The Nation

How Ebola Could End the Cuban Embargo

US and Cuban Flags

(AP/Franklin Reyes)

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

When was last time in recent memory a top US official praised Cuba publicly? And since when has Cuba’s leadership offered to cooperate with Americans?

It’s rare for politicians from these two countries to stray from the narratives of suspicion and intransigence that have prevented productive collaboration for over half a century. Yet that’s just what has happened in the last few weeks, as Secretary of State John Kerry and US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power spoke favorably of Cuba’s medical intervention in West Africa, and Cuban President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro signaled their willingness to cooperate with US efforts to stem the epidemic.

As it causes devastation in West Africa and strikes fear in the United States and around the world, Ebola has few upsides. But one of them may be the opportunity to change the nature of US-Cuban relations, for the public good.

Don’t Squander the Opportunity

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel once famously said. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

President Barack Obama should heed his former chief of staff’s advice and not squander the opportunity presented by the Ebola crisis. Political leadership in the White House and the Palace of Revolution could transform a fight against a common threat into joint cooperation that would not only promote the national interests of the two countries but also advance human rights—and the right to health is a human right—throughout the developing world.

Political conditions are ripe for such a turn. Americans strongly support aggressive actions against Ebola and would applaud a president who placed more value on medical cooperation and saving lives than on ideology and resentment.

In the sixth in a series of editorials spelling out the need for a change in US policy toward Cuba, The New York Times called on Obama to discontinue the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—which makes it relatively simple for Cuban doctors providing medical services abroad to defect to the United States—because of its hostile nature and its negative impact on the populations receiving Cuban doctors’ support and attention in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy,” the editorial board wrote. The emphasis should be on fostering Cuba’s medical contributions, not stymieing them.

As Cuba’s international health efforts become more widely known, it’s become increasingly clear how unreasonable it is for Washington to assume that all Cuban presence in the developing world is damaging to US interests. A consistent opening for bilateral cooperation with Cuba by governmental health institutions, the private sector and foundations based in the United States can trigger positive synergies to update US policy toward Havana. It will also send a friendlier signal for economic reform and political liberalization in Cuba.

The Whole World Has Something to Gain

The potential for cooperation between Cuba and the United States goes far beyond preventing and defeating Ebola. New pandemics in the near future could endanger the national security, economy and public health of other countries—killing thousands, preventing travel and trade, and choking the current open liberal order by encouraging xenophobic hysteria. At this dramatic time, the White House needs to think with clarity and creativity.

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As the leading nation in the Western Hemisphere, the United States should propose the creation of a comprehensive continental health cooperation and crisis response strategy at the next Summit of the Americas, which will be held in Panama City in April 2015. As numerous Latin American countries have already asserted, Cuba must be included at the summit.

Havana has developed extensive medical expertise at home and abroad, with more than 50,000 doctors and health personnel serving in sixty-six countries. Preventive measures, early detection, strict infection controls and natural disaster crisis response coordination are essential parts of the Cuban approach to nipping pandemics in the bud. The lack of some of these components in already-collapsed health systems explains the failures of governance that inflamed the impact of Ebola in West Africa.

As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama was one of the loudest critics of looking at Cuba through the glasses of the Cold War. As president, it isn’t enough for him to just retune the same embargo policy implemented by his predecessors. He must adjust the official US narrative about post-Fidel Cuba: It is not a threat to the United States but a country in transition to a mixed economy, and a positive force for global health.

Read Next: How the World Let the Ebola Epidemic Spiral Out of Control

In Ferguson, a Militarized Police Force Isn’t Necessary for Suppression

Ferguson police

Protesters gather outside of the Ferguson police department, November 2014. (All photos by the author)

Nearly every night in Ferguson, a group of protesters gathers in front of the police department demanding justice for Michael Brown. The size of the demonstration has varied, depending on people’s availability and on the weather conditions, but the dedication to protesting has remained consistent since Brown’s death.

In these days leading up to the announcement of whether a grand jury has indicted Darren Wilson for killing Brown, everyone is on edge. The uncertainty of when the decision will be released to the public, coupled with Missouri Governor Jay Nixon’s declaration of a state of emergency, has left plans for action up in the air and the quest for justice without answers. But the people still show up to police department.

