Archive for June, 2008

June 30, 2008


One Amendment from Column A, Another from Column B

A week ago, Justice Anthony Kennedy was a liberal hero. Joining the court’s four liberal jurists, he declared that while 9/11 may have changed everything, it didn’t change the constitution. Despite statements by the Bush Administration to the contrary, Guantánamo is not a legal no-man’s land. POWs being held at America’s Devil’s Island now have the right to challenge their detention in federal courts.
“Thank God,” an editorial cartoonist friend told me after Kennedy cast the deciding vote in a 5-4 decision restoring habeas corpus. “We were one vote away from fascism.”

Antonin Scalia’s dissent–“[granting Guantánamo detainees the right to a fair trial] will almost certainly cause more Americans to get killed”–was widely ridiculed as baseless and hysterical.

What a difference a week–and your politics–make.

Then Kennedy cast the swing vote in another major decision. Declaring Washington D.C.’s handgun ban unconstitutional, he accepted the NRA’s argument that the Second Amendment’s reference to “a well-regulated militia” is not a conditional clause. Wherever they live, Americans are indeed entitled to purchase and keep a handgun.

“What an idiot!” my friend e-mailed me. “Doesn’t he get it? Kids are going to die!” Shades of Scalia; irony included free.

“À la carte” airline pricing–$2 for a Coke, $15 to check a bag, $30 for a coach seat that sucks 95% as much as the regular ones–pisses people off. When it comes to constitutional questions, however, we Americans like to pick and choose our favorite parts of the Bill of Rights like items from a Chinese menu: one from column A, another in column B.

Liberals revere the right to free speech enshrined in the First Amendment. The right to bear arms, not so much. With conservatives, it’s the other way around. Sometimes they clash over the meaning of the original ten amendments. It’s freedom of, not from, religion, say right-wingers. Freedom from, argue advocates of the separation of church and state.

The recently concluded Supreme Court session highlights Americans’ unique refusal to accept the Bill of Rights in toto. Republicans decried Kennedy v. Louisiana, which struck down the death penalty for someone convicted of raping a child. They applauded the court’s approval of an Indiana law requiring voters to show ID at the polls.

Reactions to Supreme Court rulings are rarely related to whether or not the nine justices correctly interpreted the constitution. They’re political. Law-and-order conservatives like their justice Taliban style, tough and vengeful. Thus their dismay that capital punishment for rapists could be deemed cruel and/or unusual. States with GOP-dominated legislatures like voter ID laws, not because they think they don’t violate the equal protection clause, but because they tend to reduce turnout among Democrats.

Partisanship is healthy. Creating your own Constitution around your personal stand on the issues is un-American.

As a holistic advocate of the Bill of Rights, I agree with the D.C. gun ban ruling. When the Constitution was signed in 1787, all land-owning white men–the class of citizens whose voting rights it guaranteed–owned (or were allowed to buy) guns. A “well-regulated militia” was usually an ad hoc affair, a group of guys called up for up to a year (often less) to respond to the threat of, for example, an Indian attack.

Today the Bill of Rights applies to everyone, even illegal immigrants. Moreover, while militias have gone the way of the musket, it’s a fair bet that the government would ask ordinary citizens to use personal firearms to defend U.S. territory in the event of an invasion–i.e., form militias. Why, then, shouldn’t the 18th century right to own a gun, which applied to everyone covered by the Constitution at the time, apply to everyone now?

There’s also a practical argument. As history proves, every government falls. Every nation gets invaded. No one knows when it will happen in any given case, but thus far it’s proved inevitable. When the U.S. government turns against its people, gun nuts will be in a far better position to resist than the double decaf latte types on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. We’ll all be praising Charlton Heston’s memory when foreign troops are marching down Broadway.

But practical arguments aren’t legal, much less constitutional, arguments. Either you agree with the Bill of Rights–all of it–or you don’t.

If liberals think the right to own a gun is antiquated, if they think the ability to resist future government tyranny is less important than reducing the number of young men getting gunned down in cities like Washington, they have a perfectly defensible argument. And they ought to do something about it. They should convince two-thirds of the states to ratify a constitutional amendment abolishing or amending the Second Amendment. Crafting an argument over principle around 18th century grammar and punctuation is tacky and embarrassing.


June 30, 2008

Cartoon for June 30

I hope Obama wins. It’s more fun to criticize a Democrat for his hypocrisy and worthlessness than a Republican for being true to his well-heeled donors.

June 28, 2008

Cartoon for June 28

Barack Obama has exactly as much respect for privacy rights as George W. Bush. But it’s different–because he’s smart and attractive.

June 26, 2008

Cartoon for June 26

Cindy McCain might become First Lady. How will the former drug fiend keep herself occupied?

June 25, 2008

Interview with San Antonio Newspaper

Today’s San Antonio Express-News has an interview with me.

June 25, 2008


Vital Businesses Need Nationalization

The gas station attendant came outside. Wow, I thought, full serve! Ignoring me, she flung a magnetic price decal on top of the price per gallon. Regular unleaded had gone up 20 cents in the time it took me to drive from the curb to the pump.

