The National Security Agency (NSA) and its high-tech spying cohorts have been slammed by a federal judge and, if a report in Politico is to be believed, the presidential commission set up earlier this year by President Obama, after the barrage of leaks from Edward Snowden, is going to be a “doozy” that rocks the NSA.
But it remains to be seen if Obama will carry out all, or any, of his own commission’s recommendations. The commission delivered its still-secret report to the White House last Friday.
We’ll get to the judge’s ruling in a second, but first, the report in Politico by intelligence writer Matthew M. Aid, who writes that although the Review Group won’t please many civil libertarians since it endorses some of the more controversial parts of the NSA’s work, it also won’t please the NSA one bit:
The Review Group’s preliminary findings and recommendations are anything but cosmetic. The still-classified report of the five-person panel, whose official moniker is the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology, recommends sweeping and far-reaching changes in the way the NSA conducts its electronic surveillance operations, from a greater degree of executive-branch oversight of the agency’s operations to the imposition of new limits on what data it can collect, especially inside the United States—a move almost certain to anger the NSA and its supporters inside the U.S. intelligence community.
Politico adds, “U.S. intelligence officials I spoke with were clearly shocked by the Review Group’s recommendations, with one official admitting that he felt ‘slobbernockered’ by some of the things the panel was reportedly recommending.”
I’m not sure what “slobbernockered” means, but it doesn’t sound good if you’re the NSA.
Politico’s Aid quotes a Review Group staffer thus:
We had to go this route. If we did not recommend placing some additional controls and checks and balances on the NSA’s operations, the high-tech companies were going to kill us and Congress was going to burn the house down.
Now to the judge. As The Washington Post reports it, “A federal judge ruled Monday that the National Security Agency’s daily collection of virtually all Americans’ phone records is almost certainly unconstitutional.”
Although the judge, Richard J. Leon, stayed his decision for six months to give the feds time to appeal, and although this lower court ruling is just the first trip on a path that will ultimately lead to the Supreme Court, it’s a major blow to the NSA. Leon’s ruling, sixty-eight pages long, contains scathing denunciations of the NSA’s spying and data collection overreach.
In an editorial, The Wall Street Journal expresses frantic alarm over the coming report by Obama’s Review Group, saying,
But the word on Capitol Hill is that the scope and radicalism of the recommendations stunned even this White House, not least because the task force was stacked with Obama loyalists. If the details are anything like the leaks, then the panel is advising the government to seriously degrade U.S. counterterror defenses and shut down several valuable surveillance assets in a dangerous world.
And the Journal goes on to link the report with Judge Leon’s decision and political opponents of the NSA:
The report lands at a bad political moment, with tea party Republicans and anti-antiterror Democrats smelling opportunity and sociopaths with stolen documents campaigning to harm U.S. national security. Federal Judge Richard Leon ruled Monday that phone metadata collection is unconstitutional, part of a larger post-Snowden legal assault.
We can only hope.
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on why IT companies oppose government surveillance.
I have received a great deal of thoughtful feedback on my article listing alternatives to Sports Illustrated’s coma-inducing choice of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning as their Sportsperson of the Year. I believe that in Sports Illustrated’s best tradition, the Sportsperson of the Year should be someone who personifies the most important, evocative stories of the year. Following some terrific feedback from readers, I now have three more people to add to my list.
1—Neymar. The live-wire Brazilian soccer star spent the past year reviving the “The Beautiful Game,” leading many experts to believe that Brazil could be the home favorite when hosting the World Cup this summer. Yet Neymar in 2013 proved he was more than an athletes. Unlike Brazilian soccer legends Pele and Ronaldo, Neymar backed last summer’s mass protests against the gross waste and negligence connected to the government’s stadium and infrastructure spending for the World Cup. As Neymar wrote, “I’ve always had faith that it wouldn’t be necessary to get to this point, of having to take over the streets, to demand for better transportation, health, education and safety—these are all government’s obligations. My parents worked really hard to offer me and my sister a good quality life. Today, thanks to the success that fans have afforded me, it might seem like a lot of demagogy from me—but it isn’t—raising the flag of the protests that are happening in Brazil. But I am Brazilian and I love my country. I have family and friends who live in Brazil! That’s why I want a Brazil that is fair and safe and healthier and more honest! The only way I have to represent Brazil is on the pitch, playing football and, starting today against Mexico, I’ll get on the pitch inspired by this mobilisation.”
