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

Soldier at Walter Reed

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

American troops were withdrawn from Iraq two and a half years ago.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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hank Aaron

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

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

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

Aaron, now 80 years old, was in the news again this week. We just passed the 40th anniversary of his famous home run number 715 off of Al Downing and reporters readied the puff pieces, but Aaron was not in a puffy mood. In an interview with USA Today, Aaron spoke about why he still holds onto all of the hate mail and death threats he received while chasing down Ruth’s mark. He said he keeps them to remind himself “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There’s not a whole lot that has changed.”

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

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

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

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

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

Bryant emailed me the following, and his observations bear repeated reading.

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

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

Read Next: Pat Tillman, the Boston Marathon and the tale of two anniversaries.

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

Lewis Black

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read Next: Greg Mitchell: Stephen Colbert gets Letterman’s job—and right-wingers freak out.

The Tax Breaks That Are Killing the Planet

Smokestack

(Reuters/Sukree Sukplang)

ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, hauled in a $32.6 billion profit last year. Chief executive Rex Tillerson got a 3 percent bump in his pay package, sending it above $28 million. And today the company gets its annual boost from the federal government: an estimated $600 million in tax breaks.

All told, the government gifts as much as $4.8 billion to the oil industry each year, more than any other country. Much of that comes not as direct handouts but instead via loopholes in the tax code; deductions for depleting oil reserves, for example, and write-offs for the expense of drilling a new well. These reflect a long-past era in which oil exploration was financially risky, and prices were low. Now oil prices and profits are high, and the government is losing revenue while promoting the continued exploitation of carbon-intensive fuels. In the face of a changing climate and a constrained domestic budget, the lunacy of such preferential treatment is hard to overstate.

“Perverse” is the word the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found for such policies in its latest report, which was released in full on Tuesday. Globally, subsidies for fossil fuel production—amounting to $1.9 trillion in 2011, or 8 percent of government revenues, according to the International Monetary Fund—“prove to increase emissions and put heavy burdens on public budgets,” reads the report.

On the other hand, rolling them back could be a key part of a serious climate agenda. The IMF estimates that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies could lower emissions by 13 percent. That general principle, if not the exact figure, is supported by the IPCC, which wrote, “Lowering or removing such subsidies would contribute to global mitigation, but this has proved difficult.”

“Difficult” may be an understatement in the United States. As a recent article at Mother Jones lays out, the energy industry wields considerable influence in Washington. In the last fifteen years oil and gas companies spent more than $1.4 billion on lobbying, employing nearly 800 lobbyists, many of them culled from congressional offices. That expense is actually a shrewd investment: every dollar the five largest oil companies spend on lobbying reflects $53 in tax breaks. The industry also leverages millions in donations to candidates and political ads during each election cycle, discouraging politicians from taking a hard line on tax breaks.

Government support for fossil fuels goes beyond the tax code. Another de facto subsidy comes from the Interior Department’s failure to collect proper royalties on domestic oil and coal. The government has lost as much as $14.7 million because royalties are not collected on offshore leases in the Gulf of Mexico. In Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, below-market sale prices and an uncompetitive bidding process for coal reserves has cost taxpayers as much as $30 billion over the past two decades, while helping to prop up a collapsing industry. There’s also evidence that the federal coal program is failing to properly collect royalties on coal sold overseas. While President Obama may not be able to do much about the tax code unilaterally, his Interior Department certainly has the authority—in fact, the obligation—to reform its coal-leasing program.

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Finally, there is a more deeply hidden giveaway to the fossil fuel industry, the most critical of oversights: the fact that companies don’t pay for the damages caused by their products—their external costs. While every citizen will pay for climate change, as those living near extraction and refining sites have long borne the burden of local pollution, companies get a free pass on their carbon emissions. This imbalance is what a carbon tax is designed to remedy.

Closing loopholes in the tax code would be only a small part of an aggressive climate agenda—particularly since it’s unlikely that eliminating those subsidies would affect global oil prices significantly. Still, those tax breaks represent billions that could be spent elsewhere, such as investment in renewables. The IPCC report concluded that subsidies, directed properly, can be an effective tool for slowing down global warming by helping low-carbon technologies and products overcome their competitive disadvantage in relationship to fossil fuels. Federal support for renewables now outstrips benefits for fossil fuels, but it’s still not comparable to the help that the government gave the oil industry in its early days. Important incentives, like the wind energy tax credit, have been allowed to expire. Furthermore, our national infrastructure is designed for the age of cheap fossil fuels, making it even more difficult for alternative energy to compete.

