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Federal Bill Calls on Universities to Enact Anti-Harassment Policies

US Capitol

US Capitol Building in Washington, DC (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

This article was originally published in the student-run Yale Daily News.

Under a bill introduced in Congress Thursday, colleges and universities would be required by the federal government to enact anti-harassment policies for the first time.

The bill—named for Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman who committed suicide in 2010 after being harassed by another student—would require policies prohibiting harassment at any institution receiving federal student aid funding. Because nearly all colleges and universities in the United States—including Yale—receive some level of federal student aid funding, the mandate would effectively be universal. Although the University is among those that already have harassment policies in place, the bill would nevertheless seek to strengthen federal support for and control over such policies.

The bill would prohibit harassment by other students, faculty or staff on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion. Included in the bill is a recognition of and prohibition on cyberbullying. If passed, colleges and universities would also be required to distribute their anti-harassment policies to students and employees.

“No student or employee should have to live in fear of being who they are. Our schools should not be, and cannot be a place of discrimination, harassment, bullying, intimidation or violence,” said Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who introduced the bill, in a statement. “This legislation is an important step forward in not only preventing and addressing harassment on campus, but also making sure our students have the freedom to succeed in safe and healthy communities of learning and achievement.”

Though Yale has not publicly taken a stance on the bill, University spokesman Tom Conroy said Yale is firmly opposed to harassment and discrimination of any kind.

Baldwin cited a 2004 study by Rowan University in which 27.5 percent of college students indicated they had seen students bullied by other students. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students are twice as likely to experience harassment, according to the study.

If passed, the bill would also create a competitive grant program, run by the US Department of Education, through which institutions can apply to create, expand or improve anti-harassment initiatives.

“The reason why it’s important to have this legislation explicitly is because it holds institutions accountable to creating a hostile environment rather than just the perpetrator of the harassment,” said Hope Brinn, a co-founder of college preparation resource The Collegiate Blog, and an activist against sexual violence at Swarthmore College.

Students at Yale indicated that though the bill may not have immediate ramifications for Yale specifically, it demonstrates the government’s increased attention to the problem of harassment.

“I personally think this is a great step forward in the right direction by the US government,” said Winnie Wang ’15. “This bill reminds us that harassment is a form of sexual and gender-based violence, is greater than ‘just a women’s problem,’ and that we should have zero tolerance for such behavior on college campuses across America.”

Lindsay Falkenberg ’15, who is involved in the Undergraduate Title IX Advisory Board, said she is generally glad to see the bill focus on harassment through technology. Though cyberbullying may be more relevant to younger generations, college-aged adults are still not entirely safe from technology-based harassment, she said.

But Falkenberg is also wary of an approach to minimizing sexual misconduct exclusively through policy. She pointed to work that could be done on the “micro level,” such as changing campus climate through discussions and awareness events.

“There is already so much discussion of policy and efforts on policy [at Yale],” she said. “But there’s only so much that policy can do.”

The bill currently has thirty-two co-sponsors in the House and seven in the Senate, among them Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73. All of the co-sponsors in both chambers are Democrats.

A number of civil rights, legal and education organizations have thrown their support behind the bill, including the Human Rights Campaign, the National Women’s Law Center and the American Association for University Women. Nevertheless, the bill has a slew of hurdles to jump over before landing on President Barack Obama’s desk.

When an earlier version was introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg in 2011, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) took a strong stance against it, claiming that existing laws already protected students against on-campus harassment. FIRE added that “young adults don’t need special laws that treat them like children.”

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Brinn countered FIRE’s claim that existing laws are enough. Because homophobic harassment can be construed as harassment based on gender presentation, Brinn said, it can fall under Title IX. However, she added that it is still important for institutions of higher education to explicitly state that homophobic harassment is not tolerated on their campuses. Introduced in February 2013, the House version of the bill has remained in committee for over a year. It remains to be seen whether the introduction of the Senate bill will lead to movement in the House.

The House version of the bill was introduced on the same day that Rutgers announced the creation of a Tyler Clementi Center, which aims to support teaching and research that address challenges students face when transitioning to college.

 

Read Next: A Q&A with Northeastern's Students For Justice in Palestine.

#CancelColbert and the Return of the Anti-Liberal Left

Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert gestures during the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" on the National Mall in Washington. (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

Perhaps every political generation is fated to be appalled by the one that succeeds it. In the 1960s, longtime socialist intellectuals were horrified by the anarchic energies of the new left. Then some of those new leftists reached middle age and watched, aghast, as new speech codes proliferated on college campuses during the first iteration of political correctness. I was in college then and am now in my thirties, which means it’s my turn to be dismayed by a growing left-wing tendency towards censoriousness and hair-trigger offense.

