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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

Five Worst Political Books of 2011

Click here to view a slide show of the five worst political books of 2011.

Back to Work, by Bill Clinton
Clinton’s argument about “why we need smart government for a strong economy” begins at the end of his presidency in 2000, when employment was booming. But to understand what has happened since then, you need to understand what Clinton did. The financial crisis of 2008 had its origins in the deregulation he championed, especially his signing the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had set limits on speculation by banks and insurance companies. The longer-term disappearance of good jobs had its origins in Clinton’s NAFTA, which sent jobs to Mexico, and eventually to China. And the rise in poverty and homelessness has been greatly exacerbated by Clinton’s “ending welfare as we know it.” None of these get more than a mention in this book, which proposes a lot of small programs that won’t solve the big problems Clinton helped create.

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, by Chris Matthews
A fan book that focuses on “charm” and “charisma” and avoids the big issues: when Kennedy called on Americans to “pay any price, bear any burden,” he wasn’t talking about civil rights, the biggest issue of the day; he was talking about fighting communism—and what did that get us? A near-war over Cuba, and then a real war in Vietnam. Yes, Kennedy does deserve credit, in the Cuban Missile Crisis, for rejecting the advice of the hawks who wanted an invasion and war—but if Kennedy had called off the Bay of Pigs invasion the previous year, the Soviets never would have sent missiles. He regarded the civil rights movement as an irritation and a distraction until almost the end of his life. Matthews admits Kennedy had some failings, but the hero-worship on display here is embarrassing.

George F. Kennan, by John Lewis Gaddis
Yes, this massive authorized bio landed on many year-end “best” lists, but most reviewers didn’t know much about Kennan beyond his authorship of the containment doctrine at the dawn of the cold war. The problem with this book: it minimizes Kennan’s forty years of criticism of the cold war. “Containment,” he said, should have focused on economic and political competition with the Soviets, rather than on a military arms race. Gaddis portrays the older Kennan as morose and self-absorbed, but barely mentions Kennan’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his endorsement of Gene McCarthy for president in 1968, and his last political statement, in 2002, at age 98, criticizing George W. Bush’s plans for a war with Iraq. Perhaps relevant in explaining these gaps: George W. Bush awarded Gaddis the National Humanities Medal in 2005 in a ceremony at the White House. For a critique of the book, see Frank Costigliola in The New York Review of Books, here.

Area 51, by Annie Jacobsen
Jacobsen makes the intriguing argument that the Air Force welcomed the alien abduction stories about Nevada’s Area 51 as a cover for what was actually going on there: testing of secret aircraft. But supersonic jets are kind of a letdown compared to little green men, so the book goes on to make a ridiculous argument: the “aliens” witnesses thought they saw at that plane crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 were actually Russian mutants, surgically altered by Josef Mengele–who, she says, had gone to work for Stalin, who sent the mutants in a Soviet “flying saucer” to New Mexico. (Never mind that the little green men were probably Air Force crash test dummies, and that Mengele hated the Soviets and escaped to South America after the war.) For a thorough demolition of the book, see Robert S. Norris and Jeffrey T. Richelson, “Dreamland Fantasies.”

In My Time: A Personal and Political Memoir, by Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney
Widely trashed for arguing that the Iraq war was a triumph, that waterboarding is humane and that Cheney’s critics are all contemptible liars, the book is predictable and fairly boring. Unfortunately Cheney left out the really interesting part, as Bart Gellman, the go-to man on Cheney, pointed out: George W. Bush learned in 2004 that FBI Director Robert Mueller was about to resign in protest over Cheney’s effort to revive a secret NSA program monitoring the phone calls and emails of US citizens without a warrant. At that point, George Bush turned against Cheney, and froze him out of the big decisions for the rest of his term. That story would make a terrific book.

NOTE: Omitted from consideration for the “worst” list: all of the books written by Republican candidates this year.


Five Best Political Books of 2011

A personal list:

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State
, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin.
A frightening work on the post 9/11 “terrorism-industrial complex,” a world of secret agencies so vast that no one knows how big it is or how much taxpayers are spending on it. Two Washington Post journalists found more than 1,200 top-secret government organizations that are supposed to be tracking and capturing terrorists, but in fact are keeping track of ordinary citizens—with money and high-tech tools Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover never even dreamed of. And then there are the private contractors, making billions while claiming to save the government money. The authors' estimate of the total cost: more than $2 trillion. 

