Opposing war, racism, sexism, climate change, economic injustice and high-stakes testing.
I guess I’ve probably known a nicer, more humble human being than Jonathan Schell. But certainly no one who approached Jonathan’s stature or legacy. I’ve also met a handful of more accomplished writers, but absolutely no one who came close to approaching Jonathan’s humility.
Schell passed away on March 25. Last night, friends, colleagues and admirers gathered in All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan to pay tribute to his life and legacy and to affirm our commitment to carry on his work. His death left a tremendous void. There are precious few activist/writers who combine Jonathan’s stylistic skills, his elegant and accessible manner, his acute humanity, his strategic sense, his reverence for history and his amazing, unfailing optimism.
Jonathan’s journalistic credits for The New Yorker in his early years and later as The Nation’s peace and disarmament correspondent are prodigious and singular and have been well chronicled in numerous places, including here by David Remnick and here by Katrina vanden Heuvel. I’m going to talk about the time that I knew him, just a small slice of his remarkable life.
When Jonathan’s monumental bestseller The Fate of the Earth was published in 1981, it was lauded by The New York Times as “an event of profound historical importance” and quickly became the bible of the anti-nuclear movement, American’s most potent progressive force at the time. Seventeen years later, he came back to nuclear abolition with a special issue of The Nation called The Gift of Time, later published in book-form by Metropolitan. At that time, I was working as The Nation’s publicity director.
Jonathan’s unique contribution was to build bridges with the most unlikely allies. In a series of conversations he conducted for the book with generals and defense officials who helped to make nuclear policy during the cold war, Jonathan found surprising common cause with newly converted anti-nuclear advocates like Robert McNamara, General George Lee Butler, a former commander of the Strategic Air Command, and eventually that paragon of radicalism himself, Henry Kissinger. Jonathan used these conversations and conversions to strengthen his impassioned plea for action and The Gift of Time made indisputably clear that nuclear abolitionism was far from a strictly left-wing cause.
As part of The Nation’s campaign to amplify Jonathan’s call, I was tasked with organizing a small speaking tour with stops in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. The idea was to put Jonathan together publicly with some of those unlikely allies to make the case for nuclear abolition. McNamara and the late Democratic Senator from California, Alan Cranston, both agreed to participate.
Shortly thereafter, I found myself at dinner with this august trio. At first I was uncharacteristically quiet, content to listen in as these elder statesmen talked politics, baseball and—oddly, I remember thinking—gardening. The next opportunity, though, I got up the gumption to tell the extremely disarming McNamara a little about myself. While concerned about what the unfailingly polite Jonathan would think of me hectoring his new ally, I told McNamara that it was a little surreal for me to be organizing a speaking tour for him twenty-five years after my parents used to trot me out to antiwar rallies as a little kid where we denounced him by name. I was unsure how the former secretary of defense would react, and I’ll never forget his rueful smile as he quietly told me that my parents did the right thing. And I’ll always remember Jonathan’s Cheshire-cat grin and vigorous nods of approval following the exchange.
To me, this conversation symbolized what was so special about Jonathan: his unique ability to build bridges which brought together in common cause this lefty child of a red-diaper baby with a core member of LBJ’s war cabinet.
Thank you, Jonathan.
Read Next: “Remembering Jonathan Schell: 1943–2014”
“As one of the last remaining survivors of the Great Depression and the Second World War, I will not go gently into that good night. I want to tell you what the world looks like through my eyes, so that you can help change it.”
In November 2013, 91-year-old Yorkshireman, RAF veteran and ex–carpet salesman Harry Leslie Smith wrote an article for The Guardian that went viral and quickly sparked a charged debate about the state of society, austerity budgets and what future generations owe to the past.
Leslie’s generation not only helped to liberate Europe, it also founded the Western European welfare states, giving the world the ideas of nationalized healthcare, universal education, decent housing for all and proper pensions for the aged. Now he brings his unique perspective to bear on social service cutbacks, benefits policies, political corruption, food poverty, the cost of education—and much more. From the deprivation of Depression-era Barnsley and the terror of war to the creation of the modern-day welfare state now so under siege, Leslie has seen a great civilization rise from the rubble. But now, at the end of his life, he cautions against its steady erosion.
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Memorial Day, first known as Decoration Day, originated in the North after the Civil War to commemorate fallen Union soldiers. By the twentieth century the holiday had been extended to honor all Americans who have died in all wars. I’ve always thought that the best way to honor the fallen is to make every effort to prevent needless deaths in the future by avoiding unnecessary wars and engaging in combat only as a true last resort.
