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Echo Chambers
30 January 2015 Last updated at 17:46 ET

A new war over political correctness

A dictionary defenition of politically correct

New York magazine's Jonathan Chait took a 2x4 to the proverbial hornet's nest earlier this week when he penned a nearly 5,000-word essay under the provocative headline, "Not a very PC thing to say: How the language police are perverting liberalism".

For those not familiar with the term, PC refers to politically correct - a derogatory description coined in the 1990s to label those contending, in part, that language was a weapon used by the powerful to deny the interests of the oppressed. Although the term gained national awareness, the most ferocious debates occurred on college campuses and involved student speech codes and mandated gender inclusiveness.

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The PC movement has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular”

End Quote Jonathan Chait New York magazine

The controversy died down in the new century, perhaps due to greater concerns in the national consciousness - terrorism and war, freedom and security. The debates, however, left their mark. Many of the journalists now reaching the higher levels of their profession, like Chait, had their educational experience defined by these often vitriolic episodes.

This writer, for instance, recalls that the most heated argument at his student newspaper - the one that fractured friendships and left some participants in tears - wasn't over abortion, the Gulf War or favoured political candidates. It was about replacing the word "freshman" with "first-year student" in the publication's style guide.

And now Chait has rubbed the scab off that particular cultural era and exposed a wound that still festers. He writes that the 20-year-old PC movement is returning with a vengeance - made all the worse by the roiling stew of opinion and outrage in social media.

Chait defines this new political correctness as mainly an internecine war among liberals, where "more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate". It is at its heart, he says, illiberal and anti-free speech.

Protestors gather in Beverly Hills, California. Chait says modern political correctness includes protesting controversial speakers

Among the examples he cites of modern-day PC extremism are calls for white males to "check their privilege"; trigger warnings on articles and college curricula; small slights called "microagressions" that, taken together, create a hostile environment for the unempowered; demands for inclusive language for trans-gendered persons; and protests that have prevented controversial lecturers from appearing on university campuses.

He points to a recent episode at Massachusetts' Mt Holyoke College, for instance, where a theatre group decided to end the annual performances of the play The Vagina Monologues - work that was celebrated as a beacon of feminist expression in the 1990s but now is considered by some progressive activists to "exclude women without vaginas".

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Now, in other words, writers of colour can be just as condescending and dismissive of Chait as he always was toward the left”

End Quote Alex Pareene Gawker

"In a short period of time, the PC movement has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular," he writes. And the end effect is that it is causing some writers to avoid controversial topics, lest they be subjected to online opprobrium that often crosses over to real-world threats.

In some ways, Chait seems like a flustered husband whose reaction when confronted by an angry wife is: "But think of all the good things I have done in the past".

"The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays and women, is glorious," he writes. "And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph."

A woman holds up a feminist sign. Chait's critics say he is being "condescending and dismissive"

Given the internecine nature of the criticisms, however, Chait's essay was largely met with anger and mockery from those on his political left.

"Here is sad white man Jonathan Chait's essay about the difficulty of being a white man in the second age of 'political correctness,'" writes Gawker's Alex Pareene. He says Chait represents a comfortable, centre-left liberalism that, thanks to social media, has recently found itself being challenged by marginalised voices it used to be able to ignore.

"Now, in other words, writers of colour can be just as condescending and dismissive of Chait as he always was toward the left," Pareene writes. "And he hates it."

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I want a left that can win, and there's no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate”

End Quote Fredrick deBoer Blogger

Amanda Marcotte on TalkingPointsMemo expands on what she sees as Chait's hypocrisy.

"Demanding that someone adopt more PC language to step around the sensitivities of liberals is unconscionable, but demanding that lefties on Twitter adopt a softened tone to step around the sensitivities of Jonathan Chait is just good sense," she writes.

Meanwhile, Vox's Amanda Taub dismisses Chait's essay as a collection of anecdotes in search of a creed.

Political correctness as he describes it doesn't, in fact, exist, she says. "Rather it's a sort of catch-all term we apply to people who ask for more sensitivity to a particular cause than we're willing to give - a way to dismiss issues as frivolous in order to justify ignoring them," she writes.

Others on the left express a certain amount of unease - both with Chait's piece and the response to it from their progressive compatriots. Social media have made it harder to express unpopular opinions "whether they have merit or not", writes the Nation's Michelle Goldberg, but it's a blade that cuts both ways.

"The price of bigotry is much higher, the ethical blind spots concealed by clubby consensus are much more easily exposed," she says. The danger, however, is that it creates a growing gap between what today's writers think and what they are willing say in public.

More than that, writes blogger Fredrick deBoer, this war within the progressive movement threatens to alienate would-be supporters who are criticised for their perceived lack of sensitivity.

"I want a left that can win, and there's no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate," he writes. "But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it's a permanent feature of today's progressivism."

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There are contexts where making people afraid to disagree is actually a pretty successful ways of settling political and cultural arguments”

End Quote Ross Douthat The New York Times

Commentators on the right, of course, have little interest in a "left that can win", and their response has been mostly a combination of I-told-you-so's and concern-trolling for Chait, with whom they usually vehemently disagree.

Political correctness hasn't gone away, writes the National Review's Kevin D Williamson. "The difference is that it is now being used as a cudgel against white liberals such as Jonathan Chait, who had previously enjoyed a measure of immunity."

"Chait isn't arguing for taking an argument on its own merits; he's arguing for a liberals' exemption to the left's general hostility toward any unwelcome idea that comes from a speaker who checks any unapproved demographic boxes, the number of which - 'cisgendered', etc. - is growing in an appropriately cancerous fashion," he says.

Another conservative, the New York Times's Ross Douthat, argues that what the PC argument really boils down is that both sides think their counterparts are squelching their right to self-expression. And why? Because the tactic often works.

"There are contexts where making people afraid to disagree is actually a pretty successful ways of settling political and cultural arguments," he writes.

"You can usually get a good sense of just how powerful an idea is within a given political coalition by observing how vigorously ideological deviations are punished, which is why observers tend to argue (rightly!) that anti-tax activists have more power on the right than anti-abortion activists, and that social liberals have gained ground on the left at the expense of, say, union bosses or free trade critics, and so on."

The mistake almost everyone in the PC speech fight is making, he says, is in not admitting that they may, in fact, be misinformed.

"Like most systems of speech policing (which of course held sway in traditional societies as well) it excludes the possibility that those causes might be getting big things wrong, and thus it hurts the larger cause of truth," he writes.

Comedian/commentator John Hodgman, in a series of tweets, says that in the end the debate could be a constructive one.

"I'd never heard of cis-gender until it had been hurled at me as an invalidating insult on Twitter," he writes. "but I am glad I know it now. I am glad to give these issues thought. It enlarges me to be called out, even when I conclude the caller is a troll, and especially when it's by a person I respect."

On Friday, after telling the Daily Beast that the anger directed at his writing was like hot wax for a sadomasochist, Chait published a response on New York magazine's website.

He pushes back against accusations that he was personally hurt by the political correctness he describes.

"If there were a single sentence in the story expressing self-pity, it would be widely quoted by the critics, but no such line can be found," he writes. "The response partly reflects the PC culture's inability to evaluate arguments about identity as abstract arguments rather than reflections of the author's own identity."

He also says that the personal nature of the attacks shows that his critics are unwilling to actually defend the conduct he highlights: "My critics are not so much pro-PC as anti-anti-PC, which is not exactly the same thing."


Requiem for Romney's presidential dream

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

"After putting considerable thought into making another run for president, I've decided it is best to give other leaders in the party the opportunity to become our next nominee."

With those words, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney slammed the door on the prospects that he would make a 2016 presidential bid.

The former Massachusetts governor had tweaked presidential prognosticators just two weeks earlier, when he told fund-raisers that he was interested in a third-consecutive campaign. He has, apparently, finished considering and opted to take a pass.

When word of a "major announcement" first spread throughout the US political world on Friday morning, speculation was rampant that Mr Romney was going to establish a framework for a campaign - such as by forming an "exploratory committee" to facilitate fundraising.

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I always thought Romney was a good man, and this seals it”

End Quote Steve Green PJMedia

"Mitt Romney is running for president," trumpeted a headline on the Daily Beast.

"Based on all the conversations I have had with Romney World this week, I would bet that Mitt and Ann Romney's proposition, that if he runs he will become the Republican nominee, is about to be tested," wrote Bloomberg's Mark Halperin wrote.

Others were busy wondering whether the third time might be the charm for the veteran candidate.

Roughly 15 minutes before the scheduled announcement, however, conservative radio host and commentator Hugh Hewitt posted the transcript of Mr Romney's statement, and the political conversation skidded on its heels like a cartoon character and headed in the opposite direction.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush, a Republican presidential contender, calls Mitt Romney a "patriot"

"You can't imagine how hard it is for Ann and me to step aside, especially knowing of your support and the support of so many people across the country," Romney said. "But we believe it is for the best of the party and the nation."

So, instead of yet another round of Romney-bashing similar to what occurred a few weeks ago, pundits and analysts instead started etching the lines of the 67-year-old's political epitaph.

"I always thought Romney was a good man, and this seals it," tweets conservative PJMedia's Stephen Green.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush - who has formed his own exploratory committee and seems well on his way toward a formal presidential campaign - also offered his benediction.

"Mitt is a patriot, and I join many in hoping his days of serving our nation and our party are not over," he tweets.

Jon Ward of Yahoo News writes that Mr Romney's decision lets him bow out on "his terms", thanks to recent polls that show him at the top of the Republican field.

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Finally, a Republican is NOT running for President”

End Quote Ari Fleischer Republican strategist

"Many in the political world laughed at the idea that Romney would run again, but he, his family and his close advisers all believed firmly that he was the right man for the job in 2012, and remained so now," he says. "With the polling data especially being what it is, Romney can exit the scene saying he walked away from a likely victory."

Others met the news with more of the same mocking humour that greeted Romney's earlier 2016 political overtures.

"Finally, a Republican is NOT running for president," tweets former George W Bush advisor Ari Fleischer. "With Romney out, that leaves only 13 major GOP candidates in."

And David Sirota of the International Business Times took a moment to kick a bit of extra dirt on the eternal candidate's political grave.

"Mitt Romney has been a politician running for office since 1994 - 20 YEARS - and has won a total of one election," he tweets.

Some, however, weren't quite ready to close the book for good.

"This just sets up Mitt Romney to be the dark horse nominee out of a brokered convention," tweets Josh Barro of the New York Times.

After all, Richard Nixon - at the time a defeated Republican presidential candidate - also once definitively ruled out future political aspirations only to run again.

"You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference," he said after losing a race for the California governorship in 1962.

As it turns out, there were lots of press conferences - and kicking - still to come. Could the same be said for Mitt Romney?


Can a school demand your Facebook login?

A Facebook logo is reflected in a human eye.

A school district in Illinois is embroiled in controversy after a letter it sent to parents was published, explaining that school officials are allowed to demand access to students' social media accounts.

At the beginning of this year a law went into effect across the state that charges public schools with the task of investigating instances of bullying. It also expands the definition of bullying to include cyberbullying, even if it occurs outside of school hours.

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Illinois can't seem to decide whether it's the home of the mid-western gentlefolk or of the most draconian humans this side of Moscow”

End Quote Chris Matyszczyk CNET

Many privacy advocates are taking issue with the implications of the law - particularly when it's combined with a 2013 law that allows administrators to request a student's login information when they think they are cyberbullying or breaking other school rules.

Jason Koebler, writing for Vice's Motherboard, broke the story, publishing the legal-sounding letter sent to parents by the Triad Community Unit School District No 2.

"If your child has an account on a social networking website, eg, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, ask.fm, etc, please be aware that state law requires school authorities to notify you that your child may be asked to provide his or her password for these accounts to school officials in certain circumstances," the letter reads.

"Illinois can't seem to decide whether it's the home of the mid-western gentlefolk or of the most draconian humans this side of Moscow," writes CNET's Chris Matyszczyk.

Matyszczyk wonders what schools will do if they stumble upon irrelevant information in their search for proof of wrongdoing. For instance, what if they find out about criminal activity or a sexual relationship? What about a medical problem?

A Facebook page. Asking for a student's password may violate Facebook's terms of use

"It's one thing for authorities to observe what employees, students or suspects are posting on social media," he says. "It's surely another to think that they have the automatic right to simply demand what is quite obviously personal information."

Some parents who received the notice were also unnerved about the lack of privacy. Sara Bozarth, a mother in the school district, spoke to local Fox News affiliate KTVI.

She said it's OK for her or her child to access a social media account so a teacher can view it, "but to have to hand over your password and personal information is not acceptable to me."

While the new law doesn't explicitly state that schools are allowed to ask for passwords, the old law only requires that schools have "reasonable cause" to justify demanding a student's account information - an action which is otherwise illegal.

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That's a power that's likely to be abused at some point”

End Quote Jason Koebler Vice

"But this is not a broad exception," writes Alexandra Svokos of the Huffington Post. "A school could only request passwords if there is ample evidence of a school rule being violated - such as a football player drinking alcohol. Moreover, students weren't required to provide the passwords - schools were simply allowed to request them under these circumstances."

In fact, the law Svokos is referring to does says that elementary and secondary schools can "request or require" login information. This fact wasn't lost on Koebler, who defended his original reporting in the comment section of the Huffington Post article.

"This (HuffPo) story is quite flippant about the idea that any rule-breaking student technically can be asked for their social media passwords," he writes. "That's a power that's likely to be abused at some point."

But it's also a power that hasn't been used yet - or at least not at Triad.

