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Richard Kim

Richard Kim

 Short takes on politics, culture and life.

The Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi We Will Never Know

Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers University student charged with bias intimidation, wipes his brow as he departs the courtroom inside of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County, New Brunswick, New Jersey March 15, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson 

The verdict in the Dharun Ravi trial came down on Friday. As I wrote back in September 2010, Tyler Clementi’s suicide shatters that part of me that remembers what it was like to be 18 and in the nerve-wracking process of coming out—at once both bold and shy, alight with a sense of possibility one minute, jaded and world-weary the next. I survived, as most gay people do; Tyler did not. Why? Nothing that has been revealed in the trial and subsequent reports has satisfyingly answered that question for me. And nothing about the verdict gives me an ounce of comfort.

After turning down a plea deal that would have spared him jail time, Ravi was tried on thirty-five charges related to fifteen separate counts and was found guilty on twenty-four of them. Seven of these are for tampering with evidence or hindering the prosecution; eight are for invading or attempting to invade the privacy of Clementi and his sexual partner, identified in court only as “M.B.”

If Clementi hadn’t committed suicide, it’s quite likely that these charges would never have been brought against Ravi, and the whole matter might have been resolved by Rutgers authorities. But Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge just days after Ravi, his freshman year roommate for all of three weeks, saw him making out with M.B. on his web cam, tweeted about it and then hatched a foiled plot to broadcast a second encounter. As Ian Parker’s excellent New Yorker anatomy documents, a firestorm erupted, fueled by misinformation and speculation about what actually happened. People assumed that Clementi was closeted (he was not), that Ravi and his accomplice Molly Wei had watched entire sexual episodes (they only saw a few seconds of making out), that Ravi had recorded the incidents (he did not), that he successfully broadcast them online (he did not) and that Clementi was the victim of widespread homophobic bullying (he was not). Gay rights advocates recklessly called for manslaughter and hate crimes charges to be brought against Ravi and Wei. Facing intense public pressure, the Middlesex county prosecutor relented, in part. Wei struck a plea deal and testified against Ravi, who was convicted not just of invasion of privacy but on nine additional charges of bias intimidation, turning the conviction into a hate crime and creating the very real possibility that he could be sent to jail for ten years. His sentencing is on May 21. Because he is an immigrant, there is also a chance that Ravi could be deported to India.

On civil liberties grounds, I’m opposed to all forms of hate crimes legislation—punish the crime, not the thought, I say. But since hate crimes laws are on the books, it’s worth reviewing whether or not they were appropriately applied to this case. When hate crimes were expanded to include sexual orientation in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder, the argument for them was that they were necessary to prosecute violent crimes perpetrated by extremist agents of hate who were terrorizing whole communities. (Whether or not that description applies to Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, is subject to debate. Whether or not hate crimes statutes were necessary to throw the book at them is not. Wyoming had no hate crimes statute, but McKinney and Henderson will both die in jail.) Dharun Ravi may have been, as one friend described him, “so much of a jerk,” but no one has alleged that he is a violent criminal. But is he a hater?

The cell phone and social media evidence that Parker combs through for his article suggests a more complicated picture than the initial caricature of Ravi as a cyber-armed, homophobic bully. Decode and contextualize the teen-text speak, and what emerges is a story of two boys, one more vulnerable than the other, trying to navigate—badly and without much guidance—the vicissitudes of close encounters of the freshman kind. Ravi expresses horror when he discovers online that his new roommate is gay (“FUCK MY LIFE/He’s gay”), but he later texts “I don’t care” and characterizes Clementi as “gay but regular gay”—a term he also used to refer to the month of January (“what a gay month”). He was also upset with what he believed to be the Clementi family’s poverty (“dude I hate poor people”). Clementi, for his part, expresses some alarm that his new roommate’s parents are “soo Indian first gen americanish” and so “defs owna dunkin’ [donuts].” Had the roles been reversed, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which that text would be used in court as evidence of Clementi’s racism. Class, race, sex—the stuff that grips the grown-up world is all there in grammatically challenged, condensed crudeness, because teenage boys are the unadulterated personification of the collective social id.

Don’t mistake me. This isn’t a “boys will be boys and so it’s all okay” argument. Pace Christina Hoff Sommers, the piggish culture of teenage masculinity to which Ravi bowed all too obsequiously is not all right. Boys will be boys—and that’s why they need to change. What the record shows, however, is that that too was a possibility. Clementi requested a room change and reported the incident to an RA, who took it seriously and spoke to Ravi about it. Perhaps that would have ended the matter, or perhaps the two would have learned to live with each other. They might even have become friends. We’ll never know.

What we do know is that minutes after Clementi posted on Facebook “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” Ravi texted him two apologies. The latter read, “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it…. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.” Ravi says that he did not see Clementi’s suicide post when he apologized. If this is true, it demonstrates Ravi’s capacity—however stunted and late—for moral reasoning and maturation. And maybe he will still grow up to be better man, but it’s hard to see how ten years in prison makes that process any easier.

