Quantcast

John Nichols | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Reinforcing the Wall

In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, then-President Thomas Jefferson made it clear that the intent of the founders was to maintain a "wall of separation between church and state." It was for that reason, Jefferson explained, that the First Amendment to the Constitution barred the government of the new nation from engaging in the promotion of a particular religion.

Jefferson and the other founders had no doubts about the need to prevent any mingling of the affairs of church and state. They had seen the damage done to government and religion by the state religions of Europe -- particularly, though not exclusively, King George III's Church of England -- and they wanted to assure that the United States would avoid the patterns of hatred, discrimination and violence that arise when one faith is officially sanctioned. They also recognized the advantages that came with keeping politicians out of pulpits and preachers out of policymaking. Though many of the founders were Christians, they held dramatically different views regarding the practice of religion. And, as George Washington and others made clear, they respected the contributions made to the new Republic by Jews and other non-Christians.

History has proven the concerns of the founders to have been well placed. When Jefferson's wall has been maintained, the American experiment has been at its best: welcoming, tolerant, open to new ideas and respectful of science, reason and progress.

When the wall has been undermined, however, the country has often degenerated into bitterness and dysfunction.

Fights over religion have caused divisions so serious that they have warped not just politics but basic human interactions at the hometown level.

Certainly, that has been the case in recent years in several southern states.

The highest profile fight has been seen in Alabama, where a local judge named Roy Moore began stirring controversy in the late 1990s by ordering the display of the Ten Commandments in his DeKalb County courtroom. Moore argued that the United States was founded on Christian principles such as those contained in the list of Biblical injunctions, and that it thus was appropriate to display them in a prominent location as a set of guiding principles.

But Moore's true intent, which was obvious from the start, was to stir up support among Christian fundamentalists for his political ambitions. He tried to undermine the wall of separation between church and state in order to provoke a high-profile fight that would identify him as a "defender of the faith" against the "threats" posed by secularism that Jefferson, Madison and other founders clearly believed was essential to the success of the Republic.

To be sure, Moore is a sly politician. He parlayed the Ten Commandments controversy into a successful run in 2000 for the state Supreme Court, where as that body's chief justice he ordered the display of the Ten Commandments in front of the court building.

The ensuing fight made national news, and created fierce tensions in Alabama. Moore, who was forced to step down as chief justice, entertained the notion of seeking the presidency as a "Christian" challenger to President Bush in 2004 and is now talking about running for governor of Alabama in 2006.

But, while Moore may be a sly politician, he is a poor reader of the Constitution.

That fact was confirmed Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed by government agencies in a manner intended to suggest a church-state connection.

The decision in a case involving the display of framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses saw the high court's majority -- which included Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer -- signal that the Biblical document cannot be so showcased by a government agency when there is a "predominantly religious purpose" in doing so. A second decision, in a related case from Texas, maintained the flexibility that has traditionally been seen in debates about such matters -- with the court permitting reasonable displays of the Ten Commandments in historical and educational contexts.

Make no mistake, however, about the Supreme Court's clear intent.

The majority's overall message was clear: It is unconstitutional for politicians to use the Ten Commandments, or any other statement of religious principle, as battering ram against the Mr. Jefferson's wall.

-----------------------------------------------------------

John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) and has written extensively about religion and politics.

Grilled Rumsfeld Anyone?

Rarely in recent years has Washington seen so dramatic a clash between the legislative and executive branches as was witnessed Thursday, when U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Masschusetts, went after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the question of whether the Pentagon chief should resign for mismanaging the war in Iraq.

"This war has been consistently and grossly mismanaged. And we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire. Our troops are dying. And there really is no end in sight," Kennedy said, as the Secretary of Defense sat opposite him during an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Arguing that "the American people, I believe, deserve leadership worthy of the sacrifices that our fighting forces have made, and they deserve the real facts," Kennedy told Rumsfeld, "I regret to say that I don't believe that you have provided either."

Rumsfeld was clearly shocked by the aggressiveness of the senator's comments.

"Well, that is quite a statement," huffed the Secretary of Defense, who pointedly told Kennedy, "The suggestion by you that people -- me or others -- are painting a rosy picture is false."

