When we last checked in with the activist push to make debt-free college part of mainstream Democratic politics, a little over one month ago, it was off to an impressive start. Three Democratic Senators and a handful of House members had signed on to bicameral resolutions championing the idea, including high-ranking Democrats like Steve Israel and Chris Van Hollen.
More members signed on in the following weeks, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), which is spearheading the effort, announced Wednesday that nine more Democratic Senators joined as co-sponsors. This brought the total to twenty in the Senate—close to half the caucus—and sixty overall.
That’s a pretty stunning level of support behind an idea that basically didn’t exist in formal terms six weeks ago.
The Congressional resolutions, and an attendant policy paper from Demos, lays out in in brief terms how more federal aid to states for tuition assistance, expanded Pell Grants, and some smaller-bore tweaks and reforms might produce a debt-free college experience at public universities nationwide.
The proposals need a lot of fleshing out. The level of support, though swift and dramatic, still wouldn’t be enough to pass a Democratic Congress, let alone one controlled by Republicans.
But the tentative goal of the activists pushing the campaign is to get the idea percolating in Democratic circles—until it becomes a mainstream policy plank. “It’s all about encouraging the Democratic Party to lead on big, bold economic populist ideas,” said TJ Helmstetter of the PCCC.
The biggest arena for these ideas, of course, is the upcoming Democratic presidential primaries. The push has gained some ground here, too—former Maryland governor and presumed candidate Martin O’Malley has openly joined the cause.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has appeared to at least be conversant with the idea. Her campaign manager, Robby Mook, dropped the term “debt-free college” in a recent CNBC interview, and Clinton herself hedged closer to calling for it in a recent campaign appearance, where she said college should be “as debt-free as possible.”
Senator Bernie Sanders, however, has not joined the Senate effort nor has he spoken publicly about debt-free college—instead, he has an even more ambitious plan to make four-year public colleges and universities tuition-free, also through federal assistance to states, and paid for by a Wall Street transactions tax. Sanders introduced that bill in the Senate last week.
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BURLINGTON, Vermont— The campaign signs all say: “Paid for by Bernie 2016 (Not the Billionaires).”
That is a given with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the proud democratic socialist who decries plutocracy and oligarchy and proposes to tax Wall Street. Sanders is the presidential contender who is not looking to win the favor of the hedge-fund managers, bankers and CEOs who define and dominate American politics.
The whole point of the audacious bid that Sanders has now formally launched for the Democratic presidential nomination is to upset the calculus of American politics. "Today," he declared at the opening of Tuesday's announcement address, "we stand here and say loudly and clearly that; 'Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.'"
The senator attracted more than 100,000 contributions in the average amount of $42, along with hundreds of thousands of volunteer commitments, in his first days as a contender.
How far that will get him remains to be seen, but Sanders says he seeks nothing less than a “political revolution”—a change sufficient not merely to propel him into competition with frontrunner Hillary Clinton but to shift the political dynamic in America.
At the heart of the matter is a determination to shift power away from what Sanders refers to as “the billionaire class.”
Sanders is ready to rip into the oligarchs and plutocrats with a fury Democratic presidential contenders have rarely mustered since the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt bid for a second term by recounting that:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred.
Almost 80 years have passed since FDR uttered those words.
Yet it was possible to hear an echo on the shores of Lake Champlain Tuesday, when Sanders quoted the 32nd president—"As Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded us, a nation’s greatness is judged not by what it provides to the most well-off, but how it treats the people most in need. And that’s the kind of nation we must become." And when a wildly-enthusiastic crowd of Vermonters and others who had come from across the country to help launch an insurgent candidacy cheered Sanders’ declaration that:
This campaign is going to send a message to the billionaire class. And that is: you can't have it all. You can't get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry. You can't continue sending our jobs to China while millions are looking for work. You can't hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, while there are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation. Your greed has got to end. You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities.
There will be those who attempt to portray what Sanders is saying—and what he is doing with this campaign—as new or radical. It is neither. The Sanders campaign is about something very old and very American. The United States was founded in revolt against monarchy and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few very wealthy men. Throughout much of American history, serious contenders for the presidency – from Abraham Lincoln to William Jennings Bryan to Teddy Roosevelt to Robert M. La Follette to FDR to Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower warned against letting the affairs of state be guided by self-serving millionaires and billionaires.
In recent decades, however, the balance has tipped toward the billionaires.
The eternal premise that “all men (and women) are created equal,” the battlefield promise that this would be a land “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the pledge of “liberty and justice for all,” has been replaced by a call from a campaign donor to a pliant politician. The shift in our politics and our governance has yielded broken trade policies, bailouts for bankers and corporations, wage stagnation and income inequality.
For Sanders, that is unacceptable. And, he believes, changeable. “The bad news is that people like the Koch brothers can spend huge sums of money to create groups like the Tea Party,” he says. “The good news is that, once people understand the right-wing extremist ideology of the Koch brothers, they are not going to go along with their policies. In terms of fundamental economic issues: job creation, a high minimum wage, progressive taxation, affordable college education—the vast majority of people are on our side.”
