Laura Flanders | The Nation

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Civilization and its Homophobes

The Washington Post ran an impassioned editorial January 7, condemning the anti-homosexuality law being considered in Uganda.

Originally calling for the death penalty, the bill now calls for life imprisonment for "homosexual behavior and related practices. "

The bill is ugly, ignorant and barbaric, writes the Post. "That it is even being considered puts Uganda beyond the pale of civilized nations."

I hate to quibble with such righteous talk, but just who is calling whom civilized?

If by "civilized" the Post means good, western, developed, and all the rest -- wasn't this the week we learned that it was "civilized," American fundamentalist Christians who helped inspire this legislation -- and even write it?

Equating civilization with rights and justice is easy shorthand for editorial purposes, but it's bad history and lazy journalism.

A report by Political Research Associates has called the growing anti-gay movement in African churches a "proxy war" for US culture battles. Uganda's long been a target for US evangelicals. Three, Holocaust denier Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, a self-described former gay man who leads "healing seminars"; and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, all traveled to Uganda and helped build the anti-gay foment that spewed forth this legislation.

Even such a "civilized" man as inauguration speaker Rick Warren's praised the Ugandan ministers who back it. Anti-gay missionaries routinely tell African church leaders that gay rights are part of a colonialist agenda. It may be inadvertent, but the Post's use of this language plays right into their argument.

The fact is, although demagogues in many countries argue that equality is a Western value -- and that gay rights activists, like feminists, are tools of imperialism -- lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people exist everywhere, as do homosexual practices, always have, and there's plenty of history to suggest that homophobia and homophobic practices are the imports.

Traditional African religions blessed same-sex marriage. It was 19th century Victorian Christians who called that barbaric -- and their 21st century fundamentalist descendants have continued the practice. Uganda itself has had at least one king, back in the 1880s, who was arguably gay.

Indian anti-imperialist Gandhi, on a visit to Europe, was once asked what he thought of western civilization. His response? "It would be a good idea."

Perhaps the Washington Post should rethink its word choice when rightly condemning hateful laws. There's plenty of "civilized" bigotry out there.

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

Death Penalty Supporters Concede Defeat

We saw a lot of bad death penalty-related news last year--the probable execution of innocent men in Texas, the attacks by a prosecutor on the Medill Innocence Project students at Northwestern University, and the horrific failed attempt at an execution in Ohio.

But the year also brought this news: the American Law Institute, which has been credited with creating the intellectual framework for the modern capital justice system almost 50 years ago, apparently pronounced its project a failure and walked away from it last year.

This could represent a significant shift away from putting prisoners to death in the U.S. A Berkeley law professor quoted in a New York Times story about A.L.I. called the group the death penalty's "only intellectually respectable support."

The Institute did not decide formally to oppose the death penalty as some of its members apparently wanted, but in a statement last October conceded there are "intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment."

Seems to me, that's tantamount to saying there's no way for state killing to be done fairly or right.

A study by the A.L.I. apparently pointed to problems that have been well known to death-penalty opponents for years: racial disparities in sentencing and application, expense, politics and the potential -- not so potential as we saw last year -- that the state would execute the innocent.

Texas executed Cameron Todd Willingham for the death of his children in a fire that an investigator ruled accidental, not arson. The decision by the A.L.I. comes too late to save him or others like him but it might give death penalty supporters pause. It's certainly a shot in the arm for opponents. Maybe 2010 will be the year that the country wakes up to the same intractable instutitional, not to mention moral, obstacles that A.L.I. found, finally, to legalized killing by the state.

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

Dubai's Tower of Debt

New year, new symbol? Dubai's new tower fits. The $1.5 billion building unveiled in downtown Dubai Monday is the world's new tallest tower. More than half a mile high, more than two Empire State buildings tall, the Dubai tower boasts 169 stories, the world's highest swimming pool, the world's highest place of worship, and the world's tallest mountain of denial.

History repeats. Like the Empire State building before it, the Dubai tower was built in a global depression when cheap labor was plentiful, as were the dreams of the ambitious and affluent.

The engineering marvel was constructed in the desert heat by low paid immigrant workers, mostly Indians and Pakistanis, paid 5-20 dollar a day. (It's a state secret how many lost their lives in the process.) While the state-owned construction operation suppressed worker demands and banned unions from the site, it catered to consumer fantasy with equal extravagance. The tower features 144 apartments and a hotel designed by Giorgio Armani, the Italian designer. In what's been dubbed the "super-scraper," the super-affluent can live and vacation without leaving the brand, or the building.

Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed and his Chicago-based architects hail their building as a symbol of future good and all things great. There's just one glitch. According to the Sunday Times, that future involves melting the equivalent of 28 million pounds of ice a day for air conditioning, and the consumption of billions of gallons of desalinated water in a city-state that already has the world's highest per-capita carbon footprint.

The climate actually changes as you ride the elevator. It's way, way hotter at the bottom. The engineers are doing everything in their power to counter physics and so far so good. But rising heat of a far less metaphorical sense already struck in the form of economics.In last minute switch at its inauguration Monday night, the Burj Dubai ("Dubai Tower") was renamed the Burj Khalifa. It was a rather ignominious concession to reality. Sheikh Khalifa, the head of Abu Dhabi, Dubai's oil rich neighbor, has repeatedly saved Dubai from financial collapse during the construction of the tower most recently, just three weeks back when devastating defaults beckoned.

It's hardly a win for the hot people at the bottom, but it's a big hit for Dubai's would-be cool and competitive leaders. Theirs is a tower of debt. How perfect. Welcome to the decade.

Laura Flanders is the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

Holiday Spirit?

It's that familiar season, full of quaint old false beliefs. Like that crazy Santa Claus notion there's such a thing as just desserts. Who's been naughty and who's been nice? It's pretty clear in the world of global politics, but there's no relation between behavior and the consequences. In fact, if there's any relationship, it's downside up.

Take climate change. Polluter nations wouldn't be hard for Santa to spot. They're the big ones, with long dirty industrial histories, gobbling up everybody's ozone space. They're not called "naughty" (just "developed") and in Copenhagen they did all they could to prevent ever having to pay any painful price.

At the climate talks, they drew up secret plans in advance to legalize as many emissions as they could, and threw a fit when less powerful nations said -- wait a minute -- you're dooming us to drown or dry up.

In climate science, those nations who did least to cause the problem, are feeling the brunt of the effects. In Washington, there's something similar taking place.

While bank bonuses go back up, so does poverty and unemployment. The bankers say they're not breaking any rules, they're paying the government back, and they're back to work drafting new rules that will keep their profits on track.

Meanwhile, Main Street's hurting and no one's hurting worse than those who had the least in the first place. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) says that some parts of the nation – specifically the African American parts -- suffered a "devastation" during what for others was merely a downturn.

"When you have disproportionate pain," said Waters recently, "You have to act accordingly. You have two sick patients. One has pneumonia and one has a cold. You don't give aspirin to the one with pneumonia." said Waters. Except that's exactly what we're doing.

You better watch out...You better not pout... Just when is Santa coming to town?

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

Who You Callin' Moderate?

The Senate held a historic vote on health care reform last night at 1 AM. Splitting exactly along party lines--that is, if you call Joe Lieberman a Democrat--the health care bill made it through a cloture vote and is one step away from final passage and the conference committee.

To get so-called moderate Democrat Ben Nelson on board, however, Harry Reid had to agree to a decidedly un-moderate compromise on abortion rights. It's not Stupak language--but it's close.

Stupak's staffers, meanwhile, were sending frantic emails to catholic bishops and top republican staffers asking for their help to keep his amendment in the final bill. If that's bipartisanship, they can keep it.

So who says these guys are so moderate, anyway? Politico, for one. The Washington Post as well. The Wall Street Journal called them "centrists," as did the New York Times. Interesting that moves that would radically alter women's right to choose are moderate.

Maybe the media's idea of moderate has something to do with who they're talking to. Look at the Sunday talk shows, for instance. Meet The Press had not a single woman on to discuss health care. You know it's bad when FOX News Sunday features a pro-choice woman, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and the biggest show on Sunday doesn't. CBS's Face the Nation was the only one to feature two women.

As Ann Friedman pointed out in The American Prospect, white men are the least likely to identify as progressives. So why do Democrats--and the media-- continue to act as if their opinions are the only ones that matter?

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

Bad News Deserves Bad Verse.

It's holiday season. And besides I've been feeling too grumpy to take the news "straight." So I came up for a ditty for today. You're welcome to send me yours. Here goes:

The President asked the banks to meet, and the bankers said they might, but the weather was just too awful and the timing was too tight.

