The Nation has always been special to me—when I was growing up, my parents always had a copy on the coffee table, and Katha’s column was some of the first feminist writing I ever read. Being exposed to The Nation from a young age had a real impact on my politics and worldview, and it’s continued to be a place where I’ve learned and grown.
It’s been an honor to write for The Nation, and its incredible editors and writers have been smart, supportive and inspiring. So it’s with a lot of sadness that I say goodbye. Starting April 21, I’ll be writing a daily column at The Guardian.
I am so proud of the work that I’ve done while here—my pieces on topics from rape and domestic violence to abortion politics and pop culture. I’m especially grateful that my editors Emily Douglas and Richard Kim helped me to hone my arguments and strengthen my writing. I’m leaving here a much better writer than I came in, and that’s thanks to them. I am also grateful to The Nation community, online and off, for their passion and support—thank you for reading my work, and for challenging me to be better.
I hope you’ll both follow my writing at its new home and continue to support the wonderful and important work that The Nation does. I know I’ll always have a copy on my coffee table for my daughter to see as she gets older.
Thanks for everything—and goodbye!
Last month the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a series of proposals for mediating the international confrontation over Ukraine. Controversially, the Russian plan includes the creation of a negotiating group that would exclude the government in Kiev. Russia also wants Ukraine to adopt a federal model of government with vast regional autonomy, as well as to commit to never joining NATO. Longtime Nation contributor Stephen Cohen joins Pacifica Radio’s Beneath The Surface with Suzi Weissman to discuss Russia’s “diplomatic overture,” which Western diplomats and media have largely disregarded. “I think the Russians are right about this,” says Cohen. “You need to have a constitution and a state that reflects the reality of the two Ukraines.”
After years of drilling, assessing and scoring youth to exhaustion, more than 25,000 kids in New York have defied the educational establishment in a test of wills. The “opt out” movement has exploded in schools across the state and other regions of the country, as students, parents and teachers resist the standardized testing regime that has fueled a free-market assault on public education.
Some New York teachers have placed themselves at the vanguard of test resisters, alongside student and parent activists, and are now using their professional leverage to deepen the battle lines in the ideological conflict over education reform.
The rebellion stirring in city classrooms was presented recently to New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña in an open letter from a group of “Teachers of Conscience” at the Earth School, an elementary school in Manhattan. Accompanied by a philosophical position paper detailing principles of a progressive education, the teachers declared their opposition to English language exams for third-to-eight graders:
We can no longer, in good conscience, push aside months of instruction to compete in a city-wide ritual of meaningless and academically bankrupt test preparation. We have seen clearly how these reforms undermine teachers’ love for their profession and undermine students’ intrinsic love of learning.
And there’s something to hate for everyone in these standardized tests. Students become miserable and bored with constant test-prep; parents and caregivers grow frustrated with curricula that seem to be failing their children (inspiring them to organize likeminded families to facilitate their children’s test resistance); and teachers have raged against the imposition of formulaic, stress-inducing reading and math drills on their classes. The latest batch of English tests left educators and students feeling “outraged,” “defeated” and “devalued,” according to reviews on an online teacher forum. (At several schools, including the Earth School, the majority of students refused the exams.)
In economically and racially stratified school systems like New York’s, the testing blitzkrieg and the data obsession that fuels it has become a cudgel for neoliberal policymakers to pressure schools to operate more like corporate enterprises than as community institutions.
Jia Lee, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at the Earth School and mother of an opt-outer, says the test-resistance in her community crystallized organically as parents began talking to each other about how testing was affecting their children. Because the exams had been imposed with “very little engagement and decision-making on the bottom,” Lee tells The Nation, families have pushed back by organizing themselves. The grassroots, parent-led opt-out initiatives build on the community mobilizations that have snowballed since the Bush administration launched No Child Left Behind. The protests and petitions recently culminated in a City Council resolution opposing high-stakes testing, backed by teacher unions and national education and civil rights groups. By putting down their pencils, students aren’t just jamming the test machinery but all it symbolizes—namely, the dominance of commercial testing protocols pushed by big brands like Pearson, and robotic curricula aimed at making kids “globally competitive.”
Organized non-compliance, Lee says, enables community members to “deny the data, starve the data beast. Because… these high stakes tests are like the central nervous system to this entire operation.”
Alongside the Earth School faculty, educators at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning high school in Forest Hills, Queens, has issued a public statement lamenting the emotional and intellectual cost of of the test regime (see also Peter Rothberg’s note on PS 129’s opt-out campaign):
One teacher at our school asked her seventh-graders how they felt about the tests. The word “scared” came up multiple times, as did the word “hate.” “I feel nervous,” said one, “because you think you’re not going to pass.” Another protested, “I don’t think tests show our learning, and they don’t show our growth.” A third stated, “It makes it more possible to fail.”
For many city schools, failure is the new normal; the 2013 tests—which followed a new format and were widely criticized for being unfair, slopppily managed and riddled with confusing errors—resulted in “failing” grades for more than two-thirds of students.
The dismal data stream fed into the Bloomberg administration’s campaign to shutter many “low performing” schools, often in underserved communities of color. Even when not threatened with closure, the storm of negative numbers can undermine a school community, factoring into funding cuts, eroding children’s morale, and potentially affecting grade promotion and teachers’ job security.
When a school’s fate hinges on such narrow measures of achievement, educators are also hindered from exploring alternative forms of academic assessment, such as multidiscipinary long-term projects, rather than driving what the Teachers of Conscience call “the inept data-factories of education corporations.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Chancellor Fariña have cautiously signaled willingness to ease up on testing requirements. Moreover, the roll-out of the new Common Core standards might come with an initial grace period, so low scores will for now not be a major factor in grading or teachers’ professional evaluations—an acute issue in talks with teachers’ unions. Still, the movement is surging ahead of officialdom. The opt-out activists now represent a coalition of both affluent and working-class school communities, and progressive educators are demanding that schools employ an equally diverse array of programs and assessment tools to foster a more holistic academic experience.
