Blow, Nocera and Collins

In “Blind to the Past — and Future” Mr. Blow says Republicans snub some potential allies.  Mr. Nocera has a question:  “Is Force-Feeding Torture?”  He says President Obama could put an end to the practice in Guantánamo Bay with a phone call. Why won’t he?  Excellent question, Mr. Nocera.  Ms. Collins, in “The Politics of Free Food,” says Virginia is for lovers of no-cost catering. Just look at the news from its very interesting off-year election.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

As a new effort at comprehensive immigration reform inches its way forward in the Senate, dissent from many conservatives is revealing their true contempt for, and fear of, the possibility that demographic groups who look different from their base will accrue power.

The questions are: Is providing a pathway to citizenship (or at least permanent residency) for the 11 million people in this country illegally an act of humanity and practicality? Or is it an electoral imperative to which opposition ultimately guarantees political suicide?

The answer probably is “yes” to both, although many Republicans seem to think the opposite.

President George W. Bush, a supporter of a pathway to citizenship, spoke to The Huffington Post about the current efforts for comprehensive immigration reform, saying, “I think the atmosphere, unlike when I tried it, is better, maybe for the wrong reason.”

Bush continued: “The right reason is it’s important to reform a broken system. I’m not sure a right reason is that in so doing we win votes. I mean when you do the right thing, I think you win votes, as opposed to doing something that’s the right thing to win votes. Maybe there’s no difference there. It seems like there is to me though.”

But that distinction — humanitarianism over opportunism — is as lost on as many of Bush’s fellow Republicans today as when he was in office. They don’t even accept the logic of long-term electoral viability over extinction.

The most outlandish example of conservative rhetoric in its truly offensive glory on this subject came in an interview last week with Phyllis Schlafly, a prominent conservative activist, on the news site PolicyMic. In it she said:

“I don’t see any evidence that Hispanics resonate with Republican values. They have no experience or knowledge of the whole idea of limited government and keeping government out of our private lives. They come from a country where the government has to decide everything. I don’t know where you get the idea that the Mexicans coming in resonate with Republican values. They’re running an illegitimacy rate that is extremely high. I think it’s the highest of any ethnic group. We welcome people who want to be Americans. And then you hear many of them talk about wanting Mexico to reclaim several of our Southwestern states, because they think Mexico should really own some of those states. Well, that’s unacceptable. We don’t want people like that.”

There are so many stereotypes and fallacies in that statement that it’s not even worth unpacking, but it is a great illustration of some deep-rooted conservative views.

The one thing I will take the time to contest is the notion that even if Republicans changed their rhetoric and tactics, they wouldn’t gain traction with Hispanics (not all of whom are Mexican, by the way, Ms. Schlafly).

According to exit poll data, from the early 1980s to the early 2000s, Republicans made significant headway in closing the gap between the number of Hispanics who voted for Democratic candidates to the House of Representatives and those who voted for Republicans, shrinking a 50-point Democratic advantage in 1982 to just 12 points in 2004.

But then came Bush’s attempt at comprehensive immigration reform and the enormous pushback it got from Congressional Republicans. Just before Christmas in 2005, the Republican-led House passed an enforcement-only immigration bill that sparked huge protests.

In the 2006 elections, the Democratic advantage among Hispanic voters for House races shot back up to 48 points. That year, Democrats recaptured the House and the Senate, and took control of a majority of governorships.

Republicans, seemingly ignorant of the lessons of history and impervious to the wisdom of experience, are hellbent on revisiting 2005. While the Democratic advantage among Hispanics in presidential races is large and growing, the Democratic advantage in House elections has slowly begun to shrink again. And Hispanics, seemingly excited by the movement on immigration reform and optimistic about its prospects, have developed sharply more favorable opinions of Congress. A full 56 percent of Hispanics hold Congress in high esteem, up from 35 percent in November 2011, according to an ABC News/Washington Post Poll.

