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Pope Francis: Government Has a Role in Addressing Inequality and Injustice

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

So wrote Pope Francis in his first apostolic exhortation. Released last fall, the pope’s Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), is a nuanced yet urgent document. And it makes for good reading at a point when Americans are wrestling with the social, political and practical implications of income inequality, poverty and the failed austerity agenda of the trickle-down fabulists.

As Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby, explains it, the pope’s exhortation is rooted in an understanding “that reality—read, real people’s lives—is more important than any theoretical construct.”

To that end, Network, the group that sent Nuns on the Bus to congressional districts across the country in 2012, has launched a year-long project that used the pope’s message to encourage new thinking and new organizing to address inequality and injustice.

The key is the thinking. The United States is a secular nation, founded with respect for a diversity of religious belief and disbelief, and regard for Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State.”

Sister Simone and her allies understand that, just as Jefferson took counsel from the texts and teachings of the various religious traditions, contemporary Americans can be encouraged to consider the moral implications of poverty amid plenty. And to consider the reality of what inequality means for those who former Vice President Hubert Humphrey referred to as “those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

Sister Simone argues that this consideration can, in turn, “cause us to grow in a way that a federal budget battle or a Congressional Budget Office report never will.”

What Network is inviting is a rethink that could discomfort elected officials who have spent their careers neglecting a duty to the poor.

The exhortation from Pope Francis does not mince words in order to comfort those who are ill at ease with an economic-justice gospel. Nor does he dodge questions regarding the fundamental responsibility of those in power: from President Obama to Paul Ryan.

“It is the responsibility of the State to safeguard and promote the common good of society,” writes the pope. “Based on the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, and fully committed to political dialogue and consensus building, it plays a fundamental role, one which cannot be delegated, in working for the integral development of all.”

The pope, as a spiritual leader, a Jesuit scholar and an increasingly influential voice in global economic debates, rejects the notion that government cannot, or should not, play a vital role in addressing the inequality that translates as poverty amid plenty.

“I ask God to give us more politicians capable of sincere and effective dialogue aimed at healing the deepest roots—and not simply the appearances—of the evils in our world! Politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”

The pope is a good deal more specific with regard to the definition of “the common good” than most American politicians—be they Republicans or Democrats. “We are not simply talking about ensuring nourishment or a ‘dignified sustenance’ for all people, but also their ‘general temporal welfare and prosperity,’” he writes. “This means education, access to health care, and above all employment, for it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labor that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives.”

The translation of a common-good agenda into reality—getting beyond dialogue to action, as the pope suggests—will not, for the most part, be done by the politicians. Americans, religious and secular, motivated by morality and practicality, will have to do most of the work.

That is why Network, in much the same way that it did with the Nuns on the Bus project, is focusing on popular education and organizing.

Against the pressures of a money-drenched politics and a money-driven governance, Network is asking people to think and to feel and to act on behalf of the common good. It is probably fair to call the project a leap of faith. But in an age on damaging inequality, surely, this is a necessary leap.

Will George Bush Ever Paint the Ghost of an Iraqi Child?

Bush painting

A portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, painted by George W. Bush as part of his exhibit, “The Art of Leadership: A President”s Diplomacy“ (AP Photo/Benny Snyder)

The Onion News Network was always the best place to look for an honest review of George W. Bush’s post-presidential painting hobby, and here it is at last—including an analysis of the “ghost of an Iraqi child that follows him everywhere” that should be in every painting but, sadly, is usually replaced by a puppy dog or an impersonal caricature of some foreign leader’s Google photo.

It’s hard to tell which is funnier: the paintings themselves (the Onion artist who copied Bush’s primitive style captures his flat planes and between-the-lines coloring practice), or the upbeat chit-chat of the Onion News host and correspondent, who perfectly mimic the mainstream media’s happy-talk accounts of Bush’s surprising hobby.

Showing one morbid painting after another, the host says, “You can see that Bush’s art is improving over time. At first he could barely draw the Iraqi child’s transparent hands, but now they look much more realistic!” George and Laura are shown smiling in one work, and seem not to notice that W is holding the bleeding, dead Iraqi child in his arms.

This is, of course, the opposite of what Bush’s paintings really do, as they tend to hide things about the ex-POTUS rather than reveal them. Just as his self-portraits in the shower cover up his private parts, Bush would rather paint Putin or a Saudi noble than one of his own controversial lieutenants, like Cheney or Rumsfeld. That would be getting too close to home.

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The Onion paintings get grislier and grislier. One depicts Bush’s bedroom at the Crawford ranch splattered in blood with Manson-like zeal. “Laura Bush says he’s more focused than ever, locks himself away for hours at a time and won’t talk to anyone while he’s painting,” the host says.

It’s more or less what many of us have imagined: that George Bush is going quietly bonkers after years of repressing the reality of what he’s done. In real life, however, Bush paints to forget, not to expose.

Watch the Onion video below (and a similarly themed video from cartoonist Mark Fiore here):

Read Next: Florida wants to drug-test all its government employees.

