to march to a DC office of the NRA, I felt like I had to join it or feel like I’d let myself down, even if it was during work hours.  I did so despite some misgivings: would this event become Exhibit X in gun advocates’ case that they’re the ones being persecuted?  Might it be better to just ignore the NRA and take our signs and demands elsewhere?  I decided I was overthinking it — especially once I saw the online gun nut hordes descend on the Facebook event page, sneering, jeering, and (I think) strongly suggesting to anyone else “wow, Adam Lanza probably thought all of this crazy stuff too.”

The event
I ducked out of work at 11:30*, and arrived at the gathering place at New Jersey and D Street, SE around noon — a few blocks from the Capitol Building, with its “in session” light on.

Three short videos: (1) demonstration, (2) interview with demonstrator
Deb Morris, (3) interview with demonstrator Mary Ester; all 3 play
automatically in sequence.  Or click a link for a single video.

I found a crowd of maybe a couple hundred people and what seemed like a couple of dozen newspeople and professional cameramen and -women.  (As ever, everybody had a camera or smart phone and was busily snapping pictures or recording the scene.)

An organizer reminded the crowd, perhaps unnecessarily, that “this is a solemn occasion,” and urged us not to get into confrontations with any counterprotesters.We then took the short, two block walk to the NRA Federal Affairs Division at 410 1st St SE — apparently in the same building as the popular “Bullfeathers” pub.  Either the  “Shame on the NRA!” chant felt a little too confrontational at first, or I’m not the only one who just doesn’t like chanting in unison in the first place.  But then a guy who turned out to be a Republican media consultant leaned out of his office window above a neighboring Subway store, and yelled “Arm the teachers!”  After that most of us were just fine with “Shame on the NRA.”

The rally itself was a little awkwardly staged, but served the purpose of learning just what the NRA’s many absurd legislative priorities and views are.  Organizers read each item in the 2012 NRA House Candidate Survey to the crowd — each paired with the name and age of one of the little victims in Newtown — and then we all answered together “NO we disagree about [lengthy NRA candidate survey position]!  Shame on the NRA!”  Since some of the items ran to forty words, this made for a slightly tedious demonstration experience, but whatever.  Here are the crowd responses prompted by the organizers, numbered to correspond to the NRA survey:

  1. I disagree with the NRA and would support legislation to ban the manufacture, sale or transfer of semi-automatic firearms and ammunition magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds of ammunition.
  2. I disagree with the NRA and oppose national Right-to-Carry reciprocity legislation.
  3. I believe that all firearms transactions — including private transfers between non-licensees, such as family members and friends — should be federally regulated, and I support additional legislation to require the federal government to approve all private firearms transfers.
  4. (NRA item skipped in rally list: Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco firearms sales reporting requirements in Southwestern states)
  5. I disagree with the NRA and believe imported firearms should be treated differently than identical American manufactured firearms.
  6. No, I disagree with the NRA [that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees a fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms and that it applies to all Americans regardless of where they live in the United States.] **
  7. I disagree with the NRA and oppose protection from disclosure of firearms trace data.
  8. I disagree with the NRA. All firearms should be banned.**

Read the rest of this entry »

The photograph that ought to defeat the NRA

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 15th, 2012

Children led from Sandy Hook ES in Newtown, CT after shooter rampage, told to keep their eyes shut on their
way out to keep from seeing blood and dead victims, and still following those instructions in the parking lot.
Because, I think, they’re (1) very, very good kids, and (2) they’re scared and in shock because (3) their country
and you and I have screwed up so very badly that we let this happen to them.
There have been so very, very many of these mass killings. Each time, practiced, sneering gun advocates emerge from the woodworks, explaining how it was the shooter, not the gun; any idea you have wouldn’t have prevented this particular crime; any idea you have would have just caused the crime to happen with a different weapon; shame on you for politicizing the tragedy; now is not the time to politicize the tragedy; the Second Amendment is all and only about what they say it’s about; etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

So fondly do I hope, fervently do I pray that this photograph shuts them the fuck up, even just for a merciful hour or two.

It cuts through the bullshit like nothing else I’ve seen since Napalm Girl.  People are good natured and generally retreat from vociferous advocates who are very sure of themselves.  But when you see this, you don’t want to retreat any more.  At least that’s how I feel when I see this.  We are such a failure of a country that these kids had to be led out howling and blind from a scene of horror.

People hate guns when they see this photograph, they hate the NRA when they see this photograph, and they hate people making excuses for guns and the NRA when they see this photograph.  They remember, sure, anyone who would do this is crazy somehow, but he’d have had a tougher time without a Glock, a Sig Sauer, and an M4 carbine.  And while they always kind of knew that, that howling girl and that blind leading the blind chain of good, scared little kids kind of makes you want to NEVER EVER LET THAT HAPPEN AGAIN and cheerfully deck the next person who comes along with sneering, pat argument number 19.  At least it does me.

