The Nation

Will Justice Be Served in NYC?

So much City Council legislation -- whether in New York or other cities -- is essentially performance art, even if its intentions are progressive. You know the genre -- banning the N-word, declaring a "hate-free" or "nuclear-free" zone, or that such and such city -- or small town in Vermont -- is against the war in Iraq. Stuff that makes people feel good, maybe helps raise some "awareness," but doesn't change anyone's life significantly, or even reshape reality in any way. That's why it's refreshing to see New York City Council members Eric Goia and Rosie Mendez introduce the "Responsible Restaurant Act," which will improve compliance with minimum wage and other labor laws in the city's restaurant industry. Better enforcement will also help restaurants who do obey the law remain in business -- by making life more difficult for those who are trying to maintain a competitive advantage by stiffing their workers.

If you visit New York much, especially outside the major tourist areas, you've probably noticed that the restaurants are one of the city's greatest attractions. But the people who bring you that great dining experience aren't treated very well. As in much of the low-wage, service sector nationwide -- particularly in industries employing a lot of immigrants -- violations of minimum wage, overtime, discrimination and other laws are common in New York's restaurants, according to a studyby the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC, a workers' center) and the New York City Restaurant Industry Coalition. The bill, designed in part by the Brennan Center for Justice, which has authored many of the living wage laws now sweeping the land, would require the city to treat labor violations the same way it treats health code violations -- that is, harshly. Health code violations, if left unaddressed, bring the scarlet letter of humiliating public notices in front of the shop, and can ultimately cost restauranteurs their operating permits. It should be difficult to argue against this reform since it is really about stricter penalties to strengthen existing laws -- if the restaurant owners try to fight it, they will look as if they want to keep violating the law.

The bill is part of a wide range of strategies by restaurant workers in New York City wishing to improve their lives. Another, started by a coalition of restaurant, deli and other service workers, is a campaign with the inspired name Justice Will Be Served! which has been, among other things, picketing employers for -- among many other offenses -- paying employees less than $2 an hour and locking them out when they try to organize.

Meanwhile, yesterday Maryland became the first stateh to enact a living wage law for state contractors.The national movement for paycheck justice continues.

BBC Bashing

What's more surprising about Robin Aitken's diatribe Can We Trust the BBC? is that it's taken this long for some disgruntled ex-BBC type to write a apoplectic rant tarring his former employer as the leading light of a vast leftwing conspiracy.

That's a full six years after Bernard Goldberg, the ex-CBS producer, made conservatives across America giddy with self-righteousness with his 2001 bestseller,Bias. But Aitken's tome isn't getting the same kind of play. In fact, according to Amazon, most people (83 percent) who check out Aitken end up buying Goldbreg's Bias instead.

Maybe the problem with Aitken's book is not so much it's content but the timing. His litany of predictable complaints against the BBC include: not-so-secret communist sympathies; really, really liking the Palestinians; and, shock and horror, opposing the Iraq war. And what a terrible disservice that has turned out to be to the British viewing public. As even Goldberg ought to admit, the liberal bastions of our media -- the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN -- knew better than to commit the cardinal sin of questioning our great leader in the run up to the war.

The reasons for their good behavior were recently explained by former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of CNN, Walter Isaacson, who told Bill Moyers: "[There wasn't] direct pressure from advertisers, but big people in corporations were calling up and saying, 'You're being anti-American here.' ... So we were caught between this patriotic fervor and a competitor [FOX] who was using that to their advantage; they were pushing the fact that CNN was too liberal that we were sort of vaguely anti-American."

So what's a good corporate news channel to do except roll over and play dead. And they say privatization doesn't work.

BBC has its share of problems -- too elitist, bureaucratic, and essentially pro-establishment -- and yeah, it does tilt left. But there's a huge difference between having progressive sympathies that shape your choice of stories, and a rightwing ideology that fundamentally distorts how you report them. The problem with Fox is not that its conservative, but that it often has so little connection to those pesky things we call facts. Who cares about bias, that's just bad journalism!

BTW, you should check out the Moyers show on the post-9/11 media meltdown on the local PBS channel if possible. Or if you missed the airing, the transcript and video are available here. I guarantee it's a lot more illuminating than reading some guy froth at the mouth about the Big Bad BBC.

