2013 Year in Review

The year is thankfully almost over, so it’s time to look back on the highlights and lowlifes of 2013:

The year started out looking hopeful for President Obama. Coming off his reelection victory and his success in the Fiscal Cliff negotiations, it seemed like Congress was poised to pass gun control legislation and comprehensive immigration reform before the end of the year. But here we are in December and it looks like gun control is DOA and immigration reform is as distant as ever.

In February, Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world when he became the first pope in centuries to resign from the papacy. His successor, Pope Francis, has put a new face on the Catholicism and turned the Church towards a more pastoral mindset. The humble pontiff dresses plainly and not only speaks of helping the poor and the weak, but he practices what he preaches as well. Named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, Francis has shaken up the Vatican and looks to be a dynamic force for change in the years to come.

The first major terrorist attack in the US since 9/11 hit Boston in mid-April, when two Chechen brothers bombed the finish line at the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed and more than a hundred more were injured in the two blasts, which set off a manhunt which resulted in the death of one suspect and the televised capture of the nineteen-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The surviving brother’s good looks and youthful appearance has attracted a small legion of “fans” and even put him on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, a first for a bombing suspect.

June saw the leaking of classified NSA documents by Edward Snowden which showed the full extent of the agency’s data collection program, which we learned targets nearly all Americans. This sparked a national debate on the balance between security and liberty while Snowden fled from the US to Hong Kong before finally ending up in Moscow, where the Russians are refusing to extradite him.

The George Zimmerman murder trial, which captivated the nation and brought up uncomfortable questions about race in America, came to a dramatic conclusion in July when Zimmerman was found not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin. Like the OJ Simpson trial more than 15 years earlier, this case was a painful reminder that the wounds of centuries of racial discrimination still remain even 50 years after the demise of Jim Crow.

On August 21st, the Syrian regime conducted the largest chemical weapons attack in 25 years when it gassed more than a thousand people in the capital of Damascus. The Syrian Civil War has been raging for almost three years and during that time more than 100,000 people have been killed in the fighting. With this new attack, the “red line” imposed by President Obama had been cross and the US was brought to the brink of launching retaliatory strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. However, a last minute deal brokered by the Russians allowed the Syrian regime to voluntarily destroy its remaining chemical weapon stockpiles under international supervision, thus staving off a military intervention by the United States.

Of course, October wasn’t kind to the congressional GOP either. The same day as the Obamacare website’s ignominious start, the failure of Republicans and Democrats to come to a budget deal resulted in a government shutdown that lasted more than two weeks. Conservatives were adamantly opposed to reopening the government unless Obamacare was repealed or at least the individual mandate was delayed. However, the Democrats and the Obama Administration did not budge and eventually the GOP was forced to reopen the government on intense public pressure. During the shutdown the GOP saw its poll numbers decline significantly to the point where the Republican majority in the House of Representatives was in jeopardy. Of course, that lasted a few weeks until….

The role out of Healthcare.gov on October 1st was nothing short of a complete disaster for the Obama administration, with millions of visitors to the website unable to access the online health insurance marketplaces. These issues plagued the site for months and it wasn’t until December that most of the kinks were worked out. As a result the goal of 3 million enrollments by the end of the year was missed, with current estimates showing that only 1.1 million people had bought health insurance through Healthcare.gov. The healthcare troubles took a deep toll on President Obama’s approval ratings and the month of November saw the GOP reverse the losses from the government shutdown and then some.

With both parties bruised after the past few months, December saw the rare occurrence of compromise with the adoption of a two-year budget agreement that would stave off the threat of another shutdown until at least 2015. With this agreement it will be the first December in recent memory without a budget crisis, much to the chagrin of the DC media.

2013 was a banner year for gay rights, with the number of states permitting same-sex marriage doubling from 9 to 18. The Supreme Court struck down DOMA and paved the way for gay couples to receive federal marriage benefits. Public support for marriage equality continued its rise in 2013 and now more than 55% of the country support the right of same-sex couple to wed.

 In 2013 lines were blurred, Pharrell got lucky (twice), glutes were twerked, and Miley Cyrus drove a wrecking ball through her good-girl Disney image. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford showed the world that crack isn’t always whack and even our mild-mannered neighbors to the north know how to party hard. Anthony Weiner almost became the mayor of New York City, only to be thwarted by his inability to (once again) keep it in his pants. Carlos Danger wasn’t the hero New York needed, but the one it deserved.

