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I think Republicans are right the midterm Senate elections really are about Obama. I know President Obama will only be in office for two more years, and Senators are elected for six, but who can foresee more than two years ahead anyway? And if the elections aren't about Obama, what else could they be about? At the federal level, the main thing being decided this cycle is which party will retain control of the Senate. So if you support the president, you should want the Senate to remain in Democratic control so that the president can at least get his judicial and executive branch nominees confirmed, get a budget passed, keep the government open, and other stuff that most Americans probably support. And if you want to block the president from accomplishing anything, you should support the Republican candidate.

So I find myself disappointed that most of the moderate Democratic (and one Independent) candidates running for office in the swing states (Alaska, Arkansas, Kansas, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Iowa, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Georgia) seem to be pretending the election might be about something other what it obviously seems to be. They are running scared from the president, refraining from inviting him to campaign events, distancing themselves from his positions, and being afraid even to admit that they voted for him. I'm not a political professional, and I'd love to hear from some of the political professionals on this site as to why this is supposedly a good strategy, but it seems wrong to me. I mean, if the main effect of the election you're in is to determine whether your party controls the Senate or not, which in turn will determine whether the Senate is going to be cooperative or confrontational with the president, well then, that is what the election is about. You can't hide from that. Are the voters that stupid, that you can fool them by running a Democrat who barely admits to that party affiliation?

It seems like Democratic candidates might have gained more traction by expressly campaigning on the premise that the Affordable Care Act has brought millions of people real benefits, or that we have extricated ourselves from two wars in the Middle East, or that the economy has gained from one of its longest expansions in history. Why not tell people some of this good news? It's true that voters might be suffering from a little bit of Obama fatigue (that is typical in the sixth year of any presidency), but that's all the more reason why they need to be reminded of the president's accomplishments. That kind of talk would at least fire up the base, and get them to vote, which is half the battle. And it might carry some weight with independents, who upon reflection, might decide that they are tired of the obstructive attitude Republicans in Congress have played, and just might want to give the president a little easier time in his last couple of years in office.

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Thu Mar 27, 2014 at 05:07 PM PDT


by joemarkowitz

Karl Rove must be smiling to himself somewhere. Rove, remember, is the guy quoted as criticizing a reporter from what he called the "reality-based community." Rove explained to this reporter, who was old-fashioned enough to believe that answers should be based on empirical evidence, that "that's not the way the world really works anymore." It appears that journalists have really taken this message to heart, judging from a Washington Post column yesterday by Chris Cillizza. Cillizza mentioned two seemingly random events--one, that some Secret Service agents were sent home from Amsterdam (hey, it was Amsterdam!) for misbehavior, and two, that the Obama administration was loosening the March 31 deadline for signing up for Obamacare--which he said would be taken as evidence of President Obama's incompetence.

It's not that either of these events actually demonstrates the administration's incompetence. It's that they can be read to feed into a developing "narrative" or "storyline" of incompetence. Well, who creates these narratives anyway? Journalists must bear some responsibility for playing up stories that seem to confirm the narrative arc of conventional wisdom. Right now, that narrative portrays the administration's rollout of the Affordable Care Act as a botched effort, based on initial glitches in the website. So even though the glitches have been fixed, and even though enrollment in Obamacare now exceeds 6 million sign-ups, which is in line with the administration's earlier projections, we are still hearing stories about the failure of Obamacare. Even though many thousands of people are saving substantial amounts of money on their new insurance policies, and even though the new healthcare law is already saving lives by offering coverage to people who previously could not obtain it, we are still hearing stories, which have to be debunked one by one, from people claiming to have been harmed by the new law.

From a reality-based point of view, this kind of coverage makes no sense. If critics of the law last fall were mocking the slow rate of sign-ups as proof that the law was a failure, then the flood of sign-ups currently taking place must be taken as proof of the law's success. Those critics should be eating their words right now.

