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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.

Could This Tax on Wall Street Turn Back America’s Tide of Inequality?

Members of National Nurses United demonstrate in support of the Robin Hood Tax.

Members of National Nurses United demonstrate in support of the Robin Hood Tax (Courtesy of National Nurses United)

How will you honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. this April 4, the anniversary of his assassination? How about by demanding that Congress get out of Wall Street’s pocket? How about by letting your representative know that you support economic equality and a just distribution of wealth in America? As Dr. King himself said, “This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

Still, forty-six years after Dr. King’s murder, the gulf between haves and have-nots is wider than ever. During the 2009–10 recovery, for example, incomes for one-percenters rose by 11.6 percent, while everyone else saw theirs grow by 0.2 percent. Worse still, too many in Congress are colluding with the haves to make sure things stay that way. Our nation’s capital, both political and monetary is moving in the wrong direction.

On April 4, 2014, you can make your voice be heard by participating in a nationwide series of demonstrations in favor of HR 1579, Rep. Keith Ellison’s (D-MN) Inclusive Prosperity Act, a financial transaction—or Robin Hood—tax. Organized in part by National Nurses United, the nation’s largest union and professional organization for registered nurses, the April 4th action will target twenty-five members of Congress in eleven states by staging vigils at the legislators’ home offices in their districts. The message of the vigils is simple: Pass the Robin Hood Tax. After all, Ellison asks, “Didn’t America step up to the plate when Wall Street needed help?” And as I wrote two years ago, “Wall Street owes us.”  

“We need to have real revenue, not just have one austerity measure after another,” says Charles Idelson, Communications Director for National Nurses United. “The last thing the American people need is more austerity. Much of the country is still in a recession.” That revenue might be found in a Robin Hood Tax.

Idelson points out that while you and I pay a sales tax on our daily transactions (AK, DE, MT, NH, and OR excepted), Wall Street pays nothing on speculative transactions (some of which can take as little as 3 milliseconds to complete). Robin Hood taxes those trades, to the tune of as much as $350 billion per year. Why Wall Street? Idelson invokes bank robber Willie Sutton: “A truly equitable society is the burning issue of our time. If we’re ever going to tackle this, we’ve got to have additional revenue. We should go where the money is. Wall Street was rewarded for trashing our economy with bailouts and bonuses. The Robin Hood Tax puts a requirement on them to put a little bit back into society.”

Your voice matters, and your participation can be powerful. It’s high time to question the inevitability of Wall Street and Congress’s friends-with-benefits relationship.

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And there is cause for cautious optimism. Recently, Robin Hood Tax proponents found some ammunition in an unlikely place: Dave Camp (R-MI), Chairman of House Ways and Means Committee. Within his larger tax-reform plan, Camp has proposed a 0.035 percent quarterly tax on bank assets for institutions with assets in excess of $500 billion (i.e., the too-big-to-fail fraternity).

The takeaway here is not so much the tax itself (which is part of a generally undesirable slate of proposals), but the fact that it derives from a GOP congressman. “For FTT supporters,” says Sarah Anderson of the Institute for Policy Studies, “this creates an opportunity to say that there is bipartisan support for taxing the financial sector.” Unlike the Robin Hood Tax, Camp’s proposal taxes assets, not transactions, but still, Anderson points out, “[I]t’s the first time we’ve had Republican support for increasing financial sector taxation.” That Wall Street hates it is a good sign: Goldman Sachs even canceled a GOP fundraiser in protest.

So this April 4, join the nation’s nurses and demand that America commit to Dr. King’s ideals. Petition your representative to support HR 1579. We can achieve economic justice in this country, but only if we put forth the same broad, sustained effort that Wall Street uses to get its way. It doesn’t have to be just the banks that are too big to fail.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel: This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Fearless Idealism of Jonathan Schell.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Fearless Idealism of Jonathan Schell

Jonathan Schell

(Credit: David Barreda)

The passing of our friend Jonathan Schell last week is a profound loss for journalism and for the international peace movement. In twenty years at The New Yorker and sixteen at The Nation, Jonathan’s work insisted on seeing through the headlines to the deeper currents of history swirling below. His great theme was the survival of humanity, both as a species and as a general principle of common decency and purpose. In addition to his incredible early reportage, works like The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Gift of Time (1998), and The Unconquerable World (2003) conveyed in bracing prose Jonathan’s fearless idealism, his unique combination of justified alarm and unbridled optimism which forever changed the way the United States understands itself and the way the entire world understands matters of war and peace.

As our peace and disarmament correspondent and a fellow at The Nation Institute, Jonathan filed for The Nation well over one hundred eloquent, elegant, passionate and forcefully argued essays on topics ranging from nuclear abolitionism to the Iraq war, from the Clinton impeachment proceedings to the fallout from September 11th, from the disclosures of illegal NSA spying in 2005 to the even more alarming Snowden files of 2013. To read through those essays now—especially his special series, “The Republic on Trial” and “Letter from Ground Zero”—is to watch one of the most important journalists this country has ever produced grapple with unfolding trends and historical themes he had been tracking for decades—and at a prolific, often weekly pace—about which he always had original and clarifying things to say. It is also to discover once again that Jonathan, as he once wrote in The Nation of history itself, was “no respecter of conventional wisdom”—that being among the loftiest legacies a journalist can leave behind.

***

The Gift of Time” (February 2, 1998):

“To succeed in the task would, by securing human survival through human resolve and action, go far toward restoring our faith, so badly shaken in the century, in our capacity to make use of the amazing products of our hands and minds for our benefit rather than our destruction. It would bring undying honor to those who carried it to fulfillment and to their generation. It would have the character not of a desperate expedient resorted to under pressure of terror but of a tremendous free act, following upon calm public deliberation in every nation—among all humankind. In a way, it would be the foundation of humankind.”

 

The Republic on Trial: What Works: The Constitution” (February 15, 1999):

“In most respects, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton—now destined to go on for yet more weeks—is different from the proceedings against President Richard Nixon a quarter-century ago. Nixon was accused of abuses of the power of his office. You had to be President to bomb Cambodia secretly, to use the IRS to harass your political enemies or to ask the CIA to squelch an investigation by the FBI. Clinton, on the other hand, is accused of violations of law in his individual capacity. It is within the power of almost anyone to fool around at the office, to invite a colleague to dissemble about the affair in court or to ask a friend to do the lover in question a favor.

