The Nation

Interview With Ariyana Smith: The First Athlete Activist of #BlackLivesMatter

Ariyana Smith

The St. Louis Rams, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, the women’s hoops teams at Notre Dame and Berkeley… none of these folks can say that they were the first athlete to bring the #BlackLivesMatter movement into the world of sports. That was Knox College’s Ariyana Smith. On Saturday, November 29, before a game against Fontbonne University in Clayton, Missouri, Ms. Smith made the now iconic “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture during the national anthem before walking toward the American flag. She then went prone on the floor for four and a half minutes, preventing the game from getting under way. It was four and a half minutes because Ferguson’s Michael Brown lay in the street for four and a half hours after being killed. Since that time, Ms. Smith has taken a crash course in the blessing and burden of what it means to be an “activist athlete.” I was able to speak to Smith. Her experience is well worth reading and sharing by both activists and athletes alike.

Dave Zirin: At what point did you make the decision that an on-court display of activism was something you were going to do in Clayton, Missouri?

Ariyana Smith: Essentially, about a week and a half before our game, the athletic director called us into a meeting and said, “Hey, your safety is all of our concern, and we’re looking to see if we’re going to reschedule the Fontbonne game at Knox, or whether we’ll play at a neutral site so, we’ll get back to you all.” I knew we were playing in Missouri, but now I wondered: How far is Fotnbonne University from Ferguson? It turns out Clayton is actually in St. Louis, only about twenty minutes away from Ferguson. I assumed we’re going to have a further conversation about what’s going on, the implications of it, the gravity of what this means. There was never that conversation. We were never told we were going to be that close to Ferguson. We were never told that, “Hey, the National Guard has been deployed here within the past week.” We were never even given that information.

So I just waited. I had already been following the protests. I had been following the people on the ground, and I had been following the live stream and I was looking at the photos. And when I heard that [a friend named] Patrick didn’t stand during the national anthem during our last game, I felt guilty. Because while I was standing during the national anthem, it felt wrong and I knew that it felt wrong to stand and salute. So right then I said, “This is what I can do. This is something I can do. You know, it’s not much, but I can make a gesture.” At same time, I was still waiting to hear back from the athletics department to see if we were even going to be in Missouri. It comes to Saturday and again, nothing was said. So I had to do something. We arrived in Clayton. We went onto the court. I took off my warm-up jersey. I raised my hand in the air, knelt at the flag and on the last line of the national anthem I collapsed to the ground, and I lay there for four and a half minutes. While I lay there the trainer came over and tried to shake me and tried to get me to stand up. They were asking me if I was OK. My coach walked over and all she said to me was, “Ariyana, you need to move. The ref won’t start the game until you move.” After four and a half minutes, I stood and raised the black power salute. I held that for thirty seconds and continued to walk out of the gym with my fist still raised.

DZ: Can you talk a little bit about the thoughts that were going through your mind during those four and a half minutes?

AS: I tried to tried to think what I was down there for. And what being down there on the floor meant. Being on the ground… it was symbolic. It was a symbolic death. And I think the reactions to that demonstration were very telling. I think the point of what I did was to demonstrate why I felt and still feel so stifled [at Knox]… why I feel like I’m not being heard. I had been telling the athletics department, I had been telling Knox College in general, we are not doing enough. We give lip service to the idea of diversity. We give lip service to the idea of freedom of expression and freedom to flourish. That’s actually our school’s tagline, it’s “freedom to flourish.” We give lip service to those things, but when it comes down to supporting students in the ways we need to be supported, not just when we’re basketball players but supporting us when we take off our uniforms, that doesn’t happen. Supporting us as academics, supporting us as black people, as survivors of sexual assault. That support isn’t happening and marginalized voices are not being heard. So I had to do a physical demonstration.

DZ: There have been some conflicting reports about what occurred after you left that gym. Can you give the narrative about what actually took place?

AS: So right after the game my coaches would not look at me. My teammates kind of glanced at me and looked away. But there were some people who came up and said, “I think what you did was brave. I’m not brave enough to do what you did right now, but I really want to thank you for what you did.” There were even some people who reached out to say yes, this was a good thing. Come Monday I received a text that said I needed to be in the athletic director’s office at 7:45 am. And practice is at 8 am. So I was thinking this is going to be a pretty quick meeting. And I told my teammates, “Well, I’m having a meeting and I’ll let you know how it goes.” Essentially Chad Eisele, the athletics director said, “Now, typically when a player leaves the game they are typically indefinitely suspended from further athletic participation.” And then he said, “But I will let you know that there is a such a thing as a purposeful disruption. Do you think this was a purposeful disruption?”