I'm not holding my breath waiting for these retractions, however. Once narratives take hold, they are hard to change. People do not want to listen to evidence that challenges the initial narrative. They would rather cling to any tiny shreds of stories that confirm the conventional wisdom. If Cillizza is right, and people would rather conclude that the administration is incompetent based on a meaningless story about a couple of Secret Service agents who partied a little too hard in Amsterdam, than pay attention to the overwhelming evidence (SIX MILLION SIGN-UPS) of the administration's competence, then the reality-based community really has its work cut out for it. If Republican politicians want to feign outrage that the administration is allowing those who get in line by March 31 to obtain coverage even if they can't complete their paperwork on time, people should understand that they are only doing that to play into the prevailing narrative, and to distract from the overwhelming evidence in front of them, that by the critics' own criteria, is proving the success of the new healthcare law. The media might be fighting the tide at times, but they have a responsibility to point out the flaws in the failure narrative. They should not be helping that flawed narrative along.

Critics of Obamacare will never let go of their failure narrative. It's all they've got. And someday, when the Republicans eventually get back in power, they will tinker with the healthcare law a bit, and try to claim all the credit for fixing the botched law that that incompetent President Obama put into place. But at least my readers will know the truth.

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Wed Feb 19, 2014 at 10:52 AM PST

The 25th Amendment

by joemarkowitz

I spent the weekend immersed in study of the machinations of power behind the scenes at the White House and the Capitol, and let me tell you, what's been going on over there is absolutely frightening. There is proof positive available, if only the journalists who have been silenced by this administration can finally bring it out, that the Executive Branch has been hijacked by people with little regard for the Constitution, or for basic standards of decency and ethics. There seems little doubt now that the administration has lied, cheated, murdered and stolen its way to power, and there doesn't seem to be much that the people can do about this usurpation.

I'm talking of course, about the chicanery of the fictional Vice President Frank Underwood, whose world became an alternate reality this past weekend for a lot of political geeks like myself. It's probably best to treat House of Cards merely as a guilty pleasure, but even though it probably won't bear the weight, I can't help wondering whether I can use it as a springboard for discussing some serious questions. I start with the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, the essential mechanism of Underwood's scheme to rise to the top of power. Recall that the 25th Amendment is a relatively recent addition to the Constitution, adopted only in 1967. It comes into play in the very unusual situation where a vacancy arises in the office of Vice-President, and it empowers the President to appoint a successor to fill such a vacancy. Before the adoption of the 25th Amendment, vacancies in the office of Vice-President were simply left unfilled until the next election. Perhaps that was a problem that needed fixing. But the people who drafted the 25th Amendment probably weren't thinking of the possibility that the vice-president might be tricked into resigning, or that the president could be tricked into appointing the very conniver who engineered that resignation, to fill that vacancy. And it doesn't spoil any of the surprises of the second season, for those who haven't finished watching it yet, to understand where anyone who can do those sorts of things is thinking of heading next.

Is such a situation so far-fetched that we shouldn't worry about the possibility of a corrupt and power-mad administration coming to power without being elected by the people? Perhaps, but the most amazing part of the history of the 25th Amendment is that it was actually invoked only a few years after it was adopted, almost as if the sponsors of the amendment knew we were going to need it to deal with the corrupt actions of the very next presidential administration, in a series of circumstances that no doubt inspired the writers of House of Cards. In 1973, Vice-President Agnew was forced to resign from office due to a bribery scandal arising from his term as Governor of Maryland. President Nixon was thus empowered by the nearly brand new 25th Amendment, to appoint House Minority Leader Gerald Ford to the vice-presidency. This happened while Nixon was already under suspicion of the crimes that led a House committee to vote impeachment charges the following year. After President Nixon resigned, new President Ford pardoned the predecessor who had appointed him. The pardon forever tainted the short-lived Ford administration. Ford had his own chance to take advantage of the 25th amendment, appointing Nelson Rockefeller to the vice-presidency, and saddling the country with both a president and a vice-president who were not elected to those offices. For those who believe in conspiracy theories, as well as those who believe that there are secret societies of the wealthy and powerful who are always really running things despite the trappings of democracy, we are talking about one of the authors of the Warren Commission report and one of the richest men in America both in power without an election. I happen to believe that both Ford and Rockefeller were decent people, but still, it didn't look good at all for a constitutional republic to sanction this result.

