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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Pope's 'Seismic Shift'

Many of the most devout followers of the most famous of all victims of capital punishment, the Nazarene who was crucified on the Calvary cross, took a long time to recognize that state-sponsored execution is an affront to their history and their faith. For close to 1,500 years, the Catholic Church taught that the state had a right to punish criminals "by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty."

For centuries, that line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church was used by Catholic politicians--and others who sought a moral justification for their actions--to place a veneer of legitimacy on even the most cavalier executions of the young, the mentally handicapped and the innocent. Even as Pope John Paul II moved the church closer and closer to explicit opposition to the death penalty during his long tenure, the loophole in the Catechism remained.

Then, in 1997, Sister Helen Prejean, the American nun and death penalty abolitionist who authored the book Dead Man Walking, asked Pope John Paul II to close the loophole. Later that year, the Pope removed the reference to the death penalty from the Catechism and, when he visited the United States two years later, he denounced the death penalty as "cruel and unnecessary." Referencing moves by countries around the world to ban capital punishment, the Pope declared in St. Louis that, "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."

So pointed and passionate was the Pope's message on the issue that the then-governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan, a Baptist and a supporter of capital punishment, commuted the sentence of a condemned man who was scheduled to be put to death by the state several weeks after the Papal visit.

It is to be expected that the death of a pope will be attended by hyperbole. And the passing on Saturday of John Paul II has proven to be no exception to the rule. The late pontiff has been credited with everything from defeating communism to healing the age-old rift between Catholics and Jews, just as he faces legitimate criticism for everything from undermining the fight against AIDS by preaching against the use of condoms to consigning the women of the church to second-class citizenship.

The legacy of a pope who served twenty-six years, five months and seventeen days--longer than all the popes in history, save St. Peter and the nineteenth-century pontiff Pius IX--will, of course, be subject to debate. Wise souls will for centuries ponder the accomplishments and the missteps of the man who began his earthly journey as a Polish boy named Karol Jozef Wojtyla and ended it as one of the most recognized and respected figures in the world.

But one aspect of this pope's legacy is not up for debate. During John Paul II's pontificate, the Catholic Church closed the loophole that had served as all-too-many justifications for the taking of the lives of prisoners of the state. New Orleans Archbishop Francis Schulte said the change opened up "a whole new area (of consideration) for many Catholics." Sister Helen Prejean described it as a "Seismic shift" in church teaching. That shift had a profound influence on former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who declared the capital punishment system in Illinois "broken," and commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates sitting on death row in Illinois jails in 2003. And it continues to be felt today, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wages a newly launched national campaign to end the use of the death penalty in the United States.

There will be many grand eulogies to mark the passing of Pope John Paul II. But none will be more eloquent than the ongoing campaign to bar the barbaric practice of state-sponsored execution. Perhaps John Paul II was not the most modern pope, but he recognized the progress of society and moral teaching when he preached that, "Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

Now Bush Is Picking on Kids

Think of Ann Veneman as the Paul Wolfowitz of food policy.

Just as Wolfowitz used his position as the Bush administration's deputy secretary of defense to spin whacked-out neoconservative theories into the justification for an illegal and unnecessary war, so Veneman used her position as the administration's secretary of agriculture to spin equally whacked-out theories about the genetic modification of food and free trade into disastrous policies for farmers and consumers.

And, just as Wolfowitz is being rewarded for his missteps and misdeeds with a prominent new position as president of the World Bank, so Veneman is also moving onto the world stage, as the likely nominee to be the next executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

When Veneman was nominated to serve as George W. Bush's first secretary of agriculture, this column detailed the many reasons why that was a horrible idea. A militant advocate for the genetic engineering of food and an unblinking proponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. entry into the World Trade Organization, and other trade policy moves that were designed by agribusiness conglomerates to benefit agribusiness conglomerates, Veneman was on the wrong side of every issue that mattered to working farmers in the United States and abroad. And as a veteran beneficiary of agribusiness largesse - as a lobbyist, corporate board member and industry insider - she was not about to start listening to reason simply because she was briefly leaving the private payroll to take a government check.

