Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Your credit card issuers are hoping that the sixth time will be the charm for a bill they've been pushing since the Clinton years: "The Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act" (now S.256 & H.R.685). This legislation would make it more difficult for people turning to bankruptcy as a last resort to actually discharge their credit card debts.
Considering that most people who file for bankruptcy are squeezed middle-class homeowners who experience a job loss, divorce, or medical emergency (see Dan Frosch's "Your Money or Your Life"), you'd think that Congress might be timid about introducing such a draconian bill with 46 million uninsured and on the heels of record job losses. As research from Demos shows, American families' debt has skyrocketed over the past decade because of stagnant wages, rising basic costs, and abusive practices on the part of a deregulated credit industry. Many families are borrowing to make ends meet, and are just one missed paycheck away from financial collapse.
Somehow, though, that kitchen-table reality hasn't reached the Washington bubble. In DC, the banking lobby's line about frivolous debtors lacking personal responsibility plays well on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps that's because the industry was Washington's single largest contributor in 2000. Or perhaps it's because they haven't heard from you. Senator Specter (R-PA), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, held a hearing on February 11th on the Senate bill. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate, and Democrats Kennedy (MA) and Durbin (IL) are leading the fight against it.
Click here to contact your Senator now. If you've got a credit card, you've got a problem with this bill. With the threat of consumer bankruptcy defused, issuers will have no reason to refrain from escalating the fee and penalty rate wave they've been riding to record profits in recent years.
Ex-Nation intern Chris Kromm and the Institute for Southern Studies--a "think tank/act tank" founded by civil rights veterans, which publishes the award-winning Southern Exposure magazine--have launched a new blog, Facing South.
The Institute has been at the forefront of campaigns for economic justice, campaign finance reform, environmental sanity and most recently the defense of voting rights and the reigning in of war profiteers (over 40 percent of military contracts go to corporations operating in the South).
Why Facing South? Because the South is far from a lost cause for social change. Progressives in the region are getting energized, laying infrastructure and finding openings that draw on the region's populist streak and unbroken history of movements for justice and dignity.
And there's much to build on recently: A campaign for economic justice in Florida won a 71 percent vote to boost the minimum wage last November. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee's recent contract victory for 8,000 North Carolina farm-workers was an important victory in the struggles for immigrant rights. Successful efforts to ward off corporate encroachment, like the Public Safety and Justice Campaigns to halt prison privatization in several states. Progressives are getting more serious about electoral politics, too--one third of the delegates at South Carolina's Democratic Convention last May were members of a growing Progressive Caucus.
Facing South will chronicle these sources of inspiration--as well as the inevitable outrages-- to move forward the debate about progressive prospects in the red states. Click here to check it out.
In secretly taped conversations in 1998 and 1999, President Bush admitted to deliberately "stoned-walling" the press about his past drug use during the 2000 election.
Quote: "I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried." Instead Bush used "code words" about his "wild past" to appeal to the Christian Right as a sinner who had been saved.
If George Bush is the Cheech Marin of turning past vices into present virtues, then John Negroponte is Tommy Chong. While ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte was involved in Iran/Contra, misled Congress about Honduras' human rights record, and denied the existence of CIA-trained death squads which, in fact, were then hunting down, torturing, and killing suspected subversives.
But Negroponte's resume doesn't stop there. He was ambassador to the United Nations, when Colin Powell presented false WMD intelligence to the Security Council. And finally, if more proof is needed that he is the last person in the world you want to hear the United States has assigned to be ambassador to your country, Negroponte's most recent posting was Iraq.
So let's see, covert torture operations, involvement with Iran/Contra, failed nation building, and a history of lying to the press and Congress--sounds like the perfect man with the perfect qualifications for the job of Bush's National Intelligence Director.
George Hunsinger gives the lie to the Right's caricature of progressives as anti-religious zealots. As a minister, the McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America (CBFA), Hunsinger is working hard to reframe the "moral values" debate by raising tough questions about how torture, pre-emption, unjust war, and poverty can be tolerated by people of moral and religious conviction.
Hunsinger has tapped into a rich tradition of religious progressive activism--from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Father Robert Drinan to Rev. William Sloane Coffin. He shared his thoughts on Iraq, torture, and the challenges facing progressive religious leaders in a recent email interview.
Torture is not a divisive issue for religious people. No religious person, and no person of conscience, can possibly justify it morally. An example of this is an emerging new network of religious progressives which recently published an "Open Letter to Alberto Gonzales."
