advice from a fake consultant

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

On The View From Egypt, Part Four, Or, Gaza, We Have A Problem

What had been a truce between Israel and the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip seems to have abruptly come to a halt; with the Israelis blaming Hamas and Hamas blaming Israeli oppression of the displaced Palestinians for the simmering hostilities that are now boiling over into military-scale violence.

Before the recent holidays and an immoderate amount of snow buried me in things that could not be done on the computer we had been having a conversation about the strategic importance of our relationship with Egypt. Within that series of discussions we explored the influence of the political opposition, and we considered the fragility of President Mubarak’s hold on power.

We also noted the immediate proximity of Egypt to the Gaza Strip.

Today we’re going to tie all of that together—and the end result of all that tying is that we better keep a close eye on Egypt, because trouble in Gaza has spilled over into trouble in Cairo….and that’s one more Middle Eastern problem we don’t need.

If you’re looking for more details as to why Egyptian politics have been a one-party affair since the Republic’s founding, information about the opposition, or a consideration of the country’s strategic importance, have a look at Parts One, Two, or Three of this series.

So that we might put some of the background in place, here are some of the salient facts surrounding the events of the past few days:

A ceasefire that had existed between Hamas and the Israeli Government has expired. That ceasefire, however, had been a bit of an imperfect exercise.

Some attacks from Gaza into Israel have been self-attributed by Hamas (actions that they have described as responses to Israeli aggressions); and there are suggestions that forces loyal to the rival Fatah movement have also been involved in attacks. The Israeli Foreign Ministry reported 2502 rockets or mortars were fired from Gaza in the first 11 months of 2008, resulting in 17 Israeli deaths. (The ceasefire began in June of 2008.)

Over the four days since the ceasefire’s expiration at least 1100 Palestinians have been killed or wounded by Israeli airstrikes, with some airstrikes targeting tunnels that connect the Gaza Strip to Egypt.

The tunnels are important because they are used to import supplies to the region when normal commercial crossings are restricted or closed by the Israeli Defense Forces. (Truck crossings into Gaza have been reduced from 475 daily before Hamas took control of the region to 123 daily in October 2008 to none for the past eight days.)

The IDF reports that the tunnels are used to import weapons as well.

It is also reported that IDF troops are massing near the Gaza border. It is possible that an entry into Gaza by the IDF is imminent, but as of this writing that has not yet occurred…or it may have already occurred, as reported by the sometimes reliable

And it’s the tunnels that connect this story to Egypt.

As you may recall from our earlier conversations, there are many Egyptians who support the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist views, and there are also many Egyptians, unassociated with Islamism, who feel a sense of solidarity with Gazans and their struggles with Israel. Add to that the fact that President Mubarak’s secular but increasingly unpopular Government has been cooperative with Israel as they have worked to isolate Gaza and you have the makings of some serious trouble in the Egyptian street.

And as of today, the trouble seems to have started.

In a country with a Government that attempts to deter undesired street demonstrations with an extremely hostile internal security response, El Badeel of Cairo reports as many as 200.000 of the undeterred may have taken to the streets in demonstrations against the Government in cities such as Cairo, Alexandria, Tanta, and even down the Nile in the farm country of Minya and Asyut.

The Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, and the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, are trading words—and Egyptian police and military border guard units are firing on Palestinians who attempt to enter Egypt through holes blown in the wall (by the bombing raids…) that would normally prevent such entries.

Now here is where it gets tricky.

Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza, is essentially descended from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood—and the last thing Mr. Mubarak wants is hundreds of thousands of Hamas supporters taking up permanent residence in his country, especially if they end up forming fairly insular communities out in the Sinai Desert where the Egyptian internal security apparatus is at it’s weakest.

On the other hand, being perceived as supporting Israel is fraught with 200,000 or so of its own perils—and if the internal security apparatus can’t control the demonstrations, or uses unusually harsh methods to regain control, the internal security threat to Mr. Mubarak’s control from his own citizens will also rise dramatically.

There are those in Israel who want Egypt to take control of Gaza…and it is possible that Israel will use the blockade to create an atmosphere that will “require” Egypt to take “humanitarian” steps—something that might be popular in the Egyptian street…but something that Mr. Mubarak, as we have noted, has no desire to accept.

There are also those who would like to see the Fatah Party take over again in Gaza, removing Hamas from power—but you may recall that Hamas was able to come to power in Gaza because many ordinary Gazans perceived Fatah and Yasser Arafat to be extraordinarily corrupt and ineffectual during their time in power.

The bad news for the US?

We are perceived throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds as the blindly supportive enablers of what Israel is doing in Gaza…and we are perceived in Egypt as the country that enables Mr. Mubarak’s often highly oppressive rule.

As things go badly for the Palestinians, ironically, they get bad for us—and probably for the Israelis as well.

Why? Well, as I often say to my friends, we are making enemies faster than we can kill them. This blind support of Israel against the Gazans isn’t helping matters…but Johann Hari tells the story much better than I:

The world isn't just watching the Israeli government commit a crime in Gaza; we are watching it self-harm. This morning, and tomorrow morning, and every morning until this punishment beating ends, the young people of the Gaza Strip are going to be more filled with hate, and more determined to fight back, with stones or suicide vests or rockets. Israeli leaders have convinced themselves that the harder you beat the Palestinians, the softer they will become. But when this is over, the rage against Israelis will have hardened, and the same old compromises will still be waiting by the roadside of history, untended and unmade.

To understand how frightening it is to be a Gazan this morning, you need to have stood in that small slab of concrete by the Mediterranean and smelled the claustrophobia. The Gaza Strip is smaller than the Isle of Wight but it is crammed with 1.5 million people who can never leave. They live out their lives on top of each other, jobless and hungry, in vast, sagging tower blocks. From the top floor, you can often see the borders of their world: the Mediterranean, and Israeli barbed wire. When bombs begin to fall – as they are doing now with more deadly force than at any time since 1967 – there is nowhere to hide.

--From an editorial in The Independent, December 29, 2008

There is one bit of good news: if Hillary Clinton can find a way to be seen as an “honest broker”, instead of just a supporter of Israel, the incoming Obama Administration could change the atmosphere enough to allow Gazans and Israelis to again return to negotiations. Can the Obama Administration change the atmosphere enough to induce Israel to adopt a less hard-line anti-Palestinian stance? That may be the biggest question the new Secretary of State finds on her plate next month.

Another possible bit of good news: a rapid settlement and return to a semi-ceasefire status could reduce the long-term political damage. In the unfortunate event of a large-scale ground action by the IDF, it is likely the long-term damage increases. (Some suggest the Israelis chose this moment because they feel the Obama Administration will be less supportive of a hard-line policy than the Bush Administration. If this is true, the window for aggressive action may be closing sooner rather than later.)

So here we are: The Israeli actions against Gaza, intended to end the desire of Gazans to attack Israel, are likely to have exactly the opposite effect…which is spilling over the border to create all kinds of problems for the Mubarak Government in Egypt…all of which means all kinds of new bad news for us.

Hillary Clinton might have problems negotiating with all the players…but if she can overcome that obstacle, there could be a better outcome down the road than we have today.

If Israel cannot be convinced to find a way to develop a different relationship with their Palestinian neighbors—and vice versa—eight years from now President Obama will find himself just as vexed as Mr. Bush is today with his giant Middle Eastern failure…and if events cause Egypt, Pakistan, and maybe even Morocco to slide over to the Iran end of the “scale of hostile nations”, he may find himself quite a bit more vexed than he ever expected.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On Traffic Checkpoints, Part Two, Or, When Does Safety Become Siege?

We gathered yesterday, Gentle Reader, for a discussion of the constitutionality of highway sobriety checkpoints.

In yesterday’s episode we learned that the Fourth Amendment, according to the Supreme Court, can be ignored if the challenges of enforcing the law seem too burdensome for the Government...and we learned that despite a history stretching all the way back to the 1700s and the British case Entick v. Carrington, the Court was, for the first time, willing to allow general search warrants on American soil.

