The US and Russia have been locked in a rhetorical tennis match since President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Ukraine’s Crimea region late last week. Calling for “some sober perspective” from politicians in all three countries, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel appeared on CNN’s Amanpour to discuss the recent upheaval in Ukraine. According to vanden Heuvel, reasoned diplomacy will be critical for securing the territorial integrity of Ukraine, stabilizing the country’s faltering economy, and organizing free and fair elections. For more of vanden Heuvel’s thoughts on what must be done in Ukraine, listen to her interview with Uprising Radio’s Sonali Kolhatkar.
This was originally published as an op-ed in the Tufts Daily and is reprinted here with permission.
“This is the year to take action on climate change. There are no more excuses,” proclaimed Jim Yong Kim, current president of the World Bank, at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. “We can divest [from carbon-intensive assets],” he continued, saying that investing in the fossil fuel industry betrays investors’ “responsibility to future pension holders who will be affected by decisions made today.”
Less than three weeks later, Tufts University’s Board of Trustees voted to not divest from fossil fuels, citing “significant anticipated negative impact on Tufts’ endowment.”
As members of President Monaco’s Tufts Divestment Working Group, it quickly became clear to us that the group hadn't been created for “open discussion” about the possibility of divestment from fossil fuels, as Monaco claimed. Instead, it existed to generate financial models supporting the administration’s expectation that it was financially impossible.
In one of our committee meetings, Patricia Campbell, the executive vice president of our university, admitted that divestment could indeed be feasible—but it was clear to us that the administration wasn’t willing to consider the changes to Tufts’ investment strategy that divestment would entail. It was this lack of consideration given to fossil fuel divestment that colored the working group process and left us disappointed by our administration’s utter lack of good faith in its approach to the issue. In his Davos address, Kim said, “Corporate leaders should not wait to act until market signals are right and national investment policies are in place,” yet our administration continues to claim that Tufts should wait for the carbon bubble to burst before taking action.
Meanwhile, many corporate and institutional leaders are already taking leadership. Mayors of cities including Seattle, Madison and our own Somerville are pursuing divestment. Norwegian financial services firm Storebrand, which controls more than $60 billion in assets, has announced its intention to pull its investments out of coal and tar sands companies to ensure “long-term stable returns” because they know that those stocks will be “financially worthless” in the future. In January, the CEO of Google joined sixteen other managers of charitable foundations in divesting their assets from the fossil fuel industry. The list goes on.
Our administration and trustees declined to join these other institutions not because they are unintelligent or misinformed but because they are afraid. Perhaps some of our trustees are afraid to consider that the profits they have gained from their investments in fossil fuel companies have accumulated at the cost of a stable climate and human lives. We have heard both President Monaco and trustee Laurie Gabriel admit that divestment is the moral choice, but they are afraid to challenge one of the largest, most powerful industries in the history of the world. They are afraid to take leadership.
We, like so many of our fellow students, chose Tufts because we believed it was a place that valued ambitious leadership, bold innovation and active global citizenship. These are the values that Tufts promotes to us throughout its admissions process, in the classroom and ultimately, in the paths we take after graduation. We are expected to lead, make moral choices and improve our society. But the recent announcement that Tufts will not divest showed that our administration is failing to live up to its own values.
In his letter to the Tufts community, President Monaco wrote: “We are committed to meeting ambitious sustainability goals for Tufts’ operations,” and cited new projects in building energy metering and cogeneration. These are important steps, but compared to the scale and urgency of combating climate change, Tufts’ “sustainability goals” are not in any way “ambitious.”
We have seen this lack of ambition from our institution many times before. It took forty years for Tufts to create an Africana studies department. It took more than a decade to divest from apartheid South Africa. We don’t have a decade now. We do not have the luxury to be anything short of ambitious. Not when too many communities are already fighting for their lives, for clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and food to eat. Not when the fossil fuel industry imperils our generation’s ability to live, work and raise children in a stable and just world.
The student body showed its support for divestment last semester in a referendum. We know that we, the student body, have the moral clarity and ambition that our administration has failed to show. Tufts will not change unless we fight for that change. So we ask that as this campaign moves forward, you stand with us to make Tufts a place that we can be proud of, for the sake of our future.
Read Next: Will Yale make the same decision on fossil fuel divestment as Tufts?
Federal prosecutors moved to dismiss charges against a journalist and Internet activist who faced decades in prison for publishing a hyperlink containing hacked information, The Guardian reports.
A US attorney for the Northern District of Texas filed a motion Wednesday to dismiss eleven of twelve charges against Barrett Brown in a case accusing him of trafficking data and credit card information stolen from private intelligence firm Stratfor. The hack was carried out by members of the Internet collective Anonymous. Brown, who was not found to be involved with the hack himself, allegedly republished a hyperlink to the Stratfor file in a chatroom.
