Archives for category: Politics

I recently had to renew the lease to this website, and nearly didn’t. It’s an uphill battle to carry the progressive blue flag in Greene County—lots of negative feedback, no tangible rewards. Apart from that, it is simply an increasingly difficult task to keep up with the accelerating news cycle. It’s one over-the-top event or revelation after another. The Tea Party shutdown and the threat of default, which will soon recur. The disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act, still ongoing. The ever-more-sweeping revelations of American spying, courtesy of Edward Snowden. And of course the local news, or lack of same. Why bother to comment on, or try to make sense of, any of this?

The answer I arrived at, boiled down to its essence, is that not to engage with today’s events would be tantamount to giving up. Too many people have done that already. Greene County, NY amounts to a tiny sliver of this critical juncture in America’s history, but it’s important to those of us who live here. And too many of its residents stand outside the mainstream of progress.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the referendum on casinos coming up next Tuesday. A “Yes” vote is being pitched as a panacea for upstate New York’s economic ills. This is untrue. The jobs a casino in the Catskills would create would be menial, for the most part. Many of the better jobs wouldn’t even go to local residents, but to people from out of state. And the squalid social conditions associated with gambling’s downside (see: Atlantic City) would only make life upstate worse, and push genuine opportunities even further away.

Vote No on Tuesday.

Human progress is measured in inches, painfully gained over decades or longer. Any student of history can tell you that, and can also tell you that we are living in an era where progressive gains are especially difficult.

The Affordable Care Act, due to launch this Tuesday (although few would know this from its low-key promotion), remains an affront to the Republican far right. (It remains an affront to the American left as well, for different reasons.) Nonetheless, the new law is set to inch American standards of medical care forward, and move the country slightly closer to the more advanced health care standards prevalent in Europe. It will do this primarily by offering needed medical care to more Americans than presently receive it.

Eric Cantor, Enemy of Progress
Eric Cantor, Enemy of Progress. Source: NY Times

But not if the Tea Party can help it. Their impetus is to roll back progress and shrink government, and shutting down the federal government puts them in a partying mood. Listen to Representative John Culberson of Texas:

“I said, like 9/11, ‘Let’s roll!’ I can’t control what the Senate does. Ulysses S. Grant used to say, ‘Boys, quit worrying about what Bobby Lee is doing. I want to know what we are doing. And that’s what the House is doing today, thank God.”

Talk about mixed metaphors—Culberson invokes 9/11 and the Civil War in the same breath, but by citing U.S. Grant he places himself on the wrong side. He and his fellow freak-show Congresspeople are more akin to the most rabid elements of the Confederacy, united in their hatred of the U.S. Government.

Over and over this weekend, Republicans justified the coming government shutdown as necessary to give the American people what they want, i.e., the end of Obamacare. The fact that they lost the last two presidential elections is meaningless in their eyes—it’s their view that counts, and no one else’s. The majority who actually voted Obama into office don’t factor into their conception of “the American people” at all.

We can only hope that the fallout from the looming shutdown is punishing enough to the crazies that they will back away from forcing a U.S. default in October. Given the tenor of the times, though, anything could happen.

The situation in Syria represents one of the thornier moral problems in recent years. Not in terms of the recent chemical weapons attack—that is clearly a moral outrage, and its perpetrators (the Assad regime, in my view) are war criminals. But Syria is complicated by recent American history and widespread moral ambivalence among U.S. citizens and others.

No one wants another Iraq. The resolution currently before Congress imposes strict qualifications on any American intervention to “punish” the Syrian regime. Yet there is a widespread belief among the American public (and the British public, and many other citizens in many other countries) that these qualifications are meaningless, and any American intervention would automatically lead to escalation and U.S. involvement in Syria’s horrific civil war. There is also a strain of xenophobia at work, in which ordinary people shrug off the gassing of some 1400 civilians in Syria and focus on more prosaic mattters at home.

Bashar al-Assad, war criminal
Bashar al-Assad, war criminal

Yet another argument against intervention is that the U.S. is applying selective morality in targeting Syria. After all, we didn’t go after Saddam Hussein for gassing the Kurds (though we soon went after him for other reasons). This is a valid argument, in that we have been selective in our moral criteria. But I don’t believe it is a sufficient argument against intervention in this case.

