Jon Wiener | The Nation

Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Venice Protest: 'No to Big Cruise Ships!'

Courtesy of No Grandi Navi

Flying into Venice for a long-awaited vacation, the biggest thing we could see from the air was not the Piazza San Marco, or the Doge’s Palace, or the Basilica—the biggest thing in Venice was a cruise ship docked in the passenger port. In town an hour later, we saw the posters, which said (in Italian, of course), “Defend the City—Take Back the Lagoon—Days of International Struggle Against the Big Ships—June 7-8-9.” We had arrived just in time.

The problem was easy to see: the day of the big protest, MSC Divina was in port—it’s one of the ten biggest cruise ships in the world. It looks like a floating apartment building. It has eighteen decks, which makes it much taller than anything in Venice, where the tallest buildings are four or five stories high. It’s more than 1,000 feet long. Piazza San Marco, the largest public space in Venice, is less than 600 feet long. This ship carries 4,000 passengers and a crew of 1,300. When a ship like this sails through the canals of Venice on its way to Dubrovnik and the Greek Islands, it is, in the words of the protest organization No Grandi Navi, “an affront, an insult to the city and its way of life.”

The insults are coming more often. Cruise-ship tourism in Venice has increased fourfold in the last fifteen years, and the city is now the cruise capital of Europe. The organizing committee for the protest declared, “These mega cruise ships are a visible expression of a system of political and commercial wrongdoing that has been corrupting life, damaging the economy, the environment and, ultimately, the people of this region.” They called for “sustainable alternatives in business, industrial and economic planning, based on more participatory procedures, and a new season of democracy in defense of the common good.”

The committee also announced a contest for a new logo—and stated that “the prize for the winner will NOT be a cruise.”

“Everyone in Venice hates the cruise ships,” a young woman who worked for our hotel told us. But not quite everyone: the Cruise Venice Committee held a gala affair in October 2012, according to Barbie Nadeau of The Daily Beast, where 1,800 people gathered at the passenger terminal to celebrate the success of the city in attracting the big ships. According to the committee, more than 650 cruise ships now dock in Venice annually—two almost every day of the year—and they bring passengers who spend almost $200 million annually. Obviously, the people who run the restaurants and own the stores that sell the cheap carnival masks and little plastic gondolas have something to celebrate.

But “if the benefits of tourism are the death of a city, then tourism is not worth it,” says Silvio Testa, spokesman for the protest organization. “Cruise ships may not be entirely to blame, but they are a major component of a mechanism that is changing Venice like a gradual tide that erodes the substance of the city.”

During the three-day mobilization, demonstrators from out of town camped out on one of the nearby lagoon islands, where political discussions, debates and workshops were held during the first two days, with puppet shows for the children and music and partying at night—ska, Afrobeat and rock steady were listed on the program.

Sunday morning, the protest began with a blockade of the road from the parking lot to the passenger terminal. While demonstrators chanted “Don’t board that ship!”, police in riot gear attacked with clubs. News photos showed the protesters protecting themselves with inflatable plastic ducks and other children’s beach toys. The event was streamed live on the web by Global Project.

The climax of the three-day protest came Sunday afternoon in the water outside the cruise ship terminal: “Everyone in Boats in the Giudecca Canal!” While coast guard and police motorboats patrolled, hundreds of people in dozens of smaller boats filled the canal, flying flags that said “No Big Ships” alongside red medieval banners bearing a yellow lion of St. Mark—the historic flag of the 1,000-year-old Venetian Republic.

Manila Ricci, who blogged about the protest for Huffington Post Italia, called it “a day that expressed the collective power of people.” “Venice is free,” she wrote, “at least for today.” One of the leaders of the protest committee told me the protest was “una gesto simbolico”—“a symbolic gesture.” But for a tourist from Los Angeles, it was an eloquent and thrilling event.

Watch video of the protest flotilla here.

The Venice Biennale opened at the end of May. Read more about the political art exhibition here.

We Win: San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Shut Down

Clouds spew from a cooling tower at PECO's nuclear generating station in LImerick, PA. (AP Photo/Geore Widman)

We win: Southern California Edison announced Friday it will shut down the troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant south of Los Angeles. Permanently.

The plant, which has been the target of anti-nuclear protests for decades, has been closed for seventeen months because of radioactivity leaking from the steam generators. But until now, Edison had defied critics and pledged to restart the plant.