The anxiety has only been exacerbated the last few nights in Ferguson, as those protests have been met by a show of force on the part of the Ferguson police department. The night I was there—Wednesday, November 19—there were no more than about forty protesters at any given moment, met with police presence of equal or greater number. Of course, the major difference was that the police stood armed, in riot gear, and the protesters had only their bullhorns, chants and emotion.

It remained relatively calm for a time. The police, lined up as if to block the passageway to the department doors, already unavailable to anyone because of the metal barricade, played a game of cat and mouse, advancing a few feet and backing protesters up, before retreating themselves. Things escalated when during one of their advances they arrested a young man who had shown up to livestream the event.

The police advanced further as the protesters took to the streets, directing traffic away from their action. Protestors ran to what they thought would be a safe space across the street, but a few weren’t lucky enough to make it. At least five people were arrested that night, mostly for unlawful assembly as well as resisting arrest.

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Aside from the chanting, there was no provocation of the police on the part of the protesters. There was one instance of an object a being thrown, a water bottle, but other protesters quickly handled it: the person responsible, dressed in all black from head-to-toe, including a black mask that obscured their face, was run off of the protest site and heckled as an agitator who was putting the lives of the protesters at risk.

“If the media wasn’t out here, they’d have arrested us all,” one protester remarked.

A similar scene played out on Thursday evening, with the lesson here being that a militarized police force isn’t necessary to inflict terror. The police have proved themselves violent even without the use of tanks and tear gas. The people’s right to assemble peacefully won’t be protected. The Ferguson police department hasn’t taken any of the national or international criticism they have received to heart. And as the announcement of the decision on whether to indict Wilson dangles in some unknown future, the anxiety builds and takes an unknowable psychic toll on the most dedicated protesters.

But their resolve to see this through is strong.

Read Next: Can Ferguson’s protests build a nationwide movement against police violence?

The White House Will Focus on Women and Girls of Color. Here’s How to Make it Count.


A group of girls hands out programs during an AIDS Healthcare Foundation community forum, highlighting the disproportionate impact of HIV/AIDS on black and Latino communities in the United States. (Bret Hartman/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

Ashley Yates has been on the front lines in Ferguson. She was among the thirteen demonstrators—nine women and four men, she points out—arrested in early October while protesting the response to the police killing of Michael Brown. At a recent event about gender and racial justice organizing hosted by Columbia Law School, Yates told the audience that when men in the movement for justice there thank her for standing up for them and for having their backs, she offers this response:

“I’ve got your back and I also have your front and your side,” Yates, an organizer with Millennial Activists United, recounted. “I hope you have mine.” After all, black women are not only themselves victims of police brutality, they also stand shoulder to shoulder with men and lead when it’s time to advocate for change.

Last week’s announcement that the White House will focus on the challenges facing girls and women of color is an attempt to acknowledge this shared struggle across gender lines, a struggle that extends far beyond Ferguson. The move comes after months of criticism that My Brothers Keeper, the White House racial justice initiative announced in February, is fundamentally flawed because it singles out boys and men of color for support and turns a blind eye to the girls and women in those same families, classrooms and communities.

The day the White House announced that it would form a working group to study this demographic it also released a report titled “Women and Girls of Color: Addressing Challenges and Expanding Opportunity.” But instead of charting a course of action, it simply outlines everything the administration has already accomplished that may positively affect the lives of women and girls of color. Among these are passing the Affordable Care Act, establishing a campus sexual assault task force, and reforming sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. “The Administration supports numerous efforts to provide STEM opportunities to elementary and secondary school students, including many girls of color,” reads one section of the report, and sentences like this appear throughout. The report is a helpful reminder of various federal initiatives embarked upon in the past six years, but its implicit message is that great strides have already been made for women and girls of color—and that this group doesn’t merit the direct, explicit focus that boys and men of color do.

Joanne N. Smith, founder and director of the Brooklyn-based youth development organization Girls for Gender Equity, has been among those voices calling for My Brother’s Keeper to be reworked with a gender-inclusive lens. She gives last week’s announcement mixed reviews. “The fact that the White House is discussing the needs of girls and women of color is something that we should celebrate,” Smith told me, and went on to explain that her work calling for meaningful inclusion isn’t finished. “It’s nowhere near what MBK is, it’s nowhere near what girls of color deserve and we have to charge them to do so much more.”

