John Paul Stevens: 95 & Going Strong

John Paul Stevens

Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, a man of many accomplishments, comes across as a man of few regrets. The latter might be summed up in two words: Citizens United. His regrets over that controversial 5-4 decision, handed down just months before he left the Supreme Court, are strong, and many.

Stevens, who turned 95 in April, appeared recently at an event in Washington DC co-sponsored by the Alliance for Justice and George Washington University Law School. Introduced by AFJ President Nan Aron, Stevens was interviewed by Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick and Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart.

Stevens demurred on several issues such as the benefits or evils of social media and citizen journalists: “I’m not a good person to ask about that.” But on most points he was crystal clear.

Re political candidates having “a litmus test” for potential Supreme Court nominees? Even as to Citizens United, “it’s a bad idea. But the (Citizens United) case should be overruled.” Throughout the interview Stevens referred to the case as bad for the country and the future, and damaging to the basic principles of democracy, “which should be ‘one person, one vote’ and not (decisions hinging) on a bunch of money.”

Asked by Capehart why he had changed from the conservative he was considered when first named to the bench to his later identification as a liberal, Stevens said, “I didn’t change, the Court changed.” Every member appointed from 1981-91, he pointed out, was more conservative than his predecessor.Scales of justice

On electoral reform, another issue Stevens sees as imperative, he said “some things can be done at the state level. The right to contribute (to campaigns, etc) should have some geographical boundaries. Excessive photo IDs have never made sense.”

Stevens, in response to a question from Lithwick about “bombast and aggressive, ideological arguments” in the Court, said that “ideology is not good. That’s one reason I am against televising arguments, which would have an adverse impact on the deliberating process. I believe firmly in people knowing the institution, but not if it has an adverse effect on the institution itself.” Possibly because some member might be a camera hog, Lithwick interposed? “Any one of the nine. And I would include myself.”

Talking briefly about interactions among the justices, Stevens – known to have had a close relationship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – gave the impression that the Court does indeed function as intended. “I think John Roberts is a very good Chief Justice,” he said. “He executes the duties of Chief Justice well, although I disagree with some of his decisions.”

Stevens recalled stumbling over a few words while giving his dissent in Citizens United. “I said to myself, ‘You’re not as articulate as you were.’ And that’s when I stepped down.”

Fielding questions five years later, the renowned Justice showed no problem articulating his thoughts. Including the need for electoral reform – and the need to overturn Citizens United.

Tiny pieces of peace on earth

"A Peace Dove to the whole World" al...
“A Peace Dove to the whole World” al-Ma’sara village children, south of Bethlehem (Photo credit: ☪yrl)

BLESSINGS OF PEACE AND LIGHT BE WITH YOU THROUGHOUT THE YEAR. I lifted that line from the web page of the organization discussed below — but it works.

Thanks to the immortality of cyberspace, this brief essay that I posted three years ago re-surfaced this week. Someone sent a comment — “Awesome post, dude!” was the opening line — apparently after reading it for the first time. Maybe he was Googling the word Peace. In any event, it’s still valid and now resurrected:

In the olden days of the 20th century, at least until the latter third or so, there was a quaint custom for newspapers — remember newspapers? — to print nothing but good news on the front page on December 25, in recognition of the historical figure celebrated by Christians around the globe as the Prince of Peace. Even for followers of other religious traditions, or of no religion of all, there was something comforting about picking up the morning paper (another quaint but honorable old custom) or checking the corner newstand without being confronted by headlines screaming of wars and disasters, murder and mayhem.

Couldn’t find such a front page this year. The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle… no luck. On the front page of the Sunday (December 26) Chronicle, though, is a feature article encompassing the message of peace that is the essence of all the religious celebrations of December: Chanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and many more. It’s a profile of the man who, in 2000, launched United Religions Initiative, retired Episcopal Bishop William Swing. U.R.I. is dedicated to fostering cooperation and mutual respect among all religions, and to bringing peace and justice to people everywhere. Hard to argue with that.

From modest beginnings a decade ago U.R.I. now boasts (except U.R.I. folks tend not to be boastful) several hundred “Cooperation Circles” scattered across the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Circles (the San Francisco Interfaith Council, of which I’m pleased to be a part, is one) are made up of ordinary people with extraordinary goals: promoting peace, equality and justice in a limitless variety of ways. U.R.I. also has programs in areas such as women’s rights, youth, environment and peacebuilding. There’s that word again: Peace.

Wouldn’t it be fine to see a little of that in the New Year?

