Quantcast

Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

  •  
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

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

The Case for Gun Liability Laws


(AP Photo/Ricardo Moraes)

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.

Knives. Automobiles. Cold medicine. Alcohol. Cigarettes. Coffee.

What do these items have in common?

They’re all held to a higher safety standard than firearms.

Because of product-liability law, manufacturers must equip them with proper warnings, limitations and built-in designs that enhance their safety.

If they don’t, consumers can sue them for harm caused by the product. And all consumer products manufacturers are required to ensure that their products are free of design defects and don’t threaten public safety.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Guns, as Jonathan Lowy of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s Legal Action Project has said, are “the only consumer product in America with no federal safety oversight.”

Firearms haven’t always been a protected class; but as the industry lost millions in lawsuits over the years, liability protection became the NRA’s holy grail.

Before 2005, the Brady Center — named for President Reagan’s press secretary James Brady, who was shot and paralyzed in a failed assassination attempt on the president — had launched multiple lawsuits around the country. Los Angeles, New York and 30 other cities, counties and states had filed civil lawsuits against gun manufacturers — including a $100 million suit against the gun industry by Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1999. The pain inflicted on negligent manufacturers was real and it was expensive. In 2003, Bryco Arms declared bankruptcy after paying $24 million in the case of a 7-year-old boy who was paralyzed by a defective gun.

Before the gun lobby successfully killed all gun control legislation, there were some key wins in the fight to hold gun manufacturers liable. Last year, the New York State appellate court ruled that a Buffalo man who was shot nearly a decade ago could sue the gun manufacturer, distributor and dealer. In January 2013, Rep. Adam Schiff introduced legislation to fight legal immunity for gun manufacturers and dealers, the Access to Justice for Victims of Gun Violence Act.

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: Iran and the US, From Coup to Revolution—to Détente?


(Reading / Simpson) via Flickr.com

Just days before his arrival in New York for the UN General Assembly, advisers to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, announced their government’s willingness to directly negotiate with the United States in order to end the decade-long nuclear standoff and to remove international sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. “We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart,” Rouhani wrote in an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post.

If sincerely pursued, these promising developments have the potential to repair fraught, decades-old cleavages in the American-Iranian relationship. While many on the American right would prefer to believe those frictions began with the Islamist-led revolution of 1979, many Iranians still remember the US-backed coup of 1953 which overthrew Mohammed Mossadegh, a democratically-elected prime minister—its well-known participation in which the CIA only officially acknowledged last month—and how, for decades after, American companies and government officials exploited the Iranian economy and directly assisted in the suppression of its people.

Throughout those decades, Nation writers reported from Iran about the discord, anger, and frustration American meddling had instilled in the Iranian people. After 1979, writers like Kai Bird and the late Fred Halliday reported on the promise and eventual disappointment of the revolution. Reading these articles today, perhaps at the dawn of a new era in Iranian-American relations, gives a sense of how much has gone wrong between the two countries, but also how much could be set right with smart diplomacy and new leadership.

***

In the September 24, 1960 issue of The Nation, a Fulbright scholar named Stanley Cooperman wrote a remarkable article, “Iran’s False Front,” detailing the extent of American activity in the country and the bitter resentment it was causing among the people. With telling detail and astounding prescience, Cooperman’s article provides a window onto life in Iran during the Shah’s regime and, in hindsight, shows why the revolution which eventually did come bore such ill-will toward the United States:

Teheran seems almost a boom town. Construction is proceeding at an enormous rate, and there is hardly a block, especially in the northern or ‘European’ sections, that is without its new apartment building. These new buildings, however, are inhabited almost exclusively by Europeans, especially Americans; the rents are extremely high by any standard, and astronomical for an economy in which an experienced engineer earns $200 a month, or just about the cost of a decent apartment…

It is, most certainly, a typical Alice-in-Wonderland situation: American dollars are being spent on structures only Americans can afford to rent. One Persian, an office supervisor, explained it this way: “I hate the sound of foreign aid. Before American dollars started coming here, I had one job and a decent apartment. Now I have three jobs and still had to leave my apartment because the landlord wanted to rent to an American. Who is being ‘improved,’ anyway? …

