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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Debating the JFK Legacy, in Real Time

John F. Kennedy.

“There is more to Senator Jack Kennedy,” the journalist Frederic W. Collins wrote in the April 4, 1959, issue of The Nation, “than a coiffure arranged, during his plastic years, by facing South in a strong East wind.”

That early judgment—bemused condescension offset by a cautiously positive appraisal—marked The Nation’s coverage of John F. Kennedy during his Senate career, presidential campaign and abbreviated administration.

As the world marks the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination this month, there is much to be gained from looking at how his presidency was regarded in its own time. Kennedy arrived on the national political scene as neither a Great Man of History nor as an especially reliable standard-bearer of liberalism, as a reading of The Nation’s articles about him reveals. Rather, at least from this magazine’s perspective at the time, the swift rise of John F. Kennedy from relative obscurity signaled an troubling privileging of image over content: in a dispatch from the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, Nation editor Carey McWilliams wrote of “the hollow, synthetic quality of the Kennedy movement.” He also noted that

the paradox of this convention has been that a young man without an impressive political record, without a program, without broad rank-and-file support, backed by not a single interest group with the possible exception of labor, not merely won the nomination of a great party without substantial opposition, but took possession of it, lock, stock and barrel. The delegates were victims of a default of political leadership which was premised, of course, on their own default as citizens.

Moreover, the sudden dominance of Kennedy’s prominent family in the Democratic Party was taken as a sign of the unseemly influence of money in the public sphere: “The most notable thing about Mr. Kennedy,” Collins continued in his 1959 assessment of the presidential field, “is that he needs to form no organization because he was born into one.”

But at the same time, The Nation recognized the great promise that Kennedy represented and, with a few frustrating exceptions, the fundamentally progressive nature of his politics. When Kennedy won the general election in November 1960—beating by only 100,000 popular votes Vice President Richard Nixon, who in the words of Frederic Collins had based his campaign on the conclusion “that sadism is the stronger strain in the psychopathology of American politics”—The Nation wrote in an editorial:

A man may aspire to the Presidency for a number of reasons—ambition, vanity, love of country, love of power, a sense of responsibility, and so on. But, whatever his motives, he cannot justify them, even in the privacy of his own mind, unless he is resolved to promote the welfare of a majority of his fellow Americans and the long-range interests of the country as well as he can. In short, he must take his oath of office literally if he is to succeed, in his own estimation and the verdict of history. This opportunity Mr. Kennedy now has, and to a degree shared by few of his predecessors. A majority of his fellow citizens, taking him at his word, have avowed their receptivity to the basic idea of dynamic progress and the subsidiary ideas needed to make it a reality. They have repudiated the essentially static philosophy of the Republican Party and embraced new leadership. Not only new, but young leadership: Mr. Kennedy is the youngest man ever to be elected to the office. He symbolizes the rise to power of a new generation.…

No one ever assumed the office under brighter personal auspices or with a finer opportunity to cope with its enormous difficulties…. Mr. Kennedy not only can afford to be courageous now; he cannot afford to be anything else. Mr. Kennedy is intelligent and energetic; probably these considerations are clear to him. If so, he should have a successful administration. The Nation, which has seen many Presidents come and go, wishes him godspeed on a journey perilous to him and to all of us.

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Nation writers vigorously debated the meaning of Kennedy’s presidency during his 1,036 days in office. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, in one of his annual essays on civil rights for The Nation, expressed dismay with the slow progress the administration made on that defining issue during its first year in power:

The Kennedy Administration in 1961 waged an essentially cautious and defensive struggle for civil rights against an unyielding adversary. As the year unfolded, Executive initiative became increasingly feeble, and the chilling prospect emerged of a general Administration retreat. In backing away from an Executive order to end discrimination in housing, the President did more to undermine confidence in his intentions than could be offset by a series of smaller accomplishments during the year. He has begun 1962 with a show of renewed aggressiveness; one can only hope that it will be sustained.

Indeed, Kennedy did issue such an order in November 1962, but in his 1964 report, published less than four months after the president’s assassination, King wrote that the order was “conspicuously flawed with compromise and to this date has not significantly altered any housing patterns.”

Other Nation writers took exception with the young, glamorous president’s treatment in the press. In “The Kennedy Cult” (August 11, 1962), Sister Mary Paul Paye stoked widespread controversy by writing that the public’s fawning over JFK amounted to an undignified identification of the president with the country:

Because of the cult of personality, to the average man everywhere Mr. Kennedy has become synonymous with the United States; his victories are American victories; his health, American health; his smile, his family, his hobbies, his likes and dislikes, become symbolic of the country. And the danger of this equation is that should the President fail, then the country fails; should he make a mistake, the country errs….

In the measure that the cult grows, the tendency will grow stronger to elect Presidents not on the basis of reason, but on the basis of the emotional pull the candidates engender…

The cult is dangerous because it seems as innocent as a baby’s picture, as simple as a man’s smile, because it is public and yet unseen. Even if events conspire so that no limitation of freedom occurs because of it, it is still an appalling trend; for it is symptomatic of an American disease: mental apathy.

