Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Thank You, Edward Snowden: Without You, Congress Would Not Have Ended the NSA’s Bulk Phone Data Collection

Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden (AP Photo)

When 67 senators voted June 2 to end NSA cellphone bulk data collection, and President Obama signed the law, they were saying—finally—that Edward Snowden was right. When he revealed the once-secret fact that the records of all cellphone calls by Americans were collected and stored by the NSA, his hope was to “trigger a debate” over privacy and civil liberties, as he told Glenn Greenwald when he went public in June 2013. He has succeeded.

But Snowden was called “a traitor” and charged by the Obama Justice Department with violating the Espionage Act. “Espionage,” of course, is defined as giving secrets to the enemy, but Snowden gave secrets to the American people. Now the elected representatives of the people have spoken—and they should be saying “Thank you” to Edward Snowden.

Under the new legislation, the government can no longer collect and hold information about Americans’ cellphone calls—the numbers they called and the time and duration of the call—information the Stasi and the KGB never dreamed of. The phone companies will now hold that information, and if the government wants to see who someone has been calling, they will have to get a court order. And the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will be curtailed—instead of making its decisions in secret without an adversary proceeding, it will permit outside advocates to argue against the government and declassify some of its most important decisions.

Obama in 2014 argued that Snowden should not be thanked for provoking the debate over national security powers. He said he was the one who deserved credit: “I indicated in a speech at the National Defense University last May [2013] that we needed a more robust public discussion about the balance between security and liberty.” He criticized Snowden for “the sensational way in which these disclosures have come out” which “shed more heat than light, while revealing methods to our adversaries.”

Snowden’s critics have argued that, if he’s sincere about his actions, he should return to the United States and make his case before a jury of his peers. But under the Espionage Act, testimony by a defendant about his intent is not permitted—the only question is whether information that could harm the United States was released. There are no whistleblower protections in the Espionage Act. If Snowden were on trial and said, “Let me explain why I did this,” the prosecution would say, “Objection—irrelevant” and the judge would say, “Sustained”—and Snowden would be convicted.

It was always an outrage that Snowden was charged under the Espionage Act, and the actions by Congress and the president this week make the charge even more absurd. Instead of punishing Edward Snowden, Congress and the president ought to be thanking him. And so should the American people, who have just regained some of their liberty and privacy because of his work.

Do Police Have a Right to Withhold Video When They Kill Someone?


A Philadelphia police officer with a body-worn camera (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

In Gardena, California, south of Los Angeles, three police officers killed an unarmed man, shooting him eight times, and shooting a second, seriously wounding him. They said the men were suspected of stealing a bicycle, but in fact they were friends of the man whose bike had been stolen, the Los Angeles Times reported, and “were searching for the missing bicycle.” The City agreed to pay a $4.7 million settlement to the survivor. The whole incident was recorded on a video camera mounted inside a police car. The officers involved were allowed to view the video, but the Gardena police refused to release it to the public, claiming that making the video public would violate the privacy rights of the officers involved.

Do the police have a privacy right to withhold video shot by in-car cameras or body cams? Do public officials, acting in their public capacity, have a right to prevent the public from reviewing video evidence of their conduct? You’d think the answer was obviously “no.” When the police kill somebody, it’s not “private.”

But 15 states are considering legislation to exempt video recordings of police encounters from release under state public records laws, according to the Associated Press, or to limit what can be made public. In Kansas the state Senate voted 40-0 in April to exempt police body-cam videos from the state’s open-records act. Police would have to release them only to people who are the subject of the recordings. Kansas police, on the other hand, would be able to release videos “at their own discretion.” In Minnesota, a state Senate committee has approved a bill making most police body-cam videos off-limits to the general public, “except when an officer uses a dangerous weapon or causes bodily harm.”

The ACLU recently estimated that a thousand people a year may have been killed by the police in the United States. The whole idea of videotaping the police is to deter excessive force and other forms of misconduct, and to provide a way of resolving disputes between victims of police violence and officers claiming they had just cause. “People behave better on film, whether it’s the police or the suspect,” said Michelle Richardson, public policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, “because they realize others are going to see them.” That’s the main reason President Obama has proposed spending $75 million to help police departments buy body cams.

There’s good evidence body-cams can stop bad cops. In Rialto, California, east of LA, police officers wore cameras for a year in 2012, and as The Guardian reported, “public complaints against officers plunged 88 per cent compared with the previous 12 months. Officers’ use of force fell by 60 per cent.”