In a press release obtained by Koebler the school district says the letter was just meant to provide notice to parents about the law and was based on a form letter distributed widely by the Illinois Association of School Boards. So far they say they haven't felt the need to request any of their students' passwords.

"The district understands student privacy interest as well and will not haphazardly request social media passwords unless there is a need and will certainly involve parents throughout the process," the press release says.

This, however, doesn't mean that other districts have been so restrained with implementing similar laws enacted across the country.

In 2013 one school district in California made headlines after spending more than $40,000 (£26,500) to monitor their students online.

Some argue that the law in Illinois violates Facebook's terms of use, which forbids users from sharing their password or letting anyone else access their account.

Others, like Kade Crockford, say it even might be unconstitutional. Ms Crockford, the director of Massachusetts' American Civil Liberties Union, is quoted in Koebler's article as saying that the law is an example of government overreach.

"Anytime a school is trying to control students' behaviour outside school, it's a serious threat to their privacy and to their futures," she says.

(By Kierran Petersen)


Obama's college savings tax crashes to earth

President Barack Obama.

Gather around, children, as we tell the story of what happens when a US president tries to take away a cherished middle-class tax break - even one that doesn't really benefit much of the middle class.

Our tale begins two weeks ago, when President Barack Obama unveiled, as part of his programme to expand an education tax credit and provide two years of free community college for all Americans, a proposal to start taxing earnings of college savings accounts called 529 plans.

The plans have been popular with many Americans - including the Obamas, who put $240,000 (£158,000) into a 529 plan for their daughters in 2007 - as a preferred way to set aside money for the rapidly growing cost of higher education in the US.

The programme has existed since the 1980s - first allowing contributors to deduct college savings from their state income taxes and then, starting in 2001, to avoid federal taxes on the growth of funds in the accounts.

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Why target a tax benefit that goes to a lot of your supporters (and donors), that tickles one of the sweetest spots in American politics”

End Quote Meghan McArdle Bloomberg View

Mr Obama's change was unveiled with relatively little fanfare, as administration officials argued that the 529 programme disproportionately benefitted the wealthy, who could direct more money into the accounts and therefore reap greater tax savings.

According to the Government Accountability Office, in 2010 only 3% of families used 529 or similar tax-preferred savings plans, and they had 25 times the median financial assets of those who didn't participate.

If Mr Obama was counting on there to be little uproar over the change, however, he was quite mistaken. Many critics disputed the assertion that the savings plan solely benefitted the wealthy.

Mary Morris of the College Savings Foundation said that a recent study found that in 2014 10% of 529 accounts belonged to families with income below $50,000 (£33,000) and 70% were from families that made less than $150,000.

"Why target a tax benefit that goes to a lot of your supporters (and donors), that tickles one of the sweetest spots in American politics (subsidising higher education), and that will hit a lot of people who make less than the $250,000 a year that has become the administration's de facto definition of 'rich'? " asked Bloomberg's Megan McArdle.

Her theory was that, with taxes on the wealthy about has high as they could go, the government was running out of places to find revenue to pay for new programmes. Next in the crosshairs, she warned, could be the tax preferences of retirement savings plans.

President Barack Obama speaks at Kansas University. Education reform is part of President Barack Obama's "middle-class economics" programme

Others on the right were more pointed in their criticisms.

"This doesn't hurt the very rich - who just pay for college out of pocket - or the poor, who get financial aid, but it's pretty rough on the middle- and upper-middle class," writes University of Tennessee Prof Glenn Harlan Reynolds for USA Today. "In a double-whammy, those withdrawals will show up as income on parents' income tax forms, which are used to calculate financial aid, making them look richer, and hence reducing grants."

Reason's Shikha Dalmia attacked the fairness of the proposal, which he said took money from parents who are responsibly saving for education and gave it to those who are not.

Even the liberal-leaning Slate, while defending the White House's motivation, said scrapping the 529 plans was a bad idea.

"The evidence doesn't suggest that everyone will save enough to pay for college outright, but that saving and a sense of ownership give parents and kids a boost in confidence that helps them perceive college attendance as an attainable goal," Justin King writes.

And so on Tuesday afternoon - after the proposal was denounced by Speaker of the House John Boehner and criticised behind the scenes by congressional Democrats - the Obama administration quietly threw in the towel.

"Given it has become such a distraction, we're not going to ask Congress to pass the 529 provision so that they can instead focus on delivering a larger package of education tax relief that has bipartisan support," an administration official told reporters.

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Tax reform creates winners and losers - and the losers often shout louder”

End Quote David Wessel The Wall Street Journal

The White House's quick cave was met with a predictable chorus of approval from the right, which heralded the move as a blow to Mr Obama's "contempt for the middle class," in the words of the Federalist's Robert Tracinski.

But perhaps of greater concern to those on both the right and the left is the fact that this recent episode shows once again how difficult it is to enact any kind of tax reform that adversely affects middle-class interests (or even, in this case, a tiny fraction of the interests of the middle class).

There's no question the White House (once again) botched the rollout of a policy proposal, but even more deftly handled reform of 529 plans likely would have met a similar fate.

"Tax reform is very popular in principle and very difficult in practice," writes the Brookings Institution's David Wessel in the Wall Street Journal. "Tax reform creates winners and losers - and the losers often shout louder. The losers know what they're losing; the winners first have to do the math."

Then add in the fact that the losing group in this particular reform came from an income bracket in which many of Washington's media elite reside, and it's a recipe for failure.

"Most of Obama's capital gains hikes would affect those earning $2+ million," tweets MSNBC's Suzy Khimm. "Most of his 529 change would hit those earning $150,000+."

"For DC intellectuals (journalists, policy wonks, etc.), $150k household income isn't 'the wealthy', $2 million is," shecontinues. "For lots of folks (including journalists), that's the difference between the very wealthy and the upper-middle class. Thus the outrage."

Mr Obama's proposal was a test to see if Washington policymakers could make "meaningful changes to the tax code that will come at the expense of high-income Americans", writes the New Republic's Danny Vinik. "They failed that test."

It likely goes beyond just that, however. One of the quandaries on the left is why many Americans in lesser income brackets object to policy changes that benefit the wealthy much more than they do them - a question asked by Thomas Frank in his 2004 book What's the Matter With Kansas?

One possible explanation is that even Americans who aren't in the upper income brackets are "aspirationally wealthy". They may not be rich now, but they hope to be - and when they finally make it, they don't want the privileges and benefits that await them taken away.

So sure, only 3% of Americans use 529 plans. But many more could see themselves using them once they have a little more money to sock away. The fact that, for many, the day may never come is not a concern.

If meaningful tax reform is opposed not only by those who are on the losing end of the changes but also by those who think they might someday be on the losing end ... well, turn out the lights on that idea.


'Historic' blizzard: A nanny state freak-out?

A man walks through the snowy streets of New York City.

As a massive winter storm threatened the mid-Atlantic and New England states on Monday, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves with a warning.

The real threat to the public, he contended, wasn't from an impending icy blast; it was from big-government nanny state liberals like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who use predictions of impending disaster to expand their power.

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It's all predicated on the fact that we are idiots and don't know how to protect ourselves”

End Quote Rush Limbaugh Syndicated radio host

"Part and parcel of liberalism is the nanny state and to assume that we can't take care of ourselves," he said. "The assumption that we don't know what's best for us. That we have to be told don't drive when the roads are slick. That we have to be told, make sure you bundle up and put on extra layers if you're going to go out when it's cold. And make sure you don't shovel your snow too rapidly; it could lead to a heart attack."

He continued: "It's all predicated on the fact that we are idiots and don't know how to protect ourselves and don't know what's best and don't know how to make proper judgments."

The threat of natural disasters and impending crises helps government control the people, he said. It allows government to become part of the community.

"It gives them licence and freedom to infiltrate as much of your daily life as they can, under the guise of giving you advice, under the guise of looking out for you, under the guise of trying to protect you," he said. "It's the assumption that we're all children."

Radio host Rush Limbaugh. Rush Limbaugh says that government storm warnings "assume we're all children"

As with many of Mr Limbaugh's rants, his nanny-state allegations were met with derision from the left.

"See, in a free America, no one would even need any warnings of hazardous weather conditions," Kaili Joy Gray of Wonkette quips.

"They'd just look out the window and see for themselves and instinctively know, without Idiot Mayor de Blasio telling them, for example, 'to avoid the city's parks in the immediate aftermath of the storm because the weight of snow could snap tree branches and send them plunging to the ground'. And if they need the liberal nanny state to tell them things like that, well, they probably deserve whatever misfortune befalls them for being idiots."

"That is how freedom dies, sheeple," she concludes. "With weather warnings."

The big-government blizzard critique wasn't limited to Mr Limbaugh's radio programme, however. Rich Lowry of the National Review also took some shots at the "government-imposed freak-out".

"It used to be that Manhattan basically kept moving during any snowfall because the cars are constantly churning up the snow on the roads and store-owners and supers are constantly shoveling the sidewalks in front of their businesses and buildings," he writes. "Last night, everything ground to a halt, not because of the snow, but because the state and city said so."

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There's a difference between serving the public by providing basic emergency services in a timely and responsive manner and becoming a nanny state”

End Quote Henry Blodget Business Insider

Sarah Noble rages in particular against the overnight non-essential travel ban that New York state imposed on Monday.

"Nanny Governor Andrew Cuomo told people in a TV ad to stay in their homes or he'd fine them $300," she writes for the Independent Sentinel. "That was before the storm-that-never-was even hit. He would force you to stay in your house. How dare he tell me to stay indoors!"

Business Insider's Henry Blodget says he understands that it's the job of politicians to "protect the people", but that they can go too far.

"I understand that they want to appear responsive and proactive, lest they later be accused of slacking on the job," he writes. "But there's a difference between serving the public by providing basic emergency services in a timely and responsive manner and becoming a nanny state."

The conservative blizzard blowback just goes to prove that politicians can never win, writes the Atlantic's Dashiell Bennett.

"Underestimate, and you weren't prepared enough," he writes. "Overestimate, and you look hysterical. As those meteorologists could tell you, when dealing with public opinion, you're pretty much always going to lose."

If anything, says the Verge's Kwame Opam, the overreaction to the recent blizzard shows just how sensitive politicians are to the safety of the public - and to the threat of much more damaging criticism if they put lives at risk.

"Decisions to ban all travel have a material effect on the electorate, and do double duty in showing concern for human life and helping protect said politician's viability," he writes.

As it turns out, the great blizzard of 2015 wasn't all it was cracked up to be - although if you ask residents in hard-hit parts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts, they'll surely disagree.

With 6in of snow in New York City, however, and city and state leaders left answering questions about whether they overreacted, Mr Limbaugh is probably feeling vindicated in his critique.

He would do well to remember the calm preparation he preached as Super Storm Sandy approached the mid-Atlantic seaboard in 2012, however.

"Even if the storm doesn't get you, there are going to be riots for food and gasoline," he said, recounting a listener's warning. "Get out."

It's a good thing the nanny-state government didn't say that.


Sarah Palin stumbles, others rise on Iowa stage

Former Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin's Iowa speech was widely criticised

The Sarah Palin surge may be over before it really began.

The former Alaska Governor and Republican vice-presidential nominee made headlines last week when she said she had a "servant's heart" and was "interested" and then "seriously interested" in running for president in 2016.

Thanks to these remarks, and the devoted following she still commands, the national spotlight was firmly on Ms Palin as she took to the stage on Saturday at a gathering of presidential aspirants before grassroots conservatives in Des Moines, Iowa.

The post-event reviews, however, have not been kind.

The Washington Examiner's Byron York calls her 33-minute speech "long, rambling and at times barely coherent".

Ms Palin spoke about media bias, the film American Sniper, Barack Obama, energy policy, Margaret Thatcher and women in politics, among other topics. And while she did supply a steady diet of her trademark zingers - "The man can only ride you when your back is bent" - the end result was something more akin to avante garde, improvisational performance art.

"By the time Palin finished speaking, it was hard for anyone to believe she truly is 'seriously interested' in running for president," York concluded.

The speech isn't the only evidence that Ms Palin's presidential aspirations may be nothing more than talk, however. As the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza points out, while other possible candidates have been building campaign infrastructure and engaging in the often gruelling work of courting local party functionaries, Ms Palin has done nothing.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz Texas Senator Ted Cruz flashes his rhetorical skill

"Yes, by dint of her name recognition and the vaunted place she occupies for some part of the conservative movement, if she announced her candidacy tomorrow there would be a constituency for her," he writes. "But her ability to build and grow that constituency in a way that would allow her to, you know, actually have a chance at winning would be entirely dependent on her having built a political apparatus that she has never shown an interest in doing."

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Mr Cruz credibly and inspirationally touched on every key theme of the current zeitgeist”

End Quote Steve Deace The Washington Times

Although Ms Palin's appearance may have been all noise, signifying nothing, the Iowa event was an opportunity for some more organised candidates to improve their presidential prospects.

Of the nearly two dozen potential candidates to take the stage, Senator Ted Cruz received one of the warmest receptions. Just two years after bursting onto the national political arena in a surprising upset of a well-funded primary opponent, the Texan has made a name for himself as a grassroots, Tea Party favourite who is willing to take on the Republican establishment.

"Mr Cruz credibly and inspirationally touched on every key theme of the current zeitgeist, and is clearly the favourite of the conservative activists," writes conservative radio talk show host Steve Deace for the Washington Times. "If there were a straw poll at this event, he would've won it."

