Paul Ryan has spent the past several weeks apologizing.
First, he delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference where he decried school lunch programs, arguing that feeding hungry children could produce "a full stomach and an empty soul." Unfortunately, Ryan illustrated his argument with a story that turned out to be ridiculously inaccurate – in both specific details and broad premises.
The House Budget Committee chairman had to apologize – as best an ambitious advocate for austerity could -- with a note explaining the basis for his remarks had been “improperly sourced.”
Then Ryan went on a national radio program and ripped on unemployed “inner city” men, who he claimed were “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
The Wisconsin congressman had to apologize –as best an ambitious advocate for job-killing and factory-closing “free trade” deals could -- for being “inarticulate.”
And Paul Ryan might want to make one more apology.
For disregarding his own history.
Just as he now disrespects and diminishes hungry and unemployed Americans, the British Tories of the mid-19th century disrespected and diminished starving Irish men, women and children – including, presumably, the ancestors Ryan says were “Irish peasants who came over during the potato famine.”
After reviewing Ryan's remarks, the very wise New York Times essayist Timothy Egan noted over the weekend, “you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”
Egan reminds us that historians of the Irish experience have for some time now been been picking up on the fact that Ryan seems to have forgotten where he came from -- and what his immigrant ancestors went through.
“The whole British argument in the famine was that the poor are poor because of a character defect,” explains Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish studies and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. “It’s a dangerous, meanspirited and tired argument.”
John Kelly, a historian who has written extensively on the famine, has noted more broadly with regard to Ryan's habit of blaming the disenfranchised for being disenfranchised that the congressman seems to adopt “the very same (approach) that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine — and hurt them badly.”
Like Ryan, I am descended from Irish immigrants who settled in Wisconsin. But mine was a different experience. I knew from an early age about Britain’s colonial repression of the Irish, and of the mistreatment of immigrants to the United States who were greeted with “Irish Need Not Apply” signs.
My Irish history inspired enthusiasm for anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and pro-civil rights movements -- along with sympathy for immigrant rights. This is not uncommon. My friend Tom Hayden, whose Irish ancestors settled in Wisconsin, wrote a grand book, Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America (Verso), that explained why Irish-Americans should identify with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination.
Hayden’s exploration of his roots - in Ireland and in the immigrant communities of rural Wisconsin – helped him to unearth the seeds of his own radicalism. He employed a wonderful phrase in that book: suggesting that an understanding of the oppression of the Irish and of the experience of immigration was “the fertile soil of awakenings."
It is disappointing that, in losing sight of his past, Paul Ryan has denied himself the opportunity for an awakening that might provide him with a broader and better understanding of the issues that he admits he jas been “inarticulate” in discussing.
It was certainly true in the 19th century that the last thing the impoverished people of Ireland needed was a British Tory politician blaming them for their hard times – or telling them that feeding hungry children might do damage to the soul.
And it is certainly true in the 20th century that the last thing the impoverished people of the United States need is an American Tory politician blaming them for their hard times – or telling them that feeding hungry children might do damage to the soul.
Chris Christie would dearly love to get his mojo back – his carefully crafted image as a swaggering, no-nonsense New Jersey tough guy. Since the eruption of Bridgegate, the Hoboken Sandy aid controversy, and the nested scandals around the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and its self-dealing chairman, David Samson, however, Christie has not been his old self.
When he travels, for instance, he stays out of the limelight and avoids the press, even while raising millions of dollars for the Republican Governors Association (RGA) behind the scenes. Since the marathon, nearly two-hour news conference on January 9, held to defend himself in the Bridgegate crisis, Christie has not spoken to the media – a period of more than nine weeks and counting. During his latest foray for the RGA, to Georgia last week, he was almost invisible. Though he was scheduled to have appeared at a fundraiser for Governor Nathan Deal and then speak at a forum organized by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, his trip garnered zero press, either in Georgia newspapers or in the increasingly skeptical New Jersey media. CNN, based in Atlanta, confirmed Christie’s trip, but had no details of what he said, what he did, or what happened. And CNN added, “Christie will go to the American Enterprise Institute's World Forum in Sea Island.” The forum is a regular AEI event, but there’s not a word about Christie’s appearance on the AEI website. The Republican Governors Association had nothing to say about Christie’s excursion to Georgia either.
Despite Christie’s effort to keep a low profile – or perhaps because of it – he continues to drop in the polls, both in New Jersey, nationally, and in key presidential primary states such as Iowa. In the latter poll, conducted by the Des Moines Register, 47 percent of Republicans disapprove of how Christie has handled the swirl of scandals, and only 34 percent approve, and the numbers were a lot worse for the overall population and among independent voters. Back home, a Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind poll showed that from a high of nearly 80 percent approval last November, Christie’s approval rating in New Jersey stands at just 41 percent. And a Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that just 23 percent of New Jerseyans would call Christie “trustworthy.”
Still, Christie got a decent reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, and perhaps that’s why he felt emboldened enough to try to get some swagger back by confronting protesters from the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, the NAACP, environmental groups, and fair housing groups at a town hall meeting. Challenged by a series of half a dozen people who, upset that Christie refused to call on them for questions during the town hall event in Mount Laurel in South Jersey, ended up heckling him, Christie reverted to the bullying approach that rallied his base for years since 2009. He had the six protesters – all students from Rowan University – forcibly ejected, telling one of them, “Sit down and be quiet or get out! We’re done with you!” – to loud cheers and applause from the pro-Christie folks in the crowd. But, as the Bergen Record pointed out, at the 113th in a series of what the paper called “highly choreographed community gatherings,” the governor skillfully managed to avoid taking any questions from those opposed to him:
None of the activists was able to ask a question. … While Christie fielded questions from a group of parents upset about a Burlington County charter school being closed and a woman who asked why the governor didn’t use federal funds to promote health care available to New Jersey residents, he managed to go without calling on the dozens of affordable housing advocates, environmentalists and union-backed New Jersey Working Families Alliance supporters in the room.
