Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.
Imagine this scenario, as described last week in Washington by defense expert and former Senator Gary Hart.
Overnight, Iraq has descended into a full-scale civil war. Shiites and Sunnis are viciously killing each other. Vying for supremacy, both groups come after American troops--who are unable to take sides or quell the violence. Stuck in urban centers, US soldiers are unable to safely flee in time. A bloodbath ensues.
"America could lose its Army in Iraq," Hart told a crowd of journalists and foreign policy junkies at the New America Foundation last Thursday, repeating the warning twice. "See Black Hawk Down and multiply it to the tenth power. Read the history of 1812. Think of the image of US soldiers on helicopters [exiting] Saigon and multiply it to the tenth power."
Remember, Hart's January 2001 report with former Senator Warren Rudman famously predicted a 9/11-style attack on US soil. Where is the Pentagon's contingency plan for such a nightmare Iraq scenario, Hart wonders? Does it even have one?
"I know that sounds apocalyptic, but it's not out of the question," Hart remarked at another event in DC that day. "We need an exit strategy. We have no choice."
For the first time in two decades, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday begins debate on the way overdue issue of comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate Judiciary Committee now has until March 27 to come up with a definitive proposal.
Unfortunately, the debate is mired in a growing Republican civil war that could sink the whole process. On the one side are conservatives like John McCain in the Senate and Jeff Flake in the House who have joined with Democrats to support both a guest worker program and legalization for the 11 million "illegals" estimated to be living in the U.S. They've come together around the so-called McCain-Kennedy proposal which is also supported by immigrant advocate groups and organized labor.
On the other side are the so-called "restrictionists" who want to continue with our current head-in-the-sand policy and merely build bigger and higher walls and fences. While the latter sentiment already manifested itself ina bill passed last December in the House, there had been some optimism that the Senate would do a more reasonable job.
But just as the crucial debate begins, the Chair of the Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, has done his best to make things more complicated and more confused. Call it unrestrained ego or sinister subterfuge, but Specter has cooked up his own last-minute proposal which will now become the "main" bill that his committee will mark up. While Specter sides with the liberalizers in proposing that the undocumented already here be given work permits, his measure winds up on the restrictionist side in not allowing those same workers to be put on a path to permanent residence or citizenship.
No surprise that Specter's proposal has left both sides of the debate unsatisfied. The good news is that the Senate is finally edging toward reality on this issue by merely having the debate. The bad news will be if it can't get past the sort of half-measures proposed by Specter. The elephant in the room are the 11 million undocumented already living here. Time to stop living in denial.
When South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds signed legislation that effectively bans abortion in his state, the director of the militantly anti-choice Christian Defense Coalition announced that the legal and political foundations that underpin the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision are crumbling. "Roe is slowly, but surely, being chipped away at," declared the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney.
That's not a precisely accurate picture.
In fact, there is nothing slow about the current assault on reproductive rights.
At least eleven more states -- Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia -- are currently considering bans similar to the one enacted in South Dakota, which outlaws abortion in almost all cases.
Under the South Dakota ban, abortions would only be permitted in a narrow category of cases where the life of the mother was in danger. The state's law provides no protection for victims of rape and incest, nor to women whose health might be severely damaged by continuing a pregnancy.
Physicians who violate the South Dakota ban face up to five years in prison.
No state is going to get away with banning abortion before the Supreme Court revisits the issue. And that will take time. But anti-choice activists, inspired by the fact that the court's two newest members, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, have records of criticizing Roe, are doing everything they can to speed up the clock.
If they succeed in overturning Roe, abortion will still only be banned in those states that have laws on the books barring the procedure.
But there could be a lot of states that fall into this category. In addition to South Dakota and the eleven states currently considering bans, a number of additional states have pre-Roe bans that are still on the books.
Many of the pre-Roe bans are every bit as draconian as the one just enacted by South Dakota legislators. Indeed, if the high court were to overturn Roe, and if the old law were given new life by such a ruling, the act of terminating a pregnancy or assisting a woman in doing so would become a felony. Protections for rape victims could disappear. And doctors could be fined and imprisoned for performing abortions.
