The Nation

Bad Day in the Bad Lands

South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds has signed the state abortion ban, which bars all abortions without exception except to preserve the life of the mother. Doctors who violate the law face five years in prison. Although the law will surely be stayed by the courts, this should be a real Aha! moment for the women of South Dakota. Now they know they live in a state that values them only as incubators of fertilized eggs--even when fertilized by rapists. That's valuable information! It's a real Aha! moment for us all, actually--turns out the anti-choice movement really means it when they talk about abortion as murder. While Gov. Rounds and President Bush expressed their preference for the strategy of nibbling away at Roe--a much shrewder political tactic that Democrats are always recommending to Republican strategists--the antis went for the whole pie. Why? Because they're fanatics on a mission from God. They think birth control is abortion too.

If you want to get a sense of what's at stake in the war against legal abortion, take a look at How the Pro-choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex by Cristina Page (Basic Books). It's short and sweet and shrewd and funny, and makes a persuasive case that what is at stake is not just the right of women to terminate pregnancies, but modern sexuality and family life, from the very idea of sex for pleasure not procreation to flexible gender roles in marriage. Page packs in an amazing amount of factual information into 168 pages. Did you know, for example, that one effect of parental notification/consent laws is to push abortions later, as 17 year olds decide to wait till they turn 18 and don't need a permission slip for the doctor? And did you know that not one major pro-life organization has an official policy supporting "artificial" contraception? No wonder those well-meaning attempts to find "common ground" never get anywhere.

The Dubai Ports Deal

Defenders of the Dubai ports deal argue that rejecting it would be an insult to the Arab world. But if you look at it from a different angle, maybe we'd actually be doing our new found friends in the United Arab Emirates a favor.

It is hard to imagine why on earth Dubai would want to manage six major American ports where less than 5 percent of cargo is inspected currently. What if, God forbid, terrorists, completely unconnected to Dubai, slipped a weapon of mass destruction through one of the ports Dubai manages? Has the emir of Dubai forgotten what happened to Saddam, who had no connection to 9/11?

If our ally of all of four years really wants to involve itself in America's economy, maybe the U.A.E. should bid on a job equally vital but less of a security risk, like managing the reconstruction of New Orleans. It's clear the Bush administration isn't. They haven't even found a replacement for ex-FEMA head Michael Brown, whose rehabilitation in the media last week was one for the ages. No, the Bush administration is too busy doing damage control on the video showing that despite Bush's mendacious assurances to the contrary, his administration did indeed anticipate a possible "breach" of the levees. Wait, I'm sorry, they only anticipated the levees being "topped."

A distinction without a difference is the White House's current defense. Talk about another moment for the Dictionary of Republicanisms.

Springsteen Does Seeger

The best entertainment news of the weekend had nothing to do with the Oscars (though kudos to George Clooney, who picked up a statuette as best supporting actor, for defiantly defending Hollywood's out-of-touchness by hailing its ahead-of-the-curve support for civil rights and AIDS research). No, the most interesting showbiz 411 was the announcement that Bruce Springsteen next month will be releasing an album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, featuring thirteen traditional songs associated with Pete Seeger, the writer, performer, preserver and champion of folk music.

With this disc, Springsteen continues as a pop culture-political force. It's an intriguing move for him. In the 2004 campaign, he spearheaded the anti-Bush and pro-Kerry Vote for Change tour--which also included R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks, Jackson Browne, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Bright Eyes and John Fogerty. Toward the end of the presidential campaign, Springsteen appeared with Kerry at huge rallies, in which he excited crowds but--unfortunately--highlighted the real gap between himself and the supposed star of these events. From identifying with Kerry's well-intentioned though poorly presented conventional liberalism to celebrating Seeger's gritty authenticity and radicalism--that's an intriguing pivot.

Seeger has had a decades-long career that has combined promoting traditional folk music and practicing political activism. The latter led him to being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, where he was grilled on whether he was a communist. Seeger declined to talk about his political associations or ideas, but offered to tell the committee what songs he had sung in public. The committee was not amused. He was sentenced to one year in jail for contempt of Congress, but the verdict was overturned. Still, Seeger ended blacklisted and banned from performing on network television.

