Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

It’s Class, Stupid!

In recent weeks, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have run a series of articles about issues of class and inequality in America.

These two media pillars have comprehensively taken on the root myth of the American way, reporting facts that are so stark and clear that they can no longer be ignored. The gap between rich and poor is widening dramatically; There's been a startling lack of upward mobility over the last three decades; And Americans face no better odds today that they will climb the ladder to a higher economic rung where their parents stood than they did 35 years ago.

As Sylvia Allegretto wrote in the Economic Policy Institute's "The State of Working America 2004/2005," which she co-authored: "The costs of basic necessities like health care, housing, and college keep rising, and many working families' incomes are not keeping pace."

Moreover, as the New York Times recently editorialized, education in this country is "heavily dependent on wealth and class"; and the richer people become, the greater their odds that they will live longer as beneficiaries of the best health care money can buy. All in all, a bleak picture, but one that the media is only slowly starting to grapple with.

As Paul Krugman noted, commenting on his paper's series in his column, "Since 1980 in particular, US government policies have consistently favored the wealthy at the expense of working families--and under the current administration, that favoritism has become extreme and relentless." Conservative economic policies are fueling this phenomenon of an increasingly stratified America. Republicans refuse to raise the minimum wage, which has remained stuck at a paltry $5.15 an hour since 1997. Bankruptcy "reform" savages the working class. Meanwhile, Bush's tax cuts handed a tax reduction of more than $4,500 to the top fifth of income-earners while those in the lowest quintile received an average of only $98 annually off their tax bills.

Another fine series of stories--in the Los Angeles Times--pointed out that policies like deregulating industries, coupled with a right-wing assault on social programs have eroded Americans' safety net and shifted "economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families." (The reporter Peter Gosselin received a 2005 Sidney Hillman Award for journalism reporting for this series. Disclosure: I served on the panel of judges. And there were other fine articles submitted on this crucial issue, including a fine series in the Detroit News documenting how Bush tax cuts badly hurt the poor.)

There's a good resource called Toomuchonline.org that I recommend to reporters and anybody else interested in a reality check on America's economy. Sam Pizzigati, a veteran labor journalist, runs and edits the site, which is chock full of useful information. The site has a simple message; it argues that "our society would be considerably more democratic, prosperous and caring if we narrowed the vast gap between the very wealthy and everyone else."

To promote this vision, Pizzigati highlights the gap between the rich and the poor, sheds light on the excesses of the super-wealthy, advocates a "maximum wage" that would cap excessive income and wealth and applauds public and private-sector efforts to reduce inequality and make America a more equitable nation.

The kinds of reforms Pizzigati wants to see enacted are also on display at Toomuchonline.org. Pizzigati praises former SEC chairman Richard Breeden, who proposed a plan that said MCI, which rose out of the ashes of WorldCom's collapse, should prevent a repeat of WorldCom's train wreck by banning executive stock options and capping total CEO compensation. And then there's Congressman Martin Sabo's proposal to ban corporate tax deductions for executive compensation that exceeds more than 25 times what the lowest-paid worker at the company earns.

While Pizzigati commends the Times and the Journal's series on social mobility as "a mainstream media watershed," he also argues that a lot of work remains to be done. The Times, he says, for instance, ignored "inequality's impact on our social health"--i.e. how vastly unequal societies have negative health consequences for all people, not just for the poorest sectors of society.

As Vermont Senate candidate Bernie Sanders says, the corporate-owned media tend to ignore the economic problems that face millions of people on a daily basis. The press doesn't cover, he argues, things like the fact that Americans are "working longer hours for lower wages," living standards have declined, and "we have the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country on earth…[and] we are the only industrialized country in the world without a national health care system." One result of people not seeing their lives reflected in the media, Sanders argues, is that they think their problems are unique to them, and are not social or political problems that we as a nation can solve by working together.

I believe there's a constituency and an appetite for more stories about class lines in America. Readers want to see their lives and problems treated in our media. There may also be an appetite for real "reality shows." A new FX show, 30 Days, hosted by Supersize Me author Morgan Spurlock premiers this week and could generate a new trend. In the show's first episode, Spurlock and his girlfriend go to Columbus, Ohio and try to live on a minimum-wage income--raising issues of class that we rarely see on our TV sets.