Veneman lived up to the most dire expectations regarding her nomination, creating a record of service to the interests of multinational corporations at the expense of farmers and consumers. She drew the boos of farmers on her rare visits to rural America. And for good reason. She turned the Department of Agriculture into an echo chamber for the advocates of free trade agreements that have dramatically undermined the income and long-term viability of U.S. farmers, and for Monsanto and other firms that are seeking to force farmers to plant genetically modified crops and inject cows with bovine growth hormones.

Worst of all, on issues such as the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States and Canada, she seemed at every turn to be more interested in the business and trade impacts of those revelations than the very real public health issues that they raised.

Veneman has stepped down as secretary of agriculture but, in what has now become a pattern for the Bush administration, her years of disservice have been rewarded with selection to serve as the new executive director of UNICEF, the U.N. agency that is responsible for protecting children's health, welfare and rights.

Veneman is expected to get the job because of the defining role that the Bush administration plays in the selection process, just as U.S. pressure set up Wolfowitz for the World Bank position.

The notion that Veneman would be placed in a position to decide how to feed and care for the planet's most destitute children is every bit as alarming as the notion that Wolfowitz would be charged with providing aid to developing countries.

Indeed, as Ravi Narayan, coordinator for the global secretariat of the People's Health Movement, wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the members of the executive board of UNICEF: "Ms. Veneman's training and experience as a corporate lawyer for agribusiness do not qualify her for the substantial task of leading the agency most responsible for the rights of children worldwide. There is no evidence in her tenure as U.S. secretary of agriculture, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, or deputy undersecretary for international affairs of the USDA of her interest in the world's children or their health and well-being.

"Indeed, her performance in these positions has been characterized by the elevation of corporate profit above people's right to food (U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25). Such a philosophy and practice would reverse almost six decades of UNICEF's proud humanitarian history and prove disastrous for the world's children."

Just as it is vital for responsible Americans to object to the selection of Paul Wolfowitz to serve as president of the World Bank, so it is equally vital that we object to the selection of Ann Veneman to lead UNICEF.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Congress Fails to Function

The speed with which the Congress leapt to intervene in the Florida right-to-die case of Terry Schiavo might create the impression that the US House of Representatives is a functioning legislative chamber. But nothing could be further from the truth. While House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, can get the wheels spinning to satisfy the demands of the social conservative voting blocs on which his party relies for support, this Congress has ceased to function as a serious legislative body.

This is not a complaint merely about Republicans in the House and Senate -- whose unwavering allegiance to even their president's maddest schemes mirrors that of Sancho Panza to Don Quixote. The Democrats are just about as bad, as was illustrated by their vote last week on the administration's demand for another $81.4 billion to maintain the US occupation of Iraq. The emergency appropriation vote provided a rare opportunity for the House to debate the wisdom of the war, the occupation and the president's approach to foreign affairs. But few members chose to seize that opportunity.

Rather, they voted by a lopsided 388-43 margin in favor of giving the administration another blank check. Predictably, the Republicans split 226-3 in favor of the proposal. The short list of GOP dissenters included two longtime critics of the war, Texan Ron Paul and Tennesseean John Duncan, as well as North Carolinian Howard Coble, a close ally of the White House, who surprised more than a few of his colleagues by announcing that he is "fed up with picking up the newspaper and reading that we've lost another five or 10 of our young men and women in Iraq."

There were a few more Democratic dissenters, but not many. Some 162 members of what is supposed to be the opposition party backed the president's request, while only 39 opposed it. (The Democratic dissents came from Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, William Clay of Missouri, Danny Davis of Illinois, Sam Farr of California, Bob Filner of California, Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Raul Grijalva of Arizona, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Maurice Hinchey of New York, Rush Holt of New Jersey, Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, Barbara Lee of California, John Lewis of Georgia, Carolyn Maloney of New York, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Betty McCollum of Minnesota, Jim McDermott of Washington, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Martin Meehan of Massachusetts, George Miller of California, Major Owens of New York, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Donald Payne of New Jersey, Charles Rangel of New York, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Jose Serrano of New York, Pete Stark of California, Mike Thompson of California, John Tierney of Massachusetts, Edolphus Towns of New York, Nydia Velázquez of New York, Maxine Waters of California, Anthony Weiner of New York and Lynn Woolsey of California.)

