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Shameless in Chicago

Apparently, Wal-Mart's defenders are still shamelessly willing to play the racism card in order to slander the company's critics. For years, as I've written before, the company has cast itself as the savior of the downtrodden black residents of inner cities, portraying labor and community opponents as racist white people -- never mind that so much of the opposition to big box development in inner cities comes from people of color who feel that their communities deserve better than Wal-Mart, real economic development that includes decently-paying jobs. Wal-Mart's line of argument -- which was always sleazy and mendacious -- recently reached a new level of ugliness. Andrew Young -- civil rights activist turned corporate tool -- then-spokesperson for the laughably-named Working Families for Wal-Mart (this, of course, is a "grass roots" organization, borne out of the organic love that the American people have for their favorite discount store, not a creation of Bentonville or a high-priced PR firm), waxed a bit racist last month when asked about Wal-Mart's tendency to shutter a community's small businesses:

But you see, those are the people who have been overcharging us selling us stale bread and bad meat and wilted vegetables. And they sold out and moved to Florida. I think they've ripped off our communities enough. First it was Jews, then it was Koreans and now it's Arabs; very few black people own these stores.

Oops! Foot in mouth, Too-Candid-Andy had to resign, and Wal-Mart hastened to distance itself from the very attitudes it usually tries so hard to exploit.You'd think these creeps would want to avoid this racism topic for a while. But race-baiting is almost compulsive among Wal-Mart's defenders, so eager are they to use the issue to divide the progressive opposition. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who this week, as my colleague Sam Graham-Felsen has written, vetoed an ordinance which would require big-box stores in Chicago to pay a living wage, joined this unfortunate chorus yesterday by absurdly implying that advocates of the ordinance were motivated by a desire to deprive black communities of jobs. He said:"Only in the West Side. Only in the South Side. ... At the same time it was all right for the North and Southwest Side to get the big boxes before this. It was all right. No one said anything. But all of a sudden we talk about economic development in the black community--there's something wrong there."In fact, Chicago's living wage ordinance has been pushed by a diverse coalition of groups, many of them black people who feel that, actually, it is racist and insulting to imply that their communities should be forced to settle -- and be grateful -- for dead-end jobs. But everyone agrees that because of the historic discrimination by some unions in the city -- particularly in the building trades -- such coalitions can be vulnerable to race-baiting. In a way, it was clever of Wal-Mart to figure this out.Still, playing the race card can backfire, as Too-Candid-Andy and his Bentonville bosses found out. Daley deserves to be publicly pilloried as Young was, for exploiting racial tensions in his city, dishonestly framing the debate (oh, and and for being a grovelling towel-boy to one of America's worst corporations). Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. rightly suggested that if Daley is so opposed to this ordinance, he should put his money where his mouth is: give up his own fat salary and live on a sub-living wage. I'd like it if all Wal-Mart's defenders would do the same: before hurling charges of racism at the company's critics, just try getting by on the wages that you think Chicago's South Siders should receive so gratefully.

Torture 'R' Us [Corrections Department]

On Tuesday, in its page 2 "Corrections: For the Record" section, the New York Times corrected the misstated given name of a state trooper and the misstated year in which Nikolay Davydenko reached the French Open semifinals, as well as an Internet address for a canoe trail, but led with this correction:

"A front-page article on Thursday about an announcement by President Bush that 14 high-profile terror suspects had been transferred from secret prisons run by the Central Intelligence Agency to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, incompletely described the interrogation technique of waterboarding, which intelligence officials say was used on one suspect. The technique involves strapping a prisoner to a board with his feet elevated above his head and placing a wet cloth down his throat or over his nose and mouth to create the sensation of drowning."

The original passage in the article by Kate Zernike and Neil A. Lewis read: "In addition, the [new Pentagon] manual bans a technique known as waterboarding, in which a prisoner is strapped to a board and made to feel as if he is drowning."

No doubt this correction makes the "technique" clearer, though it would be interesting to know what sort of complaint by whom spurred it into existence. The article itself -- and in this it follows the general rule of thumb of the mainstream media -- refers to such "techniques" as "abuse" or "abusive practices" but not usually as "torture." This, it seems to me, is a media "technique" that just might be worth correcting.

Torture is regularly named as such only when the President denies that we do it or that he ordered it, as he did recently in his absurd Guantanamo prisoner-transfer news conference.

