Twenty-five years ago today, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was released in theaters. Controversial then and still volatile now, it has since taken its place among the greatest American films ever made. It has a lot to say (it was written directed by Spike Lee, so of course it does) about race, class, power, sex and community. Any number of moments could be the topic of their own essay. But we mostly remember this movie for one scene: the flying trash can.
It’s the end of the hottest day of the year in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn. Mookie (played by Lee himself), the delivery man for Sal’s Pizzeria, just wants to get paid and go home. His friends, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem, won’t let Mookie’s boss, Sal, close up shop until he makes right what they feel is his mistreatment of them as patrons of his restaurant. (Buggin’ Out is mad that Sal’s “Wall of Fame” has no black faces on it, while Radio Raheem didn’t appreciate being told to turn down the music on his larger-than-life boombox). Tempers flare, words are exchanged (including the infamous n-word), and Sal takes a bat to Radio Raheem’s prized possession. “I just killed your fucking radio,” he says. Enraged, Radio Raheem lunges at Sal and the entire pizzeria breaks out into a brawl. When the police arrive on the scene, they apprehend Radio Raheem. Using his baton, one of the officers applies a chokehold that stops Radio Raheem’s breathing. The officers put his body in the back of squad car and drive away, leaving the neighborhood’s black residents to assume Radio Raheem is dead and the police will get away with killing him, as they’ve done so many times before.
Mookie watches all of this. Moments after taking it all in, he walks toward a trash can, removes the lid and trash, picks it up, runs toward Sal’s Pizzeria, screams “HATE!” and hurls the trash can through a window. A riot ensues.
“I think all of black America threw that can,” Lee told People in 1989.
Lee noticed something about the criticism his film was receiving, particularly from those white critics who thought it might incite race riots. “They never talk about the death of Radio Raheem at the hands of the police,” he said, “They talk about Mookie smashing the window and the pizzeria burning down.” The property rights of a white business owner took precedence over the life of a black man. It’s in that context where small acts of rebellion, like Mookie’s throwing the trash can, come to represent all of the frustration, anguish, and rage that are products of having to live under a racist system. Did he “do the right thing?” What’s the “right” response to a society that refuses you humanity?
I ask that question while thinking about Ersula Ore. According to The Huffington Post, the Arizona State University English professor is being charged with “assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest, refusing to provide identification when requested to do so by an officer and obstructing a highway or public thoroughfare” after being stopped by university police while walking on campus on May 20. Video of the incident from the police car’s dashboard camera shows Officer Stewart Ferrin slamming Ore to the ground while handcuffing her. According to Ore, the officer pulled up next to her and asked whether she knew the difference between a sidewalk and a road. She replied, “Do you always accost women in the middle of the road and speak to them with such disrespect and so rudely as you did to me?”
“He throws the car door open actually, is what happens, and he’s towering over me,” she told CNN, “He’s intimidating. I don’t know why he’s so aggressive.” Ferrin demanded that Ore produce her ID.
Ferrin: “Let me see your ID or you will be arrested for failing to provide ID.”
Ore: “Are you serious?”
Ferrin: “Yes, I am serious. That is the law.”
Ore: “I never once saw a single solitary individual get pulled over by a cop for walking across a street on a campus, in a campus location. Everybody has been doing this because it is all obstructed. That’s the reason why. But you stop me in the middle of the street to pull me over and ask me, ‘Do you know what this is? This is a street.’”
Ferrin: “Are you aware that this is a street?”
Ore: “Let me finish.”
Ferrin: “OK, put your hands behind your back.”
Ore repeatedly tells Ferrin not to touch her. He tells her she’s going to slam her. She responded, “You really want to do that? Do you see what I’m wearing?” He replies that he doesn’t care what she has on. Ferrin, true to his word, slams Ore to the ground, leading to “expos[ure of] her anatomy to all onlookers,” according to her lawyer. When she’s back on her feet, Ore kicks Ferrin.
A statement from ASU said that authorities “have reviewed the circumstances surrounding the arrest and have found no evidence of inappropriate actions by the ASUPD officers involved.”
Did Ore “do the right thing?” I suppose it depends on your perspective. But the more pertinent question is why she was put in such a position to begin with.
