Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ferguson Nation: Michael Brown,
Ezell Ford and the war at home

ON AUG. 18, 18-year-old Michael Brown was scheduled to start classes at the Sunset Hills campus of Vatterott College, a technical school with branches in Memphis, Des Moines and Wichita.

Instead, Michael Brown died on Saturday. In that dry recitation of facts are the seeds of a new American tragedy, one that’s been happening in fits and starts across the country as militarization by local law-enforcement authorities is brought to bear against all enemies, real and imagined, foreign ... and domestic.

Brown was walking down the street in the Canfield Green apartment complex in Ferguson, Mo., on Saturday with his friend Dorian Johnson when the two were approached by a police officer in a vehicle. The officer apparently exchanged words with the two, then attempted to get out of his car.

From there the narratives diverge.

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A police report apparently filed by the officer who shot Brown said either Brown or Johnson shoved him back into the vehicle and then grappled with him for his sidearm, firing a shot inside the car. The two ran, and the officer once again stepped from his vehicle and shot at the fleeing teenagers multiple times, killing Brown, who was unarmed.

Johnson said Brown was retreating from the officer with his hands up when he was shot. Gawker reported that Johnson recalled Brown saying “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting!” with his hands in the air. Johnson said the officer then fired several more shots.

The shooting has unleashed a wave of rage among the city’s black residents. Protests and looting soon followed; Ferguson is now in its fifth straight day of protest; SWAT officers arrived Wednesday night to put down a generally peaceful protest. What followed was a running battle whose visual aspects could be superimposed on conflicts in Gaza: the trappings of a war zone.

Brown was shot at least once, and possibly (eyewitnesses say) several times. The actual number of shots fired is being kept under wraps by the Ferguson Police Department. So is the identity of the officer who killed him, a violation of the state Sunshine Law.

And Ferguson police went further in trying to control the situation; two journalists, one from The Huffington Post, the other from The Washington Post, were detained and roughed up before being released, for the act of doing their jobs reporting what is now an international story.

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In news videos, Ferguson police are seen not just at the ready but locked and loaded in the extreme, bristling with body armor and camo, armored personnel carriers and tear gas, stun grenades and M4 rifles — an armamentarium more at home on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan than in a city of 21,100 people 12 miles northwest of the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

Iraq war veteran Phillip Carter writes in today’s Daily Beast: “[T]o a police force with such a military arsenal, every problem potentially looks like one that can be solved with military force. In hindsight, the Ferguson police department’s heavy-handed response to protests arguably caused the situation to escalate into the crisis that exists today.”

Rethinking Africa: The summit and where it leads

THIS IS probably something we should’ve done a long time ago.” Former president Bill Clinton said that last week, in what could be, economically speaking, the understatement of this decade — and maybe the next one. Clinton was one of several dignitaries and present and former heads of state attending the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit in Washington.

His coulda-shoulda statement distills the longstanding official attitudes toward Africa, and underscores the generations of missed opportunities for investing in that continent, and just how far the United States has to go to catch up doing what it shoulda done already.

The summit provided an opportunity for the world to recalibrate its perception of, and its attitude toward, the youngest and fastest-growing continent on the planet, the source of six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies.

As much as anything else, though, last week’s gathering of the American leadership, business leaders and African heads of state had a power simply by virtue of it happening in the first place — by forcing the world’s tweet-brief attention span to focus on a part of the world that rarely makes the evening news in a context unconnected to misery and deprivation.

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On August 5, Obama hailed “the new Africa that’s emerging” ater decades of languishing in the shadow of the world’s recognition, on the margins of progress. “More countries are reforming, attracting a record level of foreign investment,” the American president said; “it is the youngest, fastest-growing continent, full of people with dreams and ambitions.”

Obama says it’s time to exploit Africa’s greatest natural resource: “its people, its talent and its potential.”

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. We have to do better — much better,” Obama said. “I want Africans buying more American products and I want Americans buying more African products.”

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TODD MOSS, the chief development officer for the Center for Global Development, told MSNBC how much of the battle to be fought is one of perception: “This is not the Africa of 10 or 20 years ago. People think of a country like Ethiopia, they imagine people are starving. Well, Ethiopia’s been growing at 10 percent or more for at least a decade.”

“It’s really become a continent of tremedous economic dynamism, lots of economic opportunity,” Moss said. “We are going through this once-in-a-lifetime transition of families sending their first child to college. They’re buying their first refrigerator, the first car in the family...”

This emerging modernity runs counter to the still very real perception of Africa as geopolitical backwater, economic basket case, epidemiological ground zero — Africa as “the dark continent.” The persistence of this monstrous fiction has over time led to the historical unwillingness of developing economies and major corporations to invest in Africa. That’s starting to change. Just ask the Chinese.

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Max Nisen in Quartz reports: “Last year, the US had about $85 billion in bilateral trade with Africa; China reported more than double that with $210 billion.

“China also beats the US in commercial envoys; it has commercial attachés in 54 African countries, compared to the US commerce department’s eight. China is also making massive investments in infrastructure. The ongoing summit is the largest such event ever held in the US, but seems conspicuously late.”

Give Obama credit for realizing that, for any number of reasons/excuses, the United States is late to the party — and for understanding that for this to really work, it can’t be a one-off affair.

