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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

The GOP Misunderstands the 'War on Women'

San Diego Mayor Bob Filner speaks during a news conference at City Hall, Friday, July 26, 2013. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

You can’t say Republicans lack for chutzpah. The cynical right-wing message-men have come up with a new insult to our intelligence—and to millions of US women. As Buzzfeed reported Friday, Republicans are now spinning a series of scandals to try to prove the Democrats are the party with the real “War on Women.” That’s just silly, and they know it.

Needless to say, some current and former Democratic pols haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory recently. San Diego Mayor Bob Filner’s refusal to resign, despite an apparent pattern of repeated abuse, is particularly outrageous. But sexual indiscretion and sexual harassment (two types of scandal that shouldn’t be conflated) know no partisan affiliation. Remember Herman Cain, onetime GOP presidential frontrunner and accused serial sexual harasser? National Journal reported at the time that “scores of interviews with Iowa Republicans over the weekend turned up scant outrage” over the allegations. Some high-profile Republicans even questioned the concept of sexual harassment itself, with Representative Steve King calling it “a terrible concept,” and Senator Rand Paul warning that some now “hesitate to tell a joke to a woman in the workplace…” The horrors!

Two months ago, Kristen Anderson, the former communications director for the Iowa Senate Republicans, announced she’d be filing a civil rights complaint after a firing she charged constituted retaliation for speaking up about a “sexually hostile work environment.” Anderson told The Des Moines Register she’d complained about men making comments about women’s bodies and sexual orientation, and that it cost her her job. Where’s the Republican outrage over that? Don’t hold your breath.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in 'Nation' History: How Not to Make a Dust Bowl Worse

This week’s cover story by Sasha Abramsky, “Dust Bowl Blues,” explores the severe drought that has afflicted the American Southwest for the past few years, devastating crops, communities, and climates. “Just like in the days of the Dust Bowl,” Abramsky writes, “a way of life is under threat here, as are the livelihoods of millions of people.”

In the summer of 1937, with the original Dust Bowl and the second wave of the Great Depression in full effect, The Nation published four features, once each month, by the radical cartoonist and painter William Gropper, who, using Works Progress Administration funds, went on a tour around the country to document the resilience with which ordinary people were facing those twin man-made disasters. Gropper’s simple, evocative sketches and crisp paragraphs have the same effect as more famous artifacts of creative reportage from the American West of the late 1930s, like John Steinbeck’s novels or Woody Guthrie’s songs: that of making the reader or listener feel dusty just by reading or listening.

His first Nation dispatch that summer, “Gropper Visits Youngstown” (July 3, 1937), derived from the same visit to the Ohio city that produced his most famous painting, Youngstown Strike—recording the tumultuous scene at a major labor walkout led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations. But it is his August page, “The Dust Bowl,” that provides a remarkably poignant and sympathetic account of what the Southwest was like in those years:

When the wind blows, you get a blow of nice hot dust in your nose, eyes, and throat. The landscape is simple—sky and sand for miles. At night you can get some sleep with a wet cloth over your face, or if you’re prepared with a mask you can manage to get by until you get used to it. In Elkhart, Kansas, I saw a farmer plowing. No sooner did he pass with the plow than the dust blew over and covered up the earth as if nothing had happened. I asked him if he got any crops, and he said, “No.” “Then why plow?” And he said, “Been doin’ it fer years; it’s a habit now,” and went on with his plowing.

Another blurb tells a story that any American reader, thanks to Steinbeck and Guthrie, can relate to—though Gropper, because he is using a weekly magazine and not a novel or a song, manages it with perhaps more immediacy:

More than once on the road I’ve seen families packing their belongings in old Fords and leaving the old homestead. Many of them, I’ve been told, are migrating to California—not because they want to, but because they have been evicted.

* * *

The Nation’s next and, until Abramsky’s piece this week, last article about the Dust Bowl was written by Kunigunde Duncan (a pseudonym for the Kansan writer Flora Isely) in 1939. In “Reclaiming the Dust Bowl,” Duncan wrote about how farmers on the high plains were using technology and grit to reconstitute the soil and finally beat back the dust storms of the previous six years. As Abramsky details the ways in which human-caused global climate change have contributed to and exacerbated the present drought in the Southwest, Duncan reported that the Dust Bowl of the 1930s was similarly attributable to human actions:

The Dust Bowler, seeking means of combating these terrible conditions, went first into causes and found that he was having to fight more than super-temperatures, water shortage, and constant wind-whipped dust. He was having to fight the mistakes of his predecessors.

Duncan blamed railroad tycoons and the settlers they brought in by the hundreds, who forced the land to produce crops from the East; cattle ranchers who overgrazed the prairie; and the World War I demand for bread which led farmers to replace drought-resistant native buffalo grass with fields and fields of wheat. Her description of the disaster that ensued has echoes of Gropper’s—and Steinbeck’s, too:

The high plains have never had abundant rainfall. But when the annual precipitation of from fourteen to twenty inches decreased to from eight to fourteen, the situation became acute.

