The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Marriage equality passes UK House of Commons

The UK's Conservative government has passed a marriage equality bill by 400 to 175:

[UK Prime Minister David] Cameron, who described gay marriage as “an important step forward for our country”, smiled broadly as the result was revealed. [Deputy PM] Nick Clegg called the vote “a landmark for equality in Britain”. [Opposition leader] Ed Miliband said it was “a proud day”.

However, the details of the vote quickly showed that Mr Cameron’s decision to push through the legislation has left him in a minority within his own party over the issue.

The result followed a debate in which several gay MPs made impassioned arguments for the change in the law. Mike Freer, the Conservative MP for Finchley and Golders Green, appealed directly to his party colleagues over the vote, declaring: “I am not asking for special treatment. I am simply asking for equal treatment.”

The United Kingdom has a state church and a right-leaning government. The U.S. has a constitutional prohibition against a state church and has a left-leaning government. Yet the UK passed marriage equality before most legislatures in the U.S.

I remember fondly when the U.S. was a beacon of freedom and tolerance in the world. Maybe it will be again, someday.

Israel: too close to call

Earlier I brought up yesterday's (tonight's in the U.S.) elections in Israel, which surprised me because (a) they're not taking the country into a right-wing dystopia and (b) it started to look like Binyamin Netanyahu might lose his job. (b) is important because the farther away Netanyahu gets from the button, the less likely the U.S. will get drawn into an unwinnable war against Iran.

Well, some hours later, the reports from Tel Aviv are encouraging, but not definitive:

Hours after polls closed on Tuesday, and after some 95 percent of the votes were tallied, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed a mandate to third term as premier, but the battle between the country's right- and left-wing blocs remained virtually in a dead heat.

As voting ended Tuesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party garnered only 31 seats − compared to the 42 the two parties won in the last election in 2009 − prompting him to announce that he was already working toward forming “as broad a government as possible."

The final election results will only be submitted next Wednesday, which places some restraints on President Shimon Peres consulting party leaders about whom he should ask to form the next coalition. However, sources in the President’s Residence say he prefers not to wait that long and is likely to ask Netanyahu to form the next government by the end of this week.

However, Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich said she had already initiated contacts aimed at forming a center-left bloc to prevent Netanyahu remaining prime minister.

As much as I hope for Netanyahu's defenestration, he will most likely scrape together the votes to congeal a right-wing government. Even though a centrist coalition would have a nearly-unprecedented mandate, and also get the extremes on both sides to shut the hell up, the individual incentives are just too strong for Likud politicians. And sadly for just about everyone, Netanyahu is actually a true right-winger, believing the only way to deal with Arabs is through arms.

I'm not naive about the sincerity of Arab leaders who give speeches about wiping Israel into the sea. I just don't think they're likely to try. Along the same line, I think Israel's biggest mistake under Netanyahu mirrors the United States' biggest mistake under George Bush fils: fighting fire with napalm.

You can't fight terrorists with armies. Armies turn allies into enemies. Rome never learned that, but given two thousand years of experience, one would hope the United States would—if for no other reason than we study Rome in school. When you turn the forces of the empire on small threats, the threats become real.

We in the U.S. have alternated between showing the world a brilliant example of democracy and kicking the crap out of it. We declared independence with the power of liberal Enlightenment thinking behind us and promptly enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts. We spent 600,000 lives declaring all men free and promptly declared them unequal. We're the laboratory testing reason against unreason. But reason wins most of the time.

So observe Israel: a country born of the worst atrocities ever visited upon humans by other humans, a country of the smartest, best-educated, toughest people ever to constitute a free democracy, electing an open bigot as their head of government. It staggers the mind. But tonight, at least, it appears half of Israelis have rejected him. One can hope that's enough.

Netanyahu is typical of the right, warning how "those people" will destroy everything you believe in (though the specifics never seem to be described). Only, "those people" don't exist. To define "those people" requires a suspension of intellect, a cessation of rational thought. Defining an entire group of people as something less than another group requires a willful ignorance that becomes terrifying when backed by nuclear weapons.