For Lee, all this number crunching is the antithesis of a progressive education. Kids do need some basic academic skills, Lee says, but in the context of a well-rounded pedogagy, “[for] educators who believe strongly in…. developing the whole child—you see these tests as trying to turn the child into some kind of number based on artificially set standards.… that, to me, goes against the very reasons why we go into this profession.”
Teachers are arguably taking a bigger risk than students in refusing to administer the tests. Officials in New York and Chicago have generally stated that student and faculty are allowed to opt out of exams, but reports of retaliation have surfaced. Earlier this year, the Chicago Teachers Union and community members who have opted out of the Illinois State Achievement Test have reportedly experienced bullying and intimidation by school authorities, and even threats of delicensing against participating teachers.
The reports of retaliation speak to the toxic mentality creeping through the school system. Instead of classrooms serving as an incubator for childhood curiosity and imagination, the “reformed” public school today is starting to resemble, well, any other workplace, where workers are dragged through an oppressive daily grind, girded by boredom, mistrust and ultimately, institutional disillusionment.
The families and educators who have opted out might be taking a militant stance, but with the integrity of public education under threat, no high-stakes data points can trump the defense of the open mind.
“I hope more teachers feel empowered to take a stand,” says Lee. “And I know of teachers who are just ready. They’re just done.”
Or rather: now they’re ready for the real test.
Read Next: Brooklyn teachers are pushing back against high-stakes testing, reports Peter Rothberg.
Peter Matthiessen, the legendary writer who died April 5, had one of his most important books withdrawn from publication for seven years as a result of attacks by government officials and the cowardice of his publisher, Viking Penguin.
It's a story overlooked in many of the obits. Published in 1983, In The Spirit of Crazy Horse provided a passionate and solidly documented account of the events that culminated in a 1975 gun battle on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota between FBI agents and members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) that left two agents and one Indian dead. The book also described the miserable history of government treatment of Native Americans in South Dakota.
The New York Times Book Review called In the Spirit of Crazy Horse “one of those rare books that permanently change one’s consciousness.” The Washington Post called it “extraordinary,” “complex,” and “powerful.” The Los Angeles Times called it "A giant of a book...indescribably touching, extraordinarily intelligent."
In the trial following the shootout, Leonard Peltier, an Ojibwa-Sioux AIM activist, was convicted of murdering the agents; now 69, he is serving consecutive life sentences at a federal penitentiary in Florida. Matthiessen’s book presented compelling evidence that Peltier was innocent. Others agree; Amnesty International, among others, has called for his release.
Shortly after the book’s publication, South Dakota’s governor, William Janklow, filed a libel suit against Matthiessen and his publisher, Viking Press, seeking $24 million in damages. He said the book was defamatory because it portrayed him as “a racist and a bigot.” An FBI agent involved in the case, David Price, filed a second suit for $25 million, claiming he too had been defamed when the book portrayed him as “corrupt and vicious” in his treatment of Indians on the reservation.
Viking Penguin didn’t wait for a judgment against them before taking action against Matthiessen. The publisher responded to the lawsuits by destroying the copies of the book it had in its warehouse and taking it out of print.
Litigation proceeded for seven years in four different courts in two states, with Martin Garbus representing Viking and Matthiessen. Matthiessen was supported by amicus briefs from Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron, John Irving, Alfred Kazin and Susan Sontag of PEN.
The libel cases were finally thrown out of court in 1990. ''Speech about government and its officers, about how well or badly they carry out their duties, lies at the very heart of the First Amendment,” declared Judge Diana E. Murphy of the US district court in Minneapolis. “It is this form of speech which the framers of the Bill of Rights were most anxious to protect. Criticism of government is entitled to the maximum protection of the First Amendment.''
Viking at last reissued the book as a Penguin paperback in 1991. In the meantime, the strongest and most eloquent case for Peltier’s innocence, and one of Matthiessen’s greatest books, had been kept from the public—for seven years.
Matthiessen was “horrified and indignant” over the destruction of his books, his wife Maria told me. “I did not agree to the destruction of my books,” Matthiessen himself told me in a 1993 interview for The Nation. “I didn’t know about it. They never should have withdrawn the book in the first place.”
[Adapted from Jon Wiener, “Murdered Ink,” The Nation, May 31, 1993.]
Read Next: Jon Wiener on the censorship of Hindu history books in India
April 10 is already a date worth marking. It’s the day Jonas Salk successfully tested his polio vaccine trial and that most of the world agreed to give up biological weapons. It’s the anniversary of the first professional golf tournament in America and the first human cannonball stunt. Heck, it was on that day in 1849 that Walter Hunt patented the safety pin. And in 2014, it will be the 100th day of Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty.
Attempts to take stock are already underway; The Wall Street Journal ran its yesterday. De Blasio is planning to mark the milestone on Thursday. The Nation will, of course, weigh in as well. The timing of the retrospectives is, of course, largely arbitrary: because of a speech FDR gave in 1934 discussing the accomplishments of a special session of Congress over its first 100 days, the first 100 days have become a convention of political coverage, but there’s no substantive reason for stopping now to review the de Blasio era so far.
Still, after the conclusion of the state budget last week, with winter snowstorms and nasty charter-school battles out of the way, it does feel like the de Blasio narrative is entering a new phase. The first three months of the year revolved largely around the effort to get universal pre-kindergarten funded. That effort largely succeeded. Now what? We know that managing the city day-to-day means drama aplenty and that implementing UPK is a huge jobs, but what will the Big Idea of the de Blasio mayoralty be from April 10 on?
