Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Evolution days: Marriage equality in America


THE SEA CHANGE by default that took place on the U.S. Supreme Court’s annual official first day of business marked another turning point in the nation’s slow acceptance of marriage equality. The first Monday on October wasn’t even over and the most judicially activist Supreme Court in years had made history by doing nothing at all.

With its refusal to hear appeals from a quintet of states that challenged lower court rulings legalizing same-sex marriage — Indiana, Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wisconsin — the high court resisted its own reliably conservative tilt on social issues, opening the door for the most sweeping and seismic shift in civil rights since the era of the civil rights movement.

The Supremes’ no-ruling ruling also paved the way for legalization in half a dozen other states under the same lower courts’ jurisdiction. The Associated Press reported Monday that residents of Colorado, Wyoming, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina “should be able to get married in short order. Those states would be bound by the same appellate rulings that were put on hold pending the Supreme Court's review.”

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It wasn’t an absolute slam-dunk. “Two other appeals courts, in Cincinnati and San Francisco, could issue decisions any time in same-sex marriage cases,” AP reported. “Judges in the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit [Court of Appeals] who are weighing pro-gay marriage rulings in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, appeared more likely to rule in favor of state bans than did the 9th Circuit judges in San Francisco, who are considering Idaho and Nevada restrictions on marriage.”

But the raw numbers of population are compelling. Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel of The Huffington Post reported Monday that: “The total population of those states, based on 2013 estimates from the Census Bureau, is about 190 million. Just over 60 percent of the U.S. population now lives in a state where marriage equality soon will be legal.

“Prior to Monday, that total was just under 44 percent -- if you discounted states where same-sex marriage was legalized but there were still court challenges. In all, the Supreme Court's decision on Monday set the path for an additional 51,579,771 people to live in states with concrete same-sex marriage rights.”

Richard Socarides, a gay-rights advocate and former adviser to President Clinton, told Politico that’s Monday’s news “is a terrific result, for now. It’s a little bit incremental, but I think it’s a fantastic result and we should celebrate today.”

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THE COURT’S consistently liberal wing has taken a wait-and-see approach, apparently content to watch  how the state-by-state expansion of same-sex marriage plays out organically in the real world.

“The more liberal justices have been reluctant to press this issue to an up-or-down vote until more of the country experiences gay marriage,” Walter E. Dellinger III, acting United States solicitor general in the Clinton administration, told The New York Times. “Once a substantial part of the country has experienced gay marriage, then the court will be more willing to finish the job.”

And three weeks ago, at a lecture at the University of Minnesota Law School, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg warned that “there will be some urgency” for the court to act if the 6th Circuit breaks with the trend toward same-sex marriage accelerated on Monday. Otherwise, she said, there would be “no need for us to rush.”

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Conservatives were deafening in their silence on Monday. For a while anyway. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah issued a statement, calling the court’s decision “disappointing.”

Lee’s statement, a weak retrenchment to conservative values, included a proposal that would make the issue of marriage equality subject to a hodgepodge of state laws. “Nothing in the Constitution forbids a state from retaining the traditional definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman,” he said. “Whether to change that definition is a decision best left to the people of each state — not to unelected, politically unaccountable judges.”

Kate Nocera of BuzzFeed reported Monday that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz planned to introduce an equally improbable constitutional amendment “to prevent the federal government or the courts from attacking or striking down state marriage laws.”

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Justice for Jordan Davis


WHEN THE news came on Wednesday, it was like a thunderclap announcing rain in the desert. Michael Dunn, the man who killed Jordan R. Davis, a black Georgia teenager who was shot to death in Jacksonville, Fla., in November 2012 for the crime of playing music too loud, was found guilty of first-degree murder. A life sentence awaits.

These dry, juiceless facts only barely touch on the volatile cross-currents of race and culture that wound through Dunn’s trial. But the outcome of the trial revealed more than itself; it was a frankly unexpected vindication of the idea of a fair trial made real, in a state with a history of weighting the scales of justice on the basis of race.

The jury deliberated for little more than five hours before finding Dunn, a white Floridian, guilty of firing 10 shots into Davis’ Dodge Durango SUV outside a Jacksonville convenience store, killing Davis, then fleeing the scene with his fiancée. This trial followed the one in February, when Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder. That trial aroused the rage of African Americans for the monstrous human arithmetic announced in the verdict. Dunn was found guilty on three counts of attempted murder (one for each of Davis’ three passengers) and guilty on the charge of firing into an occupied vehicle.

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But on the main count — the charge that Dunn wantonly took a young man’s life with shots from a 9mm — the jury came to no agreement, despite having the options of convicting Dunn on lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

The February jury failed to agree on whether Dunn’s killshot — the one that took Davis’ life at the age of 17 — was first degree murder, second degree murder or manslaughter. Thus deadlocked, the judge declared a mistrial on the one count that mattered.

There was no conviction in February for the most serious matter in this case. The verdict confirmed the idea that, in practical terms, Jordan Davis did not exist.

The jury’s relatively brief deliberation in yesterday’s trial made clear a determination not to make the same mistake twice.

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BUT CALL IT Ferguson fatigue: Some news reports in the mainstream media went to great pains to play down the trial’s racial component, describing it in the context of “Florida man convicted of teen’s murder,” a descriptive generality as thematically dishonest as it was factually incomplete. The racial dimensions of the case were there from the start; anyone who read Dunn’s venomous jailhouse letters knew that already. Attempts to scrub the case’s racial overtones bump up against an exhaustion with the spate of race-related police shootings and encounters we’ve been party to all year.

African Americans don’t have the luxury of such willful amnesia. Instead, we’re subject to another malady, a kind of fatalism about how such trials often turn out. It’s a sad leitmotif of black American life vis-à-vis law enforcement: Expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed.

Some in Jacksonville were expecting the results, but various tweets and comments appending several online news stories about the latest Dunn trial took on a tone of pleasant shock. “Finally, justice for a young black man.” “This is shocking.” “I’m surprised.” “About time.” At the end of the day, that may be the most shocking thing about the verdict: That we’ve become so accustomed to the predictable outcome of the exoneration of such racial violence on the flimsiest of pretexts, it surprises us when the script gets flipped and real justice is done.

