Quantcast

Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

  •  
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

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?

Wal-Mart Avarice

Kudos to veteran 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer for lambasting the New York Times for its "paean" to Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton, and taking aim at Wal-Mart's "systematic obliteration of thousands of family businesses and of course the creation of hundreds of thousands of sweatshop jobs."

Safer's letter (posted below) succintly captures the grand irony of Walton's recent $35 million purchase of a famous landscape painting. ("All that Wal-Mart money was gleaned from the systematic destruction of the very American landscape Ms. Walton so expensively celebrates.")

Here's hoping that Safer's hardhitting letter is the basis of a forthcoming 60 Minutes segment.

New York, May 14, 2005

To the Editor:

Your paean to Alice L. Walton, the Wal-Mart heir who recently purchased Asher B. Durand's landscape painting "Kindred Spirits" for $35 million ("A Determined Heiress Plots an Art Collection," Arts pages, May 14), ignored a grand inherent irony.

All that Wal-Mart money was gleaned from the systematic destruction of the very American landscape Ms. Walton so expensively celebrates. Not to mention the equally systematic obliteration of thousands of family businesses and of course the creation of hundreds of thousands of sweatshop jobs.

The robber barons of yore, through contrition or vanity, also established enduring cultural institutions, but surely in this age of alleged transparency, it behooves the newspaper of record to make at least passing reference to the human and environmental price we all pay to satisfy Ms. Walton's ambition.

Morley Safer

Sweet Victory: CPC Gets in Gear

If you don't know much about the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), you should. With 50-plus members, it's the single largest caucus in the House, and according to a study by Chris Bowers of MyDD, by far the most loyal to core Democratic values. 

At a time in which too many Dems have lost their way (read: spine), CPC members--from co-chairs Barbara Lee (CA) and Lynn Woolsey (CA) to outspoken figures like founder (and Senate hopeful) Bernie Sanders (VT), Dennis Kucinich (OH),  Jan Schakowsky (IL), John Conyers (MI), Maurice Hinchey (NY) and Barney Frank (MA)--continue to fight for working Americans, stand against the war, and discuss honorable ways out of Iraq. This week, Lee and Woolsey took a significant step towards strengthening the CPC, hiring grassroots organizer, former AFL-CIO staffer, and Capitol Hill veteran Bill Goold as its first full-time staffer. "There are a growing number of people who are getting involved with politics because they are drawn to the basic principles of fairness and justice that the Progressive Caucus has long represented in Congress," said Lee. "Adding a staff member of Bill's experience will allow the Progressive Caucus to more effectively continue our commitment to these principles."

Goold's arrival should ensure that the CPC builds on its great work to date. Here are some of highlights of the CPC's decade-long struggle for justice (thanks to Karen Dolan of the Institute for Policy Studies):

**The Annual Alternative State of the Union Address and the Alternative Budget, done jointly with the Congressional Black Caucus each year.

**The Preservation of Civil Rights Protections Act of 2001. This bill would protect workers' rights to a trial for alleged violations of their statutory and constitutional rights.

**Pushing the House Democratic caucus to adopt three key reforms improving unemployment insurance: increasing benefits by 25 percent or $65 per week, whichever is greater; broadening elgibility criteria to include part-time workers; and extending unemployment insurance benefits up to 52 weeks in case of long recessions.

**The "American People's Dividend" of 2001, a progressive alternative to Bush tax cuts when the federal budget was in surplus.

**The Economic Human Rights Bus Tour, in which Caucus members travel across the nation with grassroots organizations highlighting the adverse affects of budget priorities on rural and inner-city populations and people of color.

With Goold on board and several other unfolding plans to ramp up the CPC, expect this list to grow significantly in the coming months.

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.

Annals of Outrage II

In January, I wrote my first Annals of Outrage weblog about the waste, fraud and abuse that the Bush Administration has perpetrated against the US taxpayer. But so much has happened in just the last three months--a cornucopia of corruption stemming, in large part, from the war in Iraq and the growing scandal that is Rumsfeld's Department of Defense--that I felt the time had arrived to do another top ten list of the most serious GAO and Inspector Generals' (IG) reports that have recently become available. It's a bracing series of studies, revealing the ever-widening scandals in this post-9-11, say-and-do-anything political environment. Happy Reading.