In April 2004, I argued in this space that attention must be paid to those being left behind. More than a year later, the LA Times, the New York Times and the Journal's good series on class are steps in the right direction. Let's hope that these articles (and even that FX show) are just the beginning of a national effort on the media's part to show how people are living in these times. Here's a motto the media should adopt: It's Class, Stupid!

Dumping on Dean

Congressional Democrats never supported Dean for DNC chair. They wanted someone lower-profile and less hyperbolic. Apparently they wanted someone like RNC Chair Ken Mehlman. Still, it was more than a little surprising for Senator Joe Biden, who is not renown for his diplomatic temperament, to take a potshot at the chairman of his own party for rhetorical excess.

When George Stephanopoulos played a clip of Dean on ABC's This Week saying that perhaps Republicans can wait in line to cast ballots because "…a lot of them have never made an honest living in their lives," Biden responded, "He doesn't speak for me with that kind of rhetoric. And I don't think he speaks for the majority of Democrats."

Really? Outside the beltway, Dean is immensely popular with the party faithful. He has raised tons of money and is using it to rebuild the infrastructure at the state and local levels. The same infrastructure Biden will need if he decides to run for president.

Besides, Dean's statement is precisely the kind of red meat party chairmen are supposed to throw to rev up their base. You don't hear Republicans pulling any punches.

So enough of the infighting. (Or enough of this kind of infighting. If Dems want to get serious about real internal debates, let's have one about how to end the war and occupation.)

But when it comes to taking on the GOP, Dean and Congressional Democrats should get together and smoke a peace pipe with some cancer patient's now illegal supply of medicinal marijuana. It will help ease the Party's suffering, and lead, perhaps, to better communication.

Republicans Act Like Addicts

I'm beginning to grow concerned for the Republicans. They can't stay on message, they can't pass any reforms, they can't support their President, they can't whip count and they can't get along. They are starting to act like, well, Democrats.

The seven moderate Republicans who compromised on the filibuster were savaged first as traitors, then as dupes. There have been threats of reprisals and primary challenges. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has been mockingly nicknamed "The Senator from New York." An Anybody-But-McCain movement looks to be gaining momentum within the party's base.

The relationship between Congressional Republicans and the White House doesn't look much healthier. Congress has refused to deal with Bush's privatization reforms. A teary-eyed Senator George Voinovich wouldn't switch his vote on John Bolton, delaying a vote. And despite the President's strong support for the zygote, Congressional Republicans defied his veto threat and voted in significant numbers to pass funding for stem cell research.

This issue caused particular acrimony among Senate Republicans Sam Brownback and Arlen Specter, who nearly got into a shouting match over the issue. When Brownback haughtily asked Specter when he thought his life had begun, Specter, who has been fighting cancer, shot back, "I'm a lot more concerned at this point about when my life is going to end."

Power seems to have made the Republicans mad. They are behaving as erratically as drug addicts. But I know a good way to make Republicans right as rain again--a bracing trip back to minority status. Let's plan the intervention for 2006.

Sweet Victory: Minimum Wage Battle Rages On

Talk about a Raw Deal. If we don't see a boost in the federal minimum wage by next year, it will be the longest the country's ever gone without an increase. But after eight straight years of poverty-level minimums, more and more states have decided that enough is enough--or rather, that $5.15 is not enough.

In March, we highlighted minimum wage victories in Vermont and New Jersey, and since then, good news has rolled in from many more states. On May 3rd, Hawaii's legislature voted in favor of increasing the state's minimum to $7.75 by 2007. The next day, Connecticut's State Senate approved a minimum wage hike that will reach $7.65 in the next two years. A week later, Minnesota's legislature raised its floor-level minimum by a dollar per hour.

On June 1, Wisconsin became the twelfth state since January of 2004 to join the movement, establishing a raise that will gradually increase to $6.50 by next year. (Nonetheless, as the Madison Capital Times points out, Wisconsin's victory is tarnished by a clause in the bill which prohibits towns and cities from independently hiking minimums.)

California's House just pushed a minimum wage increase bill to the Senate, and legislation is on the move nationwide with activists from the Ballot Strategy Initiative Center hoping to get minimum wage initiatives on the ballots in nine more states by next year.

And according to a Pew Research Center poll, 86 percent of the public favors increasing the federal minimum which should suggest to the Dems that this can be a winning electoral issue. With an overwhelming consensus of Americans behind this fight, Senator Edward Kennedy is urging Congress to wake up. On May 18th, he introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which calls for raising the minimum wage to $7.15 in three steps. (Click here to ask your reps to suuport the bill.)

