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Shawskank Redemption

First she name-dropped "the men and women serving our country in Iraq," and then moved on to God. With that kind of rhetoric, you'd think Ms. Hilton was running for office. Too bad the Beltway PR strategy isn't working out for her. If you have any doubts about the kind of vitriol Paris inspires, check out ParisHiltonAutopsy.com. And Republicans say class warfare is passe.

There's been a lot of media hand-wringing over the media's own coverage of the Hilton travails, aptly titled by Jon Stewart as "The Shawskank Redemption." All of us -- including Paris herself-- agree, there are more important issues to cover than this made-for-tabloids saga. But note that no one -- especially the average media egghead -- is making the same argument about the wall-to-wall Sopranos coverage. Endlessly analyzing the metaphysical and cultural significance of the ending of an HBO mob series is A-okay even when there are folks dying on the streets of Baghdad. But it's a crime against humanity to waste so much ink on the antics of some blonde bimbette. Hmm, the right priorities or just pop culture snobbery? Not that there is anything wrong with the latter, but in the midst of all this self-righteous indignation, it's good to remind ourselves that pop culture is still just pop culture, even when it involves eight-letter words.

And when it comes to cultural significance, Paris trumps any fictional angst-ridden suburban mob boss, however well-written. No one better represents the fervid obsession with wealth, warped notions of beauty and female sexuality, and impoverished criteria for fame that is 21st century America. Sure we think Tony is cool -- and he's not exactly a role model either -- but the sad fact is that her vapid, party-hopping, pill-popping celebrity existence is what passes for the American Dream these days.

Where Is the Love?

None of us will soon forget that terrible Tuesday in November 2004 when the exit polling said one thing and Ohio said another, when values was the thing, Karl Rove was a genius, and a permanent Republican majority loomed large. What a difference two years makes.

Republicans have lost both houses of Congress and their sense of unity. Libertarians are at war with social conservatives. Neocons are on the run. Senate Republicans have set an informal timetable for the war (September). And their leading Presidential candidate is a pro-choice former mayor of New York City, a candidate and position that George Will has called conservative.

The White House has infuriated its base on immigration and global warming. And not only can't they pass any items on their agenda, it's not clear they even have one. George Bush is so personally unpopular at home that he had to go to Albania to find the love.

It's been a long struggle for the progressive movement, and it's not over. But it is perhaps worth taking a moment, and only just a moment before resuming battle, to celebrate how far the tide has turned.

 

Of Groceries, Abortions, and Nice, Classic Handbags

I was planning to start this blog by writing about The New York Times Sunday Magazine's special issue on income inequality -- Larry Summers (him again!), John Edwards, class conflict on Fisher Island and much more. But a practical instance of what true poverty means was waiting for me in my inbox this morning, in the form of an email from Heather Robertson of the Equal Access Fund of Tennessee, which helps poor women pay for their abortions. Heather writes:

"I just received a very desperate plea from a local clinic for funding for a patient that I will be unable to help. Our fund has assisted 5 women this month and after giving this woman $200, we have depleted our funds without completely helping her at all. Please read further:

"We need $400 more in order to pay the fee $850 fee of a 2nd trimester patient who HAS to be seen tomorrow, or she'll be too far along to be seen in the state of Tennessee. In that case, her fee will increase even more and have to pay the traveling expenses, as well.

"She's raised $250 and we have given the clinic $200 on her behalf thus far.

"She's a single mom with a 19 month old; co-conceiver skipped town; no child support because that dude skipped town; she is clinically very depressed and extremely desperate. She makes less than $800 a month working fulltime. She makes too much to get any state aid and definitely not covered by TNCare. She becamse pregnant after her birth control failed to prevent her pregnancy. Can you help by sending a paypal donation to equalaccessfund@gmail.com asap?

" "She has an appointment at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. "

What a world of hurt is packed into this brief communication! And what a lesson in practical economics. This woman's wages of around $800 a month after taxes put her over the limit for TennCare, the state's medical program-- while leaving her not even close to being able to pay for her abortion herself. (Tenncare doesn't pay for abortion, but it would pay for some of the associated costs included in the fee.) Yet this same $800-- a month's expenses for this woman and her child, or the price of her reproductive freedom -- is less than the amount Gabby, one of the Los Angeles teenagers whose views on money are featured in the Times, thinks is reasonable to spend on a purse (‘If you want a really nice, classic bag, it's definitely appropriate to spend, like, four digits, because that's something that's really nice").