The best chance for closing the loopholes—and, perhaps, for imposing a carbon tax—is if Congress overhauls the tax code, something both parties have indicated an interest in. But even the best chance is a slim one given the cabal of climate deniers in the House, and a broader reluctance to challenge energy interests. If climate change seems like a problem too big to to approach, perhaps start here: elections matter.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Huevel on the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously”

Why We Can’t Strip Race Out of the Gender Wage Gap Conversation

Minimum wage

Darlene Handy of Baltimore holds up a banner during a rally supporting an increase in the state's minimum wage. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

April 8 was Equal Pay Day, the day by which women will have theoretically worked enough to catch up to what men made the year before. In honor of that, the Senate voted on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill aimed at giving women a little more power to fight wage discrimination, which Republicans unanimously blocked. While some Republicans claim they care about the wage gap and just object to what they see as burdensome regulation, other conservatives have been calling the idea of the gender wage gap itself into question.

It is a fair question to ask what causes the gap. While it’s true that women make seventy-seven cents for every dollar a man makes when they work full-time, year-round, it’s also true that this figure can obscure various factors that aren’t purely discriminatory. Work experience plays a role. Industry and occupation play a role. Education can play a role.

In trying to figure out how much of the wage gap is discrimination and how much can be explained by other factors, nearly every statistician conducts regression studies that take measurable factors into consideration by holding them constant and seeing what’s left over. From government agencies like the Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office to women’s advocacy groups like AAUW to economists like Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, a similar group of factors are held constant to find the “unexplained” gap, or the murk where bias would rear its head if it does exist. One of those constant factors is race.

At first blush, this makes sense. All of these researchers are striving to compare the most apple-like of apples to apples—a woman and a man who look as identical as possible and therefore should be paid the same. Therefore, they compare a woman to a man with the same job tenure, seniority, occupation, marital status and race, or in other words, measurable differences. Discrimination will crop up when everything they can measure is stripped out but a gap remains.

But that means that race gets removed from the conversation about discrimination. It’s ends up in the “explained” category. In the study by Blau and Kahn, for example, they list their six controlled factors and note that 2.4 percent of the gap is explained by race. On the other hand, 41.1 percent of the gap remains unexplained, the part that is “potentially due to discrimination,” according to their paper, but not a part that includes racial disparities.

We know that race dramatically shapes wages—that’s part of why it gets lumped into the explained category. Using Census information, the National Women’s Law Center found that African-American men make 73 percent of what white men make, on average, and African-American women make 64 percent. The numbers are even lower for Hispanics: men make 61 percent of white men’s earnings and women make just 54 percent. Men of color even make less than white women.

So, yes, taking this measurable difference into account will surely help explain some of the wage gap. But does that mean we should remove it from the conversation about discrimination? Do we have a good explanation for why people of color of both genders make less than white people? There may be some mitigating factors shaping the racial wage gap as well, but there’s plenty of research indicating that our labor market still discriminates against people of color. Race may be factored into calculating the wage gap, but it’s pushed aside in the discussion about whether women are up against real life wage discrimination. It’s treated as a given.

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Even some of the factors that sound objective and explainable could conceal discrimination. In economists Blau and Kahn’s study, the most recent to focus on measuring discrimination, occupation or the jobs women end up in, accounts for more than a quarter of the wage gap. One could see this as a choice, and some women may gravitate more toward teaching elementary school instead of college students. But there are plenty of barriers that keep women from top-earning occupations. And even when women do similar work compared to men, they often make less. Maids are paid less than $10 an hour at the median, but janitors are paid more than $12 on average. Low-skill women’s jobs pay nearly $150 less a week than men’s, on average, while high-skill women’s jobs pay $471 less. It may be hard to determine how much this determines the wage gap, but clearly it’s biased that society values work less when women perform it.

For their part, Blau and Kahn realize that some factors they hold constant may mask discrimination. They write that “if some of the factors controlled for in such regressions—like occupation and tenure with the employer—themselves reflect the impact of discrimination, then discrimination will be underestimated” in their study. Race isn’t terribly murky, though. There’s no objective explanation for why black women make less than white women. And when we divorce that fact from the larger conversation about the wage gap, we fail to challenge the fact that women of color are experiencing multiple forms of bias.

