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Blogging Iran

Today, voters in Iran cast ballots for a new President--choosing from a field of eight candidates that includes hardline clerics and reformers. The campaign has underscored how dramatically political life inside Iran has changed in recent years.

Norman Solomon, executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, has been in Iran during the final days of the presidential election, interviewing a wide range of people. In an article this past week, he reported: "The Moin campaign [Mostafa Moin is the leading reformist candidate who polls show as the second choice. He is also the only candidate with an active blog] drew 10,000 people to a rally at Tehran stadium Tuesday night. A number of speakers emphasized that the campaign is aiming to lay the groundwork for a movement--and this election is just the beginning...The Tehran Time reported Wednesday [that] the outspoken Moin 'referred to the upcoming establishment of a Democracy and Human Rights Front in Iran to defend the rights of all Iran's religious and ethnic groups, the youth, academicians, women and political opposition groups whose rights are often neglected..'"

"In a country, " Solomon observed, "where political imprisonment and torture continue, such public statements are emblematic of a courageous movement struggling to emerge from the shadows of the Islamic Republic. "

But that movement for human rights and democracy needs to develop indigenously. As Nobel Peace Prize winner--and Iranian human rights lawyer and activist--Shirin Ebadi warned last year, US government support for Iran's dissidents might not only deprive them of authenticity in their own land but, worse, could stigmatize them as proxies of American neocons intent on regime change.

Or, as Solomon argues: "Iran's most repressive clerics and the USA's most militaristic neocons share a common interest: They're very eager to see the failure of Iranian activism for democracy and human rights...The hardliners in both countries need each other. Theirs is a perverse, mutual dependency that dares not speak its name."

If you want to diversify your newsfeed about this fascinating election--and understand what it may mean for the future of that country--check out the ten blogs I wrote about earlier this month.

As one of Iran's leading bloggers Hossein Derakhshan recently pointed out, the country's many blogs (Iran has 75,000 bloggers) are generating "an unprecedented amount of information." In fact, as he observed: this election "will probably be one of the most open and transparent" Iran has ever seen.

The Latest Downing Street Memos

New "Downing Street" memos keep popping up. In recent days, several confidential memos written by senior officials in Tony Blair's government in March 2002 have garnered attention. (AfterDowningStreet.org has all of them posted.) These records--first obtained by Michael Smith, a British journalist formerly working at the Daily Telegraph and now with the Sunday Times of London--provide more evidence that Bush's case for war was less than convincing for his number-one ally. They also illustrate the hubris that drove Blair in his wartime partnership with George W. Bush.

The first and now infamous Downing Street memo chronicled a high-level briefing for Blair that occurred in July 2002, during which the head of British intelligence said Bush was already committed to war and intelligence and facts were being "fixed around the policy" and during which Foreign Minister Jack Straw reported the WMD case for war was "thin." (See my previous column on the memo.) Months before this secret meeting, British officials were already sharing similar sentiments among themselves (not with the public, of course). In a March 22, 2002, memo for Straw, Peter Ricketts, political director of Britain's foreign service, noted that "even the best survey of Iraq's WMD programmes will not show much advance in recent years on the nuclear, missile or [chemical weapons/biological weapons] fronts." He also reported that the "US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Aaida [sic] is so far frankly unconvincing."

A March 8, 2002, options paper prepared by Blair's national security aides noted that Iraq's nuclear weapons program was "effectively frozen," its missile program "severely restricted," and its chemical and biological weapons programs "hindered." Saddam Hussein, it reported, "has not succeeded in seriously threatening his neighbors." This paper also said the intelligence on Iraq's supposed WMD program was "poor." It noted that there was no "recent evidence" of Iraqi ties to al Qaeda.

All of this contradicts what Bush told Americans before the invasion of Iraq. He and his aides claimed that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program, that Hussein was producing and stockpiling biological and chemical weapons, that Baghdad was in cahoots with al Qaeda, and that the intelligence obtained by the United States and other governments (presumably including the Brits) left "no doubt" that Iraq posed a direct WMD threat to the United States.

The British memos are further evidence that Bush overstated the main reasons for the war. They also show that his key line of defense is bunk. When confronted with questions about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Bush and his allies have consistently pointed to bad intelligence. But the previously released Downing Street memos and the new ones indicate that the Brits--who had access to the prewar intelligence--saw that the WMD case (based on that intelligence) was, as Jack Straw observed, weak. One might ask, why did they have such a different take than the one Bush shared with the public?

