NationAction | The Nation

Nation Action


Your Guide to Meaningful Action

A Kentucky Congressman Goes to Bat for His Wife’s Company on Capitol Hill

Ed Whitfield

US Representative Ed Whitfield, R-Kentucky (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org

LaserLock Technologies, a firm that sells anti-counterfeiting products, won a powerful congressional ally on Capitol Hill after recruiting a Kentucky congressman’s wife.

Representative Ed Whitfield, a senior Republican lawmaker from western Kentucky, personally submitted company documents on behalf of LaserLock to the congressional record in support of legislation crucial to the firm’s business. Whitfield’s wife, Constance Harriman, a registered lobbyist, has come under scrutiny from Office of Congressional Ethics investigators for unduly influencing Whitfield and his staff for her client, the Humane Society. But new revelations about her role with LaserLock, a company in which she is an investor and where she serves as a board member, reveal that Representative Whitfield may have used his congressional office to boost the fortunes of his wife’s company.

Whitfield’s effort to assist LaserLock is captured on video. A tape of a subcommittee hearing on the morning of April 25, 2013, shows the congressman intervening to endorse LaserLock-backed legislation to create a national standard for tracking the distribution of pharmaceuticals.

Five months prior to Whitfield’s advocacy on behalf of the firm, in November of 2012, LaserLock appointed Constance Harriman, Whitfield’s wife, to its board of directors.

The April 25 tape shows that as the Energy and Commerce Committee began discussing HR 1919, the Safeguarding America’s Pharmaceuticals Act, Whitfield told colleagues that his interest was sparked by the threat of organized crime.

“Last week, I attended a forum over at Georgetown University,” said Whitfield. “I really was taken aback by the amount of money being made by organized crime and other groups and entering into our supply chain counterfeit prescription drugs.”

Whitfield then moved to submit a “statement from a company called LaserLock.” The statement, from LaserLock Chief Executive Neal Alpert, enthusiastically endorsed a digital tracking system for drug products to combat fraud. LaserLock sells SecureLight+, a labeling product the firm has pitched as a solution for pharmaceutical firms seeking to thwart counterfeiters.

Whitfield’s move to intervene on behalf of the company was a considerable endorsement. Whitfield is a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversaw the markup of the counterfeiting legislation.

The congressman did not disclose his family’s investments in the company or his wife’s position as a board member during the hearing. Whitfield also did not disclose that the Georgetown University forum he referenced during his remarks was sponsored by LaserLock. Pictures from the event show Whitfield chatting with LaserLock executives and advisers, including Alpert and a company advisor named Brad Blakeman, a well-known DC lobbyist.

The counterfeiting legislation requires the Food and Drug Administration to implement a system for manufacturers, pharmacies and other distributors along America’s pharmaceutical supply chain to establish tracing and identification standards to track drug products.

LaserLock heaped praise upon the tracking system outlined by the legislation. “LaserLock is uniquely positioned to play a leadership role in designing such a system,” said Michael Sonnenreich, chairman of LaserLock’s board, in a prepared statement. “In passing this legislation, the House of Representatives has taken a strong first step in addressing the dangers that counterfeit pharmaceuticals pose to our nation,” Alpert said in a celebratory press release.

The bill backed by LaserLock later passed the committee and sailed through the House of Representatives on a voice vote, meaning a roll call of votes was not taken. The legislation merged with a Senate version of the bill and was signed into law by President Obama last year.

Upon her appointment to LaserLock’s board in 2012, Harriman was granted stock options valued at approximately $89,568, according to statements filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. She was also granted the option to purchase 1 million shares of the company’s common stock at a discount price of $0.05, along with an additional 1 million shares at the same price that would vest upon completion of two years of service on the board. The Whitfield household continued to hold a significant stake in the company as the congressman submitted testimony on behalf of LaserLock’s CEO. Whitfield’s personal-finance statement shows the couple owned up to $100,000 worth of stock in LaserLock through 2013.

Though the firm may not be well known, LaserLock’s roster of advisers and board members reads like a who’s who of Beltway politicos. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele serves as an advisor to the firm, and previous board members include former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. LaserLock’s Alpert also has a history of notoriety. In 2007, Alpert was ordered by the District of Columbia to “repay nearly $70,000 in unauthorized expenses and unaccounted money from a pair of local baseball groups he had chaired,” according to a story in Politics Daily. He was accused of using the baseball charity’s money on to pay for food, drinks and charges at DC nightclubs. In 2011, The New York Times reported that Alpert was a member of a group of political consultants who attempted to land a $10 million contract with Muammar el-Qaddafi to help the Libyan strongman maintain power.

Earlier this month, the Office of Congressional Ethics completed its investigation of Whitfield and his wife over a complaint related to Harriman’s work as a Humane Society lobbyist. As part of that probe, OCE investigators interviewed Whitfield’s staff and discovered that Harriman routinely used her access to Whitfield’s office to gather information on congressional action. Whitfield’s chief of staff, for example, confirmed to OCE investigators that Harriman had “reached out to you and requested that Representative Whitfield sign on as a co-sponsor or vote a certain way or take any other form of an official act where ultimately that course of action was not taken.” Though OCE did not move to censure Whitfield, the report revealed Harriman used Whitfield’s staff to assist in scheduling “as many as 100 meetings with other congressional offices,” and contacted her husband’s congressional staff about “legislation she lobbied on numerous occasions.”

The investigation narrowly focused on Harriman’s work on behalf of the Humane Society, and did not involve her affiliation with LaserLock. The investigation also did not involve a separate ethics issue, reported in July by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting’s R.G. Dunlop, involving an investment property owned jointly by Harriman, Whitfield and a prominent lobbyist named Juanita Duggan.

The probe, however, inadvertently exposed e-mails showing further evidence of LaserLock’s influence through the Whitfield household. As part of the probe, the Ethics Committee released pages of e-mails between Harriman and Whitfield’s staff. The e-mails show that in addition to e-mailing Whitfield’s staff about Humane Society issues, Harriman used Whitfield’s staff to gather information on legislative developments on behalf of LaserLock.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

On April 13 of 2013, LaserLock’s Alpert e-mailed Harriman to ask about a customs bill sponsored by Representative Kevin Brady. Harriman, forwarding Alpert’s e-mail, queried Whitfield’s chief of staff Cory Hicks about the legislation. “Do you think Ed will be supporting this bill?” she asked.

Hicks responded on April 15, “That was a bill that was introduced last Congress. I don’t know much about it and to my knowledge it hasn’t been reintroduced. Should he be prepared to talk about this bill tomorrow night?”

The next day, Whitfield appeared at a LaserLock promotional event at Georgetown University.

Harriman and Whitfield’s office did not respond to a request for comment from Republic Report.

Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who focuses on ethics issues, told Republic Report, “I believe that the congressman should have disclosed his wife’s interest in the company prior to appearing at a hearing concerning that company. The public has an interest in knowing why their elected officials take certain positions. Most often disclosure and transparency laws focus on the need to report financial information. This case shows us why.”

The video of Whitfield submitting LaserLock documents is below:


Read Next: Post-midterm political coverage of GOP extremism fits the definition of media absurdity.

Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity

John Boehner

John Boehner during the 2013 government shutdown (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Click here to jump directly to Reed Richardson.

My Nation column is called “Midterm Media Meltdown.” The subhed says “The election results reflect a complex reality; the press prefers simple narratives.”

Here’s a piece on “Why Liberals Need Radicals,” though it could have been called “Why Liberals Need (Some) Radicals (and Not Some Others),” that I published in Democracy.

I also did a really long interview with Graham Nash about music and politics and Crosby and Stills and Young (and Joni Mitchell). Graham's fans may have missed it as I haven’t seen it on The Nation homepage, but if you're interested, it’s here.

Lake Street Dive live at Terminal 5
John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s show “Grownup Songs” at the Café Carlyle
Bob Dylan and The Band’s The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11
Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection
Rereleases of Paul McCartney's Venus and Mars and Wings' Wings at the Speed of Sound

Saturday night I joined a surprisingly enormous crowd of hipsters who had made the hegira from the hipper precincts of Brooklyn to Terminal 5 in the far west 50s to see Lake Street Dive. I saw them at the concert last year in honor of “Inside Llewyn Davis” and like so many people at Town Hall, I was mightily impressed. Then I looked up their EP and their great covers on YouTube and was totally smitten. I thought they were new then, but it turns out they’ve been around since 2004. They were founded in Boston by Rachael Price, who does all the singing, all the talking, all the dancing (since she’s not holding up any instruments) and most (if not all) of the sex appeal. The band also has Mike “McDuck” Olson (trumpet, guitar), Bridget Kearney (upright bass) and Mike Calabrese (drums). They met while attending the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and are named after a street with many dive bars in Olson's hometown of Minneapolis. (I had thought it might be an “LSD” reference. I’m glad to see it’s not.) Apparently other commitments, including legal commitments to other labels, prevented them from recording for a long time, but in February of this year they put out Bad Self Portraits.