It’s increasingly clear that we are entering a new era of political correctness. Recently, we’ve seen the calls to #CancelColbert because of something outrageous said by Stephen Colbert’s blowhard alter ego, who has been saying outrageous things regularly for nine years. Then there’s the sudden demand for “trigger warnings” on college syllabi, meant to protect students from encountering ideas or images that may traumatize them; an Oberlin faculty document even suggests jettisoning “triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” At Wellesley, students have petitioned to have an outdoor statue of a lifelike sleepwalking man removed because it was causing them “undue stress.” As I wrote in The Nation, there’s pressure in some circles not to use the word “vagina” in connection with reproductive rights, lest it offend trans people.

Nor is this just happening here. In England’s left-wing New Statesman, Sarah Ditum wrote of the spread of no-platforming—essentially stopping people whose ideas are deemed offensive from speaking publicly. She cites the shouting down of an opponent of the BDS movement at Galway University and the threats and intimidation leveled at the radical feminist Julie Bindel, who has said cruel things about trans people. “No platform now uses the pretext of opposing hate speech to justify outrageously dehumanising language, and sets up an ideal of ‘safe spaces’ within which certain individuals can be harassed,” wrote Ditum. “A tool that was once intended to protect democracy from undemocratic movements has become a weapon used by the undemocratic against democracy.”

Call it left-wing anti-liberalism: the idea, captured by Herbert Marcuse in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance,” that social justice demands curbs on freedom of expression. “[I]t is possible to define the direction in which prevailing institutions, policies, opinions would have to be changed in order to improve the chance of a peace which is not identical with cold war and a little hot war, and a satisfaction of needs which does not feed on poverty, oppression, and exploitation,” he wrote. “Consequently, it is also possible to identify policies, opinions, movements which would promote this chance, and those which would do the opposite. Suppression of the regressive ones is a prerequisite for the strengthening of the progressive ones.”

Note here both the belief that correct opinions can be dispassionately identified, and the blithe confidence in the wisdom of those empowered to do the suppressing. This kind of thinking is only possible at certain moments: when liberalism seems to have failed but the right is not yet in charge. At such times, old-fashioned liberal values like free speech and robust, open debate seem like tainted adjuncts of an oppressive system, and it’s still possible for radicals to believe that the ideas suppressed as hateful won’t be their own. 

“One of the most striking characteristics of ‘60s radicalism was its aversion to liberalism,” wrote Alice Echols in Daring to Be Bad, her history of radical feminism. “Radicals’ repudiation of liberalism was not immediate; rather, it developed in response to liberalism’s defaults—specifically, its timidity regarding black civil rights and its escalation of the Vietnam War.” Something similar, albeit on a much smaller scale, happened after Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it, and it’s happening now, as economic misery persists under Barack Obama. There’s disenchantment not just with electoral politics, but with liberal values as a whole. “White liberal” has, once again, emerged as a favorite left-wing epithet.

At times like this, politics contract. On the surface, the rhetoric appears more ambitious and utopian than ever—witness, for example, the apparently sincere claim by Suey Park, creator of the #CancelColbert hashtag, that Twitter activists intend to “dismantle the state.” But at the same time, activism becomes less about winning converts and changing the world and more about creating protected enclaves and policing speech. As the radical cultural critic Ellen Willis wrote in 1997, at another moment of widespread left-wing illiberalism, “It’s the general repressiveness of the social climate that encourages moves to ban offensive speech or define any form of sexual oppression in the workplace as sexual harassment. The main effect of these maneuvers is to foment confusion, cynicism and sexual witch-hunts, trivialize sexual violence, and legitimize conservative demands for censorship—while at the same time ceding the moral high ground of free expression to the right.”

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There’s a cure for this sort of thing, though it’s worse than the disease. When the right takes power, the left usually discovers the importance of unfettered speech. In the 1980s, with conservatives leading a crusade against the National Endowment for the Arts for funding projects deemed anti-Christian and pornographic, tolerance no longer seemed quite so repressively bourgeois. The same was true during the Bush administration, when opposition to the Iraq War got Phil Donahue fired from MSNBC and the Dixie Chicks pulled off radio playlists nationwide. That’s why the Colbert Report was so cathartic when it first appeared—his relentless mockery cut through the bombastic jingoism, the right wing political correctness, that was stifling us.

It’s no surprise, of course, that right-wingers like Michelle Malkin, author of a defense of Japanese internment, glommed on to the recent anti-Colbert campaign. Anti-liberalism is, after all, supremely useful to the right. Some day president Paul Ryan or Ted Cruz or Rand Paul is going to be sworn in, and an ascendant, empowered conservatism will once again try to curtail dissent in pop culture and academia, just as it always does. Public art won’t be taken down because it’s considered triggering—it will be taken down (or covered up) because it’s considered indecent. There might be another #CancelColbert campaign, but it won’t come from the left. Maybe people will be ashamed, then, that this one did.

