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Blinded Me with Balance: How the US Media Get Science Coverage Wrong (& How They Can Get It Right)

Fox on Climate Change

Fox New coverage of the climate change debate. (screen grab)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My new Nation column is called “ Don’t Know Much About History .” The subhed is: “The architects of our foreign-policy disasters would prefer we simply forget the past.” Guess what it’s about…

Here are the Alter-reviews:

1) The Alvin Brothers

2) CSN and CSNYY

3) Loudon Wainwright and David Bromberg

4) “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Nutty Professor”

5) New Jewish history and biography from Indiana University Press

1) Being a serious fan of the Blasters, I went to see the Alvin Brothers, Phil and Dave, promote their first studio album in thirty years, "Common Ground: Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy." The brothers have obviously not always gotten along so great, but two years ago when Phil was touring in Spain, he went to a local hospital for an infection from an abscessed tooth. Dave was informed that he was dead, and then informed that irreversible brain damage had caused his throat to swell virtually closed, his heart stopped and his vital signs flat-lined.

Anyway, Phil is somehow fine now—he loves his Spanish doctor--and the experience inspired both men to suck it up and start recording and touring together again. At the City Winery show, Dave did most of the talking, but was (to me, anyway) surprisingly deferential to Phil. Repeatedly he referred to the Blasters as Phil’s band, in which he briefly played and sang, (even though he wrote almost all their great material). True, Phil has a great voice—his version of “Please, Please, Please” delivered on its nearly impossible promise, but Dave is the genius. Highlights of the show included “Border Radio” and Leiber and Stoller’s “One Bad Stud” and of course, the instant classic “What’s Up With Your Brother,” but not, I say disappointedly, “American Music.” They were backed up by one of Dave’s bands. I’ve not gotten the cd yet but it can’t be anything but totally excellent. And if you want to hear more of their story, check out the interview they did with Terry Gross and listen to the new cd, upon which Phil sounds really terrific, though when you load it into iTunes, it comes up as just “Dave Alvin.”

2) Rhino’s CSNY 74 box set is one of the two big historical items of summer. (The other one is the complete 1971 Allman Brothers Fillmore shows.) I’m not saying that any cd package could be worth this wait—forty years is an awfully long time—but it is beautifully packaged and incredibly rich, including in newish material that has even bypassed most of the best-circulated bootlets. The audio is a pristine sounding 40 song set, divided between acoustic and electric sets and the video has 8 performances on it. I got the bluray audio, which sounds incredible, especially given the circumstances of the recording. And the 188 page booklet is well-written as well and generous, in terms of data and and photos, well beyond the call of duty. Fourteen year old yours truly bought tickets to the 77,000 person Roosevelt Raceway show with the Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell that September but I could not find a ride and so I had to sell them. Perhaps that was ok, since it ended up being a 12-hour show and began 3 hours early. But on these recordings, the band is terrific despite the fact that they could hardly speak to one another and were constantly worried about getting ripped off. (It was perhaps the first outdoor stadium tour—at least they say it was.) The guitar work of Stephen and Neil especially is one of the under-rated pleasures of a decidedly over-written era. (I guess coke overconsumption does not interfere with great guitar work.) It’s really superior in every way to 4 Way Street—every way except for the fact that it took four damn decades to arrive.

In celebration of the set, but also because they like to, CSN (minus Y) played three nights at the Beacon recently. I caught the opening show, which was surprisingly titled toward new material. Much of it was first-rate, though I find it difficult to enjoy music the first time I hear it. Stills’ guitar was just as solid as ever, backed up by Shane Fontayne, who has calmed down quite a bit since he played with Bruce, thankfully. The harmonies were (just about) as nice and vibes actually better than ever. The music, of course, is timeless (even without Y). These guys are a really good argument for getting old—though not such a good one for being young and famous and rich. Oh and they’re good sports too. Check out this Jimmy Fallon appearance if you’ve not already.

3) I saw two old reliables at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett David Bromberg and Loudon Wainwright, well, not together. Loudon’s show was whatever the WASPish word is for “mispucha” performance featuring Martha Wainwright and Lucy and Suzzy Roche. Loudon is just an amazing fellow for the way he has created this extended family and turned it into art and gotten everybody to go along, despite well, quite a few actions and undertakings that would have daunted—or perhaps even torn lesser families asunder. Everybody sounded great, especially Suzzy, upon whom I have a crush now going on about 36 years. Loudon looks distinguished with a white beard and his new stuff sounds like his old stuff, which is to say, smart and funny. The annual appearance in Amagansett gives the rest of us a chance to be glad we have our families and not his—albeit without the talent. You can hear him singing about his dog, here. The new album Haven't Got The Blues (Yet) will arrive in September

And since returning to performing live after 22 (or so) of retirement, David Bromberg and his band continue to offer a continuing master class in musical versitility, craftmanship, showmanship and good fun. It was a thrill to be so close to the stage at the Talkhouse and watch the man’s fingers move up and down those frets with equal parts imagination and self-discipline. Everyone in the band is terrific and if they’re not exactly tight, they make up for it in spades with chops and good humor. The material, as always, was first rate and Bromberg gets funnier as he gets older with that deadpan delivery and the now properly aged white blues voice. Go see these guys if you get the chance. Trust me. And the newish, but rather oldish sounding sort of ur-David Bromberg album is called “Only Slightly Mad,” if that’s as close as you can get. More here

4) On the merchandise front, there’s a brand new Criterion collection bluray/dvd package of “A Hard Day’s Night.” I shouldn’t really have to say more. It’s funny, sure, and creative and fun as hell. Andrew Sarris called it “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” In the documentary, Roger Ebert, who says he’s seen the movie 25 times, calls it “essentially orgasmic” today and compares it to “Casablanca” as well as Welles’ masterpiece. Well, OK. Most interestingly, from a historical viewpoint, I think the boys were already approaching, perhaps had already approached their melodic (through certainly not creative) peak with “All My Lovin’,” “Can’t ` Love,” “If I Fell, and especially, “I Should Have Known Better,”—an absolutely perfect song. Most people don’t think this happened until much later, but the proof is here. And now it’s got a gorgeous new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with three audio options—a monaural soundtrack as well as newly created stereo and 5.1 surround mixes supervised by sound producer Giles Martin at Abbey Road Studios—presented in uncompressed monaural, uncompressed stereo, and DTS-HD Master Audio on the Blu-ray. I learned a lot from the “making of” documentary – “You Can’t Do That”: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night,” a 1994 documentary by producer Walter Shenson including an outtake performance by the Beatles--which demonstrates, to an amazing degree, the casualness of the Beatles’ collective genius; one of the greatest of great things to happen in the twentieth century, or at least in my lifetime. [Did you know John and Paul wrote the title song pretty much to order and did so overnight because they needed a title song set to that title? I think they could have called it “You Can’t Do that” which was the song they cut from the band’s performances and was made available for the first time in this terrific documentary] Were I more a religious (and less grammatical) person, I would call them a miracle. (Funnily, Phil Collins compares it to the Old Testament.)

