Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran June 15, 2013. Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri
UPDATE—Iran’s interior ministry confirmed on Saturday that Hassan Rouhani, the standard-bearer of the reformist movement and a decided moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, will be the next president, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August. His election means big changes, and a new attitude that will eventually carry over into foreign policy.
Celebrations, including dancing in the street, greeted the announcement that Rouhani had won.
Here’s an account by the Associated Press:
Wild celebrations broke out on Tehran streets that were battlefields four years ago as reformist-backed Hasan Rowhani capped a stunning surge to claim Iran's presidency on Saturday, throwing open the political order after relentless crackdowns by hard-liners to consolidate and safeguard their grip on power.
"Long live Rowhani," tens of thousands of jubilant supporters chanted as security officials made no attempt to rein in crowds — joyous and even a bit bewildered by the scope of his victory with more than three times the votes of his nearest rival.
Saeed Laylaz, a pro-reform economist and shrewd observer of Iranian politics (who I met in Tehran in 2009, before he was arrested in the post-election crackdown), told the New York Times:
“There will be moderation in domestic and foreign policy under Mr. Rowhani. First we need to form a centrist and moderate government, reconcile domestic disputes, then he can make changes in our foreign policy.”
The paper also quotes a late-in-the-campaign speech by Rouhani, who said, “Let’s end extremism.”
He’s emerged as something of a champion of women’s rights and liberalization of the morality-police repression in the name of ultra Islam, which no doubt helped him amass a total of 50.7 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff on June 21.
ORIGINAL POST—The apparent victory by Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s presidential election yesterday is a game-changer.
As he went to the polls yesterday, here’s what Rouhani had to say:
“I have come to destroy extremism and when I see that these extremists are worried by my response and my vote I am very happy. It means that with the help of the people we can instill the appropriate Islamist behavior in the country.”
And another campaign quote from Rouhani:
“It is not that Iran has to remain angry with the United States forever and have no relations with them. Under appropriate conditions, where national interests are protected, this situation has to change.”
The results aren’t official yet, but Rouhani, who’d been endorsed by two former presidents, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami—the billionaire businessman who’d backed the reformists in 2009 and the godfather of the reformist movement—was riding an electoral wave. As the votes mounted, his total passed the critical 50 percent threshold that would avoid a runoff election next Friday. The other candidates, including a passel of conservatives supposedly including the one “anointed” by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, all had percentages in the teens or below.
So much for the idea that elections in Iran are a joke. So much for the idea that Iran’s voters were so disenchanted by the aftermath of the 2009 election that they’d boycott the vote. So much for the idea that Khamenei, insisting on the election of an ultra-conservative, would rig the vote count against Rouhani, who’d emerged as the standard-bearer for the reformist movement. So much for those analysts who argued that the Green Movement was dead and buried.
Rouhani himself is a critic of the post-2009 crackdown and he’s hinted that he’ll act to release those still held, presumably including Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the 2009 reform candidates who’s vote was hijacked by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has called for a “rights charter” and said that he’d encourage “freedom of expression, thought and discussion.”
Meanwhile, the former nuclear negotiator for Iran under President Khatami and, before that, top national security adviser to President Rafsanjani will have a chance to “reset” relations with the United States. Just as important, the emergence of Rouhani as president of Iran gives President Obama a tremendous opportunity to restart talks with Iran on a new basis; and the fact that Iran’s next president won’t be named Ahmadinejad means that all of the efforts by hawks, neoconservatives and the Israel lobby to demonize Ahmadinejad are now for naught.
Now that Rouhani might be president, it also means that many of the former officials, ambassadors and policy experts ousted by Ahmadinejad (and kept in political exile by the conservative coalition and military-dominated bloc that ruled Iran under him) can return to office.
The results, of course, have to be certified by the Interior Ministry, still under the control of Ahmadinejad. And, there’s still a chance that the Guardian Council will weigh in. But the announced results so overwhelmingly favor Rouhani that he seems locked in, and if his total falls below 50 percent he’d still be a shoo-in in a two-person runoff.
Listen, now, to the American right-wing and neoconservatives, who’ll argue that the election doesn’t matter, since Ayatollah Khamenei controls policy and decision-making. True, under the Iranian system, the supreme leader is very, very powerful. But Rouhani’s election means that there will be a new team in place, and that Khamenei will have to accommodate it. The last time a reformist was president, intended reforms—enacted by a reformist-controlled parliament—were nearly all overturned by the Guardian Council, with Khamenei’s approval. On the other hand, President Khatami, with Rouhani at the head of the nuclear negotiation team, did indeed negotiate with the European Union in good faith, and at one point (until the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005) Iran suspended the enrichment of uranium temporarily in order to help the talks succeed.
Now, Rouhani says, speaking of the crisis in relations with the United States:
“We have to gradually defuse this hostility, take it down a notch to a tense relationship, and then move toward reducing the tensions.”
Let’s hope so.
Jack Straw, the former UK foreign secretary, who’d met Rouhani, had this to say:
This is a remarkable and welcome result so far and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be no jiggery-pokery with the final result. What this huge vote of confidence in Doctor Rouhani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West. On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.
NSA headquarters in Fort Meade circa 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)
The standard justification for the National Security Agency’s recently disclosed domestic data-collection program—it doesn’t break any laws—makes me think of Michael Kinsley’s observation that what’s truly scandalous is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. It should make us all less comfortable, not more, if it’s true that the wide-ranging data-collection programs exposed by Edward Snowden received the blessing of all three branches of the federal government.
Many commentators have argued, as Thomas Friedman did last week in The New York Times, that virtually any domestic surveillance by agencies like the NSA is legitimate in the post-9/11 world. But this misses the longer history: nearly every tool for domestic surveillance that the US intelligence community has attempted to use since 9/11 was on its wish list decades before the attacks. And The Nation has been there to track those tools every step of the way.
In 1966, New York Post journalist Anthony Prisendorf wrote about the Bureau of the Budget’s attempts to create a National Data Center, which would centralize the government’s sprawling information about every single American. The backlash was fierce. Prisendorf quotes one analyst from, of all places, the RAND Corporation—described in a 1959 Nation exposé as a think tank “set up to mask a relationship between the Air Force and the scientists which either or both did not care to make explicit”—who noted that if the data collection capabilities were made available to a future administration hostile to civil liberties “it would make for an extremely efficient police state.” Prisendorf added:
Centralizing government files would eliminate perhaps the best safeguard of personal privacy—bureaucracy. Compiling all that is recorded about an individual is now often a difficult and, consequently, a discouraging task. If the National Data Center were established, the mere push of a button would end all that.
Moreover, he argued, the existence of the data center “would lead to pressures—within and outside the federal government—for the creation of a Personal Data Bank.” The proposal for the National Data Center was dropped a few years later because of lack of public support—and after public hearings in Congress raised questions about its constitutionality. But the NSA plays a long game: it is currently building a massive data accumulation center in the Utah desert that makes the 1960s proposal look like child’s play. NSA whistleblower William Binney—profiled in The Nation last month by Tim Shorrock—has claimed that the Utah facility is intended for storing precisely the kind of personal information files that opponents of the National Data Bank in the 1960s feared the plan could lead to. There were no public hearing in Congress this time around, nor any hint that in a democracy there should be some input from the public whose privacy is in question.
In a 1975 article with the memorable title, “The Issue, of Course, Is Power,” civil liberties lawyer and frequent Nation contributor Frank Donner argued that the committees that had just been appointed to study US intelligence activities should particularly focus on the use of domestic surveillance for political and anti-populist objectives. Abuse of such capabilities, Donner argued, was not incidental, but inevitable:
Every activity of the target, however legitimate and indeed constitutionally protected, is treated with suspicion and monitored: who knows; it may be a vital piece in a sinister not-yet-revealed subversive design. Since, in the intelligence mind, the stakes are so large—our very survival as a nation—overkill is almost deliberate. Ultimately, the intelligence institution exploits reasons of state to achieve autonomy and, by a parallel process, its operations become ends in themselves.