Sanders will test that notion in the weeks and months to come. There will be plenty of cynics. But on a sunny day in his hometown of Burlington, there were thousands of believers – cheering as the candidate announced:
American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. It is not about the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other incredibly wealthy individuals spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer. According to media reports the Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. In Vermont and at our town meetings we know what American democracy is supposed to be about. It is one person, one vote — with every citizen having an equal say — and no voter suppression. And that's the kind of American political system we have to fight for and will fight for in this campaign.
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It has been called “the day that FIFA has long dreaded”: the day that decades of graft and a level of ostentatious excess that would make Caligula blush caught up with the international soccer body. 14 people including nine top FIFA officials have been arrested on corruption charges levied by the US Justice Department. Seven were taken into custody in a dramatic arrest by Swiss law enforcement at a luxury hotel in Zurich. As the late Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote two decades ago, “There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world.”
Well the kingdom has been cracked open and no one is sure what we will find out once all the deals have been cut and the whistleblowers have played their tunes. Make no mistake: We may look back upon today as the beginning of the end of FIFA as we know it. All of the 209 member representatives of FIFA had gathered in Zurich for their congress, which was expected to be “a boring affair,” where President Sepp Blatter would coast to reelection. Boring is the last word on anyone’s mind now.
The charges brought include money laundering, wire fraud, and international racketeering that alleges $150 million in bribes going back to the 1990s made by big sports-marketing honchos to get their brands associated with major soccer tournaments, but this will be just the tip of the iceberg. Here is what was said by US attorney general Loretta Lynch: “The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States. It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.” (Lynch said the selection of the United States to host next year’s Copa América was facilitated by $110 million in bribes.)
For those wondering how the Justice Department was able to facilitate these arrests in Switzerland, they used a prosecutorial authority often present in international terror cases. As The New York Times described, “Those cases can hinge on the slightest connection to the United States, like the use of an American bank or Internet service provider Switzerland’s treaty with the United States is unusual in that it gives Swiss authorities the power to refuse extradition for tax crimes, but on matters of general criminal law, the Swiss have agreed to turn people over for prosecution in American courts.”
In this case, the US connection is CONCACAF, headquartered in the United States and one of FIFA’s six regional confederations and the one that includes North America. Described as “an organization clearly in crisis” by Ms. Lynch, they are as of now the central focus of the investigation. (This part is important for those following the possible FIFA vote on sanctioning or even expelling Israel for its practices related to detaining players and coaches in the Palestinian Football Association. It is impossible to tell the fate of that vote or any votes based upon the chaos produced by latest charges, but CONCACAF was viewed as Israel’s most reliable defenders in the FIFA body.)
The indictments however, will seek information well beyond the workings of CONCACAF and could be the string that if pulled, tears FIFA’s cashmere sweater to pieces. The indictment also makes mention of bribery related to the much criticized awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. The oil-rich fiefdom of Qatar has been under fire for its use of slave labor and a shocking pace of deaths of South Asian migrant workers, building new stadiums without adequate water or safety regulations. Russia has conducted its own damning internal audits related to its soccer leadership. Yet already, in a show of staggering arrogance, FIFA has issued a statement that no matter what the investigation roots out, there will be no revote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. The hubris would be gobsmacking if we hadn’t heard it so many times in the past: the statement of blithely unaware confidence by a dictator right before the fall.
And speaking of dictators, the one name not mentioned in the indictments was that of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter: the sexist and homophobic troglodyte who has turned FIFA into a multi-billion dollar engine of corruption. His absence amongst the accused was so stunning that The New York Times headline reads “FIFA Officials Arrested on Corruption Charges; Blatter Isn’t Among Them.”
Blatter was due to be reelected in a cakewalk on Friday, his only challenger Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussain, a 39-year-old Jordanian royal. Blatter’s power comes from strong support via Africa, Asia, and Oceania where he has leveraged reverence like a mafia don by cagily distributing “sport for development and peace” funds, and then been none too concerned where those funds happen to land.
Already FIFA has issued statements professing Blatter’s innocence and assuring the world that in an organization caked in filth, he somehow smells of sandalwood. Blatter still will likely be reelected on Friday, which will only turn up the volume on the how mockable the organization has become.
Transparency International, the campaigning NGO, wants Blatter to resign and the and the election to be delayed. Managing director Cobus de Swardtsaid in a statement: “The warning signs for FIFA have been there for a long time. FIFA has refused to abide by many basic standards of good governance that would reduce the risk of corruption. These scandals have taken place under Sepp Blatter’s watch, which spans almost two decades. For the sake of the fans, and good governance of football, it is time for him to step down. The elections for president are not credible if they are tainted with these allegations by the highest prosecuting authorities.&rdquo:
FIFA is paying for a culture that valorized dictatorship and excess while disregarding the concerns of people like the millions who took to Brazil’s streets in 2013. They were willing to be a neoliberal Trojan Horse for the nation’s of the world, yet their arrogance and perhaps their unwillingness to cut in the United States which hasn’t hosted the cup since 1994, caught up with them.