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Dunn is done too. In February, Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson told USA Today that each of the three attempted-murder counts carries a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. That’s 60 years right there. Jackelyn Barnard, spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office, told USA Today that the sentences must run consecutively.

“You are looking basically at life in prison,” Dunn defense attorney Cory Strolla told CNN, in February, when asked to speculate on his client’s time behind bars. “At 47 years old, that's a life sentence regardless of count one.”

Since a first-degree murder conviction in Florida means life without parole, Dunn’s earlier life sentence on the lesser charges gets even worse, if that’s possible. The sentencing hearing, now set for Oct. 17, is already not much more than a formality.

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IF YOU can imagine a bright side to such a trial, it was there not just in the verdict, but also in the jury that delivered it. Seven white men, three white women, one black man and one black woman sealed Dunn’s fate on Wednesday. It was a rare but welcome victory over our reflexive color-based cynicism, our collective tendency to handicap the outcome of a racially-tinged trial on the basis of who sits in the jury box.

Ron Davis, Jordan’s father, understands this. “I wanted Jacksonville to be a shining example. That you could have a jury made up of mostly white people — white men — and be an example to the rest of the world to stop the discriminatory practices,” he said after the trial.

It would be fittingly anodyne if Davis’ message resonates in other courtrooms, at other trials, along with the bittersweet expression of Lucia McBath, the most eloquent family spokeswoman, a mother deprived of a son.

“Words cannot express our joy, but also our great sorrow,” McBath said after the verdict. “We know that Jordan has received justice and his life and legacy will live on for others. But at the same time, we’re very saddened by the life that Michael Dunn will continue to live. We are saddened for his family, his friends and the community that will continue to suffer by his actions.”

“But we are very grateful that justice has been served — justice not only for Jordan, but justice for Trayvon and justice for all the nameless and faceless children and people that will never have a voice.

"Justice can be served, and it’s not based on the color of your skin.”

Image credits: Jordan Davis: The family of Jordan Davis. Dunn: via Talking Points Memo. Lucia McBath and Ron Davis: Bob Mack (pool) via USA Today.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Christie 2016: Presidential access lane reopens



HE’S BACK IN the saddle again, or so it seems. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was his old pugnacious self on Monday, going back on offense against an old nemesis — the unions — but this time doing it on behalf on a fellow Republican governor. Christie was stumping in Wisconsin for Scott Walker, the Badger State’s governor and a man whose road to the White House is as long as Christie’s own.

Recently, though, Christie got what could be a big assist in the resuscitation of his fever dreams of the White House. On Sept. 18, federal prosecutors cleared Christie of wrongdoing in the Bridgegate scandal.

According to a report by WNBC, the New York City NBC affiliate (followed swiftly by other news orgs), the Justice Department found no direct link between the governor and the closure of several lanes on the George Washington Bridge last September, four days of deliberate traffic chaos, an event that complicated the lives of the people of Fort Lee, N.J., and their necessary everyday access to the busiest commuter bridge in the world.

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“Federal officials caution that the investigation that began nine months ago is ongoing and that no final determination has been made, but say that authorities haven't uncovered anything that indicates that Christie knew in advance or ordered the closure of traffic lanes,” WNBC reported on Sept. 18.

While the investigation isn’t finished yet, one former federal prosecutor with no connection to the Christie case said that after nine months of scrutiny, if there’s no smoking gun in such matters, it’s increasingly unlikely one will ever be found. “My experience with federal law enforcement is that, once you reach critical mass, if you don’t have it within nine months or so, you’re not likely to ever get it,” former federal prosecutor Robert W. Ray told WNBC.

The DoJ’s exoneration of Christie presumably clears the lanes of the governor’s political career, and revives his prospects for making a presidential run in 2016. At least theoretically. The apparent end to the Bridgegate mess is a huge imagistic weight off his shoulders. But Christie faces other potential obstacles not far along. And unlike Bridgegate, they lay directly at his feet.

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THE BAD news remains that politically as chief executive it looks like he was not in control of his administration at the time when this occurred,” said Lee Miringoff, Director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, speaking to WNBC, alluding to claims that Christie’s management style over-delegated authority in a way that made Bridgegate possible. “So that remains the downside for him. That doesn’t go away, but this panel provides greater credibility barring any further revelations coming out.”

But Christie doesn’t need other revelations about the bridge fiasco. Another issue facing him is hardly a minor thing.

On Sept. 10, Standard & Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating, citing Christie's handling of the Garden State’s $78 billion pension system. An S&P spokesman said in a statement that the matter has “significant negative implications for the state’s liability profile.” The downgrade was the eighth under Christie’s governorship.

“The reduction to A, the sixth-highest level, with a stable outlook follows a Sept. 5 downgrade by Fitch Ratings,” Bloomberg.com reported on Sept. 10. “It gives New Jersey the same general-obligation grade as California, which is on track for an upgrade as revenue exceeds Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s estimates. Only Illinois has lower ratings than New Jersey among U.S. states.”

The other unkindest cut: Bloomberg reports that Christie has now tied his Democratic predecessor, James McGreevey, “for the most credit reductions for a New Jersey governor.”

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That can’t be good news for anyone who presumes to run for president in the midst of an economy that’s hardly lifting all boats at the same time. In fact, if anything’s likely to keep Christie right where he is for the next two-three years — fixing the mess he made, in the governor’s mansion — the state of the Garden State’s economy might be enough.

But then there’s the other thing. In January, Dawn Zimmer, the mayor of Hoboken, accused the Christie administration of linking the payout of Hurricane Sandy hazard recovery funds to the mayor’s approval of a waterfront development project that Christie supported. The intended developer, the powerful Rockefeller Group, was represented at the time of Zimmer’s allegations by the law firm of David Samson, the close friend of Christie who, in March, quit as the chairman of the board of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey. Christie’s office has denied any wrongdoing in the Hoboken matter.

James Cohen, a Fordham University law professor, told Daily Kos that the Hoboken case could be a heavier concern than the Bridgegate scandal. “Closing the George Washington Bridge, that is very serious. It takes a lot of balls,” Cohen said in January, before the feds cleared Christie. “But this deals with dollars — the misuse of federal tax dollars. The feds will treat that very, very serious.”

