Peter Rothberg | The Nation

Peter Rothberg

Peter Rothberg

Opposing war, racism, sexism, climate change, economic injustice and high-stakes testing.

Brooklyn Book Festival, 2012

As a charter member of the Brooklyn Literary Council, the volunteer group that organizes the Brooklyn Book Festival, I couldn’t be more biased in my view that the annual BBF has become an almost singularly important event with legitimate cultural and political clout. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that even if I weren’t associated with the festival, I’d still be a major fan of one of the country’s most celebrated celebrations of books, reading and independent publishing, in all its many guises.

Taking place on Sunday, September 23, in and around downtown Brooklyn, the BBF features a full and free day of more than 150 panels, readings, signings, exhibition booths and interactive events for readers of all ages and inclinations.

In its early years, the festival was largely a homegrown affair, with Brooklyn-based writers taking up the vast majority of speaking slots. But as the BBF has grown hotter (in keeping with the borough’s supposed ascendance) the festival has started to attract high-wattage literary stars like Joyce Carol Oates, Salman Rushdie and Mary Higgins Clark, earning comparisons with more established book fairs in places like Los Angeles and Miami. Happily, there’s still a continuing effort to put independent publishing front and center with indie bookstores, publishers and authors given prime real estate in both the exhibiting quad and on the panel discussions. 

The Nation has been a sponsor and programming partner since the Festival’s inception in 2005. This year Nation speakers include Katrina vanden Heuvel and Eric Alterman talking about election 2012 with Tom Frank and Touré; Victor Navasky discussing the art of magazine making; Chris Hayes taking questions about Twilight of the Elites from Michelle Goldberg, Richard Kim and a live audience; Laura Flanders moderating a panel on the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street with Marina Sitrin, Tariq Ali and Todd Gitlin; and Eyal Press leading a conversation about conscience with Louisa Thomas and E.O. Wilson.

More highlights: Walter Mosley, Edwidge Danticat and Dennis Lehane discussing their unforgettable characters; Bernice L. McFadden, Joyce Carol Oates and Colson Whitehead taking questions on fiction; Adam Shatz leading a conversation about literature and the urban imagination with Mexican author Alvaro Enrigue, Christine Smallwood and Pankaj Mishra; an unabashedly lefty panel of activist artists, including Mr. Fish and Peter Kuper, discussing the relevance of political cartoons; Kate Bolick, Dan Savage and Kristin Davis in conversation about marriage and monogamy, and, in Brooklyn’s best kitschy fashion, Brooklyn’s own Tony Danza in conversation with Borough President Marty Markowitz!

The festival is also committed to programming that reflects Brooklyn’s great diversity. Many events have an international flavor. This year, one session focuses on African novels with child narrators and another features leading Indian writers. Two events honor the 50th anniversary of independence in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. Another seminar looks at poetry and narratives in light of the Arab Spring, while Isabel Wilkerson talks with Amy Goodman about the 20th century northward migration of African-Americans in the US.

Check out the full schedule. Hope to see you there!

(Apologies to all of you far from the New York City area for this regionally-specific post; you can check the BBF site for streaming and video information.)

Top Ten Songs About Economic Injustice

The condition of being dead broke is a perennially popular theme in music, so, regardless of your taste in genre, there’s a song for you. In tribute to Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary, I’ve foolishly taken a stab at naming ten of the best songs ever written about class and economic injustice. I couldn’t use even a fraction of the great songs suggested to me on Twitter and Facebook so please use the comments field to let me know what I’ve missed, and check out my colleague Allison Kilkenny’s rundown on OWS’s anniversary plans.

1. Bob Marley, Them Belly Full

2. Dolly Parton, Coat of Many Colors

3. Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter

4. Gil Scott-Heron, Whitey on the Moon

5. Billy Bragg, Between the Wars

6. Johnny Cash, Sixteen Tons

7. Judy Collins, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?

8. Bruce Springsteen & Tom Morello, The Ghost of Tom Joad

9. Odetta, Pastures of Plenty

10. American Ruling Class, Nickel and Dimed

Occupy Monsanto

One of the most important legacies of the Occupy movement has been the sustained, focused campaigns that have emerged from the broad, diffuse protests that captured the world’s attention last fall. Occupy the SEC has kept up the pressure for the Volcker Rule, while Occupy Colleges is determined to end the student debt crisis.