Springsteen's album is not an act of rehabilitation. That's hardly needed. Seeger long-ago transcended those ugly days. His neverending devotion to traditional music and activism outlasted his foes. But what Springsteen is doing is reaching beyond his roots to honor a historian of American song--for Seeger's mission has been to keep alive a certain slice of homegrown American music. The new album will include renditions of "John Henry," "Eyes on the Prize," "Shenandoah" and "We Shall Overcome."

Springsteen started out as a fast-singing wordsmith who obviously had been influenced by Bob Dylan and bar-band rock of the 1960s. But the Dylan who hovered over Springsteen's first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, was not the early, political Dylan but the next-generation Beat/literary-fantasist Dylan, who threw together images and plot lines to create impressions, not manifestoes. In fact, Springsteen's career path flipped Dylan's arc. Dylan dropped the politics as his star rose; Springsteen expanded his range to include politics as his catalogue grew. It was after his Born to Run breakthrough that he began to identify with causes, perhaps first with his participation the No Nukes concerts of 1979. His songwriting, too, began to examine the plight--that is, stories--of living-on-the-edge Americans. "Born in the USA" was not a jingoistic anthem, as columnist George Will and Ronald Reagan falsely described it. It was a haunting tribute to veterans who had been screwed twice: first by the Vietnam War, then by the deindustrialization. The Ghost of Tom Joad, released in 1995, was a quiet-but-angry, Woody Guthrie-flavored look at the down-and-out of America. (Years earlier, Springsteen had started performing "This Land Is Your Land" during concerts.)

While Springsteen clearly made a conscious attempt to connect with Guthrie (as Dylan had done in his salad days), one might not have associated his decades of rock-driven work with Seeger. But by nobly nodding to Seeger in this way, Springsteen not only closes a circle, he advances it. This disc is a generous gesture. Fans of both men ought to hope the execution is as grand as the idea.

Crash: Worst Movie of the Year

As a film studies major I've been trained to sit through any cinematic experience -- from Andy Warhol's 8-hour long Empire (yes, 8 consecutive hours of the Empire State Building in real time) to Derek Jarman's Blue (an hour plus of an unchanging blue screen dramatizing Jarman's AIDS-related blindness) -- and never abandon ship (incidentally I loved both films). It took all this training and more to endure this year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Crash, which I saw this summer in, alas, its entirety. I've already written about how I'm not a huge fan of Brokeback Mountain, the other Oscar contender, but it's definitely a better film than Crash, which I would have walked out on had it not been for my stalwart companions.

White critics like Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it the best film of the year, and David Denby of the New Yorker loved it. Denby wrote that it "makes previous movie treatments of prejudice seem like easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing."

I couldn't disagree more; easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing is the epitome of the film. To my mind, Crash's central message is: There's a lot of racism in the world, but it's all rendered meaningless by a magical force. This force is called sheer coincidence. I'll happily spoil the denouement for anyone who hasn't seen it. The racist white cop (Matt Dillon) sexually molests a black women (Thandie Newton), but is really a good guy because he saves her from a car crash (oh, and because he loves his ailing poppy). His partner's (Ryan Phillipe) anti-racist protests are really irrelevant because he ends up killing an innocent black teenager (Larenz Tate). Meanwhile, a rich, racist white woman (Sandra Bullock) unfairly suspects a Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) of being a crook, but it's okay because her Latino maid (and best friend) takes care of her when she injures herself. And on and on and on through a "compassionate conservative" rainbow of cast members each with their own neatly moralistic (but totally individualized) racial melodramas. As with the well-awarded musical Avenue Q, the moral of Crash is: Don't worry, everyone's a little bit racist.

Anyway, my amateur film criticism aside, you'll find a good dissection of Crash by sometime Nation writer Jeff Chang and Sylvia Chan over at Alternet. LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas called it the worst film of the year. I agree.

The Man Who Changed the World Throws a Party

There is much one could say about Mikhail Gorbachev. He is the man who changed the world. He ended the Cold War. He tried to abolish nuclear weapons--believing fervently that if we didn't attempt to do the impossible, we would face the unthinkable. He liberated Eastern Europe to find its own political path. And, at home, he was that rare political leader who used his power to launch unprecedented reforms--what came to be known as perestroika and glasnost. It is tragic that twenty one years later, little, if anything, is left of the historic opportunities and alternatives Gorbachev opened up for his country and the world. Those of us who know him have heard him speak of this loss with great sadness.