It might be worth noting that the average rainfall in Lubbock, Texas, the town profiled in Abramsky’s “Dust Bowl Blues” this week, enjoyed a grand total of 11.43 inches of precipitation in 2012, according to the National Weather Service. In 2011, it had less than 6 inches. In 1937, it had 22.25 inches. Duncan continued:

“Dusters” began to boil up and shut out the sun, and everywhere the question was asked, “What shall we do?” It was a question that remained unanswered for many months while gas engines refused to run and locomotives crawled through a springless, viewless land—a land where people live with windows weather-stripped tightly with adhesive tape to exclude the penetrating silt; where wet sheets were hung above beds and about the walls to save the lives of the old, the ill, and the new-born…where a weird purplish sun guided the funeral procession of those who had died of dust pneumonia.

* * *

Abramsky reports that not only is the present drought crisis in the Southwest, to some extent, a human-caused phenomenon, it continues to be exacerbated by a broken American political system.

Congress has an opportunity to address this crisis through the farm bill, which is currently the topic of robust debate in Washington. On July 11, with help from the powerful agribusiness lobby, the House passed legislation giving large farms the ability to buy “shallow loss insurance,” which would guarantee up to 90 percent of their income—thus providing a perverse incentive for agribusiness to try to cultivate land manifestly unsuited to the crops in question.

Two years ago, as it became apparent that this would be an especially contentious episode in the perpetual drama that is the farm bill’s quinquennial renewal, the ecology writer and activist Daniel Imhoff wrote in The Nation about the prickly questions embedded in the debate—and, like Abramsky, connected the dots between agricultural legislation, drought and climate change:

Generous crop insurance programs and increasing global demand for animal feed and biofuels have triggered an aggressive expansion of farming and ranching activities into marginally productive areas. Water tables are plummeting and aquifers are being depleted. Soil erosion is on the rise. Agriculture contributes to greenhouse gases, loss of biodiversity, chemical runoff in waterways, compromised animal welfare and food contamination. Farm bill conservation programs could be the only thing that stands between us and another Dust Bowl, collapsed watershed or imperiled species.

Sure enough, the farm bill passed by the House earlier this month—in addition to stripping out the food-stamps program, thereby sundering the traditional farm-bill coalition in two—disconnected conservation compliance from crop insurance payouts, essentially declawing the bill’s already insufficient environmental-protection provisions. If the new Dust Bowl gets any worse, we may have to start looking for the next William Gropper.

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Helen Thomas's Legacy

President Gerald Ford talks with reporters, including Helen Thomas, during a press conference at the White House.(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In his refreshing appearance at the 2006 White House Correspondents Association dinner, comedian Stephen Colbert showed a parody video in which he “auditioned” for the position of press secretary. In it, he refuses to answer a question from real-life White House correspondent Helen Thomas and spends the rest of the video trying to escape her dogged questioning.

It was a brilliant turn, not only for its skewering of a Washington press corps that was asleep while President George W. Bush took us to war in Iraq but for its implicit praise of the tenacious, shoe-leather reporting of Thomas, who died Saturday at the age of 92.

Born two weeks before women officially had the right to vote, Thomas broke glass ceiling after glass ceiling as a woman journalist, including by becoming the first female member of the White House Correspondents Association and the Gridiron Club. She fought, with characteristic perseverance, to join these organizations. It wasn’t because she saw being in the room as an end itself. Rather, she understood that she needed to have access to power in order to question that power.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Jenny McCarthy’s Vaccination Fear-Mongering and the Cult of False Equivalence

Jenny McCarthy addresses the audience at an Ante Up for Autism fundraiser. (Courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dorausch)

On February 28, 1998, a British physician named Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet that purported to identify a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the appearance of autism in children. The results provoked a widespread backlash against vaccines, forcing the medical community to spend years attempting to debunk his false claims. Eventually, it was revealed that Wakefield had fabricated his research as part of a scheme that promised him millions of dollars. Wakefield suffered a dramatic public downfall—his medical license stripped, his paper retracted from publication—but the damage was done. His propaganda had led to decreased immunization rates and an outbreak of measles in London.

Wakefield’s falsified claims remain at the core of a stubbornly popular anti-vaccination movement. To this day, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many people believe that vaccines are the principal cause of autistic spectrum disorders.

One of the most prominent promoters of this falsehood is actress Jenny McCarthy, who was recently named as Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s replacement on ABC’s hit daytime talk-show, The View. Once she’s on air, it will be difficult to prevent her from advocating for the anti-vaccine movement. And the mere act of hiring her would seem to credit her as a reliable source.

In 2007, McCarthy debuted her views on the national stage when she appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss autism, which is growing at alarming rates and continues to baffle medical researchers. McCarthy was convinced that vaccines gave her son autism and seizures. In addition to a gluten-free diet, aromatherapies, B-12 shots and vitamins, she also tried chelation therapy, which is meant to remove toxic substances from the body. Her son, she claimed, was “cured.”

