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Pieces of Silver

The New York State Assembly has been in Democratic hands since the Democratic wave election of 1974. Since then, there have been five speakers of the Assembly. The current speaker, Sheldon Silver, has served more than half of that time, since 1994.

The list of New York Assembly speakers includes some great names, like Hamilton Fish II and Al Smith. But the list of speakers also includes some scoundrels, especially over the last 40 years.

Stanley Steingut was elected speaker in 1974, despite reports that he used his political connections to funnel money to his law firm and his two insurance firms. While speaker, Steingut was indicted by the Brooklyn district attorney on charges that he had promised a job in exchange for a contribution to his son’s New York City Council campaign. The indictment was ultimately dismissed on the ground that all of the alleged actions had occurred in Manhattan, and thus the Brooklyn D.A. lacked jurisdiction to prosecute. Although Steingut escaped criminal punishment, voters punished him at the polls, electing an insurgent to Steingut’s seat in 1978.

In 1991, Speaker Mel Miller was convicted of federal fraud charges related to a private real estate deal. He automatically lost his seat upon conviction, according to New York law, although his conviction was reversed on appeal. During his tenure, Miller vigorously opposed investigations into no-show jobs given to legislators’ friends, families and contributors, and actually asserted a violation of separation of powers when two legislators were indicted for paying campaign workers with state tax money.

Today, Assembly Speaker Silver was arrested on federal corruption charges alleging kickback and bribery schemes whereby Silver used his political and governmental power to feed business to allies in exchange for a hefty cut. This is on top of the income that Silver discloses, from the law firm of Weitz & Luxenburg. It has long been one of Albany’s great mysteries exactly what Silver does for the compensation he discloses. Silver himself maintains that Weitz & Luxenburg pays him to spend a few hours a week reviewing potential personal injury claims, referring those that “appear to have merit.”

New York State government is widely recognized as one of the most corrupt in the country, if not the most corrupt, and the power of the Assembly speaker is one of the keys to that corruption. The speaker is so powerful that law is not made in the sunlight, by legislators holding public hearings, but in back rooms – New York State government is famously run by “three men in a room” – the governor, the speaker and the majority leader of the Senate, cutting deals behind closed doors. Disclosure and transparency are minimal.

Another key to New York State’s corruption is gerrymandering. Legislative districts are drawn to minimize competition – each house of the legislature draws its own legislative lines. In a heavily Democratic state like New York, it takes no sleight of hand to ensure that the Democratic Assembly will remain Democratic. But the power of gerrymandering is proved in the Republican Senate – Republicans won control in 1938, and they have held it almost continuously ever since. Although voters adopted a provision last November that purported to reform the redistricting process, the measure was a “phony reform” that retains partisan control over redistricting.

Governor Andrew Cuomo ran on a platform of reform – as did one of his recent predecessors, Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer resigned after a prostitution scandal, having achieved no significant reform whatever during his 15 months in office.

Cuomo established a commission to investigate public corruption in 2013. The commission opened investigations into a number of state legislative leaders, including Speaker Silver, and Cuomo shut it down after less than a year. The United States Attorney in Manhattan responded by opening an investigation of his own – into the commission, into the commission’s investigative targets, and into Governor Cuomo’s alleged interference with the commission’s work.

It’s hard to say what it would take to clean up Albany if electing gubernatorial candidates who promise reform isn’t enough. Throwing the bums in jail one at a time hasn’t worked – we’ve been doing that for decades. Throwing Sheldon Silver in jail seems like a fine idea. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe that his successor won’t be just as corrupt as he is.


Florida Will be 36

Same-sex marriage will become legal in Florida on January 5, making Florida the 36th marriage equality state.

On August 21, 2014, United States District Judge Robert Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction ordering Florida officials to stop enforcing Florida’s statutory and constitutional ban against same-sex marriage. A preliminary injunction is issued pending the conclusion of a case, when the plaintiffs show that they are likely to win the case. Even though Judge Hinkle’s injunction was only preliminary, his ruling clearly stated his conclusion that marriage equality is required by the United States Constitution, which supersedes contrary provisions of state law.

Judge Hinkle stayed his injunction until January 5, to allow for appeals. The state officials asked the federal Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit to extend the stay, but the Court of Appeals refused, on December 3. The state officials then asked the Supreme Court to extend the stay, but that court refused also, on December 19, with only Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissenting.

