Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

East 18th Gets Thrift Store that Lakeshore Spurned

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

I noticed today that an Out of the Closet thrift store is about to open on East 18th Street, in the space that Hollywood Video used to occupy. Employees who were there setting up the shop told me that the grand opening is on Saturday. I normally wouldn’t write a long post about the opening of a thrift store in my neighborhood, but the opening of this particular store says a lot about the city of Oakland.

Out of the Closet

I’ll begin at the beginning. Over a year and a half ago, a GapKids store on Lakeshore Avenue closed (the regular Gap store a few doors down remains open). The landlord entered into negotiations to rent the empty storefront to a thrift store chain called Out of the Closet, which is operated by (and supports) the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. When neighborhood residents got wind of those negotiations from a post at the Grand Lake Guardian website, some of them were not pleased to hear that a déclassé thrift store—and especially a thrift store with a bright pink and blue color scheme—was going to be coming to that shopping strip, which has become a pretty nice little shopping district in recent years, thanks in part to the efforts of some of the same people who objected to Out of the Closet.

My City Councilmember, Pat Kernighan, wrote an open letter to the community in which she said that when she learned about the negotiations, she had “immediately contacted the owner’s broker, Steve Banker of LCB Associates, and told him that a thrift store would not be welcomed by the majority of area residents.” She apparently believed that the majority of residents would not welcome a thrift store because she had been contacted by 15 people who were not happy about the coming of the thrift store, but only by 3 people who approved of the store. I’m very dubious of that conclusion. Anyone who has ever dealt with the public in any way should know that people are much more likely to speak up if they are angry about something, and in this case, that phenomenon was amplified because most of the neighborhood residents who even knew about the negotiations were people who had read about it in an anti-thrift store blog post which encouraged people to call Kernighan to complain. That’s hardly going to produce a representative sample of public opinion.

In any case, Kernighan made clear in her letter what her own feelings were: she wrote that she personally didn’t think the store was a “good fit” for Lakeshore, and that she was trying to get a “more desirable” store to move into that location. She said she had contacted representatives of Out of the Closet and “explained that Lakeshore is trying hard to attract more shoppers with disposable income to keep all the stores in business and that a thrift store would lead in the other direction.” She also expressed the concerns that people would dump stuff in front of the store after-hours, and that the thrift store would create blight.

Many local residents clearly agreed with her, and some of the comments on the post called Out of the Closet a “dumpy, cheap chain” and expressed a desire for locally-owned mom and pop stores, cute boutiques and restaurants, etc. Other people took strong exception to Kernighan’s letter, and interpreted her comments about “good fit,” “more desirable,” and “attract more shoppers with disposable income” as a not-so-subtle way of saying, “we want poor people to stay away from Lakeshore Avenue and keep to their own neighborhoods where they belong.” I was one of those who took offense, and I wrote a somewhat intemperate comment on her open letter reflecting that point of view. In my opinion, the socioeconomic diversity of Lakeshore Avenue is a feature, not a bug, especially as it is surrounded by a wide variety of residential neighborhoods, with upscale single-family homes on side, and some of Oakland’s densest middle-class apartment districts on the other. For a Councilmember basically to be telling a large percentage of her constituents that they weren’t welcome on Lakeshore Avenue really bothered some of us.

Anyway, within a week, Kernighan announced that Out of the Closet had withdrawn its effort to take over the GapKids space. I don’t know whether the objections of Kernighan and others were a factor in the collapse of the deal, but presumably they didn’t help matters. Apparently East 18th Street, which tends to attract people with less “disposable income” than Lakeshore, is considered a “good fit” for Out of the Closet, because I haven’t heard any objections from Kernighan (she represents both shopping districts). I look forward to shopping there, and as far as I’m concerned, Lakeshore’s loss is East 18th’s gain.

The little brouhaha over Out of the Closet on Lakeshore is sadly typical of the way business is done—or rather, undone—in Oakland. I’ll give some other examples. Chip Johnson, the East Bay columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, has written several times about a guy he knows who was stymied in his efforts to open a little bike shop in Chinatown because of Oakland’s byzantine zoning laws and expensive permitting process. Johnson points out that the city bureaucracy seems designed to hamper economic development and enterpreneurship, not encourage it (so much for the mom-and-pop stores that Kernighan was so eager to support).

