Politics and pop, past and present.
Hidden in the Senate torture report are stories of some heroes—people inside the CIA who from the beginning said torture was wrong, who tried to stop it, who refused to participate. There were also some outside the CIA, in the military and the FBI, who risked careers and reputations by resisting—and who sometimes paid a heavy price. They should be thanked and honored.
But President Obama hasn’t mentioned them. Instead, he praised the CIA officials who presided over the torture regime as “patriots.”
We should “celebrate the ones who stood up for what was right,” says David Luban of the Georgetown University law school, author of Torture, Power and Law. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, author of the definitive book on Bush administration torture, The Dark Side, calls them “the real torture patriots.”
The opposition to torture within the CIA was so strong, Mayer reports, that the CIA Inspector General, John Helgerson, “conducted a serious and influential internal investigation.” That led the Justice Department to “ask the CIA to suspend the torture program”—at least “until it could be reconciled with the law.”
The heroes in the torture report include Ali Soufan, former FBI agent and interrogator of terrorists who, according to Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, came closer than anyone to preventing the 9/11 attacks. Soufan has argued publicly against torture and in favor of “rapport-building” as the best technique to get information from suspects. The CIA heavily censored his memoir The Black Banners in what Wright called an effort “to punish a critic and to obscure history.” He was featured in a Frontline documentary made by Martin Smith and James Gilmore.
Another hero: Alberto Mora. As general counsel of the Navy in 2004, Jane Mayer reported, he tried to stop the torture program. He told his superiors at the Pentagon that the Bush torture policy violated the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition of torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” He described the Bush program as “unlawful” and “dangerous,” and warned that the torturers could face criminal prosecution. He was featured in the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side by Alex Gibney (which won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2007).
Some of the heroes were ordinary soldiers, like Sgt. Joe Darby, who first revealed the Abu Ghraib abuses. As a result,” Luban points out, he “had to live under armed protection for six months.” Others were high officials, like Philip Zelikow, an adviser to Condoleezza Rice, who, Luban reports, wrote an “anti-torture memo” that the White House “attempted to destroy.”
And there was Ian Fishback, an army captain who reported that his own unit was abusing Iraqi prisoners. Eventually he wrote an open letter to Senator John McCain, asking, “Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security?” His answer: “I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.’ ”
Finally we have the case of Guantaánamo prosecutor Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who refused to prosecute a teenager who had been abused in US detention in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. For that decision, Jameel Jaffer and Larry Siems report, Vandeveld was “barred from the prosecutors’ office, confined to his residence and threatened with dismissal from the Army.”
The Senate torture report describes CIA personnel “profoundly affected…to the point of tears” by witnessing torture, but it doesn’t reveal the names of those whose protests led to the inspector general’s internal investigation. We need to know who they are—so we can thank them for trying to do the right thing.
Obama has made it clear from the beginning that there will be no criminal prosecutions of the torturers, even though their actions violated the federal Torture Act. The least he could do is publicly honor those who tried to stop the crimes conducted in our name.
Torture is a crime, a violation of the Federal Torture Act. Those who engaged in the torture documented in such exhaustive detail in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report should be prosecuted, and those who conspired in that torture should also be prosecuted. They include UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, says Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the Law School at the University of California Irvine.
Yoo was co-author of the infamous “torture memo” of 2002, when he was Deputy Assistant US Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel of the Bush Justice Department. In the memo he declared that—in the words of Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side—“cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of detainees could be authorized, with few restrictions.”
Yoo’s memo “directly led to the torture policy that resulted,” Chemerinsky said in an interview, citing Mayer’s evidence. “That’s being part of a conspiracy to violate a federal statute. Someone isn’t excused from criminal liability just because they work for the federal government.”
The Federal Torture Act defines torture broadly, as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering…upon another person within his custody or physical control.” The penalty for violating the Torture Act is imprisonment “for not more than 20 years.”