Plus that, you get all this:

– Audio commentary featuring cast and crew (dual-format only)

 In Their Own Voices, a new piece combining 1964 interviews with the Beatles with behind-the-scenes footage and photos

– Things They Said Today, a 2002 documentary about the film featuring Lester, music producer George Martin, screenwriter Alun Owen, and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (dual-format only)

– Picturewise, a new piece about Lester’s early work, featuring a new audio interview with the director (dual-format only)

– The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), Lester’s Oscar-nominated short (dual-format only)

– Anatomy of a Style, a new piece on Lester’s methods (dual-format only)

– New interview with author Mark Lewisohn (dual-format only)

– PLUS: An essay by critic Howard Hampton and excerpts from a 1970 interview with Lester (dual-format only)

And being a longtime Francophile, I’m not ashamed to say that Jerry Lewis’s masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor” (1963), is one of my all-timers. The new Blu-ray/DVD combo, the box includes excerpts from the “Nutty Professor” script (written by Mr. Lewis and Bill Richmond); a hardcover selection of “Nutty Professor” storyboards; a facsimile of “Instruction Book for Being a Person,” the slim volume Mr. Lewis wrote, had bound and distributed to the movie’s cast and crew; a CD of 12 “phony phone calls” made by Mr. Lewis between 1959 and 1972; DVDs of “Cinderfella” (1960), a Lewis vehicle directed by Frank Tashlin but revised in the editing by its star; and the 1962 film “The Errand Boy”. So there’s that. I saw Jerry speak last year at the 92nd Street Y. It was one of the weirdest nights of my life. But the news was that he repeatedly denied that he was playing Dean in TNP, but like so much of what he said that night, it was nonsense.

5) I’ve been doing a lot of research in Jewish history of late and it leads me to want to write a short thank-you note to Indiana University Press, which, as scholars of the topic are well aware, punches way above its weight—or the weight of almost any other press in this category. I’ve had the occasion to spend some time with three recent publications of unique and significant value in recent weeks. They are The Radical American Judaism of Mordecai M. Kaplan by Mel Scult, an emeritus professor at Brooklyn College, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence by my good friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held and In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine by Jeffrey Veidlinger, who teaches history and literature at the University of Michigan. Scult has already written a biography of Kaplan and so is able to combine his history with an inquiry into the meaning and (continueing relevance of his thought; though, I would argue that defines the beliefs of most American Jews, though precious few are aware of this. Rabbi Held’s book is strictly a theological examination of Heschel’s thought and a demanding one at that. It will no doubt reward the careful reading it requires. Heschel has become a kind of popular symbol of Jewish political liberalism in the sixties but not only is this misleading as matter of history, it does not begin to do justice to the religious and theological context out of which this action—“praying with his feet” as he called it—arose. Held does that and much more. I’ve not had time to delve into Veidlinger’s book yet, but its reviews have been superlative.

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Blinded Me with Balance: How the U.S. Media Gets Science Coverage Wrong (& How It Can Get It Right)
by Reed Richardson

The press, as a rule, has never been an institution that spends a lot of time looking inward. Deeper-level questions about how it covers an issue or a topic rarely rise to the level where they’re allowed outweigh the exigencies of today’s deadlines and headlines. Journalism is the so-called first draft of history, after all, with heavy emphasis on the word “draft.” And such a granular, ephemeral emphasis on the here and now is ill-suited to noticing larger, long-gestating changes in a story or narrative and incorporating those changes into one’s reporting.

All this is to say that what the BBC has undertaken in the past few years is quite incredible. For a global news organization to publicly admit that its coverage of a critical news topic was sub-standard is remarkable in its own right. But then for it to devote exceedingly precious resources—both time and money—to better understand the subject matter and how it can be covered more accurately is, well, almost unheard of. (That the BBC is a publicly-funded news trust rather than a subsidiary of a large profit-driven multinational no doubt allows it to engage in this kind of editorial self-examination, but I digress.)

This past week, the BBC released the final installment of its multi-year review, the focus of which primarily centered on how well the network fulfilled its mission of impartially covering science. After years of inquiry, which included commissioning an independent analysis of its science coverage by academics and hosting numerous in-house science tutorials for 200 of its senior staff, the BBC came to grips with reality. In doing so, it belatedly joins what was already a widespread acceptance of climate change in the European media . Which is why the BBC’s common-sense conclusions should be required reading in newsrooms across the U.S.:

“[I]mpartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, which may result in a ‘false balance’. More crucially it depends on the varying degree of prominence such views should be given. In this respect, editorial decisions should be guided by where the scientific consensus might be found on any given topic, if it can in fact be determined. […]

“This does not mean that critical opinion should be excluded. Nor does it mean that scientific research shouldn’t be properly scrutinised. The BBC has a duty to reflect the weight of scientific agreement but it should also reflect the existence of critical views appropriately. Audiences should be able to understand from the context and clarity of the BBC’s output what weight to give to critical voices.”

These conclusions, the BBC goes on to note, are of particular importance when covering climate change and evolution, where there exists overwhelming scientific agreement on the basic facts. Going forward, BBC says that it will take care to give “due weight” to scientific theories without being bound to offer an equal counterpoint where none is merited. Imagine that, a media organization thinking first and foremost about the mission of informing readers rather than maintaining a contrived veneer of political neutrality.

It’s just the kind of fresh thinking the media could use here in the U.S. Here, sadly, TV news networks are still actively trolling for climate deniers to put on the air. As Media Matters documented two weeks ago, a clumsy editor at CNBC accidentally outed that network’s attempts at providing a friendly platform for climate-change-is-a-hoax shtick . This disregard for the facts isn’t much of a surprise, however, as CNBC routinely gives climate change deniers a majority of airtime on the issue.

Over at Fox News—to no one’s surprise—newsroom leadership has long taken a dim view of the scientific consensus on climate change and insists on giving “critics” equal—if not more—coverage. Or, as then Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon put it in afrantic 2010 email memo to his staff:

“…we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.” [emphasis in original]

There is a kind of audacious, Orwellian purity to Sammon’s warning: “it is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as fact.” But it fits perfectly with a cable network whose ultimate purpose isn’t to present facts to its viewers so much as it is to package an alternate reality for them. To assert there is a climate change “debate,” as Sammon put it, isn’t just a feature of Fox News, though. It’s standard practice among a wide swath of the establishment media that seeks intellectual shelter in equivocating, on-the-other-hand coverage. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that Fox News’ climate change coverage was misleading 72% of the time, but also that CNN’s was too nearly one-third of the time. MSNBC’s coverage, by contrast, was rated as accurate by the UCS nearly all of the time. And lest you think it’s just TV news doing this, think again. Major newspapers and wire services do it too.