The government’s motion for dismissal comes a day after Brown’s attorneys formally requested the link-sharing charges be dropped. In a forty-eight page memo, Brown’s attorneys argued that their client did not make the Stratfor file “available to other persons online” because it was already publicly available at the time. They also argued that charging Brown for merely sharing a link violated his free speech rights, calling the indictment “unconstitutionally overbroad” and warning that the case could “chill speech in violation of the First Amendment.”
Brown’s case galvanized lawyers, Internet activists and free speech advocates who feared that convictions on his link-sharing charges could set a dangerous precedent for journalists that source from hacked data.
“By the US, government’s theory, journalists can be held criminally liable merely for linking to a publicly-available file that contains sensitive information, whether or not they had any part in actually obtaining the data in the first place,” wrote Geoffrey King, Internet Advocacy Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, before Brown’s charges were dropped. “This theory threatens the nature of the Web, as well as the ethical duty of journalists to verify and report the truth.”
Brown is still accused of access device fraud related to the Stratfor case. He also faces separate charges of obstruction of justice, threatening a federal agent and conspiracy to disclose information about a federal agent.
According to The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington, the dismissals in Brown’s case removed thirty-five years from a maximum prison sentence of 105 years.
Economic inequality—as a political cause, as an issue of social and moral concern, as a subject of academic research—is at long last, having its moment. World leaders from President Obama to Pope Francis are giving speeches and sermons about it. Political candidates like Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren have scored upset victories with campaigns that emphasized themes of economic inequality. The Democratic Party, taking its cue, is adopting economic inequality as the theme of the 2014 midterm elections. Perhaps the most intriguing recent development is that economic elites are showing distinct symptoms of unease and even panic at the country’s growing populist mood.
The timing could hardly be better for the publication this month of several important new books about economic inequality, which I plan to discuss in this space. But first, I want to write about another notable book on the subject that was published toward the tail end of 2013. The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) is by the eminent Swedish sociologist Göran Therborn (author of What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules? and other classic works). Comprising just 185 pages, it’s a short book that packs a powerful punch.
Therborn’s book is a panoramic survey of inequality across the globe in its various dimensions: theoretical, historical, empirical. Like other recent works, Killing Fields looks at the causes of the dizzying rise in economic inequality we’ve seen in recent decades in most of the developed world. But its greatest strength lies in the succinct but compelling answers it provides to three of the most important inequality-related questions. First: what, exactly, do we mean by “inequality”? Second, what is inequality doing to us? And finally, why should we care about it?
First, let’s deal with the “what do we mean by inequality?” question. Therborn finds the definition of equality developed by economist Amartya Sen to be most helpful. Equality, according to Sen, is “equality of capability to function fully as a human being. Such a capability clearly entails survival, health (and aids for disability), freedom and knowledge (education) to choose one’s life-path, and resources to pursue it.”
Inequalities, then, are “multidimensional barriers to human functioning in the world” which are “violations of human rights.” According to Therborn, there are three main types of inequality: vital inequality, which refers to inequalities regarding health outcomes and life expectancies; resource inequality, which refers to economic inequalities of various sorts; and a concept he calls he calls existential inequality, which he defines as “the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development.”
The most eye-opening, and disturbing, passages of the book are those that concern “vital inequality,” or the impact of inequality on life and health. This is where the “killing fields” of the title comes in. “Inequality kills,” states Therborn in the book’s first sentence. Consider these statistics:
§ Between 1990 and 2008, life expectancy of white American men declined by three years, and low-educated white American women saw their life expectancy decline by five years.
§ The life expectancy between the richest and poorest neighborhoods in Glasgow, a difference of twenty-eight years, is the same as that between the UK and Haiti.
§ The UK’s famous Whitehall studies indicate that the odds of poor health and premature death increased as the employee’s status in the civil service bureaucracy decreased—even controlling for use of alcohol, tobacco and other factors.
§ The restoration of capitalism to the former Soviet Union is associated with a stunning 4 million excess deaths there.
§ A number of studies show that unemployment is associated with a significant number of excess deaths, even when controlling for other health indicators.
Those examples and many others that Therborn cites, which make “the correlation between hierarchy and death” all too clear, are harrowing. (Therborn wields a masterful command of an array of fascinating statistcs). Yet high inequality societies are far from inevitable. Therborn argues that “capitalism and capitalists can, under certain circumstances, be taught how to behave.” Income inequality in the Nordic countries in the early 1980s was about the same as it was in the Communist bloc. Egalitarianism, he claims, continues to hold a powerful appeal, and there are at least three major reasons why high levels of economic inequality tend to be deeply troubling to many people.
