John Oliver Confronts Swiss UN Ambassador On Neutrality During World War II (VIDEO)

On last night’s “Daily Show”, correspondent John Oliver followed up a segment on a recent vote in Switzerland to ban the building of minarets with an interview that displayed the sort of journalistic guts so sadly absent among the landed gentry in our press. I hesitate, greatly, to blow a comedy bit out of undue proportion, but there are nevertheless some key journalistic virtues at work in the piece that deserve some magnification, if you’ll allow the indulgence.

Oliver used the news story to make a point about the overall character of the nation of Switzerland. Rather than take the glib remarks of Switzerland’s UN Ambassador Peter Maurer at face value, presenting them as stenography and letting it stand as just another “interesting viewpoint” in the marketplace of ideas, he confronted the illogic and batted it back, unconcerned that it would make his interviewee upset or ruin someone’s opportunity to have “access.” This is precisely what “meeting the press” should look like.

The key exchange occurs at 7:50 in this video below, after several minutes of comedy beat-sweetening, that’s all just a set-up to the actual prosecution of a viewpoint. Watch as Maurer attempts to advance precisely the sort of point of view that flourishes in a media culture that privileges nonsense at the same level of intelligence, and how Oliver reacts:

OLIVER: How hard was it to remind neutral during World War II?

MAURER: Well, I think this is always a debate and I think we do make a clear distinction between our neutrality as an instrument of foreign policy and what we think as individuals and what the country thinks.

OLIVER: But then, the neutrality issue seems complicated. Now obviously, Hitler did some very bad things, we know that. How do you focus on the positive things to balance that out?

MAURER: It’s not a question of positive. It’s a question of our neutrality has always been a state-driven concept of not participating in war.

OLIVER: Was there not just a little voice of humanity inside you saying this is terrible, we should really do something about it?

MAURER: As a question of principle, it’s unadvisable for a country as small as ours to participate in war. Why should we?

OLIVER: So: Easy to take a position on neutrality, hard to take a position on Hitler.

MAURER: We did take strong positions on Hitler and many other things. We didn’t participate in the war. That’s two different things.

OLIVER: [imitating Hitler] “Would it be possible for me to keep my gold here?” [Imitating the Swiss] “Ah, Adolf! Of course! Lovely to see you again. Come back in! What have you been up to? Actually, don’t tell me, I want to be able to say I don’t know.”

[uncomfortable pause]

OLIVER: Is this neutral anger, or real anger, Mr. Ambassador?

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Cynthia Nixon: It’s a Helluva State

My girlfriend and I want to get married. Only thing is: it’s not legal in NY State, where we live. So we started doing everything we could think of to reverse that. Including going up to Albany this past spring with two of our politico friends to speak to some Senators — Democratic and Republican — who were on the fence on the issue.

Wednesday’s No vote on same sex marriage was supremely disappointing on a personal as well as a political level. Guess Christine and I can kiss that Waldorf Astoria wedding… Brooklyn Botanical Gardens wedding… Montauk Beach wedding — you fill in the blank — goodbye. But we have two things today we didn’t have yesterday.

The first thing we have is clarity about who’s with us and who’s against us. And we’ll remember those yays and nays for next November and for Novembers to come. And there will be consequences.

The second thing is a new ally. Her name is Ruth Hassell-Thompson. She is a Senator from the Bronx and Mt Vernon and she is fierce.

Our gang of four met with her last spring and she explained to us in depth, over a long and respectful meeting why she thought she was going to vote no on gay marriage. Senator Hassell-Thompson is deeply religious. She felt strongly that marriage always has been and always should be the union between a man and a woman.

But she is a careful, thoughtful person and you could see her weighing the issue again and again in her mind. And in her considering she stumbled across something in her personal experience that began to change her perspective.

She spoke about how her mother had been a deacon in their church at a time when previously only men had been deacons. And how controversial that had been. And how vehemently many people opposed her mother’s appointment. And how none of those opposed could give any explanation for why her mother becoming a deacon was wrong, just that it was. Because it was new. Because it was shocking. Because it was an idea that took people a little time to get used to.