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AND THE governor’s gone on to make even more work for himself. In July, Christie vetoed a gun control bill that would have set a limit on gun magazine capacity to 10 rounds or less. Christie decried the bill as “trivial,” which apparently came as a surprise to the relatives of the victims of the mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Adam Lanza used a 223-caliber Bushmaster rifle and several 30-round magazines to kill 20 children and 6 teachers that day in December 2012.

“We have been trying to get a private meeting with him since May 22nd to talk about this bill and he’s refused,” said Mark Barden, father of 7-year-old Daniel Barden, killed by Lanza that day at Sandy Hook. “He made this statement accusing us of ‘grandstanding’ and using ‘empty rhetoric,’” Barden told the Daily News on July 3. “That is a blow to the memories of our children. People from all over are completely outraged by his language.”

Christie has shown he’s capable of being even-handed in those he outrages. In August, the governor came under withering fire from those in his own Republican ranks when he came out in support of expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s crown jewel. This lets New Jersey accept federal funds to cover poor residents with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level — an estimated 300.000 uninsured state residents.

The Washington Times reported on Aug. 18 that “his embrace of Medicare does create a political problem similar to the one that dogged 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.”

“The farther away from Obamacare any governor is, the better off they are,” said Charlie Gerow, of the board of the American Conservative Union, to The Times. “The problem is there is some nuance to all of that, and politics is not about nuance.”

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WHICH IS not a problem for Chris Christie. Nuance has never been an issue for this king of the gauntlet throwdown. Since his ascendancy into the national spotlight, he’s prided himself on purveying a brash, unfiltered politics that takes no prisoners, a zero-sum-game style of rule that sharply delineates friend from foe, and doesn’t believe it’s a B.F. Deal what you think of either one. Some in the GOP orthodoxy, for example, still give Christie the apostate’s stinkeye for his walk with President Obama along the Jersey Shore in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, on the eve of the 2012 election.

“It was obvious to many people in New Jersey that he was putting his state ahead of his party,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute Murray, to The New York Times in late November 2012. “You always get points for leadership when you do that.”

If Christie’s serious about 2016, that may be both harder to do and more difficult whenever he does it. Despite being exonerated in the Bridgegate snafu, Christie still has to deal with things that make him a hard sell to the American public.

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Since the recent crises turned up the burn rate of a lot of his PR capital (and because Jersey’s financial woes will do the same for months to come) the governor’s going to have to spend a fair amount of time just telling the country who Chris Christie is — beyond being someone with a selectively autocratic management style and an inclination for going off on anybody who crosses him.

That my-way-or-highway attitude, that element of style feeds into a perception of Republican intolerance that already exists. To make headway as a serious presidential contender in 2016, if he wants to go that way, Christie will have to keep breaking new ground, keep pushing back against the old party optics, the old party orthodoxy. Primary-season audiences may not be ready for that.

Still, one thing at a time. With Bridgegate apparently behind him, the traffic cones most immediately blocking Chris Christie’s political career are out of the way. Job #1: Navigate the slalom of political barriers and potholes not that far down the street where he lives. Job #2: Compute the gas in the tank, and the fire in the belly, as he approaches that next big on-ramp. The one marked “2016 — MERGING TRAFFIC.”

Image credits: Christie and Walker: Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com). Christie portrait: Ralph Freso/Associated Press. Zimmer: Marko Georgiev/The Record. Newtown memorial: Timothy Clary/Getty Images. Christie magazine cover: ©2013 TIME. Obama and Christie: via MSNBC. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why Derek Jeter matters



THE NEW YORK Yankees pulled Derek Jeter from Saturday’s game against the Boston Red Sox. A bad hamstring got him sidelined, but only briefly. He’s expected to play today, which will be a good thing. After today, there is no tomorrow for Jeter in Fenway Park. After the 2014 regular season ends today, there’s no tomorrow for Jeter in Yankee Stadium. Not as a player, anyway.

After 20 seasons as a New York Yankee, Derek Sanderson Jeter is retiring from major league baseball. As if you didn’t know: this year has been crowded with tributes to “the Captain,” from opposing teams (players and management), the media, advertisers, celebrities and every fan of the game too young to remember other players with better stats, longer careers, more coverage in the press.

In our nonstop, stats-driven world — where metrics seem to dominate everything and data appears to decide everything important — Jeter’s pending retirement has led to the inevitable comparisons between his lifetime numbers and other great players who hung 'em up. The contrarian personalities among us have already started the Jeter image deflation machine. In their sad rush to the hard, flat comfort of numbers, they’ve missed much of the point — of baseball, and Derek Jeter, and us, and why the Captain matters to us.

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It’s true that it can be hard to step away from metrics when you’re talking about baseball, a game that lives and dies by numbers: innings pitched, on-base percentage, hits, walks, RBIs, ERAs, WARs, BBs ... and on and on. And some people are more driven by those numbers than others.

Leave it to that walking calculator Keith Olbermann, host of ESPN’s “Olbermann,” to get that point across. All season long, in what we’ve known for months would be Jeter’s final season, Olbermann has conducted his own farewell tour for Jeter, letting his viewers know at every opportunity just how good Jeter was not.

It’s been happening all year, on and off, Olbermann taking opportunities to push back on what he see as a valedictory mythology taking shape in Jeter’s twilight, and to rip the praises from fans and other teams — running down Jeter as if all the tributes coming his way were somehow Jeter’s idea. Olbermann really let the mud fly on Tuesday night: “"Contrary to what you have heard, Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history. He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. And among all the terrific players in the history of the New York Yankees he is not, by any measure, number one.”

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WHAT FOLLOWED was a crash course in how to gauge the cost of everything and the value of nothing. With his customary snark and bite, Olbermann recited the Baseball-Reference Guide chapter-and-verse comparisons that proved Jeter was middlebrow at best. He wasn’t fit to tie Ozzie Smith’s Nikes, he never won an MVP accolade, he never led the league in homers or RBIs; he was the team captain when the Yankees suffered two American League Championship Series defeats and five American League division losses; he was the team leader when the Yankees suffered the defeat that still stings in Yankee fans’ hearts: the loss of the American League Championship Series to the Red Sox in 2004, when the Yankees blew a 3-0 ALCS series lead.



Olbermann had company. Ted Berg at USA Today started back in February. “Jeter’s offensive game is driven by singles and marked by perennially high batting averages. He hits some homers, but his relative lack of power means he has only cracked the Top 10 in AL OPS (on-base plus slugging) once in his career.”