First, Therborn notes, there is the illegitimacy of today’s rentier capitalism. Many among the one percent derive their wealth “not from hard productive work, thrift and honest exchange, but from connections—parental and/or political—from gambling and from sidestepping existing norms and regulations.” Secondly, he says, the “positive lure” of egalitarian, enlightened societies “where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her capabilities.” Finally, there is what he calls “the social cost of other people’s misery”:
Without support from any representative-sample surveys, I would venture the proposition that most middle-class Kolkatans, Cairenes, Kinois, Angelenos, or Paulistas would prefer to walk (or drive) the cities or, say, Paris or Stockholm, where they will not get confronted with abject misery, where streets and public spaces are clean—not because the miserable have been chased away, but because society itself is cleaned of abject misery. Most middle-class people are likely to be happier without walled-in seclusion, barbed wire and armed body guards, without whom the happy middle classes of Northwestern Europe are living.
Therborn has a gift for crafting paragraphs like the one above, capable of awakening the reader like a jolt. And so, upon reading that passage, I reflected upon how much abject human misery I take for granted every time I step outside my apartment for a cup of coffee—the obstacle course of panhandlers I dodge, the dazed-looked homeless woman with the shopping cart whose gaze I avoid. Yet, just blocks away from this terrible human suffering loom the gleaming offices of the highest-paid university president in the land (the University of Chicago’s Robert Zimmer pocketed $3.4 million in 2011, the year for which the most recent figures are available).
Therborn’s elegant, eloquent book is perhaps most valuable in the way it forces us to take a fresh look at the social order around us and its mounting and appalling human costs. He closes the book with these sentences:
The battle is about to start. Nobody knows how it will end. Which side will you be on?
It’s a very good question.
Read Next: Mary Bottari explains how pro-austerity groups lost the deficit wars.
This post was originally published at RepublicReport.com
David Jolly, the Republican congressional candidate vying for the special election in Florida next week, has not only made a career out of lobbying. Records reviewed by Republic Report show that Jolly’s clients won millions of dollars in taxpayer earmarks from his old boss, the late Representative C.W. “Bill” Young (R-FL), an appropriator known for his lavish use of the earmarking process.
These earmarks contrast sharply with the claims made by Jolly that he did not build his business career through political connections to his former employer.
“I did not build my practice around Mr. Young, not in any stretch,” Jolly told the Tampa Bay Times.
Two of the firms that hired Jolly as a lobbyist—BayCare Health Systems and Alakai Defense Systems—won lucrative earmarks from Young while paying Jolly to influence the committee where Young was a senior member.
In 2009, BayCare Health Systems retained Jolly and another former Young staffer named Douglas Gregory. Later that year, Young secured a $1 million earmark for BayCare Health Systems for “facilities and equipment.”
From 2008 through the beginning of 2010, Alakai Defense Systems, a sensor technology company for the military, retained Jolly as a lobbyist. Records indicate that during this period, Young awarded Alakai with over $2 million worth of earmarks.
The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act prohibits certain former staffers in Congress from lobbying their former employers for a period of time. As The New York Times recently reported, many former staffers have flouted the “cooling off period” ban by taking advantage of an array of loopholes in the law.
“Yes, there are concerns raised when a former staffer appears to use his or her ties to his employer for personal gain,” says Jessica Levinson, associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. ”The cooling off period prohibition is designed to prevent people from using their connections in government to obtain unfair or preferential treatment or access for private clients.”
“The idea,” says Levinson, is that “everyone, regardless of whether or not they are represented by former staffers or officials, should get a fair shot to persuade their officials.”
Read Next: Lee Fang writes that Obama’s newest pick for TPP trade post is a former SOPA lobbyist.
It won’t get as much notice as his budget proposal, but President Obama’s “2014 Trade Policy Agenda,” which was released this week, sends an exceptionally powerful signal regarding the administration’s economic vision.
Unfortunately, it’s the wrong signal.
While the president—in his public pronouncements and his budget—is saying a lot of the right things about income inequality and investment in infrastructure and job creation, the White House has yet to recognize the harm that is done to the American economy—and to prospects of economic renewal that the president envisions—by failed trade policies.
At a time when the United States continues to experience overwhelming trade deficits—$38.7 billion in December—there is little in the way of new thinking in the report. In fact, as Public Citizen’s authoritative “Eyes on Trade” blog notes, “Much of the 2014 agenda is a copy and paste of the 2013 agenda, reiterating USTR’s stock set of talking points, such as the tired, counterfactual promise that a more-of-the-same trade policy will boost exports.”
The 2014 agenda statement outlines the efforts of the administration to advance new free-trade initiatives—the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership—that build on the approach of the North America Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the permanent normalization of trade relations with China.
The problem with the old way of doing things is that it has not worked. US Senator Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat who authored the book, The Myths of Free Trade (New Press, notes that “we’ve seen more than five million jobs lost to our ‘trading partners,’ in NAFTA, CAFTA, and China…”
Brown argues that, in an increasingly globalized economy, “we should export American products, not American jobs.”