 

Read Next: The GOP offers the same tired excuses for opposing equal pay.

7 Facts About Our Broken Tax System

IRS

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

1. We don’t have a progressive tax system. A truly progressive tax system would ask those who are the most well-off in America to contribute the largest share of their income in taxes. Our federal taxes are progressive, but when you account for state, local and sales taxes, top-line taxation rate isn’t really progressive at all. The share of total taxes paid is roughly in line with shares of total income across all earning levels. (Chart via Citizens for Tax Justice)

2. We’re one of the least-taxed countries in the world. Though the animating impulse of much of conservative politics is that we’re over-taxed, total government receipts are less in the United States than they are in any other member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as a percent of GDP. (Chart via Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

3. Not many companies pay the corporate tax rate—and some don’t pay any corporate taxes at all. Politicians and corporate lobbyists are fond of saying the US corporate tax rate of 35 percent is the highest in the world, which is technically true—but thanks to expansive tax loopholes, many corporations don’t pay nearly that much. Citizens for Tax Justice looked at consistently profitable Fortune 500 companies and found they paid 19.4 percent of their profits in taxes over the past five years. (Note that a single taxpayer earning $37,000 annually pays a 25 percent rate.) Many big companies don’t pay any taxes at all. (Chart via Citizens for Tax Justice)

4. Some of your tax dollars are given to hugely profitable companies. You’ll note in the chart above that these companies have a negative tax rate—meaning they actually get money from the government. This can come in the form of federal tax breaks and other preferential treatment of certain financial instruments. Then consider the subsidies given directly to industry, along with the safety net programs some of these companies force employees to rely on, and the number gets quite big.

Take Walmart, the largest private employer in the country. They take in $16 billion in profits annually. Yet, all told, Walmart cost taxpayers $7.8 billion last year, according to Americans for Tax Fairness:

5. Meanwhile, some people are actually taxed into poverty. Many high-profile conservatives like to complain about their supposedly oppressive tax rates. (Sean Hannity threatened to leave New York state because of the property taxes on his $3.6 million Long Island home.) But there’s one group—low-wage childless adults—who can literally be taxed into poverty.

Americans don’t start owing federal income taxes until they’re at the poverty line. Moreover, the government gives Earned Income Tax Credit to the working poor to offset their payroll tax burden, which eats up a large share of their earnings. That works fine for low-wage Americans with children—but the EITC is oddly structured in a way where childless adults receive only a paltry credit.

A childless adult earning poverty-line wages ($12,119 in 2013) would have a combined payroll and income tax liability of $1,139, but receive only a $169 EITC. This person would be below the poverty line once he or she pays taxes. That doesn’t line up with the credits received by families with children, as this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows.

President Obama has proposed a dramatic boost in the EITC for childless Americans.

6. Washington doesn’t like to address the deficit by raising taxes. There has been quite a bit of deficit reduction talk—and action—since 2008. Despite the fact that, as noted, government receipts in the United States are extremely low, a vast majority of the savings that DC has found has come from cutting things, not raising more revenue. (Chart via the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

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7. Much more revenue is out there. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has unveiled a budget plan that closes corporate tax loopholes and recoups lost taxes due to stashed overseas profits, and also contemplates a tax on Wall Street transactions. On tax day, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee unveiled 33,000 signatures in support of that budget. “It’s about fairness. It’s about people paying their fair share,” said Representative Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the CPC, on a press call.

In order to raise more tax revenue, corporations paying negative tax rates are a logical place to start, as are the very wealthy. They are the only ones seeing their income increase, rather than decrease. (Chart via Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

Read Next: What the French e-mail meme says about America’s work culture

Want to Expand Abortion Rights in Texas? Better Talk About Immigration, Too

Pro-Choice Rally Texas

Abortion rights advocates rally on the floor of the Capitol rotunda in Austin, TX. July 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Tamir Kalifa, File)

If you follow the wave of anti-choice laws restricting abortion at the state level, you know things look bleak in Texas. Last month, the last two clinics in the Rio Grande Valley closed, leaving women in rural South Texas without access to services. Because of the hurdles providers now have to clear as a result of House Bill 2, which passed in July, the number of clinics in the state has dropped by nearly half—from 44 in 2011 to 24 today. By the fall, just six facilities providing abortion are expected to remain.