Jason Kiedel at CBS2 New York said: “While Jeter is a first-ballot icon whose plaque in Cooperstown and acreage in Monument Park are assured, he was never the best player in the sport, is far from the best player in Yankees history and wasn’t always the best player on his own team.”

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But Kiedel also got at some of what Olbermann overlooked about Jeter: “He was not great at anything, but really good at everything. We so lust for the sexy stat — the home run, touchdown and three-pointer — that we just don’t get turned on by the sprawling career of consistent production.”

Right, Jason. Let’s pay that proper respect to endurance and longevity — like we did when Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripken Jr. was rightly celebrated for playing in 2,632 consecutive straight games. In a time when players move from team to team with jarring irregularity, never around long enough to be a fan favorite, Jeter stayed put with the Yankees, a team known for being demanding in a city that’s never anything but demanding.

Since he debuted in May 1995 with the Yankees — the only team he’d ever play for — Jeter has 3,463 hits (not counting what happens today), five World Series championships, and five Gold Gloves. He was named an All-Star 14 times, and he’s No. 6 all-time in hits (he tied Honus Wagner back in August). That kind of stability with any one team is admirable; to do that with the Yankees, in the white-hot glare of the most irascible fans and media market in the country, is not much short of a miracle.

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KIEDEL GOES on to mention something else. Something important: “The most important point that Olbermann missed — and it must be an intentional omission, because he’s too savvy to miss something so obvious — is that Jeter, unlike 80 percent of his peers, did not take steroids.

“So it’s not fair to just belch the bromides about power numbers without acknowledging that he is one of the few who did it fairly. Look at Jeter’s physique. He never became Brady Anderson, never gained or lost 30 pounds of muscle in one offseason. His body never morphed into the cartoonish contours of Bonds, McGwire, Sosa or A-Rod.

“And that’s an essential distinction. Jeter played old-school baseball by the original rules. ... He is the embodiment of the cliché — doing it the right way.”

And that begins to address what Olbermann and other critics choose to miss: Jeter knows good and well he’s not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. He knows he’s not the greatest New York Yankee who ever lived.

And he never said he was. He never even pretended he was. Day to day over 20 seasons, Derek Jeter was nothing more or less than the very best Derek Jeter he could be. Many days that was stellar. Many other days, well, it was not. Color Jeets human.

Years ago, in the Ken Burns “Baseball” series, the legendary sportswriter Roger Angell observed that “there’s more Met than Yankee in all of us.” Sooner or later, that has to be as true for an actual New York Yankee as it is for anyone else.

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Olbermann and others are so overly focused on the data that defines the game that they miss the magic that inspires the game, the magic that makes baseball more than punching up an equation on a calculator or conjuring an Excel spreadsheet, or anything else you do with numbers.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Shock and stealth: ISIS, the coalition
and ‘perpetual war’


This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.”

— President Obama, Sept. 10



FOR THE third time in as many decades, the United States is at war in the Middle East. On Monday evening in America, F-15, F-16, F-22, F/A-18 and B-1 bombers bombed in Syria, attacking an assortment of targets — command centers, fuel and weapons depots, troop installations — of the ISIS terrorist organization.

President Obama, who’d been telegraphing his intention to throw this punch, did it the way he wanted to all along: attacking ISIS targets with the full participation of true partners in the campaign, the militaries of some of the major players in the Middle East, building a regional coalition of interested parties with a direct stake in the outcome.

Obama spoke before the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday, and then made history by chairing a session of the UN Security Council, to personally hammer home his support of a binding anti-terrorist resolution. That would have raised eyebrows enough. But to do it days after a dramatic and so far successful first strike against ISIS in Syria (one that never had UN approval), raised the stakes for the president, who, despite the risks involved, apparently decided to take Grace Hopper’s wry wisdom, geopolitically applied: For this president, it was better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission.

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The president’s swift action on both the military and diplomatic fronts has also kept the political peace at home; Obama has received full-throated support from prominent Republicans in Congress and elsewhere, even as many on the political left have deep misgivings over the Obama strategy. The effect of all this on Democratic fortunes in November, is anyone’s guess.

For now, though, in preparations for a confrontation with what the president called “the cancer of violent extremism,” President Obama went looking for one coalition. He managed to come up with two. A lot’s riding on how solid and reliable those coalitions are.



Obama set the stage in powerful fashion. In a United Nations speech that pulled no punches there and underscored the punch he’d already thrown, Obama galvanized the General Assembly, making clear that this was a conflict in which there would be no convenience of sidelines.

But though the thrust of the speech was focused on the ISIS threat, Obama widened his rhetorical field of vision. With the impact of climate change, the presence of rampant expansionism (a clear shot at Putin’s adventures in Ukraine) and the mute, insidious terrorism of the Ebola virus rampaging across Africa ... well, the president said, there’s no sitting on the sidelines for any of that, either.

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“We come together at a crossroads between war and peace, between disorder and integration, between fear and hope,” the president said.

“We can reaffirm our collective responsibility to confront global problems, or be swamped by more and more outbreaks of instability," he said. "For America, the choice is clear. We choose hope over fear.”

Transcript of President Obama’s speech before the UN General Assembly

But the speech’s first-among-equals was the Monday attack, in which the United States and “partner nation forces” Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar hit targets in and around Raqqa, Aleppo, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.

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FOR OBAMA, ISIS was the target of opportunity and necessity. “With access to technology that allows small groups to do great harm, they have embraced a nightmarish vision that would divide the world into adherents and infidels — killing as many innocent civilians as possible; and employing the most brutal methods to intimidate people within their communities.”

“This group has terrorized all who they come across in Iraq and Syria, Mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world.

“No God condones this terror,” Obama said during the 40-minute speech. “No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning — no negotiation — with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”

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Then the president addressed that big concern both foreign and domestic: Who would talk the talk and walk the walk, which countries would put their militaries where their monarchies are?

“In this effort, we do not act alone,” he said. “Nor do we intend to send U.S. troops to occupy foreign lands. Instead, we will support Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities. We will use our military might in a campaign of air strikes to roll back ISIL. We will train and equip forces fighting against these terrorists on the ground. We will work to cut off their financing, and to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region. Already, over 40 nations have offered to join this coalition. Today, I ask the world to join in this effort.”