There are sections of the “2014 Trade Policy Agenda” that talk a good line in that regard. But the rhetoric is not matched by a shift in approach. The agenda contains nothing in the way of a vision for breaking the pattern described by the office of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders:
After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Mexican agricultural sector has been decimated by cheap exports from American agribusiness. Poverty has increased, the middle class has declined and people are literally dying in the desert trying to flee Mexico for the US. It is not only Mexico and other developing countries that have been hurt by these unfettered pro-corporate free-trade agreements. It’s also the working families in the US, who are now engaged in a horrendous “race to the bottom.” Despite an explosion of technology and a huge increase in worker productivity, poverty in America is increasing, the middle class is shrinking and the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. In the past 6 years, millions of good-paying jobs in the US have been lost as companies continue to shut down here and move to China and other low-wage countries.
Just as it clings to a flawed vision regarding trade policies, the administration’s agenda recycles a wrongheaded approach to negotiating international agreements. “To facilitate the conclusion, approval, and implementation of are market-opening negotiating initiatives (on TPP and T-TIP) negotiations,” the administration’s statement announces, “we are working with Congress to support broad bipartisan passage of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA).”
The broad bipartisan stance in Congress at this point is one of opposition to passage of TPA, a tool that diminishes the role of Congress in shaping agreements by “fast tracking” the process. More than 150 House Democrats have expressed their opposition to “Fast Track” Trade Promotion Authority. “Fast Track is simply not appropriate for 21st Century agreements and must be replaced,” the Democrats wrote. “The United States cannot afford another trade agreement that replicates the mistakes of the past. We can and must do better.”
Several dozen House Republicans have broken with their party’s congressional leadership to express their opposition to Fast Track.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, says, “I am against Fast Track.” He has urged the administration to back off on its request for Trade Promotion Authority. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, though she is less skeptical than Reid, has says the Fast Track proposal that is currently on the table—a measure sponsored by US Congressman David Camp, R-Michigan, and former Senator Max Baucus, D-Montana—is “unacceptable.”
The Obama administration needs to rethink a trade agenda that is at odds with much of the rest of what the president is saying about job creation, renewal of manufacturing and the strengthening of the US economy.
Instead of recycling failed approaches and flawed strategies, it should listen to Democrats like Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who has been a frequent ally of the administration but says:
Given how previous trade agreements have devastated local manufacturing sectors and shipped American jobs overseas, it would be unwise for Congress to ram through new trade deals without offering proper oversight. Massive trade deals—such as the Trans Pacific Partnership—now affect everything from America’s economy, to consumer and food safety, to labor standards and our environment. Blindly approving or disapproving agreements that have largely been negotiated in secret would represent a derelict of duty for Congress. If there is nothing to hide in these agreements, we should be allowed to debate and amend these deals in the open. I am committed to doing all that I can to prevent the inappropriate use of Fast Track in Congress.
Read Next: Lee Fang on Obama’s nomination of a SOPA lobbyist for a key trade post.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The Cold War is history. For those growing up today, it is as distant in time as World War II was for those who came of age in the 1970s. In both cases, empires collapsed and maps were redrawn. Repugnant ideologies were laid bare and then laid to rest, though patches of nostalgia persist.
Surely the Cold War has been consigned to the textbooks as irrevocably as the Battle of the Bulge. The Berlin Wall is in pieces. The US president speaks of the abolition of nuclear weapons. The “common European home” from the Atlantic to the Urals—a conceit embraced by such odd bedfellows as De Gaulle and Gorbachev—beckons on the horizon, with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in place and the European Union creeping ever eastward. Tensions inevitably crop up, but they’re nothing worth exchanging ICBMs over.
What was once confrontation has turned into joint efforts to address global challenges: stabilizing the world economy, negotiating nuclear agreements with Iran, ending the war in Syria. A long article in The New Yorker on a multibillion-dollar nuclear fusion project being constructed in France reminds us that this quest for a sustainable replacement for fossil fuels began as a late Cold War agreement between Moscow and Washington. Impending environmental catastrophe is gradually uniting all sides in much the same way that Ronald Reagan once imagined that a Martian invasion would.
And then there’s Ukraine.
Just when you thought it was safe to get back into geopolitics, the Cold War has reared its ugly head once again. All your favorite characters have returned to the footlights—the iron-fisted Russian leader, the thundering American secretary of state, troops of multiple nations on alert and lots of cloak-and-dagger intrigue behind the scenes. And starring in the role of Prague 1968 is that new and untested actor: Crimea 2014. We can only hope that history is repeating itself as farce, not as a tragic tale told twice.