1) Halliburton Redux: The revelations seem to never stop when it comes to the Defense Department's favorite corporate client, Halliburton. In April, Henry Waxman released summaries of five reports in which the Defense Contract Audit Agency cited as questionable $212 million that Halliburton's subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root spent in Iraq under a no-bid contract. The money given to Halliburton by Defense was part of a $1.69 billion no-bid contract awarded the company. The auditors told the Army that it should withhold some of Halliburton's money. The Army refused. Halliburton continues to do its work and make millions in Iraq.

2) Democracy in the Middle East: Iraq is a "free-fraud zone." That's the description that a bravewhistleblower Frank Willis--who had served as a senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq--called Iraq a few weeks ago. It's hard to know where to begin. The scope of the corruption beyond Halliburton is so widespread and endemic that multiple investigations by the government and non-governmental organizations are underway to see how much the fraud, waste and abuse have cost the US taxpayer. One corruption watchdog organization, Transparency International, reported in March that the US had completely mismanaged Iraq's oil revenues, used "faulty procedures for awarding reconstruction contracts," and that we were now potentially facing "the biggest corruption scandal in history."

In addition to all of the problems associated with Halliburton, our reconstruction efforts have also come under fire from IGs and the GAO because US officials failed to provide the proper training and oversight for private security firms doing contract work in Iraq. CACI International Inc., for instance, had an essentially free hand to conduct interrogations at Abu Ghraib prison. The Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction Stuart Bowen reported as well that US officials have been unable to account for how nearly $100 million slated for Iraqi reconstruction projects had been spent. The IG is now investigating whether anyone in the US-led Development Fund for Iraq committed outright fraud.

3) Bagram Out-of-Control: According to reports written by the Army Criminal Investigation Command that Human Rights Watch obtained last month, the US military committed some of its worst prisoner abuses in Afghanistan. The reports reveal in new, horrifying details the extent to which American soldiers abused Afghan prisoners so severely that two detainees died at the Bagram Control Point where the military was holding them. ("The deaths took place nearly a year before the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq," the New York Times reported.)

4) DOD's Fraud: In January, the GAO faulted the Department of Defense as the most-fraud prone agency within the federal government. David Walker, the Comptroller General of the GAO, said that DOD's repeated failures to curb waste and other abuses "results in billion of dollars in waste each year and inadequate accountability to the Congress and the American taxpayer." The DOD is asleep at the wheel in such areas as mismanaging finances and contracts, giving personnel security clearances, mismanaging military bases and failing to modernize its computer systems. A Defense Department spokeswoman responded to the GAO's findings by saying that "it's a little bit premature at this time for us to have a full response."

5) DOD's Fraud, Part 2: Nowhere, perhaps, has the DOD run into more trouble than in its lax procurement procedures. Boeing has been at the center of this storm. Former Defense Department official and Boeing executive Darleen Druyun went to jail because she did favors for Boeing while working in the procurement office of the Defense Department--and then got a plum job with Boeing as a reward. The government has launched a whopping 48 investigations because of the Druyun scandal, and the Druyun controversy also gave birth to the Procurement Fraud Working Group, a federal task force that investigates procurement fraud in the federal government. With John McCain and other members of Congress criticizing the DOD's procurement practices including its relationship with Boeing, the Army took the step of changing at least one Boeing contract and "the Air Force restructured a contract with Lockheed Martin Corp. for C-130J transport planes," the Washington Post reported.

6) TSA's Egregious Spending: That's right. The agency responsible for protecting America's skies has its priorities all wrong. The Inspector General for the Dept. of Homeland Security reported in April that TSA has spent lavishly--to the tune of $500,000--buying artwork and silk plants for a TSA operations center whose mission is monitoring transportation security incidents. It's certainly not the first time that TSA has mismanaged taxpayer dollars. The agency--created by the Administration after the Sept. 11th, 2001 attacks--wasted almost $500,000 on creating an office suite for its first leader, hosted a birthday party (for itself) and awards banquet costing another nearly half a million dollars, bought Sub-Zero refrigerators at $3,000 a pop, and spent thousands of dollars over three years to put cable television in employees' offices. TSA employees "ignored federal contracting rules and appeared to conceal their spending," the Washington Post explained, and a different IG report revealed that TSA is still failing to find guns and knives when tests were run at airport security checkpoints.

