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Is This the Last Chance for a Diplomatic Resolution to the Ukraine Crisis?

Geneva, April 17, 2014

Quadrilateral talks to resolve the crisis in Ukraine begin in Geneva, April 17, 2014 (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

They say truth is the first casualty of war. In the escalating conflict in Ukraine, we’ve seen nuance and complexity—the stuff of which real history is made—ignored, marginalized in favor of us-versus-them bluster and nationalistic posturing. This is a dangerous sort of “dialogue” to witness. As each side continues to willfully misinterpret the other, a vacuum is forming in the diplomatic space where reality, comprehension, and cooperation ought to be, and as tension continues to mount, so too does the risk of war. Make no mistake about it, we are on the verge of civil war in Ukraine, and possibly the start of an even larger conflagration—perhaps even a proxy war between the US and Russia.    

“Misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred need to be urgently countered,” urges a UN human rights report. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights elaborates, “Facts on the ground need to be established to help reduce the risk of radically different narratives being exploited for political ends. People need a reliable point of view to counter what has been widespread misinformation and also speech that aims to incite hatred on national, religious or racial grounds.”

And what might that “reliable point of view” convey to us? What might we learn from a sober reflection on recent and not-so-recent history? First, that every actor bears some responsibility for today’s crisis. Starting with the Clinton Administration in the nineties, Stephen F. Cohen has written here, “[T]he US-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia.” Since 1999, NATO has expanded eastwards to include much of the former Warsaw Pact, including the three former Baltic Republics that directly border Russia. Given that, we shouldn’t be surprised when Putin reads recent history as two decades in which the US has been “trying to drive us into some kind of corner.” And for its part, the EU has been unable to imagine an independent, nonaligned Ukraine, rejecting Putin’s “tripartite” arrangement offered to Ukraine last November and demanding that a junior-partner Kiev look to either Brussels or Moscow for stability—but not neither and not both.

Sadly, too much of the US media has decided to push the Cold War Redux angle of the story, trotting out hawkish analysts and using the time-honored tradition of invoking the A-word (“appeasement”) to stigmatize anyone who sees things slightly more sanely. As a result, American viewers and readers are not only getting but one side of the story, but they're also getting the most extreme and least nuanced version of that side. This is dangerous. History tells us Ukraine is a deeply divided country. The West cannot shut Russia out via escalating, "crippling" sanctions, even as the White House and a crosspartisan coalition of hawks call for such. (It is reckless folly that hawks like John McCain & ilk call for the West to arm Ukrainians.) 

A political, economic, or cultural severance between Ukraine and Russia would be devastating, especially for the Ukrainian working class. More than one-quarter of Ukrainian exports head to Russia, and more than one-quarter of Ukrainian imports come from Russia. To use this relationship as a political football is to risk plunging the Ukrainian economy into crisis, with most of the effects of that crisis then falling on working Ukrainians.

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As four-party talks begin on Thursday in Geneva, it is to be hoped that the emphasis is on diplomacy and cooperation; the drumbeat of war will only make it more difficult for a territorially unified, viable Ukraine to emerge. Nor can we accept a “solution” that is imposed upon Ukrainians by Europeans or Americans. The $27 billion lifeline given to Ukraine by the IMF, for example, comes with the attached strings of onerous austerity measures. (It is ordinary Ukrainians, for example, who will suffer the most under the new austerity measures as the floating national currency is likely to push up inflation, while spike in domestic gas prices will impact every household. Under the IMF conditions Kiev has to cut the budget deficit, increase retail energy tariffs, and shift to a flexible exchange rate.) Amid the bluffing, pandering, and posturing, it’s easy to forget that the lives, and livelihoods, of some 40 million Ukrainians are at stake—and that these are the people in whose interests the US, EU, and Russia are obliged to act.

It would be in the security interests of all if the four-party talks proceeded with negotiation roughly along lines of a stripped-down version of what Russia proposed a month ago: an end to NATO expansion to Ukraine and former Soviet republics; an agreement for a new federal constitution, agreed to by both East and West and with Ukraine remaining one state; and maintenance of the trading-partner relationship between Ukraine and Russia, regardless of which way—if any—Ukrainians decide to “lean.” And one proposal is also worth considering: bringing in UN peacekeepers during Ukraine’s next election (in which Ukrainians vote for Parliament and President, not just President as is currently planned).

