Laura Flanders | The Nation

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

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

Russert (and a Million Others) RIP

If there was one topic that focused media attention this weekend, it was the death of one of the industry's own: Tim Russert. Russert's passing provoked praise and grief and mourning across all the media and a good amount of talk about journalism and its practitioners. It's no surprise. Over decades at NBC Russert, host of the flagship Sunday program Meet the Press had become a massively influential media presence.

For me one moment stood out. It was Friday, soon after the news of Russert's death broke. NBC anchor Brian Williams was interviewed on camera from Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. Calling Russert's death "an unfathomable loss", he appeared to choke up. You could hear the pain in his voice.

Watching him there -- in Afghanistan, but it could as well have been Iraq -- I couldn't help but think. After how many hundreds of thousands dead in the US's two assaults on those two countries -- what if Williams, or Russert or any of the big power news men ever expressed emotion about other deaths. What if we saw them pause and choke up – even once – at the slaughter of an Afghan family in a misguided US missile attack, or swallow hard while reporting the blowing-to-bits of an Iraqi father as he lined up to buy food or find work?

I know it's possibly a subversive thought for all those deluded believers of objectivity in journalism -- and heaven forbid we challenge convention -- but what if -- what if -- in journalism, mourning, not to mention expressing feelings, wasn't saved up just for journalists? What then, do you think?

You can see this commentary and a whole lot more later today on GRITtv at GRITtv.org

Big Oil "Saved?"

The Windfall Profits Tax Monster Is Back," so headlined the Houston Chronicle. The GOP's defeat of a bill that would have put a 25% excess, or "windfall" profits tax on oil profits led some wags among the oiligopoly to crow that "even a broken clock is right twice a day" (meaning the Senate.)

For a different perspective, listen to Dan Stormer, a lawyer who's representing Nigerian plaintiffs in a case against Chevron. With the economy on the dive and many blaming high oil prices, Stormer, says that when you tally in the blood that's spilled in oil production, oil's price may be far too low. As for "windfall" profits-- that's blood-money.

Ten years ago last month, Nigerian security forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in the Niger Delta, killing two and injuring others. The people shot were protesting, says Stormer, for nothing more than what they'd been promised: jobs, schools, water they could drink, economic development. Now four Nigerian plaintiffs are suing Chevron in US federal court. Nigerian soldiers were paid by a subsidiary of Chevron, they say, and the company bears responsibility for the murders. Trial dates are set for September.

In the meantime, Stormer, lead counsel in one of the cases (Bowoto v. Chevron) is calling on all of us to reflect: our pain at the pump is nothing in comparison to what the Nigerians are enduring for oil.

"Going to Nigeria entirely changed my way of thinking about environmentalism," Stormer told GRITtv. Should poor workers here be happy to pay more? Not exactly, but oil company execs should CERTAINLY be forced to fork over a larger share of their profits.

May I add (not Stormer here, but Flanders) Condoleezza Rice, who served ten-years on the Chevron Board and for whom the company named a tanker, had blood on her hands long before she got in up to her neck in Iraq. No one with a soul would want their name on a vessel that represented this much devastation. The entire conversation certainly shifts your attitude to all those headlines about Big Oil "saved" and "painful" prices. The "price" we are paying is peanuts.

Watch Stormer's interview on GRITtv here.GRITtv is the new daily show from Free Speech TV, seen Monday-Thursday directly following Democracy Now. And any time, online at grittv.org.

Was Gloria Steinem Right?

Want to see my two cents on the question of whether Gloria Steinem was right? This Saturday at the 2008 National Conference on Media Reform, Roberto Lovato and I were asked to comment. We've posted the video of my two cents.

Take a look and tell us what you think. Click here: GRITtv.org.

Stop the Next My Lai

The New York Times saw fit to mark the fifth anniversary of the US invasion by inviting nine "experts" including not one soldier to reflect on the conduct of the war and occupation of Iraq. The Times chose to listen to Richard Perle and Robert Bremer III but not one soldier. The Times has no time for troops like Camilo Mejia or Kelly Dougherty. But the public must take the time.

Mejia and Dougherty were among the hundreds of young servicemen and women who shared wrenching, infuriating, riveting eyewitness testimony over the last three days at Winter Soldier hearings in Silver Spring, Md. While the Times's "experts," include men and women who personally played a disastrous role in urging on and then conducting this war, the Winter Soldier hearings, organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, brought the public the occupation as seen by the very young men and women at the bottom of the chain of command whose lives have forever been transformed by what we and the US government asked them to do in our name.