“The historical circumstances were different, too. In the immediate background was the cold war, in whose name the presidency had accumulated powers that Nixon used to break the law. The question before the country was whether to embrace this ‘imperial’ presidency or to restore the constitutional balance, and it chose the latter. Today, by contrast, one would be hard put to name and large public controversy that is going to be settled one way or another by the impeachment trial. If anything, the trial has created fresh issues (mostly regarding abuse of the impeachment power itself) rather than resolved existing ones.”

 

Letter from Ground Zero: The Power of the Powerful” (October 15, 2001):

“Vaclav Havel once invoked the ‘power of the powerless,’ by which he meant the power of the nonviolent weak to defy and defeat totalitarian regimes through unarmed acts of non-cooperation and defiance. But the powerful have some power, too. Terrorism is jujitsu, by which the violent weak use the power of the powerful to overthrow them…But the powerful can refuse to cooperate. Tom Friedman of the Times advised that the United States, like the Taliban, should act ‘a little bit crazy.’ But the Taliban are a poor model. That way lies our undoing. When all is said and done, it is not in the power of America’s enemies to defeat us. Only we can do that. We should refrain.”

 

The Growing Nuclear Peril” (June 24, 2002):

“The goal of nuclear abolition, it is true, is ambitious, and the difficulties are mountainous. Many will say, as they have throughout the nuclear age, that it is unrealistic. They would perhaps be right if we lived in a static world. But events—in South Asia, in Central Asia, in the Middle East, in New York—are moving at breakneck pace, and the avenues to disaster are multiplying. A nuclear revival is under way. A revival of nuclear protest is needed to stop it.”

 

Letter from Ground Zero: The Path to Point B” (September 23, 2002):

“A year that began (if we count by the new calendar whose Day One is September 11, 2001) with an attack on the United States by a terrorist group consisting mostly of Saudi Arabians headquartered in Afghanistan has ended with preparations for an attack by the United States on Iraq, a country that had not demonstrated involvement in September 11. The path from point A a year ago to point B now has been lengthy and circuitous, Along the way, a radically new conception of America’s role in the world has been advanced by the Bush Administration. It has claimed nothing less than a right and a duty of the United States to assert military dominance—a Pax Americana—over the entire earth. Discussion along the way has been muted, but now a debate has begun. Its subject, however, has been not so much whether the United States should first meet certain conditions (find allies, explain itself to Congress, win the support of the American public, make plans for Iraq’s political future) and only then wage the war. The debate proceeds backward from the conclusion to the arguments for it….

“There is no assurance so far that the public will be told whether or when the Administration has decided to attack Iraq before the bombs begin to fall. At an appearance before a gathering of troops at Fort Hood, Texas, Rumsfeld said, ‘The President has made no such decision that we should go into a war with Iraq.’ According to the Times, Rumsfeld added with a characteristic coy chuckle, ‘He’s thinking about it.’

“A debate about the war, if the nation decides to have one, will be in vain if it does not address the wider revolution in policy of which the war is an expression. Will other nations claim for themselves the right of pre-emptive overthrow of hostile regimes? Can the proliferation of nuclear weapons actually be prevented by military force? Are negotiations and treaties worthless for this purpose? Will American superiority be so great that other arms races fade away? Will such action provoke the very military challenges, from terrorists and others, that it is meant to prevent? Should the United States aim at preserving military dominance over the earth for the indefinite future? Is such dominance possible? If it is possible, do the people of the United States want it? If the attempt is made, can the United States remain a democracy? Can the United States act as military guarantor of a world that rejects and hates its protector? George Bush is thinking about it. Are we?”

 

The Case Against the War” (March 3, 2003):

“A revival of worldwide disarmament negotiations must be the means, the abolition of all weapons of mass destruction the end. That idea has long been in eclipse, and today it lies outside the mainstream of political opinion. Unfortunately, historical reality is no respecter of conventional wisdom and often requires it to change course if calamity is to be avoided. But fortunately it is one element of the genius of democracy—and of US democracy in particular—that encrusted orthodoxy can be challenged and overthrown by popular pressure. The movement against the war in Iraq should also become a movement for something, and that something should be a return to the long-neglected path to abolition of all weapons of mass destruction. Only by offering a solution to the problem that the war claims to solve but does not can this war and others be stopped….

“Let us try to imagine it: one human species on its one earth exercising one will to defeat forever a threat to its one collective existence. Could any nation stand against it? Without this commitment, the international community—if I may express it thus—is like a nuclear reactor from which the fuel rods have been withdrawn. Making the commitment would be to insert the rods, to start up the chain reaction. The chain reaction would be the democratic activity of peoples demanding action from the governments to secure their survival. True democracy is indispensable to disarmament, and vice versa. This is the power—not the power of cruise missiles and B-52s—that can release humanity from its peril. The price demanded of us for freedom from the danger of weapons of mass destruction is to relinquish our own.”

 

Letter from Ground Zero: Accountability” (October 27, 2003):

“Of all the responsibilities of government, the decision to go to war is the most grave. Can an Administration take the country to war on false pretexts and get away with it? A year ago, the issue was war and peace. Now the issue is the integrity of the American political system. Not democracy in Iraq or even the entire Middle East—that fading mirage—but democracy in the United States is now at stake.”

 

The Empire Backfires” (March 29, 2004):

“The reliance on force over cooperation that was writ large in the imperial plan was also writ small in the occupation of Iraq. How else to understand the astonishing failure to make any preparation for the political, military, policing and even technical challenges that would face American forces? If a problem, large or small, had no military solution, this Administration seemed incapable of even seeing it. The United States was as blind to the politics of Iraq as it was to the politics of the world….

“The same pattern is manifest on an even larger scale. Just now, the peoples of the world have embarked, some willingly and some not, on an arduous, wrenching, perilous, mind-exhaustingly complicated process of learning how to live as one indivisibly connected species on our one small, endangered planet. Seen in a certain light, the Administration's imperial bid, if successful, would amount to a kind of planetary coup d'état, in which the world's dominant power takes charge of this process by virtue of its almost freakishly superior military strength. Seen in another, less dramatic light, the American imperial solution has interposed a huge, unnecessary roadblock between the world and the Himalayan mountain range of urgent tasks that it must accomplish no matter who is in charge: saving the planet from overheating; inventing a humane, just, orderly, democratic, accountable global economy; redressing mounting global inequality and poverty; responding to human rights emergencies, including genocide; and, of course, stopping proliferation as well as rolling back the existing arsenals of nuclear arms. None of these exigencies can be met as long as the world and its greatest power are engaged in a wrestling match over how to proceed….