But the Massachusetts senator, who has been one of the most ardent Congressional critics of the war, wasn't buying the secretary's line. Nor was Kennedy cutting Rumsfeld any more slack.

"In baseball, it's three strikes you're out," Kennedy told Rumsfeld. "Isn't it time for you to resign?"

Rumsfeld, who was evidently shaken by the question, paused briefly before saying, "Senator, I've offered my resignation to the president twice."

President Bush rejected Rumsfeld's offers, which came at the height of the scandal over the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Secretary of Defense told the committee he would defer to the president on the question of when he should step down. "That's his call," Rumseld said of Bush.

The intensity of Kennedy's questioning illustrated a shift that has begun to take place in Congress in recent weeks, as more and more Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans, have begun to bluntly challenge the administration's inflated claims about the "success" of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In fact, even Rumsfeld distanced himself from Vice President Dick Cheney's absurd assertion that the insurgency in Iraq is in its "last throes."

After General John Abizaid, the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, told members of the committee that he believed "more foreign fighters (are) coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," Rumsfeld was asked whether it sounded to him like the insurgency has entered the "last throes" stage.

Noting that he had not uttered the "last throes" line, an obviously exasperated Rumsfeld said of Cheney's choice of words: "I didn't use them, and I might not use them."

Perhaps Kennedy should have asked Rumsfeld if Cheney ought to resign.

Alternatively, the Wisconsin Democratic Party, at its state's convention earlier this month, passed a resolution that would seem to cover all the bases.

The delegates called for immediate steps to be taken to impeach Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush.

Conyers vs. The Post

There is painful irony in the fact that, during the same month that the confirmation of "Deep Throat's" identity has allowed the Washington Post to relive its Watergate-era glory days, the newspaper is blowing the dramatically more significant story of the "fixed" intelligence the Bush Administration used to scam Congress and US allies into supporting the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Last week, when the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, chaired an extraordinary hearing on what has come to be known as the "Downing Street Memo"--details of pre-war meetings where aides to British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the fact that, while the case for war was "thin," the Bush Administration was busy making sure that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy"--the Post ridiculed Conyers and the dozens of other members of Congress who are trying to get to the bottom of a scandal that former White House counsel John Dean has correctly identified as "worse than Watergate."

Post writer Dana Milbank penned a snarky little piece that, like similar articles in the New York Times and other "newspapers of record," displayed all the skepticism regarding Bush Administration misdeeds that one might expect to find in a White House press release.

To his credit, Conyers hit back.

In a letter addressed to the Post's national editor, the newspaper's ombudsman and Milbank, the veteran House member was blunt.

"Dear Sirs," Conyers began, "I write to express my profound disappointment with Dana Milbank's June 17 report, 'Democrats Play House to Rally Against the War,' which purports to describe a Democratic hearing I chaired in the Capitol yesterday. In sum, the piece cherry-picks some facts, manufactures others out of whole cloth, and does a disservice to some 30 members of Congress who persevered under difficult circumstances, not of our own making, to examine a very serious subject: whether the American people were deliberately misled in the lead up to war. The fact that this was the Post's only coverage of this event makes the journalistic shortcomings in this piece even more egregious.

"In an inaccurate piece of reporting that typifies the article, Milbank implies that one of the obstacles the Members in the meeting have is that 'only one' member has mentioned the Downing Street Minutes on the floor of either the House or Senate. This is not only incorrect but misleading. In fact, just yesterday, the Senate Democratic Leader, Harry Reid, mentioned it on the Senate floor. Senator Boxer talked at some length about it at the recent confirmation hearing for the Ambassador to Iraq. The House Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi, recently signed on to my letter, along with 121 other Democrats asking for answers about the memo. This information is not difficult to find either. For example, the Reid speech was the subject of an AP wire service report posted on the Washington Post website with the headline 'Democrats Cite Downing Street Memo in Bolton Fight.' Other similar mistakes, mischaracterizations and cheap shots are littered throughout the article.

