The Nation

What are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 06/27/14?

Books College

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

—Hélène Barthélemy focuses on the criminal justice system, activism and culture.

The Weak State: The Dissolution of Constitutional Iraq,” by Michael Youhana. Full Stop, June 17, 2014.

This article (by a former Nation intern!) provides an excellent examination of the Iraqi political context by analyzing three seminal books on the topic. It serves as a powerful corrective to many pieces approaching Iraq in a political vacuum. Beyond the focus on ‘sectarianism,’ which depoliticizes and dehistoricizes current developments, Youhana reminds us that there is nothing inherent in sectarian identities, which are formed, transformed and abandoned like any sense of belonging to a group, according to the political context. The article also analyzes the consequences of the American invasion on oil production and its strategic importance for pressuring Iran. Most crucially, it lays bare the undemocratic, dysfunctional, US-influenced constitution that followed American occupation but was in line with it. It laid the ground for current lawlessness.

—Summer Concepcion focuses on race, gender and criminal justice.

5 Links Between Higher Education and the Prison Industry,” by Hannah K. Gold. Rolling Stone, June 18, 2014.

The irony of the relationship between higher education and the prison industry is quite frustrating, especially for a current college student like myself. One of the biggest takeaways from my college experience thus far has been gaining awareness of the problems within the prison industrial complex. It’s quite easy to ignore how universities operate on a corporate level when it’s often the place where students confront many political and social issues for the first time. Reading this article makes me question how much of higher education’s “mission” is a PR stunt after all.

—Erin Corbett focuses on national security and reproductive rights.

Jane Doe, Trans Women, and the Myth of the Perfect Victim,” by Katherine Cross. RH Reality Check, June 23, 2014.

This article tackles the unlawful incarceration of Jane Doe, a 16-year-old trans girl who is being held in solitary confinement (without charge or trial) in the Connecticut State Prison after allegedly attacking Department of Children and Families staff. Katherine Cross begins this piece with the assertion that “[v]ery few of us are ‘perfect victims,’” a powerful statement, which she then uses to address the dehumanization and stripping of personhood of specific types of bodies. Jane Doe’s story is one of an individual existing outside of the legal system, described as a violent threat—someone to fear. This case is unfortunately not an exception to the rule that some human beings are treated as disposable on the basis of their difference. As Cross explains, “[t]he trick is that trans women and women of color are forever regarded as inherently imperfect.”

—Victoria Ford focuses on African-American identity, feminism/womanism and the arts.

How to encounter a black woman’s body: The politics of Mammy Sphinx,” by Brittney Cooper. Salon, June 24, 2014.

With Kara Walker’s A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby: An Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant closing in little more than a week on July 6, it is more than refreshing to read this piece from Dr. Brittney Cooper. By encountering the black woman’s body both as problem and as relic, Cooper asks readers to toil with place, gentrification and eviction—the literal and disproportionate “locking out” of black women which occurs today at epidemic levels. “This history of imminent displacement seems incredibly difficult for black women to shake,” Cooper writes, “especially when our bodies remain tethered to controlling images that will not turn us loose.”

—Douglas Grant focuses on labor and income inequality, gender politics and American politics.

How College Is Like Sunscreen,” by Derek Thompson. The Atlantic, June 24, 2014.

In the face of a weak imitation of a recovery, with wages stagnant and student debt rising, the notion of whether higher education is worth it is often thrown into doubt. But as Derek Thompson explains, it’s only when comparing college graduates’ wages to those who never completed their degrees that college’s value shows (like sunscreen, he says, it takes seeing a bad burn before the wisdom of applying it is reinforced). When the press is deluged with stories of mushrooming student loan debt, tuition that rises at many times the rate of inflation and ever dimmer employment prospects, it’s a hard sale to make (pithy, oversimplified statements like “BA is the new SPF” don’t exactly help). As a graduate that’s had my share of curt phone conversations from collectors at Sallie Mae (hey, guys! I’ll call you back), such statements can come off more as than a little tone-deaf, as they do not take into account the perspectives of plenty of others who get left behind in the global economy (those who never attended college, those who didn’t finish and are left saddled with huge bills or those who didn’t complete high school). The upside of attending college that Thompson offers his perspective on is, in the face of panicked, provocative pieces that college “isn’t worth it,” still couched in bleak terms. After rising in the Eighties through the mid-2000s, the wages of graduates are falling—just not as fast as everyone else’s. It shows us that our work is cut out for us.

—Hannah Harris Green focuses on South Asian Culture and Politics, and Sexual Assault.

Women in India Aren’t Safe on Twitter Either,” by Sonia Faleiro. Medium, June 19, 2014.

Over the past year, we’ve seen many examples of men using Twitter to intimidate women who they disagree with, combating their words not with counter-arguments but with threats of sexual violence. In her recent article for Medium, Sonia Faleiro discusses how this trend has picked up in India, which, with the Election of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, is now dominated by the right wing Hindu party, the BJP. In conjunction with this political change, privileged, conservative Hindu men have felt compelled to use Twitter as a platform to threaten women who belong to oppressed castes and minority religions, and women who they perceive as threatening in their modernity. Such women are typical targets for the Indian right wing, but now men may harass them from the safety of their computer desks as well as in the streets.

