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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Getting to ‘Good Enough’ in Afghanistan

US Marines on patrol in an Afghan school building, May 1, 2009. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

In Afghanistan, the war goes on. As The Nation documented recently, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died since the war began in 2001, and with the war having entered its thirteenth year, there’s no end in sight. The American combat mission is winding down, but if the Obama administration has its way there won’t be an end to the counterterrorism war in Afghanistan for years to come. And, in an editorial today, “An Exit Strategy from Afghanistan,” The New York Times admits without irony that what the United States has got for a dozen lethal years in Afghanistan is a stalemate:

As it winds down its 12-year-old military commitment in Afghanistan, the United States is still looking for a face-saving way out of a conflict that seems headed, at best, for a stalemate.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to put pressure on President Hamid Karzai to accept American terms for a continued US military presence past 2014. Among the terms that the United States wants: immunity from any prosecution by Afghan authorities for crimes and atrocities committed by US forces and permission to engage in Special Forces raids against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups anywhere in the country, even though only a few dozen Al Qaeda members remain. Despite the positive spin that Kerry and the State Department put on his visit, however, he utterly failed to get a deal. As Reuters noted:

A draft pact known as the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was hammered out in Kabul last weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But he left without a final deal as Afghan President Hamid Karzai said only the assembly, the Loya Jirga, had the authority to decide contentious issues.

And the Loya Jirga, a big national meeting of tribal elders, warlords, clergy and others, might not cotton to American demands to allow US troops free reign to engage in counterterrorism—especially if Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office in 2014 after elections next spring, steers them in another direction.

There’s an unofficial Halloween deadline for a pact. Otherwise, the military is hinting, the United States will have to start dismantling everything, including bases nearby that might be used to evacuate US forces and equipment, and making other plans.

In Kerry’s mind, of course, is the fact that when a similar situation faced the United States in Iraq five years ago, the Iraqis rejected American demands, and the incoming Obama administration proved unable to satisfy Iraqi concerns, so the United States pulled out completely from Iraq. The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, though, is that while Iraq has oil revenues to keep it solvent, Afghanistan has nothing, and it’s totally dependent on the United States and other Western allies to provide aid. That aid, the Obama administration is not-so-subtly telling Karzai, depends on Kabul allowing the United States to keep troops in-country. As the Times editorial puts it:

Congress is unlikely to keep paying for the Afghan Army and police, at a cost that could range from $4 billion to $6 billion, unless Americans are deployed there.

Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to strike US and Afghan targets, including an attack on an international convoy last week, the assassination of a provincial governor, and other high-profile actions. In its editorial, the Times notes correctly that a political deal with the Taliban is essential to preserve Afghanistan’s security, or some semblance of it, after 2014, but that so far there’s no sign of any movement there, and it says that the talks with the Taliban, which seemed to get going earlier this year, won’t restart until after the April elections.

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The Obama administration has to redouble its efforts here, coupling a pledge to withdraw and any all US forces from Afghanistan unconditionally with a diplomatic offensive to get Pakistan, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia and others countries on board with a plan to rebalance and reorganize the government in Kabul.

Check out The Nation’s in-depth report on the civilian death toll of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

ESPN Is Wrong: Grambling State Isn’t the First College Team to Fight Back


The football stadium of Grambling State Univeristy, Louisiana, in May, 2010. (CC/Billy Hathorn)

Even in football, a sport whose DNA is constructed to produce obedience and deference to authority, people can be pushed only so far before they push back. At Grambling State, the players engaged in a players’ strike, what all media outlets are calling “a mutiny”, and refused to take the field on Saturday against Jackson State. It just lasted one game, but only because the administration and powers that be made a series of promises to get them back on the field.

They had little choice. The list of grievances at the school that the late Hall of Fame Coach Eddie Robinson called home is both long and startling. From unsanitary locker room conditions that have led to multiple cases of staph infection” as well as “mildew and mold on the ceiling, walls and floor,” to 750-mile overnight bus rides before games, to a weight room that appears to be an ugly accident waiting to happen, to having their popular coach, former Grambling quarterback Doug Williams summarily fired, this is a team of young people that has simply had enough. (Read their grievance letter in its entirety here.)

Some of the players’ frustration stems from the numerous cases of infighting by the adults in charge, but the root cause of the chaos can be found in the Louisiana Governor’s office of Bobby Jindal. Governor Jindal rejected federal stimulus funds in 2009, while also cutting 219 million dollars in state funds for higher education, $5 million of which would have gone to Grambling State. In 2012, Jindal cut another million that was due to go to Grambling State’s operating costs.

This has hammered the entire school, and the athletic department is no exception. At a school where players are self-rationing weight-lifting supplements to make sure everyone gets a fair share, every dollar matters. But as necessarily as it is to call out Governor Jindal, the Obama administration’s record on supporting historically black colleges and universities has also been, to be kind, brutal, with decreases in federal grant funding and changes in loan programs that have estimated to have cleaved $300 million from HBCU’s nationally.

Now a football school that as recently as 2011 won their conference title has not come within ten points of an opponent all season and the players are saying enough is enough.