So what do some Republican lawmakers want to do to the only segment of the population in which a majority now has a favorable opinion of Congress? Spurn them and dash their hopes.

Brilliant, if you want to cement Democratic preference among Hispanics in perpetuity.

Next up is Mr. Nocera:

Nearly four months into a hunger strike that has now spread to some two-thirds of the detainees at the prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the question in this headline can no longer be avoided.

Fundamentally, hunger strikes are a form of speech for prisoners who have no other way to communicate their concerns. Hunger strikes give them the means to protest their confinement and to send a message about that confinement. During the “troubles” in Ireland, for instance, Irish Republican Army prisoners went on hunger strikes to protest their detention by the British — and some ended up being force-fed.

For decades, the international community, including the International Red Cross, the World Medical Association and the United Nations, have recognized the right of prisoners of sound mind to go on a hunger strike. Force-feeding has been labeled a violation on the ban of cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The World Medical Association holds that it is unethical for a doctor to participate in force-feeding. Put simply, force-feeding violates international law.

Whatever triggered the hunger strike at Guantánamo — the detainees say that the military had begun searching their Korans and instituted a series of harsh new measures, which the military denies — the underlying issue is that the detainees are in despair of ever getting out. Many of them, including 56 men from Yemen, have been cleared to leave the prison by a committee of top national security officials. But thanks to a combination of Congressional actions taken during the past few years, and the timidity of President Obama, they remain in Guantánamo with no end in sight. The hunger strike has been their way of reminding the world of their continued imprisonment, and it has worked brilliantly. One wonders whether President Obama would have even mentioned Guantánamo in his big national security speech last week if not for the hunger strikers.

The military claims that it is force-feeding the detainees in order to keep them safe and alive. According to The Miami Herald, about one-third of the detainees on strike — at least 35 men, though possibly more — are being force-fed. A handful are in the hospital.

But not long ago, Al Jazeera got ahold of a 30-page document that detailed the standard operating procedures used by the military to force-feed a detainee. The document makes for gruesome reading: the detainee shackled to a special chair (which looks like the electric chair); the head restraints if he resists; the tube pushed painfully down his nose; the half-hour or so of ingestion of nutritional supplements; the transfer of the detainee to a “dry cell,” where, if he vomits, he is strapped back into the chair until the food is digested.

Detainees are also apparently given an anti-nausea drug called Reglan, which has a horrible potential side effect if given for more than three months: a disease called tardive dyskinesia, which causes twitching and other uncontrollable movements. “This drug is very scary,” said Cori Crider, the legal director of Reprieve, a London-based group that represents more than a dozen detainees. “My fear is that it is being administered without their consent,” she added. Although the military refuses to discuss the use of Reglan — or any aspect of force-feeding — that’s a pretty safe bet.

The lawyers representing the detainees would like to file a motion in federal court to stop the force-feeding, but there is a Catch-22. They can’t go to court without the consent of their clients — and thanks to another set of harsh, new protocols, including the genital and anal searches I wrote about last week, most clients are now refusing to talk to their lawyers.

Even before the force-feeding procedures were leaked, international organizations were protesting the practice. The United Nations Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement in early May calling the continued detention in Guantánamo a “flagrant violation of international human rights law” and categorizing the force-feeding at the prison as “cruel, inhuman and degrading.” Dr. Steven Miles, a professor of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota, who has done a great deal of research into the practice of force-feeding, said: “The persistence of the military’s force-feeding policy in the face of international law, and the manner in which it is done, constitutes torture.”

Here is the most infuriating part. President Obama is on record as saying that America should never practice torture. He has also, of course, called for Guantánamo to be closed down.

Without question, any effort he might make to shut down the prison would be met with resistance in Congress; it’s already begun. But the practice of force-feeding detainees, which virtually every international body condemns as a violation of international law — and which they decry as cruel and inhuman? He could stop that in a heartbeat, with one call to the Pentagon.

After all, he is the commander in chief.

Isn’t he?

