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The Hidden Crisis on College Campuses

Dana Bolger

Dana Bolger speaking at a Senate roundtable on campus sexual assault (Title IX Roundtable DiscussionSubcommittee on Financial & Contracting Oversight. (Flickr/Senator Claire McCaskill)

This post orginally appeared in Generation Progress and is reposted here with permission. Follow @genprogress for invaluable updates.

As the latest graduation season came and went this past spring, the traditional mortarboards worn by graduates were adorned with a new addition—bright red tape spelling “IX.” Simultaneously referencing the gender-equity provision Title IX and red-tape bureaucracy, students from Brown, Stanford and many schools in between came together in repeating a rallying cry: “Red tape won’t cover up rape.”

The refrain and accompanying red-tape tactic were originally used at Columbia University in 1999 and 2000, when a group of twenty-three students took federal action against their school for what they viewed as a systematic failing to support survivors of sexual assault. In addition to their federal complaint, activists plastered the names of accused rapists in bathroom stalls across campus and tried to stage a protest at an event for prospective students, which was promptly shut down.

Despite the decade that has passed since the original Columbia protests, one in five women are still sexually assaulted while in college, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In response to the campus sexual assault epidemic, which President Obama deemed an affront to decency and humanity, the Obama administration formed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January, with a comprehensive report titled “Not Alone.” It has four main goals: to identify the scope of campus sexual assault; to help prevent sexual assault; to ensure that schools are responding effectively when sexual assault does happen; and to enhance federal enforcement efforts.

Vice President Joe Biden recently explained the need for increased involvement from the White House and told Time: “If you knew your son had a 20 percent chance of being held up at gunpoint, you’d think twice before dropping your kid off. Well, my God, you drop a daughter off, it’s one in five she could be raped or physically abused? It is just outrageous.”

In 1990, the government began its first large-scale effort to address the college sexual assault epidemic by passing the Clery Act. The law, which is also known as the “Student Right-to-Know and Campus Security Act,” was passed by Congress after Jeanne Clery, a student at Lehigh University, was raped and murdered in her college dormitory. It specifies procedures that colleges must follow regarding resources and treatment of sexual assault survivors. A student who believes his or her school has violated the provisions set forth by the Clery Act can file a report anonymously to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Unlike the Clery Act, however, complainants of Title IX cannot maintain anonymity. Title IX is a more recent addition to the toolkit students can use against their schools if they believe it to be mishandling claims of sexual assault. Under the Obama administration, the muscle behind Title IX’s application to sexual violence has been strengthened. What was once known primarily for its part in reducing gender inequality in college sports is now being used to combat sexual violence on college campuses.

The Department of Education sent a letter to colleges across the country in 2011 warning them that inadequate responses to sexual assault allegations would constitute violations of Title IX, and, potentially, loss of federal funding. On May 1, 2014, the Department of Education released for the first time the list of schools under investigation for failing to comply with Title IX. The list includes fifty-five colleges and universities. Although the White House task force and its report have been met with enthusiasm from anti-sexual assault activists, its recommendations will ultimately go unimplemented in many schools unless they are mandated by law. For that to happen, Congress needs to take action. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are leading efforts, but will need support from their colleagues in Congress to turn any of their ideas into law. For now, students and young people across the country are the ones making substantive improvements on their college campuses to stop sexual assault before it happens, and to ensure that when it does, schools are helping survivors, not their own reputations.

A Culture in Crisis

On the 168-acre campus that straddles the Charles River outside Boston, Vanessa (a pseudonym), an undergraduate student at MIT, is anxiously preparing to present at a poster session required for class. As Vanessa stands next to her 5' x 3' poster a professor approaches, and her presentation comes and goes, but the professor isn’t done yet. “Why are you such a bad presenter?” he asks. “Were you abused as a child?”

While Vanessa refrains from responding, her professor continues anyway, reasoning to himself aloud that she couldn’t have been abused as a child because she had turned out “normal.” Vanessa has nightmares so vivid that she once fell out of her bed in terror and injured her back. But for Vanessa, the nightmares aren’t only at night. She frequently has panic attacks and experiences symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She no longer enjoys an active social life like the one she used to have. These days, she doesn’t even like talking to people all that much. She has trouble recognizing herself as the same person she was before.

Before she was in an abusive relationship where she was repeatedly sexually assaulted and raped. Before she tried to get academic accommodations from MIT and found herself neck-deep in an abyss of bureaucracy that seemed more worried about protecting itself than protecting her. It took her a long time to realize that their relationship was neither normal nor acceptable. While her assaulter doesn’t go to her school, it was in the classroom where she made the connection. After learning more about sexual assault in college, she began to see parallels between what she was learning about and her own relationship.

“Whoa, this is really creepy,” she thought to herself. “A lot of this stuff is sexual assault. That’s rape.” The relationship ended soon after. She started experiencing panic attacks and symptoms of PTSD that made it harder and harder for her to keep up with her classwork. She went to MIT’s Student Support Services, or S3, as many MIT students call it. “I wanted to make sure I could get academic accommodations,” she explained. “The end result was not that I got help but that I got reported to a bunch of other offices,” Vanessa said about her experience with Student Support Services. Still, at one of her meetings with S3, she decided to bring along her academic adviser. “Oftentimes, things don’t go well for you in meetings,” she said. So she wanted a third-party representative to be present at the meeting.