Read Next: Julia Carrie Wong asks why the media is so afraid of Suey Park

Rick Perry Says Texas Won’t Comply With Federal Standards to Curb Prison Rape

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during a discussion on "Criminal Justice Reform" at the CPAC Conference in Maryland, March 7, 2014. (AP Photo)

Texas Governor Rick Perry said in a letter that his state will not comply with some federal requirements intended to curb prison rape, the Associated Press reported.

In a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Perry wrote that Texas will not be able to meet standards under the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), calling the law “a counterproductive and unnecessarily cumbersome and costly regulatory mess for the states.”

“The governor seems to be surrendering on issues of preventing sexual abuse in his state,” Chris Daley, Deputy Executive Director of Just Detention International, told The Nation. “It’s particularly alarming, given that Texas regularly shows up as one of the states with the worst rates of sexaul abuse in its prisons.”

Five of the ten US prisons with the highest rates of inmate-reported rapes are in Texas, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In two Texas prisons—Hughes Unit and Allred Unit—more than 7.6 percent of inmates reported being raped by another inmate, compared with 2.1 percent nationally.

President George W. Bush signed PREA in 2003, a landmark law that established a National Prison Rape Reduction Commission to conduct studies and put forth rules to eliminate prison rape. The commission’s rules, finalized in 2012, require prisons separate adult and juvenile inmates, stop cross-gender pat-downs of juveniles and restrict staff from viewing inmates of the opposite sex shower, change clothes or use the restroom.

Governor Perry claimed the cross-gender viewing provision would be impossible to implement, since women make up forty percent of Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) correctional officers at all-male units. Perry also invoked states rights in objecting to a provision forcing prisons to stop treating seventeen-year-olds as adults, saying it would cost Texas too much.

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Daley objects to Perry’s claim that the PREA rules were “created in a vacuum with little regard for input from those who daily operate state prisons and local jails.” In fact, Daley notes, the PREA commission held several hearings and public comment sessions with corrections officials as it developed its guidelines. TDCJ officials provided comments and letters of input throughout the process.

Lance Lowry, president of a local corrections officers union in Huntsville, told the AP that refusing to adopt PREA standards could open up TDJC and its staff to lawsuits, calling Perry’s letter “short-sighted.” Amy Fettig, Senior Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Texas is willfully refusing to take measures that would certainly protect some prisoners from rape.

“If they refuse to implement PREA, what they’re essentially saying is ‘We don’t take protecting people from sexual abuse seriously,’” Fettig told The Nation. “This is opening up Texas to a huge liability. You can bet we’re going to watch it.”

 

Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on the roots of the school-to-prison pipeline

How Paul Ryan's Budget Paves the Way for Another Financial Crisis

Rep. Paul Ryan leaves a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, April 2, 2014 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Representative Paul Ryan released his budget blueprint this week, and fans of his work were no doubt pleased: it called for $5 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, focused heavily on domestic, non-military spending. Safety net programs like Medicaid and food stamps would face savage cuts, and the Affordable Health Care Act would be repealed entirely. Meanwhile, both corporate and individual tax rates would be lowered.

It is easy to make the case that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer under Ryan’s so-called “Path to Prosperity” plan: one needs only to look at the literally trillions cut from Medicaid and food stamps while the rich pay much less in taxes.

But it’s important to refine that point and note that the financial sector in particular gets many special favors in the Ryan plan. After all, it is one of Ryan’s leading benefactors and he can even be spotted sipping $350 bottles of wine with industry leaders from time to time. And his budget is no doubt a path to prosperity for them.  

Moreover, in three crucial ways Ryan's budget not only gives Wall Street more leeway to act recklessly, but makes it more likely that average Americans face the consequences.

Cutting the Securities and Exchange Commission budget: Already, the head of the SEC is complaining that her agency’s budget is not nearly adequate to police the country’s massive financial sector. In a speech earlier this year at SEC headquarters, director Mary Jo White said, “our funding falls significantly short of the level we need to fulfill our mission to investors, companies and the markets.” The SEC has only 4,200 employees, but must regulate eighteen different stock exchanges and over 25,000 different market participants—and the agency’s responsibilities are growing thanks to new mandates from the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation.

Ryan has a much different take in his budget: he thinks the SEC is just too big. He doesn’t apply a dollar figure, but makes it clear the agency’s already meager budget should be substantially “streamlined.”

“In the run-up to the financial crisis and its aftermath, the SEC repeatedly failed to fulfill any part of its mission,” his blueprint notes, ticking off a familiar list of whiffs, from the unsound nature of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers to the Ponzi schemes run by Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff.