Sure enough, he then starred in Brazil’s Confederations Cup victory over Mexico.
2—Brandon Marshall. In 2013, the Pro Bowl Chicago Bears wide receiver pulled off what may be an unprecedented act in sports history: traveling politically from someone who could be understandably seen as part of the problem in sports, to becoming somone who is unquestionably part of the solution. Early in his career, Marshall was arrested on drunk driving and domestic violence charges. Instead of continuing to spiral downward, Marshall sought counseling and has been open and honest about his own mental health problems. Amidst the NFL’s bullying scandal in Miami, Marshall was one of the most cogent and intelligent speakers about the toxicity inherent in the concepts of “manhood” in football.
He said, “Take a little boy and a little girl. A little boy falls down and the first thing we say as parents is ‘Get up, shake it off. You’ll be OK. Don’t cry.’ A little girl falls down, what do we say? ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We validate their feelings. So right there from that moment, we’re teaching our men to mask their feelings, to not show their emotions. And it’s that times 100 with football players. You can’t show that your hurt, can’t show any pain. So for a guy to come into the locker room and he shows a little vulnerability, that’s a problem. That’s what I mean by the culture of the NFL. And that’s what we have to change. So what’s going on in Miami goes on in every locker room. But it’s time for us to start talking. Maybe have some group sessions where guys sit down and maybe talk about what’s going on off the field or what’s going on in the building and not mask everything. Because the (longer) it goes untreated, the worse it gets.”
3—Katie Hnida. One of the most important and disturbing sports stories of 2013 was the ways in which jock culture and rape culture seemed to be inextricably bound. From Steubenville, to Torrington, to Maryville, to Vanderbilt University, to the treatment of Jameis Winston’s accuser in Tallahassee, there were a shocking number of stories in the sports pages about rape and the ways in which the reverence for young athletes created a culture of cover-ups. Katie Hnida was uniquely situated to discuss this and did not shirk from the task. Hnida was first woman to play professional arena football with the Ft. Wayne Firehawks in 2010 and also became the first woman to score in an NCAA Division I-A game, with New Mexico. In 2004, Hnida also told Sports Illustrated that as a member of the Colorado Buffaloes, she was raped by members of the football team. She was condemned for coming forward and no charges for filed. One would more than understand if Katie Hnida never wanted to discuss the ways in which jock culture and rape culture intersected. Instead, she was a nuanced and important voice throughout the year. In my own interview with Hnida, she said, “I know that jock culture does not have to produce sexual assault because at New Mexico we were a family so I have seen how sports can be a force for good.” She has also said with razor-sharp clarity, “We all have the right to autonomy over our own bodies…I’m happy to be able to say I survived sexual violence.”
Thank you, Neymar. Thank you, Brandon Marshall. Thank you, Katie Hnida. You were all a part of turning a very somber 2013 sports year into one with highlights of hope and inspiration
Read next: Dave Zirin’s thoughts on Peyton Manning as Sports Illustrated person of the year for 2013.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
As a novelist once put it, President Calvin Coolidge “aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained his desire.” Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to negotiate what may be considered “the least” budget the House has ever passed.
Yet ever since the deal was announced, Washington has been patting itself on the back for the deal, which—at least temporarily—halts a two-year war waged by GOP obstructionists that has paralyzed, and even shut down, the government. President Obama, even while acknowledging the deal’s shortcomings, said that its mere existence was “a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of shortsighted, crisis-driven decision making to get this done.” The Economist put it more plainly: “What is in the deal . . . is perhaps less important than the fact that there is one.”