This past Friday (June 27), the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences and BAMcinematek hosted a screening of Do the Right Thing to commemorate the film’s 25th anniversary. In a videotaped appearance, President Barack Obama (he and first lady Michelle Obama saw Do the Right Thing on their first date) said, “…Do the Right Thing still holds up a mirror to our society and it makes us laugh and think and challenges all of us to see ourselves in one another.”
From the fictional Radio Raheem to the real life Ersula Ore, to all the black people who have been harassed, assaulted, and killed by police and vigilantes in between, it’s pretty clear America still can’t see itself in black bodies. And it doesn’t seem to want to try.
As soon as the word spread that justice Sam Alito had written the decision in today’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, it was clear that it was going to be bad. And, sure enough, the ruling, opposed by all three of the court’s women, chips away at the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate and, for the first time ever, it endows at least some for-profit corporations with religious rights. It is both a blow for women’s rights and the latest example of the way this court has inexorably expanded corporate power.
There are silver linings in the ruling, but they’re corroded. It applies only to closely held corporations—mostly family-held companies in which most of the stock is owned by five or fewer people. That means that the contraceptive mandate is still in place for most large corporations, even conservative ones like Walmart. In a post-decision conference call, Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, was scathing about the decision, but she pointed out that the Court had left the “basic contraceptive provision in place and did not question that there is a compelling need for such health care for women in this country.”
Further, Alito made it clear that the ruling is narrowly focused on contraception. It doesn’t give employers carte blanche to discriminate against gay people on religious grounds, or to deny other sorts of medical care that might raise doctrinal objections. “This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandates, e.g., for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs,” it says. “Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.”
That caveat might—might—mitigate some of the ruling’s slippery-slope potential. But the way the Court singles out women’s health care is dangerous and discriminatory. “It’s really a case of exceptionalism when it comes to women and to reproductive rights and to equality,” said Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the ACLU. “Justice Alito goes out of his way to say that this decision is limited to just this case. Somehow the question of contraception is different from other forms of discrimination. Somehow the question of contraception is different from other forms of health care. We’ve all seen that playbook before.”
The anti-abortion movement has been very successful at separating abortion from other forms of routine medical care, stigmatizing the doctors who provide them and the women who seek them. We’re currently in the midst of a coordinated attempt to do the same thing to birth control. Right now, for example, the Ohio legislature is considering a bill that would, among other things, ban insurance coverage of the IUD for public employees and Medicaid recipients. However narrowly construed, today’s Supreme Court decision will only encourage such efforts, and that should worry all women, wherever they work.
There were undoubtedly justices on the most anti-labor US Supreme Court in modern judicial history who wanted to strip public-sector unions of their ability to collect dues from workers they represent.
But they were not quite prepared to strike the devastating blow that labor activists feared would be delivered Monday.
Since the High Court’s 2012 decision in Knox v. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000—which complicated the processes by which public-employee unions can engage politically—there has been a general sense that conservative justices were angling for an opening to gut the twenty-six state laws that require workers who benefit from union representation to pay dues. The case of Harris v. Quinn, in which a small number of Illinois homecare workers sought to avoid paying dues to the Service Employees International Union, seemed to create that opening.
But the Court’s conservative majority stopped short of making a ruling that would have allowed public employees to stop paying dues to the unions that negotiate contracts guaranteeing them higher wages and benefits, protect them from employer abuses and advocate in the legislative and political arenas on their behalf. In so doing, they allowed public-sector unions to remain vital forces in the majority of American states.
Make no mistake, however, the Court did so grudgingly.
Writing for the five conservative justices who made up the majority, Justice Samuel Alito let the eight homecare workers involved in the Harris case opt out of paying dues because the Court determined they were not “full-fledged public employees.” The majority (Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Alito, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy) determined that, because the workers are hired by individual patients and work in private homes, they are not actually state employees—even though they are paid via Medicaid, and even though SEIU’s negotiations with the state yielded substantial improvements in the pay and benefits of the represented workers.
That dodge allowed a sharply divided court—where Justice Scalia surprised observers of oral arguments on the case with a line of questioning that seemed somewhat sympathetic to the arguments of the unions—to avoid making a sweeping determination.
