Posts Tagged ‘528’

Getting out of my Chair

April 22nd, 2009 No comments

Next week, I will violate what appears to be a cardinal rule of blogging: Never leave your seat to do any actual investigating of your own. Simply rely on other sources, then synthesize what they give you and turn it into something…wonderful (once in a while, if you’re lucky).

I’m going to be the “official blogger” of Equality Forum. (If you don’t believe me, just go here and view my dopey face in the left column.) Equality Forum, which takes place every year in Philadelphia at this time, is “the largest annual national and international GLBT civil rights forum.” Events begin next Monday (4.27) and run through Sunday, May 3. Once again, the organizers have assembled a ridiculously accomplished and interesting array of panels and speakers, on topics ranging from gay families, to politics, to legal developments, to religion, to the special challenges faced by racial and transgendered minorities. I’ll be hitting as many of them as possible, reporting on the events and then interviewing panelists. “Blogging meets feature journalism,” I’d call it. For a list of all events, go here.

I’m especially excited about the Tuesday evening conversation with Bishop Gene Robinson (who, as Jon Stewart noted, can “only move diagonally”)  and the Saturday evening dinner honoring San Francisco Mayor (and newly declared gubernatorial candidate) Gavin Newsom  and The New York Times.

I’d like to thank Malcolm Lazin, founder and  Executive Director of Equality Forum (and long-time LGBT advocate), for this opportunity, and Chip Alfred and Ben Perry for their logistical work and support in making this happen.

For the rest of this week, I will mostly be doing my usual blogging on a number of diverse subjects (with appetite-whetters from Equality Forum as they arise). Then, a week of blogging devoted exclusively to the Forum!

As always, your comments are welcome and appreciated.

Categories: blogs, Equality Forum, Gay Rights Tags: , , , , ,

Tortured Legal Analysis

April 19th, 2009 No comments

Last Thursday’s release of the so-called “torture memos,” written by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush Administration to justify “harsh interrogation techniques,” has brought down a hail of commentary from all points along the political spectrum. I’m reluctant to wade into this mess, mostly because it’s hard to find an angle that’s not been taken.

One point that’s been insufficiently reflected on, though, is the paradox of the “top-drawer”  lawyer. Whenever a client has an extremely complex, embarrassing, or possibly illegal idea, they make every effort to find the very “best” attorneys; those whose legal acumen and skill at minute parsing of argument and language give them the best chance of success.

So it is at the highest levels of government, populated in the main by attorneys churned out by the most elite law schools: Lawyers like John Yoo, Jay Bybee, and Steven Bradbury, each of whom played a substantial role in the creation of the crucial memos (from 2002 and 2005) authorizing the interrogation techniques that have generated the justified outrage that has spewed forth over the last several days.

A little background: The United States is signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture, which these and other attorneys had to gyrate around in order to green-light what the Bush Administration wanted to do to terror suspects. How to justify waterboarding, for example? Well, even though the 2002 memo conceded that the technique “constitutes a threat of imminent death,” it didn’t violate the Convention’s prohibition against the “infliction of severe mental pain or  suffering” because the mental harm wasn’t “prolonged.” Apparently, the drafters “forgot” that, in describing the technique, they stated that “it may then be repeated.” At what point would it add up to “prolonged” mental harm? This just in: 183 times was OK, according to a Times story detailing the detective work of bloggers who managed to read the number in a redacted memo.

That number is (I hope) an outlier, but it showcases what will happen when “top” lawyers are turned loose on a document. Unless they have a moral compass beyond their sere legal knowledge, virtually any reading of a qualitative standard (“severe” or “prolonged”) can be argued for (if not ultimately supported). (Quantitative restrictions are harder to get around: Maybe the Convention should have said: No more than x hours of sleep deprivation; or only y waterboardings are permitted. Let y=0.) This isn’t surprising, really; when I read the memos, I found myself using my own analytical abilities to agree or disagree with various of the conclusions the writers reached.

