Commentary Magazine


Posts For: April 18, 2012

Challenging Sacred Assumptions

Shortly after first arriving in Washington, D.C., I had conversations with friends in which I made this observation: Assume that they and I hold completely different views on an issue. Assume, too, that we engaged in a debate on the issue and that they pulverized me based on their superior knowledge and logic. And let’s stipulate a third assumption: I knew, deep in my bones, that I was bested. Still, the odds are that I wouldn’t revisit my opinion; instead, I would probably get angry that my case had been demolished. What this would indicate is that my positions were ones I held not primarily based on reason and empirical evidence but because of certain predilections, biases, and intuitions.

My arguments might be exposed as weak, but my faith in my position would likely remain strong.

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Shortly after first arriving in Washington, D.C., I had conversations with friends in which I made this observation: Assume that they and I hold completely different views on an issue. Assume, too, that we engaged in a debate on the issue and that they pulverized me based on their superior knowledge and logic. And let’s stipulate a third assumption: I knew, deep in my bones, that I was bested. Still, the odds are that I wouldn’t revisit my opinion; instead, I would probably get angry that my case had been demolished. What this would indicate is that my positions were ones I held not primarily based on reason and empirical evidence but because of certain predilections, biases, and intuitions.

My arguments might be exposed as weak, but my faith in my position would likely remain strong.

I thought of these conversations after watching this interview with Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Professor Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, argues that reasoning is “post-hoc and justificatory.” Reasoning is not good at finding the truth, according to Haidt. He argued that “conscious verbal reasoning is really good at confirming.” We’re like good lawyers or press secretaries; we seek out information to reinforce our existing opinions and try to justify everything. Once we sacralize something, we become blind to counter-evidence.

I know precisely what Haidt is talking about. It’s extremely easy to spot the weak arguments, hypocrisy, and double standards of those with whom I disagree; it’s much harder to see them in myself. And many of us, having arrived at comfortable, settled positions, go out in search of evidence to support our arguments. That is quite a different thing than assessing evidence in order to arrive at an opinion. What most of us do, to one degree or another, is self-segregate. We search for studies and data that confirm our pre-existing beliefs. And we tend to ignore the strongest arguments against our position.

This is a complicated matter. Our underlying views are not necessarily sub-rational; they are often grounded in moral intuitions and attitudes that are entirely legitimate. What we do in political debates is to extend what we take to be true – and in the process, we reach for evidence that conforms to what Edmund Burke referred to, in an uncritical way, as our prejudices.

We channel facts in a way that reinforces views that are based on something different than – something deeper than – mere empirical evidence. None of us, then, are completely open-minded; and we’re all understandably reluctant to alter deeply-held views. The question, really, is given all this, how open are we to persuasion, to new evidence, and to holding up our views to refinement and revision? How do we react when our arguments seem to be falling apart? And what steps can we take to ensure that we don’t insulate ourselves to the point that we are indifferent to facts that challenge our worldview?

According to Haidt, individual reasoning is not reliable because of “the confirmation bias” – and the only cure for the confirmation bias is other people. “If you bring people together who disagree,” he argues, “and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.” We’re not very good at challenging our own beliefs – but we’re quite good at challenging the beliefs of others. Our task is (to borrow from William Saletan’s review of Haidt’s book) “to organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways.”

That makes great sense to me. There’s a natural tendency to seek out a community of like-minded individuals who can offer support and encouragement along the way. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes that a friendship is born when two people discover they not only share common interests but see the same truth, who stand not face-to-face (as lovers do) but shoulder-to-shoulder. There’s an important place for intellectual fellowship, just as there is for religious fellowship.

Still, it’s important to resist the temptation to surround ourselves exclusively with like-minded people, those who reinforce our preexisting views and biases. It becomes much too easy to caricature those with whom we disagree. (In those rare, self-aware moments, and sometimes with a gentle assist from others, it becomes obvious when I’m guilty of this.)

In the White House in particular, where you have access to more information than is available to most people and are surrounded by some of the leading experts in the country, it’s tempting to think that you and your colleagues are all-wise and your critics are all-foolish. And before long you can find yourself in an intellectual cul-de-sac. That’s a dangerous place to be. We need at least a few people in our orbit who have standing in our lives and who are willing to challenge what we claim and how we claim it. That is, I think, an important, even essential, element when striving for intellectual honesty.

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Studies Find No Evidence of “Food Deserts”

“Food deserts” is a term that’s become associated with Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, and the theory holds that children in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be overweight because their parents don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s led to initiatives like Walmart’s plan to open 300 grocery stores in low-income, urban areas.

But as the New York Times reports today, two new independent studies found no correlation between poor urban neighborhoods with high obesity rates and a lack of access to fresh produce:

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“Food deserts” is a term that’s become associated with Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, and the theory holds that children in poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be overweight because their parents don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s led to initiatives like Walmart’s plan to open 300 grocery stores in low-income, urban areas.

But as the New York Times reports today, two new independent studies found no correlation between poor urban neighborhoods with high obesity rates and a lack of access to fresh produce:

It has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

Within a couple of miles of almost any urban neighborhood, “you can get basically any type of food,” said Roland Sturm of the RAND Corporation, lead author of one of the studies. “Maybe we should call it a food swamp rather than a desert,” he said.

The research found no correlation between obesity and lack of healthy food access for a blindingly obvious reason: just because healthy food is available, it doesn’t mean people will eat it (as anyone who evaded Brussels sprouts as a child knows).

As the Times acknowledges, these are really the first two meaningful studies done on the issue. Unlike prior research supporting the “food desert thesis,” the new ones weren’t limited by methodological gaps (i.e., one older study didn’t include data on the local obesity rates). Anti-food-desert activists quoted in the article appear to be caught flat-footed by the new data, basically just grumbling that more research has to be done.

