State of the Union

Anthony Weiner Getting Exposed

Over at Open Zion, Ali Gharib has video of Anthony Weiner trying to brush off a questioner who asks him about his claim there is “no Israeli occupation” of the West Bank. A couple of weeks ago I wondered whether New York voters would care about or even notice this issue, whether Weiner’s opponents in a liberal Democratic primary would see Wiener’s far-right Israel politics as a point of potential vulnerability.  The verdict is not yet in, but the fact that someone (a pro-Palestine activist? someone linked to one of the other campaigns?) is trying to publicize  the issue is a sure sign of progress.

Weiner is in a bind: he wants to appeal to that segment of the electorate which is really far right on Israel, while hoping the rest of the primary electorate doesn’t notice or care. It’s a balancing act that can only work if no one brings up the issue in public.  Why should voters care what a mayoral candidate’s position on Israel-Palestine is? If you’ve lived through a New York democratic primary, you know that much of the campaign consists of every candidate trying to “outliberal”  one other in pandering to New York’s very large array of liberal constituencies.  The issues are often fairly technical, and it’s hard to get a fix on how candidates would actually govern if elected — when there are real restraints on how liberal they can be.

So the question of Israel-Palestine becomes a sort of window into the moral judgement of the candidate.  I don’t expect great things, but Weiner’s far out position clearly exposes  himself as both ignorant and bigot — personality traits which are not irrelevant to his capacity to govern the city.  No wonder he looks peeved in video.

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Egypt’s Blasphemy Laws–Still a Bad Idea

It’s a strange variation on a common theme in post-revolution Egypt: the country’s burdensome laws against blasphemy are being used to punish anti-Christian hate speech.

A hard-line Muslim cleric received an 11-year suspended sentence Sunday for tearing up and burning a Bible, Egypt’s official news agency said.

Cairo’s Nasr City court sentenced Ahmed Abdullah and his son was given a suspended sentence of eight years over the same incident, the Middle East News Agency reported. The two were ordered to pay a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($700). The ruling can be appealed.

Abdullah ripped up a Bible and burned it during a Sept. 11 rally by ultraconservative Salafi Muslims in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, protesting an anti-Islam film produced in the United States.  (AP)

In Egypt’s Islamist tilt, these laws have increasingly been applied against Egypt’s Coptic Christians, a religious minority comprising about ten percent of the country. Earlier this month a Coptic Christian lawyer, Rumany Mourad, was sentenced to one year in prison for “defamation of religion” on the basis of a private conversation he had at a law library with two of his Muslim colleagues. Hearings in the case were reportedly “characterized by a heavy presence of Islamist lawyers and their supporters,” one of whom suggested the death penalty, reports Amnesty International.

Last Tuesday, an elementary school teacher, Dimyana Obeid Abd Al Nour, 24, was fined US$14,000 after her students accused her of praising the Coptic Pope and disparaging Mohammed in the classroom.

A Coptic activist asked at the time of Al Nour’s imprisonment, “Why is defamation of religion a one-way street, only for the benefit of the Muslims, while Christianity is defamed every day?” He pointed out that Ahmed Abdullah’s public Bible defamation had gone unpunished.

His question is a fair question, but not the right question. With Abdullah’s conviction, Egypt’s blasphemy laws have been used, for once, to protect Christians from hate speech instead of censure them, but this is no cause for celebration. Blasphemy laws themselves, and not their application, are the problem.

“This ruling is bad,” says Nina Shea, a Hudson Institute scholar who has written a book about blasphemy laws. “The whole blasphemy regime is bad. Minorities get prosecuted disproportionately, and it’s a way of shutting down debate. You could say, ‘Well, burning Bibles, burning Korans should be off limits.’ It never seems to end there. It’s a slippery slope towards banning ideas about religion and expressing rejection of religion.”

“It’s tempting for religious people to be demanding,” she says, noting that as a religious person she finds Abdullah’s actions abhorrent. “That’s the problem, though—it creates sectarian sense of grievances.”

“They think that they can gain greater social peace if the government regulates speech against other religions,” she explains. “Usually that is not the case—just the opposite, it creates jealousy and grievances.” When one religious group sees a member convicted of blasphemy, she explains, it can use that precedent to call for the prosecution of another group.

Moreover, once the government takes a role in regulating religious expression, it rarely sticks to policing the extremes. “The temptation is always to go further to curtail speech and expression,” explains Shea. “You can’t contain this once you go in that direction.”