Yet this excessive affection for dealmaking—any deal at all—obscures the truth: Simply doing something doesn’t mean that you’re doing the right thing.
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Eight prominent Internet technology companies unveiled an open letter last week calling for reforms to the government surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden. “The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual—rights that are enshrined in our constitution,” reads the letter, published on a website that lays out five principles for reform, including greater oversight and transparency, as well as an end to bulk data collection.
Executives from seven of the firms will meet with President Obama on Tuesday, in the shadow of a federal judge’s ruling that the collection of domestic phone records is "almost certainly" unconstitutional. The opinion from US District Judge Richard Leon reinforces the impression that NSA overreach constitutes a primary threat to privacy and civil liberty. But some privacy advocates caution that even if the NSA’s programs are scaled back, surveillance infrastructure will persist in the private sector—thanks to the same companies now calling for reform, whose business models depend on the collection and sale of vast quantities of personal information.
“It’s one-stop shopping for the NSA,” warned Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer privacy advocacy group. “What they’ve done is create a global commercial surveillance system that is engaged in the same kind of pervasive tracking and analysis [as the NSA].”
The engagement of IT companies in the debate about the state’s surveillance powers seems like a clear win for reformers. Though they lack detail, the firms’ principles align with many of the changes called for by privacy advocates. This is the first time that the tech giants—including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter and Apple—have made a joint political statement, and the move is well-timed: early in the new year Congress will weigh competing legislation with the potential to roll-back some of the NSA’s overreach, or enshrine data collection programs in law. With a combined value of $1.4 trillion and a growing lobbying presence in Washington, these companies wield considerable influence.
“We’re happy to have them in this fight,” said Michelle Richardson, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Of course the real question is the next step—whether they are willing to put lobbying muscle behind it.”
Another question is how far the interests of the Internet giants really overlap with the concerns of civil libertarians. Nowhere in their calls for reform do the IT companies address the privacy implications of selling troves of personal information collected from millions of Americans to online advertisers. Substantial investment and innovation in data collection by the private sector has enriched shareholders, and enabled the government’s spying programs.
“The accumulation of corporate power in terms of having these very powerful dossiers of every individual, their networks and locations, gives them tremendous influence over our lives. These corporations have agendas as well,” said Chester.
This agenda—in short, to convert users into a source of profit—is less sinister at face value than the prospect that the NSA’s surveillance programs will ossify into the architecture of a police state. Unlike government spying, data collection and tracking by the private sector is largely opt-in: no one forces us to click “agree” at the end of a long and opaque user agreement. And the risks of sharing personal information seem low; Facebook will not haul you off to jail because of who your friends are.
But the national security apparatus is deeply entangled with Silicon Valley, as the Snowden revelations have illustrated. In early December, The Washington Post reported that the NSA is “piggybacking” on the tracking tools that allow advertisers to follow and target users, “using ‘cookies’ and location data to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.” Google’s PREF cookies are particularly useful to the NSA, according to the Post, and it isn’t clear to what extent the company cooperates with the agency.
The Snowden disclosures revealed that many Internet and telecom companies have both complied with the agency’s requests for data and been unwitting prey for back-door data collection. Several IT firms have asked the government for authorization to share information about the requests for data they receive, and the open letter assures consumers the companies are “deploying the latest encryption technology to prevent unauthorized surveillance on our networks.” (Other companies implicated by the Snowden leaks, notably Verizon and AT&T, have not indicated any willingness to be more open about their relationship with the NSA.)
When it comes to its own practices, however, the IT industry has a record of fighting consumer protections. Silicon Valley has lobbied aggressively against legislation in Europe that would help users evade online tracking and targeted advertising. Google has paid more than one multi-million dollar settlement for evading privacy protections built into the Internet browser Safari, and a related lawsuit is pending in the United Kingdom. It appears that, as Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU tweeted last week, Google and other companies “just want to be the exclusive spying source for their customers’ data.”