In this vein, here are my Top Ten Memorial Day Songs. The list is highly debatable; songs about war and attendant suffering cut across musical genres. Though I proudly claim some hippie roots I’ve omitted played-out classics like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,“ “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance.” I’ve also given short shrift to an important sub-genre of heavy metal antiwar anthems like Motorhead’s “1916” and Metallica’s 1989 classic, “One,” and ignored the rich history of punk rock odes to the insanity of war. Please use the comments field below to tell me what else I’ve missed.
1. Loretta Lynn, Dear Uncle Sam
2. Bill Withers, I Can’t Write Left-Handed
3. Bob Dylan, Masters of War
4. Curtis Mayfield, We Gotta Have Peace
5. Joni Mitchell, The Fiddle and the Drum
6. The Jam, Little Boy Soldiers
7. Freda Payne, Bring the Boys Home
8. Bob Marley, War/No More Trouble
9. Eric Bogle, The Green Fields of France
10. Paper Lace, Billy Don’t Be a Hero
Bonus Track: Nick Lowe, What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding
Fast food corporations like McDonald’s have virtually mastered the use of childrens’ role models to convince kids that junk food is cool. Fabulously wealthy NBA basketball players have been especially quick to take McDonald’s lucre in return for shilling for food their teams would never let them eat. (Perhaps that’s why the current commercial featuring LeBron James hawking a “Bacon Clubhouse Sandwich” never actually shows him taking a bite.)
James, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, receives millions of dollars annually from McDonald’s in return for helping hook young people—kids who seriously admire him—on greasy, fatty, unhealthy foods. This insidious marketing isn’t new. James is following in the unholy footsteps of former NBA greats Michael Jordan and Larry Bird in contributing to the global epidemic of food-related health problems.
Food activist Anna Lappé, founder of Food MythBusters, recently wrote about the tactics used by the fast-food industry—including McDonald’s—to build brand awareness among their youngest customers. And while she argues that parents need to set their own nutritional boundaries with their children, “the ways the food industry now targets kids are so pervasive and the tactics so deceitful that even the most diligent parent cannot prevent their kids from being inundated at the most impressionable stages in their development.”
Fortunately, kids like 9-year-old Hannah Robertson, who scolded McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson at last year’s shareholders’ meeting, are starting to call out celebs for their shameless shilling and demanding that their role models instead promote healthy food. In this video released today and produced by Corporate Accountability International, Hannah and her friends explain how you can help, including adding your name to this petition imploring James to drop his McDonald’s sponsorship.
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Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed legislation today that will vastly expand the places where Georgia residents can legally carry firearms, a proposal that has drawn both praise and scorn from outside groups.
“People who follow the rules can protect themselves and their families from people who don’t follow the rules,” said Deal, adding: “The Second Amendment should never be an afterthought. It should reside at the forefronts of our minds.”
House Bill 60 allows Georgians to legally carry firearms in a wide range of new places, including schools, bars, churches and government buildings. The law, which takes effect July 1, also legalizes the use of silencers for hunting, allows school staffers to carry guns in school zones and lets leaders of religious congregations choose to allow licensed gun holders inside. It also allows gun owners to carry their weapons in government buildings—including parts of courthouses. Critics have dubbed it the “guns everywhere” bill for its broad scope, and opponents including former Representative Gabby Giffords and Georgia law enforcement tried to block its passage. The National Rifle Association lauds the bill as “the most comprehensive pro-gun reform bill in state history.”
If you’re like me and think expanding gun rights will actually make society less safe, then this law looks pretty awful. The other side of the coin, though, is the increasing support for regulation of firearms propelled in part by an angry grassroots disgusted by the more than sixty school shootings since Newtown and, in part, by elite opinion and financing on the part of power brokers like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Everytown is a movement of moms, teachers, survivors, gun owners, mayors, faith leaders, law enforcement officials and other responsible citizens who believe we can do much more to keep our families and communities safe from gun violence. For the first time in history, a disparate group of Americans are mobilizing to create a counterweight to the NRA to fight for effective regulation at the federal, state and local level.
Everytown will address issues like background checks, domestic violence, suicide prevention and safe storage of guns. Every day, eighty-six Americans are killed by gun violence. Who knows how high that number will go with bills like what Georgia has passed today. To learn how to resist this lethal trend, visit Everytown.org.
