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Color of Change Targets Members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the Fight to Preserve Net Neutrality

A demonstration for net neutrality

(Courtesy: Flickr user Steve Rhodes, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It’s been nearly two months since the Federal Communications Commission announced new rules that could destroy net neutrality, and the fight to preserve the open Internet is heating up. Earlier this month, Color of Change (COC), an organization devoted to strengthening the political voice of black Americans, took aim at ten members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) for being on the wrong side of the fight. The representatives—who COC points out have taken large amounts of money from the telecom industry—signed a letter attacking one of the key steps needed to protect net neutrality: reclassifying Internet service as a public utility. In a petition directed at the ten representatives, Color of Change stressed the high stakes of the campaign:

By signing a letter attacking the FCC’s proposal to protect net neutrality by reclassifying Internet service as a public utility, you are assisting big phone and cable companies in threatening the Internet as we know it. You have taken thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the telecom industry, and now you are putting the telecom lobby’s agenda above the interests of your constituents and of Black America. Your actions threaten both the Black voice in national and international discourse, and the moral authority of the Congressional Black Caucus as an advocate for Black America.

TO DO

Sign Color of Change’s petition to members of the Congressional Black Caucus calling on them to fight to protect the open Internet.

TO READ

The need to reclassify Internet service as a public utility became all the more apparent after an appeals court ruled early this year that, under the current classification, the FCC could not enforce its Open Internet Order to preserve net neutrality. At The Root, Color of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson broke down the implications of that decision for communities of color.

TO WATCH

In a bit that famously sent so many viewers to the FCC’s website that it crashed, John Oliver hilariously explains the debate over net neutrality.

Hobby Lobby Is Now Discriminating Against a Transgender Employee

Meggan Sommerville

(Courtesy: Meggan Sommerville) 

The Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Storesrevealed just how far the law now allows corporations to reach into women’s private lives. Now, another case against the same craft store chain is reaching into the ladies’ room as well.

Meggan Sommerville, a Hobby Lobby frameshop manager in Aurora, Illinois, has for years been shut out of the store’s bathroom because her boss insists that, as a trans woman, she cannot use the facilities. She is pressing a discrimination case with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, contending that the ban is both insulting and illegal under state laws barring discrimination in both employment and in public accommodations. The lockout has become a full-fledged civil rights battle—and perhaps the next legal showdown in the debate around corporate personhood, religion and civil rights at work.

A sixteen-year Hobby Lobby employee, Sommerville underwent her transition in 2010, and after informing her manager and having her legal identity changed, she says that her coworkers and customers have been supportive throughout the process. But for management, the bathroom door remains a bridge too far. The company’s persistent rejection of her demand for equal access seems to reflect the ideology that drove its Supreme Court crusade against contraceptive insurance mandates under the federal healthcare law. Hobby Lobby’s willingness to flout public mandates to impose conservative values suggests that bias against transgender workers may be another way the company tries to “live out our faith in the way we do business.”

As reported by Newsweek, Sommerville’s pending case, which was first brought in 2011 (and reinstated by the state Human Rights Commission after initially being dismissed by the Human Rights Department for lack of evidence), is arguably an even more explicit example of a culture war being waged in the workplace. According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby’s management states that unless she would “undergo genital reconstructive surgery” she would not receive equal treatment as a female employee.

When Sommerville showed up for work just after having her name officially changed, she recalls, “I was told I would not be allowed to use the women’s restroom even though I had legally changed my name… I was devastated. It was a knife-to-the-gut insult to me.”

(Many transgender people do not have surgery, out of choice or due to economic or medical barriers, and it is generally not necessary for official recognition.)

The policy has affected her body and mind, as well as her ability to do her job. To relieve herself she must find another bathroom at an outside business or public facility. The complaint states that she was diagnosed in 2012 with thyroid problems and Fibromyalgia, which affect the bladder, and has suffered dehydration from “limiting her intake of fluids.”

In addition to the alienation imposed by her employers’ assumptions about her genitalia, the complaint states that, forced to use the men’s room, she has had to wait around or hide to avoid encounters with male users.

The experience that pushed Sommerville to take legal action was the humiliation of being “caught” using the gender-appropriate bathroom and then receiving “a written warning of insubordination”—a reprimand for acting like the woman she was.

“I felt like someone had just basically eviscerated me. My whole world turned upside down,” she says.

The complaint charges that due to Hobby Lobby’s actions, she “has experienced over-anxiousness, embarrassment, shame, depression, anxiety, emotional distress, feelings of helplessness and has had trouble sleeping.”

Hobby Lobby’s exact rationale, however, is still unclear. In contrast to the amped-up Christian rhetoric surrounding the company’s Supreme Court litigation, it has declined to comment publicly on Sommerville’s case (requests from The Nation have so far received no response). According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby has not directly cited religious reasons for its denial of bathroom access.

But Sommerville’s attorneys say the bathroom ban—a rule that was communicated to Sommerville by the Human Resources Department—stems from the corporate leadership’s ideology. “This is not just an issue of a manager” acting independently, says her lawyer, Jacob Meister. “This is a matter that’s risen through the corporate level, all the way…. They’ve [dug] in their heels on this one.”

As further evidence of ideological motives behind its anti-trans discrimination, advocates point to the massive funds (revealed earlier this year by Salon.com) that Hobby Lobby’s corporate empire has pumped into Christian-right and anti-LGBT lobbying groups.

