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Archive for January, 2010

The Biggest Loser(s).

Ok, so there definitely is a Plan B. In the trailer bin this week, the Comedian, Stringer Bell, Johnny Storm, and Neytiri, among others, give The A-Team a run for their money in the trailer for Sylvain White’s The Losers, based on the DC comic and starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, Chris Evans, Oscar Jaenada, Columbus Short, Zoe Saldana, Jason Patric, and Holt McCallany.

And, speaking of big losers, Gordon Gekko has done his time and wants back in the big game — maybe with a new cellphone — in the teaser for Oliver Stone’s Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps, also with Shia LaBoeuf, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon, Vanessa Ferlito, Frank Langella, and — word has it — Charlie Sheen. Might have to give the first one another whirl beforehand.

The Activist, the Loner, and the Clairvoyant.

Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” — Howard Zinn, 1922-2010.

It’s funny. All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.” — J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010. [The Onion mourns.]

You’re not an actor if you’re just a person that fits into a cute costume. You’re a prop.” — Zelda Rubenstein, 1933-2010.

Retreat to Advance.

Sorry about the radio silence over the past week. I’ve been ensconced away at the yearly office retreat, which coupled with family in town and a very busy work week regardless, cut deeply into the GitM time. There’s been quite a lot of big doings over the past week, and I’m four movie reviews behind at the moment, but hopefully I’ll catch up over the next several days.

The ACLU’s Achilles Heel…and Glenn Greenwald’s.

Debate on the question of money and politics has been percolating within the ACLU for years, long before the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Citizens United. ‘It is difficult to think of an issue that has generated more internal controversy,’ an internal ACLU memo states.

To its credit and as a result of the Citizens United decision (which the organization has previously lawyered and lobbied for), the ACLU convenes a weekend summit to discuss its campaign finance reform position. “‘The ACLU’s version of democracy is from the ground-up,’ one civil rights lawyer, David Gans, told the ACLU’s board, which was assembled downtown at One New York Plaza. ‘Now Exxon Mobil can spend 2% of its money and blow that all up.’

Here’s hoping the reformers win the day — or walk out CIO-style if they don’t. Imho, the stance that unlimited corporate funding of our elections is a right guaranteed by the First Amendment has always been the Achilles’ heel of an otherwise superb organization. I’m not a lawyer, but as far as I can tell, their reasoning relies on two unfortunate bugs in the legal code — corporate personhood and the conflation of money with speech — that they too often deem fundamental First Amendment principles. I would argue they’re not.

For why the former — corporate personhood — has obvious problems, just read Justice Stevens’ dissent from Thursday:

“The basic premise underlying the Court’s ruling is its iteration, and constant reiteration, of the proposition that the First Amendment bars regulatory distinctions based on a speaker’s identity, including its ‘identity; as a corporation. While that glittering generality has rhetorical appeal, it is not a correct statement of the law….

Although they make enormous contributions to our society, corporations are not actually members of it. They cannot vote or run for office. Because they may be managed and controlled by nonresidents, their interests may conflict in fundamental respects with the interests of eligible voters. The financial resources, legal structure,and instrumental orientation of corporations raise legitimate concerns about their role in the electoral process. Our lawmakers have a compelling constitutional basis, if not also a democratic duty, to take measures designed to guard against the potentially deleterious effects of corporate spending in local and national races.”

For the latter — the ruinous conflation of money and speech in Buckley v. Valeo — check out Stevens’ concurrence in Nixon v. Shrink Government Pact (2000), where he says how he’d come down if Buckley were reopened:

“In response to [Justice Kennedy’s] call for a new beginning, therefore, I make one simple point. Money is property; it is not speech.

Speech has the power to inspire volunteers to perform a multitude of tasks on a campaign trail, on a battleground, or even on a football field. Money, meanwhile, has the power to pay hired laborers to perform the same tasks. It does not follow, however, that the First Amendment provides the same measure of protection to the use of money to accomplish such goals as it provides to the use of ideas to achieve the same results…

Telling a grandmother that she may not use her own property to provide shelter to a grandchild — or to hire mercenaries to work in that grandchild’s campaign for public office — raises important constitutional concerns that are unrelated to the First Amendment.”