"The article begins with an especially mean and nasty tone, claiming that House Democrats 'pretended' a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee hearing room and deriding the decor of the room. Milbank fails to share with his readers one essential fact: the reason the hearing was held in that room, an important piece of context. Despite the fact that a number of other suitable rooms were available in the Capitol and House office buildings, Republicans declined my request for each and every one of them. Milbank could have written about the perseverance of many of my colleagues in the face of such adverse circumstances, but declined to do so. Milbank also ignores the critical fact picked up by the AP, CNN and other newsletters that at the very moment the hearing was scheduled to begin, the Republican Leadership scheduled an almost unprecedented number of 11 consecutive floor votes, making it next to impossible for most Members to participate in the first hour and one half of the hearing.

"In what can only be described as a deliberate effort to discredit the entire hearing, Milbank quotes one of the witnesses as making an anti-semitic assertion and further describes anti-semitic literature that was being handed out in the overflow room for the event. First, let me be clear: I consider myself to be a friend and supporter of Israel and there were a number of other staunchly pro-Israel members who were in attendance at the hearing. I do not agree with, support, or condone any comments asserting Israeli control over US policy, and I find any allegation that Israel is trying to dominate the world or had anything to do with the September 11 tragedy disgusting and offensive.

"That said, to give such emphasis to 100 seconds of a 3 hour and five minute hearing that included the powerful and sad testimony (hardly mentioned by Milbank) of a woman who lost her son in the Iraq war and now feels lied to as a result of the Downing Street Minutes, is incredibly misleading. Many, many different pamphlets were being passed out at the overflow room, including pamphlets about getting out of the Iraq war and anti-Central American Free Trade Agreement, and it is puzzling why Milbank saw fit to only mention the one he did.

"In a typically derisive and uninformed passage, Milbank makes much of other lawmakers calling me 'Mr. Chairman' and says I liked it so much that I used 'chairmanly phrases.' Milbank may not know that I was the Chairman of the House Government Operations Committee from 1988 to 1994. By protocol and tradition in the House, once you have been a Chairman you are always referred to as such. Thus, there was nothing unusual about my being referred to as Mr. Chairman.

"To administer his coup-de-grace, Milbank literally makes up another cheap shot that I 'was having so much fun that [I] ignored aides' entreaties to end the session.' This did not occur. None of my aides offered entreaties to end the session and I have no idea where Milbank gets that information. The hearing certainly ran longer than expected, but that was because so many Members of Congress persevered under very difficult circumstances to attend, and I thought--given that--the least I could do was allow them to say their piece. That is called courtesy, not 'fun.'

"By the way, the 'Downing Street Memo' is actually the minutes of a British cabinet meeting. In the meeting, British officials--having just met with their American counterparts--describe their discussions with such counterparts. I mention this because that basic piece of context, a simple description of the memo, is found nowhere in Milbank's article.

"The fact that I and my fellow Democrats had to stuff a hearing into a room the size of a large closet to hold a hearing on an important issue shouldn't make us the object of ridicule. In my opinion, the ridicule should be placed in two places: first, at the feet of Republicans who are so afraid to discuss ideas and facts that they try to sabotage our efforts to do so; and second, on Dana Milbank and the Washington Post, who do not feel the need to give serious coverage on a serious hearing about a serious matter-whether more than 1700 Americans have died because of a deliberate lie. Milbank may disagree, but the Post certainly owed its readers some coverage of that viewpoint.

"Sincerely, John Conyers, Jr"

The years of the Bush presidency will be remembered as a time when American media, for the most part, practiced stenography to power --and when once-great newspapers became little more than what the reformers of another time referred to as "the kept press."

The Conyers letter, like the thousands of communications from grassroots activists to media outlets across this country pressing for serious coverage of the "Downing Street Memo" and the broader debate about the Bush Administration's doctoring of intelligence prior to the launch of the Iraq war, is an essential response to our contemporary media crisis. That it had to be written provides evidence of just how serious that crisis has grown.

King of Distraction

Michael Jackson has been acquitted on the ten charges of child molestation and related wrongs that were brought against the self-proclaimed "King of Pop."

So what!

That's right, "So what!"

Jackson's trial was certainly of consequence to the 46-year-old poster boy for arrested development. And it undoubtedly mattered to his accuser and the boy's family. It was also a big deal for the legal team that got Jackson off, and for the man who brought the prosecution, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon, whose bizarre career of headline-grabbing has taken a definite turn for the worse.