These are times when we need fewer assertions, fewer definitive answers. We need more diplomacy, not less. The opportunity costs we’d pay for an armed Ukrainian adventure—failure to stem the arms race, failure to resolve the crisis in Syria, failure to engage Iran on nuclear issues—are too great. It’s important to recognize that the future of nations is rarely, if ever, determined by the intervention of outside actors. It’s not necessary for the US/NATO/EU to line up Ukraine as “one of us”; the same goes for Russia. Ukraine should be an independent player, nonaligned and not burdened by onerous conditions or threats made by outsiders who’ve chosen Ukraine as the place to wage an East-versus-West proxy battle.

Read Next: Stephen Cohen considers the worst case scenario in Ukraine.

George W. Bush Finds Apt Subject for Paintings—Dead Iraqi Kids—But Only at ‘The Onion’

George W. Bush

President George W. Bush pauses as he listens to a reporter’s question during a news conference. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

Earlier this month, on several occasions here or at my own blog or on Twitter, I complained about the fawning media coverage of George W. Bush, world famous painter. From the self-portraits in the shower, to his portrait of Putin, the paintings are amateurish—street fair quality at best—but that hardly halted the media orgy. 

More than once I mused that his true subjects should be dead Iraqi kids or wounded US veterans, not puppies or selfies. You didn't see this expressed in our media, however.

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Imagine how gratified I felt when I saw yesterday that my wish had come true, albeit from an unexpected, "not serious" (except deadly so in this case) source.

Thank god, The Onion goes there—where the mainstream would not—suggesting George W. Bush should be painting the ghosts of dead Iraqi children, or in their version, already is.  


George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere

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The Worst Case Scenario in Ukraine

Kiev, February 21, 2014

A demonstrator mans a barricade in Kiev, February 21, 2014 (Reuters/Baz Ratner)

Russia scholar and longtime Nation contributor Stephen Cohen joins John Batchelor to discuss the deepening crisis in Ukraine. He says that as the conflict escalates, so too does the possibility of a military confrontation between the United States-NATO and Russia: “It’s hard to imagine a civil war in Ukraine without the United States and NATO intervening on one side [and] Russia [intervening] on the other.” Cohen considers what it will take to avoid this worst-case scenario.

For more on the situation in Ukraine, listen to Cohen on another episode of The John Batchelor Show, and on The Thom Hartmann Program.

—David Kortava

Senator Manchin Defends Law Firm Accused of Concealing Black Lung Medical Evidence

Joe Manchin

Senator Joe Manchin (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

Only one day after the Center for Public Integrity’s reporting series on denials of black lung benefits to coal miners was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) defended the controversial law firm at the center of the investigation.

As he stepped to the podium of the National Western Mining Convention in Denver on Tuesday, Manchin heaped praise upon Jackson Kelly, a sponsor of the event and the law firm implicated in unethically concealing medical evidence of miners dying of black lung.

“I want to thank my dear friends at Jackson Kelly,” exclaimed the senator. In his remarks, Manchin also noted that his former staffer, Kelly Goes, is now an employee of the firm.

In a brief interview with Republic Report after his speech, Manchin was asked about Jackson Kelly’s conduct regarding black lung cases. He brushed aside criticism of the firm.

The Center for Public Integrity story revealed that Jackson Kelly has systemically denied coal miners black lung benefit claims by withholding unfavorable evidence and shaping the opinions of doctors called upon in court. CFPI Reporter Chris Hamby’s investigation “suggests that there has been a pattern and practice by lawyers at the Jackson Kelly law firm which has compromised the integrity of the black lung benefits program and potentially tainted numerous decisions adversely affecting coal miners and their survivors,” wrote Representatives George Miller (D-California) and Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut) in a letter to the Department of Labor last year.

“If the law firm is doing their job and we don’t like it, we’ve got to look at the rules and laws we have on the books,” said Manchin, after being asked by Republic Report about his praise of Jackson Kelly. “They’ve been a prestigious law firm for a long time in West Virginia. There’s good people that I know that work there and if there’s something that’s wrong and needs to be fixed or changed, it will be,” he continued.

A Jackson Kelly attorney named Douglas Smoot had his law license suspended in 2011 for one year after being accused of hiding evidence in a black lung case. Other Jackson Kelly attorneys have faced investigations over their conduct in regards to black lung cases. One retired judge who handled black lung cases reviewed documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity investigation and said the firm had been “really misleading the court.”