Scientists have certainly noticed the media’s propensity for false balance. In anaggregating survey of nearly 400 climate scientists , published in 2010 by German scientists Dennis Bray and Hans von Storch, they said journalists reach out to a scientist claiming climate change is a hoax almost as often as they contact a scientist claiming climate change is real and an impending disaster. (On a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being very likely contacted, the “hoax” source averaged a 4.9, while the median score for the “real, disaster” source was 5.6. See Q’s: 58 & 59.) This, despite the fact that the same survey found zero climate scientists said climate change was “not at all” happening and less than two percent said climate change was “not at all” the result of man-made causes (Q’s: 20 & 21).

This particular survey by Bray and von Storch offers a window into the polarized state of scientific debate in the media. That’s because it has become something of a touchstone for climate deniers, who have tried to conflate its findings of specific disagreements in the scientific community on the mechanisms and impacts of man-made climate change with the idea that no consensus exists on the broader question of anthropogenic climate change. Two major surveys of climate scientists put the consensus figure at97% , which is the number NASA endorses as well. The latest UN IPCC report from last fall varies a tiny bit from this, using a 95% confidence number.

Nevertheless, a pair of ‘consensus truthers’ was given ample room on the Wall Street Journal op-ed page recently to try to undermine the idea of climate change by specifically citing the Bray and von Storch survey as proof that the 97% consensus is a “myth.” Not surprisingly, the op-ed’s co-authors—one of whom is president of the oil and gas-industry funded Heartland Institute—failed to mention the most salient findings I cited above. And notably, two weeks after that column was published, Dennis Bray himself published a rebuttal post on the Klimazwiebel blog. In it, he called out theJournal op-ed’s claims about his survey as “inaccurate if not outright false” and lamented that his work had been co-opted for partisan purposes and circulated around the world as proving something that it doesn’t.

As the old Mark Twain adage goes, though, Bray’s truth on his blog will never catch up to the jet-fueled distortions of climate deniers in the mainstream media. Even if they somehow did, numerous studies have found that attempts at debunking myths are, in fact, counterproductive; they produce a ‘backfire effect’ that only serves to strengthen belief in the myth. For evidence of how stubbornly embedded phony scientific beliefs can become, one need only look to the climate skeptics’ conference being held at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas this week. Sponsored by—looky here—the Heartland Institute, the conference’s keynote speaker on Tuesday was Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who, in his speech, proceeded to run through a whole host of easily disproven conspiracies about global warming, acid rain, and water fluoridation. Rohrabacher, I might point out, sits on the House Science Committee.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan has noted that once a scientific issue gets interwoven with politics, the former often gets subsumed by the latter. Or, as he explained at The Upshot after the Hobby Lobby case: “identity often trumps the facts.” The media’s role in at the intersection of science and policy has been a frequent point of inquiry for Nyhan, and his 2010 study of the myths propagated during the Clinton and Obama health care reform debates offers up very similar conclusions to the BBC survey:

“[U]ntil the media stops giving so much attention to misinformers, elites on both sides will often succeed in creating misperceptions, especially among sympathetic partisans. And once such beliefs take hold, few good options exist to counter them—correcting misperceptions is simply too difficult.”

Some American news sites are catching on to this. The Los Angeles Times, for example, took a small, but important step last fall when it declared it would no longer run climate change denial letters to the editor . Paul Thornton, the Times’ letters editor, explained his decision as a matter of journalistic integrity: “I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page…saying "there's no sign humans have caused climate change" is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.”

Similarly, the PhD chemist Nathan Allen, who is the moderator of Reddit’s popular/r/science discussion board chose to ban climate change denying commenters recently. Although controversial, removing what, in the end, amounted to just a handful of people who had been mostly lobbing insults made a huge difference. Where before discussions were routinely hijacked by paranoid, unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, now there is serious, substantive debate about the facts of climate change and other scientific topics. The experience left Allen convinced more can be done and, in a column for Grist last December, he issued a challenge to the press: “[I]f a half-dozen volunteers can keep a page with more than 4 million users from being a microphone for the antiscientific, is it too much to ask for newspapers to police their own editorial pages as proficiently?”

The simple answer should be “no.” After all, nonpartisan media watchdogs cheered theTimes decision as a long overdue re-assertion of the primacy of facts as the basis for all journalism, whether it’s in the news or opinion pages. Nevertheless, a misguided sense of objectivity still colors much of the American media’s news judgment, which is likely who no other major newspaper has followed suit. And climate skeptics, aided by the usual suspects in the media, have been quick to exploit the media’s timidity and claim their dissenting views are being unfairly suppressed.

The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. And that’s the problem. By essentially leveling the ground for climate deniers, the press neutralizes the scientific consensus by converting the discussion into one of politics and beliefs. This is more comfortable, familiar terrain for the press because it allows it to avoid value judgments about the validity of each side’s arguments. But when every fact can be grounds for a debate, then there really are no facts anymore. In such an environment, it’s little surprise then, that compromise is impossible and nothing much gets done in Washington anymore either.

Choosing to do nothing about climate change is, of course, still a choice, just as choosing not to acknowledge the scientific consensus about climate change is one as well. In the face of such a fundamental global threat, however, both choices are increasingly untenable. The BBC was wise to recognize how its flawed editorial decisions were playing into this calculus and that it could do better by its global audience. As watchdog of the biggest greenhouse gas-producing nation in our planet’s history, the American media bears an even larger burden in how it covers climate change. But if it continues to forsake its responsibility to the truth, the notion that ours is a free press equal to (or better than) the rest of the world’s media will just be yet another tragic case of false balance.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.

I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

How Should Obama Deal With a World Engulfed in War?

Obama

President Obama discusses the situation in Iraq June 19, 2014. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

It’s hard to remember a time—we’re talking even way back in the bad old days of the Cold War—when things were such a mess. It’s hard even to count the number of wars underway right at the moment, but let’s list at least some of them: there’s the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the civil strife in eastern Ukraine, the twin civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the ongoing Afghanistan war, Pakistan’s assault on Taliban strongholds, virtual civil war in Libya, general conflicts across Africa (Nigeria, Mali, the Sudans, Somalia and of course in the eastern Congo/Uganda region), drone strikes and civil war in Yemen. To that list we might add tensions pitting China against Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines and, of course, the high-stakes negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. And then there’s the immigration crisis at the border. (You might be able to think of some I’ve neglected to mention.)

