Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Stop the Democrats’ Surrender to a Blue Slip

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama (AP)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an archaic Senate policy is being used by a shameless Republican minority to obstruct the will of the president—and the people he was elected to represent.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I was referring to the filibuster, which has been the Republicans’ most effective and least democratic method of thwarting the will of the majority.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But no, this is another, more obscure and arguably more ridiculous procedural weapon called a “blue slip.” First instituted in 1917, the blue slip process has allowed individual senators to effectively veto a nominee for a circuit court judgeship who hails from their own state. This privilege has been used sparingly by some Judiciary Committee chairmen and more regularly by others. But in recent months, it has been taken to the extreme.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

High Time for a Robin Hood Tax

Members of National Nurses United demonstrate in support of the Robin Hood Tax

Members of National Nurses United demonstrate in support of the Robin Hood Tax (Courtesy of National Nurses United)

It’s 2024, and a group of four European bankers appears on a talk show to assess the impact of a financial transaction tax (FTT) enacted by eleven European Union nations in 2014. On the host’s right, representatives from France, Spain, and Germany tout the benefits of this “miracle tax”: money to fight extreme poverty, adapt to climate change, combat HIV/AIDS. And on the left, representing the UK (which currently opposes the tax), is a stodgy Brit, undoubtedly miffed that his country has missed out on the Continent’s decade of progress.

The star-studded, three-minute video, directed by David Yates (the Harry Potter series), features Javier Cámara (Talk to Her), Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead), Heike Makatsch (Love, Actually), Bill Nighy (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), and Clémence Poésy (Love, Actually). Nighy, who plays the frustrated Londoner, offers a succinct commentary: “This tiny tax that could do so much good is on the verge of becoming a reality. France, Germany and nine other European countries are about to introduce it. It would be deeply regrettable if the rest of the world were caught on the wrong side of history.”

At a news conference in Paris on February 19, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande reiterated their support for the tax, announcing that they’d like to see the tax implemented before European Parliament elections in late May.

It’s refreshing to see European governments take steps to benefit the many at the (eminently reasonable) expense of the few. “Will the tax be borne by ordinary citizens?” Algirdas Semeta, European Commissioner for Taxation, asked rhetorically in The Guardian last year. “We have taken every measure to ensure that it isn’t. This is a tax on the financial sector, and 85% of liable transactions are purely between financial institutions. Day-to-day financial activities of citizens and businesses are outside its scope. Even if the financial sector passed on some costs to clients, the outcome would not be disproportionate.”

Also known as a “Robin Hood Tax,” a properly implemented FTT can benefit the economy from top to bottom. At the top of the financial food chain, the per-transaction fee offers a necessary check on speculation of the trade-for-the-sake-of-trading variety (“There’s considerable evidence suggesting that too much trading is going on,” writes The New York Times’s Paul Krugman). And an instrument that puts the brakes on rampant speculation and hyperactive trading—by raising the price of such behavior, in this case—is a good thing. In a 1936 analysis of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes noted that “the sins of the London Stock Exchange [were] less than those of Wall Street” in part because “the high brokerage charges and the heavy transfer tax payable to the Exchequer” made financial transactions more expensive in London than in New York. “It is usually agreed,” Keynes wrote drolly, “that casinos should, in the public interest, be inaccessible and expensive.”

And for the 99 percenters, the tax provides a much needed stream of revenue that can be used to combat poverty, climate change, our crumbling national infrastructure and more. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written, “I urge G20 leaders…to introduce a tax on financial transactions to help low-income countries hit by the economic crisis and to protect poor people from climate change.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Notably, such a tax is not unheard of in this country: Between 1914 and 1966, the United States levied a 0.04 percent tax on stock trades via a Stock Transfer Tax. While a handful of bills (all sponsored by Democrats) that include some form of an FTT are currently before Congress, the process (and progress) is obviously much farther along in Europe. In January 2013, eleven EU nations—Austria, Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain—were authorized to proceed with the introduction of a coordinated FTT. A final agreement between the eleven participating governments is expected on May 6, 2014. It will be a sweet victory for Europe, and the spoils are manifold, not least of which is the estimated €31 billion ($42 billion) that the tax is expected to generate each year.

