If you want to understand how the right debases our political culture, take a peek at Bernard Goldberg's screed 100 People who are Screwing up America (And Al Franken is #37), which, as of yesterday, was number five on Sunday's New York Times bestseller list. The author of the best-selling books Bias and Arrogance has another smash hit on his hands--and it comes with all the vitriol and truth-twisting you'd expect from a man who's profited enormously from his role as cog in the right-wing smear machine.
Goldberg rails against liberal villains who, he claims, are out to weaken the very fabric of America. Who's Number #2? That dangerous radical Arthur Sulzberger, scion of New York's establishment and publisher of the New York Times. According to Goldberg, Sulzberger has "done more than anyone to destroy the confidence of millions of ordinary Americans in the fairness and basic integrity of the so-called mainstream media." He's got to be kidding.
If Goldberg's nasty mud-slinging was confined to one guy or one book, we could shrug it off. But he represents a far wider problem. How do people like Goldberg get away with pouring their toxic waste into our weakened political and media circulatory system? One reason, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman tells us, is the mainstream media's willingness to roll over. The right's truth-twisting pundits and commentators distort and debase our political culture. And they rarely get called on it by the so-called MSM.
Fox News' Bill O'Reilly is one of America's most skilled mudslingers. Talking about Alterman, not that long ago, O'Reilly called Eric a "Fidel Castro confidant." (In this case, O'Reilly had to backtrack quickly when threatened with a defamation suit.) Then there's the inimitable Ann Coulter, who told the New York Observer this past January that "it would be fun to nuke North Korea" and that she was "fed up with hearing about...civilian casualties in Iraq").
In a smart piece posted at TalkingPointsMemoCafe.com, Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin argued that right-wing pundits and commentators should hold themselves to a higher standard. "A sense of decency should not be a sometime thing," he argued. When commentators write or say things that are either "flatly untrue...plain loathsome...or murderous," the slanderers should be exposed and should not be "invited back, and back, to talk shows."
Higher standards of decency and truth in our media are a worthy goal at any time, but in these last days, it's been heartening to see how some mainstream TV journalists have shed their usual reluctance to ask tough questions, tried to hold those in power accountable and raised long ignored issues of poverty and race. It's as if a window has opened. We need to monitor the truth-twisting rightwing media to make sure the window doesn't close, because if we ever needed a caring, aggressive, watchdog press, it's now.
(As for Goldberg, watch for Jack Huberman's forthcoming "100 People Who Are Really Screwing Up America," a spirited liberal riposte to Goldberg's latest screed, to be released by NationBooks.)
"It is time to come home, America. Time to look within our own borders and within our own souls," Sen. Robert Byrd said Tuesday on the Senate floor. "There are many questions to be answered and many missions to accomplish right here on our own soil."
The disaster in New Orleans has reaffirmed that America's ongoing failure to address racial injustice is our great, unaccomplished mission at home. African-Americans still face unequal treatment in housing, education, the workforce, and perhaps most insidiously, the medical care they receive (or fail to receive). Three recently released studies show that black patients are substantially less likely to receive heart bypass surgery, blood vessel repairs, joint replacements, and other important procedures than whites. According to Asish Jha of Harvard Medical School, these studies indicate that "Overall blacks and whites receive very different health care in this country."
Finally, an organization has emerged to confront the crisis of unequal care. This summer, Massachusetts General Hospital announced the creation of the Disparities Solution Center--the first institution specifically dedicated to bridging the health gap. As Dr. Thomas Inui of the Regenstrief Institute for Health Care, told the Boston Globe, "We're really finished with the time in which we need more studies showing disparities exist. Now, we need to show how to close the gaps."
The Center is being headed by Dr. Joseph Bentacourt, whose landmark study, "Unequal Treatment: Confronting Racial Disparities in Health Care," brought national attention to the issue. With $3 million in initial funding, Bentacourt says the Center will be a "living laboratory" in which doctors, academic researchers, and patients will collaborate on solutions and present their recommendations to hospitals, health care providers, and government officials throughout the country.
This deep-rooted problem won't be solved overnight, but the creation of the Disparities Solutions Center is a crucial first step--the exact sort of national soul searching and forward thinking we need in these devastating times.
We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.
On March 17, 2003, two days before the US invasion of Iraq commenced, four protesters--now known as the "Saint Patrick's Four"--entered a military recruiting center near Ithaca, New York, and poured small amounts of their own blood around the building's vestibule in a symbolic protest against the coming invasion. By their own account, they were alone in the vestibule and no one was prevented from entering or leaving the center.