Except, Iran doesn't seem likely to attack Israel. In fact, if "those people" were a unified block, we might expect a different sort of invasion, as one of Israel's neighbors is wracked by a civil war at the moment without a flood of refugees into Israel.

No, really: are a hundred thousand unarmed Syrians about to invade Israel? Even though the Syrian civil war would seem to give a hundred thousand Syrians a good reason to emigrate hastily to Israel, if only not to get killed by their own countrymen. So...where are they?

Netanyahu's other bugaboo is Iran. So let's ask: Is the Iranian government nuts? Yes. Are they an existential threat to Israel? No. They're kind of like al-Queda and the U.S.: crazy, destructive, criminal, worth every legal and moral effort to stop, but not an existential threat unless we make them so.

I've said this before: the right thrives on fear. People vote for right-wing politicians because they're afraid, and right-wing politicians win when fear trumps reason. Keep in mind, the greatest wartime president the U.S. ever had was a progressive Democrat in a wheelchair. A team of enlightenment liberals won our independence from Britain. We ended slavery under the leadership of a scrappy, shrewd liberal Republican.

So after all this: I hope Binyamin Netanyahu gets sacked this week, because I think he's a nearsighted, fear-mongering charlatan, and Israel deserves better. It troubles me that half of Israeli voters support him and his coalition. But as an American, I can't do anything. I just hope he doesn't pull us into another war.

Israeli politics is never boring

Via some Facebook friends in Tel Aviv, I'm getting news that the Israeli election may result in a center-left coalition and sacks Netanyahu:

Israel's three major television networks published exit polls on Tuesday night, after polls closed across the country at 10 P.M.

According to Channel 2's exit polls, the battle was tight between the left and right, with 59 percent of votes going to the left-wing block, and 61 percent to the right.

Yes, that's right, 59-61 is a possibility the way Israeli voting works. I have no idea how.

The BBC thinks Netanyahu might stay:

According to final opinion polls, the joint electoral list of Mr Netanyahu's Likud party and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party of his former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman will win about 32 seats.

That would be 10 fewer than the two parties' combined total from 2009 but still enough to form a coalition with other right-wing and religious groups that would have a majority of about 63.

Israel had elections today because the ruling right-wing coalition fell apart last fall. Because of Israeli election rules, which make those of Cricket seem elementary, no one will know for days who actually runs the country. Weeks perhaps.

It's interesting, though, that it's this close.

Update: Josh Marshall's take.

Putting a bow on it

We're just 45 minutes from releasing a software project to our client for user acceptance testing (UAT), and we're ready. (Of course, there are those 38 "known issues..." But that's what the UAT period is for!)

When I get back from the launch meeting, I'll want to check these out:

Off to the client. Then...bug fixes!

In other news

Japan has thrown out its government and restored the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (yes, that's right) to power:

the dominant view of Sunday’s vote was that it was not so much a weakening of Japan’s desire for drastic change, or a swing to an anti-Chinese right, as a rebuke of the incumbent Democrats. They swept aside the Liberal Democrats with bold vows to overhaul Japan’s sclerotic postwar order, only to disappoint voters by failing to deliver on economic improvements. Mr. Abe acknowledged as much, saying that his party had simply ridden a wave of public disgust in the failures of his opponents.

“We recognize that this was not a restoration of confidence in the Liberal Democratic Party, but a rejection of three years of incompetent rule by the Democratic Party,” Mr. Abe, 58, told reporters. Now, his party will be left to address deepening public frustration on a host of issues, including a contracting economy and a teetering pension system.

In the powerful lower house, the Liberal Democrats held a commanding lead with 294 of the 480 seats up for grabs. That would be almost a mirror image of the results in 2009, when the [incumbent center-left] Democrats won 308 seats.

And while the President leads a vigil in Connecticut tonight, House Speaker John Boehner appears to have relented to the facts and is conceding that income taxes have to rise on the rich:

Public opinion strongly favors it. President Obama just won re-election campaigning more strongly on the tax issue than on any other. Federal revenue as a share of the economy is near a 60-year low. Washington faces a $1 trillion annual deficit.

