In a 2012 survey by the Center for Urban Economic Development, 23 percent of domestic workers and 67 percent of live-in domestic workers interviewed earned less than minimum wage. On top of the paltry pay, though the workers reported regular abuse and violations, a full 91 percent admitted that they didn’t complain about poor working conditions for fear of losing their job. In recognition of this grim state of affairs for many low-wage workers, Hawaii recently followed New York’s lead and became the second state to pass a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights, a historic law guaranteeing core rights previously denied to workers in some of the fastest growing, and most poorly-paid, occupations in the country.
Both the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Domestic Workers United are campaigning for legislation protecting domestic workers in each state nationwide. Implore your state representatives to fight for a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights in your state. (If you live in New York City or Hawaii, tell your reps that you appreciate living in a state that takes care of its own.)
The Invisible and Unregulated World of Domestic Work, the first national survey of domestic workers in the US, breaks ground by providing an empirically based and representative picture of domestic employment in 21st century America.
This video, featuring domestic workers discussing their work and lives, makes clear why the human stakes are so high in this fight.
Driving with my father through Chevy Chase, Maryland, when I was young, I once asked him, “What do people in a country club do?”
My Dad, never having been a member, evoked F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.
From what I’m told, they play polo and are “rich together.”
A decade later, I finally understand what he meant. Some of these intermingling rich people drink scotch together, play a few leisurely rounds of golf every Sunday, and otherwise revel in their common membership in an elite institution.
But I know about another club.
As a twelfth grader living in the shadows of numerous prestigious high schools, I encounter peers who are not only smart but actively smart together, basking in the glory of their exclusive intellectual status.
The qualifications for admission to this club are neither money, nor social connections (although these certainly don’t hurt). You’re a full member of the club, endowed with unrestricted privileges to boast freely and judge smugly, only if you have a high SAT score.
Members of the club take as gospel the premise of the SAT: that real, valuable intelligence is reducible to a few objectively measurable skills. They brag about their grades and swoon over J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein and Richard Dawkins—not for their contributions to humanity but for their high IQ scores. The problem is that whatever academic attributes the SAT assesses, nobody claims that it measures our morality or our commitment to others, qualities for which Kaplan offers no preparation. It distinguishes neither the sociopaths from the do-gooders, nor the apathetic from the culturally engaged.
Even if the SAT is an accurate prognosis of academic capabilities (which, as we know, is a highly contested view), it is merely an indicator of how advanced our literary essays or mathematical analyses could be, if only we ever choose to create them. For the same reason that having the ability to compose a symphony isn’t praiseworthy if you don’t actually produce and perform a musical number for eager listeners, your high SAT score means nothing if you never make creative use of your mind and heart.
When I did well on my SAT as an eleventh grader, I tried not to take pride in my score, feeling that accomplishment must precede pride. The commonplace message that “you should be proud of your high SAT score” broadcasts a false notion of success, conflating academic possibilities with real achievements.
When all of the propaganda about test-taking is circulated, too many bright students inhale. Believing that they’ve actually done something valuable by scoring big, they start mingling among themselves and themselves alone, sealing their specialness with the experience of “being smart together.” It may be an understandably defensive response to the exclusivity of rich kids or the anti-intellectual thrust of high-school hierarchies, but it can be hurtful to everyone else.
Students like me should be asked to use what are perceived as our gifts for society’s betterment. When Dr. King preached, “everybody can be great,” he didn’t mean that we’re all destined to get high test scores or that greatness only belongs to those who score highest. Whatever our aptitudes are, “everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”
I saw the truth in this claim while tutoring a struggling tenth grader who was unfairly berated by his teacher for “being a menace.” When one of his peers rose to the boy’s defense, standing up to ask the teacher to “please treat us politely,” the adults in the room were clearly taken aback. To think—a non-Honors student who actually practiced and expected civility! It was one of my best moments in high school.
I recently overheard one of the “high achievers” call all the “ghetto kids” at our school “retarded.” He got a near-perfect SAT score, but never participated in any of our school-wide community work projects. In my mind, his comment illustrated the moral vacuity of test-obsessive culture and the absurdity of deifying kids who are too selfish to share their gifts with people around them. Instead, we should encourage our “brainiacs,” as well as our talented artists, athletes, thespians, programmers and musicians, to elevate their communities—and themselves— by helping struggling students.
