LIBERTÉ, EGALITÉ, FÉMINISME
"Feminism...is the most popular and most effective movement to emerge from the sixties left," writes Katha Pollitt in her introduction to Subject to Debate, the volume of her selected columns published in The Nation over the past seven years. Dismissed by the right and the left as identity politics, proclaimed "dead" by Time in 1998, eschewed--as denoted by the term "feminist"--by young women everywhere, the women's movement, Pollitt declares, "moves on."
And it's a good thing, too. Although, as Pollitt writes, "political feminism is still with us: regulations are challenged and proposed, candidates funded and campaigned for, lawsuits fought and not infrequently won"--there's much work to be done. And many of the essays included in Subject to Debate have worked, and still do, as a call to action. Writing on issues including reproductive rights, school vouchers, privacy, welfare, the culture wars, religion, the workplace, education and "family values" with wit and a perspective simultaneously personal and political, Pollitt has composed pieces that, collected in this volume, articulate a larger argument for social change. She reminds us that "feminism is not a single, independent, all-powerful force, but is connected in complicated and even contradictory ways with other historical forces--egalitarianism and individualism, hedonism and puritanism, capitalism and the critique of capitalism," and that "gender equality requires general equality."
Indeed, Pollitt notes, "rights are free; social justice costs a fortune." This has been especially evident in the welfare debate, which she plumbs often. In a signature lampoon, she writes in "Deadbeat Dads: A Modest Proposal" that "Marion Barry's views...are shared by millions: Women have babies by parthenogenesis or cloning, and then perversely demand that the government 'take care of them.'" In "Of Toes and Men," a 1996 column responding to the exposed relationship between Clinton "family values" strategist Dick Morris and Sherry Rowlands, a $200-an-hour dominatrix, Pollitt quips: "[Since] family values don't seem to generate much work.... welfare moms should take a leaf from struggling single mother Sherry Rowlands.... [and] become dominatrixes. Here is a lucrative profession with flexible hours that combine well with childrearing, which...it resembles in many ways."
On a different tack, Pollitt worries in "Opinionated Women" that women in the media are largely confined to certain issues in terms of giving their opinions: "As Saint Augustine put it, men need women only for the things they can't get from a man. For procreation (the one thing Saint A. could come up with), substitute 1,000 words on breast implants or day care, and that view still holds a lot of sway." Luckily, as Subject to Debate makes plain, Pollitt has never been so constricted.
George W. Bush's description of the US-British bombing of Iraq as a "routine mission" unwittingly summed up the mechanical nature of the US-British air operations in Iraq, which have been bombing on autopilot since 1992. These sorties continue because no one has a better idea of what US policy toward Iraq should be. The only rationales for the February 16 strike were to tell Saddam Hussein that the mindless air campaign will continue under a new administration and to reduce the possibility that Iraq's improved air defenses might shoot down a US plane on the eve of Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East.
But the attack's main outcome was to remind the world of the emptiness of US policy in the area. The sanctions regime is now widely ignored; US European allies, led by the French, are furious at Washington's unilateralism (even Tony Blair's foreign minister was preparing to relax sanctions). Bush spoke of enforcing "the agreement that [Saddam Hussein] signed after Desert Storm," but the Clinton Administration helped undermine the UN inspection regime instituted after the war by making it an anti-Saddam operation. UNSCOM inspectors pulled out, never to return, just before December 16, 1998, when cruise missiles were unleashed against Baghdad in Operation Desert Fox. Washington's obdurate support of the sanctions, despite massive suffering among the Iraqi people, eroded the anti-Saddam consensus in the Arab world that developed after his invasion of Kuwait. Finally, the failure of Mideast peace talks and Ariel Sharon's victory in Israel lend credence to Saddam's claim to be the champion of the Palestinians, and it provided him with another opportunity to play to the Arab streets and mendaciously blame US-Israel conniving.