That means that time is short for citizens of a lot more states than just South Dakota to signal to governors and legislators that they do not want to elminate the right to choose.
Changing the minds of individual legislators will be difficult. Positions on reproductive rights issues tend to be locked in -- especially for Republican legislators who worry about primary challenges from that party's political potent social conservative wing.
But changing individual legislators is another issue altogether.
The abortion rights debate is heating up in a year when two thirds of the nation's governorships and the vast majority of state legislative seats are up for election.
No election should ever be about a single issue.
But, if the assault of the foundations of reproductive freedom continue, abortion will have to be a central issue to the elections of 2006, and voters will have to choose whether women should continue to have the right to choose. To maintain this fundamental right, voters will have to elect governors and legislators who do not just oppose overturning Roe, but who will be at the ready to overturn currently-dormant bans on abortion.
Where does your state rate? According to a 2004 survey by the Center for Reproductive Rights, abortion could quickly become illegal -- either through the reanimation of now dormant laws or the rapid passage of new bans -- in as many as 30 states if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade ruling.
The 21 states that are seen as being at highest risk for banning abortion are Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
The nine states considered to be at medium risk are Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
The states at low risk states are Alaska, California, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds has signed the state abortion ban, which bars all abortions without exception except to preserve the life of the mother. Doctors who violate the law face five years in prison. Although the law will surely be stayed by the courts, this should be a real Aha! moment for the women of South Dakota. Now they know they live in a state that values them only as incubators of fertilized eggs--even when fertilized by rapists. That's valuable information! It's a real Aha! moment for us all, actually--turns out the anti-choice movement really means it when they talk about abortion as murder. While Gov. Rounds and President Bush expressed their preference for the strategy of nibbling away at Roe--a much shrewder political tactic that Democrats are always recommending to Republican strategists--the antis went for the whole pie. Why? Because they're fanatics on a mission from God. They think birth control is abortion too.
If you want to get a sense of what's at stake in the war against legal abortion, take a look at How the Pro-choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex by Cristina Page (Basic Books). It's short and sweet and shrewd and funny, and makes a persuasive case that what is at stake is not just the right of women to terminate pregnancies, but modern sexuality and family life, from the very idea of sex for pleasure not procreation to flexible gender roles in marriage. Page packs in an amazing amount of factual information into 168 pages. Did you know, for example, that one effect of parental notification/consent laws is to push abortions later, as 17 year olds decide to wait till they turn 18 and don't need a permission slip for the doctor? And did you know that not one major pro-life organization has an official policy supporting "artificial" contraception? No wonder those well-meaning attempts to find "common ground" never get anywhere.
Defenders of the Dubai ports deal argue that rejecting it would be an insult to the Arab world. But if you look at it from a different angle, maybe we'd actually be doing our new found friends in the United Arab Emirates a favor.
It is hard to imagine why on earth Dubai would want to manage six major American ports where less than 5 percent of cargo is inspected currently. What if, God forbid, terrorists, completely unconnected to Dubai, slipped a weapon of mass destruction through one of the ports Dubai manages? Has the emir of Dubai forgotten what happened to Saddam, who had no connection to 9/11?
If our ally of all of four years really wants to involve itself in America's economy, maybe the U.A.E. should bid on a job equally vital but less of a security risk, like managing the reconstruction of New Orleans. It's clear the Bush administration isn't. They haven't even found a replacement for ex-FEMA head Michael Brown, whose rehabilitation in the media last week was one for the ages. No, the Bush administration is too busy doing damage control on the video showing that despite Bush's mendacious assurances to the contrary, his administration did indeed anticipate a possible "breach" of the levees. Wait, I'm sorry, they only anticipated the levees being "topped."
A distinction without a difference is the White House's current defense. Talk about another moment for the Dictionary of Republicanisms.
