In 1975, when New York City teetered on the brink of financial default, the refusal of then-President Gerald Ford to back an aid package inspired the famous New York Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."
There was a measure of hyperbole in that headline, and it was at least a little unfair to Ford.
But in light of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's suggestion that rebuilding hurricane-ravaged New Orleans "doesn't make sense to me," it would not be a stretch to headline a report: "Hastert to City: Drop Dead."
Before the bodies had been pulled from the flood waters that have filled the streets of the Crescent City -- at least in part because of the failure of a Hastert-led Congress to allocate the funding needed to modernize the city's levees -- the Illinois Republican was displaying his brand of compassionate conservatism by saying of New Orleans: "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."
Most significantly, Hastert said that Congress ought to ask "some real tough questions" about whether to allocate federal funding for the job of restoring one of America's most beloved cities. The House Speaker's suggestion that "it makes no sense" for Congress to rebuild a city that is seven feet below sea level might sound like a warped version of conservative "tough love" if the man who is is second in the line of succession to the presidency after Vice President Dick Cheney had been similarly dismissive of plans to rebuild coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama.
Unlike New Orleans, a 300-year-old city with a rich history but not a particularly rich populace, some of the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi and Alabama were upscale waterfront communities that have been built up in recent years, as real-estate developers have claimed more and more coastal wetlands for their oceanview projects.
But those Republican-leaning areas, which are home to people like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, were spared Hastert's talk of "tough questions."
Could the calculus really be this dark? Could the Speaker of the House really justify dismissing one community while caring for another for purely parisan purposes? Anyone who has watched this Speaker in action knows the answer to that question.
Hastert is about as crass a political player as you will find in Washington. Along with his political godfather, House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the Speaker has made the House more partisan, and crude, than at any time in its history.
Hastert and DeLay keep vulture eyes on the political map. To the them, New Orleans is little more than a Democratic town full of African Americans, Latino immigrants, gays and lesbians and a few remaining pockets of southern white liberalism. Republican strategists have long been frustrated by New Orleans, a city so blue that it has often tipped the political balance in an otherwise red state. It was New Orleans that gave Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu her narrow first win in 1996 and her only slightly more comfortable reelection victory in 2002. Votes from New Orleans helped make Louisiana one of the few southern states to back Democrat Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection, and they kept Democrat Al Gore competitive with George W. Bush in 2000. In 2003, overwhelming support from New Orleans gave Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco a come-from-behind win in the state's 2003 gubernatorial contest.
Notably, both Mississippi and Alabama have Republican governors and senators and have voted solidly Republican in presidential contests for decades. While Bush lost New Orleans by a 3-1 margin in his two presidential runs, he carried the Congressional districts that make up southern Alabama and Mississippi by margins of almost 2-1.
Hastert's honest initial statement of his views regarding New Orleans was an embarrassment to Republican Congressional leaders, but who didn't want to be seen as insensitive when they were busy pulling together votes for a face-saving aid package. So Hastert issued a backtracking press release, while his allies circled the wagons and began peddling the line that, "Hey, Denny's just a gruff old wrestling coach with a tendency to be blunt" -- much as they did in 2004 when Hastert announced shortly before the presidential vote that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network was pulling for the election of Democrat John Kerry.
Don't believe it. Hastert and DeLay see everything in political terms. And in the political calculus of the House Republican Leadership, New Orleans and cities like it have for a long time been written off as expendable. That's why New Orleans didn't get the infrastructure assistance it needed when the city's aging levies could have been strengthened to withstand a storm even as powerful as Hurricane Katrina. And that's why, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it made no sense to Denny Hastert to give any hope at all to the people of New Orleans.
Don't doubt for a second that, in his heart of hearts, Hastert believes New Orleans and other big cities are expendable, just as he believes that federal dollars should be poured without limit into the reconstruction of the coast-hugging upscale developments of conservative southern Mississippi and Alabama.
In the months and years to come, as questions arise about whether the federal government is caring equitably for all of Hurricane Katrina's victims, people of good will should never forget Denny Hastert's first reaction. If the Speaker is not held to account at every turn, there is every reason to fear that he will return to it -- and that New Orleans and its citizens will be victimized once more.
