The Nation

Right is Left in Connecticut

Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, a Republican, is to the left of Joe Lieberman on Iraq.

A longstanding hawk on the war, Shays announced yesterday that the US should set a timetable to withdraw the bulk of its troops. "The only way we are able to encourage some political will on the part of Iraqis is to have a timeline for withdrawal," Shays told reporters yesterday after his 14th trip to the region. As chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on national security, Shays will lay out the details of his plan in a series of hearings next month, titled "Iraq: Democracy or Civil War?"

Shays finds himself in a tough re-election battle with Democrat Diane Farrell, so electoral politics may have influenced his change of heart. But either way, his call for withdrawal puts Shays ahead of most of his party--and Lieberman as well, who clings to an increasingly unpopular stay-the-course position.

In recent days, Lieberman has ratcheted up his criticism of opponents of the war. Doesn't Joe know that 60 percent of Americans now fall into that category.

"If you take the position that Ned Lamont is, and a few other Democrats are, that we've got to announce that Congress, politicians have to tell the generals that it's time to get everybody out of there, then I think as bad as the place is, Iraq now, it's going to be infinitely worse, it will be an all-out civil war," Lieberman told Don Imus on Wednesday, virtually parroting RNC talking points.

Lieberman is not a Republican. He's not a Democrat. He's a neoconservative. Perhaps if he loses in November, the Weekly Standard will offer him a column.

Doing the Right Thing

One year after Katrina, another hurricane season is upon us, this time as a flurry of "anniversary" specials, documentaries, packaged articles, book anthologies and multimedia web features. As New Yorkers who've endured September 11 and now Oliver Stone's World Trade Center well know, mass media revisitations of trauma -- whether documentary or fictionalized -- can be curiously apolitical. All too often, the disaster memorial takes a living, hurting wound, washes it clean and stitches it up, only to consign it to the archive of film history. Thankfully, this is not the case with Spike Lee's essential When the Levees Broke -- a ragged, uneven, boiling documentary that aired this week on HBO (with rebroadcasts on August 29 and September 1).

Clocking in at four, uninterrupted hours, it is perhaps too unfocused and unwieldy to intervene politically in the way that Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth did. But unlike that reasonable film, Lee's work seethes with anger. Dissent is the one connective thread, tying together the 100+ talking heads who range from Mayor Ray Nagin to CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien to the unforgettable Phyllis Montana Leblanc, a resident of the 9th Ward who drops the documentary's most biting one-liners. Often considered an "opinionated" filmmaker, what shines forth in When the Levees Broke is in fact Spike Lee's ability to listen. His remarkable ear captures the humor, sadness, looniness, hostility, suspicion, resignation and optimism that underlie and differentiate the common outrage of New Orleans' residents.

In its most affecting moments, the film also lingers on their silences and stumbles, the moments of inarticulateness when the full scope of the disaster (which, as the film points out, outstrips September 11 in so many ways) exceeds any one person's ability to achieve sense. In one such instance, Garland Robinette, the radio host who conducted the oft-replayed interview in which Mayor Nagin angrily denounces the lack of federal aid, listens to a tape of the broadcast. Robinette begins to explain, "This is the thing that people have to understand, that America can no longer..." He never finishes the thought. "Sorry...it's been a long few months," is all he can muster through the sobs.

In another such moment, University of New Orleans student Paris Ervin recounts how, months after Katrina struck, police discovered his mother's corpse under her refrigerator, even though FEMA had concluded the house was free of victims. Distressed by FEMA's incompetence and the months of waiting for an official DNA test to establish her identity, he too breaks down before returning to conclude dryly, "According to the medical logs she did drown, in her own home."

Moments like these mitigate Lee's frenetic, sometimes obtrusive editing and transcend the genre of cable news from which much of the familiar footage is culled. At its best, When the Levees Broke recontextualizes and enlivens such stock material. The bloated, floating corpses that became emblems of government neglect are given names, histories, struggles to survive that ended tragically. "That guy's name was Eddie," says one witness. "He floated on beer cans for three days...I wanted to feed him but I couldn't swim," explains another of a neighbor whose body has yet to be found.