—Alana de Hinojosa focuses on immigration, race and racism, Latin@ identity and feminism.

Univision’s World Cup Spanish commentary has surprised some Latinos,” by Nina Porzucki. Public Radio International, June 20, 2014.

Felix Sanchez, co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, recently went on Public Radio International to discuss what he found to be a disconcerting facet to Univison’s World Cup broadcast. The issue? Univison broadcasters were referring to Afro-Costa Rican players not by their names or jersey numbers, but by the color of their skin (“moreno”) and the texture of their hair (“greña”). Though “moreno,” which means “dark skin,” is not concerned offensive in Latin America and can actually have endearing connotations, the term can without a doubt have negative, racialized connotations when used in the US. The same goes for “greña,” which means “messy hair,” or more colloquially, “nappy hair.” While Sanchez acknowledged that Latin@ culture and the Spanish language affords certain deviances from American, English language broadcasting norms, he was firm to remind Univision that they are still a US broadcaster. “Therein lies part of the issue, which is regardless of the fact that it’s being broadcast in Spanish, it’s still by a US broadcaster that needs to abide by American standards and American sensibilities,” Sanchez said on the show. Granted it’s important that Univision uphold its Latin@ character, but it’s equally important that Univision (and Latin@s as a whole) remember that Latin@s living in the US don’t live in the same worlds as US and Latin American television shows. “We have one foot in each world,” Sanchez said.

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—Crystal Kayiza focuses on the African diaspora,immigration, Black Feminist thought, and police brutality.

Modern-Day Slavery in America’s Prison Workforce,” by Beth Schwartzapfel. The American Prospect, May 28, 2014.

With the highest incarceration rate in the world, the United States relies on the exploitation of inmates to sustain the prison system. In her article, Beth Schwartzapfel calls into question the labor policies that allowed for the creation of “modern day slavery.” Schwartzapfel describes how the absence of fair wages, lack of education behind bars and exclusion from employment after prison all contribute to recidivism. Not only bringing to light the political decisions that sustain the prison industrial complex, Schwartzapfel states “in America, breaking the law has become more than just an occasion to be punished or even rehabilitated. It has become a permanent mark of who you are and what our country thinks you’re entitled to earn.”

—Agnes Radomski focuses on labor, mass incarceration, the war on drugs and the military industrial complex.

The youth heroin epidemic that wasn’t,” by Michael Tracey. Al Jazeera America, June 23, 2014.

Earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that statewide abuse of heroin had reached “epidemic proportions,” especially among young people. He announced a plan to double down on law enforcement by adding an additional 100 investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team. In his opinion piece, Michael Tracey points to a lack of evidence among not only law enforcement and politicians but the media as well. He notes use of heroin has actually decreased from 2011 to 2013, according to government data. (Tracey points out that New Jersey and New York officials have attributed overdose deaths to the unsanctioned use of prescription opiates.) Nevertheless, youth-oriented governmental efforts focused on heroin are being introduced, like the “multijurisdictional drug task force” in New Jersey. Tracey argues that programs like these suggest “that authorities are prioritizing criminal punishment, rather than enacting prudent measures such as genuine public health services that would reduce heroin use.” Across counties in New Jersey and New York, hundreds of arrests have been made leading to possible terms of at least five years in prison for simple possession. Heroin related bills have passed New York state’s Senate in an effort to redouble criminalization efforts. Tracey reminds us of the consequences of such wrong-headed policies prevalent during the span of the failed war on drugs: “Like the drugs they plan to banish, these laws come with their own adverse effects: over-crowding prisons with nonviolent offenders, breaking up families, authorizing overzealous policing tactics, and breeding undue fear.”


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Moral Mondays Has Managed to Go Beyond the Color Line—but Is That So Unprecedented?

Melissa Harris-Perry and Chris Hayes

Yesterday, Melissa Harris-Perry appeared on All In with Chris Hayes to discuss the birth of the interracial Moral Mondays movement. She told Hayes that this initiative goes against many Northern liberals’ perception of the South, which they see as “so utterly backward and so utterly racially divided.” The reality is more complicated, she explains: “There is a level of intimacy, interracially in the US South that hasn’t always led to equality but has meant that there have been moments when interracial political movements could emerge.” This history of fusion movments since the aboliton of slavery should keep us from seeing Moral Mondays as game-changing, says Harris-Perry,”there are strategic partnerships, but we probably should not expect enduring, long-term coalitional change.”
Hannah Harris Green

Will the Government Finally Regulate the Most Predatory Industry in America?

Payday Loans

Payday loan business in Phoenix, Arizona (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

When Dana Jones first heard about payday loans, she was struggling to pay for prescriptions for her mother, who had been struck suddenly with mental illness. She borrowed a small amount that first time—just $50, she remembers—and paid it back when she got her next paycheck. It seemed simple enough, so she began drawing regularly on short-term credit. “I really thought it was a loan that worked like any other loan I had gotten from finance companies,” said Jones, who lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “I just didn’t know.”