Most important for the case of John Yoo, the Federal Torture Act specifically includes conspiracy, stating that “a person who conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be subject to the same penalties…as the penalties prescribed for the offense.” That means Yoo could be sentenced to up to twenty years in prison if found guilty.
“I think he should be,” Chemerinsky said. “All who planned, all who implemented, all who carried out the torture should be criminally prosecuted. How else do we as a society express our outrage? How else do we deter it in the future—except by criminal prosecutions?”
Chemerinsky, an authority on constitutional law who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, is the founding dean of the law school at UC Irvine, a sister campus of Berkeley in the University of California System. He is the author of hundreds of law review articles and eight books, including most recently The Case Against the Supreme Court.
Yoo defended his work on torture in an op-ed published by the New York Daily News. “In 2002,” he wrote, “I believed that the federal law prohibiting torture allowed the CIA to use interrogation methods that did not cause injury—including, in extraordinary cases, waterboarding—because of the grave threat to the nation’s security in the months after the 9/11 attacks.” He added that he was “swayed by the fact” that he believed “the CIA would use the technique only on top Al Qaeda leaders thought to have actionable information on pending plots.” He said the Senate report was wrong in its conclusion that torture was ineffective in exposing plots, citing CIA head John Brennan’s statements to that effect.
But, Chemerinsky said, there’s nothing in the federal torture law that provides an exception for “pending plots.”
For a law school dean to call for the criminal prosecution of a law professor at another campus of the same university is unprecedented. When demands were raised in 2008 that Berkely fire Yoo, the dean of the law school at Berkeley at the time, Christopher Edley Jr., said that, while he agreed that “Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service,” he believed that advocating “bad ideas” was protected by academic freedom, and such advocacy “would not warrant dismissal” from Berkeley. The only ground for dismissal, he said, was specified in the official university policy: “Commission of a criminal act which has led to conviction in a court of law and which clearly demonstrates unfitness to continue as a member of the faculty.”
Chemerinsky’s argument is that Yoo has committed a criminal act—conspiracy to torture—and that he should be put on trial for it.
Listen to the full interview with Chemerinsky, courtesy of KPFK radio:
The morning after a dark night for Democrats, California stands as the great exception to the national pattern of Republican power. In the state, not a single Republican was elected to statewide office. In the nation’s most populous county, Los Angeles, the election of progressive Sheila Kuehl will transform the all-powerful Board of Supervisors to a pro-labor force.
Voters approved a sweeping transformation of the state’s drug laws, reducing penalties for possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. As a result of Prop. 47, 40,000 offenders a year—mostly young men of color—will get lighter sentences. Voters also reduced petty theft—stealing property worth $950 or less—from a felony to misdemeanor.
Governor Jerry Brown, elected to an unprecedented fourth term with 59 percent of the vote, is committed to fighting climate change; despite Republican control of Congress, he said, California already has the political will and financial resources to forge ahead with reducing carbon emissions.
In the Bay Area, San Francisco passed a $15 minimum wage, with support from 72 percent of voters. Anti-Chevron candidates in Richmond swept to victory despite Chevron’s massive financial backing for a pro-oil-company slate. The Contra Costa Times called it “a resounding political defeat for the company and its campaign tactics.” The city council had sued Chevron after a disastrous refinery fire. And a county south of San Francisco banned fracking.
Last year the state legislature made it easier for women to get abortions, permitting nurses, Nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives and physicians’ assistants who complete specified training to perform the procedure.
The state’s gun control laws are among the strongest in the nation. All gun sales require a ten-day waiting period and are recorded by the state. Private sales of firearms are prohibited except through licensed dealers.
California Republicans have been stuck for years at around 40 percent of the electorate. Yesterday’s results provided few signs that the pattern is changing.
