“There must be something in the water in Minnesota,” writes Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) in his new memoir My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, “because historically, despite its seemingly homogeneous population, the state has produced some of our more radical political thinkers, and its people have put their prejudices aside to vote for them.” Granted, Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, but the four-term congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District is boldly following in the footsteps of Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale, and Wellstone.
“Paul Wellstone was my model”; he writes, “my exemplar of an effective politician.” Wellstone “answered to the people and did so with honesty and conviction, and people appreciated that.” Within the context of the do-nothing 113th Congress, Ellison’s reasonability seems downright revolutionary. “When you’re a leader,” Ellison writes, “you cannot ignore parts of your constituency, even if you know they’re not going to vote for you.” There are Republicans in Minneapolis, too—a lesson that countless members of congress have forgotten vis-a-vis their own hometown opposition.
Perhaps most representative of Ellison’s efforts (and of Congressional intractability) is the bipartisan Preserving Homeownership Act of 2012, which Ellison co-introduced with Reps. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.). The bill, which includes a principal-reduction program and which the Republican majority has precluded from passing, is a “win-win proposition that resulted from a moderate Democrat, a progressive Democrat, and a Republican working together to help home owners. When members of Congress talk informally about the things happening in our individual districts, we find that we share many common issues.” Nevertheless, the bill remains a victim of “politics [trumping] common sense,” a non-starter (or half-starter) in a legislature focused on maintaining acrimony across the aisle.
Ellison is a believer in activism, and he believes that so-called “regular folks” can influence their legislators. With Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Ellison is co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a position he ran for “to connect working Americans with members of Congress who want to partner with them.” Not only is Ellison eager to work with Republicans, he’s also intent on increasing citizen participation in government (If you stay disgruntled yet idle on the sidelines, he believes, then you're just a complainer.) And participation is crucial. He sees himself (and Congress) as part of a vast ecosystem comprising activists, movements, politicians, and voters. “What’s the matter with Congress?” he asks. “Nothing that wide-awake and active Americans can’t fix.”
On foreign policy, Ellison decries unilateral action and condemns U.S. behavior after 9/11. Iraq was a “colossal failure,” and in Afghanistan, “We allowed ourselves to lose track of the goal.” Ellison knows that our current strategy is failing, both militarily and culturally. He’s disappointed by the coldness of the reception he received on a 2011 trip to Pakistan, and he compares it sadly to the warm welcome he experienced there just two years earlier. Pakistanis rightly ask Ellison if he "thought that we should be able to come into their country and make war," and he bitterly notes, "We're supposed to be allies."
Ellison sees American aid as one of the most powerful tactics we can use against terrorism, decrying the fact that our foreign-aid budget is one-twentieth that of the military. “Surely,” he asks, “we can find value in doing some preventive maintenance?”
Ellison, of course, was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, and he admits that his faith plays a role in his politics. Not surprisingly, his opponents (and some colleagues) have gone bananas over his religion. His GOP opponent in 2006 taunted Ellison as “Keith Muhammad, Keith X, Keith Hakim” (all at the same press conference); his campaign was compared to a “Japanese American being elected to the US Congress five years after Pearl Harbor”; and in 2012, a “Democrat–Tea Party candidate” ran an ad asking Minneapolis voters, “Do you really want someone representing you who swears his oath on a Quran, a book that undermines our Constitution and says you should be killed?”
But notably, he waits until Chapter 16 of ‘Tis of Thee to really delve into religion and to address such nonsense, and he underlines the fact that he is a congressman who is Muslim, not a Muslim congressman. Indeed, the story of Ellison’s life and family (agnostic father, Roman Catholic mother, Christian preacher brother, etc.) reveals a polyglot definition of “American”—a Republican fascination/obsession—as well as the absurdity of even having such a definition in the first place. Addressing the “whole gaggle of operators who have made a lucrative cottage industry around stirring up fear and hatred toward Muslims, Ellison responds plainly: “It is un-American to single out or persecute any American because of his or her faith. I am a congressman who is Muslim. I am also black. I also happen to be from Detroit. I also happen to be a father of four.”
Is this the guy you want protecting your Constitution? I think so. Ellison is optimistic—”hopelessly” optimistic—about the future of America, and his own story is worth examining to see why. “Our democracy is not something to be taken for granted. You have to fight for it. You have to commit yourself to working for it—for the long haul.”
Read Next: John Nichols interviews Bernie Sanders.
This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org
Need help navigating the proposal federal tax system overhaul? Covington & Burling, a major law-lobbying firm in Washington, DC, sent out a client alert recently announcing that former Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) stands ready to assist businesses seeking the best outcome of the legislative proposal led by Representative Dave Camp (R-MI) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).
If enacted, the tax overhaul expected this year will change billions of dollars in tax credits and rates.
Kyl, however, is barred from lobbying because he left the senate last year and is still within the “cooling-off period.” The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act extends the ban on former senators engaging in lobbying from one to two years, leaving Kyl off the market for lobbying until January of 2015.
But as we’ve covered, lobbying law is poorly enforced and ambiguously defined. Former staffers and lawmakers prohibited from engaging in lobby activity often flout the law by engaging in meetings with officials, often with the cover that they’re just doing so in order to collect intelligence, rather than “lobby.”
Shortly after he retired from office, Kyl joined the lobbying team of Covington & Burling, euphemistically titled the “Public Policy and Government Affairs”division. And the tax reform alert, which is embedded below, notes that Kyl is part of a team that is actively communicating with government officials on legislation now debated in Congress (emphasis added):
Covington’s Public Policy and Government Affairs and Tax practice groups—which include Senator Jon Kyl, former top Republican on the Senate’s Finance Subcommittee on Taxation; former senior Treasury officials; and Ed Yingling, former President and CEO of the American Bankers Association (ABA) — are conversant with the details. Many of our team members are in regular consultation with senior Members of Congress, Treasury and IRS officials, and staffs of the Congressional tax-writing committees and are able to explain the hundreds of pages of proposals.
