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John Nichols

John Nichols

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FCC to TV: Tell the Truth

Most television viewers don't know it, but a huge portion of what they watch on the local news programs aired by their favorite stations is not actually "news." Rather, local television stations around the country have in recent years been taking "video news releases" from the federal government and major corporations – particularly the big pharmaceutical companies – and airing them as if they were news reports.

Video news releases (VNRs) are so common these days that they actually dominate some newscasts, blurring the lines between advertising and news more blatantly than product placements in movies do the lines between advertising and entertainment.

But, from now on, VNRs will be identified as productions of the corporations that developed them, rather than pawned off as part of the news.

The Federal Communications Commission has called on television stations to disclose the origin of VNRs used on their news programs. "Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them with the programming offered over broadcast stations and cable systems," reads the FCC statement issued Wednesday, which was unanimously approved by all four FCC commissioners.

The FCC has instructed newscasters that they must abide by FCC sponsorship identification rules when they air VNRs and called for comments from license holders and cable operators about their use of the public-relations and advertising videos – including those produced by the government.

"Today's Public Notice… reminds broadcast stations, cable operators, and others of their disclosure obligations under our rules, if and when they choose to air VNRs, and to reinforce that we will take appropriate enforcement action against stations that do not comply with these rules," explained FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

The decision of the FCC came after a campaign organized by the Center for Media and Democracy and the media reform group Free Press, which filed a joint complaint regarding the issue on March 21. Accompanying the complaint was a petition signed by more than 40,000 Americans expressing concern about what the groups refer to as news fraud and that the Government Accounting Office has labeled "covert propaganda."

In the statement from the FCC, the commissioners cited the "large number of requests" for an investigation that had been received by the agency. "Citing the complaints, one commissioner urged the agency to aggressively investigate the use of VNRs that, according to the New York Times, have been produced using taxpayer funds by at least 20 federal agencies seeking to promote Bush administration policies.

"Recently, tens of thousands of citizens contacted the FCC demanding an investigation into the failure of broadcasters to disclose their use of government-generated ‘news' stories. They were right to do so," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. "This Commission should investigate each such case. And it should strenuously enforce the rules against inadequate sponsorship identification."

That's the hope of John Stauber, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, who said after the decision, "Not labeling VNRs constitutes news fraud and violates the most basic ethical standards of journalism. It's now time for TV news producers to own up their responsibility to the viewing public and fully disclose their use of fake news."

(John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, which, along with the Center for Media and Democracy, is helping community groups around the country to develop "citizen agreements" with local television stations. The agreements commit broadcasters to label VNRs produced by corporations and the government. For more on the campaign, visit www.freepress.net/propaganda)

John Bolton vs. Democracy

"Im with the Bush-Cheney team, and I'm here to stop the count."

Those were the words John Bolton yelled as he burst into a Tallahassee library on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2000, where local election workers were recounting ballots cast in Florida's disputed presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Bolton was one of the pack of lawyers for the Republican presidential ticket who repeatedly sought to shut down recounts of the ballots from Florida counties before those counts revealed that Gore had actually won the state's electoral votes and the presidency.

The December 9 intervention was Bolton's last and most significant blow against the democratic process.

The Florida Supreme Court had ordered a broad recount of ballots in order to finally resolve the question of who won the state. But Bolton and the Bush-Cheney team got their Republican allies on the U.S. Supreme Court to block the review. Fearing that each minute of additional counting would reveal the reality of voter sentiments in Florida, Bolton personally rushed into the library to stop the count.

Bolton was in South Korea when it became clear that the Nov. 7, 2000, election would be decided in Florida. At the behest of former Secretary of State James Baker, who fronted the Bush-Cheney team during the Florida fight, Bolton winged his way to Palm Beach, where he took the lead in challenging ballots during that county's recount. Then, when the ballots from around the state were transported to Tallahassee for the recount ordered by the state Supreme Court, Bolton followed them.

It was there that he personally shut down the review of ballots from Miami-Dade County, a populous and particularly contested county where independent reviews would later reveal that hundreds of ballots that could reasonably have been counted for Gore were instead discarded.

Miami-Dade County Elections Supervisor David Leahy argued at the time that 2,257 voters had apparently attempted to mark ballot cards for Gore or Bush but had not had them recorded because they had been improperly inserted into the voting machines. A hand count of those ballots revealed that 302 more of them would have gone for Gore than Bush. That shift in the numbers from just one of Florida's 67 counties would have erased more than half of Bush's 537-vote lead in the state.

But attempts to conduct a hand count were repeatedly blocked by the Bush-Cheney team, culminating with Bolton's December 9 announcement that, "I'm here to stop the count." A few days later, the U.S. Supreme Court would stop the count permanently, with a pro-Bush ruling in which five Republican-appointed justices, in the words of noted attorney Vincent Bugliosi, "committed the unpardonable sin of being a knowing surrogate for the Republican Party instead of being an impartial arbiter of the law."

Bolton was a key player in the fight to delay the Florida count long enough to allow for the Supreme Court's intervention, and he got his reward quickly. Despite his record of making controversial and sometimes bizarre statements regarding international affairs, he was selected by the Bush administration in 2001 to serve as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control. And he is now in line to become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Before he is given that position, and charged with the job of promoting the spread of democracy around the world, however, senators would do well to consider the disregard John Bolton showed for democracy in Florida.

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John Nichols is the author of Jews for Buchanan (The New Press), a review of the Florida recount fight that was hailed by Studs Terkel as "the best thing anyone has written on that whole damn election." The book is available in independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com)

Who's a 'Good Catholic'?

Among the members of Congress who attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II last week was U.S. Rep. David Obey.