A Surge of Insanity

Just one day after a majority of Iraqi lawmakers rejected the continuing occupation of their country, the Washington Post reports that the Pentagon will begin deploying 35,000 soldiers in 10 Army combat brigades to Iraq in August --"making it possible to sustain the increase of US troops there until at least the end of this year."

It turns out that the "short-term surge" is just another way of saying a war without mission or end. If it's true what the LA Times reported about Secretary of Defense Robert Gates not being on board with the "surge" policy, then who's pushing for this new policy? Not former Generals like John Batiste and Paul Eaton who, today, go on the air in a TV ad sponsored by VoteforVets.org. "You did not listen, Mr. President," General Batiste says in the ad. "You continue to pursue the failed strategy that is breaking our great Army and Marine Corps."

You'd think that a significant development involving more than half of the members of Iraq's parliament signing a legislative petition calling on the US to set a timetable for withdrawal would get some media attention. But with the exception of Alternet's story, it went virtually unreported in the US media. Instead, the New York Times devoted a front page story to Iraq's national security adviser trolling the halls of Congress trying to persuade American lawmakers to have more patience and remain as occupiers in his land. Nor have we seen front page stories reporting that in a March poll, sixty-nine percent of Iraqis surveyed said the presence of US forces in their country make the overall security situation worse.

The Iraqi Parliamentarian's courage should give Democrats the spine to stand firm --and the strength to play hardball with a President who smears those who seek a speedy end to this occupation. "Confronting Mr. Bush on Iraq,' Paul Krugman wrote, "has become a patriotic duty.'"

Meanwhile, in addition to the staggering, horrifying human and financial costs of this war and occupation (price tag for Iraq soon to top $500 billion and counting), it's now clear that the continuing deployment of personnel and equipment is endangering our security at home. The Kansas tornado has simply refocused attention on how the sending of National Guardsmen (and lots of equipment) from Kansas to Iraq has got in the way of tornado relief work, just as it impeded relief work in New Orleans after Katrina.

For four years and counting, the situation has "been spiraling down into the Night of the living Dead," as Juan Cole described it earlier this week. But Bush refuses to confront the failure of his Iraq debacle--preferring delusion and denial to listening to Congress or a majority of Americans who support setting a deadline for withdrawal.

Meanwhile, here's yet another cost of this immoral war --one that you'd think this President would pay some attention to: "Bush's evangelical supporters," Cole reports, "who wanted an Iraq war imagined Iraq as a target for missionary work. Not only have no Iraqis to speak of become Southern Baptists, but Bush's war has displaced tens of thousands of indigenous Iraqi Christians from the country."

Feingold Rejects Compromise, Pushes Exit Strategy

Fifty-seven percent of Americans say that Congress should not compromise with President Bush in the Iraq War funding fight. That's the number that, according to a new CNN poll, wants Congress to give Bush another bill with a withdrawal timetable.

Unfortunately, not all the Democrats on the Hill want to push back quite that hard. There is serious talk of giving Bush a substantial portion of the money with no strings attached and then returning to the issue later this year.

Such a move would highlight the failure of all the major players to step up to the challenge the Iraq imbroglio poses.

For far too long, neither the Bush White House nor the Congress has seemed to be fully prepared to take responsibility for the war in Iraq. Bush won't admit his misdeeds and change course. But Congress, which gave Bush the power to launch the attack, has been far too slow in acknowledging its error in trusting the president's claims about weapons of mass destruction and other threats -- and even slower in taking responsibility for that error by using the power of the purse to constrain Bush's continued war making.

But U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, is doing his best to get Congress to take the bold step that is necessary.

"With brave Americans fighting and dying for a failed policy in Iraq, members of Congress shouldn't delay action to end this misguided war for weeks or even months just for the sake of political comfort," says Feingold, who more than a year ago started talking about the need for a well-defined exit strategy.

The senator has been turning up the heat by pressing for consideration of his Feingold-Reid plan to bring the troops home. Feingold's proposal, which is cosponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is written with the specific intent of forcing the president to safely redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq by March 31, 2008. Further funding of the war would be cut off on that date.

It takes courage to set deadlines and to try and impose them.

Feingold has shown this sort of courage since before the war began, as a constant critic of Bush's misguided strategies. Perhaps best known for his solo vote against the Patriot Act, Feingold also voted against authorizing Bush to take the country to war and was the first senator to propose a date for ending U.S. involvement in Iraq.