But there are some crucial differences in this restaging of the Cold War classic. The West has not been practicing containment of Russia so much as rollback of its influence by expanding NATO and the EU up to the country’s doorstep. And Moscow is not invoking some form of internationalism in support of ideological compatriots but nationalism pure and simple to safeguard its ethnic brethren. Moreover, this is a democratic age: Russian military intervention now comes with the Duma’s imprimatur. From the West, so far, has come much sound and fury, including the threat of economic sanctions and other penalties, but a military response remains off the table. There is still time to find a diplomatic solution that can preserve Ukrainian sovereignty, address the concerns of Russians on both sides of the border and revive that old vision of a common European home that treats Russia as a member, not a mobster.
When people speak of “Russia’s doorstep,” they mean Ukraine. No one aspires to be a doorstep, because that’s what people walk on with their muddy boots. As Timothy Snyder has detailed in his book Bloodlands, Ukraine has suffered incalculable losses because of its location, first as a locus of potential resistance to Soviet control and then as a battleground during World War II. War pushed the country’s boundaries westward to incorporate what had once been parts of Poland. Changing the map only further emphasized Ukraine’s centrality to the fate of Europe, particularly after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. The western sections have leaned Europe-ward, while large numbers of Russian speakers in the east feel some measure of allegiance to Moscow.
It’s not just language that threatens to divide Ukraine like the poor baby in the parable about King Solomon. It’s also a question of which collective entity to huddle in for shelter. Ukraine joined Russia and Belarus to create the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in December 1991 as the Soviet Union fell to pieces around them. But Ukraine was also the first CIS member to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994. Fifteen years later, Ukraine signed up for the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. Russia has not been happy about either of these partnerships. Moscow put together its own partnership, the Eurasian Economic Community, more than a dozen years ago, but Ukraine is only an observer.
A clash of partnerships is now threatening to break out on the peninsula of Crimea. This semi-autonomous region is the only part of Ukraine with a majority of Russian speakers, and it also hosts Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. In Crimea’s 2010 parliamentary elections, Viktor Yanukovych’s Russophone Party of Regions scored a huge victory. But a large population of Crimean Tatars—twelve to fifteen percent of the two million people who live on the peninsula—has rallied in support of the new government in Kiev. The sympathies of Crimeans are clearly divided.
And now, it seems, Crimea itself is divided. Armed men stormed the Crimean parliament last week and forced the appointment of Sergei Aksyonov as the new prime minister of the peninsula. Aksyonov immediately appealed to Russia for assistance and set a date for a referendum on Crimean independence. Russian troops have spread throughout the peninsula to secure both civilian and military installations. Russian guards are posted outside Ukrainian military bases. The peninsula is divided between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian forces, with Aksyonov already declaring a new Crimean army that he insists Ukrainian soldiers must join. Russian troops conducting exercises at the border recently returned home, and Vladimir Putin has said that his country has no intention of swallowing Crimea. Indeed, absorption might not be his goal, for even the tastiest morsels have a habit of sticking in the throat.
Crimea is not the only challenge to Ukraine’s unity. Kharkiv, located a scant forty kilometers from the border with Russia, is the country’s second-largest city. Earlier in the week, a group of Cossacks seized control of the city hall and hoisted a Russian flag. But the new Ukrainian authorities eventually re-established control. Places like Crimea and Kharkiv could swing either way in their sympathies. Russian troops plus separatist sentiment could produce an Abkhazian or Transnistrian scenario: breakaway provinces recognized by only a handful of countries around the world. Only compromise—a free-and-fair referendum, the preservation of minority rights, a moratorium on NATO expansion—can prevent fracture.
The continuing crisis in Ukraine has generated its share of Cold War–style inanities. One favorite trope of that period was the “mote in your eye” accusation. Secretary of State John Kerry, who apparently only lives in the present, recently intoned that “you just don’t invade another country on phony pretexts in order to assert your interests.” Then there’s the “if they only had nukes” argument. John Mearsheimer thinks Ukraine shouldn’t have given up its nuclear arsenal back in 1994 because those weapons would have made Russia think twice about sending troops into Crimea. Will the MAD scientists never learn? The situation in Ukraine is bad enough without adding WMD to the mix, whether in the form of deliberate attack, accidental use or loose nukes.
But the chief inanity is the one that has governed Western policy since 1991—that there would be no costs to the expansion of NATO and the European Union. Leaders in Washington and Brussels have been repeatedly warned by those with just a passing familiarity with Russian history and culture that encroachment in Moscow’s sphere of influence—its “near abroad”—is tantamount to poking the bear. Yes, it’s true that both institutions are responding to genuine interests “on the ground.” But the stakes here are very high. It’s not just about “losing Ukraine.” It would be an even greater catastrophe to “lose Russia.” And here I mean not the Cold War game of winning and losing but the more universal struggle between a liberating order and a debilitating chaos.
