Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

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.

Adultery in South Carolina: Blame the Woman

Here in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, the famed "redneck Riviera," the death of the King of Pop has taken second place to the adultery of the Governor in the local news. But it's the comments posted online at South Carolina daily newspapers that suggest something about local sentiment on this issue. I guess I should not have been surprised by the number that blamed the woman, especially after the media identified her as Maria Belen Chapur, a journalist for the Argentine TV station Canal America.

In the Myrtle Beach Sun News [all quotes verbatim]: "Like most married men, he got caught involved with a woman of ways who seduced him. . . His biggest mistake was getting involved with a woman that when he tried to end it, sent copies of emails to his wife and the press anonymously and all knows she did it"-- tooclassy4you.

"This gal is having the time of her life. She's enjoying a sexual encounter with a governer in the US, AND most likely has another local stud on call for quickies. WOW! Ladies and gentleman this gal is a professional COUGAR" – ibshagn.

At the Charleston Post and Courier, blaming the woman was also a theme in the online comments: "She is a jaded divorcee and a gold-digger, a climber. Sorry mr Sanford, she "loved" you as much as she loved other "strong" men, not afraid to get close to mafia, in Argentina" -- AnaLaura.

And in Columbia at The State, where enterprising reporter Gina Smith staked out the Atlanta airport and confronted the governor when he stepped off the Buenos Aires flight, some of the online comments were even wilder: "I can't help but wonder how much information this lady might have been able to obtain from Sanford during their affair. Furthermore, with all the terrorists threats around the world, I hope someone is extensively investigating this woman's background. If Sanford was going to have an affair, he should have at lease chosen a woman who was a US citizen"--Kimmy.

Of course there's another woman who can be blamed: back at the Sun-News: "let me remind everyone a man strays because he is not being taken care of at home"--China2.

Hawaii Prepares for North Korean Attack

Vacationing on Kauai, the westernmost of the Hawaiian islands, the only question most tourists ask is which beach to go to today – but visitors and locals alike were startled by Thursday's news from Washington: a North Korean missile is now aimed at Hawaii, and Hawaii's missile defenses are being fortified.

Does that mean it's time to cancel the luau and get on the first plane home?

A Japanese newspaper reported that North Korea may – repeat may – fire "its most advanced ballistic missile toward Hawaii around July 4." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates then announced moving ground-based "interceptor" rockets to Hawaii, and activating the SBX – Sea-Based X-Band Radar, a $900 million, 280 foot high seagoing dome that looks like the world's biggest floating golf ball. It rides on a self-propelled oil platform, and is based at Pearl Harbor.

According to the Honolulu Advertiser, the SBX "was spotted heading out to sea on Wednesday."

The plan is that the SBX will find the incoming North Korean missile, and then the THAAD -- Terminal High Altitude Area Defense -- will shoot it down. Hawaii will remain safe.

The whole scenario is unlikely, to put it mildly. Start with the North Korean missile: when it was tested in 2006, the rocket fell into the Pacific a few seconds after launch. In a second test in April, the missile made it past liftoff, but hit the Pacific after 2,000 miles, less than half the distance to Hawaii.

So the snorkelers at Poipu are probably okay, at least for now.

More important, the notion that North Korea would attack the US is absurd, even in the eyes of old-line hawks. "It would justify massive retaliation and bring an end to the regime," Philip Coyle of the Center for Defense Information told the Advertiser. "North Korea has done a lot of crazy things, but they are not suicidal."

Even Heritage Foundation expert Bruce Klingner said it was misleading to report that North Korean missiles would be launched toward Hawaii. He suggested the North Korean target area should be described as "open water toward the east."

Finally, if the US did attempt to shoot down a North Korean missile, it could easily fail. That would be what diplomats call "an embarrassment." The THAAD was designed to shoot down Scud-type missiles, and according to the L.A. Times has never been tested on long range rockets.

