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Jon Wiener

Jon Wiener

Politics and pop, past and present.

The Trouble With Tomatoes: Slave Labor (and That Cardboard Taste)

The tomato is in trouble. The tomatoes in Big Macs and Taco Bell tacos and in supermarkets, especially in the winter, all come from the same place: South Florida. “Tomatoland,” Barry Estabrook calls it—that’s the title of his new book. Those tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery”—that’s what the chief assistant US attorney there says. And there’s one other problem: those tomatoes taste like cardboard.

Tomato plants don’t like it in Southern Florida. “From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective,” Estabrook says, “you would have to be an idiot” to try to grow tomatoes commercially there. The soil, Mark Bittman writes, is like “a lousy beach,” sandy and poor in nutrients. The humid climate provides breeding ground for voracious insect pests.

It takes a lot to grow a tomato in the sand of South Florida: tons of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Florida, Estabrook reports, uses about eight times as many chemicals per acre on tomatoes as California.

Pesticides and herbicides are bad for the environment, and also for the tomato workers. But they aren’t the workers’ biggest problem. “If you have ever eaten a tomato during the winter months,” Estabrook writes, “you have eaten a fruit picked by a slave.” The chief assistant US Attorney in Fort Myers, Douglas Molloy, says that’s not just a metaphor, “that is a fact.” He has “six to twelve slavery cases” in the tomato industry at any given time. In recent years, more than a thousand slaves have been freed there. Undoubtedly, there are many more who haven’t.

The pay is miserable. When two growers offered to pay workers a penny a pound more, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange told them they couldn’t do it; if they did, they would be fined $100,000. The workers live in squalid trailers with faulty plumbing. Child labor and other abuses are rampant.

Yet from October to June, virtually all the field-grown tomatoes in supermarkets come from Florida. One billion pounds of tomatoes. They are picked when they are green; the only reason they are red in the stores is that they’ve been gassed with ethylene, which changes their color.

And there’s that other problem with tomatoes grown in Southern Florida: they have no flavor. They are bred to be indestructible. Estabrook saw tomatoes falling off a truck going 60 mph; when he stopped to examine the tomatoes that hit the road, he says, they “looked smooth and unblemished. Not one was smashed.”

But the tomato workers have a wonderful grassroots group or organizers and activists fighting the growers: the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) (“Immokalee” rhymes with “broccoli”) and their Campaign for Fair Food. The campaign has had some huge victories. Four years of protests against Taco Bell culminated in 2005 with the company agreeing to meet all the demands of the campaign, starting with better pay: the percentage of the retail price that now goes to the workers has nearly doubled. Also, an enforceable Code of Conduct has been established, and the CIW is part of the investigative body that monitors worker complaints.

McDonald’s signed an even better agreement in 2007, and Burger King followed in 2008. So did Sodexo, which runs dining halls at hundreds of schools and colleges. All have promised not to deal with growers who tolerate serious worker abuses, and to a pay a price for their tomatoes that supports a living wage.

This year the campaign is taking on the supermarkets. Whole Foods is the only one thus far to join. Trader Joe’s has refused, and the Campaign for Fair Food has made them the target of nationwide demonstrations this summer. The Trader Joe’s Truth Tour just finished up in California, and is now heading east. Next come protests at Trader Joe’s in Washington, DC; Baltimore; Philadelphia; and New York City. Those demonstrations start Tuesday, August 2.

Also targeted: Stop & Shop, Giant, and Kroger, which next to Walmart is the biggest food retailer in the country (and owns Ralph’s in California). The campaign has model letters to send or deliver to these stores.

The Campaign’s Fair Code of Conduct includes informational sessions for workers. Estabrook reports at his website that he went to one recently in Immokalee, along with fifty migrant laborers: “I learned that I had a right to earn a minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and could take regular breaks in a shady area provided by the farm, including a lunch break.… For some of my work, I would get an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes I picked—which amounted to a 50 percent raise. I was informed that sexual harassment would not be tolerated. And finally I received a card with the number of a 24-hour confidential help line.” None of this happened before the Coalition’s recent victories.

As for the Florida tomato, it’s possible that modern science will someday come up with a new breed that not only can be transported long distances but actually tastes good. In the meantime, it’s tomato time at local farmers’ markets everywhere, and also in the backyards of those wise enough to have planted their own tomatoes a few months ago.