Still, the fact that protesters and anti-Christie activists, along with ordinary citizens who aren’t Christie acolytes, have begun showing up in large numbers at the governor’s town halls is a significant change from the first such meeting this year, after Bridgegate, when Christie went unchallenged at a town hall event in Port Monmouth.
As USA Today reported, the tide may be turning:
But when Christie traveled to a town hall in Mount Laurel, a town that gave him 65 percent of its vote last year but has shown it is willing to vote Democratic, his warm welcome went cold, at least for a few minutes. Half a dozen hecklers interrupted questions, shouting at Christie for hiring "crooks" and "liars" and for what they say has been the unfair distribution of Superstorm Sandy aid.
The crowd, which also featured two groups of silent protesters holding signs against fracking, booed when the hecklers shouted and cheered when they were escorted away.
At previous town halls, "The rooms were packed with the Christie adoration club, and any time somebody got up they'd get shouted out of the room," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch. "What I find interesting was that the audience reaction (on Thursday) was mixed, and we have not seen that before."
That may embolden other groups to raise their voices at future town halls, Murray said. Christie is scheduled to appear next week in South River, where he won re-election by a much slimmer margin — 58 percent — than he did in the locations for the previous four town halls.
"He's getting close to Democratic territory now," Murray said.
On Tuesday, Christie will make his 114th appearance at a town hall event in South River, New Jersey, and Christie Watch will be there to provide a full report.
This Monday marks the eleventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq—a solemn punctuation mark to the steadily increasing violence that has gripped that country over the past two years. Sectarian violence claimed more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013 alone, and this year’s toll has already surpassed 2,000. Iraq today is a broken and failing state: the war that many would prefer to believe ended in 2011 continues unabated, with Iraqis continuing to suffer, as much as ever, the fallout from this country’s callous lies and avoidable mistakes. Despite Colin Powell’s sanctimonious “Pottery Barn rule,” John Feffer wrote on his Foreign Policy in Focus blog at TheNation.com last month, the United States has made no effort to “own up to our responsibility for breaking the country.”
To a regrettably unsurprising extent, the issue of The Nation that went to press just as American tanks crossed over the border from Kuwait accurately predicted what would happen in the wake of an invasion. Our lead editorial in that issue began:
The Bush Administration has launched a war against Iraq, a war that is unnecessary, unwise and illegal. By attacking a nation that has not attacked us and that does not pose an immediate threat to international peace and security, the Administration has violated the United Nations Charter and opened a new and shameful chapter in US history. Moreover, by abandoning a UN inspection and disarmament process that was working, it has chosen a path that is an affront not only to America’s most cherished values but to the world community. The UN did not fail; rather, Washington sought a UN imprimatur for a war it had already decided to wage and scorned it when the Administration couldn’t get its way.
Jonathan Schell, in an article in the same issue titled “American Tragedy,” described the wider implication of the Bush administration’s action: an existential threat to the separation of powers, the protection of civil liberties, the commitment to the international and domestic rule of law.
The decision to go to war to overthrow the government of Iraq will bring unreckonable death and suffering to that country, the surrounding region and, possibly, the United States. It also marks a culmination in the rise within the United States of an immense concentration of unaccountable power that poses the greatest threat to the American constitutional system since the Watergate crisis. This transformation, in turn, threatens to push the world into a new era of rivalry, confrontation and war. The location of the new power is of course the presidency (whose Augustan proportions make the “imperial” presidency of the cold war look like a mere practice run). Its sinews are the awesome might of the American military machine, which, since Congress’s serial surrender of the constitutional power to declare war, has passed wholly into the President’s hands. Its main political instrument is the Republican Party. Its financial wherewithal is the corporate money that inundates the political realm. Its strategy at home is restriction of civil liberties, deep secrecy, a makeover in its image of the judiciary, subservience to corporate interests across the board and transfer of personal wealth on a colossal scale from the average person to its wealthy supporters. Its popular support stems from fear engendered by the attacks of September 11—fear that has been manipulated to extend far beyond its proper objects. Its overriding goal, barely concealed behind the banner of the war on terrorism, is the accumulation of ever more power, whose supreme expression is its naked ambition to establish hegemony over the earth.…
The tragedy of America in the post-cold war era is that we have proved unequal to the responsibility that our own power placed upon us. Some of us became intoxicated with it, imagining that we could rule the world. Others of us—the Democratic Party, Congress, the judiciary, the news media—abdicated our obligation to challenge, to check and to oppose, letting the power-hungry have their way. The government of the United States went into opposition against its own founding principles, leaving it to the rest of the world to take up our cause. The French have been better Americans than we have. Because the Constitution, though battered, is still intact, we may still have time and opportunity to recoup. But for now, we will have to pay the price of our weakness. The costs will be heavy, first of all for the people of Iraq but also for others, including ourselves. The international order on which the common welfare, including its ecological and economic welfare, depends has sustained severe damage. The fight for “freedom” abroad is crippling freedom at home. The war to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has provoked that very proliferation in North Korea and Iran. More ground has already been lost in the field of proliferation than can be gained even by the most delirious victory in Baghdad. Former friends of America have been turned into rivals or foes. The United States may be about to win Iraq. It has already lost the world.
