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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

Ending the NSA's State of Secrecy


(AP Photo)

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.

Revelations of the sweeping collection of data on Americans by the National Security Agency (NSA) require that Congress launch a grand inquest into the post-9/11 national security state. Special committees in both the House and the Senate, armed with subpoena power, should investigate the scope of activities, the legal basis claimed, the operational structure and the abuses and excesses with a public weighing of costs and benefits.

The “war on terrorism” has gone on for twelve years, and while President Obama says it must end sometime, there is no end in sight. Secret bureaucracies armed with secret powers and emboldened by the claim of defending the nation have proliferated and expanded. The surprise of legislators at the scope of NSA surveillance shows that checks and balances have broken down.

We now know that the NSA, apparently acting under the secret orders of the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), amassed phone records of and private information about Americans, drawing data from phone companies. These records admittedly give the NSA the ability to track the associations and the activities of anyone whom the agency chooses to target.

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 United States of Surveillance, Through the Years


NSA headquarters in Fort Meade circa 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)

The standard justification for the National Security Agency’s recently disclosed domestic data-collection program—it doesn’t break any laws—makes me think of Michael Kinsley’s observation that what’s truly scandalous is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. It should make us all less comfortable, not more, if it’s true that the wide-ranging data-collection programs exposed by Edward Snowden received the blessing of all three branches of the federal government.

Many commentators have argued, as Thomas Friedman did last week in The New York Times, that virtually any domestic surveillance by agencies like the NSA is legitimate in the post-9/11 world. But this misses the longer history: nearly every tool for domestic surveillance that the US intelligence community has attempted to use since 9/11 was on its wish list decades before the attacks. And The Nation has been there to track those tools every step of the way.

In 1966, New York Post journalist Anthony Prisendorf wrote about the Bureau of the Budget’s attempts to create a National Data Center, which would centralize the government’s sprawling information about every single American. The backlash was fierce. Prisendorf quotes one analyst from, of all places, the RAND Corporation—described in a 1959 Nation exposé as a think tank “set up to mask a relationship between the Air Force and the scientists which either or both did not care to make explicit”—who noted that if the data collection capabilities were made available to a future administration hostile to civil liberties “it would make for an extremely efficient police state.” Prisendorf added:

Centralizing government files would eliminate perhaps the best safeguard of personal privacy—bureaucracy. Compiling all that is recorded about an individual is now often a difficult and, consequently, a discouraging task. If the National Data Center were established, the mere push of a button would end all that.

Moreover, he argued, the existence of the data center “would lead to pressures—within and outside the federal government—for the creation of a Personal Data Bank.” The proposal for the National Data Center was dropped a few years later because of lack of public support—and after public hearings in Congress raised questions about its constitutionality. But the NSA plays a long game: it is currently building a massive data accumulation center in the Utah desert that makes the 1960s proposal look like child’s play. NSA whistleblower William Binney—profiled in The Nation last month by Tim Shorrock—has claimed that the Utah facility is intended for storing precisely the kind of personal information files that opponents of the National Data Bank in the 1960s feared the plan could lead to. There were no public hearing in Congress this time around, nor any hint that in a democracy there should be some input from the public whose privacy is in question.

In a 1975 article with the memorable title, “The Issue, of Course, Is Power,” civil liberties lawyer and frequent Nation contributor Frank Donner argued that the committees that had just been appointed to study US intelligence activities should particularly focus on the use of domestic surveillance for political and anti-populist objectives. Abuse of such capabilities, Donner argued, was not incidental, but inevitable:

Every activity of the target, however legitimate and indeed constitutionally protected, is treated with suspicion and monitored: who knows; it may be a vital piece in a sinister not-yet-revealed subversive design. Since, in the intelligence mind, the stakes are so large—our very survival as a nation—overkill is almost deliberate. Ultimately, the intelligence institution exploits reasons of state to achieve autonomy and, by a parallel process, its operations become ends in themselves.