As tempting as it may be for Egyptian Christians to feel relief at receiving seeming equal protection under the law, no one should praise this ruling. The equal prosecution of blasphemy is at once far too low, and impossibly difficult, a standard to keep.

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Iranian Voters Stump the War Party

A spectre is haunting America’s war party. Last week, Iranians went to the polls and surprisingly and unambiguously voted for the most moderate candidate, Hossan Rohani, an establishment  cleric who campaigned on the need to improve Iran’s economy and end its diplomatic isolation. Rohani is the vehicle for disparate hopes—not least those of Green movement, suppressed after the 2009 election. One should note the weaknesses of an electoral system where prospective candidates are vetted by the government, but there is little doubt that Rohani’s victory represented a vast outpouring of popular discontent—and raised prospects for an eventual détente between Iran and the West. In their way, the peoples of both Iran and the United States have both spoken—in America first by rejecting the more belligerent candidacies of first McCain and then Romney in favor of Obama; in Iran choosing, probably in the 2009 and certainly last week, the least confrontational candidate available.

Rohani threatens to deny the war party their cartoon image of an Iranian “Hitler,” one which which had been painstakingly, if dishonestly, constructed from the undisciplined and belligerent musings of his populist predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rohani doesn’t have time to open his mouth before Jonathan Tobin of Commentary warns us that   Iran remains a “totalitarian theocracy” and Obama better not “waste more time on sanctions and diplomacy” in an effort to end  Iran’s  nuclear program. (Tobin fails to  explain that rather unique form of  totalitarianism which allows meaningful competitive elections, nor does he mention which country in the Middle East has introduced to the region a huge  nuclear arsenal.) Max Boot, also at Commentary, reminds readers that power in Iran rests with the Supreme Leader, not with the president, an interpretation of Iranian political dynamic not stressed when Ahmadinejad was president. Jeffrey Goldberg chimes in that the Iranian election was “fake.” Tobin rails about “useful idiots”—the Times editorial board in this instance—who prefer diplomacy to war. But one can sense the fear in the neocons: the broad spectrum of Western opinion is inclined to think the Iranian election result might be a good, not a bad thing. One can be sure a vast research enterprise is underway to find a quote from Rohani’s past that expresses something other than sheer joy at Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians. An editor at the war-hungry Wall Street Journal is already accusing Rohani of encouraging the  murder of dissident students in the 1990′s.

The panic reminds me of the one which pulsed through  neoconservative ranks during the emergence  of Gorbachev. Then the situation was more ambiguous—the Soviets didn’t allow elections. But the neocons were unanimous (or nearly: Joshua Muravchik was a notable, and solitary exception) in presenting Gorbachev as a greater threat than previous leaders because he seemed moderate, seemed to desire the turning of bad pages and exploring new possibilities. It was a core neoconservative tenet that Soviet totalitarianism was incapable of reform and forever on the march, and in selecting Gorbachev they had found a clever new tool to lull and trick the West. Norman Podhoretz published one column—I recall struggling to write an appropriate headline for it—devoted to the Soviet leader’s devilish and mendacious smile. The danger of course was that Ronald Reagan would drop his guard, which he did, finding Gorbachev’s desire to move past the Cold War altogether credible.

In holding this election, the mullah’s regime in Iran, with all its obvious brutality and structural flaws, has already proved itself more “democratic” than the dictatorship the United States imposed upon Iran for a generation after 1953. Not surprisingly, many Iranians remember this. I don’t know whether Obama has the fortitude to explore the Iranian people’s peace overture—because it is they who made an unambiguous election choice—or whether he will bow to various Beltway hawks. But the existence of popular will on both sides for something other than continued confrontation seems impossible to deny.

And the nuclear issue: it seems to me making a core value of American policy that Israel should have hundreds of nuclear weapons and its regional neighbors not even the right to enrich uranium will always be perceived as inherently unjust, and thus inherently unstable. Margaret Thatcher, expressing frustration at Israel’s efforts to stonewall the peace process once told a Times interviewer  ”[Y]ou cannot demand for yourself what you deny to other people.” The same principle can be applied to Israel’s and Iran’s respective nuclear programs.

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Gulf War Panel: We’re Being Purged for Contradicting the VA

Members of a heretofore independent panel on Gulf War Illness are accusing Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki of “shooting the messenger” by gutting their committee and slashing half its members in a recent charter rewrite.