Sunday night Homeland returns to TV. That’s good news for liberals, who like the show’s politics because—unlike Fox’s 24—it shows that, in the Middle East, sometimes US actions make more enemies than friends. Sunday’s episode centers around the all-to-real situation where a drone attack on suspected terrorists in Afghanistan kills lots of civilians instead. Obama, we are told, is a fan of the show, and Bill Clinton told reporters that the show “created the notion of ‘other’ which was very important for the American people to sit down and watch.” He and the show’s star, the brilliant and compelling Claire Danes, both appeared at the 2013 Golden Globes—where, she said, Clinton “asked if I would come and meet him in some special room.” (Can you really blame him?)
But I’m still unhappy about Claire Danes’s meeting with CIA director John Brennan in a special room at the Agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a year ago. She told the press afterwards, “It’s always so thrilling and moving to meet the people who really do so much to protect and defend our country.” She’s talking about the people who didn’t think ISIS would amount to anything, and before that informed our leaders that Saddam was building WMD. (That info came from “Curveball”—remember him?) And there was also that 9/11 business. But when you’re on a publicity junket for your fall show, I guess you’re supposed to be nice to everybody.
The show intersects with reality in a much more direct and compelling way: Claire Danes’s character Carrie Mathison suffers from bipolar disorder, and her portrayal of her character’s manic break in season one was awesome and frighteningly real. We learned how she did it in an unusual place: the op-ed page of The New York Times. The real-life model for Carrie’s breakdown wrote the piece—she’s the sister of one of the show’s writers. “Bipolar extremes can be truly hard to watch,” she wrote, “excruciating even in memory.”
Reality has also posed a location problem for the show’s producers. They considered making the new season about Israel and Palestine, but that was ruled out, show runner Alex Gansa said, because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is “just such a difficult, difficult situation to dramatize and to explicate.” He might have added: especially when you have AIPAC breathing down your neck. “The decision also proved wise on a more practical level,” the Los Angeles Times reported, because “the violence in Gaza this summer forced two other series, FX’s ‘Tyrant’Tyrant and USA’s ‘Dig,’ to pull up stakes.” Tel Aviv, where Tyrant was in production, “was under missile fire and people were running into bomb shelters,” the show runner explained. “It was not conducive to shooting.” They moved to Istanbul.
Homeland’s people also considered sending Carrie to head the CIA station in Istanbul, but the Turkish government insisted on reviewing all the scripts. They decided instead to make Carrie CIA station chief in Kabul, and to shoot in South Africa as a stand-in for Afghanistan. Cape Town, the LA Times explained, “offers a large Muslim community for background casting that can, with the help of Hollywood magic, pass for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The cast is also finding inspiration in Cape Town. “It’s very moving to be somewhere where a man like Nelson Mandela came to prominence,” said Mandy Patinkin—his character, the morose Jew Saul Berenson, has at last left the CIA for a really good job with a private security contractor. “I’m reminded that I’m living in a place where horror was once in abundance and the boil has been lanced and life has improved.” Will Carrie help the Afghans lance their boil and improve their lives? Obama will be watching—and so will Bill Clinton.
To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation, we talked with John Dean—he had been counsel to the president, and it was his Senate testimony that led to Nixon’s resignation. His new book is The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Knew It.
Jon Wiener: You set out to reconstruct the day-to-day history of Nixon’s actions from the beginning of Watergate to the end, and you had a great source, the White House tapes. We know a lot about the tapes—the racism, the anti-Semitism, the plotting and scheming—but you listened to tapes no one else had heard before. How many tapes did you find–and how long did it take you?
John Dean: When I agreed to do the book, I was trying to figure out how anybody as savvy and intelligent as Nixon could have destroyed his presidency on a bungled burglary. But had I known how long it would take—four years—I might not have undertaken the assignment. I found a thousand conversations that no one had listened to except the archivists; there were partial transcripts for only 400. There isn’t a page in this book that doesn’t have something new to me—and I’ve been pretty close to the story since 1972.
What did you discover about the motivation for the original break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex: what were the burglars looking for? And, most important, did Nixon send them?
