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Health Held Hostage

Today's New York Times features a scary full page ad. The bold type headline, over large photos of Reverends Falwell and Robertson and James Dobson, reads: "Meet America's Most Influential Stem Cell Scientists." The ad is sponsored by DEFCON--a new and valuable online grassroots movement designed to combat the religious right 's threat to American democracy.

This campaign is needed now more than ever. Our health is being held hostage by an extremist minority. It's been a year since the bipartisan Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act was passed by the House. Since then, it's been blocked in the US Senate-- held hostage by political opportunists like Majority Leader Frist, who seem to care more for their political health than that of millions of American children and families. Polls show overwhelming support for stem-cell research.

Even more important, at a time when our Constitution is under daily assault, it's worth remembering that we elect leaders to put their hand on a Bible and swear to uphold the constitution--not the other way around.

As DEFCON'S ad starkly tells us: "Not since the Dark Ages have religious zealots held such dangerous power over scientific research."

It's time to end this immoral and unhealthy obstructionism. Go to DEFCON's site and tell Frist and these religious extremists like Falwell and Dobson what you think.

Joe Lieberman's Very Bad Year

Joe Lieberman's year just keeps getting worse.

After he emerged as just about the only member of Congress -- Democrat or Republican -- who is enthusiastically on board for the Bush administration's hellride in Iraq, local Democratic party groups in Connecticut began passing resolutions criticizing the Democratic senator's pro-war stance.

Lieberman and his aides said the grassroots Dems were just letting off steam.

Then, the senator attracted an able Democratic primary challenger in the person of progressive businessman Ned Lamont.

Lieberman's organization said Lamont would never get on the ballot.

Then, at the state Democratic convention over the weekend, Lamont got more than twice as many votes as he needed to secure a ballot position.

Lieberman backers noted that their man got the most votes at the convention and said the inside-the-party revolt would not translate into trouble in the August 8 Democratic primary.

Now, Democracy for America, the organization formed from the base of Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination -- which, notably, did a lot better than Lieberman's presidential quest of that year -- has given a strong endorsement to Lamont's challenge.

"Ned Lamont has been loud and clear about America's position in Iraq and world affairs, one of the most important concerns for voters," says Jim Dean, the chair of Democracy for America, and the brother of the man who now heads the Democratic National Committee. "Senator Lieberman has been a broken record supporting broken policies."

While the Democracy for America endorsement will help with fund raising and volunteers, it certainly isn't going to give Lamont everything he needs to win a primary. By every measure, the challenger still faces an uphill race in a state where Lieberman has been a central figure in the Democratic Party for four decades.

But the senator is feeling the heat. On Monday, he dropped out of the MoveOn.org web primary, in which members of the group are being asked to express their preference in the race -- as they did early in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nod. No one doubted that he was seeking to avoid another setback.

Nor does anyone doubt that the man the Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000, and who looked at the start of the year like a sure bet for reelection, is going to have to fight to be the party's nominee for his own seat in 2006.

Isn't Iraq Enough?

Just as it did before invading Iraq, the Bush Administration is manufacturing a climate of fear to prepare public opinion for another possible preemptive action -- this time against Iran.

Three years ago it was the specter of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction; today it's the threat of a possible Iranian nuclear bomb. The White House even insists on keeping the "nuclear option" on the table -- that is, using tactical nuclear weapons to strike Iranian nuclear facilities--many of which are located in or near civilian population centers. Although a full-scale invasion of Iran seems highly unlikely at the moment, the situation is so inflamed, the rhetoric so ugly, and the current Iranian regime so reactionary and crazy, that it's probably prudent to never say never.

The big problem so far, as the Campaign for Peace and Democracy's public call against both US aggression and theocratic repression in Iran, says: "The US government's attempts to bully Iran are succeeding mainly in terrorizing the Iranian people and weakening internal opposition to the mullahs."

That's why the CPD is devoting its latest campaign to highlighting how catastrophic a conflict with Iran could be. So click here to join Howard Zinn, Cornel West, Doug Ireland, Ruth Rosen, Meredith Tax, Noam Chomsky and many others in signing the CPD call. Contribute to publicize the statement. View full list of signers. And let your elected reps know that you expect them to forcefully oppose any further US military action in the Middle East.

