Spare a Thought for Nancy Pelosi

She is only the House minority leader, and the former speaker of the House. And she was speaker when Obamacare was passed. How could she possibly have known that there would be implementation failures? I mean, it’s not as though she was, or is a powerful political official with access to information, or anything.

Recall as well that Pelosi famously told us that we had to pass Obamacare in order to find out what is in it. Well, we did, and I suppose that she is in the process of learning the contents of the legislation. So, let’s give her time. I am sure that she will come to grips with all of the implementation problems associated with the Affordable [sic] Care Act approximately ten years after the Chicago Cubs win the World Series.

Quote of the Day

We knew the full-body scanners didn’t work before they were even installed. Not long after the Underwear Bomber incident, all TSA officers at O’Hare were informed that training for the Rapiscan Systems full-body scanners would soon begin. The machines cost about $150,000 a pop.

Our instructor was a balding middle-aged man who shrugged his shoulders after everything he said, as though in apology. At the conclusion of our crash course, one of the officers in our class asked him to tell us, off the record, what he really thought about the machines.

“They’re [EXPLETIVE DELETED–ed.],” he said, shrugging. He said we wouldn’t be able to distinguish plastic explosives from body fat and that guns were practically invisible if they were turned sideways in a pocket.

We quickly found out the trainer was not kidding: Officers discovered that the machines were good at detecting just about everything besides cleverly hidden explosives and guns. The only thing more absurd than how poorly the full-body scanners performed was the incredible amount of time the machines wasted for everyone.

It worked like this: The passengers stood between two enormous radiation sensors—each of the machines twice the size of a refrigerator—and assumed the position for seven seconds, feet spread shoulder-width apart, hands above the head, making Mickey Mouse ears. The policy was to have three officers on the checkpoint floor to coach passengers into position for the machine and administer pat-downs when necessary. The images were analyzed for threats in what was called the I.O. room, short for Image Operator, which locked from the inside.

I.O. room duty quickly devolved into an unofficial break. It was the one place in the airport free of surveillance cameras, since the TSA had assured the public that no nude images of passengers would be stored on any recording device, closed circuit cameras included.

The I.O. room at O’Hare had a bank of monitors, each with a disabled keyboard—which perfectly summed up my relationship with the TSA. I spent several hours each day looking at nude images of airline passengers with a keyboard that didn’t work, wishing I could be doing what I loved: writing. To pass the time, I phantom-typed passages on the dumb keys: Shakespeare and Nabokov and Baudelaire.

The scans were grotesque, ghostly looking black-and-white images parading across our screens. I found comedy even in the I.O. room’s name. I had been brushing up on my Greek mythology for a writing project at the time, and couldn’t help but relate the I.O. room to the myth of Io and Zeus: Zeus shrouded the world with cloud cover to hide his relations with the beautiful Io from his jealous wife, Hera. But Hera suspected something was going on, and brought the affair to an end.

Most of my co-workers found humor in the I.O. room on a cruder level. Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues: Many of the images we gawked at were of overweight people, their every fold and dimple on full awful display. Piercings of every kind were visible. Women who’d had mastectomies were easy to discern—their chests showed up on our screens as dull, pixelated regions. Hernias appeared as bulging, blistery growths in the crotch area. Passengers were often caught off-guard by the X-Ray scan and so materialized on-screen in ridiculous, blurred poses—mouths agape, à la Edvard Munch. One of us in the I.O. room would occasionally identify a passenger as female, only to have the officers out on the checkpoint floor radio back that it was actually a man. All the old, crass stereotypes about race and genitalia size thrived on our secure government radio channels.

There were other types of bad behavior in the I.O. room—I personally witnessed quite a bit of fooling around, in every sense of the phrase. Officers who were dating often conspired to get assigned to the I.O. room at the same time, where they analyzed the nude images with one eye apiece, at best. Every now and then, a passenger would throw up two middle fingers during his or her scan, as though somehow aware of the transgressions going on.

But the only people who hated the body-scanners more than the public were TSA employees themselves. Many of my co-workers felt uncomfortable even standing next to the radiation-emitting machines we were forcing members of the public to stand inside. Several told me they submitted formal requests for dosimeters, to measure their exposure to radiation. The agency’s stance was that dosimeters were not necessary—the radiation doses from the machines were perfectly acceptable, they told us. We would just have to take their word for it. When concerned passengers—usually pregnant women—asked how much radiation the machines emitted and whether they were safe, we were instructed by our superiors to assure them everything was fine.

We were also ordered to tell the public that the machines were 100 percent effective, security-wise, in the event that any citizens caught wind of rumors to the contrary.