So can we duplicate the victory here? Can we replace some of the Liar’s Poker ethos that got us into this mess? One idea, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Peter DeFazio’s (D-Oregon) Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act, “would target financial trading and complex transactions undertaken by financial and investment firms,” and the Congressional Joint Tax Committee has estimated that a similar proposal would bring in over $350 billion over ten years. Says Harkin, “[T]here is no question that Wall Street can easily bear this modest tax. This Wall Street tax is a simple matter of fairness and fiscal sanity.”

What can people do to promote a Sweet Victory here in America? Sarah Anderson, Global Economy Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, urges citizens to ask their representatives in Congress to co-sponsor the Harkin/DeFazio bill or Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D-Minnesota) Inclusive Prosperity Act. The White House, heretofore unsupportive of FTT proposals, could be spurred to action if it perceived some real momentum building on Capitol Hill. Anderson also encourages people to sign a petition in support of a Robin Hood Tax. The goal is to collect 1 million signatures (There are currently about 640,000 so far), leading to what might be the most popular tax in the history of the world.

Read Next: John Nichols: “Rand Paul Is Wrong: Why the GOP Should Be Moving Backward, Not Forward.

The Comcast/Time Warner Merger Doesn’t Pass the Smell Test

Comcast Center

The Comcast Center in Philadelphia (AP)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

One thing is certain about Comcast’s proposed $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable: It doesn’t pass the smell test. Comcast claims that the combination of the number one and number two cable companies will somehow enhance rather than diminish competition and lead to greater consumer satisfaction. Don’t worry, Godzilla will play nice on the playground.

The resulting company would have at least 30 million cable customers, just under 30 percent of the TV market, as well as 38 percent of high-speed Internet customers. It will have virtual monopoly cable control over news and public service programming in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, DC. It will be able to exact price concessions from content providers, forcing some out of business, limiting innovation and variety. With net neutrality rules now under assault, it will be positioned to charge discriminatory rates for high-speed access or to discriminate against Netflix and other companies seeking to stream over its cable. And Comcast will be in position to decide what gets priority access and what viewers across much of the nation won’t see.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Comcast is just digesting its previous mega-merger, the takeover of NBC Universal that should have been blocked by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). That leaves Comcast controlling an empire that includes NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, Telemundo and other networks.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Want to Know What NAFTA Teaches Us About the TPP Fight?

Demonstration against TPP in Tokyo on October 26, 2013

Farmers from Miyagi prefecture raise their fists along with other farmers from across Japan during a rally against Japan participating in rule-making negotiations for the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in Tokyo, October 26, 2011. (Reuters/Yuriko Nakao)

Last Wednesday, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi repeated in no uncertain terms her opposition to granting President Obama authority to seek “fast-track” approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth “free trade” deal the US has been negotiating in secret since the days of George W. Bush. Fast-tracking the TPP—which Senate majority leader Harry Reid also opposes—would allow the administration to submit the treaty for an up-or-down vote, thus protecting it from any debate or discussion or amendments. Without that authority, the administration would have to take into account the vehement objections of labor unions and other opponents of the treaty, who rightly note that the pact—the text and scope of which have been zealously guarded from public scrutiny—would likely do irreversible harm to American workers and consumers; fast-tracking the TPP would allow its corporate backers and their congressional allies to run roughshod over the treaty’s opponents and avoid a much-needed debate.

If all this sounds familiar, it should: a common nickname for the TPP is “NAFTA on steroids,” and it is worth recalling now how clear it was twenty years ago (to anyone who cared to look) that NAFTA would have precisely the horrific impact on American industry, as well as on the global environment, that it has indeed had. In The Nation, writer after writer warned about NAFTA’s pernicious consequences, in terms that could easily be applied—with perhaps even more force—to the TPP today.

In our March 29, 1993 issue—after NAFTA had been signed by President George H.W. Bush but before Congress approved it—Noam Chomsky wrote in “Notes on NAFTA: ‘The Masters of Mankind’”:

One consequence of the globalization of the economy is the rise of new governing institutions to serve the interests of private transnational economic power. Another is the spread of the Third World social model, with islands of enormous privilege in a sea of misery and despair. A walk through any American city gives human form to the statistics on quality of life, distribution of wealth, poverty and employment…Increasingly, production can be shifted to high-repression, low-wage areas and directed to privileged sectors in the global economy. Large parts of the population thus become superfluous for production and perhaps even as a market, unlike the days when Henry Ford realized that he could not sell cars unless his workers were paid enough to buy cars themselves.

