Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Yesterday's New York Times's Sunday Styles section had a story about those of us called Katrina, and how we are handling the fact that we share a name with a Hurricane which has caused such enormous suffering and destruction.
The article notes how angry I was that Rush Limbaugh stooped so low as to link me to this human suffering. (He referred to the catastrophic storm as "Hurricane Katrina vanden Heuvel"). The Times reporter says that I dismissed the personal attack "and wheeled the issue into more comfortable terrain" by raising serious questions about the disaster in a recent piece.
Yes, I did raise questions about the shamefully inadequate response to the worst natural disaster in US history. But what the Times article didn't report were my personal reactions to the suffering. Nor did it convey my abiding hope that out of this tragedy--which has so starkly exposed our country's racial and class divide--will come a renewed understanding of the positive role of government in building a more just and equal America. Nor did it mention my search for how to most effectively help those hardest hit, spurred on, in part, by letters from many Nation readers asking our advice on the best ways to help.
On behalf of The Nation--and my colleagues who care so deeply about supporting grassroots relief efforts--I have made contributions to each of the following organizations listed below. I encourage Nation readers to consider these and other grassroots efforts in making your own gifts. Our website has also collected information about other ways you can help. (Click here for additional info.)
ACORN is a national, grassroots, dues-based organization of low-income people with 175,000 members. It's been highly effective in the campaigns for living wage-ordinances in 100 cities. Its headquarters was in New Orleans, and the group needs funds to establish temporary offices in nearby cities. More than 9,000 ACORN members lived in New Orleans before Katrina hit. Donations are going to locate missing members and provide housing for those who have been found. ACORN is holding town hall meetings around the country to discuss the hurricane response, and in the coming months, decisions about how to rebuild the city will take place. ACORN is one of the best hopes to ensure that the voices of those most affected by the hurricane are heard.
For more information: acorn.org
To donate: groundspring.org
Southern Mutual Help Association was founded in 1969 to help develop strong, healthy, prosperous rural communities in Louisiana. Working alongside southern Louisiana's fishermen and farmers, it is an advocate for preserving threatened livelihoods even as it assists in the process of change towards more sustainable futures.
Katrina has devastated the communities in which SMHA works. Louisiana's commercial fishers, the thousands of very poor families whose livelihood depends on fish, shrimp and shellfish from the bayous, have been virtually wiped out by the hurricane. Boats, docks and other infrastructure were destroyed, and the very waters they depend on have filled with salt, silt, and pollution, damaging and destroying fisheries. SMHA is still assessing the situation: It already knows the Acadiana region around Lafayette will have approximately 150,000 refugees looking for places to stay during the wait to return home (likely to be lengthy), and wondering how to recover and rebuild their future.
People throughout these fragile bayou communities will need long-term assistance, especially in the form of loans. But first SMHA must help stabilize the situation. SMHA has the commitment to be there for the long haul, and its mutually-trusting relationships with local communities will enable it to be effective in responding to local needs.
For more information: southernmutualhelp.org
To donate: southernmutualhelp.org/RuralRecoveryFund
Federation of Southern Cooperatives was established in 1967 to work with African-American rural communities in the South to save Black-owned land. In 1990 it successfully led efforts to pass the first "Minority Farmers Rights Bill." This membership-based organization can make sure aid is used not to deepen dependency, but to rebuild viable rural livelihoods. Their on-the-ground networks and local knowledge make them good candidates to loosen logistical bottlenecks and navigate complex politics; something national or international aid organizations cannot match. FSC is a member of Via Campesina, a global coalition of small farmers' organizations struggling for resource rights from the Mississippi to the Mekong deltas.
For more information: federationsoutherncoop.com
To donate: federationsoutherncoop.com/relief05.htm
It's Time for a New "New Deal"
New Orleans is destroyed, the Gulf Coast'sinfrastructure is in tatters and tens of thousands ofcitizens are without jobs as gas prices nationwiderise to record levels. Television sets brought thedestruction into all of our homes. But this WhiteHouse seemed unable to grasp the misery unfoldingbefore its own eyes.
Instead, President Bush treated the disaster as if hewere a loutish frat boy when he joked to Americansthat he had had good times partying in New Orleans asa young man and hoped in the near future to be able tosit on Senator Trent Lott's rebuilt porch in Mississippi.
But to really understand what went wrong with theAdministration's shameful response, we need to lookbeyond Bush's blame-the-other, pass-the-buck andwho-gives-a-____ attitude.
The Administration's ineptitude, as New York Timescolumnist Paul Krugman put it, was "a consequence ofideological hostility to the very idea of usinggovernment to serve the public good."
The government's failure was the result not of "simpleincompetence" in the Administration but "of a campaignby most Republicans and too many Democrats tosystematically vilify the role of government inAmerican life," LA Times columnist Robert Scheerargued. And as the Financial Times observed, "For thepast quarter-century in Washington...US politics hasbeen dominated by the conviction that what was wrongwith America would be solved by getting government offthe people's backs"--an attitude that contributed tothe criminal inaction on the part of the federalgovernment.
