Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

Jenny McCarthy's Vaccination Fear-Mongering and the Cult of False Equivalence

Jenny McCarthy addresses the audience at an Ante Up for Autism fundraiser. (Courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dorausch)

On February 28, 1998, a British physician named Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet that purported to identify a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the appearance of autism in children. The results provoked a widespread backlash against vaccines, forcing the medical community to spend years attempting to debunk his false claims. Eventually, it was revealed that Wakefield had fabricated his research as part of a scheme that promised him millions of dollars. Wakefield suffered a dramatic public downfall—his medical license stripped, his paper retracted from publication—but the damage was done. His propaganda had led to decreased immunization rates and an outbreak of measles in London.

Wakefield’s falsified claims remain at the core of a stubbornly popular anti-vaccination movement. To this day, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many people believe that vaccines are the principal cause of autistic spectrum disorders.

One of the most prominent promoters of this falsehood is actress Jenny McCarthy, who was recently named as Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s replacement on ABC’s hit daytime talk-show, The View. Once she’s on air, it will be difficult to prevent her from advocating for the anti-vaccine movement. And the mere act of hiring her would seem to credit her as a reliable source.

In 2007, McCarthy debuted her views on the national stage when she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss autism, which is growing at alarming rates and continues to baffle medical researchers. McCarthy was convinced that vaccines gave her son autism and seizures. In addition to a gluten-free diet, aromatherapies, B-12 shots and vitamins, she also tried chelation therapy, which is meant to remove toxic substances from the body. Her son, she claimed, was “cured.”

Within the first few minutes of the interview, McCarthy cited as reasons for her success a “little voice” and her “mommy instincts,” all while denigrating several doctors and EMTs.

Oprah Winfrey’s decision to let McCarthy act as an expert, to dismiss science with alchemy, without asking any tough questions, was unconscionable. The same could be said of the producers of Larry King Live and Good Morning America, both of which hosted McCarthy soon after. Even though they at least asked questions about her views, Larry King had her debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert.

In fact, McCarthy’s beliefs—that vaccines and mercury cause autism, that a good diet cures autism and that “diagnosticians and pediatricians have made a career out of telling parents autism is a hopeless condition”—have been roundly dismissed and discredited by doctors and scientists, who insist that her claims are based on no scientific data or research. McCarthy wasn’t deterred. “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.”

Let’s be clear: there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

Despite the evidence, it is easy to understand why the parent of an autistic child—in fear and confusion and desperation—might find McCarthy’s claims enticing. These are parents at their most vulnerable and McCarthy, though perhaps well intentioned, has preyed on them. This fear-mongering is incredibly dangerous, especially when a quarter of parents trust the information provided by celebrities about the safety of vaccines. A movement borne out of Wakefield’s discredited research, animated by misinformation, and promoted by people like McCarthy has fed an anti-vaccine frenzy, leading to a huge spike in cases of whooping cough in communities across the United States, especially in Washington State, which, in 2012, saw its worst epidemic in seventy years.

We see the same dangerous nonsense playing out with the HPV vaccine, a major breakthrough that can prevent cervical cancer and, it was recently found, throat cancer in men and women. Unfortunately, parents studying at McCarthy’s alma mater, the University of Google, are absorbing misinformation and refusing to vaccinate their kids.

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These incidents reflect a broader disconnect between science and the media on a range of issues. The vast majority of scientists accept that evolution is real, that man-made climate change is occurring and that vaccines do not cause autism. But in the general public, these issues are often hotly debated, and, too often, the media fuels these arguments by airing junk science as though it were legitimate. The result? A major public health risk. Vaccine avoidance makes the entire country more susceptible to diseases like the measles that were once vanquished.

By giving science deniers a public forum, media outlets implicitly condone their claims as legitimate. As Columbia Journalism Review’s Brendan Nyhan recently argued in a post about McCarthy and her vaccination fear-mongering, “he said” “she said” coverage simply puts “unsupported claims alongside credible arguments, or failed to push back altogether.” False equivalency is one of journalism’s great pitfalls, and in an effort to achieve “balance,” reporters often obscure the truth. What’s the merit in “he said, she said” reporting when he says the world is round and she insists it is flat. Indeed, there is an enormous cost to society when the truth could save lives.

Mark Hertsgaard argues that it is time to confront those in government who are undermining our response to climate change.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Nelson Mandela’s Courage Through the Years

Former South African President Nelson Mandela. (AP Photo/Pool-Theana Calitz-Bilt)

The annual celebrations—for once, the appropriate word—surrounding Nelson Mandela’s birthday last week bore an extra note of bitter-sweetness this year, amid conflicting reports about the ex-president’s health. “Madiba is always with us,” one 12-year old girl told The New York Times. “He gave us freedom.”

What is often lost, now that Mandela has achieved the status of wise elder, is the extent to which his victories are owed to significant streaks of both radicalism and Realpolitik running throughout his career—first as a principled revolutionary and later as very much the quintessential consensus-building politician.

The most recent Nation articles on Mandela highlighted this paradox. In January 2011, the Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman wrote about how Mandela expressed concern, in his newly published memoir Conversations With Myself, about being remembered as an otherworldly ethical actor totally separate from difficult, still-unsettled political questions.

The end of the racist South African regime is simply inconceivable without the moral capital and charisma Mandela had accumulated during his prison years. As a symbol of dignity and resistance he was, well, irresistible; but the compassion he showed once he was released, the ability to speak to his enemies and bring them to the table, his disposition to forgive (but never to forget) the terror inflicted on him and his people, his willingness to see the good in others, to trust their deepest sense of humanity and honor, turned him into the sort of ethical giant that our species desperately needed in a petty era of devastation and greed. Such a halo can, however, be just as confining as an island where every move and word is guarded.