(See also Byron White’s concurrence in part in Buckley, which argues that “[n]othing in the First Amendment stands in the way of ” campaign finance limits.)

But somewhere along the line and for whatever reason, the ACLU latched on to both of these unwise shibboleths, and have since been arguing that corporate personhood and the idea of money as speech are both enshrined in the First Amendment. Uh…really?

To see what kind of damage these two bogus ideas have wrought, one need only to go over to Salon and read through Glenn Greenwald’s ugly meltdown on Citzens United the past few days. As anyone who visits GitM regularly knows, I link to Greenwald pretty much constantly. On a host of issues, from Obama’s terrible record on civil liberties to the broken-down state of our journalism, he’s been remarkably on point, and one of my favorite columnists to read. I used to wonder if there was anything I disagreed with him on. Well, it turns out, there is. And, apparently, I’m a “partisan hack” for thinking different.

For the Cliff Notes version of this whole conversation, I wrote up a snarky summation of it here yesterday, well after things had gone south. But, basically, Glenn — on “homework assignment” — argued on Friday that, all the negative consequences that will ensue aside, the Majority in Citizen’s United decided the case correctly, that this was a victory for the first amendment, and that people who disagree with their decision are practicing “outcome-based law.” (He also made the dubious and unprovable assertion that things can’t get any worse anyway. Really? We’ll see.)

Well, this assessment did not sit right with a lot of people. Some questioned his reading of the case. Others pointed out that law is always outcome-based, even the Majority’s ruling in Citizens. (The concerned outcome for Justice Kennedy here is that blogs might get banned someday, somehow, if this ruling isn’t made. I’ll take my chances.) And, others, such as myself, questioned these two principlescorporations are people, money is speech — that the ruling was based on.

Well, suffice to say, Greenwald did not take criticism well. He adamantly refused to engage either notionmoney isn’t speech, corporations aren’t people — as having any merit whatsoever, eventually trying to write off both with some dubious 1L hypotheticals. (All were answered to his disadvantage, several times over.) He went on to ridicule the folks who disagreed with him in a “check out the Big Brain on me” kinda way. (He argued his lawyerly creds just means he knows better.) He ignored Stevens’ actual dissent throughout. And he accused folks of being just like Dubya on torture for deigning to disagree with him on the decision.

This embarrassing conceit — those with disagree with me are Dubyaites, end of story — formed the extraordinarily condescending introduction of Greenwald’s follow-up to his first post. Still ignoring the legitimate criticisms people were making of the two assertions above — money=speech and corporations=people, Glenn instead pulled one line from Justice Stevens’ ninety pages of dissent to argue that all nine Justices agreed with both of these propositions. (This even though both Ginsburg and Sotomayor questioned the corporate personhood idea in oral arguments, and that Stevens explicitly said he did not agree with the money=speech proposition in Nixon v. Shrink, an argument Glenn would not touch.) As it turns out, the one line Glenn pulled from Stevens’ dissent proved neither assertion. Nonetheless, he returned to his shell, refusing to even consider the notion that “money=speech” or “corporations=people” might be lousy interpretations or legal accidents, or that they aren’t necessarily covered by the First Amendment.

When I shared the above ACLU story this morning, Greenwald blew another gasket:

“The ACLU has a long history of standing up to and defying people [like] you: those who pretend to believe in the Constitution and civil liberties only when it can be used as a weapon to advance your partisan and political agenda.

If they didn’t reverse themselves on the First Amendment rights of Nazis in the wake of huge numbers of people like you (those who only believe in the Constitution when it suits them) cutting off funding and leaving the organization, I highly doubt they will do so now….

But what has made the ACLU such an important and unique organization is that they have stood their ground on principle and resisted the efforts of people like you to turn it into a partisan tool rather than an organization devoted to the Constitution.”

I guess he figured I’d forget what “people like me” means from paragraph to paragraph. And, yes, y’all, I’ve been writing on politics and progressivism here for ten years because I’ve always wanted to subvert the Constitution to my own ends. And I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for that nasty Greenwald!

Anyway, when I then reminded Greenwald that people of principle can disagree on these issues, and that it may even be possible that the ACLU reformers might even be the right ones in this story, that’s when I got called an Orwellian partisan hack once more. (FWIW, here’s my kissoff. I particularly like “paddock of principle and certitude.”)