For this act of non-violent civil disobedience, the longtime Catholic peace activists--sisters Clare and Teresa Grady, Daniel Burns, and Peter DeMott--are now charged with conspiracy to impede "by force, intimidation and threat" an officer of the United States along with three lesser offenses. If convicted of federal conspiracy in a trial starting this Monday, September 19, they face up to six years in prison, a period of probation and $275,000 in fines.
The trial is the first time the Federal government has pressed conspiracy charges against civilian Iraq war protesters and comes after a previous trial last year in county court on charges of criminal mischief and trespassing which resulted in a hung jury, with nine of twelve members favoring acquittal. As public interest lawyer and law professor Bill Quigley who is acting as legal advisor to the defendants, says, "Federal intervention in this case represents a blatant act of government intimidation and will have a chilling effect on expression of the first amendment rights of any citizen to protest or speak out against their government." Which is, of course, the idea.
To counter the chilling effect, and turn up the heat, supporters of the Saint Patrick's Four have organized a Citizen's Tribunal in Binghamton the first week of the trial, to address the legal, historical and moral defense for civil resistance to the Iraq war. Scheduled speakers include Medea Benjamin, John Bonifaz, Camilo E. Mejia, Ray McGovern, James Petras and many others and the public is heartily invited to attend.Supporting the Tribunal is one good way to help. And check out other suggestions below for supporting the St. Patrick's Day Four and the rights of all Americans to engage in non-violent civil disobedience.
** Join 50,000 others and sign the letter in support of the St. Patrick's Day Four.
** Donate to the St. Patrick's Day Four's Legal Defense Fund.
** Help spread the word about the trial.
** Support the Citizens' Tribunal on Iraq.
Also, make sure to make plans to be in Washington, DC next weekend for what United for Peace and Justice and other activist groups are expecting will be a massive series of protests against the war in Iraq. Click here for info. (And watch this space for more on these activities.)
George W. Bush does not do the Big Speech thing well. How many times has a fretting White House dispatched Bush to deliver a Big Speech to rally popular support for the Iraq war? Four, five, more? I've lost count. And I seem to recall a Big Speech meant to revive his Social Security plan. None of those other Big Speeches did much for Bush or the flagging policy he was trying to advance. In fact, he hasn't succeeded with a Big Speech since the immediate post-9/11 period. Still, on Thursday night, it was time to try again--this time while standing in front of a podium in an empty Jackson Square in New Orleans. On this occasion, Bush's aim was not to shore up an initiative upon which the public had soured but to change the Hurricane Katrina narrative from what-went-wrong (a tale in which Bush and his aides played prominent roles) to what-we're-going-to-do (a brand new story in which Bush can recast himself as a hands-on leader, not a fly-over incompetent.)
Will this work? Can Bush pivot from being a president who presided over a post-disaster disaster and earned well-deserved criticism from across the ideological spectrum (neocon commentator Bill Kristol conceded Bush is not always "good on execution") to being a chief executive able to oversee the most massive reconstruction in American history in an effective and visionary manner? One speech is not going to bring about such a transformation. His administration's response to Katrina sparked outrage and disappointment that will not soon recede. My hunch is that many Americans are in a show-me mood. After Bush won the last election with less than 51 percent of the vote, this fellow claimed he had amassed political capital that he could spend as he saw fit. He was wrong. And his political capital--if recent polling is to be believed--seems to be, like his budgets, in deep deficit. That was before Hurricane Katrina, when the mess in Iraq and high gas prices were dominating the bad news. So Bush will not be getting off cheap with a moderately well-delivered speech in which he expressed noble sentiments and presented reasonably sounding--though generalized--proposals for assisting the victims of Hurricane Katrina and for rebuilding the Crescent City and other areas of the Gulf Coast.