Yet even as some party leaders and intellectuals urge them to concede the point, most rank-and-file House Republicans refuse. That is why Speaker John A. Boehner has moved so gingerly, finally offering late last week to raise rates only on incomes of $1 million or more, despite calls from Senate Republicans for a deeper concession.

What Mr. Boehner has proposed is allowing the top rate to revert to 39.6 percent for income of $1 million and above, and to raise his total for new revenue over 10 years to $1 trillion from $800 billion, according to a person familiar with his latest offer. That rate increase would raise far less revenue than Mr. Obama’s plan, which would affect many more taxpayers.

I believe the White House response to that will still be "go fish," but it's a good start.

Israel's government throws a tantrum

Children and authoritarians tend to react to clear evidence against them by doubling down. The current Israeli government has continued the tradition:

The Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's decision to approve the construction of 3,000 new homes is widely seen as a response to the United Nations vote earlier this week that recognised a Palestinian bid to be a "non-member observer state".

The US, with Israel, strongly opposed that move, while Britain abstained in the vote. But now both countries have criticised the Israeli settlement decision, saying it hurts the chances of a two-state solution and the search for peace in the troubled region.

"Let me reiterate that this administration, like previous administrations, has been very clear with Israel that these activities set back the cause of a negotiated peace," [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton said, in remarks delivered at the Saban Center think tank in Washington on Friday.

[British Foreign Secretary William] Hague said he was "extremely concerned" at the plans, which have been reported in the Israeli press as including a four-square-mile area just east of Jerusalem that is seen as vital to keeping open a viable land corridor between the city and any future Palestinian state.

The meta-message to Netanyahu is, "You cannot achieve your goals pursuing your current course of action." But just as it's difficult for 4-year-olds to understand this presented like that, so is it for Bibi and the right. In fact, I think the defining characteristic of any extremist is an inability to accept the basic fact that other points of view exist, let alone that policies predicated on their point of view will fail spectacularly, given enough time.

Full disclosure: I'm Jewish, as any but the most extreme Rabbis will agree. (By "most extreme" I mean any Rabbi who believes no one's mother can convert to Judaism.) I'm also atheist, as anyone who's read this blog knows. I also have an allergic reaction against anyone who claims that their ethnic/political/knitting group is the only ethnic/political/knitting group qualified to discuss matters that affect people beyond their group's boundaries.

New variety of northern bear?

Via Sullivan, a new variety of bear has appeared in Canada because of climate change:

One such sign [of environmental pressure on bears] is the emergence of a new creature in the polar bear’s range, first spotted in the wild in 2006 near Sachs Harbour, Northwest Territories. It’s got a long neck like a polar bear, but it’s smaller. It lies and behaves like a polar bear, but it has shoulder humps. The new creature has hairy paw soles like a polar bear, but its hair is mostly solid, with only patches of hollow hair.

As caribou migration routes have moved North, grizzlies have followed and started mating with polar bears. Not only have they produced hybrid young, but those young are fertile. Polar bears and grizzlies only diverged about 150,000 years ago and haven’t developed many genetic differences, despite quite dramatic visual dissimilarities. Second-generation hybrids have now been confirmed in the wild.

This kind of thing isn't new, but we don't often see it with large predators. On the other hand, about 30,000 years ago, another large predator moved into a cousin species' territory as the earth warmed up, and interbred, and went on to invent blogs.

Baby steps in U.S. rail transport

Amtrak today will run a train from Chicago to Pontiac, Ill., at speeds up to 175 km/h:

The time spent traveling at 175 km/h will be relatively brief, lasting for only 24 km on new rails and new concrete ties between Dwight and Pontiac along the 457 km Union Pacific Railroad corridor from Chicago to St. Louis.

Dwight is about 130 km southwest of Chicago and Pontiac is about 30 km further to the southwest. The train will then continue on to Normal at top speeds of 125 km/h before heading back to Chicago Union Station, officials said.