It is important to recognize, however, that the Court’s decision is an ominous one for domestic workers and the unions that are speaking to represent them.
And Alito, who has emerged as the steadiest foe of labor rights on the Court, still seems to be looking for an opening to further undermine labor rights.
Alito ripped the Court’s 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision that permitted states to require payment of union dues by represented workers, referring to the precedent as “questionable” and “anomalous.”
Translation: the Harris case wasn’t quite the right vehicle, but the majority would entertain a case they could eliminate vital protections for unions and their members—creating a circumstance where they would no longer have the resources to fully represent workers at the bargaining table, in the corridors of power and at election time.
“While the Court upheld the importance of collective bargaining and unions to families and communities, let’s be clear that working people, who have aspired to the middle class and tried to make a better life for their families, have taken it on the chin for years,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “Stagnating wages, loss of pensions and lack of upward mobility have defined the economic distress they have experienced. Today’s decision makes it worse.”
Weingarten is right.
While this ruling was certainly not as bad as it might have been, the threat of a Court decision that severely undermines public-sector unions remains. And that is a threat that has much broader ramifications, as public-sector unions have become key defenders of public services and public education in an era of funding cuts and privatization schemes.
Indeed, along with the ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that was issued at the same time, the Harris decision provides a powerful reminder of the importance of elections this fall for US senators who could be asked to confirm one or more High Court nominees in the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, SEIU activists and leaders pledged to redouble efforts to organize and represent Illinois homecare workers.
“They are trying to divide us and limit our power, but we won’t stop standing together for our families and our consumers,” Flora Johnson, a homecare provider from Chicago, said in a statement released by the union. “Before we formed our union, I made less than $6 an hour, but by uniting we are set to make $13 an hour by the end of the year. I know from experience that we are stronger together.”
SEIU president Mary Kay Henry added, “For our parents and grandparents to get the care they need to live at home, workers need a strong voice in a union. I know that Flora Johnson other SEIU members are determined to keep up the fight to end poverty wages and ensure quality care.”
This Supreme Court has made that work a little tougher. But an even slightly more anti-labor Supreme Court could make it dramatically more difficult. That argues for a response that combines serious voting and serious organizing.
“With a Supreme Court that is increasingly moving hand in hand with Wall Street and corporate interests to eviscerate our democracy,” says National Nurses United union executive director Rose Ann DeMoro, “it’s a reminder working people can not count on the courts for justice, and must rely on our own stepped up activism for a more just society.”
Read Next: Michelle Chen on how the Supreme Court just undermined the gains made by home healthcare workers.
After carpeting their green rooms with neocon artists for weeks, the network Sunday shows have finally had someone on who’s saying what everyone else has been thinking. On ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos yesterday, Katrina vanden Heuvel told Bill Kristol to his face that if he wants the United States to intervene in Iraq so much, “you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.”
Rarely, if at all, has someone put it so directly to Kristol on one of the Sunday talk shows, where the Weekly Standard editor has made quite a successful career for himself. But The Nation’s vanden Heuvel punctured the Sunday-show gentleman’s agreement that we’re all in this TV pundit business together—so, while you don’t have to be polite to one another exactly, if you want to speak truth to a bully’s blather, it’s best to do so indirectly and on tiptoes.
Instead, sitting just a foot from him, vanden Heuvel told Kristol what we’ve all been thinking, especially of leading chickenhawks like him: that he’s one of “architects of catastrophe” who deserves “accountability,” and that what America—and by implication him and the neocons—has done to Iraq is “a crime.”
The panel, including Matthew Dowd and Donna Brazile, was talking about presidential powers when Katrina bent the discussion:
For example, the president should go to Congress if he’s going to take military action in Iraq…. There’s no military solution to Iraq, and I have to say, sitting next to Bill Kristol, man—I mean, the architects of catastrophe that have cost this country trillions of dollars, thousands of lives—there should be accountability.
If there are no regrets for the failed assumptions that have grievously wounded this nation—I don’t know what happened to our politics and media accountability, but we need it, Bill, because this country should not go back to war. We don’t need armchair warriors, and if you feel so strongly, you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.