Finally, don't mistake this for anything other than a straight repudiation of both the effectiveness and legitimacy (they're connected) of preemptive US military action. I'd like to see regime change in Iran as much as any neo-con. The place is run by a holocaust-denying thug kept in power by an un-elected oligarchy of clerics who deny women the most basic human rights and consider homosexuality a capital offense. But the revolution has to be brought about by the Iranian people themselves, not by Washington.


A School Is Not a Jail

This Thursday, May 25, two hundred high schoolers of the Urban Youth Collaborative will deliver 7,500 postcards from students representing 120 NYC schools to Mayor Bloomberg at the Tweed Courthouse. The student participants are calling for "safety with dignity," and oppose the presence of metal detectors, armed police officers, random scanning and surveillance cameras at their schools. Sign an online petition for the campaign and click here for more info.

A True Test of Character

If John McCain becomes President, his current chief of staff, Mark Salter, will be one of the most important figures in the new White House. The two have authored three books together. They are best friends.

So when Salter calls the student keynote speaker at McCain's commencement address "an idiot," it reflects directly on McCain.

The outburst provides a simple truth about a Senator who can seemingly do no wrong in the eyes of the media. McCain, despite all the hype about his character and the totality of his life experiences, doesn't handle criticism well. His temper tantrums are legendary on Capitol Hill. The Arizona Republic, his hometown newspaper, once labeled his outbursts "volcanic." So too are the deep grudges he holds against his enemies.

As McCain faces growing resistance in his second bid for the Presidency, something other than the "straight talk" side of has begun to reappear. Jean Rohe, the courageous New School student, was correct when she responded that Salter, as McCain's proxy, was trying to "hurt my feelings and frighten me into silence."

"I don't believe that anything I've written to the public so far has been quite as nasty to Senator McCain as Mr. Salter was to me," Rohe continued in her latest Huffington Post diary. "On the contrary, I think that my writing clearly reflected my values, which is to say, never was I rude to the Senator nor did I show any disrespect. In fact, I think my compassion was made clear. To pick on me in such a bullying and sarcastic way is a clear admission on Mr. Salter's part that his fear is far deeper than any I might have felt when sticking up for myself."

Tarring college students hardly befits a leading Senator or his top aide. The post-New School outburst raises serious questions about whether we want this man's finger on the nuclear trigger.

William Jefferson, D-Wall Street

Nancy Pelosi has shown little interest in holding George Bush to account, as evidenced by House Minority Leader's determination to distance herself from discussions of censuring – let alone impeaching – the president for the high crimes and misdemeanors that have characterized his tenure.

So it not all that surprising that Pelosi, despite her promise to "clean up" Congressional corruption, has been slow to demand genuine accountability from a member of the House Democratic Caucus. The minority leader has backed an ethics committee inquiry into charges against Congressman William Jefferson, D-Louisiana, the "star" of a Federal Bureau of Investigation tape in which what sounds like a bribe of $100,000 is accepted. But she so far has refrained from suggesting the obvious: that it is time for the severely scandal-plagued Jefferson to resign.

Let's be clear, if Tom DeLay needed to go, so does Bill Jefferson.

What makes Pelosi's refusal to cut Jefferson loose so disappointing is the fact that Democrats owes the congressan from New Orleans no loyalty. Indeed, if ever there was a member of Congress who merited abandonment by his party, official censure and a hasty exit from the legislative branch, it is William Jefferson.

Putting aside the bribery probe, Jefferson has a horrific record of breaking with his Democratic colleagues to sell out his constituents, his country and the poorest people in the world. He may be a Democrat, but on the issues that really matter Jefferson has served the Bush administration and Wall Street more diligently than a number of Republicans.