What Jones didn’t know is that the triple-digit interest rates charged by many short-term lenders would soon push her into a spiral of debt. “You have one loan, and you end up going to another payday lending company to pay for it, and then you have another one,” she explained. At the low point of a debt trap that lasted for more than a decade, Jones owed money to twelve different creditors. She had no trouble finding new lenders; there are more than twenty on just one street in Baton Rouge, sometimes several on the same block. “I was just drowning in this, and I didn’t see my way out,” Jones remembered.

Jones was almost lucky compared to Thelma Fleming, another Baton Rouge resident who pawned her jewelry, had her checking account shut down and lost her car trying to keep up with a string of loans she took in order to make ends meet after she lost one of her two jobs. “For me, it was devastating,” she said. “It got the best of me to the point where I considered suicide.”

Some 200,000 households in Louisiana borrow from short-term lenders every year, as do roughly 12 million people in the United States. There are about as many payday loan stores in the United States as there are McDonald’s and Starbucks. Typically under $500, the loans are intended to provide small amounts of cash to tide borrowers over until their next paycheck. With interest rates as high as 700 percent, many borrowers end up under a mountain of unpayable debt instead. In Baton Rouge, 20 percent of bankruptcy cases involve payday loans.

“It’s a huge issue, and not one people wanted to talk about,” said Broderick Bagert, an organizer with Together Louisiana, a coalition of religious and civic groups that launched a campaign for stricter rules for payday lenders during the last legislative session. Their push “scared the hell out of the industry,” Bagert said wryly, noting that the number of lobbyists working on its behalf jumped from a handful at the beginning of the legislative session to more than fifty by its end. In late April, the state Senate rejected the bill.

“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind about where the people were, but the lobby this time around had the resources to buy the vote,” said Bagert.

Louisiana has become one of the fiercest battlegrounds in a protracted fight between consumer advocates and the payday lending industry, which exploded during the early 2000s after decades of deregulation and an influx of easy money from Wall Street. The difficulty of establishing state-level protections for borrowers is not unique to Louisiana, and consumer advocates have for years called on the federal government to cap astronomical interest rates.

Finally, action is on the horizon. In a hearing last week, the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—the watchdog agency established in the wake of the financial crisis—told members of the Senate Banking Committee that new rules for payday lenders would come out sometime in the fall.

“[The CFTC] is very open and very clear that they want to address this problem,” said Bagert, whose group brought their concerns about payday lending directly to Cordray in a field hearing in New Orleans on June 12. “The question is, will they propose regulations that are strong enough?”

Beyond an outright cap on interest rates, consumer advocates have suggested other rules that prevent long-term indebtedness, such a mandatory waiting period between loans, or limiting the number of loans someone can take out in a year or the amount of time a borrower can be in debt and still be eligible for a new loan. Other measures could include requiring lenders to determine whether a loan is actually affordable for a borrower, and stricter reporting standards.

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The most critical test will be whether the new rule is expansive enough to keep payday lenders from concealing predatory practices by packaging them as other types of loan products, a tactic the industry has used to thwart several states’ attempts to regulate it. In Ohio, for example, a recent court decision allows payday lenders to evade a 2008 law intended to cap interest rates at 28 percent by offering cash under a mortgage-lending license. A loophole-laden rule similarly undercut the Defense Department’s attempt to crack down on small-dollar lenders that target members of the military.

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown has been particularly vocal about the danger of a law written too narrowly. “Because most small-dollar, short-term loans possess three of the ‘Four Ds’ that negatively affect consumers—deception, debt traps, and dead ends—the CFPB must address the full spectrum of products being offered to consumers,” Brown wrote in a letter sent to Cordray on Monday. He encouraged Cordray to extend the new rules to auto title, online and installment loans.

In the June 18 hearing, Cordray assured Brown that the CFPB was working “to make sure that what we do won’t be made a mockery of by people circumventing [the new rules] through just transforming their product slightly.”

Dana Jones and Thelma Fleming will be watching from Louisiana. Both were active in the legislative campaign last session, and plan to advocate again this year for bolder action from the state. “I don’t want it to happen to anyone else the way it happened to me,” Fleming said. “I made a very bad choice, but sometimes it’s because we think we’re helping ourselves.”

Both women have finally paid off their debts, but Jones has several relatives trying to untangle themselves from what they also thought would be a short-term relationship with payday lenders. Those businesses claim they won’t survive interest rate caps or other regulations, and that as a result, people who are down on their luck will be cut off from short-term credit. Jones, however, sees the $30 billion-a-year industry’s motives as less than altruistic.

“What they’re doing—they’re robbing people,” she said. “This is America; everybody has a right to have their own business. What people do not have a right to do is make a profit that is demoralizing.”


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The Ugly Truth About Your Shrimp Cocktail

migrant workers from Myanmar

A Thai employer monitors migrant workers from Myanmar working on his fishing boat at a port in the town of Mahachai near Bangkok. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

The ocean’s culinary delights look pristine on our tables: peeled, processed and sterile. Now Western consumers are getting a taste of the human drudgery in the dregs of the supply chain.

News reports have surfaced of enslavement in the fisheries of Thailand. Men have reportedly been forced to work at boats for as many as twenty hours a day; disciplined with beatings, sometimes murders; often physically held captive on boats and at ports; and further preyed upon by usurious debts. The industry employs an estimated 650,000, with roughly 270,000 migrants on Thai fishing boats. Many have been trafficked from two poorer, less stable neighbors, Myanmar and Cambodia. Despite widespread reports of abuse and forced labor, regulatory bodies are weak and riddled with corruption, and we may never know how many have been subjected to this ferocious exploitation in order to keep our freezers stocked.