As a film studies major I've been trained to sit through any cinematic experience -- from Andy Warhol's 8-hour long Empire (yes, 8 consecutive hours of the Empire State Building in real time) to Derek Jarman's Blue (an hour plus of an unchanging blue screen dramatizing Jarman's AIDS-related blindness) -- and never abandon ship (incidentally I loved both films). It took all this training and more to endure this year's Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Crash, which I saw this summer in, alas, its entirety. I've already written about how I'm not a huge fan of Brokeback Mountain, the other Oscar contender, but it's definitely a better film than Crash, which I would have walked out on had it not been for my stalwart companions.
White critics like Roger Ebert, who proclaimed it the best film of the year, and David Denby of the New Yorker loved it. Denby wrote that it "makes previous movie treatments of prejudice seem like easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing."
I couldn't disagree more; easy and self-congratulatory liberalizing is the epitome of the film. To my mind, Crash's central message is: There's a lot of racism in the world, but it's all rendered meaningless by a magical force. This force is called sheer coincidence. I'll happily spoil the denouement for anyone who hasn't seen it. The racist white cop (Matt Dillon) sexually molests a black women (Thandie Newton), but is really a good guy because he saves her from a car crash (oh, and because he loves his ailing poppy). His partner's (Ryan Phillipe) anti-racist protests are really irrelevant because he ends up killing an innocent black teenager (Larenz Tate). Meanwhile, a rich, racist white woman (Sandra Bullock) unfairly suspects a Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) of being a crook, but it's okay because her Latino maid (and best friend) takes care of her when she injures herself. And on and on and on through a "compassionate conservative" rainbow of cast members each with their own neatly moralistic (but totally individualized) racial melodramas. As with the well-awarded musical Avenue Q, the moral of Crash is: Don't worry, everyone's a little bit racist.
Anyway, my amateur film criticism aside, you'll find a good dissection of Crash by sometime Nation writer Jeff Chang and Sylvia Chan over at Alternet. LA Weekly critic Scott Foundas called it the worst film of the year. I agree.
There is much one could say about Mikhail Gorbachev. He is the man who changed the world. He ended the Cold War. He tried to abolish nuclear weapons--believing fervently that if we didn't attempt to do the impossible, we would face the unthinkable. He liberated Eastern Europe to find its own political path. And, at home, he was that rare political leader who used his power to launch unprecedented reforms--what came to be known as perestroika and glasnost. It is tragic that twenty one years later, little, if anything, is left of the historic opportunities and alternatives Gorbachev opened up for his country and the world. Those of us who know him have heard him speak of this loss with great sadness.
But last Thursday night, Gorbachev wasn't waiting around for history's judgment. At the Napoleon banquet hall in southwest Moscow, 250 family members, college and elementary schoolmates, former and current political and journalistic colleagues, friends from East and West, and current officials gathered to celebrate Gorbachev's 75th birthday. Having come to know Gorbachev quite well in these last twenty years, my husband Stephen Cohen and I were two of the partygoers.
Toasts and vodka flowed freely. Gorbachev and his daughter Irina opened the evening. Standing on the stage set up for the evening, the former Soviet President welcomed everyone by name--literally, everyone--to what he called his last big party "before old age begins". The party favor was handed out--a family album prepared by his daughter and grandchildren. The Governor of Stavropol, the province which Gorbachev led as a Communist party boss in the 1970s, opened the evening. Chancellor Helmut Kohl uttered some dignified words. An opera singer from the Bolshoi sang an aria. Former Presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky chastised the crowd-"Mikhail Sergeevich gave us a chance and we did not take it." Video tributes from former President George Bush, Bill Moyers, Leonardo di Caprio, former President Bill Clinton, and a rambunctious Ted Turner ( who belted out "happy birthday, my good friend Mikhaiiiil") and California Senator Barbara Boxer were broadcast on the banquet hall's walls. President Putin even sent a telegram of congratulation. (It's the least the Russian President could do considering that he threw Boris Yeltsin a lavish, state-funded 75th birthday bash in the Kremlin just a month earlier.)
