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Next on the Progressive Agenda: Housing

Domino Factory

Domino Sugar Refinery in Brooklyn, where major development—including some affordable housing—is planned. (Photo courtesy of Santos Gonzalez, CC2.0)

April 10 is already a date worth marking. It’s the day Jonas Salk successfully tested his polio vaccine trial and that most of the world agreed to give up biological weapons. It’s the anniversary of the first professional golf tournament in America and the first human cannonball stunt. Heck, it was on that day in 1849 that Walter Hunt patented the safety pin. And in 2014, it will be the 100th day of Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty.

Attempts to take stock are already underway; The Wall Street Journal ran its yesterday. De Blasio is planning to mark the milestone on Thursday. The Nation will, of course, weigh in as well. The timing of the retrospectives is, of course, largely arbitrary: because of a speech FDR gave in 1934 discussing the accomplishments of a special session of Congress over its first 100 days, the first 100 days have become a convention of political coverage, but there’s no substantive reason for stopping now to review the de Blasio era so far.

Still, after the conclusion of the state budget last week, with winter snowstorms and nasty charter-school battles out of the way, it does feel like the de Blasio narrative is entering a new phase. The first three months of the year revolved largely around the effort to get universal pre-kindergarten funded. That effort largely succeeded. Now what? We know that managing the city day-to-day means drama aplenty and that implementing UPK is a huge jobs, but what will the Big Idea of the de Blasio mayoralty be from April 10 on?

In a word, housing. As compelling as the case for UPK was, it is dwarfed by the urgency of the need for decent, affordable housing and the scale of the promises the mayor made during the campaign, where he vowed to build or preserve 190,000 units of affordable housing over ten years. As the Associated Press pointed out last week, the pace de Blasio promised exceeds what the two previous mayors who made housing a priority, Mayor Bloomberg or Mayor Koch, were able to achieve. Housing is central to the inequality concerns that de Blasio articulated during the campaign, which are rooted in the fear that New York is becoming too expensive a place for many of us to live.

De Blasio intends to present his detailed plan for how to achieve its lofty goals by May. So far, the administration’s moves on housing make the rest of its program hard to predict. The much ballyhooed Domino’s site deal, for instance, did increase by a modest amount the number of affordable apartments the developer would provide, and did increase by a substantial degree the amount of floor space given over to those affordable apartments; that second piece matters, because one shortcoming in the affordable housing production under Bloomberg was a lack of production of larger affordable apartments for families.

However, some of the “affordable” apartments at the Domino’s site will be marketed to “moderate-” income families (e.g., families of four making $108,000 or less). And in return for the promises of affordability, the developers will be able to build twenty stories higher than zoning would have allowed. In total, the deal is slightly better than the one the Bloomberg administration might have struck, but the project’s enormous density concerns some advocates—especially since de Blasio’s inclusionary zoning proposal depends on a fair amount of market-rate development to generate the new affordable units.

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As an op-ed over the weekend by the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation and a report last week by Real Affordability for All make clear, the density questions are only a few of the issues de Blasio’s housing team is grappling with. Whom do you target affordable housing towards? Where do you build it in a city with fewer and fewer big parcels of land left? How do you take a hopelessly inefficient program like 421-a and wring more value out of it?

And if you knock down the artificial intellectual barriers we sometimes erect around different housing issues, those questions about how to structure affordable housing programs are links in a chain with challenges like the city’s homeless population and how to move people from shelters to permanent housing, the disaster that is housing court, how to better enforce the city’s housing code to keep affordable apartments liveable, rent stabilization and the work of the RGB and how to address some of the threats to the city’s massive, crucial and fiscally unsound public housing system.

The mayor’s appointments—Alicia Glen as deputy mayor, Shola Olatoye to head NYCHA and Vicki Been at the helm of HPD—have excellent credentials, but their approaches to setting policy and managing departments are largely unknowns. And as the charter-school episode illustrated, the debate over how to use space is the ultimate zero-sum game, inspiring cut-throat politics. A government can make laws and borrow money, but it can’t really create new land, nor use the land it has in a way that benefits one party without often bothering another.

No one will likely note the 200th or 300th day of the de Blasio administration, but chances are housing is what we’ll be talking about then.

 

Read Next: Michael Sorkin on affordable housing and so-called inclusionary zoning.

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 4/4/2014?

Foreclosed home

Foreclosed home in Los Angeles (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

—Samuel Adler-Bell focuses on labor, mass incarceration and literature.

"Toward Cyborg Socialism," by Alyssa Battistoni. Jacobin, January 2014.

Confession: I don't care about "environmentalism."

Don't get me wrong. I think pollution is bad. I rallied for Coal Divestment at my university. I read Naomi Klein. I follow 350.org on twitter. But at some point, I made a conscious choice to let other more committed environmental activists to do my caring for me. At the time, I saw environmentalism as a mode of political involvement that appealed to especially huge numbers of people in my generation (for good reason), and so felt like I could get away with focusing on the labor movement, on combating income inequality and mass incarceration instead. I was like, "you guys, got this. Tell me where to sign, where to show up, and I'll be there, but I have other meetings to be at!"

In an editorial from Jacobin's winter issue, Alyssa Battistoni explains how stupid I am. Where many leftists have criticized the (mainstream) environmental movement for too comfortably accommodating neoliberalism—just buy these funny looking light bulbs and we'll save the planet!—Battistoni indicts the anti-capitalist left for failing to engage adequately with environmental issues, not as one item on a political agenda but as fundamentally interconnected with our efforts to organize toward an alternative economy. More critical and compelling than the welcome "environmental justice" terminology gaining credence in the green movement, Battistoni calls instead for a "cyborg socialism," which forefronts the entangledness of ecology and technology, of class struggle and the planet it takes place on.

—Dustin Christensen focuses on Latin American politics and sports.

"Cheerleaders make the NFL's billions. They deserve to be paid minimum wage," by Nichi Hodgson. The Guardian, March 30, 2014.

The National Labor Relations Board’s recent decision to allow players at Northwestern University to form a union is a major victory for college athletes long denied the fruits of their own labor. However, football players are not the only labor pool that is exploited by the multibillion dollar industry. Nichi Hodgson's recent Guardian piece highlights the fact that NFL cheerleaders—the faces and bodies so ubiquitous in television and in-house NFL advertising—are paid less than minimum wage. Moreover, paternalistic NFL teams insist that these women adhere to a strict standard of moral behavior (as if the NFL is some bastion of morality). As Hodgson describes it: "no fraternizing with the players, including no discussion of wages or working hours; no jewelry, other than wedding bands and team-mandated earrings; no weighing a single pound more than you did at the beginning of the season; compulsory tans, fake or skin cancerous—the list goes on." As Hodgson points out, these are the same punitive practices found in strip clubs. However, strippers have been able to push for back wages and compensation, such as the Spearmint Rhino dancers who successfully sued the club chain for almost $13 million. "Even strippers have more labor rights than cheerleaders," and even the team mascot makes a minimum wage. It's time that cheerleaders received the same.

—Laura Cremer focuses on labor, gender and the historicization of culture and politics.

Game of Homes,” by Rebecca Burns, Michael Donley & Carmilla Manzanet. In These Times, March 31, 2014.