Numerous Nation readers have written us asking for suggestions on where they can send funds to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina. For straight donations, the American Red Cross is probably as good an outfit as any in the field currently taking contributions. ARC volunteers have been deployed to the hardest hit areas of Katrina's destruction, supplying hundreds of thousands of victims left homeless with critical necessities. Click here to make a dedicated donation to this relief effort.
The Mercy Corps has also assembled a team of relief experts in Louisiana to assist in immediate humanitarian efforts and to plan a long-term strategy to help the most vulnerable survivors of Hurricane Katrina rebuild their lives and livelihoods. Click here to help this longtime progressive relief agency respond effectively to the short-and long-term needs of hurricane survivors.
Our friends at MoveOn.org have spearheaded another innovative way to help. HurricaneHousing.org encourages people to donate a short-term place to stay for those made homeless by the disaster. Already, more than 50,000 beds have been offered to our new American refugees. Places in the Southeast are most useful but people anywhere in the US can participate.
It's also worth supporting a group of progressive congressional Democrats who have introduced legislation to protect the thousands of people left financially devastated by Hurricane Katrina from being penalized by anti-debtor provisions contained in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. This unfair law, designed to protect the rich at the expense of the poor, is scheduled to take effect on October 17, 2005. Click here to let your own elected reps know that you expect them to support this bill.
Finally, for a sense of the magnitude of the tragedy, listen to an incredible radio interview with Ray Nagin, the Mayor of New Orleans, who pulls absolutely no punches. This is as real, and raw, and as heartbreaking as it gets.
With this post, I depart for my summer vacation. I'll be back in this space on Saturday, September 10. In the meantime, my colleague Joan Connell will update this post, if necessary, to ensure that we're highlighting the most effective relief efforts underway.
How convenient for the oil industry that Hurricane Katrina hit just before the traditional Labor Day-weekend hike in gas prices. Now, instead of having to fake up some absolutely absurd excuse for jacking up gas prices, the industry can try and dupe Americans into thinking that they are suddenly paying $3.25 a gallon because of a storm.
The oil industry's response to Katrina has provided a reminder of why it is so exceptionally profitable.
Even before a start had been made on assessing the damage caused by the tropical storm, energy corporations were cashing in. And every indication is that they plan to continue doing so--perhaps taking prices over the $4-a-gallon mark, according to James DiGeorgia, editor and publisher of the Gold & Energy Advisor and author of The Global War for Oil.
No one debates the fact that the hurricane has done significant damage to oil rigs, refineries and delivery systems along the Gulf Coast, a region that accounts for roughly 10 percent of US refining capacity. But roughly 90 percent of US refining capacity remains fully functional and, it should not be forgotten, the US has not stopped importing oil.
Additionally, the Bush Administration jumped to the aid of the oil companies long before the relief effort was in full swing.
The Environmental Protection Agency suspended summertime antipollution measures, lifting the requirement that refiners lower fuel volatility and cut sulphur levels. At the same time, the Administration moved to release oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was created more than three decades ago with the precise purpose of boosting fuel supplies in order to keep a lid on rising wholesale gasoline prices in a circumstance such as the one that has now developed.
Despite all the aid they are getting, however, the oil companies are not giving anything back. There is no evidence of a willingness on the part of these highly profitable corporations to sacrifice in a time of national emergency.
Make no mistake: These corporations should be able to absorb a hit. Over the past year and a half, the four largest oil companies--ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Royal Dutch/Shell Group and BP Group PLC--have pocketed close to $100 billion in profits. During the first quarter of 2005 alone, those firms pulled in a cool $23 billion.
But instead of sharing the pain, they appear to be moving to squeeze every cent they can out of the crisis.
With oil-industry friends in charge of the White House and the Congress, don't expect much of a response from the federal level.
But this is one case where states have an ability to intervene.
Three years ago, in a move to protect against gouging, Hawaiian officials enacted legislation that allows state officials to set price caps on gasoline.
Now, as gas prices are skyrocketing in the aftermath of Katrina, a California legislator wants to give a state agency broad authority to regulate the cost of fuel.
State Senator Joe Dunn, a Democrat, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow the state Public Utilities Commission to require mandatory fuel reserves, set profit margins for oil and gas companies and order the construction of new pipelines. The measure would also bar agreements between energy corporations to reduce competition.