But the most priceless part of the article is when the Times wonders how the “food desert” theory became widely accepted in first place, particularly when the research on it was so flimsy:

It is unclear how the idea took hold that poor urban neighborhoods were food deserts but it had immediate appeal. There is even an Agriculture Department “food desert locator” and a “National Food Desert Awareness Month” supported by the National Center for Public Research, a charitable foundation.

For a refresher, here’s a passionate 2009 New York Times editorial petitioning Michelle Obama to take up arms against the food desert epidemic:

Michelle Obama’s recent pitch for fresh vegetables and her avowed interest in community gardens have given new life to those who are trying to replace cheap, fast foods with healthier fare. She could go one step further and greatly improve the health of the urban poor by adding her powerful voice to local efforts aimed at bringing fresh groceries into poorer neighborhoods.

There are communities across America where it’s almost impossible to find a fresh apple or an unfried potato. These neighborhoods are known as ”food deserts.” Full-service grocery stores are often many blocks away and hard to reach, and what’s left are mostly fast-food outlets or chain drug stores selling products that, while cheap today, can extract huge health costs in obesity and diabetes later on.

That must have been a pretty persuasive editorial, because the First Lady added the issue to her anti-obesity campaign shortly afterward.

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Don’t Strand the Holocaust in History

This evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. For most, it will be a moment of mourning as well as an occasion to ponder the lessons of history and to ask whether humanity has learned anything in the 67 years since the end of the Second World War. But for some on the left, the Holocaust has become a political liability that must be drained of all relevance to the contemporary world.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that demands that “Netanyahu stop hiding behind Holocaust warnings.” Haaretz, which articulates the opinion of the minority of Israelis who espouse the views of the hard left about the conflict with the Palestinians as well as the potential confrontation with Iran, has come to negatively view any attempt to ground the country’s security policies in the historical experience of the Jewish people. Thus, for them it’s not merely enough to chide the prime minister for what they wrongly believe is the promiscuous use of Holocaust analogies. Instead, their goal, as well as that of others who pay lip service to the idea of proper commemoration of the Six Million who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, is to strand the event in history.  Doing so serves their immediate political purpose but, in fact, confounds the entire concept of remembrance of the Holocaust.

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This evening, Jews in Israel and around the world will mark Yom HaShoah, the day of remembrance of the Holocaust. For most, it will be a moment of mourning as well as an occasion to ponder the lessons of history and to ask whether humanity has learned anything in the 67 years since the end of the Second World War. But for some on the left, the Holocaust has become a political liability that must be drained of all relevance to the contemporary world.

That’s the gist of today’s editorial in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper that demands that “Netanyahu stop hiding behind Holocaust warnings.” Haaretz, which articulates the opinion of the minority of Israelis who espouse the views of the hard left about the conflict with the Palestinians as well as the potential confrontation with Iran, has come to negatively view any attempt to ground the country’s security policies in the historical experience of the Jewish people. Thus, for them it’s not merely enough to chide the prime minister for what they wrongly believe is the promiscuous use of Holocaust analogies. Instead, their goal, as well as that of others who pay lip service to the idea of proper commemoration of the Six Million who died at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators, is to strand the event in history.  Doing so serves their immediate political purpose but, in fact, confounds the entire concept of remembrance of the Holocaust.

This is a familiar theme from the left, which in recent years has come to view mentions of the Holocaust as a dodge that has allowed Israel to avoid coming to grips with the tough issues of war and peace as well as its social cohesion. But it’s not Netanyahu and others who are in the wrong; it is those who wish to isolate the destruction of European Jewry in history and to avoid drawing conclusions from it who are profoundly misguided.

Though the Holocaust has universal significance, its particular meaning relates to what happens when Jews are rendered powerless in the face of powerful foes bent on their destruction. While there are those who wish to discuss it only in the most general terms about bias, the Holocaust was a specific event that happened to a people who had been demonized for 2,000 years and lacked the ability to adequately defend themselves.

Netanyahu is not injecting a political agenda into commemoration of this tragedy. It is actually those who wish to ban mentions of Iran’s nuclear program, the genocidal intent of Hamas and other Islamist terrorists as well as the rising tide of European anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism from the discussion of the Shoah who are distorting the debate.

The notion that Israelis or American Jews are so distracted by fears rooted in the Holocaust that they have ignored other problems or exaggerated the present threats to Jewish existence is rooted in a foolish assumption that Islamist forces who speak of their desire to eradicate Israel don’t mean what they say. Netanyahu isn’t, as Haaretz charges, irresponsibly “feeding the fear” of a second Holocaust to the detriment of his country. He is merely acknowledging the reality that Jewish history has the ability to inform our understanding of today’s conflicts, and that we must act on the conclusions we must draw from the past.

Every slur or example of hate speech is not a potential Holocaust. But the efforts of a powerful Islamist state to obtain nuclear weapons that might be used to make good on its pledge to eradicate Israel is as much of an existential threat as that of the Nazis. That doesn’t mean that Iran is Germany or that Khamenei or Ahmadinejad is Hitler, but the analogy doesn’t have to be perfect to make sense. The same applies to those Islamist terrorists, often funded by Iran, who have similar hopes about cleansing the Middle East of the one Jewish state.

What we must understand is that any commemoration of the Holocaust that does not speak of the need to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons or of preserving Israel’s security against the threat of Palestinian terrorism is not worthy of the name. Far from there being too much talk about Iran when discussing the Holocaust, there is not enough. Though today’s situation is not akin to that of 1939 when there was no Jewish state ready to defend itself or an America that despite the ambivalence of its president is united in support of Israel, the peril is nonetheless real.