“If the engine of a train suddenly goes off the rails, a wreck ensues. Such is the war in Iraq, now one year old. At the same time, the train's journey forward is canceled. Such is the current paralysis of the international community. Only when the engine is back on the tracks and starts in the right direction can either disaster be overcome. Only then will everyone be able to even begin the return to the world's unfinished business.”

 

The Hidden State Steps Forward” (January 9, 2006):

“There is a name for a system of government that wages aggressive war, deceives its citizens, violates their rights, abuses power and breaks the law, rejects judicial and legislative checks on itself, claims power without limit, tortures prisoners and acts in secret. It is dictatorship.

“The Administration of George W. Bush is not a dictatorship, but it does manifest the characteristics of one in embryonic form.”

 

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Obama and the Return of the Real” (February 9, 2009):

“One day someone will undertake a comprehensive study of how all these bubbles grew and why they were inflated at the same time. It will be a story of a crisis of integrity of the institutions at the apex of American life. It will recount how the largest government, business, military and media organizations, as if obedient to a single command, began to tell lies to themselves and others in pursuit of or subservience to wealth and power. Individual deceivers must arrange their untruths by themselves, by flat-out conscious lying, self-deception or a combination of the two. Huge bureaucracies have wider options. Banks, hedge funds, ratings agencies, regulatory agencies, intelligence services, the White House, the Pentagon and mainstream news organizations can grind inconvenient truths to dust, layer by bureaucratic layer, until the convenient lies that had been wanted all along are presented to the satisfied money- or war-hungry decision-makers at the top. The study of these operations will be a story of groupthink; of basic facts relegated to footnotes; of wishes tweaked into facts; of deepening secrecy; of complex models, mathematical or ideological, used to supplant, not illumine, reality; of new offices created to draw false new conclusions from old facts; of threat inflation; of the sinking careers of truth-tellers and the rising careers of truth-twisters. It would be interesting, for instance, to compare the creation of the illusions of the real estate bubble with the creation of the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In both cases contrary facts were readily available at the base of the system but were filtered out as the reports went up the chain. For a somewhat contrasting, top-down model, the White House method for suppressing the truth about global warming within government agencies is instructive. In that case, the science was duly gathered but often squelched at the last minute by political appointees editing the reports…

“In short, the relationship between observation and action had been reversed. Reality was not the field of operation in which you acted, and whose limits you must respect; it was, like a play or movie, a scenario to be penned by human authors. Fact had to adjust to ideology, not the other way around.”

 

Torture and Truth” (June 15, 2009):

“It has fallen to President Obama to deal with the policies and practices of torture inaugurated by the Bush administration. He started boldly, ordering an end to the abuses, announcing the closing in one year of the detention camp at Guantánamo and releasing the Bush-era Justice Department memos authorizing torture. Subsequently, he seemed to grow cautious. He discouraged formation of an independent commission to investigate the torture and reversed a previous position in favor of releasing Pentagon photos of abuses and instead opposed release. In his May 21 speech at the National Archives, he seemed to try to create a framework for understanding his policies, but they remained very much a work in progress. He surprisingly embraced a number of Bush policies, including military commissions for trying detainees, the use of the State Secrets privilege to protect information in court and the indefinite use of preventive detention--all to be revised in ways that were left vague or unspecified. Yet among these reversals and improvisations, one very general preference has remained steady. Throughout, Obama has expressed a desire to concentrate on the ‘future’ rather than the ‘past.’ As he put it a while back, he is bent on ‘getting things right in the future, as opposed [to] looking at what we got wrong in the past.’ Or as he said in the National Archives speech, ‘We need to focus on the future’ while resisting those ‘with a strong desire to focus on the past.’

“But can the United States really get things right in the future by turning away from the past? For one thing, the factual record is still incomplete. For another, the reasons for what went wrong aren't as clear as they might at first seem. Why did the United States make the decision for torture? What changes does it portend for American life? It seems likely that getting things right will depend on having answers to these questions.”

 

Occupy Wall Street: The Beginning Is Here” November 7, 2011:

“The power of the movement does not lie in the mite that it can add to or withdraw from some existing grouping through such traditional means as alliances and endorsements. Rather, its power lies in its direct appeal to the hearts and minds of the population at large—to the 99 percent that the movement so audaciously and promisingly claims to represent. By this process, the mite becomes mighty. It was surely such a felt tremor in the hidden recesses of hearts and minds—in short, in public opinion and, even more, in public will—that alone can explain the established expressions of support as well as the wildfire spread of the protest.

“When such sea changes in opinion and will are under way, entrenched institutions start to tremble and shake, and political miracles become possible. If the scale of the national and international response to Occupy Wall Street is any measure, they have begun.

“The exceptional creativity in the movement has been evident in countless handwritten signs. For example: I Lost My Job but Found an Occupation. And, Love Is the New Fear. But perhaps the loveliest, appearing in the demonstration’s early days and cited in these pages, was The Beginning Is Near. To this we can now gratefully add, The Beginning Is Here.”

 

America’s Surveillance Net” July 8-15, 2013:

“What should Americans do when all official channels are unresponsive or dysfunctional? Are we, as people used to say, in a revolutionary situation? Shall we man the barricades? The situation is a little more peculiar than that. There is a revolution afoot, but it is not one in the streets; it is one that is being carried out by the government against the fundamental law of the land. That this insurrection against the constitutional order by officials sworn to uphold it includes legal opinions and legislation only makes it the more radical and dangerous. In other words, the government is in stealthy insurrection against the letter and the spirit of the law.

“What’s needed is counterrevolution—an American restoration, returning to and reaffirming the principles on which the Republic was founded. Edward Snowden, for one, knew what to do. He saw that when government as a whole goes rogue, the only force with a chance of bringing it back into line is the public. He has helped make this possible by letting the public know the abuses that are being carried out in its name. Civil disobedients are of two kinds: those inspired by universal principles, and those inspired by national traditions. Each has its strengths. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is the first kind; Snowden, the second. Asked why he had done what he did, Snowden replied, ‘I am neither traitor nor hero. I am an American.’ He based his actions on the finest traditions of this country, which its current leaders have abandoned but which, he hopes, the current generation of Americans still share. In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll find out whether he was right.”

