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As my friend Lion pointed out to me recently, a lot of movies these days are pushing a very bleak view of the future, essentially advising audiences to prepare for inevitable doom. My mother’s reaction to this observation is that I should avoid that kind of movie, particularly in my present state, and she may be right. But Joe McHugh argues otherwise in his presentation, “Slaying the Gorgon,” which I attended at the Seattle Bioneers satellite conference in 2009. He says that when faced with realities too terrible to face directly, we should seek to understand them using the “mirrored shield of myth” (analogous to the strategy Perseus uses to kill Medusa, hence the name of the talk). So lately I’ve been looking at movies through that lens, and what follows are the results of my recent research into the modern mythology of the apocalypse. (Note: all four reviews have spoilers.)


The Croods )


Oblivion )


Iron Man 3 )


Star Trek Into Darkness )

Okay, so those last two didn't fit the theme very well, but luckily this year’s upcoming releases will provide plenty more fodder for this investigation. After Earth comes out next week, Man of Steel (which starts out with the destruction of the planet Krypton) is less than a month away, and Elysium (which is more of a dystopia, but still raises the question of how it got that way) comes out in early August. I might skip After Earth if the reviews are terrible (which seems likely given M. Night Shyamalan’s recent track record), and I’m very likely to skip Pacific Rim, the invasion-of-the-giant-lizards movie that comes out in July. But that still leaves plenty of apocalyptic sci-fi madness to experience and study, even though my mom says I shouldn’t.

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"The real unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, without anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future."

- Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

This blog entry is not for the faint of heart. I was seriously worried that I wouldn't have the heart to finish writing it, given how much there is to say and how most of it is intensely depressing. But If I don't put it on a (web)page, it will just stay stuck in my head. So:

From the perspective of a radical anti-war activist, every American citizen is drenched in the blood of the countless multitudes of innocent foreigners who have been tortured, mutilated, and/or slaughtered in the name of "keeping us safe." From the perspective of the U.S. military, including its Commander in Chief, those victims are just "collateral damage" and should be left out of our considerations entirely, because they are an inevitable consequence of necessary defense projects. This ideological stalemate has held for decades without either side giving an inch; in fact, the government's militancy has increased quite substantially since 9/11, and this trend shows no real sign of slowing down under President Obama.

Needless to say, my sympathies lie mainly with the anti-war activists, but it took the killing of two American citizens in Yemen with no due process to force me to start considering the real horrors of the current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it weren't for that precedent, which potentially puts anyone who opposes our government's military policies in the crosshairs, I probably never would have read all the way through the Atlantic articles "'Every Person Is Afraid of the Drones': The Strikes' Effect on Life in Pakistan" and "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama," both by Conor Friedersdorf, who asks the basic question of how can anyone support, in good conscience, any leader who perpetrates and perpetuates this kind of madness.

For a while before I read those articles, I'd had a ready answer gleaned from a humor piece about the Occupy movement by Colin McEnroe: "Obama doesn't have my support. Just my vote." Part of my argument for that answer came from the above observation about the decades-long period of national-security dogmatism we currently live in, which prevents any American leader from changing course and therefore, in theory, makes the question of who wins the presidential election totally irrelevant to the Pakistani victims. Whether I vote or not won't change anything for them, so why not leave them out of my voting decision entirely?

The answer, according to Dennis Loo, a columnist even more radical than Mr. Friedersdorf, is that if we want to be moral, we should withdraw our support entirely from a system this evil, thus beginning the path to delegitimizing and dismantling it. Mr. Friedersdorf and Mr. Loo agree that a vote for either major presidential candidate is a statement of support for that candidate's actions, even those the other major party's candidate would agree with. The only way to save the values of our democracy that are being trampled by our increasing obsession with security, Mr. Loo argues, is not to participate in our democracy.

My first reaction to this claim is to cry "Sacrilege!" I've always believed that voting is a sacred duty, upholding the ideal of self-government. But when we're given so few choices, and such bad ones, it does begin to look like that form of faith is a little too naïve. So I would probably decide to skip over the presidential section on my ballot when it arrives in the mail next week -- if the wars were the only major issue in this election. On some of the other issues, particularly women's rights and of course the environment, I view Obama as by far the lesser evil.

Mr. Loo has anticipated this objection, and in fact his article's subtitle is "An Examination of Obama's Domestic Policies." Using extremely harsh rhetoric, he lists several cases where President Obama's actions have been at odds with progressive values on issues including abortion and the climate crisis, frequently connecting back to the issue of war crimes which is the main focus of his organization, World Can't Wait. For example, in the section "The Oppression of Women and Gay Rights," he focuses on Obama's censorship of photos showing rape and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib. On climate, he quotes another radical columnist, Rob Urie, who claims that Obama is clearly planning to complete the Keystone XL pipeline next year; if so, well-known climate scientists James Hansen claims, it would be "game over for the climate."

Mr. Urie's theory may be undermined by the massive grassroots mobilization against Keystone XL, in which Dr. Hansen participated (see link above), and which has already had some impact on President Obama's decision-making. And Dr. Hansen's extreme statement, if taken in isolation, makes little sense given that Keystone XL would merely add one more pipe to an already existing network of tar-sands oil pipelines. The real argument behind that claim is that committing to buy more tar-sands oil means declaring ourselves "hopeless fossil-fuel addicts," but President Obama's other actions on climate don't match the hopeless-addict profile. They include the $90 billion for clean energy in his 2009 stimulus package, his recently-finalized major increase in fuel efficiency requirements for cars, and, less impressively, the still-in-process EPA carbon dioxide regulations that would apply to the few new coal-fired power plants still being built in America. Discouragingly, the EPA "has no plans to pursue regulations for existing power plants," but that doesn't mean it won't ever happen.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been attacking new and existing EPA regulations vociferously since they took control of the House of Representatives. It's no secret that they'd defund the whole agency if they had the chance, and Romney seems highly likely to give them that chance. I'm a volunteer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which has used Clean Air Act lawsuits (focused on pollutants other than carbon dioxide) as an important tool in scheduling over a hundred coal-fired power plants for early retirement, and they're doing it again with the huge plant in Colstrip, Montana that supplies over 30% of my electricity. If Romney is elected President, those lawsuits could have the law they're based on ripped right out from under them.