A tour through articles about Mandela from The Nation’s archives elucidates the same point, helping us to consider the 95-year-old Mandela as a man who, Dorfman wrote, “fortunately for himself and the world, is not, after all, a saint.”

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The first mention of Mandela in our pages came in January 1966, when the white South African anthropologist Hilda Kuper reviewed No Easy Walk to Freedom, a collection of writings and speeches by the Robben Island prisoner. Kuper called Mandela “a man of courage and deep integrity, a tragic and noble figure,” and wrote that “his impressive and sincere speech” endorsing armed struggle—while defending himself against charges of treason at the Rivonia Trial in 1964—“is not that of a man who enjoyed violence, but of one driven to violence as the last resort.” Kuper closed her piece with an impassioned critique that represented the spirit of the first major international stirrings against apartheid, in the middle of the 1960s:

Lawyers, teachers, ministers, factory workers, trade unionists, liberals and radicals have been exiled, banished, banned, imprisoned. Their voices cannot be heard, and they are prevented from hearing the voices of others. Books in which great men expressed noble ideals throughout the ages are prohibited, to publish the words of any person who is or has been banned is a criminal offense. Criticism is communism, thought is sabotage. South Africa has become a vast and terrifying prison.

The Nation, like the rest of the world, more or less lost sight of Nelson Mandela for many years after his imprisonment, as more radical—and more violent—opponents of apartheid came to the fore. But all that time Mandela was accruing support (or “moral capital,” as Dorfman later put it), and after rejecting at least one offer of release in exchange for unequivocally rejecting violence—Mandela argued that “a prisoner cannot enter into contracts”—he was finally freed in February 1990. After several fits and starts, he entered negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk, struggling to maintain a broad coalition in the ANC while establishing friendly relationships with government figures. To the same extent that Mandela’s immense political gifts enabled him to successfully—and, to a large extent, peacefully—end minority rule and de jure segregation in South Africa, he also struggled to satisfy the disparate elements in fighting for those goals.

As Aryeh Neier, former director of the ACLU and, until last year, the Open Society Foundation, wrote in his Watching Rights column that August, Mandela’s path from political prisoner to revered international leader was anything but straight. Like many, Neier took issue with Mandela’s statements at a stadium event with ethically questionable Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, then battling attempts by Western powers to force his government to reform. “What right has the West, what right have the whites anywhere,” Mandela asked, somewhat out of character, “to teach us about democracy when they executed those who asked for democracy during the time of the colonial era?” Neier, disheartened by these comments, wrote in The Nation:

The sense of disappointment over Nelson Mandela’s statement in Kenya is all the more acute because, though he consorted with heads of state and other important personages elsewhere, he did not seem to lose his bearings. It would be comforting to think that he will reflect on his experience in Nairobi and that he will come to realize that, despite his reluctance to turn his back on the black African leaders who supported his struggle all these years, it is not the likes of Kenya’s Moi, Zaire’s Mobutu, Somalia’s Siad Barre and Ethiopia’s Mengistu who stand for what he stands for.

Notably, South African presidents since Mandela have suffered the same discomfort in trying to distance themselves from African revolutionaries-turned-despots like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.

Perhaps the most interesting piece The Nation has published about Mandela was a story by the playwright Arthur Miller, about an interview he did with Mandela—on life, not politics, the author stressed—for the BBC. “South Africa is unique,” Miller wrote. “It has state socialism for the whites…and fascism for the blacks.”

I felt the place strange but comprehensible as merely one more kingdom of denial, unusual mainly for the immense proportion of its majority ghettoized and stripped of all civil rights…It is all part of a hopeless muddle of a modern technological state trying to sustain the most primitive, chest-pounding, Nazi master-race dogmas. So surrealism looms at every turn.

What struck me strongly about Nelson Mandela in his American public appearances was the absence in him of any sign of bitterness. After twenty-seven and a half years with his nose against the bars he seemed uninterested in cursing out the whites who had put him there for the crime of demanding the vote in a country where his people outnumber their rulers about six to one…

Watching from a distance I had found him extraordinarily straightforward in his persistent refusal to pulverize his history to suit current American tastes, crediting Communists for being the first whites to befriend his movement, sometimes at the risk of their lives.

Echoes of Miller’s own refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s are unmistakable.

Lacking a reporter’s killer instinct or investigative techniques I was simply very curious about the roots of this man’s unusual character. How does one manage to emerge from nearly three decades in prison with such hopefulness, such inner calm?….It was striking how he never seemed to categorize people by race or even class, and that he spontaneously tended to cite good men even among the enemy.

* * *

A certain combination of admiration mixed with impatience continued to mark The Nation’s reporting on Mandela—and the ANC movement as a whole—as he struggled to negotiate de Klerk and his National Party out of power. In July 1991’s “Mandela Tries to Stay Out Front,” Chris McGreal—then a reporter for The Independent on Sunday, now Washington correspondent for The Guardian—channeled many South Africans’ complaints with the pace of transition to post-apartheid society: “If Mandela is so influential with the government, it is often asked, why can he not force it do the one thing that would make a difference—ban the carrying of all weapons in public?”

There have been fewer than forty prosecutions for the 10,000 deaths in factional violence. Yet Mandela’s response has been so naïve as to be almost laughable….Mandela’s dilemma is to reconcile his relationships with men who continue to act in bad faith—including de Klerk—with his effort to insure the best deal for South Africa’s black majority. His mistake, perhaps, is that he has continued to show a degree of respect for his negotiating partners that few in the townships consider merited.