The Grambling player’s strike has been covered very well, in my view, by all corners of the sports media, airing the grievances of the players and turning this into a national story. There is one aspect however that has fallen short. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, like many commentators, has described the players’ strike as “unprecedented,” as if young athletes have never—outside, perhaps of the film Varsity Blues—banded together and refused to take the field. This is not actually true. It is worth knowing the history of rebel teams because it makes the actions of Grambling State’s players less of an outlier, less of a freak occurrence and more a part of a continuum, however sparse, of players saying that there are more important things in life than obeying authority and agreeing that the gob of spit in your face is indeed rain.

The first time you see players coming together in a way that garnered national attention, was in 1936. Another historically black college, Howard University in DC, saw players walk off their “job.” The team went on strike before a home game against Virginia Union because their school refused to provide them with food. When it came to any kind of pre- or post-game nutrition, the “student-athletes” were on their own. As one player said to Time magazine, “We were too hungry to get in there and battle those big country boys full of ham and kale.” That week, Howard students boycotted classes in solidarity with the players and marched down DC’s famous Georgia Avenue chanting, “Food! Food! Food! We want food!” with placards that read, “We Want Ham and Cabbage for the Team!”

The 1960s and 1970s also saw players repeatedly demand that they have a voice independent of their head coach. At the University of Washington, athletes won a study of racism in the athletic department after accusing a football trainer of making racial slurs and providing inadequate treatment for injuries.

That May of 1968, Howard University again saw their athletes speak out. They threatened to quit teams en masse, unless Athletic Director Samuel Barnes was removed. They also wanted “better food, more medical attention, streamlined means of transportation, more equipment, better living conditions and a full-time sports information director.” Student assembly president Ewart Brown Jr., a member of the track team publicly burned his Howard varsity sweatshirt. As it went up in ashes, football player Harold Orr said, “This is what we think of the athletic program. [We need a] cremation of the old system.”

The cascade of protest continued. In February, African-American basketball players at Notre Dame’s basketball team threatened to quit unless they receive a public apology from students for booing when they were all in the Michigan State game at the same time, creating what at the time was the rare sight in South Bend of five African-American players at the same time.

But nowhere and at no time did athletes come together in anger and against the wishes of coaches and athletic directors than when it came to playing Brigham Young University. BYU was affiliated with the Mormon Church, which denied leadership positions to African-Americans, claiming that their dark skin was “the mark of the curse of Ham.” This would remain church policy until 1978. In October of 1968, the Wyoming football program dismissed fourteen players for wearing black armbands the evening before the team was scheduled to play BYU. They called themselves the Black 14 and unsuccessfully sued for $1.1 million in damages with the support of the NAACP. On October 25, in a game with San Jose State, the entire San Jose team wore black armbands to support the Black 14. (San Jose State was also the home of these guys, making it a place where protest and sports hit together like fist in glove.)

In November 1969, primarily because of controversy surrounding Brigham Young, Stanford University President Kenneth Pitzer announced that Stanford would honor what he called an athlete’s “right of conscience.” This “right” would allow the athlete to boycott a school or event that he or she deemed “personally repugnant.”

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One of the great forgotten stories however, took place in Seattle in 1972. That year at the University of Washington, the team refused to come out after half-time unless their opposition to the war in Vietnam was read over the public address system. According to journalist Dean Paton, who worked for the Huskies Sports Information Office and was charged with delivering the team’s message to the public address announcer, the following words were heard throughout the stadium:

Ladies and gentlemen, may we have your attention for a very important announcement: The football team at the University of Washington wishes to take this moment to express its concern over the present situation in Vietnam. Toward this end, the team will now delay the game for a couple of minutes.

Dean Paton recalled to me, “As Wendell’s words echoed throughout the stadium, a loud symphony of boos arose from the seats on the stadium’s south side, where the alumni donors and wealthy season ticket holders sit. The boos were unremitting, and they grew as Wendell continued: ‘The players basically have one thing to say: they feel the war and the killing should be ended immediately. The team wishes you would take these few minutes to think about what has happened in the world this week and what consequences they may have. Thank you…. The game will now resume; the team thanks you for your patience.’”

Today, as players wear All Players United on their clothes to say they are sick and tired of the status quo in college sports, Grambling State reminds us that as bad as the status quo is at mega-schools in the power conferences, it can also be far worse. It is awful for the haves. It is even worse for the have-nots, and that is why change is coming to college football. Fired coach Doug Williams, who had been staying out of the current conflict because his son D.J. Williams is the team’s starting quarterback, texted, “I’m proud of them boys. They took a stance.” The question is whether the NCAA, Bobby Jindal, the Obama administration and others will listen and stop treating HBCU’s like separate and unequal institutions. At all schools, the NCAA will also have to to stop using so called student-athletes like expendable pieces of equipment, people with arms and legs but without minds of their own. Whether they do or not, you can count on there being more stances to come.

Dave Zirin looks at the sliming of professional NFL quarterback Josh Freeman.

Suicide Rate Climbs by 30 Percent in Kansas as Government Slashes Mental Health Budgets


(Wichita Eagle)

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment recently released a startling report(PDF) showing a 30 percent increase in suicides from 2011. Nationwide, the number of deaths by suicide surpassed the number of deaths by motor vehicle accidents in 2009, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided data.

The Wichita Eagle reports that the largest increase in suicides in Kansas occurred among white males, who already were the segment of the population most likely to take their own lives. More than 80 percent of suicides in Kansas last year were men, like Scott Dennis, a 42-year-old fitness company owner.

Last year, Dennis was busy getting ready for an industry convention in Las Vegas.