Dan Hirsch of Committee to Bridge the Gap, who has been fighting San Onofre since before opened in the late 1970s, said, “An atomic dragon has been slain. Millions of people in Southern California are now safer.”

The decision to shut the plant came three days after former NRC head Gregory Jaczko said he had doubts about Edison’s recent announcement that it intended to restart the plant at 70 percent power for five months.“The approach does not instill a lot of confidence in me,” he said June 4 in San Diego. “It’s a fairly novel idea to allow a plant to operate at a reduced power level because of a safety issue.”

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Leading the fight to shut down San Onofre have been locals Gary Headrick of San Clemente Green, Gene Stone of Residents Organized for a Safe Environment and Donna Gilmore of San Onofre Safety, along with Dan Hirsch of the Committee to Bridge the Gap. They’ve gotten help from Arnie Gundersen and Friends of the Earth and of course from Helen Caldicott. Activists held rallies, spoke at official meetings and petitioned the NRC and Congress. They pointed out that San Onofre has the worst safety complaint record of all US nuclear reactors according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety allegation data.

Ai Weiwei: Political Art at the Venice Biennale

Photo by the author with permission from the Venice Biennale.

Art world movers and shakers have been busy for the last few weeks. New York hedge fund billionaires and Russian oligarchs, with their private jets and monster yachts, traveled between Art Basel Hong Kong and Christie’s in New York, where a half-billion dollars worth of art was sold on one night. Then many of them moved on to the Venice Biennale, which opened at the end of May.

This biennale, however, presents a kind of reproach to the glitz and glamour of Art Basel and Christie’s. The exhibition, which opened June 1 and runs thru November 24, features the world’s most famous artist, China’s Ai Weiwei, whose work here, two powerful solo exhibitions, is fiercely political. Roberta Smith of The New York Times called him an “eloquent and seemingly unsilenceable voice for freedom.” Chinese authorities, who had imprisoned him for eighty-one days in 2011, refused to allow him to leave the country to come to Venice to install this work. (For the opening, he sent his mother in his place.)

His new piece, exhibited here for the first time, consists of six large scale-model dioramas illustrating different elements of his eighty-one-day imprisonment. Each scene is inside a large black metal box, five feet high, with several viewing portals. Each portrays a different key moment of his daily life in prison. Charlotte Higgins of The Guardian described it best: “Here is a miniature Ai being interrogated; here a miniature Ai showers or sits on the lavatory while two uniformed guards stand over him.” In other scenes he is sleeping and eating—but “always in the same tiny space, always under double guard.”

The title of the piece, S.A.C.R.E.D., is an acronym referring to the six moments portrayed in the dioramas: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt.

The strange intensity of the scenes was explained by Greg Hilty of London’s Lisson Gallery, which is responsible for showing S.A.C.R.E.D. He told The Guardian that, for those eighty-one days, Ai had nothing to do but “memorise the minutest details of the tiny, featureless room in which he was kept.”

Only in Venice at the Biennale would this work be set in such a spectacular space: inside the deconsecrated church of Sant’ Antonin, built in the 1660s, with Baroque side chapels and paintings of saints—in the middle of which the six large black metal boxes look especially mysterious and menacing.

The second of the two pieces is Ai’s response to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, when more than 5,000 children were killed in schools deep in rural China, a thousand miles from Beijing, schools that collapsed because of shoddy construction permitted by corrupt officials. After the government refused to release the names of the dead, Ai Weiwei formed a citizens’ commission, volunteers, including parents, who investigated the disaster and published their findings, including the names of the dead children and details about the corruption.

The government, meanwhile, removed the faulty steel rebar from ruins of the collapsed schools and sold it for recycling. And Ai Weiwei bought it—150 tons of it, twisted evidence of the corruption and the cover-up. He then organized a shop where the steel bars were straightened.

These were the events that made Ai Weiwei the world’s most important political artist, and it was at this point that Ai Weiwei was imprisoned. But when he was finally released eighty-one days later, he found that the work of straightening the rebar had continued.

The piece on exhibit in Venice displays 150 tons of rebar recovered from the ruined schools—different lengths and diameters, now rusted and pounded and piled on the floor. Ai Weiwei’s fifteen-minute video tells the story from the beginning—how he went to Sichuan and videotaped the graves of dead children, the demolition of the schools, the sorting of the rebar, and then he shows a dozen workers pounding and straightening the steel.