For comparison, on Monday morning I'll be on a bog-standard train from London to Cardiff that will average 125 km/h, including stops, and between them toodles along at the pokey pace (for the U.K.) of 150 km/h. That's a slow train in Britain. The fast trains in Britain, like the one I took in March, go considerably faster. And don't even get me started about Shanghai...

Someday I hope the U.S. will have a modern transportation network. Someday.

Romney's dangerously incompetent response to an attack on the U.S.

Last night, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, died in an attack on our consulate in Benghazi. The attack initially seemed predicated on the release of an anti-Muslim film funded by infamous Florida bigot Terry Jones (of Qu'oran burning fame), as the film caused riots in Egypt at the same time.

The New York Times is now reporting that sources in the US suspect the Libya attack was planned:

Officials in Washington studying the events of the past 24 hours have focused on the differences between the protests on the American embassy in Cairo and the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, the Libyan city where Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the other Americans were killed.

The protesters in Cairo appeared to be a genuinely spontaneous unarmed mob angered by an anti-Islam video produced in the United States. By contrast, it appeared the attackers in Benghazi were armed with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. Intelligence reports are inconclusive at this point, officials said, but indications suggest the possibility that an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.

Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney immediately used the violence as an excuse to lambaste President Obama with a statement that has put Romney way out in front of his party. Romney's (and RNC chair Reince Priebus's) willful misstating of facts to score political points after what could be a paramilitary attack against an American diplomat clearly shows he is unfit to serve:

The obvious responsible thing to do when American citizens and public officials are under physical threat abroad and when the details are unknown, and events spiraling, is to stay silent. If the event happens on the day of September 11 and you are a candidate for president and have observed a political truce, all the more reason to wait to allow the facts to emerge. After all, country before party, right? American lives are at stake, yes? An easy call, no?

But that's not what the Romney camp did. What they did was seize on a tweet issued by someone in the US Embassy before the attacks in order to indict the president for "sympathizing" with those who murdered a US ambassador after the attacks. ...

The knee-jerk judgments, based on ideology not reality; the inability to back down when you have said something obviously wrong; and the attempt to argue that the president of the US actually sympathized with those who murdered his own ambassador in Benghazi: these are disqualifying instincts for someone hoping to be the president of the US. Disqualifying.

At the time the United States was trying to calm down violent, unpredictable situations in two mostly-friendly countries, in which it appeared that an American ambassador was assassinated, before all the facts were known, Romney and his campaign made scoring political points their highest priority.

Romney showed us what we could expect from him as president: making ill-informed decisions for short-term political gain that put Americans at further risk.

Look, attacking the president's policies is part of his job as challenger. But for dog's sake, wait until the shooting stops. And try, just try, to think things through before speaking. In other words, if you want to be president, Mitt, stop acting like a spoiled child who feels entitled to the highest office in the country, and start acting presidential.

Russia and US liberalize bilateral visa regime

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow just announced sweeping changes to the visas that Americans can get to visit Russia:

Starting September 9, Russian and American travelers for business or tourism will be eligible to receive visas valid for multiple entries during a period of 36 months. The agreement also outlines other simplifications in the bilateral visa regime and eases visa processing time for travelers from both countries.

Thanks to the agreement, three-year, multiple-entry visas will become the standard “default” terms for U.S. citizens visiting Russia and Russian citizens visiting the United States. No formal invitation will be required to apply for a business or tourism visa, although applicants seeking Russian tourist visas must continue to hold advance lodging reservations and arrangements with a tour operator. Both sides have also committed to keep standard visa processing times under 15 days, although the circumstances of individual cases may require additional processing.

When I visited Russia in 2010, the visa application required the actual dates and modes of travel, and an official invitation from the hotel. Russian visas were only valid for the dates on the application, so missing a flight or train could cause serious difficulties crossing the border. (I saved a pdf of the rules in effect through September 9th.)

I'll be interested to see if Russian tourism picks up with this liberalization scheme.