So far, so good. But Ryan goes on: “These failures have taken place despite significant increases in funding at the SEC, which has seen its budget increase almost sixty-six percent since 2004.”

Apparently, the extra money was the problem. “This resolution questions the premise that more funding for the SEC means better, smarter regulation. Adding reams of regulations to the books and scores of regulators to the payrolls will not provide greater transparency, consumer protection and enforcement for increasingly complex markets. Instead, the SEC should streamline and make more efficient its operations and resources.”

In short: since the SEC failed to adequately police Wall Street at a time its budget was increasing, the magic solution would be to cut the agency’s budget, because ipso facto the agency’s performance would get better.

This line of thinking would not be unfamiliar to those who follow Ryan’s recommendations for federal anti-poverty programs, and it’s just as wrong here as it is there. As the agency’s director herself pointed out (on several different occasions), the SEC plainly needs more resources to conduct better regulation of a huge financial sector. Ryan provides no evidence, aside from that odd logical twist, that reducing the number of SEC staffers poring over filings from hedge funds would somehow increase oversight of those outfits.

Transferring the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau budget to Congress: Here Ryan resurrects a longstanding GOP proposal: that Congress, not the Federal Reserve, should fund the CFPB.

As it stands now, the bureau’s budget is essentially guaranteed. It can ask the Federal Reserve for funding up to a certain cap, and that request cannot be denied. The caps are fixed percentages of the Fed’s operating expenses. This guarantees autonomy from a Congress where many members (like, say, Ryan) are elected thanks to campaign contributions from the big financial institutions the CFPB polices.

Ryan claims to have a problem with this arrangement only because the Federal Reserve’s profits are supposed to be returned to the Treasury to reduce the deficit, but instead a portion of them are siphoned off to a new bureaucracy—one in which he suggests via scare quotes is ineffective. “Now, instead of directing these remittances to reduce the deficit, Dodd-Frank requires diverting a portion of them to pay for a new bureaucracy with the authority to write far-reaching rules on financial products and restrict credit to the very customers it seeks to ‘protect,’” says the blueprint.

CFPB funding would thus be transferred to Congress under the Ryan plan, and subject to annual appropriations. He doesn’t say what Congress should do with that budget once its under legislators control, but one needs only to look to his SEC budget proposals to get a sense of what would likely happen.

Ensuring Taxpayer Bailouts of Big Banks: This is another up-is-down situation where a lot of unpacking of Ryan’s language is needed. His budget says:

Although the proponents of Dodd-Frank went to great lengths to denounce bailouts, this law only sustains them. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation now has the authority to access taxpayer dollars in order to bail out the creditors of large, ‘‘systemically significant’’ financial institutions. This resolution calls for ending this regime, now enshrined into law, which paves the way for future bailouts. House Republicans put forth an enhanced bankruptcy alternative that—instead of rewarding corporate failure with taxpayer dollars—would place the responsibility for large, failing firms in the hands of the shareholders who own them, the managers who run them, and the creditors who finance them.

Sounds good! But that would actually accomplish the exact opposite.

Indeed, Dodd-Frank gave the FDIC the power to wind down too-big-to-fail banks, which is called “resolution authority.” In a crisis, if a failing bank is deemed too big for traditional bankruptcy, a panel of bankruptcy judges can place it in receivership under the FDIC. That FDIC in turn then makes a plan for winding down the institution safely—something Barney Frank called a “death panel” for big banks.

Crucially, under this structure, taxpayers can’t end up paying for this wind down—Dodd-Frank explicitly forbids it. Any taxpayer money used upfront to ease the firm into bankruptcy would be recouped by a structured sale of the bank’s assets. (Note that Ryan sneakily says the FDIC has the authority to “access taxpayer dollars,” eliding the fact that in the end it has to pay them back.)

Ryan’s alternative is to end FDIC’s resolution authority and simply “place the responsibility for large, failing firms in the hands of the shareholders who own them, the managers who run them, and the creditors who finance them.”

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That’s akin to just saying “it will all work out.” It is unlikely in the extreme that the shareholders and managers can somehow bail out a failing big bank, especially in a crisis. Inevitably, Congress and thus taxpayers would have to step in, without any of the established authority like asset sales that the FDIC now possesses.

Ryan’s plan would lead to more taxpayer bailouts of failing big banks—and by stripping down the budgets of the agencies meant to oversee those institutions, make failure more likely in the first place. But in the meantime, his friends on Wall Street could enjoy less regulation, less oversight, and more comfort that taxpayers will someday come to the rescue.

Read Next: John Nichols on a new Supreme Court ruling that locks in big money to politics.