Dennis had already paid for a $20,000 sponsored dinner, booked his flight, hotel and rental car and sent out some work e-mails.

He showered and shaved. He packed his bag.

“He wrote a note that said, ‘I can’t live like this anymore,’ and left his wallet and his watch on his desk, drove to Wal-Mart down the street and shot himself in the chest,” said Brook Phillips, a friend of Dennis for 35 years.

Nationally, the CDC reported a spike in suicide rates in 2010 among the middle-aged, a 28 percent rise overall, a 40 percent jump among white Americans, and among men in their 50s, suicides increased by more than 48 percent. Guns remained the leading method used in all suicides, followed by poisoning, overdoses, and suffocation.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC told PBS: “We don’t know what specifically is causing [the suicide spike], but the trend has been consistent, and if anything our numbers would underestimate the gravity of the problem.”

Frieden also commented that more people die from prescription opiates today than from heroin and cocaine combined, and called alcohol a “significant contributor to depression and to mental health problems.”

But many people consume opiates and alcohol to self-medicate, or to escape their dire economic circumstances. One popular theory floated to explain the suicide epidemic is that the recession has caused emotional trauma in individuals.

Pat Smith, the violence-prevention program coordinator for the Michigan Department of Community Health, told The Huffington Post the recession may have pushed already troubled people over the edge. Being unable to find a job or settling for one with lower pay or prestige could add “that final weight to a whole chain of events,” she said.

There does appear to be a correlation between the recession and increasing suicide rates. For example, calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline increased by 36 percent in 2008, and another 15 percent in 2009.

Data compiled by The Wall Street Journal in late 2009 showed increases in several states. Of 19 states surveyed, 13 saw marginal increases in suicide rates. Tennessee had the highest rate of increase, with over 15 percent more suicides in 2008 than 2007. Across the 19 states, the average increase was 2.3 percent.

And as The Huffington Post notes, this same trend was also seen during the Great Depression, when the suicide rate increased by 21 percent in the early 1930s (about 17 of every 100,000 people).

Even though there have been horrific stories in the news related to the nation’s poor mental health care of its citizens (Aaron Alexis’ attack in Washington’s Navy Yard and Miriam Carey’s murder by DC police), officials seem determined to continue slashing funding. From 2009 to 2011, states cut mental budgets by a combined $4 billion, the largest single combined reduction to mental health spending since de-institutionalization in the 1970s.

In Chicago alone, state budget cuts combined with reductions in county and city mental health services led to shutting six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics, Forbes reports.

Threats of sequestration in 2013 had a significant impact on people’s ability to access mental health services and programs, including children’s mental health services, suicide prevention programs, homeless outreach programs, substance abuse treatment programs, housing and employment assistance, health research, and virtually every type of public mental health support. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) claimed it alone would be cutting $168 million from its 2013 spending, including a reduction of $83.1 million in grants for substance abuse treatment programs.

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Since 2009, a community health center in Sedgwick County, Kansas, has lost 53 percent of its state funding, according to Marilyn Cook, executive director of Comcare of Sedwick County. She told The Wichita Eagle the county is trying to appeal to the state to replace some of that money.

“This is a community problem and a public health problem, not just a mental health problem,” Cook said. “Treatment dollars have gone down and more and more people are coming to us, a growing number without any other payment for services.”

She said they’ve seen an increase in the number of calls to the crisis program and more law enforcement officers have been trained in crisis intervention, which is a good thing, she said, but “without adequate funding, it’s difficult for us to get to everybody who needs care and help.”

In 2012, Sedgwick County 911 dispatch received more than 2,400 calls related to suicide threats or attempts and more than 61,000 crisis phone calls for suicide risk or urgent mental health help.

Liz McGinness, a member of the Sedgwick County Suicide Prevention Coalition and a retired school psychologist and mental health crisis team director for USD 259, says the suicides may be related to social stigmas and the economy.

“I think one of the biggest things we can rally around is reducing stigma and talking about getting help,” McGinness said.

“There has been an uptick in suicides in middle-class, white professional men.… We do likely attribute that incidence as being related to the economy, for men particularly. So much of their identity is tied up in their job, and they lose their moorings.”

 

Greg Kaufmann wrote about what defunding Obamacare really means for those in need.

Poll Debunks Media Claims: Most Americans Back Obamacare or Want It Expanded


A man fills out an information card during an Affordable Care Act outreach event. (Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn)

Update:  A second poll, this time from CBS, confirms findings in CNN poll.

One of the many disgraceful aspects of the media coverage of Obamacare—and criticism of the ACA, and the Tea Party claims in general—is the rote depiction of the new law as “very unpopular” or “opposed by most Americans according to polls” because it goes too far. Most people are said to be happy with the healthcare system as is, and so on. In other words, repeating the GOP line.

Now, those who have supported the law have long claimed that the simple bottom line poll numbers are misleading. Yes, those numbers generally show that, say, 51 percent don’t like the ACA and only 44 percent approve. Yet, as we know (but many in the media fail to recognize, even beyond Fox News), a lot of Democrats and liberals are unhappy, wisely, because the law doesn’t go far enough, or that President Obama didn’t fight for the public option or single-payer or Medicare for all. So how many of them are included in that bottom line number who “oppose” the ACA—but from the left?

Polls have indicated there’s a fair number but now there’s a new one today that CNN actually took the trouble—at the end of its online report, true—to break out. And, lo and behold, it turns out that fully 12 percent of those opposed feel the law doesn’t so far enough.