Kristol, his smirk fading, shot back, “That’s a very cute line.” (Would he have said that to a man?)
“But it’s real,” vanden Heuvel said. “Millions of Iraqis have been displaced…. What we have done to that country is a crime.”
“What we have done to that country?” Kristol said. “President Bush made mistakes, he was punished for those mistakes electorally as he should have been in 2006, and perhaps in 2008. He also had the courage to order the surge in 2007, which made up for those mistakes, and left things peaceful.”
It’s not clear if Kristol was trying to pin all the “mistakes” on Bush and thereby pretend that vanden Heuvel wasn’t talking about him at all.
After more back and forth, Matthew Dowd, who worked for George Bush and has a son who served two tours in Iraq, in effect seconded Katrina and obliquely slammed Kristol, “We all know, everybody—most everybody knows—that this has been a colossal waste of money…and the blood of men and women of our country,” he said.
“We don’t fix the first mistake by continuing to make a second mistake." Anyone who’s an enlisted person, he continued, “will tell you that the only way this can be solved is you have commit troops there for 100 years. …I, for one, don’t think we should send another man or another woman, over there in a mistake that was made in the first place.”
Watch it here:
Read Next: The Editors against intervention in Iraq
This Sunday, Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on ABC’s This Week and challenged Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, on Iraq and American foreign policy. Vanden Heuvel called Kristol one of the “architects of catastrophe that have cost this country trillions of dollars, thousands of lives.” She added, “This country should not go back to war. We don’t need armchair warriors, and if you feel so strongly, you should, with all due respect, enlist in the Iraqi Army.”
The Supreme Court reached into the living rooms of homebound people with disabilities today and weakened the institutional backbone of public sector unions. At the intersection of public service and private capital, the case Harris v. Quinn was ostensibly about the cost of union dues, but hinged on a legal theory that could ultimately cost the labor movement far more.
Today’s five-four decision pushed public sector unions a step closer toward death by attrition, by eroding their ability to finance themselves. The ruling specifically blocks unions from collecting mandatory dues from Medicaid-funded personal health aides in Illinois.
Though the decision was not as broad as labor groups had feared, it strikes hard at the concept of “fair share”—the idea that workers in a union shop should be expected to contribute to the running of the union. The Court has previously upheld this concept on the premise that because everyone in the workplace benefits from the collectively bargained contract—including negotiated wages, work rules, safety standards and benefits—financially supporting that representation should be mandatory.
The workers in Harris aren’t typical government bureaucrats; they are homecare assistants with Illiinois’s Medicaid-funded in-homecare program, serving thousands of people with disabilities. After being authorized to vote to unionize with SEIU years ago, this workforce became a relatively recent addition to Illinois’s public sector. In many other states, home health attendants not only lack union coverage; their jobs are precarious, low-paid and disproportionately done by women and people of color.
The plaintiffs represent a group of workers involved in a later vote that ultimately rejected the union. They brought the suit on the principle that fair share, or what conservatives call “forced unionism,” when imposed on workers regardless of whether they personally favor a union, violates their free speech rights. This argument folds into a broader assault on public sector unions led by the group backing the plaintiffs, National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation (NRTWLDF). The group advocates for “right to work” laws (already in place in twenty-four states) that undermine labor by barring “closed shop” unions that provide blanket union representation. In its sweeping focus on public-sector unionism (specifically targeting SEIU and AFSCME), the Harris plaintiffs aimed to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977), which upheld collective bargaining rights and dues collection for public-sector unions.
In oral arguments, the NRTWLDF argued that by forcing workers to pay dues, public sector unions were effectively forcing them to engage in political activity, and, as SCOTUS Blog explains, that collective bargaining over wages and benefits is tantamount to endorsing “the union’s public policy ambitions.” (Critics point out that collective bargaining is standard procedure for a large, organized workforce, and besides, political union activity is governed and funded separately.)
The decision, penned by Justice Alito and generally reflective of his anti-labor views, could have gone broader by invalidating fair share for all public sector workers. Today’s ruling, as Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog summarizes, was not that extreme and did not completely overturn Abood, though it left the door open to do so in a future case: “today it has refused to go that far. The unions have lost a tool to expand their reach. But they have dodged a major challenge to their very existence.”