At the beginning of July, the surprise offensive by the Al Qaeda–like Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the headlines. Though it hasn’t gone away, it’s essentially been eclipsed by the brutal Israeli offensive in Gaza and by the crisis in Ukraine, sparked by Vladimir Putin’s irredentist claim to defend Russians everywhere and culminating in the shootdown of Flight MH17. In normal times, any one of these crises, each one of which brings unbearable losses of human life and ill forebodings of things to come, would grab the attention of the entire world. But this is not normal times. Why is this all happening, and why now?

It’s tempting to say that it’s the result of retrenchment on the part of the United States and of President Obama’s disinclination to get involved in conflict overseas—tempting, but wrong. That hasn’t stopped Republicans, and hawks and neoconservatives in the United States, from blaming Obama for everything: if only he’d kept troops in Iraq, if only he’d bombed Syria, if only he’d rush military aid and US advisers to Ukraine, if only he’d bomb ISIS in Iraq, if only he’d throw America’s full support to the Syrian rebels, if only he’d been a stronger ally of Israel’s. And so on.

As readers of this blog are know well, for the past several years I’ve analyzed every one of these conflicts as they’ve built to explosive levels. And while Obama might have handled things differently in every case, it’s utterly wrong to blame the president’s alleged over-caution and aloofness for the wave of crises sweeping the world. Fact is, what we’re seeing around the world might be the new normal. The emergence of a multipolar world, the irreversible decline of America’s ability to throw around its political, economic and military might, the rise of regional powers which insist on carving out spheres of influence, and the collapse of the old, authoritarian order in the Middle East are all factors—as is the growing competition for resources, especially water, food and energy, as climate change causes major shifts in the balance of power. There’s no magic bullet for any of these—especially solutions that actually require bullets.

So Obama’s caution is laudable, but that’s not to say that there aren’t things that Obama might do. He could push Israel to halt its murderous assault and then announce an American peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict—something he’d hinted he might do, but didn’t. He could wind down America’s support for the rebels in Syria, which would weaken ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. He could take advantage of the MH17 tragedy to unify the rest of the world around a no-nonsense approach to Russia’s out-of-control inflammation of Ukraine, and get diplomacy back on track. And so on. But Obama’s critics are wrong when they insist that a more “robust” (and I hate that word), stronger and more aggressive US military and political stand could somehow calm the waters. There’s no option that involves US forces in Ukraine, no option that sends US troops into Libya or back into Iraq, no new escalation of the war in Afghanistan, no Cold War–style “containment” of Russia and China and certainly no option to use US military force against Iran’s nuclear installations.

Equally, while it’s easy to look back and blame George W. Bush, the eruption of a world in crisis isn’t simply “Bush’s fault.” Yes, the Ukraine crisis would be less intense if President Bush (and President Clinton) hadn’t expanded NATO toward Russia’s borders. Yes, Iraq would be suffering far less but for Bush’s illegal 2003 war. Yes, radical Islamists would be less powerful if Bush hadn’t proclaimed a “Global War on Terrorism” that was perceived as an American assault on the entire Muslim world. But the rise of China, the reassertion of Russia’s claim to parts of the old USSR, the chaos that followed the Arab Spring, the conflicts in Africa—well, none of those have easy solutions. And there are deeper, underlying causes at work.

Although President Obama may be right in his instinct to focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure at home, creating jobs and dealing with healthcare, he’s going to have to spend a lot of time at the United Nations—and perhaps hire a passel of new, Richard Holbrooke–style special envoys, too—because none of these crises are going away, and every one of them needs an army of diplomats.

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That said, the crisis in Gaza ought once and for all to convince the United States that Israel is far too costly an ally, and one that is far too arrogant. The Israeli doctrine that one or two dead or kidnapped soldier on the border with Lebanon justifies killing a thousand Lebanese and bombing Beirut, or that a fusillade of mostly harmless rockets landing in Israel’s southern desert means that Israel has to (for the third time in a decade) kill hundreds in Gaza is breathtaking in its sheer arrogance. Given America’s vast aid to Israel—not to mention its being nearly the sole source of Israel’s political support—the United States can either rein in Israel or exact costly penalties. But perhaps it’s too much to believe that the Obama administration is finally getting the message, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s hot-mike comment sarcastically referring to Israel’s “pinpoint” attacks that are anything but pinpointed.

If Obama does anything, in regard to foreign policy, in the next two and half years, he’ll need an all-out effort to develop a consensus at home about how to deal with a world in crisis, and how to put in place a serious diplomatic strategy that can take all of this on. Looking at each crisis on its own, as a fire to be extinguished, won’t work. That will take a lot of serious thinking from a lot of serious people, but he’d better start now.

 

Read Next: Vladimir Putin should take responsibility for the MH17 shootdown.

Despite Scandals, Christie Gets Good Press in Iowa

Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie greets supporters after speaking at a fundraiser for Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, Thursday, July 17, 2014, in Davenport, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The US attorney in New Jersey is investigating Bridgegate, the Sandy aid scandals and corruption at the Port Authority, and so is the New Jersey state legislature and the Manhattan district attorney. Meanwhile, Governor Chris Christie is embroiled in a bitter fight with teachers, state employees and New Jersey’s unions over the governor’s decision to slash state contributions to the pension fund. But Christie, eyes fixed on 2016, is plowing ahead, including a high-profile, candidate-style visit to Iowa last week—and, it appears, getting some support from would-be Republican primary voters and caucus-goers.

While an NBC/Marist poll found that Christie has high negatives among GOP voters in the early-primary states—33 percent negative in Iowa and 31 percent in New Hampshire—he’s getting positive coverage in papers from The Des Moines Register to The New York Times.

In the Register’s story, entitled, “Big buzz for Chris Christie at café in Iowa,” Christie was described as having a “force of nature personality” that is “spotlight-attracting,” and it added that the crowd “swooned” at Christie. (Although, as Matt Katz reported for NJ Spotlight, the café was “packed with Republican activists (and void of actual diners).” When Christie was asked about the poll showing that 33 percent of Iowans had a low opinion of him, he joked: “Only a third? Pretty good, man.… That’s not bad, I’ll take it.” And to be sure, the poll found that half of Iowans, exactly 50 percent, have a positive feeling about the New Jersey governor. In a conservative state, heavily populated by evangelical Christians and Tea Party types who don’t look warmly and fuzzily at Christie, actually that isn’t bad. (That, despite the fact that, according to USA Today, something called the Judicial Crisis Network spent $75,000 in Iowa slamming Christie for supposedly allowing the New Jersey Supreme Court to drift leftward.)

In the Times (“Far from scandal at home, Christie basks in limelight on Iowa trip”), Christie is portrayed happily bantering with Iowa voters, joking and posing for selfies, and telling locals, “I will be back. I will be back a lot.” The Times report added that some Iowa Republicans seem to like the fact that Christie is being lambasted by the media and the Democrats because, as a 79-year-old Iowan put it, Christie was “the lead dog.”

