Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
“Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary…” —Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
Henry’s jaw would’ve dropped. This morning, for a moment, at least, a higher law—the law of conscience—held sway in Massachusetts.
OK, I know that sounds a bit much. But something truly remarkable, a kind of blessed unrest, took place today at the Bristol County courthouse in Fall River, Massachusetts, where climate activists Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara (Nation readers will remember them from this piece last year) were going to trial for blockading a coal freighter at Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset—using an old wooden lobster boat christened the Henry David T.—for the sole reason of addressing the climate crisis. In what looked to be an unprecedented case in the United States, they were set to be the first to use a “necessity defense” in a direct-action civil disobedience case centered on climate change, arguing that what they did was justified for the sake of public health and safety. James Hansen, one of the world’s top climate scientists, and 350.org’s Bill McKibben, among others, were lined up as expert witnesses.
And what happened, the truly remarkable thing, was this: the prosecutor, Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter, not only dropped the charges (which could have resulted in months, or even years, of jail time); he then proceeded out to the courthouse plaza where he made a statement to the media and to the hundred or more people gathered in support of Ken and Jay. Here’s what he said:
The decision that Assistant District Attorney Robert Kidd and I reached today was a decision that certainly took into consideration the cost to the taxpayers in Somerset, but was also made with our concerns for their children, and the children of Bristol County and beyond in mind.
Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking. I am heartened that we were able to forge an agreement that both parties were pleased with and that appeared to satisfy the police and those here in sympathy with the individuals who were charged.
I am also extremely pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that symbolizes our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to take a leadership role on this issue.
The crowd (myself included) went wild.
Then, if possible, it got better. When the cheering settled down, someone asked. “Will you be a model for across the country?”
“Well,” Sutter said, “I certainly will be in New York in two weeks,” referring to the much-anticipated People’s Climate March on September 21, just ahead of the UN climate summit convened by Ban Ki-Moon. “How’s that?”
The crowd thought that was pretty swell, too.
He added: “I’ve been carrying around Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone”—and brandished the magazine (Jack White and all).
OK, maybe this guy’s running for office.
Still, I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did. A reporter then asked if he was sending a message condoning this kind of action violating the law. He said no, that’s not the message. “I’m sending a message that this was an act of civil disobedience, that we had to reach an agreement. I’m not at all disputing that the individuals were charged, but this was the right disposition, it was reduced to a civil infraction.” (To be precise, there were four charges: conspiracy, disturbing the peace, failure to act to avoid a collision, and negligent operation of a motor vessel. Sutter dropped the conspiracy charges and reduced the other charges to civil infractions. Ken and Jay will also pay $2,000 each in restitution, not fines, to the Town of Somerset).
“Just to be clear,” the reporter asked, “what would you say if people say in fact you’re encouraging other people to blockade tankers?”
“This is one case, one incident, at a time,” Sutter responded. “I think I’ve made my position very clear. This is one of the gravest crises the planet has ever faced. The evidence is overwhelming and it keeps getting worse. So we took a stand here today.”
And so, sometimes we win. It’s a small victory, in the scale of the climate. But it’s something.
Meanwhile, as Ken and Jay are quick to point out, the Brayton Point plant burns on. The announced 2017 closure (which came a few months after their action and a wave of protests they inspired) doesn’t come nearly soon enough—for the climate, or for the plant’s neighbors suffering its pollution.
What’s more, as Ken noted to me in an e-mail, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration, the Brayton Point plant essentially doubled its coal consumption last year, and reduced its use of natural gas, making it the first or second largest source of carbon emissions in New England, New York and New Jersey. And Ken says observed shipments of coal to the plant in recent months were increased over the previous year.
So here’s my message to DA Sutter, should he ever want to run for office as true climate champion: some people may think coal is dying a “natural” (market-driven) death in the Northeast, and therefore not much needs to be done. But if we really want to put an end to coal, we’re going to have to drive a stake through its heart, otherwise it will keep on rising from the grave.
Read Next: Wen Stephenson: “From Occupy to Climate Justice”
Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on CNN’s Reliable Sources Sunday to talk about media coverage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the risk it poses to the United States. During the segment, vanden Heuvel said there’s no question that ISIS wants the United States to overreact and that members of the media are making that more likely to happen. “There is a trivialization—a tabloidization of news coverage,” vanden Heuvel said, “that has infected and affected” the way many outlets cover global issues.
If you want to put your finger on the problem confronting Chuck Todd, who made his much-ballyhooed debut as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, you don’t have to look much farther than the two “fun new features” introduced on the first show.
Todd said the recurring segment called “Who Needs Washington?” will explore politics beyond the Beltway, which this week meant interviews with mayors of cities that are “going it on their own with little of Washington’s help or dysfunction.” The second new feature is “What everyone in Washington knows but is afraid to say.” This week the thought that dare not speak its insight was “what Hillary Clinton’s really up to.”
But maybe what everyone on Meet the Press is really afraid to say is that Todd’s mission is at best inherently self-contradictory: although his new show desperately wants some outsider cred to boost the ratings, it’s not willing to risk its insider status to do so.