But if the police get to decide what the public will see, the entire rationale for the cameras is undermined. The police will release videos when they support the police version of violent encounters, and withhold the videos documenting misconduct.

The case for a police right to privacy is weak. Advocates say releasing videos could lead to retaliation against the officers involved and endanger their families. It’s the same rationale for refusing to release the names of police officers who injure or kill innocent people. But in those cases, the video (and the names) should be released, and protection provided if necessary for the officers and their families.

Of course most video from police body cams should not be made public. The ACLU has proposed guidelines that protect the privacy rights of the people encountering the police. For example, body-cam video shot inside people’s homes, when police respond to a domestic violence call, needs special restrictions on release, the ACLU argues. The ACLU also notes the need for restrictions on the release and posting on the internet of dash cam video of embarrassing incidents such as DUI stops of celebrities or “ordinary individuals whose troubled and/or intoxicated behavior has been widely circulated and now immortalized online.”

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Police officers could withhold body cam video under the proposed ACLU guidelines if it does not document encounters with the public—for example conversations between officers in squad cars or the locker room. One other key issue in the proposed ACLU guidelines: police officers should not be allowed to turn off their body cams and should be disciplined if they do.

Progressive police officials know the body cams will help them get rid of bad cops. Denver police chief Robert White is one of those officials. Good cops should welcome body cams, he said recently, because they will “protect police from false allegations of excessive force.” And “citizens should know officers are being held accountable. The only officers who would have a problem with body cameras are bad officers.” The same goes for releasing police video.

Read Next: Jon Wiener on the “other Vietnam memorial.”

Chris Burden and ‘The Other Vietnam Memorial’

Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art

Chris Burden, The Other Vietnam Memorial, 1991. Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, Gift of Lannan Foundation. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

Los Angeles artist Chris Burden, who died on April 10 at age 69, is best known here for his 202 antique street lamps in front of LACMA—they’ve become an icon of the city.  But one of his most significant, and misunderstood, works is The Other Vietnam Memorial. It’s a response to Maya Lin’s magnificent Vietnam memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC--"The Wall" that displays the names of every American killed in the Vietnam War—58,220 names. The Other Vietnam Memorial contains 3 million Vietnamese names etched into a dozen gigantic copper plates that stand 13 feet high, arranged like spokes on wheel.

The meaning is clear: If you’re going to commemorate the dead in the Vietnam War, you should remember not only the Americans who died but also the people the Americans killed. Of course, nations build war memorials to honor their own dead. Maya Lin’s memorial took a step back from that centuries-old tradition by steadfastly refusing any heroic representation of “the fallen.” The list of names etched into the black granite wall on the Mall, as she famously said, “speaks only of loss.” Chris Burden took that concept one giant step forward.

His piece was first shown in 1991 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and is owned now by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a gift of the Lannan Foundation. It’s been exhibited “regularly” at the Chicago MCA, most recently in 2011, says Karla Loring, spokesman for the museum, and “very well received whenever we show it.” But prominent New York critics rejected the piece when it was shown there in 1991. Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times that “concept has been emphasized at the expense of form” in the piece, that the result was “earnest and preachy,” “art-as-tutorial, bent on making each viewer a better citizen.” She said it wasn’t clear why the 3 million Vietnamese names “had to be etched on copper; the impact of their great numbers would have been much the same had they been printed on paper covering the walls.” (But of course names on paper wouldn’t have the monumentality of names etched on giant copper plates.)

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In Art in America, Holland Cotter declared that “[Once] you had read the explanatory tag at the entrance, you ‘got’ the piece, and it was hard to take it any further.” And in The Nation, Arthur Danto wrote, “It touches no emotions.”

Twenty-two years later, when The New Museum organized the first-ever Chris Burden retrospective in New York City, they omitted The Other Vietnam Memorial, even though they had five floors of space.

Part of what’s disturbing about the piece is what makes it so different from Maya Lin’s. Her memorial is deeply moving and cathartic; Chris Burden’s, as Christopher Knight wrote in the Los Angeles Times, is “obdurate and unemotional, exuding an aloofness one doesn’t expect from a memorializing sculpture.”

The United States of course did not keep track of the names of all the people it killed in Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos), so there is no list, official or unofficial. How then to create “the other Vietnam memorial”? Chris Burden solved this problem by using a computer to generate 3 million Vietnamese names, variations of 4,000 names taken from Vietnamese phone books. That brought criticism, especially from Danto, who complained that the names were “generic, designating anyone and no one.” Cotter agreed that the fact that the names were computer-generated “took away some of the work’s emotional charge.” Danto went further, declaring that Burden’s piece “shows disrespect for the very persons it was meant to represent.”