In a study by the UK-based Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), which documented extraordinary brutality on the fishing vessels, a trafficking survivor described the mechanics of modern-day captivity at sea:

“We had no choice. There was nowhere to flee; we were surrounded by the sea. After we arrived back to the shore, we were locked inside the room guarded by their men; there were too many of them. So the workers had to take one trip after another, without having a choice.”

The processing of human beings begins on shore with debt bondage, as EJF explains, “Many migrant fishers are sold to boat owners for what is known as ka hua, the price paid which the worker must pay off before receiving any wages. This can leave many fishers working for months or even years without pay.”

Their status as a commodity in a complex global trade leaves them variously disenfranchised: they’re simultaneously trapped in primitive conditions, yet their labor is governed by a fast-moving, technology-driven market run by “first world” monopolies.

Thailand’s $7.3 billion fishing-export industry is major international market, yielding hundreds of thousands of tonnes of seafood each year. But it’s also rife with illegal and environmentally destructive fishing practices, which have severely depleted fish stocks and undermined the oceanic ecosystem as well as the fishing economy. The whole regional industry embodies the kind of neoliberal profiteering embedded in the global seafood industry (one study estimates that 20 to 32 percent of wild-caught seafood imports to the United States is illegally traded).

Migrant workers from Myanmar work on a fishing boat before sailing out of the port of Mahachai. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

A large portion of Thailand’s catch is considered “trash fish” which also enters the supply chain after being processed into fishmeal and then indirectly fed to other fish stocks. The Guardian recently traced this fishmeal to the prawns sold in “leading supermarkets around the world, including the top four global retailers: Walmart, Carrefour, Costco and Tesco.” The main purveyor of fishmeal from slave-staffed boats, Thailand-based Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, has also directly sourced ready-to-eat prawn to UK outlets.

Meanwhile, investigators with the US State Department and various watchdog groups have criticized the Thai government’s deeply inadequate enforcement; prosecutions for labor trafficking on fish boats are extremely rare, with just a handful of formal investigations in 2010 and 2011. Even the workers who are “rescued” must endure a gauntlet of legal bureaucracy and in many cases, indefinite detention, which can drag on for weeks or months and often fails to protect the impoverished and isolated workers from their former captors.

Following the reports of labor abuses, the industry issued boilerplate expressions of concern. Several multinationals vowed to work harder to follow ethical sourcing guidelines and improve supply-chain monitoring.

At the same time, Thai officials continue to crack down on the migrants, rather than their captors, targeting undocumented Burmese and Cambodians and spurring an exodus back across the porous border.

So far, these political responses sidestep, or potentially impede, the prospect of workers themselves—that is, those most impacted by these mass human rights violations—to change the industry. Deeming them “slaves” helps convey the gravity of the exploitation, but it also has the effect of dehumanizing or compartmentalizing the issue, rather than locating the structural inequalities and gradients of exploitation throughout the industry.

However, there are worker-led structures in place that can wage a meaningful challenge against both the criminal trafficking underground and the legal plunder of the ocean economy. In fact, there is a long tradition of radical maritime unionism. In the early twentieth century, dock and ship workers were at the helm of militant internationalist labor campaigns, organizing at key trade chokepoints across global ports. But in Thailand today, less than 5 percent of the workforce is unionized, and many, particularly undocumented migrants, lack real collective bargaining rights. In the fisheries, EJF Executive Director Steve Trent tells The Nation via e-mail, “the prospect of meaningful workplace representation is even more remote…. Workers on piers and fishing boats complain that grievances have to be channeled through gangmasters—the same individuals often responsible for their abuse and exploitation in the first place—who are typically bi-lingual and free to mediate between the management and workers according to their own interests.”

Though lax regulation and huge consumer demand help Western retailers to prosper while suppressing labor costs, conversely, empowering workers would not only help remedy the gravest abuses but also ensure the industry’s sustainability in the long term.

Migrant workers from Myanmar clean a fishing net as they sail out of the port of Mahacha. (Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

Trent says policymakers need to understand “the clear link between illegal fishing, declining fish stocks and human rights abuses.” Environmental stewardship can provide a more sustainable economic balance in the ecosystem. Better management of catch rates would mean less pressure for long, arduous and high-risk forays into foreign waters. So by restoring some ecological balance, the ocean economy becomes more sustainable, less risky and less prone to labor exploitation.

Liz Blackshaw, leader of the ITF-IUF (International Transport Workers’ Federation–International Union of Food Workers) Catcher to Counter program), says that so far efforts to regulate the fishing industry haven’t linked sustainability measures with corporate accountability. “If you look at the policy framework in this industry, the majority of it is in place to safeguard the catch not the catchers,” she explains via e-mail. Effective international labor accords or trade regulations would trace the product and the labor to corporate actors.