I am for U.S. strikes against Assad, for the following reasons:

1. Assad and his top officials are guilty of violating military and moral conventions that go back nearly a century. Chemical weapons are universally agreed to have no place on the battlefield, or elsewhere. Their use is an atrocious human rights violation, and the people who use them are justifiably regarded as criminals. We need to maintain this convention, along with the prohibition against biological and nuclear weapons.
2. The fact that the U.S. is being selective in its moral criteria, or for that matter has been guilty of its own criminal behavior in the past, does not render Assad’s behavior moot. Obama has a more developed moral sense than his predecessors, at least as regards this behavior. Just because we have not acted correctly in the past does not mean we should not do so now.
3. Failure to punish the perpetrators for the use of these weapons will put us on a slippery slope where they will be used again, and with increasing frequency. It also opens the door for other totalitarian regimes to test the world’s will when it comes to forbidden weapons. There are already rogue actors on the nuclear stage; do you want them to feel the world is powerless to intervene?
4. Given recent revelations about the NSA’s overwhelming technical capabilities, and our track record with special forces and drones, I have to think the U.S. is capable of targeting Assad himself and his henchmen, while selectively degrading the Syrian regime’s military capability overall. And targeting Assad, along with top military officials, is probably the most effective—and just—punishment we can devise.

Having outlined these reasons, it is still necessary to add caveats. We DO need to avoid indiscriminate use of force and civilian casualties in Syria. Killing more Syrians makes no sense on any level. Obama needs to make a strong case that we can act with precision and restraint, and only destroy what should be destroyed, then get out.

I realize there is a strong chance that Congress will not approve U.S. action. In that case, there should be no American intervention. Obama made a conscious decision to go to Congress (misguided, in my opinion, given the dysfunctional nature of the current Congress), so he needs to abide by their decision. There would still be things the U.S. could do, though. One is labeling Assad as the war criminal he is, and pursuing charges against him. That might take years, but so be it. We don’t know what the outcome in Syria is going to be; Assad might still be captured. If he is, he should stand trial for his crimes.

We will most likely have a chance to see the U.N. report from Syria before any U.S. action occurs. Assuming it verifies that the Assad regime was responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attack, a strong, targeted and punitive U.S. response remains the best choice.

Now and then the local political scene produces a shining event, one that’s bright with the promise of better things to come. One such occurrence took place yesterday at Blue Stone Farm in Catskill, when New York State Senator Cecilia Tkaczyk attended the Greene County Democratic Committee‘s annual picnic and promised to turn Greene County blue.

Even the weather joined in, with sunny blue skies and low humidity—perfect for attracting a large crowd. Well over 100 Democrats were in attendance and they applauded heartily as Tkaczyk and Greene County Committee Chair Doreen Davis outlined local Democratic priorities. The urgent need to supply local broadband service—an issue that Chris Gibson once tried to co-opt—was met with roars of approval. So too was the determination to tackle local issues that Davis recently outlined in the Daily Mail, issues like Greene’s high unemployment rate, poor health care delivery systems and lackluster economic development.

Since these are all issues this site has highlighted in the past, the afternoon generated plenty of optimism. And so did the presence of Tkaczyk and Davis, two of the brightest stars in the political firmament.

Tonight the House of Representatives votes on a measure to block the NSA from gathering the phone records of innocent Americans. This could be an important step forward for restoring citizens’ protections under the Fourth Amendment, and would be an important landmark in privacy rights. Our U.S. Representative, Chris Gibson, has indicated he is against the NSA’s indiscriminate gathering of phone records. Please call his office—the number is 202-225-5614—and urge him to follow through by voting against the NSA’s blanket phone surveillance.

It’s not often that I or other progressives can find common ground with our conservative Congressman Chris Gibson. I feel he and other “gun rights” supporters have distorted the Second Amendment beyond recognition, for one thing. But on the Fourth Amendment, Congressman Gibson has it exactly right, and he deserves a salute for that.

Gibson has been vocal in criticizing the almost daily revelations of U.S. government spying on its own citizens, generally focused on the National Security Agency. He and 19 other members of Congress recently sent a letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller and NSA Director General Keith Alexander, essentially asking them to explain what the hell is going on. The letter has not received a response.

Congressman Gibson is co-sponsoring legislation which would limit the ability of the federal government to collect information on Americans who are not under investigation. The proposed law, known as the LIBERT-E Act, would also require opinions from the FISA courts to be made public. This would be an important step forward. Kudos to Chris Gibson for standing up for our Fourth Amendment rights.