Maybe this is all a long winded way of saying that photograph has me crying tonight, again, for the fourth or fifth time.

VARIOUS RELATED: Fuck You, Guns (Baker, via Gizmodo); “The NRA is the enabler of mass murderers” (Seitz-Wald,; Five Lies The Gun Lobby Tells You (Beauchamp, ThinkProgress); Now’s the time to talk guns (Walsh,; NRA Twitter goes silent (Daley,; Fuck Everything, Nation Reports. Just Fuck It All To Hell (Onion)

Zero Dark de Triomphe

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 14th, 2012

Roy Edroso takes on Glenn Greenwald’s recent piece on the upcoming “Zero Dark Thirty” movie, and rightly identifies several passages undermining Greenwald’s claim as “disingenuous” that his piece is all about critical reactions, and not about the movie itself.  Personally I feel like “so what?”   I think Greenwald’s basic point remains valid: many critics essentially said both “whoa, whutta movie! must see!” and “but ya know, it glorifies torture.” And that is indeed another data point for cultural Nate Silvers to add to their estimate of where our national handbasket is headed.

But yeah,  maybe Greenwald jumped the gun a bit by foolishly taking many reviewers at their word instead of waiting to see the movie for himself.  So did I, maybe: I set up a “Boycott Zero Dark Thirty” Facebook page before learning that Spencer Ackerman — a reporter for Wired who has seemed like a straight shooter over the years — argues the movie says that torture wasn’t the “silver bullet” but “the ignorant alternative”  to the kind of detective work that actually did find Bin Laden.

But this is the part of Roy’s piece I want to discuss:

“This is still more proof — as if more were needed — that you shouldn’t bring your political obsessions to the temple of art. It is both more personally edifying and more pleasing to the Muses to approach a work of art as a work of art, however obnoxious it may be to you on other grounds, than to approach it as a political phenomenon.”

Honestly, Roy, I’m sorry: baloney. I don’t have to see Zero Dark Thirty to know — OK, very, very strongly suspect — that it’s “art” the way the Roman Colosseum is art, or the Arc de Triomphe is art, or “Triumph of the Will” is art.

That is to say, OK, sure, it’s a kind of art — but it’s a kind serving to glorify the victories and rulers of the day and validate their people’s faith in them, and it’s fully intended to do so. Such art, unlike, say, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is therefore a political phenomenon too, and is completely fair game for political discussion. For that matter, so is a hell of a lot of the rest of the uplifting artstuff hanging on museum walls or flickering on screens for that matter: it’s what those who are good at saying well-compensated uplifting stuff say or have the power to say.

What is it Bigelow and Boal have the well-compensated power to say? E.g., how do Bigelow and Boal know what they think they know, how does it get that authentic, documentarian feel cinematic art consumers today crave?   Not just “the illusion of real time” in exciting night time raids but the ‘ripped from the headlines’ faithful[ness] to the material’?  Oh, right: they got it spoon fed to them — back when the prospective opening date was apparently advertised as October 12, not December 14.  Do the math.

Greenwald (and I for that matter) may have swung early and missed as far as ZD30 goes, but I’m betting there’s plenty there to hit. One way or the other, we’re on the cusp of our “pass the popcorn” phase of our national dialogue, such as it is, on torture.  Not every story at the intersection of art and politics is “Piss Christ” revisited, or about whether government should pay for controversial art or monitor its content.  Bigelow and ZD30 chose the kitchen, they can’t complain about the heat.  As long as the word “disingenuous” is floating around, it also seems a little disingenuous to claim the most highly anticipated political snuff movie ever is in the  “temple of art,” so leave it aloooooone.

On the other hand, though, I’m not sure about boycotting the thing any more.  It’s probably best to go ahead and see it if you’ve got to scratch that itch, or just to judge what, if anything, is wrong with it exactly.  I guess I do hope many, many Americans don’t enjoy it.

Screening the rushes for Zero Dark Thirty (and making sure there was a group photo).

Nailing down the new normal: Walmart, Obamacare, and part-time, low wage America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 7th, 2012

Last week the Huffington Post’s Alice Hines reported,

Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, plans to begin denying health insurance to newly hired employees who work fewer than 30 hours a week, according to a copy of the company’s policy obtained by The Huffington Post.

Under the policy, slated to take effect in January, Walmart also reserves the right to eliminate health care coverage for certain workers if their average workweek dips below 30 hours — something that happens with regularity and at the direction of company managers.

As several experts contacted for the story noted, the story is of a piece with other corporate actions responding to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with labor cutbacks, such as the Papa John’s, Applebee’s and Olive Garden/Red Lobster announcements (discussed a couple of weeks ago on this blog) that the companies intended to move workers from full-time to part-time status to take advantage of provisions in the ACA.

“Walmart likely thought it didn’t need to offer this part-time coverage anymore with Obamacare,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “This is another example of a tremendous government subsidy to Walmart via its workers.”  […] 

For Walmart employees, the new system raises the risk that they could lose their health coverage in large part because they have little control over their schedules. Walmart uses an advanced scheduling system to constantly alter workers’ shifts according to store traffic and sales figures.