Today we take the history a bit further...and then we talk about what happens when freedom is given away...and sadly, we need look no further than a few miles from the Capitol Building, in Washington DC itself, to see exactly what happens when freedom is suddenly gone and a community is placed under siege by the police—all, we suppose, for the community’s own good.

We have a lot of ground to cover, so we best get out on the proverbial road—and let’s see if we can avoid our own roadblocks along the way.

In yesterday’s conversation we described how the Supreme Court, in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543, had authorized the use of an “area search warrant” (a form of general search warrant) to authorize the stopping and searching of all vehicles passing the Customs and Border Protection immigration checkpoint at San Clemente, California.

This occurred despite the fact that there was no “probable cause”, as required by the Fourth Amendment, before any of the vehicles were searched—and despite the precedent of a recent similar case, United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891, in which the Court stated:

The Fourth Amendment [is] held to forbid Border Patrol officers, in the absence of consent or probable cause, to search private vehicles at traffic checkpoints removed from the border and its functional equivalents, and for this purpose there is no difference between a checkpoint and a roving patrol.

The Government had argued that it was impractical to find probable cause before conducting this type of search; therefore they were justified in ignoring the Fourth Amendment and establishing this checkpoint.

The Court agreed, and justified this conclusion by deciding that the searches were not “unreasonable”, and therefore a warrant was not required. Justices Brennan and Marshall, in dissent, reminded the majority that the inconvenience of the Government was no excuse for ignoring the clear language of the Constitution.

"Tyrant! You are a tyrant!"

--Washington State Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders, to Attorney General Richard Mukasey, November 20, 2008

But that’s the old business.
Now it’s time to fast forward to Michigan, and a 1990 case, Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz, 496 U.S. 444.

In 1986, Saginaw County, Michigan decided to set up a sobriety checkpoint in their County, and they had the advice of a State-level Sobriety Checkpoint Committee to assist them in planning an operation that would (hopefully) pass legal muster.

The day before the checkpoint went into operation, a lawsuit was filed seeking to shut the program down, and that lawsuit was successful. (The checkpoint did operate on one occasion, however, and we’ll discuss that evening in a moment.) On appeal, the suit was again upheld, and it was upheld again by the Michigan State Supreme Court.

Each Court agreed that the controlling authority for the decision was the ruling in Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, which said that in order to justify an intrusion by Government upon an individual’s privacy, the Government’s action had to pass a “three-prong test”.

In this instance the test required balancing the State’s interest in preventing these accidents, how effective sobriety checkpoints are in reducing the accidents, and how intrusive the checkpoints are upon the citizens.

The Michigan Courts held that the checkpoints were ineffective—and critical to that finding were the results of the one night the checkpoint did operate. Of the 142 cars stopped in the checkpoint’s 75 minutes of operation, only two drivers were cited for DUI.

(As a comparison, the Washington State Patrol was able to reduce traffic deaths 13%, in one year, by increasing enforcement on the highways. Checkpoints are not allowed in the State.)

Beyond that, it was further ruled that the stops were “subjectively” too intrusive to be justified under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution.

The US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case—and they did not agree with the Michigan Supreme Court’s thinking.

The Majority Opinion notes that the average motorist stop was 25 seconds, which they felt was a minimal degree of “objective” intrusion (an opinion shared by the State Court)...but they found no substantial “subjective” intrusion.

This is because, in their opinion, the average motorist should have no “fear or surprise” regarding a checkpoint. An examination of the ruling shows no recognition of any other factor as contributing to a subjective intrusion, including motorist annoyance or resentment.

Further, the Majority felt that stopping the 98.5% of the innocent motorists to catch the other 1.5% was, in fact, effective in ”advancing the public interest” in stopping drunk drivers (the controlling language from Brown v. Texas).

The case was remanded back to the Michigan State Supreme Court so that they might reconsider...and for the rest of the Nation, sobriety checkpoints had the Supreme Court’s seal of approval.

Ironically, in Michigan checkpoints are not allowed to this very day. The State Supreme Court, upon further review (as the referees like to say...), found that the checkpoint program violated the State Constitution’s search and seizure provisions; and does not permit them within the State.

There are other States that bar the checkpoints for similar reasons—we’ve mentioned Washington and Michigan; Louisiana (sort of) and Texas (for the moment) are others.

So that’s the history.
Now let’s talk about what’s happened since then.

“...for there is nothing as short sighted as a Politician unless it is a delegation of them.”

--Will Rogers, “Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President”

What began as a tool to identify drinking drivers—and what was supposed to have no other purpose—has developed into a multi-purpose enforcement dragnet...exactly as Justices Brennan and Marshall predicted it would in Martinez-Fuerte.

In addition to sobriety checkpoints, we now have “seatbelt” checkpoints, proposed driver’s license checkpoints in Texas that apparently are actually intended to identify illegal immigrants...and, in an interesting new twist, we have checkpoints that exist to gather information about crimes that were recently committed at a location. The argument is that questioning everyone who passes by a location is not a stop or a search—even though the police are stopping people and...well, searching them.

Let’s stop for a quick “Checkpoint Bonus”.

If you would like to see exactly what happens when an individual refuses to cooperate with a CBP agent at an immigration checkpoint, have a look at this fascinating video, where the driver refuses to answer any questions...and in return, the CBP agent tries to avoid answering the questions “am I being detained?” and “am I free to go?”...and as it turns out, Terry Bressi’s lawsuit seeking to stop checkpoints had a hearing November 20th before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

And with that, let’s return to how checkpoints are used today.


The enforcement seems to be often directed at minority and poor communities...and the vast majority of arrests at the “sobriety checkpoints”, in many locales, are non-DUI/DWI related...and for some agencies, the goal seems to be the seizure of property rather than the original goal of stopping drunk driving.

According to some of the comments I received after Part One of this story was posted, being the guy with a Grateful Dead sticker on your car might be enough to guarantee you “special treatment”, regularly, no matter if you appear drunk or not. (Sound familiar to anyone?)

Which brings us to Pomona, California.

In Pomona, there is a strong perception that the Police’s traffic checkpoints target illegal immigrants and low-income Blacks and Hispanics.

The local newspaper, the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, agrees, pointing out that 90% of the City’s checkpoint operations occur in low-income South Pomona...and, according to the paper, 99% of vehicles seized at the checkpoints are from drivers who were not charged with DUI.

Checkpoints may also have unintended side effects.

The paper points out that Pomona Police only solve 44% of their murder cases...while the State average is closer to 70%. It is suggested the hostile feelings between the community and the Police, caused by the checkpoints, are at the heart of this problem.

The checkpoints in Pomona, the paper reports, have involved as many as 70 officers, and at least one involved the “cordoning off” of a local market, presumably in an effort to snare a large group of shoppers. The paper wonders if criminals are taking advantage of this concentrated Police presence to strike in other parts of the City during the checkpoint operations.

In an effort to “start a dialog” with the community, several off-duty Pomona officers attended a community meeting regarding the checkpoints...and despite what the Supreme Court might think, apparently the “subjective” impact of the checkpoints was strong enough that the on-duty Police had to be called to extricate the off-duty Police from the meeting, according to attendees writing for the “Americans for Legal Immigration” Political Action Committee’s blog.

Similar complaints are being heard in the San Diego area as well.

Our next stop on the “Checkpoints Gone Wild Tour”: Illinois.

In order to “secure” an apartment complex in Rolling Meadows, the local police decided to set up a checkpoint on one of the complex’s 13 entrances—and then they blocked off all access to the other 12.

The checkpoint has been staffed every day from Noon to 8PM.

The 2,000 residents are thus required to submit to police scrutiny each and every time they wish to enter or leave their own homes and go anywhere in a car beyond the parking lot during those hours. (We are surprised, frankly, that the police only operate during those hours; we always thought that a lot of crime takes place at night....but what do we know?)

In Washington, Illinois, the local police closed off an entire neighborhood, demanded ID that proves drivers reside in the area, and did not allow outsiders to enter without what they consider to be a “legitimate reason” to be in the area, according to the local chapter of the ACLU.