I had no idea they had become so popular. (Neither did they, by the way—they kept marveling at how many people had come to see them two nights a row.) They sure did pack Terminal 5 and demonstrated a powerful connection with their fans. And what an enthusiastic crowd it was. It’s kind of hard to describe their sound. It’s a little bit Amy Winehouse but relying more heavily on jazz and soul than blues. It’s an interesting amalgam of styles and talents that, if you ask me, will only get better as it coheres and grows more self-confident.

Speaking of self-confidence, I returned one more time to the Café Carlyle to sit at the bar and take in John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey’s show “Grownup Songs.” And while seeing John with just Bucky (and his brother, Martin, on bass and two other guys) was a lot of fun, this show was really something special. It was almost an overdose of charm and good taste and wonderfully presented (and conceived) music. Some of it was written by Molaskey. (I would not put it past either one if Molaskey also wrote some of Pizzarelli’s A+ patter since she comes off so well in that too.) Anyway, the Café Carlyle, while tremendously expensive, is a kind of sacred space for this kind of music, and nobody fills it better than these two. John is so funny and such a great guitarist and not a bad singer, and Molaskey and he have a rapport that is so charming it cannot possibly be real (except on stage). It’s their eighth year there, and if you had to pick one night to spend all your money on a romantic evening—or even a pretend romantic evening—I’d pick this one. (I’d also try to get John to play that Jersey thing when it’s over, which is not the second best song about Jersey, and he is not the second best singer from Jersey, but it is the best song I’ve ever heard written about Jersey—except for all of those written by the guy who wrote ALL of the best ones (and also not including Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl,” of course).  

You may have heard that we finally have something like the complete Basement Tapes that Bob Dylan and The Band recorded in 1967 on a six-disc box set with extensive notes and photos. (There is also a two-CD set if you don’t want to lay out the $120 or so for the complete version.)

Perhaps no unreleased music has ever received the attention that this set received; it literally began the bootleg business. Part of the mystery is derived from the fact that Dylan, at the height of perceived prophetic significance, had a motorcycle accident—we still don’t know how serious—and disappeared from view.

While (apparently) recuperating, he got together with what had once been the Hawks, behind Ronnie Hawkins, and became The Band (because, after all, if they are playing with Dylan, they are The Band) made up of (Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and, later, Levon Helm) in the basement of a small house, dubbed “Big Pink” in West Saugerties, New York. They recorded over one hundred songs; many just because they were drunk and/or high and thought it would be fun and a whole bunch because Dylan wrote them and wanted to make them available to others for recording. In 1975, Robbie Robertson put together sixteen of them, cleaned them up, added eight Band songs and released them on Columbia. Everybody loved it, but that’s all we got, save for crappy-sounding bootlegs…until now. 

Thanks to an incredible salvaging effort, including a whole bunch of songs recently discovered recorded in the “Red Room” of Dylan's home in upstate New York. Garth Hudson worked closely with Canadian music archivist and producer Jan Haust to restore the deteriorating tapes and turn it into these six CDs.

Literally everything is here (though the sixth disc is of such low fidelity, it’s here just for completeness’ sake). It’s almost all pretty wonderful and will enrich the lives of anyone who is open to it. I am particularly enamored, for the first time ever, of the fact that sometimes there will be three or four versions of the same song in a row—usually something I can’t stand—but they are so different from one another, that it is both fun and interesting to hear them in a row. Overall, it’s one of the greatest collections of American music by a single source you will find anywhere, reaching the listener from multiple directions, simultaneously: the head, the heart and everything in between. I feel lucky to be alive now that it’s finally available and feel a sense of sadness for all the Dylanites who did not live long enough to experience it.

Also from my friends at Columbia Legacy, we got Simon & Garfunkel: The Complete Albums Collection. It’s maybe the third time you could buy everything they did in the studio together, though it’s been remastered and this collection includes those five records, plus first-time remasters of The Graduate, The Concert in Central Park (recorded in 1981 before half a million people), a double live album from their 2004 reunion tour, plus live albums from 1967 and 1969, both released pretty recently. I love the fact that they come in their original sleeves and that you can listen to the albums as individual historical artifacts—rather than as a collection of songs—as they appear on the box sets. (It also includes the greatest hits record, which strikes me as silly.) Paul Simon has often said he is not so crazy about this music—he finds is both musically and intellectually simplistic—but it’s all pretty damn good in retrospect, if a bit twee on occasion. Again it would be hard for anyone not to like this, even if they’ve got one of the previous box sets. I sure do. The sound is pristine and the packaging brings back the pheromones of the time.

Finally, we also got two remastered re-releases of early Paul McCartney and Wings albums. I have a theory that each Beatle had one great album and one near-great album in them and that was it. After that, each album only had a decent song or two but was otherwise uninspired. They needed both the cooperation and the competition for the magic to make its appearance. John’s Plastic Ono Band is great and Imagine is near-great. George’s All Things Must Pass, is the best post-Beatles album ever, and Living in the Material World, is not bad at all. Ringo’s Ringo, which is, in some ways, an actual Beatles album, is also great. The near-great part of my theory kind of breaks down with Ringo, though I suppose he must have also put out a good album at some point. I seem to remember Beaucoups of Blues was not bad.

Paul’s great album is Band on the Run. His near-great album is Venus and Mars. (I also like McCartney a lot, but it’s more like half an album.) I remember when these two albums came out; people thought they could now look forward to Paul being great again and a lifetime of almost Beatles quality music from the Cute One.

Band on the Run got the re-release treatment two years ago, and now here is V & M, and while it is not quite as good—Band is good enough to be a Beatles album—it’s enormously satisfying on its own. Wings at the Speed of Sound, however, has a couple of decent songs, “Beware My Love,” and “Time to Hide,” some throwaways and more than few that should have been strangled in their respective cradles (“Let ’Em In,” “Silly Love Songs,” “Warm and Beautiful” and “Cook of the House” for starters…).

Both have been released in a variety of formats. I got the two-CD standard edition, with the original remastered album, and the second CD includes bonus audio made up of material including demos and unreleased tracks. The V & M bonus material is excellent and every Beatles person will want this collection. As for WATSOS, well, the extras don’t help much either. But if you know someone with really bad musical taste, it will make a fine gift.

This reminds me, John P. and Jessica M. resurrected Paul’s “Heart of the Country,” and it was better than I remembered it, even if I’m guessing they chose it so John could tell his “Bucky and I played guitar for Sir Paul” bit for the umpteenth-million time...

And now, here (finally) is Reed:

Post-Midterm Political Coverage of GOP Extremism Fits the Definition of Media Absurdity
by Reed Richardson

Since 2008, it has become a biennial ritual in the political press. In the aftermath of every election—no matter the outcome—the media establishment carefully explains that the Republican Party will now have to move to the center, accept compromise and govern more responsibly. And each and every time—no matter the circumstances—the Republican Party ignores this counsel and instead becomes more extreme, more intransigent and more antagonistic toward governance.

You would think that, by now, the press would have learned this lesson. That after six years of getting it wrong, the press would have figured out that a relentless GOP campaign of unswerving opposition—launched mere hours into the Obama presidency—would never be so easily relinquished.

After its drubbing in the 2012 election, you'll recall, the GOP commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to conduct a post-mortem on the party’s mistakes. When they were released to much fanfare in March of 2013, the final recommendations of the Growth and Opportunity Project were lauded by Beltway pundits as “bold” and “comprehensive” and received some egregiously positive and credulous coverage. The Republicans, so went the DC thinking, had finally woken up. To remain relevant, the party could no longer afford to substitute xenophobia, obstruction and anti-government nihilism for a policy agenda. And among the most notable and newsworthy of the GOP project’s priorities, it’s worth remembering, was this:

“We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only. We also believe that comprehensive immigration reform is consistent with Republican economic policies that promote job growth and opportunity for all.”

It didn’t take long, however, before this clarion call to solve one of our nation’s biggest challenges—implicitly by working with the recently re-elected President Obama—was drowned under a riptide of GOP nativism. In fact, in their progress “check-up” one year later, the GOP report’s authors omitted any mention of immigration reform—like the whole idea of supporting its passage had never even happened. On the GOP’s website, a series of congratulatory quotes from conservative leaders about the GOP’s progress in Hispanic outreach trotted a lot of vague marketing spin about better “engagement.” The phrase “comprehensive immigration reform” was, again, nowhere to be found.