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918, by Adam Hochschild.
I loved this story about a big war and the small number of people who said it was wrong—not the Iraq war or the Vietnam war but World War I, one of history’s most senseless exercises in violence. Hochschild focuses on Britain and on those who were jailed for trying to stop the war that killed so many millions and broke so many of the barriers to what we considered permissible. Written with impressive narrative power and moral clarity, thke book offers an unmistakable lesson for our own time.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinventionby Manning Marable.
Lots of striking new stuff in this biography of the man who embodied “the very ideal of blackness for an entire generation.” “The greatest compliment anyone can pay me,” Malcolm said, “is to say I’m irresponsible, because by ‘responsible’ they mean Negroes who are responsible to white authorities.” And yet, after his “Autobiography” became a best-seller, whites came to admire him for his conversion from militant black separatism to a kind of “multicultural universalism.” Marable, the Columbia University historian who died as his masterpiece was being published, shows that The Autobiography of Malcolm X was as much the work of Alex Haley, a liberal Republican, as of Malcolm himself.

Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks.
An unforgettable novel about an unexpected subject: the injustice of our laws restricting the lives of convicted sex offenders. Banks’s central character, “the Kid,” is never going to harm anyone, but he is forced by the law to live in a homeless camp under a freeway bridge with other convicted sex offenders—some of whom have indeed done terrible things. Banks has never been more courageous than here, where he brings to life the dehumanization and suffering of a true outcast.

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens. 
Assembled in the last months of his life, this collection consists of essays written before his cancer diagnosis in June, 2010 and after his split with The Nation in 2002 over the Iraq war.  Hitchens supported that war not because he liked George Bush, but because he hated Saddam’s tyranny and loved the cause of Kurdish freedom.  This collection however barely mentions Iraq or Bush or “Islamo-fascism.”  Instead, in these 750 pages he engages with novelists, politicians, intellectual heroes, and injustice and hypocrisy in high places.  He was a wonderful writer and in many ways an inspiring person – this book reminds us how terrible it is to lose him now.

NOTE: An earlier version of this post included Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, by Andrew Bacevich -- which, it turns out, was published in 2010.

David Montgomery, 1927–2011

David Montgomery, one of the founders of the “New Labor History” in the United States, who inspired a generation of activists and historians, died December 2. He was 84. David lived a remarkable life: blacklisted as a union organizer in the 1950s, twenty years later he was named Farnam Professor of History at Yale. Even as Farnam Professor he remained a deeply political animal, working with local labor activists, black and white, in New Haven and elsewhere.

I’ll never forget David’s story about how he became an academic. A communist labor organizer in the darkest days of McCarthyism, he spent “every single day through the 1950s” in factories—working primarily with the machinists’ union in St. Paul from 1951 to 1960. He started at Minneapolis Honeywell; the FBI got him fired. But, as he explained in a wonderful 1981 interview for the Radical History Review with Mark Naison and Paul Buhle, in order to get rid of him the company had to close the entire division—because of the workers’ sense that “an injury to one was an injury to all.”

He moved to smaller shops, always organizing, and always the FBI followed him and got him fired. “Finally,” he told me, “the only job I could get was in a shop with only one other worker. I organized that guy into the union—and the FBI didn’t get me fired.”

At this point, he said, “I realized they had me beat, so I quit and became a historian.”

He enrolled in grad school at the University of Minnesota and got a PhD in 1962. The next year he got a job as an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1967 Knopf published his book Beyond Equality, a pathbreaking study of the labor movement in the era of Reconstruction. Where historians focused on Reconstruction as a time when the North imposed its will on the white South, Montgomery showed how workers raised issues of economic power and economic justice in the North. Class conflict in the North, he concluded, “was the submerged shoal on which Radical dreams foundered.”

I’ve taught Montgomery’s Fall of the House of Labor (1987) many times, and it remains a rich and compelling work. While most of us preferred to focus on the glory days of the labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s, David looked long and hard at its defeat between the 1890s and the 1920s. He started here with a vivid picture of the variety of workplace experiences in America at the turn of the century, from unskilled workers on the docks to the elite iron makers; he showed how these diverse groups united to form the Socialist Party of 1912, which won a higher proportion of the presidential vote (for Eugene Debs) than any left-wing party before or since; and he asked why this immense and powerful organization did not survive the repression of the Red Scare and return to life in the 1920s.

David was always an organizer for labor and civil rights groups. When Yale’s clerical workers went on strike in 1984 for union recognition, “he was the inspirational leader for faculty supporting locals 34/35 before, during, and after the strike,” says Jean-Christophe Agnew of the Yale history department. “David’s firmness about solidarity and the honoring of picket lines emboldened many faltering colleagues, especially the more vulnerable junior faculty. He was a rock.”

