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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.

Burying Torture

The great journalist and former Nation Washington editor I.F. Stone, who often saw what others missed, once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read "because you never knew on what page you would find a page-one story."

I thought of Stone's observation recently, while reading a New York Times article about the terrorist bombings in Casablanca, Morocco. Buried toward the end of the piece, Elaine Sciolino reported: "The king is widely credited in the United States for being an unabashed ally in the war on terror. Morocco has a very close relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency, which has used the kingdom to conduct interrogations of suspected terrorists, often without regard to due process." Why isn't the CIA's outsourcing of torture front-page news?

Saturday at Jimmy's Uptown

It was conceived as the beginning of a conversation about how to raise issues of social and economic justice through music, journalism, literature, TV, theatre and film.

The venue was Jimmy's Uptown--a hip Harlem restaurant/jazz club at 130th and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. Organized by the Center for Community Change, a New York-based group dedicated to empowering low income communities, yesterday's afternoon gathering brought together actors/activists Danny Glover, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, former congressman Ron Dellums, pollster Celinda Lake, writer Nelson George (Hip-Hop Nation), hip-hop artist Boots Riley, screenwriter James Kearns (John Q ), film producer Lee Daniels (Monster's Ball), and about a dozen other writers, journalists, musicians and cultural activists.

Glover, speaking first because he had to leave early for rehearsal, reminded people how Dellums, when in office, had helped reframe the language around apartheid, giving people a sense that their voice and vision mattered. "We need to change the language," Glover said, "and create one which excites people, one which makes people feel we're speaking to them."

Glover sounded like many progressives these days in talking about how we must take a page from the Right's playbook. "We need to become active at the local level, on schoolboards, in sheriff's races, all down the line, like the Right. They have their think tanks, their language, their message. We need to build our own, and create a different dynamic."

The conversation ranged widely. Dellums invoked Martin Luther King, Jr., "that master of words," in reminding people how important it is to transform the antiwar movement into a movement for peace and justice. "Peace is more than the absence of war; it is the presence of justice."

Others raised questions: What words can we use to convey our message? How can we best engage young people in a political process that appears increasingly neglectful of their needs? What is the poem that can move people on the question of poverty, the rap song that will encourage people to vote, the script that compels Americans to consider the benefits of peace?

"What's been lost," Nelson George told the group, "is our ability to tell stories. We need a narrative, a story. I remember, as a kid, watching the civil rights movement--the March on Washington, Selma. There was a sense of momentum, of progress, some of it refracted through the media. That spirit was lost, and Hip-Hop replaced the momentum. It's time to create a counter-narrative, to counter the Right's 'welfare queen' crap. We need a sense of optimism, some achievable goals, a message, and an empowering narrative. We have the storytellers and stories to tell."

Ossie Davis, who's seen about everything there is to see in his 86 years of life, began by telling the story of a pygmy philosopher, who was once asked: How do you eat an elephant? One step at a time, the thinker replied.

"One reason the Right rolled over us in these last months," Davis declared, "is that it controlled the definition of patriotism with television, images, language. I'd like our fellow hip-hoppers to come up with our own definition of patriotism. No stiff declarations, please. We can use humor. Raise tough questions. Expose the corruption and absurdity of those who say if you didn't support the war you're unpatriotic. We can be clever too--use a song, a joke or an argument to define true patriotism--so it speaks to brothers on the street, in jail, in the military. We have to do it. People in Congress ain't going to do it for us."

Davis concluded with a challenge. "Here's a test for all of us. We should be able to meet a brother on the corner and explain the whole damn thing to him before the light changes."

Who's ready for the Ossie Davis test?

Doing it Right

"Running for President? Health Care Better Be Your Priority" is the hard-to-miss slogan on a poster in the Des Moines, Iowa airport. Dreamt up by the Service Employees International Union, the largest health care workers' union in the nation, the billboard seems to be already having an impact on the Democratic presidential debate. Instead of squabbling over who is most electable, most of the contenders are competing over who can best address the nation's escalating health care crisis.