Perhaps the company’s quieter stance on Sommerville’s case reflects its own contradictory policies. It has, after all, recognized Sommerville’s gender identity on various legal grounds, but refuses to let her use a public accommodation that is appropriate for that very same identity. (Not to mention the more fundamental paradox that the company is imposing its will, based on an irrational and unhealthy concept of gender, in a way that asserts corporate personhood over the worker’s own sense of personhood.)

Though Sommerville, a practicing Christian, is comfortable with the company’s general faith orientation, she sees the contraceptives dispute as a similar case of overreach.

“I’m not in favor of any corporation dictating what is best for my medical treatment. I think that is best decided between my doctor and myself,” she tells The Nation. “This case, with the Supreme Court, I see as potentially a slippery slope where corporations can continue to deny access to appropriate medical care based on any number of circumstances.”

Sommerville’s case folds into a wave of activism on transgender rights at work, school and other public spaces. In recent months, a Maine lawsuit led to legal recognition of transgender students’ right to equal access to bathrooms at school. California has passed a law to ensure gender-appropriate bathroom accommodations for trans students.

Following a landmark ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Department of Labor recently announced it would update its policies on transgender rights, by enforcing sex discrimination policies in accordance with individuals’ current gender identity.

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But such reforms barely dent the problem of institutionalized discrimination in public space. One study of transgender people in Washington, DC, found that, on top of general social stigma and discrimination, “Seventy percent…reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms.”

Although Sommerville brought her case under Illinois state law, advocates hope a ruling in her favor could set a precedent for other states’ treatment of transgender people under the rubric of civil rights and labor law.

But whatever Hobby Lobby does in the political arena, Sommerville is primarily anxious about how she’s treated when she shows up at work each day—to do a job that she still loves. She’s just waiting for her employer to recognize what her coworkers and her community have already accepted.

 

Read Next: “Did Child Labor Build Your Smart Phone?

Christie Accelerates 2016 Travels, GOP Fundraising

Chris Christie

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Bridgegate, Schmidgegate. That seems to be the view of an increasing number of Republican voters, and more and more GOP establishment types, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie tries to put the Bridgegate scandal behind him. In New Hampshire—which is critical to Christie’s political future if he decides to run in 2016 because the Granite State has lots of moderate and centrist, non–Tea Party voters and allows independents to vote in the GOP primary—Christie is surging ahead of other challengers, according to a just-released WMUR poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire:

National media pundits and major Republican donors may still be wary of the Bridgegate controversy dogging New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, but potential Republican primary voters, it seems, have forgiven him. The latest WMUR Granite State Poll put Christie on top of all other potential Republican presidential candidates for 2016, but with a higher percentage of support than he had prior to Bridgegate. Christie’s 19 percent lead is up 10 percentage points from where he was in January when Bridgegate was leading the national news. In October, prior to the attention, he was at 16 percent. There appears to also be room to grow. When asked who their second choice was, Christie lead that group with 10 percent.

But the vast majority of Republicans in New Hampshire are undecided, and in any case none of this means that Christie is out of the Bridgegate woods. On Thursday, yet another top Christie aide will appear before the New Jersey legislative committee investigating Bridgegate, and the ongoing inquiries by the US Attorney and the Manhattan district attorney continue apace. But Christie, who apparently believes that he can’t wait for all of that to conclude, is stepping up his Hillary Clinton–like unannounced 2016 bid.

In his capacity as head of the Republican Governors Association, Christie is accelerating his travel schedule. (Since February, Christie Watch has closely followed Christie’s persistence in various polls and his recent travels, to Sheldon Adelson’s dog-and-pony show, to the Conservative Political Action Conference, to Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom event, to various establishment gatherings such as Mitt Romney’s get-together, and his record-setting fundraising pace.) Indeed, Christie’s RGA fundraising has reached more than $60 million since January.

According to The Record, the newspaper in Bergen, Christie’s travels are becoming more frenetic, especially to early 2016 primary states:

The media-savvy Christie, who won 61 percent of the vote in Democratic New Jersey, has already been to 20 states and the District of Columbia since becoming chairman of the governors group in November. By the end of the summer, he’ll have covered the four key early voting states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina—with more than two dozen trips this year.… Since becoming chairman of the Republican Governors Association, Christie has also been to Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Illinois—all of which have their primaries or caucuses by mid-March.

And during July and August, reports The Record, Christie will visit fourteen more states. This week he’ll spend three days touring Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register, where the first caucus in the 2016 campaign will be held:

Potential 2016 presidential candidate Chris Christie’s trip to Iowa later this month will be a three-city swing, with three fundraisers. On Thursday, July 17, the outspoken New Jersey governor will be the star guest at a fundraiser for the Republican Governors Association at Kyle and Sharon Krause’s River House in Waukee from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Entrance requires a $25,000 minimum donation. Christie will do an afternoon fundraiser for Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen in Cedar Rapids. And at 6:15 p.m., he’ll speak at a fundraising dinner for Gov. Terry Branstad at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport. This event will be open to the public with the purchase of a $25 ticket.

Needless to add, in each state he visits while campaigning for various GOP gubernatorial candidates, Christie can pocket contacts with big Republican donors and key activists and politicians that he’ll need when and if he runs.