It is testimony you have a responsibility to watch or listen to. Some addressed broad policy issues having to do with the rules of engagement, occupation, the treatment of civilians and detainees and the treatment of troops on their return. Some related to specific violations, including rape, indiscriminate killing, torture, desecration of the dead and the apparently common practice of dropping weapons on dead civilians to make them look like combatants. More than one soldier described being told to carry "drop weapons," in their vehicles.

The IVAW say they have corroborated these stories. Reporters urgently need to follow up. As one witness, Joshua Castell put it, "Moral slippery slopes go from top to bottom." Those at the bottom cannot be the only ones to take responsibility.

After Winter Soldier 1971, the proceedings were read into the congressional record and the Senate Foreign Relations committee held hearings that gave vets an opportunity to testify. Will this Democratic-controlled Congress give these men and women the same opportunity? These soldiers are willing to take oaths. On Sunday, Former US Army Captain Luis Montalvan, who served two tour of Iraq, said he'd be grateful to have the chance. His colleagues, agreed, "on a stack of bibles."

Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan wrapped up March 16, forty years to the day after the My Lai Massacre which started the Whole Winter soldier phenomenon. As Garrett Reppenhagen, the first active duty soldier to join IVAW put it Sunday, "It's time to stop this occupation before the next Tet Offensive." As IVAW are showing loud and clear, this occupation is not winnnable, it's is destroying Iraq, tearing apart this country and breaking down our military. It has to stop now. And not just the troops need to feel the pain.

Obama from Butte

If Barack Obama's South Carolina win was a "black" thing, it's awfully strange how it's going down in Butte. US towns don't come much whiter or more hope-resistant than this battered old Montana mining town. And yet organizers here resonate with his call, not because they think he'll change things here, but because they believe the movement he's inspiring will help them do that work.

It was mid-morning Sunday when I finally flipped open my laptop to watch Obama's South Carolina victory speech. The only other soul in the faded foyer of the once-grand Finlen Hotel was Debbie, the receptionist. Obama's words drew blue-eyed Debbie over. What do you think? I asked. Looking at the crowd, her smile revealed more than a few missing teeth. "That looks like everybody," she said. "That's good."

The Finlen is a lonely place; a 1920s relic perched on a snow-swept slope between stone-cold, closed Victorian banks and bars and the country's biggest toxic Super Fund site. Butte was once the copper capital of the world (and the most unionized town in the US) but the swag and smut of the 1880s is long gone and Butte's as broken now as the bones of its best-known 20th century export - Evel Knievel. And even he is dead.

The exuberant crowd behind the stylish Senator Saturday was Southern, sunny, multi-racial and all revved up. The backdrop to his words in Butte was very different. Obama's pledges of "change" and "purpose" and "belief" echoed, airy, into this wintry, white, whupped, western town. This place aches for solid stuff like union jobs and productive work and there was precious little promise of either in Obama's speech.

So can Obama's magic move Butte? Before the morning was over, I was able to ask the question to a group of local activists. The Montana Human Rights Network was holding its annual"Progressive Leadership Institute" in the Finlen this weekend and two dozen local organizers gathered around to hear the speech in between workshops on running effective campaigns and running for local office.

"It's not that he would change anything in Butte," said Alan Peura, a City Commissioner in Helena. "But he's building momentum that we can use to make that change ourselves."

Although John Edwards was by my survey probably the group's favorite candidate, Obama roused them, not by his policy promises, but by the opening he presents.

"At the very least, we'll have four years of movement-building from the Presidential bully pulpit, which is the polar opposite from what we've had," chimed in Jason Wiener, a Missoula city councilman.

Obama's wrong on fuel, said Patricia Dowd. He supports liquid coal, a fossil-fuel-burning non-alternative that Dowd, an environmentalist, is against. "But I love the fact that he always thanks his organizers first. He values what we do and that makes it easier for us to do our work.''

"I don't trust all this talk about bi-partisanship," said retired MT Congressman, Pat Williams, one of the longest-serving progressives ever to sit in the US House. "Compromise can be just another word for collusion." On the other hand, Williams sees movement potential at the party level if Obama were to be the candidate. Williams served in Congress under Clinton in the early 1990s. He saw how the Clinton magic worked – for Clinton only. "We lost the Governors, the House, the Senate."

Ken Toole, one of the founders of the Network and a student of the Right remembers how the Right came to power. Gaining the White House wasn't the last it was the first stage of that process. "The best thing Obama could be is our Reagan," said Toole. "Reagan didn't deliver a whole lot in terms of policies, but he shifted the country's direction."

Even from Butte, it's clear to organizers: Obama's not the savior: we are. He opens a door. We push.

