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Last August, after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, Rand Paul argued: “I don’t think there is objective evidence that we’re precluding African-Americans from voting any longer.” (For a comprehensive rebuttal, read Andrew Cohen’s “Here’s Where Rand Paul Can Find ‘Objective Evidence’ of Voter Suppression.”)
Nine months later, Paul is saying of voter ID laws,: “It’s wrong for Republicans to go too crazy on this issue because it’s offending people.” He’s conceded that Republicans have “over-emphasized” the prevalence of voter fraud and has called cutting early voting hours “a mistake.” He’s working with Eric Holder and lobbying in his home state of Kentucky to restore voting rights to nonviolent ex-felons. This from a guy who ran for office as a darling of the Tea Party and suggested that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was unconstitutional.
Paul’s new religion on voting rights is evidence of a broader shift on the issue. In recent weeks, courts in Wisconsin and Arkansas have struck down voter ID laws and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett decided not to appeal a Commonwealth Court decision in January overturning his state’s voter ID law. Extensive rulings in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have strongly undercut the case for voter ID laws, showing that hundreds of thousands of registered voters lack the specific forms of newly required government-issued ID, that these voters are disproportionately black and Hispanic and lower-income, that obtaining such ID can be a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare, and that there is no evidence of voter impersonation to justify such burdens. As Judge Lynn Adelman wrote in Wisconsin, “It is absolutely clear that [voter ID] will prevent more legitimate votes from being cast than fraudulent votes.” (A two-year investigation into voter fraud in Iowa found zero cases of voter impersonation at the polls.)
In 2008, the Supreme Court upheld Indiana’s voter ID law in a 6-3 decision authored by Justice John Paul Stevens, one of the most liberal Justices on the Court. Even though Indiana presented no evidence of in-person voter impersonation to support the law, Stevens wrote that the state’s “interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process” justified whatever burdens would result from strict voter ID. But in 2013, Stevens told The Wall Street Journal that he is not “a fan of voter ID” and that “the impact of the statute is much more serious” on poor, minority, disabled and elderly voters than he believed in 2008.
Judge Richard Posner, who also upheld Indiana’s voter ID law on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, has also changed his tune on the issue, calling voter ID “a type of law now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.” Voter ID laws and related voting restrictions are increasingly being rejected in the courts, by politicians and among the public.
As I wrote recently, many Republicans used to strongly support voting rights and played instrumental roles in the enactment of the Voting Rights Act and its four reauthorizations. That changed dramatically following Barack Obama’s election, when GOP-backed voting restrictions sprung up all across the map. Maybe now the pendulum is swinging back to expanding the franchise. It will be a welcome sign when Paul isn’t the only major Republican to criticize his party for making it harder for people to vote.
UPDATE: Paul's office released this statement from Doug Stafford, advisor to Senator Paul:
“Senator Paul was having a larger discussion about criminal justice reform and restoration of voting rights, two issues he has been speaking about around the country and pushing for in state and federal legislation.
In the course of that discussion, he reiterated a point he has made before that while there may be some instances of voter fraud, it should not be a defining issue of the Republican Party, as it is an issue that is perhaps perceived in a way it is not intended. At no point did Senator Paul come out against voter ID laws. In terms of the specifics of voter ID laws, Senator Paul believes it's up to each state to decide that type of issue.”
UPDATE II: On Tuesday, May 13, Paul "clarified" his views on voter ID in interviews with Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Greta Van Susteren, making clear that he supports voter ID laws but believes that Republicans should "emphasize" other issues. Read Steve Benen of Maddowblog for more.
Read Next: Republicans used to support voting rights, what happened?
We’ve touted John Oliver’s new HBO Sunday night show, but here we go again: He hosted a great climate change “debate” last night—fun but with a serious edge (as with his anti–death penalty segment last week).
So last night he hosted a “debate” between Bill Nye, science guy, and ninety-six others who agree with him, vs. three skeptics (which reflects the reality, not the Fox News version).
In contrast, here is how the level-playing-field debate is usually handled, with Bill Nye vs. S.E. Cupp.
In other late-night TV comedy news: Larry Wilmore, longtime Daily Show “senior black correpsondent” and a star writer, has been picked to take over Stephen Colbert’s time slot at Comedy Central when the great one departs early next year for the Letterman time slot. No, Larry will not portray a blowhard African-American Fox News star because…there aren’t any? But it would be cool if he pronounced the title of his show, The Minority Report, as “The Minority Re-pore.”
Read Next: Climate change deniers continue to ignore that the house is on fire.
The best Twitter joke this year was W. Kamau Bell trying to start the hashtag #letshaveanuanceddiscussion. Having a nuanced discussion, one tweet at a time, is only slightly easier than being that damn camel trying to make it through the eye of a needle. Today, as the last rounds of the NFL draft played out on multiple television channels and the names of players scrolled across the screen, nuance was the last thing many of us wanted to exercise. Michael Sam, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year who told the world he was gay last February, was going undrafted, eventually picked 249th in the seventh and last round by the St. Louis Rams. This in and of itself was history, and not only because Sam was drafted. No SEC DPOY had ever gone that long before being selected. In fact, no SEC DPOY in the last ten years had even lasted past the second round.
The reasons for this are on one level complicated. Michael Sam had a terrible NFL combine. He is a “tweener” neither big enough to play defensive line nor quick enough to be an every-down linebacker. He projected even before he “came out” as a mid-round pick. All of that being said, Michael Sam fell down draftboards, costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars, because of the slow steady drip of groupthink that became a flood and took over the process. NFL “draft experts” prepared the public to not expect any history this weekend, emphasizing that his sexuality had nothing to do with it.
But if Michael Sam’s sexuality’s being an inhibitor to his draft status is not your starting point for understanding all of this, I believe you’re lost without a compass. This is not to argue that all general managers in the NFL are homophobic. It’s not about what kinds of prejudice lurks in the hearts of individual executives. It’s about a systemic problem in an NFL that loathes independent thinkers, fears political controversy and hates “distractions.”