There is, as he might say, much hard work to do. It remains to be seen if his administration--which, this tragedy has demonstrated, fancies cronyism over competence--can do a better job in NOLA than it has in Iraq. In Jackson Square, Bush declared, "We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as it takes." Where have we heard that before? There will be tough decisions and policy and political battles ahead. Can Bush rise above himself? In this speech, he offered broad strokes and grand promises of assistance and reconstruction. But he mentioned only three specifics, calling for setting up $5000 employment training funds for displaced workers, selling off federal property in the area to homesteaders, and creating a Gulf Opportunity Zone. This last idea is based on a policy hobbyhorse long favored by conservatives: create tax-free-zones free of regulations in hard-hit areas to encourage companies to set up shop there. Can this be done in a manner so that corporations don't end up dumping employees elsewhere and rushing to the GOZ to take advantage of depressed conditions there? With all money that will be heading toward New Orleans and the region--the estimated price tag for reconstruction appears to be several hundred billion dollars--won't there be enough incentive for businesses to flock to the region?
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Hurricane Katrina, Cheney and a pipeline in Mississippi, Bush's bathroom break at the UN and other matters.
Bush clearly has decided to throw money at what he called "one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever known." But this enormous project will be managed by folks who don't like government. The Bush White House and Republicans in Congress were poised to cut tens of billions of dollars from Medicaid, student loan programs and food stamps prior to Katrina. But now Bush has committed himself to spending far more than that on reviving the Gulf Coast and NOLA. Can the Bush gang manage this task better than they have managed contracting in Iraq? Bush, sensitive to this point, noted that he would dispatch inspectors general to guard against fraud. (Good idea. Why not do the same in Iraq?) But he and his gang have not been so fastidious about the use of taxpayer funds elsewhere. Can he devise a system in which Halliburton and other mega-firms are not the big winners? Does he care to?
Or course, there was no mention of how to pay for this. That was in keeping with standard accounting practices in Bushland. He said about suspending--or, dare one say it, pushing back--the tax cuts he has handed to the wealthiest of Americans. He has placed his war in Iraq on the national credit card, further weakening the financial standing of the country. Will he do the same with New Orleans?
Bush did acknowledge that Katrina has revealed the fault lines of race and poverty in American society. How could he not? He conceded the federal government had not responded appropriately. Again, how could he not? He said he would review the government's performance, and he endorsed a congressional investigation (which, as of now, is to be controlled by Republicans). He offered no words of support for an independent and bipartisan investigation. Consequently, it seems that Republicans will be investigating Republicans. Perhaps Bush will put Dick Cheney in charge of his review.
Toward the end of the speech, Bush proclaimed, "I, as president, am responsible for the problem and the solution." But prior to his photo-op speech from Jackson Square, he had already proven the first part of that statement. He has much distance to go--to wade, to slog--to prove the latter.
Horrified by the realization that a great many Americans see him as an uncaring Herbert Hoover, the president who forgot New Orleans attempted with his address to the nation on Thursday night to remake himself as a Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the 21st century.
The president's speech from New Orleans was full of proposals, promises and pledges. But Americans will be excused if they wait for proof of this conservative's newfound compassion.
After all, the president was not just talking about rebuilding the Gulf Coast. He was talking about rebuilding his own reputation.
Nothing gets the Bush White House's damage control operation moving like declining poll numbers. And so it should come as no surprise that the president is suddenly "Georgie on the spot" in New Orleans.
After days of initially neglecting the humanitarian crisis that followed Hurricane Katrina, and then seeking to assign to others blame for the death and chaos caused by that neglect, the Bush team has suddenly noticed that the American people are upset. The president's approval ratings have dipped below 40 percent -- into what pollsters refer to as the "Nixon during Watergate" range.
So Bush is now positioning himself as the savior of the Gulf Coast. He has even taken what for him is the unprecedented step of accepting a small measure of accountability for his actions -- or, in this case, inactions. "To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," the president grumbled earlier this week. In his speech on Thursday night, Bush admitted that, "Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in times of emergency."
He'll get no debate there. Nor will he hear many objections to his opening of the federal-aid spiggots to help rebuild New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast.
But there will be some lingering skepticism about whether George W. Bush really understands what it means to take responsibility.
In fairness, while Bush does not have a track record that inspires confidence in his ability to hold himself or his aides to account, his Thursday night address from New Orleans represented progress for an administration that has had a problem with accountability. At least Karl Rove did not dress the boy president up in a search-and-rescue team uniform and pose him in front of a banner, declaring "Mission Accomplished."
But if Bush really wants to be taken seriously when he says that he is willing to accept responsibility for federal failures, he needs to do more than simply tour New Orleans in an open truck, preach to the television cameras from that city's Jackson Square and promise to deliver the aid that any president -- Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal -- would offer in such a circumstance.