In an effort to bring this sort of law enforcement to every State, the Federal Government, in the form of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is now pushing the remaining States that don’t allow checkpoints to...reconsider...something the Governor of my own State, Washington, is trying to make happen...even though the State Supreme Court has already ruled the practice violates the State Constitution.

And finally, as promised, a quick visit to Washington, DC...theoretically, the world’s “Freedom Captiol”.

The City has successfully defended, before a US District Judge, a program that seals off the Trinidad neighborhood after a series of shootings. The Police are also turning away those they feel should not be in the area, and that was the source of the complaint. The ACLU’s reaction:

"My reaction is, welcome to Baghdad, D.C.," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director for the ACLU's Washington office. "I mean, this is craziness. In this country, you don't have to show identification or explain to the police why you want to travel down a public street."

And that, very neatly, describes the problem of checkpoints.

What began as a rare and unusual—and frankly, poorly justified—exception to the Fourth Amendment has morphed into a legal principle that allows law enforcement to choose to seal off entire communities, if they wish, to target populations based on no “particularized suspicion” (which often seems to be a low-income or minority population), to develop ever more creative and tortuous justifications for the targeting—and to do all of this because of our fear of crime, which has apparently overridden our trust in freedom...and because of our unwillingness to tackle the root causes of the problems that checkpoints can never really solve.

Monday, December 1, 2008

On Traffic Checkpoints, Part One, Or, Freedom? That's So...Inefficient

The holidays are in full swing…or at least they are in the US…which means your days—and nights—are full of running around like crazy. There’s a million things to do, a thousand errands to run, and…are you kidding me?!

A police sobriety roadblock?

That’s right: there’s a crowd of officers all around you, there’s no way to avoid it…and even though you’ve committed no crime whatsoever, you get to talk to the police…and if they decide it’s acceptable, you may continue on your way.

How can this be legal in America?
Does it actually serve any purpose?
And what happens when the police decide to blockade your neighborhood--for your own good?

Believe it or not, it’s my job today and tomorrow to answer those questions…and beyond that, to defend the simple right of Americans to go somewhere if we feel like it, without having to explain it to the police…and in today’s discussion, I intend to set the stage through an examination of history.

Sobriety checkpoints are an effective law enforcement tool involving the stopping of vehicles or a specific sequence of vehicles, at a predetermined fixed location, to accomplish two goals: raise the public’s perception of being arrested for driving while impaired (DWI ), and detection of drivers impaired by alcohol and/or other drugs.

--National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Low-Staffing Sobriety Checkpoints

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

--The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

So, you might ask, how is it that the Fourth Amendment is interpreted to allow searches that are not based upon any probable cause whatever—in fact, that aren’t directed toward any particular individual, but instead, against anyone and everyone that can be processed through a location?

Oddly enough, this whole story, you could say, starts at Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) San Clemente Station, an immigration checkpoint located roughly 60 miles north of the Mexican Border near San Diego, California (and the home of the famous “running family” traffic signs), where all northbound traffic on the Interstate 5 Freeway is required to stop for an inspection by CBP officers.

If an officer chooses, he can order any vehicle, for any reason, or for none at all, to pull over for a “Secondary Inspection”. That inspection can lead to a search of the vehicle, and possibly the arrest of its occupants.

A Mr. Amado Martinez-Fuerte was arrested at the checkpoint, after such an inspection, for illegally transporting aliens (the two passengers in his car), and when he got to trial his attorney moved to suppress all evidence based on a Fourth Amendment claim, specifically that absent any particular probable cause, the stop and search of his vehicle were illegal. That claim was denied at trial, but upheld upon appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

His claim and a case with similar context but a differing result from the Fifth Circuit were eventually consolidated and reconciled by the United States Supreme Court in 1976 in United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, 428 U.S. 543.

"The scheme of the Fourth Amendment becomes meaningful only when it is assured that at some point the conduct of those charged with enforcing the laws can be subjected to the more detached, neutral scrutiny of a judge who must evaluate the reasonableness of a particular search or seizure in light of the particular circumstances.

And in making that assessment it is imperative that the facts be judged against an objective standard . . . . Anything less would invite intrusions upon constitutionally guaranteed rights based on nothing more substantial than inarticulate hunches, a result this Court has consistently refused to sanction…

… This demand for specificity in the information upon which police action is predicated is the central teaching of this Court's Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. "

--Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S., at 21-22

The Fourth Amendment [is] held to forbid Border Patrol officers, in the absence of consent or probable cause, to search private vehicles at traffic checkpoints removed from the border and its functional equivalents, and for this purpose there is no difference between a checkpoint and a roving patrol.

--United States v. Ortiz, 422 U.S. 891

And with those inspiring words to guide them, the Court’s majority decided to completely ignore the text of the Fourth Amendment and established precedent and uphold the right of Government agents to search you, even if you’re not suspected of anything at all (and in fact, upholding the “inarticulate hunch” standard)…because the Court felt it was really inconvenient to have to have a reason to search people:

To require that such stops always be based on reasonable suspicion would be impractical because the flow of traffic tends to be too heavy to allow the particularized study of a given car necessary to identify it as a possible carrier of illegal aliens. Such a requirement also would largely eliminate any deterrent to the conduct of well-disguised smuggling operations, even though smugglers are known to use these highways regularly.

In order to justify this line of thought, the majority adopted a line of logic that suggested that the Government had an overriding need to stop the smuggling of aliens, that this is an effective way to prevent the smuggling of aliens…and that you would find the fact that you have to be stopped and searched as you go about your day—even though you’ve done nothing wrong—so minimal of an intrusion that a warrant would be unnecessary. From the majority opinion:

While the need to make routine checkpoint stops is great, the consequent intrusion on Fourth Amendment interests is quite limited. The stop does intrude to a limited extent on motorists' right to "free passage without [428 U.S. 543, 558] interruption," Carroll v. United States, 267 U.S. 132, 154 (1925), and arguably on their right to personal security. But it involves only a brief detention of travelers during which

"`[a]ll that is required of the vehicle's occupants is a response to a brief question or two and possibly the production of a document evidencing a right to be in the United States.'" United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, supra, at 880.

Strangely enough, what the majority finds concerning is that citizens might object to being stopped and searched because the people running the operation might be some sort of fake police—not the fact that we’re being stopped and questioned in the first place:

"[T]he circumstances surrounding a checkpoint stop and search are far less intrusive than those attending a roving-patrol stop. Roving patrols often operate at night on seldom-traveled roads, and their approach may frighten motorists. At traffic checkpoints the motorist can see that other vehicles are being stopped, he can see visible signs of the officers' authority, and he is much less likely to be frightened or annoyed by the intrusion." 422 U.S., at 894-895…

… The regularized manner in which established checkpoints are operated is visible evidence, reassuring to law-abiding motorists, that the stops are duly authorized and believed to serve the public interest….”

Beyond that, the majority felt that there is a justification for certain forms of “general search warrants”, based on a prior building inspection case (Camara v. Municipal Court, 387 U.S. 523)…meaning that a magistrate can legally issue an “area warrant” permitting the search of any vehicle passing a particular place.

Is this “checkpoint search” technique effective?

According to the record in the case, only 1 in 1,000 vehicles stopped and questioned at the checkpoint contained any deportable aliens, and more than ¾ of the vehicles stopped for Secondary Inspection were in fact unconnected with any smuggling activity.

My guess is that the police could simply choose vehicles that contain Mexican-looking drivers randomly and achieve similar results—and that guess is based on the fact that, at the checkpoint, that’s basically what they do, as the record reveals.