Without the $300 million that private foundations and corporations have pledged to support MBK, it’s unclear what a parallel initiative for girls and women would be able to accomplish, which is one reason why gender justice advocates are calling for inclusion in the existing program. “We don’t want separate but equal,” Smith said. “We can have separate, gender-specific programming. But as far as a call to action for the lives of our young people of color, that needs to happen collectively.”

Now is the time for the administration to act, as MBK programming is being planned at the local level through partnerships with city governments, said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar who directs the African American Policy Forum and has led much of the organized response to MBK. She said the local efforts should be amended to include women and girls and that President Obama should direct federal agencies to collect and report data on women and girls just as he did for men and boys. “Recommend best practices that can be scaled up with private and public partnership,” she suggested when we spoke this week. “That’s a signal that this is not just window dressing.”

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There are bright spots signalling that other power brokers committed to advancing My Brother’s Keeper are paying attention to the call for inclusion. Smith noticed an important language change in a recent newsletter of New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), a program considered by many to be a model for MBK that was launched by former mayor Michael Bloomberg and continued under the de Blasio administration. The initiative’s mission statement had changed to include the words, “YMI also has a vested interest in fatherhood services, mentoring, LGBTQ inclusion, and issues that pertain to women of color.” Smith said she’s confident that the shift opens the door to real strategic changes as well, and perhaps a step toward meeting demands laid out in a sign-on letter calling on de Blasio to expand YMI. Crenshaw said similar letters will be used to make demands of others mayors who have agreed to implement MBK at the local level.

Both advocates said they hoped young people will be involved in the newly announced White House working group. “They are the experts of their experience,” Smith of Girls for Gender Equity said. “They can be the ones to help provide solutions for change if they’re at that table.”

Read Next: Why are some colleges still blaming the victims in sexual assault cases?

What Will Happen to the Immigrants Left Out of Obama’s Executive Actions?

President Barack Obama

(AP Photo/Jim Bourg, Pool)

In his speech last night announcing his latest executive action on immigration policy, President Obama took great pains to tell the country what his new immigration policy is not: it is not “amnesty,” just a way for people to avoid deportation; it is not citizenship, just work authorization; it won’t provide social welfare benefits, it will just allow employers to keep exploiting immigrant labor.

Here’s what it is: Obama’s initiative will build on the existing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has since 2012 offered some undocumented youth temporary, renewable reprieve from deportation. A similar protection will be extended to several million undocumented adults, who have children with citizen or green card status, and have at least five years of residency and clean records. More would also gain relief through an expansion of the original Deferred Action to include more childhood arrivals, with no age limit, along with easing the migration of skilled tech-sector workers.

But the president can’t bring about a complete overhaul of the immigration system himself, and millions will be left out of these new measures. Despite the battle cries of Republicans threatening to thwart the plan through procedural countermeasures or lawsuits, opponents can rest assured that the majority of undocumented people will remain without papers, and with nowhere to go.

And while the reprieve will be welcome news for millions, it contains a paradox: young people who were part of the 2012 reprieve, the DACA-mented, will see their parents excluded from the pending relief measures, because the new reforms exclude the undocumented parents of DACA recipients. In other words, the youth who have been on the front lines campaigning for an expansion of their program now face the devastation of their parents being among the millions who the new measures leave behind.

There are many other questions surrounding Obama’s plan. Since it’s intended as a temporary stopgap response to congressional gridlock, Republicans may propose a countervailing, much more restrictive reform bill. Additionally, Obama has tacked on various border enforcement measures that focus, as he put it, on “deporting felons, not families.” But targeting “criminal aliens” has historically served as a pretext for draconian enforcement measures that promote anti-immigrant dragnets and force undocumented workers into poverty and exploitation.

Obama’s announcement did indicate a move away from some of the most sharply criticized enforcement tactics—most notably, by ending the Secure Communities Program, which currently facilitates collaboration between federal immigration authorities and local police. Still, the fact that the termination of Secure Communities comes only after years of mass protests and litigation reveals that the White House has been limited in applying its powers of prosecutorial discretion. This is hardly the first time Obama has promised to use his prosecutorial discretion to shield “law-abiding” (read: politically sympathetic) families. For years, ICE has been operating under a directive to focus on “high priority” cases, generally involving crime and “public security” issues. And yet mass deportations and family breakups continue.