***

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3 Ways Public Transportation Makes Life Better for Pretty Much Everyone

Mark Fuhrmann, Barack Obama, Anthony Foxx

Mark Fuhrmann, New Start Program Director of Metro Transit, speaks with President Barack Obama and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

According to the American Public Transportation Association, Americans are using public transportation more today than at any other time since 1956. Public transit provided 10.7 billion individual rides last year, a 1.1 percent increase over 2012 and the latest uptick for an industry that has seen a 37.2 percent increase in ridership since 1995. This is something to crow about.

More than most places—the grocery store, shopping center, basketball arena—public transit has long provided an arena for social change in the United States. Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx reflected,

“I can’t help but think of the historic connection between transportation and the civil rights movement. Literally or figuratively, transportation has played a role throughout the history of our nation’s progress toward civil rights. And it still does.

“When escaped slaves sought their freedom, they traveled on the Underground Railroad.

“In the mid-1950s, a young woman who sat down and refused to get up—she did it on a transit bus. And the boycott of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus system resulted in changes that spread across the South.

“The Civil Rights Movement was about all Americans having access to the same opportunities. And our transportation system connects people to those opportunities.”

Remarkable words from a cabinet member who recognizes that his purview extends far beyond roads, rails, and runways. Secretary Foxx gets that how we move—the mode of transportation we choose, the route we take, and the fellow travelers we encounter along the way—carries far-reaching implications, especially for our economy, environment, and foreign policy. Here are three:

Public transportation helps combat climate change. A private auto produces 0.96 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile, while public transit (averaged out among bus, heavy rail, light rail, commuter rail, and van pools) yields 0.45 pounds per passenger-mile. The EPA estimates that public transport saves America 37 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year—this is equivalent to the emissions resulting from the electricity generated from 4.9 million households, or every household in Washington, D.C., New York City, Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles combined. And public transportation saves the U.S. 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline every year, more than triple the amount of gas we refine from oil imported from Kuwait.

Public transportation creates jobs and promotes economic growth. Every $1 billion invested in the U.S. transportation infrastructure supports and creates some 47,500 jobs. That billion-dollar investment also leads to a net gain in GDP of $3.5 billion. Businesses located near public transportation services see improved productivity through better employee reliability and less absenteeism and turnover. Since public transport allows more people more access to more jobs, employers have larger, more diverse labor pools from which to draw workers, which leads to yet another improvement in community efficiency and prosperity.

Public transportation is healthier. Long, traffic-choked commutes are linked to obesity and chronic pain, to divorce and depression. Interestingly, adopting a public-transportation habit also spurs other healthy lifestyle choices, such as increased exercise and improved diet.

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Yet somehow, despite its proven promises of a cleaner environment, a more robust economy, a healthier populace, etc., support for public transportation remains anything but a no-brainer. Last December, Congress declined to renew the public-transit tax credit, which had allowed Americans to set aside $245, pre-tax, for use on public transit. This year, the credit dropped to just $130—while the tax credit that commuters can set aside to pay for parking actually increased.

Last month, President Obama proposed a $302 billion Four-Year Transportation Reauthorization Bill, which earmarks $72 billion for public transportation. Also included is a $2.6 billion allocation for bus rapid transit systems in rapidly growing regions across the country, as well as an additional $400 million to be used to “enhance the size, diversity, and skills of our nation’s construction workforce, while providing support for local hiring efforts and encouraging States to use their On-the-Job training funds more effectively.”

We need to continue to fund and promote public transportation. As Secretary Foxx pointed out in his March on Washington reflection, “[U]nfortunately, transportation also has a history of dividing us. In many places, railroads have served to identify people who were living on ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ And rarely in the last century did an urban interstate highway plow through a neighborhood that wasn’t characterized as poor.”

We can use public transportation to mitigate inequality, to improve the environment, to develop technologically and economically; it puts more of us on the right side of the tracks. Let’s keep this trend going. 

 

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel and The Editors remember Jonathan Schell.

How The GOP Is Keeping Millions From Getting Healthcare

Healthcare for America Now!

(Reuters/Jim Young)

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.

With one week remaining before the March 31 deadline for health coverage this year, a Republican filing a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act has become a familiar, if tiresome, sight.

But Republicans filing a lawsuit against the law on the grounds of copyright infringement? That’s something new.

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Yet that is effectively what happened this month in Louisiana. On March 14, the state’s lieutenant governor sued the progressive group MoveOn.org over a billboard criticizing Gov. Bobby Jindal’s refusal to expand Medicaid in the state. The billboard uses Louisiana’s tourism slogan — “Pick Your Passion!” — and adds: “But hope you don’t lose your health. Gov. Jindal’s denying Medicaid to 242,000 people.” The lawsuit claims that the MoveOn ad will “result in substantial and irreparable harm, injury, and damages” to the Louisiana tourism office — as if denying health insurance to the neediest will not cause the state “substantial and irreparable harm.”

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 Fall and Rise of American Cities, Through Camilo José Vergara’s Lens

Harlem, New York, 2009. Artist: Estos. (Photograph by Camilo José Vergara)

From California to the New York island, American cities are in the midst of unprecedented physical change. Land that once belonged to working-class communities is being rapidly gobbled up, occupied and shorn of inconvenient reminders of poverty, diversity or history. In San Francisco, Google Buses have transformed working-class immigrant neighborhoods like the Mission district into playgrounds for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers. Closer to home, gentrification washes across New York City.

One especially striking example of that transformation is the subject of longtime Nation contributor Camilo José Vergara’s new book, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, in which the photographer—awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama last year—employs his landmark “rephotography” technique to capture how that neighborhood has changed in the forty years he has spent as one of its chroniclers. Vergara’s ambivalent feelings about gentrifying Harlem stem from a recognition of just how far the neighborhood had fallen in previous years. “For many, the new Harlem may mean the loss of a familiar ‘down-home’ place, a more aggressive police presence on the street, and growing economic hardships,” he writes. “For others, however, the neighborhood demonstrates the evolving and ever more multicultural society of the United States.”

In the twenty-five years since he first contributed to The Nation, Vergara has presented for readers an unparalleled portrait of the trials and tribulations of marginalized minorities in American cities. His camera and his pen have succeeded, as few others have, in capturing both the striving and the strife of those abandoned by money and power, left to make their way in the oddly beautiful ruins of the twentieth-century city. In fact, one can think of his articles for The Nation as themselves a form of rephotography, with the photojournalist returning again and again to see how cities and their inhabitants adjust themselves to negotiate ever-changing realities.