Ultimately the court ruled more specifically against fair share for what it oddly termed “partial public employees,” pointing out that the homecare workers were unique because their public service job provides personal care under a federal program, and “are almost entirely answerable to the customers and not to the State.” In contrast to other civil servants, “the customer has virtually complete control over a personal assistant’s work,” so the union’s power is limited. But in a portent of future anti-union rulings, the majority outlined what it saw as outstanding constitutional problems in Abood, contending that the earlier precedent “failed to appreciate the conceptual difficulty of distinguishing in public-sector cases between union expenditures that are made for collective-bargaining purposes and those that are made to achieve political ends.”
In her dissent, Justice Kagan argued sharply that the mixed ruling created an unnecessarily complex new category and weakened the ability of a program to manage its labor relations rationally. “The Court did not, as the petitioners wanted, deprive every state and local government, in the management of their employees and programs, of the tool that many have thought necessary and appropriate to make collective bargaining work,” Kagan wrote. But at the same time, “the majority robbed Illinois of that choice in administering its in-homecare program.” Abood had provided “a stable balance—consistent with this Court’s general framework for assessing public employees’ First Amendment claims—between those employees’ rights and government entities’ interests in managing their workforces.”
The ruling claws back on the real material gains that collective bargaining won for homecare workers. Outside of Illinois’s state program, workers in the sector typically earn around $20,000 per year and suffer tremendously stressful, often exploitative working conditions. Only last year did they officially become eligible for federal minimum wage and overtime rules, following a hard-fought campaign by domestic workers’ advocates to end the Labor Department’s longstanding exemption for homecare providers.
Illinois health aides, by contrast, made real progress after joining SEIU as direct employees of the state. Part of a national campaign to unionize the sector, the workers collectively bargained for higher wages and labor protections typical of union workers but long denied to other health aides, including health benefits and training.
The Harris ruling has troubling parallels with today’s other bombshell decision in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the religious right attacked contraceptive coverage under the healthcare reform law. Both cases misleadingly pit collective rights against a reactionary concept of private liberty. Intriguingly, both today’s decisions relate to the rights of women at work. And both relate to public health for the most vulnerable. Sarita Gupta, executive director of Jobs with Justice, said in a statement that the Harris decision “serves the interests of anti-worker extremists at the expense of these invaluable workers who care for our families and our children.”
Though the ruling was not as extreme as right-wing activists had hoped, the right-to-work movement successfully used private rights as a legal cudgel against core public institutions. The court has stepped on the rights of women, workers, the poor and people of color, to hand more of the public trust over to corporate hands.
Read Next: Rhode Island workers fight for a living wage
It’s ugly in Syria and Iraq (and, as we shall see, the Obama administration seems to want to make the war in Syria worse), but there’s been some good news out of Syria this week: the joint US-Russian plan to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile has worked—to the chagrin, no doubt, of the hawks and neoconservatives who said it wouldn’t. We’ll wait for their apology, right after they apologize for the war in Iraq.
Here’s an excerpt of the press release from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which was charged with the task:
A major landmark in this mission has been reached today. The last of the remaining chemicals identified for removal from Syria were loaded this afternoon aboard the Danish ship Ark Futura. The ship made its last call at the port of Latakia in what has been a long and patient campaign in support of this international endeavour. … The mission to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons programme has been a major undertaking marked by an extraordinary international cooperation. Never before has an entire arsenal of a category of weapons of mass destruction been removed from a country experiencing a state of internal armed conflict. And this has been accomplished within very demanding and tight timeframes.
In an editorial titled “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” The New York Times says:
Less than a year ago, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his forces were sporadically using chemical weapons on rebels and civilians in the civil war. Today, the stockpile that he grudgingly admitted to under international pressure is gone. … President Obama’s critics excoriated the deal, but they have been proved wrong. The chemical weapons are now out of the hands of a brutal dictator—and all without firing a shot.
