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Putin--Time Magazine's 2007 Person of the Year

 

In its selection of Russian President Vladimir Putin as its 2007 Person of the Year,Time magazine is careful to make clear that "it is not anendorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At best, it is a clear-eyedrecognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individualsand forces shaping that world-for better or for worse. " Reassuringwords.

 

 

It's also reassuring to know that Time's editors didn't gethoodwinked by Putin's steely blue gaze or hard-as-rock presidential pecs (which, bythe way, are featured on several softporn-style politico websites). As stated clearly in its lead editorial, "Putin is not a boyscout." (Are there any world leaders who are boy scouts?)

 

 

More seriously, what Time's selection does acknowledge, with allthe appropriate concerns and caveats about the rollback of democracyand a free press, is that Putin "has performed an extraordinary feat ofleadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known itand brought Russia back to the table of world power."

 

 

Time is not the only magazine keeping its eye on Putin. At The Nation, we've watched the Russian president from the early days of his presidency (Who Is Putin? and Putin's Choice) through the horrors of the 2003 incident in Beslan, Chechnya (Putin's War), to the ongoing process of de-democratization (From Russia, With Hypocrisy) and his continuing crackdown on news media (The Fight for Press Freedom in Putin's Russia.

 

 

At a charged time of conflicting narratives in Russia and the West aboutPutin's Russia, what interests me about Time's assessment isthat most Russians would agree with it.

 

 

Some in the West have argued that Putin's popularity results from hiscontrol of television, or his suppression of opposition parties. Ifonly it were that easy. In fact, most Russians value the economicstability Putin has brought to their lives and their country after the Yeltsin years of turmoil and corruption--and view his impact as essentially positive. Putin is also credited by Russians with bringingtheir country back as a powerful player in the world--at a time when thegeopolitical power of oil is reshaping the map. Here too there areconflicting narratives with most US pundits and politicians attributingonly malign motives to Russia's actions on the world stage.

 

 

Time's recognition of Putin's leadership, in all its facets, may signalthat it is time to think anew about US relations with Russia. Will weengage Russia in intelligent ways--as Stephen Cohen has argued weshould (in theNation's pages)--or continue on a path to a new Cold War withPutin's Russia?

 

 

FCC Votes for Monopoly, Congress Must Vote for Democracy

The Federal Communications Commission has, as expected, voted along party lines to approve the demand of Rupert Murdoch and other communications-industry moguls for a loosening of limits on media monopolies in American cities.

Now, the real fight begins.

There was never any doubt that FCC chair Kevin Martin, a Bush-Cheney administration appointee and acolyte, would lead the two other Republican members of the commission to a 3-2 endorsement of a move to begin dismantling the historic "newspaper/broadcast cross-ownership" ban which has long served as the only barrier to the buying by one powerful individual or corporation of newspapers, television and radio stations and other media outlets in a community.

The two dissidents on the commission -- Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein -- cast their expected votes against Martin's plan to allow a company in the 20 largest media markets to own both newspapers and radio and television stations. The Martin plan also opens up smaller markets to monopoly exploitation allowing firms to apply for a waiver of the cross-ownership ban.

Arguing that the commission was bowing to pressure from media conglomerates without beginning to study the likely impact on local news coverage, minority ownership and other supposed concerns of the FCC, Copps told his fellow commissioners, "Today's story is a majority decision unconnected to good policy and not even incidentally concerned with encouraging media to make our democracy stronger. We are not concerned with gathering valid data, conducting good research, or following the facts where they lead us."

Copps said he had little doubt that Martin and the other two Republicans would move quickly to waive what remains of the cross-ownership ban and begin approving mergers in communities large and small across the whole country.

Martin's move, while very much in line with the Bush's administration's radical pro-corporate agenda, goes against every signal the FCC has gotten from Congress, which is responsible for establishing regulations regarding the ownership of the public's airwaves.

"The FCC has never attempted such a brazen act of defiance against Congress," argued Adelstein, in a passionate condemnation of the commission's actions. "Like the Titanic, we are steaming at full speed despite repeated warnings of danger ahead. We should have slowed down rather than put everything at risk."

The response to that risk must come from Congress.

Before the vote, 26 members of the Senate -- a quarter of the chamber's members -- notified the commission that they would "immediately move legislation that will revoke and nullify the proposed rule."

The senators making that promise are the key players on communications policy in the chamber, including Commerce Committee chair Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, and the vice chairman of that committee, Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. So they can make the move.

But they will need the full and aggressive support of Democratic leaders in the Senate and House to push back with the force necessary to counter an expected veto by President Bush.