Throughout this whole back-and-forth, there was not even the remotest possibility that any other interpretation on these two questions had merit for Greenwald: Corporations have first amendment rights. Money is speech. Both are obviously enshrined in the First Amendment. And arguing anything else is ridiculous and deserving of scorn (even if Supreme Court justices have argued differently in the past, including as recently as Thursday.) So let it be written, so let it be done.

Uh…really? Who knows…perhaps it’s a lawyer thing. Nonetheless, this myopic, bullish way of thinking — I hold the only correct possible interpretation of the law, and you’re either with me or you’re with the Dubyaites — isn’t very satisfying on either personal or argumentative grounds. And Greenwald’s constant doubling down on his original argument, even as more and more holes were poked in it by various responders, makes me question not only his temperament but his writing in general. He usually provides a valuable public service, no doubt, but he seems to have bought into his own hype as an Incorruptible Defender of Liberty. If you can’t think outside of yourself once in awhile, or find some way to weigh arguments you may not necessarily agree with without deeming them unprincipled, you’re really not much use to anyone.

Update: Looks like Greenwald addressed this topic one more time this morning. Here’s what he said:

“‘Money is not speech’ is an idiot bumper sticker slogan, not a meaningful argument which resolves anything. ‘Corporations have no constitutional rights’ is such an extreme and dangerous position (it endorses the constitutionality of the FBI’s searching whatever corporate offices they want and seizing all corporate documents with no search warrants or probable cause, or the Congress’ imposing $10 million fines on corporations every time they criticize the government, among other things) that it’s frivolous in the extreme. Despite that, I spent substantial time all weekend addressing and responding to those frivolous bumper sticker slogans.

So there you have it. An “idiot bumper sticker slogan”…repeated verbatim by Justice Stevens in 2000. (And, for what it’s worth, Greenwald referred to civil rights lawyer David Kairys’ piece on these two questions, linked several times above, as “stupid and ill-informed.”) Class act, Glenn.

Lo, Here Comes the Flood.

“The Court today rejects a century of history when it treats the distinction between corporate and individual campaign spending as an invidious novelty born of Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U. S. 652 (1990). Relying largely on individual dissenting opinions, the majority blazes through our precedents, overruling or disavowing a body of case law…The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution.

Well, it was a nice republic while it lasted. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court finally hands down its Citzens United verdict, and it is ugly. [Full Text] Basically, the distinction between corporations and individuals has been erased, and, by the already dubious proposition that money is speech, unlimited corporate expenditures in campaigns is now just good, old-fashioned government. Welcome to the new Lochner era, y’all.

By the way, this is a much, much bigger deal than Scott Brown or the effing Edwards baby. Not that you’d know that from watching the news right now.

Update: More reactions:

Fred Wertheimer, Democracy 21: “Today’s Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case is a disaster for the American people and a dark day for the Supreme Court…With a stroke of the pen, five Justices wiped out a century of American history devoted to preventing corporate corruption of our democracy.

Bob Edgar, Common Cause: “The Roberts Court today made a bad situation worse. This decision allows Wall Street to tap its vast corporate profits to drown out the voice of the public in our democracy. The path from here is clear: Congress must free itself from Wall Street’s grip so Main Street can finally get a fair shake.

Robert Weissman, Public Citizen: “Shed a tear for our democracy…Money from Exxon, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer and the rest of the Fortune 500 is already corroding the policy making process in Washington, state capitals and city halls. Today, the Supreme Court tells these corporate giants that they have a constitutional right to trample our democracy.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI): “[T]his decision was a terrible mistake. Presented with a relatively narrow legal issue, the Supreme Court chose to roll back laws that have limited the role of corporate money in federal elections since Teddy Roosevelt was president. Ignoring important principles of judicial restraint and respect for precedent, the Court has given corporate money a breathtaking new role in federal campaigns. Just six years ago, the Court said that the prohibition on corporations and unions dipping into their treasuries to influence campaigns was ‘firmly embedded in our law.’ Yet this Court has just upended that prohibition, and a century’s worth of campaign finance law designed to stem corruption in government. The American people will pay dearly for this decision when, more than ever, their voices are drowned out by corporate spending in our federal elections.