In “New York’s New Ghettos” (June 17, 1991), Vergara described the emergence of a new form of social-service ghetto, in which the deeply racist image of an “urban jungle” was replaced by an equally problematic, highly bureaucratized web, segregating the poor from the rest of the city and alienating them from life itself. To understand the “resurgence” of places like Harlem in recent years, it is vital to understand their recent history; as Vergara’s 1991 essay shows, Harlem didn’t fall—it was pushed.

New York, famous for its garment district, its diamond district and others, now has its districts for the “homeless industry.” Group homes for children and battered women share buildings with homeless families; drug treatment centers, methadone clinics, shelters, soup kitchens and correctional institutions are also springing up. By encircling the blocks in which large concentrations of these facilities coexist with deteriorating housing projects in areas of heavy drug dealing and relocation of formerly homeless people, one can map New York’s new ghettos.…

The clustering of destitute people and facilities in isolated sections is no remaking of the old ghettos. These “districts” are characterized by their bureaucratic rules, comprehensiveness of form, publicly supported economy and populations marked by the experience of homelessness and addiction. People do not choose to go to these areas; they are sent there, uprooted from neighborhoods and people they know. A small number of downtown officials make the rules that determine who is entitled to reside in most of the housing and to use the facilities. Lower-ranking officials select the needy and refer them to these places.

As much as they are defined by what they possess, the new ghettos are defined by what they lack. In other parts of the city that were once as poor as these, community development organizations have rebuilt economically mixed neighborhoods, pushed out drug dealers and prevented the city from building NIMBYs [prisons, sanitation centers, etc.]. But people in the new ghettos are too disconnected to have formed effective organizations. The transient character of the majority of the residents leaves such urban areas unclaimed, and thus politically powerless.

Vergara concludes his essay by arguing against gradualist optimism. Real change, he felt, would require something radical—going down to the problem’s very roots.

The new ghettos refute the notion that eventually we will all be part of one big middle class. During the past decade the “war on poverty,” whose goal was to uplift the poor, has been redesigned merely to contain the poor, further segregating them from the rest of society. With their big shelters, busy social services offices and deteriorating housing projects, these areas employ thousands of social workers, guards, corrections officers, nurses and doctors at a huge cost. Now, at a time of fiscal crisis, the budgets that maintain the vast array of welfare and government services in these areas are subject to shrinkage and deferral of all but minimal expenditures. In the words of a local resident, the bright new facilities will soon look like “just another rathole.” But even costlier, and more deleterious, is the contribution of these new ghettos to dependency, illness and delinquency, and to the waste of human beings. Before the full entrenchment of these nightmarish “districts,” the people of New York City need to plan how to dismantle them and begin again.

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Vergara’s most recent Nation contribution was in last year’s special issue marking the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. In photographs and an accompanying essay, Vergara documented street art across the country commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. as “statesman, visionary, hero and martyr.” Murals and graffiti, Vergara wrote, “represent a shared history of beliefs” which “give us glimpses into what the residents of America’s poor minority communities hold as meaningful.” In typical Vergara fashion, he found much to both celebrate and bemoan about what he saw:

It is ironic that, given King’s lifelong struggle against segregation and poverty, his name and likeness have become one of the defining visual elements of the American ghetto, a place he worked his whole life to abolish. His dream of justice and equality for all seems as distant for the seemingly permanent ghettos of today as it was when he was alive.

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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.

After Senate Revelations, the CIA Should Be Looking Over its Shoulder

Senator Dianne Feinstein

Senator Dianne Feinstein is trailed by reporters at the US Capitol in Washington on March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

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.

For the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert warriors, disdain for the law comes with their mandate. From its drone attacks to its destabilization efforts, the CIA is tasked with operating, as former vice president Dick Cheney put it, “ in the shadows,” trampling international law.

The CIA, shielded by secrecy, armored by its national security mandate, pursues its mission with far too little accountability. The agency’s warriors operate on the president’s writ, but presidents generally seek deniability. After September 11 the agency was given a virtually limitless charter to do things that presidents would rather not know about.

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Congress set up intelligence committees to provide oversight of the agency, but senators, while generally happy to get a peek behind the curtain of secrecy, know better than to probe too far.

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 Horrific Legacy of the Invasion of Iraq

A US soldier in Iraq, March 22, 2003

A US soldier in Iraq, March 22, 2003 (AP Photo/John Moore)

This Monday marks the eleventh anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq—a solemn punctuation mark to the steadily increasing violence that has gripped that country over the past two years. Sectarian violence claimed more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013 alone, and this year’s toll has already surpassed 2,000. Iraq today is a broken and failing state: the war that many would prefer to believe ended in 2011 continues unabated, with Iraqis continuing to suffer, as much as ever, the fallout from this country’s callous lies and avoidable mistakes. Despite Colin Powell’s sanctimonious “Pottery Barn rule,” John Feffer wrote on his Foreign Policy in Focus blog at TheNation.com last month, the United States has made no effort to “own up to our responsibility for breaking the country.”

To a regrettably unsurprising extent, the issue of The Nation that went to press just as American tanks crossed over the border from Kuwait accurately predicted what would happen in the wake of an invasion. Our lead editorial in that issue began:

The Bush Administration has launched a war against Iraq, a war that is unnecessary, unwise and illegal. By attacking a nation that has not attacked us and that does not pose an immediate threat to international peace and security, the Administration has violated the United Nations Charter and opened a new and shameful chapter in US history. Moreover, by abandoning a UN inspection and disarmament process that was working, it has chosen a path that is an affront not only to America’s most cherished values but to the world community. The UN did not fail; rather, Washington sought a UN imprimatur for a war it had already decided to wage and scorned it when the Administration couldn’t get its way.

Jonathan Schell, in an article in the same issue titled “American Tragedy,” described the wider implication of the Bush administration’s action: an existential threat to the separation of powers, the protection of civil liberties, the commitment to the international and domestic rule of law.

