DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Free to Be You and Me

In the early 1970's, actress Marlo Thomas, the daughter of famed comedian Danny Thomas, added to the feminist story by starring in the sitcom That Girl, which was revolutionary for being the 1st series portrayal of a single working girl on network TV. Following the success of that show, Thomas wanted to do more to shatter the gender stereotypes of the times and so she became the brainchild behind the wildly successful 1972 children's album  Free to Be ... You and Me,  which saluted values such as individuality, tolerance, and comfort with one's identity and endorsed the message that anyone—whether a boy or a girl—could achieve their aspirations.

The album, which included a Who's Who of the entertainment world including Alan Alda, Michael Jackson, and Diana Ross was followed by a TV special, a book, and a play which is still performed around the country.

Recently, a panel of experts discussed the impact of the ventures in a special program at the National Archives entitled When We Were Free to Be: Looking Back at a Children's Classic and the Difference It Made.

The panel consisted of  :

  • Lori Rotskoff, author and cultural historian
  • Laura Lovett, an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts
  • Carole Hart, an award-winning television and film producer and writer
  • Barbara Sprung, co-director of the Educational Equity Center at FHI 360 and
  • Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a feminist and child-welfare advocate
From the view of the 21st Century, it is difficult to remember just how revolutionary the idea of gender equity was at the time the record was produced. "Not 1 big label would take it," Hart, one of the project writers said. "One executive asked 'Why would I want to put out a record produced by a bunch of dykes?'"

There was also difficulty is getting the TV special aired. "Executives were afraid they would lose their Southern audience because Marlo and Harry Belafonte (a black actor/singer) acted as a married couple," Hart said.

So why was the at-the-time-so-controversial project such a success? "You were finding an unspoken need," Hart said.  "It was very funny and very entertaining. It didn't feel like it was preaching anything. It was just pointing out stereotypes that were very limiting and celebrating all the freedom you could have."

Sprung, who was beginning her curriculum work at the time, said America "was deluged with sexual stereotyping that was not reflecting the lives people were living in the 70's."

"We had messages like boys invent things, girls use what boys invent or boys fix things and girls need things fixed," Sprung recalled. 

Sprung said the project helped free young girls to move into areas previously thought of as masculine. "But it was much harder and more difficult for boys to break out of their roles, probably because of the fear of homosexuality," she noted.

"The project put on a light bulb in the heads of many parents. It made a difference and it is still making a difference. It changed parenting and children in this country," Sprung said.

Rotskoff agreed that the scope of the project was powerful. "Now is a good time to take a measure of its historical importance," she said.  "It encouraged young children to reject stereotypes and value individuality. Really, it's a version of a Declaration of Independence."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips 
The special program was part of a series on the 1970's being offered in conjunction with the exhibit Searching for the Seventies: The Documerica Photography Project. The exhibition is running until Sept. 8.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Dining in DC: Juniper

The whole wheat honey bread w/ honey butter is truly special
Washington, DC is filled with outgoing people, many of them passionate about their politically-related careers and quite capable of engaging in energetic talk about a wide range of topics. That means many DC restaurants that rate high on the food quality scale also offer conversational noise levels rivaling those at the loudest high school cafeterias.

But, if you are interested in quiet conversation along with a great meal, you should consider Juniper, the elegant restaurant at the Fairmount Hotel in the West End section of the city. Juniper caters to hotel guests and neighborhood locals, all of whom seemed to have mastered the art of tranquil dinner talk. In fact, almost every review mentions the quiet atmosphere. And while you may come for the quiet, the chances are good that you will come back for the food.

If Juniper has a most special item, it would have to be its whole wheat walnut honey bread with honey butter. Chef Ian Bens also serves as resident beekeeper and incorporates honey, bee pollen, and even the honey comb from the four restaurant rooftop hives into the bread and other innovative dishes.

On our most recent visit my wife and I chose classic soups as starters. Judy had the Maryland crab, while I opted for the night's special chicken tortilla. For entrees, we both had the Chesapeake Bay jumbo lump crab cakes. The 2 meaty crab cakes were accompanied by heirloom hominy succotash and a spicy remoulade. I augmented my dinner with a side of tasty chipotle spicy roasted broccolini. Judy ate only one of her crab cakes so she could enjoy the apple/blueberry crumble with homemade vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce.for dessert.

A special 3-course prix fixe dinner is offered each night. Since the annual DC Cherry Blossom Festival was just winding down, cherries served as the theme for a meal consisting of cherry wood-smoked duck breast with local Spring greens drizzled in cherry blossom vinaigrette, sweet and sour cherry-glazed salmon, and a cherry blossom panna cotta with Amarena cherry ice cream.

Juniper also offers special dietary vegan, macrobiotic, heart healthy, diabetic, raw, and gluten-free meals created with seasonal ingredients from local farms in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.

Tales, Tidbits,and Tips
What others say:
The Prices Do DC rating
  • **** (4 out of 5 plates with a special shush-out to the quiet)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Talking to Terrorists

For almost a decade, research psychologist and author Anne Speckkard immersed herself in the world of international terrorism. She spoke with more than 400 terrorists, their family members, their friends, their associates, their captors, their enemies, and their victims. She visited more than a dozen countries, conducted interviews in countless jail cells and, on occasion, stayed in the homes of suspected terrorists. She even witnessed a cute 4-year-old girl demonstrate the proper killing position with a handgun.

The result of that effort was Speckard's massive new book Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers, & Martyrs. Speckhard appeared recently at the New America Foundation to discuss the book and her findings.

"I  wanted to find out what motivates terrorists and understand the radicalization process," Speckhard said. Even though there are many differing definitions for a terrorist, Speckhard said she decided to use "a person who was willing and aiming to attack civilians" for the purpose of her study.

So what did she find? "It always boils down to the local level - where do they live and what their local grievances are," Speckhard said.  "There is a lack of hope, a need for a sense of belonging. There is a sense of frustration. Some (in already violent areas) are suffering from a form of PSTD (post traumatic stress syndrome). They are driven by trauma and revenge. Often, there is a cult of martyrdom and a sense of survivor guilt. They say 'I just want to die and rejoin them (those they lost)."

She said that terrorists often experience an "endorphin high rush" both in planning and carrying out their attacks. "It is a very, very powerful force," Speckhard said.

One of the most important steps in expanding the terrorist network is cultivating potential terrorists. Speckhard described a typical recruitment process. Recruiters often troll internet cafes, looking for potential recruits. If they spot one, they will sit down next to them and say something like "Hey brother, have you seen this new video?" They will then show their young target a video of some atrocity being committed by a more powerful force against a weaker people. "Who will do something for these people? I am doing something - will you?" they ask.

Recruiters also employ ethnic tensions and hatreds, focusing on questions such as "What if that happens here? Will you be ready?" If the recruit indicates a willingness to become involved, a step-by-step process is initiated. Candidates are taken to gyms to increase their physical prowess. They are then sent to camps for weapons training and further indoctrination. If religion is involved, they are schooled in that message, which is distorted for the terrorists' purposes. Young Muslims for example, are told such things as "the Koran is only correct in Arabic so let me tell you what it says."

So what is the best way to combat the growth of terrorism? "You need to root out the terrorist organizers and discredit their ideology. You need to demonstrate that what the terrorists are presenting isn't true and isn't attractive," Speckhard said.