While the open letter pays lip service to civil liberties, the real concern it expresses isn’t for the rights of the people per se, but for consumer confidence—read, the companies’ bottom line. “Recent revelations about government surveillance activities have shaken the trust of our users, and it is time for the United States government to act to restore the confidence of citizens around the world,” Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer wrote on the new website. Microsoft’s Brad Smith put it more bluntly: “People won’t use technology they don’t trust.” One analyst predicts that Internet companies will lose as much at $180 billion by 2016 because of the damage done to their reputations by the leaks.
That message may have more resonance with lawmakers than concerns about individual rights. The national security apparatus has a compelling interest in maintaining the dominance of US Internet companies, as Marcy Wheeler points out. “Our stewardship of the Internet is not just one of the few bright spots in our economy, but also a keystone to our power internationally. And it gives us huge spying advantages,” she writes.
How the government will reconcile its competing interests in extensive spying and in maintaining the dominance of America’s Internet services industry is an interesting question. At this point it looks likely that any voluntary changes will be cosmetic, designed to appease angry foreign leaders and reassure Internet users. Even strong checks from the legislative branch now cannot guarantee a permanent firewall between private data pools and the government; Intelligence agencies and administration officials have repeatedly demonstrated their aptitude for contorting the law to fit their designs.
Still, some of the reforms in play in Congress and addressed by the IT giants, particularly those related to transparency, could allow for a more thorough examination of the relationship between the private sector and government surveillance programs.
“We’re not going to stop the collection of data because our digital behaviors have transformed how we live our lives,” said Chester. “There’s no way to dismantle this system. However, we can create some limits. What’s needed are rights for consumers.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the court ruling against the NSA.
Civil liberties advocates on the left and the right have argued for many years—but especially in the aftermath of revelations this year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden—that spying by the National Security Agency disregards privacy protections outlined in the Fourth Amendment and is surely unconstitutional. Indeed, as the American Civil Liberties Union has argued, the NSA’s “unconstitutional surveillance” represents “a grave danger to American democracy.”
Now, a federal judge has recognized the constitutional concerns.
“I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval,” wrote US District Judge Richard Leon.
Judge Leon’s decision, which will surely be appealed, focuses attention on legal challenges to the spying program. But it also serves as a reminder that Congress can and should act to defend privacy rights.
“The ruling underscores what I have argued for years: The bulk collection of Americans’ phone records conflicts with Americans’ privacy rights under the U.S. Constitution and has failed to make us safer,” says Senator Mark Udall, D-Colorado, a supporter of legislation to end the bulk collection program. “We can protect our national security without trampling our constitutional liberties.”
Senator Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said: “Judge Leon’s ruling hits the nail on the head. It makes clear that bulk phone records collection is intrusive digital surveillance and not simply inoffensive data collection as some have said. The court noted that this metadata can be used for ‘repetitive, surreptitious surveillance of a citizen’s private goings on,’ that creates a mosaic of personal information and is likely unconstitutional. This ruling dismisses the use of an outdated Supreme Court decision affecting rotary phones as a defense for the technologically advanced collection of millions of Americans’ records. It clearly underscores the need to adopt meaningful surveillance reforms that prohibit the bulk collection of Americans’ records.”
The senators had reason to be enthusiastic about Judge Leon determination that legal challenges to the massive surveillance program are valid. So valid, in fact, that he issued a preliminary injunction against the program. The judge suspended the order, however, in order to allow a Justice Department appeal.
But Judge Leon was blunt regarding the strength of the challenge that was brought after Snowden revealed details of the agency’s spying in The Guardian.
"I have little doubt that the author of our Constitution, James Madison... would be aghast," the judge wrote with regard to the NSA program for surveillance of cell phone records,
“The court concludes that plaintiffs have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the government’s bulk collection and querying of phone record metadata, that they have demonstrated a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their Fourth Amendment claim and that they will suffer irreparable harm absent…relief,” Judge Leon wrote in response to a lawsuit brought by Larry Klayman, a former Reagan administration lawyer who now leads the conservative Freedom Watch group.