The decision to go to war to overthrow the government of Iraq will bring unreckonable death and suffering to that country, the surrounding region and, possibly, the United States. It also marks a culmination in the rise within the United States of an immense concentration of unaccountable power that poses the greatest threat to the American constitutional system since the Watergate crisis. This transformation, in turn, threatens to push the world into a new era of rivalry, confrontation and war. The location of the new power is of course the presidency (whose Augustan proportions make the “imperial” presidency of the cold war look like a mere practice run). Its sinews are the awesome might of the American military machine, which, since Congress’s serial surrender of the constitutional power to declare war, has passed wholly into the President’s hands. Its main political instrument is the Republican Party. Its financial wherewithal is the corporate money that inundates the political realm. Its strategy at home is restriction of civil liberties, deep secrecy, a makeover in its image of the judiciary, subservience to corporate interests across the board and transfer of personal wealth on a colossal scale from the average person to its wealthy supporters. Its popular support stems from fear engendered by the attacks of September 11—fear that has been manipulated to extend far beyond its proper objects. Its overriding goal, barely concealed behind the banner of the war on terrorism, is the accumulation of ever more power, whose supreme expression is its naked ambition to establish hegemony over the earth.…

The tragedy of America in the post-cold war era is that we have proved unequal to the responsibility that our own power placed upon us. Some of us became intoxicated with it, imagining that we could rule the world. Others of us—the Democratic Party, Congress, the judiciary, the news media—abdicated our obligation to challenge, to check and to oppose, letting the power-hungry have their way. The government of the United States went into opposition against its own founding principles, leaving it to the rest of the world to take up our cause. The French have been better Americans than we have. Because the Constitution, though battered, is still intact, we may still have time and opportunity to recoup. But for now, we will have to pay the price of our weakness. The costs will be heavy, first of all for the people of Iraq but also for others, including ourselves. The international order on which the common welfare, including its ecological and economic welfare, depends has sustained severe damage. The fight for “freedom” abroad is crippling freedom at home. The war to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has provoked that very proliferation in North Korea and Iran. More ground has already been lost in the field of proliferation than can be gained even by the most delirious victory in Baghdad. Former friends of America have been turned into rivals or foes. The United States may be about to win Iraq. It has already lost the world.

In her column, “War: What Is It Good For?The Nation’s Katha Pollitt wrote about the consequences of the US invasion at home and abroad:

Whatever the immediate results—this many dead children versus that much freedom from repression—the fundamental issue has to be the perils of “pre-emptive war” in volatile times. However it works out for the Iraqis, invading their country will be bad for the rest of the world. It will aid terrorist recruitment, it will license other countries—India and Pakistan, for example—to wage pre-emptive wars of their own, it may even consolidate Islamic fundamentalism as the only alternative to American power in the Middle East. Those are the fears not just of the American antiwar movement but of the majority of people around the world, even in the nations whose leaders have joined with ours.

But who cares about the majority of the world’s people? We’ll go to war unilaterally, with our pathetic collection of allies (Britain, OK. But Spain? Italy? Latvia?), while the rest of the world stands by appalled. We’ll boycott the Dixie Chicks, eat our freedom fries and even, as documented in the New York Times, pour Dom Perignon by the gallon down the toilet (“I’ll bet it was just water,” said the manager of my local liquor store. “Nobody would waste great champagne like that!”). People will be called traitors if they wear peace T-shirts, fail to salute the flag or dare to suggest that anyone in the Administration has lower motives than the selfless salvation of humanity. Journalists “embedded,” as the odd phrase goes, in military units will send back an endless stream of heartwarmers that will reinforce the confusion of “support the troops” with “support the war.” If, in the end, the Iraqis turn out to hate and resent the nation that bombed them into freedom, we’ll shake our heads in angry bewilderment: After all we did for you, this is the thanks we get!

The issue raised by the invasion of Iraq is American imperialism. That won’t go away, no matter how this particular adventure turns out. See you at the demonstration.

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Finally, the issue carried a report from “Inside Baghdad” by Jeremy Scahill, whom The Nation nurtured as a journalist, publishing his dispatches from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and ensuring that they became the bestselling books, Blackwater and Dirty Wars. On the eve of the Iraq War, Scahill wrote of the hopes and fears of the Iraqi people, as one horrific chapter of their nation’s history was about to end and another to begin:

Perhaps it’s twenty years of unending war and sanctions; perhaps it’s the tremendous repression; likely, it’s everything together, but Iraqis want it all to end. They are exhausted and, most of them, miserable. In the early stages of the imposition of the US-led sanctions against Iraq, US officials made clear that Iraqis would be made to suffer until Saddam Hussein was no longer in power. The last decade has represented one of the most brutal campaigns of targeting innocent civilians to achieve Washington’s policy aims. The constant bombing, the massive shortages of medicine, the rapid decimation of a once-proud middle class, the tens of thousands of innocent children withering away in filthy hospital beds, the unclean drinking water, the total dependence on the government for food, have all made ordinary Iraqis pay an incredible price for a government over which they have no control.…

There is no question that hatred of the US government is strong in Iraq, regardless of what people think of Saddam. And few accept that America has any right to overthrow the Iraqi government. Iraqis have seen what occupation looks like, both through British colonization of Iraq and through the lens of the Palestinians. “We don’t want Saddam, but that doesn’t mean we want America, either,” said Mazen, an unemployed engineer. He said his father’s name is Jihad. The name, Mazen said, was given because his grandfather fought against the British colonialists in the 1920s. “It’s in my family blood. We will not accept a foreign invader or occupier, even if it damns us to more years under an Iraqi dictator. At least he is one of us…

But even those people who would welcome a US victory over Saddam are concerned about what might come after. People across the map say they fear a civil war that would pit the surviving Baathists and loyalist forces of the regime against masses of angry civilians and disaffected army deserters. Some Christians say they also fear that Islamic fundamentalists will attack them. Over the past twelve years, Iraq has seen a rapid desecularization of its society, and Islamic groups hope to replace the Baathist government with an Islamic state. “You know why we Christians want Saddam to stay in power?” asks a restaurant owner in Baghdad. “Because he is protecting us from radical Muslims. He always has done this, and if he goes, we are afraid what will happen to us.”

Scahill also interviewed Iraqis who looked forward to the Hussein regime’s downfall, even at the price of a US invasion. But that didn’t change the fact that even if that happened quickly and relatively smoothly, the violence would be by no means at an end:

Even if some Iraqis celebrate in the streets if Saddam’s government is brought down, it will reflect no success of US policy. It will simply represent a violent end to a horrifying chapter in the vast, unfinished book of Iraq. It will be the fruits of a merciless economic and military war waged against the innocent for twelve years. Regardless of what happens, it is the ordinary Iraqis—the doctors, the engineers turned taxi drivers, the shoeshine boys, the mothers and fathers—who should be praised for having found the will to live and the will to survive a heartless war waged against them by a superpower and a tyrant.

Though both are now gone, their entwined legacies remain disastrously oppressive to the Iraqi people.

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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.

The ‘Next Citizens United’ May Fuel a Popular Uprising

Second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling

Demonstrators marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’sCitizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, January 20, 2012. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

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.