Indeed, you could see what the dog-eat-dog,antigovernment philosophy of the far right has reapedin the bloated bodies and raw sewage in New Orleans'sflooded streets.
That philosophy has attained new power under PresidentBush. While the Louisiana Army Corps of Engineersproposed $18 billion in projects that would haveshored up the protective levees, improved floodcontrol and perhaps prevented last week's breaches inthe levees' walls, none of these projects were funded.Instead, the White House cut the Corps' budget andactually proposed a further 20 percent cut in 2006.
Which raises the question: What steps should we taketo repair the breach that has become so apparent inour social fabric?
Here's one answer: Let's seize this moment bylaunching a twenty-first-century New Deal--with programsmodeled after the Works Progress Administration,updated for these times. Why?
A modernized version of the WPA would help ournation to rebuild New Orleans and Mississippi's GulfCoast, and repair the racial and class dividesthat we saw in such dramatic relief these past fewdays. It would rebuild and improve our nation'spublic infrastructure and (hopefully) alter the terms of ourpolitical discourse in the years ahead.
After all, Roosevelt's New Deal was so much more thansimply a vehicle for providing economic relief tocitizens in need. It gave Americans a sense of solidarity, a new social contract, as well as the chance to go to work. It also helped bring the country's infrastructureinto the twentieth century.
Take a moment to consider these statistics: The WPA, according to historian William Leuchtenburg, "built or improved more than 2,500 hospitals, 5,900school buildings, 1,000 airport landing fields, andnearly 13,000 playgrounds."
When the hurricane happened the poverty rate in NewOrleans stood at 28 percent--more than double thenational average. Fully half the children of Louisiananow live in poverty, the second-highest child povertyrate in the country (its neighbor, Mississippi, isnumber one). And as if to underscore the poverty ofour politics, the same week the hurricane devastatedthe poorest regions the Census Bureau released areport that found the number of Americans living inpoverty has climbed again--for the fourth straightyear under President Bush.
African-Americans, who are two-thirds of the city'spopulation, suffered the most in the hurricane's wake.As Professor Mark Naison wrote in a letter circulating on the web, this event is nothingshort of "a humanitarian challenge of unprecedentedproportions."
It showed "how deeply divided our nation is and howfar our social fabric has been strained" by the Iraqwar and by "policies which have widened the gapbetween rich and poor."
A post-New Orleans WPA could help to spark a new anddesperately needed moral struggle for economicrights. It could provide jobs to Louisiana andMississippi's poor and promote the goals ofequality, justice and economic opportunity acrossAmerican society.
(Bush's approach, in contrast, favors cronyism. Lastweek, Halliburton's stock hit a fifty-two-week high,presumably because Dick Cheney's former colleagues mayreap the benefits of this tragedy securinggovernment contracts to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Bush'sapproach has been a complete failure for the poor,elderly and largely African-American population ofNew Orleans.)
A WPA-style program could also begin to address therelated crisis of the inner cities--a crisis that, asthe Center for American Progress points out, thisAdministration has contributed to--as it has"repeatedly slashed job training [to the tune of morethan $500 million] and vocational education programs."
The Milton Eisenhower Foundation has argued that thefederal government should fund 1.25 million public-sector inner-city jobs. (Its website lays out a series of "what work" programs.)
We need a twenty-first-century WPA to restore theinfrastructure not only in Louisiana and Mississippi,but in every state in America. As Representative DennisKucinich said this past week, the task ahead that is required torebuild New Orleans includes a need for "new levees,new roads, bridges, libraries, schools, colleges anduniversities and...all public institutions, includinghospitals." The government's highest priority shouldbe on affordable housing and public infrastructure,not on casinos and luxury hotels, which skewdevelopment and contribute to environmentaldegradation.
We're "the only major industrialsociety that is not...renewing and expanding its publicinfrastructure," the Eisenhower Foundation reported.Instead of pork barrel spending on absurd bridges like"Don Young's Way" in Alaska, let's have the federalgovernment spend our money wisely to modernize ourhospitals, highways, universities and otherinstitutions.
Senator Kennedy said in a Senate floor speech this weekthat "we can't just fix the hole in the roof. We needto rebuild the whole foundation." He proposedestablishing "a New Orleans and Gulf CoastRedevelopment Authority modeled after the TennesseeValley Authority in its heyday." His good idea is to"plan, help fund and coordinate for thereconstruction of that damaged region."
Finally, we must seek to upend twenty-five years of right-wingpolitical dogma that is responsible for what wentwrong in responding to this disaster.
We need a new politics of shared sacrifice and arenewed commitment to a politics of shared prosperity--with a federalgovernment playing a vital role in creating a fairer, more just,full-employment economy. These proposals are common sense ideas; how could they be considered heretical in the hurricane'swake?
