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Quite the World, Isn't It?

On Egypt, and one man's view from the inside

Sunday's Los Angeles Times carries my review of Wael Ghonim's book, Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power: A Memoir, his detailed view from the inside of the Egyptian uprising. I liked the book, as you'll see in the review (online already here), and it's one of those books that makes me interested in reading other accounts, as well.

Ghonim, you may recall, was the Google executive and Egyptian native behind a website that became a key rallying place for myriad opposition groups challenging Hosni Mubarak's grip on power. There had been opposition groups in Egyptian for a while, and labor unions had already been pressuring the regime for change.

But revolutions often turn on timing, and Ghonim's Facebook page arrived as the opposition to Mubarak was catchng fire. From the review:
If there is a weakness to "Revolution 2.0," it lies in the narrow focus. These were days of sweeping change across North Africa and the Middle East, and while Ghonim cites the Tunisian uprising as a spark to the Egyptians' sense of hope, the book doesn't offer much in the way of step-back analysis.

But that is also a strength — Ghonim doesn't overreach in this deeply personal account. His words ring with an authentic tone, and other than a few broad comments about the character of his fellow Egyptians, Ghonim avoids sweeping generalizations during those heady and tumultuous days.

Ghonim, frustrated with life under the Mubarak regime, entered politics by launching a Facebook page supporting Nobel Peace Prize-winning nuclear-proliferation expert Mohamed El Baradei, who in 2009 began criticizing the Mubarak regime and intimating he might run for president. Ghonim then launched another page — anonymously — responding to the beating death of Khaled Mohamed Said, a fellow young Egyptian, at the hands of two Egyptian State Security officers.
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Roger Williams and the U.S. as a 'Christian' nation

The timing of this was inadvertent, yet still telling. I have a book review in this morning's Los Angeles Times of a new look at Roger Williams and the concept of the separation of church and state, at the same time the political world is digesting New Gingrich's win amid the conservative Christians in South Carolina (my friend and former colleague Mark Z. Barabak puts that into clear context here).

The book is John Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, and it is a fascinating read. From my review:
Barry, whose earlier books include "The Great Influenza" on the 1918 pandemic and "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," writes with absorbing detail and quotes extensively from 17th century English, a version of the language hard on modern eyes. For instance, there's this from John Winthrop's famous "City Upon a Hill" speech to his fellow Puritans as they fled England for the New World:

"But if our heartes shall turne away, soe that wee will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship and serue other Gods, our pleasure and proffits, and serue them; it is propounded unto us this day, wee shall surely perishe out of the good land whither wee passe over this vast sea to possesse it."

But patient readers are rewarded. Williams' views on the relationship between the individual and the state carved out the path to the American future. Most of the early settlers may have been Christians, but by the time the nation was born, the focus was on preserving civil liberties, not faith — establishing a place in which people could, indeed, pursue life, liberty and happiness. And where individuals could define for themselves what that meant.
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A couple of words about SOPA

No. Learn.
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We knew this was coming, but didn't listen

This analysis seems spot on:
"Let's suppose, for a moment, there was a country where the people in charge charted a course that eliminated millions of good-paying jobs.

"Suppose they gave away several million more jobs to other nations.

"Finally, imagine that the people running this country implemented economic policies that enabled those at the very top to grow ever richer while most others grew poorer.

"You wouldn't want to live in such a place, would you?

"Too bad.

"You already do.

"These are some of the consequences of failed U.S. government policies that have been building over the last three decades — the same policies that people in Washington today are intent on keeping or expanding. Under them, 140 million Americans, mostly working families and individuals — blue-collar, white-collar and professional — are being treated as though they were expendable.

"Most significant of all, the American dream of the last half-century has been revoked for millions of people — a dream rooted in a secure job, a home in the suburbs, the option for families to live on one income rather than two, a better life than your parents had and a still better life for your children.

"U.S. government policies consistently have failed to protect that dream in the face of growing international competition. Instead they've favored the very forces that shift jobs, money and influence abroad."
Remarkably, those paragraphs are from a package of stories by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996.

Yes, more than 15 years ago.

Did we listen? Maybe we need to occupy history. Read More 
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On the most significant political poll question

Like a lot of people, I've been watching the unfolding fight for the Republican presidential nomination with a sense of fascination. I'm not going to get into a back-and-forth about the merits/non-merits of the individual candidates, but it is remarkable to see how unsettled the Republican electorate remains in Iowa. (For political junkies, I recommend this site, Real Clear Politics, which does a great job of tracking the myriad polls.)