This was apparently a formality. The five “partner nation forces” Obama named had already had military assistance from Belgium and the Netherlands. France, already bombing ISIS targets in Iraq, is reportedly weighing military strikes in Syria after an Algerian Islamist group beheaded a French citizen. “The question is on the table,” French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told RTF radio on Thursday.

Turkey is reportedly deciding how, not whether, to get involved. And British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed Obama’s all-in appeal. “This is a fight you cannot opt out of,” he told NBC’s Brian Williams on Tuesday. “These people want to kill us. They have got us in their sights.”

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THE COALITION back in Washington, almost as unimaginable as the one called for at the UN, was strong in the early going, with Republicans refreshingly obeying the old rule that domestic politics stops at the water’s edge.

“When in times of war and of peace it is important that we come together as a nation,” Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, said in a statement. “To defeat ISIS, we must cut off the head of the snake, which exists in Syria. I support the administration’s move to conduct airstrikes against ISIS wherever it exists. ISIS is not just a threat to the United States - it is a threat to all nations that value human life and decency.”

Rep. Peter King of New York, never one to mince words, tweeted: “All Americans must stand with President Obama in our war against ISIS — particularly tonight’s air strikes in Syria.” House Speaker John Boehner said “I support the airstrikes launched by the president.” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a reliable White House saddlethorn, lent his support.

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Support for bombing inside Syria came from everyone you’d expect. It also had the support of ... Syria. On. Sept. 11, Syrian foreign minister Faisal Mekdad told NBC News’ Bill Neely that his country had “no reservations whatsoever” about then-considered U.S. air strikes on ISIS targets.

Neely reports: “Mekdad called Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad ‘a natural ally’ for the U.S. in its battle against ISIS, saying in an exclusive interview that both countries are ‘fighting the same enemy’ and should be working together — not antagonizing each other.”

“When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences … and forget all about the past,” Mekdad said. “It takes two to tango ... We are ready to talk.

Mekdad did emphasize the need to coordinate the logistics of any strikes with the United States — so “there should be no mistakes,” he said. He even characterized it as “a must” for Obama to call Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. That seeming demand felt more consultative than conditional, but no matter: Damascus was notified before the attack began.

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WHATEVER THE long-term prospects for the coalition of nations might be, the short-term prognosis has been good so far. William McCants, a former State Department adviser now with the Brookings Institute, told MSNBC that “before this, there was a lot of infighting, and the United States was not able to corral [Arab states] in a single direction. This strike is not just a physical manifestation that’s come together, but also quite symbolic, because they haven’t been able to achieve it in the prior two years.”

Some in the media have been more downbeat, or certainly more skeptical. They’ve made the automatic assumption that the disaster of attempting to train Iraqi recruits to protect Iraq from ISIS will be repeated in Syria — proposing to make a template of Iraq’s failure elsewhere in the Middle East. That’s not proven yet, and the Syrian people aren’t the Iraqis.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Alessandra Stanley and how to get away
with stereotyping


NEW YORK TIMES chief television critic Alessandra Stanley just published an essay that doubles as a rhetorical crash course in how to get away with stereotyping. Its assertions illustrate, surely by accident,  the obstacles that African American actresses and actors face in pursuit of their profession. It’s also an object lesson in the dangers of making assumptions about people, culture and experiences outside one’s own.

Stanley wrote an op-ed piece on ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder,” and the series’ lead actress, Oscar nominee Viola Davis. The essay, first published in The Times on Thursday and again in the Sunday print edition, starts off on a very wrong foot.

She writes: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’” It’s what’s known in journalism as a “grabber” lead, deliberately embracing an offending or provocative phrase in a shock-value way, establishing a thesis that the writer then sets out to categorically defend.

The trouble is, when you do that, when you stray into culturally-misunderstood realms of description, you need to know your way around the territory. You need to know something of the subtleties and complexities of what the trope “Angry Black Woman” entails — preferably as lived experience, or at least as the object of serious sociological study, not just as a phrase you think you kinda sorta know the meaning and nuances of.

◊ ◊ ◊

In Stanley’s blinkered, tone-deaf world, race is expected to be in others’ lives as much, as prominent a fixation of life as it apparently is in her own. How else to interpret this passage explaining the Shonda Rhimes cosmology, according to Alessandra Stanley:

“In that multicultural world, there are many African-Americans at the top of every profession. But even when her heroine is the only nonwhite person in the room, it is the last thing she or anyone around her notices or cares about.”

It escapes Stanley that African Americans do not spend every waking minute of their lives with race in the forefront of their minds, despite a society that does all it can to reinforce that as what black people think about 24/7 — an immediate, default self-perception.

◊ ◊ ◊


SHE PULLS this again later in the piece: For Stanley, Rhimes’ characters “struggle with everything except their own identities, so unconcerned about race that it is barely ever mentioned.”

There’s the implicit assumption that black identity is fundamentally a daily, epic existential struggle waged from within. Note to Alessandra Stanley: Black people don’t think of themselves as a challenge or a problem to be solved.

It would be nice, too, if Stanley bothered to make a meaningful distinction in her assessment of Rhimes’ contribution to the “Murder” series. The critic assumes that the show was created by Rhimes, when it was in fact created by Pete Nowalk, a veteran of other Rhimes shows. This unforced error alone, ascribing to Rhimes the nuances of characters she didn’t create, thoroughly undercuts the scaffold of Stanley’s essay.

◊ ◊ ◊

Undaunted, though, she goes on, betraying a perspective that’s anything but enlightened. Consider some of the words she uses to describe the black woman characters of Rhimes shows: “angry,” “volcanic,” “intimidating,” “slightly menacing.” Paging D.W. Griffith.

Stanley hits a rhetorical low when she carves out physical distinctions between “Scandal” star Kerry Washington and Davis, described as “less classically beautiful.” Stanley betrays everything of her perspective with the words “classically beautiful,” a phrase that, despite its futile reach for the diplomatic, only reinforces the Eurocentric stereotypes that African American actresses contend with on a regular basis.

Then she goes on to take a swipe at another TV show. Writing about the addition of Michael Che to the “Weekend Update” segment of “Saturday Night Live,” Stanley writes that “SNL” “suddenly seems to be on a diversity jag” — looking at it as some kind of social experiment, rather than (first) a smart poach of a young comic talent in his ascendancy and (second) an overdue reflection of more of the national demographic.

