Memorial Day open thread

Once known as Decoration Day, the concept of honoring Americans who died in military service on the last Monday in May "originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971." Many Americans visit the graves of fallen relatives on Memorial Day. Morgan Halgren described visiting the grave of her uncle, who was killed in action during World War II, during a trip to the Netherlands.

In a guest editorial for today’s Des Moines Register, Joy Neal Kidney described her family’s annual ritual of visiting Violet Hill Cemetery in Perry (Dallas County), to honor the memories of relatives including three uncles killed during World War II.

Lynda Waddington’s latest column in the Cedar Rapids Gazette called for offering "more than words" to the war dead and their surviving families.

Since Memorial Day weekend is also the unofficial beginning of summer, it’s a good time to share Mario Vittone’s must-read piece for recreational swimmers: "Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning." Once a lifeguard at Valley View Aquatic Center in West Des Moines jumped in to help a child in trouble in the shallow pool where I was standing near my children. Although I could not have been more than fifteen feet away, I hadn’t noticed a thing.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Weekend open thread: Threat assessments

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Arguments over the appropriate U.S. response to refugees from Syria were a hot topic this week in personal conversations as well as in the news media. I saw some longtime friendships strained over heated Facebook threads about the question. Governor Terry Branstad’s order "to halt any work on Syrian refugee resettlements immediately in order to ensure the security and safety of Iowans" provoked commentaries in several major newspapers and an unusually strong statement from Iowa’s four Catholic bishops.

The U.S. House vote to in effect stop the flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq generated passionate comments from supporters and opponents of the measure. Dozens of Iowans expressed their disappointment on the thread under Representative Dave Loebsack’s official statement explaining his vote. In an apparent response to negative feedback from progressives, Loebsack’s Congressional campaign sent an e-mail to supporters the following day, trying to distinguish his position on refugees from the Middle East from that of many Republicans, and assuring that "we will not turn our backs on those in need." (Scroll to the end of this post to read that message.)

Calls by some politicians to admit only certifiably Christian refugees from the Middle East triggered strong emotions in many American Jews this week. I saw it on my social media feeds, where many people reminded their non-Jewish friends and acquaintances that the U.S. turned away a ship carrying hundreds of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a rare statement on a political matter (enclosed below), urging "public figures and citizens to avoid condemning today’s refugees [from Syria] as a group."

I’ve seen many people object to that analogy, saying reluctance to admit Syrian refugees is grounded in legitimate fears for public safety, unlike the prejudice that influenced U.S. immigration policy during the 1930s. But as historian Peter Shulman explained in this commentary for Fortune magazine,

Opposition to Jewish refugees was not simply timeless bigotry. With today’s talk of “Judeo-Christian” values, it is easy to forget the genuine alienness and threat to national security these refugees represented. […]

Behind these [1939 poll] numbers [showing widespread hostility toward Jews] lay a toxic fear of Jewish subversion. For decades, Jews had been linked to various strains of un-American threats: socialism, communism, and anarchism, of course, but also (paradoxically) a kind of hyper-capitalism. Many believed that the real threat to the United States lay not from abroad, but within.

One author of a recent letter to the Des Moines Register called for vetting Syrian refugees at the U.S. facility for holding suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay: "My Irish ancestors went through a similar process at Ellis Island. The vetting procedure was very different for them. They were checked to be sure they weren’t carrying diseases into America. We need to be sure that the refugees coming into our country don’t come with a mind disease goal of killing us, instead of seeking a new life for themselves, like my Irish ancestors did." Here’s some news for letter-writer Janet Boggs: when the first large waves of Irish ancestors entered this country during the 1840s and 1850s, many native-born Americans considered them and other Catholic immigrants an existential threat to this country, not harmless migrants seeking a better life. Read up on the Know-Nothing Party.

Today’s Sunday Des Moines Register includes a letter to the editor from Republican State Representative Steve Holt, who thanked Branstad for making "the safety of Iowans" his priority. Holt warned, "If we expect Western civilization to survive, we must abandon political correctness and educate ourselves on the realities of Islam, and the instrument of its implementation, Sharia law." Holt represents half of GOP State Senator Jason Schultz’s constituents in western Iowa; Schultz has been beating the "Sharia law" drum for months while agitating against allowing any more refugees from the Middle East to settle in Iowa. UPDATE: I should have noted that today’s Register also ran a letter to the editor from Democratic State Representative Marti Anderson, who made the case for welcoming refugees. I’ve added it after the jump.

Speaking of security risks, yesterday Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press on questions surrounding the threat assessment teams many universities formed after the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. I didn’t know that the University of Iowa sent "a detective with the campus threat assessment team" to a fake news conference communications Professor Kembrew McLeod organized in August to poke fun at efficiency measures outside consultants recommended for Iowa’s public universities. I had forgotten about the lawsuit stemming from false accusations that a whistleblower employee in the Iowa State College of Engineering’s marketing department might be a "potential terrorist or mass murderer." Officials spreading such rumors about the employee included the former boss whose shady conduct he had exposed. Excerpts from Foley’s article are below, but click through to read the whole piece.

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Twelve resources for Iowans to mark Domestic Violence Awareness Month (updated)

A new Iowa Domestic Violence Helpline started taking calls today, MacKenzie Elmer reported for the Des Moines Register.