Two days after the meeting, she got a call from the Dean of Student Support Services telling her she could no longer speak to her adviser about anything related to her sexual assault. The dean said it would be a “conflict of interest” for the adviser. The professor couldn’t properly advise her on class choices while simultaneously helping her fight to get the academic resources she needed, he told her. “I mostly just lost my right to speak to my adviser,” she said. “We are forbidden from speaking.” Her professor received the same call. Vanessa suspects the dean chose to call rather than say, email, so there would be no physical record of the message. She eventually filed a Clery report, which is different than making a Title IX claim. A Clery report allows the petitioner to maintain anonymity and is more about systematic failings of a school’s treatment and resources for survivors of sexual assault. Title IX addresses specific complaints and requires the complainant to give his/her name. Vanessa chose to use the Clery Act because she wants to go to graduate school at MIT and thought that a public Title IX complaint would hurt her admission chances.

“After I filed my complaint, not much happened,” she said. She wrote an anonymous article for MIT Tech, the campus newspaper. She’s heard that the Department of Education requested information from MIT, which she interprets as a positive signal that something is happening. “I was expecting very little and I got very little,” Vanessa said. She remains frustrated at how convuleded the system is, and how it doesn’t seem like it’s designed to actually help students like her, but instead to protect the school from liability. “You basically need to go in with a copy of Title IX and highlighted sections,” she said. She adds that she was lucky she knew that going in but isn’t sure what other people would do in similar situations.

“I don’t know how many other students need help but don’t know anything,” she said. In the end, it seems like Vanessa made all the right choices. She knew the difference between a Clery report and a Title IX claim and was able to protect her anonymity on campus as well as her chances at graduate school. She brought her adviser with her to one of her meetings to serve as a witness in case anything went awry.

The Department of Education seems like it’s investigating MIT, at least partly as a result of the report she filed. Still, she says, she does have one regret: bringing an untenured professor to her meeting. “I probably should have brought a tenured professor,” she said. She’s worried about the effect this could have on his career. He hasn’t said anything to Vanessa to indicate such, but then again, he’s not allowed to. Unfortunately, not everyone understands the system as well as Vanessa.

A Call to Action

There was no one scandal that prompted Nowmee Shehab, 22, to become heavily engaged in efforts at Emory University to create a supportive environment for survivors of sexual assault. She readily acknowledges that she doesn’t have a single, all-encompassing answer to the question of why she first got involved.

Elizabeth Neyman, 21, will be a senior at Emory this year and said that she “noticed that there weren’t adequate resources for survivors” and “wanted to be a part of the solution.” Still, it was more of a gradual recognition than a striking epiphany. Both got involved not because of a specific horrific incident or a less-than-adequate university response, but instead because they both saw a widespread issue and were determined to make a difference A series of high-profile colleges and universities mishandling reported sexual assaults, the newly created White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, and strong organizing efforts from students across the country thrusted the issue of campus sexual assault into the national spotlight.

Shehab and Neyman are, just two of the many students who have capitulated their campuses into action. Still, the tangible changes they have produced, alongside the less tangible but no less important transformations in conversations and attitudes, show the change-making power of millennials. Neyman, for one, helped organize a group on her campus called Sexual Assault Peer Advocates (SAPA). Just a few years after the group’s inception, they’ve trained nearly 2,000 students on what to say, what not to say, and how to support survivors of sexual assault. That figure is all the more impressive considering that SAPA almost never existed. When its founders originally approached Emory’s student government to become a chartered organization, they were asked skeptically asked what made their club different from another group on campus that focused on prevention efforts. SAPA concentrates on helping survivors, but some members of the student government weren’t buying it. Eventually, they were able to convince the hesitant members of the student government, and SAPA was born.

Shehab, meanwhile, was a coordinator for RespectCon, an annual conference at Emory that focuses on sexual violence. Originally founded in 2013, this year’s conference was themed “Sexual Violence Prevention through a Social Justice Lens.” Simultaneously, Shehab led efforts to increase conversations about sexual assault within Emory Pride and worked as a programming assistant at the Center for Women on campus. Neyman helped reform Emory’s sexual misconduct process. Originally, the same people who decided if a student who was caught cheating or imbibing would be suspended also dealt with sexual assault charges. The new policy changes this, because the intricacy of sexual violence requires that people be familiar with the subject to handle it well. Additionally, Neyman has worked with Emory University Hospital, which serves tens of thousands of patients in the Atlanta area each year, to ensure that survivors of sexual assault who come to the hospital will have the resources they need. Starting in August, Emory University Hospital will offer increased resources to every survivor of sexual assault that walks through its doors.

Neyman and SAPA are also pushing for minimum sanctions on students who are found guilty of sexual assault. The typical sentence, she noted, is a one-semester suspension, and no one convicted of sexual assault has been expelled in the last nine years. Of course, processes aren’t everything. Neyman said that survivors of sexual assault have emailed administrators asking if their assaulters were returning to campus, only to be repeatedly ignored. That’s why Neyman and other activists have worked hard to transform attitudes on campus, because changes in policy, while an important and necessary step, will not solve everything. Shehab agrees that there’s still room for improvement.

“Rape culture is not something people think about a lot,” she said. She points out the irony that many people feel comfortable telling a rape joke, but not talking about consent. “There’s still a stigma attached to talking about consent,” she said. Problems like these are why the recent report from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is so important. While Neyman noted that she has already worked on implementing some of the recommendations from the task force, she also said that the she “has never felt this affirmed or validated.” Shehab, who’s spending the summer interning for Representative. David Cicilline (D-RI) through the Victory Congressional Internship program, said it’s “really awesome that the White House acknowledged the severity of the issue.”

Although the issue is attracting more and more attention across the spectrum, from the White House and others, Shehab noted that “it’s not like sexual violence has just increased. It’s always been there.” Despite this fact, it’s hard to ignore the recent increase in awareness, media attention and government resources being devoted to the issue. And when you ask yourself why, it’s difficult to imagine similar progress being made without the efforts of young people like Neyman and Shehab, who have helped propel campus sexual assault into the national discourse. While Shehab is still figuring out what she plans on doing after graduation, she’s sure that she’ll remain involved with the issue. “Everyone is affected by sexual violence. And it’s everyone’s job to prevent it,” she said.