40 Years After Breaking Babe Ruth’s Home Run Record, Hank Aaron Still Gets Racist Hate Mail

Dave Zirin

Forty years after breaking Babe Ruth’s long-standing record of 714 career home runs, Hank Aaron is still receiving racist hate mail—and he keeps it all. After some of Aaron’s comments in an interview with USA Today, he received a whole new batch of derogatory mail. In the interview, Aaron defended President Obama, who he said “is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he’s treated.” “The bigger difference,” he went on to say, “is back then [racists] had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts.” Appearing on Al Jazeera America’s Consider This with host Antonio Mora, Nation sports editor Dave Zirin came to Aaron’s defense, saying that, “For someone like Henry Aaron, who’s 80 years old and has already endured so much, I imagine he has far less patience” for the “tidal wave of vitriol” that was inevitably unleashed on the first president of color in the United States.
—Dustin Christensen

‘American Military, Economic and Political Power Has Been Coming at Russia for Twenty Years’

What is Vladimir Putin’s plan in Ukraine? This key question has reverberated around newsrooms in the weeks since Russia officially annexed Crimea in late March. According to Nation contributor and Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen, appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Putin’s political thinking is profoundly influenced by “the moment he came to power, with Russia in collapse and disintegration and his self-perceived mission…to save Russia.” For Putin, reclaiming influence in former Soviet territories is a reflexive reaction against the encroaching power of the West, led by the United States. “No matter all of the good things we say about democracy and sovereignty and prosperity, American military, economic and political power has been coming at Russia for twenty years.”
Allegra Kirkland

As Deportations Continue to Tear Families Apart, Tell President Obama to Act

Youth from United We Dream call for an end to deportations

Youth from United We Dream call for an end to deportations. (AP Photo/Valerie Fernandez)

Each day, an estimated 1,100 undocumented immigrants are deported, leaving spouses, siblings and even children behind. The policy has devastating effects on families; between 2010 and 2012, 200,000 parents of US-born children were deported. As a result, at least 5,000 children are in foster care. Although President Obama has claimed to focus deportation efforts on serious criminals, a New York Times study released this April found that two-thirds of the 3.2 million people deported over ten years had committed only minor infractions, such as a traffic violation.

Now, activists are fighting back. Immigrants’ rights advocates have staged a hunger strike outside the White House and have been calling attention to the individual stories of the families who have been separated.

TO DO

While Congress drags its feet, President Obama could make a real difference in the lives of millions of immigrants and their families. Sign our open letter with Daily Kos calling on the president to listen to immigrants’ rights activists and use executive actions to end mass deportations.

TO READ

As The Nation’s editors point out, executive action by the president could spur reform by galvanizing electoral support from immigrant communities and by driving a wedge between mainstream Republicans supportive of reform and anti-immigrant hardliners.

TO WATCH

Activists from the Not1More Deportation campaign organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network explain why they decided to join the White House hunger strike: “Mr. President, we have come to your front door because your agents have come to ours.”  

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Here’s the Backstory on Marx and Marxism in Our Pages

The tomb of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetary

The tomb of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetary in London, England. (Creative Commons/vintagedept)

In this week’s issue of The Nation, Timothy Shenk discusses the revival of Marxism since the financial collapse of 2008. For many who achieved political consciousness and intellectual maturity only after the heralded “end of history” in 1989, Marxism is often seen as offering an important analysis of the causes and consequences of the unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth and power, in this country and throughout the world, which began several decades ago and, despite the crash, continues apace today. Unburdened by the intellectual psychodramas of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, disappointed by President Obama, and galvanized by Occupy Wall Street’s scathing moral critique of inequality, millennials, Shenk writes, comprise “an audience primed for lectures on the contradictions of capitalism.”

Shenk’s essay is a review of the socialist quarterly Jacobin, Thomas Piketty’s magisterial bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century and new books by editors of n+1, but it begins with a sweeping history of capitalism and socialism since the early days of what eventually became known as the Industrial Revolution. Another way to map the rises and falls in the popularity and promise of revolutionary socialism is to take a tour of The Nation’s writings on Marx and Marxism, the substance and tone of which tended to shift with the larger political, cultural and economic tides.

Our first reference to Karl Marx was in a series of special dispatches published in August 1878. Friedrich Kapp, a German jurist and journalist who emigrated to the United States in 1850, was a frequent contributor to The Nation on German politics beginning in 1865, the year of our founding. In his three-part 1878 series, “Socialism in Germany,” Kapp expressed admiration for Marx’s intellectual gravitas: “Remarkable by his indefatigable industry and the thoroughness of his studies as well as by the wide range of his researches and the philosophical and critical turn of his mind, he ranks among the first scholars of the time.”

For Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, Kapp had more ambiguous praise.

His work distinguished itself as well by the fullness of its details and the boldness of its reasoning as by its bitter attacks on the manufacturing classes, and made a deep impression in Germany. The brilliant qualities of this man, however, are overshadowed by a reckless, domineering spirit, an insatiable ambition, and an intolerant character which blackens, vilifies, and, if possible, destroys everything and everybody in its way.