Several men in the American Embassy here…admit that the middle class has become increasingly disaffected under the Shah’s regime. They add, however, that these ‘dreamy individualists’ could never take matters into their own hands…

Until the Persian Government realizes that a politically disenfranchised middle class is potentially dangerous; and until the Shah himself realizes that Westernization, as it is now proceeding in Iran, has increased rather than decreased social and economic pressure, the Imperial Army must continue to train its guns upon the capital city. There is, certainly, no impending ‘revolution’; political apathy, for the time being, is no less marked than the cynicism voiced privately by so many Persians in all walks of life. But political apathy is a poor foundation for any government, especially in the Middle East. Given the emergence of a powerful personality at the right moment, or a shift in world power alignments, and the ‘dreamy individualism’ of Persia may explode once again, with serious consequences.

Cooperman eventually became a well-known poet and critic, but he died in 1976, just two years before he would have seen that prediction come almost entirely true.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

***

Mass protests against the shah did explode in 1978, uniting in opposition disparate elements of a long-seething population. Linda Heiden, a longtime freelance journalist who still writes about the Middle East, wrote an article for The Nation that October, “Iran Against Pahlavi: The Peacock Throne Under Siege,” in which she countered the view, then prevalent in Western media, that Pahlavi had suddenly turned into a reformer—one, as Time magazine wrote at the time, “deeply wounded by events spawned from his own dream for Iran…searching for ways to calm his troubled people.” That, Heiden wrote, was bunk:

One does not have to dig very deeply to find the roots of the dissent. The Shah’s economic development programs, designed and executed with considerable U.S. Government and corporate assistance, have been disastrous for Iran’s workers and peasants. Land reform implemented through the Shah’s ‘White Revolution’ has forced millions of peasants into the cities, pushing pay scales for unskilled labor below subsistence levels. Meanwhile, the most fertile land has been increasingly turned over to capital-intensive agribusiness concerns owned or controlled by such multinational corporate interests as the Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical and John Deere Corporation…

This economic pattern contributes handsomely to the profits of certain sectors of the Western economies, but it neither strengthens Iran’s productive capacity nor relieves its pressing social ills. Even the massive industrialization envisioned by the regime depends heavily on foreign technology, investments and skilled labor. Furthermore, these projects are affected by international price structures and markets for their successful operation and thus inflict the burdens of foreign inflation rates, market fluctuations and monetary crises upon the Iranian economy. By the time the Shah’s costly nuclear energy program, highly sophisticated communications network and labyrinthine, corrupt bureaucracy have been funded, there is little left to alleviate the social ills that are now pushing his unwilling subjects to revolt.

Today’s readers might be taken aback by the reference to the shah’s nuclear program, supported by the United States and its European allies, which reportedly included a clandestine weapons component. Ayatollah Khomeini discontinued the program after 1979, believing it contravened Islamic law and morality, though a few years later he reversed course.

By January, the opposition movement had forced the shah to flee with his family. Momentarily, at least, it looked as if the motley collaboration between Iranian liberals and Islamists could help a modern Iran move beyond its authoritarian inheritance. Nation editorial board member Richard Falk, in “Iran’s Home-grown Revolution” (February 10, 1979), wrote:

Not only is the political, economic and cultural destiny of an important country at stake, not only is a fundamental challenge to American foreign policy involved, but a completely new revolutionary process is unfolding in Iran that is independent of the legacy of all previous revolutions. Its success or defeat will inevitably exert an awesome impact on the overall prospects of some 700 million Moslems elsewhere, and, quite possibly, on non-Moslem peoples throughout the third world…

For religion to assume a revolutionary posture is to challenge Western pre-conceptions that a religious outlook is irrelevant, or even hostile, to social change. The religious core of the Khomeini movement is a call for social justice, fairness in the distribution of wealth, a productive economy organized around national needs and a simplicity of life style and absence of corruption that minimizes differences between rich and poor, rulers and ruled.