The lone independent in the House, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, was the 43rd dissenter.

Unfortunately, the Democratic foes of the appropriation were far outnumbered by Democratic backers of the White House demand. The Bush backers included House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, of California, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, and most other key players in the party's leadership.

Most of the Democrats who dissented were members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, along with white members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. By and large, they are veteran critics of the Bush administration's foreign policies. And many of them are bold in their assertion that Congress should be appropriating money to pay for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq -- not the continued occupation of that country. "By the middle of this year, I think we could begin a rapid withdrawal (and be out) by the end of this year," Representative Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, told a local reporter after casting her vote against funding the administration's request. "Do I think it's likely? I don't. But I think it's important to keep pressing for it."

While the "no" voters were expressing their opposition to the war, they were also expressing their understanding of the Constitution's requirement that Congress serve as a check and balance on the executive branch of the federal government.

"Time and again the President has requested money to fund the war in Iraq while refusing to answer our questions about this war and provide a comprehensive strategy for bringing our troops home," explained Representative Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin. "In our democracy, the Congress controls the pursestrings and we must make sure that our servicemen and women have the equipment and supplies that they need. Beyond that, before allocating more funds, we must insist that the administration articulate the conditions necessary to bring our troops home, and push them to do that as soon as possible. The administration's refusal to address that is quite astounding to me and should be of great concern to all Americans who believe in accountability and checks and balances."

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Celtic Tiger Bites the Poor

The music of St. Patrick's Day, if it is political at all, tends to pick at old wounds and recall even older fights. That doesn't make it bad – a good many of the old rebel songs are brilliant -- but it can make the tunes a tad redundant.

There is nothing redundant about Damien Dempsey, however. The 28-year-old Dublin songwriter, whose first U.S. album, Seize the Day (Attack) was quietly released last fall, explores the harsh realities of contemporary Ireland with an eye and an ear that owes as much to Bob Marley as it does to the Clancy Brothers.Dempsey's music is Irish to the core – as Shane Mac Gowan of the Pogues says of his Celtic comrade, "He sees the beauty that is Ireland and that is Ireland's past and that can be Ireland's future." Yet, just as Marley made the Jamaican experience universal, so Dempsey sings a global song.

Seize the Day is packed with remarkable tunes, but the standout is "Celtic Tiger," an unblinking examination of the growing gap between rich and poor in Ireland that takes its name from the label attached to that country's "new economy." But it could have been written about any developed country where the promise of globalization is turning out to be a nightmare for those who did not begin their journey on the upper rungs of the economic ladder.

Dempsey sings:

Now they say the Celtic Tiger in my home town

Brings jewels and crowns, picks you up off the ground

But the Celtic Tiger does two things

It brings good luck or it eats you up for its supper.

It's a tale of two cities on the shamrock shore

Please Sir can I have some more

'Cos if you are poor you'll be eaten for sure

and that's how I know the poor have more taste than the rich

and that's how I know the poor have better taste than the rich...

With Sinead O'Connor adding shimmering background vocals, Dempsey growls: "Hear the Celtic Tiger roar -- I want more," as he angrily observes that with Ireland experiencing "the fastest growing inflation rate in the world... a couple with kids can't afford a place to live." There is no smarmy nostalgia here; Dempsey is calling out the destroyers of the Irish sense of community:

We're being robbed by the builders and the fat cat government

A league of greed and they don't even need for a thing

It's a sin

But it's the nature of the beast

You'd better go and find a priest and confess

Because your greed is gonna leave you soulless.

One of the most astute assessments of "Celtic Tiger" came from the BBC reviewer who said, "As a pop-political barometer, the song merits comparisons with ‘Guns Of Brixton' by The Clash and ‘Ghost Town' by The Specials."

But the truest measure of Damien Dempsey's music is that, in exploring the struggle for Ireland's soul, Dempsey finds a global groove that speaks to those who live far beyond the shamrock shore -- and to those who will be listening long after St. Patrick's Day.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

The Trials of Tony Blair

LONDON -- George Bush's favorite European is having a hard time emulating the American president's strategy of exploiting the war on terror for political gain.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose willingness to go along even with the most illegitimate and dangerous of Bush's mad schemes has made him a hero to American conservatives, is paying a high price for being what his countrymen refer to as "Bush's lapdog."