The National Review's Jim Geraghty agrees that Mr Cruz would "easily get elected president of Conservative America," although he wondered about his broader appeal.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker could appeal to both activists and the Republican establishment

"The question is whether he can win votes among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who don't already agree with him," he writes.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker also garnered considerable praise - for his folksy demeanour in Iowa and his proven ability to win elections while governing conservatively in a battleground presidential state.

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As Walker spoke you could almost hear the political boxes being checked off”

End Quote John Dickerson Slate

"The Wisconsin governor, in rolled-up shirtsleeves, paced the stage as he blasted big government and touted a long list of conservative reforms he's pushed through in blue Wisconsin," writes Cameron Joseph of the Hill, a Washington, DC, political newspaper. "The governor also showed a rhetorical flourish that's largely been absent from his previous campaigns, drawing the crowd to its feet multiple times."

Mr Walker has the ability to become a Republican fusion candidate, writes Slate's John Dickerson, by appealing to both Tea Party conservatives and the party's establishment.

"As Walker spoke you could almost hear the political boxes being checked off," he says. "He thanked the conservative voters of Iowa, and the country, for supporting him in his fight against unions with money and prayers. This wasn't only good form - it highlighted that he has a national fundraising base (ie he can go the distance) and that he is a man of faith (ie he's just like you)."

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is trying to win over hardcore conservatives

Meanwhile Chris Christie made waves in Iowa just by showing up. The New Jersey governor is considered an East Coast establishment pick, so the gathering of roughly 1,500 grass-roots activists hosted by hard-right Congressman Steve King wasn't his natural constituency.

Start Quote

Christie knows he has a problem with conservatives”

End Quote Noah Rothman HotAir blog

But while other perceived establishment candidates - such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney - gave the Iowa event a pass, Mr Christie put the best face on his brand of combative, New Jersey style politics. Noah Rothman of HotAir sums up his pitch: "You may not love me, but you'll respect my honesty."

"Christie closed with a fiery call to arms in defence of the nation's freedoms, and he was given a standing ovation from the audience of Freedom Summit attendees," Rothman writes. "Christie knows he has a problem with conservatives and, without wallowing in it, he did what he could to address and mollify those voters' concerns."

Also on the stage on Saturday were two former candidates both appealing to the same social conservative right that Mr Cruz is targeting, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. And then there was the "clown car" of longshot aspirants, as Politico's Roger Simon puts it, including eccentric businessman Donald Trump, paediatrician-turned-conservative-pundit Ben Carson and Tennessee Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn.

Their presence was notable, according to Simon, less for their electoral chances (slim to hopeless) than for their willingness to level attacks against Mr Bush, Mr Romney and the Republican establishment.

"In the circus, the worse thing clowns lob is confetti," Simon writes. "In the political circus, the clowns lob grenades. Verbal, to be sure, but they still can be deadly."

If any of the barbs drew blood, however, there's a lifetime of opportunity to recover after only this first skirmish in the long 2016 Republican nomination campaign.

In fact, the following day, two of the more prominent presidential hopefuls who didn't travel to Iowa, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, appeared alongside Mr Cruz in Palm Springs, California, during a forum hosted by the deep-pocketed conservative kingmakers Charles and David Koch.

If Iowa was all about appealing to the grassroots Tea Party conservatives, Palm Springs was catering to an audience of high-rolling Republican fundraisers.

Performing for activists and soliciting money from donors - it was arguably the first weekend of the 2016 Republican presidential nomination battle, but the routine is already set. It'll just be much, much more of the same leading up to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, a mere 344 days away.


Abortion fight: House Republicans accused of 'incompetence'

Anti-abortion protestors gather near the US Capitol.

A funny thing happened on the way to a revival of the US culture wars.

The Republican leadership of the House of Representatives had planned to pass a bill prohibiting abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy on Thursday, timed to coincide with the 42nd anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalising abortion in the US.

As tens of thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators descended on Washington, DC, for the annual March for Life, however, a rebellion was brewing in Republican ranks. A group of legislators, largely female and from moderate districts, objected to a provision in the bill that only would have allowed late-term abortions in the case of rape if the victim had filed a police report.

"The first vote we take, or the second vote, or the fifth vote, shouldn't be on an issue where we know that millennials - social issues just aren't as important," North Carolina Republican Renee Ellmers, who opposed the measure, said.

Start Quote

It takes a special combination of incompetence and cowardice to miss an easy lay-up like this”

End Quote Mollie Hemingway The Federalist

The House had approved an identical version of the bill in 2013, but - as the National Journal's Daniel Newhauser and Lauren Fox report, the requirement had been added to the bill at the last minute, catching its opponents by surprise.

"This time," Newhauser and Fox write, "they were prepared."

Facing the possibility of defeat on a divisive vote, House Speaker John Boehner withdrew the bill from consideration.

Although the effort to pass the 20-week ban failed, Republican leaders promised to reintroduce the legislation later in the year. They also voted for, and passed, another abortion-related bill, which strictly forbids any public funding for the procedure or insurance policies that cover it.

Still, the development has some conservatives condemning what they see as the lack of backbone in their party's stand on abortion.

"It takes a special combination of incompetence and cowardice to miss an easy lay-up like this, but apparently the new Republican Congress has it in spades," writes the Federalist's Mollie Hemingway.

The bill, she says, had broad public support - 56%, according to a 2013 Washington Post poll. Similar bans have passed in 14 states. What are Mr Boehner and his House Republicans going to do when faced with a real legislative challenge?

Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers Republican Congresswoman Renee Ellmers has angered anti-abortion activists

"Whether the issue is a legitimate campaign against the dehumanisation of the unborn, higher education reform or an actual attempt to thwart the growth of the administrative state, a Republican Party unable to accomplish an easy task is a Republican Party that will be completely incompetent and worse than useless in a big battle," she continues.

The rape reporting requirement, she says, was a provision worth fighting for. Without it, there would be a huge loophole in the law that abortion-providing physicians could exploit.

"In fact, even Democrats who think late-term abortion should be legal with no restrictions didn't make an issue of the reporting requirement in the last two elections," she concludes.

Start Quote

The GOP faces a demographic time bomb, since its voters are older and whiter and more pro-life than the general population”

End Quote David A Graham The Atlantic

The reaction from liberal commentators after this week's unrest, however, seems to indicate that this is political terrain they're willing to fight on. Numerous writers have cited previous Republican missteps that derailed the Senate candidacies of Missouri's Todd Akin and Indiana's Richard Mourdock during the 2012 election cycle.

Although the party campaigned largely on the economy during mid-term elections last autumn, they contend, Republicans are still intent on fighting over social issues in general and a procedure that accounts for 1.4% of all abortions in particular.

"Given control of Congress and the chance to frame an economic agenda for the middle class, the first thing Republicans do is tie themselves in knots over . . . abortion and rape," writes the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson.

Robinson's colleague, Dana Milbank, calls it a "classic bait-and-switch", in which a Republican move "catering" to anti-abortion activists "raises some questions about the genuineness of their agenda".

Anti-abortion activists tell the BBC they've come to Washington to speak out for the unborn.

Genuineness aside, however, the reality is that the House Republicans were unable to pass an abortion bill they easily approved two years ago. While social conservatives will likely regroup, this may prove to be a noteworthy development. Where Mr Boehner had previously only had to worry about unrest on the right, Tea Party-backed flank of his caucus, he now has to be concerned with his moderate members, as well.

"The vise in which the party finds itself is easy to understand but hard to loosen," writes the Atlantic's David A Graham. "On the one hand, the party's religious base has worked hard for Republicans and expects to see results, and most elected officeholders are personally pro-life. (Pulling the bill when thousands of the most fervent pro-lifers are in Washington must be an especially bitter pill for leaders.) But everyone knows the GOP faces a demographic time bomb, since its voters are older and whiter and more pro-life than the general population, so it's risky to do anything that might make it harder to win them over."

If this is a fight, however, it has only just begun. Ms Ellmers and her fellow Republican dissenters on the bill have become the focus of anger from anti-abortion conservatives, who are threatening to unseat them in the 2016 Republican primaries.

Perhaps the culture wars aren't really over, as some have predicted. But the next battle could be fought largely within the Republican Party.

As one activist told Breitbart.com, there will be dire consequences if the Republican Congress doesn't take up a vote over the 20-week in the next two weeks.

"There will be war," she said.


Mickey Mouse and measles

Mickey and Minnie Mouse stand outside Cinderella's castle at Disneyland.

A California measles outbreak that has been traced back to Disneyland in Anaheim is prompting concern over the growing trend among some parents to avoid immunising their children against infectious diseases.

According to state officials, there are currently 59 cases of the highly contagious disease in California, which can be spread through the air and results in a fever, cough and rash that can be life-threatening.

"Of the confirmed cases, 42 have been linked to an initial exposure in December at Disneyland or Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, California," the California Department of Public Health writes in a press release. There are eight additional cases connected to Disneyland in other western US states and Mexico.

Start Quote

More and more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children for nonmedical reasons”

End Quote Cynthia Leifer Cornell University professor

Public health experts say the disease was probably brought to the amusement park packed with holiday tourists by a foreign visitor, but it has spread in part due to the lower numbers of Americans who have been opting to receive the immunisation shots.

The US government announced in 2000 that measles had been eradicated in the country, but the disease has seen a steady rebound since then. The US Centers for Disease Control reports there were 644 new measles cases in 27 states last year - the highest number since the early 1990s.

The vaccination levels for children ages 19 to 35 months in the US stood at 91.9% in 2013, below the 92% rate that ensures "herd immunity" that offers protection for those who can't get immunised for medical reasons and adults whose immunisation has worn off. In Colorado, where two of the Disney-related cases have appeared, the rate was a national-low 86%.

A young woman gets a measles vaccination shot. Measles immunisation numbers have been declining in the US

Perhaps not coincidentally, Orange County - where Disneyland is located - is home to one of the more active anti-vaccination communities, led by Dr Bob Sears, a paediatrician who caters to parents suspicious of the immunisation shots.

"While the vast majority of physicians are troubled by the anti-vaccination movement, Sears, 45, lends a sympathetic ear," Los Angeles Times reporter Paloma Esquivel wrote in a September 2014 profile. "About half his patients forgo vaccines altogether. To others, he offers 'Dr. Bob's' alternative and selective vaccination schedules, which delay or eliminate certain immunisations."

She writes that at some Orange County public schools, up to 60% of students had "personal belief exemptions" to required vaccinations.

Start Quote

If only we could say we didn't see this coming”

End Quote Editorial Sacramento Bee

"The unfortunate reality," writes Cornell University immunology Prof Cynthia Leifer for CNN.com, "is that more and more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children for non-medical reasons. Some refuse vaccines on the grounds of religious beliefs; others refuse on the repeatedly disproved argument that vaccines contribute to autism."

She compares parents who decide not to vaccinate their children to a drunk driver "who makes a socially irresponsible decision that can endanger not only his life, but also the lives of the other drivers and passengers on the road".

While the danger is real, some wonder if this high-profile outbreak could be the wake-up call that prompts action.

"For much of human civilisation, that was how we lived, and with measles outbreaks at Disneyland and elsewhere, we're getting a taste of what our infection-plagued existence was like before routine vaccination," writes Paul Thornton of the Los Angeles Times.

"Fears over children falling seriously ill after standing in line for Space Mountain could take hold. Perhaps we ought to start listening to credentialed researchers and mainstream doctors instead of celebrities who studied at the 'University of Google' and the fringe physicians and activists who enable them."

He quotes one letter to the Times that disagrees with this view, however, emphasising that the decision not to vaccinate is one of parental freedom.

"It is my choice whether or not I want to be vaccinated," Clayton Graver writes. "It is your choice whether or not to wash your hands or take basic public health precautions. It is an individual's choice whether he or she wants to gamble with their child's life. It is not your place to say what they have to do."

There may be growing consequences for parents who make the choice not to vaccinate, however. In the California town of Huntington Beach, a high school in which a student was diagnosed with measles sent home 24 classmates for three weeks when they could not prove they had been immunised.

In Utah more than 380 people have been asked to self-quarantine after being exposed to two children who returned from Disneyland with the disease.

A Washington state doctor recounts a conversation with a father whose 13-month-old daughter, who had yet to be immunised, contracted measles during a vacation to Disneyland

"I told him he should channel that energy and speak out to support immunisations as a matter of public health," Neil Kaneshiro writes in the Seattle Times. "Healthcare providers continue to voice support, but clearly that has not been adequate to stem the tide of anti-vaccine sentiment that continues to grow."

The most recent outbreak has renewed calls to make vaccination waivers - which allow parents to send unimmunised children to public schools - more difficult to obtain, such as adding informed consent clauses or having them expire at the end of every school year.

"If only we could say we didn't see this coming," write the editors of the Sacramento Bee. "But it's no surprise."


American Sniper: An American hero?

Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle in the film American Sniper. Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle in the film American Sniper

Was Chris Kyle a hero or a blowhard of questionable morality with a quick trigger finger?

This question is at the heart of a debate over Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, which has reached a fever pitch after the Oscar-nominated film set a record for a January box office weekend opening, with takings of $90m (£59m).

The controversy surrounding American Sniper has little to do with the film as an artistic effort, which has generally been praised by critics. It has everything to do with Kyle himself, the Navy Seal who served four tours of duty in Iraq, killed more than 160 people there and authored the autobiographical book upon which the film is (sometimes loosely) based.

Start Quote

There is no room for the idea that Kyle might have been a good soldier but a bad guy”

End Quote Lindy West The Guardian

Kyle was killed in February 2013 on a firing range in his home state of Texas by Eddie Routh, a Iraq War veteran who Kyle was trying to help recover from post-traumatic stress disorder.

