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The Judgment of Paris

Last Friday, as the "The Judgment of Paris" media circus filled our airwaves (those very airwaves which, as FCC Commissioner Michael Copps recently reminded us in an intelligent New York Times op-ed, belong to us, the people), I emailed Elizabeth Gaynes, Executive Director of the Osborne Association, and one of the smartest criminal justice reformers and activists working in the field today. I figured if anyone had something insightful and humane to say about this uber-tabloid moment---and what it revealed about the failures of our criminal justice system--it would be Gaynes.

For more than two decades, she has led the Osborne Association---working with prisoners, former prisoners, their children, and other family members to help them reenter the workplace, rebuild their families and rejoin their communities. Today, Osborne staff provides services ---- parenting education, job training, mental health and family counseling, HIV prevention--that help transform the lives of those involved in the criminal justice system.

As Gaynes reminded me, today Osborne provides services in *more* prisons than existed when she began working in prisons-- soon after the Attica uprising of 1971. (In 1971, 12,000 people were crowded into 12 prisons in New York state; today New York has nearly 70 prisons and more than 60,000 men and women in them.) "Prison and perpetual punishment" should not be "our heavy weapons for the war on crime and war on drugs," Gaynes insists. Those "weapons," she argues" are designed for fighting the last war." (For more about the Osborne Association's invaluable work, go to Osborneny.org and full disclosure--I am a board member.)

Gaynes' reply, which I am posting below, seems to me a thoughtful antidote to so much of the sensationalistic media commentary surrounding Paris Hilton's brief incarceration.


"Overall, I thought Jon Stewart named it right: 'Shaw-Skank Redemption.'" But seriously, I do think it actually exposes rather virulent assumptions within American vengeance.....There is theSharpton line, that she should go to jail because her privilege does not get a Get-Out-of-Jail Free card. Also, progressives, aware of the ridiculous disparities of race and class within the criminal justice system, seem to get great pleasure out of people of privilege going to jail. But if we take the position - which I certainly have - that jail should be reserved for only those for whom there is no alternative and should be designed with treatment to address the behaviors that led to the infraction, then 23 days in jail is surely pointless.

You may recall that when the Fastows (Andrew and Lea of Enron) were sentenced to prison, they asked for (and received) sentences that did not coincide, so that they would not both be in prison at the same time and thereby disrupt their children's lives. Everyone recognized that this was only because of their race and class. Parents of minor children who are poor people of color never have their children's wellbeing considered during sentencing and, in fact, the assumption is that the child of a poor black mother does not really need that parent as much as the Fastow children needed theirs, and that the Fastows (despite stealing billions of dollars from stockholders) could still be good parents, but that a poor woman charged with theft or drug sales had little to offer a child, who might actually be "better off" without her.

Anyway, when that story came out a lot of good people said, that's outrageous, they should not get that privilege. But in fact, the problem is not that they WERE given that consideration but that others were NOT. The reality is that although the jailers have nothing in common with Paris Hilton, they felt that they knew her and recognized her humanity, naturally leading them to feel "sorry" for her and release her. On the other hand, most people in jail are "other" to those who hold them, and so how they are treated, the length of their incarceration, becomes possible.

When I visited a Canadian prison several years ago, I saw five units of "motel" type housing, and learned that they allowed "Family Reunion" programs, as we do in New York, where families can visit for 48 hours in a private setting. When I asked about the Canadian model, they explained that at any given time, four prisoners can have extended visits with their families within these "motel" rooms. When I pointed out that there were five units, how come there would only be four visits, they explained: well, the fifth unit is used for men who have been in prison for a long time and have no families. We allow them to go in there by themselves for a couple of days because, you know, sometimes people need to be alone.

The ability of these Canadian prison authorities to recognize the higher order need to be alone was only possible because they recognized the full humanity of the people in their custody. Perhaps because the prisoners and guards were mostly all the same race and class - French Canadian. If those who ran our jails saw everyone who came through as if they were important, what happened in Paris Hilton's case would be common.

Now of course perhaps Ms. Hilton needs a "time out", and maybe she will learn a lesson from this. Most transformative change comes when people have significant emotional events or challenges. But if she is an alcoholic or an addict, she will need something more than what jail offers. And if she is just a brat, the experience will just be one more "risk" that she seems to thrive on.

Foreign Agent Fred

The mainstream media is starting to pay attention to Fred Thompson's decades-long gig as a well-heeled Washington lobbyist. His client list has been noted in this space and elsewhere. What Thompson actually did for one of these clients, the British insurance firm Equitas Ltd, was fleshed out in a must-read column by the Washington Post's Jeffrey Birnbaum today.