Lee himself does not attempt to arrive at a sensible, singular conclusion. This restraint is the film's strength, and if it also constitutes its weakness, then it is not in the way most mainstream critics have identified. Lee has been criticized for reducing "Katrina to a black problem," as Nicholas Kulish wrote in the New York Times. While Lee's eye -- and the medium of film in general -- accentuates racial difference, it is also surprisingly attentive to the economic and physical vulnerabilities that shaped the fate of Katrina's victims. Casually but insistently, the film emphasizes how the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the obese, the very young and mostly, overwhelmingly the poor bore the brunt of Katrina's fury. Dilapidated wheelchairs abound, but vital medication is absent. To suggest that When the Levees Broke is only a "race film" is to ignore this stunning visual evidence.

Kulish and others have condemned one sequence in particular in which Lee "presents the utterly unfounded charges that the failed levees were blown up to flood poor black neighborhoods." But this scene is in fact one of the film's best, not because it endorses such theories, but because it unpacks the long history of neglect and enmity (from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to recent redevelopment schemes) that makes such racial paranoia, if not factually accurate, at least understandable. A less confident director might have instantly dismissed such conspiracy theories, and the result would have been a less probing, less complicated film.

Where Lee falters is not in his multi-faceted account of race and class, but in his examination of the politics and economics that set in play this unnatural disaster and continue to mangle New Orleans' reconstruction. The usual suspects are, of course, deliciously skewered: George Bush's sinister disinterest, Michael Brown's incompetence (he gets roasted by Soledad O'Brien who asks how her 23-year-old research assistant can have better intelligence than FEMA), Chertoff, Cheney, Condi and her Blahniks, Barbara Bush (the "President Momma" as Al Sharpton puts it), the insurance industry, the Army Corps of Engineers. But others, like Nagin who has consistently sided with business and property interests in the reconstruction, are largely absolved or made into heroes. With the exception of a brief query into Louisiana's oil and gas industry, the film seems to suggest that Hurricane Katrina happened because bad people made bad decisions, rather than because of the systematic gutting of urban infrastructure and the heartless pursuit of neoliberal economics.

As an unofficial companion to When the Levees Broke then, I heartily recommend reading, cover to cover, Unnatural Disaster, The Nation's collection of essays on Hurricane Katrina edited by Betsy Reed. Largely focused on the reconstruction, this fine volume begins to answer the question that Lee's film so forcefully asks: What will it take to do justice to New Orleans?

Plan B: A Semi-Sweet Victory

The Food and Drug Administration finally approved over-the-counter sales of the "morning-after pill." Sweet victory, right? Not exactly.

The approval is only for women ages 18 and older, and the drug will only be sold from behind pharmacy counters, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

New York State Senator, Liz Krueger, urging the passage of a bill that would make emergency contraception available to women of all ages, released a statement yesterday saying, "If the government were serious about reducing unintended pregnancies, they would follow the science and recognize that the medicine is equally as safe for those under the age of 18 as it is for those older. This sends the wrong message about the safety of this product. This is politics trumping science."

In fact, the President of the Center for Reproductive Rights, Nancy Northup, says that her organization filed a lawsuit against the FDA alleging "that the agency never intended to fairly consider the scientific evidence that Plan B is safe and effective for women of all ages and that high-level officials engaged in an intricate cover-up that culminated with today's decision."

According to Krueger, "The New England Journal of Medicine reported that as many as half of all unwanted pregnancies may be prevented with unfettered access to emergency contraception, which does not interrupt, disrupt or harm already existing pregnancies, but instead prevents pregnancy before it has been established."

So, while the FDA's recent decision represents some progress in standing up to the Bush Administration and right-wing extremists, the agency still needs to hear that its job is to take action based on sound science, not paternalistic notions of women's health.