I am only 18, but have already seen too much snobbery, if not abject meanness, from some of Charles Murray’s “cognitive elites” to believe that the world would be a better place if only they were running it. If students today must emulate an elite body, let it be the anti-elitist moral elite, the folks who refuse to crassly “pull rank” with their various gifts and instead use them to improve society for everyone.
According to New York’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations, some 120 co-op buildings, with 13,000 apartments, and 368 condominiums, with 7,000 units, sustained flooding and damage after Hurricane Sandy blew through town.
Many now need extensive repairs, but people who live in housing co-ops are considered small businesses under federal law and, as such, they’re ineligible for federal hurricane relief. Instead of relief, they’re being advised to apply for a “small business” loan even though they are essentially nonprofit entities set up by property owners.
That’s what many New Yorkers have been discovering to their surprise, as they’ve been turned down for FEMA aid. Even though assistance is finally coming through, people who live in co-ops just can’t get it. And according to the executive director of an organization that helps low-income New Yorkers turn distressed city properties into cooperatively owned and operated homes, that hits low income co-op households especially hard.
“Co-op owners aren’t considered homeowners,” explains Andy Reicher of Urban Homesteading Assistance Board (UHAB).
Maybe it’s time we overhaul our notion of ownership and “home” just as we’re updating our notion of “family.”
Area lawmakers are trying to change the law. This is certainly no time to be discouraging cooperative home-owning, says Reicher. It’s the one sort of home ownership that came out of the mortgage crisis mostly unscathed. Having weathered the financial storm thanks to low rates of foreclosure and arrears, it would be a shame if storm Sandy hurt co-ops now.
This week, climate activists are taking direct action off-shore. Read Wen Stephenson’s report on the Henry David T. versus big coal.
(Credit: Jay O’Hara)
An update on the day's outcome appears below.
It seems fitting that this would be my first post here, given the subject of my first piece for The Nation, on the cover of the current issue. Near the end of that essay, I write that it’s time for climate activists “to say and do ‘crazy’ and ‘radical’ things,” such as “put their bodies in the way of coal shipments.” I didn’t know I’d be writing this post when I wrote those words, but this morning, that is precisely what’s happened.
At around 9:30 am, two climate activists I know through 350 Massachusetts anchored an old wooden lobster boat, the Henry David T. (I like the name), in the path of a coal tanker—putting their bodies in the way of a shipment to the Brayton Point coal-fired power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts, the largest fossil-fueled plant and largest source of carbon emissions in the Northeast.
They’re calling for the plant to be shut down—immediately—for the sake of the climate and all of us.
One of them, 31-year-old Jay O’Hara, captain of the HDT, is a devout Quaker. The other, Ken Ward, 57, was deputy director of GreenpeaceUSA in the 1990s and is a longtime environmental insider. He’s also a pointed critic of what he argues is the big green groups’ collective failure to grapple seriously with the climate crisis. (Read their bios here.)
Of course there’s already an effort underway, led by the Coal Free Massachusetts coalition, to close Brayton Point—by 2020. But Ken and Jay are saying that if we actually take the threat of catastrophic climate change seriously, based on the science, 2020 isn’t anywhere near soon enough. We’ve run out of time. We should have closed it down long ago.
To lose the world on our watch is a miserable prospect. To lose the world when a solution is available is perverse. Denying outright that climate change exists is the most extreme response, but considering climate change to be anything other than the single most important matter facing humanity has the same effect.
What we need to do is relatively simple. Whether there is time to avoid the tipping point, we don’t know, but that shouldn’t prevent us from making the best possible effort.
First thing: stop burning coal.
We are doing exactly the opposite….
Brayton Point’s owner, Dominion Resources, has announced that it is selling the plant, and the proposed new owner, who apparently sees a future for the plant, will likely not be in the mood to shut it down anytime soon. They write:
If Dominion Resources sells Brayton Point—the single largest source of coal emissions in the Northeast—to Energy Capital Partners, the likelihood that this plant will continue operation is substantially strengthened….
Nowhere in the decision-making process is there any means or mechanism by which the lunatic aspect of choosing to burn coal can even be raised, let alone factored into the decision. Not one of the measures taken (such as the Regional Green House Gas Initiative) and none of the measures contemplated (such as a carbon tax), has or would have any significant impact on the decision to keep coal plants like Brayton Point in operation. Nothing even remotely approaching the true costs of burning coal is included in the business calculus.
