I'm a New York-based writer and student of history. For The Nation, I'll be blogging about labor and human rights struggles inside and outside US borders, in the context of the global economy and transnational social movements. Bookmark my blog for new posts multiple times a week.
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Arizona has a long record of going against the current of history, from its rejection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to its vicious anti-immigrant crackdowns and opposition to LGBT rights. Today, the state is at the center of a global debate on the politics of policing the sex industry. The case of Monica Jones, a transgender sex worker in Phoenix who has been swept up in a harsh anti-prostitution campaign, has set off a wave of outrage, stretching from a local court—where her trial has been delayed pending a constitutional challenge—to Geneva, where her story has reached the world’s preeminent human rights body.
Jones’ plight began last May when she was accosted on the street and apprehended by an undercover officer for “manifesting prostitution.” Jones, a local rights activist and university student, was one of hundreds who have been ensnared in recent years by Arizona's flagship anti-prostitution campaign, Project ROSE (Reaching Out on Sexual Exploitation). The program encourages cops to investigate anything that suggests the intent to sell sex, ranging from a conversation on the street to a suggestive “bodily gesture.” Given the vagueness of the “manifestation” definition, police tend to focus on the more convenient suspects: the poor, LGBTQ and gender non-conforming people, immigrants and people of color. Once suspects are detained, the program attempts to rehabilitate them through a blend of criminalization—the threat of jail—and social programs that, under the guidance of Catholic Charities, pushes participants to redeem themselves by leaving the trade.
This carrot-and-hammer approach reflects the legal framework of anti-trafficking policy nationwide. Though these policies are intended to stop forced and coerced sex work, they’ve fueled by harsh, often dehumanizing police tactics, as officers indiscriminately round up suspected sex workers on the street, raid suspected brothels and criminalize nearly anything that smacks of sex for pay, voluntary or involuntary.
While Jones has chosen to fight the law in Phoenix, advocates with the Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP) and Sex Workers Outreach Project-Phoenix (SWOP-PHX) have gone to the United Nations to condemn Project ROSE and similar anti-sex worker policies. Petitioning before the UN Human Rights Committee last Monday, they criticized such programs as violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a global framework that guarantees self determination, equality before the law and freedom from discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
The petition describes the insidious social consequences of punitive anti-trafficking policies. In addition to targeting marginalized groups with oppressive policing, the petition states, US police “draw on patriarchal presumptions of immorality in profiling people based on such things as the clothing they wear.” Steeped in reactionary notions of sexuality and gender, such policies also fail to consider the core labor rights of people engaged in consensual sex as a job.
The groups noted that the legal penalties imposed on sex workers, which may result in a felony conviction and months of imprisonment, lead to other social barriers that come with criminal convictions—including future employment discrimination—and ultimately alienates them from social services while further exposing them to exploitation and violence. Navigating the legal process, moreover, is wrenchingly difficult for people already facing deep stigma and deprived of decent legal counsel, which in turn undermines basic due process rights.
Darby Hickey of the BPPP tells The Nation via email, “We chose to highlight what has been happening in Phoenix because it is emblematic of the rights violations that happen around the country—and to a certain extent around the world—under criminalization of sex work.” The criminalization of Jones, as a black trans woman, Hickey adds, demonstrates “how anti-prostitution laws are used to police who is a ‘legitimate’ person who can enjoy public space.”
Although advocates for sex workers’ rights are fiercely opposed to any forced sex work, they say Project ROSE ends up hurting rather than saving participants. The diversion program, known as DIGNITY, runs an estimated 70 percent failure rate, and most sex workers like Jones have found it to be anything but dignifying.
In a recent interview with Truthout, Jones recalled her earlier experience with the diversion program after a run-in with police in 2008:
They treat you as like just a thing. Like [because] you’re a prostitute, this is what’s wrong with you. This is what you need to be doing. And like for me, I'm proud to be a sex worker. I’m not on drugs. I’m not like one of these crazy people. I just needed to make money for school.
Speaking from Geneva last week, Jaclyn Dairman of SWOP-PHX told The Nation, Project ROSE enables local police to "just view everybody as a victim of trafficking, and use coercion to fight coercion, basically."
The petition calls on the US to decriminalize sex work, repeal laws and federal directives that “undermine protection and respect for the human rights” of people in the sex work sector, and “[e]nsure that all prisoners, including those arrested for sex work and sex work-related offenses, are protected from torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.” (This would bring US policies on sex work more in line with countries that have moved toward decriminalization or legalization of sex work, such as Germany and New Zealand.)
The US government, of course, is notorious for flouting international human rights law (the other perennial issues activists raised at the ICCPR session included government spying and the death penalty). But there are signs that attitudes in Washington are shifting under international pressure. After a groundbreaking testimony in 2010 before the U.N. Human Rights Council on US sex workers’ rights — and months of vigorous campaigning by sex workers' rights advocates —federal authorities declared in 2011 that, “No one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.” While this, so far, has not led directly to any changes to domestic anti-prostitution policies, Washington has at least affirmed one foundational principle of harm reduction: Whatever the law says, no one involved in sex work should be denied vital services or essential rights.
Still, evidence of systematic violations of these principles has surfaced across the country. In New York City, for example, police have reportedly used the possession of condoms as a pretext for rounding up suspected sex workers.
And back in Phoenix, Jones hopes the message aired in Geneva will press the courts to rethink its treatment of sex work. In an interview with A Kiss for Gabriela, Jones urged her supporters to “come out in force” when her trial resumes on April 11, and remarked that the legal landscape in Phoenix might already be shifting. Usually in cases like hers, she said, “the defendant... pleads guilty because they have no real option for justice. So people are forced through the system with no one to help them,” adding that, "my ongoing case is bringing to light this injustice.”