On Wednesday Ruth Hassell-Thompson voted yes.

She voted yes because gay people and straight people walked through her door in droves and wrote her letters and called her on the phone. And because she is a person of conscience. And because of one more thing that she didn’t tell us in her office that day: because she has a brother who is gay.

I think of Ruth Hassell-Thompson and understand that citizen lobbying is important. So is getting involved with campaigns. So is contributing money. So is talking to your neighbors, and co-workers and family. More important than ever.

Because you never know when a simple conversation can help change someone’s heart and mind. Because if we keep at it “they” will finally realize that we’re just people like them. Because time is on our side.

Meantime, there’s always Connecticut.


Shays Campaign Manager Michael Sohn Arrested, Charged With Embezzlement

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. — The campaign manager for longtime U.S. Rep. Chris Shays was arrested Friday on charges he embezzled about $250,000 in campaign funds.

Tom Carson, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, said Michael Sohn of Fairfield was arrested on a 12-count indictment charging him with stealing campaign money over four years. He also accused of filing false campaign reports and tax offenses.

The 34-year-old Sohn is expected to appear Friday in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport. A telephone message left with his attorney, Philip Russell, was not immediately returned.

Shays, a moderate Republican who served 10 terms in Congress, narrowly lost to Democrat Jim Himes in November 2008 in the race for the 4th District in southwestern Connecticut that he had represented for 21 years.

Just weeks after Shays was defeated, a post-election review of his campaign finances uncovered a series of irregularities.

Shays turned the matter over to federal investigators last December and filed documents in February with the Federal Election Commission that detailed $148,000 in theft from the 2008 campaign. The reports showed more than $73,000 in direct unauthorized campaign checks made payable to Sohn and dozens of unauthorized ATM withdrawals totaling more than $58,000.

Shays, a champion of campaign finance reform, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Friday. Previously, Shays had called the alleged embezzlement “a serious and sad situation.”

“If true, the actions of this individual represent a betrayal of my campaign, its supporters and the very things I stand for, but in no way do they reflect upon the incredibly dedicated and honorable service of my other staff members and extended family of volunteers and supporters,” he said a year ago.

In July, Shays said the campaign also owed nearly $28,000 in unpaid payroll taxes from money that he said was siphoned off to cover up the embezzlement. Shays said the tax was owed because Sohn didn’t put some employees into the campaign’s payroll system, which would have automatically deducted the taxes.


Nelson Amendment Expected To Fall Short Even With GOP Support

An amendment restricting abortions does not appear to have enough support to be attached to the Senate healthcare bill.

Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said he expected that all but a few Republicans would support the Sen. Ben Nelson’s (D-Neb) amendment, which would restrict access to abortions for women who receive federal subsidies.


Greg Lukianoff: More on Southwestern College and the Free Speech Patio

I was working on an update to my last post on the First Amendment shenanigans going on at Southwestern College in California, but I realized I could not do a better job than my colleague Peter Bonilla has done. So, enjoy Peter’s blog originally posted on The Torch earlier today:

A batch of articles this week in the Southwestern College (SWC) student newspaper The Sun are further testimony to the turmoil at the California college, where a financial crunch has begotten a full-blown free speech crisis.

SWC’s wholly avoidable clash with the First Amendment began on October 22, when a group of students assembled on SWC’s "free speech patio" to protest various class and budget cuts at the college. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds: it’s the one place for free speech and assembly on campus, and it must be reserved ahead of time.

Frustrated by the restrictions in SWC’s free speech policy, one of the students said to the group something along the lines of "Let’s go where they can hear us." The students headed in the direction of SWC Superintendent/President Raj K. Chopra’s office, but upon reaching the courtyard outside the president’s office, they were met by a line of police officers who would not let them proceed further. To varying degrees, three SWC faculty members were also present at the rally and the courtyard. The crowd eventually dispersed, and the faculty members left independently of each other. (Chopra himself was not in his office. He soon left on vacation, his duties being temporarily assumed by Vice President for Business & Financial Affairs Nicholas Alioto.)