Donner went on to dismiss one of the arguments ritually hauled out, as it has been in recent weeks, to defend widespread domestic surveillance: that the collected data is used only by the government agencies that are supposed to use it, and access is prohibited to all others. Surveillance operations, Donner wrote,

have become a collaborative endeavor by a constellation of federal, state and urban agencies. An agency that is barred by its mandate or lack of funds from a particular area of domestic intelligence enters into a liaison relationship with other units with a similar or overlapping missions for the purpose of exchanging data, operational information, and files.

The same point has been made repeatedly in our pages by the investigative reporter David Burnham. In a 1978 article titled “The Capacity to Spy on Us All,” Burnham catalogued the ways in which the Carter administration, which had come to office decrying Nixon’s disregard for civil liberties, had actually gone beyond its Republican predecessors in utilizing new surveillance capabilities against US citizens. Sound familiar? Burnham also reported that the FBI had obtained warrants to install “pen registers” on two telephones used by a suspected gambler in New York City. The registers were designed to track the same kind of “metadata”—numbers dialed, length of conversations and, now, location—that the newly disclosed PRISM program apparently targets en masse. Now, as then, such data is both easier to legally acquire and arguably more useful to law enforcement, as Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker. Finally, Burnham notes that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, then being debated in Congress, was intended not only to limit wiretapping but also to systemize and authorize practices like “electronic vacuum sweeping” that were otherwise of questionable legality, not to mention constitutionality. The result, Burnham feared, was deeply troubling:

At a time when advanced surveillance techniques, high-speed computers and other electronic devices make possible ever more intrusive invasions of individual privacy, the critical examination of every new government program must become even more rigorous. For while each individual step may be defended as only an insignificant addition to the machinery already in place, the combined force of these actions could at any time precipitate drastic changes in both the ability and the willingness of the American people to make independent choices about their future.

The underlying argument, that domestic surveillance operations are not necessarily as constrained by law as their defendants tend to claim, is one that Burnham returned to in a 1983 cover story, “Tales of a Computer State,” about the role of private corporations in domestic snooping. As the Snowden revelations have confirmed, companies are apparently powerless to resist government requests for access to their data:

The decision of the Census Bureau during World War II to give the Army demographic data that pinpointed the residences of Japanese-Americans in California—despite a law prohibiting such sharing of information—is instructive. How much pressure would the chairman of the board and the chief executive officer of TRW [a credit agency with a large computerized store of information on individuals] have to bring on the vice president in charge of the company’s information division to persuade him to give the C.I.A. access to credit reports stored in the division’s computers?

To the notion that “it can’t happen here,” as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, Burnham would might justifiably reply: Why not? It has before.

The question looms before us: Can the United States continue to flourish when the physical movements, the buying habits and the conversations of most citizens are under surveillance by private companies and government agencies? Sometimes the surveillance is undertaken for innocent purposes, sometimes it is not. Does not surveillance, even the innocent sort, gradually poison the soul of a nation? Does not surveillance limit personal options for many citizens? Does not surveillance increase the powers of those who are in a position to enjoy the fruits of that activity?

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For more on the history of domestic surveillance as covered in The Nation, read Burnham’s major investigative report on the FBI and Tim Shorrock’s 2006 feature, “Watching What You Say: How Big Telecom May Be Helping Government Spies.” More recently, Nation articles by Shorrock, Jaron Lanier, and David Cole have continued our coverage of this alarming story.

Inequality Enters the Mayor's Race

Bill de Blasio. (AP images)

In our recent special issue, “The Gilded City,” we described New York as “a city of dazzling resurrection and official neglect…remarkable wealth and even more inequality.” As reported by the Fiscal Policy Institute, the top 1 percent of New York City’s wage earners took in nearly 39 percent of the wealth. Between 2000 and 2010, family income in New York City’s wealthiest neighborhoods increased by over 55 percent in spite of the recession, while family income in the city’s poorest neighborhoods actually decreased by 0.2 percent. As reported by the US Census Bureau and cited recently in The New Yorker, if the borough of Manhattan were a country, the income gap between the richest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent would be equal to that in countries including Sierra Leone, Namibia and Lesotho.

