Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
In a series of extraordinary speeches, Senator Robert Byrd, a longtime historian of the Senate, has persistently sounded the alarm about imperial executive power. He has unflinchingly exposed the grave danger we face from an Administration that routinely abuses power and tramples democracy without batting an eye.
Yesterday, Byrd delivered another wakeup call. Taking aim at the Republicans' threat to use the "nuclear option"--a change to the rules of the Senate that would effectively bar Democrats from filibustering judicial nominations--he assailed those who would aim "an arrow straight at the heart of the Senate's long tradition of unlimited debate." He didn't stop there. "Many times in our history," Byrd said--perhaps speaking to the hypocrites in power who prefer to lecture the world about democracy rather than protect it at home-- "we have taken up arms to protect a minority against the tyrannical majority in other lands. We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not men."
Read Byrd's warning to the republic:
Stopping a Strike at the Heart of the Senate by Senator Robert Byrd, delivered on March 1, 2005
In 1939, one of the most famous American movies of all time, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," hit the box office. Initially received with a combination of lavish praise and angry blasts, the film went on to win numerous awards, and to inspire millions around the globe. The director, the legendary Frank Capra, in his autobiography "Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title," cites this moving review of the film, appearing in "The Hollywood Reporter," November 4, 1942:
Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," chosen by French Theaters as the final English language film to be shown before the recent Nazi-ordered countrywide ban on American and British films went into effect, was roundly cheered...
Storms of spontaneous applause broke out at the sequence when, under the Abraham Lincoln monument in the Capital, the word, "Liberty," appeared on the screen and the Stars and Stripes began fluttering over the head of the great Emancipator in the cause of liberty.
Similarly cheers and acclamation punctuated the famous speech of the young senator on man's rights and dignity. 'It was...as though the joys, suffering, love and hatred, the hopes and wishes of an entire people who value freedom above everything, found expression for the last time...
For those who may not have seen it, "Mr. Smith" is the fictional story of one young Senator's crusade against forces of corruption, and his lengthy filibuster for the values he holds dear.
My, how times have changed. These days Smith would be called "an obstructionist." Rumor has it that there is a plot afoot in the Senate to curtail the right of extended debate in this hallowed chamber, not in accordance with its rules, mind you, but by fiat from the Chair.
The so-called "nuclear option" purports to be directed solely at the Senate's advice and consent prerogatives regarding federal judges. But, the claim that no right exists to filibuster judges aims an arrow straight at the heart of the Senate's long tradition of unlimited debate.
The Framers of the Constitution envisioned the Senate as a kind of executive council; a small body of legislators, featuring longer terms, designed to insulate members from the passions of the day.
The Senate was to serve as a "check" on the Executive Branch, particularly in the areas of appointments and treaties, where, under the Constitution, the Senate passes judgement absent the House of Representatives. James Madison wanted to grant the Senate the power to select judicial appointees with the Executive relegated to the sidelines. But a compromise brought the present arrangement; appointees selected by the Executive, with the advice and consent of the Senate. Note that nowhere in the Constitution is a vote on appointments mandated.
When it comes to the Senate, numbers can deceive. The Senate was never intended to be a majoritarian body. That was the role of the House of Representatives, with its membership based on the populations of states. The Great Compromise of July 16, 1787, satisfied the need for smaller states to have equal status in one House of Congress: the Senate.
The Senate, with its two members per state, regardless of population is, then, the forum of the states. Indeed, in the last Congress, 52 members, a majority, representing the 26 smallest states accounted for just 17.06 percent of the US population. In other words, a majority in the Senate does not necessarily represent a majority of the population. The Senate is intended for deliberation not point scoring. It is a place designed from its inception, as expressive of minority views. Even 60 Senators, the number required for cloture, would represent just 24 percent of the population, if they happened to all hail from the 30 smallest states. Unfettered debate, the right to be heard at length, is the means by which we perpetuate the equality of the states.
In fact, it was 1917, before any curtailing of debate was attempted, which means that from 1806 to 1917, some 111 years, the Senate rejected any limits to debate. Democracy flourished along with the filibuster. The first actual cloture rule in 1917, was enacted in response to a filibuster by those who opposed U.S. intervention in World War I.
But, even after its enactment, the Senate was slow to embrace cloture, understanding the pitfalls of muzzling debate. In 1949, the 1917 cloture rule was modified to make cloture more difficult to invoke, not less, mandating that the number needed to stop debate would be not two-thirds of those present and voting, but two-thirds of all Senators.
Indeed, from 1919 to 1962, the Senate voted on cloture petitions only 27 times and invoked cloture just four times over those 43 years.