In a word, housing. As compelling as the case for UPK was, it is dwarfed by the urgency of the need for decent, affordable housing and the scale of the promises the mayor made during the campaign, where he vowed to build or preserve 190,000 units of affordable housing over ten years. As the Associated Press pointed out last week, the pace de Blasio promised exceeds what the two previous mayors who made housing a priority, Mayor Bloomberg or Mayor Koch, were able to achieve. Housing is central to the inequality concerns that de Blasio articulated during the campaign, which are rooted in the fear that New York is becoming too expensive a place for many of us to live.
De Blasio intends to present his detailed plan for how to achieve its lofty goals by May. So far, the administration’s moves on housing make the rest of its program hard to predict. The much ballyhooed Domino’s site deal, for instance, did increase by a modest amount the number of affordable apartments the developer would provide, and did increase by a substantial degree the amount of floor space given over to those affordable apartments; that second piece matters, because one shortcoming in the affordable housing production under Bloomberg was a lack of production of larger affordable apartments for families.
However, some of the “affordable” apartments at the Domino’s site will be marketed to “moderate-” income families (e.g., families of four making $108,000 or less). And in return for the promises of affordability, the developers will be able to build twenty stories higher than zoning would have allowed. In total, the deal is slightly better than the one the Bloomberg administration might have struck, but the project’s enormous density concerns some advocates—especially since de Blasio’s inclusionary zoning proposal depends on a fair amount of market-rate development to generate the new affordable units.
As an op-ed over the weekend by the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and a report last week by Real Affordability for All make clear, the density questions are only a few of the issues de Blasio’s housing team is grappling with. Whom do you target affordable housing towards? Where do you build it in a city with fewer and fewer big parcels of land left? How do you take a hopelessly inefficient program like 421-a and wring more value out of it?
And if you knock down the artificial intellectual barriers we sometimes erect around different housing issues, those questions about how to structure affordable housing programs are links in a chain with challenges like the city’s homeless population and how to move people from shelters to permanent housing, the disaster that is housing court, how to better enforce the city’s housing code to keep affordable apartments liveable, rent stabilization and the work of the RGB and how to address some of the threats to the city’s massive, crucial and fiscally unsound public housing system.
The mayor’s appointments—Alicia Glen as deputy mayor, Shola Olatoye to head NYCHA and Vicki Been at the helm of HPD—have excellent credentials, but their approaches to setting policy and managing departments are largely unknowns. And as the charter-school episode illustrated, the debate over how to use space is the ultimate zero-sum game, inspiring cut-throat politics. A government can make laws and borrow money, but it can’t really create new land, nor use the land it has in a way that benefits one party without often bothering another.
No one will likely note the 200th or 300th day of the de Blasio administration, but chances are housing is what we’ll be talking about then.
Read Next: Michael Sorkin on affordable housing and so-called inclusionary zoning.
—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.
"Toward Cyborg Socialism," by Alyssa Battistoni. Jacobin, January 2014.
Confession: I don't care about "environmentalism."
Don't get me wrong. I think pollution is bad. I rallied for Coal Divestment at my university. I read Naomi Klein. I follow 350.org on twitter. But at some point, I made a conscious choice to let other more committed environmental activists to do my caring for me. At the time, I saw environmentalism as a mode of political involvement that appealed to especially huge numbers of people in my generation (for good reason), and so felt like I could get away with focusing on the labor movement, on combating income inequality and mass incarceration instead. I was like, "you guys, got this. Tell me where to sign, where to show up, and I'll be there, but I have other meetings to be at!"
In an editorial from Jacobin's winter issue, Alyssa Battistoni explains how stupid I am. Where many leftists have criticized the (mainstream) environmental movement for too comfortably accommodating neoliberalism—just buy these funny looking light bulbs and we'll save the planet!—Battistoni indicts the anti-capitalist left for failing to engage adequately with environmental issues, not as one item on a political agenda but as fundamentally interconnected with our efforts to organize toward an alternative economy. More critical and compelling than the welcome "environmental justice" terminology gaining credence in the green movement, Battistoni calls instead for a "cyborg socialism," which forefronts the entangledness of ecology and technology, of class struggle and the planet it takes place on.
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
"Cheerleaders make the NFL's billions. They deserve to be paid minimum wage," by Nichi Hodgson. The Guardian, March 30, 2014.
The National Labor Relations Board’s recent decision to allow players at Northwestern University to form a union is a major victory for college athletes long denied the fruits of their own labor. However, football players are not the only labor pool that is exploited by the multibillion dollar industry. Nichi Hodgson's recent Guardian piece highlights the fact that NFL cheerleaders—the faces and bodies so ubiquitous in television and in-house NFL advertising—are paid less than minimum wage. Moreover, paternalistic NFL teams insist that these women adhere to a strict standard of moral behavior (as if the NFL is some bastion of morality). As Hodgson describes it: "no fraternizing with the players, including no discussion of wages or working hours; no jewelry, other than wedding bands and team-mandated earrings; no weighing a single pound more than you did at the beginning of the season; compulsory tans, fake or skin cancerous—the list goes on." As Hodgson points out, these are the same punitive practices found in strip clubs. However, strippers have been able to push for back wages and compensation, such as the Spearmint Rhino dancers who successfully sued the club chain for almost $13 million. "Even strippers have more labor rights than cheerleaders," and even the team mascot makes a minimum wage. It's time that cheerleaders received the same.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“Game of Homes,” by Rebecca Burns, Michael Donley & Carmilla Manzanet. In These Times, March 31, 2014.