Nevertheless champagne corks are probably popping at the offices of the contractors for the THAAD. For the biggest smiles, look to prime contractor Lockheed Martin, and then subcontractors Raytheon, Boeing, Aerojet, Rocketdyne, and Honeywell. The system is expected to cost tens of billions before it is declared obsolete.

Harvard Strike 40th Anniversary

This spring is the 40th anniversary of the Harvard strike, one of the iconic moments of 1960s student protest, but -- strangely -- the only notice thus far has been in the "Opinion/Taste" pages of the Wall Street Journal.

They're still against it.

The strikers – I was one of them (as a grad student) -- demanded an end to university complicity in the war (kicking ROTC off campus); an end to evictions of working-class people from property the university wanted to develop; and the creation of a black studies program.

In what became a familiar scenario, university administrators were intransigent, students from SDS occupied the administration building, the university called the cops, the cops beat everybody in Harvard Yard they could get their hands on, and 10,000 students met in the stadium to declare a strike.

"Strike to become more human," said the famous poster with the red fist. "Strike to abolish ROTC / strike because they are trying to squeeze the life out of you / Strike."

Among the student leaders: Katha Pollitt and Michael Kazin, both of whom now write for The Nation.

The Wall Street Journal piece, written by Anthony Paletta of the Manhattan Institute's website MindingtheCampus.com, focused on arguments in an underground newspaper, the Old Mole -- whose name came from Karl Marx: "our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to burrow underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution!"

The Old Mole (I was a hard-working member of the collective) published secret Harvard documents removed from the president's office during the building occupation -- under the triumphant title "Reading the Mail of the Ruling Class." The material documented the university's ties to the CIA and the military establishment, and, more important at that moment, highlighted the split between the administration and the faculty over the student demands.

The mainstream media, led by the New York Times, denounced the Old Mole as "lawless" for publishing the purloined documents. But two years later the New York Times itself published a different set of purloined documents – they called them "the Pentagon Papers" – and went all the way to the Supreme Court defending its right to do so.

The new Wall Street Journal piece quotes the Old Mole criticizing liberal education because it taught the Harvard student to "fit comfortably and fully into a world whose basic assumptions he has neither inclination or training to challenge." (As the Journal notes, I wrote those words in 1969 -- and I salute their researchers for finding this piece!)

The Journal argues that the student radicals' critique of the 1969 curriculum has "become academic doctrine" today.

That's basically true. The liberal arts curriculum today is much more organized around developing critical skills than it was 40 years ago. African-American studies is a well-established discipline. And ROTC is no longer considered an academic field. The university is a better place as a result.

On the other hand, Harvard's role in helping students "fit comfortably" into existing institutions has not been transformed. As recently as 2007, a Harvard Crimson poll found that 58 per cent of graduating Harvard men who were entering the workforce were going into investment banking and related fields.

No doubt that is changing this year.

But the greatest evidence of the success of 1960s student protest can be found today in Barack Obama. As Tom Hayden argues in his forthcoming book The Long Sixties, "Obama would not be possible without the Sixties." He would not have been conceived without the changing mores on interracial marriage; he would not have been a candidate without the civil rights movement push for voting rights laws; and he would not have been elected without "a new social movement that applied participatory democracy online and door to door."

Disaster in Dodgertown: Manny is Banned for 50 Games

Somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout; but there is no joy in Dodgertown: mighty Manny has struck out.

Manny Ramirez, the baseball superstar who led Los Angeles to a record-breaking winning streak at home this season, has been banned from baseball for 50 games. He tested positive for performance enhancing drugs on Wednesday night, and the town is reeling.

The drug in question, according to news reports, was human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), identified by Wikipedia as "a women's fertility drug typically used by steroid users to restart their body's natural testosterone production as they come off a steroid cycle." However Manny has never tested positive for steroids, and he said his doctor had prescribed it for "a medical condition."