The human cost of this staggering inequality in America’s largest city cannot be understated: neighborhoods without daycare, grocery stores, quality schools or equal access to transit. Residents in one New York City housing complex, in the shadow of the wealthy DUMBO neighborhood, have to walk more than a mile to clean their clothes. The inspiring movement of low-wage workers to organize and fight for higher wages is promising, as is the city’s recent hard-won passage of paid sick days for most (but still not all) New Yorkers. But as The Nation has reported extensively over the last five years, income inequality remains a foundational issue that plagues New York, and many of America’s largest cities.

I was excited to see then, in a speech delivered in late May at The New School, New York City Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio address income inequality head on, describing New York as a “gilded city where the privileged few prosper and millions upon millions of New Yorkers struggle just to keep their heads above water,” and declaring an “Inequality Crisis.” In his speech, de Blasio decried “caviar pizza and edible gold” in a city beset by poverty and stagnating wages for the working and middle class. These rhetorical flourishes drew attention, but most promising to me is that de Blasio backed up his words with a plan and a way to pay for it. In presenting an agenda that The Observer said would “drastically shift the city’s priorities,” DeBlasio released a substantive package of thirty policy proposals to tackle income inequality, “Jobs For All New Yorkers, Growth for All Neighborhoods.”

DeBlasio proposed a wide range of solutions, from dramatically expanded job training and apprenticeship programs to more investments in career paths for indigenous New Yorkers—people who have grown up in many of the devastated neighborhoods described above. In his proposal, DeBlasio focuses extensively on revitalizing New York City’s university system, CUNY, as a pathway to better jobs for immigrant and low-income communities. And he proposes major reforms to the City’s economic development program, challenging the City to focus more intensely on economic development across all five boroughs.

De Blasio’s plan mandates a living wage and a plan to provide healthcare for all workers in businesses receiving city economic development funding. And he pointedly proposes expanding paid sick days for the 300,000 people who were left out of the recent New York City paid sick days bill, which we also support as a critical next step for low wage workers.

Most interesting about the plan though is, what Nation magazine contributor Jarret Murphy called “the Robin Hood aspects,” including a proposal to end corporate subsidies and direct that money to CUNY, and to a revolving loan fund for small businesses. This goes hand in hand with one of de Blasio’s other big ideas—an income tax surcharge on the wealthiest New Yorkers to pay for expanded early childhood education and true universal pre-k, which is given only to a fraction of the city’s 4-year-olds in a hope-for-the-best lottery system. Perhaps no other investment would do so much to help the next generation of New Yorkers. As we have argued in The Nation since the start of the “great recession” and well before, we can’t truly address income inequality without addressing taxes and corporate tax loopholes.

While all the leading Democrats in the race decry inequality, de Blasio so far has the most substantive proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy back to the levels the city set after 9/11. This is a critical component of any serious plan to address inequality, and must be on the table.

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Inequality is, of course, a global challenge. The question, then, is how New York City—as America’s largest city and its most extreme example of inequality—can be a laboratory for solutions. What can a mayor actually do about urban inequality? Given the priorities of the last twelve years and a genuine moment for new leadership in New York, this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to answer that question.

In his speech at the New School, Bill de Blasio spoke bluntly and humanely about income inequality as the greatest challenge facing New York City, and argued for a “dramatic” change of direction. To see this issue take center stage in the mayor’s race—with real proposals behind it—is heartening, and is the kind of big thinking that could echo well beyond the City’s borders. This plan has a lot to commend, and we hope others will follow suit with a substantive vision for ending inequality and moving us beyond New York City’s new “gilded age.”

Read The Nation’s special New York issue for more on Bloomberg’s legacy and the possibilities for a more progressive city.