The Palestine Talks Break Down (Haven't We Seen That Headline Before?)

Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Gali Tibbon/Pool)

Blaming the Palestinians for the apparent breakdown in Secretary of State John Kerry’s ill-fated shuttle diplomacy is like blaming the victim of a mugging for the crime. Kerry’s diplomacy was always a long shot, and not because the problem is so intractable but because Israel’s government is so ultraconservative and so adamant about its God-given right to “Judea and Samaria” that it was never apparent that an accord could be reached.

The only hope for a deal, if one existed, would have been if Kerry had announced his own plan. It had been reported for quite a while that Kerry had a plan in his back pocket that he was going to announce, outlining the shape of a Palestinian-Israeli accord, according to the American idea. Where is the plan? So far, we haven’t seen it. Now that the talks are faltering, it might be the time for Kerry to show his cards.

The Washington Post headlines its piece, “Obama administration scrambles to rescue foundering Mideast peace talks.” In The New York Times, it’s, "Palestinians Defy U.S. and Israel, Leaving Peace Talks in Peril.” What caused the great kerfuffle is simply that the Palestinians delivered 15 letters to United Nations agencies asking, as is their right, to be admitted as members of those agencies—but not, in a gesture to Israel, to the International Criminal Court, under whose jurisdiction they could have brought war crimes charges against Israel. Until now, the Palestinians had held off on joining UN agencies, mostly a symbolic step, in order not to rile the Israelis. But after months of talks that seemed to go nowhere, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his allies had apparently had enough.

The immediate trigger for the Palestinian action was Israel’s refusal, so far, to release the fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, as called for in an interim agreement in 2013. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had balked, and it appears that Kerry was willing to go as far as to offer the release of Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel, in order to induce cooperation from Israel. Nearly everyone who’s looked at that idea has concluded that it’s a terrible one, and anyway, Pollard has nothing to do with the Israel-Palestinian conflict—so it was just an odd sort of bribe to Netanyahu.

But the flap over the latest group of Palestinian prisoners is only a smokescreen for the fact that Israel has no signs of being willing to budge on giving the Palestinians a viable state in the lands occupied by Israeli forces in 1967—which, of course, would mean returning to the 1967 borders, pulling the Jewish settlers out and giving the Palestinians access to a share of Jerusalem for their capital. Kerry, it seems, had tried to persuade Israel to go along with a formula like that, part of which involved working out arrangements for US troops to take up positions along the Jordan River, on what would be the eastern frontier of a Palestinian state, in order to assuage Israeli security concerns. Lots of other details had been worked out, including how long settlements might stay, how long Israeli and international forces might remain in what’s now the occupied West Bank, and more. And Kerry had apparently made initial steps toward amassing many billions of dollars from international sources—funds for Palestinian economic development, for resettling Palestinian refugees, for moving Jewish settlers and even for compensating Israel for the costs of accepting Jewish refugees from Middle East countries over the past decades.

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Were Kerry to release his plan now, it would either (a) reveal that it was so tilted toward Israel that it was hopeless from the start, or (b) put Israel under great pressure to agree to an even-handed plan that has the full support of the United States. In the long history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United States has never once announced a plan of its own or declared its own ideas about what an accord might look like. Instead, under president after president, the United States has always said that it’s “up to the two parties.” But with Israel holding nearly all the cards, that means that any agreement would massively favor the Israeli point of view. Yesterday, a frustrated Kerry threw up his hands, canceled a planned trip to the Middle East, and said, “In the end, it is up to the parties.”

Israel has thrown a series of roadblocks up all along the way, including the most recent, new demand that the Palestinians accept Israel “as a Jewish state,” whatever that means. In Israel's view it seems to mean that Palestinians who currently live inside Israel will always be second-class citizens. In the twenty-first century, what state has the chutzpah to declare (and insist) that it is designed exclusively for a particular ethnic or religious bloc? Well, except for various ultra-Islamic countries, many of which do so in order to placate Muslim extremists within their borders, Israel is the only one. That’s fine, if that’s their choice, but why demand that the Palestinians ratify it before a deal?

 

Read Next: Bernard Avishai on John Judis's new book about Truman and the origins of the Arab/Israeli conflict.

Racial Politics in the New York Theater—With Lyndon Johnson and ‘Satchmo’

LBJ

(Courtesy: LBJ Library)

Two wildly different takes on the racial politics of our time opened in New York theaters in the past two weeks. 

The most heralded: Bryan Cranston, at height of his fame coming off Breaking Bad, on Broadway in All the Way as President Lyndon B. Johnson twisting arms and skulls to promote passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is, by all accounts, a solid, if somewhat wonkish, play with a bravura performance (see New York Times review). Naturally, J. Edgar Hoover, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Richard Russell all put in appearances. Johnson is shown pushing hard, partly because believes in the bill and partly to further his political ends (he needs a big win to prove he deserves to be president). Of course, Vietnam hovers in the distance.