In his Radical History Review interview, published in the Pantheon book Visions of History by MARHO, the Radical Historians’ Organization, Naison and Buhle asked him about his days in the Communist Party. The good thing about the CP, he said, even in the 1950s, was that “more than any other organization of the time, it was possible to link Marxist analysis to effective daily action.” And the CP was always working to unite black and white workers. The bad thing about the CP, he said, was that the intellectual life of the party was “stifling”; the creative work done by communist writers always came after they left the party.

He quit in 1957, after the Soviet invasion of Hungary—but mostly because at that point “the Party had become virtually irrelevant to the workers of America.” Minnesota at the time had a non-communist labor movement and a peace and civil rights movement, and “there I felt at home and could act without breaking stride.”

David Montgomery concluded his Radical History Review interview: “In this country, where the talents needed to run a humane society are all around us, what we need is not a single party but many self-activated centers of popular struggle and a variety of political initiatives. And all those centers of activity need to learn from history.”

Image by Josh Brown

Berkeley Faculty Votes to Condemn Chancellor for Police Violence

The Berkeley Academic Senate voted 336 to 34 on Monday afternoon to “condemn” Chancellor Robert Birgeneau for his administration’s “authorization of violent responses to nonviolent protests over the past two years,” culminating in the police attack on nonviolent Occupy Cal demonstrators on November 9. A million people have seen the YouTube video of that attack.

The faculty also declared that it “opposes all violent police responses to non-violent protest, whether that protest is lawful or not.” And they demanded that the chancellor and his top staff “develop, follow and enforce university policy to respond non-violently to non-violent protests, to secure student welfare amidst these protests, and to minimize the deployment of force and foster free expression and assembly on campus.”

The resolution, co-authored by Wendy Brown, professor of political science, Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative literature, and Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology and of gender and women’s studies, originally had expressed “no confidence” in the chancellor, but some faculty members took that as a call for the chancellor’s resignation, which the authors did not seek. As a result, they deleted the call for “no confidence” and substituted the phrase about condemning the chancellor for the police attacks.

Before the vote, the chancellor explained that he had been in China when the police attack took place, but that before he left, he had met with UC Police Chief Mitch Celaya and “explicitly” told the chief not to use pepper spray or tear gas on students. “Unfortunately, we didn’t at the same time discuss the use of batons,” Birgeneau said, adding, “I was—possibly, probably because I’m the chancellor—more disturbed than anybody in the room” about the incident. He added that he regretted the message to the campus he issued after the protest, where he declared that “linking arms” was “not non-violent.”

Wendy Brown commented, “”the chancellor offered a long narrative of planning meetings, contingency plans, plans gone awry, encampment policies and his own whereabouts in the second week of November, a narrative which never centrally addressed the matter the Senate had gathered to address: routine episodes of violent policing of non-violent protests over the past two years.”

By the same 10-1 vote, the faculty also approved three other resolutions introduced originally as alternatives to the “no confidence” resolution. All criticized the Chancellor, but in different language. One, submitted by history professors David Hollinger and Tom Laqueur, expressed “greatly diminished confidence” in the chancellor; another, by Brian Barsky of computer sciences and Jonathan Simon of the law school, laid out guidelines for campus police use of force.

Richard Walker, professor of geography and vice-chair of the Berkeley Faculty Association, commented afterward: “Regrettably, administrative foolishness has kept the focus on campus policing, when the students’ real purpose was to call attention to the link between disinvestment by the state in public education and the Occupy Movement’s denunciations of the 1%, Wall Street gone wild, and massive debt. …  With the Faculty Senate vote today, the campus has turned a corner and we can get back to work on the real problems of the state and the country—what the students want us all to do something about, and soon.”

Berkeley Faculty: No Confidence in Chancellor Over Campus Police Violence

Berkeley is not only a school with an honored history of campus protest; it’s also our greatest public university, and its faculty include some of the country’s most brilliant and accomplished people. So when those faculty members meet to debate police violence against the “Occupy” movement on their campus, it’s big news.

On Monday, the Berkeley Academic Senate will vote on a resolution expressing “no confidence” in their chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, because of police violence against Occupy Cal campus activists there on November 9. The chancellor’s defense of police conduct was particularly outrageous: “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms,” he declared the day after the police confrontation. “This is not non-violent civil disobedience.”

Linking arms is “not non-violent”? Former poet laureate Robert Hass, who teaches at Berkeley, was one of the demonstrators; he described what happened in an op-ed for the New York Times: Alameda County sheriffs in full riot gear, “using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students” who had linked arms. The sheriffs “swung hard into their chests and bellies.… If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.” Afterwards fellow poet Geoffrey O’Brien had a broken rib. “Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair.”