So, as they note, that means that instead of just over 50 percent being against the law because it goes too far—the impression most in the media have left—at least 53 percent actually back the law or believe it should be expanded. And the poll was taken at the worst possible time—amidst the current widespread complaints about the roll-out of the ACA sign-up provisions.

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The other numbers in the poll bear out support for the ACA, as they show that the shutdown has inspired growing unpopularity for the GOP and John Boehner (even among Republicans), but Obama’s standing has remained the same:

This is the first time since the Republicans won back control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections that a majority say their control of the chamber is bad for the country.

Meanwhile, an expert on the ACA has fact-checked a Sean Hannity segment last Friday and exposes the misinformation there—and also suggests, sadly, that many Fox viewers who could save thousands of dollars each year, and gain coverage for pre-existing condition and for their children by embracing Obamacare, probably will not. That’s the true evil of Fox propaganda.

George Zornick picks through Ted Cruz’s lies about Obamacare.

Why They Refused to Play: Read the Grievance Letter of the Grambling State Tigers Football Team


From left to right: Grambling State Tigers linebacker Jacarde Carter (54), TCU wide receiver Brandon Carter (3) and Tigers defensive back Naquan Smith (26). (AP Photo/LM Otero)

In a move that has sent shockwaves through sports world, the players on the Grambling State Tigers football team have gone on strike. The budget cuts that have ravaged the school over the last five years have found reflection in the athletic department and the team decided that they cannot take it anymore because, simply, it is just not safe.

There have been reams of articles analyzing the problems at Grambling State and whether the players, by refusing to take the field, have gone too far in expressing their discontent. These are not the voices we should be privileging right now. The best possible starting point for people new to this story and trying to understand what is happening would be to read the actual letter issued by the team explaining why they had to take these measures. Below I reprint the letter in its entirety with the hope that their demands and their voice claim center stage in the struggle to come. Take the time to read what they have had to endure as a team and why they are saying that enough is enough.   —Dave Zirin

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Dear Grambling State University Administration,

We, the Grambling State University Football team, come to you with the intent to make a complaint against Grambling State University Administration, and to reach some type of solution. We would like support and assistance while reaching this solution. As a team our goal is to build a solid foundation through team work, and to make progress during our time here at Grambling State University. Unfortunately, there are certain factors that are hindering us from reaching our goals. We have concerns with facilities, equipment, travel arraignments, summer camp arraignments, alumni association and friends of football funding, and our head coach.

The athletic complex is a place where we as a team prepare for competition. In our opinion, the complex is in horrible condition, and has manyhazards that may contribute to our overall health. First, the complex is filled with mildew and mold. Mildew and mold can be seen on the ceiling, walls and floor, and are contributing to water leaks because of faltering walls and ceilings. Grambling student-athletes are not the only ones complaining about this particular hazard. When Lamar University came to play our team they refused to go in the locker room for half time due to mold and mildew.

Second, the weight room and care of game and practice gear are in bad condition, in areas where the floor is coming up, it causes players to trip while lifting large amounts of weight. Equipment in the weight room is falling apart, as well as workout benches are tearing and ripping apart. We as student-athletes would also like better detergent for our uniforms and practice uniforms. The uniforms are poorly cleaned and contribute to the multiple cases of staph infection. Several players have been infected with staph multiple times.

Student-athletes have been complaining since summer 2013 about the way summer camp and work outs were set up. We did not receive Gatorade or Muscle Milk. We had to pay for those expensive items ourselves. We were also forced to get water from hoses underneath the stadium in 90 degree plus weather. Student-athletes often complained of the high grass we had to practice in. The grass was up to our knees and was rarely cut. This was a huge inconvenience to the team. Shortly after that we found out that we would not be housed for camp. Players that live off campus were responsible for commuting back and forth to campus three times a day, not to mention, we were already paying for summer school out of pocket.

During summer 2013 we were told we would be taking two major trips this season, Kansas City, Missouri and the other to Indianapolis, Indiana. We were pretty excited but found out later we would be taking a bus. Both trips, we traveled excessive hours. One trip was 14 hours while the other was 17. Players were drained and exhausted after those long rides. Long rides take a toll on athlete’s bodies both mentally and physically. However both the president and athletic director traveled by plane. In our opinion, any trip over 8 hours should be taken by plane. We also found out that we would not travel to a hotel and stay overnight for home games. It is tradition for us to travel for home games but that tradition was broken also.

The next complaint is about money donated from friends of football and the alumni association. Money from both organizations is being rejected. The funds donated can help take care of some of our expenses. The funding can supply Muscle Milk, Gatorade, help house us or even get the complex cleaned and updated. All things that are much needed. The funds are rejected by the university, because the organizations that donate the money want to put their money toward a specific cause, not the university or athletics as a whole.

The last issue we would like to address is the firing of our head coach, Doug Williams. Doug Williams was fired September 9, 2013; the football team was not addressed and received no sign of compassion from administration until over a month later, on October 15, 2013 which was the first meeting with our President and Athletic Director. The administration fired the head coach without plans of placing a competent coach in as interim. Coach George Ragsdale has contributed to five of the seven loses of the season. We are not in favor of him as interim and would much rather coach Dirt Winston, Vyron Brown, or C.C Culpepper for the remainder of the season.