Angelica Chazaro, a Seattle-based activist with the #Not1More campaign, stated after the speech: “I am disturbed by reports that the President will continue to draw lines between deserving and undeserving immigrants that our movement long ago rejected. I am concerned that the President’s announcement will focus ICE’s devastating power on the members of our community that we refuse to leave behind—immigrants without children, LGBTQ immigrants, and the young immigrant men of color most likely to be targeted for arrests and convictions that will disqualify them for relief.”

At the same time, advocates say Obama’s move opens the door to a more long-term solution, including perhaps legislative reforms to provide real legal stability and social protections to allow all immigrants to live with full civil rights, labor rights, and, as the workers’ group NDLON put it, “[p]olitical equality, the essence of citizenship.”

Adelina Nicholls, Executive Director of Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, issued a call for further action: “our struggle for a humane, long-term solution to this country’s broken immigration system will continue. We will continue to demand for an end to local law enforcement’s involvement in federal deportation efforts. And we will continue to fight for all of our community members who will not receive relief from the president’s executive order.”

For now, though, the expulsion machine will keep humming for the around 6 million that remain “deportable.” For many radical immigration activists, that means the system is still broken.

Families for Freedom, which has long campaigned against deportation of people with criminal convictions (often minor nonviolent offenses), sees Obama’s new promises as an extension of an old system. Director Abraham Paulos says limited relief for certain categories of immigrants ignores the central human rights issue of subjecting people to forced exile: “This entire fight has been premised on lifting up some people as worthy of relief, and stepping down on those who are branded as unworthy.” Pointing to the massive immigrant detention system that will remain in place (albeit with perhaps fewer people in it), he adds, “All mass incarceration including immigrant detention, is about making a profit from a person who is deprived of freedom and that should inspire our moral outrage. This system has been a complete human rights failure.”

The #Not1More campaign noted in a recent report that the White House has in the past promised to ease its harsh enforcement measures, but still failed to protect immigrants’ basic constitutional rights.

In many cases, people with no criminal histories are denied prosecutorial discretion solely on the basis of prior immigration violations. In the case of people with criminal convictions, ICE neglects to consider existing positive factors that support a grant of discretion. Such problems also make it difficult for those people applying for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

And even for the qualified, obstacles remain. Many will “owe” back taxes, as if the government benefits they’ve been denied all these years isn’t enough. Community advocates will also need to reach out to fearful communities to persuade them it’s worth the risk of coming forward, after so many years of accumulating mistrust.

Today, millions of immigrants left out of last night’s announcement will have no more reason to trust the country’s immigration regime—nor will the many newcomers who will cross the border tomorrow. So grassroots, human rights-centered coalitions like #Not1More and We Belong Together will keep advocating for a full-scale overhaul, with policies that prioritize family reunification, due process and humane treatment, instead of just border policing or temporary visas. They demand immigration laws that acknowledge the humanitarian and structural problems outside US borders that drive migration.

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Obama chose a fitting backdrop for his post-speech rally this Friday—Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. With a large portion of immigrant youth, the student body reflects the country’s diversifying demographic landscape. Several thousand local young people have obtained DACA, and are held up as the program’s success stories, able to pursue jobs and careers without immediate fear of immigration authorities. But not too far from Del Sol lies Henderson Detention Center, where many local immigrant parents have been locked up—an ominous reminder that even if children get relief, the system will not relent in collectively punishing whole families.

Last night Obama asked, “Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms, or are we a nation that values families and works together to keep them together?” Many immigrants got no answers last night, as the president pulled them further apart from the parents who have endured countless cruelties, in hopes that their children wouldn’t have to.

Read Next: Michelle Chen on global solidarity in the fast-food movement

Why Are Some Colleges Still Blaming the Victims in Sexual Assault Cases?