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on The Washington Post almost accusing Bush of lying and on Corn's recent Deep Throat scoop.

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These memos demonstrate that the issue is not whether Bush was unwittingly duped by bad intelligence. (Bad, George Tenet, bad.) No, Bush tried to sell lousy--or "thin"--intelligence as the basis for the war he desired. According to the new documents, the Brits saw through this. But they did not share their informed perspective with the British or American public. Instead, they went along for the ride.

Why did Blair join with Bush? Probably for several reasons. The memos do show the Blair gang was worried about Saddam Hussein and WMDs, despite realizing Bush was hyping the threat. But the Ricketts' memo suggests Blair saddled up with Bush partly so he could steer the American president. In this memo--entitled "Advice for the Prime Minister"--Ricketts wrote:

By sharing Bush's broad objective, the Prime Minister can help shape how it is defined, and the approach to achieving it. In the process he can bring home to Bush some of the realities which will be less evident from Washington. He can help Bush make good decisions by telling him things his own machine probably isn't.

Ricketts was essentially saying that Bush was not fully attached to reality and that his "own machine" was not providing him all the necessary information. What a harsh indictment of a partner-in-war. Ricketts feared that Bush consequently would make rotten decisions about the war in Iraq. But, Ricketts noted, Blair could be a positive influence by spelling out "the realities" for Bush. Blair, though, could only do that if he was with the program. This is a chilling passage. It illuminates the arrogance of the Blairites. Because they knew better than the not-fully-informed president, they assumed they could nudge Bush in the appropriate direction. But they were signing up for a war led by a man whom they believed was not in sync with reality and who could not be trusted to wage war properly on his own.

What hubris on the part of the Blair team. Feeling superior to Bush, they felt they would be the tail that would wag the dog. But Blair ended up with a war based on a "thin" claim that has yielded an enormous mess. And the fellow in charge of finding a way out of this jam is a guy whose "own machine" keeps reality from him.

Conservatives, some editors in the establishment media, and even the usually smart columnist Michael Kinsley have dismissed the significance and newsworthiness of the Downing Street memos. But these documents afford the public a more extensive view of the misrepresentations Bush deployed to grease the way to war. And they illustrate the serious doubts the Brits had concerning the lead arguments for war and concerning the man who was making those arguments. If only the Downing Street documents could be augmented by a similar set of Pennsylvania Avenue memos.

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IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.

From Freedom Fries to...

Congressman Walter Jones is a Republican from North Carolina, he voted for the war in Iraq, and he coined the term Freedom Fries. So he's obviously no peacenik, but he is the first Republican to break with the White House and call for a firm date to withdraw American troops from Iraq. He says he had a change of heart when he saw the devastation this war has caused to military families across the country.

Military families aren't just speaking to their Congressional representatives; they are speaking loudly to all of us by refusing to allow their sons and daughter, husbands and wives to enlist. President Bush interpreted the November election as an affirmation of his agenda, but as we see from his plummeting poll numbers, the unpopularity of his policy proposals, and the dramatic drop in recruitment numbers, he was wrong.

Congressman Jones said in an interview last Sunday with ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he votes his conscience first, his constituents second, his party third. Even if this is just a good line, it's exactly the way we need our politicians to think if we are ever to get out of this terrible mess in Iraq.

The House of Labor…and the Future

So, with the heaving sound of an old tree suddenly splitting apart in a storm, the labor movement is finally breaking up. Last weekend the SEIU executive board authorized its leadership to leave the AFL-CIO.

Today, the five unions now comprising the Change To Win Coalition (CTWC)--along with SEIU, the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, and UNITE HERE--meet to form what amounts to a rival federation, whether they all formally leave the AFL-CIO or not. These unions' collective 5 million membership represents 40 percent of the AFL-CIO's 13 million total. If the mammoth 2.7 million member National Education Association aligns with the effort, CTWC will hold exactly half of all union members in the United States.

The avowed basis of the break is a fundamental disagreement on strategy, often depicted as a choice by the insurgents of organizing over politics. This is misleading. Many of the unions remaining in the federation are every bit as committed as the CTWC group to organizing new union members. And some CTWC unions, particularly SEIU, are keenly aware of the importance of politics in increasing union membership. The fight is really about consolidation and political focus. SEIU has argued that the current practice of having several unions competing in single industrial sectors--"15 separate organizations in transportation, 15 in construction, 13 in public employment, 9 in manufacturing, and so on"--defeats the scaled effort needed to take on business in today's climate. It wants to compel fewer, bigger, more clearly sectorally-based unions, as in northern Europe. And it has argued that labor must find ways to mobilize support outside itself, chiefly through more engagement in state and local politics.