A member of the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) on Gulf War Illness told The American Conservative over the weekend that Shinseki was retaliating against them for their unvarnished, public criticism of the agency—in the press and on Capitol Hill. Most recently, members Anthony Hardie, a Gulf War veteran and advocate for the estimated 250,000 vets suffering with Gulf War Illness (GWI), and Dr. Lea Steele, a longtime GWI researcher, testified with former VA scientist Steven Coughlin on the Hill. Both RAC members complained that bureaucrats and researchers in the agency were driven by an agenda that preferred viewing GWI as a psychological rather than physical condition.

TAC interviewed Coughlin and Hardie after the hearing. Coughlin said his bosses manipulated and ignored data that did not coincide with their agenda. Hardie concurred, saying that the RAC had been forced to deal with this VA bias for some time and that complaints about it had been ignored. In 2008 for example, the committee released a report saying that GWI was a physical condition caused by toxins, including pesticides and the pills that the soldiers were given to counteract the effects of nerve gas. Since then, committee members have accused the VA of trying to undermine their findings. (The VA’s critics say it is trying to avoid the massive expense of liability, a charge the VA has adamantly denied. Officials have also denied that the VA is trying to push the psychological explanation over the physiological one.)

The damage done to the 15-year-old RAC last month by Shinseki’s hand might forever take the teeth out of the scrappy committee, which is supposed to convene for a regular meeting this week in Washington. The changes to the RAC charter would ax six of its 12 members and replace them “in accordance with VA policy,” according to a letter to RAC chairman James Binns signed by Shinseki’s interim chief of staff, Jose Riojas. The letter was provided to reporter Kelly Kennedy, who wrote about it at USA Today on Friday. The measure also removes Binns—whom the committee called their “principled, fair, just, non-partisan, longstanding champion” of veterans—after a one-year “transition period.” The letter does not identify which other members will have to go. Read More…

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‘Starbursts’ from Harry Jaffa: On Rich Lowry’s Embarrassing Lincoln Screed

National Review editor Rich Lowry’s two most notably unwise statements are defending the idea of nuking Mecca, and his odd reaction to a Sarah Palin speech. But his red-blooded sort of militarist nationalism has a pretty long paper trail. After cheering the war in Iraq, he said more troops wouldn’t make much of a difference, then changed his mind and called for escalation, even after the surgecriticized Obama for not being tough enough in Libya, and has been calling for Syrian intervention since 2003. And yet fisticuffs with Al Franken were a bridge too far.

Bear in mind Lowry’s—and there’s no other way to say this—callous disregard for American lives and unintended consequences as he defends the president in large part responsible for the war that took the most American lives. He’s written a new book about Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Unbound, and has been conducting promotional interviews this week in which he repeatedly refers to him as an “apostle of opportunity.

Now that Lowry’s written the book, he’s a mind-reader:

“He certainly would have loved the constitutionalism of the Tea Party.” (with Ed Driscoll)

“I believe he would consider having a car company named after him a high honor.” (with Jamie Weinstein)

In contrast to today’s “debt-obsessed” GOP, Lincoln was “solutions-focused.” (on Morning Joe)

Being one of the most studied figures in history—there are literally dozens of new books on Lincoln every year—one might wonder what the purpose of writing this book was. He has a helpful explanation in this cover story in the National Review; it’s to claim him for the respectable conservatives like himself—”he is much more one of us than one of them”—and to exonerate Honest Abe from his critics on the right. And so the brave editor rides to the sound of the guns Schlesinger polls.

Read More…

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Social Conservatives Should Stand by Scouts

The Southern Baptists are not going to leave the Boy Scouts en masse after all. After the Scouts’ controversial decision last month to allow openly gay Scouts while excluding openly gay adult leaders, many had expected that the Southern Baptist Convention, which sponsors nearly 4,000 Scout units, would sever ties with the Scouts. But they stopped short of anything that drastic, while still expressing their disapproval.

The Associated Press reports:

While the resolution does not recommend that Southern Baptists drop ties with the Scouts, it expresses support for those churches and families that decide to do so. It also encourages churches and families who choose to remain with the Scouts to work toward reversing the new membership policy.

The choice is up to individual congregations, a few of whom have already severed ties. As an Eagle Scout, I would urge religious and social conservatives who disagree with the new policy to stick with the Scouts nevertheless.

Social conservatives should remember that the Boy Scouts is one of the few institutions in American life, apart from the churches, that even pretends to advocate for sexual restraint among teenagers. In the debate before and after the Scouts’ policy change, it has been almost uniformly ignored that the new membership standards reaffirm the prohibition of sexual activity of any kind for Scouts: “Scouting is a youth program, and any sexual conduct, whether homosexual or heterosexual, by youth of Scouting age is contrary to the virtues of Scouting.”