Legal challenges are in the works, but for now anti-choice advocates there are winning. So my ears perked up last week at a talk at UC Berkeley on the past, present and future of reproductive justice when I heard these words from someone considered one of the movement’s top tacticians:

"If you lead with immigration reform, you might actually get abortion access in Texas."

Heads nodded and tweets were fired off as Sujatha Jesudason, who directs CoreAlign, an organization supporting new leaders in the fight for sexual and reproductive health, offered this take on how to best achieve policy change. But the room was mostly filled with activists and academics who are already acquainted with reproductive justice, a 20-year-old framework for advocacy and organizing that links abortion to other social and economic issues. Reproductive justice gives a more inclusive set of rights—the right to have children, not have children, and to parent with dignity—equal weight with the right to safely and legally terminate a pregnancy. For anyone not already familiar with the concept, the idea that you vote for one issue and somehow end up with a victory elsewhere may feel like a leap of logic, if not a bait and switch.

Not if you understand the barriers a woman in the Rio Grande Valley or California’s Central Valley faces when she has an unplanned pregnancy, said Samara Azam-Yu, when I asked her perspective. Azam-Yu directs ACCESS, an Oakland, CA-based hotline that offers reproductive health information to callers statewide. “Abortion is a priority issue for a lot of our callers but it’s not the most pressing issue that they’re facing in their lives,” she said. “When we make strides on the other broader issues, it improves abortion access.”

Here’s how, she said: An undocumented woman in the Central Valley has a good chance of having a high-risk pregnancy, given high rates of asthma and obesity and other health disparities associated with poverty and inability to access healthcare. She may need to travel to see an abortion provider, but that means taking a bus or a train and chancing a run-in with ICE. A victory on immigration reform would mean removing the fear of deportation that keeps women immobilized, isolated and away from the services they need. Talking about health access as it relates to reform could be a way to motivate voters who care about immigrant rights but don’t feel connected to the abortion rights movement.

A bill introduced in the US House last month – the Health Equity and Access Under the Law for Immigrant Women & Families Act—is trying to do just that by making insurance available to more than 600,000 people who are in the US lawfully but face a five-year wait in some states before they can access benefits such as Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Connecting the dots in new ways was also an important component of last year’s victory over an Albuquerque ballot initiative that would have banned abortion in the city—and effectively the region—after 20 weeks.

In Albuquerque, the goal wasn’t to advance immigrant rights while defeating the bill, but to use language that would resonate with Latino voters—typically considered too conservative to be reliable on abortion rights issues—and get them to come to the polls during the November special election.

“We brought the issue out of the ivory towers of reproductive rights conversations and made it about real people experiencing barriers to access health,” Tannia Esparza, who directs Young Women United (YWU), told me. “There’s a whole generation of young people, people of color who haven’t been included in those conversations in the same way.”

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YWU, a local organization led by women of color, was part of the coalition that opposed the initiative and pushed for a new approach to talking about abortion that would reach beyond the middle class white voters who could be counted on to reject the proposal. The group used language that they knew from anecdotal evidence and from research would mobilize a broader base, language that focused on the importance of women and families making decisions for themselves. One piece of campaign literature read, "We are parents, tías, ninos, brothers and sisters. We are neighbors, friends, people of faith—We are New Mexican families... Our New Mexican families do not need government interference in our private decisions." It turned out to be key to avoid labels like “pro-choice” and “pro-life,” which Esparza calls polarizing. It worked: More than 80,000 Albuquerque voters went to the polls, more than had turned out for the mayoral race six weeks prior. Ten percent more Democrats weighed in on the ban than had chosen the city's mayor, compared to 4 percent more Republicans and 7 percent more Independents. YWU's research and polling showed that their work in Latino communities paid off at the polls. According to Micaela Cadena, the group's policy director: "We won over Latino Democrats. Those who were Independent or Republican, we held their vote to where it was in the beginning [of the campaign]."

It’s a strategy that could be useful to abortion rights proponents in nearby Arizona, where legislators passed a law last week allowing health inspectors to make surprise visits to abortion clinics without first getting a warrant, and where a temporary court order is the only thing keeping a new restriction on medication abortion from going into effect.

Moving away from a singular focus on abortion isn’t about aligning with one particular movement, it’s about creating a big tent that’s appealing to progressive Millennials, according to Jesudason.

"How can we bring a gender perspective to discussions around minimum wage or immigration reform, knowing that they're all the same voters?” she said when we spoke after last week’s talk. “If people are going to vote progressively on minimum wage or marriage equality, they're just as likely to vote progressively on choice issues."