His main assignment: to use his connections to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to extract information about goings-on inside Congress and use it to benefit his multibillion-dollar client.

In exchange for this insider wisdom he was paid a cool $760,000...

Thompson's client, London-based Equitas Ltd., held billions of dollars to pay off claims from people sickened by asbestos, a once-common building material. It wanted Congress to limit how much it had to pay into a trust fund to cover those liabilities.

In an earlier era, the term of art for what Thompson did would have been "foreign agent." 

So the so-called folksy outsider in the Republican presidential field was until recently an access man aka foreign agent for a British insurance giant. My colleague David Corn notes that this story appeared on page A23, as part of Birnbaum's "On K Street" column, with no mention or tease on the front page. David invokes the old I.F. Stone adage: "you never know where in The Washington Post you'll find a front-page story."

Save the Internet--Again

Concerned citizens nationwide are rallying to stop the latest phone and cable company assault on Internet freedom as the Federal Communications Commission weighs new rules to protect net neutrality.

What's net neutrality exactly? Put simply, net neutrality ensures that network operators provide nondiscriminatory access to the network and online content. Think about it like this: When you make a phone call, the telephone company can't keep you from talking to whomever you want, or prevent you from talking about whatever you like or charge you more for talking to some people than others. Net neutrality applies the same operating principle to Internet communication.

Net neutrality is nothing new; these provisions have been in place since the Internet's inception. Indeed, these guidelines helped make the Internet a vehicle for technological innovation and democratic communication. But if the telephone and cable television industries have their way, net neutrality will soon be a thing of the past.

Last year, more than 1.5 million Americans spoke out to stop the big phone and cable companies from killing net neutrality in Congress. Now, as industry lobbyists are pressuring the FCC to overturn the one principle that protects freedom of choice online, thousands of people have asked the FCC to keep the Internet free from phone and cable company control.

Join the fight at SavetheInternet.com--the central hub of opposition to industry lobbyists. Watch SavetheInternet's video, let your friends know about the issue and don't forget to tell the FCC and Congress that you expect them to represent the interests of the American public by continuing to support an open and free internet. The public comment period ends on June 15.

The Missing American Bomb

Here's the strange thing: Since 2001, our media has been filled with terrifying nuclear headlines. The Iraqi bomb (you remember those "mushroom clouds" about to rise over American cities), the North Korean bomb, and the Iranian bomb have been almost obsessively in the news. Of course, the Iraqi bomb turned out to be embarrassingly nonexistent; experts still consider the Iranian bomb years away (if it happens); and the North Korean bomb, while quite real, remains a less than impressive weapon, based on a less than spectacular nuclear test in October 2006.

And yet these are the nuclear weapons that have taken all our attention. How many of you have ever heard of Complex 2030 or know that, as William Hartung and Frida Berrigan pointed out recently, the Bush administration is, on average, putting more money into our nuclear arsenal (over $6 billion this year) than went into it in the Cold War era? Or that, if all goes according to administration projections, this figure should hit $7.4 billion a year by 2012? And Complex 2030 -- aiming, as the name implies, at a thoroughly updated, upgraded American arsenal 23 years from now -- involves producing, among many other things, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, our first new warhead in two decades. (The Energy Department just selected its design.) In addition, the Bush administration has worked hard to break down the barrier between nuclear and conventional weapons, absorbing nuclear weapons into its plans for its new Global Strike force, supposedly able to hit any target on the planet "with a few hours' notice," and repeatedly leaking the news that it might consider using the "nuclear option" against Iran's nuclear facilities.

As Middle Eastern expert Dilip Hiro pointed out recently in his article, "The Iranian Bomb in a MAD World," there are not two nuclear worlds -- that of the nuclear "rogues" and that of the "nuclear club"; there is only one. Our nuclear world and theirs are intimately linked by an ever more volatile version of the old Cold War doctrine of deterrence.

Hiro pointed to the annual sum, publicly announced, of $75 million that the Bush administration is investing in creating enemies for the Iranian regime. He adds:

 

"The Bush White House has launched a series of covert operations to undermine the Iranian regime, dispatched aircraft-carrier strike forces through the Straits of Hormuz in classic gunboat-diplomacy fashion, and had its Vice President issue a series of warnings to Iran from the deck of the USS John C. Stennis, floating barely 150 miles off the Iranian coast.

