Japan’s 8.9-magnitude earthquake

Japan was hit today by its most powerful earthquake since records began, and one of the most potent on record anywhere in the world. While the country has survived remarkably well – thanks, no doubt, to its astonishing investment in seismic retrofitting – many have died, countless more are missing, and the country has suffered substantial material damage on top of all that. I don’t have much to add, except to tell you all that, no matter where you are in the world, the BBC has the best live on-line coverage of what’s going on – here’s the link.

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Romney: nominee by default?

I’ve written before about how weak and divided the republican presidential field is at the moment. It seems, however, that there’s a new media narrative going around at the moment: that most of the heavyweights will stay out of the race, leaving the 2012 primary battle to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich… and a handful of people that analysts agree are no-hopers, like Ambassador to China and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee looks more and more likely to stay out of the race. Sarah Palin (who needs no introduction)? Who knows, but it increasingly seems like the establishment and the right-wing press have turned against her, meaning that while she could do well in primaries, she would probably have little chance of winning the nomination. We may also have another far-right candidate like Reps. Michele Bachmann and/or Steve King, but neither of those two individuals will come anywhere close to being the republican nominee. Oh, and then there’s Donald Trump, who’s about as likely to become president as I am.

With that in mind, Mitt Romney is the clear frontrunner, with the most establishment support, the best organisation and the most money. But could he win, bearing in mind his moderate record as governor and his frankly rather liberal positions back in the 1990s? I’m not just talking about his passing healthcare reform (‘Romneycare’) in Massachusetts – I’m also talking about his past support for abortion and gay rights when he ran for the Senate in 1994 against Ted Kennedy, best illustrated by this wonderful video:

Conventional wisdom would suggest that all of the anti-Romney forces would eventually coalesce around a candidate to the right of the former Massachusetts governor, who would go on to win the nomination. That could very well be Tim Pawlenty, who has low visibility at the moment but lots of money, a promising campaign staff, and a lot of goodwill from the establishment – Pawlenty talks like a moderate, but is actually quite conservative on both economic and social issues, and is an evangelical Christian. It could also be Newt Gingrich, who’s said some very repulsive things about the current president, Muslims and other people and groups in recent months.

At the same time, though, consider 2008. John McCain was seen as the ‘moderate’ candidate who could not be trusted by the right. Yet he still managed to trounce more conservative opponents in ’08, and win the nomination surprisingly early. And Romney has been even more deft than John McCain in flip-flopping on past statements and talking like a true red-blooded conservative – perhaps best illustrated by the title of his 2010 book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness“. While there’s still time for someone more authentically conservative, with enough establishment support and money to have a serious shot at the nomination, yet without the total lack of charisma from which Tim Pawlenty suffers, to enter the race, Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that this might just be one of those elections where the best candidates decide not to take the plunge, and the GOP ends up with a lacklustre nominee:

…sometimes the “person who can win” decides not to run, and you’re left to choose between people who can’t. The last time the Republicans made big gains in the mid-term elections [1994] and then faced a vulnerable-but-formidable Democratic incumbent two years later, they found themselves choosing between Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan in the primaries, while figures like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney (now there would have been a primary campaign!) stayed on the sidelines. It could happen again: Just because the Republicans seem to need a better candidate than Mitt Romney doesn’t mean they’ll get one.

I think that’s right. And while I still have trouble seeing how republicans could possibly nominate Mitt Romney, I have even more trouble imagining any of the other probable candidates winning their party’s nomination. So, right now, it’s Romney – unless Mike Huckabee proves the pundits wrong and decides to actually run.

Prison rape: a silent tragedy

David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow have a great piece up in the New York Review of Books on an issue that is not taken seriously enough, and often laughed at, while ruining the lives of thousands – prison rape. An extract:

Back in 1998, Jan Lastocy was serving time for attempted embezzlement in a Michigan prison. Her job was working at a warehouse for a nearby men’s prison. She got along well with two of the corrections officers who supervised her, but she thought the third was creepy. “He was always talking about how much power he had,” she said, “how he liked being able to write someone a ticket just for looking at him funny.” Then, one day, he raped her.

Jan wanted to tell someone, but the warden had made it clear that she would always believe an officer’s word over an inmate’s, and didn’t like “troublemakers.” If Jan had gone to the officers she trusted, they would have had to repeat her story to the same warden. Jan was only a few months away from release to a halfway house. She was desperate to get out of prison, to return to her husband and children. So she kept quiet—and the officer raped her again, and again. There were plenty of secluded places in the huge warehouse, behind piles of crates or in the freezer. Three or four times a week he would assault her, from June all the way through December, and the whole time she was too terrified to report the attacks. Later, she would be tormented by guilt for not speaking out, because the same officer went on to rape other women at the prison.