Indeed, with the rise of Putin and the freeze that has settled over freedom of expression and assembly, Russia is already being lost by degrees. It can’t be allowed to drift further into the politics of reaction. But the traditional approach to “saving Russia” has been a dual strategy of rolling back its influence externally and funding democracy initiatives within the country. However much I would love to see Ukraine in the European Union one day and however much I support civil society initiatives inside Russia, enthusiasts for these projects must recognize that they strengthen the hands of those who argue the West is only interested in neutering Mother Russia. Backlash is almost inevitable.
Policymakers in Washington and Brussels should take a much longer view. Instead of concentrating on “partnerships” that put Russia beyond the pale, they have to revive a much more encompassing vision of European security. As long as we continue to shave away at the habitat where the bear lives, it will swipe at its encroachers and defend its ground. “Some days you’ll eat the bear,” goes the old Joan Armatrading song, while “some days the bear will eat you.”
It might seem ridiculous to talk about grand partnerships with Russia at the very moment when the international community wants to put Putin in the penalty box. But Russia is much bigger than just Vladimir Putin, despite the man’s penchant for self-aggrandizement. Making a place at the table for this vast country is a chief challenge for the twenty-first century. So, even as we condemn the introduction of Russian troops in Crimea and decry the narrowing of democratic freedoms in Moscow, we have to remember that the Cold War is over, it should never return and both sides must act that way.
Read Next: the editors urge realism and common sense on Ukraine.
Today, the US Senate voted 47-52 not to confirm Debo Adegbile to head the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Every Republican senator and seven Democrats voted against Adegbile’s nomination.
Adegbile, the former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was superbly qualified for the position. He was endorsed by the American Bar Association and high-profile lawyers on both sides of the aisle, and presciently defended the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court last year. He would’ve made an excellent head of the Civil Rights Division.
But Adegbile was the victim of a vicious right-wing smear campaign, attacking him because LDF defended Mumia Abu Jamal’s right to a fair trial. All across the right-wing media echo chamber, on Fox News and conservative blogs, the words Adegbile and “cop-killer” were plastered in the headlines. The Fraternal Order of Police came out against his nomination, even though a court agreed with LDF that Abu Jamal had not been granted a fair trial—a basic right in American society regardless of whether he did or did not commit the crime.
In disqualifying Adegbile, senators are establishing a very dangerous precedent that attorneys are responsibile for all of the actions of their clients. “LDF’s advocacy on behalf of Mr. Abu-Jamal does not disqualify Mr. Adegbile from leading the Civil Rights Division,” prominent members of the Supreme Court bar wrote to the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year. “To conclude otherwise would send the wrong message to any lawyer who is affiliated, or might be asked to become involved, with a difficult, unpopular case for the purpose of enforcing and preserving important constitutional principles.”
It’s understandable why every Republican senator lined up against Adegbile’s nomination—the modern GOP has voted against civil rights time and time again. But the opposition of Democrats Casey, Coons, Donnelly, Heitkamp, Manchin, Pryor and Walsh is more shameful (Harry Reid voted no for procedural reasons, to keep the nomination alive). The idea that voting against the nomination of the head of the DOJ Civil Rights Division would swing a close race is laughable. Casey and Coons deserve particular scorn, since they represent safe blue states and both profess to be supporters of the causes Adegbile supports, like voting rights.
Today’s vote shows that, twenty-six years after George Bush ran the infamous Willie Horton ad against Michael Dukakis, race-based gutter politics is still not a thing of the past. As the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Adegbile deserves better.”
Read Next: Ari Berman on the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.
Last week, the de Blasio administration declared war on charter schools, at least according to the New York Post. Governor Cuomo rushed to the barricades, telling a rally in Albany yesterday: “We are here today to tell you that we stand with you.… You are not alone. We will save charter schools.” Families for Excellent Schools, who organized the rally, claimed the Mayor's decision was met with universal opposition and characterized the move as the back end of a quid pro quo with the teachers union for endorsing the mayor.
Wondering what actually happened? The de Blasio administration released a memo reviewing forty-nine co-location decisions made last fall by the lame-duck Bloomberg administration. A co-location is when two schools occupy the same building, and it’s been a controversial aspect of the charter-school movement. Many charters, which usually serve fewer special ed or bilingual students than regular public schools, get free rent on space in the regular public schools that charter advocates so often disdain--often space that the regular school needs..
De Blasio’s chancellor, Carmen Farina, set aside four of the decisions that won’t take effect until the 2015–16 school year to give more time for study. It ordered thirty-five of the forty-five remaining plans implemented. It called for one to be revised. And it cancelled nine planned co-locations. Six concerned regular public schools, which also often co-locate. Three were for charters.
