Cosmic justice takes an oddly specific form

Here’s Hawaii State Representative Tom Brower (D):

Hi, Tom! Nice, ah, sledgehammer?

Rep. Brower is holding that there sledgehammer in that there photograph because he’s best known for using it to Make A Difference for Hawaii’s shockingly large homeless population:

Armed with a sledgehammer and a self-righteous mission, State Rep. Tom Brower (D.) walks his district’s streets and parks looking for the nefarious shopping carts used by homeless people.

If the carts have a store’s insignia still on them, Brower gallantly returns them to the rightful owner. If, however, he can’t tell where the carts originated from, he pulls out his trusty sledgehammer.

“If I see shopping carts that I can’t identify,” he told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “I will destroy them so they can’t be pushed on the streets.”

I didn’t say he was “helping” the homeless, I said he was “making a difference.” Making an already shitty life just a little bit shittier is still making a difference. And lest you think that Rep. Brower just enjoys smashing up poor people’s stuff, rest assured that he also enjoys being a prick to their faces:

Brower, according to the Star-Advertiser, is “disgusted” by the city’s chronic homelessness problem and has decided to take a self-proclaimed “tough-guy” approach to solving it. In addition to his shopping cart rampage, he also rouses homeless people if he sees them sleeping at bus stops during the day.

“If someone is sleeping at night on the bus stop, I don’t do anything,” he told the Star-Advertiser. “But if they are sleeping during the day, I’ll walk up and say, ‘Get your ass moving.'”

Hey, nice, what a cool, tough guy with cool, tough guy ideas when it comes to homelessness. Get your ass moving, homeless person, to the job that you can’t get, maybe, or to the home you can’t afford! Lousy bums!

With all he does for his state’s poorest citizens (and here it might be worth mentioning that Rep. Brower calls himself a Christian, which is interesting in light of his whole “be an asshole to destitute people” scheme), you might be thinking, “gosh, I wonder if some of those homeless people might not band together and kick this guy’s ass, or something.” But Rep. Brower has never been afraid of that:

He also seems unconcerned by the prospect of initiating or escalating an altercation with a homeless person.

“When you are walking down the sidewalk with a sledgehammer,” he told the Star-Advertiser, “people get out of your way.”

Yeah, about that, though. It turns out that when you’re not “walking down the sidewalk with a sledgehammer,” and maybe you’re just walking down the sidewalk with a camera, or a phone or what have you, people maybe won’t get out of your way. Hence, we have this very specific instance of cosmic justice that unfolded on Monday:

A Hawaii state representative was allegedly beaten by several members of a Honolulu homeless encampment on Monday after he refused to stop videotaping them, according to Hawaii News Now.

Rep. Tom Brower (D), who made national headlines in 2013 after smashing homeless people’s shopping carts with a sledgehammer, was reportedly punched in the head several times and taken to Queens Medical Center in serious condition, where he was treated for a concussion and eye injuries.

He was later released, according to the AP.

(DISCLAIMER: “and that’s the way it was” in no way condones violence of any sort, even when there’s a case to be made that the recipient kind of has it coming to him, as in the case of, say, Muammar Gaddafi getting killed, or this guy getting beat up by a couple of homeless people.)

Anyway, Representative Brower, best wishes for a speedy recovery. Hopefully the police will arrest the guys who beat you up and then prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law for their felony, while you can go back to smashing people’s personal property with your sledgehammer, with no fear of legal consequences. You’re doing the Lord’s work, sir.

I wonder if he got a gold watch?

The Iraqi Army’s (now former) Chief of Staff, General Babaker Zebari, retired yesterday. Or, rather, he “was retired,” which is the phrasing that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s spokesman somewhat hilariously used when talking to AFP. I guess in Iraq you can’t even give a guy the dignity of pretending to have quit of his own accord. Anyway, Zebari appears to have been forced out after almost 12 years on the job, for the frankly petty reason that the army he’s been commanding has utterly failed to do its job at pretty much any time over the past year plus. Eh, details.

The Iraqi Army is by many accounts a horror show, though unfortunately that often gets blamed on individual Iraqi soldiers instead of its officer corps. Iraqi soldiers are undertrained, underequipped, and led by men who are more interested in selling commissions and collecting kickbacks and in inventing “ghost soldiers” in order to collect their paychecks than in fighting or preparing to fight. Much has been made, here included, of the sectarian dimension in the collapse of the Iraqi Army, in the lack of a sense of national unity that would drive Shiʿa soldiers to fight to defend Sunni areas, and Sunni civilians to trust those Shiʿa soldiers, but the far less abstract reason why Iraq’s army isn’t ready for prime time is that it’s been led for many years by a bunch of petty crooks who treat it more like a pyramid scheme than a fighting force. If Zebari’s ouster helps fix that problem, great.