Yet Brayton Point should be shut down immediately—and by “immediately,” we mean today—for more than one reason. First, every day of additional emissions is a terrible, immoral imposition on our children and, in ways we do not fully understand, on the other living things of God’s creation. Second, we do not need this power plant—efficiency measures alone can reduce demand by far more than the 6% of Massachusetts electricity generation supplied by the plant. Third, in order for the US to exert global leadership on climate, we must take decisive and difficult steps in the right direction for our own nation. The closure of all US coal plants, coupled with the sort of vigorous advancement of efficiencies and renewables that is much talked about but little acted upon, would create the political and moral basis for effective global leadership by the US, without which no global solution is possible.
We are faced with an imperative like none confronted by any previous generation; we are living in a society that is disavows responsibility for this greatest of crises, and lacks any process or means by which decisions, like that to extend the life of Brayton Point, might be affected. It is our choice to take direct, non-violent action—putting our bodies between the Brayton Point coal plant and its water-borne coal supply—in an attempt to achieve the outcome necessary for planetary survival; the immediate closure of Brayton Point Power Station.
This morning, Ken and Jay, with the help of friends from 350 New Jersey, delivered a letter to Dominion and its proposed buyer, Energy Capital Partners, cc’d to Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, explaining why the sale should not be allowed and the plant should be closed.
At a little before noon, Ken and Jay were taken into Coast Guard custody. The fate of the Henry David T. remained unknown.
Here’s to Ken and Jay: “crazy,” “radical”—and right.
* * *
Update (7:40pm ET Wednesday): Ken Ward called me from Fall River, where he stood outside a restaurant awaiting an order of cod. Ken had the following to report: He and Jay were not arrested, nor even detained, by the Coast Guard or other authorities (local and state) who responded, and after some difficulty hauling up the Henry David T.'s anchor, they were allowed to leave. Ken and Jay are not aware of any charges to be brought against them, though Ken said they were told by the Coast Guard that they were vulnerable to a federal fine of $40,000 (per day) for blocking a waterway, and that they would be responsible for the cost of their removal (it was unclear what that cost might be, if any). They stayed onboard the HDT the entire time they were at anchor. The Coast Guard personnel boarded the boat, conducted a routine safety inspection, and issued a warning: the Henry David T. was apparently one foghorn short.
But the lobster boat and its crew succeeded in stopping the tanker's shipment of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station, at least for one day.
Full disclosure: Wen Stephenson helped launch the grassroots network 350 Massachusetts and serves on the board of Better Future Project.
While Congress dallies on immigration reform, deportations rage on. Read Aura Bogado’s take.
John McCain confers with Charles Schumer. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File.)
John McCain, who seems never to have met a country he didn’t want to bomb, now appears never to have seen a peace conference he didn’t want to wreck.
Speaking about the current plans to convene a conference on Syria involving both the government of President Assad and the rebels, and co-sponsored by the United States and Russia, McCain had this comment:
It’s fine with me to have meeting or gathering or conference or whatever it is. But the only way that the Russians are going to be cooperative on this effort is if they believe that Assad is losing. That’s why we should act before any conference takes place…. That means a no-fly zone, that means [giving] heavy weapons to the resistance.
Leave aside the snarky comment “or whatever it is.” (It’s a peace conference, and it’s a desperate, last-ditch effort to prevent catastrophic bloodshed and a regional crisis, Senator McCain.) By proposing to provide heavy weapons to the “resistance,” which includes Islamists of all stripes, some of whom are allied to Al Qaeda, McCain is essentially suggesting to sabotage the conference itself.
In a hopeful sign, Assad has provided Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a list of attendees for the conference. So far, at least, the rebels have not done the same, but Secretary of State Kerry is diligently working on the Syrian Free Army and the other Syrian groups to attend. Kerry warned Assad that if his side doesn’t take part in the conference, to be held sometime in the next few weeks, the United States will increase its aid to the rebel side and “unfortunately the violence will not end.” But that seems like a needless threat when, thus far, it’s the rebel side that hasn’t agreed to negotiate.