In a separate piece, “10 Questions for Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey,” the Times—which notes that Christie has “returned to the national spotlight in recent weeks”—got Christie on the record on issues from New Jersey’s own troubles to the scandals that began with Bridgegate to whether or not he’ll be a candidate in 2016. Predictably, Christie blamed the scandals on an aide or two who went “rogue,” and unless US Attorney Paul Fishman and the other investigators turn up something conclusive, that’ll be his answer from here on out. Fuggedaboutit, in other words.

In the Times Q&A, perhaps the most interesting exchange was Christie’s response to a question about the GOP split between the Tea Party and the “populists,” on one hand, and the “business Republicans” and “the guys [that] have the money,” on the other. In his answer, Christie put the emphasis on what he hopes will be his appeal, namely, his down-to-earth, regular-guy persona—even though, of course, Christie’s own political base is the GOP’s Wall Street and hedge-fund people:

Q. How do you knit those together?

A. Carefully. There’s always divides inside any vibrant, political movement, and so the way is just be yourself, here’s what I believe in. And try to convince people that if what they are look for is a candidate they agree with 100 percent of the time, what they need to do is go home and look in the mirror. They’re it. You are the only person you agree with 100 percent of the time on these issues. So don’t try to be that. If you try to be that, they are going to perceive you as a phony, because you are.

Note to Christie: if you kowtow to Wall Street but pretend to be a man of the people, you are what’s called a “phony.” (Hillary Clinton, take note.)

Nevertheless, as Katz reports, Christie’s hosts played “Hail to the Chief” at a diner that Christie visited, and the exchanges that the governor had revolved on how tough he is and, of course, whether or not he can beat Clinton:

“Are you ready to beat Hillary?” a woman at MJ’s asked Christie.

“One thing I never lack is confidence,” Christie said. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

“Why can’t you be tough right now?” she asked.

“I’m in my kind stage right now. I’ll be tough when I have to be.”

Voter after voter said what they liked about Christie wasn’t his policies—many said they wished he was more conservative on issues like abortion—but his style. Phrases like “strong leader” and “straight-shooter” and “tells it like it is” came up again and again.

“Ronald Reagan had the same talent—he could smile, meet people, make you feel like you knew the guy a long time,” said Richard Bice, 82, who met Reagan in Des Moines in 1980.

“I just like the way he goes after people,” said 72-year-old Joyce Dierks. “I like his forthrightness. He says it tells it like it is. And that’s what we need.”

The crowd, finishing up their pulled pork sandwiches, gave Christie a standing ovation when he was done, and followed him out the door. As Christie got into an SUV, “Hail to the Chief” played from speakers attached to a trailer that was pulling a large plastic elephant.

Writing in The Record, a New Jersey daily in Bergen County, Charles Stile—no pushover for Christie—reported that what the GOP crowds in Iowa want is a “winner,” and all along—as Christie Watch reported, ever since his speech in March to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC)—that’s been Christie’s message, namely, that he can win. As Stile reports:

The overriding theme that emerged in nearly two dozen interviews—from small-town Republicans in farm crossroads to party activists and elite donors—is that Republicans now have a mixture of hope, ambivalence and wariness about Christie, his record and his ability to capture the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and possibly the Republican nomination. But running alongside all of that is another powerful and alluring pull Republicans have toward Christie: Republicans want to win the presidency, especially if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. And despite their misgivings about him now, Christie might be the Republican to do that….

“I think he starts from a negative perspective in Iowa,” said Jeff Zaum, a political consultant in Iowa and Illinois. Zaum said he believes most voters will view Christie as the 2016 version of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who bowed out of the 2012 race after a poor showing in the early primaries.”

“We want anybody but Hillary,” said Chelle Adkins, a Republican state central committee member from northern Iowa who is not a big fan of Christie. “You pick the best Republican and put him out there even if you only agree with him 80 percent of the time.” Once elected, she said, “we can lobby him over the other 20 percent.”

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In the Register’s Q&A, Christie was asked: Are you conservative enough to win Iowa? His answer:

They don’t go in there and say: “Are you conservative enough or are you liberal enough? Are you moderate enough?” That’s not what people say. They say: “Do I trust him? Can I count on him to tell me the truth? Is he somebody who can actually be a competent steward of our country’s future?” That’s the way people judge, I think, who they’re going to vote for for president, for governor or for any other job.”

However, those Iowa voters who hope that they can “count on him to tell me the truth” ought to be paying closer attention to what Fishman’s investigators are doing.

 

Read Next: Do ‘reform conservatives’ have any foreign policy ideas?

Eric Garner’s Death and the Exasperation With Police Violence

Eric Garner's widow

Esaw Garner, wife of Eric Garner, breaks down during a rally for her late husband on July 19 in New York (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

“I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”

I made the mistake of watching the video in which NYPD choke and arrest 43-year-old Staten Island resident Eric Garner until he was dead on the sidewalk. It’s horrific. On July 17, Garner was approached by two plainclothes police officers who questioned him about selling untaxed cigarettes. A frustrated Garner repeatedly tells the officers that he hasn’t done anything wrong and that he doesn’t have any cigarettes on his person. Onlookers, including 22-year-old Ramsey Orta, who recorded the exchange, keep saying that all Garner had done was break up a fight. The police seem uninterested in this tidbit and continue to question Garner about the cigarettes. One reaches toward Garner, who responds by saying, “Don’t touch me, please,” while swatting the officer’s hand away. At this point, the officer, Daniel Pantaleo, puts Garner in a chokehold. Three uniformed officers run over to assist, and Garner is taken to the ground.

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe! Get off of me, get off of me!”

Garner remained handcuffed, on the ground, for several minutes after he died. An initial autopsy report shows no damage to his neck bones or windpipe. The likely cause of death is a heart attack, precipitated by the arrest, chokehold and takedown. Garner weighed 350 pounds and had chronic asthma, diabetes and sleep apnea. He is survived by his wife, six children and two grandchildren.

What more is there to say? What more can be said after the death of a black person at the hands of police? We’ve heard it all time and again, followed by promises to do better, to change the culture of policing, to foster better relationships with black communities. Yet, we still end up here.

Garner had been arrested a number of times before. According to the New York Daily News, he was “due in court in October on three Staten Island cases, including charges of pot possession and possession or selling untaxed cigarettes.” He may well have been involved in illegal activities. Do these low level crimes justify the persistent harassment that so exasperated Garner? Do they warrant massive police intervention? Do they excuse the use of a chokehold that has been outlawed since 1993?

Sadly, that’s usually the case. And the behavior of the police is rarely interrogated in the same way.