My fledgling organization, Church Folks for a Better America, took the lead. In a short time we garnered over 225 signatures from a wide variety of religious leaders: Not only Catholics, Protestants and Jews, but also Muslims and Sikhs. We also made inroads among leading evangelicals.
The Open Letter got some good coverage. We were often mentioned alongside the ex-military lawyers who came out against Gonzales in press accounts. In the final Gonzales debate, our letter was quoted on the Senate floor.
Church Folks for a Better America came into existence almost by accident. On September 12, 2001, I found myself spending more time on the Internet than I care to remember trying to get a handle on what was really happening. I could see the ominous implications for war as well as for a crackdown on liberty at home. I wrote an Urgent Appeal opposing the invasion of Iraq on just-war grounds, signed by prominent academic theologians like Sarah Coakley, Stanley Hauerwas and Nicholas Wolterstorff as well as activists like JimWallis and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and published in Sojourners. I started flooding the inboxes of my friends each day with what I found by scouring the net.
Until the Abu Ghraib torture scandal I was pretty much just a guy alone in his office with a computer. By that time I had an enormous backlog of files. I wrote a new statement that I hoped we could run in the New York Times. I wanted to get it out there before the "transfer" of power in Iraq on June 30, 2004. When I was unable to raise the handsome sum the Times requires, a colleague suggested setting up a website a la Howard Dean. One thing led to another, and by August CFBA came online. And, with a few large donations and many smaller ones, An Appeal to Recover America's Moral Character"--the Dove Ad, as we called it--finally ran in the Times as a quarter-page ad on the Sunday Op-Ed page just prior to the presidential election. We also had enough funds to publish the letter in papers in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
I try to keep the website up-to-date, though as a professor I also have a day job. The site keeps abreast of Iraq news, in-depth analysis, good sermons, antiwar poetry and little-known websites.
It used to be said that the right had the wallet but the left had the pen. But then the Right discovered that if you had the wallet you could buy the pen. The rightwing take-over of religious discourse in America is part of a larger trend that has developed over the last 25 to 30 years. The right has learned to be extremely effective in shaping the political agenda and exploiting religious sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the liberal left has not always been hospitable to religious people. The renewal of a progressive movement in our country may well hinge on whether that can change. The Solidarity movement in Poland, where dissident intellectuals joined hands with the Catholic Church, is suggestive of what we need here. Jeffrey Stout's new book Democracy and Tradition is also seminal for the future of religion and politics in America.
Church Folks for a Better America is dedicated to the idea that the word "Christian" does not necessarily go with the word "Right." Our motto, taken from Martin Luther King, is addressed first to the churches: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." We are a rallying point for many Christians who are appalled when the churches remain silent. If the churches cannot speak out against something like torture, what good is it to have tongues?
The confirmation of Alberto Gonzales was, in effect, a national referendum on torture. No one in high places has been held accountable, the Republican-dominated Senate has acquiesced, and not enough people seem to care. Enormities like torture are increasingly papered over with democratic rhetoric and pious falsehoods. Anti-democratic forces in America tighten their grip, while we suffer from a will to ignorance. The elements of atrocity, manipulation and indifference add up to a spiritual crisis.
Let me add, however, that to some extent I was heartened by the quality of opposition to Gonzales. Senators Kennedy, Byrd, Durbin, and Reed, for example, all made distinguished speeches. They remind me of the hopes we once had, and might still have, for our beloved country.
Karl Barth (1886-1968), regarded by many as the 20th century's greatest theologian [and whom Hunsinger has studied], is, in one sense, something like Noam Chomsky. He does not fit neatly into familiar categories. Theologically traditional, he stood on the political left. Generous orthodoxy, as he represented it, inspires my intellectual and religious life.
Barth was the theological leader of the confessing church, the grouping of Protestant churches that resisted Hitler. He was a life-long democratic socialist. On the war question, he went back and forth between just-war pacifism and chastened non-pacifism. These are the parameters of my political views.
As a divinity student at Harvard years ago, I pounded the pavement for Father [Robert] Drinan during his campaign for the House of Representatives. It was a particular pleasure for me when, just recently, he volunteered his signature for The Dove Ad. In 1978-79, with the Riverside Church Disarmament Program, I served as an assistant to [Rev.] William Sloane Coffin, Jr. The loose-leaf anthology and course syllabus I developed on nuclear disarmament, which we called the Red Notebook, was widely distributed at the time. You might say that Church Folks for a Better America online is a successor to the Red Notebook.
Church Folks for a Better America owes a debt to great figures who have gone before us like Karl Barth, Martin Luther King, and Bill Coffin. You could look at it as my modest attempt to pay them tribute.