Clementi, of course, will never have the opportunity to grow up. In the media’s gaze and in the court records, he is frozen as the ultimate victim, a symbol instead of the person he was and the potential person he might have become. For those close to him, this martyrdom adds another complicating layer to the grief. Tyler’s brother James, who is also gay, recently published some heartbreaking posthumous letters to his kid brother. In them, he writes:

“I wonder what you would think, seeing all the commotion you’ve caused. It is surreal and meaningless to see you as a mere story on The New York Times, a brief glimpse at a life with none of the detail. You were a typical college freshman, trying to adjust to a dorm room, make some friends, meet a cute guy, and enjoy your independence, and no one noticed. The headlines tell of how you were violated and ridiculed; your last moments are a cautionary tale, a scandal, something to sell and entertain.”

Among the things blotted out by the trial and media circus is the enduring mystery of why Tyler Clementi committed suicide. He had an older, gay brother with whom he had a close and supportive relationship. His parents' reaction to his sexual orientation was mixed; his father was cool, his mother not so much, but they were still in regular and civil communication. He was clearly vexed about what Dharun Ravi had done, but was discussing what to do about it with a friend, the RA and online message boards. There’s nothing in these records that indicated he was suicidal or even beyond appropriately anxious about a situation to which he himself saw a resolution within reach (a new room). He wasn’t the victim of bullying across campus, and although he was socially shy, he was also somewhat sexually daring. He had four years of college, and a life, to look forward to—and indeed, until his Facebook post announcing his suicide, he was doing just that.

There are all too many cases of gay teenagers whose lives have been made intolerably miserable and who are driven to suicide by the harassment and violence of parents, family, fellow students, teachers and other authority figures. This is not transparently one of them. And the trial and verdict to one side, there is another kind of injustice done when a life is crudely forced into becoming a symbol of social wrongs, when it is made to carry the burden of a composite reality—anti-gay hate crimes—to which it bears but a schematic and hasty relation.

We Are All Human Microphones Now

Anyone who’s been down to Occupy Wall Street and stayed for a General Assembly will instantly recognize the call and response that begins, and frequently interrupts, each meeting.

“Mic check?” someone implores.

“MIC CHECK!” the crowd shouts back, more or less in unison.

The thing is—there's no microphone. New York City requires a permit for “amplified sound” in public, something that the pointedly unpermitted Occupy Wall Street lacks. This means that microphones and speakers are banned from Liberty Plaza, and the NYPD has also been interpreting the law to include battery-powered bullhorns. Violators can be sentenced for up to thirty days in prison. Further complicating the matter is the fact that Liberty Plaza is not actually a public park. It’s privately owned by Brookfield Office Properties, landlords to Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, and in addition to amplified sound, they’ve also sought to ban sleeping bags, tents and other equipment from what they call “Zuccotti Park.”

So despite all the attention given to how Twitter, Facebook and livestream video have helped spread the word, the heart of the occupation is most definitely unplugged. But the protesters aren’t deterred one bit; they’ve adopted an ingeniously simple people-powered method of sound amplification. After the mic check, the meeting proceeds:

with every few words / WITH EVERY FEW WORDS!

repeated and amplified out loud / REPEATED AND AMPLIFIED OUT LOUD!

by what has been dubbed / BY WHAT HAS BEEN DUBBED! 

the human microphone / THE HUMAN MICROPHONE!!! (jazz hands here).

The overall effect can be hypnotic, comic or exhilarating—often all at once. As with every media technology, to some degree the medium is the message. It’s hard to be a downer over the human mic when your words are enthusiastically shouted back at you by hundreds of fellow occupiers, so speakers are usually pretty upbeat (or at least sound that way). Likewise, the human mic is not so good for getting across complex points about, say, how the Federal Reserve’s practice of quantitative easing is inadequate to address the current shortage of global aggregate demand (although Joe Stiglitz valiantly tried on Sunday), so speakers tend to express their ideas in straightforward narrative or moral language.

There’s something inherently pluralistic about the human mic too; it’s almost impossible to demagogue, to interrupt and shout someone down or to hijack the General Assembly for your own sectarian purposes. That’s clearly been a saving grace of this occupation, as the internecine fights over identity and ideology that usually characterize left formations haven’t corrosively bubbled over into blood feuds there—yet. The human mic is also, of course, an egalitarian instrument, and it exudes solidarity over ego. No doubt, a great frenzy erupts when left gods like Michael Moore or Cornel West descend to speak, but many people only hear their words through the human mic, in the horizontal acoustics of the crowd instead of the electrified intimacy of “amplified sound.” Celebrity, charisma, status, even public-speaking ability—they all just matter less over the human microphone.

But the greatest hidden virtue of the human mic has been the quality that almost every observer has reflexively lamented: it is slow. I mean incredibly, agonizingly, astonishingly slow; it can take over an hour for the General Assembly just to get through a nightly refresher course on group protocols before starting in on announcements, which precede debate about anything new, like whether or not the occupation should make a list of demands and if so, what those demands should be. Imagine collectively debating and writing the Port Huron Statement, by consensus, three to five words at a time.