He's got more company now that the war has so clearly degenerated into the disaster he predicted almost five years ago.

But Feingold isn't resting on his laurels and "I-told-you-sos." His work to attach the Feingold-Reid measure to the Iraq supplemental spending bill represents the most direct and potentially meaningful challenge to a Republican president and a Democratic Congress that have yet to take responsibility for a war that kills an Iraqi every ten minutes, kills an American every ten hours and empties another two billion dollars from the U.S. Treasury every ten days.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

What Good Reporting Has Meant in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn has been hailed by Sidney Blumenthal in Salon as "one of the most accurate and intrepid journalists in Iraq." And that's hardly praise enough, given what the man has done. The Middle Eastern correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, he's been on the spot from the moment when, in February 2003, he secretly crossed the Tigris River into Iraq just before the Bush administration launched its invasion.

Here, for instance, is a typical striking passage of his, written in May 2003, just weeks after Baghdad fell. If you read it then, you hardly needed the massive retrospective volumes like Thomas Rick's Fiasco that took years to come out:


"[T]he civilian leadership of the Pentagon… are uniquely reckless, arrogant and ill informed about Iraq. At the end of last year [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz was happily saying that he thought the Iraqi reaction to the capture of Baghdad would be much like the entry of the U.S. Army into Paris in 1944. He also apparently believed that Ahmed Chalabi…, then as now one of the most unpopular men in Iraq, would be the Iraqi Charles de Gaulle.


"These past mistakes matter because the situation in Iraq could easily become much worse. Iraqis realize that Saddam may have gone but that the United States does not have real control of the country. Last week, just as a[n] emissary [from head of the U.S. occupation Paul Bremer] was telling academics at Mustansiriyah, the ancient university in the heart of Baghdad, who should be purged from their staff, several gunmen, never identified, drove up and calmly shot dead the deputy dean."


How much worse it's become can be measured by the two suicide bombs that went off at the same university a month apart early in 2007, killing not a single deputy dean but more than 100 (mostly female) students.

Or it can be measured by this telling little tidbit written in October 2003: "The most amazing achievement of six months of American occupation has been that it has even provoked nostalgia in parts of Iraq for Saddam. In Baiji, protesters were holding up his picture and chanting: ‘With our blood and with our spirit we will die for you Saddam.' Who would have believed this when his statue was toppled just six months ago?"

Or by this description, written in the same month, which offers a vivid sense of why an insurgency really took off in that country:


"US soldiers driving bulldozers, with jazz blaring from loudspeakers, have uprooted ancient groves of date palms as well as orange and lemon trees in central Iraq as part of a new policy of collective punishment of farmers who do not give information about guerrillas attacking US troops… Asked how much his lost orchard was worth, Nusayef Jassim said in a distraught voice: 'It is as if someone cut off my hands and you asked me how much my hands were worth.'"


Or by this singular detail from June 2004 that caught the essence of the lawlessness the U.S. occupation let loose: "Kidnap is now so common [that] new words have been added to Iraqi thieves' slang. A kidnap victim is called al-tali or the sheep."

Or this summary of the situation in May 2004, one year after Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech: "Saddam should not have been a hard act to follow. After 30 years of disastrous wars, Iraqis wanted a quiet life. All the Americans really needed to do was to get the relatively efficient Iraqi administration up and running again. Instead, they let the government dissolve, and have never successfully resurrected it. It has been one of the most extraordinary failures in history."

Last September, typically, Cockburn travelled on his own to dangerous Diyala Province just as the fighting there was heating to a boil. He summed up the situation parenthetically, as well as symbolically, when he commented that Diyala was not a place "to make a mistake in map reading."

Cockburn should gather in awards for guts, nerve, understanding, and just plain great war reporting. Before heading back to Iraq yet again, he put his years of reporting and observation together in an already classic book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq, which no political library should be without. In a recent overview of the American occupation of, and war in, Iraq, "A Small War Guaranteed to Damage a Superpower," he offered the following summary judgment:

"The U.S. occupation has destabilized Iraq and the Middle East. Stability will not return until the occupation has ended. The Iraqi government, penned into the Green Zone, has become tainted in the eyes of Iraqis by reliance on a foreign power. Even when it tries to be independent, it seldom escapes the culture of dependency in which its members live. Much of what has gone wrong has more to do with the U.S. than Iraq. The weaknesses of its government and army have been exposed. Iraq has joined the list of small wars -- as France found in Algeria in the 1950s and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s -- that inflict extraordinary damage on their occupiers."