Three years later, some months after Mandela had been elected the first black president of South Africa, Mark Gevisser, The Nation’s longtime Southern Africa correspondent, wrote in “Democracy in Living Color” that the lack of major accomplishments by Mandela’s new government was important—“The higher you fly, the harder it is to stay on the right side of history,” he wrote—but not the most important story:

The victory of South African democracy is not that it has begun to transform lives stunted and impoverished by apartheid. For despite a couple of presidential proclamations…and the promulgation of a Land Restitution Act, little has been done, in these first six months of the Mandela government, to change people’s lives in any physical way. The victory of South African democracy is rather, more simply, that it exists. Against all odds and in peace….Whatever the external signifiers, Mandela is there. In fact, his near-seamless statesmanship is largely responsible for what amounts to a transition that is sometimes too smooth to even be noticed.

A year later, in November 1995, Gevisser wrote an editorial calling attention to Mandela’s difficult—arguably, necessary—compromises with white nationalist elements of the ancien régime, which, despite the much-heralded announcement of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had the effect of shielding real criminals from responsibility:

For reasons that are by no means politically unsound, Mandela has nailed his colors to the mast of “reconciliation.” While this has served to still the restive right, it also means the possibility of perpetrators of human rights abuses being called to account is slim indeed. South African’s state-sanctioned arms smugglers, along with its anti-democratic murderers, will go free so that South Africa can have peace.

* * *

It does honor to Mandela, and not the opposite, to recall amidst celebrations of his ninety-fifth birthday that he was a real-world political actor, not a saint, an angel or a dream. As Nation columnist Gary Younge wrote last month in “Everyone Loves Mandela,”

to make him a saint is to extract him from the realm of politics and elevate him to the level of deity. And as long as he resides there, his legacy cannot be fully debated or discussed, because his record is then rooted not in his role as the head of a movement, but in the beatified soul of a man and his conscience.

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Which brings us back to the first article published about Mandela in The Nation, Hilda Kuper’s review of No Easy Walk to Freedom. “For many non-South Africans,” Kuper wrote in 1966, “South Africa provides a scapegoat on which to project righteous hatred of injustice without risk of involvement in action.” This converse is just as true today: Nelson Mandela provides an icon on which to project righteous love for justice without risk of involvement in action. It is vital, at this pivotal moment, that we nurture a more complete memory of Mandela, one that is situated within the context of the great conflicts of his time—race and class, especially— and with due emphasis on the centrality of risk, involvement, and action to his life and work. That is no less than what the great Madiba deserves.

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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.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

The Appalling GOP

John Boehner, accompanied by Mitch McConnell and other House and Senate Republicans on the steps of the Capitol. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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

There really isn’t any other word. congressional Republicans are simply appalling. They have absolute control of the House. They set the agenda. They decide what comes to the floor. They decide what passes on to the Senate.

They know that extreme legislation isn’t going to be enacted into law. The Democratic majority in the Senate and the Democratic president stand in the way. So the legislation they choose to pass is a statement of their own values. It is simply designed to proclaim, “This is where we stand.” And for the vast majority of Americans, what they proudly proclaim is simply beyond the pale.

Republicans just passed a farm bill. It lards out $195 billion in subsidies for agribusiness. At the same time, they chose to drop food stamps—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—from the bill for the first time in 40 years. In this time of mass unemployment, 47 million Americans rely on food stamps. Nearly one-half are children under 18; nearly 10 percent are impoverished seniors. The recipients are largely white, female and young. The Republican caucus has decided to drop them from the bill as “extraneous,” without having separate legislation to sustain them. Who would want to advertise these cruel values?

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: What New York City's Mayoral Candidates Might Learn From the Past

Fiorello La Guardia, former mayor of New York City. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Fred Palumbo)

New York City’s mayoral race is heating up this summer, with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner, and former City Comptroller Bill Thompson statistically tied for first place as of late June, though early polls are fluid, considering that many have not started paying attention to the race. In the interest of informed debate, The Nation has invited all the Democratic candidates to speak at our weekly editorial meeting, and thus far we’ve enjoyed robust conversations with City Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and ex-Councilman Sal Albanese. We hope to hear soon from the other candidates about how they would bring a more progressive vision to the deeply divided metropolis we recently dubbed in our eponymous special issue “The Gilded City.”

The Nation’s home in New York City has never been incidental to its identity; for many decades after its founding in 1865, the magazine was even referred to colloquially as The New York Nation. We have been concerned with municipal politics and administration in the city through thirty-two mayors, through depression and war and terrorism and financial collapse, and well before the consolidation of the five boroughs into one municipality in 1898. As both we at The Nation and New Yorkers in general deliberate on who should be the next mayor—and much more importantly, what that person should do once in office—a few samples of previous articles we’ve published about New York City mayors may help to elucidate what is to be done, and what sort of candidate is the most willing and able to do it.

The modern era of the New York City mayoralty began in 1933 with the election of Fiorello La Guardia. Paul Y. Anderson, the brilliant muckraking journalist who frequently wrote for The Nation towards the end of his career, wrote a back-handed endorsement of La Guardia just before the election, saying he couldn’t support “the Major” for mayor because his services were of greater need in the Congress (where La Guardia had served until being defeated the previous year). In the House of Representatives, Anderson wrote, La Guardia “commanded equal respect on both sides of the aisle because his motives always were above challenge, because he always knew what he was talking about and because he was not afraid.” Moreover, La Guardia “possesses nerve without bravado, wit without venom, and eloquence without bombast…. he is a regular fellow instead of a stuffed shirt.” Candidates of 2013, take note.