Whether it’s women or men who are raped and molested, it’s a tragedy that so many people are forced to suffer in silence. It’s estimated that 4.4% of inmates were raped or sexually assaulted in US prisons every year. While the raw figure – 7,444 in 2008 – seems small, apply that to the entire population of the United States (roughly 308 million people) and we’re talking about over 13.5 million rapes per year. Just imagine that – of any group of 25 inmates, one will almost certainly have been raped, molested or sexually assaulted.

But, of course, we continue to make jokes about bending over to pick up the soap in the shower. What classy, intelligent people we are.

The wheels of progress keep on rolling: more Americans now support gay marriage than oppose it

According to the General Social Survey (GSS), a biennial poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, same-sex marriage now has more supporters than opponents in the United States:

The 2010 GSS shows that, despite efforts to block same-sex marriage in states across the country, more Americans support same-sex marriage than oppose it.

Southern Illinois University sociologist Darren Sherkat posts on his blog a brief rundown of analysis he performed on raw data from 2010 that GSS recently released. Sherkat reports that for the first time in American history, same-sex marriage has more support than opposition, a massive shift from the first time GSS asked the question just 22 years ago, when more than three-quarters of Americans opposed same-sex marriage and only 12.4 percent supported it.

That astounding progress can be best illustrated in the chart below:

The change over time is just astonishing, and amazingly encouraging. While there is still a long way to go before LGBT Americans are as accepted by society as straight people, what’s clear is that there’s a marked generational shift, with younger people increasingly believing that people are ‘born gay’ and shouldn’t be discriminated against because they are attracted to people of the same sex. That’s even true in the reddest parts of America. Some of the most tolerant people I’ve met, surprisingly, are young Mississippians, Tennesseeans and Virginians, who, regardless of religion and political allegiances, simply don’t have any problem with gay people and don’t understand why other people should or do. Their parents’ generation may still be far more intolerant – hell, older New Yorkers are less tolerant than twentysomethings! However, the increasing number of LGBT role models on TV and in films, as well as a decreasing tolerance for public homophobia in the media, has meant that people of my generation no longer really give a damn what a person’s sexual orientation is, as long as that person is a decent human being. That doesn’t mean that we’ll have country-wide gay marriage any time in the near future, or even in the next ten or fifteen years. What it means, though, is that it’ll be increasingly different as younger generations come of political age for politicians to find convincing reasons to deny gay couples the right to marry and enjoy all of the rights of their straight compatriots. That alone is a wonderful thing, even if the pace of change is far too slow.

I really do feel spring coming on. The weather’s been wonderful these past few days, I’ve been in a better mood, and I’m finding more and more reasons to have renewed hope in humanity. I think that what I’m really trying to say is: “Hooray!”

Germany is officially awesome

The Telegraph brings us the news of a BBC World Service poll that puts Germany at the top of everyone’s favourite country list:

Britain has been named as the second most popular nation in the world – being pipped to the top spot only by old rivals Germany… Canada was the third most popular of the countries polled, followed by Japan, France and Brazil. The US came seventh ahead of China, South Africa and India.

It’s not that much of a shock, when you consider that Germany not only has the most vibrant economy of any major developed nation in the world, but also has great beer (not as good as Belgium’s or the Czech Republic’s, though), beautiful women and the best cars. I’ll always be rooting for France and Belgium, personally, but everyone except me seems to think that French people are jerks (je vous assure que c’est pas vrai), and Belgium’s sort of a bizarre place that people don’t really get unless they’ve lived here for a while. Holland’s great fun, but the food is awful and the weather’s even worse. Scandinavia’s cold and expensive. Italy’s a mess (which is right up my alley, but isn’t to everyone’s taste). Britain’s a wonderful country in many ways, but it’s got a drinking culture that’s really kind of screwed up, and British people are ugly. Spain is sort of seen as a place you go on holiday, but not somewhere you’d want to live. I’d love to go to Japan and see what the place is all about, but no-one’s buying me plane tickets, as far as I can tell. Same for Brazil, though I think that people too often forget the negative aspect of the favelas and the enormous poverty in which so many people live. As for the US… I think I’ll remain neutral on this one. But let’s just say that as many people love the place as despise it.

With that in mind, Germany kind of makes sense. But what’s your favourite country in the world?

2002 all over again? Marine Le Pen leads in new French presidential election poll

On the 21st of April 2002, French voters had the shock of their lives when far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Front (FN), beat incumbent socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin to qualify for the second round of that year’s presidential election. Though he was resoundingly beaten by centre-right President Jacques Chirac in the run-off, it was the best result ever for a hard right candidate.