A feature article in The Washington Post makes it clear that the incredibly difficult logistics of locating, packing up, transporting (through a war zone) and loading onto ships of all XXX was done with the cooperation of not only the United States and Russia, plus the Syrian government, but Iran, too:
The Iranians, [Sigrid Kaag, who heads the joint mission of the United Nations and the OPCW] said, provided technical advice. “They obviously lived through a terrible chemical weapons experience themselves,” when the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein made liberal use of chemicals during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war. “They see themselves as quite committed to eliminating the use of chemical weapons anywhere. “They’ve also been helpful to us in contacts with Syrian authorities . . . in amplifying our messages, validating our approach,” Kaag said.
Some of the idiots who said it “couldn’t be done” include Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy, former Senator Jim Talent of the Heritage Foundation, neocon scribbler Peter Feaver, right-wing Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the reliable neoconservative skeptics at the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Iraq war architect Douglas Feith, the usual suspects at the “thinktank” called the Foreign Policy Initiative (Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman) and, well, you get the idea.
Meanwhile, weirdly, Secretary of State John Kerry seems intent to sending more aid to the supposed moderates of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. The right strategy, given that the anti-Assad Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is gobbling up territory in both countries, would be halt aid to the anti-Assad forces, since that would free up Assad’s military to go after ISIS in northern and eastern Syria. But, as the Associated Press reports, the Syrian “moderates” are hopelessly disorganized and outgunned. The Los Angeles Times reports “deep divisions, clashing rivalries and considerable disarray within the Syrian National Coalition.” Are you listening, Mr. Kerry? It’s time to surrender in the Syrian war.
One century ago, at approximately 11 am local time, Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in the streets of Sarajevo. Tensions in the Balkans had been high since Austria-Hungary annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, and Nation writer Simeon Strunsky had observed earlier in June that pressure from Slav nationalists was “bound to increase.”
But having predicted the event, albeit in very vague outline, did not make The Nation any more capable of perceiving its cataclysmic consequences. In the first Nation issue to be published after the assassination, dated July 2, 1914, it took the editors until the fifteenth item in the news-summary section to even mention what had happened in Sarajevo. “The crime is considered to have been the result of a plot by a section of the Serb inhabitants of Bosnia,” they noted.
In a longer consideration a few pages later—in an editorial titled “The Austrian Tragedy”—the editor Rollo Ogden tried to tease out some broader meaning from the archduke’s death. If The Nation at all dimly perceived how the assassination might upend European politics and, within a matter of four weeks, mobilize armies of a size never before seen in the world, this would have been the place to mention it. This is how the editorial begins:
Ogden notes that an emperor in poor health might prove disadvantageous in what were sure to be unsettling days ahead: “The old Emperor will doubtless make an effort to keep the reins in his hands as long and as firmly as possible, but it is evident that Austria will have to face trials of a sort to test her strength and her international policy.”
As for the assassination, The Nation disapproved—and in terms quite familiar to us today:
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Back Issues will be following this magazine’s coverage of the “Great War”—in real time, a century later.
Curious about how we covered something? E-mail me at email@example.com. Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.
Read Next: From the Great War series, “The Climate of June 1914 ”
—Hélène Barthélemy focuses on the criminal justice system, activism and culture.
“The Weak State: The Dissolution of Constitutional Iraq,” by Michael Youhana. Full Stop, June 17, 2014.
This article (by a former Nation intern!) provides an excellent examination of the Iraqi political context by analyzing three seminal books on the topic. It serves as a powerful corrective to many pieces approaching Iraq in a political vacuum. Beyond the focus on ‘sectarianism,’ which depoliticizes and dehistoricizes current developments, Youhana reminds us that there is nothing inherent in sectarian identities, which are formed, transformed and abandoned like any sense of belonging to a group, according to the political context. The article also analyzes the consequences of the American invasion on oil production and its strategic importance for pressuring Iran. Most crucially, it lays bare the undemocratic, dysfunctional, US-influenced constitution that followed American occupation but was in line with it. It laid the ground for current lawlessness.
—Summer Concepcion focuses on race, gender and criminal justice.
“5 Links Between Higher Education and the Prison Industry,” by Hannah K. Gold. Rolling Stone, June 18, 2014.