Then, in March 2012, a blogger named Jonathan Corbett published a video on YouTube, titled “How to Get Anything Past the Full Body Scanners.” In it, Corbett revealed one of the greatest weaknesses of the scanners, known to everyone I talked to within the agency: A metal object hidden on the side of the body was invisible to an image operator. Corbett showed how a passenger could bring a pistol to the airport and get it past the full-body scanners and onto a plane.

Jason Harrington. It’s official; the TSA is a joke.

MSNBC: The Shock-Jock Network

MSNBC sees it as its mission in life to rile conservatives and outrage people. We have seen this tendency play itself out in Martin Bashir’s comments about Sarah Palin, in Melissa Harris-Perry’s–and friends’–comments about one of Mitt Romney’s grandchildren, and now we see it anew in a tweet that all but outright states that all right-wingers are racists. As such, MSNBC is–and should be viewed as–a network of trolls, by trolls, for trolls.

And we know the standard rule when it comes to trolls: Don’t feed them.

But of course, MSNBC is not your run-of-the-mill troll. It is a vast news network, capable of shaping public opinion and public debate, which means that in this case, the standard rule ought to be dispensed with. Instead of just making sure that we don’t feed trolls, we ought to embarrass a network that believes it is right and proper to make entirely unsubstantiated allegations about people with whom they don’t agree politically. That includes fighting back against smears that are spread by MSNBC, demanding greater accountability from the leadership of the network, demanding that people who outrage and offend–instead of informing and enlightening–get fired, and telling advertisers that they ought to think twice about putting their ads on a network that keeps finding itself apologizing for dumb comments made by its employees. Employees who are given the power and the privilege of being public faces of MSNBC.

I don’t expect the people who work at MSNBC to agree with me politically, and it ought to go without saying that it is perfectly fine for them not to agree with me politically. But as news reporters and newsmakers, they ought to be responsible adults. And if they fail to be responsible adults, there ought to be negative consequences for that failure.

Incidentally, if you made a giant fuss about the Duck Dynasty kerfuffle, but think that there is nothing wrong with MSNBC stating that the “rightwing” has a problem with biracial families, you might want to consider the possibility that you are being a hypocrite.

Obamacare Is Supposed to Help the Uninsured . . .

So, I guess that it is interesting to note that the uninsured don’t seem to like it all that much. I recognize that it is fashionable for port-side pundits to tell us that the problems with Obamacare have come to an end, and that it is smooth sailing from here on out when it comes to registration and getting coverage, but maybe the problems associated with the programs implementation–problems that are continuing–have turned a number of people off, and maybe there will be a political price to be paid by supporters of Obamacare as a consequence.

And maybe none of this should really surprise anyone at all.

Still More on the American Studies Association and Its Boycott of Israeli Universities

A fine statement against the boycott by UCLA chancellor Gene Block. And all hail Stephen Harper. (I presume that there will now be claims that AIPAC is exercising its well-known insidious influence on Canadian prime ministers.)

Incidentally, the universities engaged in the boycott may be violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I would not be surprised if they were, and a lawsuit regarding this issue would be downright hilarious.

Quote of the Day

Other things being equal, income equality is better than inequality. But other things are NOT equal. The easiest way to make incomes more equal in the short run is to have a recession.

Much has been made of growing income inequality since 1979, but very little attention has been paid to which of the four presidental administrations preceding Barack Obama increased income equality and which ones reduced it. In short, the two presidents whose terms involved improving income equality were the two George Bushes and the two whose terms were associated with worsening after-tax income equality were Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It is probably not an accident that the two presidents in whose administrations the GDP grew the most were the two presidents whose time in office coincided with worsening income equality.

The president under whom the poorest quintile enjoyed the largest increase in after-tax household income was George W. Bush. And the two administrations under whom the richest quintile and richest 1 percent fared the worst were the two Presidents Bush. Among Barack Obama’s four immediate predecessors, the two biggest income equalizers were George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Just to be clear, I am not pining for the good old days of the economy of George W. Bush.

But George W. Bush was the most successful of our recent past presidents in achieving very substantial increases in incomes for the poorest quintile (+18.4%), while keeping gains for the richest quintile and richest 1 percent at modest levels. For example, under Bush the Younger, the incomes of the richest 1 percent rose only 6.5 percent in eight years, compared to a staggering 84 percent under Clinton and 91 percent under Reagan.

If you would rather have Bill Clinton’s economy than George W. Bush’s economy – and I definitely would – then as a practical matter you probably don’t care overmuch about income equality.

Jim Lindgren.