That optimism soon yielded, in The Nation as well as among many in Iran and around the world, to great frustration and acute discontent. After visiting Iran in the spring of 1979, Kai Bird—then Nation assistant editor, later a Washington correspondent, acclaimed writer, and now a contributing editor—wrote in “Making Iran Safe for Theocracy”:

The Iranian revolution has soured the hopes of many who expected so much more in the way of radical economic reforms and a genuinely indigenous, albeit Islamic, democracy. That the leading actors turn out to be flirting with the authoritarian ways of the Pahlavis can only arouse disappointment, but there are other, more democratic actors waiting in the wings. And they have witnessed a revolution that felled a hitherto unchallenged dictatorship. That momentous precedent will not soon be forgotten.

But two years later, the situation had only deteriorated, leading the late Fred Halliday, a widely-respected expert on Iran and the wider Middle East, to declare it a “stolen revolution.” The Islamicization of Iran represented anything but the true, “indigenous” spirit of the country, he wrote:

Khomeini ceaselessly preaches the message that he stands for pure Iranian and Islamic values against the alien, corrupt and foreign values of the Westernized elite. But Iran was never a country with a homogenous Islamic culture. It has pre-Islamic values and traditions, and a great degree of ethnic diversity within it…Under the guise of elevating indigenous values over alien ones, and by invoking anti-imperialism, the Khomeini forces are trying to impose their narrow set of values on a culture which has long been heterogeneous. And there are some Iranians who point out ruefully that nothing is more alien that the Bedouin religion which the Arabs imposed on the country in 642 A.D.

Now thirty years later, there appears to be a potential for a US opening with Iran that is almost on historical par in its significance with the opening with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985-86. It seems that for economic and broader international reasons Iran's political establishment has decided to pursue an opening to the United States that could lead to a nuclear agreement, make Iran a constructive partner in securing the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria and in arranging some kind of negotiated settlement, help bring about an Israeli-Palestinian peace with its positive influence on Hamas, and stop the rush toward sectarian war in the Middle East. President Obama, who for the first time has written directly to an Iranian President (the contents of his letter still unknown), now has a historic opportunity—one in the US's national security interests—to craft an accord with the country's new leaders. Yet it remains an open question as to whether, given his foreign policy team and the fractious politics of Washington, he will be able to do so.

The days ahead will reveal if President Obama acts boldly and constructively to takes steps that could re-define, some might say salvage, his second term. As the Syria crisis demonstrates, if the US is to achieve long-lasting resolution to the Middle East's security challenges, it must test and seize all diplomatic and political solutions.

***

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.

GOP Madness on Display


(Courtesy of Flickr user mar is sea Y)

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.

Five years after the onset of the worst financial collapse in our history, we still have not recovered. President Obama used the fifth anniversary of the financial collapse to remind Americans of the “perfect storm” he inherited, and of the steps he took to save the economy from free fall, rescue the auto industry and save the financial system.

He would understandably like a little credit for the 7.5 million new private sector jobs, the passage of comprehensive healthcare reform and the changes in the tax code that left those earning over $450,000 paying a bit more in taxes.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Much was done, but in the end, far too little. The economy has not recovered the jobs that were lost in the Great Recession. The rate of job creation has barely been able to keep up with new entrants into the labor force. Over 20 million people are still in need of full-time work. The top 1 percent has captured virtually all of the rewards of growth coming out of the collapse, while the majority of Americans have been left out of the recovery. Wages for most Americans aren’t keeping up with costs. The big banks are more concentrated and larger than ever. Derivatives remain a largely unregulated weapon of financial mass destruction.

In his statement Monday, President Obama acknowledged this reality. The trends that were undermining the middle class before the Great Recession, he noted, have grown worse since the downturn. “We’ve cleared away the rubble,” the president said, but we have yet to build “a new foundation” for growth, good jobs and widely shared prosperity.

Obama used this backdrop to set the terms of the coming debate on the budget. The Republican right is once more gearing up to hold America hostage, threatening to shut down the government or default on our debts to get its way.

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.