Talking to America’s big-city mayors is hardly new—Sunday shows have always been bringing on local pols who claim to be better at governing than the national leaders. And while the very existence of a Sunday Beltway talk show would seem to hinge on telling you what “everyone in Washington knows” and you don’t, as it turned out, neither Chuck nor his panelists had anything new to say about “what Hillary’s up to.” (And since when was anyone in the media afraid to speculate about that? The only fear you smell is their fear of admitting, “I don’t know.”)
As MTP fell from first to third place during David Gregory’s misbegotten reign, NBC brass realized that something was wrong beyond Gregory, but they weren’t sure what. “The show needs more edge,” NBC News President Deborah Turness recently declared. Format changes, she suggested, will include a panel of journalists questioning guests, as the show did in its earlier, better days. “The one-on-one conversation belongs to a decade ago,” she said. “We need more of a coffeehouse conversation.”
So just how edgy or coffeehouse was yesterday’s show? It stuck to a one-on-one interview, of President Obama, but it usefully tweaked the format so that the panel discussion was interspersed with the interview.
But only one panelist conceivably had “edge,” or his visibly tattooed armed did, anyway: Buzzfeed reporter John Stanton, who’s been a guest on Chris Hayes’s and then Steve Karnaki’s Up—a show that’s edgy enough to not broadcast its need for that quality.
But the other panelists included the usual inside-DC suspects and MSNBC stalwarts: Andrea Mitchell, who has her own MSNBC show and is married to former Fed chair Alan Greenspan; The Washington Post’s Nia-Malika Henderson, who pops up on MSNBC to convey the most conventional wisdom in the most conventional way; and Joe Scarborough, now promoted to an “NBC News senior political analyst.” It’s possible that Joe could bring the edge of his sarcastic annoyance as well as coffeehouse demeanor from Morning Joe. But on Todd’s show, Joe wasn’t allowed to play the alpha male, and he was on his best network TV behavior; he even had only nice things to say about Obama.
Try as he might—and he only might—Todd may not be able to escape the safe blandness endemic to network Sunday shows.
The shadow all the NBC anchors are trying to outgrow is Tim Russert’s, who was MTP host until he unexpectedly died in 2008. Russert had a reputation for “gotcha” journalism, in a good way. He’d use the technology of his era—tapes from the archives—to confront a guest: back then you said that, but now you say this. Some guests were rattled, but the show soon acquired a chummy atmosphere—seasoned pols would lean in and say, “You sure are good with those clips, Tim,” and then chuckle through an analysis of spin. “Meet the talking points,” critic Jay Rosen calls the show.
After all, the hosts and producers didn’t want to alienate the guests they’d need to book down the road. Even more, of course, they didn’t want to alienate the corporate sponsors. Corporations advertised on the Sunday shows to influence policy legislated by the target audience of “thought leaders.” The shows were dominated by companies like GE, Northrup Grumman and Archer Daniels Midland, who helped determine what policies and scandal were not talked about on Sunday shows. Yesterday on MTP, Koch Industries ran its big national ad that says, in so many words, they’re so powerful you’re better off working for them than boycotting them.
The idea is that these corporations are above right/left politics, a delusion the news media helps perpetuate by repeating the false equivalency canard that both political sides are equally guilty of any wrong. This Sunday, Todd kept suggesting that it won’t make any difference if the midterm elections result in a Republican or a Democratic senate majority, because gridlock will rule the day. (Obama gave a decent explanation for why that’s crazy.)
In trying to brand the show and himself, Todd has been repeating his own slogan of sorts: “It’s not politics that people hate, it’s that they hate the politicians that don’t know how to practice the art of it.” That sounds plausible, but it also sounds like a reluctance to examine underlying structural issues to focus instead on the personalities of the moment.
In fact, you might say, it’s not Sunday shows audiences hate, it’s Sunday show hosts.
But as Jason Linkins wrote, “A New Host On ‘Meet The Press’ Isn’t Going To Solve Its Problems.” He made a great case for why John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight “beats ‘Meet The Press’ coming and going. The show literally wandered right onto ‘Meet The Press’ Beltway turf and delivered a report [on the nutritional supplement industry] with a sophistication that no Sunday show has pulled off in years.” It wasn’t just the jokes that made it work, but “the show wanted to have a point” and demonstrated a “real respect and genuine concern for their audience, instead of trying to get over by posing as an ‘insider’ operating under a veil of savviness.”
Todd is smart enough to recognize the problem, but to really shake off that toxic insider status, he might consider Jay Rosen’s advice:
I think it would be wise for Chuck Todd to see himself and his colleagues, Washington journalists, as part of the class that has screwed up politics.
And maybe, in taking over “Meet the Press,” he can begin to address some of how that happened.
Congress returns to Washington this week, one month since the shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing police crackdown on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Right away, lawmakers will address one of the many civil-rights issues highlighted by the tragedy: the militarization of local police.