United Press International syndicated a story about Sister Paye’s article headlined, “Nun Writes Blast on Kennedy Image.”

And still other Nation writers analyzed the president’s style of politics and his commitment—or perceived lack thereof—to any definite political philosophy other than opportunism. The Daily News journalist Ted Lewis, in “Kennedy: Profile of a Technician” (February 2, 1963), argued that Kennedy’s vague ideological commitments had a pernicious effect on America’s image abroad.

Any examination of his operations to date suggests the basic reason for the fog over the Kennedy image. His methods and style vary, and the unfortunate impression is left that they vary with the economic, political and global climate. This flexibility suggests to some the lack of deep-rooted political ideals and purposefulness in connection with domestic policy. More serious is the effect of his apparent opportunism in the foreign-affairs arena. Even the simplest pronouncement by the President on a cold-war policy problem raises doubts abroad whether it carries the conviction of real intentions.

About all that can be guaranteed,” Lewis concluded, somewhat eerily, “is that life in these United States, as long as Kennedy is in the White House, is likely to be exciting—and somewhat insecure.”

* * *

Our first issue after the assassination bore an editorial simply titled “John F. Kennedy,” echoing the plaintive mood in the country at large, while also weighing the meaning of the tragedy and the precise nature of his legacy.

A young President, John F. Kennedy must have known or sensed that he did not have all time and eternity to accomplish his major objectives. He was in a hurry to reach the top and he was not long in reaching it. Once there he wanted to get things done, to spin the wheels faster, to move along. It was as though he kept hearing at his back “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.” But long before his tragic death he had learned that great as is the power of the American Presidency—and of the American nation—our ability to shape the course of events is not unlimited….

We had begun, under his maturing leadership, to cut back arms spending, to reduce some military commitments, to explore the possibilities for a gradual reduction of tensions—in a word, to make the great turn toward peace. John F. Kennedy will be remembered with affection and admiration for many fine qualities and achievements but above all for the fact that, after some false turns and starts, he set in motion the great task of directing American power toward broader objectives than deterrence and containment.

The same issue also carried testimonials from senators and congressmen who had worked with Kennedy. “I pray that our country continues on the course he set—one of domestic growth and fairness and of external peace,” wrote Rhode Island Senator and longtime Kennedy friend Claiborne Pell. Ernest Gruening, one of Alaska’s first two senators and a former Nation managing editor, wrote: “Articulate, witty, gay, gallant, courageous, his untimely death leaves a tragic void in the lives of all of us.”

In the following issue, dated December 21, 1963, the poet and farmer Wendell Berry—subject of a recent “This Week in Nation History”—published a poem titled “November 26, 1963,” which began:

We know the winter earth upon the body of the young President, and the early dark falling;

we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;

we know his name written in the black capitals of his death, and the mourners standing in the rain, and the leaves falling;

we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells, candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;

we know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now…

* * *

Twenty-five years ago, and twenty-five years after the assassination, the late Nation writer and editor Andrew Kopkind struck roughly the same balance in an article on “J.F.K.’s Legacy” (December 5, 1988). Kennedy’s administration, he wrote, was

vastly more admired in retrospect than in full swing, and if it were not for the tragic curtain twenty-five years ago in Dallas, the memory of that brief period would doubtless have a different cast. The dreamy, Arcadian quality of the thousand days of John Kennedy is an attribute of national re-vision, a nostalgic remembrance of things past not necessarily as they were but as they came to be seen….

What Kennedy did better than any President since Roosevelt, and what makes him a special kind of leader in American annals, was to mobilize a broad generational constituency—even if he was unable, by fate or his own limitations, to direct it to significant political change in his lifetime. There was no Kennedy Revolution. Kennedy’s greatness now consists of some parts myth and sentiment, but his leadership went beyond mere celebrity and style, and it is doubtful that we will see such sparkle in the White House before the century ends.

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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.

Strange Silence on Success in Removing Syria’s Chemical Weapons

OPCW

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.

Last week, buried beneath banner headlines blaring about Obamacare hearings, National Security Agency surveillance revelations and the Boston Red Sox’ World Series win, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) quietly reported that Syria “has completed the functional destruction of critical equipment for all of its declared chemical weapons production facilities and mixing/filling plants, rendering them inoperable.”

On the heels of winning the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize, the unglamorous but undeniably effective OPCW, using saws, sledgehammers and cutting torches in the middle of a war zone, defied predictions by meeting the November 1 deadline to disable Syria’s chemical weapons program. The bombshell was that there was no bombshell—at least, not of the unconscionable chemical kind.

This wasn’t just a vindication of President Obama’s decision to work with Russia on a non-military solution to the Syrian weapons crisis (and a well-deserved slap in the face to neoconservatives like Bill Kristol, who compared the president of the United States to Groucho Marx, “doing farcical pratfalls as he followed down Neville Chamberlain’s tragic path”). It was also a success for international organizations like the United Nations and the OPCW, and, indeed, for diplomacy itself.