For those who have concerns about the Justice Department attacking FIFA while corrupt bankers go free, not to mention Attorney General Lynch using the FIFA presser to defend FISA, I share those concerns greatly. Trusting this Justice Department to prosecute the wealthy and powerful is like trusting Fox News to tell the truth. But this is a case of FIFA shaking its behind and daring law officials to take a free kick, and they did.
I wrote this a year ago and I will say it again: “Soccer is still unquestionably the most popular sport on the planet. But a cloistered, corrupt society like FIFA cannot function in a WikiLeaks world. It is past time to abolish FIFA. It is like a gangrenous limb that requires amputation before the infection spreads and the beautiful game becomes decayed beyond all possible recognition. Soccer is worth saving. FIFA needs to take its ball and go home.” The sooner the better, for anyone who loves this game.
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Amidst the factory farms and genetically modified frankenfoods of America’s agricultural landscape, the rolling hills of Vermont dairy farms have always stood apart as emblems of bucolic innocence. And Ben & Jerry’s has long been the quintessential Vermont brand, built on wholesome corporate values and hippie sensibilities by the pint. But labor advocates say the ice cream empire’s socially-minded branding is greased with the sweat of an exploited workforce, rotten with poverty wages, squalid housing, and abusive bosses. So immigrant workers are barnstorming Vermont's dairy industry to demand Milk with Dignity.
The grassroots group Migrant Justice launched the Milk with Dignity (MWD) campaign last year to push a comprehensive labor monitoring plan for the dairy labor force, which would establish standards on wages and labor conditions set by workers themselves, supported by independent auditing, worker education, and a scheme for equitable profit-sharing among workers and farmers. The system is modeled on the Fair Food program of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has successfully organized across the supply chain, wholesale to retail, to raise wages on Florida tomato fields. For Vermont’s 868 dairy farms, with some 1,200 to 1,500 migrant workers, MWD seeks not only higher wages but also decent housing and leave times, protection from discrimination and greater autonomy and a say in their working conditions.
According to Migrant Justice's survey of 172 dairy workers, about 40 percent earned less than the state minimum wage of about $9. Roughly a third observed that they were treated worse than US-born workers. And with workweeks averaging about 60 to 80 hours and frequent injuries, the labor conditions were not only harsh but also hostile, with some reporting verbal abuse and being denied medical care or even a break for the bathroom or eating. But Migrant Justice, which has campaigned to protect migrants from police mistreatment and deportation, knows abuses often go unreported, since workers are intimidated by a system that offers little protection or recourse.
Worker and activist Victor Diaz recalls in a video interview how he endured harrowing workplace injuries, like getting lacerated by an exploding milk bottle, and “inhumane” housing conditions living with three coworkers in a shoddy cramped trailer: “It was not a dignified livelihood for a worker that spends 12, 13, 14 hours working everyday, to try to rest in a space like that…impossible! ... And one day we decided to leave, enough was enough” Though they would lose the first paychecks that their boss had illegally withheld, they decided, “we couldn’t keep being slaves to this.”
To help close these gaps in basic labor standards, Migrant Justice reached out to Ben & Jerry's last year to educate them about workers’ struggles and offer to collaborate with their “Social Mission” division to launch the reform plan, and to take the lead in cleaning up the supply chain. One of Ben & Jerry’s main suppliers is the St. Albans Cooperative, a network of 430 dairy farms in New York and Vermont, including some known for their unsavory labor practices.
It seemed like a common-sense business move: the company touts numerous ethical sourcing initiatives, including certification for growth-hormone-free milk and cage-free eggs, and contributions toward environmental causes. It markets images of beaming fair-trade farmers in Uganda and grants iPads to help Mexican coffee harvesters modernize their operations. Why wouldn’t Vermont’s signature do-gooder brand want fair conditions for the workers in its own backyard?
But Ben & Jerry’s didn’t bite; workers say the talks petered out earlier this year after Migrant Justice started pressing them on making changes that would require outside scrutiny of the supply chain. They later found out that the company did incorporate their advice—selectively—in vague talking points on "social human capital." It was part of a voluntary program the company developed independently to promote humane farming practices called Caring Dairy, which scores farmers on various sustainability indicators. With about 85 participating farms, Ben & Jerry's plans to establish benchmarks for “good working conditions, reasonable work hours, and positive involvement in the local community,” aimed at fostering “work/life balance.”
Organizer Brendan O’Neill says this voluntary scheme falls far short of MWD’s proposed program, which requires independent third-party auditing, and more importantly, empowers workers to participate in the program's enforcement.