In her column, “War: What Is It Good For?” The Nation’s Katha Pollitt wrote about the consequences of the US invasion at home and abroad:
Whatever the immediate results—this many dead children versus that much freedom from repression—the fundamental issue has to be the perils of “pre-emptive war” in volatile times. However it works out for the Iraqis, invading their country will be bad for the rest of the world. It will aid terrorist recruitment, it will license other countries—India and Pakistan, for example—to wage pre-emptive wars of their own, it may even consolidate Islamic fundamentalism as the only alternative to American power in the Middle East. Those are the fears not just of the American antiwar movement but of the majority of people around the world, even in the nations whose leaders have joined with ours.
But who cares about the majority of the world’s people? We’ll go to war unilaterally, with our pathetic collection of allies (Britain, OK. But Spain? Italy? Latvia?), while the rest of the world stands by appalled. We’ll boycott the Dixie Chicks, eat our freedom fries and even, as documented in the New York Times, pour Dom Perignon by the gallon down the toilet (“I’ll bet it was just water,” said the manager of my local liquor store. “Nobody would waste great champagne like that!”). People will be called traitors if they wear peace T-shirts, fail to salute the flag or dare to suggest that anyone in the Administration has lower motives than the selfless salvation of humanity. Journalists “embedded,” as the odd phrase goes, in military units will send back an endless stream of heartwarmers that will reinforce the confusion of “support the troops” with “support the war.” If, in the end, the Iraqis turn out to hate and resent the nation that bombed them into freedom, we’ll shake our heads in angry bewilderment: After all we did for you, this is the thanks we get!
The issue raised by the invasion of Iraq is American imperialism. That won’t go away, no matter how this particular adventure turns out. See you at the demonstration.
Finally, the issue carried a report from “Inside Baghdad” by Jeremy Scahill, whom The Nation nurtured as a journalist, publishing his dispatches from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and ensuring that they became the bestselling books, Blackwater and Dirty Wars. On the eve of the Iraq War, Scahill wrote of the hopes and fears of the Iraqi people, as one horrific chapter of their nation’s history was about to end and another to begin:
Perhaps it’s twenty years of unending war and sanctions; perhaps it’s the tremendous repression; likely, it’s everything together, but Iraqis want it all to end. They are exhausted and, most of them, miserable. In the early stages of the imposition of the US-led sanctions against Iraq, US officials made clear that Iraqis would be made to suffer until Saddam Hussein was no longer in power. The last decade has represented one of the most brutal campaigns of targeting innocent civilians to achieve Washington’s policy aims. The constant bombing, the massive shortages of medicine, the rapid decimation of a once-proud middle class, the tens of thousands of innocent children withering away in filthy hospital beds, the unclean drinking water, the total dependence on the government for food, have all made ordinary Iraqis pay an incredible price for a government over which they have no control.…
There is no question that hatred of the US government is strong in Iraq, regardless of what people think of Saddam. And few accept that America has any right to overthrow the Iraqi government. Iraqis have seen what occupation looks like, both through British colonization of Iraq and through the lens of the Palestinians. “We don’t want Saddam, but that doesn’t mean we want America, either,” said Mazen, an unemployed engineer. He said his father’s name is Jihad. The name, Mazen said, was given because his grandfather fought against the British colonialists in the 1920s. “It’s in my family blood. We will not accept a foreign invader or occupier, even if it damns us to more years under an Iraqi dictator. At least he is one of us…
But even those people who would welcome a US victory over Saddam are concerned about what might come after. People across the map say they fear a civil war that would pit the surviving Baathists and loyalist forces of the regime against masses of angry civilians and disaffected army deserters. Some Christians say they also fear that Islamic fundamentalists will attack them. Over the past twelve years, Iraq has seen a rapid desecularization of its society, and Islamic groups hope to replace the Baathist government with an Islamic state. “You know why we Christians want Saddam to stay in power?” asks a restaurant owner in Baghdad. “Because he is protecting us from radical Muslims. He always has done this, and if he goes, we are afraid what will happen to us.”
Scahill also interviewed Iraqis who looked forward to the Hussein regime’s downfall, even at the price of a US invasion. But that didn’t change the fact that even if that happened quickly and relatively smoothly, the violence would be by no means at an end:
Even if some Iraqis celebrate in the streets if Saddam’s government is brought down, it will reflect no success of US policy. It will simply represent a violent end to a horrifying chapter in the vast, unfinished book of Iraq. It will be the fruits of a merciless economic and military war waged against the innocent for twelve years. Regardless of what happens, it is the ordinary Iraqis—the doctors, the engineers turned taxi drivers, the shoeshine boys, the mothers and fathers—who should be praised for having found the will to live and the will to survive a heartless war waged against them by a superpower and a tyrant.
Though both are now gone, their entwined legacies remain disastrously oppressive to the Iraqi people.
* * *
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Although Tony Benn, the British politician who died earlier today, said a lot of things worth remembering, my personal favorite is his list of questions we should ask anyone in authority: “What power do you have?; Where did you get it?; In whose interests do you exercise it?; To whom are you accountable; and, How can we get rid of you?”
During the six months before I got fired as a writer on Newsweek’s foreign desk there were two stories where I was actually summoned by the magazine’s senior editors (known in house as “the Wallendas”) to explain myself. In writing about the removal of a “black spot” neighborhood in South Africa I had apparently been insufficiently attentive to the dangers posed by the “terrorists” in the African National Congress. More egregiously, in writing about the Chesterfield by-election, which sent Benn back to Parliament in March 1984, I had conspicuously failed to deliver the hatchet job ordered up by my editors. I can still remember my lead: “Something about Tony Benn makes the British press see red.”
The problem was that I had lived in Britain, and knew that whatever his failings, Benn in no way resembled the bogey-man described by Fleet Street—especially Murdoch’s Sun, which ran a front-page attack titled “Benn on the Couch” in which an American psychiatrist depicted him as a swivel-eyed lunatic. The funny thing was that in those days Benn wasn’t nearly as radical as he became later on.