But nothing about the Michael Jackson trial mattered to the rest of America. It was merely a soap opera that served -- for 18 long months -- to distract the citizenry from the serious business of electing a president, protecting their retirement security from Wall Street raiders and following the degeneration of the war in Iraq into the quagmire it was destined to be.

Make no mistake: Big media corporations loved the Jackson trial because it was cheap to cover -- set up a camera in front of a California courthouse and the hard work is done -- and because it had a lowest-common-denominator appeal that could always be relied on to titillate audiences trained to believe that celebrity gossip is "news."

The problem with big media's cynical game of feeding the American people a junk-food diet of movie-star romances and showbiz scandals is that eventually perspective starts to get lost. On Monday, a breathless CBS radio news announcer described the Jackson verdict as "the lead story of the day, perhaps the month, perhaps the year."

If that announcer was even remotely right, then America is in serious trouble, because despite what much of the media may choose to make of the Jackson story, this tired little tabloid report is not the story that matters. It is, however, the story that keeps on giving to the powerful players in Washington who would prefer to avoid the sort of scrutiny that is directed at the Michael Jackson of the moment.

Notably, on the day that the story of Jackson's acquittal dominated the national news, Vice President Dick Cheney was cheerfully handing out journalism awards at the National Press Club in Washington. While the reporters who received the "Gerald Ford Journalism Awards" from the vice president were officially the ones being honored, it was Cheney who had the most to be thankful for.

So long as the so-called "news" media continues to use most of its might -- and most of the public's airwaves -- to distract the American people from the real lead stories about the misdeeds of a government that has sent almost 1,700 of this country's sons and daughters to needless death in Iraq and about war profiteering by corporations such as Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, the vice president and his cronies have even more to celebrate than Michael Jackson.

Dopey Court Ruling

It is not often that this column finds itself in agreement with Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor, three of the High Court's more conservative members. But Rehnquist, Thomas and O'Connor were right to dissent from the Court's wrongheaded decision to permit the federal government to prosecute sick people who use marijuana as a painkiller--even in states where voters and legislators have determined that such use is lawful.

The three dissenters are to be applauded for their refusal to be buffaloed by the drug warriors who peddle the fantasy that marijuana should continue to be viewed as a dangerous drug that is unacceptable for any use.

O'Connor's dissent was particularly significant. While she indicated that she would not have voted in favor of the state initiatives or legislative bills that have legalized medical marijuana in Alaska, Colorado, California, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, the Justice explained that it was wrong for the federal government to seek to undermine "an express choice by some states, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently."

O'Connor's dissent is important because it makes clear where distinctions ought to be drawn. Of course, the federal government has a right--indeed, a responsibility--to intervene when the lives and liberties of Americans are threatened by the states, as has been the case when federal authorities have acted to protect the rights of racial minorities, women and people with disabilities. But to intervene with the express intent of denying Americans with serious diseases a generally well-regarded treatment option represents the worst sort of meddling by the federal government.

The Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling suggests that there are few judicial options left for supporters of medical marijuana. But John Walters, the Bush Administration's director of national drug control policy, was wrong when he claimed on Monday that "today's decision marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue."

The High Court's majority made it clear that federal legislative avenues remain open. Congress has the power to remove all legal barriers to the distribution and use of medical marijuana. While such a bold step may be unlikely in the short term, Congress also has the power to create exemptions for states where voters and legislators have decided to, in the words of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, respect "the rights of patients to have access to the medicine they need to survive and lead healthier lives."

Noelle Davis, executive director of Austin-based Texans for Medical Marijuana, is right when she says, "This gives the opportunity to Congress to step up and do something."

Will it happen? Representative Ron Paul, R-Texas, a physician who has co-sponsored legislation to allow states to decide without federal involvement whether people can use marijuana with a doctor's approval, says, "I think support is strong, but (members of Congress) are still frightened a little bit by the politics of it. If you had a secret vote in Congress, I'll bet 80 percent would vote for it."

That figure is roughly parallel to the sentiments expressed by Americans in polling with regard to medical marijauna. What's needed now is for citizens to let their members of Congress know that the federal government has no business taking people's medicine away from them.