With its history of imposing shame on sex workers under international scrutiny, the moral crusaders in Phoenix might soon find themselves with something to be ashamed of on the world stage.
Follow the campaign for Monica Jones on Twitter at #standwithmonica
If you want to know why millennials are far more economically liberal than other generations, consider the news that colleges have started opening on-campus food banks to keep their students from going hungry.
Dozens of food pantries are "cropping up at colleges across the country in recent years as educators acknowledge the struggles many students face as the cost of getting a higher education continues to soar," the Associated Press reported this weekend. Tuition alone, the article notes, “has become a growing burden, rising 27 percent at public colleges and 14 percent at private schools in the past five years, according to the College Board. Add in expenses for books, housing and other necessities of college life and some are left to choose between eating and learning.”
College students, of course, have long been broke, and plenty members of today’s professional class nurture nostalgic memories of their ramen years. What we’re looking at here, though, isn’t picturesque slumming – it’s serious poverty. A recent paper in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, for example, found that 59% of students at one midsize rural university in Oregon had experienced food insecurity in the previous year, with the problem especially acute among students with jobs. “Over the last 30 years, the price of higher education has steadily outpaced inflation, cost of living, and medical expenses,” the authors wrote. “Recent changes to federal loan policies regarding the amount and duration of federal aid received as well as how soon interest will begin to accrue after college may exacerbate the financial challenges students face. Food insecurity, as a potential consequence of the increasing cost of higher education, and its likely impact on student health, learning and social outcomes should not be considered an accepted aspect of the impoverished student experience, but a major student health priority.”
Meanwhile, it's increasingly clear that the economic struggles students face during school follow them long past graduation. A major new report from the Pew Research Center, “Millennials in Adulthood: Detached from Institutions, Networked With Friends,” notes that people between 18-33 are the first generation in the modern era to have “higher levels of student loan debt, poverty and unemployment, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles.” This, even though they are the “best-educated cohort of young adults in American history.”
For these young people, the meritocratic social contract – the idea that hard work and academic achievement will be rewarded with economic security – is breaking down. No wonder the Pew report finds that they’re the only generation to favor a bigger, more activist federal government. A 2011 Pew poll even found that people between 18 and 29 had a more favorable view of socialism (49%) than capitalism (46%). So while everyone should worry that our college students are in such desperate straits, conservatives have special reason for anxiety. Thanks to their economic policies, a whole generation is getting an education in the need for a robust welfare state.
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Senator Dianne Feinstein's allegations that the CIA spied on a Senate investigation of torture under the Bush administration raise serious questions regarding the separation of powers and Congress's ability to monitor US intelligence agencies. These allegations are only the latest in a series of revelations demonstrating the need for a full accounting of the abuses of our intelligence agencies.
In 1975, a Senate select committee known as the Church Committee uncovered CIA plans to assassinate foreign leaders and FBI spying on peace and civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently, Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr., the chief counsel for the Church Committee and recent recipient of the Ridenhour Courage Prize, took to the pages of The Nation to call for a "new Church Committee," one that would serve as "a new nonpartisan, fact-based and comprehensive investigation of our secret government."
Last week, Frederick A.O. Schwarz Jr. went on HuffPost Live to discuss his article and his call for a new Church Committee.
As we approach the 11th anniversary of the U.S. attack on Iraq this week, we may face a bit more media coverage of that tragic conflict than usual. How much of it will focus on the media misconduct that helped make the war possible (and then continue for so long)? It's certainly not something the media like to dwell on.
For now, let’s re-live just some of the good, the bad and the ugly in war coverage from the run-up to the invasion through the five years of controversy that followed. In updating the first e-book version of my book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits—and the President—Failed on Iraq, which features a preface by Bruce Springsteen, I was surprised to come across once-prominent quotes and incidents that had faded a bit, even for me. Here is a list of fifteen episodes, in roughly chronological order.
1) In late March 2003, the day before the U.S. invasion, Bill O’Reilly said, “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation; I will not trust the Bush administration again, all right?”
2) After the fall of Baghdad in April, Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC, said, “I’m waiting to hear the words ‘I was wrong’ from some of the world’s most elite journalists, politicians and Hollywood types.”
3) The same day, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews declared, “We’re all neocons now.”
4) Thomas Friedman, who had called this a “legitimate war of choice,” now wrote at The New York Times, “As far as I am concerned, we do not need to find any weapons of mass destruction to justify this war…. Mr. Bush doesn’t owe the world any explanation for missing chemical weapons.”
5) Phil Donahue suddenly lost his show at MSNBC, he later claimed, because he did not wave the flag enough. A leaked NBC memo confirmed Donahue’s suspicion, noting that the host “presents a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war…. At the same time our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”
6) President Bush’s “comedy” routine during the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner on March 24, 2004—nearly one year into the war—included a bit about the still-missing WMD. While a slide show of the president searching the White House was projected on the wall behind him, he joked, “Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere…. Nope, no weapons over there… Maybe under here?” Most of the crowd roared, and there was little criticism in the media in following days. David Corn, then Washington editor of The Nation, was one of the few attendees to criticize the routine. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if Ronald Reagan had, following the truck bombing of our Marine barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, said at a similar dinner, “Guess we forgot to put in a stoplight.”
7) When The New York Times carried its belated editors’ note on May 26, 2004, admitting some errors in its WMD coverage, it appeared on page A10 and Judith Miller’s name was nowhere to be found. The note is often described today as an “apology,” but it was no such thing. On the day it ran, Executive Editor Bill Keller (who once called himself a “liberal hawk” on Iraq) termed criticism of the Times’s coverage “overwrought” and said that the main reason it even published the note was because the controversy had become a “distraction.”
