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Would someone in Congress please, please, please propose changing the name of the "farm bill" to the "food bill"?
Maybe if the issue at hand had a more dramatic name the media and the American public would take a serious interest in congressional debates that are in the process of defining not just the quality of the food we eat but the future of our rural communities, the environment that surrounds us, and the type of economy our nation chooses to construct.
This week, Congress is putting the finishing touches on a long-term farm bill that has, for the most part, been developed behind closed doors in such complex and interest-driven negotiations that most Americans are unaware of the issues that are in play. Yet, as the disastrous Freedom to Farm Act of 1996 proved, a bad farm bill can devastate a good nation.
When Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott got together to write a farm bill that favored corporate agribusiness at every turn, they undermined working family farmers so badly that the bill quickly became known as "the Freedom to Fail Bill." And farmers did fail, with several states experiencing the most dramatic loss in the number of family farms since the Great Depression era.
The next multiyear farm bill is now being shaped in high-stakes sessions of a powerful House-Senate Farm Bill Conference Committee. The bill that will eventually be sent to President Bush's desk will be a compromise measure between a House plan that has been more influenced by corporate agribusiness demands and Senate legislation that is somewhat more reflective of the goals of working farmers.
Any compromise is likely to be better than the soon-to-be-scrapped "Freedom to Fail" structure. And that's a good thing. Sympathy for working farmers is a legitimate rationale for backing a redirection of federal agricultural policy priorities. But it is far from the only one.
Americans who have never walked a fence line, planted a seed or milked a cow ought to get engaged with the current debate because the issues that it touches on go far beyond the farm gate.
Farm bill debates are the legislative venue for most discussions on food labeling (so that consumers know where and how their meat, grains, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and drinks are produced), importation of potentially unsafe food products, and regulation of genetic modification of food. Farm bill debates are also the place where Congress entertains questions of controlling corporate monopolies, regulating food-processing industries, and development of rural areas that contain some of the poorest and most racially diverse stretches of America.
"There are all these issues of race, class, corporate power -- not to mention the quality of what we eat and drink -- that are decided in the farm bill debate," Merle Hansen, the Nebraska farmer who is president emeritus of the North American Farm Alliance, once explained to me. "Yet, for the most part, Americans don't know that the debate is going on. People need to recognize that the lobbyists for the agribusiness corporations are the ones who like it this way. The less attention there is, the more they can get away with."
The Senate farm bill includes a number of critical anti-corporate and consumer-protection components that need to be safeguarded. Of particular interest are measures to require country-of-origin labeling on agricultural products and provide for far more serious examination of where and how food is produced; programs to aid sustainable agriculture initiatives; and a section proposed by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to protect the legal right of farmers to challenge unsound practices being forced upon them by agribusiness corporations with which they contract.
The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has set up a great Web site (www.sustainableagriculture.net) to help Americans -- even those with no mud on their boots -- leap into the debate. And everyone who eats ought to make the leap because, while they call what is being shaped in Washington a farm bill, this really is the food bill.
"I made up my mind that Saddam needs to go," President Bush told Britain's ITV News as he prepared for the arrival of British Prime Minister Tony Blair Friday for weekend meetings at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas. Though recent violence on the West Bank and in Israel has shifted the focus of press attention to what Bush and Blair will have to say about that conflict, the president's blunt remark was a reminder that this meeting of allies was originally organized as a forum to explore how Saddam Hussein's Iraq could be made the next target of an expanding "war on terrorism."
Blair reportedly arrived in Crawford with plans to tell Bush that talk of launching a war on Iraq ought to be put on hold at least until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict calms. The question that remains is whether Blair will give Bush an honest report on British sentiments regarding plans for an eventual attack on Iraq by the U.S. and Britain. If the prime minister does that, the summit will not provide Bush with much in the way of encouragement.
It turns out that Blair, who has been the president's most enthusiastic international ally since the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, has been having a very hard time making the case at home for British support of a U.S.-led attack on Iraq.
Indeed, some of the loudest opposition to a Bush-Blair alliance on Iraq is coming from within the prime minister's own Labor party and from the national newspaper that historically has been most supportive of Labor Party initiatives.
Dismissing Blair's sympathy for the American president's military strategies as misguided, the mass-circulation Mirror newspaper has taken to referring to the prime minister as "the president's poodle." "We didn't do so lightly -- but the truth is the prime minister has done nothing but play lapdog to the Washington Red Neck," Mirror editors wrote in an editorial that appeared Friday morning. "Whenever Bush has barked, Mr. Blair has rolled over with his legs in the air. As other European leaders held back from jumping to Bush's demands (on Iraq), Britain under Blair has rushed forward with embarrassing haste."
The Mirror told the poodle to show his teeth in Crawford. "When (Blair) sits down with Bush, he must remember just what sort of man the president is. He's ruthless -- a man who has sent hundreds of convicts to the execution chamber. A president determined to take the war wherever he wants," the newspaper argued. Referring to Bush's enthusiasm for war with Iraq, the newspaper argued, "Mr. Blair must be the voice of reason. He must stand up to Bush and, if needs be, say 'no.'"
Though the U.S. media has given little notice to Blair's homeland insecurities, the story is front-page news in London. "Blair threatened with huge revolt over Iraq stance," read a headline this week in The Independent, a national daily newspaper. "PM faces dissent on Iraq after supportive words for Bush's fighting talk," read a recent headline in The Guardian newspaper. When Dick Cheney arrived in London last month to consult with Blair regarding Iraq, the Mirror headlined its story on the meeting: "An American Warwolf in London."