Speckhard recognizes that deadly force must be employed against terrorists, but worries about the damage such action causes. "There are tradeoffs," she said. "The blow back is going to be pictures of dead children."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Despite heavy indoctrination, not all terrorists are able to carry through with their deadly plans. Speckhard described one such woman. Her Arab boyfriend was killed in a missile strike. Even though she had been apolitical, she immediately underwent a change, distraught that the Israelis had taken her boyfriend from her. She switched her dress to a conservative Muslim style. Claiming she had no reason to live and wanting revenge, she began training for a suicide bombing mission. After completing her training, she was given her assignment. She moved into the area, fully prepared to carry out her mission. However, when she saw that she would be killing a baby, she changed her mind. She thought: "Allah gives life and Allah alone takes life; I don't have that right." Speckhard said that such people can be extremely valuable in reducing the violence caused by terrorism.  "They are passionate; they want to right the wrongs in the world. If they can be shown that what they had been told isn't true, they can be a real force for good."

Friday, April 26, 2013

Keep on Truckin': The Urban Street Food Story

Chef Jose Andres enjoys an offering from his food truck
Ever since there have been cities, there has been urban street food. Small fried fish were sold on the streets in ancient Greece. Aztec marketplaces offered more than 50 types of tamales. Street foods in Victorian London included tripe, pea soup, pea pods in butter, prawns, and jellied eels. It is believed that French fries originated as a street food in Paris of the 1840's.

America has its own street food traditions. During the colonial period, street vendors in Philadelphia, Boston, and old New York sold oysters, roasted corn ears, and pepper pot soup. Later, pushcarts became a staple in big cities from New York to San Francisco. In the late 19th Century the hot dog cart was born as sausage vendors began selling their wares outside student dorms at major Eastern universities. In the 20th Century, the mobile food scene shifted to construction sites, where workers on their breaks chowed down on coffee, pastries, hot dogs, and chili.

The economic downturn of the late 1990's caused another shift. Food trucks, now brightly decorated and offering more upscale ethnic offerings, found a new urban clientele -  thousands of office workers like those in Washington, DC, who could use their brief lunch time to enjoy the fast, reasonably priced, meals produced in the small trucks, which usually were a one- to three-person operation.

In DC, the food trucks usually assembled Monday through Friday at sites with large open eating areas for outside dining - L'Enfant Plaza, Farragut Square, the Metro Center, Union Station. The truck operators, many now trained cooks and chefs, began to develop followings. They could announce their day's location on Facebook or Twitter. Web sites reviewing the food trucks appeared and those sites could email complete lists of truck sites on a daily basis. Some of the cities best-known chefs like Jose Andres (with Pepe) opened their own food trucks. Indeed, some of the food trucks became so popular that their operators opened sit-down eateries.

So, with sunny skies and temperatures today in the 70's, we decided to head to L'Enfant Plaza to see what this Spring's local food truck scene looks, and, more importantly, tastes like. There were more than 20 trucks parked on 2 streets. Eaters lined up to choose from offerings ranging from Philly-style cheesesteaks at Cheesequake to Ethiopian fare from Lily Pad on the Run. I was convinced that my wife would choose to visit the Crepes Parfait truck, but she surprised me by instead grabbing a chicken burrito bowl from Sol. I chose a Korean bolgogi bowl from Fire and Ice.

But the future of the DC food truck boom is in doubt. Two weeks ago,  DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs released a new round of proposed food truck regulations. The rules would create special zones throughout the city specifying where trucks could park and limiting how many could operate at one location.  A monthly lottery system would determine who gets the spots. Food truck operators have vowed to fight the proposed regulations, claiming they would kill the industry.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As you might expect in our rate-and-review age, food trucks are subject to quite a few rankings. Here are some of them:

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Shame on the NRA; Shame on Its Lobbyists

A small, but dedicated group of anti-gun violence activists marched through the streets of Washington today in what organizers were calling the beginning of a Name and Shame campaign against DC lobbying firms which are paid from the large coffers of the National Rifle Association (NRA) to convince lawmakers to take pro-gun stances.

After a short noontime rally, the sign-carrying marchers headed out of McPherson Square, stopping at 5 NRA lobbying firms where march officials read the names of specific NRA lobbyists and left pictures of young children who had been victims of gun violence. They also read a list of other companies represented by the targeted lobbying firms and urged a phone and online campaign to convince those companies to find new lobbying groups that wouldn't accept "NRA blood money."

At each stop, a replica of a giant check from the NRA to the firm bearing the Occupy the NRA tagline "Thanks for shooting down common sense gun laws" was displayed. The amounts of the checks varied from $40,000 to $240,000. According to the Occupy the NRA, the NRA, which represents about 4 million members, reportedly spent more than $2.5 million to convince lawmakers to act in its behalf, money which anti-gun violence proponents conntend is nothing more than legally authorized bribes.

Organizers said the actions were a first step in bringing lobbying groups out of the shadows. "We are going to name you and we are going to shame you," they repeatedly said.

Although the firms were located on many streets, K Street is famous for its lobbying houses and, as such, stands as a symbol for the anti-gun violence effort. "K Street is where very wealthy people come to make sure that even wealthier people make even more money," one protester said, encapsulating the idea of the famed street.

As they marched through the downtown accompanied by a police contingent, the activists chanted slogans. "Shame on the NRA; Shame on the Lobbyists" alternated with "Gun checks save lives,"or  "Protect our kids, protect the police."

The marchers also waved signs, some handmade, some prepared especially for the rally. One of the most popular was a new sign designed by artist Shepard Fairey. The red-white-and black sign features the acronym NRA, a bird with a target on its chest, a hand holding an assault weapon and the slogan: America ... The Land Where God Saves and Satan Invests ... in Assault Weapons and High Capacity Magazines.

While some downtown observers of the march just stared, others took a more active role. Several came up to ask protesters questions. Others beeped their horns in support or mouthed the slogans with the marchers. Many, obviously part of the group of 90 percent of Americans who, unlike 45 dissenting U.S. Senators which Occupy the NRA has labeled cowards, favor universal background checks for gun sales, thanked individual marchers for their efforts and urged them not to give up.

While some of the marchers lamented the low turnout for the last-minute action, others took a more philosophical approach. "This is just one action on one day. It will be a long, hard fight. They have the money, but we have the moral ground. The next time, and there will be a next time, and a time after that, and a time after that, our numbers will grow. We're not going anywhere until we get a government for the people, not for the profit-makers and those politicians who only care about getting re-elected."

At the rally preceding the march, Maria Roach, a former NBC News TV producer who left her job to become a full-time anti-gun activist after the Tayvon Martin tragedy in Florida, spoke of the importance of the day.

"Let this be the day that moves you to action," Roach said. "Today is the day we say enough. As a news producer, I saw so much yellow (crime) tape blowing in the wind. It's not, as some would have you believe, about the 2nd Amendment. It's about having power and keeping power. I say shame on you NRA and shame on you lobbyists for putting the dollar before the lives of innocent children."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Nardyne Jordan speaking out
Of all those at the rally and march, none had been more touched by gun violence than DC resident Nardyne Jordan. Her 16-year-old daughter was fatally gunned down as she was leaving a funeral. Jordan addressed the rally participants before the march. "This is a difficult time, but it is the right time," she said. "Young children deserve the right to grow up. I live in a civilized nation and I expect to live among civilized people. We should be able to live and not to have to live in fear."

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Brave New World of Drones

Drones. To supporters, they represent a better, cheaper, safer way to take out targeted enemies. To opponents, they are menacing unaccountable flying robotic death machines. But from the corridors of Congress to the chat rooms of the Middle East, drones and the destruction they cause are definitely a hot topic.

So why have we suddenly become so obsessed with drones, which the United States has been employing with increasing regularity against suspected overseas terrorists?