Donner went on to dismiss one of the arguments ritually hauled out, as it has been in recent weeks, to defend widespread domestic surveillance: that the collected data is used only by the government agencies that are supposed to use it, and access is prohibited to all others. Surveillance operations, Donner wrote,
have become a collaborative endeavor by a constellation of federal, state and urban agencies. An agency that is barred by its mandate or lack of funds from a particular area of domestic intelligence enters into a liaison relationship with other units with a similar or overlapping missions for the purpose of exchanging data, operational information, and files.
The same point has been made repeatedly in our pages by the investigative reporter David Burnham. In a 1978 article titled “The Capacity to Spy on Us All,” Burnham catalogued the ways in which the Carter administration, which had come to office decrying Nixon’s disregard for civil liberties, had actually gone beyond its Republican predecessors in utilizing new surveillance capabilities against US citizens. Sound familiar? Burnham also reported that the FBI had obtained warrants to install “pen registers” on two telephones used by a suspected gambler in New York City. The registers were designed to track the same kind of “metadata”—numbers dialed, length of conversations and, now, location—that the newly disclosed PRISM program apparently targets en masse. Now, as then, such data is both easier to legally acquire and arguably more useful to law enforcement, as Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker. Finally, Burnham notes that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, then being debated in Congress, was intended not only to limit wiretapping but also to systemize and authorize practices like “electronic vacuum sweeping” that were otherwise of questionable legality, not to mention constitutionality. The result, Burnham feared, was deeply troubling:
At a time when advanced surveillance techniques, high-speed computers and other electronic devices make possible ever more intrusive invasions of individual privacy, the critical examination of every new government program must become even more rigorous. For while each individual step may be defended as only an insignificant addition to the machinery already in place, the combined force of these actions could at any time precipitate drastic changes in both the ability and the willingness of the American people to make independent choices about their future.
The underlying argument, that domestic surveillance operations are not necessarily as constrained by law as their defendants tend to claim, is one that Burnham returned to in a 1983 cover story, “Tales of a Computer State,” about the role of private corporations in domestic snooping. As the Snowden revelations have confirmed, companies are apparently powerless to resist government requests for access to their data:
The decision of the Census Bureau during World War II to give the Army demographic data that pinpointed the residences of Japanese-Americans in California—despite a law prohibiting such sharing of information—is instructive. How much pressure would the chairman of the board and the chief executive officer of TRW [a credit agency with a large computerized store of information on individuals] have to bring on the vice president in charge of the company’s information division to persuade him to give the C.I.A. access to credit reports stored in the division’s computers?
To the notion that “it can’t happen here,” as in the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, Burnham would might justifiably reply: Why not? It has before.
The question looms before us: Can the United States continue to flourish when the physical movements, the buying habits and the conversations of most citizens are under surveillance by private companies and government agencies? Sometimes the surveillance is undertaken for innocent purposes, sometimes it is not. Does not surveillance, even the innocent sort, gradually poison the soul of a nation? Does not surveillance limit personal options for many citizens? Does not surveillance increase the powers of those who are in a position to enjoy the fruits of that activity?
For more on the history of domestic surveillance as covered in The Nation, read Burnham’s major investigative report on the FBI and Tim Shorrock’s 2006 feature, “Watching What You Say: How Big Telecom May Be Helping Government Spies.” More recently, Nation articles by Shorrock, Jaron Lanier, and David Cole have continued our coverage of this alarming story.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
I asked yesterday over at my blog if McClatchy reporters and editors, following their example during the run-up to the Iraq war (actually then with Knight Ridder), would be among the few to raise deep questions about “slam dunk” proof offered by the White House on Assad’s use of chemical agents. Reporters there, especially Jonathan Landay, had done that last month and the month before. But now after the full White House “confirmation”?
The first indication comes in this new piece by Matthew Schofield, which flatly states that experts are skeptical of the new Obama claims.
Chemical weapons experts voiced skepticism Friday about U.S. claims that the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad had used the nerve agent sarin against rebels on at least four occasions this spring, saying that while the use of such a weapon is always possible, they’ve yet to see the telltale signs of a sarin gas attack, despite months of scrutiny.
“It’s not unlike Sherlock Holmes and the dog that didn’t bark,” said Jean Pascal Zanders, a leading expert on chemical weapons who until recently was a senior research fellow at the European Union’s Institute for Security Studies. “It’s not just that we can’t prove a sarin attack, it’s that we’re not seeing what we would expect to see from a sarin attack.”
Foremost among those missing items, Zanders said, are cellphone photos and videos of the attacks or the immediate aftermath.
“In a world where even the secret execution of Saddam Hussein was taped by someone, it doesn’t make sense that we don’t see videos, that we don’t see photos, showing bodies of the dead, and the reddened faces and the bluish extremities of the affected,” he said.
Other experts said that while they were willing to give the U.S. intelligence community the benefit of the doubt, the Obama administration has yet to offer details of what evidence it has and how it obtained it.
Other news outlets so far have swallowed the White House evidence whole or in part, with many not even questioning the timing—just as the rebels, once supposedly on the verge of winning, now seem headed for defeat. In fact, the “red line” that seemed to have been crossed was the fate of the rebels heading suddenly downward. For a change, Politico had the strongest suggestion of that this morning.
The New York Times editorial tonight sadly states as fact that the use of sarin “was confirmed by American intelligence.” Well, we’ve been down that road before. But the paper at least warned of the pitfalls ahead: ‘It is irresponsible for critics like Mr. McCain and Mr. Clinton to fault Mr. Obama without explaining how the United States can change the course of that brutal civil war without being dragged too far into it.
“Like most Americans, we are deeply uneasy about getting pulled into yet another war in the Middle East. Those urging stronger action seemed to have learned nothing from the past decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, which has sapped the United States and has produced results that are ambiguous at best.”
And here, the reliable Hannah Allam of McClatchy probes serious concerns about our partners in Syria.
Go here for Patrick Cockburn, Kevin Drum and Fareed Zakaria highlighting the dangers of intervention and/or relying on sketchy evidence.
New editon of my book on the Iraq (and media) debacle, "So Wrong for So Long," here.
The NSA slide that tech experts say Glenn Greenwald misinterpreted. (The Guardian/NSA, US Federal Government.)
Glenn Greenwald has posted a response to his critics today, including myself, titled “;On PRISM, Partisanship, and Propaganda”: “In a Nation post yesterday,” he writes, “Rick Perlstein falsely accuses me of not having addressed the questions about the PRISM story.” Actually I didn’t accuse him of not having addressed “the questions,” but instead a single question, which he still does not address: whether, in his claim that corporations have allowed the National Security Agency direct access to their servers, he misunderstands the meaning of the word “server” in an NSA slide to imply “all their data,” when it probably means “places to store a highly delimited amount of secured data the companies have agreed to provide to the government after consultation with their lawyers in response to government requests made through legal channels.” (By the way, you can still hold that those “legal channels” are ghastly, invasive and immoral, as I suspect they may well be, and stimultaneously believe that Greenwald may have made a grave and self-defeating error both in terms of accuracy and in terms of advocacy.)
My interpretation comes from someone I deeply respect and trust, Karl Fogel, whose professional integrity dwarfs just about anyone else’s I know. Karl explains a bit more about his qualifications to speak below; you can learn more about those at this link. I asked him to respond to Greenwald’s response, which I publish below. Further discussion of the technical issues can be carried out at his personal site, Rants.org. Later, I’ll weigh in with further reflections of my own on questions raised by Greenwald in which I am more expert: on partisanship and propaganda; on the mores, methods and motivations of journalism and journalists; and on best practices, as I understand them from my study of American political history, for bending the arc of history toward justice when the powerful would prefer to just shut the justice-seekers down.
For now, though, here’s Karl:
Greenwald seems to be responding to a different point than the actually one at issue. As I said before, the important question is this:
Do any documents in the PRISM leak claim that the NSA has direct, unfettered access to the servers where major Internet companies store their users’ data? The kind of access where the NSA can roam at will, searching and copying anything it wants, without interference from the company’s lawyers?
In other words, are the humans still in the chain? Do the companies retain control of their users’ data until they decide to hand something over, or do they give up control pre-emptively?
So far, it looks like they retain control—the humans are in the chain. Nothing leaked so far indicates the removal of human safeguards.
Greenwald quotes Bart Gellman, another reporter (i.e., not a primary source), writing “From their workstations anywhere in the world, government employees cleared for PRISM access may ‘task’ the system and receive results from an Internet company without further interaction with the company’s staff.”