Dunn's amendment would allow the California Public Utilities Commission to cap prices, although the senator told reporters that step would only be taken as a last resort.
Dunn brings a refreshing bluntness to the discourse. Speaking to the Associated Press, he accused the oil industry of creating a dysfunctional market in California, in which competition is essentially eliminated. That, he explained, is why states need to step up their use of regulatory powers.
"Two years ago, when gasoline cost $2 a gallon, the industry said to give it time and prices would settle down. Now, we're seeing $3 a gallon," Dunn said. "People in California are no longer believing the excuses of the industry. If they can't fix their market behavior, we'll fix it for them."
It is certainly true that consumers should take steps to reduce their use of petroleum products--not just because of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico but because of the human, economic and environmental tolls this country's reliance on imported petroleum products has imposed. But petroleum companies should sacrifice as well. And if they are not willing to do so, states should remind them of their patriotic duty.
I just spotted Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, on CNN arguing with anchor Miles O'Brien. O'Brien was suggesting that the federal government dropped the ball in terms of preparing for Hurricane Katrina. Barbour kept defending the federal government--that is, the Bush Administration. He seemed to suggest that the hurricane was not that powerful when it first approached land and that there had not been enough time to do more preparation. Of course, Barbour did not note that before becoming governor of Mississippi he was head of the Republican Party and, therefore, not of a disposition to speak critically of an Administration that has gutted FEMA, slashed funding for flood control and sent many National Guard reserves to Iraq. (By one estimate, about one-third of the Louisiana National Guard is in Iraq now.) O'Brien pushed his point about as hard as is permitted on cable television. But he neglected to raise these specifics or to question Barbour about his previous work as a corporate lobbyist who, on behalf of his well-paying clients, fought fiercely against the Kyoto accords. (Recent scientific research suggests that global warming has led to more destructive hurricanes.) And, as I noted previously (click here), Barbour led the GOP when it was waging war on Big Government. Now he's all for it. O'Brien didn't query him on this conversion.
Liberal bloggers have banded together to raise money for the hurricane relief efforts and to help our Red State neighbors. (See the ad at my blog: www.davidcorn.com.) The goal, as the ad says, is to raise $1 million. Please consider clicking on the ad (or going straight to the donation page) and doing what you can. In the meantime, I propose putting off the GOP effort to kill the estate tax for millionaires and to devote a portion of those funds for reconstruction in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. I ask my fellow liberal bloggers to join me in this call, and to raise this question: Will Haley Barbour endorse our campaign?
As the New York Times editorializes today, a moment like this shows Bush's weaknesses. He was late to respond (again!) and his rhetoric was hollow (no surprise). Yesterday he declared, "America will be a stronger place for it." Puh-lease. Did he ask his speechwriters for the most empty platitude they could concoct? Then today he proclaimed there would be "zero tolerance" for looters. But if I were stuck in New Orleans, waiting for help from a government that had failed me, and my family was without water, food or clothes, I'd grab what I could from where I could. I'd worry about payment later. Sure, some looters are criminals exploiting the emergency. But many are people trying to survive. Who would watch their kids go hungry rather than break a window at a Winn-Dixie? Not me. Call me pro-looting-when-it's-necessary.
And if you haven't already seen my college chum Will Bunch's piece on why this disaster did not have to be as bad as it has been--due to federal cutbacks in funds for flood control--check it out here. Bunch works for the Philadelphia Daily News, and he mainly reviewed stories from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Here's an excerpt:
New Orleans had long known it was highly vulnerable to flooding and a direct hit from a hurricane. In fact, the federal government has been working with state and local officials in the region since the late 1960s on major hurricane and flood relief efforts. When flooding from a massive rainstorm in May 1995 killed six people, Congress authorized the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project, or SELA.
Over the next 10 years, the Army Corps of Engineers, tasked with carrying out SELA, spent $430 million on shoring up levees and building pumping stations, with $50 million in local aid. But at least $250 million in crucial projects remained, even as hurricane activity in the Atlantic Basin increased dramatically and the levees surrounding New Orleans continued to subside.