While President Obama has laudably dedicated the remainder of his term to reversing the alarming inequality that has gripped the country in recent decades, his push for TPP seems to demonstrate an insufficient historical awareness of the consequences of free-trade agreements. As Chomsky predicted, NAFTA has only worsened inequality, transferring unprecedented wealth and power from the working and middle classes to the bank accounts of the 1 percent:

The trade agreements override the rights of workers, consumers, and the future generations who cannot ‘vote’ in the market on environmental issues. They help keep the public ‘in its place.’ These are not necessary features of such agreements, but they are natural consequences of the great successes of the past years in reducing democracy to empty forms, so that the vile maxim of the masters can be pursued without undue interference.

In a special issue devoted to NAFTA, dated June 14, 1993, The Nation wrote in its lead editorial:

NAFTA is no simple exercise in good-neighborliness. It is a watershed in U.S.—and Mexican—economic history. To ratify the treaty is to condemn U.S. workers to more hard times, to confine Mexican workers in an economic ghetto utterly dependent on El Norte, to reduce the power of labor against ownership, to ravage the American industrial landscape and to transform forever the dream of America as a just and prosperous place of hope.

A major investigative report in the same issue, “Big $$$ Lobbying in Washington: Can Mexico and Big Business USA Buy NAFTA?” by Charles Lewis and Margaret Ibrahim of the Center for Public Integrity, explored how corporate lobbyists from both Mexico and the United States had purchased official support for a treaty sure to cause untold pain to large segments of the populations of both countries.

The debate over NAFTA, which will climax this fall when both the Senate and the House vote on the treaty, has yielded the most extensive—and expensive—foreign lobbying campaign on a specific issue ever seen in the capital. Since 1989 the Mexican government and business groups have spent at least $25 million to promote the development and enactment of NAFTA, hiring a phalanx of Washington law firms, lobbyists, public relations companies and consultants…

The Mexican government and Mexican corporate interests have used much of those millions to purchase the expensive services of a potpourri of inside-the-Beltway specialists. Former U.S. government officials, who know how to massage the Washington political system, have been snatched up and placed on Mexico’s payrolls. Indeed, since 1989 Mexican interests have hired thirty-three former U.S. officials who worked for a variety of government entities: Congress, the State Department, the Treasury Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and others. Their mission is to influence the political process for what is arguably the most significant trade issue to have faced the American people and their elected representatives in this century.

Why is the passage of NAFTA so important to Mexico? Because its government and corporations expect that a freshet of desperately needed U.S. investment and consumer dollars will flow into their country once the trade barriers between the two nations fall. A few million dollars is a small price to pay for what they hope will be a multibillion-dollar bonanza…

All this intensive lobbying by U.S. and Mexican interests is dedicated to drowning out any contrary or questioning voices in the United States. It is focused like a laser on the Washington power elite and aims to see that a treaty is approved that favors corporate interests.

If anything, the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the TPP negotiations in recent years demonstrates that the “intensive lobbying” by corporate powers behind the scenes is even stronger, and more insidious, this time around.

* * *

In the December 6, 1993 issue of The Nation, just after both houses of Congress approved NAFTA, Jeremy Brecher explored the broader historical context of so-called free-trade agreements in “After NAFTA: Global Village or Global Pillage?

The North American economic integration that NAFTA was intended to facilitate is only one aspect of the rapid and momentous historical transformation from a system of national economies toward an integrated global economy. New information, communication, transportation and manufacturing technologies, combined with tariff reductions, have made it possible to coordinate production, commerce and finance on a world scale.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Resistance to such a reorganization of wealth and power, Brecher wrote, would have to begin with solidarity among the laboring classes in each country:

The beginnings of a new approach emerged from the anti-NAFTA movement itself. Rather than advocate protectionism—keeping foreign products out—many NAFTA opponents urged policies that would raise environmental, labor and social standards in Mexico, so that those standards would not drag down those in the United States and Canada. This approach implied that people in different countries have common interests in raising the conditions of those at the bottom.…

The struggle against NAFTA has shown that those harmed by the New World Economy need not be passive victims. So many politicians were so unprepared for the strength of the anti-NAFTA movement because it represented an eruption into the political arena of people who have long been demobilized. But to influence their economic destinies effectively, they need a movement that provides an alternative to the Ross Perots and Pat Buchanans. Such a movement must act on the understanding that the unregulated globalization of capital is really a worldwide attack of the haves on the have-nots. And it must bring that understanding to bear on every affected issue, from local layoffs to the world environment.

