Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

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.”

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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.

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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.

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.

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