All three of those cancelled co-locations were for charters proposed by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy network. Her defenders see that as proof that the mayor, a long-time critic of Moskowitz, was singling her out. But given the aggressive expansion plans of the Success network, it’s not that surprising that she has a large presence on the list. Moskowitz will now need to find space for those students, including some already attending Success Academy’s Harlem 4, which had outgrown the two other co-located sites it was using. Given that Success Academy is rolling in money—Moskowitz reportedly pulls down $475,000, more than the president of the United States—it seems likely she’ll come up with something. Contrary to the shorthand way some have reported it, de Blasio didn’t rescind the schools’ charters—he couldn’t—he just said they can’t use public school space.
(And for the record, the teachers’ union did not endorse de Blasio but his chief rival Bill Thompson in the Democratic primary. The UFT did back de Blasio in the general, along with the rest of the universe.)
Overall, fourteen charter-school co-locations—including five Success Academy ones—got the green light from Farina.
Full disclosure: I’m a charter-school parent. My elder son attends a K-5 school in the Bronx that has its own building and, like many of New York City’s charter schools, has unionized. Despite misgivings about the charter movement, we sent him there because we hoped the school’s progressive philosophy would help him avoid the drudgery of test prep. When I’d toured a regular public school in my district to see if it was right for us, I’d seen a bulletin board of student essays… about their test prep. One kid said he visualized tackling the test and kicking its teeth out. This wasn’t what we were looking for. As it turns out, because our school performed poorly on its first round of standardized testing and had its charter threatened, test prep is now a pretty regular part of life there. But we still like it.
My big take-away from five years as a charter-school daddy, however, is that there’s nothing magic about charter schools, which serve all of 6 percent of the city’s students. Some are good, and some aren’t. There is no “charter school model,” because charters embrace a wide spectrum of educational philosophies. If a charter has a commitment to serving a diverse population and not suspending every kid who doesn’t sit up straight, it’s likely going to struggle on the tests just like regular schools. And the replicability of successful charter-school teaching strategies in regular schools—which I always thought was one of the reasons to permit charter schools—is uncertain not just because of the curriculum rules and union contracts that regular schools must obey, but also because many leading charters have far more resources than the typical public school.
For my money, charters are neither a panacea nor a plague. But whatever they are, they aren’t so extraordinary that they deserve to take space away from regular public schools that need it. Hence the logic behind the decisions rendered by de Blasio’s DOE last week.
Permitting fourteen charters to co-locate while blocking three doesn’t look much like a “war“ on charter schools. At worst, it’s a surgical strike. Perhaps the charter movement sees it as an opening salvo that it must resist or risk worse damage later. Or maybe it’s a convenient rationale to ask for state funding to cover the expense of classroom space, which they currently don’t receive; de Blasio has, after all, made clear that he is very unlikely to approve new co-locations in the future. And he did earlier in February cut $210 million in the budget for programs to help charter schools.
But mostly it seems like everyone is just playing to the script. Charter-school advocates have been waiting for de Blasio to drop a daisy cutter on them. And they’re reacting as if he did, when in fact his administration rendered a pretty modest and narrow decision, especially given the sprawling ambition of the Bloomberg-authorized co-location wave it was reacting to. The de Blasio DOE’s touch was so light, in fact, that Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James have said they’re going ahead with a lawsuit to challenge some of the co-locations the de Blasio administration approved.
Unfortunately, that will just perpetuate this unproductive argument about charter schools. It’d be better to move on, treat charters as the minor part of the system they are, and figure out what to do for the 94 percent of public school kids who don’t attend charters. The lawsuit just gives the governor another opening to swoop in and “save” charter schools. Yawn.
Read Next: Joseph Featherstone reviews a new book by charter school advocate-turned-critic Diane Ravitch.
This Friday on my weekly radio show, Edge of Sports, I am going to interview Jeff Pearlman, author of the new book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. I cannot put this book down. Showtime is both like an excavation of a long-lost era, as well as a pulsing, utterly relevant roadmap into our twenty-first-century sports celebrity culture. It is a fascinating window on the last time when fame not only opened doors but also then closed them behind you.
The book is also reminding me just how emotionally connected I was as a kid to these particular Laker teams. Growing up in New York City, it was a rare year when I did not find a way to get what was then a $10 ticket to see the Showtime Lakers on one of their two annual trips to Madison Square Garden. With a perennially middling-to-awful Knicks team to root for, I first shouted myself hoarse for the Lakers because they were the greatest threat to thwart the dreams of the hated Boston Celtics. (The Lakers and Celtics took every championship but one from 1980–88.) Any team that could keep Red Auerbach from lighting that damn cigar deserved all the preteen support I could muster. When Kevin McHale clotheslined Kurt Rambis or Larry Bird looked like he wanted to fight Kareem, I remember getting off the couch as if I could jump through the TV to enter the scrum. (Yeah, I also probably could have used some more adult supervision).