Most of the coverage of the recent polling is on who's leading, the classic horse-race approach. But to me the significant aspect is how little voters are connecting with any of the candidates only four days before the caucuses. The most recent NBC News/Marist Poll finds only two of five likely Republican caucus-goers "strongly support" the candidate they tell pollsters they are currently backing. Another two of five said they "somewhat support" the candidate, and one in five said they might vote differently than for the candidate they had just told pollsters they were supporting.

And that's just among those expressed a preference. More broadly, 12 percent of those who said they were likely to attend the caucuses next week said they were still undecided.

That's a lot of turmoil, especially when you look at the spaghetti bowl of a chart above tracking the field in polls over the past few months.

Meanwhile, President Obama's approval rating is below his disapproval rating in most polls, though neither number is above 50 percent. That makes him vulnerable, obviously, though the general election is a long way away, and Obama has largely sat in the sidelines while the Republicans have beat him up with their rhetoric. It will be a whole different environment come next September, when the general campaign kicks into high gear.

What a spectator sport. Read More 
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On Congress, and the gutting of the Constitution

Washington, it seems, is incapable of learning the lesson of unintended consequences.

In June 1940, Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed on a bill that struck them at the time as quite reasonable and prudent given the rise of fascism in Europe and the growing strength of communist movements elsewhere. It was called the Alien Registration Act, or the Smith Act, after U.S. Rep. Howard Smith (D-Va.), who pushed it into law. Much like the current National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, which is cruising through Congress and headed to a newly receptive White House, the Smith Act contained a provision that gutted a basic civil right that Americans take for granted.

And that’s the lesson Washington needs to heed.

Analysts from the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch, among others, argue that the NDAA, which for the most part authorizes funding for defense programs, also grants the military the right to indefinitely detain anyone anywhere, including U.S. citizens arrested on American soil, if military officials suspect the person is involved in or supporting terrorism.

No judicial review, just arrest and detention until the war on terror is over.

Beyond the problematic issue of using the U.S. military for, in essence, domestic police actions, the NDAA provisions don’t define what constitutes supporting terrorism, or set a threshold for suspicion. Hiding a bomb? Sending some money? Reading a treatise? Stating the opinion that, given U.S. policies over the years, one can understand the emotions behind those seeking to destroy the United States? Would understanding the enemy constitute a show of support?

Who knows? It’s a vague, but sweeping, bit of law, granting an abominable amount of power to the military—and, by extension, to the commander in chief.

One can easily imagine the legal and political fights  Read More 
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On Amazon, and our base desires

Last week Amazon infuriated a wide range of people by offering a five percent credit to customers who would use its price-checking phone app in retail stores, but then buy the item at hand online. It didn't apply to books, but it did target the non-book items bookstores rely on to make their margins.

It was an appalling move by Amazon, and I'm happy to see author Richard Russo calling the online giant on it in a New York Times op-ed. The best part of the piece, though, was from author Ann Patchett, who recently opened a bookstore in Nashville:
"I do think it’s worthwhile explaining to customers that the lowest price point does not always represent the best deal. If you like going to a bookstore then it’s up to you to support it. If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”

This is the heart of the issue. The app might be cool technology, but the impulse it serves is one of the things that has been tearing apart our communities, and our country. It is this near-religious embrace of the bargain, the pursuit for the lowest price regardless of the consequences. Believe me, as an underemployed journalist and author, I understand the challenges of family budgets.

But Walmart had already shown us the pernicious impact on entire towns when the residents migrate to cheap over locally sustainable. Amazon is embracing the same outlook: Cater to greed, and damn the social costs. Save a few bucks on buying that cheap import, and ignore the American jobs that disappear as a result.

We need to start looking outside ourselves and individual greed and start examining our personal choices within the framework of our communities. That old revolutionary line by Benjamin Franklin comes to mind: "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." In this case, we hold the economic health of our own communities - and, by extension, of our own families - in our hands. Let's do something constructive with it. Read More 
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On poverty, or counting those who don't count

The U.S. Census released a new report Monday that tries to remedy structural problems with how the federal government counts the number of people living in poverty. The official measure was put together a half-century ago by a government official - and it's been the basic formula ever since.

I won't get wonkish here - you can read the report, which includes the background. But there are several problems. The official measure doesn't account for regional costs differences - rent here in Southern California, for example, versus where my parents live in rural Western New York. And while the official measure doesn't include income support from food stamps and other programs (something the New York Times found significant in this rather odd piece printed before the new report was available), it also doesn't measure health costs, child care costs, transportation - all the things that have significant impacts on family budgets.

So the new measure puts the number of Americans living in poverty at 49.1 million - in a nation of 315 million. That's nearly 3 million more people than the official measure estimated in September, and amounts to about 1.6 of every 10 Americans.

