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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: Here’s What John Steinbeck Would Have Thought of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers

It is so important, when advocating for social justice, to have the right enemies. It’s a lesson the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have taken to heart, as The Nation’s Lee Fang shows in next week’s issue. Like other alt-labor organizations, the CiW—which has made impressive and promising gains in securing for Florida’s tomato pickers higher wages, safer working conditions, and freedom from sexual, physical and verbal harassment—has been hassled by shadowy operatives and right-wing front organizations funded by the very industry it is trying to reform. Last fall, the spokesperson for an anti-worker group showed up at a CiW rally with a man hoisting a Soviet flag in front of the Immokalee activists, as the spokesperson took pictures. Similarly, as Fang writes, “Picking fights with restaurant workers has been good business for out of work Republican operatives.”

The fight to win decent and humane treatment for farmworkers in the United States is one that, until recently, had made scandalously little progress in the seventy-five years since it first became a topic of national conversation with the publication of John Steinbeck’s novels during the Depression. In 1936, the same year he published In Dubious Battle—about radical activists trying to organize fruit pickers in California—Steinbeck wrote an essay for The Nation in which he described the dire situation faced by Dust Bowl migrants looking for work in California’s fields and directly identified the parties responsible.

There are in California…two distinct classes of farmers widely separated in standard of living, desires, needs, and sympathies: the very small farmer who more often than not takes the side of the workers in disputes, and the speculative farmer, like A.J. Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times, or like Herbert Hoover and William Randolph Hearst, absentee owners who possess huge sections of land…. These two classes have little or no common ground; while the small farmer is likely to belong to the grange, the speculative farmer belongs to some such organization as the Associated Farmers of California, which is closely tied to the state Chamber of Commerce. This group has as its major activity resistance to any attempt of farm labor to organize. Its avowed purpose has been the distribution of news reports and leaflets tending to show that every attempt to organize agricultural workers was the work of red agitators and that every organization was Communist inspired.

Some of Steinbeck’s essay can be read as a précis for The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939. The following passage could be a description of the Joads.

Let us see what the emigrants from the dust bowl find when they arrive in California. The ranks of permanent and settled labor are filled. In most cases all resources have been spent in making the trip from the dust bowl. Unlike the Chinese and the Filipinos, the men rarely come alone. They bring wives and children, now and then a few chickens and their pitiful household goods, though in most cases these have been sold to buy gasoline for the trip. It is quite usual for a man, his wife, and from three to eight children to arrive in California with no possessions but the rattletrap car they travel in and the ragged clothes on their bodies. They often lack bedding and cooking utensils.…

It is fervently to be hoped that the great group of migrant workers so necessary to the harvesting of California’s crops may be given the right to live decently, that they may not be so badgered, tormented, and hurt that in the end they become avengers of the hundreds of thousands who have been tortured and starved before them.

It is interesting to note that Steinbeck’s essay came a few months after Mary McCarthy’s scathing review of In Dubious Battle, from the March 11, 1936, issue of The Nation. She called the novel “academic, wooden, inert…. Mr. Steinbeck, for all his long and frequently pompous verbal exchanges, offers only a few, rather childish, often reiterated generalizations.”

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Of course, the closest farmworkers in the United States came to genuine progress was the movement led by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, which first achieved national prominence in the mid-1960s. It was neither a perfect nor an especially successful movement; as Marshall Ganz recently wrote at TheNation.com: “California farm workers today are in even worse shape than when Cesar’s struggle began. There is no union to speak of any more, nor has there been for years.” Nonetheless, Ganz adds, “The significance of the farm worker movement was quite real for a period of some fifteen years, enhanced by its role as a crucible for training a new generation of organizers who contributed to the progressive movement more broadly, and, in particular, as a spark for the broader Chicano movement.”

In 1978, the UFW initiated a campaign to convince the University of California to set aside for the farmworkers a portion of its research funding devoted to agricultural mechanization, arguing that the university and the state had a responsibility to help out the workers whose lives would be upended by increased automation. In “The Farm Workers’ Next Battle,” in the March 25, 1978 issue of The Nation, Chavez explained his thinking:

History will judge societies and governments—and their institutions—not by how big they are or how well they serve the rich and powerful but by how effectively they respond to the needs of the poor and helpless.

In our boycotts, we always assumed that supermarkets and other corporations must take seriously the needs of society, and especially the needs of the poor, even though they are answerable only to their stockholders for the profits that they earn. We often asked, if individuals and organizations did not respond to poor people who are trying to bring about change by nonviolent means, then what kind of democratic society would we become? And some corporations did respond by joining with millions of Americans in honoring the farm workers’ boycotts.

If corporations and other social institutions can recognize their moral responsibility, how much more should we expect from a great university that is supported by all the taxpayers, including the farm workers, particularly when that university is a direct cause of hardship and misery for the poorest of the poor in our society? It is appropriate for the people to expect that an institution responsible for educating their children will be an example to the young by demonstrating through its policies and deeds its commitment to a just and peaceful world. How can the university teach justice and respect for the freedom and dignity of all people when it practices the opposite with its money and its people by refusing to live up to its own moral and social obligations?

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In a more recent example of The Nation’s coverage of the farmworkers struggle, former Nation poverty correspondent Greg Kaufmann profiled the Coalition of Immokalee Workers—first discussed in The Nation by Mica Rosenberg, a former intern now at Reuters, in “The Trouble With Tomatoes” (April 1, 2002). In his article on “How to Build an Anti-Poverty Movement, From the Grassroots Up,” from this past February, Kauffman wrote:

If you want to see what is possible through grassroots organizing by those who are most affected by poverty—or what it means to set a seemingly unreachable goal and persevere, or understand your opposition and find new ways to challenge it—look no further than the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

When the CIW was founded in 1993, it was as a small group of tomato farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, trying to end a twenty-year decline in their poverty wages. Who is historically more powerless than farmworkers? Yet today, most major buyers of Florida tomatoes have signed agreements with the CIW to pay an extra penny per pound for tomatoes. These agreements have resulted in over $11 million in additional earnings for the workers since January 2011.

