MVPs of 2009
Most Valuable Union: California Nurses Association
Fiercely independent and combative--a magazine they fund for activist nurses is dubbed Revolution--CNA inserted itself into the 2009 healthcare debate as a steady proponent of a single-payer system along the Medicare for All lines supported by such groups as Physicians for a National Health Plan. When Congressional Democrats equivocated and pulled punches, CNA called them out and explained how big insurance companies might come out ahead under many of the "reform" proposals. CNA also came up with innovative ways to highlight the public health threat posed by barriers to care--for instance, when everyone was getting scared about the H1N1 virus, the union proposed suspending co-pays and deductibles as well as other financial barriers that prevent giving quick treatment to all swine flu victims. CNA ended the year by pulling together independent nurses' groups from across the country into National Nurses United, which veteran CNA executive director Rose Ann DeMoro promised to build into "The RN Super Union."
Most Valuable Rocker: James McMurtry
When George W. Bush moved back to Crawford, Texas, the locals organized a Welcome Home Bash for the ex-president featuring a Lone Star band that included drummer Josh Garner. During Secret Service background checks, Garner was asked, "What is your affiliation with James McMurtry?" It happened that Garner had played with McMurtry, the Austin-based rocker whom author Stephen King calls "the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation" and whose searing songs blistered Bush and Bushism. McMurtry took the news in stride, celebrating the fact that he was "on the radar" and releasing a brilliant live album and a DVD featuring the sharpest of his Bush-battering tunes, "We Can't Make It Here."
Most Valuable Multimedia Activism: Rethink Afghanistan
No intervention with regard to the expanding war in Afghanistan did more to raise public awareness and opposition than the Rethink Afghanistan project of Robert Greenwald's Brave New Foundation. Greenwald, Jim Miller, Martha de Hoyos and their compatriots dispatched crews to Afghanistan, interviewed returning soldiers, tracked down retired CIA and Defense Department analysts and forged an ironclad case for bringing the troops home. President Obama did not listen, but nearly a million Americans viewed Rethink Afghanistan videos on the Internet, saw the movie in theaters or attended house parties and meetings where it was shown. Along with "A Tale of Two Quagmires," the revelatory comparison of the US escalation in Vietnam with the escalation in Afghanistan on Bill Moyers Journal, the Rethink Afghanistan project changed minds, stiffened spines and renewed the movement for a sane foreign policy.
Most Valuable Nonfiction Book: Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
"The history of disaster shows we are social animals who want to connect," argues Rebecca Solnit in the most radical book of 2009. What makes A Paradise Built in Hell so radical is Solnit's refusal to accept the official narrative about Hurricane Katrina and disasters going back to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Instead of buying into "common myths" that say our response to natural and human disaster is to become either "helpless or bestial," the greatest public philosopher of this age argues not just convincingly but movingly that "when the superstructure of society crumbles" human beings are "freed to act on, most often, not the worst but the best within." There is balm for romantic anarchists in this historically rich survey of how, for the most part, human beings respond to calamities with "more beauty than brutality." But there is also a practical lesson for policy-makers: instead of fretting about looters, encouraging vigilantes and imposing curfews that make it a crime for neighbors to save neighbors, the response to disasters should be to empower and enhance that "civic temperament" that leads people to behave altruistically and creatively. This is a transformational principle with applications far beyond New Orleans and the other disaster zones about which Solnit writes with such authority, such vision and, above all, such insight into the better angels of our nature.
Most Valuable Fiction Book: Victor LaValle's Big Machine
If you think America needs to have more serious and nuanced debates about race, religion and class, then a compelling point to begin it is with this remarkable story of a recovering junkie who, after receiving a mysterious note and a one-way bus pass to Vermont, asks himself: "What kind of black man accepts an unsigned invitation to the whitest state there is?" But relocate Ricky Rice does, to the state's Northeast Kingdom, where he joins a group of "Unlikely Scholars" in a funny, terrifying and ultimately redemptive exploration of America's most unresolved mysteries. If Thomas Paine and Stephen King had collaborated across time on a novel, they might well have produced this book. As it is, LaValle acknowledges both as inspirations, along with "my man Ambrose Bierce."