The NFL's homophobia is in an institution that equates being gay with being “controversial” or “political,” not realizing that this is their problem, not Michael Sam’s. This is the league imbibing and regurgitating the same backward logic that keeps people in the closet, scared to tell their family and friends who they are and doing horrible damage to themselves and the people close to them. This is why we can talk until the cows come home about whether Michael Sam is a “tweener” as a player, his poor combine and all the rest of it but it doesn’t get at the root of the issue. This is why we can praise NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell—yes, Roger Goodell—for being out front in supporting and welcoming to Sam when he came out, but we also need to understand what happened and why this groupthink about Sam took root.
As sportswriter Howard Bryant said, Michael Sam is threatening to the institutional biases that exist in the league precisely because he was brave enough to try and control his own narrative. For a league built on idealized notions of machismo and toughness, for a league that speaks in military jargon like they would’ve been the first one to storm the beaches of Normandy if given half the chance, they were a profile in cowardice this weekend. They were scared. It’s the same fear that you see when Goodell announces that they want to police and punish players for saying n____, but are scared to do anything but continue to promote a racial slur as the name of one of its teams. It’s the same fear you see when they aggressively promote tackle football for kids—with ads particularly aimed at moms—during the Super Bowl while their own data comes in at a taxi-cab meter pace about how playing tackle can cause permanent brain injury in children. It’s the same fear you see when they suspend one of their best players for smoking weed. What NFL bosses want, need and crave above all else, is control. Michael Sam represented a loss of that control because he dared—I will say it again—to try and control his own narrative. That is the NFL’s problem, not Michael Sam’s. It also has nothing to do with his forty time at the combine. And that, in my view, it is the starting point for understanding why Michael Sam lasted until pick number 249. All praise to Jeff Fisher and the Rams for stepping up to the NFL's risk-averse culture and not letting this young man suffer the ritual humiliation of going undrafted under the brightest possible spotlight. All praise to Michael Sam for his bravery and selfassurance to deliver the kiss heard 'round the sports world. All praise for Sam's righteous anger at having slipped down draftboards, tweeting out, "Michael Sam is pissed off for greatness!" But the NFL has issues, and they were on full display on Saturday.
Read Next: Donald Sterling, awful sports owners and the "slippery slope."
—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.
“When the People Cheer: How Hip-Hop Failed Black America,” by Questlove. Vulture, April 22, 2014.
“Maybe domination isn’t quite a victory,” muses Ahmir Khalib Thompson—aka Questlove—in the first of six essays about the recent history of hip-hop for New York’s Vulture.com. Questlove has spent the past two decades as the drummer and co-frontman of the Roots, one of hip-hop’s most highly regarded bands. In these essays—an ambitious reckoning with the genre’s past that also takes stock of its present—he adopts the gravity and authority of an elder-statesman, though without any of the attendant pomp, propriety or self-importance (i.e., I can’t imagine Jimmy Carter saying “History is more interested in getting its nut off,” even if he might agree). Here, Questlove tackles the central questions of hip-hop’s ascendance: what happens when a genre which “once offered resistance to mainstream culture” is made “an integral part of the sullen dominant?” And why does hip-hop’s move from marginalized obscurity to “signal pop-music genre” feel like such a hollow—or at least “haunted”—victory? His answers, like the questions, are complex and incomplete, offering myriad opportunities for Questlove’s signature poetics. In the end, he says, “Time will tell.” Because “time is always telling. Time never stops telling.”
—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.
“The Hunt for El Chapo,” by Patrick Radden Keefe. The New Yorker, May 5, 2014.
The capture of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was the story of the year in Mexico, the image of history’s most successful drug trafficker in handcuffs hard to believe for anyone familiar with the story. The impossibly elusive Chapo had for more than a decade thwarted the efforts of Mexico and the United States, hiding in the mountains while continuously expanding the reach of his Sinaloa cartel. However, behind the cliché tale of yet another larger-than-life drug lord—the opulent lifestyle, the daring escapes, the unbridled violence—are several important political stories that get very little attention in the American media: the use of torture by the Mexican army and the complete inefficacy of the Washington-backed “kingpin strategy.” The information that ultimately led to Chapo’s capture most likely came from torture, leading some journalists to claim that this was a wonderful, real-life example of a “ticking-bomb interrogation”—a time-sensitive situation in which torture would be tactically justified. Keefe was quick to dismiss these claims, insisting that the situation was “less of a bomb than a slow war of attrition,” and that Chapo’s capture would in actuality lead to more violence in the short term as his associates fight to take his place.
—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.
“Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode,” by Nancy Fraser. New Left Review, March-April 2014.
Nancy Fraser combines a lucid account of the current political and intellectual moment with an equally sharp critique of Marxist theory. She writes that “the current boom in capitalism talk” is a “symptom of a desire for a systematic critique,” one that contends with previous generations’ failure, “despite professed good intentions, to incorporate the insights of feminism, postcolonialism and ecological thought” simultaneously into a coherent critique of capitalism. Fraser attempts to address that failure. Capitalism relies on the creation and maintenance of a number of realms apparently “outside” it, she explains: “extra-economic” spheres like the family, nature and politics. Insightfully and at length, she both denies that these are really “outside” capitalism and, on the other hand, that they’re reducible to purely “economic” realms rather than being truly qualitatively different. The specific relationships she outlines between a traditional Marxist critique of capitalism and some of often seemingly unrelated social movements that populate the contemporary left (feminism, environmentalism, etc.) offer an interesting and useful way to imagine them working in concert.
—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.
“Russia Quietly Tightens Reins on Web With ‘Bloggers Law,’” by Neil MacFarquhar. The New York Times, May 6, 2014.