With the state’s options exhausted, Judge Hinkle’s stay will expire on January 5, his preliminary injunction will go into effect, and same-sex marriage will become legal across the state of Florida, the third most populous state in the country. On January 5, more than 70 percent of Americans will live in marriage equality jurisdictions.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court at its conference session on January 9 will consider whether to hear appeals from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. On November 6, 2014, that court upheld same-sex marriage bans in four states, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to rule, once and for all, that marriage equality is constitutionally required.

Cuba Libre

In September 1933, a Cuban army sergeant named Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar led a coup against the Cuban government that was called the Revolt of the Sergeants. For the next seven years, Batista exercised effective control of the Cuban government. Then in 1940, he promulgated a progressive constitution and won popular election as president of Cuba under that constitution.

Batista carried out social and economic reforms, advancing health care and promoting labor unions, earning him the support of Cuba’s nascent Communist Party. But Batista’s constitution limited him to a single four-year term as president, and his hand-picked candidate to succeed him lost the 1944 election.

Batista ran for president again in 1952. Trailing badly in three-way race, Batista engineered another coup and resumed the presidency. His second time around, Batista was no progressive. Although Cuba as a whole did well economically, inequality was severe. Batista was the first non-white Cuban president, and perhaps for that reason, he badly wanted the approval of Cuba’s economic elite. When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., was asked to assess the second Batista government for the Eisenhower Administration, he concluded, with considerable prescience:

“The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the government’s indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice … is an open invitation to revolution.”

Batista cultivated a corrupt relationship with American organized crime running gambling, prostitution and drug operations in Cuba. John Kennedy, during the 1960 presidential campaign, condemned Batista’s regime and the Eisenhower administration’s support for it:

“Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years … and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state – destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista – hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend – at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections.”

The revolution predicted by Schlesinger was led by Fidel Castro, who took power on January 8, 1959, a week after Batista fled to exile in Portugal, granted asylum by the Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar.

Castro’s revolution was followed by several waves of Cuban emigration to the United States, mostly to the Miami area. Many of the first emigrants, who included large numbers of the social and economic elites that Batista had courted, hoped to be able to return home soon, and worked hard to make it so.

In July 1960, the American government responded to confiscation of some American-owned properties by reducing the import quota for Cuban brown sugar. The Soviet Union promptly promised to buy the excess sugar. Economic sanctions escalated to embargo three months later, and the embargo has been strengthened by a series of executive and legislative acts, most recently the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

The American embargo has earned worldwide opposition. Every year since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has adopted resolutions condemning the embargo as a violation of international law and the UN Charter. In recent years, of all the nations in the world only Israel has joined the United States in opposing these resolutions.

Disproportionately influenced by the Cuban-American voting bloc in the large electoral swing state of Florida, American presidents and would-be presidents have been almost entirely unwilling to take on the embargo, or the broader issue of American-Cuban relations. Cuban-Americans are free to send money called “remittances” to family members in Cuba, and to travel to Cuba, but any suggestion that American tourist travel to Cuba be allowed, or that the trade embargo be loosened, is met by widespread Cuban-American condemnation: American trade and tourism would provide the money needed to keep the Castro regime in power. Curiously, Cuban-American remittances and travel to Cuba aren’t said to have the same effect.

Cuban-American immigrants are aging, and their children and grandchildren do not share their anti-Castro animus. American attitudes as a whole have softened toward Cuba.

President Obama announced yesterday the resumption of normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, and he asked Congress to lift the economic embargo. He said that after 50 years of shunning Cuba without any benefit to show for it, we should try something else.

American standards for establishing and maintaining diplomatic relations are not, and should not be, especially strict. Today, we lack diplomatic relations only with Bhutan, Iran, and North Korea. Neither democratic self-government nor respect for human rights has been a pre-condition for diplomatic relations with the United States. After all, we have embassies in Belarus, in Vietnam, in China, in Sudan, in Venezuela, in Saudi Arabia, in Russia.

Karl Marx said that capitalism is a natural stage of development on the way to socialism, but I think he may have had it backwards. The moral justification for capitalism is the notion that we compete on a level playing field and succeed or fail entirely according to our own merits. But if the playing field is not level, and we succeed or fail in large measure according to the circumstances of our birth, capitalism loses moral legitimacy.