It's true that the names are not "real"--but that was precisely Burden’s point: no one knows the names of all the Vietnamese who were killed.  It’s part of the cruelty and horror of that war. As Christopher Knight wrote at the time in the LA Times, Burden had intended to makes viewers feel uncomfortable about that fact. “The absence of an emotionally vivid, comfortably recognizable experience” was precisely the point of the piece, and not “a sign of the failure of the artist.”

After Burden’s death, LACMA announced a memorial exhibition featuring their holdings of his work. And the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, part of UCLA, where Burden taught, will exhibit their own holdings of his work. But no museum in his home town has ever shown The Other Vietnam Memorial, and it appears that none will do it now. The Chicago MCA should get the piece back on exhibit promptly, so that people can once again see this provocative, misunderstood, and magnificent work.


Read Next: Jon Wiener on Vietnam and the battlefield of memory

Defend Charlie Hebdo’s Publishing Disgusting Cartoons About Muslims? Yes. Give Them an Award for It? No.

Marine Le Pen supporters hold "I am Charlie" placards

Supporters of French far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen hold placards reading “I am Charlie” in January 2015. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

It’s a simple distinction, but somehow it’s been overlooked by a lot of those who support the decision by PEN to give its “Freedom of Expression” award to Charlie Hebdo. Those who signed the protest against the award (I was one of them) agree that Charlie Hebdo had a right to publish cartoons about Islam, no matter how disgusting, and not be killed for doing it. The question is whether Charlie Hebdo should be given an award for publishing them.

I’ve been a huge fan of Katha Pollitt for decades. In defending the PEN award in The Nation, it’s clear that she understands the distinction here. But a lot of others don’t. For example, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said “It was right to defend Salman Rushdie when he was under attack and it is right to defend those under attack now.” But we all agree that Charlie Hebdo should be defended. The question is whether their cartoons should be celebrated. The writer Kurt Andersen declared that “this is one of those incidents that makes a clear line, and you’re on either one side or the other.” He means that if you’re against the award, you’re for the murderers. Actually I’m not, and neither is Joyce Carol Oates or Rachel Kushner or Peter Carey or Francine Prose, former president of PEN, all signers of the protest letter.

The issue is the cartoons. We are told we don’t understand them; Katha says they are really “indictments of the racist and anti-immigrant views of right-wing French politicians.” Others have said the cartoons “speak truth to power.” The most objectionable one I’ve seen is labeled “Mohammed,” and shows the Prophet naked on his hands and knees with his ass in the air, inviting anal sex; the cartoonist has drawn a star over his anus, and the caption says “a star is born.” In a second cartoon, an ugly naked Mohammed figure in the same pose is asking the director filming him,  “Do you like my ass?”  The line is Brigitte Bardot's, in Contempt, from 1963, and the director in the cartoon is Jean-Luc Godard--a brilliant reference, but easy to see why young Muslims might not get it.  (you can see the cartoons at http://csglobe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Charlie-Hebdo-Fired.jpg )

The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Katha says, are really “the opposite of what they seem to American readers”; you have to be “immersed in French cartoon culture” to understand them. Maybe so—I’m certainly not. In fact, the context of the cartoon “a star is born” is not hard to find: Charlie Hebdo was commenting on the notorious YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” released in 2012, which, according to The New York Times, depicts the Prophet Mohammed as “a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester, and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.” Charlie Hebdo here seems to be piling on, rather than indicting the French right for racism. It’s hard to imagine that a French Muslim would see these “star is born” cartoons in Charlie Hebdo as anything other than horribly offensive. Sometimes, as Katha says, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”—but what exactly is the wisdom one arrives at on this particular road?

Garry Trudeau and others criticized Charlie Hebdo for ridiculing the weak and the powerless in France today. In response, Katha argues that the cartoons in fact mock the powerful—fundamentalist Muslim authorities who oppress women. But take a look at those cartoons again; they’re not about defending Muslim women from fundamentalist imams; they are about “Mohammed” inviting anal sex. I doubt that secular or moderate French Muslim women would see these cartoons as representing their views or defending their position; I imagine it would have the opposite effect and draw them back into the fold to defend Islam.