If the president is serious, he should:
1.) Make it clear that administration aides who engage in cynical and divisive efforts to discredit state and local officials will be removed immediately from their positions. In a time of national emergency, the White House should not be playing politics in order to shift the blame for the missteps and misdeeds of the president and his appointees.
2.) Support the immediate creation of an independent blue ribbon commission to investigate why the initial response to the crisis was so miserable. The president should recognize that if there are fundamental flaws in the nation's emergency management systems, they must be corrected now -- before the next disaster hits.
3.) Take steps to ensure that the federal response to the crisis and its aftermath will be fiscally responsible and ethical. At a time when massive new expenditures are being made, the administration should abandon its proposal to rob the treasury by cutting estate taxes for the wealthy. Additionally, while federal funding of relief and rebuilding initiatives should be generous, it should also be audited and appropriate.
Major contracts with private corporations should never be awarded without proper bidding, and strict limits should be set on the profits that firms are allowed to take away from those contracts.
One of Bush's predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, put it well when he said, "Big business is not dangerous because it is big, but because its bigness is an unwholesome inflation created by privileges and exemptions which it ought not to enjoy."
If George Bush is really going to take responsibility for the renewal of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, his most serious responsibility in the months and years to come will be to ensure that the hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars that are assigned to that endeavor do not merely enrich corporations that have contributed to his campaign and employed his vice president.
The president broke faith with the American people when, after Hurricane Katrina hit, he lost sight of his responsibility to provide immediate and sufficient aid to those most in need. If he now seeks to redeem himself, he must take personal responsibility for making sure that the promise of renewal is not squandered on profiteering.
The Hurricane and its aftermath have, rightly, seized our attention. I find it hard to focus on other news--even the growing violence in Iraq. But there is a world turning and churning out there. So, when a new (and wrinkled chapter) in possibly the biggest end-of-year story--Ukraine's Orange Revolution"--sprang into the papers in these last days, I didn't pay enough attention to it.
But then I remembered the extraordinary street protests in Kiev. Who could forget the riveting images of the thousands of demonstrators, many of them students, standing for hours in the city's Independence Square in sub-zero temperatures--waving banners, chanting and protesting 12 years of corrupt misrule and what they believed was a rigged election?
But while there was something exhilirating about the democratic awakening in Kiev and other cities, there was also a good deal of rank hypocrisy on display in Washington, DC. As I wrote then: This Administration celebrates pro-democracy rallies abroad, while showing no respect for America's pro-democracy protesters. And despite the exhiliration as The Guardian's Jonathan Steele noted at the time, "to suggest that [opposition candidate Viktor Yuschenko] would provide a sea-change in Ukrainian politics and economic management is naive."
Just last week, events revealed how political infighting, accusations of corruption and pitched battles over power and property have sullied the democratic hopes of those pro-democracy protesters. The skirmishes also remind us how tough it is to translate people power into viable political change.
For an insightful analysis of the past week's developments in Ukraine--and their significance for the future of a revolution which so galvanized the world's attention--I asked Mark von Hagen, the Boris Bakhmeteff Professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at Columbia University, for his reflections.
"This wasn't the future for which we froze on Independence Square lastwinter," laments the internet site of Pora, the political party thatclaims its origins in last year's Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Themajor source of discontent with the now dismissed government ofPresident Viktor Yushchenko has been a perception that it has becomebogged down in cronyism, corruption and counterproductive internalconflicts.
The crisis that brought on the dramatic events of last week--first thetelevised resignation of the president's State Secretary (his chief ofthe presidential administration) with demands for the resignation ofseveral other members of the government on charges that they havebetrayed the orange revolution for their personal financial gains,then the President's televised dismissal of the entire government andappointment of caretaker ministers, and most recently the angryresponses of two of the fired ministers (Prime Minister YuliaTymoshenko and Deputy Premier Mykola Tomenko)--was the culmination ofprocesses that were set in motion almost as soon as Yushchenko wasinaugurated in January.
First, the new government structure was designed to disperse power andcreated at least two (the Prime Minister and the National Defense andSecurity Council under Petro Poroshenko) and possibly three (thepresidential administration itself) axes of power that sentconflicting orders to the ministries and their officials. This wasoverlaid and in part motivated by the rival personal and politicalambitions of Tymoshenko and Poroshenko, nicknamed the "Chocolate King"for his oligarchic status in the sugar industry. Ukraine facesparliamentary elections next spring and a likely redistribution ofpower from a presidential to a parliamentary republic, in line withthe compromise worked out in December to resolve the political crisisthen. Tymoshenko represents a relatively more statist approach toeconomic reform, whereas the Poroshenko-Yushchenko team favor fastermarketization and privatization.