Last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

Today, let’s talk about Virginia, host of the nation’s most interesting off-year election. True, the New York mayor’s race has been pretty frisky since we acquired Anthony Weiner as a candidate, but I’m still going with Virginia.

The governor’s race there has a dandy ethics controversy that began with charges that a businessman with a rather dicey background gave Gov. Bob McDonnell $15,000 to pay for the catering at his daughter’s wedding. Actually, this would have been perfectly legal if McDonnell had just disclosed it. Under Virginia’s ethics laws, the governor can accept anything — house, car, private jet, former Soviet republic — as long as he puts it in the proper form.

He also might have been able to get off the hook when the transaction was discovered, just by saying he forgot to mention it. (Virginia’s rules are more flexible than a Slinky.) But McDonnell claimed total innocence, arguing that the $15,000 was a wedding gift to his daughter and, therefore, didn’t count.

“It’s caused a fair amount of pain for me personally,” he said. “I’m a governor, but I’m a dad, and I love my daughter very much.”

What, exactly, do you think that means? That McDonnell feels bad about shoveling the blame onto his offspring? That he could not have afforded to give her all the jumbo shrimp she deserved without financial assistance?

Looks like an investigation for Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli! Except — whoops — it turned out that Cuccinelli had also taken gifts from the same businessman, some of which he, too, had failed to report. Like several stays in a vacation home, one of which involved a catered Thanksgiving dinner. Have you noticed a theme here?

McDonnell’s term is up and Cuccinelli is running to replace him. Perhaps unreported freebies will be a big campaign issue. Although in a more perfect world, voters might focus on the attorney general’s two-year investigation of a University of Virginia scientist for the crime of believing in global warming.

But, still, the catered affairs are pretty interesting. When politicians take freebies, it is, alas, generally more compelling than conflicts involving campaign finance. Governor McDonnell had previously taken more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from the same benefactor, the dietary supplement maker Jonnie Williams. But somehow that seemed to pale beside those shrimp.

“There’s a personal relationship attached to gifts and perks,” said Peggy Kerns, the director of the National Conference of State Legislatures Center for Ethics in Government. A former Colorado lawmaker herself, Kerns offered a vision of resentful voters, sitting shivering at the end zone of a Broncos game, while comfy officials enjoyed the buffet in a corporate sponsor’s luxury box.

Campaign contributions do way, way more to corrupt the political process than gifts to politicians. Unfortunately, it’s harder to make the emotional connection to a wayward PAC. This is why so many public officials get into trouble for accepting free home repairs. Everybody wants a kitchen with granite countertops. But few of us yearn to purchase our own negative ad campaign.

Do you remember John Rowland, the governor of Connecticut who got sent to the clink for corruption? A ton of corruption, including an aide who took a bribe in the form of gold coins that he then buried in the backyard. But the thing that stuck in everybody’s mind was the free $3,600 hot tub.

This week, Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner, celebrated his release from prison after serving three years for eight felony charges, from tax fraud to lying to White House officials. But we will all remember his fall from grace in terms of $250,000 in apartment renovations. (Kerik was welcomed home with a shrimp scampi dinner provided by a star of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey.” It was probably a gift, but we don’t care anymore.)

Virginia believes that as long as officials report what they take, the system will work honorably. But there’s not even a mechanism to assure those reports are accurate. There isn’t a huge record of political corruption, but, as John McGlennon, a professor of government at William and Mary pointed out, “our laws are so loose, it’s hard to run afoul of them.” The home of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson regards itself as someplace special. But the rules on campaign contributions are pretty much the same as in Texas.

“Virginians probably would not want to hear you say that,” said McGlennon.

Some states have already figured out an answer to the gift question, which is to prohibit officials from accepting even a free cup of coffee from lobbyists or people who do business with the government. This appears likely to happen in Virginia several months after hell freezes over. And that’s actually the easier issue. The big problem is campaign contributions, which have become so huge and complicated that it’s hard for despairing voters to get their heads around them.

If we could only figure out a way to require that they all are made in the form of shrimp.


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