More on Pete Seeger

Presumably, we are meant to think well of someone who left behind this legacy:

Along with countless other sensible people, I have often bristled at the mindless deification of Pete Seeger, the nonagenarian folk singer who died yesterday at age 94. I have no doubt that Seeger was a lovely man (a mutual friend, who became a dedicated enemy of Seeger’s far-left politics, once assured me that he was), nor can one argue with his outsized influence on American music. And we all remember good-but-overpraised songs like If I Had a Hammer and the treacly classic Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

But as the encomiums threaten to overwhelm, it’s important to remember that Seeger, once an avowed Stalinist, was a political singer devoted to a sinister political system–a position he held long after the Soviet experiment drenched itself in blood and collapsed in ignominy. So while we wistfully recall the foot-stomping versions of This Land is Your Land, let us not forget Seeger’s musical assaults on the supposedly warmongering F.D.R. (see the justly forgotten Ballad of October 16th, which was featured on a record presciently released on the very day the Nazi-Soviet Pact collapsed. As Moscow instantly shifted its position from fascist accommodationism to fighting what it had previously denounced as a war for big business, Seeger and his fellow folkies in the Almanac Singers recalled the record and retooled their allegiances. It was soon replaced by a series of pro-war, pro-F.D.R. songs. Art must be used in service of the people—and is always subject to the vicissitudes of the party line.

And few, if any, obituarists have mentioned the forgotten classic Hey Zhankoye, a bizarre bit of Stalinist agitprop Seeger translated from Yiddish, recorded with the Berry Sisters, and frequently revisited during subsequent live performances. Historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of Seeger’s, reminds us that as Stalin cranked up his brutal post-war anti-Semitic pogroms, he was singing of a collective farm (“paradise”) where Soviet Jews lived like kings:

There’s a little railroad depot known quite well
By all the people
Called Zhankoye, Dzhan, Dzhan, Dzahn.
Now if you look for paradise
You’ll see it there before your eyes
Stop your search and go no further on
There we have a collective farm
All run by husky Jewish arms
At Zhankoye, dzhan, dzhan, dzhan

It’s no surprise that a man who believed the purge trials—during which approximately a million innocents were executed—were rough but necessary justice would also ignore the brutal, sustained, and widely-known campaign against Soviet Jewry.

“Stalin’s songbird.” What an entirely apt way of putting things.

The State of Speechmaking about the State of the Union

Last night’s State of the Union address was replete with platitudes, buzzwords, lame rhetorical tricks, and the same old same old. There was nothing, new, path-breaking or consequential that came out of it. Given former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s admission that President Obama “stopped trying to change Washington years ago,” I suppose that none of this should come as any surprise, although we are left to wonder why we should have elected and re-elected a president who promised us Change We Can Believe In if he “long ago” decided to give up on delivering that change to the rest of us.

My reply to the State of the Union will not involve any kind of paragraph-by-paragraph fisking; life is too short and the State of the Union was far too tedious for that sort of treatment. But there were some sections of the speech that ought to be singled out for particular attention and discussion.

Consider, first of all, the following:

But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. (Applause.) So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do. (Cheers, applause.)

This is one of the sections in the speech in which the president stated that he would use executive authority to bypass Congress. The president certainly has that power, but as I have written before, if a Republican president said this kind of thing, legions of television and print commentators–not to mention port-side bloggers–would be complaining about the advent of a new imperial presidency.

We know where to start. The best measure of opportunity is access to a good job. With the economy picking up speed, companies say they intend to hire more people this year.

And over half of big manufacturers say they’re thinking of insourcing jobs from abroad. (Applause.)

So let’s make that decision easier for more companies. Both Democrats and Republicans have argued that our tax code is riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes that punish businesses investing here, and reward companies that keep profits abroad. Let’s flip that equation. Let’s work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs right here at home. (Cheers, applause.)

It is nice to see that at long last, the president has come to terms with the fact that outsourcing occurs when there is an economic incentive to outsource, and that the best way to stop outsourcing is to give companies in the United States economic incentives to keep jobs in the United States. In the past, the president and his supporters have attacked outsourcers and have claimed that they are something akin to economic traitors, so I will take progress where I can get it. Of course, as anyone who knows anything about outsourcing is aware, outsourcing makes up an exceedingly tiny percentage of jobs lost, so one continues to wonder why politicians make a big deal about the issue. But there you have it; outsourcing will remain the non-threat to the American economy that everyone likes to harp about, and I must confess that it was depressing to see the president continue the trend.

Now, one of the biggest factors in bringing more jobs back is our commitment to American energy. The “all the above” energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades. (Applause.)

