It is appropriate indeed that the first time voters will be offered an opportunity to weigh in on the question of whether to impeach President George W. Bush for high crimes and misdemeanors is at a New England town meeting in a community chartered two years before the Declaration of Independence was drafted.
After all, in a country founded on the principle that executives -- be they kings or presidents -- must be accountable to the people, patriots have always known that, as George Mason, the father of the Bill of Rights, told the Constitutional Convention of 1787: "No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued. Shall any man be above Justice?"
In Newfane, Vermont, Dan DeWalt, who serves as an elected member of the town's Select Board, has answered that question as Mason intended. "We have an immoral government operating illegally," DeWalt explained, when he proposed that today's annual town meeting vote on articles of impeachment.
DeWalt gathered the necessary signatures to qualify the measure for consideration by the residents of Newfane, who were set to gather today in the southeast Vermont community's 174-year-old Union Hall to consider more than two dozen issues, most of which involve local taxes.
It is Article 29, proposed by DeWalt, that will draw national attention for the first time to the town meetings that have been held each march since 1774 in Newfane.
That article declares:
We the voters of Newfane would like Town Meeting, March 2006, to consider the following resolution:
Whereas George W. Bush has:
1. Misled the nation about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction;
2. Misled the nation about ties between Iraq and Al Quaeda;
3. Used these falsehoods to lead our nation into war unsupported by international law;
4. Not told the truth about American policy with respect to the use of torture; and
5. Has directed the government to engage in domestic spying, in direct contravention of U.S. law.
Therefore, the voters of the town of Newfane ask that our representative to the U.S. House of Representatives file articles of impeachment to remove him from office.
The defenders of the current regime have already ridiculed DeWalt for his audacious proposal, just as they have ridiculed the voters of Newfane for considering it -- and the state of Vermont for being home to so rebellious a community. "Why should the most powerful man in the world worry about what Vermont voters say at a town meeting?" they ask, in mocking tones. "Who do these profaners from Newfane think they are?"
But mockey and condemnation have always been the portion served up to those patriots who dare to challenge the corruptions of empire.
It was not easy to challenge a King George 230.
It is not easy to challenge a King George today.
But even the most conservative of the founders, Gouverneur Morris, told the Constitutional Convention during the debate on impeachment that a president must always be conscious of his secondary role in the scheme of the new Republic.
"This Magistrate is not the King," explained Morris. "The people are the King."
Today, the people of Newfane are King. As such, they are well suited to judge the high crimes and misdemeanors of George Bush, and to propose his prosecution by the authorities who were charged by the founders with the task of checking and balancing the executive branch of governnment and its excesses.
This past Sunday, on Meet the Press, would-be-Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards and one-time-Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp, used the fiftieth anniversary of Winston Churchill's Fulton speech to promote their new Council on Foreign Relations' Task Force Report, Russia's Wrong Direction: What the US Can and Should Do.
Edwards and Kemp didn't use Churchill's rhetoric of 1946. Neither spoke of "an iron curtain" descending across Europe. Yet in 2006, there are whiffs of a new-fangled Cold War. This new chapter in US-Russian relations already has its own codewords, checkpoints and nuances. (Underlying the rhetoric is an American triumphalism, as represented by John Lewis Gaddis's new history of the Cold War.) There is a hectoring tone and a familiar double standard, for example, when it comes to condemning Moscow for seeking allies and military bases abroad just as the Bush Administration is doing. As Russia expert and New York University Professor Stephen Cohen ( as well as longtime Nation contributing editor and, full disclosure, my husband) lamented at a conference on the Cold War held at the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow last week, US-Russian relations are being remilitarized.
Talking before a group of nearly 200 Russian and Western scholars, journalists, and diplomats, Cohen observed that "most alarming, negotiations for reducing nuclear weapons have, in effect, been terminated by the Bush Administrations' unilateral withdrawal from the ABM treaty, and by the essentially meaningless nuclear reductions agreement it imposed on Moscow in 2002. And all this, including new buildups on both sides, while Russia's means of fully controlling its existing nuclear devices are less reliable than they were under the Soviet system."
No one can claim that these are hopeful times in Russia. Twenty one years after Gorbachev came to power, little is left of the historic opportunities his reforms opened up for his country and for the world. Instead, as The Nation pointed out in a June 2000 editorial, (at a time when the US government cautiously welcomed Vladimir Putin as a man committed to "democratic" reform), the new President was more accurately described as "instinctively authoritarian." And as The Nation also understood at that time--unlike so much of the American press--Putin's rise to power was an outgrowth of Yeltsinism, which Washington had so assiduously supported through the 1990s.