We are going to wrap this up in a minute, but I want to offer a few salient quotes from the dissent in this case:

Today's decision is the ninth this Term marking the continuing evisceration of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures… the Court's decision today virtually empties the Amendment of its reasonableness requirement by holding that law enforcement officials manning fixed checkpoint stations who make standardless seizures of persons do not violate the Amendment. This holding cannot be squared with this Court's recent decisions in United States v. Ortiz…

…This defacement of Fourth Amendment protections is arrived at by a balancing process that overwhelms the individual's protection against unwarranted official intrusion by a governmental interest said to justify the search and seizure. But that method is only a convenient cover for condoning arbitrary official conduct…

…The motorist whose conduct has been nothing but innocent - and this is overwhelmingly the case - surely resents his own detention and inspection. And checkpoints, unlike roving stops, detain thousands of motorists, a dragnetlike procedure offensive to the sensibilities of free citizens. Also, the delay occasioned by stopping hundreds of vehicles on a busy highway is particularly irritating…

… Every American citizen of Mexican ancestry and every Mexican alien lawfully in this country must know after today's decision that he travels the fixed checkpoint highways at the risk of being subjected not only to a stop, but also to detention and interrogation, both prolonged and to an extent far more than for non-Mexican appearing motorists…

… Finally, the Court's argument fails for more basic reasons. There is no principle in the jurisprudence of fundamental rights which permits constitutional limitations to be dispensed with merely because they cannot be conveniently satisfied.”

So that’s today’s Part One: the sobriety checkpoint that has you ensnared and irritated—again—is only Constitutional because our Government feels that when it comes to catching criminals it’s just too big a pain to follow the rules we set out for them…and all of this is based on an immigration control checkpoint ruling.

When we return, we’ll examine another ruling, Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz (496 U.S. 444), which specifically authorized sobriety checkpoints…then we’ll see how checkpoints have morphed into something that, at its worst, allows authorities to literally lay siege to a neighborhood, as is happening even today in the Nation’s Capitol…and, finally, we’ll examine the efforts by the Federal Government to spread checkpoints to the states that today ban them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On Cooking That Turkey, Or, What To Do After The Sarah Palin Press Conference

So it’s more or less 30 hours until Americans enjoy Thanksgiving dinner, and you’re asking yourself the annual question: “Isn’t there a simple way to cook a turkey?”

Well, America, there is...and it does not involve bags, or injections, or even stuffing. No fancy preparations and no fancy equipment are required (with the exception of a large flat pan with metal handles, a carving fork or large tongs, and a food thermometer).

Here’s the cool part: this method for cooking turkeys isn’t just a method for cooking turkeys...and if you follow the directions, you’ll soon discover that not only have you learned a new way to cook a turkey, you’ve learned a new way to cook almost anything that can walk or fly.

We only have 30 hours, so we better get right to it...

Now before we go any farther, let’s relieve some of the Thanksgiving cooking stress with a video that is as topical as it gets.

Some of you may not know about the most unfortunate aftermath of Sarah Palin’s recent effort to pardon a Thanksgiving turkey...and I won’t spoil the fun if you have not yet seen it...but I will tell you that what is attached to the next link may the single funniest—and most disturbing—piece of political video I have ever seen; and somehow Palin remains blithely unaware of the events occurring just over her shoulder the entire time.

Take three minutes, watch the video, have a sip of the first glass of wine of the day...and when that’s done, we’ll get back to work.

So, are you laughing now?
OK then, let’s have some fun.

You may recall my telling you that what we are about to do can be used to cook any number of things; and to make for a better explanation I’m actually going to discuss cooking a boneless chicken breast first, and then we’ll move up to turkeys, using essentially the same technique.

So here’s what we do: turn the oven to 375 F. (190 C.), and turn the stove to either medium high (electric stoves) or nearly as big a flame as the burner will make, if you’re using a gas stove.

Grab the pan and toss it in the oven to heat.

Now what we are going to do is brown the chicken breast on top of the stove, flip it, and then cook it the rest of the way in the oven. The reason we are going to do this is because when you cook on top of the stove, you cook from bottom to top, creating a breast that’s “done” at the bottom but still “rare” at the top (you compensate for this by flipping the breast in the pan, but I have a better plan).

Cooking in the oven exposes the chicken to heat from all sides, creating an item that’s cooked on the outside and into the middle evenly (for a steak: done on the outside, perfectly pink in the middle...yummm).

So now that the pan’s hot, let’s try it: pull out the pan, put it on the hot burner, pour in just a bit of oil...and lay the breast in the pan by putting it in the part of the pan that’s closest to you first, then letting it fall away from you. (This prevents the hot oil from spattering on you...which is always a good thing.)

After a minute or so, you should see the breast browning, and that’s when we flip it over and then just put the pan right in the oven, then shut off the stove.

If you are a fancy high-falutin’ cook, you can tell when it’s done because it will feel like a well-done steak—and if you are a cooking mortal, it’s done when the thermometer tells you the temperature at the thickest part of the breast is 165 F. (75 C.).

The reward for your experimental effort should be an especially juicy breast that is not dried-out and tough. Pretty cool, eh?

“My cooking is so bad my kids thought Thanksgiving was to commemorate Pearl Harbor”

--Phyllis Diller

So how do we scale this process up to a turkey?

It’s actually really simple.

We need a substantially larger pan (I have a 14” restaurant-style sauté pan that I use for this application), and any metal pan with a reasonably thick bottom, relatively shallow sides (no saucepans or kettles), and heat-resistant handle(s) should do just nicely.

We also need to make a temperature adjustment.

As we move into larger items, we lower the oven’s temperature. We do this because we don’t want to overcook the outside before the inside is done. Instead of 375 F. (which is great for chicken breasts and steaks), we would lower the oven to 350 F. (175 C.) for something like a boneless pork loin or a small roast of beef or a whole chicken, and we would go down to 325 F. (165 C.) for something as large as our turkey.

For food safety reasons, we don’t want to use lower temperatures.

It is imperative that you raise the internal temperature of anything you cook from 40 F. (4 C.) to 140 F. (60 C.) in under two hours to avoid foodborne illness...and cooking turkeys at 275 F. (135 C.), as some suggest, is just a bit too risky for my taste.

Now a few words about measuring temperature in a bird.

Unlike “walking” meats, birds have hollow bones that do not transmit heat well. Therefore you do not want the tip of your thermometer touching—or very close to—bone when checking your turkey. (Beef, and the other “walking” animals, are the exact opposite. Their heavier bones transmit heat quite well, and the meat closest to the bone will often be the first meat below the surface to be fully cooked on a large roast of beef.)

Instead, use a location deep into the breast, away from bones...and as with all birds, a 165 F. (75 C.) internal temperature is the goal. And as with all birds, that temperature will give you a juicy, not-dried-out, result.

We are not going to stuff our bird.

This is also for food safety reasons.
The stuffing makes it take even longer to raise that turkey’s internal temperature (not to mention the stuffing’s)...and that’s a bad thing.

Bake the stuffing in its own not cook it in the bird.
Trust me on this.

There is no need to “prepare” the turkey—no rubs, no flouring the skin, nothing.
As an experiment I did a sea salt “rub” about 10 days ago on a turkey breast...and to be honest, all it did was make the skin salty.

OK, so our big pan is in the oven, getting hot...and the stove is on that same setting we used for the chicken breast...and now we take the pan, put it on the stove—and in goes the turkey, breast side down (remember, place it in the pan moving away from you to avoid splashing oil, just as with anything else you put in a pan with oil...).

You’ll have to brown one side at a time...and your fork or tongs (BBQ tools work if you don’t have big kitchen tongs or a carving fork...) can support the turkey so you don’t have to hold on to it.

It’s gonna splatter a bit (the less water, the better), but don’t be scared...and after a minute or so one side will be nicely browning, so do the other side next, and then flip the whole thing breast side up, and put the pan in the oven.

Except for taking the bird’s temperature from time to time (again, 165 F., or 75 C. internal temperature) and taking it out when it’s done, you are completely finished with the work on this project.

In fact, it’s probably about time for that second glass of wine.

So let’s take a moment and summarize.

Hot oven, hot stove, hot pan, put object to be cooked face down in pan on the stove, don’t splatter yourself, get it brown, flip it, put it in the oven, have a second glass of wine, remove from oven when done.

And just like they always tell you at the Fair: “It’s just that easy”.

So have a great day, don’t stress over the cooking...and remember, this technique works great on anything from a partridge to a steamship round.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On The Need To Clear The Musical Desk, Or, Are You In New York This Sunday?

The past six weeks have seen a narrowing of focus here at the blog as we concentrated first on the election, and more recently on the events unfolding in Egyptian politics.