While Migrant Justice certainly knows of many decent farm employers, they say Caring Dairy guidelines won't be rigorous as long as farmers can view caring as merely optional. Pointing to Ben & Jerry’s past industry leadership on other corporate “values,” like animal welfare, O’Neill says that for workers, too, “that type of robust action with real accountability...is needed, and the Caring Dairy program has none of that."
Still, Director of Social Mission for Ben & Jerry’s, Rob Michalak, told Vermont Public Radio earlier this month that Caring Dairy schemes help ensure that “conditions are safe, people are paid well, and that they're living in good conditions. We're working on a lot of what Migrant Justice is working on. We think the work they are doing is important." (The company had no further comment when contacted by The Nation.)
Just not important enough to cooperate with. O’Neill says activists are frustrated that after so many months of consulting with the company, “This [program] became their solution, not listening to workers, not sitting down and understanding more deeply the change we were seeking…saying what you've done to educate farmers is fine, but what this is not is a real mechanism to ensure that there's workers' rights in your supply chain.”
So Migrant Justice took its campaign public to pressure Ben & Jerry's to match its talk of corporate values with real commitment to workers’ rights. And advocates hope Vermont's struggle for fair milk stirs a national discussion on blending labor consciousness into food policy. Milk with Dignity folds into a groundswell of food justice activism that incorporates fair pay and labor protections into a holistic concept of social sustenance.
“We're trying to create the standard and grow it,” O’Neill says. “In addition to the work we do that wins real rights for our members, it's also changing the conversation about food.”
And they’re reserving a spot at the table for whenever Ben & Jerry’s is ready to talk.
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This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
Chelsea Manning was an all-American patriot when she joined the US military in 2007 at the height of the surge in Iraq.
But when she saw what her country was actually doing abroad—handing over thousands of Iraqi Sunnis to be tortured by state-sponsored Shiite death squads, for instance—she decided she couldn’t be a part of it. Nor could she just do nothing as injustices were committed in her and every American’s name.
So, using the access available to her as an Army intelligence analyst, she downloaded gigabytes of classified evidence that war crimes were being committed onto CDs “labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga,’” as she told a federal informant.
In 2013, a military court sentenced Manning to 35 years behind bars for leaking that evidence, including thousands upon thousands of diplomatic cables, to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks. The guilty verdict came after Manning was subjected to 11 months of what the UN special rapporteur on torture called “cruel and inhuman” solitary confinement.
If she serves her full sentence, Manning, now 27, will be 60 years old when released, though she will reportedly become eligible for parole in 2020. But supporters want her out now—and believe that the way she was treated before she went to trial could be the key.
“We have to appeal this on Chelsea’s behalf,” said criminal defense attorney Nancy Hollander, one of a team of lawyers looking to do just that. Hollander was speaking as part of a recent panel discussion on the Obama administration’s war on leaks. This war, like others declared on nouns, has tended to hurt the least deserving: in this case, conscience-driven whistleblowers like Manning, but not any of those chatty “senior administration officials” who casually leak inside information to the press.
Such is the difference between releasing classified information that informs the public but bothers the national security state, as Manning did, and leaking what often proves to be disinformation that flatters those in power, as their lackeys do.
Let’s remember what landed Manning in prison: releasing a video of an incident in which US soldiers killed more than a dozen unarmed civilians in Iraq, including two journalists working for Reuters. At the time of the incident, a military spokesman said that the soldiers, who fired at a man driving a minivan with his kids inside, “were clearly engaged in combat operations against a hostile force.” Manning proved otherwise.
Manning also revealed that Yemen’s former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was colluding with the Obama administration to cover up an undeclared US war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (of which any “military-age male” killed in a drone strike is considered to have been a member). That war has killed hundreds of civilians—with one US airstrike alone wiping out 41 innocent Yemenis, including 21 children, according to Amnesty International.
That difference—leaking things not to portray one’s self in a better light, but to soothe a conscience inflamed by injustice—is part of the appeal that Hollander is drafting with fellow attorney Vincent Ward. During her first trial, “Chelsea wasn’t even allowed to put on the defense of why she felt it important for the public to know about these human rights abuses,” said Hollander at the discussion hosted by Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. “We have to appeal this for all of our sake.… And we really have to stop this because it is illegal for the government of the United States to classify info that embarrasses the government.”
But justice is expensive. In 2014 alone, the Chelsea Manning Defense Fund spent $149,000, out of a total of $247,000 in donations, on Manning’s legal team. As of this March 31, that team was owed close to $100,000.
Melissa Keith works for the Chelsea Manning Support Network, a project of Courage to Resist, a group that supports conscientious objectors. She told me that the $100,000 not spent on legal fees in 2014 went toward defending Manning in public. Another $74,000 went to the salaries of staff who worked on “public education and awareness,” said Keith, which involved placing ads and Manning’s own writing in newspapers, as well as organizing and promoting events to draw attention to her case. The network also says that the fund helps pay the travel costs of those visiting Manning, “especially her mother and relatives living in Wales,” and for her college education.