But last Thursday night, Gorbachev wasn't waiting around for history's judgment. At the Napoleon banquet hall in southwest Moscow, 250 family members, college and elementary schoolmates, former and current political and journalistic colleagues, friends from East and West, and current officials gathered to celebrate Gorbachev's 75th birthday. Having come to know Gorbachev quite well in these last twenty years, my husband Stephen Cohen and I were two of the partygoers.

Toasts and vodka flowed freely. Gorbachev and his daughter Irina opened the evening. Standing on the stage set up for the evening, the former Soviet President welcomed everyone by name--literally, everyone--to what he called his last big party "before old age begins". The party favor was handed out--a family album prepared by his daughter and grandchildren. The Governor of Stavropol, the province which Gorbachev led as a Communist party boss in the 1970s, opened the evening. Chancellor Helmut Kohl uttered some dignified words. An opera singer from the Bolshoi sang an aria. Former Presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky chastised the crowd-"Mikhail Sergeevich gave us a chance and we did not take it." Video tributes from former President George Bush, Bill Moyers, Leonardo di Caprio, former President Bill Clinton, and a rambunctious Ted Turner ( who belted out "happy birthday, my good friend Mikhaiiiil") and California Senator Barbara Boxer were broadcast on the banquet hall's walls. President Putin even sent a telegram of congratulation. (It's the least the Russian President could do considering that he threw Boris Yeltsin a lavish, state-funded 75th birthday bash in the Kremlin just a month earlier.)

But forget Putin's telegram, or Kohl's words or Bush's video tribute. The high point of the evening came when Gorbachev's twenty-something granddaughter, Oksana, took charge. Oksana is a kind of musical impresario, a booker of bands, who looks like a cross between Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. I missed the name of her new girl band, but they might as well call themselves "The Slavic Chicks." Three young women, a brunette, a blond and a redhead, in very short and tight black dresses, came out on stage and began to belt out three Russian pop songs. The disco ball seemed to go round even faster, as the crowd dizzy from the pumped up music boogied on the dance floor. And at the back of the room, Gorbachev seemed mesmerized by the scene--ignoring his table partner Kohl for the moment--as he swayed to the music, clapping his hands over his head.

For a brief moment, whatever sadness Gorbachev may have felt as he surveyed the lost opportunities in Russia and the world seemed to melt away into the dark Moscow night as The Slavic Chicks sashayed and sang. Long live The Slavic Chicks.

Yahoo's Dirty Secret

The branding experts did a good job with Yahoo!. Everything about the Internet giant evokes a groovy vibe--from the name itself to the company's bright purple colors, wacky font and fabled Silicon Valley work culture. Creativity, innovation and freedom are the catch-words Yahoo! wants people to associate with its brand. The problem now is that the company is actively colluding with the Chinese government to help identify Internet dissidents to be thrown in jail. Not cool.

"Yahoo! has a Chinese-language portal hosted inside China, with a search engine that filters out all websites and keywords deemed unacceptable by Chinese authorities," writes former CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon in a recent Nation online exclusive. "It does not inform users that the content is being censored in any way. Yahoo! also offers a Chinese-language e-mail service hosted on computer servers inside the People's Republic. Because the user data is under Chinese legal jurisdiction, Yahoo! is obligated to comply with Chinese police requests to hand over information. Such compliance over the past several years has led to the jailing of at least three dissidents."

An Amnesty International report adds that, "investigatiions reveal that of four American Internet technology companies operating in China – Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco -- Yahoo! has most actively aided repressive forces in China, by helping to jail political dissidents."

Prominent Chinese blogger Zhao Jing singles out Yahoo! for even greater scorn than Microsoft, the company that complied with the Chinese government's request to shut down his blog. "A company such as Yahoo! which gives up information [about dissidents] is unforgivable," he said in an interview with Fortune. "It would be for the good of the Chinese netizens if such a company could be shut down or get out of China forever." (Zhao continues to post in Chinese at http://anti.blog-city.com, which is available overseas but blocked in China. Some of his recent posts can be read in English at rconversation, which is maintained by MacKinnon, now a research fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.)