$800 is also about what the Equal Access Fund has to give out each month to women in need-- money raised dollar by dollar through donations, eBay garage sales and fundraisers. Fortunately, as I've been writing this, Heather e mailed me to say that the $400 this woman still needs has been raised thanks to donations that came in through her e mail. But what about the next woman and the ones after that? $800 doesn't go very far -- it won't even let Gabby accessorize her outfit.

How wonderful it would be if everyone reading this story sent the Fund a donation. Just go to Paypal, and send equalaccessfund@gmail.com whatever you can spare: the price of a latte or a copy of the Sunday Times or a (big) bag of chips or a beer or a movie ticket (Or, of course, for you lucky loaded few, a handbag!). I should mention that the Fund is an all-volunteer organization, so every dollar you send will go to patient care. And it's affiliated with the National Network of Abortion Funds, so it's tax-deductible and you know it's well-run.

You can write Heather Robinson at equalaccessfund@gmail.com.

Check out the fund at its myspace page

Find out more at their NNAF member page

And while you're there, browse the NNAF site and see if there's a local fund in your area. Chances are, they definitely could use your help.

The Judgment of Paris

Last Friday, as the "The Judgment of Paris" media circus filled our airwaves (those very airwaves which, as FCC Commissioner Michael Copps recently reminded us in an intelligent New York Times op-ed, belong to us, the people), I emailed Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association, and one of the smartest criminal justice reformers and activists working in the field today. I figured if anyone had something insightful and humane to say about this uber-tabloid moment---and what it revealed about the failures of our criminal justice system--it would be Gaynes.

For more than two decades, she has led the Osborne Association---working with prisoners, former prisoners, their children, and other family members to help them reenter the workplace, rebuild their families and rejoin their communities. Today, Osborne staff provides services ---- parenting education, job training, mental health and family counseling, HIV prevention--that help transform the lives of those involved in the criminal justice system.

As Gaynes reminded me, today Osborne provides services in *more* prisons than existed when she began working in prisons-- soon after the Attica uprising of 1971. (In 1971, 12,000 people were crowded into 12 prisons in New York state; today New York has nearly 70 prisons and more than 60,000 men and women in them.) "Prison and perpetual punishment" should not be "our heavy weapons for the war on crime and war on drugs," Gaynes insists. Those "weapons," she argues" are designed for fighting the last war." (For more about the Osborne Association's invaluable work, go to Osborneny.org and full disclosure--I am a board member.)

Gaynes' reply, which I am posting below, seems to me a thoughtful antidote to so much of the sensationalistic media commentary surrounding Paris Hilton's brief incarceration.


"Overall, I thought Jon Stewart named it right: 'Shaw-Skank Redemption.'" But seriously, I do think it actually exposes rather virulent assumptions within American vengeance.....There is theSharpton line, that she should go to jail because her privilege does not get a Get-Out-of-Jail Free card. Also, progressives, aware of the ridiculous disparities of race and class within the criminal justice system, seem to get great pleasure out of people of privilege going to jail. But if we take the position - which I certainly have - that jail should be reserved for only those for whom there is no alternative and should be designed with treatment to address the behaviors that led to the infraction, then 23 days in jail is surely pointless.

You may recall that when the Fastows (Andrew and Lea of Enron) were sentenced to prison, they asked for (and received) sentences that did not coincide, so that they would not both be in prison at the same time and thereby disrupt their children's lives. Everyone recognized that this was only because of their race and class. Parents of minor children who are poor people of color never have their children's wellbeing considered during sentencing and, in fact, the assumption is that the child of a poor black mother does not really need that parent as much as the Fastow children needed theirs, and that the Fastows (despite stealing billions of dollars from stockholders) could still be good parents, but that a poor woman charged with theft or drug sales had little to offer a child, who might actually be "better off" without her.

Anyway, when that story came out a lot of good people said, that's outrageous, they should not get that privilege. But in fact, the problem is not that they WERE given that consideration but that others were NOT. The reality is that although the jailers have nothing in common with Paris Hilton, they felt that they knew her and recognized her humanity, naturally leading them to feel "sorry" for her and release her. On the other hand, most people in jail are "other" to those who hold them, and so how they are treated, the length of their incarceration, becomes possible.