Another little "correction" might be in order as well -- this time to the correction. In that phrase, "which intelligence officials say was used on one suspect," the Times does seem to imply that waterboarding was a one-time deal for this administration, no more than a dipped toe in the water. They are surely referring to the waterboarding of al-Qaeda operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, which the Times itself revealed in a 2004 piece. But what about Abu Zubaydah? About two minutes searching Ron Suskind's new book, The One Percent Doctrine -- and his intelligence sources are at least as good as the Times' -- brings you to this sentence on p. 115: "According to CIA sources, [Zubaydah] was water-boarded, a technique in which a captive's face is covered with a towel as water is poured atop."

And if you really believe that this technique, approved by Alberto Gonzalez (when he was still White House Counsel), David Addington (of the Vice President's office), and John Yoo, who drafted the infamous 2002"torture memo," was only applied to two men in the President's Global War on Terror, then, boy, do I have a large bridge in New York I'd like to sell you.

Back in Medieval times, before the defining of things had become quite so complicated in the civilized world, waterboarding went by another name: "The Water Torture." But then they were brutes. What did they know?

Ford's Fate

When it comes to winning back the Senate, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee is beginning to look like the Democrats' make-or-break candidate--and that might not be such a good thing.

Ford is running surprisingly well in his race to replace retiring Senate Majority LeaderBill Frist in traditionally conservative Tennessee. He ran virtually unopposed in the August primary. And a recent poll has Ford just one pointbehind his Republican rival, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.

If he wins in November, the 36-year-old Ford would become the firstAfrican-American senator from the South since reconstruction. Ever sincehis keynote speech at the 2000 Democratic convention, Ford has been seenas a rising star in the party, yet his very conservative views on avariety of issues make him seem more like the next Joe Lieberman than abeacon of light in future of the party.

During his nearly decade-long career in Congress, Ford has supported constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and flag-burning. Hewas an outspoken opponent of a filibuster attempt to prevent SamuelAlito's appointment to the Supreme Court. He has supported theplacement of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, prayer in schools andan end to handgun bans.

Most disappointing was his vote in favor for the war in Iraq, when so many of his colleaguesin the House had the wisdom not to.

Ford is certainly a charismatic congressman. Tennessee AFL-CIO LaborCouncil president Jerry Lee has called him, "the most exciting candidateI've seen since John F. Kennedy" and he's even appeared in Peoplemagazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" issue . Yet for some time now, the American public, and progressivesespecially, have been crying out for more than a pretty face. They wanta real change in leadership, but in a Senate where Rep. Ford couldostensibly be the deciding vote on a host of issues, change might comemuch slower than they'd hoped.

Pondering Peretz

The long-time finacier and reinging poo-bah of The New Republic, Marty Peretz, has formally entered the blogosphere with a dramtic ... thud.

Dubbing his site The Spine, Peretz offers himself up as the stiff, upright antidote to what he sees as the limp world of contemporary journalism. His main indictment of the MSM? That it gives air-time to Al Sharpton.

Oh well. The New Republic has been in slow decline for the last half decade, having tied itself to the political fortunes of first Al Gore and, more recently, Joe Lieberman and now, it seems, none other than Scooter Libby!

It seems doubtful that Peretz' new online foray will do much to revive the mag's slumping appeal. His long time nemesis, Slate's rapier-togued Jack Shafer just can't hold himself back. Muses Shafer:

The Peretz Index: Number of words: 1,500. Number of self-references: 28. Number of $10 words: two ("tocsin" and "phantasmagorical"). Number of stupid comparisons: one (the Republicans are like Sen. Joe McCarthy because they have the "habit" of referring to the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Party," just as Joe did). Number of foreign words or phrases: one ("par excellence"). Number of grammatical errors flagged by Microsoft Word: one (he writes "It's" when he means "Its"). Number of sentences that begin with "And": nine. Number of British spellings: one (he writes "judgement" twice).

Following Wellstone

Press reports on the primary victory of Minnesota Democratic U.S. House candidate Keith Ellison make note of the fact that he is now likely to become the first Muslim elected to Congress. But Ellison is also likely to become one of the most left-leaning members of the next House.

The Ellison victory was one of several for anti-war Democrats seeking open seats. Others came in in New York, where City Council member Yvette Clarke won a fierce fight for a Brooklyn seat once held by Shirley Chisholm, and in Maryland, where John Sarbanes, the son of retiring Senator Paul Sarbanes, led in a crowded House race. In Maryland's highest-profile race, however, former NAACP head Kweisi Mfume, who was outspoken in his opposition to the war, lost to the decidely more cautious Representative Ben Cardin by a 46-38 margin.