And I said, “That’s an insulting question, Chad.” And I said, “You make the call [about whether to suspend me], Chad. You make the call.” And so he said, “With that being said, you are indefinitely suspended from further athletic participation. And we’ll get back to you on Thursday.” So that is what I was told. Indefinite suspension, get back to me on Thursday. So I went downstairs and I was going to inform my teammates. Not even thirty seconds later my coach, Emily Cline, walked up to me and said, “You need to leave.” I said, “I don’t need to leave, I haven’t done anything. We have open practices. I can just stand in the hallway.” She said, “Either you leave or I call security.” So she had me escorted out of the building. Now my teammates saw that and said, “Hey, wait a minute. Why is she suspended? And would you escort her out of the building like that?” They were like, “Did you think she was going to be violent? And then why would you think that?” I actually asked one of the trainers, “Do you think I’m going to get violent right now? And why are you making that assumption about me?”

DZ: How did you get reinstituted on the team?

AS: Now the administration was flailing back and forth. Because they had been involved in this. What was told to me was that the suspension was at the coach’s discretion under the approval of the athletic director and it went past the president’s desk. So [Knox College] President Theresa Amott was also involved in this decision to suspend. The president of the institution that is purportedly the home of the underground railroad, abolitionist history, you know, says, “freedom to flourish” and “we support diversity” and we’re one community, but she let this decision go through. So I think that in and of itself says a lot about what the administration actually values, what our athletic department actually values, versus what they’ve been saying.

DZ: Why did they rescind the suspension then?

AS: Because it went to the media. If this was just internal, I don’t think they would’ve reversed the decision. [But] I haven’t returned to the team, because I know that is an environment that is not conducive to my growth. It’s not a space where I’ll be able to operate healthily. It’s just not a space to have to endure treatment from racists and people who have demonstrated that they don’t care to learn about who you are and what struggles you face in life. It’s just not a really healthy environment right now. I don’t want to return to that.

DZ: Have your teammates had your back through this?

AS: Yeah, a lot of my teammates have really stepped up. Right after they learned that I was suspended, we had a meeting at my house where everybody came to express their support and say, “Whatever you need us to do, we’ll do it.” But I told them, “Don’t do it because I want you to do it. Do what you want to do. Whatever you think is wrong in here, whatever you think is wrong about this, you should address that for yourself. I don’t want to dictate how you respond to it.”

[At the next game] they linked hands, raised them in the air, and they had my initials and my jersey number written on their wristbands. I mean, I think in all of this I was hoping that the attention wouldn’t necessarily be on me. I’m just glad to see the larger collective action. I was hoping to spark larger collective action.

DZ: You did this at Knox college, which is obviously not a sports factory. The coach and AD come down on you like a ton of bricks, and now you got entire teams at places like Notre Dame and Berkeley, real sports factories, all wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts, or the names of people killed by the police, and they’re getting applauded by their coaches and athletic directors. How does that feel?

AS: It gives me hope. It gives me hope because now these coaches and players have stepped out to say, “Hey, this is wrong.” But now that they’ve made a statement, I hope they follow up on it. When it comes down to it, yeah, they may be happy with a shirt, but what if one of their players decided to protest on the street? Would the support be as strong? I’m happy to see that there are positive responses but I’m not sure about the intensity of the support, if that makes sense. You know, I’m just a person who’s willing to make sacrifices, who’s willing to take risks to see if larger conversations can be sparked. I’m willing to be the person to ask the first question with hopes that there are other people around me that are likeminded. Just like my teammates who said, “I think that what she did was great, but I wasn’t ready just yet.” I’m glad that all these athletes are coming out to do this. Because now it’s right in front of everyone’s faces. Now you have to address it, you have to acknowledge it.

DZ: Last question, do you have any sports and politics heroes? Who are political athletes whom today you’ve looked to as a role model or inspired you to do what you did?

AS: Yeah. I’m actually trying to brush up on my history. Because that wasn’t something that was the focus during my high school or primary school education but in passing I have heard the words of Muhammad Ali and the stances that he took while he was a boxer. I remember in seventh grade flipping passed the 1968 Olympics, the picture of Tommy Smith and John Carlos. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you their names before now. But those are images that I remember. I remember back in high school, hearing about [NFL punter] Chris Kluwe and what he was doing to speak out against what was going on in his field. So those are just some of the names. It was never a conscious, “Ah yes, this is someone I want to be.” Just looking at this and seeing the work that they were doing, as athletes, and as people. I think now that those moments remind me that, yes, this is something that is not new. This hasn’t happened often in our times. But there are patterns of athlete activism. This is not without precedent.