As often happens when covering these major events, we have an abundance of stories that are piling up...and deserve our attention...and in this case, it’s a story that will take us far from the usual political real estate upon which we would normally slog.

It’s my happy duty, instead, to point you toward one of my favorite musicians...and in the course of doing that, to an event series that is also well worth your time...and in the course of doing that, to a bar that is working hard, every day, to fulfill your live music needs—and by an even happier coincidence, the three intersect this Sunday.

I’m a sucker for a chanteuse, I admit, be it Billie Holiday, or k.d. lang, or even Grace Jones...and I’m even more of a sucker for that Ralph Sharon sound—the stand-up bass, the piano, brushes, a nice sax solo...with a strong voice out front.

The two meet in Madeleine Peyroux.

She’s a bit of an odd duck—she’s born in Georgia, but she moved to Paris as a teenager (with her mother the French teacher) and took to the find her musical fortune, which led to her playing with bands such as the Riverboat Shufflers and the Lost Wandering Blues and Jazz Band, as NPR tells us.

She has a bit of an odd style as well: she strays from French-language classics such as “La Vie En Rose” or “J’ai Deux Amours” to “street jazz” songs like “Was I?” to unexpected “lounge jazz” remakes of songs like “Walkin’ After Midnight” (with James Carter on the saxophone...and thanks to ksingh for the correction) or Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” or “Smile” to the Ralph Sharon/Tony Bennett style in, for example, “Muddy Water” or “The Summer Wind”, a song made famous by Frank Sinatra almost half a century ago.

She also has a pop flavor to her music, with songs like “Lonesome Road” (which, I swear, has a bit of Bob Wills-like Texas swing guitar embedded in there...) or “I’m All Right” or “California Rain” being perfect examples of that pop sound.

(She has a great Web site as well, and these songs can all be heard there...and more go and enjoy, Musical Travelers...)

Over the course of the past dozen years she has released three of her own albums: “Dreamland”, “Careless Love” and, most recently, “Half the Perfect World”...but there is a really, really nice “hidden” album as well...a project she did with William Galison and Carly Simon—Got You On My Mind.

This is the stuff you listen to on a rainy afternoon...or sitting by the fireplace...or in the car, when it’s all over and you have had just about enough for one day.

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.

--Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name

So let’s say, just for the heck of it, that you’ve been hanging around Tompkins Square Park (“Come for Charlie Parker’s House...stay for the dime bags!”), and it’s getting dark...and, just like Homer Simpson, you’re afraid of the C.H.U.Ds.

What’s a music lover to do?

Well, as it happens, you’re only about 10 blocks from a refuge: the Rockwood Music Hall, which offers somewhere between six and eight bands every night for your dining and dancing pleasure. (In truth, that’s a stretch. It’s not a restaurant...and it’s way too small for a Conga line...but in a hunger emergency, the Sugar Café is just a few steps away...or you could really go nuts and hit Russ & Daughters, which is just around the corner.)

Now if the timing was just right, like, every second Sunday of the month at 6:00 PM (ish), you would see Danielle Gasparro taking the stage to interview another musician for her “Second Sundays at Rockwood Music Hall” series.

The shows combine a lengthy conversation with live performance (not unlike Piano Jazz), and have recently included appearances by Casey Shea, Paul Brill, and, by way of Denmark, Greenland, Nashville...and Washington State, Simon Lynge.

You can get a feel for the thing by visiting Gasparro’s MySpace blog and listening to all the archived events...and for an extra treat, each artist has a playlist of what music interests them.

So here’s the part where the whole story comes together: this Sunday (doors open at 6:00, but get there early!) Madeleine Peyroux and Second Sundays collide at the Rockwood—and it should be awfully good.

“There are two kinds of music; German music and bad music.”

--H.L. Mencken

And here’s the best part: there’s no cover.
Ok, that’s not actually the best part. The really best part is that, depending on who you ask, the capacity of the room is somewhere between 30 and 75 people.

The tip bucket will be passed, with the money going to right to Peyroux, so you can see a great show, learn about music and a great musician—and directly support that musician without the filters of a record company or promoters. (All the details can be found at the Second Sundays site.)

So that’s today’s story: this Sunday the most excellent Madeleine Peyroux will be at the most excellent Rockwood Music Hall for another installment of Danielle Gasparro’s most excellent “Second Sundays” series....and you can go see the show for the same price you paid to go see Tropic Thunder with the obligatory popcorn tub and tankard of Coke.

Trust me, it will be money better spent.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’m not connected with any of this personally or financially; and no music industry representatives have been hanging around doing lines with me or taking me to VIP rooms or anything like that....mostly because I’m nowhere near that cool or interesting. Instead, this is an actual unsolicited endorsement. So there you go.

Monday, November 17, 2008

On The View From Egypt, Part Three, Or, Could Big Trouble Create A "Biden Challenge" ?

I have been telling a serialized story about Egyptian politics recently, and my friend noemie maxwell, over at the Washblog, left a comment that suggested to me that I had “buried the lead” during the Part One and Part Two conversations.

We’ve been hinting at Joe Biden’s comments about inevitable challenges to the incoming Obama Administration, as well as describing political repression and the Constitutionalization of a “forever” political majority...but what we haven’t been talking about is why all of this, specifically, is important to US interests—and what a problem Big Trouble in Egypt could be for a new Administration.

Today, that’s an oversight we’re going to fix....and as a result, we won’t be resolving the cliffhanger that ended Part Two until Part Four.

So hop in the car, Gentle Reader, because we have a long ride ahead.

Let’s get this conversation started by answering the title question...why does Egypt pose such a significant potential challenge for US foreign policy?

The Middle East and its neighbors, we all know, represent the greatest foreign policy challenge we face today—and Egypt is not only adjacent to everything in the Middle East, they’re the first Arab country to have made a kind of peace with Israel.

The Gaza Strip is one half of what could eventually become Palestine...and it is surrounded on three sides by Israel—and on the other by Egypt.

The Suez Canal is entirely within Egypt. If access to the Canal were impeded, oil shipments from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq would have to travel entirely around well as trade from places such as Indonesia, India, and China heading to the Mediterranean and beyond that, to Northern Europe and the East Coast of North America. The Canal, and the trade it supports, has been so important for so long that the British considered it the “jugular vein” of their Empire—in 1892.

(Here’s a fun fact: it is estimated that 120,000 Egyptian forced laborers died during the construction of the Canal.)

We have an extremely close relationship with Egypt as it relates to our “War on Terror”...and they are very important to our very ugly “rendition” program:

“"If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear-never to see them again-you send them to Egypt."

--Ex-CIA agent Bob Baer, quoted in Stephen Gray'sThe New Statesman” article “America’s Gulag”

We send lots of people to be interrogated, tortured, and disappeared all over the world—and lots of them end up in Egypt; delivered by our CIA to their SSI (State Security Investigations). How many exactly? No one is telling—and it’s possible that no one actually knows.

One thing we do know: we have been following our longtime pattern of supporting a “repressive strongman” in Egypt, just as we have in so many other countries—and that often comes back to bite us very hard (see: Iran).

Lazoghli Square.

The name conjures up such happy memories...if you were one of those who were married at the Notary Public’s Office down at the ol’ Ministry of Justice offices located on the Square.

If you were one of those who were tortured to death by SSI, in the very same building...well, those memories aren’t so happy.

And it is those memories that we will have to deal with should President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party lose their hold on power suddenly—and it is those memories that have the potential to make things very bad for the US, not just for bilateral relations, but for our relations across the Islamic world.

How bad might it get?

You may recall from our last conversation that essentially the only political opposition that is not the Muslim Brotherhood is the Al-Ghad Party...and you may recall from our last conversation that Ayman Nour, Al-Ghad’s 2005 and 2008 Presidential candidate (and the subject of the cliffhanger from the last story), has been in and out of prison lately.

The de facto current leader of the Al-Ghad Party, Wa’el Nawara, offered this assessment of the potential problems ahead in an email I received just last evening:

Egypt is key to the region's stability and development ... the situation is even more critical than Iran ...

If Egypt falls ... the entire Middle East and North Africa fall - from Pakistan to Morocco - into chaos, or into the hands of extremists or back to the extremists or back to the age of one-military-coup-every-six-months.