One of the reasons why is natural gas. If extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change. (Applause.) Businesses plan to invest almost a hundred billion dollars in new factories that use natural gas. I’ll cut red tape to help states get those factories built and put folks to work, and this Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas. (Applause.)

It would have been nice if, at this point, the president pointed out that we would not have huge natural gas reserves if his allies had succeeded in their opposition to fracking, but he chose to pass up that opportunity. Speaking truth to his allie has never been this president’s strong suit, to be sure, so again, this omission should surprise precisely no one, but it is disappointing to see that after five years in office, the president still can’t take his allies to task when they are clearly in the wrong.

Now, it’s not just oil and natural gas production that’s booming; we’re becoming a global leader in solar too.

Every four minutes another American home or business goes solar, every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced. Let’s continue that progress with a smarter tax policy that stops giving $4 billion a year to fossil fuel industries that don’t need it so we can invest more in fuels of the future that do. (Cheers, applause.)

Reading this passage, one might be forgiven for thinking that our ability to transition from fossil fuels to solar energy is right around the corner. It is not. We are decades away from being able to do so, and reversing a $4 billion tax break isn’t going to speed up the process. I take second place to no one in my opposition to corporate welfare, but it is worth noting that when it comes to finding and drilling for oil, exploration costs are significant and consequential; yet another fact that the president failed to mention in his discussion on the issue.

Finally, if we’re serious about economic growth, it is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system. (Cheers, applause.) Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted, and I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same. Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades. And for good reason: When people come here to fulfill their dreams — to study, invent, contribute to our culture — they make our country a more attractive place for businesses to locate and create jobs for everybody. So let’s get immigration reform done this year. (Cheers, applause.) Let’s get it done. It’s time.

As a child of immigrants, I am glad to see that the president continues to push for immigration reform. Having smart, hardworking people come to this country in search of a better life, and with the tools and motivation to give something back to the country in return is one of the best ways to keep America vibrant, powerful and prosperous. And yes, our immigration policies are a mess, and it is time to clean it up; it is nice to see that Republicans are coming around to that point of view as well. But it is important to note that as with a host of other legislative proposals from the Obama White House, the president has hardly done anything to take the lead on this issue. Periodically, he comes out in favor of immigration reform, scolds members of Congress for not having taken up the issue, and then retires back to the sidelines, having achieved nothing. This isn’t even “leading from behind,” the favorite buzzphrase Team Obama likes to use when the president and his cohorts are busy doing nothing whatsoever. This is just a spectacular failure to lead that can’t be dressed up and made to look pretty by any objective observer.

So tonight, I’ve asked Vice President Biden to lead an across- the-board reform of America’s training programs to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now. (Cheers, applause.) That means more on-the-job training, and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life. It means connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs. And if Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs.

Joe Biden is going to tell job-training programs that their job is to train Americans to get jobs. Presumably, this was the part when the citizenry was supposed to rise to its collective feet and scream “Hallelujah, our problems are solved!”

You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.

Women deserve equal pay for equal work. (Cheers, applause.)

You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. (Cheers, applause.) A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. (Applause.) And you know what, a father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a “Mad Men” episode. (Laughter, cheers, applause.) This year let’s all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds. (Cheers, applause.)

Let’s turn the microphone over to Glenn Kessler, whose fact check you ought to read in full:

There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women — such as women tending to leave the workforce when they have children — make it difficult to make simple comparisons.

Obama is using a figure (annual wages, from the Census Bureau) that makes the disparity appear the greatest. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, shows that the gap is 19 cents when looking at weekly wages. The gap is even smaller when you look at hourly wages — it is 14 cents — but then not every wage earner is paid on an hourly basis, so that statistic excludes salaried workers.

In other words, since women in general work fewer hours than men in a year, the statistics used by the White House may be less reliable for examining the key focus of legislation pending in Congress — wage discrimination. The weekly wage is more of an apples-to-apples comparison, but it does not include as many income categories.

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis surveyed economic literature and concluded that “research suggests that the actual gender wage gap (when female workers are compared with male workers who have similar characteristics) is much lower than the raw wage gap.” They cited one survey, prepared for the Labor Department, which concluded that when such differences are accounted for, much of the hourly wage gap dwindled, to about 5 cents on the dollar.

Facts are stubborn things, but don’t tell that to the Obama administration. They are busy thinking that no matter what Abraham Lincoln might have said, it is entirely possible to fool all of the people, all of the time.