8) It’s often said that The Washington Post issued an apology for its coverage of the ramp-up to the war. But the criticism of its prewar coverage came not in an editors’ statement but in an article by the paper’s media critic, Howard Kurtz. Post editors offered several defenses for the coverage, and top editor Len Downie argued that it didn’t make much difference anyway, because tougher coverage would not have stopped the war.
9) Stephen Colbert’s riotous routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April 2006 is remembered for the in-his-face mockery of President Bush—but he also spanked the press, perhaps one reason his mainstream reviews were mixed at best. In fact many journos criticized him for alleged bad taste. This itself was revealing. Addressing the correspondents directly, Colbert said, "Let’s review the rules. The president makes decisions; he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction.”
10) Fox News’s John Gibson ripped Neil Young after the rocker released his excellent protest album Living With War. Gibson demanded that Young go see the new United 93 movie and even offered to buy his ticket. Young, it was soon pointed out, had actually written one of the first 9/11 songs,”Let’s Roll,” about, you guessed it, Flight 93.
11) Surprise: David Brooks, Thomas Friedman and Oliver North all came out against the “surge” in 2007 after it was announced by President Bush. George Will wrote a column titled, “Surge, or Power Failure?” And, after the botched hanging of Saddam, Charles Krauthammer declared, “We should not be surging American troops in defense of such a government.”
12) On March 27, 2007, John McCain, referring to the supposed calm settling on Baghdad, said, “General Petraeus goes out there almost every day in an unarmed Humvee.” This turned out to be pure bunk, but McCain quickly visited Iraq to try to prove his overall point. There, the Arizona senator went from the ridiculous to the maligned, touring a Baghdad market and claiming all was safe—while troops surrounded him and helicopters twirled overhead. Representative Mike Pence (R-Ind.) likened the scene to “a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.”
13) When Valerie Plame Wilson finally testified before Congress in March 2007, much of the media coverage focused on her appearance. Mary Ann Akers wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled “Hearing Room Chic,” noting that Plame wore “a fetching jacket and pants” and should be played by Katie Holmes in the movie version of her story because they both favor Armani.
14) The New York Times, which had editorialized against the invasion, did not call for a change in course or the beginning of a withdrawal from Iraq until July 8, 2007.
15) On Meet the Press in July 2007, David Brooks declared that 10,000 Iraqis a month would perish if the United States pulled out. Bob Woodward, also on the show, challenged him on this, asking for his source. Brooks admitted, “I just picked that 10,000 out of the air.”
Greg Mitchell’s new edition of So Wrong for So Long includes a preface by Bruce Springsteen, a new introduction and a lengthy afterword with updates right up to Bradley Manning’s hearing last month.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Horrific Legacy of the Invasion of Iraq.
Paul Ryan has spent the past several weeks apologizing.
First, he delivered a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference where he decried school lunch programs, arguing that organizing programs to feed hungry children could produce "a full stomach and an empty soul." Unfortunately, Ryan illustrated his argument with a story that turned out to be unsettlingly inaccurate—in both specific details and broad premises.
The House Budget Committee chairman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for austerity could—with a note explaining the basis for his remarks had been “improperly sourced.”
Then Ryan went on a national radio program and ripped on unemployed “inner city” men, who he claimed were “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”
The Wisconsin congressman had to apologize—as best an ambitious advocate for job-killing and factory-closing “free trade” deals could—for being “inarticulate.”
And Paul Ryan might want to make one more apology.
For disregarding his own history.
Just as he now disrespects and diminishes the experience of hungry and unemployed Americans, the British Tories of the mid-19th century disrespected and diminished starving Irish men, women and children—including, presumably, the ancestors Ryan says were “Irish peasants who came over during the potato famine.”
After reviewing Ryan's remarks, the very wise New York Times essayist Timothy Egan noted over the weekend that “you can’t help noticing the deep historic irony that finds a Tea Party favorite and descendant of famine Irish using the same language that English Tories used to justify indifference to an epic tragedy.”
Egan reminds us that historians of the Irish experience have for some time now been been picking up on the fact that Ryan seems to have forgotten where he came from—and what his immigrant ancestors went through.
“The whole British argument in the famine was that the poor are poor because of a character defect,” explains Christine Kinealy, a professor of Irish studies and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University. “It’s a dangerous, mean spirited and tired argument.”
John Kelly, a historian who has written extensively on the famine, has noted more broadly with regard to Ryan's habit of blaming the disenfranchised for being disenfranchised that the congressman seems to adopt “the very same [approach] that hurt, not helped, his forebears during the famine—and hurt them badly.”
Like Ryan, I am descended from Irish immigrants who settled in Wisconsin. But mine was a different experience. I learned from an early age about Britain’s colonial repression of the Irish, and about the mistreatment of immigrants to the United States who were greeted with “Irish Need Not Apply” signs.
My Irish history inspired enthusiasm for anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and pro-civil rights movements—along with sympathy for immigrant rights. This is not uncommon. My friend Tom Hayden, whose Irish ancestors settled in Wisconsin, wrote the grand book Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America (Verso), which explained why Irish-Americans should identify with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination.
Hayden’s exploration of his roots—in Ireland and in the immigrant communities of rural Wisconsin—helped him to unearth the seeds of his own radicalism. He employed a wonderful phrase in that book: suggesting that an understanding of the oppression of the Irish and of the experience of immigration provided “the fertile soil of awakenings."
It is disappointing that, in losing sight of his past, Paul Ryan has denied himself the opportunity for an awakening that might offer him with broader and better understanding of the issues that he admits he has been “inarticulate” in discussing.
It was certainly true in the 19th century that the last thing the impoverished people of Ireland needed was a British Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.
And it is certainly true in the 21st century that the last thing the impoverished people of the United States need is an American Tory politician blaming them for their hard times—or telling them that organizing programs to feed hungry children might do damage to the soul.