A New Generation of Leaders

Dana Bolger, 23, wasn’t aware of the ins and outs of sexual assault reporting policy when she was raped and stalked by a fellow student while attending Amherst College. “When I went to report to my college dean, he encouraged me to go home, get a job at Starbucks, wait for my assailant to graduate, and then return to campus when it was safe,” Bolger said. “In other words: to take time off from my education so that my rapist could comfortably conclude his. At the time, I thought that what my dean said wasn’t particularly nice or ethical, but I didn’t know it was also against the law.” That’s what Bolger and Alexandra Brodsky, 24, set out to fix when they founded Know Your IX, an organization created about a year ago.

The organization is a campaign that, according to its website, aims to “educate all college students in the U.S. about their rights under Title IX. Armed with information, sexual violence survivors will be able to advocate for themselves during their schools’ grievance proceedings and, if Title IX guarantees are not respected, file a complaint against their colleges with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.” Both Bolger and Brodsky, along with many members of the Know Your IX staff, are survivors. While Know Your IX is both run and driven by survivors, Bolger says they’re also trying to expand the movement to include more queer survivors, survivors of color and survivors from different strata of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Bolger graduated from Amherst this year and now works for Know Your IX full-time. Brodsky, who graduated from college in 2012, balances her studies as a student at Yale Law School with serving as the other founding co-director of Know Your IX. Although the organization is in its infancy, its founders have been incredibly successful in garnering attention from the media and the public at large, making concrete strides in public policy surrounding campus sexual assault and, most importantly, providing survivors of sexual assault with the information and resources they need to make informed choices.

“Schools are treating this as a PR problem, as an image risk to be swept away so that, in the high-stakes games of college rankings and university branding, they don’t scare off prospective students or alumni dollars,” Bolger said. “They treat survivors like liabilities to be managed, mitigated and swept aside.” Bolger, however, has refused to be “swept aside.” So has Susanna Vogel, 20, a college student at Davidson College in North Carolina, who wrote an article for Her Campus Davidson and is helping improve her school’s sexual assault misconduct policy after she was raped in her junior year.

Vogel’s assortment of extracurricular activities reads like that of someone who never sleeps: she’s the vice president of the Davidson Women’s Action Committee; former president of Changing Minds, a mental health awareness group; student solicitor for the Honor Council; member of Turner Eating House; and director of the 2013 Vagina Monologues and V-day efforts at Davidson. This is, of course, in addition to her studies as a psychology major. After talking with various administrative officials, Vogel chose to file a report through the Dean of Students office, which would then be heard by the Sexual Misconduct Board.

“I endured ninety days, a quarter of a year, of waiting and agonizing over what would happen,” she said. Eventually, after an emotionally taxing process, Vogel’s attacker was found responsible. The hearing then moved to the sentencing stage; he was mandated to spend twenty hours in counseling to discuss relationships and alcohol consumption and he could not go to a select few locations on campus, like her eating house (similar to a sorority) and dormitory. Vogel was, to say the least, disappointed by the outcome, which she described as a slap on the wrist. But she doesn’t like to dwell on the past and has instead focused her energy toward reforming the present sexual misconduct policy at Davidson.

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“Being raped and going through the sexual misconduct process stripped me of my sense of agency. Working to help change the process means that even if the student who assaulted me is still on campus, other survivors will have a better shot at justice. It gives me my power back,” Vogel said. “Working to create change means that maybe all of my suffering wasn’t for nothing. This isn’t a very noble reason to get involved, but it’s an honest one.”

This spring, Vogel drafted a petition with two other students that included specific proposals to improve Davidson’s sexual misconduct policy. The suggestions were wide-ranging, from incorporating a minimum sentence of a one-semester suspension for any student found guilty of sexually assaulting or raping another student, to conducting a survey of the campus to get a better idea of what needs are and are not being met with regard to the school’s sexual assault policy.

Vogel and the other two creators of the petition had an initial goal of 500 signatures, or a quarter of the 2,000-member student body at Davidson. Within two days, they had 1,000 signatures. Now, with the help of the broader Davidson community, they’re at 3,000. They delivered the petition to the Dean of Students and to the college president. Soon after, the dean and the president sent an e-mail to the entire college announcing that Davidson will launch a task force in the fall to consider the reforms Vogel and others proposed in the petition.

As for the future, Vogel isn’t sure what’s next. Her career plans are still up in the air, but she does want to spend some time working with survivors of sexual violence. One thing is definite, though: she’s returning to Davidson this fall. “I’m coming back to Davidson,” Vogel said. “I refuse to let him take anything else from me. Davidson offers a great education and fantastic opportunities. I will see the accused student frequently. It will be hard. But my life has to go on and changing location will not fix the damage that has been done. I need to move forward not, run away.”

 

Read Next: Want colleges to protect students from sexual assualt? Take action to give Title IX teeth.

Here’s What Happens When an NFL Player Beats His Fiancée Unconscious

Ray Rice

Ray Rice. 2014 (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) 

Two games. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on a security camera dragging his unconscious wife-to-be Janay Palmer by the hair, after knocking her unconscious, and the National Football League has chosen to suspend him for two games. Rice in fact will return to the field just in time to wear the NFL’s pink-festooned uniforms to celebrate their deep commitment to breast cancer awareness—and their even deeper commitment to selling sixty-dollar jerseys marketed aggressively to their female fan base. In fact, the Ray Rice all-pink number is available for purchase right now. The NFL actually needs a Violence Against Women Month instead, to raise awareness about a killer that malignantly throbs in every locker room. But that is not going to happen, and it is worth understanding why.