In These Times reports on the rapid growth of big bank– and private equity firm–owned housing in the wake of the financial crisis — and what it portends. The authors write: "After first making money from the housing bubble that crashed the economy, then benefitting from the federal bailout, banks and investors now stand ready to profit all over again by cleaning up the mess they made." A source tells the authors of the piece that, for example, "in many cases, victims of foreclosure are literally renting back their own houses." They detail the ways that gentrification, unsafe living conditions and general poverty and precarity result from financial companies increasingly serving as the (absentee) landlords of huge swathes of American cities. Another recent article in In These Times, "The End of Jobs?" gives a similarly important analysis of another of the economic trends that are leading, broadly speaking, away from the mid-twentieth-century "American Dream" and its fantasy of stability. Both come with ideas for solutions: accompanying "Game of Homes" is the article "Three Ways to Cut Wall Street Out of the ‘Housing Recovery,’" offering ideas on how to move forward.
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
"Talking With 13-Year-Old Leggings Activist Sophie Hasty," by Amanda Hess. Slate, April 1, 2014.
An interesting, albeit poisonous paradox: Middle-school girls are forbidden from wearing leggings because they are distracting to boys and destructive to the educational environment; therefore, dress code. However, girls who transgress against the vague clothing guidelines are forced to hide behind their friends when administrators approach, wear embarrassing gym shorts and even take papers home for their parents to sign. Now, what's more frustrating to administrators' educational ambitions? The inherent vice associated with the female body, or the regulations educators impose on those bodies?
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“Export Stupidity,” by Richard Heinberg. Post Carbon Institute, March 27, 2014.
Assuming law to be static is a big mistake. For example, new crude oil facilities that promise only to ship carbon domestically (exporting US crude has been essentially forbidden since 1975) should be met with skepticism. As proof, Congress is now thinking of lifting the 1975 ban. Richard Heinberg’s short piece, which does not mention the crude oil ban specifically, still offers a good antidote to Congressional hearings on promoting US carbon exports. Sorry to self-promote, but I predicted this in February 2013.
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.
"Terrabyte Incognita: Africa Might Not Look Like You Think It Does," by James Wan. Think Africa Press, March 28, 2014.
It's well known that cartography can't be entirely objective. Greenland is grossly oversized in the commonly used Mercator projection, and I know some Australians who prefer the "upside down" map of the world. Scholars like Thongchai Winichakul and Benedict Anderson have written about how the development of cartography was key in defining national identity because it not only gave firm physical borders to the nation state but also gave people a mental image of the country. Wan's article argues that that ubiquitous modern cartographic technology, Google Maps, isn't immune. "Google Maps claims to be on a 'never-ending quest for the perfect map,'" he writes. But due to its ad-based profit model, against which "not even states have the vast resources necessary to compete...Africa comes very low down on the pecking order." Wan concludes: "As was the case a century ago, it is still just a small group of Western individuals with specific ideas of the world that have the resources to map the world."
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
"Other People's Pathologies," by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The Atlantic, March 30, 2014.
The first essay assignment I received in my college African-American lit class asked us to answer the question: What is White-American literature? A class of mainly white students, we would spend the whole semester learning to see the thing we spent a lifetime not seeing: White-people culture, branded as the norm, rendered invisible as a result.
Is it silly to lump all white people into one group and start ascribing it with universal characteristics? It's as silly as it is to do it with black people, or any other race or ethnicity.
And yet, it's open season once again on the public examination of black culture. This time, at least, it has produced an exhilarating exchange between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. Coates's latest volley turns the eye of observation on those who are doing the judging, reminding us that the privileged are hobbled by their own filters. They, like everyone, see the world not like it is, but as their upbringing and environment make them see it—and behave accordingly. It is a reminder that values unobserved still exist, and those values have contributed to a devastation of black communities that has lasted centuries—a history the privileged (and we're talking white privilege, specifically) have never been forced to contend with or seriously answer for. As Melissa Harris-Perry put in her most recent Nation column: "Social science has spent little time debating the tangle of pathology that ensnares the privileged. We are trained to intervene with those who lack resources, to find the problems there, and to ignore the perpetrators of the inequality."
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
"Obamacare: Where Are We Now?" by John Cassidy. The New Yorker, March 28 2014.
"Health Caring," by Jeffrey Toobin. The New Yorker, April 7 2014.
I was delighted to find out that Obamacare's March 31 deadline not only produced upwards of 7 million signups, but some excellent, policy-driven health journalism (my favorite). Not necessarily known for its healthcare coverage, The New Yorker offers some thorough—and, happily, positive—commentary on the ACA. Cassidy suggests that while the Democrats may be winning the war in policy—there are substantial and measurable positive outcomes for millions of people (including me, as a new Medicaid beneficiary) stemming from the ACA rollout—it's losing the war on rhetoric: While most Americans overwhelmingly support individual policy changes attributable to the healthcare law, they remain critical of Obamacare as a whole. That's thanks in large part to Republicans' united, scathing and deliberately misinformed (read: "death panel") attacks on the measure, and Democrats' anemic defense. Toobin notes that Obamacare helps the poor the most, and that it is this element of the law that is arguably most important and impactful, and provokes the most push back from conservatives. Looking at the historic experience of Medicaid, he suggests it's just a matter of weathering the battle; with the passage and enactment of the law, the war is already being won.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“Foreign Aid 101, Third Edition” by Oxfam America. April 2, 2014
Aid is one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated areas of our federal budget. As Oxfam’s updated primer on the subject makes clear, “foreign aid” has many faces. American taxpayers have financed, to cite just a few examples, the mobilization of emergency supplies for typhoon victims in the Philippines, programs to link Kenyan farmers to outside markets and counter-narcotics operations in Columbia. To speak of aid in generalities—without making even the elementary distinctions between humanitarian relief, development assistance and the strategic backing of political and military allies—serves only to perpetuate confusion and muddle an important conversation. For readers seeking a nuanced understanding of the subject, Oxfam’s Foreign Aid 101 is a good place to start.