It’s all so predictable.

◊ ◊ ◊

WILLA PASKIN, writing at Slate, had a more measured, panoramic take: “Angry, like bossy or shrill, is a particularly loaded word to use about women, and even more so about black women. It comes with the implication of unreliability and unreasonableness, the connotation that the unhinged woman in question is easily dismissed, qualities that Rhimes’ characters—and Rhimes herself—barely ever display. Describing these women and Rhimes as “angry black women” is a contortion, shoving them into a stereotype that doesn’t fit.”


At Vulture, Margaret Lyons does a righteous takedown of Stanley’s “classical beauty” canard: “I wonder if any of this ‘classical beauty’ aesthetic could have ever been influenced by racism, maybe, like, generations and generations of it, just like a tooooon of racism and colonialism, like so, so much. Hmm. Who can know.”

Other reactions are calling for action. Color of Change, the grassroots advocacy organization, is circulating a petition demanding an apology from Stanley and a retraction of the piece.


“Characterizing their supreme confidence and competence as ‘anger’ — and describing actress Viola Davis as sexy ‘in a slightly menacing way,’ and ‘darker-skinned and less classically beautiful’ — only plays into destructive stereotypes that impact the lives of Black women every day,” Color of Change wrote in emails sent to supporters. “With so few Black women both onscreen or behind the scenes in Hollywood, high profile, dehumanizing misinterpretations of their work cannot be tolerated.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Stanley, of course, defended herself in a statement: “The whole point of the piece — once you read past the first 140 characters — is to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype," she said. But her cheap dig at the Twitterati misses the point. Most of them almost certainly read the piece.

And ironically enough, it’s almost unnecessary. The 113 characters of her lead paragraph reveal more about her essay, and the thinking behind it, than she realized. They tell all of the story. If only there was more Stanley could have thoughtfully, incisively, intelligently volunteered.

Patience. We can be sure there’s more to come from the Passive-Aggressive White TV Critic any time now.

Image credits: Stanley: WireImage. Shonda Rhimes: via electronicvillage.blogspot.com; probable actual origin: ABC/ShondaLand Productions. Davis: ABC.ShondaLand Productions. Tweets by their respective creators.

Roger, and out



CHANCES ARE pretty good your NFL fantasy football team is a mess right now. The chances are even better that if you’re a fantasy football commissioner, you’ve got a better handle on your players than the real NFL commissioner has on his.

At this point — in the wake of a near disaster of a press conference on Friday, the potential disaster of a new ESPN news story published hours after he spoke, and the conflicting actions of the last few months — you could probably stand in for the real commissioner, Roger Goodell, the man who currently presides over an institutional clusterf*ck of monumental proportions.

No fewer than five players are the latest poster players for a culture of spontaneous violence, self-serving front office statements and institutional self-protecrtion that defines the National Football League: Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back under fire since February for assaulting his wife in a hotel elevator; Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, indicted last week for felony child abuse after whipping his four-year-old son with a tree branch; Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, convicted in June of assault; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, facing assault charges for attacking his pregnant fiancée in August; and now, the latest, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer, arrested on Wednesday for, among other things, head-butting his wife and breaking her nose during a heated argument at home.

The five teams of those players — almost 15 percent of all the teams in the NFL — are also under fire, their managements in a defensive public-relations crouch; some of the league’s flagship corporate sponsors have raised objections, some even bailing out on long contractual agreements with the NFL, with others threatening to do the same; and the nation’s most lucrative professional sports institution faces nothing less than the gravest existential challenge in its 95-year history.

Bill Montel, commenting at The Huffington Post, nails it: “At this rate they'll have to cancel the Super Bowl due to lack of players.”

◊ ◊ ◊

So the timing couldn’t have been better for Goodell, the league’s $44 million-a-year commissioner, to set things right, if he could. Goodell emerged on Friday from the secret undisclosed location he’s been at since Sept. 10, the date of his last public appearance, to speak at a press conference in New York. There he announced a broad range of corrective measures intended to address the rash of domestic violence incidents that have rocked the league.

Repeating the mea culpas he’s made since the Ray Rice episode exploded on Sept. 8 — when a second, more damning video of Rice’s violent assault on his fiancée came to light — Goodell said “I am not satisfied with the way we handled it,” he said. “I made a mistake. I am not satisfied with the process we went through. I am not satisfied with the conclusion.”

“I got it wrong on a number of levels,” he said, “from the process that I led to the decision that I reached. But now I will get it right.”

Goodell followed with a series of forthcoming changes: a new personal-conduct policy for NFL players; an investigation to be headed by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III; a partnership with the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, a tie-up that will include financial and promotional support; a pledge to institute programs of education, training and domestic-violence victim support at all NFL teams; and a recognition “that domestic violence and sexual assault exists everywhere, in every community, economic class, racial and ethnic group. It affects all of us. These are problems we are committed to addressing.”

“Everything is on the table,” he said. “We can't continue to operate like this.”

Then, in an extensive Q&A session, Goodell was asked by Peter King of Sports Illustrated: “Do you still believe that, to the best of your knowledge, no one in the NFL office had seen the [second] Ray Rice video before it surfaced on TMZ?

“Yes,” Goodell said.

◊ ◊ ◊

LATER, WHEN pressed on his actions following the release of the two videos implicating Rice in the assault of his fiancée, Goodell said: “We suspended Ray Rice originally after seeing the first video. When the second video came out last week, that is when we increased our discipline because that was inconsistent with the information we had. It was new information.”

Hours later, in an exhaustive and deeply-detailed 7,000-word story, the Outside the Lines Investigative unit at ESPN provided the closest thing yet to a definitive chronology of the events swirling around the NFL since the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident on Feb. 15. Its variance from Goodellian lore, its departure from the league’s butt-covering script is and will be a problem for Goodell, the Baltimore Ravens, and the NFL.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scotland the Brave (and the Angry and the Young)



EARLY REPORTS indicate a robust turnout for the Scottish independence referendum. The results aren’t expected until Friday, but the turnout, perhaps as high 90 percent of the 4.3 million people registered to vote, according to The Wall Street Journal — ought to be a bit of an embarrassment to the participatory democracy on this side of the Atlantic.