The NFL, as many have been writing for too many years, has a violence-against-women problem. The incidents are too many to catalogue. But by suspending Ray Rice for two games, a lighter suspension than the league’s marijuana smokers receive, Roger Goodell and his coterie of owners are sending a message that it just doesn’t matter. I don’t know why anyone would expect more from a league notorious for racist nicknames, out-of-control owners and a locker-room culture that would shame some high schools. But still. Two games. I did not think the NFL had the capacity to stun me with its blockheadedness, but I was wrong.

There is without question an important discussion to have—an unheated discussion not made for sports radio—about why violence against women and football seem to walk arm-in-arm. We could discuss the inability for football players to compartmentalize violence, taking the hyper-aggression of their sport home with them—something that affects families in the armed forces as well. There is a discussion we need to have about its connection to traumatic brain injury, and the ways that some of the side effects according to the NFL’s own neurologists, are mood swings, fits of temper and the inability to connect emotionally with the people in their lives. There is a discussion we need to have about a culture of entitlement that starts in high school and runs even more profoundly in college football, where young men produce billions in revenue and are often “rewarded”, since they can’t be paid, with a warped value system that says women are there to be taken.

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If we can confront how players deal with violence and with the women in their lives, then we can prevent tragedies before they take place. Unfortunately, the NFL has shown absolutely zero interest in taking this issue seriously. It didn’t do it after Kansas City Chiefs player Jovon Belcher killed the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life in front of his coach and general manager. It is not about to take it seriously now. It is very difficult to not be cynical about why it is so casually indifferent to this issue. To discuss violence against women means by necessity to talk about everything endemic in the NFL that creates this culture. The NFL has been aggressively marketing its sport to parents, telling them that, despite what they may have heard, football is as healthy for their children as a Flintstones vitamin. To discuss the causes of violence against women means to put its golden goose under the harshest possible light. It means producing negative publicity, and it means blowing wind on the brushfire movement of young parents who do not want their children playing this sport. To not discuss it, however, means not only ignoring a problem that won’t go away. It means sending a message to every general manager, coach, player and fan that the worth and humanity of women is at best negligible.

That is why when Rice’s coach John Harbaugh said, upon learning of Rice’s suspension, “It’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the process,” he is just taking his cues from the league that provides him with employment. Harbaugh also said, “He makes a mistake, all right? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way.” Unfortunately, the only lessons that kids are going to learn from this episode is that the vaunted “shield” of the NFL protects perpetrators of violence against women, for the sake of what it sees as the greater good. When its “breast cancer awareness month” begins, people should take these jerseys and light a big old bonfire outside of NFL stadiums. They are symbols of a monstrous joke that sees women as either revenue streams, cheerleaders or collateral damage to what takes place on the field.

 

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The Civil War Rages on in Eastern Ukraine

Katrina vanden Heuvel on Democracy Now!

The recent downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine has received a huge amount of attention from the press, but, according to Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, neither the mainstream media nor our government are adequately acknowledging the already violent atmosphere that surrounded the crash. On Democracy Now! this morning, vanden Heuvel explained that the tragedy should have presented an opportunity to end violence that she says has already escalated into civil war: “There should be a renewed effort, not to trigger more violence, but to trigger cease-fire, to trigger talks that could end the humanitarian catastrophe in the southeast of Ukraine.”
—Hannah Harris Green

Paul Ryan’s Faux Populism Isn’t Going to End Poverty or Reduce Inequality

Paul Ryan

Congressman Paul Ryan. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Paul Ryan’s fellow Republicans are quick to dismiss Elizabeth Warren as too radical, too progressive, too populist.

But Ryan is trying—a bit clumsily, but trying all the same—to borrow a page from the Massachusetts senator as he seeks to remake himself in anticipation of a potential 2016 run for the Republican presidential nomination. He’s talking about poverty, about inequality, about shifting the focus away from meeting the demands of corporations and toward meeting the needs of Americans.

Mitt Romney’s running mate is abandoning Romneyism for populism—or what former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has referred to as “Paul Ryan’s Faux Populism.”

Instead of repeating the Mittnomers of 2012—“Corporations are people, my friend”—Ryan is suddenly informing fellow conservatives, “There’s another fallacy popular among our ranks. Just as some think anything government does is wrong, others think anything business does is right. But in fact they’re two sides of the same coin. Both big government and big business like to stack the deck in their favor. And though they are sometimes adversaries, they are far too often allies.”

It is hard to argue with Ryan’s reasoning. Populists and progressives have warned for more than a century that corporations are “boldly marching, not for economic conquests only, but for political power.” The author of those words, former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Edward Ryan , asked in 1873: “Which shall rule—wealth or man; which shall lead—money or intellect; who shall fill public stations—educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?” Elizabeth Warren confirmed Ryan’s worst fears when she addressed Netroots Nation last week and declared, “The game is rigged and the rich and the powerful have lobbyists and lawyers and plenty of friends in Congress. Everybody else, not so much.”

And now, Paul Ryan is on-message, announcing as only a career politician can, that “our country has had enough of politics.” He’s proposing to “reconceive the federal government’s role in the fight against poverty.” And he is even ripping corporations, decrying the way in which big government has become “a willing accomplice” of big business.

Ryan explained last week at Hillsdale College’s Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship session that “crony capitalism isn’t a side effect; it’s a direct result of big government.”

Grab the pitchforks!

But don’t look for Paul Ryan on the front lines of actual fights to reduce inequality or address injustice.

