Bill Moyers is not taking attacks by Bush Administration allies on public broadcasting in general and his journalism in particular sitting down.
"I should put my detractors on notice," declared the veteran journalist who stepped down in January as the host of PBS's NOW With Bill Moyers, who recently turned 70. "They might compel me out of the rocking chair and into the anchor chair."
Moyers closed the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis on Sunday with his first public response to the revelation that White House allies on the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have secretly been holding PBS in general -- and his show in particular -- to a partisan litmus test.
"I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out for the White House. And that's what (CPB chair) Kenneth Tomlinson has been doing."
Recalling former President Richard Nixon's failed attempt to cut the funding for public broadcasting in the early 1970s, Moyers said, "I always knew that Nixon would be back -- again and again. I just didn't know that this time he would ask to be the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."
That was a pointed reference to Tomlinson, a Republican Party stalwart, who contracted with an outside consultant to monitor Moyers's weekly news program for signs of what Tomlinson and his allies perceived to be liberal bias. Moyers ridiculed the initiative first by reading off a long list of conservatives who had appeared on NOW, then by reading a letter from conservative US Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) praising the show, and finally by noting that Tomlinson had paid a former Bush White House aide $10,000 to do the monitoring.
"He spent $10,000 of your money to hire a guy to watch NOW to find out who my guests and stories were, $10,000!" Moyers exclaimed. "Gee, Ken, for $2.50 a week you can pick up a copy of TV Guide on the newsstand. A subscription is even cheaper, and I would have sent you a coupon that can save you up to 62 percent! Or for that matter, Ken, all you had to do was watch the show! You could have made it easier with a double Jim Beam -- your favorite -- mine too! (We had some things in common.) Or you could go online where the listings are posted. Hell, Ken, you could have called me collect and I would have told you who we were having on the show!"
Moyers said he wasn't buying Tomlinson's claim that the results of the monitoring were not being released to protect PBS's image. "Where I come from in Texas, we shovel that stuff every day," said the man who came to Washington as a press aide to former President Lyndon Johnson and was present when the Public Broadcasting Act was written in the 1960s.
Moyers revealed to the crowd of 2,000 media reform activists that he had written Tomlinson on Friday, suggesting that the pair appear on a PBS program to discuss the controversy. He also revealed that he had tried three times to meet with the full CPB board but had been refused. Expressing his sense that the board had "crossed the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out," Moyers said, "I would like to give Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of the doubt, but I can't."
The man who has won thirty Emmy Awards for his hosting of various PBS programs was blunt about his critics. "They've been after me for years now and I am sure they will be stomping on my grave after I'm dead," he said. As the laughter from the crowd of 2,300 media reform activists quieted, however, he added, "I should remind them that one of our boys made it out 2,000 years ago."
Moyers was even blunter about why he thought Tomlinson and other allies of the Administration were so determined to knock his groundbreaking news program off the air and to replace it with more conservative fare such as a weekly roundtable discussion featuring Wall Street Journal editorial page staffers, joking that "I thought public television was supposed to be an alternative to commercial media, not a funder of it." Speaking of the investigative reporting NOW did on everything from the war in Iraq to offshore tax havens and ownership of the media, Moyers said, "Our reporting was giving the radical right fits because it wasn't the party line."
"The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party gets," he explained. "That's because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth."
The broadcasting giant was greeted with cheers when he declared that "the quality of our media and the quality of our democracy are intertwined." But the loudest applause of the day came in response to his invitation to the crowd to join him in the fight to "take public broadcasting back from threats, from interference."
"It is," Moyers said, "a worthy goal."
Moyers has endorsed a call by Free Press, Common Cause, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Media Access Project for town hall meetings nationwide that would allow Americans to speak directly to PBS station managers and policymakers.
That call came in the context of a broader appeal for media reforms and a fight against manipulation of the news not just by this administration but by all of the forces that would use the media to lull Americans into civic unconsciousness.
"Hear me," Moyers said, "An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight -- ask questions and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too."
Click here to read the speech in its entirety.