Let’s not underestimate the huge difficulties that stand in the way, with extremists and sectarian killers on both sides of the fight and a path to a settlement that is far from clear. It would probably start with a cease-fire, a suspension of arms deliveries to both sides, the provision of humanitarian aid across Syria, and a decision to negotiate indefinitely on what a transitional government might look like. That, at least, is what I see as the right way to go.
At least one rebel video shows a commander cutting open the body of a victim and eating what appears to be his heart. In the video, the monstrous fighter says: “You slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them.” That’s not an act calculated to encourage comity on either side. But, of course, there are terrible atrocities on both sides.
The Alawites, who belong to an offshoot of Shiism, are fearful that the rebels—who are led by fanatical Sunni extremists and Al Qaeda types—will exterminate them if they are victorious. By the same token, widespread atrocities against Sunnis in Syria are being carried out by government forces.
Here’s more from what Kerry said yesterday:
I have talked with almost all of the foreign ministers in the core group who will be meeting next week together in order to lay plans for this negotiation. The members of the opposition have been in touch.… It’s only been five days since this was announced and a huge amount of work is already under way. When we announced it, we said towards the end of the month (of May) or early June. We expect it to be exactly that, somewhere in early June, I would hope, and that’s our current expectation.
We believe the … best way to settle Syria is through a negotiated settlement.
One key issue is whether or not Iran will be asked to attend. In 2001-2002, of course, Iran was powerfully helpful in stabilizing post-Taliban Afghanistan, though that cooperation dried up when President Bush decalred Iran to be part of his “axis of evil” weeks later. Because Iran is a leading backer of Assad, it would be very useful to involve Iran over Syria. Here’s a brief exchange from the State Department briefing yesterday with Jen Psaki, the spokeswoman:
QUESTION: Jen, can you rule out the Iranians participating? Were they invited?
MS. PSAKI: In terms of the participants, that’s being discussed now. I can’t tell you who is—who will be and who won’t be participating at this stage.
QUESTION: Do you have any problem if the Iranians attend the meeting?
MS. PSAKI: Again, I’m not going to parse that. We’re discussing this with the possible participants, with a number of people as we lead up to the planning for the conference.
So at least the Obama administration isn’t ruling out a role for Iran.
Read Robert Dreyfuss on the Moscow spy flap and why Ambassador Michael McFaul should be fired.
Two updates, including the filing of Unfair Labor Practice charges yesterday against companies, appear below.
Hundreds of Milwaukee workers plan to walk off the job starting at 6 Central Time this morning, launching the nation’s fifth fast food workers’ strike in six weeks. Today’s work stoppage follows strikes in St. Louis and Detroit last week, and in New York and Chicago last month. In each case, workers are demanding a raise to $15 per hour, and the right to form a union without intimidation.
“I’m so amped up and ready,” Milwaukee McDonald’s employee Stephanie Sanders told The Nation last night. Sanders, a 33-year-old who recently returning to working at McDonald’s following a stretch in retail, said that she would be striking “basically to help my generation out, and the next generation to follow.” Along with low wages and the lack of job security, Sanders said she wanted to do something about punitive management: “Just because you have on a blue shirt doesn’t mean you’re better than me.”
As I’ve reported, these recent work stoppages share several common characteristics: Each is a one-day strike by fast food workers, backed by a coalition of unions and community groups, targeting major companies throughout the industry and mobilizing a minority of the workforce in hopes of building broader support. While different local organizations have been involved in each city’s actions, the Service Employees International Union has played a significant role in all of them.
The campaign expects today’s strikes to involve workers from fast food chains including McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell. Like Chicago’s, the Milwaukee strike involves retail as well as fast food: workers from companies including TJ Maxx, Dollar Tree and Footaction plan to strike. Both industries are increasingly prevalent in—and representative of—the US economy, and both are overwhelmingly non-union.
Jennifer Epps-Addison, the economic justice director for Citizen Action of Wisconsin, said that a victory for the Raise Up MKE campaign would have broad implications for Milwaukee: “We know that if we were to raise the wages of those workers, it would mean not only economic security for their families, but economic security for a city that’s been devastated by de-industrialization, devastated by a jobless rate for African-American men of over 55 percent.”
Reached for comment during last Friday’s strike in Detroit, a McDonald’s spokesperson sent a statement touting “competitive wages” “access to flexible schedules and quality, affordable benefits” and “training and professional development opportunities” for McDonald’s workers. “We value and respect all the employees who work at McDonald’s restaurants,” said the statement. The company did not respond to a follow-up inquiry regarding the strikers’ demands, or whether they could face punishment for walking off the job.
