President Obama releases long form birth certificate, hoping to put an end to ‘birther’ rumours

Since the presidential primary season in 2008, rumours have been swimming around the internet that President Obama’s real birthplace was Kenya and not Hawaii, that he is a Muslim, and all manner of other wonderful conspiracy theories that have since been picked up by the nuttiest of America’s citizens. Many state legislatures have even passed laws and resolutions expressing doubt about the president’s citizenship. Most recently, Donald Trump, real estate mogul and potential 2012 contender, has been seriously questioning the ‘real’ birthplace of the Commander-in-Chief.

Despite the fact that Barack Obama released his certificate of live birth in June 2008, that both the former (republican) and current (democratic) governors of Hawaii have confirmed that they have seen the birth certificate, and that there has been no proof of the president being born outside the United States, this myth refused to die, with a recent poll suggesting that 45% of republicans think he was born overseas. That’s why I hope that today’s release of President Obama’s full, long-form birth certificate (the original copy) will satisfy doubters. TPM has more:

Hoping to end a long-running “controversy” over whether he was born in the United States, the White House released President Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate on Wednesday. “The President believed the distraction over his birth certificate wasn’t good for the country. It may have been good politics and good TV, but it was bad for the American people and distracting from the many challenges we face as a country,” the White House’s Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a blog post. “Therefore, the President directed his counsel to review the legal authority for seeking access to the long form certificate and to request on that basis that the Hawaii State Department of Health make an exception to release a copy of his long form birth certificate,” wrote Pfeiffer. “They granted that exception in part because of the tremendous volume of requests they had been getting.”

You can see it here. I’m sure, however, that the most paranoid of the paranoid will still not be satisfied – assuming whatever bizarre news sources they follow cover the news. There are some people that are just too insane to believe the truth.

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Direct corporate contributions to candidates to be legalised in Tennessee: another win for corporatocracy!

Money
It’s a gas
Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash

So said Pink Floyd in their 1973 hit, Money, off the Dark Side of the Moon album. Politicians in Tennessee agree wholeheartedly, it would seem. In the wake of the 2010 Citizens United v Federal Election Commission decision by the US Supreme Court, which ruled that corporations have the same right to free speech as citizens and should be able to directly fund independent political broadcasts, the Tennessee legislature has gone one step further and decided that companies should be able to give money directly to candidates – and that includes foreign companies! The Knoxville News Sentinel has the scoop:

Direct corporate donations to political candidates will be legalized in Tennessee and the amount that can be given by all contributors will be raised by about 40 percent under legislation approved by House and Senate committees Tuesday. For political action committees, for example, the maximum donation will increase from $7,500 to $10,700 and adjusted upward for inflation in future years. Corporations will be treated as if they were PACs [Political Action Committees – independent spending groups that can receive donations both from individuals and companies] under the bill, SB1915.

With Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, as sponsor, the bill was approved on a party-line vote by the Senate State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday morning. The House State and Local Government Committee approved it about three hours later on voice vote. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner noted that foreign-based corporations also would be allowed to contribute under the bill, though House sponsor Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, said they will have to have a Tennessee presence to do so.

Companies have been able to participate in political life for years through PACs, but their involvement in elections has been limited mainly to independent advertising not directly linked to candidates. More and more, PACs have been able to donate money to candidates – both republican and democratic, by the way – and this new step both increases their ability to fund political campaigns and gives companies new tools to give more money to their preferred candidates. While grassroots fundraising will still make a difference, it seems clear that republicans are doing more and more to erode the ability of ordinary voters to have an impact on American political life – with candidates bought and sold by big business.

It’s extremely sad, because so much progress had been made in prior decades to try to take big money out of politics – while the sums raised by candidates never stopped growing, donation limits put in place by legislation like McCain-Feingold at least attempted to curb the power of individual donors. Now, we seem to be going in completely the opposite direction, with a complete deregulation of campaign financing. Stephen Colbert joked about getting Doritos to finance his 2008 presidential run – but how long until we actually see Mitt Romney, brought to you by Coca-Cola?

Gabrielle Giffords on the mend; still a long way to go…

Many of you may remember the horrific shooting that took place in Tucson, Arizona, in January of this year, in which Jared Lee Loughner, a clearly disturbed 22-year-old man, opened fire outside a supermarket and shot 19 people, killing six and seriously wounding Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who received a bullet in the head and was pronounced dead by several media sources. News updates on her recovery have been overwhelmingly positive – perhaps too much so, for someone with such a serious injury – suggesting that she has made astonishing progress, to the point where some are pushing for her to run for the Senate in 2012.