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If Hillary Clinton were portrayed in the same pose as Mohammed in these cartoons—naked ass in the air, inviting anal sex—and then some angry feminists shot and killed the editors who published the cartoon, we would all defend the editors’ right to publish. But would PEN give them an award? I doubt it—even though you might say it would take “courage” to publish such a cartoon. As Francine Prose said, I’m glad the ACLU defended the Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, and I’m also glad they didn’t give the Nazis an award for marching in Skokie. (That’s not to say the murdered Charlie Hebdo’s editors were Nazis—they were “aging sixties leftists”—my people!)

And yes it’s true that Charlie Hebdo also ridiculed Christianity and Judaism. But they are not getting an award for ridiculing Christians—and PEN would never give them an award for having the courage to ridicule Jews.


Read Next: Jon Wiener on the ACLU’s new ‘mobile justice’ app

New ACLU Cellphone App Automatically Preserves Video of Police Encounters

Stop or I'll Shoot!

Image courtesy Lalo Alcaraz. ©2015 (Lalo Alcaraz/Universal Uclick)

The ACLU in California today released a free smart-phone app that allows people to send cellphone videos of police encounters to the ACLU, automatically—and the ACLU will preserve the video footage, even if the cops seize the phone and delete the video or destroy the phone. The app, “Mobile Justice CA,” works for both iPhones and Android users. It’s available at Apple’s App Store and at Google Play.

The app features a large red “Record” button in the middle of the screen. When it’s pressed, the video is recorded on the phone and a duplicate copy is transmitted simultaneously to the ACLU server. When the “stop” button is pressed, a “Report” screen appears, where information about the location of the incident and the people involved can also be transmitted to the ACLU. The video and the information are treated as a request for legal assistance and reviewed by staff members. No action is taken by the ACLU, however, unless an explicit request is made, and the reports are treated as confidential and privileged legal communications. The videos, however, may be shared by the ACLU with the news media, community organizations or the general public to help call attention to police abuse.

The app is available in English and Spanish. It includes a “Know Your Rights” page.

The value of the Mobile Justice app was dramatized this month in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate, where a bystander taped cops detaining people in her neighborhood. A second person was recording her, and in that video, a lawman rushes at the first woman, grabs her cell phone, and smashes it on the floor. The second video ended up on YouTube. (South Gate police later said the officer was not a local cop but rather a deputy US marshal.)

Meanwhile in Texas, a proposed law would make it a crime for ordinary people to videotape police actions—on the grounds that it was “interference” with police activity. In California, on the other hand, the state senate this month approved legislation providing clear legal protection to people who videotape police activity without interfering with investigations.

“People who historically have had very little power in the face of law enforcement now have this tool to reclaim their power and dignity,” said Patrisse Cullors, director of the Truth and Reinvestment Campaign at the Ella Baker Center, which is working with the ACLU of California to support the launch of the Mobile Justice CA app. “Our vision is that this app will ultimately help community members connect and organize to respond to incidents of law enforcement violence, and then share their experiences and knowledge with others.”

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The Mobile Justice CA app complies with California law. ACLU affiliates in other states have developed other versions for use in those states: residents of New York should use the “Stop and Frisk Watch” app; in New Jersey, it’s the “Police Tape” app; in Oregon and Missouri it’s the “Mobile Justice” app. These work in different ways: with the New York app, shaking the phone stops the filming; the New Jersey app does not transmit the video automatically—the user must choose to send it to the ACLU-NJ for backup storage. Not all of them are available on all platforms and not all are available in Spanish, as the California app is. However, video submitted from anywhere via the California app will be stored and available to those who submitted it, an ACLU SoCal official said. (I'm a board member of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, where the app was funded through donations by Susan Adelman and Claudio Llanos and their family foundation.)

“This app will help serve as a check on abuse,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), where the app was developed. It will “allow ordinary citizens to record and document any interaction with law enforcement,” he said, including “police officers, sheriff’s deputies, border patrol, or other officials.”


Read Next: Jon Wiener on Vietnam in the battlefield of memory

Barney Frank’s ‘Stupidest’ Decision

Robert McNamara (William J. Smith/AP)

One of the “stupidest” decisions Barney Frank ever made, he says in his new memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics, was bringing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Harvard in the fall of 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War. I agree; I was there. But the story Frank tells in his book is, to put it generously, incomplete. What he did was even stupider than he acknowledges.

McNamara, Frank says, was “temporarily captured by a mob of Harvard students.” That was Frank’s fault, he acknowledges. At the time he was director of student affairs at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. In bringing the secretary of defense to Harvard, Frank says, he was only trying to “facilitate genuine conversation” between Harvard students and “important people.” What could be wrong with that? Everyone understands that Harvard students need to converse with important people, and of course these would be “private sessions that were closed to the media.” But, Frank concedes, by the fall of 1966, “the government’s conduct of the Vietnam War had become emblematic of antidemocratic secrecy and a lack of public accountability.” So it was stupid to think some people wouldn’t object to McNamara and the war he was running.