The story seems fishy, and whoever figures out what really was going on should win a Pulitzer -- sounds like a job for Nation sports editor Dave Zirin.

Manny has been an amazing hitter. His stats are monumental: 20 career grand slams, the most of any active player; only one player in the history of the game has had more: Lou Gehrig, with 23. The day he was banned, his batting average was an awesome .360, and his on-base percentage was .500.

He's also been a delightful figure on the sports scene, known for irreverent and seemingly philosophical comments. Last week, when he didn't play on Sunday and was asked afterwards why, he laughed and told reporters that he liked "Sundays off."

The ban on Manny is terrible for fans -- and also has caused a crisis for Dodger marketing, which had featured special ticket sales for "Mannywood" in left field (his position), along with Manny jerseys, caps, dreadlock wigs, and Manny bobble-head dolls.

And some puffed-up pundits are angry: L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke called Manny "a selfish knucklehead" and "a charlatan." Plaschke, of course, is selfless and authentic.

The rest of us just feel really bad for Manny, and for the game.

He'll be back on July 3.

Hurricane Expert Fired by Bush Allies at LSU

Louisiana State University is firing a leading hurricane scientist who was scheduled to testify as an expert witness in a case against the Army Corps of Engineers for their pre-Katrina work in New Orleans. Ivor van Heerden, who had been deputy director of LSU's Hurricane Center, says the school's former president, previously a Bush appointee, had earlier threatened to fire him if he testified.


Tenure exists, we are told, to protect the expression of views that are unpopular with the powerful. This is another case where the person who needed the protection of tenure didn't have it. LSU was able to fire van Heerden because he is an untenured Associate Research Professor.


Van Heerden was the leader of "Team Louisiana," the official independent state-funded investigation of the Katrina flooding. That panel found that the levee failures reflected poor design, bad science and shoddy engineering on the part of the Corps. The Bush Administration had held the levee failures were an "act of God."


When van Heerden was first asked to testify in spring 2007, he said in an interview Sunday with Harry Shearer on KCRW's "Le Show," LSU's then-president, Sean O'Keefe, told plaintiffs' attorneys that if van Heerden testified against the Corps he would be fired. O'Keefe had been appointed to high offices by both Presidents Bush – George W. Bush named him head of NASA in 2001, and George H. W. Bush had named him acting Secretary of the Air Force in 1992.


According to van Heerden, the LSU president said that "nobody from LSU was going to embarrass the Bush administration or upset the major Republican companies that benefit from Corps of Engineers contracts."


The school has refused to comment on the firing, citing employee confidentiality as the reason. They did give van Heerden a terminal year – his employment will end in May 2010.


The Director of the LSU Hurricane Center, engineering professor Marc Levitan, resigned from that post in protest over the firing of van Heerden. "For someone who has done so much for LSU and the state, this is uncalled for," he told Marc Schleifstein, the Pulitzer-Prize winning environmental reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.


The LSU administration has been trying to silence van Heerden ever since he began criticizing the Corps after Katrina hit in August 2005. In 2006 he published a book critical of the Corps, The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why during Hurricane Katrina – the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist. In the book he described how the LSU administration had already tried to silence him. The New York Times ran a feature story in 2006 about that claim, after which LSU's vice chancellor for communications, Michael Ruffner, wrotea letter published in the Times arguing that van Heerden was unqualified to comment on the Corps's work because "he is trained in geology and botany, not civil engineering."


Nevertheless Van Heerden had been appointed head of the official state of Louisiana forensic investigation of the levee problems. That panel's conclusions about the failures of the Corps paralleled those of other scientific panels, including one from the National Science Foundation.


After van Heerden's book was published, according to the Times-Picayune, LSU made new attempts to silence him by changing his appointment from an academic position to a research one, which prevented him from teaching classes. LSU officials told him the reclassification also "prohibited him from making public appearances or working with government agencies," the Times-Picayune reported, but the school's administrators "backed off" after he told them his grants required him to "interact" with government officials.