7) Mercury Politics: Nikki Tinsley, the EPA's Inspector General, disclosed in February that Administration officials had instructed the EPA's staff to set artificially low limits on mercury pollution and then find a way to justify a pre-determined policy. Doing the bidding of coal-burning power plants and other industries, the Administration, Tinsley courageously charged, dismissed scientific evidence and ignored the agency's procedures to reach a policy that allows more mercury into the environment, which has been shown to be especially harmful to children and pregnant women.

8) "The Jungle": In February, the GAO issued a groundbreaking report about the flaws in protecting workers employed by the meat and poultry industries. The GAO found, for instance, that while statistics in the numbers of injuries on the job appear to be declining, the industries might not be reporting these figures accurately, and that working at such plants remains hazardous work. No single federal agency monitors the line speed at the plants and protects workers from getting injured because of the pressures of production. The GAO and the Department of Health and Human Services encountered resistance from the big poultry and meatpacking companies in gaining access to their facilities.

9) DoJ's White-Collar Friends: In March, the GAO discovered that the Justice Department had failed to collect fines and other forms of restitution from white-collar criminals who were high-ranking corporate officials. (They went unnamed in the report because their cases are still pending.) While some of the criminals claimed to be wiped out--saying that they lacked the resources to pay the fines to the federal government--they were still luxuriating in million dollar homes. Some of the criminals had hidden their assets from the government. The Justice Department acted like it didn't care one way or the other. And the GAO also reported that two of the criminals in question traveled overseas while they were on supervised release--adding fuel to the fire that white-collar criminals are living large even as they avoid paying the fines the courts ordered them to pay. Only about seven percent of the $568 million in court-ordered restitution to crime victims has been collected, the GAO reported.

10) Do Tell: Also in February, the GAO reported that the cost of the government's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policies amounted to nearly $200 million from 1994 to 2003. The costs involved the amount of money needed to recruit and train replacements including translators and other highly skilled troops for the men and women discharged under the Army's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Marty Meehan, the Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, wants to pass legislation that will repeal the policy which forces soldiers out of the Armed Forces and causes the country to lose access to these talented people willing to serve.

In 2000, Bush vowed that he would restore "integrity" to the White House. No surprise, that hasn't happened. But at least these reports show there are federal investigators who--unlike many Administration officials--are willing to do the hard work to promote ethics in government.

Insurgents of Labor, Unite!

As I wrote in March, charismatic SEIU leader Andy Stern has been anything but shy about triggering the most far-reaching strategic debate in labor in more than a generation. And while I disagree with some of SEIU's argument about what is to be done, I admire Stern's call for dramatic structural changes, his openness to remake labor's traditional ties to the Democratic Party and create new institutions and alliances for working people. His sense of urgency, even desperation about the future of labor is admirable and welcome.

On Monday, SEIU--along with its insurgent allies, including the Teamsters, Laborers and UNITE HERE --issued an unprecedented joint statement of principles, "Restoring the American Dream: Building a 21st Century Labor Movement That Can Win." (Click below to find Andy Stern's blog, and then scroll to the end where he encourages you to read the unions' joint proposal.)

Together these unions represent 5.5 million members, and the majority of the major organizing unions in the private sector. (The UFCW was also involved in drafting the statement and will take it to their executive board meeting for endorsement; the proposal is also being discussed with the Carpenters Union.)

The joint plan, Stern is proud to report, has been sent to local unions--just another sign of how savvy SEIU and Stern have been in using the Internet to communicate with the rank and file.

I caught up with Stern in NY on Monday, where he was attending a Personal Democracy Forum conference on blogging and democracy. After doing one of his trademark podcasts, and on his way to meet with the NYT's Steven Greenhouse to lay out the AFL insurgents' latest salvo, Stern quipped, "Wouldn't it be great if we could get the locals to vote on this? Someday."

As veteran labor commentator Jonathan Tasini notes today in his blog, Working Life, "The main political point of this proposal--and the public comments of the insurgent leaders--is to express a no-confidence vote in the Sweeney leadership and turn up the hear for a change in leadership."

Fundamental change is needed, but I still despair of the consequences of a split in the House of Labor --which is under such fierce attack by the most anti-labor Administration in modern history. Can a compromise be found? One that will bring about a revival of the AFL, create a federation that can truly change workers' lives, and address the larger problem of how to revitalize a broader movement for economic democracy and social justice? I hope so.