In These Times reports on the rapid growth of big bank– and private equity firm–owned housing in the wake of the financial crisis — and what it portends. The authors write: "After first making money from the housing bubble that crashed the economy, then benefitting from the federal bailout, banks and investors now stand ready to profit all over again by cleaning up the mess they made." A source tells the authors of the piece that, for example, "in many cases, victims of foreclosure are literally renting back their own houses." They detail the ways that gentrification, unsafe living conditions and general poverty and precarity result from financial companies increasingly serving as the (absentee) landlords of huge swathes of American cities. Another recent article in In These Times, "The End of Jobs?" gives a similarly important analysis of another of the economic trends that are leading, broadly speaking, away from the mid-twentieth-century "American Dream" and its fantasy of stability. Both come with ideas for solutions: accompanying "Game of Homes" is the article "Three Ways to Cut Wall Street Out of the ‘Housing Recovery,’" offering ideas on how to move forward.

—Cecilia D’Anastasio focuses on ethics, feminism, press freedom and tech.

"Talking With 13-Year-Old Leggings Activist Sophie Hasty," by Amanda Hess. Slate, April 1, 2014.

An interesting, albeit poisonous paradox: Middle-school girls are forbidden from wearing leggings because they are distracting to boys and destructive to the educational environment; therefore, dress code. However, girls who transgress against the vague clothing guidelines are forced to hide behind their friends when administrators approach, wear embarrassing gym shorts and even take papers home for their parents to sign. Now, what's more frustrating to administrators' educational ambitions? The inherent vice associated with the female body, or the regulations educators impose on those bodies?

—Simon Davis-Cohen focuses on self-governance, climate adaptation and science.

Export Stupidity,” by Richard Heinberg. Post Carbon Institute, March 27, 2014.

Assuming law to be static is a big mistake. For example, new crude oil facilities that promise only to ship carbon domestically (exporting US crude has been essentially forbidden since 1975) should be met with skepticism. As proof, Congress is now thinking of lifting the 1975 ban. Richard Heinberg’s short piece, which does not mention the crude oil ban specifically, still offers a good antidote to Congressional hearings on promoting US carbon exports. Sorry to self-promote, but I predicted this in February 2013.

—Justine Drennan focuses on marginalized groups' relationship with technology and development.

"Terrabyte Incognita: Africa Might Not Look Like You Think It Does," by James Wan. Think Africa Press, March 28, 2014.

It's well known that cartography can't be entirely objective. Greenland is grossly oversized in the commonly used Mercator projection, and I know some Australians who prefer the "upside down" map of the world. Scholars like Thongchai Winichakul and Benedict Anderson have written about how the development of cartography was key in defining national identity because it not only gave firm physical borders to the nation state but also gave people a mental image of the country. Wan's article argues that that ubiquitous modern cartographic technology, Google Maps, isn't immune. "Google Maps claims to be on a 'never-ending quest for the perfect map,'" he writes. But due to its ad-based profit model, against which "not even states have the vast resources necessary to compete...Africa comes very low down on the pecking order." Wan concludes: "As was the case a century ago, it is still just a small group of Western individuals with specific ideas of the world that have the resources to map the world."

—Corinne Grinapol focuses on education and international relations/national security.

"Other People's Pathologies," by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The Atlantic, March 30, 2014.


The first essay assignment I received in my college African-American lit class asked us to answer the question: What is White-American literature? A class of mainly white students, we would spend the whole semester learning to see the thing we spent a lifetime not seeing: White-people culture, branded as the norm, rendered invisible as a result.

Is it silly to lump all white people into one group and start ascribing it with universal characteristics? It's as silly as it is to do it with black people, or any other race or ethnicity.

And yet, it's open season once again on the public examination of black culture. This time, at least, it has produced an exhilarating exchange between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. Coates's latest volley turns the eye of observation on those who are doing the judging, reminding us that the privileged are hobbled by their own filters. They, like everyone, see the world not like it is, but as their upbringing and environment make them see it—and behave accordingly. It is a reminder that values unobserved still exist, and those values have contributed to a devastation of black communities that has lasted centuries—a history the privileged (and we're talking white privilege, specifically) have never been forced to contend with or seriously answer for. As Melissa Harris-Perry put in her most recent Nation column: "Social science has spent little time debating the tangle of pathology that ensnares the privileged. We are trained to intervene with those who lack resources, to find the problems there, and to ignore the perpetrators of the inequality."

—Mara Kardas-Nelson focuses on health.

"Obamacare: Where Are We Now?" by John Cassidy. The New Yorker, March 28 2014.

"Health Caring," by Jeffrey Toobin. The New Yorker, April 7 2014.

I was delighted to find out that Obamacare's March 31 deadline not only produced upwards of 7 million signups, but some excellent, policy-driven health journalism (my favorite). Not necessarily known for its healthcare coverage, The New Yorker offers some thorough—and, happily, positive—commentary on the ACA. Cassidy suggests that while the Democrats may be winning the war in policy—there are substantial and measurable positive outcomes for millions of people (including me, as a new Medicaid beneficiary) stemming from the ACA rollout—it's losing the war on rhetoric: While most Americans overwhelmingly support individual policy changes attributable to the healthcare law, they remain critical of Obamacare as a whole. That's thanks in large part to Republicans' united, scathing and deliberately misinformed (read: "death panel") attacks on the measure, and Democrats' anemic defense. Toobin notes that Obamacare helps the poor the most, and that it is this element of the law that is arguably most important and impactful, and provokes the most push back from conservatives. Looking at the historic experience of Medicaid, he suggests it's just a matter of weathering the battle; with the passage and enactment of the law, the war is already being won.

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—David Kortava focuses on sustainable development.

Foreign Aid 101, Third Edition” by Oxfam America. April 2, 2014

Aid is one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated areas of our federal budget. As Oxfam’s updated primer on the subject makes clear, “foreign aid” has many faces. American taxpayers have financed, to cite just a few examples, the mobilization of emergency supplies for typhoon victims in the Philippines, programs to link Kenyan farmers to outside markets and counter-narcotics operations in Columbia. To speak of aid in generalities—without making even the elementary distinctions between humanitarian relief, development assistance and the strategic backing of political and military allies—serves only to perpetuate confusion and muddle an important conversation. For readers seeking a nuanced understanding of the subject, Oxfam’s Foreign Aid 101 is a good place to start.

—Benjamin Pokross focuses on education and the arts.

"Introducing BuzzFeed Ideas," by Ayesha Siddiqi. BuzzFeed, April 1, 2014.

Among the listicles and the suddenly omnipresent quizzes, BuzzFeed recently unveiled a new section of their website, BuzzFeed Ideas. Introducing the launch, Ayesha Siddiqi, the site's editor, offers her take on the revitalized form of criticism she hopes to have on her site. She promises to take seriously the "social web" and have articles predicated on conversation that move beyond reactionary think pieces to present more nuanced "ideas." While the exact nature of the site's content and how it will interact with the rest of the site remains to be seen, Siddiqi's introduction promises an exciting new space for critical writing.

 

Read Next: A new bill would require universities to enact anti-harassment policies.

Wall Street Targets GOP Critic of Big Money and Big Banks for Primary Defeat

Walter Jones

U.S. Representative Walter Jones (L) in his Capitol Hill office in Washington, DC. (Reuters/Mannie Garcia)

Across the country, at the grassroots level, Republicans have formed alliances with Democrats to demand that the influence of money in our politics be reduced. As the reform group Free Speech for People noted last year, dozens of Republican legislators have backed calls by states for a Constitutional amendment to overturn not just the Citizens United ruling but other barriers to the regulation of money in politics. With backing from third-party and independent legislators, as well, the passage of the state resolutions highlights what the group refers to as “a growing trans-partisan movement…calling for the US Supreme Court’s misguided decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010) to be overturned, through one or more amendments to the US Constitution.”