When I visited a Canadian prison several years ago, I saw five units of "motel" type housing, and learned that they allowed "Family Reunion" programs, as we do in New York, where families can visit for 48 hours in a private setting. When I asked about the Canadian model, they explained that at any given time, four prisoners can have extended visits with their families within these "motel" rooms. When I pointed out that there were five units, how come there would only be four visits, they explained: well, the fifth unit is used for men who have been in prison for a long time and have no families. We allow them to go in there by themselves for a couple of days because, you know, sometimes people need to be alone.

The ability of these Canadian prison authorities to recognize the higher order need to be alone was only possible because they recognized the full humanity of the people in their custody. Perhaps because the prisoners and guards were mostly all the same race and class - French Canadian. If those who ran our jails saw everyone who came through as if they were important, what happened in Paris Hilton's case would be common.

Now of course perhaps Ms. Hilton needs a "time out", and maybe she will learn a lesson from this. Most transformative change comes when people have significant emotional events or challenges. But if she is an alcoholic or an addict, she will need something more than what jail offers. And if she is just a brat, the experience will just be one more "risk" that she seems to thrive on.

Foreign Agent Fred

The mainstream media is starting to pay attention to Fred Thompson's decades-long gig as a well-heeled Washington lobbyist. His client list has been noted in this space and elsewhere. What Thompson actually did for one of these clients, the British insurance firm Equitas Ltd, was fleshed out in a must-read column by the Washington Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum today.

His main assignment: to use his connections to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to extract information about goings-on inside Congress and use it to benefit his multibillion-dollar client.

In exchange for this insider wisdom he was paid a cool $760,000...

Thompson's client, London-based Equitas Ltd., held billions of dollars to pay off claims from people sickened by asbestos, a once-common building material. It wanted Congress to limit how much it had to pay into a trust fund to cover those liabilities.

In an earlier era, the term of art for what Thompson did would have been "foreign agent." 

So the so-called folksy outsider in the Republican presidential field was until recently an access man aka foreign agent for a British insurance giant. My colleague David Corn notes that this story appeared on page A23, as part of Birnbaum's "On K Street" column, with no mention or tease on the front page. David invokes the old I.F. Stone adage: "you never know where in The Washington Post you'll find a front-page story."

Save the Internet--Again

Concerned citizens nationwide are rallying to stop the latest phone and cable company assault on Internet freedom as the Federal Communications Commission weighs new rules to protect net neutrality.

What's net neutrality exactly? Put simply, net neutrality ensures that network operators provide nondiscriminatory access to the network and online content. Think about it like this: When you make a phone call, the telephone company can't keep you from talking to whomever you want, or prevent you from talking about whatever you like or charge you more for talking to some people than others. Net neutrality applies the same operating principle to Internet communication.

Net neutrality is nothing new; these provisions have been in place since the Internet's inception. Indeed, these guidelines helped make the Internet a vehicle for technological innovation and democratic communication. But if the telephone and cable television industries have their way, net neutrality will soon be a thing of the past.

Last year, more than 1.5 million Americans spoke out to stop the big phone and cable companies from killing net neutrality in Congress. Now, as industry lobbyists are pressuring the FCC to overturn the one principle that protects freedom of choice online, thousands of people have asked the FCC to keep the Internet free from phone and cable company control.

Join the fight at SavetheInternet.com--the central hub of opposition to industry lobbyists. Watch SavetheInternet's video, let your friends know about the issue and don't forget to tell the FCC and Congress that you expect them to represent the interests of the American public by continuing to support an open and free internet. The public comment period ends on June 15.

The Missing American Bomb

Here's the strange thing: Since 2001, our media has been filled with terrifying nuclear headlines. The Iraqi bomb (you remember those "mushroom clouds" about to rise over American cities), the North Korean bomb, and the Iranian bomb have been almost obsessively in the news. Of course, the Iraqi bomb turned out to be embarrassingly nonexistent; experts still consider the Iranian bomb years away (if it happens); and the North Korean bomb, while quite real, remains a less than impressive weapon, based on a less than spectacular nuclear test in October 2006.