The House Budget Committee chairman, who on Thursday released an “anti-poverty proposal” that rehashed decades-old schemes to scale back anti-poverty initiatives and regulatory protections for low-income Americans, offers scant evidence of a serious determination to solve the problems that have got Americans up in arms. If Ryan was serious, he wouldn’t be proposing, as his “Opportunity Grant” plan does, to “consolidate” existing federal programs to aid the poor into block grants to the states—an approach that would allow Republican governors who have already shown a penchant for undermining healthcare, food-stamp and education initiatives the “flexibility” to do even more harm.

Congressman Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat who serves with Ryan on the Budget Committee, nails it when he warns about a proposal that “uses the sunny language of ‘reform’ as a guise to cut vital safety-net programs."

Marian Wright Edelman was even blunter.

“House Budget Chair Paul Ryan’s draft is a small, mean and worn idea that picks on poor children and families while not asking for one cent of sacrifice from rich corporations and rich individuals. His proposal would dismantle the safety net that is working," said the president of the Children's Defense Fund, who ticked off federal programs that would be threatened by Ryan's scheme. "Head Start works, it gets poor children ready for school. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) works, it keeps the wolves of hunger at bay. Title I works, the funds are going to help our most disadvantaged schools and students, but the funds need to be increased and accountability tightened. I look forward to the next draft from Chairman Ryan that is fair to poor children and families and asks the rich corporations and individuals to pay their fair share.”

Edelman could end up waiting for a long time, as the congressman has not coupled his momentarily populist rhetoric with anything akin to a call for corporate responsibility or fair taxation.

So if Ryan is not really worried about holding corporations to account, and if he is not evidencing a serious intent address the problem of inequality, what is on his mind?

The answer, of course, is that Ryan is worried about addressing his own problem: an association in the public’s mind with the failed messages of the 2012 Romney-Ryan campaign.

Last week’s populist speech at the Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship and this week’s poverty speech at the American Enterprise Institute begin the roll-out of Paul Ryan Version 2.0. Next comes the August publication of Ryan’s 2016 campaign book, The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea, complete with its epic cover shot of Americans reaching out to touch a triumphal Ryan. Then there’s the bus tour.

Yes, the bus tour.

So Ryan is campaigning. To the extent that it is possible he will do so in populist style and with populist rhetoric about crony capitalism and fighting poverty.

But don’t be confused.

This is still the same Paul Ryan who went to the floor of the House in 2008 and rallied Republicans to support the Wall Street bailout. This is still the same Paul Ryan who opposed regulation of the big banks. This is still the same Paul Ryan who supported and continues to support) the free trade deals demanded by multinational corporations. This is still the same Paul Ryan who has peddled Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare “reforms” that would turn sound programs into vehicles for steering federal funds into the accounts of Wall Street speculators and health-insurance corporations.

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This is still the same Paul Ryan who during the current election cycle has padded his campaign committee and “leadership PAC” accounts with almost $9 million in donations—with Wall Street securities and investment interests and the health-insurance industry giving most generously. And this is the same Paul Ryan who, when Congress took its August break in 2013 jetted home to Wisconsin via Arizona—where he was a featured speaker at the annual retreat for billionaire donors organized by the Koch brothers.

The other featured speaker was then–House majority leader Eric Cantor, for whom the ensuing months did not go well. Cantor’s Republican primary defeat—at the hands of a critic of “crony capitalism”—provided an indication that the American people are increasingly agitated. And increasingly disinclined toward the sort of insider politics practiced by career politicians such as Ryan.

Ryan got the signal.

He is rebranding himself.

He has downloaded some populist rhetoric to go with his “kinder, gentler” talk about poverty.

But Paul Ryan’s populism is not the real thing. It’s the Koch-tested, Koch-approved version.

 

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What Happened—and What Didn't Happen—with Flight MH17

MH 17

A piece of the crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 lies in the grass near the village of Hrabove, eastern Ukraine, Sunday, July 20, 2014 (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

Let’s try to sort out facts from nonsense about the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, and let’s say up-front what probably happened.

You don’t have to be a student of Occam’s Razor to figure out that neither the pro-Russian rebels—those out-of-control, half-drunk thugs who’ve proclaimed ersatz “people’s republics” in southeast Ukraine—nor Russia itself would have deliberately targeted a civilian airliner, so the shootdown was obviously a mistake. It was a mistake made in the context of recently successful efforts by the separatists to shoot down Ukrainian military aircraft, including recently two SU-25 fighter jets, but it reveals a stunning lack of competence by the anti-Kiev fighters, who managed to get hold of a sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons system, the Russian-made Buk, a mobile, radar-guided system that can hit targets as high as fourteen miles up, but clearly don’t know how to use the system safely. Though the perpetrators of the shootdown may have received training by Russia’s military, and though it’s almost certain that the Buk used in the atrocity was supplied from Russian territory across the border into Ukraine and then hastily withdrawn, it is truly mind-boggling that both Russia and the commanders of the anti-Kiev rebels would have trusted such as deadly system in the incompetent and reckless hands of those who fired it.

Among the leaders of the “people’s republics,” there are fanciful theories about what happened. What’s important to note is that these accusations are being made not by irresponsible bloggers and other propagandists either in the Donbass or in Moscow but by the actual senior leaders and commanders of the rebel force.

First, for sheer comic value—if comedy can ever be appropriate in a tragedy of such magnitude—take the comments of Igor Girkin (a k a Igor Strelkov, which means “shooter”), the Russian citizen and, reportedly, a retired Russian military intelligence officer who says that he served in the Russian FSB intelligence agency until 2013, who is the commander of the so-called Donbass People’s Militia and who’s sometimes been described as a ersatz “defense minister” of the Donetsk-Luhansk region. As the Associated Press reports, via Talking Points Memo, Girkin-Strelkov says that the plane that was shot down was full of dead bodies already and that the victims, drained of blood and reeking of decomposition, were therefore plants. “A significant number of the bodies weren’t fresh,” says Girkin-Strelkov. “Ukrainian authorities are capable of any baseness.”

