Thankfully, the clash between Washington and Beijing over the downing of a US reconnaissance plane off Hainan Island never spiraled out of control like the Chinese jet that buzzed the EP-3E. On Whidbey Island, Washington, where the US crew is based, people broke out the yellow ribbons, but Administration spokespeople carefully avoided the term "hostage." Although George W. Bush jumped out of the blocks with harsh words that sounded like leftover campaign rhetoric, he commendably cooled it, silenced his hawks and gave diplomacy a chance.
The successful resolution of the spy plane impasse underscores an important principle: Diplomacy must be paramount in the contentious US relationship with China, whether it is a question of releasing detainees, easing tensions in the Taiwan Strait or confronting the Chinese on workers' rights.
What does not augur well for future diplomacy is the rising chorus of demands to punish the Chinese. A series of flash points in US-China relations loom--arms sales to Taiwan, most-favored-nation status, Beijing's bid for the Olympic Games, missile defense systems. The Pentagoners in search of a reliable threat and the conservatives who cast China as the new communist Antichrist are agitating to sanction, contain and undermine the regime (see Michael T. Klare, "'Congagement' With China?" April 30).
A reckless Chinese pilot may well have been at fault in the spy plane collision, but that's not the main point. The incident illustrates the larger danger of increasing military confrontations impelled by both sides. Conservative commentator Edward Luttwak writes in the Los Angeles Times that in the Clinton Administration's waning days, Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of US forces in the Pacific, accelerated electronic intelligence flights on his own initiative. And when the US plane was downed, Blair proposed that the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk sail toward the Chinese coast; this was fortunately rejected as too provocative. Such actions point up the danger of military-driven policy replacing civilian control. China is not a military power and won't be for another decade, so why play into the hands of Chinese army hawks with more US intelligence flights or advanced arms sales to Taiwan?
China and the United States must work to reduce military confrontations. They should move away from bilateral slanging matches and toward greater use of multilateral regional forums. Unilaterally, the United States should ground the intelligence planes. We do need intelligence about China--but not the kind gathered by spy planes. We need a better understanding of the strains and struggles within the Chinese government. We need to understand public opinion, such as that expressed on the Internet (where anti-American feelings are vented these days), which can influence the leadership. We need more exchanges--not just military to military but people to people, institute to institute--to weave a wider web of understanding and respect between the two nations. (China's arrest of three Chinese-American scholars is a setback to such exchanges. The arrests, like right-wing demagogy about Chinese espionage in this country, only fuel distrust.)
Similarly, the next shopping cart of arms for Taiwan should not include Aegis-equipped destroyers or other advanced weapons that might encourage a precipitate move toward independence by Taiwan. The democratic government deserves continued US support in the international arena, but Washington should stick to the ambiguous one China, two China formula that has allowed both countries to gradually build deeper economic and political ties.
How the Bush Administration handles Taiwan and other issues in the weeks and months ahead will determine whether the Hainan Island incident will be remembered as a model for resolving US-China disputes or as the pretext that triggered an East Asian cold war and a nuclear arms race.
William Greider's article "The Last Farm Crisis" (November 20, 2000) has won a Harry Chapin Media Award, given by World Hunger Year.... Gregory Palast's investigation into the purge of thousands of African-American voters from the Florida voter rolls, part of which appeared in the February 5 Nation, will be the subject of a report on the PBS show The Calling, which can be seen in New York City on WNYE-TV on April 26 and in Los Angeles on KLCS-TV on April 24. Other areas, check local listings or www.gregpalast.com.
On the web: Read Barbara Kingsolver's open letter to George W. Bush on the environment, Alec Dubro's examination of tainted Bush appointee Otto Reich and John Nichols on the late Joey Ramone, the punk rocker who did not hide his leftist politics (www.thenation.com).
Attorney General John Ashcroft says he does not want Timothy McVeigh to "inject more poison into our culture"--a striking statement, given the method of McVeigh's execution. Accordingly, he intends to deny permission for television interviews during the Oklahoma City bomber's final weeks on federal death row. (The Oklahoma legislature had a similar purpose in mind when it passed a resolution condemning a new book about McVeigh--thus bringing it more publicity, as a dissenting legislator pointed out.) At the same time, Ashcroft has made a dramatic cultural intervention of his own, authorizing the closed-circuit telecast of McVeigh's execution to perhaps 200 family members of his victims.
Both of Ashcroft's announcements show clearly how capital punishment is coarsening American institutions. Although most of the press coverage did not mention it, the Attorney General's diktat banning broadcast interviews applies not only to McVeigh but to all federal death-row inmates. However repellent the thought of a McVeigh TV interview, the ban is one more step in a repressive, systematic national clampdown on press coverage of prisons, which in some states, like Virginia, has led to a virtual blackout of inmate interviews. In the future, Ashcroft's interview ban could deny broadcast access to a federal inmate far different from McVeigh, someone with a legitimate claim of innocence or discrimination--a real likelihood given the nearly 100 death-row inmates in state prisons exonerated by new evidence and the large percentage of capital convictions overturned for grave constitutional error in the original trial.
