Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fear of a black helicopter:
The Senate gun bill and what comes next



IT HAPPENED so long ago in media terms — days before the horrors of Boston — that it almost got off the radar. The Senate’s April 17 vote on S. 649, the vote meant to be a statement on Congress' willingness to advance the slightest firearms legislation on the nation's behalf, was a profound disappointment for supporters of gun control. The vote, 54- 46, was well short of the filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes needed, under rules imposed by Senate Republicans.

Americans were incredulous at the way the Senate Republicans, and some apostate Democrats, voted down the Manchin-Toomey bill, an already watered-down piece of legislation that would have set the bare minimum of standards on background checks to keep guns out of the hands of the very people who shouldn’t have them, and toughened laws on Internet sales.

President Obama was circumspect, and stoic. “I believe we’re going to be able to get this one,” he said. “Sooner or later we are going to get this right.” He added: “I see this as just round one.”

“To all the people who supported this legislation … you need to let your representatives in Congress know that you are disappointed and that if they don’t act this time, you will remember come election time,” Obama said.

“To change Washington, you, the American people, are going to have to sustain some passion about this,” Obama said.

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Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post sounded a decidedly downbeat note about the defeat of Manchin-Toomey, in his The Fix blog from April 17:

“Is Obama right? Are we in the first round of a 10-round fight on guns? Or does what happened on the Senate floor Wednesday amount to a knockout for the forces pushing for more gun control measures?”

Cillizza got his answer fast, from a lot of different places. A new Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey finds that New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a Republican who voted against Manchin-Toomey, has nosedived in the hearts and minds of her constituents. The poll has Ayotte upside down in favorable (44 percent) and unfavorable (46 percent) sentiment; her unfavorables climbed 11 points since October.

In the PPP poll, 50 percent of those responding said Ayotte’s vote against background checks would make it harder to back her for re-election in 2016. Perhaps it’s not surprising since 75 percent of her state’s voters want those enhanced background checks.

The GE Capital unit of superconglomerate General Electric announced on Wednesday that it would stop its already-insigificant practice of providing loans for consumer purchases at gun stores. The Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported Wednesday that GE Capital had basically stopped the practice in 2008, with the exception of a relative handful of stores with “grandfathered” arrangements. After Newtown, the company quietly decided to pull the plug on those as well.

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AND OTHER vulnerabilities may already be showing. Howard Dean, on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” on April 18, said Montana’s Max Baucus, who voted with the GOP against the Manchin-Toomey bill, was politically a dead man walking. “I'll predict right now, this is the end of Max Baucus' career,” the former Vermont governor and presidential candidate said of the nominally Democratic senator who chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

The governor can give himself another title: Political Nostradamus. Less than a week after Dean’s bold prediction, Baucus, who is 71, announced that he would not seek a seventh term in Congress. Baucus’ retirement next year would put the end on a 36-year career in the Senate, on top of two terms in the House before that.

‘‘I don’t want to die here with my boots on. There is life beyond Congress,’’ Baucus said in a telephone interview with The Boston Globe. Baucus was already thought to be subject to a primary challenge for earlier votes that advanced Republican initiatives at the expense of his own party. His vote against Manchin-Toomey in the face of overwhelming support from his own constituents may have been the backbreaker.

At some point before the vote, or maybe just after, Max Baucus confronted the very real likelihood that he’d have his ass handed to him if he ran in 2014. Faced with the devil-and-deep-blue-sea scenario of either standing up for his constituents or standing up to the NRA, Baucus took the easy way out by announcing plans to walk away from both of them.

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Fear has ruled this debate from the start. But it’s not just the grassroots Americans’ stereotypical nightmares of government control of American firearms — the fear of black helicopters swooping in overnight to take our guns and ammo — that informs the gun-law reform debate.

For red-state lawmakers like Baucus, Democrats and Republicans alike, it’s their own fear of a black helicopter that holds them hostage: a black chopper with the NRA logo on the side, appearing in the political skies above them, ready to start a missile strike on their careers.