One thing is for certain: even if Congress continues to leave millions of working Americans in the lurch, the movement in states shows no signs of slowing down.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Sweet Victory: Rell Vows to Clean Up Connecticut

If you thought last week's Sweet Victory--highlighting the electoral reform movement sweeping North America--was encouraging, you'll be thrilled with the news coming out of Connecticut. Yesterday, Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell called for a "clean elections bill," in what could become the boldest and most far-reaching plan for campaign finance reform in the country.

And Connecticut, which has been wracked by recent government corruption, is badly in need of reform. The scandal surrounding former Gov. John Rowland, who resigned and is now serving a one-year prison sentence for accepting gifts from state contractors, is symptomatic of a campaign system that favors big money and special interests over voters.

After weeks of deadlock, Rell and State Senate Republicans not only agreed to accept the Democrats' plan for public financing of all statewide campaigns but took the reform further, proposing a ban on contributions from lobbyists and state contractors. "This is real reform," said Rell, who will set aside $5 million to fund the initiative. "If you accept it, we will make history in Connecticut."

Rell's sudden turnaround seems too good to be true for some of the House Democrats, who remain skeptical about how the radical proposal will affect their party in the state. Tom Swan, Executive Director of the Clean-Up Connecticut Campaign--a coalition of fifty organizations rallying for campaign reform--says "corporate Democrats" are the only thing standing in the way of getting the bill passed. "They're tentative because they're being asked to accept a totally open process for a political system that they've figured out how to win," says Swan. "It takes a great deal of courage for both parties to admit that the current way we finance campaigns is corrupt."

Maine and Arizona have strong public finance laws, but those came about as a result of ballot initiatives, and don't have the sweeping scope of Rell's proposal. "This would be the strongest campaign finance reform bill ever passed," says David Donnelly of Public Campaign, "and the fact that this initiative came from within the legislature is unprecedented."

Connecticut's legislative session ends on June 6, and while Donnelly is confident that both parties will come to an agreement by the deadline, he urges Connecticut residents to click here and write to their legislators demanding the best possible reform.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Cinderella Man Vs. Social Security Privatization

Will Ron Howard's new film Cinderella Man help deliver a KO to Bush's Social Security privatization scam? It's easy to read too much into Hollywood's influence on our politics, but this movie comes out just as it's becoming clear that, as a recent memo by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg put it, "Social Security is a disaster for the President."

In Cinderella Man, which opens June 3, Russell Crowe plays James Braddock Jr., the contender from North Bergen, New Jersey, who breaks his hand and slides into boxing oblivion--and onto the welfare rolls--only to make the unlikeliest of comebacks at the height of the Great Depression, culminating in a June 1935 fight with Max Baer for the heavyweight championship of the world.

How does all of this affect the current debate about the future of Social Security? By depicting the beneficial effects of welfare during the Depression, the film subtly underscores the importance of preserving what was a cornerstone of the New Deal.

"I've always been fascinated by the Depression," Howard said in a recent interview with the New York Times. (While in high school, Howard made a documentary about the Depression, interviewing his father and others and using old photographs.)

In Cinderella Man, Howard says, "I wanted to remind people that the working poor existed then, and we have it today. While the economy is mostly up and then sometimes down--the Internet bubble bursting felt a bit like '29, where people had overextended and fallen into that trap again--we're anxious. Our population is anxious. We're not in a depression, thank God, but I think it's crossing our minds that something could happen, things could change and not for the better, for the worse."

Will Russell Crowe KO Bush's shameless scam to shred America's most successful antipoverty program? Here's hoping that his blows, added to the thousands inflicted by tireless organizers and ordinary citizens, successfully expose this rip-off.

Bloggers of Iran

Did you know that on the eve of the Iranian presidential election, that country--with 70 percent of its population under 30--has 75,000 bloggers? I find that pretty stunning--and I'm usually skeptical of blog-hype.

Blogging has gone international in a big way. And in Iran, blogging means that news, ideas and rumors are bypassing traditional censors. As one of Iran's leading bloggers recently pointed out at opendemocracy.net, Iran's blogs are generating "an unprecedented amount of information [and] pre-election news has...been much more transparent." In fact, Hossein Derakhshan argued, " it will probably be one of the most open and transparent elections Iran has ever seen."