Yet after 2003, the flow of federal dollars toward SELA dropped to a trickle. The Corps never tried to hide the fact that the spending pressures of the war in Iraq, as well as homeland security -- coming at the same time as federal tax cuts -- was the reason for the strain. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars.
Newhouse News Service, in an article posted late Tuesday night at The Times-Picayune Web site, reported: "No one can say they didn't see it coming....Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation."
In early 2004, as the cost of the conflict in Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what the Corps said was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004, article, in New Orleans CityBusiness.
On June 8, 2004, Walter Maestri, emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; told the Times-Picayune: "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can't be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us."
Hmmm, a security issue. Flooding? Weather? Global warming? This is far too nuanced a view. I mean, isn't the real threat the terrorists in Iraq who want to destroy America because they hate our freedom (even though they don't seem to mind the freedoms enjoyed by people in, say, Finland)? Hurricane Katrina illuminates bad choices and bad policies. It may have been an act of God. But its devastating impact was also determined by the folly of our leaders.
It also makes me wonder, Can this government deal with one of the nightmare scenarios? A biological weapon? A nuclear detonation? The Bush Administration, according to numerous studies, has not fully funded first responders. Hurricane Katrina shows why this is foolishness.
Enough of a sermon from me. Please give to the relief fund.
I am tired of hearing about what a witty and irascible character John G. Roberts Jr. is, how Roberts, George W. Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, is such a sophisticated--if curmudgeonly--cut-up. There have been numerous newspaper stories that depict Roberts in such terms on the basis of the memos he penned when he worked for the Reagan and Bush I administrations. Yesterday the New York Times front-paged a cute account of Roberts's penchant for proper punctuation. It noted that twenty-three years ago, when he worked for White House counsel Fred Fielding, Roberts was taken with a letter written to the White House because its author, an octogenarian lawyer concerned with an obscure jurisdictional matter, had quoted Plato and Webster and used the word "slumgullion (which means thin stew). This correspondent, Roberts declared, deserved a reply. What a fellow, that Roberts!
I'm more concerned with the content--not style--of his memos and a decades-long trail that shows Roberts has usually favored a narrow reading of rights (such as the "so-called" right to privacy). These memos also suggest he has a tendency to put his intellectual arrogance at work for a political agenda. One memo he co-wrote in 1985 shows that Roberts was not shy about interjecting his own view into policy-making, even if that view had no basis in fact.
Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Clinton's biggest lie, what Bush really said before the war and Gary Hart's good advice for the Democrats.
In this September 13, 1985, memo, Roberts, who was still in Fielding's office, wrote about briefing materials that had been prepared for President Ronald Reagan. The material covered several subjects, including the dispute over admitting children with AIDS into public schools. Roberts wrote:
The third bullet item contains the statement that "as far as our best scientists have been able to determine, AIDS virus is not transmitted through casual or routine contact." I do not think we should have the President taking a position on a disputed scientific issue of this sort. He has no way of knowing the underlying validity of the scientific "conclusion," which has been attacked by numerous commentators. I would not like to see the President reassuring the public on this point, only to find out he was wrong later. There is much to commend the view that we should assume AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact, as is true with many viruses, until it is demonstrated that it cannot be, and no scientist has said AIDS definitely cannot be so transmitted. I would simply delete the third bullet item.
Here Roberts was not being merely prudent. Believing he knew best, he was substituting his uninformed opinion for the scientific consensus. Three years earlier, the Centers for Disease Control had declared, "Airborne spread and interpersonal spread through casual contact do not seem likely." And weeks before Roberts wrote this memo, the CDC--after several years of additional research--had noted that children with AIDS attending public schools posed an "apparent nonexistent risk of transmission." The CDC noted that "casual person-to-person contact, as among schoolchildren, appears to pose no risk." At that time, Dr. Martha Rogers, an epidemiologist at the CDC's AIDS branch, told the media, "The reasons I've seen given for keeping [children] out [of public schools] are not very good reasons. We're trying to educate people as to the real transmission modes."
Apparently, Roberts needed such educating. Instead of sticking to the known facts and heeding the word of government scientists, Roberts thought he knew better, and he was willing to substitute his own judgment (which happened to coincide with that of Reagan supporters who were arguing against allowing kids with AIDS into public schools) for the informed conclusion of experts. Yes, this was an isolated episode. But so was Roberts's excitement over the word "slumgullion." But perhaps this is evidence that Roberts will fit in well with the Bush Administration's science-doesn't-matter attitude.