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It’s hard to feel hopeful when contemplating climate change. I’ve found it increasingly difficult as I’ve become the father of two children. Both the science and the abundance of money on the denialist side make for a pretty grim picture. But there is another perspective, seen though countless inspiring signs of people recognizing and grappling with the impact of climate change. Only history will tell how sufficient the response but, for now, I want to highlight some of the heroes of the climate change movement, which at least on my better days, lend me hope that my children will inherit something salvageable.
1. Student Divestment Movement
There’s a tired trope that the students of today are politically apathetic, too busy branding themselves on social media to care much about the real world and their actual place in it. I’ve found this to be patently false and we hope that the StudentNation blog is a daily reminder of the deep dedication young people are showing to social justice, economic equality and environmental responsibility. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the burgeoning student campaign for divestment from fossil fuel companies. More than 400 campuses currently have campaigns and six schools have already pledged divestment. As many critics have rightly pointed out, this movement, even if broadly successful, still would lack the economic impact necessary to radically change corporate behavior. This is totally true but there’s a broader benefit in the way these campaigns make it much harder for individuals and institutions to ignore climate. And it can’t hurt to have children of the elite go home for holidays with nagging questions that make their parents’ business-as-usual lives less comfortable.
350.org was founded with the goal of uniting climate activists into a movement, with a strategy of bottom-up organizing around the world. Activists in 189 countries have organized 350.org’s local climate-focused campaigns, projects and actions. In India, organizers have mobilized people to speak out against the country’s dependence on coal for growth. In the US, the group has campaigned to divest public institutions like municipalities and universities from the fossil fuel industry, to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and to press for environmental regulations to be included as part of international trade agreements.
3. Idle No More
Idle No More, a group of largely Canadian Native North Americans, was born in the fall of 2012, when Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper pushed a law, known as C-45, through Parliament rolling back both environmental protections and indigenous peoples’ sovereignty in order to make the country’s tar sands easier to exploit. Resource extraction projects, like the tar sands, often hurt North America’s indigenous populations more than anyone else. In protest of C-45, the group organized rallies in major cities across Canada. A leader of Idle No More, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, sparked a six-week-long hunger strike and protesters blocked rail lines and highways. International recognition and awareness of the issues followed, and the group continues to push back against environmental degradation and social injustice on numerous fronts.
4. Union of Concerned Scientists
The Union of Concerned Scientists was founded during the Vietnam War at a teach-in at MIT to protest the US government’s militarization of science. At first, the group organized against nuclear proliferation and around energy issues, but today, the bulk of the UCS’s work focuses on climate change. The organization is responsible for groundbreaking research on sustainability standards for vehicles and the disastrous affects of climate change globally and continues to function as an intellectual bulwark against lavishly funded denialist junk science.
5. The Super-Rich are Waking Up
Billionaire investor Tom Steyer recently announced that he’s planning a $100 million push to make climate change a key issue in the 2014 midterm elections. He’s also been been a major voice of opposition to construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Even Jim Yong Kim, the president of the World Bank, has been outspoken in his calls for climate action. No social movement can ever rely on the 1 percent, but increasing enlightenment among the global class of super-rich investors doesn’t hurt the cause.
6. Global Power Shift
Read more of The Nation’s special #MyClimateToo coverage:
Mark Hertsgaard: Why TheNation.com Today Is All About Climate
Naomi Klein: The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External
George Zornick: We’re the Fossil Fuel Industry’s Cheap Date
Dani McClain: The ‘Environmentalists’ Who Scapegoat Immigrants and Women on Climate Change
Jeremy Brecher: ‘Jobs vs. the Environment’: How to Counter the Divisive Big Lie
Jon Wiener: Elizabeth Kolbert on Species Extinction and Climate Change
Dave Zirin: Brazil’s World Cup Will Kick the Environment in the Teeth
Steven Hsieh: People of Color Are Already Getting Hit the Hardest by Climate Change
Michelle Chen: Where Have All the Green Jobs Gone?
Leslie Savan: This Is My Brain on Paper Towels
Katrina vanden Heuvel: Earth Day’s Founding Father
Wen Stephenson: Let This Earth Day Be The Last
Katha Pollitt: Climate Change is the Tragedy of the Global Commons
Michelle Goldberg: Fighting Despair to Fight Climate Change
This post requires full disclosure: I could hardly be more involved in what I’m writing about here. Not only do my two children attend PS 29, one of the main teachers involved in the story teaches my son’s class, I’ve personally worked with the teachers and parents trying to organize resistance to high-stakes testing, I know a number of the Teachers Resolution’s signatories and I’m totally biased in their favor.