A million people have seen the YouTube video of peaceful demonstrators with linked arms being jabbed by cops with batons. Many more saw the video on TV—Stephen Colbert featured it on his show, commenting “Look at these vicious students attacking these billy clubs with their soft, jab-able bellies!”

In response to the chancellor’s statement that linking arms “is not non-violent,” students covered the campus with pictures of Martin Luther King linking arms with other civil rights leaders at the 1963 March on Washington. And some faculty members responded by proposing a vote of “no confidence” in the chancellor.

But what exactly does “no confidence” mean? Some say they will vote against the resolution because they don’t want to get rid of the chancellor, who, they say, has been good at other tasks. But Wendy Brown, professor of political science, one of the authors of the resolution, says “we’re not calling for his resignation. We’re trying to effect a dramatic change in policy.”

Indeed, the resolution, co-authored by Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric and comparative literature, and Barrie Thorne, professor of sociology and of gender and women’s studies, concludes that the faculty has lost confidence in the ability of the chancellor “to respond appropriately to non-violent campus protests, to secure student welfare amidst these protests, to minimize the deployment of force and to respect freedom of speech and assembly on the Berkeley campus.” It doesn’t say anything about calling for his resignation.

But the chancellor does have defenders, most notably history professor David Hollinger, who wrote at a university website that the police were enforcing a ban on overnight camping on campus, which “has some reasonable justifications” and “does not impede political advocacy.” Fighting with the police, and the chancellor, over the tents is “an unfortunate diversion” from the real issue, he argued—declining funding of public education, and growing economic inequality in the US at large.

This protest, Hollinger says, is not like the Free Speech Movement of 1964, which challenged university rules that did prevent political advocacy. Focusing the campus Occupy Wall Street movement on the Berkeley chancellor “implies that the UC Berkeley itself is integral to the economic inequality against which Occupy Wall Street is directed,” which “grossly underestimates the role of UC Berkeley in advancing egalitarian goals.” Thus, Hollinger concludes, “It will not do to blame this on Chancellor Robert Birgeneau.”

It’s true that fighting over the tents is a distraction from the real issues. But who made the tents an issue? It wasn’t the kids—it was the chancellor. UC Berkeley Police Capt. Margo Bennett told the LA Times that the cops attacked and clubbed protesters because “the administration said no tents.”

The signs carried by the demonstrators at Berkeley didn’t say anything about a right to sleep in tents. The signs said, “Re-Fund Education” and “Education shouldn’t be a debt sentence” and “81% fee hikes = death of public education” and, of course, “we are the 99%.” I found only one sign about the tents: “We are not camping. We are assembling peaceably to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Even if the chancellor has a “reasonable justification” for banning the tents, why not grant an exception in this case? Let the tents stay, and then everybody can focus on the real issues. University administrators everywhere say they have to take down the tents because of their concern for the “health and safety of students.” But of course being clubbed by the cops, or pepper-sprayed, is a lot worse for your health than sleeping in a tent.

I didn’t find anyone among the faculty supporters of the “no confidence” resolution who thought they were fighting for the right to overnight camping on campus. Julia Bryan-Wilson, associate professor of art history, was one of the authors of the first faculty petition expressing “no confidence” in the chancellor—co-authored by Gregory Levine, associate professor of history of art, and Peter Glazer, associate professor of theater, dance and performance studies. Bryan-Wilson says “of course” the key issue is public funding for higher education. “I hear people saying, Why are these privileged kids complaining? That sickens my heart. The students I teach are not privileged. They are immigrants, first-generation college students, struggling to make ends meet, under a tremendous student debt burden. These students have worked so hard to get here. It’s heartbreaking to see what is happening to them. After tuition jumped, Berkeley’s Latino student population went down 16 percent in one year. An 81 percent tuition increase over four years will completely change the face of that population.”

A different argument made by defenders of the chancellor points to his apology on Tuesday. Just before Thanksgiving break, the chancellor declared, “I sincerely apologize for the events of November 9 at UC Berkeley and express my sympathies to any of you who suffered an injury during these protests. As chancellor, I take full responsibility for these events and will do my very best to ensure that this does not happen again.” That, his defenders say, should suffice; his critics should declare “mission accomplished” and move on.

Paul Rabinow, professor of anthropology, and a supporter of the “no confidence” resolution, disagrees. “No one in his administration or the highly paid police has been fired or really sanctioned,” he says. “Nothing has changed in the administration. This is like Wall Street—protesters are arrested, but no one else…. Of course the core problem is the lack of budget support from the state. But strong leadership from the administration…not press releases and e-mail letters—would be appreciated.”