The spread of the fast food strikes, and of strikes by non-union workers in the Walmart supply chain, comes amid a multi-decade decline in US strikes, fueled in part by legal and economic changes that have made them more risky and less effective. According to the campaigns, recent fast food strikers have so far generally not been punished for it, a result that some activists chalk up to community pressure and media scrutiny rather than to legal protection. Sanders said that, while she initially worried that management would retaliate against her if she struck, organizers “told me that we have the legal right to at least take one day” over their grievances.
How great is the risk? Under US law, it’s generally illegal to “fire” workers for going on strike, but legal to “permanently replace” them—effectively terminating them by refusing to let them come back to work following the strike. Prior to striking, fast food workers in other cities have filed “Unfair Labor Practice” charges with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging law-breaking by management, which potentially protects them from being “permanently replaced.” Epps-Addison said last night that such charges so far had not been filed in Milwaukee (see update below). But the one-day duration of the strikes does reduce the risk: Interviewed last October, former NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman said that a company generally would not have legal grounds to “permanently replace” strikers who had already pledged to return to work the next day.
However, pro-labor activists and academics have long argued that the lengthy process for pursuing claims of retaliation, and the limited penalties available, make the law a very weak deterrent against union-busting. Unions have recently accused Republicans who blocked Obama NLRB appointees, and judges who threw out NLRB actions, of further compromising labor law enforcement. (On a Tuesday media call, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called the DC Circuit “a circuit court gone wild.”)
When a New York City Wendy’s worker was initially denied the chance to return to work following the first of the fast food strikes, rather than filing charges with the government, local, political and religious leaders occupied and picketed the store until management relented and returned her to work. Epps-Addison said that she and other Milwaukee activists are similarly ready to take direct action if any companies crack down on strikers: “I’ve committed myself to going to that store, and sitting down in that store, and refusing to leave until the workers are protected.” Sanders predicted that McDonald’s would not retaliate, because “I don’t think they want the repercussions of what may happen” if they did.
Sanders said that her own commitment to the fight was deepened last month, when she traveled to Chicago to support that city’s strike. “It was awesome,” she told The Nation. “It was just like everybody coming together united as one…. And that’s what really put me in the ‘Yes, I will do it’ mode…. It was just so wonderful.”
Update (9:50 am EST Wednesday): In a follow-up message Wednesday morning, the campaign told The Nation that a slew of Unfair Labor Practice charges were filed with the National Labor Relations Board yesterday alleging violations of labor law by management.
Update (1 pm EST Wednesday): According to the campaign, close to 200 workers are expected to strike by the end of today. Strikers and supporters will converge for a rally at 5 pm Central Time this evening.
Burger King declined a request for comment on today’s strike. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, TJ Maxx, Dollar Tree, and Footaction did not immediately respond to inquiries this morning.
In an e-mailed statement, Old Country Buffet employee Javon Walker said, “Jobs that pay fifteen dollars an hour can save lives in Milwaukee. Too many people—youth especially—turn to crime because they don’t make enough to make ends meet. Good paying jobs will change lives in this city for the better.”
This month, Occupy Wall Street offshoots have experienced a cross-country resurgence. Read Allison Kilkenny’s report.
Justice Department employees at an event with Attorney General Eric Holder (left) and Michelle Obama. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information—especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources.”
—Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy
When John Lindsay was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1958, the Republican lawyer from Manhattan arrived on Capitol Hill as a man on a mission. “Often alone on the House floor,” recalled Nat Hentoff, “Lindsay wielded the Bill of Rights against its enemies.”
Lindsay was absolutely determined to reinvigorate the bill of rights, especially the First Amendment. After a decade of “red scares” and McCarthyism, he spoke up for dissidents. He hailed the right to assemble and to petition for the redress of grievances. And he championed a free press as the essential underpinning of a free society.
Lindsay developed a reputation for disregarding party lines. He was a Republican, but if the Republican president was wrong, he would not allow party ties to temper his objections. And if the members of his caucus disregarded civil liberties, they were more likely to get an earful from Lindsay than from the Democrats.
