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Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

'Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive'

Just as I thought they were going to start playing Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen's oldie "Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive (Mister in-Between)" in the convention hall, former President Jimmy Carter came out swinging. God bless him. Seems that Carter--party statesman, nearly 80 years old--didn't have to run the gauntlet of DNC apparatchiks screening speeches for any harsh anti-Bush rhetoric. Carter spoke forthrightly, deploring the fact that the "Middle East is ablaze," and blasting Bush's extremism, deceit and exploitation of American's fears.

As America's 39th President, rightly insisted, "the Middle East peace process has come to a screeching halt for the first time since Israel became a nation. All former presidents, Democratic and Republican, have attempted to secure a comprehensive peace for Israel with hope and justice for the Palestinians." That is until 43. (Click here to read the full text of Carter's remarks.)

A Little Political History

As convention time approached, I asked one of America's most prominent historians, Eric Foner, for some political history about Boston and Massachusetts. Foner, a valued member of The Nation's editorial board and an award-winning author, is a Professor of History at Columbia University, and former President of both the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association. His textbook, Give me Liberty: An American History will be published later this year.

Host for the very first time to a national convention, Boston is a perfect place to reflect on this country's alternative tradition of visionary thinking. It is a city, according to Foner, which illuminates "how the rights and freedoms of all Americans have, again and again in our history, been strengthened and expanded by the struggles of dissenters, and those excluded from the full benefits of the society, to create liberty as they understood it."

Take Roger Williams--the founder of the idea of religious freedom in America, driven out of Puritan Massachusetts for daring to challenge the entrenched orthodoxy. Foner says, "Williams insisted that religious liberty rests on the separation of church and state. He rejected the idea that any one leader or one people had a monopoly on religious truth or enjoyed the special favor of God, and insisted that merging church and state corrupted both politics (by leading rulers to think they were infallible) and religion (by making it the subject of political rivalries)."

Boston was also the cradle of the abolitionist movement, several of whose leaders helped found The Nation in 1865. Their example, Foner says, shows "how a small, couragous band of men and women challenged the most deeply entrenched economic interest in America, insisting that human rights took precedence over the rights of property and that economic activity must be held to a higher standard than more profit and efficiency."

Massachusetts was also one center of the early labor movement, including the legendary female factory workers at Lowell, just outside of Boston, who, Foner observes, "insisted that a modicum of economic autonomy and economic security is essential to freedom--an idea that has found expression at numerous moments in American history including Franklin Roosevelt's Freedom from Want (one of the Four Freedoms)--an idea that has dropped out of our political discourse--and down to those who today insist that economic globalization must be accompanied by labor and environmental safeguards.

And Massachusetts has always been a major center of the women's movement, in both the 19th and 20th centuries, which not only demanded for women the same rights in the public arena as men--the vote, education, economic opportunity, etc--but expanded the idea of freedom and of individual rights into the most intimate realms of life, insisting that the right to control one's own person is the foundation of personal independence (a right that Republicans are today working hard to rescind)."

During this convention week, many actions and gatherings will be devoted to calling for an end to the occupation in Iraq. Boston is the ideal city for such debates because, as Foner reminds, "it has a long tradition of patriotic opposition to unjust wars and to the violations of civil liberties that often accompany wars. Massachusetts was a center of opposition to the Mexican War (Thoreau went to jail rather than pay taxes to support a government that invaded a neighboring country). Every war in US history, with the exception of World War II, has been the subject of strong opposition and internal debate. And the right to criticize the government in wartime, and to retain constitutional protection of civil liberties, is another major strand of patriotic dissent. I'd cite the opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the Sedition Act of 1918, both of which made it illegal to criticize the federal government, and the recent Supreme Court decisions rebuking the Bush Administration for seeking to abrogate the basic civil liberties of Americans accused of crimes as the latest in a long tradition of instence that the constitution is not suspended even in times of crisis."

And as this Administration attempts to rollback the social and democratic achievements of the 20th century, Boston--home to Senator Edward Kennedy, Congressman Jim McGovern and the late Congressman Joe Moakley, among many others--powerfully reminds us of the victories of 20th-century social liberalism, of using the government to promote greater equality and to aid the weak and disadvantaged. This is a winning legacy which Kerry would do well to evoke and emulate.