Polls show that a majority of British voters oppose an attack on Iraq. Anti-war demonstrations have drawn tens of thousands. And British Home Secretary David Blunkett reportedly briefed a meeting of Blair's Cabinet last month on the danger, if the British military joined a U.S. attack on Iraq, that riots could break out in the streets of British cities.
The opposition Conservative Party has generally backed Blair's talk of taking on Iraq, although some Tories wavered when senior British military sources told reporters that, "We are not aware of evidence, intelligence or otherwise, that the Iraqi government or its agencies are passing on weapons of mass destruction to al-Qa'ida. Nor have we seen any credible evidence linking the Iraqi government to the September 11 attacks."
Leaders of the Liberal Democrats, Britain's third party -- which has 53 members of parliament, including a former Labor Party member who recently switched because of his opposition to Britain's role in the bombing of Afghanistan -- are openly critical of Blair for following Bush's "Lone Star nation" line too closely.
Some of the toughest criticism of Blair comes from within the Labor Party. More than 120 of the party's members of parliament have signed a House of Commons motion expressing "deep unease" about any British alliance with the U.S. to attack Iraq. Former Labor Party Cabinet minister Tony Benn, a Blair critic, says, "The objections from parliament are very significant because, of course, the parliamentary party is far more supportive of Blair's position than the grassroots of the party."
The Campaign Group, an organization of Labor parliament members that is a British version of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the U.S., is urging Britain's 641 local Labor party organizations to pass resolutions opposing British participation in any new military assault on Iraq. Many Campaign Group members have been loud critics of Saddam Hussein, and remain so. But they are objecting now to expanded British involvement in a war against a country that, to their view, does not pose a significant terrorist threat.
"If Britain is trying to be a global policeman on the U.S. scale, the money is going to come from hospitals, schools, pensions and the other necessities of people's lives," explained Alice Mahon, a Labor Party member of parliament. Critics also warn that a massive strike by the U.S. and Britain against Iraq will, in the words of former British Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd "further polarize and alienate opinion within the Middle East and broader afield."
"The cause of terrorism is not fanatics, extremists, fundamentalists but instability, disempowerment, marginalization and the anger generated by these combined factors," says Labor Member of Parliament Ian Gibson. "If the United States invades Iraq, it will nourish these sentiments in the Middle East."
Are the Labor Party critics of Blair merely a fringe element? In fact, one of the most outspoken foes of an attack on Iraq is International Development Secretary Clare Short, who told reporters she would quit Blair's Cabinet if Britain joined a U.S. strike on Iraq without United Nations backing. Former Culture Minister Chris Smith has been critical of the rush to war. And Tam Dalyell, the longest serving Labor Party member in the parliament, has been a fierce critic of advisors who have pushed Blair to align with the U.S. rather than follow the direction of the United Nations.
When a Blair foreign policy advisor recently proposed that Britain might join U.S. military interventions as part of "a new kind of imperialism," Dalyell declared, ""The Tsarina of Russia was better advised by Rasputin than the prime minister is by this maniac."
In most western democracies, matters of war and peace are treated as serious political issues, and substantial numbers of elected officials are willing to stand and be counted for anti-war positions.
In Great Britain, for instance, almost one-third of the members of Parliament - including 122 members of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party - have openly expressed discomfort with Blair's moves to support a US-led attack on Iraq.
In the United States, matters of war and peace are less well established as political issues; and, for the most part, elected officials are unwilling to stand tough even for the most logical and necessary anti-war positions.
In the face of mounting evidence that the Bush administration is misguided in its approach to Iraq, Middle East tensions, limitless "axis of evil" warfare, the Star Wars national missile defense boondoggle and military spending as it relates to budget priorities, most members of Congress have been satisfied to serve as little more than rubber stamps for wrongheaded presidential policies.
But a handful of members of Congress have been willing to distance themselves from the administration's course. Their courage is documented in the recently released analysis by the Peace Action Education Fund (www.peace-action.org) of congressional voting during the tumultuous year of 2001.
The Peace Action analysts established a high standard. To gain a 100 percent rating, a member of the House had to vote right on eight issues, a member of the Senate had to do so on seven. In both the House and Senate, one of those votes had to be against the Sept. 14 resolutions authorizing the Bush administration to mount what has turned out to be an open-ended military response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Only one member of Congress, California Democrat Barbara Lee, had the courage to cast that vote. And she alone got a 100 percent rating. Lee is quick to argue that a number of other members came close to joining her, and Peace Action Education Fund executive director Kevin Martin accepts the point.
"Perhaps others would have considered alternatives to rushing into an open-ended war had the vote not been scheduled just three days after Sept. 11, when most of the nation was still in shock," explains Martin. "That path was not taken, and the consequences will be with us for years to come."
The "use-of-force" vote was just one of those analyzed. The others involved military spending authorizations, a proposal to shift $593 million from military spending to fighting AIDS in Africa and legislation that allowed law enforcement authorities to investigate threats using approaches civil libertarians identified as unconstitutional.
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who cast a lonely vote against Attorney General John Ashcroft's assault on civil liberties, was the only senator to get a "six-out-of-seven-right" rating of 86 percent. The second best Senate rating was that of Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who voted right 71 percent of the time. No other member got a passing grade.