But really, what is the goddamn rush? As my colleague Betsy Reed points out, it’s Occupy Wall Streets’ raw anger and simple resistance to being beat down (sentiments well suited for the human mic) that have captured the public’s imagination, not the elaborate policy proposals of other efforts. As days go by and as the press attention heats up, the occupiers will be under increasing pressure to speed things up: to issue a list of demands, appoint spokespeople, nominate leaders, enumerate an agenda. I’m not sure they should go there—they did manage, over two weeks, to arrive at a consensus for a first statement, which if you think about it is a mind-boggling achievement—but if they do decide on demands, it will be at a plodding pace over the human mic. That’s a good thing; the longer Occupy Wall Street can stay relatively indeterminate, the longer it has to capture the symbolic power of resistance itself.

The rest we can figure out; the protesters plan to be there through the winter, so we have plenty of time. Think of it as slow growth activism, one that poses a provocative counter-model to Wall Street’s regime of instant profits. After all, it was in the offices and exchanges surrounding Occupy Wall Street that the financiers sliced and diced assets with mind-numbing speed. Enabled by vast and unregulated databases of information, the genius of quants and fancy algorithms and the whirl of flash trades, they ruled the economy on the principles of simultaneity and speed.

That did not work out so well.

It is, of course, ironic that New York City’s attempt to crackdown on political protest by restricting “amplified sound” unwittingly ended up contributing to the structural strength of its rowdiest protest in decades. But like in Egypt or Argentina or Belarus or other places where the authorities sought to silence speech, the people found a way to be heard.

So how about it, can I get a mic check for this one: The people have the power.

 Michael Moore meets the human mic:

Joe Stiglitz gets amped:

Supreme Court Rejects Stay of Execution for Troy Davis

11:08 pm: Time of death for Troy Anthony Davis, 42.

Donate $11.08—or more—in his name to the Innocence Project or to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty or to Amnesty International.

10:43 pm: The Supreme Court issued a one-sentence statement denying Troy Davis’s stay of execution. It read, “The application for stay of execution of death presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the Court is denied.”

Earlier today, Troy Davis issued this statement:

“The struggle for justice doesn’t end with me. This struggle is for all the Troy Davises who came before me and all the ones who will come after me. I’m in good spirits and I’m prayerful and at peace. But I will not stop fighting until I’ve taken my last breath. Georgia is prepared to snuff out the life of an innocent man.”

10:21 pm: Democracy Now! is reporting that the Supreme Court has refused to stay the execution of Troy Davis. They also report that there were no dissents on this decision.

There is silence and great sadness outside of the prison where Davis is set to be killed for a crime witnesses now say he did not commit. There is great sadness across the world.

10:12 pm: Liliana Segura wrote about Georgia's cruel and unusual use of sodium thiopental to kill Emmanuel Hammond in January of this year. Hammond received a brief reprieve from Justice Thomas, just like Troy Davis has tonight. Nonetheless, he was executed four hours and thirty-nine minutes after his scheduled 7 pm execution. Her article is a must-read now. 

In July on her blog, Segura wrote about why Georgia videotaped the execution of Andrew DeYoung, the last person executed by the state of Georgia and the first person whose execution was captured on videotape since a gas chamber killing in California in 1992. Georgia switched to using pentobarbitol with DeYoung, and the video was intended to determine if there was evidence of "pain and suffering." Pentobarbitol is one of the drugs that would be used to execute Troy Davis. 

9:35 pm: As we wait for more news on what's happening inside the Supreme Court, here’s the last report on what we know about Justice John Roberts from Nation web editor Emily Douglas:

In confirmation hearings, Chief Justice Roberts suggested that capital cases require utmost scrutiny, and that any new DNA evidence that emerges requires close attention.  “No one wants an innocent person executed, period. And the availability of that type of evidence, that opportunity in some cases I think is something that's a very significant development in the law,” he told Senator Dick Durbin. (There is no physical evidence tying Troy Davis to the murder of Mark MacPhail.)  However, as chief justice, Roberts wrote in an opinion upholding lethal injection as constitutional. During Roberts’s years as chief justice, writes Kenneth Haas in the Pierce Law Review, the Court “has loosened the standards for evaluating the competence of capital defense attorneys, strengthened the hands of capital prosecutors, and upheld strict and constitutionally vulnerable statutory and procedural roadblocks to the appellate review of capital sentences.”

9:24  pm:  Here's what we know about Justices Alito, Scalia and Thomas—the conservative faction of the Supreme Court. While Thomas did recently intervene in a death penalty case, granting a brief reprieve to Emmanuel Hammond, on the whole Thomas supports the capital punishment, even in the case of a mentally retarded person (he joined Rehnquist and Scalia in their dissent in Atkins v. Virginia, which found that executing a mentally retarded person violates the Eighth Amendment). 