The Arizona Republic has a more realistic, if still encouraging, account of her progress, which suggests that Giffords has come leaps and bounds since the shooting, but is still in a fragile condition. It’s worth reading the whole article, but here are some key snippets:

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is left-handed now… Her handwriting looks different in the letter she recently wrote to her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, than it did the last time he went into space. Giffords’ mother helped her pen the traditional NASA sendoff note two weeks ago. She wrote to her “sweetie pie,” and that part – those words – were the same.

Many other things are different since Giffords’ brain was pierced by a bullet during the shootings near Tucson on Jan. 8. Her hair is short, maybe 2 inches long, says Pia Carusone, her chief of staff, so there are scars on her scalp that show through. Eventually, her hair will cover them. A thin scar across the top of her forehead is healing well and fading, and her face, though sometimes swollen, is otherwise the same as before, Carusone says.

Giffords speaks most often in a single word or declarative phrase: “love you,” “awesome,” even “get out” to doctors in her room at the end of a taxing day. She longs to leave the rehab center, repeating “I miss Tucson” and wheeling herself to the doors at the end of the hall to peer out. When that day comes, Giffords told her nurse, she plans to “walk a mountain.”

Longer sentences frustrate Giffords. She must search her brain for the words she wants, which feels like trying to pull out the name of a familiar face you can’t quite place, her doctors say. Once she builds the sentence in her mind, she speaks clearly and at a normal rate, and can offer as many words as she has the patience to string together. The doctor overseeing her rehabilitation places her in the top 5 percent of patients recovering from this injury.

At the end of week 15, she can stand on her own and walk a little but is working to improve her gait, says Dr. Gerard Francisco, the physiatrist and chief medical officer at TIRR Memorial Hermann who works with Giffords five days a week.

Use of her right arm and leg is limited but improving, he says – a common effect of a bullet wound on the left side of the brain. She pushes a grocery cart up and down the hospital halls as therapy, focusing on using the correct muscles, says nurse Kristy Poteet, who has worked with Giffords since she arrived in Houston on Jan. 21. More therapy comes from games of bowling and indoor golf, Poteet says. Giffords used to be right-handed. Maybe she will be again. That answer, like so many others, will come long after week 15.

It’s an at times heart-warming, at times tragic, account of the determination of doctors, family and friends, and the inner strength of a woman who is fighting serious brain trauma to regain a semblance of normality in her life. What’s clear is that Giffords is making enormous progress, but that she’ll never truly be the same – and people should be realistic about further advances in her condition. The woman was shot in the head, for Christ’s sake. It’s remarkable that she’s regained such an astonishing command of her intellect and bodily functions, and that her personality has changed so little (one of the most common consequences of brain trauma is an often substantial change in personality). If she is able to walk, talk and interact with her family normally again, that in itself will be more than 95% of people in her position. We shouldn’t be expecting that she’ll somehow make a miraculous recovery and run for the Senate. It’s comfort enough that she’s got that far – and without being too corny, it’s the perfect Easter story of rebirth, renewal and the tenacity of life in the face of adversity.

Oh, that reminds me – Happy Easter, everyone!

Belgium celebrates one year without a government

Various newspapers, magazines and news sites have picked up on what would normally be an anniversary to be ashamed of: Belgium has spent the past year effectively without a government. Yes, Yves Leterme’s cabinet resigned exactly one year ago today, bringing about early elections that led to a political stalemate and an inability to form a new government, meaning that Leterme’s caretaker team has stayed on to fill the gap.

Yet Belgians seem unbothered, if a little weary of the whole situation. As the Telegraph’s Bruno Waterfield points out:

With the help of decrees from King Albert II, Belgium’s monarch, the experiment in undemocratic government is widely regarded as a success.

The unelected rulers even succeeded in sending Belgium’s F15 fighter planes to take part in military strikes alongside the RAF in Libya.

The Belgian press have reported that the trains are running better than ever and Belgium’s football team, a rare symbol of national unity, is on track for the European championships.

Now, obviously, Waterfield is being more than a little facetious. Yet Belgium is, effectively, being run by a gouvernement démissionnaire – a government that has resigned and that should merely be filling the short gap between elections and the formation of a new coalition. And no-one expects the situation to end soon – indeed, as the Telegraph rightly states, it isn’t out of the question that Belgium could go an entire four-year parliamentary term without forming a new coalition. According to political scientist Kris Deschouwer points out, that’s not a big deal:

The absence of a government is not particularly serious. Life goes on, the communities and regions [Belgium is a federal state divided into three linguistic communities and three economic and geographical regions] still do their job, the European Union still works. What has ceased to function is a mechanism for reforming the state, which is the current precondition for forming a new government. It’s a very long crisis, but not a very serious or deep one. The Belgian federal model makes it possible for the system to work for a long period of time, even with one of the three levels of government lacking a fully-fledged government.