‘Let’s Test Russia’s Resolve’

Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel went on Democracy Now! today to speak about how the United States should “test Russia’s resolve” to disarm Syrian chemical weapons. She said that while she was not an “optimist” with regard to US-Russian relations, collaboration was key to help sort out different conflicts in the Middle East. For example, she explained, “you have to engage Russia in resolving Iran.” vanden Heuvel added that such collaboration would lead to a “new internationalism that is not defined by military strikes, by drones, certainly not by land wars anymore.” She continued: “And to seize that non-imperial, democratic narrative of a new national foreign policy seems key.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Nicolas Niarchos

Take Action: Demand Your Reps Vote No on Military Intervention in Syria

This Week in 'Nation' History: Saul Landau's Investigations of US Ties to the Pinochet Regime


Former US Minister of Foreign Affairs Henry Kissinger meets with General Augusto Pinochet of Chile. (Reuters)

This past week was marked by the coincidence of two sad and related occasions: Wednesday, September 11, was the fortieth anniversary of the American-backed coup that overthrew the socialist President of Chile, Salvador Allende; on Monday, the great journalist and documentary filmmaker Saul Landau—a lifelong friend and contributor to The Nation—died at 77.

Landau’s first articles for The Nation were based on a years-long investigation into the assassination of Allende’s foreign minister, Orlando Letelier, by a car bomb in Washington, DC, in late September 1976. In his Nation pieces and in his widely acclaimed 1980 book, Assassination on Embassy Row, written with his frequent collaborator, John Dinges—our reviewer Jorge Nef called it “a provocative study [that] reads like an absorbing spy thriller”—Landau painstakingly demonstrated that the US intelligence community’s complicity with the Pinochet regime’s crimes did not end with the tragic 1973 coup.

Just a month before he was killed, Letelier—then a fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, now celebrating its fiftieth anniversary—published a remarkably prescient article in The Nation titled “Economic ‘Freedom’s’ Awful Toll: The Chicago Boys in Chile,” extensively documenting the efforts of American-trained conservative economists to convince Pinochet’s regime “that they were prepared to supplement the brutality, which the military possessed, with the intellectual assets they lacked.” In an editorial the week after the bombing—which also killed 24-year-old Ronni Moffitt, Letelier’s assistant at the IPS and a US citizen, and injured her husband, Michael, sitting in the backseat—The Nation wrote: “Letelier made the essential political connection in that article—that the kind of economic organization the United States was fostering on Chile absolutely required a ‘system of terror…to succeed.’ And now that system of terror has reached out and struck down by murder an opponent of the dictatorship which the United States did so much to install.”

Landau and Ralph Stavins, both colleagues of Letelier’s at IPS, immediately embarked on an investigation to determine both who was directly responsible and who was complicit. In a March 1977 Nation article dramatically titled, “This Is How It Was Done,” Landau and Stavins laid out the evidence linking the Chilean secret police—DINA—to the crime:

Our evidence indicates that a high-level DINA agent landed in Miami on September 13, 1976, and met with a group of Cuban exiles who had already been alerted that a “contract” was in the offing. The DINA agent worked out the details of the Letelier assassination with four young terrorists, noted for their daring and cold-bloodedness. Having secured a plastic explosive and a detonating device, they departed for Washington. There they met with DINA agents, posing as Chilean officials, stationed at the Chilean Embassy. The Washington-based operatives briefed the exiles on Letelier’s habits, his car description, daily departure times, route to work, parking location, and probable work schedule at the In­stitute for Policy Studies during the following week.

Landau and Stavins then provided a vivid, clock-ticking account of the assassination based on their six-month investigation:

As Letelier entered Sheridan Circle, a hand in the [assassins’] gray car depressed a button. Michael Moffitt heard the sound of “water on a hot wire” and then saw a “white flash.” Thrown clear of the explosion, Moffitt tried to free the unconscious Letelier from the wreckage on top of him. His legs had been snapped from his body and catapulted some 15 feet away. Ronni Moffitt stumbled away from the smoldering Chevrolet; she seemed to be O.K., but in fact had suffered a severed artery and soon bled to death. Michael screamed out into the world, “The Chilean Fascists have done this.”

