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The Spirit of the Season
Timothy Egan turns a light on the poor and how we see them.
...didn’t the poor deserve their fate? Didn’t they make bad decisions? Weren’t some of them just moochers? And lazy? Well, yes, in many cases, my mother said, lighting one of her L&M cigarettes, which she bought by the carton at the Indian reservation. But neither rich nor poor had the moral high ground.

As the year ends, this argument is playing out in two of the most meanspirited actions left on the table by the least-productive Congress in modern history. The House, refuge of the shrunken-heart caucus, has passed a measure to eliminate food aid for four million Americans, starting next year. Many who would remain on the old food stamp program may have to pass a drug test to get their groceries. At the same time, Congress has let unemployment benefits expire for 1.3 million people, beginning just a few days after Christmas.

These actions have nothing to do with bringing federal spending into line, and everything to do with a view that poor people are morally inferior. Here’s a sample of this line of thought:

"The explosion of food stamps in this country is not just a fiscal issue for me," said Representative Steve Southerland, Republican from Florida, chief crusader for cutting assistance to the poor. "This is a defining moral issue of our time."

It would be a "disservice" to further extend unemployment assistance to those who’ve been out of work for some time, said Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. It encourages them to sit at home and do nothing.

"People who are perfectly capable of working are buying things like beer," said Senator James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, on those getting food assistance in his state.

No doubt, poor people drink beer, watch too much television and have bad morals. But so do rich people. If you drug-tested members of Congress as a condition of their getting federal paychecks, you would have most likely caught Representative Trey Radel, Republican of Florida, who recently pleaded guilty to possession of cocaine. Would it be Grinch-like of me to point out that this same congressman voted for the bill that would force many hungry people to pee in a cup and pass a drug test before getting food? Should I also mention that the median net worth for new members of the current Congress is exactly $1 million more than that of the typical American household — and that that may influence their view?

Ayn Rand once made Robin Hood into the most evil character in history. Surely there's conservative out there who has already celebrated the hard working, tough-minded Grinch over the touchy-feely inhabitants of Whoville.

All I can say is that the Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, and Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come are clearly not getting the job done. Perhaps they should consider expanding their schedule. Or perhaps outsourcing.

Let's see who else is talking this morning...

The New York Times doesn't exactly morn the bad week at the NSA.

It has been a long week for the National Security Agency. Last Monday, a federal judge ruled for the first time that the agency’s continuing sweep of Americans’ phone data — a once-secret program legally sanctioned for seven years and illegally conducted for five years before that — was very likely unconstitutional. Judge Richard Leon denounced the agency’s activities in collecting data on all Americans’ phone calls as "almost Orwellian."

Two days later, the Obama administration released a comprehensive report that found "the current storage by the government of bulk metadata creates potential risks to public trust, personal privacy and civil liberty." And last Friday, the latest release of classified documents from Edward Snowden revealed surveillance efforts that included the office of the Israeli prime minister and the heads of international companies and aid organizations.

I have to admit that I started as a Snowden skeptic. I found it hard to believe that a new, low-level contractor would be casually entrusted with so much information, and I took much of Snowden's actions as self promotion. But at this point, I'm down to only two concerns: when can we pardon Snowden, and what medal should he be awarded? We've come very, very close to the cliff's edge in our handling of privacy, but hopefully we'll now start tiptoeing back.

Ruth Marcus encourages President Obama to listen to his own advisers.

The raging debate over government surveillance programs has a tendency to conflate these distinct decisions. That muddling has the unfortunate effect of enhancing the power of the judiciary and diminishing the role of citizens in choosing where to strike the balance between privacy and security.

... the White House released a report by a panel of legal and intelligence experts recommending a massive retrenchment in the metadata program, keeping the records in the hands of private companies and requiring intelligence analysts to obtain some form of judicial approval before querying the records in the hunt for terrorist links among the terabytes.

... changes in technology suggest that the dissenters had the better view, at least as applied in the modern environment in which cellphones play such a prominent role. “The numbers dialed from a private telephone — although certainly more prosaic than the conversation itself — are not without ‘content,’ ” Justice Potter Stewart wrote. Such information, he noted, “easily could reveal the identities of the persons and the places called, and thus reveal the most intimate details of a person’s life.”

If the NSA really wants to claim that these powers have stopped terrorist attacks, they need to lay it out on the table, completely and clearly. Because at this point no one is going to believe them without evidence.

Ross Douthat has something to say about the importance of the manger scene, because... of course he does.

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.

But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.

This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our "God bless America" civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.