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
"Introducing BuzzFeed Ideas," by Ayesha Siddiqi. BuzzFeed, April 1, 2014.
Among the listicles and the suddenly omnipresent quizzes, BuzzFeed recently unveiled a new section of their website, BuzzFeed Ideas. Introducing the launch, Ayesha Siddiqi, the site's editor, offers her take on the revitalized form of criticism she hopes to have on her site. She promises to take seriously the "social web" and have articles predicated on conversation that move beyond reactionary think pieces to present more nuanced "ideas." While the exact nature of the site's content and how it will interact with the rest of the site remains to be seen, Siddiqi's introduction promises an exciting new space for critical writing.
Read Next: A new bill would require universities to enact anti-harassment policies.
Across the country, at the grassroots level, Republicans have formed alliances with Democrats to demand that the influence of money in our politics be reduced. As the reform group Free Speech for People noted last year, dozens of Republican legislators have backed calls by states for a Constitutional amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”
In Washington, however, Republican reformers are harder to come by—as was evidenced by the celebrations of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling by GOP congressional leaders. Leaving no doubt about his faith that those with the most money get to speak the loudest in our elections, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hailed the Court’s decision to strike down limits on aggregated campaign donations by wealthy Americans with an announcement that “freedom of speech is being upheld.” At the same time, one of the attorneys who argued for elimination of the cap on aggregate donations said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell—who Kentucky media noted “filed an amicus brief on the McCutcheon v. FEC case as a part of his continued crusade against campaign finance reform”—had been “extremely helpful” in pushing the court to go even further than McCutcheon’s legal team had initially proposed.
Yet, despite Boehner’s enthusiasm and McConnell’s ambition, the party leaders do not speak for every Republican in Washington.
Three years ago, Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposals to amend the constitution in order to renew the power of the people and their elected representatives to regulate money in politics. More recently, he co-sponsored a proposal by Congressman Jim Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, to develop public financing for congressional elections. Jones is on board with Government By the People Act of 2014, a “matching-funds” plan offered by Congressman John Sarbanes, D-Maryland. And he is the only Republican co-sponsor of the Empowering Citizens Act, a plan by Congressman David Price, D-North Carolina, to renew the public financing system for presidential elections.
On his own, Jones has sponsored legislation to bar the use of political funds for personal purposes.
What is Jones thinking? “I think Citizens United was one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court in my adult lifetime,” the congressman said last year. “In Washington, the problem is that the leadership in both parties—and I want to be fair about that: both parties—seem to like the system the way it is… When the Democrats were in the majority, it was very difficult for those [reform] Democrats to get the bills moving on their own side. And on my side, it’s almost like it’s a dead issue, which disappoints me greatly as a Republican. Now, I will work this year, across party lines, to reform the campaign laws of our nation.”
Like many of the most progressive reformers in the country, the conservative congressman speaks specifically about the link between special-interest influence on elections and political dysfunction in Washington. “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” he says. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”
Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they Republicans or Democrats, members of Congress or pundits, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. Support for real reform is widespread, crossing lines of partisan and ideological division. Sixteen states and more than 500 communities have called for amendments with varied language but one point: that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”
Now, however, Jones faces a Republican primary challenge from a classic Washington power player, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain who has been a consultant for big banks and trade groups and who put in a stint as the senior vice president for the Financial Services Forum, the DC voice of some of the biggest Wall Street banks. “[No] matter how he casts himself,” writes Politico, “Griffin is an insider.”
Griffin’s gripe with Jones appears to be that the veteran congressman is too independent-minded. And it is true that Jones breaks rank with party orthodoxy. For instance, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of US military adventurism, often working with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, on issues of war and peace. This has put him at odds with the Bush and Obama administrations, and more recently with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose 2013 budget Jones said was too lavish in its funding of wars. But Jones is hardly a left-winger. He echoes the “old-right” language of conservative icons such as former Ohio Senator Robert Taft Sr. and former Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett, and of some younger libertarian-leaning House members such as Michigan Republican Justin Amash.
What really bugs Griffin and his DC backers is that Jones does not follow the party line when it comes to doing Wall Street’s bidding. For the past decade, he’s been one of the steadiest congressional critics of free-trade agreements; and he recently joined twenty-one of his House Republican colleagues in expressing; opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. And he’s been a steady critic of big banks, opposing bailouts, supporting regulation and arguing with Congressman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and others for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banking. Those stances undoubtedly played a role in getting Jones kicked off the House Financial Services Committee in Speaker John Boehner’s purge of so-called <“a href="http://projects.newsobserver.com/under_the_dome/walter_jones_kicked_off_house_committee" target="_blank">rebellious Republicans.”
Now Jeff Connaughton, the former Senate aide who wrote the book The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, suggests that Jones’s independence has earned him a challenge from Griffin in the May 6 Republican primary. “I doubt anyone in North Carolina needs me to point out this is a Wall Street bank hit job,” says Connaughton, who helped frame the fight for the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.
Bloomberg reports: “JPMorgan Chase (JPM) & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) are lining up behind Jones’ primary challenger, Taylor Griffin, an aide in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department who later worked for groups that advocated in Washington for the biggest financial services companies.” Former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a top lobbyist, is a Griffin donor, as is former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Indeed, observes Politico, Griffin has had a cash influx from some of the most high-profile Republican lobbyists in Washington.