With the eradication of all moderate opposition and the elimination of any real political process, the political situation in Egypt is so uncertain and fragile to the extent that no one knows what happens when Mubarak leaves. Building a political process and tolerating real secular opposition is an insurance policy for stability which the Egyptian regime has persistently failed to subscribe to.

And therein lies the answer to today’s question.

Two things are required to turn Egypt into a foreign policy challenge for the new Administration: there has to be the potential for great damage to peace and stability if Big Trouble should come...and there should be some indication that Big Trouble might be on the way, sooner rather than later.

If Wa’el Nawara is to be believed, the potential for great damage is definitely now what we need to know is whether Big Trouble might really be on the way, sooner rather than later.

Well, folks, I believe it may be...but that will be the second cliffhanger we will resolve in Part Four of this story.

Since we’re running a bit long, and I’m trying to avoid 4,000 word stories, we’ll end today’s conversation with a final thought from Wa’el Nawara:

I just hope that the new US Administration will be able to develop rapport and in fact build some leverage ... in the relationship with Egypt ... soft leverage ... based on partnership and mutual interests ... such that this leverage can be used to talk the regime into affecting much-needed political reform and democratic transformation. This is the only way to insure long-term stability in Egypt and the Region.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

On The View From Egypt, Part Two, Or, If You Can't Beat 'Em, Lock 'Em  Up  

Joe the Biden famously warned us that the new President will be tested by a foreign policy challenge--and most of us assumed that challenge would come from somewhere like Pakistan, Afghanistan...or Russia.

New developments in the Middle East are suggesting that the challenge might come from an entirely different direction.

It’s quite a story we’ve been telling--and today’s installment involves massive electoral manipulation, intimidation, imprisonment... and a recanting witness who dies in his jail cell.

Hop on board the international train, Gentle Reader, and we’ll see what we can learn about a country that is hardly an enemy...that is, in fact, such an ally that they have been willing to torture for us.

As the title notes, this is Part Two of a larger story, so let’s recap:

The Arab Republic of Egypt has been ruled by various versions of one political party more or less forever. That political party is today known as the National Democratic Party (NDP); and at its head is Egypt’s President (since 1981), Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s Constitution is written so as to ensure the perpetual dominance of the NDP. For example, the Government is allowed to license political parties...and may revoke that license if a Party violates the law.

Egypt’s Constitution says that “national unity” is the principle to which politics in the Republic shall adhere, which means any political party that advocates any change in the way the NDP is running things is potentially guilty of a violation of law.

The recap complete, let’s move on to new business.

There are other political groups in Egypt besides the NDP, but the opposition is kept very tightly controlled.

One opposition group that exists, but really doesn’t is Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen (in English, the Muslim Brotherhood).

The group has been officially banned in Egypt, but individuals “unofficially” supporting the Brotherhood have run successfully for Parliament. (In 2005, the unofficial Brotherhood candidates won 20% of Parliamentary seats.)

It is said that Mr. Mubarak allows the presence of the Brotherhood, partly to convince Americans that he and the NDP represent the only option other than Radical Islamism...and partly because his own citizens support elements of the Brotherhood’s platform.

Not unlike other Islamist political organizations, the Brotherhood also provides social services in ways the Government does not, which has also strongly connected the group to Egyptian citizens.

Some report that the Brotherhood is associated with extremists, others report that the Brotherhood has in recent decades chosen a moderate path, seeking to impose Shari’a Law through elections and other political means. It is likely that both statements are, to some degree, correct.

Partly because the Government has tolerated the Brotherhood--and partly because the Brotherhood has become powerful enough to demand it--Islamists have gained authority as de facto cultural rulemakers; which, ironically, has led to the Brotherhood acquiring the very political influence Mr. Mubarak’s Government had hoped to avoid giving away.

In an attempt to reduce that influence, there have been various crackdowns on the group....meaning that from time to time the Mubahath el-Dawla (Egyptian State Security) “rounds up the usual suspects” for a bit of intimidation, beating, and torture...with jail time applied as needed.

Other means are also used: as an example, virtually the entire slate of candidates that hoped to run as “Independent” candidates (but were widely perceived as being associated with the Brotherhood) were disqualified by the Government, with only 20 being allowed to run for the 52,000 positions available in the April 2008 elections. (These were the same candidates that had won 20% of the seats in Parliament, and it was expected that they would also do well in the local elections.)

The Brotherhood, despite the best efforts of the Government, is not the only opposition.

There have been a variety of efforts over the years to mount other “reform” candidacies; and today Egypt’s most successful reformer outside the Brotherhood is Ayman Nour.

Of course, in Egyptian politics, success is relative.

Nour, an attorney by trade, was elected to Parliament, but his first major success came just three months after he formed the El-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party in an effort to put himself in contention for Mr. Mubarak’s job in the 2005 Presidential election...when he was stripped of his Parliamentary immunity, arrested, tossed into prison, and charged with conspiring to forge some of the signatures that were on his nominating petitions.

Additional success came in the form of the Party’s newspaper being banned the day before it was scheduled to hit the newsstands.

In the subsequent trial, monitored by Human Rights Watch, the State was able to present co-defendants who admitted their own culpability in the forging of signatures, and who then named Nour as the group’s ringleader. Nour denied having ever met five of his six alleged co-conspirators.

It was alleged by Nour’s defense that Egyptian State Security had “assisted” the co-defendants with their recollection of events—and in fact, one of the co-defendants, Ayman Isma’il Hassan, recanted his testimony in open court, claiming that he was coerced into his confession.

The State Department offered this comment on December 24, 2005:

The United States is troubled by the Egyptian court decision convicting civil reformer and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour. Mr. Nour's trial has been marred by irregularities and inconsistencies, and has failed to meet the international standards of transparency and respect for rule of law that the Egyptian Government has publicly espoused.

Mr. Nour's detention and sentencing raise serious concerns about the path of political reform and democracy in Egypt, and is inconsistent with the Egyptian Government's professed commitment to increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society.

We note reports that Ayman Nour's health appears to be deteriorating, and we urge the Egyptian Government to consider his humanitarian release.

The United States and the international community have been following with concern the Government of Egypt's handling of Ayman Nour's case. We will continue to press for his release.

Nour received a five year sentence and was sent to the Mazra'at Tura Prison.

As it turns out, Hassan, the recanting witness, did not survive the events of the trial and his own five year sentence that followed: it is reported that he was found by his three cellmates hanged in his prison cell when they awoke one morning in September 2007.

I love a good cliffhanger...especially when they are real.

With that in mind, this is where we stop for today—but here’s what you need to know:

Nour’s story, despite the intimidation and imprisonment, is far from over.
The intimidation and imprisonment (courtesy of a Government we strongly support) isn’t over, either.

The next time we meet, there’s a lot more story to tell: the Internet becomes the opposition’s most dangerous weapon, the Government responds with “spontaneous demonstrations” and arson...and we discover that in Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt, bloggers are such a threat to public order that they are now themselves targets for torture.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On The New President, Or, The World Doesn’t Change All In One Day

Those who follow this space closely will know that we, from time to time, scout around and see what the other members of my blogging community are up to.

The "Blogpower" bloggers are primarily based in the UK, but others are located in the US, Canada, Australia, Italy…and even the Sudan.

We’ll see how they reacted to the US elections—and we’ll discover that while many are happy, it’s not all strawberries and cream out there.

We’ll meet the happy, we’ll meet the silly—and we’ll meet the not-so-very-happy as well.

So with that said, let’s head over to the UK, shall we?

"When as the rye reach to the chin,
And chopcherry, chopcherry, ripe within,
Strawberties swimming in the cream,
And schoolboys playing in the stream..."

--George Peele, “The Old Wives Tale

Not quite 100 miles north of London, and roughly 100 miles west of Amsterdam lies a whole bunch of lovely farm country, which includes Norfolk, where the "Norfolk Blogger" is one of the happy. No longer will the USA seem as though we are “putting two fingers up to the world”, we are told (for the benefit of Americans, the “peace sign” is not always seen as peaceful…); and in fact, it’s “Now for America to become the "good guys" again”, as the blog’s title reminds us.