On January 4, 1957, Senator William Ezra Jenner of Indiana spoke in opposition to invoking cloture by majority vote. He stated with conviction:
We may have a duty to legislate, but we also have a duty to inform and deliberate. In the past quarter century we have seen a phenomenal growth in the power of the executive branch. If this continues at such a fast pace, our system of checks and balances will be destroyed. One of the main bulwarks against this growing power is free debate in the Senate...So long as there is free debate, men of courage and understanding will rise to defend against potential dictators...The Senate today is one place where, no matter what else may exist, there is still a chance to be heard, an opportunity to speak, the duty to examine, and the obligation to protect. It is one of the few refuges of democracy. Minorities have an illustrious past, full of suffering, torture, smear, and even death. Jesus Christ was killed by a majority; Columbus was smeared; and Christians have been tortured. Had the United States Senate existed during those trying times, I am sure these people would have found an advocate. Nowhere else can any political, social, or religious group, finding itself under sustained attack, receive a better refuge.
Senator Jenner was right. The Senate was deliberately conceived to be what he called a "better refuge," meaning one styled as guardian of the rights of the minority.
The Senate is the "watchdog" because majorities can be wrong, and filibusters can highlight injustices. History is full of examples.
In March 1911, Senator Robert Owen of Oklahoma filibustered the New Mexico statehood bill, arguing that Arizona should also be allowed to become a state. President Taft opposed the inclusion of Arizona's statehood in the bill because Arizona's state constitution allowed the recall of judges. Arizona attained statehood a year later, at least in part because Senator Owen and the minority took time to make their point the year before.
In 1914, a Republican minority led a 10-day filibuster of a bill that would have appropriated more than $50,000,000 for rivers and harbors. On an issue near and dear to the hearts of our current majority, Republican opponents spoke until members of the Commerce Committee agreed to cut the appropriations by more than half.
Perhaps more directly relevant to our discussion of the "nuclear option" are the seven days in 1937, from July 6 to 13 of that year, when the Senate blocked Franklin Roosevelt's Supreme Court-packing plan.
Earlier that year, in February 1937, FDR sent the Congress a bill drastically reorganizing the judiciary. The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the bill, calling it " an invasion of judicial power such as has never before been attempted in this country" and finding it "essential to the continuance of our constitutional democracy that the judiciary be completely independent of both the executive and legislative branches of the Government." The committee recommended the rejection of the court-packing bill, calling it "a needless, futile, and utterly dangerous abandonment of constitutional principle....without precedent and without justification."
What followed was an extended debate on the Senate Floor lasting for seven days until the Majority Leader, Joseph T. Robinson of Arkansas, a supporter of the plan, suffered a heart attack and died on July 14. Eight days later, by a vote of 70 to 20, the Senate sent the judicial reform bill back to committee, where FDR's controversial, court-packing language was finally stripped. A determined, vocal group of Senators properly prevented a powerful President from corrupting our nation's judiciary.
Free and open debate on the Senate floor ensures citizens a say in their government. The American people are heard, through their Senator, before their money is spent, before their civil liberties are curtailed, or before a judicial nominee is confirmed for a lifetime appointment. We are the guardians, the stewards, the protectors of our people. Our voices are their voices.
If we restrain debate on judges today, what will be next: the rights of the elderly to receive social security; the rights of the handicapped to be treated fairly; the rights of the poor to obtain a decent education? Will all debate soon fall before majority rule?
Will the majority someday trample on the rights of lumber companies to harvest timber, or the rights of mining companies to mine silver, coal, or iron ore? What about the rights of energy companies to drill for new sources of oil and gas? How will the insurance, banking, and securities industries fare when a majority can move against their interests and prevail by a simple majority vote? What about farmers who can be forced to lose their subsidies, or Western Senators who will no longer be able to stop a majority determined to wrest control of ranchers' precious water or grazing rights? With no right of debate, what will forestall plain muscle and mob rule?
Many times in our history we have taken up arms to protect a minority against the tyrannical majority in other lands. We, unlike Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, have never stopped being a nation of laws, not of men.
But witness how men with motives and a majority can manipulate law to cruel and unjust ends. Historian Alan Bullock writes that Hitler's dictatorship rested on the constitutional foundation of a single law, the Enabling Law. Hitler needed a two-thirds vote to pass that law, and he cajoled his opposition in the Reichstag to support it. Bullock writes that "Hitler was prepared to promise anything to get his bill through, with the appearances of legality preserved intact." And he succeeded.