With many conservative commentators then and since, Kapp believed he saw the seeds of totalitarianism in the bud of the communist ideal.

He who does not believe implicitly in Marx, or who dares to have an opinion of his own, is doomed, driven out of the church, and denounced to the Philistines as a “bourgeois,” as a spy, as an “agent-provocateur”…Like all founders of new creeds, Marx knows only obedient tools and blind admirers, and has but few friends.

Kapp then summarizes for Nation readers “the gist of the first volume of Marx’s work”:

The enormous power of accumulated capital cannot be done away with, the world cannot return to a patriarchal state of things; but, nevertheless, the misery of the working-classes can no longer continue. Marx proposes as a remedy that all means and tools of production, ground and soil as well as raw materials, should be handed over to society at large, that all trades and professions should be carried on by it for the benefit of all—or, in others words, that private property be abolished.

Kapp, for the record, disagreed: “In my opinion, he is wrong in calling all labor the sole source of the value of a thing, while in fact it is only that labor which satisfies the human wants, and I will add that in order to perform such useful labor capital in some shape or other is required.” Without the profit motive all industry ceases: then as now, a common enough refrain.

The Nation more or less lost sight of Marxism—if not socialism more generally—for several decades, under the influence of conservative editors like the literary critic Paul Elmer More. “Those who have kept in touch with the Socialistic literature of the past ten or fifteen years,” wrote the once and future Wall Street Journal editor T.F. Woodlock in October 1913, “are familiar with the extent of the destruction wrought in the Marxian structure by the irresistible logic of hostile facts.” The book under review, Woodlock suggested, “almost gives one the impression of slaying the dead: fairer, perhaps would it be to say that it, decently and in order, inters the corpse.”

The Russian Revolution, of course, was less than four years away.

* * *

By the 1920s, The Nation was under the editorship of Oswald Garrison Villard, who, though not a socialist, was the embodiment of principled left-liberalism in his day and welcomed contributions from socialists and communists in the magazine. (Norman Thomas, later the six-time Socialist candidate for president, was briefly its associate editor early in the decade.) In May 1929, the labor journalist Benjamin Stolberg reviewed Otto Ruhle’s biography of Karl Marx, just months before the stock market crash that would breathe new life into American Marxism. Stolberg wrote that socialism had already had a much deeper impact in the United States than it was generally credited with. “Without the Marxian base the social metabolism even of American labor would be unthinkable,” he wrote. “Think away social democratic doctrine and only a fabulist could write the story of American labor or even the tale of the simplest strike.” Of Marx himself, Stolberg wrote that “in the minds of even intelligent Americans Marx is a sort of economic Dr. Caligari, a fantastic German savant.” His influence was as undeniable as it was misunderstood: “The shadow of Marx on the American scene is phantastically transmogrified, but to deny its darkness is insensitive.”

In 1932, the same year his Depression travelogue The American Jitters was published, the literary critic Edmund Wilson contributed an essay to The Nation’s ongoing series, “What I Believe.” (Other contributors to the series included Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb and Conrad Aiken.) “So far as I can see,” Wilson’s essay vividly began, “Karl Marx’s predictions are in process of coming true.”

The great advantage, the great superiority, of Marx over other economists was due not to his being more learned or more expert and managing statistics, but to his psychological insight. People talk about economics as if it were a science of the behavior of money, and as if dollars and cents were entities which had an independent existence and obeyed laws of their own, like electrons. The truth is that economics is merely the study of how people behave about money, and Marx, though he possessed the true scholar’s temperament and had all the statistics at his fingertips, never lost sight of this fact. His great strength lay in his imaginative grasp of human history; and the real “laws of capitalist production” of which he writes are merely the instinctive workings of human acquisitiveness, selfishness, and self-deception—the all but universal instinct to sweat, bleed, and keep down other people whom we happen to have at our mercy, and either to rationalize our predatory acts as policies adopted for the public good or to manage not to know about them at all. This is the kind of idea that one comes by, not by mathematical calculations, but by looking steadily and deeply into one’s heart; and this is something that few are able to do and remain to tell the tale. But Marx, like the other great Jewish prophets, was one of those who were able to do it, and it is to this that he owes his great authority. And the place to study the present crisis and its causes and probable consequences is not in the charts of the compilers of statistics but in oneself and in the people one sees.

* * *

It is a testament to the openness of The Nation’s pages as well as to the turmoil of the times that in the magazine’s archives one can find odes to Marxism and attacks on Marxism written by the same author only a few years apart. Thus in 1933, the philosopher Sidney Hook proclaims in “Marxism—Dogma or Method?” that it is “the first truly international movement in culture and politics.” But Hook, even before his subsequent turn to strident anti-communism, was an internally dissident Marxist. He wrote in the 1933 essay:

Unfortunately some American intellectuals going leftward have fallen over each other in their efforts to be “orthodox” Marxists. They have swallowed the jumble of mysticism and mechanism which is called “objective science” without stopping to settle the intellectual difficulties which they themselves raised only yesterday. This is unworthy both of Marxists and intellectuals. To be a Marxist demands a long and critical discipline; and to be an intellectual means to judge a conclusion by the quality of the arguments advanced in its behalf. The subject matter of Marxism is not the whole universe, and its method is not the method of authority. Nor does it profess to have the final truth about what it does concern itself with—the theory and practice of social revolution. It is neither dogma, myth, nor objective science, but a realistic method of class action.