Benjamin Wittes, a Senior Fellow and Research Director in Public Law at the Brookings Institution, believes he has an answer. "A drone is a weapon that is a little bit mysterious, a little bizarre. It produces a degree of anxiety," Wittes says. "It's a big scary flying robot and that's weird. The closer you get to the Holy Grail of safe targeting, the less it looks like war. It's something that doesn't feel like war any more; it feels more like assassination."

Wittes was one of 4 experts who participated in a panel discussion earlier this week at the Cato Institute entitled Drones and a New Way of War.

The panel concurred that the questions being currently raised have less to do with drones and more to do with the Constitutional questions such as who authorizes such attacks and where and when should they be launched.

"The discussions are really a microcosm of 3 distinct legal conversations that we are not very good at having," said Steve Vladeck, a professor of Law and the Associate Dean for Scholarship at American University Washington College of Law. Those 3 questions are:
  • Exactly whom are we at war with and where is that war occurring? "After 9/11 it was Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but now we are using drones increasingly at the margins (of those groups). This illuminates how unclear we are," Vladeck said.
  • Who should have the power for the drone program? Currently, President Obama and the Executive Branch decide kill targets. "It's a question of oversight for Congress and the Judiciary. Oversight, at least in its current form, is not working," Vladeck contended. "At the very least we should have more transparency."
  • What should be the rules for use? "Right now, we are the only country in the world that can carry out these operations. So what we do is precedent setting. The real question is about the use of force on the territory of a foreign power," he added.
Rosa Brooks, a professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center, says the issue is both legal and strategic. "There has been a significant increase in targeted killings with new terrorists in Mali and Somalia. We are now looking at associates of associates of associates. There is a feeling that if it's cheap and low risk, why not do it a little more," Brooks maintained.

"But how much are we gaining and how much are we losing?" Brooks questioned. "Are we creating new terrorists faster than we can kill them? If we decide when there is an armed conflict, it's pretty hard to assume that's not going to come back and bite us."

The panel agreed that much of the drone controversy centers around the uncertainty of any war against terror. Virtually everyone agrees that the rules of war are different than those of peacetime. In the past, for America, that has meant facing large armies of soldiers on clearly defined battlefields. But. of course, that clarity is missing when dealing with transnational terrorism. 

According to Benjamin Friedman, a Research Fellow of Defense and Homeland Security Studies at the Cato Institute, new technology like drones is making it easier to engage in "whimsical wars fought in perfect safety" and choose paths "that erode liberty and may suck us into more wars."

Friedman supported the idea that currently too much power is concentrated in the office of the president. "There's nothing stopping the president from changing the rules tomorrow. We need to define the enemy better. You need to justify to the public on policy," Friedman said

There are 3 main political reasons why until recently Congress hasn't acted on the issues raised by drone use, Friedman believes. One is the increasing partisanship in today's politics. Secondly, lawmakers fear the political consequences of not appearing to be strong on terrorism. Finally, there is the reality that foreign policy rates really low on voters' minds.

Friedman said he fears that drones may be leading us into what he called "iTunes wars."

"If it only costs a dollar why not?" he posed. "Drones could be getting us into wars we don't need. We need to lock in the idea that wars should be hard to start."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
There is no doubt that the issue of drones and their use is exploding in the media. Here are links to 6 articles that just appeared this morning if you want to learn more about the topic.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Activism and Climate Change

Today is Earth Day, a  day when the focus of millions of Americans is on making the planet environmentally better.  But for activist May Boeve and the 350.org organization she represents, every day is an earth day, a day for working to combat climate change that threatens our very existence.

Boeve was one of the 4 panelists who appeared last week at the program Keystone XL: The Science, Stakes, and Strategy Behind the Fight Over the Tar Sands Pipeline at the University of California Center in DC. Much of the event was focused on the best way for activists to advance their climate change agenda.

Earlier this year, 350.org was one of the sponsors of the Washington rally in which more than 40,000 people called on President Barack Obama to reject the 875-mile pipeline which would transport oil from Canadian tar sands through the midwestern United States. Obama has yet to rule on the project.

"This is a battle against the fossil fuel industry and we want him to chose us," Boeve said. "This won't be over until we give up and we won't give up."

David Roberts of Grist magazine, who has been covering Keystone regularly and recently wrote about the “Virtues of Being Unreasonable on Keystone” said the climate change movement was currently suffering from a phenomenon known as pluralistic ignorance. In simple terms pluralistic ignorance occurs when people
think that a position they favor isn't really supported by others even though it actually is.

Roberts said what is needed is a social phenomenon called social proof. "People do not analyze facts. They look to other people for their cues. People will wait until they get those cues. Why do you think they have laugh tracks on television," he said.

When it comes to climate change, Roberts believes there "are a lot more people out there with a sense that things are badly wrong, but they don't want to be that person (who starts the movement). What's needed is social proof - a signal to other people that it really is an emergency."

Roberts says that activists can serve that purpose. "The more signals that are sent, the more people will care. So I say 'yeah activism.'"

Michael Grunwald, senior national correspondent for Time magazine and author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era recently declared that on Keystone, “I’m with the Tree Huggers!”

"I'm not afraid of the oil that spills. I'm more afraid of the oil that doesn't spill," Grunwald said. "Keystone is not the perfect fight, but it's the fight we're having and it's time to choose a side. We need to leave carbon in the ground and we need to put a political price on carbon," Grunwald said.

Michael Levi, director of the program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle For America’s Future contends that combating climate change will require “doing deals with those who want to expand production of oil and gas.”

"I worry about this you're either with us or against us stance," Levi said. "I worry a lot about that kind of division. You're going to need Congress to do some things and for them not to do some things.We need to have broad support; we need to make sure we don't have too many unnecessary enemies. People need to realize there is a path they can take to solve the problem."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The event began with the showing of a cartoon about the Keystone project from the opposing perspective. To view that video, click here.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dining in DC: Ted's Bulletin

A tasty plate of pop tarts
Fancy food is fine, but sometimes you want something in the comfort category. When that urge strikes, a good choice is Ted's Bulletin, the urban retro restaurant on Barracks Row.

The owners named their establishment after their father who was the informal cook of his West Virginia hills neighborhood. One of his favorites was grilled cheese and tomato soup, so it shouldn't be surprising that those 2 items are signature menu staples.

On our most recent dinner visit here, I chose the buttermilk country fried steak with mashed potatoes and brown gravy and pickled beets. Judy opted for meatloaf with Mingo County ketchup glaze accompanied by the mashed potatoes and chunky golden delicious apple sauce.

One the best selling items at Ted's is the homemade pop tarts, which are a far cry from anything you can find in a box. Usually, there are 4 or 5 varieties available. For example, on this visit we had to choose from strawberry, cherry, brown sugar, blueberry cheesecake and peanut butter bacon.

Bartenders here whip up booze-fueled milkshakes (minty grasshopper, spiked Thai coffee, Bailey’s caramel-macchiato) and breakfast is served all day.

The Americana atmosphere supports the food. The bar, assembled from art deco ticket booths and remnants salvaged from the old Philadelphia Civic Center, is a throwback to yesteryear. The menu is laid out in the form of a newspaper from times now faded. A large screen plays black-and white classics such as 30's gangster films or the original King Kong as old-timey tunes play in the background.