See the alert below:
Read Next: Lee Fang on Congressional candidate David Jolly’s winning millions of dollars in contracts for his clients through connections to his old boss
Plain, old-fashioned capitalism will prevent a new cold war between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and Russia’s gobbling up of the Crimean region. Capitalism, plus the fact that probably not one American in a thousand could locate Crimea on a map, and even the most hard-headed US political analysts have trouble coming up with a decent definition of what US interests in Ukraine might be.
Helping to contain the crisis is the fact that Russia, Europe and to a lesser extent the United States are tied together in a powerful web of financial and economic ties that didn’t exist, say, during the real Cold War. Their influence runs counter to the many, many cries from hawks to impose tough economic sanctions on Russia, as if the giant Eurasian power were a small “rogue state.” The Washington Post, for instance, said in an editorial:
Some argue that the West lacks the means to damage the Putin regime or that the United States cannot act without Europe, but neither claim is true. Banking sanctions—denying Russians and their banks access to the U.S. financial system—could deal a powerful blow. Mr. Obama must respond to Mr. Putin with measures that force the Russian ruler to rethink his options.
But, as CNN reports:
Russia is the European Union's third-biggest trading partner after the United States and China, with goods and services worth more than $500 billion exchanged in 2012. About 75% of all foreign direct investment in Russia originates in EU member states, according to the European Commission.
In addition, Russia is the single biggest supplier of energy to the European Union. British energy firm BP is the second-largest shareholder in Russia's leading oil producer Rosneft, and some of the biggest energy companies in Germany, the Netherlands and France are invested in a joint venture with Russian gas giant Gazprom.
And, in a lengthy interview in The American Interest, Zbigniew Brzezinski points with regret to the fact that British bankers, who have large deposits of Russian cash—particularly from Russian oligarchs—are resisting any sort of confrontation over Ukraine:
The British seem inclined to argue, “Well, there’s a lot of Russian money in our banks.”… The bankers doubtless have a lot of influence, particularly in political systems in which money is increasingly the mechanism that oils the “democratic process.”
Earlier, the BBC had reported that a document carried by a top British official read: “The U.K. should not support for now trade sanctions or close London’s financial center to Russians.”
The New York Times, in a long March 7 piece analyzing US and European business interests in Russia and their effect on the politics of the situation, quoted several executives with Western firms who clearly want to cool the crisis talk:
European businesses “have no interests in any deterioration of the current international situation linked to Ukraine,” Frank Schauff, the chief executive of the Association of European Businesses in Russia, said on Friday. “We call upon all parties to engage in a constructive dialogue, which will secure stability, welfare and economic growth on the European Continent.”
Among American companies cited in the Times are Pepsi, Ford and John Deere. The Times quoted Ken Golden, director of global public relations for Deere, in its piece:
While Russia represents less than 5 percent of Deere’s total equipment sales, the company recently cited Russia as being key to its future growth. “We urge political leaders to solve this issue without violence and in accord with international agreements,” Mr. Golden said.
It even extends to the defense industry. According to Defense News, in a piece titled “Amid Ukraine Crisis, EU Plays It Safe,” various European arms manufacturers, including in Sweden, value current and potential sales to Russia. France is apparently insisting that it will continue to sell arms to Russia, including a $1.7 billion deal for two Mistral-class helicopter carriers. Said one expert quoted in the piece:
It looks like the Europeans are extremely keen to do everything except anything that hurts their commercial interests. There is zero appetite to hurt business interests, and arms sales fit into that category.
Still, while Vladimir Putin and his nationalist Russian base might believe that ancient monasteries, the Kievan Rus and heaven knows what else justify the illegitimate annexation of Crimea and Russia’s overweening influence in Ukraine, and that Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine need protecting, Moscow’s actions in Ukraine are nearly certain to contribute to a deeper political divide between the United States and Russia. Just as the unilateral US and NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1998-99, the illegal US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the US-NATO war against Libya in 2011 all bolstered Russian nationalism and strengthened the Russian military, Russia’s occupation and pending annexation of Crimea will do the same in reverse. Hawks, pro-NATO militants, supporters of building up US military forces and missile-defense systems in Eastern Europe, and critics of President Obama’s defense cuts, will all be aided greatly by Putin’s actions.
We’ll review the bidding on that tomorrow.
Read Next: Conn Hallinan on the dark side of the Ukraine revolt
When the prairie populists of the North Dakota Non-Partisan League swept to power a century ago, with their promise to take on the plutocrats, one of the first orders of business was the establishment of state-run bank.
They did just that. And in just a few years the Bank of North Dakota will celebrate a 100th anniversary of assuring safe stewardship of state funds, providing loans at affordable rates and steering revenues toward the support of public projects.
After the 2008 financial meltdown, and the failure of Congress to regulate “too-big-to-fail” banks, activists and progressive legislators across the country began to explore the idea of replicating—or even expanding upon—the North Dakota model in other states.
But would the voters go for that?
Vermonters for a New Economy decided to test the idea.
This year, the group urged citizens to petition to place the public-banking question on the agendas of town meetings across the state—distributing information outlining a proposal to turn the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) into a state bank. Under the plan, the group explained, “the State of Vermont would deposit its revenues into the state bank. The bank would use these funds in ways that would create economic sustainability in Vermont by partnering with community banks to make loans and engaging in other activities that would leverage state funds to promote economic well-being in the state. The interest from these loans would be returned to the bank instead of out of state interests and would be available for further investment in the local economy or could be transferred to the state general fund. The bank would not invest in the risky financial instruments that the megabanks seem to love. The bank’s activities would be open and available for public inspection.”
