Supreme Court Hands Victory to Large Corporations

The following is my third column for the Daily Illini, which can be found at the following location:

http://www.dailyillini.com/blogs/different-perspectives/2010/01/26/supreme-court-hands-victory-to-large-corporations

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to strike down existing bans on campaign spending by corporations is a blow to our democracy. It will fundamentally reshape the political battlefield by allowing multinational companies that have a stake in American politics, to open their war chests and use the corrosive influence of money to sway the votes of elected officials.

The roots of the case stretch back to the tough Democratic Primary fight between Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama. Amid the swirl of campaign ads, the conservative advocacy group Citizens United released “Hillary: The Movie,” a slashing documentary that the Federal Election Commision classified as political advertisement. This meant it could not be shown on the airwaves because it was funded by money from large corporations and scheduled to be released in the final days of the primary.

Citizens United appealed the decision to the US District Court for DC, who agreed with the Federal Election Commission. Prospects for overturning the decision looked bleak, until the Supreme Court decided to pluck the case out of obscurity before they left for summer break last year.

Arguments began again in the fall, and this time the Courts sided with Citizens United. Rallying his minions under the banner of the First Amendment, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. managed to erode the wall separating corporate spending and electoral politics by overturning a century of established legal precedent, not to mention many ideas enshrined in the Constitution.

In crafting the framework for our system of laws, the founders assigned protections to a number of groups such as the people and militias, while warning of the dangers posed by the power of others such as religious establishments and corporations. The intent of the Founders was reaffirmed by Congress in 1907 as the influence of corporations rose to uncharted levels under the direction of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. To limit the rising influence of the monopolies and conglomerates, Congress banned corporations from donating to political campaigns.

A number of laws have fleshed out the scope of this ban since the turn of the 20th century, most notably the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 which put limits on campaign contributions and forced candidates to directly stand by ads funded by their campaign.

But all of these limits were overturned in one fell swoop. Perhaps the five justices who voted in favor of Citizens United – Alito, Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Kennedy – did not understand the political reality of corporate interest, but the ramifications are staggering. According to President Obama, the ruling was “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

I don’t think this is a progressive or conservative issue. The decision has not only received criticism from President Obama and his fellow Democrats, but harsh condemnation has been heaped on by Republicans as well.

Perhaps the loudest voice of dissent from the Right came from Senator John McCain, who lashed out against the decision on last week’s “Face the Nation.”

While McCain says that the era of campaign finance reform seems to be over, I would disagree with him. The case was decided by a single vote. And all we need to overturn it is one more vote.

On Fox and Fools

The following is my second column for the Daily Illini, which can be found at the following location:

http://www.dailyillini.com/blogs/different-perspectives/2010/01/19/fame-seeking-palin-fox-news-create-match-made-in-heaven

It was announced last week that Sarah Palin would be joining Fox News as a contributor. The former sports reporter and current Facebook celebrity has been unemployed since she quit the state’s governorship eighteen months before her first term ended, citing ethics complaints and her general ineptitude.

I can’t say that I’m surprised by the move. It seems as though Sarah Palin developed a thirst for fame and fortune during the presidential campaign. A thirst that could not be quenched by the mediocrity of her little hometown of Wasilla, a place where she couldn’t splurge $150,000 on a nice outfit – or twelve – when the mood struck.

Speculation has been rife about her reason for joining Fox News. Some say it was because the Wasilla Burger King wasn’t hiring, while others suggest she thought she was auditioning for the next season of American Idol.

Whatever the case, her time at Fox will be limited. Her contract runs for two years, so I suppose we can expect her to quit by mid-October.

The news of Palin’s contract with Fox has sent the media into a frenzy. Those at Media Matters point out that the partnership of the two intellectual pygmies should tear to shreds any remaining argument that the news channel is “fair and balanced.” But then Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC remind us that it has been a long time since anyone thought of Fox News as neutral, anyway.

I can only imagine how current Fox News personalities are coping with the news. Chances are Greta Van Susteren is working hard to wipe off that creepy leer that transforms her face at the slightest mention of the former governor. Bill O’Reilly must be feeling intimidated by the woman whose book has far outsold both of his own. Sean Hannity is probably hoping to see more of the vast amount of winkage Palin put on show during the VP debate. And then there is Glenn Beck, who is too busy trying to expose the federal government’s communist art schemes to realize that, next to Palin, he may finally seem somewhat coherent.

Whether Palin will be a good fit for Fox News remains to be seen. The two do seem to be a match made in heaven. Both have shown a casual disregard for the facts. Both are skilled at playing the victim and using their ignorance as evidence for their authenticity. And both seem unable to grasp simple concepts like evolution, climate change, and the difference between a “continent” and a “country.”