In another Maryland race, activist Donna Edwards was in a virtual tie this morning with Representative Al Wynn, with a substantial number of votes still to be counted. During the campaign Edwards billed Wynn "the Joe Lieberman of Maryland" because of the Democratic incumbent's many votes in favor of Bush administration initiatives.

If Edwards pulls out a victory, it will be a very big deal.

But Ellison's win is nothing to sneeze at.

What the Minnesota Democrat did right is instructive.

Running against a crowded field for the nomination to replace retiring Representative Martin Sabo, Ellison distinguished himself as a passionate progressive who, in the words of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, mounted a campaign that was "reminiscent of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone."

Ellison featured a photo of himself with Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota who has become a national progressive icon, in his campaign mailings. He even borrowed the color green, which was used in Wellstone's three Senate campaigns, as the background for "Ellison for Congress" signs and shirts.

It was Ellison's outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq -- which Wellstone also opposed in a critical Senate vote shortly before his death in a 2002 plane crash -- that helped him to win the pre-primary endorsenment of the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, and the enthusiastic support of grassroots activists during a fast-paced campaign that began only after Sabo unexpectedly announced in March that he would not seek a new term.

"Nearly 2,600 Americans have been killed since the war began on March 19, 2003, and an the estimated 15,800 have been wounded. President Bush recently admitted to 30,000 Iraqi dead, but other estimates put the toll as high as 100,000," argued Ellison. "It is time to admit this war was a terrible mistake and bring our troops home as soon as possible."

The DFL candidate's supporters distributed "Bring Our Troops Home Now" literature throughout the Minneapolis-based district prior to the primary. In the leaflets, Ellison complained that Democrats had "allowed the Republicans to control the dialogue," and promised to "advocate for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq!"

Ellison's leading primary opponents took softer stands on the war issue, just as they did on domestic policy concerns. That allowed Ellison, a state representative, to stand out as not just as a Muslim but as a serious challenger to the status quo on health care -- he's a supporter of single-payer universal coverage -- and a host of other issues.

Ellison also departed from the political norm by targeting what his campaign referred to as "unlikely" primary voters, placing special emphasis on drawing people of color, gays and lesbians and war foes to the polls. In particular, the Ellison campaign focused on getting members of the burgeoning Somali community to vote -- a project to which Wellstone also devoted a great deal of time.

The ideas and the strategies worked. On a primary day that saw mixed results for anti-war candidates, Ellison easily beat a former DFL party chair backed by Sabo, a well-known former state senator and a member of the Minneapolis city council.

Ellison should have an even easier time in November in the overwhelmingly Democratic district. That puts Ellison, a convert to Islam, on track to become the first Muslim member of the Congress and the first African-American representative from Minnesota. It also suggests that Congress well hear an important new progressive voice come January.

Iraq for Sale

The Bush administration's approach to Iraq reconstruction is about the same as its approach to everything else – greed, cronyism and corruption.

Now, an important new documentary reveals more about the waste, war profiteering and lives wrecked by corporations and this administration in our name. Iraq for Sale, directed by Robert Greenwald (Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, Outfoxed and Uncovered), reveals the impact of this criminal and moral corruption on the lives of soldiers, whistleblowers, survivors and ordinary Americans back home.

Greenwald's film exposes the long-time personal connections between this administration and the profiteers and investigates Blackwater Security Consulting, Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, and CACI International, finding such travesties as truck drivers – told they would be kept out of harm's way – forced to drive into battle zones unprotected; mercenaries used for combat operations and interrogations and soldiers training civilians to, ultimately, outsource their own jobs at much higher salaries so that friends of the administration can rake in obscene profits.

Iraq for Sale demonstrates, once again, the urgent need for an independent war profiteering commission modeled after the fearless work of the Truman Commission during World War II.

We need a public platform where whistleblowers, military families, and veterans who are both victims and witnesses can expose these acts of betrayal. Otherwise, this administration and its cronies will get away with inflated no-bid contracts. Hundreds of millions of dollars in overcharges. Billions of dollars gone missing. Backlash and whitewashing of whistleblowers. Alleged bribes to win reconstruction deals. And a lack of accountability for poor or even criminal performance.