It is hard to argue with any of these claims, though whether CTWC can realize its promise is an open question. Even unions without competition in their declared industries are showing declines in density, as indeed are the new Coalition's own members. And outside SEIU itself, and UNITE HERE in a few cities, few of CTWC's members show much commitment to the community links and coalition work needed to gain greater influence over state and local politics. In all the shifting of positions over the past seven months, as this "coalition of the willing" has been constructed, the present result sometimes seems less the principled conclusion to a principled debate than the final triumph of testosterone over inertia.The latter is largely produced by the fragmented governing structure of the AFL,which makes it very difficult to undertake bold initiatives.

But so be it. Barring some miracle at the AFL-CIO convention in late July, or some last-minute membership or governance concession to SEIU offered by one of the loyalists with something it wants (most likely AFSCME)--labor is now split more or less in half. We can look forward to a long ugly period of dissension in America's most important single progressive movement, facing an administration intent on its complete destruction.

I don't think this split was necessary, and still think it would have been best for the state of progressive politics if both sides could have worked out a deal on federation reform. But I also recognize that in the areas of greatest need for labor--organizing, and political engagement and programs in the states and cities--it's hard to do much worse than what is being done now.

So, while I believe that solidarity in the face of an onslaught is preferable, I respect those who argue that standing together may not make sense if they aren't standing in the right place. And I appreciate the difficulty of changing a dysfunctional organization from within. So I wish the insurgents luck. This country desperately needs a labor movement that is again "the collection of many that speaks for all," that can provide an organized and intelligent moral center to a majoritarian progressive politics--the folks who brought you the weekend, the eight-hour day, and so much else that makes this country (almost) civilized. I just wish we weren't starting this way in reclaiming that.

King of Distraction

Michael Jackson has been acquitted on the ten charges of child molestation and related wrongs that were brought against the self-proclaimed "King of Pop."

So what!

That's right, "So what!"

Jackson's trial was certainly of consequence to the 46-year-old poster boy for arrested development. And it undoubtedly mattered to his accuser and the boy's family. It was also a big deal for the legal team that got Jackson off, and for the man who brought the prosecution, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon, whose bizarre career of headline-grabbing has taken a definite turn for the worse.

But nothing about the Michael Jackson trial mattered to the rest of America. It was merely a soap opera that served -- for 18 long months -- to distract the citizenry from the serious business of electing a president, protecting their retirement security from Wall Street raiders and following the degeneration of the war in Iraq into the quagmire it was destined to be.

Make no mistake: Big media corporations loved the Jackson trial because it was cheap to cover -- set up a camera in front of a California courthouse and the hard work is done -- and because it had a lowest-common-denominator appeal that could always be relied on to titillate audiences trained to believe that celebrity gossip is "news."

The problem with big media's cynical game of feeding the American people a junk-food diet of movie-star romances and showbiz scandals is that eventually perspective starts to get lost. On Monday, a breathless CBS radio news announcer described the Jackson verdict as "the lead story of the day, perhaps the month, perhaps the year."

If that announcer was even remotely right, then America is in serious trouble, because despite what much of the media may choose to make of the Jackson story, this tired little tabloid report is not the story that matters. It is, however, the story that keeps on giving to the powerful players in Washington who would prefer to avoid the sort of scrutiny that is directed at the Michael Jackson of the moment.

Notably, on the day that the story of Jackson's acquittal dominated the national news, Vice President Dick Cheney was cheerfully handing out journalism awards at the National Press Club in Washington. While the reporters who received the "Gerald Ford Journalism Awards" from the vice president were officially the ones being honored, it was Cheney who had the most to be thankful for.

So long as the so-called "news" media continues to use most of its might -- and most of the public's airwaves -- to distract the American people from the real lead stories about the misdeeds of a government that has sent almost 1,700 of this country's sons and daughters to needless death in Iraq and about war profiteering by corporations such as Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, the vice president and his cronies have even more to celebrate than Michael Jackson.

The Downing Street Memo Reconsidered

I posted this on my personal blog at www.davidcorn.com and thought I should share it here as well.