Around the time that Lindsay was elected mayor of New York, California Democrat Don Edwards, a former FBI agent, arrived to take up the fight. For three decades, Edwards checked and balanced not just Republicans but Democrats who failed to recognize the rights of citizens and the essential role of a watchdog press. When his Democratic colleagues in the House of Representatives went after reporter Daniel Schorr for revealing details of an intelligence committee report, Edwards ripped his colleagues. “The freedom of the press is very much involved here,” the congressman declared. “By bringing it up this way and naming Mr. Schorr, there is a very chilling effect on a reporter’s right to receive classified information.”
We remember Lindsay and Edwards because of the standard they set. They understood that the defense of the Bill of Rights in general, and freedom of the press in particular, must never be compromised by partisanship.
That’s why it was so very important when, after it was revealed that the Department of Justice had obtained the phone records of Associated Press journalists, both Patrick Leahy and Bob Goodlatte spoke up.
Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Goodlatte, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, come from different political parties, different ideological perspectives and different experiences.
Yet, they essentially agreed after learning that federal prosecutors stood accused of secretly obtaining two months’ worth of telephone records from the journalists—in what the news agency described Monday as “a serious interference with AP’s constitutional rights to gather and report the news.”
Both men are well aware that the Justice Department was pursuing alleged leaks by a government official, and that national-security issues had been raised. But they are also aware of the guidelines established in the Watergate era to balance national security and First Amendment concerns. And in the spirit of Lindsay—who said, “Those who suppress freedom always do so in the name of law and order”—Leahy and Goodlatte have both recognized an essential duty to defend press freedom.
The wrangling over government intrusion on what is supposed to be a free press is as old as the Republic. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson clashed over the issue before the Bill of Rights was ten years old, and no decade has passed since then without a dispute. As recently as 2008, the FBI apologized to The Washington Post and The New York Times when it was revealed that the agency had improperly obtained the phone records of reporters in Indonesia.
Even if the fight is an old one, however, it is essential that officials with oversight authority move immediately when it rises anew.
That’s why the rapid responses of Goodlatte and Leahy were as encouraging as they were necessary.
Both Leahy and Goodlatte raised real concerns and demanded real answers from Department of Justice officials who seem to have forgotten that a free press must be free from arbitrary and overreaching government surveillance.
“Any abridgement of the First Amendment right to the freedom of the press is very concerning,” said Goodlatte. “The House Judiciary Committee will thoroughly investigate this issue and will also ask Attorney General Eric Holder pointed questions about it at Wednesday’s oversight hearing.”
Goodlatte’s statement was valid—and important.
But it was even more important that Leahy voiced his parallel concern.
“The burden is always on the government when they go after private information—especially information regarding the press or its confidential sources,” said the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. “I want to know more about this case, but on the face of it, I am concerned that the government may not have met that burden. I am very troubled by these allegations and want to hear the government’s explanation.”
Attorney General Holder’s testimony Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee was hardly revealing, as Holder explained that he had recused himself from the matter.
But that can’t be the end of the inquiry—or the response to it.
Strikingly, Leahy was backed up in his call for answers and action by an angry Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who described the Justice Department’s seizure of the phone records as “inexcusable” and added, “There’s no way to justify this.” Reid went even further, saying Tuesday, “In my career, I’ve stood consistently for freedom of the press from encroachment by the national security community and will continue to do that. It’s an issue I feel very strongly about and will look further whether more legislative action is needed in this regard to secure freedom of the press.”
What might that mean? With encouragement from the White House, Senator Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is preparing to reintroduce the media shield law that in 2009 died in the Senate. Among other things, the proposed law gives journalists who have been served subpoenas the option of appealing to a federal judge when they don’t want to reveal their sources. It then falls to the jurist—as opposed to the Department of Justice—to determine whether the public interest in a story trumps the government’s demand that sources be revealed,
“This kind of law would balance national security needs against the public’s right to the free flow of information,” argues Schumer. “At minimum, our bill would have ensured a fairer, more deliberate process in this case.”
When the Department of Justice in a Democratic administration is accused of wrongdoing, it is vital that Democratic leaders in Congress step up to ask the tough questions—just as it is vital for Republican members of Congress to be out front to check and balance Republican administrations.
Congressional oversight often comes with a partisan edge, and that’s not entirely inappropriate. Partisanship animates and energizes oversight committees, ensures that inquiries are pursued and rejects bureaucratic responses.