We'll soon find out when labor gathers in Chicago this July.

Andy Stern's blog: www.unitetowinblog.org/print/2005/5/16/131154/400.

Sweet Victory: Cleaning Up the Cosmetics Industry

Each day, women and girls use an average of twelve personal careproducts, according to a study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "Users of these products might assumethat somebody is watching to insure that potentially toxic ingredientsare kept away from intimate contact with their body," Mark Schapirowrote in The Nation in December. "Theywould be wrong."

Thanks to a longstanding loophole, the FDA neither monitors norregulates ingredients used in cosmetics, many of which contain knownor probable carcinogens[http://www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep/report/executive_summary.php].Yet, in the wake of mounting pressure from a coalition of publichealth and environmental groups, the American cosmetics industry isfinally cleaning up its act.

By Mother's Day, 116 personal care product manufacturers had signedthe Compact for Safe Cosmetics--agreeing to meet the standards set by the European Union's "Cosmetics Directive," which bans ingredients that are known or stronglysuspected of causing cancer, genetic mutation or birth defects. Click here for a full list of companies that have agreed to comply.

"[We are] thrilled about the growing interest in this campaign," says Janet Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Fund, one of the major groups behind the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, "These companies are setting an important precedent for the cosmetics industry by putting their reputations and their resources on the line to make truly safe cosmetics a reality for consumers."

Unfortunately, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is still waiting on industry giants L'Oréal, Revlon, and Estée Lauder--who have agreed to parts, but not the entirety, of the pledge. We look forward to the day when these and all other cosmetics companies agree to make lethal lipstick a thing of the past.

Ms. Wrong

In her latest column, Ann Coulter honors me by announcing me the winner ofthe Lifetime Achievement Award for Most Wrong Predictions. I proudly acceptthis award for in Coulter's tangled, fictional world right is always wrong,and what liberals say is always wrong even when they are right.

To be more specific, Coulter accuses me of wrongly predicting that invadingIraq would lead to more terrorist retaliation. According to the recent USgovernment report, the number of terrorist attacks has increasedsignificantly since the Iraq war. The overwhelming majority of thoseincidents have been aimed at US personnel in Iraq.

She also says I was wrong when I said that invading would undermine thefight against Al Qaeda. But this is the view of many officials in the BushAdministration itself, including such distinguished departing officials asRichard Clarke. What she did not tell you is that I alsopredicted that the war would cause a spawning of new bin Laden-inspiredgroups, as most terrorist experts readily now confirm.

In addition, she accuses me of wrongly suggesting that the invasion of Iraqwould "possibly unleash those very weapons of mass destruction into thehands of rogue terrorists in Iraq." I and The Nation magazine were always clear inour view that the Bush Administration had not proved its case that Iraqstill possessed weapons of mass destruction. But we did say that if Iraqdid have any such weapons, the greatest danger would be that during thechaos of war they would fall into the hands of renegade forces. And indeeda lot of deadly material and weapons did disappear into the hands of bothinsurgent forces and outside terrorists; many of those weapons have beenused to kill American personnel.

Coulter also accuses me of wrongly predicting that the United States wouldstay in Iraq as a colonial power. My view was that if it did try to stay inIraq indefinitely, it would quickly become viewed as a colonial power andtherefore would encounter increasing resistance--a prediction borne out bothby public opinion polls in Iraq and bloody events on the ground.

Coulter says that I was wrong when I said that elections were not verylikely to produce a secular democracy. Perhaps by Coulter's standards, whatIraq now has is a secular democracy. But perhaps she should wait a littlelonger before giving me credit for being right--I mean wrong--on this one.After all, the new government has yet to draft a constitution and PrimeMinister Ibrahim al-Jaafari still talks about adopting Sharia law.

Finally, she makes some obscure reference to my long-time interest in Russiaand the Soviet Union. Did the planned economy fail because the farmers hadseventy years of bad weather? I can in good conscience say that I never ever madethat prediction. But I did predict that Gorbachev's perestroika was forreal, even as those of Coulter's ilk were predicting it was just anotherSoviet ruse to lull us to sleep, because I believed a new generation ofRussians wanted a better life for their people.

Ms. Right gets it wrong. Again and again.

Bush's iPod: Take Three

Well, he's still deceiving and misleading but we figure Dubya has more time to download now that he has the First Lady out there softening up the press corps for him.