In the House, 22 Democratic members received a "seven-out-of-eight-right" rating of 88 percent: Californians Lynn Woolsey, Pete Stark, Mike Honda and Bob Filner; Colorado's Diana DeGette; Georgia's Cynthia McKinney; Illinoisans Jesse Jackson Jr., Danny Davis and Jan Schakowsky; Massachusetts' Jim McGovern, John Tierney and Ed Markey; Minnesota's Jim Oberstar; New Jersey's Donald Payne; New Yorkers Jerry Nadler, Nadia Velazquez and Maurice Hinchey; Ohio's Dennis Kucinich; Oregon's Mike Wu, Earl Blumenauer and Pete DeFazio; and Washington's Jim McDermott. They were joined by Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
The best Republican record was that of Texan Ron Paul, a libertarian who has been a leader in opposing military action in Iraq. He got a 75 percent rating, the same as Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin -- the author of a December letter that expressed concern about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and urged the Bush administration to devote more energy to non-military responses to terrorist threats.
Among the worst records posted by Democrats in the Senate and House were those of several prospective presidential candidates. House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt mustered only a 38 percent rating, while Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden earned 43 percent ratings. Connecticut's Joe Lieberman and North Carolina's John Edwards scored just 14 percent. And New York's Hillary Clinton registered 0 - a worse rating than Arizona Republican John McCain, another 14 percenter.
Singer Michelle Shocked strapped on her guitar and took the stage for the performance that would finish the first stop on the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. Looking out at the faces of several thousand cheering Texans, the woman who has penned hits such as "Anchorage" broke into a huge grin and told the crowd, "We just didn't know what we were going to find when we showed up this morning. We didn't know if you all were going to show up. But I think it's been an unqualified success."
Shocked got no argument from the crowd, or from organizers of what may well be the most unlikely scheme to stir the nation's populist sentiment since someone suggested pulling together a protest outside the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.
Texas populist Jim Hightower's plan to "put the party back into politics" with a rollicking national tour of speechifying, entertaining, organizing and coalition-building along the lines of the 19th-century Chautauqua gatherings had always been greeted with a measure of skepticism. Hightower's friends and allies mumbled that the Lollapalooza of the Left idea might be a hair too ambitious. Would it really be possible, at a time when conservative President George W. Bush is supposed to be enjoying 80 percent approval ratings, to pack a fairgrounds east of Austin for a day of Bush-bashing, corporation-crunching, plutocrat-poking politics with a punch? Hightower admitted that he worried about whether he would prove right one of the best lines of Oklahoma populist Fred Harris: "You can't have a mass movement without the masses."
But the organizers need not have worried. The masses were ready for this movement.
"This is just what a lot of us have been waiting for -- the call to action," said Cate Read, an airline industry analyst who watched from her Houston office as employees from the nearby Enron building carried their belongings out of the collapsed corporation's headquarters. "People are ready to start making some noise about what's been going on in this country. The media makes it sound like everyone's for everything George W. Bush does and that is just not the case -- not even in Texas."
By the time filmmaker and author Michael Moore arrived at mid-day, to the foot-stomping, fist-pumping and cheers of close to 7,000 rebels against the consensus, this corner of Texas was definitely not Bush country.
"Where are we? In a barn?" Moore yelled over the roar of the crowd that had packed into what was, indeed, the Travis County Exposition Center's horse and hog showbarn. Clearly delighted, the most populist of popular entertainers let rip with an assault on the suggestion that dissent is no longer appropriate in post-September 11 America.
"Let me tell you something about the (president's) 80 percent approval rating..." bellowed the author of the nation's No. 1 best-seller, "Stupid White Men." "It's bullshit" came the yell from a fellow in a cowboy hat. "That's right," responded Moore, "it's bullshit."
Echoing the slogan emblazoned on stickers many at the event wore, Moore declared, "We are the majority in this country." For the last six months, he argued, we've been told 'watch what you say,' 'don't dissent,' 'don't question the leader.' Let me tell you something: There is nothing more American than asking these questions."
If there was a theme for the day, it may well have been that dissent is back in fashion. Hip-hop, Tejano, rhythm & blues and folk performers including MC Overlord, Ruben Ramos, Marcia Ball and Shocked flavored their shows with rebel yells, performance artists played the Enron scandal for laughs, game booths allowed kids to toss a ball and knock down a nuclear missile. Workshops took on everything from radioactive waste to
genetically-modified food, from militarism to racial profiling, from corporate excess to the "selected-not-elected" presidency of a former Austin resident named Bush. Columnist Molly Ivins got people all worked up.
Everyone got into the act, even Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who walked across the country at age 90 to raise the issue of campaign finance reform and who, at 92, is madder than ever about special-interest influence on government. "I have 16 great-grandchildren," she said, to chants of "Go Granny D." "I want them brought up in a democracy, not a fascist state -- which this country is fast becoming."
Between Granny D and Marcia Ball's rhythm and blues show, US Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill, delivered the day's most passionate address. "We come to this Chautauqua because Dr. King was right: America has issued a promisory note and it has come back marked insufficient funds," boomed Jackson, recalling the sudden shift in attitudes about federal spending last fall. "On September 10, we were told there was not enough money for Social Security. But on September 12 or thereabouts, there was $40 billion to finda cave man in Afghanistan -- and we haven't found him yet."