Last week, at least twenty Vermont town meetings took up the issue and voted “yes.”
In many cases, the votes were overwhelming.
Vermont is not the only state where public banking proposals are in play. But the town meeting endorsements are likely to provide a boost for a legislative proposal to provide the VEDA with the powers of a bank.
The bill would create a “10 Percent for Vermont” program that would “deposit 10 percent of Vermont’s unrestricted revenues in the VEDA bank and allow VEDA to leverage this money, in the same way that private banks do now, to fund…unfunded capital needs” outlined in a recent study by the University of Vermont’s Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. The legislation would also develop programs, often in conjunction with community banks, “to create loans which would help create economic opportunities for Vermonters.”
Among the most outspoken advocates for the public-banking initiative is Vermont State Senator Anthony Pollina, a veteran Vermont Progressive Party activist and former gubernatorial candidate, who argues that it “doesn’t make any sense for us to be sending Vermont’s hard-earned tax dollars to some bank on Wall Street which couldn’t care less about Vermont or Vermonters when we could keep that money here in the state of Vermont where we would have control over it and therefore more of it would be invested here in the state.”
Read Next: John Nichols on why we need a bank at the post office.
This is Christie Watch’s second on-the-scene report from CPAC. The first installment appeared on Thursday. On Monday, the third and final installment will present an overview of CPAC’s three days, which ended Saturday.
It’s no surprise that, for the second year running, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul won the annual straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference. Paul gained 31 percent in the straw poll, with Ted Cruz second with 11 percent and everyone else in single digits. Paul’s win, though hardly signals an edge in the race for 2016—after all, Ben Carson, the African-American neurosurgeon who became a hero to conservatives when he rattled off a string of right-wing shibboleths at a 2013 prayer breakfast with President Obama sitting just feet away, came in third with 9 percent of those polled. Still, at CPAC at least, Paul was a rock star.
Paul, the libertarian-conservative and Tea Party favorite—thanks, mostly to the years-long record of insouciance by his father, Ron Paul, the former Texas congressman—drew adulation, followers and fans everywhere he went at CPAC. At a book signing just a hour or so before he spoke, hundreds of people—mostly young people, college students and those in their 20s—lined up in eager anticipation of a handshake during a book-signing by Paul, and everywhere at the conference attendees sported “Stand with Rand” stickers.
When he came out to speak at the ballroom, the place was packed, standing room only. Paul, dressed casually in jeans—a distinct difference from the more buttoned-up look of other speakers—entered to the raucous strains of Chumbawamba’s "Tubthumper": “I get knocked down, but I get up again, they’re never gonna keep me down!” The music continued during Paul’s tumultuous reception, which could only be described as rapturous, a lengthy standing ovation punctuated by war whoops and cheers, and he basked in the cacophony. And Paul didn’t disappoint his followers, many of whom are independents and libertarians (and Libertarians), many of whom don’t really identify with the Grand Old Party. Paul made it clear that the Republican party is hardly his North Star, either: “You may think I’m talking about electing Republicans. I’m not. I’m talking about electing lovers of liberty. It’s not good enough to choose the lesser of two evils.”
More war whoops. And, while Paul has clearly set his sights on the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, he’s not afraid to scare establishment Republicans with the threat of a breakaway movement. During his talk, Paul seemed almost to look past the gray-haired GOP right-wingers in the hall and speak directly to the young people who make up his activist base. Early in his fifteen-minute address, Paul spoke directly to them: “Will you, the next generation of liberty lovers, will you stand and be heard?’
Though Paul, like every CPAC speaker, tossed a few rhetorical bombs Obama’s way on the usual issues, he focused nearly the entirety of his talk on a single topic: the surveillance state, domestic spying, the National Security Agency and drones. (Recently, along with Bruce Fein, Paul filed a lawsuit over the NSA data-collection program, and as he pointed out to cheers from the multitude, he filibustered “when the president refused to rule out droning an American.”) In his talk, he said, “The NSA monitors your every phone call! [And] I believe that what you do on your cell phone is none of their damn business!”
For Paul, the Obama administration, the NSA program, the Internal Revenue Service’s tax-collection system and pretty much everything else is one big ball of wax, and without quite saying it he implied—as did several other CPAC speakers this week—that the NSA’s database can easily be accessed for political purposes. (In interviews with Christie Watch, a fair number of CPAC attendees said exactly that, connecting the trumped-up charges of IRS political targeting with NSA surveillance as if it were a single program.) “Government, unrestrained by law, becomes nothing short of tyranny,” he said. And that’s red meat for Paul’s followers who, though they admire Paul for his opposition to the NSA and for his anti-interventionist (that is, isolationist) foreign policy, also agree with Paul’s Ayn Rand–like views about disappearing the government in general.
The searing influence of the libertarians rocked other sessions of CPAC, too, the great discomfit of traditional conservatives. At a panel on privacy and the NSA, where a film clip of Edward Snowden was received approvingly by a large portion of the audience, Bruce Fein got into a heated dispute with former Virginia Governor James Gilmore, a national-security hardliner, who drew boos and catcalls (“You lie!”) when he said, “Snowden is not only a traitor, but a coward.” Fein repeatedly slammed Gilmore for his views, and the ex-governor became angrier and angrier, nearly shouting at several points in the discussion. To more catcalls, Gilmore declared heatedly that Snowden is helping “to dismantle the defenses of this nation in a time of maximum danger.” But when the panel’s moderator asked for a show of hands from those who thought that the NSA data-collection program was making the country safer, only a paltry few hands went up among the hundreds there.