Other Christie trips this past week included a stop in Idaho for a meeting with tech billionaires and financiers, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and to Nashville, Tennessee, for a meeting of the National Governors Association and the RGA.

In Idaho, where Christie attended a meeting sponsored by Allen & Co., those present included Brian Rogers of T. Rowe Price, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, AOL’s Tim Armstrong, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Twitter’s Dick Costolo, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Netflix’s Reed Hastings and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Others invited included Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes, filmmaker Harvey Weinstein, DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg and Walt Disney Chairman Robert Iger, along with Michael Bloomberg. These people are otherwise known as Christie’s “base.” And, according to Bloomberg News, many in the GOP establishment are scrambling to get behind an establishment candidate in order to blunt Rand Paul’s rise.

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The Star-Ledger, covering Christie’s Nashville stop, reports that America’s Democratic governors singled out Christie for sharp criticism, signaling perhaps their concern that Christie might be in the process of reviving his 2016 ambitions:

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, the RGA didn’t hold a news conference during the session and Christie was largely expected to stay out of the limelight. Political observers said ahead of the meeting that Christie’s performance and attention to detail beyond the purview of reporters and cameras is what would really matter for a governor working to rebuild his image after taking a hit with the bridge scandal. And if evidence was needed to show Christie may be successfully moving away from controversy, conference-goers needed to look no further than the statements of leading Democratic governors. Members of the Democratic Governors Association, during a news conference held a day before Christie arrived, all but targeted Christie as the poster child for what they described as the Republicans’ failed policies in statehouses across the country. It seemed as if the Democrats had set their sights on Christie even before he arrived in Nashville for the conference.

Read Next: The Hillary Clinton juggernaut courts Wall Street and neocons.

Rupert Murdoch’s 3 Most Egregiously Ignorant Claims About Climate Change

Rupert Murdoch

News Corporation Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Rupert Murdoch has a solution for global warming: “Stop building vast houses on seashores.”

That was probably the most sensible thing the media mogul had to say in a Sunday interview with Australia’s Sky News, during which he demonstrated astonishing ignorance about climate science. “We should approach climate change with great skepticism,” Murdoch said. Considering that his media empire is the animating force behind climate denial, this isn’t a shocker. Still, his comments illustrate how the right has hardened its position on global warming—or, as in Murdoch’s case, simply reversed it. This is the same Rupert Murdoch who, seven years ago, warned that global warming “poses clear, catastrophic threats,” and argued, “We certainly can’t afford the risk of inaction. We must transform the way we use energy.”

His comments also reveal how deeply into the bucket of shoddy science skeptics are willing to reach in order to support their claims. Here are the three most egregiously inaccurate statements Murdoch made:

1. “Climate change has been going on as long as the planet is here, and there will always be a little bit of it. At the moment the North Pole is melting, but the South Pole is getting bigger.”

Though it’s true that the earth has previously experienced changes in average temperature, never before has such a large shift happened so quickly. A 2013 study by scientists at Stanford found that climate change is occurring ten times faster than any time in the past 65 million years. It took thousands of years for the earth to emerge from the last ice age; now, the time scale is in decades.

A study finding a 7.5 percent increase in the volume of sea ice in Antarctica is the skeptics’ weapon du jour, promoted recently by the Murdoch-owned Daily Mail as a blow to climate science. But that’s compared to a 75 percent decline in Arctic sea ice. Currently the Arctic is losing ten times as much ice every year as the Antarctic is gaining, so modest gains in Antarctica won’t do much to counter sea level rise. Meanwhile, two separate studies published in May concluded that the Antarctic ice sheet has in fact “gone into a state of irreversible retreat,” suggesting that the accumulation in Antarctica is a temporary phenomenon that will yield to melting ice and sea level rise on a scale even greater than predicted by the IPCC.

2. “In terms of the world’s temperature going up, the worst, the most alarmist things have said…3 degrees Centigrade in one-hundred years. At the very most one of those will come from man-made, be man-made.”

It’s not clear where Murdoch got his numbers, but they don’t match up with serious scientific assessments of climate trends. The most recent IPCC report predicted a temperature increase of about 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, and accounts virtually all of that warming to human activity. At that threshold, the IPCC warned, the risks are “high to very high,” meaning “severe and widespread impacts on unique and threatened systems, substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities.”

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One degree of warming attributable to human activity is actually the best-case outcome predicted by the IPCC. Achieving it is only possible with significant reductions in carbon emissions worldwide.

3. “If the sea level rises six inches, that’s a big deal…but we can’t mitigate that, we can’t stop it. We’ve just got to stop building vast houses on seashores and go back a little bit.”

Again, it’s not clear where Murdoch’s figures come from. Oceans have already risen by eight inches since 1870, according to the IPCC, and they’re on track to rise another one to four feet by the end of the century. That should certainly discourage people from purchasing luxury coastal estates like the $9 million beach house in Oyster Bay that Murdoch sold in 2011. But what about the vast cities on seashores—like Miami, which is already under pressure as seawater seeps up from below through the porous limestone that underlies the city? How should they go about getting “back a little bit”?

