Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Gays still face blatant bias

It is both stunning and enraging that the last two Democratic presidents have promised great changes but delivered the same centrist pablum on many important issues. The villains: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Obama, like Clinton, promised while campaigning to abolish the ignominious anti-gay military policy of don’t ask-don’t tell. In office Clinton and Obama reneged. Now Obama defends indefensible bigotry and discrimination.

He calls the policy “rationally related to the government’s legitimate interest in military discipline and cohesion.” He buys the military argument that gays undermine morale and esprit de corps.

Under the anti-gay policy the Pentagon has discharged 12,000 soldiers. About 800 of those let go were especially valuable as specialists in Arabic.

The policy wastes talent. It also wastes money training people to be fired.

The Supreme Court is also obtuse, refusing to review a case of discrimination against Army Capt. Jim Pietrangelo. Pietrangelo, fired under the policy, served six years in the Army and fought in Iraq.

“This decision is an absolute travesty of justice,” Pietrangelo pointed out. “The justices should be ashamed of themselves. It is nothing short of rubber-stamping legalized discrimination.”

If the military is so worried about sexuality it should focus on the shocking number of rapes women soldiers suffer from men soldiers.

Boobus Americanus

We hear much blather from politicians about the “wisdom” of the people. The truth is otherwise. The people are so often wooden-headed.

Case in point: the voters of California enacted an absurd law that someone goes to jail for life after committing a third felony, even if that “third strike” is as harmless as stealing a few videos. Murderers, on the other hand, are often paroled after 10 to 15 years in jail.

Or take gay marriage. The people of California voted it down. The votes was un-Christian, opposing love and happiness.

The California Supreme Court, after first ruling that gay marriage was constitutional, reversed itself. It ruled 6-1 to sustain the “wisdom” of the people.

Judge Carlos Moreno had it right in dissent. He wrote that the majority “places at risk the state constitutional rights of all disfavored minorities. It weakens our state Constitution as a bulwark of fundamental rights for minorities protected from the will of the majority.”

There you have it: that dread tyranny of the majority. In a democracy the people rule. The people, however, are often asses.

As Moreno noted in his dissent: Proposition 8 requiring “discrimination against a minority group…strikes at the core of the promise of equality” in the state Constitution.

Or look at referendums in Colorado and Maine where the voters approved anti-gay and lesbian laws.

Nevertheless, the worldwide trend is to approve gay marriage. Norway is the most recent nation to become enlightened on the issue. But tradition-bound America, arguing against a fundamental right, might take 50 years to come to its senses.

A recent poll by the New York Times and CBS shows just 42 percent of Americans approving same-sex marriage. But it is never a question of what polls show. The point is what is right. Gay marriage is right.

Katha Pollitt in a Nation article wrote: “All this fussing about stabilty and children are smokescreens for deep emotional, irrational aversion to homosexuality.” She is so right.

Julian Bond, distinguished battler for black rights for decades, was angered by the California vote. He wrote:
“The state that proudly declares ‘the future starts here’ took a backward step while reinforcing the truism that minority rights should never be subject to a popular right…What is at issue is the arbitrary denial of a civil right to some people.”

Obama turncoatism

On this issue too Obama is crushingly disappointing. He strongly favored gay marriage while campaigning. Yet now his administration files a brief in support of the Defense of Marriage Act. The brief falls back on the hoary argument that hetrosexual marriage is the “traditional and universally recognized form of marriage.”

Gays are understandably outraged at Obama turncoatism. As Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, puts it: “I cannot overstate the pain that we feel as human beings…when we read an argument…implying that our own marriages have no more constitutional standing than incestuous ones.”

Obama threw a tiny bone to gays, extending benefits to same-sex partners in federal jobs. But: he left out the more important health and retirement benefits. Obama, the Man of Hope, is as retrograde on gayism as G.W. Bush.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lotteries, torture and partisan press

States once thought it sinful to gamble even in such innocuous ways as playing the numbers. But they overcame such scruples when they realized that gambling was a painless way to fill state coffers.