So here's my answer to Conor Friedersdorf's question: I may be able to support President Obama despite his war crimes, because he's currently our best hope for making progress as a nation toward solving a vastly more serious humanitarian crisis. By one well-researched estimate, the climate crisis already causes five million deaths per year, a number projected to grow to six million (a.k.a. "one Nazi Holocaust per year") by 2030. For comparison, the maximum estimate for all deaths from U.S. drone strikes is just over three thousand, and almost all known drone strikes occurred in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region of Pakistan, whose population is 3 million, which I'd call a reasonable upper limit on the number of people being traumatized due to constantly circling drones.

Except that reasonable is, of course, the wrong word to describe any of these horrors. Among the three thousand reported dead are one hundred seventy-six children, and a national-security policy that murders children and calls it "collateral damage" is obviously morally untenable (regardless of whether the U.S. military makes good on commitments to massively reduce its fossil-fuel use). So the question is, do I vote to continue to legitimize that policy for the sake of preventing even greater harm, or will that make it impossible to live with myself?

(If it weren't for my pledge to ignore all political ads, my decision would already be made, thanks to a recent pro-coal ad approved by President Obama that cynically tries to out-Romney Romney, while asking viewers to forget about Obama's climate rhetoric and the significant progress toward phasing out fossil fuels that I noted above.)
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This past Wednesday, I went to a vigil and march commemorating the tenth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay Prison.  As part of the event, people told stories through a megaphone about several probably-innocent long-term detainees at both Guantanamo and Bagram Prison in Afghanistan—dark tales of senseless brutality and torture.  An Iraq veteran told the story of how his unit shot up a school full of children after getting hit by a roadside bomb.

I decided to try something different.  In dark times, it seems to me, we need humor more than ever, to keep our spirits up as we fight on in a seemingly hopeless campaign to halt these atrocities.  So here’s the facetious little speech I gave through that megaphone, while we were standing in front of the building housing Obama’s Seattle campaign headquarters:

“I finally figured out why Congress decided that the military needs to be able to lock up a bunch of American citizens indefinitely without trial.  Consider: an insidious foreign company has created a video game in which the player directs a team of aerial suicide bombers to knock down a series of buildings, killing everyone inside.  It’s an obvious ploy to create a new generation of al Qaeda terrorists—and yet young middle-class Americans of all political stripes are falling for it in droves!  Can you say ‘brainwashing?’  That’s why the government needs the power to lock you up and throw away the key, even if you are completely innocent of any connection to terrorist activity, except for being addicted to Angry Birds.”

For some better (and even darker) humor on this subject, I highly recommend the usual suspects, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.  “You can take away our lives, but only we can take away our freedoooooom!

P.S. Immediately after the march, I headed over to the Washington State Convention Center for a decision-making General Assembly of Occupy Seattle, where we had a discussion and vote on whether the two Get Money Out of Politics events happening this week would be officially endorsed by Occupy Seattle as a whole.  The fascinating story of how this proposal was discussed and ultimately rejected will be the subject of my next post.

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They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

- Benjamin Franklin

Central to civilized law is the notion that a person cannot be held without a charge and cannot be detained indefinitely without a trial. These principles date back to Greco-Roman times, were developed by English common law beginning in 1215 with the Magna Carta, and were universalized by the Enlightenment in the century before the American Constitution and Bill of Rights were fought for and adopted as the supreme law of the land.

For more than two centuries of constitutional development since then, the United States has been heralded as the light to the world precisely because of the liberties it enshrined in its Declaration of Independence and Constitution as inalienable. It now seems as if the events of 9/11 have been determined to be of such a threatening magnitude that our national leaders feel justified to abrogate in their entirety the very inalienable principles upon which our Republic was founded.

- Jim Garrison, "Obama's most fateful decision," The Huffington Post December 12, 2011

“The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it,” Mr. Obama said in a statement issued in Hawaii, where he is on vacation. “I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.” . . .

The president, for example, said that he would never authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens, because “doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.”

- Mark Landler, "After Struggle on Detainees, Obama Signs Defense Bill," The New York Times December 31, 2011

What are the natural limits to freedom? )

Now, what if the U.S. government believes that an American citizen is planning a deadly terrorist attack? If the evidence of this was lawfully obtained and is reasonably solid, the police have every right to arrest him, charge him with a crime, and put him on trial. This allows the man to go free if the government made a mistake; his freedom will only be limited for a short period, unless he's found guilty of a plot to commit mass murder, using public evidence and arguments. But let's say the government doesn't think it can build its case before a jury, maybe because the evidence was obtained using an unconstitutional warrantless search, or because it involves classified information and revealing that information would somehow compromise national security. So it decides to classify the man as an "enemy combatant" and have the military lock him up indefinitely.

On the one hand, if the man is guilty, limiting his freedom seems better than letting him go free, allowing the attack to go forward, and eliminating the freedom of the people who end up dead as a result. But on the other hand, from the perspective of the public at large, it looks like the government may have made an unfounded accusation against an innocent man, and imprisoned him for life for no good reason. Maybe he was a prominent critic of the government whose criticism was becoming inconvenient, or maybe some government official just had had some private grievance against him.