At another panel, whose topic was to analyze whether “libertarians and social conservatives” can unite, there was great disunity. One audience member, clearly dissatisfied with the fact that the Christian right’s anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, anti-pot message had undermined the Republican party’s chances in recent elections, asked: “Will conservatives ever ease up on social issues, or do we have to wait for our generation to do it?” That would be the generation, of course, that Rand Paul is appealing to.
On CPAC’s own on-line conference newsfeed, one attendee, Victor S. posted:
It’s unfortunate that this conference has been hijacked by libertarians. Libertarians are not conservatives. They should hold their own conference. The fact that Rick Santorum had to debate libertarians shows how out of whack this conference has become. Sad to see this change.
Besides Chumbawamba, whose music echoed through the cavernous hall before and after this talk—and which was probably not chosen to appeal to the 60-somethings in the crowd—Paul also said that conservatives who don’t pay attention to the Fourth Amendment, the right to privacy and the right to avoid unwarranted search and seizure ought to listen to Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, perhaps the first time that sage was ever cited at a CPAC event:
Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange
a walk-on part in the war
for a lead role in a cage?
For Paul, the war is just starting, and he’s got a lead role.
—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration, literature and film.
“Fake Outrage in the Kentucky Senate Race,” by Mark Leibovich. The New York Times Magazine, March 3, 2014
Mark Leibovich’s dispatch from the closely watched KY senate race between incumbent Mitch McConnell and challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes depicts the dueling campaigns as clouded in a thick “fog of fake outrage.” Real disagreements over policy are displaced by a less-than-ingenuous disgust olympics between warring communications departments, over usually imagined affronts—e.g. “I am so appalled. You’ll never believe just how low our opponent has stooped this time.” Leibovich writes wistfully about a time when “the privilege of speaking publicly on behalf of a candidate belonged to a select few operatives, usually 40- and 50-somethings who spoke with deliberate authority.” Like an indignant Scooby-Doo villain, Leibovich seems specifically intent on indicting the campaigns’ conspicuously young and female spokespersons for fueling the substanceless war-of-position. Thus, intentionally or not, Leibovich aligns himself with the single most tired meme in American media: blame the millennials! Even when they somehow break free of their storied laziness and political apathy, they have to go and spoil the godly, dignified work of campaigning with their tweets and their irony. Meddling kids!
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
"Like a lingering cloud of tear gas: how do you reconcile the two Brazils?" by Grant Wahl. Sports Illustrated, February 27, 2014.
The side effects of mega-sporting events have become all too evident in recent years; forced relocation of poor people, immense corruption and even larger public debt are now foregone conclusions. However, these competitions also mute local culture by commodifying everything in their path. Grant Wahl's piece explores this phenomenon as experienced in Rio de Janeiro's legendary Maracanã stadium. Gustavo Mehl, a 30-year-old Brazilian social activist, described the old Maracanã as "a symbol of public participation in Rio" and "the most democratic space of the city" in contrats to the undemocratic, gentrified space the stadium has become. Now, corporations have exclusive license to hawk their goods; standing room for the poor has been replaced by individual seating and luxury boxes; the sale of traditional foods has been restricted in favor of Big Macs, Coca-Cola and Budweiser; and organizers' push for "more civilized" fan behavior destroys traditional forms of cheering. Aldo Rebelo, a former Communist party congressman and Brazil's current sports minister, insists that "there's a great risk that the market will eliminate the enchantment soccer holds for the people." That's quite a statement to make about Brazil, cultural epicenter of the "beautiful game."
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“What Tender Possibilities: Two Meditations On The Oikos, Pt. 1,” by Anne Boyer. CUNY Academic Commons, March 5, 2014
I was surprised to find myself again, this week, reading and having my interest piqued by an article that aims to draw a point about contemporary gender relations out of a scholarly analysis of Ancient Greek ones. Anne Boyer's blog post is a "meditation" on Angela Mitropoulos's book Contract & Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia and is part of an ongoing project by the CUNY Graduate Center's (very interesting) "Digital Labor Working Group." What I like about this post, whose claims are hard to fully evaluate without reference to the texts it's building off of, is the broader project it takes part in: the search for ways of understanding gendered labor that neither naturalize "women's work" nor collapse it into a homogeneous notion of "labor" that obscures its unique social and economic functions. Instead it aims at a notion that, in Boyer's words, allows for "more complexity than the Arendtian conception of the private or Marxian theories about reproductive and productive labor."
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
“Who cares if it’s true?” by Marc Fisher. Columbia Journalism Review, March 3, 2014
The story begins, as it increasingly does, with BuzzFeed. The morning's topic at BuzzFeed HQ was the president's State of the Union address and how to cover it: "getting Vine video 'of when stupid stuff happens' and putting together a piece about how no one cares about the State of the Union," reports CJR's Marc Fisher in their cover story, "Who Cares If It's True?" Fisher visits newsrooms with widely divergent views on sourcing and editing, and concludes, with evident regret, "What’s news is what’s out there, whether or not it’s been checked and verified." Reporting from newsrooms, on newsrooms and (let's face it) for newsrooms, Fisher manages to state the obvious—what makes you click isn't always good for you—by substantiating this fact of life with truly entertaining anecdotes from the people behind the curtain.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“Oral Argument Recap: Ohio Supreme Court Considers Home Rule in Challenge to Zoning Ordinances Restricting Drilling,” by Dan Kavouras. North America Shale Blog, February 28, 2014
This piece, written for an industry law firm’s “Shale Blog,” reports on a current Ohio Supreme Court case concerning local governments’ role in governing oil and gas drilling. The city of Munroe Falls, OH argued (see video of oral arguments) that as a home-rule city, its zoning power to determine where drilling takes place can coexist with state law regulating how drilling takes place. More generally, the city defended localities’ right to speak (pass laws) where the state is silent and guarded against “implied pre-emption.” Beck Energy, with support from the state, argued that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources unilaterally regulates oil and gas extraction in the state. Justice Pfeifer was quick to note: “I believe it’s the only department we’ve held in contempt in my tenure here.” Both sides agreed that localities have no power to outright ban drilling.