In 1969, just after the incumbent John Lindsay won re-election on the Liberal Party line after losing the Republican nomination, Theodore J. Lowi—then a professor at the University of Chicago who has taught at Cornell since 1972—wrote an open letter to the mayor in The Nation, begging him not to interpret the victory as grounded exclusively in personal charisma or the triumph of traditional liberalism. Lindsay was really re-elected, Lowi argued, because of the inertia inherent to massive bureaucracies.

You are supposed to be their chief executive, yet you must depend upon them for your own political power. Unfortunately they do not have your interests at heart. Still more unfortunately, you may already have been captured, but none of us, least of all you, can know this until it is too late to do anything about it….

One must always ask the old political question, just who is expropriating whom? The answer usually depends upon who last forgot to ask the question.

In 2013, with public sector unions besieged on all sides, Lowi’s criticisms of urban liberalism—or “interest-group liberalism,” a term Lowi coined in his 1969 book, The End of Liberalism—may seem unseemly, perhaps even conservative.

In our recent “Gilded City” issue, the NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein wrote about the overextension by the New York municipal government in the run-up to 1975, but also about how conservative political and economic forces in the city seized on the supposed failure of Great Society–style urban liberalism to achieve their long-sought goal of market-friendly city government:

The crisis brought about a change in the city’s leadership, as clubhouse Democrats were deposed in favor of a younger generation of business-friendly liberals. For these new leaders, the downsizing of New York became a badge of honor: a sign that liberals were not beholden to such special interests as organized labor but could speak the rhetoric of efficiency. The old faith in the political importance of the working class, the New Deal sense of the necessity of government action, gave way in the fiscal crisis to a liberalism that borrowed its framework and its values from the private sector.

This is largely the city we live in today—though the effects of the 1970s crisis have been greatly exacerbated by twelve years of Michael Bloomberg. It has been reassuring to hear how some of this year’s mayoral candidates might usefully combine La Guardia’s intensity and integrity with a nuanced understanding of how the city has been failed by both bureaucratic inertia and unrestrained free-market adventurism. A great place to start would be City Limits editor Jarrett Murphy’s recent essay for The Nation, “Wanted: A Progressive Mayor,” where he explores why it’s so difficult—but not impossible—to elect a progressive as mayor of New York City, as well as the rest of our special issue, “The Gilded City: Bloomberg’s New York.”

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For an instructive lesson in how the future mayor should not go about managing city affairs, read the late great Jack Newfield’s article about Rudy Giuliani from 2002, “The Man, the Mayor, the Myth” (later the basis of his book The Full Rudy), which charted the failures of “America’s mayor” in areas like education, garbage disposal and basic human decency. “Giuliani was a mayor of excess, with some big accomplishments and some spectacular lapses into cruelty and fanaticism,” Newfield wrote. “He sometimes seemed a captive of his demons.” Fortunately, the 2013 candidates don’t seem quite as bad as that—for the most part. But Rudy Giuliani is a very low bar, indeed.

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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.

An Oregon Trail to End Student Debt

Activist holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

On July 1, federal student loan rates doubled—yes, doubled—from 3.4 percent to 6.8, after members of Congress went home for fireworks without lifting a finger on the issue. Meanwhile, in Oregon, legislators unanimously passed a bill paving the way for students to attend public universities without paying tuition or taking out traditional loans at all.

Fueled by the organizing savvy, policy creativity and relentless effort of the state Working Families Party, and by a classroom of outstanding college students, the new bill offers a progressive victory and a common-sense national model on an issue where Congress has recently been derelict at best. The legislation, which Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber is expected to sign, instructs Oregon’s Higher Education Coordination Commission to come up with a “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” public university financing model in time for a legislative vote in 2015.

Under such a model, students pay nothing while in school; instead, after graduation, four-year students pay 3 percent of their income for the next two decades or so to fund the education of future students—without a role for the big banks. (Those who attend for less time would pay a pro-rated amount.) Once start-up costs are addressed (no small matter), the system could pay for itself. It would ask the most money of those graduates best equipped to pay, and it would represent a huge stride in putting an end to the crushing debt horror stories which Occupy Wall Street helped to place on the national radar.

While victories like Oregon’s are often the result of decade-long campaigns, this incremental step came to pass with a speed that surprised even its most ardent supporters. And it demonstrates the power of unconventional alliances. The “Pay It Forward” approach has been tried in Australia, but not in the United States. It got legs here when John Burbank, who directs the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute, connected with a college class taught by Barbara Dudley, who co-founded the Working Families Party of Oregon. Students in the Portland State University class, “Student Debt: Economics, Policy and Advocacy,” took up a push for “Pay It Forward” as their group project, and the WFP embraced it as a legislative priority. Together, they seized legislators’ attention, and secured their support.

In the process, WFP activists and allies talked to thousands of students, built a coalition ranging from MoveOn.org to the faith group Jubilee USA, and won over university administrators. It was a classic “inside-outside” fight, in which the potency of skillful lobbying and common-sense argument were amplified several times over by grassroots firepower. The unanimous vote in favor of the bill can also be credited in part to the WFP’s successful electoral efforts last year, in which the party ousted Oregon’s most conservative Democratic state representative in a primary and helped power another Democrat to victory in a swing district. With the Higher Education Coordination Commission tasked with incubating the plan, and a legislative vote looming in 2015, the WFP has pledged to get to work on ensuring a progressive result from the HECC, and making approval of that plan a major issue in the 2014 campaign.