This is one fight where citizen action will matter. Key Republicans such as Stevens and Mississippi's Trent Lott, the party's number two man in the Senate, are in complete support of the move to overturn the FCC vote. It is possible to build a broad coalition. But there can be no wavering by the Democrats on this front.

Indeed, they must make this a national issue. And the way to do that is by talking it up where it cannot be ignored. All four Democratic senators who are seeking the presidency signed the letter pledging to revoke and nullify the FCC decision.

Now, New York's Hillary Clinton, Illinois' Barack Obama, Connecticut's Chris Dodd and Delaware's Joe Biden need to put the issue of media monopoly front and center in Iowa and New Hampshire. Of course, they can and will talk about other issues. But if they are not talking about the fundamental threat to diversity of media ownership in American communities and the country as a whole, they will be failing to use the most powerful bully pulpit in the fight against the monopoly on communication that represents the single greatest threat to the battered democratic discourse of a country where the public's right to know cannot take this hit and survive.

Burger King as Scrooge

Farm workers who toil to pick tomatoes for Burger King's sandwiches earn 40 to 50 cents for every 32-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick, a rate that has not risen significantly in nearly 30 years. During a typical 10-hour day each migrant picks, carries, and unloads two tons of tomatoes giving them just enough piece work to earn close to minimum wage.

But instead of joining other fast-food chains who agreed in 2005 to pay an extra penny per pound for its tomatoes, as a piece by Michael Gould-Wartofsky at TheNation.com makes clear, this Christmas Burger King is working to undermine agreements that have been made with the Coalition for Immokalee Workers (CIW). As a result, already impoverished tomato pickers in Florida are facing the prospect of losing the first significant raise some of them have seen in nearly 30 years as tomato growers have been encouraged and emboldened to cancel deals already struck with Taco Bell and McDonald's.

As the great muckraking writer Eric Schlosser wrote in a New York Times op-ed last November, "The prominent role that Burger King has played in rescinding the pay raise offers a spectacle of yuletide greed worthy of Charles Dickens. Burger King has justified its behavior by claiming that it has no control over the labor practices of its suppliers...Yet the company has adopted a far more activist approach when the issue is the well-being of livestock. In March, Burger King announced strict new rules on how its meatpacking suppliers should treat chickens and hogs. As for human rights abuses, Burger King has suggested that if the poor farm workers of southern Florida need more money, they should apply for jobs at its restaurants."

BK's callousness is driven home in this YouTube video, produced by the CIW, which powerfully details the difficulty of the work endured by these workers.

After watching this video, it should be clear that these workers aren't asking for very much. A farm-labor activist coalition, led by the CIW and the Student-Farmworker Alliance, is now asking concerned citizens to tell Burger King to stop acting like Scrooge and to start paying farm workers fair wages. The Sojourners' website has been devoting regular coverage to the issue and has created an action center from which you can email Burger King management and spread the word about the campaign.

As Schlosser concluded, asking Burger King to pay an extra penny for tomatoes and provide a decent wage to migrant workers would hardly bankrupt the company. Indeed, it would cost BK only $250,000 a year. At Goldman Sachs--the private equity firm that controls much of BK's stock--that sort of money shouldn't be too hard to find. In 2006, the bonuses of the top twelve Goldman Sachs executives exceeded $200 million -- more than twice as much money as all of the roughly 10,000 tomato pickers in southern Florida earned that year.

A Political Fight Brews Over FCC Rule Changes

No matter what the Federal Communications Commission does today with regard to media ownership -- and it is likely to do the wrong thing -- members of Congress are ready to push back. And that sets up a clash between Congress and the White House that will be a vital fight over the future of American democratic discourse.

The Bush-Cheney administration wants FCC chair Kevin Martin and the Republican majority on the commission to approve a rewrite of media-ownership rules that would allow big media companies to own daily and weekly newspapers, radio stations, television stations, cable systems and key internet news sites in an individual community.

There is no longer any question that Martin, a Republican operative with close ties to President Bush and Vice President Cheney who has been talked about as a likely GOP candidate for the governorship of his native North Carolina, is moving at the behest of the White House.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has already written Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressing the administration's aggressive opposition to efforts by key senators to delay the FCC vote. The Senate Commerce Committee has approved the call for blocking the vote until the FCC actually does serious research into the harm that would be done to diversity of ownership, local news coverage and the quality of the discourse in communities across the county and by extension to the national debate.

Gutierrez told the senators that the "the current ownership rules are significantly outdated in the modern media marketplace" and argued that Martin has "crafted changes that appropriately take into account the myriad of news and information outlets that exist today."