To rising applause from an audience that stayed into the fast-cooling Texas night to hear him, Jackson recounted the $95 billion in new military and corporate-welfare spending that has been authorized since the September 11 attacks.
"We come to this Chautuaqua because 53 million children trapped in separate and not equal schools, and 45 million Americans without health insurance, deserve the same (level of) national response that bin Laden got," boomed Jackson, as he called for a restructuring of national priorities that recognizes a need not just for security against attack from abroad but also for security from hunger, illness and neglect at home.
"My friends, I don't know how to make the Democratic party better and I don't know how to make the Republican party better," Jackson concluded, as tour organizers were already preparing for Chautauqua events in Atlanta, Chicago, Pittsburgh and other cities. "So let us move forward from this Chautauqua not to make the parties better but to make the union better and more perfect for all."
Dennis Vegas is an unlikely campaigner against corporate excess.
Even decked out in casual Friday attire, he still looks like what he used to be -- a vice president for marketing of the seventh largest company in the United States.
But here he is in the parking lot of the Texas AFL-CIO headquarters, echoing the call of his new friend Jim Hightower for a grassroots movement to take on the corporate plutocrats.
What gives? Vegas used to work for Enron, the energy trading giant that collapsed in spectacular fashion last fall -- leaving more than 5,000 Texas workers without jobs, health insurance or retirement plans. "I had some time on my hands," says Vegas. "I decided to do something useful with it."
So Vegas took his place Friday beside a giant wood chipper -- billed the "world's largest paper shredder and emblazoned with the words "Enron Democracy Shredder" -- and helped kick off the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. The tour is the brainchild of Hightower, whose rabblerousing stint as Texas' elected Commissioner of Agriculture in the 1980s identified him in the eyes of many as the nation's most aggressive progressive.
Set to launch Saturday in the Texas populist's hometown of Austin, the Down-Home Democracy Tour is a cross between teach-in and county fair. The point is to rent a big venue and invite everyone in town to hear speechifying by some of the nation's most outspoken agitators -- Austin headliners included filmmaker and author Michael Moore, columnist Molly Ivins and US Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. -- eat lots of good food and enjoymusic from the likes of Michelle Shocked and Marcia Ball.
Organizer Mike Dolan, a veteran of the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle, says the goal is to "put the party back into politics."
At a kickoff rally outside the AFL-CIO headquarters here, Hightower and his crew explained that they will move a traveling roadshow of radicalism from town to town over the coming months, linking national "stars" up with local activists in order to, first, have a good time and, second, start building bigger, better coalitions for change. Ultimately,Hightower, who regularly writes for The Nation about grassroots organizing, hopes to bridge divisions between labor and environmental groups, family farmers and factory workers, aging veterans of the distant political wars and fresh-from-Seattle anti-corporate campaigners into local coalitions that become part of a cohesive quilt of national activism. The point, he says, is to start "taking power back at the grassroots level so that we can take the democracy back from the plutocracy."
With support from more than 40 national groups ranging from the National Council of Churches to the Ruckus Society and including the Service Employees International Union, United Students Against Sweatshops, ACORN and the Organic Consumers Association, as well as prominent figures such as Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream fame, US Sen. Paul Wellstone, US Rep. Barbara Lee and political thinker and organizer Joel Rogers, the coalition building seems well on its way. In Austin, dozens of local groups have signed on to support the first "real folks, real fun, real change" gathering at the local fairground where thousands were expected to attend Saturday's event.
Chaotic as the task of pulling together so ambitious an endeavor has been -- volunteers were still working late Friday to turn the hogwashing area at the fairgrounds into a backstage for bands -- the Texas organizing has been given focus in part by the collapse of Enron and a growing disgust even in the business-friendly Lone Star State with corporate excess. The Enron collapse hit Texas hard, and Hightower argues that it has changed the way many people think about issues of corporate power and democracy.
Vegas counts himself in that group. He admits that a year ago he wouldn't have been all that enthusiastic about a "down-home democracy tour. I didn't take projects like this very seriously before. Even though I worked for a big corporation, I didn't understand the issues." Pointing to Hightower and other organizers, Vegas explains, "These people were prophetic. I got a personal lesson about just how prophetic they were."
So Vegas is telling not just out-of-work Enron employees but employees of other companies that they had better start taking seriously the threat posed by corporations so powerful and -- thanks to campaign contributions -- so influential that they think they are above the law. Hailing the logic of the Down-Home Democracy Tour's plan to start in Texas and then take the show on the road to Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania and other states, Vegas says, "The situation that took place with Enron is a wakeup call for workers across the country. Don't think there aren't other corporations doing exactly what Enron did. And don't think we don't need to be organized if we are going to stop them from doing what Enron did to thousands of people.
Last summer, former Illinois state Treasurer Pat Quinn took a 167-mile stroll across the state of Illinois to promote an amendment to the state Constitution that would establish the right of every individual in the state to quality health care.
Quinn, a lawyer by training and rabblerouser by inclination, was accompanied by Dr. Quentin Young, a Chicago physician who has for many years been one of the nation's leading advocates for single-payer health care. Along the route, they were joined by Granny D, the 92-year-old who walked across the U.S. to promote campaign finance reform.
The walk got some publicity for a great cause and helped Quinn and Young shed a few pounds. But it did not attract many Illinois politicians - not even leading liberal Democrats - to the "health care for all" movement Quinn and Young sought to jump-start.