Hitler's originality lay in his realization that effective revolutions, in modern conditions, are carried out with, and not against, the power of the State: the correct order of events was first to secure access to that power and then begin his revolution. Hitler never abandoned the cloak of legality; he recognized the enormous psychological value of having the law on his side. Instead, he turned the law inside out and made illegality legal.
And that is what the nuclear option seeks to do to Rule XXII of the Standing Rules of the Senate.
It seeks to alter the rules by sidestepping the rules, thus making the impermissible the rule. Employing the "nuclear option", engaging a pernicious, procedural maneuver to serve immediate partisan goals, risks violating our nation's core democratic values and poisoning the Senate's deliberative process.
For the temporary gain of a hand-full of "out of the mainstream" judges, some in the Senate are ready to callously incinerate each Senator's right of extended debate. Note that I said each Senator. For the damage will devastate not just the minority party. It will cripple the ability of each member to do what each was sent here to do - - represent the people of his or her state. Without the filibuster or the threat of extended debate, there exists no leverage with which to bargain for the offering of an amendment. All force to effect compromise between the two political parties is lost. Demands for hearings can languish. The President can simply rule, almost by Executive Order if his party controls both houses of Congress, and Majority Rule reins supreme. In such a world, the Minority is crushed; the power of dissenting views diminished; and freedom of speech attenuated. The uniquely American concept of the independent individual, asserting his or her own views, proclaiming personal dignity through the courage of free speech will, forever, have been blighted. And the American spirit, that stubborn, feisty, contrarian, and glorious urge to loudly disagree, and proclaim, despite all opposition, what is honest and true, will be sorely manacled.
Yes, we believe in Majority rule, but we thrive because the minority can challenge, agitate, and question. We must never become a nation cowed by fear, sheeplike in our submission to the power of any majority demanding absolute control.
Generations of men and women have lived, fought and died for the right to map their own destiny, think their own thoughts, and speak their minds. If we start, here, in this Senate, to chip away at that essential mark of freedom - - here of all places, in a body designed to guarantee the power of even a single individual through the device of extended debate - - we are on the road to refuting the Preamble to our own Constitution and the very principles upon which it rests.
In the eloquent, homespun words of that illustrious, obstructionist, Senator Smith, "Liberty is too precious to get buried in books. Men ought to hold it up in front of them every day of their lives, and say, 'I am free--to think--to speak. My ancestors couldn't. I can. My children will."
Gloria Totten is the savvy executive director of Progressive Majority--and she's bullish about Howard Dean's ascendance: he will speak "with a clear voice," pursue a "movement-building politics" and "bring a well-rounded [states-based] approach to the chairmanship."
Indeed, the former Vermont Governor and former head of the Democratic Governor's Association shares Totten's commitment to rebuilding state parties, mobilizing new voters and using new technologies and fresh ideas to inspire the grassroots. In short, Dean gets it--and so does Totten.
In 2004, Dean's group Democracy for America endorsed scores of candidates running in local and state races--from a school board member in Huntsville, Alabama, to a mayoral contender in Salt Lake County, Utah. Working with like-minded progressive organizations such as Progressive Majority and 21st Century Democrats, DFA sought to give back power to citizens, and recruit and support the next generation of grassroots leaders.
Looking ahead, we need to see action and real muscle behind the commitment to localism and fighting in the states. We're now well into 2005, and for Dean and Totten, it's a chance to build on their work of the 2004 campaign.
Dean told state party leaders that if he became DNC chair, "strengthening the state parties" would be among his highest priorities. In a recent Nation cover story, John Nichols argued that the 2006 state and local elections are one of "Dean's best chances to prove himself."
Thirty-six governorships will be at stake. According to nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook, seven of these GOP-held governorships are considered toss-ups; six, he says, lean Republican. In contrast, only two seats, now held by Democrats, are toss-ups--and only one Democratic seat leans Democratic. Thousands of municipal offices, control of state legislatures and redistricting in 2011 will be on the ballot.
As those in DC focus on national races in 2006, I still think the states represent the brightest hope--in these times--as laboratories for bold reform experiments. At least 14 states have raised the minimum wage in recent years; a number of states, including Kansas, are encouraging the buying of low-cost prescription drugs from state-approved pharmacies in Europe and Canada; clean money and clean election laws are on the books from Maine to Arizona, and 30 states have rejected a depreciation provision written into the tax code by Republicans for their corporate allies in March, 2002.
Gloria Totten knows that building a progressive majority in America requires patience, as well as the creation of a "farm team," which is an essential piece of this puzzle. On this front, her organization, Progressive Majority, is blazing the trail for 2006 and beyond.