 

"The Iranian response, despite public denials, has been to play the single card that history has stamped "effective" since 1949 -- raising the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran. It is a classic act of self-defense guaranteed to spread nuclear arms to other countries in a MAD world where Catch-22 is the nuclear rule of the day."

 

In the meantime, the Iranians would simply create regional (and global economic) chaos. Just last week, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, a senior defense adviser to Iranian leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, offered an American magazine, Defense News, a hair-raising preview of what an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities might mean. According to Michael Smith of the British Times, he warned that, within an hour, the Iranians would be lobbing "dozens, maybe hundreds" of missiles into the Gulf states that had U.S. bases (and enormous oil reserves). "The U.S.," he said ominously, "will be as surprised with Iranian military capabilities as the Israelis were with Hezbollah in last summer's war in Lebanon."

The more we invest in, and maintain, a vast nuclear arsenal, the more we slot those weapons into our strategic and tactical planning, the more such weapons will proliferate elsewhere. The Bush administration came into office ready to crush nuclear proliferators. Instead, when its history is written, it will undoubtedly be seen as a nuclear proliferation machine, threatening to bring its own nightmare scenario -- such weaponry in the hands of a terrorist band for whom "deterrence" would have no meaning whatsoever -- ever closer to reality.

Help a Child Take a Vacation from War

Since she's not yet blogging herself, I wanted to draw some web users' attention to Nation columnist Katha Pollitt's call for donations to the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt. Pollitt has been virtually alone among Americans in highlighting the great work being down by the group on behalf of children traumatized by war. As she writes in the June 25 issue of the magazine:

"As usual around this time, I'm passing the hat for the Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt, a German group that runs fantastic summer camps in Bosnia for Bosnian and other ex-Yugoslav children and weeklong gatherings in Germany for Israeli and Palestinian youth. Nation readers have been a mainstay of this effort, which helps the cause of peace by breaking down ethnic barriers. All amounts are welcome, but $150 makes you a 'godparent,' supporting a child's 'vacation from war.' Send checks made out to 'Bosnian Initiative Frankfurt' to me, c/o The Nation, 33 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003, and I will forward them."

You need to make donations by check but click here for more info on the initiative.

Bad News Benchmarks

The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index provides the most authoritative measure of how much progress is being made in Iraq. Their recent findings? Not much.

The latest chart compares every May since the fall of Saddam in 2003. US troop deaths per month, American fatalities from homemade bombs, monthly insurgent attacks against coalition troops and civilians, and Iraqi civilian deaths are at an all-time high.

The number of foreign troops in the "coalition of the willing" are at an all-time low. So are the percentage of Iraqis who say their country is heading in the right direction. That's down from 70 percent after the liberation of Baghdad to 36 percent today, just above George W. Bush's own approval rating in this country.

"Overall levels of violence are down somewhat in Baghdad," the authors write. Yet across the country, "bad news still dominates."

Some Republicans have suggested using the "Iraq Index" as official benchmarks. That won't provide their party much relief.

Education for All

Paying for a college education has become a burden many Americans can no longer afford. Tuition has outpaced the rate of inflation for the last 16 years, some private schools are charging more than $40,000 annually and students are being forced to take on unprecedented levels of debt from an industry that is mired in scandals.

Moreover, not only has the federal government done little to improve the situation, it has made things worse: In 2006, with the passage of the Deficit Reduction Act, the federal government cut $12.7 billion from the education budget– the largest cut in the nation's history. Moreover, Pell Grants, a key source of aid for low-income students, have remained stagnant and only pay for about a third of a college education, down from 60 percent 20 years ago.

The consequences of this are grave. According to Campus Progress, it is estimated that between 2001 and 2010 "two million academically qualified students will not go to college because they can't afford it."

In response, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has released a bold proposal that would make community college free to everyone in the state by 2015. "We must create an integrated, comprehensive educational system that nurtures and develops students through each critical phase of development," he said in his recently unveiled education plan. "In today's economy, a high school diploma is not enough."

His plan for community colleges is the cornerstone of a more sweeping initiative that would also include universal pre-school. If enacted Massachusetts would be the first state in America to provide free education past the high school level.

''There's no other state that has universal free tuition,'' Jim Hermes, a senior legislative associate with the American Association of Community Colleges, told the New York Times. ''It would be a very significant move, given the needs of the workforce.''

"We in the Commonwealth know education transforms lives," said Patrick in a press release. "It can lift the spirit of one student and raise the hopes of an entire generation. It can lead them to their dreams, teach them to work harder, reach further, and do better for themselves, their families, and their community."