In addition, through its Fair Food Program, the CIW has persuaded corporate buyers to purchase tomatoes only from growers who sign a strict code of conduct that includes zero tolerance for forced labor or sexual assault. As a result, the majority of growers (those accounting for 90 percent of the tomato industry’s $650 million in revenue) have agreed to that code. If major violations occur but don’t get corrected—and there’s a twenty-four-hour hotline for worker complaints—corporations will not buy from those growers.

The Fair Food Program serves as a new model of social responsibility, and its influence is clear in the recently signed agreement between retailers and factory owners in the Bangladesh garment industry. Follow the CIW not only to get involved with farmworkers but for a sense of what can be achieved through strategic, fearless organizing.

In the roughly seventy-five years since farmworkers began organizing for their rights, the nature and tactics of the opposition have, in their essentials, never changed. Neither should the determination of the farmworkers’ friends. “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat,” Tom Joad promises his mother in The Grapes of Wrath, “I’ll be there.”

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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.

What Cliven Bundy Learned From the Koch Brothers

Cliven Bundy

Cliven Bundy at his home in Bunkerville, Nevada, April 12, 2014 (Reuters/Jim Urquhart)

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.

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy’s fifteen minutes of fame are up. He was a Fox News poster boy when he refused to pay fees for grazing his cows on federal land and greeted federal rangers with the threat of armed resistance. But when he voiced his views on the joys of slavery for “the Negro,” his conservative champions fled from his side.

What is interesting about Bundy, however, is not his tired racism but rather his remarkable sense of entitlement. His cattle have fed off public lands for two decades while he refused to pay grazing fees that are much lower than those he would have to pay for private land (and lower even than the government’s costs). “I’ll be damned if this is the property of the United States,” he says, claiming he won’t do business with the federal government because the Constitution doesn’t prohibit Americans from using federal lands.

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As we’ve seen in recent years, this sense of entitlement pervades the privileged. Billionaire hedge fund operator Stephen Schwarzman feels so entitled to his obscene hedge fund tax dodge—the “carried interest” exemption—that he viewed Obama’s call to close the loophole as “a war. It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.” Tom Perkins, co-founder of venture capital fund Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, considers mere criticism of the wealthiest Americans akin to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.

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.

Elizabeth Warren Wants to Give Students a Fighting Chance

Elizabeth Warren

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks at the launch of Higher Ed Not Debt, March 2014. (Credit: Layla Zaidane, Generation Progress)

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.

As commencement season approaches, graduating students will soon hear words of wisdom from speakers offering experience, advice and inspiration. One thing they’re not likely to hear about is the $1.08 trillion elephant on the quad—our nation’s student debt crisis.

That is how much US households are estimated to owe in student loans, twice as much as in 2007. In fact, student debt now exceeds credit card debt, putting millions of families at risk of bankruptcy. Forty percent of households headed by someone under the age of thirty-five are saddled with student debt, unable to buy homes, raise families and secure their futures. This doesn’t just hold back individuals—it holds back our economic recovery. Meanwhile, Congress manufactures false debt crises instead of solving this very real one.

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Enter Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat who intuitively understands the urgency and scale of the crisis. Indeed, Warren is not just a longtime student of bankruptcy in the United States, but someone who understands what it means for a family to be at risk of losing everything. As she writes in her new book, “A Fighting Chance,” out today, the rules are such that a sudden event—divorce, illness, unemployment—can pull the rug out from under anyone. “A turn here, a turn there, and my life might have been very different, too,” she writes.

Editor’s Note: Click below to listen to Elizabeth Warren read from the prologue to the audiobook version of A Fighting Chance.

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: Time to Return Earth Day to its Radical Origins

Earth Day 1970

Over 20,000 people attended the first Earth Day observance in Philadelphia, April, 1970. (AP Photo/Bill Ingraham)

Two years ago, Mark Hertsgaard argued in The Nation that “instead of rallying public pressure for far-reaching reforms, Earth Day is becoming, at least in the United States, a bland, tired ritual that polluters and politicians have learned to ignore or co-opt.” He proposed that an effort to “save Earth Day” should be focused on returning the day to its radical origins:

Frustrated by such cynicism, some environmentalists have called for abolishing Earth Day. But that would be throwing the baby out with the polluted bathwater. Instead, why not recall the real history of Earth Day and revive its original—and much more demanding—vision?

Little remembered today is the fact that even the first Earth Day itself, back in April 1970, occurred amidst vigorous internal debate among environmentalists as to whether it represented a genuinely promising burst of ecological consciousness or was merely a crafty diversion on the part of an establishment eager to redirect the energies of young activists away from the more pressing, more sensitive issues of race, poverty and the Vietnam War. In an April 6, 1970 article in The Nation, the Chicago-based journalist Raymond R. Coffey examined how students and professors active at the University of Michigan’s “teach-in on the environment” that March—the precursor to the first official Earth Day the following month—were deeply conflicted about how quickly mainstream politicians acted to co-opt their event.

Ecology has become a very important issue on campuses this season, and this teach-in was the forerunner—a kind of model—for thousands of college and high school colloquia to be held on April 22, dubbed “Earth Day” by the sponsors. The beleaguered environment is the kind of issue, some think, that might capture the idealistic spirit and the concern of young people as did the Peace Corps and Vietnam….

The attractiveness of environment as a political issue is fairly obvious. An uncompromising stand against dirty air and for clean water should win votes, and hardly hits the same mark on the controversy scale as does taking a strong position on Vietnam.

Coffey then quoted several Michigan students who noted that it was precisely the issue’s attractiveness to politicians which ought to given environmental advocates pause.

“I’m uneasy about why we’re here,” [James] Shapiro, a new hero of the New Left told the crowd of 15,000. “I think maybe we’re here to waste our time. I think some people want us to divert our energy…to forget there is a criminal war going on in Vietnam…to forget that 50 million people in a country that put a man on the moon don’t have enough to eat.” …

Barry Bluestone, a graduate student in economics and a veteran of political movements on the Michigan campus, told a reporter that he believes leaders in the political and industrial establishment are deliberately pushing the environment issue “to take some of the force out of the anti-war, anti-racism, anti-poverty issues.” And even [Douglas] Scott, the teach-in co-chairman who has been largely nonpolitical as a student, said many young people suspect their concerns are being diverted by the environment cause.