“Given the success we’ve had this week, we agree that summits like this can be a critical part of our work together going forward, a forcing mechanism for decisions and action,” he said. “The U.S.-Africa summit will be a recurring event.”

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JEFF IMMELT, General Electric’s chief executive officer, sees what’s coming, and what’s already happened. “We kind of gave Africa to the Europeans first and the Chinese later. Today [it] is wide open for us,” said, to Politico’s Eric Bradner.

To that end, the White House announced, the Export-Import Bank will assist in financing the sale of $560 million worth of GE locomotives to Transnet, South Africa’s largest freight transporter. GE also announced plans to invest $2 billion by 2018 to assist African countries in training programs meant to help those countries secure more American infrastructure and energy projects, InTheCapital reported on Aug. 7.

The Politico story handily boils down some of the other business pledges:

“The Overseas Private Investment Corp. is committing $1 billion to finance and insure business investments in Africa, and the Agriculture Department will guarantee $1 billion in agricultural exports to the continent over the next two years. ...

“IBM, meanwhile, said it has struck a $100 million deal to handle information technology for Fidelity Bank of Ghana.

“Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which is aimed at helping 600 million sub-Saharan Africans gain access to electricity, got a boost as well when World Bank President Jim Yong Kim announced $5 billion in financing guarantees for the project. The private equity firm Blackstone Group and business conglomerate Dangote Industries also vowed to invest $5 billion into African energy projects over the next five years.”

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For Hanna Tetteh, Ghana's minister of foreign affairs, said energy, agriculture and telecommunications are key to the continent’s future.

“Energy is really the number one game changer in terms of investment that Africa requires in order for us to be part of a bigger, more competitive, more integrated global market," Tetteh said In an Aug. 9 interview with USA Today. "One of the challenges we have is that we don't have sufficient energy to be able to power all the other businesses and services that are dependent on it to be able to move.”

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Tea Party, hot water II:
Bad primary news gets worse

WE’RE advised not to seek perfection in our lives, at the risk of inevitably being disappointed. There are, of course, exceptions to its unexpected pursuit and the thoroughly expected outcome: the regular seasons of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, for example, or the 2007 New England Patriots. And there are other exceptions. Some seek out perfection, others have perfection thrust upon them.

The Tea Party fits this second description, well, perfectly. The timed-release train wreck of this leadership-averse conservative political movement continued late last week, with three defeats in about as many days of the calendar:

On Thursday, Lamar Alexander, the 12-year senator and former governor of Tennessee, secured the Republican nomination in that state’s GOP primary election, beating back a challenge from Rep. Joe Carr. Carr was backed by such Tea Party theoreticians as Laura Ingraham and political personality Sarah Palin, the former nominal Alaska governor. Like other Tea Party candidates in other states, he conducted a ritual attack on Alexander’s time in office, and on his position on immigration reform. In the end, it was sound and fury signifying nothing but a nine-point loss.

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On Tuesday, Michigan foreclosure attorney Dave Trott defeated Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, the reindeer farmer and so-called “accidental congressman” whose rise to power began when he replaced nutball incumbent Thaddeus McCotter, who resigned amid a scandal in 2012.

Trott got 66 percent of the vote to Bentivolio’s 34 percent with all precincts in, The Associated Press reported. Trott will face Democrat Bobby McKenzie, a scholar and State Department counterterrorism adviser, in November.

“Trott’s victory is a boon for the Michigan Republican establishment,” Politico reported. “As party support lined up behind Trott, Bentivolio was left largely unprotected, a development made worse by a series of missteps within his campaign. Though the incumbent retained the support of tea-party and socially-conservative groups, his campaign struggled to raise money and was ultimately unable to afford TV advertising.”

Also on Tuesday, in a high-profile death blow to the optics and perception of the Tea Party as a viable entity, Republican Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts turned back a challenge from diagnostic radiologist, conservative columnist and Tea Party darling Dr. Milton Wolf — this despite a campaign statement by Roberts that might have been turned into a liability by a more nimble, well-capitalized opponent.

The longstanding Tea Party math, by which opposition to a politician in office = equal to that politician’s time in office, found no takers in the Jayhawk State — or not enough people willing to conflate seniority with ineptitude. "He has just been so strong for the state of Kansas," said Roberts supporter Margie Robinow to The Wall Street Journal.

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THIRTY-ODD years in Washington gives you a good grasp of political politesse. Roberts, speaking to a crowd at a victory rally, called for unity in the fall. "We cannot afford a fractured party. The stakes are just too high," he said in Overland Park. “Republicans cannot afford the kind of intraparty fratricide that we have seen recently.” Spending that kind of time in D.C., you also develop a nose for where the money is. Roberts raised an estimated $3.2 million for his campaign; Wolf raised about $1 million.

Wolf’s insurgent campaign got some loft for a while. He had the support of the Senate Conservatives Fund, the Tea Party Express and RedState’s Erick Erickson, among others. Wolf may have had his best shot when Roberts told The New York Times that he didn’t own a home in Kansas, and used a donor's place as his official residence in the state he represents. In a radio interview, Roberts said he visits Kansas "every time I have an opponent."