Letter of the Week

Last week, the public got a glimpse of the attitude some administrators at the historically black Lincoln University are taking toward sexual assault. In a video shot in September of a convocation delivered to an all-female audience, the university’s president, Robert Jennings, says, “We have, we had, on this campus last semester three cases of young women who after having done whatever they did with young men and then it didn’t turn out the way they wanted it to turn out, guess what they did? They then went to Public Safety and said, ‘He raped me.’ ”

His remarks ignited a firestorm of criticism, and Jennings has since released a letter to the students at Lincoln apologizing for his insensitive remarks. In this clip, Melissa Harris-Perry explains just how serious such attitude toward sexual violence really is.
—N’Kosi Oates

Mexico’s Undead Rise Up

Photos of the missing

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

“Alive they were taken, and alive we want them back!”

That’s become the rallying cry for the forty-three student teachers abducted by municipal police and handed over to the Guerreros Unidos drug gang last September in Iguala, Mexico. None have been seen since.

It remained the rallying cry even after federal officials announced that the missing students had most likely been executed and burned to ashes.

Since then, Argentine forensic experts have concluded that burned remains found in Iguala do not belong to the missing young men—and so the forty-three remain undead. The findings speak to a growing skepticism about the Mexican government’s competence—not only to deliver justice, but also to carry on an investigation with any kind of legitimacy or credibility.

It has become ever clearer that the state is in fact deeply implicated in the violence it claims to oppose. The student teachers were originally attacked by municipal police—allegedly at the orders of Iguala’s mayor and his wife, who were at a function with a local general when the attack took place. Although the exact details of who ordered the attack are not yet clear, the handing over of the student teachers to a violent drug gang betrays a thorough merger of the police force, local officials and organized crime.

This growing realization has ignited rage all over Mexico, with social media campaigns flaring up alongside massive street protests. Peaceful marches happen almost daily in Mexico City, while elsewhere there are starker signs of unrest. Some demonstrators even set fire to government buildings in the Guerrero state capital.

Meanwhile, the government has carried on an increasingly clumsy investigation, first purporting to have found the students in nearby mass graves—as The Nation reports, plenty of mass graves have turned up, but none have yet been proven to contain the missing teachers—and then claiming to have extracted confessions from the alleged killers.

In a November press conference, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam showcased detailed video testimonies from three alleged hit men who claimed to have burned the forty-three at a nearby garbage dump. Parents of the missing went to inspect the alleged site and found evidence lacking. Many doubted that a fire of such magnitude—the supposed killers claimed that they had spent fourteen hours burning the bodies—could have happened, due to the rain of that night.

When Argentine forensic specialists disproved Karam’s narrative, the federal government pledged to “redouble efforts” to find the students. Now President Enrique Peña Nieto is hinting at a conspiracy against his government. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mexican officials want to put this issue to rest as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the mounting number of mass graves that investigators are turning up serves as a reminder that this kind of violence has been going on for years. Police round up, detain, beat, arrest and shoot at student activists routinely, as when state police shot and killed two Ayotzinapa students during a protest action on the highway in 2011. As with over 90 percent of such crimes in Mexico, no one has been punished. These kinds of killings and disappearances have a long and sordid history as a practice of state violence in Mexico—and particularly in Guerrero—since the so-called Dirty War of the 1970s.

The many discrepancies in Karam’s press conference are feeding into a growing popular refusal to trust the government’s ability to investigate the disappearances independently.

In response to a reporter’s question about whether the parents of the missing believed him, Karam quipped that the parents are people who “make decisions together.” The question was not so much about whether the parents, as individuals, believed or disbelieved Karam’s evidence—although they have since visited the alleged crime scene and reaffirmed their skepticism.

Instead, ordinary Mexicans are increasingly employing their collective intelligence in making sense of the events and refusing to accept the state’s evidence on the grounds that the state itself is compromised. And just as importantly, they’re condemning the government’s silence about its own complicity in the probable execution of their sons.

In their increasing rejection of the Mexican narco-state’s legitimacy, the parents of the missing forty-three are signaling their membership in what anthropologist Guillermo Bonfíl Batalla famously termed México Profundo—that is, the grassroots culture of indigenous Mesoamerican communities and the urban poor, which stands in stark contrast to the “Imaginary Mexico” of the elites. Recalling the Zapatista movement, the rumblings from below in the wake of the mass abduction in Guerrero are merging with older modes of indigenous resistance to give new life to Mexico’s deep tradition of popular struggle.