The question of a public telecast of McVeigh's lethal injection is now moot with Ashcroft's closed-circuit plan, though the drumbeat for public executions continues--with some support among notable death-penalty abolitionists and civil libertarians like Sister Helen Prejean and Nat Hentoff. Televising executions, their argument goes, would either sicken the public or at least make Americans more accountable for what goes on in their name. We disagree. We see telecasts of executions as a fundamentally different matter from death-row interviews. Today's executions by lethal injection are exercises in the engineering of death, the institutionalizing of death, the bureaucratizing of death. Far from shocking America, viewing lethal injections through the distancing glow of a TV screen will further normalize state killing--as television ultimately normalizes the forms of violence it depicts.
Ashcroft did not invent closed-circuit telecasts of an execution--it has been tried at the state level--but it raises disturbing questions. For one thing, as several technological experts have pointed out, the phone-line transmission may not be immune to hacking or decryption--raising the prospect of a McVeigh snuff film in the near or distant future. More important, it makes this first federal execution, one moving forward even as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins the call for a death-penalty moratorium, a spectacle of individual vengeance for McVeigh's victims--a dangerous turn toward privatizing justice.
Far from shifting the spotlight to the survivors of Oklahoma City, Ashcroft's decision heightens the perverse amplification of McVeigh's voice initiated by his death sentence. The press spent the early weeks of spring speculating about how large a crowd would watch McVeigh take the needle. Instead of fading into anonymity, McVeigh has kept himself on the front page until his final moments and turned the chronicle of his last months into a testament for the militia fringe, who will make him a martyr. This is justice neither for McVeigh's victims nor for the country--and that is the real poison seeping into our culture from the federal death chamber in Terre Haute.
VILLARAIGOSA IN LA
Labor Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa's raucous victory party at Union Station on April 10 was rife with the symbolism of a Los Angeles undergoing radical change since the election eight years ago of Republican Mayor Richard Riordan. Throngs of unionized Latino workers chanted "¡Sí Se Puede!" and the candidate addressed the crowd in English and Spanish. Villaraigosa won more than 30 percent of the primary vote, topping a crowded field in the LA mayoral race. Organized labor poured hundreds of thousands of dollars and battalions of foot soldiers into this unabashedly progressive campaign. Though he didn't enter electoral politics until 1994, Villaraigosa has forged a citywide multiracial coalition that could power him to victory in the June 5 runoff against moderate Democrat James Hahn. (Also in a runoff: ex-state senator Tom Hayden, vying for a council seat.)
ECHOES OF FUJIMORI
Former Peruvian President Alan García came literally out of exile to finish a surprising second in the primary round of voting. He will face front-runner Alejandro Toledo in May's runoff. But with either man, Peruvians can expect little relief from the radical free-market economy left behind by the Fujimori regime. Toledo promises even "more privatizations." And García says he has learned from the "mistakes" of his social-democratic past.
ON THE WEB: firstname.lastname@example.org
Go back in history and read original Nation reporting from the early 1950s on legislative and judicial attempts to block black enfranchisement in Florida and Georgia. Also read Terry Allen's web-only article examining some changes on the government's official Fish and Wildlife Service website, and check out April's Death Row Roll Call (www.thenation.com).
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Taking a leaf from the Chinese, David Horowitz presented an apologize-or-nothing ultimatum to the editors of the Daily Princetonian. The paper ran one of Horowitz's flaky ads attacking reparations for African-Americans (see Victor Navasky, "Publish or Speech Perishes," April 23), but in the same issue ran an editorial criticizing the ad. Now Horowitz refuses to pay his $1,007.50 ad bill unless the paper apologizes for the editorial. For Horowitz, it seems, free speech runs only one way.
As John Lantigua recounts on page 11, the Florida election travesty looks even seamier in retrospect than it did at the time. Worse yet, as secretaries of state from across the country tell us, the crisis is national. The recent review by the Chicago Tribune of Illinois undervotes reminds us that the dark side of democracy exposed in Florida was just business as usual across America on Election Day. What would Martin Luther King Jr. think if he heard that the Voting Rights Act had not guaranteed access to the polls for all Americans--that barriers and outright intimidation continue to deny the vote to millions? Would he agree with those who say we should move on to other legislative issues? Or would he reaffirm the centrality of the vote in a democracy and call for renewed voting-rights drives, condemning--as he did in 1963--those who prefer "a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice"?