The positive developments Brecher saw coming out of the anti-NAFTA movement would begin to command mainstream attention with the protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization conference in Seattle—fifteen years ago this November. The coming debate over the TPP represents an important—and perhaps even more dire—opportunity for those interested in halting and reversing the trends described by Chomsky, Brecher and others. As Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, wrote in The Nation in July 2012:

We face a race against time—much of the TPP text has been agreed on. Will the banksters, Big Pharma, Big Oil, agribusiness, tobacco multinationals and the other usual suspects get away with this massive assault on democracy? Will the public wake up to this threat and fight back, demanding either a fair deal or no deal?

The declarations of opposition to fast-track from Pelosi and Reid represent a crucial, if preliminary, victory. The clock, however, is ticking.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

For Pussy Riot Members, No More Taking Freedom for Granted

Pussy Riot Amnesty International

Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina at Amnesty International press conference on February 5, 2014. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

If an appearance on The Colbert Report is a measure of success, then Pussy Riot has arrived.

Fresh out of prison, Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, two members of the Russian punk protest group, were in New York last week for a whirlwind tour. After winning over Colbert and his audience, the duo spoke at Wednesday’s all-star Amnesty International concert at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where they were introduced by no less than Madonna.

It was quite a shift from the last “stage” the women appeared on together: a Moscow church in 2012, where Pussy Riot put on a protest performance and were subsequently arrested and imprisoned for “hooliganism.” They were released as the Winter Olympics approached and have since been quite public in their criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The real story, however, isn’t their vocal, vehement opposition to Putin. It’s what they’re doing with their freedom. The women have been on an international journey of sorts— not to “breathe fresh air and enjoy ourselves” but to visit prisons in other countries and bring what they learn back to Russia.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Long Battle for Progressive, Humane Immigration Reform

Crosses on the US/Mexico border wall

Community members cover the US/Mexico border wall with crosses bearing the names of the men, women and children who have died attempting to enter the United States. (Photo by Dave Brewer)

One year ago, after President Obama won re-election with overwhelming support from the Latino community, Republicans in Congress, led by Senator Marco Rubio, produced a “framework” for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for at least some of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Enlightened elements of the GOP seemed to belatedly recognize that the party could only expect further and more resounding defeats at the ballot box as long as it continued to impede Latinos struggling to find security and success in this country. “There are signs that the stars are aligning in favor of reform,” The Nation editorialized last February, “but we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. The real battle begins now.”

It is difficult to do battle, however, when the other side refuses to take the field. After months of promiscuous footsy—partnering with the bipartisan Gang of Eight to write a comprehensive bill before abruptly ceasing cooperation and embracing draconian, deal-killing enforcement mechanisms—last October Rubio gave up on serious reform entirely, calculating—quite wrongly, we suspect—that there was more electoral gain in soothing the Tea Party’s race anxieties than in pursuing true justice for millions of new Americans.

Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner has now made the same faulty calculation, announcing last week that he thought it was unlikely immigration reform could be passed by the end of 2014. The cowardly retreat by congressional Republicans from a long-overdue comprehensive immigration overhaul—coming just days after releasing a list of their “principles” for future legislation—only underscores the extent to which the GOP is fatally out-of-touch with the pulse and future of this country.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

While the need for such legislation is unprecedented and the depths of Republican antipathy to immigrants never ceases to amaze, it’s worth recalling that on the issue of immigration as on much else there is little new under the sun. Ninety years ago, when another set of reactionary congressional Republicans were trying to pass a bill to restrict immigration—this time by further lowering quotas for Southern and Eastern European immigrants—The Nation published an editorial titled, “Land of the Noble Free.” The first line employed terminology now recognized as offensive, but the argument itself could easily have been written today:

Americans are all immigrants—all except the red Indians—and if the anthropologists be right, even they migrated from Asia. There is no American race; there is not even the established claim of centuries to plead the primary right of any one stock….Whence comes this myth that our country is the private property of some one racial stock? Whence come the arrogant assumptions of those who, like the chairman of the House Committee on Immigration, want to preserve a “racial homogeneity” which has never existed?…