Men of Aahction?

Today I had lunch with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott, SEIU president Andy Stern, and the disembodied head of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Let me explain.

The event was a conference on the "crisis" in our nation's health care, sponsored by the Better Health Care Together Coalition, a group of unions, businesses and politicians who want some sort of health care reform (no, it's not much more specific than that). I'll address, in a longer upcoming article, this coalition, the involvement of Wal-Mart and major labor unions in it, and the folks who were protesting outside. I'm keeping an open mind about all that. For today, I simply want to note the curiously compulsive way that some speakers -- particularly Governors Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Terminator Arnie (who attended by satellite, so the live attendees were overshadowed by his enormous grinning visage on either side of the podium) -- kept evoking the specter of a "single payer" (Canadian-style) plan, and then dismissing it without giving any real reasons.

Governor Rendell repeatedly said reform should be "comprehensive, not piecemeal" and that "now is the time to get it all done." He pointed out how favorably other countries' health care systems compared to that of the United States, noting that Scandanavian countries have few hospital-acquired infections, and that Canadians have a longer life expectancy. (Those countries have single-payer health care systems.) Yet more than once, he said "you don't go to single payer." At one point, Rendell dismissed the single payer plan by saying that none of the major presidential candidates were calling for it (as if businesses and major constituency organizations like unions have no role to play in shaping candidates' agendas). When someone from the podium mentioned Dennis Kucinich -- who does favor single-payer -- Rendell joked that no "taller" candidates were talking about it. Arnie, luridly weird as usual, with his off the cuff ruminations (E.g., "No dictatorship, no feudal system, has ever been as powerful as the United States," "I like to be where the aahction is," and "it is fun to bring everyone together!"), randomly offered that single payer was impossible because in California the government provides health care to prisoners and "it doesn't work even with everybody locked up." 

There was an intriguing sense of optimism in the room -- much like the momentum among many different players right now to address the climate change problem. But come on, the edgiest, most outside-the-box thing these titans can do is get labor and business leaders together on the same podium (an achievement for which they kept congratulating themselves)? That's hardly novel throughout much of the rest of the world. It was as if many in the room knew single-payer might in some ways be a better system -- cheaper for business, less economic hardship on the average person, a healthier population, lower overall costs -- but had tacitly agreed not to take it seriously. Massive pressure from the public might help change their minds, or at least provoke some genuine debate on the issue, but failing that, we're probably going to just see more of the very "piecemeal" solutions that the Pennsylvania governor decried.

'No Shame, No Blame'

In an elegant "Talk of the Town" piece on the subject of George Tenet's new book in the current issue of The New Yorker, George Packer levels a strong indictment against the Bush Administration for coming "close to perfecting the art of unaccountability."

Packer's comment, titled "No Shame, No Blame," is smart and on point. Yet, after reading it, I sat bolt upright in bed astonished that Packer could describe what he calls "styles of unaccountability" without including a critical (and self-critical) inventory of pro-war writers and pundits' role in the Iraq debacle. We know about the responsibility Bush officials bear for taking us into the most colossal foreign policy disaster in US history. But what about the wordsmiths who, like Thomas Friedman and Packer himself, came out in favor of this blood-soaked war. Remember Friedman's line -- "something in Mr. Bush's audacious shake of the dice appeals to me"? Or what about the New Yorker's own Jeffrey Goldberg who floated now discredited theories that Saddam was working closely with Al Qaeda?

For a scathing article about how these and other pro-war (but "now I've seen the light") pundits have escaped real accountability, check out Radar's "The Iraq Gamble: At the Pundits' Table, The Losing Bet Still Takes the Pot," by Jebediah Reed. It's a disturbing tale of journalistic "no blame, no shame". Eight pundits are profiled. Four of them, as "Radar" puts it, " were 'the most influentially and disturbingly misguided in their pro-war arguments" and played "a central role in our national decision-making process; The other four writer/pundits were the "most prescient and forceful in their opposition."

In it's cheeky "where are they now" survey, Radar "found that something is rotten in the fourth estate." After all, "surely, those who warned us not to invade Iraq have been recognized and rewarded, and those who pushed for this disaster face tattered credibility and waning career prospects Could it be any other way in America?"