Almost from the start, the new government has been perceived by themedia and in opinion polls as riddled with conflicts ofinterest. Several ministers and other high-ranking officialsmaintained their profitable businesses after they took office and havecontinued to enrich themselves. This public discontent hit close tothe president's home this summer when the internet newspaperUkrainskaya Pravda published a story about the president's 19-year-oldson observed driving a BMW valued at Euro 133,000 on the streets ofKyiv, parking it illegally in the middle of a residential street, andalso sporting a very expensive cell phone. The president's firstreaction was to attack the press for doing the dirty work of theopposition (and hinting at other nefarious forces). Unfortunately,this has not been uncharacteristic of the government's responses toother exposes. The Minister of Justice was defended by both Poroshenkoand Yushchenko when it was learned that the PhD in political sciencethat he claimed to have earned at Columbia University on his officialwebsite never happened. Later the Minister even charged that hackershad violated the Columbia University registrar's system andmanipulated his records. At least in the case of the President's son,there was a different outcome. After hundreds of Ukrainian journalistscriticized the president harshly for his treatment of a fellowjournalist and for his government's attitude to the press in general,Yuschenko held a hand of peace to the offended journalist andnewspaper and apologized for his "father's" defensive impulse.
How to put this in some perspective?
Unfortunately, cronyism, corruption and even falsified credentials arehardly unique to Ukraine, as we learned again in the tragic anddisgraceful Hurricane Katrina history.
And that all this controversy has become known and is the subject of alively and critical media is a change, we hope, for the better. ThatUkraine appears to have a genuine political opposition that has accessto the media distinguishes its current situation from those in nearbyneighbors to the north, east and south. Similarly Ukraine has beenmore open to the NGO sector (including those supported frominternational sources) and did, after all, witness the most promisingpeople's movement in the region for several years.
At another level, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has nowhere thepolitical clout and inclination to reactionary nationalism that it hasin Russia; in Ukraine the Orthodox are split themselves, but also facea resurgent Greek-Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants, and a muchsmaller Jewish revival. These are generally positive trends.
Where will things go from here? Much depends on how Yushchenko reformshis government and what the new opposition will feel it can accomplishin the runup to the elections. The first two appointments, one asacting prime minister of an uncontroversial technocrat who hassurvived a couple regimes (Yekhanurov) and the second as new chief ofthe presidential administration of a former deputy minister forEuropean affairs (Rybachuk), send mixed signals. The first is seen assomeone who will not rock the boat and allow the president to reemergeas the leader of the state. The second enjoys a generally goodreputation, but is close to the president and a trusted aide. It'sclear that, as Tomenko--one of the ministers who resigned in protestbefore he could be fired--said, one stage of the Orange revolution hasclearly come to an end.
One can hope that a new government will get the nation moving forwardagain, but the experience of the past half year has reminded us to becautious when hoping that people power translates into real politicalchange.
In the first few days of John G. Roberts, Jr.'s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, most Senators have focused their questions on his views of privacy, precedent and free speech. So far, only Sen. Russell Feingold has asked Roberts about national security and civil liberties, a critical area of jurisprudence in this post 9/11 age.
As Raj Purohit writes today in TomPaine.com, a Chief Justice Roberts would guide the court's decisions on cases that test the Bush Administration's determination to emphasize the prevention of terrorism over both the rights of Americans and the rule of law. If the recent past is any guide, the Supreme Court could soon rule on the White House's efforts to wordsmith its definition of torture; the rendition of suspected terrorists to countries that openly employ torture; the indefinite detention of American citizens without trial; the Pentagon's Guantanamo tribunals, the scope of US obligations under treaties like Geneva, and various Constitutionally shaky provisions of the Patriot Act. And Roberts' record suggests he'll be strongly inclined to vote in favor of ever-expanding executive branch powers.
Unfortunately, the Democrats appear completely unable to stop or even slow Roberts, who seems to have obtained reasonable, nice-guy status by virtue of his John Edwards-like smile and his measured manner. Consequently, wrote The Nation's David Corn in his Capital Games blog, they can only have one political objective: to boost the number of "no" votes to Bush's nominee for Supreme Court Chief Justice. This would allow the Democrats to claim their party is the one that cares about privacy rights and could help lay the groundwork for opposition to Bush's next Supreme Court pick, in the likely instance of an extremist nominee.