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“We never imagined that we would actually accomplish something like this, and definitely not in such a short time,” student Ariel R. Gruver told The New York Times. The Times’s Richard Perez-Pena noted that “the speed and unanimity offer a sharp contrast with Washington.” You can say that again. Progressives, who face slow-motion crises on a battery of issues and the ever-present danger of cynicism, could use another reminder that it’s still possible in this political landscape to pass a big, just idea through hard work and visionary organizing. Both will also be necessary if we’re to send a powerful message to members of Congress who just doubled interest rates: Americans deserve much better.

Zoë Carpenter reminds Congress that it isn’t just about interest rates.

Take Action: Tell Your Representatives to Follow Oregon's Lead to End Student Debt

Do We Have the Will to Fight for the Jobless?

Job seekers wait in line at a construction job fair. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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.

Turmoil in Egypt. Edward Snowden’s travel plans. Immigration reform’s fortunes. Obamacare’s troubles. The Weiner-Spitzer return to politics. There’s no shortage of items absorbing political energy and media bandwidth. But simmering below all of this is a crisis that goes without the immediate attention it demands. Last Friday morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yet another month of lackluster jobs numbers. While Washington has long since lost any sense of urgency regarding the jobs crisis, this is an issue that continues to poll at the top of Americans’ concerns.

Our economy is stuck at just over 2 percent growth, and the rate of productivity is worse than anemic. We have hit a point where an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent inspires cheers of “it could’ve been worse!” The result is a painful “new normal” for too many of our fellow Americans.

Few commentators even mention that most of the 195,000 jobs added last month, as well as the ones added in the last few years, are low-paying, temporary, part time and usually without benefits. Much of the job growth we have seen is in restaurant, retail and temporary work—the sort of jobs that rarely offer basic security, let alone a foothold for people to climb into the middle class.

For working families, the struggle is painful, persistent and real: Hourly wages have plummeted to record lows, while executive pay has soared to record highs. There is no longer an income gap; there is now an income gulf. In 1978, the average American chief executive earned 26.5 times more than the average worker. Today, that gap is four times larger, with chief executives taking home 206 times more than average workers.

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 Fourth of July and the Meaning of Patriotism

The first issue of The Nation, dated July 6, 1865, included an editorial titled “The Great Festival,” which noted that in the eighty-nine years Americans had been celebrating Independence Day on the Fourth of July, “never before have we had such cause of rejoicing.” The Civil War had ended less than three months earlier, and the editors and founders of The Nation—abolitionists and other radicals based largely in New York and Boston—were close to ecstatic about the possibility of finally fulfilling the country’s early promises:

It is not simply the birth of the nation which we now commemorate, but its regeneration…We celebrate not only the close of a long and bloody civil war, but the close of the contest which preceded and led to it, that, as it was well called, “irrepressible conflict,” which for half a century absorbed all the intellect of the country, perverted its understanding, corrupted its morals, and employed most of its moral and mental energy, either in the attack or defence, in the nineteenth century of the Christian era, of one of the worst forms of barbarism;—a conflict, too, which, during the last twenty years, began to exercise a paralyzing influence on industry and to poison social intercourse…We celebrate, in short, not simply the national independence, or the return of peace, but the close of the agitation about slavery, and the extinction of slavery itself. How tremendous an influence this fact is likely to have on our moral and intellectual progress, we can now only conjecture.

“It is not simply the triumph of American democracy that we rejoice over,” they concluded, “but the triumph of democratic principles everywhere.”

* * *

Another interesting piece related to Independence Day appeared in 1925. An editorial titled “Degrading the Fourth of July” took issue with the attempt by President Calvin Coolidge to establish a “national mobilization day” on July 4 to test the nation’s preparedness for war. Commending Coolidge’s rejection of the army’s first choice for the mobilization test day, November 11—pointing out the hypocrisy of transforming into a preparation for future wars the anniversary of the end of “the war to end all wars”—The Nation argued that the values of the mobilization day were equally inappropriate for Independence Day.

Why pick upon the Fourth of July? The glorious Fourth was by no stretch of the imagination ever intended to be a day given over to the preparation for war, to the rattling of the saber. It was historically the day that America cut itself loose from what was considered a tyranny and a despotism exercised or typified by men in red, bearing arms.” “It is a great nation play-day, when men wish to be on the sands of the shores or in the mountains or on track or field, and we do not think that this effort to make the whole nation—for that is the real idea—stand at attention and salute and goose step and fire blank cartridges will go down with the people…

There is a drift here which is sweeping this country along the very lines which the founders of the government dreaded.… What should be done with the Fourth of July is not to make it a day for turning out all the troops available, and as many unthinking civilians as can be formed into line, but a day for the reaffirmation of that distrust and dislike of permanent armed forces and of their glorification which actuated George Washington and all of his associates, none more so than Thomas Jefferson, the radical, the disarmer of the fleet, whom it is now the fashion to celebrate.

* * *

Finally, in the summer of 1991, we published dozens of comments by prominent writers and progressive public figures on the meaning to them of the word “patriotism.” Many contributors explored the tension between patriotism and internationalism, while others struggled to reconcile authentic patriotic feeling with an all-too-complete understanding of the ways in which their own countries repeatedly betray those loyalties. Read more of these meditations on patriotism from contributors like Christopher Hitchens, Katha Pollitt and Benjamin Spock here:

James Chace, professor at Bard College: “Patriotism in the American grain might be embedded in the idea that America must act—at home and abroad—as an exemplar of liberty. To the extent that America violates this principle, it is the obligation off the citizen to dissent. For an American, I know of no other definition of patriotism.”