While conceding that “it was by any reckoning an extraordinary happening,” Coffey wrote that “some of the stunts—such as sledge-hammering an old automobile into junk after convicting it of pollution in a mock trial—seemed on about the level of panty raids, but panty raids with a conscience.” Yet he acknowledged that “much of the activity was a good deal more sophisticated than that.”

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The students’ incipient concerns with Earth Day were reflected twenty years later in a characteristically fiery but sobering essay by Kirkpatrick Sale, later a Nation contributing editor, titled “The Trouble With Earth Day.”

In general the environmental organizations in this country and the official agencies that have grown up in response to them have not, over the past two decades, gotten beyond the most elemental Where-does-it-hurt? questions; certainly they have not raised the deeper, subsequent questions or demanded the still deeper answers. Earth Day 1990, I regret to say, for all its ballyhoo and good intentions, has moved not one step out of that mire….

It is an operation—however well meaning, however many good people involved—that is, at its core, a shuck. For after telling us where it hurts, it gives us only the most simplistic sorts of remedies. Its first is personal “life-style” Band-Aids for hemorrhaging wounds and do-it-yourself surgery; its second is the nostrum of federal laws and regulations, providing the patient with more of the kind of cures that created the disease. And it never gets around to asking—much less proposing answers for—those fundamental questions this society must be forced to face: Who, really, is causing the degradation and destruction of the environment? How can they be stopped, and stopped short, not just “regulated” and “overseen” and reformed? Why has society allowed this to go on, to the point that all oxygen-dependent species, including humans, are imperiled, and why do we seem powerless to prevent it? What would it take to accomplish the serious, wrenching, full-scale readjustments that in fact are necessary to save the earth, including reduced standards of living, consumption and growth; severe population reduction; and a new, modest, regardful relationship with the earth and its species? Who is going to carry this literally vital message to the American people? And when? For the time, as every new crisis lets us know, is later than we think.

But importantly, Sale did not think Earth Day entirely without value, and his conclusions are as valid today, a quarter-century later, as they were in 1990.

However, I do not despair of Earth Day entirely. I belong to three organizations that will be taking part in activities of one kind or another in New York City; I will be participating in a couple of forums and giving a talk during Earth Week; and I will get up early on Sunday to travel out to the middle of Pennsylvania to give another talk on Earth Day itself. It is obviously a time when at least some part of the population will wish to hear messages about the earth, and they need not all be shallow and individualistic.

In short, we must make of Earth Day what we can. Many I know will take the opportunity to criticize it, in a friendly fashion, and to educate when and where they can. Many will regard it as an occasion to organize and recruit for one righteous cause or another. And many will treat it merely as day one of a campaign to carry on with the spirit of Earth Day (or their version of Earth Day) in a more concerted and farseeing way.

Whether in 1970, 1990, or 2014, the most important day to advocate for the Earth is not April 22nd—it’s April 23rd.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

 Take Action: Stop Cove Point

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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.

Earth Day’s Founding Father

Gaylord Nelson

The late Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson (AP Photo/Mark Hoffman)

Gaylord Nelson had been a Democratic senator from Wisconsin for six years when he developed the idea for Earth Day in 1969. Originally conceived as a “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment” at colleges and universities across the country, April 22, 1970, was selected to be the celebration’s first day because it conveniently fell between spring break and final exams on most campuses.

The impetus for creating such an event came to Nelson because, as a student and politician and activist, he’d kept his eyes open. He once described the results of timber exploitation in his native Wisconsin North Woods, writing that loggers had come into the white pine forest and “wiped it out in an eyewink of history and left behind fifty years of heartbreak and economic ruin.” As Wisconsin’s governor between 1959 and 1963, Nelson watched municipalities shower their residents with DDT. Upon becoming a senator in 1963, he wrote to President Kennedy, “There is no domestic issue more important to America in the long run than the conservation and proper use of our natural resources, including fresh water, clean air, tillable soil, forests, wilderness, habitat for wildlife, minerals and recreational assets.”

Three planks of Nelson’s activism stand out. First, and perhaps most important, Nelson actually had an environment for which to fight. That is to say, he was able to experience the pristine majesty of places like the North Woods before the logging trucks moved in. (Today’s younger activists must use a book to picture a pre–Exxon Valdez Prince William Sound, tomorrow’s will need Google to look at the pre–Deepwater Horizon Gulf.) For Nelson, though, the “before” and “after” of environmental degradation sat right in front of him in stark contrast. As our contemporary assault on the environment continues apace, we risk losing any sense of that we might have had of “the way things were,” which breeds cynicism, apathy and further destruction. Across the country—at the irradiated wastelands surrounding Washington State’s Hanford Site, for example—we’re encountering more and more situations in which the best we can hope for is “less awful”—and even that standard is slipping towards “less catastrophic” or “not lethal.”

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Second, the media tools for Nelson’s activism existed. Writers, that is, wrote; activists staged actions; and robust progressive media made sure that the American people knew about it. During his time in state politics—first as a three-term state senator, then as governor—Nelson was inspired by the writer-activist Aldo Leopold, whom he met and whose Sand County Almanac (1949), today part of the canon along with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), motivated his conservation initiatives. He developed the idea for the National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment after reading an article in Ramparts magazine about the inroads that teach-ins about the Vietnam War were having, an example of the importance of ideas that progressive media (like The Nation) can engender, provided they have a clear voice and dedicated audience. Progressive ideas flourish in the presence of other ideas; cross-pollination, like Nelson’s brainstorm to apply antiwar techniques to the environment, is necessary to ensure a continuous evolution of thought and dialogue.

Finally, Nelson recognized the power he commanded as a US senator. He was, after all, an insider, part of the most exclusive club in America, and he used his power to leverage the federal government into action. As evidenced by the legislation he sponsored—including the creation of a national hiking trails system and the Wilderness Act of 1964—Nelson conceived of the US government as a facilitator of, for lack of a better term, the pursuit of happiness promised in the Declaration of Independence. When it comes to saving the environment, the pluck and intellect of a handful of inspired actors are not enough. Nelson recognized that only the federal government had the wherewithal to create a true national framework for conservation; this was not something that well-funded private enterprise (which lacked the motivation) or well-meaning activism (which lacked the funding) could do on their own. Unlike today’s government-is-the-problem attitude espoused by too many lawmakers, Nelson rightly saw that, at least in this case, government was one of the few players capable of creating a solution.