A video of Bill Moyer's speech is available at http://www.freepress.net/conference/audio05/freepress-closing40515.mov
An audio recording can be downloaded at http://www.freepress.net/conference/audio05/moyers.mp3
(John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the national media reform network that organized the National Conference on Media Reform.)
Each day, women and girls use an average of twelve personal careproducts, according to a study by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. "Users of these products might assumethat somebody is watching to insure that potentially toxic ingredientsare kept away from intimate contact with their body," Mark Schapirowrote in The Nation in December. "Theywould be wrong."
Thanks to a longstanding loophole, the FDA neither monitors norregulates ingredients used in cosmetics, many of which contain knownor probable carcinogens[http://www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep/report/executive_summary.php].Yet, in the wake of mounting pressure from a coalition of publichealth and environmental groups, the American cosmetics industry isfinally cleaning up its act.
By Mother's Day, 116 personal care product manufacturers had signedthe Compact for Safe Cosmetics--agreeing to meet the standards set by the European Union's "Cosmetics Directive," which bans ingredients that are known or stronglysuspected of causing cancer, genetic mutation or birth defects. Click here for a full list of companies that have agreed to comply.
"[We are] thrilled about the growing interest in this campaign," says Janet Nudelman of the Breast Cancer Fund, one of the major groups behind the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, "These companies are setting an important precedent for the cosmetics industry by putting their reputations and their resources on the line to make truly safe cosmetics a reality for consumers."
Unfortunately, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is still waiting on industry giants L'Oréal, Revlon, and Estée Lauder--who have agreed to parts, but not the entirety, of the pledge. We look forward to the day when these and all other cosmetics companies agree to make lethal lipstick a thing of the past.
In her latest column, Ann Coulter honors me by announcing me the winner ofthe Lifetime Achievement Award for Most Wrong Predictions. I proudly acceptthis award for in Coulter's tangled, fictional world right is always wrong,and what liberals say is always wrong even when they are right.
To be more specific, Coulter accuses me of wrongly predicting that invadingIraq would lead to more terrorist retaliation. According to the recent USgovernment report, the number of terrorist attacks has increasedsignificantly since the Iraq war. The overwhelming majority of thoseincidents have been aimed at US personnel in Iraq.
She also says I was wrong when I said that invading would undermine thefight against Al Qaeda. But this is the view of many officials in the BushAdministration itself, including such distinguished departing officials asRichard Clarke. What she did not tell you is that I alsopredicted that the war would cause a spawning of new bin Laden-inspiredgroups, as most terrorist experts readily now confirm.
In addition, she accuses me of wrongly suggesting that the invasion of Iraqwould "possibly unleash those very weapons of mass destruction into thehands of rogue terrorists in Iraq." I and The Nation magazine were always clear inour view that the Bush Administration had not proved its case that Iraqstill possessed weapons of mass destruction. But we did say that if Iraqdid have any such weapons, the greatest danger would be that during thechaos of war they would fall into the hands of renegade forces. And indeeda lot of deadly material and weapons did disappear into the hands of bothinsurgent forces and outside terrorists; many of those weapons have beenused to kill American personnel.
Coulter also accuses me of wrongly predicting that the United States wouldstay in Iraq as a colonial power. My view was that if it did try to stay inIraq indefinitely, it would quickly become viewed as a colonial power andtherefore would encounter increasing resistance--a prediction borne out bothby public opinion polls in Iraq and bloody events on the ground.
Coulter says that I was wrong when I said that elections were not verylikely to produce a secular democracy. Perhaps by Coulter's standards, whatIraq now has is a secular democracy. But perhaps she should wait a littlelonger before giving me credit for being right--I mean wrong--on this one.After all, the new government has yet to draft a constitution and PrimeMinister Ibrahim al-Jaafari still talks about adopting Sharia law.
Finally, she makes some obscure reference to my long-time interest in Russiaand the Soviet Union. Did the planned economy fail because the farmers hadseventy years of bad weather? I can in good conscience say that I never ever madethat prediction. But I did predict that Gorbachev's perestroika was forreal, even as those of Coulter's ilk were predicting it was just anotherSoviet ruse to lull us to sleep, because I believed a new generation ofRussians wanted a better life for their people.