The case is one of several that have been working their way through the federal courts since Snowden disclosed details of the NSA program.
Legal challenges to NSA spying are not new, and they have failed in the past.
Challenging the FISA Amendments Act (FAA)—the law that permits the government to wiretap US citizens communicating with people overseas—Amnesty International and other human rights advocates, lawyers and journalists fought a case all the way to the US Supreme Court in 2012. In February 2013, however, the Justices ruled 5-4 that the challengers lacked standing because they could not prove they had been the victims of wiretapping and other privacy violations.
The Justice Department has continued to argue that plaintiffs in lawsuits against the spying program lack standing because they cannot prove their records were examined. But Judge Leon suggested that the old calculus that afforded police agencies great leeway when it came to monitoring communications has clearly changed.
Suggesting that the NSA has relied on “almost-Orwellian technology,” wrote Judge Leon, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia bench. “The relationship between the police and the phone company (as imagined by the courts decades ago)…is nothing compared to the relationship that has apparently evolved over the last seven years between the government and telecom companies.”
The judge concluded, “It’s one thing to say that people expect phone companies to occasionally provide information to law enforcement; it is quite another to suggest that our citizens expect all phone companies to operate what is effectively a joint intelligence-gathering operation with the government.”
This case will continue in the courts, as will others.
But it is also in Congress. A left-right coalition that extends from Congressmen Justin Amash, a libertarian-leaning Republican, to Congressman John Conyers, a progressive Democrat, has raised repeated challenges to the NSA spying regimen.
Now, Congress needs to step up to what Congressman Alan Grayson, D-Florida, refers to as “the spying-industrial complex.”
A number of members are ready. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders responded to Judge Leon's ruling by saying: “In my view, the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner. Today’s ruling is an important first step toward reining in this agency but we must go further. I will be working as hard as I can to pass the strongest legislation possible to end the abuses by the NSA and other intelligence agencies.”
The outlines for legislative action have already been presented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that work on privacy issues.
“Congress should not be indifferent to the government’s accumulation of vast quantities of sensitive information about American’s lives,” Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal counsel told the House Judiciary Committee in July. “This Committee in particular has a crucial role to play in ensuring that the government’s efforts to protect the country do not compromise the freedoms that make the country worth protecting.”
Jaffer told the committee,
Because the problem Congress confronts today has many roots, there is no single solution to it. But there are a number of things that Congress should do right away:
• It should amend Sections 215 and 702 to expressly prohibit suspicionless or “dragnet” monitoring or tracking of Americans’ communications.
• It should require the executive to release basic information about the government’s use of foreign-intelligence-surveillance authorities, including those relating to pen registers and national security letters. The executive should be required to disclose, for each year: how many times each of these provisions was used, how many individuals’ privacy was implicated by the government’s use of each provision, and, with respect to any dragnet, generalized, or bulk surveillance program, the types of information that were collected.
• Congress should also require the publication of FISA court opinions that evaluate the meaning, scope, or constitutionality of the foreign-intelligence laws. The ACLU recently filed a motion before the FISA court arguing that the publication of these opinions is required by the First Amendment, but Congress need not wait for the FISA court to act. Congress has the authority and the obligation to ensure that Americans are not governed by a system of secret law.
• Finally, Congress—and this Committee in particular—should hold additional hearings to consider further amendments to FISA, including amendments to make FISC proceedings more transparent.
Members of Congress, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, have moved on a number of these fronts. Now it is time for concerted action.
The Congress does not have to wait for the legal wrangling to be resolved. It can, and should, act in defense of civil liberties.
Read Next: Greg Mitchell on 60 Minutes’s NSA whitewashing.