This is a moment ripe to reshapeAmericans' view of government. A twenty-first-century version of the WPA wouldhalt the dismantling and begin the rebuilding of our nation'scommunities, of lives enmeshed in deep poverty and squalor, and provide some hope that thehorrific abandonment by government ofthousands of citizens will be an aberration,not a nightmarish portent of what lies ahead.
As Republicans desperately cry out of one corner of their mouths to stop the blame game, they have been blaming everyone but themselves since this catastrophe. Let's look at their ever-evolving buck-passing strategies.
Blame the Victims: Both FEMA's Michael Brown and Homeland Security's Michael Chertoff, the Mutt and Jeff of this calamity, have blamed careless, destitute New Orleaners for not evacuating. "Those who got out are fine," Chertoff told NBC's Tim Russert. FEMA sought to excuse its delays in entering the city by blaming the looters.
Blame the Locals: In a stroke of political luck, both the New Orleans mayor and Louisiana's Governor are Democrats. As the New York Times reported, Karl Rove's PR strategy is to shift the blame to the state and city officials. All Sunday, White House officials and Fox News played this card. Expect more of this line of attack.
Blame the City: In perhaps the most bizarre excuse, Chertoff pointed the finger the city of New Orleans itself, saying, "It is a soup bowl. People have talked for years about whether it makes sense to have a city like that."
Blame the Media: Last week, Brown blamed media coverage for the perception that New Orleans had descended into lawlessness. "I actually think security is darn good.... It seems to me that every time a bad person wants to cause a problem, there's somebody with a camera to stick in their face."
Look on the Bright Side: As Americans continued to drown, Chertoff came up with this gem about the rescue efforts: "There were some things that actually worked very well. There were some things that didn't."
Ignoramus Defense: When FEMA's Brown, who was fired from his last job overseeing Arabian horse shows, said he was as "surprised as everybody else" to discover there were desperate people in the New Orleans convention center, CNN Soledad O'Brien asked, "How is it possible that we're getting better intel than you're getting?" But it was left up to our physically fit President for the whopper of the week: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."
It is likely this last defense will be scrapped for obvious reasons. If only we could do the same to this Administration for painfully obvious reasons.
Mark Naison on Race, Class and the Disaster
As Joan Walsh wrote in Salon last week, "The horror in New Orleans exposed the nation's dirty secrets of race and poverty." But as she went on to say, it not only revealed "the desperate poverty of the city's African-American population...but also the poverty of political debate in the US today." While, nearly a third of New Orleanians live below the poverty line, and conditions are even worse for children--fully half of the kids in Lousiana live in poverty----the poor are barely mentioned by our leading politicians. (The only state with a higher child poverty rate is Mississippi, another victim of the hurricane.) As if to underscore the poverty of our politics, the same week the hurricane devastated the poorest regions the Census Bureau released a report that found the number of Americans living in poverty has climbed again--for the fourth straight year under President Bush. It is now clear that any reconstruction effort--amidst the widespread poverty in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast--will require a massive infusion of relief money. Yet, in an obscene display of distorted priorities, the White House and Republican Congress vow that permanent repeal of the estate tax--a windfall for millionaires--remains at the top of the agenda when they return to Washington this week. (Write your congressperson and demand that instead of repealing the estate tax, those funds be used to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.)
For a powerful analysis of how the disaster's impact has revealed "the fault lines of a region and a nation rent by profound divisions" of race and class, read Mark Naison's open letter. It is one of many articles, statements, letters on this theme, that have been circulating in cyberspace in these last days. Naison is a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University in the Bronx.
?As I feared the first day the levees broke in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina will turn out to be the worst environmental catastrophe in modern American history, far dwarfing Hurricane's Andrew and Camilla and equalling, if not surpassing, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in its destructive impact. The flooding, and physical destruction of a historic American city, coupled with the complete destruction of homes, stores, businesses, roads and bridges along 80 miles of Mississippi coastline presents a humanitarian challenge of unprecendented proportions, with consequences that will be felt for years by those who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, jobs, and any sense of comfort or security.
?But this catastrophe also reveals, far more than September 11, how deeply divided our nation is and how far our social fabric has been strained, not only by the war in Iraq, but by policies which have widened the gap between rich and poor and left many poor people in American feeling marginalized and alienated.
?When the full tally of the dead from this storm and its aftermath, which includes those who will die from diseases contracted due to heat, starvation and contaminated water as well as the storm itself, we will see what TV photos of rescue operations are revealing--that the greatest loss of life, and the greatest suffering, was occurring among Louisiana and Mississippi's black poor. Look who we see wading through the the floodwaters in New Orleans streets, look who we see lining up to get into the Superdome, look who we see being taken off roofs. And look who we see being arrested for "looting." Unlike September 11, which revealed a city united in pain, and grief, and determination to rebuild; this crisis reveals communities which are profoundly divided by race and class, and in which the black poor in particular, bear levels of hardship which far exceed those of any other group.
?Not since the great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 have the economic and racial isolation of the black poor been revealed in such stark relief by an environmental catastrophe. What the images Americans on the evening news reveal about who is dying, who is trapped, who is without food, who is drinking contaminated water and yes, who is looting, should give all of us pause. Is this what the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws.