But there was a lot more to it. To Frank’s credit, he doesn’t make the same mistake many have made—describing that demonstration as an effort to prevent McNamara from speaking on campus. Many have written that he was “shouted down” at a “speech.” That’s completely wrong. Antiwar students were demanding not that McNamara be silenced, but precisely the opposite: that he speak to the public, that he agree to a public debate about the war. Barney Frank left that part out of his book. Harvard-Radcliffe SDS proposed that McNamara debate a young editor of Ramparts magazine named Robert Scheer. Sixteen hundred people signed a petition demanding a debate. That’s what Barney Frank refused to agree to. He insisted that all McNamara’s “conversations” be scheduled at closed, invitation-only events—with Barney Frank in charge of the invitation list. Of course none of the anti-war students were invited. Nevertheless SDS promised not to disrupt McNamara’s private meetings with students.

SDS also promised we would “physically confront” the secretary when he left his private meeting in Quincy House, “asking him either to agree to debate Scheer or answer questions right there” (the quotes are from the SDS newspaper New Left Notes). Quincy House residents hung sheets out their windows that declared “Kill the Cong,” “Back Mac,” and “Napalm SDS” (along with another that read “Black Day for Gordon Linen,” which had unwittingly provided the sheets). Loudspeakers blared “Mack the Knife” across the courtyard.

Close to a thousand demonstrators ringed Quincy House. Barney Frank sent a decoy in one direction and then tried to sneak McNamara out a back door, but a dozen SDSers spotted the two of them and sat down in front of the police car where they took refuge. A thousand kids began running toward McNamara. “Within moments,” the SDS newspaper reported, “he was surrounded by what must have looked to him like a mob of howling beatniks; they were actually normal Harvard people, delighted to have trapped the Secretary.”

McNamara agreed to answer questions and got on top of the car with Michael Ansara of SDS, who had a microphone. McNamara opened by saying he had been a student at Berkeley, “doing some of the same things you’re doing here. But there was one important difference: I was both tougher and more courteous.” Then while the TV news cameras rolled, he shouted vehemently, “I was tougher then, and I’m tougher now!” The kids laughed and jeered.

The first question was about the origins of the Vietnam War. “It started in ’54-’55 when a million North Vietnamese flooded into South Vietnam,” McNamara said. “Goin’ home!” somebody shouted.

The next question was about the number of civilian casualties in the South, “We don’t know.” Mac said. “Why not?” people shouted. “Don’t you care?” Mac tried again: “The number of casualties….” but he was drowned out my cries of “Civilian! Civilian casualties! Napalm victims!” A few Progressive Labor members in the front were screaming “Murderer! Fascist!” At that point “a flying squad of Harvard and Cambridge policemen” arrived, as Barney Frank reports in his book, rescued the secretary and his young host, and conveyed them to his next meeting—with Harvard professor Henry Kissinger.

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“This had been Barney’s Baby,” The Harvard Crimson wrote a few days later, “and he took the protest in a very personal way.” (That piece was written by Robert J. Samuelson, the future economist.) Although the day had been a disaster, Barney Frank writes in his new memoir, there was one thing he “greatly admired” about the entire story: not the students who sought a public debate on the most pressing issue of the day, but rather McNamara’s “composure” after the confrontation as he “proceeded to carry out the rest of his program.” And, he adds, the students he admired were not the ones who petitioned for a debate about the war but rather the two who started a different petition, one apologizing to McNamara. They were “students of mine,” Frank writes, “and would be close political confederates throughout my career.”

So what made Frank’s actions so “stupid”? He concluded that the whole thing had “inflicted political damage on the Democrats,” who lost a lot of ground in the 1966 midterm elections, which came a few days after the McNamara incident. The students’ tactics and goals, he says, split the Democratic Party and opened the door to Nixon. In fact, however, Johnson had run for president two years earlier promising that he would not send “American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves”—but by the time McNamara came to Harvard, he and LBJ had sent almost 400,000 “American boys” to Vietnam. Barney Frank is wrong about the “stupidest” thing he did. It wasn’t bringing McNamara to Harvard—it was his failure to join the movement calling for an end to the Vietnam war.

Jon Wiener was a grad student and member of Harvard SDS in 1966; he wrote about McNamara at Harvard for the SDS publication New Left Notes.