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.
“The Human Rights That Dictators Love,” by Pedro Pizano. Foreign Policy, February 26, 2014.
While I certainly don't share Pizano's apparent distaste for the economic redistribution implied by some "positive" rights, I'm always interested in the tension he notes between the all-or-nothing premise of rights and the consideration of proportionality and degree that the idea of economic rights implies. If people have a right to employment counseling and paid vacation leave, two of Pizano's examples, how much of it do they have a right to? If we need to evaluate what specific amount of something would fulfill our right to it, does that undermine the idea that rights are defined by universality and indivisibility? Of course, traditional "negative" rights or "freedoms from" also must be balanced against each other—perhaps the common insistence that negative rights are more clear-cut goes to Pizano's point about how easily supposedly universal rights talk lends itself to politicization.
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
"The Two Worlds of Vladimir Putin," by Amy Knight. The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2000.
By the time events in Ukraine reach their dénouement, at least half of the think pieces, blog posts, analyses and projections you will have read about Russia, Ukraine and Crimea—many of them written with forceful certainty—will be wrong. That is why this week, I'm looking at a piece from 2000 that got it right. Prescient is the term often applied to such work, but really, it's usually the product of good scholarship, strong subject knowledge or deep reporting.
Writing in the Spring 2000 issue of The Wilson Quarterly, just as Putin assumed leadership of Russia, historian and former Wilson Center scholar Amy Knight offers a warning about the dangers of building foreign policy around the idea of Putin as “someone we can do business with.” She ends with a line that reverberates, fourteen years later: "The fact that almost a decade after the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991 someone like Putin could rise to the top of the political leadership in Russia is a grim reminder that the legacies of police states die hard."
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
“Open-Sourcing a Treatment for Cancer,” by Gary Marcus. The New Yorker, February 27, 2014.
Be prepared to feel like a massive under-achiever: before she's even graduated from high school, Elana Simonton has helped to conduct new research on fibromellar hepatocellular carcinoma, a rare form of liver cancer she was diagnosed with at age twelve—and she's done it in an innovative way. By compiling data from patients at different healthcare centers, Simonton helped to pinpoint a common gene mutation found in fifteen fibromellar patients, which could aid more precise diagnosis. The research also found genes that become active in fibromellar, which could act as potential targets for treatment.
Simonton's use of multiple data sources is radical in its simplicity: there is often a dearth of research on rare diseases, given that there aren't many patients out there, and moreover competing doctors and health centers don't want to share data with each other. By bringing multiple patients together from across sites, Simonton was able to see trends that are otherwise missed. Her research, and other "open-access" tools that push back against a cult of secrecy surrounding scientific and research data, should become the norm, rather than the exception, in order to catapult new research and better health outcomes.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“We do not have to live with the scourge of inequality,” by Jonathan Ostry. Financial Times, March 3, 2014
Most mainstream economists have long held that government efforts to reduce inequality come at a cost: a lower rate of economic growth. Taxing the industrious rich and granting welfare to the idle poor distorts incentives, they argued—and devised mathematical models to prove it. That such measures have a chilling effect on the economy does not necessarily mean we should forego them, the thinking went, but that there is a tradeoff to be had is undeniable. This conventional wisdom has been contested before, and to read of it in the pages of The Nation or Mother Jones would be less than shocking, but here I direct you to an article in the Financial Times. The author, an economist at the International Monetary Fund, having co-written a recent research paper on the subject, concludes rather candidly that a more redistributive tax system appears not to stunt, but to stimulate economic growth. This is good news and, after decades of folly, may indicate a welcome shift in thinking at the IMF.
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
"The Trigger Warned Syllabus," by Tressie McMillan Cottom. Tressiemc, March 5, 2014
Tressie McMillan Cottom, an influential writer on higher education, offers a surprising take on the question of whether college courses should offer trigger warnings on their syllabi (discussed in this article from The New Republic). Consciously refraining from entering in the debate about the use of trigger warnings, Cottom suggests that trigger warnings, a tool originally intended to help survivors of sexual assault, have become a way for universities to control what is taught and ultimately suppress "the critical canon of race, sex, gender, sexuality, colonialism, and capitalism." For Cottom, trigger warnings serve as ways for elite universities to enforce normative standards.
Read Next: intern Simon Davis-Cohen on a legislative victory for Oregon foster youth.
Two days ago the Web and airwaves were filled with breathless reports of a leaked phone call, lasting about eleven minutes and posted on YouTube, between two officials, in which one reported a conversation with a certain Ukrainian doctor named “Olga.” She allegedly had told him that, based on the bullets found in and around the bodies of slain protesters and policemen in Kiev at the apex of the recent violent showdown, it appeared that the snipers had been hired by the rebels, not the government or military, since the bullets that killed victims on both sides matched.
Some, such as Russia-funded TV network RT, swallowed the claim whole from the start—and others joined in when the phone call was confirmed as real. (RT’s editor in chief, in attacking anchor Liz Wahl after she quit, even demanded to know why the US media was ignoring this firm evidence of the protesters hiring the snipers.) For whatever reason, it didn’t seem to matter to them that the fact that the phone conversation took place did not mean that the reported chat with the doctor had been interpreted and relayed accurately.