Progressive Majority supported 100 candidates in the 2004 general election and 41 of them were victorious. Of the 59 candidates who fell shy of the mark, 33 of them, according to Totten, plan to run in 2006. Progressive Majority targeted the then-GOP controlled Washington State Senate--and Democrats now control the chamber. Totten's organization has offices in five states--Washington, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Arizona, and it plans to establish footholds in five more in the next two years--including, potentially, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, Minnesota and New Mexico.
In the 2005 and 2006 elections, Progressive Majority intends to assist some 270 to 300 candidates local and statewide, providing one-on-one training as well as other support. The group will help to raise money, sharpen their daily message operations, refine their stump speeches, offer media strategies, and encourage the candidates to connect with voters by speaking from their guts. Other goals: help candidates pay attention to "what voters care about," avoid sounding like "policy wonks," and encourage "nontraditional candidates" like firefighters and teachers to run for office.
Some of the PM-supported candidates include people like Yvonne Kinoshita Ward, a rising star in Washington State. Running for the State Senate, Ward is a Japanese-American civil rights attorney from Auburn, Washington, a past President of the Asian Bar Association of Washington, and she's not given to pretensions: she rides a Harley and wears steel-toed boots.
Progressive Majority will focus on recruiting more women and union members to become candidates--and its Racial Justice Campaign Fund "focuses exclusively on raising money and enhancing the recruitment of candidates of color," says its 2004 Year-end Report.
Progressive Majority also will continue to team up with groups like the National Committee for an Effective Congress to target key districts in the redistricting battle in 2011--its effort to "strengthen the connection between state and local political targeting and overall national priorities."
Progressive Majority doesn't buy the political equivalent of "instant gratification;" instead, it is setting its sights on a long-term agenda. In addition to focusing on redistricting in 2011, Totten has urged Democratic national leaders to "take a longer view of things" instead of devoting a disproportionate amount of energy to the hottest races in any one election cycle. Totten understands that, like the Right, progressives need to think strategically, not lurch from crisis to crisis or candidate to candidate. Totten has learned from the opposition, and studied the past; "75 percent of federal officials started their careers" in local or state government, she reminds us.
Progressive Majority is the most successful progressive organization working to enact positive political change in the states. Click here to check out what it's up to and how you can help. As Totten so eloquently reminds progressives, "our future is in the states."
Your credit card issuers are hoping that the sixth time will be the charm for a bill they've been pushing since the Clinton years: "The Consumer Bankruptcy Reform Act" (now S.256 & H.R.685). This legislation would make it more difficult for people turning to bankruptcy as a last resort to actually discharge their credit card debts.
Considering that most people who file for bankruptcy are squeezed middle-class homeowners who experience a job loss, divorce, or medical emergency (see Dan Frosch's "Your Money or Your Life"), you'd think that Congress might be timid about introducing such a draconian bill with 46 million uninsured and on the heels of record job losses. As research from Demos shows, American families' debt has skyrocketed over the past decade because of stagnant wages, rising basic costs, and abusive practices on the part of a deregulated credit industry. Many families are borrowing to make ends meet, and are just one missed paycheck away from financial collapse.
Somehow, though, that kitchen-table reality hasn't reached the Washington bubble. In DC, the banking lobby's line about frivolous debtors lacking personal responsibility plays well on both sides of the aisle. Perhaps that's because the industry was Washington's single largest contributor in 2000. Or perhaps it's because they haven't heard from you. Senator Specter (R-PA), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, held a hearing on February 11th on the Senate bill. Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate, and Democrats Kennedy (MA) and Durbin (IL) are leading the fight against it.
Click here to contact your Senator now. If you've got a credit card, you've got a problem with this bill. With the threat of consumer bankruptcy defused, issuers will have no reason to refrain from escalating the fee and penalty rate wave they've been riding to record profits in recent years.
Ex-Nation intern Chris Kromm and the Institute for Southern Studies--a "think tank/act tank" founded by civil rights veterans, which publishes the award-winning Southern Exposure magazine--have launched a new blog, Facing South.
The Institute has been at the forefront of campaigns for economic justice, campaign finance reform, environmental sanity and most recently the defense of voting rights and the reigning in of war profiteers (over 40 percent of military contracts go to corporations operating in the South).
Why Facing South? Because the South is far from a lost cause for social change. Progressives in the region are getting energized, laying infrastructure and finding openings that draw on the region's populist streak and unbroken history of movements for justice and dignity.