One word of caution. Ted's is often extremely busy, so if you don't have a reservation be prepared to wait. But, to pass the time, you can watch bakers resupply those marvelous pop tarts.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What Others Say:
The Prices Do DC Rating
  • **** (4 out of 5 plates with the last plate for the pop tarts)

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The War on Whistleblowers

It's something we are told in early childhood - nobody likes a tattletale. But what if the tale desperately needs to be tattled? For example, you find out that troops are needlessly dying because the military refuses to use a safer type of transport vehicle even though one is available. Or the radios on Coast Guard ships won't work if they become wet. Or the government is illegally listening in on phone conversations. Do you forget the childhood admonition, assume the risks, and become a whistleblower? And, if you do blow the whistle, what can, and often does, happen to you?

These are some of the scenarios examined in the new documentary War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State by Brave New Foundation and director Robert Greenwald. The film was premiered at the Newseum this week and following that screening, a 5-member panel discussed the issues raised in the engrossing message movie.

Abbe Lowell, a white-collar defense attorney known for defending clients charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, says the whistleblowing issue has created "an Obama vs. Obama dark sides and light sides Civil War." On one hand, President Barack Obama has approved unprecedented job rights for whistleblowers which have resulted in enormous victories for workers in the private sector. However, he and his administration have filed more charges of secret revealing against government employees than all the other presidential administrations combined. "The government is also trying to re-brand federal employees as national security workers which would leave a self policing honor system by (federal) agencies," Lowell said.

As a starting point, the panel tried to distinguish between 2 terms - whistleblowing and leaking.  In whistle blowing, "the purpose is to try to correct a wrong," said Danielle Brian, the executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a non-partisan independent group that conducts investigations into corruption and misconduct and champions good government reforms.

Leaking, however, like spying, serves a much different purpose.  "A leaker decides to reveal classified information for the purposes of ego or disgruntlement," said John Rizzo, an attorney for 34 years at the Central Intelligence Agency and the CIA's chief legal counsel for 7 years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City.

The panel discussed theories on why Obama would be so supportive of whistleblowers in private industry and employ the exact opposite approach with government workers. "Maybe the president has become close to intelligence agencies, but I think people expected something different from him," Brian said.

Rizzo said that working under 7 different presidents taught him that patterns develop. "(As president) you find out all the secrets belong to you and every president wants to keep secrets," he said "But too much stuff is being classified and that erodes respect for true secrets."

Several of the panelists said that in today's world of terror - a fact driven home just 1 day earlier by the bomb blasts at the Boston marathon - leaders are fearful of appearing weak on national security. "After 9/11, cases going after leakers are low-hanging fruit," Lowell said.

The film depicts the situations of 4 people - Franz Gayl, Michael DeKort, Thomas Drake, and Thomas Tamm - who, after being ignored by their chain of commands, took their issues to the media.

Tamm, who reported on illegal government listening of the conversations of private citizens, left his Justice Department position and now works as a criminal defense litigation attorney in Washington.

"So few people knew what was going on that it clued me that what was going on was illegal," Tamm said. "I observed the law being broken and I was at the Justice Department to protect the law."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The documentary is thought-provoking and powerful.  To see a trailer, click here.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Powder Keg in Pyongyang

Kim Jung-un surrounded by his military
For decades, North Korea has rattled its sabers with much noise but no resulting conflict. But now, with a young, untested Korean dictator/king in charge threatening nuclear attacks, just how serious are the words of war spewing from the North Korean capital of Pyongyang? Could a nuclear conflagration actually explode on the Korean peninsula? And what strategy should the United States employ in light of this potentially dangerous situation?

These were just a few of the key questions a panel of Korean experts discussed this week at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) program entitled Powder Keg in Pyongyang: How Serious is the Korean Crisis?

"It's like looking though a glass darkly. We don't know how cohesive the North Korean dictatorship is at this point. But domestic politics are informing the threats that we've all been so thrilled by," said Nicholas Eberstadt, a senior adviser to the National Bureau of Asian Research. "Kim Jung-un has to consolidate the  throne and he has to consolidate the state."

A major problem is so little is known about North Korea's new 30-year-old  leader who inherited the mantle of leadership when his father died in late 2011. Under the rule of his father and grandfather, North Korea was recognized as one of the worst dictatorships in the world.

"Even the most brutal dictatorships in the Middle East pale alongside North Korea," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia. Despite years of oppression and starvation, there is little chance for an internal uprising. First, the people are terrified and cowed. The government has complete control over the media and there is no social media to foment rebellion. "You don't have a (Nelson) Mandela for the people to rally around. You don't have the conditions that you did for an Arab Spring," Klingner explained.

As expected, the entire economy of North Korea is controlled by a select few. "North Korea is just one big criminal enterprise that happens to have state sovereignty," said Dan Blumenthal, the director of Asian studies at AEI. "The entire economy is a prime money laundering concern."

In its money laundering practices (Kim Jung-un for instance is believed to have more than $5 billion stashed away), North Korea's primary partner is China, which, of course, poses a particular problem for the United States. North Korea buys the bulk of its energy and military weapons from China, but its corrupt leaders also "buy their luxury items from their caviar to their iPhones to their Swedish pornography" from their giant, powerful neighbor to the north, Blumenthal said.

And while Chinese officials aren't always happy with North Korea's behavior, they are concerned with the possibility of losing its border neighbor to west-leaning nations. "China is reluctant to shut down North Korea," Blumenthal said. "It gives it stability on its border."  

Of course, the complexity of any American reaction is further complicated by its long, close ties to its ally South Korea. "North Korea is a really bad problem, but South Korea has been a huge success for the United States," said Abraham Denmark, vice president for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Currently, the administration of President Barack Obama has been employing "strategic patience" with North Korea's posturing and threat escalations. "We've tried a variety of mixed carrots and sticks over the years, but the model of success for North Korea has yet to be found," Denmark said.

Meanwhile, there is a belief that South Korea may not be as tolerant of North Korean behavior as it has been. "Leaders there have been criticized for not hitting back, so they have changed the rules of engagement. South Korea is much more likely to respond militarily than in times past. And they will respond forcefully and exponentially," Klingner said.

And what about the powerful nuclear capabilities of the United States and China and the limited, but real, possibilities in North Korea? "No country on Earth has ever gone to war with a nuclear state, but it's difficult to form a North Korea strategy. You have such conflicting views on best interests. And if there is regime collapse, you still have a nuclear state with nuclear people all over the place," said Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst.

So what exactly is the best way for the United States to proceed? Talks should be held. Military maneuvers should continue. Efforts to make China reign in its partner should be increased. But, above all, the process should be thoughtful and proceed slowly, unless unforeseen circumstances mandate quick action. "The United States must move step by step to reduce the menace to itself and its allies rather than a quick Nobel Peace Prize-like solution," Eberstadt said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While the North Korea situation is serious, there is something absurd about a 3rd-rate dictatorship claiming that it will bomb Austin, Texas. For a lighter look at the situation click here to see what Stephen Colbert had to say on The Colbert Report. Click here to view Jon Stewart's report on The Daily Show.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Sacred Language of Poetry

Natasha Tretheway: If I can't see it, I can't say it.
It's one of the most enduring questions in human history -  how does someone become a better person, a person more capable of reaching outward to show concern and compassion to others. Many focus on religious teachings. Others look to ethics or morality studies. But another answer, suggests Natasha Tretheway, the current Poet Laureate of the United States, may be found in the language of poetry

"Poetry is a sacred language to speak to each other and hear each other," Tretheway says. "It is most sacred in how it teaches us to empathize. We see ourselves in poetry which allows us to see others."

Tretheway appeared last night at the Newseum to present her thoughts in a program entitled The Story Being Written: The Poet as Public Figure. The program was presented by the First Amendment Center and Emory University, where Tretheway currently serves as a creative writing professor.