The Third Koch 'Brother' Hits North Carolina


North Carolina capitol building. (Courtesy of Flickr user Jim Bowen)

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’s something rotten in the state of North Carolina—and it smells like money. Specifically, Art Pope’s money.

In fact, Pope and his cash are responsible for North Carolina’s recent meteoric rise as the poster child for regressive, conservative politics.

As the head of Variety Wholesalers (a family-run discount store holding company) and the $150 million Pope Family Foundation, he has invested in an array of think tanks and advocacy groups dedicated to aggressively aligning the state’s political terrain with his business interests. Governor Pat McCrory, whose campaign he bankrolled, recently named Pope to the powerful post of state budget director.

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 Politics of Basketball


James Naismith. (Wikimedia Commons)

This season’s NBA playoffs have produced some timely commentary by Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin, whose recent basketball-related dispatches discussed the emergence of Jason Collins as the first openly gay major-sports player and defended the pundit Bill Simmons’s controversial comments about fans of the Memphis Grizzlies still being affected by the trauma of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination forty-five years ago. Zirin’s thoughtful reporting from the intersection of politics, sports and culture is unique in today’s highly stratified media environment.

And yet the coverage of basketball in the pages of The Nation has a long history. As early as 1935, a writer using the pseudonym Left Wing documented and decried “the growth of that extraordinary sport which for want of a better name is called basketball.” Wing noted that basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, a physical education instructor at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, sarcastically adding:

Only a retainer of the Y could possibly have invented such a fiendish pastime, a game which in forty short years has been responsible for as many brawls, lost tempers, broken relations, fights, arguments, and discussions as any branch of athletics. Most of us are ashamed of our mistakes and try to hide them, but the inventor…actually boasts of the fact that basketball is played in countries as remote as Latvia, Turkey, Arabia, Madagascar, Uruguay, Bulgaria, and Korea.

Wing went on to dismiss the game as “a sort of winter rival to football,” inferior to the older, more popular game because unlike football, “basketball is played in overheated gymnasiums or field houses, in a dusty, smoke-laden atmosphere conducive to anything except sport.”

The next major Nation article on basketball came in 1960, when the novelist Willard Manus wrote about the gambling scandals that had plagued the game throughout “the Fixed Fifties…this flabby decade.” As Manus wrote, bookies and athletes routinely conspired to fix the score of college basketball games in order to reap major gambling profits. “College basketball is, as it was ten years ago, a maggoty mess of moral hypocrisy, out-and-out dishonesty, side-of-the-mouth connivery,” Manus wrote. “The current scandal stands as an almost too-pat symbol of the moral journey to nowhere that college basketball is making.” Manus also paused to criticize professional basketball, whose rising popularity in the 1950s, he claimed, was directly due to fallout from the early ’50s college basketball fixing scandals and the contemporaneous rise of television. The same sports promoters who had profited illegally from the college scandals had colluded to professionalize their schemes, Manus explained:

They did it by pandering to the lowest tastes of the new fans of the TV age—armchair addicts who crave high scores, sensational shooting matches, speeded-up action. Out the window went all the old subtleties and niceties of the game: intricate zone defenses, possession paly, clever passing and strategy. The pro game became all offense and no defense. To these eyes, watching it is about as exciting as watching pinball game for two hours.

Even if subsequent changes in the rules and culture of the game have rendered obsolete many of Manus’s complaints, one thing remains obvious: basketball, at both the college and professional levels, is undoubtedly “big business.”

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In recent decades Nation writers have more directly addressed the politics and socioeconomics of basketball. In a special sports issue in July, 1998, Peter Rothberg—now our associate publisher—wrote about the issues surrounding the NBA lockout that significantly truncated the 1998–99 season. “The marketing and packaging of the NBA and, yes, the crazy salaries have led to a glittery product long on flash but short on fundamentals and passion,” Rothberg wrote.