Read more of The Nation's special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Christopher Hayes: The New Abolitionism
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Mychal Denzel Smith: Racial and Environmental Justice Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dan Zegart: Want to Stop Climate Change? Take the Fossil Fuel Industry to Court
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
John Nichols: If Rick Weiland Can Say “No” to Keystone, So Can Barack Obama
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Peter Rothberg: Why I'm Not Totally Bummed Out This Earth Day
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels

Take Action: Stop Cove Point

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Here’s the Backstory on Marx and Marxism in Our Pages

The tomb of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetary

The tomb of Karl Marx at Highgate Cemetary in London, England. (Creative Commons/vintagedept)

In this week’s issue of The Nation, Timothy Shenk discusses the revival of Marxism since the financial collapse of 2008. For many who achieved political consciousness and intellectual maturity only after the heralded “end of history” in 1989, Marxism is often seen as offering an important analysis of the causes and consequences of the unprecedented upward redistribution of wealth and power, in this country and throughout the world, which began several decades ago and, despite the crash, continues apace today. Unburdened by the intellectual psychodramas of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, disappointed by President Obama, and galvanized by Occupy Wall Street’s scathing moral critique of inequality, millennials, Shenk writes, comprise “an audience primed for lectures on the contradictions of capitalism.”

Shenk’s essay is a review of the socialist quarterly Jacobin, Thomas Piketty’s magisterial bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century and new books by editors of n+1, but it begins with a sweeping history of capitalism and socialism since the early days of what eventually became known as the Industrial Revolution. Another way to map the rises and falls in the popularity and promise of revolutionary socialism is to take a tour of The Nation’s writings on Marx and Marxism, the substance and tone of which tended to shift with the larger political, cultural and economic tides.

Our first reference to Karl Marx was in a series of special dispatches published in August 1878. Friedrich Kapp, a German jurist and journalist who emigrated to the United States in 1850, was a frequent contributor to The Nation on German politics beginning in 1865, the year of our founding. In his three-part 1878 series, “Socialism in Germany,” Kapp expressed admiration for Marx’s intellectual gravitas: “Remarkable by his indefatigable industry and the thoroughness of his studies as well as by the wide range of his researches and the philosophical and critical turn of his mind, he ranks among the first scholars of the time.”

For Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, Kapp had more ambiguous praise.

His work distinguished itself as well by the fullness of its details and the boldness of its reasoning as by its bitter attacks on the manufacturing classes, and made a deep impression in Germany. The brilliant qualities of this man, however, are overshadowed by a reckless, domineering spirit, an insatiable ambition, and an intolerant character which blackens, vilifies, and, if possible, destroys everything and everybody in its way.

With many conservative commentators then and since, Kapp believed he saw the seeds of totalitarianism in the bud of the communist ideal.

He who does not believe implicitly in Marx, or who dares to have an opinion of his own, is doomed, driven out of the church, and denounced to the Philistines as a “bourgeois,” as a spy, as an “agent-provocateur”…Like all founders of new creeds, Marx knows only obedient tools and blind admirers, and has but few friends.

Kapp then summarizes for Nation readers “the gist of the first volume of Marx’s work”:

The enormous power of accumulated capital cannot be done away with, the world cannot return to a patriarchal state of things; but, nevertheless, the misery of the working-classes can no longer continue. Marx proposes as a remedy that all means and tools of production, ground and soil as well as raw materials, should be handed over to society at large, that all trades and professions should be carried on by it for the benefit of all—or, in others words, that private property be abolished.

Kapp, for the record, disagreed: “In my opinion, he is wrong in calling all labor the sole source of the value of a thing, while in fact it is only that labor which satisfies the human wants, and I will add that in order to perform such useful labor capital in some shape or other is required.” Without the profit motive all industry ceases: then as now, a common enough refrain.

The Nation more or less lost sight of Marxism—if not socialism more generally—for several decades, under the influence of conservative editors like the literary critic Paul Elmer More. “Those who have kept in touch with the Socialistic literature of the past ten or fifteen years,” wrote the once and future Wall Street Journal editor T.F. Woodlock in October 1913, “are familiar with the extent of the destruction wrought in the Marxian structure by the irresistible logic of hostile facts.” The book under review, Woodlock suggested, “almost gives one the impression of slaying the dead: fairer, perhaps would it be to say that it, decently and in order, inters the corpse.”

The Russian Revolution, of course, was less than four years away.

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By the 1920s, The Nation was under the editorship of Oswald Garrison Villard, who, though not a socialist, was the embodiment of principled left-liberalism in his day and welcomed contributions from socialists and communists in the magazine. (Norman Thomas, later the six-time Socialist candidate for president, was briefly its associate editor early in the decade.) In May 1929, the labor journalist Benjamin Stolberg reviewed Otto Ruhle’s biography of Karl Marx, just months before the stock market crash that would breathe new life into American Marxism. Stolberg wrote that socialism had already had a much deeper impact in the United States than it was generally credited with. “Without the Marxian base the social metabolism even of American labor would be unthinkable,” he wrote. “Think away social democratic doctrine and only a fabulist could write the story of American labor or even the tale of the simplest strike.” Of Marx himself, Stolberg wrote that “in the minds of even intelligent Americans Marx is a sort of economic Dr. Caligari, a fantastic German savant.” His influence was as undeniable as it was misunderstood: “The shadow of Marx on the American scene is phantastically transmogrified, but to deny its darkness is insensitive.”

In 1932, the same year his Depression travelogue The American Jitters was published, the literary critic Edmund Wilson contributed an essay to The Nation’s ongoing series, “What I Believe.” (Other contributors to the series included Bertrand Russell, Beatrice Webb and Conrad Aiken.) “So far as I can see,” Wilson’s essay vividly began, “Karl Marx’s predictions are in process of coming true.”