Far from strengthening Powell's mission, the bombings stirred up renewed hostility among the Arab people. The Bush team's campaign pronouncements on Iraq do not allow hope that Powell brings any new ideas to the region. Indeed, the ineluctable drift of events in the past year has left the new Administration few options. The old, cruel sanctions policy is discredited, and there is scant hope at this point that the Iraqis will agree to accept UN inspectors, who are the best check on Saddam's efforts to rebuild his war machine. As it happens, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was to meet with the Iraqi foreign minister February 26-27 to discuss reinstating them; the bombing surely hasn't helped this initiative. And there is virtually no international support for any of the Administration plans to beef up support for Iraqi opposition groups. Without the backing of a wide coalition of countries, no policy has any chance of success.
The wisest future course for the United States is to forge a more modest containment and sanctions policy that might win the support of America's partners. It should aim to put in place limited and precisely targeted sanctions designed to curtail Iraq's import of advanced military technology and to contain Saddam. That means abandoning unilateralism (something that goes against the grain of this new White House) and reaching out not only to the UN and allies in Europe and the Middle East but to regional players like Turkey and Russia.
It is ironic that Colin Powell, the architect of Desert Storm, must now deal with its long-term consequences--its failure to bring peace and stability to the region.
As George W. Bush so fuzzily put it, "The California crunch really is the result of not enough power-generating plants and then not enough power to power the power of generating plants." Whatever that means, his main responses to California's deregulation crisis have been to tout drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and to bar federal intervention that would curb the profiteering by big generating companies.
Since a tiny percent of the nation's electricity is produced by burning oil, drilling in the refuge is irrelevant to the problem. But, of course, it's quite relevant to the big oil and gas companies' expectations of a payoff from this Administration, in which they had invested millions in campaign contributions. They're salivating for exploration on hitherto off-limits federal lands with ANWR as the opening wedge. Bush plays along by fanning fears of power crises nationwide to overcome the pro-environment sentiment among voters. (Recent polls show that two-thirds of Americans favor a ban on drilling in the wildlife refuge.)
As for withholding federal intervention, that's simply the old-time deregulation religion preached by conservative pundits who blame the failure to deregulate fully for the California crunch. Actually, California's deregulation bill was drafted by the power companies, which made hefty contributions to grease its way through the legislature. Seeking to recapture from consumers the costs of their bad investments in nuclear plants, the utilities devised the very freeze on consumer rates on which they now blame the current crisis, and which they are trying to overturn in the courts. They also agreed to divest themselves of much of their generating capacity, leaving them vulnerable to the market manipulations of independent power producers--including their own parent companies, which are reaping huge profits from this contrived crisis. Those same parent companies are using their "near bankrupt" utilities to launder more than $20 billion in the stranded-cost bailouts that prompted the crisis in the first place.
Clearly, more bailouts for utilities and unleashing Big Oil to ravage the wilds are not the solutions to California's--or the nation's--power problems, especially when there is a native California solution at hand: municipal ownership and conservation. The model is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which, after closing down its one nuclear reactor in 1989, held prices steady, invested heavily in wind and solar power and promoted energy efficiency through programs like subsidized buyouts of old, energy-guzzling home refrigerators.
Unfortunately, Governor Gray Davis and the California legislature have chosen to ignore the lesson of Sacramento and to "solve" the crisis by throwing more billions in public money at the utilities. Davis should be using public money and eminent domain to buy the assets of these rogue utilities out of bankruptcy and turn them over to direct public control. A statewide network of public-owned, democratically run municipal utilities would work just fine.
Municipal ownership like Sacramento's is now being urgently considered by San Francisco and other beleaguered California cities. Rather than catering to his energy "adviser" Ken Lay of Enron (who injected $500,000 into Bush campaign coffers, making him the largest single contributor in the last election cycle) and the rest of the oil and gas companies, Bush should recognize that the wind and sun provide more than enough "power to power the power of generating plants" and that power is rightfully owned and most efficiently operated by the public itself.
NAME THE PRESIDENT UPDATE
Our contest to pick a title for George W. Bush, the present occupant of the White House, has evidently touched a nerve. Hundreds of cards, letters and e-mails have poured in from those who can't bear to utter the words "President Bush." For the winner or winners: the glittering prize of a Bush-as-Alfred-E.-Neumann T-shirt. Judging from your letters, the contest has been therapeutic, a chance to vent the steam that's been building ever since the Supreme Court handed down the presidency. Final date for entries is February 19--Presidents' Day!