Manchin is a close ally to the coal industry. At the conference, he touted his new legislation that would block the EPA from implementing new regulations on coal power plants. Jackson Kelly, according to its website, has represented the coal industry since the mid-19th century.

As Public Campaign noted, Manchin has “received $50,825 from Jackson Kelly employees during his time in Congress, his seventh-largest donor.”

Manchin did not sign on to the letter from other congressional Democrats asking the Labor Department to investigate claims that Jackson Kelly improperly concealed medical evidence of black lung claims.

Yet Manchin told us that he is confident that any potential wrongdoing will be worked out.

“You can’t find people guilty before they go through the process. Are you accusing them of being guilty?” said Manchin. Asked again about the Center for Public Integrity report, Manchin replied, “I’m just saying, let’s see where it unfolds.”

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Watch the interview below:

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How Should Obama Respond to Putin’s Ukraine Provocations?

Russian flag in Crimea

A demonstrator waves a Russian flag in Crimea in March. (Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin)

Unless you’re deaf, dumb and blind, it’s obvious that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s obstreperous president, is running a major covert operation in eastern Ukraine, including the dispatch of a limited number of Russian special forces and support for pro-Russian militias there. It isn’t quite clear yet whether Putin is (a) preparing the ground for a Crimea-style takeover of part or all of Ukraine (unlikely), (b) trying to destabilize Ukraine so that it, and its Western allies, agree to the radical decentralization and federalization plan that Russia has demanded, or (c) making it clear that Ukraine ought not to link its political and economic future with the West, or else. But whichever it is, it’s a dangerous game. So how should President Obama respond?

There is, of course, a diplomatic solution—and within Ukraine itself, that means some sort of decentralization that allows eastern Ukraine some form of very limited autonomy. That would be a compromise between a strong central state in Kiev, in which the president appoints governors of regions, and the sort of neat-total autonomy that Russia favors.

The United States is very limited in its options. Militarily, there’s no real response that makes any sense whatsoever, and it appears that Obama gets that. Ukraine’s utterly disorganized armed forces are no match for the Russian army in any conceivable context, so the idea of sending either significant arms or even nonlethal military aid—“like body armor, night-vision goggles, communications gear and aviation fuel,” as proposed by Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Philip A. Karber—to Ukraine can’t possibly bolster Ukraine’s forces enough even to slow down either a Russian action to seize eastern Ukraine or a blitzkrieg into Kiev, if that’s what Putin is planning. Similarly, the idea—from a neocon-linked former American ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey—to deploy ground troops to Poland, the Baltic states and Romania would escalate the confrontation to no good end, since none of those nations are directly threatened by the Ukraine crisis and it would probably force Putin to escalate further.

So far, Obama has reportedly rejected both Gen. Clark’s recommendations and isn’t considering Jeffrey’s idea, but a further escalation by Putin would certainly force Obama to respond far more harshly than the limited array of sanctions announced so far. According to The Wall Street Journal, Obama is reviewing a range of responses, including greatly expanded economic sanctions and even the sort of military deployment that Ambassador Jeffrey calls for.

It should be pointed out that Ukraine is a sovereign country, and that whatever it does to protect its security and national integrity is its own business. In that context, the fact that CIA Director John Brennan paid a visit to Kiev—to howls of outrage from Moscow—or that Ukraine has decided to hire private contractors, including the former Blackwater, to help Kiev reassert control of cities in eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militants are acting up, isn’t ground for Russian complaints. The White House has properly endorsed Ukraine’s attempts to suppress the pro-Russian gangs in cities along the Russia-Ukraine border, although those efforts are weak and badly managed, given Ukraine’s overall chaotic state and limited resources. Still, so far it appears that Ukraine isn’t willing to shed a lot of blood in suppressing the pro-Russian actions, since that would only increase the enmity toward Kiev in eastern Ukraine and inflame things further—besides giving Russia a pretext to intervene further because of Putin’s flimsy and unsubstantiated claim that Kiev “fascists” are threatening ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

According to Josh Rogin and Eli Lake at The Daily Beast, the purpose of Brennan’s Kiev visit was to begin the process of sharing “real-time intelligence” with Kiev, though for what reason isn’t clear, since Ukraine can’t possibly withstand Russian military pressure. It’s possible that the United States will work more closely with Ukraine on deployments of Ukrainian forces in cities to the east affected by Russian covert ops.