In another example, A Better Oakland wrote yesterday about a City Council “Emergency Ordinance” requiring new nail salons and laundromats to receive a “major conditional use permit” from the city for the next year, until the City can find a more long-term way to deal with the proliferation of nail salons. It costs about $3000 just to apply for one of those conditional use permits, and presumably many of them would not be granted because, as the ordinance says, “the proliferation of nail salons and self-serve laundromats along major retail corridors has become an increasing concern to Councilmembers, retail store owners and merchant associations.” In a city with a high violent crime rate and many vacant storefronts in every shopping district, it’s hard for many people to understand why “emergency” action must be taken to prevent more nail salons or laundromats from filling some of those vacant storefronts.

Finally, the East Bay Express has an article this week about how an Oakland city official discovered that used book and clothing stores could be regulated under a state “Secondhand Dealers” law which is intended to help police track stolen goods. The law is primarily meant for pawnshops, and it requires that all employees be finger-printed and a special annual fee of more than $500 must be paid for secondhard-dealing permits. Most onerous is that detailed records of each item bought and sold must be kept, and the personal information (I assume that means name, address, and driver’s license number) of each customer must be documented. Most cities exempt non-pawnshops from these requirements, but Oakland recently sent letters to 48 second-hand retailers warning them that they had until September 10th to apply for these permits and start complying with this law. Needless to say, it would be a death sentence for used bookstores—which aren’t exactly a booming business these days—if they started having to ask each customer for their personal information in order to buy a dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights or The Iliad.

I’ve never considered myself especially “pro-business” (it depends on the business!) and in a lot of ways, I’m politically in line with the Oakland City Council: I’m pro-labor, I worry about the fraying of our already-porous safety net, I would like to see less income disparity and more social justice, I support strong environmental regulations, etc., etc., etc. In many parts of the county, I would be at the far left end of the political spectrum. But there’s a joke about how a conservative is a liberal who’s been a victim of crime, and my own version of the joke is that a conservative is a liberal who has lived in Oakland for more than a few years. Oakland seems to be overflowing with examples of how government’s meddling in private contracts, or micromanaging economic development from the top down, can lead to adverse unintended consequences.

Oh, and that former GapKids storefront on Lakeshore Avenue that people were so eager to keep Out of the Closet away from a year and a half ago, because it wouldn’t be a “good fit” for the neighborhood? It’s been sitting empty ever since.

The Trouble with Washington Political Reporting

Friday, September 4th, 2009

The New York Times had a brief write-up last night about James K. Glassman being appointed as the founding executive director of the George W. Bush Institute, an “action-oriented think tank” which will be part of the GWB Center at Southern Methodist University. Glassman is a former journalist and pundit who also served in the State Department in Bush’s second term, so there is nothing particularly surprising about his appointment.

What is a bit surprising is that the Times, in three paragraphs of biographical information about Glassman, somehow failed to mention the thing he may be most famous for: writing a book in 1999, on the eve of the collapse of the dot com bubble, called “Dow 36,000,” which argued that stocks were undervalued and that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would more than triple within a decade. Needless to say, he was wildly wrong, and many people who followed his advice presumably lost a lot of money by doing so.

It’s not shocking to me that being completely wrong didn’t seem to hurt his career. (In Washington political and policy circles, particularly in the GOP, being conspicuously wrong often seems to be considered a virtue.) Neither is it shocking that his infamous book is not mentioned in the press release announcing his appointment (it is amusing, however, to see that the press release touts his experience as an “investment columnist” for the Washington Post in the early 90’s).

The New York Times, however, is supposed to be doing more than just passing on information from press releases. Even if the reporter somehow didn’t know that Glassman wrote a much-discussed bestseller called “Dow 36,000,” a cursory glance at the first paragraph of Glassman’s Wikipedia entry would have clued him in. While the Times report omitted Glassman’s dramatic public failure as a soothsayer, it did point out that Glassman “has also been writing a blog largely critical of the Obama administration. He argued that its economic proposals ‘are dangerously off-course and the result will be a huge debt burden that will slow American growth for many years.’ ” One would think that Glassman’s glaringly abysmal history when it comes to predicting economic developments might be worth mentioning if you are going to air his predictions about the effects of Obama’s economic policies.