The irony of the relationship between higher education and the prison industry is quite frustrating, especially for a current college student like myself. One of the biggest takeaways from my college experience thus far has been gaining awareness of the problems within the prison industrial complex. It’s quite easy to ignore how universities operate on a corporate level when it’s often the place where students confront many political and social issues for the first time. Reading this article makes me question how much of higher education’s “mission” is a PR stunt after all.
—Erin Corbett focuses on national security and reproductive rights.
“Jane Doe, Trans Women, and the Myth of the Perfect Victim,” by Katherine Cross. RH Reality Check, June 23, 2014.
This article tackles the unlawful incarceration of Jane Doe, a 16-year-old trans girl who is being held in solitary confinement (without charge or trial) in the Connecticut State Prison after allegedly attacking Department of Children and Families staff. Katherine Cross begins this piece with the assertion that “[v]ery few of us are ‘perfect victims,’” a powerful statement, which she then uses to address the dehumanization and stripping of personhood of specific types of bodies. Jane Doe’s story is one of an individual existing outside of the legal system, described as a violent threat—someone to fear. This case is unfortunately not an exception to the rule that some human beings are treated as disposable on the basis of their difference. As Cross explains, “[t]he trick is that trans women and women of color are forever regarded as inherently imperfect.”
—Victoria Ford focuses on African-American identity, feminism/womanism and the arts.
“How to encounter a black woman’s body: The politics of Mammy Sphinx,” by Brittney Cooper. Salon, June 24, 2014.
With Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant closing in little more than a week on July 6, it is more than refreshing to read this piece from Dr. Brittney Cooper. By encountering the black woman’s body both as problem and as relic, Cooper asks readers to toil with place, gentrification and eviction—the literal and disproportionate “locking out” of black women which occurs today at epidemic levels. “This history of imminent displacement seems incredibly difficult for black women to shake,” Cooper writes, “especially when our bodies remain tethered to controlling images that will not turn us loose.”
—Douglas Grant focuses on labor and income inequality, gender politics and American politics.
“How College Is Like Sunscreen,” by Derek Thompson. The Atlantic, June 24, 2014.
In the face of a weak imitation of a recovery, with wages stagnant and student debt rising, the notion of whether higher education is worth it is often thrown into doubt. But as Derek Thompson explains, it’s only when comparing college graduates’ wages to those who never completed their degrees that college’s value shows (like sunscreen, he says, it takes seeing a bad burn before the wisdom of applying it is reinforced). When the press is deluged with stories of mushrooming student loan debt, tuition that rises at many times the rate of inflation and ever dimmer employment prospects, it’s a hard sale to make (pithy, oversimplified statements like “BA is the new SPF” don’t exactly help). As a graduate that’s had my share of curt phone conversations from collectors at Sallie Mae (hey, guys! I’ll call you back), such statements can come off more as than a little tone-deaf, as they do not take into account the perspectives of plenty of others who get left behind in the global economy (those who never attended college, those who didn’t finish and are left saddled with huge bills or those who didn’t complete high school). The upside of attending college that Thompson offers his perspective on is, in the face of panicked, provocative pieces that college “isn’t worth it,” still couched in bleak terms. After rising in the Eighties through the mid-2000s, the wages of graduates are falling—just not as fast as everyone else’s. It shows us that our work is cut out for us.
—Hannah Harris Green focuses on South Asian Culture and Politics, and Sexual Assault.
“Women in India Aren’t Safe on Twitter Either,” by Sonia Faleiro. Medium, June 19, 2014.
Over the past year, we’ve seen many examples of men using Twitter to intimidate women who they disagree with, combating their words not with counter-arguments but with threats of sexual violence. In her recent article for Medium, Sonia Faleiro discusses how this trend has picked up in India, which, with the Election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, is now dominated by the right wing Hindu party, the BJP. In conjunction with this political change, privileged, conservative Hindu men have felt compelled to use Twitter as a platform to threaten women who belong to oppressed castes and minority religions, and women who they perceive as threatening in their modernity. Such women are typical targets for the Indian right wing, but now men may harass them from the safety of their computer desks as well as in the streets.
—Alana de Hinojosa focuses on immigration, race and racism, Latin@ identity and feminism.