Molly Ivins, columnist for Dallas Times Herald: “I believe patriotism is best expressed in our works, not our parades. We are the heirs of the most magnificent political legacy any people has ever been given. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” It is the constant struggle to protect and enlarge that legacy, to make sure that it applies to all citizens, that patriotism lies. When some creepy little shit like Richard Nixon (whose understanding of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances is so profound that he proposed to send teamsters thugs and murderers out to ‘break the noses’ of antiwar protesters) becomes President, our heritage is diminished and soiled in such an ugly fashion. …Vote, write, speak, work, march, sue, organize, fight, struggle—whatever it takes to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Ishmael Reed, novelist: “The duty of the true patriot, a citizen of the world, is to expose nationalism as the village idiot of the Global Village.”

Jesse Jackson, president of the National Rainbow Coalition: “The true patriots invariably disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, and are persecuted in their lifetimes even as their accomplishments are applauded after their deaths.”

Gore Vidal, novelist and essayist: “It is very hard for most Americans to be patriotic when there is no agreed-upon country to cherish, only warring tribes and, over all, a National Security State to keep the lid on.”

Carlos Fuentes, novelist: “If patriotism is a value, it manifests itself quietly, in acts of care and solidarity, in love for things both great and minute in one’s heart, but without ever ceasing to discover the values one loves at home in other peoples and in other lands. But patriotism is more voice than silence, more criticism than irrational approval. You only criticize what you care for. Criticism and dissent can be a greater act of love than cheers and raised fists or stiff-armed salutes.”

In a 2010 follow-up to that feature, The Nation asked you, our readers, what your own definitions of patriotism were; fourteen responses can be found here. A few samples:

Carole Heaster of Gordontown, PA: “My idea of patriotism is to work to assure that every citizen and visitor to the USA should be treated with the dignity of humanity that the Constitution intended, acknowledging that when one person is abused, we are all abused, and if we don’t speak up, we are all guilty of that mistreatment. We are only exceptional when we care effectively for the least of ours, the poor, the old, the infirm, the disenfranchised, the orphaned, the jobless, the hungry, the homeless, the war-torn veterans and their families and those seeking asylum from abusive governments outside of our borders. We can’t say this country is exceptional unless we each act in an exceptional manner towards our neighbors.”

Jerry Shapiro of New York, NY: “Patriotism means nothing to me. It is a mindless acceptance of your role in a tribe (much like a religion or a cult). The progressive left has long wasted its time trying to prove that we are just as patriotic as the right. Let the right have patriotism—it’s as meaningless as most of the things they like to own. I would prefer a nation of thoughtful, compassionate people who care about the people they live with and the lives they lead. People who don’t have to prove anything to anyone. People who support the nation when it’s right, and oppose it when it’s wrong.”

Rick Nagin of Cleveland, OH: “Patriotism celebrates the great cultural achievements of American writers, artists and performers. It celebrates our great athletes. It celebrates our great accomplishments in science and engineering. It celebrates and protects our country’s natural beauties and resources. Nationalism is a bad thing. It is a belief in the superiority of our country over others. It is divisive, racist and anti-democratic. It is allegiance to the corporate class that dominates our country and pursues maximum profits at the expense of our people. Nationalism justifies imperialist wars of conquest and aggression. Patriotism requires a relentless fight against nationalism.”

Feel free to share your own thoughts on patriotism in the comments section below.

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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 US Should End the Cuban Embargo

A barber works in his shop in Havana. Cuba has turned over hundreds of state-run barber shops to empoyees across the country. (Reuters/Desmond Boylan)

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

Is there a greater example of utter folly than America’s superannuated policy toward Cuba? During more than 50 years corrupted by covert actions, economic sabotage, travel bans and unending embargo, the United States managed to make Castro and Cuba an international symbol of proud independence. Intent on isolating Cuba, Washington has succeeded only in isolating itself in its own hemisphere. Intent on displacing Fidel Castro, the US enmity only added to his nationalist credentials.

A recent visit reveals a Cuba that is already beginning a new, post-Castro era. That only highlights the inanity of the continuing U.S. embargo, a cruel relic of a Cold War era that is long gone.

Cuba is beginning a new experiment, driven by necessity, of trying to build its own version of market socialism in one country. Just as populist movements in the hemisphere looked to Castro and Cuba for inspiration, now Cuba is learning from its allies as it cautiously seeks to open up its economy.

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 Abortion, Republicans Treat Women Like Children

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

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.

Last week, the House passed the most restrictive abortion bill to come to a vote in Congress in the past decade.

Despite the efforts of Democrats and a few moderate Republicans who spoke out against the unconstitutional bill, which bans almost all abortions after 20 weeks, it passed in a vote of 228 to 196. This is only the latest blow in the GOP’s all-out assault on women’s reproductive rights.

Republican leadership considered the bill, called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, an “appropriate” response to the outrageous crimes of Kermit Gosnell, whose horrific abortion clinicinflicted numerous injuries and deaths. But the GOP learned the wrong lessons from the Gosnell case, which illustrates the dangers of illegal abortion and the damage that ensues when disadvantaged women without access to safe clinics are forced to put their lives in the hands of a murderer.