After all, as Foner points out, "It is important to note that this tradition, which originated in the Progressive era, and reached its flowering under FDR and LBJ, was originally bipartisan, but that Republican Progressivism has fallen by the wayside, to be replaced by a dog-eat-dog view of society and an alliance with the privileged rather than ordinary Americans."

A Victory for Workers

Watch this space all week for DNC-related posts.

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This past week, the New York State Senate took the historic and long overdue step of passing a bill to raise our state minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.15 an hour. This is a tremendous victory for the more than one million workers who will directly benefit from this increase if it is signed by Governor Pataki. At a time when low-wage jobs are failing to keep pace with price increases, it could literally mean the difference for many families. It's also a victory for the Working Families Party's hard work and the effective grassroots organizing the coalition has been doing for the last six years.

Labor unions, Democrats--even the Roman Catholic Church--joined with the Working Families Party in the fight for fairness and equity. The Daily News also earned kudos for publishing seven editorials in the last five months urging a raise in the minimum wage, and assigning reporter Heidi Evans to do a dozen related stories, including a front-page feature on what's it's like to live on $206 each week. And last week, the campaign won support from a powerful, if unexpected, quarter when the Partnership for New York City, one of the city's leading business groups, urged the State Senate to pass the bill. (The Democrat-controlled State Assembly passed a bill last March.) The business group noted that at the current minimum wage, a full-time worker earns only $10,712 a year, which is below the federal poverty level.

Moreover, a recent study by the Fiscal Policy Institute effectively counters claims that raising the minimum wage will hurt small employers. It found that in the 12 states with minimum wages higher than $5.15 an hour, employment levels did not, in fact, decrease as the minimum wage was increased.

But, as Senator Eric Schneiderman (D, Manhattan) , the Deputy Minority Leader and a longtime supporter of the WFP, points out, even with the wage hike's sound economics, it took sustained political pressure, and the threat of possible electoral defeat, to ultimately force Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to drop his traditional opposition to the Assembly proposal.

"The Republican leadership of the Senate allowed this bill to pass this year because they are afraid they will lose seats in the election this fall in districts where the minimum wage increase is popular and where voters have been educated and organized on the issue of raising the minimum wage," Schneiderman said." It is the sad reality that bills don't pass the Senate because they make sense as public policy, or because passing them is the right thing to do. They pass when the Majority Leader sees that the voters may vote out one or more of his members if an issue isn't addressed, and therefore threaten his position as Majority Leader."

That is why it is so important to continue to support the WFP. Launched in 1998, this feisty coalition of community organizations, unions and individuals, has recruited and backed progressive candidates, run local and statewide issue campaigns and used the leverage of the ballot line to hold candidates and elected officials accountable on issues of concern to working-class, middle-class and poor people. Its unapologetic focus on economic justice, its savvy grassroots organizing and ability to give working people an effective voice in the political debate is needed now more than ever. As Jack Newfield put it in an opinion piece for the New York Sun, "Never before has a political party made such an impact on statewide public policy."

Or think of it this way: the WFP's hard work just helped put about a million dollars an hour into the pockets of the working poor. Click here to help the WFP continue its work and click here to add your name to the WFP's petition to New York Governor George Pataki asking him to sign the new minimum wage bill into law.

Bush's War on Science

In August 2001, George W. Bush gave a primetime speech promising to limit the number of stem cell lines available for research on Alzheimer's, cancer and other diseases.

Bush put ideology and religion above all in making this decision, and three years later his terrible policy choice is haunting him. Just last week, Ron Reagan Jr. announced that he would criticize Bush's restrictions on stem cell research at the Democratic convention; more than four thousand scientists (a good number of whom have served both Democratic and Republican administrations) have now signed a statement--first released in February--attacking the Administration's unprecedented politicization of science, and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently updated its groundbreaking report on "Restoring Scientific Integrity in Policy Making," which examines the methods that the Bush Administration uses to manipulate and distort "the work done by scientists at federal agencies and on scientific advisory panels."

"The Administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions," the scientist's letter warned, "placing people who are professionally unqualified in official posts; disbanding existing advisory committees; censoring and suppressing reports by the government's own scientists; and by simply not seeking independent scientific advice."