Blair's attempt to enact a British version of the Patriot Act created a political crisis last week. Day after day, Blair battled with dissidents from his own Labour Party in the British House of Commons and House of Lords, as well as the country's opposition parties, over basic civil liberties issues. While Blair eked out a victory in the Parliament, he repeatedly failed to win the approval of the House of Lords, where his own mentor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, one of the country's leading legal minds, sided with the foes.

Only after Blair's aides agreed to several concessions -- including a Parliamentary review of the so-called "Prevention of Terrorism Act" in one year, which opposition leaders correctly described as a "sunset clause" -- did the measure win approval after bitter all-night sessions of both chambers.

"The Great Terrorism Debate of 2005" has already become the stuff of legend: how the government steamrollered opposition in the Commons only to see the proposals rejected by the Lords four times in 24 hours; how members struggled to sleep in all available spaces around Westminster as both houses dug in and sat through the night; and how they stuck resolutely to their positions until the final breakthrough," observed the Scotland on Sunday newspaper.

The British human rights lawyer Helena Kennedy, who sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws and led the opposition to Blair's Ashcroft-like assault on basic legal rights, explained after the battle was done that, "This was not about the law. It became a trial of political strength."

Blair's trials are not done.

Last week's newspaper headlines brought more bad news for the prime minister. It was revealed by London's Independent that Blair apparently violated the official code of conduct for Cabinet ministers by failing to share the full advice of the country's Attorney General on the legality of the Iraq war with his own Cabinet. Clare Short, a member of the Cabinet prior to the start of the war, issued a statement in which she declared that the Cabinet had been "misled" and that support for military action against Iraq had been obtained "improperly,"

The news came as Britain's national Stop the War Coalition was busily organizing mass demonstrations against British involvement in Iraq to take place on March 19. Tony Benn, a former Labour Party Cabinet minister who has split with Blair on the war issue told me, "This will be one of the largest demonstrations since the war began, perhaps the largest, and it will confirm that their remains a hearty opposition to Tony Blair's decision to follow George Bush into war."

This is all bad news for Blair as he prepares for an election that is likely to be called for May 5.

"The 'Iraq effect' is still there on the doorstep, Labour officials report from the election front line. The issue is wider than military intervention, with some voters expressing concern they have 'lost' their Prime Minister to foreign affairs and others seeing 'Iraq' as shorthand for their loss of trust in Mr. Blair," explains Andrew Grice, political editor for The Independent. "The real 'Iraq effect' will be measured May 5."

One of the most fascinating tests could come in Blair's own parliamentary constituency of Sedgefield, in the north of England. A coalition of prominent members of parliament who have argued for the impeachment of Blair on the question of whether he deceived the House of Commons -- as Bush has been accused of deceiving the US Congress -- is working with some of the country's most prominent cultural figures, including musician Brian Eno, one of Britain's most widely respected public intellectuals, to find a single challenger for Blair. The idea is that all opposition parties, as well as Labour dissidents, would unite behind a celebrity anti-war candidate who would turn the local election into a referendum on Blair's policies.

If the move succeeds, it is possible that Blair's Labour Party could be returned to power without Blair.

While that prospect remains a long shot, it is delicious enough to have been taken seriously by the British media and some of the most thoughtful young members of the House of Commons.

Says Adam Price, a Welsh member of Parliament who is active in the move to identify a Blair challenger: "The critical thing is to find a candidate who is a national figure who encapsulates in their personality the message about trust and the need to restore public confidence in the political process."

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Is Bush Ready for Real Democracy?

George Bush seems to want to be the president not of the United States but of the world.

Indeed, since his reelection in November, Bush has made foreign policy – a subject about which he displayed scant interest prior to September 11, 2001 – his primary focus. But, as with anyone who is new to complex subject matter, he has not always been graceful in his embrace of it.

This can lead to embarrassing contradictions, as we saw this week.

The president, appearing at the National Defense University, declared that, "Today I have a message for the people of Lebanon: All the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience. Lebanon's future belongs in your hands."