At the faculty meeting on Monday Wendy Brown expects “significant opposition” to the no-confidence motion from the sciences and the professional schools. It’s possible that some on the left may argue for a stronger resolution, calling for the chancellor’s resignation. Students have made such a call, but I couldn’t find any faculty members planning to introduce that proposal.

On Wednesday, the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, the Daily Cal reported that two alternative proposals will be offered. One, to be presented by Hollinger and history professor Tom Laqueur, is “essentially a watered-down version” of the no-confidence resolution. It condemns the police actions on November 9, but instead of “no confidence” in the chancellor, it expresses “greatly diminished” confidence.

Another proposal, authored by professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences Brian Barsky and professor of law Jonathan Simon, offers nine policies that would regulate more strictly the police use of force on protesters. It concludes that, “following any incident in which forcible methods were used, the Chancellor should convene a public meeting…to explain the rationale of the decision to employ them.”

Wendy Brown concluded, “We need the Senate meeting to get at questions like chain of command—who ordered the violent policing? And policy—why has violent policing against nonviolent protests occurred three times in the last two years? Why do investigations and reports of each incident never add up to anything?… We’ve got a pattern here.”

UPDATE: On Saturday the three authors of the original resolution amended it, deleting the expression of "no confidence" in the chancellor and substituting a statement that the faculty "condemns the administration's authorization of violent responses to non-violent protests."  Wendy Brown, Judith Butler and Barrie Thorne explained in a letter that they were not "soliciting the resignations" of the chancellor and his top assistants.  The amended resolution also "demands that these administrators develop, follow and enforce university policy to respond non-violently to non-violent protests."

Pepper Spray on Campus: A Tale of Two Videos

Two unforgettable videos flew around the World Wide Web on Saturday, one horrifying, the other inspiring. Everybody knows the first: black-clad cops at UC Davis shooting pepper-spray into the faces of Occupy Wall Street student demonstrators who are sitting passively on the ground with linked arms. More than 2 million people have watched that video on YouTube—you might title it “The Whole World Is Watching.”

But there’s a second video, shot the next night, that is amazing in a different way: it shows the chancellor of UC Davis, Linda P.B. Katehi, walking to her car after a press conference, with hundreds of students lining her path on one side, sitting on the ground with linked arms—like the students in the first, famous video—but now in a silent protest against the violence she presided over. This video is titled “walk of shame.”

The Davis students’ message is clear: we are not the violent ones. We’re not like you. We stand for a different kind of world. And: your violence is not working. We are not afraid. It’s the message of the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1960s, of Martin Luther King Jr., who spoke of “meeting physical force with soul force.” (On Common Dreams, Rebecca Solnit explains more.)

The hypocrisy of the Davis chancellor has been hard to miss. She said in her first official statement that the cops pepper-sprayed students because the university was “driven by our concern for the safety and health of the students involved in the protest.” It doesn’t take a genius to expose the flaws in logic here, and students and others did—by the thousands. One was Nathan Brown, an assistant professor of English, whose open letter to the chancellor has been quoted widely: “you are the primary threat to the safety of students at UC Davis.”

The hypocrisy of the cops has also been pretty obvious. The official position of the UC Davis police is that they had to use pepper spray to “get out of the protest area,” because the students had “encircled the officers,” who “were looking to leave but were unable to get out." That’s what UC Davis Police Chief Annette Spicuzza told reporters on Saturday. Of course the 2 million people who watched the video saw something different: the cops are not trying to leave, and nobody is preventing them from doing so. When the cops finally do leave, hundreds of kids are chanting at them, “Shame on you! Shame on you!”

The story behind the Davis Chancellor’s “walk of shame” is even more amazing. After the press conference, with hundreds of students outside, Chancellor Linda Katehi refused to leave the building. According to Lee Fang, an investigative reporter who has written forThe Nation, she was “attempting to give the media the impression that the students were somehow holding her hostage.”

Then “a group of highly organized students formed a large gap for the chancellor to leave,” chanting, “We are peaceful” and “Just walk home.” After several hours. student representatives convinced the chancellor to leave. As she was videotaped walking past the silent students, Lee Fang asks her “Chancellor, do you still feel threatened by the students?” She replies “No. No.” (More here.)