What with the extra time on his hands, and with thanks to the many hundreds, I mean hundreds, of nominations received since I posted Bush's iPod, Take 2, I couldn't resist doing another installment. Here's a new round of songs for the First iPod, drawn from reader submissions. And I'd love to keep this going, so please use the new comments field below to let me know what you think the President should be listening to.

Black Sabbath's War Pigs was the top vote getter. ("Politicians hide themselves away. They only started the war. Why should they go out to fight? They leave that role to the poor, yeah.") Jaclyn Stacy in Stow, Ohio writes, " I cannot believe nobody has nominated War Pigs yet! Talk about a song being truer today than it was when it was originally released! We here in Cleveland have a local DJ that plays that song almost every day--his little barb at an Administration and a party run amok."

Others with multiple nominations:

Bright Eyes' When the President Talks to God.(Many of you said this was a must....."a great song...most blatant, unreserved criticism of the president I have heard to date. best of all it is free on iTunes." Greg Jacobs of Brookline, MA, writes, " it poses many humorous and telling questions, like 'Does God suggest an oil hike? or 'Does what god say ever change his mind?'")

Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused.("....how he looks," writes Daniel Price out of Hurst, TX)

Lawyers, Guns & Money by Warren Zevon.

Cocaine, by Eric Clapton

Money, by Pink Floyd("Can be dedicated to Bush's good friend Tom DeLay," suggests Reed Kurtz of Hagerstown, Indiana)

Talking Heads' Burning Down the House ("Since that is what he seems to be doing--albeit at a slower pace than a real fire," wrote Lisa Johnson of Scottsdale, AZ

Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son (very popular)

Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore by John Prine  ("We're already overtired, from your dirty little war/Now Jesus don't like killing, no matter what the reason's for/And for your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore.")

Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man), by Randy Newman("Randy Newman was talking about another Republican President who really didn't care so much about 98 percent of the country's well-being but it's just as fitting today," writes Brian Fairbanks of Brooklyn, NY.) Also, several of you nominated Newman's Big Hat, No Cattle.

Then there were these finds:

Fun Boy Three's The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum("It was written in the 80s," writes Tom Hensley of LA, CA, " as a response to the Reagan Administration and the Cold War craziness. It is VERY appropriate today, considering that Bush II tries very hard to be the Reagan Administration redux.")

Peter, Paul & Mary's Once I Built a Railroad("Seems the perfect lament for today's outsourced, laid off, downsized American workers, writes Jacquie Padfield from Brenham, TX)

Jackson Browne's Lives in the Balance

You Haven't Done Nothing by Stevie Wonder("I respectfully nominate this song...because he hasn't done nothing--except dump on the world," writes Annie Nelson of Laia, HI)

Southern Man by Neil Young

When God Comes and Gathers his Jewels by Hank Williams("In fact, anything by Hank Williams, most of his stuff is about lying, cheating, drinking, stealing and unrequited love," writes Gordon Brawn of Woodinville, WA.)

Know Your Rights by The Clash

Radio Baghdad by Patti Smith

Cakewalk to Baghdad by Country Joe MacDonald

Peace Train by Cat Stevens

The Flim Flam Man by Laura Nyro

Jesus Christ Superstar, in its entirety

The Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What you Want("Dubya wants neocon judges and ambassadors, a media that doesn't ask questions, and war without end. Maybe he needs to hear this song," writes Ronald Smith of Dunedin, Fla.)

U2's salute to WMD's I still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

Billy Bragg's Accountability

Oops, I Did it Again by Britney Spears

If Only I Had a Brain, lyrics by Harold Arlen, sung by Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz

The Great Pretender, The Platters("He pretends he won an election; he pretends that he knows what he's talking about; he pretends that he's a man of courage and conviction, he pretends that he's a great leader; he pretends that the invasion of Iraq was justified and that things are going so well there; he pretends that we all love him. Bush is indeed the Great Pretender," writes William Wheeler of Davis, CA.)

Any chain gang song recorded by Alan Lomax, (suggested by Peter Stamler in St Louis, MO.)

The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again("Should be on every Democrat's playlist," writes Jess Henryes of Oakridge, OR)

And, finally, from Andrew Peterson in Portland, Oregon comes the kicker: "I'm just praying for the day that we can all sing that wonderful Weavers' song, So Long, It's been Good to Know You, as we boot them out of the White House."