The Girkin-Strelkov Theory fits in with what is emerging among the conspiracy-minded rebels as the belief that Ukraine somehow deliberately lured the anti-Kiev fighters into shooting down Flight MH17, having larded it with dead bodies. While that theory pales in comparison with the lunatic beliefs of 9/11 Truthers, it’s still crazy, but it’s backed by another top rebel commander, Alexander Khodakovsky, the leader of the so-called Vostok Battalion.

In an interview with Reuters, published in The Guardian, Khodakovsky, a defector from the Ukrainian special forces, admits that the Buk system used in the Flight MH17 shootdown was supplied by Russia and then hastily withdrawn back into Russian territory, which conforms with US and Ukrainian intelligence reports and unconfirmed photographs of the used Buk transport vehicle missing one missile. The New York Times, noting that the intelligence is sketchy so far, reported that there is evidence that the Buk system used in the attack traveled from Russia:

Photographs and videos posted on social media sites of what Ukrainian intelligence officials have said was likely the Buk system are unconfirmed and far from conclusive. But they offer a muddy picture of what might have been the weapon’s bumpy journey through eastern Ukraine to a location near this sleepy mining town where American intelligence officials believe it blew the passenger jet out of the sky that day.

But Khodakovsky, in a burst of conspiracy-mongering, that Ukraine had “timely evidence” that the rebels possessed Buks but deliberately “provoked the use of this type of weapon against a plane that was flying with peaceful civilians.” In other words, the devious Ukrainian government tricked the rebels into shooting down Flight MH17. Said Khodakovsky:

They knew that this BUK existed; that the BUK was heading for Snezhnoye. They knew that it would be deployed there, and provoked the use of this BUK by starting an air strike on a target they didn’t need, that their planes hadn’t touched for a week. And that day, they were intensively flying, and exactly at the moment of the shooting, at the moment the civilian plane flew overhead, they launched air strikes. Even if there was a BUK, and even if the BUK was used, Ukraine did everything to ensure that a civilian aircraft was shot down.

Despite such nonsense, Khodakovsky admits in the interview quite a bit about the origin and departure of the Buk. According to The Guardian, Khodakovsky “said the rebels may have received the Buk from Russia, in the first such admission by a senior separatist.” He said:

That Buk I know about. I heard about it. I think they sent it back. Because I found out about it at exactly the moment that I found out that this tragedy had taken place. They probably sent it back in order to remove proof of its presence.… I’m not going to say Russia gave these things or didn’t give them.… Russia could have offered this Buk under some entirely local initiative. I want a Buk, and if someone offered me one, I wouldn’t turn it down.

Amid horrific conditions, in wartime, investigators from Ukraine, the United States, the United Nations, Britain, the Netherlands and Malaysia—along with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—are slowly making headway in the recovery of victims’ bodies and in piecing together what happened. But it will be a long, slow process.

Contrary to the notion that the anti-Kiev separatists are simply one side in a Ukrainian civil war, it’s by now undeniable that Russia’s Putin has stoked the fire of conflict in Ukraine, turning what would have been an east-west civil dispute pitting the government in Kiev against the significant, long-standing pro-Russian feelings in the southeast into a shooting war, and one that now involves heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons (including shoulder-fired Manpads) and other equipment supplied by Russia.

But, as The Guardian reports—and congruent with the deranged views of Khodakovsy and Girkin-Strelkov—in Russia there are rampant conspiracy theories among the shootdown of Flight MH17. Among them: that Ukraine itself shot down the plane, or that the rebels were aiming for Putin’s plane, returning from Brazil, as Russia’s Interfax/RT speculated. At least some of this is encouraged by Putin’s own spurious charge, outrageous in context, that Ukraine somehow bears responsibility for the tragedy by virtue of its military campaign against the Donbass “people’s republic.”

So far, it isn’t clear whether Putin is prepared to take responsibility for irresponsibly inflaming eastern Ukraine or that he’ll take the opportunity of the unspeakable Flight MH17 tragedy to back off. In his middle-of-the-night statement on Monday, he declared that the tragedy would not have occurred if Ukraine hadn’t renewed military efforts to retake the southeast in late June, but he called for negotiations to end the conflict and pledged to support efforts to secure the investigation of the shootdown. And he did say: “Such events should not divide, but rather unite, people.” Then, in a foreign policy speech on Tuesday, Putin said:

We are being urged to use our influence with the militias in southeastern Ukraine. We of course will do everything in our power, but that is not nearly enough.

He then once again slammed Kiev for its military actions in the southeast, saying:

It is necessary to call on the Kiev authorities also to observe elementary norms of ethics. At least to impose a cease-fire for a short time to hold an investigation.

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So far, though, there is little confidence that a cease-fire wouldn’t allow Russia to step up the supply of heavy weapons and even personnel to the anti-Kiev forces. If Russia is truly prepared to use its influence over the rebels to get them to accept the authority of the government in Kiev, then the crisis could be eased. Lacking such a commitment from Putin, it seems obvious, and tragic, that the war will continue, and that the rebels will be pushed back into small enclaves and ultimately crushed, at enormous cost in human lives and destruction. And, unless Russia intends to get directly involved, there is virtually no chance that the anti-Kiev forces can hold out more than weeks or months. Meanwhile, given the staggering public relations setback that Russia has suffered since the Flight MH17 shootdown, it seems highly unlikely that Russia can back the rebels more aggressively. To President Obama’s credit, he’s ignored calls from neoconservatives and hawks, including in Congress, to rush American military support, arms and advisers to the Ukrainian government.