Did the establishment media make a point of noticing the party’s huge feint toward the center on immigration reform over the past year-and-a-half? Not so much. Months after barely noticing that the Republican National Committee’s Director of Hispanic Outreach had quit in protest over the GOP’s “culture of intolerance,” major news organizations could still be found regurgitating party press releases and glossing over the growing anti-immigrant tenor of GOP rhetoric and its policies.

The same phenomenon played out with fiscal policy as well. After pushing our fragile economy to the brink of disaster during the 2011 debt ceiling fight, the Beltway conventional wisdom told everyone that a chastened, post-2012 Republican Party wasn’t about to do that again. But then last fall, there did it again. Even worse, in fact, as a small band of fringe conservatives were able to hijack the party leadership and shut down the federal government for more than two weeks, costing the country billions. All as part of the GOP’s years-long, quixotic quest to repeal Obamacare.

True to form, the press seemingly did its level best to avoid holding Republicans accountable for this negligent economic stewardship. Emblematic of this flawed coverage last year were analyses that indulged in vague blaming of “Washington” and “lawmakers” and that crassly tallied up the “winners” and “losers” of the crisis without ever bothering to note the chaos inflicted on the lives of so many Americans. Rather than preventing the next paralyzing government showdown, the media’s toothless response last October actually made another one more likely, by normalizing the GOP’s recklessness as just another symptom of Capitol Hill gridlock. As a I wrote at the time:

“Stripped of any reportorial continuity, each crisis simply gets treated as sui generis. Divorced from a broader narrative, ongoing dysfunction begins to seem endemic to government itself. Neither is true. Debt limit threats, government shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, sequester cuts: all of these are merely different varietals of the same, poisoned austerity fruit. Likewise, these crises do not naturally spring from, but are in fact artificially inflicted upon Washington, D.C.—and by extension, the country—by a Republican Party intent on delegitimizing every aspect of our federal government.”

Despite all this evidence, the media somehow still think the Republicans will change and become “serious” about governing again. After the GOP stormed to victory in the most recent midterms, a handful of Republican politicians said as much, pooh-poohing the notion of using another budget shutdown as leverage against the president. Right on cue, the media still started singing the same old song. Never mind what happened after 2008, 2010, or 2012. This time—this time—things will be different in Washington.

Wishing doesn’t make it so, though. This past week, for instance, GOP Rep. Steve King was already hinting at the Republican brinksmanship to come. In what amounted to several not-so-veiled threats, he talked of shutting down the government again if President Obama took executive action to deal with immigration. And while King is well known for his outrageous, extremist views, his bluster shouldn’t be taken as mere idle chatter from a powerless backbencher. Recall that last summer, Speaker John Boehner basically handed the legislative reins over to King and Rep. Michele Bachmann to shape the House’s draconian border security bill. Moreover, King is proudly and publicly allying himself with Senate gadfly and obstructionist par excellence Ted Cruz, who was the prime mover in last fall’s sixteen-day government shutdown.

Of course, another government shutdown would prove to be but a skirmish if the party followed through on the numerous calls within its ranks to unleash political thermonuclear war by impeaching the president. If, as expected, Obama does finally take executive action in the coming weeks on immigration—just as previous GOP presidents have done before, I should add—several House Republicans are already on the record arguing in favor of impeaching him for it. This thirst for political vengeance isn’t just the case of a few vocal House Republicans popping off; the conservative grassroots are firmly behind it. A recent Democracy Corps poll, for example, found that a slim majority of GOP voters want Congress to consider starting impeachment hearings on the president right now. Among self-identified Tea Party voters—who will make up a key part of the GOP’s 2016 presidential primary electorate—the prospect of impeaching Obama immediately triumphs by a two-to-one margin.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The fact is it’s far more likely that conservatives don’t want the Republicans to try their hand at governing. They see the mandate as a chance to undo as much of the past six years as possible. So, when the press portrays the political reality in Washington as something less ominous, less foreboding, it does the public a grave disservice, as Jay Rosen noted in this incisive post at his PressThink blog:

“Asserted as a fact of political life, ‘Republicans must show they can govern’ is a failure of imagination, and a sentimentalism. It refuses to grapple with other equally plausible possibilities. For example: that declining to govern will produce so much confusion about lines of responsibility and alienation from a broken political system that voters can’t, won’t, or in any case don’t ‘punish’ the people who went for obstruction.”

This is “objective” political journalism as its most insidious—projecting its can’t-we-all-get-along, centrist biases onto a increasingly hard-right party that has learned it can use the Beltway media's “both sides do it” framing as political cover. Thanks to this false balance in the press's political coverage, Republicans know they will rarely be held accountable for their unprecedented obstruction and reckless brinksmanship. Likewise, it works in their favor when the press overdoses on ambiguous complaints of “gridlock” and fuzzy talk of governmental dysfunction, by depressing voter turnout at the polls. Couple that smaller, more Republican midterm electorate with the GOP’s ruthless, state-level redistricting tactics, and you have a party that has managed to build an entrenched majority in the House and a stalemate in the Senate, all without having to compromise on a single piece of major legislation and without having had much of a policy agenda other than reflexively opposing the president at every turn.  

In other words, with all of these factors working in their favor, why in the world would the Republicans ever bother to change? You might call the GOP crazy, but it’s not insane. No, that honor goes to a political press corps that keeps on enabling Republican extremism year after year and then can’t figure out why our broken democracy never gets any better.

Contact me directly at reedfrichardson (at) gmail dot com.
I’m on Twitter here—(at)reedfrich.

Editor's note: To contact Eric Alterman, use this form

Read Next: Eric Alterman on the midterm media meltdown.

This Will Make You Think Twice About Getting That Manicure


Beauty can be painful: just ask anyone who’s ever sat in a salon getting their scalp seared with straightener or their fingers soaked in noxious chemicals. But the problems aren’t just skin deep; the glamor of the cosmetics industry hides many underlying health hazards.

The materials used in salon treatments like perms and manicures are as dangerous as any industrial chemical. But unlike industrial workplaces where protective equipment is often the norm, at salons personal image and comfort are paramount. So regulation remains a gray area, consumers ignore those ugly fumes, and yet for workers who labor all day in these shops, practically every breath may carry toxic risks.

Although the exact degree of risk salon workers face is unclear and varies across workplaces, a report by the advocacy group Women’s Voices for the Earth highlights troubling research findings. For example, “[s]ome surveys found that over 60 percent of salon workers suffer from skin conditions, such as dermatitis, on their hands,” and other studies have detected links between exposure to salon chemicals—in nail polish, hair straighteners and related products—to respiratory irritation, immune or neurological problems, or even birth defects. Some chemicals in popular hair care products are associated with cancer risk, such as formaldehyde gas (a byproduct of the hair treatment Brazilian Blowout), which “can be released from hair straighteners and flat iron sprays when used with high heat.”

Much of the research is preliminary and inconclusive; WVE points out that some studies have not shown significant risks. But anecdotal evidence confirms patterns of harm, according to the report’s author, WVE Director of Science and Research Alexandra Scranton. Though more research must be done, she tells The Nation via e-mail, “for some of the more acute effects (dermatitis and breathing problems particularly) there are several studies [observing] the salon workers symptoms would improve significantly when they were away from the workplace—indicating that it was likely to be salon exposures causing these effects rather than other factors.”

In a survey of Vietnamese-American salon workers in Southern California, a worker described the body burdens she faces every day at work: “Working in the nail profession, my nose has allergies to the chemicals in the nail products. Just sitting down to do nails, my nose hurts and my head hurts so much that I can’t bear it.”

Citing the unique risks faced by the many women workers of childbearing age, the report cites research showing that “[h]airdressers and cosmetologists may be more likely to give birth to low birth weight babies.” A study on New York cosmetologists found heightened risk of low birthweight and postpartum hemorrhage, measured against a comparison group of realtors, which was in turn linked to the frequency of administering perms and hair spraying.

Often, the health risks faced by women workers are exacerbated by low incomes and limited access to health care.

The research gaps and safety risks reflect deeper deficits in the public health system. The chief regulatory agency responsible for overseeing the industry, the Food and Drug Administration, is notoriously weak, underresourced and corporate-friendly. According to WVE, “The Food, Drug and Cosmetics act contains no provisions that require evidence of the safety of ingredients in cosmetics products prior to their marketing.” If something does go wrong, the agency generally must rely on “voluntary” recalls, in which corporations choose whether to comply with the government’s warnings about their consumers being slowly poisoned.