And there's much to build on recently: A campaign for economic justice in Florida won a 71 percent vote to boost the minimum wage last November. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee's recent contract victory for 8,000 North Carolina farm-workers was an important victory in the struggles for immigrant rights. Successful efforts to ward off corporate encroachment, like the Public Safety and Justice Campaigns to halt prison privatization in several states. Progressives are getting more serious about electoral politics, too--one third of the delegates at South Carolina's Democratic Convention last May were members of a growing Progressive Caucus.
Facing South will chronicle these sources of inspiration--as well as the inevitable outrages-- to move forward the debate about progressive prospects in the red states. Click here to check it out.
In secretly taped conversations in 1998 and 1999, President Bush admitted to deliberately "stoned-walling" the press about his past drug use during the 2000 election.
Quote: "I wouldn't answer the marijuana questions. You know why? Because I don't want some little kid doing what I tried." Instead Bush used "code words" about his "wild past" to appeal to the Christian Right as a sinner who had been saved.
If George Bush is the Cheech Marin of turning past vices into present virtues, then John Negroponte is Tommy Chong. While ambassador to Honduras, Negroponte was involved in Iran/Contra, misled Congress about Honduras' human rights record, and denied the existence of CIA-trained death squads which, in fact, were then hunting down, torturing, and killing suspected subversives.
But Negroponte's resume doesn't stop there. He was ambassador to the United Nations, when Colin Powell presented false WMD intelligence to the Security Council. And finally, if more proof is needed that he is the last person in the world you want to hear the United States has assigned to be ambassador to your country, Negroponte's most recent posting was Iraq.
So let's see, covert torture operations, involvement with Iran/Contra, failed nation building, and a history of lying to the press and Congress--sounds like the perfect man with the perfect qualifications for the job of Bush's National Intelligence Director.
George Hunsinger gives the lie to the Right's caricature of progressives as anti-religious zealots. As a minister, the McCord professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and coordinator of Church Folks for a Better America (CBFA), Hunsinger is working hard to reframe the "moral values" debate by raising tough questions about how torture, pre-emption, unjust war, and poverty can be tolerated by people of moral and religious conviction.
Hunsinger has tapped into a rich tradition of religious progressive activism--from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Father Robert Drinan to Rev. William Sloane Coffin. He shared his thoughts on Iraq, torture, and the challenges facing progressive religious leaders in a recent email interview.
Torture is not a divisive issue for religious people. No religious person, and no person of conscience, can possibly justify it morally. An example of this is an emerging new network of religious progressives which recently published an "Open Letter to Alberto Gonzales."
My fledgling organization, Church Folks for a Better America, took the lead. In a short time we garnered over 225 signatures from a wide variety of religious leaders: Not only Catholics, Protestants and Jews, but also Muslims and Sikhs. We also made inroads among leading evangelicals.
The Open Letter got some good coverage. We were often mentioned alongside the ex-military lawyers who came out against Gonzales in press accounts. In the final Gonzales debate, our letter was quoted on the Senate floor.
Church Folks for a Better America came into existence almost by accident. On September 12, 2001, I found myself spending more time on the Internet than I care to remember trying to get a handle on what was really happening. I could see the ominous implications for war as well as for a crackdown on liberty at home. I wrote an Urgent Appeal opposing the invasion of Iraq on just-war grounds, signed by prominent academic theologians like Sarah Coakley, Stanley Hauerwas and Nicholas Wolterstorff as well as activists like JimWallis and William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and published in Sojourners. I started flooding the inboxes of my friends each day with what I found by scouring the net.
Until the Abu Ghraib torture scandal I was pretty much just a guy alone in his office with a computer. By that time I had an enormous backlog of files. I wrote a new statement that I hoped we could run in the New York Times. I wanted to get it out there before the "transfer" of power in Iraq on June 30, 2004. When I was unable to raise the handsome sum the Times requires, a colleague suggested setting up a website a la Howard Dean. One thing led to another, and by August CFBA came online. And, with a few large donations and many smaller ones, An Appeal to Recover America's Moral Character"--the Dove Ad, as we called it--finally ran in the Times as a quarter-page ad on the Sunday Op-Ed page just prior to the presidential election. We also had enough funds to publish the letter in papers in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
I try to keep the website up-to-date, though as a professor I also have a day job. The site keeps abreast of Iraq news, in-depth analysis, good sermons, antiwar poetry and little-known websites.
It used to be said that the right had the wallet but the left had the pen. But then the Right discovered that if you had the wallet you could buy the pen. The rightwing take-over of religious discourse in America is part of a larger trend that has developed over the last 25 to 30 years. The right has learned to be extremely effective in shaping the political agenda and exploiting religious sensibilities.