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Chris Christie would dearly love to get his mojo back—his carefully crafted image as a swaggering, no-nonsense New Jersey tough guy. Since the eruption of Bridgegate, the Hoboken Sandy aid controversy, and the nested scandals around the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and its self-dealing chairman, David Samson, however, Christie has not been his old self.
When he travels, for instance, he stays out of the limelight and avoids the press, even while raising millions of dollars for the Republican Governors Association (RGA) behind the scenes. Since the marathon, nearly two-hour news conference on January 9, held to defend himself in the Bridgegate crisis, Christie has not spoken to the media—a period of more than nine weeks and counting. During his latest foray for the RGA, to Georgia last week, he was almost invisible. Though he was scheduled to have appeared at a fundraiser for Governor Nathan Deal and then speak at a forum organized by the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, his trip garnered zero press, either in Georgia newspapers or in the increasingly skeptical New Jersey media. CNN, based in Atlanta, confirmed Christie’s trip, but had no details of what he said, what he did or what happened. And CNN added, “Christie will go to the American Enterprise Institute's World Forum in Sea Island.” The forum is a regular AEI event, but there’s not a word about Christie’s appearance on the AEI website. The Republican Governors Association had nothing to say about Christie’s excursion to Georgia either.
Despite Christie’s effort to keep a low profile—or perhaps because of it—he continues to drop in the polls, both in New Jersey, nationally, and in key presidential primary states such as Iowa. In the latter poll, conducted by The Des Moines Register, 47 percent of Republicans disapprove of how Christie has handled the swirl of scandals, and only 34 percent approve, and the numbers were a lot worse for the overall population and among independent voters. Back home, a Fairleigh Dickinson University Public Mind poll showed that from a high of nearly 80 percent approval last November, Christie’s approval rating in New Jersey stands at just 41 percent. And a Rutgers-Eagleton poll found that just 23 percent of New Jerseyans would call Christie “trustworthy.”
Still, Christie got a decent reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, and perhaps that’s why he felt emboldened enough to try to get some swagger back by confronting protesters from the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, the NAACP, environmental groups and fair housing groups at a town hall meeting. Challenged by a series of half a dozen people who, upset that Christie refused to call on them for questions during the town hall event in Mount Laurel in South Jersey, ended up heckling him, Christie reverted to the bullying approach that rallied his base for years since 2009. He had the six protesters—all students from Rowan University—forcibly ejected, telling one of them, “Sit down and be quiet or get out! We’re done with you!”—to loud cheers and applause from the pro-Christie folks in the crowd. But, as the Bergen Record pointed out, at the 113th in a series of what the paper called “highly choreographed community gatherings,” the governor skillfully managed to avoid taking any questions from those opposed to him:
None of the activists was able to ask a question. … While Christie fielded questions from a group of parents upset about a Burlington County charter school being closed and a woman who asked why the governor didn’t use federal funds to promote health care available to New Jersey residents, he managed to go without calling on the dozens of affordable housing advocates, environmentalists and union-backed New Jersey Working Families Alliance supporters in the room.
Still, the fact that protesters and anti-Christie activists, along with ordinary citizens who aren’t Christie acolytes, have begun showing up in large numbers at the governor’s town halls is a significant change from the first such meeting this year, after Bridgegate, when Christie went unchallenged at a town hall event in Port Monmouth.
As USA Today reported, the tide may be turning:
But when Christie traveled to a town hall in Mount Laurel, a town that gave him 65 percent of its vote last year but has shown it is willing to vote Democratic, his warm welcome went cold, at least for a few minutes. Half a dozen hecklers interrupted questions, shouting at Christie for hiring "crooks" and "liars" and for what they say has been the unfair distribution of Superstorm Sandy aid.
The crowd, which also featured two groups of silent protesters holding signs against fracking, booed when the hecklers shouted and cheered when they were escorted away.
At previous town halls, "The rooms were packed with the Christie adoration club, and any time somebody got up they'd get shouted out of the room," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in West Long Branch. "What I find interesting was that the audience reaction (on Thursday) was mixed, and we have not seen that before."
That may embolden other groups to raise their voices at future town halls, Murray said. Christie is scheduled to appear next week in South River, where he won re-election by a much slimmer margin—58 percent—than he did in the locations for the previous four town halls.
"He's getting close to Democratic territory now," Murray said.
On Tuesday, Christie will make his 114th appearance at a town hall event in South River, New Jersey, and Christie Watch will be there to provide a full report.
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You would not know it from much of the sports media, but the Sochi Winter Games have been ongoing, amidst the greatest crisis in relations between the United States and Russia since the Cold War. This stage of the games is known as the Paralympics, a series of events for hundreds of world-class athletes who are disabled. Often overshadowed during typical Olympiads, this year attention for the exploits of Paralympic athletic has been buried by Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and the subsequent inter-imperial diplomatic standoff with the US. Seeing the Olympics, however, walk comfortably with war raises a question: what ever happened to “The Olympic Truce?” If even the most diehard sports fans have no idea what “The Olympic Truce” happens to be, it is hardly surprising.
The roots of the Olympic Truce stretch back to Ancient Greece back in 9th century BC, as a sports-themed treaty to enable the safe passage of athletes, artists and fellow travelers to and from the games of the Olympia. After centuries of dormancy, the United Nations teamed up with the International Olympic Committee to revive the tradition in 1993. The goal was to encourage a truce in the war-torn city of Sarajevo, host of the 1984 Winter Games. Since then, the UN General Assembly has routinely adopted a universally supported resolution to respect the Olympic Truce.
But the Olympic Truce is like a unicorn bought with a bucket of Bitcoin. Just because you believe in it, doesn’t make it real. Numerous countries have steamrolled the truce. The United States, of course, never curtailed the wars and occupations in Afghanistan or Iraq for the benefit of the Olympics. During the 2008 Beijing Games, as well, Russia and Georgia continued their battle over South Ossetia. The Games have been about as effective at stopping the violence of war as a West Bank checkpoint.