Within the first few minutes of the interview, McCarthy cited as reasons for her success a “little voice” and her “mommy instincts,” all while denigrating several doctors and EMTs.

Oprah Winfrey’s decision to let McCarthy act as an expert, to dismiss science with alchemy, without asking any tough questions, was unconscionable. The same could be said of the producers of Larry King Live and Good Morning America, both of which hosted McCarthy soon after. Even though they at least asked questions about her views, Larry King had her debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert.

In fact, McCarthy’s beliefs—that vaccines and mercury cause autism, that a good diet cures autism and that “diagnosticians and pediatricians have made a career out of telling parents autism is a hopeless condition”—have been roundly dismissed and discredited by doctors and scientists, who insist that her claims are based on no scientific data or research. McCarthy wasn’t deterred. “The University of Google,” she said to Oprah, “is where I got my degree from.”

Let’s be clear: there is no connection between vaccines and autism.

Despite the evidence, it is easy to understand why the parent of an autistic child—in fear and confusion and desperation—might find McCarthy’s claims enticing. These are parents at their most vulnerable and McCarthy, though perhaps well intentioned, has preyed on them. This fear-mongering is incredibly dangerous, especially when a quarter of parents trust the information provided by celebrities about the safety of vaccines. A movement borne out of Wakefield’s discredited research, animated by misinformation, and promoted by people like McCarthy has fed an anti-vaccine frenzy, leading to a huge spike in cases of whooping cough in communities across the United States, especially in Washington State, which, in 2012, saw its worst epidemic in seventy years.

We see the same dangerous nonsense playing out with the HPV vaccine, a major breakthrough that can prevent cervical cancer and, it was recently found, throat cancer in men and women. Unfortunately, parents studying at McCarthy’s alma mater, the University of Google, are absorbing misinformation and refusing to vaccinate their kids.

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These incidents reflect a broader disconnect between science and the media on a range of issues. The vast majority of scientists accept that evolution is real, that man-made climate change is occurring and that vaccines do not cause autism. But in the general public, these issues are often hotly debated, and, too often, the media fuels these arguments by airing junk science as though it were legitimate. The result? A major public health risk. Vaccine avoidance makes the entire country more susceptible to diseases like the measles that were once vanquished.

By giving science deniers a public forum, media outlets implicitly condone their claims as legitimate. As Columbia Journalism Review’s Brendan Nyhan recently argued in a post about McCarthy and her vaccination fear-mongering, “he said” “she said” coverage simply puts “unsupported claims alongside credible arguments, or failed to push back altogether.” False equivalency is one of journalism’s great pitfalls, and in an effort to achieve “balance,” reporters often obscure the truth. What’s the merit in “he said, she said” reporting when he says the world is round and she insists it is flat. Indeed, there is an enormous cost to society when the truth could save lives.

Mark Hertsgaard argues that it is time to confront those in government who are undermining our response to climate change.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Nelson Mandela’s Courage Through the Years

Former South African President Nelson Mandela. (AP Photo/Pool-Theana Calitz-Bilt)

The annual celebrations—for once, the appropriate word—surrounding Nelson Mandela’s birthday last week bore an extra note of bitter-sweetness this year, amid conflicting reports about the ex-president’s health. “Madiba is always with us,” one 12-year old girl told The New York Times. “He gave us freedom.”

What is often lost, now that Mandela has achieved the status of wise elder, is the extent to which his victories are owed to significant streaks of both radicalism and Realpolitik running throughout his career—first as a principled revolutionary and later as very much the quintessential consensus-building politician.

The most recent Nation articles on Mandela highlighted this paradox. In January 2011, the Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman wrote about how Mandela expressed concern, in his newly published memoir Conversations With Myself, about being remembered as an otherworldly ethical actor totally separate from difficult, still-unsettled political questions.

The end of the racist South African regime is simply inconceivable without the moral capital and charisma Mandela had accumulated during his prison years. As a symbol of dignity and resistance he was, well, irresistible; but the compassion he showed once he was released, the ability to speak to his enemies and bring them to the table, his disposition to forgive (but never to forget) the terror inflicted on him and his people, his willingness to see the good in others, to trust their deepest sense of humanity and honor, turned him into the sort of ethical giant that our species desperately needed in a petty era of devastation and greed. Such a halo can, however, be just as confining as an island where every move and word is guarded.

A tour through articles about Mandela from The Nation’s archives elucidates the same point, helping us to consider the 95-year-old Mandela as a man who, Dorfman wrote, “fortunately for himself and the world, is not, after all, a saint.”