I haven't yet seen the play so let me concentrate on one I did experience, just last night: Satchmo at the Waldorf, written by the estimable Terry Teachout, author of acclaimed books, including biographies of H.L. Mencken--and Louis Armstrong. It, too, puts racial politics upfront, not music.

This may seem odd to some. Armstrong was nothing less than the most important American musician of the last century--and the most influential singer. (Ponder that for a moment.) His recordings from about 1925 to 1932 changed the course of popular music and jazz forever. The play pays tribute to that but it's true aim is elsewhere.

It's set in Armstrong's dressing room at the Waldorf in New York in 1971, where he has just staggered through a performance, practically on his death bed (indeed, he would die of a heart attack a short time later, in his bed). John Douglas Thompson, in this fantastic one-man show, portrays a not-quite-broken "Satchmo" recalling some of the highlights of his life, going back to growing up fatherless and poor in New Orleans, through his breakthrough years in Chicago and New York and onward to world fame and riches. With Teachout at the helm, it adheres closely to facts (and I can vouch for this, having read several Armstrong bios).

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But much of the play revolves around Armstrong's racial identity and relationship with his white, Jewish, mob-connected manager Joe Glaser (also played by Thompson). Slowly we learn how and why Armstrong's stage persona and move away from innovative jazz mainly for black audiences to popular entertaining almost exclusively for whites developed. Glaser wanted the dough and also had to placate his mob partners; he easily exploited Louis, who just wanted to blow--and make people happy, black or white. (Watch part of it here.)

Armstrong was such an ambassador of goodwill it didn't take much arm-twisting. But along with that he lost his creative edge and drew the ire of other black jazz giants, who felt he treated Glaser like his "master" and often acted "minstrely" on stage. Miles Davis (Thompson, again) appears to voice these cruel putdowns. Indeed, most Americans today remember Armstrong for "Hello Dolly," not for the depth of early classics such as "Black and Blue."

But Armstrong counters: He genuinely wanted to please folks. He may have played to segregated audiences in the South--but he was the first to bravely tour there with a mixed-race band. He opened doors for black musicians everywhere (even in Hollywood).   And, in one of the best scenes, he recalls famously cursing out President Eisenhower for moving too slow during the Little Rock school integration crisis. 

In the end, it's a kind of tragedy within triumph: One of the giants of American history afflicted with doubts that maybe he had let Glaser push him too far from his genius and his race. Yet he remains justly proud of what he did accomplish. And getting ready to delight one more audience, which sadly would be the last. 

Below: Early Armstrong with race-based complaint "Black and Blue."

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: On Universal Pre-K, de Blasio Shows Democrats How to Lead From the Left.

With ‘McCutcheon’ Ruling, An Activist Court Opts for Full-On Plutocracy

Members of the Supreme Court

Members of the Supreme Court. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Any doubts about the determination of an activist United States Supreme Court to rewrite election rules so that the dollar matters more than the vote were removed Wednesday, when McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission was decided in favor of the dollar.

The court that in 2010, with its Citizens United v. FEC decision, cleared the way for corporations to spend as freely as they choose to buy elections has now effectively eliminated the ability of the American people and their elected representatives to establish meaningful limits on direct donations by millionaires and billionaires to campaigns.

The Citizens United ruling, coming after many previous judicial assaults on campaign finance rules and regulations, was a disaster for democracy. But it left in place at least some constraints on the campaign donors. Key among these was a limitation on the ability of a wealthy individual to donate more than a total dollar amount of $123,000 total in each two-year election cycle to political candidates and parties.

With the ruling in the McCutcheon case—where the court was actively encouraged to intervene on behalf of big-money politics by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky—a 5-4 court majority (signing on to various opinions) has ruled that caps on the total amount of money an individual donor can give to political candidates, parties and political action committees are unconstitutional. In so doing, says U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, says the court has further tipped the balance of power toward those who did not need any more influence over the affairs of state.

"It is far too often the case in Washington that powerful corporate interests, the wealthy, and the well-connected get to write the rules," says Baldwin, "and now the Supreme Court has given them more power to rule the ballot box by creating an uneven playing field where big money matters more than the voice of ordinary citizens.”

The think-tank Demos says the high court's ruling has "overturned nearly forty years of campaign finance law," which is certainly true. But the court has done much more than that. By going to the next extreme when it comes to questions of money in politics, the justices who make up the court's activist majority have opted for full-on plutocracy—and it is unimaginable that this week's ruling will be the last assault by the justices who make up that majority upon the underpinnings of democracy.

