Love him, hate him, fear him, revere him, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is an elected world leader whose fiery criticisms of US foreign policy can't simply be ignored or ridiculed.
Maybe Chávez did himself, his larger alternative agenda and his country a disservice by treating the UN podium as the set of his weekly TV show at home. His "The Devil is Mr. Bush" riff--an obviously allegorical one if you ask me--delivered with an actor's dramatic flair and a good deal of humor risked drowning out other important messages he did deliver. For example, how many know that he laid out an innovative four-point program to renew and reform the UN--and spoke eloquently about how and why this "era is giving birth to a heart"?
For sure, the speech was far from a model of diplomatic rhetoric. But that didn't seem to bother the scores of experienced delegate-diplomats in the hall, who greeted Chávez's speech with wild applause. (When Bush spoke the day before, the General Assembly's hall sounded like a morgue.) That reaction, as an incisive Washington Post article points out, shows that Chávez's words, while "harsh...in many ways...merely expressed in bolder terms what a number of other world leaders and foreign diplomats believe." Moreover, to be fair, how much diplomatic tact does Chávez owe to a President whose administration supported a coup against him?
Instead of trying to understand why Chávez said what he did, and how it played in Latin America and other parts of the world, or reporting that he also said in an interview last week that he'd welcome an improved relationship with the next Administration, most of the US media was quick to attack the Venezuelan President for his incendiary words. Few bothered to ask why Chávez's excoriation of Bush might increase his popularity with UN member states and boost his campaign to win a non-permanent seat on the Security Council this October.
The media's response isn't surprising. What surprises me, however, is that Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi felt compelled to go on record denouncing Chávez's words. Pelosi-- someone I usually respect because I think she's been an effective leader (and has effectively handled ridiculous and tasteless GOP attacks)--said that "Chávez fancies himself a modern-day Simon Bolivar, but all he is is an everyday thug."
This bad soundbite of an attack certainly seems a distraction from more important issues the Democrats should be engaging and fighting for with just 44 days before election day. And if Pelosi felt it was so important to say something, weren't there more effective ways of putting Chávez's criticisms into context? Maybe talk about how unfortunate it is that Bush's policies have fueled unprecedented anti-Americanism abroad and such vitriolic rhetoric from foreign leaders? Maybe talk about why these are times when we need effective diplomacy and dialogue with countries like Venezuela--not name calling?
Some Democrats, like Senator Tom Harkin, got it right. Harkin said that, while he believes Chávez's remarks were "incendiary," he "can understand the frustration and anger of certain people because of George Bush's policies." Seems like common sense to me.
In a recent Washington Post piece on the case of Maher Arar ("Canadian Was Falsely Accused, Panel Says"), reporter Doug Struck noted that since September 11, 2001, an estimated 3,000 people have been captured or kidnapped by the Central Intelligence Agency. Many, like Maher, taken in "extraordinary rendition" operations, were transported "to other countries, hidden from U.S. legal requirements and often subject to torture." (Arar was sent to Syria to be tortured.) Then Struck added this curious note: "Those renditions are often carried out by CIA agents dressed head to toe in black, wearing masks, who blindfold their subjects and dress them in black."
Head to toe in black with masks? Uh… is this simply the fashion fetishism from hell? Are our covert warriors from Langley, Virginia now choosing to sport the look of ninja warriors?
Can anyone remember a time -- we're talking World War II here -- when black was still the color, and aesthetic, of fascism? When, if you were small, you automatically knew that the guy in black in the western -- the one with the twirlable mustache and the leer who slunk into the saloon just as the cowboy dressed in white emerged from the sheriff's office -- was the bad guy?