Ms. Right gets it wrong. Again and again.
The site details the Alliance's twenty-year fight to preserve small businesses in New York City, and features a comprehensive section on Wal-Mart, making the case from a small business and consumer perspective that the company would be bad for New York. Click here for info on how you can help.
There are also scores of other activist efforts currently working against the many manifestations of Wal-Mart's greed and perfidy. Notable among them is a new coalition called Wal-Mart Watch. (Read Liza Featherstone's new Nation online feature Wal-Mart Nation for details on the group's campaign in Maryland.)
We'll continue to keep our eyes out for effective opposition to the big-boxing of America, and please use our new comments section below to alert us to any campaigns you think we should be covering.
The first National Conference on Media Reform was held 18 months ago in Madison, Wisconsin. That conference, which drew 1,800 people from across the country and around the world, was a remarkable event in itself. But it was even more remarkable for the movement it helped advance to a new and dramatically more muscular stage.
After years of complaining as the media of the country consolidated and conglomerated into a corporate whole that was less than the sum of its parts, and where civic and democratic values were replaced by the commercial and entertainment demands of a corporate bottom line, twin streams of media critique and media activism exploded into a media reform movement that demanded fundamental changes in the way our media companies operate.
Suddenly, as journalist Bill Moyers suggested at that conference in November 2003, the fight was on "for a media system that serves as effectively as it sells – one that holds all the institutions of society, itself included, accountable."
Moyers urged the activists who gathered in Madison in 2003 to "reach out to regular citizens."
"We have to raise an even bigger tent than you have here," he told the crowd that packed a downtown theater on that Saturday night. "Those of us in this place speak a common language about the 'media.' We must reach the audience that's not here –- carry the fight to radio talk shows, local television, and the letters columns of our newspapers. (We) must engage the mainstream, not retreat from it. We have to get our fellow citizens to understand that what they see, hear, and read is not only the taste of programmers and producers but also a set of policy decisions made by the people we vote for."
That has begun to happen. Reformers are winning real battles: blocking moves by the Federal Communications Commission to allow big media companies to grow even bigger, successfully challenging efforts by telephone companies to prevent communities from developing low-cost broadband internet services, forcing the federal government to stop pouring taxpayer dollars into the production of "fake news" video releases.
But the real work of opening up the media to more voices, and to the sort of discourse that is worthy of a great democracy, has only just begun.
This weekend, in St. Louis, the second National Conference on Media Reform will convene with more activists, more energy and more focus. Moyers will be back, along with Patti Smith, Al Franken, Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman, Phil Donahue, U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-California.
These are exciting times for a movement that, while young, is showing signs of the strength that Moyers said it would have to develop.
The struggle to repair the dangerously dysfunctional media system that tells us more about Michael Jackson's trial than about the truth of what is going on in Iraq will be a long and difficult one.
But this fight is on, and it is a fight we dare not lose -- as it is a struggle for nothing less than the future of freedom of the press and our very democracy.
(John Nichols is a co-founder with Robert W. McChesney of Free Press, the media reform network that has organzied the national conferences.)
Well, he's still deceiving and misleading but we figure Dubya has more time to download now that he has the First Lady out there softening up the press corps for him.
What with the extra time on his hands, and with thanks to the many hundreds, I mean hundreds, of nominations received since I posted Bush's iPod, Take 2, I couldn't resist doing another installment. Here's a new round of songs for the First iPod, drawn from reader submissions. And I'd love to keep this going, so please use the new comments field below to let me know what you think the President should be listening to.
Black Sabbath's War Pigs was the top vote getter. ("Politicians hide themselves away. They only started the war. Why should they go out to fight? They leave that role to the poor, yeah.") Jaclyn Stacy in Stow, Ohio writes, " I cannot believe nobody has nominated War Pigs yet! Talk about a song being truer today than it was when it was originally released! We here in Cleveland have a local DJ that plays that song almost every day--his little barb at an Administration and a party run amok."
Others with multiple nominations:
Bright Eyes' When the President Talks to God.(Many of you said this was a must....."a great song...most blatant, unreserved criticism of the president I have heard to date. best of all it is free on iTunes." Greg Jacobs of Brookline, MA, writes, " it poses many humorous and telling questions, like 'Does God suggest an oil hike? or 'Does what god say ever change his mind?'")
Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused.("....how he looks," writes Daniel Price out of Hurst, TX)
Lawyers, Guns & Money by Warren Zevon.
Cocaine, by Eric Clapton
Money, by Pink Floyd("Can be dedicated to Bush's good friend Tom DeLay," suggests Reed Kurtz of Hagerstown, Indiana)
Talking Heads' Burning Down the House ("Since that is what he seems to be doing--albeit at a slower pace than a real fire," wrote Lisa Johnson of Scottsdale, AZ
Creedence Clearwater Revival's Fortunate Son (very popular)
Your Flag Decal Won't Get You into Heaven Anymore by John Prine ("We're already overtired, from your dirty little war/Now Jesus don't like killing, no matter what the reason's for/And for your flag decal won't get you into heaven anymore.")
Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man), by Randy Newman("Randy Newman was talking about another Republican President who really didn't care so much about 98 percent of the country's well-being but it's just as fitting today," writes Brian Fairbanks of Brooklyn, NY.) Also, several of you nominated Newman's Big Hat, No Cattle.
Then there were these finds:
Fun Boy Three's The Lunatics Have Taken Over the Asylum("It was written in the 80s," writes Tom Hensley of LA, CA, " as a response to the Reagan Administration and the Cold War craziness. It is VERY appropriate today, considering that Bush II tries very hard to be the Reagan Administration redux.")
Peter, Paul & Mary's Once I Built a Railroad("Seems the perfect lament for today's outsourced, laid off, downsized American workers, writes Jacquie Padfield from Brenham, TX)
Jackson Browne's Lives in the Balance
You Haven't Done Nothing by Stevie Wonder("I respectfully nominate this song...because he hasn't done nothing--except dump on the world," writes Annie Nelson of Laia, HI)
Southern Man by Neil Young
When God Comes and Gathers his Jewels by Hank Williams("In fact, anything by Hank Williams, most of his stuff is about lying, cheating, drinking, stealing and unrequited love," writes Gordon Brawn of Woodinville, WA.)
Know Your Rights by The Clash
Radio Baghdad by Patti Smith
Cakewalk to Baghdad by Country Joe MacDonald
Peace Train by Cat Stevens
The Flim Flam Man by Laura Nyro
Jesus Christ Superstar, in its entirety
The Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What you Want("Dubya wants neocon judges and ambassadors, a media that doesn't ask questions, and war without end. Maybe he needs to hear this song," writes Ronald Smith of Dunedin, Fla.)
U2's salute to WMD's I still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
Billy Bragg's Accountability
Oops, I Did it Again by Britney Spears
If Only I Had a Brain, lyrics by Harold Arlen, sung by Ray Bolger in The Wizard of Oz
The Great Pretender, The Platters("He pretends he won an election; he pretends that he knows what he's talking about; he pretends that he's a man of courage and conviction, he pretends that he's a great leader; he pretends that the invasion of Iraq was justified and that things are going so well there; he pretends that we all love him. Bush is indeed the Great Pretender," writes William Wheeler of Davis, CA.)
Any chain gang song recorded by Alan Lomax, (suggested by Peter Stamler in St Louis, MO.)
The Who's Won't Get Fooled Again("Should be on every Democrat's playlist," writes Jess Henryes of Oakridge, OR)
And, finally, from Andrew Peterson in Portland, Oregon comes the kicker: "I'm just praying for the day that we can all sing that wonderful Weavers' song, So Long, It's been Good to Know You, as we boot them out of the White House."
I saw Victor Navasky the other night at an event in Washington for his new book, A Matter of Opinion. Before the crowd, he shared one of his secrets for having a successful career as a writer: sell everything you write (in different forms) three times. Heeding that advice, I am posting below my most recent contribution to the new and much-ballyhooed group-blog (or, as I call it, "grog") at HuffingtonPost.com. Contributing to Huffington's post--for free--does have its frustrations. Minutes after I had posted this serious-minded piece--which placed me at the top of "The Blog Roll"--I was bumped from the penthouse by a posting by Greg Gutfeld, editor in chief of Maxim UK on "nonsexual heroic celebrity fantasies." And--ouch!--Gutfeld ended the item with a gag in which I pick up rightwing journalist Byron York's gym bag. From a sincere reflection on culture and politics and religion (mine) to locker-room humor (his). In seconds. Welcome to Arianna's World. Now must I respond to Gutfeld? Or just ask for an invitation to Maxim's next big bash?