There were well over 200 forums in the race for mayor of New York City this year. Forums on housing and crime, on youth issues and senior centers, on the environment and animal rights and health and more. At these forums, candidates got to say what they were going to do to solve problems. Rare was the forum where someone didn’t say they were going to “work to get the federal government to do its share” or something like that. It always sounded like a bit of a dodge.
Turns out Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, at least, was serious about making the pitch to Washington. At an event last week when he named his deputy mayor for health and human services, de Blasio said that he was “going to begin a mission that I look forward to working with my fellow mayors on, certainly work with the president on, to slowly but surely turn the congressional focus in particular back to investments in education, infrastructure, mass transit, housing, the kinds of things that would change New York City so fundamentally,” as highlighted by Bloomberg News.
Mayors of New York have long sought and often gained a national spotlight, from John Lindsay’s role investigating urban riots (before unsuccessfully running for president) to Rudy Giuliani’s reputation as crime-fighter (before unsuccessfully running for president) to Mike Bloomberg’s anti-gun and pro-environment stances (he considered running for president but didn’t bother).
There was an element of self-promotion involved in each of these bids for coast-to-coast attention. Duh. But they were driven by policy reality, too. Bloomberg’s bid for sane gun laws was a reflection of the fact that the city is never going to solve its violence problem until the flow of guns purchased legally in other states stops. And even if every building installed a green roof and every worker biked in to the office, climate change was never a problem that New York was going to solve alone.
This is particularly true for de Blasio’s agenda. The skeptic’s trump card these days on income inequality is not that it’s nonexistent or nonproblematic, but that it’s the result of massive economic forces like globalization and increasing returns to technology—forces that the city of New York cannot resist by its lonesome.
That’s not entirely true—from its tax system to its approach to zoning and development, there are ways city policy affects the distribution of income and wealth—but it’s true enough that if de Blasio is going to make good on his promise to, as he put it last week, “address income inequality forcefully and directly,” he’s going to need federal help.
Even just maintaining city services as they are will be an effort. About 11 percent of the city’s current $72 billion budget comes from federal grants—which, in the Bloomberg administration’s current projection, are set to shrink from $8.1 billion this year to $6.3 billion in fiscal 2015.
Few areas of city policy are as directly affected by federal budget decisions as housing—especially public housing, which has suffered mightily from inadequate funding of annual operating expenses and capital support going back several years. The New York City Housing Authority, which houses a city the size of Baltimore in its traditional public housing and Section 8 apartments, has a $6 billion capital backlog and faces a nine-figure operating deficit this year. If de Blasio could simply get Washington to stop cheating on its commitments to public housing, that would be a major win for low-income people in the city. But the very strength of public housing’s role in New York, compared to most places, complicates the national argument. The five boroughs have 179,000 units of traditional public housing. The number-two city, Chicago, has 23,000; New York has more public housing than the next twenty-two cities combined. So, while public housing is no doubt important to all those cities, thanks to two decades of initiatives to demolish and replace federally constructed homes, New York has a lot more to lose than anywhere else if public housing is allowed to wither on the vine.
Other aspects of the urban agenda—mass transit, for instance—might have more universal appeal. But the federal ambivalence towards cities is not a Tea Party trend. As the mayor-elect noted last week, “The federal government used to feel a commitment to our cities. That has been cut and cut and cut some more since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980,” even as cities have become more important to the country’s economy.
Urban issues drove the last two waves of progressive national policy. The New Deal reflected, to a great extent, a partnership between the Roosevelt administration and forward-thinking urban leaders like Fiorello LaGuardia and Edward Flynn, the Bronx Democratic boss who was one of FDR’s key advisers. The Great Society aimed squarely at urban poverty and political engagement. The former wave reshaped many cities; the latter didn’t get much chance to, overtaken as it was by a conservative wave that wrapped itself around a rural, agrarian myth of the “real” America. President Obama promised to change that, creating a cabinet-level post for urban policy and some pilot programs to foster transit-oriented development and attack concentrated poverty, but these were all slowed down by the budget wars with Republicans.