Ultimately, however, congressional oversight is most effective when it comes from members of the party that controls the executive branch. The United States does not have a parliamentary system of government. Rather, our Constitution outlines a separation of powers between the branches of government. The separation was not designed to encourage partisan division but to assure that there would always be a checking and balancing of power—regardless of party affiliation or allegiance.
Intense partisanship often leads members of Congress to “go to their corners.” And rarely has the partisanship been more intense, more bitter, than now.
But Patrick Leahy has rejected the defensive position into which the weakest of partisans collapse. Instead, he has gone into the same checking-and-balancing stance that has been adopted by Bob Goodlatte. This is as it should be. When it comes to defending the freedom of the press, the chairs of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees should, regardless of party, regardless of ideology, be positioned firmly and unequivocally on the side of the First Amendment.
Political cartoonists are still powerful provocateurs of people in power. Victor Navasky explains why.
Adolf Hitler once commissioned a book of cartoons responding to British cartoonist, and serial ridiculer, David Low. “What they don’t want to be thought as is an ass, who is a joke,” says Nation publisher emeritus Victor Navasky, about people in power. “These cartoons give rise to jokes, but they’re very serious.” Navasky joins The Cycle to discuss Hitler, Obama, Kissinger and his new book, The Art of Controversy.
Is your world flat? Tom Tomorrow advises: Call detective Tom Friedman!
Chris Christie and Barack Obama inspect the damage from Hurricane Sandy. (Wikimedia Commons/Pete Souza.)
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Last week, as news circulated of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s weight-loss surgery, so did a video in which Christie parodied his own brand—and the fleece he wore day and night during the Hurricane Sandy crisis. In the video, he asks everybody from Morning Joe to Jon Bon Jovi if they’ve seen his now-missing fleece, without which he is powerless, like Iron Man without his suit.
It was, after all, while wearing that infamous fleece that he raced across his state, doling out no-nonsense quips about recovering from the storm. And who can forget the iconic images of Christie and President Obama surveying the wreckage together, finding love, it seemed, in a hopeless place?
Christie seemed genuinely consumed by the unprecedented destruction caused by what the environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben called a “Frankenstorm….stitched together from some spooky combination of the natural and the unnatural.”
And yet, when asked the obvious question—how Christie would address the climate change challenges that contributed to the superstorm and will, undoubtedly, create more in the future—the famously blunt governor said, “Now maybe, in the subsequent months and years, after I get done with trying to rebuild the state and put people back in their homes, I will have the opportunity to ponder the esoteric question of the cause of this storm.”
Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
On Wednesday night, I hosted a panel in New York entitled “Sharp: A Discussion of Women and Criticism.” I organized it because over the last few years, I’ve noticed that there is a distinct quality to the experience of being a somewhat opinionated woman, at least in public, and in print. And I wanted to talk to some of the smartest women I know about it. And given the abysmal byline counts one finds at VIDA, and the controversy over Wikipedia naming novelists who are women “women novelists,” and Deborah Copaken Kogan’s piece on her post-feminist life in letters right here at The Nation, there certainly seemed to be an appetite for the discussion in the sphere of books criticism, and even in the arts more generally.
I managed to convince quite the lineup to do the event with me. The other panelists were: Laura Miller (Salon), Ruth Franklin (The New Republic), Parul Sehgal (The New York Times Book Review), Kate Bolick (The Atlantic), Michelle Orange (The Rumpus) and The Nation’s own associate literary editor, Miriam Markowitz. I love all these women’s work. It was an honor just to have them all accept. And as it turns out, they all had some pretty insightful things to say.
We were going to bring you the audio, but technology somehow failed us and left us with a silent loop on the tape. To borrow another panelist’s observation on the snafu: “The patriarchy works in strange ways.”
So I offer my own takeaways below. Of course, we disagreed with each other on certain points. But there were some commonalities:
1. Whenever that VIDA time of year comes around, I always hear that it’s hard for editors to find good women writers, that we’re not around, that we don’t pitch enough. Yet I found there was an embarrassment of riches in that regard. There were a bunch of other women I could have (and should have) asked to be on this panel. Perhaps I just skew my reading towards women, but given that I usually read journalism without much regard to byline, I don’t think that’s quite it. Point being: why all these women aren’t fighting editors off with sticks is beyond me.