Longtime fans have become increasingly alienated by the transformation of their sport into glam entertainment. No one at the top cares, though, as long as the corporate boxes keep selling and ticket prices keep rising…So what if lifelong fans are leaving their seats in droves. There’s still a waiting list for tickets, and the kids priced out of the games can still buy Bulls jackets.

A 2003 Comment piece by sportswriter Murray Polner, “Dissent and Basketball,” told the story of Toni Smith, captain of a Division III basketball team outside New York City, who had stoked national outrage for refusing to salute the American flag before games, citing an abhorrence for economic inequality and the impending war with Iraq. “We have to wonder whether an obscure 21-year-old would have caused the media storm she did if this country weren’t so divided, anxious and fearful about the threat of war—and if dissent among big-time athletes hadn’t become so exceedingly rare,” Polner said. An article the following year by Kelly Candaele and Peter Dreier made the same point. In “Where are the Jocks for Justice?” they attributed the relative dearth of politically involved athletes to an improvement in their collective economic situation, in part thanks to a strong labor movement. “Morality is much bigger than athletics,” the writers concluded. Dave Zirin, a jock for justice if ever there were one, would certainly agree.

For our second special issue on sports in August 2011, Ari Paul updated readers on the NBA’s labor disputes—the league was then in the midst of yet another lockout. Paul argued that although “many fans dismiss sports labor conflicts as squabbles between billionaires and millionaires,” there were real labor and class issues at stake. The majority of NBA players, Paul made clear, were not earning gargantuan salaries like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James: “You don’t see most players in commercials, and while they might earn more than the blue-collar worker watching the Finals in a bar, they don’t accumulate ruling-class wealth.”

Moreover, he noted that players weren’t the only employees who the owners were locking out—that group also included parking lot attendants, bartenders and merchandise retailers—Paul claimed “the struggle is really not about billionaires versus millionaires but billionaires versus everyone else—including consumers.” Ultimately, the owners’ assault on NBA players was not that different from the attacks on labor that were seen around the country in 2011 and since:

The reality here is that owners are using a recessionary market to justify economic restructuring that would put more money in their pockets, taking it from the highly skilled laborers who make the product so singularly mesmerizing. There is an impulse in the United States to say to skilled workers that they can afford to take some cuts. But that impulse typically stops at CEOs and owners. Maybe this high-profile labor struggle is an opportunity to confront that logical inconsistency.

The NBA labor dispute was eventually settled, but that logical inconsistency, in sports and in society at large, lives large.

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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.

Fix Bankrupt Student Loan Proposals


Gan Golan, of Los Angeles, dressed as the “Master of Degree” holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

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.

Interest rates on student loans will double on July 1 unless Congress acts. Since the phrase “congressional action” has become an oxymoron, this will quickly degenerate into an unnecessary crisis, requiring parents and students to threaten their legislators to get any relief.

Why is action even a question? There is a universal consensus—left, right and center—that it is vital to our nation to educate the next generation. If we want to compete as a high-wage, high-skill country, our children will need the best in college or advanced technical training. And all agree that gaining that higher education is a necessary, if not sufficient, requirement for entering the middle class.

So just as we pay for public education for kindergarten through 12th grade, we should ensure that advanced training or a public college education is available for all who earn it. None of this is even vaguely controversial.

Yet, despite this consensus, we are pricing college out of the reach of more and more families. State support for public universities has lagged. Increasingly, the costs have been privatized, with the bill sent to students and families.

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.

Take Action: Implore Your Reps to Support the Student Loan Fairness Act 

Building a Progressive Caucus in NYC: Why it Matters


New York City Council Member and Progressive Caucus Member Jumaane D. Williams, of Brooklyn, joins Occupy Wall Street protesters in marching to Zuccotti Park Monday, November 7, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Anthony Weiner is headline gold. Since the ex-congressman made his candidacy official, the New York City mayor’s race is drawing attention from national outlets and local tabloids alike (though unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be Weiner’s policy positions that they’re interested in). While the headline-writers have a field day, New York progressives are grappling with some serious questions (including): Could we finally elect a progressive mayor? Which, if any, of these candidates would qualify? But too few of us are considering an urgent companion question: What about the City Council?