Gary Shteyngart Interview—The Future, With Fox Prime Ultra and the Bipartisan Party: A Super Sad True Love Story

Gary Shteyngart’s third novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was named a best book on more than forty end-of-the-year lists. It’s out now in paperback. Jon Wiener spoke with him on KPFK 90.7FM in Los Angeles on July 6.

Q: Your novel Super Sad True Love Story is set in “the near future,” when everybody wears a pendant around their neck called an “apparat.” What does the apparat do?

A: It’s a wonderful invention that ranks everybody. When I enter a bar in downtown Manhattan, my entire history is broadcast to everybody, and immediately everyone knows I’m the eighteenth ugliest man in the room but I have the fourth-best credit rating.

What are politics like in your version of “the near future”?

Everything’s great! There’s only one party, the Bipartisan Party, it’s a rabidly right-wing party. The world is divided into two classes: the High Net Worth Individuals—the “H.N.W.I.”, a very small part of the population, and, everybody else, also known as “L.N.W.I.”

Tell us about the media in your version of future.

We have the New York Lifestyle Times, a collection of advertisements. The last two channels are Fox Liberty Prime, which is like our Fox News, and Fox Liberty Ultra, which beyond anything we’ve yet experienced. But mostly what people do is stream about themselves. Everyone has a corporate sponsor, and everyone tries to make funny newscasts about themselves while slipping in the names of their corporate sponsors.

In this world you have placed our hero, Lenny Abramov.

Lenny is not a High Net Worth Individual, but he does have a job—he works for a company that thinks they’ve developed a cure for death. It costs 20 billion Yuan—the dollar is worthless, so most people use the Yuan. The company calls it “indefinite life extension—exclusive immortality assistance for High Net Worth Individuals.”

Lenny’s “hopelessly cute” girlfriend Eunice doesn’t read books. Where did you get this idea?

Like Lenny, I’m the owner of a wall of books in my apartment. A young man in his early 20s came up to repair my cable, and he said “Oh man, why you got all those books here?” Then he looked at my television: “… and you only got a 25 inch TV!” It was very emasculating. I realized that I come from the last generation when books were loved and cherished.

The Wall Street Journal described Super Sad True Love Story as “a funny book about the financial crisis.” Is that the way you would describe it?

I started writing this book in 2006 before the financial crisis. In my original draft, horrible things happen: Lehman Brothers fails, GM and Chrysler fail. Two years into writing this, all these things were actually happening. So I had to make things worse and worse. That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days—there doesn’t seem to be a present left to write about. Everything is the future. That makes writing a novel difficult —it’s much easier to write a blog about something.

The Village Voice called Super Sad True Love Story “the finest piece of anti-iPhone propaganda ever written.”

I was a person like Lenny, fairly analogue, and to research this book I hired an assistant who got me an iPhone, and got me on Facebook and Twitter. I went from somebody who didn’t want to have anything to do with this new technology to somebody who became wildly addicted to it. Then, after finishing this book, I began developing strategies for not being online all the time.

Do you have any advice for people with the same problem?

I am very lucky that, where I live in upstate New York, the main provider for the iPhone is ATT, which doesn’t really know how to connect signals to telephones. When I go to the country, just two hours north of Manhattan, there’s no reception. So my advice is to find an ATT iPhone and then go out into the countryside.

You say it’s important to stay away from your iPhone —and yet there is a Gary Shteyngart iPhone app.

Yes, but I’ve never used it and I don’t know how it works.

Carmageddon in LA: Closing the 405 Freeway This Weekend

In Los Angeles they’re calling it “Carmageddon”: closing ten miles of the San Diego Freeway, the fabled “405,” from West LA to the San Fernando Valley, for fifty-five hours over the weekend to tear down a bridge as part of a freeway widening project.

Half a million cars usually take that route over the weekend, and it won’t be easy to find alternate routes, since the freeway crosses the Santa Monica mountains in one of only four passes, and the other three are two-lane streets.

The construction project will add one carpool lane northbound—at a cost of $1 billion. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said, "It'll help reduce congestion on one of the busiest freeway corridors in the region." But freeway experts and many commuters know that adding a lane never works. As soon as people find out it’s there, more cars head for the freeway, and it ends up just as congested as before. This is an indisputable scientific fact.

In my experience of thirty years of commuting on the 405 between West LA and Irvine, fifty-five miles each way, only one thing has significantly reduced traffic: the closing of the aerospace industry following its peak in 1987. That meant fewer people going to work at the McDonnell Douglas and other plants in Torrance, Huntington Beach, and El Segundo. The one thing that reduces rush hour traffic is unemployment. Firing tens of thousands of aerospace workers cut my commute time by five minutes. It wasn’t really worth it.

