In case you were waiting for the National Rifle Association's reasonable, constructive contribution to our current debate on how best to curb gun violence in America, your wait is over. They are locked, loaded, and ready to bring the crazy. This is an ad they put out yesterday, calling President Obama an "elitist hypocrite." Take a gander:
Tonight, PBS's Frontline will be broadcasting a documentary called "Inside Obama's Presidency," about the President's first term. The story told in this preview is about a now-somewhat-famous dinner that a bunch of Republican muckety-mucks held on the night of Obama's inauguration, during which they made the decision that the best way to proceed was implacable, unified opposition to anything and everything the new president wanted to do. As we all know, this plan was then carried out almost to the letter. Watch:
Joe Heck, a conservative white guy with a difference.
You may have heard that in the incoming Congress, white men will constitute a minority of the Democratic caucus for the first time. That's an interesting fact, but it's only part of the story. At National Journal, Ron Brownstein and Scott Bland have a long, Brownsteinian look at how "the parties glare across a deep racial chasm" not only in the members of Congress themselves, but in the people they represent. "Republicans now hold 187 of the 259 districts (72 percent) in which whites exceed their national share of the voting-age population. Democrats hold 129 of the 176 seats (73 percent) in which minorities exceed their national share of the voting-age population. From another angle, 80 percent of Republicans represent districts more heavily white than the national average; 64 percent of House Democrats represent seats more heavily nonwhite than the national average."
The implications for the GOP of the fact that most of their members represent mostly white districts are profound, touching on the continuous interaction between individuals and policy. Politicians are shaped by their political environments and the things they have to do to win, and the fact that most GOP members represent overwhelmingly white district means that as they rise through the ranks, the time they're going to have to spend talking to and listening to non-white people is going to be limited...
Independence is the new media thing. Andrew Sullivan is doing it. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are doing it. And Glenn Beck, who did it already when he got booted from Fox News and created his own internet TV...um...thing in response, is taking it even farther. Inspired by "Galt's Gulch," the place in Atlas Shrugged where the Randian übermenschen retreated, Beck is unveiling plans for an entire city he will build, a city to embody all that is right and good and libertarian about America, a true refuge where those who have proven their mettle by watching hundreds of hours of his programs can come and live just as the Founders intended. It'll be called, naturally, Independence, U.S.A. Behold:
Artist's rendering of the House Republican Caucus. (Flickr/Rafael Edwards)
As any parent knows, when your children are young, you have one distinct advantage over them: you're smarter than they are. It won't be that way forever, but if it comes down to an argument, using words, with a six-year-old, you're probably going to win. Faced with this disadvantage, children often resort to things like repeating the thing they've already said a hundred more times, or stomping their feet. Which brings us, of course, to the House Republicans.
In the days since Wayne LaPierre of the NRA blamed the Sandy Hook massacre on violent movies and video games (in particular, for some reason, Natural Born Killers, a film that came out 19 years ago and was actually a critique of the media's obsession with violence), a number of people in the entertainment industry have been asked about whether their products contribute to real-world violence, and they've seemed extremely uncomfortable answering the question. Actually, they seem to have no idea what the answer might be. As it happens, this is a question that has been studied extensively, although the research is a bit ambiguous and unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I thought it might be worthwhile to go over just what evidence there is for the assertion. So if you're a Hollywood big shot, read on so you'll have some idea what to say next time the question comes up.
The other day, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly (or as he is for some reason always referred to as, "Astronaut Mark Kelly"; I guess if you're an astronaut you get that) announced that they have started a new initiative, Americans for Responsible Solutions, to push for new laws to limit gun violence. I have great admiration for both of them and I certainly hope they succeed, but there was something I heard Kelly say in an interview that was worthy of note, and a bit unfortunate. He noted that they're not trying to take away anyone's guns, and they're gun owners themselves. They just want to make sure guns stay out of "the wrong hands." The problem with this—and I think it's something well-meaning people probably say a lot without giving it too much thought—is that it assumes that the lines are clear between the right hands and the wrong hands, and if we could just make sure no wrong hands got guns, we'd all be safe.
There are certainly some people who should definitely not have access to guns, like convicted felons, or people with severe mental illness, or teenagers, whose ability to make clear, reasoned judgments is extraordinarily poor. But once you get beyond that, the idea that we can make an a priori distinction between people who should have guns and who shouldn't is a fantasy.
This is how much people elsewhere love their health systems. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
If you've been paying attention to debates on health care over the last few years, you're probably aware of how poorly the American system performs compared to other similar countries. We're the only advanced industrialized democracy that doesn't provide universal health coverage to our citizens, and though there are many variations in those systems ranging from the completely socialized (as in Great Britain) to the largely private but heavily, heavily regulated (as in Switzerland), they all do better than we do on almost every important measure you could come up with.
That's the big picture. But a new report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine compared the United States to 16 similar countries (mostly in Europe but including Canada, Australia, and Japan) on a range of health measures has some fascinating details. Unsurprisingly, the US comes out at or near the bottom on most measures of health. We have the highest infant mortality, the highest obesity rates, and the highest rates of teen pregnancy. And given our current debate about gun violence, this is one data point that will inevitably be noted in stories about this report:
On an April Sunday in 1996, a young man named Martin Bryant went to the popular tourist site of Port Arthur in Australia, and using a pair of semi-automatic rifles, undertook a massacre that spread over several locations and killed 35 people. The crime was so horrific that previously pro-gun politicians changed their positions, and less than two weeks later the government announced sweeping changes to the country's gun laws, outlawing automatic and semi-automatic weapons, instituting lengthy waiting periods and background checks for gun purchases, and creating a gun buyback program that eventually resulted in a fifth of the country's firearms being destroyed. In the years since, the country's rates of gun homicide and suicide have fallen dramatically, and Australia has not had another mass shooting.