New 'morning after' pill meets opposition from abortion foes

MADRID, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 27:  In this photo i...
Image by Getty Images via @daylife

With global overpopulation among the most critical problems of the 21st century, news of a highly effective contraceptive becoming available in the U.S. would seem very good news indeed. But as health writer Rob Stein reports in the Washington Post, it may not happen:

A French drug company is seeking to offer American women something their European counterparts already have: a pill that works long after “the morning after.”

The drug, dubbed ella, would be sold as a contraceptive — one that could prevent pregnancy for as many as five days after unprotected sex. But the new drug is a close chemical relative of the abortion pill RU-486, raising the possibility that it could also induce abortion by making the womb inhospitable for an embryo.

Plan B (the last emergency contraceptive vetted by the FDA), which works for up to 72 hours after sex, was eventually approved for sale without a prescription, although a doctor’s order is required for girls younger than 17. The new drug promises to extend that period to at least 120 hours. Approved in Europe last year, ella is available as an emergency contraceptive in at least 22 countries.

“With ulipristal (ella), women will be enticed to buy a poorly tested abortion drug, unaware of its medical risks, under the guise that it’s a morning-after pill,” said Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America, which led the battle against Plan B.

Plan B prevents a pregnancy by administering high doses of a hormone that mimics progesterone. It works primarily by inhibiting the ovaries from producing eggs. Critics argue it can also prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb, which some consider equivalent to an abortion.

Ella works as a contraceptive by blocking progesterone’s activity, which delays the ovaries from producing an egg. RU-486, too, blocks the action of progesterone, which is also needed to prepare the womb to accept a fertilized egg and to nurture a developing embryo. That’s how RU-486 can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting and dislodge growing embryos. Ella’s chemical similarity raises the possibility that it might do the same thing, perhaps if taken at elevated doses. But no one knows for sure because the drug has never been tested that way. Opponents of the drug are convinced it will. “It kills embryos, just like the abortion pill,” said Donna Harrison, president of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

A federal panel will convene this week to consider endorsing the drug. Those favoring approval are worried that the ambiguous sentiments, and the power of abortion foes who seem poised to weigh in against it, will influence the outcome.

“FDA should be a ‘Just the facts ma’am’ organization,” said Susan F. Wood, an associate professor at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services who resigned from the FDA to protest delays in making Plan B more accessible. “I’m hoping the FDA will take that position.”

There is an great unmet need out there for emergency contraception that is effective as this for so long,” said Erin Gainer, chief executive of HRA Pharma of Paris. Studies involving more than 4,500 women in the United States and Europe show that ella is safe, producing minor side effects including headaches, nausea and fatigue, she said.

The company has no plans to test ella as an abortion drug, but it did not appear to cause any problems for the handful of women who have become pregnant after taking the drug, she said.

“The people who are opposing this are not just opposed to abortion,” said Amy Allina, program director at the National Women’s Health Network. “They also opposed contraception and they are trying to confuse the issue.”

Back to the issue: the planet has a finite amount of space for human beings. When one human being (and often two human beings acting as one) seeks not to add an unwanted human being, would it not make sense to furnish all available safe, legal tools to assist in that humanitarian effort?

Stay tuned for the answer from the FDA.

New ‘morning-after’ pill, ella, raises debate over similarity to abortion drug.

Bin Laden, Mutallab: fathers & sons

It cannot have been fun to grow up bin Laden. With a dad whose idea of family holiday was to have his sons dig ditches in the near-freezing desert and invite moms and the rest of the kids to lie in them, overnight camping trips could lose their joy pretty fast. We already knew a good bit about family life with this dad, thanks to a book published last fall by first wife Najwa bin Laden and fourth son Omar, Growing Up bin Laden. Their insights into Osama were summed up in a review by Thomas W. Lippman of the Washington Post several months ago:

Osama bin Laden is a monster, a priapic zealot who was as cruel and arrogant in family life as he has been in his bloodstained public career. Not only is he a mass murderer, he is committed to inflicting death on as many people as possible. He lives to kill, the pursuit of violent jihad overpowering even the most basic human feelings and paternal concerns. He was a tyrannical and selfish father who deprived his many children of education, food and the comforts of modern life. From his wives he insisted on absolute subservience, sexual and otherwise. His only friends are the sycophantic thugs of his al-Qaeda entourage. At home he forbade laughter, not that there was much to laugh about.

Omar bin Laden is still not laughing, and you can’t blame him. But in some sense he may be getting even, by letting the world know a little more about a man who seems to have few redeeming qualities unless you really hate the U.S. yourself. Omar may also be helping build bridges to other sons and daughters who still look for alternative ways to live in the world other than annihilate everyone who disagrees with you. Estimates are that Osama has fathered 20 or so children by his five wives, and Omar seems to be helping those who don’t choose to be suicide bombers get away.