What is the check on this, other than the probably impossible attempt to predict and then prohibit or quantify every method of cruelty the human mind can devise? I can think of two: James Comey1 and the sheer moral repugnance of enough of those “in the field.”

As Deputy Attorney General under John Ashcroft, Comey is perhaps best known for a bizarre confrontation in 2004 with disgraced White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andrew Card; the two were on their way to the ailing Ashcroft’s hospital bed to try to persuade him to re-authorize a domestic spying program that Justice had just determined was illegal. Comey learned of this maneuver and raced in ahead of these ghoulish opportunists, putting a stop to their plan. But Comey also supported Jack  Goldsmith’s rescission of the 2002 memo, and objected to Bradbury’s 2005 memos. Could he have done more? Frankly, I don’t know. But if more had been as moral and determined as he, perhaps some of this could have been prevented.

Then there are those in the field. As Seth Kreimer, a law professor at Penn, details in his article, “‘Torture Lite,’ ‘Full-Bodied Torture,’ and the Insulation of Legal Conscience,” 2 much of what we’ve learned about the abuses committed in the name of the war on terror came out because of the simple moral outrage of those on the ground level:  “Specialist Joseph Darby, outraged by his discovery of photographs depicting the abuse at Abu Ghraib, was impelled to bring the matter to investigation because ‘it violated everything I personally believed in and everything I was taught about the rules of war.’ Master at Arms William Kimbro, a ‘dog handler,’ as recounted by the dry prose of the Taguba Report, ‘knew his duties and refused to participate in improper interrogation despite significant pressure.’ General Anthony Taguba put his career at risk by actively investigating and accounting for the abuse at Abu Ghraib. Members of the JAG Corps resisted the effort to dilute protections for prisoners, and ultimately they revealed that dilution to the human rights bar.”

Moral outrage indeed. Let me close with the power of one image, selected from among literally thousands, that makes the point that the Bush lawyers’ language sought to occlude:


  1. This is odd, because Jim Comey and I shared an apartment in Hoboken for about a year in the mid-1980’s. We lost touch some time after that, and evidently his politics and mine aren’t identical. But I have tremendous respect for him for reasons mentioned above.
  2. 1 J. Nat’l Security L. & Pol’y 187 (2005)

The End of Journalism

March 19th, 2009 No comments

Driving home last night, I heard the antepenultimate (there’s a word best avoided!) installment of the NPR show “News and Notes.” The show, which alone among the network’s shows features an African-American point of view, is a casualty of the economic crisis. And I don’t understand the decision to cancel the show, given that many of the network’s other shows have a remarkable sameness to them.

Not surprisingly, the guests — a roundtable of bloggers — were discussing future outlets for their work. This conversation reminded me that we in the blogosphere will do fine (for awhile) in the rapidly changing world of information. But we are essentially bottom feeders, remora fish (“aggregators” is apparently the approved euphemism) scrounging for tidbits that the mainstream news has introduced, relying for our nuggets on reporting from other sources. Even the best and most well-known blogs, such as the Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish, largely rely on primary sources turned up by front-line journalists, usually of the print variety. But what will become of us when these sources disappear?

The question is hardly academic. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer just printed its final issue; the “paper” is now available only on-line. I recently received an e-mail from The Nation asking for a contribution so that the magazine can stay afloat,  and continue to do the kind of investigative reporting for which it’s become famous (or  infamous, depending on your politics). Even the venerable New York Times is in danger, as detailed in a perceptive article by Michael Hirschorn in the January/February issue of The Atlantic. (Since  that story, the Times has entered into a complex real estate transaction involving its building that provided a cash infusion and a temporary reprieve.)

It’s not as though these problems can be “solved” simply by moving these publications on-line. Advertising can’t be sold at high prices in cyberspace, meaning that the on-line versions of papers will be much thinner, economically. By way of dramatic example, the Seattle P-I is reducing its news staff dramatically, from about 150 to about 20. Under this  model, the kind of investigative reporting that the public has historically relied on newspapers to perform will not be possible.

