Weekly Roundup 5/30/2012

Stephen Metcalf, Slate, May 25, 2012

Synopsis: This appreciation of cultural historian Paul Fussell, whose 1975 book, The Great War and Modern Memory, describes in intricate detail how the irony-soaked culture of the 20th century emerged from the battlefields of World War I.  “The Great War chronicles the loss of the old rhetoric, of high pieties, of sacrifice and roseate dawns, in favor of ‘blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax,’” Metcalf writes.

Takeaway: Fussell died last week at age 88. The Great War and Modern Memory, his masterpiece, is well worth a read, not only for its compelling thesis but for the wealth of evidence he assembles on the way to his conclusions.

For background see “Stopping Genocide,” Aug. 27, 2004, “The United Nations and Global Security,” Feb. 27, 2004, and “Ethics of War,” Dec. 13, 2002.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer

Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times, May 28, 2012
Synopsis: Zoos are being urged to focus more on conservation of species facing extinction than merely on entertainment and education, according to Times’ science correspondent Kaufman. In the process, she writes, zoos must sometimes make the hard choice to “winnow species in their care and devote more resources to the chosen few.” The St. Louis zoo, for example, is working on a breeding program for the black-and-white tufted lemur, but giving up on the more perilously threatened lion-tailed macaque.
Takeaway: “Some days,” Kaufman says, “the burden feels less like Noah building an ark and more like Schindler making a list.”
For CQ Researcher coverage, see “Disappearing Species,” Nov. 30, 2007, and “Zoos in the 21st Century,” April 28, 2000.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor 


Alissa J. Rubin and Matthew Rosenberg, The New York Times, May 27, 2012, p. A1

Synopsis:  Over the past decade, the United States has spent more than $6 billion in efforts to eradicate the opium poppies that help finance the anti-government insurgency and fuel corruption.

Takeaway:  Despite the ongoing anti-opium efforts, which are seen as vital to creating stability in Afghanistan, U.S. officials are doubtful they will have much success before the end of the NATO military mission there ends in 2014.

For background see “Afghanistan Dilemma,” Aug. 7, 2009 (updated May 5, 2011).

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

Eurovision – Dark shadows Over Azerbaijan’s Big Moment

The April 17, 2012, CQ Global Researcher,  “Future of the EU,” included  a feature about how politics and music often collide during the annual Eurovision Song Contest, in which European countries nominate a song to represent them in the grand finale competition held each May. This year is no different. Politics has threatened to drown out the music altogether, much to the consternation of last year’s winners and this year’s host, Azerbaijan. The central Asian country had hoped the contest would portray it in a positive light. Instead, a bizarre, unholy alliance by those on both the right and left is heaping embarrassment on the organizers and the host.

First, neighboring Armenia boycotted the contest because of a dispute over Nagorno Karabakh, the ethnic Armenian separatist enclave in Azerbaijan. Then, international human-rights groups began protesting the Azeri government’s record of suppressing free speech and repressing political opposition. Then, ultra-nationalistic, homophobic groups inside Azerbaijan launched cyber-attacks that crashed Eurovision’s websites. The groups claim the glitzy, campy pop music contest is a glorified “gay pride” parade that will sully the nation’s reputation. Then, neighboring Iran withdrew its ambassador, in part because of the gay pride claim and partly because its arch-foe, Israel, competes in the event.

Hopefully, tomorrow’s performances will be spellbinding enough to eclipse the negative spotlight generated by those exploiting Eurovision for their own political purposes.

--Brian Beary, Contributing Writer, CQ Global Researcher

Weekly Roundup 5/21/2012

Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, The Washington Post, May 17, 2012 (print edition: May 20)
Synopsis: Veteran politics experts Mann (Brookings Institution) and Ornstein (American Enterprise Institute) have stirred debate with the thesis of their forthcoming book “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.” In this Sunday opinion-section piece, they discount five supposed remedies offered by others: a third party, term limits, a balanced budget amendment, public campaign financing and “stay calm—things will get back to normal eventually.” But they say four possible steps could help: “realistic” campaign finance reform; reducing partisan redistricting; curbing Senate filibusters; and expanding the electorate.

Takeaway: The recommended steps amount to a “sensible” reform agenda “focused on fixing the party system and addressing the roots and the weapons of political partisanship.”
For CQ Researcher coverage, see Peter Katel, “Voter Rights,” May 18, 2012;   Kenneth Jost, “Redistricting Debates,” Feb. 25, 2011; Marcia Clemmitt, “Lies and Politics,” Feb. 18, 2011; Kenneth Jost, “Campaign Finance Debates,” May 28, 2010; Peter Katel, “Tea Party Movement,” March 19, 2010, updated May 23, 2011; and Alan Greenblatt, “Changing U.S. Electorate,” May 30, 2008, updated Aug. 9, 2010.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor

Phil Angelides, Huffington Post, May 21, 2012
Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone Taibbi Blog, May 15, 2012

Synopsis: Evidence keeps emerging that shows big banks engaged -- and continue to engage – in much riskier business than they acknowledge, according to longtime finance-industry critic Taibbi and Angelides, former chair of the government’s Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

Takeaway: “All of the five behemoth banks rely on sophisticated financial models to gauge their trading risk,” writes Angelides. “However, time and time again, these models have proven to be woefully inadequate in modeling human behavior, recognizing that the marketplace often defies neat statistical patterns, and predicting the black swan events that inevitably shake the financial markets. When Paul Volcker spoke to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission of ‘the hubris of financial engineers,’ he undoubtedly had in the mind these models, which bankers construct to rationalize the risky behavior that led to the financial crisis and that evidently persists today.”