?One other thought comes to mind. If the American armed forces, including the national guard and army corps of engingeers, were not bogged down in a needless, unprovoked war in Iraq, would the response to this catastrophe have been quicker? Would the levee repair have taken place more quickly and effectively, more food and medicine delivered, more troops sent to preserve order? When all is said and done, many Americans will question whether the response to this catastrophe was hampered by the strain the Iraq war has exerted on our military's rapid response ability in the United States.
?I make these observations not in any way to detract by the heroism of tens of thousands of rescue personnel and ordinary people who have saved, and continue to save lives through their actions. Every one of us needs to give them, and the people of the affected states, or complete support, economically, politically, spiritually, and by any act of personal generosity that can ease someone's suffering.
?But we also cannot shrink from what this tragegy reveals about us as a nation at this stage in history. If September 11 showed the power of a nation united in response to a devastating attack; Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region, and a nation, rent by profound social divisions.
Dr. Mark Naison
August 31, 2005
And for a powerful comment on how the tragic events in New Orleans have laid bare the bigotry and lie of equal opportunity, read Gary Younge in Monday's Guardian.
An Appeal to Support the New Orleans Times-Picayune
Dear friends and colleagues,
The impact of Hurricane Katrina on working journalists in Louisiana has been overwhelming. In particular, the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune brought the country the story while losing their own homes and neighborhoods and workplace. It's because these courageous local journalists risked their lives to remain on-scene that we learned of the catastrophic failures of our government.
Now the staff of the Times-Picayune faces an uncertain future. As many as half lost their homes, and it is not clear whether the paper will continue to publish.
The journalists and support staff of the Times-Picayune need our help. Please pass this appeal to others who might be interested.
As many as half of New Orleans Times-Picayune staffers--from senior editorsto receptionists and printers--and their families apparently lost theirhomes in the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They lost everything.
Newhouse Newspapers, which owns the paper, has extended salaries for aperiod of time and offered other benefits, whether or not employees can makeit to work. Heroically, the paper continues to publish on the web(www.nola.com) and now in print.
But what our friends are facing is staggering, unimaginable.
Please help by contributing whatever money you can. Please note, thatbecause we had to set up this fund in a hurry, contributions are not yet taxdeductible. You can send money via electronic transfer from your bank or bycheck to:
"Friends of the Times-Picayune"
With checks payable to Sterling Bank, Account #151027625
Bayou Bend Office
5757 Memorial Drive
Houston, Texas 77007-8000
Please forward this note to others in your news organization, friends,professional groups or websites for posting.
On Friday, during a special session to provide relief money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, Representative Dennis Kucinich delivered a powerful indictment of the Administration's disgraceful priorities and issued a stirring call to rebuild a truly secure America.
"This amount of money is only a fraction of what is needed and everyone here knows it. Let it go forward quickly with heartfelt thanks to those who are helping to save lives with necessary food, water, shelter, medical care and security. Congress must also demand accountability with the appropriations. Because until there are basic changes in the direction of this government, this tragedy will multiply to apocalyptic proportions.
"The Administration yesterday said that no one anticipated the breach of the levees. Did the Administration not see or care about the 2001 FEMA warning about the risk of a devastating hurricane hitting the people of New Orleans? Did it not know or care that civil and army engineers were warning for years about the consequences of failure to strengthen the flood control system? Was it aware or did it care that the very same Administration which decries the plight of the people today, cut from the budget tens of millions needed for Gulf-area flood control projects?
"Countless lives have been lost throughout the South with a cost of hundreds of billions in ruined homes, businesses and the destruction of an entire physical and social infrastructure.
"The President said an hour ago that the Gulf Coast looks like it has been obliterated by a weapon. It has. Indifference is a weapon of mass destruction.
"Our indifferent government is in a crisis of legitimacy. If it continues to ignore its basic responsibility for the health and welfare of the American people, will there ever be enough money to clean up after their indifference?
"As our government continues to squander human and monetary resources of this country on the war, people are beginning to ask, 'Isn't it time we began to take care of our own people here at home? Isn't it time we rescued our own citizens? Isn't it time we fed our own people? Isn't it time we sheltered our own people? Isn't it time we provided physical and economic security for our own people?' And isn't it time we stopped the oil companies from profiting from this tragedy?
"We have plenty of work to do here at home. It is time for America to come home and take care of its own people who are drowning in the streets, suffocating in attics, dying from exposure to the elements, oppressed by poverty and illness, wracked with despair and hunger and thirst.
"The time is NOW to bring back to the United States the 78,000 National Guard troops currently deployed overseas into the Gulf Coast region.
"The time is NOW to bring back to the US the equipment which will be needed for search and rescue, for clean up and reclamation.
"The time is NOW for federal resources, including closed Army bases, to be used for temporary shelter for those who have been displaced by the hurricane.