And of course LA could use $1 billion for the public schools, which sent layoff notices recently to 3,000 teachers, cutting $400 million from the budget.

People who live in the Valley and work on the weekend in West LA or Santa Monica—say, nurses at UCLA hospital—will have real problems this weekend. The legendary Santa Monica Farmer’s Markets on Saturday and Sunday will still be going—the See Canyon Fruit Ranch people from San Luis Obispo, for example, told me today that on Saturday they would be taking the Coast Hiway instead of the freeway to Santa Monica to bring their legendary Blenheim apricots to the market.

LAX will be operating, of course, but when I asked an Armenian airport cab driver for Beverly Hills Taxi what his strategy would be, he said, “Stay home.” He lives in Glendale, twenty miles away.

Staying home is what officials are telling everybody to do. “A good day for gardening and barbecuing” is the line. And with the American women in the World Cup finals Sunday morning at 11 LA time, TV sports will be better than usual. (The hapless Dodgers will be out of town, in Arizona, but on TV both Saturday and Sunday nights, for those who haven’t given up after owner Frank McCourt filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago.)

The other way to spend the weekend is watching the freeway bridge demolition on TV. Once the 405 is closed Friday night, eighty-five trucks will dump a fifteen-foot-deep bed of sand on the freeway underneath the bridge “to keep the lanes from being damaged by falling debris.” Then the bridge will be cut down the middle, longitudinally, and the pieces will be knocked down. "Falling concrete pieces should be no larger than basketballs," they say.  Then the sand and the bridge pieces will be carted away, and the freeway will reopen Monday morning at 5 am.

Does anyone think this might not work?

Right now folks in LA are chuckling over the YouTube video of Hitler ranting about how hard it will be for him to get to LAX on Saturday to pick up his cousin.

 

John Lennon: NOT a Closet Republican

A guy named Fred Seaman is all over the conservative blogs today for a new documentary in which he claims that John Lennon was “a closet Republican” at the time he was shot. This seems unlikely.

First of all, who is Fred Seaman? He’d been a personal assistant to John and Yoko at the Dakota in the late seventies, but he’s also a convicted criminal. He was found guilty of stealing John Lennon’s personal belongings, including his diaries, after Lennon had been killed. He was sentenced to five years probation.

You might say that weakens his credibility.

What exactly were Lennon’s political views at the end of 1980? Late that November, Lennon spoke out on behalf of striking workers in Los Angeles and San Francisco. (The story is told in my book Come Together: John Lennon in His Time.) The strike was against Japan Foods Corporation, a subsidiary of the Japanese multinational Kikkoman, best known for its soy sauce. The US workers, primarily Japanese, were members of the Teamsters. In LA and San Francisco, they went on strike for higher wages. The shop steward of the LA local, Shinya Ono, persuaded John and Yoko to make a public statement addressed to the striking workers:

“We are with you in spirit.… In this beautiful country where democracy is the very foundation of its constitution, it is sad that we have to still fight for equal rights and equal pay for the citizens. Boycott it must be, if it is the only way to bring justice and restore the dignity of the constitution for the sake of all citizens of the US and their children.

“Peace and love, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. New York City, December, 1980.”

That was Lennon’s last written political statement. It doesn’t seem to be the work of a “closet Republican.”

Seaman says Lennon told him he was disillusioned with Jimmy Carter in 1980. Lots of people on the left were disillusioned with Jimmy Carter in 1980, and for good reasons. That didn't make you a Republican, closeted or otherwise.

In what turned out to be Lennon’s last interview, with RKO radio the afternoon of the day he was shot, he talked about “the opening up of the sixties.” He said “Maybe in the sixties we were naïve and like children and later everyone when back to their rooms and said, ‘we didn’t get a wonderful world of flowers and peace.… the world is a nasty horrible place because it didn’t give us everything we cried for.’ Right? Crying for it wasn’t enough.

“The thing the sixties did was show us the possibility and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”

That interview was his last. Six hours later he was killed.

Fred Seaman tried to cash in on his Lennon connection with an earlier book, published twenty years ago. That one has been forgotten. This story will be too.