Because of term limits, almost half of New York’s City Council will be replaced in November’s elections, making this a moment of great opportunity for progressives. While a mayor can single-handedly fuel or obstruct progress, the council could play a crucial role in muscling issues onto the agenda, forcing the hand of the mayor, and forging a more just and inclusive New York. The council has historically been a fairly timid body, but it doesn’t have to be. The public is ready for more progressive representation. In a 2012 poll for the Community Service Society, New Yorkers by a three-to-one margin chose “help working New Yorkers and their families get ahead” over “make New York City a good place to do business” as a policy priority for the next mayor. Strong majorities supported raising the state minimum wage, spending more on education, and mandating paid sick leave.

In the year since that poll, New York City has passed paid sick leave, despite Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s previous recalcitrance, and Mayor Bloomberg’s predictable veto. That victory is due in no small part to the efforts of the council’s Progressive Caucus, whose members provided most of the signatures for the “discharge petition” that helped dislodge the bill. The caucus, first formed in 2010 and currently co-chaired by Councilmembers Brad Lander and Melissa Mark-Viverito, right now includes a fifth of the council.But it’s been punching above its weight class, providing critical leadership in bringing participatory budgeting to New York, expanding our living wage law to cover economic development subsidies, and driving forward the effort to strengthen our ban on discriminatory profiling and create an inspector general for the NYPD.

New York City has a history of national progressive leadership, from our subway system, to our public university system, to our campaign finance system. The caucus is out to restore that legacy, at a moment when it’s desperately needed. With progress so often obstructed or diluted in Congress, cities have a particularly crucial role to play in pushing policies that are both achievable in the short-term and scale-able as national models.

“13 Bold Progressive Ideas for NYC 2013,” a document proposing dramatic reforms: enfranchising legal immigrants to vote in municipal elections; banning employment discrimination based on credit; significantly expanding our bus rapid transit network; revitalizing our Commission on Human Rights.

As Councilmember Lander wrote at The Nation, “Despite representing a huge Democratic majority of New Yorkers (47 of the 51 members are Democrats), the council has played second fiddle to powerful Republican mayors, and frequently yielded to real estate and big-business interests. The goal of the Progressive Caucus is to change that.”

That won’t happen through an “inside game” alone, and the Progressive Caucus’ effectiveness can be traced in part to its deft embrace of an “inside-outside” approach, working very closely with unions, community groups and the Working Families Party, and marching arm in arm with low-wage workers trying to organize, and occupiers facing down Wall Street.

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But to bring about the kind of change we need, the Progressive Caucus needs to grow its ranks. That’s why it’s launched an aggressive new electoral effort, the Progressive Caucus Alliance, aimed at bringing a new wave of true progressives onto the council. It’s an unprecedented effort: a visionary, ideologically coherent group with a broad and popular agenda pushing hard to reboot the council’s political realities. In the past, much of the council’s priorities, policies, and possibilities have been dictated by deals cut among the Democratic Country chairs of Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, who hand-pick speakers in a conservative, spoils-driven process that keeps the council timid.

Working with grassroots allies, the Progressive Caucus Alliance is working to elect candidates who will put democratic rules reforms in reach, empower the body to be an independent, progressive check on the mayor, and enact those 13 Bold Progressive Ideas. That won’t be easy, and a report in Friday’s New York Times reveals an additional challenge: “A group of real estate executives and corporate leaders…plans to spend up to $10 million to make sure the City Council elected this fall is friendly to business.”

But the progressives passed their first test, electing Donovan Richards—a young leader drawn into politics after losing a childhood friend to gun violence—in a February special election. Now they’re going to bat on behalf of seven deserving candidates with grassroots credentials, with a few more endorsements likely to come.