But before we get to my HuffPost, let me put a plug in for Victor's new book. Sure, he's my boss. But I have a union job (and we all know what that means). The book is rather funny, and it causes me to wonder why Victor never hired himself as a humor writer for The Nation. Could it be because he would have had to pay himself more than he could get away with paying Calvin Trillin?
The book is evidence that Victor could have had a career as a satirist. It also shows he could have been a hit on Madison Avenue. As a college student, he wrangled a job at Berrow's Worcester Journal in Worcester, England. He ran cricket scores and he wrote advertising copy. For a local bank, he suggested the following:
Polonius said, 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be.' But Polonius was a senile old fool whom Shakespeare killed off in the second act. Join the Worcester Home Loan and Savings Association and you can borrow and lend at the same time!
Doesn't that demonstrate Victor could have gone on to decades of success manipulating millions of consumers? Fortunately, his passions steered him in other directions--which are amusingly detailed in his book. Buy it. Now on to my HuffPost:
Jesus and Bruce Springsteen
Many fundamentalist Christians claim victimhood--even though they are free to worship as they like in tax-exempt churches, to send their kids to religious schools, to display the Ten Commandments almost anywhere (such as in their homes, on their front doors, on their cars, on their T-shirts), to vote for politicians who share (if not exploit) their beliefs, and to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a film that graphically depicts the bloody sacrifice of their savior.
Despite all this, ChristFuns maintain they are besieged a repressive anti-Christian bias. Yet of late the religious conservatives and their allies have been the ones on the offense. Pat Robertson, appearing on George Stephanopoulos' show, suggested that American Muslims and American Hindus support the idea of an anti-America jihad (yes, Hindus, too!) and are less qualified to serve in the US government than Christians and Jews. Senate majority leader Bill Frist participated in a religious right rally that claimed opponents of Bush's judicial nominations cannot be people of faith. At the Air Force Academy, commanders are allegedly coercing cadets to convert to evangelical Christianity. Creationists--donning the camouflage of "intelligent design"--are rewriting Kansas' education standards to undermine the teaching of evolution. A Republican state legislator in Alabama proposed a law banning books by gay authors. (Watch out Mary Cheney!) The Georgia state government passed a law that imposes a 24-hour waiting period on women seeking abortions. In the current issue of Harper's, Pastor Ted Haggard, the head of the National Association of Evangelicals (who often chats with Bush), is quoted making anti-Catholic statements. Haggard calls himself a "warrior"--not a peacemaker--"for God."
That's a helluva offensive from people who are supposedly victims. These folks are certainly not bridge-builders. But I assume they believe they are merely following the words of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, their J.C. is a divider-not-a-uniter.
I much prefer the Christ recently offered to us by that well-known theologian, Bruce Springsteen. (He also makes music.) On Springsteen's recent chart-topping release, Devils & Dust--which contains a song exploring the moral dilemma faced by a soldier in Iraq poised to shoot and kill an enemy and a track recounting the life of an illegal immigrant who perishes crossing the Rio Grande--the most engaging number is a short, simple, elegiac tune about the Man from Galilee, "Jesus Was An Only Son." The chord structure is basic ballad; a church-like organ sets the mood. And Springsteen narrates the last hours of Jesus' life. There's no blood, no gore--only a man and his mother.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on how Bush misled the Latvians and why he and Putin should drop the f-word..
The song follows Jesus' last steps. Mother Mary, at his side, wishes the wish of all parents--"Sleep tight, my child"--and prays, "That no shadow, no darkness, no tolling bell/Shall pierce your dreams this night." Springsteen presents a quick meditation on death: "Now there's a loss that can never be replaced/A destination that can never be reached/A light you'll never found in another's face/A sea whose distance cannot be breached." And then Jesus kisses his mother's hands and in a whisper tries to comfort her: "Mother, still your tears/For remember the soul of the universe/Willed a world and it appeared."