* * *

The first mention of Mandela in our pages came in January 1966, when the white South African anthropologist Hilda Kuper reviewed No Easy Walk to Freedom, a collection of writings and speeches by the Robben Island prisoner. Kuper called Mandela “a man of courage and deep integrity, a tragic and noble figure,” and wrote that “his impressive and sincere speech” endorsing armed struggle—while defending himself against charges of treason at the Rivonia Trial in 1964—“is not that of a man who enjoyed violence, but of one driven to violence as the last resort.” Kuper closed her piece with an impassioned critique that represented the spirit of the first major international stirrings against apartheid, in the middle of the 1960s:

Lawyers, teachers, ministers, factory workers, trade unionists, liberals and radicals have been exiled, banished, banned, imprisoned. Their voices cannot be heard, and they are prevented from hearing the voices of others. Books in which great men expressed noble ideals throughout the ages are prohibited, to publish the words of any person who is or has been banned is a criminal offense. Criticism is communism, thought is sabotage. South Africa has become a vast and terrifying prison.

The Nation, like the rest of the world, more or less lost sight of Nelson Mandela for many years after his imprisonment, as more radical—and more violent—opponents of apartheid came to the fore. But all that time Mandela was accruing support (or “moral capital,” as Dorfman later put it), and after rejecting at least one offer of release in exchange for unequivocally rejecting violence—Mandela argued that “a prisoner cannot enter into contracts”—he was finally freed in February 1990. After several fits and starts, he entered negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk, struggling to maintain a broad coalition in the ANC while establishing friendly relationships with government figures. To the same extent that Mandela’s immense political gifts enabled him to successfully—and, to a large extent, peacefully—end minority rule and de jure segregation in South Africa, he also struggled to satisfy the disparate elements in fighting for those goals.

As Aryeh Neier, former director of the ACLU and, until last year, the Open Society Foundation, wrote in his Watching Rights column that August, Mandela’s path from political prisoner to revered international leader was anything but straight. Like many, Neier took issue with Mandela’s statements at a stadium event with ethically questionable Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, then battling attempts by Western powers to force his government to reform. “What right has the West, what right have the whites anywhere,” Mandela asked, somewhat out of character, “to teach us about democracy when they executed those who asked for democracy during the time of the colonial era?” Neier, disheartened by these comments, wrote in The Nation:

The sense of disappointment over Nelson Mandela’s statement in Kenya is all the more acute because, though he consorted with heads of state and other important personages elsewhere, he did not seem to lose his bearings. It would be comforting to think that he will reflect on his experience in Nairobi and that he will come to realize that, despite his reluctance to turn his back on the black African leaders who supported his struggle all these years, it is not the likes of Kenya’s Moi, Zaire’s Mobutu, Somalia’s Siad Barre and Ethiopia’s Mengistu who stand for what he stands for.

Notably, South African presidents since Mandela have suffered the same discomfort in trying to distance themselves from African revolutionaries-turned-despots like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya.

Perhaps the most interesting piece The Nation has published about Mandela was a story by the playwright Arthur Miller, about an interview he did with Mandela—on life, not politics, the author stressed—for the BBC. “South Africa is unique,” Miller wrote. “It has state socialism for the whites…and fascism for the blacks.”

I felt the place strange but comprehensible as merely one more kingdom of denial, unusual mainly for the immense proportion of its majority ghettoized and stripped of all civil rights…It is all part of a hopeless muddle of a modern technological state trying to sustain the most primitive, chest-pounding, Nazi master-race dogmas. So surrealism looms at every turn.

What struck me strongly about Nelson Mandela in his American public appearances was the absence in him of any sign of bitterness. After twenty-seven and a half years with his nose against the bars he seemed uninterested in cursing out the whites who had put him there for the crime of demanding the vote in a country where his people outnumber their rulers about six to one…

Watching from a distance I had found him extraordinarily straightforward in his persistent refusal to pulverize his history to suit current American tastes, crediting Communists for being the first whites to befriend his movement, sometimes at the risk of their lives.

Echoes of Miller’s own refusal to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s are unmistakable.

Lacking a reporter’s killer instinct or investigative techniques I was simply very curious about the roots of this man’s unusual character. How does one manage to emerge from nearly three decades in prison with such hopefulness, such inner calm?….It was striking how he never seemed to categorize people by race or even class, and that he spontaneously tended to cite good men even among the enemy.

* * *

A certain combination of admiration mixed with impatience continued to mark The Nation’s reporting on Mandela—and the ANC movement as a whole—as he struggled to negotiate de Klerk and his National Party out of power. In July 1991’s “Mandela Tries to Stay Out Front,” Chris McGreal—then a reporter for The Independent on Sunday, now Washington correspondent for The Guardian—channeled many South Africans’ complaints with the pace of transition to post-apartheid society: “If Mandela is so influential with the government, it is often asked, why can he not force it do the one thing that would make a difference—ban the carrying of all weapons in public?”

There have been fewer than forty prosecutions for the 10,000 deaths in factional violence. Yet Mandela’s response has been so naïve as to be almost laughable….Mandela’s dilemma is to reconcile his relationships with men who continue to act in bad faith—including de Klerk—with his effort to insure the best deal for South Africa’s black majority. His mistake, perhaps, is that he has continued to show a degree of respect for his negotiating partners that few in the townships consider merited.