There’s not a scintilla of evidence that Nixon had advanced knowledge. Nixon is concerned in the early days that he might have instructed Charles Colson to do this. But Colson tells him “no.” The burglars’ original mission was to break into McGovern’s headquarters. That is traceable back to Nixon. He tells Haldeman to plant a bug in McGovern’s headquarters. But the burglars started out that night with Gordon Liddy’s original plan: to find financial information to embarrass Larry O’Brien, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, at his office in the Watergate complex. It’s just as stupid as it sounds.
How bad would it have been if they had succeeded in finding that Larry O’Brien had taken illegal money? Would that have significantly damaged the McGovern campaign?
I really doubt it.
The first big decision was to pay hush money to the burglars. What did you learn about that?
Certainly Nixon knew it from the outset. On June 20, same day as the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap, Nixon suggests they set up a “Cuban committee” to raise money for the Watergate defendants. What’s ironic is that that plan could have been legal.
You were the president’s lawyer. When did he call you? What did you know, and when did you know it?
I don’t see the president until eight months after the arrests.
That’s when you told him “there’s a cancer on the presidency.” What did you learn from the tapes about his reaction to what you told him?
The conversation took an hour and forty minutes. The transcript runs seventy-six pages, single-spaced. You have to remember that, when I tried to convince him to end the coverup, I was a young lawyer in my 30s. I couldn’t shake him by the lapels; I had to try to persuade him with facts. Listening to the tapes for the first time, I could hear my amazed frustration. I would raise points and he would bat them down. I say, “Bud Krough is concerned he committed perjury.” He replied, “Well, John, perjury’s a tough rap to prove.” I tell him there’s no telling how much money these guys will want—and it’s an obstruction of justice to pay them. He says, “How much could they want?” I pulled out of thin air what I thought was a pretty hefty number—I said, “It could cost a million dollars over the next two years.” I waited for him to say, “That’s outrageous!” Instead, he said, “I know where we can get that.” And I now know that after I left the room, he called his secretary Rose Woods in and asked her, “How much do we have in the slush fund that only you and I know about?’”
The burglary at the Watergate was actually the second one conducted by the White House plumbers unit—the first had been at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in Beverly Hills. It was Nixon’s obsession with Ellsberg leaking the Pentagon papers that led him to create the plumbers unit. Did Nixon himself connect the dots between the Ellsberg break-in and the Watergate break in?
He doesn’t connect them until I tell him on March 17, 1973—the Watergate arrests had been on June 17, 1972. One of the amazing things I discovered is that neither Haldeman nor Ehrlichman tell him about the jeopardy the White House has—that the same people now in the DC jail had also been used to break into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
Nixon’s plan was to blame the whole thing on you, to say you ran the cover-up. It was your word versus the president’s. Fox News still seems to be making this argument. Could that have worked at the time—send you to jail, and leave Nixon in the White House?
I had nothing to do with the break-in or the cover-up. But there’s a good possibility it would have worked to blame it all on me—if the tapes hadn’t come out.
Nixon knew all his conversations were being taped—including planning the cover-up and arranging for the hush money. Why did he keep talking?
Occasionally it’s clear he knows he’s recording himself. But 98 percent of the time he’s oblivious—because he doesn’t think anybody will ever get access to the tapes. In April he instructs Haldeman to remove the system, but Haldeman reminds him that “Henry Kissinger might write a different history than you, so you might want to have a good record of national security matters.” He agrees with that. Then he says, “Let’s destroy everything except the national security material.” Haldeman says, “Sure,” but then never does it—because he gets consumed by Watergate himself.
What did you conclude about the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap?
I concluded that “Who created the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap?” is the wrong question. It’s a mystery, but what difference does it make? The important question is what they erased. My book has a special appendix on that.
Finally: What was it like for you to spend four years listening to Nixon talking?
I told my wife Maureen, “Men in my family go deaf in their mid-70s, and I’m getting there. God forbid that the last voice I hear is Richard Nixon’s.” Fortunately, Jon, I can hear your voice, so I’ve come out the other side.