"The time is NOW to plan massive public works, with jobs going to the people of the Gulf Coast states, to build new levees, new roads, bridges, libraries, schools, colleges and universities and to rebuild all public institutions, including hospitals. Medicare ought to be extended to everyone, so every person can get the physical and mental health care they might need as a result of the disaster.
"The time is NOW for the federal government to take seriously the research of scientists who have warned for years about the dangers of changes in the global climate, and to prepare other regions of the country for other possible weather disasters until we change our disastrous energy policies.
"The time is NOW for changes in our energy policy, to end the domination of oil and fossil fuel and to invest heavily in alternative energy, including wind and solar, geothermal and biofuels.
"As bad as this catastrophe will prove to be, it is in fact only a warning. Our government must change its direction, it must become involved in making America a better place to live, a place where all may survive and thrive. It must get off the path of war and seek the path of peace, peace with the natural environment, peace with other nations, peace with a just economic system."
HELP ACORN Fight for Hurricane Relief for All
At a time when this Administration failed to adequately mobilize to help the largely poor and minority communities of the Gulf Coast, please help ACORN, whose national headquarters are in New Orleans. The dedicated community leaders of Lousiana ACORN have long been at the forefront of efforts to win economic justice. ACORN President Maude Hurd writes: "To our friends and supporters around the country, I ask your help: we need your support to open a temporary national headquarters in Baton Rouge, LA, and, as soon as possible, reopen our offices in New Orleans. As we get up and running, we will work to help secure the housing, community services, and other relief our communities will badly need." So, please consider a contribution to the ACORN Hurricane Recovery and Rebuilding Fund. Tax-deductible checks can be sent to ACORN Institute--Hurricane Recovery and Rebuilding Fund, 739 8th Street SE, Washington, DC, 20003. Or donate online by going to www.acorn.org.
(This post was updated on August 31, 2005)
Like all Americans, I was horrified watching pictures of the destruction wrought by the hurricane. And like others who share the name Katrina, I found it eerie hearing and reading my name all over the news. But when Fox started calling the storm Killer Katrina, I prayed some right-wing idiot wouldn't stoop so low as to link me to this human suffering. But wouldn't you know, the biggest dittohead on the block, Rush Limbaugh, is calling the storm Hurricane Katrina vanden Heuvel. National Review's Jonah Goldberg, who has never seen a bad-joke bandwagon he could resist jumping on with both feet, blogged, "It would be pretty cool if Fox played to caricature and repeatedly referred to the hurricane as Katrina vanden Heuvel." He went on to imagine the lines, "The destruction from Katrina vanden Heuvel is expected to be massive. The poor and disabled are particularly likely to suffer from the effects of Katrina vanden Heuvel."
This is how they show respect for those who are suffering and dying--with lame quips? At least Limbaugh has the excuse that drug abuse tends to stunt emotional development. What Goldberg's problem is nobody has yet discovered. Natural disasters should be above infantile politics. (George W. Bush's decision to send his father and Bill Clinton to organize aid for the tsunami was one of his few international PR successes since 9/11.) It's so easy to take cheap shots. (Did you hear the one about OxyContin's new tag line? "What a Rush!")
We should be asking serious questions about why the Iraq War has led the White House to divert funds from an urgent project to upgrade levees and pumping stations in Louisiana, and why there aren't enough National Guard troops on hand in what is one of the worst natural disasters in US history. It is not a time for personal attacks. Let's empathize with those who are suffering and think about how we can help them.
It's a late August midnight, I'm on vacation, a hurricane named Katrina is heading to Florida--and I'm online. Like some 40 percent of Americans, I have spent half of my time this vacation in (thrice) daily contact with the office. Heck, I've even read the business section of the New York Times on Saturdays and watched Meet the Press on Sundays.
But I did get the hang of climbing out of my superstructured world. I've stared at the ocean for hours. I've slept late, taken a few cat naps (and then worked into the wee hours). I've sharpened my driving skills, and zip around narrow roads with the radio blasting Motown. I learned how to make a wicked martini and cook two new dishes.
As for reading material, I've polished off two novels (and the biography of Thomas Paine for political inspiration). I also brought along a copy of one of my favorite "self-help" books. I first read The Importance of Being Lazy two (long) years ago, and I recommend it to all you Type As who don't know what to do with yourselves on vacation. Read on, enjoy, and get into that hammock before fall descends.
What Are They Reading?KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
[originally posted online on August 12, 2003]
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING LAZY:In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations.By Al Gini.Routledge Books. 182 pp. $22.95 (cloth).
I know how to work hard but not how to play. Take last summer. On my first night of vacation, I went to bed with David Brock's Blinded By the Right. I woke at 3:00 AM filled with guilt that I was not at The Nation, on the barricades, fighting vigilantly against the right-wing forces destroying our country. Like some 40 percent of Americans, I spent most of my time that vacation in (more than) daily contact with the office by e-mail, cell phone and fax.
Another summer is here. It's been a long, arduous yet productive year at the magazine. (Don't get me wrong. I love my job. After all, how many people have work they find meaningful, filled with passion and purpose? But boy, am I tired.)