Jefferson's has been one of the steadiest Democratic votes for the president's foreign policy agenda. The Louisianan voted to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq, consistently supports emergency "supplemental" spending to maintain the occupation of that country, and favors deployment of the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. He voted for the USA Patriot Act when it was rushed through Congress in 2001, and was a big backer of Vice President Cheney's national energy policy. And, though his record on social issues is mixed, Jefferson has on a number of occasions cast his lot with the White House and its social-conservative allies to help enact restrictions on abortion, school prayer initiatives and a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

But Jefferson's deepest loyalty is not to the Bush administration. Rather, it is to big business. In a Congress where there are plenty of Democrats who are friendly to the legislative agenda of corporate America, Jefferson is devoted to it. This Democrat puts more than a few responsible Republicans to shame when it comes to doing the bidding of Wall Street.

After a key export tax break for U.S. manufacturers was identified as an illegal trade subsidy by the World Trade Organization, Jefferson and most -- though not all -- House Republicans voted to provide $140 billion in new corporate tax cuts for impacted businesses. He has voted again and again for bankruptcy law "reforms" that favor the interests of banks and credit card companies over those of working families. And he is the king of the dwindling circle of free-trade Democrats.

Jefferson was not just one of "The CAFTA 15" – the group of Democrats who cast critical votes to save the Central American Free Trade Agreement after the administration was abandoned by 27 Republicans when the agreement came up for House approval in July, 2005 -- he was the chief Democratic cheerleader for that bad deal. When the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council sponsored a pro-CAFTA teleconference before the vote, there was Jefferson proclaiming: "I'm supporting CAFTA because I believe it's in the best interests of our country."

The Louisiana Democrat, who is a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee's powerful subcommittee on Trade, did similar service during debates over trade deals with Chile, Singapore and Australia. And he was an essential Democratic supporter of normalizing trade relations with China in 2000, arguably the most devastating trade deal since the North American Free Trade Agreement of six years earlier, which Jefferson also backed.

But Jefferson's most unsettling advocacy on behalf of corporate-friendly trade agreements that have undermined job security and wages, environmental protection and human rights in the U.S. and abroad came in 1998, when the congressman was an outspoken advocate for the African Growth and Opportunity Act. AGOA, as that deal was known, was dubbed "NAFTA for Africa" by the business press. Condemned by South African President Nelson Mandela and Africa trade unions that saw it as a move to make it even easier for multinational corporations to exploit the continent's workers and resources, AGOA was described by a leading foe, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Illinois, as the "Africa Recolonization Act."

During the House debate on the issue, Jackson pointed out that, "The AGOA extends short-lived trade "benefits" for the nations of sub-Sahara Africa. In exchange for these crumbs from globalization's table, the African nations must pay a huge price: adherence to economic policies that serve the interests of foreign creditors, multinational corporations and financial speculators at the expense of the majority of Africans."

The Illinois Democrat asked, "Whose interests will the AGOA advance? Look at the coalition promoting it -- a corporate who's who of oil giants, banking and insurance interests, as well as apparel firms seeking one more place to locate their low-paying sweatshops. Some of these corporations are already infamous in Africa for their disregard for the environment and human rights."

The coalition promoting African Growth and Opportunity Act was able to counter the criticisms from Mandela, Jackson and others by highlighting the enthusiastic support for the deal by a prominent member of the Congressional Black Caucus. That member, William Jefferson, gleefully declared that, "Africa is a reservoir of opportunities for American businesses."

(Among the bribes Jefferson is alleged to have accepted are more than $400,000 in payments to help telecommunications firms do business in Nigeria and other West African nations.)

The split in the black caucus back in 1998 helped secure passage of AGOA in a form that was much worse than might have been the case if Jefferson and others had echoed the honest concerns expressed by Jackson.

No wonder that, in his latest campaign finance filing, Jefferson reported that almost 79 percent of the political action committee contributions to his reelection campaign -- $340,912 -- came from business interests, while just 19 percent came from organized labor.

Even in his campaign coffers, William Jefferson has the profile of a Republican – and an unsavory Republican at that.

You Heard It Here First

You Heard It Here First

This morning on WNYC, host Brian Lehrer and guest Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect, were chatting about Wal-Mart's entry into the organic food market (stay tuned for a Nation feature on this subject in our upcoming special Food Issue). As people often do when discussing Wal-Mart, Lehrer and Fishman segued into the subject of the company's crummy health insurance, and the burden it places on taxpayers, who end up footing the bill when Wal-Mart workers have to turn to the public dole for health care. (According to the retailer's own statistics, 46% of the children of Wal-Mart workers are on Medicaid, or uninsured.) Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, the national groups now attempting to reform the company, are working in states and towns all over to pass Fair Share Health Care laws, to compel Wal-Mart to insure its employees more generously. But, Lehrer suggested, and Fishman concurred, wouldn't it be great if Wal-Mart used its immense lobbying muscle to agitate for national health care?