Glassman’s appointment to run Bush’s think tank is not an especially important piece of news, but the Times’s handling of the announcement is very telling. To most Washington reporters, the political back and forth between Republicans and Democrats is the relevant and important part of any story. Whether or not someone is telling the truth, and whether or not someone has been proven completely wrong in the past, to the point where they have no credibility on a particular issue, is considered a non-issue that needn’t be mentioned at all.

For another example of blinkered political reporting, see today’s Times article on Betsy McCaughey, who is providing pseudo-intellectual cover for the false assertions about what health care reform would involve. The Times article starts with an irrelevant anecdote about how Erica Jong (Erica Jong!) was bamboozled into thinking that McCaughey was a serious public intellectual, then says that “Ms. McCaughey’s role as a central, if disputed, player in the national health care debate has surprised friend and foe alike.” Has it really? From what I have been reading, people who remember McCaughey’s role in spreading falsehoods about Clinton’s health care plan in the early 90’s were not at all surprised that she is reprising the role 15 years later. The only surprise is that anyone in the media still treats people like her and Glassman as if they are serious thinkers.

And in fact, despite the sentence I just cited, the Times article doesn’t actually quote anyone except Jong who seems “surprised” by McCaughey’s role—it quotes some other people, such as McCaughey’s college roommate, who seem disappointed that she has a habit of indulging in publicity-gaining smear campaigns, but none of them actually sound surprised. Perhaps only newspaper reporters, who get so caught up in the daily rough and tumble of media and politics that they can’t remember McCaughey’s role in defeating “Hillarycare” or Glassman’s role in promoting the late 90’s stock bubble, are surprised when people behave the way they have been behaving for years. (The Times article even carried the headline “McCaughey, Unlikely Critic of Obama’s Health Care Plan” until it was later changed to the less idiotic “Resurfacing, a Critic Stirs Up Debate Over Health Care.)

Incidentally, Peter Baker, who wrote the Times item on Glassman, also had an article in the paper yesterday about an incorrect rumor that Chelsea Clinton was going to get married on Martha’s Vineyard last month. In the article, he writes that “The persistence of the rumor despite the lack of tangible evidence says something about the Internet-driven media culture, where facts sometimes do not get in the way of a good story.” His then proceeded to mention that the rumor was first published in the Boston Globe, then spread to New York Magazine, the Daily News, Fox News, the Washington Post (where Baker used to work), and finally, to the Times itself in a Travel section feature on Martha’s Vineyard. It must be nice for people like Baker to have the internet as a convenient scapegoat when they spread false rumors, but it would have been useful if he had explained how the “Internet-driven media culture” caused editors and reporters at respected papers like the Globe, the Times and the Post to report unconfirmed gossip in their pages.

If You Build Community, They Will Come (a corollary: If You Raze It, They Will Leave)

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

They came on foot, on scooters and on skateboards. They came on scraper bikes and fixies and longtails. They came in strollers and buses and, yes, some of them came in cars. However they got there, a lot of people came out to enjoy the Lakefest held on Oakland’s Lakeshore Avenue on Saturday and Sunday:

Lakefest 2009

I wouldn’t normally post anything about a street festival that was mostly indistinguishable from all the other street festivals which are held on summer weekends across the country (a closed street, booths with crafts or T-shirts or massages or information about local organizations, food vendors, outdoor tables and chairs in front of the local restaurants and cafes, music stages, inflatable bouncy houses and slides for children—you know the routine). What most interested me about this festival, however, was the counterpoint it provided to an event that had happened two days before and a block away.

Closing for Business

The owner of the Grand Lake Theater, Allen Michaan, who is still fuming about the changes to parking meter rates and hours that I wrote about two weeks ago, held a meeting at the theater to discuss how businesses should respond to the increases. He proposes a local business closure all day on Thursday (Aug. 6th) in order to protest the new meter rules. He is also gathering signatures for a petition to recall City Councilmembers unless they rescind the higher rates and hours.

Closing for Business

I couldn’t help but be struck by the difference between these two events. In one case, you had a festival that closed a busy street to car traffic and reduced the amount of parking in the neighborhood (because the many parking spots on Lakeshore Ave were rendered unavailable), yet people showed up in droves nonetheless, to hang out, to eat, to drink, to buy, to watch and to listen. In the other case, you had some local business owners who are raising so much hell about the “parking crisis” that they may end up losing even more customers.