A quick postscript on Edward Snowden
: patriotism works both ways. If, as Congressman Gibson believes, the U.S. government is subverting the Fourth Amendment with its NSA spying programs and if that is in fact a dangerous and wrong thing to do, it then follows that the person who revealed the NSA’s nefarious activity has done a good thing. I’d like to see our Congressman voice his support for Mr. Snowden, as Senator Rand Paul has done. Most of the GOP takes this response instead.

It’s been nearly a month since my last post, and I’ll admit to a certain ennui regarding local politics. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Nationally, though, political events have been hugely and historically significant, from the government’s illegal spying on virtually all its citizens to the rollback of the core of the Voting Rights Act to another step forward for gay rights. The country’s political culture is in turmoil, and more polarized than ever.

The revelations of Edward Snowden have brought strange alliances together, though. I find myself in agreement with many libertarians concerning the dangers and illegality of government spying, along with a number of other progressives.

All of this is by way of a lead-in to our upcoming holiday of national independence. In many ways, the U.S. is still a good place to live—for some of us, at least. What will you be celebrating this Fourth of July? Or will you be celebrating at all?

It often surprises me that Vermont, our neighbor to the east, seems so much more progressive than upstate New York. Bernie Sanders is probably the most prominent case in point—prior to becoming a U.S. Senator, Sanders served as the openly Socialist mayor of Burlington.

Sanders recently brought us news from Denmark, a consequence of touring Vermont with Danish Ambassador Peter Taksoe-Jensen. In an article entitled “What Can We Learn from Denmark?” that appeared in the Huffington Post last week, the Senator outlined some of the ways in which the U.S. might profit from following Denmark’s lead.

You should find it thought-provoking, regardess of your political persuasion.

Integrity for Sale
Image source: Mayors Against Illegal Guns

A matter-of-fact article in the right-leaning Daily Mail (“Gun rights organizer calls for civil disobedience“) highlighted a number of pernicious trends that keep upstate New York, including Greene, backward, poor and unhealthy. The most insidious of these was not the pro-gun rally organizer, Billy Martin, who seems to be a caricature of the ill-informed and easily manipulated gun lover. No, the worst of it was the presence and miguided encouragement of “nice guy” state legislator Pete Lopez.

Leading the People Backward
Lopez: leading his constituents backward.

Martin railed against apathy, saying that gun owners represented such large numbers that, if everyone would just wake up and get on board, “We sweep the day, uncontested”. This is, of course, a self-serving delusion: gun ownership has been declining for years. As Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy notes:

Gun ownership has dramatically dropped over the last 20 years, so now it’s about selling a larger number of more expensive weapons to a smaller number of customers. The N.R.A., doing the bidding of the industry, ratchets up paranoia about government so that those people will go out and buy more guns.

No, Martin’s not the problem, obnoxious though he may be. He is simply a type, a loud and fanatical, self-appointed spokesman for a dwindling minority. Lopez is the problem. He is supposed to represent the best interests, health and well-being of his constituents, and he is failing miserably in that regard when he joins with local upstate zealots in claiming that “the challenge will be, we’re gonna have to strike down every piece of that damn bill [the NY SAFE Act] to kill it … and in the future we’ve got to prevent that stuff from coming forward.” Lopez went on to claim that fighting against gun control will “determine the fate of America”.

What Lopez should be focusing on is the health of the people he represents—their health is not likely to be improved by making it easier for guns to metastasize throughout upstate NY even more widely. Indeed, the counties that are calling for the repeal of NY SAFE are among the sickest—literally—in the state. Greene ranks 55th in health care outcomes, out of the state’s 62 counties. That’s down from 52nd place the year before. (Columbia held steady in 45th place.)

The upstate economy could stand some serious attention, too. It seems to be growing steadily sicker along with its inhabitants. Instead, Lopez chooses to spin fictitious scenarios about basic human rights under seige by sinister government forces.

Finally, what passes for honest reportage in this benighted district could use some more media pushback as well. Where is the commentary from our perceptive local bloggers? Carole? Sam? We need you to step up on all of these very serious issues.

Both Martin and Lopez trashed newly elected State Senator Cecelia Tkaczyk and suggested she needed to be removed. (How, exactly? By “ballots or bullets,” as the gun fanatics like to say?) Tkaczyk is one of the brightest spots in recent upstate politics, and represents real hope for change. She deserves your support. Lopez does not.

Come on, people. If you want a better, healthier upstate New York, then come forward and speak out. Don’t let ignorance and fanaticism control the conversation.

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