As a publicly traded company, Yahoo! can be very sensitive to public outcry. And this issue should have a relatively easy time gaining traction. Most people of all political stripes--other than extremist wackos (both left and right) and those with lots of Yahoo stock--can get behind a campaign calling on one of America's most well-known companies to stop aiding Communist China's repressive tactics.

So take Amnesty's suggestion and click here to tell Yahoo! that if it wants your business then it better stop helping authoritarian governments repress their citizens in the countries in which it operates. Media attention can also really help. So click here to find contact info for your local newspapers and talk radio stations.

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire

Cheaters never win, my mom said. And it looks like she was right.

This week the fur flew when senior associate editor Nick Sylvester was suspended from his gig at the Village Voice. Turns out the boy wonder/music critic had fabricated reporting for his cover story "Do You Wanna Kiss Me?" on the pick-up artist's guide The Game by Neil Strauss. (You might remember Strauss from other literary merits such as ghost-writing porn star Jenna Jameson's memoir.)

The story's been pulled from the site, but it's not really worth reading, anyway. It's a pretty thin piece of trend-reporting that doesn't hold much water. Basically, Sylvester interviews a few women who have read The Game and can use it against the would-be players who try to pick them up. He then attempts to extrapolate that into something--it's not clear what--about the state of dating in New York. He interviews Strauss and uncritically swallows a lot of his garbage about picking up women--for one, he fails to be very critical of the whole "art" of picking up women at all, let alone Strauss's basic assumption that social success is measured by belt notches.

Given how flimsy the journalism is, one can't help but wonder why the whole piece wasn't cast as a short diary from a woman's perspective--but wait, guess what? Dolly, a New Yorker who writes a blog about her love life, and had recognized men running The Game on her, did pitch the Voice, in January, and never heard back. Then Sylvester was assigned the story.

Golden boy Sylvester has nothing to worry about. "I just adore that kid," acting Voice Editor Doug Simmons told Gawker . "The thought of firing him is a painful one for me. I hope this review can bring an understanding to the paper -- and to Nick -- about the boundaries of journalism."

Yes, cause the boundaries of journalism were so unclear before. Thank goodness Simmons cleared that one up!

What happened here doesn't quite add up. First, Sylvester's lie was painfully obvious, violating the cardinal rule of fake journalism: Don't quote real people who you've never met. (Make them up!) And stranger still is why he bothered with lying at all. He claims to have met one especially colorful pick-up artist at Bar 151 in New York, but in fact the scene he related was a "composite" of anecdotes told to him by others. So why lie? Why not just quote the people you interviewed in real-life?

Usually Sylvester writes pretentious, garbled, mumbo-jumbo name-dropping music reviews, and some have speculated that the poor kid just got in over his head. It was a Jayson Blair-esque case of too much, too soon. But even that doesn't make sense. It doesn't take genius to know that you don't make up facts in a reported story. Sylvester, who was yanked from the stage at this year's Plug Awards for reading Malcom Gladwell's New Yorker essay on profiling in lieu of presenting the award he was there to give, seems to have a problem with taking anything seriously. Maybe he thought the Voice piece was supposed to be a prank. For now, the joke's on him. He's not only been suspended from the Voice, but yesterday he was fired from his gig as an editor at indie rock go-to site Pitchfork .

But the really outrage-inducing part of all this is that Sylvester won't be up at night sweating out the difference between "fact" and "fiction" in our topsy-turvy, no-holds-barred post-modern world where right is left and up is down. He's more famous than he was before, and in the long-run, his career will be just fine. He has Simmons. He's young. He'll still get a book deal.

Sweet Victory: The States are Sick of Waiting

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.

The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $5.15 per hour for over eight and a half years. If Congress fails to pass an increase by December of this year, it will be the longest stretch of stinginess in American history.

The states are sick of waiting.

In February, Rhode Island became the eleventh state in the past sixteen months to raise its minimum wage. HB6718 passed 36-2 in the Rhode Island Senate and 60-11 in the House, hiking the state's minimum to $7.40 by the start of 2007. Gov. Donald Carcieri had threatened to veto the bill, but facing overwhelming opposition, dropped his effort and signed it into law.