You need to know the story in order to feel the tremendous impact of the piece, which he calls Straight. Without the story, as Roberta Smith wrote, the piles of rusted rebar look like “just another Post-Minimalist variation on Richard Serra.”

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The piece has been shown in the US, as part of a career retrospective at the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC, in 2012, and then the Brooklyn Museum. At the Hirshhorn the rebar appeared along with a wall-size spreadsheet listing the names of 5,196 children killed in the Sichuan quake, along with their birthdays and schools. Visitors also heard a recording in which he read the names.

While Straight was on exhibit in Brooklyn, Mary Boone Gallery in Manhattan displayed a second collection of the rebar, with twisted pieces laid out on the floor in a pattern that evoked a Jackson Pollack painting. The video in Venice shows the assembly of the Mary Boone piece and its finished form.

To learn more about Ai Weiwei, watch Alison Klayman’s terrific documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”, and visit Wei’s website, aiweiwei.com.

Brits Crack Down on Unpaid Internships

London. (Flickr/CC, 2.0)

Alarmed about “the number of companies recruiting young people to work for nothing,” British tax officials are forcing nine companies to pay more than $300,000 in back wages to unpaid interns. The action by Her Majesty’s Revenue, reported on the front page of The Times of London on Monday, cited the firms for “breaching minimum wage legislation.” Under British law, a position that has “set hours and set duties” is a job subject to the laws establishing minimum wages.

“Unpaid internships can provide valuable opportunities” to young people seeking to get a foot on the career ladder, Michelle Wyer, assistant director of the government’s national minimum wage team, told The Times. “However, we are clear that employing unpaid interns instead of workers to avoid the national minimum wage is wrong.”

The government has established a “pay and work rights helpline” where interns can register complaints anonymously. Each of today’s actions resulted from a complaint filed by an intern.

The firms fined for minimum wage violations included Arcadia, Britain’s largest privately held retailer. Arcadia owns Topshop and other well-known British stores.

Ben Lyons, co-founder of the group Intern Aware, told The Times that British tax officials “have only scratched the surface of Britain’s unpaid intern problem.” The government, he said, “needs to name and shame companies that refuse to pay their interns and use its powers to prosecute the worst offenders.”

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Several of Britain’s leading universities are now refusing to advertise unpaid internships because of what The Times called “growing concern over the exploitation of graduates.” Those joining the boycott include Oxford, York, Leeds, Liverpool, Essex, Sussex and Nottingham.

More information on the British campaign can be found online at www.InternAware.org.

Sometimes, Jessica Valenti writes, you've got to feed the trolls.

Dartmouth Students Who Protested Rape Are Charged With Violating School Rules

Dartmouth College. (Wikimedia Commons/CC, 2.0)

Dartmouth College students who filed a federal complaint against the school for failing to report sexual assaults are themselves being charged by the school with violating the student code of conduct. Their crime: “failing to follow college officials’ instructions” about participating at a protest at a campus event on April 19, where they marched through a meeting where prospective students were encouraged to come to Dartmouth.

“We were protesting sexual assault on this campus, and the administration’s failure to respond to homophobia and racism on campus,” Nastassja Schmiedt, a Dartmouth sophomore, told The Huffington Post. “We were informally informing the college of civil rights violations.”

At least ten students who joined the April 19 demonstration received letters from the director of the Undergraduate Judicial Affairs Office informing them of the disciplinary proceedings. Most of the students, Dartmouth senior Lea Roth told The Huffington Post’s Tyler Kingkade, had been part of formal complaint filed against Dartmouth last week under the federal Cleary Act, stating that the school failed to prosecute and report sexual violence on campus. The Cleary Act requires public disclosure of campus crime.

At the recruiting event, attended by several hundred prospective students, fifteen members of a student group called Real Talk Dartmouth marched through the room. They chanted “Dartmouth has a problem!” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, and described incidents of homophobia, racism and sexual assault. One carried a sign that read “I was called a fag in my freshman dorm.” Administrators had attempted to prevent the students from entering the room where the meeting was being held—that’s the basis of the charge of “failing to follow college officials’ instructions.”

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During the protest event, other students in the room chanted “We love Dartmouth!” Afterwards an online unofficial campus forum called “Bored at Baker” was filled with anonymous hostile and violent comments—including, according to the Chronicle, “Why do we even admit minorities if they’re just going to whine?” and another, which read “Wish I had a shotgun. Would have blown those [expletive] hippies away.”