Now, on to our story: this past week, third through eighth graders in New York State public schools took the English Language Arts standardized tests. In New York City, the tests have an unusually high-stakes dimension absent in most of the rest of the state (and the country) in that students’ scores can play a significant role in their admission to middle school.
There’s a growing nationwide movement opposing these tests as the result of a corporate-driven agenda that has distorted real learning, widened the achievement gap, increased financial strain on schools and parents, unfairly stigmatized teachers and introduced unnecessary stress into the lives of young people. There’s a litany of grievances cited by critics and the opposition comes from both the left and the right.
In many places, activists have encouraged parents to opt out of the tests, which is legally allowed in all states. The most dramatic example of a successful opt out movement took place in January 2013, when teachers led a test boycott at Seattle’s Garfield High School. Teachers refused to administer and students refused to take the state test, which organizers argued wasn’t aligned to curriculum and provided statistically unreliable results. After a months-long standoff with the district, which saw teachers threatened with suspension, the district relented and allowed the high school to forgo the test.
Nothing has gone that far in New York City. Yet. But three Brooklyn schools did have significant opt-out numbers this past week and there’s a huge undercurrent of resentment building to what even many school administrators are calling unreliable, unfair, unintelligible and unnecessary tests.
Liz Phillips, the highly respected veteran principal of Park Slope’s PS 321, was so aghast at the muddle that was apparently this year’s ELA that she issued a strongly worded statement on behalf of her administration and faculty, telling parents, “There was inappropriate content, many highly ambiguous questions, and a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages.” She added that she was “devastated” at having had to administer the tests and underscored that “our teachers and administrators feel that this test is an insult to the profession of teaching and that students’ scores on it will not correlate with their reading ability. ”
Phillips followed up by quickly organizing a protest at her school on April 4, the morning after the ELAs were complete, and reaching out to Dr. Rebecca Fagin, the principal of fellow Brownstone Brooklyn Public School 29 (where my children are in third and first grades currently) encouraging her to do the same.
Fagin, in her second year at the helm and already on record as opposing the high-stakes nature of the test along with 545 fellow New York State principals who co-signed this letter last November, was receptive to Phillips’s suggestion. She also had the strong backing of a growing group of the school’s teachers, a small number of whom had previously collaborated on a teachers’ resolution opposing the tests which was subsequently signed by about three-quarters of the school’s faculty and released at the April 4 protests.
I’ve heard moving emotional appeals making the case against high-stakes testing. I’ve read heavily reported books. I’ve sat through well-informed data-driven presentations. But I had not read something like the PS 29 Teachers Resolution, which combines the intellectual clarity of the deeply informed with the urgency that only profound personal involvement can incite.
These teachers are on the front lines—they truly care and they really know the deal. Let’s honor their commitment by listening to them.
Over the past decade, standardized tests have taken on greater importance in New York’s public schools. New York City’s students now take state ELA and math exams in grades 3 through 8, and their performance on these tests is linked to promotion, middle- and high-school admissions, teacher evaluations and school progress reports.
Because the tests are now aligned with the Common Core State Standards, they have become more difficult, resulting in much lower passing rates across New York City and State. The tests have also become longer: elementary school students will spend between seven and nine hours taking the state tests this month and next, and students with testing accommodations may have to sit for as many as eighteen hours of testing this spring. Moreover, during March and April, students in testing-grade classrooms can spend up to three hours per day preparing for the state tests.
As teachers, we feel the impact of these changes in our classrooms. In testing grades, the anxiety that students and teachers have about the state exams is palpable. Some students break down in tears during testing and related test-prep sessions, knowing that their performance impacts not only their promotion to the next grade, but also their chances of getting into choice middle and high schools.
Compounding the emotional turmoil, teachers in testing grades must narrow their otherwise rich curricula in order to make room for test prep. Subjects like social studies, word study and read aloud are cast aside, and valuable social-emotional learning and exploration must be limited in order to make sure that students are ready for the exams come spring.
High-stakes tests require that teachers narrow not only their curricula but also the skills they emphasize. As teachers in testing grades prepare students for the state exams, they must often put aside their emphasis on skills like elaboration and creative thinking in order to teach kids to write formulaic responses and find the one right answer.
Even the lower grades have been affected by these high-stakes tests. The pressure to prepare students for their upcoming years of testing has cut time for exploration and play. Additionally, that pressure has increased the need for students to meet, at times, developmentally inappropriate milestones in reading and writing.