Lakefest 2009

How might their behavior cause them to lose customers? Three possible ways that I can see: First, residents who might have been willing to pay a bit more for parking are now basically being told by Michaan and a few other vocal merchants that it makes more economic sense to drive to a distant suburb to see a movie or visit a restaurant, because they will save a few dollars on parking (a dubious proposition, in my opinion, once you factor in the “value” of one’s time and the cost of fuel). I can’t help but wonder if any people have avoided coming to the area because they have seen Michaan or another business owner on TV talking about how the city of Oakland is going to “mug” and “extort” them if they try to park in this neighborhood. Second, organizing the business closure on Thursday will bring attention to the issue as they hope, but it will probably also piss off a lot of customers, who may well blame the business owners instead of the City Council if they come here to do some shopping and discover that their favorite stores have voluntarily closed for the day. This reminds me of a kid on a schoolyard who gets upset and takes his ball and goes home—he might succeed in punishing the other kids, but he also punishes himself. Third, turning this issue into World War III garners support from those who agree with them, but it also alienates the Oakland residents who disagree with them on the issue, or who at the very least think that their tactics are misguided and divisive (some commenters on local blogs are already saying they will start avoiding the businesses that are leading this campaign).

I won’t get too much into the merits of the debate, since I pretty much said everything I have to say in my earlier post. (I didn’t expect to write a second post about parking in as many weeks, especially since I don’t even own a car myself.) My personal opinion is that whatever pocketbook pain drivers experience now is literally small change compared to how expensive driving will soon become (the chief economist of the International Energy Agency is now warning that we will soon face oil shortages which will put our economy and way of life in even greater peril than they are now, a view of peak oil that was widely dismissed as a fringe theory just a few years ago). For better or worse, many people will have to start driving less because it will become so expensive, and it will probably be a difficult transition, but my general feeling is that the process will be much less painful in the long run if we start encouraging a change in behavior now instead of waiting for external circumstances to force the issue.

Given that likely future, combined with Oakland’s desperate need for more revenue in the present, I am inclined to support meter rates which will raise revenue, will reduce the amount of time drivers spend circling the block looking for a spot, and will encourage people to start walking, biking, and riding the bus for more of their routine trips. That said, if the effect on our neighborhood’s businesses is as dramatic as the merchants claim, then I am not necessarily opposed to changing the current meter rules. Maybe a compromise of $1.75 instead of the new $2 or the old $1.50? Maybe a return to $1.50, but keeping the extended hours? Maybe allowing cars to stay in spots for more than 2 hours at a time? Maybe different prices at peak times versus offpeak times? I don’t know, but whatever the right balance is, it should be guided by statistics and rational debate, not anecdotes, counterproductive media campaigns, and recall threats.

In other words, even if it’s true that local business has fallen by more than 30% due to the meter changes, and even if it’s true that the City Council should rescind or alter the new meter rules, I still don’t think that the combative reaction of Michaan and others is a productive approach to this particular issue. It has certainly succeeded in getting attention to the issue: the Tribune and the Chronicle have published several articles each on the subject, and the issue has been all over TV and the internet too. The crowds at Lakefest suggest to me, however, that angry business owners would have been better off brainstorming about creative ways to entice people to our neighborhood and building an even stronger sense of community, rather than banding together to accuse elected officials of “municipal muggings” and “extortion.” Do these people look like they are being mugged or extorted?

Lakefest 2009

Positive efforts to draw people to the Grand Lake area wouldn’t preclude also making an effort to change the meter rules, but rants, threats, closing of businesses, and demonization of councilmembers don’t seem like constructive ways to encourage people to come to our neighborhood. (One also wonders where these local business owners were when it was being debated by the City Council several months ago—one blog post on the topic attracted 47 comments back in early June, so it’s not as if some people weren’t aware of the possible changes to come. Perhaps if these business owners were more engaged with the local decision-making process, we wouldn’t be in such a fiscal mess to begin with.)