The chancellor is now under intense pressure to resign, and has made various concessions to students and faculty: expressing belated regrets, putting the two pepper-spraying cops on leave, promising some kind of investigation. Many activists at Davis say they’d like to see a lot more than a resignation—Jesse Drew, for example, an associate professor who teaches in the film studies program, said it was more important to build a sustained student movement, to mobilize the faculty and to keep attention focused on the Occupy Wall Street issues of economic injustice.

One of the really good things about the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it is not a campus-based, student movement—it is a movement of “the 99 percent.” But campuses provide a special setting where tactics are tested and strategies are developed, and the students at UC Davis have set an amazing example—when the whole world is watching.

How Homeland Security Increases Your Cancer Risk

In the airport security screening line in Kauai a few months ago, I asked an American Airlines pilot what he thought about the new X-ray scanners in front of us—the ones that are replacing metal detectors at airports around the country. He offered a startling one-word answer: “reprehensible.”

I said “Usually I opt out, because I didn’t like being X-rayed by people who are not X-ray technicians.” He replied, “If enough people opted out, they’d have to get rid of the scanners.”

Now ProPublica’s Michael Grabell reports that the cancer danger from the new scanners—which look under a traveler’s clothing—is greater than we had feared. “Research suggests that anywhere from six to 100 Americans could get cancer each year from the machines,” Grabell says. “Still, the TSA has repeatedly defined the scanners as ‘safe,’ glossing over the accepted scientific view that even low doses of ionizing radiation—the kind beamed directly at the body by the X-ray scanners—increase the risk of cancer.”

Nevertheless, millions of Americans are now being sent thru the scanners.

Official US policy used to be that X-rays were banned for anything other than medical use. The machines now found in airports, Grabell reports, were once banned from the California penal system. Then came 9/11, officials anxious about another hijacking, and corporations selling expensive products to the government—including the new scanners—that they claimed could keep America safe.

Meanwhile other countries, Grabell reports, have concluded that radiation from airport X-ray scanners poses “unacceptable health risks.”

TSA, part of Homeland Security, declares no one need fear the new machines. The scanners use a form of X-ray called “backscatter,” which, the TSA says, was “evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH).… All results confirmed that the radiation doses for the individuals being screened, operators, and bystanders were well below the dose limits specified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).”

But the ProPublica investigation showed these reassurances to be misleading at best and in some ways dishonest. The FDA never evaluated the safety of the scanners now being installed at American airports. They were prevented from doing so, Grabell reports, because of a Catch-22: “the scanners do not have a medical purpose, so the FDA cannot subject them to the rigorous evaluation it applies to medical devices.”

The FDA does have “limited authority to oversee some non-medical products and can set mandatory safety regulations.” The scanners are classified as “electronic products,” and the FDA could evaluate them. The TSA refers to the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. That part of the FDA “used to have 500 people examining the safety of electronic products emitting radiation,” Grabell reports; “It now has about 20 people. In fact, the FDA has not set a mandatory safety standard for an electronic product since 1985.”

As for the TSA citing research showing the machines to be safe, Grabell points out that most of that research is unpublished; it did not appear in peer-reviewed scientific or medical journals.

The problem is that, although the scanners emit extremely low levels of ionizing radiation—the TSA is correct about that—the effects of radiation are cumulative over a lifetime. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2006 that even extremely low doses of radiation create a cancer risk. The medical profession has concluded that exposure should be minimized. And the European Parliament in July passed a resolution that, because of health risks, "security scanners using ionizing radiation should be prohibited."

The real key to the adoption of back-scatter technology by the TSA may be found in what Grabell calls “an intense and sophisticated lobbying campaign” by the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, detailed in the ProPublica report. As a result Rapiscan won a $173 million, multi-year contract for its backscatter machines.

There’s another problem: the scanners emit a tiny amount of ionizing radiation—if they are properly calibrated. But calibration has proven to be a disastrous problem even at top hospitals’ radiation treatment units. Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, where the elite of Hollywood and Beverly Hills get their medical care, was recently found to have exposed patients to much higher doses of radiation than permitted on CT scans for eighteen months in 2006 because the machines had been set incorrectly and the technicians did not check.

Who checks the airport scanners? Before 9/11, many states took the responsibility for inspecting airline scanning machines, but TSA ended that policy when it took over. TSA employees, however, are not qualified to check the calibration of scanners and don’t do it. Only the manufacturer does that—Rapiscan—supposedly annually. But do we really want the company that profits from the products to have the sole responsibility for checking the safety of the products? (The Army Public Health Command was brought in to do independent tests—but, the ProPublic report shows, ended up becoming part of the Rapiscan-TSA PR machine.)