The UCS's report rigorously documents the equivalent of Bush's little shop of anti-enlightenment policy horrors, demonstrating how Bush has twisted facts and suppressed research to enact retrograde policies on such issues as climate change, mercury emissions and emergency contraception. An example: When the EPA discovered that Bush's Clear Skies Act would be "less effective" than a "bipartisan Senate clean air proposal" in guarding the air we breathe, the Administration simply suppressed the EPA study.

The UCS also charges that scientists are now getting blackballed for their political views. The report cites instances in which nominees to scientific advisory panels have been questioned about whether they had voted for Bush. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's office rejected nineteen of the twenty-six appointments that Dr. Gerald Keusch, who served as director of the NIH's Fogarty International Center until he resigned in frustration, had recommended. Bush's policy has demoralized the scientific community, and prevented our nation's smartest, most experienced scientists from serving on panels devoted to safeguarding public health.

One of the nineteen rejected, the Nobel laureate Torsten Wiesel, happens to be my stepfather. When Keusch questioned HHS's decision on Wiesel, he was told that he "had signed too many full-page letters in the New York Times critical of President Bush." (When did petition-signing qualify as a measure of scientific expertise?) Ironically, this Administration can't get its facts straight--whether it's in the arena of war, budget deficits or science. In a recent email, Torsten told me, "I have not signed a statement against Bush but nonetheless for some reason I am on the Administration's blacklist. Perhaps [it is because of] my human rights activities and being contrary in general."

Torsten, who served as president of the prestigious Rockefeller University for nearly a decade, added, the Administration's "science policy has been bad in general. Instead of choosing the best scientific advice the preference is given to individuals with the right religious or philosophical pedigrees."

Preference is also given to those with big business pedigrees. As Robert Kennedy Jr. pointed out in a Nation cover story last March, Bush's agenda is "to systematically turn government science over to private industry by contracting out thousands of science jobs to compliant consultants already in the habit of massaging data to support corporate profits." This Administration's war on science "is arguably unmatched in the Western world since the Inquisition," he argued.

In the last few weeks alone, Bush's assault on science has intensified. In an unprecedented move, the White House has announced that scientists now need approval from senior Bush political appointees to participate in World Health Organization (WHO) meetings. This has outraged the WHO and others in the scientific community, who believe this decision opens the door for the Administration to blackball scientists who don't follow the line on controversial health issues.

In an April memo, William Steiger, who serves as director of the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs (and has a Ph.D. in Latin American history), also announced a new policy on notices of foreign travel (NFTs). Steiger instructed that any NIH scientist who wants to attend "technical consultations, advisory groups, expert committees and workshops" located in the US and sponsored by "multilateral organizations" must first obtain permission by filing an NFT with his office. (Previously, such requests were routine and perfunctory; scientists filed them simply to alert US embassies to their travel to meetings abroad.)

Under Bush, the NFTs have become a tool to leverage control over government scientists. The changes, said Keusch in an interview this week, are intended to "escalate the levels of control over who can attend" scientific meetings and "what they can say" when there.

Dr. Kurt Gottfried, the chairman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview last week that a second Bush term would "further the demoralization of the professional staff now in service...If Bush is reelected, they would lose hope," Gottfried argued, and "the people most likely to leave [in a second Bush Administration] are the most valuable scientists at the NIH and the CDC, an exodus from which it would take decades for America to recover.

If Bush wins in November, the quality of science that informs policy making will be undermined by the suppression, manipulation and distortion of scientific knowledge. If you want to understand what's at stake, click here to read the UCS's report.

Music Row Democrats

My recent weblog about progressive victories worth celebrating seemed to touch a chord. After asking Nation magazine and website readers to nominate their favorite piece of recent political good news, I was thrilled to receive scores of replies which I subsequently published. I received the letter below after my mailbag.

I'd like to continue highlighting good news in this space. So please click here to send your nomination and I'll keep publishing reader responses in the weeks ahead.

Reader Reply

Sam Lorber, Nashville, TN

The good news in Nashville is the formation of MRD-Music Row Democrats. This group is a reaction to the perception that country music is the exclusive domain of the Republican Party. Sixteen Independent, Democrat and Republican producers, artists, songwriters, publishers, managers and promotion people got together in December 2003 to respond to the appropriation of our music and, to many, their faith, by the Right. Six months later there are over one thousand members who have organized to donate tens of thousands of dollars to the Kerry campaign and start Kerry-oke, roving bands of well known artists and songwriters raising money and consciousness all over the place. We are determined to "Take Back Our Country." (Click here for more information on what we're doing.)