Even sexual teachings aside, the Boy Scouts still offers a number of countercultural goods: youth education centered around very “uncool” values like duty and honor; outdoor education and conservation; localism and volunteerism. No other organization can get as many distractable thirteen-year-olds to sit through a lecture on the local political system on a Monday evening, or tear kids away from video games long enough to build a park bench, as the Boy Scouts can. Front Porch Republicans, localists, and social conservatives alike should rally around anything that promotes the Scouts’ increasingly rare ideals.

The alternative is, of course, to support these ideals while withdrawing to smaller, more sectarian groups. This is also a mistake. The important recognition that the Boy Scouts is not just an extension of Sunday school has allowed it to cultivate a broad coalition encompassing Methodists, Mormons, and Muslims alike. The national reach of Scouting brings the advantages of superior summer camps, professional staff, and national events together for the kids who are, after all, the most important part of the entire enterprise.

As the culture wars continue to be fought by adults, churches shouldn’t punish the kids by splintering a great American institution. There aren’t many of them left.

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Frugality in a Cashless Society

Derek Thompson addressed some of the psychological impacts of digital transactions in an Atlantic article this morning. He believes our “cashless society” makes us careless of our finances:

“Research has shown that people who own more credit cards spend more over all; more in specific stores; more at restaurants; more on tips at restaurants … there are hundreds of studies on the effect of credit cards on spending, and the vast majority of them find that, all things equal, we put more on plastic.”

Beyond the realm of credit, overdraft on debit cards has increased over the past few years: Bloomberg reported yesterday that consumers paid $32 billion in overdraft fees in 2012. According to a study by the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, those with overdraft coverage are more likely to pay hundreds of dollars of fees every year and have their checking accounts closed than those who decline coverage.

It appears that our “cashless society” could indeed make us less sensitive to the balances of our bank accounts. Though even checkbooks present the risk of carelessness, unless we dutifully balance our transactions, innovations in how we transact, at the very least, make it easier to spend money. That’s a good thing, except in the case of credit cards it’s borrowed money that’s being spent.

While throwing out credit or debit cards is probably unwise, it wouldn’t hurt consumers to use more cash. Coins and bills may seem archaic and frustrating, but physical money prevents instantaneous gratification. It also gives consumers a tangible sense of how much money they have. As Thompson notes, “The downside of counting money is that it takes time and effort. The upside is that it takes time and effort. That makes it more memorable. Cards make us forget we’re dealing with money.”

In addition, having someone steal $100 worth of cash from your wallet is less damaging than having someone steal your identity. In the age of card fraud, cash has its upsides.

One important caveat is that credit card use appears to be declining in America. “The level of credit card debt is going nowhere, and is actually falling in real terms,” Felix Salmon wrote last September.

Some of that decline has to do with the rise of mobile payments. One popular and successful example is the Starbucks mobile wallet, which enables consumers to buy coffee by simply scanning their smart phone. Although U.S. mobile payment systems are messy and off to a slow start, mobile banking is very popular in Africa. Dave Birch, director of Consult Hyperion and an expert on the cash-free shift, believes that “in a few years’ time credit cards will become a fallback payment method and that phones become the winner.”

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E.W. Jackson Hits Aneesh Chopra for Alleged PRISM Connection

Here’s a press release from Virginia Republican Lieutenant Governor nominee E.W. Jackson yesterday:

CHESAPEAKE, VA - E.W. Jackson for Lieutenant Governor campaign manager Greg Aldridge today released the following statement on Aneesh Chopra’s role as Barack Obama’s Chief Technology Officer:

“When Barack Obama announced Aneesh Chopra as his technology czar in 2009, President Obama said the position would include promoting technological innovation to help ‘keep our nation secure,’” said Jackson for Lieutenant Governor campaign manager Greg Aldridge. “As more information becomes public concerning the government’s efforts to monitor its own citizens in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Virginians have a right to know: What did Aneesh Chopra know about the PRISM program and other federal government efforts to archive our telephone conversations, e-mail and internet activity? If Aneesh Chopra can not stand up to his boss in the White House for the privacy of American citizens, how can Virginians trust him as Lieutenant Governor?”The news regarding the PRISM program and Verizon turning over customer data has spotlighted the issue of the federal government’s spying on the phone records, email communications, and internet activity of the American people.

Lest you think this is just coming from one side, Dems on Ben Tribbett’s Facebook have been implying similar things. The main one, Gail Gordon Donegan, was a DPV delegate and is a “community leader” for Women for Northam, Chopra’s primary opponent.