So unless the government can stomach having a public trial, or find some other option that prevents the attack without violating anyone's civil liberties, we will be faced with an apparent failure of the central principles that make this a "free country." The fact is that indefinite detention without trial means we have no way to know whether the government is saving us from terrorism or turning into a fascist regime--or both. That's why we must fight hard to restore our basic rights--because otherwise, we'll never again be able to trust the people who are supposedly "defending our freedom."
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Quick summary if you're in a hurry: Americans may be able to reverse the destruction of our civil liberties and ensure that the U.S. military can't lock us up and throw away the key, but unfortunately it involves getting Congress to act on our behalf, after they just did the reverse.  I think it's worth a try.  Please call your Senators and ask them to co-sponsor the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011.
It's possible that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) isn't actually about to destroy the foundations of American freedom.  According to several sources including Time Magazine, the version of the NDAA now on its way to President Obama's desk "includes a Senate-passed compromise that says nothing in the legislation may be 'construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.'"  And while most blogs and online news sources* say otherwise, Mother Jones, usually a reliable source for progressive pessimism, claims that that language is enough to ensure that "if a future president does try to assert the authority to detain an American citizen without charge or trial, it won't be based on the authority in this bill."  A blogger on Daily Kos agrees, which makes two unlikely messengers telling us not to panic about the NDAA in particular.
But maybe this battle was already lost anyway.  The same Time article cited above also includes a quote from Senator Carl Levin claiming that "a June 2004 Supreme Court decision, in a case called Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, said U.S. citizens can be detained indefinitely."  (Levin is a Democrat, in case you were wondering.)  The same claim has been made about the 2006 Military Commissions Act (MCA), the bill that motivated me to invent the American Fascism Clock.  And Obama himself claims that the critical Section 1031 of the NDAA merely "attempts to expressly codify the detention authority that exists under the Authorization for Use of Military Force" (AUMF), which was passed on September 18, 2001.  (This argument has been used before to justify indefinite military detention of an actual U.S. citizen.)  If he's right, then the terrorists had already won their supposed "war on American freedom" only a week after it began.
And now is the time to reverse that victory, while we have at least some significant amount of media attention.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, who introduced the amendment mentioned above trying to limit the NDAA's impact on Americans, decided it was a good idea to make sure that the "existing law or authorities relating to the detention" of said Americans was clearly in keeping with the Bill of Rights (rather than being muddled by the AUMF, the Hamdi case, and/or the MCA), which is why she introduced the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011 yesterday.  It contains one loophole: if our military arrests Americans vacationing in some other country, this bill won't ensure they get a trial or Habeas rights.  But it's still worth fighting very hard indeed to get the bill passed ASAP.  Please call your Senators!
Unlike the climate crisis, we actually have a lot of room to turn this one around.  As Time Magazine points out in the cover story defining "The Protester" as their 2011 Person of the Year: "In North America and most of Europe, there are no dictators, and dissidents don't get tortured. . .  The protesters in the Middle East and North Africa are literally dying to get political systems that roughly resemble the ones that seem intolerably undemocratic to protesters in Madrid, Athens, London and New York City."  However pessimistic I may be about the current state of affairs in America, it's crystal clear that things could be a whole lot worse.
* Okay, that last link is to an opinion piece, but I included it because of the important point it makes: the NDAA includes a "ban on spending any money for civilian trials for any accused terrorist," meaning that even if the government wants to grant you due process after making some terrorism-related accusation against you, it effectively can't.
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As of today, the American Fascism Clock stands at one second from midnight.  Both houses of Congress have passed versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allowing indefinite military detention of American citizens without charge or trial, in blatant violation of the Bill of Rights.  The bills are in conference committee now to create a single version that will be voted on again and then sent to President Obama.  (Technically it might not pass, but that seems vanishingly unlikely given events up to this point.)  Obama has threatened a veto, but not because of the provision involving American citizens.  According to OpenCongress's analysis of his statements on the bill, if the committee removed a related provision that only applies to non-citizens, he might well sign the result into law--particularly since, if a Defense authorization bill isn't passed "by the end of the year, almost all of the U.S. military’s activities around the world would be jeopardized" (quote is from the article linked above).
If this bill becomes law, America will no longer be anything resembling a free country.  The military will be able to patrol our streets and lock up anyone who opposes government policy, on the grounds that "we think they might be planning a terrorist attack."  It will take a while for this nightmare to fully materialize, and in that time we might be able to get the Supreme Court to strike down the unconstitutional provisions of this law.  But given the Supremes' recent record on restricting our rights (which I learned about from the usually apolitical Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter), I'm not inclined to be hopeful.
Meanwhile, it's quite possible that the COP 17 climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa are about to fail, due in large part to the intransigence of the U.S. negotiating team.  This would probably mean that the goal of a meaningful international climate treaty before 2020 is a lost cause, which basically means game over for the climate, unless we can somehow rebuild the world's energy infrastructure quickly enough without the motivation such a binding agreement would provide.
Amid these apocalyptic portents, there was one bit of hopeful news this week: on Tuesday, the LA City Council unanimously declared its support for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, restore legal limits on campaign financing, and declare once and for all that corporations are not people.  (Nine days earlier, Occupy Los Angeles had passed a resolution to the same effect, and their influence on the Council's decision is plain.)  But of course, if the NDAA becomes law, the last vestiges of American democracy may well disappear long before the actual amendment could pass.
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Click to see more of my photosLast Saturday, during and after my trip to Westlake Park (which is really more of a public square, only shaped like a triangle :-) to participate in Occupy Seattle, I was so caught up in the excitement that I worried I was losing my objectivity.  As I’ve mentioned before, I do believe that progressives need a mass movement to get enough of us seriously involved in politics that our representatives are forced to listen.  But I’m also not a big fan of the political polarization in this country, which the Occupy movement is certainly going to worsen with its calls for “global revolution.”  A large fraction of the participants at Occupy Seattle are socialists, communists, or anarchists, and this is no doubt true in other cities as well.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the Occupiers* have some important things in common with their conservative opposite numbers:

"You know, the average American taxpayer knows that at the end of the day, they're gonna be on the hook for the trillions and trillions of dollars that we're using to bail out these companies, some of whom have been irresponsible, and they're expressing their frustration, which I think is quintessentially American."