Three years later, some months after Mandela had been elected the first black president of South Africa, Mark Gevisser, The Nation’s longtime Southern Africa correspondent, wrote in “Democracy in Living Color” that the lack of major accomplishments by Mandela’s new government was important—“The higher you fly, the harder it is to stay on the right side of history,” he wrote—but not the most important story:

The victory of South African democracy is not that it has begun to transform lives stunted and impoverished by apartheid. For despite a couple of presidential proclamations…and the promulgation of a Land Restitution Act, little has been done, in these first six months of the Mandela government, to change people’s lives in any physical way. The victory of South African democracy is rather, more simply, that it exists. Against all odds and in peace….Whatever the external signifiers, Mandela is there. In fact, his near-seamless statesmanship is largely responsible for what amounts to a transition that is sometimes too smooth to even be noticed.

A year later, in November 1995, Gevisser wrote an editorial calling attention to Mandela’s difficult—arguably, necessary—compromises with white nationalist elements of the ancien régime, which, despite the much-heralded announcement of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, had the effect of shielding real criminals from responsibility:

For reasons that are by no means politically unsound, Mandela has nailed his colors to the mast of “reconciliation.” While this has served to still the restive right, it also means the possibility of perpetrators of human rights abuses being called to account is slim indeed. South African’s state-sanctioned arms smugglers, along with its anti-democratic murderers, will go free so that South Africa can have peace.

* * *

It does honor to Mandela, and not the opposite, to recall amidst celebrations of his ninety-fifth birthday that he was a real-world political actor, not a saint, an angel or a dream. As Nation columnist Gary Younge wrote last month in “Everyone Loves Mandela,”

to make him a saint is to extract him from the realm of politics and elevate him to the level of deity. And as long as he resides there, his legacy cannot be fully debated or discussed, because his record is then rooted not in his role as the head of a movement, but in the beatified soul of a man and his conscience.

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Which brings us back to the first article published about Mandela in The Nation, Hilda Kuper’s review of No Easy Walk to Freedom. “For many non-South Africans,” Kuper wrote in 1966, “South Africa provides a scapegoat on which to project righteous hatred of injustice without risk of involvement in action.” This converse is just as true today: Nelson Mandela provides an icon on which to project righteous love for justice without risk of involvement in action. It is vital, at this pivotal moment, that we nurture a more complete memory of Mandela, one that is situated within the context of the great conflicts of his time—race and class, especially— and with due emphasis on the centrality of risk, involvement, and action to his life and work. That is no less than what the great Madiba deserves.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

The Appalling GOP

John Boehner, accompanied by Mitch McConnell and other House and Senate Republicans on the steps of the Capitol. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here

There really isn’t any other word. congressional Republicans are simply appalling. They have absolute control of the House. They set the agenda. They decide what comes to the floor. They decide what passes on to the Senate.

They know that extreme legislation isn’t going to be enacted into law. The Democratic majority in the Senate and the Democratic president stand in the way. So the legislation they choose to pass is a statement of their own values. It is simply designed to proclaim, “This is where we stand.” And for the vast majority of Americans, what they proudly proclaim is simply beyond the pale.

Republicans just passed a farm bill. It lards out $195 billion in subsidies for agribusiness. At the same time, they chose to drop food stamps—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—from the bill for the first time in 40 years. In this time of mass unemployment, 47 million Americans rely on food stamps. Nearly one-half are children under 18; nearly 10 percent are impoverished seniors. The recipients are largely white, female and young. The Republican caucus has decided to drop them from the bill as “extraneous,” without having separate legislation to sustain them. Who would want to advertise these cruel values?

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here

This Week in 'Nation' History: What New York City's Mayoral Candidates Might Learn From the Past

Fiorello La Guardia, former mayor of New York City. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Fred Palumbo)

New York City’s mayoral race is heating up this summer, with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner, and former City Comptroller Bill Thompson statistically tied for first place as of late June, though early polls are fluid, considering that many have not started paying attention to the race. In the interest of informed debate, The Nation has invited all the Democratic candidates to speak at our weekly editorial meeting, and thus far we’ve enjoyed robust conversations with City Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and ex-Councilman Sal Albanese. We hope to hear soon from the other candidates about how they would bring a more progressive vision to the deeply divided metropolis we recently dubbed in our eponymous special issue “The Gilded City.”

The Nation’s home in New York City has never been incidental to its identity; for many decades after its founding in 1865, the magazine was even referred to colloquially as The New York Nation. We have been concerned with municipal politics and administration in the city through thirty-two mayors, through depression and war and terrorism and financial collapse, and well before the consolidation of the five boroughs into one municipality in 1898. As both we at The Nation and New Yorkers in general deliberate on who should be the next mayor—and much more importantly, what that person should do once in office—a few samples of previous articles we’ve published about New York City mayors may help to elucidate what is to be done, and what sort of candidate is the most willing and able to do it.