The mere recital of expressions of sorrow for the Six Million is not enough. Acts of remembrance that do not cause us to draw conclusions about the present are of little use. For all the effort and resources that have gone into the proliferation of Holocaust memorials around the United States, it must be understood that the best and only true memorial to the Shoah is to be found in the creation and the survival of the State of Israel and of the Jewish people itself. Those who weep today about the fate of the Six Million but say nothing about the possibility that the West will not act to stop Iran or seek to discourage Israel from defending its people have learned nothing.

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Showdown in Bahrain

Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

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Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

So what next in Bahrain? The level of trust between opposition and government is zero. There is a stereotype in the West that the Persian Gulf is awash in oil, but it is not evenly distributed. The simple fact is that Bahrain has next to nothing—and would have even less if Saudi Arabia did not provide a great deal. Given their constraints and financial limitations, the Khalifa family has transformed Bahrain from a dusty backwater into a major financial hub. Shiny skyscrapers sit on reclaimed land. Infrastructure is superior even to many oil-rich Saudi cities (don’t even ask about the sewage system in Jeddah). Visitors recognize what the Bahrainis know: Bahraini culture is laid back and Bahrainis are far friendlier than many of their Gulf brethren.

Still, the grievances are real: A Bahraini born Shi’ite has little equality of opportunity. Sectarian restrictions are rife. And many of Crown Prince Hamad’s promises of reform evaporated when he took the throne in 1999. While many Bahraini officials recognize the need for reform, cynicism is rife and trust is non-existent. There is a consistent problem in which all sides recognize the need for reform after bouts of violence but do not want to concede under pressure. Once calm is restored, however, they fool themselves into thinking that reform is unnecessary, until the cycle begins anew.

So how to proceed? The Bahraini government claims the uprising is Iranian-sponsored. Certainly, the Iranians may co-opt it, but to show real Iranian interference beyond media incitement, the Bahraini government needs to expose the financial links between certain opposition figures and Iran. There have been quiet allegations of some businesses and bank accounts acting as fronts and financiers of opposition activity, but the unwillingness of the Bahraini officials to expose such intelligence has begun to erode their credibility.

The opposition, meanwhile, has made a case based on heart strings, but has yet to demonstrate how they would govern the day after any victory. Bahraini opposition politicians avoid too much talk about the role of Ayatollah Isa Qasim in political decision-making and when if ever they have taken action in contradiction to his pronouncements. While the opposition leaders are seasoned and mature, the anger of their followers will not be easily contained. If the opposition does succeed in overthrowing the monarchy—increasingly their goal—then how would the opposition constrain the impulse to exact revenge against the Sunni minority? If Bahraini Shi’ites have been largely excluded from the security forces, how would they be integrated over the following weeks and months? Ditto better integration of the financial sector. Seeking to destroy Bahrain’s economic infrastructure and reputation will, at best, provide a Pyrrhic victory.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, whose offer of federation with Bahrain may be enough to keep hardliners inside the Bahraini royal family from pushing forward with reform. Nothing should remind better that as bad as the Iranian regime might be, the Saudis are just as noxious an influence on Middle Eastern politics. If the Obama administration believes it can farm out the Bahrain problem to the Saudis, then the White House and State Department will soon demonstrate just how counterproductive a strategy of leading from behind can be.

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Mike Huckabee’s Double Standard

I like Mike Huckabee, but he’s gotten off to a bad start as a host of his own radio show. In an interview with Ted Nugent – Huckabee’s “hunting buddy and good friend” – Governor Huckabee was extremely supportive of Nugent.

I wonder why.

As Jonathan pointed out, Nugent told an NRA audience over the weekend that President Obama was “vile,” “evil,” and “America-hating.” And Nugent vowed that “if Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.”

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I like Mike Huckabee, but he’s gotten off to a bad start as a host of his own radio show. In an interview with Ted Nugent – Huckabee’s “hunting buddy and good friend” – Governor Huckabee was extremely supportive of Nugent.

I wonder why.

As Jonathan pointed out, Nugent told an NRA audience over the weekend that President Obama was “vile,” “evil,” and “America-hating.” And Nugent vowed that “if Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.”

But what Nugent said “isn’t threatening at all,” according to Huckabee. Of course not. The “Nuge” is a great guy. Boys will boys. It was all in good fun. Et cetera.

In fact, what Nugent said was stupid and offensive – and if Huckabee was a true friend of Nugent’s, he would have told him so, at least privately. But for Huckabee to ridicule the critics of Nugent, as if the musician’s comments were totally appropriate, was pathetic. I guarantee you that if the shoe were on the other foot – if, say, Bruce Springsteen had made the same comments about President Bush before a National Education Association gathering – Huckabee would have (rightly) considered them as indefensible.

This is what happens when politics is viewed as a battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, when political opponents become mortal enemies, and when political disputes take on cosmic importance. At that point it becomes fine to characterize one’s opponents not as wrong but as evil, not as misguided but as malevolent.

This happens on both the right and the left, far more often than it should. And Mike Huckabee could have done his audience, and political discourse in general, a favor if he had confronted rather than promoted his pal Ted.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, done prior to the start of his radio gig, Huckabee played up the fact that he was all about “conversation” rather than “confrontation.”

“I’m not a person who would call anyone by names that would cause my late mother to come out of her grave and slap me to the floor,” he said.

I wonder what Huckabee’s mother would think of her son playing footsie on the radio with a man who, in a public speech, referred to the president of the United States as “vile,” “evil,” and “America-hating” – and vowed that “if Barack Obama becomes the president in November again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year.”

Probably not much.

 

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Conrad’s Final Markup and Fiscal Legacy

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad is often described as a fiscal hawk, but as he prepares to retire after 26 years in the Senate, his legacy may be as the chairman who failed to pass a budget for three years as national debt shot up by $4 trillion.