Castro’s Cuba has leveled its playing field in many respects, so that capitalism could succeed now in a way that it could not under Batista. I don’t want to diminish in any way the Cuban government’s abuse of its people, but the fact is that Cubans enjoy universal education and universal medical care. The Cuban literacy rate is 99.8 percent, comparable to the American literacy rate of 99 percent. Cuban life expectancy is 79.4 years, comparable to Americans’ 79.8 years – and Cubans spend a mere fraction on health care of what we spend.

Anti-Cuban sanctions have a history of fuzzy rationale. Initially intended to punish Castro for confiscating American property, sanctions have variously been held up as means to turn Castro away from the Soviet Union, achieve regime change in Cuba, moderate Castro’s anti-American actions abroad, and enhance Cuban civil rights. Throughout, though, the suspicion has hung in the air that the real purpose of the sanctions was to court the votes of Florida’s anti-Castro Cuban-Americans.

News reports yesterday and today showed popular celebration in Havana – the Cuban people are overjoyed at President Obama’s news. Especially if we are going to preach the gospel of democracy, we should trust the Cuban people to know what is in their interests, and stop worrying about whether a decent respect for Cuba helps or hurts the Castro regime.


Social Death

In studying the present effects of past slavery, the great sociologist Orlando Patterson developed a concept he called “social death”:

“The fundamental feature of being a slave is that slaves are socially dead – both metaphorically and literally. They have no recognized legal existence in the society. They do not belong to the community, because they belong only to the master, and exist only through the master. I use the concept of natal alienation: they have no rights at birth…. In the eyes of non-slaves they do not belong, they are non-citizens.”

I’ve struggled to explain my belief that racial prejudice is not a historical artifact, dead and buried with slavery or Jim Crow or the civil rights movement or the election of our first African-American president. I am completely convinced that racial prejudice remains pervasive, and I find myself frustrated at the unwillingness of white people to acknowledge the damage that racial prejudice continues to wreak on African-American life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

I have explained my opinions that prejudice is a human evolutionary adaptation; that therefore all humans hold prejudices; that holding prejudices is therefore human but not evil; that the simultaneously evolved human capacity for reason enables us to seek out our prejudices and argue with them; and that holding prejudices does not require us to act on them, or even to believe them.

But I was completely unable to explain in any satisfying way why racial prejudices regarding African-Americans in particular are so pervasive and powerful – until I recently came Orlando Patterson’s concept of social death. After slavery ended, Patterson says:

“Americans … found it so hard to accept black Americans …. The culture of slavery still persisted, which is the idea that ‘you do not belong.’ They were nobodies; people were horrified at the idea that they could vote, like citizens. It even lingers to this day. What is the thing people who don’t like Obama say? They try to make out that he doesn’t have a birth certificate – that he doesn’t belong. Even a black president does not belong!” 

Ending slavery was just a legal act: the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But as the saying goes, you can’t legislate morality; you can’t legislate culture. Suddenly nobodies were presuming to vote, to own property, to engage in commerce and to negotiate trade – as if they were equal to us!

The Ku Klux Klan’s original mission was to terrorize African-Americans into foregoing their newly accorded legal rights, to maintain the “nobody-ness” of African-Americans, and to remind African-Americans that they were non-persons. Lynching served the same purpose, all the way into the 1960s. Poll taxes, exclusion from juries, racially restrictive property covenants, employment and housing discrimination, racially abusive commercial and lending practices, Jim Crow laws and legally enforced segregation served the same purpose. Negative stereotyping in popular media carried the cause of “nobodying.” Racial differences in law enforcement, medical care, educational and employment opportunity – racial inequalities in all aspects of life remind African-Americans that they do not belong. Demanding to see President Obama’s birth certificate fulfills the “nobodying” function today.

Treating people as unbelonging, undeserving nobodies does real and lasting damage. A young child lacks the psychological strength to withstand an entire society’s assertions of the child’s own nobody-ness, and the child carries the scars for life. As a gay man, I know this first-hand.

And this kind of prejudice perpetuates itself. If African-Americans are unworthy of education, property ownership, and commerce, and are therefore denied those things, then not surprisingly African-Americans remain less educated and poorer. People who grow up in a society consisting of more educated and better-off white people and less educated and worse-off African-Americans form their own racial prejudices as if anew.

And so on, even unto this day.

The popular commentary on events in Ferguson includes lots of statements by white people to the effect that Michael Brown was a felon and a thug who assaulted a police officer. The point does not seem to be that he deserved to die, but that Officer Darren Wilson was justified in shooting him to death.