Trump to Bush: You're Fired

I've always thought of Donald Trump as a mega-developer with an oversized ego and a really bad dye job.

So, I haven't paid much attention to his grotesquely successful "reality" show The Apprentice, in which the billionaire vamps shamelessly as a hardworking CEO, or to his latest best-selling how-to-manual, Trump: How to Get Rich.

But "The Donald" did get my attention with his interview in the August issue of Esquire, where he makes it clear that he'd treat Bush like the incompetent guy he is and fire him for his mishandling of Iraq.

"Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we're in." Trump tells Esquire. "What was the purpose of the whole thing? Hundreds and hundreds of young people killed. And what about the people coming back with no arms and no legs? Not to mention the other side. All those Iraqi kids who've been blown to pieces. And it turns out that all of the reasons for the war were blatantly wrong. All this for nothing!," Trump said.

Trump to Bush: "You're Fired!" Not a bad bumper sticker. And it couldn't happen to a more deserving guy.

On the Waterfront

It's great that attention has been paid to progressives like Illinois' Barack Obama, South Dakota's Stephanie Herseth, and Pennsylvania's Allyson Schwartz and Lois Murphy and Oklahoma's Kalyn Free. All these newcomers to the national stage herald a fresh populism should a Democratic tide sweep over America in November.

And in my city of New York there's Frank Barbaro, who's running for a house seat from Southern Brooklyn and Staten Island, New York City's closest thing to a red state. Barbaro, 76, is an unheralded star, a genuine working-class folk hero who deserves far more attention from the media than his candidacy has received thus far.

The 13th district isn't exactly fertile territory for a 76-year-old Democratic candidate. In normal times, the 13th--composed largely of middle and working-class Italian-Americans--is a safe Republican seat having elected Republicans to the House at every opportunity since Reagan's 1980 presidential landslide. The demographics are gradually shifting though as African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans now constitute twenty-six percent of the electorate, with the area's Hispanic population growing considerably.

Barbaro, the son of Italian immigrants, lives in Bensonhurst smack in the middle of the 13th, where he opened a law practice. Despite the district's conservative leanings, the very progressive Barbaro has a serious shot thanks, in large part, to a stellar resume and a patriot's background. He joined the Navy after graduating from high school, and held jobs as an ironworker, cab driver and butcher. From 1952 to 1967, Barbaro worked as a longshoreman on the waterfront in Brooklyn, and his time on the piers profoundly shaped his philosophy. "My fifteen years on the waterfront were the foundry of my ideology," Barbaro said in an interview last week.

He started at a time when McCarthyism was in the ascendance, and anti-communists were purging the ranks of unions of suspected subversives. Brooklyn's docks were run by the mob, and the conditions were horrendous. Barbaro encountered "a total, utter disregard for workers," and decided to stand for social justice. Enduring threats against him and his friends, Barbaro expressed his outrage at his coworkers' exposure to dangerous asbestos levels in the ships and the constant hazardous waterfront tasks and mob intimidation of the AFL-CIO. One time, "4,000 pounds of concrete came pouring down on [Barbaro and his fellow workers]," and Barbaro spearheaded a spontaneous walkout, telling his bosses: "We're not gonna work like animals."

By the late sixties, Barbaro had become a firm believer in the power of organizing. He eventually entered politics and served in the New York Assembly, where he championed important pro-labor and tenants rights legislation. While an assemblyman, Barbaro led a rent strike in the city, and when he was later elevated to the state Supreme Court Justice, he wrote opinions that he proudly recalled safeguarded due process rights for the accused. But it was on the waterfront where he sunk his progressive roots, learning the "absolute necessity of building a people's movement--to be a countervailing force" to corporations.

Now Barbaro faces a four-term Republican incumbent, Vito Fossella, who Barbaro calls "a total political opportunist" who has ignored his constituents and instead done the bidding of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Fossella has indeed amassed a shameful record. He turned his back on Staten Island's veterans, supporting Bush's 2003 budget that cut veterans benefits by $14 billion. He voted against putting more cops on the beat, and supported Bush's massive tax giveaways to corporate America. "Vito is silent," thundered Barbaro at his announcement rally, when it comes to ensuring that New York firefighters and other first responders have "functioning radios" and the equipment "to fight bio-terrorism, [and] dirty bombs."

