Live Blogging the State of the Union

11:02: One big oversight on my part and the president’s. NO mention of gun control in the speech. See the Brady Campaign’s response here.

10:29: That’s all folks. I think my live-blogging career might be over before it ever really began but thanks to all 13 of you who tuned in. Before I sign off, allow me a quick plug of my latest column on WikiLeaks. Click here to read it on Echoboomer. Goodnight!

10:19: Overall, a very subdued speech–clearly in part a reaction to the Tuscon tragedy and in part a result of the new bipartisan seating arrangement. Very few quotable lines to pick out. Obama’s reaffirmation of some core priorities was nice, but I felt the speech was frankly blah. The whole “win the future,” “rah, rah America” spiel failed to resonate. On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell criticizes Obama for a lack of specifics. Have to agree. Like most SOTUs, this one won’t be remembered beyond the next four hours of cable news coverage.

10:13: And that’s it. “The state of our union is strong,” Obama finally declares. Obama now making his way through the obligatory handshakes and hugs on the way out.

10:13: If I never hear the words “win the future” again I’ll be a happy man.

10:10: Psst…you’re not supposed to mention “Plan B” in a SOTU…Even if it does refer to the rescue mobile for the Chilean miners.

10:08: Biden and Boehner get a little chummy as Obama gives a shout-out to their respective hardscrabble upbringings. Boehner, inevitably, on verge of tears.

10:07: Another shot at China, it would seem: “In some countries, if they want want a railroad, they build a railroad no matter how many homes get bulldozed.” Go USA!

10:05: Obama hails repeal of DADT and then calls on colleges and universities to open doors to ROTC.

10:03: During this foreign policy segment of the speech, camera keeps panning to the foreign policy braintrust of Kerry and McCain who are sitting together. Meanwhile, Obama vows to stand by the people of the Tunisia in their struggle for freedom.

10:01: Great line from TPM’s John Marshall’s live blog: “For sake of clarity, I will from now on abbreviate ‘win the future’ as WTF.”

9:59: Best line of the night so far: “Muslims are part of our American family.”

9:57: And we’re into foreign policy. “America’s standing has been restored,” Obama proclaims and cites removal of combat troops from Iraq.

9:56: Obama vows to veto any bill with earmarks in it. Like we haven’t heard that one before.

9:54: Obama’s joke-telling skills earn laughs and applause with a crack about regulation of freshwater and saltwater fish. Oh, Washington humor.

9:51: Hooray! I spoke too soon. Obama says we can’t afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. “It’s not about taking away their success. It’s about promoting America’s success,” he says.

9:50: I’m having a hard time getting inspired as Obama delves deeper into talk of spending cuts to deal with the deficit. He brings up the deficit commission’s recommendation for cuts in spending across the board. No mention of the $700 billion added to the deficit by the grand bargain with Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts.

9:48: Obama proposes freeze in federal non-discretionary funding for next five years and notes the burden this will place on federal employees.

9:47: Realized I was blogging in reverse. Rookie mistake. All better now. In the meantime, Obama delved into the healthcare debate, defending healthcare reform but calling for constructive fixes to the law.

9:41: Great title for the speech by Richard Kim at The Nation: “Battle Hymn of the Tiger President.”

9:39: First real moment of humor. Obama, calling for investment in high-speed rail, says that rail access will allow people to travel faster and cheaper,  and “without the patdown.”

9:39: This speech is like a compare/contrast essay–USA and China.

9:36: Obama gives strong support to the DREAM Act, which would legalize the status of kids of illegal immigrants who go to college or serve in the military. Call for comprehensive immigration reform wins tepid applause from one-time immigration reform champion John McCain.

9:34: Boehner doesn’t like making tuition tax credits permanent. Only tax cuts for the wealthy.

9:32: Glad to see Obama giving some love to the teachers. A future one in Teach for America standing in my room right now. Philly kids, get ready for some Nando knowledge!

9:30: Obama hails Race to the Top, his educational initiative, as the most important educational initiative in a generation. He then goes on to call for replacing No Child Left Behind with a more flexible approach to education.

9:28: This bipartisan seating arrangement makes for some awkward shots of smiling Democrats and frowning Republicans.

9:26: Obama sticks it hard to oil companies, winning strong applause from Democrats. Boehner does not look amused.

9:24: And another: “This our nation’s Sputnik moment.” Proposes money for clean energy technology among other investments to be included in the budget.

9:23: And we have our first Sputnik reference…

9:20: “We need to outinnovate, outeducate and outbuild the rest of the world.” Brings the room to its feet, although the applause is noticeably muted. This bipartisan seating is really killing the usual SOTU euphoria.

9:18: Obama hails economic progress in past year and then pivots to talking about “winning the future.” In case you haven’t been following the lead-up coverage, the theme of this speech is American competitiveness.