This misses the point. If I go online to my credit card company to dispute a charge, and a while later I get an automated response, and then I provide the supporting documents, and then I get another response saying the charge has been reversed, have I had “interaction with the company’s staff”? No, not directly. I never talked to another human. But was a human in the chain on the other side? Sure. The company retained control of the process.
So what are these “servers” the famous NSA slide refers to? The explanation that is most consistent with everything we’ve seen so far is that they are servers that exist for the purpose of requesting and transferring data. They probably have a user interface whereby the NSA submits a request, the company sees the request, the company handles it (and accesses their servers to do so, except in the presumably rare cases where they push back on the request), and the requested information goes back to the NSA. The NSA staffer never speaks directly to a human at the company, consistent with what Bart Gellman reported, but that has nothing to do with Greenwald’s misinterpretation of “direct collection,” which is what this is about.
Greenwald himself agrees that the question hinges on the interpretation of the phrase “collection directly from the servers”:
“…we did not claim that the NSA document alleging direct collection from the servers was true; we reported—accurately—that the NSA document claims that the program allows direct collection from the companies’ servers. Before publishing, we went to the internet companies named in the documents and asked about these claims. When they denied it, we purposely presented the story as one of a major discrepancy between what the NSA document claims and what the internet companies claim. … The NSA document says exactly what we reported. Just read it and judge for yourself (PRISM is ‘collection directly from the servers of these US service provers’).”
I am looking at that exact same slide, just as Greenwald asks, and as a technologist with twenty years of experience (and, full disclaimer, a former employee of Google, though I resigned in 2006 and have had no financial interest in the company since then) it is pretty clear to me that it does not mean what Greenwald says it means. Its most likely meaning is that the companies set up special, restricted servers to make the mechanical prcoess of requesting and providing data less onerous on themselves and perhaps on the NSA. That increase in efficiency itself could be a major step forward for the NSA, which is why the program would have its own name, but again, it does not have anything to do with direct (i.e., unmediated) collection from the company’s regular servers where user data is stored for normal business.
I’m not depending on my knowledge of Google’s infrastructure to come to that conclusion. It’s just the natural conclusion to come to if one knows computer networking terminology and interprets the available evidence using that knowledge.
When Glenn Greenwald does a Google search, he is doing “collection directly from the servers” of Google. Does that mean he also has full access to roam through other people’s private Gmail accounts and pull anything down he wants? Of course not. The slide simply does not claim what Greenwald thinks it claims; thus, so far, there is no contradiction between the NSA says and what the companies say. The contradiction is only between what Glenn Greenwald says the NSA says, and what the companies say.
This is more than just some technical detail. Tapping into the wires that connect (say) Google’s data centers to the outside world is not nearly as useful, for the purposes of searching and for programmatic data analysis, as having programs running directly on Google’s servers would be. They’re two different universes. In one, you can see real-time data as it flows by, and even then much of it is SSL-encrypted. In the other, you can see everything, including a historical archive into the past for every user. That’s just not the same thing—not the same level of intrusion, not the same level of surveillance. Again, just to be clear: I’m not saying there’s no issue with NSA surveillance. But, to apply an approximate metaphor, we’re talking about tapping someone’s phone line versus going into everyone’s houses and going through all their files and all their possessions, page by page and item by item. One is worse than the other.
With the Washington Redskins finally relevant on a national stage, The Nation's Dave Zirin argues that Dan Snyder can no longer hide from the bigotry of his team's name.
Oprah Winfrey speaks during Harvard University's commencement ceremonies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Thursday, May 30, 2013. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Today is graduation day on my campus. At the University of California and thousands of other schools over the last few weeks, millions of students and their families have been celebrating—and listening (or not listening) to commencement speakers. Fox News has a complaint about those speakers: too many of them are liberals.
“When it comes to selecting a commencement speaker, the nation’s top 100 universities lean decidedly left,” Fox News declared. “Of the top 100 universities listed by U.S. News and World Report, 62 have selected liberal commencement speakers and only 17 selected conservatives.”
“Conservative speakers aren’t welcome on college and university campuses,” says Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, he reported that no current or former Republican elected official was scheduled to speak at any of the top fifty liberal arts colleges, and only four spoke anywhere in the top 100 universities. Meanwhile Cory Booker, the Democrat from Newark who is running for the senate in New Jersey, gave as many commencement speeches as all current elected Republicans combined.
The evidence seems overwhelming—until you look at what all those liberals are telling the class of 2013 and their families.
Bill Clinton spoke at Howard University. He said “what we have in common is more important than our differences.”
Arianna Huffington spoke at Smith. She said it was time to move “beyond money and power” and focus instead on “wisdom, our ability to wonder, and to give back.”
Michelle Obama spoke at Bowie State. She urged students and their families to “take a stand against the culture that glorifies instant gratification instead of hard work and lasting success.”
The commencement speaker who got the most media attention this season was Oprah Winfrey—at Harvard. I wondered whether her message would be “Believe in yourself”—which you don’t really need to tell those students. In fact what she said was, “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”
And what about Cory Booker, the Democrat from Newark who gave more commencement speeches than all current elected Republicans combined? What matters in life, he told graduates at Washington University in St. Louis, is “the content of your character, the quality of your ideas, the kindness that you have in your heart.”
There’s a related problem, says Kevin Hassett of AEI. What motivated him to take up this issue was that at his own school, Swarthmore College, a conservative, Robert Zolleck, was invited—but “pulled out after being attacked by students who said he’d helped instigate the Iraq war.” Hassett says that was “a preposterous claim considering he was the US trade representative at the time the conflict began.”
But Zolleck didn’t have to pull out—that was his own decision. He should have gone to Swarthmore, and explained what he really thought about the Iraq War. He should have had the courage of his convictions.
Others have complained that the few conservatives who did give commencement speeches sometimes faced protests. When Condoleezza Rice spoke at Boston College, some students and faculty stood and held up signs that said “your war brings dishonor” and “not in my name.” Kevin Hassett told the NPR radio station in Los Angeles, where the two of us debated the issue, that once a speaker is invited, they should be treated with respect.
My view is that debate and criticism are part of the mission of the university—and that, for the rest of her life, Condoleezza Rice should be confronted about her role in taking us into a decade of war in Iraq. But unlike Zolleck, she didn’t pull out because people criticized her. In her speech she acknowledged the protesters and said, “There is nothing wrong with holding an opinion and holding it passionately.” The audience responded with applause.
Her main message to students, however, was a different one: “be optimistic.” But what about the optimistic view that invading Iraq would be “a cake-walk”?
One more thing: it’s true that most commencement speakers at the top 100 liberal arts colleges and universities are liberals. But at the top conservative and Christian colleges, all the commencement speakers are conservatives. When has a liberal ever been invited to be the commencement speaker at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, or Bob Jones University, or Colorado Christian, which recently sued to block Obamacare?
One more question: what is it that commencement audiences at all those liberal arts colleges are missing when they don’t get to hear conservatives? Paul Ryan was the commencement speaker this season at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. He didn’t tell the Class of 2013 that freedom in America means tax cuts for the rich. Instead, he said, “We are all in this together, so we must be good to one another.”
As a liberal, I say, “Amen.”
Why are national security leaks so easy? Read Chase Madar's argument here.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
Here’s the thing about a slippery slope: sometimes you maintain your footing and don’t go tumbling down, and sometimes you slip and slide right into disaster. With the apparent decision to arm the Syrian rebels, President Obama looks like he’s going to go kersplat! onto his face and land smack dab in the Syrian quagmire.
It is, of course, a quagmire partly of his own making. Though he’s instinctively resisted getting directly involved in Syria, Obama’s first mistake was made in 2011, when he demanded that President Bashar al-Assad step down. Not only did Obama have no power to make that happen, but by demanding it he turned a relatively small-scale rebellion into a raging civil war pitting an amalgam of rebels, including large numbers of Sunni extremists and Al Qaeda types, against a fully armed modern state army. Second, Obama compounded his mistake by helping Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the rebels, despite the fact that much of that aid went to the extremists. And then he ordered the CIA to get involved in training the rebels, secretly, in Jordan. Finally, his comments about a “red line” if and when Syria used chemical weapons gave ammunition to hawks, neoconservatives and the far right to demand that Obama go to war in Syria once evidence of a very limited, marginal use of some gases became apparent.
