Reviews of "A Mighty Heart" -- the cinematic rendering of the tragic kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl -- inevitably touched on the heroism of journalists, who bravely follow stories into the brutal, shadowy world of terrorists or the dangerous frontlines of a war zone.
Ever since 9/11, life has grown far more perilous for Western journalists, as they report stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots in the Middle East in the midst of the so-called "war on terror." The latest casualty is Alan Johnston of the BBC, who has been kidnapped by Palestinian militants.
While the level media attention given to the plight of Western correspondents is well-deserved, it is also tragically lopsided. Consider, for example, ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff. A casualty of a roadside bomb in Iraq, Woodruff's injuries and long road to recovery became fodder for a much-publicized book and documentary. There was much talk of Woodruff's undoubted journalistic and personal courage.
If you look at the statistics released by the Committee to Protect Journalists, you realize that Woodruff lucky to survive in a country where more reporters have died since 2003 than anywhere else in the world. But he was also an anomaly, hardly representative of who really pays the price for press freedom in Iraq. According to the CPJ, of the
108 journalists killed in Iraq on duty, 86 were Iraqi,twelve were European, and eight were from other countries. The number of American journalists killed in Iraq: two.
This isn't to take anything away from the heroism of a Woodruff or a Danny Pearl, but to acknowledge that much of our own knowledge of the war relies on the indomitable courage of Iraqi journalists, who do much of the actual on-the-ground reporting for Western media outlets at a time when western reporters are "virtually under house arrest," as Wall Street Journal's Farnaz Fassihi put it in a 2004 email. The 86 dead Iraqis, for example, include five employees of The Associated Press, The most recent victim being Said M. Fakhry, 26, an AP Television News cameraman shot dead May 31 in his Baghdad neighborhood. And even when foreign correspondents are kidnapped by militants, the Iraqi journalists accompanying them are almost always killed immediately -- even terrorists know that the life of an Iraqi has no collateral value in Mideast politics.
According to AP, things are getting worse by the day: "More than a dozen other Iraqi media employees have disappeared -- apparent victims of kidnap gangs and sectarian death squads."
The lives of of these journalists don't merit a major book deal, network news special, or a Hollywood flick, but it doesn't make their work any less valuable for us Americans. At a 2005 conference, I was introduced to Huda Ahmed, who received recognition for her extraordinary bravery from her employer, Knight Ridder. I asked her why she chose to do this kind of work, whose risks far outweighed the apparent rewards. "For my country," she said. That's the kind of patriotism we can all learn from.
The union representing more than 65,000 Southern California grocery workers has voted to authorize a region-wide strike against the giant Vons and Ralphs supermarket chains. A few months ago the same union authorized a strike against the Albertsons chain.
The new vote comes after an impasse was reached in contract talks last week. More than 90% of members approved the possible strike action.
At central issue, no surprise, are wages and health care benefits. Only 3 1/2 years ago the union went out on a bitterly fought 142 day strike that ended in a disappointing manner. The markets were able to impose a new two-tier contract, severely cutting back wage rates and insurance benefits for newer employees.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union is currently trying to win back some of those concessions it was forced to accept. The two-tier system hasn't met the expectations of the employers either, helping to create a less stable and less professional work force. The unions are hopeful that this time around they can gain the upper hand.
The actual walkout could begin anytime after a required 72 hour advance notice if offered.
Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel has come up with the right response to Dick Cheney's attempt to suggest that the Office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch.
The House Democratic Caucus chairman wants to take the Cheney at his word. Cheney says his office is "not an entity within the executive branch," so Emanuel wants to take away the tens of millions of dollars that are allocated to the White House to maintain it.
The root of the controversy is in a fight that the vice president has picked with the National Archives, which is charged with keeping tabs on how the offices of the president, the vice president and their appointees handle classified documents.
Under federal legislation enacted in 1995, members of the executive branch must work with the Archives to preserve classified documents. The law was backed up, at least in part, by an executive order issued four years ago by President Bush. But Cheney and his staff have refused for five years to file reports that are required as part of the oversight process. Why? Because the vice president -- that's the vice president -- claims he is not exactly a member of the executive branch.