For background and related material, see, Kenneth Jost, “Financial Misconduct,” Jan. 20, 2012; Marcia Clemmitt, “Financial Industry Overhaul,” July 30, 2010; and Thomas J. Billitteri, Financial Bailout, Oct. 24, 2008, updated July 30, 2010.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer

This Week’s Report: “Voter Rights”

With this year’s presidential election fast approaching, a bitter partisan fight has arisen over whether voters should have to show a government-issued identification document before casting ballots.

As veteran journalist Peter Katel writes in this week’s report, conservative lawmakers believe strict voter-ID laws are needed to inhibit voter fraud and instill confidence in the electoral system. Liberals, argue, however, that there is little evidence of significant fraud at the polls. They charge that new ID laws are aimed at suppressing turnout by Democratic-leaning voters, including minorities, students and the elderly.

Katel’s compelling report is particularly timely and highly relevant for classes and papers in political science, civics and civil rights.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 5/14/2012

Eli Saslow, The Washington Post, May 12, 2012 (print edition: May 13)

Synopsis: Linda and Gloria Bailey-Davies have been together for 49 years and married for eight, thanks to the ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in a lawsuit that they helped bring. “This is what President Obama has decided he is for,” the Post reporter writes after watching the couple’s marriage video. “This is what North Carolina has decided it’s against.”

Takeaway: Editorial opinion on the issue remains divided. After Obama’s announcement, The New York Times said the president “took the moral high ground on what may be the great civil rights struggle of our time.” But The Washington Times said Obama’s stance was based on “political expediency” even though it will ultimately hurt his re-election effort.

For CQ Researcher coverage, see “Obama Backs Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage,” CQ Researcher Blog, May 9, 2012, and my earlier report Gay Marriage Showdowns, Sept. 26, 2008, updated Oct. 15, 2010; new update forthcoming soon.

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor

James Dao, The New York Times, May 11, 2012
Molly O’Toole, Huffington Post, May 14, 2012

Synopsis: More military roles have recently opened up to women, but with most front-line combat jobs still male only, many male service members remain skeptical of servicewomen’s ability to lead.

Takeaway:  “When Command Sgt. Maj. Teresa L. King was named the first female commandant of the Army’s elite drill-sergeant school in 2009, proponents of gender equality in the military hailed the news. But it did not take long for the grumbling to start. Traditionalists asked: How could a woman with no combat experience manage the Army’s school for training the trainers who prepare recruits for war?”

For background on this issue see our report, “Women in the Military,” Nov. 13, 2009.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?
Jennifer Kahn, Huffington Post, May 14, 2012

Synopsis: Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University, studies “callous-unemotional” children — those who exhibit a distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy — and who are considered at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults
Takeaway: Waschbusch’s hope is that spotting potentially psychopathic children early will give doctors and parents  a chance to teach them empathy and other normal emotions before it’s too late.

For background on the issue, see our reports, “Youth Violence,” March 5, 2010;  “Sex Offenders,” Sept. 8, 2006.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

Obama Backs Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage

By Kenneth Jost
Supreme Court editor, CQ Press
Associate editor, CQ Researcher

President Obama today declared his support for legal marriage for same-sex couples.

Obama’s shift in position came in a hastily arranged interview with ABC News after the White House had come under intense pressure to clarify his position after Vice President Joe Biden’s statement on Sunday that he was “comfortable” with same-sex couples marrying.

“I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” Obama told ABC News’ Robin Roberts in the interview, recorded early Wednesday afternoon.

Excerpts from the interview were released by 3 o’clock, and accounts immediately dominated TV newscasts and went viral in the blogosphere. The interview came just one day after North Carolina voters approved by a 3-2 margin an amendment to the state’s constitution barring recognition of same-sex marriages. North Carolina became the 31st state to include such a ban in its state charter.

The National Organization for Marriage, which opposes recognition for same-sex couples, had no immediate reaction on its website to Obama’s change of position. The anti-gay Family Research Council called Obama’s statement “disappointing but not surprising” in the light of the administration’s positions on other gay rights issues. Tony Perkins, the group’s president, said Obama’s position “ensures that marriage will again be a major issue in the presidential election.”

In favoring legalization of same-sex marriages, Obama returns to the position he took on an issue questionnaire as a candidate for the Illinois state senate in 1996. As a U.S. senator and candidate for president in 2008, however, Obama shifted to opposing marriage for same-sex couples. In the White House, he has said -- and his spokesmen have repeated -- that his position was “evolving.”