Barbaro believes that local interests--from Staten Island's Advance newspaper to the borough's business community and even some Republicans--are tired of Fossella's incompetence and inability to assist his district. "If you don't want to work, get out of the way," Barbaro has said. One of his slogans is: "Veto Vito!"

Above all, Barbaro takes the fight for social and economic justice as a lifelong task, and he's running at age 76 because he wants to give Staten Island and Brooklyn's residents their fair shake, and to send a wake-up call to the country.

"Large monies are essential to run campaigns" nowadays, "and the Democratic Party has moved to the right" in recent years, Barbaro argues. "If you stay in the middle you really don't stand for anything." If Barbaro defeats Fossella, he intends to fight "without fear" for unabashed progressive values and goals: healthcare for all; union power; tax justice so corporations pay their fair share; and a full, independent investigation into the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. "[I will fight to] redefine the "mission and philosophy of the Democratic Party," he promises. One of his first orders of business will be to gather grassroots progressives and union organizers to figure out better ways of spreading the populist agenda across America.

Barbaro is running not just on the Democratic ticket but also on the Working Families Party line, which sees in Barbaro an exemplary vessel for its core mission "to inject the concerns of working-class, middle-class, and poor people into the public debate." Dan Cantor at WFP explained Barbaro's appeal: "If Paul Wellstone was a 78 year old Italian from Brooklyn, his name would be Frank Barbaro."

A bold and passionate advocate, Barbaro says "my greatest accomplishment is my belief in America and belief in economic and social justice and my belief in staying the course. [I have] unwavering confidence in the American people that they will, in the end, do what is right for America."

To wage this tough fight for Congress, Barbaro needs progressives to rally to his cause. Click here if you want to support a lifelong fighter for liberal values and a man who never forgot his working-class roots and make a contribution today. With your assistance, Barbaro could launch a movement that will sweep George Bush and Vito Fossella ou

Reader's Mailbag: Good News

My recent weblog about progressive victories worth celebrating seemed to touch a chord. After asking Nation magazine and website readers to nominate their favorite piece of recent political good news, I was thrilled to receive scores of replies. Some of my favorites are published below.

We'd like to continue highlighting good news in this space. So please click here to send your nomination. I'll be publishing more reader responses in the weeks ahead.

Reader Replies

Bruce Bennett,Sausalito, CA

As a former EPA librarian who was kicked out of my position because I had the temerity to criticize Bush on global warmimg I would like to mention two recent votes in Congress. One was to deny drilling and "exploration" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for at least a year. The Bushies want to exploit this wilderness and will continue to represent their oil business backers but the vote demonstrated that they will have an uphill time of it. The second was the vote to deny funds for the Forest Service to build logging roads in the Tongass National Forest of Alaska. I was once fortunate to live in Juneau and Sitka, AK and I can tell you from personal experience how glorious that region is. I was delighted to hear of the vote because the three "representatives" of Alaska in Congress are shills for the forest products industry. Despite their best efforts to clearcut these great forests the other members of Congress saw it otherwise.

Tom Lowe, El Sobrante CA

The Canadian Election is good news for the US. On Monday Canadian voters held back a neo-republican Conservative Party, which as recently as last weekend seemed able to gain control of Parliment; and, in the view of most post election comments, made a left leaning coatition the way to run the country. We Yanks should be so lucky in November!

Lyn Wall, Houston, Texas

I'd like to nominate Air America Radio as great political news. I stream it over the internet all day because I can't get it in Houston, and I'm not alone. It has helped me find other sources and like-minded people and confirmed my sense that something is terrribly wrong with mainstream media.

Richard J. Bourgeois, Ishpeming, MI

This is in response to your "Good Things in Bad Times" article. Today, in Marquette, Michigan, a small town of 25,000 in upper michigan, a small peace and justice group (fourteen adults and three children) marched for the first time (anywhere) in the July Fourth parade. The theme of the parade was "land of the free and home of the brave". Two peace group marchers carried the local homemade peace and justice banner showing pine trees, water and a peace dove, other marchers carried two US flags, and three blue and white peace flags, and all marchers wore colored lettered signs in front and back such as--"peace is patriotic , dissent is patriotic, bring the troops home, no blood for oil, war is not the answer, money for jobs and education not war." The march was over one half a mile and mostly applause and approval was heard. Although the peace marchers did not expect to win first place in the parade competition, they hoped that by marching and standing up for peace and free speech that they truly can promote "good things" (peace and justice) in bad times. Hopefully this is happening thoughout the USA.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Louisville, KY