Landau and Stavins then began to unravel the connections between the assassins and top members of the US government and media elite, which Landau developed further in later Nation investigations:

Most of the FBI and Justice Department officials in­vestigating the murders have made a concerted effort to bring the ‘perpetrators to the bar of justice. At the same time, other agents inside the government have leaked material from Letelier’s briefcase, seized by the police as potential evidence at the time of the explosion. The leaked material first appeared on the desks of sev­eral officials of the Inter-American Development Bank, where Letelier had served for many years. Next, the briefcase material was given to newspaper columnists Jack Anderson and then to Evans and Novak. The col­umns which these men wrote attempted to discredit Letelier and divert attention from the actual killers—General Pinochet, the Chilean junta, the DINA and their Cuban exile hit men.

The names of most of the killers, their motives, and their modus, operandi are now known to the Justice De­partment. What remains are the more fundamental ques­tions: will the U.S. authorities be allowed to gather sufficient evidence to bring the killers to trial? Will they name General Pinochet and other ruling junta mem­bers who ordered the assassinations? And will the role of U.S. intelligence and defense agencies, which had previously trained junta leaders, DINA agents and the exiles, be revealed in full?

A few years later, Landau himself helped reveal more of that role, in collaboration with John Dinges. In “The Chilean Connection” (November 28, 1981), they revealed new information about how the CIA may have provided crucial information and even assistance to Letelier’s and Moffitt’s killers:

In the early summer of 1976, Col. Manuel Contreras, head of DINA, Chile’s secret police, launched an operation to assassinate exiled Chilean leader Orlando Letelier. It has now been learned that within a few days of setting that plot in motion, Contreras mace a secret visit to Washington, D.C., where he met with officials of the Central Intelligence Agency and also negotiated the purchase of illegal weapons and electronic spying equipment with a firm run by former C.I.A. officers Edwin Wilson and Frank Terpil.

Wilson and Terpil gained notoriety after a Federal grand jury accused them of exporting terrorist goods and services to Col. Muammar ‘el-Qaddafi of Libya, whose regime is high on the Reagan Administration’s enemies list. By 1978, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had established that DINA agents killed Letelier on U.S. territory. That evidence, combined with the newly revealed materials showing that former C.I.A. officials cooperated with other DINA covert opera­tions in the United States, would seem to compromise the Administration’s efforts to rehabilitate Chile’s military dictatorship as an anti-Communist ally.

In a follow-up article the following year, “The C.I.A.’s Link to Chile’s Plot,” Landau and Dinges revealed that Contreras had also met twice with the second-highest ranking official at the CIA, deputy director Vernon Walters. One meeting occurred just a month before the assassination.

Walters’s name has arisen several times in connection with Contreras and the DINA agents plotting the murder, according to the evidence compiled by the F B I That evidence shows that Walters traveled to Asuncion, Paraguay, in June 1976 on agency business. A month later, two DINA agents assigned to kill Letelier arrived in Paraguay to obtain false passports, using Walters’s name and alleging that Walters and the C I A knew about the DINA mission to Washington Walters has denied he had anything to do with the DINA agents or the false passports…

The biggest question left unanswered concerns the relation­ship of the C I.A to DINA and to [Leterlier assassin Michael] Townley at the time of the assassination. Why were DINA agents able to come and go freely in the United States? Were C.I.A. officials involved in circumventing the Congressional arms embargo against Chile, and so obliged to keep silent about DINA activity in Washington at the time of Leteher’s assassination for fear of revealing another C.I.A. covert action scandal?

In 1987, Landau and Dinges conducted an interview with Armando Fernández Larios, a former DINA official, who fled to the United States so he could reveal the truth of Pinochet’s direct involvement in the Letelier assassination. The authors spoke with Fernández Larios in a Virginia motel room under strict US Marshal Service security.

Fernandez has named six generals and colonels as having had a direct role in the murder or in ordering the cover-up. And he has pointed a finger at the President. He says DINA deputy chief Espinoza, one of the few insiders in a position to know, told him that Pinochet himself had given the order to kill Letelier. According to Espinoza, Fernandez said, DINA chief Contreras admitted to another general that he had set the Letelier assassination in motion because he had been so ordered. When asked by whom, Contreras replied “Ask the chief”—which both Espinoza and Fernandez took to be a reference to General Pinochet, Contreras’s only superior.