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“Congratulations, Class of 2014, you’re totally screwed”—that was the graduation message offered this season by Thomas Frank, Salon columnist and author of Pity the Billionaire. The average student-loan borrower graduating in 2014 is $33,000 in debt, according to the Wall Street Journal—the highest amount ever. And a new study of public universities shows that student debt is worst at schools with the highest-paid presidents.
The “most unequal” public university in America, according to the report, is Ohio State. Between 2010 and 2012 it paid its president, Gordon Gee, a total of almost $6 million, while raising tuition and fees so much that student debt grew 23 percent faster than the national average.
The only people on campus worse off than students with loans are the part-time faculty members—and they too were worst off at schools with the highest paid presidents. OSU, while paying its president $5.9 million, focused its faculty hiring on low wage part-timers, hiring 498 contingent and part-time but only forty-five permanent faculty members.
At the same time that the regular faculty has been shrinking, the number of administrators has been growing. During the period when OSU hired forty-five permanent faculty members, it hired 670 new administrators. A similar pattern is found throughout American universities.
The Institute for Policy Studies report, “The One Percent at State U: How University Presidents Profit from Rising Student Debt and Low-Wage Faculty Labor,” examined the relationship between executive pay, student debt and low-wage faculty labor at the twenty-five top-paying public universities. Co-authors Andrew Erwin and Marjorie Wood reported that money spent on administration at the highest-paying universities outpaced spending on scholarships by more than two to one.
“The high executive pay obviously isn’t the direct cause of higher student debt, or cuts in labor spending,” Ms. Wood told The New York Times. “But if you think about it in terms of the allocation of resources, it does seem to be the tip of a very large iceberg, with universities that have top-heavy executive spending also having more adjuncts, more tuition increases and more administrative spending.”
Why is this happening? “The motor force behind these trends is the hiring of ‘professional administrators’ whose primary commitment is to their own careers and advancement,” says William R. Schonfeld, former dean of social sciences and emeritus professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine (where I teach history). “They take jobs as stepping stones to other positions higher on the ladder.”
“To protect themselves,” Schonfeld says, “they grow the bureaucracy. They are committed to goals which can be relatively quickly achieved—more funds raised this year from the immediate business community, as compared to building a strong foundation for long-term giving by alumni; new schools and academic units, as compared to the tedious and slow process of building true distinction.”
The focus on quick results—not so different from corporations’ focus on quarterly profits—is responsible for the increase in both the number of administrators and their growing salaries. At Ohio State, “We’ve been hiring financial VPs from Wall Street and HR heads from private corporations,” says OSU’s Harvey Graff, professor of english and history and Ohio eminent scholar in literacy studies.
Average pay for university presidents continues to rise, according to the annual Chronicle of Higher Education survey. Nine chief executives earned more than $1 million in total compensation in 2012–13, the Chronicle reports, up from four the previous year. The median total compensation of the 256 presidents in the survey was $478,896, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.
So while university presidents are making huge salaries, Tom Frank explains, students “borrowed and forked over enormous sums in exchange for the privilege of hearing lectures…lectures that were then delivered by people who earned barely enough to stay alive. It is a double disaster of the kind that only we Americans are capable of pulling off.”
The schools that followed OSU on the “most unequal” list were, in order, Penn State, and the universities of Michigan, Minnesota and Delaware.
What is to be done? The IPS study suggests that debt relief for college grads is the number-one task—and recommends Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act,” which would refinance student loans at 3.86 percent—cutting almost in half the payments required of students currently carrying loans at 6.8 percent. Warren’s bill would pay for the lower interest rates by adopting the “Buffett Rule,” which would raise the marginal tax rate on income in excess of $1 million.
Also, the IPS study says, state legislatures should limit pay for administrators, and require that spending on non-academic administration be pegged to money spent on scholarships—the authors suggest the ratio should be two to one. “Bringing down spending on administration while increasing scholarships will help make college more affordable and discourage rapid tuition increases,” the report argues. The authors also favor granting organizing rights to part-time adjunct faculty.