It’s not that Conrad didn’t try this week. Despite opposition from Democratic leadership, he scheduled a markup on a budget proposal for this afternoon – his last one before retirement – but yesterday suddenly backed down from the plan. There would still be a “markup,” he said – but it would be a markup in name only. No voting, no room to propose amendment, no chance of bringing anything to the Senate floor.

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Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad is often described as a fiscal hawk, but as he prepares to retire after 26 years in the Senate, his legacy may be as the chairman who failed to pass a budget for three years as national debt shot up by $4 trillion.

It’s not that Conrad didn’t try this week. Despite opposition from Democratic leadership, he scheduled a markup on a budget proposal for this afternoon – his last one before retirement – but yesterday suddenly backed down from the plan. There would still be a “markup,” he said – but it would be a markup in name only. No voting, no room to propose amendment, no chance of bringing anything to the Senate floor.

At the phantom markup today, Senate Republicans took out their frustration on Democratic leadership, which appears to have pressured Conrad into canceling the markup out of fear that a budget would make it to a floor vote before the election.

“I want to say how much I appreciate your efforts to bring a budget to the Senate floor and how much I sympathize with your dilemma,” Sen. John Cornyn told Conrad. “At the end of a long and distinguished Senate career you deserve more, and so do the American people.”

Sen. Grassley also sympathized with Conrad. “I understand the predicament that our beloved chairman is in…and the way he’s been treated by the leadership,” he said. “As much as he knows what should be done, party leadership doesn’t want him to do it.”

And Sen. Graham conceded the same. “Clearly your heart is in the right place,” he told the chairman. “But institutionally we’re broken.”

But as much credit as Conrad gets, his budget proposal is far from fiscally responsible. It includes $600 billion more in tax hikes than President Obama’s budget and increases debt by more than $8 trillion, according to Senate Republican estimates.

This isn’t a budget plan many moderate Democrats would agree to support, and Republicans would certainly attack it at length. And that’s fine. There’s no getting around the fact that negotiations can’t begin until a budget is offered up and debated. Conrad had a chance to make that his legacy. Instead, thanks to Democratic leadership, he’ll be remembered as the so-called fiscal hawk chairman who allowed the deficit to careen out of control for political points.

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IRS and “Stalinist” Powers?

“Stalinist” is how IBD describes a provision in the new transportation bill, which would give the IRS the power to revoke passport rights for individuals they suspect of owing more than $50k in taxes. The key word here is “suspect,” because apparently no court ruling is required:

“America, Love It Or Leave It” might be an obsolete slogan if the “bipartisan transportation bill” that just passed the Senate is approved by the House and becomes law. Contained within the suspiciously titled “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act,” or “MAP 21,” is a provision that gives the Internal Revenue Service the power to keep U.S. citizens from leaving the country if it finds that they owe $50,000 or more in unpaid taxes — no court ruling necessary.

It is hard to imagine any law more reminiscent of the Soviet Union that America toppled, or its Eastern Bloc slave satellites.

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“Stalinist” is how IBD describes a provision in the new transportation bill, which would give the IRS the power to revoke passport rights for individuals they suspect of owing more than $50k in taxes. The key word here is “suspect,” because apparently no court ruling is required:

“America, Love It Or Leave It” might be an obsolete slogan if the “bipartisan transportation bill” that just passed the Senate is approved by the House and becomes law. Contained within the suspiciously titled “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act,” or “MAP 21,” is a provision that gives the Internal Revenue Service the power to keep U.S. citizens from leaving the country if it finds that they owe $50,000 or more in unpaid taxes — no court ruling necessary.

It is hard to imagine any law more reminiscent of the Soviet Union that America toppled, or its Eastern Bloc slave satellites.

The rule certainly seems excessive. There are already plenty of ways for the IRS to badger tax delinquents, including legal claims on personal property. Where is the evidence that a law like this is even necessary?

And could the bureaucrats at the IRS really be trusted to handle this smoothly? Even the TSA has made mistakes with its own, much more critical No-Fly List. Now the information is passing through two government agencies. Imagine getting incorrectly flagged as a suspected tax evader while trying to catch a flight.

The proposed law isn’t as unprecedented as one might think, though. The federal government already has the power to limit your overseas travel for a variety of reasons, including unpaid child support, The Atlantic reports. Plus, you can get the travel ban lifted if you officially contest the IRS allegations:

As [University of Georgia Professor Timothy] Meyer points out, MAP 21 certainly isn’t the first law to limit a person’s right to travel because they owe somebody money. The State Department screens passport applications every day for people who owe child support of more than $2500–a lot less than the $50,000 proposed here. And the tax system is routinely used to get Americans to make good on their outstanding liabilities. In fact, over the next few weeks, some folks won’t be getting the refund check they’re expecting if, for instance, they’ve defaulted on their student loans, owe state or local taxes, or haven’t ponied up for the child support they owe. Most people don’t realize it, but the IRS is in contact with federal and state agencies throughout the year, making sure you’ve paid your debts before they send you a chunk of change back in the mail.

The bill has already passed the Senate, but the chances of it being signed into law decreased after House Republicans tacked a provision to it that would require the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. So of course, Obama now says he will veto it. The House GOP should really consider adding Keystone XL approval to any related bills they’re not crazy about – instant Obama-veto, and more news stories about his problematic energy record.

 

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Iran Agreement as Obvious — and Unlikely — as Peace with the Palestinians

For some in the foreign policy establishment, the solution to all the problems of the world are as obvious as the noses on our faces. Worried about Iranian nukes? Just cut a deal with them allowing the ayatollahs to develop nuclear power for peace purposes like medical research while theoretically denying them the ability to build a weapon. And make it all happen with “confidence-building” measures that will break down the barriers of distrust. David Ignatius’ column in the Washington Post outlining the deal with Iran that he thinks will ultimately come from the negotiating process begun last weekend in Istanbul is just one of many voices proclaiming that an end to the confrontation with Tehran is already well-understood, and all we have to do is stop listening to the alarmists and let the danger pass.