- Sean Hannity in 2009, referring to the Tea Party, as quoted on The Daily Show on October 5, 2011

That quote neatly matches up with a chant from last Saturday’s afternoon protest march, “Banks got bailed out / We got sold out!”  But it shouldn’t mask the obvious and stark differences between the movements.  For example, while “Tax the rich!” is clearly a central demand of the Occupy movement, Tea Party types are countering with demands to tax the poor and lower-middle class instead.  That’s when they’re not proposing the alternative of simply denying the right to vote to anyone who doesn’t pay income tax, probably marking the first time in decades when any conservative has claimed that paying taxes is patriotic.

Speaking of voting, I was curious whether the New York Times was right in describing the Occupiers and other similar protestors as showing “wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process,” so while I was at the “park” and heading home on the bus, I asked several people whether they planned to vote this year.  I got one no, one maybe, and two or three yeses.  I’d agree that most Occupiers are at least “wary” of the political process in America, given the massive influence of corporate campaign contributions.  But by and large, I think the Occupiers are in favor of democracy if it can actually be made to work for the people.  The guy who told me he didn’t plan to vote was not against democracy itself, but said he preferred the more direct democratic model used for decision-making by the Occupy [City] groups themselves.

Click to see more of my photosI got a chance to observe parts of that open-mike-like process at the evening General Assembly, although there were no actual proposals brought up for a vote that night.  Overall, I was rather impressed at the generally high quality of the comments, and the way the crowd used hand gestures to give immediate feedback to people’s suggestions and help ensure brevity of comments.  This was particularly important not only because the crowd at the Assembly was quite large, with many people waiting to speak, but also because the sound system had been packed up for the night, so each speaker had to pause after every phrase so the crowd could serve as “the people’s mike,” repeating what he/she had just said in unison, which was also quite impressive.  (There was only one case where this method didn’t work, because the speaker’s voice was so quiet that not enough people were able to repeat her words to make them audible from several meters away.)

I do think their process could use some improvement.  The moderators claimed to be keeping track of raised hands and calling on people in the order they were added to the “stack” (technically “queue” would be a more appropriate term), and I was never called on to speak, though there was a smaller session without moderators after most of the crowd had dispersed, where I was able to get some words in edgewise.  I think it’s better to have a physical line of people waiting to speak, which they did have at the open-mike rally earlier in the day (where they also had an actual microphone).  The last thing an allegedly leaderless movement needs is people starting to mistrust even their own moderators when it takes too long for them to be called on.

If you’ve been following the news coverage of the Occupy movement, you’re probably wondering just how divergent the opinions expressed in the General Assembly were, and whether there was any core set of demands that everyone could agree on.  Almost everyone at the Assembly certainly recognized the need for “points of unity,” which would likely include raising taxes on the top 1%, revoking corporate personhood, getting money out of political campaigns, and breaking up the Federal Reserve (which was singled out for criticism more than any other big bank).  One of the self-organized work groups that form Occupy Seattle’s “executive branch” is working to collect and organize people’s ideas for a unified list of demands.

Click to see more of my photosOn more local issues, there was a surprising level of agreement that the amount of drug use in the “park” was excessive and reflected poorly on the movement, as well as repeated calls for proactive inclusion of minority groups, and strong support for green practices like recycling and reusable cups.  Opinions on next steps, the nominal main topic of the General Assembly, were more varied, ranging from “making it legal to occupy the park indefinitely” to “occupying neighborhoods and workplaces,” which strikes me as more likely to work in the long run (that was the comment I made after the moderators left).  Opinions on the cops, who had been harassing the occupiers in various ways, ranged from “they’re our neighbors, families, and friends, and we’d welcome their support if they decided to switch sides” to the anarchist position of “we shouldn’t have a police force at all.”

So yeah, I still haven’t decided what I think of all this.  Maybe the Occupy movement is way too radical and divisive, and yet it may also have finally found a way to reverse America’s gradual drift toward corporate rule.  In any case, I still want to visit Westlake Park for another General Assembly, so I can witness the voting process of a direct democracy in action.  One thing I’m pretty sure of: it would be awesome if my neighborhood had meetings like that.

* For want of a better term, and no, “the 99%” is not a better term.  Like it or not, there is a large fraction of Americans who support policies that favor the rich and megacorporations.  (That said, I don’t regret joining the semi-related Other 98% Campaign.)

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Predictably enough, when fiscal terrorists threatened to destroy the global economy, Democrats surrendered.  Obama could have used a Constitutional override and unilaterally raised the debt ceiling, if he were principled enough about not negotiating with terrorists, but that would have meant admitting that our democratic system had gone so badly wrong as to allow people who are effectively terrorists into Congress, which of course is counter to the Democratic Party line.  Of course, the terrorists wouldn't characterize the trillion-dollar cuts they got as a real surrender, because they want so much more--but they needn't worry, because they can do it again any time they please.


As a result, American democracy is effectively over.  You have four choices in the next election: You can vote for the terrorists, you can vote for the people who surrendered to the terrorists (like my Representative, Jay Inslee), you can vote for the people holding up the sane minority and help slow down our government's slide into oblivion a bit, or you can vote for someone who wants to roll back the most damaging cuts but who is unelectable due to Citizens United etc.  None of these choices will change the fact that every time the debt ceiling needs to be raised, or an important spending bill needs to get through Congress to keep the government running at all, another large chunk of services that millions of Americans depend on will be extorted away.  (And yes, they might cut some military spending at the same time, but that's a pretty thin silver lining.)


Of course, by the Principle of Mediocrity, all of the above is probably a gross exaggeration.  Since most Americans and even most Tea Partiers want to keep Medicare and Social Security intact, the terrorists may well be destroying their electoral base, who could replace them with less extreme candidates in the Republican primaries and thus shift the political center a little bit to the left.  But on the Democratic side, it's hard to muster any enthusiasm for voting at all, after watching our party so completely fail to uphold its principles.  When we elected Obama, we thought it was a huge step forward for progressives, but now he talks like a Tea Partier himself, demanding that the government shrink itself to solve the supposedly all-consuming "debt crisis," regardless of the cost to the little people who paid for half of his election campaign.