They can do so by urging support for the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act (HR 2087). Sponsored by Representative Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, it has thirty-six co-sponsors, ranging from conservative Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, to progressives such as Representatives Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and John Conyers, of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

The legislation gets to the heart of the matter addressed by the court, declaring that:

"No provision of the Controlled Substances Act shall prohibit or otherwise restrict--

(A) the prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use,

(B) an individual from obtaining and using marijuana from a prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use by such individual, or

(C) a pharmacy from obtaining and holding marijuana for the prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use under applicable State law

in a State in which marijuana may be prescribed or recommended by a physician for medical use under applicable State law."

Iraq Is the Issue

They came to hear Howard Dean.

But they got the message that matters from Arianna Huffington.

That's because, while the chairman of the Democratic National Committee delivered a tepid and predictable address to the Campaign for America's Future's "Take Back America" conference on Thursday, the columnist and author who not that many years ago identified as a Newt Gingrich conservative was the speaker who showed up with a road map for renewal of the Democratic Party.

Where Dean made no direct mention of the war in Iraq during a lengthy address to the morning plenary that kicked off the fullest day of the annual gathering of progressive activists, Huffington went to the heart of the matter.

"We cannot continue to ignore the debacle in Iraq if we are going to have any hope of [Democrats] ever again being a majority party," said Huffington, the conservative who came in from the cold and has recently lent her name and energy to the Huffington Post.

At a conference where the schedule was heavy with domestic-policy discussions but short on discourse regarding foreign policy, Huffington bluntly told the crowd, "We cannot have a solution on the domestic front without addressing what is happening in Iraq."

After a quick tour of the quagmire ("Ahmed Chalabi is the oil minister -- this is like something out of Saturday Night Live") and of the Bush Administration's steady pattern of misdeeds and missteps, Huffington asked the fundamental question of Congressional Democrats and party leaders: "Where is the oversight?"

"There is no oversight going on in this most corrupt and most immoral Congress that we have right now," she said, adding that, "I'm very troubled by the way our Democratic leaders go on television and sound like spineless Republicans." (Later in the day, at the one conference session that was devoted to foreign policy issues, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern recalled Dean's recent "now that we're there, we're there" comment regarding the "need" to remain in Iraq and then said, "That sounds like Rumsfeld to me.")

Noting that, in a recent television appearance, US Senator Hillary Clinton said she was not comfortable talking about developing an "exit strategy" to withdraw US troops from Iraq, Huffington said, "With respect to Senator Clinton, if you are not comfortable setting an exit strategy, please point us to someone who is."

Clinton is much discussed as a potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. But Huffington drew some of the loudest applause of the conference when she said of the 2008 race, "I want a Democratic presidential candidate who can give a straight, unambiguous answer on Iraq."

It was deserved applause; if Democrats do not come to understand this message, they will doom themselves to an agonizing repetition of the electoral debacles of 2002 and 2004.

"There is no way in a time of war that you can be a majority party without having a policy position [that is distinct from the Republicans]," explained Huffington, who suggested that, instead of avoiding the debate about national security, Democrats need to turn the debate on its head.

"The Democratic leaders need to make it clear that these men running our foreign policy are dangerous," she said. "There is no way Democrats can win an election unless they make it clear that these Republicans are not making this country safer."

The Mysteries of Watergate

The remarkable thing about the revelation of the identity of the Watergate-era tipster known as "Deep Throat" is that nothing about the news seems particularly remarkable.

In hindsight, we should have known that Washington Post writer Bob Woodward's source for the investigative reports he and Carl Bernstein wrote about Nixon-era illegality would not be an idealist who sought to expose a corrupt presidency -- nor even a Nixon aide experiencing a rare bout of conscience. Rather, like so many of Woodward's sources over the years, W. Mark Felt was a consummate Washingtion insider playing the sort of games that consumate Washington insiders play.

Far from being someone who feared for the Republic, Felt was a zealous protégé of a man who menaced the Republic for decades, longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover.

It is difficult to buy the line that Felt was all that worried about Nixonian skulduggery, as the tipster himself would eventually be convicted of authorizing federal agents to illegally break into the homes of suspected anti–Vietnam War radicals.