As for what's next, a larger anti-torture campaign is now in the works with the following goals: 1) Congressional action to stop exempting intelligence services from the torture ban imposed on military services; 2) Congressional action to outlaw the horrifying practice of extraordinary rendition/torture by proxy; 3) A clear statement from Bush that US policy does not condone torture in any form or under any circumstances; 4) The appointment of a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the issue.
Our work will also continue against the Iraq war. Destroying entire cities, as happened with Fallujah, is a form of terrorism, just as torture is a form of terrorism. Fighting terrorism by terrorism is at once immoral and futile. It has been clear since Abu Ghraib that the war cannot be won. The 14 new military bases planned for Iraq must be exposed and opposed along with the shameless profiteering still taking place. We join with all who call for an early and orderly exit, and for reparations for Iraq's long-suffering people.
As our list of supporters grows, we will combine Internet activism with direct mail and political action. Last fall the Dove Ad campaign saw seminary students raising money on 12 campuses across the country. Model sermons and prayers appear on our website along with alternative news and analysis. Congregations need a deeper understanding of the just-war tradition. Ordinary believers need to see the progressive implications of ordinary faith. They need powerful alternatives to the Religious Right.
We will work in concentric circles, beginning with the community of faith. Our efforts will be modest. Remember that we have only been around for six months. Though we will of course join in coalitions with anyone who shares our concerns, our particular calling is reaching out to people of faith, including elected officials. Republican Senators who profess to be believers, for example, have no business voting for torture. Through creative new faith-based initiatives, perhaps they too can be reached.
Al Franken's decision not to run for the Senate is a loss for the people of Minnesota and the country, but at least he'll have more time for his very funny radio show and books. I was just thinking about Al's first book today after reading a transcript of Rush Limbaugh's Valentine's Day show.
Recently, I wrote in this space about data showing that single women were more likely to be Democratic voters than married women, and I joked that this was another reason not to get married. Now, I do know that it's the nature of our political culture today that if a progressive, even a happily married one (16 years), makes a joke like that some right-wing blowhard is going to distort it for the sake of scoring cheap partisan points. So it wasn't a surprise that Rush Limbaugh, the grandaddy distorter of them all, stepped up to the plate to take a whack. But what did surprise me is that he took the opportunity not only to attack me but also my husband. Here's what he said:
"Now, The Nation is one of our favorite publications here, the far left fringe publication of the liberal journal of opinion that is edited by well known communist named Katrina vanden Heuvel whose husband is a well known communist at Columbia. Well, I use the term advisedly. Stephen Cohen's his name."
Now, I know that Limbaugh doesn't have a lot of experience with successful relationships, but attacking someone's spouse is generally considered to be pretty low down and dirty. In fact, some would call his reckless allegations libelous--my lawyer, for example. I also know that Limbaugh suffers from a rather severe case of McCarthy-era nostalgia, but equating liberalism with communism is tired and boorish even for someone who is a big, fat idiot. I use the term advisedly.
By the way, if Rush had done any research, he would have discovered that my husband now teaches, after many years at Princeton, at NYU, not Columbia. (Kids, this is an object lesson: read books, don't take drugs.)
As the Gannongate scandal grows more disturbing by the day, it is worth remembering that this is but the latest round in the Bush White House's assault on the freedom of the press.
It started with loyalty oaths at Bush campaign events, which turned town hall meetings into infomercials. This proved so successful they've exported the strategy. When Condi met with a group of French intellectuals, their questions were pre-screened for anti-Bush bias. (It was presumably a rather short Q&A session.)
Then we discovered the Bush Administration was using taxpayer dollars to buy the fourth estate and turn it into a dude ranch. Armstrong Williams was paid a quarter million to pimp for No Child Left Behind. Maggie Gallagher and Mike McManus, who should talk to Armstrong's agent, were paid considerably less to hold forth on the gay marriage amendment.
And now we've learned that a Texas Republican set up a fake news website and hired The Journalist That Dare Not Speak His Real Name (James Dale Guckert, aka James Gannon) to infiltrate the White House Press Corp and lob friendly questions. He infamously asked President Bush how he could work with Democrats who had "divorced themselves from reality."
It was at this point that pajama-clad bloggers, armed only with their Google search engines, uncovered that Gannon not only had a secret identity but also had gained access to classified documents that named Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. (Some connections to gay prostitution websites which Guckert-Gannon was involved in were also turned up.)