The following year, one of those intellectuals Hook was referring to, Max Eastman, reviewing a book by the libertarian socialist G.D.H. Cole called What Marx Really Meant, quipped that he had thought Sidney Hook “went as far as a sense of humor would permit in pouring new wine into the old Marxian bottles.” Cole, Eastman thought, had managed to go even further. But by 1940, in a review of Hook’s book Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy, the great theologian and Nation contributing editor Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that Hook “extends previous criticisms [of Marxism] so far beyond their earliest proportions that the progress of his thought may be described as moving from heresy to apostasy.” Interestingly, by the 1950s Eastman, Hook, and Niehbuhr were all members of the CIA-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist advocacy organization.

One of the most dramatic specimens of the type was Lewis Fraina, who helped found the American Communist Party in 1919 before falling out with its leaders. He re-emerged in the 1920s as Lewis Corey, a non-communist socialist writer, but in the Depression, like so many other left-wing intellectuals, grew closer again to the Party. In a three-part series in The Nation in 1935, “The Crisis of the Middle Class,” Corey devoted an essay each to capitalism, fascism and socialism. In the final installment, Corey wrote, regarding fascism, that “the answer to the new barbarism must be a new Enlightenment, whose elements are provided by Marxism: the perceiver a new world and its creator.”

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But in the late 1930s, and especially after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, Corey—again, like many leftists—undertook a painful re-evaluation of his former deeply held beliefs. In another three-part series, “Marxism Reconsidered,” Corey attempted to reconcile his recent disillusionment with his prior ideals: “History has played one of her stupefying tricks: for it is now clear that democracy is on the defensive as much against the totalitarianism of Russian communism as against that of fascism. And since socialism without democracy is a monstrosity, socialism too is on the defensive.”

The bitter admission must be made that all variants of Marxism, “revolutionary” and “reformist,” meeting the pragmatic test of history, have revealed fatal shortcomings. Diehard sectarians will argue that Marxism never had a chance because it was always distorted or betrayed, just as diehard liberals argue that capitalism never had a chance; but the sectarian argument is self-answering since it means that all Marxists are distorters or betrayers except the newest crop of simon pures, and that is exegetical madness. Yes, all variants of Marxism are a failure….

We must accept and reject, unlearn, relearn, and learn anew regardless of vested interests in old activity and ideas. A new language and a new approach are necessary: the abandonment of ideas, phrases, procedures which are now meaningless or have come to mean the opposite of what we thought they meant. All this means a cooperative job of charting new departures and directions in the struggle for a desirable social order.

“We must make an approach to Marx that freely accepts or rejects his ideas, regardless of the systematic strait-jacket, fit the accepted ideas into today’s climate of opinion and needs, and go beyond Marx to new explorations and syntheses,” Corey concluded. It is a strikingly similar point to that which Shenk makes in his review essay this week:

Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with same grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.

* * *

The Nation’s interest in Marx and Marxism again ebbed for several decades after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when Cold War–era debates rendered theoretical discussion somewhat beside the point. By the early 1970s, however, the impact of the New Left and a growing academic interest in Marxism brought discussion of the man and his theory back to The Nation’s pages. It is undoubtedly significant that two separate book reviews—one from 1971, by Michael Harrington, and one from 1975, by Bernard Johnpoll—were published with exactly the same headline: “I Am Not a Marxist, I Am Marx.” (The 1975 review has a dash instead of a comma.) The phrase, adapted from a letter Marx wrote to two French socialists he accused of “revolutionary phrase-mongering,” obviously struck a chord in the United States of the 1970s. As Johnpoll wrote:

Because Marxism has become significant in our time, Marx—the man and his ideas—has become obscure. As Marxism has become more operative, Marx has become less understood. He was at bottom a philosopher who dabbled in economics and politics; his primary interest was analytical, not prescriptive. Marxism, on the contrary, has been from the start purely economic and political. It purports to be rooted in Marx’s analysis and methodology, but by the nature of its interests it is virtually precluded from having an integral relationship with the ideas of its patron saint: politics and economics are institutionally pragmatic; philosophy necessarily directs itself to broader considerations. Thus all that is left of the philosophy of Marx, in this era of Marxism, is myth.

Among the most astute interpreters of Marx in recent decades was the late Marshall Berman, professor of political theory and urban studies at the City University of New York, who began contributing to The Nation in the late 1970s. In a book review from January 27, 1979, “Marx: The Dancer and the Dance,” Berman wrote of “an apparition [that] floated by me on Upper Broadway not long ago: a girl in a red T-shirt that displayed, on and around her breasts, a group of Karl Marxes, about four or five of them, in a semicircle, arms linked, smiling broadly, kicking their legs high in a rousing dance.” Intrigued, Berman concluded that “today’s Marxes have kept in touch with their youthful romantic visions of politics as dancing.”