Alito’s opinions in capital cases, wrote Goodwin Liu and Lynsay Skiba in an American Constitution Society report prior to Alito’s confirmation, “show a disturbing tendency to tolerate serious errors in capital proceedings.” During his confirmation hearings, Senator Diane Feinstein questioned him on a death penalty case in which he ruled against a defendant who claimed that “his attorneys had failed to do an adequate investigation to prepared for his sentencing hearing.” The Supreme Court overruled Alito’s decision. Once on the Court, he joined Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia in overruling a Kansas Supreme Court decision that found that a Kansas law saying that “juries should impose death sentences if aggravating evidence of a crime's brutality and mitigating factors explaining a defendant's actions are equal in weight” unconstitutional.

As for Justice Scalia—this headline says it all. 

Nation web editor Emily Douglas and Nation interns are here contributing to these updates. So hats off to them.

9:19 pm:  According to Twitter accounts, there are crowds gathering outside the Supreme Court to demonstrate against the death penalty and plead for Troy Davis's life. The Court is not immune to public opinion, as the swing it has taken on gay rights issues demonstrates. If you are in Washington, please add your voice to those already outside the Supreme Court.

9:03 pm : If the whole court is reviewing the case, Justice Kennedy may be holding Troy Davis' life in his hands. His record on the death penalty is mixed. In 2005, Kennedy joined a 5-4 majority in banning the use of the death penalty on minors—making the United States the last country on earth to ban the state killing of children. In 1989, Justice Kennedy voted with a 5-4 majority (Stanford v. Kentucky) to uphold the death penalty for minors in his first year on the court. Sixteen years later, he changed his mind in Roper v. Simmons. As of 2005, Kennedy still appeared to be pro–death penalty. In his opinion, Kennedy wrote that "It [18] is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest." 

Nonetheless, his opinion is evolving. We hope.

8:43 pm: Interesting background—in January 26, 2011, Emmanuel Hammond, also a prisoner in Georgia’s Jackson prison, was granted a temporary reprieve by Justice Thomas, who has issued the reprieve in Troy Davis’s case. Hammond was scheduled to be executed at 7 pm. He was put to death a little over four hours later at 11:39 pm. This is sobering news, and we should not necessarily expect Davis to live through the night.

8:40 pm: The mother of officer Mark MacPhail has told media outlets that she has been told that Troy Davis will not be executed until 8:30 pm at the soonest, pending an appeal to the Supreme Court. It’s 8:40.

8:35 pm: Troy Davis is still alive, and Democracy Now! is still reporting live from outside Jackson, Georgia. 

Another Obama appointee, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, has a mixed and indeterminate record on the death penalty. In the one DP case she heard before becoming a Supreme Court justice, according to the NYT, she “never ruled on the merits of the death penalty, even though her remarks made clear that she was unlikely to find it unconstitutional.”

That said, Sotomoyor’s first vote on the Supreme Court was to vote with Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Stevens in an unsuccessful attempt to grant a stay of execution in the case of Jason Getsy, condemned to die by Ohio. Jason Getsy was killed by Ohio on August 18, 2009.

8:20 pm: Ben Jealous now is also reporting to Amy Goodman that Justice Thomas brought the appeal before the court and could be trying to craft a consensus of 4-5 justices to stay Davis’s execution.

Meanwhile, here’s Obama appointee Justice Elena Kagan on the death penalty:

“I am fully prepared to argue, consistent with Supreme Court precedents, that the death penalty is constitutional. As Solicitor General, I would represent the interests of the United States, as expressed in legislation and executive policy. Like other nominees to the Solicitor General position, I have refrained from providing my personal opinions (except where I previously have disclosed them), both because these opinions will play no part in my official decisions and because such statements of opinion might be used to undermine the interests of the United States in litigation. But I can say that nothing about my personal views regarding the death penalty (relating either to policy or law) would make it difficult for me to carry out the Solicitor General’s responsibilities in this area.”

8:12 pm: Interesting quote from Justice Ginsburg from a September 19, 2011, interview with ABC News. One might expect Ginsburg to argue with the Court’s right wing as they take up Davis’s application. Could this case actually bring forward the constitutionality of the death penalty as a whole? 

Death penalty decisions, she said, are a “dreadful part of the business.”

Asked by the moderator if she had one thing she’d like to accomplish before leaving the bench, she said, “I probably would go back to the day when the Supreme Court said that the death penalty cannot be administered with an even hand,” noting that such an opportunity is unlikely to arrive.

8:08 pm: And the hateful Ann Coulter weighs in on Twitter. This is what it looks like to be “pro-life without exception”: “@AnnCoulter: ONE TROY DAVIS FLAME-BROILED, PLEASE -

8:02 pm: Andrew Cohen, chief legal analyst for CBS News, just tweeted this: “What’s happened. Justice Thomas (11th Circuit justice) got #TroyDavis appeal and sent it to his 8 colleagues. They are now discussing.”