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Bay of Pigs, 50 Years Later: The Lessons Kennedy Never Learned

It’s the fiftieth anniversary of the Bay of Pigs, April 17-18, 1961, when a CIA-trained army of Cuban exiles were sent by President Kennedy to overthrow Fidel Castro. Their humiliating defeat showed the world that Cubans would fight to defend their revolution, especially against an invasion sponsored by the United States. But that’s not the lesson Kennedy learned from his first great defeat as president.

Kennedy had campaigned in 1960 promising to remove Castro from power. The defeat at the Bay of Pigs did not change his mind about that. Instead, he ordered the CIA to find other ways to get rid of Fidel—ranging from sabotage of the Cuban economy to assassination. And planning began for another invasion, one that wouldn’t make the mistakes of the Bay of Pigs.

As the 1962 mid-term elections approached, Republicans denounced what they called Kennedy’s “do-nothing” policy toward Fidel since the Bay of Pigs. Reagan, Goldwater and William Buckley led conservatives in arguing for a new invasion, doing it right this time—using American troops instead of Cuban exiles, with massive firepower and bombing. The Senate and House both passed resolutions authorizing the use of the US military in a new invasion.

The Cubans’ response was to persuade their Soviet backers to install missiles on the island as a deterrent against another American invasion. Three weeks before the mid-term election, CIA spy planes photographed the new missile sites, and the Cuban missile crisis began.

Historians and journalists almost always describe Kennedy the winner of a mano-a-mano faceoff with Nikita Khrushchev, praising the way his steely resolve and strategic flexibility forced the Soviet leader to fold his cards and withdraw the missiles. But that perspective is too narrow. Yes, Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, but only in exchange for Kennedy’s pledge not to invade Cuba.

Reagan & Co. were outraged by this concession. Instead of giving up the plans to overthrow Castro, they argued, JFK should have used the Soviet missiles in Cuba as a pretext for launching another invasion of the island. Kennedy’s agreement, they said, would leave Fidel in power for decades. They were right, at least about that part. The real winner of the Cuban missile crisis was not JFK but rather Fidel.

Kennedy thus needed another country where he could demonstrate his resolve to use US military force (and counterinsurgency tactics) to defeat communist insurgents. After being defeated twice in Cuba—first at the Bay of Pigs, then in the missile crisis—he turned to a new arena: he would prove his toughness in Vietnam.

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Bob Dylan in Beijing: No Sellout

Bob Dylan did not sell out to the Chinese government when he performed in Beijing on April 6. The “sellout” charge was made in the New York Times on Sunday by Maureen Dowd, along with several other people. The problem: Dylan submitted his set list to the Chinese culture ministry, according to the Guardian’s Martin Wieland in Beijing, and as a result the concert was performed “strictly according to an approved programme.”

That’s the reason, Dowd wrote, why Dylan did not sing what she called his “iconic songs of revolution like “The Times They Are a-Changin’ ” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Dylan thus was guilty of “a whole new kind of sellout — even worse than Beyoncé, Mariah and Usher collecting millions to croon to Qaddafi’s family.”

The Daily Beast ran a feature headlined “Famous Sellouts,” with Bob Dylan in Beijing in the number-one spot, and William Langley wrote in the Telegraph that “Dylan without protest songs sounds about as useful as Hamlet without the soliloquy.”

But look at what Dylan did sing in Beijing, starting with “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: that song describes a place “Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters/Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison/Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden.” You could call that a “protest song” if you wanted to.

He also sang “Ballad of a Thin Man”: “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” I would say that carries a pretty strong political charge.

And he sang “All Along the Watchtower”: “Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth/None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.” If you were looking for critical commentary on China today, this would work.

Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian who wrote Bob Dylan in America, says the people charging “sellout” are “clueless.” “Apparently, unless Dylan performs according to a politically-correct line, he is corrupt, even immoral,” Wilentz wrote at The New Yorker blog. “He is not allowed to be an artist, he must be an agitator. And he can only be an agitator if he sings particular songs.”

And besides, Wilentz says, there’s no real evidence the Chinese ever told him not to sing “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” All we know is that, like all foreigners seeking to perform in China, his appearance was approved by the culture ministry.

It’s true that Dylan did not follow the example of Bjork, who chanted “Tibet! Tibet!” at her concert in Shanghai in 2008. Maureen Dowd says Dylan in Beijing should have done something similar, like speaking out in defense of Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and architect who has been arrested.