Now, it's true, as Robert Kuttner recently pointed out in the Boston Globe, that with a few exceptions, the health plans released by the democratic presidential contenders are inadequate to dealing with the crisis. "They leave the current system largely intact," Kuttner notes, "and use subsidies and tax credits to reduce the number of uninsured--as if the whole system were not broken." And he rightly argues, to have any chance in 2004, the Dems will "need something bolder to get real political traction from health insurance, let alone to solve the problem."

So it surprised me that he failed to mention Dennis Kucinich in his roundup of the candidates. Kucinich fully supports government-financed health care for all Americans, something Kuttner presumably favors. The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray also omitted Kucinich when he wrote that, "What's interesting about the Democratic proposals is that none of them, so far, endorse a government-run 'single-payer' health-care system--the solution on which most other developed countries have settled." Well, Kucinich's plan is just that, Mr. Murray.

Kuttner has it right when he says that even incremental proposals by Democrats will be attacked as too costly and entailing too much government. So, they "might as well do it right," he adds. Kucinich may not be electable, but he's trying to "do it right." The least he could get is a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T from Kuttner, Murray and a media that seems more interested in marginalizing Kucinich than exploring his policy proposals.

And while universal health care is attacked by both party's strategists as utopian, costly and wasteful, the largest and most wasteful defense budget in the country's history just sailed through Congress with little discussion of the costs or debate about the rationale for a slew of new weapons systems.

Instead, Republicans and most Democrats vied to outdo each other in praising the defense package. Only that latter-day dissident, Senator Robert C. Byrd, voted against the bill. And only Byrd raised tough questions about why a country which now spends more on defense than "all other 18 members of NATO, plus China, plus Russia, and plus the remaining rogue states combined," needs to spend billions more while stealing from investments in health care, education and retirement security that helped make America strong in the first place.

"In an age when we talk about smart bombs and smart missiles and smart soldiers," Byrd declared, "any talk of smart budgets has gone out the window." Is Byrd the last sane person in Congress?

Doing Clinton: Good for Business

A few weeks ago I argued that rightwing talk show hosts like Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Joe Scarborough could go out of business if they didn't have Bill and Hillary to kick around. As if to confirm my point, within thirty minutes of posting that item, a producer from the O'Reilly Factor called to book me on the show. (Topic: O'Reilly's bashing of Hillary!)

So this morning, when I noticed a tiny squib in The New York Times reporting on Bill Clinton's remark last night at Harvard's Kennedy School that Congress should modify the ammendment that barred him from seeking a third term, I wondered how long it would take for Hannity, O'Reilly and Scarborough to jump all over the story. Answer: by10:30 am, a producer from Hannity & Colmes was on the phone. "We're doing a segment about Clinton's speech last night," he said. "Hannity wants to get all over it."

I'm not a gambling woman, but I'd bet an awful lot that this troika of Clinton bashers will devote a large chunk of their programs tonight to this burning issue.

Dump 'Scoop'

I agree that if the Dems want to win in 2004, they have to lay out a principled and pragmatic alternative to Bush's failed national security policies. But it's crazy to argue, as Democratic party strategists Donna Brazile and Timothy Bergreen did in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, "What Would Scoop Do?" that we "need to return to the muscular national security principles" exemplified by Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the conservative Democratic Senator who represented Washington State from 1940-1982.

Why should Dems take their lead from a former Senator whom bellicose neocons like Richard Perle, Elliot Abrams and Douglas Feith consider their intellectual godfather?

Before mindlessly invoking Scoop Jackson as a model, consider what the late (and great) journalist Lars Erik-Nelson wrote about this hawkish ideologue in late 2000 for The New York Review of Books:

"Time and again in his career, Jackson made charges or issued demands that put America's defense capacities, falsely, in the worst possible light. At best, his exaggerations can be considered white lies intended to rouse complacent Americans to meet what he believed to be a mortal danger; at worst, he bullied his opponents and impugned their integrity, if not their patriotism...To his conservative admirers, almost all of them Republicans, Jackson was a prophet without honor in his own party...But consider Eisenhower's quite different view. There was no reason for Eisenhower to decry a military-industrial-congressional complex that was, in good faith, identifying genuine threats to the United States and devising necessary weapons to counter them, even at high cost. What Eisenhower denounced was a cabal [he considered Jackson a key member of this group] that knowingly magnified threats, relentlessly promoted worst-case scenarios, deliberately belittled the military might of the United States, and defamed opponents to promote spending on weapons that were costly and unneeded.The world and its threats may be changing, but the military-industrial-congressional complex remains with us, warning of perils that it must know in its heart are exaggerated. In the method of hyperbolic, ever-shifting, disingenuous, worst-case argument, Jackson lives."

