Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Schools Over Prisons: Student Protests Push Cal. Governor to Act

Student protests against tuition increases at the 10-campus University of California system pushed Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to announce on Tuesday an initiative to guarantee that the state spends more on universities than it does on prisons.

The central role of student protests is not just my theory; it's the explanation offered by the governor's own chief of staff. "Those protests on the U.C. campuses were the tipping point" for the governor, Susan Kennedy said in an interview with the New York Times.

She was referring to the coordinated actions at the start of the fall term, when 5,000 students and workers, along with many faculty members, rallied at Berkeley, while 700 gathered at UCLA's Bruin Plaza. Simultaneous protests were held at Riverside, Irvine, and other campuses. (That story HERE).

The university recently announced a 32 per cent increase in student fees for next year. It has long been held as a beacon of promise for young people, offering high quality education at relatively low cost. That era, many fear, is coming to an end.

"The priorities have become out of whack over the years," the governor said in his final address to state legislators. "I mean, think about it, 30 years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education, and 3 percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons, and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education."

Schwarzenegger said he was "choosing universities over prisons," calling his proposal "a historic and transforming realignment of California's priorities."

The governor's proposal is a constitutional amendment that requires either a two-thirds vote in the legislature or a majority vote in a referendum.

Given the inability of the legislature to raise taxes, the governor's proposal in effect calls for cutting the prison budget and shifting those funds to the university. That pits students and the university against the powerful prison guards union and law-and-order Republicans in the state.

That will be a battle worth fighting.

Fox News Scare Tactics: Get Obama-Care or "Go To Jail"

"They'll send me to jail if I don't sign up for Obama's health care," an 89-year-old woman said at my family holiday gathering last week. She was agitated and angry. "Imagine sending someone to jail – at my age!"

Even the Republicans in the room rushed to reassure her: "You're covered by Medicare. You're already signed up. Nobody is going to jail."

"Well I don't like it one bit," she said, still upset.

She's an intelligent and well-informed person; where did she get this idea?

From Fox News, of course.

Greta Van Susteren interviewed Arizona Republican Rep. John Shadegg during the debate on the House bill. He said, "If you don't buy government-approved health insurance, then they will impose a tax on you," and "if you don't pay the tax . . . we can put you in jail for up to a year."

Van Susteren didn't tell him, "that's not true." Instead, she asked, "did you ever say, like, to Speaker Pelosi, Hey, what's up with this? You're going to send poor people to jail because they can't buy the health insurance!"

Van Susteren isn't the only one. Of course there is Glenn Beck. He told Bill O'Reilly on his Nov. 13 show that you'll "go to jail" if you don't get Obama's health care. O'Reilly replied, laughing, "I think you should go to prison for this cause." (Video HERE .)

FoxNews.com reported the same thing about the Senate bill while it was being debated. The same argument appears on hundreds of right-wing blogs.

The facts: the bill will require that everybody carry health insurance – the same way all drivers are required to carry car insurance. That is the "individual mandate." If everyone is covered, including healthy young people, premiums for everyone will be lower. As Media Matters reported, if a person does not have acceptable health care coverage, the House bill imposes a tax on that person "not to exceed the applicable national average premium."

Then if you go to the tax code, you see that you can be penalized for refusing to pay taxes of any sort – and the penalties include fines and imprisonment.

Employers who refuse to get the mandated health insurance for their employees, and then refuse to pay the tax, should be penalized with fines, and, if they refuse to pay their fines, imprisonment – the same way they would be prosecuted for failing to pay social security taxes for their employees. But it's inconceivable that the Obama administration, or any successor, would send people to jail for not getting their own health insurance.

There are a lot of things wrong with the current Senate and House bills – the attacks on a woman's right to choose, for example – but the individual mandate is not one of them.

“War Is Over! If You Want It”: John and Yoko, 40 Years Later

"War Is Over! If you want it" – a full page ad in the Sunday New York Times Dec. 27 must have puzzled many readers. The ad marked an anniversary: it was 40 years ago today that John Lennon and Yoko Ono launched their "War Is Over!" campaign, with billboards in New York, London, Hollywood, Toronto, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Athens and Tokyo proclaiming the message in giant black letters on a white field – and in much smaller type at the bottom, "Happy Christmas, John and Yoko." The message was repeated on posters, leaflets, and newspaper ads.

The war in Vietnam was reaching a climax that month as American deaths reached 40,000. And the anti-war movement also reached a climax: Nov. 15, 1969, 250,000 people marched in Washington D.C. in the largest anti-war demonstration in the nation's history. At the Washington Monument, Pete Seeger led the demonstrators singing Lennon's new song, "Give Peace a Chance."