But I really loved these Lakers to death because of Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Magic was the synthesis of two extremely different styles of playing that, as a short, athletically challenged basketball obsessive, I could at least try, through sheer will, to replicate. He couldn’t really jump, he rarely dribbled in a fancy manner and he had an ugly push shot that looked like it was borrowed from a grainy 1950s video. What he could do, like no one before or since, was combine this olde-timey game with a twenty-first-century brand of flair. He saw angles no one could see and could throw no-look passes that smacked people right in the hands, ready to shoot. I would go to 77th and Amsterdam and chalk a Lakers yellow circle on the wall no bigger than a grapefruit and whip different kinds of no-look passes—chest, baseball, behind the back—and see how many would hit their mark. Sure, I would never be Magic, given that he was six-foot-nine, could rebound like a power forward and dribble the length of the court in seconds, but I could feel like Magic any time one of my no-look passes didn’t break a window and instead found someone for a layup.
I took this approach to the courts with confidence far beyond my game. As a Caucasian playing ball in New York City, a 12-year-old who would loiter on the courts until the big kids would let me play, I was a bit of a curiosity, treated with more affection than I probably deserved. I would hit shots and people would yell “Bird!” I would grit my teeth and say, “Call me Magic!” This was always good, if nothing else, for a laugh.
The Showtime Lakers were a rolling party and to be a fan felt like you were getting a secondhand high off of their vapors of glitter, glamour and glory. They also projected an image of Los Angeles, especially for us cloistered East Coasters, as a place of endless celebrity and sunshine.
As if being a teenager isn’t dramatic enough, this love became gothic tragedy, as both Showtime and my dreams of Los Angeles skidded to a stunning end. Magic Johnson, after years of abundant unprotected sex, became HIV-positive and quit the game he loved in 1991. The Los Angeles Times described the public reaction to the news like “an icon had been shot down in mid-stride…. The news was treated like the death of a head of state or the outbreak of war.” It was assumed, in our collective ignorance, both that he had to quit and that he would slowly die over the course of the next several years. In life, he was already being mourned.
But then, in a manner that was both upsetting and confusing for a kid who went to school in the East Village and whose mom had worked in an AIDS clinic, Johnson also felt the need to emphasize repeatedly that he had contracted the virus only by having a lot of random, condom-free, heterosexual sex. I remember watching The Arsenio Hall Show, more puzzled than angry, as the crowd cheered when Magic said, “I’m far from being a homosexual, you already know that.” This made him acceptable. President George Bush even gave him a position as head of AIDS Awareness. Thank God for Martina Navratilova. I remembered that she did not go along with this narrative and, for this article, I looked up what she said exactly, and it is even more bracing than I remember. The tennis legend said, “There have been other athletes who died from AIDS and they were pushed aside because they either got it from drugs or they were gay…. If it had happened to a heterosexual woman who had been with 100 or 200 men, they’d call her a whore and a slut and the corporations would drop her like a lead balloon. And she’d never get another job in her life.”
Her reaction prompted outrage from the mainstream press and demands for an apology. But in her follow-up comments, she said, “I certainly don’t want him to take it personally because it is not meant as an offensive thing to him. But the double standard is there, and it makes me mad as hell…. This Magic thing is another example of women losing power, and we are taking steps backwards.” Holy crap. If an athlete of her stature said that today, Twitter would implode.
As if Magic’s retirement wasn’t enough for those of us seeing the fall of Showtime’s seductive imagery, that very spring, during the same season when Magic retired, the so-called “LA Riots” took place after the Simi Valley verdict was handed down, clearing the LAPD officers who were captured on videotape beating Rodney King. For the young and ignorant, myself surely in those ranks, Los Angeles was revealed, beneath the dazzle, to be a cesspool of police brutality and institutionalized racism.
The aftermath of the “LA Riots” brought a level of hysteria that cannot be put into words. At my high school in New York City, administrators shut the school down at noon and I was assigned, as an upperclassman, to walk younger children home, presumably out of fear that they would be attacked by looting black teenagers. (These marauding teens were, alas, a figment of the NYPD’s imagination.) As an administrator openly wept and children cried at the thought of never seeing their parents again, a friend on the basketball team turned to me, like he was Marlin Perkins surveying a scene on Wild Kingdom, and said, “Damn. White people are crazy.” That was prophetic. After the LA Rebellion, we saw the ramping up of the tough-on-crime legislation of the 1980s that brought us to a point where our prison system now represents a “New Jim Crow,” packed with young black men serving mandatory sentences.
If I am fascinated by Jeff Pearlman’s book, it is because it has brought me back to a time before I felt like the world was too often just floating unconsciously from one set of injustices to the next. Obviously, there was evil aplenty in the 1980s, and I was just too young and too sheltered to see it. But it definitely took the fall of Los Angeles, both the team and the city, for me to be shaken out of a youthful slumber where a bad day could be remedied with a successful no-look pass. If I still cannot get enough of the Showtime Lakers—as profoundly hackneyed as this sounds—it’s because it reminds me of what it once felt like to feel the presence of magic.
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