As Salon's Andrew O'Hehir writes: "American Sniper, the movie, is a character study about a guy who sees himself as fundamentally honourable and decent, but whose simplistic moral code turns out to be exceptionally poor preparation for the real world and real warfare."

The true life story of Chris Kyle, however, is much more complicated.

Amy Nicholson of Slate takes particular aim at Kyle's book, which she says contains jingoistic braggadocio. She also asserts that he made false claims of heroic acts since returning to the US - such as killing two carjackers in Texas and punching former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura for disparaging US soldiers. (Mr Ventura sued Kyle's estate for defamation and was awarded $1.8m in damages.)

Eastwood, she writes, should have addressed this. Instead, he "pretended Kyle never claimed any of it. But when a film erases the fact that its subject was a fabricator, then that itself is a lie".

"American Sniper convinces viewers that Chris Kyle is what heroism looks like: a great guy who shoots a lot of people and doesn't think twice about it," she continues.

The Guardian's Lindy West goes even farther, saying the film "raises disturbing questions about which stories we choose to codify into truth, and whose, and why, and the messy social costs of transmogrifying real life into entertainment".

Chris Kyle in Fallujah, Iraq Chris Kyle, photographed here in Fallujah, served four tours in Iraq

"There is no room for the idea that Kyle might have been a good soldier but a bad guy; or a mediocre guy doing a difficult job badly; or a complex guy in a bad war who convinced himself he loved killing to cope with an impossible situation; or a straight-up serial killer exploiting an oppressive system that, yes, also employs lots of well-meaning, often impoverished, non-serial-killer people to do oppressive things over which they have no control," she writes.

On the conservative side, writers are hailing American Sniper as an authentic "cultural moment", in the words of the National Review's David French. He describes going to a packed theatre in Franklin, Tennessee, to celebrate a story about a war hero "on a truly national, cultural scale".

Start Quote

American Sniper goes where no movie has gone before in showing how the enemy uses children”

End Quote David French The National Review

"Chris Kyle has entered the pantheon of American warriors - along with Alvin C York and Audie Murphy - giving a new generation of young boys a warrior-hero to look up to, to emulate," he writes.

More than that, however, he says the film also reveals the true nature of the US's adversaries.

"American Sniper goes where no movie has gone before in showing how the enemy uses children, kills children and savagely tortures its enemies," he writes.

The film also shows that while war can be traumatic, most soldiers "emerge on the other side, often better men".

"There is also fierce pride in service, new insights on life and our world, new appreciation for the blessings of liberty and the love of family, and many other perspectives and experiences that enrich the lives of veterans and veterans' families," he continues.

American Sniper makes "heads explode on the left" because it portrays Kyle as unapologetic for the Iraqis he kills, writes the Federalist's Rebecca Cusey. Instead, she says, he expresses regret for the American soldiers he fails to save and the civilians he fails to protect.

"A warrior has a job to do," she writes. "It is a noble job. It is a hard job. He takes those moments upon himself so the rest of us will not have to. He looks evil in the eye and stands up to it so we can sleep soundly."

Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, sits next to flag-draped coffins in the film American Sniper Reaction to American Sniper reveals that the divisions of the Iraq War still run deep

In a 2012 interview with the BBC, Kyle made that point directly.

"Every person I killed I strongly believe that they were bad," he said. "When I do go face God there is going to be lots of things I will have to account for, but killing any of those people is not one of them."

The liberal criticism of the film, and Kyle, has prompted a torrent of social media pushback - and, as detailed by Rania Khalek, who wrote an article critical of the film on Storify, that includes some particularly vile invective.

"Some fantasise about IS raping and beheading me," she writes. "Others hope I am killed by a sniper. Most can't spell or write coherently. Nearly all agree that Kyle was a hero and we should be thanking him for killing Iraqis to protect our freedom to tweet."

Drew McWeeny of Hitfix worries that the backlash represents "some fundamental break that has occurred in the way we talk to each other in this country".

It's common fallacy to paint your opponents with the lunatic rantings of a small but vocal segment of those on social media, but McWeeny may be right about the "fundamental break" that American Sniper reveals.

line

Chris Kyle speaks to BBC News Magazine

"This was the first time I was going to have to kill someone. I didn't know whether I was going to be able to do it, man, woman or whatever.

"You're running everything through your mind. This is a woman, first of all. Second of all, am I clear to do this, is this right, is it justified?

"And after I do this, am I going to be fried back home? Are the lawyers going to come after me saying, 'You killed a woman, you're going to prison'?"

What goes on in the mind of a sniper?

line

Once again, we have evidence of two Americas - one that embraces Kyle as a hero and another that sees him as anything but. One that sees the world as a conflict between good and evil (wolves, sheep and their sheepdog protectors, as the film describes it) and one in which grey shades dominate and snipers - even US military ones - can be "cowards", in filmmaker Michael Moore's words.

The response to American Sniper clearly has moved beyond Kyle and became an opportunity to reprosecute the entirety of the Iraq War.

Many Americans are embracing American Sniper because they "are unable to accept that nothing was won in Iraq, and that the sacrifices Kyle and others made were not worth it," writes the New Republic's Dennis Jett.

"More fundamentally, treating Kyle as a patriot and ignoring any other possibility allows Americans to ignore the consequences of invading a country that had no weapons of mass destruction, had nothing to do with 9/11 and had no meaningful ties to al Qaeda (our invasion, of course, changed that)."

Meanwhile John Nolte, of the conservative website Breitbart,com, offers this: "The very same people lying about Chris Kyle today are the very same people who demanded we abandon Iraq to the terrorists, and with it, 25 million innocent Iraqi civilians."

And that, perhaps, gets at the heart of the controversy over American Sniper. It took more than a decade after the end of the Vietnam War for Hollywood, in the Oscar-winning film Platoon, to prompt a nationwide debate about the societal scars of that conflict.

The end of major US involvement in Iraq - if it can be said to have ended at all - is only three years past. The wounds here are still deep and fresh.

Chris Kyle was interviewed by Outlook for the BBC World Service. Listen to the interview here.


Obama's state of the union 'victory lap'

President Barack Obama winks during the State of the Union address.

On Tuesday night President Barack Obama faced a vexing challenge. How can he give a policy speech to a Congress that has little interest in what he has to say?

With the present effectively off the table, Mr Obama spent his time looking back - and forward.

Although the president said early in his 2015 State of the Union address that "tonight, we turn a page", it became obvious early on that he wasn't going to touch the book until he got in a few last words.

"America, for all that we've endured; for all the grit and hard work required to come back; for all the tasks that lie ahead, know this," he said, "the shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong."

Start Quote

More than anything, the speech was a consummate display of political bravado”

End Quote Linda Feldmann The Christian Science Monitor

The words "victory lap" were bandied about by numerous commentators, as the president basked in the glow of an economy that is showing signs of life and approval ratings that, albeit ever so slightly, are on the rise. And although all this is happening as Republicans take over both houses of Congress for the first time since 2007, it did little to darken his mood.

"He asserted that the brightening economic picture - including accelerating job growth, more people with health insurance and lower gas prices - had proved that he was right, and his adversaries misguided, all along," writes the Washington Post's David Nakamura.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. David Frum says Barack Obama is trying to 'box in' Hillary Clinton

"More than anything," says the Christian Science Monitor's Linda Feldmann, "the speech was a consummate display of political bravado."

It was an attitude that liberals enjoyed, but it left some conservatives grousing that the president's speech was more appropriate as "fantasy fiction for tweens", in the words of the New York Post columnist John Podhoretz.

"Politically, the page that turned in November 2014 was the page in which Democrats held majorities in legislatures," he writes. "The page didn't just turn - it was torn out of the book, crumpled up and tossed in the garbage bin."

CNN analyst Ruben Navarrette writes that the whole premise of the speech is "ridiculous".

"The president has just suffered a clear repudiation of his policies, and, instead of backing up and recalibrating his strategy for getting things done in a landscape that has changed dramatically, he's doubling down on his bet," he writes. "That's not leadership. It's hubris."

After painting a rosy picture of the nation's current condition, leavened with a few I told you so's, the president proceeded to launch into a more traditional State of the Union list of Democratic policy priorities - minimum-wage increases, addressing climate change, greater funding for education and tax reform that includes closing loopholes that benefit the wealthy.

He labelled his programme "middle-class economics", and said policies like these will "continue to work, as long as politics don't get in the way".

This, then, was the president's pivot to the future - his attempt to define terrain for the campaigns of 2016, when control of the presidency and both houses of Congress will be up to the voters.

Start Quote

When Obama proposes progressive policies like these, he's playing a longer game”

End Quote Brian Beutler The New Republic

"When Obama proposes progressive policies like these, he's playing a longer game - guiding Democrats on the Hill as they battle against Republican budgets, or laying out a menu of policies for his successor, who might have better luck with Congress," writes the New Republic's Brian Beutler.

He continues: "Seven years into Obama's presidency, the US economy is finally growing rapidly enough to boost his popularity and to sell the country on the idea that Obama's peculiar brand of ostentatious incrementalism - building out and improving existing institutions, directing resources through them to the middle class- has worked, and should serve as a beacon not just for liberals, but for conservatives aspiring to recapture the presidency."

Of course it's impossible to talk about 2016 presidential politics without acknowledging the looming presence of as-yet-unannounced-candidate Hillary Clinton. Given that she would be the prohibitive favourite for the Democratic nomination should she decide to run, was Mr Obama's speech a boost or a shot across the bow?

By proposing policies he has no hope of passing in this Congress, writes the Atlantic's David Frum, Mr Obama's "intent, pretty obviously, is to box in his presumptive successor as head of the Democratic Party".

"Almost as much as a Republican victory, a Clinton succession would punctuate the Obama presidency with a question mark," he writes. "Obama's highest priority over the next two years seems to be to convert that question mark into an exclamation point, to force Hillary Clinton to campaign and govern on his terms."

Bloomberg's Lisa Lerer and Margaret Talev say that the president's speech "gives a major boost" to members of the Democratic Party's populist wing, led by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Even if Ms Warren doesn't run for president - and so far she's been adamant that she is not - Mr Obama's speech was a warning to Ms Clinton that she needs to watch her left flank during the primary voting.

Beutler says that talk of friction between Ms Clinton and Mr Obama are overblown, however. He notes that key members of the president's inner circle are quietly moving into the former secretary of state's incipient campaign.

Instead, he says, Mr Obama's speech is laying the groundwork for Ms Clinton's campaign - one that will address income inequality and the lack of wage growth.

Although a lot can happen in two years, it appears that both parties are acknowledging that the growing gap between the wealthy and the rest of US society resonates with the voting public. Ms Clinton has given speeches on the subject, and possible Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush have also addressed it.

Will 2016 be the income inequality election? If it is, Mr Obama made clear in his State of the Union that he wants to be part of that debate.


It's the end of the world, and the BBC feels fine

A man carries a large British flag.

And now on BBC, it's the end of life as we know it …

Earlier this month we covered the revelation that Ted Turner, founder of the news channel CNN, ordered a sign-off video ready to air in case the apocalypse were nigh.

His pick? Rather pedestrian footage of a US Army band playing Nearer My God to Thee.

Convinced there were better choices out there, we asked readers what they would select as a farewell song for the BBC, which (as far as we know) doesn't have anything cued up in case of imminent doomsday.

The Spice Girls hold up a British flag. Sorry, Spice Girls, no one wants your songs as a global farewell

Our suggestion, God Save the Queen, was one of the more popular choices, for obvious reasons, although the particular version sparked a bit of divergence. Dylan M Clayton from Kentucky prefers Brian May's electric guitar rendition, while several other readers chose the more subversive Sex Pistols classic by the same name.

Despite being an American band, REM gets several plugs with It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine). The very British group Queen gets Ran Yakumo's nod with their Don't Stop Me Now. "A proper send-off for an Earth that wasn't ready for the end."

"Whenever I imagine the BBC signing off whilst nuclear weapons rain down on London (which is surprisingly often), I picture Abide With Me, sung by the Kings College Choir, being played," writes another reader. "This is the only song which can truly capture the end of the world; it is mournful, hopeful and quintessentially British."

Amy Soyka envisions some kind of global epitaph, transmitted into space for a future society to stumble upon. "I think something like the Voyager spacecraft plates would be best," she writes. "Summarising the laws of evolution, maths, geography ... things like that."

Brian Tilbury of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, also has a non-musical choice, picking the old BBC standby, the Shipping Forecast. "Nice, peaceful, unemotional monotone," he writes.

Barney Scott agrees that a BBC-specific option would be best. He writes: "Either from a programme the BBC made, such as What a Wonderful World, which The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy used as its end tune, or what the BBC uses every day - Sailing By, which rounds off the Radio 4 day."

Hal Coyle of Cambridge, Massachusetts, says he was "disappointed by the blandness" of CNN's offering. He'd opt for something a bit more satirical: "My suggestion is the closing to the old Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons, complete with its wacky music and Porky Pig's sign-off: 'Th-th-that's All, Folks!'"

There was one suggestion that stood apart as the clear winner, however. Steve Fanning of Australia, Chris Cope of Wales and Marcel Malherbe were among those who picked the old Monty Python standby, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

"Quintessentially British and perfect for the Beeb," writes Peter Drennan of Hampshire.

"It's the beauty of Vera Lynn with the humour of Rowan Atkinson," Jude Kirkham of Vancouver, Canada, writes. "So possibly an image of Mr Bean waving the flag while not wearing pants if you need a video accompaniment."

So that's how the world should end. Not with a bang, but with a jingle. Cheerio!


Hackers say Hollywood gets Blackhat right

A scene from the Michael Mann film Blackhat.