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That the story made few waves was all the more surprising considering that when Secretary of State John Kerry first—and, as was widely presumed, mistakenly—suggested this path to disarmament, the perceived gaffe was thoroughly covered, parsed and even parodied.

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 Life and Times of Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

The next issue of The Nation, available Thursday, contains a remarkable essay by historian and Gandhi biographer Ramachandra Guha about the late Eric Hobsbawm, whose posthumous essay collection Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century was published earlier this year. Shortly after Hobsbawm’s death last October, at the age of 95, Nation editorial board member Eric Foner celebrated Hobsbawm in our pages as a man whose “life and writings will long serve as an inspiration to those who believe that a knowledge of history is essential to understanding the current world, and to the struggle to create a better one.”

Hobsbawm himself first wrote for The Nation in 1965, with an essay that the magazine’s editors wrote “should be required reading in the White House and in the Pentagon.” In “Goliath and the Guerilla: The Pentagon’s Dilemma” (July 19, 1965), a sweeping study of the history and strategic nuances of guerilla warfare and Western military attempts to suppress it, Hobsbawm argued, even at that relatively early date, that the United States could not possibly win a war in Vietnam. He urged recognition of this reality and presciently warned of the consequences of ignoring it:

In orthodox warfare the purpose of indiscriminate mass destruction is to break the morale of population and government, and to destroy the industrial and administrative base on which any orthodox war effort must rest. Neither task is as easy in guerilla war, because there are hardly any cities, factories, communications or other installations to destroy, and nothing like the vulnerable central administration machine of an advanced state. On the other hand, more modest success may pay off. If terror convinces even a single area to withhold support from the guerillas, and thus to drive them elsewhere, this is a net gain for the anti-guerillas. So the temptation to go on bombing and burning at random is irresistible, especially for countries like the United States which could stripe the entire surface of South Vietnam of life, without dipping too deeply into its supply of armaments or money….

Having three times as many nuclear bombs as the rest of the world is very impressive, but it will not stop people from making revolutions of which Mr. McGeorge Bundy disapproves…If the United States can come to terms with the realities of Southeast Asia, it will find itself very much where it was before—the most formidable power in the world, whose position and influence nobody wants to challenge, if only because nobody can, but which, like all other powers, past and present, must live in a world it does not altogether like.

His next contribution to The Nation was on a very different topic: the philosophy of Antonio Gramsci, on whose contributions to leftist politics and thought no Nation writer had yet written, even thirty years after his death. Much of what Hobsbawm celebrated in Gramsci could with few changes be said of Hobsbawm himself, not least the claim that Gramsci’s “analysis led him into a variety of remarkable insights into the way in which political societies operate, the function of culture and intellectuals within them, and the development of his own nation.”

***

Just one month before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, Hobsbawm published an essay in The Nation titled “The Perils of the New Nationalism” (November 4, 1991). Hobsbawm expressed sympathy with the many nationalist movements erupting in the wake of the Cold War, noting that they helped people cope with the “insecurity and disorientation” caused by the disruptions of the twentieth century. But Hobsbawm argued that such movements should not be confused with movements for real independence from the major political powers and economic forces which continued to dominate the world.

Is it an accident that Quebec separatism as a serious political factor emerged at the end of a decade when a traditional, Catholic, pious and clerical community that had preserved the values of seventeenth-century French peasants suddenly gave way to a society in which people no longer went to church and the birthrate fell almost vertically? After two generations, when continents of peasants have become continents of city dwellers, when the relations between the generations, and increasingly between the sexes, have been transformed and past wisdom seems irrelevant to present problems, the world is full of people who long for something that still looks like an old, and unchallengeable, certainty. It is not surprising that at such times they turn to group identity, of which national identity is one form, or that the demand for a political unit exclusively for the members of the group, in the form of ethnic-linguistic nation-states, once again comes to the fore.

However, if we can understand the forces that lead to a revival of the political of national consciousness, and even sympathize with the feelings that inspire it, let us have no illusions. Adding another few dozen to the member-states of the UN will not give any of them any more control over their affairs than they had before they became independent. It will not solve or diminish the problems of cultural or any other autonomy in the world, any more than it did in 1919.

Establishing nation-states on the post-World War I model is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. Among the potential new nation-states there may well be one or two future Netherlands and Switzerlands, bastions of tolerance, democracy and civilization. But who, looking at Serbia and Croatia, at Slovakia and Lithuania, at Georgia, Quebec and the rest, would today expect many of the newly separated nation-states to go that way? Any who would expect a Europe of such new states to be a zone of peace?

The beginning of the Bosnian War was only a few months away.