"Rhode Island is the latest in what's shaping up to be a minimum wage revolution in the states," says Jen Kern, director of ACORN's Living Wage Resource Center. "I can only count four states that don't already have a higher minimum wage and haven't introduced legislation in the last year."

Thanks to grassroots efforts of organizations like ACORN, the National Council of Churches, and hundreds of community groups, wage hikes in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and North Carolina also seem likely in the near future.

Meanwhile, ballot initiatives for minimum wage increases in 2006 could emerge in as many as eleven states. An initiative is already on the ballot in Nevada, and states such as Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, and Montana are in the midst of collecting signatures. For more information on how to get involved in your state, click here.

Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, contributes to The Nation's new blog, The Notion, and co-writes Sweet Victories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.

Kate Michelman for Senate?

After Robert Casey, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination to challenge vulnerable Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, joined Santorum in backing the Supreme Court nomination of conservative judicial activist Samuel Alito, Kate Michelman was not happy.

After saying she was "sorely disappointed by the lack of commitment to women and fundamental rights by the United State Senate," the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America ripped into Casey and local and national party leaders who back the socially-conservative Pennsylvania Democrat who is an ardent critic of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed women the right to choose.

"As a Pennsylvanian, I am particularly appalled that local and national Democrats would hand our Senate nomination to someone who openly supports giving Roe an Alito-induced death," said Michelman. "Those whose political successes have depended on the ballots and contributions of pro-choice voters but now facilitate the career of someone who would repeal those rights deserve special enmity."

How angry was Michelman?

The veteran activist who has lived for almost three decades in Pennsylvania might just jump into the Senate race herself.

"After Casey announced his support for Alito, I got calls from around the country," says Michelman in a Legal Times article on the fallout from the Alito fight. She tells Legal Times that she has been urged by Democratic donors and feminist groups to run this fall as a pro-choice independent challenger to anti-choice Republican Santorum and anti-choice Democrat Casey.

If she does, it will be a blow not just to Casey but to liberal college professor Chuck Pennacchio, who has had worked hard -- in the face of opposition from most prominent Democrats in Pennsylvania and Washington -- to mount a Democratic primary challenge to Casey.

The filing deadline to enter the May 16 Democratic primary passes on Tuesday. But the filing deadline to run as a third party or independent candidate remains open until August 1. Theoretically, Michelman could wait until Democrats make their choice and then run if Casey is nominated. In reality, however, the prospect of a Michelman run will divert energy -- and potentially resources -- from Pennacchio's already uphill campaign.

Says Pennacchio, "A third party pro-choice candidacy would also divide Pennsylvania Democrats. Since 2000, Al Gore, Ed Rendell, John Kerry, and Arlen Specter have proven that Pennsylvania is a pro-choice state. The best way to defeat Rick Santorum in 2006 is for Democrats to nominate a pro-choice candidate who can and will unite Pennsylvania?s pro-choice majority and make a third party pro-choice candidacy unnecessary. My campaign has established county organizations around the state, and is already uniting Pennsylvanians by fighting for what they want: choice, universal health care, an end to the Iraq War, and other widely held majoritarian views."

But, with expectations high that Casey will be the nominee, the argument for getting started now on an independent candidacy cannot be disregarded altogether. Nor can the prospect that, with sufficient funding and the right breaks, Michelman could be a serious contender.

The classic case of a three-way race for a Senate seat was seen in 1970 in New York State. Both the Republican incumbent, Charles Goodell, and the Democratic challenger, Richard Ottinger, were strong critics of the Vietnam War who embraced generally liberal positions on domestic matters. William F. Buckley's brother, Jim, running on the Conservative Party line, backed the war and steered to the right on social issues. Buckley, whose campaign drew substantial financial support from conservatives around the country and support from many renegade Republicans at the state and national levels, did not win a majority of the vote. But with the major party candidates dividing up the liberal base -- Goodell got 24 percent of the vote, Ottinger 37 percent and Buckley 39 percent -- the outsider who wasn't supposed to stand a chance won the seat.