Archive

January 4th, 2016

An article of conciliation

    At year's end, I want to offer a word to my conservative and libertarian readers whose patience I try regularly.

    Perhaps you read me to have someone to yell at, or in search of evidence for how dumb liberals can be. No matter. I'm glad you're there.

    I am not someone who believes that if only we understood each other better, we would find our way to agreement. Indeed, sometimes people get to understand each other better and the results are disastrous. They learn that the distance between them is even greater than they assumed.

    But more fundamentally, people disagree because they have honest differences over what matters most. We might all claim to believe in liberty, justice, equality, community, security and personal responsibility. But we can still quarrel because we put different weights on each, or because we define some of these concepts differently.

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A year to remember, regrettably

    So long, 2015, and don't let the door hit you on the seat of your pants on the way out. On second thought, let it give you a good strong whack.

    Here are some of the odious things the year brought us: First of all, a return of terrorism, abroad and at home, in Paris and San Bernardino in addition to those gruesome Middle East beheadings by agents of the emergent Islamic State.

    In Europe, there was the return of the Cold War and Russian imperialism. Former Soviet henchman Vladimir Putin's brazen seizure of Crimea in 2014 is still unchallenged, and his dreams of restoring the Soviet Union to its former superpower stature were sustained through 2015.

    At home, there was a year-long stagnation of the legislative process on Capitol Hill, as President Obama continued to knock his head into Republican obstructionism and deep personal animosity toward him. At the same time, internal GOP dissension drove House Speaker John Boehner from office, though with a faint flickering of hope in a pledge from successor Paul Ryan to break the legislative logjam.

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Will anti-Cruz movement rally behind Rubio?

    National Review's Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson report a potentially important development: The emergence of an Anybody-But-Cruz-(Except-Trump) movement from the soon-to-be ashes of the Iowa campaigns of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. It would seem that some social conservatives, including a few currently supporting the last two Iowa winners, consider Sen. Ted Cruz a "phony opportunist" -- and would rather see Sen. Marco Rubio do well if their own candidates don't have an unexpected late surge.

    This suggests that reporting indicating that Cruz has wrapped up the support of Iowa Christian conservative leaders may have overstated the strength of his hold on that large faction of the Republican vote.

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What could go wrong in 2016?

You probably noticed that 2015 was pretty weird. But hey, it's a brand new year -- a fresh start, a blank slate, an unwritten script. In 2016, what could possibly go wrong?

    Uh, where to begin?

     My fingers balk at typing the words "President-elect Trump" because I don't think such a thing will actually happen. But at this point I'm wondering how to justify ruling anything out.

     A year ago, was there anyone on earth who predicted that Donald Trump would utterly dominate the Republican presidential race? That the boastful billionaire would be setting the nation's political agenda? That Jeb Bush, armed with more campaign money than he could possibly spend, would be drifting helplessly toward the single-digit wings of the crowded debate stage?

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The way out of partisan gridlock

    As we head into a new year and another election cycle, all evidence points toward a disheartening replay of years past. We will see a rearranging of the players, perhaps, but the continuing landscape in Washington is unmistakable. Though Congress recently passed a budget agreement and a highway bill, it seems mainly to have spent the past year spinning its wheels. Our great deliberative bodies continue to be embroiled in an unnecessary standoff with themselves and a poisonous relationship with the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. More money than ever is flooding the system. On deck is a batch of candidates merely demonizing the other side in hopes of rallying support by scratching at the basest itches of the electorate. We have never been more divided.

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Thanks for the surveillance, J. Edgar

    It may seem passing strange for a general counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union to be celebrating the 120th birthday (Friday) of J. Edgar Hoover, but in fact the dreaded founding director of the FBI has been a godsend for me. In an age when ubiquitous surveillance makes a mockery of personal privacy, my experience shows there can be an upside to massive government data collection.

    Johnson may have had Boswell, but I have had the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For 20 years beginning when I was a 16-year-old in Baltimore, FBI agents tracked my comings and goings. But unlike the many who have suffered greatly from such FBI surveillance, I have found it to have been a great benefit.

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Privilege, Pathology and Power

    Wealth can be bad for your soul. That’s not just a hoary piece of folk wisdom; it’s a conclusion from serious social science, confirmed by statistical analysis and experiment. The affluent are, on average, less likely to exhibit empathy, less likely to respect norms and even laws, more likely to cheat, than those occupying lower rungs on the economic ladder.

    And it’s obvious, even if we don’t have statistical confirmation, that extreme wealth can do extreme spiritual damage. Take someone whose personality might have been merely disagreeable under normal circumstances, and give him the kind of wealth that lets him surround himself with sycophants and usually get whatever he wants. It’s not hard to see how he could become almost pathologically self-regarding and unconcerned with others.

    So what happens to a nation that gives ever-growing political power to the superrich?

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Lessons of Tamir Rice's death

    "On November 22, 2014, at 3:30 p.m., Tamir Rice, age 12, was shot and killed at Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio by on-duty Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) Officer Timothy Loehmann." Thus begins Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty's report on Rice's death. This week, a grand jury decided not to charge the rookie Cleveland police officer. It was a perversely fitting end to a year of law-enforcement controversies.

    The Tamir Rice case was rife with errors from the start, all compounded by race. The 911 caller told the dispatcher that Rice was "probably a juvenile" and that the gun he was seen brandishing was likely fake, yet the dispatcher didn't pass on that seemingly crucial information. Loehmann and his partner estimated Rice's age as at least 18 - not surprising, given that studies have shown that police officers often perceive black youths as older (and less innocent) than they are. Though Loehmann has said that he told Rice to "show me your hands" multiple times before shooting, surveillance footage shows that fewer than two seconds passed from when the police car reached Rice until Loehmann opened fire.

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Knowing Who's on Your Airplane

    I don't know about you, but I'd like to think that the feds have screened the other passengers sitting on my airplane. To do that, they also have to screen me. That's the deal.

    In America, any state-issued driver's license had long been acceptable ID for passing security checks at airports. That lax attitude changed after Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists turned four commercial jetliners full of passengers into missiles, killing thousands more on the ground. All four planes took off from U.S. airports.

    On the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, Congress passed the Real ID Act. It tightens standards for state driver's licenses used to board flights. Among other information, applicants must provide their Social Security number and immigration status. The licenses must also contain a chip or other technology that can be read by a computer. The deadline for compliance is approaching.

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Cubans have spirit; what they need is money

    In the oldest part of the city, near the famed Parque Central, stands a building that's being restored from top to bottom.

    The project has been under way a long time. Possibly it began before the last time I was here, 21 years ago.

    One can only guess the height of the building because it's been swallowed by vines that now obscure all the scaffolds. From blocks away it looks like a masterpiece of topiary.

    Much of Cuba is like this, exotic and deceptive at a distance. Some things change. Some things remain stuck in a time warp.

    U.S. tourists are here now, practically everywhere you go. Both enchanted and sobered by what they see. They're coming in droves. Thousands upon thousands of Cuban-Americans make the trip, too, visiting family.

    The hotels in Havana are packed. Every charter flight from the States is full. This is new and revolutionary.

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