So what is Cheney? Because the vice president serves in the frequently ceremonial position of president of the Senate, Cheney's office now claims that he is a member of the legislative branch -- and thus unburdened by any responsibility to cooperate with the Archives.
Forget the fact that the Constitution clearly defines the vice presidency as an executive position.
Forget the fact that, since then-Congressman Cheney wrote the Iran-Contra investigation minority report defending the "right" of the Reagan administration to set its own foreign policy, he has been a consistent and aggressive advocate for increasing the authority of the executive branch.
Forget the fact that, since the Supreme Court handed power to the Buch-Cheney ticket in December 2OOO, Cheney has fashioned himself as the most powerful vice president in history.
Forget the fact that when Cheney has steadfastly refused to share classified information with the U.S. House and Senate.
Forget the fact that when Cheney actually makes his way to Capitol Hill it is famously to spew obscenities at Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy.
O.K., says Emanuel.
If Cheney's a member of the legislative branch, the Democratic Caucus chair suggests, the vice president won't need all the money that currently goes to pay for his executive office, extensive staff and that secure undisclosed location that is so often his haunt. So Emanuel plans this week to offer an amendment to a spending bill that would defund the Office of the Vice President.
Of course, there would still be funding for the Office of the Senate President. But, let's be frank, the rare tie-breaking duties and ceremonial administrative functions associated with that position won't require more than a smidgen of the money that now goes to the vice president's epic executive-branch operations.
"This amendment will ensure that the vice president's funding is consistent with his legal arguments," say Emanuel, a former aide to President Clinton who, like Cheney, has served in both the legislative and executive branches.
Come to think of it, no matter what branch of the government he happens to occupy, doesn't it make sense to defund Cheney? At this point in the Bush-Cheney interregnum, any move that disempowers Dick Cheney can only benefit the Republic.
John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney." The London Review of Books says The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney "makes a persuasive case…that the vice-presidency is the real locus of power in the current administration: Cheney runs the show."
Here's a segment for next week's CNN show "Reliable Sources." Why is it that the mainstream media treats single-payer healthcare (Medicare for all) as a fringe idea --when, in fact, it has broad support?
In a Sunday-morning segment--devoted to dissecting media treatment of Michael Moore and his new film Sicko, Howard Kurtz asserted that Moore is "pushing government-run healthcare which no Presidential candidate supports."
Last I checked, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), and a candidate for the Presidency, not only supports a single-payer, Medicare for all, not-for-profit healthcare system but he co-sponsored HR 676, The US National Health Insurance Act, along with Congressman John Conyers and more than 74 other House members. It's a detailed bill, which was reintroduced in the latest session on Congress.
As Kucinich said in a recent Presidential forum, " It's time we ended this thought that healthcare is a privilege. It's a basic right, and it's time to end this control that insurance companies have not only over healthcare but over our political system." If "Reliable Sources" wants to remain reliable, shouldn't it issue a correction? Maybe devote a segment to media coverage of single-payer healthcare?
After all, if CNN can devote an hour this Wednesday evening to Larry King's interview with Paris Hilton, shouldn't it be able to give over a few minutes to coverage of single-payer healthcare? After all, according to a March New York Times poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans believe government should guarantee healthcare to every American, especially children, and a majority are willing to pay higher taxes to get this done.
Thanks to rigorous work by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, it is clear that the US. Attorney scandal – as outrageous as it is on its own – is part of a much broader effort by the Bush Administration to use government institutions for partisan gain.
In their report – Using Justice to Suppress the Vote – the two pro-democracy, pro-civil rights organizations demonstrate that the Administration used federal agencies charged with protecting voters' rights to promote voter suppression, influence voting rules, and gain advantage in battleground states. This was achieved through a four-pronged strategy: dismantling the infrastructure at the Department of Justice; fomenting a fear of rampant voter fraud (which has subsequently been disproved – it actually occurs "statistically…about as often as death by lightning strike"); politically motivated prosecutions; and restricting registration and voting.
The actions of two Bush appointees who recently testified on the Hill – Hans von Spakovsky and Bradley Schlozman– are illustrative of the effort to restrict voter turnout in a manner that favors Republican candidates. In January 2006, von Spakovsky was given a recess appointment to the Federal Election Commission (the agency charged with enforcing the Federal Election Campaign Act – he's now having one helluva time in his confirmation hearing). Prior to that, he worked for three years as the appointed Counsel to the Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Division at Justice.