Indeed, Deschouwer goes on to coin a phrase that I particularly like: “Forming a government seems easier to me than terminating Belgium”. And he’s right – because Belgium’s governmental system is so complicated and byzantine that it simply breeds inertia, which means that there has to be a strong state apparatus at all levels to keep the whole thing going in case there’s a blockage somewhere.

Those who have lived in Belgium may already be aware of this, but it’s worth pointing out nevertheless: Belgium has six parliaments and six governments (seven, if you count the European Parliament and the other European institutions) for a population of 10-11 million people. Starting with the basics: Belgium is a Kingdom, with a monarch (King Albert II) and a bicameral parliamentary system with proportional representation. That means coalition governments from the get-go, since almost no country with a proportional system (Hungary being the notable exception) currently has a single-party majority government. But it gets more complicated than that. Belgium is divided in two (or, arguably, three) language groups. Almost 60% of Belgians speak Flemish, which is a dialect of Dutch (or, to be more precise, they learn Dutch at school, but speak various local variations of the language amongst themselves, which together can be called Flemish). These people are called the Flemings, and they live in Flanders. 40% of the population speaks French, and lives in Wallonia (the inhabitants of which are called Walloons) and Brussels, the officially bilingual but mainly French-speaking capital of Belgium. Less than one per cent of the population, living mainly in a few towns along the border of Germany, speaks German (these people are known, imaginatively enough, as German-speaking Belgians).

In a linguistically divided country, with two strong, distinct groups, forming a government becomes even harder. Without getting into the long history of linguistic politics in Belgium (that’s for another post – in the meantime, look it up), the country’s political system gradually split over the past half-century or so, in two main ways:

  • First of all, Belgium’s traditionally unitary party system, with three main factions (Christian democrats, liberals and socialists) split along linguistic lines, and fragmented as new parties emerged. That means that what was once a fairly simple three-party system became one with twelve parties represented in the federal parliament (five French-speaking and seven Flemish). For a government to gain legitimacy, it has become commonly accepted that it must command a majority of members of parliament on each side of the linguistic divide. Yves Leterme’s government, for example, brought together five parties (Christian democrats and liberals on the Flemish side; liberals, centrists and socialists on the French-speaking side); following the 2010 elections, it seems likely that any government formed will contain at least seven parties. That makes forming a working coalition that will last a full four-year term extremely difficult.
  • The political system has also split insofar as it moved from a strong unitary state to a fairly complicated federal construction. Without, once again, getting into the history of how it came to pass, Belgium is now a country divided into three regions and three communities, each of which has its own government. The three communities are the majority Dutch-speaking community, the minority French-speaking community, and the tiny German-speaking community. Each of these entities has its own parliament and its own government, handling issues such as education, culture and (to a certain extent) healthcare. But linguistic communities are geographically amorphous identities (the French-speaking community includes Wallonia and Brussels, the latter being a majority-French-speaking enclave in Flanders). As a result, Belgium also created three regions with their own parliaments and governments – Flanders*, Brussels (which belongs to both communities, and is officially bilingual) and Wallonia (which includes the German-speaking community). These regions have wide powers over economic development, infrastructure, housing, agriculture and other similar matters. Confused? I’m not surprised. On top of this, the federal government still has substantial powers in terms of justice, defence, foreign affairs, social welfare, nuclear energy and various state-owned companies (like the railways).

So it’s complicated and somewhat kafkaesque. What it all means, though, is that with so many veto points, so many divisions and levels of government, the role of the civil service and administration is essential – and top-level Belgian civil servants are some of the most capable in the world (on top of having to speak a multitude of languages, they must navigate the tough political and cultural landscape on a daily basis). What is more, even as governments change, nothing fundamentally changes in Belgium. The coalition-based political system means that only one or two parties move in and out of any given national or regional government after any given election – and even if a party is in opposition on the federal level, there is a good chance that it will be in government on a regional level, or vice-versa. What that means is that even as Belgium seems unstable on the surface, and slowly drifting apart, with Flemings and French-speakers having less and less in common, it is actually much stronger and more durable than most people think. Which is why, honestly, no-one really cares all that much that the political parties are all acting like petulant children and incapable of forming any kind of coalition a year after the last one collapsed – everyone knows that nothing will really change all that much, and they quite like it that way.

*The Flemish region and Flemish community have merged their insitutions – a meaningless piece of trivia, but an explanation of why Belgium has six parliaments instead of seven.