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: Susan Sontag on the Avant-Garde, Communism and the Left

Susan Sontag. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Through June 30, the New York Theater Workshop is staging a fascinating, ingenious stage production called Sontag: Reborn, based on the late writer’s early journals. Moe Angelos, who also wrote the adaptation, plays a teenage Sontag, sitting at a desk writing precocious journal entries, as well as the older Sontag, who appears on a screen smoking cigarettes and rifling through old papers. Among those papers shown is the April 13, 1964, issue of The Nation, which contained her first contribution to the magazine, a review of the highly scandalous Jack Smith film, Flaming Creatures. The film had been seized by New York City police and declared obscene by the courts. Much in Sontag’s review anticipates her monumental essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” published in Partisan Review later in 1964. Her Nation review begins:

The only thing to be regretted about the close-ups of limp penises and bouncing breasts, the shots of masturbation and oral sexuality, in Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, is that it makes it hard simply to talk about this remarkable and beautiful film, one has to defend it.

Among the things one must defend the film from, Sontag thought, was censorship:

Art is, always, the sphere of freedom. In those difficult works of art, works which we now call avant-garde, the artist consciously exercises his freedom. And as the price the avant-garde artist pays for the freedom to be outrageous is the small numbers of his audience, the least of his rewards should be freedom from meddling censorship by the philistine, the prudish and the blind.

By 1964, Sontag had already married (and divorced) the sociologist Phillip Rieff, published her first novel, The Benefactor, and participated in the first issue of The New York Review of Books (a condensed version of her essay on Simone Weil was reprinted in a recent issue). As evidenced by its inclusion in Sontag: Reborn, the publication of her review in The Nation was an important part of Sontag’s emergence as one of the most important American intellectuals in the second half of the twentieth century.

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The flurry of books in the late 1960s that established that reputation received mixed reviews in The Nation, which may—may—explain why she didn’t write for us again for more than thirty years: while Nation reviewers consistently admired Sontag’s boldness and sophistication, they often judged that her reach tended to exceed her grasp, and that her criticism demanded things her fiction couldn’t supply. The Williams College professor Charles Thomas Samuels, in his review of Against Interpretation (1966), Sontag’s first essay collection (which included her review of Flaming Creatures, her essay on Weil, and “Notes on ‘Camp,’”), called her “a writer of rare energy and provocative newness, sustained by an intimidating if arcane erudition.” Yet she was also, in his view, “less a critic or an aesthetician than she is a publicist with a subtlety and flair suitable for an epoch in which nothing but the recherché and novel will serve.” Similarly, the late film scholar Robert Sklar, reviewing Styles of Radical Will in 1969, argued that “few critics are as capable as Miss Sontag…in making aesthetic criticism a form of philosophical inquiry.” But Sklar found in Sontag’s reliance on art as the basis for a broader criticism a deep “impatience” with politics that, despite her acute meditations on forms of consciousness, limited her influence as an intellectual:

This form of prophecy and critical insight, this mode of radical will, can be extremely clarifying and stimulating for the willing reader. But politics is an unwelcome intrusion upon it. A radical critique of consciousness, so it is said, is itself a radical political ideology. Do not speak therefore of war protests, black demands, student rebellion; how can one talk of changing the political system when human consciousness is the fundamental issue? When consciousness is altered, politics will necessarily be different—or irrelevant.

Both of these criticisms of Sontag would later be amended in the pages of The Nation, including by Sontag herself.

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The most notorious encounter between Sontag and The Nation came in 1982, when she and various other members of the New York left-liberal community—including our own Victor Navasky—gathered at Town Hall to express support for the Solidarity labor movement in Poland and to lament the imposition of martial law to put it down (and also to differentiate the left’s objections from the self-serving ones of the Reagan administration, which was then abetting worse atrocities in El Salvador in the name of anti-communism). Sontag rose to deliver a speech questioning the attendants’ legitimacy to criticize the crackdown in Poland, given what she perceived as insufficient denunciation of Soviet Communism in previous years. The key lines—excised from the version she gave to The Nation to publish, but included by the editors in prefatory remarks, corroborated by other attendees of the event, and not denied by Sontag in later exchanges—were these:

Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?

She argued that the American left had blinded itself to the crimes committed by Soviet Russia by falsely positing differences between communism and fascism that, regrettably (in her view), did not exist. As most recently evidenced by the events in Poland but also much earlier, communism was, Sontag alleged, “fascism with a human face.”

That this would be a relatively uncontroversial thing for someone—even someone on the left—to say today is a testament to how flat our historical thinking has become. The intellectual climate of 1982—Reagan and Thatcher ruled, and it was still several years before glasnost and perestroika—meant that Sontag’s comments created a firestorm. In the best of our tradition, The Nation reprinted Sontag’s remarks and opened its pages for comment from other prominent intellectuals of the left, like current Nation editorial board member Philip Green (“If Susan Sontag really needed to learn from the right, that was her problem, not ours”); the longtime (self-described) liberal anti-communist Diana Trilling (who called Sontag insufficiently scrubbed of the Red-tinged trace); Phillip Pochoda (“I, for one, should hate to see Sontag, long one of the most valued assets of the American left, allow herself to become caricatured as Norman Podhoretz with a human face.”); and Christopher Hitchens (“Let us be charitable and assume that she was trying to galvanize an audience by deliberate exaggeration.”). In a follow-up editorial, The Nation dug up a few noteworthy Reader’s Digest headlines from the period in question—i.e. “What is a Communist?” by Whittaker Chambers—but, fortunately, now you can go through our own archives here to see what we did write about communism and the Soviet Union between 1950 and 1970. (Or, since there is no reason those should be the operative years, you might read our two-part series by Bertrand Russell from 1920, headlined on the cover, “I went to Russia believing myself a communist, but…”)