I taped a television program on Friday, and the subject turned to the Downing Street memo--that now-famous memo that recorded a July 23, 2002, meeting between Prime Minister Tony Blair and his chief aides in which Blair was told by the head of England's CIA that the Bush administration had already decided to go to war and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Right away, the two conservatives on the panel--columnist Linda Chavez and radio host Michael Graham--issued a joint defense: the memo was nothing new, this had all been reported before (including at the time), even Bill Clinton supported regime change in Iraq, and a variety of reports have concluded that the WMD intelligence, while wrong, was not intentionally rigged. They really hammered that last point.

Much of this was wrong or misleading. Clinton may have supported the notion of regime change in Iraq; he did not back the particular war Bush launched. And while two reports--one produced by Senate Republicans; the other written by a panel appointed by Bush--reported no evidence of intelligence-tampering had been found, there were numerous media reports in which intelligence analysts claimed (yes, anonymously) that pressure was applied. Moreover, Democrats on the Senate intelligence panel did not agree with that committee's nothing-there finding on this matter. In other words, it's not a closed case.

But this discussion made me realize that perhaps those Bush critics waving the DSM around as gotcha evidence have placed too much emphasis on the "fixed" sentence. I suppose one could read it to mean that Richard Dearlove (aka C), the head of the British MI6, was telling Blair that the Bushies were "gearing" intelligence and facts toward their desire for war. Or perhaps he was indicating that they were building a case for war with whatever facts and intelligence they could find. All of these possibilities come across as somewhat dodgy. But maybe C did not mean "fixed" as in "rigged."

There might be some wiggle room here for the Bushies. But the true impact of the DSM--which Chavez and Graham danced around--is that it shows that Bush was not being straight with the American public. At that point in time--the summer of 2002- Bush and his advisers were claiming that Bush had not yet decided to go to war, that he saw it as a last option, that he would try other alternatives--even diplomacy!--first. The obvious goal was to persuade the public that he was a reasonable fellow who would not rush to such a momentous decision. Yet the DSM, as many readers of this blog already know, discloses that C came back from Washington with quite a different impression:

C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime's record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.

Let's compare C's insider's view with the view given to the rest of us. On August 8, 2002, the Chicago Tribune ran a front page piece that read:

While portraying Iraq as a serious threat to American security, President Bush and his top advisers made a concerted effort Wednesday to reassure European and Arab allies that the administration would weigh its options and their concerns before trying to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

"I promise you that I will be patient and deliberate, that we will continue to consult with Congress and, of course, we'll consult with our friends and allies," Bush said in a speech in Madison, Miss.

"I will explore all options and all tools at my disposal: diplomacy, international pressure, perhaps the military," he said.

The president's comments, as well as those made by Vice President Dick Cheney and others, marked a distinct shift in tone. Administration officials have spoken repeatedly and strongly about the evils of Hussein's regime and insist they would take whatever action against him they deem necessary, unilaterally if need be. However, Wednesday's comments seemed designed to calm foreign leaders who are sharply questioning Bush's call for a "regime change" in Iraq, which most have interpreted to mean a military invasion.

"The president has not made a decision at this point to go to war," Cheney said in a speech in San Francisco. "We're looking at all of our options. It would be irresponsible for us not to do that."

C says he consultations in Washington indicated Bush wanted war. Yet Bush told the public otherwise. Not news? Only if you think a president misleading Americans about his desire for war is not worthy of attention.

All the focus on the "fixed" issue might be a distraction. This memo is evidence--more evidence, I should say--that Bush was committed to war from the start and said whatever needed saying (truth be damned) to sway the citizenry.

Which brings me to another point. The memo, as its devotees know, also reported that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw at this meeting said that it

seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. We should work up a plan for an ultimatum to Saddam to allow back in the UN weapons inspectors. This would also help with the legal justification for the use of force.

A "thin" WMD case for war? So Bush had not even convinced Jack Straw. Isn't it news that the foreign minister of the Bush's number-one ally believed that Bush's prime rationale for the invasion of Iraq was "thin"? (The U.K.'s attorney general at this meeting also raised questions about the legal basis of an invasion of Iraq.)