After contemplating a Paralympic boycott, Ukrainian Olympic officials opted to allow their athletes to compete. In a symbolic—read, empty—gesture, the US did not dispatch an official delegation, though it did send its Paralympic athletes. UK ministers as well boycotted the Games, but British athletes did not. Sports ministers from Austria, Canada, Finland and Poland also stayed away in protest. Britain’s Prince Edward and Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria both announced that they would give the Paralympics the royal snub.
Meanwhile, the International Paralympic Committee has succumbed to the formulaic charade that politics and sports shouldn’t mix. IPC President Sir Philip Craven lived up to his unfortunate albeit appropriate surname, repeatedly mouthing the moldy mantra that we should “leave politics to the politicians.” All the while, he has heaped praise on Putin for organizing a “fantastic” Paralympics.
Partway through the Games, Craven even proclaimed that host cities need not be compelled to abide by basic human-rights standards. Human rights, he said, “is not something we get involved with.” They have learned nothing from the blaring lesson of Sochi 2014: Olympic honchos absolutely need to appraise the human-rights record of each potential host.
The great tragedy of it all is that the inter-imperial wrangling in Crimea has overshadowed the Paralympics themselves, an event that speaks to the best angels of sports. Ironically, the Paralympics are once again a vibrant venue for military veterans making miraculous comebacks after the ravages of war. You see people from all over the world who left limbs on battlefields using sports and competition to rebuild their minds and bodies. For the United States, after twelve years of war, eighteen of the eighty athletes we sent are military vets.
The Paralympics have also reminded us that athletes can be inspiring vessels of political goodwill, as when Ukrainian and Russian biathletes shared the medal podium and the Russian clapped for his Ukrainian competition when he was announced. Ukrainian athletes also showed the Games can be a platform for principled political protest. At the opening ceremonies they sent a single emissary to carry the Ukrainian flag while the rest of the squad skipped the flag-waggling procession, remaining in their stadium-floors seats in dignified solidarity.
In addition, the Ukrainian cross-country skiing relay team covered their silver medals with their hands on Saturday at a ceremony as Russia was bestowed with the gold.
As Ukraine team official Nataliya Harach told the Associated Press, "It is not a political protest, it's us fighting for peace. It's a different kind of protest. We put our hands on our medals because you cannot do anything more… If we demonstrate some way else, if we say something, it will not be in the rules of the International Paralympic Committee. So we try to do a silent protest and because we don't want any disqualifications."
The Paralympics highlight the finest people we have in the world of sports. The question is whether we will ever see a true Olympic Movement that will pressure the IOC to make sure that the host countries don’t use the Games to bankrupt their countries, oppress their citizens and rally national feeling as a pretext to war. We saw that in Sochi and thanks to the unsavory masters of the IOC and IPC, we will surely see it again.
Read Next: The endgame in Crimea
This Monday marks the eleventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq—a solemn punctuation mark to the steadily increasing violence that has gripped that country over the past two years. Sectarian violence claimed more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013 alone, and this year’s toll has already surpassed 2,000. Iraq today is a broken and failing state: the war that many would prefer to believe ended in 2011 continues unabated, with Iraqis continuing to suffer, as much as ever, the fallout from this country’s callous lies and avoidable mistakes. Despite Colin Powell’s sanctimonious “Pottery Barn rule,” John Feffer wrote on his Foreign Policy in Focus blog at TheNation.com last month, the United States has made no effort to “own up to our responsibility for breaking the country.”
To a regrettably unsurprising extent, the issue of The Nation that went to press just as American tanks crossed over the border from Kuwait accurately predicted what would happen in the wake of an invasion. Our lead editorial in that issue began:
The Bush Administration has launched a war against Iraq, a war that is unnecessary, unwise and illegal. By attacking a nation that has not attacked us and that does not pose an immediate threat to international peace and security, the Administration has violated the United Nations Charter and opened a new and shameful chapter in US history. Moreover, by abandoning a UN inspection and disarmament process that was working, it has chosen a path that is an affront not only to America’s most cherished values but to the world community. The UN did not fail; rather, Washington sought a UN imprimatur for a war it had already decided to wage and scorned it when the Administration couldn’t get its way.
Jonathan Schell, in an article in the same issue titled “American Tragedy,” described the wider implication of the Bush administration’s action: an existential threat to the separation of powers, the protection of civil liberties, the commitment to the international and domestic rule of law.
The decision to go to war to overthrow the government of Iraq will bring unreckonable death and suffering to that country, the surrounding region and, possibly, the United States. It also marks a culmination in the rise within the United States of an immense concentration of unaccountable power that poses the greatest threat to the American constitutional system since the Watergate crisis. This transformation, in turn, threatens to push the world into a new era of rivalry, confrontation and war. The location of the new power is of course the presidency (whose Augustan proportions make the “imperial” presidency of the cold war look like a mere practice run). Its sinews are the awesome might of the American military machine, which, since Congress’s serial surrender of the constitutional power to declare war, has passed wholly into the President’s hands. Its main political instrument is the Republican Party. Its financial wherewithal is the corporate money that inundates the political realm. Its strategy at home is restriction of civil liberties, deep secrecy, a makeover in its image of the judiciary, subservience to corporate interests across the board and transfer of personal wealth on a colossal scale from the average person to its wealthy supporters. Its popular support stems from fear engendered by the attacks of September 11—fear that has been manipulated to extend far beyond its proper objects. Its overriding goal, barely concealed behind the banner of the war on terrorism, is the accumulation of ever more power, whose supreme expression is its naked ambition to establish hegemony over the earth.…
The tragedy of America in the post-cold war era is that we have proved unequal to the responsibility that our own power placed upon us. Some of us became intoxicated with it, imagining that we could rule the world. Others of us—the Democratic Party, Congress, the judiciary, the news media—abdicated our obligation to challenge, to check and to oppose, letting the power-hungry have their way. The government of the United States went into opposition against its own founding principles, leaving it to the rest of the world to take up our cause. The French have been better Americans than we have. Because the Constitution, though battered, is still intact, we may still have time and opportunity to recoup. But for now, we will have to pay the price of our weakness. The costs will be heavy, first of all for the people of Iraq but also for others, including ourselves. The international order on which the common welfare, including its ecological and economic welfare, depends has sustained severe damage. The fight for “freedom” abroad is crippling freedom at home. The war to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has provoked that very proliferation in North Korea and Iran. More ground has already been lost in the field of proliferation than can be gained even by the most delirious victory in Baghdad. Former friends of America have been turned into rivals or foes. The United States may be about to win Iraq. It has already lost the world.