Senator Claire McCaskill will lead a hearing on Tuesday before a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee to examine how police are using the military equipment they get from the federal government, what equipment is really necessary, and gaps in oversight and training.
The hearing will focus on the Pentagon’s 1033 program, which has provided $4.3 billion in surplus military equipment to local police around the country since 1997, as well as grant programs run by the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. According to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the grants have enabled local law enforcement to purchase $34 billion in weaponry since the September 11, 2001, attacks.
How Police Became Soldiers, a new short film from Brave New Films, explains in more detail how small-town cops ended up with grenade launchers, assault rifles and armored vehicles.
Scheduled witnesses for Tuesday’s hearing include officials from the Pentagon, the Department of Justice and the Federal Emergency Management Agency; representatives from the NAACP, the Police Foundation and the National Tactical Officers Association; a professor of justice studies; and a photographer for The St. Louis American who witnessed the police response in Ferguson.
The road from the hearing to legislative action will be a long one, particularly with the midterm election consuming many lawmakers’ schedules and attention. The Hill reports that Republican Senator Rand Paul is considering introducing legislation in the Senate. In the House, Representative Hank Johnson is planning to introduce a bill later this month that would ban the transfer of specific weapons—including grenade launchers and some armored vehicles—through the 1033 program and enforce stricter reporting requirements.
If such legislation were to pass, it would mean that events in Ferguson provoked a real shift in the mindset of lawmakers from both parties. In June the House rejected a similar proposal introduced as an amendment to the defense spending bill by a resounding 355-62.
Even in the Democrat-controlled Senate, the prospects for an overhaul of the weapons transfer program are slim. In an August interview, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said that he thought it should be continued, although with greater oversight. “We have police departments all over the country, including those in Nevada, who are desperate for more resources. And the mere fact that you have the equipment doesn’t mean that you have to use it,” Reid said.
This weekend, President Obama again pushed away the issue of immigration. Despite growing pressure to take executive action to curtail deportations, Obama again swept the lives of millions of immigrants off this fall’s agenda—enraging advocacy groups by heeding his party’s fears of angering right-wing voters before key mid-term elections.
But while politicians dismiss immigration as a third rail, they cruelly ignore the fact that another major election issue, the economic woes plaguing workers, is also an immigration issue.
With Congress paralyzed on immigration reform, Obama has mulled taking some form of executive action to provide deportation relief and work authorization for the undocumented. Obama has already created a template for such a move with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, issued two years ago to provide temporary protection from deportation to undocumented students and military members.
There’s a basic moral imperative to expand the deportation reprieve to the older family members of the youth who qualify for Deferred Action. Right-wingers will no doubt stoke fears that the country will be overrun by hordes of cheap labor. But racist canards about “border security” mask the real injustice at stake. In order for any worker to be fully empowered and protected at work, labor and immigration policy must ensure equal rights across the workforce, including—and especially—the immigrants working the most exploitative jobs.
According to the Center for American Progress, even temporary work permits would help bring more immigrants into the “above ground” economy and “increase the earnings of undocumented immigrants by about 8.5 percent as they are able to work legally and find jobs that match their skills.” A reprieve for immigrants with at least five years’ residency, allowing nearly 10 million people to stay in the United States, “would increase payroll tax revenues…by $44.96 billion over five years.”
But aside from the economic rationale for executive action, the government has, at the bare minimum, an ethical obligation to keep embattled immigrant families intact, by providing relief, at least temporarily, from the threat of forced exile. You can’t calculate the social opportunity cost of living under the terror of detention and deportation.
Since demonizing and marginalizing the undocumented only keeps the workforce segregated, all workers are hurt when employers can skirt responsibility for egregious violations of workers’ rights. And the whole workforce benefits from ensuring that everyone, with or without papers, has an equal right to justice against abuse and discrimination.
Research on low-wage workers in Los Angeles by the University of California–Los Angeles Labor Center reveals that while immigration is linked to precarious labor, the problem is systemic. And the responsibility lies with employers and policymakers.
Labor Center researchers Tia Knoose and Victor Narro explain via e-mail, “Labor violations rates can be influenced by demographic characteristics of the workforce”—for example, immigrants are often much more likely to suffer labor violations compared to native-born workers. However, “such violations are widespread across a variety of demographic categories and in industries and occupations.” Under labor and immigration policies that facilitate exploitation, “workplace violations are the result of employer decisions—whether to pay the minimum wage or overtime, whether to give workers meal breaks, or how to respond to complaints about working conditions.”
A study on California’s construction industry, published by the think tank Economic Roundtable (ERT) with support from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, analyzes a complex system of informal, precarious work that destabilizes every rung of the labor structure—documented, undocumented and native-born alike.
According to researchers Yvonne Yen Liu (a former colleague of the author’s at Colorlines.com), Daniel Flaming and Patrick Burns, informal employment has increased four-fold in California’s construction industry since 1972. Informal workers—those working “off the books” or misclassified as independent contractors rather than formal employees—now constitute about one-sixth of the workforce. Their marginal jobs enable firms to avoid taxes and insurance costs and escape regulatory oversight.