We should be able to see, now, how absurd it would have been for Marx to finish his great work: how can Capital end while capital lives on? To stop simply and abruptly, rather than create an ending, preserves far more of the truth that Capital has to tell: circling, spiraling, plunging one way and another, turning in upon himself, seeking endlessly for new axes to turn on, Marx kept his thought and his work as open-ended, and hence as resilient and long-lived, as the capitalist system itself. This is why we are still only beginning to explore the depths of Marx’s thought: why he speaks to us in a voice fresher than ever today; why he will be dancing up Broadway when we are all dead…. Once we can feel the depths of Marx’s solitude and his need for connections with people and life, we will appreciate his achievement in creating real bonds between man and man. In the depths of Marx’s spirit, we can nourish our own.

Almost twenty years later, in a review of Verso’s republication of The Communist Manifesto on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, Berman assessed the state of Marxism after the fall of the Soviet Union:

What happened to Marx after 1917 was a disaster: A thinker needs beatification like a hole in the head. So we should welcome his descent from the pedestal as a fortunate fall. Maybe we can learn what Marx has to teach if we confront him at ground level, the level on which we ourselves are trying to stand….

The nineties began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the “post-modern” age: We weren’t supposed to need big ideas. As the nineties end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, de-skilling and dread—just like the old man said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, is back just in time for the millennium. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with the Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.

Those, indeed, are prophetic words.

Read Next: Tom Hayden: “Is This the Moment to Normalize US Relations With Cuba?

* * *

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.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

Will the Supreme Court Let Florida Drug-Test All Its Government Employees?

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (AP/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (AP/The Canadian Press, Graham Hughes)

It might seem reasonable that Florida’s governor Rick Scott wants to ensure all state agencies are drug-free workplaces; after all, why would you want your taxpayer money going to support the habit of some stoned, slothful bureaucrat? But what is the state really asking for when it demands that each public servant pee in a cup?

When Governor Scott issued an executive order for mandatory drug testing across the state’s entire public workforce in March 2011, the political logic seemed straightforward: “the State, as an employer, has an obligation to maintain discipline, health, and safety in the workplace.” But underlying that seeming moral obligation are some questionable social assumptions. What does a positive test mean when your economic fate hinges on the result? What kind of “discipline” is maintained by subjugating bodily privacy in the name of “public safety”?

Today the Supreme Court is weighing the constitutional question the policy has evoked: When your boss is the state, can the “drug-free workplace” be a Fourth Amendment free zone?

The Supreme Court is considering whether to take up Scott v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council (AFSCME) 79, to review whether the state can legitimately administer “drug testing in the absence of reasonable suspicion of drug use,” based on the state’s interest in ensuring a drug-free workplace for 85,000 state employees and applicants for state jobs.

Scott’s Supreme Court petition attempts to revive the issue following a series of lower-court defeats. AFSCME, representing tens of thousands of public servants, filed a legal challenge in May 2011 contending that the testing violated Fourth Amendment protections from unreasonable searches, and that the state had offered no real safety-related reason for such a broad testing requirement. The union argues in its brief, “allowing the state to define its interests at such a high level of generality would create an exception that swallows the rule.”

The federal district court ruled in 2012 that the executive order was an unconstitutional violation of workers’ privacy and the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed that decision. However, while the state has since suspended the policy (and a similar statute passed by the legislature has also been halted), it has been remanded to the lower court for further litigation to rework the mandate. The administration is now trying to revamp the mandate to apply to a narrower set of jobs—mirroring existing policies targeted to safety-related positions, like corrections officers.

The Supreme Court will conference on whether to take up the case or just let the lower-court sausage-making proceed. For now, the main outcome is the Eleventh Circuit’s decision that the original order was unacceptably broad, amounting to, in the words of the court, “a drug testing policy of far greater scope than any ever sanctioned by the Supreme Court or by any of the courts of appeals.”

Labor advocates don’t necessarily object to drug test policies for certain jobs based on specific work-related safety concerns. Rather, AFSCME objects to the sweeping mandate of drug testing the whole workforce and prospective future employees, screening the bodies of school bus drivers and museum ticket vendors alike, for anything from a meth habit to an occasional joint.

In its defense of the policy, the state points out that drug testing is already common in private sector workplaces. But civil libertarians note that the state, unlike a private firm, is bound by Fourth Amendment restrictions on unreasonable government searches.

On top of its crusade for a drug-free state payroll, Florida has also sought to clean up its welfare rolls with a policy of mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants. The law, enacted by the legislature in 2011, was ultimately struck down in federal court. But it also sparked a national outrage (and some notable satire), because it invoked the classic Reaganite trope of public aid recipients as undeserving miscreants looking to “game the system.” The stereotype has historically been reflected in the image of black “welfare queen,” or more recently, in the underworked, overpaid state bureaucrat. Nationwide, lawmakers have glommed onto this convenient political logic of drug-screening people involved with public assistance programs, with recent proposals for mandatory testing in Texas, Pennsylvania, Washington and other states.