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August 8 will be the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. That’s a good target date for the long-overdue appointment of a new director of the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.
The library has been without a director for two and a half years, ever since the departure of Timothy Naftali in 2011. He presided over the installation of the new, historically accurate Watergate exhibit—his number-one duty after the Nixon Foundation agreed in 2007 to bring the library, which opened in 1990, into the National Archives presidential library system.
Before that, Nixon had been the only president to refuse to cooperate with the National Archives, which ran all the other presidential museums. In 1974, Congress insisted that the Archives, rather than Nixon himself, have control of all of his presidential papers and tapes. The result was a seventeen-year standoff during which the Nixon Foundation ran a private museum in Yorba Linda that served as the nation’s center of Watergate denial, defying the National Archives.
Now the standoff has returned. The Nixon Library has no director because the Nixon Foundation, run by old-time Nixon loyalists and family members, blocked the appointment of the candidate selected by the National Archives: Mark Atwood Lawrence, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas in Austin. Lawrence is a respected middle-of-the-road scholar who was fully qualified for the job; he’s the author of The Vietnam War: A Concise International History, published in 2010 by Oxford University Press.
But the Nixon Foundation didn’t want Lawrence. Ron Walker, chairman of the Foundation’s board of directors, told Daniel Langhorne of the Orange County Register that he was concerned about Lawrence’s “perspective” on Vietnam. “It was just different,” Walker said. “I’m not going any further on that.”
How different was it? Lawrence doesn’t call Nixon a madman or a war criminal, but he does challenge those in the Nixon administration who argued at the time that an American defeat in Vietnam would do irreparable damage to US influence in the world. In the scholarly journal History: Reviews of New Books, the reviewer of Lawrence’s book wrote that “for a subject that has all too often inspired overwrought critiques of the various parties involved in the conflict, it is refreshing to have a synthesis that adopts a more neutral and dispassionate view of the Vietnam War.”
Lawrence wasn’t exactly vetoed, but the foundation made clear their hostility to him, and eventually he withdrew his application.
The power to appoint directors of presidential libraries rests with the archivist of the United States, currently David Ferrio. He has been deferring to the Nixon loyalists and family members, but his responsibility is to the American people. The National Archives’ mission is “to serve American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government.”
The problem is now approaching a crisis because the foundation, which funds the exhibits and public programs of the museum, has announced plans for a $15 million renovation of the exhibits. Apparently, it prefers to do this without a director in place to oversee the historical accuracy of what it has in mind.
The number-one exhibit in need of revision, not surprisingly, is the one concerning Vietnam. Currently the museum devotes more space to the return of American POWs from North Vietnam than it does to the war itself. The result is an exhibit that suggests America was fighting in Vietnam to get our POWs back.
Redesigning the exhibits in Yorba Linda should be the work of a professional director committed to a nonpartisan and historically accurate museum, not one deferring to old-time loyalists and family members who want a shrine that celebrates the life of their hero. Archivist David Ferrio needs to make that appointment before the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation on August 8.
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For more than a century, May 1 has been celebrated as International Workers’ Day. It’s a national holiday in more than eighty countries. But here in the land of the free, May 1 has been officially declared “Loyalty Day” by President Obama. It’s a day “for the reaffirmation of loyalty”—not to the international working class, but to the United States of America.
Obama isn’t the first president to declare May 1 Loyalty Day—that was President Eisenhower, in 1959, after Congress made it an official holiday in the fall of 1958. Loyalty Day, the history books explain, was “intended to replace” May Day. Every president since Ike has issued an official Loyalty Day proclamation for May 1.
The presidential proclamation always calls on people to “display the flag.” In case you were wondering, that’s the stars and stripes, not the red flag. Especially in the fifties, if you didn’t display the stars and stripes on Loyalty Day, your neighbors might conclude that you were some kind of red.