Most people in the world can’t afford the luxury of thinking about climate change as a simple real estate challenge. And rising sea levels are only one facet of the looming global crisis. Shrinking glaciers threaten water supplies. Crop yields have already begun to decline, and the global food supply is in jeopardy. Scientists predict intensified heat waves and heavy rains, and the spread of infectious disease as mosquitos and other hosts move into new territory.

 

Read Next: John Nichols reports on Detroit’s denying citizens of basic human right

Iran-Saudi Deal Is Crucial to Resolve Iraq-Syria Civil War

ISIS Guard

Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014. (Reuters/Stringer)

Patrick Cockburn, a veteran journalist experienced in the complexities of the Middle East, usually makes sense. But his latest piece, for something called The Unz Review (“A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media”) is way, way off base. Its title is: “How Saudi Arabia Helped Isis Take Over the North of Iraq,” and it’s a conspiratorial mishmash of truths, half-truths and outright misinformation—much of it derived, weirdly enough, from a speech by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former chief of Britain’s intelligence service, MI-6. In it, Cockburn suggests that Saudi Arabia, in its fanatical zeal to oppose Shiites worldwide, “has played a central role in the ISIS surge into Sunni areas of Iraq.” (ISIS, of course, is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now pretentiously calling itself a “caliphate” and changing its name to “the Islamic state,” presumably signaling that it intends to rule the entire Muslim world.)

In this case, despite The Unz Review’s belief that it brings forward information “excluded from the American mainstream media,” perhaps the reason that Cockburn’s thesis has been excluded is because it is flat wrong.

The ISIS crisis in Iraq, parallel to the ISIS crisis in Syria, is indeed an ugly and serious challenge to the Middle East status quo. But there’s far too much alarmism in response, including Eric Holder’s statement yesterday that the threat from ISIS is “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is a bad actor, but the chance that ISIS will seize or even seriously threaten either Baghdad or Damascus is zero, and eventually the Sunni tribes, Baathists and the former Awakening movement in Iraq will crush ISIS, while President Bashar al-Assad’s forces squash it in Syria. And despite Cockburn’s view, most analysts believe that Saudi Arabia is alarmed by, and doesn’t support, ISIS.

The easiest way to resolve the Iraq-Syria civil war is through an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni side in a broad, regional proxy war throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and into South Asia, and Iran supports the Shiite side, neither side tolerates either Al Qaeda or ISIS. Both Riyadh and Tehran are worried about the rise of ISIS, and the common ground is there for both countries to establish a détente and try to resolve the civil war.

If Saudi Arabia were committed to an all-out conflict with the Shiites, as Cockburn and Dearlove suggest, then Saudi Arabia would have supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, since the Brotherhood was a bitter enemy of the Shia and a supporter of the revolt in Syria. Instead, the Saudis opted to work with Egypt’s military to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. And while the Saudis have close ties to Iraq’s Sunni tribal militia, and beginning in 2006 Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni Awakening, it certainly doesn’t support ISIS in either Iraq or in Syria, where the Saudis back less-radical forces battling Assad’s government. If fighting ISIS takes priority now, Saudi Arabia will have to ease off its support for the anti-Assad forces, freeing up the Syrian army to go into Syria’s north and east, where ISIS is strong. (The United States, rather than bolstering Syria’s “moderate” rebels, ought to do the same.)

Cockburn bases a big part of his analysis on Dearlove’s comment that the spy boss once heard Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia once say: “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will be literally ‘God help the Shia’. More than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.” But that statement was made many years ago, before 9/11, and Cockburn manages to add, “Dearlove says that he has no inside knowledge obtained since he retired as head of MI6 10 years ago to become Master of Pembroke College in Cambridge.” Well.

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In Washington, and despite Holder’s comments, a more reasoned approach to the ISIS crisis may be dawning. President Obama’s initial response, which included hints that the United States might conduct air strikes in Iraq, seems to have cooled. And while I’ve written about the potential for a “slippery slope” in Iraq, with the United States first sending advisers to Baghdad, then troops to protect the airport, and then more troops to protect the airport road, the White House seems to be listening the US military and the intelligence community. According to a classified report leaked to The New York Times, the military argues that Iraq’s armed forces and security apparatus are so badly run, so infiltrated with Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen and informers from ISIS, that there isn’t much of an opening for greater US involvement. And Iraq’s political deadlock doesn’t look like it’s going to broken anytime soon, meaning that the United States can’t take Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s egregiously Shiite-sectarian side in a war against Iraq’s Sunnis.

So far, many of Iraq’s Sunnis—badly alienated by Maliki’s one-sect rule—have supported the ISIS offensive while viewing their Taliban-like extremism with, well, extreme distaste. In some parts of Iraq, the entire Sunni community—tribes, Baathists, Sunni Islamists of various kinds—sit on soviet-like councils alongside ISIS, but that doesn’t mean that the non-ISIS groups want anything to do with ISIS’ obscurantist beliefs and harsh imposition of its version of sharia law. If a deal is struck to get rid of Maliki, or if Maliki decides to open up his government, the Sunni hammer will fall on ISIS. That, however, might depend on an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

 

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Bastille Day, Individualism and the Concept of Progress—in 1939

La Prise de La Bastille

 Prise de la Bastille, by Jean-Pierre Houël (1789)

Are we to ignore the 225th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille?

Sure, there is Kurdistan to think of, the fate of Central American child refugees to consider, a highway funding bill to craft.