Wal-Mart's Rainbow Connection

Citing Sam Walton's legacy, and vowing to shop elsewhere, a coalition of grass-roots organizations -- with a broad base of support -- is furious with Wal-Mart. That's, of course, nothing new, but this time the recriminations aren't coming from the progressive labor and community activists concerned about issues like living wages, community benefits agreements, health care and sex discrimination. The folks mad at Wal-Mart this week are the right-wing Christian groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. Wal-Mart has for years been viewed as friendly to conservative Christians, banning racy men's magazines, and refusing to carry books that might offend fundie customers (like Jon Stewart's America: The Book, with its imaginative rendering of naked Supreme Court justices) or George Carlin's When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

But this week, Wal-Mart has disappointed the cultural hard right by announcing that its membership in the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. This mild nod to cosmopolitan capitalism inspired howls of pain, with the Family Research Council calling it "outrageous" and an "offensive move," "an affront to the millions of traditional families that patronize Wal-Mart."

It's fun to see these intolerant cretins suffer. But let's take a look at the context. Probably taking advice from its highly paid flacks from Edelman, an elite PR firm -- and from the Clinton Administration alums now working for Wal-Mart, who are, of course, triangulation experts extraordinaire -- the retailer has been working to distance itself from its right-wing customer base, probably reasoning that many fundies live in places where they have no choice but to shop at Wal-Mart, while folks in more liberal, densely-populated areas need to be courted, after all the bad things they've heard and read about this company's practices. That's, most likely, why Wal-Mart recently decided to carry Plan B, the morning after pill, after being, for years, the only national pharmacy chain refusing to do so. It's also why Wal-Mart has been going green. Steps like this represent a triumph for the progressive groups that have been seeking to reform Wal-Mart; they also show how politically savvy Wal-Mart is.

The labor-backed groups criticizing Wal-Mart need to tread carefully here, and play well with others, because the retailer is trying to win over every imaginable stripe of liberal and progressive, hoping to paint labor as an isolated "special interest" group. This strategy doesn't have to succeed; the labor critique of Wal-Mart has impressive traction right now and has been winning substantial victories. But to keep up the momentum, unions will have to treat their allies with respect and listen carefully. That's not something that has always come easily to them.

An Optimistic Voice in Israel

Israel's military defeat in Lebanon has created new opportunities for peace – that's what Israeli Knesset member and peace movement leader Yossi Beilin told Terry Gross on the NPR show "Fresh Air" on August 23. Beilin, chairman of the left-wing Meretz party, has served in different Labor governments, and was one of the architects of the 1991 Oslo Accords and the 2003 Geneva Accord.

The Israeli government and military today are facing popular anger and strong criticism over their failures in Lebanon. Beilen recalled that the government faced similar criticism after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. But that war, he pointed out, opened the way to a historic peace treaty with Egypt -- the Camp David agreement of 1978 – and a peace between the two countries that continues to this day.

That treaty was possible, Beilin argued, because after 1973 Egypt "felt there was there was a kind of symmetry" with the Israeli military, rather than feeling "they had been totally defeated," which had been the case with the 1968 war.

But, Terry Gross asked, who should Israel negotiate with? Hamas and Hezbollah don't recognize Israel or its right to exist. "I would negotiate with everybody who is ready to negotiate with me," Beilin replied. "Neither Hezbollah nor Hamas is ready to negotiate with Israel, which leaves us with the government of Lebanon, with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and with the Syrian government. All of them are speaking about an agreement with Israel." He suggested convening an international conference with those participants.

But withdrawing from Lebanon, and then withdrawing from Gaza, did not bring peace. Haven't these experiences turned Israeli public opinion against peace negotiations? "I don't think so," Beilin replied. What Israelis have lost faith in is unilateral withdrawals. In contrast to the "non-agreements" around the withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza, "We have had a peace agreement with Egypt since ‘75, with Jordan since ‘94, and these are big achievements," he said. "People are disenchanted about unilateralism. . . . They understand now that peace agreements do not have substitutes."

The crucial example: Syria. It's possible that the entire Lebanon war, and the arming of Hezbollah, could have been avoided if Israel had signed a peace treaty with Syria in 1999 – "and paid the price of the Golan Heights to have this peace." That would have had "a huge impact on Lebanon," which Syria has more or less controlled. Israel at that point had a Labor government headed by Ehud Barak; at the end of 1999, he decided not to sign a peace treaty with Syria, and instead to withdraw from Lebanon unilaterally. The consequences of those decisions are now clear.

