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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.

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.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The European Right—From (Jean-Marie) Le Pen to (Marine) Le Pen—and the Rise of the French Far Right

Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine Le Pen

Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine Le Pen (Reuters/Daniel Joubert)

Next week’s issue of The Nation will feature a report by Stanford Professor Cécile Alduy about the alarming rise of Marine Le Pen and the French far right. In recent years, Le Pen has skillfully, if disingenuously, attempted to scrub her National Front party of the most odious manifestations of the anti-Semitism, racism and outright xenophobia in which her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, specialized during his forty-year leadership of the party. At the same time, Alduy writes, the French mainstream—mistakenly scapegoating immigrants for the country’s economic malaise—has moved further to the right. Whatever the results of local elections slated for later this month and European Parliament elections in May, there is a serious risk that the toxic ideology of the National Front will become further enshrined and legitimized as a driving force in the public conversation—not only in France, but across Europe as a whole.

Although Le Pen “has managed to put a modern gloss on an old political brand,” Alduy writes, the underlying philosophy of the National Front remains almost exactly the same as it was under Jean-Marie Le Pen. It is perhaps useful, then, to re-examine the behavior of the wolf before it donned sheep’s clothing—and for such a mission there is no better guide than Daniel Singer, The Nation’s longtime European correspondent before his death in 2000. His numerous dispatches on Le Pen père—“the man whose name is synonymous with the recent revival of overt racism in French politics and society,” Singer wrote in 1985—show how mutable and dangerous remains the threat emanating from what Singer, in a recurring assortment of related metaphors, called France’s plague, poison and disease.

In “The Resistible Rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen” (September 7, 1985), Singer wrote of Le Pen:

Smiling, smartly dressed, he now seems—particularly on television, where he is on his best behavior—a frank and reasonable fellow saying aloud “what everybody really believes,” telling people “what they already know,” a man who merely echoes the basic precept of that great American Ronald Reagan: namely, that communism is the root of all evil. A red-faced, rather fat man who warns the “silent majority” against muggers, drug addicts, gays and crypto-pinkos, Le Pen might be described as a sort of French Spiro Agnew preaching law and order, except that he is not of Greek or any other foreign extraction. That is an important difference, because the man and the movement he leads, the National Front, trumpet the slogan “Frenchmen First” and spread the fairy tale that everything would be fine in the streets and hospitals, in the schools and even the factories were it not for the foreign hordes invading France, particularly those crossing the Mediterranean. France would be just marvelous without Marxists, Arabs and other aliens.…

The entry of avowed racists into the French Parliament is not in itself the worst prospect. As the old saying goes, you don’t bring the temperature down by breaking the thermometer…. More worrisome is the underlying ideological shift to the right, the radical metamorphosis of the substance and form of political debate, of which this plague is only a symptom.

Three years later, after the National Front had secured a new level of legitimacy when Le Pen won more than 14 percent of the vote in the 1988 presidential election, Singer wrote “In the Heart of Le Pen Country,” about a visit to Marseille:

Serious trouble does not begin when the men with jackboots or with cloven hoofs opt for fascism. It begins when the tinker and tailor, your neighbor and your cousin, are driven sufficiently mad by circumstances to vote for an admirer of Pinochet, a preacher of apartheid, a man for whom the gas chambers are a mere “detail.” As I looked down from the steps of the station, on departing this outwardly still-warm and attractive town, I could not help feeling that moral pollution is not so easily perceived. All the more reason to probe below the surface, to sound the alarm and, above all, to seek a cure—unless we want to wake up one day, too late, in a fully contaminated city or country.

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Singer continued to track Le Pen’s rise throughout the 1990s. His dispatches from the time show an increasing concern about Le Pen’s staying power, and even foreshadows the more recent attempts by his youngest daughter, Marine Le Pen, to conceal the party’s underlying fascism by projecting a more smiling, human face:

The Ghosts of Nationalism” (March 23, 1992):

Although unemployment in Western Europe is now roughly three times higher than it was twenty years ago, it has not reached the proportions of the prewar Depression, nor is the fate of its victims comparable. Although discontent is high, workers are not flocking en masse to Le Pen and his equivalents. The danger for Western Europe is not an immediate takeover by various National Fronts. The threat lies in the gradual extension of the disease: the spread of racism and the weakening of class solidarity, sapping society’s capacity for resistance should a really catastrophic slump bring back another bout of the deadly epidemic.

Hate in a Warm Climate” (April 20, 1992):

Le Pen has been told that to win votes he must keep his tongue in check, so he’s on his best behavior. He makes no openly racist or anti-Semitic remarks. Yet, listening carefully, you can still judge the man. His reference to Jean-Claude Gaudin as “the bearded woman”—a not so gentle hint about the incumbent’s alleged homosexuality—gives an idea of his moral tone. The contempt he puts into the words “of every race and religion,” describing demonstrators he saw in London, is also revealing. So is his scorn for those who stir up unpleasant memories of World War II: “They only want to talk about Pétain and Touvier” (a wartime torturer, hidden for years by the clergy and only recently arrested). “Whatever the subject, it reminds them of Hitler and Vichy.”