It reflected "the emergence of an iron-handed leader who, by exploiting Russians' desire for law and order, has struck a sympathetic chord among millions sick of the corruption" of the Yeltsin years. The anti-democratic consequences of Yeltsinism are still evident. Last month, a survey conducted by the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research, revealed that nearly 60 percent of Russians polled believe the country needs an authoritarian ruler. (Not all of these were older people, as the conventional wisdom has it; a substantial number were young.)
There is no question that the US needs a new policy toward Russia--one that is neither triumphalist, Cold War-like, or ignorant of the fact that the pro-Western liberal groups in Russia today--so called "democrats" who were chiefly responsible for Yeltsin's policies of the 1990s--are in fact supported by a tiny fraction of the Russian electorate. What is needed is a policy that understands why Russia has become a semi-authoritarian state--or what some call a "managed democracy." But understanding usually requires a sense of history--something missing from too much of media coverage of Russia today. It means placing Putin in historical perspective, never forgetting that he was put in the Kremlin to be Yeltsin's loyal praetorian successor. (Indeed, one of Putin's first acts was to issue a decree protecting Yeltsin from future prosecution for corruption.)
The Edwards-Kemp report also fails to make clear that after the looting and plundering of Russia's natural resources by a handful of oligarchs in the 1990s, abetted by Yeltsin and also endorsed by the US as "reform," it was virtually inevitable that Putin, or any post-Yeltsin leader, would reassert state control over the country's essential resources, particularly oil and gas.(This does not mean that the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky should be in a prison camp today, but it does mean that some financial retribution for the oligarchical looting was unavoidable.)
Yes, there is much to condemn in Putin's handling of the brutal war in Chechnya. Yes, democratization--which was launched by Gorbachev in the late 1990s--has been rolled back. (It should be pointed out, however, that while the Kremlin has reasserted state control over television, few in the US media seem to be aware that Russia's print press is still politically diverse. On a typical day in Moscow, you can read a fuller range of political views in the many newspapers published in that city than in New York.)
But what is rarely, if ever, acknowledged in the American media is that--as Cohen forcibly argues in his book Failed Crusade--de-democratization began not under Putin but under Yeltsin. (Yeltsin's use of tanks against an elected parliament in 1993 was a grievous blow against democracy.) And at a time when anti-Americanism has reached all-time highs, US government and media lectures to the Russians about democracy may well do more harm than good. (Indeed to hear the Bush Administration lecturing others on democracy--in Russia or anywhere in the world--seems surreal.)
Instead of counter-productive lecturing, we should be developing a cooperative relationship with a Russia that is reengaging pragmatically in the Middle East--by testing Hamas's willingness to moderate its anti-Israel militancy, or controlling Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions. And as essential is the need to restart negotiations on reducing each countries' bloated nuclear arsenals. (Indeed, we'd all be instantly safer if Moscow and Washington took their nuclear warheads off of hair-trigger alert.)
In short, those looking for a measured and knowledgeable understanding of Russia today will not find it in the Edwards-Kemp Council on Foreign Relations report. (Though it can hardly be considered a compliment, it should be said that the Report is sane when compared to the Washington Post's hectoring, Cold War-style editorials about Russia.)
Instead, I recommend recent articles by New America Foundation Fellow Anatol Lieven, especially his Financial Times op-ed of last month. Also, Tony Judt's meticulous critique of John Lewis Gaddis's "The Cold War," in which Judt exposes the historian as a key representative of the unapolegetic triumphalism that afflicts our political class. And there is also Cohen's book, Failed Crusade, which is both a critique of US policy toward Russia and a blueprint for a new policy.
Finally, in regard to the indignant braying about whether Russia deserves to be in the G8--a major topic of the new CFR report--I suggest reading former securities' analyst Eric Kraus's amusing, insightful web article, Does America Deserve to be in the G8? After all, as Kraus writes, if democratization is a litmus test for membership in the G8, "over the past six years, the US has seen a substantial erosion of her old but still-fragile democracy, along with an increasingly aggressive foreign policy and growing tendency to ignore the will of the international community. Indeed, any international law whatsoever. This clearly poses a growing threat to regional security and to world peace."