That’s the slippery slope that Obama created, and now he tumbling in.
So yesterday the White House decided to send weapons to the rebels. Reading the White House’s statement on the matter, it’s clear that they’re not quite ready to go all in, but that’s the problem with a slippery slope: once you send in small arms and ammunition, next comes anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and—oops!—before you know it, you’re bombing Syrian airports and imposing a no-fly zone.
The President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks.
Saying “coming weeks” makes it sound as if adding the weapons isn’t all that urgent, but the message is clear: the United States will be arming the Supreme Military Council, and it will get worse. Added the White House, the United States will “increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC.” In case we missed the point, the White House added: “These efforts will increase going forward.”
In fact, it may be too late for the United States to alter the course of the war. The commander of the Syrian Military Council himself has flatly turned down Secretary of State John Kerry’s invitation to attend a peace conference, insisting instead that the rebels get advanced, high-tech weapons. In recent weeks the Syrian government has made important battlefield advances, and by all accounts the tide of war has turned sharply against the Saudi Arabia– and Qatar-backed fighters, the Al Qaeda forces and others.
As in Vietnam, when the United States persisted in that hopeless war in part because it felt like to withdraw would damage American credibility, in Syria there is a real chance the President Obama will slide all the way down the slope to full-scale war simply because he won’t want to tolerate an Assad victory. Such a victory would be a big win for Assad, for Iran, for Hezbollah—and for Russia, too, which has bet on Assad’s ability to hang on. If that happens, it’s only because Obama naïvely bet that the Arab Spring movement that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia—and in Libya, with an American military push—would easily knock off Assad.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
Chris Dodd and Barney Frank. (AP Images)
I took the past two weeks off, in part because Reed needed to, in part because The Nation began its Summer schedule, and in part because I spent a (lovely) week as a Media Fellow at the Hoover Institute out at Stanford and I needed to give the conservatism time to wear off. So my “Think Again” columns, which I did do, are listed in reverse chronological order. I also had a letter to the editor of The Nation regarding its article on the Center for American Progress, which is behind a paywall in the current issue but I have reprinted below. The rest is pretty self-explanatory and of course Reed is back so you can just skip me if you like.
Think Again: The Power of Money, Not Logic
Letter to the Editor of The Nation:
22 May 2013
To the Editor,
Ken Silverstein, relying on anonymous sources, claims in his article on the Center for American Progress, that “Staffers were very clearly instructed to check with the think tank’s development team before writing anything that might upset contributors, I was told."
I am not a staffer at the Center but I have been a senior fellow there almost since its inception. Beginning in October, 2003, I have either written or edited every iteration of the weekly “Think Again” media column for the Center’s website. At no time during the writing or editing of any these roughly 500 columns did I experience anything like what Silverstein describes above, (or anything else, for that matter, that would likely fall outside the purview of the normal editorial process at any publication, including The Nation). Indeed, I don’t even know who’s on the development team or who the Center’s contributors are and, thankfully so far, I have had no reason to care.
I would have been happy to inform Silverstein of this had he contacted me in advance of publishing his article.
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Paul McCartney at the Barclay’s Center, Wings over America re-release, Rockshow
Moody Blues and Jethro Tull dvds
Summerstage “Sinatra in the Park” in Central Park
Treasure House Theatre performance of “Cherry Orchard,”
Jazz@Lincoln Center “Swinging with Big Bands”
Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions on Mosaic
Yes is the Answer edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell
Monday night I saw Paul McCartney and his band at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It was the fourth time I’ve seen Paul—so I’ve now seen four Beatles, (except that they were each the same one). In his earliest incarnation, when he toured with Wings back in 1975 he was extremely reluctant to dip too deeply into the Beatles catalogue. Those shows can be heard newly cleaned up, remastered and perfectly pristinely presented on both the re-release of Wings Over America and the new Blu-ray/DVD of Rock Show. Both are painfully drenched in the seventies. Paul and Linda set a record for the world’s worst twin haircuts. And the video, while sharp on the Blu-ray, is a mélange of incoherent angles. But there is some beauty in this stuff. As with the bad haircuts, Paul was the world’s worst self-editor back then. “Beware My Love” and “Time to Hide” are forgotten gems. “Let Em In” is the worst song this side of “Afternoon Delight.” But the Wings catalogue is, overall, pretty damn good (and the setlists are identical on WOA and “Rock show,” which was filmed at the tour’s final show Kingdome in Seattle and is now available complete, for the first time, with a 5.1 mix. I can’t tell if WOA is the same exact show, but the setlists did not change, as I recall from my youthful exploits at Madison Square Garden that year. The version of VOA (which I also recall was the first number one triple album set) I got includes a DVD included which features the "Wings Over The World" TV show that aired on CBS but there are lots of packages so look up the one you want. (I can’t speak to the really fancy one.)
Back to Barclay’s, the man is an entertainer. And the crowd—which at these shows is so goofy and demonstrative, it can get kind of embarrassing. Paul too, can be a little embarrassing. He keeps acting like he doesn’t do this all the time, getting all choked up and stuff and telling the same old stories about Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and John and George—I don’t think he mentioned Ringo at all—but anyway: the music.
Like Brian Wilson, Paul has a band that can almost perfectly reproduce the original versions. They mug quite a lot for the audience, but they do not merit individual introductions. (Barclay’s with a seating capacity of 16,000 is about as small a place as you are ever likely to see Paul these days, unless you were in the audience for the Colbert Report Wednesday night.) They opened at 8:45 with "Eight Days a Week" and then went into Junior’s Farm. It’s churlish, with a catalogue that like of McCartney to complain about what was left out. I loved "Maybe I'm Amazed,” “Band on the Run,” “All My Loving,” “We Can Work it Out,” “Back in the USSR,” (which was The Beatles paying tribute to “The Beach Boys” rip-off of Chuck Berry). We got the first ever live “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” according to Paul. I had mixed feelings about “Hey Jude,” because of the shlockiness of the sing along. I could not believe he left out “Get Back,” and “SPLHCB.” But hey, the final encore was of the final “Golden Slumbers” suite from Abbey Road, which was proved a stroke of genius.
Seeing McCartney made me think that maybe capitalism is the only economic system that can work. When you think of the work that Paul and George and John came up with when they were still competing with one another—not only during the Beatles but in the first few years afterward—it’s two different universes. You could also attribute it to the genius of youth, but then how to explain, Dylan, Bruce, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, etc...?
But speaking of getting old, if you are a reader of mine—and are also insanely wealthy and care deeply about your personal appearance—I would go to some trouble to find out just who did the work on Paul’s face and who maintains his hair. I look older than he does.
And also speaking of getting old, I recently looked over two Moody Blues DVDs. Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 and the cd/dvd Live at Montreux 1991. I was interested in the first one because I had never seen the Moodies when they were new and young. The DVD is more of a documentary than a concert though, with lots of present-day commentary about their performance there. The latter is self-explanatory and rather similar to the Red Rocks DVD that came out a few years ago, except that it’s in Montreux and comes with a CD. Even more ambitious in the old fogey department is the 4 Music DVD set from Jethro Tull, Around The World Live. Tull is always well packaged and this one comes in a nice book and is filled with previously unreleased material including the same Isle Of Wight Festival from 1970 (as in the Moodies’ show) and goes through 2005 with performances from, you guessed it, all around the world, as well as photos from Ian Anderson’s personal archive and a text on all the different shows by Joel McIver. Overall it’s about seven and a half hours of Tull. Some of it is pretty great; some of it, you really won’t mind if you sat that one out.
Tuesday night, I joined a few thousand of the denizens of my fine city for the annual SummerStage Gala called “Sinatra in the Park,” under a tent in Central Park. It featured a ton of people singing songs made famous by Frank (except in the case of Judy Collins, whose “Send in the Clowns” is probably even better known than Frank’s version. Anyway, it was really well done. Backed by John Pizarelli and the Swing Seven, we heard:
MARY CHAPIN CARPENTER
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
with a surprise finish by John Legend and there were too many highlights to point to just a few. But hey, here’s they point: Look at the incredible Summerstage 2013 schedule here. This is quite a city, isn’t it.