Indeed, it appears that "Deep Throat" was less concerned about defending democracy than about getting back at then–President Richard Nixon for refusing him the directorship after Hoover's death in May 1972.

So Watergate ends up as another story of powerful men undercutting one another in a squabble over turf and bruised egos.

But, of course, there is more to the Watergate story than that. Despite the fact that Felt comes off as something less than a hero, he was a necessary player in a national drama that had a happy ending: A dishonest and dishonorable president was exposed and forced from office.

Perhaps this is why there is so much fascination with Watergate. It reminds us that the American experiment really can yield positive results, especially when the Fourth Estate prods Congress to police an out-of-control Executive Branch.

Considering the current circumstances of the nation, when Woodward and so many other members of the Washington press corps act as little more than stenographers to power, this week's renewed attention to the Watergate story ought to inspire an aching nostalgia in Americans who still take their citizenship seriously. It is inspiring to think that the system did once work; but it is painful to recognize the reality that Richard Nixon would never have been forced from office by today's major media organizations or today's Congress. And it is agonizing to think of how the far more serious crimes of presidents who succeeded Nixon -- especially, though certainly not exclusively, those of the current occupant of the White House -- go essentially unchallenged, even as more credible and patriotic Deep Throats than Mr. Felt have emerged. (The failure of most news outlets to examine what has come to be referred to as the Downing Street memo, official British documents that confirm George Bush's machinations to start a war-of-whim with Iraq, provides ample evidence that presidents no longer have much to fear from major media.)

Ultimately, now that Deep Throat has been revealed as just another cynical Washington insider working the system for all it was worth, one Watergate mystery remains. And it turns out to be a far more perplexing and troublesome one than that of some back-alley tipster's identity.

What remains is the mystery of how America, a country that proved her ability to depose a petty crook from power in the 1970s, has drifted so far from her ethical moorings. At the most fundamental level, it is not so difficult to unravel this mystery. A simple calculation of the roles of big media and big money campaign contributions provides most if not all of the explanation that is needed. But that calculus points to the lingering quandry of our time: Will we ever muster enough outrage at a stenographic media and a compliant Congress to steer America back to that place where lawless presidents are held accountable for their lies and the deadly consequences of their misdeeds?

French Voters Rewrite History

Since the close of the Cold War, apologists for corporate arrogance and irresponsibility have argued that the world has reached an "end of history" moment when there can no longer be any debate about the superiority of cut-throat competition and business-defined "free markets." The rigid orthodoxy of the corporatists has played out in the form of free trade agreements such as NAFTA, which are crafted to allow corporations to easily relocate production facilities in order to avoid laws, rules and regulations that protect workers, consumers and the environment, and in the strengthening of "global governance" groups such as the World Trade Organization, which were created to take away the ability of communities, regions and nation states to hold corporations accountable.

The initiative has been advanced by conservative and centrist politicians such as George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and by most of the global media conglomerates, which stand to benefit from the deconstruction of laws that require broadcasters and publishers to display at least a small measure of concern for the civic and democratic health of the nations where they operate.

But, despite the pressure from the politicians and the constant spin campaign from the media, the people have begun to notice that the free-market emperor has no clothes. Street protests in Seattle in 1999 prevented the WTO from advancing the free-trade agenda into new sectors of the economy, saving millions of farmers around the world from being overrun by the agribusiness conglomerates and slowing the rush to privatize education, transportation and communications services.

After Seattle, the question was whether the great mass of people who believe that this is not the end of history, and that another better world is possible, would eventually flex their muscles at the ballot box. The late US Senator Paul Wellstone, D-Minnesota, tried unsuccessfully to get the Democratic Party in the US to take up the issues raised by the labor, farm and environmental groups that had banded together to oppose corporate globalization. Unfortunately for the Democrats, they failed to take Wellstone's advice and ended up campaigning in successive national election campaigns on the issues that the Bush Administration and its corporate allies chose to discuss.