But forget Putin's telegram, or Kohl's words or Bush's video tribute. The high point of the evening came when Gorbachev's twenty-something granddaughter, Oksana, took charge. Oksana is a kind of musical impresario, a booker of bands, who looks like a cross between Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. I missed the name of her new girl band, but they might as well call themselves "The Slavic Chicks." Three young women, a brunette, a blond and a redhead, in very short and tight black dresses, came out on stage and began to belt out three Russian pop songs. The disco ball seemed to go round even faster, as the crowd dizzy from the pumped up music boogied on the dance floor. And at the back of the room, Gorbachev seemed mesmerized by the scene--ignoring his table partner Kohl for the moment--as he swayed to the music, clapping his hands over his head.
For a brief moment, whatever sadness Gorbachev may have felt as he surveyed the lost opportunities in Russia and the world seemed to melt away into the dark Moscow night as The Slavic Chicks sashayed and sang. Long live The Slavic Chicks.
Cheaters never win, my mom said. And it looks like she was right.
This week the fur flew when senior associate editor Nick Sylvester was suspended from his gig at the Village Voice. Turns out the boy wonder/music critic had fabricated reporting for his cover story "Do You Wanna Kiss Me?" on the pick-up artist's guide The Game by Neil Strauss. (You might remember Strauss from other literary merits such as ghost-writing porn star Jenna Jameson's memoir.)
The story's been pulled from the site, but it's not really worth reading, anyway. It's a pretty thin piece of trend-reporting that doesn't hold much water. Basically, Sylvester interviews a few women who have read The Game and can use it against the would-be players who try to pick them up. He then attempts to extrapolate that into something--it's not clear what--about the state of dating in New York. He interviews Strauss and uncritically swallows a lot of his garbage about picking up women--for one, he fails to be very critical of the whole "art" of picking up women at all, let alone Strauss's basic assumption that social success is measured by belt notches.
Given how flimsy the journalism is, one can't help but wonder why the whole piece wasn't cast as a short diary from a woman's perspective--but wait, guess what? Dolly, a New Yorker who writes a blog about her love life, and had recognized men running The Game on her, did pitch the Voice, in January, and never heard back. Then Sylvester was assigned the story.
Golden boy Sylvester has nothing to worry about. "I just adore that kid," acting Voice Editor Doug Simmons told Gawker . "The thought of firing him is a painful one for me. I hope this review can bring an understanding to the paper -- and to Nick -- about the boundaries of journalism."
Yes, cause the boundaries of journalism were so unclear before. Thank goodness Simmons cleared that one up!
What happened here doesn't quite add up. First, Sylvester's lie was painfully obvious, violating the cardinal rule of fake journalism: Don't quote real people who you've never met. (Make them up!) And stranger still is why he bothered with lying at all. He claims to have met one especially colorful pick-up artist at Bar 151 in New York, but in fact the scene he related was a "composite" of anecdotes told to him by others. So why lie? Why not just quote the people you interviewed in real-life?
Usually Sylvester writes pretentious, garbled, mumbo-jumbo name-dropping music reviews, and some have speculated that the poor kid just got in over his head. It was a Jayson Blair-esque case of too much, too soon. But even that doesn't make sense. It doesn't take genius to know that you don't make up facts in a reported story. Sylvester, who was yanked from the stage at this year's Plug Awards for reading Malcom Gladwell's New Yorker essay on profiling in lieu of presenting the award he was there to give, seems to have a problem with taking anything seriously. Maybe he thought the Voice piece was supposed to be a prank. For now, the joke's on him. He's not only been suspended from the Voice, but yesterday he was fired from his gig as an editor at indie rock go-to site Pitchfork .
But the really outrage-inducing part of all this is that Sylvester won't be up at night sweating out the difference between "fact" and "fiction" in our topsy-turvy, no-holds-barred post-modern world where right is left and up is down. He's more famous than he was before, and in the long-run, his career will be just fine. He has Simmons. He's young. He'll still get a book deal.
