Last week your humble correspondent learned, over a dry repast of catered chicken with some of our nation's most influential men, that unlike Canada and many other civilized democracies, we cannot have single-payer health care because Dennis Kucinich is short. I wonder what these luminaries would say about a new report from Save the Children showing that the United States compares poorly to other developed countries on an equally basic measure.
Thomas Friedman and other pundits worry -- rightly -- that America is not going to remain competitive in the global economy for much longer. But we're lagging behind in other ways, too. Save the Children's eighth annual Mother's Index ranks 141 countries, and found Sweden, among more developed countries, the best place to be a mother. The United States is not even in the top twenty. The rankings are based on criteria for women's well-being -- lifetime risk of maternal mortality, maternity leave benefits, ratio of female-to-male earned income, expected number of years of formal female schooling, female life expectancy at birth, percentage of women using modern contraception women's participation in national government, and percentage of births attended by skilled health care professionals -- as well as the country's score on the organization's Children's Index. (Italy, by the way, is the best place in the developed world to be a kid, while the United States ranks a disgraceful thirtieth.) The criteria for the Children's Index are: mortality rate for kids under five and percentage of children enrolled in school (apologies to home-schoolers, but this does tend to be a decent indicator of how children are faring in a society). Interestingly, among the least developed countries, Cape Verde is number one for both mothers and children. Malawi didn't do badly either -- maybe Madonna should take that kid back!
In other Mother's Day news, fourteen national women's groups -- representing a combined constituency of 10 million women, according to Wake Up Wal-Mart -- signed a letter to Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott asking him to bring an end to the discrimination and mistreatment endured by the company's female employees. The letter launched a Mother's Day campaign by Wake Up Wal-Martwhich included actions in at least 43 cities, and a "Million Moms Call" reaching out to over one million families asking them to pledge not to buy Mother's Day gifts at Wal-Mart. In New York state, Governor Spitzer -- in response to a dogged campaign by the United Federation of Teachers, New York State United Teachers (of which I'm a member because I teach at CUNY) and ACORN -- has issued an executive order granting over 60,000 government-subsidized family day care providers the right to form a union and collectively bargain. That's great news for those hard-working women, who make about $2 an hour, and for the low-income mothers who send their children to them -- child-care workers who are better paid have access to further education and professional development, and can do a better job.
Michael Moore meet Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff. I think you'd both agree that the current US policy toward Cuba is the "dumbest policy on the face of the earth...It's crazy." (Note to rabid FOXers Gibson, Hannity and O'Reilly--those are Wilkerson's, not Moore's, words from a 2004 interview in GQ magazine.) What is Moore guilty of, according to the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asssets Control? Taking ailing 9-11 rescue workers in March to Cuba for a segment in his soon-to-be-released healthcare documentary "Sicko." But what he's really guilty of in the Bush Administration's sicko eyes is exposing the insanity of the US trade embargo restricting travel to Cuba--an embargo which has damaged families, violated the constitutional right to travel, harmed US business interests and the advancement of US security interests such as drug interdiction. As The Nation's just-published special issue on Cuba (and Moore's trip) makes crystal clear --it's high time to bring Cuba policy into the 21st century. Lift the embargo! Normalize relations!
The New York Times' Style section is always good for a laugh -- nothing lights up my day like a breathlessly earnest piece on the new fanny pack masquerading as serious journalism. But the newspaper outdid itself yesterday with "The Collarbone's Connected to Slimness," a delightful meditation on the latest symptom of mad fashion-cow disease: skinny clavicles. Tormented by this season's roomy trapeze-style dresses -- the kind that would more easily accomodate a normal-sized (as in fat, fat, fat!) woman -- anorexic fashionistas are turning to their protruding collar-bones to establish their skinny cred:
"Sharply outlined collarbones say 'Don't let this tent dress fool you: Underneath it all, this girl can fit into a sample size.' 'The clothing threatens to make you look overweight and so you need a certain body to undo that threat,' said Virginia Blum, a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, who has written extensively on women and beauty. 'In that clothing, one has to find a way of revealing the authentically thin body.'"
Ah, if only authentic thin came so easy. Sure, my dear, you can count every vertebrae on your Darfur-esque bosom, but what about those gross rolls of fat you're hiding next to your liver and heart? Doctors have identified a new peril in the obesity epidemic: "TOFIs," folks who are "thin outside, fat inside." Worse news for the celery-chewing crowd is that they're the most likely to be secret fatties, since "people who maintain their weight through diet rather than exercise are likely to have major deposits of internal fat, even if they are otherwise slim." And so it is that most Sumo wrestlers are much healthier and "skinnier" inside than the average super-model.