Director Michael Mann's new film, Blackhat, centres around a convicted hacker who is released from prison to foil the schemes of a villainous rival wreaking havoc around the world.

Given the recent highly visible lapses in cybersecurity, it's the kind of subject matter that the viewing public might find compelling. It's not surprising, however, if seasoned hands are a bit more sceptical. Hollywood has a less-than-stellar track record for presenting complex technology in a realistic manner, after all.

Start Quote

It looks like hacking because it's everything that bad Hollywood hacking isn't”

End Quote Adam Clark Estes Gizmodo

One need only dig up the old Sandra Bullock thriller The Net or watch practically any episode of CSI ("zoom and enhance!") to find some good examples.

"In movies, hacking tends to look like some elaborate digital art that lasts a handful of seconds," writes Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes.

So what's the verdict on the film from hacking and cybersecurity communities? By most accounts, Blackhat hits pretty close to the mark.

Real hacking is an arduous task that's visually numbing, Estes says, and the film does a good job of reflecting this reality.

"It looks like hacking because it's everything that bad Hollywood hacking isn't: simple white code on a black background, command line arguments, references to things like Tor, keyloggers, and phishing," he writes. "It's a little bit boring, too!"

"They clearly not only had good technical consultants," tweets First Look Media's director of security Morgan Marquis-Boire. "They also listened to them."

Director Michael Mann. Michael Mann directs a film with realistic hacking scenes - and car chases

Google's Parisa Tabriz - who served as a consultant for the film - tells Fusion's Kashmir Hill: "It's the most accurate information security film I've seen".

She also says that part of what makes Blackhat particularly compelling is the way it shows that cybersecurity is only as strong as its weakest link - and that link almost invariably is the human component. Lapses in good safety protocol allow the key players to get into closely guarded networks more than a few times in the film.

Start Quote

Blindly boosting sentences for the few hackers who get caught will do nothing to help”

End Quote Kevin Poulsen Wired magazine

Of course, there are plenty of car chases and gunfights in Blackhat - this is still Hollywood after all. And Estes laments that the film stretches credulity in its final half when it introduces secret technology implausibly stolen from the National Security Agency.

Kevin Poulsen, a former hacker who also helped as a technical advisor for the film, says Blackhat is "close to the metal in depicting a no-longer-sci-fi world where cybercrime is serious, profitable and well-funded". But the senior editor at the digital magazine Wired is less concerned with what experts think about the film and more worried about how it plays in Washington, DC.

Blackhat, he says, could give rise to bad policy, as politicians react to cyber-threats by embracing President Barack Obama's call for harsher criminal sentences for convicted hackers.

"I can say with absolute confidence that a lawmaker will soon be standing on the floor of Congress talking about Blackhat in the same breath as the Sony intrusion, railing about the grave threat to American lives that computer hacking poses," he writes.

Such a response would ignore more effective policy prescriptions, he says.

"Pour money into research, offer incentives for organisations to invest in security, pass disclosure laws that require public reporting of breaches, so consumers can hold negligent companies accountable," he continues. "Blindly boosting sentences for the few hackers who get caught will do nothing to help."


Did censorship charge help Fox News best Dish?

Fox News host Bill O'Reilly Fox's Bill O'Reilly accuses Dish Network of censorship

Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly told satellite television provider Dish Network "enough is enough", and it appears they listened.

Shortly before Christmas, Dish stopped including Fox News as part of its channel line-up as a result of a broader contract dispute between the satellite service and Rupert Murdoch's Fox television empire. On Thursday the two sides reached an agreement that, according to the Wall Street Journal, will boost the per-subscriber fee Dish pays for the news channel by 50%.

The blackout had resulted in a significant ratings drop for the news network. The International Business Times reports that a recent week's average daily prime-time viewership was 947,000, down from the 1.38 million viewers on the same week the previous year.

Start Quote

The only conclusion that can be made is that Dish ... got served”

End Quote Joe Concha Mediaite

On Sunday Fox decided to take the gloves off. During the highly watched NFL playoff games, the news network launched a full salvo at Dish, using O'Reilly and Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly to pull the trigger.

"Attention Dish customers, Dish has dropped Fox News," O'Reilly, host of Fox's top-rated The O'Reilly Factor, says in a 30-second commercial. "Now you should drop Dish."

Kelly then notes her employer's position as the top-ranking cable news network: "Thirteen years at number one, now Dish doesn't want you to have Fox?"

"They're censoring what you see," O'Reilly adds. The spot ends with an 800-number and a plug for a website, www.keepfoxnews.com.

While the Fox talking heads' exhortations to cancel Dish may have proved difficult for some viewers, who are bound by long-term contracts, a Fox News executive asserted that Dish lost 90,000 subscribers (out of 14 million total customers) over the course of the blackout .

According to some critics, Fox's commercial, which also appeared on YouTube, went too far. TVPredictions.com's Phillip Swann says Fox used tactics that were "unfair and objectionable".

"This is not censorship, and by employing the term, censorship, Fox shamefully dishonours people and societies that live under brutal reigns of repression that actually do prevent the dissemination of movies, books and other communications," he writes.

Fox News presenter Megyn Kelly Phillip Swann says Fox is endangering Megyn Kelly's reputation as a journalist

More than that, however, Fox's advertising campaign put its journalistic stars on questionable ethical ground by "parroting talking points handed down by their network's top executives".

"They are exploiting their reputations as journalists to try to make their company's position seem more truthful and credible," he says. "And by doing so, we can't help but wonder if they do the same on other issues near and dear to network brass."

Dan Joseph of the conservative Media Research Center's MRCTV, says the dispute was more than just a battle between corporate heavyweights, however, it was also a political face-off between two high-profile business chieftains.

Mr Murdoch's conservative proclivities are well documented, but Joseph also notes that Dish founder and board chairman Charles Ergen is a "big-time donor" to the Democrats. He and his wife gave $96,800 [£64,000] to congressional Democratic campaign committees in the run-up to the 2014 mid-term elections.

Start Quote

This dispute could be a game-changer for pay TV in 2015”

End Quote Jamal Carnette The Motley Fool

"In the 2014 cycle Ergen gave almost exclusively to Democratic candidates, particularly to endangered Senate Democrats including Kay Hagen (North Carolina), Mark Pryor (Arkansas), Mark Warner (Virginia) and Mark Begich (Alaska)," he writes.

He also cites a 2012 federal complaint by the conservative-leaning government watchdog group Cause of Action alleging that Mr Ergen pressured subordinates to attend Democratic fundraising events.

Perhaps tellingly, Joseph links to a Fox News story on the accusations - which have yet to be formally investigated by the Federal Elections Commission. And it should also be noted that Dish chief executive officer Joseph Clayton gave $64,800 to a Republican congressional campaign committee, as did executive vice president Tom Cullen.

Jamal Carnette of the Motley Fool says the political debate around the Dish-Fox showdown only "muddies the waters".

It's not the first time a television service provider has dropped a channel as a tactic in a contract negotiations, but the war of words between Fox and Dish shows that the stakes are getting higher.

"This dispute could be a game-changer for pay TV in 2015," he writes. "For years, analysts have debated the pay-TV industry in terms of content versus delivery power - and most consider content to be king due to the emergence of new 'pipes' for releasing material, mainly the internet and streaming services."

Now, however, the existing system may be showing signs of cracking.

"The current pay-TV model is an outdated, socialistic, semi-third-party billing arrangement that has enriched programmers and deliverers at the expense of customers," he writes. "I think people from both political persuasions can agree the model is in need of positive disruption."

Now that the Fox-Dish dustup is in the books, Mediate's Joe Concha takes a look at the final score sheet and declares Fox the clear winner, thanks to the boost in fees and Dish's concession to give Fox's sister network, Fox Business, a more prominent place in its line-up.

"When the final gun sounded and scores are tallied up in the dispute between Dish Network and Fox, the only conclusion that can be made is that Dish ... got served," he writes.

"How did Fox win?" Concha asks. "Simply put, they had the horses in the form of O'Reilly and Kelly, the message ("censorship"), but most of all, passionate viewers of Fox News voting with their wallets - the kind of viewers who execs even at other networks will tell you are the most notoriously loyal of any out there, free or cable."

If this is indeed the latest and biggest battle between content providers and distribution services, as Motley Fool's Carney speculates, the war could be over before it really starts.


Romney 2016: The 'definition of insanity'?

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Remember the tepid response from some conservative circles when Jeb Bush announced that he was exploring a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination?

Well, the former Florida governor's reception was downright enthusiastic compared to the cold shoulder being given former presidential nominee Mitt Romney when word spread that he, too, is considering jumping into the race.

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul probably captured the sentiment of most of Mr Romney's potential presidential adversaries when he said the prospect of the 2012 Republican nominee running again and expecting a different result is the "definition of insanity".

"I think he's had his chance, and I think it's time for some fresh blood," the Kentucky senator told the Daily Signal.

Start Quote

If Mitt Romney is the answer, what is the question?”

End Quote Editorial The Wall Street Journal

More troubling for a possible Romney candidacy, however, is the response from the party rank-and-file and conservative commentators. Mr Romney's trial balloon seems to be leaking air and is in danger of sagging to the ground.

"Interviews with more than two dozen Republican activists, elected officials and contributors around the country reveal little appetite for another Romney candidacy," writes the New York Times's Jonathan Martin. "Beyond his enthusiasts - a formidable constituency given that many are donors - opinions range from indifference to open hostility."

Wednesday's Wall Street Journal editorial page provides more than just a taste of that open hostility.

"If Mitt Romney is the answer, what is the question?" the editors ask. "We can think of a few worthy possibilities, though one that doesn't come immediately to mind is who would be the best Republican presidential nominee in 2016."

The editors go on to bash Mr Romney's 2012 campaign strategy, its voter turnout efforts, the way he staged the party's national convention and how he's handled himself since his presidential defeat.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush Jeb Bush's fundraising success may be forcing Mitt Romney's hand

"Mr Romney is a man of admirable personal character, but his political profile is, well, protean," they write.

This "Romney is a nice guy but …" formulation has cropped up again and again in the spate of criticisms that have been written in the past several days.

"He's an honourable, capable and decent person," writes the National Review's Jonah Goldberg. "But I know lots of honourable, capable and decent people. I don't want them to run for president either."

Start Quote

Romney had to junk his timetable and act quickly”

End Quote Jennifer Rubin The Washington Post

Yet another campaign would endanger Mr Romney's political legacy, writes HotAir's Allahpundit. He predicts Mr Romney's campaign won't gain traction, and the former governor will have to withdraw sometime between the first caucus in Iowa and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.

"If Romney runs now and finishes as an afterthought, it'll be one more sign that the whiz kid couldn't read the tea leaves placed before him despite 20 years of practice in electoral politics that included two previous presidential runs," he writes.

The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin advances the theory that Mr Romney's move was in response to Mr Bush's strength in locking down Republican fundraisers. Mr Romney would have preferred to wait and enter a muddled race with no clear leader as a "unifying figure" who becomes "the saviour of the party", but events forced his hand.

"Romney had to junk his timetable and act quickly," she writes. "Otherwise - if he remained quiet - he would be closing the door to ever becoming president."

Once a politician sees himself as a potential chief executive, the dream is a hard one to give up. As former Vice-President Al Gore, who won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000 then was narrowly defeated by George W Bush, frequently quips: "I don't think about being president anymore … but I don't think about it any less, either."

Mr Romney, by all accounts, went in to Election Day 2012 not just envisioning himself as president, but feeling - thanks to misguided internal polling - that his moment had arrived.

It turns out it hadn't. But it now appears increasingly likely he's going to give it one more go. And while some conservatives are responding unenthusiastically, Candidate Romney still has some key strengths.

He has the personal wealth to mount a sophisticated, nationwide campaign. His 2012 effort affords him name recognition higher than anyone else in the Republican field. And his experience running national campaigns means he's used to the harsh media spotlight - something that can trip up less seasoned candidates (just ask 2004 Democrat presidential aspirant Howard Dean).

But 2016 is shaping up to be no 2012. Back then Mr Romney benefited from a less than top-tier field, and after some initial struggles he prevailed. This time around, the cadre of candidates likely will be much more formidable.

If Mr Romney wants to be the first Republican since Richard Nixon to be get his party's nod after a presidential defeat, this week's reaction makes it quite clear he's going have to earn it.


Conservatives rejoice in Harvard healthcare lament

Harvard's 2013 commencement procession.

Some people may find it hard to listen to Harvard University professors complain about money with a straight face.

In 2012 the school paid an average annual salary of $198,400 (£130,000) to each full professor, according to a survey from the American Association of University Professors.

As the New York Times reports, however, a group of Harvard professors are currently up in arms over an increase in their 2015 healthcare costs.

Start Quote

Harvard profs are learning, extremely belatedly, what smart people knew from Day One: Obamacare is disruptive and expensive”

End Quote Editorial Chicago Tribune

For many conservatives it was sweet irony to hear members of the school's faculty - a number of whom championed President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act - complain about their own healthcare benefits.

"Unfortunately for Harvard profs, karma is a pre-existing condition not covered by Obamacare," Breitbart's Joel Pollak tweets.

Until now Harvard professors have dodged upticks in the cost of their own plans, but the school writes in its 2015 benefits open-enrolment guide that it "must respond to the national trend of rising healthcare costs, including some driven by heathcare reform".

This doesn't mean that Harvard's benefits are stingy, however. The New York Times reports that the plan pays for 91% of the cost of services, while the typical coverage for someone on a silver plan, the most popular choice on the Obamacare individual-insurance market, is about 70%.