So the headlines, from partisans and quasi-journalists, rang out about this purportedly strong evidence, even proof, that the protesters had hired the snipers, apparently to shoot a few dozen of their own to draw international outrage and sympathy.
A few of us raised questions from the start about this single-sourced “evidence.” And who was this Olga? Could she be found and interviewed?
The evidence was weak from the start: secondhand, hearsay. Even though there was no way to judge the veracity and potential bias of the officials—and even if the official was trying to speak truthfully there was no way to know if he’d misinterpreted the doctor’s remarks—the conspiracy fans, pro-Putin agitators and faux journos promoted it widely.
Of course, it turns out the doctor, who we learn is quite famous in that country—Olga Bogomolets—denies suggesting any such thing. Here’s just one account of it, near the close of an excellent profile of her.
In another interview, with the Telegraph, she could have been referring to the "journalists” when she said, “I think you can only say something like this on the basis of fact. It’s not correct and its not good to do this. It should be based on fact.”
Might she have said one thing to that official in the leaked call and is changing her story now? It’s possible, of course. I would certainly not declare, "New Statement By Doctor Proves Protestors Did Not Hire Snipers." But in any case, citing her as the only source for “evidence” that snipers backed protesters is ludicrous.
Valid charges that the protestors included many right-wingers--no one denies this--hardly proves that the snipers were linked to them, yet this is offered as more firm "evidence" of this.
Dr. Bogomolets, by the way, is so well-known and respected that she has been offered key positions in the new government there--which she has turned down because she is suspicious of whether the new regime will make good on promises for reform. She's also called for a full investigation of the sniper shootings, though her suspicions seem to run in the direction of outsiders brought in by the former regime or the Russians. In any case, unlike so many others, she wants to wait for the full facts before making a firm declaration.
Read Next: The Editors: Time for Realism and Common Sense on Ukraine.
If we are told to remember the Beatles’ arrival in the United States fifty years ago last month as an “invasion,” it is as one that was unopposed. The 73 million people who watched Paul McCartney count the band into “All My Loving” on February 9, 1964 shattered all records, representing nearly two-fifths of the US population at the time, despite the fact that only 17 percent of American homes even had televisions in them. We surrendered without resistance, it often seems—a view evident in one Amazon review of a collection of the late Bill Eppridge’s photographs from the Beatles’ first week in the US. “Those six days did change the world,” the commenter writes, “by simply unifying us all with faces of sheer happiness.”
But at least one person wasn’t smiling. In an essay published in the March 3, 1964 issue of The Nation, “No Soul in Beatlesville,” a young Simon & Schuster editor named Alan Rinzler objected to the furor over the Liverpool lads’ music and—correctly, if somewhat myopically—attributed Beatlemania to a massive, premeditated PR campaign. The quivering throngs of teen-aged girls, he believed, said much more about the susceptibility of Americans to fashionable trends than it did about the talent or novelty of the group itself.
Rinzler began his essay by favorably comparing the Beatles with the folk music that then dominated American airwaves—“the citybilly's academically perfect imitation of a sound created from an experience different from his own.” Of performers like the string-band revival New Lost City Ramblers, Rinzler wrote: “Their musical tradition goes back no farther than some very careful listening to old Library of Congress tapes and Folkways recordings.”
The Beatles, he continued, were only marginally more authentic, more a throwback to the 1950s than a harbinger of any significant musical progress to come:
Another group which must have spent a great deal of time lately paying close attention to old records and making faces in the mirror are the Beatles, four young men from the mainstream of working-class Liverpool, with skin-tight, blue gray suits (velvet lapels), mops of long brown hair, and an electrical system guaranteed to numb the senses of even the most reluctant attendant. Their recent invasion of the United States was the PR man's finest hour (reportedly, thirteen publicity firms worked on the debut). For weeks the national press, radio and TV, and the slick magazines had instructed novitiates on what to expect and how to react. Beatle records blasted the air waves, promoted by disk jockeys eager to claim a "first discovery" (actually Beatle records were in this country ten months ago, but no one played them until the press agents got to work). Wigs, buttons, locks of hair, wallpaper, the hour of their arrival in New York, the exact location of their daily activities, all contributed to a triumphant exploitation of the affluent teen-ager. By the time the Beatles actually appeared on the stage at Carnegie Hall, there wasn't a person in the house who didn't know exactly what to do: flip, wig-out, flake, swan, fall, get zonked—or at least try.
The Beatles themselves were impressive in their detachment. They came to America "for the money." They attribute their success "to our press agent." They looked down at their screaming, undulating audience with what appeared to be considerable amusement, and no small understanding of what their slightest twitch or toss of head could produce. John Lennon, the leader of the group, seemed particularly contemptuous, mocking the audience several times during the evening, and openly ridiculing a young girl in the first row who tried to claw her way convulsively to the stage. Paul McCartney bobbed his head sweetly, his composure broken only when—horror of horrors—his guitar came unplugged. (There was a terrible moment of silence. One expected him to run down altogether, and dissolve into a pool of quivering static.) George Harrison tuned his guitar continually, and seemed preoccupied with someone or something at stage right. Ringo Starr, the drummer, seemed the only authentic wild man of the group, totally engrossed in his own private cacophony. For the rest, it was just another one-night stand.