Not that it matters to women who care more about what they're buried in than living long -- which in any case only means getting really, really old. How gross is that?!
My 10-year-old son is triumphant because he thinks he has me in a bind. He knows, from frequent dinnertime conversations, that I'm keen on Obama. And he assumes, because I wear my feminism on my sleeve, that I'll feel obligated to vote for Hillary so that we can celebrate the first woman president of the United States.
"You'll have to vote for her because she's a girl," he taunts.
"Woman." I correct, barely listening. How did I raise such an annoying child? "Eat your broccoli," I tell him. "I'm voting for Obama."
"She'd be the first girl president ever," he sing-songs, as if he were dangling a piece of Godiva bitter-sweet chocolate in front of me.
"Woman president," I correct. "And I like Obama."
My son thinks about this, chews his broccoli, speaks with his mouthful: "He'd be the first African-American president," my son tells me.
"Can I be excused to watch The Simpsons?"
"Are you just voting for him so we can have the first African American president?" he asks.
"No," I say. "I like him. He seems smart to me."
"So even though we could have the first girl president ever, you're not going to vote for Hillary?"
"Woman," I correct. "Yes."
"Can I be excused now," he asks. "The Simpsons is practically over."
"Drink your milk," I say. No Socratic grilling at the dinnertable, I think.
Then, he gets vindictive, super sly. "Did you know Obama goes to church? He's very religious."
"Go watch The Simpsons," I say. He must have seen the annoying New York Times article by Jodi Kantor last week, "A Candidate, His Minister and the Search for Faith". Why do they run these articles on the front page where children can see them--and read those salacious headlines?
"He talks about God all the time in his speeches."
"He believes in a separation of church and state," I say. And then, I must explain what that is--and I do it so well that I almost persuade myself that I believe Obama believes this is a truly sacrosanct divide. I just wanna believe.
"So you don't want a woman president?" he says, a dog with a bone.
"I do, but..."
"What if Lisa Simpson were running? She's super smart. What if she were running against Obama?"
"I'd vote for that girl in a second!" I agree. "She is super smart."
"Woman," he corrects, and ducks out of the room to watch his show
"She's eight!" I shout after him--and wonder if that children's military academy that's always advertising a disciplined respect for authority in the back of The New York Times magazine has any openings?
LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair will not step down until late June. But, with his announcement that he is leaving politics after ten years as the leader of Britain's government, the national media has already shifted over to speculation about the past-his-sell-by-date prime minister's determination to make a fortune on the international lecture circuit -- "The Blair Rich Project," the BBC has dubbed it -- and on his successor.
Blair's slow exit strategy should benefit his long-time man in waiting, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who will spend the coming week's campaigning for a coronation.
Brown hopes to secure the Labour Party leadership without a fight and then assume the prime ministership on Blair's exit. If he does so -- as is likely -- it will be the end of one of the most extended periods of understudy in British political history.
Brown, who famously cut a deal in the mid-199Os to let Blair serve first as prime minister, inherits a difficult circumstance. Indeed, the new issue of Britain's Spectator magazine features a cover headline, "Over to You, Gordon," illustrated by Blair flashing a middle finger at Brown.
While Britain itself is more prosperous and functional than when Blair and Brown took over after 18 years of Conservative misrule by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, the willingness of Blair to act as "George Bush's poodle" in foreign affairs has taken its political toll not just from the sitting prime minister but from his Labour Party -- which is at its lowest point in the polls in decades.
So determined is Blair's party to distance itself from him that, on the day the prime minister announced he was retiring, his "New Labour, New Britain" slogan was struck from the party website. It was replaced with the word "Labour" and the traditional red rose of the left.
But it will take more than a rose to change the fortunes of a party that has seen its appeal sink since Blair signed on for George "I will miss you, Tony" Bush's war of whim.
Even the conservative Times of London ridiculed Blair's exit with a cartoon that had the prime minister's teeth forming the letters "I-R-A-Q."
"I can't help but feel I'm about to witness the passing of the most gifted British politician of my adult lifetime," explains journalist Jonathan Freedland, echoing popular sentiment. "And I can't help but feel that Iraq means he squandered the opportunity those gifts gave him."