In Washington, however, Republican reformers are harder to come by—as was evidenced by the celebrations of the Supreme Court’s McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling by GOP congressional leaders. Leaving no doubt about his faith that those with the most money get to speak the loudest in our elections, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, hailed the Court’s decision to strike down limits on aggregated campaign donations by wealthy Americans with an announcement that “freedom of speech is being upheld.” At the same time, one of the attorneys who argued for elimination of the cap on aggregate donations said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell—who Kentucky media noted “filed an amicus brief on the McCutcheon v. FEC case as a part of his continued crusade against campaign finance reform”—had been “extremely helpful” in pushing the court to go even further than McCutcheon’s legal team had initially proposed.

Yet, despite Boehner’s enthusiasm and McConnell’s ambition, the party leaders do not speak for every Republican in Washington.

Three years ago, Congressman Walter Jones, R-North Carolina, signed on as a co-sponsor of one of several proposals to amend the constitution in order to renew the power of the people and their elected representatives to regulate money in politics. More recently, he co-sponsored a proposal by Congressman Jim Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, to develop public financing for congressional elections. Jones is on board with Government By the People Act of 2014, a “matching-funds” plan offered by Congressman John Sarbanes, D-Maryland. And he is the only Republican co-sponsor of the Empowering Citizens Act, a plan by Congressman David Price, D-North Carolina, to renew the public financing system for presidential elections.

On his own, Jones has sponsored legislation to bar the use of political funds for personal purposes.

What is Jones thinking? “I think Citizens United was one of the worst decisions by the Supreme Court in my adult lifetime,” the congressman said last year. “In Washington, the problem is that the leadership in both parties—and I want to be fair about that: both parties—seem to like the system the way it is… When the Democrats were in the majority, it was very difficult for those [reform] Democrats to get the bills moving on their own side. And on my side, it’s almost like it’s a dead issue, which disappoints me greatly as a Republican. Now, I will work this year, across party lines, to reform the campaign laws of our nation.”

Like many of the most progressive reformers in the country, the conservative congressman speaks specifically about the link between special-interest influence on elections and political dysfunction in Washington. “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed,” he says. “The status quo is dominated by deep-pocketed special interests, and that’s simply unacceptable to the American people.”

Congressman Jones is noting something that too many DC insiders, be they Republicans or Democrats, members of Congress or pundits, fail to recognize: millions of Americans are already engaged on this issue. Support for real reform is widespread, crossing lines of partisan and ideological division. Sixteen states and more than 500 communities have called for amendments with varied language but one point: that “based on the American value of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity to have their political views heard, there is a valid rationale for regulating political spending.”

Now, however, Jones faces a Republican primary challenge from a classic Washington power player, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain who has been a consultant for big banks and trade groups and who put in a stint as the senior vice president for the Financial Services Forum, the DC voice of some of the biggest Wall Street banks. “[No] matter how he casts himself,” writes Politico, “Griffin is an insider.”

Griffin’s gripe with Jones appears to be that the veteran congressman is too independent-minded. And it is true that Jones breaks rank with party orthodoxy. For instance, he has been one of the most outspoken critics of US military adventurism, often working with Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-California, on issues of war and peace. This has put him at odds with the Bush and Obama administrations, and more recently with House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, whose 2013 budget Jones said was too lavish in its funding of wars. But Jones is hardly a left-winger. He echoes the “old-right” language of conservative icons such as former Ohio Senator Robert Taft Sr. and former Nebraska Congressman Howard Buffett, and of some younger libertarian-leaning House members such as Michigan Republican Justin Amash.

What really bugs Griffin and his DC backers is that Jones does not follow the party line when it comes to doing Wall Street’s bidding. For the past decade, he’s been one of the steadiest congressional critics of free-trade agreements; and he recently joined twenty-one of his House Republican colleagues in expressing; opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. And he’s been a steady critic of big banks, opposing bailouts, supporting regulation and arguing with Congressman Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, and others for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act that separated commercial and investment banking. Those stances undoubtedly played a role in getting Jones kicked off the House Financial Services Committee in Speaker John Boehner’s purge of so-called <“a href="http://projects.newsobserver.com/under_the_dome/walter_jones_kicked_off_house_committee" target="_blank">rebellious Republicans.”

Now Jeff Connaughton, the former Senate aide who wrote the book The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, suggests that Jones’s independence has earned him a challenge from Griffin in the May 6 Republican primary. “I doubt anyone in North Carolina needs me to point out this is a Wall Street bank hit job,” says Connaughton, who helped frame the fight for the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

Bloomberg reports: “JPMorgan Chase (JPM) & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. (WFC) are lining up behind Jones’ primary challenger, Taylor Griffin, an aide in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department who later worked for groups that advocated in Washington for the biggest financial services companies.” Former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a top lobbyist, is a Griffin donor, as is former Bush White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

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Indeed, observes Politico, Griffin has had a cash influx from some of the most high-profile Republican lobbyists in Washington.

That’s helped Griffin get competitive with Jones, a rare accomplishment for a primary challenger. And as the May 6 election approaches, Griffin’s got the connections to bring in a lot more money. Like Mitch McConnell, he is a classic example of a candidate who could benefit in a very big way from the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings.

Walter Jones will have a harder time tapping top Wall Street donors than Taylor Griffin—in no small part because of the incumbent’s record of saying “no” to the banks.

Most members of Congress have a hard time saying “no” not just to bankers but to big money in general. That’s one of the reasons why Jones has advocated for both financial services reform and political reform. The two go together. Indeed, in this era of Citizens United and McCutcheon, the measure of political independence must begin with a willingness to address the influence of money on our elections. It is Jones’s recognition of that fact that has made him a conservative advocate for reform. He understands that some truths go beyond partisanship and ideology, and the first of these is that, “If we want to change Washington and return power to the citizens of this nation, we have to change the way campaigns are financed.”

Read Next: Ari Berman on the Supreme Court’s ideology.

Men on the Edge of Panic: Boomer Esiason, Mike Francesa and Toxic Masculinity

Daniel Murphy

Daniel Murphy of the New York Mets received criticism for taking paternity leave this week. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

This is not another shooting-fish-in-a-barrel commentary about the antediluvian swinishness of Boomer Esiason and Mike Francesa. This is not another swipe at their comments criticizing the efforts of Mets second basemen Daniel Murphy for missing opening day to be with his wife for the birth of their child. For those who missed it, Esiason opined, “I would have said, ‘C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day. I’m sorry, this is what makes our money. This is how we’re going to live our life. This is going to give my child every opportunity to be a success in life. I’ll be able to afford any college I want to send my kid to, because I’m a baseball player.’”

Fellow troglodytic troll of the NYC sports radio airwaves Mike Francesa commented, “You’re a major league baseball player. You can hire a nurse.” Francesa also called the paternity leave at his own company “a scam-and-a-half.”

Many have verbally stomped them for the nature of their comments—well done, Chris Hayes—and Esiason also issued a fulsome apology.

I spoke to my friend Martha, who is a midwife—and a Mets fan—about their comments. She said simply, “I would ask if they knew how it sounded, talking about this woman like she is a human incubator to be cut open in a dangerous, often unnecessary surgical procedure so Murphy can make it to Citi Field on time. I would ask that, but honestly, if you can’t see why the asshole-levels on these comments are off the charts, then I can’t help you.”

I also spoke with Joe Ehrmann, a former NFL player and someone who has devoted his life to challenging the ways in which sports have the capacity to communicate a toxic, destructive brand of masculinity. Ehrmann said, “I think these comments are pretty shortsighted and reflect old school thinking about masculinity and fatherhood. Paternity leave is critical in helping dads create life long bonding and sharing in the responsibilities of raising emotionally healthy children. To miss the life altering experience of ‘co-laboring’ in a delivery room due to nonessential work-related responsibilities is to create false values.”