This neighborhood has a lot going for it, and I think most people in Oakland appreciate the advantages that a neighborhood like Grand Lake has over a mall with free parking in Walnut Creek or Pleasant Hill (two cities cited by Michaan as being “successful” because they have free parking). How about a campaign to remind people of the unique character and businesses in this neighborhood, and more special events to draw people to the area, instead of a divisive feud with the City Council and a publicity campaign that may serve to drive away even more customers? Has Allen Michaan pointed out even once in his media interviews that, as the Grand Lake Theater’s own website advertises, there is a free city-owned parking lot across the street from his theater where people can park for 4 hours at a stretch, or that his theater is one of the few in the Bay Area where an adult ticket still costs less than $10, at least a buck less per ticket than most theaters in neighboring communities? That is the kind of information that he should be spreading far and wide in the media, in order to encourage people to come enjoy his beautiful theater and other nearby businesses, but instead he seems so absorbed in his own righteous indignation that he cannot do anything except focus on the negative and lash out at the City Council—actions that seem likely to exacerbate whatever ill effects the new meter rules are having on his business.

Lessons from the Obama Campaign for Prop 8 Opponents?

Monday, July 27th, 2009

Today’s New York Times has an article about the debate among supporters of marriage rights over whether to pursue a reversal of Proposition 8 in 2010, or to wait until 2012 when there will have been more time to recruit large donors, shift public support, build a broader grassroots movement, and so on:

Marc Solomon, marriage director for Equality California, said he spent June and early July asking the opinions of nearly two dozen California political consultants and pollsters and had been surprised by the almost unanimous opinion that a 2010 race was a bad idea.

“I expected having watched the protests and the real pain that the L.G.B.T. community had experienced that there would be some real measurable remorse in the electorate,” Mr. Solomon said, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “But if you look at the poll numbers since November, they really haven’t moved at all.”

A major factor in any California balloting, of course, is money; campaigns here are remarkably expensive, with a number of costly media markets. The Proposition 8 campaign, for example, cost more than $80 million, with opponents spending some $43 million.


The argument against 2010 was expressed by a new coalition of groups known as Prepare to Prevail, which announced in a statement on July 13 that going back to the ballot next year “would be rushed and risky.”

“We should proceed with a costly, demanding and high-stakes electoral campaign of this sort only when we are confident we can win,” the statement read.

The issue of timing has increasingly divided gay rights advocates, with larger, more established groups seemingly favoring a more cautious approach and grass-roots groups — some of them formed since the November election — more vocal in support of a quick return to the polls.

John M. Cleary, president of a Los Angeles group called the Stonewall Democratic Club, said many younger activists were particularly eager to fight Proposition 8. “I find the language of some of the organizations really self-defeating,” Mr. Cleary said. “And I think we have a moral obligation to overturn this.”

When I read these quotations, I can’t help but think of the 2008 Presidential campaign, specifically the Democratic Party’s nomination fight, and the debate about whether it was “too soon” for Barack Obama to run for President. Before Obama announced his candidacy in early 2007, and even into early 2008, many of the “larger, more established” voices in the party were arguing, based on expert advice from “political consultants and pollsters,” that Clinton’s nomination was inevitable, that the country was not yet ready to elect a black guy with the middle name “Hussein” as President, that Obama would not be able to compete financially because “major donors” would not invest in a risky candidacy, etc., etc. Meanwhile, many “younger activists” believed that the establishment of the party had been too cautious, too ready to concede defeat on matters of principle, and too willing to believe that poll numbers were set in stone.

Throughout 2007, Obama hovered betwen 20% and 25% in nationwide Democratic nomination polls, while Clinton began at 35% and was over 40% in the last months of the year. Obama did not lead Clinton in a single major national poll until after he won the Iowa caucuses. Let me emphasize that: no major national poll showed Obama with a lead over Clinton until after the voting had already begun. (He did lead in some state polls, although even in Iowa most polling showed Clinton with a lead up until the end, which shows that, yes, “community organizing” and get-out-the-vote efforts can be decisive, especially but not exclusively in caucus votes)

2008 Democratic Nomination Polls

That polling situation, combined with the overwhelming support of the party establishment, led many political consultants to believe that Obama simply couldn’t win the nomination. They might admire the guy’s political skills, and they might tell reporters that he could be the future of the party if he waited for his time to come, but many were convinced that he had run too soon and would go down in history as 2008’s Howard Dean, able to raise a lot of money online and excite a certain young, educated, urban slice of the base, but unable to actually win the nomination. Is there a lesson here for supporters of same sex marriage?