Mark Glaze, the director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, gets this. “They've been around since 1871, and virtually unopposed for a generation. You don't dislodge that kind of influential force very quickly,” Glaze told NBC News’ Michael O’Brien. “The gun lobby's been around for a very long time, and it's going to take members of Congress a long time to learn that the ground has shifted under them.”

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“[I]t’s not clear whether anything that happens in the country or that President Obama (or OFA) can generate passion on the gun control side of the argument that comes anywhere close to matching that which exists on the other side,” Cillizza says in The Post. And that’s wrong.

As anyone knows if they’ve looked at the face of Nicole Hockley in numerous television appearances since her son Dylan was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary ... Cillizza couldn’t be more wrong. Passion, at the end of the day, is nothing more than an emotion, on a par with sorrow and pain — the sorrow and pain evident in Nicole Hockley’s bereft, inconsolable eyes ... and the eyes of other family survivors of what happened in Newtown, and everywhere else in the country affected by gun violence.

Is there a “passion” anywhere, of any kind, that’s stronger than a mother’s love for her child, or her sorrow at that child's violent passing? I dare you to find one.

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CILLIZZA CONVEYS the power of movement on gun-law reform to the Congress when, as recent evidence since Newton shows, much of the progress being made on gun-law reform isn’t being made on Capitol Hill. It’s happening at the state level, with legislatures more directly responsible to (and accessible by) their constituents voting to enact their own reforms. Whether it’s piecemeal or comprehensive, progress is progress. And that’s what’s going on under the radar, in the statehouses.

It would be silly to think this is over. Cillizza’s and other premature obituaries for the gun-law reform movement reveal, at root, a faith in the metric of money as the defining measure of success and failure. They don’t account for the ways in which, sooner or later, on the weight of both moral suasion and the irrefutable drumbeat of casualties — one gunshot victim at a time — the tide turns.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The brothers Tsarnaev and the end of ‘Other’


THE FALLOUT from the Boston Marathon bombings has led to an often inane but sometimes enlightening debate over the ethnicity of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the two suspects in the bombings, and how that ethnicity either dovetails or collides with longstanding American tropes of race, religion and American identity. Ironically, the urgency of the debate — centered on whether or not the Tsarnaevs are white — says more about those asking the question than anyone else.

Cutting to the chase in the debate, Peter Beinart nails it in a great piece at The Daily Beast today:

“[T]he bombers were white Americans. The Tsarnaev brothers had lived in the United States for more than a decade. Dzhokhar was a U.S. citizen. Tamerlan was a legal permanent resident in the process of applying for citizenship. And as countless commentators have noted, the Tsarnaevs hail from the Caucasus, and are therefore, literally, ‘Caucasian.’ You can’t get whiter than that.”

The disconnect? Beinert notes the obvious (or that which is obvious when we decide to talk about it): “[I]n public conversation in America today, “Islam” is a racial term. Being Muslim doesn’t just mean not being Christian or Jewish. It means not being white.”

The fact of the Tsarnaev brothers’ identity as Muslims, coupled with their previous ordinariness while living in America, has thrown a monkey wrench in the social machinery that has in modern times linked Muslims with “dark-skinned” people. The Other.

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Historically, as Beinert makes clear at length, the sense of Otherness in the United States required an enforced social and judicial separation from the mainstream, one that decades of acculturation and stasis have made hard to counteract.

After 9/11 scarred the nation’s psyche, that sense of Otherness was effectively codified in, among other things, a variety of airport screening regulations that targeted Muslims for extra attention, policies that made one’s faith subject to probable cause.

The matter of Muslims’ complexion, reinforced in reality and by operational government policy if not in actual word, was addressed by the informal catch-all description of dark-skinned males — those from Middle Eastern countries and Africa. By the official if unwritten calculus, Muslim = dark-skinned; certainly since 9/11, one has always equaled the other. That conflation of religion and color is a poison that’s been trickling into the wider American culture ever since.