As a team, support from the administration has not been observed. It is our effort as a whole to receive more visible support and solid leadership from the administration by addressing the above mentioned complaints. We as a team have been criticize enough by outsiders. We need our university’s support. As the voice of the student body we need the SGA to intercede on our behalf. The support and assistance of the association would be greatly appreciated. We can be reached by our spokesperson Naquan Smith.

Thanks

Grambling State Tigers.

Dave Zirin on how NCAA players are standing up for a change.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Wendell Berry’s Humanism and Wisdom for Our Times


Wendell Berry talking to a reporter after he was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Last week, the Roosevelt Institute, as part of its annual Four Freedoms awards ceremony, presented its Freedom Medal to the Kentucky writer, farmer, environmentalist, humanist and activist Wendell Berry—a longtime Nation contributor.

“Whether Wendell Berry is writing poetry, fiction, or essays,” the Institute declared, “his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.”

In over two dozen poems, essays, and book reviews he has published in The Nation since 1961, Berry has connected America’s democratic health with its ecological health, the degradation of its discourse with the degradation of its soil, and has done so with a unique combination of elegance, clarity of language and purpose, and simple—though never simplistic—common sense. Berry is as adept detailing the mechanics of a mine-triggered landslide as he is at critiquing the dangerous combination of ideology and profit motive which caused it to occur.

* * *

One of Berry’s earliest Nation contributions was the poem “November 26, 1963,” about the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy:

We know the winter earth upon the body of the young President, and the early dark falling;
we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;
we know his name written in the black capitals of his death, and the mourners standing in the rain, and the leaves falling;
we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells, candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;
we know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now…

In 1966, Berry published a scathing essay, “Strip-Mine Morality: The Landscaping of Hell,” about the efforts in his native Kentucky to regulate and hopefully prohibit that most excessively and permanently damaging method of mining coal. Berry attended several meetings at which proposed regulations were presented and was aghast at the coal companies’ blatantly duplicitous and selfish arguments:

The testimony of the expert witnesses who appeared in behalf of the companies was peculiarly clouded and disordered by the assumptions and intentions of the company lawyers, and by the testimony of several coal operators who also appeared as witnesses. There was a very obvious intent to use scientific evidence to prove that the best method of mining is the one that is most profitable, and that the best method of reclamation is the one that is cheapest. There was much yielding to the temptation to present theory and opinion as fact, and to look upon the failure to discover a remedy as proof that there is no remedy…

There was in the statements and questions of the coal company attorneys, and in the testimony of the operators, the unmistakable implication that anything can be justified by profit; that a man may own the land in the same sense in which he would own a piece of furniture or a suit of clothes, it is his to exploit, misuse or destroy altogether should he decide that to do so would be economically feasible. The question of the morality of any practice, for these men, has been completely replaced by the question of its profitability: if it makes money it is good; if it makes money for them they are doomed and eager to defend it. Evident in the testimony of some was the assumption that the steep mountain sides, now being ruined on an almost unbelievable scale and at great speed, are good for nothing else.

Nobody has written as profoundly as Berry about the implications of that assumption not only on the surface of the land, but also just beneath the surface of the American soul.

The land destroyed by strip mining is destroyed forever; it will never again be what it was, it will never be what it would have become if let alone. Such destruction—which can now be accomplished on a vast scale by a few men in a short time—makes man a parasite upon the source of his life; it implicates him in the death of the earth, the destruction of his meanings. Those men who send the bulldozer blades into the mountainsides bear the awesome burden of responsibility for an act that no one can fully comprehend, much less justify.

* * *

In a brilliant essay published in two issues of The Nation in February 1976, “The Unsettling of America,” Berry analyzed and historically contextualized the “tendency…to complete the deliverance of American agriculture into the hands of the corporations.”

The cost of this corporate totalitarianism in energy, land and social disruption will be enormous. It will lead to the exhaustion of the farm land and the farm culture. Husbandry will become an extractive industry; the fertility of the soil, because maintenance will entirely give way to production, will become a limited and nonrenewable resource, like coal or oil.

This may not happen. It need not happen. But it is necessary to recognize that it can happen…. If it does happen, we are familiar enough with the nature of American salesmanship to know that it will be done in the name of the starving millions, in the name of liberty, justice, democracy and brotherhood, and to free the world from communism. We must, I think, be prepared to see, and to stand by, the truth: that the land should not be destroyed for any reason, not even for any apparently good reason.

In the second installment, Berry wrote that “the growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of handiwork.”

But is work something that we have a right to escape? And can we escape it with impunity? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so. All the ancient wisdom that has come down to use counsels otherwise. It counsels us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis—only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.

Thus we can see growing out of our history a condition that is physically dangerous, morally repugnant, ugly. Contrary to the blandishments of the salesmen, it is not particularly comfortable or happy. It is not even affluent in any meaningful sense, because its abundance is dependent on sources that are being rapidly exhausted by its methods. Only to see these things is to come up against the question: then what is desirable?

One possibility is just to tag along with the fantasists in government and industry, who would have us believe that we can pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility and leisure indefinitely. This curious faith is predicated on the notion that we will soon develop unlimited new sources of energy: domestic oil fields, shale oil, gasified coal, nuclear energy, solar energy and so on. This is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don’t know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil-fuel energy. Nuclear power is presumably now going to be used benignly by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied manpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively too, for the same reasons.