So, this August, I decided that I needed some justification for playing, dozing, gazing, ambling and goofing off without guilt. And, after some research, I found my guide: The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations, by Loyola College philosophy professor and Chicago radio personality Al Gini.
It's an engaging, eclectic, idiosyncratic account of the history of vacations and play--and a reasoned justification of why we need leisure in our lives. In fact, Gini goes even farther, drawing on studies of Americans' vacation habits to show why "doing nothing" is a fundamental human necessity. (Gini relies on the latest academic research as well as interviews, personal anecdotes, the writings of various ancient and contemporary theologians and the well-chosen observations of people like Aristotle, Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen, Juliet Schor and Arlie Hochschild.)
The book's thesis is both simple and liberating:
Even if we love our jobs and find creativity, success and pleasure in our work, we also crave, desire, and need not to work. No matter what we do to earn a living, we all seek the benefits of leisure, lassitude and inertia...All of us need to play more. All of us need to 'vacate' ourselves from our jobs and the wear and tear of the 'everydayness' of our lives. All of us need to get absorbed in, focused on, something of interest outside of ourselves. All of us need escape, if only for a while, to retain our perspective on who we are and who we don't want to be. All of us need to gain some feeling for, some knowledge of, the differences between distraction and insight, merriment and meaning, entertainment and recreation, laziness and leisure, rest and inertia.
We live in a society, Gini observes, in which modern workers talk about sleeping the same way that hungry people talk about food, and where Americans are now working more than ever before. (Perversely, we allow downtime for maintenance and repair of machinery but not for employees.)
As Joe Robinson, a former adventure-travel magazine editor, says, "Americans' most hazardous work-related illness is vacation deficit disorder or vacation starvation." (Did you know that there is only one other country in the industrialized world, Mexico, with fewer vacation days than America?)
Robinson--entrepreneur and business owner himself--isn't against the work ethic per se. What he's against is the crazed, psychotic overwork ethic. And he's started a crusade for federally required vacation time. After all, why is it that America is the only industrialized nation without a minimum paid-leave law? If President Bush can head to the ranch for a month, why shouldn't the Fair Labor Standards Act be amended so that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year gets three weeks' vacation time annually, at minimum? (For more info or to add your support to Robinson's crusade, click here.
The movement's rallying cry has a familiar echo: "Workers and travelers of America, Unite! We have nothing to lose but our stress!" Can't do much better than that. I'm going to go practice what I preach--take a nap on the porch, lie in the hammock and read a few novels. And, after that, I'm going to try to continue to put leisure time on the political map as an issue that should be near the top of any progressive agenda.
There is something profoundly disturbing about the fact that the Commander in Chief is in better shape than his Army, that he has time to ride his bike around his ranch for hours while the wheels are coming off the war in Iraq, that he had time to attend fundraisers but not to meet Cindy Sheehan.
Bush's disengagement from reality is reaching the freakish level. In America, Republicans are abandoning his war as they face re-election in '06. Chuck Hagel compared Iraq to Vietnam. More than 60 percent of Americans think the invasion was a mistake, and we are not winning. And now the first Democratic senator, Russell Feingold, has broken ranks and called for a timeline for withdrawal.
In Iraq, Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are seriously debating if they really want to be a unified country, whether women will be treated as equal citizens and how much Islamic theocracy to put into the constitution. Outside the Green Zone, the Shiite militias are arming themselves for civil war, while American soldiers are dying at a faster and faster clip.
And yet in Texas, Bush has taken five weeks to cut brush. He mouths the same platitudes about freedom and democracy he was using three years ago. And he cross-trains. The President doesn't just need a plan to get us out of Iraq; he needs an intervention to get him back to planet Earth.
August may be a slow news month, but not for stories about what's wrong with the drug industry. In just one recent week, the New York Times published three articles that exposed what we're up against with Big Pharma--and the weakness of the agency that's supposed to regulate it.
On August 6, "At Midpoint of Vioxx Trial, Merck Looks Battered" explained how the drug company Merck "appears to be in a deep hole" in its court case in Texas, where it was being sued by the family of a Wal-Mart employee, Robert Ernst. The family charged that Ernst died from an arrhythmia caused by the painkiller Vioxx after taking the medicine for eight months. The coroner who did the autopsy on Ernst told the jury that "Vioxx was probably responsible for Mr. Ernst's death," the Times reported. And the jury agreed this afternoon as it found Merck liable in Ernst's death and awarded his widow a settlement of $253 million.
And this is just the first of more than 4,000 other lawsuits in which the company is being sued over Vioxx in state courts in California, Texas and New Jersey and in US federal court, with liabilities for the company potentially running as high as $30 billion.
The second article ran three days later. "Today's Insider Trading Suspect May Wear a Lab Coat" exposes another problem that has led to our unsafe market for prescription drugs. Doctors and scientists are now joining forces with the big drug companies to promote their products and are increasingly "working as consultants to investors, especially hedge funds," the Times reported.