The TSA, Grabell reports, “plans to deploy 1,275 backscatter and millimeter-wave scanners covering more than half its security lanes by the end of 2012.” By 2014, the TSA “plans to install 1,800 covering nearly all the lanes.”

Until the TSA stops using X-rays in airport security, travelers do have an option: when you get to the front of the line, tell them, “I’d like to opt out.” Then they take you around the machine and give you the pat-down. It takes a while longer, but it doesn’t cause cancer.

UPDATE 11/3: Just one day after a ProPublica investigation revealed the potential harmful affects of X-ray body scanners, Grabell reports, the head of the TSA told a Senate committee that the agency will perform a new, independent study of the safety of the scanners. 

Occupy Fox News: A Message to Murdoch

Only in LA: On one side of Pico Blvd., the Rancho Park golf course, with joggers, dog walkers and of course, golfers; on the other, a hundred “Occupy Fox News” demonstrators outside Fox Studios, chanting “We – are – the 99 per cent!”; in between, a hundred LA cops, many with riot gear at the ready, and an entire city block of TV news trucks, bristling with giant satellite dishes, power cables up and down the street, and news reporters under lights talking earnestly into the cameras.

A Fox News helicopter hovered overhead while demonstrators marched with homemade signs including “Fox and Friends Stink!” “Rich Media = Poor Democracy,” and “Lying is Wrong.” Inside Fox Studios, Rupert Murdoch himself, along with his son James, was facing the annual shareholders meeting of News Corp.

Occupy Fox News, organized by Free Press, had a brilliant idea: the world’s media were coming to see whether shareholders would kick out Rupert and his son James because of the phone hacking scandal in Britain. But the media are not allowed inside the shareholders meeting. So they set up outside, and as a result, all the pictures they broadcast were of the demonstrators.

The LAPD did its best to cut down the numbers of demonstrators, closing the public parking lot at the golf course that the demonstration organizers had announced would be available.

Fox News itself covered the demonstration. A tall, good-looking reporter with a posh English accent said, “The real action here is not the demonstrators outside but rather the shareholders inside, many of whom are asking for a change at the top of News Corp.”

The Fox reporter noted that the demonstration was taking place “under the watchful eye of the LAPD.” “Security is tight,” he explained, because of the pie thrown in Murdoch’s face at his last public appearance. Of course none of the “Occupy Fox News” demonstrators out on Pico Blvd. were allowed within half a mile of Murdoch himself.

The Fox News reporter also noted that, after the phone-hacking scandal, “News Corp. gave 2 million pounds to the family of the murdered girl whose phone had been hacked.” Although California state pension funds, significant owners of News Corp. stock, “want Murdoch out,” he noted that “operating revenue is up 23 percent.”

Meanwhile on LA’s all-news AM radio station, KNX, the anchor asked the field reporter, “Is this just an all-purpose ‘we don’t like corporations’ kind of thing?”

Free Press, which called the “Occupy Fox News” protest, explained at its website that News Corp. “has accumulated toxic levels of media power—including cable channels, news networks, newspapers, television stations, movie studios and more.” News Corp. “leverages its news and entertainment empire to bully regulators, elect compliant politicians, gain regulatory favors and undermine the public interest.”

The group also condemned Fox News for its “long history of anti-immigrant rhetoric and biased reporting on issues that are important to communities of color in the U.S.”

Groups joining Free Press in calling the demonstration were Common Cause, OccupyLA, Avaaz.org, Change to Win, Good Jobs LA, Brave New Foundation, the National Lawyers Guild and others.

As I was leaving the protest, a curious golfer shouted over the fence, “What’s going on?” I explained that it was “a protest against Fox News.” “For being fair and balanced,” he said, and burst out laughing.


Hard Hats and Hippies, Together at Last: The Action at Occupy Wall Street

After decades in which “hard hats” were described as enemies of the left, and four decades after construction workers in lower Manhattan attacked anti-war demonstrators on Wall Street, the AFL-CIO on Thursday called on its members to defend Occupy Wall Street from the NYPD as the city moved to arrest and evict protestors in Zuccotti Park.

Hard hats and hippies—together at last.

And when Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD backed off, the AFL-CIO rightly took some of the credit for what union leadership called “an amazing victory.”

“The AFL-CIO Stands with Occupy Wall Street,” president Rich Trumka declared as police announced plans to move in. The federation e-mailed members in the New York area on Thursday, NY1 reported, urging them to come to Zucotti Park and “stand guard” overnight to defend the encampment from the NYPD. “Support” doesn’t get more direct than that.

The unions also sponsored an online petition, and, after the mayor backed off, reported “hundreds of thousands” of signatures.