It is a tragic thing that this country, built on the sweat and aspirations of immigrants, should so soon be fencing itself about with a wall. We are becoming the great example of national selfishness in all the world. While we bar human beings from our shores we bully weaker countries into granting American capital privileges alien to their national interests. We force Mexico to revise its oil laws, tell China how to use its customs, ask Russia to reconsider its view of private property, and everywhere claim the “open door”—for American capital—as an American policy. “Equal rights and opportunities, for capital, all over the world”—what a bitter slogan for America when a hungry peasant from South Italy, a persecuted Jew from Rumania, an Armenian whose home is a heap of ashes finds the door to America slammed in his face!

The Immigration Act of 1924 passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and was only superseded by the abolition of all immigration quotas in 1965. But as Boehner’s announcement made clear, its spirit remains very much alive. For a fuller history, see Strangers in Our Land, an e-book collection of The Nation’s writings on immigration going back to 1868, which will be published next month.

Read Next: Ari Berman: North Carolina’s Moral Monday Movement Kicks Off 2014 With a Massive Rally in Raleigh.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Tom Perkins and the Guilt of the Gilded

May Day 2012

A May Day demonstration in New York City in 2012 (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

When Tom Perkins, the billionaire co-founder of the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, warned in a letter to The Wall Street Journal that the “demonization of the rich” in America was comparable to the anti-Semitism that led to Kristallnacht, the coordinated attacks on Jews in 1938 Nazi Germany, the ensuing uproar led even his old firm to disavow his views.

Perkins’s ignorant comments reflect a spreading disquiet among the super-rich that populist attitudes may be getting out of control. Bankers such as Sergio Ermotti, chief executive of UBS, complain about people “constantly bashing banks.” After New Yorkers elected as mayor Bill de Blasio, who pledged to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-school, residents of the ultra-affluent Upper East Side neighborhood claimed that de Blasio ordered snow plows to avoid the area during a recent storm. Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone said that Pope Francis’s broadsides against inequality would reduce donations to the Catholic church.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But it is inequality, not populism, that continues to spiral out of control. Billionaires attending the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) gathering in Davos, Switzerland were greeted with an Oxfam report revealing that the eighty-five richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest, or one half of humanity, and detailing the “pernicious impact” of the yawning disparities. Academics, including Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, argue convincingly that the extreme inequality contributes directly to global stagnation. And even the WEF’s own poll of movers and shakers this year named the growing wealth divide as the leading geopolitical risk. President Obama has chimed in as well, terming inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The ‘Dreadfully Increasing Slaughter’ of NYC Pedestrians, 100 Years Ago

Ghost Bike, Upper East Side, 2009

A 'ghost bike' memorial for a cyclist killed in a traffic accident in New York City. (Flickr/emwilbz)

Two weeks ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio officially launched his Swedish-influenced “Vision Zero” initiative to completely eliminate all automobile-caused cyclist and pedestrian deaths in New York City. It is a laudable and much-needed program: an estimated 286 people died in traffic accidents in New York in 2013.

How striking, then, that one hundred years ago this week, The Nation was concerned with exactly the same problem. An editorial note in the February 5, 1914, issue began:

The figures of automobile killings in New York city in the first month of 1914 are such as to indicate that the year is to witness a further growth of the dreadfully increasing slaughter. The number is reported as twenty-eight for January. The total of these killings for 1913 was 302, which is more than double the total for 1911—a startling showing.

While there are exponentially more cars on the city’s roads in 2014 than there were in 1914, it is nonetheless surprising that despite significant advances in safety technology and regulations in the past century, the number of deaths caused by automobiles every year in New York City has barely changed at all. It is almost no safer to be a pedestrian on the city’s streets today than it was at the dawn of the automobile age 100 years ago, when oversight was minimal at best. Clearly, a new approach is needed, and it will have to account for the fundamental problems The Nation’s editors diagnosed in 1914:

By far the greater part of this automobile slaughter is caused by people driving for pleasure or desiring to save a few minutes of time in getting from one point to another…. Those who ride in automobiles are a small minority, fortunate in the possession of a luxury and a convenience to which nine-tenths of the people have no access. They have the benefit of the use of the public streets in a degree far beyond what is commensurate either to their numbers or to any specific contribution they make towards the cost of the streets. To this nobody objects; but it is intolerable that they should be permitted to put the rest of the people in danger.