In her poetry, Tretheway explores themes of history, knowledge, and family. Those themes are revealed in the titles of her works such as "Illumination," "Knowledge," "Enlightenment," or "Elegy for My Father." The poet was born in 1966 in Mississippi to a white father and a black mother, meaning that her parents were not legally recognized as being married in that state and she was considered illegitimate. Ironically, today, not only is she the American Poet Laureate, she is also the Poet Laureate of the state of Mississippi.

Although she uses her personal experiences, the universal appeal of her works is evident. "To have intimate conversations (about family) is really to have a conversation with America," Tretheway contends. "Poetry helps us know something about ourselves and the world we live in and our place in the world we have been given."

"When I write about history, I'm really writing about the present," she says. In her poetry, Tretheway has termed history "a beautiful ruin etched in the mind's eye."

"People are dropped into history and history is trapped in us also," she explains.

As you might expect, Tretheway read a few of her poems as preface to her remarks. One of the most poignant was "Help, 1968," which deals with the Mississippi times when her mother was mistaken for her maid and forced to assume a mask of "the dark foil in the American story."

Tretheway says her mixed-race background compels her to look at the codification of racial differences in society. "You are what the cops say you are," she says somewhat jokingly. "But geography is fate. There is the idea of white supremacy and black inferiority and all that is implied in that. Not to deal with my personal history, for me, that would mean turning away from my mother, turning away from her story."

Being of mixed-race, Tretheway says she has always been forced to face conceptions about the subject.  "I've heard things like 'that's your white side' or 'you're not like the rest of them.' But I choose to represent the rest of them as the best of them."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you would like to learn more about Tretheway's writing and see samples of her poetry, click here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Taking Down Terrorism

It was a chilling, sobering coincidence, one that vividly reminds us of just how tenuous life can be in these terror-filled times. At the exact moments former CIA operative Philip Mudd was discussing his 2 decades of fighting terrorists at the New America Foundation in Washington, a series of bombs were being prepared for detonation in Boston, deadly blasts which would shatter the joy of the annual Boston marathon and leave Americans yet again shaken and saddened by seemingly senseless violence.

Even though he had no knowledge of the impending tragedy, many of Mudd's's remarks were eerily prophetic:
  • "There are groups designed and driven to destroy America." 
  • "There's a sense of threat. Will it be the next day? Will it be Chicago? Will it be New York again? 
  • "We're not going to clean up every place."
  • "We didn't say we live in the land of the secure, we live in the land of the free."
But if questioned today, Mudd would repeat his message that post 9/11 America is in much better shape to deal with terrorists, whether they be foreign or domestic. "The unknown then was the universal. We were putting in an offense in the middle of chaos. We had to learn how to handle that volume of threat. We now have better ways to find, fix, and finish these folk," Mudd said.

Mudd based much of his engaging, brutally frank talk on his new book Takedown: Inside the Hunt for Al-Qaeda.

There are 2 major questions that should guide America's decision on its war against terror, Mudd contends:

1) Who are these people who think of America as a target? Who can get at you? and

2) Where are the places of safe haven that provide the ability to plot in time and space?

Once terrorists targets are identified, there are only 3 options, Mudd said.
  • go after them where they are
  • stop them before they get to the United States or
  • get them while they are here
"This is a brutal business. It's about operational tempo. You need to choose and rate who you go after. If you can take the people out faster than they can replicate, you will win. You're going to arrest them or you are going to kill them," Mudd said.

However, you need to temper decisions made in anger or for revenge, Mudd maintained. "Your key responsibility is to keep cool when it gets hot," he said.. 

Timing is crucial. "If you get there too late, they are going to kill people. If you get there too early, you may make more enemies - you go from I think they might be adversaries to guaranteeing they will be adversaries. I don't want to be bitten by the dog, but I don't want to bite the dog too early. These implications are profound. Don't make a mistake or it is your ass. We want to separate war from tragedy and that is never going to happen," Mudd said.

Several times during his presentation, Mudd said he was aware that there is no unanimity on handling the question of the ongoing war on terror. He acknowledged that mistakes have been made. "Would we do everything we did then now? Absolutely not," Mudd said. "We need to question. We need to discuss. You should never rejoice in death. But people can have this debate because we succeeded." 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As you might expect, Mudd was asked about his feelings on the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. "My goal was not killing bin Laden. I always thought our job was to mitigate threat. What we did, was it right? I think it was a good thing. But it wasn't a day of joy. You should never rejoice in death; you do not celebrate death. If you do, you should get out of the business."

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Looking at Movement Milestones

This year, 2 of the most significant events in the long history of the American struggle for freedom are marking major anniversaries. It has been 100 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his legendary "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the memorial that honors Lincoln.

Last week, 5 distinguished Black scholars participated in a panel discussion at the National Archives entitled One Hundred Years: From the Emancipation Proclamation to the March on Washington. John Franklin of the now-under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture served as moderator. He directed questions at panel members:

  • C.R. Gibbs, historian and author
  • Clarence Lusane, professor of political science at American University
  • Roger Davidson, professor of history at Coppin State University and
  • Frank Smith, director of the DC African American Civil War Memorial and Museum 
As you might expect from the time frame, the discussion started with the Civil War. At the beginning of that conflict, there were 3.9 million Black slaves in the United States, the majority of them located in the 11 southern states which left the Union and formed the Confederacy.

"Neither side could win the conflict without the help of slaves," Smith contended. "Whichever side freed the slaves would win the war." Of course, Lincoln made that move. "He was a little slow on the uptake but once he got his mind made up, he was really tough," Smith added.

By the end of the war, more than 200,000 African-Americans had fought for the North, 3/4 of whom were slaves when the war started in 1860. "This is a phenomenal story we're just really starting to learn about," Smith said. 

Following the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln, the reunited America entered a period called the Reconstruction. "The fulcrum of the Reconstruction was so important even though it was crushed in 10 years," Lusane said.

"There was a true offer of freedom during the Reconstruction," Davidson added. "There were 1,000 of (Black) local and state officials, with 16 more going to Congress, 4 of whom were Senators." However, after  about 10 years of progress, economic conditions led the Republican party of Lincoln "to turn its back on its African-American base in the South," Davidson said. "People were saying 'we've helped the Negro enough. It is time the Negro helps himself.' Southern Democrats began to take over."

During the 100 years explored in  the discussion, there were many important decisions concerning discrimination cases. In 1896, the Supreme Court in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case ruled that states could legally segregate its citizens by color. "Even though separate is not equal, the court found that it was social rights, not civil rights, that were being violated," Davidson said. 

That decision ushered in the time of the Jim Crow laws. However, in 1954, the Supreme Court reversed course and ruled in the historic Brown vs. the Board of Education that segregation of students (and by extension, all ages) was unconstitutional. "Brown vs. the Board is the death knell for Jim Crow segregation in the South," Davidson maintained.

However, the discriminatory practices in both the South and the North continued. "We're still dealing with the effects in many ways even today in the 21st Century," Gibbs said. 

In the 1950's and 1960's, the Civil Rights Movement came into being to combat discrimination. One of the high points of that movement was the August, 1963 March on Washington. Smith participated in that historic day, which brought 250,000 protesters to DC. "To see that number of people, many of whom were white, was the 1st time I ever thought we might just win this fight. It was a tremendous morale boost," Smith said. 

The panel concurred that from the time of the Emancipation Proclamation until today, much progress has occurred, but much work remains. "We have unyielding racial attitudes in how some people see the country that go back generations," Lusane said. To reinforce his point, Lusane produced 3 separate U.S. maps - one showing slave areas in 1859, one of racial desegregation in the 1950's, and one showing the states that supported Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 election. All 3 maps showed virtually identical breakdowns.