Today’s events marked the sharpest possible contrast to the day in May 1970, when students protesting the Kent State Killings gathered on Wall Street, and were attacked by two hundred construction workers carrying American flags and chanting “All, the way, USA!” and “We’re number one!” Rick Perlstein tells what happened in his book Nixonland: while police stood by, the workers beat students with lead pipes wrapped in flags, targeting those with the longest hair. A crowd of a thousand Wall Street workers cheered them on. “Thank God for the hard hats!” President Nixon declared, and invited Peter Brennan, head of the Building Trades Council of New York, to the White House.

I always wondered whether that hard hat action had been organized by the White House “dirty tricks” department—especially after a memo was leaked in which Nixon staffer Stephen Bull wrote to Chuck Colson, Nixon’s key political operative, “Obviously more of these will be occurring throughout the nation, perhaps partially as a result of your clandestine activity.” But the media declared, virtually unanimously, that the white union members were pro-war Nixon supporters.

Decades of de-industrialization followed by two years of economic collapse have brought disaster to the working class—and now a new political reality. And it's not just in New York City—AFL-CIO unions across the country have endorsed Occupy Wall Street and joined actions in their communities.

Question: What Does Sarah Palin Want? Answer: Money.

When Sarah Palin announced last week that she was not running for president, many wondered, what had she been trying to do during the last three years, when she seemed to be almost a candidate? Now we know: she was trying to make money.

That answer was suggested by Levi Johnston—the young man from Wasilla who got Bristol pregnant, and then wrote a memoir of his life with the Palins after the 2008 election. In the book, Johnston recalled the day in July 2009 when Palin resigned as governor—apparently to spend full-time running for president. That wasn’t the way young Levi saw it. He remembered her saying “I hate this job.… I could be making money instead.”

And that’s what she proceeded to do—all the while tweeting hints that she was about to enter the 2012 race. Ask an Alaskan: for example, Donald Craig Mitchell—he’s an attorney in Anchorage and a long-time Palin-watcher; he wrote about her money-making for the Los Angeles Times op-ed page on Sunday. Shortly before she quit the race, he reminds us, Palin signed a book deal reported to be worth $11 million. As soon as she quit, she “signed with the Washington Speakers Bureau, which quickly got her more than $100,000 for a ninety-minute speech.” Four months after that, she signed a seven-figure contract with Fox News to work as a commentator. And two months after that, she signed another seven-figure contract to star in her own reality TV show, the unforgettable Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

Since quitting the governor’s job, Mitchell concludes, “Palin has spent most of her time promoting books, making paid television appearances and giving paid speeches”—in other words, making money.

She was doing one other thing during those years: hinting about running for president. Her will-she-or-won’t-she act provided steady work for a hundred pundits. It also helped sell books and win TV viewers and fill lecture halls with people who thought maybe they were seeing the next president of the United States.

Of course that was never a possibility. The week before the 2008 election, the New York Times poll found that 59 percent of voters said she was not qualified to be vice president. This time around, 72 percent of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents said she should not be a candidate. But that still left 28 percent who wanted her to run, and they are the people Palin kept on the hook for the last three years, while she sold them books and got them to watch her TV shows.

It’s hardly surprising that a Republican who believes in tax cuts for the rich would want to get rich herself. In fact it’s surprising that more Republican candidates don’t make the same move she did—use their candidacies as a way to bring in some real money. Of course, Mitt Romney already has $250 million, according to MSNBC—so he has the opposite problem: what can he do with all that money? Might as well run for president.

But Rick Perry started out more like Palin. He began his working life as a door-to-door salesman in West Texas, then made $1 million while holding elective office. He did it with what the Austin Statesman-American carefully calls “controversial land deals.”

But $1 million is not much compared to Palin’s book deal or her TV contract. Of course Perry tried going the book route, with his 2010 volume Fed Up! That’s where he calls Social Security a “Ponzi scheme.” Somehow that didn’t move many potential readers to shell out $21.99 for the book—an Amazon.com seller is now listing new copies for $4.99. Palin’s Going Rogue, in contrast,entered the New York Times best-seller list at number one and stayed there for six weeks, eventually selling more than two million copies. (Meanwhile the book’s evil twin, Going Rouge, edited by The Nation’s Richard Kim and Betsy Reed, won enthusiastic praise from critics—including Naomi Klein, who wrote “accept no imitations!”)

Fox News made it clear that bona fide candidates could not be paid commentators on the network—they ended the contracts of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum when each entered the race. So Palin had to decide, and no one should have been surprised that she went for the money.

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