Political Intelligence


Torture-Si! Cursing-No!

Chopping in the High Cotton A billboard rises over the flat land of the Panhandle. On it is pictured a father and son hoeing sweet beans. Next to them in big bright letters reads “1099-No! W-2-Sí!”

The ad campaign is the brainchild of Texas Rural Legal Aid. It hopes to halt a greedy little practice of some cotton and bean growers in the high plains. Instead of classifying workers as employees as they are legally obligated to do, the growers pretend the workers are self-employed contractors, like plumbers. This practice deprives laborers of all kinds of benefits including worker’s compensation and application of the minimum wage. Perhaps worst of all, since employers don’t pay into social security or federal taxes, workers are deprived of their rightful tax benefits. Instead of receiving tax refunds, they owe self-employment taxes since they file the wrong form to the Internal Revenue Service.

This method of shortchanging workers has existed for decades, says Larry Norton, a lawyer with the farm worker’s division of TRLA. The ad campaign targets two audiences. In addition to educating labor, it offers growers who violate the law a chance to do right. “We want to educate our clients that if they are doing hard labor in the field, they should be getting W-2 forms, not ones for independent businessmen,” says Norton.

In a shocking example of good government, the feds are paying for the placement of the billboards. If growers take heed, it could prove to be that true rarity, real tort reform. If they don’t, as awareness grows among the workforce, more cases of actionable abuse will likely present themselves to TRLA attorneys. The Stealth Reactionary At frequent intervals during his recent lecture in Austin, Alan Dershowitz paused to reminisce about what appears to be a favorite topic—himself. In an attempt to show how far he has come in life, he told ticket holders at the KLRU-TV-sponsored event what his classmates had written about him in their high school yearbook, back in Brooklyn almost half a century ago: “He has the mouth of Webster and a brain of clay.”

Tip your hat to the kids at Yeshiva University High School. They nailed it. Speaking from a podium at the LBJ Library, Dershowitz presented arguments riddled with inconsistencies and then refused to defend them. While passing himself off as a great civil libertarian and liberal, he argued tenaciously for undermining the principles for which those ideologies stand, advocating, among other measures, pre-emptive war, legal torture, and universal ID cards.

“Historically,” he said, “no rights are inalienable.”

The Harvard professor painted a vision of America as Israel writ large—wrapped in fear with a suicide bomber on every corner. (Fear mongering the future as one long, never-ending terroristic siege is a favorite and useful theme of the vice president too.)

“I hate torture but I’m a realist,” said Dershowitz.

Since the U.S. government already practices coercive questioning techniques, Dershowitz argued that at least a judge should sign off on “torture warrants.” “Make it right by giving it a judicial imprimatur,” he said.

Torture would only be used when a suspect—a so-called “ticking-bomb terrorist”—had information that could save lives. The information would have to be independently corroborated somehow, Dershowitz conceded.

Unfortunately the professor cannot point to a single case in the United States where the scenario he describes has occurred, but that’s not stopping him from advocating undermining the Bill of Rights. The Eighth Amendment specifically prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Dershowitz does mention Ireland and Israel as places where such tactics have been successfully employed–and just look how peaceful those countries are.

Although Dershowitz spent much of the speech laying out a new civil liberties paradigm, he declined to take any questions on the topic. The format allowed only for written questions. While audience members submitted at least four questions on civil liberties, the legal scholar preferred to take queries from a group of eighth-grade participants about what it’s like to be a lawyer and his role in the O.J. Simpson case.

“Dershowitz is ensconced in his ivory tower,” said Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU who attended the lecture. “He should get out and see how the real people live.” Virtual Democracy On January 7th and 8th, a committee formed by the Texas secretary of state’s office met behind closed doors to test four computerized voting systems for use in the 2004 election cycle. While county officials have final say on which voting systems to use, they can pick only systems that the secretary of state has certified. So far, those choices don’t look too appealing.

Two of the systems under review were produced by companies with close ties to the Republican Party. One system was created by Diebold Inc., an Ohio-based firm whose chief executive, Walden O’Dell, is a major donor to the Bush campaign and who wrote famously in a fund-raising letter, “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year.” (He later insisted “delivering” Ohio didn’t mean doctoring votes.) Another system under review is the product of Diebold’s major rival, Electronic Systems & Software. ESS also has allies in the GOP. (Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska was once chairman and CEO.)

Jennifer Waisath, spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office, said the committee tested two new systems (from METS Corp., and Optical Drive Systems). Though the Diebold and ESS software was certified last year, Waisath said the committee considered requiring “modifications” to the controversial systems before they are used in Texas elections. She wouldn’t elaborate on what modifications the committee studied. The team met in secret, she said, to protect the companies’ proprietary information. But programmers who obtained Diebold’s code have been alarmed not only by the system’s simplicity (and the ease with which voting results could be altered) but its lack of security safeguards. Worse yet, Texas is among the many states that doesn’t require electronic voting machines to produce paper records of each vote. That means no recounts. Asked about the lack of a paper trail to verify vote totals, Waisath said the secretary of state’s office simply follows the Legislature’s directives. Last session, lawmakers chose not to require computerized voting machines to maintain paper records.

The committee has 30 days, from January 8th, to recommend certification of the systems to top officials in the secretary of state’s office, who will make the final decisions. The certification process doesn’t include a formal public comment period, Waisath said. But she noted that the public wouldn’t be shut out entirely. “We’ll certainly respond to any letters we receive,” she said. Seven Very Naughty Words Lamar Smith likes tits. He doesn’t like assholes. Perhaps his preferences are related to his sexual persuasion. Or perhaps it’s attributable to his need to carry the flag for America’s social conservatives. Whatever the reason for being a pro-tit-but-anti-asshole leader of the Republican Party, the San Antonio Congressman is one of the leaders of a legislative effort to make sure that the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t have any wiggle room when it comes to determining what language is allowable on TV and what’s not. Smith and his fellow conservatives are in high dudgeon over the Federal Communications Commission’s failure to properly punish the TV stations who carried the broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards show in January 2003. During that show, Irish rock star Bono used the phrase “really, really fucking brilliant.” The FCC got a spate of complaints. But in October, the agency decided not to punish the stations, saying that Bono had not used the expletive to describe a sex act, but instead had used it “as an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation.”

Following the FCC ruling, Smith and a fellow radical Republican, California conservative Doug Ose, introduced The Clean Airwaves Act, (H.R. 3687) that spells out exactly how the FCC should decide what is profane. It reads: As used in this section, the term ‘profane’, used with respect to language, includes the words ‘shit’, ‘piss’, ‘fuck’, ‘cunt’, ‘asshole’, and the phrases ‘cock sucker’, ‘mother fucker’, and ‘ass hole’, compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms). Seeing Ose and Smith’s bill, it quickly becomes clear that it is outlawing, almost word for word, the seven deadly words that were laid out by comedian George Carlin in his instantly classic 1972 recording, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV.”

According to Carlin, the seven words were “Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits.” There’s nothing wrong with the list compiled by Smith and Ose, but what happened to tits? And furthermore, why have Smith and Ose decided to add “asshole” to their list of forbidden words? Who do they think they are? Comedians? The Clean Airwaves Act has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. And we’re not fucking kidding.