Now, women hold a majority of lower-wage jobs, but they’re not the only ones stifled by stagnant wages. Americans understand that some people will earn more money than others, and we don’t resent those who, by virtue of their efforts, achieve incredible success. That’s what America’s all about. But Americans overwhelmingly agree that no one who works full-time should ever have to raise a family in poverty. (Applause.)

In the year since I asked this Congress to raise the minimum wage, five states have passed laws to raise theirs.

Many businesses have done it on their own. Nick Chute is here today with his boss, John Soranno. John’s an owner of Punch Pizza in Minneapolis, and Nick helps make the dough. (Laughter.) Only now he makes more of it. (Laughter.) John just gave his employees a raise to 10 bucks an hour, and that’s a decision that has eased their financial stress and boosted their morale.

Tonight I ask more of America’s business leaders to follow John’s lead. Do what you can to raise your employees’ wages. (Applause.) It’s good for the economy; it’s good for America. (Sustained applause.)

The president of the United States saw fit to devote a portion of his address to Congress, and to the American people to tell business leaders and executives how they should structure their payrolls. Please, let’s never again have anyone tell us that this administration does not believe in big, overwhelming, overpowering, nannyish, intrusive government.

To every mayor, governor, state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on. And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example. Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity and reduce turnover. We should too. In the coming weeks I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour because if you cook — (cheers, applause) — our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty. (Sustained applause.)

There’s that imperial presidency again, which much of our pundit class does not call an imperial presidency because a Democrat is the current imperial president.

Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board.

Today the federal minimum wage is worth about twenty percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here. And Tom Harkin and George Miller have a bill to fix that by lifting the minimum wage to $10.10. It’s easy to remember: 10.10. This will help families. It will give businesses customers with more money to spend. It does not involve any new bureaucratic program. So join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise. (Cheers, applause.) Give ’em a raise.

This is the part where I point out–again–that the Earned Income Tax Credit does more than the minimum wage ever could in order to fight poverty. To be fair, after the above excerpt, the president immediately transitioned to a call to strengthen the credit, but Truth would have been better served if the president told Congress that focusing any attention whatsoever on the minimum wage was a waste of time, and that the EITC should receive the whole of legislative attention if we want to successfully help the working poor instead of just talking about helping the working poor.

One last point on financial security. For decades, few things exposed hard-working families to economic hardship more than a broken health care system. And in case you haven’t heard, we’re in the process of fixing that. (Scattered laughter, applause.)

Now — a pre-existing condition used to mean that someone like Amanda Shelley, a physician’s assistant and single mom from Arizona, couldn’t get health insurance. But on January 1st, she got covered. (Applause.) On January 3rd, she felt a sharp pain. On January 6th, she had emergency surgery. Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would’ve meant bankruptcy. That’s what health insurance reform is all about, the peace of mind that if misfortune strikes, you don’t have to lose everything.

Already, because of the Affordable Care Act, more than 3 million Americans under age 26 have gained coverage under their parents’ plans. (Applause.)

More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage — 9 million. (Applause.)

And here’s another number: zero. Because of this law, no American, none, zero, can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a pre-existing condition like asthma or back pain or cancer. (Cheers, applause.) No woman can ever be charged more just because she’s a woman. (Cheers, applause.) And we did all this while adding years to Medicare’s finances, keeping Medicare premiums flat and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors.

Now, I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. (Laughter.) (Chuckles.) (Laughter.) But I know that the American people are not interested in refighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, increase choice, tell America what you’d do differently. Let’s see if the numbers add up. (Applause.) But let’s not have another 40- something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda.

(Cheers, applause.) The first 40 were plenty. We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.

The one or two Americans left who had no idea what the purpose of health insurance is can thank the president for explaining the basics in this portion of his speech. The rest of us are left wondering why the president did not see fit to admit to–and apologize for–the many problems that affected signing up for Obamacare. Problems that are continuing, by the way; apparently, the designers of Obamacare have made it difficult for children to be included on family plans. This might come as a surprise to some people, especially those who have heard the Obama administration boast over, and over (and over) about the fact that under Obamacare, kids can stay on their parents health care plans until they reach the age of twenty-six. Ah, but those people don’t seem to fully appreciate the Obama administration’s ability to hide bad news. For Heaven’s sake, there wasn’t even any mention by the president that thanks to Obamacare, Senator Tom Coburn lost his oncologist. If that doesn’t convince you that this administration is determined to keep inconvenient facts away from the attention of the American people, nothing will.