But “to demand that an artist make an incendiary statement is the worst kind of armchair moralizing,” Wilentz said in an interview on KPFK-FM in Los Angeles. “And what was the result of Bjork doing that? Foreign acts were not allowed into China for a long time. And it didn’t help Tibet. I don’t think anything Bob Dylan could have said onstage would have helped Ai WeiWei. But the songs he sang were about the kinds of oppression we live with, the kinds of difficulties that are out there—political, and not political. That’s what he does.”

NPR Station in LA Suspends Planned Parenthood Spots

One of two NPR stations in the Los Angeles area, KPCC-FM, suspended its regularly scheduled Planned Parenthood spots on Friday, in response to Republican demands that Congress eliminate federal funding for the family planning group.

Program director Craig Curtis explained in a Friday memo to staff members that “given that the budget debate in congress is focusing today on abortion in general and Planned Parenthood by extension,” running the spots “might raise questions in the mind of the reasonable listener regarding our editorial and sales practices.”

A “reasonable listener” might now have questions about the journalistic integrity of the station.

The memo was published in LAObserved.com, a media-watch website edited by Kevin Roderick.

“There is nothing wrong with the spots per se,” Curtis said in his memo. It’s just that the station doesn’t want to make Republicans unhappy.

Planned Parenthood has “a business relationship” with the NPR station, the memo said—which means the organization has a contract under which it pays the station as an underwriter to run the spots.

Did KPCC pull the Planned Parenthood spots in response to a directive from the NPR network, or was this strictly a local initiative? Bill Gray, director of communications for Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media, KPCC’s parent company, says KPCC “runs their own show, so no direction from us or anyone else on this.”

Was the station responding to Republican pressure on KPCC to drop its Planned Parenthood spots? Or were they responding to something they imagined might happen? KPCC’s Curtis said there was no outside political pressure. He called the decision “a routine procedural one.” The routine, he said, is that when an underwriter becomes “the center sof a major news story…our standard practice is to ‘bump’ or suspend credits to avoid the appearance of any conflict.”

That seems to mean that the next time Republicans go after Planned Parenthood—or any other group—KPCC will do the same thing.

Asked whether any other public radio stations had pulled Planned Parenthood spots this weekend, Curtis did not point to any. He said only that “many stations have similar policies.” Gray said that Minnesota Public Radio had no Planned Parenthood spots scheduled, so had not faced the issue.

There was comment elsewhere in Los Angeles: Marc Cooper, a faculty member at USC’s Annenberg School (and contributing editor of The Nation) wrote at his Facebook page, “The Role of The Journalist: To afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. And to cower in one’s own shadow.”

At his LA Weekly blog, Dennis Romero mocked the station, writing, “We’ve never even heard a Planned Parenthood spot on the station. Oops, maybe this one backfired. Now we know, KPCC, that you take money from Planned Parenthood…. Listen Craig, we wouldn’t have accused you of anything because we had no idea about your family planning ways.”

The station, broadcasting at 89.3 FM and www.scpr.org, is owned by the parent company of Minnesota Public Radio. Their license is held by Pasadena City College, which originally operated the station. It features an “intelligent talk” format.

KPCC afternoon host Patt Morrison was recently named “most valuable radio voice” of 2011 by The Nation’s John Nichols, who says she “raises the quality of the discourse with savvy and unexpected guests.” Morrison did not reply to an email asking for comment on pulling the Planned Parenthood spots.

In the leaked memo, Program Director Curtis told the staff, “let’s go ahead and plan to resume the Planned Parenthood spots on Monday. If we need to extend the suspension, I’ll let you know.”

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Wisconsin's Cronon Affair: The Power of a Simple Fact

More than a million people teach at colleges and universities in the United States, but only one faces a Republican demand for his e-mails: William Cronon, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Cronon is a brilliant historian. He’s the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. He’s president-elect of the American Historical Association. His books on environmental history have won the biggest awards a historian can receive.

The Republican Party of Wisconsin last week filed an open records request demanding access to any e-mails Cronon sent or received since Jan. 1 containing the search terms “Republican,” “collective bargaining,” “rally,” “union” or the names of eight Republicans targeted for recall by liberal activists. That seems to be legal under the state’s version of the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Of course this is a fishing expedition in search of something embarrassing. And of course there’s a big difference between an individual using Freedom of Information legislation to expose government misconduct, and the party in power using it to harass and intimidate a critic of the government.

What does it take to become the target of this kind of attack?