Although the intensive coverage of the Florida debacle touched off a spate of articles on reform and vows of change among the political class, Congress has thus far displayed little stomach for effective action--witness the abandonment of plans in the House to form a bipartisan commission on election reform after Republicans insisted on controlling it. The presidential silence on electoral reform has been deafening, though hardly surprising. The Administration would prefer the reform talk to go away, because it raises rude reminders of Bush's lack of a mandate for the hard-right direction in which he's taking the country.
Beyond the political considerations of the moment, the GOP traditionally favors a "closed" electorate, with disproportionate numbers of upper-income and ideologically motivated conservatives favorable to its candidates. (Unlike in Europe, voting is still a class act in this country: Two-thirds of voters with incomes above $50,000 exercise their franchise, compared with only one-third of those making less than $10,000.) The Democrats offer little comfort in this regard, though they stand to benefit the most when the dispossessed augment the voting rolls. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe promised he would make voting rights a priority, but so far we've seen little action beyond a few fundraisers. Where is the full-court press from Democratic Congressional leaders for hearings, legislation and voting-machine upgrades? Where is pressure on Attorney General Ashcroft to enforce the spirit of the Voting Rights Act by Senate Democrats who voted to confirm him?
Some green shoots of reform are breaking through the cracks outside Washington. Bills calling for instant-runoff voting have been introduced in a dozen states. Proportional voting bills are in the hopper in Alabama, Illinois and Georgia. New Mexico's legislature has restored ex-felons' right to vote.
A host of organizations with direct interest in electoral reform are forming coalitions for change but none of them will get very far unless they're backed by a public outcry raucous enough to be heard inside the Beltway. Voting is too important to be left to the politicians; it must combust at the grass roots into a prairie fire.
To this end, more efforts at education--like the National Commission on Election Reform, headed by Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, which is currently holding hearings at presidential libraries around the country--are important. But education without an activist base demanding and demonstrating will remain a Socratic seminar. Instilling in the young the same idealism that inspired the voter drives of the sixties is one approach being tried by Democracy Summer. This program aims to enlist and train young volunteers to work with voting-rights organizations this summer (see www.democracysummer.org).
The Nation/Institute for Policy Studies' Progressive Challenge lays out a useful checklist of objectives for any electoral reform effort, including strict enforcement of the Voting Rights Act to end disfranchisement, instant-runoff voting, proportional representation, voting rights for former prisoners, elimination of bureaucratic hurdles that discourage participation, nonpartisan state election commissions and the abolition of the Electoral College (see www.votersbillofrights.org).
When Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 he said, "The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls that imprison men because they are different from other men." Those walls still stand. A nation in which only 40 percent of the electorate votes is not even half free. Our overriding goal must be--ever more democracy.
The Senate's passage of McCain-Feingold was welcome if only as a comeuppance to the Trent Lotts and Mitch McConnells who had arrogantly defied popular sentiment by keeping the bill under wraps for six years. There were several factors that made the time right for McFein--including a strategic calculation by the parties that they had reached soft-money parity--but paramount among them was the prevailing climate of popular disgust with the sale of the government to the highest bidder. For this the interest groups that helped raise public consciousness with a steady flow of statistics and gamy anecdotes about the American way of bribery and extortion deserve great credit. Even George Bush has mumbled that he would sign a campaign finance reform bill, which doesn't say much for present legislative efforts but is a tribute to the critical mass reached by pro-reform sentiment in the country.
The fact that the Senate was even able to debate the bill seemed a freshet of democracy released by a spring thaw. Once the threat of filibuster and suppression by the leadership was lifted, a feisty debate bloomed on the floor. During the colloquy ending in the 60-40 rejection of one "compromise" that would have repealed a 1907 law banning direct contributions from corporations, some of the fiercest denunciations of corporate influence were heard since, well, 1907. Although Paul Wellstone's amendment to allow states to apply public financing systems to their own federal office races failed, it drew the support of thirty-six senators and more than seventy major groups--labor,enviro, black, Latino, religious.
But let's not get carried away. The bill that finally passed does little to alter a system pushed to the brink of plutocracy by the obscene power of money (note Bush's tax cut, incorporated in the budget bill the Senate next took up, so blatantly weighted toward his wealthy supporters). And it bore little resemblance to the measure John McCain and Russ Feingold originally proposed, which promised a ban on unregulated soft money and "bundling" (whereby givers maximize their influence by pooling their contributions), limits on spending by candidates and political action committees and provisions for free TV time.
The struggle to win Republican co-sponsors cost the bill all these reforms save the soft-money ban. But coming off a 2000 campaign that saw an unregulated $500 million flush through the political process, the passage of that ban was a meaningful achievement. Not nearly so meaningful, however, as it would have been in combination with the original McCain-Feingold reforms, and even less meaningful after a final round of compromises doubled "hard money" contribution limits for individuals from $1,000 to $2,000, increased the amount individuals can donate to candidates and parties during an election cycle from $25,000 to $37,500 and limited communication between advocacy groups and campaigns so much that the bill could be read to restrict legitimate public-interest lobbying.