Like others adhering to the Affordable Care Act, university employees will pay deductibles and a share of healthcare costs such for items like surgery, tests and hospitalisation. Their annual deductible is $250 (£165) individually and $750 for each family. They also will pay $20 for each doctor visit.

Drew Faust Harvard President Drew Faust says the new healthcare costs are 'locked in'

In a letter to Harvard's faculty and staff, University President Drew Faust acknowledges that the changes in benefits were upsetting to some, but she said the rates were locked in for the year after months of negotiations.

"I hope, however, that we can mitigate some of the current anxiety as we simultaneously assess the impact of these changes in the year ahead," she writes.

The New York Times quotes Richard F Thomas, a professor at the school and a leading authority on the Roman poet Virgil, as saying the changes are "deplorable, deeply regressive, a sign of the corporatisation of the university".

Start Quote

The right is so eager to complain, it no longer finds it necessary to understand what it is conservatives are complaining about”

End Quote Steve Benen MSNBC

As expected, these criticisms have been heralded by some who see this as another example of left-leaning ignorance about Mr Obama's healthcare initiative.

"Harvard profs are learning, extremely belatedly, what smart people knew from Day One: Obamacare is disruptive and expensive," write the editors of the Chicago Tribune. "All of that free care is not free. Someone has to pay. Make that: everyone has to pay. No exceptions for Harvard professors."

The Harvard professors are also taking fire from the left, albeit for different reasons. According to Slate's Helaine Olen, these professors simply fail to understood what Obamacare does - and doesn't - do.

"Heathcare reform solved one issue - the uninsured and the uninsurable - but left the bigger one outstanding: costs continue to climb," writes Slate's Helaine Olen. "Harvard's protesting professors might be overprivileged and clueless, but their mistake wasn't in getting angry. Their mistake was in not linking their health insurance woes to what the rest of us are already going through."

Olen writes that the problem with the Affordable Care Act is that the cost of medical bills has been shifted onto the country's middle class rather than being reduced in the first place. But she also writes that the challenge is much more complicated than simple cost-shifting.

Instead, she says, Obamacare ignores complex issues about deductibles, breadth of coverage and hospitals' pricing of procedures.

New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait writes that overall, however, the right-wing reaction to these professors is misplaced.

Chait says conservatives who oppose Obamacare think the problem isn't that plans such as the silver option are too cheap - it's that they're too generous.

"The Harvard story demonstrated two things," he writes. "First, Obamacare is implementing some versions of conservative ideas. Second, even moderate versions of this reform tend to upset consumers."

MSNBC's Steve Benen agrees. If conservatives looked a little more closely, he says, they'd find that the plan Harvard has enacted reflects healthcare reform's efforts to bring more market influence into the health insurance sector - "exactly the kinds of changes the right wants to see".

"When it comes to healthcare policy," he concludes, "the right is so eager to complain, it no longer finds it necessary to understand what it is conservatives are complaining about."

(By Kierran Petersen)


Was Obama absence in Paris sign of US 'arrogance'?

French President Francois Hollande is joined by world leaders in Paris during the unity march. Not pictured: US President Barack Obama

On Sunday, as more than a million marchers took to the Paris streets and 44 heads of state joined arms on Boulevard Voltaire, there was one notable absence.

At least, the absence was noted by many of Barack Obama's critics, who slammed the US president for failing to attend the French unity demonstrations following the attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

CNN's Jake Tapper said he was "ashamed" that Mr Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden or any other "high-level" US official failed to stand alongside leaders from the UK, Israel, the Palestinian authority, Germany and Jordan.

"I get that the president visited the French Embassy in Washington and that Secretary of State John Kerry spoke in French, and I certainly understand that the American commitment to security in Europe rivals no other," he writes. "But with all due respect, those are politicians spending money that they didn't earn and sending troops whom they don't know."

He also cites leading Republicans for failing to take the opportunity to visibly demonstrate their support and wonders why.

Start Quote

This was a day to show up and to stand up, for the kind of march about freedom and courage and principles that this country has always done better than anyone”

End Quote Mike Lupica New York Daily News

"I hope it's not American arrogance, a belief that everyone should express shock when something bad happens to us but that our presence at an international rally is worth less than a ticket to the Green Bay game when the victims speak in accents we don't understand," he writes.

In a Monday afternoon press conference, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest said Mr Obama wished he could have attended, but the "onerous and significant" security preparations for a presidential visit require more than the 36-hour advance notice the White House received.

He added, however: "It's fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile."

Mr Kerry, who is in India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said: "The US has been deeply engaged with the people of France since this incident occurred", adding that he will travel to Paris later this week.

Politico's Edward-Isaac Devore isn't so sure about the security excuse, however.

"As a general rule, the Secret Service doesn't let either Obama or Biden be in the open air in areas that haven't had a full security sweep, and the White House tends to be mindful of having security precautions create distractions around events," he writes. "But a forceful president could dismiss such concerns to make a public point about terrorism."

Crowds gather in Paris for unity demonstrations on 11 January, 2015. The highest-level US representative at the French unity march on Sunday was Ambassador to France Jane Hartley

Besides, tweets Borzou Daragahi of the Financial Times, the world politicians didn't really lead the marchers through difficult-to-protect portions of Paris so much as join arms in a "photo op on an empty, guarded street".

According to Gateway Pundit's Jim Hoft, it's all just a question of priorities.

"The Obama administration sent three representatives to Michael Brown's funeral in Ferguson, Missouri," he writes. "But only the ambassador to France made the historic anti-terror march in Paris today."

The New York Daily News editorialised against the president, printing "You let the world down" on the front page of its Monday edition.

Start Quote

President Obama's unwillingness to attend the Paris march is a personal failing on his part”

End Quote Rick Ungar Forbes

"This was a day to show up and to stand up, for the kind of march about freedom and courage and principles that this country has always done better than anyone," Daily News columnist Mike Lupica writes. "This is what the best and most noble of our marches on Washington must have looked like to the rest of the world."

Lupico concludes by pointing out that the US has a "complicated" relationship with France.

"Certainly there have been times when the leaders of France could have done better by us," he writes. "We should have done better by them on Sunday."

It was likely an oblique reference to the animosity that boiled over in US politics and the press as a result of French intransigence in the run-up to Iraq War in 2003. Many of the same conservative critics who today are blasting Mr Obama for failing to express solidarity with the French were cracking jokes about French cowardice and replacing "French" with "freedom" on congressional cafeteria items.

Twelve years is an eternity in politics, of course, and now the Obama administration is left facing a chorus of criticism - and not just from the usual voice on the right.

"I have been a fairly consistent supporter of President Obama's policies," writes Rick Ungar for Forbes. "However, President Obama's unwillingness to attend the Paris march is a personal failing on his part that I believe does damage to the pride and soul of the nation he leads."

As Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweet: "It would have been nice to see the country whose birth was midwifed by France send its leader to stand with France today."

While the White House's intentions may be good, writes Bloomberg's Josh Rogin, it's just another example of how this administration can be tone deaf when it comes to "doing the small things that can make a big difference when it comes to maintaining relationships and showing respect".

"The White House often misses opportunities and lets poor optics overshadow positive contributions," he concludes.

Avoiding those kinds of unforced errors is pretty much what diplomacy is all about.


Obama's 'free community college' proposal

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama has proposed that the government pay for two years of community college tuition for every American with an interest in progressing toward a degree and sufficient academic marks.

The US community college system, which includes 1,600 campuses across the country, provides two-year associate degrees and often allows students to apply academic credits toward bachelor's degrees at traditional four-year US universities.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, more than 12.8 million Americans studied at community colleges in 2012, with 7.7 million taking courses for credit toward a degree.

Start Quote

Free two-year colleges would serve as a concrete measure directed toward giving people the skills for better jobs”

End Quote Gary Stix Scientific American

The White House says if the plan were adopted by all 50 states - which would be required to fund 25% of the costs, while the federal government shoulders the rest - it would save the average community college enrollee $3,800 [£2,500] in tuition per year and cover about 9 million students.

"It's something that we can accomplish, and it's something that will train our workforce so we can compete with anybody in the world," the president said.

A White House official said the plan would cost $60b [£40bn] over 10 years - and, as Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner's spokesperson quickly pointed out, the president did not propose how to come up with the funds.

"With no details or information on the cost, this seems more like a talking point than a plan," Cory Fritz said in a press statement.

Despite Mr Fritz's scepticism, the plan may be able to garner some bipartisan support. It's based on a Tennessee programme devised by Republican Governor Bill Haslam, who will join the president and the state's two Republican senators when Mr Obama speaks about the proposal in Tennessee on Friday.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam greets President Barack Obama. Barack Obama's tuition plan is based on a Tennessee programme enacted by Governor Bill Haslam

Gary Stix of Scientific American says that the proposal is an "idea whose time has come".

"Free two-year colleges would serve as a concrete measure directed toward giving people the skills for better jobs - many of them in the science and technology arena," he writes. "It would also be a small step to help narrow economic disparities, an issue that consumes so much political and academic debate."

The New York Times's David Leonhardt says the potential impact of the proposal is "huge".

Start Quote

This is typical Obama blather - a grandiose sounding plan with no concept of how much it will cost or how it will be paid for”

End Quote Rick Moran American Thinker

"Battles over healthcare, immigration, gun control and other issues may attract more attention," he writes. "But both history and economics suggest that nothing may have a greater effect on the future of living standards than education policy."

He continues:

"The unemployment rate for college graduates is far lower than for everyone else. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else is at a record high. The countries that have reversed history and made more educational progress in recent years than the United States have also experienced faster income growth. In a globalised, high-tech economy, education - the process by which people learn new skills - has a return on investment like nothing else."

While there are some "significant concerns", writes Washington Monthly's Robert Kelchen, the plan will help convince Americans that community college is affordable, steer students away from more expensive for-profit schools and provide help to middle-income families who don't already qualify for government aid.

Some conservatives groused at the president's use of the word "free" to describe the proposal, however.

"'Free' should always be in scare quotes, because it won't be free at all," writes HotAir's Ed Morrissey.

"The latest entitlement proposal comes off the long and hoary list of progressive hobby horses, a giveaway that benefits students and even more the teachers needed to fill the sudden demand the erasure of pricing signals will create. The bill will get picked up by the taxpayers, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars."

The proposal will actually drive up the cost of tuition, he says, by increasing demand - "just as we have seen with college loan programmes".

"We will have expanded rather than solved the higher-education bubble," he concludes.

Fortunately, writes Rick Moran in the American Thinker, the proposal is going nowhere.

"The media will whine about denying 'free' tuition to poor people without seeing the stupidity of not realising that someone, somewhere has to pay for it," he says. "But this is typical Obama blather - a grandiose sounding plan with no concept of how much it will cost or how it will be paid for."

Several writers are comparing this latest presidential proposal to the universal preschool plan Mr Obama floated in his 2014 State of the Union address, with USA Today's Gregory Korte calling them the "bookends" of the presidents education policy.

"That $75bn proposal, which relied on dwindling tobacco tax money to provide federal matching funds, never got traction in Congress," writes USA Today's Gregory Korte.

Unless politics in Washington have changed in the past year, Mr Obama's community college proposal may meet a similar fate, leaving his education legacy to stand without help from its ambitious bookends.


Sledging bans - coming to a town near you?

A young girl rides a sled.

Children take note. As winter sets in, a growing number of US cities are banning sledging - or sledding, as Americans say - on public property.

The Associated Press reports that municipal officials in places like Iowa, New Jersey, Nebraska and Indiana are worried about lawsuits when children are injured in sledging accidents. They often cite a 2000 incident in which the family of a girl in Omaha, Nebraska, won a $2m (£1.32m) judgement against the city after she was paralysed while sledding in a local park.

According to research by Nationwide Children's Hospital at Ohio State University, each year from 1997 to 2007 more than 20,000 children under the age of 17 required emergency room trips after sledging accidents, and 4.1% of the cases required hospitalisation.

The article quotes Kenneth Bond, a New York lawyer who works with municipal governments, as saying the "Wild West philosophy" of individual responsibility is a thing of the past, and governments are now expected to take measures to prevent dangerous activities where possible.

Conservative and libertarian writers have latched onto the story as evidence of the growing threat of big government and the rise of the "nanny state".

"It's excessive overreach to dictate to the masses what outdoor activities it can and cannot participate in," writes the Boston Herald's Adriana Cohen. "It's an encroachment on our collective freedoms to have elected officials making private decisions for us. Individuals should weigh risks - should risk even present itself - and not have day-to-day life decisions made for us by bureaucrats."

Reason magazine's Robby Soave says local governments can't seem to find a middle ground. "It seems to me there is some comfortable room between the Wild West frontier of days past and the bubble-wrapped nanny state we live in now," he writes. "Perhaps the government could protect our basic safety needs while still allowing for a bit of winter fun?"

Three children sled in a 1940 photograph. Sledging likely has been around as long as snow and children

Others say local governments are just reflecting a US society that is overly litigious and fearful of the slightest danger.

Lenore Skenzy, an advocate for giving children more freedom and unsupervised time, says that stories of traumatic childhood injuries make her "ache with sadness and terror". She writes that sledging bans, however, are evidence of a society that "puts 100% safety above any other cause, including fairness, convenience, exercise, rationality - and delight."

"While the no-sledding towns sound like killjoys, perhaps the issue is really us, unable to hold these two ideas in our brain at once: sledding is fun and, once in a long while, deadly," she writes. "Sled at your own risk."

The Economist's Will Wilkinson writes that this is only the latest in a US trend that has seen the disappearance of diving platforms at public swimming pools and all but the tamest playground equipment.