Born to privilege—his father was a viscount, his grandfather a baronet who founded a successful publishing company—Anthony Wedgwood Benn (he was also related to the pottery Wedgwoods) enlisted in the RAF as a pilot during World War II, and then went to Oxford. Elected to Parliament in 1950 he was forced out after inheriting the viscountcy upon his father’s death in 1960, only to return in triumph following the passage of the 1963 Peerage Act, which allowed him to become the first member of House of Lords to renounce his title.
As a minister in Harold Wilson’s first cabinet Benn was in charge of “the white heat of revolution” in technology; he also famously launched a crackdown on pirate (unlicensed) radio stations. He later served as industry secretary and energy secretary in Wilson’s second term, where he raised wages for workers in nationalized firms and campaigned against Britain’s membership in what was then the Common Market (now the European Union) which he argued would inevitably be dominated by Germany.
Benn always said that the experience of high office is what radicalized him. With hindsight his decision to stand for deputy leader of the Labour party in 1981 against Denis Healey, the minister who had signed Britain’s agreement with the IMF, thus bringing the expansion of the welfare state to a halt, marked what was perhaps the last chance to stop the slide towards neoliberal decline. As Mike Marqusee writes, at a time when most Labour MPs, union leaders, newspaper columnists and even a significant portion of the British Communist Party chose accommodation, “Benn chose resistance.”
Of course, they hated him for it. From Michael Foot to Neil Kinnock to Tony Blair Labour’s leaders marginalized and patronized him, ridiculing his call for Britain to become a republic and ignoring his proposal that Labour’s leader should be elected by the party’s members. But they also feared him, because Benn represented not just Labour’s conscience but its soul—a living link to the radical England of the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragists and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
I can still remember the first time I heard him speak—at a benefit for the miners’ strike at Columbia in New York in the 1980s. He was eloquent, forensic, radical and unyielding, but what stayed with me—and still does—was the tremendous tenderness with which he listened to what I thought of as typical sectarian bullshit pseudo-questions, and the patient, comradely way he answered each one. So different from the macho posturing of most American leftists (at least in those bad old days).
When we moved to London I went to see him at the house in Holland Park where he worked, surrounded by his famous diaries—eight volumes have already been published—and still keeping up a blistering speaking schedule. When he left Parliament in 2001 he said he wanted “to spend more time on politics” and he meant it, becoming president of the Stop the War Coalition and opening the “Left Field” stage at the Glastonbury festival. He was generous, funny and surprisingly well-informed about American politics.
Ed Miliband, who interned for Benn when he was still in high school, was the first Labour leader in thirty years not to treat him like a pariah. Indeed, earlier this month Miliband finally pushed through the one-man-one-vote election for party leader Benn had proposed so long ago. “I did work experience with him at the age of 16,” Miliband
Running into Benn with his boundless energy, in his red sweater and union tie, was a highlight of every Labour Party conference. In an age where politicians seem to aspire to rock-star celebrity, Benn was something else: a superhero whose super power was to speak the truth. “Red cardy man,” as we called him in The Nation’s London bureau, was a model of what a deep sense of solidarity could give you. Tony Benn was the kind of politician who gives democracy a good name.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
March 11 marks the third anniversary of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that shook northeastern Japan in 2011, triggering a tsunami in a dual disaster that killed more than 16,000 people. The earthquake and tsunami caused the worst nuclear disaster in history with three meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Three years after the catastrophe, 136,000 people from Fukushima prefecture are still displaced, and numerous disaster-related deaths have resulted from stress-related illnesses and suicide. Because of the nuclear meltdown, highly radioactive material continues to leak into the ocean, presenting numerous technical challenges with no solution yet in sight. This environmental contamination, which has impacted residents, workers and military personnel responders, will have a global effect. Lessons learned from Chernobyl suggest that all this is only the tip of the iceberg.
“The Great East Japan Earthquake” is just one of several massive disasters in the Asia-Pacific this past decade. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami took the lives of 230,000 people in fourteen countries. Most recently, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) ripped through Samar and Leyte in the Philippines, causing 6,000 deaths last November. The Philippines has witnessed several other devastating typhoons, including Ketsana (Ondoy) in 2009 and Bopha (Pablo) in 2012. A rising pattern of intense storms and disasters in the Asia-Pacific region has led to the death and displacement of thousands of people and the destruction of essential urban and rural infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools, health centers and workplaces.
Paralleling these disasters has been the disaster response of the US military. According to this “disaster militarism”—which is a pattern of rhetoric, beliefs and practices—the military should be the primary responder to large-scale disasters. Disaster militarism is not only reflected in the deployment of troops but also in media discourse that naturalizes and calls for military action in times of environmental catastrophes.
Justifying US Military Presence
Military Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, such as Operation Damayan in the Philippines in 2013 and Operation Tomodachi (Friend) in Japan in 2011, have showcased the US military’s “helpfulness,” legitimized its presence and softened its image. Charles-Antoine Hofmann and Laura Hudson, researching this topic for the British Red Cross, note several factors driving the growing military interest in responding to disasters. Assisting relief efforts, they observed, can improve the military’s image and provide training opportunities. It is also a way for the military to diversify its role when armed forces face budget cuts.
Disaster relief has also become part of the justification for increased US troop deployments in the Asia-Pacific region—even as the new military basing component of the “Pacific Pivot” has met with strong opposition in Okinawa, Japan and Jeju, South Korea. This massive permanent presence in the Asia-Pacific region has enabled the US military to be the “first and fastest” to respond to sudden calamity. The Pacific Command boasts 330,000 personnel (one-fifth of all US forces), 180 ships and 2,000 aircraft in an area that spans half the earth’s surface and is home to half the earth’s population.