Relatedly, there appears to be depressingly little commentary regarding the Obama administration’s ability to pretend that Republican proposals to fix Obamacare simply do not exist. There is, in fact, an Obamacare alternative that exists in the Senate; it has been written about by both Yuval Levin, and Patrick Brennan. Given that the president called for Republican alternatives to Obamacare instead of just having votes to repeal it, one might have thought that he would have mentioned these alternatives and promised to explore them alongside Republicans in a fit of bipartisan cooperation. No such luck. Incidentally, how many pundits and TV talking heads even know about these plans, and betrayed such knowledge in their discussion of the State of the Union address? And if they did know of these plans, how many bothered to bring them up during the course of discussion? Not many, I bet.

As usual, foreign policy and national security got the short end of the stick in this president’s State of the Union address. Yes, I know that domestic policy has to be talked about first, since that is what voters care about the most, but when it comes to analyzing the president’s foreign policy discussion, one cannot help but be depressed.

Tonight, because of the extraordinary troops and civilians who risk and lay down their lives to keep us free, the United States is more secure. When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq. More than 60,000 of our troops have already come home from Afghanistan. With Afghan forces now in the lead for their own security, our troops have moved to a support role. Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over. (Applause.)

After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future.

If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaida. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country. (Applause.)

The paean to our troops is appreciated and deserved, but contrary to the president’s pretty words, Afghanistan policy is a mess. Evan Moore’s words are worth noting as well:

During his State of the Union address Tuesday evening, President Obama said very little that was new on foreign policy. That is unfortunate because, in his sixth year in office, many of his foreign policy choices are having disconcerting repercussions that he likely did not anticipate. Time still remains for the commander in chief to change course, but doing so will require that he adopt a new national security agenda.

In Afghanistan, President Obama is considering a plan to leave 10,000 troops in place beyond the full transfer of responsibility for security to Kabul at the end of this year. However, these few follow-on forces could reportedly draw down to near zero by the end of 2016. While 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are better than none at all, the Institute for the Study of War concluded in a study last year that it will require roughly triple that number to effectively carry out the president’s plans to conduct counter-terrorism operations and train the Afghan security forces.

Leaving too small a residual force of U.S. troops — or completely withdrawing — risks overturning the military, economic and political gains that the United States, the NATO-led coalition and Afghanistan have won over the past 12 years. As Obama said, the danger still remains that terrorists in Afghanistan could launch attacks against the United States. Unfortunately, the commander-in-chief missed an opportunity to further detail that danger to the American people when he stated:

If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.

The present situation in Iraq illustrates the risks of withdrawal. After U.S. forces left Iraq at the end of 2011, the United States lost its influence over Iraqi politics. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki then proceeded to accrue more power for himself and shut out his political opponents. Now, al-Qaida’s forces in Iraq have resurrected themselves, and 2013 was the most violent year in Iraq since 2008.

It is perhaps worth mentioning as well that for the umpteenth time, the president called for the closure of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, without telling us how we should do it, or what alternative we should use. I don’t see what is wrong with keeping the prison open as long as we do not engage in torture; having a prison at Guantanamo Bay is not per se bad–it is the activities that go on at the prison that should inform our moral judgment, not the fact that the prison itself is open. Of course, ever since the Democratic primaries and caucuses back in 2008 (ah, to be young again), Barack Obama has been telling us that he would close the prison at Guantanamo; yet another promise that this president did not get around to fulfilling.

American diplomacy, backed by the threat of force, is why Syria’s chemical weapons are being eliminated. (Applause.) And we will continue to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear.

Um . . . no:

Syria has given up less than five percent of its chemical weapons arsenal and will miss next week’s deadline to send all toxic agents abroad for destruction, sources familiar with the matter said on Wednesday.

The deliveries, in two shipments this month to the northern Syrian port of Latakia totaled 4.1 percent of the roughly 1433 metric tons of toxic agents reported by Damascus to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’s not enough and there is no sign of more,” one source briefed on the situation said.

The internationally backed operation, overseen by a joint OPCW-United Nations mission, is now 6-8 weeks behind schedule. Damascus needs to show it is still serious about relinquishing its chemical weapons, the sources told Reuters.

So much for claims regarding progress in Syria. Heads of fact checkers should have exploded at the president’s insistence that all was going well concerning the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. And if fact checkers did not in fact go into overdrive correcting the president’s remarks on the issue, the I have to wonder how it is that they got jobs as fact checkers in the first place.

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. (Applause.)