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But the Ukraine crisis faces Obama with an exceedingly difficult challenge. He can’t afford to issue any red lines, such as the one he issued vis-à-vis Syria, since the United States simply does not have the wherewithal to confront Russian militarily in what is essentially Russia’s backyard, nor is the American interest in Ukraine significant enough to warrant a showdown. Critics of Obama, however, are pointing to Syria—where Obama has so far opted against war—as a sign of the president’s alleged weakness, adding that the Ukraine crisis is a Russian test of Obama’s will. However, as David Ignatius puts it in The Washington Post:

As President Obama looks at the Ukraine crisis, he sees an asymmetry of interests: Simply put, the future of Ukraine means more to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than it does to the United States or Europe. For Putin, this is an existential crisis; for the West, so far, it isn’t—as the limited U.S. and European response has demonstrated.

And Ignatius adds:

Obama doesn’t want to turn Ukraine into a proxy war with Russia. For this reason, he is resisting proposals to arm the Ukrainians. The White House thinks arming Kiev at this late stage would invite Russian intervention without affecting the outcome. The United States is providing limited intelligence support for Kiev, but nothing that would tilt the balance.

But the real meaning of the Ukraine crisis is that, unless the ongoing diplomacy resolves it in a compromise between Russia and the West, US-Russia relations will be in a deep freeze for many years to come, and that could affect a host of regional wars and crises, from Syria and Iraq to Iran and Afghanistan and beyond.

Read Next: Conn Hallinan on how ethnic tensions and economic crisis have strengthened Europe’s secession movements

Can China’s Workers Get Their Government to Follow Its Own Labor Laws?

Yue Yuen factory strike in Dongguan

(All photos from the Yue Yuen factory strike in Dongguan, courtesy China Labor Watch)

There are two parallel paths to justice that activists in China are pursuing right now: one in the streets, and one in the courts, and on both, workers are blazing a fresh trail of labor militancy.

China’s court system, famous for its show trials of rogue party operatives, may seem a bit too Kafkaesque as a venue for real civic change. But the trial of labor activist Wu Guijun offers a window into how the justice system is morphing from an instrument of the authoritarian state to a contested political terrain.

The government has charged him with “gathering a crowd and disturbing the order of public transportation” (a k a trouble-making) during a protest last May in the southern city of Shenzhen, led by hundreds of workers of the Hong Kong–owned furniture maker Diweixin.

Wu’s supporters argue that as the designated worker leader he actually tried to dissuade coworkers from engaging in more drastic actions. He had been facilitating negotiations with management over demands for compensation for the workers who would be affected by the planned closure of the plant (following the widespread trend of Chinese firms moving to poorer regions or countries to chase lower labor costs). In addition, advocates argue, the legal process has been marred by a biased investigation and dubious evidence.

Wu, who has been detained for about 300 days already, faces grim odds in the dock, like so many activists before him. But his case marks a different kind of turning point; his fellow activists see a chance to put the entire Chinese justice system on trial.

At an earlier hearing for the trial in February, CLB reported, Wu’s supporters made it clear that if the courts fail them, they would respond with direct action. When the judge, after a haphazard delay, insisted on only meeting with Wu's wife Zhou Yuzhi privately:

the crowd became furious and stormed into the court’s petitioning office. “It is a hoax! Why do they have to make us wait for more than one hour? We demand an explanation!” one worker shouted…. “We—the taxpayers—are paying their salaries to work, not to be absent!” another said.

A statement from his lawyer warned, “If there is any trace of justice then Wu Guijun cannot be found guilty.”

While Wu’s supporters agitated for due process, a dozen hospital security guards were on trial for similar transgressions—daring to demand fair treatment from their bosses. After staging a protest on the roof of the Guangzhou Chinese Medicine University Hospital, they were charged with “gathering a crowd to disturb social order” and detained for about fifty days, and then remained imprisoned. The workers say they sought the compensation the management owed after it had repeatedly failed to pay insurance payments and backwages, and that they took direct action only after their efforts to petition through their official union had been stonewalled for months. This week, all were convicted, with most sentenced to eight- or nine-month jail terms (including time served); several plan to appeal.