Perhaps all of those sources of energy are going to be developed. Perhaps all of them can sooner or later be developed without threatening our survival. But not all of them together can guarantee our survival, and they cannot define what is desirable. We will not find those answers in Washington, D.C., or in the laboratories of oil companies. In order to find them, we will have to look closer to ourselves.

Berry’s most recent—though hopefully not his last—Nation contribution came in our 2006 special issue on food, guest edited by Alice Waters. Berry noted that recent decades’ surplus of food and money to buy it could soon come to an end, as “most of our food is now produced by industrial agriculture, which has proved to be immensely productive, but at the cost of destroying the means of production.” He decried Americans’ widespread ignorance about food production “endemic to our society and economy,” while hopefully noting signs that “some urban consumers are venturing into an authentic knowledge of food and food production.” Increasing knowledge would create pressure for a change in farming methods, Berry predicted, but was skeptical as to “whether or not it can come soon enough to avert hunger proportionate to our present ignorance.”

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Three years later, one of Berry’s co-contributors to Waters’ forum, Michael Pollan, wrote in an appreciation of “Wendell Berry’s Wisdom” (September 29, 2009) that Berry had

marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants…. To the extent that we’re finally beginning to hear a new, more neighborly conversation between American environmentalists and American farmers, not to mention between urban eaters and rural food producers, Berry deserves much of the credit for getting it started…All those taking part in that conversation, whether in the White House or at the farmers’ market, are deep in his debt.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Brown Divest Coal: An Honest Vote on Divestment


A coal processing plant in West Virginia. (Reuters/Jim Young)

This opinion column was originally published in the Brown Daily Herald.

In one week, Brown University’s Corporation will meet, discussing and likely voting on whether the University should continue to profit from any of the 15 largest coal companies it’s currently invested in. This decision is critical: for those suffering in communities impacted by mountaintop removal, for the millions who will be hit by hurricanes and natural disasters worse than Katrina and Sandy and for the global community that will have to respond to the damages that will be wrought because we have changed the temperature and composition of our atmosphere.

This decision will also have implications for our community’s trust in Brown to reflect our values. Will the statements from our faculty members, researchers, University committees, student groups and petition signatories be heard? Will we take this opportunity to act seriously, or will we be another Harvard, too committed to the status quo to take action against the worst environmental disaster humanity has ever faced? Are we “Boldly Brown”—or something else?

With such an important vote, the integrity of the Corporation’s decision-making process must be respected. As the Brown University Conflict of Interest and Commitment Policy reads, “All decisions and actions taken by members of the Brown community in the conduct of University business shall be made in a manner that promotes the best interests of Brown University. Members of the Brown community have an obligation to address both the substance and the appearance of conflicts of interest and commitment and, if they arise, to disclose them to the appropriate University representative and withdraw from debate, voting or other decision-making process where a conflict of interest exists or might arise.”

According to this policy, several members of the Corporation who have clear connections to some of the 15 coal companies considered for divestment should recuse themselves from any “debate, voting or other decision-making process” concerning divestment from coal. These members are:

Brian Moynihan ’81 P’14: Moynihan is on the University’s Board of Trustees and is president and CEO of Bank of America, which as of Aug. 14 has $1 billion worth of holdings in 14 of the 15 companies in question.

Richard Friedman ’79: Friedman is on the Corporation’s Board of Fellows and is head of the Merchant Banking Division at Goldman Sachs, which as of Aug. 14 has $1.1 billion invested in 14 of the 15 companies that Brown is considering for divestment.

Steven Cohen P’08 P’16: Cohen is on the Board of Trustees, and is the founder and hedge fund manager of SAC Capital, which as of Aug. 14 has $33,597,000 in holdings in 11 of the 15 coal companies.

Theresia Gouw ’90: Gouw is a member of the Board of Fellows and a partner at Accel Partners. Accel-KKR, a partnership between Accel Partners and KKR, is a cofounder of globalCOAL, a global coal trading platform. Licensed users of globalCoal include Arch Coal, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak, all companies targeted for divestment.

Todd Fisher ’87 P’17: Fisher is on the Board of Trustees and is KKR & Co. L.P.’s global chief administrative officer. Accel-KKR is a cofounder of globalCOAL.

We recognize these five members may not be the only Corporation members with ties to the 15 coal companies—there may be other connections we are currently unaware of. This vote is of utmost importance to our community. It is a statement of who we are as a university and what our values are, and thus we ask that any Corporation member with ties to these 15 coal companies make a public statement of recusal from all decision-making processes hereafter concerning divestment from coal—including voting.

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Because the minutes from Corporation meetings are only released 25 years after the fact, a public statement is the only way the community will know that the vote on divestment has been made with Brown’s best interests in mind. If public statements of recusal are not made—and the Corporation votes against divestment behind closed doors with personal and company profits at stake—any notion that the Corporation can be trusted to make decisions on behalf of our community will be lost.

Our university is more important than company profits and personal gain, and we ask that the members of the Corporation respect that. Moynihan, Friedman, Cohen, Gouw, Fisher and any other Corporation members with ties to these companies: We’re waiting for your statements of recusal.

The Brown Divest Coal Campaign is asking Brown University to divest from any holdings it has in the 15 largest coal companies in America and is hopeful for a yes vote on divestment this October.

Harvard students urge a reluctant administration to divest from fossil fuels.