On so many issues—from Chile to Iraq, globalization to nuclear fallout—Landau “called us all to thought, gave an example to emulate in his fights for justice and left his mark forever,” as Nation intern Andrés S. Pertierra writes in his moving commemoration. It was The Nation’s honor to publish his work at such an early and definitive moment in his career, when he sought to uncover who was responsible for the brutal and untimely death of his dear and principled friend.

Read this post in Spanish.

From ‘Inequality for All’, a Challenge for America

Director Jacob Kornbluth from the film
Director Jacob Kornbluth from the film Inequality For All poses for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP Images)

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.

“Chilling.”

That’s how one reviewer describes the experience of watching Harvey Weinstein’s latest film. Only the movie in question isn’t Erased, Weinstein’s pulse-pounding thriller about an ex-CIA agent on the run. Nor is it Only God Forgives, in which Ryan Gosling finds himself caught up in a gritty underground world of Thai drug smuggling, prostitution, rape and murder.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The movie is, in fact, a documentary, but one more disturbing than international criminal conspiracies and more devastating than any Sharknado. It’s about income inequality. As Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich intones in the film, “Of all developed nations, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income, and we’re surging towards even greater inequality.”

Inequality for All, directed by Jacob Kornbluth and set to be released nationwide on Sept. 27, comes at a critical moment for America. September 15 marks the five-year anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers—fueled by a toxic combination of deregulation, subprime lending and credit-default swaps—that precipitated the 2008 global economic crisis and laid bare the rot at the heart of our economic system. It was largely this orgy of greed that led the first Occupy Wall Street protesters to Zuccotti Park on September 17, two years ago next week.

In the half-decade since Wall Street’s self-induced crash, the country has hovered between outrage (that the perpetrators walked off scot-free and bonus-laden) and apathy (that anything will ever break the iron bond between Congress and the financial industry).

Until now, hopefully. Following the diminutive Reich on his “statistics-driven and impassioned” crusade, Inequality for All  throws into sharp relief the numbers and stories we hear. Combining footage from Reich’s electrifying Berkeley lectures with interviews, news clips and rich graphics, the film weaves a compelling narrative about how and why, since the late 1970s, income inequality has risen to crisis levels.

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.

We Need 'Forceful Diplomacy,' not Military Strikes, in Syria

President Obama is asking the Senate and Congress to authorize an attack on Syria. But Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel spoke on ABC’s This Week about why she believes a diplomatic solution—and not a strike—would be the best option for the United States and for the Syrian people. “Ultimately any resolution of the human catastrophe in Syria is going to demand a political solution,” she said. “We don’t need to use military strikes.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Nicolas Niarchos

Take Action: Demand Your Reps Vote No on Military Intervention in Syria

This Week in 'Nation' History: How We Can Reclaim Education Reform

The beginning of a new school year offers an opportunity to evaluate the state of American education—where we are now, how we got here and where we need to go. As last month’s release of New York City’s abysmal test scores showed, something is seriously wrong, here and in most of the country.

The bankruptcy of the corporate-style “reform” agenda—which emphasizes high-stakes testing, vilification of teachers and the further stratification of American society under the banner of “choice”—has been obvious for years to those who have cared and dared to look. For the past two decades, contributors to The Nation have consistently challenged these trends and exposed their hidden assumptions, consequences and costs.

In September 1997, the writer Phyllis Vine explored the early stirrings of the for-profit education movement and catalogued the many ways in which it was a bad development for kids, parents and teachers. The only people it would benefit, she argued, were those like the Lehman Brothers director she quotes calling education “a local industry that over time will become a global business.” That’s no way to run schools, Vine concluded:

Creaming students most likely to succeed, poor management, unionbusting, conflicts of interest and discrimination against kids who need special education (and sometimes discrimination against kids of color)—all are on display in the for-profit school system. And so is the effort to eviscerate a core American institution that has been a laboratory for citizenship. While right-wing education guru Chester Finn insists that ‘the market…can rise to the challenge of educating America’s young,’ the record suggests otherwise. ‘The schools belong to us as communities,’ says Barbara Miner, editor of Selling Out Our Schools. So why should we allow some private company to come in and make money off of our kids?