Now, however, it appears that one of the state's leading political figures could be a big backer of the amendment campaign - along with a host of other progressive reforms that mainstream Democrats have tended to shy away from in recent years.
In December, as the filing deadline for state elections approached, Quinn surprised everyone by jumping into the contest for lieutenant governor. Quinn was not exactly a welcome entrant in the Democratic primary. Though he had served a term as treasurer in the early 1990s, he had been out of office for the better part of a decade. Besides, he had a reputation as a maverick, and party leaders openly expressed concern that Quinn would not be an obedient member of the Democratic ticket or of a new Democratic administration.
Quinn's two main opponents in the primary went out of their way to portray themselves as party loyalists who would march "in sync" with the gubernatorial nominee.
"Can Quinn toe party line?" asked a Chicago Sun-Times headline. Quinn did little to calm the fears, declaring that he saw the state's No. 2 job as "a very good office to champion the interests of people who don't have lobbyists and connections." Recalling campaigns he has led to block utility rate hikes, reform the state Legislature, impose tougher ethics regulations and protect consumers, Quinn declared, "I can holler pretty well, and I think that's part of the job description I would give to lieutenant governor."
Predictably, key party and labor endorsements went to the other candidates. So did the campaign contributions, which meant that Quinn's campaign against two better-funded Democrats was long on message but short on cash. When Democrats chose their candidate in Tuesday's primary, however, Quinn was the easy victor.
He won running on a progressive agenda that owed more to William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Delano Roosevelt than Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Promising to use the office as a bully pulpit for economic and ethics reforms, Quinn signaled his sentiments by blistering Republican Gov. George Ryan for seeking to balance the state's budget with cuts in human service programs.
As an alternative, Quinn called for freezing the pay of elected officials and eliminating all tax breaks that benefit large corporations. "George Ryan's budget cuts are unfair, unnecessary and uncaring. Illinois taxpayers should not let Ryan get away with closing down health and education programs for vulnerable citizens who aren't big campaign donors," hollered Quinn.
At a time when conservatives in Washington and governors across the country are talking about balancing budgets on the backs of those who cannot afford to write big campaign checks, Quinn's against-the-odds win illustrates the power of a Democratic message that trades the politics of compromise for a belligerent populism that allows people to believe anew in the promise of health care for all, fair tax policies and government that serves public interests as opposed to special interests.
With "Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America" (Verso), Tom Hayden has penned a book on the Irish-American experience that has as much to do with Independence Day as St. Patrick's Day.
Hayden, the '60s student activist who came in from the cold to serve with distinction as a California legislator in the 1990s, offers a radical variation on the history of Ireland and the Irish-American experience that, in itself, makes for engaging reading. But in the book's broader discussion of a "colonization of the mind," which causes peoples to abandon their own true history to gain acceptance by the elites they once battled, the author unwittingly succeeds in unlocking a piece of the puzzle of why the America of today is far less radical than Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin intended it to be.
Trust Hayden, whose own radicalism has always been a rich mix of Irish republicanism and Midwest progressive populism, to write a book on Irish-American history that is actually an argument for a re-identification of "white" Americans with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination. Hayden does this by returning to his roots - in Ireland and in rural Wisconsin - where he unearths the seeds of his own radicalism.
It is a tribute to Hayden's organizing and storytelling skills that "Irish on the Inside" succeeds. With a great measure of Irish enthusiasm, Hayden sets out to do far more than any author could hope to accomplish in a relatively thin volume. He mixes the history of the Irish experience with inspired reflections on the specific experience of his own ancestors, such as Peter Hayden, who died with United Irish insurgents from County Wicklow in a 1798 uprising, and immigrant Emmet Owen Garity, who settled in the midwest. Hayden also stirs travelogue, investigative reporting, sociology, philosophy and poetry into a stew that satisfies hungers that readers will not have known they suffered.
Hunger is an apt metaphor, as "Irish on the Inside" explores the need of sustenance in all forms - physical, emotional and intellectual.
Hayden argues that the dark machinations of British colonialists that caused the Irish Famine of the 1840s and that dislocated millions of Irish to a still-young America was "the greatest upheaval of 19th century Europe." Hayden, whose great-grandparents arrived in Wisconsin as part of that immigration wave, argues even more convincingly that the experience of these immigrants - who were portrayed as wild, criminal and intellectually deficient, and who encountered "No Irish Need Apply" signs well into the 20th century - ought to make Irish-Americans sympathetic to the plight of new immigrants - descendants of slaves, gays and lesbians and others who continue to suffer discrimination.
Hayden highlights the examples where this was the case. He is proud to note that great-grandfather Emmet Garity's farm in the town of Sullivan, Wis., was a stop on the underground railroad that transported slaves to freedom. And he reviews with great relish the heroic deeds of the San Patricios, Irish immigrants to America who - like John Quincy Adams and Abraham Lincoln - recognized the 1848 US invasion of Mexico as imperialist aggression. The San Patricios deserted the US cause to fight at the side of the Mexican Army. But, as Hayden illustrates, they were traitors only to the "colonialism of the mind" - not to their Irish roots, or to American revolutionary values.
Taking from his own experience, Hayden, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement in the American South, recalls how, upon visiting Northern Ireland in 1968, he was profoundly moved to hear Irish-Catholic civil rights marchers singing the songs of the African-American freedom struggle.