Beware of Paul Ryan’s Lose-a-Battle, Win-a-War Strategy


Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans got nothing—except some historic disapproval numbers and a lot of internal backbiting—from the whole shutdown showdown.

But there are different Republicans, with different intentions, and not all of them were frowning as the week of their party’s public shame came to a conclusion.

It is certainly true that Texas Senator Ted Cruz has become a political punch line—the Canadian-born Republican whom Democrats would most like to see the Grand Old Party nominate for president. House Speaker John Boehner’s name is likely to enter the lexicon as an antonym for “leadership.” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is going to be spending an inordinate amount of time discussing the term “Kentucky kickback.” And it may even be dawning on the Tea Partisans that the whole “defund Obamacare” gambit was a charade.

The real point of the exercise in chaos that the country was just dragged through was the chaos itself.

And the beneficiary of it all is the Republican who has suddenly stepped back into the limelight after laying low through most of the shutdown: House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

Fully aware that the American people have no taste for a “grand bargain” that might see the implementation of at least some of his Ayn Rand–inspired “survival-of-the-fittest” proposals for means-testing earned-benefit programs, for taking the first steps toward privatization of Social Security, for turning Medicare and Medicaid into voucher programs, Ryan has for years been looking for an opening that makes his proposals seem “necessary.”

The 2012 election, when he was his party’s “big ideas” guy, and its nominee for vice president, confirmed that there was no electoral route to advance his agenda. Americans rejected Ryan, overwhelmingly. He could not even carry his home state for the Romney-Ryan ticket, which was defeated by a 5 million popular-vote margin and a 332-206 Electoral College blowout. Ryan knew that it would take more to get his opening. And the crisis of the past several weeks in Washington provided it.

Some analysts were surprised when Ryan voted against the deal to temporarily end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. They shouldn’t have been. While it’s true that Ryan—an enthusiastic backer of the 2008 bank bailout—is a reliable vote for the agenda of the Wall Street speculators who fund his campaigns, he wasn’t going against his political patrons when he joined 143 other House Republicans in voting “no.” Rather, the Budget Committee chairman—who just reported raising more than $1 million in fresh campaign funds in the third quarter of 2013—was voting to strengthen his own hand as he steps into the ring for the next stage of an inside-the-Beltway fight that is far from finished.

The deal that ended the shutdown set up a high-stakes conference committee on budget issues. If there is to be a “grand bargain,” this is where it will be generated. And Ryan—the most prominent of the fourteen Democrats, fourteen Republicans and two independents on the committee—is in the thick of it.

The Budget Committee chairman says it would be “premature to get into exactly how we’re going to” sort out budget issues.

But no one should have any doubts about the hard bargain he will drive for. In the midst of the shutdown, Ryan jumped the gun by penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed that proposed: “Reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code…”

“Here are just a few ideas to get the conversation started,” Ryan wrote. “We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and cut costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.”

Translation: Get ready for the radical reshaping of Medicare so that it is no longer a universal program. Make way for more price-gouging by the private companies that sell supplemental insurance. Launch a new assault on public employees who have already been hit with wage freezes and furloughs.

And Ryan will not stop there.

He never does.

That’s why the Democrats on the conference committee—led by Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Washington—must be exceptionally wary.

“Chairman Ryan knows I’m not going to vote for his budget, and I know he’s not going to vote for mine,” says Murray. “We’re going to find the common ground between our two budgets that we both can vote on and that’s our goal.”

The thing to remember that Ryan is working to get cuts to earned-benefit programs onto that common ground.

Ryan cast his “no” vote on the deal that set up the conference committee in order to begin organizing his troops for a fight that will set up the next shutdown and debt-ceiling struggles. The committee has a deadline of December 13. That makes its report—or the lack of one—the first deadline on a schedule that proceeds toward new continuing resolution and debt-ceiling votes in January and February. That creates tremendous pressure for a deal, and Ryan’s at the ready.

That answer to his supplications must be a firm “No.”

That’s what Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, is proposing. Sanders, one of a member of the conference committee says: “it is imperative that this new budget helps us create the millions of jobs we desperately need and does not balance the budget on the backs of working people, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor…”

Sanders’ office notes: “The Senate budget protects Medicare while the House version would end Medicare as we know it by providing coupons for private health insurance. Unlike the House budget, the Senate resolution does not repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would prevent more than 20 million Americans from getting health insurance. The House version would eliminate grants for up to 1 million college students while the Senate plan protects Pell grants. The House version would kick up to 24 million Americans off of Medicaid while the Senate budget would protect their benefits. The Senate budget calls for new revenue while the House version would provide trillions of dollars in tax breaks mainly for the wealthiest Americans and profitable corporations offset by increased taxes on the middle class.”

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Ryan would be more than happy to settle for a “common ground” agreement that opens the way for a little bit of privatization, a little bit of movement toward vouchers, a little bit of means testing, a little bit of an increase in the retirement age. But if he gets that, the big “blink” that everyone was talking about during the shutdown fight will have happened.

If that is where this thing ends, it might not be the Democrats who get the last laugh.

It might yet be a Republican named Paul Ryan.