If the claim the blueprint for an Iran deal is apparent seems familiar it is because it is strikingly similar to the arguments about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. There, too, we are informed the outline of an accord is already well-known, and all that remains to be done is to force the parties to sign on the dotted line. But as is the case with the Palestinians, the chattering classes’ confidence in the diplomatic process tells us more about their own lack of understanding of the other side in the negotiations than it does about the actual prospects for a deal. Just as the Palestinians have no real interest in peace with Israel, Iran’s nuclear ambitions will always trump the seemingly sensible solutions proposed to get them off the hook with the international community.

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For some in the foreign policy establishment, the solution to all the problems of the world are as obvious as the noses on our faces. Worried about Iranian nukes? Just cut a deal with them allowing the ayatollahs to develop nuclear power for peace purposes like medical research while theoretically denying them the ability to build a weapon. And make it all happen with “confidence-building” measures that will break down the barriers of distrust. David Ignatius’ column in the Washington Post outlining the deal with Iran that he thinks will ultimately come from the negotiating process begun last weekend in Istanbul is just one of many voices proclaiming that an end to the confrontation with Tehran is already well-understood, and all we have to do is stop listening to the alarmists and let the danger pass.

If the claim the blueprint for an Iran deal is apparent seems familiar it is because it is strikingly similar to the arguments about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. There, too, we are informed the outline of an accord is already well-known, and all that remains to be done is to force the parties to sign on the dotted line. But as is the case with the Palestinians, the chattering classes’ confidence in the diplomatic process tells us more about their own lack of understanding of the other side in the negotiations than it does about the actual prospects for a deal. Just as the Palestinians have no real interest in peace with Israel, Iran’s nuclear ambitions will always trump the seemingly sensible solutions proposed to get them off the hook with the international community.

Ignatius gives a fair summary of what is thought to be the easy way out of the Iran tangle:

The mechanics of an eventual settlement are clear enough after Saturday’s first session in Istanbul: Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes.

But any agreement that recognizes, as the Iranians put it, their “right” to peaceful nuclear energy, leaves far too many loopholes for the regime to eventually change its mind and switch to a weapons program. Moreover, the West has been down the garden path with Iran several times in the last decade. Each time, a deal such as the one Ignatius mentions has been put forward and seemingly agreed upon only to be spiked by the Iranians. Their goal has always been to use negotiations to obfuscate the issues and delay the West while their nuclear scientists gain more time to reach their goal. While the tougher sanctions recently enacted in response to the possibility that Israel will act on its own to end this threat raise the stakes in the talks, the Iranians are approaching them in much the same way as in previous diplomatic encounters. Though the solution seems obvious to people like Ignatius and the Western diplomats who trooped to Istanbul and will go next month to Baghdad for the next round of talks, the Iranians have a completely different agenda.

The same problem pops up whenever the obvious solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is mooted. There again, smart people in the West tell us that a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and part of Jerusalem can be created with territorial swaps to allow Israel to keep most of its West Bank settlements. Like the proposed Iranian deal, that scheme also has its flaws (that a divided Jerusalem will be a recipe for future conflict is just the most obvious), but the main obstacle to its implementation is not Israeli reluctance but the fact that the Palestinians don’t want it.

Just as the Palestinians refuse to do the sensible thing and make peace, the Iranians also have every incentive to give up their enriched uranium and thus end both international sanctions and the possibility of an attack on their facilities. But like the Palestinians, the Iranians may have other priorities than peace. They may regard their goal of a nuclear weapon as being more important and will use any “window of diplomacy” proposed by the West as a ploy to get what they want.

What may be really obvious here are not the blueprints for a deal but Iran’s strategy for fooling a gullible Western foreign policy establishment.

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The Myths and Facts of a Possible Hillary Clinton Presidential Candidacy

In the contest for most enjoyable political Tumblr–essentially a photo blog conducive to snapshot satire–of the season, the stiffest competition faced by the runaway leader “Newt Judges You” came, surprisingly, from one devoted to Hillary Clinton. Even more surprisingly, it portrayed her convincingly as endlessly cool–an impression all the more cemented by Clinton’s handwritten note of appreciation to the previously obscure creators.

This coolness factor has only increased speculation that Clinton may still be interested in running for president in 2016. Time’s Michael Crowley dives into the debate, noting–correctly–that Clinton seems to have washed away the ill will of her Democratic Party rivals from the bitter 2008 campaign in her term as the embattled president’s secretary of state. But I think Crowley, in turns, overestimates Clinton’s appeal as well as one of the obstacles in her way. He writes:

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In the contest for most enjoyable political Tumblr–essentially a photo blog conducive to snapshot satire–of the season, the stiffest competition faced by the runaway leader “Newt Judges You” came, surprisingly, from one devoted to Hillary Clinton. Even more surprisingly, it portrayed her convincingly as endlessly cool–an impression all the more cemented by Clinton’s handwritten note of appreciation to the previously obscure creators.

This coolness factor has only increased speculation that Clinton may still be interested in running for president in 2016. Time’s Michael Crowley dives into the debate, noting–correctly–that Clinton seems to have washed away the ill will of her Democratic Party rivals from the bitter 2008 campaign in her term as the embattled president’s secretary of state. But I think Crowley, in turns, overestimates Clinton’s appeal as well as one of the obstacles in her way. He writes:

She’s pulled off the neat trick of being a loyal soldier to Obama while restoring her own poll numbers to record highs. And she’s won high marks for her performance as secretary of state — perhaps in part because she has managed, whether through accident or design, not to get bogged down in some of the Obama administration’s thorniest foreign policy challenges, including the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Iran nuclear showdown.