Those justices have made their political intent entirely clear. Chief Justice John Roberts was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito in a support of an opinion that rejects the notion that limits on the total amount of money that can be given by wealthy donors—such as the billionaire Koch Brothers or casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—are needed to prevent corruption. Justice Clarence Thomas went even further, writing an opinion that all limits on political contributions are unconstitutional. The extreme stance of Thomas—which would overturn the high court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeo, which upheld basic contribution limits, may signal the next frontier for the court.

But the McCutcheon ruling will be more than sufficient for the big-money interests that worried that their ability to buy elections was hindered by what remained of campaign finance law.

“What world are the five conservative Supreme Court justices living in?” asked US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont. “To equate the ability of billionaires to buy elections with ‘freedom of speech’ is totally absurd. The Supreme Court is paving the way toward an oligarchic form of society in which a handful of billionaires like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson will control our political process.”

The decision, while not unexpected considering the court's track record, horrified clean-government and campaign-finance reform activists.

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“This is truly a decision establishing plutocrat rights. The Supreme Court today holds that the purported right of a few hundred super rich individuals to spend outrageously large sums on campaign contributions outweighs the national interest in political equality and a government free of corruption,” said Rob Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. “In practical terms, the decision means that one individual can write a single check for $5.9 million to be spent by candidates, political parties and political committees. Even after Citizens United, this case is absolutely stunning. It is sure to go down as one of the worst decisions in the history of American jurisprudence.”

Public Citizen and other reform groups associated with the Money Out/Voters In movement have organized a national “rapid response” to the McCutcheon ruling. Thousands of Americans are rallying today in cities across the country to protest the decision—and to call for a constitutional amendment to restore the rights of citizens to organize free and fair elections.

“We, the People insist that our government and our country remain of, by and for the people—all the people, not just those few who have amassed billions in wealth,” says Weissman. “A vibrant movement for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and reclaim our democracy has emerged since the 2010 issuance of that fateful decision. The demonstrations today—unprecedented as a same-day response to a Supreme Court decision—are just the latest manifestation of how that movement is now exploding across the country.”

 

Read Next: Ari Berman on the McCutcheon ruling.

The Supreme Court’s Ideology: More Money, Less Voting

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court.  (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In the past four years, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has made it far easier to buy an election and far harder to vote in one.

First came the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which brought us the Super PAC era.

Then came the Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act.

Now we have McCutcheon v. FEC, where the Court, in yet another controversial 5-4 opinion written by Roberts, struck down the limits on how much an individual can contribute to candidates, parties and political action committees. So instead of an individual donor being allowed to give $117,000 to campaigns, parties and PACs in an election cycle (the aggregate limit in 2012), they can now give up to $3.5 million, Andy Kroll of Mother Jones reports.

The Court’s conservative majority believes that the First Amendment gives wealthy donors and powerful corporations the carte blanche right to buy an election, but that the Fifteenth Amendment does not give Americans the right to vote free of racial discrimination.

These are not unrelated issues—the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.

Consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:

· The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.

· Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.

· It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.

That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

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Now consider what’s happened since Shelby County: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to The New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”

A country that expands the rights of the powerful to dominate the political process but does not protect fundament rights for all citizens doesn’t sound much like a functioning democracy to me.

Read Next: Ari Berman on why the Voting Rights Act is still needed.

Cuomo Went Along with Christie’s Port Authority Money Grab

Andrew Cuomo

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

When, in 2011, Governor Chris Christie did an end-run around Port Authority rules to siphon $1.8 billion in PA funds for pet projects in New Jersey, the New York side of the PA, including Governor Andrew Cuomo, went along. Why? As Christie Watch has learned, the New York PA officials had their own concerns—namely, getting the new World Trade Center built—and, worse, in the words of one former PA official, they didn’t want “to go to war with Christie.”

Christie may have hoped that last week’s resignation of Port Authority chairman David Samson, a Christie political mentor, would end the headlines linking his administration to unethical and possibly illegal activity at the Port Authority. But new revelations are already coming out about how he pressured legal staff at the PA to find ways to justify a money grab that they warned he couldn’t do.

As Christie Watch has reported, in October, 2010 Christie suddenly cancelled the $8.6 billion ARC tunnel, which had been in the planning stages for more than a decade and half and for which more than $400 million had already been spent on engineering, property acquisition and other expenses. He wanted to use the $1.8 billion that had been allocated to New Jersey from the Port Authority for the tunnel to bail out the Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for rebuilding and fixing New Jersey bridges and roads.

The fund was bankrupt. Christie, holding fiercely to his image as a non-tax Republican, was determined not to raise New Jersey’s gas tax, one of the lowest in the country.