But environmental standards don’t blend easily with retail operations more focused on pampering than regulating toxins. For workers, a major obstacle to improving environmental health is that the workplace dynamics are complicated by culture and language gaps, as many of the salons are staffed and run by Asian immigrants, and safety monitoring and enforcement tasks are left to the private sector. The WVE report notes that “health and safety rules and regulations in salons are often promulgated by the state cosmetology and barbering boards.” So while Vietnamese women workers are left struggling to breathe, their communities may be distanced from, or wary of, regulatory authorities and, in turn, alienated from crucial guidance and training on best practices (even simple things, like keeping shop windows open).

Some women have emerged within the beauty industry to become community health advocates. Safiyyah Edley, director of the Naturally Dezign’d: Natural Hair & Fashion Runway Show Expo, wrote recently for WVE about the challenges of building awareness of workplace environmental safety at the grassroots. She contends with coworkers who resist change in their business practices and an industry that stubbornly resists regulation:

Some of these manufacturing companies lie on their labels, like labeling everything “natural” when it really isn’t or hiding the truth about some of the ingredients used to make their products. Also, it’s truly harder to find healthier options when it comes to some products, so it’s hard to get around it.… The major challenge is compromising your health in order to do what you love and also to take care of your family.

To alleviate the burden on workers, WVE recommends, in addition to tightening occupational safety standards, moving toward a proactive, precautionary approach to commercial toxins, focused on reducing risk through local “healthy salon” certification programs, and advocating for scientifically informed, safer product alternatives. That could start with a community-driven movement to demand greener beauty products.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Some communities have moved ahead of regulators by cultivating a grassroots environmental justice movement in the industry. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative (along with its partner, the National Healthy Nail and Beauty Salon Alliance) runs outreach and education campaigns to foster safer work environments for consumers and workers. The Collaborative also aims to conduct research, and build “the leadership, decision-making, and power of California salon workers and owners invested in improving their working conditions and workplace health and safety.”

From Victorian Painted Ladies to Brazilian Blowout, the marketing blitz driving our beauty obsession has historically eclipsed the struggles of the women who make cosmetic fantasies come true. Today, their health concerns are no longer invisible, and it’s time to find a way to pursue beauty without masking harm below the surface.


Read Next: Surprise: Whole Foods is not the world’s greatest employer.

This Mass Grave Isn’t the Mass Grave You Have Been Looking For

Protests in Mexico over missing students

Teachers and parents clash with riot police in the Mexican state of Guerrero over forty-three missing students. (AP/Felix Marquez)

They have found many mass graves. Just not the mass grave they have been looking for. The forty-three student activists were disappeared on September 26, after being attacked by police in the town of Iguala, in the Mexican state of Guerrero. A week later, I set up an alert for “fosa clandestina”—Spanish for clandestine grave—on Google News. Here’s what has come back:

On October 4, the state prosecutor of Guerrero announced that twenty-eight bodies were found in five clandestine mass graves. None of them were the missing forty-three.

On October 9, three more graves. None of them contained the missing forty-three. The use of the passive tense on the part of government officials and in news reports is endemic. Graves were discovered. Massacres were committed. But in this case, a grassroots community organization, the Unión de Pueblos y Organizaciones del Estado de Guerrero, searched for and found the burial sites.

By October 16, the number of known clandestine graves in the state of Guerrero had risen to nineteen. Still none of them held the forty-three.

On October 24, the Unión de Pueblos announced that it had found six more clandestine graves in a neighborhood called Monte Hored. Five were filled with human remains: “hair…blood stained clothing,” including “high school uniforms.”

The sixth was empty. It was “new and seemed ready for use,” said a spokesperson for the Unión.

On October 26, in Mexico City at one of the many protests sparked by the disappearances, Elena Poniatowska read the names and provided a short biography of each of the forty-three students. Poniatowska is a journalist perhaps best known for having interviewed witnesses and survivors to the long-denied 1968 massacre in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Plaza, when the military killed and wounded hundreds of protesters. A lot of what we know about that massacre we know because of Poniatowska.

All of the forty-three were students at the Escuela Normal Rural Raúl Isidro Burgos de Ayotzinapa, a left-wing rural teacher-training school. All were politically active. All were from working class or peasant families. The first name Poniatowska reads is: Jhosivani Guerrero de la Cruz. He’s twenty years old, thin, with a willowy face and large, almond-shaped eyes, his nickname is ‘the Korean’ and he has to walk 4 km to the highway to catch the bus and 4 km back because he wants to be a teacher in his village Omeapa.” The forty-third is Israel Caballero Sánchez, who “is studying to become a teacher in indigenous communities.” Poniatowska uses the present tense. Here’s the English translation.

Four days later, on October 30, CNN México reported more graves in the municipalities of Zitlala and Eduardo Neri. Officials seemed to have lost track of the exact number.

“Various,” CNN said.

The improvised crematoriums where the bodies are burnt are called cocinas, or “kitchens.”

On November 7, Mexico’s attorney general announced that detained members of a gang, Guerreros Unidos, confessed that the police of the towns of Iguala and Cocula delivered the students to them. Some were already dead, the rest, brought to the garbage dump in Cocula, they killed. They then incinerated the bodies in a giant pyre, fueled by diesel, wood and other material, that burned for fifteen hours. They put the remains in plastic bags and threw them into a river.

On November 10, it was reported that the remains of “totally disintegrated bodies” found in black garbage bags were sent to a laboratory at the Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria. The director of that lab said that, owing to the high heat applied to the remains, the DNA analysis could take months.

On November 12, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team announced that twenty-four of the thirty bodies found in other clandestine graves weren’t of the forty-three. Some remains though are beginning to be identified. The son of Jesús Quemada Parra is from Iguala and is currently an undocumented migrant worker in Texas. Mexican officials told him he as to return to Mexico to claim his father’s body. But he can’t afford to make the journey, which the militarization of the border has made extremely dangerous.

Mexico has one of the lowest wage structures in the world, lower than China. Aside from Turkey, Mexico is alone among countries considered wealthy by GDP standards “where the minimum wage fell in dollar terms between 2000 and 2012.” Over the decades that NAFTA has been in effect, Mexico’s minimum wage has dropped 43 percent after inflation. As of November 13, the body of Jesús Quemada Parra “has remained in the field because the son is afraid of returning.”

On November 14, news stories announced that one body, found among twelve others, is of a Catholic priest from Uganda, John Ssenyondo, 55, identified by his teeth and skull. He was ministering in a mostly indigenous area of Guerrero and had gone missing in May. Ssenyondo’s last Facebook post was in March.

Seventy-four people, including the former mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, have been arrested and charged with different aspects of the crime.

Relatives and schoolmates, along with many others, believe these arrests are an attempt to contain the fallout and demobilize the protests, confining the crime to tale of local corruption and regional drug trafficking. “We don’t believe this game they are playing,” said Inés Abraján, the aunt of Adán Abraján, one of the forty-three. The three gang members, she said, “were tortured and forced to say that they killed the students,” as part of a cover-up.

Francisco Goldman writes that we might be witnessing the beginning of a second Mexican Revolution. Laura Carlsen says that the disappearances might take the “historic struggle between Mexico’s student left and the federal government, one that has been brewing for years if not decades” (at least since 1968’s Tlatelolco massacre) and generalize it “into the rest of the country.” This last weekend, November 15 and 16, family members of the disappeared led a caravan from Ayotzinapa to Chiapas, where they held mass meetings, protests, and met with leaders of the Zapatistas. Protests and civil disobedience are spreading throughout Mexico.

On November 16th in Mexico City, protesting teachers denounced Enrique Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto, news reports noted, “found himself in Australia.”

To blame the violence and corruption on the cartels, or the state’s war on the cartels, is to miss the larger context. Before there was the forty-three, there was the seventy-two—a 2010 mass murder of undocumented migrants in Tamaulipas, fifty-eight men and fourteen women mostly from Central and South America.

And then after the seventy-two, there was the 193, a mass murder that also took place in Tamaulipas. The killers spread the bodies out in a number of mass graves.

After these killings, the Catholic priests Raúl Vera and Alejandro Solalinde blamed all three levels of Mexico’s government for the deaths: local, state, and federal. They also blamed the United States, saying its immigration and drug-war policy was responsible for the deaths. They demanded the suspension of Plan Merida, or the Merida Initiative.

Laura Carlsen says that “besides the nearly $3 billion that’s come through the Merida Initiative, there’s also Department of Defense money, and that money is going to train police forces and armed forces, that now we find are directly involved in attacks on the people, and particularly attacks on youth.” It is possible, Carlsen said, that the Iguala police, who seemed to be operationally undistinguishable from Guerreros Unidos, received financing from these programs.

