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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Tasers, Electro-shock in the courtroom and "Don't do stupid stuff"

by digby

I've got some pieces up today in other venues you might be interested in checking out. (I guess I've been busy ...)

Over at Salon I discuss a terrible case of a judge ordering a defendant who is representing himself in court to be zapped with an electronic bracelet he was wearing --- for making an argument the judge doesn't like:

“Stop,” Judge Nalley said.

“… principles of common right and common reason are …” King said.

“Mr. Sheriff … ” Nalley said

“… null and void,” King continued.

“… do it,” Nalley ordered. “Use it.”


That’s a passage from a transcript of a trial in a Maryland courtroom last week in which a judge ordered a deputy sheriff to administer electroshock to a defendant who was representing himself in a case before him. The defendant was not charging the bench or threatening violence in any way. He was simply saying things the judge did not want to hear.

For unknown reasons, this defendant had been outfitted with an electronic device, presumably something having to do with the fact that he was representing himself and would be moving freely about the courtroom. When he asserted some dicey “sovereign citizen” legal doctrine, the judge told him to stop and when he didn’t, the judge ordered the deputy to shock him. He fell to the ground, screaming in pain, and after he was calm a medic was called to make sure his vital signs were OK. Then they went back to jury selection as if nothing had happened. The defendant, as you might imagine, was somewhat subdued after the electroshock treatment.

Apparently charging him with contempt wouldn't have sufficed.

Over at BillMoyers.com Joshua Holland published an interview I did with him about tasers and the new generation of crowd control devices.

And finally, here are some thoughts I jotted down for The New York Times' discussion group Room for Debate about President Obama's "Don't do Stupid Stuff" Doctrine. (I'm for it ...)


Should Obama just issue those executive orders?

by digby

Brian Beutler makes a good point about the administration's apparent decision to put off its immigration executive orders until after the election:
The political drawbacks of immediate action are overstated. The best political argument I can think of for waiting until after the midterms is that it’d place immigration and deportation right back at the center of the national policy debate just as the political media turns its exclusive attention to the 2016 election and the GOP primary. But Republican presidential hopefuls are making disqualifying statements about immigration right now, all on their own, and will continue to do so whether Obama acts in the fall or in the winter.
Beutler thinks the administration should just do it now and I think he's probably right that doing it earlier rather than later won't make a difference. But that means that it is also unlikely to help, which greatly influences such a decision in the September before an election. (I also can see the logic in saying, "for a couple of months difference, why take the chance?")  In any case, I can understand why the administration would not want to be blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the loss of the Senate because they refused to hold off on some executive orders until after the election.

There are only two months to go.  As long as they do issue the orders soon after the election it's hard to see it as a serious betrayal. As long as they do issue those orders ....
QOTD: An ignorant creep

by digby

Ted Cruz's daddy lecturing African Americans on their own history:
“I said, as a matter of fact, ‘Did you know that Civil Rights legislation was passed by Republicans? It was passed by a Republican Senate under the threat of a filibuster by the Democrats,’” Cruz said. “‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ And then I said, ‘Did you know that every member of the Ku Klux Klan were Democrats from the South?’ ‘Oh I didn’t know that.’ You know, they need to be educated.”
Somebody needs to be educated but it's not African Americans.

This truly is the stupidest right wing trope out there, and that's saying something. This silly thing ran over the week-end on the same subject.I don't know if they're idiots or think everyone else is an idiot but the idea that black people don't understand that the parties switched places-- due to civil rights! -- in the 1960's and 1970's is mind-boggling.

Here's a little friendly reminder of how the pre-eminent Republican strategist of the Reagan years explained the Southern Strategy and the evolution of the GOP on these issues:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

And here's the President of the United States in 1965 exhorting the Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. A little hint: he wasn't a Republican:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, Members of the Congress:

I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy.

I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.

At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.

There, long-suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many were brutally assaulted. One good man, a man of God, was killed.

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our democracy in what is happening here tonight.

For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great Government—the Government of the greatest Nation on earth.

Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.

In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.

The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

For with a country as with a person, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” ...
I don't think a Republican would have said this either:

Somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child.

I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country.

But now I do have that chance—and I’ll let you in on a secret—I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.

This is the richest and most powerful country which ever occupied the globe. The might of past empires is little compared to ours. But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion.

I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be taxpayers instead of taxeaters.

I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election.

I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties.

I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth...

By the way, Republican avatar Ronald Reagan opposed every major piece of civil rights legislation adopted by Congress, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. But he was cheery about it.

I know this is overkill. It's obvious to any sentient being that the racist Southerners who had been Democrats out of tradition stemming from the Civil War were disillusioned and adrift once the leadership of the Democratic Party endorsed civil rights for African Americans. And anyone with a 6th grade education knows that the Republicans then took advantage of that opening and grabbed on to that racist faction with both hands. Maybe Ted Cruz's daddy really doesn't know that. Somebody should tell him. He sounds like a fool.

Yearning for ancient power

by digby

This piece in the New Republic explains why ISIS is so barbaric. They are throwbacks to over a thousand years ago:
In June 29, 2014—or the first of Ramadan, 1435, for those who prefer the Islamic calendar to the Gregorian—the leaders of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) publicly uttered for the first time a word that means little to the average Westerner, but everything to some pious Muslims. The word is “caliph.” ISIS’s proclamation that day formally hacked the last two letters from its acronym (it’s now just “The Islamic State”) and declared Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, born Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarrai, the Caliph of all Muslims and the Prince of the Believers. For Muslims of a certain hyper-antiquarian inclination, these titles are not mere nomenclature. ISIS’s meticulous use of language, and its almost pedantic adherence to its own interpretation of Islamic law, have made it a strange enemy, fierce and unyielding but also scholarly and predictable. The Islamic State obsesses over words like “caliph” (Arabic: khalifa) and “caliphate” (khilafa), and news reports and social media from within ISIS have depicted frenzied chants of “The Caliphate is established!” The entire self-image and propaganda narrative of the Islamic State is based on emulating the early leaders of Islam, in particular the Prophet Muhammad and the four “rightly guided caliphs” who led Muslims from Muhammad’s death in 632 until 661. Within the lifetimes of these caliphs, the realm of Islam spread like spilled ink to the farthest corners of modern-day Iran and coastal Libya, despite small and humble origins.

Muslims consider that period a golden age and some, called Salafis, believe the military and political practices of its statesmen and warriors—barbaric by today’s standards but acceptable at the time—deserve to be revived. Hence ISIS’s taste for beheadings, stonings, crucifixions, slavery, and dhimmitude, the practice of taxing those who refuse to convert to Islam.

Well, they certainly are doing a good job of freaking out the West with this return to the dark ages. It would be very wise if the west resisted their provocations and kept things in perspective. This method of execution is meant to be barbaric and horrifying. But the fact is that journalists in war zones and other chaotic environments have a very dangerous job and are far too often victims of violence:

The annual toll of journalists killed in connection with their work was again very high in 2013, although this year’s number, 71, was a slight fall (-20%) on last year’s, according to the latest round-up of freedom of information violations that Reporters Without Borders issues every year.