Disaster relief is not the military’s primary mission, role or area of expertise. Nevertheless, disaster response missions facilitate military expansion and dominance. Yoshiyuki Uehara, the vice-governor of Okinawa at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, has opposed the plan to construct a new offshore US Marine base on the island. “I hope we stop glorifying Operation Tomodachi,” he said. “Our gratitude [for US military assistance after the earthquake and tsunami] and US military base problems are separate issues.” The core of Operation Tomodachi was Joint Task Force 519 from the United States Pacific Command. Arguably, the response to disaster was a perfect opportunity for the United States to demonstrate to China that an immediate US-Japan joint military operation was possible.
The United States spent $80 million for this operation. Less than three weeks after the Fukushima disaster, Japan promised to increase its Host Nation Support from three to five years and to pay 188 million yen annually for US military facilities in the country. The US government used the rhetoric of disaster militarism to justify Japan’s dependence on US military forces and the high concentration of US bases in tiny Okinawa. The Okinawa Times argued that this was a clear “political exploitation of the earthquake disaster.”
This was not the first time that disaster relief was used to further larger geopolitical and military goals. The rapid mobilization of assistance using military capabilities from the United States, Japan, India and Australia in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami “set the ball rolling for a four-way security dialogue a few years later,” former Australian diplomat Rory Metcalf has argued. Just weeks after Typhoon Haiyan, meanwhile, the Philippine and US governments were touting relief efforts as justification for moves toward a new long-term agreement for greater bilateral military cooperation and an increased US military presence in the Philippines (the Philippine Constitution currently bans permanent troops and bases). Washington has used disaster militarism as additional leverage to pressure the Philippine government to accept a mutual defense agreement.
The race to provide relief for political leverage is not limited to the United States. China offered its 14,000-ton floating military hospital, the Peace Ark, for Haiyan relief efforts—its first humanitarian response operation. Japan also sent military forces to the Philippines for relief work, in cooperation with the US military, a political effort by the current Japanese government to secure a greater military role overseas.
The Contradictions of Disaster Militarism
The conflation of military power and disaster relief is highly problematic. It is not cost-effective, efficient or transparent. Military operations exhaust limited budgets for humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation and reconstruction activities. Confusion about the military’s role as soldiers or relief providers can lead to suspicion and fear, and some people may not access relief as a result. According to the Department of Defense, the Pacific Command offers not only aid to countries in the region dealing with disasters, but also “forms of advice and assistance, training, satellite imagery or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support.” More troops on the ground offer greater opportunities for the gathering of intelligence. Revelations that a CIA-funded fake vaccination program in Pakistan was used to find and kill Osama bin Laden provide another example of co-mingling humanitarian relief and military operations, rightly contributing to civilian confusion, public distrust and questions of transparency and accountability.
Disaster militarism does not address the underlying causes for the increasing number of intense storms and natural disasters. Nor can disaster militarism be separated from the US military’s record as a the “worst polluter on the planet” for its “uninhibited use of fossil fuels, massive creation of greenhouse gases, and extensive release of radioactive and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and soil,” as a recent Project Censored story detailed. In times of disaster, the US military positions itself as a “savior” and attempts to obscure its role as a major contributor to the rise of climate disasters.
There is certainly an urgent need for disaster preparedness, with trained emergency personnel in local communities as well as international teams. The first responders in disasters are families, neighbors, community groups, professional organizations, churches, international humanitarian organizations and governments. Resources should go to these local institutions to strengthen their capacity to respond to disasters and continue the work when emergency teams have all gone home. Padayon sa Pag-laum (Hope After Haiyan or WEDPRO) and other local Philippine organizations focus their relief efforts on the needs of the most vulnerable sectors of society, especially women and children. Their longer-term goal is to co-create solutions for a more resilient, more sustainable and more inclusive future for the communities affected by the typhoon.
Nor should we wait for climate disasters to hit before we respond. Long-term and sustained resources should be made available ahead of time, especially to countries like the Philippines that experience typhoons on a regular basis. This would make for greater local independence in allocating relief resources.
It would also lessen dependency on military operations. World military expenditure totaled a massive $1.75 trillion in 2012, with the United States and its allies responsible for the vast majority. These expenditures, which have made disaster militarism such a prominent feature of humanitarian relief operations, have not created more security for individuals, nations or the planet. The alternative approach, human security, requires a physical environment that can support life; guarantees people’s material needs for livelihood, food and shelter; and protects people and the environment from avoidable harm. To minimize the impact of climate disasters—and reduce the contributing factors to the uptick in hurricanes, typhoons and big storms—the disaster militarism model must give way to the human security model as soon as possible.
Read Next: Vanessa Lucas and Azadeh Shahshahani on how US aid fosters human rights violations in the Philippines
Tony Benn met Mahatma Gandhi when he was 12, knew and defended Nelson Mandela when the embrace of the anti-apartheid struggle was seen as a radical act, began his fifty years of service in the British Parliament when Winston Churchill was the leader of the conservative opposition and left after Tony Blair became prime minister, renounced his inherited title as the 2nd Viscount Stansgate so that he could continue to serve in the people's parliament (declaring “I am not a reluctant peer but a persistent commoner”), ushered in a new age of popular communications and connectivity as Britain’s pioneering Minister of Technology in the 1960s and 1970s, championed cooperatives and worker ownership as Britain’s Minister of Industry in the 1970s, battled not just Margaret Thatcher but the compromising leaders of his own Labour Party on behalf of the working class in the 1980s and finished his almost 60 years of public life as an international leader of the opposition to the wars of whim and folly that have stolen so much of the promise of our time.
Benn was a proud radical, an anti-colonialist, a socialist without apology and the inspiration for generations of activists, organizers, parliamentarians, presidents and prime ministers around the world—including the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, who responded to Benn’s death Friday at age 88 with mourning for the loss of an “iconic figure of our age.”