Though owed tens of thousands of dollars, Manning’s lawyers have not stopped working (the fund paid $10,000 toward its bill in March after receiving $10,636 in donations, or $9,412 after bank fees). The shortfall has led Manning herself to appeal for funds on her new Twitter account. Her posts are currently dictated over the phone from military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to an employee of the public relations firm Fitzgibbon Media, according to a handwritten letter from Manning. That firm has been paid by the Chelsea Manning Support Network to promote Manning’s cause.
“Since Chelsea’s initial tweets, we’ve raised about $40,000,” said Keith, who estimates that about $8,000 came as a direct result of those posts on the 140-character social network. That still leaves the fund’s debt to the legal team at more than $50,000—and with Hollander charging $400 an hour (not unusual for a top-tier defense attorney, according to lawyers I asked to review the invoice), the legal debt grows by about $10,000 a month.
“Legal expenses are very high currently, as the new legal team is tasked with reviewing the entire record of the trial, the most voluminous in the history of American military law,” said Keith. “Now is the time of heavy lifting. The arguments formulated now will be the arguments that carry Chelsea through until the end of this process.”
Where does that process end, though? Manning’s lawyers expect to have a hearing before the US Army Criminal Court of Appeals sometime this year. If that appeal goes nowhere, though, the case could go to the civilian system—and from there to the Supreme Court.
Donations to support Manning’s defense can be made to the Chelsea Manning Defense Fund. One can also donate to a legal trust, 100 percent of the contributions to which are used to cover legal expenses, by making a check out to “IOLTA / Manning” and sending it to: Courage to Resist, 484 Lake Park Ave. #41, Oakland, CA 94610.
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It is difficult not to cringe at the sight of the headline to the following review of Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book, Silent Spring—“Man and Other Pests”—given that it was a review of what was then probably the most influential intellectual contribution by an American woman to date.
Miss Carson is indignant about the unexpected effects of our thoughtless broadcasting of pesticides. She writes persuasively, for she has taken great pains to gather and check her facts. Parts of the book were published in The New Yorker magazine last summer, and immediately provoked wide interest, discussion and controversy. This reaction will undoubtedly intensify with the publication of the book. No one is in a better position than Miss Carson to arouse the indignation of the public and the conscience of the chemical industry, and it may well be that she has made a real contribution to our salvation.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.
When it was announced that free agent linebacker Michael Sam was signing with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, many people’s thoughts turned to Jackie Robinson. Robinson famously spent a year playing for the minor league Montreal Royals before making his way to the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was believed by Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, quite simply, that Montreal was less bigoted than the United States. Jackie Robinson would have the experience of playing without the weight of a dominant culture casually putting his humanity on trial with every at-bat. But I didn’t think right away of Robinson upon hearing news of Sam. I thought about 1968 fist-raising Olympian Dr. John Carlos. When John Carlos was shunned by the United States and struggling to earn a living after his Olympic protest, he signed and played in the CFL for Montreal in 1971. He once said to me, “Living in Montreal was like therapy for my family after all the hate back home.” Now living in Georgia, Dr. Carlos still speaks about Montreal like it was a wonderland. I called him and asked whether he felt it would be a good landing place for Michael Sam. He said to me, “Michael Sam deserves as much a chance as anyone else to follow their dreams. If the NFL was not going to be that place, I’m very glad that the CFL was an option. It’ll be good for his mind too. I was very well received by the people of Montreal and Canada. I loved Montreal. He will too. They don’t give a hoot in Montreal who you are … as long as you try to learn a little French.”
The connection between Michael Sam and Jackie Robinson is even more illustrative. There’s an old expression from Mark Twain that I tend to overuse: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Last year, I worked this phrase like a government mule because it seemed to fit Michael Sam’s odyssey to the NFL so well. No, he wasn’t Jackie Robinson aiming to break the color line in 1947 and the differences in their journeys cannot be ignored. Most obviously, the overcoming of the obstacles of race and sexuality have significant historical deviations. In addition, Robinson was attempting to break through in advance of a civil-rights movement, which is why Dr. King described him years later as “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” Michael Sam is coming to the NFL after decades of LGBT people fighting to be open in both the workplace and the world. If sports was ahead of the curve on racial issues, on sexuality it has long lagged in both men’s and women’s sports.