In a world where the Internet is a special CIA project, anonymous bloggers are spreading insidious lies on the Internet aimed at sullying the reputation of dear leader Vladimir Putin and he will have none of it. Doesn’t it read like the back cover of a science fiction novel? In truth, anonymous bloggers threaten Vladimir Putin enough for him to feel justified in installing a new censorship law specifically targeting them. Any site with more than 3,000 visitors a day will have to register with the state, thereby sacrificing its anonymity, a precious and vital tool for dissidents in Russia. The Times writes, “Russia is among a growing list of countries that have sought to shut down Internet voices circumventing a subservient national news media.” The law will take effect on August 1 and failure to comply may result in a fine up to $142,000.
—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.
“Missing From This Year’s Water Debate: Celeste Cantú Knows a Cheaper, Better Way,” by Justin Ewers. California Economic Summit, May 6, 2014.
While the West was settled, the director of the US Geologic Survey (1881-94) John Wesley Powell pushed hard to define new state boundaries according to watershed. He is now yelling, “I told you so!” from his grave. This piece profiles how, by practicing state-aided regional water-governance, Santa Ana River watershed’s 5.9 million citizens have avoided water shortages in California’s historic drought. The question is no longer if watershed governance is a good idea. “The question is,” to quote Cantú, “How do we get back to the original idea—to get all of the water managers in a watershed to work together on projects that involve the same drops of water?” In California, it seems, a lack of simple intra-watershed communication is often to blame. Powell, after long last, is having his moment—thanks, climate change!
—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups’ relationship with technology and development.
“The Case for Rebooting the Network Neutrality Debate,” by Barbara van Schewick. The Atlantic, May 6, 2014.
It’s interesting to read Barbara van Schewick’s thorough argument against the FCC proposal to (further) limit net neutrality, alongside the Vice Motherboard story on the few activists actually protesting at the FCC. The disconnect that Motherboard’s Meghan Neal points out between the surge of clicktivism on the issue and the meager physical turnout may help explain why van Schewick (or her editor) has felt the need to head her first section, “Net Neutrality: Not Just An Abstraction.” NPR has begun past stories with similar qualifications, along the lines of, “although net neutrality may sound boring…” In this context, van Schewick does a good job showing how ending net neutrality is indeed a very material issue that would not only directly affect consumers but more generally dampen the Internet’s vitality by making innovation the realm of only those with significant resources to get started.
—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.
“A Return to the Dark,” by Christina Lamb. The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2014.
My teenage niece can’t stop talking about the last book she read, lent to her by a teacher—The Kite Runner. It led her to quite an epiphany: the country she imagined, with a citizenry straight out of an oriental fever dream, was in fact comprised of humans, not terrorists. In Christina Lamb’s piece for The Wilson Quarterly, which devoted its entire spring issue to Afghanistan, Lamb focuses on a few narratives as she examines what has happened to women in the country since the US invasion, and what may happen when the troops pull out later this year. “Telling those stories is important,” she says, “as long as they are told, then there is at least the possibility of bearing witness to the long struggle of Afghan women for better lives.” These two very different interpretations of our engagement with Afghanistan, Lamb’s and my niece’s, explain a lot about how the war is understood (or isn’t) in our country. In between that span of information we have fiction like Hosseini’s novel and non-fiction like Lamb’s piece to humanize Afghanistan for those who don’t know enough, and re-humanize it for those numb from knowing too much.
—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.
“Maternal deaths in childbirth rise in the U.S.,” by Carol Morello. The Washington Post, May 2, 2014.
In a previous weekly article pick, I commented on UK versus US health statistics—and how the UK generally blows us out of the water. Let me add maternal mortality to that list. A new study finds that the United States has maternal mortality rates three times that of the UK. Even China is better at keeping expectant and new mothers alive than the United States is. The United States is one of only a handful of countries whose maternal mortality rates are actually getting worse—we’re right there alongside Afghanistan and Greece.
This Washington Post article notes that American maternal mortality may be rising because women who are not the healthiest among us (those who have diabetes, hypertension, etc.), and who would previously have died or been unable to have children before, are now—through longer lives and better medical technology—able to give birth. That’s a fair enough argument, but Canada and the UK, which both have much better maternal mortality rates than the United States, are also strugging to support populations who live longer and are less healthy. Dare I ask: could the problem also be access to health care? And more importantly, access to high-quality, consistent, patient-centered pre- and post-natal care, in which mothers are tracked throughout their pregnancy and the baby’s first year of life, and not just strapped on a hospital gurney and rushed through labor? Statistics only tell so much, but when a study shows that the country’s maternal mortality rate has more than doubled in less than two decades, it should cause national reflection about how we’re giving care and to whom.
—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.
“Green is Good: The Nature Conservatory wants to persuade big business to save the environment,” by D.T. Max. The New Yorker, May 12, 2014.
Mark Tercek, the head of the Nature Conservancy, is an unlikely environmentalist. A former partner at Goldman Sachs, he believes, as D.T. Max puts it in this New Yorker profile, that “nudging big business in a green direction… can do far more good than cordoning off parcels of Paradise.”
Tercek—who took a 90 percent salary cut when he left banking to join the Conservancy in 2008—regards the organization’s traditional mission as a hopeless cause: even “preserved” land is not immune to climate change. Under his leadership, the world’s largest nongovernmental environmental organization now collaborates with the very businesses activists have been fighting (e.g., the Dow Chemical Company).
Some in the environmental movement see the Conservancy’s engagement with companies like Dow as smart and necessary and practical, a welcome emergence from the purist fantasy that ecological sustainability requires a rejection of economic development altogether. But, as Max points out, “There is an obvious limitation to this approach: business logic often doesn’t line up with green logic.”
—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.
“R.I.P., Gary Becker,” by Kathleen Geier. Washington Monthly, May 4, 2014.