The great advantage, the great superiority, of Marx over other economists was due not to his being more learned or more expert and managing statistics, but to his psychological insight. People talk about economics as if it were a science of the behavior of money, and as if dollars and cents were entities which had an independent existence and obeyed laws of their own, like electrons. The truth is that economics is merely the study of how people behave about money, and Marx, though he possessed the true scholar’s temperament and had all the statistics at his fingertips, never lost sight of this fact. His great strength lay in his imaginative grasp of human history; and the real “laws of capitalist production” of which he writes are merely the instinctive workings of human acquisitiveness, selfishness, and self-deception—the all but universal instinct to sweat, bleed, and keep down other people whom we happen to have at our mercy, and either to rationalize our predatory acts as policies adopted for the public good or to manage not to know about them at all. This is the kind of idea that one comes by, not by mathematical calculations, but by looking steadily and deeply into one’s heart; and this is something that few are able to do and remain to tell the tale. But Marx, like the other great Jewish prophets, was one of those who were able to do it, and it is to this that he owes his great authority. And the place to study the present crisis and its causes and probable consequences is not in the charts of the compilers of statistics but in oneself and in the people one sees.

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It is a testament to the openness of The Nation’s pages as well as to the turmoil of the times that in the magazine’s archives one can find odes to Marxism and attacks on Marxism written by the same author only a few years apart. Thus in 1933, the philosopher Sidney Hook proclaims in “Marxism—Dogma or Method?” that it is “the first truly international movement in culture and politics.” But Hook, even before his subsequent turn to strident anti-communism, was an internally dissident Marxist. He wrote in the 1933 essay:

Unfortunately some American intellectuals going leftward have fallen over each other in their efforts to be “orthodox” Marxists. They have swallowed the jumble of mysticism and mechanism which is called “objective science” without stopping to settle the intellectual difficulties which they themselves raised only yesterday. This is unworthy both of Marxists and intellectuals. To be a Marxist demands a long and critical discipline; and to be an intellectual means to judge a conclusion by the quality of the arguments advanced in its behalf. The subject matter of Marxism is not the whole universe, and its method is not the method of authority. Nor does it profess to have the final truth about what it does concern itself with—the theory and practice of social revolution. It is neither dogma, myth, nor objective science, but a realistic method of class action.

The following year, one of those intellectuals Hook was referring to, Max Eastman, reviewing a book by the libertarian socialist G.D.H. Cole called What Marx Really Meant, quipped that he had thought Sidney Hook “went as far as a sense of humor would permit in pouring new wine into the old Marxian bottles.” Cole, Eastman thought, had managed to go even further. But by 1940, in a review of Hook’s book Reason, Social Myths, and Democracy, the great theologian and Nation contributing editor Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that Hook “extends previous criticisms [of Marxism] so far beyond their earliest proportions that the progress of his thought may be described as moving from heresy to apostasy.” Interestingly, by the 1950s Eastman, Hook, and Niehbuhr were all members of the CIA-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist advocacy organization.

One of the most dramatic specimens of the type was Lewis Fraina, who helped found the American Communist Party in 1919 before falling out with its leaders. He re-emerged in the 1920s as Lewis Corey, a non-communist socialist writer, but in the Depression, like so many other left-wing intellectuals, grew closer again to the Party. In a three-part series in The Nation in 1935, “The Crisis of the Middle Class,” Corey devoted an essay each to capitalism, fascism and socialism. In the final installment, Corey wrote, regarding fascism, that “the answer to the new barbarism must be a new Enlightenment, whose elements are provided by Marxism: the perceiver a new world and its creator.”

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But in the late 1930s, and especially after the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, Corey—again, like many leftists—undertook a painful re-evaluation of his former deeply held beliefs. In another three-part series, “Marxism Reconsidered,” Corey attempted to reconcile his recent disillusionment with his prior ideals: “History has played one of her stupefying tricks: for it is now clear that democracy is on the defensive as much against the totalitarianism of Russian communism as against that of fascism. And since socialism without democracy is a monstrosity, socialism too is on the defensive.”

The bitter admission must be made that all variants of Marxism, “revolutionary” and “reformist,” meeting the pragmatic test of history, have revealed fatal shortcomings. Diehard sectarians will argue that Marxism never had a chance because it was always distorted or betrayed, just as diehard liberals argue that capitalism never had a chance; but the sectarian argument is self-answering since it means that all Marxists are distorters or betrayers except the newest crop of simon pures, and that is exegetical madness. Yes, all variants of Marxism are a failure….

We must accept and reject, unlearn, relearn, and learn anew regardless of vested interests in old activity and ideas. A new language and a new approach are necessary: the abandonment of ideas, phrases, procedures which are now meaningless or have come to mean the opposite of what we thought they meant. All this means a cooperative job of charting new departures and directions in the struggle for a desirable social order.

“We must make an approach to Marx that freely accepts or rejects his ideas, regardless of the systematic strait-jacket, fit the accepted ideas into today’s climate of opinion and needs, and go beyond Marx to new explorations and syntheses,” Corey concluded. It is a strikingly similar point to that which Shenk makes in his review essay this week:

Reflexive grasping at the language of the past, vividly displayed in the Marxist resurgence, brings a sense of order to what would seem like chaos. But a more promising alternative might be on the way. Marxism is one kind of socialism, but history suggests a much richer set of possibilities, along with same grounds for hope. So does a work like Capital in the Twenty-First Century—a sign that another lost tradition, the postcapitalist visions in abeyance since the 1970s, could be poised for a return; or, even better, that we might put aside old pieties and chart our own path.

* * *

The Nation’s interest in Marx and Marxism again ebbed for several decades after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, when Cold War–era debates rendered theoretical discussion somewhat beside the point. By the early 1970s, however, the impact of the New Left and a growing academic interest in Marxism brought discussion of the man and his theory back to The Nation’s pages. It is undoubtedly significant that two separate book reviews—one from 1971, by Michael Harrington, and one from 1975, by Bernard Johnpoll—were published with exactly the same headline: “I Am Not a Marxist, I Am Marx.” (The 1975 review has a dash instead of a comma.) The phrase, adapted from a letter Marx wrote to two French socialists he accused of “revolutionary phrase-mongering,” obviously struck a chord in the United States of the 1970s. As Johnpoll wrote:

Because Marxism has become significant in our time, Marx—the man and his ideas—has become obscure. As Marxism has become more operative, Marx has become less understood. He was at bottom a philosopher who dabbled in economics and politics; his primary interest was analytical, not prescriptive. Marxism, on the contrary, has been from the start purely economic and political. It purports to be rooted in Marx’s analysis and methodology, but by the nature of its interests it is virtually precluded from having an integral relationship with the ideas of its patron saint: politics and economics are institutionally pragmatic; philosophy necessarily directs itself to broader considerations. Thus all that is left of the philosophy of Marx, in this era of Marxism, is myth.