House of Cards tracks some of the Agnew-Nixon-Ford history pretty closely, using some of the same devices to propel the characters to their fates. It prompts the question whether the 25th Amendment was even a good idea, encouraging both in real life and in this fictional scenario the possibility of a tainted administration coming to power. We were preoccupied by other problems during the Nixon scandals, but maybe it's now finally time to re-think the idea of appointing vice-presidents--who have a tendency to become presidents--and devise another procedure, like a special election, instead.

As for the show, what might have been even scarier than echoing some of the events of the Nixon and Ford presidencies, would have been to try out another section of the 25th Amendment, one that has never been invoked in history. That is section 4, which allows the Vice-President and a majority of the cabinet to declare the President incapacitated and appoint the Vice-President as Acting President. (This section did come into play in the movie Air Force One, where Vice-President Glenn Close had to decide whether to declare President Harrison Ford incapacitated.) Imagine the possibilities of a scheming vice-president like Frank Underwood, who we know does not shrink from arranging for the demise or disappearance of characters who stand in his way, finding a way to incapacitate the sitting president who is his only obstacle to assuming the top level of power. But perhaps that would have been too diabolical even for Underwood.

Watergate haunts us still, from television dramas to the lesser scandals of people like Governor Chris Christie. Every time such a scandal arises, it's "here we go again" time. The investigative press hounds are again on the trail looking for blood. The suffix "gate" is attached. The officials in question are trying to maintain their denials, and suspected of cover-ups. Because of Nixon and Watergate, practically every subsequent president has been threatened with impeachment for both real and concocted scandals. Those felled by the last scandal are always looking for payback. Meanwhile, the public can't always tell the difference between politics as a real struggle of competing people and ideas, and politics as entertainment.

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Thu Nov 21, 2013 at 09:50 PM PST

Harry Reid saves the world!

by joemarkowitz

Today's 52-48 vote in the U.S. Senate asserting the majority's power to make the rules, and in the bargain abolishing the 60 vote cloture requirement for Presidential appointments, was unquestionably a BFD in the annals of history and democracy. But the Senate's partial abolition of the filibuster has far-reaching policy implications as well.

Let's start, just as an example, with a case like EME Homer City Generation v. Environmental Protection Agency, decided by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in the summer of 2012. In that case, the majority of a D.C.Circuit panel held that the EPA had exceeded its authority by adopting a rule that would have sharply curtailed cross-state power plant emissions of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide. I'm not going to weigh in on the merits, or lack of merits, of this legal opinion. It's currently up on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The point is that the D.C. Circuit--the most important Court of Appeals in terms of ruling on the validity of Executive Branch administrative rules--probably would not be issuing such opinions if President Obama were able to get more of his appointees to this important court confirmed. In terms of the impact on policy, then, nothing less is at stake in decisions like the Homer City case and numerous other cases before this court, than the ability of the duly-elected government of the most powerful country on earth to deal with the most important problem the people on earth are currently facing, namely the problem of climate change.

The Senate Republican minority's blocking of the appointment of three eminently qualified individuals to this crucially important court was the last straw.  It was a blatant effort to prevent the orderly functioning of government. It was a pure power grab by the minority that would have deprived the president of his ability to exercise the most basic of his own powers. It was an act of immense over-reaching by a political party that holds a majority in only one-half of one branch of the three branches of government, to control the other half of the legislative branch, to hamstring the executive branch, and to retain control over the judiciary. The Republicans essentially dared the majority to do something about it. And Senate Democrats knew that if they failed to do something about it, not only the President but the Senate would have been stymied by a minority of its members from effectively functioning. This action could not stand.

So cheers to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and 51 other Senators, for taking the necessary action to prevent a blatant abuse of power, for fundamentally reforming our government in favor of more democracy, and in the bargain, for helping to save the world!

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Tue Oct 01, 2013 at 12:49 AM PDT

The hostage-taker's dilemma

by joemarkowitz

Tonight I had a chance to see an early screening of the new movie, Captain Phillips, based on the true story of the ship captain freed by Navy Seals after being taken hostage by Somali pirates. The story provides a good illustration of the problem faced by hostage-takers who fail to get their prisoner to a safe location. If they give up the hostage, they risk being killed. If they kill the hostage, they will almost certainly be killed or captured. And if they try to bargain for the hostage's release, they still face the difficulty of making a clean escape. In other words, at some point even they started to realize that they couldn't win.