Read Next: Jon Wiener on Edward Snowden and General Patraeus

Let’s Give Edward Snowden the Same Deal General Petraeus Got for Leaking Info

General David Petraeus and Edward Snowden

General David H. Petraeus and Edward Snowden (Laura Poitras/Praxis Films)

General David Petraeus has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material and will serve no jail time for his actions. Let’s give the same deal to Edward Snowden.

True, their crimes are different: Petraeus gave classified info to his biographer and girlfriend, Paula Broadwell. Snowden gave classified info to the American people.

There’s another difference: as The Washington Post reported, Petraeus “initially lied to FBI investigators”—he told them he “had never provided Broadwell with classified information.” That was in an interview at CIA headquarters. Snowden in contrast told the truth about what he did, and why he did it. That was in an interview in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning film Citizenfour.

And there’s one more big difference: Snowden has done a lot more to defend Americans’ freedom than Petraeus ever did. In fact you might say Petraeus made America weaker as US commander in the Iraq war starting in 2007, a war that created more enemies for the US.

Petraeus’s deal, as The New York Times noted, allows him to “focus on his lucrative post-government career” as “a worldwide speaker on national security issues.” A similar deal for Snowden would probably make him a worldwide speaker on national security issues, but without the “lucrative” element.

I'm not the first person to make this suggestion: Jesselyn Radack wrote about it in Foreign Policy (and she credits Peter Maass in The Intercept).

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And while we’re giving Snowden the same deal that Petraeus got, let’s release Stephen Kim, who’s serving thirteen months in prison for talking to a Fox News reporter about a single classified report on North Korea. Let’s apologize to, and compensate, former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who served almost two years in federal prison from 2013 to 2015 for disclosing the name of a covert CIA officer to a freelance reporter—a name that was not published. While we’re at it, let’s punish the torturers, not the people who leaked information about torture.


Read Next: Jon Wiener on why it took ten years to publish the diary of a Guantánamo detainee

Super Bowl Sunday, a Big Day for Brain Damage

NFL Logo

(Reuters/Mike Segar)

Sunday is America’s annual concussion carnival, the Super Bowl. Steve Almond knows a lot about it—he wrote the book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.

Jon Wiener: Let’s review the evidence. Are you sure that football players get head injuries that lead to brain damage—or is that just liberal whining?

Steve Almond: I’m sure it’s liberal whining, but one of the stories that got obscured earlier this season was an actuarial report the NFL commissioned in response to the lawsuit filed by former players. The NFL’s own actuaries estimated that 30 percent of former players are going to wind up with long-term cognitive ailments. In America’s most famous workplace, the employers say that nearly a third of their employees will wind up with brain damage.

I’ve heard that football is big business. Is this true?

It’s about $10 billion for the NFL, the tax-exempt NFL. The college game is probably more than that. There is the game of football, which is beautiful in many ways. Then there’s this rapacious industry that has grown up around it, which is essentially American capitalism on steroids.

Were you ever a football fan?

Oh yeah. Forty years. And I still love the game. As a form of entertainment it’s absolutely thrilling. It reconnects us to the intuitive pleasures of childhood. It’s watching greatness, grace and heroism on display.

But for football fans, isn’t part of the fun of the game witnessing the violence, the head injuries? “Hit ‘em again, harder!”

Almost any fan you talk to will say, “I don’t watch the game to see the violence.” There’s something disingenuous about that. I will say, as a recovering fan, that I did watch for the violence. That’s part of the charge of football. It’s a collision sport, which separates it from most other sports. That’s why they replay all the big violent hits; that’s the reason they have those parabolic microphones on the sidelines. You can hear it in the crowd when there’s a big hit. Touchdowns get really loud cheers, but there’s nothing like that “oooh!” sound of 50,000 people who’ve just watched a player suffer some kind of brain injury in a big hit. Football allows us to indulge in our blood lust without facing the blood part of it.

You say in your book that the problem goes beyond violence and includes racism. But isn’t football a place where black people excel and become heroes—and also wealthy men?

There is a tiny sliver of the total number of men who want to play football who wind up becoming wildly famous. But the reason they become famous that they play a really violent sport that’s a profound risk to their own health—for our entertainment. It’s the most decadent kind of plantation system you can imagine. It’s a highly monetized version of a slave auction. The only rubric by which these young African-American men are being judged by the representatives of the white owners—note the word—is how fast they can run, how high they can jump, how strong they are. Football is a way to control and channel our own misconceptions and distorted thinking about male sexuality, especially African-American males.