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Thirteen years after our last review of a Sontag work, later in 1982 the Fordham professor Walter Kendrick wrote about A Susan Sontag Reader, edited by the writer herself. Echoing previous Nation criticisms Kendrick called Sontag’s fiction “dull and derivative” but her nonfiction “vivacious,” adding, however, that he felt she had shown no desire to grapple with recent critical developments, including “semiotics, deconstruction, the reinterpretation of Freud, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx.” In the fifteen or so years since she had first been reviewed in The Nation, Sontag had gone from radically ahead-of-the-curve to somewhat old-fashioned and passé: “If the Reader is in fact Sontag’s self-portrait, what she shows us is an unexpectedly conservative, philosophically retrograde writer whose primary function has always been domestication.” Kendrick felt that Sontag’s role in American culture was to essentially declaw the “avant-garde” artists she discovered and promoted—echoing previous criticisms of Sontag as, basically, a publicist—and to make them safe for the “liberal bourgeois civilization” she had originally set out to undermine. Further, whereas previous Nation criticisms of Sontag had emphasized her airy playfulness, Kendrick’s review pointed out the self-styled seriousness (which Sontag: Reborn portrays to disturbing effect):

None of this would make any difference if Sontag didn’t have such important influence on somebody, somewhere. I must confess, I don’t know anyone who looks to Sontag for esthetic guidance. But she takes herself so seriously, and her publisher treats her with such awe, that I can only presume the existence of a vast, anonymous readership, hungry for Sontag’s pearls. If these readers exist, their reverence is Sontag’s only real achievement—a notable achievement, to be sure, but a far more trenchant criticism of the world of American letters than any essay she ever wrote.

Larissa MacFarquhar, then a Paris Review editor and now a New Yorker staff writer, noted the same point in a much more Sontag-friendly review of a 1995 biography: “She had a sophisticated understanding of the comic but no sense of humour.”

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Sontag’s second and final contribution to The Nation—not counting the speeches she gave elsewhere and published here—was a dispatch from war-wracked Bosnia, where she spent much time in the 1990s. A supporter of NATO’s intervention, Sontag—flipping Robert Sklar’s previous criticism of her on its head, while subtly reinforcing her 1982 jabs at The Nation and the left—lamented that intellectuals back in the United States were not more engaged in conflicts in the rest of the world:

If the intellectuals of the 1930s and the 1960s often showed themselves too gullible, too prone to appeals to idealism to take in what was really happening in certain beleaguered, newly radicalized societies that they may or may not have visited (briefly), the morosely depoliticized intellectuals of today, with their cynicism always at the ready, their addiction to entertainment, their reluctance to inconvenience themselves for any cause, their devotion to personal safety, seem at least equally deplorable…By and large, that handful of intellectuals who consider themselves people of conscience can be mobilized now solely for limited actions—against, say, racism or censorship—within their own countries. Only domestic political commitments seem plausible now. Among once internationally minded intellectuals, nationalist complacencies have renewed prestige…There has been a vertiginous decay of the very notion of international solidarity.

A few years later, the late Alexander Cockburn turned the very same argument against Sontag herself, writing two blistering columns attacking her acceptance of the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society—presented by the Jerusalem International Book Fair, though the prize committee consists of topic Israeli government officials—and for traveling to the city to accept it. “Does Sontag see no irony in getting a prize premised on the recipient’s sensitivity to issues of human freedom, in a society where the freedom of Palestinians is unrelentingly suppressed?” Cockburn asked in an April 2001 column.

Two months later Cockburn noted Sontag’s visit to Jerusalem and praised her comments upon receiving the prize that “the doctrine of collective responsibility as a rationale for collective punishment is never justified, militarily or ethically.” But for Cockburn that wasn’t enough: “She deserves credit for condemning the occupation policies, but she could have gone a lot further.” He went on to quote Sontag allegedly referring to Ehud Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, as “an extremely persuasive and reasonable person,” while Cockburn called Olmert “a fanatical ethnic cleanser.” (A letter to the editor from Sontag in a subsequent issue claims Cockburn fabricated the quote; he insisted it was correct and corroborated it with the Jerusalem Post journalist who had initially reported it.)

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In yet another interesting twist to Sontag’s relationship with The Nation, less than two years after the Cockburn spat she gave a speech, published as the lead article in our May 5, 2003 issue, honoring a group of Israeli soldiers who had refused to serve in the occupied territories, linking their commitment to American dissent from the then-launched war in Iraq and to a broader, endless, global struggle for justice and human rights. In the way that, in her earlier days, Sontag used art to launch broader philosophical investigations, this Sontag speech, given the year before she died, used political dilemmas to embark on meditations about ethical commitment, generally. Though it would be an insult to suggest that Sontag published the speech as a response to all her Nation critics over the years—from Sklar’s suggestion of her impatience with politics to Cockburn’s charge of hypocrisy—the speech had that effect, and, ten years later, rewards a careful rereading:

The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions—who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.

The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are—and always will be. How things really are—and always will be—is neither all evil nor all good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us to that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.

The cry of the anti-principled: “I’m doing the best I can.” The best given the circumstances, of course.

Let’s say, the principle is: It’s wrong to oppress and humiliate a whole people. To deprive them systematically of lodging and proper nutrition; to destroy their habitations, means of livelihood, access to education and medical care, and ability to consort with one another. That these practices are wrong, whatever the provocation. And there is provocation. That, too, should not be denied.

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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.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

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