There was also a big increase (+129%) in abductions and the overall level of violations affecting news providers continued to be very high.

“Combatting impunity must be a priority for the international community, given that we are just days away from the 7th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1738 on the safety of journalists and that there have been new international resolutions on the protection of journalists,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

The regions with the largest numbers of journalists killed in connection with their work were Asia (with 24) and the Middle East and North Africa (with 23). The number of journalists killed in sub-Saharan Africa fell sharply, from 21 in 2012 to 10 in 2013 – due to the fall in the number of deaths in Somalia (from 18 in 2012 to 7 in 2013). Latin America saw a slight fall (from 15 in 2012 to 12 in 2013).

Syria, Somalia and Pakistan retained their position among the world’s five deadliest countries for the media (see below). They were joined this year by India and the Philippines, which replaced Mexico and Brazil, although the number of journalists killed in Brazil, five, was the same as last year. Two journalists were killed in Mexico, while three others disappeared. The return of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to power and new government pressure on the media contributed to a sharp increase in self-censorship in Mexico. An increase in self-censorship was probably also the reason for the fall in the number of journalists killed in other countries.

39% of the deaths occurred in conflicts zones, defined as Syria, Somalia, Mali, the Indian province of Chhattisgarh, the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the Russian republic of Dagestan. The other journalists were killed in bombings, by armed groups linked to organized crime (including drug trafficking), by Islamist militias, by police or other security forces, or on the orders of corrupt officials.

Of the 71 journalists killed in 2013, 37% worked for the print media, 30% for radio stations, 30% for TV and 3% for news websites. The overwhelming majority of the victims (96%) were men.

The number of journalists killed in connection with their work in 2013 fell by 20% compared with 2012, but 2012 was an “exceptionally deadly” year with a total of 88 killed. The numbers were 67 in 2011, 58 in 2010 and 75 in 2009. The fall in 2013 was also offset by an increase in physical attacks and threats by security forces and non-state actors. Journalists were systematically targeted by the security forces in Turkey, in connection with the Gezi Park protests, and to a lesser extent in Ukraine, in connection with the Independence Square (“Maidan”) protests.

None of that is offered by way of excusing ISIS or not recognizing the particular horror of these deaths. But it's important to realize that these people are using these acts as propaganda and recruiting devices as much as fulfilling some demented plan to go back to the 7th century.


Nixon Wouldn't have Authorized Torture, Suggests John Dean
by Spocko

I asked John Dean a few questions about his new book, The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It, during a Book Salon at Firedoglake.

1) After listening to hundreds hours of all conversations did President "Sock it to me" Nixon tell any good jokes? Were they dirty? Racist or sexist? His answer was, "Bottom line: Richard Nixon had almost no sense of humor whatsoever." My suspicion, confirmed!

2) What did he think Cheney and Rumsfeld learned from the Watergate Scandal? His reply:
Rumsfeld and Cheney volunteered to help Nixon when he was sinking, but Nixon did not trust Rumsfeld (he didn’t know Cheney). Needless to say, it is pure speculation as to what Rummy and Dick “learned” from Watergate. I gave my views on the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld presidency in “Worse Than Watergate,” explaining how they imposed secrecy way beyond Nixon. This was how they got away with blatant violations of law that make Watergate look like little league. I am not sure that Richard Nixon in one of his darkest moods would have authorized torture!
That last sentence surprised me. So I asked for more insight.
What would Nixon’s reasons have been for not torturing people? Was he close enough to WWII and the Nuremberg trials to remember war crimes? Was it about American ideals? Religious ideals? Did he not have a John Yoo writing legal memos for him?
John Dean August 30th, 2014 at 4:58 pm
In response to spocko @ 114 (show text)
Nixon served in the South Pacific during WWII, and was familiar with the horrors of Japanese torture, so I cannot believe he would have lowered the USA to tolerate such horrific behavior. With foreign policy, Nixon seemed to understand what today we call “blow-back” and that by our engaging in torture he would expose Americans soldiers (if not all Americans) to torture, just as we are seeing with Americans being captured by ISIL. Bush/Cheney have subjected any and every American kidnapped or captured to torture by the likes of ISIL. It is a decision that is going to haunt us and the world for untold decades.
Had the Book Salon not ended, my next question to Dean would have been, "How did we go from Nixon's views on torture and why he understood it was wrong, to Cheney being proud of 'enhanced interrogation' techniques? Also, why won't Obama's admission, 'We tortured some folks.' lead to prosecution?" Maybe another interviewer will ask Dean this or Digby's friend Rick Perlstein can take a crack at answering the question.

The answer to this question could probably fill several books, luckily I just happened to read a great one that helps explain part of it. Rebecca Gordon has a new book out called Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post - 9/11 United States. Gordon walks the reader through the problem, how we think and talk about torture and how institutionalized state torture is carried out by the United States.

I tend to get very worked up when talking about torture, so much so that it gets in the way of my conversation at parties. "Look out, Spocko wants to talk about torture accountability and the Taguba report again, hide!" Fortunately for me, Mrs. Spocko knows I have this interest, and she bought me Gordon's book for my birthday. She also knows that understanding isn't enough for me, I want to do something about the problem.

Fortunately, unlike a number of books that are great at describing the problem, this book has some suggestions on what to do about it in the short, medium and long term. She also emphasizes the personal importance of individuals doing something about torture. In my case I started pushing back at the torture supporters on right wing radio.

If we look at why Nixon, one of our nastier Presidents, didn't authorize overt torture, but other Presidents did, we might see how it was made acceptable and then develop and reestablish the ethical, intellectual, legal and practical reasons to stop it.
"I have often thought that the entire content of this book could be expressed in five words: Torture is wrong. Stop it." --Rebecca Gordon, Mainstreaming Torture
But can we really stop it? Isn't the water out of the water-boarding bucket forever?

See no Torture, Say no Torture

This weekend was the 10th anniversary of the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. The New York Times thinks we should release the other photos. Remember when they first came out? The RW media went on the air to defend the torture. Rush Limbaugh, "... I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?"

Besides redefining torture for their base, they influenced the mainstream media, who react to their extremist views. Since the RW media did not categorically denounce torture, it opened up the discussion to the answer the MSM loves to give. "The truth" is "somewhere in the middle."

Gordon calls this obfuscating technique used by the pro-torture people "rhetorical denial," I call it lying BS. When RW media stars say it's not torture but "enhanced interrogation" listeners believe them. After all, they both hate the same people. But when a journalistic entity like The New York Times won't call it torture either, that's a huge linguistic win for Bush/Cheney. As Rush might say, "Even the drive-by media won't call it torture!"

I think declassifying the other Abu Ghraib photos and correcting the deceitful linguistic phrase "enhanced interrogation" are important steps on the path to accountability. But the intellectual authors of torture have still avoided accountability. They have convinced millions of Americans that preventing terrorist attacks sometimes requires torture.