A personal coda: When I met John Edwards last year, I suggested that if he focused on Russian-American relations, as he said he might, he should consider addressing the poverty ravaging that beleaguered country. (According to official Russian statistics, 18 percent of Russians live in poverty; but, according to many eminent Russian economists and other scholars, the figure is certainly closer to 50 percent.) After all, there seemed a natural coherence to that focus--since Edwards has made American poverty a central issue of his political campaigning.
I also suggested to Edwards that he avoid seeking the Council on Foreign Relations's seal of approval to shore up his national security credentials. Why not take a less predictable, more populist route? Why not turn to other, alternative, perhaps less established thinkers on Russian -American relations whose ideas have not already failed and who are more suited to the new realities of the post-Cold War world?
For the first time in two decades, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday begins debate on the way overdue issue of comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate Judiciary Committee now has until March 27 to come up with a definitive proposal.
Unfortunately, the debate is mired in a growing Republican civil war that could sink the whole process. On the one side are conservatives like John McCain in the Senate and Jeff Flake in the House who have joined with Democrats to support both a guest worker program and legalization for the 11 million "illegals" estimated to be living in the U.S. They've come together around the so-called McCain-Kennedy proposal which is also supported by immigrant advocate groups and organized labor.
On the other side are the so-called "restrictionists" who want to continue with our current head-in-the-sand policy and merely build bigger and higher walls and fences. While the latter sentiment already manifested itself ina bill passed last December in the House, there had been some optimism that the Senate would do a more reasonable job.
But just as the crucial debate begins, the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, has done his best to make things more complicated and more confused. Call it unrestrained ego or sinister subterfuge, but Specter has cooked up his own last-minute proposal which will now become the "main" bill that his committee will mark up. While Specter sides with the liberalizers in proposing that the undocumented already here be given work permits, his measure winds up on the restrictionist side in not allowing those same workers to be put on a path to permanent residence or citizenship.
No surprise that Specter's proposal has left both sides of the debate unsatisfied. The good news is that the Senate is finally edging toward reality on this issue by merely having the debate. The bad news will be if it can't get past the sort of half-measures proposed by Specter. The elephant in the room are the 11 million undocumented already living here. Time to stop living in denial.
When South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds signed legislation that effectively bans abortion in his state, the director of the militantly anti-choice Christian Defense Coalition announced that the legal and political foundations that underpin the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision are crumbling. "Roe is slowly, but surely, being chipped away at," declared the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney.
That's not a precisely accurate picture.
In fact, there is nothing slow about the current assault on reproductive rights.
At least eleven more states -- Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia -- are currently considering bans similar to the one enacted in South Dakota, which outlaws abortion in almost all cases.
Under the South Dakota ban, abortions would only be permitted in a narrow category of cases where the life of the mother was in danger. The state's law provides no protection for victims of rape and incest, nor to women whose health might be severely damaged by continuing a pregnancy.
Physicians who violate the South Dakota ban face up to five years in prison.
No state is going to get away with banning abortion before the Supreme Court revisits the issue. And that will take time. But anti-choice activists, inspired by the fact that the court's two newest members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, have records of criticizing Roe, are doing everything they can to speed up the clock.
If they succeed in overturning Roe, abortion will still only be banned in those states that have laws on the books barring the procedure.
But there could be a lot of states that fall into this category. In addition to South Dakota and the eleven states currently considering bans, a number of additional states have pre-Roe bans that are still on the books.
Many of the pre-Roe bans are every bit as draconian as the one just enacted by South Dakota legislators. Indeed, if the high court were to overturn Roe, and if the old law were given new life by such a ruling, the act of terminating a pregnancy or assisting a woman in doing so would become a felony. Protections for rape victims could disappear. And doctors could be fined and imprisoned for performing abortions.
That means that time is short for citizens of a lot more states than just South Dakota to signal to governors and legislators that they do not want to elminate the right to choose.
Changing the minds of individual legislators will be difficult. Positions on reproductive rights issues tend to be locked in -- especially for Republican legislators who worry about primary challenges from that party's political potent social conservative wing.
But changing individual legislators is another issue altogether.
The abortion rights debate is heating up in a year when two thirds of the nation's governorships and the vast majority of state legislative seats are up for election.
No election should ever be about a single issue.
But, if the assault of the foundations of reproductive freedom continue, abortion will have to be a central issue to the elections of 2006, and voters will have to choose whether women should continue to have the right to choose. To maintain this fundamental right, voters will have to elect governors and legislators who do not just oppose overturning Roe, but who will be at the ready to overturn currently-dormant bans on abortion.