Contrary to stereotypes, the problem is not cheap labor “stealing Americans’ jobs.” It is massive corporate theft, and everyone pays for it. In 2011 alone, “[t]he federal government lost $301 million in taxes.… California lost a total of $473 million, including $264 million for workers’ compensation, $146 million for state disability, and $63 million for state unemployment insurance.” Overall, informal construction workers make just 50 or 60 percent what their formal counterparts earn. The households informal workers support are three times more likely to suffer from poverty.
One worker interviewed in the ERT report, Valentin Perez, recalled getting injured at his drywalling job:
I couldn’t work, because I couldn’t walk. I felt like I had legs made of rubber, with no muscle, but they made me work for a month after my surgery. They said you have to show up or you’ll get fired. They threatened me.
Perez was later fired, but because his job had been misreported, he was owed more than $100,000 in unpaid wages, according to the study. Anemic enforcement of wage laws has left many workers like him stuck in a perpetual labor underclass. UCLA Labor Center’s research shows that even workers who file formal complaints are often unable to recover lost wages.
The prevalence of informal labor is another reason why work authorization alone wouldn’t fully protect low-wage immigrant workers. Although deportation relief would help struggling workers stabilize, to achieve full equity the undocumented need a fully inclusive labor structure. A racially and socially stratrified workforce ensures that many will remain stuck in poverty-wage jobs and vulnerable to abuse. That’s why unions are calling for administrative relief that is not conditioned on a worker’s employment. This way, immigrants who are unemployed or working irregular and casual jobs, such as domestic workers and day laborers, are not further penalized for their precarious economic situation.
A more proactive approach, for example, would be enacting and fully enforcing a comprehensive anti-wage theft law. Or in construction work, instituting a fair floor wage industry-wide, regardless of immigration or employment status. According to the ERT, paying informal and formal workers on an equal wage scale would yield $1.5 billion in economic stimulus, and in turn generate 9,500 new jobs.
When a subset of any labor force is deterred from organizing by the risk of being fired or deported, the boss wins and all workers lose. (This is a tried-and-true tactic that corporations have used to retaliate against immigrant workers who organize or raise grievances). So legal relief is key, but only if it opens up the door to empowerment.
Nadia Marin-Molina, workers rights program coordinator for the National Day Labor Organizing Network, says via e-mail, “Addressing the issue of immigration status would remove one of the key tactics used by employers to destroy worker organizing to change this situation.” But in the long run, “we need more worker organizing, into unions, workers centers, and any kind of organization that will counteract the downward pressure being constantly exerted by employers on wages and working conditions.”
The workers awaiting immigration reform need the ability to work legally, but they also need to be empowered at work. Maybe Washington fears immigration reform not only because it might damage their electoral prospects but because it might set in motion a process of social reckoning. Just imagine if the country’s most dispossessed workers finally got a chance to stand up and lay claim to what they’re owed. Instead of seeing the law as a force of oppression, they’d wield it as a tool for seeking justice.
I was listening to a nationally syndicated sports radio show this morning about the release of the Ray Rice videotape that shows the Baltimore Ravens running back knocking his then-fiancée Janay unconscious in a casino elevator. We, the public, already knew this had taken place. We, the public, already knew Rice had been suspended for a much-criticized two games. We, the public, had not seen the actual physical blow that removed Janay Rice from her conscious self. Now we had, and the fallout was clearly going to be extreme.
The radio hosts posed question after question: What will the NFL do now that the tape has been released? How will the Ravens organization react to this? (Now we know. The Ravens have released Ray Rice.) How will the Baltimore fans who’ve been cheering Ray Rice respond? How will the media—oh, the poor media!—react to having perhaps been lied to about whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had seen the videotape?
The one question they did not glaringly ask is, How will Janay Rice react to the release of the tape? The absence of concern for Janay Rice—in the press, on social media, among my own colleagues—is the most disheartening part of this entire ordeal.
No one cares that she is now going to have to relive this incident over and over again. No one cares that the world has now become privy to what may be the most humiliating moment of her entire life. No one cares that she’s basically now being used as a soapbox with otherwise apolitical NFL commentators using her prone body to get on their high horse and safely blast the league. There is video, and those who never raised their voice publicly about the axis of domestic violence and the NFL before are now bellowing the loudest.
ESPN “NFL insider” Adam Schefter was enraged and called the entire situation “the biggest black eye in league history.” Unfortunate phrasing aside, even the statement speaks volumes. What about every other act of domestic violence in league history that wasn’t caught on videotape? What about the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher two seasons ago actually killing the mother of his child, Kasandra Perkins, before taking his own life? Why are these actions seen as less of a black eye? The answer, of course, is that this one was caught on videotape. In other words, it damages the league’s public relations. In other words, this is—again—not about Janay Rice. It is about the well-being of the league.