This steers us to a key matter. Conservatives like Chavez and Graham now like to hide behind the CIA, blaming bad intelligence for the missing WMDs. Bush didn't screw up, they argue, he merely relied on inadequate intelligence. But the Straw section of the Downing Street memo kills that argument. Straw presumably had access to the best intelligence on the topic, and still he wasn't sold. The bottom-line: even the bad intelligence led to a "thin" case. The problem was not merely the crappy intelligence; it was how Bush used the bad intelligence and stretched it beyond its limits to ease the way to war.

Put aside the question of "fixed" intelligence. The DSM demonstrates that Bush was dishonest with the public about his intentions and that the intelligence he did have in hand--fixed or not, faulty or not--did not support the case for war. I can understand why conservative cheerleaders of the war don't want such matters being discussed. But to call the Downing Street memo an item of no importance is to descend into the land of total spin.

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Speaking of which, if you haven't read The Washington Post's front-page piece on the problems within the Iraqi security forces, do so. It captures the dilemmas of the Iraq mess in a depressing nutshell. It also is further proof of the rising credibility gap. The Bush administration keeps talking about the progress being made in Iraq. The reports from ground-level--such as this piece--blast apart such rhetoric. In a similar vein, Senator Joe Biden, who was recently in Iraq, reports that there are 107 Iraqi battalions that have been trained and placed in uniform but only three are operational. At this rate, Jeb P. Bush (or Chelsea Clinton) will be president when the Iraqi army can take on the insurgency.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the Post piece--written and reported well by Anthony Shadid and Steve Fainaru. Note the difference between what the on-the-ground solider says and how the general spins. Do you think we will ever see anyone in charge acknowledge reality in Iraq?

BAIJI, Iraq -- An hour before dawn, the sky still clouded by a dust storm, the soldiers of the Iraqi army's Charlie Company began their mission with a ballad to ousted president Saddam Hussein. "We have lived in humiliation since you left," one sang in Arabic, out of earshot of his U.S. counterparts. "We had hoped to spend our life with you."

But the Iraqi soldiers had no clue where they were going. They shrugged their shoulders when asked what they would do. The U.S. military had billed the mission as pivotal in the Iraqis' progress as a fighting force but had kept the destination and objectives secret out of fear the Iraqis would leak the information to insurgents.

"We can't tell these guys about a lot of this stuff, because we're not really sure who's good and who isn't," said Rick McGovern, a tough-talking 37-year-old platoon sergeant from Hershey, Pa., who heads the military training for Charlie Company.

The reconstruction of Iraq's security forces is the prerequisite for an American withdrawal from Iraq. But as the Bush administration extols the continuing progress of the new Iraqi army, the project in Baiji, a desolate oil town at a strategic crossroads in northern Iraq, demonstrates the immense challenges of building an army from scratch in the middle of a bloody insurgency.

Charlie Company disintegrated once after its commander was killed by a car bomb in December. And members of the unit were threatening to quit en masse this week over complaints that ranged from dismal living conditions to insurgent threats. Across a vast cultural divide, language is just one impediment. Young Iraqi soldiers, ill-equipped and drawn from a disenchanted Sunni Arab minority, say they are not even sure what they are fighting for. They complain bitterly that their American mentors don't respect them.

In fact, the Americans don't: Frustrated U.S. soldiers question the Iraqis' courage, discipline and dedication and wonder whether they will ever be able to fight on their own, much less reach the U.S. military's goal of operating independently by the fall.

"I know the party line. You know, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, five-star generals, four-star generals, President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld: The Iraqis will be ready in whatever time period," said 1st Lt. Kenrick Cato, 34, of Long Island, N.Y., the executive officer of McGovern's company, who sold his share in a database firm to join the military full time after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "But from the ground, I can say with certainty they won't be ready before I leave. And I know I'll be back in Iraq, probably in three or four years. And I don't think they'll be ready then."

"We don't want to take responsibility; we don't want it," said Amar Mana, 27, an Iraqi private whose forehead was grazed by a bullet during an insurgent attack in November. "Here, no way. The way the situation is, we wouldn't be ready to take responsibility for a thousand years."

Maj. Gen. Joseph J. Taluto, commander of the 42nd Infantry Division, which oversees an area of north-central Iraq that includes Baiji and is the size of West Virginia, called the Iraqi forces "improved and improving." He acknowledged that the Iraqis suffered from a lack of equipment and manpower but predicted that, at least in his area of operation, the U.S. military would meet its goal of having battalion-level units operating independently by the fall.

I can tell you, making assessments, I think we're on target," he said in an interview.

On target for what? Make sure you read the full article.