They are “our real bosses, our real patrons,” Solalinde said of the United States. US trade, immigration, and security policies feed off one another, transforming the corridor running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico into a slaughter house.

If you Google “Zetas” (the gang responsible for the two Tamaulipas massacres) and “Kaibiles” (Guatemala’s infamous anti-communist unit modeled on the United States Green Berets, which committed some of the worst atrocities during that country’s civil war) you will find out why the Cold War and the drug war really is just one long war. After Guatemala’s civil war was over, ex-Kaibiles migrated to Mexico, where they offered their talents to the Gulf Cartel. Eventually, they broke to form the Zetas (taking advantage of new drug-running opportunities resulting from Plan Colombia, which greatly increased the profitability of transporting cocaine). The Zetas also operate in Guatemala. And the Guatemalan government has deployed the Kaibiles in Mexico against the cartels. This all works out well, since the Zetas continue to recruit Kaibiles into their ranks. The circle is unbroken.

Others have accused the military. Charles Bowden called the Mexican army, recipient of millions of dollars of Washington aid, “the biggest cartel in Mexico.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Others point to the ruling-party, the PRI. “All of Mexico is a graveyard,” says Father Solalinde, who describes the route that runs from the border of Mexico to the border of the United States as one long “crime scene”—a crime scene that “coincides with PRI state governorships.”

During just the six year term of Mexico’s last president, Felipe Calderón (2006–12), who declared a war on the cartels, there were at least 26,000 disappearances and 83,000 homicides. Added to that is the 6000 known deaths of migrants trying to make it into the United States, though the number might be four times as many. Most of the activists killed and disappeared on September 26 were men. But since the implementation of NAFTA, the number of women killed, especially in the town along the US border, has skyrocketed, as shown by the contributors to editors Alicia Gaspar de Alba and Georgina Guzmán’s Making a Killing:Femicide, Free Trade and La Frontera.

If you Google-news “fosas clandestinas” and “Guerrero,” you get over 3,600 stories. If you search just “fosa” and “Guerrero,” over 13,000 hits come back. Fosaand “Mexico” returns 31,000.

Read Next: Why the Left Continues to Win in Latin America

New NBA Union Chief Michele Roberts Slams the League’s Old Labor Practices

Adam Silver

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The labor movement slogans that have guided generations include “an injury to one is an injury to all” and “solidarity forever.” But my favorite—because it speaks most directly to strategy—is, “The best way to avoid a strike is to prepare for one.” In other words, bosses will only back down and blink if they survey your side and think that they can lose.

That is why anyone who cares about the rights of labor on the highest possible public platform has to be inspired by the recent comments of new NBA Players Association Executive Director Michele Roberts. In an interview with Pablo Torre of ESPN the Magazine, Roberts took a step back from the decades of established labor practices that have governed sports and basically said, “This is bullshit.”

Because of various congressional shields and anti-trust exemptions, pro sports operate in a constitution-free zone, without the customary rights accorded in labor law. You get drafted to your city of work, a salary cap determines what you can make and, arbitrarily, you can be deemed not old enough to work.

Most of the sports media—not to mention fans—have either scoffed at or ignored these realities, saying that the exorbitant salaries—the NBA average is $4.5 million a year—more than justify any hardships. But that does not change the fact that wages are artificially capped, with the supposed business geniuses that own NBA franchises protected from their own checkbooks like over-caffeinated teenagers. It does not change an accepted narrative that trickles down into the main vein of US life: that the bosses always know—and do—what’s best.

Michele Roberts took a blowtorch to this narrative, saying, “I don’t know of any space other than the world of sports where there’s this notion that we will artificially deflate what someone’s able to make, just because. It’s incredibly un-American. My DNA is offended by it.”

She also said that the current revenue split, where 50 percent goes to ownership, was ridiculous and would change when the players opt out of the current CBA—a CBA that shifted billions of dollars in wealth from players to owners—and renegotiates in 2017.

“Why don’t we have the owners play half the games?” Roberts said. “There would be no money if not for the players. Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money.”

Every quote from Roberts is a gem, the sort of thing player and labor advocates have been saying on the margins for decades. Whether blasting the rookie wage scale, the “monopoly” practices of the league, or the hypocrisy of owners, she is reframing consecrated conventional wisdoms with a sandblaster.

Not surprisingly, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who took a break from his recent campaign to get the owners a cut of the $400 billion illegal gambling industry, released a statement blasting Roberts’s assertions.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

“We couldn’t disagree more with these statements,” Silver said. “The NBA’s success is based on the collective efforts and investments of all of the team owners, the thousands of employees at our teams and arenas, and our extraordinarily talented players. No single group could accomplish this on its own. Nor is there anything unusual or ‘un-American’ in a unionized industry to have a collective system for paying employees—in fact, that’s the norm…. We will address all of these topics and others with the players association at the appropriate time.”

Make no mistake what this is about. The league is about to be engorged by television revenue, $24 billion over six years, as live sports has become the tent pole of commercial television in our live streaming and DVR’d universe. Roberts is sending a shot across the bow that the owners will not be the primary beneficiaries of this broadcast bonanza and they will no longer, as she put it, “control the narrative.”

You don’t become the first woman elected to head a men’s sports union by playing nice. Adam Silver, a child of privilege from the New York City suburbs, should take note of Roberts, who has traveled from a housing project in the South Bronx to becoming a professor at Harvard and a high-powered attorney called “the finest trial lawyer in the nation.” “My past,” she told a room of NBA players, “is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.” If Adam Silver did not take Roberts seriously before, he had better start. In the new narrative, Silver and the owners have a debt to pay.


Read Next: “Boston Is Already Saying ‘Hell No’ to the 2024 Olympics”

How the North Pole Could Become the World’s Next Battlefield

NASA satellite image of Arctic

A NASA satellite image shows the state of Arctic sea ice. (Reuters/NASA)

This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.

One hundred and sixty-eight years ago this past July, two British warships—HMS Erebus and HMS Terror—sailed north into Baffin Bay, bound on a mission to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. It would be the last that the nineteenth-century world would see of Sir John Franklin and his 128 crew members.

But the Arctic that swallowed the 1845 Franklin expedition is disappearing, its vast ice sheets thinning, its frozen straits thawing. And once again, ships are headed north, not on voyages of discovery—the northern passages across Canada and Russia are well known today—but to stake a claim in the globe’s last great race for resources and trade routes.

How that contest plays out has much to do with the flawed legacies of World War II, which may go a long way toward determining whether the Arctic will become a theater of cooperation or—in the words of former NATO commander and US Admiral James G. Stavridis—an “icy slope toward a zone of competition, or worse, a zone of conflict.”

Opening the Northern Passage

There is a great deal at stake.

The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s oil reserves and 30 percent of its natural gas. There are also significant coal and iron ore deposits. As the ice retreats, new fishing zones are opening up, and—most importantly—so are shipping routes that trim thousands of miles off voyages, saving enormous amounts of time and money. Expanding trade will stimulate shipbuilding, the opening of new ports and economic growth, especially in East Asia.

Traffic in the Northern Sea Route across Russia—formerly known as the Northeast Passage—is still modest but on the uptick. The easiest of the northern routes to traverse, the passage has seen an increase in shipping, from four vessels in 2010 to seventy-one in 2013. And for the first time in history, a liquid natural gas tanker—the Ob River—made the trip in 2012. On a run from Hammerfest, Norway to Tobata, Japan, the ship took only nine days to traverse the passage, cutting almost half the distance off the normal route through the Suez Canal.

Which is not to say that the Northern Sea Route is a stroll in the garden. The Arctic may be retreating, but it is still a dangerous and stormy place, not far removed from the conditions that killed Franklin and his men. A lack of detailed maps is an ongoing problem, and most ships require the help of expensive icebreakers. But for the first time, specially reinforced tankers are making the run on their own.

Tensions at the Top

Tensions in the region arise from two sources: squabbles among the border states (Norway, Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Sweden) over who owns what, and efforts by non-polar countries (China, India, the European Union and Japan) that want access. The conflicts range from serious to somewhat silly. In the latter category was the 2007 planting of a small Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole by private explorer Artur Chilingarov, a stunt that even the Moscow government dismissed as theatrics.

But the Russians do lay claim to a vast section of the North Pole based on their interpretation of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea, which allows a country to claim ownership if an area is part of its continental shelf. Moscow argues that the huge Lomonosov Ridge, which divides the Arctic Ocean into two basins and runs under the Pole, originates in Russia. Canada and Denmark also claim the ridge as well.

Canada organized an expedition this past summer to find out what really happened to Franklin and his two ships. The search was a success—one of the ships was found in Victoria Straits—but the goal was political, not archaeological: Ottawa is using the find to lay claim to the Northwest Passage.