When the Washington Post (or any other big newspaper or magazine that's part of a media conglomerate) speaks on communications policy, readers should listen with skepticism. For example, in its February 12 issue, the Post weighed in on "The New Communications Boss." That would be Michael Powell, head of the FCC and also, to keep it in the family, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Post gave an approving nod to the younger Powell's remarks at a press conference outlining his views on his new responsibilities. The editors applauded what he said about instant messaging--that AOL deserves to keep its present monopoly on this technology, rather than share it with competitors. It also approved of Powell's go-slow policy on regulating interactive television, which AOL-Time Warner threatens to dominate. The Post discreetly averted its eyes to Powell's lack of diplomacy in saying that the concerns about poor people's lack of access to computers (the so-called digital divide) were misplaced--like wanting to buy everyone a Mercedes-Benz. Never once in the editorial did the Post disclose its own broadband of interests in new technologies. Its parent company owns TV stations and cable properties. It owns Kaplan Inc., an online tutoring service, which now has AOL as a partner. It also owns Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, an online information service. When it comes to media matters the Post should either disclose its interests or shut up--sorry, recuse itself.
BUSH'S TAX CUT/DEFENSE STRATEGY
George W. Bush's recent staged tour of several military bases was heralded by a pledge to shift $5.7 billion in the current defense budget to higher pay, better housing and more healthcare for the troops. Conservatives had been expecting something splashier in the way of defense spending. Instead, Bush called for a review of the overall mission of US military forces. This meshes nicely with the primacy on his agenda of his $1.6 trillion tax cut. Campaign promises about big bucks for high-tech weapons are put on hold. Peace activists, however, weren't putting the nuclear threat on hold. On February 5-6, movie stars Martin Sheen, Michael Douglas and Paul Newman led a phone blitz of the White House, part of the Back from the Brink Campaign (www.backfromthebrink.policy.net)--a nationwide call for taking US and Russian nukes off hairtrigger alert. And on Valentine's Day several Congress members joined a Washington rally protesting Star Wars outside the Ronald Reagan Building, where former TRW board member Dick Cheney held a love fest with defense contractors.
For the second year in a row, The Nation has been nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award for "Outstanding Magazine Overall Coverage." Nation contributor Robert Scheer was also nominated in the "Outstanding Newspaper Columnist" slot for his writings in the Los Angeles Times.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Morgan Stanley invested more than $100,000 to hire Bill Clinton for a speech to a convention in Florida. After all, he presided over the longest stock market uptick in history, and the brokerage snagged him for his first postpresidential speech. Then came the Rich pardon, etc. Morgan Stanley was hit by complaints from its customers. Chairman Philip Purcell dispatched a sanctimonious e-mail to clients saying the invitation had "clearly been a mistake" given Clinton's "personal behavior as President."
"Of reconsiderations of Western socialism, there is no end," Norman Birnbaum writes cheekily at the opening of his new book--and immediately sets out to show us (successfully) why his is different. "The prominence of ideas on the supreme efficiency of the market, the large changes implied by the notion of globalization, are historically rather recent. They are, however, the contemporary forms of recurrent dilemmas," he declares.
With that thought in mind, Birnbaum, a Nation editorial board member and University Professor at Georgetown University Law School, spins out what is part comprehensive survey and part prescriptive meditation on the future of reformist impulses. Socialism "in all its forms was itself a religion of redemption," he observes, and yet, a paradox presents itself: that socialism "presupposed the kind of human nature it was intended to make possible." And it is the chasm between utopian hopes and reality that most interests Birnbaum. This is no apologia but a broad analysis of the history of progressive social change as it was carried out in Europe and America over the past century.