  • How pathetic is it that our best legal minds can't deconstruct and invalidate Bybee's and Yoo's arguments? (Or at least figure out a way to cut into their post-WH speaking fees?) 
  • How sad is it that our fiction writers lazily continue to use torture as a tension-creating plot device? 
  • How disgusting is it that the RW media infected not only their base, but mainstream thinking that torture is necessary and to not torture is "recklessness clothed in righteousness."
Many people see Nixon's resignation as a branching point in history. However, perhaps it's Ford’s pardon, rather than Nixon’s resignation, that is the branching point. The decision to not prosecute means justice has not been served. How often in the Obama administration has prosecution been taken off the table? What would it take to put it back on?

John Dean's refusal to go along with the cover up was very courageous. In the book Gordon talks about courageous people in El Salvador and Chile who stood up to torturers. It doesn't require that level of bravery here in the US, but it will require pushing against some newly accepted notions of what "must be done" to stay safe.

How are we currently standing up to the people who created, participated in and are currently defending our state institutionalized torture? Do we challenge the creators in the CIA? The intellectual authors? The torturers in the field? The people engaging in BS lying and building consensus that torture is necessary for safety? Our current President?

Last week I wrote about a CEO who kicked a dog which generated international outrage. We can learn a lot from that event including the need to be creative when challenging powerful people. The next time a reason is given why we can't close Gitmo or we can't prosecute the intellectual authors of torture I'd like people to think, "Is there some creative route to justice I can make happen?" Can that cop TV drama I am writing include a scene that doesn't involve torture? Might I challenge some "rhetorical denial" in my own backyard?

I know it's not a lot of fun to read about torture. I'd much rather read the funniest jokes that came out of the Nixon White House, but it looks like there aren't any. Plus, I'm tired of living in fear. I don't want to look to Nixon (!) to see and remember what an American President's attitude toward torture should be. There are steps we can take, so let's take them so we will not be, "worse than Nixon"

cross posted to Spocko's Brain,

Taint that a shame

by digby

So Grover Norquist went to Burning Man to troll for libertarian converts to Republicanism. And he learned a lot:

As we stroll past rows of parked RVs on Gold Street, we pass a large tent that advertises “Free Taint Washes.” A man approaches us from inside, carrying a jug of water with a misting attachment.

“Would you like a spray?” the man asks.

“Not today,” Norquist says.

The man smiles. “Well, would you like a taint wash?”

Norquist has been at Burning Man for less than a day, but he’s already learning lots of new things — including the word taint, which, after a moment of confusion, he asks me to define. (Hmm, how to put this to the godfather of modern American conservatism?) Sheepishly, I inform him that it’s the colloquial term for the patch of skin between the genitals and the anus, properly known as the perineum. People call it the taint, I say, because it taint one part and it taint the other, either.

“Okay, I did not know that,” Norquist says. “Is that a recent slang?”

Are you as anxious for the Stephen Colbert treatment of this story as I am?

You can read more about Grover's Big Adventure from Elias Isquith here.


Blue America contest for civil liberties, progressive leadership (and valuable Fleetwood Mac memorabilia!)

by digby

This letter from me went out to Blue America members this morning:

One of the advantages of being a Blue State politician has to be the fact that an authentic progressive has a chance to push some real progressive legislation and take bold steps in certain policy areas that might be considered too risky in places dominated by conservatives. Sadly, it happens less than we might hope. Far too many officials get elected on a progressive platform and then go to the state capital or Washington and immediately succumb to the pressures of the corporate and establishment status quo. 
All of us at Blue America think Ted is exactly the kind of progressive leader we need more of in Washington. If you donate today, you could own Howie's own copy of Fleetwood Mac's quadruple platinum record for "The Dance."
That's why Blue America is so excited about California State Senator Ted Lieu, who is running to succeed California's long time fighting liberal, Henry Waxman. You don't have to comb through Lieu's record to find clues as to how he will vote in the US Congress. His record in Sacramento is one of bold progressive leadership
In fact, as his final act as a State Senator on the last day of the session last week, Ted Lieu wrote and passed a directive to the state government of California to not cooperate with any unconstitutional attempts at domestic spying by the NSA, CIA or any other government operations legally prohibited from spying on American citizens. You don't get any bolder than that.

It was quite a final session for Senator Lieu. Earlier in the week the San Jose Mercury News thanked Senator Lieu for "riding to the rescue" on the issue of children in California's foster care system being over-drugged with psychotropic medications that haven't been tested on kids. Last month he led legislative efforts to target child sex traffickers and it passed unanimously. 
But then Lieu has been leading this way since he first went to Sacramento. Long before anyone else had an inkling that something was rotten in the home mortgage market, Lieu pressed for legislation to rein in mortgage bankers --- and when he was thwarted by Democrat Gray Davis he kept trying until the Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it. He doesn't let much stop him.

And that's undoubtedly why Newt Gingrich's sugar-daddy, the megabucks GOP donor Sheldon Adelson has pledged to swoop in to this very expensive California media market to help Lieu's Republican opponent. This is a Democratic district and all things being fair and up front we would have Lieu winning easily in a rout. But when have Republicans been fair and up-front? It's very likely that Lieu will be the subject of a barrage of dishonest propaganda that our current Citizens United environment is very difficult to rebut without a large campaign chest.

All of us at Blue America think Ted is exactly the kind of progressive leader we need more of in Washington and we want to do what we can to help. 
Howie even agreed to let his valuable quadruple platinum award for Fleetwood Mac's album "The Dance" --- the 5th biggest selling live album in music history --- go to one fortunate, randomly-selected Ted Lieu donor this week. This isn't just any platinum album --- it's one that hung in Howie's Reprise Records office until he retired and donated it to Blue America. As he says,
In many ways Fleetwood Mac's sound is an integral part of the Southern California lifestyle and perfect for Ted's district, where several of the band members live.
As it happens, I live there too --- and John is just down the road. This race is close to all our hearts.

All you have to do is contribute to Ted's campaign on this ActBlue page and you will qualify for the random drawing. (And, if you're a big Fleetwood Mac fan but can't make contribution, send us a postcard-- asap-- and tell us you're rooting for Ted and want the plaque.)

The contest will run for just one week so be sure to enter as soon as possible. Remember, it doesn't matter if you donate a dollar or thousand dollars you have an equal chance to have your name drawn. Whether you are lucky enough to win the plaque or not, we will all be winners if Ted Lieu goes to Washington and takes up where Henry Waxman left off.

We need representatives from these deep blue districts to be stellar progressives who will challenge the status quo in Washington and take the leadership roles that those who come from less liberal districts are too afraid to take. Ted Lieu is one of those stellar progressives. He is worth our support.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Navel gazing about November

by digby

Sam Wang at Princeton Election Consortium thinks the Democrats are going to hold the Senate:

In most cases, added assumptions (i.e. special sauce) have led the media organizations to different win probabilities — which I currently believe are wrong....The major media organizations (NYT, WaPo, 538)...all use prior conditions like incumbency, candidate experience, funding, and the generic Congressional ballot to influence their win probabilities — and opinion polls.

