TV and radio appearances by Nation writers and editors, big Nation announcements.
Friction between Russia and the West remains high as Ukrainians prepare for a presidential election scheduled for May 25. Russia has mobilized as many as 40,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border and NATO is making moves along Ukraine’s western border. Pro-Russian demonstrators have seized government buildings in several towns in Eastern Ukraine—Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk—and de facto government in Kiev is calling for United Nations peacekeepers to intervene. The Nation’s editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel joined Sonali Kolhatkar on Uprising Radio to discuss this unfolding crisis.
“We are witnessing civil war,” vanden Heuvel says, one that was “triggered by the European Union’s reckless ultimatum—despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer of a tripartite agreement—which compelled an elected president of a deeply divided country to choose economically between the West and Russia.” She says that a cooling of tensions is still very much within the realm of possibilities, but cautions that peace has its preconditions. First, diplomacy between Ukraine, Russia, the US and the EU needs to proceed in good faith. Additionally, all Ukrainians must be fairly represented in the upcoming presidential elections—and Kiev must take seriously the idea of granting more autonomy to regional administrations.
For more on the US’s role in the crisis, read vanden Heuvel’s post, “Thanks to Republicans, the World Just Got a Little More Dangerous.”
Could next week’s meeting with leaders from the US, EU, Russia and Ukraine de-escalate regional tensions and reduce the likelihood of war? Nation contributing editor Stephen Cohen appears on the John Batchelor Show to weigh in on the implications of diplomatic talks, Western media coverage of the crisis and Ukraine’s identity issues. “If in fact you have an ultranationalist movement taking over Western Ukraine, a pro-Russian movement taking over Eastern Ukraine, that is a kind of de facto partition of the country already,” which means, says Cohen, “the government in Kiev doesn’t control anything, neither west nor east.”
Last month the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a series of proposals for mediating the international confrontation over Ukraine. Controversially, the Russian plan includes the creation of a negotiating group that would exclude the government in Kiev. Russia also wants Ukraine to adopt a federal model of government with vast regional autonomy, as well as to commit to never joining NATO. Longtime Nation contributor Stephen Cohen joins Pacifica Radio’s Beneath The Surface with Suzi Weissman to discuss Russia’s “diplomatic overture,” which Western diplomats and media have largely disregarded. “I think the Russians are right about this,” says Cohen. “You need to have a constitution and a state that reflects the reality of the two Ukraines.”
After being released on bail following a 115-day detention, Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah sat down for an exclusive interview with Nation Institute fellow and Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo on Sunday. Kouddous, who has chronicled Alaa’s persecution by Egyptian leadership for The Nation, spoke to the activist about his most recent arrest, his experience in solitary confinement and the military government's ongoing crackdown on dissent. Alaa still faces charges and tells Kouddous it's "quite likely" that he’ll be convicted and imprisoned again. "They are on a sentencing frenzy," he says, explaining that Egypt’s new protest law makes it easier to charge protesters. "It’s almost as if it’s a war on a whole generation."
Editor’s note: The interview starts at 14:43
Speaking in Brussels on Wednesday, President Obama criticized Russia for running “roughshod over its neighbors” and reaffirmed Washington’s endorsement of the de facto government in Kiev. He acknowledged that the West was not prepared to use military force to retrieve Crimea, but assured the anxious Baltic States bordering Russia that they are safe under NATO's auspices. Russia scholar and longtime Nation contributor Stephen Cohen joined Bloomberg Radio’s The Hays Advantage to give his take on the situation in Ukraine. Cohen says the provocations coming from all sides—Moscow, Washington, Brussels and Kiev—are fueling “the worst crisis since the Cuban Missile Crisis internationally between the United States and Russia.” Presently some 20,000 Russian troops have been assembled on the Russian border with Eastern Ukraine, and NATO commanders and ministers in Washington and Brussels are discussing the possibility of moving NATO troops into Western Ukraine. “A lot of this is bluster and show, but we can’t be sure,” Cohen says. “We need immediately to demilitarize everything—the rhetoric, the troop movements and the rest—because there is a diplomatic way out.” Indeed, there has to be, for the alternative to a negotiated settlement between the US and Russia is, as Cohen puts it, “unthinkable.”
"It's tough for me to imagine The Nation without his thoughtful, humane, powerful voice," said Nation Editor and Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, remembering journalist Jonathan Schell—who passed away this week. Vanden Heuvel appeared on As it Happens with Carol Off & Jeff Douglas (segment begins at 9:05 into the clip) on Thursday, where she paid tribute to a writer whose lifelong commitment to peace and justice found him reporting from Vietnam in 1967, advocating nuclear disarmament and harshly criticizing the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. In the last years of his life, Schell had started work on a book addressing the ecological crisis. "He was a man of conviction," says vanden Heuvel, sustained by a deep belief in the "power of the people."