7:56 pm: While we’re waiting for more information on what a reprieve means and what the basis of Davis’s application for a stay is—read David Grann’s extraordinary account of the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a man executed by Rick Perry’s Texas. 

7:38 pm: Sad news, Lawrence Brewer was executed by Texas at 7:21 pm, just minutes after Troy Davis heard of his reprieve. Brewer was the white supremecist who dragged James Byrd to his death in 1998. You can read Greg Mitchell’s account of the case here. One of the moving things about this case is that Byrd’s only son Ross pleaded to save Brewer’s life, even though Brewer was unrepentent about the crime.

7:35 pm: According to ABC News, the Supreme Court could decide anytime from between tonight to seven days from now whether or not to allow the execution of Davis. The Court posts its orders here. The Democracy Now! coverage is remarkable, and it’s just as remarkable—and appalling—that other news media aren’t there. Watch the DN coverage below or at this link

7:23 pm: Troy Davis, sentenced to die by lethal injection at 7 pm tonight, has apparently been granted a temporary reprieve by the US Supreme Court. According to the AP, Davis filed an eleventh-hour plea to the Court today.

Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman is reporting live outside of the prison where Davis was scheduled to be killed. Ben Jealous, head of the NAACP, reported that Davis was granted a last-minute reprieve, not a stay. “It’s twenty-three more minutes longer than the state of Georgia intended Troy Davis to live,” Jealous just said.

We’ll keep you posted with rolling updates from Democracy Now! and others in the field. Keep refreshing this link for news.

Watch live streaming video from democracynow at livestream.com

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal Caught in Iranian Power Struggle?

Yesterday President Ahmadinejad said that he would pardon and free Nation writer Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal after more than two years in captivity, and it appeared that their ordeal would finally be at an end. Today brings bad news. Now, according to Iranian state media Press TV, the Iranian judiciary is denying President Ahmadinejad’s claim. The announcement by the judiciary said that they are still reviewing pleas from Bauer and Fattal's lawyer, Massoud Shaifee. It also said that all other accounts are “not considered reliable.”

In August we reported on an internal power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (Power Struggle in Iran Pits President Against Supreme Leader”), one that has involved arrests and firings of Ahmadinejad and Khamenei surrogates. The judiciary is controlled by Khamenei and his clerics, and it now appears that Bauer and Fattal have become pawns in their contest. I’m reaching out to Iran observers today to get a better sense of why and how this happened, and I’ll report more here if I hear anything.


Iran Set to Free Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal

Over two years ago, Nation writer Shane Bauer and his friends Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd were arrested by Iranian soldiers while hiking along the Iran-Iraq border and accused of trespassing and espionage. Eventually, Shourd was released on bail, but Fattal and Bauer were convicted in late August and sentenced to ten years in prison. Now, finally, it appears that their ordeal is approaching an end. 

While speaking to NBC’s Ann Curry in Tehran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that he would pardon Fattal and Bauer, freeing them in two days. The FARS state news agency also reports that Bauer and Fattal will be released on $500,000 bail each. Of course, we can't really celebrate until Bauer and Fattal are back with their families--but here at The Nation, we’re cautiously optimistic.


I’ll update this post as news develops. I’ve been thinking a lot about Shane throughout the Arab Spring. Fluent in Arabic, he was based in Damascus before his arrest. Among the many things lost to his incarceration is undoubtedly some excellent, insightful reporting from that part of the world. I can’t wait to make him an assignment.

The Real Meaning of Santorum

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is ardently anti-gay and has an acute talent for tapping into the homophobic imagination of social conservatives. “Man on child,” “man on dog,” incest, “priests with 3-year-olds,” polygamy, the welfare of children, the decline of Western civilization—if it’s in the vocabulary of anti-gay hysteria, Santorum has been there, done that. As a result, he’s become the target of a Google bomb, led by gay columnist Dan Savage, that successfully redefined “santorum” as a substance most straight people probably didn’t know existed and most gay men never thought to name, especially not in honor of a Republican US senator. But hey, shit happens—and now Santorum is widely considered a joke. The launch of his presidential campaign today was greeted with a chorus of knowing sneers.

No, not just because of the internet prank, but for all that lies behind its mockery: a generational shift away from right-wing sanctimony and its preoccupation with the decline of the traditional family towards are more mass-mediated, liberal, tolerant, laissez-faire approach to sexuality. Santorum seems dated. In addition to mean and bigoted, his views appear nonsensical and unserious. The great cultural bellwether known as Miley Cyrus’s twitter account has come out against him, and even his remaining die-hard supporters, like National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez, struggled to answer the question: “Why would he bother?

Laugh away—for now he has the support of just two percent of Republican voters—but remember, Santorum wasn’t always just for shits and giggles. Before he crashed and burned in his race for a third Senate term, Santorum was considered a golden boy of the GOP. He had won four elections in a row in a swing state against well-financed Democrats. He was the youngest member of the GOP Senate leadership and, for much of the early 2000s, one of its most frequent TV spokesmen.