But seventy-five years ago, on the 150th anniversary, there were also a few distractions. Adolf Hitler, for instance, was threatening to take over Europe, first, and then the world. The very flame of enlightenment itself flickered and seemed about to go out.

Crane Brinton was a Harvard professor of history and perhaps the world’s foremost scholar of the French Revolution; his 1938 book The Anatomy of Revolution, which divined similar patterns in various revolutions, remains highly influential. In an essay titled “The Bastille Tradition,” published in the July 15, 1939, issue of The Nation, Brinton contemplated the meaning of the event on the eve of what he predicted would be “changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for.” His remarkable essay is reprinted in full below:

The fall of the Bastille was a marked day from the start. Even in Tsarist Moscow enlightened gentlemen put candles in their windows when the news came. The very first anniversary, July 14, 1790, was celebrated at Paris with impressive ceremonies at the Champ de Mars. It rained, perhaps in retrospect a not unhappy symbol; for the democratic faith in which July 14 is one of the holy days has had to prove itself no fair-weather faith. Now, on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the taking of the old feudal castle by the people of Paris, it still looks very much like rain. But, here and there all over the world, men will still celebrate the fall of the Bastille.

What are they celebrating? In France and the French dominions, they are in part celebrating a French national holiday. As an element in the culte de la patrie, July 14 is now so firmly established that it might well survive changes which, in pure logic, are quite antithetical to what the men of 1789 were striving for. Even a fascist France would probably have to make room for July 14, as the anti-clerical Third Republic has had to make room for Saint Joan of Arc. But Bastille Day, even more than the Fourth of July, is not just a national holiday. To the rest of the world, and to most Frenchmen, it is a memorial to the “principles of 1776 and 1789,” to ideas common to Western democracy.

These ideas are to be found in eighteenth-century political writers of almost every nationality, in the American Declaration of Independence and Bills of Rights, and in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which followed hard on Bastille Day. About their meaning and application historians and political theorists have debated endlessly. Was the French Declaration, for instance, intended to protect the individual citizen against the tyranny of the government, or, on the contrary, was it meant to clear away the complicated web of surviving medieval restraints and associations in order to make the Leviathan state supreme over the helpless individual citizen? Is Rousseau’s “Social Contract” at bottom an individualistic or a collectivistic document? So complicated are political processes that the answers men give to these and similar questions are confusingly at variance. Four years after 1789 Robespierre, who certainly thought of himself as a good child of the Revolution, could justify the Reign of Terror as “the despotism of liberty against tyranny.” Nevertheless, if we go behind words to the sentiments, habits, and ways of life which words crudely bring together and focus, we find that after one hundred and fifty years Bastille Day still has concrete meaning for us.

In the first place, the storming of the Bastille was an act of defiance against vested authority, a dramatic and concrete assertion that men can and will overthrow a government with which they are dissatisfied. It is true historically that the governments brought in by such revolutionary acts have not been slow to claim for themselves all sorts of imprescriptible authority. Jefferson’s generous willingness to contemplate the necessity for a revolution every twenty years or so has not usually been characteristic of successful revolutionists. It is also true that this revolutionary heritage has helped to breed a blind and foolish hatred of all governmental action, a hatted which skillful conservatives have often put to the paradoxical use of preventing political and economic change. Yet both for good and for bad, this vague feeling that there is nothing particularly sacred or final in anything a government does is one of the realities often disguised as “individualism.” It is not, even in France and in the United States, a feeling so strong and universal as to come anywhere near what the political theorist calls anarchism. The crisis over President Roosevelt’s Supreme Court plan taught us that even in the land where good citizens leave their cars under “No Parking” signs and picnic where “No Trespassing” is allowed, some governmental arrangements are almost sacred and final.

In the second place—and this is most important—the revolutionary tradition is tied up with an attitude which, for purposes of analysis, we shall have to call metaphysical. Like most such attitudes, it is not with most men consciously and elaborately worked out in words, as the professional philosopher likes to work it out. But to deny that ordinary men cherish metaphysical sentiments, and possess at least a set of stereotyped ideas to express such sentiments, is to be guilty of a very grave intellectualist fallacy. Briefly, the reason why no governmental arrangement is final in the democratic faith is that in this faith nothing is final, nothing absolute. Governments are made by human beings who cannot possibly be right all of the time.

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It is clear that this operational conception of truth is at variance with some very fundamental human dispositions. No orthodox Christian theologian, for instance, can entirely accept it: it is, however, the basic assumption of what we call natural science, and, if only through the triumphs of applied science, it has played a great and obvious part in the modern world. In its naked form of scientific skepticism, it seems clearly too much for ordinary men to bear, since in our daily lives habit and conditioning must put on something of the absolute. But in such modified forms as the nineteenth-century doctrines of evolution and progress, it has penetrated down into cultural levels for which the intellectual is likely to have a good deal of contempt. Try and tell most Americans that the idea of progress is meaningless! Not even the perfected totalitarian state has dared jettison the concept of progress.

Politically, these notions of government as a set of arrangements necessarily subject to change lead to the third general underlying characteristic of the democratic tradition: that government will change most readily which is conducted on the principle of the freest possible discussion. Since decisions must somehow be made, discussion will be followed by voting, and the wishes of the majority will prevail. But not forever. Renewed discussion will bring new problems and new majorities. From this there follows the apparatus of democratic government with which we are all familiar—universal suffrage, universal education, freedom of speech and of association, guaranties to minorities and to the individual, and, in practice, a party system of “ins” and “outs.”