It’s Class, Stupid!

In recent weeks, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have run a series of articles about issues of class and inequality in America.

These two media pillars have comprehensively taken on the root myth of the American way, reporting facts that are so stark and clear that they can no longer be ignored. The gap between rich and poor is widening dramatically; There's been a startling lack of upward mobility over the last three decades; And Americans face no better odds today that they will climb the ladder to a higher economic rung where their parents stood than they did 35 years ago.

As Sylvia Allegretto wrote in the Economic Policy Institute's "The State of Working America 2004/2005," which she co-authored: "The costs of basic necessities like health care, housing, and college keep rising, and many working families' incomes are not keeping pace."

Moreover, as the New York Times recently editorialized, education in this country is "heavily dependent on wealth and class"; and the richer people become, the greater their odds that they will live longer as beneficiaries of the best health care money can buy. All in all, a bleak picture, but one that the media is only slowly starting to grapple with.

As Paul Krugman noted, commenting on his paper's series in his column, "Since 1980 in particular, US government policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of working families--and under the current administration, that favoritism has become extreme and relentless." Conservative economic policies are fueling this phenomenon of an increasingly stratified America. Republicans refuse to raise the minimum wage, which has remained stuck at a paltry $5.15 an hour since 1997. Bankruptcy "reform" savages the working class. Meanwhile, Bush's tax cuts handed a tax reduction of more than $4,500 to the top fifth of income-earners while those in the lowest quintile received an average of only $98 annually off their tax bills.

Another fine series of stories--in the Los Angeles Times--pointed out that policies like deregulating industries, coupled with a right-wing assault on social programs have eroded Americans' safety net and shifted "economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families." (The reporter Peter Gosselin received a 2005 Sidney Hillman Award for journalism reporting for this series. Disclosure: I served on the panel of judges. And there were other fine articles submitted on this crucial issue, including a fine series in the Detroit News documenting how Bush tax cuts badly hurt the poor.)

There's a good resource called Toomuchonline.org that I recommend to reporters and anybody else interested in a reality check on America's economy. Sam Pizzigati, a veteran labor journalist, runs and edits the site, which is chock full of useful information. The site has a simple message; it argues that "our society would be considerably more democratic, prosperous and caring if we narrowed the vast gap between the very wealthy and everyone else."

To promote this vision, Pizzigati highlights the gap between the rich and the poor, sheds light on the excesses of the super-wealthy, advocates a "maximum wage" that would cap excessive income and wealth and applauds public and private-sector efforts to reduce inequality and make America a more equitable nation.

The kinds of reforms Pizzigati wants to see enacted are also on display at Toomuchonline.org. Pizzigati praises former SEC chairman Richard Breeden, who proposed a plan that said MCI, which rose out of the ashes of WorldCom's collapse, should prevent a repeat of WorldCom's train wreck by banning executive stock options and capping total CEO compensation. And then there's Congressman Martin Sabo's proposal to ban corporate tax deductions for executive compensation that exceeds more than 25 times what the lowest-paid worker at the company earns.

While Pizzigati commends the Times and the Journal's series on social mobility as "a mainstream media watershed," he also argues that a lot of work remains to be done. The Times, he says, for instance, ignored "inequality's impact on our social health"--i.e. how vastly unequal societies have negative health consequences for all people, not just for the poorest sectors of society.

As Vermont Senate candidate Bernie Sanders says, the corporate-owned media tend to ignore the economic problems that face millions of people on a daily basis. The press doesn't cover, he argues, things like the fact that Americans are "working longer hours for lower wages," living standards have declined, and "we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on earth…[and] we are the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system." One result of people not seeing their lives reflected in the media, Sanders argues, is that they think their problems are unique to them, and are not social or political problems that we as a nation can solve by working together.

I believe there's a constituency and an appetite for more stories about class lines in America. Readers want to see their lives and problems treated in our media. There may also be an appetite for real "reality shows." A new FX show, 30 Days, hosted by Supersize Me author Morgan Spurlock premiers this week and could generate a new trend. In the show's first episode, Spurlock and his girlfriend go to Columbus, Ohio and try to live on a minimum-wage income--raising issues of class that we rarely see on our TV sets.

In April 2004, I argued in this space that attention must be paid to those being left behind. More than a year later, the LA Times, the New York Times and the Journal's good series on class are steps in the right direction. Let's hope that these articles (and even that FX show) are just the beginning of a national effort on the media's part to show how people are living in these times. Here's a motto the media should adopt: It's Class, Stupid!