....Longtime readers of PEC will not be surprised to know that I think the media organizations are making a mistake. It is nearly Labor Day. By now, we have tons of polling data. Even the stalest poll is a more direct measurement of opinion than an indirect fundamentals-based measure. I demonstrated this point in 2012, when I used polls only to forecast the Presidency and all close Senate races. That year I made no errors in Senate seats, including Montana (Jon Tester) and North Dakota (Heidi Heitkamp), which FiveThirtyEight got wrong.

Kevin Drum wrote about thisand said that all his instincts say this is wrong and that the Republicans are going to take over. I have to say my instincts are saying the opposite. I'd guess the Democrats will lose a couple of seats overall (and might pick at least one up in Georgia or Kentucky) but will keep control.

But here's why my instincts might be off: I don't care that much. It's almost inevitable that if the Democrats lose the Senate they will get it back in 2 years when a ton of seats are up that favor them. I don't see that the GOP taking over will alter the status quo much. I recognize that a lot of people are nervous about Obama caving to GOP demands, but honestly, they're so nuts at this point that I really doubt it. It's not as if they're going to craft elegant, sophisticated legislation that's designed to entice Obama to walk the tightrope that's holding the Democratic coalition together. They are juvenile bomb throwers who will make it easy for Obama to just say no.

And if anyone's worried about Supreme Court Justices, let's just recognize that it's highly unlikely Obama will get to appoint any more of them --- and if he does, it's unlikely they'll be confirmed. If one of the Justices retires in the next two years I'm fairly sure they'll keep the seat vacant until the next president takes office.

Obviously, I don't think it will be a good thing for Republicans to win the Senate. But I'm not fretting about it. They've already shown they are perfectly capable of obstructing the Democratic agenda from one House of congress. A Senate majority is just gilding the lily.


Keep calm and carry on

by digby

Via Buzzfeed from yesterday:
A message has gone viral claiming that there is a high likelihood of a terrorist attack on London’s underground network on Monday morning and all London police officers have been called in to a special 4 a.m. shift.

Wow. That sounds really scary. Except it wasn't true.
But a Metropolitan Police spokesman told BuzzFeed the text message is “completely untrue” and no extra officers are coming in early.

The Met, which is responsible for policing the capital, say they have a policy of not normally commenting on hoaxes for fear of encouraging more. But they felt this particular message had reached such a wide audience they had to issue a public denial.

The London boss of the British Transport Police, the law enforcement body that looks after the tube network, has hit out at such “rumours”.

I can see why the Brits are nervous. The government issued a scary warning on Friday. And since it's clear that some of these ISIL members are British I'd guess they feel more vulnerable than usual. But it isn't the Battle of Britain.

I feel as if we're going back to that place we were a decade ago when the fear of 9/11 excited people into a frenzy that led them to some very bad judgment. I get that governments have to warn their people of these threats and they should. But the people shouldn't allow themselves to be overstimulated by it. The old British trope, however stale and over-exploited it's been in the past few years -- is still a good one:

Just kidding ...

Charts 'O the Day

by digby

Here's a nice short labor day piece by Ezra Klein about unions and capitalism (including a thoughtful quote by Rich Yeselson.)  You can click over to read it but I thought I'd just share the charts:

Far be it from me to suggest that the continuing campaign to destroy unions in America has contributed to income inequality. But let's keep on bashing them! It's so much fun.

Big Brother is paranoid

by digby

Ok, we're officially a depraved, paranoid society. A man was taking pictures of his daughters on the ferry as the family went on vacation. He's been doing that every year since they were little. Now they are teenagers:
Totally engaged with the scene in front of me, I jumped when a man came up beside me and said to my daughters: “I would be remiss if I didn’t ask if you were okay.”

At first none of us understood what he was talking about. His polite tone and tourist attire of shorts, polo shirt and baseball cap threw us off. It took me a moment to figure out what he meant, but then it hit me: He thought I might be exploiting the girls, taking questionable photos for one of those “Exotic Beauties Want to Meet You!” Web sites or something just as unseemly. When I explained to my daughters what he was talking about, they were understandably confused. I told the man I was their father. He quickly apologized and turned away. But that perfect moment was ruined, and our annual photo shoot was over. (Only after we arrived at our rented condo did I find out I had gotten a great shot.)

As I was telling my wife what had happened, I saw the man again, scanning the horizon with his binoculars. The more I thought about what he had said, the more upset I became. My wife and I, both white, adopted our two daughters in China when they were infants. Over the years, as a transracial family, we have often gotten strange looks and intrusive questions from strangers, but nothing like this. Yet part of me understood what he was seeing: Here was this middle-aged white guy taking lots of pictures of two beautiful, young Asian women.

Would this man have approached us, I wondered, if I had been Asian, like my children, or if my daughters had been white? No, I didn’t think so. I knew I’d regret not going back to speak to him about what had happened. My wife warned me I might be asking for trouble, but I reassured her that I would be fine.

I walked outside to where he was standing and calmly said: “Excuse me, sir, but you just embarrassed me in front of my children and strangers. And what you said was racist.”

The man didn’t seem at all fazed. He replied: “I work for the Department of Homeland Security. And let me give you some advice: You were standing there taking photos of them hugging for 15 minutes.”
A couple of things: it's bad enough that we've become so paranoid that a man taking pictures of teen age girls is automatically a sign of a pedophile at worst and a dirty old man at best. The girls were hugging because they are sisters. It says more about this man's turn of mind than it does about anything these people were doing. They were, after all, on a public ferry. Anyone with a normal thought process would not automatically suspect porn or trafficking in that situation. This says something about the way we have puritanically sexualized everything in this culture.

And then we have the fact that this is an undercover "Homeland Security" officer saying "let me give you some advice, you were standing there taking photos of them hugging for 15 minutes" as if that's a suspicious act in itself that's bound to get the attention of authorities. I don't think the people have been made aware that the government finds this sort of thing a cause for intervention.

I appreciate the fact that we are concerned about human trafficking but this strikes me as absurdly intrusive. As the author of the piece points out, there were many ways to approach this if the agent felt it required further investigation. (For instance, he could have engaged them in a normal conversation and found out quite readily that they were a family.) But once again we see this authoritarian mentality encroaching on daily life in America wherein we see police everywhere, in various guises, looking over our shoulders, asserting their authority, making themselves known in small ways and large.

We always had aggressive cops in this country and they've always been willing to stretch the meaning of the bill of rights. But this sense of them being everywhere, seen and unseen, is new. And it's chilling.

As California goes, let's hope the rest follow

by digby

Good news for anyone who eats in restaurants in California:

Early on Saturday morning, the California Senate passed a bill guaranteeing at least three paid sick days a year for about 6.5 million workers, sending it to Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Brown’s office said it supports the bill, and in a statement after it passed he said, “Tonight, the Legislature took historic action to help hardworking Californians.” Assuming he signs the bill, California will become just the second state ever to guarantee paid sick leave and the law will be the tenth in the nation.