Most important, though, the SEC is "taking a closer look at whether doctors, participating in criminal trials with drug companies, are accepting money to talk to analysts and investors about the confidential results of a trial." (Another piece in the Times from August 16 reported that "nearly 10 percent of the nation's 700,000 doctors have signed up as consultants" on investment deals. And, according to a Times editorial, doctors make anywhere from $200 to $1,000 an hour on consulting.)
The Seattle Times reported, after completing its own investigation, that it found "at least 26 cases in which doctors have leaked confidential and critical details of their ongoing drug research to Wall Street firms." Doctors who did the leaking were affiliated with top universities like UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania as well as companies like Citigroup, Smith Barney and Wachovia.
That's shameful, but it's not shocking. After all, doctors have gotten dinners, vacations and even thousands of dollars in fees from drug companies to attend "conferences" and "summits," where they are informed of the benefits of the wonder drug du jour. In 2002, one cardiologist told the Washington Post that Merck sent a limo to pick him up, take him to dinner and included a bottle of champagne for kicks.
The third article that I found really disturbing, "FDA Will Not Release Some Data on Heart Devices" (August 6), illustrates why these abuses have become so rampant: The FDA has abandoned its responsibility to oversee and regulate the drug industry.
As the story puts it: "The Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that it would not release information that it receives annually from the makers of heart devices detailing how often and why products fail." Protecting such data by calling it a corporate "trade secret," the FDA was pulling the plug on the public's right to information.
The Director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, argued in a recent interview that the FDA has become a "formal partner" to drug manufacturers for at least two reasons. First, in 1992, Congress decided that drug companies, not taxpayers, should have to fund the drug review and approval process at the FDA. And so the industry is spending an estimated $350 million this year alone to get its drugs approved, Dr. Wolfe says. Consequently, "Approve now, test later" is the FDA's attitude, Wolfe explained.
The second factor is that Congress has almost totally failed in its responsibility to police the Food and Drug Administration. Committees in Congress used to hold many hearings looking at the FDA's performance, but those days are over. Now, it is up to lone Senators like Chuck Grassley of Iowa to hold the agency's feet to the fire. In a recent floor debate, Grassley said that the agency "is plagued by structural, personnel, cultural and scientific problems." But a lone Senator's voice isn't enough.
In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, investigative journalist Trudy Lieberman argued that the FDA views the companies it regulates "as clients." That's a fair description. After all, The New England Journal of Medicine reported as early as 2000 that Cox 2 drugs like Vioxx could cause patients to suffer heart attacks, but the FDA refused to force the industry to warn consumers at that time. Similarly, when one safety officer told the FDA's higher-ups that reports had shown that Viagra could lead to the onset of blindness in men, the FDA remained silent. (Thirteen months later, a scientific journal published an article that revealed the problem.)
The FDA also recently rejected the advice of its own advisory panel--which has happened only twice in five decades--that the emergency contraception known as Plan B should be made available to women over the counter. Moreover, the agency failed to warn parents in a timely manner that antidepressants could make kids more likely to commit suicide.
So, what should be done? Dr. Wolfe says that at least four reforms would amount to a good start.
First, he argues that Congress should repeal the 1992 Prescription Drug User Fee Act that "demolished" much of the vigilance that the FDA exerted over the drug industry in previous years. Second, Congress should pass legislation that is being sponsored by senators Dodd and Grassley that will free the Office of Drug Safety from the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (The FDA has been reluctant to admit problems with medicines once drugs have reached the market. By liberating the Office of Drug Safety from the office that handles the review process, Drug Safety would gain independence, and the FDA might finally begin to warn consumers about drugs that turn out to be unsafe after they've gone on the market.)
Third, more generally, the FDA needs to do a better job of enforcing the law, says Wolfe. In 1998 the FDA stopped 157 illegal prescription drug ads, while in 2004 it stopped only twenty-four illegal ads--an 85 percent decrease in the number of FDA enforcement actions.
Finally, Wolfe believes that if Congress increased the number of hearings it held looking into how the FDA is performing, the FDA would face greater scrutiny and be more likely to protect consumers' health, not the drug industry's profits. Here's hoping Wolfe's sensible ideas take hold.
A campaign is being launched this week by a host of groups including Progressive Democrats of America, Peace Action and others to demand an exit strategy from Iraq. A central part of these efforts is a new petition which lays out a way to get out of Iraq and will be presented to Congress in mid-September.
This comes at what could be a tipping point moment. The country is waking up to the truth that Bush's decisions have led to the unnecessary deaths of more than 1,800 Americans, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, while making the US, the world and Iraq less secure. A majority of Americans now understand that we were deliberately misled into war; a majority recognize that the US made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq; and a majority believe that no matter how long US troops remain there, they will not be able to establish a stable, democratic government.
Cindy Sheehan's dignified and defiant stance in Crawford has highlighted the callousness of a President who lacks the compassion to grieve or mourn for those he sent into battle. As E.L. Doctorow wrote last year, "I fault this president for not knowing what death is...He does not feel a personal responsibility for the thousand dead young men and women who wanted to be what they could be."