These comments generally reject even the possibility that race played any role. But listen carefully to Officer Wilson’s own account of events. He drove up to Brown and his friend because they were walking in the street, and he told them (quite respectfully, he insisted) that they should walk on the sidewalk: “I had asked Dorian Johnson … to walk on the sidewalk, and his reply was, well we’re almost to our destination. And I was like, OK, well, what’s wrong with the sidewalk?” Despite Officer Wilson’s insistence to George Stephanopoulos, I am skeptical, to say the least, that the officer would have bothered if Brown had been, say, a middle-aged white man in a suit, a.k.a. me.

Listen closely to Officer Wilson’s description of Brown: he looked like a “demon”; Brown was “very large,” “very powerful,” like “Hulk Hogan.” After Wilson believed he had hit Brown with three shots, he said, Brown “looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him.”

Throughout, Wilson attributed animal-like strength to Brown, brute power combined with inexplicable rage – as if being “mad” about getting shot is somehow unreasonable.

Wilson told Stephanopoulos that when Brown assaulted him in his patrol car, he went through his mental check-list of escalating force options. He said that he decided not to use his mace, because inside the car there was too much chance that he would incapacitate himself and leave himself defenseless. But Wilson did not explain why, after he knew he had shot Brown three times and Brown was “bulking up” to charge him – why he did not then use mace, but instead fired another volley .

Officer Wilson told Stephanopoulos that he was bewildered by Brown’s response to “nothing out of the ordinary besides a conversation.” But that conversation was only ordinary in the context of a police officer talking to a young black man who presumed to walk down the middle of a street. To the young black man in question, Officer Wilson was probably one more aggressive white authority figure treating him like a nobody.

Unlike many commentators, I am not convinced that Wilson committed criminal homicide. I don’t believe that a prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Wilson used force first, and therefore I don’t believe that a prosecutor could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shots Wilson fired from inside the car were criminal. The second volley of shots is more questionable. Wilson fired those shots after Brown ran, then turned and returned 25 feet toward Wilson. I’ve seen no explanation why Wilson didn’t use mace then, and even more so instead of the third volley of shots, which killed Michael Brown.

But I utterly reject Officer Wilson’s claim that race played no role. There would likely have been no interaction at all if Michael Brown and his friend had not been young African-American men, and I seriously doubt that Wilson would have fired twelve shots, instead of taking other control measures, had Brown not been a young African-American man.

Officer Wilson holds prejudices because he is human. He holds prejudices about African-Americans because he grew up in a society, as we all did, in which African-Americans are nobodies. Unfortunately, Officer Wilson’s protest that race played no role shows that he has yet to deploy his capacity for reason into combat with his prejudices.


2014 Midterms

Last night’s elections went almost as badly for Democrats as any national election I can remember.

The 1994 midterms were bad, with Democrats going from majority to minority in the House, the Senate, and the governorships. House Republican candidates outpolled Democratic candidates by about 5 milllion votes, picked up 54 seats, and replaced Democratic Speaker Tom Foley with Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The 1980 elections were bad, with Ronald Reagan ousting Jimmy Carter from the White House after one term. The Reagan popular win was big, but his electoral win was historic – Carter won only Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island and West Virginia. Democrats lost 34 House seats but still held a big majority on paper; in practice, the mostly Southern conservative bloc of Democrats in the House voted as readily with President Reagan as with Speaker Tip O’Neil. Much more important, the Republicans gained 12 Senate seats, ousting some of the Senate’s leading liberals, like Birch Bayh, Frank Church, John Culver, John Durkin, Warren Magnuson, George McGovern  and Gaylord Nelson, and Republican-Liberal Jacob Javits lost to a Republican upstart, Alphonse D’Amato.

Last night was just as bad.  Democrats lost eight Senate seats, not counting Mary Landrieu, who is unlikely to survive a Louisiana run-off. Republicans might even claim a tenth seat if Virginia incumbent Mark Warner’s narrow lead doesn’t hold. Democrats claimed not one offsetting seat taken from Republicans, despite hopes in Georgia, Kansas and Kentucky. In fact, Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell faced an unually strong challenger but still won by the second biggest margin in his six Senate campaigns.