CLB described the trial as a political overreaction and “an exercise in damage control,” which aimed to “serve as a warning to others that those who escalate labour disputes into public protest could face jail time.”

Western media outlets have lately focused on the crackdown on liberal, educated reformers and human rights activists. The New Citizens movement, a loose network of high-profile anti-corruption activists, have made global headlines in recent weeks, as several leading activists have faced public-disorder charges for staging nonviolent demonstrations in 2012 and 2013. The gritty labor struggles at play in the trials of Wu and the security guards are less sexy for Western media, but nonetheless represent a social movement that resonates with an arguably much greater swath of the populace. They reflect rising tensions across China’s workforce as people grow more conscious of their collective rights, anxious about China’s economic volatility and the rising cost of living and aware that the legal system is structured to systematically disenfranchise the public and protect the elite. Disillusioned by endemic official corruption, many see no path to change other than direct action from the ground up.

This week, workers pushed the outer edge of that radicalism in the southern manufacturing hub of Dongguan. Tens of thousands have gone on strike at the Taiwanese-owned Yue Yuen Industrial shoe manufacturer, protesting the company’s alleged underpayments to the social insurance scheme and the workers’ housing fund. According to the US-based NGO China Labor Watch (CLW), the industrial action involved about 30,000 employees, despite a fierce crackdown on protests by riot police and several arrests.

Social insurance is a raw nerve for China’s factory workers. Along with China’s aggressive economic liberalization, the government recently consolidated social welfare programs such as pensions and healthcare. Employers, however, routinely fail to keep up with their financial obligations under this emergent social contract, while low-wage workers’ social needs have intensified.

In turn, Kevin Slaten of CLW noted via e-mail, while mass uprisings over insurance like the the Yue Yuen strike were rare a few years ago, “in the past year, we’ve seen an uptick in strikes in which workers are demanding arrears.” The trend, he adds, reflects not only “workers realizing their rights under the law,” but also a new policy enabling workers to transfer insurance payments to their home communities when they leave a job. This effectively decoupled workers’ entitlements from their workplace, giving them more autonomy as well as a greater stake in making sure their bosses pay their dues—which for Yue Yuen’s workforce, could total millions of dollars in arrears.

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The failed promise of social insurance may be feeding into growing militancy among Chinese workers, with industrial actions nationwide reaching a three-year high in March, according to CLB’s real-time strike tracker.

But if labor unrest is approaching a critical mass, how might that energy be channeled in the absence of an independent labor movement or electoral democracy? Beyond street demonstrations—which generally end with violence, arrest or firing—some activists are trying to carve out a space for dissent within the legal system by strengthening safeguards for labor rights.

For example, last month a group of labor scholars and legal advocates published a proposal for a major overhaul of China’s trade union law. Ideally, the law would strengthen protections against retaliatory firings of union organizers based on their collective bargaining and organizing activities. The bill would essentially expand the law’s protections for individuals to a broader principle of defending the right to organize and agitate collectively.

So will the legal system continue to be an instrument for enforcing silence, or will the activism in the streets begin filtering into China’s legal infrastructure? Though they had run afoul of authority in different ways, Wu Gujin, the security guards and the New Citizens movement have all been pulled into the courts because they wanted their own government to follow the law. That they have all been criminalized for seeking justice attests to the critical link between economic justice and political justice.

Workers are increasingly willing to fight out their labor battles in the streets, but victory will ultimately be measured by whether they can reclaim the edifice of the state—and force the justice system to work for, instead of against them.

Read Next: Meet the activist who gave his life to warn the public of Bangladesh’s labor crisis

Promoting a ‘Right to Heal’ From Fort Hood to Abu Ghraib

Soldier at Walter Reed

A soldier who was wounded in Iraq receives treatment at Walter Reed Medical Center. (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

 

The recent shootings of soldiers at Fort Hood and other US military bases have once again brought to public attention the challenge of making sure that soldiers returning from war zones find security and support at home. The Washington Post calls the pressures on veterans “the next war.” But whatever war comes next, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their consequences continue.

The exploding rates of suicide among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the escalating numbers of soldiers turning their weapons on each other as well as themselves, and the spread of PTSD all are linked to the wars themselves. Wars of aggression and occupation have an enormous, terrible effect on the young women and men ordered to fight them.

And that’s just on the US side. We also have a moral and legal responsibility to respond to the wars’ even more devastating impact on millions of Afghans and Iraqis.