Another sign of political good news. People of faith are refusing to let the Religious Right claim a monopoly on faith and spirituality, consigning the rest of us to the "secular left." Faithful America, for instance, is a new organization of left-of-center Christians (and smaller numbers of Jews and Muslims) which has only been around a month, but has already gathered 100,000 members and aired a commercial on Al-Jazeera TV apologizing for the Abu-Ghraib tortures. Click here for information on the group

Anonymous, Brick, NJ

The best news I heard this week was the head of the Southern Baptist church denouncing the Bush-Cheney campaign letter calling for his churches to send the campaign church member lists, share contact information for at least one other conservative church and to throw Bushie parties high and low, on campaign deadline, no less. And this relatively resounding denounciation came from the man who INVITED Bush to speak at the Southern Baptist national convention (which I thought was an abuse of principles of church/state separation). He was lured to the fire and he got burned. I could have told him, don't go dancing with the devil.

Margaret Montgomery, New York, NY

According to a front page New York Times article on July 5 by William L. Hamilton, 71 Bantu refugees from Somalia are living out "Hard-Won American Dreams" in Tucson, as "part of the most ambitious relocation of political refugees by the United States in recent history." Through the support of the International Rescue Committee in Tuscon and local business, educational, and social services, these determined Bantu families have overcome the traumas of their past: tribal warfare, low-caste status, denial of education, years in refugee camps, and sudden relocation to our Southwest. In light of the current desperate situation in the Sudan, it is heartening to remember that the West can and does take action every day to save lives, alleviate suffering, and help a 15-year-old Somalian toward his dreams of becoming a doctor.

Anselmo Liano, Miami Springs, Fl

Don't forget the unsuccessful attempt by Bush's Department of Labor to rewrite the overtime rules in such a manner that it would have denied overtime compensation to millions who need it the most: America's besieged middle class. Luckily Congress stopped this piece of legislation crafted by Bush's crony capitalist buddies.

Alice Bentley, San Francisco, CA

When Dick Cheney was at a Yankees baseball game, his picture was put up on the big screen while the song, "God Bless America" was being sung during the 7th inning stretch...he was soundly booedand his picture was removed right away. Also, my granddaughter recently attended a minor league baseball game in Altoona PA where his image was also booed.

Shari Schartman-Walczak, State College, PA

Thanks for your great article on the "good news." Here's one more item regarding stem cell research: The Chicago Sun-Times reported on July 5 that "Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican supporter of embryonic stem cell research, said Sunday there is wide support in the Senate to ease the Bush Administration's restrictive policy."

David Hazen, Eugene, OR

Sales of the automotive monstrosity, the Hummer H2, have fallen twenty-four per cent in the first four months of this year. I can think of no better index of an improving planet.

The Dems and Iraq

Recently in this space I asked Nation readers to join a grassroots campaign organized by supporters of Democratic Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich to let the Democratic Party Platform Committee know that millions of loyal Democrats are seeking a coherent and responsible exit strategy from Iraq. And today, at the end of the committee's meeting in Miami, the Democratic Party adopted an amendment to its national platform declaring its intention to reduce US military presence in Iraq and to push for a greater role for NATO and other nations. Click here to read more about this modest victory.

My Response to the Platform Committee

My Response to the Platform CommitteeBy Tom Hayden

Dear Madame Chair and Members,

I write as a supporter of Senator John Kerry, a former member of the Democratic Platform Committee, a former California legislator, the author of books on inner cities and global poverty, and as a longtime activist in peace and social justice movements.

Please do not take us for granted. We progressives are not the happy campers that certain self-selected spokesmen describe in the New York Times. Our surface acceptance of the Party's current direction arises from deference to our respected nominee and our common loathing of the Bush Administration. We are loyal to our partisan objective of defeating Bush, but loyal as well to those principles which we believe are shared by a majority of Democrats and Americans.

Political progressives HARDLY command a unified, organized bloc of voters or supporters. We live in a new political age in which there are vast millions of floating, unaffiliated independent and progressive voters. They may vote for the Democrats, for the Greens, or not at all. Their level of volunteering to make phone calls, register voters, stand frozen with billboards on freeway overpasses, etcetera, depends on whether they feel the Party is addressing what they truly care about.