Way back in 1948, three years after the World War ended in triumph, actor William Boyd, who had played the cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy on the silver screen, gained TV rights to his old "Hoppy" movies and shunted into a new medium those "spine-tingling episodes never before shown on TV!" Now, Hoppy, who had the requisite white hremember a time when black was the color--and aesthetic-oorse, nonetheless dressed in black and yet proved an early TV sensation. And Boyd parlayed his TV show into a host of licensed products -- including black shirts sold to adoring children by the skadzillion. As TV historian J. Fred MacDonald wrote, this was "a singular marketing achievement since in American culture black was associated with mourning or Italian Fascism."
No longer is it so singular. Now, the aesthetic of fascism and of Hong Kong ninja movies, the aesthetic that came to be shared in the post-Vietnam toy universe by both G.I. Joe and his arch enemy, COBRA, the aesthetic of Darth Vader and his storm troopers, not to speak of SWAT teams across the country, is shared as well by our covert warriors. We know that on extraordinary rendition operations, CIA renditioners have, on occasion, stayed on taxpayer money in five-star hotels, dined out in five-star restaurants, and taken five-star Italian vacations to rest up. But who knew that, having spent all those years at the movies, they were also boning up on torture chic. Where's the runway? Egypt? Syria? Uzbekistan?
Democrats chose to outsource their policy on military tribunals to John McCain. And McCain did what he's done best the last year: capitulate to Bush.
"Senators Snatch Defeat From Jaws of Victory: US to be First Nation to Authorize Violations of Geneva," Georgetown University law professor Marty Lederman writes of the so-called "compromise" between Senators McCain/Graham/Warner and President Bush.
Says Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office:
"The proposal would make the core protections of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions irrelevant and unenforceable. It deliberately provides a 'get out of jail free card' to the administration's top torture officials, and backdates that card nine years.
"Also under the proposal, the president would have the authority to declare what is - and what is not - a grave breach of the War Crimes Act, making the president his own judge and jury. This provision would give him unilateral authority to declare certain torture and abuse legal and sound. In a telling move, during a call with reporters today, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley would not even answer a question about whether waterboarding would be permitted under the agreement.
"The agreement would also violate time-honored American due process standards by permitting the use of evidence coerced through cruel and abusive treatment. We urge lawmakers to stand firm in their commitment to American values and reject this charade of a compromise."
Adds the Washington Post editorial page:
"In effect, the agreement means that US violations of international human rights law can continue as long as Mr. Bush is president, with Congress's tacit assent."
In the end, McCain got loads of admiring press coverage. And Bush got almost everything he wanted.
In 2002, Barbara Ehrenreich and Thomas Geoghegan wrote in The Nation, "The underlying reason for organized labor's decline is that our labor laws do not let people join unions, freely and fairly, without being fired." The authors urged "a new approach to rebuilding unions – and to labor law reform….The first step…should be to create a form of membership accessible to any worker."
As the assault on labor continues, the need to strengthen labor rights remains more critical than ever. According to the labor advocacy group American Rights at Work, every year 23,000 Americans are fired or penalized for legal union activity. Our country is increasingly a place where, in Senator John Edwards' words, you can still work hard and live poor.
The urgency to think creatively and find other forms of worker protection couldn't be more clear. As Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says, "Given the level of churning and layoffs, there is a need for workers organizations that exist outside the workplace, industry, occupation."
Enter United Professionals (UP). Ehrenreich has now founded this nonprofit, nonpartisan membership organization for white collar workers. UP's mission is to protect and preserve the American middle class, now under attack from so many directions, from downsizing and outsourcing to the steady erosion of health and pension benefits. For a besieged middle class, the arrival of UP is timely and welcome news.
"The rap among policy elites is that once you're college educated your problems are over," says Bernstein, who serves as an UP advisory board member. "You are now officially insulated from any of the pressures of the global economy, the health care problem, job insecurity. Unfortunately, that's wrong, and white collar workers recognize that these challenges no longer only befall those in the factory sector, who've been getting whacked by globalization for years."
In fact, according to PR Newswire, 31 percent of college educated workers have no employer based health coverage, and 39 percent have no employer-provided retirement plan. More than half of the non-union workforce tells pollsters they would like to be part of some type of collective bargaining entity. "While white collar workers may not have a union orientation," Bernstein says, "many recognize that forces such as global offshoring have diminished their bargaining clout."