Yes, it seems like Palin will fit right in at Fox News.

Still, some have worried that stardom would change their beloved hockey mom. But Palin has found her own way to reassure her fans that she will always be their cloddish little maverick.

She has done so through her continued and remarkable mangling of the English language, not to mention other gaffes to gotcha questions from Glenn Beck like, “Who is your favorite Founding Father?”

In truth, I’m actually glad Palin has agreed to join Fox News. We all could do with a few laughs every now and then. Perhaps her meandering commentary will finally convince other conservatives that she is out of depth in a shallow pool.

Republicans Rewriting History

The following is my first column for the Daily Illini, which can be found at the following location:

http://www.dailyillini.com/blogs/different-perspectives/2010/01/14/republicans-rewriting-history

The man who became famous for his leadership in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, seems to have forgotten his role in the tragedy. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of “Good Morning America”, Giuliani criticized President Obama’s approach to fighting extremism around the globe and ended notably by saying that “We had no domestic attacks under Bush. We’ve had one under Obama.”

Giuliani has since corrected his original remarks, saying that he meant there were no domestic attacks after 9/11. But even with this caveat his original statement is not true. The anthrax attacks of late 2001 were classified as “terrorist acts” by the Director of the CIA and the U.S. Attorney General. Richard Reid failed to detonate an explosive concealed in his shoe in December 2001 and is now serving a life sentence without parole in a super maximum security prison. And the beltway sniper attacks that took the lives of ten in the D.C. area resulted in a conviction on charges of terrorism in 2003 for John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.

But Giuliani is not alone in his glossing over of history. His statements reflect a disturbing trend in conservative rhetoric over the past few weeks. Dana Perino, the last White House Press Secretary under Bush, claimed in an interview that “We did not have a terrorist attack on the country during President Bush’s term.” And prominent Republican strategist Mary Matalin said that Bush inherited the September 11th attacks from President Clinton.

It certainly seems as though Republicans are trying to rewrite history, preying on genuine inattentiveness and willful ignorance. They are trying to return to the glory days of Reagan by convincing voters that the Democrats are weak on terror and hopelessly idealistic, while they are the only ones who can keep our country safe. Their argument hits a bit of a snag when you consider that the most deadly attack on American soil in history happened on their watch. But when an inconvenient tragedy like September 11th disputes their claims, they either ignore it or blame it on someone else.

I suppose it is understandable that Republicans want to paint Bush’s presidency in a different light. So little went well for them during those eight years. But to do so at the cost of denying history is absurd. Republicans are treating the American people like they are complete buffoons. Everybody who understands that September comes after January knows that Bush was President during 9/11, not to mention during the subsequent anthrax, shoe-bomb, and beltway sniper attacks. This sad attempt to rewrite history should be an insult to every American.

Now, there is a legitimate debate over how we should respond to terrorist attacks, our role in the Middle East, and our nation’s foreign policy in general, but that debate does not extend to indisputable historical events. Republicans could do with heeding John Adams’s advice: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Skilled propagandists throughout history have agreed that if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.

The best way to avoid this is to have an informed public. Because having a public that knows something is our best defense against ever electing public officials like George Bush and Rudy Giuliani who seem to know nothing.

Friday Quote

“To live in the world without becoming aware of the meaning of the world is like wandering in a great library without touching the books.”

from The Secret Teachings of All Ages

Copenhagen Beckons

The White House confirmed earlier today that President Obama would indeed be attending the climate change summit in Copenhagen, along with a handful of his Cabinet members.

Recent setbacks had left Obama’s attendance in question. Just last week, many world leaders at APEC announced that a legally binding deal on climate change would be impossible to achieve. And the Senate has put off action on the bill passed by the House until next spring.

The goal of the Copenhagen summit involves striking a deal that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, the pact signed by more than 200 nations that set binding targets for greenhouse emissions. A pact which the United States never signed.

According to the White House press release, President Obama plans to outline his goals for reducing emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade. And then by 83 percent by 2050.

Still, many Republicans oppose engaging in talks at Copenhagen or even addressing the issue of climate change to begin with. I’d like to think this sort of denialist nonsense was limited to the fringes of the party. But it’s not. Doubting climate change has become a litmus test for how strong and loyal a conservative you truly are.

Take the frontrunners for the GOP nomination in 2012, for instance: Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Bobby Jindal, and Haley Barbour. Of these seven, four deny that there is any scientific merit to the idea of climate change, while the other three are all opposed to meaningful action.