So the conservatives have managed to convert me, in a sense.  I now see the government as a sick, twisted monstrosity, and can't see any way to seriously believe that it will get better (though admittedly my imagination might improve after a hypothetical good night's sleep).  The difference, of course, is that I don't want the government to become so small that I can safely ignore it.   I see it as "sick" with a particularly ugly and self-destructive autoimmune disorder, and I want it to stop the seemingly inexorable process of destroying anything and everything good that it has ever done for the people it supposedly serves.

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We interrupt our continuing series on how much liberals and conservatives have in common (sort of), to bring you the latest in stuff you probably already know about how absurdly polarized liberals and conservatives are right now.

It seems like everyone is agreed that if we fail to raise the debt ceiling, America will effectively default on its debts and plunge the world economy into chaos.  So why are Democratic leaders so willing to listen when right-wing Republicans claim that any debt ceiling deal must include trillion-dollar cuts to hugely popular government programs?  It's simple: We're actually frightened that those Republicans might be crazy enough to tip the world economy over a cliff just to make an ideological point.

Otherwise, Democrats would be perfectly comfortable with making a few modest cuts, none of them in programs like Social Security and Medicare, and handing the deal to Republicans with a "take it or leave it" shrug, reminding them that the consequences of their refusal are frankly unthinkable.  We would sit back and relax as they yelled at us for refusing to negotiate further, right up until the day before the deadline, at which point they would of course sign the deal anyway.  Any electoral consequences would be minor, since regardless of how you spin it, the whole thing would really just be maintenance of the status quo.

But no.  The so-called Tea Party Patriots in Congress have us over a barrel because they're actually so incredibly un-patriotic that they're willing to hold a gun to our nation's credit-worthiness, and give the strong impression that they're perfectly willing to shoot to kill.  And so the deal we're likely to get will be almost as bad in some respects as a global default: huge holes ripped in the social safety nets that millions of Americans, including many of the Tea Party Movement rank and file, rely on for their health and well-being, in a time that has enough economic hardships already.

Of course, the endless growth of the national debt is a problem, similar in some respects to the endless growth in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which the more extreme environmentalists would like to tackle with similarly harsh measures.  But sudden, rapid, drastic changes in systems this large is likely to have horribly violent effects.  Consider the stopping distance of a freight train, and then consider what happens when that train hits a truck sitting on the tracks and is forced to stop all at once.  (This metaphor is brought to you courtesy of the movie Super 8, which I highly recommend if you need some entertainment to distract you from the depressing political scene.)
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I haven't posted in a couple of months partly due to lack of motivation, but also because I've been quite busy, particularly with my apartment move, which will hopefully result in no water leak incidents for quite a while. Anyway, onward...

Martin Luther King said that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is some truth to that when it comes to the gradually increasing rights of women and minorities, but for at least the past forty years, our democratic system of government has been bending away from justice, in the sense that our elected representatives increasingly represent the interests of wealthy campaign donors rather than those who actually voted them into office. The Citizens United decision, and the recent actions of 18 Wisconsin legislators aimed at destroying the labor movement's power in blatant disregard of their constituents' wishes, are just the latest steps in this long-term trend. We may be able to turn this trend around, but first we must slow it to a halt, and in the time it takes to accomplish that, it seems likely that we will drift into a state of total corporatocracy in which no policy that threatens Big Business's profits can be contemplated, at least at the national level.

So how do we live through such a period of history without allowing irreparable damage to our society and the biosphere? One answer lies in the fact that “Big Business” is far from a single monolithic entity that always speaks with one voice to demand changes in policy. Different industries want different things from government, and just as different political parties in a democracy can act as checks on each other's more extreme ambitions, so it may prove to be with industry groups. Learning to play these groups off against each other may become a key skill for advocacy groups operating in a corporate-ruled nation. And since more than two such groups can easily be identified, the resulting dynamics may come to somewhat resemble those of multiparty European democracies, so we could consider labeling this potential system of governance “parliamentary corporatocracy.”

As a simple example of how this might work, consider the conflict between transportation and telecommunications technologies. Oil companies, airlines, and the tourism industry would prefer policies that promote long-distance travel (and all the air pollution that goes with it), while companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and Skype would prefer that more people use their videoconferencing and related technologies to avoid much of this travel. The latter group may not have enough power on its own to stand against the likes of ExxonMobil, but they could make an alliance with the actual internet service providers and their parent telecom/media conglomerates, such as the recently established Comcast-NBC-Universal, who naturally want people to pay for the high-data-rate plans that HD video calls will require. (Or do they? These networks are already overstressed with the current level of video-streaming traffic, and all those mergers tend to make it less likely that major innovations will arise to solve that problem. But I'm doing my best to be a little optimistic here, so I'm ignoring that issue.)

Overall, while their legally mandated focus on short-term profits means that most large corporations will have a net negative impact on the commons, it's a mistake to demonize “Big Business” as a whole, even when fighting to limit its influence in politics. Partly this is just because almost all Americans depend on corporations for basic necessities like food, but partly it's because there are substantial and growing numbers of fairly good corporate citizens out there. Take this report from Ethical Markets Media, claiming that “Private Investments In Green Sectors Top $2 Trillion” over the four years since 2007. (“This over $2 trillion total does not include nuclear, ‘clean’ coal or CCS, nor biofuels from food or agricultural sources, which we consider unsustainable.”)

None of this is intended to suggest that we can or should try to adapt to such a system to the point where we won't need to go back to government of, by, and for the people. After all, the more aggressively a company focuses on profit at the expense of all else, the more wealthy and powerful it tends to become, which is why ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, and the banks responsible for the current recession are among the biggest political powers in America today. We may have to work with some of them for a while, but not to the extent that it renders us unable to simultaneously work against the massive political power they wield. This power will be eroded naturally by declines in the oil supply, but we need to move that erosion along as quickly as possible while doing our best to ensure that the power vacuum is filled by the people (that is, by politicians who actually care what their constituents want), and not by another set of rapacious corporate overlords.