In response to the online posts, the school administration cancelled classes for a day and scheduled special meetings to discuss diversity and tolerance.

Nina Rojas, class of 2013, one of the protesters who received a letter from Undergraduate Judicial Affairs director Nathan Miller, told The Dartmouth, the student newspaper, “I don’t understand it at all because not following directions seems like something incredibly benign.” She pointed to Dartmouth’s Principles of Community, which protect and encourage dissent.

Read Dave Zirin's take on Roy Hibbert's homophobic comments—and how the NBA should respond.

'We Steal Secrets': Filmmaker Alex Gibney Talks About Wikileaks

It’s a classic David and Goliath story: one man with a computer against the world’s most powerful nation. Bradley Manning’s trial starts June 4; he’s charged with espionage and aiding the enemy. His crime: releasing to Wikileaks, and to The New York Times and The Guardian (and The Nation), hundreds of thousands of classified files documenting widespread civilian casualties, torture and corruption in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Now award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney has a new documentary about it: We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks. His other films include Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room, and Taxi to the Dark Side, which won the Oscar for best feature documentary. We Steal Secrets opens in Los Angeles and New York City on Friday, May 24.

Jon Wiener: Any film about Wikileaks has to make interviewing Julian Assange task number one. You worked hard on that, and finally you met with him to discuss an interview. How did that go?

Alex Gibney: Not so well. I tried over the course of a year and a half to get the interview. He’d already been interviewed by practically everyone on the planet. Finally we had a six hour meeting. He told me that the market rate for an interview was a million dollars. I told him I don’t pay for interviews. He said “That’s too bad, in that case you might do something else for me.” He wanted me to spy on our other interview subjects—which I found a rather odd request from someone concerned about source protection. So I never did get the interview with Julian Assange.

Your meeting with Assange came during the period when he was in Britain fighting extradition to Sweden but before he took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. This came well after the historic Wikileaks release in 2010 of the Baghdad helicopter gunship video, which showed US pilots gunning down innocent Iraqi civilians, including two children, and two Reuters journalists, and sounding pretty happy about it. It came after The New York Times and The Guardian, along with Der Spiegel, published big, page-one stories on Wikileaks’ Afghan and Iraq war logs; they had cooperated with Julian Assange in researching and then reporting on the documents. What was the major news there?

The key things the Afghan war logs revealed were civilian casualties much higher than anyone had thought, and that the Pakistani secret service, the ISI, was playing a kind of double game, working with the Taliban to destabilize Afghanistan. The Iraq war logs revealed more extensive civilian casualties and also something extremely disturbing: the Bush and then the Obama administrations were handing prisoners over to the Iraqi authorities, who they knew to be torturing these individuals. That is, in fact, a war crime.

The response of the US government was fiendishly brilliant, I thought. They never attacked The New York Times for publishing the documents; instead they focused everything on Julian Assange. They said he had “blood on his hands,” that he was endangering Americans and individuals who had helped America. Several important people said Julian Assange should be killed by the US government—including Bill O’Reilly.

Yes. We show video of Bill O’Reilly calling for a “drone hit” on Assange. It is true that Assange failed to redact all the names in the Afghan war logs, and that gave the US government an opening to say “you have blood on your hands”—although nobody came to harm as a result of that failure to redact.

Do you have an opinion about who does have blood on their hands?

Obviously the real blood is the blood being shed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the US military.

And if Julian Assange was endangering Americans, wasn’t The New York Times guilty of the same thing?

There’s no doubt. Wikileaks in its essence is a publisher, pure and simple. They were very much in the same position as The New York Times and The Guardian. But The New York Times, not to its credit, helped to marginalize Assange, by calling him a “source” rather than a publisher, and this ended up helping the government.

In my opinion too much of the coverage in the mainstream media has focused on the personality and conduct of Julian Assange rather than on the secrets revealed by Wikileaks. But let’s spend a brief minute on the Swedish legal proceedings. A lot of Assange’s supporters think the Swedish incident is a fabrication created perhaps by the CIA in an effort to discredit Assange and distract the public from what Wikileaks revealed.

That was my opinion initially—the sex charges were some way the US had of silencing Julian Assange. I investigated thoroughly. I went to Sweden and spoke with one of the women that he allegedly treated badly. My conclusion is that this was purely a personal matter. I found no evidence of any effort to fake phony sex allegations. Everything boils down to this fact: he was not using a condom in the way two women wanted him to use a condom. They both confronted him afterwards and wanted him to take an HIV test. He refused. Because he refused, the women went to the police to try to get the police to force him to take an HIV test. Had he taken an HIV test, none of this would have happened.