Two weeks ago, Omar bin Laden revealed that many of the children who had been with their father in Afghanistan escaped to Iran following the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and were still together in a walled compound under Iranian guard.

Confirmation came with the news that a daughter, Eman bin Laden, had taken refuge in the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Saudi officials are negotiating with the Iranians to allow Eman to return to Saudi Arabia, where she was born, and Omar bin Laden on Tuesday said he, as well as his wife and mother, had applied for visas to go to Tehran and help speed Eman’s case.

Omar and his wife, Zaina Alsabah, later reported in an e-mail message that another bin Laden son, 16-year-old Bakr, had been allowed to leave on Dec. 25. It said “He arrived with great joy at the destination of his choice,” and was with relatives. The e-mail did not disclose where Bakr was, but said he was not in Saudi Arabia.

The children’s reasons for taking up residence elsewhere are made pretty clear in Growing Up bin Laden:

The mother and son write that the kids grew up in Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan without laughter or toys, were routinely beaten, and lost their pets to painful death from poison gas experiments by their father’s fighters.

When they became young adults, their father asked them to volunteer for suicide missions. When Omar protested, bin Laden was quoted as replying: “You hold no more a place in my heart than any man or boy in the entire country. This is true for all my sons.”

It was then, Omar recounted, that he “finally knew exactly where I stood. My father hated his enemies more than he loved his sons.”

Omar recalled visiting his father’s training camps in Afghanistan and being sent to the front lines of the civil war that tore Afghanistan in the 1990s.

“I nearly lost my life so many times,” he said. “People may ask why I left my father. I left because I did not want anyone to choose my destiny. … And I believe I chose correctly, for I chose life. I chose peace.”

Interestingly enough, we have just seen those tables reversed by a father, Umar Mutallab, who sought to prevent his own warrior son from choosing destruction. Maybe somehow there will be enough peace-loving fathers and sons to give us hope.

Bin Laden a cruel father, book says.

Taking on MoveOn

I am a certified MoveOn supporter. Though I had to opt out of the e-feeds because my Inbox overfloweth, I have sent money, forwarded news, heeded their messages.

But enough is enough. They are pushing for measures we should have, but won’t get today. I am coming down on the side of those who say just get us a bill. In the words of Washington Post editorial writer E. J. Dionne — in a column today aptly titled Don’t scream: organize:

Instead of trying to derail the process – exactly what conservative opponents want to do – those on the left dissatisfied with the Senate bill should focus their efforts over the next few weeks on getting as many fixes into it as they can.

What we have in the Senate bill is a mishmash of stuff we didn’t want, along with the absence of stuff we did. Ridiculous obstacles to a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion — write two checks every month just so Ben Nelson can get benefits in perpetuity for Nebraska and maybe we’ll satisfy the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the bargain? — piled on top of other obstacles for the poor and benefits for the rich (read: Big Pharma.) But come on, folks, it’s a bill. If we get a bill, it can be improved. If we fail, it’ll be another generation of a punitive, non-working “system” of health care before we get this far again. By then there will be other Joe Liebermans eager to grab the spotlight and claim the power to derail every other beneficial detail. I’ll be dead, but I plan to haunt you.

Dionne points out that the House bill is superior, the two bills will now have to be reconciled, and there will be future opportunities to build on this beginning.

Enactment of a single bill will not mark the end of the struggle. It will open a series of new opportunities. It’s a lot easier to improve a system premised on the idea that everyone should have health coverage than to create such a system in the first place. Better to take a victory and build on it than to label victory as defeat.

Successful political movements prosper on the confidence that they can sustain themselves over time so they can finish tomorrow what they start today. At this moment, rage is understandable, but hope is what’s necessary.

Progressives – don’t scream: organize.

Obama's speech: inspiring or incoherent?

“Evil does exist in the world,” President Obama said. We cannot negotiate away our problems with Al Qaeda. “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” We must not, he said, compromise “the very ideals we fight to defend.” Plus, there was whole business of the ‘just’ war: as long as it’s in self-defense, is a last resort, and you try not to kill too many people, especially civilians. It was a strange Peace Prize speech.

Many of us who voted for him with such optimism and (too-)high expectations caught our breath at the news of the peace prize. And listened with some skepticism to his Nobel address. We wish the options were better. We still hope.

The speech, comments Michael Muskal of the Washington Post, was “part political science lesson, part sermon and part politics, designed to answer domestic and international critics,” But I think the commentary that best summed up the speech came from Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things and a guest on PBS NewsHour Thursday night. It was “incoherent,” Bottum said, repeatedly, while addressing the points listed above.