Ehrmann also pointed out the ways in which these statements create a culture that normalizes the alienation between fathers and children. He said, “Comments like these put every man in a position to think about career and co workers opinions ahead of father/husband/partner roles. So even in companies with paternity leave, many new dads won’t or feel like they can’t take advantage of leave without a stigma being attached to them…. This is one more arena where sports/athletes could be a metaphor for social change and elevate the birth/nurture/fatherhood role and responsibilities over work.”

He then said to me that this kind of sexist mentality not only harms families, not only harms men, but also quite specifically harms athletes. “I’m convinced the number-one common denominator in locker rooms is father-child dysfunction,” he said. “It’s what pathologically elevates many performances. ‘I will prove to [the coach/father figure] I am worthy of my dad’s love and acceptance,’ at the expense of self and others. If any group should understand need for dads in delivery rooms it should be athletes and the athletic world.”

I would also add that the only reason Daniel Murphy even had the option to take this time off is because it was collectively bargained into his contract by his union. There are millions of men in nonunion jobs who don’t even have this option, not to mention millions of women who risk their employment in the United States by taking time off after the birth of their child.

I think there is something else going on as well. The comments from Boomer and Francesa smack of a kind of existential fear from an older generation of sports radio jockeys about the ways in which definitions of masculinity and sports have been rapidly changing. There have been two dominant kinds of masculine archetypes for the last thirty years in sports. Either you could be heterosexual, misogynist, talking loudly but saying nothing with a goal of trying to become a commercial brand; or you could be a heterosexual evangelical Christian, talking humbly with a goal of trying to become a commercial brand. Those who strayed outside of these norms have only done so with considerable risk to their standing in the media or even their job.

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But in the last two years, these archetypes have changed. We have seen players such as Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers and Michael Sam break new ground as gay athletes. We have seen Royce White and Brandon Marshall speak out about their mental health challenges and show that this kind of openness does not demonstrate weakness but courage. We have a new cultural consensus that does not see concussions as a bizarre badge of honor but a danger sign. We’ve had Jonathan Martin go public about being bullied by teammates, forcing the NFL to confront long-standing locker-room behaviors. Poisonous, narrow definitions of masculinity are being challenged. A player’s missing opening day to be with his wife on the birth of their child clearly caused Boomer’s and Francesa’s brains to rupture. Their idealized sports world as a masculinist cocoon absent of progress and insulated from the real world, where every day is 1985 (or even 1955), is withering before their eyes. People are deciding that ruining your life and your relationship with family in the name of a code that impresses the Mike Francesas of the world isn’t worth it. This is progress, but as in any time when we see progressive healthy change, the hounds of reaction will still nip at its heels.

Read Next: Richard Sherman defends his dirt.

When Hollywood Stars Resisted a Strong-Arm GOP Funding Scheme

Upton Sinclair

Author Upton Sinclair broadcasts a speech during his campaign for governor of California, November 4, 1934. (AP Photo)

UPDATE: LIsten to me talk about this and more on Sam Seder’s Majority Report radio show today.

In the wake of the latest US Supreme Court ruling, the problem of money in politics will soon reach a true crisis point, if it’s not already there. Of course, this has been a slow, steady match to this precipice.

The first modern campaign to raise massive amounts of money, secretly, via front groups or consultants outside the political party offices, sometimes with strong-arm tactics, and across the country—even though it was a state contest—took place in 1934, when the famous Socialist author Upton Sinclair swept the Democratic primary and appeared headed for victory leading a mass movement known as EPIC (End Poverty in California). I’ve written about this at length previously here (and in my book The Campaign of the Century), so I’ll just provide a link to the full story.

But one of the key sources of money was right in California—within the Hollywood studios, where tens of thousands toiled. My new e-book, When Hollywood Turned Left, was published last week. It focuses on the wild response in Hollywood—then controlled by conservative Republicans—to Sinclair, which included the creation of the first use of the screen for “attack ads,” thanks to MGM’s Irving Thalberg. The right-wing attack was so outrageous it sparked liberals out there to organize, and Hollywood has tilted left ever since.

Here’s an excerpt about one of the most notorious aspects: almost all the studio chiefs docked their employees, from low-level to top stars, one day’s pay to go for the slush fund of the hack Republican candidate, Frank Merriam. One of those who protested but lacked the clout to resist was the young screenwriter (later famed director) Billy Wilder, who had arrived in the US just recently. Jimmy Cagney and Kate Hepburn, already top stars, did fight back.

* * *

Stars in the studio system enjoyed a wide variety of benefits and privileges. The studio bosses at least asked them to donate to the Merriam fund before threatening to dock them. Some writers, such as Donald Ogden Stewart, went along with the request. Less established figures were given no choice in the matter.

Take the young writer Billy Wilder over at the Fox studio, for example. Wilder, who was still trying to salvage Raoul Walsh’s East River, received his latest paycheck, normally $250, only to find $50 missing.

“There’s something wrong,” Billy said to the studio cashier in his heavily accented English. “There’s been a mistake.”

“There was no mistake,” she replied. “They took fifty dollars from everyone to give to Governor Merriam. If you have any complaints, talk to Mr. Sheehan.”

Billy didn’t know what this was all about, but he knew one thing: he desperately needed that fifty dollars to make the rent on his tiny room at the Chateau Marmont and to pay for his English lessons. He was behind on payments on his ‘28 De Soto, too. In no position to approach Winnie Sheehan, Fox’s top man, he cornered another studio exec instead.

“Will you please explain?” Wilder asked. “I’m just here on a visa, I’m not interested in politics.”

“Sinclair is dangerous,” the executive replied, “he must be defeated. The Communists want to take over.”

“Shouldn’t I have the privilege of making the donation myself?” Billy asked innocently.

“No, the house is burning down,” the exec said, “and we need as much water as possible to put it out. That son of a bitch bolshevik Sinclair must be stopped.”

“And my hard-earned fifty dollars is going to stop him?” Wilder wondered.

Billy was aghast. It seemed childish, foolish and incipiently fascist at the same time. And he knew something about fascism. He went back to his office and asked his colleagues, red-blooded Americans all, what he should do. After all, he was just a hick from Austria and unwise to the ways of American politics. This just didn’t seem like the American way, as he understood it.

They said, “It had to be done,” and “There’s nothing you can do.” You can’t fight city hall, and all that. Some of them agreed that Sinclair
was a Communist. Wilder said he knew a little bit about Sinclair and he was not by any means a Communist.

“Oh, you’re a Communist too?” one writer replied. “You better watch it.”

Wilder was out of fifty dollars and left with two conflicting thoughts concerning the forced donations. One was: It may not be democratic, but it’s a brilliant idea. Maybe if businessmen in Germany had deducted fifty marks from their workers to stop Hitler, Europe would be a safer place today.

The other was: I fled fascism for THIS?

Another Hollywood figure rebelling against the so-called Merriam tax was that “professional againster” James Cagney. He was back in Los Angeles after shooting Devil Dogs of the Air in San Diego. Politically, Jimmy was still skating on thin ice thanks to the flap over his alleged role in last summer’s Communist uprising, so it behooved him to go along with Jack Warner’s request for money for Merriam. But Cagney wouldn’t sign the studio’s check.