The modern era of the New York City mayoralty began in 1933 with the election of Fiorello La Guardia. Paul Y. Anderson, the brilliant muckraking journalist who frequently wrote for The Nation towards the end of his career, wrote a back-handed endorsement of La Guardia just before the election, saying he couldn’t support “the Major” for mayor because his services were of greater need in the Congress (where La Guardia had served until being defeated the previous year). In the House of Representatives, Anderson wrote, La Guardia “commanded equal respect on both sides of the aisle because his motives always were above challenge, because he always knew what he was talking about and because he was not afraid.” Moreover, La Guardia “possesses nerve without bravado, wit without venom, and eloquence without bombast…. he is a regular fellow instead of a stuffed shirt.” Candidates of 2013, take note.

In 1969, just after the incumbent John Lindsay won re-election on the Liberal Party line after losing the Republican nomination, Theodore J. Lowi—then a professor at the University of Chicago who has taught at Cornell since 1972—wrote an open letter to the mayor in The Nation, begging him not to interpret the victory as grounded exclusively in personal charisma or the triumph of traditional liberalism. Lindsay was really re-elected, Lowi argued, because of the inertia inherent to massive bureaucracies.

You are supposed to be their chief executive, yet you must depend upon them for your own political power. Unfortunately they do not have your interests at heart. Still more unfortunately, you may already have been captured, but none of us, least of all you, can know this until it is too late to do anything about it….

One must always ask the old political question, just who is expropriating whom? The answer usually depends upon who last forgot to ask the question.

In 2013, with public sector unions besieged on all sides, Lowi’s criticisms of urban liberalism—or “interest-group liberalism,” a term Lowi coined in his 1969 book, The End of Liberalism—may seem unseemly, perhaps even conservative.

In our recent “Gilded City” issue, the NYU historian Kim Phillips-Fein wrote about the overextension by the New York municipal government in the run-up to 1975, but also about how conservative political and economic forces in the city seized on the supposed failure of Great Society–style urban liberalism to achieve their long-sought goal of market-friendly city government:

The crisis brought about a change in the city’s leadership, as clubhouse Democrats were deposed in favor of a younger generation of business-friendly liberals. For these new leaders, the downsizing of New York became a badge of honor: a sign that liberals were not beholden to such special interests as organized labor but could speak the rhetoric of efficiency. The old faith in the political importance of the working class, the New Deal sense of the necessity of government action, gave way in the fiscal crisis to a liberalism that borrowed its framework and its values from the private sector.

This is largely the city we live in today—though the effects of the 1970s crisis have been greatly exacerbated by twelve years of Michael Bloomberg. It has been reassuring to hear how some of this year’s mayoral candidates might usefully combine La Guardia’s intensity and integrity with a nuanced understanding of how the city has been failed by both bureaucratic inertia and unrestrained free-market adventurism. A great place to start would be City Limits editor Jarrett Murphy’s recent essay for The Nation, “Wanted: A Progressive Mayor,” where he explores why it’s so difficult—but not impossible—to elect a progressive as mayor of New York City, as well as the rest of our special issue, “The Gilded City: Bloomberg’s New York.”

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For an instructive lesson in how the future mayor should not go about managing city affairs, read the late great Jack Newfield’s article about Rudy Giuliani from 2002, “The Man, the Mayor, the Myth” (later the basis of his book The Full Rudy), which charted the failures of “America’s mayor” in areas like education, garbage disposal and basic human decency. “Giuliani was a mayor of excess, with some big accomplishments and some spectacular lapses into cruelty and fanaticism,” Newfield wrote. “He sometimes seemed a captive of his demons.” Fortunately, the 2013 candidates don’t seem quite as bad as that—for the most part. But Rudy Giuliani is a very low bar, indeed.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

An Oregon Trail to End Student Debt

Activist holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

On July 1, federal student loan rates doubled—yes, doubled—from 3.4 percent to 6.8, after members of Congress went home for fireworks without lifting a finger on the issue. Meanwhile, in Oregon, legislators unanimously passed a bill paving the way for students to attend public universities without paying tuition or taking out traditional loans at all.

Fueled by the organizing savvy, policy creativity and relentless effort of the state Working Families Party, and by a classroom of outstanding college students, the new bill offers a progressive victory and a common-sense national model on an issue where Congress has recently been derelict at best. The legislation, which Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber is expected to sign, instructs Oregon’s Higher Education Coordination Commission to come up with a “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back” public university financing model in time for a legislative vote in 2015.

Under such a model, students pay nothing while in school; instead, after graduation, four-year students pay 3 percent of their income for the next two decades or so to fund the education of future students—without a role for the big banks. (Those who attend for less time would pay a pro-rated amount.) Once start-up costs are addressed (no small matter), the system could pay for itself. It would ask the most money of those graduates best equipped to pay, and it would represent a huge stride in putting an end to the crushing debt horror stories which Occupy Wall Street helped to place on the national radar.

While victories like Oregon’s are often the result of decade-long campaigns, this incremental step came to pass with a speed that surprised even its most ardent supporters. And it demonstrates the power of unconventional alliances. The “Pay It Forward” approach has been tried in Australia, but not in the United States. It got legs here when John Burbank, who directs the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute, connected with a college class taught by Barbara Dudley, who co-founded the Working Families Party of Oregon. Students in the Portland State University class, “Student Debt: Economics, Policy and Advocacy,” took up a push for “Pay It Forward” as their group project, and the WFP embraced it as a legislative priority. Together, they seized legislators’ attention, and secured their support.