According to an excellent article, in the June Atlantic Monthly, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which funds Wal-Mart Watch, is hoping to force Wal-Mart to do just that. The company could neutralize a lot of progressive criticism this way, and if we did get a single-payer plan out of the ensuing fracas, we'd all be better off. I have made this very point on this very website, as well as, more than a year ago, in the aforementioned Nation/Economist debate on Wal-Mart, which was moderated by Brian Lehrer. But the point is not just to toot our own horn (well, perhaps a passing, staccato toot); rather, that it's delightful that this idea is catching on.

After all, let's be realistic: the Fair Share for Health Care campaign is a fine way to make the point that health benefits ought to be taken out of competition, but it isn't going to solve the dire problem of spiraling health care costs in America. Given that Wal-Mart has no intention of complying with the new laws, and will mount legal challenges to each and every one, Fair Share makes more sense when viewed as a means to an end, and that end should be national health insurance. In recent speeches, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has said that the cost of health care in America is a larger problem demanding more leadership from "government." Let's see how far he's willing to go.

Let's see, too, how far labor will go. In his new book, Solidarity for Sale, Robert Fitch argues that unions haven't made serious efforts to organize for national health insurance; indeed, they have often opposed it, for a combination of self-interested and ideological reasons. (This goes way back: Samuel Gompers argued that national health insurance had sapped the "virility" of British workers.) If we are to have meaningful health care reform, that attitude needs to change. Pressuring Wal-Mart is a good place to start.

In related news, Target has just announced that it intends "Wal-Mart-like" changes to its own health care plan, and may eliminate traditional health insurance for employees. This underscores the urgent need for single-payer healthcare, and the need for continued pressure on Wal-Mart, the industry leader that sets the standards for its fellow retailers.

What Won't Rudy Do?

Much ado was made of McCain's Light on the Road to Damascus moment regarding Jerry Falwell, formerly known as an agent of intolerance, last week. But the story of unlikely bedfellows that fell through the cracks was Rudy Giuliani's snuggle with Ralph Reed, the ex-leader of the Christian Coalition and current candidate for lieutenant governor of Georgia.

Leaving aside that Giuliani is a pro-gay rights, pro-choice, pro-gun control, Italian-Catholic Yankee and Ralph Reed is not, the question remains: what was a tough-on-crime fighter doing promoting the candidacy of a man who was in business with Jack Abramoff? It was the indicted lobbyist, after all, who allegedly paid Reed $4.2 million in illegal contributions to "mobilize Christian voters against casinos that would compete with Abramoff's clients."

In his past life, Prosecutor Rudy would have paraded someone like Reed in handcuffs before a scrum of media cameras. In his current incarnation, Politician Rudy praised him "as a really effective leader" during a fundraiser for Reed's embattled campaign.

Perhaps Giuliani was referring to Reed's peerless effectiveness in duping evangelicals into voting for Republicans who do not share their values. If that was the case, Giuliani will need all the help from Reed he can get.

When McCain Attacks

John McCain is renowned for his supposedly thick skin and deft handling of adversity. Who knew a 21-year-old student singer from Nutley, New Jersey, could pierce that veneer?

As the undergraduate keynote speaker at the New School's graduation ceremony, Jean Sara Rohe had planned to talk about her love of music and the need for "social responsibility in a time of war." But realizing she would be speaking right before McCain, she tore up her prepared remarks at 2 am the night before to directly address McCain's support for the Iraq war, visit to Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and fidelity to George W. Bush. According to her diary at Huffington Post, she saved the new text as "mccain speech subversive.doc."

Meeting McCain in the green room before the ceremony "he didn't even make eye contact when we shook hands," Rohe recalls. "So I figured I didn't owe him anything."