Where does your state rate? According to a 2004 survey by the Center for Reproductive Rights, abortion could quickly become illegal -- either through the reanimation of now dormant laws or the rapid passage of new bans -- in as many as 30 states if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade ruling.
The 21 states that are seen as being at highest risk for banning abortion are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The nine states considered to be at medium risk are Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
The states at low risk states are Alaska, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds has signed the state abortion ban, which bars all abortions without exception except to preserve the life of the mother. Doctors who violate the law face five years in prison. Although the law will surely be stayed by the courts, this should be a real Aha! moment for the women of South Dakota. Now they know they live in a state that values them only as incubators of fertilized eggs--even when fertilized by rapists. That's valuable information! It's a real Aha! moment for us all, actually--turns out the anti-choice movement really means it when they talk about abortion as murder. While Gov. Rounds and President Bush expressed their preference for the strategy of nibbling away at Roe--a much shrewder political tactic that Democrats are always recommending to Republican strategists--the antis went for the whole pie. Why? Because they're fanatics on a mission from God. They think birth control is abortion too.
If you want to get a sense of what's at stake in the war against legal abortion, take a look at How the Pro-choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex by Cristina Page (Basic Books). It's short and sweet and shrewd and funny, and makes a persuasive case that what is at stake is not just the right of women to terminate pregnancies, but modern sexuality and family life, from the very idea of sex for pleasure not procreation to flexible gender roles in marriage. Page packs in an amazing amount of factual information into 168 pages. Did you know, for example, that one effect of parental notification/consent laws is to push abortions later, as 17 year olds decide to wait till they turn 18 and don't need a permission slip for the doctor? And did you know that not one major pro-life organization has an official policy supporting "artificial" contraception? No wonder those well-meaning attempts to find "common ground" never get anywhere.
Defenders of the Dubai ports deal argue that rejecting it would be an insult to the Arab world. But if you look at it from a different angle, maybe we'd actually be doing our new found friends in the United Arab Emirates a favor.
It is hard to imagine why on earth Dubai would want to manage six major American ports where less than 5 percent of cargo is inspected currently. What if, God forbid, terrorists, completely unconnected to Dubai, slipped a weapon of mass destruction through one of the ports Dubai manages? Has the emir of Dubai forgotten what happened to Saddam, who had no connection to 9/11?
If our ally of all of four years really wants to involve itself in America's economy, maybe the U.A.E. should bid on a job equally vital but less of a security risk, like managing the reconstruction of New Orleans. It's clear the Bush administration isn't. They haven't even found a replacement for ex-FEMA head Michael Brown, whose rehabilitation in the media last week was one for the ages. No, the Bush administration is too busy doing damage control on the video showing that despite Bush's mendacious assurances to the contrary, his administration did indeed anticipate a possible "breach" of the levees. Wait, I'm sorry, they only anticipated the levees being "topped."
A distinction without a difference is the White House's current defense. Talk about another moment for the Dictionary of Republicanisms.
The best entertainment news of the weekend had nothing to do with the Oscars (though kudos to George Clooney, who picked up a statuette as best supporting actor, for defiantly defending Hollywood's out-of-touchness by hailing its ahead-of-the-curve support for civil rights and AIDS research). No, the most interesting showbiz 411 was the announcement that Bruce Springsteen next month will be releasing an album, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, featuring thirteen traditional songs associated with Pete Seeger, the writer, performer, preserver and champion of folk music.
With this disc, Springsteen continues as a pop culture-political force. It's an intriguing move for him. In the 2004 campaign, he spearheaded the anti-Bush and pro-Kerry Vote for Change tour--which also included R.E.M., Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks, Jackson Browne, Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds, Bright Eyes and John Fogerty. Toward the end of the presidential campaign, Springsteen appeared with Kerry at huge rallies, in which he excited crowds but--unfortunately--highlighted the real gap between himself and the supposed star of these events. From identifying with Kerry's well-intentioned though poorly presented conventional liberalism to celebrating Seeger's gritty authenticity and radicalism--that's an intriguing pivot.
Seeger has had a decades-long career that has combined promoting traditional folk music and practicing political activism. The latter led him to being called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955, where he was grilled on whether he was a communist. Seeger declined to talk about his political associations or ideas, but offered to tell the committee what songs he had sung in public. The committee was not amused. He was sentenced to one year in jail for contempt of Congress, but the verdict was overturned. Still, Seeger ended blacklisted and banned from performing on network television.