Yet, across the quarter-century that I knew him, Benn identified most proudly as a small “d” democrat, a tireless promoter of a power-to-the-people ethic that placed its faith in the great mass of humanity rather than billionaires, media moguls and political powerbrokers.
The last time that Tony and I appeared together at a public event—a symposium in London put on by Britain’s brilliant Campaign for Press and Broadcast Freedom that recalled his famous declaration that “broadcasting is really too important to be left to the broadcasters”—he reminded me of his belief that those in positions of economic, social and political power should always be asked five questions:
“What power have you got?”
“Where did you get it from?”
“In whose interests do you use it?”
“To whom are you accountable?”
“How do we get rid of you?”
Benn asked these questions everywhere he went. I saw him write them on the chalkboards of classrooms and lecture halls. I heard him repeat them at rallies, protests and marches.
I think his favorite of the questions—as a political figure who delighted the give and take of campaigning, the debates, the canvasses, the counts in his initial constituency of Bristol South East and in the historic mining constituency of Chesterfield that he represented in the final decades of his remarkable career—was: “How do we get rid of you?”
“Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system,” Benn explained.
“Only democracy gives us that right. That is why no one with power likes democracy,” he would continue. “And that is why every generation must struggle to win it and keep it—including you and me, here and now”
In fairness, it was not quite true that “no one with power likes democracy.”
Benn held power, as a revered parliamentarian, a minister of state, a competitor for the leadership of his party and a figure of international prominence who traveled in the circles of heads of state. Yet, he was happiest when he was in the street, marching, speaking truth to power, challenging prime ministers and presidents.
To Tony’s view, citizens could not be spectators.
This is why he championed media and political reform, embracing structural changes that would take power away from unelected billionaires and their political pawns and give it to the people. The great historical struggle, he argued, was always over the scope and character of democracy.
When I was with Tony in Chesterfield and London and too many other locations to count over the decades of our friendship, we always spoke of Tom Paine, the English radical who inspired an American revolution. Tony was passionate about Paine and about all the other dissenters, be they British or American or Indian or South African, suffragists and civil rights marchers, anticolonialists and anti-apartheid campaigners, who suffered, struggled and persevered in the cause of democracy.
“A historical perspective is the key to democratic politics, which if denied can bury the real issues and confine news coverage to high-level gossip about the rich and the powerful, reducing us to the role of spectators of our fate, rather than active participants,” he explained. “The obliteration of the past strengthens the short-term calculations that pass for political thought, and for me the real heroes are those few who try to explain the world in order to help us to understand what we can best do to improve our lot.”
Tony Benn explained the world, better than anyone I knew. And he was never, ever willing to accept the role of spectator in the great democratic debate, and the great democratic life, that he sought. We honor him best by asking his questions, and by recognizing that every generation must struggle to win democracy -- and to keep it.
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This past Monday was not a fun day to be Mayor Bill de Blasio.
As he prepared for an appearance on MSNBC, the mayor may have read the Daily News story headlined “Horse Feathers: Liam rips stable no-show Blaz,” about a very handsome actor impugning the mayor’s manhood for not showing up to debate a proposed carriage horse ban. In the New York Post de Blasio could see himself manhandled in “Pataki rips DeB ‘abuse of power’,” “Rev. Blas preaches ‘tax the rich’” and “Blasio’s blarney.” The New York Times metro section had the lower volume but similar pessimism in articles like “In Rent Plan for Charters, Mayor Faces a Hard Road” and “Among de Blasio’s Priorities, Minimum Wage Waits Behind Pre-K.”
Then de Blasio went on the air to endure a long, hostile and not particularly well-informed grilling about charter schools on Morning Joe. The mayor’s security detail showed admirable restraint in not tackling Mika Brzezinski, whose white-hot-angry stare threatened to bore a hole in hizzoner’s skull.
That was just one bad morning in what’s been a tough month for the mayor. What’s driving all the bad ink? Is it that de Blasio (or his team) is bad at communicating? Or is it that the press is treating him unfairly?
Is “none of the above” an option?
Look, de Blasio has misplayed his hand with the press a number of times: the off-schedule visit to AIPAC, the habitual lateness to press events, the ducking out of the room when he should have answered questions and ended the dust-up over his motorcade’s disregard for traffic rules. The mayor acknowledged on Morning Joe that the PR on the charter school co-locations decision was botched.
At the same time, the press is not being easy on de Blasio. The tabloid story about the mayor’s call to the NYPD regarding the arrest of a supporter simply wasn’t front-page material, because there was never any evidence that de Blasio meant to influence the cops. Stalking the mayoral motorcade was an aggressive move by WCBS that never really considered whether, just maybe, the mayor of a large city being driven by police officers has a legitimate reason for rolling through stop signs. As noted in an earlier blog, I think the Times article about the alleged leftist occupation of City Hall was off-target. The coverage by many outlets of the charter school decision was abysmal, devoid of all context and proportion.
Still, given the small sample size just two months into his term, I don’t think the totality of coverage by the mainstream working press has been systematically unfair to the mayor. By “mainstream working press” I don’t include the editorial boards—the Daily News editorial page has been against de Blasio since day one and the Times editorial unit has offered modest doses of support and deep skepticism—or the Post, which is a right-wing publication and no more a part of the MSM than The Nation or City Limits.
I do think the media are being tougher on de Blasio than they were on Bloomberg in his early days, but I was overseas back then and can’t pretend to speak authoritatively. Over his full term I think Bloomberg got way too little criticism in the press. Comparisons aside, being tough is not unfair; it’s journalism, and it’s what we’re supposed to do. While it’s frustrating when journalistic skepticism happens to align with what the wealthy elites are saying in defense of the status quo, skepticism is an important asset for journalists. Hopefully, Andrew Cuomo and Eva Moskowitz will start feeling the sting of more of it. A more credulous press is not what progressives want, even if that means some scrapes and bruises for their causes.