As a gubernatorial candidate, Chris Christie blasted then-Governor Jon Corzine for using high risk “alternative investment” strategies for New Jersey pension funds. But once Christie became governor, his appointees doubled the allocation of pensions going to “alternatives” like hedge funds, says Nation contributing writer Lee Fang on All In with Chris Hayes. Only now, the hedge funds where pension money is invested include ones run by major contributors to Christie's political campaigns. “They’ve received millions of dollars in fees regardless of the performance of their funds, so they’re helping Chris Christie’s political career and receiving a lot of money,” Fang says. Even leaving politics aside, "alternatives" probably aren't the best pension investment strategy, Fang adds. Drawing on his article in The Nation, he notes that research on both the right and the left shows pension funds perform better with more conservative investment strategies than with alternatives like hedge funds. What's more, "hedge funds and other alternative investments have huge fees associated with them, so even when they do return a high value, that’s eaten away by these fees.”
In a special election last week in a district of Florida on the Gulf of Mexico, Republican David Jolly beat out Democrat Alex Sink for a House seat previously occupied by Republican Bill Young, who passed away in October. Republicans are celebrating the victory as a bellwether of what’s to come in the fall midterm elections and a repudiation of the Affordable Care Act, which Jolly’s campaign spent a good deal of commercial airtime criticizing. Though special election results rarely make for accurate bellwethers—and though this particular district has been Republican since 1983—Democrats are right to worry and to rethink their strategy for the midterms. In this roundtable discussion, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel calls on the Democratic Party to galvanize its base by laying out “a robust economic agenda: minimum wage, better jobs…pre-K, all kinds of things that will turn out core voters.” If Democrats are to seize this “populist moment,” she says, then they will have to be unambiguous and unapologetic in their support for progressive policies. “As my friend, longtime Texas populist Jim Hightower likes to say,” she says, “‘The only thing in the middle of the road are dead armadillos and yellow stripes.’”
Three cheers and a glass of fair trade, organic bubbly for Moshe Z. Marvit for winning the March Sidney Award for his Nation article, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine.” The Sidney is a monthly prize awarded by The Sidney Hillman Foundation to an “outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism.” In recognizing Marvit’s work Sidney Award judge and investigative journalist Lindsay Beyerstein said, “Marvit casts a light on a previously obscure, but profoundly exploited class of workers.”
Crowdworkers are the vast, invisible labor force who toil in the hidden cracks of the Internet—the spaces where digital ingenuity fails and human skill steps in. Working through online brokerages like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and Crowdflower, these workers perform a range of monotonous “microtasks” (think brief surveys, tagging photos, identifying porn and other tasks a computer cannot do) for both large corporations, like Twitter, and random individuals who commission their labor. For this they are paid as little as $2 to $3 an hour, often less.
Among enthusiasts, crowdwork is often hailed as a kind of new labor ideal—a worker Xanadu where freedom, self-determination and flexibility reign. Yet most crowdwork, Marvit reveals, is little more than latter-day piecework draped in high-tech gloss. Working from home, crowd workers, who come from all over the world and are believed to number in the millions, enjoy little in the way of today’s labor protections: because they are classified as independent contractors, they do not qualify for basic employee protections; and because the technology is so new, and the system largely unmonitored, employers can engage in practices that are clearly not legal. The result, Marvit writes in his article: a vast and virtual free market that critics have called “the most unregulated labor marketplace that has ever existed.”
Marvit, who is an attorney focusing on labor and economic law, first came across crowdworking in graduate school. As he tells Beyerstein in an interview published on the Hillman Foundation site, he learned of it from colleagues who were using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to get survey answers. Curious, he began exploring. His research took him from the offices of Amazon, which brought Mechanical Turk online in 2005, to the eighteenth-century court of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who commissioned the original Mechanical Turk, an automaton that audiences believed could play chess. It also took him into the worlds of actual workers, like Stephanie Costello, a full-time turker who has been known to stay up all night to try to find “good-paying” crowdwork. Her definition of good? One hundred and fifty dollars for sixty hours of work a week.
Yet, if the piece offers a devastating portrait of one of today’s more exploitative labor spheres, Marvit also sees it as a warning for potential dangers to come. As he tells Beyerstein, “Many conservatives have been pushing for greater deregulation of labor—such as lowering or eliminating the minimum wage, getting rid of child labor laws, dismantling protections for union organizing—and in Mechanical Turk we can see the world we’d be living in if such deregulation occurred.”
Or, to bring it home: in conservatives’ imagined deregulated dystopia, we are all Mechanical Turks.
(For Lindsay Beyerstein’s full Backstory interview with Moshe Marvit, check out the Hillman Foundation site, here. And for the full version of Marvit’s original article, “How Crowdworkers Became the Ghosts in the Digital Machine,” go here.)
This Sunday residents of Crimea will vote on whether or not to reunite with Russia. The de facto authorities in Kiev have called the impending referendum illegal, and the Obama administration says it will not recognize it. Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel joined a panel on MSNBC to discuss the political situation in Ukraine, the disputed legitimacy of the upcoming referendum and the so-called “masculinity crisis” facing President Obama. A precondition to the emergence of a democratic and economically stable Ukraine, she says, is that we drop the Cold War framing and bluster. Rather, the US should promote a negotiated settlement that includes “fair and free elections, a promise not to expand NATO into Ukraine, and an agreement that Ukraine can be part of both the EU and the Russian customs union.”