Whether the urinalysis dragnet targets people seeking government support or those delivering public services, the presumptions underlying mandatory testing feed into the oppressive stigma of being tied to the public system, which in turn stokes public mistrust and backlash against government itself.

Shalini Goel Agarwal, an ACLU of Florida attorney who is working on the case, says that for welfare recipients, blanket drug-testing reflects “an assumption that if they’re relying on public benefits, must be because those folks are at fault in some way, it’s because they’re using drugs…. The facts don’t seem to bear out the stereotype, but there is this kind of villainization that’s going on.”

But despite Scott’s arbitrary drug-test mandate, Agarwal says, “The Fourth Amendment applies just as surely to poor people and just as surely to state employees as it does to anybody else.”

Historically, drug testing in both public and private workplaces has been controversial, not only because of its physical intrusiveness, but because it is often just inaccurate. Civil liberties groups point out the risk of botched results and false positives. Moreover, arbitrary surveillance of workers’ behavior through invasive tests can have a toxic impact on the workplace social environment.

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In some cases, the data debunks the political rhetoric it was supposed to bolster. Advocates cite research data on welfare applicants suggesting that impoverished people actually live pretty clean: only about 2.5 percent of the applicants tested had positive results, compared to a rate of about 9 percent for the general population. Similarly, testing of employees and applicants at the state Departments of Transportation, Juvenile Justice, and Corrections showed positive results ranging from less than one percent to about 2.5 percent.

But whatever the data say, labor advocates argue that the state has crossed a constitutional line in both privacy and labor rights in its workplaces.

Many of the legal challenges to drug-test policies, Agarwal notes, have been led by unions, because “individual employees are scared to come forward, they’re scared for their own job security, they’re scared what’s going to happen to them and their families, and so they don’t come forward. And the only way effectively to get at this issue and to challenge the employers head on is to do it through the union.”

While labor has effectively resisted Florida’s effort to track drug use in its workforce, the draconian testing policy has exposed the government’s problem with data abuse. The behavioral policing of workers and the poor tells us little about their social values, but reveals much about how supposed “public safety” interests at the center of power can become a tool for invading bodily privacy at the social margins.

Read Next: How the Supreme Court Blowtorched Democracy and What You Can Do About It

A Light at the End of the Ukraine Tunnel?

Anti-Russia protest

Ukrainians in Kiev protest the presence of Russian troops in Crimea. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

This post will be updated over the weekend as events require, so please check back.

To begin with, here’s the full text of the agreement reached in Geneva on Ukraine:

The Geneva meeting on the situation in Ukraine agreed on initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security for all citizens.

All sides must refrain from any violence, intimidation or provocative actions. The participants strongly condemned and rejected all expressions of extremism, racism and religious intolerance, including anti-semitism.

All illegal armed groups must be disarmed; all illegally seized buildings must be returned to legitimate owners; all illegally occupied streets, squares and other public places in Ukrainian cities and towns must be vacated.

Amnesty will be granted to protestors and to those who have left buildings and other public places and surrendered weapons, with the exception of those found guilty of capital crimes.

It was agreed that the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission should play a leading role in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of these de-escalation measures wherever they are needed most, beginning in the coming days. The U.S., E.U. and Russia commit to support this mission, including by providing monitors.

The announced constitutional process will be inclusive, transparent and accountable. It will include the immediate establishment of a broad national dialogue, with outreach to all of Ukraine’s regions and political constituencies, and allow for the consideration of public comments and proposed amendments.

The participants underlined the importance of economic and financial stability in Ukraine and would be ready to discuss additional support as the above steps are implemented.

It’s a good and promising start, and a sign that there is a diplomatic solution at the end of this particular tunnel—even if, so far, it isn’t recognized by the pro-Russian thugs who’ve taken over government buildings in several cities across eastern Ukraine—among whom, NATO says, are a number of secret Russian forces à la Crimea. There’s still a long way to go, before some sort of more final accord is reached on a compromise between Russia’s demand that Ukraine be essentially divided and broken up and Kiev’s demand—backed by the United States, so far—that Ukraine be only slightly less centralized than it has been. But, because Russia holds the high cards in military terms, and wields huge economic influence over Ukraine, Moscow can hang tough and probably get most of what it wants. The real news here is that President Obama—perhaps because of his noted caution in foreign policy and perhaps because Western Europe, closely tied economically to Russia, is far more cautious than the United States is—is apparently committed to a diplomatic resolution above all.

Even the hawkish, often neoconservative-leaning Washington Post editorial page is optimistic—a big step, since only the other day its editorial said—far, far too pessimistically—that “it’s probably too late to prevent war in Ukraine.” In its editorial today, it says:

We were among those who doubted that a meeting on Ukraine in Geneva Thursday could produce results, given the weak Western response to Russian aggression. So count us as pleasantly surprised by the “initial concrete steps to de-escalate tensions and restore security” that the parties announced.