The bill would require employers to provide sick leave to employees who work 30 or more days within a year, allowing them to accrue at least one hour for every 30 they put in. Currently, about 44 percent of the state’s workers don’t have access to a single paid day off if they or a family member gets sick.

I will never in a million years understand why employers insist that their employees come to work sick. They can't work efficiently, they infect their co-workers and if it's a job working with the public or for the public, they can infect their customers. It's ridiculous.

California just took a step toward making paid sick days compulsory. On Labor Day week-end no less. We're not perfect here in the land of fruits and nuts, God knows. But sometimes we're pretty good.

(I have another idea --- how about neighborhood clinics like they have in Japan where anyone can get looked at on a walk-in basis. That way employers could even insure that their employees aren't malingering. Awesome for everyone, right?)

Why labor day?

by digby

There are a lot of good reads around the internet on the subject today. (Here are a couple from Ed Kilgore and Ian Milhiser.)

I thought I'd just share this clip from Barbara Kopple's ground breaking documentary Harlan County USA:

Here's Kopple from a couple of years ago talking about the film. Very interesting discussion.

Enjoy your day off all you 99 Percenters. You deserve it.


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Not everything in life is horrible

by digby

Of course it isn't.  A whole lot of it is wonderful. But it's at times like these we might need a little reminder.  Here's one:

Seen here at just seven weeks old, San Diego Zoo Safari Park's Cheetah cub is getting to know his new dog companion as the two continue to bond and spend time at the Safari Park's Animal Care Center. The Rhodesian ridgeback puppy was paired with the cub after the Cheetah was rejected by his mother and had to be hand raised as an animal ambassador. The Cheetah and puppy will be raised together and the dog will serve as a lifelong companion to the Cheetah.

Safari Park Cheetahs selected for training as ambassadors are paired early in life with a domestic dog. As the two companions grow up together, the dog's body language will communicate to the cheetah that there's nothing to fear in new or public surroundings, which relaxes and calms the Cheetah. The Safari Park currently has four cheetah ambassadors all of which are trained to participate in the Park's Cheetah Run experience.

My husband and I went to the San Diego Zoo some years ago just as it opened after a big rain. The zoo was almost empty and we came upon some zoo keepers walking two cheetahs and their dog companions on the path. They are amazingly beautiful, other-worldly creatures. It was a privilege to have a close encounter with them.

Now you're talking

by Tom Sullivan

"Folks, they want to destroy public education," the state Senate minority leader told a room full of supporters last year. He said it as though he had just figured it out.

Since the Republican sweep in 2010, Democrats have spent so much time in state capitols defending against one frontal assault after another coming from yards away. They tend not to notice troop movements on the fringes of the political battlefield. Is The Village any different?

Outside the bubbles, it's been clear for years that destroying public education is where charters, vouchers, and online schools are taking us under the guise of helping the disadvantaged. But one rarely sees it put so bluntly as this week. The WaPo's Valerie Strauss quotes the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce's vice president of public policy and economic development:
“The business community is the consumer of the educational product. Students are the educational product. They are going through the education system so that they can be an attractive product for business to consume and hire as a workforce in the future.”
Yup. Like Robocop, your kids are product. Maybe. Allstate CEO Thomas Wilson explained that globalization means, “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business ... American businesses will adapt.” So unless the little darlings offer some upside to the bottom line, they add no value. Why should the 1% pay to educate American children when other nations will pay to educate theirs for us? And besides, how much education do waiters and gardeners really need, anyway?

OTOH, if corporations could tap the unrealized potential of that government-guaranteed, recession-proof, half-trillion-dollar stream of public tax dollars states "waste" each year on not-for-profit, K-12 public education? The Big Enchilada? Now you're talking.

Which is why, as the Education Opportunity Network explains, charters don't need ad campaigns. They need regulation. There are some good "mom and pop" charters out there, sure, but they are just small fry, bait for the bigger fish. The Progressive reports:
There's been a flood of local news stories in recent months about FBI raids on charter schools all over the country.
From Pittsburgh  to Baton Rouge, from Hartford to Cincinnati to Albuquerque, FBI agents have been busting into schools, carting off documents, and making arrests leading to high-profile indictments.
It's almost as if charters have become what the Progressive calls "a racket."
Over the last decade, the charter school movement has morphed from a small, community-based effort to foster alternative education into a national push to privatize public schools, pushed by free-market foundations and big education-management companies. This transformation opened the door to profit-seekers looking for a way to cash in on public funds.
In 2010, Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. has been an ALEC member, declared K-12 public education "a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed." 
The transformation has begun. 
"Education entrepreneurs and private charter school operators could care less about innovation," says [associate professor of education policies at Georgia State University, Kristen] Buras. "Instead, they divert public monies to pay their six-figure salaries; hire uncertified, transient, non-unionized teachers on-the-cheap; and do not admit (or fail to appropriately serve) students who are costly, such as those with disabilities."
Hide yer children. And yer wallets.

They're comintagitcha!

by digby

The smoking mushroom clouds don't protect us anymore. Or something.

I think a certain percentage of Americans are probably looking for some action right about now after too many years of feeling like Bush blew it America is a paper tiger. All this dull talk about health care and social security and stagnant wages and inequality is for losers --- and little old ladies. Time to start kicking tail and taking names, amirite?

The first step is to scare the hell out of the folks --- then rush in with some big, swinging military gear to save the day.


Can't help lovin' those commie strongmen

by digby

So panic artist Ted Cruz called Obama a pussy (well, "kitty cat" but please ...) and expresses his admiration for Vladimir Putin --- a real bear of a man. How typical. One of the defining characteristics of the modern conservative movement has been their deep admiration for the machismo of their adversaries.

Here's a little blast from the past on this lazy holiday week-end:

Grover Norquist, is reported to have said back in the 1980's,"We must establish a Brezhnev Doctrine for conservative gains. The Brezhnev Doctrine states that once a country becomes communist it can never change. Conservatives must establish their own doctrine and declare their victories permanent…A revolution is not successful unless it succeeds in preserving itself…(W)e want to remove liberal personnel from the political process. Then we want to capture those positions of power and influence for conservatives. Stalin taught the importance of this principle."

Inspired as he is by all things totalitarian, Norquist went on to do a number of things that Uncle Joe would be proud of, one of which was The Legacy Project

Here's what Mother Jones had to say about it: 
Win one for the Gipper? Hell, try winning 3,067 for the Gipper. That's the goal of a group of a powerful group of Ronald Reagan fans who aim to see their hero's name displayed on at least one public landmark in every county in the United States.

A conservative pipe dream? The intrepid members of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project don't think so. Launched in 1997 as a unit of hard-line antitax lobby Americans for Tax Reform, the project's board of advisers reads like a who's who of conservatives; it includes, among others, staunch GOP activist Grover Norquist, supply-sider Jack Kemp, and Eagle Forum chief Phyllis Schlafly. To this crew, the Great Communicator is the man who almost singlehandedly saved us from the Evil Soviet Empire, made Americans proud again, and put the nation on the road to prosperity through tax cuts that helped the poor by helping the rich help themselves.