9:16: Biden looks on intently from behind Obama. Boehner looks bored.

9:14: Obama seems to be trying to recapture the magic of the 2004 DNC speech, invoking a theme of bipartisan unity from the get-go.

9:11: Guest comment from Ben Berg: “If our union was a state of matter, what would it be?” Anyone?

9:12: Obama begins by noting the empty chair in the gallery for Congresswomen Gabby Giffords, still recovering from her injuries from the Tucson shooting.

9:08: Word just in from Katie Couric that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is the designated cabinet member to not attend the speech, just in case…Obama reaches the podium and hands over copies of the speech to VP Biden and Speaker Boehner, whose orange glow is especially pronounced for the occasion.

9:06: Obama appears in the House chamber to a typically warm reception at a SOTU. Obama and ideological archnemesis Tom Coburn embrace as the president makes his way down the aisle to the podium.


Treason by Surprise: Julian Assange, The Unlikely Traitor

This story originally appeared at Echoboomer!

As the Justice Department moves slowly but inexorably toward prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, there’s at least one crime we know the mercurial Aussie won’t be charged with: treason. Not that some haven’t entertained the idea. In December, Joe Lieberman was asked on Fox News what he made of the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute Assange as a traitor. “I’m not sure why that hasn’t happened yet,” Lieberman replied.

The Connecticut senator’s apparent belief that the US could slap a treason charge on a foreign national elicited predictable howls of derision from liberals. Even the conservative New York Sun took a dig the next day at Lieberman’s cluelessness. “The Founders just didn’t trust the Congress [to define treason], and to listen to Senator Lieberman, one can understand why.”

If a few conservatives stood up to defend Assange against accusations of treason, many more liberals have blasted him for its journalistic equivalent. Peter Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, condemned Assange soon after the release of the first leaked State Department cables for “publishing documents that sabotage American foreign policy without adding much, if anything, to the public debate.” Jamie Rubin, a former Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, called WikiLeaks’ actions “a cyber attack on the United States in general” for undermining American diplomats’ relationships with global leaders.

In light of these criticisms, it’s worth reiterating one basic fact: Julian Assange is Australian. How is it then that he’s responsible for protecting American foreign policy interests? Suppose an American journalist published, say, Chinese diplomatic cables. Would Assange’s critics find that act equally reprehensible?

To read the rest of this article, click here.

Let the Kids Read

In today’s Times, author Lorrie Moore weighs in on the Huck Finn controversy triggered last week by the publisher NewSouth Books’ announcement that it would come out with a new edition that replaces the 219 uses of the word “nigger” with the ostensibly less offensive “slave.” Moore argues that both poles of the debate–the one decrying censorship of an American literary classic, the other supporting the publisher’s efforts to render the book more accessible to high school students, especially African-American boys–are wrong. Says Moore, “The remedy is to refuse to teach this novel in high school and to wait until college — or even graduate school — where it can be put in proper context.”

Moore’s main contention is that “‘Huckleberry Finn’ is not an appropriate introduction to serious literature.” It’s simply too complex for the high school mind. So is the common young adult favorite To Kill a Mockingbird on account of  “its social-class caricatures and racially naïve narrator.” Suggests Moore, “‘Huckleberry Finn’ is suited to a college course in which Twain’s obsession with the 19th-century theater of American hucksterism — the wastrel West, the rapscallion South, the economic strays and escapees of a harsh new country — can be discussed in the context of Jim’s particular story (and Huck’s).”

Moore’s argument about age-appropriateness might ring true if she were objecting to teaching Huck Finn in elementary school, but not  to high schoolers–16, 17, 18-year-olds. Does she mean to say that students of this age cohort, some of them vested with the legal right to vote or choose to join the army, are incapable of wrapping their heads around the historical complexities of racism in the antebellum South?

Most alarming is the suggestion that high schoolers are, according to Moore, just starting their literary lives. If true, that’s by far the most serious problem in all of this. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, one of Moore’s designated inappropriate-until-college novels, in eighth grade, and I know that for me and a number of my classmates, it remains one our most rewarding literary experiences. I’ve kept a short list of my favorite quotes for the last four or five years now, and Atticus Finch’s reflection on the meaning of courage to his kids after Mrs. Dubose’s death–“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand.  It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.  You rarely win, but sometimes you do”–has been at the top of the list from the very beginning. Even then, we were sophisticated enough readers to know not to take Scout’s naive observations at face value, and if we did, that’s why we had a teacher to offer the necessary historical or social context. Come to think of it, I read a lot of books in English class that year that I suspect Ms. Moore would find deeply dangerous to the impressionable minds of pre-college teenagers–Farenheit 451, Animal Farm, Of Mice and Men. As best I can tell, none left any permanent damage on me or my classmates.