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You also interviewed some of Julian Assange’s top associates and “former comrades” in an effort to understand what happened with him.

One of the key people I talked is a young man names James Ball, a super computer person. While Julian was under arrest, James briefly became the ad hoc press spokesman for Wikileaks. James was concerned about the way that Julian was succumbing to what James called “noble cause corruption”—the idea that, because he was doing something good, he was entitled to do other things that otherwise would not be looked on so well. Like taking money from the till to pay for his own sex defense fund. Like requiring all the people who work for Wikileaks to sign non-disclosure agreements.

This to me is a real betrayal of the ideals of Wikileaks: if you work for Julian Assange, you have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. That’s a standard corporate practice—

—to silence whistleblowers. The penalty for which was millions of dollars. In my opinion he’s tried to hide his own misbehavior behind the sanctity of the higher ideals of Wikileaks.

The higher ideals of Wikileaks remain, whatever Julian Assange is now doing—there is still too much secrecy in America, and we still regard whistleblowers as heroes. You describe this as a classic David and Goliath story, one man with a computer versus the most powerful nation on earth. Who exactly is the real David here? Is it Julian Assange?

No. The real David in this story is Bradley Manning. Now he’s about to go on trial June 4. He’s the whistleblower. He’s the man who leaked all these key materials—the Baghdad helicopter gunship video, the Afghan and Iraq war logs, the State Department logs. He’s pled guilty to violating an oath. But the government is charging him with “aiding the enemy.” The judge could impose the death penalty. What that says about criminalizing journalism is really terrifying. Putting Bradley Manning at the center of this story is the most important thing we can do.

This interview, originally broadcast in LA on KPFK 90.7FM, has been condensed and edited. Image credit: Flickr/David Shankbone.

Why Did Harvard Give a PhD for a Discredited Approach to Race and IQ?

Harvard University. (Flickr/Kelly Delay)

He’s probably the first person ever to lose his job because of his Harvard PhD dissertation: Jason Richwine, let go by the Heritage Foundation on Friday. The problem: he co-authored their position paper opposing immigration reform; and then somebody discovered that his PhD thesis at Harvard’s Kennedy School was dedicated to the proposition that Hispanics have lower IQs than white people. Not even the Heritage Foundation wanted to go there—so after two days trying to answer embarrassing questions, he left quietly.

But how did he get a Harvard PhD for work that even the Heritage Foundation wouldn’t accept?

The dissertation, uncovered by Dylan Matthews of The Washington Post, titled “IQ and Immigration Policy,” was accepted in 2009 by the Kennedy School of Public Policy. In it, Richwine argued that there are genetic differences in intelligence between races, and that they will persist for generations to come. He’s a disciple of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, whose book The Bell Curve made a similar argument back in 1994.

The problems with all the work purporting to link “race” and “intelligence” have been well-known for decades. First, the concept of “race”: There is no “Hispanic race.” It’s a census category, not a biological one. What we call “Hispanics” in the United States includes Indian peasants from Yucatan and doctors from Mexico City (and Madrid). Second problem: the concept of “IQ.” The inventors of the IQ test claimed it measured “innate intelligence.” But of course what the test really measures is test-taking ability. Our peasant from Yucatan probably wouldn’t do as well as the kid from Beverly Hills High. Both “race” and “intelligence” are culturally constructed notions, not biological or genetic facts. None of this is hard to understand.

Nevertheless, Jason Richwine concluded his dissertation, “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” The question is: how did Harvard decide this discredited idea was worth a PhD? In other words, who at Harvard approved this travesty?

The dissertation was approved, as all dissertations are, by a committee of three. The chair was George Borjas, an conservative economist who writes about immigration for National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Borjas told Slate’s David Weigel, “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don't really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc.… In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I've long believed this, I don't find the IQ academic work all that interesting.” Not exactly an endorsement of the dissertation.

The second person on the committee was Richard Zeckhauser. He studies investing, not immigration, and his Harvard faculty website describes him as “a senior principal at Equity Resource Investments (ERI), a special situations real estate firm.” He told Wiegel that “Jason’s empirical work was careful,” but that he was “too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.”