However, changing demographics indicate that the days of a white majority are coming to an end. With such a future, it would appear that attitudes supporting dual levels of citizenship based on ethnicity will be ending. Lusane has even given the last days of this outgoing period a name. He calls it "the cognitive dissonance of the demographically doomed."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
During the question and answer portion of the session, the panel was asked if it feared that the current legal challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the Supreme Court could be a setback to the hard-won Civil Rights victories in voting rights. "No matter what happens in the court, we will still be fighting around voting rights," Lusane said. "There are people who feel this (voting protection) should have been nationalized, not just focused on the South. A decision could open up a debate of national and federal laws. Now, we can keep Mississippi under jurisdiction, but it doesn't keep Ohio under (federal) jurisdiction.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Searchers: The Making of a Legend

Unless you come from Texas, the name Cynthia Ann Parker probably isn't familiar. Of course, the same can not be said about the classic American movie The Searchers. But without the riveting real-life story of Ms. Parker, we wouldn't have the legendary John Wayne/John Ford film, often called the greatest western ever filmed.

In his most recent book The Searchers: The Making of a Legend , author Glenn Frankel explores both Parker's story and the Wayne/Ford film. Recently, Frankel appeared at Politics and Prose to talk about his latest work.

"The Searchers is a movie about a legend that in itself has become a legend," Frankel says. "Parker's story has been altered and embroidered through the generations. It's a foundational story about the settling of the American West.  Each generation has described the story as they wanted it to be. The myth has been very useful to people over the years."

So what are the facts of the tale?  In East Texas in 1836, a group of Comanches raided a white settler community and abducted 5 youngsters, including 9-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker. Her Uncle James Parker spent 8 years searching for his captured niece. In 1860, a group of whites raided a Comanche village and discovered a blue-eyed squaw who turned out to be Cynthia Ann. She was returned to her East Texas home, despite the fact that she had wed an Indian brave and mothered 3 children. A victim of not one, but 2, abductions that completely upended her world, she died in misery and obscurity.  "Initially she was something of a celebrity, but here was a woman that for 24 years had worn clothing that didn't have buttons. They called her the White Comanche Princess. Her (white) family didn't condemn her, but they couldn't understand her," Frankel said.

After her death, Parker's story continued to be retold. "It depicted a real clash of civilizations not like the phony one we talk about today between Christians and Muslims," Frankel said. "These people (in Parker's story) shared very little except a desire to wipe each other out."

In the early 1950s, a Hollywood screen writer and author Alan LeMay used it as the basis for a novel entitled The Avenging Texan. In LeMay's novel the avenging uncle became the main character. Director Ford, already firmly established as Hollywood's greatest director of westerns, revised the LeMay version for The Searchers.  

"John Ford was the father of the modern western," Frankel said. "The western was at the heart of his identity. He grabbed his drinking buddy and protege John Wayne. Wayne had practically invented the character of the lone laconic gunman. Wayne played Ethan Edwards, a man tainted by racism and crazed by revenge which gave the story more ambiguity."

Instead of filming in East Texas, Ford, as he had so successfully in the past, used Monument Valley in Utah as the site of his movie. "Texas is flat and horizontal. Monument Valley is vertical and looks like Texas should look," Frankel said.

"Ford was the ultimate cinematic myth maker," Frankel said. "He filmed a story about all our western myths. You can ask - what can be more American than The Searchers?"

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
In 1989, The Searchers was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in its National Film Registry. The film regularly appears on the best-of-all-time movie lists. For example, the film is ranked 12th on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Films. In 2008, the American Film Institute named The Searchers as the greatest Western of all time.  To view the trailer for the legendary classic, click here.

Marijuana and the Code of the West

When you think of the drug capitals of the Americas you might consider Mexico. Or perhaps Columbia. But chances are Montana wouldn't come to mind. But in 2011, that state was the site of sweeping federal raids that effectively shut down the burgeoning medical marijuana industry there and sent growers to long prison terms, actions that came despite state laws that allowed both the growth and sale of marijuana as medicine.

The problem, as it is in 18 other states and the District of Columbia, is that while local laws permit growth and sale of medical marijuana, federal law still makes all such activities illegal. The situation became even more complicated last November when voters in 2 states - Colorado and Washington - approved recreational marijuana use in their communities.

An examination of the machinations behind the Montana crackdown forms the basis of the documentary Code of the West, which explores 2 basic questions - what codes should we live by and what should happen to those who choose to dissent? The film was recently screened at the Cato Institute and was followed by presentations from 2 critics of the current federal drug policy, both of whom described that policy as draconian and out-of-touch with reality.

Julie Stewart, the head of the 64,000-member Families Against Mandatory Minimums, called the sentences applied in Montana and elsewhere "outrageous." She 1st became involved in the issue after her brother was sentenced as a "drug kingpin" to 5 years in a Washington state prison for growing 365 marijuana plants in his garage.

Stewart said she found it appalling that the sentence was imposed because her brother declined to name other marijuana growers. "He chose not to report them because he didn't want to destroy someone else," Stewart said.

"This movie just makes you crazy that the federal government is sticking its nose in where it doesn't belong. It's worrisome that this could happen in other states. We are just waiting for the other shoe to drop," she said. "I mean really, how important is it to prosecute these people. It's a plant. And they are following local laws."

As you would expect from the title of her organization, Stewart leveled some of her strongest criticism at the laws that call for mandatory sentence lengths for people found guilty of crimes such as marijuana sales. "You need discretion. Life is not black and white. Life is shades of grey."

Stephanie Sherrer, a long-time medical marijuana user and a spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access, said the federal government's position is wrong, but that the situation in Montana was poorly handled at both the state and federal levels.

"I am an advocate of medical marijuana, but I think you need to have discussions," Sherrer said. "What we saw in Montana was actually the opposite of that. The battle that we have with the federal government is that we're told we have to be black or white and we are not black and white - we are gray. Nobody is looking out for the medical user of marijuana. If we're not going to find legal access, we will be forced to use (illegal) dealers."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
You can view the trailer for the documentary Code of the West by clicking here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bending Toward Justice

At 22, Bernard Lafayette was already a veteran of the Civil Rights wars. He had been a Freedom Rider. He had worked in the Mississippi heat to register poor black voters. Now, on this 1963 day, he was awaiting his next assignment from his leader James Foreman. In front of both men was a giant map of the South. Lafayette noticed there was a large X over a portion of Alabama. Lafayette asked about the X. Foreman said it had been placed there since it had been determined that it would be hopeless to mount of voter registration drive in that area, which included the city of Selma, called by many at the time the most racist city in all of the South.

Foreman explained the reasoning behind that decision. Less than 1% of all the eligible African-American voters in Dallas County had been able to register. The 1st obstacle was a formidable 3-page application that had to be filled out if you were black. Make 1 simple mistake and your request would be rejected.  If you did successfully complete the application, you had to take an oral test with inane questions on federal, state, and local governments. One question was to name all the county judges in Alabama. There were 67 of them. Finally, if you somehow completed those 2 tasks, you had to pay a poll tax.

But the problems didn't stop there. If you did become a registered voter, your name was published for 2 weeks in the local paper so it could be seen by every segregationist and Ku Klux Klan member in the area. Even worse, you became a target of Sheriff Jim Clark, a 6'3" 225-pound brutal racist who always carried a pistol, a cattle prod, and a rope as he enforced his version of the law, a version that contained no provisions for the well-being of any black person.