As we chronicled on Friday, Rohe's speech was daring, eloquent and brave. She gave voice to students whose opinions, at their own graduation, were not consulted, and whose views are no longer represented by presidential candidate McCain.

"Had he been speaking at something other than our graduation, or had he spoken about almost anything other than his life and his position on the Iraq War and Darfur it might have been OK," Rohe later wrote. "But what did he expect? Campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination at the New School is like trying to catch fish in a swimming pool. It was just totally out of place."

After the address, McCain and his aides were at their most vindictive. "I feel sorry for people living in a dull world where they can't listen to the views of others," a pompous McCain told the New York Times. Later, in a comment on Huffington Post, his chief of staff Mark Salter called Rohe "an idiot."

"It took no courage to do what you did," Salter wrote. "It was an act of vanity and nothing more." The graduating class deserved a strong rebuke for its "comical self-importance."

George W. Bush smeared McCain in 2000. Now McCain is returning the favor to college students.

The so-called maverick Senator is so busy cozying up to the right, he can't even take a little heat from the left.

Iraq Uncensored

The Bush administration has censored photographs of the wounded, body bags, and flag-draped coffins. Imagine its fears over large numbers of Americans viewing Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill's new documentary, Baghdad ER.

Premiering Sunday on HBO, with an encore scheduled for Memorial Day, Baghdad ER examines the 86th Combat Support Hospital which the filmmakers chronicled for two months. One nurse, Specialist Saidet Lanier, describes life at the field hospital this way: "This is hard-core, raw, uncut trauma. Day after day, every day."

Initially, military officials were enthusiastic about the heroic portrayal of this medical staff which has – along with other trauma teams – somehow managed the highest survival rate for wounded soldiers during any war at a stunning 90 percent.

But the Pentagon's enthusiasm has soured. Many suspect it is for the simple reason that the truth will further erode the already radically diminished support for this war. Because despite the fact that Baghdad ER is widely hailed as a non-partisan tribute to both soldiers and medical personnel, as HBO president Sheila Evans told the New York Times, "Anything showing the grim realities of war is, in a sense, antiwar."

The Pentagon hasn't questioned the accuracy or authenticity of the film. Pentagon spokesman Paul Boyce told the Washington Post, "We believe [it] is a very thorough representation of the professionalism of the military medical community, and reflects the ethos of our soldiers." And yet, after initially saying 300 military officials would attend the premier in Washington, DC, only about 40 showed up and none were high-raking officers.

One mother of a soldier whose death is captured on film said of this project, "I am positive about this film. It needs to be shown. I want the world to know this is a reality. War is graphic, war is raw, war hurts."

And that is exactly the problem the current administration has with it. And too much of the media has been too compliant night after night. Where are the raw and real images of the wounded, the maimed, the dead that would appear on our TV screens if we were receiving the real news about the war?

Stephen Colbert recently got at the the truth about what our government really wants us to know: "Knowledge about the current war is bad for you. Watch all the World War II docs you want, but knowing the human toll of the Iraq War causes stress….Protect your health: only watch things that make you feel good about America."

There was a time when people turned to the classic TV show M*A*S*H* to--as John Leonard writes in his New York magazine review of the documentary--"go behind the rhetorical curtain." Baghdad ER takes a step towards accomplishing that for this generation. After all, as Leonard notes, "The more we see what war really looks like--the terror in the eyes that contradicts the bravado in the chatter--the harder the questions we ask about it."

And indeed it is hard and deeply disturbing to see the amputated and discarded limbs, the blood and body parts, the soldiers dying. But it should be. Because the reality is this: over 17,000 American soldiers wounded and over 2,300 killed. Over 400 amputees. And some estimate over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths.

In 2004, Nation Institute fellow Chris Hedges wrote for the New York Review of Books of the "empty jingoism of those who use the abstract words of glory, honor and patriotism to mask the cries of the wounded, the senseless killing, war profiteering, and chest-pounding grief….The truth about war comes out, but usually too late."

It's already too late – but the sooner the truth comes out the better.

It's time to face the horrors of war. If we are to evolve to a point where war is truly a last resort, then this is the kind of work that will help us get there. Watch Baghdad ER.