O'Keefe left LSU in 2008 but the school's senior administration is still committed to his policies, at least in regard to van Heerden.


In the upcoming trial, scheduled to start in federal court April 20, Judge Stanwood Duval will rule on a claim by six homeowners that the Corps failed to heed environmental laws in building and maintaining the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, a shortcut for large ships between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico, which led to the catastrophic flooding of New Orleans during Katrina. The Corps recently announced it was closing the Outlet as a shipping channel. A second trial will begin shortly after that – a massive class action suit seeking hundreds of millions in damages from the Corps.


Although LSU has officially blocked Van Heerden from testifying as an "expert witness," he says he can still testify as a "fact witness" in the trials.

South Carolina Suffers While Gov. Rejects Stimulus Funds

On a recent visit to a state whose Republican governor rejected $700 million in federal stimulus funds, I got a sense of how deep the economic slide has been. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is a prime resort destination for families from New York and New Jersey to Ohio and North Carolina. But the unemployment rate in Horry County, home of Myrtle Beach, reached 14.3 per cent in February, with the state as a whole at 10.7 per cent, among the worst in the nation (where the average in February was 8.1 per cent).

Nevertheless South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford has said he will reject federal stimulus funds – to keep the government off our backs, of course. Now Republicans competing to succeed him are debating his decision.

Tourism is life on the Grand Strand, with its long, long beach lined with miles of high-rise timeshare condos and hotels and more than a hundred golf courses in the area. But for families coping with job loss, cancelling the summer vacation at the beach is one of the most obvious moves – which means economic disaster here.

The Myrtle Beach Sun-News compared the current drop in hotel occupancy rates to the period following 9-11. One travel expert, Jeff Higley of Smith Travel Research, told the Sun-News that "it took six years for rates to get back to pre-Sept. 11 levels," and suggested that 2009 could bring a similarly protracted decline.

The Grand Strand claims the third highest number of timeshare resorts in the country, after Florida and California. But current timeshare sales have been crippled not only by the paucity of buyers but by changes in the resorts' ability to provide financing. Timeshare mortgages used to be bundled and sold as securities, but "the ability to do that stopped in August," according to Howard Nusbaum, president and CEO of the American Resort Development Association, quoted in the Sun-News. Marriot, a major timeshare developer in Myrtle Beach, reported that sales declined 28 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2008, and further declines are inevitable.

As the timeshares go, so goes the rest of the economy here. At a strip mall on the main drag in North Myrtle Beach, Goldberg's Deli continues to offer pastrami and corned beef to any New Yorkers who show up, but much of the rest of the mall is empty – the gym is gone, along with the coffee place, the mailbox store, and the nail salon. Upscale steak houses that cater to visiting golfers were mostly empty on a recent weekend. Myrtle Beach also claims to be the world capital of miniature golf, but there was little action on those courses either.

Another sign of the times: the biggest new tourist attraction here in decades, Hard Rock amusement park, a $400 million operation, opened in April and went bankrupt in September and closed.

Governor Sanford will be termed-out at the end of next year, and Republican hopefuls are already jockeying for position in the primary. At a recent debate in Columbia, Republicans debated whether to accept the stimulus money. Attorney General Henry McMaster, one possible candidate, is considering whether to rule that the legislature can accept the $700 million without the governor's approval.

Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, another candidate, has already urged the governor to accept the money. The issue is difficult for Republicans candidates, who have to run to the right, as "fiscal conservatives," in their primary, but then in the general election will have to face economically suffering mainstream voters.

The next big weekend here, after spring break and Canadian-American days, is the Harley Davidson rally in May. "If the bikers don't show up," one local told me, "we'll really be in trouble."

Obama's 'Katrina Moment'? Never Mind.

The AIG bailout bonuses were "Obama's Katrina Moment" -- that's what Frank Rich argued in his New York Times column on Sunday. Just three days later that seems like a ridiculous claim.