Some election analysts and other seers of Scottish voting trends have tentatively predicted a narrow win for the No side, which proposes to keep Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. But two parts of the Yes cohort (those backing independence) bear special consideration, for different reasons. They jointly represent the extremes of the Scottish electorate; combined, they could create an accidental coalition that would make Scotland a new nation on the world stage.

◊ ◊ ◊

The Yes side is composed of older Scots, those who’ve cultivated reasons (largely economic) for ending the 307-year linkage to Great Britain. In modern times, the itch for Scots to have a government that responded to their needs without the interference of London — this in the face of an economy that declined for a time after World War II — gained steam in March 1979, when a referendum seeking more Scottish independence from Westminster passed but was repealed in June 1979, due to low overall turnout.

The passion for the Yes of independence achieved its greatest populist traction in 1989, when then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher imposed the Community Charge, a taxation scheme that imposed one single, flat-rate, per-capita tax on every working adult in parts of the United Kingdom.

Thatcher imposed the Community Charge first on Scotland, making it a testing ground for its implementation in England and Wales the following year. The tax plan, seen by many Scots as an attempt by Thatcher to use them as guinea pigs for British economic theory, aroused bitter resentment and laid the groundwork for a call for more direct control over Scotland’s own affairs.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE COMMUNITY Charge led to massive protests, including the so-called Battle of Trafalgar Square, a massive protest in London in which 200,000 people participated. Four hundred people were arrested, with another 113 injured, according to The Independent.

The tax was eventually overturned in 1993, after broad outrage from Scots who refused to pay it. But the bad feelings lingered, in no small part because, due to tax laws as a consequence of the Thatcherite venture, non-payers could be pursued for years. One Scottish financial expert wrote, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the tax’s imposition, that local governments were still chasing hundreds of millions in delinquent Community Charge payments, despite the formal end of the practice years earlier.

In more recent times, Scotland experienced other problems arising from being a “devolved” government working from within the UK’s constitutional monarchy.

◊ ◊ ◊

Scotland's deficit in fiscal year 2012–13 was £12 billion ($19.6 billion at the current rate of exchange), a £3.5 billion ($5.7 billion) increase over the previous fiscal year. The UK's deficit declined by £2.6 billion ($4.25 billion) over the same period. As of July of this year, the Scottish economy grew by 1 percent, according to BBC News.

While welcomed by UK government officials, the news wasn’t seen as universally positive. Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, told BBC it was “good that Scottish GDP is now above pre-recession levels. However, it is complacent and somewhat misleading to crow about record levels of output.

“The truth of the matter is that the economy may never recover output lost due to the recession and the prolonged period of stagnation that followed,” Smith said. Earlier economic forecasts say any Scottish recovery could be hampered by effects of Eurozone deflation, declining real wages and, ironically, the steady rise in home prices in London, BBC reported.

◊ ◊ ◊

AMONG OLDER Scots, then, it’s the feeling nurtured in the Thatcherite era that “Scotland makes, the UK takes,” coupled with an economy seen as growing more slowly than it should, that’s powering much of the passion for independence playing out in Scotland today.

For younger Scottish voters, the frictions of the Thatcher days may not matter as much, for perfectly understandable reasons. It’s harder to object to something you weren’t alive to experience firsthand.

Figures from the 2011 census, the most recent available (Scotland conducts a census once every 10 years), show 6.25 percent of Scots between 15 and 19 years old, and another 6.8 percent between the ages of 20 and 24 years old. Moving each age cohort forward three years, to 2014, it means that at least 700,000 Scots were either too young to remember, or weren’t alive at all, when the Thatcherite government imposed Community Charge on Scotland a quarter century ago.

For them, there’s no personal memory of the impact of the Community Charge that’s thought to be a prime mover, and a major emotionally galvanizing factor, driving the expected record turnout in today’s vote. Add to that the fact that Scottish citizens 16 and older can vote in today’s referendum. In a close election, that could make the difference between independence or union. Between Yes or No.

As previously published at BuzzFeed. Image credits: Scotland flag: universitytimes.ie (Trinity College).  Thatcher: BBC News. Scottish vote real-time visualization: Trendsmap.

UPDATE: 11 PM PT: The blue in the Union Jack stays where it is. So does David Cameron: The No voters prevailed over Yes independence supporters by a wide margin (better than 10 percentage points at this writing). The United Kingdom stays intact, though with changes expected as a result of the election. 

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond conceded defeat in a moving speech: A turnout of 86% is one of the highest in the democratic world, in any election or any referendum in history. This has been a triumph for the democratic process and politics. … The initiative by which 16- and 17-year-olds were able to vote has proved to be a resounding success. I suspect no one will ever question their right to participate in democratic elections. 

Scotland will expect pledges to devolve powers to be honoured in rapid course. We’re being promised a second reading of a Scotland Bill by March 27 next year. Not just the 1.6 million Scots who voted for independence, but all Scots will demand that timetable is followed. 


The most moving thing I saw was the queue of people in Dundee patiently waiting to vote. I met a ... 61-year-old lady who’d never voted in her life… These people were inspired to enter democratic politics… Whatever else we can say about this referendum campaign we’ve touched sections of the community who have never before been touched by the democratic process. ... We shall go forward as one nation.(Graphic: BuzzFeed)

Mission creep: A history via current events



CALIFORNIA Sen. Hiram Johnson, in a 1917 statement before the United States Senate related to the country’s entrance into World War I, is thought to have said the first casualty of war is truth. As the United States prepares for its third conflict in the Middle East in 22 years, the first casualty of the current timed-release war is apparently language. The second casualty may be memory.

Explaining the actions already taken against the ISIS terrorist organization, Secretary of State John Kerry described it for CNN as “a major counter-terrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.” Interviewed recently by MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said “we have initiated hostilities against ISIS, that’s for sure.”

Last Wednesday, in his address to the nation, President Obama called it a “counterterrorism campaign.” There’s deep reluctance to use the perfectly serviceable, thoroughly idiomatic word those actions deserve. “War.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Despite disagreement over what the hell to call this embryonic conflict, there’s been bipartisan support for doing something. Democrat Pelosi and Republican House Speaker John Boehner actually agreed on Obama’s plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in effort to defeat ISIS.