Wednesday night I caught a performance by a new group called the Treasure House Theatre Company of “Cherry Orchard,” which Chekov wrote in 1904. I saw the original version—haha, no, not in 1904, but the Jean-Claude van Itallie’s 1977 translation (commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival and presented at Lincoln Center starring Meryl Streep and Raul Julia). And while that was great, or so I recall, this was pretty great too. There were, I think, thirteen players on the stage and before a small audience in a cozy church basement, seeing this brilliant play, so nicely done was a profoundly moving experience. But one thing: in "The Sea Gull," Trigorin the playwright is asked by the innocent Nina how to write a play. He replies by saying that if a gun is hanging on the wall at the beginning of a play, it must be fired by the end. Alas, “Cherry Orchard” has a gun drawn in the first act, that never goes off. Just saying...
Speaking of throwbacks, Thursday night I saw the last show of what, in this humble opinion, has been the best Jazz@Lincoln Center season ever. Michael Feinstein has been curating a terrific series at the Allen Room and this one was dedicated to the big band music of the thirties when singers like Sinatra (with Tommy Dorsey), Billy Eckstine (with Basie), and Ivie Anderson (with Duke), showed the world America’s greatest invention. Inspired by Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 Carnegie concert, Thursday night, we saw Feinstein hosting Vince Giordano's Nighthawks with Wynton Marsalis (alternately channeling Armstrong and Maynard Ferguson, among others), the always adorable Nellie McKay (playing the role of Doris Day), Connie Evingson, and Sachal Vasandani also singing along. I never heard the latter two but they were both great. And what a pleasure it is to hear Feinstein whose enthusiasm is infectious and whose contextual knowledge adds immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of these shows. I learned a great deal listening to him and had about as much fun as one can have seated and fully dressed.
One new set about which I’m really excited is the new release from my friends at Mosaic Records, Woody Shaw: The Complete Muse Sessions. I keep finding people who never heard of Woody, which is almost certainly attributable to the fact that he died so young. But he’s absolutely central to the history of jazz in this period and he plays like a dream.
The “Muse” period is considered to be one of the three key periods in his development, and Mosaic has done its usual, beautiful job of both remastering and packaging of this nine album, 7-CD limited edition box set drawn from over a 13-year period from 1974 to 1987 after Shaw moved from San Francisco to New York. According to Michael Cuscuna, Mosaic Records founder and producer, "This was the era when Woody stepped up and became a leader." "The core of these sessions is the Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble, an expanded group with four horns and one or two percussionists. I loved this setting because it brought out Woody's incredible talents as a composer and arranger with a distinctive harmonic sense."
The box is divided into three parts, each relaying an important segment during this era of Shaw's career. The first set (The Moontrane, 1974; Love Dance, 1975; The Woody Shaw Concert Ensemble Live at the Berliner Jazztage, 1976) groups Shaw's concert ensemble, which features multiple horns and, in some cases, percussion. The second group of recordings (Cassandranite, 1965; Little Red's Fantasy, 1976; Iron Men, 1977) feature the trumpeter's chosen collaborators as a quintet. The third group (Setting Standards, 1985; Solid, 1986; Imagination, 1987) includes recordings done for Muse Records following his tenure with Columbia. Early sessions included Herbie Hancock, Paul Chambers and Joe Chambers. The 1970s sets include Steve Turre, Azar Lawrence, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Buster Williams, Victor Lewis, Cecil McBee, Rene McLean, Billy Harper, Joe Bonner, Frank Strozier, Ronnie Matthews, Stafford James, Eddie Moore, Frank Foster, Louis Hayes, Arthur Blythe, Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams, among others. In the 1980s, he played with Cedar Walton, Victor Jones, Kenny Garrett, Kenny Barron and others. As always, it ain’t cheap, but that’s just the way these things are. Read all about it here
I also wanted to give a shout-out to an unlikely place; a collection of essays about progressive rock by a bunch of writers called Yes is the Answer edited by Marc Weingarten and Tyson Cornell. There are some fancy names attached but one of the craziest essays I’ve read on anything in a long time was by a Spanish writer named Roderigo Fresan, which begins with The Arcade Fire, and talks a great deal about “A Clockwork Orange” and makes the crazy-but-possibly-true comparison that “Comfortably Numb” is to “A Day in the Life” as Nathan Zuckerman is to Holden Caufield. He wrote it in Spanish but, luckily, it was translated. I think one would like it even if one hates Yes and ELP (and never heard of Soft Machine).
Transactions of Congress
by Reed Richardson
It is by now a truism that any action taken—or, more appropriately these days, not taken—by Congress can be best explained by understanding the influence of money. Yes, presidential campaigns now rake in nearly a billion dollars, but we often forget that for every White House race, Congress holds roughly 950 elections, the average combined total of which is now just south of $1.5 billion. Indeed, if you’re a savvy lobbyist looking to get the most bang for you buck, dumping millions into a presidential election amounts to the proverbial drop in the bucket; instead, you’ll find a much better return on your investment with a five-figure donation to a House or Senate re-election campaign.
If money exerts an invisible yet unmistakable gravitational pull on everything Congress does, one can only imagine the galactic-level forces impinging on its members when they train their legislative sights on the very industry of money itself. In the aftermath of the 2008 fiscal crisis, however, a critical mass of public outrage regarding Wall Street’s reckless, arguably criminal behavior created just that very situation. Thus, the House and Senate were faced with what was no doubt the unenviable task of biting the hands that write all those precious campaign donation checks. That two years after the economic meltdown began, President Obama actually got to sign the most sweeping financial reform bill in decades truly was something of a legislative miracle.
Tellingly, that word, “miracle,” is how Robert G. Kaiser, in his latest book Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works and How It Doesn’t (Knopf, $27.95), characterizes those rare moments when our modern-day Congress actually manages to legislate. Because of the book’s frustratingly vague title (and subtitle) however, one doesn’t get any sense that Kaiser has turned his full attention to the passage of the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform act. This ambiguity is a shame, for two reasons.
For one, the book’s title fails a basic marketing test—it really doesn’t alert potentially interested readers in the book’s true narrative focus on Dodd-Frank. What’s more, while the title page is underwhelming, it is also oversold. No doubt, Kaiser presents a minutely documented, deep dive into the rarely seen legislative workings that comprised this single act of Congress. But as is also the case with undersea vehicles that explore the darkest depths of the ocean, often it’s hard to get any sense of what’s above or just beyond the particular situation or conversation Kaiser is illuminating at any given moment. On the broader, capital-H lessons of “How America’s Essential Institution Doesn’t Work,” promised in his book’s title, Kaiser doesn’t fully deliver.
This authorial inconsistency—powerfully revealing on the micro level, not so much on the meta—perhaps shouldn’t be that surprising. Kaiser is a 50-year veteran of the Washington Post and his book routinely feels a lot like a prodigiously proportioned process piece. (In the Acknowledgments, Kaiser notes that he and Len Downie, the paper’s longtime, now retired, Executive Editor, were summer interns together in 1964.) There’s plenty of focus on the who, the what, the where, the when, and the how, in other words, but not near enough discussion of the why. Indeed, if there was one term to describe Kaiser’s effort here it would probably be Woodwardian, with all the attendant plusses and, more importantly, minuses that his Post colleague’s trademark, all-about-the-access reporting brings with it.
Indeed, the book’s limited analytical scope is evident early on, when recounting a January 2009 Congressional hearing. There, Kaiser highlights Rep. Bill Clay’s suggestion of directly injecting taxpayer money into private retirement accounts. “Someone who understood the vagaries of the financial markets would not have made this suggestion,” Kaiser scolds. But this attitude tellingly reveals his (and the Beltway media’s) limited willingness to ponder solutions outside of the narrow bounds of what interests the powerful. In actuality, many respected economists were advocating for exactly that kind of citizen-targeted, “helicopter drop” bailout of ordinary Americans. Such a plan would stimulate the economy more quickly and more directly than routing government cash through big banks that might choose to hoard the capital rather than loan it out—which, by the way, is exactly what happened. But no, Clay’s idea, Kaiser sniffs, wasn’t a “serious” suggestion.
Time and again, Kaiser’s book becomes something of a case study of the deferential nature of the Washington press corps. Authority and expertise routinely draw praise and respect, radical ideas not so much. Thus, the book tut-tuts the populist tone of a Congressional hearing on the AIG bailout and dismisses the questioning of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for lacking sophistication. “They were the pros; the skeptical members challenging them, from both parties, looked like amateurs,” he writes. Yet Kaiser can’t seem to make the larger point here, that the incomprehensible and impenetrable nature of the financial industry’s products and services were precisely the problem. The outrage should not have been that Congress was too dumb to understand collateralized debt obligations, it’s that the financial industry that created CDO’s was too dumb to understand them.
Kaiser’s sympathetic in-the-room journalistic style, mirroring Woodward’s, manifests itself throughout the book. Thus, his subject’s preferences and biases quickly become adopted as his own. So, if Barney Frank, who gets the humorously rumpled hero treatment from Kaiser, dismisses something as unhelpful for his bill, the book becomes captive to the same logic. Likewise, anyone outside of his primary reporting bubble tends to get much more critical treatment.
For example, in the chapter on the early House drafting of the bill, Frank acknowledges some anxiety that Speaker Pelosi’s enthusiasm for a Congressional investigation into the financial crisis would distract from his legislative efforts. This is an eminently reasonable position for a committee chairman to take, of course. But Kaiser’s empathy notably does not extend to the Speaker, who has a larger constituency and greater moral responsibilities to consider. Instead, the book makes a point of rather snidely dismissing Pelosi’s motivations as counterproductive and basically accuses her of shameless political grandstanding. But Pelosi’s reading of public sentiment was in fact dead on, as just weeks after her initial call for a reprise of the 1930s Pecora Commission, a Celinda Lake poll found 71 percent of Americans agreed with her that Congress should look into Wall Street’s role in the manufacturing the Great Recession.
Likewise, when the House bill finally moved to the Rules Committee, Frank wanted to encourage amendments to get buy-in from MOCs. Pelosi, understandably wary of a runaway legislative process, instead favored strict limits on the number of amendments on offer, however. Again, Kaiser’s take falls neatly in line with Frank’s, and he diagnoses Pelosi’s firm control over the bill’s rollout as timidity on her part, and proof of an “insecurity complex.” Perhaps Kaiser should ask current Speaker John Boehner if he wouldn’t trade for a version of Pelosi’s legislative efficiency in order to rein in his increasingly hard-to-control House GOP caucus.
This same Republican intransigence and disarray stands as a major subtext of Kaiser’s book as well. From the outset, the GOP minorities in the House and Senate were fighting a holding action of least-worst options when it came to financial reform. And though a handful of Republicans made an honest effort at bipartisan compromise—most notably, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker—the obstructionist mindset of GOP leadership slowly but surely reeled them all in. Though reform champion Senator Chris Dodd ended up incorporating some of these conservative ideas into his final version of a reform bill, it’s telling that all his months of reaching across the aisle did not earn him a single GOP vote when it came for final passage. Instead, Dodd watched as Republicans duplicitously deployed dishonest talking points about financial reform as a lever to pry campaign cash out of both Tea Partiers and Big Business. To the former, the GOP brazenly lambasted the bill as yet another “bailout” and a perpetuation of “Too Big To Fail”—two buzzwords conservative pollster Frank Luntz found resonated with the public. (To be fair, some of the fears of TBTF have proven true.) To the latter, Republicans ginned up fears of the impending reform as “job-killing” regulation tantamount to the end of capitalism, frightening millions in political donations out of the pockets of worried Wall Street executives.
Though Dodd-Frank was the undoubtedly the most comprehensive piece of financial legislation in decades, this says more about how out of control the industry was than it does the true scope of the bill, which was much more prosaic and scaled-back than opponents and even supporters made it sound. From the very beginning, the impact of money in politics played a big role in influencing the bill’s many compromises. For instance, as the Democrats began staking out the boundaries of financial reform in early 2009, many experts recommended that it merge the two main regulatory bodies, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). But because this consolidation would correspondingly shrink Capitol Hill oversight from four to two Congressional committees—meaning lots of MOCs on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees stood to lose access to their Wall Street campaign gravy train—the idea was scrapped as too controversial for Congress to approve. Good money trumped good policy.
In the end, the major legislative battles were joined over three aspects of financial reform—the Volcker Rule on bank investing, regulating the derivatives market, and the creation of a new independent watchdog Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Tellingly, on all three of these issues, moneyed interests from within both parties again forced compromises into the final version of Dodd-Frank. And though all three survived and were part of the final conference bill President Obama signed three years ago, the victory that Kaiser portrays Dodd-Frank to be is increasingly a Pyrrhic one.
That’s because the end of Kaiser’s book was by no means the end of the story of the financial reform fight. Though he concludes the book with a short chapter replete with skepticism about Congress’s capability to solve our problems, Kaiser doesn’t devote much rhetorical real estate to studying the growing influence of money on our legislative branch wrought by Citizens United. And in a sentimental turn, he stands fast to the idea that with financial reform, “the big banks got nothing.” Yet this dubious stance has been rendered near laughable by now, as the big bank accounts of the forces against reform have been conducting an all-out assault since the day Dodd-Frank became law. And as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi notes, those forces are winning.
First, it was Republicans in Congress repeatedly shirking their responsibilities by refusing to even allow a vote on head of the new CFPB. (In a classic case of be careful what you wish for, though, Obama’s rebuffed choice to head the CFPB, Elizabeth Warren, is now a Senator from Massachusetts and a strong voice for reform on the Banking Committee.) And now that the public furor has died down, Congress is perfectly OK with the financial lobby writing their own bills to rollback reform. Sometimes even the regulators are happy to oblige weakening the rules. Also not helping—the Obama administration’s dreadful pace of rulemaking, which threatens to see Dodd-Frank gutted before it's even fully implemented. (This regulatory foot-dragging is rapidly becoming a systemic problem for the administration). At the beginning of June, only a woeful 37 precent of Dodd-Frank’s scheduled regulations had been finalized, according to an analysis by the Davis Polk law firm. As it happens, Kaiser included a 2009 Davis Polk brief on the future long-term prospects of financial reform in his book. Four years later, the brief's ambiguous summation remains eerily prescient: “It is too early to predict with certainty which proposals are likely to be enacted and in what form.”
One prediction is safe to make though, money will have played the key role in whatever ultimately happens with financial reform. But if the insidious influence of cash on our Congress is the real culprit, an alarmingly incurious Beltway journalism should be considered an un-indicted co-conspirator. For, as Kaiser notes:
"There is only a tiny attentive audience for what goes on in Congress—perhaps ten or fifteen thousand professors, journalists, lobbyists, government officials, and lawyers, in a country of more than 300 million.
"The members of that tiny informed audience, like members of the House and Senate, tend to accept the mumbo jumbo as just the nature of the beast—standard operating obfuscations. So the House and Senate go on doing business in ways that citizens might disapprove of strongly, if they really understood what was happening.…They just play the old games behind the curtain. They know that almost no one is paying close attention."
As a body that now openly trades favors to the highest bidder without fear of much in the way of press scrutiny or public outrage, it’s becoming more and more difficult to distinguish our broken Congress from the world’s oldest profession. And until we finally find a way to excise money from politics, it's we the people will continue to get screwed over by the transactions of Congress.
Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com. Also, I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.
Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form.
Four-year-old Nathan Hobbs, who lives in a homeless shelter with his mother. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Cross-posted from my weekly column on the impact of sequestration at BillMoyers.com.
For fifteen years in Neodesha, Kansas (population 2,486) there were only two options for early childhood education services in town: a program for at-risk 4-year-olds operated by the school district, and a Head Start Center for children ages 0 through 5 run by the Southeast Kansas Community Action Program (SEK-CAP).
SEK-CAP offers a range of services to twelve counties, responding to the housing, utilities, transportation, employment, medical care, child care, education and nutrition needs of low-income people in Southeast Kansas. The counties have a combined population of approximately 192,000 people and the child poverty rate is nearly 26 percent—an increase of more than 13 percent in the past year. The past three years have also seen a rise in unemployment, food and housing insecurity, as well as agricultural and natural disasters.