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Liberal commentators are celebrating several major legislative successes the Democrats achieved during the lame duck session that just ended.  But I can't help feeling that they're missing the point.  I tend to think that by failing to pass the Fair Elections Now Act or even the DISCLOSE Act in those last few weeks, Congress has signed the death warrant of our democracy.  Those bills were our last chance to blunt the power of the "Citizens United" decision, which has given corporations such vast influence over our electoral process that we will never again be able to unite as citizens to elect a Congress or a President willing to challenge that influence (or so I imagine).

From now on, the vast majority of elections will be won by people like Rep. Darrell Issa, who honestly believe that doing corporations' bidding is the essence of principled policymaking.  Regulations that protect workers, consumers, children, and other living things will be ruthlessly eliminated, labor unions will be outlawed, vast monopolies will go unchallenged until their power far outstrips that of the federal government, and the combined corporate and government voices pushing global-warming denial will drown out all reason, even as Alaska continues to melt and increasingly terrible droughts, floods, and wildfires sweep the landscape.  Finally, somewhere around the year 2050, the corporatocracy will collapse along with the rest of civilization, leaving a few survivors to eke out a torturous existence in a world ravaged by war and climate catastrophe.

I'm well aware that the above predictions stem mainly from mindless despair rather than reasoned analysis, and I invite you to poke as many holes in them as you can.  Here are the ones I've tried so far:
  • There is probably a point of diminishing returns when you pour more and more money into political campaigns.  Is there any amount of attack ads or phone banking that could save the Republicans if they're in charge when the next big economic crisis hits?  Maybe not.  After all, a political movement that sees government as largely parasitic is probably not very well positioned to stamp out the age-old political battle cry, "Throw the bums out!"
  • Likewise, conservatives want to limit government power largely because they see politicians as inevitably corrupt.  Thus, maybe some Republicans can be shamed into supporting the Other 98% Campaign's Fight Washington Corruption Pledge.  (This one isn't very convincing.)
  • Even if America does become an outright corporatocracy, the rise of Chinese and European power means that we can't necessarily doom the world all by ourselves.
  • Not all major corporations are conservative.  Many pay more than lip service to the idea of the Triple Bottom LineWorking Assets, Patagonia, REI, Organic Valley, Whole Foods, and Gaiam are probably all good examples.  Students at top liberal-arts schools these days are notoriously, well, liberal; many of them will go on to become CEOs long before they grow old and cynical, this being the Internet era.  If this represents enough of an upward trend, maybe corporate rule won't be so bad after all.  (Then again, it takes an awful lot of Patagonias to outweigh an Exxon-Mobil.)
  • We have advertising clout on our side, too, as the Hopenhagen and 4 Years Go campaigns attest.
  • Lots of sustainable technologies are already in the pipeline, and many of them are not going to be abandoned just because a conservative government lets certain tax credits and other incentives expire.
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16 days ago, Rep. Donna Edwards (D. Maryland) introduced a bill to pass an amendment to the Constitution denying free speech rights to corporations, countering the recent Supreme Court ruling that essentlially removed all limits to corporate election spending.  It definitely has one cosponsor, Rep. John Conyers (D. Michigan), Chair of the Judiciary Committee.  Seemingly based only on an unsupported claim at FreeSpeechForPeople.orgthe left-wing blogosphere is claiming there are ten other cosponsors; I can't find any independent evidence for this.  Still, I really appreciate the fact that someone in Congress is taking seriously the idea that treating megacorporations just like people is wrong.

By the way, an earlier bill by Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa), proposing a similar constitutional amendment, has no listed cosponsors and may have been outclassed by the less extreme Edwards amendment.  Edwards says the government should be able to regulate corporate spending, but explicitly avoids restricting freedom of the press (even for corporations?).  Boswell says all corporate political spending should stop, period.

Also, today is the "JP Morgan Chase Social Media Day of Action to End Mountain Top Removal Coal Mining," sponsored by Rainforest Action Network.  I may not be quite ready to close my Chase CD account in the middle of its term, but I do applaud any effort being made to end this horribly destructive practice.  Even if carbon sequestration were possible in the short term, there would still be a strong argument to ban coal-fired power plants unless we can clean up the extraction process as well.
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You'd think the Democrats in Congress were born yesterday, from the way they're reacting to losing a Massachusetts senate seat to a Republican.  No, it does not mean that this exceedingly blue state has suddenly swung to the right and wants the policies of the Bush years back.  The far more plausible explanation is that the election was swung largely by voters fed up with the lack of change toward progressive policies since Democrats gained control of both houses three years ago.

But these Democratic politicians feel that, with only 18 more votes in the Senate than the Republicans have (a greater margin than Republicans ever held during the Bush years, as Jon Stewart pointed out while having a nervous breakdown), we have to scale back health care reform even further, drop some major plans for improved regulation of the financial industry, and quite possibly give up on passing a climate bill anytime soon.  Presumably, part of the argument is that this November, the whole country is going to follow Massachusetts's lead and sweep Democrats out of power in Congress--unless they act like they're already back in the minority?  Granted, we'll probably lose some seats just because that's the statistical trend for midterm elections that come two years after the White House changes hands.  But that doesn't mean it makes sense to pretend that's already happened.

It makes no sense, that is, unless you're just looking for any excuse to behave more like Republicans anyway.  I'm probably overstating the case here, but it seems like maybe all politicians prefer to put the interests of their wealthy campaign contributors ahead of their constituents, so as to be assured of having enough cash on hand next time they need to buy lots of TV ads telling those constituents why an opposing candidate can't be allowed to win.  After all, even if you put your constituents first, you still need to buy those ads to tell them how you're standing up for their interests--only in that case you might not have nearly enough cash, especially when simultaneously trying to counter your opponent's smear campaign.  Overly cynical?  Yes, but maybe closer to the truth than the alternate, one-word explanation, "spinelessness."