In a letter to the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, six former career attorneys – who worked under both Republican and Democratic Administrations spanning 36 years – wrote that von Spakovsky "played a major role in… inject[ing] partisan political factors into decision-making on enforcement matters and into the hiring process…. Moreover, he was the point person for undermining the Civil Rights Division's mandate to protect voting rights." The career attorneys say that von Spakovsky "assumed primary responsibility for the day to day operation of the Voting Section" and was handed "the authority to usurp many of the responsibilities of the career section chief…."
Von Spakovsky played a key role in fomenting a fear of voter fraud – even writing under the pseudonym "Publius" in June 2005 to "warn of its dangers" and support restrictive photo ID requirements. He asserted that there was "no evidence" that such laws disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters but there was indeed a widespread problem of ineligible voters influencing election outcomes.
At the same time – despite his article and having served on the Fulton County Board of Election – von Spakovsky saw no conflict of interest in taking the lead on reviewing Georgia's proposed photo ID requirement as the DOJ is required to do. He proceeded to approve the law, overruling the career staff's near unanimous decision that it violated the Voting Rights Act by weakening minority voting strength. Both the state and federal courts later ruled the law unconstitutional.
According to the letter from the six career attorneys the aftermath of the Georgia decision was "at least as disturbing as the decision-making process." The Deputy Chief who led the career team's review – a 28-year Civil Rights Division attorney with 20 years in the Voting Section – was involuntarily transferred without explanation. Three others left the Voting Section "after enduring criticism and retaliation." The single attorney who did not recommend against the Georgia ID law – a new attorney – "received a cash award." In all, over 55 percent of the attorneys have left the Voting Section since 2005.
Other stellar moments in the von Spakovsky tenure: overruling a unanimous recommendation from career attorneys against Tom DeLay's redistricting plan (the Supreme Court later ruled, "In essence the State took away the Latinos' opportunity because Latinos were about to exercise it."); overruling career staff who had sought more information regarding the impact of a new Arizona voter ID law on minorities (in the end, it blocked tens of thousands of voters from casting a ballot); pressuring a Republican commissioner, Paul DeGregorio, at the Election Assistance Commission to rescind a letter stating that Arizona had to accept federal voter registration forms that did not include proof of citizenship (DeGregorio e-mailed von Spakovsky asking if this was "an attempt by you to put pressure on me – and the EAC? If so, I do not appreciate it"; also, a proposed "deal" by von Spakovsky to have the Civil Rights Department reconsider its position on provisional ballots in exchange for cooperation on the new Arizona law garnered this response from DeGregorio, "I do not agree to ‘deals,' especially when it comes to interpretation of the law."); advocating for keeping eligible citizens off of the voter rolls if registration information can't be verified by a "computer match" (as inevitably will occur due to typos and other mistakes by election officials; when Washington State followed von Spakovsky's counsel the courts struck the law down); pushing voter purges in battleground states (the kind that contributed to the Florida 2000 debacle) before the 2006 election instead of enforcing federal requirements that states make voter registration more accessible; causing the DOJ to take the position that voters cannot go to court to enforce their rights under the Help America Vote Act (the first time the Voting Section took a position against voters' right to go to court) – this position was rejected by every federal court which considered it.
"Mr. von Spakovsky was central to the administration's pursuit of strategies that had the effect of suppressing the minority vote," said Joseph Rich, a former Justice Department Chief of the Voting Section.
Another key player in the politicization of the DOJ for partisan gain is Bradley Schlozman. His efforts to dismantle the political infrastructure at Justice were reported on the front page of the Washington Post this week. Schlozman was named Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in 2003 and, in 2005, was appointed Acting Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.
Schlozman oversaw the historic shift of the Civil Rights Division away from enforcing federal civil rights protections to ensuring a staff and an agenda that would further partisan goals. Career hiring and personnel decisions were removed from career managers and given to political appointees – negating a policy which had been implemented during the Eisenhower Administration in order to insulate civil servants from political gamesmanship. The mass exodus from the Voting Section occurred under Schlozman's watch, and seven career managers were removed from the Civil Rights Division. Career supervisors were ordered to alter performance evaluations – improving those for individuals who were supportive of Bush Administration positions, and weakening evaluations for others who failed to toe the line. Experienced civil rights attorneys were removed, transferred, or denied cases in favor of new hires who lacked experience but had the right conservative credentials.
