Wars end

Get Your War On cartoon about the War on Terror and War on Drugs

Cartoon from Get Your War On by David Rees

Even if Barack Obama has failed to enacted cap and trade legislation to fight global warming, close down Guantanamo Bay, or make much progress on the war in Afghanistan, the days he could credibly be accused of running a do-nothing administration have long since passed. But while his stimulus package and high profile reforms of health care and financial regulation have captured headlines, just as important have been some of his lower-key, less well publicised attempts to curb some of America’s worst ideas.

We saw an example of this today when Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, a bill designed to wind back one of the less rational aspects of the U.S.’s ill-fated War on Drugs.

Currently, under American law, anyone caught with five grams of crack cocaine receives a mandatory five year prison sentence, while it takes 500 grams of the drug in powder form to attract the same penalty. The disparity is absurd; it is the same drug in both cases, and is equally harmful to the user. The biggest difference between crack cocaine and the regular sort is that black folks tend to use the former while whites tend to use the latter. The result is that African Americans get imprisoned far more often than white people for using exactly the same drug.

Once Obama signs the bill into law, this disparity will be reduced a little: users will need to be caught with 28 grams of crack before receiving the mandatory sentence. There’s still a pointless, unfair, and discriminatory difference in the penalties the two forms of the drug attract, but it’s nonetheless a step in the right direction. By making the law a bit less discriminatory in its treatment of African Americans, it  will hopefully reduce the gulf of opportunity between the races in the United States. Continue reading


Why doesn’t Australia have a Sarah Palin?

Hidden in a smart post about Australian politics, Jonathan Holmes makes a smart point about American politics:

In a much smaller way, Canberra shares some of the characteristics of Washington. Both are cities that owe their existence to politics, artificial capitals created to house the government of a federation of states. But whereas Washington has many hubs of power – the Congress on Capitol Hill, the White House and its annexes, the Supreme Court, the Pentagon across the river, K Street with its army of lobbyists – at the heart of Canberra is one world-within-a-world: New Parliament House, encircled by its own little Beltway, State Circle, is the purely political citadel within a city inhabited largely by public servants.

This is a feature of American politics that makes its operation entirely different from what we are used to seeing in Australian government. In Canberra, as Holmes points out, anyone with influence is largely confined to the government itself. For the most part, the important people in Australian politics are the elected Members of Parliament. From time to time a former PM, a well-known media figure, or a member of the public with a heart-tugging special interest story will be able to actively shape the nation’s political direction, but most of the time, the federal politicians are firmly in charge.

In D.C., however, nothing is so clear cut. Holmes describes well the lack of a political focal point within D.C.: one week the Supreme Court may find states cannot ban Americans from owning guns, the next Nancy Pelosi or Harry Reid may push a piece of legislation designed to reform the financial markets, and after that a member of the Administration might ill-advisedly fire an employee. But the haze extends beyond the separation of powers, and beyond, even, the Beltway bubble.

The best example at the moment is Sarah Palin, a politician who manages to exert sizable political influence in America despite holding no office, and having never held any office higher than governor of a lightly populated, geographically distant state. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wields a similar power, though his is less characterized by celebrity. It is near unimaginable that an Australian figure could hold a role like that of either Gingrich or Palin.

Chairpeople of party national committees like Howard Dean and Michael Steele aren’t strangers to political influence, either, despite being more involved with fundraising than legislating. Single-issue activists like Al Gore put new issues on the agenda, and media figures like Glenn Beck have constituencies unimaginable in the Australian system. Political power in America is far more dissolute than in Australia, particularly for opposition parties, who do not have the advantage of the shadow cabinet structure to attract attention to themselves.

This has both advantages and disadvantages. In America, ideas and influence are not restricted to the halls of Congress or the meeting rooms of the White House. If anyone who can attract a constituency can become a national player, the political culture will be more inclusive and open to unexpected innovations. In Australia, meanwhile, those in charge are there because they’ve worked their way steadily up through a party system, made connections and insinuated themselves into the workings of existing political apparatus.

The down side? Well, the Australian system might turn out more than a few party hacks, but then again, it hasn’t turned out any Sarah Palins, either.

Riding out the recession


Last week I went to Safeco Field to watch the Seattle Mariners lose to the New York Yankees, and while wandering around in between innings, I spotted this advertisement for the local rail system.

In a country like Australia, which dodged the worst of the global financial crisis, it’s easy not to see how deeply the recession has affected the United States. As advertisements like this show, the economic downturn has so throughly soaked itself into the nation’s zeitgeist that it can be used as advertising fodder: everyone’s poor — ride the train!

A similar impetus can be seen in this advertisement for BECU, a Washington-based credit union. Distance from the financial industry is here a point of distinction, one that informs potential customers that the service in question is clean of the taint of bailouts and subprime mortgages. Continue reading

On needing a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

The Simpsons' Mayor Quimby in episode

In the words of Springfield Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby: “If that is the way the winds are blowing, let no one say I don’t also blow.”

Jonathan Chait says he has “a soft spot for bluntly transactional politicians,” like Mitt Romney or Charlie Crist, who shamelessly reconfigure their political viewpoints to suit their ambitions. Crist, the Republican Governor of Florida, is running as an independent for the state’s Senate seat this November, and since severing ties with his party, he has veered left on issues like abortion, health care reform, and education, and has admitted the shift is partly for reasons of political expedience. Chait explains his new-found affection for Crist’s pragmatism:

I think it actually takes real guts to admit something like this. There’s no such thing is a non-opportunistic politician. Even a genuine ideological fanatic like Rand Paul is feverishly trimming his sails. For a pol to just come out and admit the obvious is refreshing.