They’ve set ambitious goals. Whether they can meet them depends in part on how many New York progressives sign up to knock on doors, make phone calls, do Get Out the Vote, and, yes, donate money (matched six to one for New York City residents). Hard work, but it’ll be more fun and rewarding than reading tabloid headlines about Anthony Weiner.

This Week in 'Nation' History: A New Golden Age for Bicycles?

This week’s long-overdue unveiling of New York City’s bike-sharing program—we need not promote its bank-derived name—has led some to herald the dawn of a new era. “Bicycling, the most efficient form of urban transportation ever designed, is now available when people need it,” wrote Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer, chair of the Congressional Bike Caucus, in the New York Post. “I could not be more excited for you.”

What’s lost in these celebrations is the longer history of the bicycle not just as an instrument for exercise or leisure, but as an extraordinarily practical way to get around cities. In the decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century—between its popularization in the mid-1880s and the rise of the automobile in the interwar period—the bicycle enjoyed what some historians have called a “golden age.” Rollin Kirby, the first-ever winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1922, wrote an article for The Nation in 1931, “An Echo of Wheels,” remembering an era when “the world world was awheel, men, women, and children” and “every town had a bicycle club.”

Kirby began to reminisce after seeing an article in the New York World announcing the dissolution of a bicycle club in Newburgh, New York, which had finally resigned itself to the obvious fact “that the bicycle craze would never come back.” For decades past the bicycle’s apparent peak, Kirby wrote,

they went on hoping that [automobiles] might be only a passing fancy; that when the public was tired of being whirled at forty miles an hour along the roads and the novelty of effortless locomotion had worn off, once more sanity would return and they might with safety venture off on a modest club run…Doubtless they argued a bicycle was safer, less noisy, cheaper, healthier than an automobile and that facts so self-evident must, in the long run, bring people to their senses.

From Kirby’s vantage point, that was never going to happen. He found much to mourn in the passing of the bike-friendly world:

I do not know whether it was a better world than the one I now inhabit, but I am certain it was a more leisurely one and decidedly a quieter one. It seems, as I look back on it, a healthier one, although the statisticians tell me the span of human life has been extended since then. The deaths on the highways were trifling then as compared with those of the motor age, and although life, gauged by the ingenious but inconclusive graphs the actuaries present, may have been shorter, it most assuredly was safer on the main roads.

Two years later, The Nation’s anonymous columnist The Drifter—supposedly a pseudonym for the literary editor, Carl Van Doren—expressed some hope that because “the craze for speed might be nearing an end,” the bicycle could someday achieve a comeback. While some considered the bike “extinct” as a mode of transportation, The Drifter reported, the Netherlands maintained special bike paths on certain highways; certain bike-friendly associations in the United States had even attempted to introduce bills into state legislatures “calling for the setting aside of three or four feet on public roads for the use of cyclists.” Clearly, those were the ideological forebears of those contemporary bike-lane proponents whom the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Colorado in 2010 claimed were trying to “threaten our personal freedoms.”

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Some eighty years later, the bicycle has indeed enjoyed a renaissance in cities around the United States and the world. Part of this is due to the inherent populism of the bicycle, Nation contributing writer Ben Adler wrote in “Wheels of Progress” in 2011:

When it comes to combating greenhouse gas emissions, obesity and other hazards of modern life, bike lanes are not a panacea. But they’re a good place to start. Eventually, they can help reshape not just our concept of the city and its streets but the way residents define themselves.

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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.

Why the Military Protects the Command Structure Instead of the Victims


A woman Marine recruit waits to fire an M-16A2 rifle during basic training at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. (Flickr/Expert Infantry)

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.

’Tis the season for scandals—real and manufactured—in Washington. But if our elected officials are searching for a real scandal, maybe they should start with the officer leading the Air Force’s anti–sexual assault initiative who was charged with sexual battery this month. Or the sergeant in Texas who allegedly forced a subordinate into prostitution. Or the 26,000 sexual assaults that happened in our military in the past year alone.