And yet these are the nuclear weapons that have taken all our attention. How many of you have ever heard of Complex 2030 or know that, as William Hartung and Frida Berrigan pointed out recently, the Bush administration is, on average, putting more money into our nuclear arsenal (over $6 billion this year) than went into it in the Cold War era? Or that, if all goes according to administration projections, this figure should hit $7.4 billion a year by 2012? And Complex 2030 -- aiming, as the name implies, at a thoroughly updated, upgraded American arsenal 23 years from now -- involves producing, among many other things, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, our first new warhead in two decades. (The Energy Department just selected its design.) In addition, the Bush administration has worked hard to break down the barrier between nuclear and conventional weapons, absorbing nuclear weapons into its plans for its new Global Strike force, supposedly able to hit any target on the planet "with a few hours' notice," and repeatedly leaking the news that it might consider using the "nuclear option" against Iran's nuclear facilities.

As Middle Eastern expert Dilip Hiro pointed out recently in his article, "The Iranian Bomb in a MAD World," there are not two nuclear worlds -- that of the nuclear "rogues" and that of the "nuclear club"; there is only one. Our nuclear world and theirs are intimately linked by an ever more volatile version of the old Cold War doctrine of deterrence.

Hiro pointed to the annual sum, publicly announced, of $75 million that the Bush administration is investing in creating enemies for the Iranian regime. He adds:

 

"The Bush White House has launched a series of covert operations to undermine the Iranian regime, dispatched aircraft-carrier strike forces through the Straits of Hormuz in classic gunboat-diplomacy fashion, and had its Vice President issue a series of warnings to Iran from the deck of the USS John C. Stennis, floating barely 150 miles off the Iranian coast.

 

"The Iranian response, despite public denials, has been to play the single card that history has stamped "effective" since 1949 -- raising the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran. It is a classic act of self-defense guaranteed to spread nuclear arms to other countries in a MAD world where Catch-22 is the nuclear rule of the day."

 

In the meantime, the Iranians would simply create regional (and global economic) chaos. Just last week, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a senior defense adviser to Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, offered an American magazine, Defense News, a hair-raising preview of what an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities might mean. According to Michael Smith of the British Times, he warned that, within an hour, the Iranians would be lobbing "dozens, maybe hundreds" of missiles into the Gulf states that had U.S. bases (and enormous oil reserves). "The U.S.," he said ominously, "will be as surprised with Iranian military capabilities as the Israelis were with Hezbollah in last summer's war in Lebanon."

The more we invest in, and maintain, a vast nuclear arsenal, the more we slot those weapons into our strategic and tactical planning, the more such weapons will proliferate elsewhere. The Bush administration came into office ready to crush nuclear proliferators. Instead, when its history is written, it will undoubtedly be seen as a nuclear proliferation machine, threatening to bring its own nightmare scenario -- such weaponry in the hands of a terrorist band for whom "deterrence" would have no meaning whatsoever -- ever closer to reality.

Help a Child Take a Vacation from War

Since she's not yet blogging herself, I wanted to draw some web users' attention to Nation columnist Katha Pollitt's call for donations to the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt. Pollitt has been virtually alone among Americans in highlighting the great work being down by the group on behalf of children traumatized by war. As she writes in the June 25 issue of the magazine:

"As usual around this time, I'm passing the hat for the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German group that runs fantastic summer camps in Bosnia for Bosnian and other ex-Yugoslav children and weeklong gatherings in Germany for Israeli and Palestinian youth. Nation readers have been a mainstay of this effort, which helps the cause of peace by breaking down ethnic barriers. All amounts are welcome, but $150 makes you a 'godparent,' supporting a child's 'vacation from war.' Send checks made out to 'Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt' to me, c/o The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003, and I will forward them."

You need to make donations by check but click here for more info on the initiative.

Bad News Benchmarks

The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index provides the most authoritative measure of how much progress is being made in Iraq. Their recent findings? Not much.

The latest chart compares every May since the fall of Saddam in 2003. US troop deaths per month, American fatalities from homemade bombs, monthly insurgent attacks against coalition troops and civilians, and Iraqi civilian deaths are at an all-time high.

The number of foreign troops in the "coalition of the willing" are at an all-time low. So are the percentage of Iraqis who say their country is heading in the right direction. That's down from 70 percent after the liberation of Baghdad to 36 percent today, just above George W. Bush's own approval rating in this country.

"Overall levels of violence are down somewhat in Baghdad," the authors write. Yet across the country, "bad news still dominates."

Some Republicans have suggested using the "Iraq Index" as official benchmarks. That won't provide their party much relief.