***

Ramachandra Guha’s essay in next week’s issue is only the latest in a long line of critical appreciations of Hobsbawm’s work to be published in The Nation. In 1966, the historian R.K. Webb reviewed Primitive Rebels, Hobsbawm’s classic study of rural bandits as a “pre-historic social movement,” first published in 1959. “A gadfly darts, stings and usually escapes,” Webb wrote. “So Hobsbawm has darted from subject to subject—happily infusing life, not drawing it—and has artfully dodged most of the attacks on him to return again…or to goad another placid subject into agitation.” In a 1985 review of Workers: Worlds of Labor, the Yale historian David Montgomery wrote that Hobsbawm’s “penetrating social analysis and his systematic rejection of intellectual fads provide lessons of special importance” at a time “when the ideological fashion is a mummified celebration of ‘the market’ and ‘modernity.’ ” Three years later, upon publication of The Age of Empire, 1875–1914, the third installment of Hobsbawm’s history of the “long nineteenth century,” Hobsbawm’s fellow historian of British labor history, Geoffrey Field of SUNY Purchase, wrote:

For forty years Eric Hobsbawm’s polymathic brilliance has enriched the study of modern history. Few historians anywhere have played such a seminal role in so many debates; few have wider interests…Reading Hobsbawm or hearing him speak, one is struck by the same characteristic qualities: remarkable factual command, lucid analysis, a conviction that theory—in his case Marxist theory—and politics are inseparable form the practice of history, and a refreshingly old-fashioned belief that a historical perspective is vital to understanding the world we inhabit.

Perhaps the best tribute to Hobsbawm—and the most poignant reflection on what the world would lose, nine years later, with the silencing of his pen—was written by the literary critic Terry Eagleton in his 2003 Nation review of Hobsbawm’s autobiography, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life.

He is a historian of formidable influence, erudition and stylistic grace; a public figure feted from Bologna to Beijing, yet a man skilled in the subtle arts of personal friendship; a politico who has survived the most bloodstained century known to humanity, yet who has managed to relish his life in the process. He still retains his insatiable energy for parties, debate, travel and ideas.

Interesting Times concludes on a sobering note. Hobsbawm is fond of the United States, but glad that he and his children do not live in a society that acknowledges no limits on its willingness to use its strength. The twenty-first century, he observed, ‘opens on twilight and obscurity.’ It is greatly to our loss that we shall not have his wisdom to guide us through it.

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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 JPMorgan Settlement Is Justice, Not a Shakedown

Jamie Dimon

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.

Is JPMorgan Chase, the imperious mega-bank, a hapless victim of what a Post editorial dubbed “political persecution”? Is it the innocent target of a Justice Department “shakedown,” as The Wall Street Journal’s editors charged, with Justice “confiscating” JPMorgan’s earnings “for no other reason than because they can and because they want to appease their left-wing populist allies”?

The announcement that JPMorgan’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon, personally negotiated the announced $13 billion settlement with the Justice Department has set off howls in the press. The Post suggested that JPMorgan only made the same errors about housing prices that everyone else made. The government was charged with acting in bad faith, holding JPMorgan accountable for misdeeds committed by Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual before Dimon agreed to acquire them at the behest of the government. All in all, we’re supposed to see this deal as a miscarriage of justice.

Give me a break.

Thirteen billion dollars is a lot of money—the biggest fine for one company in US history. But it only represents about five months of JPMorgan’s operating income in 2013, and it’s barely more than a third of what JPMorgan is spending on lawyers to defend itself.

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It is hard to be sympathetic when reading JPMorgan’s recent rap sheet. In the last three years alone, it has paid billions to settle charges that it (1) manipulated the market in the infamous “London Whale” trading debacle; (2) rigged energy prices in California and the Midwest; (3) improperly foreclosed on homeowners; (4) bilked credit card holders by fixing prices and interest rates; (5) rigged municipal bond operations in 31 states; (6)gouged approximately 6,000 active-duty service members on mortgages and much more.

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.

De Blasio for Mayor—on the WFP Line!

Bill de Blasio after an immigration reform march earlier this month. (AP Photo/C

Bill de Blasio will be the next mayor of New York City. His run has attracted progressive energy and media attention not seen since Elizabeth Warren’s equally important run for the Senate in Massachusetts last year.

His core theme throughout the campaign was New York City’s staggering inequality. He talked early and persuasively about the need to tax the wealthy, about requiring (not just asking) developers to build more affordable housing, about stop-and-frisk. For those reasons and others, The Nation endorsed Bill de Blasio for mayor.

In a remarkable campaign, de Blasio won big in the primary, and then ignored the conventional wisdom that after a primary, Democrats must pivot to the right. He describes himself as an “unapologetic progressive,” and recent polling has him with a strong lead (up by more than 40 percent).

Now, it’s tempting to think that a big progressive win is sewn up. But in fact, the opposition to the de Blasio agenda will be real and extremely well-funded. It’s important for him to have a mandate when he takes office, and the best way to show your support is by boosting the tally he gets on the Working Families Party line.

The Nation strongly urges its readers in New York City to not just vote for de Blasio but to vote for him on the Working Families Party line.