This is where you can still help. If our legislators can be convinced that the political price of supporting Roberts is at least as great as that of opposing him, then we may yet see some backbone. Click here to send a letter to your elected reps imploring them to oppose Roberts' nomination. And find resources at the Alliance for Justice's Supreme Court Watch site detailing exactly why he's the wrong choice for Chief Justice. (The site has a running podCast of the senate hearings, too.) People for the American Way has also put out an excellent fact-sheet on Roberts's record as well as a campus activism toolkit.
Hurricane Katrina Relief
Click here to see a list of progressive, grassroots organizations, collected by Adam Howard, that we think are worthy recipients of hurricane relief donations. These groups are already on the ground and are dedicated to delivering aid to those who need it most.
The Moving Ideas Network has also just published a Hurricane Katrina progressive policy and action guide which is well worth checking out. It features a collection of articles and media coverage on the disaster as well as a call to support an independent Katrina Commission that would fully assess why it took so long for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to respond and how we can improve preparedness for future natural disasters.
Good for Shaq!
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- Shaquille O'Neal provided an assist to police over the weekend, trailing a man who allegedly assaulted a gay couple before alerting an arresting officer.
The 7-foot-1 Miami Heat center, who is in the process of becoming a Miami Beach reserve officer, was driving on South Beach around 3 a.m. Sunday. He saw a passenger in a car yell anti-gay slurs at the couple, who were walking, said Bobby Hernandez, a spokesman for the Miami Beach Police Department.
The man then got out of the car and threw a bottle, hitting one of the pedestrians, who was not seriously hurt. The man got back in the car, which sped off. O'Neal followed, flagging down an officer who made an arrest.
Last spring, in an attempt to make President Bush appear to be more of a regular guy, the White House released a list of the tunes the commander-in-chief was listening to on his iPod. The list featured mostly country, alt-country and blues artists, including John Fogerty, John Hiatt, Alan Jackson, George Jones and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Perhaps the most interesting name on Bush's listening list was that of James McMurtry, the brilliant Austin-based songwriter who used his 2004 live CD to poke fun at the president's attempts to fake a Texaser-than-thou accent.
McMurtry responded to the news that Bush's playlist included his song "Valley Road" by politely suggesting that the president might not be the most serious listener of his songs, which frequently detail the damage done to Americans by rampaging corporatists and an uncaring government.
In case there was any doubt about the differences between George W. Bush's worldview and James McMurtry's, the musician posted a savage critique of the president and his pals, "We Can't Make It Here," on his Web site shortly before last year's election. That song, a haunting reflection on corporate globalization and wars of whim, was the highlight of McMurtry's set last month when he played at Camp Casey, the protest vigil organized outside the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch by Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq.
McMurtry did not write the song to cheer on Sheehan's demand that the president meet with her. Nor did he write it in response to White House neglect of the suffering along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But "We Can't Make It Here" captured the mood of the moment in Crawford, just as parts of this epic song touch on sentiments that run deep among the evacuees from New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile and all the other battered communities of the southeast.
Ultimately, however, "We Can't Make It Here" is about more than the White House's failures with regard to one mother or one crisis. It is about the dismissal of thousands of neglected communities and millions of neglected Americans who -- without the benefit of media attention -- regularly echo the the blunt closing cry of McMurtry's song for attention to the working poor who have lost their jobs to "free trade" and federal neglect and their children to a war founded on lies.
Written in the voice of a textile worker whose job was lost when a factory was shuttered and the production sent overseas, McMurtry closes his opus by asking:
Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I'm in
Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today
No I hate the men sent the jobs away
I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
All lily white and squeaky clean
They've never known want, they'll never know need
Their sh- - don't stink and their kids won't bleed
Their kids won't bleed in the damn little war
And we can't make it here anymore
Will work for food
Will die for oil
Will kill for power and to us the spoils
The billionaires get to pay less tax
The working poor get to fall through the cracks
Let 'em eat jellybeans let 'em eat cake
Let 'em eat sh- -, whatever it takes
They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps
If they can't make it here anymore
And that's how it is
That's what we got
If the president wants to admit it or not
You can read it in the paper
Read it on the wall
Hear it on the wind
If you're listening at all
Get out of that limo
Look us in the eye
Call us on the cell phone
Tell us all why
George Bush refused to look Cindy Sheehan in the eye. He won't do any better by the workers who share the experience James McMurtry portrays. And, while this particular singer may have a place on the presidential iPod, he won't be singing at the White House anytime soon. But he will be singing to America. McMurtry begins touring this week in support of a great new album, Childish Things, which includes the track "We Can't Make It Here." (Readers can find the schedule at www.jamesmcmurtry.com) Don't make the mistake of missing the man whose songs speak more truth about America in five minutes than George W. Bush has in five years.