Legislation towards achieving justice has been introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy and Byron Dorgan, and Representatives Henry Waxman, and Jan Schakowsky. Leahy's War Profiteering Act would make overcharges a felony punishable by up to 20 years imprisonment. Dorgan would create a special Senate committee to investigate contracting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Waxman has repeatedly called for Congressional oversight of the "mismanagement, lack of transparency, and potential corruption…." Rep. Schakowsky has called for an end to "US-hired paramilitaries and mercenaries in an interrogation cell" and also introduced legislation requiring that Congress receive copies of contracts in Iraq worth more than $1 million. (It's worth mentioning that Schakowsky has praised Jeremy Scahill's reporting on Blackwater in The Nation, saying that "many, many here in Congress read these reports," including Republicans – and that the magazine has had a "significant impact" in fostering the debate and discussions on the issue of mercenaries).

Only a complicit Republican majority stands in the way of real investigations with teeth. That might change come November in the House, Senate, or both. If the House goes Democratic, this administration will finally be held accountable and we can close one chapter in its corrupt history.

Postcript: There is already wide grassroots support of Iraq for Sale – in fact, over 3,000 people donated $367,892 to get the film made. During the week of October 8, individuals and organizations across the nation will host screenings in residences, union halls, theatres and other venues. The Nation will be encouraging its readers to take part. Check out screenings or find out how to host your own by clicking here. As the Republicans spin their failures and faux-patriotism just in time for the mid-term elections, these gatherings are a critical part of setting the record straight.

The US vs. John Lennon

The new documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," now playing nationwide, tells the story of Lennon's transformation from loveable moptop to anti-war activist, and recounts the facts about Nixon's campaign to deport him in 1972 in an effort to silence him as a voice of the peace movement.

In the film, Walter Cronkite explains that J. Edgar Hoover "had a different conception of democracy" from the rest of us; George McGovern talks about losing the 1972 election to Nixon; Sixties veterans Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, John Sinclair and Tariq Ali recall their movement days; and G. Gordon Liddy happily explains the Nixon point of view: Lennon was "a high profile figure, so his activities were being monitored."

Those "activities" – planning a concert tour that would combine rock music with antiwar organizing and voter registration for the 1972 election – were stopped cold by Nixon's deportation order; but more than 30 years later, in the 2004 election, another group of rock stars finally did exactly what Lennon had been thinking about doing.

Although the Lennon film never explicitly connects the Vietnam war to Iraq, it's impossible not to think of the present when Nixon is shown saying, "as South Vietnamese forces become stronger, the rate of American withdrawal can become greater" (and then wipes sweat off his upper lip). But there's only one explicit reference to the present in the film, and it's brief: Gore Vidal says "Lennon represented life, and Mr. Nixon, and Mr. Bush, represent death."

The real star of the film of course is Lennon, whose biting wit shines through. On his way to his deportation hearing, a newsman says, "You say you've been in trouble all your life – why is that?" "I'm just one of those faces," he replies; "people never liked me face." (I worked on the film as historical consultant, and appear in it briefly.)

Nixon got the idea of deporting Lennon from an unlikely source: Strom Thurmond, Republican Senator from South Carolina, who sent a letter to the White House in 1972 that outlined Lennon's plans for a US concert tour that would combine rock music with antiwar organizing and voter registration. Thurmond knew that 1972 was the first year 18-year-olds were given the right to vote, and that Nixon, up for reelection, worried about 11 million new voters -- who were probably all Beatle fans and mostly anti-war. Thurmond's memo observed that Lennon was in the U.S. as a British citizen, and concluded "deportation would be a strategic counter-measure."

It worked; the Lennon tour never happened.

For the next 30 years, the idea of a tour combining rock music and voter registration languished, until 2004, when Bruce Springsteen and a group of activist rock musicians did an election year concert tour of battleground states with a strategy very much like Lennon's. The "Vote for Change" tour, organized by MoveOn PAC, brought the Dixie Chicks, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and a dozen others on a tour of swing states, with the explicit goal of getting young rock fans to register to vote and vote against the Republican in the White House.

If the idea of using rock concerts to register young voters was the same, the 2004 tour had different politics from its 1972 predecessor – that much is clear from the one concert Lennon did do before the deportation order came down: the "Free John Sinclair" concert in Ann Arbor in December, 1971. Sinclair was a Michigan activist who had been in prison for two years for selling two joints of marijuana to an undercover cop; 15,000 people turned out for the concert. "The U.S. versus John Lennon" features footage from that concert, including wildly radical speeches by Jerry Rubin, and Bobby Seale, who said "the only solution to pollution is a people's humane revolution!"