Among the most astute interpreters of Marx in recent decades was the late Marshall Berman, professor of political theory and urban studies at the City University of New York, who began contributing to The Nation in the late 1970s. In a book review from January 27, 1979, “Marx: The Dancer and the Dance,” Berman wrote of “an apparition [that] floated by me on Upper Broadway not long ago: a girl in a red T-shirt that displayed, on and around her breasts, a group of Karl Marxes, about four or five of them, in a semicircle, arms linked, smiling broadly, kicking their legs high in a rousing dance.” Intrigued, Berman concluded that “today’s Marxes have kept in touch with their youthful romantic visions of politics as dancing.”

We should be able to see, now, how absurd it would have been for Marx to finish his great work: how can Capital end while capital lives on? To stop simply and abruptly, rather than create an ending, preserves far more of the truth that Capital has to tell: circling, spiraling, plunging one way and another, turning in upon himself, seeking endlessly for new axes to turn on, Marx kept his thought and his work as open-ended, and hence as resilient and long-lived, as the capitalist system itself. This is why we are still only beginning to explore the depths of Marx’s thought: why he speaks to us in a voice fresher than ever today; why he will be dancing up Broadway when we are all dead…. Once we can feel the depths of Marx’s solitude and his need for connections with people and life, we will appreciate his achievement in creating real bonds between man and man. In the depths of Marx’s spirit, we can nourish our own.

Almost twenty years later, in a review of Verso’s republication of The Communist Manifesto on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, Berman assessed the state of Marxism after the fall of the Soviet Union:

What happened to Marx after 1917 was a disaster: A thinker needs beatification like a hole in the head. So we should welcome his descent from the pedestal as a fortunate fall. Maybe we can learn what Marx has to teach if we confront him at ground level, the level on which we ourselves are trying to stand….

The nineties began with the mass destruction of Marx effigies. It was the “post-modern” age: We weren’t supposed to need big ideas. As the nineties end, we find ourselves in a dynamic global society ever more unified by downsizing, de-skilling and dread—just like the old man said. All of a sudden, the iconic looks more convincing than the ironic; that classic bearded presence, the atheist as biblical prophet, is back just in time for the millennium. At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were workers who were ready to die with the Communist Manifesto. At the dawn of the twenty-first, there may be even more who are ready to live with it.

Those, indeed, are prophetic words.

Read Next: Tom Hayden: “Is This the Moment to Normalize US Relations With Cuba?

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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.

Researched by and written with Richard Kreitner.

For Now, Diplomacy Defuses Ukraine Crisis

Geneva, April 17, 2014

Quadrilateral talks to resolve the crisis in Ukraine begin in Geneva, April 17, 2014. (Reuters/Jim Bourg)

They say truth is the first casualty of war. In the escalating conflict in Ukraine, we’ve seen nuance and complexity—the stuff of which real history is made—ignored, marginalized in favor of us-versus-them bluster and nationalistic posturing. This is a dangerous sort of “dialogue” to witness. As each side continues to willfully misinterpret the other, a vacuum is forming in the diplomatic space where reality, comprehension and cooperation ought to be, and as tension continues to mount, so too does the risk of war. Make no mistake about it, we are on the verge of civil war in Ukraine, and possibly the start of an even larger conflagration—perhaps even a proxy war between the United States and Russia.  

“Misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred need to be urgently countered,” urges a UN human rights report. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights elaborates, “Facts on the ground need to be established to help reduce the risk of radically different narratives being exploited for political ends. People need a reliable point of view to counter what has been widespread misinformation and also speech that aims to incite hatred on national, religious or racial grounds.”

And what might that “reliable point of view” convey to us? What might we learn from a sober reflection on recent and not-so-recent history? First, that every actor bears some responsibility for today’s crisis. Starting with the Clinton administration in the nineties, Stephen F. Cohen has written here, “the US-led West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia.” Since 1999, NATO has expanded eastwards to include much of the former Warsaw Pact, including the three former Baltic Republics that directly border Russia. Given that, we shouldn’t be surprised when Putin reads recent history as two decades in which the US has been “trying to drive us into some kind of corner.” And for its part, the EU has been unable to imagine an independent, nonaligned Ukraine, rejecting Putin’s “tripartite” arrangement offered to Ukraine last November and demanding that a junior-partner Kiev look to either Brussels or Moscow for stability—but not neither and not both.

Sadly, too much of the US media has decided to push the Cold War Redux angle of the story, trotting out hawkish analysts and using the time-honored tradition of invoking the A-word (“appeasement”) to stigmatize anyone who sees things slightly more sanely. As a result, American viewers and readers are not only getting but one side of the story, they’re also getting the most extreme and least nuanced version of that side. This is dangerous. History tells us Ukraine is a deeply divided country. The West cannot shut Russia out via escalating, “crippling” sanctions, even as the White House and a cross-partisan coalition of hawks call for such. (It is reckless folly that hawks like John McCain call for the West to arm Ukrainians.)

A political, economic or cultural severance between Ukraine and Russia would be devastating, especially for the Ukrainian working class. More than one-quarter of Ukrainian exports head to Russia, and more than one-quarter of Ukrainian imports come from Russia. To use this relationship as a political football is to risk plunging the Ukrainian economy into crisis, with most of the effects of that crisis then falling on working Ukrainians.