Read Next: How should Obama deal with a world engulfed in war?

Why the Hawks Are Winning the Iran Debate

Senator Mark Kirk

Senator Mark Kirk, R-IL, speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommitte hearing in support of Iran sanctions (AP Photo/J.Scott Applewhite) 

Last week, my colleague Ali Gharib and I published an article in The Nation in which we explored the influence of hawkish groups in shaping congressional legislation on Iran sanctions. One of the explanations we offered was the overwhelmingly large budgets enjoyed by hard line, pro-sanctions organizations such as the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Another, perhaps related, explanation lies in the frequency with which hawkish groups advise members of Congress at House and Senate committee hearings .

We wrote:

Since November 2012, eleven separate hearings on Iran policy have considered a total of thirty-six expert testimonies from outside groups. Of that number, two neoconservative organizations dominated: FDD fellows made five appearances, and those from the AEI had four. Neoconservative allies like David Albright, who co-chairs a nonproliferation group with Dubowitz and spoke before Congress four times in this period, also gave testimony. All told, people associated with groups taking a hard line on Iran sanctions accounted for twenty-two of the thirty-six testimonies solicited by House and Senate committees.

Centrist think tanks, on the other hand, were underrepresented. Employees of the Council on Foreign Relations testified twice, while the Brookings Institution, the RAND Corporation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for Strategic and International Studies fielded only one witness apiece over the period reviewed by The Nation. Experts from dovish think tanks hardly appeared at all: the only witness from such a group, Barak Barfi of the generally left-of-center New America Foundation, made one appearance.

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A pie chart, shown below, illustrates the outsize influence enjoyed by hawkish groups at committee hearings. Simply stated, hard line, pro-sanctions, groups are the most frequent outside voices invited to advise Congress about the White House’s Iran policy.

 

Read Next: Fuzzy Math From Iran Hawks.

Stephen Cohen: Is a Russian-American War on the Horizon?

Pro-Russia protesters

Pro-Russian demonstrators take part in a rally in central Donetsk. (Reuters/Konstantin Chernichkin)

"The shootdown of [Malaysian Airlines MH17] was something we couldn't foresee," Stephen Cohen said Tuesday on the John Batchelor Show. "Historians will look back and say that these nearly 300 souls that died on that plane disaster were the first nonresidential victims of the new cold war." The conflict, Cohen said, has worsened as a result of the Kiev government's bombing and mortaring of two large pro-Russian cities in eastern Ukraine—where scores of civilians, including many women and children, have died. Why is Kiev doing this? And why is the White House going along with it? Cohen provided a plausible (and highly concerning answer): "To bate Russia, Putin, into intervening militarily so that NATO will intervene militarily. And that means, somewhere, someone in a position of influence wants a Russian war with NATO and that means a Russian-American war."
—Alana de Hinojosa

The War Hawks Are Back, and They Still Sound Like Little Boys Playing With Toy Soldiers

Iraq

US Marines duck their heads amid smoke and dust from a roadside bomb in Ramadi, Iraq. (AP Photo/Jim MacMillan)

The War Party in American politics is beating its drum and once again, mobilizing hawkish politicians and policy experts of both parties to wage a high-minded war of words. Hawks are salivating because they see the world’s current turmoil as a chance to rehabilitate themselves and the virtues of US military intervention. Three hot wars are underway and the United States has a client state in each of them. Civil wars in the Ukraine and Iraq plus Israel’s invasion of Gaza give Washington’s armchair generals fresh opportunity to scold President Obama for his reluctance to fight harder. They are not exactly demanding US invasions—not yet anyway—but they want the dovish president and Congress to recognize war as a worthy road to peace.

“In my view, the willingness of the United States to use force and to threaten to use force to defend its interests and the liberal world order has been an essential and unavoidable part of sustaining the world order since the end of World War II,” historian Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post. “Perhaps we can move away from the current faux Manichaean struggle between straw men and return to a reasoned discussion of when force is the right tool.”

“Reasoned discussion,” that’s the ticket. By all means, we should have more of it. But please don’t count on it from Professor Kagan. What he neglected to mention in his stately defense of American war-making is that he himself was a leading champion fifteen years ago in stirring up the political hysteria for the US invasion of Iraq. Why isn’t this mentioned by The Washington Post when it publishes Kagan’s monthly column on its op-ed page? Or by The New York Times in its adoring profile of the professor? Why doesn’t the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank that employs Kagan as a senior thinker?

Kagan was the co-founder of the Committee to Liberate Iraq, the neocon front group that heavily promoted pre-emptive aggression and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. You might assume Kagan was reacting to 9/11, but his role as propagandist for war actually preceded the terror attack by three years. Back then, Kagan and William Kristol also co-founded the Committee for a New American Century that was meant to restore American greatness through military power. They attacked the United Nations and warned that “American policy cannot continue to be crippled by misguided insistence on unanimity at the UN Security Council.” To Iraq’s lasting sorrow, George W. Bush took their advice.

Words matter in the doctrinal wars of Washington, not so much as facts but as a way to frame the argument and limit choices for the governing politicians. Both parties do this but Republicans are better at it, perhaps because they are closer to business, marketing and advertising. Academic figures lend authority and an illusion of disinterested expertise. But in Washington circles it is considered bad taste to go back and dredge up old errors to show that Professor X was full of crap or manipulated politicians with blatant falsehoods.