A vote for de Blasio on the Working Families Party line is a way of giving your vote some added,well, oomph. It’s a way to send a message that you applaud the progressive values that de Blasio embodies—even as he comes under blistering attack from the Murdoch press and other advocates for the status quo.

The Working Families Party is a progressive grassroots party founded in 1998 by a handful of community, union and progressive activists. The Nation in fact played a small but important role in the birth of the Working Families Party back in 1998, the first time we urged our readers to vote for the party’s ticket. These days, the WFP is on the upswing, racking up wins far afield from their original home in New York State.

Recent accomplishments include the “Pay it Forward” plan to tackle the student debt crisis that the WFP and some far-sighted elected officials initiated in Oregon. In Bridgeport, Connecticut, they are working with public school parents and teachers in the fight against the high-stakes testing of the corporate school reform crowd. In New Jersey, with SEIU, Citizen Action and other allies, they won paid sick days in Jersey City—and have a plan to take it across the state. The WFP strategy for building an organization that is “independent and relevant” is refreshingly sane and optimistic all at once.

In New York City, where the party has been organizing for fifteen years, the WFP has seen the fullest expression of its vision—their “long game” as columnist Harry Seigel recently wrote in the New York Daily News.

In 2009, the WFP elected a slate of insurgent progressives to the City Council. Those members went on to found the progressive caucus, which was eventually able to overcome a billionaire Mayor Bloomberg to win paid sick days for a million New Yorkers and reign in the worst abuses off stop-and-frisk—both major priorities for the party. They also elevated de Blasio, then a Brooklyn City Council member, to the office of public advocate. This year, the party is poised to add another dozen progressive members to the City Council—creating a tantalizing opportunity to turn New York into a laboratory of progressive governance.

Progressive New Yorkers should embrace that opportunity.

De Blasio and the fiscally conservative New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo are on something of a collision course. While de Blasio wants to raise taxes on the rich, Cuomo wants to run for re-election in 2014 as a tax-cutting moderate. (In fact, he’s already installed Republican former Governor George Pataki to help lead a commission on tax reform—a bad sign indeed, as Pataki dramatically shifted the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class in his years in office).

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Both de Blasio and Cuomo are Democrats. And indeed, the Democratic Party is quite a big tent and seems to have room for both progressives and mini-austerians. But voting on the Working Families Party line is about as good a way as we have to communicate which side we’re on. A strong vote on the Working Families Party line could measurably strengthen de Blasio’s hand in his Albany negotiations with Republicans and Democrats alike.

And if enough of us stand together and vote on the WFP line, New York City voters will have a chance to say “no” to the gilded city and “yes” to a city that, as WFP Executive Director Dan Cantor tirelessly repeats, “works for everyone, not just the wealthy and well-connected.” Vote de Blasio, vote WFP.

More New York news as CUNY students fight back against the shutting of their student center.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Reefer Madness on Campus and Park Avenue

Reefer Madness

On Thursday, October 31, The Nation will publish a special issue about marijuana, with our first-ever endorsement of national legalization. But as early as 1966, Nation contributors were questioning the fundamental assumptions of marijuana prohibition, as well as the cultural attitudes and government policies that culminated in Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs in 1971.

In “Drugs on Campus: Turned On and Tuned Out” (January 31, 1966), Mervin Freedman and Harvey Powelson, a psychologist and a psychiatrist, respectively, questioned whether the growing use of drugs in the American counter-culture was really as alarming a development as mainstream authorities were making it seem:

It is difficult to fashion a serious case against smoking marijuana except that a user will find himself in serious trouble if he is caught by the police. The effects on society at large, were pot smoking to be as ubiquitous as the consumption of alcohol, are unknown, but within the current limits of use, there is little evidence that marijuana damages the individuals who smoke it.

Freedman and Powelson also wrote about the political meaning of marijuana and hinted that prohibition was counter-effective, as it only heightened the drug’s allure:

The consistent pot smokers are for the most part graduate students in the arts, philosophy, the humanities and, to some extent, in the social sciences. The rebellion they express in many ways, pot smoking among them, stems from their disillusion with American life and values…. Aside from enjoying pot’s intrinsic satisfactions—relaxation, heightened sensibility, etc.—these students get pleasure from sharing a rebellious, illegal activity. The more rebellious or ‘anti’ the movement, the greater the likelihood that pot smokers will be drawn to it.

But within a few years pot went mainstream, as the novelist Maitland Zane wrote in “Turning on in Society” (December 7, 1970).

Remember the hip flasks of Prohibition? Nowadays on Park Avenue and in Pacific Heights the daring fashion is to smoke grass. Thirty years ago, virtually the only people who smoked tea, as it was then called, were outcasts—jazz musicians, artists, blacks, Mexican-Americans. Even in the early 1960s, pot smoking was considered by most middle-class white people to be outré, scandalous, dangerous, criminal. Then came The Pill, Vietnam, rock music, sexual liberation, widespread alienation from the American of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon…Nowadays it’s not just the longhairs of Cambridge and Berkeley who are into marijuana. It’s also their little brothers and sisters, some as young as 9. And for the first time, their parents—and grandparents…

San Francisco, with an enormous population of homosexuals, is tolerant of “deviant” behavior, and this extends to pot smokers. Nowadays, instead of being jailed, they’re routinely put on probation. Fourteen hundred otherwise law-abiding people were dealt with in that way during the first nine months of 1970.