Last week, Paul Krugman wrote in a New York Times op-ed that, "What we should be debating is why technological and economic progress has done so little for most Americans, and what changes in government policies would spread the benefits of progress more widely. An effort to shore up middle-class health insurance… would be a good place to start."
That's exactly what UP envisions. The group hopes to open chapters in 25 states in the next year and begin lobbying Congress for universal health insurance and mandated severance pay for laid-off workers.
"We can do more than give unemployed workers a forum to gripe," Ehrenreich told the New York Times. "UP can help them form regional or sector networks that meet regularly and work with community groups, labor coalitions, and each other…. We can design safety nets around insurance and similar supports that motivate others to join."
If UP successfully rallies and organizes the middle class to fight for universal health insurance, that alone will be a momentous victory. "Once you universalize health care access, you immediately improve the quality of jobs by circumventing the increasingly dysfunctional employer-provided system," Bernstein says.
At 10 cents a day, UP membership represents a rare bargain for the American worker in today's skewed-for-the-wealthy economy. Click here for more info, including how to sign up.
I'm in hearty agreement with Sam's post about Harvard and Princeton's decision to eliminate early admissions. It's a good move, but in reality will effect a handful of low-to-mid-income "high-achivers" who would likely receive decent financial aid packages at whatever school they end up attending. Columbia, for example, recently joined Harvard, Yale and Princeton in replacing loans with grants for families earning less than $50,000 a year. Other well-endowed, private universities will no doubt follow suit -- if only to keep up with the Lions, Tigers and Bulldogs.
All this buzz at the top distracts from the crisis in higher education at the instutions that have most contributed to upward mobility in this country: state universities and colleges. Almost across the board, state funding for public colleges shrank over the past 20 years. While Ivied NYT geeks bickered over the meaning of Harvard's decision, the Kansas City Star reported that "state support for Kansas universities is at an all-time low" (dropping from 49% in 1985 to just 29% in 2005). Meanwhile, tuition increases at state universities have far out-paced inflation. The result is that more students at public schools are going into unmanageable levels of debt.
According to a recent report from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), "the average borrower who graduates from a public college owes $17,250" (up from $8,000 just ten years ago). Even more striking, in 2004, 88.5% of Pell Grant recipients took out student loans averaging $20,735, and private loans have increased seven-fold over the past ten years.
As the AASCU and Nicholas von Hoffman point out, high levels of student debt can radically limit the career and life choices graduates make. Teaching and social work are near impossible. So too are left-wing journalism or political rabble-rousing.
President Bush and the three Republican Senators opposing his efforts to contravene the Geneva accords have reached an agreement on legislation to clarify which interrogation techniques can be used against terror suspects and to establish trial procedures for those in military custody. What that legislation actually entails remains murky, but it's virtually certain to be a compromise between Bush and the three Senators which won't contain the safeguards for habeas corpus enshrined in the Specter-Levin Amendment. Here's what you can do about it.
The Bush administration's efforts to redefine the Geneva Conventions have been met with fierce bipartisan opposition, led on the GOP side by Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and John Warner.
The President's favored proposal, the military detainee bill, sought to roll back two important decisions rendered by the Supreme Court on the legal rights and treatment of terror suspects: Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and Rasul v. Bush. It would have established tribunals denying most basic legal protections currently required by the Geneva Conventions, and would have allowed defendants to be convicted on the basis of hearsay, evidence obtained by coercion, and evidence they had never seen. After the Group of Three blocked this provision, the White House dropped its insistence on gutting Geneva and is currently negotiating the remainder of the bill in what the New York Times called "a showdown that could have substanatial ramifications for national security and the political climate heading toward Election Day."