Bolstered by social media, this new life is expressing itself in a number of colorful ways. Defying the government’s theater of death, artists from all over the world are creating a “Mosaic of Life” by illustrating the faces and names of the disappeared. Mexican Twitter users have embraced the hashtag #YaMeCansé—“I am tired”—to appropriate Karam’s complaint of exhaustion after an hour of responding to questions as an expression of their own rage and resilience.

Gradually, a movement calling itself “43 x 43”—representing the exponential impact of the forty-three disappeared—is rising up to greet the undead, along with the more than 100,000 others killed or disappeared since the start of this drug war in 2006 under former President Felipe Calderón. This refusal of the dead to remain dead made for a particularly poignant Dia de Muertos celebration earlier this month.

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This form of resistance recalls what happened last May in the autonomous Zapatista municipality of El Caracol de la Realidad in the state of Chiapas, where a teacher known as Galeano was murdered by paramilitary forces. At the pre-dawn ceremony held there in Galeano’s honor on May 25, putative Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos announced that he, Marcos, would cease to exist. After Marcos disappeared into the night, the assembled then heard a disembodied voice address them: “Good dawn, compañeras and compañeros. My name is Galeano, Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. Does anybody else respond to this name?”

In response, hundreds of voices affirmed, “Yes, we are all Galeano!” And so Galeano came back to life collectively, in all of those assembled.

And now forty-three disappeared student teachers have multiplied into thousands demanding justice from the state and greater autonomy for local communities, which are already building alternative healthcare, education, justice and governmental systems. A general strike is scheduled for the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution on November 20.

In Mexico’s unraveling, there is an opportunity for the rest of the world to witness—and support—the emergence of more direct and collective forms of democracy. As the now “deceased” Marcos said, “They wanted to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.”

Read Next: “This Mass Grave Isn’t the Mass Grave You Have Been Looking For”

GOP Senator Says Obama’s Immigration Speech Could Trigger Some Kind of White Ferguson

Tom Coburn

Senator Tom Coburn (USA Today)

Retiring Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, in an interview with USA Today’s Susan Page yesterday, seemed to both warn about and threaten white violence against President Obama’s executive action on immigration reform, saying the president’s speech Thursday night could provoke “violence” and “anarchy.” He even suggested that the reaction could parallel the demonstrations and violence in Ferguson, Missouri.

Page asked what will be the reaction of Republicans in Washington, and Coburn acted as if it’s not the GOP that will be upset (‘cause, you know, they’re such a even-keeled bunch: Alabama Representative Mo Brooks actually thinks Obama could end up in jail, as well as impeached). Rather, it’s all those regular folks out there who will be terribly disappointed that the president isn’t working with Congress.

“Oh, I don’t think it’s so much a Republican reaction here,” Coburn said. “The country’s going to go nuts. Because they are going to see it as a move outside of the authority of the president. And it’s going to be a very dangerous situation. You’re going to see—hopefully not—but you could see instances of anarchy.”

“You could see violence,” Coburn continued. “This is a big step, to not work with Congress, now that he’s got a new Congress, to go completely around it.”

Then, oddly, Coburn cited the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, saying that Obama’s immigration action could invoke similar concerns about injustice: “Well, here’s how people think—if the law doesn’t apply to the president, and it’s not affirmatively acted on for us as a group, like you’re seeing in Ferguson, Missouri, then why should it apply to me?”

As Josh Marshall pointed out at TPM, Coburn’s warnings about street violence over allowing the parents of American-born citizens to stay here without fear of deportation were logically challenged in the first place. The protesters in Ferguson are outraged by a direct government action, the shooting to death of an unarmed black teenager. Any violence over Obama’s executive order would mean people taking to the streets in anger over a government inaction—its refusal to actively deport people already living in the US for years.

But logic is never a strong component of American conniptions over race. You could also see what Coburn said as implying a sort of good-for-the-goose, good-for-the-gander equivalency: if blacks get to riot over a perceived injustice, so should whites. That plays directly into the right’s sense of victimization and “reverse racism.”

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Coburn’s remarks should also be seen in the context of the 2016 elections. Obama’s immigration reforms, modest as they are in reality, would further the perception driven home by Fox News, hate radio, and millions of dollars of GOP advertising that Obama only helps the poor and minorities. Obama saying that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon” Martin, Eric Holder’s intervention in Ferguson, and even Obamacare, which actually helps more whites than blacks but is believed to do the exact opposite by many whites—all are grist for that mill of resentment. Add to that changing immigration practices by executive order, and the right may be able to orchestrate a backlash of epic proportions against a Democratic nominee.

In politics, what is true is never as important as what works.

See the Coburn interview here:

UPDATE: This is even more hysterical, in both senses. Anti-immigrant and voter-suppression superhawk Kris Kobach, the GOP Kansas secretary of state, says that once Obama replaces “American voters with newly legalized aliens,” gets “a locked-in vote for socialism,” and does away with the rule of law, we could be in for a spate of “ethnic cleansing,” presumably by Latinos of Americans—though he didn’t quite specify what that “American” ethnicity might be.

Read Next: “Why Gruber’s ‘Stupid’ Comment Has Become a Dog Whistle for the GOP”

When Networks Snub a Presidential Address, Democracy Is ‘The Biggest Loser’

President Barack Obama

 (AP Photo/Saul Loeb, Pool)

Only 36 percent of Americans participated in the November 4 elections that determined the political makeup of the legislative branch of the federal government. That’s a dismal measure of political engagement in the United States, a nation where voter turnout rates have in recent years fallen far below the levels seen in Germany and other European countries.

The Economist’s 2012 “Democracy Index” dropped the US ranking on the list of the most democratic countries to number twenty-one—with particularly low marks for popular participation in the political process.

How has the American circumstance so decayed in a nation that once so well understood the wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s observation that “democracy alone, of all forms of government, enlists the full force of men’s [and women’s] enlightened will”?

There’s plenty of blame to go around. But let’s start with broadcast media that are so indefensibly irresponsible that television networks cannot take time away from their relentless profiteering to present a short address by the president of the United States—an address announcing an executive order on an issue that is universally recognized as consequential and controversial.

ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox—four major broadcast networks—all declined to interrupt prime-time programming to air President Obama’s Thursday evening address on immigration policy. Though cable news channels, public television stations and Spanish-language stations cleared time for the president’s speech, the big broadcast networks stuck with fare such as The Biggest Loser.

The absurdity of the choice made by the networks was only heightened by the fact that the network-aligned local television stations that were set to broadcast entertainment programs rather than the president’s address just pocketed hundreds of millions of dollars for airing the slurry of negative campaign commercials that have become the crude lingua franca of our politics. A good many of those commercials focused on the issue of immigration. And the stations that aired those ads would gladly accept more cash from groups seeking to attack or embrace the president’s position.

The result is a democratically dysfunctional imbalance where viewers of the major broadcast networks and of local television stations that carry their programming can get more information from paid political advertisements about a policy than from the policymaker himself. And forget about honest debate, even in the constrained form of a presidential address followed by a response from the leader of the opposition.

This is not how a great democracy is supposed to work. And the refusal of major media outlets to take seriously their role in the democratic discourse is one important part of why this great democracy is not working as well as it could—or should. When a major presidential address is not taken seriously by the networks, Americans get another signal that the political process is something separate and distant from their lives.

Former Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps has repeatedly warned in recent years of the threat posed to democracy by the “diminished and too often dumbed-down civic dialogue” that emerges when those who broadcast on the people’s airwaves fail to serve the people’s interest.

Copps explains, “Our country confronts challenges to its viability in some ways reminiscent of the 1930s, making it a national imperative that every American be empowered with the news and information essential for knowledgeable decision-making. Without that, the challenges go misunderstood, untended, unresolved. When our media, our press and our journalism catch cold, democracy catches pneumonia.”

Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, sees the network neglect of a particular presidential address as just one measure of a broader crisis for democracy that results when media are no longer “educating the American people so that we’re debating the real issues.”

That broader crisis is evident all around us. Journalism is declining rapidly (in print and broadcast formats), creating an information void that has not been filled for the great mass of Americans by emerging cable and digital media. Increasingly, the void is filled by paid political commercials and siloed spin. This denies the vast majority of eligible voters the information they need to engage with the political process, to form their own opinions and to act effectively as their own governors.