It didn’t matter. Experience and deeper pockets won the day. Roberts moves on to the general in November, taking on Chad Taylor, who won the Democratic primary. Roberts is expected to lock it up.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Drawing the humanitarian sword in Iraq

WITH A potentially momentous eight-minute address last night from the State Dining Room of the White House, President Obama drew a figurative line in the Iraqi sand with a double-edged American sword, daring the latest terrorist danger to cross that line.

With a humanitarian instinct wrapped in the high-tech mailed glove of power, the president outlined a strategy that may usher in a new limited use of American military force in Iraq, the country we just can’t get away from. The question unanswered — the question no one’s even addressed — is just how “limited” limited can be when that terrorist threat has proven it’s no respecter of lines, or boundaries, of any kind.

The president ordered U.S. fighters to make “targeted” strikes against the forces of ISIL (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) if they advanced toward the city of Erbil, home to 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds and hundreds of American diplomats moved recently from the embassy in Baghdad. He also announced that C-17 and C-130 cargo planes, accompanied by two F/A-18 fighters, had completed a humanitarian mission, delivering 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 pre-packaged meals to perhaps as many as 40,000 Yezidis, Iraqi ethnic minorities hiding from ISIL forces in the Sinjar mountains.

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TO STOP the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city,” he said late Thursday. “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad. We’re also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL.

“Second, at the request of the Iraqi government, we’ve begun operations to help save Iraqi civilians stranded on the mountain. ...

“In recent days, Yezidi women, men and children from the area of Sinjar have fled for their lives. And thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — are now hiding high up on the mountain, with little but the clothes on their backs. They’re without food, they’re without water. People are starving. And children are dying of thirst. Meanwhile, ISIL forces below have called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yezidi people, which would constitute genocide. So these innocent families are faced with a horrible choice: Descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger.

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The Yezidis, who adhere to an ancient religion with links to Christianity, Judaism and the Zoroastrian faith, fled their homes after ISIL forces demanded they convert to Islam or be put to death.

“I’ve said before, the United States cannot and should not intervene every time there’s a crisis in the world, Obama said. “So let me be clear about why we must act, and act now. When we face a situation like we do on that mountain — with innocent people facing the prospect of violence on a horrific scale, when we have a mandate to help — in this case, a request from the Iraqi government — and when we have the unique capabilities to help avert a massacre, then I believe the United States of America cannot turn a blind eye. We can act, carefully and responsibly, to prevent a potential act of genocide. That’s what we’re doing on that mountain.”

The president offered what amounts to a two-pronged attack against ISIL, each representing one side of America’s geopolitical character: the soft power of goodwill, good works and the advance of storied American values; and, if necessary, the hard power of unrivaled military might, and its sometimes accidentally indiscriminate application.

Obama went to great lengths to put distance between this mission and the war in Iraq that formally ended in December 2011, rhetorically dismissing any possibility of history repeating.

“As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq,” Obama said. “And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.”

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BUT IMPORTANTLY, officials told The Associated Press that the United States would be ready to provide more such humanitarian airdrops if necessary. And of course they will be necessary.

A seemingly simple act of humanitarian largesse thus runs the risk of becoming dangerously complicated in the days and weeks to come, because of the second edge of the mission — the military one. Imagine the Berlin airlift conducted with Soviet tanks ready to fire on U.S. supply planes without provocation.

Last night the president said the actions just taken and announced are part of “a broader strategy that will empower Iraqis to confront this crisis,” militarily. That was an echo of what he said in June, before the impact and threat of ISIS became more widely recognized. It was then that Obama said the United States reserved the right to execute “targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it.”

The targeted and precise hypothetical that the president advanced two months ago is now real, or likely to be so, and responding to that sudden or emerging reality raises operational questions that may not be easily answered.

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The first matter is assessing what “the situation on the ground” really is now and will be in the weeks to come. With no combat footprint in Iraq, getting credible, actionable intelligence will necessarily be a challenge, one that the Iraqi military and even the game Kurdish troops aren’t up to helping with yet.

The second matter is containing a situation on the ground that’s been out of our control (or anyone else’s) from the beginning. ISIL has spread like a virus across Syria and Iraq. As of Thursday, elements of the terrorist group are said to be about 40 miles from Erbil and moving characteristically fast.

It’s this dual, fluid ISIL threat — to Americans hunkering down in Erbil and to Yezidis doing the same in the Sinjar mountains — that complicates hopes of a surgical American response to either situation.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Into the rabbit hole: Murdoch’s bid for Time Warner

WHAT RUPERT wants, Rupert gets.” Those five words have been a maxim of the modern media world for so long now, it’s hard to remember when that wasn’t true. Like some modern-day version of a Barbary Coast buccaneer, Keith Rupert Murdoch has swept the high seas of media, creating or acquiring numerous high-profile media properties in the years since he was a maverick newspaper publisher in his native Australia.

The New York Post, Fox News, 21st Century Fox (the kinda-sorta-rechristened movie studio) and Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal have fallen under his sword in the last 40 years. On Friday, his flagship company, News Corporation, acquired the Harlequin romance novel publisher for $418 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.