Tonight was the same night that House Republicans refused to bring to the floor a bill that would continue to fund the government, without adding some new conditions to achieve objectives they cannot achieve legislatively (because they will be blocked by the Senate and the President). The chief condition of course being the delay or dismantling of Obamacare. House Republicans have failed to keep their hostage safe in these negotiations. For although they may be able (at least temporarily) to demonstrate their power by shutting down the government, one thing they cannot acieve by these tactics is delay Obamacare, which is taking effect on October 1 even while the rest of the government is shut down. Republicans are thus shooting their own hostage without being able to achieve their principal objective, a strategy that seems even more defective than the one employed by the failed group of Somali pirates in the movie.


Tue Sep 24, 2013 at 10:03 PM PDT

Green Eggs and Ham

by joemarkowitz

Let's not quibble about whether Senator Cruz's taking to the floor for hours to protest Obamacare is a "real" filibuster or not. It seems more real than all the demands for cloture votes and such that we've grown accustomed to nowadays. And just because it is futile doesn't take away from its realness. Wendy Davis's heroic running out the clock on a Texas legislative session was also futile. So was Strom Thurmond's legendary filibuster of the Civil Rights Act. I would argue that whenever one person takes on the whole system and tries whether in vain or not to slow down the wheels of legislation, that constitutes a filibuster. And if we applaud when Bernie Sanders does it, we should applaud just as much when Rand Paul or Ted Cruz does it. Good for you, Ted! You drew attention to your cause. You stood up for your beliefs. And you exposed your position for everyone to judge. That's what a filibuster is supposed to do.

And I didn't listen to much of Ted Cruz's speech, but I loved his recitation of "Green Eggs and Ham," supposedly as a bedtime story for his daughter. People are saying Cruz does not understand the point of this simple story, but I say Ted Cruz is not that stupid. He understands it perfectly well. In fact, the story of "Green Eggs and Ham" is a great metaphor for Obamacare. On one side you have unreasoning prejudice. On the other you have the desire for empirical proof. And once unreasoning prejudice gives in to the demand for empirical proof, lo and behold we find out that people like green eggs and ham after all. And what else would explain the absolute desperation of people like Ted Cruz to do everything possible to keep Obamacare from taking effect other than their fear that once people try it, they might actually like it?

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Fri Sep 20, 2013 at 07:57 PM PDT

Behind the scenes

by joemarkowitz

A lot of people watching or reading the news had the impression that it was only in response to the latest Syrian government attack, that the President of the United States was suddenly threatening to drop bombs on Syria, then was suddenly asking Congress for permission to do that, then was saved from a possible defeat in Congress by the President of Russia who came up with a last-minute plan to avoid bloodshed. In fact, however, we are gradually learning that the deal between the U.S. and Russia to disarm the Syrian government of chemical weapons had been discussed behind the scenes for a long time. It needed a precipitating event to make it happen. It might have needed a threat of force by the United States to make it happen. But it was in the works for a long time. So Putin doesn't get all the credit for this diplomatic breakthrough. President Obama should also be getting a lot more credit than he has been.

Similarly, we received the exciting news this week that the recently-elected President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has, in advance of his planned speech to the UN General Assembly next week, taken to the American op-ed pages (like President Putin) to announce a new policy of constructive engagement with the US. Here are some excerpts from Rouhani's piece in the Washington Post:

"The world has changed. International politics is no longer a zero-sum game but a multi-dimensional arena where cooperation and competition often occur simultaneously. Gone is the age of blood feuds. World leaders are expected to lead in turning threats into opportunities. . . .
"In a world where global politics is no longer a zero-sum game, it is — or should be — counterintuitive to pursue one’s interests without considering the interests of others. A constructive approach to diplomacy doesn’t mean relinquishing one’s rights. It means engaging with one’s counterparts, on the basis of equal footing and mutual respect, to address shared concerns and achieve shared objectives. In other words, win-win outcomes are not just favorable but also achievable."