The Philadelphia  Inquirer, Philly’s flagship paper, is also in very deep trouble.  The owner of the city’s two papers (the other is the Daily News)  recently filed for bankruptcy, culminating a downward spiral in circulation that has changed the paper in recent years from a significant national news source to an almost exclusively regional one, with news from other places (as exotic and far away as D.C.)  now furnished by the AP, the NY Times News Service, and others. Even with these compromises and concessions, though, the Inquirer has still been able to do good local, investigative reporting, such as its multi-part expose of the city’s dreadful Department of Human Services. (The series catalyzed change and brought accountability to an agency that had too long evaded it.) Such stories won’t be possible, or at least not  in any way that I can see, once papers stop rolling.

The Hirschorn article suggests that the Times and other “brands” can survive by combining the aggregation model of  blogs with “endorsed” reporting from other places, along with some (but  how  much?)  original reporting. Maybe. I’m not  concerned about coverage of events-as-they-happen, because here’s where citizen journalists and locals can continue to expand, excite, and define the “iPhone generation” of reporting. He cites examples of first-rate citizen reporting ranging from the terrorist attacks in Mumbai to Hurricane Katrina.

What happens after that on-the-ground reporting of events is done, though? Who will have the expertise, connections, resources and inclination to do the kind of in-depth reporting that makes sense of these events? Where will we bloggers get our grist? Less self-indulgently put, how can the probing analysis that has been journalism’s obligation to democracy — its “end” — thrive in the post-print world that is surely soon to come?

Categories: blogs, journalism Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The M Words

March 8th, 2009 No comments

The civil union has recently gotten a lot of air time, with pundits on all sides asking whether it’s an adequate  substitute for marriage equality. As I pointed out in a letter to the New York Times, the civil union (or domestic partnership, or “reciprocal beneficiary”, or whatever else) is a poor stand-in. It doesn’t confer any federal benefits, and wouldn’t even if the Defense of Marriage Act were repealed.

Yet the word “marriage” really does seem to be the sticking point for a lot of otherwise-reasonable people. In poll after poll, a majority favor granting equal benefits to same-sex partners, but an equally solid (though weakening) majority oppose same-sex marriage.  So we have the answer to Juliet’s rhetorical question: “What’s in a name?” Plenty. But why “civil unions”? If the word “marriage” is the problem, is “civil unions” the best solution? Why not something that looks more familiar?

I propose the word “mariage” — with one “r”! This neologism should make everyone happy. The familiar “two r” “marriage” is reserved for heterosexuals, while same-sex couples can hardly complain about the sacrifice of one measly letter.

Yes, there would be problems to solve, but they’re not insurmountable. The most obvious difficulty would be in pronunciation. While the words are distinguishable as written, how would couples signal which legal and social institution they were referring to when saying one of the two “M” words? We wouldn’t want to constantly say “one ‘r’ marriage” or “two ‘r’ marriage.” Here’s the solution: Since gays and lesbians are being asked to give up a letter, it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that the pronunciation of traditional “marriage” be changed to emphasize the two “r”s. Exaggeration of the “r” sound might be needed to make the distinction clear, but the high stakes in maintaining the separation will provide all the incentive that’s needed to make this work.

Here’s an example: “Oh, I’m so happy for Bob and Betty. Theirs is a marrrriage made in heaven.”

Of course, the trilled “r” sound that native Spanish speakers handle with such dismaying ease could also work here, because that mellifluous sound signifies a double “r.” Perhaps a side benefit of this new “one r/two r” world would be a rush to enroll small children in Spanish immersion classes, thereby arming them with the phoneme needed to keep the wall between the two institutions sturdy. Given the rising Latino population in the United States, this increased interest in the Spanish language would serve two vital goals at once: increased Spanish literacy and the protection of the institution of “marriage.” 

My only fear is that, over time, this nice distinction would disappear. Then people wouldn’t know who was “married” and who was “maried.” This must never be allowed to happen. For the last time, “marriage” means the union of one man and one woman. “Mariage” is something else entirely.