Warner's alternative bill, in contrast, calls for tribunals acting in accordance with the standards set out in the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision. So it's better. But, as Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith pointed out in The Nation online, it still has major problems, including the elimination of the power of federal courts to hear the habeas corpus claims of any noncitizen detained overseas or any individual who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant. This provision--which is in both bills--would retroactively strip US courts of jurisdiction over the habeas petitions of the more than 450 men currently imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.
Warner's bill would also amend the War Crimes Act to provide legal cover for many of the CIA's "alternative" techniques--including use of hypothermia, sleep deprivation and threats of violence against detainees and their families. Basically, Bush's bill would strip away much of what makes America a great country, while Warner's bill would strip away some of what makes America great.
Sadly, the debate around these bills misses the point that both versions eliminate the fundamental right to habeas corpus, the right to challenge detention in a court of law, not to be locked up under the President's say-so, guilty or innocent, never to be heard from again.
But there is still hope in the form of another amendment in play that could save the basic American right of due process. Numerous groups are lobbying in support of it, and momentum is growing. Check out the Center for Constitutional Rights' site to fax or email your senators in support of the Specter-Levin Amendment on habeas corpus. Passing either of the two bills without the amendment would grant an unprecedented degree of power to the presidency. Anyone in US custody, at home or abroad, must have the right to challenge their detention in court. Nothing is more fundamental to our democracy. So click here today.
(Final Argument: If for some reason, you're not convinced of the importance of the Geneva Conventions, read this open letter to Congress urging the preservation of the treaty's terms from 40 retired military leaders, including Generals H. Hugh Shelton, Colin Powell and John Vessey, all former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as General John Shalikashvili and Admiral Stansfield Turner.)
Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), my favorite watchdog group, recently issued a list of the 20 most corrupt members of Congress.
Last year, CREW named the 13 most ethically challenged legislators. Since then, as scandal infects Washington, the cast of characters has expanded.
Republicans dominate the list. Of the 17 most corrupt, only three are Democrats. Those named range from well-known figures such as Bill Frist and Rick Santorum, members under investigation by the FBI, such as Senator Conrad Burns and Reps. Jerry Lewis, William Jefferson and Alan Mollohan, and people you've probably never heard of, like California Reps. Ken Calvert and Gary Miller.
Highlights include House Appropriations Chairman Jerry Lewis, whose lobbyist pal Bill Lowery could become the next Jack Abramoff; New York Rep. John Sweeney, who a few months back showed up drunk to a local frat party, threw a taxpayer funded Winter sporting weekend and hired his wife as a fundraiser even though she had no previous fundraising experience; and North Carolina Rep. Charles Taylor, a former businessman whose partners plead guilty to bank fraud and who did numerous questionable business deals in Russia with a former Soviet KGB colonel that CREW writes is "linked to an international multibillion money-laundering scheme."
The list also includes five members, including Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, to keep an eye on. The way things are going in Washington, expect the list to double by year's end.
Watch most TV channels and if Iraq is the subject, you see bombs going off. You hear grisly tales of tortured Iraqis slaughtered in the internecine strife that's gripped that country, and you get the almost daily accounts of American troops dying in small but steady numbers. But just as the Bush administration promised us, there is good news, Virginia -- and it's been over on Fox for the last two months.
Since late July, if your timing was right, you might have caught a lilting, almost Edenic-looking ad at Fox, one of a series from "the other Iraq." We're talking about the autonomous region of Kurdistan here. The ad begins with a male over-voice in mellifluous English: "Saddam's goal was to bury every living Kurd. He failed." By now, you're seeing Kurds of every stripe, young and old, many with small US flags, beginning to offer a fulsome chorus of "Thank you" "Thank you, America." The voice continues: "The Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan Iraqi Kurdistan just want to say thank you for helping us win our freedom."
"Thank you." "Thank you for democracy."