Most importantly, Santorum was the baby face of compassionate conservatism and an important architect of its signature pieces of legislation. As head of the House GOP Task Force on Welfare Reform, Santorum wrote key parts of what became the landmark 1996 welfare reform bill signed by Bill Clinton. He championed No Child Left Behind and proposed the Santorum Amendment to it, which attempted to insert teaching on the theory of intelligent design. Along with Democrat Dick Durbin, Santorum crusaded for increasing US spending on the global fight against HIV/AIDS, especially if it went to church groups and controversial abstinence-only programs. He considered enlarging the US role in fighting AIDS integral to "American exceptionalism," and he earned the praise of Bono, among others, for his advocacy. Throughout it all, he worked behind the scenes to increase government funding for faith-based social services.

As conservative pundit Kathleen Parker lamented in September 2006, when it was clear that Santorum would go down to Bob Casey, “Santorum has been the conservatives’ point man for the world’s disenfranchised—the poor, the sick and the meek. If he loses, the face of compassionate conservatism will be gone.”

Parker was right. Nobody on the right talks of compassionate conservatism anymore, especially now that the Tea Party is running the show. In part that’s because it collapsed on its own internal contradictions. As an ideology, compassionate conservatism championed state support for social justice —to fight poverty, illiteracy or disease, for example—but it opposed the state doing that work itself. In practice, that meant turning the state into a giant, heavily politicized pass-through mechanism that redistributed tax-payer dollars to private charities and corporations without meaningful accountability. Because compassionate conservatism is rooted in Christian missionary zealotry, it inevitably engaged in social engineering—abstinence-only sex education and discrimination against gays and lesbians, for example. And most importantly for the Tea Party right, it ran up the deficit. Along with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, for Tea Party conservatives, it is the most visible symbol of how Bush went wrong, corrupting real conservatism with profligate cronyism.

That’s the real reason why Santorum’s candidacy seems so laughable now. He’s a relic from another time, one marked by plentitude and optimism, when conservatives embraced a global role for the United States, attempted to hijack American progressivism and above all, needed a new brand to bring them back from the mean years of straight-up bashing welfare queens and fags with AIDS (see Jesse Helms). Santorum fulfilled that role, speaking of America’s great and charitable mission to aid the poor while retaining enough smiling hatred to stoke the old base. It didn’t really make sense then. It really doesn’t make sense now.

An Appeal From Journalists to Iran on World Press Freedom Day

On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, we call on the government and judicial authorities of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release our colleague Shane Bauer and his friend Josh Fattal, an environmental educator, after more than 21 months of detention.

Shane, 28, is a talented freelance reporter and photographer whose work for a variety of news organizations has helped Americans better understand the impact of US policy in the Middle East. While based in Damascus, Syria, for a year before his arrest, Shane, a fluent Arabic speaker, reported sensitively and incisively from Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Previously, he’d reported from Darfur and Ethiopia. At the time of his arrest, he was preparing a report about the Israeli military’s suspected misuse of nonlethal weapons in the West Bank.

We have no doubt that the charges of espionage Iranian prosecutors have leveled against Shane and Josh are entirely unfounded. Shane and Josh were on vacation with Shane’s fiancée Sarah Shourd when the three were arrested during a hiking trip in Iraqi Kurdistan near the border with Iran. Sarah was compassionately released last fall, but Shane and Josh are still being wrongfully denied their freedom.

Shane is not being held prisoner because of his work as a journalist. But Shane was traveling in Iraq because he had previously done extensive and revelatory reporting there, exposing, for example, large-scale US bribery of influential sheikhs in Iraq and human rights abuses by Iraq’s US-trained Special Operations Forces.

As editors and reporters who have worked closely with Shane and admire his work, we firmly believe that his detention is unjust. We call on Iran to release Shane and Josh immediately.


Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, co-editors, Mother Jones, San Francisco, CA

Sandy Close, executive editor and director, New America Media, San Francisco, CA

Jack Epstein, foreign editor, San Francisco Chronicle

Esther Kaplan, editor, The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, New York, NY

Vlae Kershner, news director, SFGate, the website of San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco, CA

Richard Kim, executive editor, The Nation, New York, NY

Tim Redmond, executive editor, San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco, CA

Robert Rosenthal, executive director, Center for Investigative Reporting, Berkeley, CA

Joel Simon, executive director, Committee to Protect Journalists, New York, NY

A.C. Thompson, staff reporter, ProPublica, New York, NY

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

An Attack on Government, an Attack on the Public, an Attack on Democracy

Today a gunman, identified by the press as 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, walked up to the parking lot of a Tucson supermarket and shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and shot and killed as many as six other people, including a 9-year-old girl and federal judge John Roll. But he did so much more than that. When he pulled the trigger on his semiautomatic pistol, he also attacked American government, the American public and its right to assemble peacefully and without fear—and consequently his assault was also an assault on American democracy. And that is why I am shaking with rage as I type.