There are plenty more examples. A few weeks ago, every single Republican on the Senate’s Environmental and Public Works Committee refused to show up for a hearing about the Boxer-Kerry climate bill. Their goal was to stall the markup of the bill, based on a rule that says at least two minority members must be present for a markup to begin. But this rule is more of a nicety than anything, so Senator Boxer, the Committee Chair, chose to proceed without any Republicans present.

I think the refusal to engage in debate is much worse than simple opposition. You can disagree on things without being disagreeable, without actively trying to avoid and stifle a legitimate debate. The issue of global warming and climate change may be the defining struggle of our generation, yet the current leaders of the Republican Party are united in their opposition to any sort of substantial action.

Contrary to what Republicans may think, climate change is not some sort of dirty hippie agenda. There is a worldwide scientific consensus that it is real and caused by human activity. More than two thousand scientists over many, many years have provided us with a peer reviewed report (sponsored by the U.N. and the World Meteorological Association) on the threat of climate change.

I can only assume that some of the Republicans have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the disinformation spewed out by fringe scientists who have no peer reviewed articles which have been published in scientific journals and who are directly or indirectly financed by oil, coal, car, asbestos, etc., companies or false institutes or organizations set up and financed by the same dirty energy corporations.

The truth is that they don’t have to win the debate. They’re not even trying to. They just have to muddy the waters and cause enough confusion to provide cover for those who want to avoid facing the hard task of deciding what to do to slow down and ultimately reverse the effects of climate change.

I’m glad President Obama hasn’t bought into this nonsense and refuses to cater to the whims of ignorant fools who think they know more about science than inter-governmental panels on climate change. I’m glad he’s going to Copenhagen, even though returning with any significant results may cost him a lot of political capital.

Manzullo’s Response

A few days ago, I criticized Congressman Don Manzullo’s reaction to the proposal to move Guantanamo detainees to the Thomson maximum security facility in my blog post “Tactics of Fear.” It seems as though I wasn’t the only one disturbed by his fear mongering. A number of articles on both the local and national level have called him out on this, enough so that he felt the need to issue a statement to the Journal Standard – the local newspaper for Freeport, Illinois.

Manzullo begins his statement by saying that he has worked tirelessly for years to get the federal government to purchase the Thomson facility, so that new jobs could be created in the region. Very noble, indeed. But why is he now showing such reluctance to have the facility opened? His response:

“I have called on the President to separate the two issues: proceed with opening Thomson as a federal prison and abandon the controversial element of housing the terrorists… I’m pushing the ‘federal prison only’ proposal.”

Let us be clear. The Thomson prison is a maximum security facility. The $145 million in construction costs wasn’t spent to house people who break the speed limit, download music illegally, or forget to wear their seat belts. It was spent to make sure the most hardened criminals never have a chance of escaping. What sort of prisoners does Manzullo expect to be locked up in a place like this, anyway?

Manzullo then goes on to say that he is worried about the “huge security risk” to the families he represents.  Well, I have news for him. The detainees being held at Guantanamo are not ten feet tall. They cannot play Jedi mind tricks. And they certainly can’t use their gaze to burn through metal bars. They are not any different from the 216 international terrorists currently being held in federal facilities, none of whom have ever escaped.

After floundering for a bit, the Congressman admits that he doesn’t really think those held at the Thomson facility would ever have a chance to escape. The prison would be a fortress, after all. His worry is that terrorist cells would be “attracted… into our communities.” He gave an example of an alleged terrorist recently arrested in Chicago to support his case, but as this was before the administration began looking into the Thomson facility, I don’t see the relevance of the connection.

It doesn’t seem to make much sense to imply that Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations will suddenly remember their hatred for the United States and renew their efforts to attack us just because we’re moving Guantanamo detainees to Thomson. Or to say this proposal would put the Sears Tower at risk. Fort Hood reminded us that terrorists don’t need tall buildings to commit terrible crimes.

Regardless of whether Chicago is a threat, I want my leaders to act as if it were. To be prepared for the worst, while hoping for the best. I don’t want flop-sweating fear mongers to think ignoring the problem will make it go away.

Because, at the end of the day, a foreign policy of avoiding anything that might provoke agents of evil is cowardly and does not work.

Just ask Neville Chamberlain.

Tactics of Fear

President Obama has made shutting down Guantanamo Bay a priority since he began running for the Democratic nomination a couple years ago. The detention facility in Cuba has been the target of much criticism from both Democrats and Republicans. The interrogation methods used there have violated international law, damaged America’s standing in the world, and served as a recruiting tool for terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda that thrive on propaganda.

Just two days after assuming office, President Obama signed an executive order suspending military commissions at Guantanamo and ordering that the facility be shut down within the year.