That’s helped Griffin get competitive with Jones, a rare accomplishment for a primary challenger. And as the May 6 election approaches, Griffin’s got the connections to bring in a lot more money. Like Mitch McConnell, he is a classic example of a candidate who could benefit in a very big way from the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings.
Walter Jones will have a harder time tapping top Wall Street donors than Taylor Griffin—in no small part because of the incumbent’s record of saying “no” to the banks.
Most members of Congress have a hard time saying “no” not just to bankers but to big money in general. That’s one of the reasons why Jones has advocated for both financial services reform and political reform. The two go together. Indeed, in this era of Citizens United and McCutcheon, the measure of political independence must begin with a willingness to address the influence of money on our elections. It is Jones’s recognition of that fact that has made him a conservative advocate for reform. He understands that some truths go beyond partisanship and ideology, and the first of these is that, “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed.”
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This is not another shooting-fish-in-a-barrel commentary about the antediluvian swinishness of Boomer Esiason and Mike Francesa. This is not another swipe at their comments criticizing the efforts of Mets second basemen Daniel Murphy for missing opening day to be with his wife for the birth of their child. For those who missed it, Esiason opined, “I would have said, ‘C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money. This is how we’re going to live our life. This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to, because I’m a baseball player.’”
Fellow troglodytic troll of the NYC sports radio airwaves Mike Francesa commented, “You’re a major league baseball player. You can hire a nurse.” Francesa also called the paternity leave at his own company “a scam-and-a-half.”
I spoke to my friend Martha, who is a midwife—and a Mets fan—about their comments. She said simply, “I would ask if they knew how it sounded, talking about this woman like she is a human incubator to be cut open in a dangerous, often unnecessary surgical procedure so Murphy can make it to Citi Field on time. I would ask that, but honestly, if you can’t see why the asshole-levels on these comments are off the charts, then I can’t help you.”
I also spoke with Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player and someone who has devoted his life to challenging the ways in which sports have the capacity to communicate a toxic, destructive brand of masculinity. Ehrmann said, “I think these comments are pretty shortsighted and reflect old school thinking about masculinity and fatherhood. Paternity leave is critical in helping dads create life long bonding and sharing in the responsibilities of raising emotionally healthy children. To miss the life altering experience of ‘co-laboring’ in a delivery room due to nonessential work-related responsibilities is to create false values.”
Ehrmann also pointed out the ways in which these statements create a culture that normalizes the alienation between fathers and children. He said, “Comments like these put every man in a position to think about career and co workers opinions ahead of father/husband/partner roles. So even in companies with paternity leave, many new dads won’t or feel like they can’t take advantage of leave without a stigma being attached to them…. This is one more arena where sports/athletes could be a metaphor for social change and elevate the birth/nurture/fatherhood role and responsibilities over work.”
He then said to me that this kind of sexist mentality not only harms families, not only harms men, but also quite specifically harms athletes. “I’m convinced the number-one common denominator in locker rooms is father-child dysfunction,” he said. “It’s what pathologically elevates many performances. ‘I will prove to [the coach/father figure] I am worthy of my dad’s love and acceptance,’ at the expense of self and others. If any group should understand need for dads in delivery rooms it should be athletes and the athletic world.”
I would also add that the only reason Daniel Murphy even had the option to take this time off is because it was collectively bargained into his contract by his union. There are millions of men in nonunion jobs who don’t even have this option, not to mention millions of women who risk their employment in the United States by taking time off after the birth of their child.
I think there is something else going on as well. The comments from Boomer and Francesa smack of a kind of existential fear from an older generation of sports radio jockeys about the ways in which definitions of masculinity and sports have been rapidly changing. There have been two dominant kinds of masculine archetypes for the last thirty years in sports. Either you could be heterosexual, misogynist, talking loudly but saying nothing with a goal of trying to become a commercial brand; or you could be a heterosexual evangelical Christian, talking humbly with a goal of trying to become a commercial brand. Those who strayed outside of these norms have only done so with considerable risk to their standing in the media or even their job.
But in the last two years, these archetypes have changed. We have seen players such as Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers and Michael Sam break new ground as gay athletes. We have seen Royce White and Brandon Marshall speak out about their mental health challenges and show that this kind of openness does not demonstrate weakness but courage. We have a new cultural consensus that does not see concussions as a bizarre badge of honor but a danger sign. We’ve had Jonathan Martin go public about being bullied by teammates, forcing the NFL to confront long-standing locker-room behaviors. Poisonous, narrow definitions of masculinity are being challenged. A player’s missing opening day to be with his wife on the birth of their child clearly caused Boomer’s and Francesa’s brains to rupture. Their idealized sports world as a masculinist cocoon absent of progress and insulated from the real world, where every day is 1985 (or even 1955), is withering before their eyes. People are deciding that ruining your life and your relationship with family in the name of a code that impresses the Mike Francesas of the world isn’t worth it. This is progress, but as in any time when we see progressive healthy change, the hounds of reaction will still nip at its heels.
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In the wake of the latest US Supreme Court ruling, the problem of money in politics will soon reach a true crisis point, if it’s not already there. Of course, this has been a slow, steady match to this precipice.
The first modern campaign to raise massive amounts of money, secretly, via front groups or consultants outside the political party offices, sometimes with strong-arm tactics, and across the country—even though it was a state contest—took place in 1934, when the famous Socialist author Upton Sinclair swept the Democratic primary and appeared headed for victory leading a mass movement known as EPIC (End Poverty in California). I’ve written about this at length previously here (and in my book The Campaign of the Century), so I’ll just provide a link to the full story.