I read Huck Finn in my 11th grade American lit class, and once again the difficulties presented by its depiction of the ugliness of American racism were far from insurmountable. Moore and several other commentators this week have rightly pointed out just how tricky it is to teach Huck Finn, especially in a class with African-American students. In my own class, out-loud readings of passages with the dreaded word were laden with the inevitable discomfort and awkwardness. But as so many others have pointed out, that discomfort is very much part and parcel of the Huck Finn-reading experience–the forced reckoning with our country’s ugly racist past. And through great teaching, our discussion of race in the book moved beyond a superficial analysis of how Twain uses the n-word to call attention to the inhumanity of American racism to a deeper discussion of  Twain’s own tendency to ridicule Jim as a black man and hold him up as a source of comedic relief. Our unit culminated in a debate over whether or not Huck Finn is a racist book, and to this day, I’m still not entirely sold one way or the other.

If Moore is so concerned about high schoolers’ first encounter with serious literature being a text she deems as problematic as Huck Finn, the answer is surely to begin exposing students to “serious literature” at an earlier age rather than pushing back the study of American classics like Huck Finn until college. If Moore were to get her way, untold numbers of young Americans would be deprived of experiencing these books altogether, whether because they didn’t go to college or, like most college students, didn’t take an American lit course while there.

Don’t deny American youngsters the thrill of engaging one of American literature’s truly great works based on some condescending view of the country’s high schoolers’ intelligence level, Ms. Moore. Believe me, they can handle it.

Jindal’s Shameful Opportunism

And I thought I’d seen it all…

It turns out that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–who throughout the Gulf Coast oil spill seemed to be milking the crisis for every ounce of political gain it was worth, with his constant grandstanding over the federal government’s inadequate response and reluctance to erect his pet project of a series of sand berms off the Louisiana coastline (those that were built proved highly ineffective)–was actively obstructing the cleanup efforts. A report released Tuesday by the presidential panel commissioned to investigate the spill alleges that Jindal withheld the location of the oil-soaked marsh he routinely used as a backdrop for TV interviews, apparently finding it too handy a political prop to reveal its whereabouts.

States the report:

Coast Guard responders watched Governor Jindal—and the TV cameras following him—return to what appeared to be the same spot of oiled marsh day after day to complain about the inadequacy of the federal response, even though only a small amount of marsh was then oiled. When the Coast Guard sought to clean up that piece of affected marsh, Governor Jindal refused to confirm its location.

It’s good to see Gov. Jindal has discovered the art of political theater following his dud of a response to President Obama’s first State of the Union address in 2009. He might, though, want to save future demonstrations of his theatrical gifts for a more appropriate occasion than America’s worst man-made environmental disaster ever. Come to think of it, this year’s State of the Union is right around the corner. Bobby Jindal for the Republican rebuttal, anyone?

Côte d’Ivoire Vue

This story originally appeared at Echoboomer!

It all reeked of déjà vu.

After 10 years in power, five spent successfully postponing one election after the next, Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo was pronounced the loser of his November 28th runoff against challenger Alassane Ouattara by Côte d’Ivoire’s Independent Electoral Commission.

And then, in the blink of an eye, he was the winner.

Later that same day, the pro-Gbagbo Constitutional Council set aside some half-million votes from Ouattara bastions in the north. The next day, December 4, Gbagbo swore himself in as president.

The outcome could hardly be described as shocking. Gbagbo, who presided over Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa producer, during its civil war from 2002 to 2007, has little taste for democracy. His campaign slogan should have been a hint: “Either we win. Or we win.”

Nor was it a shock—after watching Mwai Kibaki in Kenya and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe finagle their ways into power-sharing arrangements after losing elections—to see another African strongman successfully defy the will of the people.

What did come as a surprise was the firmness of the international community’s response. The bloc of West African states known as ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) came out early against Gbagbo, with the United Nations, European Union, African Union, United States and France following suit. Within days of the electoral commission’s announcement, all had called on Gbagbo to step aside and rejected any suggestion of power-sharing. A steady stream of sanctions ensued. The US and EU imposed a travel ban on Gbagbo, the African Union suspended Côte d’Ivoire’s membership, the World Bank cut off loans to the country and international banks froze Gbagbo’s accounts.

Although an ECOWAS delegation met with Gbagbo twice in a week in order to coax the defiant leader into stepping down, the 15-nation organization has been wielding the biggest stick of all: it is threatening to oust Gbagbo by force if negotiations fail. Member nation defense chiefs convened in Nigeria last week to hammer out a potential intervention plan, and a follow-up meeting is scheduled for January 17. British Foreign Secretary William Hague, meanwhile, indicated his country would support ECOWAS military action if no peaceful resolution could be reached. Nothing similar has yet come from the State Department, though the calls for restraint that usually accompany talk of impending conflict are conspicuously absent.

But restraint—of both words and deeds—is precisely what the US should be advocating at the moment…

To read the rest of this article, click here.