Bearing Drift has more on this developing story.

Chopra is running in today’s Democratic primary for the LG nomination.

Jackson is widely thought to be a drag on the Republican ticket for his history of outlandish statements—be sure to read Betsy Woodruff’s great profile. But if Chopra wins today, it could be a race between two candidates with significant flaws.

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President Obama Embraces the False Choice

For those of you just joining us, there have been two big revelations about the NSA’s data-mining efforts since Wednesday, both reported by the Guardian.

The first:

The National Security Agency is currently collecting the telephone records of millions of US customers of Verizon, one of America’s largesttelecoms providers, under a top secret court order issued in April.

The order, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, requires Verizon on an “ongoing, daily basis” to give the NSA information on all telephone calls in its systems, both within the US and between the US and other countries.

And the second:

The National Security Agency has obtained direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other US internet giants, according to a top secret document obtained by the Guardian.

The NSA access is part of a previously undisclosed program called PRISM, which allows officials to collect material including search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats, the document says.

A few things to keep in mind: Technically the latter only applies to foreign nationals living outside the U.S.—keeping tabs on which is the NSA’s job description—but it seems impossible to separate one from the other. There are good reasons to be skeptical of the tech companies’ denials that they cooperated. As for the collection of phone records, it’s probably safe to assume that this is going on with most major providers.

In a press conference today, during which he took one question from the press–”because  I don’t want the whole day to just be a bleeding press conference”–the president tried to reassure Americans that the NSA is full of really good people who would never in a million years think about violating your Fourth Amendment rights, and that ”You can’t have 100% security and then 100% privacy.” From the AP report:

In his first comments since the programs were publicly revealed this week, Obama says safeguards are in place. He says nobody is listening to the content of phone calls. And he says the internet targeting is aimed at foreign nationals, not American citizens.

Obama says he increased some of the “safeguards” on the programs after taking office. And he believes they help his administration stop terrorist attacks.

From a political standpoint, these massive data collection efforts the administration’s stated commitment to ending the war on terror pretty hard to believe. They also contradict the president’s former views—he sponsored the SAFE Act, which would have banned them, and talked frequently about the “false choice” of liberty or security during campaigns.

Read More…

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Does Bob Goodlatte’s Cell Phone-Unlocking Bill Go Far Enough?

This morning the House Judiciary subcommittee covering intellectual property is holding a hearing on cell phone unlocking, specifically a legislative proposal to restore the exemption under the DMCA that the librarian of Congress decided not to include last year.

That Congress is acting so quickly to fix the problem is encouraging, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that, but keep in mind that it’s very narrowly-tailored—the legislative exemption expires, leaving future determinations in the hands of the librarian—and it doesn’t address the DMCA itself at all. Sina Khanifar, one of the two people responsible for the public-relations campaign that brought us to this point, has said it doesn’t go far enough in an op-ed for USA today. Derek Khanna, the other one, was asked to prepare a written statement (embedded below) but he also criticized the lack of any IP critics testifying:

On Thursday, Chairman Goodlatte’s legislation will be before the House Judiciary IP Subcommittee. Unfortunately, while the wireless industry and others who have been against unlocking will be represented, there will be no witnesses at the hearing who have been part of our campaign for unlocking (however, Consumers Advocacy may be an advocate for the consumer on this issue). This is very disappointing news.

Ryan Radia has a pretty evenhanded take on the legislation:

By restoring the broad DMCA exemption for phone unlocking in force from 2006 to 2012, S.517 [the Senate analogue to the House bill] addresses the problem at hand without going too far. It neither forces carriers to help users unlock their phones, nor limits carriers’ ability to recover damages from subscribers who breach their contracts. Rather, the bill would simply shield users who unlock their cell phones from the DMCA’s harsh penalties. In striking this balance, S.517 deserves credit for aiming to solve a discrete problem with a narrowly-tailored solution.

But would S.517′s fix last? Given that “[n]othing in [the] Act alters . . . the authority of the Librarian of Congress under [the DMCA],” S.517 would presumably leave unchanged the substantial deferenceenjoyed by the Librarian regarding his decisions about which circumvention tools to exempt—including cell phone unlocking tools. If, three years from now, the Librarian boldly decides that his2012 decision to curtail the phone unlocking exemption was correct, and thus restores the language currently in force, Congress will be back at square one.

Also be sure to check out FCC commissioner Ajit Pai’s op-ed on the hearing in today’s New York Times.

Khanna’s full statement after the jump. Read More…

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