Such we take to be, in very, simple form, the basic tradition of 1776 and 1789: a government by discussion in which all may take part, a belief in the necessity of change, a willingness in the final pinch to appeal to armed revolution to obtain change. There is a good deal else in the tradition, but on this much .at least almost all the faithful would agree. It is a tradition still alive today, one hundred and fifty years after it received its most dramatic modern assertion, but a tradition never unchallenged, and today challenged with especial vigor. Large parts of Europe which played no small part in forming the tradition appear to have repudiated it entirely.

Moreover, within the democratic states themselves, fascist-minded groups are articulate and aggressive, while the democrats are confused and discouraged. The attempt to apply to the study of social problems methods successful in the natural sciences—an attempt thoroughly in accord with the democratic tradition—has added to the discomfiture of the democrats by casting doubt on some of their fundamental assumptions. The social science of the eighteenth-century founders of our tradition seems now to have been based on an untenable intellectualism. We simply cannot now think of man as a rational animal in the way a Holbach, a Godwin, or even a Bentham once thought of him. Experience has taken some of the rationalistic bloom off “government by discussion.” To say this, however, is perhaps no more than to say that the eighteenth century cannot prescribe for the twentieth—which is in itself a statement in full accord with the democratic tradition. Holbach and Tom Paine may not have the whole answer to our contemporary dictators, but does this mean that there is no democratic answer? Surely not. A renewed democratic tradition may lack the freshness and innocence of the golden days that followed the fall of the Bastille (they were, by the way, very brief days), but it will still prove a going tradition.

Democracy has been a relatively rare political phenomenon, and would seem to depend for its existence on favoring conditions that in the past have been very difficult to maintain. Montesquieu was being more realistic than his vocabulary might now indicate when he said that the mainspring of a republic is “virtue.” He seems to have meant that government by free discussion depends on those who discuss being pretty decent fellows, patient, good-tempered,’ informed, sensible, industrious, conditioned not to expect the impossible from themselves or from others. Thinkers as different as Plato, Aristotle, Polybius, and Machiavelli are in surprising agreement with Montesquieu. But we need not fall into Utopian exactions: the thing is a matter of balance, of something like a statistical generalization. A going democracy can absorb, or keep down, a lot of unfit material. Dozens of potential Hitlers are probably displaying their indecencies in the half-worlds of our big cities, as Hitler once displayed his in a Viennese poorhouse. A going democracy can put up with a considerable number of grafters, racketeers, pimps, show-offs, and Napoleons of finance, industry, amusement, education, and what not. But not with an unlimited number. Your average citizen of a democracy has got to be a fairly good human being, even to the extent of being a little priggish about it.

Moreover, this average citizen must not be too sorely tried by circumstances. Even with such consolations as a revealed religion can afford him, he does not bear up well under prolonged adversity. The decencies necessary to the democratic life cannot long be maintained in a population subject to serious economic want, to prolonged warfare, or to great and unchanging inequalities of wealth and social esteem. A great many men, even majorities, may be lifted briefly into heroism—a battle, a camp-meeting, a crusade, the siege of a Bastille—but few inductions from history are more certain than that this inhuman pitch of effort and excitement can not and does not last long. Populations long exposed to conditions that would try the endurance of a hero do not behave heroically—or democratically. They howl for a savior, and usually get him, and his name is often Hitler.

What is less obvious, and less studied—North Whitehead has made a beginning—is the upsetting effect of industrial and economic changes on the apparently necessary routines to which even democratic workers are conditioned. We have said that democracy depends on change. So it does, but clearly some changes can be made too fast and too recklessly. Democracy also depends on various subtle and none too well recognized balances. It may be that our efficiency engineers are too far ahead of democracy, and that not in a strictly Veblenian sense.

What we have managed to make of the heritage of 1776 and 1789 in the last century and a half has been influenced in large measure by the expansion of our civilization on two frontiers: the external frontier of empty lands in the Americas, Australia, Africa, and Siberia, and the internal frontier of applied science—the industrial revolution. The first, we are told often enough, is almost shut; the second also seems to be closing a bit, but for reasons less unavoidable. There is always the hope that applied science may yet include applied social science. If it does we shall have an almost boundless frontier for democratic expansion.

Democracy is in for harder sledding than it had throughout most of the nineteenth century. Yet it still seems to promote certain ways of life, even disciplines, which lead to adaptability, initiative, and cooperation, and these are assets in the most ruthlessly Darwinian of worlds. It has survived a lot in the last 150 years—dicta-tors like the two Napoleons, contrary faiths, at least two world wars, and some economic depressions which, judging from the newspapers of the time, must have seemed almost as bad as this one. It is now, if in no heroic measure, some part of the personal emotions of millions of Frenchmen, Englishmen, Americans, and Scandinavians, and, though for the moment suppressed, of Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and Russians as well. It is a part of the way we see the world. This sesquicentennial anniversary may be celebrated under a cloud, but the chance that our children will celebrate a bicentennial anniversary in 1989 is at least as good as the chance that in 1973 Italy will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Rome, or that Germany in 1983 will hail the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Third Reich. For the external frontier is as closed to the totalitarians as it is to us; and we may believe that with all our failings the internal frontier, which is the frontier of human intelligence, foresight, and decency, is more accessible to us than to them.