Meanwhile, the liberal left has not always been hospitable to religious people. The renewal of a progressive movement in our country may well hinge on whether that can change. The Solidarity movement in Poland, where dissident intellectuals joined hands with the Catholic Church, is suggestive of what we need here. Jeffrey Stout's new book Democracy and Tradition is also seminal for the future of religion and politics in America.
Church Folks for a Better America is dedicated to the idea that the word "Christian" does not necessarily go with the word "Right." Our motto, taken from Martin Luther King, is addressed first to the churches: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." We are a rallying point for many Christians who are appalled when the churches remain silent. If the churches cannot speak out against something like torture, what good is it to have tongues?
The confirmation of Alberto Gonzales was, in effect, a national referendum on torture. No one in high places has been held accountable, the Republican-dominated Senate has acquiesced, and not enough people seem to care. Enormities like torture are increasingly papered over with democratic rhetoric and pious falsehoods. Anti-democratic forces in America tighten their grip, while we suffer from a will to ignorance. The elements of atrocity, manipulation and indifference add up to a spiritual crisis.
Let me add, however, that to some extent I was heartened by the quality of opposition to Gonzales. Senators Kennedy, Byrd, Durbin, and Reed, for example, all made distinguished speeches. They remind me of the hopes we once had, and might still have, for our beloved country.
Karl Barth (1886-1968), regarded by many as the 20th century's greatest theologian [and whom Hunsinger has studied], is, in one sense, something like Noam Chomsky. He does not fit neatly into familiar categories. Theologically traditional, he stood on the political left. Generous orthodoxy, as he represented it, inspires my intellectual and religious life.
Barth was the theological leader of the confessing church, the grouping of Protestant churches that resisted Hitler. He was a life-long democratic socialist. On the war question, he went back and forth between just-war pacifism and chastened non-pacifism. These are the parameters of my political views.
As a divinity student at Harvard years ago, I pounded the pavement for Father [Robert] Drinan during his campaign for the House of Representatives. It was a particular pleasure for me when, just recently, he volunteered his signature for The Dove Ad. In 1978-79, with the Riverside Church Disarmament Program, I served as an assistant to [Rev.] William Sloane Coffin, Jr. The loose-leaf anthology and course syllabus I developed on nuclear disarmament, which we called the Red Notebook, was widely distributed at the time. You might say that Church Folks for a Better America online is a successor to the Red Notebook.
Church Folks for a Better America owes a debt to great figures who have gone before us like Karl Barth, Martin Luther King, and Bill Coffin. You could look at it as my modest attempt to pay them tribute.
As for what's next, a larger anti-torture campaign is now in the works with the following goals: 1) Congressional action to stop exempting intelligence services from the torture ban imposed on military services; 2) Congressional action to outlaw the horrifying practice of extraordinary rendition/torture by proxy; 3) A clear statement from Bush that US policy does not condone torture in any form or under any circumstances; 4) The appointment of a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of the issue.
Our work will also continue against the Iraq war. Destroying entire cities, as happened with Fallujah, is a form of terrorism, just as torture is a form of terrorism. Fighting terrorism by terrorism is at once immoral and futile. It has been clear since Abu Ghraib that the war cannot be won. The 14 new military bases planned for Iraq must be exposed and opposed along with the shameless profiteering still taking place. We join with all who call for an early and orderly exit, and for reparations for Iraq's long-suffering people.
As our list of supporters grows, we will combine Internet activism with direct mail and political action. Last fall the Dove Ad campaign saw seminary students raising money on 12 campuses across the country. Model sermons and prayers appear on our website along with alternative news and analysis. Congregations need a deeper understanding of the just-war tradition. Ordinary believers need to see the progressive implications of ordinary faith. They need powerful alternatives to the Religious Right.
We will work in concentric circles, beginning with the community of faith. Our efforts will be modest. Remember that we have only been around for six months. Though we will of course join in coalitions with anyone who shares our concerns, our particular calling is reaching out to people of faith, including elected officials. Republican Senators who profess to be believers, for example, have no business voting for torture. Through creative new faith-based initiatives, perhaps they too can be reached.
Al Franken's decision not to run for the Senate is a loss for the people of Minnesota and the country, but at least he'll have more time for his very funny radio show and books. I was just thinking about Al's first book today after reading a transcript of Rush Limbaugh's Valentine's Day show.