Now that the US is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the campaign is being brought back to life by Yoko – with a new twist: "War Is Over!" will be appearing, among other places, on the ad displays on top of 160 taxis in New York City for the month of January -- a project of the nonprofit Art Production Fund.

And Yoko also posted a 1969 "War Is Over" video at YouTube -- and online, downloadable do-it-yourself posters in 60 languages.

Lennon's 1969 campaign began with a "War Is Over!" benefit concert for UNICEF at the Lyceum Theater in London, John's first live performance in England in four years. George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, and Keith Moon of The Who joined him onstage.

Not everyone understood John and Yoko's "War Is Over!" campaign. John Sinclair, the Michigan antiwar activist and White Panther leader who would soon be sentenced to ten years in prison for selling two joints to an undercover cop, declared, "You are going to sound awfully fucking stupid trying to tell the heroic Vietnamese people that ‘the war is over if you want it' while they are being burned and bombed and blown out of their pitiful little huts and fields."

Sinclair of course had missed the point; the campaign was directed at the American people, not the Vietnamese. "You've got the power," Lennon told young Americans in an interview. "All we have to do is remember that: we've all got the power. That's why we said ‘war is over if you want it.' . . . . Don't believe that jazz that there's nothing you can do, ‘just turn on and drop out, man.' You've got to turn on and drop in. Or they're going to drop all over you."

Dec. 31, 1969 – 40 years ago this week – BBC-TV featured John as a "Man of the Decade." "The sixties were just waking up in the morning," he said. "We haven't even got to dinnertime yet. And I can't wait! I can't wait, I'm so glad to be around."

The Best Argument for the Afghan War - and What's Wrong with It

For those of us on the left, the best argument in favor of the Afghan war is not Obama's claim that we need to stop Al Qaeda from returning to its bases in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda doesn't need to be in Afghanistan, the 9-11 plot was hatched by Saudis in Hamburg and Miami, and they can relocate to Somalia or Yemen or someplace else if they need to. (They have already relocated to Pakistan.)

The best argument is that we have an obligation to the Afghan people – especially to the feminists, secular teachers, labor organizers, health workers, democrats, all those working to build a secular, civil society. We encouraged them to help create a real alternative to religious fundamentalism. It would be wrong now to abandon them to the Taliban.

That argument is made by Michael Walzer at the Dissent magazine website, where he writes that "a version of democratic politics has emerged" in Afghanistan -- "radically incomplete but valuable still. And all the people involved in these different activities would be at risk--at risk for their lives--if the United States simply withdrew."

That is an argument that Obama did not make.

If we accept the argument that we have incurred an obligation to protect democratic activists in Afghanistan, what exactly do we owe them? First of all, we owe it to them not to support an undemocratic government there. The Karzai government exists only because the US created and sustained it, despite massive election fraud, monumental corruption, and myriad failures to win popular support.

If we accept the obligations argument, we also owe it to the Afghans to fight a different kind of war – to stop attacking and killing large numbers of civilians. The way we have been fighting the war creates more enemies than are killed. Walzer is hopeful that Obama has "replaced the people who did everything wrong with people who are trying to do everything right." That means the US military must "stop killing civilians, work locally, disown corrupt officials, emphasize social and economic reconstruction." They have not been doing this for nine years, partly because that kind of careful, close-in fighting creates more American casualties than bombing suspected enemy locations.

And this commitment to Afghan democrats is not going to end in July 2010; it is open-ended. As long as the Afghan army and police are unable to protect teachers, feminists, health care workers, etc., we seem to have obligation to protect them – for as long as the Taliban fights to create their own Islamic state.

So: we owe it to the Afghans to support a democratic government, to fight a different kind of war, and for an indefinite number of years.

"One of the key criteria of a just war," Walzer writes, "is that there be a realistic possibility of achieving a just peace." He knows that "it may be too late" for that. But we need to ask: Is there a realistic possibility the US will abandon Karzai in favor of a democratic government? that the US military will fight the right kind of war? That the American people will be willing to keep paying for this war for many more years? What's wrong with the obligations argument is that the answer to each of these questions is "no."

Bob Dylan's Christmas Album: Is this a Joke?

Fans have been puzzled and troubled by Bob Dylan's new Christmas album. To help figure out what Dylan is doing, we turned to Sean Wilentz -- he's the official historian at the official website BobDylan.com, and he also teaches American history at Princeton. He's written many books, including "The Age of Reagan."