Pity poor Shaun McCutcheon.

McCutcheon is the Alabama businessman suing the Federal Election Commission for abridging his First Amendment right to free speech—that is, if we define free speech as McCutcheon’s right to donate upward of $123,200 in a single election cycle. He claims eliminating federal limits on an individual’s aggregate campaign contributions is “about practicing democracy and being free.” To underscore his love of freedom, McCutcheon wrote checks to 15 Republican candidates in the symbolic sum of $1,776.

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The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission any day now. Given the Roberts court’s track record, the biggest campaign-finance decision since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is likely to blow another gigantic hole in the fabric of our democracy.

Such a ruling will fuel popular outrage and increase pressure for fundamental reforms such as disclosure and public financing. Already, Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have introduced a constitutional amendment allowing campaign spending limits. This would finally supercede the Supreme Court’s infamous 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo, which equated money with speechand effectively turned our elections into auctions.

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.

Rep. Keith Ellison—on His Faith, His Family & Our Future

Representative Keith Ellison

Representative Keith Ellison and other members of Congress rally outside the US Capitol against cuts to social insurance programs on October 3, 2013. (Photo by George Zornick)

“There must be something in the water in Minnesota,” writes Keith Ellison (D-MN) in his new memoir My Country, ’Tis of Thee, “because historically, despite its seemingly homogeneous population, the state has produced some of our more radical political thinkers, and its people have put their prejudices aside to vote for them.” Granted, Ellison was born and raised in Detroit, but the four-term congressman from Minnesota’s Fifth District is boldly following in the footsteps of Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale and Wellstone.

“Paul Wellstone was my model”; he writes, “my exemplar of an effective politician.” Wellstone “answered to the people and did so with honesty and conviction, and people appreciated that.” Within the context of the do-nothing 113th Congress, Ellison’s reasonability seems downright revolutionary. “When you’re a leader,” Ellison writes, “you cannot ignore parts of your constituency, even if you know they’re not going to vote for you.” There are Republicans in Minneapolis, too—a lesson that countless members of congress have forgotten vis-a-vis their own hometown opposition.

Perhaps most representative of Ellison’s efforts (and of Congressional intractability) is the bipartisan Preserving Homeownership Act of 2012, which Ellison co-introduced with Representatives Gary Peters (D-MI) and John Campbell (R-CA). The bill, which includes a principal-reduction program and which the Republican majority has precluded from passing, is a “win-win proposition that resulted from a moderate Democrat, a progressive Democrat, and a Republican working together to help home owners. When members of Congress talk informally about the things happening in our individual districts, we find that we share many common issues.” Nevertheless, the bill remains a victim of “politics [trumping] common sense,” a non-starter (or half-starter) in a legislature focused on maintaining acrimony across the aisle.

Ellison is a believer in activism, and he believes that so-called “regular folks” can influence their legislators. With Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a position he ran for “to connect working Americans with members of Congress who want to partner with them.” Not only is Ellison eager to work with Republicans, he’s also intent on increasing citizen participation in government (If you stay disgruntled yet sit idle on the sidelines, he believes, then you’re just a complainer.) And participation is crucial. He sees himself (and Congress) as part of a vast ecosystem comprising activists, movements, politicians, and voters. “What’s the matter with Congress?” he asks. “Nothing that wide-awake and active Americans can’t fix.”

On foreign policy, Ellison decries unilateral action and condemns US behavior after 9/11. Iraq was a “colossal failure,” and in Afghanistan, “We allowed ourselves to lose track of the goal.” Ellison knows that our current strategy is failing, both militarily and culturally. He’s disappointed by the coldness of the reception he received on a 2011 trip to Pakistan, and he compares it sadly to the warm welcome he experienced there just two years earlier. Pakistanis rightly ask Ellison if he “thought that we should be able to come into their country and make war,” and he bitterly notes, “We’re supposed to be allies.”

Ellison sees American aid as one of the most powerful tactics we can use against terrorism, decrying the fact that our foreign-aid budget is one-twentieth that of the military’s. “Surely,” he asks, “we can find value in doing some preventive maintenance?”

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Ellison, of course, was the first Muslim to be elected to Congress, and he admits that his faith plays a role in his politics. Not surprisingly, his opponents (and some colleagues) have gone bananas over his religion. His GOP opponent in 2006 taunted Ellison as “Keith Muhammad, Keith X, Keith Hakim” (all at the same press conference); his campaign was compared to a “Japanese American being elected to the US Congress five years after Pearl Harbor”; and in 2012, a “Democrat–Tea Party candidate” ran an ad asking Minneapolis voters, “Do you really want someone representing you who swears his oath on a Quran, a book that undermines our Constitution and says you should be killed?”

But notably, he waits until Chapter 16 of ’Tis of Thee to really delve into religion and to address such nonsense, and he underlines the fact that he is a congressman who is Muslim, not a Muslim congressman. Indeed, the story of Ellison’s life and family (agnostic father, Roman Catholic mother, Christian preacher brother, etc.) reveals a polyglot definition of “American”—a Republican fascination/obsession—as well as the absurdity of even having such a definition in the first place. Addressing the “whole gaggle of operators who have made a lucrative cottage industry around stirring up fear and hatred toward Muslims, Ellison responds plainly: “It is un-American to single out or persecute any American because of his or her faith. I am a congressman who is Muslim. I am also black. I also happen to be from Detroit. I also happen to be a father of four.”

Is this the guy you want protecting your Constitution? I think so. Ellison is optimistic—”hopelessly” optimistic—about the future of America, and his own story is worth examining to see why. “Our democracy is not something to be taken for granted. You have to fight for it. You have to commit yourself to working for it—for the long haul.”

Read Next: John Nichols interviews Bernie Sanders.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Resisting The Beatles’ Invasion, ‘The PR Man’s Finest Hour’

The Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields section of New York's Central Park

The Imagine mosaic in the Strawberry Fields section of New York's Central Park (Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

If we are told to remember the Beatles’ arrival in the United States fifty years ago last month as an “invasion,” it is as one that was unopposed. The 73 million people who watched Paul McCartney count the band into “All My Loving” on February 9, 1964 shattered all records, representing nearly two-fifths of the US population at the time, despite the fact that only 17 percent of American homes even had televisions in them. We surrendered without resistance, it often seems—a view evident in one Amazon review of a collection of the late Bill Eppridge’s photographs from the Beatles’ first week in the US. “Those six days did change the world,” the commenter writes, “by simply unifying us all with faces of sheer happiness.”