Protection of cyclists and pedestrians from automobiles is not only a city planning issue; it is a social justice issue.

* * *

Sixteen years later, Carl Dreheer—a sound engineer in Hollywood and, beginning with this article, a frequent Nation contributor for almost forty years—wrote in “Homicide on Wheels” (August 27, 1930) that our callousness about automobile deaths reflected a disturbing change in social mores.

The automobile has ruined the temper and manners of the people who use the highways. In the good old somnolent days people got around in carriages and buggies at an average speed of eight or ten miles an hour. When a fast team came up behind a slower one on a rural highway and the vehicle ahead gave way, the passing driver customarily tipped his hat in acknowledgement of the other man’s courtesy in letting him by. When as a boy in up-state New York I was taught to drive, it was impressed on me that ordinary politeness required this gesture. Moreover, when a driver wanted to pass he did not make a noise about it; he simply followed close behind the other team until the man ahead became aware that passage was desired, whereupon he would generally turn out as soon as possible.

Contrast this procedure with the barbarities of present-day motoring and you will realize what the automobile has done to highway manners. Once a driver has gained facility, his manner of operating an automobile is an expression of his personality, like his style of making love, dictating to a stenographer, or asking his boss for a raise, and, unfortunately, too many motorists are barbarians.

The Nation’s most important contribution to the century-old debate about automobile safety came with our publication in April 1959 of “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy,” by a recent Harvard Law graduate named Ralph Nader. The Detroit auto industry, Nader wrote, was moving at a “glacier-like” pace to implement concrete, practical measures that would vastly improve passenger safety and save thousands of lives. The essay—with another Nation contribution, “Fashion or Safety: Detroit Makes Your Choice” (October 12, 1963)— led to his classic book Unsafe at Any Speed (1961), which not only revolutionized car-safety standards but launched the consumer protection movement that has similarly impacted countless industries in the United States and around the world.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

It is clear that Detroit today is designing automobiles for style, cost, performance and calculated obsolescence, but not—despite the 5,000,000 reported accidents, nearly 40,000 fatalities, 110,000 permanent disabilities and 1,500,000 injuries yearly—for safety.

Almost no feature of the interior design of our current cars provides safeguards against injury in the event of collision. Doors that fly open on impact, inadequately secured seats, the sharp-edged rearview mirror, pointed knobs on instrument panel and doors, flying glass, the overhead structure—all illustrate the lethal potential of poor design. A sudden deceleration turns a collapsed steering wheel or a sharp-edged dashboard into a bone and chest-crushing agent. Penetration of the shatterproof windshield can chisel one’s head into fractions. A flying seat cushion can cause a fatal injury. The apparently harmless glove-compartment door has been known to unlatch under impact and guillotine a child. Roof-supporting structure has deteriorated to a point where it provides scarcely more protection to the occupants, in common roll-over accidents, than an open convertible. This is especially true of the so-called “hardtops.” Nor is the automobile designed as an efficient force moderator. For example, the bumper does not contribute significantly to reduction of the crash of deceleration forces that are transmitted to the motorist; its function has been more to reflect style than absorb shock….

By all relevant criteria, a problem so national in scope and technical in nature can best be handled by the legislative process, on the federal level, with delegation to an appropriate administrative body. It requires uniformity in treatment and central administration, for as an interstate matter, the job cannot be left to the states with the dissimilar laws setting low requirements that are not strictly enforced and that do not strike at the heart of the malady—the blueprint on the Detroit drawing board. The thirty-three year record of the attempt to introduce state uniformity in establishing the most basic equipment standards for automobiles has been disappointing.

Perhaps the best summation of the whole issue lies in a physician’s comment on the car manufacturer’s design policy: “Translated into medicine,” he writes, “it would be comparable to withholding known methods of life-saving value.”

As The Nation has argued for at least 100 years, the only way to prevent thousands of needless deaths caused by automobiles is to shift the paradigm that privileges the comfort, convenience and style of the few above the safety and security of the many. It would be a historic achievement should Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative succeed, at long last, in doing so.