That evening, each of the three faculty members received hand-delivered letters from SWC’s director of human resources, who arrived accompanied by a police officer. The letters informed each of the three that he or she had been placed on administrative leave from the college and were banned from campus under the California Penal Code, effective immediately, pending an investigation. For what? They had no idea. Alioto, in a later e-mail to the SWC community, denied that such action amounted to a suspension. Chopra, for his part, gave an unconvincing and contradictory defense of the incident to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The incident garnered significant media attention, and both FIRE and the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties condemned SWC’s retaliatory act in letters to President Chopra.

Though the three faculty members were allowed to return to campus on November 4 and SWC asked that the criminal investigation be dropped, SWC formally reprimanded the three professors on the basis of a so-called independent investigation into the incident funded by SWC and that, unsurprisingly, found a different alleged transgression for which to fault each of the three professors.

Disappointingly, SWC has allowed the controversy to go on unresolved. As numerous articles this week in The Sun report, however, the SWC community is beginning to push back.

One hot-button issue the Sun touches on is the final report of the so-called independent investigation, bitterly panned by the SWC faculty. The investigation, conducted by local attorney Nancy Solomon at the behest of Acting Superintendent/President Alioto, in large part sided with SWC’s version of the eventsa serious finding, given that the college was considering criminal charges. As it was, among the charges to be investigated were inciting the students to leave the free speech area, disregarding orders from the police to leave the area around the president’s office, and physically confronting the officers when refusing to do so.

Southwestern College Education Association (SCEA) Vice President Andrew MacNeill was among the many to slam the report, telling the Sun, "The investigation was paid for by Chopra so she [Solomon] … is going to write what he [Chopra] wants to hear." This mistrust may well be justified–both MacNeill and the Sun point out that Solomon’s report relies overwhelmingly on the accounts of the police who were present at the event. The Sun notes, importantly, that Solomon "made no effort to contact other faculty and classified employees who witnessed the event."

Doing so likely would have helped. Among other things, Solomon concluded that "overwhelming evidence suggests that [English instructor Phil Lopez] was in some manner physically aggressive or at least threatening to be so." Lopez and numerous other eyewitnesses hotly contest this charge. Indeed, FIRE has a hard time believing it too, given that the photographs we have seen from the rally hardly suggest a confrontational atmosphere. Even the report has to stretch to find that Lopez somehow puffed out his chest in some kind of menacing way. Besides, SWC has never disputed the account of the rally that FIRE provided in our letter based on eyewitness accounts. 

For this self-serving report, SWC was willing to pay as much as $15,000. This figures makes the report a double insult to the SWC community, insofar as the report was an unnecessary expense in a time of very severe budget problems at SWC. Indeed, by November 13, mere days after the release of Solomon’s report, Alioto (whose stint as acting president was set to end that day), sent an e-mail statement to the SWC community informing them that he had ordered the investigation discontinued, and had instructed that charges not be forwarded to the district attorney.

SWC still has much work ahead. For one, the letters of reprimand delivered to the faculty members must be rescinded and removed from their employment filespromptly.

Equally crucial is that SWC’s appalling "free speech patio" policy be rescinded immediately. It exiles student expression to an area representing to a tiny percentage of SWC’s 156-acre campus. SWC even declares the rest of the campus is a non-public forum, which is blatantly unconstitutionalin so doing, SWC has deemed the most traditional locations for free speech, such as green areas on campus, are off-limits to free expression. In fact, a rally taking place on November 13, barely an hour after Alioto’s e-mail dropping the investigation was circulated, took aim at this unconstitutional policy, as well as at the atmosphere of fear and intimidation pervading SWC.

The Sun reports that the rally featured a diverse coalition of free speech defenders, including Congressman Bob Filner, representatives from the ACLU-SD, and Community Colleges Association President Ron Norton Reel. Absent from the event was President Chopra, despite Filner’s entreaties for his presence. Of Chopra’s absence Reel told the Sun, "I have a concern that one who wants to be called a leader is not here when we need some leadership."