Before I get any angry comments about how Obama himself has ended up being too cautious, has been too ready to concede defeat on matters of principle, and has betrayed the GLBT community by putting gay rights on the back burner since he was sworn into office, please understand that I am not making any ideological analogies between the nomination battle and the fight for marriage rights. I’m only addressing the political strategy and tactics. Obviously every campaign has its own dynamics, and perhaps Obama would have gone down in history as just another Howard Dean if there had not been such an overwhelming appetite for a change from business as usual. Both sides of this internecine debate make pretty compelling arguments, but I personally come down on the side of moving quickly and continuing to try, try again.

Who can forget the criticism that Gavin Newsom received from establishment political consultants when he took the sudden step of allowing same sex couples to get marriage licenses in San Francisco in 2004? People said he had moved too quickly and too boldly, had not laid enough groundwork, and had set the larger gay rights movement back with his rash, unilateral action. More than five years later, despite some backlash and some setbacks, I believe he ultimately advanced the cause of same sex marriage, and I doubt that same sex marriage would have been legalized in six states (not including California’s brief moment of sunshine) if Newsom hadn’t forced the issue into the national debate. Sometimes politics, and leadership, requires setting out to actively change public opinion through pressing an issue, over and over and over if need be, rather than assuming that the state of public opinion is an immutable given. Back to the Times article and John Cleary:

He and others who support a 2010 campaign say they have a number of factors in their favor, including a newly galvanized base, a decline in advertising costs in a depressed television market and two potential Democratic candidates for governor — Attorney General Jerry Brown and Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco — who have been outspoken in support of same-sex marriage.

But some national leaders are dismissive of such arguments.

“A slapdash effort based on wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion, is not enough to win on,” said Hans Johnson, a board member of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

That may be true, but how about a non-slapdash effort based on wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion? The Obama campaign showed us that wishful thinking, rosy scenarios, and passion can be a winning strategy if it is carried out with discipline, perseverance, and intelligence. Proposition 8 is a stain on California’s constitution, and anyone who has ever spilled anything on a tablecloth knows that the sooner you wash out the stain, the less likely it is to remain forever.


Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Andy Rosenthal, the New York Times Editorial Editor, had this to say in response to an online question about why the Times has no “serious” female columnists:

I would be the last person alive to suggest that Maureen Dowd and Gail Collins are not serious columnists. They are indeed, very serious.

The last time I saw Rosenthal call someone “serious” was when he said this about Bill Kristol, who had just been given an Op-Ed Column:

The idea that The New York Times is giving voice to a guy who is a serious, respected conservative intellectual — and somehow that’s a bad thing. How intolerant is that?”

Kristol, remember, is the “serious, respected conservative intellectual” who met Sarah Palin during a stopover in Juneau on a Weekly Standard cruise, and was so impressed with her that he went back to Washington and became one of her biggest cheerleaders. As for whether Palin herself is a serious, respected intellectual, we’ll have to check with Rosenthal about that.

What passes for a “news analyst” at NPR

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

I’ve mentioned before that I try to avoid NPR as much as possible. It’s mostly the tone that bothers me, rather than anything about the content or political slant. If you want to hear someone peddling conventional wisdom in a self-congratulatory tone of voice, then NPR is for you. (Yes, I know that this is unfair to many thoughtful and decent reporters and interviewers at NPR — please remember that I see NPR the same way I see my beloved New York Times: indispensable and exasperating in about equal measure). No one embodies the things that bother me about NPR more than hosts such as Robert Siegel, and political analysts such as Juan Williams and Cokie Roberts.

I’m not very familiar with Williams’s early career. If people tell me that his reporting for the Washington Post and his work on “Eyes on the Prize” and his Thurgood Marshall biography were good, then I won’t argue. That doesn’t excuse his being a complete hack now, and it doesn’t excuse NPR for treating people like him and Cokie Roberts as if they are insightful analysts of the political scene. As background, here is something Juan Williams said to Bill O’Reilly and Mary Katharine Ham on Fox News on January 26th which has caused a fuss among some NPR listeners:

Michelle Obama, you know, she’s got this Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress thing going. If she starts talking, as Mary Katharine is suggesting, her instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim. If that stuff starts coming out, people will go bananas and she’ll go from being the new Jackie O to being something of an albatross.