Tonight there is much rage across the blogosphere and on Twitter too—140-character declarations that Sarah Palin has blood on her hands; that Glenn Beck has blood on his hands; that Rush Limbaugh or Michele Bachmann or the Tea Party or Birthers or Birchers or nativists have blood on their hands. Through the looking glass on right-wing websites there are assertions that Loughner was a lefty, based on nothing more than the books he listed on his Myspace account or comments he allegedly made on incoherent Youtube videos or tweets from an alleged former classmate who said he was a leftist in 2007—much of which could also easily be used to assert that his rampage was motivated by right-wing tendencies. The impulse to conclude, without any knowledge of Loughner's motives or state of mind, that this was a partisan attack has proved nearly irresistible—for those on both left and right.

It may very well turn out to be a partisan attempt at assassination. But we don't know that yet.

What we do know is that Loughner targeted an elected official, that he took advantage of the fact that she was meeting her constituents in public to do so and that some of those constituents were also murdered by him. Even if it turns out that Loughner had no partisan or ideological motives to speak of, that is all we need to know to say definitively that he committed a political crime in the broadest and most egregious sense. He violently attacked political public speech—and that should trouble all of us. Giffords could have been a Republican; those bystanders could have been her supporters; or they could have been her fiercest critics, showing up to confront her votes for healthcare; or they could have been without political party, like the 9-year-old girl who will never grow up to cast a vote. Everyone who seeks to engage the political process has been hurt today.

Journalists are right to point out that Giffords had been violently targeted after she voted for healthcare reform; that Sarah Palin put crosshairs on her district in campaign literature on her website (a post that has subsequently been scrubbed); and that Giffords's 2010 opponent, Jesse Kelly, once invited his supporters to "shoot a fully automatic M16" to "get on target for victory" and "remove Gabrielle Giffords from office." They are also right to note that in the past few years it's been right-wing extremists who have most sought to shut down the open political process by disrupting town hall meetings and by indulging in language that casts political opponents as un-American and traitorous.

But at the moment, we don't know if Loughner was influenced by any of this—or that he was even aware of any of it. But we don't need to draw the lines of culpability so tightly to conclude that it is politics writ large that he assaulted today. And for tonight at least, we don't need to know anything more to cherish more dearly the practice of politics and citizenship and government as something noble in its intent, something to expand and celebrate—instead of something to denigrate as the enemy of the people.

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Obama—Too Big to Fail?

Obama's choice of Bill Daley for White House Chief of Staff has progressive writers (Ari Berman, Ezra Klein, Digby) and organizers (Adam Green of PCCC) rightly irked and puzzled. Daley publicly pushed the line that Obama and the Democrats overreached with healthcare reform; opposed the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency; shilled for JP Morgan Chase and the Chamber of Commerce (who wet themselves over his appointment). As Digby points out, Daley kvetched about the electoral plight of centrist Democrats in a December 2009 Washington Post op-ed, urging the party to adopt a "big tent" philosophy and a "diversity of views even on tough issues such as abortion, gun rights and the role of government in the economy"—which more or less rolls out the welcome mat for Sarah Palin (D-Alaska). (Digby also notes that in Jeffrey Toobin's account of the 2000 Florida fiasco, it was Daley as an adviser to Gore who urged him to throw in the towel prematurely.)

So why are two of Obama's biggest critics from the Democratic Party's left wing leaning forward on MSNBC to give Daley a big sloppy kiss? Howard Dean on Olbermann said that Daley would be a "huge plus" to Obama's team and characterized him as someone who "knows Washington, but…is not of Washington." Is this the same Dean who publicly dissed Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod—"Don't let the door hit you in the you-know-what on the way out!"—while complaining that they had treated the left with "contempt"? By all accounts, Daley is much more of a left antagonist than Gibbs and Axelrod and is much better positioned to exercise malign influence inside the administration—so what gives Howard?  

And what's up with Robert Reich, whose views on NAFTA and the Third Way are complicated, but considerably to the left of Daley? Echoing Dean, Reich took to the pundit stand to compliment Daley as a "very dedicated public servant" and a "good and important addition to the White House.

Whatever their personal motives, Dean and Reich's rush to praise Daley has had the effect of muddling the story line on Daley's appointment, diluting what should have been cast as near unanimous condemnation of Obama's pick from his base. To me this illustrates a larger problem for progressives still electorally wedded to the Democratic Party: Obama is too big to fail. I'm not unsympathetic to the dilemma. It's almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which progressives abandon Obama en masse without courting disaster. But that shouldn't mean bending over backwards to defend poor choices, nor should it mean trying to outflank and deflate his critics from the left.

As Reich himself pointed out, the bailout of the too-big-to-fail banks contained few conditions, creating a "moral hazard" for Wall Street. The same applies to how progressive Democratic power brokers react to Obama's governing strategy; their support should be conditional and measured, not a blank check for his centrism. It will take spine and nerve to play that game, but honesty and guts are what we need now—not any more progressive surrender monkeys.

Tempest in a Tea Party?