He’s not the rabid, swashbuckling velociraptor he used to be — he is 83, after all — but Jolly Rupert is still planning one more jewel for his crown, one last big job. Since early June he’s been quietly leading the charge for his 21st Century Fox to acquire Time Warner, the information and entertainment behemoth, for just north of $80 billion, or about $85 in cash and stock.

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When the news that Rupert was loose again first broke, early in July, you could smell the hair on fire in Hollywood and the Time Warner boardroom in New York. The shock of the speculation itself conferred a gravity on the speculation. But that didn’t last. The big pushback has begun, with Time Warner rejecting the bid on July 16, and undertaking various preventive measures intended to block acquisition by Fox — joining  Hollywood creatives equally opposed to what such corporate gigantism would almost certainly mean for their livelihoods.

Everyone’s waiting for Tuesday, August 6, when Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, reports second-quarter earnings, almost certainly fielding questions from board members who wonder if rejecting $85 a share is a good idea for a company whose shares were riding handsomely in the low 70’s earlier this year.

It’s been almost exactly seven years since Rupert Murdoch last successfully scratched his itch for empire, with his acquisition of Dow Jones, the information giant and owner of The Wall Street Journal. Like Warner Bros.’ eternal mascot Bugs Bunny, Time Warner is hunkering down, prepping for the coming assault — not from Elmer Fudd, but from Murdoch ... who has a habit of getting what he wants.

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BUT THIS time Murdoch is again doubling down on the media strategy of gigantism-as-leverage that was crumbling in 2007. In the years since then, social media, seismic shifts in content distribution, advances in personal technology and a more informationally intuitive Internet have changed the game.

Murdoch Fox may be the big kid of the schoolyard, but that doesn’t matter when there are a lot more kids in that schoolyard. Lean, strong, hungry, well-capitalized kids. Any one of which could make a bid for Time Warner that would make more sense.

If it comes down to share price, Murdoch may have to sweeten the pot. A lot. And unlike in August 2007, there’s more players at the table now.

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Let’s name some of the names. Since Time Warner’s been put in play, such companies as Verizon and Comcast have been mentioned as possible suitors. Comcast isn’t likely to make a bid, having really just digested its acquisition of NBC Universal. For Hollywood, too, the prospect of combining Universal Studios and Warner Bros. into one company can’t be any more attractive than wedding Fox and Warners, and for exactly the same reasons.

A Time Warner-Verizon tie-up wouldn’t appear to make sense either. Verizon isn’t a content or entertainment company, regardless of how much content or entertainment is accessed by Verizon phone customers. At first blush, the potential for culture clash (to say the least) would be a concern.

How would Bugs Bunny feel about eating apples along with his carrots? Apple, a player with a history of jaw-dropping innovations and a reputation to revive in the wake of Steve Jobs’ death in 2011, would be an interesting partner for Time Warner, a marriage of Time Warner’s content and Apple’s devices and services. And with a market cap of $460 billion and $150 billion in cash on hand, Apple could cut a check for Time Warner without breaking much of a sweat.

Moody’s senior VP Neil Begley told Digital TV Europe that if big tech acquired Time Warner, “digital innovators could gain access to content and drive more rapid change in the digital and mobile worlds.”

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AND THEN there’s the big G. Analysts have been name-dropping Google ($360 billion market cap, $60 billion cash on hand) as a possible Time Warner suitor. For one media insider, this is a scenario that makes the most sense.

Anthony DiClemente, media analyst at Nomura, told Dominic Rushe of The Guardian: “At some point, technology companies such as Google or Amazon or Apple may begin to identify the value of professional content – and rather than licence that content, they may attempt to acquire a media content company.”

In a way that’s already happened — when Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, acquired The Washington Post last year. True enough, the WashPost buy was with Bezos’ own money and isn’t formally connected to Amazon. But you’d have to be naïve to think that Bezos won’t find ways to integrate Amazon and The Post before long.

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Animated by its own presumptive speculation, Murdoch Fox has already announced that it would sell its direct broadcast business, BSkyB, for about $9 billion, to help pay for a deal that hasn’t been consummated. And CNN, the flagship 24-hour news network, would also go on the block if the deal goes through — a fact that deserves to send shivers through many vertebrae in Atlanta.

But that needn’t be a disaster. If CNN is set adrift, it would be the perfect opportunity for CBS to make a bid for the assets of the 24-hour cable network that started it all. Speculation has ebbed and flowed in recent years about the likelihood of a full-on merger of CBS and CNN.

The two legacy news operations have joined forces before, picking their spots. Christiane Amanpour and Anderson Cooper have made appearances on CBS “60 Minutes,” in their roles as correspondents. This time, with Fox seeking a buyer if Murdoch’s stars malign, CNN could be just what’s needed to give CBS the entrée into cable it’s never had (or exploited) before.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Fifth of July: Our not-quite freedom summer

MAYA ANGELOU took to Twitter on May 23 to send us a message, using the uncaged blue bird of the Internet to sing to us one more time. “Listen to yourself,” she tweeted, “and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

And then, five days later, at the age of 86, she was gone. And like before, like always, she was everywhere.

She was so much and so long a part of our cultural foundation, it’s hard to think of when her voice and grace and style weren’t around to carry us through the rough passages of the national life. Her poetical voice speaks eloquently for itself; what’s been less thoroughly documented in the reservoir of posthumous praise is her standing as a rights activist in the 50’s and 60’s.