But that was more than nine months ago and progress has been slow since then on the logistics of moving the detainees. A military judge ruled in January that Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri could not be put on trial, rejecting the White House’s request and creating an early hurdle for the administration. In May, the Senate voted 90-6 to block the funds needed to transfer the detainees to the United States.

Despite the volatile nature of this issue, some countries have agreed to accept a limited number of the detainees. A group of innocent Chinese Uighur Muslims were transferred to Palau. In June, Saudi Arabia agreed to accept three, while Iraq and Chad agreed to accept one each. A small controversy erupted that same week over the decision to send another four Uighur detainees to Bermuda – a British territory – without informing the British government. Other countries that have accepted prisoners include Italy and Ireland, not to mention some of the member states of the European Union.

In spite of these transfers, more than two hundred detainees remain at Guantanamo, which leaves meeting the January deadline for closing the facility increasingly less probable. Nevertheless, the Obama Administration has continued to look for maximum security facilities in the U.S. to house the detainees. One potential location is the Thomson prison here in Illinois.

Built in 2001 for $145 million, the Thomson maximum security prison remains completely empty. Many local leaders and politicians from Thomson Village President Jerry Hebeler to Senator Dick Durbin have supported the transfer of Guantanamo detainees to Thomson. At the local level, the move has the potential to bring in around $200 million and create 3,000 jobs, which would cut regional unemployment in half. And nationally, the move could help resolve the problems surrounding the closing of Guantanamo.

It comes as no surprise that plenty of people have opposed this move. One of the loudest voices of dissent has come from Congressman Don Manzullo, a man not known for his dazzling wit or intelligence. Manzullo recently came under fire for calling Islam a “savage religion,” a remark for which he hurriedly apologized once it began to receive national spotlight.

Manzullo has been even more outspoken about his opposition to the Thomson proposal. He has supported the efforts of extreme members of his party such as Congressman Mark Kirk, who recently bought the domain noterroristsinillinois.com as a campaign tactic, and who is now darkly warning of a “flow of terrorists” through O’Hare airport, leaving the Willis (Sears) Tower vulnerable to attack. Manzullo has also posted on his Twitter that he thinks that “Gitmo in Illinois” would give “evil the opportunity to… make dedicated jihadists lick their chops.”

These outrageous scare tactics are the sort of thing I would expect from a schoolyard bully, not a United States Congressman. It’s just another example of the sort of knee-jerk opposition to any Democratic proposal that has come to define the Republican Party since President Obama took office. I’ll borrow the sentiment from Saturday Night Live – Congressman Manzullo needs to grow a pair, and if he can’t then he should get Hillary to lend him hers.

In the broader context, the coarsening of the debate is not helping his party’s position at all. Just a few weeks ago, the Republicans lost the NY-23 primary for the first time since Abner Doubleday invented baseball. Americans want solutions, not fear mongering and knee-jerk opposition.

But even when you put aside his fear tactics aside for a moment, the arguments Manzullo is making don’t seem to hold much weight. Federal facilities already house many terrorists – including 216 international and 139 domestic terrorists. Thirty-five of these terrorists are housed in Illinois. None have ever escaped. There is also no evidence linking the imprisonment of terrorists to increased levels of local terrorism.

Manzullo also seems out of touch with his constituents in Thomson. Jerry Hebeler, the Village President, said after meeting with federal officials:

“We need this to help our community, our communities around us and us are hurting big… I would never chase jobs if I thought it would jeopardize the safety and security of my friends and neighbors. Bottom line is I want to make sure the bad guys are off the street. This is what maximum security prison is all about. From what I’ve heard so far, Thomson would be even more secure [than other places], and that’s what would make me sleep better.”

Local residents have expressed similar feelings. Their main concerns are jobs and the state of the local economy, which has taken a hit in recent years. They say that the potential for job creation is worth the minimal risk, in their mind.

In looking forward, I would urge Congressman Manzullo and other local leaders considering the Thomson proposal to maintain a much-needed tone of civility. There may be a legitimate debate to be had, but it’s not one that includes fear mongering and scare tactics.

Friday Quote

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

-John Adams

The Huckster

I’ve never been a fan of Mike Huckabee. Sure, he’s friendly and amiable enough, but his views on social issues like women’s reproductive rights and marriage equality have always left a bad taste in my mouth.

I do think that credit should be given when it’s due, though. And earlier this month, the former Arkansas Governor harshly criticized his party’s habit of opposing anything President Obama does on principle.

There were two specific criticisms he mentioned. You may remember that President Obama made a surprise trip to Dover Air Force base to see the coffins of returning soldiers after one of the deadliest days for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many conservatives lashed out against the trip as purely political — a convenient photo-op.