Philly Cop Stops Black Man, Tells Him ‘All You Do Is Weaken the F---ing Country’


A Philadelphia police cruiser. (Photo Courtesy of zuzu, CC 3.0)

This video was recorded on September 27 and uploaded to YouTube a few days later. It has recently made the rounds on social media and caught the attention of major news outlets. In it, two Philadelphia police officers stop, detain briefly and question two young black men who are walking down the street. The reason given for the stop is that one of the young men said “Hi” to a drug dealer. You should watch the video in its entirety:

There are a number of choice quotes to be pulled from this video, my favorite among them the retort from the young man being stopped and who managed to film the incident, “You not protecting me by stopping me when I’m trying to go to work,” but it’s this exchange that has come to define the encounter:

Officer: “We don’t want you here [in Philadelphia], anyway. All you do is weaken the fucking country.”

Young man: “How do I weaken the country? By working?”

Officer: “No, freeloading,”

Young man: “Freeloading on what? I work.”

Officer: “Do you? Where?”

Young man: “[redacted] Country Club.”

Officer: “Doing what?”

Young man: “I’m a server”

Officer: “A server? Serving weed?”

The officer responsible for this racist line of questioning, Philip Nace, was recently placed in the Differential Police Response Unit, a disciplinary unit, for what a police spokesman called “idiotic behavior” after another video surfaced of him knocking down a basketball hoop and, while driving away in a police van, telling the group that was playing “have a good day.” He is being investigated by Internal Affairs.

“But this is one individual,” Lt. John Stanford told the Philadelphia Daily News, “Don’t let this individual put it in your mind that this is how officers act. The vast majority of officers give the residents of this city 110 percent.”

The problem is, as badly as Philadelphia police may want to isolate Nace and his poor behavior, this isn’t the result of mistakenly hiring one racist cop. This is a racist policy supported by a racist society doing exactly what it was designed to do.

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Had Nace used softer language, had he asked politely and said “please” and “thank you,” he still would have stopped, searched and collected information on an innocent person for having done nothing more than speaking to someone he passed on the street. Because that’s the policy. Philadelphia’s use of stop-and-frisk doubled in 2009, two years after the election of Mayor Michael Nutter (in case anyone were led to believe it’s only white mayors and police commissioners responsible for implementing this tactic, both Nutter and Commissioner Charles Ramsey are black), and in a similar fashion to what has recently happened in New York City, it was challenged in court and the city agreed to make adjustments to the policy. However, it still exists, and still disproportionately targets black and Hispanic men. And one can’t divorce this from the fact that school budgets, affecting mostly black students, have been slashed, while hundreds of millions are being poured into a new prison facility, or the youth curfew that was implemented a few years ago. Through colorblind language, there exists a concerted effort to criminalize the presence of black and brown youth in public and shuttle them off to bigger, shinier prisons.

They can discipline Nace, even remove him from the force (and they should), but his actions are only a symptom of the larger disease. The more we focus our energy on the Naces of the world, the further we get from a cure.

Mychal Denzel Smith has previously argued that institutional racism persists in the criminal justice system with or without stop-and-frisk programs.

Maryville Rape Case Reopened—as Fox News Guest Blames Victim


Defense attorney Joseph DiBenedetto, appearing on the Fox News program Shepard Smith Reporting, questions the testimony of a Maryville, Missouri, teen who claims she was raped last year. (Courtesy of Fox News)

For several days, following a bombshell article in The Kansas City Star, the national media—with CNN this time in the forefront—have offered generally sympathethic coverage of the two teenage victims in the Maryville, Missouri, rape case (see my earlier posts and previous Nation piece).

The KC Star piece and activism centered on social media have produced, out of nowhere, a welcome result: The local prosecutor, who had dropped the charges, reversed course in a matter of days and now joins the state’s lieutenant governor in calling for a special prosecutor.

Now the girl at the center of the case, Dasiy Coleman, who was 14 when the sexual assaults took place last year, has penned her own harrowing first-person account of the night in question and brutal aftermath. I’ll get to that below, but first, a sobering reminder of the issues at play: A defense attorney named Joseph DiBenedetto appeared on Fox News yesterday and essentially blamed the two girls, claiming they were virtually asking for it when they joined the two older boys and let them ply them with alcohol.

He even uttered this classic line about Daisy Coleman (who he thinks may be lying about the night): “I’m not saying she deserved to be raped,” indicating that even he knew that viewers might recognize that actually this was what he might be saying between the lines.

“She is leaving her home at 1 am in the morning and nobody forced her to drink.… what did she expect to happen at 1 am after sneaking out?” he asked. Then she probably “took the easy way out” and claimed to her mom that she’d been raped.

The attorney’s claim that “this case is going nowhere” has already been proven wrong.

Shep Smith, to his credit (after for some reason giving this clown four minutes of face time), did respond, in closing, “What you’ve done, Joseph, is taken an alleged victim of rape and turned her into a liar and a crime committer.”

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Now to Daisy Coleman’s moving piece today. Read the whole thing here. It goes through the night of the assault, and the sad destruction of her life afterward, including two suicide attempts and much “cutting.”

Days seemed to drag on as I watched my brother get bullied and my mom lose her job. Ultimately our house burned to the ground. I couldn’t go out in public, let alone school. I sat alone in my room, most days, pondering the worth of my life. I quit praying because if God were real, why would he do this? I was suspended from the cheerleading squad and people told me that I was ‘asking for it’ and would ‘get what was coming.’

She does in the end hail her four brothers for not acting like typical young males—as they stand behind girls, and do not “prey” on them.

Jessica Valenti parses the issues stirred up by the Maryville and Steubenville rape cases.

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