“You’re kidding me,” I moaned.

“It’s 3 o’clock,” she shrugged. “Just got the new price.”

There has to be a better way, I thought.

And there is.

It isn’t drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. It sure isn’t John McCain’s plan to offer $300 million to the first person to come up with a longer-lasting car battery.

Gas prices could hit $7 a gallon before long, Wall Street analysts say, but Americans–always optimists!–take a little comfort in the fact that Europeans have paid more than that for years. But a lot of foreigners are laughing at us even harder than we’re laughing at the Euros.

Did you know that Venezuelans pay a mere 19 cents per gallon? It’s 38 cents in Nigeria. Turkmenistanis might not have electoral democracy, but they only shell out $4.50 to fill a 15-gallon tank. Before we replaced Saddam Hussein with…with whatever they have in Iraq now, Iraqis paid less than a dime for a gallon of gas.

One of the things that these countries have in common, of course, is that they’re oil-producing states. Countries that export oil and gas have trouble explaining to their citizens why they should pay for their own natural resources–and most are smart enough not to try. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Burma, Malaysia, Kuwait, China and South Korea are just a few of the countries that keep fuel prices low in order to stimulate economic growth.

But they also share something else: common sense. Strange it might sound to Americans used to reading about big oil windfalls, they consider cheap gas more of an economic necessity than lining the pockets of energy company CEOs. So they don’t consider energy a profit center. To the contrary; government subsidies (Venezuela spends $2 billion a year on fuel subsidies) and nationalized oil companies keep gas prices low.

Unlike corporations, governments don’t care about turning a profit. They care about remaining in power. Their reliance on political support (or, if you’re cynical, pandering) allows them to do things our much-vaunted free market system can’t, such as make sure that people can afford to eat and buy enough gas to get to work.
Like the rest of the world, Venezuelan consumers have been squeezed by rising prices, and even shortages, of groceries. In 2007 Venezuela’s socialist-leaning government decided to do something about it. First they imposed price controls on staple items. When suppliers began to hoard supplies to drive up prices, President Hugo Chavez threatened to nationalize them. “If they remain committed to violating the interests of the people, the constitution, the laws, I’m going to take the food storage units, corner stores, supermarkets and nationalize them,” he said. Food profiteers grumbled. Then they straightened up.

Not even international corporations are immune from Chavez’s determination to put the needs of ordinary Venezuelans ahead of the for-profit food industry. Faced with severe shortages of milk earlier this year, Chavez threatened Nestle and Parmalat’s Venezuelan operations with nationalization unless they opened the spigot. “This government needs to tighten the screws,” he said in February 2008, promising to “intervene and nationalize the plants” belonging to the two transnational corporations.

Miraculously, milk is turning up on the shelves.

When it works, nothing is better at creating an endless variety of reality TV shows than free market capitalism. But when it doesn’t, it isn’t just that extra brand of clear dishwashing liquid that goes away. Businesses fold. Banks foreclose. People starve. And no one can stop it.

The G8 nations met in Osaka last week to try to address soaring food and energy prices–a double threat that could plunge the global economy into a ruinous depression. But the summit ended in failure. “Any hope that the G8 meeting would result in coordinated monetary action–or concerted intervention in foreign exchange markets–to counter rises, principally in commodity prices, was dispelled by their failure to agree on the phenomenon’s underlying causes,” reported Forbes.

So the G8 ministers punted. “Due to the lack of consensus, they have stated the need for further study,” wrote the magazine.

The problem isn’t the weak dollar or the non-existent housing market. It’s capitalism. A sane government doesn’t leave essential goods and services–food, fuel, housing, healthcare, transportation, education–to the vicissitudes of “magic” markets. Non-discretionary economic sectors should be strictly controlled by–indeed, owned by–the government.

Consider, on the one hand, snail mail and public education. The Postal Service and public schools both have their flaws. But what if they were privatized? It would cost a lot more than 42 cents to mail a letter from Tampa to Maui. And poor children wouldn’t get an education.

Privatization, particularly of essential services, has always proven disastrous. From California’s Enron-driven rotating blackouts to for-profit healthcare that has left 47 million Americans uninsured to predatory lenders pimping the housing bubble to Blackwater’s atrocities in Iraq, market-based corporations’ fiduciary obligation to maximize profits that is inherently incompatible with a stable economy whose goal is to provide people with a decent quality of life.

No one should pressure industries that produce things that people need in order to live to turn a quarterly profit. No one should go hungry, or remain sick, because some commodities trader in Zurich figured out some nifty way to take an eighth of a point arbitrage spread between the price of a hospital stock in New York and in Tokyo.

P.S. If you’re reading this in Caracas, please mail me some gas.


June 23, 2008

Cartoon for June 23

For the first time since Nixon, pundits are talking about a generation gap between the young and the old. If there’s a conflict, it’s low intensity.

June 21, 2008

Cartoon for June 21

Cell phone companies require us to guess how many minutes we’ll use during a long period of time, and risk getting charged fines for going over. What if this structure spreads to other businesses?