Buoyed by an early success in having Washington National Airport renamed in Reagan's honor in 1998, the project started thinking big. In short order, they convinced Florida legislators to rename a state turnpike. From there, it was a logical step to the push for a Reagan memorial just about everywhere. "We want to create a tangible legacy so that 30 or 40 years from now, someone who may never have heard of Reagan will be forced to ask himself, 'Who was this man to have so many things named after him?'" explains 29-year-old lobbyist Michael Kamburowski, who recently stepped down as the Reagan Legacy Project's executive director.
...it was the Gipper's ho-hum performance in a 1996 survey of historians that apparently triggered the right's recent zeal to enthrone him in the public eye. It was in that year that presidential historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., in The New York Times Magazine, asked 30 academic colleagues and a pair of politicians to rank all US presidents, and when conservatives saw their undisputed hero languishing in the "average" column, they were aghast. Appearing on the heels of Clinton's landslide victory over Bob Dole, the Schlesinger article seemed a slap in the face, a challenge to the GOP to stake its claim on recent history.

The charge was led by the Heritage Foundation -- a conservative think tank that helped devise the Republican Contract with America. In the March 1997 issue of the foundation's magazine Policy Review, the editors charged that Schlesinger's survey was stacked with liberals and New Deal sympathizers, and presented opinions from authors more appreciative of the Gipper. (The 40th president has always fared better with the general public than with the pointyheads: In a recent Gallup poll, respondents rated Ronald Reagan as the greatest American president, beating out second-place John F. Kennedy and third-place Abraham Lincoln.)

Two issues later, for its 20th anniversary, Policy Review ran a followup cover story: "Reagan Betrayed: Are Conservatives Fumbling His Legacy?" For its centerpiece, the magazine invited soul-searching by prominent Reagan acolytes including senators Phil Gramm and Trent Lott, representatives Christopher Cox, and Dick Armey, then-Christian Coalition head Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, and Grover Norquist. Soon after the cover story appeared, Norquist launched the Reagan Legacy Project as an offshoot of Americans for Tax Reform, which he had founded a decade earlier to further Reagan's fiscal policies.
Brezhnev and Stalin would be might impressed I'm sure.


QOTD: A Republican

by digby

“The question is, once you build an army, shouldn’t you use it, if you’re going to remain relevant?”

John McCain?

Lindsay Graham?

Bill Kristol?

No, it was Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican consultant. He was talking about the Koch Brothers but it could easily apply to foreign policy as well.

It illustrates their worldview nicely, doesn't it?

Another jay walking tragedy

by digby

Well, no actually. In fact, this story is about an armed, belligerent jay-walker cursing police and daring them to shoot him. And guess what? They didn't. In fact, they were patient and respectful and used psychology to talk him down.

Of course, he was a middle aged white man. And an open carry advocate.

DPS Sgt. Sean Gordon is the first officer to arrive. From the dash cam footage from his patrol car, his vehicle can be seen pulling into the Cork Street Laundry at 4:09 p.m. as Houseman walks east on the sidewalk along Cork Street. Houseman crosses the street diagonally toward the Auto Zone parking lot, and Gordon engages him in conversation.

Gordon: Hey partner, how you doing? Can you set that down real quick and talk to me?

Houseman: I'm not setting it down.

Gordon: Well you can't cross the street like that.

Houseman: Am I being detained?

Gordon: Yes, you are being detained right now. You crossed the street illegally. Place the weapon down on the ground please.

Houseman: I will not.

Gordon radios that it appears the man will not drop his rifle.

Gordon: "Look, you crossed the street illegally; I just want to talk to you. I just want to talk to you. You're walking around here scaring people, man.

A second Public Safety vehicle arrives just after 4:11 p.m. About a minute later, Gordon asks Houseman for his name. Houseman says he is "Joe Schmoe."

"Based on training and experience I know that this is a euphemism used as an alias and knew it was not correct," Gordon would later write in his report.

Houseman: I am free to go?

Gordon: "No, you're not free to go. Right now you're committing a crime of resisting and obstructing (for failing to identify himself after being stopped for jaywalking). Now you've stepped up to a misdemeanor crime.

Houseman: Why don't you (expletive) shoot me?

Gordon: I don't want to shoot you; I'm not here to do that.

As the interaction continues, Houseman talks of a coming revolution, and calls police officers "gang members" with a "history of violence." While the audio is scattered -- Houseman was across the street from Gordon and it was a somewhat windy day -- Houseman can also be seen grabbing his genitals and making lewd gestures toward Gordon.

Kalamazoo Public Safety Lt. Stacey Geik said officers were called to Cork Street Coin Laundry, 823 E. Cork St., at 4:05 p.m. on a report of a man who appeared to be intoxicated openly carrying a rifle outside of the laundromat and across the street at an Auto Zone. The man was found to be exercising his Second Amendment Right to openly carry a gun, but his refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test and his hostile behavior led to his weapon being taken away for the time being, Geik said.

By 4:22 p.m., 12 officers are on scene and Gordon turns over negotiations to Sgt. Andres Wells, a trained SWAT negotiator. Cork Street has been shut down in both directions and most officers have taken up defensive positions behind their vehicles, their weapons drawn.

KDPS Lt. Stacey Geik takes over as commanding officer and directs officer Jon Schipper to be the "use of force applier ... if need be." Houseman still refuses to provide his name or identification to officers and can be heard directing numerous expletives toward them.

Houseman has his gun in the "parade-arms" position throughout the encounter, though he can be seen switching it from hand to hand, Giek later noted in his report. Houseman can be seen fumbling with the gun while reaching for chewing tobacco from a tin in his pocket.

Geik tells a dispatcher Houseman is "highly agitated" and "does not like police."

"He is exercising his open carry rights, however, he has certainly overextended them at this point," Geik says.

The lieutenant asks officer Peter Hoyt if this is the same open-carry advocate he has dealt with before. Hoyt says it is.

About two minutes later, Houseman agrees to sit on the ground and place his gun down. He allows Geik to approach him and take the carbine rifle, which Geik discovers to be empty of ammunition.

Geik speaks briefly with Houseman then crosses the street, with Houseman's rifle in hand, toward the other officers. Houseman follows, asking to have his rifle back.
Oh, and what do you suppose happened to this fine fellow? Was he tasered or wrestled to the ground in a choke hold once they disarmed him? Did they handcuff him and and arrest him and throw him in the back of the police car? These are all the common responses to confrontations like this one where cops routinely get a little street justice for wasting their time and showing them disrespect. None of those things happened.

He was armed and he was drunk and he hates police so I'd say the danger level for an accident was about as high as it gets. He's talking about revolution. He told the cops to shoot him. And yet, this is how the the altercation ended:
Geik tells Houseman he can have his gun back if he submits to a breathalyzer test. He declines. Geik says his hostile behavior and 911 calls suggest he may be intoxicated, and therefore may not be legally allowed to carry a firearm.