Liberté, Egalité, Racisme” (October 21, 1996):

In its new posture the National Front is increasingly reminiscent of the prewar fascist movements. Equally worrying is the fact that the phenomenon is not simply French. From Antwerp to Vienna, passing through northern and southern Italy, in the absence of rational prospects, all sorts of forces of unreason are gaining ground. Naturally, the situation should not be overdramatized. The economic crisis is not yet deep enough for a Le Pen to be voted into power in any Western European country. But the poison is spreading. It will not be halted by pandering to prejudices, making compromises, sticking to an increasingly conservative consensus. It won’t be stopped by decree, either. The counteroffensive will require relentless daily battles on the political, social and cultural fronts. If the respectable right is more to blame as the carrier of the disease, the main responsibility, nevertheless, belongs to the left: The rise of Le Pen will not be really resisted until the people, offered the prospect of a radically different society, start struggling for genuine solutions instead of seeking scapegoats. This French lesson, now read throughout Europe, does not lose its validity on crossing the ocean.

Supping with the French Devil” (April 20, 1998):

Much having been written here about the resistible rise of Le Pen, we can sum up the spread of the disease in shorthand. When François Mitterrand was elected president in 1981 the front was insignificant. Deprived of office, the right invented the myth that growing unemployment was due to immigrant labor, forgetting that however low it would stoop, Le Pen could get lower still. Thus he acquired his stock in trade, imposing a phony debate on the nation. But he was able to consolidate his position only because the left failed to offer a radical alternative. With France experiencing a vague consensus on economic policy combined with rising social misery, Le Pen could appear to be the only outsider, gaining support notably among workers and the unemployed. His queer mixture of Reaganomics at home and opposition to globalization is incoherent, so whenever the social movement is active (as in the 1995 winter of discontent) the front is cast aside. But it recovers, feeding on the economic failure of the other protagonists.

Thus the fate of the National Front is really in the hands of the left. If it listens to the international financial establishment, opting for a deflationary policy and the dismantling of the welfare state, it will encourage the spread of the disease, which no changing of the electoral thermometer will cure. Only if it tackles unemployment head-on, radically reshaping French society, will the left be able to contain a cancerous growth that is already serious, although not yet fatal. The responsibility is historical because…the corpses of the past are still unburied. Pace Hegel and Marx, history may repeat itself not as farce but as tragicomedy.

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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.

Why This Woman Should Be Ohio’s Next Secretary of State

Democratic State Senator Nina Turner

Democratic State Senator Nina Turner (AP/Tony Dejak)

On Tuesday, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State John Husted moved to restrict early-voting hours in the Buckeye State, eliminating early voting on Sundays and weekday nights. The goal, according to Husted, is “to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat and to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity in the voting process no matter which method they choose.”

Never mind that Ohio voters already had opportunities to vote easily, and that the 270 potential voter-fraud cases in the 2012 election that Husted passed on to prosecutors represented “less than five one-thousandths of 1 percent of the 5.6 million ballots cast in Ohio in the 2012 election,” according to the Northeast Ohio Media Group and the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. That’s right—less than 0.005 percent.

Husted’s decision puts the kibosh on “Souls to the Polls,” a program that for decades has brought African-American voters directly from church to early-polling sites. It’s easy to see the implications of Husted’s decree: Zachary Roth of MSNBC writes, “There’s little doubt that cuts to early voting target blacks disproportionately. In 2008, black voters were 56 percent of all weekend voters in Cuyahoga County, Ohio’s largest, even though they made up just 28 percent of the county’s population.”

Meanwhile, on the more, er, democratic (you can choose whether you think “democratic” ought to be capitalized) end of Ohio’s political spectrum, State Senator Nina Turner, a Democratic candidate for Husted’s job, hosted an eminently reasonable Twitter chat about voting rights and about prospects for getting more diverse candidates elected to political office. (For a transcript, search #AskNinaTurner on Twitter.) Turner has been endorsed by Emily’s List, which co-hosted the chat.

Turner takes issue with Husted’s claim that the restricted hours will bring an equal opportunity to cast a ballot for voters in all eighty-eight counties in Ohio. “I truly believe that fairness and equality does not mean uniformity, it means understanding the diversity of the electorate,” she said, noting that the population of Ohio’s largest county (Cuyahoga) is ninety-five times greater than that of the state’s smallest (Vinton). The same rules will have different effects in different communities, and a one-size-fits-all policy—homogenization rather than accommodation—doesn’t make sense when we’re trying to diversify both the electorate and the government it elects.

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Turner is a wonderful exemplar of the diversity that American citizens ought to be voting into state (and national) offices. “We have to start by electing more women who are leading intersectional lives so they bring that voice to the table in office,” she said today. “But just having those voices in the room isn’t enough.… we must elect voices who will speak up and give perspective. What good is being in the room if you do nothing with the opportunity to make real lasting change[?].… We must also work to mentor, uplift & support their (women of color) talents. So many dynamic women of color just need a nudge of support.”