June 19, 2008

Cartoon for June 19

Barack Obama, trying to court conservative whites with dim views of black males, attacks black men for being bad parents.

June 16, 2008


The System Works? Not Really

Tens of thousands of innocent detainees have passed through Guantánamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, Diego Garcia and other U.S. torture facilities. Thousands remain “disappeared,” possibly murdered. Some may be on one of the Navy vessels recently revealed to have been repurposed as prison ships. Dozens have been beaten to death or killed by willful medical neglect.

For seven years, the Bush Administration, the Democratic Congress and its media allies have denied “unlawful enemy combatants” (or, as Dick Cheney called them, “the worst of the worst” terrorists) the right to habeas corpus, the centuries-old right of persons arrested by the police to face their accusers and the evidence
against them in a court of law.

Thanks to a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court, America’s latest flirtation with fascism is coming to an end. Parts of the infamous Military Commissions Act of 2006 that eliminated habeas corpus have been declared unconstitutional. Prisoners at Guantánamo and possibly other American gulags, will now be allowed to demand their day in court. Since the government doesn’t have evidence against them, legal experts say, most if not all of “the worst of the worst” will ultimately walk free. “Liberty and security can be reconciled,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

In short: Oops.

“America is back,” Barack Obama has said he will tell the world if he becomes president. Even if McCain wins, Guantánamo will probably be closed. Torture will be re-illegalized. Which is really, really great. But there’s a problem. How do we give back the four years we stole from Murat Kurnaz?

In December 2001, Kurnaz was a 19-year-old German Muslim studying in Pakistan. He was pulled off a bus by Pakistani security services, who delivered him to the CIA for a $3,000 bounty. He was flown to Guantánamo concentration camp, where he received what The Village Voice‘s Nat Hentoff calls “the standard treatment: beatings, sleep deprivation, and special month-long spells of solitary confinement in a sealed cell without ventilation.”

He went on hunger strike, and Kurnaz’s tormentors apparently worried he might starve to death. After 20 days “they gagged me and shoved a tube up my nose, stopping several times because the tube filled with blood,” Kurnaz remembers.

What did this “worst of the worst” do to deserve such treatment? Nothing. But don’t take my word for it. Six months into his ordeal, the U.S. military determined, there was “no definite link or evidence of detainee having an association with Al Qaeda or making any specific threat toward the U.S.”

The U.S. government knew Kurnaz was innocent. Yet they held on to him another three and a half years.


It would be comforting if the torture of innocent men sold by self-interested bounty hunters were an aberration. It wasn’t. A McClatchy Newspapers analysis confirms the horrifying results of a Seton Hall University study. “Only eight percent of Guantánamo detainees were captured by U.S. forces,” reports McClatchy. “86 percent were turned over to the U.S. by Pakistan or by the Northern Alliance,” a coalition of Afghan warlords. “The bounty hunters were often the source of allegations.”

Right-wingers say security matters can only be entrusted to the military. “The courts,” writes Richard Samp of the pro-government Washington Legal Foundation in USA Today, “simply lack the expertise and resources to justify second-guessing military experts on such issues.” Maybe. But the military is run by liars.

“The McClatchy investigation found that top Bush Administration officials knew within months of opening the Guantánamo detention center that many prisoners weren’t ‘the worst of the worst.’ From the moment that Guantánamo opened in early 2002, former Secretary of the Army Thomas White said, it was obvious that at least one-third of the population didn’t belong there.”

At least six died at Gitmo. (The Pentagon characterized a spate of suicides as clever acts of “asymmetrical warfare.”)


Deranged leaders who carry out horrific acts of mass murder and oppression with the consent of the people are hardly new to American history, reminds Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States. “Begin with the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s,” he told a commencement ceremony at Southern Methodist University. “Move forward to the Alien and Sedition Acts of the early Republic, and from there to the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War. Turn then to the arbitrary political arrests of the First and Second World Wars, the many abuses of the Cold War McCarthy era, and from there the civil liberties climate in our time.”

So many oopsies! But those are temporary excesses, Weinstein reassures. “Self-corrective forces at work in American society”–lefties, liberals, a single swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court–always pull us back before we careen off the brink. Disaster is avoided.

Which would be fine if it weren’t for the problem that: (1) one of these days, Justice Kennedy won’t be around to restore the rule of law. The other problem being (2): a lot of “witches” get drowned during our periodic episodes of madness.

No one was ever held accountable for blacklisting actors or massacring Native Americans. Such tacit endorsement of villainy sets the stage for the next outrage committed during a future “temporary madness” driven by national security worries. Apologies are rare. Penance is scarce and stingy. The government stole the homes and businesses of Japanese-Americans and shipped them to concentration camps during World War II; decades passed before Congress cut them checks for a measly $10,000.

We think we Americans are good people who do bad things when we’re not on top of our game. “Self-corrective forces,” we pat ourselves on our collective backsides, always kick in before we go too far.

But that’s not really how it is.

Some Americans are good. Other Americans are bad. And the good ones are often lazy, willing to let the bad ones get their way.