In Michigan, a person openly carrying a firearm can be charged with being in possession of a firearm while intoxicated if found to have a blood alcohol content of .08 percent or more or if they appear to be visibly impaired. A person licensed to carry a concealed weapon can have a weapon confiscated and potentially lose their license if they have a BAC of .02 or higher.

Geik later notes in his report that Houseman was found to be a CCW license holder, but that didn't factor in to this encounter.

Geik offers to allow Houseman to walk home and retrieve his rifle the following day, or to drive him home and continue the discussion there. Houseman declines both offers.

Geik: But you're not stable mentally, which now takes you away from that rifle.

Houseman: I'm not stable mentally? How do you decide that?

Geik: You're damn right. How did this happen with open carry? What are you supposed to do when you contact law enforcement? Do you say, 'I hate you mother(expletive), (expletive) you? I hate you, there's a revolution coming.' Do you say that? Is that what you're taught?

Houseman: It was wrong of me.

Houseman agains asks for his gun back. Geik tells him he wants to make sure he isn't a risk to himself or others.

Geik: You saying (expletive), (expletive), (expletive) and yelling across the street with a rifle in your hands ...

Houseman: That's my First Amendment right.

Geik: No it's not. You can't swear.

Houseman: That's bull---. I can threaten you if I want to.

Geik: That's incorrect.

Houseman: I can threaten you. I can threaten you're family. I didn't threaten your family, I said I could.

Unidentified officer: You said a war was coming.

Houseman: I didn't say a war was coming.

Unidentified officer: You said a revolution is coming.

Houseman: Think about it. You know it is.

The conversation continues, with Geik asking Houseman why he wants to scare bystanders and if he thinks his behavior while openly carrying a firearm is what the National Rifle Association advocates for. Houseman again becomes upset over officers questioning his mental stability.

Houseman: He told me I was unmentally stable. I tell you what, I got a job, I got grandchildren, I got children, I got a job ...

Geik: Is this what you want to portray to your grandchildren?

Houseman: Damn right. I teach them.

The exchange continues.

Houseman: My grandson and I walked the same way last Sunday. He had his rifle on and I had mine.

Geik continues to tell Houseman he is free to go and can retrieve his rifle at KDPS headquarters the next day, unless he is willing to submit to a breathalyzer to prove he isn't intoxicated. Houseman again refuses.

Geik: If I was going to open carry, which I have done before, there is no way in heck I would have come to a laundromat full of people trying to dry their clothes with an Auto Zone, carwash and 10 cop cars.

Houseman: That don't mean (expletive). I'm trying to raise awareness.

Geik: You're trying to make a statement, and you got it and now you lost your gun.

Houseman: You guys aren't always right.

Geik: No, but in this one, we're 100 percent right.

Houseman again asks if he can leave with his gun.

Geik: As I stated 12 minutes ago, you're not detained. You were detained initially because the officer was trying to have a conversation with you, a legal, lawful, allowed, non-intruding Fourth Amendment conversation and when you start screaming obscenities and grabbing your genitals armed with a rifle, you crossed the line.

Houseman: I apologize. I have a bad attitude because we're losing our rights.

Geik: They might as well put up a billboard right now that says the Second Amendment is junk because of people like this.

Houseman: I apologize.

Geik: I accept your apology, I don't apologize on our end ...

Houseman: I need a sling, I know I need a sling, you're right. My grandson, we went last week, he had a rifle, he had a sling.

Houseman agrees to meet with Geik the following morning, before apologizing again, shaking hands with him and walking away.
I love the fact that the cop says he is an open-carry demonstrator himself and acts as the NRA's Miss Manners. You have to wonder if his identification with this man played a part in his patience and perseverance in bringing the altercation to a peaceful end. (It could also be that he's just a smart cop who saw this was a good way to defuse the situation.) He didn't even arrest him, simply took away his gun. Temporarily. Without violence. It cost them nothing but time -- 40 minutes to be exact --- to work this through. It can be done.

So, let's ask ourselves how that confrontation would have likely gone if Mr Houseman had been a drunk, belligerent, armed African American man, shall we? I'd like to think those police would have taken the same approach. And maybe these particular cops would have.  They seem quite sensible.  But from what we've heard the last few weeks, most police department's protocol is to treat civilians as if they are all potential members of a guerrilla army. Armed citizens who curse and threaten them (even with knives and screwdrivers, much less guns)  are dispatched with alacrity --- police look at situations like this as kill or be killed. Especially, though not exclusively, if they're black.

These police seemed to see this man as a citizen not an enemy and saw their job as trying to keep the peace and ensure public safety, not fight a war. It makes a big difference.

*And yes, obviously not all situations like this can be handled this way. Good cops have a lot of tools in their tool box besides sheer dominance and violence and they should be trained and enabled to use them all.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saturday Night At the Movies

Dennis is taking the night off because .... it's labor day week-end and he deserves it! But if you're looking for a movie this week-end that is in keeping with the holiday, I'm re-running this piece from a few years ago to help you out. --- digby

Lord I am so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films

By Dennis Hartley

Raise your glass to the hard working people
Lets drink to the uncounted heads
Lets think of the wavering millions
who need leaders but get gamblers instead
-from “Salt of the Earth”, by Mick Jagger & Keith Richard

Full disclosure (I am so ashamed). It had been so long since I actually stopped to contemplate the true meaning of Labor Day, I had to refresh myself with a web search. Like many of my fellow wage slaves, I usually anticipate it as just another one of the 7 annual paid holidays offered by my employer (table scraps, really…relative to the other 254 weekdays I’m required to spend chained to a desk, slipping ever closer to the Abyss).

I’m not getting you down, am I?

Anyway, back to the true meaning of Labor Day. According to the U.S.D.O.L. website:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

Fair enough. OK, the nation as a whole has sort of fallen behind in the “strength, prosperity and well-being” part of that equation; but we’re working on that. Oh, and Labor Day isn’t the only “creation of the labor movement”. There’s also all that F.L.S.A. stuff about workplace rights and minimum wage and such on those posters in the break room that most of us don’t bother to read (even if we do all benefit from it). So I guess I shouldn’t be so flippant about my “table scraps”, eh? At any rate, I thought I would cobble together my Top 10 list of films that inspire, enlighten, or give food for thought in honor of this holiest of days for those who make an honest living (I know-we’re a dying breed). So put your feet up, pop in a DVD, and raise a glass to yourself. You’ve earned it.

Blue Collar-This is one of Paul Schrader’s better directorial efforts, which he also co-wrote (along with his brother Leonard). Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto play a trio of Motor City auto worker buddies who are tired of getting the short end of the stick from both their employer and their union. In a fit of drunken pique, they decide to pull an ill-advised ‘inside’ heist that gets them in very deep doo-doo with both parties, which ultimately puts friendship and loyalty to the test. Similar to Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (see below), Schrader is not afraid to paint over the standard black-and-white “union good guy, company bad guy” trope with shades of gray, reminding us that the road to Hell is frequently paved with good intentions (absolute power corrupts absolutely, etc.). I love the music score (by Jack Nitzsche and Ry Cooder), especially with the late great Captain Beefheart growling, “I’m jest a hard-woikin’, FUCKED-over man” over that compelling “ShhhOOMP ba-bom ba-bom” industrial blues riff in the opening credits.