In ITF-IUF campaigns in the Asia Pacific region, Blackshaw says, “the challenge is to find a way to organize that incorporates different facets” of a fractured contract-based production system. For example, one approach might be to start with organizing cannery workers, using their demands to anchor a baseline for working conditions, and then “work backwards along the supply chain to the fishing fleet.” A pilot project based on this model has made some inroads in Papua New Guinea’s embattled maritime sector, where the union says that incremental organizing around wages and infrastructure have helped advance labor reforms, including measures to raise the minimum wage.

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In addition to strengthening international monitoring of the industry, workers can organize at the grassroots on multiple fronts—consolidating consumer support for human rights, environmentalists’ focus on sustainability, and cross-sector labor organizing.

In Blackshaw’s view, “we are now at a point where we could start calling for consumer boycotts, revocation of fishing licenses for breaches of fundamental rights; demanding safety inspections for trade purposes, etc. We cannot organize this industry vessel by vessel; plant by plant, we have a sophisticated and systematic model for organizing which is already introducing a labour narrative into what has historically been a sustainability-only debate.”

Until the seafood business starts valuing workers lives as much as it does the size of the catch, the precarious labor system on Thailand’s waters is destined to sink under its own weight.


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My Final Post: So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie. (Library of Congress)

When I launched this blog on May 3, 2010, I promised, “Every day…we’ll probe the latest media outrages, and uncover a few ourselves, while also providing links to important articles and blog posts at other sites (both mainstream and alt-), along with essential or amusing video. Since this is The Nation, we’ll pay special attention to media politics and media culture, and update often, even at night and on the weekends.”

The blog’s original title and logo, MediaFix, soon bit the dust, but for more than four years, this promise, I believe, was largely fulfilled (especially the weekend part, as it would turn out). Today, however, marks my final post here. So, a few reflections and highlights.

Certainly worth recalling are two long-running, nearly “live” blogs.

The first, covering WikiLeaks revelations and controversies, started in November 2010 and ran nearly 24/7 for six months, establishing what some called the all-time record for a blog devoted to a single subject, with a dozen or more updates daily. (At least two fans created artwork likening this to Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak or Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak.) A Nation intern, Kevin Gosztola, played a strong supporting role. It would be the “most-read” offering on the Nation site almost every day for nearly the entire six months. Out of this, I wrote the first book about WikiLeaks and then, with Gosztola, the first book about Chelsea Manning.

The second “streak” concerned Occupy, and this time the daily, almost-live blog, started in October 2011, would run for five months or so. This too led to an ebook, the first on the movement. Like the WikiLeaks blog, this one would prove to be the popular material on the Nation site most days for many weeks.

Also popular, though not quite as long-running, were my daily postings on the 2012 election, which also led to an e-book. What I remember most vividly was somehow covering the final week of the campaign, with frequent updates, from a hotel room with spotty Wi-Fi—after we got knocked out of our home due to Hurricane Sandy. Never thought I ‘d cover an election night from a Comfort Inn without the excuse of a candidate’s headquarters in the ballroom.

I can’t possibly cite, or even recall, many other highlights of roughly 1,000 blog postings. Although of much shorter duration, my coverage of the Steubenville rape case drew tremendous readership and linkage. An interview with my friend and co-author Robert Jay Lifton produced just about the wisest commentary on the Obama drone program anywhere, if I say so myself. I interviewed Oliver Stone and Alex Gibney and often tackled the scourge of executions—state murder—in this country. Along the way there were tributes to everyone from Beethoven and Upton Sinclair to Phil Ochs and Bruce Springsteen (not to mention Kurt Vonnegut, Steve Earle, Pete Seeger, Sam Cooke and Billy Bragg). I debuted my Vonnegut and Me book here. Also my book on when Hollywood turned left.

I tried to rally the forces that ultimately convinced President Obama not to bomb Syria last year. Very recently, I’ve attempted to do the same (with outcome uncertain) re: a return to air strikes in Iraq.

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Although the subjects ranged widely, in nearly every case I focused partly or mainly on media or pundit failures. Rarely did I go after Fox—that was too easy, as Stewart and Colbert show every week. Although hardly the worst actor, The New York Times probably drew most of my attention—for coming up short far too frequently. Several columnists—notably Bill Keller, Thomas Friedman and David Brooks but also Nick Kristof—drew criticism. At the same time, I often tipped my hat to the Times’s excellent public editor, Margaret Sullivan.

I regret that I won’t be able to write my multiple annual pieces here related to the atomic bombings of Japan in 1945, the aftermath and the nuclear lessons for today, but you can find some of the previous ones using the search function or check out my Atomic Cover-up book here.

But now, as they’ve told me, it’s time to go. If you remain interested, please check out my long-running and popular blog, Pressing Issues, which also concentrates on politics and media but with (even) more rock ’n’ roll and humor in the mix. (My e-mail remains epic1934@aol.com). For now, I’ll just quote one of this magazine’s patron saints, Woody Guthrie: So long, it’s been good to know you…I got to be driftin’ along.

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What the SCOTUS Decision Ending Obama’s Recess Appointment Power Means

Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Obama overstepped his power when he named three people to the National Labor Relations Board at the end of 2011, the Supreme Court decided unanimously on Thursday.