War, of course, is and always was highly unlikely over Ukraine—mostly because the stakes are so imbalanced: Ukraine is vastly important to Russia and very, very unimportant to the United States, strategically. Still, and ugly standoff there, marked by clashes, bad words and escalating aid to each side in the conflict could have poisoned relations between the United States and Russia for many years to come—and it still might.

The next problem is: how to suppress the minority, extremist pro-Russian mobs who’ve taken over institutions in the east. They’ve already rejected the Geneva accord, and they say they’re not going anywhere. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian forces are haphazardly organized, poorly armed and incompetent, and they don’t seem capable of retaking the buildings on their own—at least not with a lot of bloodshed among civilians, especially. CNN quotes a leader of the nonexistent “Donetsk People’s Republic” speaking about Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov:

“Lavrov did not sign anything for us, he signed on behalf of the Russian Federation,” Denis Pushilin, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, told reporters in the city.

According to RT, Lavrov stresses that the accord opens the door to a national dialogue and constitutional reform, and that’s where Russia will press for sweeping decentralization of Ukraine, with autonomy for the east in particular. No doubt Russia will keep eastern Ukraine on simmer, at least, until the next steps are agreed upon, and nowhere in the accord do the parties say anything about the presence of 40,000 Russian troops perched on Ukraine’s borders—nor does it address US and Western aid to Kiev, either economic or military.

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A good sign is that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an East-West group, will help de-escalate things by monitoring the situation on the ground, especially in the east. Says the OSCE release:

Swiss Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Didier Burkhalter welcomed the outcome of the discussions between the Foreign Ministers of Ukraine, the United States and the Russian Federation as well as the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who met today in Geneva.

Burkhalter underlined that the OSCE was ready to take up the key role given to the Special Monitoring Mission in assisting Ukrainian authorities and local communities in the immediate implementation of the various measures agreed in the Geneva Statement. He praised the Geneva Statement as an expression of confidence towards the OSCE as an inclusive platform for supporting de-escalation in Ukraine.

“As new tasks and responsibilities have been assigned to the OSCE, I count on the continuous international support in funding and seconding of staff to the Special Monitoring Mission,” he added.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on diplomacy and the Ukraine crisis

With 8 Million and Counting ACA Sign-Ups, Sebelius Could Run for Senate

Kathleen Sebelius

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius on Capitol Hill (AP Photo/J. Scott)

The anti-Obamacare machine that has been so carefully assembled by the Koch brothers and their billionaire boys club would surely blow a gasket. The right-wing echo chamber would go nuclear. And the Republican National Committee, Mitch McConnell and all the senators and contenders who have staked their 2014 prospects on a run against healthcare reform would make a big deal of laughing out loud.

But among the savvier of their number, it might well be a nervous laughter.

What could cause all this consternation?

Democrats have urged departing Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to run for the US Senate from Kansas. A Sebelius spokesperson discounted the prospect, saying she was focused on the transition out of her current job. But The New York Times reported that Sebelius, who served two terms as the Democratic governor of Kansas during the Bush years, was considering the prospect of challenging US Senator Pat Roberts, a relatively drab conservative Republican who is currently facing a primary challenge from a vaguely more interesting conservative Republican.

A Sebelius run remains an unlikely prospect. The outgoing cabinet secretary has been through a lot over the past few months, and the notion of turning around and seeking the Senate from a state that has not elected a Democrat to the chamber since 1932 would definitely qualify as daunting.

Already, there is plenty of think-inside-the-box commentary that dismisses the idea. The purveyors of conventional wisdom at FiveThirtyEight are quick to declare that “Kansas Has Moved on From Kathleen Sebelius.”

“Sebelius for Senate?” a Washington Post headline argues. “It makes no sense.”

That is undoubtedly the case—if the country remains forever locked in November 2013.

But the politics of November 2014 won’t look anything like the politics of November 2013.

Indeed, those who actually turn the pages of their calendars recognize that a lot has already changed since Obama and the Democrats hit the political skids late last year.

The Affordable Care Act, implemented by Sebelius, is now exceeding goals. More than 7 million Americans were signed up by late March. And less than a month later, as noted by President Obama a press conference Thursday, the figure has risen to 8 million. Another 3 million people have enrolled in expanded Medicaid and children’s insurance programs. And the overall number of Americans with healthcare coverage will increase by millions more before the end of 2014.

As Obama says, “This thing is working.”

That does not mean that every voter has forgotten about the complexities and controversies that attended the first stages of Affordable Care Act implementation. Nor will it alter the view of millions of Americans (including this writer) that Obama, Sebelius and the rest of the administration should have embraced a single-payer “Medicare for All” initiative, rather than the complicated and expensive Affordable Care Act model.

But access to healthcare is expanding rapidly in America. And attitudes toward the Democrats who have advanced reforms are changing just as rapidly.

The latest Reuters-Ipsos poll finds that since February support for the Democratic position on healthcare reform has been on a steady rise, while support for the Republican position has been just as steadily declining. The most recent survey, released this week, found that 32 percent of voters favored the Democratic position, while just 18 percent thought the Republicans offered a better approach.