Read Next: Jarrett Murphy: De Blasio Agrees to a Landmark Stop-and-Frisk Settlement.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

The Promise of Transpartisanship

Obama, State of the Union 2013

President Barack Obama delivering his 2013 State of the Union address 2013 (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

On Tuesday, Americans will tune in to watch President Obama’s fifth State of the Union Address. The annual ritual, with its pomp and circumstance, has become an almost grotesque visual of a gridlocked Washington. The president’s party will cheer. The opposition will jeer. A Supreme Court justice might sneer. Since President Obama took office, the partisan rancor has only intensified, reaching its ugliest point in 2009, when Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted at the president, “You lie!”

Things have gotten so distasteful that some members have taken to symbolic gestures, including crossing the aisle to sit together or wearing orange lapel pins as part of the bipartisan so-called “Problem Solvers Caucus,” sponsored by the nonprofit group No Labels.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But if lawmakers really want to reassure cynical Americans, whose disdain for Congress is well documented, they could highlight the genuine cooperation among them. This collaboration is happening across a number of issues, but it’s not bipartisanship; it’s “transpartisanship.” Unlike bipartisanship, which often takes two existing viewpoints and, effectively, splits the difference, transpartisanship encourages solutions that can align with many viewpoints.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: ‘Dr. Strangelove’ as ‘a Cold Blade of Scorn Against the Spectator’s Throat’

Dr. Strangelove publicity photo

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Publicity Photo. (Flickr)

From today’s nearly unanimous approval of Stanley Kubrick’s disturbing satire, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, one could scarcely guess that its release fifty years ago this week prompted a widespread national debate, the vigor of which the conversation in recent months about The Wolf of Wall Street barely even approaches. In a February 2, 1964, review headlined, “Is Nothing Sacred?” the conservative New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the film’s “sportive speculation about a matter of gravest consequence seems more malicious than diverting, more charged with poison than wit…. The whole thing, while cleverly written and most skillfully directed and played, tends to be a bit too contemptuous of our defense establishment for my comfort and taste.”

Robert Hatch, The Nation’s longtime film critic, prized his precious comfort somewhat less than Crowther, and had less squeamish taste, but his February 3, 1964 review of Dr. Strangelove reflected similar qualms, while recognizing that Kubrick—together with screenwriter Terry Southern (a frequent Nation contributor in the early 1960s and late 1980s) and the great Peter Sellers—had created nothing less than a masterpiece. Hatch appreciated that the disruption to the viewer’s comfort was intrinsic to the very point and power of the film. “The spectacle of George Scott salivating over the prospect of destroying every human being east of the Danube at the cost of only a few million American lives is a tour de force in nausea,” he wrote.

Hatch, of course, had no illusions that Dr. Strangelove’s forceful truth-telling would profoundly change the terms of the Cold War.

Mr. Kubrick is a bold man: he has taken a whole complex of America’s basic assumptions by the shoulders and given them a rough shaking. And he has done it in a rough style that pays little heed to camera niceties or the normal luxury of commercial filmmaking, but throws all its emphasis on bravado acting and rapid, uncompromising melodrama. The picture sometimes falters into too obvious gags…but overall it holds a cold blade of scorn against the spectator’s throat.

The danger is that it will be cheered by the people who already agree with it and resented by those still unconverted. Kubrick can argue with good logic that if you are to expose the fallacy of depending on the hydrogen bomb as the last bastion of a free society, you must also expose the ignorance of bigotry that invents and fosters such nonsense. But he and Terry Southern take a pleasure in flaying their contemporaries that may be more effective as sadistic humor than as adult education.

Fifty years removed from its release and with the Cold War twenty-five years behind us, it’s clear that Dr. Strangelove succeeded—and still succeeds—at being both. As friend-of-the-magazine and contributor Eric Schlosser writes in a brilliant blog post for The New Yorker:

Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.

The idea of abolishing nuclear weapons from the American arsenal was raised in Jonathan Schell’s groundbreaking report, The Gift of Time, published in a special 1998 issue of The Nation and later as a book. It has been endorsed in recent years by former secretary of defense William Perry, former senator Sam Nunn, and former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz—the so-called “four horsemen of the nuclear apocalypse”—and by President Barack Obama in his Prague speech of 2009. If the 100th anniversary of Dr. Strangelove is to be celebrated in 2064, the abolition of nuclear weapons must assume a central place on the national agenda.

For more on the anniversary, read Greg Mitchell’s blog post “As ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Turns 50: Vast Nuclear Dangers Remain.”

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Syndicate content