Musically, the Beatles are an anachronism. They come pure and unadulterated from the early 1950s, the simple, halcyon days of rock 'n roll: Bill Haley and his Comets, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the Eberle [sic] Brothers, the Ted Steele Bandstand. The Beatle sound is primitive rock 'n roll—straight four-four rhythm, undistinguishable melody, basic three-chord guitar progressions electrically amplified to a plaster-crumbling, glass-shattering pitch. It's loud, fast and furious, totally uninfluenced by some of the more sophisticated elements in American music that have brightened our pop scene in recent years. One can only assume that Ray Charles, gospel, rhythm and blues, country and western, and other purer folk sound has yet to cross the Atlantic. The English always have been a bit behind us—witness Oliver, a good old-fashioned American musical comedy, or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and other realistic films in the 1930s' style. Often they do improve upon our models; the Beatles, with their American accents, their savagely delivered musical cliches, their tight pants, hair cuts and wild gyrations, are more entertaining and intelligent than anything we produced ten years ago.
But the Beatles remain derivative, a deliberate imitation of an American genre. They are surely not singing in a musical tradition which evolved spontaneously from their own lives or from a "natural" habit of expression. This is probably why the reaction at Carnegie Hall was not a real response to a real stimulus. There weren't too many soul people there that night either on the stage or in the audience. The full house was made up largely of upper-middle-class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see; and with the full blessings of all Authority: indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. Later they can all go home and grow up like their mommies, but this was their chance to attempt a very safe and very private kind of rapture.
Most did what was expected of them and went home disappointed. Disappointed because nothing really passed from the stage to the audience that night, nor from one member of the audience to another. There was mayhem and clapping of hands, but no sense of a shared experience, none of the exultation felt at a spontaneous gathering of good folk musicians, or, more important, at a civil rights rally where freedom songs are sung. The spectacle of all those anguished young girls at Carnegie Hall, trying to follow "I Want To Hold Your Hand," seems awfully vapid compared to the young men and women who sing "I Woke Up This Mornin' With My Mind" (. . . Stayed on Freedom). The Beatles themselves are lively and not without charm. Perhaps their greatest virtue is their sense of humor and self-caricature. But Beatlemania as a phenomenon is manna for dull minds.
* * *
In an e-mail, Rinzler—who just a few years later “discovered” Toni Morrison and edited her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970)—writes that he has “spent the last fifty years apologizing for that snooty review.”
There's nothing in it about the Beatles that I agree with now, except my appreciation of their humor. The songs they performed that night at Carnegie Hall were all quite excellent but not only couldn't I actually hear them over the crowd of screaming weeping girls, but at 26, I was a soul-brother, rhythm and blues purist and didn't become a big fan until 1965 with the release of the superb album Rubber Soul, followed shortly by the equally terrific Revolver in 1966.
Meanwhile, my day job was at Simon and Schuster, where I was involved with the publication of Yoko Ono's avant-garde book Grapefruit and John Lennon's A Spaniard in the Works, though neither of them actually knew the other at that time.
Then, in 1968, my musical and publishing interests led me to become one of the pioneering staff members of Rolling Stone Magazine. I opened the first New York office then moved to San Francisco, where I was the Associate Publisher and Vice-President, as well as President of the books division Straight Arrow.
In that capacity I published several books on the Beatles and was a huge fan, a major promulgator of editorial work on their personal and professional lives. Later, when Lennon was assassinated, I was at Bantam Books, and was responsible for publishing the memorial book Strawberry Fields Forever.
Nevertheless that old Nation review comes back to bite me every once in a while. Even my own adult children can't believe I wrote it, but forgive me. Hope you will, too.
* * *
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.
In February of 2013, five members of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC) testified before the Senate health and human services committee in defense of Senate Bill 123—mandating the adoption of an Oregon Foster Youth Bill of Rights and the hiring of a state foster youth ombudsman.
In their testimonies Zachary James Miller, Patrick Lamarr Kindred, Deedee Hartley, Royce Markley and Cain Stellings movingly detailed the consequences of foster youth being unfamiliar with their rights and feeling unsafe in speaking up in defense of themselves—making clear why the stakes were so high in the fight over SB 123.
Miller told stories of his brother being locked in a room for entire days at a time; Kindred didn’t know he was entitled to state funding to pay for clothes; Hartley was unaware she had a right to see her sister; and Markley only recently discovered his right to free legal counsel and to keep and spend money. The group argued that compiling foster youth’s rights in one place and posting them in every foster and group home in the state—as SB 123 requires—would help educate foster youth of their rights. But they also argued that a bill of rights is not enough; to protect their rights foster youth need to be able to report abuse confidentially.
SB 123 was passed in June 2013 and took effect this past New Year’s Day.
The bill’s first mandate was to establish a working group to implement the legislation. The group, comprised of representatives from OFYC, community groups, the Governor’s Office and the Oregon Department of Human Services, has drafted the Oregon Foster Youth Bill of Rights, agreed on a job description for the state foster youth ombudsman and interviewed applicants for the new job. Just hired on March 7, the ombudsman will be immediately tasked with creating a grievance procedure and setting up a private hotline.
Bills that reaffirm the rights of foster youth, like the Oregon Foster Youth Bill of Rights, have been passed before. North Carolina—in an effort led by the current and former foster youth at Strong Able Youth Speaking Out—passed a Foster Care Bill of Rights last July. The North Carolina and Oregon foster bills of rights do not introduce new rights, they acknowledge existing ones—to help educate foster children of their rights.
What differentiates the two states’ legislation is the fiscal impact of SB 123—to fund the ombudsman and grievance process. This was a major step toward a more clear—publically funded—grievance procedure for American foster youth, particularly at a time when the cutting of public child welfare services is commonplace coast to coast.
OFYC, a member of the national Foster Youth in Action network, joins Florida Youth Shine, California Youth Connection, The Mockingbird Society and other foster youth-led organizations driving public child welfare policies through their respective state legislatures—reminding us that in America the states are foster youth’s caregivers, and that they can and must act like it.