Historian Eric Hobsbawm offers a similar assessment: "Tony Blair, a gifted but unthinking politician perfectly suited to the media age, will be remembered for winning three elections, but failing to build 'new Labour,' for Iraq, and -- not impossibly -- for breaking up the United Kingdom. In spite of a very respectable domestic record, his period of government demoralized Labour's traditional supporters and antagonized the liberal/progressive educated classes."
Can Brown, who as the Cabinet member charged with overseeing the economy crafted the budgets that did so much to revitalize education, health care and the infrastructure of Britain, gain popular credit for the Blair government's domestic successes while distancing himself from its foreign-policy blunders?
"I'd be surprised if he didn't take some bold initiative," says Tony Benn, a Labour stalwart who served more than five decades in parliament and was a member of the Cabinets of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan before emerging as the leader of the party's broad left. "And he would be wise to take it with regard to Iraq."
Benn, like most Labour Party members, is passionately opposed to Britain's role in Iraq. Announcing the withdrawal of British troops from what's left of Bush's "coalition of the willing" would strengthen Brown's hand as a contestant for the party leadership, which he must secure in order to serve as prime minister, says Benn, and it would also make him a stronger contender in the next national election.
"For the first time in my life, the public is to the left of what is called a Labour government," says Benn, who is frequently ranked as one of the most popular and respected figures in British politics. "Brown needs to steer the party to the left if he wants to reconnect with the grassroots, not just the Labour grassroots but the electoral grassroots."
Benn holds out some small hope for Brown. Unlike Blair, the man who is positioned to be be Britain's next prime minister has deep roots in the Labour Party's Scottish heartlands. While Blair's background was Tory blue, Brown's is Labour red. And there has always been a sense within Labour circles that Brown is a bit more committed to socialism -- with its emphasis on economic equality, social justice and peace -- than to the neo-liberal economic policies and nec-conservative international policies of Blair and his "New Labour" experiment.
Brown seemed to signal his lean to the left with a high-profile declaration that he would like to style himself as something of a British Bobby Kennedy -- a man of the establishment determined to stand up for the disenfranchised.
"Unlike Blair, Gordon Brown does have good Labour roots," says Benn. "He understands socialism in ways that Blair never did and I think he respects the traditions of the party a little more. His writings and some of his speeches certainly suggest that he has more depth. But, after ten years of New Labour, in which Brown was an active if perhaps not always enthusiastic participant, he is going to have signal that he intends to set a new course."
Benn remains especially dubious about Brown's corporate-friendly economic strategies -- even if they are paired with significant social investment -- and about whether the potential prime minister really will break with Bush on Iraq and other foreign policy issues. As such, Benn supports efforts by the Labour left to mount a leadership challenge to Brown. A pair of parliamentarians, John McDonnell and Michael Meacher, have both announced challengers. Meacher has a good deal of support from left-wing members of the party caucus in parliament, while McDonnell has obtained a decent measure of backing from union members and grassroots party members. McDonnell's book, "Another World Is Possible: A Manifesto for 21st Century Socialism" has been widely circulated in party circles. As of now, however, it is not clear whether either man has the necessary support from Labour's parliamentary caucus to force a leadership fight
Even if a leadership vote is scheduled, neither Meacher nor McDonnell -- who have struggled to reach agreement that would see the weaker of the two stand down in order to strengthen the left's challenge -- is likely to upset Brown. The power of incumbency is strong, and the challengers do not have Brown's stature. But Benn hopes that Labour will see a leadership fight. "It will do Brown good to have to campaign for the leadership," he says. "Blair leaves as a man who is broadly seen as having broken faith with Labour and the country. Fighting and winning a leadership vote would, I think, help Brown to establish himself as something more than a Blairite -- which, of course, he needs to do."
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
"Arise then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be of water or of tears!" So begins the original Mother's Day proclamation of 1870, written by Julia Ward Howe, who also authored "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as an anti-slavery activist in 1862.
In a new video by Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films, in collaboration with CODEPINK, Gloria Steinem explains the original intent behind Ward Howe's Mother's Day idea: "Mother's Day really was in its origin an anti-war day, an anti-war statement. Julia Ward Howe was sickened by what had happened during the Civil War--the loss of life, the carnage. And she created Mother's Day as a call for women all over the world, to come together, and create ways of protesting war, of making a kind of alternate government that could finally do away with war as an acceptable way of solving conflict."