So if no one is going to talk about the welfare of the person who is actually subjected to the violence on that tape, let’s talk about it here. I spent the morning communicating with people who work on issues involving domestic violence and violence against women nearly every day of their lives. They all said the same thing, without dissent: releasing this tape to the world is incredibly damaging to Janay Rice. Just as we would protect the name of an alleged rape victim, just as we would not show a video of Ray Rice committing a sexual assault, we should not be showing this video like it’s another episode of Rich People Behaving Badly. If Janay Rice wanted to show this tape to the world, in other words if she had offered her consent, that is a different matter. But showing and reshowing it just because we can is an act of harm.
Tragically, it seems—especially judging by my Twitter feed—that very few people agree with this sentiment. Their belief—and to be frank, this is shared by a lot of people whom I respect—is that seeing the video will shock people, advance the conversation and force action. Even some of the same people saying that nude photo hacks shouldn’t be clicked on are saying people have an obligation to bear witness to what Rice did.
I have serious doubts about this. If you were outraged by violence against women before, will seeing this video really change your mind? If you are not outraged by violence against women, does this video actually make a damn bit of difference? My fear, and this happens whenever you have videos that spark outrage until the next new cycle, is that all it will provoke are the kinds of reactions that don’t necessarily help anybody, least of all the victims. I hear influential people like ESPN’s Mike Greenberg asking the question, “Why isn’t Ray Rice in prison?”
There is no thought given to restorative justice. Only how do we further punish, impoverish and crowd our prisons. As for Janay Rice, she has of course been standing with Ray Rice, even marrying him after the incident. I have no doubt that there are issues there, but they become our damn business only if Janay Rice wants them to be our damn business. I will ask again: What does Janay Rice want, and shouldn’t that matter? If it doesn’t matter, all we are doing is re-victimizing this person one click at a time.
Janay Rice has released a statement on her instagram account about the last 24 hours. She comments on both the release of her husband from the Baltimore Ravens as well on seeing her abuse played and replayed on a loop. People will surely pick her statement apart and make all kinds of judgments about her state of mind in making this statement. They shouldn't. I would ask that people just read it, without analyzing it as if we are all now experts on domestic violence as well as having some kind of voyeuristic insight on the lives of two individuals many had not even heard of 24 hours ago.
"I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I'm mourning the death of my closest friend. But you have to accept the fact that reality is a nightmare in itself. No one knows the pain that the media and unwanted [opinions] from the public has cause my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don't you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow and show the world what real love is! Ravens nation we love you!"
There is another post afterwards that simply reads, "Hurt beyond words."
People by now have surely seen the video. Any site that actually cares about violence against women more than page clicks should take the damn thing down.
The October 20, 1997, issue of The Nation contained a ten-page cover story titled “The Case Against NATO Enlargement,” by Sherle R. Schwenninger, then of the World Policy Institute and now director of the New America Foundation’s Economic Growth Program and American Strategy Program.
Schwenninger argued that the expansion of NATO to the east, as planned by the Clinton administration, would render impossible a lasting peace between Russia and the West. “Rather than establishing the foundation for a mutually agreed-upon security order,” he warned, “ NATO expansion opens the door for future geopolitical rivalry by in effect legitimizing Moscow’s efforts to create its own alliance.”
NATO expansion does little or nothing to insure the cooperation or constraint from Russia that will be necessary to solve these conflicts. Indeed, it provides the opposite incentive: for Russia to compete in those areas not formally part of NATO and to exclude NATO from any involvement in areas of vital Russian interest. Russian nationalists could reasonably ask: Since the NATO-Russia agreement gives Moscow little or no say in its own area of interest, why should Moscow allow the United States to have a say in areas bordering Russia and in its sphere of influence?…
What is worse, NATO expansion threatens to create tensions and conflicts in the heart of Central and Eastern Europe that would otherwise not exist. For example, expansion puts back into geopolitical play most of the nations that are to be excluded from the first round of enlargement, making them again potential objects of renewed East-West rivalry. The Clinton Administration justifies NATO enlargement in part as an effort to avoid a new security vacuum in Central Europe, but even as it removes some countries from East-West competition it only increases the potential intensity of the rivalry over others, like the Baltic states and Ukraine. As NATO expands to include Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the exclusion of the Baltic states from NATO membership and Ukraine from a NATO sphere of influence will become even more important goals of Russian foreign policy.
The Baltic states, of course, joined NATO in 2004.
I spoke with Schwenninger today about how his 1997 predictions of what the consequences of NATO expansion would be have largely come to pass.
Do you feel that recent events have vindicated your essay on NATO expansion?
Substantively the essay stands up well. I was a little surprised The Nation gave me so much space to be so verbose. Space is in much greater demand these days.
NATO expansion negated the possibly of a real peace settlement between East and West, Russia and Europe. It prevented the sort of historical rapprochement that needed to take place, and, in consequence, introduced elements of new historical grievances and mistrust. It created additional security concerns both for Moscow and the West. It fostered uncertainty among those countries that were left out, created new divisions and endless pressures for those it excluded. That dynamic has ebbed and flowed but has constantly emerged and re-emerged over the last fifteen, sixteen years. It could have been avoided.