Despite the ease with which the blogosphere was able to uncover Guckert/Gannon's true identity and even though Guckert/Gannon had been denied credentials to enter the House and Senate press galleries, Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan claims post-9/11 security measures failed to detect a faux-journalist operating inside the White House under a pseudonym.
If you believe that, I have some Iraqi weapons of mass destruction I'd like to sell you.
The blogopshere is jam-packed with strategic advice for new DNC Chair Howard Dean. One of the most thoughtful pieces was written by Zack Exley--former director for MoveOn.org and former Dean and Kerry "net" mobilizer.
His Letter to the Next DNC Chair describes a new kind of politics emerging and lays out a blueprint for how the party can build a vast, permanent field organization with the "New Grassroots" by leveraging email, the web and a little technology. (Click here to read more about Exley's open letter.)
The latest strategic salvo comes from Zephyr Teachout--director of internet organizing for Dean's presidential campaign. Posted at personaldemocracy forum.com, it's a provocative piece calling on the party to pursue "an Internet-generated aggressive effort to re-establish local structures as vibrant, multi-purpose, cross-class continuous communities."
With references to Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol's research and Robert Putnam's seminal work on the decline of participation in civic life, Teachout observes that while the "net is disrupting some old channels for political power and offering new kinds of connections as well...without an aggressive effort, I worry that most of this energy will go into fundraising, list-building and maybe some online community building."
Sure, these aren't bad things, Teachout says, "but in the face of the Great American Loneliness and the Great American Powerlessness, I hope that the disruptive power of the internet might serve to create a new form of voluntary association: offline communities based on online connections but rooted in public places."
She also tackles the many reasons why local party poobahs might resist. But, as Teachout argues, "the best thing the DNC can do is be an aggressive hydraulic force outwards, with the net as its power--and all Democrats will be rewarded with a vastly stronger networked community, with deep loyalty and deep engagement of the party membership."
Teachout to Dean. Food for thought.
Zen on His Mind
"In his first post-election news conference...Dean said Democrats should not be afraid to stand up for what they believe, but he cast the party's core beliefs in mainstream language, avoiding some of the bombast of his presidential campaign. Asked whether there was a new, more subdued Howard Dean on view, he said, 'I'm not a Zen person. It's hard to answer stylistic questions. I am who I am...It's not intentional."(Washington Post, February 13, 2005)
"In order to make good on the new empowerment, we have to genuinely give power to the states and grassroots. That's what we did in our campaign. I believe in order to have power, you have to give up power. I know that sounds Zen-like, but it is true."(From an interview in Start Making Sense: Turning the lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics, by Alternet--available in March from Chelsea Green Publishing.)
In Bush's State of the Union address, he mentioned personal accounts seven times but private accounts zero times, which is interesting because only a few months ago he was using both terms interchangeably. But fear not, this was no mistake. The Republicans tested the phrase private accounts and found public support was much lower than when the same, exact, identical concept was called personal accounts. (Personally, I like caring accounts, but they didn't ask me.)
So the White House and its paid spin doctors, many of whom play journalists on TV, have taken to the airwaves to push the phrase personal accounts and chastise anyone in the media who employs the banished words to characterize ther Administration's Social Security agenda. Proof, if more was needed, that language is power and debates are won or lost based on definitions.
But here is the really funny thing about the personal/private accounts debate. Not only are they not personal accounts, they're not private accounts either. They are in fact US government loans. (Bear with me now, because this will only hurt for a moment.) You see, your payroll taxes will still be used to cover the benefits of current retirees, but under Bush's scheme the government will place a certain "diverted" amount into an account in your name. It sounds like a personal retirement account, but it's not. It's a loan. Because if your account does really well (above 3 percent), when you retire the government will deduct the money it lent you (plus 3 percent interest) from your monthly Social Security check leaving you with almost the same amount you would have received under the current system. If your account does really poorly (below 3 percent), you are out of luck. According to Congressional Budget Office, the expected average return will be 3.3 percent, so the net gain will be zero.
But wait, it gets better. These personal accounts aren't exactly US government loans either, because our government under the fiscal stewardship of George W. Bush no longer is running a surplus and therefore does not have the $4 trillion or so needed to cover the transition costs, and Bush refuses to raise taxes on his base (BUSH'S BASE, n. the wealthy).
So our government will have to borrow that cash. And if the last three years are any guide, our largest single loan officer will likely be the Central Bank of China. And who runs China's Central Bank, China, and the Chinese people with an iron fist? Why, it's our old friends, the democracy-loving, freedom-marching Chinese Communist Party. So Bush's personal retirement accounts=private retirement accounts=US government loans=US government borrowing=Chinese government lending=Chinese Communist Party loans.