At that time, one of the major state projects that needed funding was rebuilding the Pulaski Skyway and related roadways, a key link between New Jersey’s largest city, Newark, and the Holland Tunnel that goes to New York City. The only problem was that for historical reasons, the Holland Tunnel and its road and bridge links were outside the jurisdiction of the Port Authority.

No PA money can be used for such projects unless okayed by the legislatures of both states. PA lawyers warned Christie’s political operatives at the agency, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, that they had grave concerns about the legality of using the money for the Pulaski Skyway. They feared it would open the agency up to lawsuits, according to investigative reporter Shawn Boburg in the Bergen Record.

Soon after the ARC tunnel was killed, New Jersey officials started thinking about using the money for the Pulaski Skyway, and the PA legal staff recommended the proper way would be to go to both state legislatures for approval. According to the Record, without clearance from either lawyers or state legislators, Christie announced he would move forward:

But two months later, on Jan. 6, 2011, without going to state lawmakers or getting sign-off from the Port Authority’s legal team, Christie announced that the Port Authority would provide the money to the state Department of Transportation for the Pulaski Skyway, the Wittpenn Bridge on Route 7, Route 139 and Portway New Road.

A memo later on from Carlene McIntyre, assistant general counsel of the PA warned:

As we have previously advised, in order to receive Port Authority funding, projects are required to fall within the scope of statutory authority and comply with the contractual requirements under which the Port Authority operates.

Just as the Port Authority cannot give money to a municipal government to plug a hole in their municipal budget (a structural deficit like the city of Newark’s), neither can the Port Authority expend Port Authority funds to plug a hole in the TTF’s operational expense budget.

Other members of the legal team agreed. But one former official told Christie Watch that there was an implicit message sent from Christie to the staff from his political operatives at the PA: “I’m the governor, this is the number one thing I want and it’s my money and you have to find a way to get it done.”

Since the money could be used for access to the Lincoln Tunnel, the staff found a way to link it to the Pulaski Skyway project according to the Record.

Instead, through a quietly orchestrated series of moves following the announcement, the Port Authority approved the payment by eventually saying the improvements would enhance access to the Lincoln Tunnel, even though all four stretches of road were miles from the crossing into Manhattan.

PA lawyers warned that the justification was questionable and might open the agency up to a challenge by bondholders. Despite these warnings the Port Authority Commissioners voted unanimously to allow it.

As Christie Watch has reported, the New Jersey legislative committee investigating Bridgegate has also been looking into why and how Christie cancelled the ARC tunnel and has subpoenaed documents on this issue.

One question that comes up in this is where were the New York Commissioners, the New York governors and other officials when New Jersey was making its power grab for almost $2 billion? Several former Port Authority officials explained to Christie Watch how the dynamics worked at the agency.

“The veto power of New Jersey was far stronger at that time than the balance of opposition by New York,” said one former official. It was the very end of David Paterson’s term as New York Governor and the start of Andrew Cuomo’s term and both men were concerned primarily with the rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Billions of dollars had already been spent on it and they worried that New Jersey officials might argue it was not really the Port Authority’s responsibility to rebuild it all because although the PA owns most of the land, it had leased out the buildings.

At the time Christie cancelled the ARC tunnel at the end of 2010, the World Trade Center had all the attention of New York officials, especially with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 looming. Building office space on the site was critical to bringing in revenue, to reviving the area. And restoring the Port Authority-run PATH complex along with subway service into that part of lower Manhattan was central to revitalizing it too.

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New York officials were concerned that if they nixed Christie’s plan for the ARC money, it would trigger another fight over the World Trade Center and it “would have paralyzed downtown for another few years.” The World Trade Center needed another $1 billion in funding and there were other issues with office builders as well.

Neither Paterson nor Cuomo wanted to “go to war against Christie,” said a former official. Paterson was soon out of office and Cuomo was not focused on urban issues, except for the World Trade Center. The ARC money had been slated to help out New Jersey and so the New York side still considered that money allocated to them, as did Christie.

Said one former official, “It was a Hobbesian choice. We could have fought it tooth and nail, but it wouldn’t have gone to a good place. We believed we needed to make sure, from a New York perspective, that the things we needed got done at the World Trade Center.”

So with New York officials acquiescent, and the New Jersey governor determined to grab the ARC money to avoid tax increases, the use of the money for the Pulaski Skyway and related building went through. “The governors of either side don’t seem to have any qualms about committing Port Authority funds for their own purposes even though they may be non-Port Authority related,” says David Gallagher, a former executive at the PA. “But it’s not a regional piggy bank. It was intended to provide the transportation, business and commercial infrastructure to make the bi-state region grow.”

 

Read Next: Lee Fang looks into the massive pension contracts offered to Christie campaign donors.