 

Read Next: Bryce Covert on why "we can't strip race out of the gender wage gap conversation."

Al Jazeera America to the Rescue?

Ehab Al Shihabi

Ehab Al Shihabi, second from right, interim CEO for Al-Jazeera America, gestures as he chats with newsroom staff, August 20, 2013 in New York (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

My nation column, “Israel Celebrates a Return to the Status Quo in the Middle East,” is here. I went to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame ceremony at the Barclay’s Center, but I’m in Spain on vacation with my family, and it’s Passover so you can read about that here. I have nothing to add that would not be mean. Sorry.

Oh, and regarding the Pulitzers, I strongly agree with the choice of The Goldfinch. It’s my favorite novel since Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Give it a try if you have not already.

Chag Sameach.

Now here’s Reed:

Can Al Jazeera America Save Cable News?
by Reed Richardson

If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to check out my latest cover story for The Nation. It’s an in-depth look at Al Jazeera America and whether or not the network can redeem what is an increasingly tragic landscape of cable news. (I also wrote a more granular, minute-by-minute comparison of the network's coverage to that of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News on Election Night back in November, if you're interested.)

Notably, right after my story came out, AJAM announced its first layoffs, of a few dozen staffers. While no doubt embarrassing for a network still trying to reach escape velocity, these growing pains aren’t necessarily a bad thing in the long-term. In reporting the story, it was mind-boggling the amount of resources—both full-time staff and freelancers—the network had brought on board for the launch. Ridding itself of some of that temporary, start-up baggage was probably inevitable and wise. So too was the network’s decision to dump its inexplicable devotion to what amounted to token sports coverage, something I noticed (and called out) in my blog post last fall.

Not so encouraging, however, was AJAM’s choice to scale back of its social media-focused half-hour talk show, The Stream, from six times a week to once. Having spent an afternoon watching that show behind the scenes, it seemed to offer a glimpse into a more engaged, democratized future of news discussion, thanks to its hearty use of the show’s hashtag and a second-screen app that deeply integrated viewer Tweets and user-made thirty-second videos into each TV broadcast. Then again, such a web-focused show was perhaps ahead of its time. Though an Al Jazeera English version of The Stream—with different content—is broadcast around the world via the web, AJAM’s edition was blocked by the network to abide by the current licensing rules of US cable providers. Or as the show’s own producers lamented to me, the irony of their situation was not at all lost on them: here in America, The Stream actually doesn’t stream.

Paradoxes like these were the most surprising and tragic elements of the story to me. And while I’m both hopeful for and skeptical of AJAM’s long-term prospects for success, the biggest takeaway in reporting this piece was how inherently problematic and counterproductive the cable TV market can be as a conduit for cable TV news. For example, after the network stubbornly refused to pay for cable carriage for months, AJAM CEO Ehab Al Shihabi acknowledged to me that the network’s recent distribution deal with Time Warner did involve “an incentive plan” (which he nonetheless insisted should not be considered “pay”). But it’s telling that AJAM was willing to bend this far to get onto a cable provider that, while the second-largest in the country, had still lost subscribers for eighteen consecutive quarters as of the start 2014. The proposed Time Warner merger with No. 1-ranked Comcast would no doubt only exacerbate this kind of inverted power dynamic and, as Senator Franken ably put it, be a “disaster” for American consumers.

Given enough time, Al Jazeera America just may be good enough to save cable news, but by the time it does, cable TV itself may not be worth saving anymore.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter here—@reedfrich.

Reed: After the latest mass shooting on Sunday, this one at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas by an anti-Semitic, white supremacist, I felt compelled to re-post on Twitter an Altercation column on gun control I wrote not long after the Newtown massacre. It looked at what real gun reform would look like and cost here in the US if we, as a nation, finally decided to confront this self-inflicted health crisis. It prompted this response that I thought worth sharing.

The Mail:

Michael Arter
Melbourne, Australia

Hi Reed,

Good article contrasting the different responses towards gun reform between Australia and the US.

Here in Australia there were actually many other massacres prior to Port Arthur. Two occurred here in Melbourne, while another occurred in Sydney. All of these occurred within a ten-year period.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoddle_Street_massacre

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_Street_massacre

In most every occurrence, Port Arthur included, they were committed by young males with mental health issues with the ability to gain easy access to firearms.