Brinton died in 1968.

* * *

Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at rkreitner@thenation.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: More from Back Issues, Great War and the Immiediate Response to Franz Ferdinand’s Assassination

In Politics and Art, ‘Stories Are Dangerous’

Anne Bogart

Anne Bogart (Screenshot Courtesy CUNY TV/YouTube)

Something to keep in mind this political season comes from the theater world. “Stories are dangerous,” even “fascistic,” says Anne Bogart, artistic director of the SITI Company and author of the new book What’s the Story: Essays about Art, Theater and Storytelling.

Humans have always told stories, myths and fables to impose order and meaning on life, of course. But, speaking on public radio’s The Really Big Questions with host Dean Olsher this weekend, Bogart said there are two ways to tell stories: There’s the “fascistic” way, which she defines as telling “a story that has everybody feeling the same thing.” (She says that’s why she doesn’t like Spielberg.) “The other way to tell a story,” she says,

is to create moments in which every audience feels something different or has different associations. Much, much trickier. It requires more responsibility…. And I say fascistic and I mean it literally. The role of fascist art was to make one feel small and the same. And the role of humanist art—I would just make up a name—is for everyone to feel that they take up a lot of space and that they have an imaginative and associative part to play.

Olsher: Stories can mesmerize us. In fact, research is showing us that stories break down our critical function and we are suckers for stories. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy them as art, but when they start to get into our politics, which they do in a big way, and even in our science, that’s when I get scared for us.

Bogart: Stories are super-dangerous, and I think it’s why most of my life I resisted them. And yet… a story is a tool. So the question is, how can you be responsible with stories, and can you find room for discourse inside of stories? It’s just too easy for stories, as I said, to be fascistic. But I do not believe that we’re ever going to get away from stories, and so therefore we have to learn how live with them or live in relationship with them.

Olsher: They are propaganda, aren’t they?

Bogart: Oh, absolutely. I use stories all the time to get my point across, and that’s a kind of propaganda, too—to talk people into my point of view. And they’re powerful and they’re seductive.

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Listen to Bogart here, and listen here to Olsher analyze the power of stories with other guests, including psychologist Melanie Green, who says that stories influence our behavior and beliefs even when we know they’re false.

Read Next: Greg Mitchell on racial politics in theater

The Preordained: Why LeBron James Was Always Coming Back to Cleveland

LeBron James

Cleveland Cavaliers fans cheer as then-Cav LeBron James takes the floor in the 2007 NBA playoffs. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)

In 2013, I predicted that LeBron James would shock the world and return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Many, “insiders” with pipelines into executive suites and owners’ boxes said there was no way this would happen. The consensus was that the four-time-MVP would never marry the last years of his prime to a profoundly dysfunctional franchise and a wretched team owner, Dan Gilbert, who insulted James like a bratty adolescent on his way out of town.

All logic said they were right. But I still thought they were wrong and was confident, even throughout this last Bynum-and-Bailey circus of a season in Cleveland, that LeBron would find his way home. I apologize for this self-aggrandizing “snoopy dance” over my predicting something correctly, especially when my personal record of predictions is, on the whole, wretched. (My belief that a Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry–led Knicks team would make the 2008 NBA finals remains a sore subject.)

But for me, the idea that James would return to Cleveland, no matter how much of a train wreck of a franchise it had become, seemed preordained, even obvious, to anyone paying attention to his off-court persona. First of all, LeBron James is the most “meta”, self-aware, consciously cinematic athlete we have ever seen. If Michael Jordan was the superstar of his own blockbuster movie, LeBron has always aspired to be actor, producer and director. Every step he takes has one eye on posterity. “The Decision” of 2010, when LeBron “took [his] talents to South Beach”, which brought him the rings that he craved but left hurt feelings and bad vibes in its wake, did not fit the script that LeBron James had already written in his own mind. If LeBron sees himself as Martin Scorsese, The Decision was his Bringing Out the Dead. By coming home to possibly bring a sports championship to the city of Cleveland for the first time since 1964, LeBron James can make Goodfellas. He can produce and direct his own magnum opus even—perhaps especially—if it means an ending where he’s eating egg noodles and ketchup.

Securing a title for Cleveland would establish a legend far greater than winning multiple championships in Miami. Dragging a snake-bitten city to the heights of the sports world and smashing on all of the Modellian bad karma in his path would establish a narrative singularly his own. Choosing to return to Cleveland, a city that has lost almost a fifth of its population over the last two decades, makes him a prospective folk hero.

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LeBron, as I wrote in 2013, has always aspired to be something more than a collection of specialty sneakers. Early in his career, he said he wanted to be a “global icon like Muhammad Ali” without the clearest sense about what that meant. In recent years, by speaking out for Trayvon Martin or becoming the first prominent NBA player to say that Donald Sterling had no business in the league, it seemed like he was figuring out what Jordan never did: that “being Ali” meant standing for something bigger than yourself.