I doubt that such decades-old musings of Roberts will persuade all Democratic senators to oppose the Roberts nomination. But it should not take a gotcha memo--if one does exist--to persuade Democrats to vote against him. Roberts is clearly a fellow of a strong conservative bent. Democrats can argue that the courts have moved too far to the right and simply declare enough is enough. Instead, there is a sense that the Roberts opposition must uncover a smoking-gun item to push the Democratic senators to stand as a group against Roberts. And let me pass on this bad news for progressives: So far, no troubling rumors have emerged for anti-Roberts investigators to chase.
There will be tough questions hurled at Roberts during his nomination hearings: about his skeptical view of privacy rights, about his previous opposition to Roe, about his apparent fondness for executive power, about the ethical issue raised by a meeting he had with Bush Administration officials about his possible appointment to the Supreme Court when he was about to rule on an important case in which the Administration was a party. None of this, though, carries the potential to derail the nomination. But why should anyone worry when Roberts is such a dedicated grammarian?
(This post was updated on August 31, 2005)
Like all Americans, I was horrified watching pictures of the destruction wrought by the hurricane. And like others who share the name Katrina, I found it eerie hearing and reading my name all over the news. But when Fox started calling the storm Killer Katrina, I prayed some right-wing idiot wouldn't stoop so low as to link me to this human suffering. But wouldn't you know, the biggest dittohead on the block, Rush Limbaugh, is calling the storm Hurricane Katrina vanden Heuvel. National Review's Jonah Goldberg, who has never seen a bad-joke bandwagon he could resist jumping on with both feet, blogged, "It would be pretty cool if Fox played to caricature and repeatedly referred to the hurricane as Katrina vanden Heuvel." He went on to imagine the lines, "The destruction from Katrina vanden Heuvel is expected to be massive. The poor and disabled are particularly likely to suffer from the effects of Katrina vanden Heuvel."
This is how they show respect for those who are suffering and dying--with lame quips? At least Limbaugh has the excuse that drug abuse tends to stunt emotional development. What Goldberg's problem is nobody has yet discovered. Natural disasters should be above infantile politics. (George W. Bush's decision to send his father and Bill Clinton to organize aid for the tsunami was one of his few international PR successes since 9/11.) It's so easy to take cheap shots. (Did you hear the one about OxyContin's new tag line? "What a Rush!")
We should be asking serious questions about why the Iraq War has led the White House to divert funds from an urgent project to upgrade levees and pumping stations in Louisiana, and why there aren't enough National Guard troops on hand in what is one of the worst natural disasters in US history. It is not a time for personal attacks. Let's empathize with those who are suffering and think about how we can help them.
It appears that the only Americans who are not embarrassed by their associations with Pat Robertson, the former presidential contender and longtime host of the Christian Broadcasting Network program The 700 Club who lately has taken to recommending that the United States get back in the business of assassinating foreign leaders, are President Bush and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Notably absent from the recriminations regarding Robertson's call for the "taking out" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were statements of condemnation from Bush, House majority leader Tom DeLay, Senate majority leader Bill Frist and the rest of the GOP leadership team.
Despite the fact that the President and his Congressional allies have failed to speak up in any significant way about Robertson's ranting, most responsible players in the national debate have done so. Denunciations have come from the progressive National Council of Churches and the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals--the leader of which said of Robertson: "He does not speak for all Christians or evangelicals"--as well as newspaper editorial pages and broadcast commentators on the right and left.
One of the toughest condemnations came from the Chicago Tribune's conservative editorial page, which declared that "Robertson's remarks should be taken for what they are: the ranting of a TV preacher who relies on controversy to keep the coffers full."
The widespread criticism of Robertson's advocacy for assassination has been heartening, as it suggests that most Americans have not degenerated into the indefensible relativism that would have the world's most powerful country offing critics like some sort of global organized-crime syndicate. The outcry is a reminder that the anger generated by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Frank Church (D-Idaho) and his detailing of five attempts by US operatives to assassinate foreign leaders during the 1960s and '70s was no fluke--and that Robertson is on the wrong side not just of history but of the American mainstream.
