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Posts - June 11-17

6/16 - Brendan: Quotes of the week (permanent link)
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Flag waving quote of the week
Trent Lott on an amendment to withhold federal funds from school districts that don't allow the Boy Scouts to use their facilities because of the Scout policy on gays (Senate floor, 6/13):

I rise in support of this amendment. I think it is an amendment that should basically be accepted by all of us. I don't know quite how to react to the fact that in America even the Boy Scouts seem to be under attack. Is motherhood and apple pie next? Is there nothing sacred anymore?

Exaggerated historical comparison of the week
A member of an agriculture group commenting on Tom Dorr, President Bush's nominee for undersecretary for rural development in the Department of Agriculture (Washington Post, June 14):

"We all thought feudalism ended in the Middle Ages, but Dorr wants to bring it back," said Rhonda Perry, a hog farmer and member of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center... "The only role for farmers in Tom Dorr's vision is as serfs on their own land, providing labor for the giant agribusiness operations."

Orwell reference of the week
Ann Coulter on the Supreme Court decision requiring public schools to grant access to their facilities to religious groups on the same basis as other groups (National Review Online, June 14):

It's well past time for liberalism to be declared a religion and banned from public schools. Allowing Christians to be one of many afterschool groups induces hysteria not just because liberals hate religion. It's because the public school is their temple. Children must be taught to love Big Brother, welcoming him to take over our schools, our bank accounts, our property, even our toilet bowls...

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6/15 - Bryan: The renaming game (permanent link)
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Sometimes changing a name can make all the difference, at least politically. Yesterday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson announced that he would be changing the name of the Health Care Financing Administration to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The New York Times points out that Thompson's first choice for a new name - The Medicare and Medicaid Administration, or MAMA - was scuttled because it was too maternalistic and women found it offensive. Thompson claims the name change emphasizes that the agency is "making quality service the No. 1 priority."

Meanwhile, Jake Tapper of Salon details how Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts has changed the names of two committees he now chairs. The Subcommittee on Oceans and Fisheries is now the Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries and the Environment, and the Small Business Committee has become the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee. Tapper suggests the moves were made to help Kerry position himself for a run at the Presidency in 2004.

While it is tempting to joke about the changes, they may actually carry serious consequences. Since Americans' contact with government agencies and Senate committees is limited mostly to media accounts, their names can seriously affect public perceptions. And whether trying to make an agency seem less bureaucratic or puffing up one's Senate resume, both changes work the same way other political spin does: moulding public opinion at a deep, subconscious level.

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6/14 - Brendan: Intent in the Florida mess (permanent link)
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Fallout continues from the US Commission on Civil Rights draft report released last week, which was condemned by Jennifer C. Braceras in the June 18 issue of the Weekly Standard and John Leo in his June 12 syndicated column.

Here's the issue - the Commission's allegation of "widespread voter disenfranchisement" in Florida, especially of African American voters. Its sometimes strident report cites evidence that African American voters were much more likely to have their votes rejected or to be unable to vote than white voters, places significant blame for this on Florida election officials and frames the issue as a civil rights issue under the Voting Rights Act.

Braceras and Leo take aim at the Commission, pointing out that the report's use of the passive voice implies intent to disenfranchise voters where there was none. Braceras writes:

[The report] states that persons living in counties with high minority populations "were more likely to have their votes spoiled or discounted" than persons living in the rest of Florida. This, of course, begs the question: By whom were these ballots spoiled? The answer is that they were spoiled, accidentally, by individuals who failed to vote correctly.

Leo cites the passive voice "[coming] up again and again, implying bias or conspiracy. Blacks were far more likely than others 'to have their ballots rejected.' 'Protected groups may have had less of an opportunity to have their votes counted.'"

Braceras and Leo are essentially correct. The Commission's report points out a number of serious problems that had the effect of preventing eligible voters from not voting successfully, particularly African Americans, but it actually found no evidence of intent to disenfranchise voters. Yet the report's rhetoric sometimes suggests otherwise.

Moreover, as both point out, the Commission's framing encourages demagoguery about conspiracies to disenfranchise African Americans, like the statements of Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and DNC National Development Chair Maynard Jackson about the report. Jackson says that the DNC "[supports] the Commission's efforts to no longer allow Governor Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris to silence minority voters in Florida." Jackson goes on to blame Bush and Harris for not averting the problems that occurred rather than deliberately disenfranchising voters, but the implication is clear.