Last March, a hundred or so people filled a Washington, DC, church, reprising a scene more common several years ago—an examination of the impact of the US war in Iraq. That night, the young soldiers of Iraq Veterans Against the War (and some of their parents) joined Iraqi women’s rights and labor leaders, along with US-based lawyers, epidemiologists and activists, to build a campaign demanding what they call the Right to Heal. The veterans’ demands begin with the urgent need to end the military’s practice of sending soldiers diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other related wounds back into battle. That need is linked directly to dealing with the suicides, homicides, domestic violence and other problems facing the high numbers of veterans returning from the post-9/11 wars with serious mental injuries.

But IVAW linked its demand for better care for US veterans to the need to respond to the deep destruction left in Iraq and Afghanistan—social, environmental and medical—that continues to plague those violence-riven countries.

American troops were withdrawn from Iraq two and a half years ago. But the nearly decade-long US occupation—which followed not only the 2003 invasion, but also the Pentagon’s 1991 war and twelve years of crippling US-led sanctions—destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure, despoiled the country’s environment and shredded its social fabric. The consequences of the US war are embedded in the shattered cities, polluted rivers, carcinogenic military burn pits and the bodies of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Iraqis, as well as of tens of thousands of US soldiers.

Meanwhile, in an all-too-rare front-page feature documenting the Afghanistan War’s ongoing impact on Afghans, The Washington Post recently dissected the consequences for the “rising number of children…dying from U.S. explosives littering Afghan land.” The Post set a scene similar to post-occupation Iraq: “As the U.S. military withdraws from Afghanistan,” it reported, “it is leaving behind a deadly legacy: about 800 square miles of land littered with undetonated grenades, rockets and mortar shells. The military has vacated scores of firing ranges pocked with the explosives. Dozens of children have been killed or wounded as they have stumbled upon the ordnance at the sites, which are often poorly marked.” Ominously, it adds, “Casualties are likely to increase sharply; the U.S. military has removed the munitions from only 3 percent of the territory covered by its sprawling ranges, officials said.”

Back at the Washington church, with film producer and longtime television host Phil Donahue moderating, IVAW members detailed their experiences. The mother of Joshua Casteel, an army interrogator at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison who died of a rare cancer in August 2012, described the toxic nature of the military’s burn pits—which are filled with plastics and other chemical materials—100 yards from where Joshua lived, worked and breathed thick black smoke for seven months in 2004.

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American environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani documented the cancers, birth defects and other health crises among Iraqis, particularly in areas where “the Iraqi public has been exposed to toxic compounds, such as lead and mercury.” She noted, “I would like to see large-scale environmental testing in Iraq.”

Iraqi women’s rights advocate Yanar Mohammed called for “reparations for families facing birth defects, areas that have been contaminated. There needs to be cleanup…. The US has to be held to account for this.”

Such accountability—to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan and to the US forces returning from years of war and occupation—would go much further to protect US troops and veterans than better gun control at Fort Hood.

 

Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on Fort Hood: a tragic reminder of the military's mental health crisis.

Bigots Will Learn: You’re Not Going to Scare Henry Aaron

Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron waves to the crowd during a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of his 715th home run. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The best sports biography of the last several years was, for my money, The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron, by Howard Bryant. The book makes the case that, in an age of cynicism, we need to study what exactly makes someone heroic, with Henry Aaron being Bryant’s particular profile in courage. What makes The Last Hero particularly compelling is that Bryant doesn’t quantify Aaron’s heroism as being measured by his 755 homeruns but by his ability to keep moving forward while resisting concentrated, poisonous doses of racist invective the likes of which few have ever had to endure. Aaron’s great crime, of course, was challenging the most hallowed record in sports, Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, while black. (The racists of 1974 were untroubled by the widespread belief in the baseball world of the 1920s that Babe Ruth, an orphan, was a black man “passing” as white.)

Aaron, as Bryant reveals, was always silent until he wasn’t. This man born in the Deep South from a family of sharecroppers, would on occasion uncork a smackdown to the collective racists in this country, like it was an 88 mph fastball over the middle of the plate. He was, pardon the cliché but it fits, a still water that ran deep.