Unfortunately for the president, on the "today" when he was speaking, one of the largest crowds ever to gather in the history of Lebanon was protesting against the approach that Bush has counseled for that country. This does not necessarily mean that Bush is wrong. But it does mean that he looked like something of a fool when he suggested that "all the world is witnessing your great movement of conscience" at the same time that the streets of Beirut were filled with 500,000 people chanting anti-US slogans and expressing sympathy with Syria.

Make no mistake, I'm on the side of the Lebanese people who want Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon, just as I am on the side of the Palestinian and Israeli people who want Israel to end its occupation of Palestine and of the Iraqi people who want the United States to end its occupation of their country.

But these are not issues that should be decided by American policy makers. They should be decided by the citizens of the countries themselves, and the way to do that is with a popular referendum.

There is a very good model for such voting: the 1999 referendum in which the voters of East Timor rejected occupation of their territory by Indonesia. That referendum, which was organized by the United Nations Mission in East Timor (Unamet), saw 78.5% of East Timorese vote for independence. Indonesia grudgingly accepted the new reality – under the watchful eyes of United Nations peacekeeping forces – and with 450 years of foreign occupation finally ended, East Timor emerged as a free and democratic nation.

Why not follow the same course in those Middle Eastern countries where the climate seems most ripe for democratic experimentation?

Let the people of Lebanon vote--under the watchful eye of election monitors from the UN, the Carter Center and other international agencies--on whether they want the Syrians to leave on the more-or-less immediate timetable that Bush is promoting. My bet is that the majority of Lebanese voters would tell the occupiers to exit. But as someone who has spent a good deal of time in the region, I suspect that the vote would be closer than many observers from afar imagine. That's because after the horrific instability and violence of the 1980s, there is a portion of the Lebanese population that sees the Syrian military presence as a stabilizing force in a country that is deeply divided along lines of religion, ethnicity and class. The fact is that pro-Syrian parties have won a lot of votes in Lebanese elections, and it is not unreasonable to think that they will continue to do so in the future.

If President Bush really believes, as he told the Lebanese people on Tuesday, that "Lebanon's future belongs in your hands," then he should support a popular referendum that could settle the question of what future the Lebanese people want.

The president should not stop there. He should also support similar referendums regarding the occupations of Palestine and Iraq -- where polls suggest there is widespread opposition to the presence of foreign military forces.

If the president wants to lend credibility to the stirring statement he made in his speech at the National Defense University--"(Authoritarian) rule is not the wave of the future. It is the last gasp of a discredited past"--then he should begin by backing popular referendums and then making it the policy of the United States to abide by the will of the people of Lebanon, Palestine AND Iraq.

Roosevelt vs. Bush

President Bush is losing his fight to privatize Social Security.

Even his own allies, such as House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., are warning the president that he cannot force the American people to accept the radical reworking of Social Security that Bush's allies in the financial services industry want.

In fact, the only hope the president has left is outright distortion of the facts - by the White House and by its amen corner in the media.

The Fox News Channel, which has a long history of being more loyal to the Bush administration than it is to the truth, is currently peddling the biggest of the big lies.

Fox news analyst Brit Hume and other Fox personalities have begun claiming that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, an iconic figure among elderly Americans at least in part because of the role he played in creating the Social Security system, favored privatizations schemes of the sort that President Bush is pushing.

"It turns out that FDR himself planned to include private investment accounts in the Social Security program when he proposed it," claimed Hume in a recent broadcast, where he also suggested that Roosevelt wanted the federal program to ultimately be supplanted by "self-supporting annuity plans."

To "substantiate" his statement, Hume rearranged Roosevelt's words to fake up "quotes" that seemed to suggest the 32nd president would have approved of undermining the Social Security system in order to enrich Wall Street.

The former president's grandson, James Roosevelt Jr., was so offended by Hume's abuse of FDR's words that he said last week, "(Hume) rearranged those sentences in an outrageous distortion, one that really calls for a retraction, an apology, maybe even a resignation."

James Roosevelt Jr. is not merely a guardian of his grandfather's legacy, he is a former associate commissioner for the Social Security system. In other words, he knows what he is talking about.