During the 1930s and 1940s, May Day parades in New York City involved hundreds of thousands of people. Labor unions, Communist and Socialist parties, and left-wing fraternal and youth groups would march down Fifth Avenue and end up at Union Square for stirring speeches on class solidarity.
Socialists meeting in Union Square, May 1, 1908 (Courtesy: Library of Congress)
In the fifties, Loyalty Day parades replaced May Day parades. If you Google “Loyalty Day parade,” you get a quarter of a million hits. Long Beach, California, claims to have “the longest consecutively running loyalty commemoration in the nation!” (Exclamation point theirs.) The Veterans of Foreign Wars started theirs in 1950, nine years before Ike’s declaration. This year’s Loyalty Day parade in Long Beach will be the same as always: high school marching bands, vintage cars, riders on horses and floats, as well as the required military color guard. Also clowns.
The first May Day proclamation made the Cold War context pretty clear: “Loyalty to the United States of America,” Ike said, “is essential to the preservation of our freedoms in a world threatened by totalitarianism.” That was the idea: “we” represented freedom, and “they” were “the enemies of freedom.” Of course, in 1959 our “freedoms” included segregation for blacks and blacklisting for reds, and our “Free World” allies included dictators and tyrants like Chiang Kai-Shek in Formosa, Marcos in the Philippines, the Shah in Iran and whoever was running South Korea.
Obama’s proclamation in 2013 said that on Loyalty Day we should reaffirm our commitment to “liberty, equality, and justice for all.” That’s not terribly original, but it’s not bad—especially if he really means “all” people. Skeptics might suggest his statement is an empty cliché; they might point to many cases where Obama has denied liberty, equality and justice to all (one example: US citizens killed without a trial).
In Los Angeles, where I live, the biggest parade on May 1 came in 2006, when 400,000 people marched down Wilshire Boulevard for immigrants’ rights. They carred signs that said “Si se puede!” (“Yes we can”) and “This land is your land/This land is my land.” That May 1 was May Day—and it was a lot better than Loyalty Day.
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Elizabeth Kolbert is a New Yorker staff writer; her new book is The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: Your work on species extinction began with a report on a poisonous frog in Panama.
Elizabeth Kolbert: Yes, the Panamanian golden frog. It’s New York taxicab yellow, with very dark eyes and thin limbs and long fingers. A decade ago, a fungal disease moved through Central America attacking frogs. That fungus is now all around the world, imported everywhere by people moving amphibians around. The Panamanian golden frog is now extinct in the wild—although some have been saved in a sterile facility in Panama.
How many species right now are headed for extinction?
Amphibians have the dubious distinction of being the most threatened class of animals—40 percent are classified as threatened with extinction, and very high numbers have already gone extinct. They are probably followed by mammals: one-quarter of all mammals are classified as endangered. As many as a third of all reef-building corals are endangered. Plus one-fifth of all reptiles, and one-sixth of all birds are endangered and facing extinction. And we have statistics only on a few groups; with most species of living things we don’t even know what’s out there.
The last wave of extinctions came when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs and their world. What’s different about the species extinction that threatens now?
Scientists say now we’re the asteroid. This extinction event is unique because it’s being caused by a living thing.
You got to go on many trips to exciting places to do your research. I loved your trip to One Tree Island on the Great Barrier Reef.
That was a wonderful experience. One Tree Island is made completely of dead coral, with some dirt on top of it. Scientists there were doing an experiment that required walking across the reef at low tide. We went out in the middle of the night. It was spectacular: the stars were so bright, and on the reef waiting for high tide were enormous loggerhead turtles, huge giant clams in amazing colors, bright blue starfish and ruddy octopuses in tide pools—the fantastic array of life that lives on a reef.
You quote Darwin saying, “Coral reefs rank high amongst the wonderful objects in the world.”
Yes, and scientists say it is likely that the reefs will be the first entire ecosystem in the modern era to become extinct.
Is that because of global warming?