There have been better results outside the US. Last year, in India, a militantly corporatist government that united religious extremists and business interests was swept out of power when the poorest voters in the world's largest democracy revolted against the false claim that the free-market policies that benefitted the richest Indians were good for the vast majority of citizens. After the election, one of the leaders of the ousted government, Deputy Premier LK Advani, admitted, "In retrospect, it seems that the fruits of development did not equitably reach all sections of our society."

Now comes an even clearer, and blunter, challenge to the free-market mantra of the "end of history" crowd.

France's overwhelming rejection of the new European Union Constitution, which would have locked in free-market policies that coddle corporations while creating pressure to cut pay, benefits and social-welfare protections for workers in western Europe, sent a powerful signal that citizens are waking up to the threats posed by an unbridled free market to their livelihoods, their communities and their democracies.

While most of the French political and media establishment urged a "yes" vote on the Constitution -- which must be approved by the EU's 25 member states before it is implemented -- opponents such as former Socialist Party head Henri Emmanuelli built a grassroots campaign that warned the Constitution would pit workers from different countries against one another in a "race to the bottom" that would benefit only powerful corporations. "I'm not fighting against Europe," said Emmanuelli, as he explained that a "no" vote should not be seen as a rejection of cooperation between European states. "But Europe was not created so that we could set the poor against the poor. That's economic warfare."

Veterans of the Seattle protests of 1999, such as peasant leader Jose Bove, were key players in the campaign for a "no" vote, arguing that the Constitution would impose an economic model based on the demands of big business, rather than the needs of workers and farmers.

They were joined by the group Attac, one of the most effective of the growing number of anti-corporate globalization groups that are forming an international infrastructure of opposition to the push for corporate-defined markets and privatization. Attac's campaign urged a "no" vote, but it was not negative. Rather, it suggested that the constitution be rewritten to support development of "a Europe that is truly European, democratic, social, environmental."Attac's posters promised, "Another Europe is Possible!"

But why stop at Europe? Why not counter the big lie of the "end of history" fanatics with the big truth: Another World is Possible?

Blackmailed Onto the Court

Thanks to the compromise agreement made possible by seven Democrats who collaborated with Republicans to end the Senate impasse over judicial nominations, Priscilla Owen will now join the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Four years of successful efforts by civil rights, women's rights, religious and consumer groups to prevent confirmation of the right-wing extremist were undone Wednesday, as the Senate voted 56-43 to confirm a nominee whose judicial activism on the Texas Supreme Court was so wreckless that another member of that court, Alberto Gonzalez, who now serves as the nation's attorney general, referred to her actions as "unconscionable."

The final vote broke along partisan lines. Fifty-three Republicans and two Democrat, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and West Virginia's Robert Byrd, voted to confirm Owen. Forty-one Democrats, one Republican, Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island, and one Independent, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, voted against confirmation.

Those numbers are significant because they show that Democrats had the 40 votes that were needed to sustain a filibuster against Owen.

That means that, had Democrats held firm and forced moderate Republicans to reject the unpopular "nuclear option" that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, was attempting to impose on the Senate, Owen might very well have been kept off the court. National polls showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans opposed the "nuclear option," which Frist hoped to use to bar filibusters of even the most objectionable of the Bush administration's nominees. A number of moderate Republicans had indicated that they were uncomfortable with the majority leader's scheme to rewrite Senate rules, and there was at least a reasonable chance that a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans could have preserved the ability of the minority party to block extremist nominees. Unfortunately, in return for the agreement to put the "nuclear option" on hold, seven moderate Democrats agreed to allow confirmation votes on at least three blocked appeals court nominees.

Owen's confirmation on Wednesday represents the first of what are likely to be many confirmations of extreme, unqualified and ethically-dubious nominees for seats on appeals court benches that have traditionally been the last hope of low-income Americans, people of color and women for justice. Equal justice concerns are of particular significance in the case of the Fifth Circuit, which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and is home to the highest percentage of minority residents of any circuit in the country. Yet, with the compromise agreement on the "nuclear option," most Senate Democrats abandoned the filibuster and cleared the way for Owen -- whose nomination was opposed by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches -- to take her place on that bench.