Copenhagen and Ottawa are meanwhile at loggerheads over Hans Island, located between Ellesmere Island and Danish-controlled Greenland. The occupation of the tiny rock by the Canadian military has generated a “Free Hans Island” campaign in Denmark.

The US government has been trying to stake out terrain as well, though it’s constrained by the fact that Washington has not signed the Law of the Seas Convention. The United States has locked horns with Canada over the Beaufort Sea, and the Pentagon released its first “Arctic Strategy” study last year. The United States maintains 27,000 military personnel in the region, not including regular patrols by nuclear submarines.

The Russians and Canadians have ramped up their military presence in the region as well, and Norway has carried out yearly military exercises—“Arctic Cold Response”—involving up to 16,000 troops, many of them NATO units.

Outside Looking In

But you don’t have to be next to the ice to want to be a player. China may be a thousand miles from the nearest ice floe, but as the second-largest economy in the world, it has no intention of being left out in the cold. This past summer the Chinese icebreaker Snow Dragon made the Northern Sea Route run, and Beijing has elbowed its way into being a permanent observer on the Arctic Council. Formed in 1996, the council consists of the border states plus the indigenous people who populate the vast frozen area. Japan and South Korea are also observers.

And herein lies the problem.

Tensions are currently high in East and South Asia because of issues deliberately left unresolved by the 1952 Treaty of San Francisco that ended World War II. As Canadian researcher Kimie Hara recently discovered, the United States designed the treaty to have a certain amount of “manageable instability” built into it by leaving certain territorial issues unresolved. The tensions that those issues generate make it easier for the United States to maintain a robust military presence in the region. Thus, China and Japan are involved in a dangerous dispute over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea—called the Diaoyus by China and the Senkakus by Japan—because the 1952 treaty did not designate which country had sovereignty. If it comes to a military confrontation, the United States is bound by treaty to support Japan.

Similar tensions exist between South Korea and Japan over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands, between Japan and Russia over the Northern Territories/Southern Kurile islands, and between China, Vietnam and Taiwan over the Spratly and Paracel islands. Brunei and Malaysia also have claims that overlap with China’s. Any ships traversing the East and South China seas on the way north will find themselves in the middle of several nasty territorial disputes.

In theory, the economic potential of the Arctic routes should pressure the various parties to reach an amicable resolution of their differences, but things are complicated these days.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Russia has indicated it would like to resolve the Northern Territories/Kuriles issue, and initial talks appeared to be making progress. But then in July, Tokyo joined Western sanctions against Russia over its annexation of Crimea, and negotiations have gone into the freezer.

Moscow just signed off on a $400 billion oil and gas deal with Beijing and is looking to increase trade with China as a way to ease the impact of Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis. At least for the present, China and Russia are allies and trade partners, and both would like to see a diminished role for the United States in Asia. That wish, of course, runs counter to Washington’s growing military footprint in the region—the so-called “Asia pivot.”

The tensions have even generated some good old-fashioned paranoia. When a Chinese tycoon tried to buy land in northern Norway, one local newspaper claimed it was a plot, calling the entrepreneur “a straw man for the Chinese Communist Party.”

Breaking the Ice

The Arctic may be cold, but the politics surrounding it are pretty hot.

At the same time, the international tools to resolve such disputes currently exist. The first step is a commitment to put international law—such as the Law of the Seas Convention—over national interests.

The Chinese have a good case for sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyus, and Japan has solid grounds for reclaiming most of the Southern Kuriles. Korea would likely prevail in the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute, and China would have to back off some of its extravagant claims in the South China Sea.

For all the potential for conflict, there is a solid basis for cooperation in the Arctic. Russia and Norway have divided up the Barents Sea, and Russia, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom are cooperating on nuclear waste problems in the Kola Peninsula and Arkhangelsk. There are common environmental issues. The Arctic is a delicate place, easy to damage, slow to heal.

As Aqqaluk Lynge, chair of the indigenous Inuit Circumpolar Council, says, “We do not want a return to the Cold War.”


Read Next: Obama is fighting ISIS, Iran and Russia with… oil?

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 11/13/14?

Students at Holmes Elementary School in Miami listen to their teacher, a TFA graduate, during a class. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

Talal Ansari focuses on foreign policy and affairs, international conflict and human rights issues abroad.

Israel’s One-State Reality,” by David Remnick. The New Yorker, November 17, 2014 Issue.

“It’s not just Jews against Arabs. It’s the Orthodox versus those who don’t think they can keep all six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Bible. It’s rich people versus poor people. At some point, something came over Israel so that everyone has his own ideas—and everyone else is an enemy,” said Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president and member of the right-wing Likud party. “It’s a dialogue among deaf people and it is getting more and more serious.”

What’s most troubling about these quotes is not just the pervasive intolerable politics that are occurring inside the Knesset, it’s that these words are coming from a right-wing politician about his peers and nation who have veered even further right than once imaginable. This is the state of affairs in Israel, and this is the climate in which a solution seems even more unattainable.

“I’m not asking if we’ve forgotten how to be Jewish,” he said, “but if we’ve forgotten how to be human.”

Aaron Braun focuses on the psychology and politics of work, histories of socialism, and critiques of Israeli exceptionalism.

Shlomo Sand is not Jewish Any More,” by Phillip Kleinfeld. Vice, November 10, 2014.

There is a long history of Jewish writers and intellectuals who have been controversially critical of their own cultural ties. Karl Marx is a famous example, and others include Hannah Arendt, though I think her received rebellion against the Jewish community was more of a scapegoating than an active repudiation. In his recent book How I Stopped Being a Jew, Shlomo Sand has joined the ranks of thinkers who have repudiated their Jewish identity, conceivably in an attempt to do justice to the memory of it as something worth fighting for. This approach differs from those of other so-called “post-Zionists” (see Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism) who attempt to rebuild a Jewish identity (sometimes secular, sometimes religious) that is detached from nationalisms, chauvinisms, jingoisms and other related isms.

What Palestinian Media is Saying about the Jerusalem violence,” by Henriette Chacar. +972 Mag, November 7, 2014.

I was drawn to this piece by Palestinian-Israeli journalist Henriette Chacar because it reflects a growing interest in Palestinian media. The complexity with which our media covers Israeli society and interacts with Israeli media is much more comprehensive and dynamic when compared to its relationship to Palestinian counterparts. Most news-going Americans are familiar with Haaretz, the prevailing face of Israeli independent media (I should say I don’t actually know how independent they are, I haven’t checked their books). Nonetheless, much fewer are familiar with Palestinian outlets like, Ma’an News Agency. Ma’an catalogues daily the realities of occupation; stories that are often lost on those outlets whose audiences do not primarily include Palestinians. I think it leads to the false impression of Israeli society as fundamentally more plural and more three-dimensional, an impression which can strengthen the resolve of racist thinking. I look forward to more pieces that take seriously the complexities of a Palestinian national dialogue (one, which like it’s Israeli counterpart, extends across a diaspora).

Naomi Gordon-Loebl focuses on queer and trans politics, youth and education, and the criminal justice system.

Teach for America and protesting Harvard students open dialogue,” by Valerie Strauss. The Washington Post, October 25, 2014.

In the latest development of the battle between Teach for America and Harvard activists, The Washington Post has published a series of letters between the two groups. The omission of the “detailed information” that originally accompanied TFA’s final letter makes it sort of like a joke without a punchline: the document, available on the organization’s website, is even more remarkable—and disputable—than the letters themselves. Regardless, this conflict is a fascinating one to keep your eyes on. TFA seems unable to ignore this particular group of critics for one very significant reason: they are the organization’s prime market.

Edward Hart focuses on criminal justice, arts journalism and media ethics.

Why Innocent People Plead Guilty,” by Jed S. Rakoff. The New York Review of Books, November 20, 2014.

In response to England’s tyrannical way of doling out justice in the colonies, the American criminal justice system was designed to allow for justice to be meted out under public scrutiny before a judge and a jury. But, as federal judge Jed Rakoff argues in The New York Review of Books, the constitutional protections that the accused are supposed to enjoy have largely been undermined by the devolution of the criminal justice system into “a system of plea bargaining, negotiated behind closed doors and with no judicial oversight.” This closed system gives prosecutors the lion’s share of the power in sentencing and that, Rakoff argues, combined with mandatory minimums, creates a climate that can incentivize innocent people to plead guilty.

Yazmin Khan focuses on intersectionality, feminism, race, foreign affairs, politics and pop culture.

Can White Teachers Be Taught How to Teach Our Children?” by Melinda D. Anderson. The Root, November 12, 2014.