Before the John Roberts confirmation hearings began, progressive opponents of Bush's pick to be chief justice were fretting that the media attention given to the Katrina mess would prevent Democrats from using the hearings to make a public case against Roberts. Now I'm thinking that maybe--in a way--it was good that the public is not seeing much of the Roberts hearings. The Democrats have not succeeded in depicting him as a danger to Americans. As I previously wrote, most of the Democratic members of the judiciary committee spent the first day of the hearings--the warm-up day--fixating on process questions, such as whether they had the right to ask Roberts questions about his views. (See the post below.) Day 2 was the supposed to be the main attraction: question time for Roberts. And it came as no surprise that a fellow who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court was able to deftly handle the queries from the Dems. That's not to say that he always was right in his answers or bested his interrogator on debate points. But the Democrats landed few blows. They can huff that he did not answer questions about Roe while he did about Brown v. Board of Education. But Roberts--as was his mission--provided them little ammunition. He displayed a gentle and thoughtful manner. And appearances do matter. (Just ask Robert Bork if he wishes he had shaved off his less-than-stylish beard.) Roberts sounded reasonable, as he ducked critical matters or parried with Democrats.
Right off, Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the chairman of the committee, led Roberts through the critical issue of the hearings. He asked Roberts about Roe and the principle of stare decisis. Roberts quoted James Hamilton in the Federalist Papers that judges need to be "bound down by rules and precedents." He said all the right things about the importance of precedent and the value of stare decisis. He noted that precedent can only be overturned in limited cases. But he would not talk specifically about Roe, noting he feels "the need to stay away from the discussion of specific cases." Specter several times described Roe as well-established precedent, calling it a "super-duper" precedent. Roberts thoughtfully discussed the abstract notion of precedent. But he said nothing about how stare decisis might be applied to future cases involving abortion rights. This duet produced rhetoric useful to each participant. Specter trumpeted his support for abortion rights and argued that Roe should not be overturned. Roberts praised precedent as a guiding but not inviolable principle without making any commitments to protect Roe.
Then various Democrats took their turns. Senator Pat Leahy tussled with Roberts about a decades-old memo in which he seemed to suggest presidents--not Congress--can decide whether to wage war. Roberts claimed--politely--that Leahy was "vastly over-reading" the memo and added that he merely had been representing the position of his boss at the time, the president. Senator Ted Kennedy challenged Roberts on positions he had taken--or represented--on civil rights law when he worked for the Reagan administration. Roberts revived arguments the Reaganites had used to oppose certain remedies for discrimination. This produced much spirited much back and forth over legal matters years old. That's not to say this stuff is not important. But I doubt the debate over the Grove City decision would resonate with a general audience. Under the questioning of Senator Joseph Biden and other Democrats, Roberts did say that the Constitution contained a right to privacy. But he would not say whether such a right covered abortion. Biden cornered Roberts once or twice--but not in any fashion that would matter much beyond the committee room.
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Senator Russell Feingold inquired about an ethics matter. In April, Roberts, an appellate court judge, heard a case involving the Bush administration six days after he was interviewed by administration officials for a possible Supreme Court vacancy. Feingold asked why did he not recuse himself. Roberts refused to explain. At the hearings, Roberts opponents were telling reporters that Senator Dianne Feinstein was likely to cause the biggest sparks of the day by questioning Roberts on Roe. But she fared no better. As she pressed him, he continued to bob and weave in his artful and unflappable manner. At the end of the day, the Democrats had extracted little of political use. The Democratic Party did issue a press release headlined: "Roberts Watch--Day Two: A Day of Evasion, Obstruction and Distortion." Its examples were not unconvincing. But neither were they likely to change the course of the nomination.