The neocons have learned well from Jackson. Like their mentor, they've created a cabal inside the Administration, which magnifies threats and defames opponents. So why should Dems emulate a man whose polices contributed to the failed national security polices of today?

The Dems would be wise to forget "Scoop" and instead pay attention to the words of Ted Sorensen, former speechwriter to another muscular Democrat-- President John Kennedy. In a recent commencement address at American University, Sorensen lamented that:

"Both political parties now compete to sound more hawkish, to criticize as naive or even unpatriotic those who favor peaceful world cooperation. The long uneasiness with bloodletting and battle that followed Vietnam has been replaced by a new infatuation for war, a preference for invasion over persuasion." Comparable political courage is needed now, Sorensen said, "to reverse course, in JFK's phrase, away from a strategy of annihilation and back toward a strategy of peace...The US would still be a world leader, necessarily, with its preponderance of wealth and might; we would still defend our principles, security and basic interests, but we would be a leader in diplomacy, not warfare; in humanitarian operations, not military."

Listen to Ted. Dump Scoop!

Radical Cheerleaders

Radical cheerleaders. Must be a lefty fantasy, right? Nope. Cheerleaders may be wholesome symbols of America like apple pie, the flag and Bill Bennett (before May 2003.) But now cheerleading has gone political.

Instead of waxing poetic on behalf of the Oakland Raiders or the hometown Lakers or Clippers, a Los Angeles-based team called "Radical Teen Cheer" has been recently livening up political protests and rallies across Southern California. "We're teens, we're cute, we're radical to boot!" they chant. Another favorite: "Who trained, who trained bin Laden? Who armed, who armed Saddam Hussein?"

As the Guardian's Duncan Campbell reports, radical cheerleading teams--among them the Dirty Southern Belles in Memphis and the Rocky Mountain Rebels in Denver--are cropping up in dozens of US cities, twirling pom poms of protest for diverse causes from gay rights to anti-sweatshop organizing to calls for a humane US foreign-policy.

Many of the twenty girls on LA's Radical Teen Cheer hail from a Latino working class neighborhood in East Los Angeles. "Cheerleading is just our way of getting our message across," team member Natalya told Campbell. Another teammate said people had accused them of being unpatriotic, and a couple of girls had to give up due to family pressure. "But we love our country," she said.

As far as I know, Emma Goldman never shook any pom poms. But she always said she didn't want to be part of any revolution if she couldn't dance. So, I have a feeling if she were around, Emma would be shaking it with Radical Teen Cheer, the Dirty Southern Belles and the Rocky Mountain Rebels.

A Race With No Winners

After weeks of searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there's still no trace of the fearsome arsenal the Administration advertised. Back in the US, however, the Bush Administration is adding to our own stockpile of weapons of mass destruction by lifting a decade-old ban on research and testing of small nuclear weapons to allow for the development of "low yield" nukes for battlefield use.

The White House's Strangelovian nuclear policy signals a dramatic shift in US nuclear doctrine--one that undermines five decades of bipartisan efforts to delegitimize the use of nuclear weapons. What Senator Edward Kennedy called a "far-reaching and highly dangerous U-turn in our longstanding policy against the first use of nuclear weapons," was accelerated on May 20th when the Republican-controlled Senate turned back a Democratic effort to maintain the ban. "It's a one way street that can lead only to nuclear war," Kennedy warned.

If anyone needs evidence that the Administration's reckless policy is about to launch a new nuclear arms race, Russian President Vladimir Putin provided it on May 15th when he announced to the Russian Parliament his country will soon begin developing new nuclear weapons and low-yield nuclear devices of their own. His remark was met greeted by applause.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have worked together, slowly but steadily, to scale back their strategic nuclear arsenals. There were even baby steps taken to safeguard and reduce the former Soviet Union's ill-secured weapons of mass destruction. Now, Bush's unilateral assault on decades of disarmament may revive a nuclear arms race, hinder our chances to secure "loose nukes," and lead Putin to re-invest in his country's decrepit nuclear infrastructure. Do you feel safer?