In her column, “War: What Is It Good For?” The Nation’s Katha Pollitt wrote about the consequences of the US invasion at home and abroad:
Whatever the immediate results—this many dead children versus that much freedom from repression—the fundamental issue has to be the perils of “pre-emptive war” in volatile times. However it works out for the Iraqis, invading their country will be bad for the rest of the world. It will aid terrorist recruitment, it will license other countries—India and Pakistan, for example—to wage pre-emptive wars of their own, it may even consolidate Islamic fundamentalism as the only alternative to American power in the Middle East. Those are the fears not just of the American antiwar movement but of the majority of people around the world, even in the nations whose leaders have joined with ours.
But who cares about the majority of the world’s people? We’ll go to war unilaterally, with our pathetic collection of allies (Britain, OK. But Spain? Italy? Latvia?), while the rest of the world stands by appalled. We’ll boycott the Dixie Chicks, eat our freedom fries and even, as documented in the New York Times, pour Dom Perignon by the gallon down the toilet (“I’ll bet it was just water,” said the manager of my local liquor store. “Nobody would waste great champagne like that!”). People will be called traitors if they wear peace T-shirts, fail to salute the flag or dare to suggest that anyone in the Administration has lower motives than the selfless salvation of humanity. Journalists “embedded,” as the odd phrase goes, in military units will send back an endless stream of heartwarmers that will reinforce the confusion of “support the troops” with “support the war.” If, in the end, the Iraqis turn out to hate and resent the nation that bombed them into freedom, we’ll shake our heads in angry bewilderment: After all we did for you, this is the thanks we get!
The issue raised by the invasion of Iraq is American imperialism. That won’t go away, no matter how this particular adventure turns out. See you at the demonstration.
Finally, the issue carried a report from “Inside Baghdad” by Jeremy Scahill, whom The Nation nurtured as a journalist, publishing his dispatches from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and ensuring that they became the bestselling books, Blackwater and Dirty Wars. On the eve of the Iraq War, Scahill wrote of the hopes and fears of the Iraqi people, as one horrific chapter of their nation’s history was about to end and another to begin:
Perhaps it’s twenty years of unending war and sanctions; perhaps it’s the tremendous repression; likely, it’s everything together, but Iraqis want it all to end. They are exhausted and, most of them, miserable. In the early stages of the imposition of the US-led sanctions against Iraq, US officials made clear that Iraqis would be made to suffer until Saddam Hussein was no longer in power. The last decade has represented one of the most brutal campaigns of targeting innocent civilians to achieve Washington’s policy aims. The constant bombing, the massive shortages of medicine, the rapid decimation of a once-proud middle class, the tens of thousands of innocent children withering away in filthy hospital beds, the unclean drinking water, the total dependence on the government for food, have all made ordinary Iraqis pay an incredible price for a government over which they have no control.…
There is no question that hatred of the US government is strong in Iraq, regardless of what people think of Saddam. And few accept that America has any right to overthrow the Iraqi government. Iraqis have seen what occupation looks like, both through British colonization of Iraq and through the lens of the Palestinians. “We don’t want Saddam, but that doesn’t mean we want America, either,” said Mazen, an unemployed engineer. He said his father’s name is Jihad. The name, Mazen said, was given because his grandfather fought against the British colonialists in the 1920s. “It’s in my family blood. We will not accept a foreign invader or occupier, even if it damns us to more years under an Iraqi dictator. At least he is one of us…
But even those people who would welcome a US victory over Saddam are concerned about what might come after. People across the map say they fear a civil war that would pit the surviving Baathists and loyalist forces of the regime against masses of angry civilians and disaffected army deserters. Some Christians say they also fear that Islamic fundamentalists will attack them. Over the past twelve years, Iraq has seen a rapid desecularization of its society, and Islamic groups hope to replace the Baathist government with an Islamic state. “You know why we Christians want Saddam to stay in power?” asks a restaurant owner in Baghdad. “Because he is protecting us from radical Muslims. He always has done this, and if he goes, we are afraid what will happen to us.”
Scahill also interviewed Iraqis who looked forward to the Hussein regime’s downfall, even at the price of a US invasion. But that didn’t change the fact that even if that happened quickly and relatively smoothly, the violence would be by no means at an end:
Even if some Iraqis celebrate in the streets if Saddam’s government is brought down, it will reflect no success of US policy. It will simply represent a violent end to a horrifying chapter in the vast, unfinished book of Iraq. It will be the fruits of a merciless economic and military war waged against the innocent for twelve years. Regardless of what happens, it is the ordinary Iraqis—the doctors, the engineers turned taxi drivers, the shoeshine boys, the mothers and fathers—who should be praised for having found the will to live and the will to survive a heartless war waged against them by a superpower and a tyrant.
Though both are now gone, their entwined legacies remain disastrously oppressive to the Iraqi people.