Springsteen universalizes Christ. Even a nonbeliever can be touched by this hotrod angel knocking on heavens door. Confronting death and a grieving mother, Jesus suppresses his fear and draws on his faith, showing more concern for the parent about to lose a child than for himself. His final piece of advice essentially is, keep hope alive. Springsteen locates the non-theological power in this story of loss and love. His Christ is an example, not an imposer of hard-and-fast (and perhaps narrow-minded) values. This short song may not be a literal account--as if such an account is possible--but it is a lyrical one. And it arrives at an appropriate time--when the culture war is intensifying. This tussle is indeed a religious war, and it concerns the meaning (or non-meaning) of events that happened thousands of years ago. After all that time, Jesus and his message remain up for grabs. (Hey, would he want us to condemn gay couples or embrace them as brothers and sisters?) And Springsteen is in there grabbing.
Yeah, I know it's just a two-minute-and-forty-nine-seconds song, not a big-budget, controversy-causing movie. But Springsteen gives his listeners a Jesus that anyone, or everyone, can appreciate and be moved by--not just those blinded by the light. These days--with our-Christ-is-the-only-Christ fundamentalists on the march--that's a modest blow for freedom and faith.
IT REMAINS RELEVANT, ALAS. SO DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research.... [I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer.... Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations.... Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."
For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there.
Last month, over a thousand trade unionists, human rights activists, students, miners, environmentalists, artists, left thinkers and journalists gathered on a campus in the heart of Moscow. It was Russia's first ever Social Forum, designed to develop strategies, exchange ideas, and build a new movement for democracy and social change--as has been done in recent years in Brazil, India and Italy.
Longtime political activist and journalist--and contributor to The Nation--Boris Kagarlitsky's report from the frontlines of this unprecedented event is published below. (As Director of the Institute of Globalization Studies, Kagarlitsky was one of the key organizers of the Forum.)
His analysis of what the Forum means for the future of opposition in Russia--and for the upsurge of new social movements and the left in that country--is an invaluable counter to the conventional wisdom about Putin's Russia.
Russia's First Social Forum
by Boris Kagarlitsky
On the weekend of April 16 and 17, the first Russian Social Forum was held in Moscow. On the campus of Moscow's University of the Humanities, members of the left, trade union, environmental, human rights and disabled organisations gathered to discuss strategy and tactics for the struggle against the policies of today's authorities. The participants numbered more than a thousand--but reporters from the mainstream media were almost completely absent.
On the evening of April 16, a demonstration to mark the opening of the forum was held on Pushkin Square. It might, of course, seem that to attract a little over a thousand activists from such a vast country was no special achievement. But with an almost no money and or access to the mass media, in circumstances where even collecting the addresses of participants in the protest action was a problem, and when the price of the cheapest train ticket is often an insurmountable barrier to making the trip to Moscow, organizing such a forum was by no means a simple task. (In Germany, where the left is considerably stronger, and where trade unions and antiglobalist groups are able to invest far greater resources in forums, similar events attract around five thousand people.)
Interms of attendance, Moscow's first forum can be considered a success. But there was another measure of success: Until now, persuading various left groups to work together has been extremely difficult. Similarly, the "alternative" trade unions have not always got along. The Russian Social Forum was the result of joint work by a series of groups and organizations whose past relations have often been far from friendly. Nevertheless, the forum took place. The proceedings were not without problems, but the overwhelming majority of the participants showed a readiness to work together.
Among the activists present were those of the Left Youth Front, and also of several youth groups that have remained outside that organization. The trade union bodies included the All-Russian Confederation of Labour, the Siberian Confederation of Labour, and the Defense of Labour group. Also present were representatives of the Institute for the Study of Globalization, the Institute for the Study of Collective Action, and the "Alternativy" (Alternatives) movement--all of which played a central role in organizing the forum. The alternative press was also well represented--ranging from the St Petersburg art project "What is to be Done?" to the Tyumen Worker and the quite new Pravda-Info, which presented its first issue at the forum.