Drug policy has only grown more repressive in the past forty-three years, criminalizing thousands upon thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens and handing out punishments much harsher than mere probation. Our special issue next week will highlight prohibition’s pernicious effects—as we did in two previous special issues on drug policy in 1999 and 2010—and will look at the history of the legalization movement and plot new strategies for taking it national in a progressive, humane and responsible way.

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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.

One Year After Sandy—Ignoring Climate Change at Our Own Peril

A man walks through piles of debris left by Hurricane Sandy in Queens.

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.

It’s been one year since Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the eastern coast of the United States, affecting twenty-four states and devastating parts of New Jersey and New York. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Millions were left without power. As many as 100 people died; most of whom drowned as the storm surged in Staten Island and Queens. At $65 billion, Sandy was the second costliest storm in US history.

Today, communities that were reduced to rubble are steadily recovering. And yet, one year later, policymakers have yet to address climate change, which undoubtedly contributed to the strength, magnitude and danger of Sandy. There is little discussion of rebuilding in a way that better prepares us for the ravages of future storms. And after Washington’s most recent shameful display of deadlock and dysfunction, it would be wishful thinking to presume that Congress will act on this issue anytime soon.

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That’s why last week’s Roosevelt Institute Four Freedoms awards ceremony was all the more significant for honoring someone who has devoted his life to the stewardship of our planet—legendary humanist, poet, essayist, novelist, fifth-generation Kentucky farmer and activist Wendell Berry.

Over the course of his life, Berry has written and spoken about a number of issues, including war, corporate corruption and the death penalty. But it is his work as an environmental activist and advocate of small-scale sustainable agriculture that has, perhaps, had the greatest impact on our national conversation.

Berry picked up where Thoreau left off, providing, as Michael Pollan has written, “a sturdy bridge over the deep American divide between nature and culture.” And in teaching us to cultivate our own gardens, and reap the wild in our own backyards, Berry “marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants.”

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: Wendell Berry’s Humanism and Wisdom for Our Times


Wendell Berry talking to a reporter after he was awarded the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2011. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

Last week, the Roosevelt Institute, as part of its annual Four Freedoms awards ceremony, presented its Freedom Medal to the Kentucky writer, farmer, environmentalist, humanist and activist Wendell Berry—a longtime Nation contributor.

“Whether Wendell Berry is writing poetry, fiction, or essays,” the Institute declared, “his message is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish.”

In over two dozen poems, essays, and book reviews he has published in The Nation since 1961, Berry has connected America’s democratic health with its ecological health, the degradation of its discourse with the degradation of its soil, and has done so with a unique combination of elegance, clarity of language and purpose, and simple—though never simplistic—common sense. Berry is as adept detailing the mechanics of a mine-triggered landslide as he is at critiquing the dangerous combination of ideology and profit motive which caused it to occur.

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One of Berry’s earliest Nation contributions was the poem “November 26, 1963,” about the days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy:

We know the winter earth upon the body of the young President, and the early dark falling;
we know the veins grown quiet in his temples and wrists, and his hands and eyes grown quiet;
we know his name written in the black capitals of his death, and the mourners standing in the rain, and the leaves falling;
we know his death’s horses and drums; the roses, bells, candles, crosses; the faces hidden in veils;
we know the children who begin the youth of loss greater than they can dream now…

In 1966, Berry published a scathing essay, “Strip-Mine Morality: The Landscaping of Hell,” about the efforts in his native Kentucky to regulate and hopefully prohibit that most excessively and permanently damaging method of mining coal. Berry attended several meetings at which proposed regulations were presented and was aghast at the coal companies’ blatantly duplicitous and selfish arguments:

The testimony of the expert witnesses who appeared in behalf of the companies was peculiarly clouded and disordered by the assumptions and intentions of the company lawyers, and by the testimony of several coal operators who also appeared as witnesses. There was a very obvious intent to use scientific evidence to prove that the best method of mining is the one that is most profitable, and that the best method of reclamation is the one that is cheapest. There was much yielding to the temptation to present theory and opinion as fact, and to look upon the failure to discover a remedy as proof that there is no remedy…

There was in the statements and questions of the coal company attorneys, and in the testimony of the operators, the unmistakable implication that anything can be justified by profit; that a man may own the land in the same sense in which he would own a piece of furniture or a suit of clothes, it is his to exploit, misuse or destroy altogether should he decide that to do so would be economically feasible. The question of the morality of any practice, for these men, has been completely replaced by the question of its profitability: if it makes money it is good; if it makes money for them they are doomed and eager to defend it. Evident in the testimony of some was the assumption that the steep mountain sides, now being ruined on an almost unbelievable scale and at great speed, are good for nothing else.

