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Atheists Can Be Just As Obnoxious As Christians

June 14, 2013 in Blogs

By Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon

Just because you’re in the right doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk about it.

Just because you’re in the right doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk about it. Today’s case in point: the battle going on right now in Florida’s Orange County over who gets to be the biggest loudmouth.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and the Central Florida Freethought Community had a perfectly valid point recently when they challenged the distribution of Bibles in the local high schools. Earlier this year,  a Collier County judge ruled in favor of “passive” dissemination of the Bibles, allowing them to be laid out on tables for the taking. That’s a clearly stupid move; one that suggests the judge has zero grasp on the term “separation of church and state.” One does not leave Bibles willy-nilly around schools, any more than one leads a Christian prayer session in school — another battle the Freedom From Religion Foundation recently fought and won. (The victory was somewhat mitigated by a local valedictorian’s defiant recitation of the Lord’s Prayer during graduation anyway.)

But after “1,700 students left school with Bibles” in the wake of one of those “passive” distributions in 11 schools last winter, the atheist groups decided to make a point. They asked for permission to distribute some materials of their own, including books and pamphlets with titles including “An X-Rated Book,” “Jesus Is Dead” and “Why I Am Not a Muslim.” Which if I’m not mistaken is a douche move.

A district spokesman said that the groups were in fact permitted to distribute “a number of fliers critical of religion,” but drew the line at the more incendiary books and materials, arguing they “could cause a disruption.” David Williamson of Central Florida Free Thought Community told the local news station WFTV Thursday, “We had no intention of filing a lawsuit, and we are not interested in filing a lawsuit, but we have no other choice at this point.” They just couldn’t help it! In the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s statement Thursday, the organization acknowledged that “distribution …read more


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Did Hollywood Help Make NSA Surveillance Permissible?

June 14, 2013 in Blogs

By John Patterson, The Guardian

Movies have got us used to the sight of people as pixellated quarry, tracked by powerful technology.

Last week's NSA leaks scandal had one scary side-story: a poll determining that a slim but clear majority of Americans weren't worried in the least about the 360-degree, all-platform access that the eavesdropping agency apparently now has to their phone, internet and wireless communications. Orwell's telescreen is part of our accepted digital furniture now, it seems, and Big Brother is regarded as a gentle protector rather than an iron-fisted tormentor even as sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four skyrocket on Amazon. And “precrime”, a sci-fi concept of considerable vintage, is now a real thing, apparently. Another good reason that the representative fictional American citizen of our broken times is the zombie.

For a country overly prone to citing its foundational documents and the rights enshrined therein – at least one of which, the fourth amendment forbidding unlawful search and seizure, has been roundly trashed by the NSA – this seems oddly quiescent and meek, not the kind of attitude that throws off the yoke of colonial power, subdues a virgin continent, builds an industrial behemoth, does for the Nazis and the Japanese, and puts a man on the Moon.

For anyone who ever believed that movies and TV would rot your mind, here's the one time you were absolutely right. Hollywood has been softening us all up for years now, acclimatising us all to the notion that our every movement and conversation, our locations, routines and spending habits, are visible to, or purchasable by, others whose motives we cannot know. But relax … it's all sublimely OK.

Think of the dozens of movies in which you see the pursued at one or two removes, on computer or surveillance screens, on tracking devices, blurred, the screen freezing here and there, rather than as a person unmediated by other screens, an analogue human being made of meat, not binary code. Already the pixellated quarry (whether it's Osama bin Laden or …read more


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The Dangers of Corporations Controlling National Secrets

June 14, 2013 in Blogs

By Thom Hartmann, AlterNet

The privatized national security apparatus isn’t just wasteful—it’s contrary to the founding principles of our democratic republic.

It's time to completely end the privatization of national security.

Business Week recently pointed out that 99 percent of Booze Allen Hamilton's revenues come from government contracts. 

Why would we pay a CEO millions, stockholders tens of millions, and workers a small fortune when the same work could and should be done by civil servants?

Even worse, our privatized national security apparatus isn’t just wasteful; it’s contrary to the founding principles of our democratic republic.

Governments can be made accountable, transparent, and responsive to “We the People.”  In fact, that's the core idea of our Constitution.

On the other hand corporations, by and large, are accountable only to profits.They’re opaque, and don't give a damn about “We the People,” except for the people who run them.

There once was a time, before Reagan put us on a privatization binge, when our national security was run by our government and answerable to “We the People.”