All of which bodes ill for any attempt to counter the truly disastrous event of the past week, the Supreme Court ruling that removed all limits on corporate and union financing of elections.  Work toward the ideal of "getting money out of politics," long championed by progressives, has been set back massively by this decision.  Of course, Obama's seeming embrace of this goal is already questionable, given that he broke a promise to use public financing in his presidential campaign.  Still, he now says he wants to pass legislation to counter the effect of this ruling.  But with the current mindset of Democrats in Congress, are they really likely to do anything about it?
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I finally decided I couldn't wait any longer--I had to get rid of that boring "Thoughts on the Environmental Crisis" title, which virtually guarantees me a permanently small readership.  I needed something short and catchy, like Technozoic.  But since I couldn't think of anything clever and original offhand, and had reluctantly decided that trying to become "The SolSeed Eco-Blog" put too many constraints on what I could say, I decided to use Brian "Space4Commerce" Dunbar and his sometime nemesis, Bruce "Space4Peace" Gagnon, as a model.  (There must be an alternate timeline where they're allies; after all, as far as we're presently aware, the commercialization of space is the alternative to its dominance by the military.)

But wait, I thought--while I'm very interested in space colonization and growing new biospheres, that's a pretty small fraction of what I write about on this blog.  So Space4Life isn't really a good enough title.  Making it OpenSpace opens up at least four possible interpretations:
  • The outer-space aspect, of course: if Open is a verb, the title clearly refers to the opening of the Final Frontier for colonization by the seeds of Gaia.  Which is fine, as long as we don't repeat the evils of the first colonial era by landing on already-living worlds and overexploiting/exterminating their inhabitants.
  • The classic environmentalist stand for Open Spaces: the preservation of natural landscapes, both as habitat and for the enjoyment of hikers, campers, and sometimes even hunters.  It's a good time to be promoting this ideal, with the release of acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns's new film, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," coming out next month on PBS.
  • As an abstract metaphor, with "Life" referring to the process of living, usually in an exclusively human sense.  This would cover, albeit obscurely, the political and economic issues I discuss: for example, America needs to maintain public space for free and open dialog, rather than surveilling the heck out of us and pouncing on whoever trips a computer search algorithm looking for words that might be related to terrorist activity.
  • On a similar note, there's the reference to Open Space Technology, which was used to organize the first two SolSeed events and is very Web 2.0: the conveners just provide a space and an open wall where any participant can tape up agenda items.
As long as I was changing the title, I decided a facelift for the site's appearance was also a good idea, allowing for a subtitle and more horizontal space for my entries.  Let me know what you think!
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"He's bugging your room,
And reading your mail,
He's keeping a file
And running a tail
Santa Claus is tapping
Your phone."
- Anonymous

Okay, now that I've got that image in your head, imagine that instead we had eco- Santa Claus, giving out lumps of coal to folks who used too much coal-fired electricity over the past year--"Especially for that time on August 23rd, when you left the refrigerator door open when you went to work!" according to the accompanying card.

Now let's bring it full circle and imagine a world where the usual suspects--the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.--are tapping, not your phone, but your electricity and water usage, to a terrifying degree of precision. Or imagine that your utility company is doing so, allegedly for the sake of giving you good advice on how to reduce your usage (because your state figured out how to make them happy about selling less), and then passing the info along to the government. Or that an enterprising criminal has hacked into your system to figure out exactly what time you take your morning shower, in order to plan a breakin of your house. Or that you're a desk jockey at some green-tech firm, and you don't get a raise next year because "you never turn your monitor off when leaving your office," and when you bemusedly ask how they knew, they say, "Well, Viridiscope, of course."

That's right, Viridiscope: the system that lets you track your own consumption so you can guilt yourself into conserving in realtime.  Easy to install, "non-intrusive" sensors (meaning they don't have to be physically inserted into the circuits and water pipes) estimate the flow to each faucet and appliance via vibrations and magnetic fields.  In theory, this detailed breakdown would never be seen by anyone but the owners of the building in question, as well as the renters in the case of an apartment block--but you'd always be wondering whether you can really believe that.

But as you'll see if you follow the link, Viridiscope is currently just a research project at UCLA, one of whose lead researchers gave a talk at Microsoft this morning. And frankly, it's probably less frightening than most of the other projects to be presented at the 11th international conference on Ubiquitous Computing.  Ubiquitous computing: the next inevitable advance in creepy yet oh-so-useful Information Age technology.  This time they didn't even come up with a nickname that hides the creepiness, like with "the cloud," a.k.a. the strange practice of copying your personal hard drive onto bits of several different server farms scattered across the globe (but still accessing it as a single seamless entity via the magic of the Internet).

My thinking is that the way things are going, eventually the concept of "privacy" will no longer be sustainable, and the only way to keep everyone honest will be to allow everyone to know everything about everyone else.  We'll be like seven billion fish in a very large fishbowl.  Though hopefully, thanks in part to technologies like Viridiscope, those of us currently living near the seashore won't literally be underwater by then.

In other amusing news: according to Dresden Codak, it turns out that panspermia is a cosmic pyramid scheme.  "Forward this to at least TWO of ur favorite planets..."

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Last Friday was the first time in history that either house of the United States Congress passed a bill containing commitments to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.  Since then, I've received twelve emails from various organizations touting this as a major victory, with only an occasional caveat that the bill "still needs strengthening in the Senate."

Alone in the crowd, claimed otherwise: "In fact, the bill repeals a key part of the Clean Air Act and doesn't do nearly enough to shift America to renewable energy—so instead of a boom in solar and wind, the bill locks us into dirty coal power for another generation. . . . During the floor debate last week, conservative Democrats openly bragged that the bill would result in 'increased coal use.'  They urged others to support it because the Clean Air Act rollbacks in the bill would stop President Obama's Environmental Protection Agency from setting new rules for global warming pollution."  Now, it can be argued that with a cap on carbon emissions, regulation by the EPA becomes redundant.  But with the likelihood of loopholes in the complex emissions trading scheme, we would do well to maintain a backup option.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is still looking for ways to establish new grounds for indefinite detention of suspected terrorists without trial, in regular American prisons.  The claim is that without this option, Congress will never accept transferring many of the Guantanamo detainees onto U.S. soil.  Also, the draft of an executive order to this effect apparently stipulates that "U.S. citizens would not be held in the system" and those who were so detained "would also have the right to legal representation during confinement and access to some of the information that is being used to keep them behind bars. Anyone detained under this order would have a right to challenge his detention before a judge."  The question, of course, is whether such challenges would simply be met with claims that the remaining classified evidence, which neither the detainee nor the public will ever see, is sufficient to keep said detainee behind bars for life.