Laura Flanders is the author of Blue Grit: Making Impossible, Improbable, Inspirational Political Change in America, just out in paperback from Penguin Books. For more information, go to www.lauraflanders.com.


What Would Jesus Buy?

There is one thing the Church of Stop Shopping's Reverend Billy wants you to buy this season: a ticket to his new movie, "What Would Jesus Buy." Make that purchase now and you'll add anti-media-monopoly oomph to your personal buying-power.

Writes the Reverend: "Every one of you who make it to the movies today dramatically increases the chance we can take the Stop Shopping message to Tulsa, to Long Island, to Cheney, Washington."

What Would Jesus Buy (WWJB) which opened this weekend in limited release, is a loving celebration of Reverend Billy's anti-Shopocalypse crusade. "We want people to buy less and give more," says Billy, (aka performance artist, Bill Talen.) With his wife and co-conspirator, Savitri Durkee and their 40-person Stop Shopping gospel choir, Talen's been preaching against commercialism since before "malling" became a frightening verb. The film, directed by Rob VanAlkemade and produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) follows Billy and his church-mates as they travel the country on a pre-Christmas anti-shopping tour.

Singing to the angels of anti-acquisition, they ride the escalators at the Mall of America. Facing down their demons, they're tormented in the trinket-store. When the bio-diesel in the tour-bus freezes, Billy gets down on his knees for forgiveness as he pumps the evil oil. ("Hallelujah Brother" he hails the truckers from the floor-court floor.)

The reverend's ordination my be community (not church) bestowed but his following is real enough. The Church of Stop Shopping is sanctified by a feisty, fun-loving and spiritually hungry anti-consumerist congregational rabble based in the East Village of New York. Billy's protests have cost him prison time. He's exorcised cash-registers at Starbucks (for the sin of killing the family coffee shop.) He's preached to protect public space from developers. He's married the un-marry-able and crucified the devil (Mickey Mouse) on a portable cross in Disney-Time Square.

As with a Stop-Shopping performance, so too, the movie's tone is comedic. But there are moments that speak to the heart, as when, exhausted after another seemingly fruitless wail against Wal-Mart, Durkee sighs:

"I just want what we do to have some impact on someone soon." That spoke to my longing, and I bet yours.

Now, whether they like it or not, the Church of Stop Shopping is taking on cinema's corporate consolidators. As producer Spurlock told the audience opening night in New York, Wal-Mart has a 50 percent corner on the nationwide DVD market. That makes WWJB, a distributor's nightmare. So Spurlock et al are on a grass-roots marketing mission to break into the market through force of sales. If opening grosses are impressive enough, the movie will be playing on screens around the country in time for the Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year.

It USED to be Friday. This year, the tech-chain CompUSA will start the post-Thanksgiving shop-a-looza while the turkeys are still raw. (They'll hold an online only sale starting at 12.01 Thanksgiving morning.) The chain, and others like them, say they aren't trampling on the give-thanks holiday by reminding us of what we lack. They're just offering "another option" for starved, deal-hungry consumers," CompUSA spokesperson Jessica Nunez told the New York Times.

What do we need? Change-a-lujah! There's no better time for the humanity-hungry human to go to the movies and pray with the not-just-a prankster preacher for save-our-souls radical change.

For theaters, dates and locations check www.revbilly.com.

Meet The Press and Leave it to the Girls.

Whether to be cheered or downcast? That's the question. TV wasn't born a male preserve, it's just grown up that way.

I was thinking about that this weekend as I watched NBC celebrate Meet the Press. MTP is the longest, continuously-running program on US television. At the end of this Sunday's show, a list of past hosts sped by. The first was Martha Rountree, the show's first host, and needless to say, last female anchor.

Curious, I dug around a little. Rountree, it turns out, not only anchored the first broadcasts (starting in 1947) but came up with the format in the very early days of TV. The format -- a panel of people asking questions of a guest -- was her idea.

Is it the anchor that makes the program, or the format that fuels the show? In our star-system of celebration, TV anchors usually soak up the credit, but over a long-run like MTP's, anchors come and go: it's the format that endures. MTP's came from Rountree. On radio, she hosted a program, "Leave it to the Girls," in which a panel of celebrity women fired questions at a guy. For Meet the Press (which she also hosted on radio before moving to TV,) Rountree and producer Lawrence Spivak, replaced the women with a panel of journalists.