The candidate and the Party establishment already are risking voter disillusionment with transparent vagaries on Iraq. I for one am glad to see the retreat from previous Democratic talk of sending more troops to stabilize that haunted country. I would prefer, of course, to see the party stand for a retreat from occupation itself. I would wish the platform to declare:

It was a mistake for President Bush to invade Iraq. One thousand Americans and countless Iraqis may have died for his mistake by this November.  Americans are spending hundreds of billions to reconstruct what American bombs have destroyed when we could be hiring youth the same age as our soldiers to rebuild our neglected cities. We are imposing pro-corporate tax and privatization policies on Iraq which have never been embraced here.

The concern of all Americans should be whether the Bush Administration and its hand-picked government truly intend to allow democratic elections this next January, or defer democratic sovereignty for Iraqis until the US-led coalition prevails militarily over the insurgency. If security must be imposed by force before the balloting begins, there may be no light at the end of the tunnel. We do not require Iraqis to stop shopping or watching television before they vote, nor should we expect all them to become non-violent as a condition of going to the polls.

We cannot easily rebuild what the Bush Administration has broken. But we believe that the American occupation and the absence of democracy are the causes of the insurgency, and that delaying or suspending the democratic process will only deepen the pattern of violence.  We support a broader international coalition and funding to repair and stabilize what we can in Iraq, but we are not ideological Crusaders bent on building a military outpost to protect a free-trade zone in Baghdad.  Our core mission must be to complete the current partial transition to sovereignty with democratic elections followed by an American military withdrawal.

Since an anti-war approach is ruled out by the party's pollsters, strategists, and ideologues, there is likely to be a drift towards either disillusionment or protest campaigns among large numbers of voters now on the edge. It becomes crucial, therefore, to appeal to those voters with something in which they can have a stake beyond the demise of George Bush. The excellent language on alternatives to Middle Eastern oil is an example.

But a more immediate approach should be to strengthen the platform language on fair trade. The current language is perhaps minimally acceptable, but feels like an extracted tooth. The platform can extol so-called "free trade" to our contributors' delight, but the fact is that our free trade agreements have to be followed up immediately with fairness provisions that are enforceable. The present language may placate interested insiders but should be tested as well as rhetoric on the stump in places like Ohio, where I predict they will turn audiences looking for red meat into glazed zombies. There is no language blaming Bush, nor the corporate interests who are circumventing labor standards and environmental protection. Perhaps calling them "Benedict Arnolds" was over the top (who said that?), but even word "sweatshop" is missing from the platform. Don't we want to accuse Republicans of being soft on sweatshops? Or would the word shock and offend those Democrats and economists who still claim that workplaces violating labor standards and paying a dollar a day are a "step up the ladder" for billions of the poor.

It is a tragedy that a party whose modern tradition was founded in the Thirties on the banning of sweatshop conditions among American workers cannot today say the word when those same miserable conditions have reappeared in our new Gilded Age.

So my second platform recommendation is this: dare to include language denouncing sweatshops and the trade rules that enshrine them.  

Finally, a plea for a more balanced position on domestic "law and order". As a result of the war on gangs and drugs, America now has 25 percent of the world's total population of inmates, over two million on any given day. We spend more on prisons than colleges, more on punitive criminal justice systems than on prevention and rehabilitation programs. Just as the platform's foreign policy plank says war is an option of last resort, so too should police and prisons - hopefully not like Abu Ghraib - be a last resort in juvenile justice programming. Instead the platform links terrorism and domestic gangs in the same sentence, promises to "crack down on gang violence" as if we haven't for twenty years, and offers neither a word or a dollar on behalf of prevention or intervention. The section is embarrassing, since most Americans are far beyond the Democratic Party in supporting prevention initiatives.

So my third platform recommendation is to reconsider the deadly language about cracking down on those inner city youth. Say something like this: the Democratic Party believes in a balanced approach to combating violence and hopelessness among so many of our nation's young people. It is not enough to dispatch more police - we must flood the inner cities with job possibilities better than dealing drugs. It is not enough for such a rich country to lock up more of its citizens than virtually any other. We must and will deter violence crime. But we must be equally tough on creating jobs and hope wherever a lethal despair has taken hold.

Thank you for your consideration. See you in Boston!

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