Dumping on Dean

Congressional Democrats never supported Dean for DNC chair. They wanted someone lower-profile and less hyperbolic. Apparently they wanted someone like RNC Chair Ken Mehlman. Still, it was more than a little surprising for Senator Joe Biden, who is not renown for his diplomatic temperament, to take a potshot at the chairman of his own party for rhetorical excess.

When George Stephanopoulos played a clip of Dean on ABC's This Week saying that perhaps Republicans can wait in line to cast ballots because "…a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives," Biden responded, "He doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric. And I don't think he speaks for the majority of Democrats."

Really? Outside the beltway, Dean is immensely popular with the party faithful. He has raised tons of money and is using it to rebuild the infrastructure at the state and local levels. The same infrastructure Biden will need if he decides to run for president.

Besides, Dean's statement is precisely the kind of red meat party chairmen are supposed to throw to rev up their base. You don't hear Republicans pulling any punches.

So enough of the infighting. (Or enough of this kind of infighting. If Dems want to get serious about real internal debates, let's have one about how to end the war and occupation.)

But when it comes to taking on the GOP, Dean and Congressional Democrats should get together and smoke a peace pipe with some cancer patient's now illegal supply of medicinal marijuana. It will help ease the Party's suffering, and lead, perhaps, to better communication.

Dopey Court Ruling

It is not often that this column finds itself in agreement with Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor, three of the High Court's more conservative members. But Rehnquist, Thomas and O'Connor were right to dissent from the Court's wrongheaded decision to permit the federal government to prosecute sick people who use marijuana as a painkiller--even in states where voters and legislators have determined that such use is lawful.

The three dissenters are to be applauded for their refusal to be buffaloed by the drug warriors who peddle the fantasy that marijuana should continue to be viewed as a dangerous drug that is unacceptable for any use.

O'Connor's dissent was particularly significant. While she indicated that she would not have voted in favor of the state initiatives or legislative bills that have legalized medical marijuana in Alaska, Colorado, California, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, the Justice explained that it was wrong for the federal government to seek to undermine "an express choice by some states, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently."

O'Connor's dissent is important because it makes clear where distinctions ought to be drawn. Of course, the federal government has a right--indeed, a responsibility--to intervene when the lives and liberties of Americans are threatened by the states, as has been the case when federal authorities have acted to protect the rights of racial minorities, women and people with disabilities. But to intervene with the express intent of denying Americans with serious diseases a generally well-regarded treatment option represents the worst sort of meddling by the federal government.

The Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling suggests that there are few judicial options left for supporters of medical marijuana. But John Walters, the Bush Administration's director of national drug control policy, was wrong when he claimed on Monday that "today's decision marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue."

The High Court's majority made it clear that federal legislative avenues remain open. Congress has the power to remove all legal barriers to the distribution and use of medical marijuana. While such a bold step may be unlikely in the short term, Congress also has the power to create exemptions for states where voters and legislators have decided to, in the words of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, respect "the rights of patients to have access to the medicine they need to survive and lead healthier lives."

Noelle Davis, executive director of Austin-based Texans for Medical Marijuana, is right when she says, "This gives the opportunity to Congress to step up and do something."

Will it happen? Representative Ron Paul, R-Texas, a physician who has co-sponsored legislation to allow states to decide without federal involvement whether people can use marijuana with a doctor's approval, says, "I think support is strong, but (members of Congress) are still frightened a little bit by the politics of it. If you had a secret vote in Congress, I'll bet 80 percent would vote for it."

That figure is roughly parallel to the sentiments expressed by Americans in polling with regard to medical marijauna. What's needed now is for citizens to let their members of Congress know that the federal government has no business taking people's medicine away from them.

They can do so by urging support for the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act (HR 2087). Sponsored by Representative Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, it has thirty-six co-sponsors, ranging from conservative Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, to progressives such as Representatives Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and John Conyers, of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

The legislation gets to the heart of the matter addressed by the court, declaring that:

"No provision of the Controlled Substances Act shall prohibit or otherwise restrict--

(A) the prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use,

(B) an individual from obtaining and using marijuana from a prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use by such individual, or

(C) a pharmacy from obtaining and holding marijuana for the prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use under applicable State law

in a State in which marijuana may be prescribed or recommended by a physician for medical use under applicable State law."