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AND NOW in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, as evidenced by the onslaught of rage on conservative TV media, the solution for conservatives seems to be nothing less than war on Muslims. And that’s where the brothers Tsarnaev come in to complicate everything. They make the conservatives’ rhetorical attacks on the Muslim faith more problematic.

Why? Because the Tsarnaevs don’t fit the mold. They’re not the Muslims from the Central Casting Dept. of the national imagination. They reflect the immigrant experience we don’t talk about, the one lived by people who’ve absorbed the same cultural messaging, mastered the same societal referents, expressed the same recognition of our mores and values, as everyone else in this country.

The meme of Otherness requires a space, a  distance between itself and the majority culture, a distance that the Tsarnaevs’ past and deeply American lives have obliterated. Because of their example, that Muslim = dark-skinned equation may not be so easily arrived at anymore.

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“At base,” Beinert observes, “the reason it’s so hard for people to accept that the Tsarnaevs are white is because, since America’s founding, being white has meant, both culturally and legally, being “one of us.” And since 9/11, in particular, being Muslim has meant the opposite. As a light-skinned Muslim, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev straddles that divide.

“But he straddles it in other ways, too. He was a pothead, a devotee of hip-hop, a lifeguard, a high-school wrestler, an aspiring dentist. And yet he became, it appears, a murderer on behalf of a fanatical species of Islam. He’s a type that has reappeared again and again in our history, from every faith and in every shade: an American at war with America, both intimately familiar and frighteningly alien at the same time.”

The story of the Tsarnaev brothers gets more ethnographically fascinating every day; as this thing unfolds, what’ll be just as interesting to watch is how our commentariat culture gets its head around this de-conflation of religion and ethnicity. The Tsarnaev brothers may well have signaled loudly, and tragically, what’s been evolving in the national life for decades, percolating in a hundred million interactions every day:

Thanks to the elastic personal latitudes of religion, the evolution of our information technology, the evolution of our national population, and the breadth of our popular culture, the box marked “Other” no longer obtains. For all practical purposes, the “Other” that’s the construct of majority society no longer exists. Any such convenient labels, describing those who didn’t fit the contours of the national demographic typology, outlived what pretended to be their usefulness a long time ago.

The Other in America is now what it’s always been: the Us we never acknowledged.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Describing a suspect:
A few tips for CNN's John King (The Root)



The federal authorities and Boston police put out the word early after the bombings at Monday's Boston Marathon: Bring us your implausible, your unlikely, your huddled hunches yearning to be heard. Advance and be recognized.

"We are processing all the digital photographic evidence we can," said Richard DesLauriers, special agent in charge of the Boston office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, asking the public "to continue submitting whatever they have to police."

With that kind of thinking taking center stage in the investigation, federal and commonwealth officials implicitly expressed a preference for thoroughness over speed. That didn't sit well with the electronic media -- a fact that the media paid for this week. One most trusted outlet in particular.

Read the rest in The Root

Image credit: The Tsarnaev brothers: FBI.gov via The Root.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The hollow-tipping point:
Senate takes up gun-law reform


CONGRESSIONAL DEBATE. Believe it. Those two words became reality on Thursday, as the United States Senate, making a bipartisan statement about the issue of gun-law reform, voted 68-31 to begin debate on legislation to address what’s become the most contentious issue in the country. The next step in all this, the start of the action in the Senate, may set the tone of the debate for months to come.

S. 649, the bill introduced on March 21 by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, is intended to make sure that “all individuals who should be prohibited from buying a firearm are listed in the national instant criminal background check system and require a background check for every firearm sale.”

Opposition to that bill by Republicans was predictably fast and furious. Trying a find a more palatable way, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia introduced The Public Safety and Second Amendment Rights Protection Act, a bipartisan bill that focuses on expanded background checks and sharper limits to firearms access online.