The Braceras/Leo tag team goes wrong, however, when it simply dismisses disenfranchisement claims because of a lack of evidence of intent. The Commission's claims are partly based on a legitimate interpretation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act known as the results test. It says that a violation has occurred when the election process is conducted in such a manner that it is "not equally open to participation", regardless of intent. Legally, what happened in Florida might meet that standard, although hopefully recent reforms will correct many of the problems without legal action. Braceras never explains this to her readers, while Leo dismisses it, saying it would mean that minority voters could produce evidence of illegal discrimination by "voting more sloppily than other groups". Readers are owed a better explanation.

Update - June 14, 9:25 PM EST:This New Republic editorial also highlights the way the Commission's report lets conspiracy rumors linger.

Update II - June 15, 2:01 PM EST:In his National Journal column, Stuart Taylor harshly criticizes demagogues who made wild allegations of disenfranchisement (Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP: "it was all part of some grand conspiracy" to keep blacks from the polls) and slams the Commission report for following in their footsteps.

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Related links:
-Ben Fritz, Election 2000 debate re-ignites (6/6 post)
-Ben Fritz, Recount Reconsiderations (4/17 column)

6/13 - Bryan: The Negroponte rumble (permanent link)
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In the current National Review, Jay Nordlinger has fired off a subtly deceptive response to nasty pieces in The Nation and In These Times attacking John Negroponte, President Bush's nominee for UN Ambassador. Neither side is playing fair.

In These Times started out the ugliness with a cover story on Negroponte by Terry Allen on April 2. "Like spooks from an abandoned B-Movie graveyard, officials of the Reagan-Bush era are emerging from the dirt and showing up inside the Bush administration," the article begins. Allen goes on to detail human rights abuses in Honduras during Negroponte's tenure as US Ambassador there from 1981 to 1985, essentially blaming him for everything that happened during those years. While a case can certainly be made that Negroponte was involved with US-sponsored groups that tortured and killed people, there are better ways to make the point than unsubstantiated guilt-by-association arguments.

The Nation followed up with a Peter Kornbluh editorial on Negroponte in the May 7 issue. Kornbluh asserts that Negroponte was a "central player in a bloody paramilitary war" in Honduras and that the nominee "was the acknowledged 'boss' of the early covert contra operations." Note the plausibly deniable jargon here: what is a "central player"? And why is "boss" in quotation marks? Probably because Nergoponte has never been directly connected to any such activities (although the documents that would link him are currently classified). He is almost certainly guilty of withholding information about human rights abuses, but this is a far cry from overseeing operations such as Kornbluh implies.

In the latest print edition of the National Review, Jay Nordlinger fires back with an equally disingenuous defense of Negroponte. First, it frames opposition to Negroponte as strident and "crusading," deriding "liberal smearing of the Reagan men." It continues without discussing the serious accusations against Negroponte, instead quoting the nominee's supporters saying he "help[ed] to pave the way for democracy and [held] off both the Communists and right-wingers. Honduras, like every other country in Central America, is now democratic..." The article imputes causation (and implies Negroponte's actions were responsible) when the chain of events leading to Honduran democracy is far from clear.

Finally, Nordlinger concludes that "The Negroponte [nomination] . . . will certainly see a personal element, and the drama of revisionism." The "revisionism" charge is especially interesting, considering Negroponte himself told CNN in 1998 that "some of the retrospective effort to try and suggest that we were supportive of, or condoned the actions of, human rights violations is really revisionistic" (as quoted in Allen's article). Examined closely, this label is a way of delegitimizing criticism without responding to it.

Certainly there is a debate to be had about Negroponte's fitness to represent the United States to the United Nations based on his tenure as Ambassador to Honduras. But leveling unfounded accusations and throwing up misleading defenses will not lead us to a clearer picture of Negroponte's record.

Update - June 14, 10:27 AM EST:The New York Times has a story on Negroponte today detailing what is currently known about his record in Honduras:

As ambassador from 1981 to 1985, Mr. Negroponte worked closely with top Honduran military officials at a time when the United States was using Honduras as a staging ground for its fight against Communism in Central America. Although considered more stable than its neighbors, Honduras was deeply troubled, and some members of the United States-backed military were involved in the kidnapping and killing of civilians.
Mr. Negroponte has denied knowing of such abuses. But an inquiry by the Central Intelligence Agency several years ago found that serious rights violations in Honduras were not properly reported to Washington during Mr. Negroponte's tenure. Most of the report is blacked out, and the unclassified parts raise questions about Mr. Negroponte without providing answers.