Another powerful example is the expanding network known as Occupy Monsanto, which has emerged over the past eight months staging numerous protests at companies connected to the global trade of genetically engineered foods, known as GMOs.

(GMO foods are organisms which have had specific changes introduced to their DNA using genetic engineering techniques. The plants produced by Monsanto’s seeds are designed to be treated with toxic herbicides and pesticides, chemicals which have been suspected to increase allergies and have been linked to decreased fertility, asthma, organ failure and even, possibly, cancer. The jury is still out, but Occupy Monsanto sensibly argues that vegetables are fine the way nature intended them, and that Monsanto is devoting far more research to the financial metrics of GMOs than to the health implications.)

Trying to sustain its focus, Occupy Monsanto recently announced that it will organize a full week of protests in St. Louis, home of the Monsanto Corporation, on the anniversary of OWS, September 17, 2012. The protests based on the idea that Monsanto’s push to control agriculture poses a great threat not only to consumers in the United States but to farmers and communities throughout Latin America, Africa and Asia, will call on US legislators to mandate the labeling of GMO food, so consumers can decide whether to ingest these products or not.

Occupy Monsanto aims to aggressively confront and expose the industrial agriculture system head-on. “There is something wrong when a chemical manufacturer, the same company who made Agent Orange, controls the US food supply,” said activist Jaye Crawford.

“Wall Street and the American political elite have underestimated and even ignored our potential to effect rational policy change on GMOs which would include labeling for GMOs and restrictions on GMO cultivation,” says Gene Etic an anti-GMO campaigner based in Washington, DC. “If Occupy Monsanto’s anti-GMO actions are successful, after September 17 the media and increasingly more voters will ask tough questions about these experimental GMO crops especially within the context of the presidential election, as that office holds the power to determine American food policy,” says Etic.

The protests will vary in size and nature but are unified in rejecting the legitimacy of GMO food. Check out this interactive map with times, dates and locations of the more than sixty protests organized so far.

Top Ten Songs About Presidents

Consider this a playlist for the DNC as the Democratic Party convenes in Charlotte, NC, this week to nominate President Obama for a second term.

1. Gil Scott-Heron, “Re-Ron


2. Johnny Horton, “Young Abe Lincoln


3. They Might Be Giants, “James K. Polk


4. Phil Ochs, “Crucifixion



5. James Brown, “Funky President


6. J.B. Lenoir, “Eisenhower Blues


7. Johnny Cash, “Mr. Garfield


8. Tom Paxton, “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation


9. The Legendary K.O., “George Bush Don’t Like Black People


10. Andrea MacArdle as “Annie”, “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover”

The Five Most Under-Reported Stories of the Summer

I find back-to-school signs in mid-August jarring and unwanted, but it’s undeniable that summer is quickly fading into another electoral autumn. Before yielding to the insatiable demands of fall though, I solicited thoughts on the summer’s most neglected stories.

The competition is tough, as the London Olympics, the presidential campaign and the tragic Kristen Stewart/Robert Pattinson break-up have sucked up most of the media oxygen in recent months. But these five issues especially demand far more attention than they’ve received this summer.

1) Jettisoning Democracy in South Carolina
Late last spring, the South Carolina state Supreme Court announced a ruling in a case it heard just days earlier. The decision was shocking: roughly 200 candidates throughout South Carolina would have their names removed from the June 12 primary ballots. Nearly 200 people who had filed to run for office were prevented from doing so—severely limiting voters’ choices at the polls in a year when all 170 South Carolina House and Senate seats were up for grabs. In many cases this meant that incumbent lawmakers had no opposition. Since then the situation has gotten even worse. Several incumbents throughout the state who lost their primary elections last June have been put back on the ballots by judicial order. The case has received virtually no national attention to date. Local investigative reporter Corey Hutchins is one of the few journalists taking the case seriously.

2) Military Suicides
Even with the Afghanistan war winding down, suicides among troops are on the rise. Among all branches, the number is up 22 percent from a year ago, and July 2012 was the worst month on record since the Army began tracking suicide rates: thirty-eight soldiers took their own lives, according to figures released by the Pentagon. Despite fervent media interest in most all things military, this epidemic of military suicides has been a severely neglected story.

3) Rise of Islamophobic Violence in the US
This year’s Ramadan holiday was marred by a dramatic uptick in Islamophobic attacks against American Muslims in their schools, homes and places of worship. Think Progress has compiled a list of recent acts of violence coast to coast, virtually none of which have received national attention. (The Nation’s special issue on Islamophobia offers more evidence that in the United States today the very ordinariness of Muslim-American life has become grounds for suspicion.)