The differences are real, but the similarities however have been too glaring to ignore. Michael Sam was going to have the burden of being "a first". His journey would be chronicled extensively and in turn force a lot of people who did not want to think about the issues LGBT people face, to acknowledge their existence. This sounds a great deal like the effect Jackie Robinson had on the country in the arena of race. Even the excuses long used to discourage LGBT athletes from coming out were common to the old color line: the shower and the locker room. Just as white athletes had to get over their irrational prejudice over sharing showers, we would see resistant football player - both straight and those grappling with their own sexuality - doing the same. Then there was the trope of “the distraction”: teams saying that it was less about prejudice than not wanting to deal with the uproar. History rhymes up a storm on that one. Unfortunately, Michael Sam did not have his Branch Rickey: the NFL executive who decided come hell or high water that this was going to happen. Yes, even if Rickey’s reasons were often less about social justice than the future value of the franchise, he should always get credit for persevering when his fellow owners told him to stand down. Michael Sam did not have a similar champion, despite both a college career and an NFL preseason that should have made him worthy of receiving the opportunity.
Now however, Michael Sam’s football career lives and once again we have a mirroring of the Jackie Robinson story. The legacy of Robinson is part of what makes this feel so right. As Montreal talk radio host Dave Kaufman said to me, “Montreal is a city that still proudly boasts that Jackie Robinson got his start here. He will be embraced and accepted, and most importantly, he will be given the chance to concentrate on football. Plus, there’s no better place to be in North America in the summertime. I think he’ll fall in love with Montreal, and vice versa.”
The Canadians I know are always very quick to tell me to not talk about their country like it is some kind of social democratic paradise, free of oppression. They will be quick to point out all the ways in which Canada falls short of its ideals and has more in common with the worst aspects of the United States than is often acknowledged. I was even accused once of wearing “maple leaf goggles” by a friend in Toronto. Perhaps that is true. But I also know that Malcolm X said, “As long as you are south of the Canadian border, you are South.” Living in a country where “I can’t breathe” has morphed from a man’s dying words to a protest slogan with which thousands identify, it is possible that people just breathe a little easier in the great north. Michael Sam could soon discover that same joy. Like Jackie Robinson, he’ll show just how well he can play without a vocal minority of people psychologically over-invested in his failure.
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Journalist Robert D. Kaplan thinks that what is wrong with the Middle East is a lack of imperialism, and he urges that it be brought back. It is how, he says, most of the world has been ruled by “default.” This argument is so ahistorical and wrong-headed that it takes the breath away.
First of all, “imperialism” is an imprecise term. Kaplan is trying to sweep up different kinds of empire under one rubric. Until the early twentieth century, most people in the Middle East admittedly accepted the Ottoman Empire, which was Muslim-ruled and made minimal economic demands on them while offering minimal governance. But it was precisely at that point when the Ottomans began building railroads to deliver garrisons to the provinces and introducing modern, more intrusive bureaucracy that they began facing opposition from local elites like the Hashemite rulers of Mecca in the Hejaz. The rise of nationalism was also fatal to empire, whether Ottoman or any other sort.
Capitalist economic imperialism of the European sort is a new phenomenon in world history, and proved far less welcome in the Middle East than the decentralized Ottoman methods of governance. The European empires in Asia and Africa were not into it for their subjects’ health. Historians estimate that in the early nineteenth century, the colonized territories provided 15 percent of the metropole’s income, a margin that may well have helped technological and economic advances in Europe. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, East Indies (Indonesian) rubber and petroleum provided as much as 25 percent of the Netherlands’ gross national product. That is to say, the Dutch stole billions of dollars from the Indonesians. European imperialism was brutal. European overlords worked plantation laborers to death. Since the foreigners were not liked, it was necessary occasionally to massacre the locals. The German army practiced with machine guns on primitively armed Namibian tribes as a prelude to the slaughter of World War I in Europe itself. Imperial archivists usually destroyed the documents that witnessed the viciousness and genocidal character of European economic imperialism.
The Middle East east of the Suez was not ruled by European capitalist imperialism for any substantial length of time, and locals kicked the imperialists out after World War II where they had not already done so before. Britain only had Iraq from 1917 until 1932; it never really controlled the country, which mounted constant uprisings that the British Royal Air Force was tasked with putting down by aerial bombardment. Bombing raids could temporarily scatter pastoral nomads or even villagers, but it could not make them submit. Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris planned these raids; he was later involved in the firebombing of Germany during World War II. British air force officers were afraid in the 1920s that the British public would find out how Iraq was actually being dominated, and that there would be a wave of revulsion. By 1932 the British were happy enough to let Iraq go, only a decade and a half after they used British Indian troops to take it from the Ottomans. The Italians in Libya and the French in Syria lasted a bit longer, but they demonstrated the same ruthlessness and lack of interest in developing the local population. European colonialism in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq left behind almost no schools or factories.
The idea that the European armies that marched into the region offered order is laughable. They provoked revolt after revolt. They are dates local nationalists still take pride in. There was 1918–20 in Egypt, which forced the British out in 1922. There was 1920 in Iraq, which made London give up any idea of trying to run that country directly, as it did India. There was 1936–39 in Palestine and Syria. The French had to relinquish Syria and Lebanon, having, ironically enough, been weakened by being themselves colonized by Germany.