In fact, one current lawyer speaking to the Post under condition of anonymity said of Schlozman's recent testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, "When he said he didn't engage in political hiring, most of us thought that was just laughable. Everything Schlozman did was political. And he said so."
Schlozman was involved in both the Texas redistricting and Georgia ID decisions to overrule career staff, and the personnel fallout that followed. But most disturbing was the use of a provision buried in the Patriot Act that allowed Schlozman to serve as an interim US Attorney in the Western District of Missouri without a Senate confirmation hearing. Schlozman replaced Todd Graves who had resisted a purge of voters from the rolls as Schlozman had urged. Once he was installed, Schlozman also brought four high-profile indictments against individuals working in low-income and minority communities for voter registration fraud just one week prior to the tight Senate contest between Republican incumbent Jim Talent and then-Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill. The result was bad press for McCaskill and other Democrats. Schlozman's decision was contrary to a longstanding, written Department of Justice Guidance stating: "Federal prosecutors and investigators should be extremely careful to not conduct overt investigations during the pre-election period or while the election is underway." (Schlozman recently had to change his initial testimony in which he claimed "that he ‘acted at the direction of the director of the Election Crimes Branch in the Public Integrity Section' in filing the indictments. This initial testimony "infuriated public integrity attorneys who… pride themselves on staying out of political disputes.")
In a recent op-ed, Rich wrote, "For decades prior to this administration, the Justice Department had successfully kept politics out of its law enforcement decisions. Hopefully, the spotlight on this misconduct will begin the process of restoring dignity and nonpartisanship to federal law enforcement."
So how can dignity and nonpartisanship be restored and even strengthened?
The Brennan Center for Justice and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law suggest that von Spakovsky be rejected for an FEC position that – as Senator Barack Obama wrote– calls for a "record of nonpartisanship, fairness and judgment necessary to enforce election laws." Congress should also exhaustively investigate any government efforts to propagate fear of voter fraud, restrict voting rights, and suppress the vote. Finally, Congress should advance a truly nonpartisan fair elections agenda, including: the banning of inaccurate and partisan pre-election purges of the voter rolls; blocking discriminatory voter ID laws that could disenfranchise millions of voters; and enacting legislation that protects voters and electoral integrity such as the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Act, Count Every Vote Act, andVoter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act .
Kudos to these two important civil rights organizations for recognizing the magnitude of this scandal and offering a plan to ensure that it doesn't happen again.
Confidence in Congress has hit an all-time low. A mere 14 percent of Americans tell Gallup pollsters that they have a great deal or quite a lot of faith in the US House and Senate.
Since Gallup began using the current measure of confidence in Congress in 1973, the worst rating had been the 18 percent figure accorded it in the early years of the 1990s, when the House was being rocked by scandals that would eventually see a number of top Democratic lawmakers rejected in their own party primaries and the "Republican revolution" vote of 1994.
To give a sense of just how bad things are for Congress, consider this notion: Americans express more confidence in corporate HMOs--the most despised manifestation of a health-care industry that lends itself to all of the scorn heaped upon it by Michael Moore's new film Sicko -- than in their elected representatives at the federal level.
It is true that confidence in Congress had been sinking in recent years, in large part because of frustration by the American people with the acquiescence by the formerly Republican-controlled House and Senate to the neo-conservative foreign policies of the Bush administration and to the Wall Street-driven domestic policies.
But the shift in control of both chambers after last November elections was supposed to change that.
No one expected Democrats to fix everything that was wrong with the United States, let alone the world.
But there was an expectation of progress--especially on the central issue of the moment: ending the war in Iraq.
That expectation, a basic and legitimate one in a functioning democracy, has not been met. And it has created a sense of frustration, and in many cases anger, on the part of Americans who really did want the Democrats to succeed--not in gaining partisan advantage but in the far more essential work of checking and balancing the Bush administration. Some leading voices of opposition, including anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, have simply given up on the Democratic Party. And no one should underestimate that, even if Sheehan says she no longer wants to be the face of the anti-war movement, Sheehan's denunciation of the Democrats for failing to seriously challenge Bush's management of the war is an honest and clear expression of the sense of betrayal that a great many Americans who voted Democratic in 2006 are now feeling.