Aaron, now 80 years old, was in the news again this week. We just passed the fortieth anniversary of his famous home run number 715 off of Al Downing and reporters readied the puff pieces, but Aaron was not in a puffy mood. In an interview with USA Today, Aaron spoke about why he still holds onto all of the hate mail and death threats he received while chasing down Ruth’s mark. He said he keeps them to remind himself “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”

Then Aaron, just like in his playing career, transgressed his image as a stoic who did not encroach on the world outside the diamond and spoke his mind.

“We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go in the country. The bigger difference is that back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.”

Mr. Henry Aaron, a man on a US postage stamp, just said that the children of the old school racists he tangled with, now have a home in the Republican Party. It is basically 1991 and it is Chuck D saying, “These days you can’t see who’s in cahoots, cause now the KKK wears three-piece suits.”

Forget for a moment the fact that I believe many of us are past the image of President Obama as someone who would be doing the right thing if only it weren’t for these Republicans. From immigration deportation to the drone war, the list of complaints against this administration on social justice grounds is very real. But consider the reality that a White House occupied by an African-American family has provoked a level of bigotry from the right that, no matter what Bill Kristol says, is undeniable. Consider how seeing that family subject to reservoirs of racism would resonate with someone of Aaron’s life experience. Yet above all, consider that Aaron’s main point was that much of the progress on racial issues since 1974 is illusory, and after he said so has been deluged with racist letters and phone calls. The Atlanta Braves organization reports that it has received “hundreds” of threats levied against Aaron. The only difference between 2014 and 1974 is that many of these threats are coming in e-mail form.

One of these lovely notes came from a person named “David” who vowed to burn his copy of Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero. (Given the content of The Last Hero, which discusses the history of racism in the United States for several chapters before even getting to Aaron, I wonder if “David” ever cracked the spine.) It seemed appropriate for me to actually reach out to Bryant and ask why it is that this 80-year-old, soft-spoken man, someone who never joined the Black Panthers or burned a flag, has been able to produce what can only be described as an Aaron Derangement Syndrome in the darkest corners of this country?

Bryant e-mailed me the following, and his observations bear repeated reading.

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“When Henry was playing, there were other people who said what he felt. Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali were more charismatic, better quotes than Henry on civil rights,” Bryant wrote. “But the reason he keeps getting all this mail and taking this abuse is because he’s unflinching. He sees the game better than the rest of us because he’s lived it long enough to know that once you get past the smiles and the handshakes, very little has really changed. Henry knows that if you wait long enough and say a little of the truth, the face behind the mask will reveal itself, just as it did Tuesday night. He’s not going to accommodate you. He’s going to stay quiet and let the silence speak for itself until the words can say it better.”

I do not personally believe that in the world of sports Henry Aaron really is “the last hero.” People from Richard Sherman to Britney Griner to Kain Colter are showing that heroism—as something more than a brand—can still exist in a cynical age. But I do believe that if this new generation of athletes is going to “advance the ball” of social justice, they should learn the manifest lessons from the life of this extraordinary individual. The bigots should also know, as if the last sixty years weren’t proof enough, you are simply not going to scare Henry Aaron.

 

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Lewis Black on Why He’s a Socialist—and Creationists Get the ‘Cosmos’ Parody They Deserve

Lewis Black

Lewis Black (Flickr/DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released)

A sentence I thought I’d never write: Comedian at National Press Club this week explains why he’s a socialist.

Yes, it happened on Monday, when Lewis Black, of stand-up notoriety and Daily Show sit-down “Back in Black” fame, appeared at the venerable DC venue, and offered this testimonial.

Yes, it was witty—he blamed his parents, for one thing (something I can’t do)—but also right on the mark in describing how fringe this is in America (he offers a shout-out to Bernie Sanders) and why it is should be regarded in a positive light as “enforced Christianity.” (My own socialist hero, of course, is Upton Sinclair.) Here’s a clip:

But it’s a good day for fun vids on the inter-tubes. Here’s the latest from Funny or Die, purporting to be the “equal time” episode for Cosmos demanded by creationists, and starring the wonderfully apt Timothy Simon—you know him as Jonah from Veep.

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Of course, everything can be explained in the Bible. And God made everything—except for gays (who made that choice themselves). His vehicle of choice for navigating the stars? A church mini-van.

Finally, just for laughs: The Amy Schumer show this week offers a send-up of Aaron Sorkin (and his Newsroom series) with Sorkin veteran Josh Charles.

 

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