Let us please stop pretending that the deal with Iran is working out well. And let’s give the microphone back to Evan Moore for additional commentary regarding the issue:

In Iran, the Obama administration has substituted a diplomatic process for a sound policy. The president’s claim that American diplomacy “has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program – and rolled parts of that program back – for the very first time in a decade” is belied by the actual details of the agreement. As Christopher Griffin and Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative observed, the deal:

does not require Iran to dismantle a single centrifuge for uranium enrichment, ship abroad a single kilogram of uranium, start dismantling its plutonium-producing heavy water reactor at Arak, or to stop stonewalling international investigations into its nuclear program’s potential military dimensions.

A recent study by the Institute for Science and International Security concluded that, to ensure the Islamic Republic does not have a capability to produce nuclear weapons on alarmingly short notice, Tehran would have to remove 15,000 enrichment centrifuges and permit a 20-year regime of intrusive inspections. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani recently told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that Iran will not dismantle any centrifuges “under any circumstances.” In a telling remark, Zakaria subsequently characterized Rouhani’s position on centrifuge dismantlement as a “train wreck.”

There was a very good part of the speech. It is as follows:

I first met Cory Remsburg, a proud Army Ranger, at Omaha Beach on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Along with some of his fellow Rangers, he walked me through the program, the ceremony. He was a strong, impressive young man, had an easy manner. He was sharp as a tack. And we joked around, and took pictures, and I told him to stay in touch.

A few months later, on his 10th deployment, Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain.

For months, he lay in a coma. And the next time I met him, in the hospital, he couldn’t speak; he could barely move. Over the years, he’s endured dozens of surgeries and procedures, hours of grueling rehab every day.

Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye. He still struggles on his left side. But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger. Day by day, he’s learned to speak again and stand again and walk again, and he’s working toward the day when he can serve his country again.

“My recovery has not been easy,” he says. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.”

Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit. (Cheers, applause.) Cory. (Extended cheers and applause.)

Fine words. Finely delivered. And of course, the media went ahead and butchered them in commentary. Readers, this is the part where one puts one’s face in one’s hands and weeps copiously for the state of American journalism.

John Podhoretz was, justifiably, less than impressed:

State of the Union speeches are usually lousy, but for the hour of Barack Obama’s fifth, it seemed like he had lowered the annual presidential laundry list of half-baked policy proposals tradition to its nadir.

This was the most plodding, enervated and pointless national address of his presidency, and easily the worst and least consequential since the elder George Bush’s in 1992.

That is, until its heartrending and ennobling concluding passage, when the President took beautiful note of the extraordinary sacrifices and challenges faced by Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, an American soldier nearly killed in Afghanistan on his tenth — his tenth — deployment into a war zone.

In the moment when the assembled Congress and Cabinet and guests stood and applauded Remsburg, and the wounded soldier began to shake with emotion, one had a thrilling momentary rush of that feeling in the months after 9/11 when the nation seemed to possess a unity of national spirit for the first time since World War II.

And then, as quickly as it came, the feeling was gone. The president wrapped up with a weak effort to liken Remsburg’s refusal to give up with America’s refusal to give up, or something like that. “Believe it,” he said, and that was it.

Believe what, exactly?

If you needed further evidence that the Obama administration is running on fumes, last night was it.

People generally dismiss the sorts of unambitious proposals the president threw around for most of the speech as “playing smallball.” This was more like nanoball.

More fact-checking here. Ron Fournier points out that “[w]ords are no longer enough,” and that “Obama has not executed; he has not found a way to overcome his era’s obstacles and fulfill his potential for greatness. It may be too late to learn how.”

Remind me: Why did we bother to re-elect this guy again?

Incidentally, I am not going to even bother discussing the Republican response, because it was hardly substantive, and because there are limits to my masochism.

On Edward Snowden

Joel Brenner writes truth:

When Snowden asserts that the National Security Agency listens to encrypted Russian diplomatic traffic, it takes the Russians about twenty minutes to shut it down.  An operation like that can take many years to put in place.  When he explains exactly how NSA can implant devices that make it possible to extract information even from isolated networks of hostile governments, those operations will die on the vine.  When he identifies specific networks of adversaries that we have penetrated and the exact locations from which we have done it, he effectively shuts those operations down.  When he and his backers assert that NSA penetrates Google and Yahoo and Facebook servers overseas—when the truth is that NSA may target the foreign terrorist-linked users of those services—he wounds the businesses of creative, successful American companies.  When he identifies legitimate, and legitimately secret, arrangements by which foreign governments cooperate with the United States in pooling resources to track foreign terrorists, he sows pandemonium among Western allies.  When you educate terrorists day after day with these and other revelations, they learn their lessons, and indeed collection against terrorist networks has fallen off sharply.  These are the hostile actions of a self-righteous megalomaniac—hostile to the United States, hostile to liberal democracy, hostile to the West—and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that their results were intended.