At a time when some pundits have suggested that the United States might want to abandon its three-decades-old ban on assassinating presidents and prime ministers, the broad rejection of Robertson's rant has to be seen as a welcome signal. Even if the President and his compatriots do not quite "get it," they have to recognize that Americans would not take kindly to any official effort to sanction state-sponsored "hits."
Now, however, comes the touchier question: Should Robertson be allowed to continue spewing his goofball theories and wrongheaded strategies on national television?
The so-called "Christian broadcaster" initially attempted to lie his way out of a tough corner--he claimed he hadn't brought up assassination, when in fact he had, saying that "if (Chávez) thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it"--did not inspire confidence in him as an credible or honorable individual.
But Robertson finally offered a half-hearted apology in which he said, "Is it right to call for assassination? No..." So it appears that the man who sought the 1988 Republican presidential nomination has not lost all grounding in reality, even if his touchstone is more likely self-interest than recognition that he was wrong.
Still, decisions about who should or should not be heard cannot be made on the basis of the presumed moral failings of a particular broadcaster.
As such, it was right that executives with the "ABC Family" cable television channel rejected a call from Media Matters for America for the network to stop airing The 700 Club. Instead, the network quietly added a disclaimer that reads, "The preceding CBN telecast does not reflect the views of ABC Family"--a clear acknowledgment that the Media Matters folks were making an important point about Robertson's faults that stopped short of bumping his program off a popular cable channel.
Of course, if a progressive player in a similar position had called for killing off the troublesome conservative leader of some foreign land, cries for removing that individual from the public square that cable television has become would have been deafening. But progressives ought not embrace the politics of censorship that is so popular with the right these days.
Misguided as his initial statement may have been, Robertson's apology made talk of canceling the long-running television program of so prominent a figure extreme.
Wrong as he so frequently is, Robertson has a right to be heard until the marketplace of ideas finally rejects the damaged goods he so frequently peddles. Indeed, the outcry over Robertson's remarks reminds us that even right-wing broadcasters are sometimes held to account.
The Iraqis are having a hard time pulling together a constitution quickly enough to meet President Bush's public-relations timeline.
As I am not an Iraqi, I have no interest in meddling in the affairs of that troubled land. Of course, I would prefer that the Iraqis establish a system of self-governance that, like ours in the United States, seeks to erect a wall of separation between church and state, preserve the rights of small states and political minorities, protect against military and police abuses, and guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of the press and all the other basics of a functioning democracy.
If I was really writing a wish list, I might also recommend that the Iraqis do a better job than we do of limiting the power of corporate monopolies, keep special-interest money out of their politics, treating healthcare and education as basic rights and establishing reliable electoral systems.
But as an American, I should not be worrying about perfecting the Iraqi constitution before I go about the work of getting things right here at home.
This seems like basic logic to me.
But that logic escapes our President.
It is true that George W. Bush was not born and raised in my home region of the Upper Midwest, where the legacy of Wisconsin Progressive, Minnesota Farmer-Labor and North Dakota Non-Partisan League activism has imparted a rich faith in the perfectability of the American experiment and a keen awareness of the folly of telling the peoples of other lands how to organize their governments. As such, the President has little familiarity with what I happen to think is the healthiest of American political traditions.
But it would be reassuring if the President at least had a passing acquaintance with American history.
As efforts to reach agreement on an Iraqi constitution have stumbled again and again, Bush has sought to comfort in a bizarre analogy.
"We had a little trouble with our own conventions writing a constitution," the President told reporters in Idaho the other day, continuing a pattern of comparing the US and Iraqi experiences of writing a constitution that began several months ago when Bush explained, "[We] must remember the history of our own country. The American Revolution was followed by years of chaos.... Our first effort at a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed miserably--it took several years before we finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first President.... No nation in history has made the transition from tyranny to a free society without setbacks and false starts. What separates those nations that succeed from those that falter is their progress in establishing free institutions. So to help young democracies succeed, we must help them build free institutions to fill the vacuum created by change."
To hear members of the Bush Administration and their amen corner in the media tell it, suicide bombs must have been going off like clockwork in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Charleston back in the 1780s. But, of course, that was never the case.