"Say firmly: 'We will not have questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy, andpatience….'"
The video renews the original Mother's Day call for women's leadership in pursuing peace, offering support for the organization No More Victims as a concrete way to take action and help Iraqi children who have been wounded in the war.
Alfre Woodard explains her motivation to take part in the video and support this Mother's Day renewal: "My mother used to say all the time, ‘I look after people's kids, because one day I know somebody will look after my kids. I feed people's kids, because I know somebody one day will feed my kids.' That informs a lot of who I am as a mother. That I know I'm not only parenting Mavis and Duncan, but I'm responsible for every child that comes through."
"Let them meet first as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace… to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace."
Women are indeed taking action this Mother's Day to "promote the great and general interests of peace" as Ward Howe advocated nearly 150 years ago. The Peace Alliance will be promoting H.R. 808--Representative Dennis Kucinich's legislation that would create a Department of Peace and Nonviolence. The bill now has 65 cosponsors and on Friday "Peace Pies" will be delivered to 150 Senators and Representatives from 38 states to encourage them to sign onto the bill. (A pie will be delivered to Sen. Hillary Clinton at her New York City office at 11:00 am.) There will be a sliver missing from each pie, representing less than 1 percent of the federal discretionary budget required to establish the proposed cabinet-level department.
Similar efforts to create ministries of peace are taking place throughout the world, including in England, Italy, Israel, Japan, and Canada. Here in the US the annual cost would be less than the current cost of just one month of war, according to Peace Alliance Executive Director, Dot Maver.
"Julia Ward Howe was a visionary," Maver says. "The Peace Alliance and each of the 50 individual state campaigns are working to establish a US Department of Peace to help make her dream of a world without war a reality."
"Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?" Ward Howe wrote in a journal entry.
CODEPINK certainly will continue to "interfere" in these matters of war. Its activists will be in DC on Thursday to lobby Congress on the Bush War and the Defense Budget, and also attend some notable hearings including Rep. John Murtha's on Contracting in Iraq (where Robert Greenwald and Nation contributor Jeremy Scahill are scheduled to testify). Throughout the weekend there will be theatre, film, discussions, a "Rock the Media" event, receptions, and other activities to promote peace and reinvigorate the original intention of Mother's Day.
The weekend will culminate with a Kids Peace March and Festival on Sunday, and a "Mother of A March" on Monday – when Cindy Sheehan calls on all mothers to surround Congress and demand an end to the occupation.
"From the bosom of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own, it says ‘Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.'"
Chocolates are great, and should be given frequently and generously to mothers, partners and friends alike. But there is nothing – nothing – sweeter than peace. Julia Ward Howe understood that, and this weekend we mothers resolve once again to pursue her cause.
The process of the handover from Prime Minister Tony Blair toChancellor Gordon Brown has long been scripted. Act I began with the thrashedlocal elections--Labour lost councils all over the countryand the Scottish National Party became the largest party in theScottish Parliament. Brown wanted Blair to take responsibility for that.
Act II was Blair's announcement this morning that he will step down June 27. Act III will be Blair's endorsement of his rival, nemesis and next-doorneighbour, which should take place some time tomorrow. And Act IV willbe Brown's coronation in the summer.
The fact that it was written so far in advance gives some indication ofhow much the British people have been excluded from the whole process.This is no morality play. The rivalry between the two men has nothingto do with politics and everything to do with personal ambition--thedenouement of a decade of midlife crisis played out on theinternational stage. This morning was the decisive moment because now there can be noturning back.
Blair is the first British leader to leave without having been ousted byhis own party or the voters. In truth, he jumped before he was pushed.Iraq alienated him from his Labour base while a new generation of Toryleader started to win back disaffected Conservatives and woo thecenter. He had become a liability.
But Brown will inherit atarnished crown. The local election results bear witness to adeep-seated disaffection among the electorate. Interest rates are goingup. Iraq is not going away. The electorate want a change in policies.Instead they are getting a change in personnel. The best thing Browncould do is withdraw British troops from Iraq immediately. That wouldestablish a break with the past and be a popular move. It is alsounlikely.
The best thing that the Labour party could do is produce aviable candidate with an alternative, progressive agenda to challengeBrown's ascendancy. This is also unlikely.