Many faculty members call themselves “Marxists” or “socialists,” and some describe themselves as “anarchists” or “revolutionaries”—but Cronon doesn’t. He’s not Bill Ayres, the education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago who happily defends his Weatherman past. Cronon describes himself as a “centrist.” He says he’s never belonged to the Democratic (or the Republican) party. Yet he faces a Republican demand for his e-mail, while Bill Ayres never did.

Some commentators have suggested Cronon became a target because he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times, suggesting that Wisconsin’s Republicans were reviving McCarthyism. But the demand for Cronon’s e-mail came a couple of days before his column appeared.

What provoked the Republicans was Cronon’s first-ever blog post, published at his new website, “Scholar as Citizen.” The demand for his e-mail was filed right after that appeared; thus that blog post provides the key to understanding why the Republicans want to stop Bill Cronon. It was titled “Who’s Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere?” Cronon’s post didn’t make a complex argument, the way his books do. Instead it presented a simple fact, pointing to a little-known group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which drafts model laws which are then introduced by Republicans in state legislatures—for example, laws eliminating collective bargaining with state employee unions. ALEC has been in operation since the seventies and claims its members introduce 1,000 pieces of legislation every year in all fifty states.

The power of this simple fact lies in the way it disrupts the Republicans’ explanation of what they are doing in Wisconsin. They say the new law there ending collective bargaining with public employee unions is an emergency response to this year’s fiscal crisis. They say it’s a response crafted by local Wisconsin state representatives to help their neighbors who are facing big new tax burdens. Cronon suggested that none of this is true: the law is not a response to the current fiscal crisis, it’s been a Republican priority for decades; it’s not a Wisconsin idea, it comes from a national Republican think tank. And the goal is not to protect the little guy in Wisconsin but rather to help the big corporations that fund Republican operations.

Doing research on conservative groups and strategies is nothing new—indeed, Cronon’s blog provides links to several other sources of good information. But the way he highlighted the simple fact about “who’s really behind recent Republican legislation” apparently touched a Republican nerve. Now we will see how successful the Republicans are at intimidating other faculty members from doing the kind of work Cronon undertook when he blogged about the “Scholar as Citizen.”

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Elizabeth Taylor, Al Jazeera and the Raid on Entebbe

When Elizabeth Taylor died, Al Jazeera English reported that her greatest role was Cleopatra.

They didn’t report that she had offered herself as a hostage at Entebbe in exchange for the 100 hijack victims held by terrorists at that airport in Uganda in 1976. The terrorists turned down the deal, and then Israeli commandos freed the hostages.

“The Jewish people will always remember” Taylor’s offer—that’s what the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Simcha Dinitz said in 1977, according to CNN

Taylor had converted to Judaism in 1959, when she was 27 years old—Time magazine reported that she had taken the Jewish name “Elisheba Rachel Taylor.” Raised as a Christian Scientist, Taylor converted in part under the influence of her third husband, producer Mike Todd—“born Avrom Goldbogen,” as Time explained, “grandson of a Polish rabbi.”

The year after her Entebbe hostage trade offer, 1977, she married John Warner, who then ran for the Senate from Virginia as a Republican—she campaigned for him actively, and her star power was credited with his narrow victory. Warner reportedly resented being called “Mr. Elizabeth Taylor.” 

But life as a Republican political wife in Washington made her “a drunk and a junkie,” she later said, and in 1983 she checked into the Betty Ford clinic.  The rest is history.

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Imagine No Religion: It's Coming True in Nine Countries

When John Lennon sang “Imagine there’s no heaven” in 1971, rock critics called the song “utopian.” But forty years later, researchers have found that religion is indeed disappearing in nine countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.

The researchers failed to note that the Beatles played live concerts in five of the nine: Australia, Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands and New Zealand. And they filmed part of Help! in a sixth, Austria. 

The scientific study, reported by the BBC, was based on historical census figures from countries where citizens were asked about their religious affiliation. The research, published online by Cornell University, does not consider the influence of the lads from Liverpool. Instead, according to the authors, it is based on “perturbation theory.”

"The idea is pretty simple," researcher Richard Wiener of the University of Arizona told the BBC. "It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.” 

Wiener (no relation), gave as an example the case of languages, where “there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru."  Similiarly, he said, “there's some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not."

The researchers found that the country with the highest percentage of non-religious people was the Czech Republic, where 60 percent reported having no religion. Of course Prague is famous for its “Lennon Wall” covered with graffiti—including “Zamisli da nema raja”—“Imagine there’s no heaven.”

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