I have some sympathy for this view. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking, writing, or reading about politics develop a good understanding of how much theatre is involved in lawmaking, and when a politician comes along, winks at us, and acknowledges the game-playing involved in the business of politics, we find it refreshing. “Finally!” we think. “Someone in government prepared to treat us like adults!” But voters tend not to have such a positive view of these wry cynics, and understandably so.

While campaigning, politicians make a lot of promises, and while these are often useful insights into the visions these candidates hold for the nation, promises and policies alone are not particularly helpful when it comes to working out how a politician will govern. First, whether president or mayor, senator or city council member, no one in government acts alone. A promise made on the hustings will always be modified as it makes its way into law. And secondly, as politicians govern they will be asked to confront problems that may not even have existed during their campaign for office. If Crist is elected to the Senate, he will be voting on legislation until January 3, 2017. Who knows what bills he’ll be asked to give his yea or nay to six years from now? Continue reading

Weekend update

Playing in the sun and having fun, fun, fun.

I’m listening to Billy Bragg’s “Help Save the Youth of America”; here he is singing it in the USSR in the late ’80s. And in slightly more contemporary forms of entertainment, I’m revisiting the Chicago-set, music geek movie classic High Fidelity. If you’re in America, you can do likewise for the next day or so, at Hulu.com.

Undocumented vs illegal

I want to be wary about commenting on this post at Feministing. The author, who writes under the single byline “Miriam” says of the pictured AP Stylebook Tweet:

Associated Press Stylebook Tweet on immigration terminology.

The AP Style Book is a resource for journalists on language, spelling, pronunciation and proper word usage. I’m not clear how the AP Style Book makes decisions, but it is widely regarded and highly used by journalists.

This explains why most of the mainstream media still uses the term “illegal immigrant.” I find the term offensive and disrespectful, as do most immigration activists. People are not illegal, actions are. The advocate community uses the term “undocumented immigrant” which the Stylebook clearly disagrees with.”

I had heard the term “undocumented immigrant” here in the States, and had not thought a whole lot about it until I saw this post. Sometimes when looking at a foreign country’s politics, it can be difficult to perceive the precise contours of a debate, even when one understands the issues at hand quite well. But while I have sympathy for “undocumented” immigrants, and think that even those whose presence in a country is not authorized do not deserve to be dehumanised, I don’t quite understand Miriam’s protestation over the term “illegal immigrant.” Continue reading

Who comes after Hispanics?

Mike Barthel has an article over at Salon arguing that, perversely, Arizona’s immigration law represents a growing acceptance of Hispanics in America:

It’s an incredibly slow and painful process, and it sure would be nice if we could be less awful about accepting newcomers to our culture. But the Arizona law seems so desperate, and the opposition to it so strong, that we’re closer than ever to changing American culture enough that it becomes indistinguishable from Latino culture. It’s too much to hope that we’ll never not hate Mexican-Americans; after all, we pretty much hate everyone. But if we loudly object to every incursion of nativism, we may be able to experience anti-Latino slurs not as a bulwark against foreign incursion, but as just another entry in the panoply of prejudices and bigotry we harbor toward our fellow Americans.

Barthel’s “we hate pretty much everyone” construction is a bit cute; America isn’t that awful, and Irish-Americans and German-Americans, for instance, suffer from no real prejudice any more, though they were once as demonized as much as Latinos are today. But his point is a good one: Arizona’s law might be gathering a lot of support, particularly from copycat Republican gubernatorial candidates in the South, but the furious reaction to it from so many Americans suggests that Latinos are seen by more people than ever to be a naturally and incontrovertible part of American society. Latinos, like other immigrants before them, have become neighbours and colleagues, singers on the radio, and stars on TV — and not just on the Spanish language channels. What once seemed a threatening other is closer than ever to being just enough boring old feature of American life, as unexceptional as the Catholic Church down the road, your boss’s Polish surname, or hearing a Frank Sinatra song piped through the sound system after a baseball game.

Less happily, however, is Barthel prediction for the next point of American immigration angst:

The whole history of American culture can be seen as a long negotiation about the nature of our national character that becomes more and more expansive as time goes on. Having nativism directed at a particular group is unpleasant for members of that group, but it also signifies that we’re in the process of debating whether the group qualifies as “American.” And the nice thing about America is that, so far, we’ve pretty much always decided that if you’re living in America, you’re American — which is not a foregone conclusion in most other countries. But unless that debate happens, a group isn’t grandfathered in. It’s just invisible, as Muslim-Americans currently are.

America does have its Muslim-American immigrants; particularly a sizable Arab community in Detroit, and an Iranian population in Los Angeles. And despite some post-9/11 violence and, as the Daily Show pointed out this week, a growing wariness over mosque-construction, Muslim-Americans have for the most part avoided the kind of nativist wrath suffered by other immigrant groups. If Barthel is right, that’s not because they’ve been lucky, but because they’re standing in the queue.

If Muslims should indeed be America’s Next Top Targeted Immigrant Group* the results will be as ugly as American nativism always is. But, as I’ve said before, even when they’re being hostile toward a particular group of them, Americans tend to like immigrants. It may be that the U.S. has not experienced the intense Islamophobia seen in Europe merely because Muslims are a lower proportion of its population, but if that should change, I would expect America would be just as adept — and just as anxious — at integrating them as they had been with each prior immigrant group.

*Tyra Banks is not involved