Activists have long criticized Walmart for failing to pay its employees living wages, and instead relying on the state to step in and pay for the healthcare and food of workers. In Canton, Ohio, another Walmart recently demonstrated this kind of corporate welfare by holding a food drive—for its own employees.
“Please donate food items so associates in need can enjoy Thanksgiving dinner,” reads a sign accompanied by several plastic bins.
Understandably, the food drive has sparked outrage in the area.
“That Walmart would have the audacity to ask low-wage workers to donate food to other low-wage workers—to me, it is a moral outrage,” Norma Mills, a customer at the store, told the Plain Dealer.
A company spokesman defended the drive, telling the Plain Dealer it is evidence that employees care about each other. And it’s a good thing they care about their fellow workers because Walmart certainly doesn’t care about its employees.
In the wake of the Ohio Walmart food drive story, Strike Debt, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, raised on interesting question on Twitter: “Why not just pay a living wage?”
Stephen Gandel, a senior editor at Fortune, recently penned an op-ed in which he argued Walmart could afford to give its employees a 50 percent raise without negatively affecting shareholders.
I called a couple of really smart economists to get it “peer”-reviewed. Sendhil Mullainathan, who teaches at MIT and received a MacArthur genius grant for his work in behavioral economics a few years ago, said he basically came to a similar conclusion as mine a few years ago. He says companies have more discretion in setting wages then they let on. “Really the question is not whether this is possible but why some companies don’t do it [this way],” says Mullainathan.
Wal-Mart didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Workers have already announced plans for “widespread, massive strikes and protests” on Black Friday at Walmarts this year, but smaller, isolated protests have continued to erupt all across the country even before the holiday shopping season.
Randall Lewis, 24, has been working at a Chicago Walmart for about a year. Lewis participated in last week’s strike that involved three Chicago store locations.
“Sometimes I have to borrow money. Sometimes, if I don’t have money for deodorant, I have to ask my grandmother for some money. Going to the doctor is expensive because I have to go to a clinic, and if I go to the dentist, it’s expensive,” he says.
Lewis expressed disillusionment with Walmart, a company he once saw as a reliable way to make a living.
“They sell you a bill of dreams, telling you you can be promoted, but if you’re not kissing up to the right person, to the right manager, they will walk right past you like you don’t exist.”
He also suspects the company has nefarious motives for reducing employee hours.
“I worked forty hours [a week], and they reduced me to thirty-two hours a week. I think they reduce the hours to avoid paying us health benefits.”
In 2011, Walmart substantially rolled back coverage for part-time workers and significantly raised premiums for many full-time staff, citing “rising costs.” The decision had an immediate, and detrimental, effect on Walmart stores. By largely using part-time staff, the company was unable to keep its shelves stocked, and began to lose customers, so they decided to add more full-time workers for the holiday shopping season this year.
Walmart workers continue to demonstrate extraordinary bravery by striking all across the country, even though the company has demonstrated a habit of retaliating against staff’s attempts at collective organizing.
For his part, Lewis says he is willing to take that risk:
“I was afraid that they might retaliate, but the one thing I’ve learned is, if I don’t stand up for what I believe in, nothing will be done. I’m doing something that could help me and my co-workers get a liveable wage, healthcare, the respect that we deserve.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the Walmart was in Cleveland, Ohio.
Nation contributor John Nichols appears on the Ed Show to discuss public support for raising the minimum wage.
November 19 marks what would have been the fiftieth birthday of Len Bias, the University of Maryland’s galactically talented power forward who died at the age of 22 of a heart arrhythmia related to the ingesting of cocaine. His death came two days after being picked second by the Boston Celtics in the 1986 NBA draft. Never in the history of sports has so much potential been extinguished with such swift cruelty.
Athletes and other cultural figures in the prime of life have died before and since. But the memory of Len Bias still has the power to make grown adults feel numb like it’s happening all over again: a moment where the world as we knew it changed and something we did not even identify as innocence died in an instant.
Understanding the impact of Bias’s death starts by understanding Bias on the court. His abilities were magnetic. Bias was the genetic splicing of Doctor J and Charles Oakley: a high flying, muscle bound, talent who made you feel like you were watching a sneak preview into the game’s future. During his time in the ACC, it was common to refer to Bias as the most physically gifted player in the conference: the second, being that kid from North Carolina, Michael Jordan. Take a moment, watch these highlights and just notice where Les Bias’s head resides, relative to the rim. This was simply something we had not yet seen.
For basketball lovers, his death was the asphyxiation of a limitless potential, and to quote Bethlehem Shoals’ words on Lebron James, “an American Dream that most of us are too bashful to even dream of.” Now that I live fifteen minutes from where Len Bias went to college at UMD and ten minutes from his High School, Northwestern, I have also learned that his death crushed the heart of an entire community. Len Bias was the kid from Landover who never left Prince George’s County, one of the most vital majority African-American regions in the country. PG County is the only municipality in the United States that went from majority white to majority black while rising in per capita income and education. Len Bias was not only going to rep that to the world, he told everyone that he would be bringing them along for the ride.
The shock of Len Bias’s death is the only way to understand how, after one tragic night, he became a one person “shock doctrine”, and inexorably changed the conversation of how the United States dealt with illegal drugs. “The shock doctrine” is Naomi Klein’s theory about how “shocks” like tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes open the door for radical right-wing reforms that people would reject if they were not in a state of mental disarray over the destruction of their lives. Len Bias’s death had a similar effect.
When Bias died, as longtime Washington Post sports columnist Michael Wilbon wrote in 2009, “I never again mocked Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug efforts, not when even a Len Bias could be struck dead.”
Masses of people were inclined to agree. The problem was that Nancy Reagan’s “anti-drug efforts” involved a shift toward criminalizing the poorest sections of our cities. Instead of speaking about drug addiction as a medical issue, it became a criminal justice issue. Instead of selling drugs being seen as an economic survival imperative of communities left behind by the “Reagan Revolution”, it became seen as an act that demanded a military response with those on street corners seen as enemy combatants. And no one wanted to talk about how the drugs came into the communities in the first place.
It might be hard for people under 25 to even understand our ignorance and fear, but we really thought that there would be graveyards of people, from little kids to star athletes, dying after their first snort of cocaine or their first puff of crack, and there was federally approved school curriculum carrying that very message. In 1988, the US Congress even passed the bi-partisan Anti-Drug Act, known as “The Len Bias Law.” It created more mandatory minimums for drug offenders, expanded police arresting powers, and poured more money into the DARE program at schools. I remember DARE and being told about my duty to turn in my parents if I ever saw them with “illegal drugs.” Fortunately for them, I never caught them because at age 11, with Len Bias’s death on my mind, I think I was ready to do it.
We seem to be waking up from this nightmare, at least rhetorically, but even with more people recognizing that the expansion of the prison system to swallow non-violent drug offenders has created a “New Jim Crow” and even with more states adopting more sane approaches to marijuana, the war on drugs plods along. Today in the DC area that Len Bias called home, black men are eight times more likely than whites to get stopped and arrested on suspicion of marijuana possession. Len Bias’s death was an unspeakable tragedy. What people in power have done with his memory has metastasized that tragedy beyond comprehension.
Liliana Segura asks why non-violent offenders should face life in prison.
One of the byproducts of recent events in the Middle East is the return of Russia to a prominent role across the region. Not that Russia ever left, but it has been a principal goal of successive US administrations to push first the Soviet Union and then Russia back. In the 1950s and 1960s that took the form of a series of political and military alliances, including NATO (which included Turkey) and the Baghdad Pact and CENTO (including variously Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan). More recently, the United States has tried to expand NATO eastward along Russia’s southwest flank, including Ukraine and Georgia. And the invasion of Iraq and the bombing of Libya deprived Russia of important partners, in fields as varied as energy and arms sales.
Not so much anymore. Russia has come roaring back. However, although hawks and neoconservatives will make noises about President Obama’s inability to block Russia’s Middle East resurgence, it could be a good thing if it leads to greater US-Russian cooperation in conflicts such as the civil war in Syria, the Iran nuclear standoff, Afghanistan, and the war against Al Qaeda.
The latest news on the Russia–Middle East front is the visit last week of Russia’s foreign minister and defense minister to Egypt. According to AFP:
Russia is offering to sell Egypt modern helicopters and air defense systems in a landmark deal reportedly worth $2 billion that would mark a revival of large-scale military cooperation, a Russian official said Friday.
In the same visit, there were reports that Russia and Egypt spoke about setting up a Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. The Russians say that Saudi Arabia is willing to finance the sale, which would be a stunning shift by Egypt, which has long depended on the United States and the West for its military. But the successive coups against former President Hosni Mubarak and then against President Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt’s generals has irked Washington and made Egypt resistant to both American carrots and sticks. The new turn toward Russia recalls the dramatic shift by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the mid-1950s, who turned to Eastern Europe and the USSR for arms when London and Washington sought to isolate him and topple his government.
That follows a brilliant diplomatic maneuver in August, when Russia got Syria’s commitment to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons and then invited the United States to co-sponsor the effort, thwarting Obama’s ill-conceived plan to bomb Syria in retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s use of poison gas in the war against Syrian rebels. As a result, Russia—which is Assad’s chief ally, along with Iran—is back at the center of the Syrian issue, pushing for a diplomatic solution. And all of a sudden, the military forces of the Syrian government look formidable, making major gains on the ground since May, when they recaptured a strategic town on the Syria-Lebanon border and began pushing back rebels around Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs. Assad and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin spoke by phone, and a Syrian delegation traveled to Moscow to discuss diplomacy involving the civil war and a planned peace conference in Syria. Russia has also invited the chief representative of the Syrian rebels to Moscow, too.
And Russia is at the center of the talks between Iran and the P5+1 world powers, including the United States, which are on track later this week to create an interim accord of so-called “confidence-building measures” (CBMs) toward a final agreement in six months or so.
Russia’s increased role can be seen in its efforts to build closer ties to Israel and its efforts to sell weapons to Iraq and the Persian Gulf states, too. Last year, says the BBC, “Baghdad has signed major deals for Russian air defence systems and combat helicopters, beating off European competitors.” And, while plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia haven’t materialized yet, on Sunday King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Putin spoke by phone. The BBC adds that the United Arab Emirates, another Arab oil kleptocracy, is improving its Russia ties:
Over the last two decades there has been an enormous influx of Russian visitors and residents to the UAE and one very senior member of the ruling family has such a close working relationship with President Putin they go shooting together in the Russian woods.
None of this ought to be alarming, but it does mean that Obama ought to redouble efforts to work with Russia on regional problems.
Bob Dreyfuss looks into the disruptive role the French are playing in negotiations with Iran.
Sorry, US Senator Marco Rubio and US Senator Rand Paul and US Senator Ted Cruz.
Sorry, US Representative Paul Ryan, the former favorite son of Wisconsin Republicans.
But Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says the next Republican nominee for president “should either be a former or current governor.” After all that shutdown trouble, the party’s candidate is going to have to be “somebody who’s viewed as being exceptionally remote from Washington.”
And sorry, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Scott Walker may have a kind word for you, but he says the GOP’s 2016 candidate must be someone who has “taken on big reforms.”
Indeed, sorry, any Republican who is not named “Scott Walker,” but Scott Walker thinks the Republicans are going to need to turn to someone like, um, Scott Walker.
That was the takeaway from Walker’s interviews as he launched the book that is supposed to launch his presidential run, Unintimidated: A Governor’s Story and a Nation’s Challenge.
Walker did not actually announce his candidacy on Sunday’s edition of ABC’s This Week. But as ABC’s Jonathan Karl explained: “When Walker talks about the kind of candidate Republicans should nominate in 2016, it sounds more than a little like he is talking about himself.”
The Wisconsin governor did nothing to stifle speculation.
Despite repeated prompting from ABC’s Karl, Walker refused to commit to serve out the second gubernatorial term that he is expected to seek in 2014—presumably on the bold assumption that said term could interfere with a move to the White House in 2017.
Even as he stumbled around inevitable questions, Walker was sounding like a presidential prospect.
Unfortunately for the most ambitious Republican in a very ambitious Republican field, Walker’s book does not exactly make him sound presidential.
It is not merely that the book—like the ABC interview—is absurdly self-promotional. After all, books issued by potential bidders for the presidency are campaign documents.
It is not that the book’s recounting of events in Wisconsin has been called into question by the people who were there. Or that the chronicling of discrepancies in the book has provided Wisconsin journalists with steady work.
What most undermines Unintimidated—and, with it, Walker’s presidential bid—is the governor’s failure to bring a seriousness to the task of addressing his most troubling, and potentially damaging, missteps. He admits to making mistakes. However, instead of dealing forthrightly with unsettling aspects of his record, Walker tries to write around them—often in the clumsiest of ways.
Take, for instance, the governor’s recollection on the February 2011 telephone conversation in which he was recorded casually discussing the idea of using agents provocateurs to stir up trouble at peaceful mass demonstrations to protest his assault on labor rights for public employees.
By most measures, it was a embarrassing episode.
But the governor makes the episode all the more embarrassing by writing in 2013 that he never considered what in 2011 he certainly seemed to say that he had considered.
In the book he hopes will make him a competitor for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, Walker claims that “we never—never—considered putting ‘troublemakers’ in the crowd to discredit the protesters.”
That is what Walker must write if he wants to make a play on the national political stage. It is difficult to imagine that someone who toyed with the ideas employing deliberate provocations as a political tool— in order to create a false impression of citizens who are exercising First Amendment rights to assembly and petition for the redress of grievances— would be taken seriously as a potential commander in chief.
The problem, of course, is that what Walker is now saying conflicts with what he was saying in private and public two and a half years ago.
The issue first arose in February of 2011, several days after mass demonstrations began at the state Capitol. The demonstrations were nonviolent and well organized. Top law enforcement officers for the region—Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney and Madison Police Chief Noble Wray—praised the protesters for keeping things civil, despite the intensity of the issues that had been raised by Walker’s proposal to eliminate essential workplace protections and collective-bargaining rights for public employees and public school teachers.
The Madison Police Department even went so far as to issue a formal statement that concluded: “Crowd behavior has been exemplary, and thousands of Wisconsin citizens are to be commended for the peaceful ways in which they have expressed First Amendment rights.”
Yet, when Walker thought he was talking to billionaire conservative campaign donor David Koch, the caller (actually blogger Ian Murphy) said: “What we were thinking about the crowds was, uh, was planting some troublemakers.”
Walker replied: “We thought about that.”
The trouble with the strategy, the governor explained, was that it might not play well politically. “My only fear would be is if there was a ruckus caused is that that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has gotta settle to avoid all these problems,” he explained during the course of the call.
“I think there’s a serious issue there,” she said back in 2011. “That’s a public safety issue. And I think that is really troublesome: a governor with an obligation to maintain public safety says he’s going to plant people to make trouble. That screams out to me. For a governor even to consider a strategy that could unnecessarily threaten the safety of peaceful demonstrators—which the governor acknowledged he did—is something that simply amazes me.”
Walker repeatedly acknowledged after the “Koch call” was made public that he considered employing agents provocateurs to stir up trouble and discredit the demonstrators. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a newspaper that backed Walker for governor in 2010 and refused to support his recall in 2012, pointed out after reviewing the book that “in a news conference held the day the prank call was released, Walker said the idea had been debated, adding, ‘We dismissed that and said that wasn’t a good idea.’”
The Journal Sentinel noted with regard to the governor’s current claim: “His book does not explain why he spoke about it that way with reporters if such a plan had never been entertained.”
As it happens, the governor was even more explicit in discussing his political calculations when he went on Fox News on February 23, 2011, to discuss the prank call.
When Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren pressed Walker on the question of whether he and his aides had considered employing agent provocateurs to play “dirty tricks in the crowd,” he openly discussed the matter— going so far as to explain: “I even had lawmakers and others suggesting riling things up.”
The governor said that, ultimately, he rejected the idea. But instead of expressing moral outrage at the prospect that “riling things up” might create a dangerous circumstance for crowds that included children, elderly folks and people with disabilities, the governor again appeared to make a political calculation. Stirring up trouble, Walker told the Fox host, “adds no value.”
As some point, someone must have explained to Walker that his acknowledgment of the discussions about employing troublemakers, and of his political calculations regarding the strategy, would not play well nationally.
So now he’s claiming that he “never—never—considered” what in 2011 he said he and his aides “thought about.”
The governor’s apologists will surely continue to cut him slack on this one. But if and when Walker mounts his presidential run, this is an issue he will eventually find himself revisiting.
It is not just the matter of the conflicting claims and statements. There is also the question of what the governor really thinks about using agents provocateurs to “rile things up” at otherwise peaceful protests.
After the transcript of the prank call was made public in 2011, then Madison Police Chief Wray said: “I would like to hear more of an explanation from Governor Walker as to what exactly was being considered, and to what degree it was discussed by his Cabinet members. I find it very unsettling and troubling that anyone would consider creating safety risks for our citizens and law enforcement officers.”
Scott Walker may think he is the ideal candidate for president.
But ideal candidates don’t talk about “planting some troublemakers” to try and besmirch peaceful protests against their policies.
Ideal candidates simply say it is wrong to speak of such things—even when prodded to do so by someone they think is a billionaire campaign donor.
John Nichols makes the case for an Elizabeth Warren 2016 presidential run.
Searching for more information on a New York–based journalist named “Albert Canus”—who the State Department had singled out to the FBI as a habitual filer of “inaccurate reports which are unfavorable to the public interest of this country”—J. Edgar Hoover closely studied Hannah Arendt’s essay “French Existentialism” in the February 23, 1946, issue of The Nation—one of the first descriptions in the American press of the philosophical phenomenon then sweeping through Europe. It would be interesting to know what Hoover made of such passages as the one where Arendt explained the existentialists’ objections to bourgeois notions of “respectability”:
The “serious” man is one who thinks of himself as president of his business, as a member of the Legion of Honor, as a member of the faculty, but also as father, as husband, or as any other half-natural, half-social function. For by doing so he agrees to the identification of himself with an arbitrary function which society has bestowed. L’esprit sérieux is the very negation of freedom, because it leads man to agree to and accept the necessary deformation which every human being must undergo when he is fitted into society.
“Deformation,” Hoover may have whispered to himself, gazing out the window. “Deformation.”
On the next page he would have read Arendt’s description of the existentialists’ “insistence upon the basic homelessness of man in the world.”
For Camus man is essentially the stranger because the world in general and man as man are not fitted for each other; that they are together in existence makes the human condition an absurdity. Man is the only “thing” in the world which obviously does not belong in it, for only man does not exist simply as a man among men in the way animals exist among animals and trees among trees—all of which necessarily exist, so to speak, in the plural. Man is basically alone with his “revolt” and his “clairvoyance,” that is, with his reasoning, which makes him ridiculous because the gift of reason was bestowed upon him in a world “where everything is given and nothing ever explained.”
“Alone with his clairvoyance” may have tossed around the Hoover mind for some time to come.
* * *
In next week’s issue, essayist, journalist and Nation contributor of several decades David Rieff reviews Margarethe von Trotta’s recent biopic, Hannah Arendt, which focuses on the events surrounding the publication of her controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). In that book, Arendt introduced the phrase “the banality of evil” to describe the defendant as a go-along-to-get-along functionary whose monstrous crimes were largely the result of unthinking conformity rather than diabolic anti-Semitism. But loyal readers of this magazine and of Arendt, as well as viewers of von Trotta’s film, are probably unaware that during her years in New York City during and immediately after World War II, Arendt contributed a series of essays to The Nation, including the one on “French Existentialism,” many of which telegraphed the themes of her later, more controversial work.
Randall Jarrell, who briefly served as interim literary editor of The Nation in 1946, was one of Arendt’s closest friends during those New York years, when she worked as an editor for Schocken Books. According to the late Arendt biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Jarrell was translating German poetry at the time, which Arendt helped him with and tried, but failed, to convince Schocken to publish. Jarrell, in turn, commissioned from Arendt a series of short book reviews on topics ranging from the songs of Robert Gilbert to her new friend Hermann Broch’s novel The Death of Virgil to the collected essays of the philosopher John Dewey. It is striking to see Arendt discuss in that last article the connection between “scientific planning” and the Holocaust—one of the major themes of Eichmann in Jerusalem—with the same kind of empathy for its victims in which she was later charged with being deficient:
Dewey earnestly holds that the source of all the social and political evils of our time is laissez faire…but a glance at today’s or yesterday’s newspaper invariably teaches us that hell can be properly established only through the very opposite of laissez faire, through scientific planning. (This, of course, does not say anything against science as such.) Even more out of tune with reality are Dewey’s complacent judgments on those evil times of the past in which men were still slaves and serfs; only a great scholar living in the ivory tower of common sense could be so completely unaware of the fact that certain categories of men today are far worse off than any slave or serf ever was. Nor do we need to evoke the extremities of the death factories. Concentration camps have outlived the downfall of the Nazi regime and are accepted as a matter of course; their inmates belong to a new class of human beings who have lost even the elementary human usefulness for society as a whole of which slaves and serfs were never deprived.
Arendt went on to take issue with the fundamental premises of Dewey’s pragmatic philosophy: namely, that the conceptual tools of science could be usefully applied to studying and improving human affairs.
The intention of this approach is certainly humanistic in essence; it tries sincerely to humanize science, to make scientific results usable for the human community. The trouble is only that, at the same time, science, and not man, takes the lead in the argument, with the result that man is degraded into a puppet which through education—through “formation of attitudes,” through “techniques for dealing with human nature”—has to be fitted into a scientifically controlled world. As though it was not man who invented science but some superhuman ghost who prepared this world of ours and only, through some incomprehensible obliviousness, forgot to change man into a scientific animal; as though man’s problem were to conform and to adjust himself to some abstract niceties. As though science could ever be more than man; and, consequently, as though such a gap between scientific and social knowledge could ever be more than wishful thinking.
Though Arendt did not again contribute to The Nation after 1946, our Books and the Arts section covered her career almost every step of the way—almost, because the controversy that raged around her “banality of evil” thesis in Eichmann in Jerusalem somehow received no notice in our pages until 1969, when in a review of another Arendt book, the late political theorist and historian Paul Roazen said Eichmann “remains a shocker—for the terrible historical tale it tells, for the trial it records, and for the viewpoint it presents.”
As with Rieff’s essay, Nation writers have always had a strikingly mixed reaction to Arendt’s books. In 1951, the historian H. Stuart Hughes—grandson of the eleventh Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—praised The Origins of Totalitarianism as “the product of a rigorously trained and scrupulously honest mind, impatient with easy explanations and verbal fluency.” A later Nation writer, Jonathan Rée, called that “a very tactful way of putting it.” Hughes continued:
It reflects the high intellectual level of the German emigration of the 1930’s, which has done American thinking an inestimable service by setting a standard that the native-born have rarely been able to match. To a reader surfeited with the vacuous rhetoric that is currently doing service as the discussion of public affairs, Dr. Arendt’s book comes as a salutary mental shock.
While Hughes went on to complain that the author’s “unitary view of the totalitarian phenomenon causes Dr. Arendt to slur over the differences” between communism and fascism, he also called Origins an “unconventional history, but…a magnificent effort of creative imagination.”
Subsequent Nation reviews, however, identified the same faults in Arendt’s writing which, as Rieff notes in his essay, invited controversy after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Reviewing 1958’s The Human Condition, British philosopher Richard Peters called Arendt’s distinction between labor and work “coarse and confused,” while the prolific Canadian historian D.J. Goodspeed took issue with “not quite faultless” logic, “mistakes in history,” and “a lack of clarity only partly attributable to her subject” in On Revolution (1963). “Not all obscurity is the result of profundity,” Goodspeed cautioned. “All too often in Miss Arendt’s book, the sluggish flow between subject and verb is diverted and the reader is left to trace as best he can a thin trickle of assertion through a flooded swampland of redundancies, appositional phrases, pronouns of indefinite antecedent and unnecessary relative clauses.”
* * *
More recent Nation articles on Arendt have focused on biographies and collections of letters published since her 1975 death. In contrast to von Trotta’s film, which Rieff says fails “to convey any sense of [Mary] McCarthy’s enormously cultivated sensibility and breadth of knowledge,” the philosopher Seyla Benhabib, in a 1995 review of Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, wrote:
Through their writing and lecturing, public participation and involvements, Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy earn their place among the few women of our tradition who have discovered, in Arendt’s words, “the joys of public life” of acting and speaking in common in a shared public sphere.
Unsurprisingly, another constant preoccupation of Nation writers regarding Arendt is her complicated lifelong relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose willful collaboration with the Nazis was known at the time but the astonishing extent of which has only come to light in recent decades. Reviewing Elzbieta Ettinger’s landmark 1995 study, Hannah Arendt / Martin Heidegger, the first book on the subject which used the long-secret correspondence between Arendt and her former lover and teacher, the critic Carlin Romano employed some amusing Heideggerian and Arendtian puns in talking about their relationship. Heidegger, Romano wrote, “made clear through a couple of notes that he had Daseins on her.” In Ettinger’s “somewhat Cosmo-ish view,” he said,
Heidegger may not have been able to put his finger on Being, but he could always make Time for Hannah. As for Arendt’s all-too-human condition of eternal loyalty, it’s simply the banality of romantic obsession.
More seriously, Romano exonerated Arendt of Ettinger’s most scathing allegation: that Arendt, motivated by lingering romantic attachments to Heidegger, willingly acted as an apologist for her mentor’s fascist sympathies as he tried to salvage his reputation after the war.
Given that she famously detested self-protecting intellectuals as a class by the time she fled Germany for Paris [in 1933], Arendt, if she was to forgive Heidegger after the war, must have seen him as different from the street-smart intellectual careerists she loathed. It is certainly possible, as Ettinger believes, that love blinded Arendt to decency when it came to Heidegger. In light of everything we know about Arendt and her work—her “genius for friendship,” her concrete acts of kindness over the years, her refugee shrewdness about people’s characters, her no-nonsense recognition of man’s weakness before temptation, her belief that one must act politically and communicate with others to solve social problems—it’s far more likely that decency, and a unique understanding of Heidegger’s flaws as a man, made it possible for her to continue to love a part of him while regretting the rest.
Ettinger’s book implies that, knowing what we know now, we should respect Arendt less. This reader, for one, respects Arendt more.
* * *
In the nearly seventy years since her own essays in our pages, the life and work of Hannah Arendt has been discussed and debated in The Nation possibly more than those of any other twentieth-century philosopher. (Exceptions might be Bertrand Russell and John Dewey, both of whom were also occasional Nation contributors.) One reason Arendt’s writing has so interested this magazine is her reflections on the relationship between philosophy and politics, which the British philosopher (and author of a book on Heidegger) Jonathan Rée discussed in a fascinating 2006 review of three posthumously published essay collections:
Arendt had a distinctly high-minded conception of politics, seeing it not as the bureaucratic administration of collective concerns or a burdensome public duty, still less as a self-interested continuation of warfare by other means. Politics for her was a precious cultural achievement rather than a regrettable social necessity, and it involved the careful maintenance of institutions that enable people to converse freely and respectfully about the world as they see it and as they would like it to be. It was essentially concerned with problems of a kind that will never have perfect solutions, and that therefore require improvisation, invention and endless critical discussion. Politics required us to set aside all sentiments of pride, indignation, shame or resentment, as well as any pretensions to superior expertise, in order to become responsive, intelligent citizens willing to negotiate all our differences on a basis of complete equality. Politics, in short, was the opposite of totalitarianism, and it depended on an open-hearted love for “human equality”—for people not in the mass or in the abstract but in the distinctness and idiosyncrasy of their lives and the infinite variety of their perceptions. It was more like a serene philosophical seminar than a self-interested struggle for power, and it was not so much a means to human happiness as the pith and substance of it.
Rée argued that was a somewhat naïve conception of politics, and that this naiveté helped explain some of Arendt’s more controversial writings, like 1959’s “Reflections on Little Rock,” which described federal attempts at desegregation of public schools as, in Rée’s words, “a fateful step…toward totalitarianism.” It does not take much to extrapolate from the last paragraph of his essay an explanation of Arendt’s problematic conclusions about Eichmann and defense of the unrepentant Heidegger:
It never seems to have occurred to Arendt that if she sniffed Platonic condescension toward politics wherever she looked, it might be because it emanated from her. If she was as keen on the purity of politics as Plato was on the purity of philosophy, it was perhaps because politics as she conceived it was little more than philosophy by another name: a gracious art of respectful, self-critical listening that must always be allowed to take its time. But politics is also about emergencies, catastrophes and deadlines, and if it embodies a set of high republican principles of the kind that Arendt championed, it also contains much else: on the one hand a mass of more or less efficient administrative routines, and on the other elements of compulsion, folly and delusion, or—as Marx would put it—of tragedy and farce. She may have been right to defend the “promise of politics” against our reckless hopes and fears; but she should also have remembered that promises are often broken.
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Bill Moyers, for his national public TV show this weekend (just posted online), explores the amazing political and cultural influence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and his “Ode to Joy” around the world, past and present. It was inspired by the new film that I’ve co-produced, directed by Kerry Candaele, Following the Ninth, and the book we wrote, Journeys With Beethoven.
Remarkably, Moyers presents almost the entire seven-minute trailer for the film, which takes you from China (and Tiananmen Square) to Chile (under Pinochet) to England to Japan and elsewhere, with a special guest appearance by Billy Bragg. Before and after the trailer, Bill offers context and some very moving words of wisdom on the meaning of the Ninth, and Beethoven’s hope-despite-struggles, for our “dark” time.
His site also includes links to one of my articles reprinted from The Nation (on China) and a collection of “Ode to Joy” flash mobs from around the globe. In other Moyers news: He announced today that his show would not end in January but continue in a half-hour version.
For much more on the film, where it's showing, reviews, and the book go here. Here’s the full segment from Moyers on The Ninth:
My new Think Again column is called “A Bully Pulpit for Billionaires” and it examines The Economist’s odd coverage of the New York City mayor’s race.
My Nation column is called “Village People” and it discusses the sequel to Game Change, Double Down and its authors’ contempt for liberals.
A few final words (I hope) about You Know What.
I am resisting the urge to delve back into the muck with regard to the Blumenthal book—recently endorsed, I see, by the website of famed neo-Nazi, David Duke—I do, however, feel a need to clarify two points that may be lost to those who are still paying attention amdist all of the hysterical (and patently false) accusations I’ve experienced as a result of my column, “The ‘I Hate Israel’ Handbook.”
1) There were no errors in my column. None. Zero. Zilch.* If there had been, The Nation would have run a correction in the magazine. It didn’t and it won’t.
2) It is nonsense to claim, as the website “Mondoweiss” did, that I publicly refused to debate Blumenthal and secretly demanded $10,000 to do so. What happened was this. Phil Weiss has been hassling me for years to debate him about Israel. I have said “no thanks” for years, but try to get him to leave me alone, I told him that if someone wanted to pay my speaking fees, I would debate anyone at all. I’m hardly afraid to debate people. I just don’t believe in giving away my time for free, especially to people like Weiss.
When the Blumenthal column came out, Phil started hassling me again. I said “no” again, adding the same conditions I had given him years ago still applied no matter who he wanted me to debate. Phil broke all the known rules of journalism by not only publishing my private responses to his entreaties when I had clearly and explicitly refused permission for this--he asked twice and I said “no” twice--but also making it appear that I had said things I clearly had not. Looking back, I don’t know why I was surprised. I do know it’s the last time I will ever answer an email from Phil Weiss.
And speaking of Jews, I love this anecdote about Norman Mailer and Philip Roth that I noticed in Andrew O’Hagen’s review of the big new Mailer bio in The London Review of Books
‘You know,’ he said, ‘when you get to my age you have to pee a lot. And there is no distance at all between knowing you want to pee and then just peeing. I was at Plimpton’s funeral in St John the Divine not long ago, and they sat me near the front, you know. Suddenly, I had to go. I knew I wasn’t gonna make it all the way down the aisle so I spotted a little side door and I got the canes and nipped in there. Halfway down the corridor, I was looking for a john and who do I see but Philip Roth. “Hey, Philip, what you doin’ here?”
“Oh, I had to pee,” Roth said.
“Happens to me all the time,” I said. “You just have to pee.” The previous week I went to see my daughter in Brooklyn and I couldn’t make it up the hill and had to stop in a telephone kiosk to pee.
“Oh, that’s happened to me,” Roth said. “I’ve done the kiosk thing.”
“Well, Phil,” I said. “You always were precocious.”’
Ladies Sing the Blues at the Allen Room @ Jazz@LC
Jacky Terrasson at Dizzy’s @Jazz@LC
Gary Clark Jr.@ the Apollo
Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings
It’s A Scream The Way Levine Does the Rhumba: The Latin-Jewish Musical Story 1940s-1960s
I try to see Catherine Russell every chance I can, sometimes in a back up roll with Steely Dan or Paul Simon, among others, but especially when she singing her own sultry stuff from way back. Last weekend at the beautiful Allen Room, she was joined by young singers Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade in an evening of tribute to the songs of Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and others called (not so imaginatively, I must say) “Ladies Sing the Blues.” The song selection leaned heavily on the salacious and the women and the crowd milked every available entendre, whether double, triple or quadruple. There were too many highlights to pick anyone out--I’ve been killing myself trying to play “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” on the guitar and here I heard it turned upside down. The accompaniment was perfect, with a number of members of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks (who also tend to show up on “Boardwalk Empire.”) All three women found nooks and crannies and the material that you might not have known were there, no matter how many times you’ve heard “Am I Blue” or “Trouble in Mind”; songs that are nearly a century old by now. I wonder what their authors would have thought had they known how fresh they could sound a century later. The blues truly are eternal.
The following night, across the hall at Dizzy’s I caught a set by pianist Jacky Terrasson, who was joined by a bass player and two percussionists. Terrasson, who grew up in Paris, won the 1993 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition and has been recording ever since. He’s proven incredibly versatile, working with in Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, and Ry Cooder and his own band. Last Saturday, he did that thing that jazz musicians do, of not saying a single word and not even really pausing between songs. The songs, though were ones you knew--from the great American songbook--or at least they started out that way--and then travelled into other spaces and places before doubling back. The double percussion provided a powerful counterpoint to Terrasson’s exquisite piano work and together, they created just the kind of hypnotic effect you get in a jazz club even without the usual stimulants. It was my first time seeing Terrasson, but he and his band are highly recommended if you like melifluous, unflashy playing and beautiful noodling.
You can find the upcoming schedule for Jazz@ Lincoln Center here
It’s been hard, merely listening, to separate Gary Clark Jr. from the hype that has surrounded his rise. Before he had issued a major label album, he had already been embraced as a guitar god, first by Clapton’s Crossroads and then by the Stones and by the White House blues festival. I saw him do a solo set at Clapton’s show last year and could not get a feel for what the big deal was. The word “Hendrix” was frequently mentioned.
His album, “Blak and Blu” came out last year and last night, I caught his show at the Apollo. What he shares with Hendrix, in my view, aside from color--there are not many African-American guitar gurus once you get past the founding generations of blues-focused players-and so the comparisons are inevitable--is an addiction to power chords that tend to overwhelm the melody. But coming from Texas, it should surprise no one that his style is more Stevie Ray than Jimi. He is a comfortable front man and he does not allow his virtuosity to overwhelm the music or the rest of the band. And yes, there’s plenty of charisma. The dude can sing, too. What I wonder about--at least so far--is the material. Perhaps it’s me, but I’m not feeling it yet. There’s another issue. After I left the show, some deep cuts from the outtakes from “Exile” and “Some Girls” came onto my Ipod and I marveled at the economy, the self-discipline and, if I may say so, the organicism of Keith’s playing--all the more powerful because its unflashy and blends into the music. Clapton’s playing is like this too. Not everyone’s is, but one gets tired of just flash and I’d like to see Clark develop in this direction; more of band man than a front-man, since the world doesn’t really need much more in the way of pyrotechnics but does need a lot more good music. The crowd sure loved him though, I’ll say that. You had to stand for most of the show if you wanted to see the guy play. You can read more about Gary here.
If you’re looking for Hannukah presents to buy, here are two really, um, different suggestions.
First is the nicely compact and admirably complete Miles Davis: The Original Mono Recordings. Comprised of nine CDs in mini-LP replica jackets, it’s a perfect way to get introduced to Miles, given that it’s got the classics from the “first great quintet” at Columbia, (with John Coltrane) ’Round About Midnight, Milestones, Jazz Track, Kind Of Blue, Someday My Prince Will Come, and Miles And Monk At Newport; as well as the groundbreaking Gil Evans, albums, Miles Ahead, Porgy And Bess, and Sketches Of Spain. It’s also got two brand new albums, Jazz Track, presenting 10 improvised tracks that Miles recorded in Paris with European musicians in 1957, for director Louis Malle’s film Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (Elevator To the Gallows), plus three tracks by Miles’ own sextet in New York—featuring Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb—from their only other studio recordings of 1958, prior to the Kind Of Blue sessions in ’59; and Miles And Monk At Newport, featuring four songs recorded live by the Miles Davis Sextet at the jazz festival in 1958, followed by two classics recorded at the festival in 1963 by the then-newly-signed Thelonious Monk Quartet. And it’s not that expensive.
At the other end of the world from Miles is handsome set of two cds and lots of historically minded liner notes called It’s A Scream The Way Levine Does the Rhumba: The Latin-Jewish Musical Story 1940s-1960s. It’s the 2014 annual release from the nonprofit Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a small, all-volunteer non-profit organization who work hard to preserve this kind of thing and spread the joy it inspires. They can describe it better than I can:
“The sweaty mambo dance-floors of the legendary Palladium nightclub. The weekend Borscht Belt ballrooms of the Catskills hotels. The bar mitzvah bandstands of Brooklyn. The Fania All-Stars stages of the Cheetah and Yankee Stadium. The pianos of the Brill Building. The bullrings of Tijuana. The confluence of Jewish and Latin cultures expressed in music is what you’ll find here, featuring legendary names like Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz, Herb Alpert, Carole King, Tito Puente to name a few.
Welcome to one of the great unsung currents of American pop music: the forgotten musical mash-up of Latin and Jewish, bagels and bongos, Spanish and Yiddish, manteca and schmaltz, that’s been a bubbling undercurrent of American pop music since the early 1900s. It’s a story full of Jewish mambo dancers, Jewish salsa greats, beloved sidemen, and record label chiefs on the one hand, and Latino bandleaders, singers, composers, and entrepreneurs on the other.”
Outsourcing Accountability to the Political Opposition: The Beltway Media’s Agency Problem
by Reed Richardson
There’s a term in poker for having a strong hand and nevertheless losing due to an unfortunate, last-minute turn of the cards: “bad beat.” And after two big stories unexpectedly blew up this past week, folks at CBS News might be cursing their luck.
On Sunday, Lara Logan of “60 Minutes” was forced to air a 90-second correction that effectively undermined most of her yearlong, blockbuster story that alleged a flawed administration response to the 9/11/12 terrorist attack on the U.S. Benghazi Consulate. Logan’s primary source for the story, it turned out, is a self-aggrandizing fabulist. Three days later, CBS Evening News reporter Sharyl Attkisson’s supposed exposé on the security risks inherent to the troubled Healtcare.gov website unraveled too. In this case, the key piece of evidence, a leaked, “partial transcript” of Congressional testimony, proved to be flagrantly and deceptively edited to make the White House look bad.
But rather than dig into why these embarrassing mistakes occurred, CBS News seems fine with chalking them up to isolated failures of judgment and move on. For example, Attkisson, as of this writing, has issued no correction to her misleading report, and Logan’s on-air admission of error represented but the bare minimum of disclosure that should occur when a story of this magnitude blows up. (The network has announced it is conducting an internal “journalistic review” of what went wrong with the Benghazi report, but it’s worth noting that the person most likely to lead such an investigation, Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News, does double duty as the executive producer of “60 Minutes.) Meanwhile, there’s been no public talk from CBS News of firing or even disciplining anyone connected to either story. As I said, bad beats, I guess, better luck next time.
Except, of course, this isn’t just about CBS News and this isn’t about journalistic misfortune. Indeed, the establishment press in New York and Washington consistently make these same mistakes. Time and again, whether it’s the New Black Panthers, Solyndra, Fast and Furious, IRS audits, Benghazi, or nearly anything related to Obamacare, the presidential scandals hyped by the Beltway conventional wisdom amount to little more than busted flushes, gut-shot straights…a whole lotta nothing. Initial, ominous reports about broad conspiracies and rampant abuse of White House power inevitably collapse into banal examples of governmental friction and democratic messiness. And no sooner does one phony crisis deflate and flutter harmlessly off the front pages before another one pops up to replace it. So, what’s really going on here?
Certainly, there are many mechanistic factors contributing to this continual, Cassandra-like coverage of President Obama, from the voracious 24/7 news cycle and its rampant obsession with scooplets to the industry-wide denuding of journalistic resources and staff. However, the root cause of this behavior, I believe, stems from a press corps that has broadly conflated its efforts at impartial, accountability journalism with the partisan goals of the Republican Party. I’m not claiming individual members of the mainstream media possess an inherent, ideological right-wing bias that they are intentionally pushing into the news. But when the media, as a whole, routinely lets the political opposition serve as its proxy for setting the news agenda, the coverage provided to the public will naturally bend toward an inherent, practical right-wing bias.
On its face, this assertion seems counter-intuitive. How can striving even harder at being neutral exacerbate the partisan effect of one’s reporting? The devil is, of course, in the details. The modern conventional wisdom on objectivity effectively rewards a kind of institutional timidity and intellectual false equivalence—that is, it’s not the press’s job to tell us who is wrong or right, it’s merely their job tell us who says they’re wrong or right. As a result, the media increasingly has no agency in our democracy, no real role as an independent actor correcting and guiding the discourse. Instead, it now seeks to launder all arguments and judgments on an issue through external sources or political parties.
Dartmouth professor of government Brendan Nyhan gets at what I’m calling the media’s abdication of agency in a recent essay at the Columbia Journalism Review. “Skeptical reporting depends on the combination of technical policy critiques and attention from opposition elites. If either component is absent, journalists are all too likely to miss the story,” he writes. “The press often takes its cues about the flaws in a policy from the opposition party, which is part of a pattern of indexing coverage to the range of debate among political elites.” And when the party opposing the president has adopted a nihilistic, post-policy approach to governance, it’s no coincidence the press finds itself obsessed with process and blowing up at every little perceived slight by the White House.
This close marrying of the press’s accountability agenda with that of the Republican opposition’s political agenda has a doubly deleterious effect on our democracy. For one, it promotes a ridiculousboom-and-bust cycle of phony scandals that undermines the media’s reputation as an honest, accurate broker of debate in our democracy. When the only things fueling a DC scandal are Republican outrage and media oxygen, it’s no surprise, then, that said scandal coverage is swiftly snuffed out when the GOP talking points fizzle.
One need only look at Attkisson’s reporting over the past few years to get a clear picture of how this cycle manifests itself. Whether it’s been Fast and Furious, green energy loans, or Benghazi, Attkisson has been a reliable conduit for the GOP’s favorite manufactured indignations. This past week’s embarrassing episode with her Obamacare exposé wasn’t even the first time she’d been publicly burned by regurgitating doctored GOP documents. She is always careful to defend her reporting as done under the banner of objectively holding the powerful accountable, but disingenuously ignores how her coverage so neatly serves as a convenient cudgel for conspiracy-minded Republicans to attack the White House. (Attkisson’s unfocused zeal for questioning authority also includes a troubling history of enabling anti-vaccine truthers.)
The aftermath of CBS News Benghazi debacle speaks to the same institutional blind spot. In the days right after her report aired, the network arrogantly ignored critical voices from the left, like Media Matters, while Logan defended the piece to the New York Times, using telling language: “We worked on this for a year. We killed ourselves not to allow politics into this report.” The mindset on display here speaks to either invidious guile or incredible naiveté. Before the president had even announced the deaths of all four Americans in the Benghazi attack, Republicans were already using the tragedy as a political attack on the president. Save for Obamacare, there might not be a morepoliticized issue in America right now. So, is it any wonder that Logan’s attempt at reporting on Benghazi without honestly addressing this overarching reality would lead her to miss the many warning signs displayed by her story’s key right-wing source?
In this case, it seems, Logan’s personal biases about the Benghazi attack likely played a role in how she reported the story as well. And while I strongly disagree with Logan’s ominous, clash-of-civilizations rhetoric, I have no problem with a professional journalist covering a topic on which they have strong opinions. That’s what editors are for, to keep those prejudices in check and tell a fair story. But as is obvious, CBS News editors also fell victim to blindly wanting the tale of administration malfeasance to be true.
Surely, not everyone at “60 Minutes” shares Logan’s worldview, so how then did such a shoddy story still get on air? No doubt the concept of sunk costs had an effect—work on anything for a year and you too would be hard pressed to honestly look for reasons why all that effort should be just cast aside. But again, I believe a subtler, pernicious bias was at work, one that is indicative of a larger, almost sub-conscious absorption of right-wing political criticism into the journalistic bloodstream. How else to explain the network’s rather bizarre dismissal of the story’s potential to harm its long-term credibility?
“Over the weekend, CBS staff members expressed confidence that the damage to ‘60 Minutes,’ while certainly the worst it has had to endure in the decade since Mr. Fager succeeded Don Hewitt as the show’s executive producer, would not be enduring. One reason is the deep reserve of good will the program has built up both with viewers and in journalistic circles. But the staff members also agreed that the program would be helped by that absence of a cause to inflame right-wing media voices, as well as by the belated effort to apologize." [italics mine]
There is a lot here to be troubled by. The network’s laughably anachronistic mindset toward its own authority as well as its viewers’ expectations of accuracy is bad enough. But to strongly imply one’s news organization is far more concerned with conservative, rather than liberal, media complaints? I mean, if that’s the takeaway CBS news bosses have from the Benghazi debacle, it’s hard to see how they aren’t further reinforcing the institutional sensitivity to right-wing rhetoric that caused the problem in the first place. Or, as NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, put it: “It is time to ask if inoculation against conservative complaints has become an action item at CBS News, leading to these dubious stories.”
This potential for bias and self-censorship leads to the other downside of the Beltway media’s fondness for right-wing accountability framing—the stories that don’t get covered. Whether it’s draconian deportation policies, immoral drone strikes, or secretive trade deals, there are plenty of legitimate policy critiques of this administration that simply never get establishment media traction because they don’t dovetail nicely with a GOP bumper sticker. The only recent major news story that has included notable left-wing critiques of the White House—about the sweeping surveillance of our national security state—required an unprecedented leak of classified NSA documents from Edward Snowden to ignite it and a steady drip of other leaks to keep it alit. Whatever one’s feelings about Snowden, even President Obama has acknowledged his leaks have spurred a valuable debate about surveillance and privacy issues. But the complex nature of the NSA story doesn’t bode well for substantive reform. That’s because, without readymade soundbites from the GOP, the process-obsessed DC press isn’t really wired to dig into the details of the issue on its own and notice the administration’s deeds often don’t match Obama’s words. But of all these instances, A similar failure by the press has occurred with Obamacare.
In his CJR essay, Nyhan focused on why the press mostly ignored the now infamous promise by Obama that: “If you like your insurance, you can keep it.” As Nyhan points out, holding such a statement up to the light of truth would have necessitated a press corps that is more than a cat’s paw for angry Republicans intent on destroying Obamacare at all costs. Back in 2009 and 2010, could a more robust, honest debate on the law’s impact on the private insurance market have prevented millions of cancellation letters? Perhaps. We’ll never know because simply passing the current law was a Herculean achievement thanks to a press corps that chose to waste much of its coverage lending legitimacy to shameful conservative myths like the “death panels” lie.
In the end, this willingness on the part of the establishment press to forego its singular role as watchdog of the president hurts more than just journalism. We are all poorer for it, as it gives undeserved attention to partisan arguments made in bad faith and overlooks substantive critiques that could make our government and country work better. Making common cause with the right-wing may seem like an effective way for the media to foster more White House accountability, but as CBS News found out this past week, that's playing in a game no amount of luck will let it win. And it brings to mind another old poker saying that the rest of the press would do well to remember the next time it thinks about sitting down with the GOP: If you look around the table and you can’t pick out who the sucker is, it’s you.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
*A later blog post about the book did have a couple of small errors, but these were entirely technical matters, including a typo and an "a" that should have been a "the," but these did not in any way affect any issues of substance with regard to my arguments or analysis of the work.
In general, I believe in forgiveness in public life. With social media and ubiquitous cameras, we’ve built ourselves a digital panopticon. Sometimes people are going to be caught at their worst, and it shouldn’t define who they are.
Still, it’s puzzling that Alec Baldwin keeps getting a pass for so frequently morphing from an urbane liberal into a raving bigot. In 2011, he complained to his Twitter followers about an “Uptight Queen barista named JAY” at a 93rd Street Starbucks; as offensive as the homophobia was the bullying of an ill-paid service worker who’d dared displease him. Then, in a confrontation earlier this year, he allegedly called a black New York Post photographer a “coon” and a “crackhead.” Just a few months ago, he went on a berserk homophobic Twitter rant against a Daily Mail reporter who had accused Baldwin’s wife of tweeting at a funeral: “I want all of my followers and beyond to straighten out this fucking little bitch, George Stark…If put my foot up your fucking ass, George Stark, but I’m sure you’d dig it too much … I’m gonna find you, George Stark, you toxic little queen, and I’m gonna fuck…you…up.”
Somehow, because he’s a charming white man with good politics, none of this seemed to touch him, and a month ago he got his own show on MSNBC, Up Late with Alec Baldwin, airing Fridays at 10 pm. Now, of course, he’s in trouble for calling a paparazzo a “cocksucking fag.” (He claims he really said “cocksucking fathead,” which would still be homophobic in the unlikely event that it were true.) Then, in a weird stunt, he dragged his hairdresser before reporters to testify to his good will towards gays, which is sort of like Republicans claiming that they can’t be racist because they love Herman Cain.
Given Baldwin’s history, this was all pretty predictable, but it puts MSNBC in a difficult spot. Had a Fox News host done what Baldwin did, MSNBC would be in full outrage mode right now; I might well be sitting in makeup at 30 Rock getting ready to join in. If the network isn’t going to fire Baldwin, it should at least take him off the air tonight. The right-wingers suddenly clutching their pearls about homophobic hate speech are obviously acting in bad faith. Still, they sort of have a point.
In the past twenty-four hours, both the White House and House Democrats have said they want an extension of unemployment benefits included in the upcoming budget deal—and now senior Senate Democratic aides close to the budget discussions have told The Nation that they are pushing for an extension as well.
The Democratic Senate negotiating team for the budget talks “would absolutely be interested in whether getting a fix would be possible in this deal,” said the aide, who also noted that naturally “the big question is whether Republicans would be open to that.” Representative Paul Ryan, who is leading the Republican negotiating team in the House, did not return a request for comment.
Without a Congressional fix, 1.3 million Americans who are long-term unemployed—meaning they’ve been out of work for six months or more—will lose access to the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. Another 850,000 would lose access in the first quarter of 2014 (chart courtesy National Employment Law Project):
The program was created in 2008 to help support Americans who remained jobless after their state unemployment funds ran out. There were 4.1 million long-term unemployed Americans in September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, higher than at any point in the Great Recession.
A fix would throw a crucial lifeline to those job-seekers, and also provide an economic return of $1.74 for every federal dollar spent. The program has been expanded or renewed eleven times since it was created—but almost always in crisis standoffs like the looming budget talks. With Democrats now unified from the White House through the two chambers, the prospects are certainly looking up—but the question is whether Republicans will go along, and at what cost.
George Zornick on how the next fiscal cliff could jeopordize the long-term unemployed.
As Congress debates an overhaul of the military justice system to stem an epidemic of sexual assault, the armed forces are struggling to conceal their own internal divisions over the scope of reform. According to a senior officer who spoke with The Nation, the military is actively encouraging service members to lobby against legislation that would curb commanders’ authority over the prosecution of sexual assault cases, while suppressing pro-reform voices within the ranks.
Asked what would happen if he advocated publicly for limiting the power of commanders, the officer, a high-level Air Force lawyer (known as a Judge Advocate General, or JAG) with decades of experience with sexual assault and other criminal cases said, “It would kill my chances of ever having a good job again… I would be ostracized.” He concluded, “It would be the end of my career.”
At issue is a proposed change to the military justice system to give military lawyers, rather than commanding officers, the power to determine whether accusations of a serious crime warrant a trial. The Senate is divided over the proposal (introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and known as the Military Justice Improvement Act, or MJIA), one of several reforms being considered. Survivors’ advocates say MJIA is critical to shield victims from retaliation, but it has elicited total opposition from the top brass, who argue that commanders’ authority to convene a court-martial is essential to their ability to maintain good order and discipline.
The JAG’s account raises the question of whether Congress has heard a representative range of military opinions as it considers historic reforms. According to the JAG, perspectives on taking prosecutions out of the chain of command are decidedly more mixed within the ranks than the brass’ testimony would suggest. As a result, he believes, the debate in Congress has been skewed.
“The people who are opposed to the Gillibrand amendment don’t understand that there is a different view within the DOD,” he told The Nation. “There is not this monolithic view that they want Congress to believe that all commanders support [preserving convening authority], at all.” But because of the strict hierarchy within the military, officers who support MJIA have not been able to make the case for reform to Congress. (At press time, the Department of Defense had not responded to inquiries from The Nation.)
Other active-duty service members are beginning to speak privately to lawmakers about the importance of MJIA, said Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network and a former Marine Corps captain. “The First Amendment is an interesting gray area when it comes to wearing a uniform,” she told The Nation. Another prominent survivors’ advocate told The Nation that “behind the scenes, many commanders support this reform.”
Already, a number of retired generals, veterans groups and the DOD’s own advisory committee on women in the services have recommended removing the decision to prosecute serious crimes from the chain of command. That has left the top brass scrambling to maintain the impression of unified opposition.
“The reason we have so many generals is not to fight a war but to keep Congress off balance,” said Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis (retired), who sent a letter of support to Senator Gillibrand, the New York Democrat working to add MJIA to the Defense Authorization Act, which will receive a vote in the Senate sometime before Thanksgiving. McGinnis, who is in contact with active-duty commanders, told The Nation that he agrees with the JAG that opposition to MJIA is not uniform throughout the ranks. “I believe there is a lot of angst at mid-level leadership, at least in the Army,” he said. He accounts the pushback from the top to “a hidden law among the military cultures: Don’t let Congress change anything. If they find out they can change one thing, they’ll be willing to change a lot more.”
As Congress debates MJIA, commanders have encouraged service members to weigh in against the measure. In October, Air Force Lt. General Richard C. Harding, the Air Force’s legal adviser, and Col. Jeffrey Rockwell sent a letter to fellow Air Force lawyers explaining the importance of the chain of command in the military justice system. “[M]any of us have engaged with members of Congress, their staffs and members of the media to teach, implore and explain the reasons, or the ‘why’ behind commanders’ authority and the current set-up of the military justice system,” Harding wrote. “Please read, absorb and share with your commanders and media types wherever you are located. This will truly make a difference.”
Susan Burke, a lawyer who has worked with several survivors of military sexual assault, asked the Air Force inspector general to investigate the letter’s authors. “General Harding and Colonel Rockwell improperly seek to use their influence as leaders in the Air Force to rally support against the political movement attempting to remove sexual assault claims from the military chain of command,” she wrote. Burke cited Air Force rules requiring members to “remain politically neutral and divorced from partisan politics” and prohibiting them from using “official authority or influence to…solicit votes for a particular candidate or issue.”
An Air Force spokesperson denied any impropriety, and said in a statement that the intent of the letter “is to ensure AF [Air Force] leaders and commanders are current on the issue and communicate it properly and clearly to interested publics, nothing more.”
The Air Force JAG who spoke to The Nation confirmed that he also had been encouraged by superiors to write editorials and otherwise argue publicly in favor of preserving commanders’ convening authority. “We’re constantly told in staff meetings and other meetings that we need to fight this, that if Gillibrand’s proposal is passed it will destroy the system,” he said. “There’s never an opportunity to give a contrary opinion.”
All of the active-duty military personnel who have testified before Congress and before the independent panel charged with recommending reforms have expressed opposition to MJIA. According to the Air Force JAG, this reflects deliberate decisions about who is sent to the Capitol. “When they send people to Congress to talk to staffers…they will only send people who support commanders in charge. They will not send anybody who disagrees with that position.”
That leaves only outside advocates and retired officers to challenge statements made by top brass, many of which have been misleading, the JAG believes. He pointed to the claim, made repeatedly by the Pentagon and Gillibrand’s opponents in the Senate, that convening authority is critical to a commander’s ability to enforce good order and discipline within the ranks. But convening authority is not always a function of command; although all commanders are responsible for good order and discipline, many already lack the power to take serious criminal cases to court martial.
“This idea that ‘oh, gosh, I can’t do my job unless I’m a convening authority,’ is laughable,” the JAG said. Brig. Gen. McGinnis agreed. “Don’t talk to me about readiness,” he said. “Once you violate the dignity of individuals in your command, your whole readiness equation starts to deteriorate. It’s like rotten apples.”
Commanders’ lack of legal experience also leaves victims and anyone falsely accused of a crime vulnerable. “We would never expect somebody who is getting medical treatment to ask your commander what kind of treatment they should get, or give commanders the authority to tell them what kind of medical treatment they get, because it’s just ludicrous. Yet when it comes to our area of expertise, the justice system, we defer to commanders in making these decisions. It makes no sense,” the JAG said.
He also pushed back against a claim made by Senator Claire McCaskill, a former civilian prosecutor, that military lawyers would shy away from tough cases out of concerns for their win-loss ratio. “In the world [McCaskill] dealt with, where these prosecutors were elected and their win-loss records are something they trumpet in the campaign, yeah, I suppose that happens,” he said. “Military prosecutors have no political motivation to avoid difficult cases [because] they don’t have to worry about elections.”
McCaskill is one of the most prominent opponents of MJIA, along with fellow Democrat and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, and Republicans Kelly Ayotte and Lindsey Graham. Gillibrand’s amendment is likely to draw a filibuster, meaning she’ll need fifty-nine supporters. So far forty-seven of her colleague have committed, including eight Republicans. Both sides are engaged in an intense campaign to win over some thirty undecided senators.
McCaskill and Ayotte have argued that “the victim community is not monolithic” in its support for MJIA. That may be true, but it appears neither is the military in its opposition.
“You know they always talk about how, you know, look how great we did with the end of segregation—yeah, because you were forced to do it,” the Air Force JAG said. “The same with this. They just resist change.”
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