Although Democrats picked up an important Republican governorship in Pennsylvania early in the evening, very little went well after that. Democrats predictably lost governorships in the red states of Arkansas, but also lost in deep blue Maryland and Massachusetts. (What say we stop nominating Martha Coakley for things?) As of this writing, Democrats are holding onto incumbencies in Alaska, Colorado and Connecticut by small margins, but any or all of those could flip in the final counts. That leaves Democrats with a loss of at least three governorships, and as many as six, from a pool that was already heavily Republican.

What happened?

Umpteen Republicans have already crossed my TV screen proclaiming that the American people voted for an end to gridlock in Washington. I don’t see much support for that idea. Electing Republicans to end gridlock might make sense if the electorate liked Republicans – but generic Republicans poll even worse than generic Democrats these days. Furthermore, sending Republicans to the Senate only ends gridlock if the problem was with the Senate. This morning, right-leaning talking heads are blaming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for gridlock, but I’ve seen no evidence that any significant number of voters chose their Senate candidate based on the candidate’s position on Harry Reid. Much more likely, voters decided based on the candidates’ position on President Obama and his programs.

Moreover, the individuals responsible for the most important instance of the breakdown of government function were not punished last night. Fourteen Senators who voted in 2013 on whether to raise the federal debt ceiling and adopt a continuing budget resolution to fund the federal government had seats up last night. Republicans retained all 14 seats – the six who voted to send the country into default, the seven who voted not to default, and the one, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who didn’t vote. Some of them had significant challenges, like Senator McConnell in Kentucky and Republican candidate David Perdue in Georgia, but none of them lost, and none of them was ever pushed to justify their party’s role in shutting down the federal government, or promise they’d never do it again.

The Republican wave simply wasn’t about ending gridlock.

On the other side, there are some wishful-thinking liberals who attribute last night’s results to dissatisfaction among liberal Democrats – dissatisfaction that President Obama has not been liberal enough, that he has been too accommodating of Republicans and their concerns. On the surface of it, there is some support for this. For instance, Latino support for Democrats dipped, presumably prompted at least in part by the president’s positioning himself as “deporter in chief,” while failing to obtain immigration reforms legislatively and failing to impose them by executive action.

Similarly, issue referendums do not suggest an ideologically conservative reaction to Obama’s liberalism. Three states increased their minimum wages, including deep red Nebraska and pretty deep red Arkansas. Coloradans rejected a “personhood” constitutional amendment. Oregon and the District of Columbia legalized pot last night; 58 percent of Florida voters wanted to legalize medical marijuana, but that state’s constitutional amendment rules require a 60 percent supermajority. Massachusetts mandated paid sick leave at firms with more than 10 employees. Even a town in Texas oil country, Denton, voted to outlaw fracking.

Still, left-wing disillusionment with a centrist President Obama does not logically compel victories by conservative Republicans. The only way this “disillusionment” argument could be right is if Democratic turn-out was down in 2014 – compared not to the presidential year of 2012, but to the last midterms of 2010. Definitive numbers aren’t in, but I’ve seen no evidence so far of significant decreases in Democratic turn-out, despite some Republicans’ best efforts at voter suppression.

Instead, I think last night’s results show a broad rejection of President Obama’s leadership by the broad center of the American electorate. The disillusionment was carefully cultivated by Republican cynics who defund a federal program or agency, then unself-consciously condemn the poor performance of that program or agency. Poor performance proves that the program as wasteful, requiring yet more cuts. Rinse and repeat.

We’ve seen this with everything from the State Department’s embassy protection programs, to the Veterans Administration’s health care programs, to federal support for local hospitals’ disaster readiness, to non-military foreign aid for countries struggling with democracy (whether in West Africa or in the Middle East).

Perhaps the height of Repulican cynicism is Senator McConnell’s suggestion that Kentucky’s popular state-run Obamacare program can stay, but Obamacare itself must be removed from the face of the earth.

Introspective Democrats have to acknowledge some blame. President Obama and his surrogates have failed any number of times to make an effective public case for his programs and actions. The Affordable Care Act is certainly Exhibit A. But the problem recurs elsewhere. If it was the right thing to leave Iraq in 2010, why was it the right thing to go back in 2014? If intervention in Syria needed Congressional approval in 2013, why wasn’t Congress needed in 2014?

Much attention has been paid to the President’s aloof personality. But his intellect can also be unhelpful to his image. President Obama is very comfortable with nuance, with highly fact-specific decision-making, and this no doubt plays well in the field of constitutional law. But the American public doesn’t abide nuance well, and prefers to believe that our leaders are acting on clearly defined, essentially moral rules.