NOTE: TrueMajority is currently sponsoring a campaign allowing you to send a free fax to your elected representatives telling them to vote against "Usable Nukes." Click here for info.

Memo to Dems: Passion & Principles Matter

At a forum in Iowa this past Saturday, organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, most of the Dems angling for their party's nomination finally challenged Bush on his record in fighting terrorism abroad and protecting Americans at home. Bush's opponents need to keep asking American citizens if they feel safer now after the invasion of Iraq? I don't.

Look at the record: Al-Qaeda regrouping, warlords running Afghanistan, Iraq sliding into lawlessness, no sign of those weapons of mass destruction, and the gutting of homeland security funding. Isn't this what any sane person would call a failed national security policy?

It's also time to challenge Terry McAuliffe, Chair of the Democratic National Committee, who earlier this year urged that "the war...not be on the ballot in 2004." But why should Dems cede national security when even Karl Rove has all but admitted that Bush is vulnerable on the issue? It's also time to take on the corporate wing of the party, the Democratic Leadership Council--or, as Jesse Jackson used to call it, the Democratic Leisure Class.

The DLC's recent memo, "The Real Soul of the Democratic Party," purporting to be a strategy for winning in 2004, has received lots of attention for its blast at Howard Dean for being an elitist liberal. (For an intelligent critique of Dean, read Jim Farrell's recent Nation edit.) This memo is must reading for anyone who's forgotten the Democratic debacle in the 2002 midterms. If that disaster taught us anything, it is that Bush is a relentless and effective campaigner, and the only way to beat him and his party will be for the Dems to distinguish themselves as a relentless and effective party of opposition.

Message to Al From and his timid DLC: The Republican-lite Democratic Leadership Council's hard to beat something with nothing. Unless the Dems stand up and lay out a real agenda for the country, with some passion, principles and vision, they can forget about electability.

Looking Like America

While the Administration denies media reports that it has given US forces in Iraq the go-ahead to shoot looters on sight, Donald Rumsfeld, testifying last week before the Senate Appropriations Committee, promised that US forces will be "using muscle" to contain the looting. Rumsfeld also called for patience, saying of Iraq: "We can't make it like the United States in five minutes, and we know that."

Some good Senator should have asked Rumsfeld about the looting going on in Washington, DC. Politically-connected corporations with close ties to the Bush Administration are arranging lucrative contracts to rebuild Iraq. (Bechtel has a contract worth up to $700 million and the Halliburton subsidiary has been authorized to take profits of up to $490 million.) And where was the Senator to point out how singularly ill-suited the Bush Administration is to the task of rebuilding Iraq?

Bush Inc.--the most resolutely anti-government Administration since before the New Deal--is brazenly indifferent to the rebuilding--or even the maintaining--of the United States. So Rumsfeld & Co's idea of making Iraq like the US may not take as much time as they think--if it means gutting the infrastructure of a country, while looting its treasury (and oil wealth) to line the pockets of war-profiteering corporations.

Jokes in the News

Sociologist Herbert Gans has a good idea. "What if the news media reported the best of the monologue material as well as the currently circulating political jokes and connected them with the news stories that inspired them?"

After all, as Gans reminds us in his new book Democracy and the News, many people, particularly those between eighteen and thiry-five, get much of their news from late-night comedy hosts like Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien and Jon Stewart, of Comedy Central's The Daily Show (recently described by Susan Douglas in The Nation as "the medically prescribed antidote to CNN and Fox.")

Here's a joke I'd like to see connected to the news stories that inspired it. It's from one of my favorite comedians--Chris Rock:

"You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is Chinese, the Swiss hold the America's Cup, France is accusing the US of arrogance, Germany doesn't want to go to war, and the three most powerful men in America are named 'Bush', 'Dick' and 'Colon'. Need I say more?"

Need I say more?

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