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Is there any way to make football safe for the players?

It’s not a concussion problem. It’s not a violence problem. Football has a physics and physiology problem. The physics are simple: mass times acceleration equals force. The players have gotten more massive, much bigger than they ever were, and they run faster than they used to. Therefore—do the math—the force is much greater than it’s ever been in the game. But the brain remains what it always was, a soft organ encased in the hard shell of the skull. The players can no longer safely play the game because of the physics of our bodies. Any of these ideas about a different helmet or a rule change are just magical thinking. No responsible neurologist suggests the sport is ever going to be made safe, especially because the real danger is not concussions. It’s the accretion of the hundreds and thousands of sub-concussive hits that leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, this form of dementia that’s associated with football at every level—not just the big catastrophic hits, but the dozens of hits that are part of every single football play.


Read Next: The Super Bowl’s military fables

Rabbi Leonard Beerman: A Force for Goodness

Rabbi Leonard Beerman presents former President Jimmy Carter with the Ridenhour Courage Prize on April 4, 2007. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Los Angeles, who died December 24 at age 93, was a great fighter for social justice and peace over the last sixty-five years. His lifelong commitment to nonviolence, Beerman explained, came out of his experience in 1947 in Jerusalem, when he joined the Haganah fighting for Israeli independence. “Luckily, I was spared” killing anyone, he told the Los Angeles Times. “And when I came back, I became a pacifist because of what I had seen: People transformed to just hating, hating, hating. It is no way for humankind to live.”

In 1949 he began working as the first full-time rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple and soon became “one of the most important figures on the social-justice landscape in Los Angeles”, says David Myers, who teaches Jewish history at UCLA and was a close friend of Beerman. He was fearless, even in the face of his own congregation: when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in 1953, Beerman included them on his list of names read on the Sabbath during the Kaddish prayers, which honor the dead—despite angry protests from some.

In the 1960s he was a passionate critic of the Vietnam war; after Watts, he spoke out for black people in LA; after 9-11, he defended Muslims. He was co-founder of the Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless, and co-chairman of the Jewish Committee on Los Angeles Sweatshops. But he was best known as one of the nation’s most prominent Jewish voices defending Palestinian rights and supporting a two-state solution in the Mideast. He met with Yasir Arafat in Jordan in 1983, and at Leo Baeck he did not allow the Israeli or American flags to be flown. “Nationalism and faith should not mix,” he said.

When Reagan revived the Cold War in the mid-eighties, Rabbi Beerman helped organize the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race. Michele Willens, whose father Harold was a leading peace activist alongside Beerman, recalled that “Leonard and the Episcopalian Rev. George Regas of Pasadena’s All Saints Church would speak at each other’s entities on a regular basis, hold press conferences, and support pacifist initiatives. The center was considered hugely radical at the time, and both Leonard and Regas initially took heat from their own congregations. But it went on to great success.”

Rabbi Beerman was also an important member of the Nation family. He was a member of the magazine’s Circle of 100, the group of financial backers formed in 1979, and he presented the Nation Institute’s Ron Ridenhour Award in 2007 to Jimmy Carter, declaring that “in the geography of Carter’s conscience there are no borders.” He had been scheduled as a featured speaker on the Nation Cruise this past December, but had to cancel because of poor health.

Over the last decade Rabbi Beerman was part of a small group of Jews in Los Angeles that met regularly to formulate a progressive voice on Israeli politics. David Myers was another. “For the most part,” Myers explained, “it was a loud and unruly bunch in whose midst Leonard would initially remain silent. One wondered whether the great sage had been rendered mute in his advanced years. But then, just as the meeting was about to break up, typically without any consensus, Leonard would begin to speak. In perfectly formed, paragraph-length sentences, he would clarify, summarize, and propel forward the discussion, insisting that we never escape our obligation to speak truth to power. Those in attendance were simply stunned by the clarity of mind and of moral vision.”

His last sermon, on Yom Kippur last October at Leo Baeck temple, made page one of the LA Times: “Another Yom Kippur,” he said. “Another 500 children of Gaza killed by the Israel Defense Forces, with callous disregard for their lives.”

Despite his courage and fierceness in denouncing injustice, he was a warm and modest person with a twinkle in his eye and wonderful sense of humor. Victor Navasky described him as “a soft-spoken and frequently funny crusader for peace and sanity.” Richard Kletter, a writer living in LA, called Rabbi Beerman “a force for goodness in the world.” That’s the way I will remember him.