Yes. It turns out that these (and other) pundits who made the case for war are doing just fine. Regular appearances on influential TV chat shows, columns in major US newspapers and magazines, lucrative speaking engagements, Council on Foreign Relations' fellowships and various journalistic awards. While those who opposed the war, often fending off ferocious attacks on their patriotism and arguments, are, as Radar puts it, "Right but Poor." (Full disclosure: Jonathan Schell, a valued Nation contributor, is profiled here as one of the leading writers who argued against the war. "There doesn't seem to be a rush to find people who were right about Iraq and install them in the mainstream media," Schell tells "Radar".)

Like their brethren in Bush officialdom, these journalists appear to have escaped real accountability for their role in this catastrophe. "No shame, no blame."

2007 Progressive Victories

The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) new report – 2007 Progressive Victories in the States – shows that state legislatures aren't waiting around on Congress to address some of our nation's most pressing challenges. They are taking matters in their own hands and finding progressive solutions.

"Today, state legislators are leading the fight for progressive solutions," said Tim McFeeley, executive director of the CPA. "While the federal government is stuck in partisan gridlock, state governments are enacting far-reaching new legislation."

From the minimum wage and living wage, to prescription drug prices and election reform, to civil unions and reproductive health – it is clear that a network of savvy progressive think tanks and legislators are working at the state level – and they are winning.

Check out the report here.

Voting About Issues That Matter

EDINBURGH -- The Scottish rock group The Proclaimers sang a quarter century ago: "I cannot understand why we let someone else rule our land."

Last week's elections for the Scottish parliament suggest that a good many Scots are struggling with the same concern.

For the first time in history, the Scottish Nationalist Party [SNP], which has campaigned for the better part of a century on an independence platform, is the largest party and its leader, Alex Salmond, is expected to head the new government.

That does not mean that Scotland will in the very near future be taking up a seat at the United Nations.

But it does raise the prospect that, as Salmond says, "Scotland has changed for good and forever."

The change for the good is certain.

By voting in great numbers for a party that proposes independence, the Scots made real the promise of democracy.

It has always been true that democracy is of consequence when it allows citizens to peacefully initiate radical change.

To merely maintain the status quo by voting on a regular basis is not, in and of itself, evil or damaging. Indeed, in a perfect circumstance, it is the appropriate, perhaps even moral, choice.

But in an imperfect circumstance, the questions that arise are always the same: Do the people have the authority to vote for meaningful change? Do they understand their authority? Will they exercise it? And are the voting systems set up to accurately reflect their sentiments?

To my mind, the most meaningful votes that can be cast are those that change one's economic or political circumstance.

If the poor can vote themselves out of poverty, then democracy gets exciting.

The same is true if the residents of a geographical region that maintains a unique social, economic or political identity can vote themselves out of the country that governs them from afar.

In Edinburgh, Glasgow and other Scottish cities in recent days, I have talked with students and seniors, professionals and day laborers, socialists and conservatives, and the remarkable thing about the discussions is that they are all highly engaged with the question of whether their nation should continue as part of the United Kingdom. That does not mean that they all want to exit the empire.

The split in support for the SNP and the main party that supports continued union with Great Britain, Tony Blair's Labour, was very close. The SNP has 47 seats in the new parliament, while Labour will have 46. Smaller parties that stand on both sides of the independence debate control the remainder of the seats in the 129-seat chamber -- holding out the prospect of any of a number of governing coalitions.

The closeness of this particular election result guarantees that any movement toward actual separation from the United Kingdom will be slow.

Yet, the voting has created the prospect of such movement, and that is to be celebrated -- even by those who may not favor independence.

A democracy that provides the space for the consideration even of radical change may not be perfect. But it is real, and vibrant -- in a way that America's cannot be said to be.

Scotland uses a voting system in parliamentary elections that is designed to assure that the results are reflective of citizen sentiments. It is far from perfect; indeed, there were enough ballot-design and absentee-voting problems in the latest election to draw comparisons with the troubled processes of the U.S.

But the system errs toward democracy.

In addition to voting for a local representative in parliament -- much like Americans vote for their member of the U.S. House -- Scots also cast a vote for their preferred party in a regional election. Regional seats are assigned proportionally based on those party votes. Thus, Scotland's parliament is far more reflective of Scottish sentiments than the U.S. Congress. And in that reflection it becomes possible to recognize a yearning for independence.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"