Here’s what I feel is happening: Bill de Blasio is trying to do ambitious and, in many cases, complicated things—truly universal pre-K with a solid fiscal underpinning, the creation of 190,000 units of affordable housing, zero traffic deaths, a more inclusive kind of education reform and so on. These are hard things for a politician to explain, and de Blasio is not doing a great job of explaining them. They are also tough subjects for the mainstream media—with their daily deadlines and space constraints—to cover with the kind of depth and detail the stories merit, and we see that playing out, too. These mutual shortcomings are why the charter school thing blew up. They’re also why Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan died in Albany. It happens to lots of guys. Really.
The great politicians (like FDR, LBJ—on The Great Society, not Vietnam!—and Reagan) have found a way to solve that problem through relentless communication, making it possible for the ever-imperfect media to cover them right. So, does de Blasio’s Brooklyn pad have a fireside he can chat from?
Read Next: Did Eva Moskowitz pressure students and teachers to rally for charter schools in Albany?
The big inequality news this week has been the publication of Thomas Piketty’s monumental book about the subject, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I weighed in with my review in The Washington Monthly here; you can also read a trio of responses at The American Prospect, as well as Dean Baker’s Huffington Post critique. Paul Krugman offers a discussion of some of the book’s technical points here.
This book is making a huge splash, for excellent reasons. Let’s start with its technical apparatus. Piketty, a French economist, has assembled a formidable database on wealth and income from various nations that in some cases goes as far back as the eighteenth century. This has enabled him to conduct a far more rigorous and systematic analysis of the history of inequality than previous generations of researchers.
What’s also exciting about the book is its ambition and moral seriousness. Give the man props for his sheer chutzpah, if nothing else. Piketty has written a 700-page book that offers a grand theory of the dynamics of inequality and capital accumulation and traces it through history. In doing so, he picks up a project much of the rest of the economics profession abandoned long ago. Not since Simon Kuznets and his “Kuznets curve,” a 1950s era model that held that inequality first increased, then decreased as economies grew, has a mainstream economist undertaken such a thorough investigation of inequality.
Certainly, Piketty is more responsible than any living economist for returning the question of distribution back where it belongs: at the center of economic analysis. It is the research of Piketty and his colleagues, such as Emmanuel Saez, who first demonstrated the depth and scope of the economic inequality problem. They also identified the crucial fact that spiraling inequality is mostly being driven by the richest 1 percent of the income distribution. According to Piketty’s most recent data, in the United States, the top 10 percent earned about half of all income, and the top 1 percent earned over one-fifth. Income inequality in this country has reached the highest level in at least 100 years.
It’s well worth noting that during the same decade, while inequality continued to soar, the best-selling economics book of the era, authored by an acclaimed, award-winning young economist, proudly devoted itself to topics no more momentous than cheating Sumo wrestlers. Well, that’s the American economics profession for you.
That Capital tackles a subject that could hardly be more urgent is part of what makes it so welcome. And that Piketty’s unusually lucid writing makes the book so accessible to the general reader—no ugly academic jargon! no impenetrable math!—is especially admirable.
What’s most impressive of all, however, is Piketty’s powerful analysis. The argument of the book, in a nutshell, is this: you know that period of declining inequality we experienced throughout much of the twentieth century, that some of us assumed would last forever? Well, it turns out that period was actually a major exception to history, rather than the norm.
It was an exception because the Great Depression and two world wars disrupted the natural order of things, created the necessity to raise taxes, destroyed (in Europe) a lot of physical capital, gave rise to the creation of equalizing labor market and social democratic political institutions and, in the delightful phrase coined by John Maynard Keynes, “euthanized the rentier class.” This led to an extended period when the rate of economic growth exceeded the rate of return on capital. But that period is no more, and we are fast returning to levels of inequality not seen since the nineteenth century. Since high levels of growth are unlikely to come back, we are doomed to an inegalitarian spiral—unless we do something about it.
The “something” we must do, according to Piketty, is enact a global tax on wealth, an idea he admits is “utopian.” He’s also called for a steep increase in top marginal income tax rates, which I discuss here.
Some liberals of my acquaintance who have read this book are not loving it. They think it’s too deterministic, that Piketty’s vision is too dark. But unless you believe that growth will return to its previous levels—something that even conventional economists like Larry Summers have been casting doubt on of late—Piketty’s argument is hard to refute.
tt’s also true that there are important dimensions of economic inequality that this book doesn’t touch on. If you want to understand the political economy of inequality—how our political system has enabled the rise of the 1 percent—I highly recommend Winner-Take-All Politics, the book by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. And if you want to understand the effect inequality is having on our bodies and our souls, then Göran Therborn’s The Killing Fields of Inequality is the book for you. Where Piketty excels is in tracing the history of economic inequality and analyzing its causes.
In his review, Dean Baker makes the excellent point that wealth or income taxes aren’t the only way to bring the hammer down on the 1 percent. He mentions policy fixes such as weakening drug patent laws, reregulating the cable and telecommunications monopolies, and instituting a financial transactions tax, all of which would also help rein in rent-seeking elites. Those reforms would certainly help, and would be far more politically realistic than Piketty’s global wealth tax. But none of them have its potential transformative power.
According to Piketty, unless fairly dramatic political actions are taken to curb inequality, we face a grim, inegalitarian future. He makes that clear. The policy interventions that he argues are necessary—a global tax on wealth, top marginal tax rates in excess of 80 percent—have been dismissed out of hand by some. “Too impractical!” But as Adolph Reed and others have been arguing lately, it’s long past time for the American left to start embracing utopianism. If we don’t, we may well be consigning ourselves to a dystopian fate.