At least that’s what he told Frank Scully, head of the writers’ committee for Upton Sinclair, when they met, for secrecy’s sake, just outside the Warner Brothers gate. Scully found it amusing that two solid Americans were huddling on the street, speaking in whispers, as if they were plotting a revolution. Cagney told Scully not only that he had refused to sign the check delivering one day’s wage to Merriam but that if the studio forced him, he would donate one week’s salary to Sinclair. Since that represented a six-to-one advantage for EPIC, Jimmy figured that would stop them.

Unlike the writers, Hollywood’s acting talent, with the exception of Jimmy Cagney and a handful of others, seemed to go along with the Merriam tax without much of a fuss. Early reports that Jean Harlow planned to buck the system proved premature. But the name of another
young star supposedly fighting the Merriam tax had surfaced in Hollywood. It raised eyebrows, for the actress, Katharine Hepburn, had much to lose, having just won an Academy Award. While Jean Harlow’s career, in the Production Code “decency” era, appeared to be imperiled, Hepburn had clear sailing.

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But 1934, by and large, was not kind to Kate. After a flop or two, criticism of Hepburn’s cool manner and unconventional dress mounted. Gossip columnists referred to her as La Hepburn. One writer dryly commented that she “occasionally has human impulses and she is not all snobbery and self-satisfaction.” On October 7, Louella Parsons revealed that “photographers have agreed not to take a single pic of her because she’s been so rude.”

Yet, if anything, Hepburn took herself less seriously than others did. When her habit of wearing men’s pants caused a stir in Paris, she commented, “I couldn’t be dignified if I tried.” She hated reading references to Kit Hepburn as the mother of Katharine Hepburn. “My mother is important,” she explained, “I am not.” Kate wished she could paint, play music, or write books instead of act, but “alas, I’m not talented at all.” With her friend Laura Harding she lived in an isolated home in Coldwater Canyon.

As the California governor’s race heated up this autumn, Hepburn was filming The Little Minister, based on the J. M. Barrie play, for RKO. It was a big-budget production, and the studio expected the film to put Hepburn’s career back on track. With that much invested, RKO executives could not have been pleased when rumors circulated that Kate Hepburn favored Upton Sinclair or would not pay the “Merriam tax,” or both. Now the Los Angeles district attorney had sent an investigator to find out what Hepburn really believed—and whether RKO had threatened to punish her for those beliefs.

Read Next: Greg Mitchell on racial politics in the New York theater

Brooklyn Teachers Push Back Against High-Stakes Testing

PS 29 Art

High-stakes test prep leaves less time for projects like the one above, created by students at PS 29. (PS 29 Brooklyn/Facebook)

This post requires full disclosure: I could hardly be more involved in what I’m writing about here. Not only do my two children attend PS 29, one of the main teachers involved in the story teaches my son’s class, I’ve personally worked with the teachers and parents trying to organize resistance to high-stakes testing, I know a number of the Teachers Resolution’s signatories and I’m totally biased in their favor.

Now, on to our story: this past week, third through eighth graders in New York State public schools took the English Language Arts standardized tests. In New York City, the tests have an unusually high-stakes dimension absent in most of the rest of the state (and the country) in that students’ scores can play a significant role in their admission to middle school.

There’s a growing nationwide movement opposing these tests as the result of a corporate-driven agenda that has distorted real learning, widened the achievement gap, increased financial strain on schools and parents, unfairly stigmatized teachers and introduced unnecessary stress into the lives of young people. There’s a litany of grievances cited by critics and the opposition comes from both the left and the right.

In many places, activists have encouraged parents to opt out of the tests, which is legally allowed in all states. The most dramatic example of a successful opt out movement took place in January 2013, when teachers led a test boycott at Seattle’s Garfield High School. Teachers refused to administer and students refused to take the state test, which organizers argued wasn’t aligned to curriculum and provided statistically unreliable results. After a months-long standoff with the district, which saw teachers threatened with suspension, the district relented and allowed the high school to forgo the test.

Nothing has gone that far in New York City. Yet. But three Brooklyn schools did have significant opt-out numbers this past week and there’s a huge undercurrent of resentment building to what even many school administrators are calling unreliable, unfair, unintelligible and unnecessary tests.

Liz Phillips, the highly respected veteran principal of Park Slope’s PS 321, was so aghast at the muddle that was apparently this year’s ELA that she issued a strongly worded statement on behalf of her administration and faculty, telling parents, “There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages.” She added that she was “devastated” at having had to administer the tests and underscored that “our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability. ”

Phillips followed up by quickly organizing a protest at her school on April 4, the morning after the ELAs were complete, and reaching out to Dr. Rebecca Fagin, the principal of fellow Brownstone Brooklyn Public School 29 (where my children are in third and first grades currently) encouraging her to do the same.

Fagin, in her second year at the helm and already on record as opposing the high-stakes nature of the test along with 545 fellow New York State principals who co-signed this letter last November, was receptive to Phillips’s suggestion. She also had the strong backing of a growing group of the school’s teachers, a small number of whom had previously collaborated on a teachers’ resolution opposing the tests which was subsequently signed by about three-quarters of the school’s faculty and released at the April 4 protests.

I’ve heard moving emotional appeals making the case against high-stakes testing. I’ve read heavily reported books. I’ve sat through well-informed data-driven presentations. But I had not read something like the PS 29 Teachers Resolution, which combines the intellectual clarity of the deeply informed with the urgency that only profound personal involvement can incite.

These teachers are on the front lines—they truly care and they really know the deal. Let’s honor their commitment by listening to them.

PS 29 Teachers Resolution

April 4, 2014

Over the past decade, standardized tests have taken on greater importance in New York’s public schools. New York City’s students now take state ELA and math exams in grades 3 through 8, and their performance on these tests is linked to promotion, middle- and high-school admissions, teacher evaluations and school progress reports.

Because the tests are now aligned with the Common Core State Standards, they have become more difficult, resulting in much lower passing rates across New York City and State. The tests have also become longer: elementary school students will spend between seven and nine hours taking the state tests this month and next, and students with testing accommodations may have to sit for as many as eighteen hours of testing this spring. Moreover, during March and April, students in testing-grade classrooms can spend up to three hours per day preparing for the state tests.

As teachers, we feel the impact of these changes in our classrooms. In testing grades, the anxiety that students and teachers have about the state exams is palpable. Some students break down in tears during testing and related test-prep sessions, knowing that their performance impacts not only their promotion to the next grade, but also their chances of getting into choice middle and high schools.

Compounding the emotional turmoil, teachers in testing grades must narrow their otherwise rich curricula in order to make room for test prep. Subjects like social studies, word study and read aloud are cast aside, and valuable social-emotional learning and exploration must be limited in order to make sure that students are ready for the exams come spring.

High-stakes tests require that teachers narrow not only their curricula but also the skills they emphasize. As teachers in testing grades prepare students for the state exams, they must often put aside their emphasis on skills like elaboration and creative thinking in order to teach kids to write formulaic responses and find the one right answer.

Even the lower grades have been affected by these high-stakes tests. The pressure to prepare students for their upcoming years of testing has cut time for exploration and play. Additionally, that pressure has increased the need for students to meet, at times, developmentally inappropriate milestones in reading and writing.

Beyond the scope of individual classrooms, high-stakes tests have significant consequences for a school as a whole. As teachers are pulled from their programs to accommodate the proctoring and scoring of exams, a number of critical support services, ESL periods, ICT classrooms and specialty programs are disrupted for nearly a month.

When used correctly, we believe that assessment is a powerful tool. At PS 29, we constantly assess our students, collecting meaningful data that informs our day-to-day instruction. Unlike the high-stakes tests, our assessments improve the education we provide.