Some of the ground Birnbaum covers will be familiar--the appeal of socialism to writers from Auden to Dos Passos, Malraux to Mann, in a discussion of cultural modernism, for example, or his recounting Antonio Gramsci's efforts to invent an Italian Marxism that began with the cultural sphere in efforts to lead the political. Birnbaum moves broadly over the Russian Revolution and beyond, the 1930s and wartime in both Europe and the United States, the evolution (and devolution) of the welfare state, contending versions of socialism ("there is something distinctive about socialist movements in Catholic countries," he maintains, as they "become counterchurches, organized around militant secularism") and brings us up to the present moment--even to the effects of the Internet.
"Our societies are ready for a renewed public discussion of what economic and social rights are bound up with citizenship," Birnbaum concludes. Even anecdotally, he illustrates his point: The German constitutional court recently ruled that there was a "burden upon the government to ensure an equality of living standards," he notes, while in the United States the Senate bounced a prospective federal judge who had "argued that the government had a duty to prevent disease and starvation."
Political cross-dressing by the Democrats ended on January 25 in Washington when their erstwhile conservative patron, Alan Greenspan, abruptly jilted them. Under Bill Clinton's tutelage, the party of working people held the hem of the Federal Reserve chairman's dark robes and pretended to be fiscal conservatives, just like him. We must not cut taxes, they insisted piously, we must instead use the burgeoning federal surpluses to pay off the national debt. Greenspan would solemnly bless these expressions of Hooverite restraint.
Then he blew them off. The Fed chairman announced his support for George W. Bush's broad agenda of major tax cuts and, for good measure, the dismantling of Social Security as we know it. He is, as ever, an astute opportunist. During the Clinton years, Greenspan did his own turn at cross-dressing, making chummy with a Democratic President who followed his directions. Now that a new President from the Party of Money is in power, Greenspan returns to the one true faith--rescuing business and the wealthy from the clutches of government. His pronouncements will inspire a lobbying contest among the upscale interests to see who can extract the most boodle from the Treasury.
Democrats are feeling hurt and disoriented. They fully deserve their embarrassment. Their embrace of conservative fiscal orthodoxy seemed clever at the time--a stalling tactic to hold off more GOP tax cuts for the wealthy--but like so many of Clinton's too-cute tactics, it was always a dead-end strategy for liberals. An activist party committed to addressing major public problems was, in effect, promising to do little or nothing of significance while massive surpluses accumulated for the next ten or fifteen years. The GOP could say, and did: If the government is collecting so much extra tax revenue, why not give some of it back to the people? Alternatively, Democrats might have proposed a major down payment on healthcare and other neglected social problems. Instead, we got Al Gore's "lockbox"--much ridiculed because it was always a ridiculous gimmick. Bookkeepers, it turns out, do not make very compelling presidential candidates.
Now, as the economy weakens so quickly that the Fed has moved twice to lower interest rates, Democrats are scrambling to be pro-tax cuts and belatedly trying to figure out what that means. This is the minority party's first great post-Clinton opportunity to restore its progressive reputation and show that it still has some fight. We have suggestions. First, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate should draw a bright line of principled resistance to yet another regressive tax package (never mind that some in their ranks are already defecting). For two decades, Democrats have collaborated in the Republicans' hog-feeding splurges, joining in the bidding wars to reward contributors and favored interests. This time, even if the prospects look doubtful, the party must oppose the giveaways--estate tax repeal, another capital gains tax cut, the phony tax incentive for corporate R&D, and other goodies Republicans are putting on the table. If income tax rates are to be reduced, don't acquiesce again in the Reaganite sleight of hand that cuts the top and bottom rates across the board as though the wealthiest are getting equal treatment with the least fortunate.
The positive principle, in addition to providing emergency stimulus for the economy, should be: Heal the wounded, the people whose incomes and family conditions have been squeezed for a generation, even during boom times. That means delivering the bulk of tax relief, whether the package is $800 billion or twice that much, to those on the bottom half or bottom two-thirds of the income ladder. Don't try to do this with lots of fanciful conditions that pretend to target particular social problems--just send them the money, as promptly as possible. There are many different ways to accomplish this: For example, suspend a point or two on the payroll tax paid by workers (but not employers) for a specified period of one or two years; or enact a bigger child deduction, progressively larger for families at or below the median household income level; or simply cut the lower-bracket marginal rates (while leaving the top rate alone), with an immediate cut in withholding. The important thing is not to let the principle get lost in tricky details. The principle is: The Democratic Party fights on behalf of the working middle class and poor (even if it disappoints some of its major contributors in the process). When and if the vast public hears this message from Democrats, most of them will probably not believe it. Democrats will not persuade until they learn to make the fight for real.