It would be difficult to identify a more appropriate representative than the Wisconsin Democrat who has served in Congress for the better part of four decades.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Obey is one of the most prominent and powerful members of the Congress. He is, as well, one of the most thoughtful and outspoken members of the Catholic faith in Washington. Indeed, the veteran congressman has credited his Catholic upbringing with helping to shape his values and his commitment to public service. "I was raised a Catholic," says Obey. "I know in my bones that I would not hold the views I hold today if it were not for the values I learned in Catholic school."

Yet, there are some who object to the suggestion that a progressive such as Obey is a "good Catholic."

Last year, Archbishop Raymond Burke published a public notice in the La Crosse, Wisconsin, diocesan newspaper that told Catholic legislators in the diocese who support abortion rights or euthanasia not to attempt to receive Communion and ordered priests not to give it to them. Burke, a moral hardliner who occupies the right fringe of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Biships, was then the Bishop of La Crosse; he is now the Archbishop of St. Louis.

Obey, who was widely believed to be one of the targeted legislators, responded with an opinion piece that appeared in America, a weekly Jesuit magazine that is one of the U.S. church's most well-regarded publications.

In it, Obey wrote that he would not let Burke "coerce" him into imposing the church's teachings on abortion upon America's pluralistic society. The piece, "My Conscience, My Vote," noted that, "In my view, Bishop Burke attempted to use his interpretations of theology to coerce me into taking specific positions on matters that I believe are matters of constitutional law. The difference between us is that I am not trying to force him to agree with my judgments, but he is attempting to force me to agree with his. That in conscience I cannot do."

Obey also urged that "the full texture and context of all my legislative actions" -- which includes many courageous votes to promote social and economic justice goals that parallel priorities of church leaders -- be reviewed before judging him.

Obey's bold statement was broadly circulated, and greeted with a great deal of relief by members of the faith who objected to the whole debate -- stirred by conservatives looking to derail the presidential campaign of John Kerry, who is also a practicing Catholic -- about whether politicians who did not follow the church line on abortion were "good Catholics."

Unfortunately, as the group Media Matters has noted, some in the media continue to perpetuate the "good Catholic" line.

Last week, on CNN's Inside Politics, CNN host Wolf Blitzer discussed the pope's funeral with Crossfire co-hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak, both of whom are Catholics. Blitzer opened the segment by announcing that, "While they were united today in mourning the death of the pope, U.S. Catholics are a diverse group, as illustrated by two of our Crossfire co-hosts, the conservative Robert Novak, the liberal Paul Begala. Both good Catholics -- I don't know 'good' Catholics, but both Catholics. I'm sure Bob is a good Catholic, I'm not so sure about Paul Begala."

Noting that his son is named John Paul, after the late pope, Begala, a Democratic campaign aide, objected and, when Blitzer seemed to dismiss him, said, "I'm serious, that annoys me. I don't think anybody should presume that a liberal is not a good Catholic."

Begala continued, "The Holy Father is liberal. And in fact, when [CNN contributor] Carlos [Watson] was speaking [earlier in the program], I was in the green room. Underneath, some producer had written, 'Many Catholic doctrines are conservative.' Absolutely correct. Many are liberal as well. The Holy Father bitterly opposed President Bush's war in Iraq. He came to St. Louis -- and I was there -- and he begged America to give up the death penalty. President Bush strongly supports it, as did President Clinton and others. Many of the Holy Father's views -- my church's views -- are extraordinarily liberal. The Pope talked about savage, unbridled capitalism..."

Begala was right to challenge the casual use of the "good Catholic" label. When the national media joins the most extreme church hardliners and conservative ideologues in casting judgements about the faith of individual Catholics, they do damage to discussions about both religion and politics. And they foster the fallacy that the only issue of concern to Catholics is abortion.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) is drawing great reviews. 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 booksellers nationwide and at www.amazon.com.

The Anti-War Pope

Expect to see a lot of George W. Bush over the next day or so, as he attends the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The White House is going out of its way to hype the fact that Bush is the first U.S. president ever to attend the funeral of a pope. And don't be so naive as to think that White House political czar Karl Rove and his minions -- all of whom are deeply concerned about the president's declining poll numbers -- have failed to calculate the political advantage that might be gained by associating the president with a pontiff whose passing has drawn unprecedented attention in the U.S. and around the world.

As Bush and other global leaders pay their final respects to John Paul II on Friday, however, it is important to remember that the Catholic pontiff was not a fan of this American president's warmaking.

John Paul II was an early, consistent, passionate and always outspoken critic of the president's scheming to invade Iraq. The Pope went so far as to meet with world leaders who were close to Bush, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in a high-profile attempt to prevent the war. Finally, the Pope sent a special envoy to Washington -- Cardinal Pio Laghi, who has long been close to the Bush family -- to try and derail the administration's rush to war.

When the war began, aides said that the Pope was "very disappointed and very sad" that Bush had ignored appeals to give peace a chance.

The Pope remained a critic of U.S. actions in Iraq, especially after it was revealed in May, 2004, Iraqi prisoners had been abused by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison.

"From all continents come endless, disturbing information about the human rights situation, revealing that men, women and children are being tortured and their dignity being made a mockery of. ... It is all of humanity which has been wounded and ridiculed," John Paul II said.

Those who are honoring the Pope's memory this week frequently refer to him as a man of peace. They would do well to recall that this is more than just a phrase. While the Pope was not a pacifist, he was an ardent foe of unjust and unwise wars. And hisopposition to the war in Iraq -- and to all forms of preemptive war -- is at the very heart of the legacy he has left with regard to international relations.

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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 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.

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