And The House of Representatives followed suit, voting Wednesday, 273-156, to approve President Obama’s plan. The Senate takes up the bill on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expects passage.

To that point, Congress had engaged in much gnashing of teeth about not knowing what “the endgame” is. Which made sense. Until very recently, we didn’t have a clear picture of what the begin-game looked like. That started to change on Sunday and Monday.

That’s when the United States began bombing ISIS strongholds outside Baghdad, the first such action that close to the Iraqi capital, as well as another strike near Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq.

“The air strike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement, alluding to a widening of the bombing campaign under way since August in northern Iraq.

Centcom announced seven more Iraq airstrikes on Tuesday and Wednesday. So far, 174 airstrikes in Iraq have taken place since the United States  intervened on Aug. 7.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE INABILITY to describe the U.S. military action points to a wider message at cross-purposes. On Wednesday at MacDill Air Force base in Florida, President Obama reasserted his intention that the United States would not be pulled into a conventional combat role, in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.

“I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” the president said.

But Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, told The New York Times and other news organizations that ground forces would be needed to effectively drive ISIS back.

Admitting that air strikes would have a definite short-term utility, Odierno said that eventually, “you’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out.” An all-air campaign “will not be the end all and be all solution in Iraq,” he said of ISIS, which he called “a long-term threat” to Europe and the United States.

Odierno’s comments followed by a day the counsel of his boss, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Tuesday that, if the current airstrike strategy failed, “I would go back to the president and make the recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

◊ ◊ ◊

There’s pretty much uniform agreement that “boots on the ground,” the overworked euphemism for ground forces who’ll do the actual fighting, will be needed to repel ISIS. The rub comes over whose boots will be there.

While reflexive hawks like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain insist that only American forces can get the job done, the White House is actively pursuing a more global coalition including the Arab states with the most to gain, and to lose, in a fight with ISIS.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Black and Brown List


THE LANDSCAPE of late-night television may be tainted with what W. Kamau Bell calls “The Unbearable Whiteness of Late-Night,” but prime-time network TV is in the process of being another matter entirely.

With a flurry of new network series set to debut starting this week and continuing well into next year, prime-time TV, that mirror on both the national imagination and the national self-image, is about to reflect more of America than usual.

On the basis of numbers alone, ABC seems to have the season’s hot hand. The network takes point with no fewer than six series with either black and minority themes or lead stars. ”Black-ish,” a new ABC comedy series, promises to push the envelope on depiction of black life in America. Anthony Anderson (Guys With Kids) stars as Andre Johnson, a rising ad executive just promoted to senior vice president at the ad agency he works at. Tracee Ellis Ross co-stars as his wife, a successful doctor. They enjoy the trappings of success — kids, a sumptuous home, upscale neighborhood — even as they navigate the conflicting challenges of cultural identity and assimilation as African Americans in the 21st century. The show, executive produced by Anderson and Laurence Fishburne, debuts Sept. 24.

◊ ◊ ◊

ABC will also present ”How to Get Away With Murder,” the latest from the hit machine of Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” In the series created by Peter Nowalk and exec-produced by Rhimes, Oscar nominee Viola Davis (“The Help”) stars as a college professor who becomes embroiled in murder cases, with her students, in unexpected ways. The show bows on Thursday, Sept. 25, in scheduling that will effectively make Thursday Shonda Rhimes Night on ABC (“Murder” will follow “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” broadcast earlier the same night).

ABC’s ”American Crime,” an ensemble drama to be written, produced and directed by Oscar winner John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”), will dig deep into the lives of people caught up in in a high-profile trial with racial overtones after an incident in Modesto, Calif., upends their lives. It’s about as topical a TV show as you could ask for in a nation still grappling with the racial trauma of Ferguson, Mo.


BuzzFeed: Shonda Rhimes’ Leading Ladies Say Others Need To Measure Up In Terms Of Diversity


Comedian Kevin Hart is working on scripts for a semi-autobiographical comedy series for ABC. Romany Malco (“Weeds”) is slated to portray Hart’s counterpart in the half-hour comedy based loosely on Hart’s own life. And stand-up comedian and producer Cristela Alonzo stars in “Cristela,” a comedy series on a Mexican-American woman interning at a powerful law firm, despite the misgivings of her family.

◊ ◊ ◊

OTHER NETWORKS are part of the panorama. Alfre Woodard is the president of the United States in NBC’s “State of Affairs,” the Alexi Hawley drama that also stars Katherine Heigl, as a CIA analyst tasked with keeping the president abreast of what’s hot and not around the world. The series debuts on the Peacock Network on Nov. 17.

Craig Robinson, a mainstay of The Office, will star in ”Mr. Robinson,” an NBC comedy, portraying a music teacher who rides herd over students at a middle school.

Michael Che (formerly with “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” was just tapped to join “Weekend Update” on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the first black co-anchor for the popular SNL segment since the show’s 1975 debut.

And TV comedy veteran Bill Cosby is plotting a return to TV with a new prime-time NBC comedy, which the network described for The Hollywood Reporter as “a classic, big, extended family sitcom.” Cosby is to star as the family patriarch and the father of three grown daughters with children — the template for what sounds like a more mature version of “The Cosby Show,” the hit NBC program that helped revitalize the sitcom genre in the 1980’s. Pending the right scripts, the show could be up and running by the summer or fall of 2015, THR reported.

◊ ◊ ◊

Oscar winner Octavia Spencer (“The Help”) stars as a hardcase nurse presiding over a ward of precocious teenage patients in a Los Angeles hospital. Fox’s “Red Band Society,” the dark dramedy adaptation of a Spanish TV series, starts its run on Wednesday, Sept. 17.

Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest”), Terrence Howard (“Hustle and Flow”) and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) will headline “Empire,” a family drama on the rise of a hip-hop mogul. The pedigree is solid: Created by Lee Daniels (director of “The Butler”), the Fox series debuts in the spring of 2015, with Daniels, Danny Strong (“Game Change,” “The Butler”) and Brian Grazer (“Get On Up”) at the helm.

And even that relatively monochromatic late-night world is about to get a makeover. Starting in January, Larry Wilmore, once the “Senior Black Correspondent” for “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” helms his own Comedy Central show. “The Minority Report With Larry Wilmore” will go head-to-head with “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” and CBS’ “Late Show” as soon to be reconfigured under Stephen Colbert.
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