Happy Iran Non-Deal Day

Hey there, how’s it going? Today marks the day the Iran talks were supposed to end in a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but didn’t. The new and improved deadline is now July 7, at which point surely this long negotiating process will come to a definitive en–HAHAHAHA, sorry, it’s got to be at least 50/50 that things get extended again.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif left Vienna and flew back to Tehran late Sunday before returning today. This was taken as a positive sign, that maybe he’d been presented with a new offer from the P5+1 that he had to take back to his bosses in Iran for discussion and/or that he was going back to see if the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, was healthy enough (he’s recently had surgery) to come to Geneva to participate directly in the talks (which he apparently was). The presence of Salehi and US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz at the talks in March was credited with helping to make some key technical breakthroughs that resulted in the development of the Lausanne Framework.

The good news, to everybody except maybe David Sanger at the NYT, is that Iran has gotten its low enriched uranium stockpile down below the level mandated under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action. Failure to meet that target by today, when the latest extension of the JPOA was to have expired, could have complicated the talks unnecessarily. The bad news is that there still seem to be a number of outstanding issues standing in the way of a comprehensive agreement. Continue reading

As soon as Cyrus the Great gets back, we’re all in a lot of trouble

You may remember James Stavridis from such historical thought-crimes as “I don’t know anything about Sunnism, Shiʿism, or the Reformation, so let me write an article that mashes them all together.” Well, he’s back, and better than ever!

persian empire

Oh God, this is going to suuuuck.

The headlines: A charismatic and wily Iranian leader seeks to expand the borders of his nation, pushing aggressively against neighbors in the region and especially to the West. Iran exerts dominance in a wide range of regional capitals, from Baghdad to Beirut. Trade routes are opening, and wealth will begin into flow to the nation, enabling further adventurism. Sound familiar?

Actually, this describes the foundation of the Persian Empire about 2,500 years ago by Cyrus the Great. The empire at its peak ruled over 40 percent of the global population, the highest figure for any empire in history. It stretched from the littoral of the Eastern Mediterranean to the coast of the Arabian Gulf, encompassing what are today Libya, Bulgaria, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman, the UAE, Iran, and Afghanistan. Cyrus the Great said, “You cannot be buried in obscurity: you are exposed upon a grand theater to the view of the world.”

We don’t tend to think of today’s Iran as an imperial power, but the Iranians certainly do — indeed, it is woven into their national DNA and cultural outlook. And we need to decide how to deal with the reality of Iranian geopolitical outreach, which will only increase if the sanctions come off.

This kind of thing must sound awfully erudite to a certain segment of the DC foreign policy establishment. Empire is “woven” (what?) into Iran’s “national DNA” (seriously?) because until about a millennium and a half ago Iran was the hub of a series of Persian Empires. Somehow this is uniquely a problem when we’re talking about Iran, despite the fact that you could make similar or better cases that the “national DNAs” (is that the right plural form?) of Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Ethiopia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal the UK, France, Germany, Mongolia, Japan, Mali, Morocco, Russia, China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and the United States, to name just a few, are equally imbued with imperial ambition. But of course most people don’t make those cases, because those kinds of arguments are, well, dumb. Continue reading

Europe needs to decide what it wants to be

I agree with Vox’s Dylan Matthews:

If European lenders really cared about the European project, they’d be trying to persuade their countrymen to move closer to European super-statehood, big transfer to Greece and all, rather than punishing Greece. And the more spending and tax policy Europe takes on as a whole, the less it has to rely on the Greek government’s poor tax collectors and corrupt bureaucrats. The reforms the lenders want so desperately would come naturally. They just need to lend Greece a hand.

As Matthews points out, this would make European nations a lot more like American states, and here in the US the economically successful states subsidize poor performing states as a matter of routine, and hardly anyone ever bats an eye. Of course, this is also why it can’t happen; all those well-established European national governments are never going to agree to give their power up to a new United States of Europe. And given that it’s never going to happen, the best thing for the long-run benefit of poorer Eurozone countries like Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc. is for them to get out of the Eurozone.

As it’s set up now, the Euro forces countries like Greece to hand their control over monetary policy to the European Central Bank, which is heavily influenced by German bankers and is likely to do whatever is in Germany’s economic interests, even when that diverges from what’s in Greece’s interests (as it does now). But at the same time, there’s been no corresponding commingling of European fiscal policy, the mechanism by which countries like the US balance out the effects of monetary policy (a strong dollar, for example, affects different parts of the US economy differently). This is the rare occasion on which you’ll see an inveterate lefty like me agreeing wholeheartedly with Milton Friedman, who saw all this coming back in the 1990s.