But when Hamas controls a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature, and when Hamas doesn't recognize Israel or its right to exist, how can you have a negotiated peace with the Palestinians? "Here the procedure is quite clear," Beilin replied. "Hamas is telling the world that it is ready for Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel. Once he ends his negotiations, he will have to bring that agreement either to a referendum or to a meeting of the Palestinian national council. If there is a majority for such an agreement, it will become a reality. . . . This is the way Hamas can stick to its ideology, but enable others to negotiate." In the end, the leaders of Hamas "will not be the ones to shake our hands, but they will benefit from an agreement with Israel."

But hasn't the war strengthened the determination of Hamas and Hezbollah to seek the destruction of Israel? Beilin insisted that "There is a big difference between the two groups. Hezbollah is not a potential partner." Hamas is different, and "at the end of the day, if Hamas gives Mahmoud Abbas the mandate to negotiate, there is a possibility of getting an agreement. This is not the situation with Hezbollah."

But hasn't the rise of Islamic extremism throughout the region reduced the chances for a negotiated peace? "I would like to reject the idea that what we have is a war of civilizations or war of religions," Beilin said. "Everywhere you have extremists, but also moderate people and pragmatic people. Wisdom also requires creating the coalition of sanity, those people who want to live and want their kids to live. These are the majorities everywhere."

The strategic key for Israel, he said, is "to put an end to the war situation in the inner circle" – Israel, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the Palestinians – "so that war here will not create a pretext for those who want to fight forever." Beilin gave credit for that idea to Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli fanatic who opposed his signing the Oslo Acccords. Rabin "wanted peace in the inner circle before Iran became a nuclear power, and before the hatred of Israel in the Arab world would make anyone who made peace with us be seen as a traitor. He was right." But "it's still not too late."

Finally Terry Gross asked Yossi Beilin how optimistic he was feeling now. After a pause, he said, "I believe there is an opening which wasn't there before. The question is whether it is big enough to change the situation. . . . It is more than a matter of optimism. It is a matter of creativity, of doing something." Here he refused to call himself an optimist, which he defined as a person "who believes that the situation will be better tomorrow." Instead, he concluded, "I believe it is my task to make it so."


Ronald as Gas Guzzler

I hate Hummers. They're the best example of America's lack of commitment to cleaner and more efficient vehicles. They guzzle gas--averaging nine miles per gallon--helping keep the country dependent on foreign oil. They're loud, anti-social and obnoxious. They hasten global warming's impact by emitting more than three times the amount of carbon dioxide produced by an average car. And they make the roads less safe--as do all SUVs. Their hulking mass and consequent lack of maneuverability actually increases the number of accidents on the road. And studies show that passengers in cars that collide with SUVs are 3.4 times more likely to be killed. To top it off, small business owners who purchase Hummers receive a $100,000 tax break under Bush's Economic Stimulus Plan, while purchasers of the Toyota Prius hybrid receive a break of only $4,000.

But what's really annoying about Hummers is that faux-macho pretension they project. They make a certain kind of insecure guy feel good about himself for all the wrong reasons. Don't agree? Courtesy of Slate, check out Hummer manufacturer General Motors' latest Hummer ad, which plays adroitly on male feelings of inadequacy. The Spot: A man waits in the checkout line at the supermarket. He's buying organic tofu and leafy vegetables. Meanwhile, the guy in line behind him is stacking up huge racks of meat and barbecue fixings. Tofu guy, looking a bit insecure, suddenly notices an ad for the Hummer H3 SUV. Eureka! In a series of quick cuts, he exits the supermarket, dashes to the Hummer dealership, buys a new H3, and drives off--now happily munching on a large carrot. "Restore the balance," reads the tag line.

What got me writing about Hummers today was reading that America's fast-food giant, McDonald's, has teamed up with GM to give away toy Hummers -- 42 million of them, in eight models and colors -- with every Happy Meal sold to a little boy for the next month. (The girls get Polly Pocket fashion dolls.) That's right: The fast-food chain that helped make American children the fattest on Earth is now selling future car buyers on the fun of driving a supersized, smog-spewing, gas-guzzling SUV.