Will Clinton run in 2016? Who knows? Party insiders certainly don’t rule it out, though they tend to say it probably depends on whether Obama wins a second term. It’s easier for her if he doesn’t, especially because she won’t have to challenge a sitting Vice President.

It’s true that last year Clinton’s job approval hit 66 percent. But while she certainly has done some things right, her job approval mirrors that of her predecessors. That Gallup poll was accompanied by a description of previous secretaries of state, and Clinton’s numbers were right around those of Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright. They come nowhere close, however, to Colin Powell’s approval ratings at Foggy Bottom, which were consistently in the 80s, reaching a high of 88 percent. This is no knock on Clinton, but there is no guarantee–indeed it is unlikely–that her high approval ratings would follow her back into the political sphere, where she has always been considered an especially divisive figure.

Whether or not it would be easier for Clinton to run in 2016 if President Obama loses this year would depend greatly on the first term of his would-be Republican successor. It’s also possible that an Obama victory this year could hurt Clinton’s chances in 2016 because it is difficult for any party to win the White House three times in a row.

Contra Crowley, however, having to compete for her party’s nomination with Joe Biden would be a gift from the heavens for Clinton. First of all, Biden’s approval ratings now, at a time when his gobsmacking inability to speak coherently is relegated to the vice presidential sideshow, is 46 percent, according to that same Gallup poll. Biden’s racially insensitive remarks about African-Americans and Indian-Americans and his other horrific displays of unfiltered logorrhea are either papered over by a friendly media or dismissed with a condescending pat on the head. It would be difficult to ignore him if he were in any position to win his party’s nomination for president.

He was put on the ticket in 2008 ostensibly for his “foreign policy experience,” though his relevant ideas turn out to be excruciatingly half-baked, indecipherable, or just plain wrong. Hillary Clinton would face several challenges if she decides to run for president again. Running against Joe Biden would not be one of them.

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Should the State Department Block U.S. Hostages Suing Iran?

On November 4, 1979, Iranian students answering to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Many former hostages would like to sue Iran for the Iranian regime’s breach of international protocol. The State Department, however, is not keen on allowing such suits to proceed, often citing the Algiers Accords, which ended the hostage crisis. The agreement allowed the Iranian revolutionaries to reclaim billions of dollars in frozen assets but banned supposed U.S. interference in Iranian affairs. Gary Sick, President Carter’s point man on Iran (and the man whose early leaks, some colleagues say, about taking military force off the table amplified the hostage crisis from a 48-hour hiccup to the 15-month affair), opposes compensation and argues that the Carter team gave its word that there would be no compensation lawsuits.

It is tragic that so many American diplomats see the Algiers Accords as binding. During the Bush administration, the State Department even cited them to prevent increased Persian-language broadcasting into Iran.  The problems with honoring the Algiers Accords are many:

  • The agreements negotiated under duress; Iranian actions were illegal.
  • If memory serves, they were not signed by an Iranian government official, but rather by an Iranian banking official.
  • Most importantly, they are a sole executive agreement, not a treaty. There was no congressional role in the agreement, and so there is no congressional role needed to reverse it. Carter knew better than to send them to the Senate for ratification because the vote would have been 100-0 against succumbing to blackmail.

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On November 4, 1979, Iranian students answering to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days. Many former hostages would like to sue Iran for the Iranian regime’s breach of international protocol. The State Department, however, is not keen on allowing such suits to proceed, often citing the Algiers Accords, which ended the hostage crisis. The agreement allowed the Iranian revolutionaries to reclaim billions of dollars in frozen assets but banned supposed U.S. interference in Iranian affairs. Gary Sick, President Carter’s point man on Iran (and the man whose early leaks, some colleagues say, about taking military force off the table amplified the hostage crisis from a 48-hour hiccup to the 15-month affair), opposes compensation and argues that the Carter team gave its word that there would be no compensation lawsuits.

It is tragic that so many American diplomats see the Algiers Accords as binding. During the Bush administration, the State Department even cited them to prevent increased Persian-language broadcasting into Iran.  The problems with honoring the Algiers Accords are many:

  • The agreements negotiated under duress; Iranian actions were illegal.
  • If memory serves, they were not signed by an Iranian government official, but rather by an Iranian banking official.
  • Most importantly, they are a sole executive agreement, not a treaty. There was no congressional role in the agreement, and so there is no congressional role needed to reverse it. Carter knew better than to send them to the Senate for ratification because the vote would have been 100-0 against succumbing to blackmail.

It is rich that the State Department bends over backwards to enforce the Algiers Accords. After all, the Iranian regime has repeatedly voided its own agreements. For example:

  • The regime promised to lift the bounty on Salman Rushdie in order to entice the British ambassador back to Iran; the next day, it re-imposed the bounty.
  • The Iranian government pledged non-interference in Iraq, but even Iranian reporters noted that the regime violated its agreements with both the United States and United Kingdom.
  • In recent weeks, regime hardliners have celebrated the hostage taking of the 1980s in Lebanon, and castigated those who sought to strike deals that might compromise Hezbollah’s paramount role.

Iranian regime officials have—by their own admissions—not negotiated sincerely. Obama’s role should be to seek justice for American citizens; not sacrifice their cause for yet one more doomed attempt to bring in from the cold Iranian hardliners whose core ideological precludes an agreement with the United States.

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Does this Mean the Dog War is Over?

The Daily Caller’s Jim Treacher performed a public service yesterday when he wrote a blog post that may well remove the dog issue from the 2012 presidential election. While liberal columnists and Obama campaign hacks have spent the last few minutes yucking it up about the supposedly abusive treatment of Mitt Romney’s dog Seamus during a 1983 family road trip to Canada, Treacher dug up an excerpt from President Obama’s best-selling memoir that can’t be pleasing to all those “Dog Lovers for Obama” members. In a wonderfully humorous piece titled “Obama bites dog,” Treacher noted that during his childhood stay in Indonesia, the president ate dogs.