The Eurozone can’t exist indefinitely like this. Even if a Greek exit doesn’t happen now, it’s hard to see how Greece can remain an austerity-ravaged economic hinterland in perpetuity, which is what appears to be happening now. And if Greece eventually does leave the Euro, the short-term pain that entails is likely to be followed by long-term growth and benefit, which may make leaving the Euro look a lot more attractive to the other countries that have lost, rather than gained, from joining the currency union. I realize that the Eurozone’s rationale goes way beyond economics, but ensuring European stability doesn’t depend on a common currency, and at any rate whatever stability the common currency offers is on the verge of being overwhelmed by the instability that derives from instituting a currency union without any political union.

Nullification: a bad idea that refuses to die

Lots of very upset right-wingers are insisting that just because the Supreme Court says state governments have to treat gays like they were people or something, that doesn’t mean they really have to do it. Who made the Supreme Court the boss of everybody, anyway? Well, all I can say is: good luck with that, you pie-eyed, grossly bigoted optimists, you.

There are two times in American history that I can think of off the top of my head when states have tried nullifying federal law, and just to show how fair-minded I am I actually would have agreed with the would-be nullifiers on one of them. That would be the case of the Fugitive Slave Laws. In both Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) and Ableman v. Booth (1859), the Supreme Court held that Northern free states could not take actions to free runaway slaves that contradicted the federal Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 (which the free states in question had argued were unconstitutional). Hey, I would have totally been on the states’ side on this one, but history, including a five year long war and ~600,000 dead soldiers, tells us that the attempt to nullify the Fugitive Slave Acts didn’t work. It actually contributed to the start of that war, at least according to South Carolina’s secession decree, and while I would say the evils of that war were necessary to end the greater evil of slavery, it’s unlikely that Pennsylvania or Wisconsin tried to provide safe haven to runaway slaves because they were of a mind to help kick off a civil war. That war, incidentally, went a pretty long way toward settling the question of state versus federal authority.

The second nullification attempt that I was thinking about came after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. This one is particularly relevant to last week’s marriage equality movement in that it also involves a Supreme Court decision, and the folks who talked about nullification back then have a lot in common with the ones talking about nullification now. Southern states attempted to pass several anti-desegregation laws in the years following Brown, declaring that the Court’s decision was itself unconstitutional. In Cooper v. Aaron, the Court decided, unsurprisingly, that it did not think that its previous decision had been unconstitutional, but that it was pretty sure that it was unconstitutional for the state of Arkansas to judge the constitutionality of Brown, or any other Supreme Court ruling for that matter. In a decision that was signed by all nine justices, the Court flat-out said that nullification isn’t Actually A Thing, as though that whole Civil War business hadn’t already sorted that out for us.

You can’t get much more definitive than a unanimous Supreme Court decision that says in pretty plain language that you can’t do what you’re planning to do, but Ted Cruz, who allegedly has a law degree, says otherwise: Continue reading

Assassination puts Egypt on high alert

Hisham Barakat, Egypt’s prosecutor-general, was assassinated in Cairo today when his motorcade was hit by what appears to have been a car bomb. Although there’s been no accepted claim of responsibility for the attack as far as I am aware, it’s probably safe to assume that it has something to do with all the death sentences that Egypt’s judicial system has been handing out lately to high-ranking figures in the Muslim Brotherhood, including former President Mohamed Morsi. The Muslim Brotherhood condemned the attack but that doesn’t mean that the person or persons who carried it out don’t have Muslim Brotherhood affiliations in their past (or present, for that matter).

In fact, attacks like this point to the folly of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s decision to outlaw the Muslim Brotherhood in the first place. The Brotherhood has, since its inception, had a weird relationship with using violence to achieve political aims. It has certainly practiced violence, assassinating Egyptian officials and sending its own fighters to participate in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, for example. But while it shares (via Sayyid Qutb) some elements of its ideology with groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda, the Brotherhood has never embraced terrorism the way those groups have. Instead, the Brotherhood pursued its political aims via legal means, right up until the elected Brotherhood president, Morsi, was forced out of office in a coup and the group itself was outlawed. You could argue, and lots of folks have, that the Brotherhood has been blatantly hypocritical about violence for most of its existence, and you would have a point. But even if you allow that the Brotherhood has, despite its denials, been a violent organization for most of its history, the fact that it also sought to pursue change by legal, political means was important, in that it diverted at least some of its supporters toward a more peaceful means of expressing their desires and discontents. The fact that it pursued democratic reform set it apart from groups like EIJ that are more violent and reject the democratic process as an avenue for reform.

In essence, Sisi’s decision to forcibly topple the elected government discredited the idea of political participation for young, Islamist-minded Egyptians, and his decision to outlaw the Brotherhood and execute its leaders left those folks with no legal political outlet for their views and their frustrations. It was almost inevitable, given how things unfolded, that at least some of the Brotherhood’s supporters, who may once have been committed to peaceful political change, would decide that politics is for suckers and turn to violence instead.