4) The Amazon Economy Gains Steam
The increasing influence of Amazon.com over the world economy would seem to be a natural story for intrepid business reporters. But it took a series of articles in the Financial Times to explain Amazon’s astonishing economic impact and detail the corporation’s growth as not just a technology giant but a utility—providing vital infrastructure that supports and fuels the businesses of third-party retailers and other startups. At the same time, Amazon is a threat to many of those same companies, able to use its intimate knowledge of their businesses to compete with them. It’s complicated stuff, as The Nation’s special Amazon issue in June made clear. The only surprising thing is why more journalists aren’t looking into the profound ways that Amazon is changing life as we know it.

5) Rapid Escalation of Climate Change
As was indeed reported widely, July was the hottest month on record in the United States, because of a combination of global warming and widespread drought, according to a consensus of experts. The lower forty-eight US states experienced an average July temperature of 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit which was about 3.3 degrees above the twentieth-century average. Moreover, for 2012, July wasn’t an anomaly. Taken together, the first seven months of the year have been, on average, the warmest January-to-July period on record in the contiguous US states. This is serious stuff and the small spate of articles noting these unprecedented trends seems like severe neglect. As @Glinner rightly pointed out to me on Twitter, “however much has been written about the climate, it’s obviously not enough.”

Occupy Wall Street: Year One

Last September 17, as part of a global wave of protest, people from across the country came together in the heart of New York City’s financial district to occupy Wall Street. With the backdrop of big bank foreclosures, rampant joblessness, massive cuts in social services and the spiraling gap between rich and poor, the 99 percent was born and the movement forced a shift in the national conversation to include discussions of class that had previously been consigned to the precincts of the left-wing media.

On September 15, the movement will reassemble where it was born—in NYC’s financial district—for three days of education, celebration and renewed resistance to economic injustice with permitted convergences and assemblies, concerts and civil disobedience.

Here is what’s planned so far. Check it out and then get creative and help organize the proceedings yourself.

Other OWS anniversary events worth adding to your calendar include the Occupy the Film Festival at Anthology Film Archives, which is aiming to bring together the most compelling and innovative films of the movement, from its roots in the Spanish Indignados, the Arab Spring and American factory floor occupations to the mini-societies that blossomed in public squares, to the post-encampment community organizing around home foreclosures, corporate regulation, immigrant struggles and student debt, and The Civilians’ “Occupy #S17: One Year Later,” a show focusing on how the ideas of OWS have evolved, taking place on September 17 at Joe’s Pub.

The weekend’s activities will take place far beyond NYC as well. If you can’t make it to NYC, OWS suggests picking viable local targets that embody corporate greed—occupy your state Capitol building like the people of Wisconsin, or a chamber of commerce conference as they did in DC. Take inspiration from revolutionary occupations worldwide, from the railroads of India to the rivers of the Amazon to the streets of Spain. Wall Street has, essentially, occupied our entire planet. It’s time for some reciprocity.

'Because You're Beautiful'

The brilliant and unsung Australian singer-songwriter Toni Childs wrote her new song 'Because You're Beautiful' after Eve Ensler, the author of the Vagina Monologues, asked her to create something that could inspire people to end violence against women and girls for all time. The resulting song may be as important as it is beautiful and haunting.

Save Campus Diversity

By the end of this year, the US Supreme Court is expected to decide whether or not colleges and universities can prioritize diversity through their admissions policy guidelines. The decision could pose a serious threat to campus diversity and undermine the quality of the educational experience for millions of students coast to coast.

For students, America’s diversity can be a great advantage—it enriches the educational experience and offers opportunities to collaborate and problem-solve with people from different cultural backgrounds.  When we can incorporate different viewpoints and experiences into our lives and our work, we are all stronger.  Diversity provides students with skills necessary to flourish in the global economy. 

For the past forty years, colleges have worked hard to make sure that their doors are open to students from all backgrounds. Consequently, admissions policies that promote diversity have provided opportunities to countless numbers of college students. In 2003, the Supreme Court agreed that those efforts are critical, in a case regarding the University of Michigan Law School’s admissions policy, which promotes all forms of diversity in its student body, including racial and ethnic.  In that case, the Court re-emphasized that “the nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas...of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.”