And I do mean replaced.... A few years ago, The White House Project published a report called "Who's Talking," which highlighted the lack of women guests on the Sunday morning talk shows. At the time, women comprised only 14 percent of guests -- 0 percent of anchors. More recently, Media Matters conducted a survey which found that on average, men outnumber women on Meet the Press, This Week, Face the Nation, and Fox News Sunday by a 4-to-1 ratio. Of them all, Meet the Press shows the least diversity of all. The NBC program is, as Media Matters put it, "the most male."

It's always sobering to realize that women weren't born excluded. In this case, indeed, MTP was of-woman born. You'd never know it now.


Pakistan vs. Punditry

I know the US Democratic contenders' debate is important, but how important, compared to, say, the imposition of martial law in nuclear Pakistan?

If the last debate was any indication, the University of Nevada's Las Vegas campus is right now crawling with reporters assigned to cover the presidential horse-race. According to Drexler University, close to 400 members of the media were "credentialed" for October 30th's debate. More than 200 news organizations covered it. One New York daily sent a "live" blogger and five of their editorial staff, including two political editors and a gossip columnist. (The Daily News's Heidi Evans authored an all-important sidebar on Hillary Clinton's ten-year old bout with deep vein thrombosis.)

As for Pakistan, we called around. According to their spokespeople, US networks are relying on just a handful of reporters to cover what could well be the world's most critical crisis. ABC alone, boasts two full-time producers in Pakistan: Gretchen Peters and Habibullah Khan. Philip Reeves, NPR's man on the story, is based in New Delhi. (Sariah Nelson, reports on the region from Kabul.) NBC opened a bureau in Islamabad two years ago but flew in Richard Engel, Middle East Bureau chief and correspondent to cover the crisis. CBS told us they retain one regular camera crew and use local or flown-in reporters "depending on the story." CNN has a bureau in Islamabad, but declined to offer details. Fox News may not have understood the question.

Talking on RadioNation this week, Jonathan Schell couldn't have put it more strongly. Even before the declaration of a state of emergency, there was an emergency. "The Pakistan of Pervez Musharraf has, by now, become a one-country inventory of all the major forms of the nuclear danger," writes Schell. Crude coverage has created a dangerous over-simplification: "The US media have set things up as strong man vs, terrorist," says journalist and author Ahmed Rashid on this Sunday's program.

Pakistan's journalists, always under pressure, have been fighting for their lives. President Pervez Musharraf's government has shut down local TV stations, stopped foreign cable newscasts and threatened journalists with imprisonment. On Thursday, two of Pakistan's four main national news channels returned to the air. It's unclear if the channel's owners agreed to the government's requirement that they sign a "code of conduct."

Sadly, US media don't need a "code of conduct" to keep them in line. Pakistan vs. Punditry? As far as the US media are concerned, there's simply no comparison.


Muted Victory for Ehren Watada

This country sets aside two days to honor military service. On Veterans Day we celebrate the living; on Memorial Day we remember the dead.

I'd like to propose a third national holiday: Active Duty day. A day to celebrate those who refuse to leave their conscience at home. A day to cherish those who elevate this nation's morals by refusing to participate in illegal acts.

Leading this year's Active Conscience-on-Duty Day parade should be First Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq.

"To me," Watada told a court earlier this year, leading soldiers into battle in Iraq "means to participate in a war that I believe to be illegal."

Last Thursday a civilian judge handed Watada a victory against those in the military who would like to see him silenced, convicted and locked up.

In June 2006, Watada gained international attention when he publicly denounced the Iraq war as an illegal occupation and then refused to deploy with his Fort Lewis Stryker Brigade.

This February, his court-martial ended in a mistrial, after which his attorneys claimed that Fifth Amendment constitutional protections protected him from a second round in court.

On November 8, Judge Benjamin Settle agreed: "The same Fifth Amendment protections are in place for military service members as are afforded to civilians ... . To hold otherwise would ignore the many sacrifices that American soldiers have made throughout history to protect these sacred rights," he wrote.

In issuing a preliminary injunction, the Judge concluded that "it is likely" that Watada will succeed in his claims that a second court-martial would violate constitutional protections against being tried twice for the same crimes.

But Army officials aren't giving up. In a statement, they said they will file briefs in U.S. District Court to try to prevent the injunction from becoming permanent.

Now is the time for all moral men and women in uniform to stand up -- not just behind Lt. Watada, but at his side. So far, not one other officer has followed in the lieutenant's footsteps.

According to the Army more than 10,000 soldiers have deserted since the Iraq invasion started. Every year, the number of deserters has gone up. Official statistics say 3,196 went AWOL last year, compared to 2,543 the year before. Based on the calls they received, groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War put the real numbers at ten times that.

Desert if you must, but better yet, come out. Activate your Conscience on Duty and I bet I won't be the only one to hoot and holler and organize a parade.