“Univision’s World Cup Spanish commentary has surprised some Latinos,” by Nina Porzucki. Public Radio International, June 20, 2014.
Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, recently went on Public Radio International to discuss what he found to be a disconcerting facet to Univison’s World Cup broadcast. The issue? Univison broadcasters were referring to Afro-Costa Rican players not by their names or jersey numbers, but by the color of their skin (“moreno”) and the texture of their hair (“greña”). Though “moreno,” which means “dark skin,” is not concerned offensive in Latin America and can actually have endearing connotations, the term can without a doubt have negative, racialized connotations when used in the US. The same goes for “greña,” which means “messy hair,” or more colloquially, “nappy hair.” While Sanchez acknowledged that Latin@ culture and the Spanish language affords certain deviances from American, English language broadcasting norms, he was firm to remind Univision that they are still a US broadcaster. “Therein lies part of the issue, which is regardless of the fact that it’s being broadcast in Spanish, it’s still by a US broadcaster that needs to abide by American standards and American sensibilities,” Sanchez said on the show. Granted it’s important that Univision uphold its Latin@ character, but it’s equally important that Univision (and Latin@s as a whole) remember that Latin@s living in the US don’t live in the same worlds as US and Latin American television shows. “We have one foot in each world,” Sanchez said.
—Crystal Kayiza focuses on the African diaspora,immigration, Black Feminist thought, and police brutality.
“Modern-Day Slavery in America’s Prison Workforce,” by Beth Schwartzapfel. The American Prospect, May 28, 2014.
With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States relies on the exploitation of inmates to sustain the prison system. In her article, Beth Schwartzapfel calls into question the labor policies that allowed for the creation of “modern day slavery.” Schwartzapfel describes how the absence of fair wages, lack of education behind bars and exclusion from employment after prison all contribute to recidivism. Not only bringing to light the political decisions that sustain the prison industrial complex, Schwartzapfel states “in America, breaking the law has become more than just an occasion to be punished or even rehabilitated. It has become a permanent mark of who you are and what our country thinks you’re entitled to earn.”
—Agnes Radomski focuses on labor, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the military industrial complex.
“The youth heroin epidemic that wasn’t,” by Michael Tracey. Al Jazeera America, June 23, 2014.
Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that statewide abuse of heroin had reached “epidemic proportions,” especially among young people. He announced a plan to double down on law enforcement by adding an additional 100 investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team. In his opinion piece, Michael Tracey points to a lack of evidence among not only law enforcement and politicians but the media as well. He notes use of heroin has actually decreased from 2011 to 2013, according to government data. (Tracey points out that New Jersey and New York officials have attributed overdose deaths to the unsanctioned use of prescription opiates.) Nevertheless, youth-oriented governmental efforts focused on heroin are being introduced, like the “multijurisdictional drug task force” in New Jersey. Tracey argues that programs like these suggest “that authorities are prioritizing criminal punishment, rather than enacting prudent measures such as genuine public health services that would reduce heroin use.” Across counties in New Jersey and New York, hundreds of arrests have been made leading to possible terms of at least five years in prison for simple possession. Heroin related bills have passed New York state’s Senate in an effort to redouble criminalization efforts. Tracey reminds us of the consequences of such wrong-headed policies prevalent during the span of the failed war on drugs: “Like the drugs they plan to banish, these laws come with their own adverse effects: over-crowding prisons with nonviolent offenders, breaking up families, authorizing overzealous policing tactics, and breeding undue fear.”
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Yesterday, Melissa Harris-Perry appeared on All In with Chris Hayes to discuss the birth of the interracial Moral Mondays movement. She told Hayes that this initiative goes against many Northern liberals’ perception of the South, which they see as “so utterly backward and so utterly racially divided.” The reality is more complicated, she explains: “There is a level of intimacy, interracially in the US South that hasn’t always led to equality but has meant that there have been moments when interracial political movements could emerge.” This history of fusion movments since the aboliton of slavery should keep us from seeing Moral Mondays as game-changing, says Harris-Perry,”there are strategic partnerships, but we probably should not expect enduring, long-term coalitional change.”
—Hannah Harris Green