Nation contributors have not only pointed out the shortfalls of the corporate approach; they have also offered a robust counter-vision, laying out specific proposals to fix the American educational system while situating the present problems in a broader socioeconomic and cultural analysis. In “Testing, Testing: The High-Stakes Testing Mania Hurts Poor and Minority Students the Most” (June 5, 2000), Gary Orfield, then a Harvard professor of education (now at UCLA), and Johanna Wald, a researcher, cited study after study showing that high-stakes testing narrows the curriculum, increases drop-out rates, and may actually hurt, not improve, economic productivity.

If, as all these studies suggest, high-stakes tests both discriminate against poor and minority students and are educationally unsound, we are still left with the dilemma of how to achieve the dual goals of equity and excellence. Dozens of studies offer convincing evidence that children in poor schools make academic gains when they have access to quality early-childhood education programs, when they are taught in small classes by skilled and committed teachers, and when they are given assessments linked to appropriate and immediate responses.

The single most important factor in raising academic performance in poor schools appears to be the presence of experienced, competent and caring teachers. Disadvantaged youths currently are taught by the least prepared and most transient instructors in the system. Devising incentives for recruiting and maintaining highly qualified teachers and for retraining existing staff in high-poverty schools should be the top priority of those serious about raising standards.

Eight years of the Bush administration—and a few years of President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative—only accelerated the “reform” movement’s takeover of American education. In June 2010’s “Restoring Our Schools,” former Obama adviser Linda Darling-Hammond argued that real reform would have to be smarter, fairer and more systemic:

We need more than a new set of national goals to mobilize a dramatically more successful educational system. We also need more than pilot projects, demonstrations, innovations and other partial solutions. We need to take the education of poor children as seriously as we take the education of the rich, and we need to create systems that routinely guarantee all the elements of educational investment to all children.

What would this require? As in high and equitably achieving nations, it would require strong investments in children’s welfare—adequate healthcare, housing and food security, so that children can come to school each day ready to learn; high-quality preschool to close achievement gaps that already exist when children enter kindergarten; equitably funded schools that provide quality educators and learning materials, which are the central resources for learning; a system that ensures that teachers and leaders in every community are extremely well-prepared and are supported to be effective on the job; standards, curriculums and assessments focused on twenty-first-century learning goals; and schools organized for an in-depth students and teacher learning and equipped to address children’s social needs, as the community schools movement has done…

To meet twenty-first-century demands, the United States needs to move beyond a collection of disparate and shifting reform initiatives to a thoughtful, well-organized and well-supported set of policies that will enable young people to thrive in the new world they are entering. We must also finally make good on the American promise to make education available to all on equal terms, so that every member of this society can realize a productive life and contribute to the greater welfare.

Then, in January 2011, Pedro Noguera, an NYU professor and Nation editorial board member, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in “Beyond Silver Bullets” that far from boldly asking the difficult questions, as the “reform” movement is often celebrated for doing, it had really shirked responsibility for fixing American schools. Corporate-style reform applied Band-Aids where intensive surgery had been required.

Despite the promises, fads of the day and splashy slogans, we continue to leave millions of children behind. Rewarding a few states for agreeing to adopt measures the administration regards as essential to reform has convinced the public that we have embarked on a race to the top, when we have not. Policy-makers continue to pursue silver-bullet solutions, such as small schools, high-stakes testing and performance pay for teachers—some of which have no evidence of their effectiveness—while ignoring the more substantive issues that have much more influence over the quality of education. What we should be focused on are basic issues: How do we ensure that all teachers are well trained in content and pedagogy, and are able to develop relationships with an increasingly diverse array of students? How do we make sure that school leaders have the skills and resources to keep our schools safe and to maintain conditions for good teaching and learning? What do we do to motivate students not merely to pass tests but to become life-long learners who seek out knowledge and information long after the tests are over? How do we make sure that parents do their part to support their children and reinforce the importance of education at home?