Russia's First Social Forum

Last month, over a thousand trade unionists, human rights activists, students, miners, environmentalists, artists, left thinkers and journalists gathered on a campus in the heart of Moscow. It was Russia's first ever Social Forum, designed to develop strategies, exchange ideas, and build a new movement for democracy and social change--as has been done in recent years in Brazil, India and Italy.

Longtime political activist and journalist--and contributor to The Nation--Boris Kagarlitsky's report from the frontlines of this unprecedented event is published below. (As Director of the Institute of Globalization Studies, Kagarlitsky was one of the key organizers of the Forum.)

His analysis of what the Forum means for the future of opposition in Russia--and for the upsurge of new social movements and the left in that country--is an invaluable counter to the conventional wisdom about Putin's Russia.

(For more information about some of the organizers, visit the website of Moscow's Institute of Globalization Studies; and for more on the Forum, click here

Russia's First Social Forum
by Boris Kagarlitsky

On the weekend of April 16 and 17, the first Russian Social Forum was held in Moscow. On the campus of Moscow's University of the Humanities, members of the left, trade union, environmental, human rights and disabled organisations gathered to discuss strategy and tactics for the struggle against the policies of today's authorities. The participants numbered more than a thousand--but reporters from the mainstream media were almost completely absent.

On the evening of April 16, a demonstration to mark the opening of the forum was held on Pushkin Square. It might, of course, seem that to attract a little over a thousand activists from such a vast country was no special achievement. But with an almost no money and or access to the mass media, in circumstances where even collecting the addresses of participants in the protest action was a problem, and when the price of the cheapest train ticket is often an insurmountable barrier to making the trip to Moscow, organizing such a forum was by no means a simple task. (In Germany, where the left is considerably stronger, and where trade unions and antiglobalist groups are able to invest far greater resources in forums, similar events attract around five thousand people.)

Interms of attendance, Moscow's first forum can be considered a success. But there was another measure of success: Until now, persuading various left groups to work together has been extremely difficult. Similarly, the "alternative" trade unions have not always got along. The Russian Social Forum was the result of joint work by a series of groups and organizations whose past relations have often been far from friendly. Nevertheless, the forum took place. The proceedings were not without problems, but the overwhelming majority of the participants showed a readiness to work together.

Among the activists present were those of the Left Youth Front, and also of several youth groups that have remained outside that organization. The trade union bodies included the All-Russian Confederation of Labour, the Siberian Confederation of Labour, and the Defense of Labour group. Also present were representatives of the Institute for the Study of Globalization, the Institute for the Study of Collective Action, and the "Alternativy" (Alternatives) movement--all of which played a central role in organizing the forum. The alternative press was also well represented--ranging from the St Petersburg art project "What is to be Done?" to the Tyumen Worker and the quite new Pravda-Info, which presented its first issue at the forum.

Unlike congresses or big meetings of the parliamentary (Duma) opposition, where bored followers are brought in to hear ritualistic speeches from their leaders, the Russian Social Forum was a place where people themselves organised seminars, set up discussions, and planned specific actions. Officially, political parties were excluded from the forum, but the gathering was by no means apolitical. While parties could not put proposals to the forum, no one prevented their supporters from participating fully. Demands on the authorities were voiced bluntly, without sentimental references to a kindly tsar-president being surrounded by evil ministers.

The forum brought together miners and artists, people with a wealth of political experience and students who had learned about the forum from the internet. They joined in singing the Internationale, debated tactics for organizing street protests, and discussed the experience of strike struggles. They argued about what it means to be a leftist in the art world, and about whether it is worth encouraging people to quit old trade unions with a record of servility to the authorities. They exchanged addresses and telephone numbers.

Only the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was conspicuous for its absence. On April 16, the Communists were holding a meeting of the Union of Communist Parties. Instead of meeting with activists of the social protest movements, the party chiefs of the former Soviet republics preferred to talk to one another. Individual members of the KPRF were nevertheless present at the Forum, and in most cases, they were not positive about the leadership of their party. In the same fashion, few representatives were in evidence from the "official" trade unions--the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.

Many participants described the parallels they saw in the Forum's meetings with the first legal meetings of the "informals" (unofficial, unsanctioned social and political groups)in the days of perestroika, in the late 1980s. The atmosphere was similar, and many people were seeing one another for the first time in many years. On the other hand, younger people could make comparisons only with the European social forums, at which hundreds of Russians have been present.