However, ever since the Reagan Revolution, our political class has been obsessed with the idea that since government can’t do anything right, private companies should take  over most of our commons, even, in this case, the commons of our national security.

And that’s created an entire industry of companies like Booz Allen Hamilton, where NSA leaker Edward Snowden worked, reaping millions in profits every year to manage and lobby for an ever-expanding and ever-more-profitable national security industry.

Privatization enthusiasts praise contractors as efficient and responsible purveyors of public service, but corporations, by virtue of being corporations, are incompatible with the functions of representative government.

At its core, a republic requires accountability.

We entrust to our public officials the power to act in our interest.

If they violate that trust, we expect them to either face punishment or resign from their duties.

After all, they serve us, not stockholders or CEOs.

And accountability in a democratic republican society, in turn, requires transparency.

How can the public judge the crimes of its representatives without knowing about them?

As the Roman poet Juneval famously wrote about 2000 years ago, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”—Who will watch …read more


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Major Push to End Sexual Assault Epidemic in Military Turned Back in Senate

June 14, 2013 in Blogs

By Adele M. Stan, RH Reality Check

Defense authorization bill won’t include Sen. Kristen Gillibrand's measure to remove reporting of sexual assault from chain of command—despite having bipartisan support.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee meets Wednesday to take up its version of the Defense Authorization bill, senators will likely devote at least as much verbiage to discussion of sexual assault in the military ranks as they do to the finer points of the Pentagon budget that is the bill’s main focus. But missing from the committee’s final version of the bill will be the one measure that advocates for survivors of sexual assault and rape say is critical to ending the crisis that grips the military: removing the reporting and prosecution of sexual assault cases from the chain of command.

Despite its bipartisan support and 27 co-sponsors, Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the committee chairman, struck from the bill a measure offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would have moved the adjudication of all serious crimes (such as murder, rape, and sexual assault) into the hands of independent prosecutors in order to create a safer environment and more impartial judicial process for those who have been the targets of assailants in the military ranks.

Levin made the decision Tuesday, replacing the provisions of Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act with a measure that simply requires that any command decision not to prosecute a sexual assault case be reviewed by a high-ranking officer. But as demonstrated in at least one recent case—the overturning of the sexual assault conviction of Air Force Lt. Col. James Wilkerson by Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin—the top brass often exhibit the same deference to defendants as commanders lower in rank.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) has condemned Levin’s decision. “They basically embrace the status quo here. It’s outrageous,” she told the New York Times.

As Gillibrand and others noted in a June 4 day-long hearing on sexual assault in the military, victims often don’t come forward because of well-founded fears of reprisal by their commanders. Testimony by victims’ advocates laid out a picture …read more


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Long Island Patients and Community Members Rally in Long Island in Support of Medical Marijuana Bill

June 14, 2013 in PERSONAL LIBERTY

By drosenfeld

Senate Has Yet to Vote on Bill Supported by 82% of New Yorkers and Hundreds of New York Doctors and Patients

Advocates Urge Senate to Pass the Bill Before the End of Legislation Session Next Week

Garden City, Long Island – Today, patients and community members from across Long Island gathered at the Garden City, LIRR train station to mobilize supporters of New York’s medical marijuana bill. They collected signatures and handed out flyers urging their neighbors to contact senate leadership and demand a vote on the Compassionate Care Act (A. 6357-Gottfreid / S. 4406- Savino) before the end of the legislative session on June 20th.

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The Latest Outrageous Waste of Money for the Pentagon's Playthings

June 14, 2013 in Blogs

By Medea Benjamin, James Marc Leas, AlterNet

'Noise zones' are being used to drive a money-soaked scheme for rich commercial developers, while putting thousands of families in affordable homes at risk.

Is the Vermont Air National Guard being used for corrupt purposes having nothing to do with its military mission? The answer is yes. Big time. And for big money. In the article, “Those who 'Fudged' Should not be Allowed to Judge” we described how military brass fudged their own scoring process to get Senator Leahy’s home state of Vermont on the list as the “preferred alternative” for basing the F-35. We know who loses: thousands of Vermonters whose homes are in noise and crash zones. This article will follow the money to see who benefits from the corrupt practices of the military brass who fudged.

The developers who stand to gain the big money did not have to invest their own dollars to position themselves. They got the taxpayers to do that for them. The City of Burlington applied for and received a federal grant of $40 million to buy 200 families out of their affordable homes near the airport entrance, and the City now holds title to most of those homes. 55 have so far been demolished. Another hundred homes stand vacant awaiting demolition. Other homes are awaiting purchase for demolition.