The internet is playing a major role. This is the first time, for example, that most of the major candidates (except the oldest ones) have their own websites. And with an estimated three or four million internet users in Iran, blogs are opening up Iranian society and culture--despite the enduring threat of government censorship and imprisonment of journalists and activists.

As New America Foundation fellow Afshin Molavi observes, "Most Iranian blogs offer a space to tell jokes, share music files and photos, satirically lampoon Iranian rulers with clever photo-shop doctoring, and generally share personal experiences. The political blogs have a power beyond their small readership because of the reverberation effect: when they break a story or simply spread a juicy rumor, it is immediately emailed to hundreds of thousands of wired Iranians and filtered to the non-wired Iranians through word-of-mouth." (Even a former Vice-President, Mohammad Abtahi, angered many officials for spilling too many secrets in his blog.)

So, for those of you who want to diversify your daily news-feed, here's my list of ten blogs that offer an unprecedented window on Iran's political culture, while helping to open up and make that society more accountable.

1) Hoder.com: Molavi says Hoder is "the godfather of blogging in Iran"; he has a wide following, and numerous Iranian bloggers link to Hoder's blogspot. Hoder's real name is Hossein Derakhshan; his blog, which he calls "Editor: Myself," comes via Toronto, where the Tehran-born Derakhshan now makes his home. He offers observations on the June election and said in a recent email interview that blogs have "given much more transparency to how campaigns operate." And blogs also, says Hoder, have "enabled the campaigns to reach out to a network of educated and influential young students who make up the majority of the blogging community."

2) Massih Alinejad was a reporter for Iranian reformist newspapers, but when she exposed financial corruption in Iran's Parliament, higher-ups banned her from entering the building and she could no longer do her job. She was, the government said, acting "rude and intrusive." So, she started a blog.

3) Mr. Behi, a 27-year-old Tehran-based political blogger, captures the reservations many Iranians have about the political process. Behi's blog recently told us that he "enthusiastically voted for [reformist candidate] Khatami" in the 1997 elections because he and other Iranians believed "Khatami's great promises for a better society." But these promises never panned out. He now says, "casting my vote will not change anything." But his pessimism is tempered by hope, as when he explains that during a recent bloggers' forum with reformer and presidential hopeful Mostafa Moin, the bloggers asked so many pointed questions "that I thought maybe I am not in the Islamic Republic!"

4) Indeed, Moin, whose blog is in Persian, is a leading reformer who has supported the student movement. He's not the only candidate to understand the power of going on-line--though he may be the only one who personally updates his blog every day. (The Guardian Council, which clears candidates to run for office, recently barred Moin from appearing on the ballot.)

5) Brooding Persian provides background and history on Iranian politics. In one recent entry, Brooding Persian writes that the June election has "1,010 potential candidates, 921 men and 89 women." Brooding Persian offer many articles about the election and breakdowns of voting patterns in recent years, mixing well-written prose with sharp, ironic observations. An example: "Here in this heartland of evil at the tender age of 15 you can just walk into any station and vote as you please."

6) Written by journalist Omid Memarian, The Iranian Prospect examines democracy, civil society and social issues including the ways in which Iran's regime represses the media. The government, the site informs us, has recently "arrested and tortured more than 21 journalists, bloggers and IT technicians" and it has closed down more than 80 magazines and newspapers.

7) Shahram Kholdi's blog paints an Iranian Constitutional referendum as "a debate over the constitutional legitimacy of the Islamic Republic itself." Kholdi says that former President Rafsanjani will likely prevail in the June election, but also points out that Iranians are so disillusioned that many will stay away from the polls, especially those living in the nation's largest cities.

8) Iran Votes 2005, written by Windsteed, 29, describes the Guardian Council as a kind of "filter" that must first approve a candidate before he or she can become an official candidate for president. We also learn on this site that a former soccer star and coach, Nasser Hejazi, is trying to seek the presidency. Windsteed, like a lot of the bloggers, echoes the point that a "calm mood" in the country indicates a "lack of trust or interest in the candidates" and in the prospects for democratic change in Iran anytime soon.

9) Iranian.com. Among other cultural and political items, you'll find a good interview with the presidential candidate Hooshang Amirahmadi who also directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers University. Amirahmadi predicts that if the elections "do not generate enthusiasm or produce an acceptable president, Washington most likely will adopt a policy of explicit regime change. If this happens, the 'Iraqicization' of Iran will begin."