Springsteen's album is not an act of rehabilitation. That's hardly needed. Seeger long-ago transcended those ugly days. His neverending devotion to traditional music and activism outlasted his foes. But what Springsteen is doing is reaching beyond his roots to honor a historian of American song--for Seeger's mission has been to keep alive a certain slice of homegrown American music. The new album will include renditions of "John Henry," "Eyes on the Prize," "Shenandoah" and "We Shall Overcome."
Springsteen started out as a fast-singing wordsmith who obviously had been influenced by Bob Dylan and bar-band rock of the 1960s. But the Dylan who hovered over Springsteen's first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, was not the early, political Dylan but the next-generation Beat/literary-fantasist Dylan, who threw together images and plot lines to create impressions, not manifestoes. In fact, Springsteen's career path flipped Dylan's arc. Dylan dropped the politics as his star rose; Springsteen expanded his range to include politics as his catalogue grew. It was after his Born to Run breakthrough that he began to identify with causes, perhaps first with his participation the No Nukes concerts of 1979. His songwriting, too, began to examine the plight--that is, stories--of living-on-the-edge Americans. "Born in the USA" was not a jingoistic anthem, as columnist George Will and Ronald Reagan falsely described it. It was a haunting tribute to veterans who had been screwed twice: first by the Vietnam War, then by the deindustrialization. The Ghost of Tom Joad, released in 1995, was a quiet-but-angry, Woody Guthrie-flavored look at the down-and-out of America. (Years earlier, Springsteen had started performing "This Land Is Your Land" during concerts.)
While Springsteen clearly made a conscious attempt to connect with Guthrie (as Dylan had done in his salad days), one might not have associated his decades of rock-driven work with Seeger. But by nobly nodding to Seeger in this way, Springsteen not only closes a circle, he advances it. This disc is a generous gesture. Fans of both men ought to hope the execution is as grand as the idea.
As a film studies major I've been trained to sit through any cinematic experience -- from Andy Warhol's 8-hour long Empire (yes, 8 consecutive hours of the Empire State Building in real time) to Derek Jarman's Blue (an hour plus of an unchanging blue screen dramatizing Jarman's AIDS-related blindness) -- and never abandon ship (incidentally I loved both films). It took all this training and more to endure this year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Crash, which I saw this summer in, alas, its entirety. I've already written about how I'm not a huge fan of Brokeback Mountain, the other Oscar contender, but it's definitely a better film than Crash, which I would have walked out on had it not been for my stalwart companions.
White critics like Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it the best film of the year, and David Denby of the New Yorker loved it. Denby wrote that it "makes previous movie treatments of prejudice seem like easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing."
I couldn't disagree more; easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing is the epitome of the film. To my mind, Crash's central message is: There's a lot of racism in the world, but it's all rendered meaningless by a magical force. This force is called sheer coincidence. I'll happily spoil the denouement for anyone who hasn't seen it. The racist white cop (Matt Dillon) sexually molests a black women (Thandie Newton), but is really a good guy because he saves her from a car crash (oh, and because he loves his ailing poppy). His partner's (Ryan Phillipe) anti-racist protests are really irrelevant because he ends up killing an innocent black teenager (Larenz Tate). Meanwhile, a rich, racist white woman (Sandra Bullock) unfairly suspects a Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) of being a crook, but it's okay because her Latino maid (and best friend) takes care of her when she injures herself. And on and on and on through a "compassionate conservative" rainbow of cast members each with their own neatly moralistic (but totally individualized) racial melodramas. As with the well-awarded musical Avenue Q, the moral of Crash is: Don't worry, everyone's a little bit racist.
Anyway, my amateur film criticism aside, you'll find a good dissection of Crash by sometime Nation writer Jeff Chang and Sylvia Chan over at Alternet. LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas called it the worst film of the year. I agree.
There is much one could say about Mikhail Gorbachev. He is the man who changed the world. He ended the Cold War. He tried to abolish nuclear weapons--believing fervently that if we didn't attempt to do the impossible, we would face the unthinkable. He liberated Eastern Europe to find its own political path. And, at home, he was that rare political leader who used his power to launch unprecedented reforms--what came to be known as perestroika and glasnost. It is tragic that twenty one years later, little, if anything, is left of the historic opportunities and alternatives Gorbachev opened up for his country and the world. Those of us who know him have heard him speak of this loss with great sadness.