I won’t waste time explaining why this is insulting and moronic. It’s hardly a shock that this is what passes for punditry on Bill O’Reilly’s show, or that Williams is willing to feed cable news viewers and producers the garbage that they subsist on. What I will waste time explaining, however, is how Williams’s explanation exposes him as a hack even more than his dumb comments on Fox News did. When NPR’s ombudsman, Alicia C. Shepard, questioned him about the remarks, Williams first dismissed the complaints as a “faux controversy.” After reviewing the video, he revised that, and explained that he could see how the “tone and tenor” of his comments might have distorted what he saw as “pure political analysis:”

I regret that in the fast-paced, argumentative format my tone and tenor seems to have led people to see me as attacking instead of explaining my informed point of view.

Ah, so when he compared Michelle Obama to Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress and shared his insights into what her “instinct” is, he was “explaining his informed point of view.” Apparently he knows Michelle Obama very well, to be able to explain what her instincts are with such confidence. How does he see into Michelle Obama’s psyche so perceptively? Well, let’s see what else he told the ombudsman:

When Williams was speaking of Mrs. Obama as a potential liability, he told me, he was referencing pieces in The Atlantic and Politico. A Politico article listed Mrs. Obama as one “Dem” her husband should watch out for. “She’s glamorous, she’s on message, she’s the nation’s favorite mom — and now she has nowhere to go but down,” said the article.

Never mind the fact that the Atlantic article that Williams cited in fact argued against the myth that Michelle Obama is a Stokely Carmichael in a designer dress whose “instinct is to start with this blame America, you know, I’m the victim.” What’s even more damning about Williams’s explanation is his admission that what he calls “explaining my informed point of view” is in fact just a recitation of some shallow caricatures that have become conventional wisdom among the Washington journalists who write for places like Politico.

In her column, NPR’s ombudsman implies that if he had cited the Atlantic and Politico in his comments on Fox News, then they might have been less problematic. In fact, citing those sources would have just undermined the pretense that he is offering anything more than recycled smears. By mentioning the Atlantic and Politico articles in his own defense, Williams is basically saying, “I present myself to Fox News viewers and NPR listeners as an independent-minded, thoughtful political analyst, but in fact the punditry I share is just warmed-over conventional wisdom that I have picked up from other Washington pundits.”

I’d love to hear Williams being introduced on “Weekend Edition” as an “NPR regurgitator of Washington conventional wisdom,” instead of as an “NPR news analyst.” It might sound less impressive, but at least it would be accurate.

Fair Use

Monday, February 9th, 2009


Okay, so it’s a bit rough around the edges. I’m no artist — or lawyer, for that matter.

(In case anyone is unfamiliar with the legal jousting between the AP and Shepard Fairey, who created the iconic Obama “HOPE” posters, you can get up to speed here.)

Now Daschle away, Daschle away, Daschle away all.

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

So Tom Daschle can now return to earning a fortune as a lobbyist, and can use his close relationship with the President of the United States as a way of influencing public policy, while being subject to none of the scrutiny, oversight, conflict of interest rules, or other safeguards that are in place when one is a public official.

Sounds like a great victory for government transparency and accountability!

Criminal Injustice Systems at Home and Abroad

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

I finally got around to reading Samantha Power’s article on Gary Haugen in the January 19th New Yorker. Haugen is a Christian human rights lawyer whose organization represents impoverished and abused people in Cambodia, Kenya, and other countries.  Like most of Power’s work, the whole article is worth reading, but one set of statistics snared my attention:

Countries emerging from conflict often command headlines, congressional interest, and rule-of-law funding: Bosnia and Sierra Leone in the nineties, Iraq and Afghanistan today. Chronically flawed justice systems, like the one in Kenya, tend to get far less support. Haugen is incredulous: “Without investing in the rule of law for the poor, none of the other investments we make will be sustainable.”

In 2007, Transparency International published a report underscoring the extent of the problem. Seventy-nine per cent of people surveyed in Cameroon, and seventy-two per cent of Cambodians, reported paying a bribe to obtain basic services in the previous year. The study also confirmed Haugen’s view that the poor are more likely to pay bribes than the wealthy, often to avoid harassment. According to a report published by Afrobarometer, a public-opinion research group, only fifty-three per cent of people surveyed in subSaharan Africa expressed confidence that senior government officials would be brought to justice if they committed a serious crime. In Kenya, sixty-four per cent deemed most or all of the police corrupt. A World Bank study of twenty-three countries found that the poor saw police “not as a source of help and security, but rather of harm, risk, and impoverishment.”