Writing at the Washington Monthly, Kathleen Geier offers an evaluation of two parts of University of Chicago economist Gary Becker’s formidable legacy: his work on the family and his theory of human capital. Acknowledging the influence that his work has had throughout the social sciences by opening up new realms of human experience for economic study, she critiques him for failing to take into consideration power relations that interact with neoclassical economic models. Geier makes a strong case that this expansion of economic thought is extremely sinister (and this post that describes Foucault’s reading of Becker certainly puts things in perspective), but I appreciated how she ends by recognizing the power of Becker’s influential methods.
Read Next: We need to talk about cyberbullying.
Activists launched a Mother’s Day “Week of Action” campaign on Friday to support Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman facing sixty years in prison for firing warning shots to ward off her abusive husband.
Alexander was initially convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, despite the fact that her husband had attacked her and nobody was injured, and sentenced to twenty years in prison. A circuit judge overturned that conviction on appeal, and now Florida State Attorney Angela Corey is seeking a sixty-year prison sentence for Alexander. A hearing has been set for May 16 to determine whether Alexander qualifies for another “stand your ground” hearing. Jury selection for her retrial is scheduled to begin on July 21.
Members of Free Marissa Now, an advocacy group, demonstrated outside of Corey’s office Friday, inviting people to send cards to Alexander. They also launched a social media campaign to raise funds for her legal defense.
The group also hopes to shed light on the impact of mass incarceration on women. The female prison population grew 832 percent from 1977 to 2007, about double the growth rate of male prisons. Seventy percent of incarcerated women are mothers, the majority of whom served as primary caretakers before they were separated from their children. Alexander, a mother of two teenage twins and a 3-year-old daughter, will spend the holiday under house arrest.
We spoke with Alisa Bierria, an activist with the Free Marissa Now campaign and PhD candidate at Stanford University, about Alexander’s case and the “Week of Action.” (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Can you tell me a little about this Mother’s Day campaign?
Marissa Alexander is a proud mother of three, including teenage twins and a 3-year-old daughter. She had given premature birth to her youngest child nine days before she was forced to defend her life after being attacked by her abusive estranged husband. When she was incarcerated for almost three years for defending herself, she was forced away from her children, including a baby who was still breastfeeding. Her reality as a mother is central to her experience of violence from both her husband and the state. We launched the Mother’s Day Week of Action as a way to build support for Marissa and to highlight the ways in which issues of mothering and reproductive justice really shapes her case and experiences of both domestic violence and incarceration. Those issues are intertwined for so many mothers in the United States, so we wanted to help people make the connections.
What is the plan for the campaign?
We’re starting today. Jacksonville-based organizers will be tabling today in front of State Prosecutor’s Angela Corey’s office. Tabling in front of Ms. Corey’s office is an expression of resistance to her continued prosecution and unjust targeting of this mother. Organizers will have information to hand out and Mother’s Day cards to mail to Marissa, so people can send her their support, hopefully reducing the isolation she’s experiencing while under house arrest. We’ll also encourage people to donate to the Marissa Alexander Legal Defense Fund for her trial, still scheduled for July 28. She’s facing $250,000 in legal fees, and that’s with a pro bono legal team.
Nationally and internationally, we’re inviting people to send Mother’s Day cards to Marissa and other mothers facing prison, violence, or who just need extra support. We invite people to spread the word about Marissa’s case, and share resources about the relationship between mothering and pregnancy, mass incarceration and domestic violence with their communities. We want people to know that this isn’t only impacting Marissa, but its impacting thousands and thousands of other women and parents.
You mentioned that the campaign intends to tie Marissa’s experience to the issue of women, mass incarceration and reproductive justice more broadly. Could you expand on that connection?
First, the majority of women in prison, about 70 percent, are mothers. 1.3 million children have mothers who are in jail, in prison or on probation. When women are incarcerated, it’s particularly devastating to children and families because they tend to be the primary caretakers. When we think about mass incarceration and who is being put in prison and why, we really have to understand that people behind bars are not just individuals that exist without any community or family or people depending on them…. Prisons create a devastating ripple effect across families and communities. On Mother’s Day, we want to celebrate all mothers, including those who are being disappeared into prisons. The US leads the world in the numbers of people caged and, for decades, black women were one of the fastest-growing groups of incarcerated people. Black mothers, in particular, are experiencing the brunt of mass incarceration policies.
Additionally, prison itself enacts reproductive violence. Last year, we learned that people in California women’s prisons were being coerced into being sterilized. In thirty-three states, it’s shockingly legal to shackle incarcerated women while they are in labor. Prisons have a profoundly violent impact on the experience of mothering and giving birth, and reproductive health in general. For Marissa, as a result of being incarcerated and targeted by state prosecutors, her abusive estranged husband currently has custody over her youngest child. To really support mothers, we must urgently address the ways that the prison crisis and domestic violence shape their lives.
* * *
Click here for more information on Marissa Alexander and this Mother’s Day campaign.
Monica Lewinsky has penned a 4,000-word, somewhat irritating and rather selective article about her treatment by the public since the affair (see Rebecca Traister at The New Republic for a great critique). The faults of her essay aside, Lewinsky is not undeserving of sympathy. What happened to her—the gross and near-total sexual shaming; the reduction of her personhood to a blowjob, a cigar and a cum stain; the fake and opportunistic sympathy from the right; the near twenty-year long tabloidization and ridicule of her every subsequent move—is irredeemably awful.
That said, Lewinsky lost me when she explained her rationale for reintroducing herself to society now—which she claims is the 2010 suicide of Rutgers gay freshman Tyler Clementi, who killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge four days after his roommate briefly streamed him making out with another man in their dorm room. That tragedy, Lewinsky says, brought her to tears, and prompted her mother to relive the dark weeks in 1998 when she held a kind of suicide vigil over her daughter’s bed. Fair and tender and empathetic enough. Lewinsky also takes care to distinguish between Clementi’s plight and her own calamity, which was brought on in part by her “own poor choices.” Yes, that’s right.