The third member of the committee is the big surprise, and the big problem: Christopher Jencks, for decades a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?, The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap. Christopher Jencks knows exactly what’s wrong with the studies purporting to link “race” with “IQ.”

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Richwine concluded his dissertation, “From the perspective of Americans alive today, the low average IQ of Hispanics is effectively permanent.” Why would Christopher Jencks decide that that dissertation was worth a Harvard PhD? I asked Jencks whether he would comment. He replied “Nope. But thanks for asking.”

No less than Rush Limbaugh has cited the approval of the dissertation by Christopher Jencks, “a renowned left-wing academic,” as proof that the young man is being railroaded.

The last word in this story goes to a study published in 2012 in the journal Psychological Science. “In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874),” the researchers wrote, “we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood.”

Across the country, students are rising up against racism and austerity. Read StudentNation for a rundown of first-person takes.

Hands Off Yoko! Oil and Gas Drillers Complain About Anti-Fracking Campaign

Yoko Ono speaks at the launch of Artists Against Fracking in New York, August 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

Fox News featured the story: The Independent Oil & Gas Association, our friendly frackers, filed a formal complaint against Yoko Ono and her organization, Artists Against Fracking, claiming the group is violating New York state law by failing to register as lobbyists.

You might view the complaint, and the news coverage, as a measure of the success of the campaign launched by Yoko and her son Sean Lennon, who have been joined by more than 200 well-known people, including Salman Rushdie, Jeff Koons, Alec Baldwin, Martha Stewart, David Geffen, Anne Hathaway, Jimmy Fallon and Lady Gaga—with her 34 million Twitter followers. In Albany in January, Yoko and Sean delivered an anti-fracking petition to Governor Cuomo with more than 50,000 signatures. Also in January, she and Sean and Susan Sarandon led a bus tour of Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the local water supply has been contaminated by fracking. And she recently released a video called “Don’t Frack My Mother,” featuring celebrities such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Susan Sarandon.

The frackers seem to have forgotten that “the right of the people” to “petition their government for a redress of grievances” is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. 

The complaint, filed at the end of March with the state's Joint Commission on Public Ethics, argues that lobbying groups that spend more than $5,000 are required to register and report their finances, and that Artists Against Fracking is such a group.

A spokesman for Artists Against Fracking told the AP that the group and its individual members don't have to register as lobbyists.  "As private citizens, Yoko and Sean are not required to register as lobbyists when they use their own money to express an opinion,” David Fenton said. “There's also no lobbying requirement when you are engaged in a public comment period by a state agency."  After the public comment period, Fenton said, “Artists Against Fracking will consider registering. Up to now, there has been no violation because they are entitled to do this as private citizens with their own money."

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Public opinion polling helps explain the problem for the oil and gas drillers. Seven months after Artists Against Fracking was formed, the March 20 Quinnipiac poll reported that people in New York state were opposed to fracking for the first time, with 46 percent opposed and 39 percent in favor. "There's no doubt the celebrities had an effect," Quinnipiac pollster Maurice Carroll told the AP. "As far as I can tell, they made all the difference.”

How to catch corporations for lying about political transparency? Read Lee Fang's analysis.

Homeless Vets vs. the VA: An LA Story Continues

Veteran J.J. Asevedo, left, sits at a news conference announcing a lawsuit at the Los Angeles VA, June 8, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

Greg Valentini is a homeless vet in Los Angeles who took part in the initial invasion of Afghanistan and participated in the assault on Tora Bora that sought Osama bin Laden. He’s also a plaintiff in the class action suit brought by the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) arguing that the VA has “misused large portions of its West Los Angeles campus and failed to provide adequate housing and treatment for the people it was intended to serve.” (See my Nation article “LA’s Homeless Vets.”) Valentini was a private in the 101st Airborne, and the lawsuit describes his service in Afghanistan: “He took part in significant ground fighting, under nearly constant sniper fire and mortar bombardment” and “witnessed the gruesome deaths of numerous civilians, including children.” He was redeployed to Iraq, where he again experienced heavy combat. He received six decorations for his service.

Steve Lopez, the legendary Los Angeles Times columnist, has been following Valentini. When he came back from Afghanistan, Lopez wrote, Valentini “ended up in post-combat hell, living in a tent by the Long Beach Airport, bathing in a lake and eating out of garbage cans.” He “doesn’t enjoy reviewing the harrowing details of his combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and his later descent into suicidal fantasies, homelessness and drug addiction.” He also told Lopez “I don’t want to be a whiny vet.” He “blames the bulk of his problems on himself, rather than the VA.” But he does think it would help other homeless vets who have severe emotional problems if they could live in the VA dorms on its Brentwood campus in West LA.