I suspect that is why the neocons are eager to stage a comeback now when they can dump the blame on President Obama. Academic authorities are undermined if people realize these thinkers were personally implicated in the bloody disaster of Iraq. Major media like the Post and Times are aiding their rehabilitation. Kagan was an adviser to Senator McCain when he ran for president in 2008. Kagan also advised Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Recent gossip assumes he is sure to be at State or the National Security Council if she becomes president. Someone should ask her.

Kagan slyly promotes the possibility of a Clinton presidency. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else,’ he told the Times.

Brookings has other Iraq experts who also get generous media exposure but have the same handicap as Kagan—a past they do not like to mention. Maybe the think tank could create a war registry—something like the registries for child molesters. It would alert the public on which Brookings experts were right about Iraq, which ones were wrong.

A few days after Kagan’s column, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings also appeared in The Washington Post urging President Obama to send American troops back into Iraq. Maybe 5,000 US soldiers and no more than 10,000, O’Hanlon promised. This would be “a bitter pill” for Obama, he conceded, but “it is what may be needed to keep America safe.” A decade ago, O’Hanlon was a media favorite (though, as I recall, he was against the war before he was for the war).

Ken Pollack was another Brookings cheerleader for war whose comments were frequently used by media. Now he is a lot less bullish but Pollack alo wants to see the US to clean up the mess America left behind. He says he has a plan. He told a recent Brookings forum the plan “would involve both the United States being willing to assist in a wide variety of different ways, military and nonmilitary, but only if there is a political component to it. We’ve got to recognize that military force without that critical political component will at best be useless and at worst could be counterproductive.” At this late stage, his insight sounds like a non sequitur.

Indeed, the facile commentaries of the Brookings thinkers made me think of small boys playing toy soldiers on the living-room rug. They enjoy the game of issuing sweeping strategies to cure the world of problems. They pretend their ideas would succeed if only events and other nations cooperated. Of course, they know this won’t happen. But it’s not their fault.

This is governing is by empty platitudes. No one goes to jail or loses their foundation grant or gets shot at. They continue to think hard and deep without personal consequences. Professor Kagan, likewise, reduces the bloody reality of what he helped to cause in Iraq to a harmless discussion of bland abstractions. Did America err by doing too much or by doing too little? Yes, yes, tell us the answer. He doesn’t have any answer.

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“The question today is finding the right balance between when to use force and when not to,” Kagan solemnly concluded. “We can safely assume the answer lies somewhere between always and never.” This lame double-talk is not harmless. People died, people are still dying. The best news for the nation is that the people at large don’t believe any of Washington’s cheap talk and want nothing more of its war-making adventures. The public consensus is bipartisan and overwhelming—a firewall against more interventions anywhere.

In these circumstances, maybe the Brookings Institution should organize a truth and reconciliation commission where the architects of the US disaster could come forward to tell the truth, confess their errors and ask to be forgiven. I believe the US government’s poisonous stalemate is likely to continue until something as dramatic occurs. That is, face the truth of our damaged position in the world and change ourselves.

The War Party would object and resist; it seeks the opposite kind of cleansing—wipe away bad memories and pretend nothing happened. Yes, they would say, the US messed up here and there, but America is still the world’s all-powerful good guy. “I feel that we Americans have beaten ourselves up enough,” Michael O’Hanlon insisted. “By the end of 2011, the Iraqis did have a pretty good basis for moving forward. We struggled very hard, put in a lot of money, a lot of American lives, a lot of high-level attention. I believe that the Iraqi political system writ large squandered the opportunity.”

Despite all we did for them.

Read Next: Dahr Jamail on Washington’s legacy in today’s Iraq

Surprise! NYPD Commissioner Bratton Doesn’t Think Race Had Anything to Do With Eric Garner’s Death

William Bratton NYPD

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Today, Eric Garner will be laid to rest. Garner was 43 years old and died last week after an altercation with NYPD. A police officer placed him in a chokehold and pushed his head into the ground until he stopped breathing. We know this because the incident was captured on video.

Garner is the latest in a long line of black people beaten and/or killed due to police brutality. But Police Commissioner Bill Bratton would rather we not think about race.

“I personally don’t think that race was a factor in the incident involved in this tragic death,” Bratton told The New York Observer. He’s watched the video and doesn’t think “the issue of race entered into this at all.”

Bratton made the same mistake that most people make when discussing racism in America. He takes the absence of any explicit references to race to mean that race/racism played no role in this interaction. No one used any racial slurs, the silver bullet of racial animus. None of the officers yelled, “Choke him! He’s black!” No one said that black men are animals who aren’t fit to live. Nothing of that sort happened. And because of the way we understand racism as an individual feeling of hatred toward a group of people based on skin color, it’s easy to then conclude that race wasn’t a factor here.

But history is present whether we invite it to the table or not. We don’t escape America’s history of racism because we believe ourselves to be good people, or that we’re just doing our jobs. It’s already defined our lives.

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Racism created these neighborhoods where people live in poverty without access to decent jobs. Racism has determined which activities are illegal and who has been arrested for those actions. The selling of untaxed cigarettes, for example, for which police officers were attempting to arrest Eric Garner, is a petty crime that is almost exclusively enforced in communities of color. Racism taught us who is and is not a threat. Racism provided the justification for eliminating the threat. Before Eric Garner ever met Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the policeman who put him in the chokehold, racism had completed the work of shaping how they would interact.

While Bratton has ordered the entire police force to be retrained on the use of force, if he were actually committed to this never happening again, he would also order them to take classes on unlearning racism. Mayor de Blasio would be wise to fire Bratton, as it was a terrible choice for commissioner all along.

As for Eric Garner, may he rest in the peace he was denied while he was alive.

 

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on Eric Garner’s death due to police violence.