Unlike congresses or big meetings of the parliamentary (Duma) opposition, where bored followers are brought in to hear ritualistic speeches from their leaders, the Russian Social Forum was a place where people themselves organised seminars, set up discussions, and planned specific actions. Officially, political parties were excluded from the forum, but the gathering was by no means apolitical. While parties could not put proposals to the forum, no one prevented their supporters from participating fully. Demands on the authorities were voiced bluntly, without sentimental references to a kindly tsar-president being surrounded by evil ministers.
The forum brought together miners and artists, people with a wealth of political experience and students who had learned about the forum from the internet. They joined in singing the Internationale, debated tactics for organizing street protests, and discussed the experience of strike struggles. They argued about what it means to be a leftist in the art world, and about whether it is worth encouraging people to quit old trade unions with a record of servility to the authorities. They exchanged addresses and telephone numbers.
Only the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) was conspicuous for its absence. On April 16, the Communists were holding a meeting of the Union of Communist Parties. Instead of meeting with activists of the social protest movements, the party chiefs of the former Soviet republics preferred to talk to one another. Individual members of the KPRF were nevertheless present at the Forum, and in most cases, they were not positive about the leadership of their party. In the same fashion, few representatives were in evidence from the "official" trade unions--the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia.
Many participants described the parallels they saw in the Forum's meetings with the first legal meetings of the "informals" (unofficial, unsanctioned social and political groups)in the days of perestroika, in the late 1980s. The atmosphere was similar, and many people were seeing one another for the first time in many years. On the other hand, younger people could make comparisons only with the European social forums, at which hundreds of Russians have been present.
What lay behind the success of the Russian Social Forum? The answer, of course, is the general upsurge of social movements that has taken place in the country. Russia-wide protests in January this year against the law on the monetization of benefits, which substituted meager money payments for various benefits in kind that had been enjoyed by pensioners, showed that Russians are by no means as obedient and long-suffering as the country's leaders would
The liberal--or what might better be called neoliberal--opposition has livened up as well. In these circles, it's become respectable to sympathize with the rebellious pensioners who have blocked streets, and to show an indignant concern for young people who fall beneath the batons of the police.
However, most of the protesters themselves have no faith in "liberal" politicians. As for the nationalist-minded figures from the Russian Communist party and the "Homeland" bloc, the more actively they have joined in the protest actions, the more quickly these actions have died down. The growing hostility to the authorities is combined with a pronounced lack of confidence in this opposition. After all, the Kremlin's liberal critics share with it a free-market philosophy and a belief that the outcomes of privatization need to be strengthened and defended. The uselessness of the Duma/parliamentary "patriots," meanwhile, has long been obvious even to people without much experience of politics. Nostalgia is no substitute for an economic program, and arguments about the so-called special mission of Russia cannot conceal an open distaste for action. Nor can hours-long speeches about the good of the people provide a cover for anti-democratism and for a lack of interest in the real people, as opposed to a stereotyped image of them.
Meanwhile, the events of the past January have shown that a new opposition is taking shape in Russia. It is not being formed around the parliamentary/Duma parties, but on the basis of the developing social movements. Participants in the protest actions are trying to acquire a voice and to formulate their own demands to be placed on the authorities. As in many other countries, a Social Forum is now providing a meeting place for the protesters. Unlike earlier international organizations of the left, the "new international" that is coming into being on the basis of the ideas proclaimed by the social forums--in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Florence, Paris and London--is exceptionally democratic. In terms of ideas, the initiative has come from below. For Russian political culture--in which, even on the left, an unbelievable gap has remained between passive followers and leaders bursting with self-satisfaction--the forum was simply miraculous; it featured neither honorary presidiums nor long, ceremonious speeches.
At the April 16 demonstration, the order in which the speakers addressed the participants was determined by lot; first up was Petr Zolotarev, a trade union leader from the city of Togliatti. The television and press joined in ignoring this "incorrect" gathering, but no one was especially embittered as a result; the social movements are acquiring their own media, from websites and small newspapers to pirate radio stations and internet television. Indeed, one can speak of the "small press" only in the sense that these news sources are run on little money. Pravda-Info, for example, has appeared in a print-run of 55,000 copies, enormous for such publications. A new social force is coming into being before our eyes. If the authorities fail to take account of it, so much the worse for the authorities.