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As four-party talks begin on Thursday in Geneva, it is to be hoped that the emphasis is on diplomacy and cooperation; the drumbeat of war will only make it more difficult for a territorially unified, viable Ukraine to emerge. Nor can we accept a “solution” that is imposed upon Ukrainians by Europeans or Americans. The $27 billion lifeline given to Ukraine by the IMF, for example, comes with the attached strings of onerous austerity measures. (It is ordinary Ukrainians, for example, who will suffer the most under the new austerity measures as the floating national currency is likely to push up inflation, while spike in domestic gas prices will impact every household. Under the IMF conditions Kiev has to cut the budget deficit, increase retail energy tariffs and shift to a flexible exchange rate.) Amid the bluffing, pandering and posturing, it’s easy to forget that the lives, and livelihoods, of some forty million Ukrainians are at stake—and that these are the people in whose interests the US, EU and Russia are obliged to act.

It would be in the security interests of all if the four-party talks proceeded with negotiation roughly along lines of a stripped-down version of what Russia proposed a month ago: an end to NATO expansion to Ukraine and former Soviet republics; an agreement for a new federal constitution, agreed to by both East and West and with Ukraine remaining one state; and maintenance of the trading-partner relationship between Ukraine and Russia, regardless of which way—if any—Ukrainians decide to “lean.” And one proposal is also worth considering: bringing in UN peacekeepers during Ukraine’s next election (in which Ukrainians vote for Parliament and president, not just president as is currently planned).

These are times when we need fewer assertions, fewer definitive answers. We need more diplomacy, not less. The opportunity costs we’d pay for an armed Ukrainian adventure—failure to stem the arms race, failure to resolve the crisis in Syria, failure to engage Iran on nuclear issues—are too great. It’s important to recognize that the future of nations is rarely, if ever, determined by the intervention of outside actors. It’s not necessary for the US/NATO/EU to line up Ukraine as “one of us”; the same goes for Russia. Ukraine should be an independent player, nonaligned and not burdened by onerous conditions or threats made by outsiders who’ve chosen Ukraine as the place to wage an East-versus-West proxy battle.

Read Next: Stephen Cohen considers the worst-case scenario in Ukraine.

Climate Change Is Here—It’s Too Late for Pessimism

Runge reservoir in Chile

The Runge reservoir in Chile has suffered severe droughts in recent years. (Reuters/Ivan Alvarado)

More disturbing than any horror movie, Showtime’s Years of Living Dangerously, a nine-part series about climate change that premiered last night, is essential viewing. The series documents the far-reaching consequences of climate change, and nothing, we’re shown—no person, no industry, no institution; no job, no religion, no nation—is exempt from the effects of climate change.

Living Dangerously is the latest environmental klaxon, bringing together star power (The premiere episode opens with Harrison Ford flying a reconfigured-for-science fighter plane to gather pollution data), money (James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Weintraub are executive producers), and smarts (The Guardian calls the series’s experts “the best science team you could imagine”). Like Showtime’s last serial documentary, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, in which historical revelations practically guaranteed that viewers would emerge boiling mad about how the twentieth century unfolded, Living Dangerously will make you boiling mad about the climate calamity that awaits us in the twenty-first.

But that’s sort of the point. This is must-see TV, and in just the first ten minutes, you’ll hear enough pessimistic quotables to fill this entire post. It’s hard to ignore that pessimism. “The world is going to be suffering in a lot of ways from this physical reality for a long time to come,” NASA scientist Laura Iraci tells Ford. Note that there’s no conditional in her warning. Our environmental crisis has progressed beyond “might” and “probably” to “is” and “will.” Dahr Jamail outlined this awful inevitability here in December. Ford, while looking at frightening data and satellite imagery at a NASA lab in Northern California, asks, “This is actual data, not a projection?” The devastating answer, courtesy of Dr. Rama Nemani, is a simple “Yes.”

As Don Cheadle, another participant, points out in the episode, climate change is engendering yet another “Two Americas” situation—namely, those (primarily coastal) who are genuinely concerned about the crisis, and those who aren’t, despite the very real effects climate change is having on their communities (representatives of whom Cheadle finds in Texas). Living Dangerously is a necessary tool to address this disconnect, to make plain the connections between deforestation in Indonesia and job losses in American agriculture, between record heat and mothballed factories. The days of resignation, of chalking things up to acts of god, to “how it’s always been,” are over, the series explains; we, as citizens of the planet, need to act.

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Yet despite the doomsday scenarios described, the series is itself an article of hope. It’s easy to look at the numbers, read the analyses and draw the conclusion that, in fact, all is lost, that there’s no point in even making an effort. (“Imagine, Harrison, that Fargo, North Dakota, is like Phoenix,” says Google Earth’s Rebecca Moore while looking at a map of projected high temperatures in the United States in 2100.) But there’s Ford, headed to Indonesia to investigate the palm oil industry; there’s Cheadle, investigating parched ranches in New Mexico and a company town in Texas that’s lost its company. Thomas Friedman appears to connect the dots between the worst drought in modern Syrian history and the nation’s descent into civil war.

As the series progresses, a team of actors, activists and journalists will lead viewers through a series of reports and dispatches from around the world. In two episodes, for example, Nation contributing editor and former Washington editor Chris Hayes files reports about Superstorm Sandy and rising ocean levels. On his show on MSNBC, Hayes noted the necessary immediacy of the series: climate change, he says, “is not some future thing. This is it 2014. It is here now. You can go to these places and see it.”

We need this kind of visible activism. Denial, resignation and despair are not options. By bringing together actors, scientists, journalists and philanthropists, Living Dangerously provides a necessary spark, not just to get a conversation going, but also to put a fire underneath those who have it in their power to make changes commensurate to the scale of the crisis.

Read Next: Brentin Mock: “Who’s Really to Blame for the Ravages of Climate Change?

Thanks to Republicans, the World Just Got a Little More Dangerous

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin

Barack Obama meets with Vladimir Putin during the June 2013 G8 Summit in Northern Ireland. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Thankfully, US-Russia cooperation on nuclear security will continue—for now. Since 1993, the United States has spent $1.6 billion on Cooperative Threat Reduction (known as the Nunn-Lugar pact), a program designed to increase safety and security at nuclear and chemical-weapons facilities of former Cold War antagonists. But last June, the pact expired after twenty years, and despite pledges from the Obama administration that work would continue “unfettered,” recent events in Ukraine have introduced enough friction into the relationship to cause alarm.