The president’s supporters say the identity of the animals he consumed, apparently without complaint and with no later regrets, as a child ought not to be an issue in a presidential election. They are right about that. But the same can be said about all the nonsense written about Romney’s dog. Treacher’s quip about the Secret Service needing to worry about the safety of presidential dog Bo is no more or less foolish than the equally funny jibes about Seamus. Which means that in order to spare the president any further embarrassment, Democrats may cease and desist trying to exploit the Seamus issue. Or at least the Twitter war between Romney and Obama’s strategists over this stuff will come to an end.

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The Daily Caller’s Jim Treacher performed a public service yesterday when he wrote a blog post that may well remove the dog issue from the 2012 presidential election. While liberal columnists and Obama campaign hacks have spent the last few minutes yucking it up about the supposedly abusive treatment of Mitt Romney’s dog Seamus during a 1983 family road trip to Canada, Treacher dug up an excerpt from President Obama’s best-selling memoir that can’t be pleasing to all those “Dog Lovers for Obama” members. In a wonderfully humorous piece titled “Obama bites dog,” Treacher noted that during his childhood stay in Indonesia, the president ate dogs.

The president’s supporters say the identity of the animals he consumed, apparently without complaint and with no later regrets, as a child ought not to be an issue in a presidential election. They are right about that. But the same can be said about all the nonsense written about Romney’s dog. Treacher’s quip about the Secret Service needing to worry about the safety of presidential dog Bo is no more or less foolish than the equally funny jibes about Seamus. Which means that in order to spare the president any further embarrassment, Democrats may cease and desist trying to exploit the Seamus issue. Or at least the Twitter war between Romney and Obama’s strategists over this stuff will come to an end.

Of course, neither story is really to the discredit of either man. People in some countries eat dogs the way Americans eat cows, sheep and pigs. Making a big deal about Obama’s Indonesian cuisine is silly. As for Romney, as I wrote when this story was first getting traction, a trip in a dog carrier enjoying the breeze on the top of a car obviously did Seamus no harm even if it seems like an odd or poorly considered decision. And even if one thinks ill of Romney’s method of dog transportation, it’s not clear why something he did in 1983 ought to be considered an issue, while talking about virtually anything Obama did or anyone he associated with during the same time is considered insensitive or racist.

But as we all knew already, logic or reason never had anything to do with this. In the last generation, normal partisan sparring has escalated to the point where each new president provokes a new derangement syndrome among his opponents. Democrats will say anything they can to tear down Romney, especially things that might chip away at his wholesome image. Republicans will do the same to Obama. But now that both parties each have a dog issue to belabor their opponents, perhaps deterrence will set in and we will hear no more of this. At any rate, let’s hope so.

Unfortunately, the underlying problem goes a lot deeper than the superficial concerns about canine safety or cuisine. Democrats’ hatred for Republicans is so deep that many on the left are not talking about Seamus in order to make partisan points, but because they actually are ready to believe Romney is guilty of animal cruelty in the same way Republicans are often prepared to buy into any story, no matter how unlikely, that would paint Obama as a villain. This willingness to demonize our political opponents is the real problem–not the dogs.

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Dems Back Down on Plan to Pretend to Do Something About Budget

It finally looked like Senate Budget Committee Democrats were going to go ahead with a budget markup today, albeit a pointless one as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would block any budget resolution from a floor vote. But the committee chairman, Sen. Kent Conrad, is suddenly punting on the plan:

The Democratic-led Senate hasn’t passed a budget blueprint since April 2009, and it won’t do so again this spring as election-year pressures consume Capitol Hill. In fact, Conrad’s budget “markup” Wednesday won’t even be a real markup because senators won’t actually offer amendments or vote.

The 10-year budget plan Conrad unveiled Tuesday is based on the so-called Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan, though the chairman conceded it’s “just reality” that any real deficit work by his committee will likely be put off until after November.

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It finally looked like Senate Budget Committee Democrats were going to go ahead with a budget markup today, albeit a pointless one as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would block any budget resolution from a floor vote. But the committee chairman, Sen. Kent Conrad, is suddenly punting on the plan:

The Democratic-led Senate hasn’t passed a budget blueprint since April 2009, and it won’t do so again this spring as election-year pressures consume Capitol Hill. In fact, Conrad’s budget “markup” Wednesday won’t even be a real markup because senators won’t actually offer amendments or vote.

The 10-year budget plan Conrad unveiled Tuesday is based on the so-called Bowles-Simpson deficit-reduction plan, though the chairman conceded it’s “just reality” that any real deficit work by his committee will likely be put off until after November.

Conrad is still calling this a markup, but now it’s really just a show for cameras. The fact that there won’t even be a vote, or any amendments taken, makes this little more than a novelty exercise.

It sounds like Reid felt it was too risky to allow the committee vote and give Republicans an opening to build up pressure for a floor vote, so he asked Conrad to back off. Meanwhile, Republicans were obviously hoping for a budget discussion, and aren’t happy with the sudden change of events. And it’s hard to blame them. Democrats have shown, time and time again, that they’re not interested in taking action on a budget. Today’s markup charade is just the latest example.

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Grisly Pics Will Put U.S. Troops in Jeopardy

If we have learned one thing over the years it is that nothing emboldens our enemies and complicates the job of our troops than the release of grisly images, whether of torture at Abu Ghraib or of Marines urinating on a corpse in Afghanistan. The acts themselves are reprehensible and should be punished. But should the photos of what happened then be published in ways that will undoubtedly enflame passions against our troops and place innocent men and women, who had nothing to do with the acts in question, into greater jeopardy?