"This crackdown on unregulated sledding seems of a piece with the recent American tendency to curb marginally perilous childhood pleasures, such as tricycling without body armour or venturing alone into the back garden without a Mossad-trained security detail," he says.

He adds that studies have found that while Americans aren't as lawsuit-crazy as it seems, they are "unusually fearful, and this fearfulness extends to the prospect of lawsuits".

"Shutting down sledding hills is inspired by the same sort of simpering caution that keeps Americans shoeless in airport security lines and, closer to home, keeps parents from letting their kids walk a few blocks to school alone, despite the fact that America today is as safe as the longed-for Leave It to Beaver golden age," he writes.

A closer inspection of the Omaha case tends to bear this out. While it is held up as a cautionary tale for US towns, there were some circumstances that made the case particularly unusual. The state supreme court that upheld the judgement, for instance, found that the city had planted the tree that caused the girl's injury at the base of the popular sledging hill despite warnings from neighbours and the city forester.

"The city, as the owner of a public park historically used for sledding, knew that the crab apple trees posed a risk to those who used the park for sledding, yet took no action to decrease or eliminate the risk," the court ruled.

There's at least one example of a town that has found a way to avoid outright bans - which, as the Associated Press notes, tend to be largely ignored by sledgers anyway. After numerous incidents on a manmade hill in Cincinnati, Ohio, city planners planted brush on a particularly dangerous portion and reduced the angle on the hill's other slope

In more mountainous parts of the US, however, such targeted solutions are not practical, as every incline becomes a possible wintery course.

Perhaps a new latinised phrase needs to be added to the US legal lexicon.

Caveat traheator - "sledger beware".


Critics say Selma gets MLK and LBJ wrong

Actor David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in the film Selma. David Oyelowo portrays Martin Luther King in the film Selma

While the film Selma may be about the 1965 voting rights marches in Alabama led by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, its portrayal of then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson as an obstacle to the civil rights movement has spawned controversy.

A presidential legacy, it seems, is a very touchy subject - at least, for former aides and interested historians.

Some have said the film negatively casts the president, who died 41 years ago, as reluctantly standing by while activists marched and Congress passed the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

"What's wrong with Hollywood?" laments Joseph A Califano Jr, who served as Johnson's top aide for domestic affairs.

Start Quote

The partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history”

End Quote Mark K Updegrove Director of the LBJ Library

Drawing particular fire are factual inaccuracies such as a scene where Johnson asks the director of the FBI at the time, J Edgar Hoover, to discredit King. The president also is shown green lighting a decision to send King a tape recording of the civil rights leader engaging in an extramarital affair.

Later, the movie implies that MLK missed the first Selma march because he was busy trying to repair his marriage after his wife had listened to the tape.

While the FBI did monitor King at the time - and did send a threatening letter to his house that hints at an audiotape - the film takes artistic license with both the timeline and LBJ's involvement.

"In fact, Selma was LBJ's idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted - and he didn't use the FBI to disparage him," Califano writes in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.

He says the movie is so far off the mark that it should be "ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuring awards season".

Mark K Updegrove, an author, historian and the director of the LBJ Presidential Library, agrees.

Writing for Politico, Updegrove says films based on true events often massage the truth in order to create a better narrative, but historians should step in when that narrative doesn't represent the spirit of what actually happened.

When it comes to Selma, he thinks the filmmakers misrepresented the relationship between King and LBJ.

Martin Luther King and Lyndon Baines Johnson Selma's critics say Martin Luther King Jr and Lyndon Johnson worked together for civil rights

"In truth, the partnership between LBJ and MLK on civil rights is one of the most productive and consequential in American history," he writes.

Updegrove cites a 1965 taped phone conversation between the pair, where Johnson encourages King to publicise the worst example of voter suppression as a way to prompt a national discussion and boost legislation being considered by Congress.

"If you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it every place you can; pretty soon, the fellow that didn't do anything but drive a tractor will say: 'That's not right, that's not fair.' And then, that'll help us in what we're going to shove through in the end," Johnson says.

Start Quote

Johnson's embrace of civil rights is apparently not based on a moral principle”

End Quote Roger Stone and Phillip Nelson Breitbart

But Breitbart's Roger Stone and Phillip Nelson charge that Updegrove is sanitising the relationship between the two men.

Instead, Stone and Nelson say, Johnson was a life-long segregationist who worked against the civil rights movement for years. It was only when the president found himself in the Oval Office that he saw the benefit of supporting the civil rights agenda.

"Johnson's embrace of civil rights is apparently not based on a moral principle; even when LBJ does the right thing, he does it for self-interest, as part of his plan to create a grand legacy for himself," they write.

Outside of the actual historical debate, Vox's Matthew Yglesias writes that the criticism of Johnson's portrayal goes beyond the scrutiny that biopics like Selma normally receive. Instead, he says, it seems that the criticism comes from the fact that the film doesn't make LBJ, a white man, the hero of the Voting Rights Act.

He disagrees with the idea that Johnson is negatively portrayed in the film. Instead, he says, King and his associates are the key actors, while the president is on the sideline.

"The idea that a film should be ruled out for having the temerity to focus on black people's agency in securing their own liberation is completely absurd," he writes. "We've had too few such films in American history, and everyone could stand to watch some more."

But while most critics see Johnson as the victim in Selma's version of the story, Josh Zeitz writes for Politico that Selma is equally damaging to King. Even Yglesias misses the mark, he says.

"The controversy over Selma should not be reduced to a debate about whether black activists exercised political agency," he writes. "Of course they did. The deeper problem is that the movie doesn't always get its portrayal of black activists right."

Zeitz says that the film is "oddly patronising" in the way it deals with black student activists. Often, he says, they are seen as well-meaning hotheads often working against the movement. Instead, the reality is that King co-operated with student groups because they were unconventional, not in spite of that.

While it's often easier to understand historical events as a struggle between good and evil, the truth tends to be more complex.

(By Kierran Petersen)


Does CNN have a video ready for the apocalypse?

CNN presenter Wolf Blitzer. Wolf Blitzer, a military band, then the end of life on earth

A review of the best commentary on and around the world...

Today's must-read

If the end of the world arrives, chances are you aren't going to be watching CNN. But just in case you are, the cable news network has a video ready for the Big Sign-off. That's according to blogger Michael Ballaban who posted the purported footage online.

The clip isn't much, really - just low-res footage of a US Army band playing a mournful rendition of Nearer My God to Thee, which takes a little over a minute. Then fade, presumably, to the rapture, apocalypse, giant comet impact or whatever coup de grace fate has in store for our little blue marble.

Writing on the Jalopnik blog, Ballaban says he first heard about the video from a college professor who worked at CNN. He was then able to confirm its existence when he was an intern at the network in 2009.

The video, he reports, is available on CNN's MIRA archiving system under the name "TURNER DOOMSDAY VIDEO" - the lingering legacy, it seems, of now-departed CNN founder Ted Turner.

Of course, it's existence shouldn't be a total shock. Mr Turner has said that the same tune that serenaded the doomed passengers of the sinking Titanic would usher the world's population into the great hereafter. Still, Ballaban writes, he was a bit sceptical.

"It sounded mostly like a mythic joke, the kind of thing that Ted Turner, the all-around 'eccentric billionaire' archetype, would mention offhand. Bison ranches, the America's Cup, four girlfriends at once, the last word on the last day on earth - why not?" he writes.

Just in case there is any confusion, the video clip is marked, in bright red letters, with an HFR - "hold for release" - warning: "HFR till end of the world confirmed."

"CNN, once ever so thorough in its fact-checking, knew that the last employee alive couldn't be trusted to make a call as consequential as one from the Book of Revelation," Ballaban writes. "The end of the world must be confirmed."

Who exactly the momentous occasion should be confirmed by, Ballaban speculates, is unclear.

"All we have is this bleak yet romantic farewell, showcasing both the best and the worst of humanity with all of its unsettled questions," he concludes. "Like nuclear weapons or the little safety card they give you on the plane, it's the fact that we don't know why or how exactly we'd need it that stands as the most unsettling thing about the doomsday video. This may just be the last thing that whoever is left sees, watching on whatever device remains, when humanity's last remnant winks out of existence."

Echo Chambers has found no evidence that the BBC has its own end-of-the-world video. We're taking suggestions, however, at echochambers (at) bbc.co.uk.

God Save the Queen, perhaps?

Venezuela

A nation on the brink - President Barack Obama's recent outreach to Cuba ignores the fact that Venezuela is teetering on the brink of collapse, writes the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl.

The president should be focusing on "the slow but potentially catastrophic collapse of Venezuela, a major US oil supplier with three times Cuba's population that, as 2015 begins, is well on its way to becoming a failed state," he writes.

He says that Venezuela "has been a virtual Cuban colony in recent years", but "the only discernible policy the Obama administration has toward this unfolding implosion is the one it just repudiated for Cuba: sanctions".

Instead, he says, the US should step in and mediate a "political truce" between the Venezuelan government and moderate opposition that will prevent an economic collapse.

Argentina

A Falklands War sequel? - According to Commentary's Michael Rubin, a combination of Argentine instability and British military weakness could lead to a new conflict over the Falkland Islands.

"The Argentine government has begun making noises again with regard to its claim that the Falkland Islands, which it calls the Islas Malvinas, should return to it by any means necessary," he writes.

He also questions whether the US would back its trans-Atlantic ally this time around. "Even if Obama were to give his firmest red line against Argentine military adventurism, it is doubtful anyone in Argentina or back in America would believe him," he says.

He concludes that while it might seem unlikely, the 1982 war was unexpected as well.

Russia

A new Cold War - The "trust created by hard work and mutual effort" that led to the end of the Cold War has collapsed, writes former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Instead of a new world order built on peace and stability, he continues, Western hubris has led to the renewal of age-old rivalries and heightened global tensions, turning a "blister" into a "festering wound".

Mr Gorbachev calls for renewed dialogue between Russia and the West, leading to the lifting of sanctions - particularly those directed against Russian political figures.

"Though I am, by nature, an optimist, I have to admit that it is very difficult not to be pessimistic as 2014 comes to a close," he writes. "Nonetheless, we must not submit to panic and despair, or allow ourselves to be drawn into a vortex of negative inertia."

Nigeria

A call for peace before February elections - As the general elections scheduled for 14 February approach, Yomi Obaditan writes for Vanguard that "men and women of timber and calibre" must step forward to serve their nation.

Before ballots are cast, he says, President Goodluck Jonathan "must rise above party politics" and put an end to the insurgencies in portions of the nation so that voters can get to the polls.

He also urges voters to focus on "issues rather than individuals".

"Tell the nation how our economy will be improved upon," he says. "Tell the youths how unemployment will be reduced drastically. To do otherwise, and be raining abusive language on the political opponents, will be an open invitation to political violence."

BBC Monitoring's quotes of the day

Tuesday marks 100 days since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took the oath of office. The local press takes note of the fact that his national unity government has not yet agreed on a cabinet.

"Has the government managed to win the people's support for its programmes in the first 100 days?... The national unity government has taken two key measures in the first 100 days. Initially, it has immediately signed the security agreements with America and Nato, which have been a serious tension in relations between Afghanistan and its international allies for several months. Second, it has attracted the international community's attention to Afghanistan after 2014 and developed a strategy to fight insecurity in the absence of the foreign troops." - Editorial in Mandegar.

"The government has failed so far even to form a part of its cabinet… If the deadlock in the cabinet formation is not broken till the end of the first 100 days, it will be the biggest failure of the national unity government." - Editorial in Hasht-e Sobh.

Have you found an interesting opinion piece about global issues that we missed? Share it with us via email at echochambers (at) bbc.co.uk.


The rise of the 'urban' sports broadcaster

ESPN presenter Stuart Scott accepts a ESPY perseverance award in 2014.

Stuart Scott, who died on Sunday morning at the age of 49, was a different kind of sports broadcaster when he appeared on the scene in 1993 - and it wasn't just because he was one of ESPN's first high-profile black personalities.

With a host of catchphrases and a boisterous energy that revealed a love of the games he covered, Scott became a popular fixture on the sports network and a defining voice for a generation of fans.

Start Quote

Stu helped usher in a new way to talk about our favourite teams and the day's best plays”

End Quote Barack Obama President of the United States

Following his passing, after a seven-year struggle with cancer, sports stars, politicians, celebrities and fellow journalists weighed in with a torrent of praise for Scott and his legacy.

President Barack Obama said that he would miss Scott.

"Twenty years ago, Stu helped usher in a new way to talk about our favourite teams and the day's best plays," he said in a statement. "For much of those 20 years, public service and campaigns have kept me from my family - but wherever I went, I could flip on the TV and Stu and his colleagues on SportsCenter were there."

Basketball star LeBron James wrote on Instagram that Scott was a "genuine cool person".

"What you did for our culture, bringing that Swag to reporting can only be copied (I hear it today on TV watching sports)," he wrote. "Thank you so much for being you and giving us inner city kids someone we could relate to that wasn't a player but was close enough to them."

Stuart Scott interviews Tim Duncan following the 2014 NBA championship series. Despite his cancer treatment, Stuart Scott continued to work as a sports broadcaster

The important role Scott played in mainstreaming "urban" sports style was echoed by another high-profile athlete, NFL's Keyshawn Johnson, in an interview with ESPN.

"Looking at him, knowing that he was able to bring that hip-hop culture, that urban feel, to television sports broadcasting, something that's never been done before, gave me the hope that I didn't have to be some corporate guy in a white shirt and red tie and sit there and talk a certain way," Johnson said.