Nobody has written as profoundly as Berry about the implications of that assumption not only on the surface of the land, but also just beneath the surface of the American soul.

The land destroyed by strip mining is destroyed forever; it will never again be what it was, it will never be what it would have become if let alone. Such destruction—which can now be accomplished on a vast scale by a few men in a short time—makes man a parasite upon the source of his life; it implicates him in the death of the earth, the destruction of his meanings. Those men who send the bulldozer blades into the mountainsides bear the awesome burden of responsibility for an act that no one can fully comprehend, much less justify.

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In a brilliant essay published in two issues of The Nation in February 1976, “The Unsettling of America,” Berry analyzed and historically contextualized the “tendency…to complete the deliverance of American agriculture into the hands of the corporations.”

The cost of this corporate totalitarianism in energy, land and social disruption will be enormous. It will lead to the exhaustion of the farm land and the farm culture. Husbandry will become an extractive industry; the fertility of the soil, because maintenance will entirely give way to production, will become a limited and nonrenewable resource, like coal or oil.

This may not happen. It need not happen. But it is necessary to recognize that it can happen…. If it does happen, we are familiar enough with the nature of American salesmanship to know that it will be done in the name of the starving millions, in the name of liberty, justice, democracy and brotherhood, and to free the world from communism. We must, I think, be prepared to see, and to stand by, the truth: that the land should not be destroyed for any reason, not even for any apparently good reason.

In the second installment, Berry wrote that “the growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of handiwork.”

But is work something that we have a right to escape? And can we escape it with impunity? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so. All the ancient wisdom that has come down to use counsels otherwise. It counsels us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis—only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.

Thus we can see growing out of our history a condition that is physically dangerous, morally repugnant, ugly. Contrary to the blandishments of the salesmen, it is not particularly comfortable or happy. It is not even affluent in any meaningful sense, because its abundance is dependent on sources that are being rapidly exhausted by its methods. Only to see these things is to come up against the question: then what is desirable?

One possibility is just to tag along with the fantasists in government and industry, who would have us believe that we can pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility and leisure indefinitely. This curious faith is predicated on the notion that we will soon develop unlimited new sources of energy: domestic oil fields, shale oil, gasified coal, nuclear energy, solar energy and so on. This is fantastical because the basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don’t know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil-fuel energy. Nuclear power is presumably now going to be used benignly by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied manpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively too, for the same reasons.

Perhaps all of those sources of energy are going to be developed. Perhaps all of them can sooner or later be developed without threatening our survival. But not all of them together can guarantee our survival, and they cannot define what is desirable. We will not find those answers in Washington, D.C., or in the laboratories of oil companies. In order to find them, we will have to look closer to ourselves.

Berry’s most recent—though hopefully not his last—Nation contribution came in our 2006 special issue on food, guest edited by Alice Waters. Berry noted that recent decades’ surplus of food and money to buy it could soon come to an end, as “most of our food is now produced by industrial agriculture, which has proved to be immensely productive, but at the cost of destroying the means of production.” He decried Americans’ widespread ignorance about food production “endemic to our society and economy,” while hopefully noting signs that “some urban consumers are venturing into an authentic knowledge of food and food production.” Increasing knowledge would create pressure for a change in farming methods, Berry predicted, but was skeptical as to “whether or not it can come soon enough to avert hunger proportionate to our present ignorance.”

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Three years later, one of Berry’s co-contributors to Waters’ forum, Michael Pollan, wrote in an appreciation of “Wendell Berry’s Wisdom” (September 29, 2009) that Berry had

marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants…. To the extent that we’re finally beginning to hear a new, more neighborly conversation between American environmentalists and American farmers, not to mention between urban eaters and rural food producers, Berry deserves much of the credit for getting it started…All those taking part in that conversation, whether in the White House or at the farmers’ market, are deep in his debt.

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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 Right Is Still Setting the Terms of the Debate


The government shutdown is in its third week with no end in sight and there are signs that the United States is closer to the first default in the nation’s history. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

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.

The government remains closed. The unimaginable—default on our national debt—looms, with unknown but foreboding consequence. Tea Party Republicans remain willing to undermine trust in the full faith and credit of the United States in this unnecessary and manufactured crisis. And for some, the impending calamity seems to increase rather than temper their lunacy. At the right-wing Values Voter Summit this week, Representative Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claimed that if Republicans refuse to lift the debt ceiling and the United States defaults, it would be an impeachable offense by the president. Go figure.

In Washington, this folly is measured by poll numbers. Republicans, and particularly the Tea Party, are “losing” because their public approval numbers have plummeted. Republicans are said to have “surrendered,” since they abandoned their threat to default on US debts unless Democrats agreed to defund or delay Obamacare. Now Senate Republicans are offering to reopen the government and fund it at current levels only until mid-January. Supporters of the deal argue that it would allow for negotiations on a real budget before the next harsh across-the-board sequester cuts kick in, but it means that Republicans will use the threat of the sequester—and the next round of the debt ceiling showdown—to exact longer-term cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security benefits.