In the process, WFP activists and allies talked to thousands of students, built a coalition ranging from MoveOn.org to the faith group Jubilee USA, and won over university administrators. It was a classic “inside-outside” fight, in which the potency of skillful lobbying and common-sense argument were amplified several times over by grassroots firepower. The unanimous vote in favor of the bill can also be credited in part to the WFP’s successful electoral efforts last year, in which the party ousted Oregon’s most conservative Democratic state representative in a primary and helped power another Democrat to victory in a swing district. With the Higher Education Coordination Commission tasked with incubating the plan, and a legislative vote looming in 2015, the WFP has pledged to get to work on ensuring a progressive result from the HECC, and making approval of that plan a major issue in the 2014 campaign.

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“We never imagined that we would actually accomplish something like this, and definitely not in such a short time,” student Ariel R. Gruver told The New York Times. The Times’s Richard Perez-Pena noted that “the speed and unanimity offer a sharp contrast with Washington.” You can say that again. Progressives, who face slow-motion crises on a battery of issues and the ever-present danger of cynicism, could use another reminder that it’s still possible in this political landscape to pass a big, just idea through hard work and visionary organizing. Both will also be necessary if we’re to send a powerful message to members of Congress who just doubled interest rates: Americans deserve much better.

Zoë Carpenter reminds Congress that it isn’t just about interest rates.

Take Action: Tell Your Representatives to Follow Oregon's Lead to End Student Debt

Do We Have the Will to Fight for the Jobless?

Job seekers wait in line at a construction job fair. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Turmoil in Egypt. Edward Snowden’s travel plans. Immigration reform’s fortunes. Obamacare’s troubles. The Weiner-Spitzer return to politics. There’s no shortage of items absorbing political energy and media bandwidth. But simmering below all of this is a crisis that goes without the immediate attention it demands. Last Friday morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yet another month of lackluster jobs numbers. While Washington has long since lost any sense of urgency regarding the jobs crisis, this is an issue that continues to poll at the top of Americans’ concerns.

Our economy is stuck at just over 2 percent growth, and the rate of productivity is worse than anemic. We have hit a point where an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent inspires cheers of “it could’ve been worse!” The result is a painful “new normal” for too many of our fellow Americans.

Few commentators even mention that most of the 195,000 jobs added last month, as well as the ones added in the last few years, are low-paying, temporary, part time and usually without benefits. Much of the job growth we have seen is in restaurant, retail and temporary work—the sort of jobs that rarely offer basic security, let alone a foothold for people to climb into the middle class.

For working families, the struggle is painful, persistent and real: Hourly wages have plummeted to record lows, while executive pay has soared to record highs. There is no longer an income gap; there is now an income gulf. In 1978, the average American chief executive earned 26.5 times more than the average worker. Today, that gap is four times larger, with chief executives taking home 206 times more than average workers.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in 'Nation' History: The Fourth of July and the Meaning of Patriotism

The first issue of The Nation, dated July 6, 1865, included an editorial titled “The Great Festival,” which noted that in the eighty-nine years Americans had been celebrating Independence Day on the Fourth of July, “never before have we had such cause of rejoicing.” The Civil War had ended less than three months earlier, and the editors and founders of The Nation—abolitionists and other radicals based largely in New York and Boston—were close to ecstatic about the possibility of finally fulfilling the country’s early promises:

It is not simply the birth of the nation which we now commemorate, but its regeneration…We celebrate not only the close of a long and bloody civil war, but the close of the contest which preceded and led to it, that, as it was well called, “irrepressible conflict,” which for half a century absorbed all the intellect of the country, perverted its understanding, corrupted its morals, and employed most of its moral and mental energy, either in the attack or defence, in the nineteenth century of the Christian era, of one of the worst forms of barbarism;—a conflict, too, which, during the last twenty years, began to exercise a paralyzing influence on industry and to poison social intercourse…We celebrate, in short, not simply the national independence, or the return of peace, but the close of the agitation about slavery, and the extinction of slavery itself. How tremendous an influence this fact is likely to have on our moral and intellectual progress, we can now only conjecture.

“It is not simply the triumph of American democracy that we rejoice over,” they concluded, “but the triumph of democratic principles everywhere.”

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Another interesting piece related to Independence Day appeared in 1925. An editorial titled “Degrading the Fourth of July” took issue with the attempt by President Calvin Coolidge to establish a “national mobilization day” on July 4 to test the nation’s preparedness for war. Commending Coolidge’s rejection of the army’s first choice for the mobilization test day, November 11—pointing out the hypocrisy of transforming into a preparation for future wars the anniversary of the end of “the war to end all wars”—The Nation argued that the values of the mobilization day were equally inappropriate for Independence Day.