And voter-ID laws and restrictions on early-voting could have a chilling effect on those voices. “Any decision [to] take away Sunday voting disproportionately harms certain demographics of voters, especially elderly & minorities,” Turner said. She points out that the electorate comprises 53 percent women and 47 percent men, so voting restrictions will, in fact, have a larger impact on women than on men—not a happy development when getting more women into government needs to be a priority. What’s more, Turner says, “[A]bout 90 percent of women change their names when married, & many change their names back if they get divorced,” making voter-ID issues much thornier for women than they are for men.

You can support Emily’s List here, and you can follow and support Senator Turner’s campaign here.

 

Read Next: Bhaskar Sunkara on Chokwe Lumumba.

Want a Feisty Way to Fight Foreclosures?

A home under threat of foreclosure

A home under threat of foreclosure (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The difference between a sweet victory and a dubious one is often a matter of perspective. Take the housing market which, we’re told, is recovering, albeit slowly and in fits and starts. This represents a trend, an upward-heading line on a chart, and a victory of sorts for the economy. But is it really a victory for the people?

The “housing market” that’s represented by that upward-heading line still comprises millions of underwater mortgage-holders (between 6 and 16 million, depending on who you ask), many of whom are now locked into a David-versus-Goliath battle against creditors that are trying to foreclose and evict them. On this level—where “housing” becomes “houses,” where rates of foreclosure become, for victimized families, “foreclosures”—an overall victory for the market doesn’t mean a whole lot. A trend, that is, has trouble enumerating the individual data points and stories that make it up. To make this dubious victory for the housing market a sweet victory for homeowners, the Home Defenders League, using an innovative concept called Local Principal Reduction, is fighting to write happy endings to some of those stories.

Local Principal Reduction provides a local solution for underwater homeowners facing foreclosure. The CARES program (Community Action to Restore Equity and Stability), developed by Professor Bob Hockett at Cornell Law School, empowers a municipality to work with private investors to acquire the worst private-label securities (PLS) mortgages in town. These are the notorious loans (often predatory) that have been sliced and diced and securitized into investment vehicles by Wall Street, and they are not backed by the federal government via Fannie, Freddie, or Ginnie Mae. Private-label securities are owned by investment trusts, not banks, and as such are not eligible for federal assistance programs. And because the original mortgages have been cut into so many pieces, it’s difficult—and sometimes impossible—to determine who has the authority to refinance them. In other words, underwater homeowners have no one to ask for a life preserver.

But under CARES, a city acquires these underwater mortgages, with the help of San Francisco–based Mortgage Resolution Partners, a law firm with the financial and legal expertise necessary to advise the municipalities and arrange for the private capital that’s necessary to buy the loans. After acquiring the loans, the city then works to refinance these mortgages at current market value, thereby offering a financial life raft—and four walls and a roof—to homeowners facing foreclosure.

But here’s the best part: If creditors refuse to sell, then the city can use the power of eminent domain to seize the properties and refinance them anyway. This saves neighborhoods and prevents the blight and decreasing property values that naturally accompany abandoned homes and empty neighborhoods.

The city of Richmond, California, is at the forefront of the LPR campaign. Bill Falik, an adjunct professor at Berkeley Law, explains: “Richmond has tremendous legal authority to condemn underwater mortgages.… It doesn’t matter if this is a highway project. Foreclosures and underwater properties reduce property taxes and reduce neighboring homes’ value. That’s called blight, and eminent domain is the authority for cities like Richmond to correct blight.” It’s a local solution to a national problem, a sweet victory bearing real results for real people, and more than an abstract line on a graph or a hollow-sounding discussion of “recovery.”

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Predictably, the plan has its opponents—namely, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA), the industry trade group that represents the thirty or so trusts that own some 5 million PLS mortgages. SIFMA is dead-set against CARES, and it has spent millions to stop it, unleashing its entire arsenal: lawsuits, threatened lawsuits, recall campaigns, radio spots and direct mail. Because of the threatened litigation, CARES is stalled in Richmond, and the city is looking for other municipalities that it can partner with to protect itself. When fighting Wall Street, there’s strength in numbers.

More insidiously, SIFMA has also threatened to raise the price of credit and to categorically deny loans to residents of cities that opt into an LPR program. Denying credit to otherwise credit-worthy people based solely on their city of residence looks suspiciously like illegal redlining. Moreover, since many of the worst PLS mortgages are for houses in predominantly African-American and Latino communities (groups that were targeted by predatory lenders in the first place), this kind of action by SIFMA smacks of discrimination as well.

So what can you do? Kevin Whelan of the Home Defenders League gives three ways to help.

1. Visit fightingforeclosures.org and donate to (or join) the Home Defenders League campaign.

2. Start a campaign or a petition in your community to assist underwater homeowners. E-mail info@homedefendersleague.org for more details.

3. Contact your Representative in Congress and ask him or her to urge HUD and the FHA to comply with antidiscrimination laws that “forbid denying credit to qualified borrowers and ban discrimination based on factors like race and national origin.” Squash SIFMA’s anti-CARES threats.

Read Next: Alexis Goldstein: “Wall Street Group Aggressively Lobbied a Federal Agency to Thwart Eminent Domain Plans”

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