The demographics of American public education continue to change, reflecting this nation’s robust diversity. This year, for the first time, more than half of American K-12 students are children of color. Despite this demographic shift, only 18 percent of teachers are people of color. The vast disconnect between the majority white teaching profession and the lives and experiences of the majority students of color only becomes more damaging over time. We see research being released all the time underlining this point. Studies show that black children in preschool are suspended at much higher rates than white children, and the rates of suspension for black girls far exceed those of white girls in all grades. Then, of course, because of the increased criminalization of rule breaking in schools by children of color, the result is the school to prison pipeline. All these factors point to the need for racially aware, competent teachers, who understand race, class and gender as historical, political and social realities that impact their students’ lives. Teachers cannot get in front of classrooms without having done the work of deconstructing the biases, racism, sexism and classism, that we are all socialized into. The damage they do to students of color is too much.

The Root reports on a conference at University of Pennsylvania convened to discuss this very issue of how to train teachers to deal with race in the classroom in a safe, inclusive way. The author of the article, Melinda D. Anderson, says, “What’s missing is research that examines the effect of racially incompetent teachers on student achievement,” and asks the most compelling question of all. “How much of the ‘achievement gap’ can be correlated to the lack of racially proficient white teachers?”

Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro focuses on world politics, social justice and technology.

How Voter Suppression Helped Produce the Lowest Turnout in Decades,” by Juan Thompson. The Intercept, November 7, 2014.

This article is a short but mandatory read. It claims that voter-ID legislation in combination with fishy voter-fraud-prevention technology considerably affected voter turnout in the past election, keeping minorities away from the polls. Voter participation plummeted to an estimated 36 percent nationwide, something that hadn’t happened since the 1940s. For example, a fraud-prevention software known as Crosscheck, which was used in twenty-seven states and examines voters’ personal information to detect duplicate registrations, has been blamed for purging numerous minority voters with common last names among their communities.

We’re faced with outrageously antidemocratic voter-identification laws along with a reckless (perhaps even malicious) use of technology in the political system that result in minorities and other underrepresented groups being left out of the electoral process. I think we shouldn’t just look away.

Jessica McKenzie focuses on technology and politics, transparency and accountability.

The Other Facebook Revolution,” by Catie Bailard. Foreign Affairs. November 11, 2014.

I recommend this article in spite of the fact that it raises more questions than it answers, and that it fails to adequately explain, as the subheading promises, “How the Internet makes people unhappy with their governments.” I clicked because I had just read an Economist article that asked why Obama’s approval rating was so low when by most standards our country is in pretty good shape. I wanted this article to explain that, and perhaps also explain why the midterm elections were such a disaster. It did not. In fact, it told me the Internet should make Americans happier with our government, because “the mirror-holding and window-opening mechanisms boost public satisfaction with government in advanced democracies and public dissatisfaction in nations with weak democratic practices.” This seems overly general if not wrong to me, but I still recommend the article for all the potential avenues of inquiry that it does suggest.

Muna Mire focuses on race, politics, criminal justice and social movements.

The Carceral State,” by Kameelah Janan Rasheed. The New Inquiry, November 12, 2014.

In a wide-ranging interview for The New Inquiry, Kameelah Janan Rasheed sits down with author and filmmaker Eric A. Stanley to map the contours of the prison industrial complex as it exists in the state of California. Emblematic of the carceral state writ large, the Golden State has enjoyed a progressive reputation despite operating one of the most brutal and massive state prison systems in America. But with the recent passage of Prop 47—and the reduction of harsh sentencing to follow—Stanley and Rasheed’s conversation has special resonance. As they talk through abolitionist futures and prefigurative politics, queering liberation movements and accountable visions of justice, it becomes clear that the urgency propelling these intersectional movements to seek radical change is the human cost of mass incarceration.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

N’Kosi Oates focuses on race and politics, social justice, black identity, pop culture.

The Movement for Racial Justice is Bigger Than a Political Party,” by Rashad Robinson. Ebony, November 12, 2014

Last week’s midterm election proved to be devastating for the Democratic Party, as the Republicans will now control the House and Senate during the last two years of President Obama’s tenure. Executive director of ColorofChange.org Rashad Robinson wrote an uplifting piece this week for Ebony.com maintaining that black voters increased their political voice this year compared to the 2010 midterm elections, even with increased voter suppression efforts, and that the racial struggle for progress is larger than a political party.

Allison Pohle focuses on feminism, labor and income inequality, education and health.

Abortion in Missouri Is the Wait of a Lifetime,” by Justin Glawe. The Daily Beast, November 12, 2014.

Texas has received national attention for its restrictive abortion practices, but Missouri is now the state with the most prohibitive abortion laws in the country. In September, Missouri legislators passed HB 1307, which requires women to wait a full seventy-two hours (not just three calendar days) before receiving an abortion in Missouri’s only clinic. Previously, an average of 6,000 women each year had procedures at the clinic. The new law means women who travel to St. Louis for the procedure will have to take more time off of work, which can deter some women from following through. It also makes a difference in whether some women will have medical or surgical procedures and gives no exception to women who are victims of rape or incest. Finally, “the new waiting period means something almost every pro-life advocate doesn’t want: abortions later in pregnancy.”


Read Next: Fall interns’ recommended reading

Surprise: Whole Foods Is Not the World’s Greatest Employer

Whole Foods

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

With its dazzling array of exorbitantly priced eco-friendly products, Whole Foods Market fosters a love-hate relationship with customers who’ve gotten hooked on its cornucopia of guilty-liberal indulgences. But the company’s labor relations are even more sour, as workers grow increasingly frustrated that their workplaces aren’t nearly as progressive as the green-branding rhetoric.

Going beyond the usual grumbling about hipster commercialism, some rank-and-file workers are challenging the management to live up to the company’s purported values when it comes to treating its workers fairly.

Last week, dozens of Whole Foods employees in San Francisco partnered with the radical union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to protest a labor system that they say degrades workers while catering to wealthy consumers, and contributes to the city’s economic polarization. This Friday, they are taking their grievances to the regional corporate office in Emeryville, California. Their demand is simple: “a $5 an hour wage increase for all employees, and no retaliation for organizing their union.” Their message for Whole Foods—to live up to its brand’s much-hyped enlightened capitalist values—is more complicated.

The campaign kicked off at the South of Market Whole Foods, where workers rallied and presented a petition, signed by about fifty employees, demanding better working conditions. Like other retail workers, they say that their earnings, at $11.25 to $19.25 per hour, lag behind the exploding cost of living (about $30 an hour is needed to afford a regular one-bedroom apartment in the area). Today, they plan to threaten further job actions if the management did not heed their concerns.

Whole Foods declined to comment to The Nation. But evangelically libertarian CEO John Mackey has historically taken an anti-labor stance, comparing unions with “herpes.”

Campaigners say that while sustainability is on display on many of the store’s labels, it’s in short supply for employees whose wages cannot provide for their basic needs, even as the company champions green capitalism as a path to prosperity for workers and consumers alike.

“It’s basically impossible to live in the San Francisco area or in many parts of the country on what people get paid at Whole Foods,” says Tim Maher, an organizer who used to work in the specialties department at the Bay Area store and now works for Whole Foods in Boston. “The long-term trajectory is even more frightening. Just seeing people who’ve been there eight or ten years, and knowing that they’re making just a couple dollars more, makes it really difficult to think about having a family, or supporting more than just myself.”

Though Whole Foods boasts of socially responsible business practices—including support for farmworkers’ rights campaigns and fair-trade growers abroad—the campaign says its own shop floors “reflect the low industry standards that dominate food and retail industries.” They complain of “constant understaffing, inconsistent hours” and “[c]ondescending managers who prioritize ‘growth’ while slashing labor.” Their day-to-day jobs involve “uncreative, emotionally destructive, and irrational work,” and more direct hazards like “repetitive motion injuries [and] customer abuse,” which all adds up to a workplace climate rife with the demoralizing stress and high turnover typical of many low-wage sectors.

The campaigning workers demand regularly scheduled raises, more comprehensive healthcare and retirement plans, and more paid time off, which “allows us to live a life beyond work and to participate with our families and communities.” This call for work-life balance is surely something slow-food lifestyle enthusiasts would appreciate, right?

But can Whole Foods customers appreciate the real value of the labor of overworked cheese department staffer, who cuts back on time spent with her kids while juggling evening and weekend shifts? Because workers are also fed up with the store’s scheduling practices. Despite the management’s past promises to offer more stable shifts with advanced notice, Maher says, the San Francisco store would keep both full-time and part-time workers in limbo by giving them only a few days lead time when posting the following week’s shift schedules, which left him “not knowing, basically, three days ahead of time what my schedule is going to be like, and knowing it could change at any moment. And there’s just no consistency.”