Now de Blasio will try to change that. “All of the capacity that our cities have being maximized is the best thing that could happen to the United States,” he said last week. Meanwhile, his predecessor Mike Bloomberg will, according to a City Hall notice, give his final major speech this week “on the rise of American cities, the strategies needed to continue urban progress and the threats cities face.”
Read Next: Rick Perlstein on the military-industrial complex in Chicago.
Beyoncé’s surprise album release last week reignited an ever-contentious debate: Does the pop singer present a feminist message? “Absolutely,” Nation blogger Jessica Valenti answered on the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on Saturday. Valenti joined CBS’s Nancy Giles, Columbia University professor Farrah Griffin and Newsweek’s David Cay Johnston to talk about how Beyoncé’s self-authorship serves the cause. “I’ve been calling this the album that is going to launch a thousand women’s studies papers,” Valenti said.
There is a running concern about the recent selections for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. Over the last decade, it has become an honor more often than not reserved for “dreamiest NFL quarterback.” An award that used to be for trailblazers, social justice avatars and people whose sense of fair play brought out the best angels in sports, had become the magazine- cover equivalent of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue: all image and no substance. You could easily envision SI’s editors slamming their desks shouting, “Find me a quarterback, dammit! And he better have blue eyes and dimples!”
Since 2004, the magazine has had Tom Brady, Bret Favre and Drew Brees as their Sportsperson of the Year. So what do they do to break the trend in 2013? They give it to Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning: the same Peyton Manning who in 2013 hasn’t done more than throw a bunch of touchdowns, make a ton of commercials and choke in the playoffs. In other words, a typical Peyton Manning season.
The choice of Manning is a resoundingly establishment choice that serves to obscure the rumbling resistance to the status quo throughout the sports world. This has been a profoundly atypical year, with storylines that will reverberate for years to come.
I believe that the Sportsperson of the Year, in the best tradition of Sports Illustrated, should be the person who represents what the editors believe to be the most important narrative of 2013. I already made my choice: out-and-proud soccer player Robbie Rogers. I chose Rogers because I believe that he personifies the sports story of our time: the growing confidence of LGBT athletes and their allies. Two other pros that came out of the closet, Jason Collins and Britney Griner, also would have been spot-on choices.
Another electric story from this year has been the push by college athletes to stop being treated like indentured servants while coaches and administrators make millions off of their backs. Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA basketball great who has doggedly pursued his lawsuit against the NCAA for using his image without permission; Ramogi Huma the former college football player who founded the National College Players Association; or the Grambling State football team who stood up as one in protest of unacceptable playing conditions would have been terrific selections.
Yet another story that has defined 2013 was the growing awareness of head injuries in the National Football League. What about choosing Dr. Robert Cantu, the NFL’s concussion expert who said that he did not believe children under 14 should be allowed to play the sport? It is comments like that that turn Roger Goodell’s face a shade to match his hair. That would have been a bold choice.
Then there is tennis. There was once a time when it was not unusual to see a tennis player, particular a woman tennis player, named Sportsperson of the Year. This past year we had Serena Williams make her case as perhaps the greatest to ever take the court. If she had been chosen, Serena would have been the first solo woman to take the honor since Mary Decker in 1983. Seriously.
Lastly, there is Boston. As a born and bred New Yorker, my dislike for the Boston sports scene sometimes feels like it goes into the marrow of my bones, removable only at the cost of life itself. That said, there is no denying the international majesty of the Boston Marathon. There is also no denying the unfathomable bravery of the first responders when the bombs went off, running toward what could have been their own deaths to minimize the loss of human life. And there is no denying the fact that their courage also minimized the size of the scar that will always now adorn one of the last truly great unifying sporting events on the planet. Give it to them and tell their stories. They cannot be told enough.