Here in the Silver State many Nevadans who crave the numbers game have to cross the California border to satisfy their urges. Lotteries are forbidden in Nevada. The casino lobby won’t allow them.

Oh, we hear in the Legislature that lotteries are regressive, preying on the poor. Or, opponents argue that owners of small gambling halls would face ruinous competition. Or, we hear wails that lotteries would have an unfair advantage over casinos because they can operate with fewer employees.

But those are all smokescreens. The truth is that not one Nevada lawmaker has the guts to take on Big Gambling. It, like mining, corporations and businesses, get away with tax murder. They are the third rail of Nevada politics: untouchable.

Torture-loving judge
Don Gladstone was the last “hanging judge” in Nevada, disgracing the Sparks Municipal Court until ousted by voters in 1995.

Today another judge with roots in Nevada disgraces the judiciary: Judge Jay Bybee of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. (The 9th, with headquarters in San Francisco, hears appeals of federal cases originating in Nevada.)

Unfortunately, voters cannot remove Bybee. He has a lifetime appointment. He can be impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate but that is quite unlikely.

Bybee, chief White House legal counsel in 2002, signed memoranda approving waterboarding, sleep deprivation, wall-slamming and box-confinement amid bugs.

Steve Sebelius, editor of CityLife in Las Vegas, rightly castigates Bybee for abandoning the rule of law, disregarding international treaties and disavowing his own humanity.

Bybee’s memo said: “Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious personal injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily functions or even death.”

Hardly a glowing recommendation for the Boyd law school in Las Vegas where Bybee taught before consorting with the Bush criminals.

Partisan media
We have a partisan media in America today. The shouters and ranters of the hard-right flood the airways with their bilge, drowning out the softer and saner voices of liberalism.

But a partisan press is hardly a new thing in America. Almost from the beginning of the republic political discourse was full of lies, hyperbole and absurdities. The Partisan Press era was woefully irresponsible.

The Jeffersonian republican press (pro-French and antimonarchial) declared that the honorable George Washington had debauched the nation, that he was evil, a great deceiver, the source of all the nation’s woes.

When Jefferson ran for president in 1800 the anti-republican Federalists said he would close all the churches, burn all the Bibles, abolish marriage, toss women into brothels and encourage murder, rape, adultery and incest.

Obviously gross falsities. Yet we find similar absurdities being mouthed today by right-wing madmen. They denounce President Obama as a socialist, a communist who will fly the hammer and sickle over the White House.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Yahoo from Kentucky, calls Obama “a threat to this country.” And the Rabid Right declares that Obama should rename the Democratic Party the “Democrat Socialist Party.”(Note the sneer. The proper adjective is Democratic.)

Great ignorant hope
The Republican Party has been reduced to irrelevancy. Sarah Palin, the Great Ignorant Hope from Alaska, flamed out. Now the GOP mantle has fallen on Rush Limbaugh. God save the mark!

Limbaugh enthralls right-wingers with his medieval mind, shouting hoary shibboleths. Even Michael Steele, reactionary chairman of the GOP national committee, calls Limbaugh’s broadcasts incendiary and ugly.

Still, torturemeister Dick Cheney embraces Limbaugh and repudiates Colin Powell, the one class guy in the Bush administration.

Cheney, like the rest of the GOP, opposes everything good for Americans like universal national health and card-signing unionism. He favors everything bad for Americans like deregulation and tax cuts for the rich.

Editor Sebelius rightly deplores the GOP hatred of unions: “Republicans hate anything that puts power in the hands of individuals over the corporation, the poor over the wealthy.”

Lapsed Unitarian

After Phil Altick, University of Nevada, Reno, physics professor, died several months ago, Professor Frank Tobin of the foreign language department, remarked at the memorial service that Altick was a lapsed Unitarian.

Funny line. But the best thing Altick said was expressed after he came back from a semester teaching abroad. He was asked what he thought about teaching in London.