While there were rowdy demonstrations and loud dissents during the years following the end of the British occupation of the Empire's former colonies along the Eastern Seaboard of North America, the period was characterized by relative calm as factions within the new nation debated the extent to which states should cooperate with one another.
Try as Bush and his followers may, they will find no historical record of Ayatollah Alexander Hamilton's militia hunting down followers of radical secularist Thomas Jefferson, nor of rival Christian gangs blowing up one another's houses of worship. Nor will they find a record of renegade Green Mountain Boys gunning down foreign troops who were supposedly present to "help young democracies succeed."
In fact, there were no foreign troops prodding the process along. The French, who played a critical role in helping the American revolutionaries throw off British colonial oppression, exited quickly. The Marquis de Lafayette, as good a friend as the American rebels had, did not return to the new republic until 1824.
To be sure, Lafayette had ideas about how the Continentals ought to organize the American experiment. But he was smart enough to recognize that constitutions are organic documents that cannot be written under timelines imposed by foreign powers, just as he recognized that democracies cannot form or flourish under occupation.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books). Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.
It's a late August midnight, I'm on vacation, a hurricane named Katrina is heading to Florida--and I'm online. Like some 40 percent of Americans, I have spent half of my time this vacation in (thrice) daily contact with the office. Heck, I've even read the business section of the New York Times on Saturdays and watched Meet the Press on Sundays.
But I did get the hang of climbing out of my superstructured world. I've stared at the ocean for hours. I've slept late, taken a few cat naps (and then worked into the wee hours). I've sharpened my driving skills, and zip around narrow roads with the radio blasting Motown. I learned how to make a wicked martini and cook two new dishes.
As for reading material, I've polished off two novels (and the biography of Thomas Paine for political inspiration). I also brought along a copy of one of my favorite "self-help" books. I first read The Importance of Being Lazy two (long) years ago, and I recommend it to all you Type As who don't know what to do with yourselves on vacation. Read on, enjoy, and get into that hammock before fall descends.
What Are They Reading?KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL
[originally posted online on August 12, 2003]
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING LAZY:In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations.By Al Gini.Routledge Books. 182 pp. $22.95 (cloth).
I know how to work hard but not how to play. Take last summer. On my first night of vacation, I went to bed with David Brock's Blinded By the Right. I woke at 3:00 AM filled with guilt that I was not at The Nation, on the barricades, fighting vigilantly against the right-wing forces destroying our country. Like some 40 percent of Americans, I spent most of my time that vacation in (more than) daily contact with the office by e-mail, cell phone and fax.
Another summer is here. It's been a long, arduous yet productive year at the magazine. (Don't get me wrong. I love my job. After all, how many people have work they find meaningful, filled with passion and purpose? But boy, am I tired.)
So, this August, I decided that I needed some justification for playing, dozing, gazing, ambling and goofing off without guilt. And, after some research, I found my guide: The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations, by Loyola College philosophy professor and Chicago radio personality Al Gini.
It's an engaging, eclectic, idiosyncratic account of the history of vacations and play--and a reasoned justification of why we need leisure in our lives. In fact, Gini goes even farther, drawing on studies of Americans' vacation habits to show why "doing nothing" is a fundamental human necessity. (Gini relies on the latest academic research as well as interviews, personal anecdotes, the writings of various ancient and contemporary theologians and the well-chosen observations of people like Aristotle, Mark Twain, Thorstein Veblen, Juliet Schor and Arlie Hochschild.)
The book's thesis is both simple and liberating:
Even if we love our jobs and find creativity, success and pleasure in our work, we also crave, desire, and need not to work. No matter what we do to earn a living, we all seek the benefits of leisure, lassitude and inertia...All of us need to play more. All of us need to 'vacate' ourselves from our jobs and the wear and tear of the 'everydayness' of our lives. All of us need to get absorbed in, focused on, something of interest outside of ourselves. All of us need escape, if only for a while, to retain our perspective on who we are and who we don't want to be. All of us need to gain some feeling for, some knowledge of, the differences between distraction and insight, merriment and meaning, entertainment and recreation, laziness and leisure, rest and inertia.