Think of this man lying breathless on the sidewalk, handcuffed, with no rush to get him medical attention. Think about the fact there were five cops involved in the arrest of one unarmed man being accused of a nonviolent crime. Think of how, in the face of witnesses and a camera, an officer still felt comfortable enough to use an illegal chokehold on Garner. We have ceded so much power to the police, and they brazenly flaunt it without fear of repercussion.

Mayor de Blasio has promised a full investigation into Garner’s death, headed by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which did not have a leader for the first six months of the administration (Richard Emery was appointed chair on the day Garner died) and which has been described by NYCLU attorney Chris Dunn as “on life support.” Officer Pantaleo has been stripped of his gun and badge. It’s a start.

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But this isn’t about one officer or even this one investigation. It’s not even about the more than 1,000 civilian complaints of NYPD employing illegal chokeholds since 2009. This about the disregard for black life and humanity that fuels policing. It’s about the amount of authority police have over our lives, deciding when and where we die. It’s about the daily harassment, the constant fear and the perpetual mourning. We can’t breathe.

“I was just minding my own business. Every time you see me you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today!”

For Eric Garner, it did stop that day. The harassment stopped when his life did. Must we all die for the abuse to end?

 

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the myth of the magical black father

Elizabeth Warren Offers Democrats More Than a 2016 Candidacy—She Offers a 2014 Agenda

Elizabeth Warren

(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

DetroitElizabeth Warren says she is not running for president in 2016—despite the enthusiastic “Run, Liz, Run” chanting that erupted when the senator from Massachusetts took the stage at this year’s Netroots Nation conference. But Warren came to Detroit with the platform on which Democrats should be running in 2016.

And in 2014.

Warren is frequently described as a populist. And she can certainly frame her message in populist terms, as was well illustrated by the strongest statement of her Friday Netroots Nation address: “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail, but a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested. The game is rigged.”

But as the Rev. William Barber, of North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” movement, reminded the conference in a Thursday evening keynote address, populism is not an ideology or a program unto itself. Populism can go left or go right. Populism can be cogent or crude. What matters is the vision that underpins a populist appeal.

What Elizabeth Warren brought to the Netroots Nation gathering was a progressive vision that is of the moment—a vision rooted in the understandings that have been established in the years since the “Republican wave” election of 2010. As Republicans in Congress practiced obstructionism, and as an increasingly activist Supreme Court knocked down historic democratic protections, Republican governors aggressively attacked labor rights, voting rights and women’s rights. Citizens responded with rallies, marches and movements—in state capitals, on Wall Street, across the country. They developed a new progressive vision that is more aggressive and more precisely focused on economic and social justice demands, and on challenging the power of corporations and their political allies.

Warren’s Netroots Nation speech incorporated what has been learned, and what has been demanded. She made a connection between the movements and the political process that has tremendous significance for the coming election cycles.

Warren’s Democratic Party has not fully recognized that connection—not by a long shot—but Warren gets it. And the response of the thousands of activists, organizers and communicators gathered at the Netroots conference suggests that “the base” is ready to rally around it.

So what is it?

“This is a fight over economics, a fight over privilege, a fight over power,” says Warren. “But deep down it’s a fight over values. These are progressive ideas; these are progressive values. These are America’s values. And these are the values we are willing to fight for.”

They are specific ideas, rooted in recent struggles and using the language of those struggles to form an agenda:

1. “We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement, and we’re willing to fight for it.”

2. “We believe in science, and that means that we have a responsibility to protect this Earth. And we will fight for it.”

3. “We believe that the Internet shouldn’t be rigged to benefit big corporations, and that means real net neutrality. And we will fight for it.”

4. “We believe that no one should work full-time and still live in poverty. That means raising the minimum wage. And we will fight for it. We will fight for it. And let me add to that: We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage, and that means that when they take to the picket line, we are proud to fight alongside them.”

5. “We believe that students are entitled to get an education without being crushed by debt. And we are willing to fight for it. We are willing.”

6. “We believe that after a lifetime of work, people are entitled to retire with dignity, and that means protecting Social Security, Medicare, and pensions. And we will fight for them. We will fight.”

7. “We believe— only I can’t believe I have to say this in 2014—we believe in equal pay for equal work. And we’re willing to fight for it."

8. “We believe that equal means equal, and that’s true in marriage, it’s true in the workplace, it’s true in all of America. And we’re willing to fight for it.”

9. “We believe that immigration has made this country strong and vibrant, and that means reform. And we are willing to fight for it.”

10. “And we believe that corporations are not people, that women have a right to their bodies. We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it."

The specificity of the agenda matters as much as the promise to fight.

Unlike too many prominent Democrats—including Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke the day before Warren at Netroots Nation—the senator from Massachusetts is both passionate and precise.

“I think the views she expresses are not necessarily accepted Washington views on things. There are different ways of being a fighter,” says Erica Sagrans, a key organizer of the “Ready for Warren” movement that was a huge presence at Netroots Nation. “There are some people talking about similar policy positions, but the difference is the way she’s doing it.”

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Warren does not get personal. She does not mention other Democrats—except the Senate candidates she campaigns for, including progressive populists such as South Dakota’s Rick Weiland, who hailed Warren as “a tremendous supporter, a tremendous help” to his determined run.

Warren's focus is on a set of essential issues and on bold responses to them. She says things that need to be said—about the agenda and about the attitude that might get Americans excited about not just a particular campaign (for president in 2016 or for US Senate seats in 2014) but about a political agenda that extends beyond individual elections.

“The game is rigged. And the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much. So the way I see this is we can whine about it, we can whimper about it or we can fight back. I’m fighting back!”

Read Next: James Carden asks if the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 tragedy could have been avoided.

Meet the Billionaire Funders of the Anti-Diplomacy Lobby

Iran flags

(yeowatzup/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

My colleague Ali Gharib and I just published an article in The Nation in which we explore how hawkish, deep-pocketed organizations hold disproportionate influence in shaping the discussion about Iran-policy on Capitol Hill.

These groups, in no small part due to their outsize budgets, shape sanctions legislation, dominate witness lists at congressional hearings, and help lead the opposition to the Obama administration’s efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.

We wrote:

In the boxing ring that is Washington, the match-up isn’t even. Compare, for example, the budgets of groups that oppose diplomacy with those that support it. Four of Washington’s pro-diplomacy groups are significant players on the Hill: the Center for a New American Security, the National Iranian American Council, the American Iranian Council and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. According to their most recent tax filings, these organizations boasted an annual combined budget of approximately $9.4 million.

Meanwhile, the latest tax filings for just two of the groups that push hardline policies, the [Foundation for Defense of Democracies] and [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee], have a combined budget of approximately $75 million. And that doesn’t include the annual budget of an AIPAC offshoot, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy ($8.7 million), or aggressive right-wing PR groups like United Against Nuclear Iran ($1.6 million), whose spokespeople are regularly quoted by national media.