That bill, introduced early Wednesday, will be offered as an amendment to Reid’s bill.

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Despite the bluster of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a flurry of GOP senators — Ayotte of New Hampshire, Chambliss of Georgia, McCain of Arizona, Graham of South Carolina, Kirk of Illinois, Collins of Maine, and more besides — abandoned plans to filibuster any gun-law reform bills, Manchin-Toomey included. Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia went so far as to support an up-or-down vote.

Others, though, won’t check that filibuster weapon at the door. McConnell and other Republicans have promised to snarl any bill’s advance every way they can, including filibusters and introduction of amendments that would slow a gun bill’s progress to a snail’s pace. The Three Amigos of the GOP — Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida — have said they may try a filibuster.

“Republican leaders say their side plans to offer dozens or perhaps hundreds of amendments could delay final Senate action on the bill for two weeks or more,” Politico reported on Wednesday.

And then, after all that, it goes to the GOP-led House.

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THERE’S SOMETHING for everyone to dislike in Manchin-Toomey. The bill calls for background checks at stores, gun shows and on Web sites; the gun show “loophole” would be closed. The measure would also ease travel issues for those with concealed-carry permits who need to carry firearms through states where concealed-carry would be illegal. Both senators said their bill would be one step toward full concealed-carry rights nationwide.

Active duty military personnel can continue to make firearms purchases where they live; and personal transfers of firearms is still unaffected (you can still inherit your father’s Henry rifle).

President Obama hailed the legislation in circumspect fashion. “This is not my bill, and there are aspects of the agreement that I might prefer to be stronger,” Obama said in a Wednesday statement. But, he said, the deal “recognizes that there are good people on both sides of this issue, and we don't have to agree on everything to know that we've got to do something to stem the tide of gun violence.”

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Within an hour or two of the announcement of the agreement, there were attempts by Republicans to undercut the news-cycle impact of the deal, and to reintroduce the prospect of dilatory tactics all too common in today’s Congress.

“The Manchin-Toomey proposal is a good faith but unworkable plan," Coburn said in a statement, as reported by The Hill. “The proposal will impose new taxes and unreasonable burdens on law-abiding citizens.”

“I think the chances of it passing are about 50-50,” a top Democratic aide told Politico about the bill’s chances for Senate passage. “I really don’t know how it will go.”

But ultimately, we do know. The American people, in any number of recent gun-control polls, have overwhelmingly defined the need for action in the context of a solution to a problem; the conservatives, the NRA have consistently denied that a problem exists, discounting the need for taking any substantive action at all. For them, politically, that’s going to be a problem they have no solution for.

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SOME IN the Beltway media have suggested that if ultimately passed in the Senate, the Manchin-Toomey agreement would create hard feelings equally on the left and the right. That’s probably not true, and the way it’s not true redounds to the Democrats’ advantage. Never mind the fact that expanded background checks have long been the tripwire, the line in the sand for the National Rifle Association — a boundary that this agreement goes beyond, however marginally.

The very bipartisanship of this agreement; the senators’ abandonment of the filibuster tactic that preceded it; the basic frustration evident in using a filibuster in the first place; and the reach-across-the-aisle narrative that evolved during the bill’s creation — all conform precisely with the all-hands approach to gun-law reform that President Obama has been calling for, for months. It reflects common ground that Republicans had vowed they’d never walk on.

True enough, many Democrats and independents will say it doesn’t go far enough; and since private purchases at gun dealers aren’t covered by the bill, there’s much to be said for that point of view. But there will be more Republicans — a lot more — who’ll say it goes too far.

A reasonably objective view, though, will define the Manchin-Toomey bill for what it really is: a step away from pursuing the politically unattainable Perfect, and a step toward capturing the practical, bipartisan Good.

And since it’s been the Republicans and the NRA who’ve fought so hard and long to keep from moving in that direction ... it’s obvious who wins this round.