There are four big reasons for which European economic imperialism largely died after World War II, and for which it is not coming back. First, the Nazis and imperial Japan gave invading and running other countries rather a bad name. After the war, when the Netherlands attempted to reinstate its imperialism in Indonesia, the Indonesians asked them why it was so terrible for Germany to take over the Netherlands but it was all right for The Hague to dominate Indonesia. It was an irrefutable argument.
Second, the global South was increasingly mobilized. It was more urban, more literate, better armed, and more organized by political party than had been the case in the nineteenth century. European colonialism succeeded to some extent when people lived in villages of 300 and were illiterate and largely unconnected to the rest of the territory. After World War II, anti-imperialist political parties such as the Communist and Baath Parties became popular in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. The social and political mobilization of these populations made it impossible for the colonialists to rule them. Rule requires either a helpless population or a complaisant one. Middle Easterners were neither by the 1950s.
Third, the rise of nationalism in the global South led local populations to assert ownership of national resources. Egypt got the Suez Canal back in 1956, despite enormous resistance from Britain, France, and Israel. Abdul Karim Qasim, after his 1958 coup against a British-installed monarchy in Iraq, pledged to nationalize Iraqi petroleum. Iran’s demand for a 50/50 split of petroleum profits with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) led to the CIA coup of 1953, but that operation could only slow and not stop history. In 1979, angry Iranians threw the United States out. Attempts at neo-imperialism most often crash and burn. In the 1970s, most Middle Eastern petroleum states nationalized this resource.
Fourth, the European publics were unwilling to bear the costs of empire, especially after the Great Depression and the devastation of World War II. Precisely because African and Asian societies were increasingly mobilized, it was more and more expensive to keep them down.
All of these four reasons for the end of empire are still salient today. Indeed, populations in the global South are far more mobilized now than in the 1950s, and powerful explosives and weaponry are more widely available. And after the 2008 crash, the patience of contemporary publics with the economic drain of imperial adventures is limited.
The Middle East is not facing state collapse because of the lack of empire. European empires themselves drew lines in the desert and instituted policies favoring minorities and dividing and ruling, which continue to haunt the region. A long-term drought has driven millions of farmers from their land in this region, a drought exacerbated by the extra heat in the atmosphere caused by climate change. Water shortages in Raqqa in Syria or Taiz in Yemen are severe, and underpin some of the social turmoil. The collapse of the socialist state after the fall of the Soviet Union and its deterioration into a rule of oligarchs under the impact of neoliberal (market fundamentalist) policies pushed by the West further destabilized these societies. The youth bulge, with hundreds of thousands of new workers trying to enter the work force annually, has presented challenges to these governments that they were unable to overcome. In any case, world regions do witness a great deal of turmoil in modern history. There was a time when Southeast Asia was in flames. It didn’t get back on track from the 1980s forward via Western neocolonialism. Indeed, the US Vietnam War had contributed to the destabilization of Laos and Cambodia.
Attempts at neo-imperialism do not look like the 1757 British conquest of Bengal, which was relatively inexpensive and pitted trained soldiers with advanced military technology against undisciplined cavalrymen firing at will. The new imperialists face mobilized, literate, organized, and wired populations perfectly willing to form guerrilla cells and blow them up. The United States did not willingly leave Iraq, it was forced out by severe opposition, both guerrilla and political (the Iraqi Parliament refused to allow US troops in the country after 2011). Kaplan and his ideological soul mates have never understood how much the occupier is hated, and how weak occupiers are in the modern world. The guerrilla insurgencies among both Sunnis and Shiites kicked off by the US occupation have grown from strength to strength, and they are now facing off against one another. The US military never controlled more of Iraq than the land on which it stood. The idea that further Western imperialism, which threw Iraq into chaos, could now miraculously bring order is the ultimate in anachronism.
The country doing best in the Middle East for now is Turkey, which was never colonized at all.
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The deaths of 72 workers at a sandals factory in the Philippines earlier this month is sadly not shocking news; risk of mass death is practically considered a regular cost of doing business in the regional factories. But the blaze coincides with two grim anniversaries for Global South labor: the death of more than 1,100 workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, and the subsequent launch of a landmark safety program for Bangladesh factories. Today, it all adds up to a tragically uneven record of reform in Asia’s low-wage, high fashion manufacturing system.
Conditions at the Kentex Manufacturing facility in Valenzuela, which produced shoes for the domestic market, were painfully familiar, according to auditors and news reports: workers were reportedly paid well below minimum wage, worked half-day shifts, and braved toxic fumes without proper protective gear inside poorly ventilated, often sweltering factories.
Research on the disaster by a coalition of NGOs, including the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights, Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development and the trade union Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU) found that the factory compound was effectively a death trap, lacking basic fire alarms and fire exits, with “only two gates, one… for people and the other… for delivery trucks. The factory windows are covered with steel grills and chicken wire which could not easily be destroyed even during emergencies.” Many struggled to escape by breaking the windows (sealed, the company’s lawyer later explained, to prevent “stealing”), a few jumped from the second floor and some had to scale the walls since the trucks were blocking their path.