The Commerce Secretary made it clear that the administration is gearing up for a fight on behalf of the big media companies -- and big political donors -- that want the change. According to Gutierrez, the administration is ready to fight any "attempt to delay or overturn these revised rules by legislative means."

But not all Republicans are going along with the White House.

For senior Republican senators -- Ted Stevens of Alaska, Trent Lott of Mississippi, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Larry Craig of Idaho -- have joined 21 Democrats is signing a letter to Martin urging a delay in the rule changes.

"When you proposed a new rule on the effects of communications towers on migratory birds, you allowed for a 90 day comment period. How could you decide to allow 90 days for a migratory bird rule and then shortchange the public on the media ownership rule?" the senators ask Martin in the letter.

But the letter is no list of questions. It is a blunt declaration by key members of Congress -- including the chairman of the Commerce Committee that has jurisdiction over the FCC, Inouye and the vice chairman, Stevens -- that if Martin and the FCC go ahead with the rule changes, the senators will "immediately move legislation that will revoke and nullify the proposed rule."

"We are notifying you and others of this proposed action in order to make certain you understand the consequences of ignoring the need for and the right of the American people to play a constructive role in attempts by a federal agency to change rules that have substantial impact on the American people," the senators write. "In light of this, we request and expect that you will postpone the action scheduled for December 18, 2007."

In addition to Inouye, Stevens, Lott, Snowe and Craig, the signers of the letter are the following Democratic senators: Kerry (MA), Wyden (OR), Cantwell (WA), Conrad (ND), McCaskill (MO), Pryor (AR), Lincoln (AR), Casey (PA), Feinstein (CA), Reed (RI), Feingold, (WI) Tester (MT), Boxer (CA), Obama (IL), Dodd (CT), Biden (DE), Clinton (NY), and Nelson (FL). Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a longtime champion of media reform, is also a signer.

It is notable that all of the Democratic senators who are seeking the White House have signed on. Additionally, Obama, who has taken up media issues with more gusto that the others, has sent a separate letter to Martin that was cosigned by John Kerry.

Thus, even if the Bush White House keeps pressing the matter, the rule changes -- which are all but certain to face court challenges -- also face the potential political challenge posed by a change in administration and in the partisan balance of the FCC.

In effect, Martin's days as chairman are likely to be numbered. That's why he is rushing ahead with these rule changes. It is also why the efforts to delay and overturn his initiatives take on additional meaning.

Put another way: It is fair to say that today is the beginning point, not the end, of the fight for media diversity and a democratic discourse.

New Jersey Leads on Capital Punishment

Today Governor Jon Corzine signed into law a bill that ends capital punishment in New Jersey. "This is a day of progress for us and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder," Corzine said. In a powerful and eloquent speech delivered Monday morning, the Governor thanked advocacy groups for their hard and courageous work in creating "a fundamental grass roots groundswell that put pressure on those of us in public service to stand up and do the right thing."

New Jersey becomes the first state since 1965 to legislatively repeal the death penalty, and the state's move is being hailed around the world as a historic victory against capital punishment.

The momentum to repeal capital punishment has been growing in the state since January, when a 13-member legislative commission recommended its abolition. "It took 31 years," noted a recent New York Times editorial, "but the moral bankruptcy, social imbalance, legal impracticality and ultimate futility of the death penalty has finally penetrated the consciences of lawmakers in one of the 37 states that arrogates to itself the right to execute."

We fervently hope the actions of Governor Corzine and New Jersey's lawmakers will set a high standard for elected officials in other states to follow.


Governor Jon S. CorzineRemarks as DeliveredDecember 17, 2007

Good morning everyone.

Thank you all for being here. Today, December 17th 2007, is a momentous day - a day of progress - for the State of New Jersey and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder.

Today, through my signature on this bill, New Jersey abolishes the death penalty as a policy of our state.

For the people of New Jersey, I sign this legislation with pride.

I want to thank so many of those who join us today for their thoughtfulness and courage in making today a reality.

First let me cite the Death Penalty Study Commission, chaired by Reverend Bill Howard, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, a group that was made up of a diverse set of individuals representative of prosecutors, law-enforcement, victims, religious groups and others.

Let me just note, five of the Commissioners were directly impacted by the violence of murder in their families, directly.

The state legislature showed courageous leadership. I must say, incredible leadership not just by Senator Lesniak and Senator Martin, the sponsors or Assemblyman Caraballo, or Assemblyman Bateman, the leaders Roberts & Codey - but for all those that voted yes.