FIRE holds out hope that we may soon see progress in opening up the SWC campus to the free speech SWC is legally and morally obligated to protect. A recent letter from SWC attorney Jonathan A. Pearl to FIRE promises to "carefully consider the issues and suggestions" we have raised regarding SWC’s unconstitutional policy. Pearl also states that "the College welcomes any additional constructive input you wish to offer in this process."  Indeed, Alioto has invited FIRE to contribute its considerable expertise to a task force aimed at re-evaluating the policy. (When it comes to free speech, though, every minute the policy remains in place is an irreparable harm to everyone on campus.)

Meanwhile, a fed-up Sun editorial staff has issued a "revolutionary call for action," calling for numerous policy and governance changes. In addition to calling for an immediate repeal of SWC’s free speech zone policy, the board calls for Chopra’s ouster, exhorting SWC’s Board of Governors to "help him find the door, one way or another."

As yet another Sun article relates, even the Board of Governors may not be immune from the fallout: a community group has initiated a campaign to recall five of the board members. Not among the targeted, notably, is Nick Aguilar, who was present at the November 13 rally sporting a T-shirt reading "Support students, get suspended."

Of course, FIRE is carefully monitoring all developments at SWC and is in touch with both students, faculty, and other organizations like the ACLU-SD who are working to change SWC’s unconstitutional policies and oppressive culture. We’re confident that working together, we can change SWC for the better. As always, we’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, it turns out that absurd policies defining public campuses in California as “nonpublic forums” and designating tiny areas as free speech zones is far more common than I once thought. I hope that increased attention to the California public college system, inspired by the budget crisis, will help end this ridiculous trend before California finds itself battered both in the courts of law and the courts of public opinion, just like Texas Tech when it tried to defend its absurd “free-speech gazebo.” Stay tuned.


Brown-out on Coburn amendment

Sen. Tom Coburn’s amendment to compel members to enroll in the public option is popular enough to garner the backing of some Dems — including Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, who would love to sign on as a co-sponsor.

Trouble is, Brown’s staffer have made nine calls to Coburn’s office to register as a co-sponsor since Nov. 24 — only to have their calls go unreturned, says a Brown spokeswoman.

Brown will go the floor this morning to seek a pro forma unanimous consent to be added to the bill.

A call to Coburn’s office wasn’t immediately returned.

Brown has pledged not to sign up for congressional health insurance until the option is offered to all Americans, his staff says.

We’re only as strong as our weakest link

We’ve talked a fair bit recently about the importance of motivating Democrats to vote the 2010 Congressional midterms. In light of the troubling signs that Dems just aren’t motivated to turn out, here’s an important set of numbers that helps explain where the problem is:

                (Among Dems only)
                  Fav    Unfav

Barack Obama       85%     6%
Nancy Pelosi       86%     5%
Harry Reid         63%    29%

Among Democrats, President Obama and Speaker Pelosi both enjoy 80% net favorable ratings. Majority Leader Reid: 34%.

Reid’s problem is that Democrats see the Senate as the place where good ideas go to die. It may not be fair to blame him, because so much of the problem is institutional, but until he either takes on those institutional roadblocks or manages to navigate his way around them while delivering progressive legislation intact, enough Democrats will blame him that his rating is going to suffer.

The problems in the Senate obviously have not had an impact on the favorablity numbers for Pelosi or Obama among Democrats, but that doesn’t mean that they are immune from the fallout. With 60 members of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, it’s reasonable for Democrats to believe that things like health care won’t face major procedural hurdles. Of course, the opposite is happening, and it appears that many Democrats are growing disillusioned as a result.

As we saw in Virginia and New Jersey, disillusioned, unmotivated Democrats don’t vote, paving the way to Republican victory. So even though the Senate may be the biggest part of the problem here, the consequences are likely to be felt by all Democrats. And that really makes it everybody’s problem.

The solution isn’t easy, but it can be accomplished. To excite the party’s base, Democrats must pass health care reform with a public option, get moving on judicial nominations, make substantial headway on climate change and clean energy policy, start delivering on gay rights, pass immigration and labor reform, and — perhaps most importantly from a political perspective — get a major new jobs bill passed. It’s a tough challenge, but after eight years of Bush and the G.O.P., everything is tough — and failure is not an option.