President Bush should meet with Sheehan. But, even more important, he should listen to the grieving mother, and to the growing number of military families and citizens who are demanding an end to the disastrous occupation of Iraq. Bush should also listen to those who will testify at informal Congressional hearings--now expected on the eve of the September 24 to 26 antiwar demonstrations--designed to explore possible exit strategies. It is anticipated that leading US academics, opposition politicians, civil society activists and Iraqi parliamentarians seeking an end to US occupation will testify.
And for those interested in an honorable and speedy exit strategy, please read, circulate and sign the petition published below. The petition is a response and challenge to the charge that peace and security advocates have no plan. The truth is that Secretary Rumsfeld has no exit strategy--only a "victory strategy." The truth is that the leadership of the Democratic Party has offered no alternative to Bush's policies beyond invading Falluja, adding more American troops, training more Iraqis and providing better body armor. All these policies are failing and will continue to fail. But there is another option: adopting a framework of conflict resolution as the alternative to permanent war and occupation.
Last August, we lived through the filth of the Swift Boat Veterans' mendacious attacks on John Kerry. One year later, America's attention is riveted by the moral protest emanating from Camp Crawford. What was once considered "marginal" is now at the center of our national conversation. Perhaps most significant, a large majority of people in this country agree with Sheehan that some or all US troops should be withdrawn from Iraq. If you're one of them, read the petition below and click here to add your name to this growing antiwar effort.
A Petition for an Iraqi Peace Process
"For Mr. Bush, questions about an exit strategy in Iraq have become especially delicate as a crowd of anti-war protestors has expanded at the edge of his ranch, rallying around Cindy Sheehan, the California woman whose son Casey was killed in Iraq in 2004."--New York Times, Aug. 12, 2005.
Like our friend Cindy Sheehan, we are tired of waiting for our troops to come home. We are tired of the bloodshed, tired of tax dollar waste, tired of torture cover-ups, tired of contractor scandals, tired of deceit and fabrication. We are tired of elected officials with profiles in compromise rather than courage.
It is dishonest to admit there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, only to invent new reasons for inflicting mass destruction on that country.
It is dishonorable to fix the facts around the policy.
It is unacceptable to admit that going to war was a mistake, only to claim that the mistake must be perpetuated.
Because we cannot wait for our government to lead, we shall become leaders in ending the war ourselves. We shall propose an exit strategy from Iraq and demand that our government listen and follow. Because we cannot wait for our government to plan for peace, we call on civil society to make our government pay attention.
There are simply no military solutions to this bloodshed. The American military presence, threatening to Iraqi nationalism, religion and culture, is the main cause of the violent response from Iraqis. US policies are pushing Iraq toward civil war, with our government funding and arming Shiites and Kurds against Sunnis. Nearly half of the Iraqi national assembly has called for the "departure of the occupation". The State Department's own internal surveys show that a majority of Iraqis feel less safe in the presence of the American occupying forces. Since the invasion and occupation, the status and safety of women in Iraq have declined precipitously.
Iraqis themselves are calling for the end of occupation. One million recently signed a petition demanding the withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. Initial peace talks among Iraqis are already underway. Our government is deaf to these Iraqi voices for peace.
It is time to shift from a military model to a conflict-resolution model aimed at a peace process and negotiated political settlement.
We propose the following principles as essential to ending the war in Iraq:
First, as a confidence-building measure, the US government must declare that it has no interest in permanent military bases or the control of Iraqi oil or other resources.
Second, as a further confidence-building measure, the U.S. government must set goals for ending the occupation and bringing all our troops home - in months, not years, beginning with an initial withdrawal of troops by the end of this year.
Third, the US government must request that the United Nations monitor the process of military disengagement and de-escalation, and organize a peaceful reconstruction effort. The US must accept its obligation to fairly compensate Iraqis for damages, assist Iraqi reconstruction, cease the imposition of privatization schemes, and end the dominance of US contractors in the bidding process.
Fourth, the US government should appoint a peace envoy independent of the occupation authorities to underscore its commitment to an entirely different mission, that of a peace process ending the occupation and returning our soldiers home.
Fifth, the peace envoy should encourage and cooperate in talks with Iraqi groups opposed to the occupation, including insurgents, to explore a political settlement. The settlement must include representation of opposition forces and parties, and power-sharing and the protection of women's rights as core principles of governance and economic and energy development. We believe such an initiative will reduce, though not eliminate, violence by lessening any rationale for Jihadist or sectarian conflict.
We send this message to all Americans in civil society, to our elected officials, and to the global peace movement. We demand that Congressional hearings begin to define an exit strategy now. We demand that members of Congress, reflecting the will of the people, adopt policy and budget initiatives that call for an exit strategy based on the above principles. We demand a peace envoy, peace talks with the opposition, reconstruction, the closure of US bases, and the safe return home of all US troops.