The problem is that the land, donated 125 years ago for housing disabled veterans, today houses nobody. That’s why the ACLU-SC is suing the VA. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the ACLU-SC Foundation.) Veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, WWI and WWII lived there for decades. But since the 1970s, the dormitories have been empty, and the VA has rented parts of the site to a Rent-a-Car company and a hotel laundry, along with a neighboring private school and UCLA, which use the land for athletic fields. Meanwhile homeless veterans sleep on the street outside the locked gates.

Every Sunday afternoon for the last five years a group of veterans have demonstrated in Los Angeles outside those locked gates, waving at the cars going past on Wilshire Boulevard on their way to the beach, carrying signs that read “Bring our homeless veterans ‘Home,’” and “In the deed we trust.” The deed in question is dated 1888. The VA acknowledges that the deed required that the land be used for housing disabled vets, and that the land was used for that purpose until the 1970s. But, the VA told the court, the deed is not enforceable without specific legislation by Congress. The VA said—and the court agreed—that no veteran, and no descendant of the family that donated the land (also represented by the ACLU) can enforce that deed. That’s the law, Judge Otero said, although it “may seem shocking.”

On Sunday, March 3, the vets’ group, led by Robert Rosebrock, held an event commemorating the 125th anniversary of the donation of the land to the government for veterans’ housing. The speakers included Anneke Barrie, a college student whose grandmother, Carolina Winston Barrie, is one of the ACLU plaintiffs and a direct descendant of Arcadia B. de Baker, the woman who donated the land in 1888. Standing in front of the locked gates, Anneke Barrie told the fifty demonstrators that the land was intended to provide veterans with “living quarters, food, recreation, amusements, religious instruction, employment opportunities, and medical care”—and it did that, for decades. The failure today of the VA and elected officials “to guard this precious heritage and unique gift is beyond shameful,” she said. “It is criminal.”

The LA story points to larger problems with the Obama administration and the VA. In Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention last September, he said, “When you take off the uniform, we will serve you as well as you’ve served us, because no one who fights for this country should have to fight for a job or a roof over their head or the care that they need when they come home.” He and his secretary for veterans affairs, Eric Shinseki, have declared they will end homelessness among veterans by 2015. Veterans are 50 percent more likely to become homeless than the average American, and homeless vets account for nearly 20 per cent of the people living on the streets and in shelters. At the rate the VA is working, there will still be tens of thousands of homeless vets in 2015. And LA is the capital of homeless vets in America.

But instead of housing homeless disabled vets, the VA makes a lot of money from leasing its land in Brentwood, although they did their best to keep that secret. Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district includes the VA land, told Ina Jaffe of NPR, “We’ve never been able to get a lot of the details of exactly how much money they got and how that money was used.” NPR filed an FOIA request for the long-term rental agreements, on the basis of which Jaffe estimates that, “over the past dozen years, the VA Health Care Center of West Los Angeles has taken in at least $28 million, and possibly more than $40 million.”

The ACLU lawsuit challenging the VA leasing practices is being adjudicated now, after US District Judge S. James Otero rejected VA motions to dismiss the case. Mark Rosenbaum, lead attorney for the ACLU-SC in the case, hailed that ruling last March as “the first time in the nation’s history that a federal court has held the VA responsible for assuring that severely mentally disabled veterans have access to housing and services…they require to heal the wounds of war.” Otero ruled that “Congress’ intention was to ensure that the [VA’s] land was used primarily to benefit veterans,” rather than a rent-a-car company or a hotel laundry.

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The VA replies to critics that it is spending $20 million to refurbish one building that will house sixty-five vets. Rosebrock says they could house thousands of vets for a fraction of that in a tent city at the site. He points to the tent cities that housed Vietnamese refugees on military bases around the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. In South California, he says, 1,000 tents and Quonset huts were erected at Camp Pendleton in six days by 900 Marines and civilians, providing housing for 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. If we could do it for Vietnamese refugees, Rosebrock says, we can do it for homeless veterans—many of whom, incidentally, served during the Vietnam War.