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Surrender? Any more “victories” like this, and Democrats will end up paying annual tribute to Republican party coffers. If Democrats accept these terms, it will only encourage Republicans to hold the country hostage over and over again.

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: Our Nobel Peace Prize–Winning Writers (and One Editor)


Nobel laureate and Nation writer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. makes his last public appearance at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tenn., on April 3, 1968. (AP Photo/Charles Kelly)

The Nobel Committee announced yesterday that this year’s Peace Prize is going to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, one of many significant international institutions critical to averting the escalation of war, promoting alternatives to military conflict and building a world free of the most dangerous weapons. The committee’s choice this year is similar to its 2005 selection of the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director, Mohammed El-Baradei, of whom we wrote at the time: “One can think of no more deserving winner of a prize for peace than a man who exemplified a clear, sensible, sane alternative to war.” The same could be said of the OPCW today. The sixteen-year-old group ordinarily operates below the radar but has achieved new prominence due to the resurgence of diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria—efforts this magazine has fervently supported.

Since the first prize was awarded in 1901, The Nation has published the writings of over a dozen Nobel Peace Prize winners. Our most famous Prize-winning writer was also, for a time, our most regular: from 1961 through 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. published annual reports on the civil rights movement in The Nation, some of which can be read here. Other Nobel contributions include several by Sir Norman Angell, British co-founder of the anti-militarist Union for Democratic Control (“Leftism in the Atomic Age,” 5/11/1946); an early book review by Elie Wiesel (“From Exile to Exile,” (4/25/1966); and an article by former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt about the perception of the US by the world (“A Revolutionary Republic,” 3/22/1986). More recent Prize-winning contributors included former President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev on the failures of his successor, Boris Yeltsin, and last year’s Comment by three Nobel laureates—Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel—on what they called the “persecution” faced by Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning at the hands of the US government.

In 1946, The Nation had the honor of seeing a former staff editor win the Peace Prize when Emily Greene Balch, who helped run the magazine’s International Relations Supplement from 1918–19, was honored for her work with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, founded in 1915 to build grassroots support against the World War. Balch shared the Prize with YMCA leader John Raleigh Mott.

After becoming one of the first graduates of Bryn Mawr College, Balch studied sociology and economics in Europe. In 1891, at just 24 years old, Balch made her first contribution to The Nation in a long and rigorous dispatch about a new law in France aimed at eliminating regressive property taxes.

Let it be added that the two chief promoters of this reform stand for constituencies which will henceforward have heavier tax-bills to meet, and which may not appreciate the honorable disinterestedness and public spirit of their representatives. But at least these gentlemen and all who have joined in the good work may feel that they have taken their part in freeing France not only from a material cause of distress, but from a reproach to her honor and her justice.

After returning to the United States, Balch joined the faculty of Wellesley College and became a professor of sociology and economics in 1913. When hostilities broke out in Europe the following year, Balch immersed herself in the pacifist effort to keep the United States out of the war, helping to found the WILPF—another prominent leader of which, Jane Addams, would win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

After Wellesley terminated her professorship in 1918 due to her vociferous antiwar activism, The Nation’s pacifist editor Oswald Garrison Villard immediately hired Balch to help reinvigorate the magazine as the standard-bearer of American liberalism and to publicize the antiwar cause.

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She helped edit the new foreign affairs section with future Nation editor-in-chief and publisher Freda Kirchwey and wrote unsigned editorial blurbs for the magazine. Kirchwey’s biographer Sara Alpern has written that Balch was known in the office for “absently nibbling raisins as she read clippings” and for her voracious knowledge of international relations; Kirchwey admired Bluck’s intelligence and courage, calling her “the least self-conscious woman” she had ever met. Differing with Villard’s fervent stance, on anti-imperialist grounds, against the League of Nations, Balch left the magazine in 1919 and joined the Women’s International League full-time. The organization became a major force in the international peace movement and, based in Geneva, still thrives today. When The Nation marks its 150th anniversary in 2015, WILPF will celebrate its 100th.

When Balch won the Nobel in 1946, John Herman Randall Jr., a philosophy professor at Columbia, wrote in The Nation that the selection of its former editor showed that the Nobel Committee, in eschewing its ordinary selections of various statesmen, had “recognized how much private citizens can contribute to the conditions for international peace.” He wrote of Balch:

Never the narrow partisan of a single method, she has always gladly cooperated with organizations of very different shades of opinion, convinced that all are needed in the work of constructing peace and that in a pluralistic and not too centralized movement they can learn much from one another. With her dry and kindly sense of humor, her modesty, her integrity of mind, and above all with that priceless quality of spiritual intensity and vision, she has won the respect of sincere workers for peace everywhere. And in her they have all received recognition.

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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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