Recently, I wrote in this space about data showing that single women were more likely to be Democratic voters than married women, and I joked that this was another reason not to get married. Now, I do know that it's the nature of our political culture today that if a progressive, even a happily married one (16 years), makes a joke like that some right-wing blowhard is going to distort it for the sake of scoring cheap partisan points. So it wasn't a surprise that Rush Limbaugh, the grandaddy distorter of them all, stepped up to the plate to take a whack. But what did surprise me is that he took the opportunity not only to attack me but also my husband. Here's what he said:
"Now, The Nation is one of our favorite publications here, the far left fringe publication of the liberal journal of opinion that is edited by well known communist named Katrina vanden Heuvel whose husband is a well known communist at Columbia. Well, I use the term advisedly. Stephen Cohen's his name."
Now, I know that Limbaugh doesn't have a lot of experience with successful relationships, but attacking someone's spouse is generally considered to be pretty low down and dirty. In fact, some would call his reckless allegations libelous--my lawyer, for example. I also know that Limbaugh suffers from a rather severe case of McCarthy-era nostalgia, but equating liberalism with communism is tired and boorish even for someone who is a big, fat idiot. I use the term advisedly.
By the way, if Rush had done any research, he would have discovered that my husband now teaches, after many years at Princeton, at NYU, not Columbia. (Kids, this is an object lesson: read books, don't take drugs.)
As the Gannongate scandal grows more disturbing by the day, it is worth remembering that this is but the latest round in the Bush White House's assault on the freedom of the press.
It started with loyalty oaths at Bush campaign events, which turned town hall meetings into infomercials. This proved so successful they've exported the strategy. When Condi met with a group of French intellectuals, their questions were pre-screened for anti-Bush bias. (It was presumably a rather short Q&A session.)
Then we discovered the Bush Administration was using taxpayer dollars to buy the fourth estate and turn it into a dude ranch. Armstrong Williams was paid a quarter million to pimp for No Child Left Behind. Maggie Gallagher and Mike McManus, who should talk to Armstrong's agent, were paid considerably less to hold forth on the gay marriage amendment.
And now we've learned that a Texas Republican set up a fake news website and hired The Journalist That Dare Not Speak His Real Name (James Dale Guckert, aka James Gannon) to infiltrate the White House Press Corp and lob friendly questions. He infamously asked President Bush how he could work with Democrats who had "divorced themselves from reality."
It was at this point that pajama-clad bloggers, armed only with their Google search engines, uncovered that Gannon not only had a secret identity but also had gained access to classified documents that named Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. (Some connections to gay prostitution websites which Guckert-Gannon was involved in were also turned up.)
Despite the ease with which the blogosphere was able to uncover Guckert/Gannon's true identity and even though Guckert/Gannon had been denied credentials to enter the House and Senate press galleries, Bush spokesperson Scott McClellan claims post-9/11 security measures failed to detect a faux-journalist operating inside the White House under a pseudonym.
If you believe that, I have some Iraqi weapons of mass destruction I'd like to sell you.
The blogopshere is jam-packed with strategic advice for new DNC Chair Howard Dean. One of the most thoughtful pieces was written by Zack Exley--former director for MoveOn.org and former Dean and Kerry "net" mobilizer.
His Letter to the Next DNC Chair describes a new kind of politics emerging and lays out a blueprint for how the party can build a vast, permanent field organization with the "New Grassroots" by leveraging email, the web and a little technology. (Click here to read more about Exley's open letter.)
The latest strategic salvo comes from Zephyr Teachout--director of internet organizing for Dean's presidential campaign. Posted at personaldemocracy forum.com, it's a provocative piece calling on the party to pursue "an Internet-generated aggressive effort to re-establish local structures as vibrant, multi-purpose, cross-class continuous communities."
With references to Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol's research and Robert Putnam's seminal work on the decline of participation in civic life, Teachout observes that while the "net is disrupting some old channels for political power and offering new kinds of connections as well...without an aggressive effort, I worry that most of this energy will go into fundraising, list-building and maybe some online community building."
Sure, these aren't bad things, Teachout says, "but in the face of the Great American Loneliness and the Great American Powerlessness, I hope that the disruptive power of the internet might serve to create a new form of voluntary association: offline communities based on online connections but rooted in public places."
She also tackles the many reasons why local party poobahs might resist. But, as Teachout argues, "the best thing the DNC can do is be an aggressive hydraulic force outwards, with the net as its power--and all Democrats will be rewarded with a vastly stronger networked community, with deep loyalty and deep engagement of the party membership."
Teachout to Dean. Food for thought.
Zen on His Mind
"In his first post-election news conference...Dean said Democrats should not be afraid to stand up for what they believe, but he cast the party's core beliefs in mainstream language, avoiding some of the bombast of his presidential campaign. Asked whether there was a new, more subdued Howard Dean on view, he said, 'I'm not a Zen person. It's hard to answer stylistic questions. I am who I am...It's not intentional."(Washington Post, February 13, 2005)
"In order to make good on the new empowerment, we have to genuinely give power to the states and grassroots. That's what we did in our campaign. I believe in order to have power, you have to give up power. I know that sounds Zen-like, but it is true."(From an interview in Start Making Sense: Turning the lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics, by Alternet--available in March from Chelsea Green Publishing.)