How does Ukraine fit into the picture?
Ukraine is the perfect example in the sense that NATO expansion created this new dividing line right up to the Ukrainian border. Ukraine then becomes a country that is put into play because of its position between the East and the West, rather than accepting its sort of shared destiny in the center of Central-Eastern Europe. There’s now this constant push, among the more Western nationalist forces in Ukraine, but also among their supporters in the US and Poland, for example, to extend NATO to include Ukraine. This obviously makes Russia highly sensitive to any political developments that may create a crisis affecting Ukraine’s political and economic alignment.
For those forces in Ukraine who don’t want to accept the need for a political-social contract balancing out the concerns of Russian-speaking people in the east and the rest of the country, the possibility of NATO expansion emboldens them to press their case in a bid to gain NATO support. They engage in the kind of reckless aggressive actions you’ve seen members of the new Ukrainian government take, with their so-called “anti-terrorist” operations in the east. It’s an attempt to entirely dismiss the legitimate political concerns people in those regions have about the orientation of the government and the necessity of balancing Western ties with Eastern ties. It is the very dynamic I was worried about in the 1997 piece.
How do your 1997 arguments against NATO expansion relate to the rise of Vladimir Putin, who seems to be getting all the blame—in the mainstream Western press—for the conflict over Ukraine?
One of the observations I made in the Nation article was that after NATO expansion was announced, even Boris Yeltsin—the most pro-Western Russian leader in recent memory, in some ways a weak and, to many Russians, incompetent defender of Russian national interests—even his administration took steps to organize a counter-alliance to NATO. This notion that Putin represents an aberrant nationalist response—that response was already evident even under a much more Western-oriented or compliant Russian regime. I think Putin has been much more organized and has been probably a little more effective in re-establishing the basis of the Russian state, strengthening the Russian military, but nothing he has pronounced is fundamentally different from the initial Russia reaction: that Russia should have some sort of economic organization, some alliance to, in part, to counter NATO and to organize its interests in the former Soviet states.
What should NATO leaders have learned from your 1997 article, and what could they learn today?
They would have allowed NATO to have a more natural passing away and they would have strengthened the pan-European security organizations to ensure that Russia felt it had a path toward having its interests and security concerns recognized. They would have established a framework for much-needed Russian cooperation, which would be useful now, whether on Afghanistan or Iran, or dealing with ISIS and the Islamic extremist threats.
The second thing is that the money that was channeled into military expansion could have been channeled into ensuring that countries like Ukraine had a jointly beneficent—for the East and the West—economic modernization program that would have built a twenty-first-century infrastructure and would have ensured you didn’t have such a sustained period of economic underperformance in the region between Russia and Poland. Instead of fueling speculation about whether NATO should expand to include Ukraine and Georgia, you would have had a neo–Marshall Plan to ensure economic development of that region and construction of a common infrastructure.
More recently, we shouldn’t have been fishing in troubled waters by encouraging right-wing Ukrainians to resort to extra-parliamentary, extra–civil society actions. We should not have immediately recognized what was in a sense a street coup led by Right Sector vigilantes—not that there wasn’t also legitimate protest against Yanukovych, but if you remember, the February 21 agreement essentially called for a fairly sensible transition plan with elections, with Yanukovych to give up office. Instead we had the street coup, which the US immediately recognized, and the rump group in parliament revoking Russian as an official language. The emphasis should always have been on holding accountable those forces in Kiev, to recognize the divided nature of Ukraine, to be sensitive to the diversity of the country and the political sensibilities of those areas that would be open to Russian separatists. It should have been that the US, Europe and Russia would have immediately agreed on a program for political and economic reconstruction, rather than the US emboldening the radical elements within the new Kiev government and encouraging them to settle internal conflict by force. The US should have worked jointly with Russia for immediate conflict resolution, to go back to the February 21 agreement.
Even today, instead of ratcheting up sanctions on Russia we should be welcoming the peace initiatives Putin and Poroshenko worked on at Minsk. The US and Europe should work with Russia to help rebuild the eastern part of the country, to ensure that people can return to their homes, and to secure a lasting cease-fire.
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I really hope there is an “Edward Snowden” in the office of NBA commissioner Adam Silver. I really hope there is someone with a computer and a conscience who can tell us how the Atlanta Hawks franchise has come to be placed on the auction block. If you have missed the story, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson has “self-reported” a 2012 e-mail detailing the tragedy of how there are too many black fans at Atlanta’s home games. He posits that the hip-hop music, the number of black cheerleaders and the “too black” kiss cam is keeping “40 year old white guys” away from the arena. Chastened by his memory of the e-mail, we now hear, Levenson has sent it to the commissioner and agreed to sell the franchise.