As for the Federal Reserve, our advice to Alan Greenspan is: Butt out. Greenspan, remember, is the wizard who supposedly "saved" Social Security back in 1983 when his blue-ribbon commission initiated the massive payroll tax increases on working people. Now he wants to save it again by destroying it. If the central bank wishes to preserve its protected status "independent" of politics, the chairman had better confine his Republican ideological preachments to dinners at the club.
NAME THE PRESIDENT CONTEST
Face it: Just saying the words President Bush causes many of our readers to gag. Typical is Lois Phillips Hudson, who writes: "Though I might mumble them in a nightmare, never in any waking moment will the words 'President Bush' pass my lips." She suggests his title be "President," forever in quotes. Out of respect for Lois and millions like her, we are launching a Name the President Contest. Send us your suggestions for an appropriate title for George W. Bush. The last President to steal the office, Rutherford B. Hayes, was forever after known as "His Fraudulency" or "Old 8-7" (referring to the margin by which a special commission wedged him in). His example suggests other dishonorifics, e.g., "His Illegitimacy" or "Old 5-4." Jack Cousineau offers "pResident," in print, to denote that Bush merely happens to be the current White House occupant. (Bill Hoover, and Gar Smith, editor of Earth Island Journal--which is changing its style sheet--suggest just plain "Resident.") Send your suggestions to "In Fact," The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003 or (email@example.com). The prize: a T-shirt displaying the Bush-as-Alfred E. Neuman Nation cover to the top five.
When Republicans, conservatives, even some right-of-center Democrats want to bait a liberal, they often hurl the phrase "McGovern Democrat" at him or her, as if that's the ultimate in political insults. But the original McGovern Democrat--former Senator George McGovern--has been embraced by the Bush Administration. In December McGovern, who was appointed by President Clinton to be US ambassador to the UN agencies for food and agriculture, submitted his resignation, as is customary for a political appointee. Once the Bushies moved in, Secretary of State Colin Powell phoned McGovern, whose new book--The Third Freedom: Ending Hunger in Our Time--calls for a US-led global initiative to eradicate hunger, and asked him to continue in the Rome-based post, where McGovern has been pressing for a global school lunch program that would cover 300 million children. (McGovern persuaded Clinton to allocate $300 million to kick off this project.) McGovern didn't lobby to stay on, but he's pleased he was asked. "I've brought Bob Dole into the school lunch idea," he told us. "Maybe that helped." Is he going soft on Republicans? "Well, I do have to be more kindly now." McGovern and the Republicans--now that's bipartisanship. What next? A job for Jesse Jackson?
STUDENTS TO NIKE: 'JUST DO IT'
Liza Featherstone writes: On January 9 more than 850 workers went on strike at Kukdong International Mexico, a Korean-owned factory in Atlixco that contracts with Nike to make sweatshirts bearing the logos of the universities of Michigan and Oregon and many other schools. Kukdong workers demanded that management recognize their union and reinstate employees who had been fired for organizing the work stoppage and other protests. This was the highest-profile test yet for the Worker Rights Consortium, the antisweatshop organization founded this past April by US students with labor and human rights activists. After interviewing some thirty workers in Atlixco, the WRC's investigative team reported "strong grounds for concern" that management had violated the child labor, physical abuse, minimum wage and freedom of association provisions in many universities' codes of conduct. Nike denounced the WRC investigation, claiming that the group is not "objective," but student agitation forced the sneaker giant to appoint a mediator, pressure the factory to rehire some of the workers and call for an independent monitor to investigate Kukdong. And also not to cut its ties to the factory afterward. Says Eric Brakken of United Students Against Sweatshops, "I think we've scared the fuck out of them."