Yet the trap was well-laid before the first spark. Authorities claimed Kentex was complying with safety regulations, but used illegal subcontractors (officials have since taken enforcement actions). Though workers had what they called a “company union,” even the most senior workers only earned about minimum wage. Many others were hired as agency contractors, who reported more precarious conditions, like having social and health benefit payments withheld. The lowest tier were pieceworkers, with no steady wage, no contract, and 12-hour days.
Amidst wrenching poverty, workplace hazards were just the backdrop to the daily struggle to survive.
A man who lost his wife, daughter, and sister-in-law in the fire told Reuters that his wife had earned under a dollar an hour, and that “At first, she complained of the heat and of a foul smell from the rubber but she got used to it.”
Researchers reported on the death of Mary Ann Tenis, a single parent recently hired as a piece-rate worker who now left behind three children. In addition, “Almost an entire family was burned to death, with both parents working for Kentex and their three high-school children taking a summer job in the factory. The tragedy orphaned a child enrolled in primary school.”
Blaming a “culture of complacency in government,” Alan Tanjusay of the Associated Labor Unions-TUCP told Reuters, “Our assumption is almost 90 percent of local factories are problematic, with violations in workplace arrangement, safe working conditions, wages and social benefits.”
Despite, or because of such abysmal conditions, officials have boosted trade ties, cozying up to Asia’s emergent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and China’s planned Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank—an alternative bloc to the pending Trans Pacific Partnership. And Valenzuela’s inferno now tarnishes the modernizing city’s dubious distinction as a World Bank pick for one of the country’s most “business friendly cities” in 2011.
KMU tells The Nation via e-mail that corporate impunity is abetted by “free trade” across the region:
Multinational manufacturers and foreign investors play a huge role as to why violations of workers’ health and safety in the workplace are violated…. The Philippine government courts their approval for its major economic and employment policies, making it appear that the country is dependent on them for employment and overall economic activity.
The liberalization of trade under the dominance of the US has had the effect of worsening the race to the bottom of underdeveloped countries when it comes to workers’ wages, job security and trade-union rights. We have every reason to believe that this is the direction of the US’ new free trade agreement with various Pacific Rim countries.
According to the labor rights group Workers Assistance Center (WAC), improving factory conditions must involve not only tightening internal regulations—the deeply understaffed labor department runs primarily on “voluntary” compliance by factories—but also seeking international accountability:
multinational manufacturers and foreign investment should play a lead role in preventing cases of occupational safety and health violations. No worker should die because of negligence of companies and government…. Every trade policy must have accompanying labor protection provisions on it—the right to freedom of association and bargaining and the right to a safe working environment.
Trade policy initiatives, WAC adds, should also provide an international platform for labor advocacy, for example, “a labor ombudsman, where workers can elevate their complaints if nothing happens to their complaints here.”
As for the domestic government, KMU now hopes the Kentex fire will prompt serious consideration by Congress of a long-stalled workplace safety bill, which would impose enforceable mandates for health and safety inspections. Though the renewed attention to the bill is promising, the KMU union reports via e-mail, they expect to “see a lot of challenge in making the government pass this piece of legislation,” because this effort to strengthen corporate regulation, “goes against the government’s thrust of allowing capitalists to ‘voluntarily comply’ and of allowing violations of occupational health and safety standards in general.”
This crisis is playing out in export industries throughout the Asia Pacific region, despite growing public pressure in the West to promote more ethical production processes. The Bangladesh Accord—a voluntary safety program established by international brands and unions in the wake of Rana Plaza, recently issued its second-anniversary progress report, showing hundreds of factories have undergone inspection. But out of some 54,432 safety hazards identified, only 2,579 issues had been fully corrected. The grassroots advocacy that pushed through the Accord was seemingly eclipsed by countervailing market forces: global retail fashion sales are nearing $2 trillion annually.
The Philippines, where factory worker wages are typically more than double those of Bangladesh, supposedly represents a higher standard of “development.” But the pressures of the market nevertheless led to the deaths of dozens of workers, trapped behind barred windows.
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Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
Last week, Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch announced that five major banks were pleading guilty to criminal charges for what she described as a “brazen display of collusion” to manipulate the currency markets. The banks—Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, UBS, Barclays, and Royal Bank of Scotland Group— were hit with $5.6 billion in fines and penalties.
Sensibly, the banks were forced to plead guilty, not simply pay fines in settlements where they neither admitted nor denied the changes. But the charges still were brought against banks, not bankers. No banker was held accountable. The personal fortunes of the bankers who profited were not touched. Shareholders, not bankers, will pay the fines. The Justice Department would have us believe that criminal banks ran profitable criminal conspiracies without involving any bankers.
The unwillingness to hold bankers accountable for their frauds and crimes is a great and continuing failure of our justice system, one that poses a clear danger to this country in the years ahead.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.