But the continued juxtaposition of her ordeal with Clementi’s—as precipitated by a comparable atmosphere of “online humiliation” and “public shaming”—frankly rankles. So, too, does the subsequent self-attribution of altruistic motives. “I wished I could have had a chance to have spoken to Tyler about how my love life, my sex life, my most private moments, my most sensitive secrets, had been broadcast around the globe,” Lewinsky writes. “I wish I had been able to say to him that I knew a little of how it might have felt for him to be exposed before the world.”
This comparison, however well-intentioned, is narcissistic and inaccurate. While he lived, Clementi was in no way a public figure. He was not known globally, nationally, on campus or even particularly in his dorm. His “online harassment” lasted a total of four days, not decades. Contrary to popular belief, Clementi’s sexual encounter was neither recorded nor broadcast widely (for a more detailed account, see Ian Parker’s forensic analysis in The New Yorker and my own coverage here and here). A total of six students—Dharun Ravi, his friend Molly Wei and four others—saw only a few seconds of kissing. Ravi did tweet about the first encounter (“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay”), and Clementi saw that tweet, prompting a formal request to change rooms. Ravi also tweeted that he would broadcast a second liaison, which Clementi thwarted by unplugging Ravi’s computer. At most, Ravi had about 150 Twitter followers, most of whom were high school friends, and there is no evidence that his two tweets circulated beyond a small circle.
Pace Lewinsky, Tyler Clementi was not the victim of a worldwide, social media–enabled public humiliation. He was the victim of rather common peer-to-peer bullying, and what role that bullying had in his decision to take his life, just four days after the first incident, is still a great mystery.
The public branding of Monica Lewinsky is not. It was an utterly predictable result of the alignment of sex, media and partisan politics. What drove her global humiliation was the fact that she had an affair with the president of the United States, that there was an independent prosecutor with broad subpoena powers to investigate that president, that every media outfit (right-wing and otherwise) had a financial reason to drive that scandal to page one and that hatchet hacks like Newt Gingrich, David Brock, Lucianne Goldberg, Matt Drudge and Linda Tripp stood to gain, politically and personally, from bringing Bill Clinton down. Moreover, very little of this had to do with online technology—which, as Lewinsky herself notes, was in its infancy in 1998 (pre-Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, TMZ, Gawker). It had everything to do with politics.
Suffice to say, none of these conditions applied to Tyler Clementi. I appreciate Lewinsky’s empathy for gay teenagers, and I wish her well in her quest to find some purpose in life beyond being “that woman.” But her equation of her ordeal with Clementi’s, and the suggestion that she has something meaningful to say about it, does a disservice both to the world-historically unprecedented clusterfuck that was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and to the all-too-quotidian challenges gay teenagers like Clementi face in digitally connected communities.
Between 2003 and 2008, a Minnesota charter school executive named Joel Pourier embezzled more than $1.3 million from his school, the Oh Day Aki Charter School. While students at Oh Day Aki went without field trips and supplies for lack of funds, Pourier bought houses and cars and tossed bills at strippers. Because his school received federal funding—charter schools are privately run but many receive significant public financing—taxpayers were, in effect, subsidizing his lavish lifestyle.
Pourier’s case is just one of many collected in a new report by the Center for Popular Democracy and Integrity in Education that documents shocking misuses of the federal funds being funneled into the poorly regulated charter industry. The report examined fifteen states with large networks of charter schools and found that more than $100 million in public money had been lost to fraud, waste and other abuse. “Despite rapid growth in the charter school industry, no agency, federal or state, has been given the resources to properly oversee it,” the report says. “Given this inadequate oversight, we worry that the fraud and mismanagement that has been uncovered thus far might be just the tip of the iceberg.”
On Friday, lawmakers in the House largely missed an opportunity to strengthen oversight of charter schools, passing a bill to encourage charter school growth by boosting federal funding without including several amendments that were offered to increase transparency and accountability. The bill, called the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act, increases federal funding for charters from $250 million to $300 million. The bill received wide bipartisan support—it passed by a overwhelming 360-45— although it is being championed by GOP leaders, who tout charter expansion and “school choice” as a central part of their anti-poverty agenda. “This legislation is about upwards mobility,” said majority leader Eric Cantor, who also took the opportunity to bash New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for his position on charter school co-locations.
Very few Democrats pushed back on the legislation, in part because it includes a few provisions sought by charter critics, including allowing charters to prioritize special-needs students and English language learners in the admissions process. Still, this is the first reauthorization of the federal charter program since 2001, and the charter sector has vastly changed and expanded since then. The fact that Democrats did not rally around bids for better oversight indicates how murky the party’s education platform has grown. Charter advocates are increasingly vocal on the left, helping to secure new federal resources; meanwhile, financial and political support for traditional public schools is quietly eroding.
“We’ve essentially agreed to almost all of the elements that were in the original Republican bill and made almost no effort to level the playing field” between charters and traditional public schools, Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva told me on Wednesday. Grijalva was one of the three Democrats who voted against the charter bill in committee. “Incrementally, more and more of the resources are going to the public charters. There are no additional resources going to the traditional public schools. They’re getting poorer and darker, in terms of the complexion of the kids that are going there.”
“Why is it that we think this is such a valid method of instruction and structure that we are willing to invest nine figures worth of federal money in those programs when we’re starving programs like Title 1 and IDEA?” asked Representative Tim Bishop of New York. Title 1 provides funding for schools with a high proportion of low-income students; IDEA supports services for special needs children. Both have seen sizable cuts in recent years.
On Thursday, the House Rules Committee refused to allow debate on amendments from Grijalva regarding open board meetings, public audit requirements and conflict of interest guidelines—regulations that traditional public schools work under. Before the full vote on Friday, lawmakers rejected an amendment to enforce conflict of interest guidelines for people affiliated with federally funded charters, and another from Democratic Representative Gwen Moore, which would have put aside 2 percent of federal grant money for charters and given it to states to use for oversight. “We often say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re going to audit themselves,’” Moore said on the floor. “With what? Audits cost money.”