So what’s on the horizon for 2014? It’s going to be a big year with the Olympics in February, World Cup in June, a Scottish vote on independence in September, the US midterms elections in November, and the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in December.

So here’s to 2013 and a very happy New Year to all!

Helplessness and Indifference in the Windy City: No Such Thing as a Safe Passage

Noah Berlatsky has an interesting in the Atlantic about how crime and segregation go hand in hand on the streets of Chicago. He writes

“Segregation is so ingrained, and so much taken for granted, that people, or at least white people, don’t even notice it. A couple months ago, for example, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wrote an editorial in which he argued that, based on murders by population, Chicago isn’t actually all that violent a city. And he’s sort of right. Chicago can be thought of as a bunch of different cities, and some of them are quite safe. Unfortunately, some of them aren’t. And a lot of effort goes into making sure that the folks who have to live in the less safe parts of Chicago don’t trouble the sleep of the folks in the safe areas.”

Coming from the New York suburbs, I found this one of the more unsettling aspects of Chicago life. I know New York City is fairly segregated when it comes to housing, but the high population density (NYC is almost 2.5x as dense) means that different races still interact on a daily basis. But in Chicago you can live on the North Side, take the Metra to the Loop for work, and then take it back in the evening all the while remaining in a bubble of whiteness. But on the South Side, you get a vastly different perspective on the city.

One of the best points that Berlatsky brings up is the fact that Chicago is more like a conglomeration of smaller cities rather than one big one. I became acutely aware of this balkanization a few years ago when I first moved to the city.  The U of C is located in Hyde Park on the South Side and is, as a student told me during orientation, “an ivory tower in a sea of ebony.” And it just so happened that my first real introduction to the city involved me getting punched out on the 55 bus heading back from the Garfield Red Line stop the day before classes even started. Suffice it to say, I didn’t exactly develop the best impression of the Windy City. So afterwards when I heard other people tell me how Chicago is such a great place, I couldn’t help but think: “Are we talking about the same city?” Of course, over the past three years my opinion of the city is a great deal more nuanced. But as someone who is still between an outsider and a local, I am still unsettled by the gap the separates the heart of the city from its underbelly.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any easy answers for anyone. The city is strapped for cash and facing a massive pension crisis that will probably force either major tax increases or dramatic cuts in service. The university, while flush with cash, is focused on making Hyde Park a better place for its students and not necessarily anyone else. And while community leaders and activists have been shouting about this problem for years, they don’t seem to have much to show for it.

To borrow a phrase from the movies:

“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chicago.” 

The Death of Privilege

One thing that’s been blowing up the internets recently is Gawker’s “Privilege Tournament.” According to the description:

“Privilege: so sweet to have. But even sweeter to not have. Privilege has its benefits, but the lack of privilege confers that sweet, sweet moral superiority. With that in mind, we have decided to determine who, exactly, has the least privilege of all.

These days, teary privilege confessionals pour forth from the lips of college students in equal proportion to the fiery critiques of our grossly unjust world that pour forth from the unprivileged masses. None of it, however, is very scientific. This is the privilege bracket. It is like an NCAA bracket, but without the privileged assumption that you know about sports, which are an inherently masculine-dominated, ability-privileged activity. Here, we will pit eight categories of non-privilege against one another, tournament-style. Each round, the least privileged will advance. At the end, only a single category of non-privilege will be left standing. Or, more likely, unable to stand.”

Modern “social justice” theory defines privilege as “the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements benefits and choices bestowed on people solely because” of features such as class, skin color, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc.” For example, white people are privileged in that they aren’t viewed as possible criminals as much a people of color. Straight people are privileged because they can get married anywhere in the country. Rich people are privileged because, well, they’re rich.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this idea of privilege. It is a good way of trying to understand people who are different than oneself and allows us to see where we can make a difference when it comes to equality. However, this concept has been twisted and manipulated into something that is meant evoke guilt and to legitimize opposing points of view.

Privilege has become the modern version of original sin. You have it the minute you are born and you are told that you must spend the rest of your life feeling guilty because of it. Modern social justice theory is the church where you can find salvation, but only if you subscribe to the church’s teachings. Heresy and apostasy are not tolerated and those who deviate from the dogma are excommunicated without a second thought.