This epidemic has festered for far too long. At this moment, an American female soldier in a war zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. Under the current military justice system, victims must sometimes report a rape to their own rapist. Unmarried victims raped by married men can be charged with adultery, while the rapist goes free.

This is all powerfully documented in the 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War. The film exposes a military rife with misogyny and sexual harassment. It lays bare the stark reality sexual assault survivors face: Reporting these traumatic crimes often leads to even more trauma. Too often, victims’ claims are used against them, and they are ignored, interrogated or ridiculed. The result is a military system that makes it easier to rape—and easier to get away with it.

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.

Take Action: Tell Your Senators to Address Sexual Assault in the Military

This Week in 'Nation' History: The Politicization of the IRS

The recent imbroglio involving the IRS allegedly targeting conservative groups for investigation is not the first time the agency has been accused of politicizing its tax assessments—and, as it almost goes without saying, it hasn’t always been right-leaning groups who have drawn its scrutiny.

A major scandal erupted in 1951 after it was discovered that individual IRS agents were being routinely bribed into ruling in favor of certain, typically affluent, taxpayers. A Nation article in early 1952 titled “Internal Confusion in Internal Revenue,” by Norman Redlich, argued that IRS scandals “will exist as long as personal judgments determine how much money individuals and corporations shall pay to the Federal Treasury each year.” Moreover, Redlich argued, vague or lax enforcement regulations—precisely what caused a woefully understaffed IRS office in Cincinatti in 2010 to scrutinize groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names—lead to shoddy evaluation practices and, ultimately, to a loss of confidence in the tax collection process and in the government as a whole.

The quickest way to destroy confidence [in the tax system] is to let the public think that some persons…are “getting away with something”…

Corruption in tax-gathering can never be entirely eliminated from a tax system as extensive as ours. But it can be minimized, and certainly it should not be encouraged by inefficient organization, careless administrative practices, lax enforcement of the law, or patronage politics.

While the current scandal suggests the presence of “corruption” only in the loosest sense, the point remains. As we quoted Michael Macleod Ball, chief of staff at ACLU’s Washington legislative office, in our editorial last week: “Even the appearance of playing partisan politics with the tax code is about as constitutionally troubling as it gets.” Much of this, we argued, is due to the hazy legality surrounding campaign finance in the wake of the Citizens United decision. Sadly, it often seems this vicious circle is precisely the goal of those groups who now claim to be victimized, and who have been trying to insert billions of dollars into the electoral process and to starve government agencies like the IRS for years.

The Nixon administration aggressively used the IRS to go after its “enemies,” as Senator Frank Church’s Senate Intelligence Committee documented with devastating detail in its mid-1970s reports. Years before the Church Committee, however, the tax lawyer Joseph Ruskay wrote for The Nation, in “New Muzzle for Churchmen” from 1972, about how Nixon’s IRS “has demonstrated an unprecedented interest in the civil rights, anti-poverty and anti-war activities of certain religious organizations.” In 1976, an article titled “The IRS Bullies the New South,” by Jason Berry—who wrote most recently for the magazine about Pope John Paul II’s legacy, in 2011—reported that the agency was routinely using its investigative powers to target leaders of the civil rights movement so as to “offset the gains” made in the previous twenty years. “In Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, the IRS functions, in effect, as an arm of political systems which are trying by economic means to keep blacks out of power,” Berry wrote. As in the early 1950s and as today, those local agents were permitted to unfairly target civil rights leaders because of “the structure of the IRS nationally and the perversion of its legitimate powers by regional agents.” After Citizens United, the rules governing the tax status so-called social welfare groups are “very much in flux,” as we argued in last week’s editorial: “It is absurd—and wrong—to expect IRS auditors to sort the mess out.” But so long as the federal regulations regarding money in politics remain unclear—to the benefit of those with much of it—that absurdity will doubtlessly continue.

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