Lafayette knew immediately what he wanted to do "He said 'that's where I want to go," says history professor and author Gary May. "What did he have to lose except for his life?"

In his new book, Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy, May tells the story behind the historic enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Of course, the major players such as Martin Luther King and President Lyndon Johnson play prominent roles in the story, but May said he wanted to focus on other influential characters, such as Lafayette, that were "lost in history's shadow."

"I was trying to write a people's history of the Voting Rights Act," May told the audience who came to the National Archives today to hear him talk about his book. "These were people who risked everything ... they risked their lives for the right to vote and they earned it and then they fought to preserve it."

For those unfamiliar with the story, Lafayette and others began a dangerous, arduous process that eventually led to a bloody confrontation on a Selma bridge that so horrified and galvanized the nation that President Johnson was able to get a Voting Rights bill through Congress.

"The Voting Rights Act was written with the blood and the bruises of the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge," May said.

Since the enactment in 1965, the law has been renewed 4 more times - in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. But now, May said, it is facing its toughest challenge. This year, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from representatives of Shelby County, Alabama, claiming that the law is unconstitutional since it treats states differently. They especially object to a provision that makes 9 states (most of them in the South) have to get any voting law changes approved by the Federal Department of Justice.  A ruling on that case is expected later this year.

May says he hopes the Supreme Court rules in favor of continuing the provisions of the Act, which opponents contend are antiquated and no longer needed. "Voter suppression is as American as apple pie. The voting rights wars have a long, long, history," May said. "It's a fallacious argument to say the voting laws are no longer needed. Look at what was tried in 2011 and 2012. Yes, we have made progress. But how many governors of Louisiana, of Mississippi, of Alabama, of Texas, of South Carolina, have been African-Americans? Things have gotten better, but I don't think we can go back."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
May was asked what he thinks will happen at the Supreme Court level. "I'm optimistic," he said. "Even if the Supreme Court were to overturn provisions in the act, it would only be a temporary setback. Very often the best friends of the Civil Rights movement are its enemies. This could create momentum to have revisions that, in the long run, could nationalize and strengthen the voting rights act."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Girls of Atomic City

As can so often be the case, the idea for Denise Kiernan's new book came as she was doing research for another project. Kiernan was preparing an article on nuclear medicine when she found a 1944 black-and-white picture of a group of well-dressed young women, all sitting in front of giant machines with knobs and dials at the then-secret Tennessee city of Oak Ridge. Keirnan knew little about Oak Ridge, one of the sites involved in America's race to create the nuclear bomb. "But that picture really, really drew me in." she says. She wanted to discover more. And the fascinating story that she discovered is now detailed in The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II.

Kiernan recently appeared at the National Archives to discuss her book and the women who people it. "It's the true story of women working at a secret government city whose sole purpose was enriching uranium. They were working on the world's 1st atomic bomb, but they didn't know it at the time," the author said.

Although all the stories were different, there were several common elements. For the most part the women were young, excited to be working, and looking at this as an opportunity for adventure. Celine, 22, was typical. In 1943, her boss came to her and said "we're moving our office and I need you to go with me." Celine asked where they would be going. "You get to the train station and we'll tell you where to get off," he replied. But what would she doing? All they would say is that she would be helping the war effort. "So off she and the others went to a new city that nobody knew existed," Kiernan said.

The one thing that all the interviewees remembered was the mud, which was everywhere. Originally, Oak Ridge was designed for 13,000 residents. That number climbed to 75,000 by 1945. At one point, builders were constructing a new house every 30 minutes on the 56,000-acres site, which at the time contained the largest single building in the world. During its height, Oak Ridge was using more electricity than New York City.

None of the women knew all of what was going on due to the tight secrecy surrounding every aspect of Oak Ridge. Each could only view the project through her job. One woman was convinced that the project had something to do with urine since all she did 8 hours a day was label urine samples. Another was equally certain that pipes were the key since pipes came into the room where she worked, she inspected them, and they were moved out the door. The locals nearby were equally in the dark. "All they saw was that everything was going in and nothing was going out," Kiernan said. But, eventually there was something coming out - 2 or 3 teaspoons of atomic matter in a canister in a briefcase strapped to someone's wrist.

Because of the urgency of the Manhattan Project, the operations at Oak Ridge ran around the clock. The employees worked in shifts, ate in shifts, played in shifts, and slept in shifts. There were 24-hour skating and dance halls for recreation. And, as you might imagine, with young men and women working and living together, romance blossomed. In fact, many of the women who worked at the site are still married to the husbands they 1st met there.

In today's age of internet and 24-hour cable TV, it may seem strange that the secrets at Oak Ridge were kept quiet. But World War II was a much different time. People didn't want to take any action that could jeopardize the war effort. They believed in the message of the 3 Monkeys posted throughout the plant. That message - "What you say here, what you do here, what you hear here, what you learn here, let it stay here."

But on August 6th, 1945, the secret behind Oak Ridge was revealed when the 1st Atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, followed by a 2nd bomb on Nagasaki a few days later.

"The workers at Oak Ridge realized then that the world was a completely different place now and they had had a part in that. On V-J day, they were very happy the war was over, but it was difficult for some of them to handle their involvement at the time," Keirnan said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As part of her book promotion, Kiernan appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Click here to view the video clip of the interview.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton traveled more than 1,000,000 miles. And as a state correspondent for the BBC, Kim Ghattas traveled 300,000 of those miles with her.  Ghattas' new book The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power, is, in the author's own words, an attempt "as an outsider to demystify the policy making machine and show the human beings at the center of foreign policy decisions."

Ghattas appeared recently at the New America Foundation to talk about her book and share her impressions of her time with Clinton.

A native of Beirut, Ghattas said she grew up "with the consequences of decisions made in Washington." As an American outsider, she said she is keenly aware of the perceptions of power and influence that other countries have of America. "There is a belief that America pulls all the strings, pushes all the buttons, and sees whatever it wants to happen, happen," Ghattas said. "People believe America should save every person, get involved in every conflict that erupts."

"I wanted to bridge the gap between illusion and reality and, to the best of my ability, explain how the U.S. doesn't always get to do what it wants to do," she added.

Ghattas said America often finds itself in a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma. Take the current conflict in Syria. There are calls for the U.S. to intercede, but there are others who would be angered with American meddling in that Arab country. "America is loved and resented in equal measure," Ghattas said. "It comes with being a superpower."

Clinton started with one major goal - "to improve perceptions of the U.S. around the world." Ghattas agreed that was a vitally  needed task. "I think everyone can agree that the Bush years weren't a golden age of diplomacy," she noted. So how well did Clinton do in trying to reconnect with both allies and rivals?  "History will tell," Ghattas said. "But I do feel there is less animosity toward the U.S."

So how would Ghattas sum up Clinton's diplomatic philosophy? "It was about the big picture. It was about laying the foundation to establish a 21st Century diplomacy. She tried to understand where her counterparts were coming from. She was saying 'the U.S. can help, but it's up to you. We are not about to remake societies,'" she said.

Throughout her political career, Clinton has been a lightning rod, attracting ardent supporters and virulent detractors. "She is a very compelling character whether you like her or not. She is a pragmatic person. She hits the ground running with whatever she has to get done. Removed from domestic conflict, she was able to be more herself," Ghattas said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Of course, the major question now is what is next for Hillary? She left her job as Secretary of State with the highest approval ratings of her career. Will she run for president in 2016? "The pull will be very strong," Ghattas said. "I don't think she has made up her mind. But this is not the last we have heard from her. She is not going to retire."