It was then, writes Hayden, that he began to overcome the suppression of his own Irish heritage by parents who were determined to fit themselves and their son into the white, middle-class models of mid-20th century America. "I saw marchers in Northern Ireland singing 'We Shall Overcome' and, in an epiphany, discovered I was Irish on the inside," he writes.
The great contribution that Hayden makes here comes in his exploration of the assimilation of the Irish in America. But the most powerful statement takes the form of a definition of what "Irish on the inside" ought to mean. His is a vision of Irish ethnicity not as an excuse to dye beer green but as an inspiration to struggle for justice at home and abroad. And it is no great leap to extend this vision to one of an Americanism that reaches beyond cheap shows of patriotism to embrace the revolutionary spirit that so appealed to immigrants "yearning to be free."
Hayden's book - which he finished on July 4, 2001, in Belfast - closes with a romantic rumination in which he imagines the restoration of an Irish consciousness:
"In my dream I am taking a handful of soil from Emmet Garity's grave in Sullivan Township, Wis., and my Nannie's grave in Oconomowoc, and my parents' graves too and I am packing up that soil of the dead to be taken back to Ireland ... In this dream Irish from all over are migrating home. They come in ones and twos and in groups. When they arrive, they leave their sod and stone in a field, which in time becomes a field of flowers, a graveyard, an oak grove, a mountain, a place to bury pain and grow our history until memory surpasses forgetting and the sod of the dead becomes the fertile soil of awakenings."
Tom Hayden's "Irish on the Inside" is the stuff of great awakenings - not merely for Irish-Americans but for the descendants of every immigrant who ever embraced the revolutionary ideals of justice and solidarity that embody the best of both Ireland and America.
After months of struggle, first by Mississippi activists, then by national civil rights groups and finally by a handful of determined Democratic members of the U.S. Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday blocked the nomination of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering to serve on the powerful 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The defeat of the nomination came as a vindication for groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way, which were viciously attacked by rightwing organizations, publications and senators when they first suggested that Pickering should be rejected because of his ties to Mississippi segregationists of the 1960s, his hostility as a federal judge to the application of civil rights laws, and concerns about his ethics.
The committee's rejection of the Pickering selection marks the first time that one of President Bush's judicial nominees has been rejected by Senate Democrats, who may soon be called upon to weigh the merits of a Bush nominee for the Supreme Court. To the delight of activists concerned by the caution of Congressional Democrats when it comes to challenging the president, the hearing that preceded the Pickering vote saw Democrats flex legislative muscles rarely used in recent months.
Referring to the Constitutional provision that empowers the Senate to offer advice and consent as regards presidential nominations, Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, declared, "It's advise and consent, it is not advise and rubber stamp."
In remarks that came at the close of a long and contentious committee session that played out before a packed hearing room, Leahy calmly described Pickering as a conservative judicial activist who "repeatedly injects his own opinions into his decisions on issues ranging from employment discrimination to voting rights." The judge's record, he argued, did not justify promotion to a federal bench that is located just one rung below the U.S. Supreme Court.
Moments later, the committee voted 10-9 to reject the Pickering nomination. The breakdown was along partisan lines, with Democrats opposing the nomination and Republicans supporting it. The Democratic majority remained in place on two additional procedural votes, in which Republican Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, sought to advance the Pickering nomination to the Senate floor without a recommendation or with a negative recommendation.
Republicans wanted a vote on the Pickering nomination by the full Senate because Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican with close ties to the judge's family, had said he could secure enough Democratic votes there to win confirmation of one of the most controversial judicial nominees in decades. President Bush promoted the strategy on the eve of the vote, saying, "By failing to allow full Senate votes on judicial nominees, a few senators are standing in the way of justice." Lott could still seek a full Senate vote, but such moves are rarely successful.
The most extraordinary moment of the extraordinary hearing the preceded the Pickering vote came late in the day, after Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, of Alabama, had mounted a fierce defense of the nominee. Sessions criticized civil rights groups and fellow senators, particularly North Carolina Democrat John Edwards, for focusing attention on a 1994 incident in which Pickering intervened with the Justice Department on behalf of a man convicted of burning a cross in front of the home of an interracial couple. Though experts on judicial ethics have condemned Pickering's actions in the cross burning case, Sessions claimed the judge had done nothing wrong and argued that Pickering was the victim of a "Borking process" -- a reference to the successful battle to defeat the nomination of Ronald Reagan's most controversial judicial nominee, Robert Bork. Seeking to portray Pickering as a sensitive and engaged jurist, Sessions told the committee that the Mississippian had been "a leader for racial harmony," and asked that documents he said supported this view be included in the record of the proceedings.
Leahy agreed to do that, but then asked that another document be included -- a letter from the woman outside whose home the cross was burned. The victim of the attack wrote that, because of Pickering's actions in her case, "my faith in the justice system has been destroyed." She urged the committee to reject the judge's nomination to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reviews federal cases from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Leahy's bold gesture was one of many Thursday that saw Democrats on the committee challenge claims that Pickering was the victim of a "smear campaign" by liberal groups. Several senators defended so-called "outside groups" that built the case against the Pickering nomination. Senators Maria Cantwell, a Washington State Democrat, and Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware, said they well understood the opposition of women's groups to a nominee whose record is one of strident opposition to a woman's right to choose. (Pickering led the fight at the 1976 Republican National Convention to put the GOP on record in opposition to the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision.)