It’s because we are changing the chemistry of the oceans. When we pour CO2 into the air we are in effect also pouring it into the water. And when you dissolve CO2 in water it forms an acid. We’re acidifying the oceans. As a result the corals are having a hard time.
You didn’t have to go to the Australia or Panama to find devastating evidence of species extinction—you went to a bat cave near your home in western Massachusetts.
Almost anywhere you go these days you’re going to find tremendous upheaval in the natural world. Our bats in New England hibernate for the winter. It turns out they now have a fungus that irritates them and wakes them up. They don’t have the fat reserves to get through the winter if they wake up. They need to stay in a deep state of hibernation. But they wake up, they fly around, and they drop dead. This fungus is spreading rapidly—it’s in at least twenty-two states now, and a lot of Canada. It’s also transported by people. As a result bat populations in the northeastern US have been plummeting.
You found another way we are changing the planet, and something new to worry about: ballast water!
We’re moving a lot of species around every day. When you bring species together that have been living on separate continents or in separate oceans, bad things can happen. Our huge supertankers take on ballast water that has many small animals. Then they dump that water, often in an entirely different ocean. So we are moving species around the world—estimates are 10,000 species are moved every day in ballast water. That doesn’t count species moved in planes, and in our luggage.
We have the endangered species protection act in America—it was passed a long time ago, in 1974, and is often ridiculed for protecting obscure fish or birds in places slated for real estate development. How successful has it been?
There have been some iconic successes: the California condor. For many species it has staved off extinction—absolutely. But to get a species listed has become very difficult. Many species are stacked up waiting for their listing. When you’re officially designated an endangered species there has to be a recovery plan. That’s good. But the problem now is that the kinds of threats that are emerging—climate change—make it very hard to come up with a rescue plan. We’re getting into complicated territory.
It’s easy to feel hopeless about species extinction. Do you have an answer to the question “What is to be done?” Do you have a six-point plan? Do you have hope at this point?
I wrote the book to bring this issue into awareness. I didn’t write it because I have a six-point plan. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone has a plan. But an obvious first step is that we’ve got to agree to start minimizing our impact on the planet. To be honest, right now we seem to be moving in the opposite direction.
Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I’m Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
Mickey Rooney, who died April 6, had many fans, including 10-year-old Gore Vidal. “What I really wanted to be,” Vidal wrote in his memoir Point to Point Navigation, “was a movie star: specifically, I wanted to be Mickey Rooney.” The inspiration? Not the “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” musicals Rooney made for MGM with Judy Garland—it was his role as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Max Reinhardt and released in 1935, when Rooney was 14. “I wanted to play Puck, as he had,” Vidal recalled.
Gore took his first step toward becoming a movie star in a 1936 newsreel, when he took off and landed a plane—under the supervision of his father, the director of Air Commerce for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The idea was to show that anybody could fly a plane, even a kid. So Gore took off and landed for the cameras—and then faced the newsreel interviewer. But he had trouble speaking; “I resembled not Mickey Rooney but Peter Lorre in M,” he recalled. “My screen test had failed.”
Nevertheless Mickey Rooney’s Puck changed Gore Vidal’s life. “Bewitched” by the performance, he recalled, “I read the play, guessing at half the words; then, addicted to this strange new language, I managed to read most of Shakespeare before I was sixteen.” Vidal became a writer instead of a movie star, and the rest is history.
Even today Rooney’s Puck remains striking. David Thomson wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Film that the performance remains “one of cinema’s most arresting pieces of magic.”
I ran into Mickey Rooney on a LA–New York flight shortly after Gore Vidal’s memoir was published. He looked old and tired. I asked him if he had seen what Gore Vidal wrote about him in his new memoir. He said “no,” and made it clear that he was irritated at the unwanted interruption. I told him how inspired the young Gore had been by Mickey’s Puck. Rooney paused, and then smiled his famous smile. “Gore Vidal—wow!” he said.
He thanked me, and I went back to my seat.
Read Next: Jon Wiener commemorates the life and work of Gore Vidal.