Our friend Ellee Seymour, besides being one of the happy, is also the one who is checking up on her fellow bloggers’ predictive skills, as she reviews who was more right about the outcome, and those who were, shall we say, not exactly right at all.

There is advice to be had, as well. Matt Wardman, over at the “Wardman Wire” cautions us that “landslide” talk is helping no one. (Be sure to follow the comment thread for a most informative list that shows the margins of victory for every Presidential election since 1900.)

Thunder Dragon notes the problem of Presidential lame dickitude and the apparent pointlessness of the G20 economic summit--unless Obama attends.

Some offered advice just before the election, as well. Our friend Hercules presented cautions that seem to have also been well represented in the official John McCain message…and Ruthie Zaftig suggested people like Hercules should basically get over it.

And on a completely different subject “The Tangled Rope” blog reminds us that the Fifth Annual Worldwide Admire Your Genitals Day was celebrated November 6th…

More analysis: “A Conservative’s Blog” is worried about possible protectionist tendencies from an Obama Administration, “The People’s Republic of Birmingham” hopes that expectations are not impossibly high, and Andrew Allison reminds us that voting against Obama is not a sign of racism…even as he expresses his appreciation that the US has elected a President “…who can string a few words together in grammatical English…”

Analysis of the day: the “Capitalists @ Work” blog compares the 2008 and the 1860 Presidential election maps, creating some serious electoral déjà vu…and suggesting the possibility of “Republican dreams gone with the wind”.

"It must be some measure of the catastrophic decline in Australian cricket that there are blokes in the squad these days who have not even published an autobiography, let alone a barbecue cookbook."

--John Huxley, “The Sydney Morning Herald”, Nov 10, 2008

Australia’s “Adelaide Green Porridge Cafe” offers Obama two llamas and three bananas, along with the observation that Obama wasn’t the only world leader who acceded to power this past week.

Vancouver, BC’s “The Conscious Earth” reminds us that political apathy is often related to the question of who’s running…

Returning to the UK…the Emperor Camillus, the conquest of the Etruscans, and the never-ending question of how a Senate deals with a fiscal windfall are questions addressed by the most excellent “Westminster Wisdom” blog.

Tuscan Tony, the master of mixing the moderately naughty with Conservative politics, brings us the truly important electoral results: Whirl of Change has defeated Straight Talk Crunch in the Baskin-Robbins “Flavor Debate ’08!”, marking the sixth and seventh times politically inspired flavors have been tried at the ol’ 31 Flavors.

There is nothing more dreadful than the habit of doubt. Doubt separates people. It is a poison that disintegrates friendships and breaks up pleasant relations. It is a thorn that irritates and hurts; it is a sword that kills.

--Gautam Buddha

I am myself forever guilty of this habit…and it is fair to say that I would not be here today if it were not for my habit of doubt—and there are two members of my community who have substantial doubts about this new President.

From “The Two Wolves” come concerns that the US has become a nation that votes based on race…and from the “Pub Philosopher” we are asked, basically, just how happy should liberals really feel if Obama is elected and California passes Proposition 8 on the same day?

We’re almost at the end, and since we are talking about doubt I wanted to bring to your attention a blog from the Sudan that is not a part of our Blogpower community, “Soul Searching”; who sees the election’s demonizing of “Muslim” Obama as a setback for Arab-Americans.

The final blog: my own. I challenged myself to dress Sarah Palin in the finest of clothes, from Saks’ and Neiman’s no less; and to do it for a mere $43,000—2/3 off the Republican National Committee’s expenses.

The point: could you trust an Administration to spend $150 billion if they couldn’t handle $150,000? Two stories full of Oscar de la Renta and Miu Miu later, not only did we do it, we did it under budget.

So there you go…we learn a bit about what folks are thinking, we get a few cautions, and we are reminded that this is our chance to redeem ourselves…if we don’t screw it up.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It's All Over, And Just Beginning, Or, Why The Campaign Never Ends

It is once again time to play “piano bar” here at the ole’ blog and turn a reader question into a story...and our “request” today comes from our friend jmb who is lucky enough to be living in Vancouver, British Columbia.

She wonders why American politics is now in permanent campaign mode. She comes from a Canadian tradition of limited campaign periods, and it seems awfully strange to her that we are already thinking about 2010, 2012, and 2016 before 2008 is even decided.

Matter of fact, it seems strange to a lot of us in the US as well.

Why does it happen?
Can it be fixed?
What can we learn from 2008?

Those are the questions we’ll take on today...and with time especially short today, we need to get right to work.

In order to really get at the answers to these questions, we need to consider some of the fundamental differences between the political system in the US and Parliamentary systems, such as the one in place in Canada.

Right off the bat, Canadian Federal elections have not occurred on a regular schedule, as they do in the US (although that is about to change). Beyond that, Canadian law limits access to airtime for political campaign advertising, including advertising by third parties. Canadian law also creates defined campaign “seasons” during which electioneering can occur.

In the US, all Members of the House of Representatives are elected every two years; Senators, every six years (one-third are elected every two years). The President and State Governors are elected to four-year terms.

As a result, elections will occur at least every two years in the US.

Because the Canadian Prime Minister is not chosen by public vote, and Canadian Senators are appointed, there is only one federally elected position, the Member of Parliament.

The very essence of what we’re campaigning for is much different as well.

In Canada, and other similar countries, the goal of the Liberal Party at election time is to elect a majority of the members of Parliament from their Party (or to become the plurality, and then form a coalition Government), who will then choose a Prime Minister from among their Members. The Prime Minister runs the Executive functions of these Governments.

Every other Party in the country is trying to do the same thing at the same time.

In the US the goal of the Parties is to elect enough Members of Congress to have majorities in both Houses, so as to advance legislation...but they cannot choose who will run the Executive Branch. In some election cycles, the People also have to elect a President—and as the Obama versus Clinton battle demonstrates, the winner of that contest might not be the Party Establishment’s choice.

In the US it is common for the Presidency and the Congress to be controlled by different Parties (as it is today)—and it is also possible for the House to be controlled by one Party, and the Senate another. These situations would not occur in a Parliamentary system like Canada’s.

In some US States (California, Oregon, and Washington are three quick examples), the People may bypass the Legislature and enact laws upon their own authority through the initiative process—but doing that requires elections, as we have to vote on the various proposals. (Voters in the Canadian Province of British Columbia also have access to the initiative process.)

All that having been said, let’s start answering some questions:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

--The First Amendment to the US Constitution

Part of the reason the US has moved into a permanent campaign mode is because the First Amendment absolutely prevents any effort to limit campaign periods.

Political speech, particularly that offered to advance or oppose a candidacy or issue, is the freest of speech, and offered the greatest degree of protection under First Amendment doctrine as applied by the United States Supreme Court over the years.

Indeed, the speech in which Mrs. McIntyre engaged--handing out leaflets in the advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint--is the essence of First Amendment expression... No form of speech is entitled to greater constitutional protection than Mrs. McIntyre's.

--McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, 514 U.S. 334 (1995)

The Supreme Court has ruled that restricting the amount that may be raised and spent by a campaign is unconstitutional (see Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U. S. 1 (1976) for more details); this is because spending to advance a candidacy or issue by a campaign is considered protected political speech.

Spending your own money to advance your own candidacy is offered the same protections—but limiting the amount of money that can be contributed by an individual to the campaign of another is permitted on the theory that reducing the corruptive effect of large donations on the political process is a government interest that outweighs the liberty interest of allowing those large donations.

(“Corporate persons” do not have the same First Amendment protections as actual people, and there are what appear to be constitutionally acceptable limits on their political activities.)

This legal theory is controversial in some circles, and you should expect the doctrine to be challenged in the future.

The current donation limits are $2300 per donor per candidate per two-year electoral cycle; and $108,200 in total contributions by one donor to all Federal candidates and PACs per biennium.

Our Constitution protects aliens, drunks and U.S. Senators.

--Will Rogers, in “Daily Telegram 2678”, March 6, 1935

It’s time to talk about campaigning for President.