The good word incoherent is defined, in old-fashioned dictionaries, as “without logical connection,” “rambling in reason,” “without congruity of parts.” Maybe this has to happen, when one is trying to answer critics and please supporters and whatever else in the world one speech, in accepting a peace prize, is intended to do. But for our most articulate, thoughtful and presumably peace-loving president in decades, it was a little disappointing — even if I can’t imagine what he might have done differently.

At the regular breakfast meeting of the San Francisco Interfaith Council, a peaceful group if ever there was one, the primary topic that same day was homeless veterans. Guests spoke of services being created and expanded to help the ever-growing population of returning veterans who wind up on the streets. Several members of SFIC are among the group which has shown up every Thursday at noon, rain or shine, for many years outside the Federal Building, to stand silently for peace. Many of them are Quakers, but there are always people of other faiths, or no faith at all except in the possibility of peace. One of them commented, at the end of the breakfast meeting, that the best way to solve the problem of homeless veterans would be to have fewer veterans. Perhaps even no veterans at all. “War,” he said, “is a choice.” His remarks were absolutely coherent.

Perhaps, one of these days, there will be a Nobel Prize for peace that has been made. It would be a lovely follow-up for Mr. Obama to receive a second time.

The after-Thanksgiving 9-inch plate diet

At a very special holiday feast yesterday, one super-health-conscious guest chose a small plate for his buffet serving rather than the elegant-size plates of the rest of us. It was, he maintained, a matter of not having seen the table around the corner where the elegant-sizes were laid out, but he did manage to mention something about smaller portions being sufficient…

So. Now that you are, perhaps, stuffed with stuffed turkey, this space is pleased to pass along a novel idea passed along several days ago by Washington Post writer Jennifer LaRue Huget:

The holiday season brings with it an overabundance of advice on how to avoid gaining weight in the face of all those festive meals, cocktail parties and plates of cookies brought in by co-workers. Depending on whose advice you’re inclined to heed, you can cut back on carbs, mind the glycemic index of the foods before you, fill up on fat or count every calorie.

Or maybe you could just use smaller plates.

That’s the premise of “The 9-Inch ‘Diet’ ” (PowerHouse), a book published last November by a pair of advertising executives that makes a strong visual and verbal argument that much of America’s weight problem stems not from eating the wrong foods but from eating too much.

Alex Bogusky, who wrote the book with Chuck Porter, is best known for his work on the “Truth” anti-tobacco ad campaign. He starts the book with a simple tale. Having just bought a lakeside cottage built in the 1940s, he and his wife went out to stock up on dinnerware. But the plates they bought (regular ones from somewhere like Target) didn’t fit, no matter which way he tried to jam them in the cupboards. Slowly it dawned on him that those cupboards had been built with much smaller plates in mind. Further research revealed that while most dinner plates today measure 12 inches, in the middle of the past century the standard was nine inches.

And so a “diet” was born. (Bogusky notes that it’s not a diet at all — and thank goodness, as most diets don’t work in the long run, he observes.) Bogusky replaced his plates with vintage nine-inchers, and he and his family adjusted their serving sizes accordingly. “Research has proven,” Bogusky told me in an e-mail, “the mind is a much bigger trigger for how and when we feel satisfied and full than anybody had formerly realized. More so than the stomach.” As a result, he says, he’s eating considerably less food at every meal.

And you can, too.

“The 9-Inch ‘Diet’ ” is a fun read, chock-full of images that show how the continual super-sizing of American food-serving vessels has led to our consuming ever-increasing portions. Obviously, the diet is just a way of exercising portion control. But it’s an elegant and adaptable way.

Huget explains the subtleties of this system: you take smaller portions, which means you select and cook foods that will work (forget the 12-oz steaks and indivisible barbecued ribs…), and explains why, as the book in question has been around for a year, she is now bringing it up:

…I know it works, and I knew so even before reading the book. Last Thanksgiving, feeling sentimental, I dug out of my attic my Grandma LaRue’s 1950s-era dinnerware, including her nine-inch plates, in a pattern my husband and I have long referred to as “Hideousware.” They looked kind of Thanksgiving-y, so we used them at our celebration. The plates were indeed tiny. And we all ate less than usual — without really noticing.

I have to admit, I noticed what my very fit and healthy friend was consuming on his 9-inch plate.  Maybe a little bit less than I had on my elegant one. But if one were also to pass on the offering of seconds, and then not sneak extra bites when helping clean up, or pick friends whose dinners aren’t as delicious as my friend Liz’ …  There may be another diet book here.

Meanwhile, you might want to stimulate the economy by getting a new set of 9-inch plates before the next holiday season.

Jennifer LaRue Huget – Eat, Drink and Be Healthy: 9-inch plates are key to diet success – washingtonpost.com.