Due to sequester cuts, SEK-CAP decided in May that it could no longer afford to operate the Head Start Center in Neodesha (pronounced “Nee-OH-duh-shay”), which served seventeen children and their families, and employed five staff members. The rental and maintenance costs of the building made this closure the obvious choice for the agency to find the savings forced upon it by Congress.
Becky Gray, director of research and planning for SEK-CAP, said the affect of the cuts is far more significant than “it might appear on paper.”
“When you’re talking about people’s lives, and their ability to maintain gainful employment, or ensure that their children are receiving age-appropriate care and intellectual stimulation, then the cuts become incredibly deep and incredibly apparent,” said Gray.
In addition to instruction at the center, teachers made monthly home visits to work on family and education goals. Every child had an individualized education plan based on an assessment of his or her needs.
“My oldest son struggled with gross-motor skills for a while, so we focused on that and got him where he needs to be,” said Amanda Tompkins, chair of the SEK-CAP Policy Council and a Head Start parent who sent three children through the program. “My daughter was advanced in her speaking ability, so the teacher gave me tools so that I could [help] her grow that skill. The program has taught me how to be a mom and a teacher for my children.”
Linda Broyles, director of early childhood services for SEK-CAP, said that Tompkins’s experience is typical for a Head Start family.
“It’s more than just a preparation for the educational system, [it’s] comprehensive family services,” said Broyles. “That means working with the whole family to set and attain goals, increase positive behaviors, establish preventative health care and create a lifelong love of learning and education.”
“There are no other means of comprehensive family-centered services in the town,” said Kristie Groff, a teacher at the center for twelve years.
The sequestration cuts in Southeastern Kansas have had somewhat of a domino effect. SEK-CAP also offered home-based services to ten children and their families in the town of Parsons (pop. 10,454) in neighboring Labette County, where the child poverty rate for children under age 5 is over 31 percent. These home-based slots are now going to be moved to Neodesha—to partly compensate for the loss of the Head Start Center—because there are other early childhood education alternatives in Parsons.
“Some of those alternatives might be cost prohibitive for some families, but the fact is Neodesha needs the [home-based program] more now. It was just our best possible fix,” said Gray.
A teacher visited the ten families in Parsons once a week, for an hour and a half, to provide age-appropriate activities and referral services to address other family needs such as transportation difficulties or a desire to pursue continuing education. The program also offered “socialization opportunities” twice per month. These events usually included nutrition education and preparation of a healthy snack or meal, age-appropriate games and time for the adults to break off and hold a meeting.
“It’s an opportunity to train parents about the program, and they can share their questions or concerns, so it’s fantastic for communication and a sense of community,” said Tompkins. “And if you’re a stay-at-home mom and don’t have an outlet, these daytime play dates are pretty important so you don’t tear your hair out.”
Gray said the home-based services are especially important for parents struggling with transportation and employment, and sometimes education.
“The focus on health and nutrition leads to budgeting food dollars, which leads to budgeting your household resources,” she said. “These are the kinds of supports that help families move out of poverty.”
As early childhood education services are lost for low-income people with limited options in towns like Parsons and Neodesha, the concern is that too many parents are turning to “the house down the street” to watch their kids, said Gray.
“Often times that is more child care than early childhood development,” said Gray. It’s also more often than not an unlicensed facility, which is why it’s affordable. “In a licensed facility we know there is appropriate safety and hygiene, and there are age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate activities. We don’t necessarily know that those things are in place in an unlicensed facility.”
Gray said that the sequester cuts in some cases are more significant in rural areas—where families might have to travel “forty miles one way”—than in “a larger metropolitan city, where two or three blocks away there might be another option.”
“Rural America often gets overlooked. We know Kansas is referred to as a ‘Flyover State’,” said Gray. “But there are a lot of people here, and a lot of people in poverty. Sequestration is just one cut. It’s the impact of that steady erosion of financial resources that is much greater in rural communities—because there are far fewer resources.”
Tompkins believes the long-term costs of these sequester cuts are being overlooked by policymakers.
“I see all of the benefits of Head Start services—early education, early intervention, early detection for children ages 0 to 5,” she said. “The people who are making these decisions—they just see the numbers that cross their desk.”
This Week in Poverty in blog by New York Times public editor
In a recent blog on poverty coverage, The New York Times’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan described The Nation’s This Week in Poverty in some detail. Thanks to The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel and Caitlin Graf for bringing our blog to Ms. Sullivan’s attention. And thanks, too, to the many policy experts, researchers and advocates, legislators and staffers, and people who are living in poverty or near poverty, for contributing to this blog over the past eighteen months and hopefully making it worth reading more often than not.
Hearing: RWJF Commission to Build a Healthier America (Wednesday, June 19, 9 am–12:30 pm EDT, Columbus Club at Union Station in Washington, DC.) The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America will host a meeting to hear testimony from leading experts who will provide new guidance to improve the health of all Americans, particularly in communities and among young children. Speakers include Nancy O. Andrews, president and CEO of the Low Income Investment Fund; Elisabeth Babcock, president and CEO of the Crittenton Women’s Union; Jack P. Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University; and Laura Trudeau, senior program director of community development at The Kresge Foundation. RSVP here, or sign up for webcast here.
Webinar: Implementing Equity in Health in All Policies & Health Impact Assessments—From Concept to Action (Wednesday, June 19, 12:30 pm–2 pm ET.) Growing evidence demonstrates that social and economic factors significantly influence health outcomes. Because of this, there is growing interest in considering health in decision-making processes that have social and economic implications. Join PolicyLink and the National Association of City and County Health Officers (NACCHO), focused on why equity is critical to Health Impact Assessments (HIA) and Health in All Policies (HiAP), and specific strategies to implement and ensure equity. Register here.
What do you think of this video and effort? Hillary Clinton on ‘Too Small to Fail’
Clips and other resources (compiled with Samantha Lachman)
“Kids and Toxic Stress,” Kellie Anderson
“The Geography of Hunger in America,” Emily Badger
“Rogue State: How Far-Right Fanatics Hijacked Kansas,” Mark Binelli
“Aloha, Workers’ Rights!” Luke Brinker
“Soldier’s new mission: Find homes for female vets,” Erika Clarke
“Cities battle hunger crisis where unhealthy food is everywhere,” Geoffrey Cowley
“Medicaid Expansion Will Boost Rural Health Coverage and Economies,” Jesse Cross-Call
“We Are From Hazleton...” Chris Echegaray & Susan Eaton
“Stress, Trauma, Loss, Rage,” Marian Wright Edelman
“Chicago Rent: How Residents Stopped Evictions by Banks,” Equal Voice News
“Seattle Bans Automatic Disqualification of Job Seekers,” Equal Voice News
“The Depressing Political Reality Keeping Kids Hungry When School’s Out,” Amanda Erickson
“Map the Meal Gap, Food Insecurity in your County,” Feeding America
“Senate OKs Cuts to Food Stamps, Used by 1 in 7 Americans,” Mary Clare Jalonick
“Report: Stronger Border Led to More Migrant Deaths,” Michael Mello
“House Bill Underfunds WIC and Would Cut Breastfeeding Counseling,” Zoë Neuberger
“Half Lives: Why the Part-time Economy is Bad for Everyone,” Lynn Stuart Parramore
“Chronicling hunger in Camden on camera,” Kevin Riordan
“Why our schools are segregated,” Richard Rothstein
“Minimum Wage: Catching Up on Productivity,” Jon Schmitt
“Maybe immigrants don’t have it better after all,” Molly Scott
“Unemployed Workers Still Far Outnumber Job Openings in Every Major Sector,” Heidi Shierholz
“The biggest scandal in America,” Valerie Strauss
“Following Up on Poverty Coverage in The Times,” Margaret Sullivan
“A glass half full? Discrimination against minority homeseekers,” Margery Turner
“Treat Students Like Banks,” Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congressman John Tierney
“’Nuns on the Bus’ Highlights Families, Immigrants,” Brad Wong
Studies/Briefs (summaries written by Samantha Lachman)
“Testing the Cost Savings of Judicial Diversion,” Mark S. Waller, Shannon M. Carey, Erin Farley and Michael Rempel, NPC Research and Center for Court Innovation. The Rockefeller Drug Laws, adopted in 1973, required lengthy prison sentences for felony-level drug sale and possession offenses. This study evaluates the savings accrued after the laws were reformed in 2009. So-called “judicial diversion” provisions gave judges the discretion to link offenders to treatment, through drug courts, instead of sending them to prison. Researchers found that in the first year following repeal of the laws, courts produced savings of $5,144 per offender, resulting primarily from a drop in re-offending and from the relatively cheaper cost of community-based drug treatment as compared to incarceration.