“They know more than we do,” Altick replied.

“About physics?”

“No, about everything.”

Sotomayor’s ‘crime’: mild liberalism

Benighted Republican senators, angry because President Obama did not pick a Genghis Khan or an Attila the Hun for the Supreme Court, have trained their ire on poor Judge Sonia Sotomayor.

Her crime? A smattering of liberalism in her decisions on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Never mind that the Supreme Court is already packed with reactionaries, constantly voting 5-4, 5-4, 5-4, to strike down anything decent and humane and to uphold anything indecent and inhumane.

Jeffrey Toobin, in a recent New Yorker article, limned the Five Horsemen of Reaction led by Chief Justice Roberts. It sides “with the prosecution over the defendant, the state over the condemned, the executive branch over the legislature and the corporate defendant over the individual plaintiff.” It defers “to the existing power relationships in society.”

Justice Souter nailed Roberts when dissenting from an opinion the chief justice wrote. Souter said Roberts’ opinion reminded him of Anatole France’s observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.”

Obama as an Illinois senator voted against confirmation of Roberts, correctly declaring that Roberts uses “his formidible skills on behalf of the strong in opposition to the weak.”

“I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook,” Obama said. “It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives.”

Which is where Judge Sotomayor is perfect. She understands the struggles of so many Americans. Roberts in his ivory tower and smug comfort will never understand that reality.

Sotomayor was born in the Bronx, New York, to Puerto Rican parents. She was brought up in a housing project, providing the empathy that Obama seeks.

However, her understanding of the Little People gets her into trouble with GOP troglodytes. In a 2001 speech, Sotomayor said: “a wise Latina with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

She is being reviled as racist for speaking the truth. Roberts, in contrast, epitomizes nearly all lawyers and judges: howling conservatives.

Supreme Court history is full of reactionary decisions favoring business and property against the needs of people and the humanism of civilized nations. It has so often blinked at reality and found its retrograde politics in the Constitution.

Just a few examples among so many: 1) Dred Scott [1857] held that slaves were property, inferior beings and “had no rights the white man was bound to respect.” 2) In Adkins [1923] the court struck down a Washington, D.C., minimum wage.

3) In Coppage v. Kansas [1915] the court called yellow-dog contracts--forced vows not to join a union--constitutional. The court gleefully noted that “some people have more property than others,” “the right of private property” was paramount and that “inequalities of fortune” are just.

4) In Hammer v. Dagenhart [1918] the court declared child labor constitutional. 5) In two years it struck down 10 major New Deal laws--judicial nullification without parallel in U.S. history. 6) In Bush v. Gore [2000] the court, in a partisan political decision that had nothing to do with the law. stopped the Florida recount to hand the presidency to G.W. Bush.

Sotomayor would bring much more to the court then mere knowledge of the underside of life. She is smart, compassionate and thoughtful.

Roberts, at 54 a young man as Supreme Court justices go, could plague the country for decades. But at least Sotomayor would inject the same compassion shown by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg and Souter in their heated dissents.

On the appeals bench, Sotomayor ruled for baseball players, not the owners. She ruled that homeless people must be paid the minimum wage. She held that an inmate could sue a corporation operating a halfway house for federal prisoners.

She ruled that a broker who held stocks because of misleading information could sue. She wrote that the Environmental Protection Agency cannot use cost-benefit calculations to preserve aquatic species.

She dissented when her appeals court upheld the legality of strip searches for girls at a juvenile detention center in Connecticut. She called it what it was: embarrassing and humilating.

Nevertheless, Sotomayor is hardly a flaming liberal. She was wrong to side with New Haven, Conn., when it rejected results of a firefighter promotion test because blacks and Latinos performed poorly. Her abortion position is unclear, having decided few pro-choice cases and all those on the fringes of Roe.

But no justice ever scores 100 percent. Sotomayor is a good choice to replace the retiring Souter.