Democratic candidates felt compelled to distance themselves from President Obama. Kentucky is emblematic. Alison Lundergan Grimes famously tied herself in knots trying not to acknowledge that she had voted for President Obama. Democrats in Kentucky managed to roll out Obamacare in that state while apparently convincing Kentuckians that it is not an Obamacare program – sort of like, “keep your government hands off my Medicare.”  President Obama wasn’t invited to campaign for Democrats in Kentucky, but Bill and Hillary Clinton sure were, over and over.

So it’s not that Democrats ran from being Democrats, nor that they ran from being tied to those hated Washington establishment Democrats. What could it be? Hmmm.

Yesterday’s electorate placed economic issues at the top of its priority list, but the economy has been doing quite well the last two years. Unemployment is down to pre-recession levels, consumer confidence is at post-recession highs, national economic growth is running at very respectable rates, the best growth rates in the industrial world, and booming energy production has brought consumer gas costs to four-year lows.

When a person gives a reason for doing a thing, and that reason is demonstrably false, the person is either crazy or acting on sub-conscious reasons. When people tell electoral pollsters that their votes are motivated by the sad state of the economy while they tell economic pollsters that their confidence as consumers is higher than it has been in years, something else is going on. What could it be? Hmmm.

Opposition to President Obama stands out in American history as starting immediately and building very quickly, persisting thoughout his presidency, and brooking almost no compromise. This is no back-room intrigue – the resistance has been public, upfront, and no holds barred. The opposition has even grown since 2012, demonstrated by the President’s declining approval ratings, even though in the areas of greatest professed voter interest, jobs and the economy, the President’s performance during those two years has been strong. What could explain that? Hmmm.

I’ve observed that Americans do not readily entrust positions of power to African-Americans, whether in public or corporate life. We know this because we’ve done it so rarely.

The cultural biases that all people hold, even sub-consciously, strongly influence our perceptions and more conscious thinking. If we distrust African-Americans with executive authority, we are predisposed to perceive shortcomings and failures in an African-American’s exercise of executive authority.

The more introspective among us can recognize our unconscious biases and reason against them. But that is hard work, and few of us have the intellectual resources, including time and energy, to maintain vigilance against our own prejudices. I think there was an undue optimism eight years ago that all we had to do was elect a black president and these prejudices would wither away – in fact, there was a prominent line of thinking that our mere election of a black president showed that these prejudices had already gone. I think this optimism was founded on a gross misconception of the power that unconscious cultural prejudices have in human thinking. It can take centuries, maybe millenia, to ameliorate, let alone eliminate, biases against people of other races and religions; women still struggle for recognition and reward commensurate to their talents; gay and disabled authority figures are very few and far between.

So yes, I am saying that an important part of yesterday’s outcome has to do with President Obama being African-American. Last night was bad news for Democrats. Worse, last night shows that true racial harmony in this country remains a distant goal for those of us who hold it.



On December 6, 2013, a little old boy named Emile died of Ebola in the Guinean village of Meliandou. The two-year old’s death was the first in what has become the world’s biggest Ebola outbreak in the 40-year history of the disease. By March 31, 70 Guineans had died, including Emile’s mother, sister and grandmother. That day, the United States Centers for Disease Control dispatched a five-person team to assist Guinean containment efforts.

Through the spring and into the summer, the outbreak spread, without much public attention in the West. By mid-July, there were 1,048 known and suspected Ebola cases in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, including 632 deaths. In late July, a Liberian-American flew to Nigeria, bringing the outbreak to a fourth country. On July 31, the U.S. evacuated Peace Corps personnel from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, citing the risk of Ebola. During August, patients who contracted Ebola in West Africa brought the disease to Senegal, the United States, Spain, Germany and Britain. Two later cases brought Ebola to France and Norway.

Four American medical workers infected in West Africa were flown to the U.S. during August and September and treated at the Emory University Hospital and the Nebraska Medical Center. Three have been cured, and one remains in treatment. But on September 20, a Liberian man named Thomas Eric Duncan arrived by plane in Dallas. He developed symptoms on September 24. He went to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, was found to have a temperature of 100.1 degrees, but was sent home with antibiotics – which are, of course, ineffective against viruses. Three days later he was taken back and admitted to Texas Health Presbyterian, where he died on October 8.