That's the bad news for Democrats.
The good news is that they still have time to change course.
Doing so is easier than political pundits and cautious politicians would have Americans believe.
If Congressional Democrats want to reconnect with the great mass of Americans who want this war to end, they need only turn to Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold for advice and counsel. Feingold, who voted against authorizing Bush to attack Iraq and has been the steadiest voice of Senate opposition to the war since then, has been calling for the better part of two years for Congress to establish a timeline for withdrawal.
For a long time, Feingold stood alone. But, slowly, he has built a base within the Senate Democratic Caucus for the premise that Congress must lead.
Earlier this year, Feingold got Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, on board with his proposal to begin redeploying US troops from Iraq in 120 days. Under the Feingold-Reid plan, the process of withdrawal would be completed by April 2008.
When the Senate considered the Feingold-Reid proposal in May, as an amendment to a broader war funding measure, it received 29 votes--far short of a majority. The problem then was that leading Democrats in the Senate, particularly Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin and a key Democratic senator on military matters, Rhode Island's Jack Reed, actively criticized the plan Feingold had offered. Levin went to far as to echo White House talking points that suggested setting a timeline for withdrawal might undermine both the security of the troops on the ground in Iraq and the prospects for a smooth transition of that country from US to Iraqi control.
But Levin and Reed now seem to be changing their tune. Levin indicated this week that he and Jack Reed would introduce an amendment to the upcoming Defense Authorization bill that is likely to mirror the Feingold-Reid proposal's call for redeployment in 120 days and the completion of a fuller withdrawal by April 2008. Levin is now trying to suggest that his proposal is an improvement on Feingold's plan. It's not. And Levin's inability to gracefully acknowledge that his colleague from Wisconsin has been right all along is both embarrassing and counterproductive.
But the acceptance by the Senate Armed Services Committee chair of the wisdom on a time a timetable for redeployment with a hard deadline represents genuine progress. For Congressional Democrats it is, as well, essential progress. If they want to win the confidence of the American people, they must do something. And the "something" most Americans want most at this point in an end to a war that should never have been launched in the first place.
John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
Last August in this space, I lauded the great work being done by the student activists behind the Campus Climate Challenge, a project of more than 30 leading youth organizations throughout the US. As it turns out, these young visionaries were just getting started.
The Campus Climate Challenge recently wrapped up its first year of pushing colleges and universities to become models for the kind of clean energy revolution needed to halt the global warming crisis. The Challenge has engaged millions of students from across the United States and Canada and helped fuel a dramatic increase in concern about climate change among the media, elected officials and the general public.
And the hard results so far are impressive: 285 colleges committed to becoming climate neutral through the Presidents Climate Commitment, a set of principles put forth by an ad-hoc group of college and university presidents. Check out a nifty map that shows which schools are participating, and click here if you're a student and you want to start your own campaign.
As the Challenge moves into its second year, it's launched a new online advocacy community to further engage students in the movement to stop global warming and provide them with tools and resources to effectively mobilize their political muscle. A groundbreaking effort in open-source organizing, the new site combines advocacy tools with social networking functions to empower young people to cut global warming pollution on their campuses and in their communities. Check it out at www.climatechallenge.org.
Ever wonder why you can still get a manicure for $5 in parts of New York City? Or why waiters here are mostly white, while all the busboys are immigrants? All this is explained in a disturbing report just released by the Brennan Center for Justice, which shows that abusive is becoming the new normal in the urban workplace. The authors of Unregulated Work in the Global City: Employment and Labor Law Violations in New York City, studied 13 industries over three years, and found that violations of wage and hour, health and safety, discrimination and workers' compensation laws, as well as of the right to organize, were commonplace, and generally went unpunished. (The authors are currently studying unregulated work in other cities, and are finding that the problem is a national one, so don't dismiss this as an New York-centric story!)