From her work with W.E.B. duBois in Ghana to a leadership role in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, elbow to elbow with Martin Luther King Jr., to taking her place with Malcolm X in internationalizing the scope of understanding America’s racial dilemma, she set an example of all of us.

Her absence preceded another, one more deficit in the great American chain. The death of Ruby Dee, on June 11 at the age of 91, was another body blow for anyone who valued her work as an actress (from “Raisin in the Sun” to “American Gangster”) and another civil rights activist at the height of that era of our troubles.

Their losses, their absence on the cusp of this historic American season are measured against those of 50 years earlier, and the gains we’ve made since. Against all odds.

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In its reliable zeal for even-numbered observances, the media takes note of this as the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, the time of the historic voter registration drive meant to emancipate the American South of an undying racially-inspired chicanery at the ballot box.

June 21 marked the 50th anniversary of the disappearance of Michael Henry Schwerner, James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman, the triptych saints of Freedom Summer, three men who came south to register African Americans to vote, and who were shot to death sometime that day, their Ford station wagon torched and their bodies bulldozed 17 feet under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss. They wouldn’t be discovered for another six weeks.

In a federal trial in 1967, seven men were convicted of federal charges of conspiracy and violating the workers’ civil rights. They were sentenced to prison terms of from three to 10 years. Edgar Killen, a Baptist minister and former recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, was tried for the killings, but escaped conviction when a lone juror refused to convict him. Seven others also were acquitted.

In January 2005 Killen was arrested again, this time on state charges. His state trial began in June 2005, and he was convicted of manslaughter later that month. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal of his conviction last November.

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FOR MISSISSIPPI — an epicenter of the nation’s racial upheavals and a barometer of its changing racial tolerance — past is prologue. Benjamin Chaney, James’ younger brother, told me in June 2005: “If there was any interest on the part of the state of Mississippi to bring these people to justice, then all the people still alive and involved in this would have been brought to the grand jury.”

“We have all the evidence showing law enforcement officers involved," said Dave Dennis, the co-organizer of Freedom Summer, in June 2005. "The people who did this were much more widespread. ... This was a conspiracy on the part of the state of Mississippi and its elected officials to deter African Americans from their constitutional right to vote.”

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Tea Party in hot water:
Rewriting the rules in Mississippi, and elsewhere

UNLESS YOU’VE been vacationing under a rock on the floor of the Marianas Trench, you certainly know about the deeply passionate, teeth-grinding rage now endured by the Tea Party movement, in the wake of the latest in a series of embarrassing defeats, one of which recalibrates the received wisdom about race and Republican politics. Conservatives haven’t been this upset in weeks.

The Tea Party’s candidate in Mississippi for the U.S. Senate, state Sen. Chris McDaniel, 42, got schooled on Tuesday by the incumbent, Sen. Thad Cochran, 76, a Republican senator for 35 years; a man with the closest thing to a courtly demeanor the Republicans have had for a long time; a Mississippian who was first elected senator when McDaniel was all of seven venerable years old.

Tea Party defeat was contagious on Tuesday. In Oklahoma, Rep. James Lankford handily defeated former state House Speaker T.W. Shannon in the GOP Senate primary. Shannon, who is Native American and African-American, had the support of Tea Party darlings Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and former Alaska governor and political personality Sarah Palin®, in the race to succeed the retiring Tom Coburn.

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Besides the obvious generational derision McDaniel may be privately enduring — hot damn, Chris, you let that old man beat you? What’s the world coming to? — he and the Tea Partiers are also forced to confront a fallacy in their fundamental distrust in congressional longevity: Since no one gets to be a senator for a single 35-year stretch, what happened in Mississippi on Tuesday was, at the end of the day, Mississippi’s latest vote of confidence in Thad Cochran.

For all the attention on Cochran’s narrow but deafening victory over McDaniel last night (by 2 points, a margin too thin for a sheet of paper to get through), despite the concerns about Cochran’s age and controversy over his campaign tactics and some intemperate statements made on the eve of Tuesday’s vote, you have to look back about eight years to see why he won this week.

In April 2006, Time, in a catalog of profiles of what the magazine called “America's 10 Best Senators,” quoted a senior Republican senator talking about Cochran and what made his strong re-election record possible: “He doesn't get a whole lot of play in terms of coverage,” the senator said, “but he is effectively stubborn doing what needs to be done.”

Thirty-five years is a long time to keep a job you’re not doing the right way.

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LOSING WAS bad enough for McDaniel and the Mississippi Tea Party. What’s made it worse — the sting that’s been resonating throughout conservative ranks in general — is the fact that Cochran’s margin of victory in Tuesday’s open primary was probably made possible by Democratic voters. Black Democratic voters.

They’re still working out the numbers, but it’s apparent that African American voters supported Cochran over McDaniel. In the process, Cochran and those voters have rewritten the longstanding equation that defines the racial politics of Mississippi — and other states too. The enemy of my enemy is my friend indeed.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The NFL’s backward forward progress

PARTLY THROUGH its own intention and partly because of market forces (read: the evolution of modern society), the National Football League has been in a maturation process lately, moving in something between a lurch and a confident stroll toward a future it can only partly predict, and can’t prevent at all. If only the NFL could make up its mind to move consistently in one direction.