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Pat Nolan strode to the podium and rattled off the facts: more than 2 million Americans are in prison, meaning one in every hundred adults is incarcerated. Fewer than half of those in prison are there for violent crimes; most are drug offenders; and state budgets are badly strained by maintaining this system. Then he read a quote: “Only a nation that’s rich and stupid would continue to pour billions into a system that leaves prisoners unreformed, victims ignored and communities still living in fear of crime.”
This wasn’t an ACLU convention nor an academic confab, however—it was the Conservative Political Action Conference, the infamous annual showcase of the far-right boundaries of the Republican Party. Just before this panel on criminal justice reform began, former governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was onstage accusing President Obama of lying about Benghazi and pronouncing that “the IRS is a criminal enterprise.”
But the panel was far more substantive. Texas Governor Rick Perry spoke at length about unnecessarily punitive mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, as well as the wisdom of drug courts that divert addicts out of the penal system and into treatment. During his time as governor, Perry has become one of the more aggressive prison reformers in the country. In 2011, the state actually closed a prison because it couldn’t be filled thanks in large part to the declining incarceration rate. (Before Perry, George W. Bush oversaw the construction of thirty-eight new prisons.)
“You want to talk about real conservative governance? Shut prisons down. Save that money,” Perry said. “Stop the recidivism rates—lower them. That’s what can happen with these drug courts.”
Then there was former New York City Police Chief Bernie Kerik, who no doubt has a unique view on the criminal justice system: aside from being police chief and running Rikers Island, he also was incarcerated for three years on conspiracy and tax fraud charges.
Kerik spoke passionately about the number of people he met in federal prison who who were there for nonviolent drug offenses—people who got ten years for drugs “the weight of a nickel.”
“If somebody told me I would go to prison and meet some really good people, I would have laughed in their face. The reality is, I met some really good men. Decent men. Good fathers, good family men,” Kerik said.
“We’ve got to create alternatives, and we have to stop putting people in prison that don’t necessarily have to be there to learn their mistake,” he continued.
Given that it was of course a political conference, the anti-tax crusader and guardian of the Republican brand Grover Norquist was there to provide the political calculus behind passing real prison reform. His theory was straightforward: as a matter of political necessity, the effort had to be lead by conservatives.
“If I walked in and said ‘It’s a really good idea, they did this in Vermont.’ They’d laugh at you. Even if it was a good idea,” Norquist said, putting an emphasis on Vermont you imagine he also reserves for Venezuela. “Only coming from the right can serious criminal justice reform that saves taxpayer’s money, that saves American lives, [emerge].”
Norquist struggled to explain exactly why this was. He said conservatives had the right federalist approach by starting the reform movement in the states, but naturally state penal systems have to be reformed at that level, while the federal criminal code must be addressed by Congress.
The most Norquist could ultimately muster was an empty cheap shot: “Our friends on the left have zero credibility when it comes to focusing on reducing criminal activity, and punishing people who deserve to be punished.”
But, at heart, Norquist isn’t wrong on the strategy. Buy-in from the left and right is surely needed to enact real reform, and the CPAC panel reflected ongoing, noteworthy momentum on that front. Republicans aren’t just declining to criticize Democratic efforts at reform but trying to out-muscle them and claim the issue.
There were, of course, huge blind spots during the discussion. The all-white panel literally never mentioned racial disparities in sentencing—one of the most glaring injustices in America’s criminal justice system. The only glancing mention of race at all came when Kerik noted that “black kids with felony convictions” have a hard time re-entering society.
Rather, the unfairness of the criminal justice system was presented in a way that dovetailed with the more typical CPAC jeremiads.
Several panelists portrayed the federal prison system as full of people locked up because of over-burdensome regulations; Kerik mentioned two fellow prisoners who were there because they sold a whale’s tooth and some night vision goggles online. Nolan, the moderator, ticked off a list of hilariously esoteric crimes people are supposedly in prison for, like “inadvertently mislabeling a shipment of orchids” and “packaging lobster in plastic bags instead of cardboard.”
Nolan also suggested federal prosecutors had it in for conservatives (and perhaps white college athletes). “Think of the resources wasted on witch hunts against Dinesh D’Souza, Scooter Libby, the Duke Lacrosse team and Senator Ted Stevens,” he bemoaned.
Though the high number of nonviolent drug offenders was mentioned over and over again, nobody ever revealed that blacks make of 50 percent of state and local prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes, nor that black kids are ten times more likely than white kids to be picked up for drug offenses despite being less likely to use drugs.
The drug war couldn’t possibly be conceived as racially motivated—instead, the panelists had to cook up some extremely unusual reasons for why so many people were in jail for possessing trivial amounts of drugs. “For the bureaucrats, it’s easier to pick on these first-time offenders that are small cogs in the chain. Taking on a big kingpin means your family and you are threated by it, and unfortunately a lot of bureaucrats are afraid. And so they go after the numbers of small people,” said Nolan.
The reforms pushed by the panel were limited in other ways, too. There was no small irony in having Rick Perry talk about criminal justice reform, since he has presided over more executions than any other figure in American history, including at the execution of at least one likely innocent man. Naturally, the death penalty never came up.
But perhaps one shouldn’t expect the CPAC set to talk in terms of the prison system as a new Jim Crow. Maybe it’s enough to just be heartened when a popular conservative like Perry says things like this: “The idea that we lock people up, throw them away, give them no chance at redemption, is not what America is about.”
That’s how he closed his remarks—well, right before launching into a non-sequitur about the Keystone XL pipeline and unfair federal taxes, almost as if he had to close on a note that reassured the audience he was still one of them.
Moments later, everything was back to normal. Ralph Reed was onstage noting gravely that “there is, in truth, a war on religion and a war on religious values being waged by this administration and their radical allies.” Then he went on to compare Obama to George Wallace.
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