The original "Katrina Moment" came when the public turned against George W. Bush, definitely and permanently, after seeing his massive incompetence in handling the aftermath of the hurricane in August 2005. Bush's approval ratings dropped below 40 percent, and never went back up.

Obama's approval ratings in contrast actually have gone up since Rich made his pronouncement: in a new CBS poll released Tuesday, 64 percent of Americans say they favor the job that Obama is doing right now – two points more than CBS's poll earlier this month. Even more significant, ratings for the president's handling of the overall economy increased from 56 to 61 percent.

Asked specifically about Obama's handling of the AIG bonuses, CBS reported that "For the first time since he became president, a significant number of Americans are expressing disapproval of Barack Obama's actions. . . . 42 percent of those surveyed disapprove of the president's handling of the AIG bonuses, while roughly the same percentage - 41 percent - approve."

So a lot of people don't like what he did with the AIG bonuses, but they still approve of the rest of what he's doing. The public, in this poll at least, is able to make some distinctions.

It's not hard to see where Frank Rich went wrong with his argument. With Katrina, it was pretty obvious what needed to be done: provide the basics of life -- water and food; get people out of the Superdome and into decent shelter. But with the financial crisis, people are not so sure what's the right thing to do. They know paying millions to AIG execs is wrong, but they also seem to know that's a small part of a big problem.

There are lots of good reasons to criticize Obama's actions on the financial bailout, and lots of good reasons for populist rage over AIG. But the public seems willing to give him more time -- to see what works, and what doesn't.

Obama Takes Fight to Southern Calif. GOP

When Barack Obama appeared on Wednesday at a town hall-style event at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Southern California, he was challenging the Republicans in their historic heartland. The area had been ground zero for the Goldwater revolution in the early 1960s. Orange County provided the core supporters and the money that launched Ronald Reagan's political career in the mid-sixties. Reagan won 75 per cent of Orange County's vote in 1984; George W. Bush won 60 per cent in 2004. The county has always been solidly Republican.

Until Obama.

The hardest of hard-core Republican congressional districts in California is coastal Orange County, centered on the wealthy town of Newport Beach – previously Chris Cox's district before George Bush elevated him to head the SEC. California political experts were stunned on Nov. 4 when Obama carried the district – by 2,500 votes. And in the city of Costa Mesa, Obama beat McCain 51-45.

Coastal Orange County wasn't the only Republican district Obama carried in California. As Harold Meyerson pointed out recently in an L.A. Times op-ed, California has 19 congressional districts that are currently Republican, and Obama won an astounding eight of them. (He also carried all 34 Democratic districts.)

Seven of the eight Republican districts Obama carried were in Southern California – in the distant L.A. suburbs including Palmdale, Lancaster, Simi Valley, Riverside, and also northern San Diego County.

What's going on here isn't a shift of traditional Republicans to the Democratic column. Older white voters still supported McCain. It's the younger people and the Latinos in the OC who voted for Obama. Significantly, these Orange County groups are growing in numbers, while the old white Republicans are dying out.

The demographic and political shift appeared first in northern Orange County in the late 1990s, when Bob Dornan was defeated by Loretta Sanchez in 1996.

Today the Bush legacy is a problem even for Orange County Republicans. "Obama is coming to a place that could be called the scene of the mortgage meltdown crime," the normally Republican Orange County Register declared Tuesday. "The largest concentration of sub prime lenders was headquartered in Orange County when the meltdown began."

California Democrats' immediate goal is to break the Republican stranglehold on the state legislature, where the Democrats hold a majority but where GOP assembly members blocked a centrist budget for months.

Obama knows the potential of Latino and younger voters in the OC and is obviously eager to recruit them to a permanent Democratic coalition. His visit to Costa Mesa Wednesday was one more step in achieving that goal – and by all measures a successful one.

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