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Want proof? The NRA’s first statement after the deal went down was a boilerplate expression of grudging acceptance. “Expanding background checks at gun shows will not prevent the next shooting, will not solve violent crime and will not keep our kids safe in schools,” the NRA said in its statement, released sometime late Wednesday afternoon.

Fast forward to Wednesday night at 8:54 p.m. (according to the Huffington Post clock): The NRA released a harder, blunter, longer statement stating it was “unequivocally opposed to S. 649.” And this time, in a Gestapo-spank move, the NRA doubled down on its own previous opposition, announcing plans to “score” senators according to their vote on the measure.

Margaret stands down:
Baroness Thatcher (1925-2013)


“One owes respect to the living. To the dead, one owes only the truth.”

— Voltaire


BARONESS MARGARET Hilda Roberts Thatcher, LG, OM, PC, FRS, died at the Ritz Hotel in London on Monday morning of a stroke, at the age of 87. The baroness, and formerly the first and only woman prime minister of the United Kingdom, had been in declining health for some years.

Inquiring minds and others can agree on that much about Thatcher. But what’s emerged in the days since her death was announced has been a flood of reactions from a variety of perspectives — some of them pro, some of them con, but all of them consistent with Voltaire’s thinking. There’s no way to hurt her feelings now. There weren’t a lot of ways to hurt her feelings when she was alive.

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Thatcher sparked or championed policies that revived the British economy; through her forthright personality, Britain restored its role as a world power, a global player. Her domestic economic policies helped dramatically boost home ownership, and also led to an expansion of the investor class. During her 11 years and seven months as PM, Britain enjoyed a rise in personal wealth and security.

Thatcher defended environmental protection in 1990, warning that the depletion of the ozone layer was happening faster than expected, and calling for a global convention to address climate change.

And partly because of policies she set in motion, the disparity in compensation between the sexes dropped to one of the lowest in western nations. “Under Thatcher, women saw salary rises that paid them 76% of male full-time pay - up from 73%, the Guardian UK reported. “It has improved since then -- in 2011 it was 84.8%.”

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NOW FLIP the script. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and as reported by The Guardian UK, poverty grew like a virus in the Thatcher era. “In 1979, 13.4% of the population lived below 60% of median incomes before housing costs. By 1990, it had gone up to 22.2%, or 12.2 [million] people, with huge rises in the mid-1980s,” The Guardian reported. Child poverty increased in the UK during her tenure, with 28 percent of children living below the poverty line by the time she stepped down, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2006.

Thatcher opposed sanctions against the apartheid South African government, calling Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress “a typical terrorist organization.” She called for the release of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested for war crimes for the imprisonment and torture of thousands of Chilean dissidents.

Thatcher spearheaded tax policies that moved the burden from the wealthiest Britons to the poorest Britons; a poll tax instituted before she left office in 1990 — the so-called Community Charge — was so divisive it led to riots nationwide, including the “Battle of Trafalgar,” a March 1990 confrontation between protesters and London police.



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WE LIKE to think of the period near the end of 1980 as the start of the rise of the conservative dynamic: inward, reactionary, selfish, intolerant. It’s not really true. Not only did Thatcher serve longer as prime minister than Reagan served as president of the United States; Thatcher was prime minister before Reagan was president.

At least some of the credit that Reagan has historically assumed as arbiter of the conservative zeitgeist — the avatar of the suspicious, culturally antagonistic, Ayn Randian political philosophy that still animates conservatism in America — rightly belongs to Thatcher, who became the British prime minister 18 months before Reagan won election in 1980, and five months before Reagan launched his candidacy.

If Thatcher hadn’t won in England, Reagan may have had a more difficult path to the U.S. presidency, optically and operationallly. Never mind the details of the differences between our economics and the UK’s, or the fact that American conservatism is hardly analogous with British conservatism. Thatcher’s governing style — direct, confrontational, uncompromising — set the stage for Reagan’s own.