Why pick upon the Fourth of July? The glorious Fourth was by no stretch of the imagination ever intended to be a day given over to the preparation for war, to the rattling of the saber. It was historically the day that America cut itself loose from what was considered a tyranny and a despotism exercised or typified by men in red, bearing arms.” “It is a great nation play-day, when men wish to be on the sands of the shores or in the mountains or on track or field, and we do not think that this effort to make the whole nation—for that is the real idea—stand at attention and salute and goose step and fire blank cartridges will go down with the people…

There is a drift here which is sweeping this country along the very lines which the founders of the government dreaded.… What should be done with the Fourth of July is not to make it a day for turning out all the troops available, and as many unthinking civilians as can be formed into line, but a day for the reaffirmation of that distrust and dislike of permanent armed forces and of their glorification which actuated George Washington and all of his associates, none more so than Thomas Jefferson, the radical, the disarmer of the fleet, whom it is now the fashion to celebrate.

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Finally, in the summer of 1991, we published dozens of comments by prominent writers and progressive public figures on the meaning to them of the word “patriotism.” Many contributors explored the tension between patriotism and internationalism, while others struggled to reconcile authentic patriotic feeling with an all-too-complete understanding of the ways in which their own countries repeatedly betray those loyalties. Read more of these meditations on patriotism from contributors like Christopher Hitchens, Katha Pollitt and Benjamin Spock here:

James Chace, professor at Bard College: “Patriotism in the American grain might be embedded in the idea that America must act—at home and abroad—as an exemplar of liberty. To the extent that America violates this principle, it is the obligation off the citizen to dissent. For an American, I know of no other definition of patriotism.”

Molly Ivins, columnist for Dallas Times Herald: “I believe patriotism is best expressed in our works, not our parades. We are the heirs of the most magnificent political legacy any people has ever been given. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” It is the constant struggle to protect and enlarge that legacy, to make sure that it applies to all citizens, that patriotism lies. When some creepy little shit like Richard Nixon (whose understanding of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances is so profound that he proposed to send teamsters thugs and murderers out to ‘break the noses’ of antiwar protesters) becomes President, our heritage is diminished and soiled in such an ugly fashion. …Vote, write, speak, work, march, sue, organize, fight, struggle—whatever it takes to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Ishmael Reed, novelist: “The duty of the true patriot, a citizen of the world, is to expose nationalism as the village idiot of the Global Village.”

Jesse Jackson, president of the National Rainbow Coalition: “The true patriots invariably disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, and are persecuted in their lifetimes even as their accomplishments are applauded after their deaths.”

Gore Vidal, novelist and essayist: “It is very hard for most Americans to be patriotic when there is no agreed-upon country to cherish, only warring tribes and, over all, a National Security State to keep the lid on.”

Carlos Fuentes, novelist: “If patriotism is a value, it manifests itself quietly, in acts of care and solidarity, in love for things both great and minute in one’s heart, but without ever ceasing to discover the values one loves at home in other peoples and in other lands. But patriotism is more voice than silence, more criticism than irrational approval. You only criticize what you care for. Criticism and dissent can be a greater act of love than cheers and raised fists or stiff-armed salutes.”

In a 2010 follow-up to that feature, The Nation asked you, our readers, what your own definitions of patriotism were; fourteen responses can be found here. A few samples:

Carole Heaster of Gordontown, PA: “My idea of patriotism is to work to assure that every citizen and visitor to the USA should be treated with the dignity of humanity that the Constitution intended, acknowledging that when one person is abused, we are all abused, and if we don’t speak up, we are all guilty of that mistreatment. We are only exceptional when we care effectively for the least of ours, the poor, the old, the infirm, the disenfranchised, the orphaned, the jobless, the hungry, the homeless, the war-torn veterans and their families and those seeking asylum from abusive governments outside of our borders. We can’t say this country is exceptional unless we each act in an exceptional manner towards our neighbors.”

Jerry Shapiro of New York, NY: “Patriotism means nothing to me. It is a mindless acceptance of your role in a tribe (much like a religion or a cult). The progressive left has long wasted its time trying to prove that we are just as patriotic as the right. Let the right have patriotism—it’s as meaningless as most of the things they like to own. I would prefer a nation of thoughtful, compassionate people who care about the people they live with and the lives they lead. People who don’t have to prove anything to anyone. People who support the nation when it’s right, and oppose it when it’s wrong.”

Rick Nagin of Cleveland, OH: “Patriotism celebrates the great cultural achievements of American writers, artists and performers. It celebrates our great athletes. It celebrates our great accomplishments in science and engineering. It celebrates and protects our country’s natural beauties and resources. Nationalism is a bad thing. It is a belief in the superiority of our country over others. It is divisive, racist and anti-democratic. It is allegiance to the corporate class that dominates our country and pursues maximum profits at the expense of our people. Nationalism justifies imperialist wars of conquest and aggression. Patriotism requires a relentless fight against nationalism.”

Feel free to share your own thoughts on patriotism in the comments section below.

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Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

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