Q. "Christmas in the Heart" opens with "Here Comes Santa Claus," a Gene Autry song which, I have to say, is one of the most annoying holiday songs ever written, even before Bob Dylan sang it. "Hang your stockings, say your prayers" -- is this a joke?

A. It's not a joke at all. This is Bob Dylan looking back to his own childhood. He sings the songs that he heard as a kid in Hibbing. He's recalling that time and those songs and that spirit.

The way Dylan sings "I'll Be Home for Christmas," it sounds like a threat, a reason to lock your doors.

This song was originally recorded by Bing Crosby in 1943. Christmas songs during World War II had a whole different meaning. They were the music that held people together, wondering whether their boys overseas would come home alive, ever. Then after the war, Christmas music became a way to assert a kind of normality, which a lot of people in America hadn't felt since the beginning of the depression. It's also a sort of tribute to Bing Crosby – 13 of the 15 songs were recorded by Bing Crosby. He doesn't have Crosby's voice, but he's copying Bing Crosby's phrasing, which I know he admires.

"Must Be Santa" features David Hidalgo of Los Lobos from East L.A. on accordion.

It's my favorite song on the album. It's a polka – it recalls the great polka bands of the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s, people like Frankie Yankovic and Whoopee John Wilfahrt. And you should see the video – wild!

On "Winter Wonderland," Bob sounds like your grizzled old uncle at the family party who's had a little too much of the alcoholic egg nog.

I think that's exactly the point. However this is the first time "Winter Wonderland" has been done with a pedal steel guitar. There are touches of the current Bob Dylan here along with what Bob Dylan was hearing when he was seven years old.

As for Bob's "Little Town of Bethlehem," I can only say "there must be some way outa here."

This is not one of my favorite cuts on the album. People from Frank Sinatra to Ray Charles to Barbra Streisand have recorded Christmas albums, but some of the songs are difficult, and this is one of them.

This album is puzzling and troubling to fans – but Bob has often pulled the rug out from under fans who thought they had him pegged. He has often refused to fulfill his fans' wishes and expectations. Maybe this is another one of those moves.

You could see it that way. Another thing is that this is a cover album, and whenever Bob does a cover album, it means a change is gonna come. It's him trying to locate something in himself, and this is the way he does it – by singing other people's songs.

Bob is 68 – he's seen a lot of Christmases. But wait a minute, when he was growing up didn't his family celebrate Hanukah?

When he was growing up in Hibbing, everybody listened to Christmas songs, including the Jews. But this is Bob's first Christian album since "Shot of Love." This is about his beliefs. He's a Christian -- of a very weird kind.

On "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," you can say that Bob Dylan isn't singing, he's croaking. But when Tom Waits croaks, a lot of us think it's great.

Absolutely. You're used to hearing these songs sung by Nat King Cole or Perry Como. Bob Dylan here is adding a new dimension to Christmas music -- with a voice that is infinitely recognizable. And it's not just the voice, which at some times falters; it's also about the phrasing. It's a much more complicated record than a lot of people realize – especially since this song, like all the others, has been sung by dozens of performers. With most Bob Dylan songs, at least since, say, the "John Wesley Harding" album, he's just about the only one who does them. They're his songs. Now he has to go up against the entire galaxy of American singers. He has to add something new to a tradition, and that's part of what's going on here. It sounds schmaltzy and innocuous – but with Bob Dylan, even at his most schmaltzy, nothing is to be taken at face value.

Howard Zinn's "The People Speak" -- on TV this Sunday

The first time Howard Zinn's now-classic book "A People's History of the United States" appeared on TV was in "The Sopranos" on HBO, when Tony's teenage son A.J. came home from school with a copy of the book and told his parents that, according to Zinn, Columbus was a slaveowner and murderer. Tony got mad, and replied, "In this house Columbus is a hero. End of story!"

That was 1999. This Sunday, Dec. 13, Zinn's "The People Speak" – the documentary inspired by his books "A People's History" and "Voices of a People's History," will be broadcast on the History channel at 8 PM/7 Central.

The documentary "gives voice to those who spoke up for social change throughout U.S. history," says Anthony Arnove, who produced and co-directed the show and co-edited the "Voices" book. The featured voices "forged a nation from the bottom up with their insistence on equality and justice" and "remind us never to take liberty for granted."

The History channel is best-known for WWII documentaries, which has earned it the nickname "the Hitler channel." "The People Speak" made it onto this unlikely site apparently because of the irresistible actors who appear in the documentary, including Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Danny Glover, Marisa Tomei, Morgan Freeman, and Sandra Oh, along with music performances by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Eddie Vedder, among others.