If you believe this story, then you might also think that Daniel Snyder just started practicing Native American philanthropy out of the goodness of his heart. There are really only two scenarios that make sense. The first is that, following the expulsion of Clippers owner Donald Sterling after his racism went audio, owners are vulnerable. This e-mail was going to leak, and rather than deal with the firestorm, Levenson is getting out in the off-season.
The second is just a tad more cynical: the Sterling Family Trust just sold the Clippers for 2.4 billion bucks. Levenson has wanted to unload this team for years, even selling it in 2011, only to have the league void the sale. Now, in the wake of the owner-friendly 2011 collective bargaining agreement, NBA teams have seen their values skyrocket. The sorry Milwaukee Bucks went for $550 million earlier this year and Mavs owner Mark Cuban called this “a bargain.” Levenson gets a world of negative publicity, but his e-mail, which includes critiques of Southern whites’ “racist garbage” is ambiguous enough that it’s hardly a Don Sterling or Jimmy the Greek level of nuclear racist invective. In other words, he will still get invited to all the parties. He also probably spurs an NBA sponsored bidding war for his franchise. Maybe some owners think racism can be the new stock speculation, bringing publicity and putting air into the league’s financial bubble.
Either way, the NBA will help him because Levenson writes nothing in the letter that has not been on the front burner for the last twenty-five years. In the late 1970s, as David Halberstam wrote in 1981 book The Breaks of the Game, the powers-that-be in the NBA thought the league was too thuggish, too urban and, in their minds, too black. The dream was to make the league palatable to a stereotypical, upscale suburban audience. New commissioner David Stern, with the help of three players named Magic, Bird and Jordan, did exactly that and sent the league into the global stratosphere. Starting in the post-Jordan late 1990s, this executive racial panic returned with a vengeance. Players were now “too gangsta”. Sportswriters were reaching for their monocles at the sight of these new ruffians. Now Stern was consulting Republican strategist Matthew Dowd on how to give the league “red state appeal.” Then the infamous player dress code was instituted. Allen Iverson’s tattoos were airbrushed off of his skin in a league magazine, and high school players were denied entry into the draft. In addition, the league made a big show of announcing new penalties for marijuana use. This reflected their fears that profit margins would shrink if they did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority black league, all with an eye on the green. (Recommended here: David Leonard’s book After Artest: the NBA and the Assault on Blackness about the sport’s racial agenda in this era).
Levenson expressed those anxieties as clear as day. The most revealing and disturbing part of his e-mail is how many people with whom I have spoken find it to be defensible. This is not only because Levenson also blasts the “racist garbage” of white fans avoiding the team. It is apparently defensible because it is so transparently obvious that this is how the NBA has approached their business for decades. After all, does anyone honestly think that racial calculations were never discussed when Warriors owner Joe Lacob orchestrated his team’s move from Oakland to San Francisco or when the Nets relocated from Jersey to gentrifying Brooklyn? But to defend Levenson on that basis, while accurate, misses the larger point. It is a problem that this has been the NBA’s business plan for thirty-five years. To see it written out is to see in stark terms not just the reality of how owners talk about racial issues related to their business but also to how racism is actually organized in corporate circles.
Please read the entire e-mail. It’s fascinating (spelling errors aside). But here are a couple pertinent passages:
[W]hen digging into why our season ticket base is so small, i was told it is because we can’t get 35-55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league. when i pushed further, folks generally shrugged their shoulders. then i start looking around our arena during games and notice the following:
– it’s 70 pct black
– the cheerleaders are black
– the music is hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the games.…
My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a signficant season ticket base. Please dont get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arean back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around [the arena] yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.
I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleader…, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy… i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black. Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 pct still feels like 70 pet to some whites at our games.”
There is more, but that is the section that demands reading and rereading. This is not just a “random Caucasian” spouting his racial theories, complaining that there is too much hippety hop at the games. This is a powerful CEO with the power to put flesh and bone on those ideas: to give away fewer tickets to poor black kids (something he complains about earlier in the e-mail), to fire cheerleaders who are too black, to make the game prohibitive economically or just unwelcoming to a black audience. Or put another way, to give it “red state appeal.” The fact that the NBA operates this way should not excuse Levenson. Instead, it should shine a spotlight on how widespread this kind of thinking has been in the league’s corporate offices. It should also remind us that racism is often a financial and institutional imperative.
The Senate will wrangle this week over whether to amend the Constitution to allow citizens and their representatives to organize elections where votes matter more than dollars.
The amendment that is being considered is a consequential, if relatively constrained, proposal, which focuses on core money in political concerns but which does not go as far as many Americans would like when it comes to establishing that money is not speech, corporations are not people and elections should not be up for sale to the highest bidder.
Yet it is difficult to underestimate the importance of the debate that will unfold this week. The debate signals that a grassroots movement has established the rational response to a political crisis created by US Supreme Court rulings (including, but certainly not exclusively, the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions) that have opened the floodgates for domination of political debates by billionaire campaign donors and corporate cash.