But it's all good, because Democrats finally have a 60-vote majority in the Senate.  After all, as every progressive knows, Democratic politicians always do the right thing.  </sarcasm>
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“We can
Each of us
Do the impossible
As long as we can convince ourselves
That it has been done before.”

-Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower

First the bad news: Obama wants to bring the unconstitutional policy of indefinite detention without trial home to American soil.  The argument for his position, prettified with the doublespeak phrase "prolonged detention," is that "Guantánamo’s remaining 240 detainees include cold-blooded jihadists and perhaps some so warped by their experience in custody that no president would be willing to free them . . . [but] some [of them] cannot be tried, in part for lack of evidence or because of tainted evidence."  The irony is palpable: we might need to keep holding some people indefinitely simply because they've grown to hate us so much for holding them indefinitely (and torturing them) that they would become dangerous terrorists if released.  This despite the fact that the government can't prove (without using "tainted" evidence, i.e. deeply classified and/or obtained under torture) that their prior actions even justified detaining them in the first place.

According to the ACLU, "Mr. Obama has not made the case persuasively that there is a worrisome category of detainees who are too dangerous to release but who cannot be convicted. The reason to have a criminal justice system at all, they say, is to trust it to decide who is guilty and who is not."  In short: Terrorists are criminals.  And yeah, occasionally our court system lets criminals go free by accident, including serial killers, arsonists, and other psychopaths.   But there's no sense in trying to make the system perfectly safe, because there's no such thing as perfection.  Our criminal justice system already ensures that these nightmare scenarios are extremely rare, while avoiding needless damage to our freedoms in the name of safety from criminals.  Obama says he's the president who listens to us, and he did listen on the liquid coal issue.  Now, we need to make him listen to this commonsense analysis.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, the American Clean Energy and Security Act is moving ahead.  A few committees will try to delay it, but Henry Waxman, one of its two authors, doesn't see any obstacle to getting it onto the full House floor this summer: "'I think we have a formidable coalition behind our legislation, and I think they will see the wisdom of some of our decisions. And then we're going to talk through where we have differences and then we'll resolve them.'"  Speaker Pelosi also "has said she wants to act in the House this year. Pelosi could force the legislation through the different committees by giving them time constraints and using the Rules Committee to combine the various sections."  And once the bill is brought to the floor, "House Majority Whip James Clyburn . . . [said] last week that he could find the 218 votes to pass the legislation."

Now, some groups such as Greenpeace and the Energy Action Coalition (sponsor of Power Shift) say that the fossil fuel industry has already hijacked this bill, ensuring that the greenhouse-emission reduction targets aren't good enough and the offset allowances will easily permit America's greenhouse emissions to keep rising (though much more slowly) for the next 20 years.  But in my opinion, we are much better off passing a somewhat inadequate bill than letting it die.  Once we finally have the precedent of Congressional willingness to pass real climate legislation, it will be much easier to get another one passed that will rectify those inadequacies.  After all, right now it's easy to despair and presume that Big Oil and Big Coal will never let us pass a climate bill.  But once it's been done before, that all changes.
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This article seems to be on some kind of blog-based chain mail, but I heard about it from [ profile] bdunbar, who agrees with me on very little else about Obama's policies.

"WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is asking the Supreme Court to overrule a 23 year-old decision that stopped police from initiating questions unless a defendant's lawyer is present, the latest stance that has disappointed civil rights and civil liberties groups.

"While President Barack Obama has reversed many policies of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, the defendants' rights case is another stark example of the White House seeking to limit rather than expand rights.

"Since taking office, Obama has drawn criticism for backing the continued imprisonment of enemy combatants in Afghanistan without trial, invoking the 'state secrets' privilege to avoid releasing information in lawsuits and limiting the rights of prisoners to test genetic evidence used to convict them."

What's worse, I had only previously heard about the second of the three items in that last paragraph (shouldn't there have been email alerts from someone about this stuff?). All of which makes this Jon Stewart clip somewhat less funny than when I saw it for the first time a week or so ago. But I still don't seriously believe he's going to establish "re-education camps" for our kids.
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Last January, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann gave a "Special Comment" railing against Bush's warrantless wiretapping programs, and plans to immunize the telecom companies that aided them, as "textbook fascism."  Then in June, when a so-called "compromise" bill on wiretapping came up for a vote and then-Senator Obama said he'd vote for it, even if he and his colleagues couldn't get the retroactive-immunity provision removed (and it turned out they couldn't), Olbermann inexplicably switched sides.  Apparently blinded by Obama's charisma, he and fellow progressive media icon Jonathan Alter proclaimed that Obama was standing up to "the Left" and keeping us safe from terrorism.

Well, apparently Mr. Olbermann recovered his sight after hearing about the latest developments in Obama's apparent quest to maintain and even further expand the executive powers the Bush administration so blatantly abused (the latest dangerous buzzword: "Sovereign immunity").  Here is Olbermann applying his trademark finely judged outrage to the new President and bringing in a Constitutional law professor to explain the severe problems with Obama's stance.

In a strange way, this makes me feel a little better about the Obama presidency overall.  If his charisma doesn't necessarily hold up anymore as a screen to cover wrongdoing, it may be easier than I feared to get people to hold him accountable.  Especially to his claim that he will listen to the people who "were the real winners" on November 4th, even when they disagree with him.

March 2015

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