Workers also claim the company is driving to expand part-time positions to displace full-time work, which would make working conditions even more precarious. Meanwhile, however, the company just launched a campaign to market its corporate morals, trumpeting credos like “Employees need more love,” and “Values Matter.”

Whole Foods, which has been accused of monopolistic practices in its dominance of green-agriculture markets, has previously thwarted attempts by workers to organize. (A campaign to formally unionize workers in Madison, Wisconsin, crumbled in 2004 after the management launched a hostile propaganda campaign.)

But the San Francisco activists hope to bank on the perfect storm of economic pressures in the Bay Area: massive gentrification hollowing out the city’s working-class communities; neoliberal labor market driving workers in all sectors toward harsh and unstable working conditions; and rising public consciousness about holistic sustainability, based on equity across the food chain, from the farm to the produce aisle.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

With its radical syndicalist ethos, the IWW has been working to organize the unorganized laborers of this new precariat, including that other yuppy icon, Starbucks. Still, with the Whole Foods empire spanning hundreds of stores in the United States, Canada and Britain with 80,000 employees, the San Francisco campaign has plenty of retail organizing to do, store by store.

According to Maher, a formal union election, under the federal certification process, seems unnecessarily arduous, because already, “We have an organized group of workers willing to take job actions to win our demands, and that’s all we need to be a successful union.”

The San Francisco store actions might spark a movement that spreads to other regions, but Maher says it depends on whether veteran workers maintain faith that they can improve conditions by building solidarity inside the workplace: “If any real changes are going to happen, it’s because the people who have been there the longest are going to stand up and fight and continue that struggle.”

Maybe Whole Foods employees have taken the “values matter” credo to heart in ways that their boss didn’t anticipate.


Read Next: How one California city began bringing its murder rate down—without cops

Frantic to Help Mary Landrieu, Democrats Betray Their Base on Keystone

Mary Landrieu

(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Within one day’s time, the defeated, lame-duck Senate Democrats did one very smart thing—they created a new leadership position for Elizabeth Warren so that she can help shape messaging and policy and serve as a liaison to progressive groups—and they did one very stupid thing: they reversed their position and decided to allow a long-delayed vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, next week. It’s an attempt to save pro-energy industry Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu in her in December 6 runoff against Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy, and it’s worse than futile.

Harry Reid and company are apparently trying to compensate for all the Party money that’s dried up for Landrieu since the midterms (you can barely find her ads on TV, while Cassidy’s are flooding the state). By debating and co-sponsoring the Senate’s Keystone bill, Landrieu will get lots of free media time. But barring a miracle, there’s no way she can win. In the midterm, the third candidate, Republican Rob Maness, won nearly 14 percent of the vote, the vast bulk of which will now go to Cassidy. Who, not coincidentally, was made the lead sponsor of an identical Keystone bill in the House.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Rachel Maddow did a terrific piece (below) on the Dem’s Keystone crap-shoot last night, and summed it up like this:

It will not help Mary Landrieu now anyway, but it will kind of screw the environment, give the Republicans what they want, upset the Democratic base, set the president up for a painful presidential veto, and split the Democratic Party in Congress, and depress Democratic donors….It will win Democrats nothing, at great cost.

Landrieu was on TV today saying that her last-minute push for a Keystone vote “is not about the credit, this is not about the glory, it is not about politics.” That’s ridiculous. It has as much to do with politics as did her brave statement before the election that “the South hasn’t always been the friendliest place for African-Americans” or for women. No doubt she said that to appeal to the black and female electorates, but it was also the obvious and true thing to say, and she took a lot of disingenuous flack for it. But in oil-happy Louisiana, pushing for the pipeline is politics pure and simple, without the truth-to-power garnish.

We’ll be seeing a lot of grandstanding over the next week from the GOP, the right-wing media, and the newly emboldened cluster of conservative Democrats about all the jobs that the toxic tar-sand-carrying Keystone pipeline will create. So a little reminder: after the construction phase, according to Politifact, Keystone will create only about thirty-five permanent jobs. We’re not even talking about the high two digits.

Maddow on Keystone and Landrieu starts at about 1:50:

Read Next: “Stephen Colbert to GOP: Don’t Fall Into ‘the Governing Trap’”

Senate Democrats Are About to Do Something Truly Stupid

Mary Landrieu

Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana speaks to reporters about the new urgency to get congressional approval for the Keystone XL pipeline, in Washington, Wednesday, November 12, 2014. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

In a cockeyed attempt to save one of their own, Senate Democrats are poised to do something truly stupid. Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, after failing to win enough votes to avoid a runoff in her Senate race, is centering her prolonged bid for re-election on a bill to fast-track the Keystone XL pipeline. Democrats have long blocked such legislation in the Senate, but all of a sudden they’ve decided to bring it up for a vote, likely before Thanksgiving.

The decision is both hypocritical and irrational. Landrieu’s victory or loss will not alter the balance of the Senate. More importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that passing a pro-KXL bill will improve Landrieu’s chances in the runoff, where she faces Representative Bill Cassidy, a Republican who is just as pro-Keystone as she is. (He sponsored the House version of Landrieu’s bill, and the lower chamber is scheduled to vote Friday.) Landrieu’s entire re-election campaign centered on her being big oil’s best friend; voters know that already, and it wasn’t enough.

Landrieu finished ahead of Cassidy by less than a percentage point, and both were far below the 50-percent threshold needed to win outright thanks to Tea Party candidate Rob Maness, who captured a startling 13.8 percent of the vote. Maness is now stumping for Cassidy; just three days after the election, the two men and their wives went on a double date. Even if the pipeline were the only issue motivating Maness’s supporters in the runoff, it’s not clear why holding a KXL vote in the Senate would convince them to support Landrieu, because again: the vote will do nothing to distinguish her from Cassidy.

It’s far-fetched, even downright loony, to think that voters will forget about their hatred of Obamacare and alienation from the Democratic Party just because the Senate held a vote in November that would have been held next year anyway. Those voters were never Landrieu’s ticket to victory, although she pandered to them throughout her campaign by running to the right on everything from immigration to the environment. She captured less than 20 percent of the white vote. Now, Landrieu’s only realistic path to re-election depends on turning out virtually all of what remains of Louisiana’s shrunken Democratic base. Is KXL—which really has nothing to do with Louisiana—really what’s going to get them to the polls?

What makes the least sense of any of this is the timing. If Harry Reid really, truly believes that the pipeline is a magic bullet for Landrieu, why in the world didn’t he bring her legislation up for a vote months ago—when the entire Senate hung in the balance? Polls consistently indicated that Landrieu would have her best chance to beat Cassidy in the general election, not in a runoff, so there was no reason to save the bullet.

If Democrats want to help Landrieu now, they could fund her campaign. Instead, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee canceled more than $1.6 million in advertising space it had reserved in Louisiana media markets. The result? Ninety-six percent of the TV spots concerning the runoff in the past week are pro-Cassidy.

Politics aside, what Senate Democrats are considering is a terrible bill. Fast-tracking the pipeline before its route is even finalized means that the project would be exempt from requirements in the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and other environmental protections. And taxpayers would bear the cost of cleaning up leaks and spills since companies who transport oil from tar sands are exempt from paying taxes to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund.

“If you were 100 percent for the Keystone pipeline, you would have to have a problem with the legislation on the floor, because it exempts the TransCanada pipeline initiative from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at a press briefing on Thursday at the Capitol. “God willing there would never be a leak. But if there is, [TransCanada] would be totally off the hook.”

It’s not certain that Landrieu’s bill will actually pass the Senate. A Democratic aide told Businessweek that at least thirteen Democrats would vote for it. That leaves supporters just shy of the fifteen needed from the left side of the aisle, assuming unanimous support from the GOP.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

If it does pass, Obama could veto it, which his press secretary hinted he would do. “The administration, as you know, has taken a dim view of these kinds of legislative proposals in the past,” Josh Earnest told reporters in Myanmar, where Obama is traveling. “We have indicated that the president’s senior advisers at the White House would recommend that he veto legislation like that.”

But veto or no, a pro-Keystone vote in the Senate abetted by Democrats would be a new low point for the party in an election year where so many Democrats ran against their own party, failed to present a coherent policy vision, and lost decisively. The only winner will be the GOP. Republicans won’t even have been forced to concede anything in return.

Landrieu could lay down the pipeline with her bare hands in front of a hundred cameras and it probably still wouldn’t save her. It would, however, generate $100 billion for the Koch brothers—who, incidentally, have more than $2 million reserved to defeat her.


Read Next: Elizabeth Warren has been elected to a Senate leadership post.

Syndicate content