Consumer patterns play a part; we all expect more convenience, services and goods, even when we don't make much money. Just yesterday, I discovered that I could get a massage for $10.50 even in Manhattan (the Brennan Center reports that massage therapists in this low-priced segment can make as little as $275 a week, and employers routinely fail to protect them from customer harassment). Some businesses -- discount stores, nail salons -- keep prices low to serve poor consumers (whose work may also be largely unregulated) but to do that, must miserably exploit their workers, not even paying minimum wage, much less overtime.
Yet consumer poverty can't explain everything, because high end restaurants are no picnic for workers, either (in fact, they seem to to be worse than fast food and other chain and franchise restaurants). In the city's restaurant industry, illegal discrimination based on race and ethnicity is so common it goes almost unnoticed. So are violations of minimum wage: $5 an hour is about average, and it's not unusual for coat checkers and delivery guys to make as little as $3 an hour.
So what is to be done? Often, we lefty types think that if everyone would just wake up, open their eyes and organize in their communities, all would be well. But actually, a lot of people have been doing just that, especially the immigrant workers most affected by these conditions. The Chinese Staff and Workers' Association has been bringing attention to these problems for years. Another workers' group, the Restaurant Opportunities Center, has also had organizing successes, forcing many restaurants to pay back wages to workers after public pickets. These groups are great at what they do, but the problems still persist because -- as the title of this report suggests -- there is little enforcement in many of these industries. When rampant lawlessness becomes an industry-wide norm, some businesses say they have to abuse workers in order to compete. Most Americans agree New York City is a nicer place to visit than it used to be, now that you're less likely to be mugged. But it's time to get tough on other kinds of crimes.
In 1971, Edgar Kaiser, the son of the founder of Kaiser Permanente, one of the first big HMOs, went to see John Ehrlichman, a top aide to President Nixon, to lobby the Nixon White House to pass legislation that would expand the market for health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Ehrlichman reported this conversation to Nixon on February 17, 1971. The discussion, which was taped, went like this:
Ehrlichman: I had Edgar Kaiser come in...talk to me about this and I went into it in some depth. All the incentives are toward less medical care, because the less care they give them, the more money they make.
President Nixon: Fine.
The next day, Nixon publicly announced he would be pushing legislation that would provide Americans "the finest health care in the world."
When tapes of the Nixon-Ehrlichman conversation and Nixon's subsequent public statement are played halfway through Michael Moore's new movie SiCKO, it is one of the film's more revealing moments. By this point in the film, Moore has already demonstrated that health insurance companies and HMOs are parasitic villains that routinely deny necessary medical care to make more bucks--even when their money-grubbing leads to the death of patients. Looking for the original sin that led to the present mess, Moore zeroes in on this Nixonian moment, which encapsulates the film's premise that the United States health care system is defined by a fundamental conflict: profit versus care, and--no surprise--profit beats care.
Moore makes this point magnificently in SiCKO, which is the best film in the Moore canon. I say this as one who had a mixed reaction to Fahrenheit 9/11. (See here.) This time around, Moore has crafted a tour de force that his enemies will have a tough time blasting (though they will still try). It's not as tendentious as his earlier works. It posits no conspiracy theories. The film skillfully blends straight comedy, black humor, tragedy, and advocacy. You laugh, you cry--literally. And you get mad.
The film stitches together a string of health care horror stories. Moore opens the movie by looking at two cases involving Americans who don't have health insurance. One fellow who sliced off the tips of two fingers is told at the hospital that he can attach the ring finger for $12,000 and the middle finger for $60,000. He can't afford both. Ever the romantic, Moore reports, this man opts to save his ring finger.
But SiCKO is not about the uninsured. It's about those who have insurance and who have been screwed. Moore began this project by advertising on the Web for tales of health care woe. Within a week, he had received 25,000 emails. That's plenty of raw material. One enterprising father of a child who was going deaf and whose insurance company would only pay for one ear implant wrote his insurance firm and asked if its CEOs would like to appear in Moore's film. The company--whaddayaknow--quickly authorized payment for the other implant.
From this flood of complaints, Moore drew compelling and heartbreaking stories. A woman is denied payment for a major procedure because she neglected to mention on her insurance application that she once had a yeast infection (which was, of course, unrelated to the procedure she needed). A mother loses her 18-month-old daughter because a hospital won't treat her without authorization from her insurance company and her insurer insists she takes the child (during an emergency situation) to an in-network hospital. A woman who was in a car crash is denied payment for an ambulance trip because she did not receive pre-approval for that cost. A man is denied a bone-marrow transplant that could save his life and dies.