All very encouraging stuff, but to put this matter in context let's remember that it was President Obama who, while tightening sanctions on Iran and making bellicose statements about what we might do if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, has long been interested in opening a dialogue with Iran. When candidate Obama talked about the possibility of an opening to Iran during the 2008 campaign, that was one of the major points that differentiated his candidacy from Clinton's and then McCain's, and the idea turned out to play well for him. We are also now learning that there have been letters exchanged between the two presidents for some time leading up to Rouhani's announcement. In other words, the possibility of a sudden breakthrough in relations with Iran has been years in the making, and the product of steady work behind the scenes by President Obama and his foreign policy team. What has changed is the election of a new president in Iran who may represent a reasonable negotiating partner. And that, using Rouhani's words, is what can turn threats into opportunities.

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Wed Jun 26, 2013 at 03:53 PM PDT

Justice Scalia, humorist

by joemarkowitz

People are having trouble understanding Justice Scalia's rants in the gay marriage cases today. What they fail to appreciate is that Scalia can only be properly understood as a humorist. His opinions are intended for entertainment purposes only.

For example, you might wonder how Scalia can exalt the "democratically adopted" DOMA statute that the Court partially struck down in the Windsor case (to his chagrin), when he joined the majority opinion in the Voting Rights opinion issued only yesterday, in which the Court showed no respect whatsoever for the considered judgment of a democratically elected Congress. This makes no sense, until you realize that Scalia was just having a little joke at Congress's expense.

Then there is this hilarious quote from the DOMA case: “However, even setting aside traditional moral disapproval of same-sex marriage (or indeed same-sex sex), there are many perfectly valid — indeed, downright boring — justifying rationales for this legislation. Their existence ought to be the end of this case.”

First, notice the sly little dig at his colleagues, who ten years ago affirmed that people actually have a constitutional right to engage in what Scalia amusingly calls "same-sex sex." OK, Scalia is saying, "you guys think those private consensual activities are constitutionally protected, but give me a break. We're talking about sodomy here." What Scalia likes to call "traditional moral disapproval" must still carry a lot of weight.

Even more hilarious is the way Scalia introduces the idea of those things that we traditionally morally disapprove of: Let's set that "traditional moral disapproval" aside, Scalia says. As if we could ever even think about doing that! Are you kidding me? Does anyone think Scalia is setting aside "traditional moral disapproval" for one second? What a knee slapper!

Finally, we get to the part about the many valid--indeed downright boring--rationales for this legislation, which leads Scalia into a lengthy discussion into such problems as the thorny choice of law issues that might confront a gay couple married in New York who decide to move to Alabama. As if Scalia actually cares about this hypothetical couple's problems! What's funny is to imagine Scalia's secret glee at the thought of the newly-married same-sex couple from New York introducing themselves to their new Alabama neighbors. And the idea that DOMA was intended to help people in that situation, and we should uphold it for that purpose!

Again, the whole thing is even funnier when you remember that only yesterday, Scalia joined the opinion striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in spite of Congress's expressed concerns in that legislation for dealing with real problems: namely the real problem of states enacting changes in their voting procedures to disenfranchise minority voters, of which we have seen a major upsurge in the last couple of years. We don't need to worry about those little problems, Scalia is telling us. We have to throw out the whole pre-clearance framework of the Voting Rights Act because we don't think Congress did a good enough job. The Voting Rights Act? That's only the most respected and effective statute from the Civil Rights movement, one that has stood the test of time since 1965 and been repeatedly extended by overwhelming bi-partisan majorities in Congress. We need to gut that statute! On the other hand, there's DOMA, which was only enacted in the 1990's and has been of dubious constitutional validity since Day 1. Now there's a statute we need to respect!

You've got to hand it to Antonin Scalia. Maybe he's not quite up to the level of Mark Twain, but he has a way with satire, that's for sure.

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Tue Jun 25, 2013 at 08:44 PM PDT

In a world where this happens

by joemarkowitz

OK, imagine a big, booming announcer voice like the ones they use for movie trailers.

Something like this:

IN A WORLD where there have been more concerted efforts to make it more difficult for people to exercise their right to vote, which mainly makes it harder for the elderly, the young, and minorities, our Supreme Court has decided that now is the time to eliminate the most effective mechanism we have for curtailing these practices.