News of Obama’s new position cheered gay rights advocates. Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, called the statement “a historic turning point for the freedom to marry movement.” The Human Rights Campaign, a leading LGBT advocacy group, said the statement amounted to “a message of hope to a generation of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.”

Obama had already pleased gay rights groups by successfully urging Congress to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military and by dropping in-court defense of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which bars federal benefits for same-sex couples. But his hesitancy on same-sex marriage was wearing thin among gay rights advocates and some leading Democratic figures.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is one of many prominent Democrats who had called for including a pro-gay marriage plank in the party platform at the Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C., at the end of the summer. On Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan became the second cabinet member to endorse recognition of same-sex marriages. Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan had taken that position in a November interview with Metro Weekly, a Washington, D.C., gay newspaper.

In the interview, Obama said he had been influenced by conversations with “friends and family and neighbors” as well as “members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.” He also said he thought about “those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage.”

Several recent polls have shown that a narrow majority of Americans favor recognition for same-sex marriage, with younger respondents favoring it by a substantial margin. In the interview, Obama said differences on the issue are “generational.”

“You know when I go to college campuses, sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know, believe in equality. They are much more comfortable with it,” he said.

Obama also noted that his two school-age daughters, Malia and Sasha, have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. “It wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently,” Obama said. “It doesn’t make sense to them and, frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.”

Obama’s position now puts him on the opposite side of the question as his presumptive Republican opponent, Mitt Romney. Romney has said he opposes recognizing same-sex marriages and favors a federal constitutional amendment to prohibit it. Currently, six states plus the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriages: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. Thirteen other states provide some marriage-like rights to registered same-sex domestic partnerships.

Legislatures in two other states, Washington and Maryland, approved laws to recognize same-sex marriages earlier this year, but both measures are on hold pending possible referendums in November to block them from taking effect. Besides those potential ballot measures, Maine may also vote in November on a referendum to recognize gay marriages, while Minnesota has a scheduled vote on a constitutional amendment to prohibit recognizing same-sex couples.

For background, see Kenneth Jost, “Gay Marriage Showdowns,” CQ Researcher, Sept. 26, 2008, updated Oct. 15, 2010.

Weekly Roundup 5/7/2012

Michael Cooper, The New York Times, May 5, 2012 (May 6 print edition)
Synopsis: With the presidential election six months away, Times’ national correspondent Michael Cooper handicaps President Obama with 215 electoral votes from solid or leaning Democratic states, Mitt Romney with 206 from solid or leaning Republican states and nine states with 115 electoral votes up for grabs. All nine went for Obama in 2008; all have seen Republican gains since then, and all have signs of economic rebound.
Takeaway: In closing Cooper quotes a Princeton political scientist: “It looks to me,” says Christopher Achen, “that it’s on the cusp right now.”

For CQ Researcher coverage, see Bob Benenson, “Presidential Election” (Feb. 3, 2012).

--Kenneth Jost, Associate Editor


David Kushner, The New Yorker, May 7, 2012

Synopsis: In 2007, 17-year-old George Hotz wanted an iPhone, but he also wanted to make calls using his existing network, so he decided to hack the phone. Now 22, he embodies the ethos of old-school computer hackers: Use your technical skills, persistence and curiosity to bend existing technology to new purposes. That’s an idea that the technology industry is still figuring out how to respond to.

Takeaway: “Hotz defines a hacker as ‘somebody with a set of skills,’ and points out that the skills alone don’t make you good or evil. It’s up to you to decide how to use them.”

For more, see our Sept. 16, 2011, report, Computer Hacking.

--Marcia Clemmitt, Staff Writer


Hannah Seligson, The New York Times, May 5, 2012

Synopsis: Joblessness among the young is at a crisis level: Unemployment among workers under age 25 was 16.4 percent versus 8.1 percent overall. But unlike many groups in the United States, younger, jobless Americans didn’t have advocacy organizations behind them. Think AARP for older Americans.

Takeaway:  Help is on the way. Two new movements have arisen to fight for the young and jobless: Campaign for Young America and Fix Young America. Both have gotten the attention of lawmakers and are laying out policy recommendations, including college loan forgiveness.

For CQ Researcher coverage see: “Student Debt,” Oct. 21, 2011.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor

This Week’s Report: “Distracted Driving”

More than 5,000 people die each year in vehicle crashes caused by distracted driving, many the result of texting and talking on cellphones behind the wheel. And, as writer David Hosansky explains in this week’s Researcher, “teen drivers appear to be especially susceptible to distraction.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that 16 percent of all drivers younger than 20 involved in fatal crashes were believed to be distracted – “the highest proportion of any age group,” Hosansky writes.

Texting while driving is particularly perilous. A 2009 study focusing on drivers of larger vehicles and trucks concluded that texting raised the risk of a crash by 23 times compared with non-distracted driving, Hosansky reports. “Shockingly, texting drivers took their eyes off the road for each text an average of 4.6 seconds – which at 55 mph, means they were driving the length of a football field without looking.”

This compelling report has many uses: for classes and papers on public health, governance and public policy, psychology, technology, traffic safety and more -- and as a sobering reminder of the perils of distracted driving.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor