The Notion | The Nation


The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Budget Cuts and the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike

Prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit (SHU) began an indefinite hunger strike two weeks ago, and the reports coming in are harrowing.

The Prison Reform Movement posted a testimonial earlier in the week from a SHU nurse, who stated that the prisoners have not been drinking water and there have been “rapid and severe” consequences, adding that nurses are crying, and some of the prisoners have been unable to make urine for three days.

The prisoners began the strike “in order to draw attention to, and to peacefully protest, twenty-five years of torture via [California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation]’s arbitrary, illegal, and progressively more punitive policies and practices,” according to their official statement, dated July 1, 2011.

Those torturous conditions (years of confinement in steel, windowless cages for more than twenty-two hours a day, no real access to natural light or human contact) are likely to only get worse during these times of economic austerity.

Much attention was paid to Governor Jerry Brown’s plans to “realign” the prison system in order to reduce overcrowding and save the state money, but these orders followed months of harsh cuts that left prisons unable to adequately care for and supervise the hundreds of thousands of prisoners left in California’s incarceration system.

In May, Brown eliminated more than 400 positions at CDCR, in addition to 5,550 positions statewide. The move terminated thirty-three executive-level jobs at Corrections, and more than 100 management and supervisory positions.

Many rightly criticized the whopping annual state prison payroll of $2 billion. However, California’s huge prison budget doesn’t stem from prisoners dining on caviar and lobster. The budget exploded because of “three strike” laws that rapidly expanded the jailed population.

But even without such unfair laws, California’s prison system would still be in trouble, according to the LA Times. Growing numbers of inmates arrive with communicable diseases (nearly a fourth of them have the tuberculosis virus), one in five has mental problems or brain damage, staffing numbers are already among the lowest in the country, and although a third of its employees are women, the department has a history of sexual discrimination. Furthermore, the department has an especially difficult time locating new employees to fill open positions in desolated locales where new prisons are opening.

While some of the Pelican Bay prisoners’ demands don’t hinge on their prison being sufficiently funded (things like eliminating collective punishment, for example, can be done for free), other items such as providing better, more nutritious food and expanding constructive programs will cost the state money, and during a time of budget cuts, the governor isn’t likely to lend a sympathetic ear to society’s pariahs.

Brown will likely be able to neglect the prison system without a majority of his constituents retaliating against him in the voting booths. Unlike when he slashed school spending by $1 billion, Brown is this time neglecting a population that many people feel deserve whatever comes to them, even though, let’s remember, prisons are supposed to rehabilitate individuals, and are not simply caves into which we throw and abandon human beings, leaving them to die.

Additionally, movements like the Innocence Project have proven that innocent men and women are incarcerated all the time, and this should always be remembered when political leaders adopt cavalier “to hell with ’em all” attitudes.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Was Tim Pawlenty Really Popular in Minnesota?

Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has made his putative success in a bastion of liberalism the primary rationale for his candidacy. As he told Iowa voters in a typical stump speech: 

“Every Republican candidate is going to come through a room like this and talk to a group like this and they’re basically going to say the same thing.... The question for you is who can do it, who has the fortitude to do it, and who will sell in blue places and purple places. Everybody’s going to say, ‘I’m the one who can get the independents in the end. I’m the one who can get the conservative Democrats.’ But, I’m the one who actually did it.”

And, as the Wall Street Journal reports, Pawlenty loves to talk about how he won office and took on Democrats on their home turf in “liberal Minnesota.” As he proclaims in one ad, “In a liberal state, I reduced spending in real terms, for the first time." 

Among all the claims by Republican presidential candidates—which often range from mendacious to downright delusional—Pawlenty’s narrative of success in a bastion of liberalism is hardly the most absurd. “There’s some truth to [Pawlenty’s campaign claims],” says Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “Some of his policies were not widely supported, but he has a winsome personality that calmed independent or Democratic voters. His approval ratings were generally over 50 percent.” Jacobs attributes this to Pawlenty’s working-class affectations. “It’s playing hockey, the mullet haircut. People who really disagreed with him on policy issues were not necessarily fired up about it.” (Among Pawlenty’s homey affectations when he was majority leader in the state legislature was using his official last word on budget bills to quote rock lyrics.)

But Pawlenty’s assertion that he can sell plutocratic policies to the public because he won over Democrats and independents in Minnesota doesn’t withstand close scrutiny. It turns out that Pawlenty was never very politically successful, that Minnesota isn’t really all that liberal, and that Pawlenty has flip-flopped on his signature moderate stances.

Minnesota’s politics are actually more populist than liberal. In the “Democratic Farmer-Labor Party” that has meant a commitment to social justice, articulated by such liberal lions as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Paul Wellstone. But among Republicans that translates to a fiery religious social conservatism, epitomized by Representative Michele Bachmann. “Culturally we’ve always been a pretty conservative state,” says Representative Jim Davnie, a Democratic Minnesota state representative. “There’s long been deep divides between the Twin Cities metro area that leans Democratic and some rural areas that lean Republican. There’s a mythology around Minnesota’s liberalism, but I don’t know that it’s as true as the mythology will tell you.”

Most importantly, the Minnesota electorate’s ornery streak manifests itself in strong third party candidacies. Pawlenty’s predecessor, Jesse Ventura, was an independent. In both of Pawlenty’s races an Independence Party candidate took a significant portion of the vote, with more coming from Pawlenty’s Democratic opponents.

Pawlenty never won a majority of Minnesotans. (He got 44 percent in 2002 and 47 percent, to Democrat Mike Hatch’s 46 percent, in 2006). “Both elections featured Independent candidates, which exit polls showed drew more votes from Democrats in close races,” says Jacobs. “I looked closely at the data and there’s no doubt that Independence Party candidates accounted for Pawlenty’s margin, particularly in his re-election.” Jacobs adds that Pawlenty also might have lost in 2006 had Hatch’s campaign not imploded in the final days of the campaign when Hatch’s running mate made a gaffe about Minnesota’s sacred ethanol, and Hatch being overly critical of her in subsequent interviews.

And the state’s demographics—only 5 percent black and 5 percent Latino—are hardly Californian. In 2008, a banner year for Democrats, Al Franken barely edged out the scandal plagued dweeb Norm Coleman for his Senate seat. So winning in Minnesota isn’t the achievement Pawlenty makes it out to be, especially when your wins come with an asterisk.

At any rate, what you want is voters to decide you are the most electable candidate on their own, not to explicitly try claim it yourself. The effective way of running as the most electable candidate is not to say so:  remember how successful Joe Lieberman’s self-introduction in 2004 that he hailed from “the electable wing of the Democratic Party” was? Instead, you prove your electability by crafting a message that appeals to moderates and independents, as Barack Obama did in 2008.

Paradoxically, this is precisely the opposite of Pawlenty’s strategy. While Jon Huntsman appeals to independents and pundits with his restrained positions and rhetoric, Pawlenty is running to the right on every issue. He has completely abandoned and abjectly apologized for his support for cap-and-trade and come out for an aggressively neoconservative foreign policy.

In fact, Pawlenty’s rightward shift started while he was still in the Governor’s Mansion. As Representative Davnie recalls, he met with Pawlenty in 2009 to request his support for a bill to outlaw school bullying. Pawlenty told Davnie what shape the bill would have to take to win his support, and Davnie accommodated him. “I did that,” says Davnie. “I built a broad coalition; it passed both Houses with strong bi-partisan votes, and he vetoed it because he was hearing from the right wing that he shouldn’t sign it because it would protect gay and lesbian students.” The bill would have protected other students as well: advocates for students with disabilities were among its most vocal supporters.

Davnie says Pawlenty abandoned school children being victimized by bullies because he was preparing for his presidential run. “It has to do with him moving to the right to run for president,” says Davnie. “He vetoed it even though it was in many ways it was the bill he asked for.”

But Pawlenty is clearly convinced that he doesn’t need to be substantively moderate, just to disguise the same Republican policies with an affable, ostentatiously homespun demeanor. After all, it worked for George W. Bush. 


Should Bachmann's Poll Numbers Be Believed?

Remember way back in 2009 when Michele Bachmann was just a zany backbencher in the House of Representatives, destined to be one day barely remembered for her outlandish statements, the second coming of Helen Chenoweth? Well, if recent polling data has much predictive value, then those days are over, and she is now officially Mitt Romney’s main contender for the Republican presidential nomination. Since Bachmann’s strong performance in last month’s Republican presidential debate and her concurrent campaign announcement, she has been making a strong showing in multiple surveys.

A Des Moines Register poll in late June had Bachmann just one point behind Romney in Iowa, at 22 percent to his 23 percent. Both are way ahead of the rest of the pack, which features Herman Cain at 10 percent and Bachmann’s fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty at a mere 6 percent. Meanwhile, Bachmann appears to be in second in New Hampshire as well. Two polls from last week have her in that position, trailing Romney. According to Public Policy Polling Bachmann registers 18 percent support among Republican primary voters, while University of New Hampshire’s Granite State poll gives her 12 percent.

Bachmann’s strong showing in New Hampshire is especially remarkable—some might say worrisome—given the state’s famed identity as bastion of socially liberal Republicanism. Bachmann is a devout evangelical with a penchant for making polarizing statements. New Hampshire is, according to a Gallup survey, the second least religious state in the country after neighboring Vermont. “New Hampshire Republicans are by and large Northeastern Republicans, what we used to call Rockefeller Republicans,” says Andrew Smith, director of the Granite State poll. “They tend to be quite moderate on social issues.” If Bachmann can come in second in New Hampshire, then presumably she could win in states like Iowa and South Carolina that have a much larger evangelical and socially conservative Republican electorate.

But not so fast. Polls are a lagging indicator. News takes days or weeks to settle into people’s brains, and polls are conducted over a similar period. The results we have seen recently reflect the views of voters in the aftermath of the June 13 debate in New Hampshire. It will be weeks before we know how recent revelations of the homophobic statements and voodoo psychology of Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, will affect her poll numbers.

More generally, polling numbers will often flutter upwards before falling back to earth when a candidate first bursts on the scene. About six weeks ago there was a brief bubble of speculation around Rudy Giuliani, who rose to the top of a national CNN poll. He has hardly been heard from since. A year ago Newt Gingrich was at 11 percent in the Granite State poll; now he gets 1 percent, or less than the margin of error. Cain’s bubble is already deflating, as he has lost one-third of his support in Iowa since last month’s PPP poll. “Many candidates have gone up when they got media attention,” notes Smith. So between now and next February, Bachmann has plenty of time to lose her luster.

That said, Bachmann does have one major asset that she showed off at the debate which will not go away. “She’s the one Republican candidate with charisma,” says Smith. “The other guys are Wonder Bread and mayonnaise sandwiches. She’s got a spunk and confidence about her that’s quite noticeable.” So Bachmann had better hope a certain other spunky candidate doesn’t get in the race. 



Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Has Roger Ailes Hacked American Phones for Fox News?

“Has Roger Ailes been keeping tabs on your phone calls?”

That’s how Portfolio.com began a post back in 2008, when a former Fox News executive charged that Ailes had outfitted a highly secured “brain room” in Fox’s New York headquarters for “counterintelligence” and may have used it to hack into private phone records.

All this week people have been looking for links between the Murdoch empire’s burgeoning phone-hacking scandal in Britain and News Corp.’s sprawling political/communications juggernaut in the United States. The links so far include a former New York City cop alleging that Murdoch’s now-defunct News of the World offered to pay him to hack into 9/11 victims’ phone records, and a News Corp. US shareholders’ suit in Delaware already targeting the company for nepotism adding British phone hacking as evidence of a corporate culture “run amuck.”

But rumors have floated in the press and on the Internet about possible phone hacking in that special-security-clearance-only bunker at Fox HQ for years.

Dan Cooper was one of the people who helped create the Fox News channel with Roger Ailes, and was fired in 1996. In 2008, Cooper wrote on his website that David Brock (now head of Media Matters) had used him as an anonymous, on-background-only source for an Ailes profile he was writing for New York magazine. Before the piece was published, on November 17, 1997, Cooper claims that his talent agent, Richard Leibner, told him he had received a call from Ailes, who identified Cooper as a source, and insisted that Leibner drop him as a client--or any client reels Leibner sent Fox would pile up in a corner and gather dust. Cooper continued: 

“I made the connections. Ailes knew I had given Brock the interview. Certainly Brock didn’t tell him. Of course. Fox News had gotten Brock’s telephone records from the phone company, and my phone number was on the list. Deep in the bowels of 1211 Avenue of the Americas, News Corporation’s New York headquarters, was what Roger called the Brain Room. Most people thought it was simply the research department of Fox News. But unlike virtually everybody else, because I had to design and build the Brain Room, I knew it also housed a counterintelligence and black ops office. So accessing phone records was easy pie.”

Media writer Jeff Bercovici, then at Conde Nast’s short-lived Portfolio, was skeptical of such claims, writing in early 2008 that Cooper was massively “disgruntled” (which appears to be true) and that “potentially the most explosive among Cooper’s many lurid claims, assuming anyone believes them” arose from his phone-records allegation. “A Fox News spokeswoman says there’s no truth to the claim that the network has the capability to snoop through phone records,” Bercovici noted, adding, “Leibner says it’s ‘not true’ and that he didn’t fire Cooper as a client.”

Cooper’s long post, called “Naked Launch,” which also served as a book proposal, is as much about him as it is about Fox News.

Tim Dickinson relays Cooper’s description of the brain room (though he doesn’t mention anything about phone records) in his fascinating piece on Ailes that ran in Rolling Stone two months ago. “In a separate facility on the same subterranean floor,” Dickenson writes, “Ailes created an in-house research unit–-known at Fox News as the ‘brain room’–-that requires special security clearance to gain access. ‘The brain room is where Willie Horton comes from,’ says Cooper, who helped design its specs. `It’s where the evil resides.’ ”

“If that sounds paranoid,” Dickinson adds, “consider the man Ailes brought in to run the brain room: Scott Ehrlich.” Ehrlich “had taken over the lead on Big Tobacco’s campaign to crush health care reform when Ailes signed on with CNBC.”

Today, Cooper stands by his story. “I believe exactly what I wrote. The only alternative is that David Brock told Ailes well before publication that he spoke with me,” he e-mailed me. “The story is true.” Brock has declined to comment.

Of course, at this point it’s pure speculation as to how Ailes may have known that Brock interviewed Cooper, and it may have had nothing to do with illegally accessing private phone records.

Still, that possibility looks more plausible by the day. For one thing, we’ve learned quite a bit over the past week about the value of the conglomerate’s corporate denials of wrongdoing. In the British phone-hacking scandal, various company players at first denied it, then blamed it on a single “rogue reporter,” then admitted the phone-hacking was systemic, and finally admitted paying large sums of money to certain victims in exchange for their silence. That’s lying, lying about the lying and paying to cover-up the lying—pretty much the liar’s trifecta.

If you’re wondering whether Roger Ailes is capable of urging people to mislead authorities, just start combing the cotton of his involvement in the Judith Regan/Bernie Kerik affair. The latest is that Ailes allegedly told Regan to lie about her relationship Kerik to the feds when they were vetting him for a cabinet position as Secretary of Homeland Security. (The onetime Giuliani protégé now sits in federal prison.)

In any case, on Monday, CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics), called on the House and Senate to investigate whether News Corp. employees “have hacked into the voicemails of Americans.”

“It is becoming increasingly clear this scandal was not perpetrated by a few rogue reporters, but was systematically orchestrated at the highest  levels of News Corp.,” says CREW executive director Melanie Sloan.

“Given the ever-increasing number of Murdoch publications involved, combined with the allegation that News Corp. journalists sought access to the voicemails of 9/11 victims and their families, America cannot leave this investigation entirely to the British.”

Senators Jay Rockefeller and Frank Lautenberg have called for federal agencies to investigate whether the empire has violated privacy laws in the United States.

UPDATE: I've changed Cooper's title at Fox News to more accurately describe his role there.


What Was Obama's Secret in Winning the Debt Standoff?

There’s so much fake drama in Washington that it gets hard to recognize big developments when they actually happen. By any measure, though, Republican leaders are offering a massive reversal to their debt threats.

Senator McConnell’s proposal gives Obama everything on substance, in return for concessions on optics. 

In essence, under the plan, the debt ceiling gets raised without spending cuts, but the vote is structured so it looks like Obama is pulling the lever alone. And then he has to pull it again in several, politically risky increases. For Republicans, as The Nation’s George Zornick reports, “it’s a stunning de-leveraging” of their hard-fought position. “After spending much of 2011 threatening to execute the economy unless they get their way,” Zornick explains, “McConnell is now proposing to just release the hostage [without] one scrap of policy concessions from Democrats.”

The deal looks like a big win for progressives—never a conventional narrative in Washington, so it probably won’t be covered that way—and some liberals argue it casts Obama’s negotiating in a very different light. Lawrence O’Donnell, who held a senior staff position in the Senate long before his fame as a liberal anchor, proposes that Obama was never really threatening Medicare, he was ratcheting up pressure on a GOP caucus that could not stomach any revenue increases at all.

“Nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to [in these marathon legislative bargaining sessions],” O’Donnell stresses, and thus many observers (and progressive critics) misread Obama’s true position.  Political junkies are fairly tired of the “three-dimensional chess” defense of every Obama move, but this time the theory makes some sense. O’Donnell’s ten-minute presentation is also one of the clearest explanations of the default showdown available, so it’s worth watching for that reason alone: 

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Obama's Pivot to Jobs Long Overdue

The Obama administration is currently making the curious argument that cutting spending and restructuring the social safety net will make it easier for them to pivot to the issue of jobs.

Jonathan Bernstein finds some credence to this claim, but count me as a skeptic. For two years a stubbornly high unemployment rate has been the gravest problem facing this nation. The Obama administration shouldn’t need to pivot to the issue of creating jobs—it should have been the top priority for the administration from day one and every day since.

Yet the administration keeps arguing that it has done everything it could do on the jobs front. First, it argued that the stimulus would be sufficient; then it argued that there was no political will for a second stimulus once it became clear that the first wasn’t big enough; then it said that a jobs plan couldn’t pass the Republican Congress, and now it claims that it can’t do anything on jobs without first reducing the deficit, or that a deal in and of itself will boost the lagging economy.

All we seem to get are more and more excuses from the White House. “The truth is that creating jobs in a depressed economy is something government could and should be doing,” Paul Krugman wrote on Monday. “Yes, there are huge political obstacles to action—notably, the fact that the House is controlled by a party that benefits from the economy’s weakness. But political gridlock should not be conflated with economic reality. Our failure to create jobs is a choice, not a necessity—a choice rationalized by an ever-shifting set of excuses.” If you don't believe there's anything the federal government could be doing on the jobs front, check out Robert Reich's six-point jobs plan, which he tweeted last week.

Not only is the White House not pushing as aggressively as they could to create jobs, they’re also embracing the right-wing talking points of their opponents, Krugman notes, such as the Hoover-esque claim that cutting spending will jumpstart an economic recovery, which worked out brilliantly for Hoover. Suddenly the president has become the anti-Keynes, which makes it hard to believe that he’ll start arguing for Keynsian policies to boost the economy following any debt deal.

I have a difficult time seeing how a grand bargain on the debt ceiling will make it easier for the administration to pass an infrastructure bank or other job-creation ideas through Congress, when Congressional Republicans' stated goal is to do everything in their power to bring down Obama in 2012. Nor will independent voters—the supposed key constituency of deficit reduction—suddenly warm to the Obama administration if the economy remains in the tank. It seems pretty obvious that the 2012 election will be determined by the magnitude of the unemployment rate and growth, or lack thereof, in real disposable personal income, not the size of the deficit. I’m not exactly sure why Obama seems to believe otherwise.

A number of pundits are arguing this week that the president is simply following the same playbook that Bill Clinton used to win re-election in 1996. But there are a number of problems with the Clinton parallels, as I detailed in a Nation article, “Obama: Triangulation 2.0,” earlier this year.

Number one: Clinton had the benefit of a rapidly growing economy. Obama does not.

Number two: Clinton won the battle of public opinion by resisting sharp Republicans cuts to “Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.” Obama, on the other hand, has proposed raising the enrollment age of Medicare, from 65 to 67, and major reductions in Medicare spending.

Number three: Clinton had Newt Gingrich as a foil. John Boehner and Eric Cantor, though beholden to the Tea Party, are more formidable foes for Obama.

We need to raise the debt ceiling. Only crackpot Tea Partiers and hopefuls for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination argue otherwise. But if the Obama administration and leaders in both parties had tackled the jobs crisis with the same urgency that they’ve shown in debt ceiling negotiations, there would have been no need to talk of one day pivoting to jobs.

--Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. You can follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Are Republican Candidates Crazy or Just Cynical About the Debt Ceiling?

It has been the duty of every economics reporter of late to explain how a failure to raise the federal debt ceiling by the August 2 deadline would have disastrous, far-reaching consequences, so I won’t rehash them all here. The basic take away is that the US government would stop paying either its creditors or its beneficiary recipients. The result would be massive pain for the recipients of federal spending, such as the elderly, cash flow problems for government contractors, panic in the bond markets, higher interest rates and economic collapse.

It is precisely because the results would be so terrible that President Obama knows he cannot allow this to happen and Republicans have so much leverage to impose their unwise and unpopular program of fiscal austerity on the American public by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling. So you would think that anyone who wishes to one day assume the responsibilities of the Oval Office would share Obama’s concern and oppose such reckless behavior. But you’d be wrong. Instead the Republican candidates for president, including possible candidate Sarah Palin, say they oppose raising the debt ceiling.

Taken at their word—which of course they shouldn’t be—most of the Republican candidates are not just saying they would like a deficit reduction deal to be part of the debt ceiling vote. They are actually saying that the optimal outcome is no debt ceiling increase. This is an important distinction. The relatively mainstream Republican position—that the debt ceiling should be raised in conjunction with a debt reduction package and not raising it is the fall back option if a deal cannot be passed—is silly enough: raising the debt ceiling is required by past actions, such as George W. Bush’s tax cuts and multiple Asian land wars. But it is less crazy than saying that the debt ceiling simply should not be raised and a massive deal to cut spending is actually their second choice. But that’s the stance many Republican presidential candidates are taking. Tim Pawlenty told Iowa voters, "I hope and pray and believe they should not raise the debt ceiling. These historic, dramatic moments where you can draw a line in the sand and force politicians to actually do something bold and courageous are important moments.” The pound of flesh Pawlenty demands for raising the debt ceiling, and reluctantly at that, is a balanced budget amendment. Palin told Newsweek that we should simply not raise the debt ceiling and avoid defaulting on our debt by focusing on paying off the debt first and cutting all other spending to the amount of revenue we have. Meanwhile Representative Michele Bachmann has promised to not vote for any debt ceiling increase unless it contains a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. And a pony. Pawlenty and Bachmann both failed to answer an inquiry as to why they would prefer no debt ceiling increase to making a deal.

Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman say that raising the debt ceiling should happen only in conjunction with a major reduction in projected deficits. Both avoided answering a query as to whether the House Republicans’ recent refusal to any increase in revenue expenditures as part of such a deal is a wise move. Romney said through a spokesperson, "A vote on raising the debt ceiling has to be accompanied by a major effort to restructure and reduce the size of government.”

It’s especially disheartening to watch the behavior of Huntsman, Pawlenty and Romney, who portray themselves as serious about governing. Should one of them become president and, like Obama, inherit a struggling economy with foreign occupations requiring increased deficit spending, will they rue the precedent they have set: that routine government business, and by extension the whole American government and economy, can be held for ransom? In fairness, such myopia when running for president is a bipartisan problem. In 2006, then-Senator Obama voted against raising the debt ceiling under President Bush. But there was a crucial difference: the Democrats were casting a purely symbolic vote to protest the Bush administration’s policies. They did not actually filibuster the debt ceiling increase. Today Senate Republicans threaten to filibuster a debt ceiling vote that does not meet their specifications and House Republicans threaten to vote the debt ceiling increase down. And the Republican candidates for president encourage this behavior, with some even staking out more extreme positions. What’s unclear is whether this shows that they don’t care about the American economy, or they are just cynically playing to their base, confident that House Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell will do the dirty work of cutting a deal with President Obama. And it’s hard to say which answer is scarier.

Why I'm Boycotting Major League Baseball's All-Star Game in Arizona

Over the last year, civil rights organizations, politicians, sportswriters and baseball players have asked Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to move Tuesday’s 2011 All-Star Game out of Arizona. He chose not to listen and now I choose not to watch. If I lived within a day’s travel of Arizona, I’d be choosing to protest at the stadium gates. Ever since Arizona passed its darkly punitive racial profiling law SB 1070, thousands of people have pleaded with Selig to do the right thing and move the game. Baseball is 27.7 percent Latino. It’s a sport dependent on Latin American talent from the baseball academies of the Dominican Republic to today’s biggest stars, Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez. Even more, Major League Baseball has prided itself—and marketed itself—on historically being more than just a game. Bud Selig, in particular, is a man who publicly venerates the game’s civil rights tradition. Jackie Robinson’s number is retired and visible in every park and the great Roberto Clemente in death has become a true baseball saint. But Selig’s inaction makes his tributes to the past look as hollow as Sammy Sosa’s old bat.

Selig clearly loves the symbolism of civil rights more than the sacrifice. The presence of the game will mean a financial windfall for the state as well as for Arizona Diamondback owner Ken Kendrick. Kendrick is a first-tier right-wing money bundler who has let the state politicians behind SB 1070 use his owner’s box for fundraisers. The game will also mean a national spotlight for the vile Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County, our twenty-first-century Bull Conner. Arpaio has been threatening to bring down his pink-clad chain gang to clean up outside the stadium.

Selig is not the only one backing down from the moment. The Major League Players Association issued a very strong statement last year against SB 1070 and hinted that a boycott might be in the cards, saying they would “consider additional measures to protect the interests of our members.” Earlier this week, after months of silence, Executive Director Michael Weiner, said, “SB 1070 is not in effect and key portions of the law have been judged unlawful by the federal courts. Under all the circumstances, we have not asked players to refrain from participating in any All-Star activities.” To say SB 1070 “is not in effect” is sophistry. Only a section of SB 1070 has been judged unlawful: the extension of police powers to demand papers without cause. Other aspects are now on the books including stiffer penalties for “illegals” and giving citizens the right to sue any city that sets up safe havens for immigrants. In addition, State Governor Jan Brewer is currently appealing the pruning of SB 1070 directly to the US Supreme Court. Also, the law has spawned copycat legislation in states around the country. My own discussions with Arizona activists tells me that racial profiling has been rampant since the law passed, with Latinos, legal and illegal, in fear to call the police or the fire department, or even attend church. Even if you agree with the Michael Weiner, as he writes that immigration matters “will not be resolved at Chase Field, nor on any baseball diamond,” the MLBPA is being remarkably cavalier about its responsibility to “protect its members.”

As for the players, a massive number are bowing out of this year’s game. Is this because of SB 1070? We don’t know, but either way a weakened product will be on display Tuesday night. If the spotlight shifts to anyone on the field, it will be centered on Boston’s All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who changed his position a year ago that he wouldn’t play if the game were in Arizona. There is a movement to have players like Gonzalez, sympathetic to the cause, to wear a ribbon or make some kind of statement. We will see if Adrian Gonzalez takes advantage of the spotlight.

But in the end, responsibility for this debacle rests with Selig. NFL owners, whom no one would confuse with the NAACP, threatened to pull the 1993 Super Bowl out of Arizona if the state continued to refuse to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday.  Now, twenty years later, baseball’s commissioner does nothing. Yes, Bud Selig would undoubtedly have received an avalanche of criticism it he had moved the game. That’s what it means to actually sacrifice something for the sake of the civil rights he claims to hold so dear. Instead, his legacy will bear another blot, joining the steroid boom, the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and the gouging of state economies with taxpayer-funded stadiums. Now Bud Selig can always be remembered as the Seinfeld of sports commissioners: the man who did nothing; the man who, with the game on the line, kept his bat on his shoulder and took a called third strike.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

True Crime for Our Times: 'People Wasn't Made to Burn'

In Ernest Mandel’s Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, the esteemed Belgian Marxist argues that the police procedural is, by its very nature, inherently right-wing. The genre, argues Mandel, is an exercise where, “Revolt against private property becomes individualized. With motivation no longer social, the rebel becomes a thief and murderer.” Modern culture has taken the “social bandit”, best exemplified by Robin Hood, and turned them into paragons of evil whose destruction is a precondition to civilization. It’s worth noting that the immensely lucrative “true crime canon” follows these same rules. Best selling books about “true crime” are tributes to single-minded police agents who take down sociopathic villains. Monsters in the countryside are slain and calm is restored.

I wish Mandel were alive so he could read Joe Allen’s astonishing “true crime” book People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago (Haymarket Books). I hope it would have compelled Mandel to reconsider what the political trajectory and potential of the true crime story can be. I know, as someone who consumes these books like salted cashews, it has for me.

A former Teamster shop steward and Chicago socialist, Allen is no typical true-crime writer. He’s an activist, an advocate and a sort of “people’s detective.” In these unconventional hands, People Wasn’t Made to Burn does nothing less than reinvent the true-crime genre. Instead of being a morality play of good individual vs. evil, Allen, using a raft of primary research, explores a much broader set of crimes. Allen doesn’t indict an individual, inasmuch as he indicts the more shadowed Jim Crow laws that ruled the North. He indicts the horrific housing conditions in post-war Chicago and, finally, a criminal justice system that focuses on individual crimes while systemic ones go unpunished.

The true-crime under exploration is the case of James Hickman. Hickman, a father and laborer, murdered his unarmed landlord, David Coleman, in full view on a Chicago street. On trial and facing the gallows, the reasons for Hickman’s crime spread quickly across the Windy City. Four of Hickman’s children had just burned to death in a fire at Hickman’s building while he was working the night shift. Before this unspeakable tragedy, Coleman had threatened, as was common practice, to force every resident out of the building, even “if it takes fire.” James and his wife Annie Hickman had been complaining about the terrible conditions and Coleman, who was also African-American, said that if they took their grievances to the authorities, “I have a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up.” Allen recounts in painstaking detail, the night of the fire. He takes you inside the subhuman conditions of a rat-infested Chicago “kitchenette apartment.” As the great author of Native Son, Richard Wright, once wrote, “The kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial.” For the Hickman family, it really was a death sentence, impossible to escape once Coleman decided to smoke them out.

Allen makes you see the fire through the eyes of James Hickman, returning home on a darkened Chicago street amidst the crowds of onlookers, trying to figure out which of his children had escaped and which had died.

As he said to his son a few weeks later, “Paper was made to burn, coal and rags, not people.… People wasn’t made to burn.”

After receiving no justice for the murder of his children, Hickman took matters into his own hands, and jolted an entire city. Prosecutors wanted the high-profile defendant to suffer. Hickman faced a decade behind bars or execution in the electric chair. Black men shooting landlords was not to define post-war America. It looked like James Hickman was on an express train to the gallows. But here is where the second part of Allen’s story kicks into gear. Hickman became a city-wide cause for an angered populace. Their ranks included pastors, trade unionists. socialists, musicians and even movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead. The great artist Ben Shahn did a series of drawings about the case, which appear throughout the book.

On the trial’s first day, local United Auto Workers leader Willoughby Abner told a throng of reporters:

“Although James Hickman stands in the defendant’s dock today, it is society that is really on trial. Society has created the conditions making Hickman cases and Hickman tragedies inevitable. Society is unconcerned about the loss of Hickman’s children; unconcerned about the miserable housing conditions that Hickman and his family of nine had to live under. The same government which failed to heed the need of Hickman and millions of other Hickmans is now trying to convict Hickman for its own crimes, its own failures.”

This was a civil rights movement before civil rights. It’s also a story that upturns the common American narrative that these battles took place first south of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s a hidden history that makes the story feel both revelatory and dangerous. This is a “true crime” book where readers are forced to confront the nature of crime. It’s a history that could have been forgotten. Allen has rescued a part of our social history, which on its own is an impressive accomplishment. He has turned the true-crime genre upside down, which also is a fantastic feat. But by the book’s end, Allen relates the Hickman case to our own troubled times. “The new normal” that comprises our own twenty-first-century housing crisis means that our world is producing more David Colemans and, potentially, more James Hickmans. Like all true-crime books, the story serves as a warning; except this time, the warning isn’t directed at the reader.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Sky Falling, Murdoch Sacks Hacks. Game Over?


Rupert Murdoch may have finally gone too far. For decades the billionaire media baron has relentlessly amassed power on three continents. But it is worth recalling that his first move out of his native Australia—and out from under the shadow of his father, newspaper magnate Sir Keith Murdoch—came in 1969, when he snatched a very downmarket British Sunday title, the News of the World, away from Robert Maxwell. (Maxwell’s fraudulent dealings were still unsuspected, but his Czech Jewish origins were held against him by the paper’s editor, who remarked that the News of the World “was—and should remain—as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.”) In considerable decline from its heyday in the 1950s, when it sold over 8 million copies, the paper Murdoch acquired relied on a mix of kiss and tell stories—the News of the World bought Christine Keeler’s account of her involvement in the Profumo Scandal—and “investigations” of London vice dens, with the exposé typically ending with the line “I made my excuses and left.” 

But it was still the biggest-selling English language paper in the world, and though Murdoch steered it even deeper into sleaze—earning him the nickname “the Dirty Digger”—the News of the World and its weekday stablemate, the Sun, which he acquired a year later, supplied the steady profits that enabled Murdoch to build his British empire. (In 2010, a terrible year in the newspaper business, the two titles reported a profit of £86 million.) So there was something not just shocking but brutal about James Murdoch’s announcement that “this Sunday will be the last issue” of the 168-year-old paper.

The immediate cause of the paper’s demise was public revulsion in Britain to the news that News of the World reporters had hacked into the mobile phone messages of Milly Dowler, a 13-year-old girl who was abducted on her way home from school in March 2002, but whose body wasn’t discovered for another six months. Guardian reporter Nick Davies’s disclosure that the News of the World had not only listened to messages left by Milly’s frantic friends and family but had deleted messages from her voice mailbox to keep the supply coming—creating false hope for the girl’s family and possibly destroying evidence—sparked a boycott of the paper’s advertisers and widespread denunciation. Prime Minister David Cameron condemned the hacking as “dreadful,” Labour Party leader Ed Miliband called for Rebekah Brooks, a Murdoch executive who was editor of the News of the World when the murdered teenager’s phone was hacked, to resign. The Royal British Legion, the country’s largest veterans’ organization, announced it was cutting its ties with the paper after reports emerged suggesting that the phones of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan had also been hacked. Even Rupert Murdoch described the mounting scandal as “deplorable and unacceptable.”

Behind the wave of sentiment, though, lie some significant figures: the profits of all of Murdoch’s papers put together are a tiny fraction of the £6 billion in revenues from Sky, his British satellite broadcaster. Ever since News of the World reporter Clive Goodman and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire first pleaded guilty in 2007 to hacking into the mobile phone accounts of members of the royal family, Murdoch’s actions have had a single aim: to contain the damage so that he can proceed with his plan buy the 60 percent share of British Sky Broadcasting he doesn’t already own. For a while it even looked like he might succeed. Despite dogged reporting by the Guardian and the New York Times, the rest of the media showed little interest. But the slow drip of celebrity hacking victims eventually brought a wave of lawsuits; each lawsuit prompted the disclosure of new documents; each set of documents revealed a culture of lawlessness and invasion of privacy targeting not just the usual boldface names but the kind of people who read the Sun, watch Sky and vote Conservative.

When Labour MP Tom Watson, himself a hacking victim, called for Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB to be blocked, nobody cared. But when Zac Goldsmith, a Tory MP whose father was a bare-knuckled corporate operator and whose grandfathers were both Tory MPs, rose in the House of Commons and said that Murdoch’s organization “has grown too powerful…. It has systematically corrupted the police and has gelded this parliament, to our shame,” it was a sign that the political weather was changing. By Thursday David Cameron announced two new investigations, and by Friday it emerged that government approval of the BSkyB takeover, once seen as inevitable, has now been deferred until at least September.

Cameron’s moves may have been an attempt to deflect attention from the arrest on Friday morning of Andy Coulson, the Prime Minister’s former director of communications, who'd resigned as editor of the News of the World when Goodman and Mulcaire were convicted, but who always claimed to have no knowledge of what they’d been up to. Coulson is accused of approving hundreds of thousands of pounds in payments to police officers in exchange for confidential information.

There is no doubt that Murdoch has been seriously damaged by all of these disclosures. It has often been said of Murdoch that the only thing he cares about is his share price. Events over the past week wiped some $2.5 billion off the value of News Corporation, his US-based holding company. But there is still every likelihood he will recoup his losses. Even closing the News of the World may turn out to be a boon, allowing him to jettison not only a toxic title but also the expense of a separate weekly paper if widely rumored plans for the Sun on Sunday turn out to be true.

For Americans, the real question is whether Murdoch’s political influence is on the wane. Certainly it would be pretty to think so. A world without Fox News would be a fairer (if not more balanced) world in every sense. But as the widening revelations of the phone hacking scandal show, News Corporation is not an ordinary commercial enterprise. Through his journalists and gossip columnists and the network of former and current police officers and law enforcement officials on his payroll, Rupert Murdoch has been operating what amounts to a private intelligence service. And the threat of personal exposure—on the front page of the Sun or Page Six in the Post—gives News Corporation a kind of leverage over inquisitive regulators or troublesome politicians wielded by no other company on earth.

English already has the expression “para-state” to describe the kind of shadowy forces that operate beneath and behind legitimate authority. Is it really unreasonable to suggest that in News Corp, Fox, News International, Sky and the rest of Murdoch’s empire we are witnessing the emergence of the para-corporation?

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.
Syndicate content