President Obama: “With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is 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. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington–while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That’s why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less.

Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick: “Even former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once warned that treating corporate spending as the First Amendment equivalent of individual free speech is ‘to confuse metaphor with reality.’ Today that metaphor won a very real victory at the Supreme Court. And as a consequence some very real corporations are feeling very, very good.

Like Ma Bell, We Got the Ill Communication.

“The FBI illegally collected more than 2,000 U.S. telephone call records between 2002 and 2006 by invoking terrorism emergencies that did not exist or simply persuading phone companies to provide records, according to internal bureau memos and interviews. FBI officials issued approvals after the fact to justify their actions.”

The WP’s John Solomon and Carrie Johnson report on widespread phone record abuse at the FBI. What’s particularly galling here, if I’m reading this right, is that the law they were breaking seems to be a loophole-ridden statute in the Patriot Act included mainly as a fig leaf, but even that weak tea was too much for them to abide by. For shame.

Brownian Motion.

So, slow news evening, eh?

Well, first off, thanks, Massachusetts! To my many friends from the Bay State, I say this: Speaking as a son of South Carolina, I never, ever want to get the “you-hicks-are-keeping-us-back” routine from y’all again, thanks much.

So, yes, Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat. And thus, in a truly bitter irony, a man who spent his life trying to achieve health care reform for all Americans has now been replaced by a guy sworn to kill the health care bill and armed with the 41st vote(?) that could potentially make it happen. (Yes, Virginia, it’s true. In our system, 41 > 59.) Well, in Brown’s defense, he has a nice truck.

Why did this happen? Well, everybody has a theory. Here’s mine, which boils down to two reasons.

1. Martha Coakley. I didn’t watch enough of the MA race to determine if she was a lousy candidate through-and-through, although I have my suspicions. Nonetheless, Ms. Coakley was undeniably a gaffe-prone standard-bearer. From calling Curt Schilling a Yankee to misspelling the name of the state in a political ad to, weirdly, insulting the very idea of glad-handing in public, Coakley was an out-and-out gaffe machine. Couple that with a lackadaisical campaign and the inexplicable decision to take an extended vacation in the heat of the race, and you have a recipe for disaster. There’s a reason we’ve been telling the story of the Tortoise and the Hare for a couple thousand years now.

2. Change. In fending off Rahm Emanuel’s charge that she’s at fault for this fiasco, pollster Celinda Lake aptly summed up the main problem here: ““If Scott Brown wins tonight he’ll win because he became the change-oriented candidate. Voters are still voting for the change they voted for in 2008, but they want to see it.” Put another way: All across the country, the current occupants of the White House tapped into a deep and strongly-felt yearning for a transformative presidency in 2008…and then spent pretty much the entirety of their first-year in office playing the same old tired in-the-Beltway reindeer games that made people ill in the first place. This is not change voters believed in, and it has made voters angry, or depressed, or both.

Equally demoralizing is the neverending spectacle of a stalled-out health care bill. If I’d hazard a guess, most voters aren’t really delving into the ins and outs of this all-consuming debate, particularly by Month Eight or whatever it is. But they can see just from casually following along that the Democrats are really struggling to get this done, that the White House has been letting the bill get bogged down and eviscerated in the Senate — first in August, and again in November/December — and that, from the Big Pharma deal to the disappearing public option to all of the Lieberman/Stupak/Nelson/Snowe shenanigans on display, the usual Washington rules are in full effect right now. Once again, this is not change people can believe in. With each passing month that the bill has languished, we Dems have looked weaker and weaker. And if you continually force voters to choose between venal and incompetent, they’ll tend to gravitate toward the former.

Now, the good news: 1. First, and this cannot be stressed enough, we have an 18-seat majority in the Senate. It’s 59-41 people…most presidents can only dream of having that kind of majority, Dubya included. So there’s really no good reason — none, zip, zero — that we shouldn’t see more progressive accomplishments from this administration in the year to come. It just takes an act of will. I don’t remember the Republicans getting all kerfuffled about operating with 51 votes. Nor did Hubert Humphrey and the Johnson Senate have any problem with blithely ignoring the Senate parliamentarian when it got in the way of legislation.