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Although Tony Benn, the British politician who died earlier today, said a lot of things worth remembering, my personal favorite is his list of questions we should ask anyone in authority: “What power do you have?; Where did you get it?; In whose interests do you exercise it?; To whom are you accountable; and, How can we get rid of you?”
During the six months before I got fired as a writer on Newsweek’s foreign desk there were two stories where I was actually summoned by the magazine’s senior editors (known in house as “the Wallendas”) to explain myself. In writing about the removal of a “black spot” neighborhood in South Africa I had apparently been insufficiently attentive to the dangers posed by the “terrorists” in the African National Congress. More egregiously, in writing about the Chesterfield by-election, which sent Benn back to Parliament in March 1984, I had conspicuously failed to deliver the hatchet job ordered up by my editors. I can still remember my lead: “Something about Tony Benn makes the British press see red.”
The problem was that I had lived in Britain, and knew that whatever his failings, Benn in no way resembled the bogey-man described by Fleet Street—especially Murdoch’s Sun, which ran a front-page attack titled “Benn on the Couch” in which an American psychiatrist depicted him as a swivel-eyed lunatic. The funny thing was that in those days Benn wasn’t nearly as radical as he became later on.
Born to privilege—his father was a viscount, his grandfather a baronet who founded a successful publishing company—Anthony Wedgwood Benn (he was also related to the pottery Wedgwoods) enlisted in the RAF as a pilot during World War II, and then went to Oxford. Elected to Parliament in 1950 he was forced out after inheriting the viscountcy upon his father’s death in 1960, only to return in triumph following the passage of the 1963 Peerage Act, which allowed him to become the first member of House of Lords to renounce his title.
As a minister in Harold Wilson’s first cabinet Benn was in charge of “the white heat of revolution” in technology; he also famously launched a crackdown on pirate (unlicensed) radio stations. He later served as industry secretary and energy secretary in Wilson’s second term, where he raised wages for workers in nationalized firms and campaigned against Britain’s membership in what was then the Common Market (now the European Union) which he argued would inevitably be dominated by Germany.
Benn always said that the experience of high office is what radicalized him. With hindsight his decision to stand for deputy leader of the Labour party in 1981 against Denis Healey, the minister who had signed Britain’s agreement with the IMF, thus bringing the expansion of the welfare state to a halt, marked what was perhaps the last chance to stop the slide towards neoliberal decline. As Mike Marqusee writes, at a time when most Labour MPs, union leaders, newspaper columnists and even a significant portion of the British Communist Party chose accommodation, “Benn chose resistance.”
Of course, they hated him for it. From Michael Foot to Neil Kinnock to Tony Blair Labour’s leaders marginalized and patronized him, ridiculing his call for Britain to become a republic and ignoring his proposal that Labour’s leader should be elected by the party’s members. But they also feared him, because Benn represented not just Labour’s conscience but its soul—a living link to the radical England of the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragists and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
I can still remember the first time I heard him speak—at a benefit for the miners’ strike at Columbia in New York in the 1980s. He was eloquent, forensic, radical and unyielding, but what stayed with me—and still does—was the tremendous tenderness with which he listened to what I thought of as typical sectarian bullshit pseudo-questions, and the patient, comradely way he answered each one. So different from the macho posturing of most American leftists (at least in those bad old days).
When we moved to London I went to see him at the house in Holland Park where he worked, surrounded by his famous diaries—eight volumes have already been published—and still keeping up a blistering speaking schedule. When he left Parliament in 2001 he said he wanted “to spend more time on politics” and he meant it, becoming president of the Stop the War Coalition and opening the “Left Field” stage at the Glastonbury festival. He was generous, funny and surprisingly well-informed about American politics.
Ed Miliband, who interned for Benn when he was still in high school, was the first Labour leader in thirty years not to treat him like a pariah. Indeed, earlier this month Miliband finally pushed through the one-man-one-vote election for party leader Benn had proposed so long ago. “I did work experience with him at the age of 16,” Miliband
Running into Benn with his boundless energy, in his red sweater and union tie, was a highlight of every Labour Party conference. In an age where politicians seem to aspire to rock-star celebrity, Benn was something else: a superhero whose super power was to speak the truth. “Red cardy man,” as we called him in The Nation’s London bureau, was a model of what a deep sense of solidarity could give you. Tony Benn was the kind of politician who gives democracy a good name.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
March 11 marks the third anniversary of the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that shook northeastern Japan in 2011, triggering a tsunami in a dual disaster that killed more than 16,000 people. The earthquake and tsunami caused the worst nuclear disaster in history with three meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Three years after the catastrophe, 136,000 people from Fukushima prefecture are still displaced, and numerous disaster-related deaths have resulted from stress-related illnesses and suicide. Because of the nuclear meltdown, highly radioactive material continues to leak into the ocean, presenting numerous technical challenges with no solution yet in sight. This environmental contamination, which has impacted residents, workers and military personnel responders, will have a global effect. Lessons learned from Chernobyl suggest that all this is only the tip of the iceberg.
“The Great East Japan Earthquake” is just one of several massive disasters in the Asia-Pacific this past decade. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami took the lives of 230,000 people in fourteen countries. Most recently, Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) ripped through Samar and Leyte in the Philippines, causing 6,000 deaths last November. The Philippines has witnessed several other devastating typhoons, including Ketsana (Ondoy) in 2009 and Bopha (Pablo) in 2012. A rising pattern of intense storms and disasters in the Asia-Pacific region has led to the death and displacement of thousands of people and the destruction of essential urban and rural infrastructure such as roads, bridges, schools, health centers and workplaces.
Paralleling these disasters has been the disaster response of the US military. According to this “disaster militarism”—which is a pattern of rhetoric, beliefs and practices—the military should be the primary responder to large-scale disasters. Disaster militarism is not only reflected in the deployment of troops but also in media discourse that naturalizes and calls for military action in times of environmental catastrophes.