Too frequently, pundits blame citizens for not sifting and winnowing the information that is available to them. But isn’t the point of a free press—as it was understood by the founders, and as it should be understood today—to provide direct access to that information, especially when presidents are launching major new initiatives? Shouldn’t broadcast networks and stations be expected to pause their entertainment programming long enough for a president to explain what he is doing in his own words—and for an opposition leader to challenge that explanation?

The first televised address by an American president was a 1947 request by Harry Truman that Americans consume one less slice of bread each day in order to free up grain for post-war Europe. Since then, presidents have used primetime access to explain nuclear policy, announce invasions, advance civil rights, promote energy conservation, ponder the ramifications of stem cell research and warn about the threat posed by the military-industrial complex. Not every address has been dramatic, and some have been self-serving. Most would have benefited from a response by an opposition leader. But all were aired by the broadcast networks as part of the duty to the American people that goes with surfing the public airwaves.

So, too, was a 2006 address by then-President George W. Bush on immigration policy.

“In 2006, Bush gave a 17 minute speech that was televised by all three networks that was about deploying 6,000 national guard troops to the border,” a senior Obama administration aide griped to Politico. “Obama is making a 10 minute speech that will have a vastly greater impact on the issue. And none of the networks are doing it.”

The counter from the networks was reportedly that Obama’s 2014 speech is more “overtly political” than Bush’s 2006 speech.

That’s debatable, as the Bush speech drew criticism from a number of corners. But, whether they are political or not, the executive actions that Obama is taking are real—they will have consequences for millions of people, they will face political and legal challenges, and they could lead to more policy shifts. Americans ought to hear their president’s explanation for why he is acting as he is at this time. And they ought to hear what the leader of the congressional opposition, House Speaker John Boehner, says he is going to do in response.

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This very open, very public, prime-time give and take is vital. It invites Americans into the debate as informed citizens—not the targets of negative ads and spin. And there is every good reason to believe that genuine engagement with policy, as opposed to the politics of personalities, has the potential to maintain and enhance voter turnout over the long term.

Former FCC Commissioner Copps is exactly right. If we do not “ensure that each and every citizen of this nation has available the news and information they need in order to be contributing participants in the affairs of the nation,” then, “It means a crippled and stunted small ‘d’ democratic dialogue.”

John Nichols is the co-author with Robert W. McChesney of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again (Nation Books).

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Before Senator Mark Udall Leaves Office, He Can Make History

Photo of a man being tortured at Abu Ghraib prison

A man is tortured in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Back in April, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted overwhelmingly to release its report detailing widespread torture of prisoners—and possible CIA lying to Congress—during the Bush administration. Seven months later, the public has yet to see it. While the White House continues to stonewall Congress and insist on redactions, time is running out before Republicans, who are far less likely to insist on transparency, take power.

But there’s another way—and before the end of the year, we have a rare chance to make it happen.

Transparency and civil liberties advocates are calling on outgoing Senator Mark Udall to use his powers under the Constitution’s “Speech and Debate Clause” to read the entire report into the public record. Under the clause, which Senator Mike Gravel used to release the Pentagon Papers in 1971, members of Congress have an absolute right to free speech and can enter classified reports into the public record without fear of prosecution.

When Senator Udall leaves office this January, we will lose an important advocate for privacy and accountability from our increasingly secretive government. But, as The Nation’s John Nichols points out, by releasing the torture report into the public record, the outgoing Senator has a chance to “shake up the whole debate about how US intelligence agencies operate—and about the secrecy surrounding those operations.”


Join The Nation, Win Without War, Daily Kos and a host of other organizations in calling on outgoing Senator Mark Udall to read the “torture report” into the Congressional Record.


Thanks in large part to the leaks provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know more about the disturbing expansion of government powers under the guise of national security, and better understand the critical need for more transparency and accountability. Earlier this month, The Nation’s editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen sat down with Snowden for a wide-ranging interview that covered, among other topics, the surveillance state, the American political system and the price he has paid for his understanding of patriotism.


When the Senate Intelligence Committee voted back in April to release their report, Stephen Colbert summed up the attitude of much of the political establishment toward this shameful chapter in our history: “Some people thought it was right, some people thought it was wrong. Let’s meet in the middle and never discuss it again.”