A lot of lefties are in a state of high agitation today about a possible Tea Party takeover of the country; the word "fascism" gets thrown around with alarming frequency. Look, I get it. Sharron Angle is scarier than Halloween in the East Village. There's also some short-term incentive to focusing on Tea Party gains: hits to websites go up and nationalizing the midterms around faux-witch Christine O'Donnell is perhaps the best game Democrats have going. But people—get a grip!

Yes, the Tea Party has become a potent force on the right—pulling the Republican Party rightward into the insane asylum. But in many cases, it's also pulling the GOP downward, towards losses that could have been pickups. The inordinate focus on the Tea Party's ascendency is obscuring other dynamics in this election cycle: normal Republican victories, intra-GOP fights, surprising Democratic gains and the phenomenon of TINOs (Tea Party in Name Only). Here are four dynamics I'm watching today to get a sense of how well the Tea Party will really do and what it all means going forward:

Strength of Protest Votes: As Kate Zernicke of the New York Times noted, there are sixty-seven Tea Party candidates running for the House in safe Democratic districts (out of her tally of 138 total Tea Party candidates). These include some long-long-long shots: Tea Partier Charles Lollar running in Maryland's 5th district, for example, doesn't have a prayer against Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer, but his bid has attracted attention nonetheless. Why? Lollar is an African-American Tea Partyer, which is partly why the GOP and Tea Party have dubbed him the "Maryland Miracle." And they're right—a Lollar victory would be a miracle indeed (Hoyer is leading by 33 percentage points in a Democratic stronghold). But how well will Lollar—and other Tea Party protest candidates—do compared to past non-Tea candidates? That's one measure of the Tea Party's ability to capture (or repel) frustrated voters.

Non-Tea GOP Wins: This is a huge category that hasn't received nearly enough attention. Of the 100 Democratic House seats in play, only about half (fifty-one) have a candidate who's affiliated with the Tea Party. In many of those cases, the Tea Party affiliation is weak to nominal (see next point). Moreover, at least thirteen of these Tea Party candidates are running in districts that are leaning Democratic. On Wednesday then, it's highly possible that the majority of the GOP's House pickups will be from Republican candidates with no Tea Party affiliation. A good example: Martha Roby in Alabama's 2nd is trying to unseat Democrat Bobby Bright, in a district that went for McCain by twenty-six points in 2008. Roby spouts all the talking points about small government and lower taxes, but that's normal for all Republicans. More to the point, in the primary she beat the notorious Tea Partier Rick Barber, who ran an ad calling on his supporters to "gather your armies." Watch for non-Tea candidates like Roby when the results come in—you might be surprised (and dismayed) at how well ordinary Republicans are doing.

TINOs (Tea Party In Name Only): One problem I have with Zernicke's otherwise admirable coverage is that it inflates the number of Tea Party candidates by counting endorsements from FreedomWorks or speaking gigs at local Tea Party groups as evidence of Tea Party affiliation. In this election cycle—it would be foolish (or brave!) for any Republican to utterly dismiss the Tea Party—and so lip service is often paid. But the number of House and Senate candidates who owe their nomination and political strength largely to the Tea Party is much, much smaller. Take Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate Ron Johnson, for example. Poised to knock off Russ Feingold, Johnson is a multimillionaire who spent more than $4 million of his own cash in the primary. He's been labeled a Tea Party candidate, but some Wisconsin Tea Party groups like the Rock River Patriots declined to support him, and Tim Dake, head of the GrandSons of Liberty told the CSM in September, "We feel we don't really know him at this point." Another example of a TINO: Steve Chabot, running against Democrat Steve Driehaus in Ohio's 1st district. Chabot has cultivated the Tea Party, but he first won the seat in 1994 and held the seat until 2008. However much Tea Party noise Chabot makes, he's GOP establishment pure and simple. The big question post-election is whether or not the Tea Party's penchant for revolution will lead them to turn against folks like Johnson and Chabot—consummate insiders who are spouting outsider talk.

Weak Tea: These are seats where the Tea Party beat an establishment GOP candidate—and have eroded Republican chances. Christine O'Donnell in Delaware is the classic example. But the same dynamic is at work in Delaware's Congressional district, where Tea Partier Glen Urquhart beat establishment choice Michele Rollins. Urquhart is down by about ten percentage points to Democrat John Carney, who will likely pick up the seat currently held by loser Republican Mike Castle. Of course, it's always tough to play what-if. Maybe Rollins would have been just as lame a candidate? But particularly in moderate states like Delaware, New Jersey, etc. this is a dynamic worth noting—down to the small but crucial details. In New Jersey's 6th district, for example, Tea Partiers nominated Anna Little over Diane Gooch by just eighty-four votes, and now it looks like Little will lose to Democrat Frank Pallone. It's a liberal district, so who knows if Gooch had a chance—but one advantage she did have that Little does not: Gooch is a multimillionaire who would have self-funded to combat Pallone's formidable war chest.

I'll be keeping tabs on these factors and races all day on Twitter (@richardkimnyc) and writing post-election. So stay tuned!

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