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On the ever-popular AMC series The Walking Dead the flesh-eating zombies are generally called “walkers” by the show’s characters. In Wisconsin, however, a Walker is—or ought to be—only slightly less terrifying to state and national Democrats. That’s because Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor, the man who built a well-deserved national reputation as the politician who eviscerated organized labor in his state, is running for re-election in 2014—and, if we wins, could emerge as the GOP’s favored candidate to replace the beleaguered Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor. Indeed, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, Walker ought to be considered the front-runner, ahead of Rand Paul and Christie.
A new poll in Wisconsin, by the Republican-leaning Rasmussen firm, says that the race between Walker and Mary Burke, the Democratic candidate, is now tied at 45 percent each. Reports The Capital Times in Madison:
The poll will no doubt be used by both sides to inspire their forces. For Democrats, it is evidence that Burke has a shot in November and makes the case that her campaign is worth the investment of time from volunteers and money from donors. For Republicans, results could serve as a wake-up call. Walker's rabid supporters and Rolodex of big donors can't take the election for granted and must work hard to protect the conservative policies he has pushed through in the past three years.
Walker, of course, hasn’t said he’s running for president, and he didn’t make an appearance this month at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), where Christie, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and several other would-be 2016 standard-bearers auditioned. However, Walker will put in an appearance in Las Vegas later this month at the annual Republican Jewish Coalition bash, alongside Christie, John Kasich and Jeb Bush. One of the RJC’s biggest backers is Sheldon Adelson, a deep-pocketed, far-right donor who could singlehandedly finance a candidate in the GOP primary, as he did with Newt Gingrich’s failed effort in 2012.
In polls, and among Republican pundits—such as Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, the anti-tax evangelist—Walker often gets favorable mention. However, like Christie, Walker has had to deal with a burgeoning scandal at home. And like Christie, who twice won big as a conservative Republican running in a deep-blue state, one of Walker’s main claims to fame is that he accomplished his union-busting, small-government agenda in a state that is traditionally Democratic. But Walker may be facing an uphill climb in 2014: though he survived an expensive fight-to-the-death over a recall vote in June 2012 following his assault on collective bargaining, that victory ought not be seen as a sign of Walker’s strength. That’s because many voters who cast ballots for Walker in the 2012 vote did so not because they supported Walker but, according to polling, because they didn’t support the idea of a recall in principle, and in fact many of those who ended up backing Walker in the recall voted for President Obama later that year. As Walker himself wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
And here is where the results get intriguing: Exit polls showed that roughly one in six voters who cast their ballots for me in the June 2012 recall also planned to vote for Mr. Obama a few months later. These Obama-Walker voters constituted about 9 percent of the electorate.
So, in a straight-up contest in 2014, Walker is likely to face a more clear-cut test of his popularity. And for national Democrats, knocking Walker off his gubernatorial perch could help eliminate a very credible candidate for the GOP in 2016, one who is popular with the Republican establishment but who also has strong support among the Tea Party wing. Unlike Christie, who signed up New Jersey for Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, Walker loudly rejected it, to the applause of Tea Partiers.
National Journal, which says that Walker is “being hyped as a leading Republican presidential contender,” draws a historical parallel with another GOP hopeful eight years ago:
A Walker defeat wouldn't be the first time a presidential contender lost an election right before their big opportunity. Republican Sen. George Allen of Virginia spent 2005 and part of 2006 getting eyed as presidential material—before his "macaca" moment and a Democratic wave turfed him out of elected office.
If Christie is knocked out, if Walker loses his re-election bid and if Jeb Bush decides not to run, the chances increase that the Republicans in 2016 will opt for one of the far-right, freshman senators who’ve signaled that they’re running—Paul, Rubio or Cruz. If so, they’ll be repeating on a national scale what they did in US Senate races in Nevada, Connecticut and elsewhere, namely, running an ideological zealot who can’t appeal to independent, centrist and moderate voters, exactly Hillary Clinton’s base.
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Last week I noted that an important original eight-part CNN series was starting (last Sunday) on the death penalty in the USA, with ace documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney and some guy named Redford as producers and Susan Sarandon (let’s not forget the great Dead Man Walking) as narrator. There’s a full web site up and details here. I observed that it will “call into question various beliefs surrounding America’s justice system and the death penalty.” That sounded like a good thing, and echoes my two books on the subject, including this recent ebook, Dead Reckoning.
Coming this Sunday in Part II of series: how Joyce Ride, mother of famed astronaut Sally Ride, helped free a woman on death row in California. I’ve previewed it and it’s terrific. If you can’t wait, there’s a full article about it here. Excerpt:
It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Joyce Ride came to the rescue.
She was visiting women inmates as a member of Friends Outside, one of many nonprofits across the nation that help inmates and their families cope with incarceration and transitioning to and from prison life. By supporting prisoner visits by friends and family members, Friends Outside says, it reduces stress among prisoners, preventing despair and unhealthy behavior.
Ride had already raised two daughters as a California housewife. One had grown up to become a Presbyterian minister. The other, the late Sally Ride, had become NASA’s first woman astronaut.
A nun who volunteered by visiting women in jail inspired Ride to learn more about why so many women who are victims of domestic abuse end up in prison. After her husband died, Ride began dedicating many of her days to visiting incarcerated women. “It interested me,” she said.
Ride’s younger daughter, the minister, understood. But it confused her astronaut daughter. “Sally couldn’t figure out why I was visiting prisons,” Ride said. Compared to her work at NASA, she said, “it was a whole other world.”
Read Next: Hannah Rappleye and Lisa Riordan Seville: The Town That Turned Poverty Into a Prison Sentence.