Across grades, we feel with great certainty that the rise of standardized testing—and most specifically, its high-stakes nature—has eroded real student learning time, narrowed the curriculum and jeopardized the rich, meaningful education our students need and deserve.

As such, we, the undersigned, believe that it is crucial for teachers to raise our voices on these issues, and we resolve to stand together to advocate for the elimination of the high-stakes nature of standardized tests.

Sincerely,
Kim Van Duzer
Leah Brunski
Rachel Knight
Peter Cipparone
Sara Thorne
Susannah Sperry
Liz Sturges Cosentino
Carolyn Rivas
Sophia Soto
Kristen Adamczyk
Sarah McCaffrey
Mollie Lief
Chantelle Luk
Melissa Bandes Golden
Frank Thomas
Jackie Lichter
Tristram Carver
Jessica Albizu
Hana Pardon
Lisa Cohen
Dan Turret
Lauren McGivney
Adam Gerloff
Bradley Frome
Izzi Kane
Molly Dubow
Kathy Nobles
January Mark
Jasmine Junsay
Nadira Udairam
Aaron Berns
Monica Salazar-Austin
Rachel Certner
Alice Pack
Marisa Noiseux

A Grand Jury Is Quizzing a Key Christie Spokesman

Christie and Obama

Christie and President Obama survey Hurricane Sandy damage in Brigantine, New Jersey. (Pete Souza, CC 2.0)

Despite the fact that Governor Christie is using the recently released report by his lawyer Randy Mastro to claim that he’s been cleared of all wrongdoing, the two real investigations—one by the joint committee of the state legislature and the other by the US attorney’s office, under Paul Fishman—continue. What’s new is that one key witness who recently appeared before the grand jury convened by the US attorney was Michael Drewniak, the governor’s spokesman, and that another key witness, the lawyer for Hoboken’s mayor, Dawn Zimmer, has been cleared to answer the US attorney’s questions, as well.

Federal investigators are hauling witnesses in to testify before the grand jury on what they know about Bridgegate, the lane-closure scandal on the George Washington Bridge, and on Hoboken, in regard to Zimmer’s charge that she was being blackmailed by the lieutenant governor to go along with a development project in her North Jersey city in order to keep post-Sandy recovery aid flowing.

It’s ironic that Drewniak is the first of the governor’s top aides to be seen visiting the federal building in Newark to meet with the grand jury. For twelve years, including all seven of Chris Christie’s tenure as US attorney in New Jersey, Drewniak was spokesman for the US attorney’s office, and he bonded with Christie. When Christie was elected governor in 2009, he brought Drewniak to the statehouse in Trenton with him, so Drewniak is quite familiar with the inner workings of a federal investigation.

Fishman’s grand jury has issued subpoenas at least since January, asking for documents related to the case, and FBI agents have spoken to various people. But until now there were no sightings or reports of actual testimony. However, ABC News reported late Friday that Drewniak appeared before the grand jury on Friday. Apparently, his appearance was uncovered by accident. Reporters from ABC happened to see him walking into the courthouse, and managed to interview his lawyer, Anthony Iacullo, a specialist in criminal law, who said Drewniak was a witness, not a target, of the investigation. In any case, it isn’t known if he is the first person to testify. But he probably won’t be the last.

Drewniak’s testimony comes a week after the Mastro report [see pages 8 and 89] revealed this nugget: David Wildstein, one of the two senior Christie appointees at the Port Authority and the man who orchestrated the lane closures on the bridge, told Drewniak at a dinner in December that he had discussed the bridge issue with Governor Christie while the lanes were actually still closed. He said he told Christie about traffic issues during the memorial events at the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2013.

Worse for Christie, the Mastro report also said that the day after Wildstein told Drewniak that he, Wildstein, had mentioned the issue to Christie, Drewniak went into then–Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd’s office to discuss it, and they were soon joined by Christie. Drewniak told Christie what Wildstein had said, according to the report, but Christie said he didn’t recall any such comment, a position he also repeated in television interviews when Mastro’s report came out.

Other documents that have been released earlier by the state legislative committee investigating the issue show that Drewniak was the person relied upon by Christie’s key Port Authority appointees for advice on handling media calls on the closures just days after they occurred.

Grand juries issue subpoenas for documents and witnesses in order to advise a prosecutor on whether or not there is probable cause to believe a crime has been committed and a trial is warranted. A grand jury investigation can last up to twenty-four months.

At the same time, it appears that federal prosecutors will have a new witness to interview in the case involving charges by Mayor Zimmer that top Christie administration officials threatened to withhold aid needed to recover from Hurricane Sandy unless the city okayed a key development project allied to then–Port Authority chairman David Samson.

Zimmer says she spoke to Hoboken’s attorney, Joseph Maraziti, about the alleged threats, but he has not talked with investigators because of attorney-client privilege issues. Last week, however, the Hoboken city council voted to lift the attorney-client privilege restrictions, allowing Maraziti to discuss his private conversations with Zimmer with both federal and state legislative investigators, according to a Reuters report. Maraziti had received a subpoena for documents in the case, which he can now respond to, and can testify as well.

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The Mastro report disparaged Zimmer’s charges, but it contained a number of interesting documents on the matter, including a letter that Zimmer sent to Christie on April 23, 2013, after she met with him about Sandy aid (see Exhibit 69 in the Mastro report). In it she details how Sandy devastated Hoboken and the city’s plans for preventing similar problems in the future, including water pumps along the waterfront. She then added an interesting paragraph, asking the governor not to make state aid contingent on development plans in the city:

“In the immediate term regarding funding for the pumps, Hoboken should receive unconditional support in the same manner as the rest of the State. Receiving this unconditional support is absolutely essential both as a matter of fundamental fairness and because it will not be possible to proceed with a variety of development projects that burden Hoboken’s infrastructure until the flood problem has been adequately addressed. Just as shore towns are not being asked for development in exchange for protecting them from future storms, the solution to Hoboken’s flooding challenges cannot be dependent on future development.”

It will be interesting to learn what Hoboken’s lawyer has to say about the link between development and hurricane protection aid implied by the letter. It was, course, precisely the question of whether Sandy aid would be linked to a development project in the city that is at the heart of Zimmer’s allegations about Christie and his lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, so it’s interesting that even before the Zimmer-Guadagno meeting at which the threats were supposedly issued, Zimmer had written to Christie saying that aid to Hoboken “cannot be dependent on future development.” Does that mean that Christie himself raised the issue when they met last April?

Read Next: According to his lawyer, at least, Christie is innocent of any wrongdoing.

How to Break the Israel-Palestine Deadlock

Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters/Abir Sultan/Pool)

There’s one hope, one last hope, to revive the pretty-much-dead Israel-Palestinian peace talks that the indefatigable Secretary of State John Kerry has been pursuing since last year, and whose deadline, albeit artificially imposed, falls at the end of April. And that would be this: that the United States stop going back and forth between the intransigent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the weak, divided and powerless Palestine Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas and simply say what it thinks, and offer its own, detailed outline of what a solution should look like. In the long history of American Middle East diplomacy—indeed, even going back to 1967, to the post-1973 Sinai accord, to the late 1970s Sadat-Begin accords, the Oslo agreement and the Bill Clinton–led talks at the very end of his second term—that’s never been done. Midway through the current round, there were plenty of reports that Kerry was considering doing exactly that, specifying what the United States believes the “final status” should be.