“’Catholic McCarthyism’ threatens bishops’ anti-poverty push,” John Gehring, Faith in Public Life. This new report claims that conservative activists are threatening the social justice mission of the Catholic Church by targeting its anti-poverty programs with McCarthy-style tactics. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is being restricted by church conservatives who say that the program favors liberal priorities when it gives grants to community groups and social initiatives. A number of high-profile bishops and church leaders have endorsed the report’s findings.
“The Moynihan Report Revisited,” Gregory Acs, Kenneth Braswell, Elaine Sorensen, Margery Austin Turner, Urban Institute and Fathers Incorporated. In 1965, then–Assistant Secretary for Policy Planning and Research at the US Department of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a controversial report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” in which he argued that the decline of the black nuclear family would impede economic and social progress. This report revisits Moynihan’s analysis and looks at the socio-economic state of black families today, finding that inequities persist between black and white individuals—from poverty and unemployment rates to rates of single-parent households. The report suggests ways to improve the circumstances of black families and reduce racial disparities.
US poverty (less than $17,916 for a family of three): 46.2 million people, 15.1 percent.
Children in poverty: 16.1 million, 22 percent of all children, including 39 percent of African-American children and 34 percent of Latino children. Poorest age group in country.
Deep poverty (less than $11,510 for a family of four): 20.4 million people, 1 in 15 Americans, including more than 15 million women and children.
People who would have been in poverty if not for Social Security, 2011: 67.6 million (program kept 21.4 million people out of poverty).
People in the US experiencing poverty by age 65: Roughly half.
Gender gap, 2011: Women 34 percent more likely to be poor than men.
Gender gap, 2010: Women 29 percent more likely to be poor than men.
Twice the poverty level (less than $46,042 for a family of four): 106 million people, more than 1 in 3 Americans.
Jobs in the US paying less than $34,000 a year: 50 percent.
Jobs in the US paying below the poverty line for a family of four, less than $23,000 annually: 25 percent.
Poverty-level wages, 2011: 28 percent of workers.
Percentage of individuals and family members in poverty who either worked or lived with a working family member, 2011: 57 percent.
Young men (ages 25–34) working full time today: earning 10 percent less than their fathers did thirty years ago. (via Senator Jeff Merkley)
Families receiving cash assistance, 1996 (pre–welfare reform): 68 for every 100 families living in poverty.
Families receiving cash assistance, 2010: 27 for every 100 families living in poverty.
Impact of public policy, 2010: without government assistance, poverty would have been twice as high—nearly 30 percent of population.
Percentage of entitlement benefits going to elderly, disabled or working households: over 90 percent.
Number of homeless children in US public schools: 1,065,794.
Annual cost of child poverty nationwide: $550 billion.
Federal expenditures on home ownership mortgage deductions, 2012: $131 billion.
Federal funding for low-income housing assistance programs, 2012: less than $50 billion.
Quotes of the Week
“As we consider these monthly reflections of our economy’s health, we remind our elected officials that they must act now on legislation that aims to create jobs and strengthen our economy for those who are at greatest risk of impoverishment and hardship, especially public sector workers. As scripture tells us, ‘One who withholds what is due to the poor affronts the Creator; one who cares for the needy honors God.’ -Proverbs 14:31.”
—from The Faith Community’s Statement on the May 2013 Jobless Numbers & Public Sector Workers
“Almost six decades after Brown v. Board, more than two-thirds of the African-American students in Chicago’s public schools are in schools that are at least 90 percent African-American. Most of these kids are living near or below the poverty line. It’s a good rule of thumb that schools full of poor kids won’t be successful. When they are, it’s so extraordinary it becomes a movie.”
—Steve Bogira, senior writer, Chicago Reader
Samantha Lachman wrote the “Studies/Briefs” and co-wrote the “Clips and other resources” sections in this blog.
What was the value of the information leaked by Bradley Manning? Read Greg Mitchell’s assessment here.
A poster for Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. (Courtesy of Flickr user Nicholas Smale. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
A lot of people wring their hands about the disappearance of serious art these days, the fall of which they usually attribute to the sudden legitimacy of pop culture. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, which opened last Friday, is a pretty good counterpoint to that argument. It’s a piece of “high art” which recommends itself chiefly on the presence of pop culture talent—and niche pop culture talent at that. Oh sure, there are snotty English professors somewhere, I’m sure, sniffing that Much Ado is the Bard’s minor work, a flimsy little comedy about nothing, which is why these people can handle it. But they are wrong.
As with nearly all modern productions of Shakespeare, there are speeches in this Much Ado that drag, and a few false performance notes (the woman playing Conrade leaps to mind, too vampy by half). But there are also clever touches, a fair amount of laughs and some really quite extraordinary physical acting. Overall, the pace is quick and the point is to be exhilarated by the show. But also: to be thrilled to see the actors who play Wesley and Fred implicitly give their characters the happy ending that the Whedon scriptwriter denies. And then turn, as I did, to your seatmate as the credits roll and say, “I wonder what Alyson Hannigan thinks of this.”
That not everyone is going to know what I’m referring to there could be seen as saying a lot about The Way We Do Culture Now, as an Awl slug might put it. Joss Whedon’s is a peculiar talent, one I can’t see succeeding in an age before this one. His expertise is in mixing pop culture memes and references. Granted, the way he tosses them up is always an exercise in joy. (And yes, I say this in spite of his habit of making the audience love someone he’s just about to kill.) But you usually have to be somewhat in the know of what he’s talking about to “get” him. And sometimes even the most devoted fan won’t.
In that sense, I will cop here to not having been a particular fan of Whedon’s most recent production, The Avengers, which was made for a greater Marvel Comics kind of nerd than I personally am. The only piece of him in it that I truly recognized was in the comic timing of a certain Hulk Smash—the rest all too in-jokey for the likes of me. But I felt bad criticizing the film on that level; it’s not that I’m averse to pop-cultural in-jokes. Buffy and Angel were like quasi-religious texts to me, for reasons I won’t bore you with. The result is that I am able to, say, sing through the entire musical episode from memory. I have been known to sing to myself, as I leave the house in the evening, “Every single night, the same engagement.” I have firm opinions on which are the best seasons (second in terms of plot arc, third in terms of consistently good episodes). Also, if you give me a plot point, I can usually tell you the season and episode number. It’s just how I roll.
But for a long time I was the only nerd in the room doing this. No longer. Now that we are all on the Internet, and can all lose days to binge-watching old television shows on Netflix, my kind is pretty much legion. The “pure” fans of Shakespeare? Much less so.
There are days, of course, where I worry about drawing that kind of cordon around the world. When I write about certain prestige cable shows, or some art house films, I know they have tiny audiences who all talk to themselves in prestige publications. The sections of the overall pie get even smaller if we start talking about books that are not written by Dan Brown. And if I let myself think too far down that path, I become, in the name of nothing less than leftism, one of the fuddy-duddies I opened this post with. My brain starts asking how on earth we can have a cohesive society if all of our dream-life—because that’s what the culture is, our dream-life—is running off down different, and often mutually antagonistic, roads. I don’t really care about whether the culture is “serious art,” of course, but I do worry about no one being in the same room.
But the thing I keep coming back to is that the cat is out of the bag there. All the people worried about the disappearance of a common canon are wasting their time trying to coax it back out from under the bed. And that’s not even to mention that that canon is old and mangy and racist and sexist and heteronormative and on down the line. It’s not that we have to put it down, of course—just feed it better, and let it get outside more, have a little fun. As I said, after all, it’s not just that Much Ado About Nothing is good; it’s that it’s pretty good Shakespeare. Especially the part—and here I won’t spoil you too much—where Whedon expertly parries one of those egregiously racist Shakespearean lines by framing the shot in just the right way.
Republican Congressman Peter King is going after Glenn Greenwald. Read more about his attacks on the freedom of the press here.