Two of the nurses who cared for Mr. Duncan contracted Ebola from him. One of them flew to Cleveland and back to Dallas shortly before becoming symptomatic. Planes have been scrubbed, schools have been closed, hearings have been held, and blame has been laid. The cry has arisen, from the usual suspects, that we need to secure our borders.

Meanwhile, Mr. Duncan’s girlfriend, who lived with him for four days after he became symptomatic, and who was initially quarantined in their home, has completed the 21-day waiting period and is Ebola-free. Same with her five kids.

I obviously have no idea how close Mr. Duncan and his girlfriend were. I’m just saying, if a woman and her five kids can live with a symptomatic Ebola patient and come out of it OK, maybe the medical experts who say Ebola is not easily transmitted are right.

Outside of West Africa, the best information is that there have been 17 Ebola infections during the current outbreak. Fourteen of those were contracted in Africa, and the other three were health care workers caring for the other 14 – a nurse in Spain, who was declared cured yesterday, and the two nurses in the United States, who have been transferred from Dallas to two of the leading contagious disease treatment facilities in the world.

Outside of West Africa, at least, there has not yet been a single Ebola transmission on a train, plane, subway or cruise ship; no one has caught the bug in school or in church, or in any building other than a hospital. Sitting in crowded sports arenas, swimming in pools, walking on the streets and generally living our lives, have all so far proved to be Ebola-free experiences. The only profession that has proved at all risky is the health care profession, and only then when treating highly symptomatic Ebola patients; we can only guess whether Mr. Duncan and the two Dallas nurses might have been spared had Mr. Duncan been admitted and isolated on his first visit.

On October 17, the World Health Organization officially declared Senegal to be Ebola-free, followed today by Nigeria. Nigeria had 20 cases, including eight fatalities; Senegal had one, fatal, infection.

Mr. Duncan was isolated 22 days ago, so it is all but certain that he transmitted the Ebola virus to no one outside the hospital, including the homeless man who shared Mr. Duncan’s ambulance ride on September 28. Mr. Duncan died 12 days ago, so it is becoming increasingly unlikely that he transmitted the disease to anyone in the hospital other than the two nurses – both of whom were isolated upon showing early symptoms. The nurse who took the Cleveland trip was asymptomatic when she flew back to Dallas, developing a fever the next day; she was then isolated within 90 minutes.

Worldwide, nearly 10,000 people have been infected with Ebola, and almost 5,000 have died. The U.S. has had eight of those cases, and one death that may well be attributable to a single admitting mistake at a Dallas hospital.

The CDC should by all means review and improve its biohazard protocols. The Food and Drug Administration should fast-track testing and approval of potential vaccines and drug therapies. Deployment of military and medical personnel to West Africa should be maintained, or even stepped up. All that should happen.

At least as important, we need to revisit the 40 percent budget cuts that Congress has taken from federal programs for bio-disaster hospital readiness since 2010 – 50 percent since 2003. While we’re at it, Congress might want to look into restoring recent cuts to foreign medical aid programs, including the sequester cuts to the United States Agency for International Development.

What we don’t need is elected officials calling for Dr. Thomas Frieden’s job as head of director of the CDC. We don’t need to ban air travel from whole countries. We don’t need to close schools in a city that was visited by someone who developed Ebola symptoms after she left. In all likelihood, in a few weeks our Ebola patients will have gotten well and no one else will have contracted the disease in this country. We’ll move on to the next crisis. In the meantime, we need to keep just calm enough to maintain a sense of proportion.

“Traditional” Marriage Was Already Gone

Just one day after the Supreme Court effectively overturned same-sex marriage bans in five states, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and Nevada. It’s a fun decision to read, so you should.

My favorite part of the decision is section IV, where the court addresses additional “miscellaneous” arguments advanced in support of state bans on same-sex marriage. Specifically, marriage equality opponents argued that exclusion of same-sex couples from legal marriage is necessary to preserve “traditional marriage.” In response, the court made an important point I haven’t seen elsewhere.

The court pointed out that in a “traditional” marriage, women were not allowed to “own property, enter into contracts, retain wages, make decisions about children, or pursue rape allegations against their husbands.” If a woman married a foreigner, she lost her American citizenship.

Marriage in Idaho and Nevada today bears “little resemblance” to marriage as it existed a hundred years ago. Consequently, the court observed, excluding same-sex couples from marriage doesn’t so much preserve “traditional marriage” as it preserves the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage.

Excellent point. Twenty-seven states down, 23 to go.




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