I'm sure the desire to commit these atrocities is there with some young troubled males, however, they are no longer able to gain access to these weapons and therefore the threat has been largely removed. That's not to say it won't occur again, but thankfully it has been almost twenty years since Port Arthur.

It seems that virtually every unfortunate massacre that occurred in the US has been committed by a young troubled male as well so to me that has to be the priority to make it much harder to gain access.

It intrigues me this argument that the criminal element will always have access to these weapons, yes they will, but it is not criminals going around causing massacres, it is troubled young males.

I do hope one day the power of the NRA is reduced and sensible gun reform is passed.

As a father of a young daughter I'm glad to be in a country where she can happily go to school and we don't have to be even remotely worried about anything untoward happening. I sincerely hope that can be the reality over there one day as well.

Yours Sincerely,

Michael Arter

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.

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Climate Change Is Here—It’s Too Late for Pessimism

Runge reservoir in Chile

The Runge reservoir in Chile has suffered severe droughts in recent years. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

More disturbing than any horror movie, Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part series about climate change that premiered last night, is essential viewing. The series documents the far-reaching consequences of climate change, and nothing, we’re shown—no person, no industry, no institution; no job, no religion, no nation—is exempt from the effects of climate change.

Living Dangerously is the latest environmental klaxon, bringing together star power (The premiere episode opens with Harrison Ford flying a reconfigured-for-science fighter plane to gather pollution data), money (James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Weintraub are executive producers), and smarts (The Guardian calls the series’s experts “the best science team you could imagine”). Like Showtime’s last serial documentary, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, in which historical revelations practically guaranteed that viewers would emerge boiling mad about how the twentieth century unfolded, Living Dangerously will make you boiling mad about the climate calamity that awaits us in the twenty-first.

But that’s sort of the point. This is must-see TV, and in just the first ten minutes, you’ll hear enough pessimistic quotables to fill this entire post. It’s hard to ignore that pessimism. “The world is going to be suffering in a lot of ways from this physical reality for a long time to come,” NASA scientist Laura Iraci tells Ford. Note that there’s no conditional in her warning. Our environmental crisis has progressed beyond “might” and “probably” to “is” and “will.” Dahr Jamail outlined this awful inevitability here in December. Ford, while looking at frightening data and satellite imagery at a NASA lab in Northern California, asks, “This is actual data, not a projection?” The devastating answer, courtesy of Dr. Rama Nemani, is a simple “Yes.”

As Don Cheadle, another participant, points out in the episode, climate change is engendering yet another “Two Americas” situation—namely, those (primarily coastal) who are genuinely concerned about the crisis, and those who aren’t, despite the very real effects climate change is having on their communities (representatives of whom Cheadle finds in Texas). Living Dangerously is a necessary tool to address this disconnect, to make plain the connections between deforestation in Indonesia and job losses in American agriculture, between record heat and mothballed factories. The days of resignation, of chalking things up to acts of god, to “how it’s always been,” are over, the series explains; we, as citizens of the planet, need to act.

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Yet despite the doomsday scenarios described, the series is itself an article of hope. It’s easy to look at the numbers, read the analyses and draw the conclusion that, in fact, all is lost, that there’s no point in even making an effort. (“Imagine, Harrison, that Fargo, North Dakota, is like Phoenix,” says Google Earth’s Rebecca Moore while looking at a map of projected high temperatures in the United States in 2100.) But there’s Ford, headed to Indonesia to investigate the palm oil industry; there’s Cheadle, investigating parched ranches in New Mexico and a company town in Texas that’s lost its company. Thomas Friedman appears to connect the dots between the worst drought in modern Syrian history and the nation’s descent into civil war.

As the series progresses, a team of actors, activists and journalists will lead viewers through a series of reports and dispatches from around the world. In two episodes, for example, Nation contributing editor and former Washington editor Chris Hayes files reports about Superstorm Sandy and rising ocean levels. On his show on MSNBC, Hayes noted the necessary immediacy of the series: climate change, he says, “is not some future thing. This is it 2014. It is here now. You can go to these places and see it.”

We need this kind of visible activism. Denial, resignation and despair are not options. By bringing together actors, scientists, journalists and philanthropists, Living Dangerously provides a necessary spark, not just to get a conversation going, but also to put a fire underneath those who have it in their power to make changes commensurate to the scale of the crisis.

Read Next: Brentin Mock: “Who’s Really to Blame for the Ravages of Climate Change?