10) IranianTruth.com, edited by Nema Milaninia, the executive director of the International Students Journal, discusses, among many topics, the relationship between the United States and Iran. Milaninia calls attention to efforts in the US House to tighten sanctions against Iran, predicting that such legislative efforts will ultimately backfire. She reflects a widespread view that ordinary Iranians will feel alienated and says the moves will fail to "back the Iranian regime against the wall."

Finally, at Iran Scan 1384, a new kind of meta-blog set up by opendemocracy.net, you'll also find Hoder and Milaninia and other leading students of Iranian politics discussing the June presidential election.

As Iran Scan and all of the other individual blogs remind us, while Iran remains a closed society, a fierce debate about the country's future is underway in the blogosphere. The coming election might not bring about much, if any, change in Iranians' lives, but the blogs could help open up that society, permitting the free flow of information and ideas like never before.

Sweet Victory: Electoral Reform is On the March

Electoral reform is on the march. Burlington, Vermont, the state's biggest city, recently adopted instant runoff voting for its 2006 mayoral elections. On May 18th, Portland, Oregon became the first city in the country to approve full public financing of elections. And last week in Canada, a majority of voters opted for proportional voting in an important symbolic victory that could eventually lead to more voices and more choices in future elections.

In a referendum coinciding with British Columbia's parliamentary elections, 57.4 percent of a record turnout of 1.6 million chose to replace Canada's US-style, winner-take-all voting system with a method of proportional voting known as the "single transferable vote" (STV). Under this plan, voters rank multiple candidates in order of preference, empowering minorities and breaking up the monopoly of entrenched political parties. "This was not generally a vote of ideology," says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy. "This was a vote for a better, fairer democracy that people in all parties could rally around."

Although the STV drive fell short of the 60 percent needed for passage, the measure won a majority of votes in 97 percent of the province's districts. In the wake of these results, Premier Gordon Campbell immediately declared that reforming the electoral system should be a top priority for the newly elected Parliament. "The citizens have been very clear," said Campbell. "There's a pretty strong mandate for electoral reform to take place…a hunger to see improvement."

The STV system is one of many ways we could make the US electoral process fairer. If you're concerned about the state of our electoral system, check out the Center for Voting and Democracy to see how you can help defeat the moneyed duopoly impeding our democracy.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

M.A.D. About You

When the Republicans thought they were going to win the filibuster fight, they tried to change the term of art from "nuclear option" to "constitutional option." The GOP's lexicographer-in-chief, Frank Luntz, argued that "the implication of 'nuclear option' is way too hot and extreme." Even Trent Lott, showing a surprising lack of authorial pride, took up the new phrase, despite the fact that he personally had coined the old one.

But the far rights' reaction to the compromise between fourteen moderate Senators demonstrates how much they view the struggle over the judiciary in violent terms. Out went the soothing references to founding principles; in came the militaristic metaphors. Pat Buchanan referred to the agreement as "the Munich of the Republican Party," conflating the importance of a handful of conservative judges with that of Czechoslovakia.

Senator George Allen went even farther on Imus. The "constitutional option" was needed, in his words, "to set the rules of engagement." He said that it was "kind of like everyone was lined up for a duel, and they determined three of these hostages can go loose, and we'll discharge our pistols on two of these judicial nominees." According to him, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid wanted some "scalps" and gave the Republicans the choice of which one of their"troops" they were going to "take down."

Let's see: duels, hostages, scalps, troops, Munich, rules of engagement--no, it's obvious that "nuclear option" captures the far right's intentions. They clearly have learned to love the bomb.

Cowboy Cheers

Flouting the fact that Pat Robertson thinks the "activist" (Republican-sponsored and approved) judiciary is the worst threat America faces, the moralistic majority in the Texas legislature has decided that sexy cheerleading is our nation's undoing.

Forget the fact that it was the state of Texas that made sexy cheerleading part of our national cultural life. (This state, which wanted to be an independent nation, has also given us the execution of women and the mentally handicapped, Tom DeLay and George W. Bush.)

Of course, youthful female sexuality will always be a threat to the good ole boys. But my favorite part of this legislation is that it requires every school district to hire a sexy cheerleading commissar to enforce the proposed prohibition of "overtly sexually suggestive" cheerleading routines. (They won't be condemning James Joyce's Ulysses, but the principle of we-know-it-when-we-see-it has expanded.) Big government conservatism at your service.

As we fight fundamentalism abroad, it is crucial to know that we are fighting it here at home. What is next for the cheerleaders of Texas? Burkas?

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