By going back to Cleveland, LeBron is embracing his power as someone transformative, someone who could be, without cliché or Nike branding, more than an athlete. By making all the haters, from Dan Gilbert to the fans who burned his jersey, to the vicious media voices, sob in gratitude over his return, he is making this about more than just his own redemption, but theirs as well. Even by insisting on maximum money and not succumbing to the owner-friendly media-driven narrative that stars should accept less “for the good of the team”, he is doing right by young players currently getting hosed by a boss-friendly collective bargaining agreement. It may take some time to make it all work in Cleveland, but by shouldering the burden of a city’s collective damaged psyche and demonstrating the power to rebuild the most burned of bridges, LeBron is going for folk-hero status. He is attempting to produce the ultimate movie of his athletic life. Succeed or fail, it will be a collective thrill to see him try to write the final act. In other words, he’s already won.

 

Read Next: Dave Zirin on the Real Losers of the World Cup

No Water For Motown: Why Detroit Is Denying Its Citizens This Basic Human Right

Detroit River

Detroit skyline seen across the Detroit River from the riverwalk in Windsor, Ontario (Bernt Rostad/CC 2.0)

When Netroots Nation convenes its 9th annual conference in Detroit this month, I hope that attendees arrive pre-hydrated. Because despite living at the hub of the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet—taken together, the Great Lakes represent more than one-fifth of the world’s surface freshwater—Detroit residents are running out of running water. They’re also running into city and state bureaucracies that, alarmingly, don’t seem to care.

In March, when the winter freeze finally began to thaw, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), the city’s public utility, announced that it would resume shutting off water to delinquent customers, at a rate of 1,500 to 3,000 per week. As a result, some 40 percent of DWSD customers will lose their water supply by the end of the summer; 70,000 of these customers are residential, which means that 200,000 to 300,000 Detroiters could be directly affected. This is, to be sure, a public health crisis.

The city would have an easier time explaining itself if it were being at all consistent in its treatment of delinquent customers. In a New York Times op-ed, journalist Anna Clark noted that Joe Louis Arena, home of the National Hockey League’s Red Wings, was $82,255 in arrears on its water bill as of last April; Ford Field, where the NFL’s Detroit Lions play, owes more than $55,000; and city-owned golf courses owe more than $400,000. No date has been set to give these commercial customers their shut-off notices. Meanwhile, Clark writes, “the city is going after any customers who are more than sixty days late and owe at least $150.”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed that (sadly) compares Detroit to Donetsk, Michael Hiltzik writes bitterly that in Ukraine, “[W]arring pro- and anti-Russian forces are using basic necessities of life, such as water, as weapons against the civilian population….The same thing is happening in Detroit, where city officials have subjected the civilian population to mass shutoffs of water for past-due bills, then placed bureaucratic obstacles in the way getting service restored.” And it’s service, mind you, that’s seen a 119 percent rate increase over the last ten years, including an 8.7 percent uptick approved by the city council just last month.

The average monthly water bill for a family of four in Detroit is nearly double the national average. Chris Hayes reported on MSNBC that, though the E.P.A. recommends that families spend no more than 2.5 percent of their pretax income on water and sewage, some residents of Detroit pay 20 percent of their pretax income for these services. Those who can’t pay face a shutoff—and a stigmatizing blue slash of paint in front of their houses, signifying that they are, in fact, waterless.

On June 18, four advocacy groups—Detroit People’s Water Board, the Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch, and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization—submitted to the United Nations a report documenting the situation. In response this week, UN experts condemned DWSD, noting, “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.” Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation and Senior Legal Adviser at the Prosecutor General’s Office, continued, “Disconnections due to non-payment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying. In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections.”

And as if depriving people of a basic human right isn’t outrageous enough, the byzantine legal and financial machinations behind the city’s actions are truly galling. The details, as described in Counterpunch by Detroit lawyer Tom Stephens, are dizzying—even the oversimplified Godfather analogy that he uses to analogize the city’s shady dealings requires a careful parsing—but they boil down to the simple premise that Motown values its financial-institution creditors more than its own citizens. It’s but another example of the 1 Percent’s preferences taking precedence over the Ninety-nine’s necessities. Indeed, many believe that DWSD’s strong-arm tactics are part of a larger plan to make the utility more attractive to private investors.

One of emergency city manager Kevyn Orr’s first acts was to sign off on the hiring of his former employer, Jones Day, as the law firm supervising the city’s bankruptcy—”despite the fact,” Mark Binelli wrote in The New York Times last year, “that Jones Day already represents some of the very banks holding said debt, including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.” (Experts estimate that Detroit’s bill for Jones Day’s services will be around $100 million.) None of this is, of course, evidence of cronyism, but if it walks like a duck…

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As part of the Netroots Nation conference, National Nurses United (The union is also active in the Robin Hood Tax movement) is holding a march and rally on Friday, July 18, to condemn Detroit’s shut-off program as a violation of human rights. If you’re attending Netroots Nation, I encourage you to participate in the action, which begins at 12:30 pm outside the Cobo Center in Downtown Detroit.

“There is,” writes author and activist Jane Jacobs in the introduction to The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), “a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” She could have been describing the Chapter 9 bankruptcy restructuring of Detroit. As Michigan’s brahmins work to appropriate and repurpose every last penny, they’re strangling and humiliating Detroit’s most valuable asset—that is, Detroiters themselves.

 

Read Next: John Nichols against austerity in Detroit—“Water Is a Basic Human Right.