“Check your privilege” is the battle cry of many self-proclaimed social justice warriors (SJW) and can heard far and wide from the depths of Tumblr to the typical college campus. But rather than being a call for self-introspection, it has been used to basically say “Because you are not (gay/black/transgender/poor/disabled), you don’t get to have an opinion on this issue.”  On the flip side, this leads to the belief that the less privilege you have, the more valid and important your ideas are. This inevitably leads to something called the “Oppression Olympics,” where people try to duke it out to see who is the most oppressed and therefore has the moral high ground.

What the concept of privilege does is create an “us versus them” mentality. There are those who have privilege (the oppressors) and those who don’t (the oppressed). This is a bad thing because it begets confrontation and animosity for both groups, thus making it more difficult to solve the underlying inequalities. Because when these two groups are fighting each other, the privileged always win. Always.

The only way true and lasting equality is achieved is through dialogue and mutual respect. This is a long and difficult process, but unfortunately there literally is no other way. Humans by our nature are imperfect, so if you want to make any positive impact on the world you must first accept reality on its own terms.

2014 Gubernatorial Race Update #1

2014

Things have sure been heating up in the 2014 gubernatorial races over the past month. We have made the following changes to our elections page:

In Alaska, Democrat Byron Mallott has jumped into the race for the Democrats and Bill Walker has withdrawn from the GOP primary to run as an independent instead.

In Colorado, John Hickenlooper (D) has officially announced his bid for reelection. The rating of “Leans Democrat” remains.

In Georgia, Republican John Barge has jumped into the primary while Governor Nathan Deal (R) has yet to announce his reelection bid.

In Idaho, Governor Butch Otter (R) has announced his bid for a third term, which he looks likely to win.

In Iowa, Democratic State Senator Jack Hatch has entered the race to (presumably) challenge Governor Terry Brandstad (R) as he decides whether to seek reelection for his sixth term in office.

In Kansas, Governor Sam Brownback (R) has declared he is running for reelection in this heavily Republican state.

In Maine, Democrat Mike Michaud has entered the race for Governor and he’s cleared the field of his competitors.  He has steadily gained ground in the polls against Governor Paul LePage (R) while independent candidate Elliot Cutler has continued to see his support fall. It looks like it’s going to be a competitive two-way race between the GOP and the Democrats.

In Massachusetts, state Attorney General and 2010 US Senate nominee Martha Coakley announced her bid for Governor today, joining a crowded Democratic field. For the GOP, only 2010 gubernatorial nominee Charles D. Baker, Jr. has entered the race so far.

In Nebraska, three more Republicans have jumped into the race to replace Governor Dave Heineman (R).

In Ohio, a new poll from PPP sends the race from “Likely Republican” to “Leans Republican.”

In Rhode Island, Governor Lincoln Chafee (D) has withdrawn his bid for reelection. This greatly changes things in favor of the Democrats and this race goes from “Toss-up” to “Likely Democrat.” Meanwhile, Independent Ken Block has announced his candidacy for the Moderate Party nomination, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be a factor in the general election.

Like with the Senate races, we have removed all candidates who have yet to officially announce their candidacy and we’ve fixed the issue with the total seat count. Hopefully we’ll get one up and running for the Senate races by the time the next update comes around. Stay tuned!

2014 Senate Update #2

2014I have made the following changes to our coverage of the 2014 US Senate races:

In Alaska, former AK Attorney General Daniel S. Sullivan has entered the race for the GOP nomination. He should provide a healthy challenge to Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, who still has the edge in this race.

In Colorado, I completely forgot about that race. Added all the candidates and my analysis. While it’s not an ideal pickup for the GOP, this is their best chance to beat an Udall in 2014.

In West Virginia, WV Secretary of State Natalie Tennant has entered the race for the Democrats. She is their last best hope of retaining this seat, but I’d still give the GOP an edge here.

In addition, I fixed some of the typos and removed the “Possible” candidates sections. They were just too big and clumsy and they didn’t really add anything to the page.

The governors’s race update should be coming in the next day or so. Stay tuned!

Final NYC Mayoral Polls: Can De Blasio Seal the Deal?

Election night is almost here! It’s been quite a race over the past year and there have been many twist and turns along the way. The conventional wisdom is that it’s de Blasio’s race to lose and that we may not even need a runoff. We can we expect come tomorrow night?