On June 12, the St. Louis Rams announced that the team had signed all 11 players it picked in the 2014 draft; that includes Michael Sam, the former Missouri defensive standout and the first openly gay player to be drafted in pro football history. Sam, the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, has since signed with the Rams for an estimated four-year, $2.65 million deal. Sam tweeted that he was “Grateful, humbled and motivated” after officially signing with the team.

We’ll see how well he does where it counts; the real crucible, Rams training camp, begins on July 25. But the NFL’s already had a role in helping make history nationally and at the state level. The Rams' choice of Michael Sam may have a big legal impact on the lives of gay couples and employees across the state of Missouri, thanks to a measure in the state’s legislature.

“The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act or MONA would extend the existing Missouri Human Rights Statute to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories,” Christina Coleman reported May 12 in USA Today. “It would protect the LGBT community from discrimination in the work place. The bill, HB 1930, went before the house for public hearing on March 13th. It has yet to pass.”

Months earlier, even before the draft happened, the NFL admirably made its feelings known in a Feb. 9 statement: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

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THE NFL took another walk into modern times recently; it’s not as important as the league’s official position on Michael Sam, but it’s welcome if you’ve ever tried grappling with Roman numerals.

On June 4, the NFL announced that, effective in 2016, it would abandon use of the Roman numerals for titling of the Super Bowl. The league’s practice of using Roman numerals for every championship game since 1971 has always reflected a pompous, self-important sense of the gladiatorial, as if running backs were centurions and head coaches were emperors. Simply put, it was getting old.

The official title of the Super Bowl earlier this year got its fair share of derision, with people calling it “Super Bowl X-L-V-I-I-I,” pronouncing the letters and skipping the Roman enumeration for the number 48 altogether. The NFL’s change for Super Bowl 50, in MMXVI — sorry, 2016 — will short-circuit that embarrassment.

But apparently, bewilderingly, just for a while: Jack Jorgensen at reports that the league will go back to Roman numerals again in 2017 (double-M, X-V-I-I). Which begs the question of why they’re making the change in the first place. Some old habits don’t die hard; they just don’t die at all.

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Among these is the NFL’s dogged resistance to join the rest of us in the 21st century in coming to terms with the ugliness of a term for Native Americans that the league, and one of its legacy teams, has attempted to legitimize with innocence.

Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington National Football League team, has repeatedly refused to change the longstanding obscenity of the team’s name, the Washington Redskins. Snyder has used a number of excuses: historical precedent; a fan base that wouldn’t tolerate the change; the divine right of team owners. He’s been given a major assist from ... the NFL itself. Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior vice president of law and labor policy, and an African American at that, said on May 30 that “the team name is not a slur.”

"The team name is the team name as it has been for 80-plus years," he said on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” "And what we need to do is get beyond sort of understanding this as a point-blank situation and understand it more as a variety of perspectives that all need to be addressed, that all need to be given some weight, so that at the end of it we can come to some understanding that is appropriate and reflects the opinions of all."

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THE UNITED STATES Patent Office begs to differ. On Wednesday, the government agency’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled, 2-1, that the Washington Redskins name is "disparaging of Native Americans" and that six of the team's Redskins trademarks must be canceled. “We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be canceled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” the TTBA opinion says.

The team won’t immediately lose its trademark protection and can keep it pending an appeal. But the team will lose much of the protection that a federal trademark confers: it now becomes harder for the team to pursue legal claims against anyone who wants to print the name on sweatshirts or other apparel.

And the court of sports-minded public opinion has been weighing in. Keith Olbermann has made the name change issue an almost regular topic on his ESPN program. And in a powerful moral stand, Seattle Times sports editor Don Shelton wrote Wednesday that “It’s time to ban the use of ‘Redskins,’ the absurd, offensive and outdated name of the NFL team in Washington, D.C. Past time, actually. …

“We’re banning the name for one reason: It’s offensive,” Shelton said. “Far from honoring Native Americans, the term colors an entire race. Many Native Americans consider it an outdated label placed on their people.”

Shelton noted that The Times has company. “We’re not the only newspaper that has decided against using it,” he wrote Wednesday. “The Oregonian in Portland and The Kansas City Star banned it in the 1990s, and The Orange County Register recently did, too. I suspect that list will swell.”

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It’s the off-season right now, but just like all the teams that comprise the NFL, the league has some work to do before the 2014 season gets underway. More than anything else, the NFL has to come to grips with the fact that maturity — real maturity — isn’t a situational experience. Either you grow up or you don’t.

It’s the height of hypocrisy to make serious social strides, recognizing that the world doesn’t begin and end on the football field, when the league acknowledges the value of inclusion of gay athletes at the same time it embraces derogatory labels that contradict everything its position on gay athletes represents.

The Michael Sam statement and the Redskins controversy show that the National Football League and its commissioner, Roger S. Goodell, have been trying to have it both ways. That’s not going to work for much longer. A groundswell of popular opinion is sending a message a football-savvy commissioner and the league he represents should understand by now: You can’t make a forward pass and a lateral at the same time.