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You can read the entire article here, but I’d like to call attention to a sidebar where we profiled three large donors—Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer and Bernard Marcus—to organizations that have put up resistance to the P5+1’s efforts to reach a comprehensive nuclear accord with Iran. Check it out.

 

Read Next: US Hawks Would Love to Wreck the Iran Talks—but They Won’t

Were Those Aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 the First Victims of ‘the New Cold War’?

Stephen Cohen on Ukraine

There is an ongoing crisis in Ukraine, says Stephen Cohen, and the mainstream media is not doing enough to contextualize the fighting. On Democracy Now!, Cohen explained that when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over eastern Ukraine yesterday, American audiences didn’t have the information at hand to understood what brought us to this horrific crossroads. Cohen says, “The people who died, nearly 300, are the first victims, non-residential victims, of the new cold war.”
—Douglas Grant

The Garden Where Rough Edges Grow

CommonBound Conference

Climbing PoeTree performing at Common Bound Conference at Northeastern University (New Economy Coalition)

This post originally appeared in {young}ist and is reposted here with permission.

Every young generation, as it comes of age, is told it’s special, that everyone else’s hopes and dreams live through it, and, simultaneously, that it is already not living up to these expectations. With this in mind, I—a 23-year-old who’d never spent a weekend at a conference before—placed a starchy blue shirt and a shift dress in my backpack and took a bus to Boston.

Last month, I attended CommonBound, a gathering of more than 650 people, most of them activists, academics, and students, organized by the New Economy Coalition. In the classrooms, gyms and corridors of Northeastern University, we came together to discuss what the “new economy” is and share whatever projects we had been working on to further its realization. I spoke with and learned a great deal from leaders at Demos, the Responsible Endowments Coalition, the Center for American Progress, Black Mesa Water Coalition, and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

According to an article by Gar Alperovitz, one of the keynote speakers at the conference and a leader in new economics, the movement is founded on the belief, “that the entire economic system must be radically reconstructed if critical social and environmental goals are to be met.” Everyone at the conference seemed to agree that this means establishing an economy that prioritizes communal values over individual ones. The emphasis was placed on climate, labor, and racial justice. We came up with more than 650 versions of a world we all had to win.

I came to the conference assuming I was there to take in and look up at the myriad ideas that constitute the new economy constellation. What I came to realize, while there, was that I have a voice in this movement too, and it was largely the youth culture and intergenerational emphasis of the conference that made me comfortable with this the New Economy Coalition awarded 301 scholarships for attending CommonBound this year, many of them went to young people and students. Last year, the New Economy Coalition’s annual conference, reRoute, focused specifically on “building youth and student power for a new economy,” and was the culmination of its year-long youth and student network program. During the opening remarks on Friday night, I was surprised to see that scattered among the distinguished professors, and community leaders, the activists who got their start in the ’60s and now wore khakis down to their kneecaps, were people who looked younger than me.

That evening I had trepidations attending the founding of CommonBound’s youth caucus. In college the “econ kids” lived behind a veil of zeros and curves I could never puncture. My alma mater, the University of Chicago, produced some of the most conservative economic theories of our day; now the CEO of Credit Suisse sits on their board of trustees, while his employees set up recruiting tables in the student cafes. At the worst parties, small talk amongst 20-year-olds would move from a spirited endorsement of Locke to a confused endorsement of Wall Street. In the words of Cher from Clueless, “I don’t wanna be a traitor to my generation and all, but…”

The caucus turned out to be nothing like what I had expected.

We talked for a while about the intern economy, how we as students and recent graduates live in a society that pits our young ambitions against one another, Hunger Games–style. The struggles that come with not being paid sufficiently for one’s labor are, more often than not, accompanied by the pangs of student debt, the massive principle balance that monthly interest payments never dissolve. Many among us complained that given the financial burdens placed on young people so early in life, our generation doesn’t deserve its bad rap, the irony and the eye-rolling. One woman pointed out that, yes, the situation is dire, but that the democratization of higher education, even in the last decade, means young people across socio-economic groups now have an immensely powerful problem to solve together through collective action.

That night my friend, who was hosting me for the weekend and was, at the time, getting wasted at his fifth high school reunion, checked in to make sure I had made it safely to his house. He texted his concern, and I texted back that I was still at the conference. His reply: “Wow, that’s a lot of Communism!”

I didn’t know at the time that a series of key words would come to punctuate my weekend as naturally and inauspiciously as commas. These would include: Marxism, capitalism, paradigm, Piketty, heterodox, commune, coffee and Marxist. “Communism” was rarely spoken of. Maybe the shedding of the suffix is how we keep the community, lose the institution, and crystalize this shiny new feeling in language.

“Yeah, and youth caucus-building,” I typed.

Seconds later he called. “Youth cactus? What is a… how is a youth cactus?” And so I spent the next few minutes convincing him what I had spent the better part of the night convincing myself of: the youth isn’t so prickly after all.

* * *

“Someone is going to tell our story, the question is who.”

The next day, I found myself in a workshop on the importance of messaging and storytelling within the new economy movement. The facilitator Christine Cordero, of the Center for Story Based Strategy, showed us photographs from the media’s polluted storyline during the first few days after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Black people swimming through the streets carrying whatever small possessions they could find were labeled “looters.” Images of white people doing the same were labeled “survivors.” The media too was up to its neck in its own racist bullshit.

This workshop was essentially a call to resist the conservative logic that says stories are irrelevant, that people are moved by facts alone. This had also been one of main lessons I took away from the youth caucus the night before. We were resisting the logic that ourstories don’t matter, and we were saying they mattered, first of all, because we tell them to one other, which means they are already, invariably, connected.

At lunch, conference-goers broke into plenary groups of their choosing—“Free up Your Money to Do Good” and “Divest from Fossil Fuel Companies to Invest in Green Solutions.” I found a group of seven, who didn’t want to discuss one topic in particular.

It’s possible that each of us was born in a different decade. Among us was an older man wearing a rainbow kippah. He taught me that FASBs are Federal Accounting Finance Boards and launched into a history of the deregulation of America’s financial institutions, beginning in the ’70s. I explained to him how I landed at this conference largely because of a fluke, which happened almost exclusively through interactions on Twitter.

The high point of the weekend for me may well have been the words of artist-activist adrienne maree brown, who spoke on the final panel with Gopal Dayaneni and Alperovitz. Brown spoke of the necessity of building radical narratives, what she called “science fiction” of the new economy. “The problem with most utopias for me,” she said, “[is] mono value, a new greener, more local monoculture where everyone gardens and plays the lute and no one travels.… and I don’t want to go to there!”