The banks are still too big, it seems, and we've only watched them grow. Poverty's up, but what to do? Hell if Geithner knows.

On the healthcare front, there's Lieberman, whose voter calls him Joe. Every health reform he once approved, well, now the answer's no.

Fifty votes was once a lot, now Harry says that's few. So hey ho Joe. Way to go. Here's to health care just for you!

In Cokenhagen, the climate's hot. Island nations are on the brink. If we don't act, and make a pact, that's it. Millions will sink.

Obama knows, so, back from Oslo, climate's on his mind. There's just one hitch. Those corporate folks. They don't like pacts that bind.

So happy holidays all. Obama's peace laureate for war.

That's no mean feat. Some have hit the street. In '10 will we see more?

Laura Flanders is the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

All Too Familiar on Afghanistan

The President talked about America's enduring values again at West Point Tuesday night, and then he laid them out, a whole lot of values one can only wish would endure a little less.

The President began his address to the nation on Afghanistan in the traditional style of his predecessor, setting the tone for troop deployments by recalling 9-11 and terror and fright. Then came the retelling of the traditional Al Qaeda story, the one that omits any mention of Saudi Arabia or Israeli occupation or post-Gulf War US bases -- in fact any mention of politics.

Sadly, our new president seemed to share George W. Bush's appreciation for the value of a simple villain and not asking questions. So much for those who seek a new narrative, one that might include the debate that exists around the world about the merits and real demerits of war as a response to a criminal terrorist act.

Having declared legitimacy, the president then claimed responsibility, a special American responsibility and authority to invade, police, and act in ways that other countries may not.

Amazingly, the nation's first Black president retold the simplest national founding story: "Our union was founded in resistance to oppression." (For his wife's ancestors it was not.) And he made the classic claim of innocence "We do not seek to occupy other nations. We will not claim another nation's resources." (The US has a long history, of course, of helping our corporations do just that, from Chevron to United Fruit.)

As tradition requires, Obama claimed progress is being made. Maybe so, but it'd be more convincing in Afghanistan were it not for all those US-backed Afghan warlords gearing up to fight each other with US weapons, fueled by a heroin trade that the CIA stands accused of letting rip. Obama's words were too familiar -- so too his silences.

Finally and worst, for those who'd thought they'd voted for the death of the Bush Doctrine. Sorry. Bush/Cheney live on in the new president's embrace of the idea that the US has a right, not only to respond to attacks, but also to deploy men and women in anticipation of them.

"New attacks are being plotted as I speak," said Obama.

Do I hear an echo? So much for those who had the audacity to hope.


Laura Flanders is the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.


Not Just Jobs Needed Now

In advance of the president's jobs summit, economist Paul Krugman is finally calling for government job-creation.

"It's time for at least a small-scale version of the New Deal's Works Progress Administration" writes Krugman. He says it "would offer relatively low-paying (but much better than nothing) public-service employment."

That's probably not what the Obama administration has in mind. They and Congress seem set instead on relying on the private sector and re-asserting Democrats' fiscal conservative bona fides before next year's vote.

Still, the broader reality is, what's needed is more -- way more than the private sector is likely to give Obama, and more than poorly-paying government jobs.

After all, poorly-paying jobs are what got us into this mess. As we all know by now, between 2000 and 2007, while productivity grew, the typical working household saw its income decline; decline so far that the only way the average worker could pay for a car, a house or a college education for the kids was to go into debt. The deadly mix of needy Americans and shameless lenders brought the US economy to the brink and we rode over.

Setting the lowest possible bar for government action and relying on the private sector has brought us here, to a situation in which stimulus or no stimulus, banks aren't lending, mortgage reform isn't happening, and food stamp use is at a record high. Twenty thousand people join the food stamp rolls every day according to a recent report. The program now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children. That's 36 million Americans.

Local data reviewed by Krugman's own New York Times, reveals that the counties worst hit include the Bronx in New York, Philadelphia and some parts of Appalachia -- where half of all residents need help.

The important, rather buried fact in the numbers is that food stamp use isn't only up due to rising unemployment. Some 40 per cent of the families now on food stamps have "earned income." That figure was 25 percent just two years ago.

Not just unemployment, but low wages and shrinking working hours have brought Americans to the starvation point.

If the economy is stabilizing (as the Fed insists it is) it's stabilizing at a frightful place. The rate of job losses is slowing, but huge numbers of working Americans are paid so little they can't afford to eat and feed their families.