That Snowden also started an overdue public discussion of a metadata collection program authorized by Congress and more than a dozen federal judges—but not understood by many Americans—cannot be denied.  But those disclosures comprise only a fraction of his program of stealing and broadcasting classified information that otherwise has nothing to do with the privacy and civil liberties of citizens of the United States and allied nations.

It should be noted–again–that Snowden has not revealed any illegal activities on the part of the NSA. I understand and respect the fact that there are people who are disturbed by the NSA’s collection program. I count myself as one of those people, and I remain willing to stand by the following words I wrote: “. . . While I am open to the possibility that the monitoring of Verizon phone calls and the PRISM program might have been necessary in order to prevent future terrorist attacks, I am uncomfortable with these programs. Very uncomfortable, in fact.” But I am also willing to stand by these words I wrote as well:

. . . That having been written, I am also uncomfortable with vigilantes inside the United States government deciding what will and will not be kept secret. Yes, I am aware of the fact that without Snowden, we might never have known about these programs, or that we may have had to learn about them from another leaker, and obviously, I struggle with the irony of decrying a leak that informed me of a government program I don’t particularly like and would like to see come to an end if at all possible. But I will be the first to admit that the United States government needs to be able to keep some secrets in order to be able to do its job, and that people like Edward Snowden make it very difficult for the United States government to carry out its legitimate functions, even as they may shine a spotlight on a disturbing government activity.

And of course, when it comes to Brenner’s description of Snowden’s activities, the fact that those activities are taking place ought to surprise no one at all . . . because just about any intelligence agency worth its salt engages in those activities as well. And yes, that includes allies of the United States, who conduct espionage operations against us that are much like the operations the NSA has conducted.

Is Our Journalists Learning?

No, Iran was not “an American ally” prior to President Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, and to claim otherwise is to either misunderstand history, or to deliberately misrepresent it. To be sure, Iran and the United States had a commonality of interests when it came to Afghanistan; for reasons unrelated to 9/11, the Islamic regime in Iran decided that it did not like the Taliban, and vice versa. But that never made Iran “an ally” of the United States. The two countries still were adversaries on a host of issues (including the regime’s support for terrorism), and there was still a massive amount of mistrust between them even before the “axis of evil” speech was delivered.

For Big Media fans who still wonder why and how it was that the Blogosphere got its start, this post helps point to a significant part of the answer. Big Media has fallen down on the job–whether because its denizens are uninformed, or because they are fundamentally dishonest–so many times, that an alternative media was necessary to correct the many misstatements that traditional journalists are responsible for disseminating.

Quote of the Day

I’ve seen proof, black on white, that Herr Dr. Förster has not yet severed his connection with the anti-Semitic movement. … Since then I’ve had difficulty coming up with any of the tenderness and protectiveness I’ve so long felt toward you. The separation between us is thereby decided in really the most absurd way. Have you grasped nothing of the reason why I am in the world? … Now it has gone so far that I have to defend myself hand and foot against people who confuse me with these anti-Semitic canaille; after my own sister, my former sister, and after Widemann more recently have given the impetus to this most dire of all confusions. After I read the name Zarathustra in the anti-Semitic Correspondence my forbearance came to an end. I am now in a position ofemergency defense against your spouse’s Party. These accursed anti-Semite deformities shall not sully my ideal!!

[. . .]

You have committed one of the greatest stupidities — for yourself and for me! Your association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy. … It is a matter of honor with me to be absolutely clean and unequivocal in relation to anti-Semitism, namely, opposed to it, as I am in my writings. I have recently been persecuted with letters and Anti-Semitic Correspondence Sheets. My disgust with this party (which would like the benefit of my name only too well!) is as pronounced as possible, but the relation to Förster, as well as the aftereffects of my former publisher, the anti-Semitic Schmeitzner, always brings the adherents of this disagreeable party back to the idea that I must belong to them after all. … It arouses mistrust against my character, as if publicly I condemned something which I have favored secretly — and that I am unable to do anything against it, that the name of Zarathustra is used in every Anti-Semitic Correspondence Sheet, has almost made me sick several times.

Friedrich Nietzsche. As has been mentioned before, Nietzsche’s legacy was hijacked–at least for a time–by Nazis and anti-Semites. It is crucial to recall this fact any time that Nietzsche is accused of being an anti-Semite, or a philosopher who sought to justify Nazi ideas and ideals before the Nazis came to power. Equally noteworthy: the above excerpt is from a letter to his sister, who was instrumental in this hijacking of Nietzsche’s legacy.


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