Maybe—probably not—but maybe, that’s what’s coming. In its report today on Kerry’s return to Washington, where he’s consulting with President Obama about what comes next, way down in its article The New York Times says that Kerry might release “an American peace plan”:

For all that, some experts said Mr. Kerry was so committed to his Middle East initiative that it was more likely he would push for a change in diplomatic strategy, perhaps by offering an American peace plan, instead of simply walking away from the negotiations.

Let’s first say why it’s unlikely to happen, and then why it is important that it does.

Why it’s unlikely is because there’s little or no sign that Obama, even deep into his second term, is prepared for a showdown with Israel. (That, of course, puts him in the company of every president since, well… of every president.) It isn’t even clear that Obama has done anything more than watch Kerry’s intensive, nonstop shuttle diplomacy with bemused detachment since it started last summer. Since then, even White House officials and others have taken potshots at Kerry’s efforts, enough so that the president himself had to weigh in, damning Kerry with what looked like faint praise while acknowledging the naysayers inside his administration. Said Obama:

I see a lot of senior officials quoted about Kerry and Middle East peace but I’m the most senior official, and I have nothing but admiration for how John has handled this.

Maybe Obama does support Kerry, but it isn’t clear what that means. Were Kerry to release an American plan, obviously with Obama’s support, it would henceforth be clear that the president and the secretary of state are on the same page.

The central problem in the US-initiated round of talks—which almost never involved the Israelis and Palestinians talking to each other, just Kerry going back and forth—is that not once did the United States indicate that it was willing to put the squeeze on Israel to force Netanyahu to make the necessary concessions needed to get things moving. In fact, Israel holds all the high cards: it has a iron grip on the occupied West Bank and a viselike hold around Gaza, an almost impossible-to-challenge intelligence and security blanket smothering West Bank towns and villages and a military that is overwhelmingly the strongest in the region—plus, it faces a weak and divided PA, whose leaders are unelected, which reigns over an economically devastated region and which is undermined by the religious-right Hamas, both in Gaza and, to a lesser extent, in the West Bank itself. So, unless the United States is prepared to put its thumb on the scale, to use its enormous leverage over Israel—which, after all, it sustains, on virtual life support—then why would an ultra-right Israeli government make a deal that it opposes on political, security and even religious grounds?

So why is it important that the United States put forward its own plan? First, because the United States has its own national interest, independent of Israel’s and independent of Palestine’s, in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestine conflict, and it ought to say so. Second, because anyone and everyone who’s looked at the problem knows pretty much what a deal would include: the near-total withdrawal from the West Bank by Israel, the removal of Israel’s illegal settlements, the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza on land approximating the 1967 lines, the readjustment of the 1967 lines by swapping at least a little territory between the two, the division of Jerusalem to serve as the capital of both states, a long-term security plan that demilitarizes the new Palestinian state while providing US and/or other international military forces in key areas, such as the Jordan Valley, a mutually acceptable plan for Palestinian refugees (few of whom will be able to go back to Israel proper) and many billions of dollars: to finance the removal of Israel’s 500,000 settlers, to prop up Palestine economically, to compensate Palestinian refugees resettling in the new state and more. That’s pretty much the plan, so why not say so?

Here’s why it’s important: stating that forthrightly as American policy would create enormous pressure on Israel. Yes, the Palestinians will object to parts of it, and they’ll demand a lot on the issue of refugees, under the heading of the “right of return.” But, even though there’ve been polls showing that the majority of Israelis support the creation of a Palestinian state, the far-right coalition led by Netanyahu is exceedingly unlikely to go along with anything like the plan just outlined without some coercion. Indeed, for such a plan to be implemented, it would probably mean the collapse of Netanyahu’s coalition, the realignment of Israeli politics and the emergence of a pragmatic bloc within Israel designed to win and keep the American life-support aid flowing. Netanyahu, faced with such a plan, would either have to quietly leave politics or realign himself with centrists and pragmatists.

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But note that implicit in the announcement of an American plan—and it wouldn’t have to be stated explicitly—would be that the United States would have to hold over Israel’s head the vast US economic, military and political support it provides to Israel. That doesn’t mean cutting Israel off, and don’t forget that the obstreperous US Congress, in league with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, would fight any lessening of American aid. But there are plenty of things that the Obama administration can do without cutting off aid: change the way it votes at the United Nations Security Council, reduce US military cooperation with Israel, begin contacts with Hamas, reduce its special-relationship exchanges with Netanyahu’s government and simply change the language it uses about the conflict. (Recall the flap in Obama’s first term when he simply said that the United States supports a solution based on the 1967 borders, even though that’s been the American position since, well, the passage of Resolutions 242 and 338 after the 1967 war.)

In the end, after all of Kerry’s efforts, Netanyahu didn’t even bother to keep the commitments he made at the start. Instead, his government has announced the expansion of Israel’s West Bank settlements and refused to release the latest group of Palestinian prisoners. (Remember, back in 2009, how Netanyahu openly defied Obama, when he flatly rejected Obama’s public urging that Israel halt settlements.)

So Kerry has one more play to make: to outline what he thinks a final status agreement would look like. It’s time to show his hand.

For Obama, there’s a political risk. Not only would he draw fire from pro-Israel hardliners and neoconservatives, but he’d risk open defiance from Netanyahu. But so what? By negotiating with Iran toward an accord over that country’s nuclear program—talks that will have another round this week—Obama is implicitly threatening an open break with Israel, which is certain to reject any deal that emerges. Might as well risk it all now.

Based on past events, it doesn’t seem likely that Obama will do anything like what I’ve suggested. It’s unlikely, though not inconceivable. But it’s the right thing to do.

Read Next: Chase Madar on why bankrolling Israel prevents peace in the Middle East

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Since FDR We’ve Been Fighting To Get Money Out of Politics

Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

Demonstrators marking the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, January 20, 2012. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

The Supreme Court’s decision last week in McCutcheon v. FEC is only the latest in a long line of setbacks for the cause of campaign finance reform. The robust, if insufficient, state and federal regulations which took decades to establish are being rapidly dismantled by what Bill Moyers and Bernard A. Weisberger dubbed “the 1 percent court” in our October 2012 special issue of that name. But the darkness of the present situation only throws into starker relief the need for genuine, radical reform—specifically, a mechanism for publicly financing political campaigns and a constitutional amendment ending the truly inane notion of corporate personhood.

As we wrote in our editorial after the disastrous Citizens United decision of 2010, “The Nation is committed to the struggle as one that is in the noblest traditions of this magazine.” Indeed, as early as 1936, our Washington Weekly columnist Paul W. Ward wrote in “Can the Presidency Be Bought?” that American politics was dangerously close to being entirely controlled by the richest people in the country.

Enormous sums are spent on printing or broadcasting the output of the campaign committees’ research and publicity divisions, and most of it is stupid, ineffectual stuff. At best the output of one division tends to do nothing more than cancel out that of its rival…The money that counts, the money spent on getting out the vote, goes for hiring cars to take voters to the polls and for hiring runners to see that the cars are kept busy and filled.

The big money comes of course form the only possible source—the men and corporations that have it to give.

Thirty years later, former Nation managing editor Victor H. Bernstein wrote in “Private Wealth and Public Office: The High Cost of Campaigning” (June 27, 1966), that only a public-subsidy system for financing campaigns could ensure the absence of purchased influence and outright corruption:

Aside from affirming the logical principle that running for public office is properly a public enterprise, and therefore should be publicly financed, the subsidy system offers certain specific advantages. It involves every taxpayer in every election, at least financially; it makes the legislator more (or entirely) independent of private interests, and it increases the political opportunity of men without access to wealth.