That's more than can be said for Hume and other conservative commentators - notably William Bennett and the Wall Street Journal's John Fund - who have tried to suggest that FDR would have favored privatization.

"It is really quite amazing to me that all of the folks supporting privatization, from the president on down, keep invoking the name of my grandfather, Franklin Delano Roosevelt," says James Roosevelt. "I think it's, in a way, it is flattering to him. It is testimony to how successful the program that he put in place has been and continues to be."

Asked by MSNBC host Keith Olbermann whether his grandfather was opposed to the sort of privatization schemes the Bush administration is now proposing, James Roosevelt said, "I'm definitely convinced of that."

Noting that "the dedicated Social Security tax has been very successful over the years in raising almost all of our elderly citizens out of poverty," where half of them were in poverty before Social Security, James Roosevelt said of his grandfather, "I'm convinced he never intended to phase it out."

Here's a tip: In the great debate over Social Security, put your faith in people named Roosevelt, not Bush - or certainly not Hume.

Vermont Votes No to War

Congress may not be prepared to hold an honest debate on when and how the United States should exit the Iraq imbroglio, but the town meetings of rural Vermont are not so constrained. Declaring that "The War in Iraq is a Local Issue," citizens in communities across the state voted of Tuesday for resolutions urging President Bush and Congress to take steps to withdraw American troops from Iraq and calling on their state legislature to investigate the use and abuse of the Vermont National Guard in the conflcit.

Spearheaded by the Vermont Network on Iraq War Resolutions, Green Mountain Veterans for Peace and the Vermont Chapter of Military Families Speak Out, the campaign to get antiwar resolutions on town meeting agendas succeeded in more than 50 communities statewide. That meant that the issue was raised in more than one fifth of the 251 Vermont towns where the annual celebrations of grassroots democracy take place. Forty-nine towns voted for the resolutions. Only three voted "no," while one saw a tie vote. In the state's largest city, Burlington, the antiwar initiative received the support of 65 percent of electors.

"Many have wondered how a town meeting could direct something on a national scale," admitted Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger. "But it does send a message that hopefully people are listening to."

Ned Coffin, an 83-year-old retired poultry farmer in the town of Bethel agreed. "I can't think of another forum in which people can express their views on any subject, even ones of national importance," explained Coffin. "The war was a mistake and this is a way for that message to be heard."

There is no question that the message was heard by Vermont's Congressional representatives. US Rep. Bernie Sander, I-Vermont, announced his support for the resolution being considered at the town meeting in Burlington. US Senator Jim Jeffords, I-Vermont, endorsed the resolution campaign, as did US Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Foreign Operations. ''This resolution has prompted the kind of constructive debate that should be happening not only in Washington but in every community in the country, and Vermonters again are setting a good example of civic responsibility and participation,'' said Leahy.

Activists hope the Vermont resolution campaign will go national. Already, Amherst, Massachusetts -- which begins city council meetings by reading aloud the names of Iraqis and US soldiers who have died in the war -- has passed a "Bring the Troops Home" resolution, as has Arcata, California.

In November, San Francisco voters endorsed Proposition N, an antiwar statement that ended with the declaration, "The Federal government should take immediate steps to end the US occupation of Iraq and bring our troops safely home now."

One of the strengths of the Vermont resolution campaign was the focus on the status of the Vermont National Guard. That brought the issue home, as 200 of the state's 251 towns have residents who have been called up to serve in Iraq. A rural state where wages are low in many regions, Vermont has traditionally had a high level of participation in the National Guard. With Guard units being so heavily used in the Iraq, several studies show that Vermont has suffered the highest per capita death toll of any state since the war began a two years ago.

"There is nothing more quintessentially local than war, and the local connection is the National Guard," explains Ben Scotch, a former director of the Vermont American Civil Liberties Union who helped draft the model resolution for the town meetings. "The guard members and their families are our first concern. Discussions over the appropriateness of their use in the war need to start in our own communities."

Nancy Lessin, a co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, a national antiwar network that includes more than 2,000 military families, agreed. Lessin told the Christian Science Monitor that the Vermont approach "brings into discussion the very people who should be discussing the impact of this war: National Guard families, local politicians, police departments, school officials."