The most impassioned defense of groups that fought the Pickering nomination came from Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who challenged conservative attacks on the NAACP. He contrasted the record of the group, which he described as a prime mover in historic civil rights battles that "changed America for the better," with that of the nominee, who Durbin noted "was not a champion of civil rights."
Recalling the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr's observation that the long arc of history bends toward justice, Durbin said he would not vote to confirm a nominee who was on the wrong side of the curve.
Supporters of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which is expected to be blocked this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- claim that he is the victim of a "liberal lynching." The spin says Pickering is a supporter of racial reconciliation who is supported by southern blacks but opposed by northern liberals. The truth is that Pickering has drawn more opposition from his home state and region than any judicial nominee in recent history.
To hear supporters of Pickering tell it, the only barrier to the judge's confirmation to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is a "smear campaign" conducted by a bunch on "damn yankees." In fact, the claim goes, southern blacks are backing Pickering's nomination because they know him to be a consistent supporter of "racial reconciliation."
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is widespread opposition in Mississippi's African-American community and across the south to the nomination of a man who worked closely with segregationists throughout the 1960s and whose judicial tenure has been characterized by a deeply disturbing antipathy towards the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections. But in a Capitol where spin wins more frequently than not, the claim that liberal northerners are at odds with southern blacks when it comes to Pickering -- and the parallel claim that Pickering has been unfairly attacked by liberal activists who do not know his real record on race issues -- has become a central theme of right-wing commentators, Republican senators and Bush White House aides who still hope to salvage the nomination.
Pickering's backers are pulling out all the stops this week because they know his nomination is in serious trouble. For the first time since George W. Bush assumed the presidency, it is likely that one of his judicial nominees will be rejected by a Senate panel. If the ten Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee vote Thursday to block Bush's nomination of Pickering to serve on the Court of Appeals for Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas, the Bush administration and Pickering's chief Senate sponsor, Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., will have suffered a rare setback in a Senate where Democrats hold a bare majority but have been slow to challenge even the most conservative of the president's judicial nominees.
To be sure, national civil rights groups have played an important role in challenging the Pickering nomination. Revelations about Pickering's drafting of a memo on how to toughen Mississippi's ban on interracial marriage, his legal partnership with one of that state's leading segregationists, his votes as a Mississippi legislator to undermine Voting Rights Act protections, his ongoing opposition to the one-person, one-vote standard that underpins so much of civil rights law, and his efforts as a judge to get the Justice Department to soften the sentence of a convicted cross burner, as well as his many ethical missteps, have inspired widespread criticism of the nomination. In addition to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, the Congressional Black Caucus and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Pickering's prospects are opposed by the Society of American Law Teachers, the National Women's Law Center, the Alliance for Justice, People for the American Way, the National Council of Women's Organizations, the National Association of Social Workers, the AFL-CIO and dozens of other Washington-based advocacy groups.
That's what has Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the most powerful Republican on the Judiciary Committee complaining about how Washington liberals are "lynching" Pickering. Mississippi Republican Charles Evers, a Bush delegate to the 2000 Republican National Convention, went even further. "All these so-called liberals are talking about what's good for so-called downtrodden Mississippi," Evers griped during a pro-Pickering news conference on the White House lawn, at which a handful of Pickering's African-American backers showed up. "It's not the NAACP down there (in Mississippi) that opposes Pickering. It's the Yankees up here."
Evers got that one wrong, as NAACP national board chair Julian Bond noted. The Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP is actively opposing Pickering's nomination. So are the state NAACP organizations in Louisiana and Texas -- the other two states that make up the 5th Circuit. "We hope to God that (Pickering) doesn't make it," explains L.A. Warren, chair of the Mississippi NAACP's Legal Redress Committee. "We know his past."
The Magnolia Bar Association, an organization of African-American lawyers in Mississippi, opposes the Pickering nomination. So too does US Rep. Bennie Thompson, the state's only African-American congressman. Thompson has been attacked in Washington and at home in Mississippi by conservative columnists -- especially writers for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, a newspaper with a record as dubious as Pickering's when it comes to segregation fights. The critics claimed that, in opposing Pickering's nomination, the congressman had exposed himself as a pawn of northern liberals who was out of touch with his African-American constituents. These attacks were merely more of the pro-Pickering political spin, however. Last week, 31 African-American members of the Mississippi legislature signed a letter opposing Pickering's nomination.
The truth about the nomination is this: Rarely in the history of clashes over presidential nominations to the federal bench has a nominee faced the sort of homestate and regional opposition that has been directed at Pickering. Far from being a Washington phenomenon, the opposition to Pickering has gained traction because those who have fought southern racism longest -- and those who continue to oppose it with the greatest level of passion and personal commitment -- do not want this man sitting on one of the south's most influential courts. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, one of the region's largest newspapers, and one of the few daily newspapers in the nation where the editorial pages are run by an African-American woman, summed up enlightened southern sentiment well.
"If judges like Pickering were appointed, American justice would be skewed beyond recognition," argued the Journal Constitution. "If Bush will not withdraw Pickering's nomination, the Senate Judiciary Committee should recommend against his confirmation. U.S. jurisprudence came too far in the late 20th century to allow it to lapse back into a time when Pickering's prejudices reigned."