Cooperative Threat Reduction includes treatment of nuclear and radiological material and facilities, as well as efforts to destroy chemical weapons and keep smugglers from secreting weaponry across the Russian border. The necessity to stay on top of this delicate—in every sense of the word—work cannot be understated. Paul Walker, international program director of the environmental security and sustainability program of Green Cross and Global Green, expressed concern about Russia’s ability to safely deal with its chemical and nuclear arsenals without US assistance quite bluntly. “I worry about the Russians going off on their own and making some unintentional mistakes, having some accidents,” he said. Unfortunately, unintentional mistakes and accidents have been part of both the Soviet and American nuclear programs since the Manhattan Project.

Though unrecognized as such, one of our most critical human resources—if not the most critical—is the carefully maintained control of the world’s nuclear arsenal. The idea that “control” is a resource, and not a state of being, is born out in Eric Schlosser’s magnificent Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety, a comprehensive chronicle of American atomic weapons since 1945. Control, Schlosser demonstrates, proves to be a fleeting concept, something that can be reached for, and sometimes temporarily harnessed (in a treaty, for example), but never fully realized. Indeed, “The search for stability was inherently destabilizing,” summarizes The New Yorker in a review, with each advance in safety matched—and more often than not superseded—by a corresponding development in technology or strategy that rendered the safety benefit moot.

So we should be alarmed to discover that nuclear safety has become a bargaining chip in the ongoing US-Russia-Ukraine situation. Amidst hawkish bluster from House Republicans, some of our lawmakers seem hellbent on ensuring that suspicion and instability—along with unintentional mistakes and accidents—remain an integral part of the nuclear age.

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On April 8, Representatives Michael Turner (R-OH) and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Buck McKeon (R-CA) introduced a bill that, among other things, prohibits “the contact, cooperation or transfer of technology between the National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA] and the Russian Federation until the Secretary of Energy certifies the Russian military is no longer illegally occupying Crimea, no longer violating the INF treaty, and in compliance with the CFE treaty.”

Engendering nuclear instability by using safety as a stick is an incredibly reckless way to approach global security, and the difference between congressional GOP chest-thumping and the precious-bodily-fluids paranoia of Dr. Strangelove’s Gen. Jack D. Ripper is one of degree, not kind. As Schlosser and Strangelove director Stanley Kubrick make clear, when it comes to atomic weapons, no state with nuclear capability will ever cower and retreat to a more cooperative position when threatened with nuclear attack. Intimidation and braggadocio yield only more intimidation and braggadocio, which in turn yields recklessness, instability and, ultimately, catastrophe. To make the NNSA’s work subject to the political ebb and flow of an immediate crisis such as that in Ukraine is utter folly. We cannot afford to relive the last seventy years of our nuclear history.

Read Next: Nation in the News: A Diplomatic Resolution to the Crisis Over Ukraine Is Still Possible.

It’s Time the CIA Gets Some Serious Oversight

Senator Dianne Feinstein

Senator Dianne Feinstein at the US Capitol on March 11, 2014. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Every once in a while, the CIA’s “Because I said so” club lets loose with a bit of preposterous condescension that reminds us why, along with extraordinary rendition and drone strikes, we’re also a nation of transparency and checks and balances. In this case, the crowing comes from Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., former head of the CIA’s National Clandestine Service and the administrator of that agency’s post-9/11 enhanced interrogation (i.e., torture) program. We shouldn’t believe the “shocking” results of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation, Rodriguez says, especially those that lay bare the lies and exaggerations promulgated by the CIA and the ineffectiveness of the program itself.

Why not? Because Rodriguez was there, and you weren’t. Never mind that Rodriguez hasn’t actually read the report, or the fact that CIA-sponsored torture isn’t a yoga class, so “being present” doesn’t really count as the endeavor’s ultimate objective. And never mind the findings of the “Internal Panetta Review,” conducted by the CIA, that, according to Senator Feinstein, “documented at least some of the very same troubling matters already uncovered by the committee staff—which is not surprising, in that they were looking at the same information.”

If we ever want to know the truth about what atrocities were committed by our government in our name under the umbrella of the “Global War on Terror,” then we need to not only conduct investigations into them but also release the results—however sickening they might be—with as little redaction as possible. We need to re-establish the precedent (exemplified by the Church Committee of the 1970s) that accountability matters. Not only will we as a nation not abide torture, but we won’t stomach erstwhile torturers, either.

On April 2, Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) introduced the bipartisan Targeted Lethal Force Transparency Act ,which would “require an annual report on the number of combatants and civilians killed or injured annually by strikes from remotely piloted aircraft, also known as drones.” The bill allows for an investigation into US drone strikes since 2008, building on a similar provision that had been included by Feinstein’s committee in last year’s (unpassed) Intelligence Authorization Act for 2014. Numerous human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have issued a joint statement in support of the bill.

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But if the CIA succeeds in squelching—or at least significantly redacting—the Intelligence Committee’s enhanced-interrogation report, it will cast an opaque pall on the Schiff-Jones bill in particular and on transparency in general. Indeed, what is the point of congressional oversight if the committee charged with it allows itself to be pushed around by the agency it oversees? Last month, Frederick A.O. Schwartz Jr., chief counsel for the Church Committee, wrote here, “Executive agencies and the White House—whichever party is in power—will always resist such efforts. They will stall, they will rely on secrecy, and—if Feinstein is right—they may even spy on Congress and illegally impede its lawful investigations. These obstructions must be overcome.”

And as The New Yorker’s Steve Coll has written, “Can the C.I.A., after a decade of fat budgets and swaggering prerogative, adjust to emboldened congressional oversight? Can Congress provide such oversight? And can the American people at last have the facts about the Bush Administration’s embrace of torture as national policy, carried out in their name?” Let’s hope so. If we refuse to admit, let alone acknowledge, what we’ve done, what’s to stop us from doing it again? Speaking to the Senate in a closed session in 1975, Sen. Church said, “We must remain a people who confront our mistakes and resolve not to repeat them. If we do not, we will decline. But if we do, our future will be worthy of the best of our past.”

Take Action: Demand a Senate Investigation into America’s Secret Government

Read Next: Rebecca Solnit pays tribute to Jonathan Schell.

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