It's not just jobs the nation needs, it's jobs with justice, the sort government can create -- not by thinking petty -- but thinking big and raising a bar. The best thing that could happen at the president's jobs summit is for Obama to declare a massive government jobs program paying genuinely living wages, and for him to demand the same of all those CEOS in the room. Tax payers shouldn't be helping employers get away with paying workers starvation wages. We certainly shouldn't be thanking them for creating more low-paying, "better than nothing" jobs.

Laura Flanders is the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

Man Made Disaster in New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina is often called a natural disaster, as if it was all nature's fault, not man's. The reality, of course, is that federal, state and local governments ignored warnings from scientists for years, both that climate change would lead to increased storm activity, and that destruction of wetlands outside of New Orleans had hurt the city's natural defenses against a storm surge. Calls for fixing levees and infrastructure investments went unheeded while the doctrine of markets and profits held sway.

This week, a federal district judge finally ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was indeed responsible for part of the devastation in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward and parts of St. Bernard Parish.

The failure of the Corps to recognize the hazards wetland destruction had created was "clearly negligent on the part of the Corps," said U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. "Furthermore, the Corps not only knew, but admitted by 1988 [the threats to human life] and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued."

In this decision alone the government could wind up paying $700,000 in damages. It doesn't sound like enough. More importantly, though, the ruling could open the gates to judgments that could reach into the billions.

No judgment will bring back the Ninth Ward which, years after Katrina and Rita and the breaking of the levees is still largely a ghost town, but this acknowledgment that the destruction didn't have to happen is important. Long neglect of federal infrastructure by governments more concerned with tax cuts than human safety is not a phenomenon limited to New Orleans. The NOLA negligence verdict makes the case for national infrastructure spending now.

By way of reparations, how about not just $700,000 to the plaintiffs in the New Oreleans suit but a re-commitment to infrastructure spending at the federal state and local level. You want national security? Stimulus? Jobs? That's it, and this is the time. When you hear let the talk turn predictably to deficits and spending cuts instead, remember, while DC measures deficits in dollars, on the Gulf Coast, the deficit in spending is measured in lost lives.

The F Word is a regular commentary by Laura Flanders, the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

Bonanza for Over-Builders

I just don't get it. When Congress approves gifts worth billions of dollars to people who don't deserve a dime, why isn't it front page news?

On Nov. 6, when President Obama signed the Worker, Home-ownership and Business Assistance Act of 2009, he extended unemployment benefits and renewed the first-time home-buyer tax credit for a while, but hidden deep inside the law was a tax break for businesses that did well in the boom years -- and the resulting refund-checks will be huge.

The tax break would help struggling businesses, Obama declared, but the act actually affects big companies as well as small. Businesses are allowed to offset losses incurred in the bad years of 2008 and 2009 against profits booked as far back as 2004. Those with the biggest boom followed by the biggest bust are exactly the companies like to benefit the most. Among them, you guessed it, home-builders, exactly the folks who overbuilt and over-lent us into a mortgage and credit meltdown.

Companies like Pulte Homes will receive refunds exceeding $450 million -- but Pulte's hardly in need. The company has $1.5 billion in cash and cash equivalents on its balance sheet. Standard Pacific, which is poised to reap cash refunds of $80 million has $523 million, according to the New York Times.

There's no requirement that companies claiming the tax refunds are in need of course, or that they will create jobs with the cash. Demanding no quid pro quo worked so well for banks that Congress is trying a repeat with builders.

Will the builders nonetheless build with the bonanza? Not likely. In building, the problem's not supply, it's demand.

What the companies are likely to do is keep on lobbying. Gretchen Morgenson reports that "Securing this tax break was a top priority for home builders. " According to lobbying records, home builders paid $6 million to their lobbyists through the end of October this year, "much of focused on arguing for the tax loss carry-forward." Pulte Homes for example, spent $210,000, -- for which it'll receive $450 million in refunds.

"The problem here is that this public policy decision was made with little to no input from the public." Reports the excellent Morgenson in her column, in the business section, Sunday.

But her own paper could help solve that problem. How about reporting on this -- before it's a done deal -- on the front page?

Laura Flanders is the host of GRITtv which broadcasts weekdays on satellite TV (Dish Network Ch. 9415 Free Speech TV) on cable, and online at GRITtv.org and TheNation.com. Follow GRITtv or GRITlaura on Twitter.com.

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