My personal favorites on "The People Speak": Malcolm X's "Message to the Grass Roots" from 1963: "America's problem is us. We're her problem." And Frederick Douglass's 1857 words, read by Don Cheadle: "Power concedes nothing without a demand."

"We wanted to choose words that had some meaning today," Zinn told me; "Not from Supreme Court decisions or presidential speeches, but from some people you've never heard of."

There's also a soundtrack on CD, and a big "People Speak" website with video and a classroom study guide. Atwo-disk DVD will be out in January. The "People's History" book, meanwhile, has now sold two million copies.

And the Christopher Columbus part that got Tony Soprano mad? It's in the documentary: the Spanish priest Bartolomeo Las Casas' "Brief Account" of "The Devastation of the Indies" – read by Viggo Mortensen.

From Grant Park to Afghanistan: Obama's Defining Moment

When Barack Obama gave his victory speech on election night last November, he picked Chicago's Grant Park – the legendary site of the battle between anti-war demonstrators and Chicago cops during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. According to campaign manager David Axelrod, Obama chose Grant Park to "symbolically overcome the damage done to American idealism forty years before."

In 1968, Grant Park had dramatized the fratricidal split between Democrats over Vietnam. On the night of Nov. 4, 2008, Obama was suggesting all that had come to an end. The party was united and victorious.

But Obama's speech tonight at West Point, announcing the escalation of the American war in Afghanistan, raised anew the specter of Grant Park in 1968. Once again a Democratic president is making a deeper commitment to an unwinnable war.

Tonight's speech announcing the escalation of the American war in Afghanstan is "the defining moment of the Obama presidency," Bob Schieffer declared afterwards on CBS.

We all remember how LBJ came to be defined by the Vietnam War, and how Democrats' opposition to that war forced him out of his own reelection campaign in 1968, and how the two sides coverged in Chicago in 1968, and how that led to the election of Richard Nixon.

Of course the question now is whether Afghanistan will be Obama's Vietnam.

Obama is a smart guy, and knows we are asking that question. He addressed it explicitly at West Point, declaring that the comparison with Vietnam "depends upon a false reading of history." He said that unlike Vietnam, the U.S. has been joined by a coalition of 43 nations in Afghanistan; that in Afghanistan the US is not facing a broad-based popular insurgency; and – most important, he said -- "the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target" for al-Qaida extremists.

Those who remember Grant Park in 1968 might reply that we had "allies" fighting with us in Vietnam--Australians, Koreans, Filipinos--while our "coalition" in Afghanistan is at best reluctant. They might reply that the Viet Cong were indeed stronger in their country than the Taliban are today in theirs--but that the Karzai government is more corrupt and weaker than the Saigon governments ever were.

And they might reply that Obama's own experts have told him that only 100 al-Qaida fighters remain in Afghanistan – the rest have relocated to Somalia, Yemen and other destinations.

His arguments tonight failed. Obama is pushing us back toward Grant Park – not the Grant Park of November 2008, but the Grant Park of August 1968.

Water on the Moon -- and Money for NASA

"Water found on the moon," the headlines said – water that "could be used for drinking," the LA Times reported, possibly enough for "future astronauts to live off the land."

The "water" that was "found," however, consisted of 25 gallons. The average American uses about 80 gallons of water per day, according to the US Geological Survey. But most of that is for flushing the toilet and taking showers. If the astronauts used lunar "water" only for drinking, and if three astronauts each drank six eight-ounce glasses per day, they would drink the 25 gallons in about three weeks.

There would be a problem, however. NASA didn't find one big frozen puddle – their spectrometers identified dust that suggested water molecules were "likely to be mixed in with the soil." Getting the H2O out of the frozen soil would take energy and equipment. Maybe it would be easier for our people to bring their own water.

What explains the sudden discovery of "water" on the moon? Why is the chief scientist for NASA's "Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission" telling the media that "the moon is alive"?

Could it have anything to do with the the fact that Obama's commission on space travel recently questioned whether returning to the moon was "a worthy goal"? Could it be related to the commission's conclusion that Americans will not return to the moon anytime soon unless Congress spends a lot more money on the project -- at least $3 billion a year?

"These new discoveries could be game changers," the LA Times declared. That's true, if the game in question is taxpayer dollars spent on NASA space travel.

A modest proposal: forget about sending people to the moon to drink the water there, and instead spend the $3 billion a year on improving the drinking water here on earth.