With its democratic leversbroken and what is left of its membership utterly depressed the partyhas become not a place of ideas but an electoral machine--much likethe Democrats.
So the actors change but the narrative trajectoryremains the same--a long-scripted and long-running tragedy.
So much City Council legislation -- whether in New York or other cities -- is essentially performance art, even if its intentions are progressive. You know the genre -- banning the N-word, declaring a "hate-free" or "nuclear-free" zone, or that such and such city -- or small town in Vermont -- is against the war in Iraq. Stuff that makes people feel good, maybe helps raise some "awareness," but doesn't change anyone's life significantly, or even reshape reality in any way. That's why it's refreshing to see New York City Council members Eric Goia and Rosie Mendez introduce the "Responsible Restaurant Act," which will improve compliance with minimum wage and other labor laws in the city's restaurant industry. Better enforcement will also help restaurants who do obey the law remain in business -- by making life more difficult for those who are trying to maintain a competitive advantage by stiffing their workers.
If you visit New York much, especially outside the major tourist areas, you've probably noticed that the restaurants are one of the city's greatest attractions. But the people who bring you that great dining experience aren't treated very well. As in much of the low-wage, service sector nationwide -- particularly in industries employing a lot of immigrants -- violations of minimum wage, overtime, discrimination and other laws are common in New York's restaurants, according to a studyby the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC, a workers' center) and the New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition. The bill, designed in part by the Brennan Center for Justice, which has authored many of the living wage laws now sweeping the land, would require the city to treat labor violations the same way it treats health code violations -- that is, harshly. Health code violations, if left unaddressed, bring the scarlet letter of humiliating public notices in front of the shop, and can ultimately cost restauranteurs their operating permits. It should be difficult to argue against this reform since it is really about stricter penalties to strengthen existing laws -- if the restaurant owners try to fight it, they will look as if they want to keep violating the law.
The bill is part of a wide range of strategies by restaurant workers in New York City wishing to improve their lives. Another, started by a coalition of restaurant, deli and other service workers, is a campaign with the inspired name Justice Will Be Served! which has been, among other things, picketing employers for -- among many other offenses -- paying employees less than $2 an hour and locking them out when they try to organize.
Meanwhile, yesterday Maryland became the first stateh to enact a living wage law for state contractors.The national movement for paycheck justice continues.
What's more surprising about Robin Aitken's diatribe Can We Trust the BBC? is that it's taken this long for some disgruntled ex-BBC type to write a apoplectic rant tarring his former employer as the leading light of a vast leftwing conspiracy.
That's a full six years after Bernard Goldberg, the ex-CBS producer, made conservatives across America giddy with self-righteousness with his 2001 bestseller,Bias. But Aitken's tome isn't getting the same kind of play. In fact, according to Amazon, most people (83 percent) who check out Aitken end up buying Goldbreg's Bias instead.
Maybe the problem with Aitken's book is not so much it's content but the timing. His litany of predictable complaints against the BBC include: not-so-secret communist sympathies; really, really liking the Palestinians; and, shock and horror, opposing the Iraq war. And what a terrible disservice that has turned out to be to the British viewing public. As even Goldberg ought to admit, the liberal bastions of our media -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN -- knew better than to commit the cardinal sin of questioning our great leader in the run up to the war.
The reasons for their good behavior were recently explained by former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of CNN, Walter Isaacson, who told Bill Moyers: "[There wasn't] direct pressure from advertisers, but big people in corporations were calling up and saying, 'You're being anti-American here.' ... So we were caught between this patriotic fervor and a competitor [FOX] who was using that to their advantage; they were pushing the fact that CNN was too liberal that we were sort of vaguely anti-American."
So what's a good corporate news channel to do except roll over and play dead. And they say privatization doesn't work.
BBC has its share of problems -- too elitist, bureaucratic, and essentially pro-establishment -- and yeah, it does tilt left. But there's a huge difference between having progressive sympathies that shape your choice of stories, and a rightwing ideology that fundamentally distorts how you report them. The problem with Fox is not that its conservative, but that it often has so little connection to those pesky things we call facts. Who cares about bias, that's just bad journalism!
BTW, you should check out the Moyers show on the post-9/11 media meltdown on the local PBS channel if possible. Or if you missed the airing, the transcript and video are available here. I guarantee it's a lot more illuminating than reading some guy froth at the mouth about the Big Bad BBC.