What happened in Australia—a terrible tragedy galvanizing public sentiment and leading to a significant change in policy—is something many Americans fervently wish would happen here in the wake of last month's shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Details are now emerging on the legal solutions that the White House and its congressional allies will be pushing in the coming days. But anyone hoping for a transformation in America's relationship with guns would do well to be skeptical.
I'm sure there are many reasons why President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, but the fact that Hagel is a Republican surely played at least some part. After all, if he nominated a Democrat to head the Pentagon, congressional Republicans would surely oppose the nomination and charge that the nominee was too dovish. Which of course is exactly what has happened with Hagel (along with some truly despicable phony accusations of anti-Semitism*). I'm not the first liberal to be disappointed with the fact that Democratic presidents seem to feel the need to placate their opponents by picking Republicans for this particular position. As Michael Beschloss observed, Republican presidents have never picked a Democrat for this job, but about half the Secretaries of Defense in Democratic administrations have been Republicans.
What's most important to note about this is that there is no equivalent on the other side. Republican presidents don't feel the need to appoint Democrats to lead agencies whose missions are traditionally associated with Democrats. In fact, they have no problem appointing people whose goal is to fight against the missions of the agencies they lead.
There may not be much point in trying to relitigate the torture question from the Bush years, but every once in a while that era's torture apologists come back around to make their case, and there is one vital question I've never heard any of them answer: How do the defender's of "enhanced interrogation" (perhaps the most vulgar euphemism since "ethnic cleansing") actually define torture? I'll explain more in a moment, but this was prompted by an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post about the film Zero Dark Thirty by Jose Rodriguez, a CIA officer who has defended the administration's torture program on many occasions. Since I haven't seen the film I can't say anything about the way it depicts torture, but Rodriguez takes the opportunity to say this: "I was intimately involved in setting up and administering the CIA’s 'enhanced interrogation' program, and I left the agency in 2007 secure in the knowledge not only that our program worked — but that it was not torture." And why aren't the things the CIA did—which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and the use of "stress positions," which are used to cause excruciating pain without actually leaving a mark—torture? Here's the closest Rodriguez comes to an explanation:
Peggy Noonan is, without doubt, America's most hilariously ridiculous opinion columnist, someone forever pleading that we ignore piffle like "facts" and focus instead on the collective emotions that are bubbling just out of our awareness until she identifies them. But in her column today, she does something that we ought to take note of, because I suspect it will become a common Republican talking point. Noonan asks why Obama is so darn mean to Republicans, and answers the question thusly:
Just after the election, I wrote that the reason conservatives were so worked up about the tragic events in Benghazi was scandal envy; they were livid that the president they despise so much had gone an entire term without a major scandal, so they were desperately grasping for whatever was handy. The response I go from many conservatives was vigorous, including assertions that Benghazi was a far worse scandal than Watergate (that necessitated another post explaining, for those who had apparently forgotten, why Watergate was a big deal). But as President Obama's second term begins, we have to wonder: What's the big Obama administration scandal going to be?
John Boehner has held on to his job as Speaker of the House for now, mostly because no one ran against him. That may be because none of his Republican colleagues wants that nightmare of a job, or it may be because they want it, but just think biding their time a little longer is the best play. In any case, Boehner now faces the challenge of dealing with a caucus full of nutbars who would happily send the country off all manner of cliffs, fiscal and otherwise, if it meant sticking it to Barack Obama or those mooching 47 percent of Americans they think he represents. And how do you deal with a group like that? Empty symbolic gestures, of course!
Boehner has apparently made it clear to his caucus that he'll no longer participate in one-on-one negotiations with President Obama, letting them know that just like them, he thinks Obama is such a low-down dirty snake that there's no point in even talking to the guy. But can they still talk on the phone? What about texting? If Obama calls Boehner on Skype, can Boehner take the call but turn off his camera so Obama can hear him but not see him?
In all the attention paid to the drama over the fiscal cliff, most people momentarily forgot that there were a few other important things the 112th Congress was supposed to take care of before its ignominious term came to an end. But yesterday, thanks to a couple of prominent politicians criticizing their own party—something always guaranteed to garner plenty of media attention—everybody remembered that states in the Northeast, particularly New York and New Jersey, are still waiting on federal disaster aid. First New Jersey governor Chris Christie came out and gave a blistering press conference in which he blasted House Republicans for not taking up the relief bill, saying, "There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims: the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner." Christie also said he called Boehner multiple times, but Boehner wouldn't return his calls. Then Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York, delivered a rather extraordinary statement on Fox News, not only urging people in New York and New Jersey not to donate to members of his party, but referring to them as "these Republicans," as though they were from a group of which he was not a part. "These Republicans have no problem finding New York when they're out raising millions of dollars," King said. "I'm saying right now, anyone from New York or New Jersey who contributes one penny to Congressional Republicans is out of their minds. Because what they did last night was put a knife in the back of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans. It was an absolute disgrace." Yow!