There was probably not much the Democrats could have done. Roberts is a smart, savvy, and smooth attorney. The legal issues at hand do not translate well into soundbites. But I wonder what might have happened had one Democratic senator taken a less conventional approach to the legalistic questioning. Imagine if Feinstein had asked Roberts: "You indicated that Brown v. Board of Education was decided correctly. Would you tell us if you believe Roe v. Wade was decided correctly?" Roberts would have ducked and dodged, of course. But what if she asked the question again. Maybe once more. Then looked at the clock and said, "I have 28 minutes left. I am going to wait all that time for an answer because I think Americans should know whether the next chief justice of Supreme Court believes abortion rights ought to be protected or not." And then stared at him for 28 minutes. Would that have been a galvanizing moment? Who knows? But it sure would have made the point more strongly than any of the exchanges that occurred.
Good news on Roberts? In Tuesday's Washington Post, reporter Chuck Lane writes about a study compiled by a professor who studied all of Roberts' decisions in his two-year stint as a federal appeals court judge and found that he was four times more conservative than the average appeals court judge on civil rights and civil liberties cases, about average on criminal justice cases, and sort of liberal on cases involving economic and labor matters. Kenneth Manning, the University of Massachusetts professor who did this study, said, "The general read I got was of a non-activist stance--a general reluctance to go out of his way and rule against government regulators. If the EPA ruled against the chemical industry, the general tendency was to defer to the agency." I don't vouch for this study. But maybe Roberts is not as awful-awful as his foes fear. In any event, given how the hearings are going, wishing is a reasonable exercise.
The events of the past two weeks have laid bare America's secret: that poverty abounds in this profoundly unequal nation. As the body count in New Orleans rises, it has become abundantly clear that the plight of America's poor--who have suffered particularly harsh setbacks in the past three decades--is nothing short of an epidemic. Yet throughout this era of rollbacks and blind-eye politics, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now (ACORN) has tirelessly fought back on behalf of our nation's other half. This week, we offer a special Sweet Victory tribute to a fearless organization that has long stood on the forefront of the movement for economic justice.
In 1970, Wade Rathke arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, and organized a drive to help welfare recipients attain clothing and furniture. Months later, the Arkansas Community Organization for Reform Now--a broad-based coalition that had grown out of Rathke's early efforts--was taking on Arkansas Power and Light, one of the state's largest corporate players. ACORN demanded compensation for local farmers whose livelihoods were endangered by AP&L's plans for a new power plant. After months of organized pressure from ACORN, AP&L backed down and dropped the plans altogether.
A decade later, ACORN had expanded into twenty different states and was creating national headlines with its nine-point "People's Platform" and squatting campaign, which hammered the issue of affordable housing into the national discourse. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, ACORN fought vigilantly against insurance redlining--a practice that, thanks largely to ACORN's efforts, is now illegal--and helped secure housing for thousands of low-income individuals.
In recent years, ACORN has been a critical player in the living wage movement and has battled courageously against the practice of predatory lending, winning a landmark settlement in a nationwide class-action suit against Household Finance (now under HSBC) in 2003. ACORN has also created alternative public schools in several cities, improved health conditions for residents living in toxic environments and worked to tear down barriers to enfranchisement across the country. In 2004 alone, ACORN members registered more than 1.1 million new voters.
Today, ACORN has an active membership of 175,000 member families, with 850 neighborhood chapters in seventy-five cities across America. In 2004, ACORN became an international organization, opening chapters in Canada, the Dominican Republic and Peru. ACORN's website features more on the organization's history and a complete list of its astounding accomplishments.
It is a tragic irony that ACORN--an organization that has perhaps done more than any other to support those whom our government has left behind--was among the victims of Katrina's aftermath. Its national headquarters, which are located New Orleans, have been severely damaged, and now ACORN needs your help. As I've suggested in previous weblogs, please consider making a donation so that ACORN can build a temporary headquarters, get back on its feet and continue to do its vital work. In times like these, we need ACORN more than ever.
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Finally, a brief Sweet Victory nod to Representative John Conyers and his fellow Progressive Caucus members Representative Mel Watt, Representative Jerrold Nadler, and Representative Sheila Jackson Lee for their stand against the Bankruptcy Bill. The bill, which is slated to take effect on October 17, will be another devastating blow to the tens of thousands of displaced and debt-ridden New Orleanians. Conyers and others need our help in their effort to exempt the victims of Katrina from this cruel bill that unjustly penalizes the poor. Contact your representatives and urge them to act in the interests of people over corporate interests. If not now, when?