Justifying US Military Presence
Military Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, such as Operation Damayan in the Philippines in 2013 and Operation Tomodachi (Friend) in Japan in 2011, have showcased the US military’s “helpfulness,” legitimized its presence and softened its image. Charles-Antoine Hofmann and Laura Hudson, researching this topic for the British Red Cross, note several factors driving the growing military interest in responding to disasters. Assisting relief efforts, they observed, can improve the military’s image and provide training opportunities. It is also a way for the military to diversify its role when armed forces face budget cuts.
Disaster relief has also become part of the justification for increased US troop deployments in the Asia-Pacific region—even as the new military basing component of the “Pacific Pivot” has met with strong opposition in Okinawa, Japan and Jeju, South Korea. This massive permanent presence in the Asia-Pacific region has enabled the US military to be the “first and fastest” to respond to sudden calamity. The Pacific Command boasts 330,000 personnel (one-fifth of all US forces), 180 ships and 2,000 aircraft in an area that spans half the earth’s surface and is home to half the earth’s population.
Disaster relief is not the military’s primary mission, role or area of expertise. Nevertheless, disaster response missions facilitate military expansion and dominance. Yoshiyuki Uehara, the vice-governor of Okinawa at the time of the earthquake and tsunami, has opposed the plan to construct a new offshore US Marine base on the island. “I hope we stop glorifying Operation Tomodachi,” he said. “Our gratitude [for US military assistance after the earthquake and tsunami] and US military base problems are separate issues.” The core of Operation Tomodachi was Joint Task Force 519 from the United States Pacific Command. Arguably, the response to disaster was a perfect opportunity for the United States to demonstrate to China that an immediate US-Japan joint military operation was possible.
The United States spent $80 million for this operation. Less than three weeks after the Fukushima disaster, Japan promised to increase its Host Nation Support from three to five years and to pay 188 million yen annually for US military facilities in the country. The US government used the rhetoric of disaster militarism to justify Japan’s dependence on US military forces and the high concentration of US bases in tiny Okinawa. The Okinawa Times argued that this was a clear “political exploitation of the earthquake disaster.”
This was not the first time that disaster relief was used to further larger geopolitical and military goals. The rapid mobilization of assistance using military capabilities from the United States, Japan, India and Australia in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami “set the ball rolling for a four-way security dialogue a few years later,” former Australian diplomat Rory Metcalf has argued. Just weeks after Typhoon Haiyan, meanwhile, the Philippine and US governments were touting relief efforts as justification for moves toward a new long-term agreement for greater bilateral military cooperation and an increased US military presence in the Philippines (the Philippine Constitution currently bans permanent troops and bases). Washington has used disaster militarism as additional leverage to pressure the Philippine government to accept a mutual defense agreement.
The race to provide relief for political leverage is not limited to the United States. China offered its 14,000-ton floating military hospital, the Peace Ark, for Haiyan relief efforts—its first humanitarian response operation. Japan also sent military forces to the Philippines for relief work, in cooperation with the US military, a political effort by the current Japanese government to secure a greater military role overseas.
The Contradictions of Disaster Militarism
The conflation of military power and disaster relief is highly problematic. It is not cost-effective, efficient or transparent. Military operations exhaust limited budgets for humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation and reconstruction activities. Confusion about the military’s role as soldiers or relief providers can lead to suspicion and fear, and some people may not access relief as a result. According to the Department of Defense, the Pacific Command offers not only aid to countries in the region dealing with disasters, but also “forms of advice and assistance, training, satellite imagery or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support.” More troops on the ground offer greater opportunities for the gathering of intelligence. Revelations that a CIA-funded fake vaccination program in Pakistan was used to find and kill Osama bin Laden provide another example of co-mingling humanitarian relief and military operations, rightly contributing to civilian confusion, public distrust and questions of transparency and accountability.
Disaster militarism does not address the underlying causes for the increasing number of intense storms and natural disasters. Nor can disaster militarism be separated from the US military’s record as a the “worst polluter on the planet” for its “uninhibited use of fossil fuels, massive creation of greenhouse gases, and extensive release of radioactive and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and soil,” as a recent Project Censored story detailed. In times of disaster, the US military positions itself as a “savior” and attempts to obscure its role as a major contributor to the rise of climate disasters.
There is certainly an urgent need for disaster preparedness, with trained emergency personnel in local communities as well as international teams. The first responders in disasters are families, neighbors, community groups, professional organizations, churches, international humanitarian organizations and governments. Resources should go to these local institutions to strengthen their capacity to respond to disasters and continue the work when emergency teams have all gone home. Padayon sa Pag-laum (Hope After Haiyan or WEDPRO) and other local Philippine organizations focus their relief efforts on the needs of the most vulnerable sectors of society, especially women and children. Their longer-term goal is to co-create solutions for a more resilient, more sustainable and more inclusive future for the communities affected by the typhoon.
Nor should we wait for climate disasters to hit before we respond. Long-term and sustained resources should be made available ahead of time, especially to countries like the Philippines that experience typhoons on a regular basis. This would make for greater local independence in allocating relief resources.
It would also lessen dependency on military operations. World military expenditure totaled a massive $1.75 trillion in 2012, with the United States and its allies responsible for the vast majority. These expenditures, which have made disaster militarism such a prominent feature of humanitarian relief operations, have not created more security for individuals, nations or the planet. The alternative approach, human security, requires a physical environment that can support life; guarantees people’s material needs for livelihood, food and shelter; and protects people and the environment from avoidable harm. To minimize the impact of climate disasters—and reduce the contributing factors to the uptick in hurricanes, typhoons and big storms—the disaster militarism model must give way to the human security model as soon as possible.
Read Next: Vanessa Lucas and Azadeh Shahshahani on how US aid fosters human rights violations in the Philippines