What are remarkable sports year this has been. What an utterly uninspiring choice Peyton Manning was for Sports Illustrated to make: as dry and flavorless a selection as one of those damn Papa John’s pizzas he never stops shilling. If anything, his selection represents the gap that exists between the mainstream sports journalism and the narratives bubbling beneath their noses. Especially in advance of Brazil’s World Cup in 2014, Sports Illustrated needs to step down from the press box and smell what is really going on. Either the magazine needs to reevaluate its mission, or we can just dispense with the drama and give next years prize to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. By their metric, he seems to be due.
Read next: Dave Zirin on the Washington Redskins and the “C” word.
At the end of November, hundreds of Amazon employees in Germany began staging a series of wildcat strikes. On Monday, hundreds of workers again walked off the job in an effort to put pressure on the company during the busy days before Christmas. The Ver.di union says Amazon workers receive lower wages than others in retail and mail-order jobs. According to the the union, “The Amazon system is characterized by low wages, permanent performance pressure and short-term contracts.”
These complaints will sound familiar to American Amazon employees, who testify about constant performance pressure, on-site injuries, indifferent managers, long hours and low pay.
Back in February, Amazon.com was under attack in Germany for alleged mistreatment of workers following a television documentary that showed immigrant employees living in cramped housing under surveillance by security guards in neo-Nazi garb. Workers were promised €9.69, but upon showing up for work, learned they would only be compensated €8.52 ($11.37) per hour.
Amazon later said it canceled the contract with that security company whose guards were accused of harassing workers, searching their rooms and frisking them to make sure they had not taken food from the dining room, Businessweek reports.
German workers now plan to stage a one-day warning strike at Amazon logistic centers in Leipzig, Bad Hersfeld and Graben, and on Monday some of the strikers plan to rally outside the retailer’s Seattle headquarters in hopes of drawing in local union workers as well as sympathetic members of the public, the New York Times reports.
The Times notes there appears to be a “backlash developing” against successful tech companies like Amazon for driving up housing prices, contributing to income disparities and expanding a generally obnoxious bourgeois attitude among “tech bros.” For example, young Internet entrepreneur founder Peter Shih posted online a list of ten things he hates about San Francisco in August that included homeless people, the “constantly PMSing” weather and “girls who are obviously 4s and behave like they’re 9s.”
Amazon sales in Germany are skyrocketing. Last year, they rose by 21 percent, and the country is the firm’s second biggest market after the US, responsible for about a third of all overseas sales, the BBC reports. And while this is certainly a labor dispute over the familiar terrain of living wages, the Times notes there is also a bigger question of whether the warehouse workers should have control over their workplace. (Employees known as “pickers” assemble Amazon orders. These jobs are extremely physically demanding, and pickers are constantly monitored, and are not provided job security).
“The workers are treated more as robots than human,” Markus Hoffmann-Achenbach, an organizer for Ver.di at the Amazon warehouse in the city of Werne, said by email. He was on his way to Seattle to participate in the demonstration.
“As a worldwide company,” Mr. Hoffmann-Achenbach added, “Amazon should treat their workers fairly and with respect in every country. The solidarity of American unions and Ver.di, the united services union of Germany, is a sign that social movements are not bounded by national borders and that in times of globalization the workers worldwide stand together as one.”
Nancy Becker, an American who has been an employee of Amazon in Germany since 2001, is also traveling to Seattle for the rally.
“I’m coming to Seattle to dare Jeff Bezos to try working as a picker for a single week,” she said. “I’m sure he would not survive.”
This is the first time the union has taken a Germany wage dispute outside the country to a corporation’s doorstep, according to Mechthild Middeke of Ver.di.
While Middeke stresses what’s happening in Seattle is not a strike, she adds it is an act of solidarity involving a number of US unions, including the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union, two of the largest unions in the United States.
“Employees at Amazon deliver excellent work every day, and for that they rightfully demand the assurance and protection of retail and mail-order sector wage agreements, as well as healthy working conditions and respectful treatment,” the union said in a statement.
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