Moore interviews health care industry insiders who confirm the worst suspicions. A former employee at a health insurance sales centers cries as she talks about how she was trained to handle prospective clients who might be health risks. "I'm such a bitch on the phone," she says. Doctors who worked for health care companies tell how they were encouraged to deny claims to save their companies money. Medical reviewers for one health insurance company who rendered the most denials received bonuses. Footage from a video surveillance camera shows a Los Angeles hospital dumping an indigent patient on Skid Row. "Who are we?" Moore asks. "Is this what we have become: a nation that dumps its own citizens?"
Moore's meta-message is, It doesn't have to be this way. He visits Canada, England, and France and compares their health care delivery systems to America's. He plays this for loads of yucks. In a British hospital, he goes looking for the place where a patient has to pay his or her bill. He cannot find such a check-out counter. Then--a-ha!--he finds a cashier. But--here comes the punch line--this is where the hospital hands out cash to patients who need a few pounds to cover the cost of their transportation home. Yes, in a British hospital you can leave with more money than you came in with.
What about those put-upon doctors who must work under the heavy yoke of Britain's National Health Service? He interviews a young doctor who drives a new Audi and lives in a posh million-dollar flat. The British system, the doc says, is fine for doctors--unless you want to live in a $3 million flat and own three or four cars. As for drugs, every prescription in England costs the equivalent of ten bucks--no matter what drug or how much of it. An American who blew out his shoulder trying to walk across the famous intersection at Abbey Road on his hands tells Moore that he obtained great hospital care for no money.
Ditto Canada. Ditto France. Doing his I-can't-believe-it act, Moore grills Americans and locals in each country who relate stories of receiving quality care for no payments. A Canadian doctor, with a straight face, says that he has "never told anyone we couldn't put a finger back on" because of a patient's inability to pay. In the land of surrender-monkeys, Moore discovers that government-paid doctors--Sacre bleu!--make house calls, and new parents are visited by federally-paid daycare providers. And get this: a fellow who completes chemo in France gets three months of paid leave to recuperate (on a beach in the south of France, no less). No wonder, the United States ranks 37th in the world when it comes to the health of its citizens, just edging out Slovenia.
Moore whacks the U.S. political system for catering to the needs of the insurance industry not the citizenry, pointing out that the health care lobby pumps millions of dollars into the campaigns of lawmakers. He notes that Senator Hillary Clinton, once the scourge of the health care industry, has become a top recipient of contributions from health care firms. (Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, executive producer of the film and a friend of Hillary Clinton, pressed Moore to cut that part of the film. Moore turned him down. In a recent interview, Weinstein conceded he had asked Moore to delete this portion.)
In the film's climax, Moore gets on a boat in Miami with three 9/11 rescue workers who have been unable to obtain the necessary treatment for ailments apparently caused by their exposure to debris at Ground Zero. His mission: bring them and other health care industry victims to the Guatanamo detention facility in Cuba, where (according to the Bush administration and Republican congressional leaders) the detainees typically receive fine medical treatment. Gitmo, Moore cracks, is "the only place on American soil with free universal health care."
Moore's small flotilla approaches the camp. He takes out a bullhorn and shouts, I have three 9/11 rescue workers who need medical attention. He adds, They just want the kind of treatment al Qaeda is getting. No one in the guard tower responds. A siren goes off. Maybe we better leave, he says. Moore takes the rescue workers and the others to the Havana Hospital where they receive--as do all Cubans there--free quality treatment.
Sure, it's a stunt--but a telling one. One of the rescue workers is living on a monthly disability payment of $1000. Her inhaler costs $120, and she needs at least two a month. She breaks down and cries when she learns she can purchase the same drug in Cuba for five cents. Were she a suspected terrorist in Gitmo, she would get the device for free.
Moore's right. The health care system in the United States is a bad deal for many Americans. (Don't get me started about Oxford, which routinely denies almost every claim I submit for my family.) He glosses over some of the problems overseas (the French social welfare system is under much pressure), but he debunks the hyperbolic scare-'em criticisms hurled at the Canadian and British systems by free-marketeers who defend the U.S. system. As for the charge that a universal health care system would be "socialized medicine," Moore rightfully counters that in the United States there's socialism when it comes to the public well-being; there are public schools, public fire departments, and public libraries. What about public health?