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Before Thomas Moore messed with the etymology of “utopia,” forever transforming it into a good place, “utopia” meant no place at all. It is tempting to bind these definitions with a single romantic thread—what we want doesn’t really exist, perfection is annihilation. But I like brown’s active message so much better. The perfect place is out there, it’s just no place we want to be. And, make no mistake, utopias abound, offering the illusion of easy messaging. “Google the words ‘new economy,’” Cordero had said, “and you’ll see a lot of white people in gardens.”

I felt that afternoon, in that room of 650 worlds and no utopias, that there were real branches between them, holding us together, stretching back through many decades. And though my mind is still a deeply cynical system, I now have a greater desire to fight for a better world alongside the stratospheric dreamers of my generation. Here in the garden where the rough edges grow.

Read Next: Northwestern reshapes its sexual assault policy.

How ‘Corporate Responsibility’ Campaigns Can Actually End Up Hurting Workers

Samsung Headquarters

Samsung Electronics headquarters in Seoul (Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji) 

After a scathing report revealed evidence of child labor at a supplier factory used by Samsung, the corporation’s damage control kicked into high gear. The firm immediately announced it would halt its business with the Dongguan Shinyang Electronics for now, stating that it had “decided to temporarily suspend business with the factory,” and that this was in line with its “zero tolerance” policy for ethical sourcing.

So the moral corrective had been issued on paper. But it did not translate so well for the Chinese workers. The New York Times reported afterward that, according to Shinyang, “the factory was preparing to lay off its 600 workers.” The supplier also blamed the underaged hires on an outside employment agency, rather than Shinyang’s management.

China Labor Watch (CLW) was not impressed. The watchdog group that issued the report stated on July 16:

The suspension of business with Shinyang will lead to lay-offs of hundreds of workers who are not to blame for the mistakes made by Shinyang management and labor dispatch companies. If these workers are fired due to the sudden reduction of Samsung’s production orders, Samsung is responsible for the fair and legal compensation of these workers, who will need to support themselves and their families without a job.

Child labor and other worker abuses have occurred in Samsung’s supply chain, yet its solution is to punish even more workers. This reflects Samsung’s lack of respect for workers’ rights.

Though it is unclear whether Samsung will take any further remedial steps (media inquiries have not been returned), its PR calculus makes sense. Having just put out a laudatory “sustainability report” touting its ethical production standards, the company might have figured abandoning a scandalized supplier would be more cost-effective than investing in actual improvements to Shinyang’s working conditions. For workers, however, Samsung’s “sustainability” means massive disruption to an already precarious existence.

This is the perennial dilemma of ethical sourcing programs led by companies with no stake in the well-being of the impacted communities; cleaning up a tarnished record comes at the expense of workers’ livelihoods. (Not unlike consumer boycotts of brands with bad human rights records, which might deprive a company of sales but do nothing to change corporate practices.)

Since multinationals, as profit-making entities by design, can’t be expected to atone for ethical violations, their “corrective actions” aim more for shoring up reputation than raising standards. Samsung has dealt with child labor allegations in the past, also raised by CLW, by deploying a “zero tolerance” corrective action plan that included a supposedly state-of-the-art facial-recognition ID screening system, along with a grievance hotline and other workplace reforms. Yet CLW has continued to criticize its weak regulation of child labor, and the Times reported that several teens found it easy to circumvent the screening with false documents. The root cause of child labor isn’t lax screening but a volatile, unregulated labor market that absorbs anyone who needs the work, including school kids.

Whether the employment agency or the factory bears responsibility for hiring children, the underlying quandary is that child labor violations do not show labor markets malfunctioning; rather, it shows markets working all too well.

Quartz describes this market logic at work in Apple’s efforts to address child labor discovered at factories through a rehabilitation program, designed by a “social responsibility consultancy,” which pays a stipend to ex-child workers to stay in school. That sounds like a win for the kids, but overall participation has been surprisingly weak, in part because for many families, it may still make more economic sense to put their children to work instead of banking on an education; youth are facing a soaring cost of living amid intense competition for jobs.

Samsung actually admits some of those structural problems in its sustainability report. Though the report claimed that factory audits found no incidence of child labor, buried in the anodyne PR language is documentation of other abuses: hundreds of worker surveys uncovered nearly 500 issues involving occupational accidents and diseases and about 760 cases involving wages and benefits. Samsung repeatedly claims it has responded with corrective actions, but in many cases, this appears to have taken the form of a mere request for the supplier to reform its practices.

The beauty of “third-party audits” is the benefit of plausible deniability: companies can distance themselves by blaming suppliers for “non-compliance,” while ignoring the economic structures that makes compliance unprofitable.

Still, Samsung, as an industry leader, wields considerable power to shape working conditions in the sector. CLW Program Coordinator Kevin Slaten tells The Nation via e-mail:

If it has the will, Samsung, with its billions, has the resources to find this balance and positively affect the conditions of hundreds of thousands of workers. Samsung can control product quality and will invest the time and money to do so. They should apply the same principles to labor conditions.

But multinationals take action only if it hits their bottom line. Public pressure—from western shoppers, media or government institutions—could shame a company into action, as the anti-sweatshop movement has done in Bangladesh’s garment sector. But the only real remedy would be one directed by workers themselves, if they can marshal their collective power through workplace organizing.

The tech industry’s paternalistic “corporate social responsibility” programs attempt to buy the loyalty of workers and stave off labor unrest. But labor tensions are growing in Asia’s electronics industry. In recent months, workers at NXP, an Apple supplier, have demonstrated in the Philippines against alleged suppression of labor organizers. Samsung workers in Korea have campaigned fiercely for the right to unionize, accusing the company of retaliatory attacks on labor organizers.

At the same time, a recent report by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations shows that in the world’s tech manufacturing hubs, workers face severe barriers to unionization, ranging from government interference in union votes to threats of “discrimination, intimidation and even violence or murder” against union representatives.

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Overall, corporations do not prioritize freedom of assembly in their ethics codes, compared with the more scandal-ready violations like child labor. At the same time, enforcement of those higher-order labor rights—which go beyond bread-and-butter issues to ensure some form of workplace democracy—are integral to building a sustainable workforce.

This brings us back to the factory floor at Shinyang, with its legions of young workers, churning out high-tech toys that will sell for more than a week’s wages. With an independent union in place, maybe longtime employees could have spotted child workers on the assembly line, or workers could have organized to petition for unpaid social insurance, or collectively bargained for a raise or held their bosses accountable for chemical exposures on the assembly line. In a way, freedom of assembly is the one right that helps guarantee all the others. And as the only right that directly threatens corporate power, the right to organize is not only a low priority for “social responsibility” initiatives; it’s precisely what they’re trying to pre-empt. When confronting their bosses, ethical gestures aside, workers have to fight for those rights, because nobody else will.

 

Read Next: Did child labor build your smartphone?