Survivors from any corner of the state can call the free and confidential number, 800-770-1650, to reach one of fifteen staff members who are trained to handle everything from crisis situations to counseling. […]

Before the hotline, survivors called either law enforcement or their local advocacy program. Though most programs have someone ready to answer the local crisis line 24/7, some survivors’ calls may have gone unanswered.

Local programs and advocates can now forward those calls to the hotline, where an expert can direct that survivor to the services he or she needs. […]

The statewide hotline should also provide a greater level of anonymity for survivors, [Iowa Attorney General’s Office crime victim assistance division director Janelle] Melohn said, since those living in rural areas may be hesitant to call their local program for fear that the person on the other line will recognize them.

The helpline’s launch coincides with the start of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, which grew out of efforts during the 1980s to “connect advocates across the nation who were working to end violence against women and their children.” In that spirit, I enclose below twelve links to resources for people who have been or are currently threatened by domestic violence, or care about someone in an abusive relationship.

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No comment from most Iowans in Congress as EPA expands farm worker pesticide protections

On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the final version of "stronger protections for the nation’s two million agricultural workers and their families working on farms, forests, nurseries, and greenhouses. These revisions to the 1992 Agricultural Worker Protection Standard will afford farmworkers similar health protections that are already afforded to workers in other industries." Under the old rules, exposure to chemicals incurred "an estimated $10 million to $15 million in annual health costs" among farm workers The new rules do not cover "persons working with livestock" and exempt "farm owners and their immediate family with an expanded definition of family." I’ve enclosed after the jump a fact sheet summarizing key changes, a short summary of the public health case for the rule, and a graphic that shows the old and new rules side by side. Click here for the EPA’s press release on the changes and here for a more detailed five-page chart.

Fruit and vegetable farming isn’t a huge industry in Iowa like it is in states with longer growing seasons, such as California or Florida. Still, Iowa farms have been producing more of what some call “specialty crops” as more consumers here seek out local food. Moreover, expanding fruit and vegetable production in Iowa has potential to create jobs and increase local incomes, according to this 2010 paper by Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson. So I sought comment from the Iowans in Congress on the new regulations. At this writing, I have not heard back from the offices of House Representatives Rod Blum (IA-01), Dave Loebsack (IA-02), David Young (IA-03), or Steve King (IA-04). I also haven’t received a comment from Senator Chuck Grassley. Senator Joni Ernst’s communications director sent the following:

Senator Ernst believes that once again the Obama Administration is overstepping its bounds, expanding onerous regulations that fail to consider the full impact on stakeholders, like Iowa’s agriculture industry. The EPA is continuing to act as an unchecked federal agency, adding burdensome new rules and costs. In addition, the EPA completely ignores the safety progress that has already been made under existing guidelines for our youth.

Iowa politicians tend to be hostile to any new regulation affecting farms or other agricultural facilities. Most of Iowa’s federal representatives opposed the U.S. Department of Labor’s efforts in 2011 to update protections for children on working farms. Every Iowan in Congress except for Senator Tom Harkin welcomed the department’s decision to withdraw that rule in April 2012.

A spokesperson for Governor Terry Branstad said they don’t have a reaction to the new farm worker safety rule yet but will evaluate it “in its entirety.” I can’t think of a time Branstad supported any regulation of farming practices, so I assume he will not be favorably disposed toward the new EPA rule. But if he’s serious about making Iowa the “healthiest state,” reducing unnecessary exposure to pesticides would be a worthy goal to embrace.

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Weekend open thread: Brazen acts

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

After the jump I’ve enclosed clips describing some brazen behavior. Many Iowans think of corruption in public procurement as a problem for other people, like our neighbors in Illinois. But a former Iowa Department of Public Safety employee’s involvement in state contracts awarded to Smith & Wesson raises red flags. I was surprised to learn on Friday that no ethics case will be pursued regarding the possible conflict of interest.

Todd Dorman’s latest column for the Cedar Rapids Gazette highlights comments by “America’s Longest Serving Ironist” (Governor Terry Branstad) about Syrian refugees possibly being resettled in Iowa. Dorman noted that “The master of blindside edicts” now wants “transparency” from the federal government.

His piece reminded me of Branstad’s hypocritical (or non-self-aware, if we’re being charitable) remarks to Clare McCarthy for her feature about refugees for Speaking to McCarthy on July 7, the governor described how refugees from Burma need mentors from within their community to help them adjust to life in Iowa—perhaps forgetting that only days before, he had vetoed funding for a pilot program to train “leaders from the refugee community to help other refugees work through challenges.”

When it comes to political leaders shamelessly doing whatever they want, then failing to take responsibility, Branstad’s got nothing on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. desmoinesdem directed my attention to a classic anecdote about Putin pocketing a Superbowl ring belonging to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Karen Dawisha related the story in her 2014 book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Scroll to the end of this post to read the tale.

UPDATE: A reader commented that former State Representative Renee Schulte also committed a brazen act by shifting gears in a matter of days from being a contractor for the Iowa Department of Human Services to a consultant for a company bidding on contracts to manage Medicaid.

SECOND UPDATE: Not Iowa-specific, but certainly brazen in an “evil genius” way: a “a start-up run by a former hedge fund manager” bought the rights to a life-saving drug last month and “immediately raised the price to $750 a tablet from $13.50, bringing the annual cost of treatment for some patients to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Andrew Pollack reported for the New York Times.  

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