At 1700 Birmingham Ave., in Jasper, Ala., sits the little white bungalow where Carl Elliott lived for more than 50 years. It is about as unassuming a house on about as unassuming a street in about as unassuming a town as you will find in America. Elliott died in Jasper three years ago with little money to his name. He had spent his last working years as a small-town lawyer representing the same farmers and working people whose cause he took up after graduating from the University of Alabama Law School in 1936. Had he been just a bit less honorable, Elliott might well have earned nomination to a United States Circuit Court of Appeals judgeship in the south -- not unlike the one to which President Bush has nominated a man who in the 1960s stood on the opposite side of Southern politics from Elliott, Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering Sr.Unlike Mississippi's Pickering, Alabama's Elliott took a politically and personally dangerous stand against racial segregation at a time when such stances mattered. Unlike Pickering, Elliott surrendered his opportunity to live in a bigger house, to collect a big salary and to serve on one of the nation's highest courts. He did so because, even though he was a good-old-boy Southerner, he believed that African-Americans had a right to equal treatment under the law. Elliott is all but forgotten today, while Pickering is grasping for one of the greatest honors available to an American lawyer.With a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on whether to endorse Pickering's nomination scheduled for this Thursday, the battle over his selection has developed into one of the most intense political struggles of the Bush presidency. After stumbling badly in a pair of appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he faced withering questioning about his segregationist past and his more recent ethical missteps, it appeared that Pickering would become the first Bush judicial nominee to be rejected. But the president has fought back, working to revive the Mississippian's chances along with the nominee's Senate sponsor, Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and anti-abortion groups that have championed Pickering's cause since he led the fight to get the 1976 Republican National Convention to condemn the Supreme Court's Roe-v-Wade decision."This is a good, good honorable citizen," Bush said of Pickering, after appearing with the judge last week. The judge's son, Rep. Charles Pickering Jr., made the remarkable declaration that his father had "always" spoken for racial reconciliation in the south. Of references to Pickering's pro-segregation activities in the past and his present opposition to basic principles of equal justice under the law -- such as one-person, one-vote -- the judge's son said, "Everything said about him is taken out of context. These are distortions and stereotypes to smear a good man."So let's talk context. Let's talk about the choices made by two politically active southern lawyers in the civil rights era.In those last days of the old south, Elliott was the rising star of Alabama and national politics. Elected to Congress in 1948, he authored landmark legislation such as the National Defense Education Act, which since 1958 has provided 30 million low-interest loans for needy students to study science, foreign language and technology. When the civil rights movement of the 1960s forced Southerners to take sides, however, Elliott risked his career to stand with those who favored racial tolerance. Elliott was not a perfect advocate for integration, nor was he a firebrand. But, when the time to speak up came, he condemned Alabama Gov. George Wallace and other Southern politicians for stirring segregationist passions, and he sided with national Democrats such as John F. Kennedy against his own state party. As a result, Wallace and his segregationist allies restructured congressional voting in the state in order to force Elliott from his seat. Elliott turned around and ran for governor in 1966, seeking to forge a coalition of newly enfranchised African-American voters and working-class whites to break the hold of the Wallace family and its wealthy segregationist backers over the politics of the state. He even cashed in his Congressional pension to make the fight. Elliott failed - narrowly - and was finished politically. As the New York Times would note: "(Elliott) sacrificed his political career to the principles of social justice." Charles Pickering Sr. walked a radically different road than Carl Elliott. In 1959, as a law student, Pickering wrote an article that served as the basis for a move by Mississippi legislators to strengthen the state's ban on interracial marriage. In the early 1960s, as a young lawyer, he set up a law practice with one of Mississippi's leading segregationists, a fiery foe of civil rights who ran for lieutenant governor on a "segregation forever" platform." After Fannie Lou Hamer and other Mississippi civil rights activists sought to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Pickering was so angered that he announced he was quitting a Democratic party that southerners believed had grown too sympathetic to integration. As a state legislator, Pickering voted to fund the Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission, which was set up to fight desegregation. And, though he once told the Senate he never had dealings with the Commission, the recent opening of its files reveals that Pickering contacted it with concerns about an effort to form a multiracial union in his hometown.These days, the judge's defenders suggest that he should be forgiven his past missteps. Even as records of Pickering rulings from the federal bench reveal a penchant for opposing application of the Voting Rights Act and anti-employment discrimination rules to address lingering southern racism, and even as Senate hearings have detailed Judge Pickering's 1994 intervention with the US Justice Department to reduce the sentence of a convicted cross-burner, Bush, Lott and their allies in the Senate continue to claim that the judge's history must be seen in the context of the times. They point to the judge's rare deviations from hard-line stances and suggest that Pickering was on the side of the angels even as he practiced law with one of Mississippi's most outspoken segregationists.Perhaps Lott's spin could be excused if no Southern whites had ever stood up to the segregationists when it was difficult. Perhaps if the best that could be expected of any true son of the South in those days was the "respectable" support for segregation practiced by the likes of Charles Pickering it would be appropriate to dismiss the public record. But that was never the case. There was no mystery as to the right or wrong way in the 1960s, as lawyers like Carl Elliott recognized. When members of the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on the Pickering nomination, they face a choice. They can honor the memory of Carl Elliott and the other Southerners who took the risk of opposing segregation in the 1960s, or they can send a signal that in the eyes of the Senate it is never really necessary to do the right thing.