We live in a society, Gini observes, in which modern workers talk about sleeping the same way that hungry people talk about food, and where Americans are now working more than ever before. (Perversely, we allow downtime for maintenance and repair of machinery but not for employees.)
As Joe Robinson, a former adventure-travel magazine editor, says, "Americans' most hazardous work-related illness is vacation deficit disorder or vacation starvation." (Did you know that there is only one other country in the industrialized world, Mexico, with fewer vacation days than America?)
Robinson--entrepreneur and business owner himself--isn't against the work ethic per se. What he's against is the crazed, psychotic overwork ethic. And he's started a crusade for federally required vacation time. After all, why is it that America is the only industrialized nation without a minimum paid-leave law? If President Bush can head to the ranch for a month, why shouldn't the Fair Labor Standards Act be amended so that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year gets three weeks' vacation time annually, at minimum? (For more info or to add your support to Robinson's crusade, click here.
The movement's rallying cry has a familiar echo: "Workers and travelers of America, Unite! We have nothing to lose but our stress!" Can't do much better than that. I'm going to go practice what I preach--take a nap on the porch, lie in the hammock and read a few novels. And, after that, I'm going to try to continue to put leisure time on the political map as an issue that should be near the top of any progressive agenda.
In the new issue of The Nation, Karen Houppert investigates how the US military has gone beyond trying to recruit tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders and is now actively chasing children as young as eleven years old. Growing desperate amid repeated failures to meet recruitment quotas and empowered by provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, military recruiters are working the schools like never before.
Houppert shows how many parents are increasingly resisting these efforts. "A lot of people are concerned," she quotes one Los Angeles parent as saying, "but don't know what to do about it." But now there's a new coalition designed to aid parents--and all concerned citizens--alarmed by the military's increasingly predatory efforts to woo teenagers into the armed forces.
Spearheaded by Working Assets, Mainstream Moms and ACORN, the Leave My Child Alone coalition is trying to raise awareness of the military's often stealthy recruiting ploys and make sure that all parents know that the Pentagon has established a database with the names of 30 million 16 to 25 year olds as a recruitment tool and that their children can opt out of their school's military recruitment lists and the Pentagon's database.
The LMCA site offers a step-by-step account on how to opt-out as as well as a raft of educational and activist resources. Check it out and circulate word about this new coalition. (The Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities also offers good ideas on how to "demilitarize our schools.")
What You Wear Does Matter
These days, with the AFL-CIO weaker than at any time since the inception of the labor federation, would seem an unlikely period to witness the growth of a sophisticated, anti-sweatshop movement. But thanks to the steadfast work of numerous grassroots groups, the dedication of student activists with organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops, and perhaps a little protectionist China-bashing, there's a greater awareness of the actual "cost" of the clothes most Americans wear.
The Campaign for Labor Rights (CLR) is one of the most effective independent organizations working to inform and mobilize grassroots activists in solidarity with international anti-sweatshop struggles. Considered the "grassroots mobilizing department" of the anti-sweatshop movement, CLR has worked with more than 500 communities in the US in support of both local and overseas labor struggles. A current campaign calls on Dole to desist in actively engaging in anti-union activity aimed at Colombian flower workers who have successfully organized themselves into an independent union. Click here for more info on CLR and click here to support the group's efforts.
Creating Your Own Reality
Regular posters to the Comments section of our blogs will notice a new feature: "Ignore this person," a simple function that allows participants in online discussions to render invisible posts that they find offensive or off-topic.
How best to moderate a free-wheeling online discussion is a question which has bedeviled scores of webmasters. At The Nation, we're particularly disinclined to ever censor anyone based on political perspectives, especially those we abhor. But it can be disruptive when, as happened recently, someone decides to paste dozens of versions of the same Ann Coulter piece to all five of our weblogs in an obvious effort to disrupt the conversation. Or when someone simply unleashes an obscene tirade with no argument being made.
So what we've come up with is a way for readers to create their own realities by offering the option of "ignoring" a given poster.
We hope that everyone will employ this option sparingly and will use it only as a last-resort to rid themselves of those few posters explicitly trying to prevent the free and feisty exchange of ideas. We strongly discourage anyone using it to shield themselves from unwelcome points of view.