The Day the Troops Refused to Fight: December 25, 1914

Christmas Truce 1914

The Christmas Truce as depicted in The Illustrated London News in January 1915. (The Illustrated London News)

100 years ago, on Christmas Day, 1914, in the middle of World War I, British and German soldiers put down their guns and stopped killing one another. The terrible industrial slaughter had already taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men. But on that day, thousands of troops climbed out of the trenches in France and Belgium, sang Christmas carols, and exchanged food, gifts, and souvenirs. They traded German beer for British rum. They even played soccer. It’s a unique event in the history of modern warfare.

It’s unique in another way. Those who fought in wars—“the fallen”—are regularly remembered and honored, but remembering and honoring those who refused to fight is pretty much unheard of (except for commemorations sponsored by pacifist and anti-war groups). And yet, this season, the Christmas Truce of 1914 is being commemorated officially, especially in Europe, with a wide variety of government-sponsored memorial events.

“It’s quite remarkable,” Adam Hochschild said in an interview—he’s the author of seven books, most recently the award-winning history of WWI, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. “The Christmas Truce has always been marked unofficially. But this year every school in the United Kingdom received a packet of materials about it—photos, eyewitness accounts, student worksheets. There’s a children’s competition in Britain to design a memorial to the Christmas Truce, and one of the judges was Prince William. In Belgium a memorial soccer field was inaugurated, the British and German ambassadors came, and they are holding a soccer tournament in memory of those Christmas Truce soccer games, with youth teams from Britain, Germany, France and Austria.”

Perhaps most amazing is the three-minute TV commercial running in Britain, featuring a high-budget reenactment of the truce, where, after a soccer game, a British soldier trades a chocolate bar with a German soldier. “It’s from the supermarket chain Sainsbury,” Hochschild said. “The commercial is for a commemorative chocolate bar. The proceeds from this chocolate bar will go to the Royal British Legion, the official veterans’ organization. It’s another kind of official commemoration of this startling outbreak of peace.”

What is it about this refusal to fight that makes it safe to be officially commemorated? “I’m curious about that,” said Hochschild, who wrote about the Christmas Truce for TomDispatch. “First of all, the Christmas Truce only lasted for a day or two. The war in its full fury resumed very quickly—and went on for another four years.

“Also the Christmas Truce did not represent a breakdown of military discipline. It was sanctioned by officers on the scene. Officers as high-ranking as colonels came out to greet their counterparts from the other side in no-man’s-land.”

Hochschild points to one additional factor: “Commemorating anything these days can be big business. First World War tourism in northern France and Belgium is a huge industry. In Belgium alone, the government of the Flanders region is investing $41 million in new tourist facilities for this four-year commemorative period. That’s not counting private investment. I’m sure they are thinking, ‘if we can add a few peace sites to the existing war sites, so much the better.’”

The other profit-making industry that’s gotten involved is professional soccer. “It’s a huge business,” Hochschild says, “particularly in Europe. Five of the ten most valuable professional soccer teams in the world are in Great Britain, and it’s no accident that the trade association for professional soccer is one of the groups financing this packet of information going to all the British schools. The European soccer association is sponsoring the tournament in Belgium.”

But there are no official celebrations of many other events where soldiers refused to fight in World War I—the more radical and subversive acts. Hochschild lists several of these acts—of fraternization, desertion and even mutiny—that occurred later in the war: In the spring of 1917, after the Russian revolution, photos show Russian and German troops celebrating and dancing together in couples; on the Eastern Front, a million Russian soldiers deserted and simply walked home, and German soldiers began deserting in 1918; and in 1917, hundreds of thousands of French soldiers refused orders to attack. “These folks should all be celebrated,” Hochschild says, “because they helped bring the war to an end.”

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Finally, Hochschild says, we ought to celebrate the anti-war leaders who opposed the war from the beginning and paid a heavy price: in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg spent more than two years in prison for opposing the war; in Britain, Bertrand Russell served six months in a London jail for his anti-war advocacy. And in the United States, Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for urging resistance to the draft; he was still in the Atlanta federal penitentiary in 1920, two years after the war ended.

Now the US government is planning an official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. It’s being organized by the Pentagon, which has declared the purpose to be “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War…for their service and sacrifice.” But more than 1,000 people have signed a petition insisting that “no commemoration of the war in Vietnam can exclude the many thousands of veterans who opposed it, as well as the draft refusals of many thousands of young Americans, some at the cost of imprisonment or exile.” Anti-war activists “are the real heroes that period,” Hochschild says, “and we have to be sure to remember and celebrate them.”


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