The ascension of Margaret Thatcher may have been necessary to make the ascension of Ronald Reagan possible.

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In some ways, they may have learned from each other.

There was one distilling hallmark of Reagan’s first term, an early sign of how tough he could be. In 1981, President Reagan was faced with a paralyzing prospect: a looming strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, PATCO, whose members sought a reduced workweek, and improved compensation and working conditions.

From the Rose Garden in August, invoking Taft-Hartley, Reagan threw down a gauntlet, declaring flat out that the government trade union’s strikers “are in violation of the law, and if they do not report for work within 48 hours they have forfeited their jobs and will be terminated.”

PATCO strikers didn’t budge. Neither did Reagan. Two days later he fired more than 11,000 of them, complicating life for the nation’s airports for years to come but sending a signal that his government would not be hostage to the unions ... and marking one of the first warning shots across the bow of Big Labor — shots that continue from conservatives today.

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FAST FORWARD to March 1984. Thatcher, faced with a similar test of wills with the mining trade unions, may well have borrowed from Reagan’s no-bluff playbook. The miners’ union walked out to protest a cut of more than 12 percent of the nation’s state-owned mine operations, and an 11 percent cut in jobs.

Thatcher wouldn’t budge on union demands, despite the eventual loss of tens of millions of workhours lost to the industry and, by extension, the national economy. As with Reagan, it was a matter of principle.

She observed many of the same tropes and embraced the same memes of conservatism in the UK prevalent, then and now, in the United States: aggressive anti-union sentiment, support for privatizing elements of the national economy, and a reinforcement of the primacy of the national identity — sometimes at the expense of those whose personal identities don’t dovetail with the mainstream ideal.

Friday, April 5, 2013

4/4/68: What was taken and what remains


FORTY-FIVE years ago, a skinny, rusty-butt African American boy left school and came home to find the lights down and his mother crying. His brothers, both of whom were younger than he was, were absent, somewhere else in the house that seemed larger than before. But his mother’s tears jarred and frightened him. He hadn’t seen that for a while. At least three years. Or four.

His father emerged from one of the rooms, his eyes bearing the rheumy sheen of someone who’d been crying too. Pops had just retired from the army the year before, after 22 years in, and he was no pushover, no lightweight. So to find him in the same condition as his mother filled the kid with alarm. Something big must have happened.

His mother, finally regaining her self-control, wiped the tears from her face long enough to get maternal again. She stepped to her son, the oldest of three, and spoke softly.

“You boys don’t go to school tomorrow.”

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It goes without saying that when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis this date in 1968, the nation lost its most populist moral compass, and African Americans lost their distilling messenger, the one who, since the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, articulated and defended the aspirations of black America in every precinct of the national life.

In the years since, the social and political advances this country’s made have rightly been viewed against the metric of King’s own aspirations for his nation — measured against the particulars of the “I Have a Dream” speech that's part of the double helix of the spiritual DNA of our modern United States. From the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971 to the Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990, from the Lily Ledbetter Act in 2009, to the still-emerging legislative evolution on marriage equality, our nation’s leaps or lurches toward social justice and personal freedom have used King’s vision as a benchmark.

What remains of King’s “dream” is more than the grainy newsreel footage of the man speaking truth to power at the Lincoln Memorial. It’s percolated heartily into the bedrock of reality. In the last 45 years, African Americans have achieved pinnacles of leadership in the worlds of entertainment and the media — taken summits whose importance isn’t defined by mainstream America, but on its own terms, sufficient unto itself. They’ve seen America elect its first African American president, a signal event King would have praised with tears in his eyes.

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BUT THERE’S more work to do. What also remains is the persistence of old inequities, imbalances of race, culture and class. We’ve only to look at the protest today by about 400 workers at several different fast-food restaurants in New York City — a protest sparked by people who’ve had enough of minimum wage, everyday people pushing back against the same economic injustice that King made his last mission.