IN A WORLD where excessive litigiousness is a problem, our Supreme Court has decided that we need more lawsuits to enforce voting rights, rather than cheap and effective administrative enforcement by the Justice Department.

IN A WORLD where Congress is dysfunctional, and excessive partisanship is seen by nearly everyone as one of our biggest problems, and where conservatives claim they are in favor of judicial restraint, our Supreme Court has seen fit to set aside the judgment of the people's representatives, and penalize Congress for one of the few times it acted in a bi-partisan and nearly unanimous manner, saying, "sorry guys, you didn't do a perfect enough job to meet our standards."

IN A WORLD where the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is almost universally seen as one of the proudest accomplishments of our era, our Supreme Court has decided to gut it.

The proof that the Supreme Court was dead wrong in deciding that the world has changed so much that we don't need section 5 anymore is going to be thrust in all of our faces very soon. If the Supreme Court were right that the world has changed, then the jurisdictions subject to Section 5 will not try to implement new restrictions. They will try to exemplify the changes the Supreme Court relied on to justify today's decision, by taking steps to encourage everyone to vote. Does anyone think that is about to happen? The idea is almost funny. I hope I'm wrong about this and the Supreme Court is right, but I expect that what's going to happen now is open season on election laws. We are about to see a spate of new efforts, in almost all of the places subject to section 5, to make it more difficult for people to vote, which will fall most heavily on the elderly, young voters and ethnic minorities.  We can draw no other conclusion than that the Supreme Court welcomes those efforts.

Understand that what the Supreme Court is now endorsing, in those places that try to enact new voting restrictions, are new epic court battles over voting rights, of the kind we saw in Pennsylvania and Ohio last year. No more simple denials of clearance, as we saw for example in South Carolina last year, where the voter id law was quashed by the Justice Department. So get ready for teams of voting rights lawyers to descend on the courts  in the places formerly covered by pre-clearance requirements. If people in those places are bothered by that deluge, just tell them the Supreme Court sent them.

What a world.

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Sat Jun 22, 2013 at 08:27 PM PDT


by joemarkowitz

I heard Markos twice today explain his theory that because of demographic changes, and because Democrats  better reflect most Americans' positions on the issues, Democrats are headed for something that might approach permanent majority status in politics--so long as Democrats continue to strongly advocate progressive positions. He made this argument at a panel this morning on immigration reform, and again in an entertaining slide show at the closing session of Netroots Nation.

This theory makes a lot of sense, but I would probably be a little more cautious in predicting some kind of permanent shift in the electorate. History tells us that the pendulum of public opinion is more likely to swing back and forth a few times in the coming decades, and that it can swing back in a reactionary direction a lot quicker than people might think. A number of things could happen that would throw cold water on progressives' hopes of a permanent majority. First, you can't take the support of ethnic minorities for granted permanently. Sure, Latinos and Asians and African-Americans and recent immigrants from all over are more likely to favor Democrats now, but as they move up the economic ladder a strange thing happens. Lots of them adopt more conservative values. Not all of them, but more than now perhaps. It's ironic that the very policies that Democrats support (education, building a stronger middle class, infrastructure improvements, etc.) sometimes have the effect over time of creating more Republicans! It has happened before.

Second, you can't predict what kinds of wars or outbreaks of violence or other disasters and emergencies will happen in the coming years that could affect public opinion, and not always in a positive way.

People similarly thought in the mid-1960's, especially after the LBJ landslide of 1964, that we were headed for a permanent Democratic majority. Then came Vietnam, violence in major cities, student protests, and the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and we ended up with Richard Nixon in 1968, who went on to his own landslide victory in 1972. People also thought (I thought!) after Watergate caused Nixon and seemingly his whole party to reveal their corruption and fall into disgrace, that we were moving toward another permanent Democratic majority. Then came a bad economy and the Iranian revolution and instead of a progressive consensus, we ended up with the Reagan revolution of 1980, and a seemingly permanent reactionary consensus. It took another 28 years before the pendulum swung strongly in the other direction.

Nobody can predict what future problems or cataclysms might cause another political shift to the right. And nobody can assume that the people who currently support the progressive agenda will continue to do so. Nobody should take any ethnic group or women or young people or gays or any other demographic for granted. I hope Markos is right that what we are seeing now are the death throes of the politics of fear and resentment, but I worry that that kind of politics always has a chance for a comeback.