Though charters receive federal funding, they are run like private businesses, and in general are not subject to the same kind of oversight as traditional public schools are. “Charter schools are public schools, so they should be held to the same accountability standards as traditional public schools, including those in the [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] and other federal requirements,” the National Education Association wrote in anticipation of the House vote.
The Center for Popular Democracy report serves as a timely warning against using federal dollars to convert public education into an industry with inadequate regulation. “Without sufficient regulations to ensure true public accountability, incompetent and/or unethical individuals and firms can (and have) inflict great harm on communities,” says the report, which references the damage done recently by allowing industries like banking and lending to expand rapidly without an adequate safety net. The report follows a memorandum from the Department of Education’s Office of the Inspector General that states that state officials are failing “to provide adequate oversight needed to ensure that Federal funds [were] properly used and accounted for.”
Supporters of increased oversight point out that issues of transparency and accountability are distinct from larger ideological debates about charters. Grijalva told me that oversight provisions would not have interfered with the original intention of the bill, which he characterized as encouraging the expansion of charters across the country. “I think public charters are going to be difficult if not impossible to uproot, and that’s not the intention,” Grijalva said. “But if we’re playing on the same field and if this is…a philosophy of market-driven education where competition will produce the best results in our institutions, then let’s make the competition equal. Let’s make disclosure fair and open, let’s make sure that there’re no inside deals.”
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson, who has sharply criticized the charter movement in the past, explained that she voted for the bill because it offered a few minor improvements, and because defeating it would not strike a serious blow to charters. Still, she expressed frustration with the overall lack of support for traditional public education among her colleagues. “This is wrong, what we’re doing. We should be investing in public education, and not investing in charters. And I am frustrated with the White House as they step out to support charters,” she said.
President Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan have both issued strong praise for the charter movement. Although Duncan has chastised charters for allowing bad actors to flourish among their ranks, instead of pressing for oversight he instead has encouraged charters to clean up their own act.
“The education department, from that administrative side, has been a promoter of this market-driven public education system,” Grijalva said. Referring to his colleagues on the Hill, he continued, “I think there’s been a reluctance to criticize that from some people.”
A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate, with the backing of senators from both parties. However, Senator Tom Harkin, the chair of the Education Committee, has said he is committed to overhauling No Child Left Behind through a reauthorization of the full Elementary and Secondary Education Act—which includes the federal charter program—instead of a piecemeal approach. The ESEA is long overdue for an update, and with Republicans using their unambiguous support for privatized education as a campaign platform, sooner or later Democrats will have to confront the growing chasm within their ranks.
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Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about executions in American since the botched lethal injection in Oklahoma two weeks ago. Mother Jones published an interesting piece yesterday on the incompetents and ethically challenged individuals who actually oversee or admininster the deadly chemicals. But for background on how this came to be, here’s an excerpt from my recent e-book on the history of, and current debate over, capital punishment in the United States, Dead Reckoning.
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In 1982, Texas prisoner Charles Brooks became the first person executed by a mixture of sodium thiopental, pavulon and potassium chloride—the so-called lethal injection. The dream of an anesthesized execution, proposed by G.W. Peck in 1847, was finally realized, if in a quite different form.
As the death penalty moratorium of the 1970s ended, many states began to pick up the needle. The British had rejected lethal injections in the 1950s feeling it was an undignified way to die—preferring hanging instead. But growing discomfort with the aesthetics of gassing and electrocution promoted a slow changeover in the United States. California governor Ronald Reagan likened lethal injections to putting an injured horse out of his misery—”the horse goes to sleep—that’s it…”
The preference for lethal injection can be explained by its apparent ease, cleanliness and relative lack of drama. It is almost clinical, familiar to anyone who has ever visited a hospital: there are IV lines, gurneys, a doctor, technicians, prescription drugs. Sedation is the word. “They put you out,” a victims’ right advocate in Tennessee explains, “but in this case you never wake up.” A Baptist chaplain in Texas who has witnessed almost forty executions calls it “as humane as any form of death you can find. Basically, they go to sleep….”
The sleep metaphor suggests that the execution is merciful, peaceful, for the prisoner’s own good, as well as society’s—like having compassion for a favorite old dog who has turned rabid. An ACLU leader in Ohio charges that it is an attempt to sanitize or “pretty up” the process, to “make a practice that is absolutely barbaric somehow more palatable to the public.” This has been a historical process, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC, “There’s been a keen interest in keeping up with the state of technology,” he explains. “People want execution to look modern and antiseptic.”
After witnessing an execution by needle in Missouri, writer Christopher Hitchens observed that this method “is supposed to be more tranquil and predictable and benign than the various forms of burning, shooting, strangling and gassing that in the past have squeezed themselves through the ‘cruel and unusual’ rubric. It looks and feels—to the outsider at least—more like a banal medical procedure” but “this medicalized ‘putting down’ is designed to leach the drama and agony out of the business; to transform it into a form of therapy for society and ‘closure’…” Indeed, in contrast to electrocution, Hollywood movies climaxing with a lethal injection are rare (Dead Man Walking being a prominent exception).
Whether death by needle is easier for the executed is an open question, but surely it is easier for the executioners. “By wrapping punishment in a therapeutic cloak, the whole process leading to that final moment feels less aversive to those who are required to participate and is therefore more bearable,” observes Dr. Jerome D. Gorman.
There is a deeper issue, as well. “The use of a well-known medical tool, general anesthesia, for execution blurs the distinctions between healing and killing, between illness and guilt,” Gorman observes. “That is why it would be effective in easing the distress of those involved. That is also precisely why physicians should oppose it. Those distinctions between illness and guilt, between therapy and punishment, are important to a just society. Once before in the twentieth century, physicians (in Nazi Germany) allowed themselves to play a role in blurring these distinctions, with disastrous consequences.”