But Mike Huckabee defended the decision to honor the fallen soldiers, saying: “I’m grateful that he did that, and I was proud of him for doing that. And I think we all — as Americans — should give him credit for doing that.”

I think it speaks volumes about how bitterly divided our political system is when our Commander-in-Chief can’t even pay tribute to the bodies and families of soldiers who have died in combat without facing criticism by such vile figures as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

The second criticism Huckabee defended Obama against was much more mundane. For some unfathomable reason, the President and First Lady were criticized for inviting young trick-or-treaters to the White House. Yes, that’s right. They were criticized for throwing a Halloween Party. Huckabee got it right when he said:

“…quit finding something wrong with that. Say “Good, I’m glad that he and the First Lady are treating children to an experience at the White House.” And I just find it deplorable that some people on my end of the aisle want to find everything wrong and nothing right about the man as a man.”

Good for him. Hopefully, more moderate Republicans will join Huckabee in speaking out against extremism of any kind.

Huckabee’s comments came during a speech at the Hudson Union Society.

Not Going Rogue

I’ve not yet had the chance to read Sarah Palin’s new book, but if early reviews are anything to go by, I haven’t missed much of substance.

Yesterday, Palin kicked off her campaign — er, book tour — in Michigan. The choice was certainly a political one. The Alaskan blogger’s critical remarks about the McCain campaign’s decision to pull out of this state was what originally earned her the “going rogue” status.

It came as no surprise that throngs of people showed up to the event. Many camped out overnight to guarantee their book would be signed the following evening, and many others spent hours that day waiting in line for the signing to begin.

MSNBC sent Norah O’Donnell to cover the event. Over the course of the day, Norah went up and down the lines, interviewing the “Palinistas” as some of them called themselves. But as was discussed in Norah’s report, Palin’s fans seemed to have a lot of trouble identifying what exactly it was they liked about Sarah Palin. Of course, they liked her charm, her down-to-earth folksiness. But other than that, they were at a loss for words.

Those that attempted to justify their support based on policy often garbled her positions. My favorite was a girl who said she was such a huge fan because Palin supported the Constitution, unlike Barack Obama who favored unconstitutional bailouts.

It got awkward when Norah pointed out that Sarah Palin supported the bailouts as governor, too.

More than anything, the signing yesterday highlighted the fundamental irony of the Alaskan Blogger. Sarah Palin has become exactly what she criticized Obama for being during the general election — a celebrity. Her book isn’t a somber reflection on the current state of affairs or an outline for how she would solve the tough problems we’re facing as a country. It appears to be nothing more than a shallow, vindictive attempt to settle scores with a handful of McCain staffers who didn’t treat her as adoringly as the fans at her signings.

The main problem for Sarah Palin during the campaign was a lack of credibility. There is no doubt that she gave an incredible speech at the Republican National Convention. But after the interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, people stopped taking her seriously. Her image of incompetence was cemented in the minds of Americans by Tina Fey’s portrayal of her on Saturday Night Live.

I was astounded to hear her announce her resignation from the Governorship of Alaska just months after the election. This was her chance to hunker down, gain valuable experience, and learn a thing or two about the political process before potentially running again in 2012. This was her chance to restore the image she crafted during her Convention speech. This was her chance to prove that she was, in fact, more than just a pretty face. More than just a celebrity.

But she blew it. She resigned. And she left everyone asking, Why?

The answers she gave during her concession speech were all very weak: Legal bills caused by “frivolous” lawsuits were costing the great state of Alaska too much. Her conscience couldn’t bear it. She wasn’t planning on running for a second term, and wanted to avoid a “lame duck” session. And so on…

As bad as quitting halfway through one’s first term is, Palin could have probably redeemed herself if she showed she was willing to put the past behind her and start looking to the future. This book was the perfect chance for that. Sure, the release so soon after her resignation and the reported $1.5 million advance offered by her publisher do raise questions about her motives for quitting as Governor.

Still, a thoughtful book about policy and the future of America could have been a solid foundation for a 2012 run. It worked for a certain Senator from Illinois. But books about policy don’t get $1.5 million advances, and they don’t let you settle scores and get back at those you believe wronged you. Writing such a book was much too tempting to resist.

And so here we stand, wondering what on earth is going through Sarah Palin’s mind. Or indeed, if anything is going through Sarah Palin’s mind. Does she see Going Rogue as just an opportunity to make money or land her own talk show? Or does she seriously think it will boost her credentials and help her to be seen as a more viable candidate in 2012?

Only the Alaskan blogger knows.

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