We only have to consider the fact that the Voting Rights Act, one of the crowning achievements of his career, is thought to be targeted for dismantling by conservatives in Congress and, quite possibly, by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” King said in 1965, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an 19th-century abolitionist whom King admired. And what was true in Parker’s distant day and in King’s more immediate lifetime is a fact today. But that arc doesn’t bend all by itself.

What we lost 45 years ago was irreplaceable; what’s left 45 years later is inescapable: It’s left to us to further the “Dream” and make it both closer to reality and more of a reality than it already is. It’s up to us to be the weight that makes that arc bend.

Image credits: Detail from King statue, Washington: BBC News. Times Square fast-food worker protest: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Congress?
States are prime movers on gun-law reform


THERE ARE some powerful voices on the other side that are interested in running out the clock, or changing the subject or drowning out the majority of the American people to prevent any of these reforms from happening at all,” President Obama said. “They are doing everything they can to make all our progress collapse under the weight of fear and frustration or their assumption is that people will just forget about it.”

Those comments made on March 28 at the White House and others he’s made since then are the latest pushback against the intransigence of members of Congress on gun-law reform. “Ninety percent support background checks,” Obama said. “More than 80 percent of Republicans agree, more than 90 percent of gun owners agree. Think about it. How often do 90 percent of Americans agree on anything?”

Despite the president’s call to action, and the efforts of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg toward ramping up pressure on Congress, the National Rifle Association has many legislators fearing primary challenges if they break with the NRA’s steadfast opposition to any movement of the issue at all. The result: The 113th Congress won’t likely advance the ball on the issue any further than the 112th did.

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That’s led to much despair and gnashing of teeth among gun-law reform advocates in the media lamenting the loss of a pivotal moment in the wake of the Newtown murders last December.

Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball,” closed Tuesday’s program with a downbeat perspective: “If you think our gun laws are good right now, that they’re giving us reasonable gun safety, don’t worry, be happy, be glad things are calm, things are staying the way they are.

“Because they are. Do you hear me? Nothing is going to change. The ways things are headed now, the U.S. Congress, which represents the whole American people, is not going to even vote on stronger background checks — something nine out of 10 of us agree on.

“Got it? Nothing. Nothing is going to get done.”

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HYPERBOLE AND exaggeration have long been two of Matthews’ reliable on-air rhetorical companions, and Tuesday’s closing comments proved the point again. But the facts are somewhat different; a look at the gun-law reform issue shows there’s reason to be hopeful, despite his pessimistic scenario.

What’s happening on gun-law reform isn’t happening in the halls of Congress. It’s happening little by little at the state level, where it matters, thanks to governors sympathetic to gun-law changes and legislatures willing to act independent of Congress’ voluntary paralysis.

In response to the Newtown shootings, the state of New York passed the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act in January, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo signing the SAFE Act into law a half hour after it was passed.

Late last month, the state of Colorado made its move when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed sweeping new gun laws that widen background checks on all private gun purchases and curb the size of ammunition magazines, barring sale of magazines with more than 15 bullets.

And earlier tonight, lawmakers in Connecticut — the state where the Newtown murders took place and riveted the nation’s attention 100-odd days ago — jointly approved a measure that will, when signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at noon on Thursday, become the strictest gun control law in the United States.

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State Sen. Bob Duff of Norwalk told The Connecticut Post he was “very proud of the fact that Connecticut has been able to do this in a bipartisan manner. But that also means we're going to have the strongest gun-control laws in the country, along with very strong mental health laws and school-security measures.”

On Wednesday the Maryland House of Delegates approved gun control legislation that requires fingerprinting and — holy of holies! — an assault weapons ban, something that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has walked away from.

The Firearms Safety Act of 2013, shepherded and championed by Gov. Martin O’Malley, downsizes ammo magazine limits by half (from 20 rounds to 10) and, yep, bans outright more than three dozen types of assault weapons, including the AR-15 Bushmaster, Adam Lanza’s weapon of choice in the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, and a weapon that will live in infamy.