Start Quote

His humorous flashes of black Americana didn't appeal to everyone and his critics were not shy about sending him letters to let him know”

End Quote LZ Granderson ESPN

It wasn't just black athletes who expressed gratitude for Scott's efforts, however. His influence was more directly felt by black sports journalists who came after him - such as Jason Whitlock, LZ Granderson and JA Andade. Their words following Scott's death were some of the most poignant.

"It takes courage and conviction to be different inside a large corporation," writes Whitlock, who built a national audience at ESPN but often clashed with the network's management. "Stuart Scott didn't want to sound like everyone else on television. He didn't want to appeal to the same audience. He wanted to be unique, a voice for a generation marching to its own beat. Mission accomplished."

He writes that Scott was "polarising, authentic, must-see, fun, passionate and supremely talented" - the "leader young broadcasters follow".

Granderson says Scott revolutionised the way broadcast sports journalism was practised, calling him a "game changer".

A moment of silence for Stuart Scott at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas. The NFL observes a moment of silence for Stuart Scott in Dallas on Sunday

"If you find that proclamation a bit hyperbolic, it's only because you either didn't know or have forgotten how sports anchoring sounded before Scott's arrival at ESPN in 1993," he writes on CNN.com.

"His humorous flashes of black Americana didn't appeal to everyone and his critics were not shy about sending him letters to let him know," he says. "But for those of us who longed for a soundtrack to accompany the soul of the new generation of black athletes who were redefining how big-time sports were played, Scott was a welcomed and masterful composer."

Adande, ESPN's professional basketball reporter, says there's more to Scott than the catchphrases and embrace of urban culture, however.

"Although he was known for bringing hip-hop vernacular to ESPN, he took pride in packing more information than anyone else into each highlight," he writes. "Go back and watch the clips, only this time ignore the sayings and count the number of facts."

Despite his cancer diagnosis in 2007, Scott continued to work for ESPN while undergoing treatment and engaging in a gruelling physical conditioning programme. Last year he was the master of ceremonies at the NBA championship trophy presentation and received the "Jimmy V Perseverance Award" at the ESPYs - an ESPN-run awards ceremony that celebrates the kind of fusion of sports and popular culture for which Scott was a trailblazer.

"When you die, it does not mean that you lose to cancer," Scott said during his acceptance speech. "You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live."


Is New York police's 'virtual work stoppage' a boon for critics?

New York police officers stand in silhouette.

What if a major US city's police department drastically reduced the number of arrests it made and fines and citations it issued, and no one noticed?

Such seems to have been the case in New York City last month, as police officers apparently began a deliberate work slowdown - labelled a "virtual work stoppage" by the New York Post, which first reported the numbers (independently confirmed by the BBC).

For the week of 22 December, citywide traffic tickets dropped 94% from the same period in 2013. Court summons for low-level offences, like public intoxication, also dropped 94%. Parking tickets were down 92%. Overall arrests were down 66%, as well.

The proximate cause of the slowdown, according to the Post, was the murder of two New York police officers - Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu - by a gunman who had taken to social media earlier in the day to cite police abuses in New York and Ferguson, Missouri, as his motivation.

Other police concerns appear to be at play, including the the department's rocky relationship with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Start Quote

The NYPD needed to be reminded that chain of command exists, and that they are not at the top of it”

End Quote Ben Domenech The Federalist

"Police sources said Monday that safety concerns were the main reason for the drop-off in police activity, but added that some cops were mounting an undeclared slowdown in protest of de Blasio's response to the non-indictment in the police chokehold death of Eric Garner," the Post reporters write.

The New York Daily News found that the two police precincts where the murdered officers worked issued only one ticket or criminal summons in the seven days following the attack, down from 626 made during the previous week.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses new police academy graduates. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is said to be facing an "open rebellion" in his city's police force

The massive drop in law enforcement has prompted a mix of concern and - perhaps surprisingly - hope among some police critics. The hope is revealed as some commentators wonder whether the public at large will start viewing the previously high levels of police activity as unnecessary for keeping the city safe.

They've used the opportunity to push back against the "broken windows theory" of law enforcement, in which low-level crimes are vigorously prosecuted as a way to prevent the occurrence of more major infractions. The principle has been a staple of New York City policing since Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994, but has been criticised as leading to a disproportional punishment of minorities.

Several writers point to a particular line in the Post piece - that police are now "turning a blind eye to some minor crimes and making arrests only 'when they have to'" - as prime evidence of ongoing police overzealousness.

Start Quote

It's tough to run a protection racket when people don't feel threatened”

End Quote Harry Siegel New York Daily News

"Well, we can only hope the NYPD unions and de Blasio settle their differences soon so that the police can go back to arresting people for reasons other than 'when they have to'," Scott Shackford of the libertarian Reason magazine wryly notes.

One of those "other" reasons numerous critics on the left and right point to is the financial boon for city coffers that comes from fines and court fees generated by law enforcement.

The police slowdown "shines a light on the use of police officers to make up for tax shortfalls using ticket and citation revenue", writes Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi.

"It's wrong to put law enforcement in the position of having to make up for budget shortfalls with parking tickets, and it's even more wrong to ask its officers to soak already cash-strapped residents of hot spot neighbourhoods with mountains of summonses as part of a some stats-based crime-reduction strategy," he continues.

What if these latest developments show that the New York police can "safely cut arrests by two-thirds", asks the Atlantic's Matt Ford. The implications are immense, he says. Fewer people could be arrested and sent to prisons that often have brutal conditions.

"A brush with the American criminal-justice system can be toxic for someone's socioeconomic and physical health," he says.

The New York Daily News's Harry Siegel writes that while New York police have "real reasons to be upset" about Mr de Blasio's efforts to expose law enforcement officers to greater criminal prosecution, they shouldn't have launched this "unprecedented, deeply disturbing, police rebellion".

He compares the slowdown to attempted extortion. "Nice city you got here," he writes. "Be a shame if something happened to it."

But with crime in the city dropping in 2014, and the streets apparently calm even during the latest police (in)action, the move could backfire.

"It's tough to run a protection racket when people don't feel threatened, and New York ended 2014 with new lows in murders, rapes, burglaries, grand larcenies and robberies," he writes. "For over 20 years, crime has dropped as the NYPD has doubled and redoubled its enforcement efforts. At some point, the chemo is deadlier than the cancer."

The Federalist's Ben Domenech goes even farther, calling the police move a threat to democracy more reminiscent of a Latin American coup d'etat.

"The NYPD needed to be reminded that chain of command exists, and that they are not at the top of it," he writes. "Instead, what New York City is experiencing now amounts to nothing less than open rebellion by the lone armed force under the worst kind of weakened junta, one led by a figure ideologically radical and personally weak, who has lost control of his bureaucracies and may soon be devoured by them."

There are clearly storm clouds looming over New York City. But will the end result be newly discovered silver linings or an impending deluge?


'Neo-Nazi' questions engulf Republican

Congressman Steve Scalise talks while Speaker of the House John Boehner looks on.

So much for the winter holidays being a time of political quiescence.

On Sunday a Louisiana blogger reported that in 2002 Steve Scalise, then a state legislator, gave a speech to a white supremacist group holding a "workshop on civil rights" in Louisiana.

The following day Mr Scalise - now the third-ranking Republican in the US House of Representatives - acknowledged that he appeared before the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, although he says he didn't know the group had been accused of espousing a neo-Nazi agenda.

Complicating matters is the fact that one of the meeting's organisers was David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard who served as a Louisiana legislator and ran unsuccessfully for the state's governorship and a Senate seat.

Start Quote

There is some justice to the charge that conservatives have not always done enough to distance themselves from racism”

End Quote W James Antle III The Daily Caller

Mr Duke, at the height of his power, wielded considerable political influence in Louisiana, and his presence within the Republican Party was condemned by prominent party officials, including then-President George HW Bush.

Mr Scalise says he didn't know Mr Duke was involved in the conference, but Mr Duke told the Washington Post that the congressman was "friendly" with Mr Duke's campaign manager, Kenny Knight, who had extended the invitation. (In 2008, the Daily Beast reports, Mr Knight donated $1,000 [£642] to Mr Scalise's congressional campaign.)

Mr Duke told Bloomberg News that "it would seem likely he did know", although "I can understand why his memory would fail him a little bit".

Other reporters have dug up old news stories connecting Mr Scalise to Mr Duke, including a 1999 piece from the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, in which the Mr Scalise addressed the possibility that both he and Mr Duke would run for the same congressional seat.

"The novelty of David Duke has worn off," Mr Scalise said. "The voters in this district are smart enough to realise that they need to get behind someone who not only believes in the issues they care about, but also can get elected. Duke has proven that he can't get elected, and that's the first and most important thing."

Quotes like this reveal the delicate line Southern Republicans have had to walk between advocating their core conservative beliefs while distinguishing themselves from those who share their politics but also harbour toxic views on race.

It's a challenge the party has grappled with for decades - and one that has brought down politicians more prominent that Mr Scalise.

The Daily Caller's W James Antle III - a conservative writing to a conservative audience - identifies the danger his party faces. He compares white supremacists like Mr Duke who attempt to enter mainstream Republican politics to termites, "eating away at the foundation of a house".

A Klu Klux Klan member salutes in Tennessee. Southern Republicans, and Democrats in past decades, have struggled with ties to white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan

"Many liberals conclude that conservatism is clandestinely racist and motivated by white backlash rather than genuine concern about taxes, welfare, crime or immigration," he writes. "And there is some justice to the charge that conservatives have not always done enough to distance themselves from racism."

He warns, however, that that the answer isn't for Republicans to back away from espousing strong conservative views. "If responsible conservatives don't take up issues like taxes, welfare, crime or immigration, racist kooks like David Duke will instead," he concludes.

A response among some Republicans when racial controversy swirls around one of their own and liberals start calling for resignations - whether it involves Mr Scalise or Senators Jeff Sessions or Trent Lott before him - is to point to the late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, a prominent party leader who was an actual member of the Ku Klux Klan in his youth (he later said it was the greatest mistake of his life).

Start Quote

White identity has always driven politics in the South, but where it once propelled Democrats to power, it now, with less outward vitriol, helps elect Republicans”

End Quote Brian Beutler The New Republic

According to the New Republic's Brian Beutler, however, such comparisons don't expose media and liberal hypocrisy, they show how party allegiances have shifted in the South over the past century.

"White identity has always driven politics in the South, but where it once propelled Democrats to power, it now, with less outward vitriol, helps elect Republicans," he writes.

He says things "aren't as bleak as they once were", as white allegiance is now based more on ideological issues. But the fact that politicians like Mr Scalise still feel compelled to appear before white supremacists groups - knowingly or unwittingly - and assure voters that they are more electable than David Duke indicates that the break isn't a clean one.

The other interesting thread in all this are the fault lines once again being exposed between establishment Republicans like Speaker of the House John Boehner and grass-roots, Tea Party Republicans.

Mr Scalise - who was elected to the House Republican leadership team after Majority Leader Eric Cantor was upset by a little known primary challenger - was supposed to be a way to bring more right-wing members of Congress into the fold.

The Louisiana Republican, as the former chair of a conservative congressional policy , had strong right-wing bona fides. The reaction of grass-roots conservatives to this controversy, however, shows that the efforts may have been in vain.

Mr Scalise, for instance, sided with the Republican leadership in supporting a major budget bill - the so-called "cromnibus" - that many conservatives viewed as packed with wasteful spending.

Start Quote

This scandal gives conservatives a major weapon against the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party”

End Quote Matthew Boyle Breitbart

"Well he seemed like another Boehner stooge so far," one anonymous Republican congressional staffer told Breitbart's Matthew Boyle.

Boyle goes on to say that many grass-roots conservatives have been angered by the party establishment's contention that Tea Party candidates shouldn't win Republican primary battles because they are less electable.

"All that talk from GOP establishment figures about vetting GOP candidates could come back to bite them in a big way as the repercussions for Scalise's actions sort themselves out," he writes. "This scandal gives conservatives a major weapon against the Chamber of Commerce wing of the party should that talking point come out again."

Conservative commentator Erick Erickson of Red State says the controversy reflects poorly on Mr Boehner and his leadership team.

"My problem with Steve Scalise is judgement," he writes on Red State. "He, like much of the Republican leadership, is so focused on putting electability over principle that it trips up his judgement. And this situation with Duke is another example of that."

If the Republican leadership held itself to the same standards as it does Tea Party candidates, he concludes, Mr Scalise "would be boxing up his office today".

It's enough to have some conservatives fantasising about a right-wing coup in the House and a clean sweep of the party's leadership.

Conservative Louisiana commentator Ellen L Carmichael cautions, however, that Mr Scalise is about as conservative as any House leadership candidate is going to get.

"Be smart about this," she tweets.

At this point, the general consensus is that Mr Scalise will survive the controversy - as long as no new revelations of ties to white supremacists are unearthed. As Vox's Ezra Klein points out, however, there is now a crowd of national political reporters digging into the story, looking for the next piece of incriminating evidence. If they find more, the congressman's career could be at risk.

It's enough for some conservatives to wonder whether salvaging Mr Scalise's political career is a "hill we want to die on for the next three months", in the words of Breitbart's John Nolte.

In January Republicans are going to take control of both houses of Congress and attempt to steer the US on a more conservative course. If this story lingers, Mr Scalise may prove to be an unwanted distraction from their agenda.


About this Blog:

Echo Chambers unscrambles the noise of the global debate, from social media to scholarly journals, Kansas City to Kathmandu.

About the Editor:

Anthony Zurcher is a senior writer with the BBC and editor of Echo Chambers, where he gathers and analyses the best in US and world opinion. He previously edited political columnists of all stripes – left and right, right and wrong.

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