[…] in recent interviews with The Huffington Post, several workers described their oft-changing schedules as a source of fear that they might earn too little to pay their bills. Many said they have begged managers to assign them additional hours only to see their shifts cut further as new workers were hired.

The new plan detailed in the 2013 “Associate’s Benefits Book” adds another element to that fear: the risk of losing health coverage. According to the plan, part-time workers hired in or after 2011 are now subject to an “Annual Benefits Eligibility Check” each August, during which managers will review the average number of hours per week that workers have logged over the past year.

As Marcy Wheeler (“emptywheel”) pointed out, she had already seen in late 2009 that “incenting s#!t plans” was an advertised feature of the developing health care “reform”, not a bug.  Writing that the proposal was “a Plan to Use Our Taxes to Reward Wal-Mart for Keeping Its Workers in Poverty,” she explained in 2009,

…if Wal-Mart wanted to avoid paying anything for its employees under MaxTax, it could simply make sure that none of them made more than $14,403 a year (they’d have to do this by ensuring their employees worked fewer than 40 hours a week, since this works out to be slightly less than minimum wage). Or, a single mom with two kids could make $24,352–a whopping $11.71 an hour, working full time. That’s more than the average Wal-Mart employee made last year. So long as Wal-Mart made sure its employees applied for Medicaid (something it already does in states where its employees are eligible), it would pay nothing. Nada, zip. Nothing.

The upshot?  Congratulations, America: you’re “subsidizing the gutting of our local economy so that the descendants of Sam [Walton] could continue to get disgustingly rich.”  Read the rest of this entry »

Van Hollen, Geithner reassure on earned benefits — but just for now

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 3rd, 2012

Ten days ago I wrote about this statement by my Congressman, Chris Van Hollen, to a Wall Street Journal symposium:

I think there are other things you can do — look, I’m open to a conversation about this. I think when it comes to things like Social Security, again, you’ve got to take a mixed approach. I mean if you look at Simpson-Bowles or other plans, again, they have a combination of additional revenue along with spending reform. — [Alan Murray, Wall Street Journal: But you’re willing to at least look at that?] — I’m willing to consider all these ideas as part of an overall plan. I don’t think we should jump to the solutions which simply … especially in Medicare, which simply transfer costs, and within Social Security, I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the SuperCommittee, but unfortunately to no avail.

As ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a key Democratic Party functionary (e.g., ex-DCCC chairman), Van Hollen’s views on budget matters are a fair indication of the Democratic position on issues like these.  So I wrote Van Hollen’s office, laying out my concerns and then inquiring, about the the above quote,

My first question: doesn’t that amount to being open to a Social Security benefit cut?  (Perhaps via what I think are called “chained cost of living adjustments”, i.e., a way of decreasing the adjustment for inflation?)  If not, why not?

My second question: Rep. Van Hollen then says, “I don’t think we should jump to the solutions which simply … especially in Medicare, which simply transfer costs, and within Social Security, I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the SuperCommittee, but unfortunately to no avail.”  What were those “other ideas”?

Late last week, I got an answer from Congressman Van Hollen’s press secretary Bridgett Frey, referring me to a Huffington Post article by Zach Carter, featuring the video embedded below in which Van Hollen said,

“With respect to Social Security, I agree with what the president has said and what [Rep.] Peter DeFazio said, Social Security is not part of the deficit and debt problem and we’re not going to raid Social Security in order to balance other parts of the budget. As the president has said you can deal with Social Security and try to strengthen it on its own terms but it should not be part of these other conversations.”

The video also shows a clip of Van Hollen refusing to go along with FOX News’ Martha Macallum’s suggestion to raise the Medicare eligibility age:

No.  There are much better ways of dealing with Medicare costs. Why wouldn’t people say, let’s look at ways where we can reduce the cost of Medicare without simply transferring rising health care costs?

Now both of those statements are great, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is urging supporters to thank Rep. Van Hollen for saying so.

So I did — in person, at a Saturday night fundraiser/birthday party for our State Senator Jamie Raskin — thanking my representative both for his opposition to raising the Medicare eligibility age and for decoupling Social Security from the immediate ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations.  I also asked about the ‘spending reforms’ Van Hollen had mentioned to the Wall Street Journal symposium — but unfortunately, all he had time to answer was that he felt Social Security would need to be addressed later.

How much later? I wondered, as Mr. Van Hollen headed off to the dais to praise our excellent State Senator.  While both Van Hollen’s statements are welcome, they don’t actually take Social Security off the table altogether, they simply postpone its consideration.  That may well be a win for now (in which case: thanks, for now), but it left my questions unanswered about what specific kinds of “spending reforms” Van Hollen is hinting he might support later on — and it doesn’t answer just how soon that might be.

Read the rest of this entry »