Or as we like to say in Republican Dictionary land:
PERSONAL RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS, n. Chinese Communist Party loans.
We've had a grassroots groundswell of submissions from our readers after soliciting ideas for the Republican Dictionary project, which first debuted in this space last November.
Bush's "ownership society" was a big hit, "God" made a return, and Justin Rezzonico delivered the best definition of "Fox News" yet. I've included a sampling of the latest batch below. Please keep them coming in. (Click here to submit your ideas.) We are going to be collecting our favorites and publishing them as a book in the next few months.
ACCOUNTABILITY, n. Buck? What buck? (Martin Richard, Belgrade, MT)
BIPARTISANSHIP, adj. When Democrats compromise. (Justin Rezzonico, Keene, NH)
CHECKS & BALANCES, pl. n. An antiquated concept of the Founding Fathers that impedes autocratic efficiency; see also REFORM. (Robert B. Fuld, Unionville, CT)
FOX NEWS, n. Faux news. (Justin Rezzonico, Keena, NH)
GOD, n. Senior presidential advisor. (Martin Richard, Belgrade, MT)
NONPARTISAN JUDICIAL NOMINEE, n. An active member of the Federalist Society. (Mark Hatch-Miller, Brooklyn, NY)
OWNERSHIP SOCIETY, n. 1) A society where you're on your own. (John Read, Ownings Mills, MD); 2) A society where one-half of society owns the other half. (Anne Galvan Klousia, Corvallis, OR); 3) The euphemism used by robber barons and their political lackeys to promote or justify the extreme concentration of wealth into the hands of a powerful few. Synonyms: PLUTOCRACY, CORPORATE FEUDALISM. (Ken Stump, Seattle, WA)
SOCIAL SECURITY, n. Broker security. (Bruce Clendenin, Dallas, TX)
SPREADING PEACE, v. Preemptive war. (Bruce Hawkins, Silver Springs, MD)
STAY THE COURSE, v. To relentlessly pursue a disastrous policy regardless of how far conditions deteriorate. Antonym: "To cut and run." (Aja Starke, New York, NY)
TORTURER, n. 1) White House Counsel. 2) Attorney General. (Martin Richard, Belgrade, MT)
The federal budget is not just an accounting tool--it's a statement about our nation's values and priorities. This week, Bush released a budget that Representative Jan Schakowsky calls a "weapon of mass destruction."
It would drastically underfund domestic initiatives, from education to children's healthcare to homeless shelters to support for small businesses. The vast majority of Americans will be asked to sacrifice, with one exception: the millionaires who can afford to give something up. Their tax cuts--the same tax cuts that brought us unprecedented deficits--would be protected and likely even extended under Bush's proposal.
Bush's reckless policies are mortgaging our country's future. When he took office, the budget had a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. We now have a more than $3 trillion deficit. That $9 trillion swing is the largest fiscal reversal in US history.
These are not the right priorities for our nation. It is not only fiscally irresponsible, it is morally wrong to cap spending for the most vulnerable and the weakest among us--children, seniors, veterans, the poor and the working class--while pursuing tax cuts for the wealthiest without limits or restraint.
As a new project of the invaluable Center for Community Change points out, Bush once promised that as a country, "When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side." But his budgets have never matched that rhetoric, as a new TV ad produced by the Center makes clear.
This week, the Center is launching an ad campaign to engage voters in the "red" states of Missouri and Tennessee; the spot will also run in Washington, DC so the nation's decision makers will see it. The ad, titled "Jericho," focuses on the biblical language that Bush has used repeatedly to depict himself as a compassionate conservative and questions whether Bush's budget reflects the moral values of a compassionate man.
It's time to hold Bush accountable for those "wounded travelers." As Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center writes, "We cannot allow this nation to cross to the other side." (Click here for more info about the CCC and click here to help support its ad campaign.)
A new report recently highlighted in Ruy Teixeira's valuable Public Opinion Watch shows that one of the bright spots for the Democrats in the 2004 election was their performance among single women. The study, done by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner for Womens' Voices/Women Vote, showed that the "marriage gap is a defining dynamic in today's politics, eclipsing the gender gap, with marital status a significant predictor of the vote, independent of the effects of age, race, income, education or gender."
As Teixeira writes, the new research shows that unmarried women, who voted overwhelmingly for Kerry, "are social and economic progressives advancing a tolerant set of values." One more reason to oppose marriage. (Click here to check out the full report.)