As Fark.com quipped, "McDonald's is teaming up with Hummer, for those who'd rather not have to choose between being fat and being obnoxious." But as the Hummer folks see it, this is just another brand awareness campaign. "I do it as an extension of advertising," Martin Walsh, general manager at Hummer, told Ad Age. "Any time you get your brand in front of people, that's an extension of advertising." (The McDonald's website even links to a site called HummerKids.com. However, when you click on HummerKids.com, you're really taken to Hummer.com. Not a kid's site. )

To highlight the foolishness of Mickey D's new efforts to promote the Hummer brand to its young customers, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has introduced Ronald McHummer's Sign-O-Matic. A nifty interactive tool, the Sign-O-Matic lets you write your own slogan about the Hummer giveaway and display it as if it were on a McDonald's marquee--the downloading possibilities are rife. Then, send a copy of your work along with a message to the president of the fast-food chain, Ralph Alvarez. Take this creative opportunity to express your disdain for McDonald's perplexing decision to team up with one of America's most regressive products. Click here to see and vote on your favorite signs. Check out and circulate Code Pink's Top Ten reasons not to buy a Hummer. See the Sierra Club's HummerDinger site for more resources. Finally, don't miss artist Dave Ward's anti-Hummer ad campaign on Flickr.

[FULL DISCLOSURE: The EWG is a current Nation advertiser. I'm plugging their campaign because I think it's worthy, not because the group has a (very minor) economic relationship with the magazine.]

Democrats for McCain

It was only a matter of time before some Democrats began jumping ship to join the all-but-announced McCain for President campaign.

The first casualty is Nicco Mele, the former webmaster of the groundbreaking Dean for America campaign. According to the Hotline, Mele, whose firm Echo Ditto represents over twenty Democratic and progressive causes, has agreed to become one of McCain's key online strategists.

The move has caused a fury in the blogosphere since it was reported last night. Mele recently posted this blog in his defense:

A lot of people are asking me about John McCain. When I worked for Common Cause, I worked on the McCain-Feingold bill and worked closely with Sen. John McCain's office. After Sen. McCain lost the Republican primary in 2000, I traveled with him as part of a group of campaign finance reform staffers as we criss-crossed the country working to secure support for the McCain-Feingold bill. I have long admired Sen. McCain's work on campaign finance reform and his independent streak. If Sen. McCain runs for president, he's got my support.

But Mele and other Democrats tempted to follow his lead should realize that the straight-talking McCain of 2000 is not the Bush-coddling McCain who wants to win in 2008.


It is staggering. It is horrifying. But, then again, it isn't. It is what we have come to expect of this war and those who have misled our nation into it.

According to the Washington Post, the commanding officer of the battalion involved in the Haditha massacre last November told military investigators "he did not consider the deaths of 24 Iraqis, many of them women and children, unusual and did not initiate an inquiry."

And the New York Times reported last week on the felony assault conviction of David Passaro, a CIA contractor accused of beating an Afghan prisoner for two days with "a flashlight and his fists" until the man pleaded to be shot and then died the following day.

These two stories reveal – once again – the lack of accountability and prosecution up the chain of command. Those who sit on high have attempted to erase such "quaint" legal restraints as the Geneva Conventions while blaming the lowest ranking soldiers for waging the war they have created.

In June, Robert Jay Lifton, esteemed psychiatrist and author of many books including Crimes of War: Iraq, wrote in Editor and Publisher of the corrupting nature of the occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq: "To attribute the likely massacre at Haditha to ‘a few bad apples' or to ‘individual failures' is poor psychology and self-serving moralism. To be sure, individual soldiers and civilians who participated in it are accountable for their behavior, even under such pressured conditions. But the greater responsibility lies with those who planned and executed the ‘war on terrorism' of which it is a part, and who created, in policy and attitude, the accompanying denial of the rights of captives (at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) and of the humanity of civilians (at Haditha)."

This administration's barbaric tactics include undermining the Geneva Conventions, seeking to justify the use of torture, and lying its way into a war that has led to immeasurable suffering and loss of life. In word and deed, it has done unprecedented and perhaps irreparable harm to our constitution, our country--and our troops.