2. It’s January of 2010, i.e. almost a full year before the “real” election day. In other words, this Brown victory is really just a shot across the bow. And if the administration course-corrects now, we may even end up gaining a year in time — and several seats we might well have lost — had this lazy centrist drift continued on until next November.

Of course, that’s only good news if the administration and the Democratic Party draw the right lessons from yesterday’s defeat. Suffice to say, this afternoon, it does not look good: Enabled, as usual, by the Serious People™ who comprise the broken-down wreck we once called beltway journalism, all the usual suspects are currently blaming Coakley’s loss on “the Left,” or more specifically the hippie-liberal cast of Obama’s administration thus far. Uh, say what now?

It’s hard to answer this ridiculous charge any better than did the estimable Glenn Greenwald this afternoon: “‘In what universe must someone be living to believe that the Democratic Party is controlled by ‘the Left,’ let alone ‘the furthest left elements” of the Party? As Ezra Klein says, the Left ‘ha[s] gotten exactly nothing they wanted in recent months’….The very idea that an administration run by Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel and staffed with centrists, Wall Street mavens, and former Bush officials — and a Congress beholden to Blue Dogs and Lieberdems — has been captive ‘to the Left’ is so patently false that everyone should be too embarrassed to utter it.

Truer words and all that. If we want to stop seeing these sorts of Brownian upsets in the future, the answer is emphatically not to curl up within the usual GOP-lite protective camouflage and hope the flak dies down. People see through that malarkey immediately. (As Harry Truman is rumored to have said, “In an election between a Republican and a Republican, the Republican wins every time.“) No, the answer is to move forward from this point with the courage of our convictions, and to start delivering to American families the real and fundamental change they were promised a year ago. It’s just that simple, folks.

The Trouble With Harry.

“Mr. Ford spoke about his childhood in Memphis, describing a grandmother who used the extension cords from living room lamps to discipline him and his brother. ‘I am always amazed when I meet parents who say they can’t get their kids to go to church, ’cause I didn’t know kids had options like that…Later, he returned to the subject: ‘We as a nation need to be disciplined. If there were ever a day in which an electric cord ought to be used on all of us to remind us of what’s good, what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong, it’s on the King holiday.'”

Speaking of exactly the direction Dems don’t need to go after yesterday’s’ Massachusetts thumping, consider Harold Ford, who (with some not-insubstantial Wall Street prodding) has up and decided he wants to be the Senator from New York, and who, among his many, many other faults, cannot seem to wrap his mind around either the basic fundamentals of capitalism or Dr. King’s doctrine of non-violence.

As I said on Twitter the other day, Harold Ford may not represent *everything* that’s wrong with the Dems, because we’ve got lots of problems right now. But he’s darn close.

Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammo.

“‘This is probably the best example of violation of the separation of church and state in this country,’ said Weinstein. ‘It’s literally pushing fundamentalist Christianity at the point of a gun against the people that we’re fighting. We’re emboldening an enemy.'”

I like Saving Private Ryan as much as the next guy, but this, in a word, is ridicky-goddamn-diculous. Apparently, our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are routinely outfitted with sniper rifles etched with New Testament verse. “Trijicon confirmed to ABCNews.com that it adds the biblical codes to the sights sold to the U.S. military. Tom Munson, director of sales and marketing for Trijicon…said the inscriptions ‘have always been there’ and said there was nothing wrong or illegal with adding them. Munson said the issue was being raised by a group that is ‘not Christian.’

Newsflash: Given that we’re currently engaged in multiple wars and are strongly trying to avoid any appearance of being involved in any sort of anti-Muslim Crusade, arming our soldiers with “Jesus rifles” and crafting bible-thumping war reports for the Commander-in-Chief isn’t just catastrophically stupid. It’s basically writing the Al Qaeda recruiting posters for them.

Update: Also, “They started it!” is not an appropriate response to this dismal revelation.

Update 2: Trijicon stands down — Jesus rifles are hereby discontinued, most likely because of quotes like these: “General David Petraeus also addressed the scopes this morning, calling the matter ‘disturbing and a serious concern for me.‘”

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