All that leads me to treasure and support the Obama administration as strongly as I can, but others can draw their own conclusions. Just don't take anything for granted.



Fri Jun 21, 2013 at 09:41 PM PDT

Reducing violence

by joemarkowitz

Friday morning at Netroots Nation led off with an all-star panel to discuss gun violence. It's an issue that provokes strong emotional responses, particularly from the two panelists who represent teachers. But it's also an issue that provokes strong determination from the public officials represented on the panel, to continue to push forward legislation designed to keep dangerous weapons out of the wrong hands. Panel members also pushed back strongly against the idea that the movement to reduce gun violence in this country has anything whatsoever to do with taking guns away from responsible gun owners who keep guns for legitimate purposes. That is propaganda spread by the NRA which plays on the public's distrust of government to accomplish their primary mission, which seems to be acting as a trade association for gun manufacturers, rather than acting in the best interests of the responsible gun owners they purportedly represent.

Several of the panel members stressed the importance of engaging in a dialogue with gun owners, and couching arguments for gun control in a way that is not threatening to gun rights advocates, and that will appeal to the majority of public opinion. State Senator Darrell Steinberg, for example, made the excellent point that advocating for restrictions on assault weapon sales at the same time as acknowledging the need for mental health reform, are not either/or propositions. Some of the panelists also mentioned the need to support legislators such as Senator Joe Manchin, who took a courageous stand against the NRA position, despite a strong background in favor of gun rights.

It was interesting, however, that even on a panel devoted to the theme of reducing violence, gun metaphors and violence metaphors kept cropping up. Senator Steinberg repeatedly talked about "fighting" to enact legislation to reduce gun violence. I understand that strong opposition must be overcome, but it still seems a bit incongruous to talk about fighting to reduce violence. Somebody else talked about "shooting down" the opposition's arguments. And the moderator Jehmu Greene asked the panelists at the end to engage in a "rapid fire" round of final responses. It's an indication of just how strongly violence has permeated our culture when a group of people all sincerely and passionately dedicated to the cause of reducing violence has difficulty discussing that issue without resorting to the language of violence themselves. 



Tue Mar 12, 2013 at 12:52 PM PDT

The Act of Killing

by joemarkowitz

The Act of Killing, a unique documentary I saw this weekend at South by Southwest, exposes the gangsters and paramilitary organizations used by the Indonesian government to kill perhaps a million supposed opponents of the regime after the country's military coup in 1965. There has been some democratization in Indonesia since that time, but the people who carried out these actions are still protected by the government, and brag about these actions with impunity. The film gives these killers the opportunity to do just that, a point of view the filmmakers were almost forced to adopt when they discovered that the victims' families for the most part are still afraid to tell their stories. Somebody suggested that they instead tell the story from the killers' point of view, and were somewhat surprised to find that they were quite willing to cooperate.

One thing that makes the documentary unique is that its "stars," in addition to talking about their actions, were asked to re-enact them for the camera, as if they were making a movie depicting their methods of killing and torture. Some of these scenes are almost comical; others are harrowing. For the most part, the perpetrators  are not embarrassed to give matter-of-fact descriptions of torture and killing they committed.

What makes the film even more unique is that it does not allow the audience the easy escape of simply condemning the killers as evil. Instead it treats them with empathy. The film's point of view moves beyond typical depictions of such events as battles between good and evil, and instead forces us to recognize the essential humanity even of people who carried out despicable and horrible crimes. We need to understand that these crimes were committed by people, not by some sort of demons.

The film focuses in particular on one character, a gangster named Anwar Congo. Like others, Congo at first expresses no remorse for his actions. Since the killings were sanctioned by the government, and no one is being punished for them, he can make the argument that he has done nothing wrong. As the movie goes on, however, it becomes clear that at a deeper level, he realizes that what he has done is wrong, and becomes revolted by his own actions.

Taking the point of view of people who committed horrific crimes in no way justifies these actions. Allowing these criminals to tell their own story, as well as re-enacting scenes that helped the killers empathize with their victims, instead causes at least some of them to condemn themselves. A powerful film, that deserves to be widely seen.

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