Two months after President Nixon signed the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and two months before Nixon-aligned burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building, Richard Max McCarthy, a former congressman from upstate New York, wrote an article for The Nation titled “A Little Law for a Big Job” (April 3, 1972). McCarthy argued that the new bill—the first substantive campaign finance reform in American history—“continues to allow millions of dollars to flow into campaign chests from wealthy individuals and special interest groups, who expect and usually receive favors in return,” whereas a true genuine reform “would provide for the public financing of campaigns for all federal offices and thus rid politics of the corrupting influence of private-interest money.”

Soon enough, the Watergate break-in—financed by Nixon campaign funds—demonstrated conclusively that radical changes were needed to restore integrity to the democratic process.

In “How to Cure the Corruption” (September 17, 1973), Senator Alan Cranston of California wrote candidly about the need for candidates to accept large campaign donations and the influence donors inevitably then have on the crafting of national policy and law:

The effect of large contributions on the victorious candidate is sometimes blatant, but usually subtle. He knows his victory was won in part by the generosity of those individuals who made large donations. He knows who they are; he remembers their names and the names of their companies.

If he is an honest man, he will not let big contributors determine how he is going to vote. But even the honest public official finds that he must give to the big donor’s concerns his time and attention, his sympathetic ear, his willingness to intervene when he can do so legitimately.

The officeholder recognizes that while some big givers contribute solely for the sake of good government and a belief in the candidate and his principles, they are a minority. He knows that the majority expect their contributions will at least give them access to him. And access, at the least, means the ability to drop in anytime for an informal visit or to present their views before the officeholder acts on an issue.

Cranston argued that the only solution was publicly financed campaigns, which would enable candidates to spend more time winning votes from ordinary Americans than soliciting checks from powerful corporate interests. He also noted that the minor surtax rendered on citizens to pay for campaigns was actually much less than they were already paying when their tax dollars are used to pay back the corporations to whom elected officials owe their electoral victories:

The fact is that big campaign contributions buy economic privileges of various kinds, like tax breaks, exceptions to the law, special subsidies or careless law enforcement. Every one of these economic privileges takes money out of the pockets of the average American taxpayer. By spending $1 to $2 a year the average citizen could get back literally hundreds of dollars in the form of fairer taxes, more competitive prices and better quality consumer products…. Ending our electoral system’s dependence on large private donations may be the most crucial issue of our time. It goes to the very heart of our democratic process. How we resolve it will in turn determine how we resolve every other problem our nation faces.

* * *

On May 5, 1997, The Nation published a special issue on campaign finance: “Dollar Democracy: Can We Stop It?” featuring an investigation by Ken Silverstein, “My Life as an Undercover PAC.” Silverstein, posing as a moneyman for the fictional United Broadcasting Corporation, gained access to powerful officials and their aides of which ordinary Americans can only dream. He reflected on what he had learned:

As my brief career as a Beltway power broker indicates, Washington remains supremely unmoved by the public’s growing contempt for business as usual in the capital. Indeed, no one here believes that Congress will approve serious campaign finance reform anytime soon. “Everybody’s wringing their hands and calling for change,” says Kenneth Gross, the former F.E.C. enforcer, “but there’s nothing in the cards beyond reform around the edges.” He foresees no more than a crackdown on foreign contributions and some limits on soft money.

The wild card is public opinion, which is sufficiently inflamed could force more dramatic action. Thus far, however, the public appears to be angry but apathetic. “Most Americans believe Congress is a cesspool but people are very cynical,” says Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity, a D.C. watchdog group. “They don’t believe that anything is going to be changed by Congress, which created the current system and all of the loopholes in it.”

Meanwhile, for corporate America and other high-rollers, democracy remains a commodity. A Democratic Party official once summed up the situation perfectly in explaining to me why offering perks to big donors didn’t result in unwarranted access for private interests. “It’s like flying,” she said. “Some sit in first class and some sit in coach.”

In the same issue, Dan Hamburg, a former congressman from California, took readers “Inside the Money Chase,” where the need for raising money—as Cranston and McCarthy had previously argued—undermined the very legitimacy of the United States government.

The issue of campaign finance points to a deeper problem in U.S. politics: the subservience of the political system to the economic system. The real government of our country is economic, dominated by large corporations that charter the state to do their bidding. Fostering a secure environment in which corporations and their investors can flourish is the paramount objective of both parties. Campaign finance works to place and keep in office those who willingly reproduce this culture. The covenant between the citizen and the law, as recapitulated through the electoral process, has lost its meaning. Campaign finance is a useful way of looking into a larger question: In an era of increasing economic globalism, when the state itself is fast becoming a subordinate entity, what is the relevance of being an American citizen?

* * *

In “Democracy Inc.” (February 15, 2010), our lead editorial after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to independent political expenditures by corporations, unions and business associations, The Nation called the case “a dramatic assault on American democracy, overturning more than a century of precedent in order to give corporations the ultimate authority over elections and governing. This decision tips the balance against active citizenship and the rule of law by making it possible for the nation’s most powerful economic interests to manipulate not just individual politicians and electoral contests but political discourse itself.”

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As we had for decades, The Nation reiterated that public financing of public campaigns—and the ejection of private wealth from the public sphere—was the only way to reclaim American democracy for ordinary people.

We will do everything in our power to further it, with no quarter for cynicism or compromise. We will encourage the development of a transformational movement to protect free elections and free government, and will do so with the understanding that the cause is not a narrowly partisan one, or a project merely of progressives, but of all who want democracy to flourish.

Committed to open dialogue, at the one-year anniversary of Citizens United we opened our pages to a debate between the constitutional lawyer Floyd Abrams, who supported the court’s decision, and the former ACLU director (and Nation contributor since 1984) Burt Neuborne, who opposed it.

Abrams wrote that Justice Kennedy’s decision was rightly based in “two well-established legal propositions”: first, that political speech is protected by the First Amendment, and second, that corporations are entitled to protection under the First Amendment. “The notion that no serious First Amendment challenge was raised in Citizens United is itself a myth,” Abrams argued.

For the nays, Burt Neuborne wrote:

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Citizens United granting corporations a First Amendment right to spend unlimited sums to win an election, we are facing a second Gilded Age where American democracy is for sale to the highest corporate bidder. Justice Kennedy’s opinion, touted by some as a great victory for free speech, begins with a glaring First Amendment mistake. Kennedy claims that the case is about the constitutionality of discriminating between two categories of First Amendment speakers—corporations and human beings. But that just begs the question. The real issue in Citizens United was whether corporations should be viewed as First Amendment speakers in the first place. The business corporation is an artificial state-created entity with unlimited life; highly favorable techniques for acquiring, accumulating and retaining vast wealth through economic transactions having nothing to do with politics; and only one purpose—making money. Human beings, on the other hand, die, do not enjoy economic advantages like limited liability and, most important, have a conscience that sometimes transcends crude economic self-interest. Those dramatic differences raise a threshold question, ignored by Justice Kennedy, about whether corporations are even in the First Amendment ballpark.

McCutcheon shows that this Supreme Court—as currently constituted—will stop at nothing less than a complete rollback of all the hard-won campaign-finance protections which, despite their limitations, at least acted as a counterforce to the tidal waves of money in politics that the court’s recent decisions have allowed to flow unimpeded. If there is any silver lining to McCutcheon, it is that this new reality lays bare for all to see that the only truly democratic solution, the only genuine reform, is the same as it has always been, the one The Nation has advocated for decades: take the money out of electoral politics and return democracy to the people.

Read Next: David Halperin: The Perfect Lobby: How One Industry Captured Washington, DC.

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