Here’s the background: since 2009, Senate Republicans undertook routine obstruction of President Obama’s appointments by wielding a filibuster that required sixty votes to break. They did this against all sorts of nominees, for offices big and small; in some cases, Republicans didn’t even bother to claim a substantive problem with the nominee. The only criteria for a filibuster, at times, seemed to be that Obama nominated that person.

One area where this was extremely problematic was the National Labor Relations Board—three members had their five-year terms expire in 2012, and Senate Republicans filibustered Obama’s replacements. With three empty seats, the NLRB would not have a quorum to function, and the practical effect would be that US labor law would no longer be enforced. (It’s not hard to see this as the GOP’s goal here).

The White House didn’t want this to happen, and Obama contemplated and ultimately made “recess appointments” to the three seats.

The law around presidential appointments during recess has historically been vague. Article II, section 2, clause three of the Constitution grants the president “power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” That was a sensible clause for an era when it could take weeks for Congress to return to Washington via horse and buggy—if the war secretary died of tuberculosis, it would not be practical to wait that long to confirm a replacement.

In the modern era, how should that clause be interpreted? Presidents began making recess appointments when the Senate gaveled out of session, even for a few days, which was clearly within the letter of the law, though probably not the original spirit. That was legally fine—even three Supreme Court members were appointed in that fashion.

In the aughts, to prevent President Bush from placing un-confirmable nominees into office when the Senate broke for recess, Senator Harry Reid devised a strategy to hold “pro forma” sessions every three days. This consisted of a senator coming to the floor when everyone else was out of town, gaveling the Senate into session, and then right back out. As a technical matter, the Senate was always in session, and the president could not make recess appointments.

Republicans later adopted this strategy, but Obama—bolstered by a lower-court ruling that those pro forma sessions were not legitimate—decided in late 2011 to issue three recess appointments to the NLRB to keep it functioning in late 2011 in the midst of some pro-forma sessions. This is what is at issue in Thursday’s case, NLRB v. Canning.

The administration urged the justices to look at the practical matter here: the Senate was not really in session in any true sense, and the pro-forma sessions every three days were an obvious ploy by Republicans to prevent recess appointments.

The justices disagreed:

In our view, however, the pro forma sessions count as sessions, not as periods of recess. We hold that, for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate is in session when it says it is, provided that, under its own rules, it retains the capacity to transact Senate business. The Senate met that standard here.[…]

The Solicitor General asks us to engage in a more realistic appraisal of what the Senate actually did. He argues that, during the relevant pro forma sessions, business was not in fact conducted; messages from the President could not be received in any meaningful way because they could not be placed before the Senate; the Senate Chamber was, according to C-SPAN coverage, almost empty; and in practice attendance was not required.

We do not believe, however, that engaging in the kind of factual appraisal that the Solicitor General suggests is either legally or practically appropriate. From a legal perspective, this approach would run contrary to prece­dent instructing us to “respect…coequal and independent departments” by, for example, taking the Senate’s report of its official action at its word. From a practical perspective, judges cannot easily determine such matters as who is, and who is not, in fact present on the floor during a particular Senate session. Judicial efforts to engage in these kinds of inquiries would risk undue judicial interference with the functioning of the Legislative Branch.

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In effect, this ends all recess appointments by the president, except in a rare scenario outlined by the Court in which the House and Senate disagree about the congressional calendar.

What does all this mean? In the short term, not much: Obama withdrew those now-illegal appointments, and the Senate confirmed three others to the NLRB earlier last year. Democrats then undertook rules reform this year that eliminated the filibuster on non-judicial appointments. That removed any real need for Obama to make recess appointments.

But, should things go poorly for Democrats in November, the Senate will become Republican. If history is a guide, they will block any further Obama appointments almost as a matter of reflex. And now recess appointments will be out of the question.

The long-term implications for organized labor here are also dire, as Ian Millhiser at the Center for American Progress has been relentlessly pointing out. The three seats in question here have terms that expire in 2018.

So: imagine a scenario in which Republicans hold the Senate in 2018, and refuse to confirm a Democratic president’s nominees to the NLRB, even if they are entirely noncontroversial. There will now be no recourse, and the NLRB will go dark.


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Supreme Court Strikes Down Law That Keeps Anti-Choice Protesters 35 Feet Away From Abortion Clinics

Abortion clinic buffer zone

A sign delineates the buffer zone outside of a Planned Parenthood in Burlington, Vermont. (afagen/Flickr)

This morning, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a 2007 Massachusetts law that established and protected clinic buffer zones—a mandated thirty-five-foot distance intended to keep anti-choice protesters and self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselors” away from people seeking health services.

These zones have been credited with creating a safe, clear path for those who, for a variety of reasons, enter clinics that provide abortions. As one first-person account explained:

These protesters don’t get the fact that most people are walking in for birth control and pap tests. How would they feel if I stood outside their doctors’ office, assumed I knew the reason for their visit, and screamed at them in front of crowds of people?

Of course, those celebrating today’s ruling argue that they wouldn’t need to scream if those pesky buffer zones weren’t in place. They could instead approach patients with ease and offer their judgments, literature and whatever else they’re carrying. The Court ruled today that anti-choice advocates should be allowed to do just that, given that speech can’t be regulated on public sidewalks. The problem is that what some characterize as simply offering a different perspective and options, others see as clearly aggressive and violent, as made clear by the #NotCounseling hashtag now gaining steam on Twitter.