But last Thursday night, Gorbachev wasn't waiting around for history's judgment. At the Napoleon banquet hall in southwest Moscow, 250 family members, college and elementary schoolmates, former and current political and journalistic colleagues, friends from East and West, and current officials gathered to celebrate Gorbachev's 75th birthday. Having come to know Gorbachev quite well in these last twenty years, my husband Stephen Cohen and I were two of the partygoers.
Toasts and vodka flowed freely. Gorbachev and his daughter Irina opened the evening. Standing on the stage set up for the evening, the former Soviet President welcomed everyone by name--literally, everyone--to what he called his last big party "before old age begins". The party favor was handed out--a family album prepared by his daughter and grandchildren. The Governor of Stavropol, the province which Gorbachev led as a Communist party boss in the 1970s, opened the evening. Chancellor Helmut Kohl uttered some dignified words. An opera singer from the Bolshoi sang an aria. Former Presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky chastised the crowd-"Mikhail Sergeevich gave us a chance and we did not take it." Video tributes from former President George Bush, Bill Moyers, Leonardo di Caprio, former President Bill Clinton, and a rambunctious Ted Turner ( who belted out "happy birthday, my good friend Mikhaiiiil") and California Senator Barbara Boxer were broadcast on the banquet hall's walls. President Putin even sent a telegram of congratulation. (It's the least the Russian President could do considering that he threw Boris Yeltsin a lavish, state-funded 75th birthday bash in the Kremlin just a month earlier.)
But forget Putin's telegram, or Kohl's words or Bush's video tribute. The high point of the evening came when Gorbachev's twenty-something granddaughter, Oksana, took charge. Oksana is a kind of musical impresario, a booker of bands, who looks like a cross between Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. I missed the name of her new girl band, but they might as well call themselves "The Slavic Chicks." Three young women, a brunette, a blond and a redhead, in very short and tight black dresses, came out on stage and began to belt out three Russian pop songs. The disco ball seemed to go round even faster, as the crowd dizzy from the pumped up music boogied on the dance floor. And at the back of the room, Gorbachev seemed mesmerized by the scene--ignoring his table partner Kohl for the moment--as he swayed to the music, clapping his hands over his head.
For a brief moment, whatever sadness Gorbachev may have felt as he surveyed the lost opportunities in Russia and the world seemed to melt away into the dark Moscow night as The Slavic Chicks sashayed and sang. Long live The Slavic Chicks.
The branding experts did a good job with Yahoo!. Everything about the Internet giant evokes a groovy vibe--from the name itself to the company's bright purple colors, wacky font and fabled Silicon Valley work culture. Creativity, innovation and freedom are the catch-words Yahoo! wants people to associate with its brand. The problem now is that the company is actively colluding with the Chinese government to help identify Internet dissidents to be thrown in jail. Not cool.
"Yahoo! has a Chinese-language portal hosted inside China, with a search engine that filters out all websites and keywords deemed unacceptable by Chinese authorities," writes former CNN Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon in a recent Nation online exclusive. "It does not inform users that the content is being censored in any way. Yahoo! also offers a Chinese-language e-mail service hosted on computer servers inside the People's Republic. Because the user data is under Chinese legal jurisdiction, Yahoo! is obligated to comply with Chinese police requests to hand over information. Such compliance over the past several years has led to the jailing of at least three dissidents."
An Amnesty International report adds that, "investigatiions reveal that of four American Internet technology companies operating in China – Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft, and Cisco -- Yahoo! has most actively aided repressive forces in China, by helping to jail political dissidents."
Prominent Chinese blogger Zhao Jing singles out Yahoo! for even greater scorn than Microsoft, the company that complied with the Chinese government's request to shut down his blog. "A company such as Yahoo! which gives up information [about dissidents] is unforgivable," he said in an interview with Fortune. "It would be for the good of the Chinese netizens if such a company could be shut down or get out of China forever." (Zhao continues to post in Chinese at http://anti.blog-city.com, which is available overseas but blocked in China. Some of his recent posts can be read in English at rconversation, which is maintained by MacKinnon, now a research fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.)
As a publicly traded company, Yahoo! can be very sensitive to public outcry. And this issue should have a relatively easy time gaining traction. Most people of all political stripes--other than extremist wackos (both left and right) and those with lots of Yahoo stock--can get behind a campaign calling on one of America's most well-known companies to stop aiding Communist China's repressive tactics.
So take Amnesty's suggestion and click here to tell Yahoo! that if it wants your business then it better stop helping authoritarian governments repress their citizens in the countries in which it operates. Media attention can also really help. So click here to find contact info for your local newspapers and talk radio stations.