In the film, Canadians, Brits and French laugh at Americans for their cockamamie health care system. Explaining their own systems, they all say that it's a matter of communal security: we take care of each other. In other words, leave no citizen behind. Moore does not explicitly call for a particular set of reforms. But he clearly wants a taxpayer-funded system that cuts out the insurance companies and provides universal care to all.
Health care policy can be mind-numbingly complicated. Try to sort out the differences between Senator Barack Obama's health care plan and Senator John Edwards' proposal. And remember the wire chart the GOP cooked up for Hillary Clinton's proposed reform? But Moore, to his credit, cuts through the surface-level details and gets to the essentials. Why not health care for all? Why allow corporate profit-mongers to decide whether an 18-month-old girl lives or dies? Why is the population of the United States, as wealthy as this nation is, not as healthy as the population of Britain, France, Canada, and 33 other countries? Why settle for a sick system?
Advocates of universal health care (note I say care, not coverage) are hoping SiCKO leads to political change. The California Nurses Association, which supports a single-payer system, is organizing across the country in conjunction with the movie's appearance. It's hard to see a film moving a nation--and, in particular, the politicians who pocket all those health care industry dollars. But Moore has produced a work that maximizes his talents as social critic, humorist, filmmaker, journalist, and advocate. SiCKO is brilliantly funny and sad. It's a dead-on diagnosis. Don't get sick before seeing this film.
JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.
As the post-Watergate presidential financing system collapses and Congressional elections grow more expensive by the millions every cycle, Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter believe it's time to fundamentally change the way campaigns are financed and run. Earlier this year they introduced the first bipartisan bill to publicly finance federal races, modeled after successful "clean election" laws at the state and local levels. (See The Nation's "Making Elections Fair.") This week the Senate Rules Committee held the first of what reformers hope will be many hearings on Durbin-Specter and the corrupting influence of big money on politics. Our Washington intern Matthew Blake attended the hearing and filed this report:
On Wednesday morning, Senators Durbin and Specter were given a chance to make an impassioned plea to their colleagues about why the current financing system was broken--and how their bill would fix it.
"Politicians spend so many hours with special interests and wealthy donors that we don't know what life is like for average working people," Durbin told the committee. "We need to get out of the fundraising business and into the constituent and policy business."
Former Senator Warren Rudman testified in support of Durbin's bill on behalf of a bipartisan coalition of former Senators, including Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
"Increasingly, candidates qualifications are being measured by thesize of their wallets, not the strength of their ideas," Rudman said. Under Durbin-Specter, Senators "will be free to spend their time and energyattending to the nation's business instead of wasting their time onnonstop and demeaning fundraising."
As expected, Senators from both parties quickly attacked the bill and defended a status quo system that re-elects incumbent politicians 98 percent of the time.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who led the fight against McCain-Feingold, assailed the bill as "welfare for politicians"--a common attack line echoed by conservatives. He noted that fewer and fewer Americans (currently 9 percent) choose to check the box contributing to the voluntary presidential public financing system. But McConnell failed to note, as Nick Nyart of Public Campaign pointed out, polls showing that two thirds of Americans support true public financing.
Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, a possible target of a major corruption inquiry in Alaska, railed against "bloggers who are hired to attack candidates and do nothing more than paid political advertisements---I'm limited in dollars but these attackers aren't."
Committee chair Diane Feinstein worried that, "somebody without their marbles collecting signatures could get $13 million in California with a chance for additional vouchers."
After her opening statement, Durbin quickly took Feinstein aside and explained that she was wrong. The bill would require candidates in his home state of Illinois to collect 11,500 $5 donations to qualify for public funds, hardly a number that "somebody without their marbles" could easily collect.
Feinstein eventually apologized for her digression on signatures and seemed generally supportive of the bill. Proponents of the bill hope that she'll be one of my converts on the road to reform. For Durbin and Specter, the task ahead is to persuade their colleagues that it's wealthy private sector donors, not reformers and bloggers, who are corrupting Washington and perverting Congress and political campaigns.