Yet the government still measures poverty at an indefensible threshold. The federal guidelines set the poverty line at $10,890 a year for a single person, and $22,350 a year for a family of four (two adults, two children). So a 70-year-old woman living on $15,000 a year is not considered to be living in poverty. Parents holding down minimum wage jobs to support their two children - making a combined $30,160 a year before taxes, Social Security payments, child care, health car, etc. - would not be considered living in poverty.

As we face protests from the left and the right about corporate excess, governmental ineptitude, and political gridlock, we again are missing what is in plain view. We are, with our religious embrace of federal policies that put global corporate profits ahead of American communities, building a wide and deep pool of poverty in this country.

And that is indefensible. Read More 
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Happy birthday, Patriot Act - and the gutting of civil liberties

It's been a decade since the USA Patriot Act was rushed into law amid the fear and convulsions that followed the 9/11 terror attacks, and I had hoped that by now the passions would have cooled, sanity would have been regained, and the damned thing would have been allowed to die, or at least been gutted.

Instead, Congress earlier this year gave it new life.

The Washington Post has an op-ed that partially pulls the curtain back on some of the abuses of the provisions of the act, which have turned Americans, often against their will, into gagged co-conspirators in highly objectionable fishing expeditions into the private lives of fellow citizens.

One of the most egregious tools is the use of National Security Letters, whose use was expanded under the Patriot Act. These letters allow the FBI to give themselves permission, without judicial oversight, to dig into the private records and lives of people they determine to be of interest on grounds of national security.

In May 2009, the Department of Justice reported to Congress (the most recent report I could find) that "In 2008, the FBI made 24,744 NSL requests (excluding requests for subscriber information only) for information concerning United States persons. These sought information pertaining to 7,225 different United States persons."

Dissect that number. That's almost 68 letters a day, every day of the year, authorizing itself to look at information it otherwise had no right to see. An earlier report said the government had issued 143,074 NSLs from 2003 to 2005 (inclusive). That is domestic spying by the government on an unfathomable scale. In the 11 years prior to the passage of the Patriot Act, the FBI issued a total of 8,500 NSLs.

As I wrote in my recent book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, these are the acts of a government convulsing in fear. It was fear of fascism and communism that led to the 1940 Smith Act that, for a time, outlawed a specific political belief here in the land of political freedoms. There are direct parallels to the Patriot Act in that each was adopted in response to external pressures, and each had the unintended consequence of trampling some of the rights we believe sets us apart as a nation:

The use of the Smith Act against Communist Party leaders was an effective attempt by the U.S. government to criminalize political belief, flouting both the U.S. Constitution and a national tradition of political freedom and openness. The Smith Act was spawned by rising fear of fascism, and in some ways it is the sire of the USA Patriot Act. Both grew out of legitimate concerns, but the effects of the laws undercut the very thing they were supposed to protect: the American way of life. As the rallying cry went in the days after the 9/11 terror attacks, “The terrorists hate us for our freedoms.” But the USA Patriot Act trumped many of those freedoms, giving the government the authority to, among other things, conduct warrantless searches, track personal reading habits, and muzzle those forced to cooperate with the secret investigations. Thus in the name of anti-terrorism authorities can enter private homes without the resident’s knowledge, or demand details of the books that have been bought at stores or checked out from the library, all under a blanket of secrecy and, in many cases, without judicial review. In its name, and in search of radicalism, police have infiltrated peace groups and religious organizations. These are not the conditions of a free society. These are the acts of a police state, and they stand the nation’s basic principles of freedom of belief and political association—not to mention the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—on their head.

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Sorry, America, for not helping out with that recovery thing

Three years ago last month my job at the Los Angeles Times was eliminated, sending me off on this odd hybrid career of freelancing, book writing and teaching. And a much-reduced role as a consumer. In Sunday's Times, I weigh in on what that transition means for the rest of you, and our prognosis for economic recovery. From the piece:
I may owe the nation an apology. It turns out I'm a prime reason why the U.S. economy can't regain its footing. Because as a wage-earner, and as a consumer, I'm not what I used to be. ... It's how we and others in our situation are living now that helps explain the persistence of the economic crisis, and hints at the troubles of the future. ...[W]e're spending significantly less than we once did, forming an incremental drag on the economic recovery. Ironically, we have more money salted away in our savings account now than before my job was cut. That's what financial fear does; it makes you hoard cash.

So we patronize fewer restaurants, buy fewer books (a painful cutback for an author; if I'm not buying their books, are they not buying mine?), and rarely contemplate a weekend train getaway to Santa Barbara or San Diego. Take in a professional hockey or baseball game with the family? Um, no.

But a recovery needs us to spend. So we're not helping. And that's why the future is worrisome. We never were high-debt spenders (at the moment, mortgage, car payments and a small credit card balance are our only outstanding debts), but it's highly unlikely our household spending will ever again be what it was.

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