But one of the key sources of money was right in California—within the Hollywood studios, where tens of thousands toiled. My new e-book, When Hollywood Turned Left, was published last week. It focuses on the wild response in Hollywood—then controlled by conservative Republicans—to Sinclair, which included the creation of the first use of the screen for “attack ads,” thanks to MGM’s Irving Thalberg. The right-wing attack was so outrageous it sparked liberals out there to organize, and Hollywood has tilted left ever since.
Here’s an excerpt about one of the most notorious aspects: almost all the studio chiefs docked their employees, from low-level to top stars, one day’s pay to go for the slush fund of the hack Republican candidate, Frank Merriam. One of those who protested but lacked the clout to resist was the young screenwriter (later famed director) Billy Wilder, who had arrived in the US just recently. Jimmy Cagney and Kate Hepburn, already top stars, did fight back.
* * *
Stars in the studio system enjoyed a wide variety of benefits and privileges. The studio bosses at least asked them to donate to the Merriam fund before threatening to dock them. Some writers, such as Donald Ogden Stewart, went along with the request. Less established figures were given no choice in the matter.
Take the young writer Billy Wilder over at the Fox studio, for example. Wilder, who was still trying to salvage Raoul Walsh’s East River, received his latest paycheck, normally $250, only to find $50 missing.
“There’s something wrong,” Billy said to the studio cashier in his heavily accented English. “There’s been a mistake.”
“There was no mistake,” she replied. “They took fifty dollars from everyone to give to Governor Merriam. If you have any complaints, talk to Mr. Sheehan.”
Billy didn’t know what this was all about, but he knew one thing: he desperately needed that fifty dollars to make the rent on his tiny room at the Chateau Marmont and to pay for his English lessons. He was behind on payments on his ‘28 De Soto, too. In no position to approach Winnie Sheehan, Fox’s top man, he cornered another studio exec instead.
“Will you please explain?” Wilder asked. “I’m just here on a visa, I’m not interested in politics.”
“Sinclair is dangerous,” the executive replied, “he must be defeated. The Communists want to take over.”
“Shouldn’t I have the privilege of making the donation myself?” Billy asked innocently.
“No, the house is burning down,” the exec said, “and we need as much water as possible to put it out. That son of a bitch bolshevik Sinclair must be stopped.”
“And my hard-earned fifty dollars is going to stop him?” Wilder wondered.
Billy was aghast. It seemed childish, foolish and incipiently fascist at the same time. And he knew something about fascism. He went back to his office and asked his colleagues, red-blooded Americans all, what he should do. After all, he was just a hick from Austria and unwise to the ways of American politics. This just didn’t seem like the American way, as he understood it.
They said, “It had to be done,” and “There’s nothing you can do.” You can’t fight city hall, and all that. Some of them agreed that Sinclair
was a Communist. Wilder said he knew a little bit about Sinclair and he was not by any means a Communist.
“Oh, you’re a Communist too?” one writer replied. “You better watch it.”
Wilder was out of fifty dollars and left with two conflicting thoughts concerning the forced donations. One was: It may not be democratic, but it’s a brilliant idea. Maybe if businessmen in Germany had deducted fifty marks from their workers to stop Hitler, Europe would be a safer place today.
The other was: I fled fascism for THIS?
Another Hollywood figure rebelling against the so-called Merriam tax was that “professional againster” James Cagney. He was back in Los Angeles after shooting Devil Dogs of the Air in San Diego. Politically, Jimmy was still skating on thin ice thanks to the flap over his alleged role in last summer’s Communist uprising, so it behooved him to go along with Jack Warner’s request for money for Merriam. But Cagney wouldn’t sign the studio’s check.
At least that’s what he told Frank Scully, head of the writers’ committee for Upton Sinclair, when they met, for secrecy’s sake, just outside the Warner Brothers gate. Scully found it amusing that two solid Americans were huddling on the street, speaking in whispers, as if they were plotting a revolution. Cagney told Scully not only that he had refused to sign the check delivering one day’s wage to Merriam but that if the studio forced him, he would donate one week’s salary to Sinclair. Since that represented a six-to-one advantage for EPIC, Jimmy figured that would stop them.
Unlike the writers, Hollywood’s acting talent, with the exception of Jimmy Cagney and a handful of others, seemed to go along with the Merriam tax without much of a fuss. Early reports that Jean Harlow planned to buck the system proved premature. But the name of another
young star supposedly fighting the Merriam tax had surfaced in Hollywood. It raised eyebrows, for the actress, Katharine Hepburn, had much to lose, having just won an Academy Award. While Jean Harlow’s career, in the Production Code “decency” era, appeared to be imperiled, Hepburn had clear sailing.
But 1934, by and large, was not kind to Kate. After a flop or two, criticism of Hepburn’s cool manner and unconventional dress mounted. Gossip columnists referred to her as La Hepburn. One writer dryly commented that she “occasionally has human impulses and she is not all snobbery and self-satisfaction.” On October 7, Louella Parsons revealed that “photographers have agreed not to take a single pic of her because she’s been so rude.”
Yet, if anything, Hepburn took herself less seriously than others did. When her habit of wearing men’s pants caused a stir in Paris, she commented, “I couldn’t be dignified if I tried.” She hated reading references to Kit Hepburn as the mother of Katharine Hepburn. “My mother is important,” she explained, “I am not.” Kate wished she could paint, play music, or write books instead of act, but “alas, I’m not talented at all.” With her friend Laura Harding she lived in an isolated home in Coldwater Canyon.
As the California governor’s race heated up this autumn, Hepburn was filming The Little Minister, based on the J. M. Barrie play, for RKO. It was a big-budget production, and the studio expected the film to put Hepburn’s career back on track. With that much invested, RKO executives could not have been pleased when rumors circulated that Kate Hepburn favored Upton Sinclair or would not pay the “Merriam tax,” or both. Now the Los Angeles district attorney had sent an investigator to find out what Hepburn really believed—and whether RKO had threatened to punish her for those beliefs.