Though little commented on anywhere other than right-wing blogs (after Bill O'Reilly played the ad for Arianna Huffington on his show), this has certainly been manna from heaven for the Bush administration. In fact, just what the (spin) doctor ordered from poor, sickly Iraq as the election season approached. And from genuine Iraqis no less! You can check them out (sort of) at the website of the Kurdistan Development Corporation, the "official investment site for Kurdistan, The Other Iraq -- and while you're there, scroll down for the ads.
So the semi-autonomous government of Kurdistan has put up money to thank the Bush administration in its time of need. Touching, really. But almost guaranteed not to be half the story. In the only substantial piece I've found on this "thank you" campaign, Aaron Glantz of Inter Press Service points out that it's being run by an "A-list" Republican PR firm, Russo, Marsh, and Rogers. Responsible for the "Stop Michael Moore" campaign to discredit Fahrenheit 9/11, it also organized an Iraqi "truth tour" to allow right-wing radio hosts to discover "the good news that the old-line liberal news media won't tell you about."
Let's recall that when the Pentagon couldn't get the good news it wanted in Iraq itself, its officials simply bought it. Via The Lincoln Group under a $5 million-plus yearly contract, the Pentagon concocted Iraqi "good news," translated it, and with copious payments placed it in the Iraqi media, offering a lesson in the workings of a "free" press to all those new Iraqi journalists. Now, the Pentagon is plugging "the Other Iraq" by sending out glowing press releases about its latest trade fair, as is the Voice of America.
Is there a reporter in the house? I wouldn't mind knowing if this was an example of a Bush administration-funded disinformation campaign coming home to roost just in time for a rugged election. In August, Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times reported on the President's frustration that Iraqis had not shown greater public support and appreciation for the American mission in their country. Is the Bush administration, in essence, using our money to thank itself?
Last night I had the pleasure of attending a house party for Bernie Sanders, Vermont's only congressman, and more notably, the only Socialist holding national office in the United States. He was inspiring and upbeat, explaining that to be a socialist is to believe that "civilization has not yet begun." The idea of a society that meets everyone's basic material needs is, he explained, "not utopian -- it's completely possible."
It is refreshing to hear a politician speak in ambitious terms, of great things that we can achieve as a society -- like health care for all -- rather than simply wailing about Republican evils. Sanders was realistic about the right-wing menace, but hasn't lost his vision. After fifteen years in Congress, he's now running for Senate. His opponent, Republican millionaire Rich Tarrant is spending millions of his own money running mendacious, Rove-ian attack ads accusing Sanders of sympathy for terrorists and child molesters. Still, Sanders is leading in the polls by 66 to 27. If you want to help out Sanders in any way, or learn more about his campaign, check out his website .
Also in attendance at the Sanders gathering was Jonathan Tasini, ebullient from winning 17% of the Democratic primary votes in his race against Hillary Clinton. That's much more impressive than anyone expected, considering the popularity -- and, above all, financial muscle -- of the incumbent. Maybe he'll run for office again, now that so many more New Yorkers know who he is. I had a baby with me, and Tasini cooed at him with great sincerity -- obviously a pro after months on the campaign trail. Sanders, by contrast, awkwardly avoided the baby, which was odd for such an accomplished politico -- but nobody's perfect.
At a time when the shift toward the Internet and the corporate quest for increased profit are threatening the future of journalism, it's inspiring to see the editor of a major daily newspaper paper push back.
Dean Baquet, the editor of the L.A. Times, is staging a high-profile mutiny against the suits at the Tribune Company, publicly refusing to make an estimated $10 million in cuts they are demanding. Baquet has said enough is enough and that a great newspaper cannot be corseted and expected to flourish.
Baquet has garnered support from his publisher Jeff Johnson; from his staff which is circulating a petition; and from an ad hoc committee of L.A. luminaries (including civic-minded billionaires and labor leaders) whose open letter to the Tribune Co. was published, yes, on the editorial page of the Times.
Some have called Baquet's move a last-ditch "Alamo strategy."
We'll see on Thursday when the Tribune board meets in Chicago. Putting down Baquet's rebellion will be at the top of the agenda.
Read the whole story on my blog.