From another point of view, this relative “tranquility” is equally regrettable. “For these people who cause so much suffering, it is too easy of a way out,” a victims’ rights activist complains. The California-based Children’s Protection and Advocacy Coalition charged that lethal injections merely sanitized executions, a misguided form of euthanasia. “Learn to burn,” one member of the group advised the public, adding that “rapists don’t burn by themselves, they need your help.”
In this now familiar procedure, the prisoner is strapped to a gurney and needles inserted in his arms. At a signal, three chemicals begin to flow in succession: an anesthetic (sodium thiopentone), a drug to paralyze the respiratory muscles (pancuronium bromide) and a third drug to halt the heart (potassium chloride).
During the early years of lethal injection, prisons designed their own procedures in a somewhat experimental, haphazard fashion, often leading to glitches. Then, in 1989, Missouri tried out a new lethal-injection system designed by the Holocaust revisionist Fred Leuchter. The execution of George “Tiny” Mercer became the subject of a widely viewed documentary for British television that some found “eerily reminiscent of Nazi nightmares,” as James McGiven put it in his theological survey of the death penalty. Leuchter himself was proud of what happened, calling it “an interesting first, not only for myself and the machine, but also for the state of Missouri, it being the first execution conducted there in many years, it being in Middle America, and it being in the middle of the Bible Belt.”
Still, even with improved delivery systems, mistakes often occur. One prisoner remained conscious, struggling, for about ten minutes, due to a clogged catheter. In another case an IV popped out of an inmate’s arm, spewing deadly chemicals toward the witness box. In Texas, a condemned man had such a violent physical reaction to the drugs—gasping and choking—that one of the witnesses fainted, knocking over another witness. In several cases officials had such a hard time finding a vein, the inmate would lay strapped on his death cot for more than forty minutes, awaiting his doom.
Two years later, in Texas, Joseph Cannon, who was condemned to die when he was only 17, lay on the gurney, repeatedly said he was sorry for what he had done, and then closed his eyes as the chemicals flowed. Then he opened his eyes, turned to a window where the witnesses were standing and said, “It’s come undone.” The drapes were pulled on the window, and a prison chaplain informed the witnesses as they were led outside, “His blood vein blew. He is doing fine. They are just going to restart it.” Fifteen minutes later the witnesses were brought back in, and the execution proceeded. Cannon was pronounced dead thirty-four minutes after the first injection was aborted.
In other cases, a small error in dosage may leave prisoners conscious but paralyzed—seemly peaceful and dead but still slowly dying. Of course, the only person who knows that for sure is not in any position to testify to it. A Texas official complained that attorneys seeking to stop all executions demand “proof” that it is “totally and completely painless. I don’t know how you go about satisfying that. You can never call them [the executed] back and say, ‘Did this cause you pain?’”
It all boils down to: there is no easy way to end a life.
Still, among those most affected—the condemned—lethal injection apparently seems like the best of several bad options. In states where prisoners are given a choice, they almost invariably select the needle. Those who dissent often claim they do so as a form of protest. One convicted killer said he wanted his passing to be “ugly,” in the gas chamber, where he figured it would look like murder. An inmate in Maryland chose the gas chamber for the same reason—but later changed his mind and switched to injection to spare his family needless pain.
Sea, you’ve drowned the girl’s husband
And she’s young, and black doesn’t suit her
Sea and salt water, I can’t forget you
Sea, little sea, you are my only joy.
—Song from the Dodecanese Islands.
For those who lived by it, the sea was once everything: provider and destroyer, the link to the rest of the world and the force that fenced them in. Even now, for Mediterranean people, it quenches a deep thirst. Many Greeks surviving the interminable crisis (don’t think it’s over because it’s fallen off the world’s front page) have clung to that reliable delight: the summer days counted in swims, the ride in the sweaty bus to feel the sun on your back and the coolness at your feet, the return half-sleepy and caked with salt, the slow hush of the waves and the body’s oblivion. Because nobody is allowed to own the shoreline; though everything else might have a price, the water and light are free.
But even the sea—the ultimate commons—is now darkening. The Mediterranean has become the grave of countless migrants fleeing war and poverty: last week yet another small vessel capsized in the North Aegean, carrying people from Syria, Somalia and Eritrea. At least twenty-two were drowned, most of them women and children; some of them died trapped underwater in the cabin. These catastrophic shipwrecks are a regular occurrence, in the Aegean and in the Mediterranean south of Italy. Last month an Amnesty International report published yet more evidence of the horrifying treatment of migrants by Greek state agents: routine illegal pushbacks across the border, sometimes by hooded men; live rounds fired at boats; beatings, threats and extreme humiliation by the coast guard and police. Amnesty calls on the EU to sanction Greece for its violations of international law, but also acknowledges the EU’s responsibility. Between 2011 and 2013 the European Commission gave Greece €227,576,503 to keep the migrants out, but only €19,950,00 to help with their reception. The EU uses its border states as a barrier and prison camp for the frightened, impoverished people it would rather drown than save. The Mediterranean is now the moat surrounding Fortress Europe.
Meanwhile, a disastrous new bill before the Greek parliament would allow privatisation of the seashore and remove restrictions on development, in a myopic attempt to monetize Greece’s greatest environmental and imaginative treasure. The outcry against the bill from across the political spectrum and the frenzy of Internet organizing suggests that for many people this feels like the last straw. Beyond the well-founded rational objections—that building concrete high-rises on hitherto empty beaches is environmentally catastrophic, economically shortsighted and politically suspect, cementing as it does the long-established back-room bonds between politicians and the construction industry, now with added foreign investment—there’s a deep resistance to what feels like the plundering of the country’s soul. Jobs and pensions and health and homes and dignity have gone, but until now there’s been a place that the hand of the market can’t reach, that everyone can go to and nobody can own.
The migrants who risk and lose their lives to cross the water couldn’t care less, of course, if the longed-for shore is lined with hotels or turtle eggs. But these two realities are part of the same thing, promoted under the sign of Europe’s economic crisis: the protection of privilege, the subordination of human life to profit, the loss of everything that we once called the commons.