The Los Angeles Times apparently believes the answer is “yes”; hence its article this morning printing a series of photos of the grisly remains of Taliban suicide bombers taken in 2010 by a few soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Second Brigade. As the article itself, by distinguished war correspondent David Zucchino, notes:

U.S. military officials asked the Times not to publish any of the pictures.

Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the conduct depicted “most certainly does not represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan…. Nevertheless, this imagery — more than two years old — now has the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.”

The risk of needless casualties is especially great because the very battalion responsible for the picture taking is now deployed once again in southern Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Times decided to publish anyway, explaining its decision as follows: “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

I fail to see what public good is served by publishing the pictures. The same news could have been made public by an unillustrated article. Unfortunately, this publication will unfairly sully the conduct of–and quite possibly jeopardize the lives of–U.S. troops who have, on the whole, conformed to the highest standards of conduct, which is more than can be said for their enemies. In this kind of conflict, I might add–pitting  troops of an established democracy defending a nascent democracy against theocratic savages–“impartiality” in news coverage is hardly the highest ideal. American journalists, who routinely embed with American military units, need to give greater concern to protecting those units against needless attacks.

 

If we have learned one thing over the years it is that nothing emboldens our enemies and complicates the job of our troops than the release of grisly images, whether of torture at Abu Ghraib or of Marines urinating on a corpse in Afghanistan. The acts themselves are reprehensible and should be punished. But should the photos of what happened then be published in ways that will undoubtedly enflame passions against our troops and place innocent men and women, who had nothing to do with the acts in question, into greater jeopardy?

The Los Angeles Times apparently believes the answer is “yes”; hence its article this morning printing a series of photos of the grisly remains of Taliban suicide bombers taken in 2010 by a few soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division’s Second Brigade. As the article itself, by distinguished war correspondent David Zucchino, notes:

U.S. military officials asked the Times not to publish any of the pictures.

Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said the conduct depicted “most certainly does not represent the character and the professionalism of the great majority of our troops in Afghanistan…. Nevertheless, this imagery — more than two years old — now has the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.”

The risk of needless casualties is especially great because the very battalion responsible for the picture taking is now deployed once again in southern Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the Times decided to publish anyway, explaining its decision as follows: “After careful consideration, we decided that publishing a small but representative selection of the photos would fulfill our obligation to readers to report vigorously and impartially on all aspects of the American mission in Afghanistan, including the allegation that the images reflect a breakdown in unit discipline that was endangering U.S. troops.”

I fail to see what public good is served by publishing the pictures. The same news could have been made public by an unillustrated article. Unfortunately, this publication will unfairly sully the conduct of–and quite possibly jeopardize the lives of–U.S. troops who have, on the whole, conformed to the highest standards of conduct, which is more than can be said for their enemies. In this kind of conflict, I might add–pitting  troops of an established democracy defending a nascent democracy against theocratic savages–“impartiality” in news coverage is hardly the highest ideal. American journalists, who routinely embed with American military units, need to give greater concern to protecting those units against needless attacks.

 

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Mormon Church Shifting on Gay Rights?

This CNN story seems a little too perfectly-timed, like it’s part of some sort of Mormon church rebranding campaign. The church’s image is still heavily associated with the 2008 Prop. 8 campaign in California, and even though many Republicans oppose gay marriage, it’s not helpful for the Mormons to be tied to such a politically-charged issue at a time when it’s about to be under a lot of election-season media scrutiny:

Though the church’s doctrine condemning homosexuality has not changed, and the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage, many say the church is subtly but unmistakably growing friendlier toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including voicing support for some gay rights.

Students at the church-owned Brigham Young University recently posted an “It Gets Better” video about the gay and lesbian community there, while a gay Mormon in San Francisco was selected last year for a church leadership position.

A new conference series on gay and lesbian Mormons…is seeing an uptick in popularity.

Church spokesman Michael Purdy would not comment on whether church members are changing their stance toward gay and lesbian issues but said in an e-mail message: “In the Church, we strive to follow Jesus Christ who showed immense love and compassion towards all of God’s children.”

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This CNN story seems a little too perfectly-timed, like it’s part of some sort of Mormon church rebranding campaign. The church’s image is still heavily associated with the 2008 Prop. 8 campaign in California, and even though many Republicans oppose gay marriage, it’s not helpful for the Mormons to be tied to such a politically-charged issue at a time when it’s about to be under a lot of election-season media scrutiny:

Though the church’s doctrine condemning homosexuality has not changed, and the church remains opposed to same-sex marriage, many say the church is subtly but unmistakably growing friendlier toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, including voicing support for some gay rights.

Students at the church-owned Brigham Young University recently posted an “It Gets Better” video about the gay and lesbian community there, while a gay Mormon in San Francisco was selected last year for a church leadership position.

A new conference series on gay and lesbian Mormons…is seeing an uptick in popularity.

Church spokesman Michael Purdy would not comment on whether church members are changing their stance toward gay and lesbian issues but said in an e-mail message: “In the Church, we strive to follow Jesus Christ who showed immense love and compassion towards all of God’s children.”

CNN cites a “This Gets Better” video created by Brigham Young University students, and the selection of an openly gay Mormon for a church leadership position as indications of this new softening position on the gay community. Perhaps these are signs of change, but then again, stories like this seem to rebut the entire notion altogether. While the Mormon church may be toning down its official involvement in the gay marriage debate, its members don’t seem likely to anytime soon.

As much as the Obama campaign claims it won’t make Romney’s faith an issue, the Mormon religion will still be under a media microscope for at least the next seven months. Anything the church can do to untangle itself from hot-button cultural issues is a good thing for it and Mitt Romney.

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