The latest issue of Harper's Magazine contains a stunning 15-page article by well-known AIDS denialist Celia Farber (formerly of Spin magazine) that extensively repeats UC Berkeley virologist Peter Duesberg's discredited theory that HIV does not cause AIDS. Among the claims that Duesberg makes (and Farber recounts approvingly) are:
AIDS is actually a "chemical syndrome, caused by accumulated toxins from heavy drug use."
"Many cases of AIDS are the consequence of heavy drug use, both recreational (poppers, cocaine, methamphetamines, etc.) and medical (AZT, etc.)"
"HIV is a harmless passenger virus that infects a small percentage of the population and is spread primarily from mother to child, though at a relatively low rate."
"75 percent of AIDS cases in the West can be attributed to drug toxicity. If toxic AIDS therapies were discontinued...thousands of lives could be saved virtually overnight."
"AIDS in Africa is best understood as an umbrella term for a number of old diseases, formerly known by other names, that currently do not command high rates of international aid. The money spent on anti-retroviral drugs would be better spent on sanitation and improving access to safe drinking water."
The best rebuttals to Duesberg's hypothesis are here, here and here. Over at Slate science writer Jon Cohen has a piece examining the wave of "pharmanoia" afflicting mass media. As Cohen and others point out, conspiracy theories like Duesberg's warp and exploit some of the best political interventions made by AIDS activists: that patients should be engaged with their medical diagnosis and treatment, that clinical drug trials should be grounded in sound ethical practices, that the emphasis on virology has circumvented immunological approaches to AIDS and that attention to the effects of poverty, malnutrition and other diseases is vital to preventing and treating AIDS.
It's a shame that a magazine as well respected as Harper's has shirked its duty to report on these issues and instead published Farber's article. South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign has put together a comprehensive rebuttal of Farber's article documenting over 50 errors. I also post here a statement from HealthGAP and a letter to Harper's from Gregg Gonsalves of GMHC.
HealthGAP:"Harper's Magazine has stooped to new lows in publishing a lengthy article that rehashes old distortions by a writer who does not believe that HIV causes AIDS. Harper's should immediately publicly retract this article, and devote the same space to an accurate piece of news about the global AIDS crisis. We are very concerned that this inaccurate article will be used to fuel government inaction outside the US, where some heads of state, such as the South African President and the Minister of Health, have invoked AIDS denialist rhetoric rather than prioritizing antiretoviral treatment access for the 800 South Africans with HIV who are dying unnecessarily each day."
Gregg Gonsalves:"Dear Editors,I have been a long-time Harper's Magazine reader. I am sorry that the March 2006 issue is the very last that I will read.
With Celia Farber's article "Out of Control, AIDS and the Corruption of Medical Science," your magazine has managed to destroy its 156 year-old reputation in 15 pages.
Farber is a well-known AIDS denialist and publishing her work is akin to giving the folks at the Discovery Institute a place to expound upon the "science" of intelligent design, Charles Davenport a venue to educate us about the racial inferiority of the Negro or Lyndon LaRouche a platform to warn us about aliens, bio-duplication, and nudity.
If Harpers was some fringe publication or supermarket tabloid then we could all laugh at Farber's weird conspiracy theories and pseudo-science. The sad thing is that unlike the hoaxes perpetuated on the New Republic by Stephen Glass several years ago, Ms. Farber's reputation as a crank is widespread. Thus, it seems that your editors, after careful research and despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, decided that Ms. Farber was a serious journalist with a real story to be told.
If you choose to report falsehoods as truths when it comes to HIV/AIDS, how can I trust the veracity of the rest of what appears in your pages?
As the U.S. Senate moved Thursday to reauthorize the Patriot Act in a form that fails to address essential concerns about the protection of civil liberties, Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, the chamber's most ardent critic of reauthorization along the lines demanded by the Bush administration, admitted temporary defeat. But, in final remarks to his colleagues on the eve of the vote, Feingold declared, "This fight is not over Mr. President. The vote today will not assuage the deep and legitimate concerns that the public has about the Patriot Act. I am convinced that in the end, the government will respond to the people, as it should. We will defeat the terrorists, and we will preserve the freedom and liberty that make this the greatest country on the face of the earth."