Those numbers, 53 percent and 64 percent, are presumably supposed to sound startlingly high. Perhaps because community-police relations have been on my mind lately due to the fallout from the shooting of unarmed Oscar Grant by a BART police officer at the beginning of this month, I was curious about whether the statistics would in fact be much different in some communities in the United States. Might we see similarly high distrust of the criminal justice system and the police in North Philly or the South Bronx, in East Oakland or West Baltimore?

I did some googling to see if I would find any comparable studies from communities in the United States. (more…)

Not Much is Really Sacred

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

From Steven Pinker’s op-ed in Thursday’s NY Times:

Though the ungrammaticality of split verbs is an urban legend, it found its way into The Texas Law Review Manual on Style, which is the arbiter of usage for many law review journals. James Lindgren, a critic of the manual, has found that many lawyers have “internalized the bogus rule so that they actually believe that a split verb should be avoided,” adding, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers has succeeded so well that many can no longer distinguish alien speech from native speech.”

In his legal opinions, Chief Justice Roberts has altered quotations to conform to his notions of grammaticality, as when he excised the “ain’t” from Bob Dylan’s line “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb “faithfully” away from the verb.

So Roberts’s mangling of the oath might not have been a “flub” after all: he might have been, consciously or unconsciously, trying to “correct” the words in the constitution.

I knew we couldn’t trust that guy — two documents that you really shouldn’t mess with lightly are the United States Constitution and the collected lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Never Mind the NPR, Here’s the Sex Pistols

Sunday, January 11th, 2009

Today I woke up early and went out to walk the dog and get some coffee. When I’m out walking, I often listen to KALX, the Berkeley student radio station, but the first thing I heard when I turned it on this morning on was “Anarchy in the UK” by the Sex Pistols. Don’t get me wrong: I like the Sex Pistols as much as the next guy, but it wasn’t what I was looking for at 8:30 on a lovely Sunday morning. So I switched over to NPR, something I try to avoid doing, especially on the weekends (I’ll save my full NPR rant for another time).

So what do I hear on NPR? A report from Linda Wertheimer about the personal side of George W. Bush. I have no objection to these sorts of stories in principle, but my God was this one awful. The NPR website claims that the report is “the third in a series examining President Bush’s legacy.” Sure, if by “examine” you mean quoting a total of three observers: two fawning Bush advisers, and one reporter who is extremely impressed with the rigor of Bush’s mountain bike rides.

It’s a short enough report that you can read it yourself if you like, but this assessment from former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, a longtime friend and aide to Bush, pretty much captures the tone of the whole piece:

“I wasn’t a knee-walking drunk, but I was drinking. And alcohol was beginning to compete for my affections. So I quit. One night I had too much to drink in Colorado Springs, Colo., and I haven’t had a drink since,” Bush said.

That was in 1986. Don Evans, secretary of commerce in the president’s first term and a friend of 40 years, says that act demonstrated the president’s commitment to his family and to the Bush family’s belief in public service.

“He realized at that point in his life, not only for his children and his family but for all fellow man — he can’t honor that core belief like he wants to if he’s drinking,” Evans says. “So he quit. Pretty amazing, I might say.”

Did you catch that? Bush quit drinking “for all fellow man.” Really! And people say that Barack Obama is treated as the Messiah. For an alcoholic to quit drinking cold turkey is indeed a difficult and praiseworthy thing to do, but since Evans chose to describe this personal accomplishment as an act of global salvation, I can’t help but point out that “all fellow man” would been spared eight years of Bush’s disastrous “leadership” if he had never quit drinking.

NPR apparently thought that Evans was a particularly insightful observer of the President, because they chose to give him the last word:

“I promise you this,” Evans says. “Anybody that has a chance to sit down and visit with George Bush will come away saying, ‘You know what? I really like that guy. He is really a good man.’ “

In retrospect, I should have stuck with the Sex Pistols: despite containing lines like “I am an antichrist,” I think “Anarchy in the UK” is much less offensive than NPR at 8:30 on a lovely Sunday morning.