This is one of those conscience votes that individuals must actually weigh and balance their own sense of morality and I am very, very grateful to all of you. A number of you are here today who voted yes, Senator Gil, Senator Turner. I look forward to joining with all of you as I sign this bill.

It should be noted that because of the action of the legislature, this is the first state to legislatively end the death penalty since the U.S. Supreme Court reauthorized capital punishment in 1976.

I also want to thank advocacy groups, particularly New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, which have created a fundamental grass roots groundswell that put pressure on those of us in public service to stand up and do the right thing. The New Jersey Catholic Conference, the ACLU and there are many other groups that joined in this process and I am eternally grateful.

I also want to recognize that other good people will describe today's actions in quite different terms - in terms of injustice - particularly for those who carry heavy hearts, broken hearts from their tragic losses.

While no one can imagine their pain, I will sign this law abolishing the death penalty because I and a bipartisan majority of our legislature - and I congratulate Senator Bateman and Senator Martin in particular for their leadership on this - believe a nonviolent sentence of life in prison without parole best captures our State's highest values and reflects our best efforts to search for true justice, rather than state-endorsed killing.

As Reverend King implored all mankind while accepting his Nobel Peace Prize - "Man must evolve, for all human conflict, a method of resolution which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation."

Today, New Jersey is truly evolving.

We evolve, if you believe as I do, that government cannot provide a foolproof death penalty that precludes the possibility of executing the innocent.

Society must ask - Is it not morally superior to imprison 100 people for life than it is to execute all 100 when it is probable we execute an innocent?

We evolve, if you believe as I do, that because New Jersey has not executed anyone in 44 years, there is little collective will or appetite for our community to enforce this law and therefore the law has little deterrence value.

That is, if you ever accepted there was a deterrent value.

We evolve, if you believe as I do, that the loved ones of victims may be more deeply hurt by long delays and endless appeals than they would be if there were certainty of life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Our debate has brought forth victims' voices on both sides of this perspective.

We evolve, if you believe as I do, it is economic folly to expend more State resources on legal processes in an attempt to execute an inmate than keeping a criminal incarcerated for life.

It is estimated that it cost the State of New Jersey more than a quarter-billion dollars, above and beyond incarceration, to pursue the death penalty since it was reinstated in 1982 - a significant sum that could have effectively be used in supporting and compensating victims' families.

Finally, we evolve, if you believe as I do, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to devise a humane technique of execution - one that is not cruel and unusual.

These are all thoughtful and logical arguments, and there are others, to abolish the death penalty - the Commission and the legislature gave weight to these arguments - but for me, the question is more fundamental.

I believe society must first determine if its endorsement of violence begets violence - and - if violence undermines our commitment to the sanctity of life.

To these questions, I answer "Yes," and therefore I believe we must evolve to ending that endorsement.

Now, make no mistake: by this action, society is not forgiving these heinous crimes or acts that have caused immeasurable pain to the families and brought fear to society.

The perpetrators of these actions deserve absolutely no sympathy and the criminals deserve the strictest punishment that can be imposed without imposing death.

That punishment is life in prison without parole.

The only exception, of course, is the determination that a convicted felon is in fact innocent beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Let me repeat: this bill does not forgive or in any way condone the unfathomable acts carried out by the eight men now on New Jersey's death row.

They will spend the rest of their lives in jail.

And to that end, last night, I signed an order commuting to life without parole the death sentences of the eight persons currently on death row.

This commutation action provides legal certainty that these individuals will never again walk free in our society.

These commutations, along with today's bill signing, brings to a close in New Jersey the protracted moral and practical debate on the death penalty.

Our collective decision is one for which we can be proud.

Thank you.

Christmas for Big Media

In less than 24 hours, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin plans to hold a vote on rules that will let the largest media companies swallow up more local newspapers and TV stations.

As I posted about last week, Martin is forging on with the vote, which he knows he will win, despite bipartisan Congressional requests to delay the vote and the adamant opposition of two of the five FCC commissioners. If you care about the dismal state of the media, please stop what you're doing and lend a hand.

The media reform group Free Press is operating on overdrive trying to generate at least 100 calls to every US senator before 5:00 p.m. today asking the lawmakers to pressure the FCC to delay tomorrow's vote until Congress can vote on the Media Ownership Act of 2007 (S. 2332), which is waiting for a vote on the Senate floor. Click here to find your Senator's phone number and click here to check out useful talking points.

Just last week, senators from both parties berated FCC Chairman Kevin Martin about his big giveaway to Big Media. He didn't flinch. He's now thumbing his nose at both Congress and the public. There's less than a day to derail Big Media's efforts to eliminate regulatory roadblocks to increasingly rapid media concentration. Call your Senators immediately.