But at least one person wasn’t smiling. In an essay published in the March 3, 1964 issue of The Nation, “No Soul in Beatlesville,” a young Simon & Schuster editor named Alan Rinzler objected to the furor over the Liverpool lads’ music and—correctly, if somewhat myopically—attributed Beatlemania to a massive, premeditated PR campaign. The quivering throngs of teen-aged girls, he believed, said much more about the susceptibility of Americans to fashionable trends than it did about the talent or novelty of the group itself.

Rinzler began his essay by favorably comparing the Beatles with the folk music that then dominated American airwaves—“the citybilly's academically perfect imitation of a sound created from an experience different from his own.” Of performers like the string-band revival New Lost City Ramblers, Rinzler wrote: “Their musical tradition goes back no farther than some very careful listening to old Library of Congress tapes and Folkways recordings.”

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The Beatles, he continued, were only marginally more authentic, more a throwback to the 1950s than a harbinger of any significant musical progress to come:

Another group which must have spent a great deal of time lately paying close attention to old records and making faces in the mirror are the Beatles, four young men from the mainstream of working-class Liverpool, with skin-tight, blue gray suits (velvet lapels), mops of long brown hair, and an electrical system guaranteed to numb the senses of even the most reluctant attendant. Their recent invasion of the United States was the PR man's finest hour (reportedly, thirteen publicity firms worked on the debut). For weeks the national press, radio and TV, and the slick magazines had instructed novitiates on what to expect and how to react. Beatle records blasted the air waves, promoted by disk jockeys eager to claim a "first discovery" (actually Beatle records were in this country ten months ago, but no one played them until the press agents got to work). Wigs, buttons, locks of hair, wallpaper, the hour of their arrival in New York, the exact location of their daily activities, all contributed to a triumphant exploitation of the affluent teen-ager. By the time the Beatles actually appeared on the stage at Carnegie Hall, there wasn't a person in the house who didn't know exactly what to do: flip, wig-out, flake, swan, fall, get zonked—or at least try.

The Beatles themselves were impressive in their detachment. They came to America "for the money." They attribute their success "to our press agent." They looked down at their screaming, undulating audience with what appeared to be considerable amusement, and no small understanding of what their slightest twitch or toss of head could produce. John Lennon, the leader of the group, seemed particularly contemptuous, mocking the audience several times during the evening, and openly ridiculing a young girl in the first row who tried to claw her way convulsively to the stage. Paul McCartney bobbed his head sweetly, his composure broken only when—horror of horrors—his guitar came unplugged. (There was a terrible moment of silence. One expected him to run down altogether, and dissolve into a pool of quivering static.) George Harrison tuned his guitar continually, and seemed preoccupied with someone or something at stage right. Ringo Starr, the drummer, seemed the only authentic wild man of the group, totally engrossed in his own private cacophony. For the rest, it was just another one-night stand.

Musically, the Beatles are an anachronism. They come pure and unadulterated from the early 1950s, the simple, halcyon days of rock 'n roll: Bill Haley and his Comets, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, the Eberle [sic] Brothers, the Ted Steele Bandstand. The Beatle sound is primitive rock 'n roll—straight four-four rhythm, undistinguishable melody, basic three-chord guitar progressions electrically amplified to a plaster-crumbling, glass-shattering pitch. It's loud, fast and furious, totally uninfluenced by some of the more sophisticated elements in American music that have brightened our pop scene in recent years. One can only assume that Ray Charles, gospel, rhythm and blues, country and western, and other purer folk sound has yet to cross the Atlantic. The English always have been a bit behind us—witness Oliver, a good old-fashioned American musical comedy, or Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and other realistic films in the 1930s' style. Often they do improve upon our models; the Beatles, with their American accents, their savagely delivered musical cliches, their tight pants, hair cuts and wild gyrations, are more entertaining and intelligent than anything we produced ten years ago.

But the Beatles remain derivative, a deliberate imitation of an American genre. They are surely not singing in a musical tradition which evolved spontaneously from their own lives or from a "natural" habit of expression. This is probably why the reaction at Carnegie Hall was not a real response to a real stimulus. There weren't too many soul people there that night either on the stage or in the audience. The full house was made up largely of upper-middle-class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see; and with the full blessings of all Authority: indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. Later they can all go home and grow up like their mommies, but this was their chance to attempt a very safe and very private kind of rapture.

Most did what was expected of them and went home disappointed. Disappointed because nothing really passed from the stage to the audience that night, nor from one member of the audience to another. There was mayhem and clapping of hands, but no sense of a shared experience, none of the exultation felt at a spontaneous gathering of good folk musicians, or, more important, at a civil rights rally where freedom songs are sung. The spectacle of all those anguished young girls at Carnegie Hall, trying to follow "I Want To Hold Your Hand," seems awfully vapid compared to the young men and women who sing "I Woke Up This Mornin' With My Mind" (. . . Stayed on Freedom). The Beatles themselves are lively and not without charm. Perhaps their greatest virtue is their sense of humor and self-caricature. But Beatlemania as a phenomenon is manna for dull minds.

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In an e-mail, Rinzler—who just a few years later “discovered” Toni Morrison and edited her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970)—writes that he has “spent the last fifty years apologizing for that snooty review.”

There's nothing in it about the Beatles that I agree with now, except my appreciation of their humor. The songs they performed that night at Carnegie Hall were all quite excellent but not only couldn't I actually hear them over the crowd of screaming weeping girls, but at 26, I was a soul-brother, rhythm and blues purist and didn't become a big fan until 1965 with the release of the superb album Rubber Soul, followed shortly by the equally terrific Revolver in 1966.

Meanwhile, my day job was at Simon and Schuster, where I was involved with the publication of Yoko Ono's avant-garde book Grapefruit and John Lennon's A Spaniard in the Works, though neither of them actually knew the other at that time.

Then, in 1968, my musical and publishing interests led me to become one of the pioneering staff members of Rolling Stone Magazine. I opened the first New York office then moved to San Francisco, where I was the Associate Publisher and Vice-President, as well as President of the books division Straight Arrow.

In that capacity I published several books on the Beatles and was a huge fan, a major promulgator of editorial work on their personal and professional lives. Later, when Lennon was assassinated, I was at Bantam Books, and was responsible for publishing the memorial book Strawberry Fields Forever.

Nevertheless that old Nation review comes back to bite me every once in a while. Even my own adult children can't believe I wrote it, but forgive me. Hope you will, too.

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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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