The federal government put up the money to buy those 200 homes as “mitigation” for noise being made by the F-16 jet fighter currently flown by the Vermont Air National Guard at the local Burlington International Airport. The 200 homes are in a zone that is being blasted by a noise level from the F-16 jets that the federal government considers so loud that their neighborhood is “unsuitable for residential use.” A report about Burlington International Airport prepared for the Federal Aviation Administration (the “FAA report”) says that “land acquisition and relocation is the only alternative that would eliminate the residential incompatibility” with that noise level (page 29).

Certain Vermont officials, including Senator Leahy and Governor Shumlin, continue to repeatedly suggest that the F-35, which the Air Force draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) says …read more


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Courier Journal Op-Ed: Fighting racial bias in the federal judicial process

June 14, 2013 in Politics & Elections

Here are two statistics that disturb me, and should startle everyone:
• African Americans in Kentucky are six times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
• While African Americans are 13 percent of the total U.S. population, they make up 37 percent of the prison population.
What is the reason for these disparities?
In both cases, using a federal government, one-size-fits-all approach to address these issues is a primary culprit. The problem is Washington’s habit of undermining the system our Founding Fathers created, which left as much power as possible in the hands of local and state officials, and sought to treat people as individuals, not as groups or classes of people.
In the case of arrests, federal agencies have hamstrung local law enforcement agencies by requiring them to meet numerical arrest goals in order to secure funding. Morally, this is troubling. In practical terms, instead of local enforcement agencies spending their time investigating serious felony crimes, they concentrate on minority and depressed neighborhoods to increase their drug arrest statistics.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which reported on the arrest statistics, highlighted the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program. This federal program distributes millions of dollars a year to local law enforcement agencies. Arrest numbers are a performance measure used in doling out the money.
We are literally sending our money to Washington where an overgrown bureaucracy is encouraging racial profiling before the money is allowed to be sent back to us. We should keep more of our money and decision-making power closer to home – and put an end to practices that encourage discrimination.
Federal sentencing laws have a disproportionate effect on the African-American community, too. Black men are more than twice as likely as whites to face mandatory minimum sentences. One in three black men may spend time incarcerated. It’s not just crime patterns that are to blame. There are significant disparities in sentencing outcomes for blacks and whites arrested for the same type of crimes.
Here’s the kicker: Mandatory minimums don’t actually do anything to keep us safer. In fact, judges will tell you that mandatory minimums do much harm to taxpayers and to individuals, who may have their lives ruined for a simple mistake or minor lapse of judgment. Oftentimes when this happens, families lose sources of income and support, communities are torn apart, and less money is available for community police and other effective crime-fighting tools.
When a crime is …read more


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Washington Times Op-Ed: Liberty versus power

June 14, 2013 in Politics & Elections

On Thursday, I held a news conference announcing my intent to pursue legal action against the federal government for infringing on Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights. The National Security Agency’s collection of Verizon’s client data probably only scratches the surface. A court order that allows the government to obtain a billion records a day and does not name an individual target is clearly beyond the scope of the Fourth Amendment, which states clearly that warrants must be specific to the person and the place.
Joining me Thursday to show support for this action were U.S. Reps. Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, Mick Mulvaney, Louie Gohmert and Mark Sanford, along with representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, FreedomWorks, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Campaign for Liberty, as well as constitutional scholar and lawyer Bruce Fein.
Mr. Gohmert joked about standing next to the ACLU, but he pointed out that upholding the Constitution is not about Republican versus Democrat or conservative versus liberal. It is about liberty versus power. It recognizes and attempts to limit the inevitable arrogance of power. President Obama says that we can trust his administration not to abuse the mountains of data he admits it gathers. Perhaps we can also trust the Internal Revenue Service not to target those who speak out against the government. Perhaps we can also trust the Justice Department not to seize the phone records of Associated Press reporters.
Our Founders never intended for Americans to trust their government. Our entire Constitution was predicated on the notion that government was a necessary evil, to be restrained and minimized as much as possible.
Indiscriminate monitoring of citizens’ records is precisely the kind of general warranting we fought a revolution over. The Colonists did not appreciate a British government that could go door to door, searching anyone and everyone without probable cause or suspicion.
Today, our government goes phone to phone, computer to computer and dares to call this lawful and constitutional. At a hearing on March 12, Sen. Ron Wyden asked Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, ‘Does the NSA collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?’ Mr. Clapper replied, ‘No sir not wittingly.’
We now know that the NSA did this wittingly. We know that Mr. Clapper was not telling us the truth.
Are these government officials telling us the truth now when they claim they are not abusing our phone-data information? By what …read more


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Welfare Shouldn't Ruin Immigration Reform

June 14, 2013 in Economics

By Alex Nowrasteh

Alex Nowrasteh

There is a common argument that goes like this: Many immigrants are poor, and some poor people abuse welfare. Therefore, we should not let in more legal immigrants, some of whom may abuse and eventually bankrupt the welfare system.