President Obama’s job approval numbers have experienced a similarly steady pattern of improvement. In early December, the Real Clear Politics average of major polls found that disapproval of Obama led approval of the president by 16.1 points. By this week, that number had been cut almost in half, to 8.3 points.

The most recent McClatchy/Marist poll puts Obama at a 45 percent approval rating, while a new Rasmussen Reports survey has him at 46 percent. That’s below the 51 percent support the president received in his 2012 re-election run, but it is worth noting that, in April 2012, the Real Clear Politics average had Obama at just 47 percent.

The political calculus is changing. Suddenly, instead of running for cover, some Democrats are starting to argue that their party should “defend ‘Obamacare’ unabashedly.” Healthcare industry consultant Bob Laszewski told the Associated Press this week, “I think Democrats have the ability to steal the healthcare issue back from Republicans.”

Which brings us to Sebelius.

Most Americans know her only as a member of the president’s cabinet.

But before she came to Washington she was the Democrat who cracked the code in Kansas. A state representative who focused on consumer and healthcare concerns, Sebelius was elected to the Kansas state House during Ronald Reagan’s second term, and re-elected when George Bush was carrying the state with ease in 1988 and 1992. In 1994, the year that a wave election swept Republicans into control of the US House and US Senate (with Kansan Bob Dole as majority leader), as well the governorship of Kansas, Sebelius upset the Republican calculus and won a populist campaign for state insurance commissioner. She blocked insurance industry mergers and made a name for herself defending the rights of women, got re-elected with ease and was named as one of Governing magazine’s top public officials in the nation.

Eight years after her initial election as insurance commissioner, Sebelius took on an even bigger challenge. In 2002, a year that was looking to be very good for Republicans, especially in Kansas, she ran for and won the governorship by a 53-45 margin. Four years later, she was re-elected with 58 percent of the vote. Her ability to win big in a red state inspired rounds of speculation about vice presidential and even presidential prospects for Sebelius, who chaired the Democratic Governors Association in 2007.

For those who know Sebelius only from the headlines of the past few months, the prospect of a Kansas run this year may still be hard to imagine. But Sebelius has a record in Kansas—both as an administrator and a candidate.

Does that mean she is destined to win? Of course not. Republicans openly mock the prospect of her returning to the Kansas ballot. There’s no question that Sebelius has taken a battering from the GOP over the past six months, nor is there any question that as a candidate she would take a battering from the GOP over the next six months. Additionally, there are cautious Democratic strategists, in Kansas and nationally, who recognize that the party’s position is improving and don’t want to take any risks that might alter that trajectory.

But it is simply unrealistic, not to mention politically foolish, to assume that the 2014 election script is so deeply written in stone that surprises will not occur. Sebelius was an unlikely winner in 1986, 1994 and 2002. Were she to run this year, she would energize grassroots Democrats in Kansas—even if she would have to persuade them to reconsider their support for the able contender who is already in the race, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor—and nationally.

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A Sebelius run would at the very least make the Kansas Senate contest a referendum on healthcare reform—and on the broader question of whether it makes sense to try to solve problems in an age of gridlock, obstruction and political pettiness. If popular sentiment continues to trend in the direction of the president and his party when it comes to the question of how to address healthcare issues, Sebelius could find herself in a position to argue that, against all the naysaying, the United States remains a country that can actually take on great challenges and master them. The troubles she experienced along the way don’t necessarily undermine that narrative, as big tasks are never accomplished easily.

If Sebelius were to run in Kansas, with a recognition of the challenges she faced but with no apologies for taking on the second toughest job in Washington, she would be campaigning not on defense but on offense. And if there is one lesson that Democrats would be wise to learn, it is that there are advantages to playing offense.

That’s a lesson Sebelius has known since she was a young woman.

In 1964, her father, John Gilligan, was elected as a Democrat to represent a traditionally Republican region of Ohio in the US House. He voted as an unapologetic liberal, giving especially enthusiastic support to the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicare and Medicaid. His positions were not popular with a lot of the voters back home, and he was defeated in 1966. Two years later, he lost a race for the United States Senate as an unabashed anti–Vietnam War liberal, and a lot of pundits said his run was done. Then, in 1970, he bid for governor of Ohio and won a contested Democratic primary in a year when President Richard Nixon, Vice President Spiro Agnew and a lot of pundits were predicting a backlash against enthusiastic supporters of civil rights and social welfare programs.

John Gilligan refused to buy into the calculus that said 1970 would follow the script that Nixon and Agnew imagined at the start of the year. He rewrote the script, and he won that gubernatorial race by almost 350,000 votes.

The only sure way to lose an election is not to run. If Kathleen Sebelius were to bid for the Senate this year, she would challenge not just an often inaccurate conventional wisdom but the Democrat Party’s tendency toward an excess of caution. And that, in turn, could reshape the debate about healthcare and a whole lot more.

 

Read Next: How to vote against the Koch brothers.