The two polls that have come out over the past 24 hours, from Quinnipiac and PPP, show de Blasio just under the 40% he needs to avoid the runoff. Compare these results to the 43% he got in last week’s Quinnipiac poll and we may have evidence that de Blasio’s support has peaked, or at least plateaued.  Now that doesn’t mean he’s in any danger for tomorrow, but it does indicate that this race isn’t over just yet.

The other important thing to watch tomorrow is the race between Quinn and Thompson for the number two spot, which is a ticket into the runoff as long as de Blasio doesn’t reach 40%. Polls have consistently shown Thompson steadily building up a lead over the past few weeks and Quinn has struggled to thrive during this entire election.

So with the campaign essentially over and the polling completed, here are my final predictions:

de Blasio 37%

Thompson 23%

Quinn   17%

Liu 6%

Weiner  5%

It’s obvious that de Blasio peaked a week ago and I don’t see him regaining much momentum in the next 24 hours. Still, there is no doubt that he’s going to get the most votes tomorrow. And while I would normally have Thompson doing better then expected, like his surprise performance in 2009, this time around there are a lot of choices for Democrats dissatisfied with Bloomberg. Quinn has had the wind knocked out of her sails (if she had any wind to begin with) by the rise of de Blasio and I would be shocked to see her reach 20%. Finally, I predict Weiner will under perform even the lowest of expectations and will get beaten by Chris Liu for the number 4 spot.

Tomorrow I will (hopefully) be covering the election from Bill de Blasio’s headquarters as the results come and the winners (and losers) are declared. It’s going to be an exciting night.

To Bomb or Not to Bomb, That is the Question: Part 1

There are many ways to approach the Syria crisis. You could look at it from a legal standpoint, seeing how international law would govern the situation. You could take a morality based approach and measure the costs of intervention versus the death and destruction that would result from inaction. Or you could ask how the interests of the United States line up with what is happening in Syria. I think a balanced approach is best in times like these, and we’ll start with the how a US intervention would jibe with the rule of law.

First of all, I’m going to make a bold claim and say that all discussions about international law are moot. Why? Because there is no international “law”. Of course there are treaties and conventions and protocols and declarations that many UN members have agreed and signed to. But they are not laws. Laws are something can be enforced on a regular basis, not only when the stars align just right or when politically expedient. For decades international laws and treaties pertaining to human rights have been violated in the most egregious manner by nations both big and small and it is in only the rarest of circumstances that any significant action is taken to punish those violators and to rectify the situation.

Hypothetically, let’s assume that a US attack would be in violation of international “law” as it currently exists. So what? Not to sound like a bad guy in a children’s cartoon, but who’s going to stop us? No one. If nobody is willing to stand up to a puny country like Syria that gasses its own people, then they’re sure as hell not going to try to punish a nation with the world’s best military merely for a few cruise missile strikes.

The conclusion here is that the most effective law in dealing with crimes against humanity is the M72 LAW rocket-launcher. And even that’s only good against lightly armored targets. So now we have to look at it from the perspective of domestic laws that are designed to curb the power of the executive and ultimately preserve our liberties as Americans.

The War Powers Act limits the ability of the executive to engage in hostilities to only situations where the US is under an imminent threat. Even so, the action must be completed in 60 days or be extended by an act of Congress. Presidents have been able to get around this by quibbling over the definition of “hostilities.” Semantic antics aside, the people who we may be dropping bombs on will agree that said bomb dropping constitutes as hostilities.

So given that the Syria threat is by no means imminent, it is clear that President Obama needs congressional approval is he wants this engagement to be legal under US law. Of course if he doesn’t, he’ll probably get away with it anyway. He’s done it before with Libya and Clinton did with Kosovo in the 1990s, so there is definitely a precedent he can follow. As with international “laws,” the lack of enforcement makes it very hard for us to take them seriously as anything more than guidelines.

The overall conclusion is that laws don’t really matter that much when it comes to the Syria problem. Everybody and their mother is ignoring them, so for all intents and purposes they don’t really exist except on paper. Obviously, this is something that probably should be addressed by both Congress and the international community. However there aren’t really any easy answers right now and the fact of the matter is that you go to war with the “laws” you have, not the ones you want. Given that, ignoring them completely is the best course of action at this point.

The next part will take a look at the morality of the situation on the ground as it pertains to what the US should do. Hopefully it will give us more answers than the legal situation does. Hopefully.