If you need any incentive to act, check out this new YouTube video from Free Press which shows how high the stakes really are, and read Katrina vanden Heuvel's recent primer on how the Democratic candidates stack up on the media issue.

No Taxes for War

More and more Americans are fed up with watching their tax dollars support the greatest foreign policy disaster of our time. Over the past year, millions of US citizens have voted, lobbied, marched, written and taken direct action to end the war in Iraq. Yet Congress continues to appropriate billions of dollars for an occupation that has become a humanitarian catastrophe. And despite the recently released NIE report on Iran, the Administration's saber rattling stunningly continues.

That's why Chris Hedges recently pledged in The Nation, " will not pay my income tax if we go to war with Iran… I will put the taxes I owe in an escrow account. I will go to court to challenge the legality of the war." It's also the reason a coalition of antiwar groups – including CODEPINK, the 2008 War Tax Boycott coalition, United for Peace and Justice, Goldstar Families for Peace, Institute for Policy Studies, and others – are using this weekend's Boston Tea Party anniversary to begin circulating this pledge: "When I am joined by 100,000 other US taxpayers, I will join in an act of mass civil disobedience and refuse to pay the portion of my taxes that pays the US military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan." The organizers hope to reach the goal of 100,000 tax resisters by April 15 who will hold in escrow or redirect the war taxes to humanitarian aid projects--such as those providing relief to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

The social democrat in me has always been uncomfortable with tax resistance, despite my admiration for the War Resisters League. As progressives, we want to enlarge the public sphere, and elevate the primacy of politics, engaged in collectively, as the means for solving social problems. Taxes are obviously a crucial element of meeting our common goals. In that respect, opting out of the collective decision making of the polity about how to spend the nation's money is problematic.

At the same time, there's a long and admirable tradition of civil disobedience and tax resistance, and at a certain point when the normal mechanisms of politics have broken down, extraordinary action of this sort may be justified. There's a good case to be made that we've reached that point now. As CODEPINK said in a released statement, "Taxpayers who oppose this war have the power to show Congress how to cut off the funds for this war and redirect resources to the pressing needs of the people."

Life After The Surge

Is the Department of Veterans Affairs finally turning a corner or is the worst yet to come?

From Walter Reed to false diagnoses of personality disorder, a Department that was never given the resources to provide health care for returning Iraq soldiers has relied on scandalous shortcuts. A glimmer of hope was provided yesterday, though, when the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously approved the nomination of James Peake as new department secretary. Peake promised that he will hire more medical staff and stop using so much of the department budget on bonuses to senior officials.

A separate House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing, however, offered a depressing glimpse at the escalating health care problems the next secretary will inherit. The hearing was prompted by a CBS News report that veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the population. Each day an estimated 17 veterans commit suicide.

Dr. Ira Katz, the Deputy Chief of Staff of Patient Care at VA, testified that those numbers will significantly increase with more troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Katz also related his findings that more than 100,000 of the 750,000 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have requested mental health treatment. At least those veterans can recognize their need for help, as Katz also noted that as many as 48 percent of returning troops suffer from posttraumatic stress.

That the government institution in charge of veterans is only now developing a structure to deal with mental health problems is certainly alarming. Even more troubling is that new leadership will be in the process of developing new programs at the same time that thousands more people are entering the VA health system. Peake acknowledged to the committee that if he gets the job he will be in "constant crisis mode."

Like Nuclear Waste, the Nuclear Lobby Never Goes Away

Recently I wrote about the grassroots fight to keep billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for the nuclear industry off of the historic Energy Bill (and also here ). So far, that fight has been successful.

But, as I suggested in my previous post, it looks like Big Nuclear's cronies – led by Senator Pete Domenici – are trying to slip $25 billion in nuclear giveaways into the Appropriations bill, as the New York Times reported today: "Congress reached a tentative agreement on a major energy package that it plans to enact outside the energy bill….The agreement would guarantee loans of up to $25 billion for new nuclear plants and $2 billion for a uranium enrichment plant, something those industries had been avidly seeking. It would also provide guarantees of up to $10 billion for renewable energy projects, $10 billion for plants to turn coal into liquid vehicle fuel and $2 billion to turn coal into natural gas."

Despite the carrot of a renewable energy subsidy in this package this is no way to embark on a new, green future of energy independence. Use this link to let Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and your representatives know that it's time to oppose regressive, failed, brought-to-you-by-yet-another-corporate-lobbyist energy policies, and promote a bolder and brighter future.