For more on Lt.Watada's case go to Thank you Lt. Ehren Watada.

40 Years On, a New Call to Resist?

Forty years ago, a handful of smart Americans had an idea how to end a war. They published a call for moral, political and financial support for those refusing to serve. Initially signed by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Grace Paley, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Marcus Raskin, and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin among others, eventually, 20,000 signed on and the indispensable RESIST foundation was formed.

Listening as it was read aloud at a 40th anniversary party this weekend, "Resist: A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority" seems as relevant as ever. How about a second Call?

The Call:

1. An ever growing number of young American men are finding that the American war in Vietnam so outrages their deepest moral and religious sense that they cannot contribute to it in any way. We share their moral outrage.

2. We further believe that the war is unconstitutional and illegal. Congress has not declared a war as required by the Constitution. Moreover, under the Constitution, treaties signed by the President andratified by the Senate have the same force as the Constitution itself. The Charter of the United Nations is such a treaty. The Charter specifically obligates the United States to refrain from force or the threat of force in international relations. It requires member states to exhaust every peaceful means of settling disputes and to submit disputes which cannot be settled peacefully to the Security Council. The United States has systematically violated all of these Charter provisions for thirteen years.

3. Moreover, this war violates international agreements, treaties and principles of law which the United States Government has solemnly endorsed. The combat role of the United States troops in Vietnamviolates the Geneva Accords of 1954 which our government pledged to support but has since subverted. The destruction of rice, crops and livestock; the burning and bulldozing of entire villages consisting exclusively of civilian structures; the interning of civilian non-combatants in concentration camps; the summary executions of civilians in captured villages who could not produce satisfactoryevidence of their loyalties or did not wish to be removed to concentration camps; the slaughter of peasants who dared to stand up in their fields and shake their fists at American helicopters; - these are all actions of the kind which the United States and the other victorious powers of World War II declared to be crimes against humanity for which individuals were to be held personally responsibleeven when acting under the orders of their governments and for which Germans were sentenced at Nuremberg to long prison terms and death The prohibition of such acts as war crimes was incorporated in treaty law by the Geneva Conventions of 1949, ratified by the United States. These are commitments to other countries and to Mankind, and they would claim our allegiance even if Congress should declare war.

4. We also believe it is an unconstitutional denial of religious liberty and equal protection of the laws to withhold draft exemption from men whose religious or profound philosophical beliefs are opposed to what in the Western religious tradition have be en long known as unjust wars.

5. Therefore, we believe on all these grounds that every free man has a legal right and a moral duty to exert every effort to end this war, to avoid collusion with it, and to encourage others to do the same.Young men in the armed forces or threatened wit h the draft face the most excruciating choices. For them various forms of resistance risk separation from their families and their country, destruction of theircareers, loss of their freedom and loss of their lives. Each must choose the course of resistance dictated by his conscience and circumstances. Among those already in the armed forces some arerefusing to obey specific illegal and immoral orders, some are attempting to educate their fellow servicemen on the murderous and barbarous nature of the wa r some are absenting themselves withoutofficial leave. Among those not in the armed forces some are applying for status as conscientious objectors to American aggression in Vietnam, some are refusing to be inducted. Among both groupssome are resisting o penly and paying a heavy penalty, some are organizing more resistance within the United States and some have sought sanctuary in other countries.

6. We believe that each of these forms of resistance against illegitimate authority is courageous and justified. Many of us believe that open resistance to the war and the draft is the course of action most likely to strengthen the moral resolve with whic h all of us can oppose the war and most likely to bring an end to the war.

7. We will continue to lend our support to those who undertake resistance to this war. We will raise funds to organize draft resistance unions, to supply legal defense and bail, to support families and otherwise aid resistance to the war in whatever ways may seem appropriate.

8. We firmly believe that our statement is the sort of speech that under the First Amendment must be free, and that the actions we will undertake are as legal as is the war resistance of the young menthemselves. But we recognize that the courts may find otherwise, and that if so we might all be liable to prosecution and severe punishment. In any case, we feel that we cannot shrink from fulfilling our responsibilities to the youth whom many of us teach, to the country whose freedom we cherish, and to the ancient traditions of religion and philosophy which we strive to preserve in this generation.

9. We call upon all men of good will to join us in this confrontation with immoral authority. Especially we call upon the universities to fulfill their mission of enlightenment and religious organizations to honor their heritage of brotherhood. Now is the time to resist.

LAURA FLANDERS is the host of RadioNation and the author of Blue Grit: True Democrats Take Back Politics from the Politicians.


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