Image credits: NFL logo, NFL Super Bowl 50 logo: © and ® 2014 National Football League. Michael Sam tweet by its originator.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Anathema inamorata:
Iraq, Iran, the media and U.S. history repeating

THE GORDIAN knot of America’s misadventure in Iraq has re-knotted itself in a way that renounces the received wisdom about the United States’ relationship with its Sworn Nemesis, the Republic of Iran. A quick Google hunt of the phrase “enemy of my enemy is my friend” brings up a full few pages of links to recent stories, new work borrowing the phrase for use in a context whose sudden, tragic irony is inescapable.

You don’t even have to read the stories to know: the tables have turned on our relative certainties of who our friends are — or, if not friends, at least those adversaries whose interests improbably dovetail with our own.

The pending U.S. association with Iran was brought to you by the black-clad, masked Sunni operatives of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (alternately, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL), who in the past months (and especially weeks) have swept from Syria into Iraq, crashing around the desert, slaughtering scores of captured Iraqi soldiers, intimidating the local populations, siphoning petrodollars from captured refineries, and looting banks of currency and gold bullion to the tune of more than a billion dollars.

Flush with cash, weapons, fundamentalist fervor and some of the American technology left in the hands of the Iraqi soldiers who abandoned their posts (and their uniforms), ISIS forces are continuing a lightning-fast drive toward Baghdad, with the apparent intent of toppling Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shia government has pledged to “liberate every inch” of land captured by the Sunni invaders.

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Maliki — who has cut Sunnis out of the Iraqi political process at every turn over eight years in office — is reaping the whirlwind, aggressively pursuing a strategy that, left unchecked or unchanged, will almost certainly ensure his transformation from the president of the Republic of Iraq to, in practical terms, not much more than the mayor of Baghdad.

“He isn’t making the gestures to Sunnis,” said David Rohde of Reuters, last week on MSNBC. “He’s deciding, essentially, to fight this out in a sectarian form, and it’ll lead to the division of the country. He can control Baghdad and the south, but not the areas he’s lost.”

“It’s a horrible thing that is happening. It is traumatic and horrible,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commanded U.S. forces in northern Iraq in 2007 and 2008, told McClatchy. “But they knew it was happening. We tried to tell them this would happen unless they were more inclusive.”

Hertling said Iraq without al-Maliki might be an improvement.

“The trust between government and its forces and people is based on past behaviors and performance,” he said. “And in some circles, both inside and outside Iraq, Maliki has lost all trust.”

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IN OTHER ways, though, this Is bigger and more problematic than Maliki. Carne Ross, a former British diplomat who resigned over Britain’s role in the Iraq war, observed: “In a way, what we’re seeing is the epic playing out, the denouement of the neocon project in Iraq. In a sense, the post-invasion order that was established by the U.S. ... is collapsing.”

And in that collapse, in that vacuum, the same neocon voices and positions that pulled the United States into war in 2003 are rising again. They’re baaaack and singing the same old tune, but singing it in a mediasphere that’s more crowded (and by definition more open to rhetoric than to fact) than it ever was before.

In the last two weeks, former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, former Iraqi ambassador J. Paul Bremer III, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol and other jurassics from the heyday of the Bush #43 neocon era have gone on a panoramic media offensive, taking to The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, CNN, NBC and ABC to defend the positions that ushered us into war in the first place.

Douglas Feith, former Bush undersecretary of defense for policy, cleared his throat in Politico, taking the Obama White House to task for its Iraq policies. Astonishingly, Feith’s central role in the first Iraq war — as a leading architect of the WMD rationale used to legitimize it — wasn’t even mentioned by Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere, who quoted Feith several times in a June 12 story.

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Once you set aside the reflex musculature of such automatic hawks (and others like Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has for months advocated for a heavier boots-on-soil American military posture in the region), there didn’t seem to be many effective immediate options, besides the ritual consideration of drone strikes — something almost certain to be ineffective with no people on the ground.

“Target-level detail intelligence is hard to come by in the best of conditions,” said retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, on MSNBC. “The problem with ISIS and insurgents is, they hug the population. The bombs don’t discriminate; when you’ve got a lot people in a tight space, not all of [them] are enemy people.”

That absence of options changed when President Obama announced Thursday what was probably inevitable to those in Washington, and probably unthinkable to the American public: Obama notified Congress that he was sending up to 300 U.S. special operations troops, probably Green Berets, “to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad” and to assess “how we can best train, advise and support Iraqi security forces going forward.”

Obama also is considering sending as many as 100 to Iraq to advise its armed forces as it battles the insurgents, according to a senior U.S. official, as reported by McClatchy.

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YOU’RE NOW invited to experience that sinking feeling, that pit-of-the-stomach déjà vu that accompanies doing something a second time when it shouldn’t have been done the first time. You’re asked to recall that some of the Iraqi towns taken and now held by ISIS forces have names already burned into the American consciousness, for all the wrong reasons: Tikrit, Mosul, Baqubah, Ramadi ... Fallujah. And you’re inclined not to want to do any of that again.

We have the president’s assurance that that won’t happen. “We’re not going to allow ourselves to be dragged back into a situation in which, while we’re there, we’re keeping a lid on things, and after enormous sacrifices by us, as soon as we’re not there, suddenly people end up acting in ways that are not conducive to the long-term stability and prosperity of the country,” he said last week.