In Bush's State of the Union address, he mentioned personal accounts seven times but private accounts zero times, which is interesting because only a few months ago he was using both terms interchangeably. But fear not, this was no mistake. The Republicans tested the phrase private accounts and found public support was much lower than when the same, exact, identical concept was called personal accounts. (Personally, I like caring accounts, but they didn't ask me.)
So the White House and its paid spin doctors, many of whom play journalists on TV, have taken to the airwaves to push the phrase personal accounts and chastise anyone in the media who employs the banished words to characterize ther Administration's Social Security agenda. Proof, if more was needed, that language is power and debates are won or lost based on definitions.
But here is the really funny thing about the personal/private accounts debate. Not only are they not personal accounts, they're not private accounts either. They are in fact US government loans. (Bear with me now, because this will only hurt for a moment.) You see, your payroll taxes will still be used to cover the benefits of current retirees, but under Bush's scheme the government will place a certain "diverted" amount into an account in your name. It sounds like a personal retirement account, but it's not. It's a loan. Because if your account does really well (above 3 percent), when you retire the government will deduct the money it lent you (plus 3 percent interest) from your monthly Social Security check leaving you with almost the same amount you would have received under the current system. If your account does really poorly (below 3 percent), you are out of luck. According to Congressional Budget Office, the expected average return will be 3.3 percent, so the net gain will be zero.
But wait, it gets better. These personal accounts aren't exactly US government loans either, because our government under the fiscal stewardship of George W. Bush no longer is running a surplus and therefore does not have the $4 trillion or so needed to cover the transition costs, and Bush refuses to raise taxes on his base (BUSH'S BASE, n. the wealthy).
So our government will have to borrow that cash. And if the last three years are any guide, our largest single loan officer will likely be the Central Bank of China. And who runs China's Central Bank, China, and the Chinese people with an iron fist? Why, it's our old friends, the democracy-loving, freedom-marching Chinese Communist Party. So Bush's personal retirement accounts=private retirement accounts=US government loans=US government borrowing=Chinese government lending=Chinese Communist Party loans.
Or as we like to say in Republican Dictionary land:
PERSONAL RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS, n. Chinese Communist Party loans.
We've had a grassroots groundswell of submissions from our readers after soliciting ideas for the Republican Dictionary project, which first debuted in this space last November.
Bush's "ownership society" was a big hit, "God" made a return, and Justin Rezzonico delivered the best definition of "Fox News" yet. I've included a sampling of the latest batch below. Please keep them coming in. (Click here to submit your ideas.) We are going to be collecting our favorites and publishing them as a book in the next few months.
ACCOUNTABILITY, n. Buck? What buck? (Martin Richard, Belgrade, MT)
BIPARTISANSHIP, adj. When Democrats compromise. (Justin Rezzonico, Keene, NH)
CHECKS & BALANCES, pl. n. An antiquated concept of the Founding Fathers that impedes autocratic efficiency; see also REFORM. (Robert B. Fuld, Unionville, CT)
FOX NEWS, n. Faux news. (Justin Rezzonico, Keena, NH)
GOD, n. Senior presidential advisor. (Martin Richard, Belgrade, MT)
NONPARTISAN JUDICIAL NOMINEE, n. An active member of the Federalist Society. (Mark Hatch-Miller, Brooklyn, NY)
OWNERSHIP SOCIETY, n. 1) A society where you're on your own. (John Read, Ownings Mills, MD); 2) A society where one-half of society owns the other half. (Anne Galvan Klousia, Corvallis, OR); 3) The euphemism used by robber barons and their political lackeys to promote or justify the extreme concentration of wealth into the hands of a powerful few. Synonyms: PLUTOCRACY, CORPORATE FEUDALISM. (Ken Stump, Seattle, WA)
SOCIAL SECURITY, n. Broker security. (Bruce Clendenin, Dallas, TX)
SPREADING PEACE, v. Preemptive war. (Bruce Hawkins, Silver Springs, MD)
STAY THE COURSE, v. To relentlessly pursue a disastrous policy regardless of how far conditions deteriorate. Antonym: "To cut and run." (Aja Starke, New York, NY)
TORTURER, n. 1) White House Counsel. 2) Attorney General. (Martin Richard, Belgrade, MT)