Most tragically, Noguera and Weingarten argued, despite the rhetoric of “choice” and “opportunity,” the latest trends in education left behind precisely those students they were meant to save—the ones most in need of help.

In many of the most disadvantaged schools, the non-academic needs of poor students—for health, housing and a variety of social supports—are often unmet. Invariably, when the basic needs of children are ignored, the task of educating them is much more challenging. Acknowledging that poverty and related social issues can make the job of educating children more difficult does not mean we believe that poor children are incapable of achieving at high levels. There are many examples of excellent schools that serve poor children. There are also a number of poor children who have been able to use education to overcome obstacles related to poverty and who have accomplished great things. But to ignore the fact that the effects of poverty pose formidable obstacles to academic achievement and healthy development is worse than naïve; it shows blatant disregard for the enormous challenges that poor children and their families face.

Just as the proponents of corporatized education use their proposals for privatization and union-busting as a means towards a broad vision of a transformed American society, their critics—the true inheritors of the word “reform”—are increasingly aware that both the problems and the solutions of American public education can be found in an investigation of the structural causes of inequality. Only through that recognition can we reclaim the word “reform.”

Congress, Think Carefully Before Intervening in Syria


US President Barack Obama talks to bipartisan Congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington while discussing a military response to Syria, September 3, 2013. (Reuters/Larry Downing)

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.

President Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize any action towards Syria is both courageous and correct. He ignored the inevitable scorn he would get from the armchair patriots who believe the U.S. president can dispatch the military anywhere, at any time, for any reason. He reportedly overruled the advice of most of his national security team that wanted to strike Syria without going to Congress. After the British parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s appeal for authority to join the United States in the Syrian strike, Obama knew the vote in this bitterly divided and dysfunctional Congress would be “a tough sell.”

But he made the right call, responding not only to his constitutional obligation but to the more than 150 legislators from both parties who signed letters calling on the president to seek approval from Congress before taking action. According to polls, a strike on Syria, even in response to the proven use of chemical weapons, is opposed by a plurality of Americans. Neither the United States nor its allies faces any imminent threat from the Syrian regime. If the United States is a constitutional democracy, surely this is a case where the Congress, the people’s representatives, should determine whether the nation gets involved in—as the president put it—“someone else’s war.”

Now it is time for democracy to work. The administration has begun to detail its case that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people. Members of Congress should probe and test the administration’s evidence, given the credibility gap created by the faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq war, not to mention the lies and distortions peddled by the Bush administration to sell that conflict. Congress should also arrange to receive and consider the report of the U.N. inspectors, because their report will be accepted by other members of the international community and will offer clues about those behind the attacks even if the mandate of the inspectors does not cover who was responsible for the alleged use of chemical weapons.

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.

Take Action: Demand Your Reps Vote No to Military Intervention

Boycott Sochi? Think Again


Russian police detain a gay rights activist during a rally outside the mayor’s office in Moscow, May 25, 2013. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

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.

In the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Kremlin is getting torched.

An international chorus of critics has assailed Vladi­mir Putin’s government for enacting a law that bans any discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) relationships, rights and issues wherever children might be present. Many protesters are calling for a global response.

In a New York Times op-ed, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein argued that a boycott of the Sochi Olympics would pressure the Russian government into reconsidering its treatment of gay men and lesbians. British actor Stephen Fry wrote an impassioned letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, urging an Olympic boycott as well. American author Dan Savage launched a popular #DumpRussianVodka campaign.

There is a reason that everyone from Lady Gaga to President Obama has spoken out against Russia’s new anti-gay law: it is discriminatory and inhumane, and many people are desperate to do something, anything, to show solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community and help get the law repealed.

Yet it’s not all that clear whether today’s clamor, however well-intentioned, will improve the lives and human rights of gay people in Russia. Unless we take the time to understand the reasons behind the ascendance of hyper-conservative traditionalist values in Russia and then develop a more strategic response, we may instead strengthen the already powerful nationalist forces in the country.

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.

Syndicate content