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Dems Forget First Amendment

What is the issue on which Congressional Democrats are least likely to take a bold--and appropriate--stand?

War and peace? No. More than 126 House Democrats voted against the use-of-force resolution that President Bush used as an excuse for the invasion of Iraq, as did 21 Senate Democrats. Some 118 House Democrats and 11 of their Senate colleagues had the courage to vote against the continued funding of the war--not because they do not "support the troops" but because they want to get the troops home alive.

The Patriot Act? No. While US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, was the only Senate Democrat who opposed the Patriot Act, 62 House Democrats opposed that assault on the Constitution and the majority of House Democrats have since backed resolutions to address the law's worst excesses.

Freedom of speech? Yes. When the House voted in mid-February on the so-called Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, only 36 Democrats took the side of the First Amendment. They were joined by one Independent, Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders, and one Republican, Texas renegade Ron Paul.

The vast majority of House Democratic Caucus members--they're the ones who are supposed to "get" the First Amendment at least a little bit better than their Republican colleagues--sided with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and his merry band of crusaders for censorship.

Don't let the bipartisan support for this measure cause you to think that this was an inconsequential measure. The draconian assault on the rights of artists and communicators to express controversial views was broadly opposed by unions representing the creative community. Under the provisions of the measure, an individual talk-show host, filmmaker, musician or on-air commentator could be fined as much as $500,000 for producing an image or expressing a point of view that is considered "indecent" by censors at the conservative-controlled Federal Communications Commission.

Additionally, broadcasters could be fined as much as $500,000 under the measure, a threat that assures that doors will be closed to controversial artists as a new era of self-censorship unfolds.

If the measure becomes law it will, in the words of US Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, "put Big Brother in charge of deciding what is art and what is free speech. We would see self-and actual-censorship rise to new and undesirable heights."

Schakowsky was one of the courageous 38 House members who voted "no." She was joined by many thinking progressives, including the sharpest observers of media issues in the chamber, US Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, US Rep. Diane Watson, D-California, and Sanders.

Noting that the fear of fines had already led 66 ABC-TV network affiliates to decide last year against showing the internationally-acclaimed World War II film "Saving Private Ryan," Sanders said, "Free Expression and First Amendment rights are the real target of this legislation. Ironically, we already have television stations refusing to air a film about the sacrifice of America's Greatest Generation to preserve freedom because of the danger of arbitrary fines that the FCC imposes under its overly vague so-called 'indecency standard.' Vastly increasing the fines to $500,000 will only escalate this dangerous cycle of self-censorship, particularly (by) small broadcasters who could be bankrupted by a $500,000 fine. This is not what America is about."

Unfortunately, most Democrats appear to believe that censorship is what America is all about. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, voted for censorship, as did 161 other members of the opposition party that is supposed to take civil liberties more seriously than does the Republican majority.

In fairness, some prominent Democrats did choose the Constitution over political expediency. US Rep. John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who is the ranking minority party member of the House Judiciary Committee, and US Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, another House veteran with a long record of defending free speech rights, were among the proud if somewhat lonely foes of censorship.

Waxman echoed the concerns of thinking members of Congress when he said, "No one knows when one person's creative work will become another person's definition of a violation of indecency."

Sanders made an equally appropriate point when he explained that, "The specter of censorship is growing in America today and we have to stand firmly in opposition to it. What America is about is not necessarily liking what you have to say or agreeing with you, but recognizing your Constitutional right to say it. Today, it is Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction or Howard Stern's vulgarity. What will it be tomorrow?"

While the import of Sanders's question should be obvious, most Democrats answered that they simply did not care.

Talk about indecency!

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Hunter Thompson's Political Genius

Norman Mailer had the best take on Hunter Thompson's passing.

"He had more to say about what was wrong with America than George W. Bush can ever tell us about what is right," mused Mailer upon learning of Thompson's suicide.