I'm delighted to report that the two teenage girls detained without charge and held in a Pennsylvania detention center for six weeks after being called would-be suicide bombers despite any supporting evidence have been released. Many thanks to all Nation readers who responded to this blog and sent letters in their support. This is a small victory in the fight against the prosecutorial excesses allowed by the PATRIOT ACT and a huge victory for the girls, their families and their supporters.
The labor movement is not about one individual or one moment in time. It goes on, regardless. But there are some individuals who rise through the ranks of the movement at the right moment and define it – or, as was the case with Miguel Contreras, redefine it. The tireless chief of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose death Friday from a heart attack at age 52 shocked union activists in California and across the country, transformed a struggling local coalition into a dynamic force for economic justice and political change.
At a time when the national AFL-CIO was only beginning to recognize the need to reach out to the immigrant workers who were fast becoming the backbone of the hotel, restaurant, health care and construction industries, Contreras put the Los Angeles federation in the forefront of campaigns to organize Latino and Asian-American workers. And he turned those newly-organized workers, and their families and neighbors, into a voting bloc with the potential to change not just Los Angeles county but California.
The son of migrant laborers who was drawn into the union movement by Cesar Chavez, Contreras took over the Los Angeles County Federation in 1996, when its member unions had about 650,000 members. Today, they have more than 800,000. The incredible growth of the LA Fed under Contreras's leadership was noticed quickly, and his ideas about organizing immigrants and flexing political muscle inspired activists nationwide. "People across the country look at LA as a model of success," Anna Burger, of the Service Employees International Union, a key ally of Contreras, told the Los Angeles Times.
Contreras took his hits at home – most recently when the LA Fed endorsed Mayor James Hahn, a centrist Democrat, for reelection over City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer and long-time ally of the labor leader. Other politicians objected when Contreras backed a successful challenge by progressive Hilda Solis to incumbent US Representative Marty Martinez in a 2000 Democratic primary. Unions usually back Democratic incumbents, but Martinez had broken with labor on trade issues and Contreras made no apologies. "We're sick and tired of Democrats who come in and tell us they want our endorsement and then go off to Sacramento or Washington and vote against the interests of our members," Contreras told me in 2000. "We've lifted the bar for endorsements. It's not enough to say you're for a minimum-wage increase and expect our backing. We want candidates who make a commitment to be with us on every vote, and to be with us on the picket lines."
Members of Congress who accept labor's backing needed, Contreras said, "to be warriors for workers."
At a time when many Democrats were still voting with the Republican leadership of the House and the corporate lobbies in favor of free-trade legislation, the willingness of Contreras and the LA Fed to punish a veteran House member who did so was important. Equally important was Contreras's willingness to come to Capitol Hill and explain to Democrats and Republicans that Latinos did not want them backing free-trade deals that harmed workers in the US and in Latin American countries. His presence on the hill helped to dispel the corporate spin that suggested Latino workers in the US were enthusiastic about free-trade deals with Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
When US Representative Jane Harmon, a Los Angeles County Democrat whose record on trade issues has sometimes been shaky, announced last month that she would oppose the Central American Free Trade Agreement now being considered by Congress, Contreras was at her side. He explained that the trade deal would hurt workers, family farmers and the environment in the US "while enriching and empowering corporate elites."
Contreras was in the forefront of the campaign against CAFTA, explaining that, "Ten years of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) has proven a complete failure for workers and the LA economy, destroying 30,000 manufacturing jobs here in LA and more than 200,000 jobs statewide. A vote for CAFTA shows contempt for working people and their families. Clearly we must forge ahead with a new approach to international trade."
When the fight over CAFTA is decided by Congress, more than a few of the "no" votes will come from members who were personally lobbied by Miguel Contreras. Indeed, if CAFTA is beaten, as it may well be, that will be one of the many legacies of this "warrior for the workers."