Late last year, a number of abortion rights advocates signed onto an amicus brief that makes the case why a decision such as what was handed down today would be a serious blow to women. Here’s a round up of some advocates’ responses today:

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America: “This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters. We are taking a close look at this ruling, as well as patient protection laws around the country, to ensure that women can continue to make their own health care decisions without fear of harassment or intimidation.”

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Jessica González-Rojas, Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health: “For too long, demonstrators outside women’s health clinics have harassed, threatened, and violated the privacy of women seeking needed services. As someone who has been assaulted by anti-choice protesters when entering a clinic for reproductive health care in the early ’90s, I know personally how critical buffer zones are for the safety and security of patients…. Buffer zone laws, like the one in Massachusetts, create a safe space, which allows reproductive healthcare facilities to meet the needs of patients, including contraception, cervical cancer screenings and abortion care. These facilities are often the only places where low-income women can access these critical services.”

Shivana Jorawar, Reproductive Justice Program Director, National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum: “We know there are a multitude of barriers to women’s access to health, and protesters harassing—bullying—women is a one of them. This decision worries me for my own community, as Asian-American women already face great cultural stigma and shame around abortion and have some of the highest rates of mental health issues and suicide—we don’t need to be yelled at on the way to the clinic.”

States and cities across the country, including San Francisco and New Hampshire, have recently passed laws instituting buffer zones, while others have waited to move forward based on the outcome of the Supreme Court case.


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Will the Tea Party Actually Ditch the GOP?

Republican National Convention

The Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, on Monday, August 27, 2012 (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

There’s talk, all of a sudden (and not-so all of a sudden) about whether or not the Tea Party can or will break with the Republicans and set up its own, third party. Fearful of another Mitt Romney—or, heaven forfend, Jeb Bush or Chris Christie—and sullen and angry over the well-funded establishment GOP’s ability to outfox their Senate primary candidates so far in 2014, the Tea Party is (or, rather, tea parties are) being touted as having the ability to set up a national third party that represents an anti-establishment, anti-Washington agenda. Don’t believe it for a second.

There’s one strain of thought, expressed last night on MSNBC and last year by David Frum, that the departure of the Tea Party faction from the GOP would be a “blessing” for the Republicans. In Frum’s view, expressed via CNN, the exit of the Tea Partiers would free the Republicans to appeal to centrist and moderate voters (and presumably Hispanics):

Right now, tea party extremism contaminates the whole Republican brand. It’s a very interesting question whether a tea party bolt from the GOP might not just liberate the party to slide back to the political center—and liberate Republicans from identification with the Sarah Palins and the Ted Cruzes who have done so much harm to their hopes over the past three election cycles. … Maybe the right answer to the threat, “Shut down the government or we quit” is: “So sad you feel that way. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Yesterday, on Fox News, a sputtering, nearly incoherent Sarah Palin, reacting to the defeat of the Tea Party’s extremist standard-bearer in Mississippi—and let’s face it, if the Tea Party can’t win in ultra-reactionary, Bible-thumping Mississippi, it doesn’t have much of a future—said:

Well if Republicans are going to act like Democrats, then what’s the use in getting all gung-ho about getting more Republicans in there? We need people who understand the beauty of…. the value of…allowing free market to thrive. Otherwise our country is going to be continued to be over-regulated, driving industry away, driving jobs away. We’re going to be a bankrupt, fundamentally transformed country unless those who know what they’re doing, and aren’t going along just to get along with those in power, it being today the Democrats. That does no good. So yeah if Republicans aren’t going to stand strong on the planks in our platform then it does no good to get all enthused about them anymore.

But even Rush Limbaugh thinks it’s a dumb idea to create a third party or to abandon the GOP:

I have never advocated for a third party, and I’m not advocating for one now. It’s never been the objective, and it’s just not the way to go. They don’t win. It’s an understandable knee-jerk reaction.

Of course, Rush is right, and Sarah’s off-base, though Democrats and liberals can be forgiven for crossing their fingers and hoping that the civil war in the GOP collapses the party into splinters. For Republicans, their problem is that the activist base of the GOP virtually coincides with the Tea Party, and if that faction leaves, the Republicans will be left with a handful of well-behaved evangelicals and some flag-waving, local Chamber of Commerce types.

Senator Thad Cochran’s defeat of a right-wing kook, Chris McDaniel, in Mississippi’s primary is only that latest in a series of bitter defeats for the Tea Partiers, who’ve now placed their bets on unlikely wins in Tennessee and Kansas. And it’s only heightened the anger and resentment inside the GOP over the establishment’s blitzkrieg against the Tea Party, to the point that in Mississippi some radical-right activists are talking about the unlikely prospect of running McDaniel as a write-in candidate:

Wayne Allyn Root, a libertarian commentator and onetime third-party candidate for vice president who is aligned with the Tea Party, wrote on Twitter that if Mr. McDaniel campaigned as a write-in candidate, “I’ll be in Mississippi campaigning by my friend’s side. Take Cochran down in general election.”