Organizing and campaigning by citizens—working in conjunction with groups that has never been adequately funded, on a project that has never received a fair share of media attention—has gotten sixteen states and more than 600 towns, villages, cities and counties to demand an amendment. And the Senate is taking that demand seriously enough to propose a fix, to organize a debate and to schedule votes that will provide a measure of the prospects for making a democracy amendment the twenty-eighth addition to the Constitution.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who has proposed a more specific and aggressively worded amendment than the compromise measure that is expected to be considered this week, argues that this Senate debate on the issue of money in politics marks “a pivotal moment in American history.”
Though Sanders would go further than Democratic leaders in the Senate on a number of points, he has joined them in co-sponsoring the amendment by New Mexico Senator Tom Udall that will be debated this week.
The Vermonter understands why this debate is so significant.
It is not because Senate consideration of the issue at this point will lead to the rapid amendment of the Constitution. In fact, no matter what Senate Democrats do, there will not be a sufficient majority in the chamber where a two-thirds vote is required to approve an amendment for consideration by the states. Nor is there any realistic chance that John Boehner will suddenly decide to lead the charge against the corporate campaign spending and billionaire manipulations that bought him the House speakership.
It is not because the amendment that is being advanced now is the amendment that will ultimately be added to the Constitution. Make no mistake, there will be a Twenty-Eighth Amendment; there must be if the American experiment is to survive as anything akin to a democratic republic. As with past amendments, however, this initial proposal for updating the Constitution will likely be altered—with language strengthened or weakened based on the ability of mass movements to place demands for more or less radical change
So why exactly is this a pivotal moment?
Because when a movement becomes sufficiently dynamic to force a Senate debate—after just four years of organizing by groups like Move to Amend, Free Speech For People, Public Citizen, Common Cause, People for the American Way and allied groups at the local and state levels—that debate ought not be seen as beginning or the end of anything. It is a part of a process—an essential teaching moment, an essential organizing moment.
“It’s overwhelmingly clear what the citizenry wants: fed up with a system in which the super-rich and giant corporations are effectively able to buy politicians and policy, the American people are rising up and demanding a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and restore our democracy,” explains Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen. “Whatever happens on (this week), the day is not long off when the 28th amendment becomes the law of the land.”
That’s what Sanders means when he speaks of a pivotal moment.
Millions of Americans are already engaged with the movement to amend the Constitution to get money out of politics—and with the broader movement to address the twin fallacies that money is speech and that corporations should have the same rights as human beings. Tens of millions more are supportive of the struggle. Indeed, polls show there is overwhelming support for the amendment among Americans—73 percent in favor versus 24 percent opposed, according to a new Democracy Corps survey—and that this support crosses all lines of partisanship and ideology.
The Senate debate has the potential to get millions of additional Americans engaged with what Sanders refers to as “the major issue of our time—whether the United States of America retains its democratic foundation or whether we devolve into an oligarchic form of society where a handful of billionaires are able to control our political process by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to elect candidates who represent their interests.”
The fact that the issue is being treated seriously at the congressional level will merge a sense of urgency with a sense of possibility. This could have an impact on the 2014 Senate races; indeed, the Democracy Corps survey found “overwhelming cross-partisan support (73 percent) for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United that can translate into added support for Democratic candidates who support the amendment and damage Republicans who oppose it.”
Significantly, the Senate debate has the potential to influence the outcome of election contests. The Democracy Corps polling memo concluded, “Democratic candidates can gain from supporting this amendment. A 48-11 percent plurality of voters say they are more likely to support the named Democratic candidate after hearing an argument for the proposal. This represents broad support, as the number actually increases among voters under 50 to a 41-point gap and among independents to 42 points.”
Those numbers may explain why Democratic senators who will never be confused with reformers have signed on as co-sponsors of the amendment proposal.
Ultimately, however, the amendment fight must be seen in a broader context than any Democratic political calculus. The movement must attract Republican support for an amendment. And this week’s debate will tell us about the prospects for bipartisanship. Will Republicans who face re-election this year in states where there is strong and well-organized support for an amendment—such as Maine’s Susan Collins, who faces amendment supporter Shenna Bellows—break with their party leadership and back this amendment? In open-seat races, will candidates such as South Dakota Democrat Rick Weiland, an outspoken amendment supporter, find their positions strengthened by an increased focus on the issue?
Constitutional amendments become viable when support for them grows so overwhelming that traditional partisan and ideological boundaries are broken. When this happens, the divide becomes less a matter of Republican versus Democrat or left versus right and more a matter of a broken present versus a functional future.
The corrupt political processes of the moment are not just anti-democratic, they are fundamentally unjust. What former Senator Russ Feingold refers to as a system of “legalized bribery” allows billionaires and corporations to buy more than elections; they buy policies and crony capitalist arrangements that undermine the fairness, the capacity for improvement and the basic stability of America.
There is no question that the arc of human progress is long. But nor is there any question that it bends toward justice. This week’s Senate debate will not produce justice; but it will help to build the movements that are necessary to bend the arc.
Read Next: John Nichols on America's Most Dynamic (Yet Under-Covered) Movement: Overturning 'Citizens United'