But instead of housing homeless vets, the VA land in West LA was used in March to provide parking for the Northern Trust PGA Golf Tournament held nearby at the elite Riviera Country Club. Hundreds of late-model Jaguars, Mercedes and BMWs parked under the ancient eucalyptus trees, while homeless veterans sat outside the gates. Residents around the golf course didn’t want public parking on their streets, Rosebrock says, “so the golf tournament attendees park on sacred grounds where veterans from the Civil War once walked.”

Meanwhile another of the ACLU plaintiffs, a homeless Vietnam vet, “was going through the garbage on the VA campus in Brentwood,” Rosenbaum reports. “He received a citation for stealing government property. He had to pay a fine of over $100.”

Read Jon Wiener's primer on the VA-vet land war in the April 8 issue of The Nation. 

For-Profit Fiasco: California Public Colleges Turn to Web Courses

The flag of California, flying at San Francisco City Hall. (Wikimedia Commons/Makaristos)

Here’s how California treats its public colleges and universities: first, cut public funds, and thus classes; then wait for over-enrollment, as students are unable to get the classes they need to graduate; finally, shift classes online, for profit. That’s the way Laila Lalami, UC Riverside creative writing professor, explained it in a recent tweet, and that’s pretty much the whole story behind the bill introduced this week by the Democratic leader of the state senate, Darrell Steinberg. His bill requires California’s community colleges, along with the twenty-three Cal State schools and the ten-campus university, to allow students to substitute online courses for required courses taught by faculty members. The key to the proposal: the online courses will be offered by profit-making companies.

Steinberg argues, correctly, that the state’s colleges and universities have an obligation to offer the courses they require for graduation. Right now hundreds of thousands of students are prevented from graduating on schedule because they can’t get into required lower-division courses. That’s shameful, and intolerable. But it’s a crisis created by the legislature, when it cut hundreds of millions from the state’s higher education budget over the last few years.

Advocates of the new plan downplay the for-profit aspect and emphasize instead that they want to “mobilize technology” to “help students achieve their dreams.” But National Review Online rightly emphasized the key element of the plan (while providing their own ideological spin): the proposal will “break the higher education cartel” by bringing in profit-making corporations with a different “business model.”

Advocates of the plan told the Los Angeles Times that it represents “a watershed moment for higher education” that will encourage the rest of the nation to take similar steps. Since the Democrats hold super-majorities in both houses of the California legislature, the bill is sure to pass—and Governor Jerry Brown is likely to sign it into law.

The companies that make a profit by providing required courses online include Coursera, edX and Udacity, the big three. Coursera is “the leader of the pack,” according to The New York Times. In less than a year, it raised $22 million in venture capital. The big issue for investors, the Times reports, is whether “anyone can figure out how to make money” in this new business. James Grimmelmann, a New York Law School professor who specializes in computer and Internet law, told the Times, “I expect all the current ventures to fail…. it’s maybe a decade later that somebody figures out how to do it and make money.”

A big problem for Coursera’s profits is that it currently promises to keep some courses available to poor students worldwide for free—although qualifying for credit towards graduation costs money.

Replying to the doubters, one Coursera “financier” told the Times that “monetization is not the most important objective for this business at this point.” What is important, he said, is that “Coursera is rapidly accumulating a body of high-quality content that could be very attractive to universities that want to license it for their own use.” Potential investors should therefore “invest with a very long mind-set.”

The profits in this new online course business come not only for “certificates of completion” paid by students—which can be $50 per course—but also from licensing fees from universities that replace their own faculty with online video instructors. Under Coursera’s contract with colleges, the Times explained, “the company gets most of the revenue; the universities keep 6 percent to 15 percent of the revenue, and 20 percent of gross profits. The contracts describe several monetizing possibilities, including charging for extras like manual grading or tutoring.”

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The sponsors of the California proposal promise that educational quality will be guaranteed because three faculty members will be asked to review the online courses provided by for-profit companies.

What kind of educational experience will California college students have in these online courses? Instead of interacting in a classroom or lecture hall with the instructor and other students, they will sit at home alone in front of their computer monitor, watching videos of lectures, reading assigned materials online, and then taking machine-graded quizzes. Maybe that’s why less than 10 percent of students in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) finish the courses they sign up for.

With a 90 percent dropout rate, we have reached the final step in the process: after cutting the budget, waiting for overenrollment, and then shifting classes online for profit, finally you can blame the students for failing to “mobilize technology” to “achieve their dreams.”

What will Charlie Koch do to buy off politicians next? Read Lee Fang’s analysis.

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