Anyone who read Thompson knew that the so-called "gonzo journalist" was about a lot more than sex, drugs and rock-and-roll -- although it is Thompson who gets credit for introducing all three of those precious commodities to the mainstream of American journalism. The gun-toting, mescaline-downing wildman that showed up in Doonesbury as "Uncle Duke" was merely the cartoon version of an often serious, and always important, political commentator who once said that his beat was the death of the American dream. Thompson was to the political class of the United States in the latter part of the 20th century what William Hazlitt was to the English poets of the early 19th century: a critic who was so astute, so engaged and so unyielding in his idealism that he ultimately added more to the historical canon than did many of his subjects.

Thompson taught me how to look at politics -- his book on the 1972 presidential campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, remains the one necessary campaign journal of the era -- and I cherished him for that. (When I was writing a book on the Florida recount fight of 2000, I wanted to pay homage to Thompson, so I asked him if we could use one of his brilliant "Hey Rube" columns to remind readers that no crime was beyond the imagination of the Bush brain trust. Thompson, who referred to George W. Bush as "the goofy Child President" and saw the Bush family as a recurring cancer that plagued the American body politic, leapt at the chance to be part of the project. He continued to delight in Bush-bashing, titling a column published at the time of the 43rd president's first inaugural: "Abandon All Hope.")

But Thompson also taught me how to do politics. Thompson was a journalist in the traditional sense of the craft and, as such, he was entirely unwilling to merely observe the wrongdoings of the political class. He wanted to create a newer, better politics -- or, at the very least, to so screw up the current machinery that it would no longer work for the people who he referred to as "these cheap, greedy little killers who speak for America today."

In 1970, fresh from covering the assassinations, police riots and related disappointments of the 1968 presidential campaign, Thompson waded into the fight himself as a "pro-hippie, anti-development" candidate for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, which included the ski town of Aspen. Thompson wanted to win in order to save what was still a rural, live-and-let-live county from the influx of Hollywood stars, corporate hoteliers and the rest of the elite entourage that would make it the nation's premier ski resort. But he also wanted to teach a lesson about politics that would have meaning far beyond Colorado.

Thompson ran on what he and his backers dubbed the "Freak Power" ticket, declaring in an advertisement in the Aspen Times that, "(In) 1970 Amerika a lot of people are beginning to understand that to be a freak is an honorable way to go. This is the real point: that we are not really freaks at all - not in the literal sense -- but the twisted realities of the world we are trying to live in have somehow combined to make us feel like freaks. We argue, we protest, we petition -- but nothing changes. So now, with the rest of the nation erupting in a firestorm of bombings and political killings, a handful of "freaks" are running a final, perhaps atavistic experiment with the idea of forcing change by voting..."

At a time when many of his contemporaries were disappearing into a drug haze, or shouting silly "Smash-the-State" slogans, Thompson was exploring a more radical prospect. He wanted to combine "Woodstock vibrations, New Left activism, and basic Jeffersonian Democracy with strong echoes of the Boston Tea Party ethic" into what the writer-candidate referred to as "a blueprint for stomping the (conservative Vice President Spiro) Agnew mentality by its own rules -- with the vote, instead of the bomb; by seizing the power machinery and using it, instead of merely destroying it."

The experiment was not an immediate success. But Thompson did win the city of Aspen and took 44 percent of the vote county wide. In fact, only a last-minute deal between the Democratic and Republican parties pulled together enough votes for the incumbent sheriff to beat the "Freak Power" candidate. But, as Thompson noted, "the Aspen campaign suddenly assumed national importance as a sort of accidental trial balloon that might, if it worked, be tremendously significant."

As it happened, even in defeat, the campaign proved significant. Because of all the national attention accorded Thompson's campaign, the blueprint was noted by "new politics" candidates and activists around the country. They won power in college towns such as Berkeley and Madison and Ann Arbor, and eventually in communities that were threatened by commercial and real estate pressures similar to those that were the target of Thompson's Aspen campaign. Indeed, even in Aspen, Thompson's politics would eventually win out -- in the mid-1990s, he organized a campaign that successfully blocked a plan by the Aspen Ski Company to expand the local airport to accommodate jetliners that were designed for "industrial tourism."

Hunter Thompson once said: "Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why." And when all the rumination about his adventurous approach to drugs and guns is done, there will remain the blueprint for that better politics that Thompson was wise enough and idealistic enough to believe might yet redeem the American dream.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

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