These "poison pills" proved too much to swallow for former McCain-Feingold backers at Public Campaign, the US Public Interest Research Group and the Alliance for Justice. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. complained, "When you talk to people I represent about campaign finance reform, the first thing that comes to mind is not doubling the amount wealthy donors can give to campaigns."
Jackson and others can raise questions about the compromises that warped the Senate bill when the House finally debates its version of McFein, but they'll have a hard time making themselves heard in a body under the iron thumb of Tom DeLay, poster boy for everything that's corrupt about the current system. Also, Democratic leaders are having qualms, fearing that the GOP advantage in hard-money raising may kill their chances of financing a winning take-back-the-House-drive in '02. Even if a bill passes, it could be defanged in conference committee, giving Bush the innocuous bill he really wants to sign. And beyond that stretch inevitable court challenges.
Reformers should keep the heat on Congress with a new focus on the hard money system that constitutes the vast bulk of all campaign dollars. They should also understand that the real action will continue to be in the states, where "clean money" bills, which contain the true and only solution--full public financing of campaigns--are proliferating. Such laws have already been adopted by Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts (though statehouse Dems are shamefully trying to eviscerate the law) and Vermont, and drives to pass them are now under way in Connecticut, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin--and municipalities like Austin, Texas. Americans are well aware that their system is sick, and the Senate debate over McCain-Feingold has left them more open than ever to the heroic remedies needed to cure it.
HOW THE 'MAESTRO' HAS FALLEN
William Greider writes: While it is not exactly news that Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspanhas fallen from his state of infallible grace, the New York Times headline on April 2 still caused a rush: "Suddenly, Critics Are Taking Aim at Greenspan." When the Times announces this on its front page, it means Icarus is definitely losing altitude in elite opinion. The article itself was quite gentle, given the harsh things Wall Street traders and Main Street investors are saying about the chairman. Nevertheless, the report will perhaps embolden some members of Congress to begin a tougher inquiry. Why exactly did Greenspan launch his campaign against the economy back in 1999, steadily raising interest rates until the expansion faltered, then swooned? If he was slyly attempting to pop the stock-market bubble, he certainly succeeded. But in that case, why did he not use the Federal Reserve's credit-control mechanisms much earlier to contain the speculation before it unhinged economic balance? These and other questions about Fed policy ought to be examined by Congressional investigation, now that the maestro's baton is broken.
HISS & CHAMBERS: TRAFFICKING IN HISTORY
No sooner did "The Alger Hiss Story" premiere on the web (www.nyu.edu/hiss) and at a launch party in the Tamiment Library at New York University recently, than assorted sectarians--Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard and other cold warriors who have yet to lay down their arms--leaped into the fray. Why bother with a pro-Hiss website, asked the Standard (pointing out that the Nation Institute was one of its facilitators), when Whittaker Chambers's "monumental" book Witness tells you all you need to know about the case? Hiss's son, Tony, archivist Jeff Kisseloff and assorted scholars who helped build the site made clear at the launch their joint goal: a site that makes the case for the defense but will ultimately be the definitive depository of documents and scholarly research related to the case. One of the peculiarities of the post-cold war period is that those who keep vociferously proclaiming each new archival find the final nail in Hiss's coffin never seem willing to examine the evidence too closely. Truth be told, the Standard would prefer to let the case rest with Chambers, whose farm, his last resting place, was declared, over the objections of the National Park Service, a National Historic Landmark by the Reagan Administration in 1988. Perhaps traffic will decide the matter. When last asked, the Park Service estimated to historian Jon Wiener that two people a year go there. Maybe the Hiss website can do better.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
What was the story of Dan Rather's accidental appearance at a Democratic fundraiser in Texas doing on the front page of the April 4 Washington Post? If Rather unknowingly appeared at such an event, that's news, though perhaps not as big a story as Fox anchor Tony Snow's knowingly writing for an official GOP website. Rather was drawn into the appearance by an old friend and by his daughter, who appears to be considering a political career. Should he have looked into it more carefully before agreeing to show up? Surely. Should he have left once he discovered the nature of the gathering? That's arguable.What's odd, though, is that the Post believes that in the midst of a crisis with China and a collapse in the stock market, Rather's appearance at a local Texas event was front-page news. Could its front-page treatment of Rather, long a bête noire of the right, be an effort to distance itself from the "liberal media" the Bush people have been shunning recently? Much the same kind of sucking-up by the Post and other papers happened during the Reagan Administration twenty years ago, and believe us, it's no prettier today.