In a country that so often values economic growth it is indeed a sweet victory to see a public leader value intellectual growth as well. And while there is much work to be done on the cost-of-college crisis that our nation faces, Patrick's proposal is powerful step in the right direction.


This post was co-written by Michael Corcoran, a former Nation intern and freelance journalist residing in Boston. His work has appeared in The Nation, the Boston Globe and Campus Progress. he can be reached at www.michaelcorcoran.blogspot.com. Please send us your own ideas for "sweet victories" by emailing to nationvictories@gmail.com

Richard Rorty, RIP

A brilliant, humane scholar. A public intellectual in the finest sense, and a profound influence on the way I think about politics, long-time Nation contributor Richard Rorty has died.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rorty a few years ago and wrote one of my earliest pieces about a debate he had with Jurgen Habermas here in Chicago. Rorty had an uncanny ability to stare into the post-modern abyss, in which nothing is grounded in the divine or universal, and yet somehow, some way, find a kind of practical empathy that could serve as a beacon in the face of nihilism, authoritarianism and cruelty.

He will be greatly, greatly missed.

No Confidence in GOP to Challenge Gonzales

New York Senator Chuck Schumer has for some weeks been calling for a vote of "no confidence" in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. And it looks like he may get one – or, to be more precise, the start of a process that could lead to one -- on Monday.

But don't bet that the Senate will hold the scandal-plagued Gonzales to account.

In fact, the real issue will be holding senators to account.

A no confidence vote of the sort Schumer proposes lacks the authority, official or even symbolic, that attaches to such votes in parliamentary democracies.

All Schumer's vote would really do is force members of the senate to go beyond rhetoric and actually cast a vote that says they have lost faith in the ability of this attorney general to manage the Department of Justice or to deal honestly with Congress. That might be enough to shame Gonzales into quitting, but that's assuming that the attorney general can be shamed.

This does not mean that Schumer, the Judiciary Committee Democrat who has been most aggressive in going after the high crimes and misdemeanors of Gonzales, lacks sincerity.

He believes that, "We ought to be doing everything we can to get a new attorney general" – which is, of course, right.

And he is motivated by more than mere animus toward Gonzales. Schumer recognizes that, with the attorney general in full bunker mode and with top staffers and career attorneys quitting the DOJ at an unprecedented race, "No one is running the [Justice] Department."

The crisis created by Gonzales has spun out of control. Even conservative Republicans in the Senate recognize it, as they do the fact that only the departure of a lawless and dysfunctional attorney general will begin to set things right. "The bottom line is the only person who thinks the attorney general should remain attorney general is the president," say Schumer. "He's gotten virtually no support from even Republicans in the Senate, just a handful have supported him, six have called for him to step down, a dozen more have said very negative things about him."

Unfortunately, the petty partisanship that characterizes George Bush's Washington is all but certain to take the wind out of Schumer's no-confidence push. The White House is aggressively lobbying against it. And most of the Republicans who have criticized Gonzales -- including Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who so pointedly told the attorney general to resign -- say they won't support Schumer's efforts to schedule a formal Senate vote on the question of whether the attorney general retains the respect of the chamber that approved his nomination to move from the White House to the Justice Department.

To schedule the no-confidence vote, Schumer will need the agreement of 60 senators to invoke cloture, which would limit debate and bringing the resolution to a vote. Getting to 60 votes in a Senate with 49 Republicans and a several White House-friendly "Democrats" is unlikely.

But the cloture vote will show where senators stand at a point when the Justice Department is in disarray. Do they want to fix things, or are they more interested in playing the political games of a White House that could care less about maintaining basic functioning within Justice?

If Republican senators who admit that Gonzales is a disaster were to do the right thing, this could be a turning point. Though a no-confidence vote carries no official sanction, if the Senate were to simply schedule such a vote, the attorney general would be forced to respond with something more than his usual doubletalk.

The ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, has said that he thinks the response to the mere threat of a no-confidence vote would be a resignation. Referring to the prospect of "a forceful, historical statement" of no confidence, Specter says, "I think that if and when (Gonzales) sees that coming, that he would prefer to avoid that kind of an historical black mark."

Unfortunately, the signals at this point suggest that Republicans who have told Gonzales to leave will prevent the "forceful, historical statement" that is needed to prod the attorney general. As a result, the Senate and House Judiciary committees will be forced to continue the painstaking pursuit of the additional evidence – which the White House refuses to hand over – that will end Alberto Gonzales' reign of error. And the crisis at the Department of Justice will continue to metastasize.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"