But the principles underlying that decision are now being challenged.  As students head back to school this fall, the Supreme Court will weigh in on the admissions policy adopted by the University of Texas.  If the Court strikes down the University’s admissions policy, the decision could negatively impact students in both Texas and across the country. 

Student activists across the country are mobilizing to not let this happen.  The venerable United States Students Association is leading the charge and has created this public petition underscoring the critical importance of campus diversity. Join your name to the call today and spread the word to friends, family and your Facebook and Twitter communities.

Remembering Alexander Cockburn

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned in the many tributes to (and screeds about) Alexander Cockburn I’ve read since his unexpected death on July 20 was his unmitigated support of interns, and specifically, his singular tendency to open up his coveted column inches to the work of young, untried researchers, giving them valuable exposure and a clip that, back in the pre-Internet days, was a valuable asset in getting future work in what was then called the alternative media.

I was Alex’s intern in 1990 and in June of that month he asked me what I thought he should write about for his next column. (And I should mention that Alex was not being lazy here—he never had trouble coming up with column topics.) I mentioned something about how the FBI Cointelpro program to surveil and undermine domestic dissidents was still relevant and that parallels could be drawn from the repression of the Black Panther Party (something I’d written a paper on for a senior history seminar months earlier) to the spying on militant environmental activists associated with EarthFirst!, who were then staging a radical civil disobedience campaign called Redwood Summer.

Alex liked the idea and asked me if I’d like to draft the column, a task I took up with equal parts excitement and terror. But I managed to hammer something out, which Alex graciously and over-generously complimented. He then added some inimitable style points, a narrative about picking up some hitch-hikers and an unrelated but characteristic swipe at Vaclav Havel and published the 1,500 word column, warmly crediting me for the research and writing. This was something he did frequently with his interns, and it demonstrated a respect for our ideas that, at least in my case, helped instill a critical confidence that was invaluable when attempting the leap from intern to professional.

Here’s that column, originally published in the July 2, 1990, issue of The Nation. I think it still stands up, and one can draw a straight line from the column’s reporting to the current surveillance of Muslim Americans. (The column also demonstrates Alex’s reverence for history, something I always appreciated about his work.)

As a fellow former Cockburn intern, Mike Tomasky, eloquently wrote at the Daily Beast, numerous Nation writers at the time were extremely supportive of interns and always appreciative of the work we did. They included Christopher Hitchens, the great Andy Kopkind, who was felled way too young by cancer in 1994, and the kindly Marxist Polish-French European correspondent Daniel Singer. But Alex was unique in providing his actual column space for our work. For that, and for taking my callow ideas seriously, I’ll always be grateful.

The Story of Change

When filmmaker and activist Annie Leonard set out in 2007 to share what she’d learned about the way we make, use and discard our “stuff,” she thought 50,000 hits would be a great audience for her “twenty-minute cartoon about trash.” Four years later, more than 15 million people had watched Leonard’s video, “The Story of Stuff,” making it the most watched environmental video of all time.

In early 2011, Leonard released “The Story of Citizens United,” the best short history of the growth of corporate power I’ve ever read, heard or seen.

She followed that up with “The Story of Broke,” an eight-minute animated movie that directly challenged those who argue that America is penniless and incapable of paying its bills, let alone making investments in a more sustainable and fair economy.

Now, Leonard is back with “The Story of Change,” a powerful and typically informed polemic imploring viewers to put down their credit cards and start exercising their citizenship to help build a more sustainable, just and fulfilling world.

Faced with daunting environmental and social problems with few easy solutions, many progressives resignedly conclude that the best they can do to influence change is to buy green or fair-trade products. In her new video, Leonard lauds conscious consumerism but rightly calls it a great place to start, but a terrible place to stop.

The six-minute film features an inspiring exploration of what effective changemaking has looked like through history—from Gandhi to the civil rights movement to the victories of the early environmental movement. It spotlights the elements found whenever and wherever people unite to make change: a big idea, a commitment to working together, and the ability and patience to turn that idea and commitment into meaningful action.

What’s striking about the movements Leonard highlights is that they all pushed fundamental change and they often did so while a majority of the population, as measured by public opinion polls and punditry, was arrayed against them, as Sami Grover makes clear in a good post at TreeHugger.

After watching, share the video with friends, family and your Facebook and Twitter communities; consider donating to the project and check out the “Story of Change” resource page for more info and tips on getting involved.

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