The Vote for Change tour had much less political talk, and much milder rhetoric. On opening night in Philadelphia in October, 2004, Bruce Springsteen made only a brief political statement: "We're here to fight for a government that is open, rational, forward-looking and humane," he said – not quite the same as Jerry Rubin at the 1972 concert shouting "what we are doing here is uniting music and revolutionary politics to build a revolution around the country!"

The 2004 effort was much bigger and better organized than what Lennon had in mind. It included thirty-three concerts on a coordinated schedule that moved from battleground state to state. On opening night a month before election day the focus was Pennsylvania. Springsteen played in Philadelphia, the Dixie Chicks played Pittsburgh, Dave Matthews did State College, Pearl Jam was in Reading, John Mellencamp in Wilkes-Barre and Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt in Erie. The next night they all moved to Ohio, then Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Florida, and then a giant finale brought everyone together in Washington, DC.

Of course 1972 and 2004 ended the same way – with the re-election of the Republican incumbent. In '72, Nixon won by a landslide; in 2004, Bush barely won the popular vote – you might call that progress.

One factor has remained the same over the last 35 years – young voters are the least likely to vote, and potentially a rich source of progressive support. The challenge of overcoming their apathy and ignorance remains – as does the strategy of reaching them through music. Thus what Lennon thought about in 1972, and what Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks and others did in 2004, remains a key to mobilizing young voters in the future.

As Lennon says in "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," "our job now is to tell them that there still is hope, we must get them excited about what we can do again."

Ford's Fate

When it comes to winning back the Senate, Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee is beginning to look like the Democrats' make-or-break candidate--and that might not be such a good thing.

Ford is running surprisingly well in his race to replace retiring Senate Majority LeaderBill Frist in traditionally conservative Tennessee. In August, he ran virtually unopposed for the Democratic nomination. And now, a recent poll has Ford just one pointbehind his Republican rival, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker.

If he wins in November, the 36-year-old Ford would become the firstAfrican-American senator from the South since reconstruction. Ever sincehis keynote speech at the 2000 Democratic convention, Ford has been seenas a rising star in the party, yet his very conservative views on avariety of issues make him seem more like the next Joe Lieberman than abeacon of light in future of the party.

During his nearly decade-long career in Congress, Ford has supported constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and flag-burning. Hewas an outspoken opponent of a filibuster attempt to prevent SamuelAlito's appointment to the Supreme Court. He has supported theplacement of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, prayer in schools andan end to handgun bans.

Most disappointing was his vote in favor for the war in Iraq, when so many of his colleaguesin the House had the wisdom not to.

Ford is certainly a charismatic congressman. Tennessee AFL-CIO LaborCouncil president Jerry Lee has called him, "the most exciting candidateI've seen since John F. Kennedy" and he's even appeared in Peoplemagazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" issue . Yet for some time now, the American public, and progressivesespecially, have been crying out for more than a pretty face. They wanta real change in leadership, but in a Senate where Rep. Ford couldostensibly be the deciding vote on a host of issues, change might comemuch slower than they'd hoped.

Left on K?

If Democrats regain the House or Senate in November, will the lobbyist-industrial complex known as K Street turn left or lose business?

The answer: yes, a little, but no, not much.

K Street has boomed under George W. Bush. Today there are twice as many registered lobbyists, 30,000, as there were six years ago. Every $1 million spent on lobbying, estimates the Carmen Group, reaps $100 million in government rewards.

Naturally certain industries, such as oil and pharmaceutical companies, may get fewer handouts if Republicans lose Congress. But many lobbyists are prepping for a smooth transition. Major lobbying firms are courting Democrats and vice versa. Odds are, K Street will only continue to grow.

In a great Washington Post story on Sunday, Jeffrey Birnbaum examined the many reasons why. "Now, more than ever," he writes, lobbyists are "a permanent and pervasive force in Washington."

Following the Jack Abramoff scandal, Congress couldn't even pass a toothless bill aimed at cleaning up the most odious forms of institutional corruption.

Republicans are mostly to blame for the death of lobbying reform. But both parties have helped lobbyists thrive. If Democrats don't challenge K Street, they'll only encourage it.