Beyond the scope of individual classrooms, high-stakes tests have significant consequences for a school as a whole. As teachers are pulled from their programs to accommodate the proctoring and scoring of exams, a number of critical support services, ESL periods, ICT classrooms and specialty programs are disrupted for nearly a month.
When used correctly, we believe that assessment is a powerful tool. At PS 29, we constantly assess our students, collecting meaningful data that informs our day-to-day instruction. Unlike the high-stakes tests, our assessments improve the education we provide.
Across grades, we feel with great certainty that the rise of standardized testing—and most specifically, its high-stakes nature—has eroded real student learning time, narrowed the curriculum and jeopardized the rich, meaningful education our students need and deserve.
As such, we, the undersigned, believe that it is crucial for teachers to raise our voices on these issues, and we resolve to stand together to advocate for the elimination of the high-stakes nature of standardized tests.
Kim Van Duzer
Liz Sturges Cosentino
Melissa Bandes Golden
The indefatigable Coalition of Immokalee Workers recently wrapped up its "Now is the Time” Tour—a ten-day, ten-city tour designed to pressure Wendy’s and Publix supermarkets—two of the remaining hold-out retailers—to embrace the highest standard of farm labor protections and increased pay in US agriculture, the Fair Food Program.
Wendy’s now stands alone as the only major fast-food brand that has refused to join the FFP, a unique farmworker-driven initiative consisting of a wage increase supported by a price premium paid by corporate purchasers of Florida tomatoes, and a human-rights-based Code of Conduct, applicable throughout the Florida tomato industry.
More than 800 consumers marched on Wendy’s headquarters in Columbus, OH, and over 1,000 faith, student and community supporters joined farmworkers on March 14 for a 24-hour vigil and march in Publix’s hometown of Lakeland, FL.
Another big step in the direction of equity and justice is National Farmworker Awareness Week. Five days of action for students and community members to raise awareness about farmworker issues, the annual event is currently marking its 15th anniversary in 2014. Honor the occasion by learning how you can help advance the cause of farmworker justice and equity by calling Wendy’s management, delivering info to Wendy’s franchises, educating your community about the issues and helping spread the word about the campaign.
Today more than 5,000 organizations, including The Nation, are participating in “The Day We Fight Back” a worldwide day of activism in opposition to the NSA’s mass spying. The coalition is asking Americans to support the USA Freedom Act, a bipartisan effort to rein in the worst abuses of the NSA. Write to your representative and senators now and tell them to support the USA Freedom Act. To amplify your voice, call the congressional switchboard at 202-224-3121 or tweet using the hashtag #StoptheNSA.
Read Next: additional actions you can take to rein in the NSA.
Here we go again. With President Obama on the cusp of a decision on whether to approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, on March 2, hundreds of students and young people are expected to risk arrest in an act of civil disobedience at the White House to pressure President Obama to reject the project.
The sit-in is expected to be the largest act of civil disobedience by young people in the recent history of the environmental movement and it will be led by just the demographic that helped propel Obama to the presidency. The protest, known as “XL Dissent,” is meant to send a clear signal to President Obama that the base that helped elect him sees Keystone XL as a decision that will define his entire legacy.
“Obama was the first president I voted for, and I want real climate action and a rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline,” said Nick Stracco, a senior at Tulane University. “The people that voted him into office have made it absolutely clear what we want, and that’s to reject Keystone XL.”
The tar sands, also known as the oil sands, are one of the largest remaining deposits of oil in the world, and efforts to extract the resource from a mix of clay and other materials underneath Canada’s Boreal forest have created the biggest, and by the accounts of numerous scientists and environmental groups, one of the most environmentally devastating energy projects on earth. For details and background, the Natural Resources Defense Council has compiled an extensive document.
The Keystone XL fight has become an iconic issue for environmentally minded young people across the country, many of whom are involved in local campaigns to help stop the pipeline or the broader fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has spread to over 300 universities across the United States.
As 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben aptly puts it:
As the fight to stop KXL enters its final stages, it’s truly inspiring to see young people at the forefront. This pipeline is scheduled to last 40 years—right through the prime of their lives. President Obama needs to look them in the face.
The “XL Dissent” protest on March 2 will begin with a march from Georgetown University to the White House. After a rally in Lafayette Square, hundreds of students and young people are expected to risk arrest at the White House fence. The day before the protest, students will meet for a nonviolent direct action training and fossil fuel divestment conference.
Read Next: Wen Stephenson on voices from Keystone XL’s front lines