But Iran is the wild card, the possible change agent in the fast-emerging new political calculus of the region. And how the United States engages Iran — diplomatically, politically and, last resort, militarily — over Iraq in the next few months could be the needed reset button for old relationships with old adversaries ... the kind of organically happening event that’s eluded us over years of planned diplomacy and saber-rattling.

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Analysts in the punditburo have advised against the U.S. taking sides in the new conflict, but that’s never been an option. The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, mothballed the Iraqi army, decapitated the Iraqi government and began the process of de-Baathification that, with the election of al-Maliki, indicated that we were taking a side in the sectarian strife that has shaped and roiled that country and the region for 1,300 years.

Now, the instability that ISIS personifies has reinforced the established U.S. position of support for Maliki, a Shiite who’s getting an assist from ... the Shia government of Iran, and the government of Syria, ruled by Bashar al-Assad and other leaders of the Alawite sect, a more secular Shiite offshoot. The blitzkrieg rise of ISIS also compels the United States to realize that Iran, which has no more desire to watch ISIS destabilize the region than the U.S. does, is now a reluctant bedfellow, an anathema transformed, for the time being, into something closer to a necessary inamorata.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Appeasing the beast, and its consequences:
Eric Cantor and the Tea Party

WELL WE DIDN’T see this coming, now did we? In a 24/7 media environment pretty much inured to everything happening sooner or later, the overnight demolition of the political career of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has the mediasphere scrambling for adjectives and precedent. There’s plenty of the first to go around; we scribes of the interwebs do what we can to make sure of that.

But precedent? There is none. Cantor, who on Tuesday lost his primary congressional race in the Virginia 7th District to a game Tea Party challenger, was the first House Majority Leader to ever lose a primary.

Serving that district since 2001, Cantor was long thought to be heir apparent to the post of Speaker of the House. He lost his primary bid to David Brat, an economics professor at Randolph-Mason University and Tea Party evangelist of the moment. The 11-point margin (Brat 55, Cantor 44) can only be characterized as a blowout, and a stunning one for Cantor, whose own internal polling put him well ahead as recently as last week.

Some in the rightward chambers of the punditburo have pointed to Cantor’s thrashing in Virginia and the June 24th runoff between incumbent Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran and his Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel, as a renascence of the Tea Party. It is, but in only the narrowest of terms.

The Tea Party movement’s biggest problem since its astroturfed inception in 2009 has been a problem of exportability — of transforming primary-season victories into general-election victories, and that hasn’t changed.

Reaching the demographically broader, more diverse general population of many states, and certainly the nation as a whole, is the challenge the increasingly right-moving TP crowd has no answer for. That’s why, despite regional victories in the early going of this campaign year, the Tea Party may well be — like one of the old incandescent bulbs we’ve been replacing — shining at its brightest in the moment before the bulb burns out.

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Cantor stepped to the microphones on Tuesday night, game but gut-shot in his concession speech to his supporters. “Obviously, we came up short,” he said, in a mastery of understatement.

“Serving as the 7th District congressman, and then having the privlege to be majority leader, has been one of the highest honors of my life,” Cantor said. “And what I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have always said we’re about, is we wanna create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody.”

“And we need to focus our efforts — as conservative, as Republicans — on putting forth our conservative solutions,” he continued, “so that they can help solve the problems for some many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunities that we have.”

These are the kinds of things that I know we’re going to work on,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of long faces here tonight. And, um, it’s disappointing, sure. But I believe in this country, I believe there’s opportunity around the next corner for all of us.”

“So I look forward to continuing to fight with all of you for the things we all believe in, for the conservative cause,” Cantor said, “because those solutions of ours are the answer to the problems that so many people are facing today. Thank you all so very much.”

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CANTOR’S DEFEAT wasn’t a matter of being outspent. Just the opposite: The outgoing House leader (he formally resigns on July 31) spent about $5 million on his primary fight, compared to the couch-cushion-money war chest of $206,000 spent by Brat’s insurgent campaign — a triumph of economic efficiency you might expect from an economist.

As stalwart a Republican as you’d find on Capitol Hill, Cantor had his comeuppance in the Virginia 7 in different ways. He was taken to task by voters on the matter of immigration reform. Cantor stood accused of rank apostasy, and being in league with President Obama on seeking a palatable program for immigration reform via his proposal of the KIDS Act, his GOP version of the DREAM Act.

But that was only part of Cantor’s problem. Another issue for Cantor, thoroughly explained in Christopher Bedford’s story in The Daily Caller, had to do with detachment from the people in his district, and the perception that Cantor was working both sides of the street, being politically disingenuous with the people who mattered most: his constituents.

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“While other leadership candidates, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, spent months courting tea party and base voters, Cantor’s team turned on them in a sustained and unsuccessful campaign that culminated in his Tuesday night defeat,” Bedford wrote Wednesday.

In November 2013, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, Lt. Gov. E.W. Jackson and their candidate for attorney general, Mark Obenshain, were defeated by Democrats in their respective bids for governor and attorney general. It was then that Cantor and his allies mounted a bid to retrieve Virginia politics from the rise of Tea Party activists, beginning the alienation that led to what happened on Tuesday night.
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