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THE MESSAGE is an obvious one. There’s more than one way to get something accomplished.

Anyone expecting gun-law reform from Congress to be a slam-dunk — one broad and all-encompassing piece of legislation that effects national change in a trice, something with the thunderously dispositive impact of the Voting Rights Act or Roe v. Wade — is fooling themselves. We didn’t get to this point in the firearms access debate, and the myriad tragedies that have made that debate necessary, all at once.

This has been a process, not an event, and the changes to the nation’s gun culture and its laws will happen the same way, incrementally, in no small part because of today’s rancorous Washington politics.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Hillary, we hardly got a chance to miss ya


HILLARY CLINTON the private citizen seems to be edging ever closer to dipping her toe in the presidential campaign waters years before those waters return to the national shore. On Saturday, Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times wrote:

“Hillary Clinton left the State Department nearly two months ago, but she still needs a staff to keep up with the considerable business of being Hillary Clinton. A half-dozen people now work for the former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate in a tiny corporate space on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, in what is called her ‘transition office.’

“Transition to what, Mrs. Clinton and her aides have not yet said. But the question hovers over her every move and has frozen in place the very early — but for some potential candidates, very important — presidential maneuvering on the Democratic side.

“Mrs. Clinton’s post-government life is so new that she is barely off her State Department health care plan. The Iowa caucuses are at least 33 months away. But that has not dissuaded a network of former campaign staff members and volunteers from starting a political action committee, ‘Ready for Hillary,’ dedicated to what they hope will be her 2016 run.”

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Tina Brown, editor of the Daily Beast, said on MSNBC on Monday: “In four years time, who knows what will happen? But there’s no doubt there’s an enormous groundswell for Hillary Clinton. Whether it can be maintained — I mean don’t forget, last time, it seemed like it was gonna be a shoo-in last time.”

Brown’s right. However hungry Clinton might be for the White House, it comes down now to picking her spots and choosing her battles — battles she doesn’t have to fight right now in any case.

We’re more than three and a half years out, and the idea that’s there’s a groundswell of support for Hillary taking a 2016 run may not matter. It can’t be overlooked that at this point in 2008, before the campaign had really begun, Hillary was hailed as the inevitable one, the obvious frontrunner with no possible, credible, meaningful competition to be mounted against her.

We all know how that turned out.

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THE PROBLEM with even casual interest in the White House this far in advance of an actual run is obvious: Groundswells thin out after a while. The heady frisson of the armchair partisan wears off as day-to-day reality sets in, and more immediate concerns take precedent. And since the 2016 Democratic nomination won’t be a coronation (or it shouldn’t be), we’ve yet to hear from any prospective challengers. The farther in advance of a campaign that a wave of support occurs, the more likely that wave fades over time.

No one would fault Clinton for kicking back for a year, taking some time off, enjoying the chance to sleep in a bed that’s not on a moving conveyance, before making an announcement at, say, the end of this year or early 2014. She could jump back into public life then and not have missed a step. Why now? Why would you need a “transition office” to retire from being secretary of state?

Even though Rutenberg’s piece focuses on efforts made by her backers on her behalf, let’s be real: Clinton is acquiescing in all of this. And by at least passively indicating interest in the White House so long before an actual campaign, Hillary Clinton may actually be working against those presidential best interests. It gives potential opponents on the Democratic side time to husband their forces, assess the terrain and better prepare for a long-range approach to their own possible White House bids.

It also gives potential Republican opponents — who’ll be in the clown car in 2016? — more time to cultivate strategies and build their angles of attack.

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And anyway, for most Americans just settling into life after a campaign as bruising for them as it was for the candidates, there’s not much appetite for even talking about it this far out. We’ve barely had time to let wallets and pocketbooks recover from candidates’ fundraising from the last go-round, and we’re faced with the talk of another campaign cranking up already? Please.
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