Apparently, this less biblical view is also the view that Mathew, Mark, and John took, you know, in the Bible, since only Luke records the angel's visitation. In fact, neither John nor Mark bother to give any story of Jesus' birth, and only Luke mentions a manger at all, much less the "traditional" scene we toss on lawns today. Bunch of easygoing syncretists, the lot of them.
Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.
If that sounded bad, Douthat spends the rest of his article tripping down Without-God-there-can-be-no-morality Pike, and ends with a with a plea for yet another Great Revival.  Yes, Virginia, there may or may not be a Santa Claus, but the utter lack or rigor and busload of preconceptions that make up a Douthat article remain very real.

Dana Milbank bids farewell to the brief December thaw in Washington.

The era of good feeling is over, its duration measured in days, or perhaps hours. On Wednesday, 36 Senate Republicans — 80 percent of the caucus — voted against the budget compromise drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, last year’s Republican vice presidential nominee.

Already, Republicans, including Ryan, are making noises about another showdown early next year over the federal government’s debt limit. You might say they've returned to their default position.

By Thursday morning, Senate leaders were back to petty bickering. Harry Reid, the majority leader, called Republic

ans “very shallow” and said “obstruction has become a bad habit .”

Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, accused Democrats of an “incredible abuse of power” and of running the country like a “banana republic.” The Republican said he was discouraged to “see the way the United States Senate deteriorated under the current leadership.”

McConnell proposed that Reid drop his demands that the Senate approve a slate of what the Republican leader called “non-urgent” presidential nominees.

“I object,” Reid answered.

Reid asked that the Senate take up a tax bill passed by the House.

“I object,” McConnell replied.

In retrospect, how could it have been otherwise? These aren’t conventional political rivals we’re talking about. They are more like warring mafia families. James Gandolfini may have left us in 2013, but the spirit of the mob boss still dominates in the Capitol. Not only is it legal to put contracts out on each other, it is expected.

Please, don't tempt me.

Doyle McManus has a similar forecast for DC's political weather.

It would be nice to think that Congress' easy passage of a bipartisan compromise on the federal budget this month was the sign of a new spirit of cooperation on Capitol Hill. But in the hallways of the Senate last week, there was little evidence of bipartisanship, or even Christmas cheer.

... Indeed, next year is unlikely to get better, for one simple reason: It's a congressional election year. And not an ordinary election year. A significant number of Republican incumbents in both the House and Senate will face primary challenges from tea party conservatives.

That means that some of the legislators who were once likely to seek cross-aisle compromises will be trying to show how tough and conservative they are. Getting Democrats and Republicans to agree on anything will be harder than ever.
"Good things seldom happen in election years," noted former Rep. Bill Frenzel, a moderate Republican from Minnesota.

Let's hope at lest a few good things do happen. Like fewer Republicans getting elected.

Fred Grimm shows us that Rosa Parks just might not have finished the job.

The students voted to call their new high school Valhalla, which would lend alliteration and context to the "Valhalla Vikings." Mindful of the nearby neighborhood, the superintendent of education preferred to name it Westconnett High School.

The Duval County School Board also entertained a third suggestion, from a powerful special interest group.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy won the day. Of course. It was 1959 in segregated Jacksonville. The christening of Nathan Bedford Forrest High School became yet another of the era’s ugly political gestures meant to signal whites – and warn blacks – that local elected officials would not abide agitators meddling with “our southern way of life.” ...

Last week, the Duval School Board voted 7-0 in belated recognition that the Civil War has ended and the time has come to relegate icons of the Confederacy and Jim Crow to museums. The name of the famously ruthless military tactician, slave trader and onetime Ku Klux Klan leader was excised from the school house.

Not that neo-Confederates are inclined to accept this new reality without a tussle. They’ve fought to keep the Confederate flag flying over public places, like the capitol grounds in Columbia, South Carolina. They’ve kept it incorporated in the design of state flags in Mississippi and Georgia, and, if not quite so blatantly, in those of Alabama and Florida.

Read Grimm's column for more examples of how racism and the psychology of victim-hood still shape the south.

Akshat Rathi looks at some of the weirdness that happens in high pressure chemistry.

Everything around you is made of elements that scientists have studied in quite some detail over the last 200 years. But all that understanding breaks down when these elements are subjected to high pressure and temperature. Now, using an advanced theoretical understanding and extreme conditions, researchers have converted table salt into exotic chemicals.

...Elemental behavior changes at such high pressures. For example, molecules of oxygen, which normally contain two atoms, break down at increased pressures, and the element forms an eight-atom box. Raise the pressure some more to about 300,000 atmospheres, and it starts to superconduct.

Plain old table salt isn't quick so plain... if you only squeeze it hard enough.

Originally posted to Devil's Tower on Sat Dec 21, 2013 at 10:33 PM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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