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Two Presidents Are Better Than One

In an America seemingly paralyzed by partisan politics and political dysfunction, author and former state legislator David Orentlicher believes he has an idea that could break the gridlock at the national level - the United States should have not one, but 2 presidents, each one coming from a different political party.

"Dysfunction has gotten to the point in Washington where a radical solution is needed," Orentlicher says. "Sometimes, 2 heads really are better than one."

Orentlicher appeared at Politics and Prose recently to outline the ideas contained in his new book Two Presidents Are Better Than One: The Case for a Bipartisan Executive Branch. 

The author said his proposals are a combination of his 6 years as an Indiana legislator and his political research.  "I always said I would be bipartisan. But it's very hard to remain above the partisan fray," Orlentlicher contended, a situation that he says is even more difficult in Washington. The reason, he maintains, is that the president and the executive branch of the government have become too powerful.

"There is now all this power to our president and when you give all that power to one person it causes problems.The party out of the White House spends most of its time saying 'let's get the White House' instead of focusing on the country's needs," Orentlicher said.

So what would Orentlicher's proposal look like? Candidates from any political party could run for president. The top 2 vote-getters would then share the office.  Once in office, both presidents would have to sign any executive orders. Positional nominations and other presidential actions such as budget plans would also have to be agreed to.

"Any time there is a decision to be made, it would have to be a joint decision," the author said. "This would make sure to represent the views of more voters, not just half the voters."

Orentlicher says the Founding Fathers were worried about an imperial, king-like presidency. They thought the other 2 branches of government - the legislative and the judicial - could provide a power balance. But that isn't happening, Orentlicker contends. "These checks haven't worked. We have Congress saying here's the power, and the president saying 'thank you, and I'll take that too.' Foreign policy is all executive-driven."

But wouldn't the 2 presidents get involved in the same type of bickering that now bogs down government? "There would be no incentive for them not to agree. They wouldn't have any incentive for conflict," Orentlicher said.

In addition to promoting positive actions, the 2-president system could prevent wrong ones from being put in place, the author contended. "The Iraq War was a bad decision and I'm pretty sure he (George W. Bush) wouldn't have done that if he shared the office with Al Gore," Orentlicher said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Before he began his talk, Orlentlicher revealed that he might be pre-disposed to sharing because he shared a womb for the 1st 9 months of his life with his twin sister, who was in the book talk audience. So what did his sister think about her brother's presidential plan? "I love my brother," she said. But the plan? "I like to keep my options open," she said with a smile.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Religion and the Supreme Court

The Bible is often in front of the court
As the highest court in the land and the ultimate arbiter of all things constitutional, the Supreme Court often hears cases involving freedom of religion issues. So, of course, that fact raises the question - do the religious beliefs of the Supreme Court justices influence their decisions?

Well, as is so often the case, the answer depends on whom you ask. Ask Justice Antonin Scalia and he says he would resign if he believed a personal religious stance would ever force him to forgo his judicial duty. He says he has an obligation to overcome any personal preferences and, as an originalist, always submit to the Constitution.

Scalia's benchmate Justice Stephen Breyer sees it differently. Breyer says that while he would never directly act on a personal religious conviction, his religion does a play a large role because it has shaped his vision of life.

In an attempt to get a clearer focus on the Supreme Court and the role of religion in that institution, Jeffery Rosen, a professor of law at George Washington University and legal affairs editor of The New Republic, shared his thoughts on the issue at a recent Defining Religious Freedom in America symposium held at the Newseum.

"Religion, per se, doesn't make a difference," Rosen said. "Judicial philosophy is more important than religion."

Currently, on a religious scale, the court consists of 6 Catholics and 3 Jews. Politically, there are 5 conservative and 4 liberal judges, which is a reason you often see so many 5-4 decisions.

Philosophically, judges usually fall into one of 3 categories when it comes to religious issues. There are supremacists who see no real problem with such issues as prayer in public schools. Or there are separatists who see any breach in the wall between church and state as impermissible. Or there are neutralists, siding with church or state depending on the issue. Rosen said he views Scalia and Clarence Thomas as strong supremacists. He considers Ruth Bader Ginsburg a staunch separatist.  He says Breyer and Elena Kagen are examples of neutralists.

Rosen said the non-emphasis on religion in the current court, which historically hasn't always been the case, is just another reflection of America today. "Religion is just one more prefix for the pluralistic way everyone is now in a hyphenated-America," Rosen contended. "The justices will continue what they have been doing - protecting the church from the state and the state from the church."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
To delve deeply into historic Supreme Court cases dealing with religion and religious freedom, click here.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Who Are the Foes of Religious Freedom?

Religious freedom has always been at the forefront of the American experience, even before the 1st Pilgrims, Bibles in hand, landed at Plymouth Rock. The Pilgrims came to America for the freedom to practice their religion. So, of course, one of the 1st things they did was prohibit any religions other than theirs and ban dissenters like Roger Williams to the wilds of Rhode Island. But that is another story. Most agree that the Founding Fathers got it right when, in the first 16 words of the Bill of Rights, they wrote: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...  However, defining exactly what that phrase means became an issue almost as soon as the ink on the 1st Amendment dried. And challenges have risen throughout American history to question exactly how that mandate should be determined and enforced. Not surprisingly, in today's increasing pluralistic American society, those challenges are only being exacerbated.

To examine some of the current and future challenges to religious freedom, the Religious Freedom Education Project, the Committee on Religious Liberty, and Moment Magazine recently held a symposium on defining religious freedom in America at the Newseum.

The final session of the symposium featured 6 speakers. They were:

  • Kim Colby, senior counsel for the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom
  • Michael Lieberman, director of the Civil Rights Policy Planning Center of the Anti-Defamation League
  • Dan Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom and Religion of Belief
  • Suhag Shukla, executive director and legal counsel for the Hindo American Foundation
  • Mark Rienzi, special counsel for the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty and
  • Jay Michaelson, of Poitical Research Associates
Shukla framed the debate when she listed 3 problems that lead to many of the most difficult areas of contention. First, the United States is awash in religious illiteracy. "We don't know what our neighbors believe," she said. Then, there are deep-rooted pockets of religious intolerance. Finally, there is what Shukla terms "asymmetry" of political power. "The less powerful don't have deep pockets; they don't have the lobby to fight," she said.

The panel examined several current religious issues. One was an attack in California on the teaching of yoga in schools as religion. "Where do we draw the line," Shudka asked. "Is yoga a religion? What about sweat yoga. Or doga-yoga where you do yoga with your dog? Another issue explored was the case of a legislator in South Carolina who wanted to get approval for a state license plate which would feature the slogan I Believe accompanied with a cross in front of a stained glass window. When it was pointed out that such approval could lead to a Hindu or Muslim license plate, the obviously Christian plate call failed.

A huge church/state battleground is America's public school system. Here it can be something like a ban a school wanted to institute on rosary beads because they could be considered a gang symbol. But other times it is the intrusion of religion into the schools that is the culprit. "Rights are being violated routinely," Mach contended, causing his group to take legal action. "There are people promoting religion on a daily basis." 

As an example, Mach cited the case of a Southern principal who decided to schedule a full-day of auditorium programs to promote Christianity. "It may not happen the other 364 days of the year, but they are going to get Christ one day a year," Mach said the principal contended.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The issue of religious freedom can be further clouded by the fact that many secular issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception also have religious overtones. The Huffington Post published an interesting opinion piece last week entitled "Religious Freedom, Meet Secularism: Your Best Ally." To read that article, click here. 

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