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6/12 - Brendan: Scheer propaganda (permanent link)
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Robert Scheer, a syndicated columnist, has written an an outrageous piece of propaganda about the Bush administration that needs to be debunked. Originally published on May 22, it was picked up on The Nation's website last week.

In the article, Scheer condemns Bush for a "recent gift of $43 million to the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan", which he alleges is intended to reward the theocratic regime for its recent crackdown on opium production. He calls the US the "main sponsor" of the Taliban, extensively condemns the very real repression and human rights violations of the regime and then blames the US for supporting the perpetrators of those acts.

Reading this without any context, you might be outraged. That's because you have no way of knowing that it's a wild factual distortion, as Bryan Carnell of LeftWatch.com points out. The US did not give a "gift" to the Taliban. In fact, it was widely reported by CNN and others that the aid consists of $28 million in surplus wheat, $5 million in food commodities and $10 million in "livelihood and food security" programs intended to help alleviate a looming famine. Moreover, as Secretary of State Colin Powell said in his announcement of the aid, it will be distributed through international agencies of the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, not the Taliban. Powell specifically added that the aid "bypasses the Taliban, who have done little to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people, and indeed have done much to exacerbate it."

The aid does indirectly help the Taliban by helping prevent mass famine. And it does mitigate the effects of the ban on poppy cultivation and thereby discourage farmers from resuming cultivation. Can we say that the drug war had no relationship to this decision? Absolutely not. Powell acknowledged in his statement the administration's desire to help farmers hurt by the ban on poppy cultivation and its support for the ban. But it is unfair to omit details of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, in which more than one million people are estimated to be at risk, and to dismiss any humanitarian motivation. Remember, Afghanistan is under UN sanctions imposed at the request of the US under President Clinton that are supported by Bush. Sheer is just being blatantly deceptive.

In addition to his factual distortions, Scheer uses a practiced and rephrensible technique - comparing American conservatives with extremists in other countries. Early this year, in fact, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said the Bush admnistration "selected nominees from the Taliban wing of American politics". Scheer follows Bond's lead, implying that proponents of the drug war and the Taliban are comparably extreme. First, he writes: "[t]he war on drugs has become our own fanatics' obsession and easily trumps all other concerns." Then: "[t]he Taliban may suddenly be the dream regime of our own drug-war zealots, but in the end this alliance will prove a costly failure."

All in all, Scheer should be ashamed of himself.

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6/12 - Ben: Bush pre-spins European critics (permanent link)
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As he departs for his first trip to Europe, where he will meet with other Western leaders who are quite skeptical of his stands on the environment and other issues, President Bush and his aides have started the spin war in advance. Surely aware that he will face criticism for his rejection of the Kyoto climate change treaty, the administration put the word out to the press over the weekend that the issue of global warming is still unclear, and not ready for policy decisions.

Here's National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice in yesterday's Los Angles Times discussing global warming: "This is a president who takes extremely seriously what we do know about climate change, which is essentially that there is warming taking place, but he takes it seriously enough to also want to understand better what we don't know."

What exactly is it that we don't know? According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that Bush commissioned, human behavior is indeed contributing to the increase in Earth's surface temperature. Not to worry, though. President Bush has an answer in today's Wall Street Journal, which reports that he announced a new "Climate Change Research Iniative." The NAS study, Bush said, "tells us that we do not know how much effect natural fluctuations in climate may have had on warming."

Note the logic here. Even though we know humans are at least partly causing a rise in the Earth's temperature, Bush says, we shouldn't act until we know how much of the increase is the result of natural factors. Let's think this through. Scientific study suggests that the human contribution is significant - meaning if we reduce greenhouse gases, we can limit the increase in temperature and thereby at least partly alleviate the harmful effects of climate change. Yet even though we largely understand what we can affect (and have known it for some time, as Bryan noted), Bush is arguing that we should wait to act until we understand the factors that are beyond our control. Makes perfect sense - if you're trying to convince people we shouldn't do anything about global warming right now.

It also makes the President look like he's taking action on the issue at a very convenient time. As Dana Milbank noted in a Washington Post article about Bush's strategy for dealing with European leaders, "All that [movement on climate change] raises the issue of why Mr. Bush failed to express a willingness to revisit the issue urgently two months ago."

Certainly not to fend off criticism from European leaders that is sure to fill the papers later this week.

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Related links:
-Bryan Keefer, The Rhetoric of Uncertainty (4/30 column)

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