Win or lose, there are a few things that can already be said about the Obama campaign:

Obama came from absolute obscurity in 2004 to where he is today—and he did much of it by “going around” the Democratic Party establishment, which was very much under Hillary’s control.

That meant, in four years, he had to make himself seem like a serious candidate to a public who had never heard of him; which means he had to develop a “Presidential Brand Identity” for himself despite potentially ferocious, potentially Clinton-led, resistance.

In that time he needed to create an entirely independent campaign infrastructure that was able to operate in all 50-odd primaries (every state plus the several Territories and the District of Columbia), he needed to attract influential donors and advisors...and he needed to “make the rounds”--to attend the innumerable “rubber chicken” Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce and County and State Party lunches and dinners that you have to attend in order to shake the hands of the locally important and demonstrate your Presidential “gravitas”.

When thinking about infrastructure and relationship-building, consider that Canada is a nation of roughly 30 million (a population similar to California’s), spread across 13 Provinces and Territories; and the US is a nation of 300 million, with a total of 57 States, Territories, and the Federal District. That means it takes longer to get your face out there in the US if you’re a new national candidate than it would in Canada.

To accomplish all of this took Obama the better part of four years...and in Canada, there’s a permanent Party structure that manages those relationships for the candidates they select to run—and to become Prime Minister, you really only need to persuade your own Party members and Members of Parliament to support you, making things much easier for the candidates seeking that position than it is for US Presidential candidates.

Another issue is getting on all those 50-odd ballots in the first place. A candidate has to physically file in every jurisdiction in which they wish to run—and part of the filing process is the gathering of signatures from residents of all of those locations by the candidate in order to qualify. Again, that takes time.

(For the foreign reader, the Parties cannot do this work because they do not yet know which candidate will be their nominee, and they won’t know that until the primaries actually begin later on in the process.)

Running for Congress, for a new candidate, is a similar process—you need to create your own “power base” without a Party to advance you along the way (unless you’re the incumbent or well connected in the opposition Party’s establishment), you need to find ways to finance a campaign—and to get well enough known to have a chance to win, you likely need to shake a lot of hands and do some favors, which takes time.

Meanwhile, the two Parties are trying to improve their relative positions in each House of Congress, which means even as the polls are closing each Party is thinking about how to advantage itself in the next election, which will never be more than two years away.

America... just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.

--Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

So how can this “condition” be changed?

It probably can’t.

The most likely reform that would pass Constitutional muster would be an arrangement that required broadcasters to offer discounted or free airtime for political purposes—but it should be noted that this could only be mandated because the airwaves are publicly owned. It is unlikely cable operators could be held to the same kind of requirements, unless the contracts they operate under were to be modified from today’s norms.

Limiting access to that airtime would be much more problematic (airtime is akin to a modern “Speaker’s Corner” for Constitutional purposes), and I would not expect to see that sort of reform anytime soon.

Limiting the period of campaigning will also be exceptionally unlikely to pass Constitutional muster...and limiting campaign speech, in any other manner, will be equally tough.

Some of the same problems, ironically, might be coming to Canada. There are recommendations to move to “Mixed Proportional Representation”, which is a system where some Parliamentary candidates run “to the public” while others are selected by each Party to run on a “Party Slate”, if you will. The goal is to award seats more or less proportionately with the actual ballots cast (if your party gets 20% of the vote, for example, you should end up with roughly 20% of the seats).

We assume the “public” candidates will have to expand their “non-campaign” political activities to create interest in that Party among the larger voting public...this, because the “public” candidates are now essentially “running for two”. You might see a lot of “ribbon-cutting” appearances (“I’m proud to appear with the Mayor at the opening of this lovely new park...”) and seminars and “discussion groups” to raise public awareness and create more political “buzz”...without, of course, any actual “campaigning” taking place.

We also suspect putting elections on a schedule will increase these tendencies.

And with all that said, we have arrived at our lessons for the day: the “eternal campaign” is probably here to stay, there are Constitutional reasons that Canadian-style restrictions cannot be applied to US elections...the goals of Parties and candidates in the US and Canada are fundamentally different...and because the nominating process in the US allows anyone to win the nomination of a Party—sometimes against that party’s will—the “eternal campaign” sometimes creates a President Clinton, who appears seemingly out of nowhere.

And sometimes...a President Bush.

And what we get today...well, I guess we just wait and see...

Sunday, November 2, 2008

On Spinning Up Fear, Or, My Crazy Is Crazier Than Your Crazy

There are but three days to go, Gentle Reader, and the McCain campaign is now down to fear and Joe The Plumber.

Those who seek to spread The Fear are resorting to fantastic schemes and amazing leaps of logic in an effort to find something to make The Fear rise in voters.

But to be honest, the crazy speculation lacks...imagination.

I believe I can present crazy speculation that is at least as interesting as what they’ve put out—and funnier to boot—and with that and the Halloween just past in mind we present the final weekend edition of the 2008 campaign cycle's blogging.

So, ya wanna hear a few debunked made up rumors that, frankly, have a lot more creative style?

Here’s a good one, to get things started: Obama does not plan to increase employment by having the Department of Health and Human Services purchase hundreds of mobile medical vans that he will staff with pro-choice doctors and nurses so they can drive around the country and perform mobile abortions by night while teaching sex education to kindergarteners by day.

The rumor that Nicholas Sarkozy is planning to resign as President of France so that he can become Governor of West Virginia after Obama renames it West By God France is, sadly, untrue.

Obama will not rip off a fake rubber head on Inauguration Day and reveal himself to actually be Osama Bin-Laden...or one of the Clintons.

Obama is not planning to create a secret Mexico – USA – Canada “Underground Railroad” so that he can deport all the white people to evacuation camps outside the USA...”for their own safety”...and then sell American Citizenships—and the white people’s former houses--to his millions of foreign campaign donors.

Obama’s education policy is not to change the name of every American primary school to William Ayres Elementary.

There are no plans to change Christmas into a secular holiday called “Reverend Wright Day”.

It turns out that the rapidly developing operational concepts that are to be put in place during the transition to turn all Federal buildings and installations into mosques that actually serve as processing centers for the plan to turn all Non-Muslim Infidels into Soylent Green that will be donated to hungry Iranian children are, in fact, only rumors.

“A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.”

--George Bernard Shaw

Sarah Palin is not acting that way to fool John McCain so that she can take over...Captain Queeg style... if they win.

Tina Fey is not doing all Sarah Palin’s public appearances from the same Area 51 soundstage that was used to stage the moon landings. (In fairness, that one’s almost true. She’s actually using a different one.)

No matter what it says in that one email you received, in an Obama Administration Boy Scouts will not be able to earn merit badges by marrying gay couples.

Kang and Kodos are not on the way to Washington to lobby the new President for leniency for the real illegal aliens.

Despite what some people might suspect, the Obama campaign is not running a secret whisper campaign intimating that Joe The Plumber was, for two years, the seventh member of The Village People.

Barack Obama’s staff, The Secretariat of the United Nations, the Zionist Jews, (represented by the Bilderberger Club), the US Defense Department’s Institute of Heraldry, the European Commission, and Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya are not meeting in Geneva to figure out how to change the US, UN, Israeli, and European flags by replacing the stars (or the wreath, depending on the flag) with the crescent of Islam in time for the Inauguration.

Nobody is planning on making all dog food out of grain-based products in order to advance the vegetarian agenda...or at least, not that “I know of”.

Now look, folks, all of this is fun for a Sunday, but there is a bigger message: things that are just as foolish as what you are hearing here are being spread—and not just in the Presidential race—and I’m here to suggest that if you hear some of their foolishness, you can reply with some of this, as a means of using absurd to “out” absurd.

Have fun with it...invent the wildest rumors possible...and if someone gives you that “hey, they might be right...” look, stare ‘em right in the eye and ask: “my friends, if you can believe this load of numbnuttery...I know someone who’s looking to unload a slightly used Palin Barbie...with all the clothes and accessories reasonable offer refused...”

Then watch the looks on the faces of the other the big line you’re all waiting in...and smile just a bit, inside, because you know you’ve done your good deed for the day.