McDaniel, who delivered a fiery, “non-concession” speech after the vote, may encourage such foolishness, which might help elect a Democratic senator from Mississippi for the first time in decades. “There are millions of people who feel like strangers in their own party. And there is something strange, something unusual, about a Republican primary that is decided by liberal Democrats,” he said, angrily. “So much for principle!… This is not the party of Reagan! But we’re not done fighting.”

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Over at U.S. News and World Report, there’s this:

Judson Phillips of Tea Party Nation echoed the former Alaska governor, saying that the tactics used by the establishment candidate proves that the “Republican In Name Only”—or RINO—wing of the party is “willing to do anything to hold on to power,” he wrote in a blog post declaring “war” against the establishment wing of the GOP. “The RINO establishment thinks they can use all kinds of underhanded tricks to win. They also think that conservatives will simply accept the results and fall in line,” he wrote. “The Republican Establishment thinks they have fought back an insurrection from conservatives and now we will meekly fall in line in November and support a RINO who needs Democrats to win? Never.”


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Putin’s Ukraine Policy Backfires


Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the town of Krymsk, January 11, 2013. (Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool)

At the end of the Coen brothers’ classic 1996 film, Fargo, the intrepid law enforcement officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) famously addresses the less-than-competent bad guy after she’s arrested him:

And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.

One might say the same thing about the less-than-competent bad guy who is president of Russia, Vladimir Putin: And for what? What, exactly, has Putin accomplished by stoking fires in Ukraine, illegally annexing Crimea, mobilizing Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, backing thuggish separatists who’ve created ersatz “people’s republics” in eastern Ukraine, bringing economic sanctions down on Russia, and destroying whatever good will Russia had built up by hosting the Sochi Winter Olympics? Well. I just don’t understand it.

There’s reason to be optimistic, of course, that the fighting in Ukraine will wind down, that an accord will be reached, and that the surprise talks between Kiev and at least some of the rebels will succeed.

But the entire crisis might have been avoided if Russia hadn’t gotten its britches in an uproar just because Ukraine—run, by the way, back in 2013 by a corrupt but mostly pro-Russian wheeler-dealer—wanted to sign an association agreement with the European Union. For most Ukrainians, linking up with the EU was a no-brainer—after all, what Ukrainian in his right mind, if that mind weren’t clouded by pro-Russian political or religious ideology, would prefer to tie Ukraine’s economy to the crumbling Russian one and its powerful economic alliance with, well, Kazakhstan? Now, after all the hubbub, the new president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko—far less pro-Russian than his predecessor, though still a wheeler-dealer and probably corrupt—says that he’ll sign an association agreement with the EU on June 27.

Of course, none of that means that the Ukraine crisis is over, just yet. For reasons that remain unclear, in terms of what he can accomplish, Putin is still apparently keeping the flame of rebellion in eastern Ukraine flickering, even secretly supplying the rebels there with a limited number of tanks and heavy weapons. The Kremlin is still making a fuss about the idea of Ukraine, along with Georgia and Moldova, and Russia can create trouble in breakaway mini-republics in all three countries. Still, it seems obvious that every move that Putin has made has backfired, blown up in his face, and made things worse for him—except, perhaps, at home, where Putin has rallied ultranationalists, ex-CPSU types and the religious right to his side. But by creating a crisis over Ukraine, Putin has thrown a handful of monkey wrenches into relations between Russia and both Europe and the United States, allowed Washington to pressure the Europeans to increase military spending, strengthened advocates of NATO on both sides of the Atlantic, given hawks new leverage in the United States against President Obama’s more cautious foreign policy, and more. Way to go, Vlad!

As The Washington Post, in reporting the new efforts between the EU and the three eastern European nations, noted:

Russia’s moves have spurred neighbors to reorient westward even more quickly than they were contemplating. The deal-signing date for Moldova and Georgia was pushed up to June. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, said he wanted to sign at the same time. Other countries with close ties to Russia also have become more cautious about binding themselves to their neighbor. Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty in May establishing the Eurasian Union, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature attempt to build a Russian-led counterweight to the European Union, but it contains fewer provisions for political integration than he had initially sought.

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Putin, who’s blinked and blinked again during the crisis, is sending mixed signals, and it’s unclear if and how he’ll react to the EU signings. On one hand, he’s been speaking regularly with Poroshenko—yesterday, together with the leaders of Germany and France—and he’s endorsed the idea of a cease-fire and peace talks between Kiev and the rebels. And in a symbolic act—though not a practical one—Putin has asked Russia’s parliament to withdraw its authorization for Russia to invade Ukraine. On the other hand, however, the Russians have apparently moved military units back to the Ukrainian border, after having withdrawn most of them earlier, and according to US officials Russia is allowing some heavy weapons, including tanks, to move across the border into the rebels’ hands. Worse, the rebels seem to have gotten their hands on some sophisticated antiaircraft weapons, which they’ve used to deadly effect.

So what is Putin trying to accomplish, given everything that the Ukraine crisis has cost him? Despite some fears that Russia wanted to swallow Ukraine whole, à la Crimea—never a likely outcome—it seems obvious that Putin is in part trapped by and in part fueling the almost romantic and religious ties between Russia and Ukraine. Is it to create a mini-state inside Ukraine that will weaken Kiev and give Russia leverage over the country? Is it something else? Time will tell.


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