Lifton assigns guilt exactly where it belongs: "Psychologically and ethically, responsibility for the crimes at Haditha extends to top commanders, the secretary of defense, and the White House. Those crimes are a direct expression of the kind of war we are waging in Iraq."

There is a need for a real investigation – not a whitewash – of the real perpetrators of this catastrophic war. Such an investigation will never occur unless we vote for real change this November.

McCarthyism: From 1946 to 2006

Primary elections always matter. But some primary elections matter more than others; indeed, some primary elections define the character not just of a particular official's term, or even of a legislative or congressional session, but of the nation's politics for years to come.

Residents of the state of Wisconsin, where my family has resided for seven generations, know this better than the citizens of most states. Sixty years ago this month, Republican primary voters turned out one of the greatest senators in the history of the United States, Robert M. La Follette Jr., and replaced him with one of the lousiest excuses for an elected leader this country has ever produced, Joe McCarthy.

The Wisconsin Republican Senate primary of 1946 set the wheels in motion for the Red Scare of the 1950s, to which McCarthy lent his name and his sordid tactics. It is true that Richard Nixon and others would have ginned up some sort of anti-communist propaganda campaign, but it is doubtful that it would ever have done the damage to civil liberties and public life that McCarthy achieved with his unparalleled lies and cruelty.

That Republican primary also began the long descent of the Grand Old Party, which had once laid a far stronger claim than the Democratic Party to the progressive mantle, into the pit of petty bigotry, reaction and neoconservative fantasy that now defines it.

La Follette lost by only 5,000 votes in August, 1946, but the margin did not matter. With the defeat of the maverick senator, who had supported extension of Roosevelt's New Deal at home while wisely questioning schemes for post-World War II military adventures abroad, the era of the old-school Midwestern progressivism came to a close. And American politics entered a dramatically uglier and more irrational period from which it has yet to fully emerge.

If anyone doubts this, consider the recent editorial attack on Ned Lamont, the mainstream liberal who defeated U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Aug. 8 Democratic primary, by the conservative Waterbury Republican-American newspaper.

Entitled "Ned Lamont's True Colors," the Sunday editorial in one of Connecticut's larger daily newspapers was classic McCarthyism. "Red Ned may label himself a progressive, but when he espouses goals shared by Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, et al., he gives away his true color," wrote the paper's editors of Lamont, a successful businessman who espouses views no more radical than those of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and dozens of other House and Senate members including a few anti-war Republicans.

The newspaper alleged that "(Lamont) has surrounded himself with people who may be characterized fairly as dedicated socialists and borderline communists," when in fact Lamont's primary supporters were grass-roots Democrats who were frustrated with Lieberman's allegiance to the Bush administration's failed foreign policy.

The Republican-American editorial also claimed that "liberal journalists adore (Lamont) because they share his world view on abortion, homosexual marriage, universal health care, racial quotas, loopy environmentalism and especially the war against Islamic terrorism. They are blood brothers, or more accurately, fellow travelers. Just as journalism has become a hornet's nest of socialism (communism not yet perfected), if you shake Lamont's family tree, a lot of Red apples will fall."

Spouting innuendo and inaccuracy with abandon, the newspaper sought to claim that Lamont's blue-blood family including J.P. Morgan's partner, Thomas Lamont, and civil libertarian Corliss Lamont was nothing less than Stalin's fifth column in the United States. The paper conveniently forgot to mention that Corliss Lamont, though certainly a man of the left, authored a much-noted tract titled "Why I Am Not a Communist."

While the Republican-American may be guilty of lax journalism, the real shame belongs to Lieberman's independent campaign, which has spread the Waterbury paper's fantastic claims. The senator's communications director even quoted the editorial in a widely circulated statement on the race.

With the help of the Waterbury Republican-American, Joe Lieberman is keeping alive the politics of another Joe: the one named McCarthy. And in so doing, Lieberman's proving that the shock waves from a primary election in the summer of 1946 are still being felt in this summer of another primary election that has dislodged another senior senator.