El Norte-Gregory Nava’s highly effective portrait of two Guatemalan siblings who make their way to the U.S. after their father is killed by a government death squad will stay with you long after credits roll. The two leads give naturalistic, completely believable performances as the brother and sister whose optimism never falters, despite fate and circumstance thwarting them at every turn. Claustrophobic viewers should be warned: a harrowing scene featuring an encounter with a rat colony during an underground border crossing will give you nightmares. And don’t expect a Hollywood ending; this is an uncompromising look at the plight of undocumented workers and how they are exploited.

The Grapes of Wrath- I’m stymied for any hitherto unspoken superlatives to ladle onto John Ford’s masterful 1940 film (taken from John Steinbeck’s classic novel), so I won’t pretend to have any. Suffice it to say, this probably comes closest to nabbing the title as THE quintessential film about the struggle of America’s “salt of the earth” during the Great Depression. Perhaps we can take comfort in the possibility that no matter how bad things get over the next few months (years?), Henry Fonda’s unforgettable embodiment of Tom Joad will “be there…all around, in the dark.” Ford was on a roll; the very next year, he followed up with How Green Was My Valley, another classic about a working class family (this time set in a Welsh mining town) which snagged a ‘Best Picture’ Oscar.

Harlan County, USA-Barbara Kopple’s award-winning film is not only an extraordinary document about an acrimonious (and murderously violent) coal miner’s strike in Harlan County, Kentucky back in 1973, but easily rates as one of the best American documentaries of all time (I’d put it in the top 5…uh-oh, I smell a theme brewing for a future post). This has everything that you look for in, well, any great movie, documentary or otherwise: drama, conflict, suspense, even mystery. Kopple and her film crew are so thoroughly embedded in the milieu that you may find yourself ducking during the infamous and harrowing scene where a company-hired thug fires off a round directly toward the camera operator (it’s a wonder the filmmakers lived to tell the tale). Amazing.

Made in Dagenham-Even though it was on my “to do” list, I missed this one in theatres earlier this year (I can’t see ‘em all, folks) but managed to catch up with it on Starz just a few days ago (and got the inspiration for this post!). Based on a true story, it stars the delightful Sally Hawkins (who sparkled in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky, which I reviewed here) as Rita O’Grady, a working mum who was employed at the Dagenham, England Ford plant in 1968. She worked in a run-down, segregated section of the plant where 187 female machinists toiled away for a fraction of the pay scale enjoyed by the thousands of male employees (the company smoke-screened the inequity by classifying any female worker as “unskilled labor”). Encouraged by her kindly and empathetic shop steward (Bob Hoskins), the initially reticent Rita finds her “voice” and surprises family, co-workers and herself with a formidable ability to rally the troops and effect a change. An engaging ensemble piece (directed by Nigel Cole and written by William Ivory) with a standout supporting performance by Miranda Richardson as a government minister (she’s at her best when she’s playing ‘slyly subversive’). You know, we need to see more inspirational, progressive positive rabble-rousers like this opening at the local multiplex. So if it makes you feel like cheering, by all means, give in… because it is great therapy.

Matewan-It’s easy to forget that a lot of blood was spilled back in the day in order to lay the foundation for many of those labor laws we tend to take for granted in the modern workplace. John Sayles sets out to remind us about that in this well-acted and handsomely mounted drama. Based on a true story, it is set during the 1920s, in West Virginia coal country. Chris Cooper is excellent (as always) portraying an outsider labor organizer who becomes embroiled in a violent local conflict between coal company thugs and fed-up miners who are desperately trying to unionize. Like all of the historical dramas he has tackled, Sayles delivers a compellingly complex narrative, rich in characterizations and steeped in impeccable period detail (beautifully shot by one of the truly great cinematographers, Haskell Wexler). In addition to Cooper, you’ll recognize many Sayles “regulars” in this fine ensemble cast (like David Strathairn and Mary McDonnell). The film features a great “rootsy” folk-blues-traditional bluegrass soundtrack (by John Hammond, Hazel Dickens, Mason Daring and others) that rivals that of the wildly popular O Brother Where Art Thou (which this film pre-dates by 13 years).

Modern Times-Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece about man vs. automation (among other things) has aged quite well. This probably has everything to do with his uncannily timeless embodiment of the Everyman (the technology around us may be constantly evolving, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are). Although frequently referred to as his “last silent film”, it’s not 100% “silent”. There’s no dialogue, per se, but Chaplin does find ingenious ways to work a few lines in (via technological devices). His expert use of sound effects in this film is unparalleled, particularly in a classic sequence where Chaplin (a hapless assembly line worker) literally ends up “part of the machine”. Paulette Goddard (then Mrs. Chaplin) is on board for the pathos. Brilliant, prescient and hilarious.

Norma Rae-Martin Ritt’s 1979 film about a minimum-wage textile worker (Sally Field) turned union activist launched what I have dubbed the “Whistle-blowin’ Workin’ Mom” subgenre (Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, etc). Field gives an outstanding performance (and deservedly picked up a ‘Best Actress’ Oscar) as the title character, who gets fired up (in more ways than one) by a passionate labor organizer from NYC (Ron Leibman, in his best role). An inspiring film, bolstered by a fine screenplay (Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.) and supporting cast (including Beau Bridges, Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley).

On the Waterfront-“It wuz you, Chahlee.” Oh, the betrayal! And the pain. It’s all right there on Marlon Brando’s face as he delivers one of the most oft-quoted monologues in cinema history. Brando leads an exemplary cast that includes Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint in this absorbing portrait of a New York dock worker who takes a virtual one-man stand against a powerful and corrupt union official. The trifecta of Brando’s iconic performance, Elia Kazan’s direction, and Budd Schulberg’s well-constructed screenplay adds up to one of the best American dramas of the 1950s.

Roger and Me-While our favorite lib’rul agitprop documentarian has made several films addressing the travails of everyday wage slaves and the ever-appalling indifference of the corporate masters who grow fat off their labors (see Sicko and The Big One), Michael Moore’s low-budget 1989 classic remains his best (and falls within the top 25 in the list of highest-grossing docs of all time). First-time filmmaker Moore may have not been the the only resident of Flint, Michigan scratching his head over GM’s local plant shutdown right at the spike of record profits for the company, but he was the one with the chutzpah (and a camera crew) to make a beeline straight to the top to demand an explanation. His target? GM’s chairman, Roger Smith. Does he bag him? If you’ve seen it, you know the answer. If you haven’t, I hope I’ve intrigued you to see this insightful and fascinating cultural snapshot of Middle America that is at once hilarious, heartbreaking, and hopeful.

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