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This post requires full disclosure: I could hardly be more involved in what I’m writing about here. Not only do my two children attend PS 29, one of the main teachers involved in the story teaches my son’s class, I’ve personally worked with the teachers and parents trying to organize resistance to high-stakes testing, I know a number of the Teachers Resolution’s signatories and I’m totally biased in their favor.
Now, on to our story: this past week, third through eighth graders in New York State public schools took the English Language Arts standardized tests. In New York City, the tests have an unusually high-stakes dimension absent in most of the rest of the state (and the country) in that students’ scores can play a significant role in their admission to middle school.
There’s a growing nationwide movement opposing these tests as the result of a corporate-driven agenda that has distorted real learning, widened the achievement gap, increased financial strain on schools and parents, unfairly stigmatized teachers and introduced unnecessary stress into the lives of young people. There’s a litany of grievances cited by critics and the opposition comes from both the left and the right.
In many places, activists have encouraged parents to opt out of the tests, which is legally allowed in all states. The most dramatic example of a successful opt out movement took place in January 2013, when teachers led a test boycott at Seattle’s Garfield High School. Teachers refused to administer and students refused to take the state test, which organizers argued wasn’t aligned to curriculum and provided statistically unreliable results. After a months-long standoff with the district, which saw teachers threatened with suspension, the district relented and allowed the high school to forgo the test.
Nothing has gone that far in New York City. Yet. But three Brooklyn schools did have significant opt-out numbers this past week and there’s a huge undercurrent of resentment building to what even many school administrators are calling unreliable, unfair, unintelligible and unnecessary tests.
Liz Phillips, the highly respected veteran principal of Park Slope’s PS 321, was so aghast at the muddle that was apparently this year’s ELA that she issued a strongly worded statement on behalf of her administration and faculty, telling parents, “There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages.” She added that she was “devastated” at having had to administer the tests and underscored that “our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability. ”
Phillips followed up by quickly organizing a protest at her school on April 4, the morning after the ELAs were complete, and reaching out to Dr. Rebecca Fagin, the principal of fellow Brownstone Brooklyn Public School 29 (where my children are in third and first grades currently) encouraging her to do the same.
Fagin, in her second year at the helm and already on record as opposing the high-stakes nature of the test along with 545 fellow New York State principals who co-signed this letter last November, was receptive to Phillips’s suggestion. She also had the strong backing of a growing group of the school’s teachers, a small number of whom had previously collaborated on a teachers’ resolution opposing the tests which was subsequently signed by about three-quarters of the school’s faculty and released at the April 4 protests.
I’ve heard moving emotional appeals making the case against high-stakes testing. I’ve read heavily reported books. I’ve sat through well-informed data-driven presentations. But I had not read something like the PS 29 Teachers Resolution, which combines the intellectual clarity of the deeply informed with the urgency that only profound personal involvement can incite.
These teachers are on the front lines—they truly care and they really know the deal. Let’s honor their commitment by listening to them.
Over the past decade, standardized tests have taken on greater importance in New York’s public schools. New York City’s students now take state ELA and math exams in grades 3 through 8, and their performance on these tests is linked to promotion, middle- and high-school admissions, teacher evaluations and school progress reports.
Because the tests are now aligned with the Common Core State Standards, they have become more difficult, resulting in much lower passing rates across New York City and State. The tests have also become longer: elementary school students will spend between seven and nine hours taking the state tests this month and next, and students with testing accommodations may have to sit for as many as eighteen hours of testing this spring. Moreover, during March and April, students in testing-grade classrooms can spend up to three hours per day preparing for the state tests.
As teachers, we feel the impact of these changes in our classrooms. In testing grades, the anxiety that students and teachers have about the state exams is palpable. Some students break down in tears during testing and related test-prep sessions, knowing that their performance impacts not only their promotion to the next grade, but also their chances of getting into choice middle and high schools.
Compounding the emotional turmoil, teachers in testing grades must narrow their otherwise rich curricula in order to make room for test prep. Subjects like social studies, word study and read aloud are cast aside, and valuable social-emotional learning and exploration must be limited in order to make sure that students are ready for the exams come spring.
High-stakes tests require that teachers narrow not only their curricula but also the skills they emphasize. As teachers in testing grades prepare students for the state exams, they must often put aside their emphasis on skills like elaboration and creative thinking in order to teach kids to write formulaic responses and find the one right answer.
Even the lower grades have been affected by these high-stakes tests. The pressure to prepare students for their upcoming years of testing has cut time for exploration and play. Additionally, that pressure has increased the need for students to meet, at times, developmentally inappropriate milestones in reading and writing.
Beyond the scope of individual classrooms, high-stakes tests have significant consequences for a school as a whole. As teachers are pulled from their programs to accommodate the proctoring and scoring of exams, a number of critical support services, ESL periods, ICT classrooms and specialty programs are disrupted for nearly a month.
When used correctly, we believe that assessment is a powerful tool. At PS 29, we constantly assess our students, collecting meaningful data that informs our day-to-day instruction. Unlike the high-stakes tests, our assessments improve the education we provide.
Across grades, we feel with great certainty that the rise of standardized testing—and most specifically, its high-stakes nature—has eroded real student learning time, narrowed the curriculum and jeopardized the rich, meaningful education our students need and deserve.
As such, we, the undersigned, believe that it is crucial for teachers to raise our voices on these issues, and we resolve to stand together to advocate for the elimination of the high-stakes nature of standardized tests.
Kim Van Duzer
Liz Sturges Cosentino
Melissa Bandes Golden