What lay behind the success of the Russian Social Forum? The answer, of course, is the general upsurge of social movements that has taken place in the country. Russia-wide protests in January this year against the law on the monetization of benefits, which substituted meager money payments for various benefits in kind that had been enjoyed by pensioners, showed that Russians are by no means as obedient and long-suffering as the country's leaders would

The liberal--or what might better be called neoliberal--opposition has livened up as well. In these circles, it's become respectable to sympathize with the rebellious pensioners who have blocked streets, and to show an indignant concern for young people who fall beneath the batons of the police.

However, most of the protesters themselves have no faith in "liberal" politicians. As for the nationalist-minded figures from the Russian Communist party and the "Homeland" bloc, the more actively they have joined in the protest actions, the more quickly these actions have died down. The growing hostility to the authorities is combined with a pronounced lack of confidence in this opposition. After all, the Kremlin's liberal critics share with it a free-market philosophy and a belief that the outcomes of privatization need to be strengthened and defended. The uselessness of the Duma/parliamentary "patriots," meanwhile, has long been obvious even to people without much experience of politics. Nostalgia is no substitute for an economic program, and arguments about the so-called special mission of Russia cannot conceal an open distaste for action. Nor can hours-long speeches about the good of the people provide a cover for anti-democratism and for a lack of interest in the real people, as opposed to a stereotyped image of them.

Meanwhile, the events of the past January have shown that a new opposition is taking shape in Russia. It is not being formed around the parliamentary/Duma parties, but on the basis of the developing social movements. Participants in the protest actions are trying to acquire a voice and to formulate their own demands to be placed on the authorities. As in many other countries, a Social Forum is now providing a meeting place for the protesters. Unlike earlier international organizations of the left, the "new international" that is coming into being on the basis of the ideas proclaimed by the social forums--in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Florence, Paris and London--is exceptionally democratic. In terms of ideas, the initiative has come from below. For Russian political culture--in which, even on the left, an unbelievable gap has remained between passive followers and leaders bursting with self-satisfaction--the forum was simply miraculous; it featured neither honorary presidiums nor long, ceremonious speeches.

At the April 16 demonstration, the order in which the speakers addressed the participants was determined by lot; first up was Petr Zolotarev, a trade union leader from the city of Togliatti. The television and press joined in ignoring this "incorrect" gathering, but no one was especially embittered as a result; the social movements are acquiring their own media, from websites and small newspapers to pirate radio stations and internet television. Indeed, one can speak of the "small press" only in the sense that these news sources are run on little money. Pravda-Info, for example, has appeared in a print-run of 55,000 copies, enormous for such publications. A new social force is coming into being before our eyes. If the authorities fail to take account of it, so much the worse for the authorities.

Sweet Victory: Code Pink

In her Mother's Day Proclamation of 1870, Julia Ward Howe--the woman who is credited with founding the holiday--wrote : "In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask...that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed...to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace."

A hundred and thirty-five Mother's Days later, the feisty and fiercely intelligent women of Code Pink--the largest women-initiated, antiwar activist group in the country--are fulfilling Howe's call to action. Founded in 2002 during the run-up to war in Iraq, Code Pink has grabbed the nation's attention with some of the boldest, most direct, creative (and good-humored) protests against the war.

Among our favorite Code Pink actions: their four-month vigil in front of the White House; the "pink slip" campaign; crashing the RNC three nights in a row; interrupting hearings to demand the firing of Donald Rumsfeld, and, later, to protest the nomination of John Bolton.

Code Pink's antiwar message is resonating with more and more Americans. The most recent opinion poll indicates that only 44 percent believe it was worth going to war in Iraq--the lowest levels since the invasion in 2003.

"Women have been the guardians of life--not because we are better or purer or more innately nurturing than men, but because the men have busied themselves making war," Code Pink's mission statement reads. "Because of our responsibility to the next generation, because of our own love for our families and communities and this country that we are a part of, we understand the love of a mother in Iraq for her children, and the driving desire of that child for life."

To honor the radical, anti-war origins of Mother's Day, don't just buy a Hallmark card--instead, click here and participate in Code Pink's "Mother's Day Call for Peace."

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.

Syndicate content