Berlin, Israel, Mexico: Walls Across the World

It's being called "the most ambitious commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany": "The Wall Project" in Los Angeles -- and its political message will surprise many. Artists commissioned by the organizers have promised works that draw analogies between the Berlin Wall and the wall the Israelis have erected along the border with the West Bank, and the wall the US has erected along the Mexican border.

That's not exactly the sort of thing Ronald Reagan had in mind when he stood in Berlin in 1989 and said "Tear down this wall!"

LA's Berlin Wall anniversary commemoration has been organized by the Wende Museum, a private institution in Culver City, with the support of the City of L.A. It includes "The Wall Across Wilshire," a one-hour event on November 8 at which a replica of the Berlin Wall 60 feet long will be erected blocking Wilshire Blvd. in front of the County Museum of Art at midnight.

Artists have been commissioned to paint the wall with "their creative response to the walls in our lives": the top two are Shepard Fairey, who did the iconic Obama "Hope" poster, and Thierry Noir, a French-born, Berlin-based muralist famous for his paintings on the Berlin wall in 1989.

In an interview with the LA Times, Fairey said his painting on the wall in L.A. would be an "antiwar, anti-containment piece" that "makes a parallel to the Wall of Palestine."

Thierry Noir told the Times that his painting would draw an analogy between the Berlin Wall and the border wall between the US and Mexico – the point being, he said, that "every wall is not built forever."

Maybe Fairey and Noir mean that the Israeli wall and the US border wall should come down, the way the Berlin Wall did, and allow free movement--of Palestinians into Israel, and of Mexicans into the US.

And maybe they mean more than that. The Berlin Wall prevented victims of Stalinism from reaching freedom in the West; Fairey's point seems to be that the Israeli wall prevents victims of Zionism from exercising their right of return to their historic homes in Palestine.

Thierry Noir's point seems to be that the US border wall, like the Berlin Wall, divides one country into two: what was once all-Mexican territory in California and the Southwest. And, like divided Germany, the two sides of the Mexican border -- "Aztlan" -- should be, and perhaps will be, re-united some day.

An undivided Palestine; an undivided Aztlan: these meanings found in the Berlin Wall commemoration are likely to drive conservatives into a wild rage. First Amendment defenders of course will invoke the freedom of the artist. A fight over the meaning of freedom: what better way to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall?

U of Cal Budget Protests Draw Thousands

Thursday was a "Day of Action" against draconian budget cuts at the University of California campuses, and thousands of people rallied in protest at all ten campuses. At UC Berkeley, 5,000 students and workers, along with many faculty members, rallied at noon. At the same hour at UCLA, 700 students and workers and a few faculty members gathered at Bruin Plaza. And 500 rallied at UC Irvine, which Time magazine described as "normally placid."

The normally placid UC Irvine is where I teach.

The best sign I saw at the UCI rally read "If I wanted to go to a private school, I would have been born into a rich family."

The problem lies in Sacramento, where the state budget crisis led the legislature to cut its support for the university 20 per cent. The ten-campus system has been told to cut $637 million this year. The system has announced massive staff layoffs and a big hike in student fees. Next year tuition will go up 45 percent, to $10,302.

Since California voters passed Prop. 13 in 1978, a two-thirds vote in the legislature has been required to raise taxes, giving the Republicans a stranglehold on the budget.

With similarly draconian cuts and fee increases at the 23 state colleges, public higher education in California is facing its deepest crisis ever.

At the rally at UC Riverside, where the temperature reached 100 degrees, Mike Davis of the writing program told 500 students and union members, "the problem is not just the UC dream is receding, but that our kids are simultaneously being pushed out of the state universities and junior colleges, trade schools and adult schools.

"At a time when everyone wants to be, needs to be, and should be, going back to school, enrollments are being capped or reduced, classes cancelled, fees raised, and the youngest, brightest but most vulnerable faculty and staff fired. . . . Can you imagine how this frustration and disappointment is backing up into the high schools, even the middle schools and grade schools?"

At UC Irvine, Anthropology Professor Victoria Bernal said "We are taking something that by all measures is a great success and tearing it down. . . . Public education is a fundamental cornerstone of democracy in America. Without it only the well-to-do will receive the education and skills you need to take leadership positions in society."

Thursday's rallies were organized by UPTE, representing 12,000 University Professional and Technical Employees, and endorsed by CUE (Coalition of University Employees), representing over 13,000 staff, the AFT, and by the UC Student Association (UCSA), representing over 200,000 students, as well as a faculty group of more than 1,000.

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