As disappointing as the collapse of conscience on the part of most Democrats has been, however, it is important to remember that 18 members of the opposition caucus held firm against the compromise of principles. Those senators -- Democrats Joe Biden of Delaware, Barbara Boxer of California, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Jon Corzine of New Jersey, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Carl Levin of Michigan, Blanche Lambert Lincoln of Arkansas, Patty Murray of Washington, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Jeffords -- refused to vote for the cloture motion that shut down the filibuster option and cleared the way for Owen's confirmation.

Feingold was blunt in his dismissal of claims that the deal that has put Owen on the appeals court represented a legitimate compromise. "There was no effort to reach a real compromise that would take into account the concerns of all parties. A compromise at the point of a gun is not a compromise. That, I'm afraid, is what we had," explained the Judiciary Committee member.

"I strongly opposed the threat of the nuclear option," he said. "I believe this was an illegitimate tactic, a partisan abuse of power that was a threat to the Senate as an institution and to the country. Attempting to blackmail the minority into giving up the rights that have been part of the Senate's traditions and practices for centuries was a new low for a majority that has repeatedly been willing to put party over principle. Unfortunately, the blackmail was partially successful. The end result is that (Owen and other) nominees who don't deserve lifetime appointments to the judiciary will now be confirmed."

Bad Deal on Judges

As the showdown on the so-called "nuclear option" approached, polls showed that the American people opposed scheming on the part of Senate GOP leaders to eliminate judicial filibusters by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin.

Even among grassroots Republicans, there was broad discomfort with the idea of creating a tyranny-of-the-majority scenario in which the minority party in the Senate would no longer be consulted regarding lifetime appointments to the federal courts.

So there were plenty Republican senators who were looking for a way out of the corner into which Senate majority leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had maneuvered them. Democrats simply needed to hold the line, while attracting Republicans who were uncomfortable with Frist's machinations, and they could have secured the will of the people.

Unfortunately, the Democrats buckled. So Republicans will get the votes they want on at least three federal appeals court nominees who should not be allowed on the bench.

Under a compromise worked out by moderate Republicans and Democrats, the "nuclear option" has been averted for the time being -- and perhaps permanently.

But in return for that concession by the Republicans, the Democrats have agreed to allow confirmation votes on three judicial nominations that had been blocked: Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor Jr. and Priscilla Owen. The trio were among the ten appeals court nominees whose records of judicial activism, ideological rigidity and ethical misdeeds were so troubling that a substantial number of senators felt they ought not be given lifetime tenures on key appellate court benches.

It now appears that confirmation is all but certain for the nominees: That's bad news for Americans in general and, in particular, for low-income citizens, people of color and women who look to the nation's highest courts for a measure of protection against discrimination and other forms of government-sanctioned abuse.

Brown, who has been nominated to serve on the powerful US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has condemned the New Deal, which gave the United States Social Security, the minimum wage and fair labor laws. She has expressed doubts about whether age discrimination laws are a good idea. And she has made it clear that she is no fan of affirmative action or other programs designed to help minorities and women overcome centuries of oppression.

Pryor, while serving as attorney general of Alabama, fought to undermine the authority of Congress to prohibit discrimination and to protect the environment, to maintain separation of church and state, to protect reproductive freedom and to guarantee equal protection under the law for gay men and lesbians. He has been nominated to serve on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Owen, who has been nominated to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, established a record on the Texas Supreme Court of unswerving loyalty to corporate interests. She has, in addition, adopted such extreme antiabortion rights stances that even her fellow conservatives, including Alberto Gonzalez, who was then a Supreme Court justice but now servers as US Attorney General, have distanced themselves from her.

All three nominees have drawn broad opposition from civil rights, women's rights, public interest, religious, environmental and labor groups. None of them should ever be allowed anywhere near an appeals court bench. Yet it is likely that, as a result of the deal worked out by the moderate senators, all three will soon be donning the robes of the federal judiciary.

This "compromise" may have averted the "nuclear option" for a time. But it will saddle the federal bench with more bad judges.

That's a bad deal, especially when there is such overwhelming public sentiment for maintaining the right of senators to block inappropriate judicial nominees. Democrats were right to oppose Brown, Pryor and Owen. They will come to regret cutting the deal to let these unacceptable nominees -- and the others who are now sure to be nominated by the Bush Administration -- to be approved.

Syndicate content