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As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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Back in the ’90s, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, some of the pundit class predicted that the global spread of the Big Mac marked the world’s inexorable path toward the End of History; the golden arches of America’s favorite fast-food chain would serve as the triumphant gateway to a neoliberal peace of borderless consumerism and free trade.
Okay, well, that didn’t happen. But the fast food industry today is fostering a different kind of unity—this time through postindustrial class struggle. Having shaken up big burger chains with strikes and protests over the past year, fast-food workers are now consolidating their mobilization both by seeking international solidarity and by localizing their struggle with targeted campaigns for decent working conditions.
In New York, where local workers launched the first protests for fair wages and labor rights in the fast-food industry in late 2012, a coalition of faith, community and labor groups rallied on Wednesday at the Riverside Church in Harlem to push for a $15 hourly minimum wage for New York City.
Currently, New York City—like other towns and cities nationwide, thanks to corporate lobbyists—is barred from enacting a local minimum wage hike. A decades-old court ruling preempts localities from raising the base wage above the state minimum (now $8 an hour), but a pending Senate bill would enable New York City and other cities in the state to raise the wage floors in their communities to reflect the local cost of living.
The $15 wage faces daunting political hurdles (even Seattle’s new $15 wage legislation is fraught with compromising pro-business loopholes). But if the de Blasio administration takes the lead in responding to the campaign’s demand for a $15 wage floor, that could set a major precedent for the rest of the state, where nearly 40 percent of workers earn less than $15 an hour, and fast-food workers earn on average just $11,000 annually (their CEOs might make more than double that amount in a single day).
Since the campaign began, fast-food workers’ demands for $15 an hour and a union, backed by SEIU and community advocacy groups, have begun seeping into local policy discussions. And the emphasis on justice for low-wage workers has defied stereotypes of fast-food workers as pimple-faced teens or slothful grunts. The reality these workers live tells a different story: on average, they are in their late 20s; they’re mostly women; more than a quarter are parents; and the vast majority are their families’ main breadwinners. Many are single moms like Adriana Alvarez, who has commented sharply on the indignities of her cashier job at a Chicago McDonald’s, as she has seen her poverty wages further gutted when her employer systematically undercounts her clocked time:
McDonald’s is a multibillion [dollar] company; they have no reason to steal from us… I want to be able to do things for my son and ensure him a bright future, but it’s hard to do that when you are living from paycheck to paycheck and when McDonald’s is stealing from me on top of that.
A year ago, many might have laughed at the idea of paying the plebe behind the counter $15 an hour. But now that workers have raised their voices to frame their plight in the context of the nation’s ferocious class stratification, a living wage seems like a deeply modest proposal.
Alvarez just found a kindred spirit on the other side of the hemisphere. Frances Cabrera, a worker at a McDonald’s in Argentina, gathered with other international activists in New York this week to launch a global phase of this protest campaign. “No matter where they live, fast-food workers want fair pay and rights on the job,” Cabrera declared at a conference announcing the campaign launch. “After seeing the courageous actions of American fast-food workers demanding change, we were inspired to join the growing movement.”
The #FastFoodGlobal campaign—an offshoot of the US-based movement—has announced that organizers are planning protests for May 15 in more than thirty countries, from Morocco to Japan, along with wildcat strikes in about 150 US cities. Kiwis will stage a teach-in at “Macca’s” corporate headquarters in Auckland, solidarity strikes will sweep McItalia’s in Milan, Rome and Venice, and flash mobs will crash five “McDo” outlets in the Philippines.
While the map of protest sites presents a somewhat disturbing testament to fast food’s vast global reach (more than 30,000 McDonald’s branches worldwide, with over 1.7 million workers), the industry’s ubiquity intersects with, and helps galvanize, both global and local labor struggles. Worldwide, the casualization of labor, particularly in the food services, has drastically eroded labor rights and economic security.
In Britain, that translates into a trend toward “zero hours contracts”—a kind of on-call scheduling scheme that forces workers into a state of permanent contingency. Under this system, explained organizer Julie Sherry in a campaign statement, “workers have no guaranteed hours, but can be called in to work at the drop of a hat.” Nearly 25 percent of UK employers relegate workers to these precarious contracts—paralleling the plight of American part-timers stuffing Happy Meals on the overnight shift. The May 15 actions, Sherry added, mark “the beginning of a battle to take on the multinationals dominating the fast-food industry, ensure workers know their rights, and open the door to organizing fast food workers into unions.”
And fast food firms could soon face legal challenges in multiple languages. While McDonald’s workers have filed class-action lawsuits in New York, California and Michigan seeking compensation for massive wage theft, down in São Paolo, the Golden Arches are at the center of a three-way labor struggle involving unions, government regulators and workers struggling for a living wage. According to Equal Times, an investigation by the union Sinthoresp in 2012 revealed “1,790 on-going individual complaints against McDonald’s at the Regional Labour Court in the City of São Paulo only.” Brazilian workers have alleged violations including pressuring pregnant women to resign, union busting through the establishment of a sham “yellow union,” and outright slave labor.
The Brazilian revolt against the McEmpire reflects deep currents of unrest roiling its rapidly globalizing, vastly unequal economy, in a country that, incidentally, is about to host the shamelessly neoliberal World Cup games—brought to you by you-know-who.
While the workers are still far from forming a unified, coordinated labor movement (for starters, the US fast-food workforce, atomized across a massive franchise network, faces steep structural barriers to formal unionization), they’re speaking collectively in militant tones. Ron Oswald, general secretary of the 12 million-worker-strong International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations, declared in an announcement of the protests: “This is just the beginning of an unprecedented international fast-food worker movement—and this highly profitable global industry better take note.”
So maybe conservatives were wrong about McDonald’s hegemony engendering Pax Big Mac, but they had the right idea about the power of branding: from Brussels to the Bronx, #FastFoodGlobal is irresistible—a resounding call for dignity, near and far.
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