Here is the text of the speech Feingold -- the only senator to oppose the initial version of the Patriot Act in 2001 and one of the few to consistently oppose it throughout the reauthorization process -- prepared for delivery to the Senate:
Mr. President, in a few minutes, the Senate will conclude a process that began over a year ago by reauthorizing the Patriot Act. I will have a few closing remarks but first I want to take this opportunity to thank the extraordinary staff who have worked on this bill for so long. These men and women, on both sides of the aisle, have worked extremely hard and they deserve to be recognized. I ask unanimous consent that a list of their names be printed in the Record after my remarks.
Mr. President, beginning in November when we first saw a draft of the conference report, I have spoken at length about the substance of this bill. I hoped that when we started the task of reauthorizing the Patriot Act at the beginning of last year, the end product would be something that the whole Senate could support. We had a real chance to pass a bill that would both reauthorize the tools to prevent terrorism and fix the provisions that threaten the rights and freedoms of innocent Americans. This conference report, even as amended by the bill incorporating the White House deal that we passed yesterday, falls well short of that goal. I will vote no.
Protecting the country from terrorism while also protecting our rights is a challenge for every one of us, particularly in the current political climate, and it is a challenge we all take seriously. I know that many Senators who will vote for this reauthorization bill in a few minutes would have preferred to enact the bill we passed without a single objection in July of last year. I appreciate that so many of my colleagues came to recognize the need to take the opportunity presented by the sunset provisions included in the original Patriot Act to make changes that would better protect civil liberties than did the law we enacted in haste in October 2001.
Nevertheless, I am deeply disappointed that we have largely wasted this opportunity to fix the obvious problems with the Patriot Act.
The reason I spent so much time in the past few days talking about how the public views the Patriot Act was to make it clear that this fight was not about one Senator arguing the details of the law. This fight was about trying to restore the public's trust in our government. That trust has been severely shaken as the public learned more about the Patriot Act, which was passed with so little debate in 2001, and as the administration resisted congressional oversight efforts and repeatedly politicized the reauthorization process. The revelations about secret warrantless surveillance late last year only confirmed the suspicions of many in our country that the government is willing to trample the rule of law and constitutional guarantees in the fight against terrorism.
The negative reaction to the Patriot Act has been overwhelming. Over 400 state and local government bodies passed resolutions pleading with Congress to change the law. Citizens have signed petitions, library associations and campus groups have organized to petition the Congress to act, numerous editorials have been written urging Congress not to reauthorize the law without adequate protections for civil liberties. These things occurred because Americans across the country recognize that the Patriot Act includes provisions that pose a threat to their privacy and liberty -- values that are at the very core of what this country represents, of who we are as a people.
In 2001, we were viciously attacked by terrorists who care nothing for American freedoms and American values. And we as a people came together to fight back, and we are prepared to make great sacrifices to defeat those who would destroy us. But what we will not do, what we cannot do, is destroy our own freedoms in the process.
Without freedom, we are not America. If we don't preserve our liberties, we cannot win this war, no matter how many terrorists we capture or kill.
That is why the several Senators who have said at one time or another during this debate things like, "Civil liberties do not mean much when you are dead" are wrong about America at the most basic level. They do not understand what this country is all about. Theirs is a vision that the founders of this nation, who risked everything for freedom, would categorically reject. And so do the American people.
Americans want to defeat terrorism, and they want the basic character of this country to survive and prosper. They want to empower the government to protect the nation from terrorists, and they want protections against government overreaching and overreacting. They know it might not be easy, but they expect the Congress to figure out how to do it. They don't want defeatism on either score. They want both security and liberty, and unless we give them both – and we can, if we try – we have failed.
This fight is not over Mr. President. The vote today will not assuage the deep and legitimate concerns that the public has about the Patriot Act. I am convinced that in the end, the government will respond to the people, as it should. We will defeat the terrorists, and we will preserve the freedom and liberty that make this the greatest country on the face of the earth.
I yield the floor.