French voters thought that the Le Pen threat was on the wane when the FN leader only came in 4th at the 2007 presidential election, behind Nicolas Sarkozy (the right-wing leader who went on to win the election and become president), Ségolène Royal (the socialist candidate) and François Bayrou (a centrist). However, with a change of leadership at the top of the far-right party, Marine Le Pen (who is perceived as being marginally more moderate than her father Jean-Marie) took the reins of the FN, and has seemingly brought the party even closer to power than it was in 2002, as a Harris Interactive poll for Le Parisien set to appear tomorrow shows:

Marine Le Pen (FN) would be in first place in the first round of the presidential election if it were held today, with 23% of the vote, ahead of Nicolas Sarkozy and Martine Aubry [leader of the French Socialist Party and Mayor of Lille], who are tied at 21%, according to a Harris Interactive poll for Le Parisien which will be released on Sunday…

This is the first time in any presidential election poll that the leader of the Front national qualified for the second round. For several weeks now, commentators on the right and on the left are suggesting that France could be headed for a repeat of the 21st of April, 2002, where Lionel Jospin was eliminated in the first round, leaving Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen to face off in the second.

Marine Le Pen has set out to give the FN a make-0ver – but it is, of course, merely a cosmetic change leaving the party’s core values intact. While her father was known as much for denying the Holocaust and diatribes against abortion (which is overwhelmingly popular and a fringe political issue in France, unlike the United States) as he was for his opposition to immigration and his country’s membership of the EU, Le Pen junior focuses on Islam and law and order, copying from the playbook of parties that have had success elsewhere in Europe, such as Geert Wilders‘s Party for Freedom in Holland and Umberto Bossi‘s Lega Nord in Italy. At the same time, thanks to her political base in economically depressed Northern France, she has an ability to relate with working families worried about globalisation and economic liberalism that her father lacked because of his extreme reputation.

Quoting Joseph Stiglitz and David Cameron, Le Pen plays on fears of modernity, free trade and immigration that mainstream politicians have been all-too-willing to talk about themselves, pandering to the far right to win votes. But Marine Le Pen can speak about such subjects with more credibility thanks to her far right background, while appealing to enough moderates to make a serious impact on the French political landscape. While the 2012 election is more than a year away, the new FN leader is seemingly making waves on both the right and the left by both pointing out Nicolas Sarkozy’s failures to live up to his promises to curb immigration and improve security, and playing the left’s game too with a protectionist, anti-big-business line that will speak to workers’ concerns about jobs disappearing overseas while French bankers and businessmen remain as rich as ever.

Marine Le Pen is a major threat to both sides of the political spectrum – and, with several candidacies on the left and the centre-right, one of the two mainstream presidential hopefuls (Sarkozy and his socialist opponent, who will probably be either Aubry or current IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn) could well come up short and find him- or herself excluded from the second round of the 2012 election. And while a Le Pen candidacy would never win a majority of votes in France (or, at least, I would hope not), French voters would once again be confronted with a choice between an unpopular mainstream candidate and an extreme protest candidate, which would not be good for democracy in the long run. Voters are best served when they are able to choose between two competing, coherent visions for the future of their country, rather than simply having to pick between moderation and anger.

Newt Gingrich is running for president

It seems that, after the announcement from former pizza exec Herman Cain that he’s setting up a presidential exporatory committee, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is doing the same:

The 2012 Republican race for president has a second candidate! According to “confidants close to the former House speaker”… Newt Gingrich will announce his decision to form a presidential exploratory committee by the end of this week…

Newt Gingrich was once the most important republican in politics, as leader of his party in the House of Representatives. But he’s been out of elective politics for over ten years. And while he’s undoubtedly an intelligent and brilliant man who’s managed to stay in the public eye despite more than a decade out of office, he’s also been married three times (never a good way to connect with those religious conservatives), and divorced his ex-wife while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer. That’s John Edwards-style behaviour that would be unacceptable from a democrat.

However, his history of bigoted, populist comments may prove more damaging in an election against President Obama, even if they serve him well in a republican primary. Media Matters has a good selection of some of his worst recent utterings:

A June 16, 1995,Washington Post article reported that Gingrich, in a discussion with black journalists, stated that the failure of poor black people to acquire wealth was in part due to their “habits.”

A January 19, 1995, New York Times article reported on concerns about women in military combat roles that Gingrich had raised while teaching a history course at Georgia’s Reinhardt College… The Times reported that Gingrich told his students that “females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections…”

On the November 14, 2008, edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, Gingrich stated… “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment.”

And so on and so forth. I’m not convinced that American journalists are hard-working and courageous enough to actually call Gingrich on his public nastiness. But I do think that, while many Southern and rural white voters won’t see a problem with many of the things that Gingrich has said, minority voters and educated whites will be disgusted enough by the man’s comments to turn out in bigger numbers than usual to ensure that he doesn’t get elected to the White House. Even Sarah Palin hasn’t said anything remotely as bigoted, even if she’s spouted some crazy nonsense at times. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are practically democrats in comparison.

This is all, of course, assuming that a thrice-divorced overweight man who’s been out of politics for more than ten years can win the republican nomination.