2. I asked all the panelists to talk about women critics “of the past” (“the past” being construed very loosely) that they admired. Kate Bolick raised the question of whether it wasn’t a kind of over-determined gendering itself to admire and relate to mostly other women critics. This had actually been a question bothering me while I organized the thing; were the women I asked going to be annoyed at being identified, explicitly, as “women critics”? (This has been one of the items at issue in the Wikipedia debate, with novelists more generally.) I can only be honest and say that yes, I am more interested in how women have navigated this position, because I think there is a distinct quality to that experience.
3. It would be good if we stopped confusing “equality” of perspective in this debate—in terms of sheer byline counts—with “sameness” of perspective. Parul Sehgal made the observation that women and people of color have something interesting to say about how power operates. Which, I think, does not quite reduce to other kinds of people being “better” critics than white men, but it does mean that more than white men’s perspectives are important, and even, dare I say, vital, to having the full range of critical conversation. It often bugs me that we call parity of bylines a “diversity problem.” In my opinion, it isn’t just “fairness” that demands the inclusion of more perspectives. It’s a problem of quality, too.
4. As far as representation goes, the problem isn’t just with the publications that assign writing. It also has to do with the way books are marketed today, Miriam Markowitz pointed out, and particularly how they are marketed to women. In the publishing world, it seems, women are still easily caught by images that evoke either feminine douche commercials (flowy dresses, fields) or ersatz Sex and the City ads (martinis and shoes). It’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with any of these images, but the idea that they appeal to women wholesale has always struck me as misguided. Like everyone else, women tend to read books by authors they admire, or books that look interesting in the jacket copy, I assume. Though perhaps publishers have an army of book marketers who say otherwise.
5. There are two economies at work in the book world, Laura Miller observed: one where books are literally bought and sold, and the other where they accumulate prestige. And writers, even publishers, are often not good at articulating where “success” is allocated between them. To venture a slight criticism of the Kogan article which appeared here at The Nation, that tension was pretty evident in it. Kogan’s memoir, Shutterbabe, was a bestseller, but it was the treatment by critics that left her with a sour taste in her mouth. Except—and this is, I think, what critics hate to face sometimes—the truth is that a good book will long outlast the reviews.
6. Ruth Franklin noted that, in a way, all this VIDA stuff is much larger than just the book world. We live in a gendered society, and that is going to color how we talk about just about everything, books included. Which of course raises a sort of chicken-and-egg question. I guess my perspective on this is that diversifying the people who write for you is an easy, measurable thing to do in the face of a gendered society, in a way that, say, expanding a critical standard to embrace more voices in art is not.
7. Michelle Orange offered that she felt that women often have a harder time establishing authority in criticism, citing Virginia Woolf on this point. Which I, personally, agree with. I spend a lot of time reading biographies of women critics along with their work, and I’m often struck by the kind of firestorms they can start by simply dissenting from the popular view, however skillfully or convincingly. I completely garbled a question about this at the panel itself, but to an extent it’s always seemed to me that the blowback you can get as a woman of fairly strong opinions is itself gendered. And concomitantly, as someone of color trying to make such a statement, racialized.
I’ve posted here about this before. It’s related to Rebecca Solnit’s famed “Men Who Explain Things” phenomenon, but somewhat distinct from it. The best way I can put it is in old left terms: sometimes just a claim to be able to say something of general application—say, to pronounce on the value of a book—is, consciously or unconsciously, received by those in power as a challenge to their authority. The thing about having the kind of power conferred by gender or race is that it becomes almost just a fact of the universe, a given, and someone mounting a challenge to that—saying, for example, that Philip Roth just doesn’t speak to your experience that well—can inspire, well, disproportionate surprise and consternation. I say this not to make women writers more intimidated, nor to tell anyone they shouldn’t give voice to that surprise. Just, I wonder if this particular operation of power ought to be more closely observed by everybody, and guarded against.
8. Pro tip for young men: No more pitching Martin Amis reviews. Full stop.
(That was said as a sort of joke for the panel but I would add: it seems to me to be good professional advice, insofar as [a] the editor has probably already assigned the Martin Amis review if she’s interested in the book; and [b] it seems to me always better to show an editor that you have a new or exciting perspective to offer, which a review of a very established literary novelist might not give you a chance to showcase.)
Is your world flat? As Tom Tomorrow illustrates, Detective Friedman is on stand-by.