Count on that to continue to be the core argument of immigration skeptics as the debate on that critical issue continues. But a large and growing body of data refutes that notion and in fact suggests that the opposite is true: Without immigration, America’s welfare state would go bankrupt sooner.

A recent study in the journal Health Affairs shows that in 2009, immigrants paid $13.8 billion more into Medicare Part A than they received in benefits. Noncitizens were responsible for $10.1 billion of that $13.8 billion surplus. By contrast, native-born Americans drew $30.9 billion more from the system than they contributed.

From 2002 to 2009, immigrants contributed a total surplus of $115.2 billion to the Medicare trust fund.

Immigrants, especially non-citizens, contribute a surplus for two main reasons.

Without immigration, America’s welfare state would actually go bankrupt sooner.”

The first is that they are younger. Only 6.4 percent of non-citizens are 65 years old or older compared with 13.4 percent of natives. Eighty-five percent of non-citizens are also of working age, compared with just 60 percent of the U.S.-born. Immigrants, especially non-citizens, are simply more likely to be in the workforce paying taxes and less likely to currently draw benefits.

The second reason is that immigrants enrolled in Medicare receive, on annual average, about $1,465 less in benefits individually than U.S.-born Americans.

Immigration critics say that once immigrants age, they will then draw down far more benefits from Medicare than they paid in. That is probably true, but it is also true of most Americans. The main problem with Medicare is its financial unsustainability — which, as described above, immigration actually helps to alleviate in the short term.

By current projections, the Medicare trust fund will be exhausted in 2024, long before most non-citizens and immigrants are eligible for the program. Increased immigration of young workers could delay the bankruptcy, giving the government more time to reform the system before it busts. Far from ruining Medicare, immigrants could give some financial breathing room to a bankrupt system. Medicare and Social Security are designed for the elderly. Professors Leighton Ku and Brian Bruen of George Washington University recently discovered that poor immigrants generally use means-tested programs at a lower rate than …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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NSA Snooping Matters, Even if You Have 'Nothing to Hide'

June 14, 2013 in Economics

By Julian Sanchez

Julian Sanchez

“I have nothing to hide. Why should I care if the NSA is vacuuming up my phone records?”

The news that the NSA has been indiscriminately collecting the phone and Internet logs of Americans under sweeping Patriot Act orders has provoked outrage from civil libertarians — and even Patriot Act author Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI).

But there are also plenty of quieter voices wondering why law-abiding citizens should be concerned about bulk data collection if there’s even an off-chance it might help stop a terrorist attack.

Polls aren’t necessarily great metrics of considered opinion in a case like this, but early surveys showed that a slight majority of Americans said they were basically OK with this sort of data dragnet. Presumably, many feel like the Manhattanite who told The New York Times: “Personally, I have nothing to hide, so it’s not really affecting me.” There’s even a Twitter account, @_nothingtohide, compiling tweets from Americans who cheerfully welcome our new metadata overlords.

Even when it isn’t abused — as far as we know — the very presence of that spy machine affects us and poisons us.”

Of course, few of these people truly mean that. Almost everyone has “something to hide” — if by that we mean some intimate corners of our lives we don’t want exposed to strangers, even if we’re not doing anything wrong.

That’s why the same polls show people aren’t nearly as comfortable with the government reading their emails and online chats. What they really mean, then, is that they don’t think a list of phone numbers and IP addresses will expose any of those intimate areas.

Yet folks in the intelligence community who actually work with all that metadata will tell you it’s often just as revealing as the contents of a call — even more so, once any kind of moderately sophisticated analytic techniques are applied to the data set as a whole.

Some of the potentially sensitive facts those records expose becomes obvious after giving it some thought: Who has called a substance abuse counselor, a suicide hotline, a divorce lawyeror an abortion provider? What websites do you read daily? What porn turns you on? What religious and political groups are you a member of?

Some are less obvious. Because your cellphone’s “routing information” typically includes information about the nearest cell tower, those records are also a kind of virtual map showing where you spend your time — and, …read more

Source: OP-EDS