Thanks to Talal Ansari for transcription assistance.

Walmart’s Pregnancy Policy May Make You Sick

Walmart store

A Walmart store in Los Angeles, California. (Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn)

For the holidays, Walmart is offering moms-to-be special deals on its selection of “work-to-wear” maternity fashions. For its pregnant workers, however, Walmart is offering a raw deal.

When working as a Walmart maintenance associate in Laurel, Maryland, during her pregnancy, Candice Riggins paid a heavy price when her cleaning duties started making her sick. According to a complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, Walmart refused to accommodate her request for a new job assignment in order to protect her health, and eventually fired her for being too sick to work.

Riggins’s troubles began in March, ironically, just as Walmart announced reforms to its pregnancy policy. Amid pressure campaigns by rights advocates, which had charged that the company systematically discriminated against pregnant workers in granting temporary disability relief, the company expanded the policy to explicitly include accommodations for “temporary disabilities caused by pregnancy.” But Riggins’s experience suggests Walmart continues to alienate, not accommodate, its most vulnerable pregnant workers.

Riggins was about six months pregnant when, according to the complaint, she “started to feel nauseated by the harsh chemicals she used when cleaning the bathrooms.” After she raised the issue with a co-manager, she was given temporary work as a cashier, but only when the position was short-staffed. At other times, she was stuck cleaning bathrooms, and eventually, she landed in the emergency room. Doctors warned her against working because the toxins “could harm her fetus and herself.”

Over the next few weeks, Riggins made several formal requests to be transferred to cashier duties, but she claims she was passed over, while Walmart instead hired new workers for the position. Then, about thirty weeks into her pregnancy, waiting at the bus stop to get to work, she fell unconscious. The doctors again warned of the dangers of her job. But she worried about the dangers of losing the meager income her future family depended on. She tried to resume work the next day, but still felt ill and returned to the hospital.

Throughout the ordeal, Riggins later told ThinkProgress, “I was really afraid of losing my job. I would go in and try to push through it and put on this face, like I’m okay.”

But she wasn’t. After the hospitalization she approached management again to plead for a new assignment. By then, she was suffering both the chemical-related symptoms and back pain. She was reassigned to cleaning doors, but the duties were similar and her health problems persisted. Later she was assigned to work as a greeter, but met with a new hardship: she had to stand constantly, and “a co-manager told her she could not sit on the stool” while working. Finally, she was literally too sick and tired to keep working, and “began to call out sick, losing critical income.”

Her termination letter came a few weeks later in May, not long before she gave birth. So Riggins spent the first few months of her newborn’s life struggling with unemployment and, eventually, getting evicted from her home.

In a statement, Riggins recalled that one of her male coworkers had received a special accommodation when he was injured. And yet somehow, Walmart decided it could not accommodate her needs to protect the health of her and her pregnancy:

I made it clear to my supervisors that I wanted to keep working and that I could do several other jobs well. I just needed to keep away from the chemicals, but Walmart said “No,” even though I know they gave light duty to a coworker of mine when he hurt his back. Finally, I was forced to choose between a healthy pregnancy and my paycheck.

Riggins’s case comes during an important time for pregnant women’s rights. The Supreme Court is now weighing a major case involving the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) of 1978, one of the laws that Riggins accuses Walmart of violating. As we reported previously, the law’s protections have been eroded by inconsistent application over the years. It requires bosses to treat pregnant workers as they would any other worker in a comparable situation, with a medical condition or temporary disability: that should, in theory, give them access to modest accommodations like light duty (like the alternative cashier job Riggins had requested to protect her health), or basic job modifications (like the permission she had requested to do her job sitting instead of standing to ease the physical strain).

Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center, which is representing Riggins, says it’s unclear why Walmart apparently flouted its own policy:

It isn’t completely clear whether Walmart has concluded that Candis (and workers like her) don’t have pregnancy-related disabilities and thus don’t qualify for accommodation under their policy, or whether they have just failed to adequately implement their announced policy and that’s why she wasn’t accommodated. Either way it is a legal problem for Walmart.

Workplace rights for pregnant women have expanded over the years thanks to the PDA, paid leave policies and parallel state level protections (Riggins’s complaint also cites Maryland’s pregnancy discrimination law). And federal legislation has been introduced to strengthen existing PDA rules on accommodating pregnancy-related conditions. Nonetheless, pregnancy still places a disparate labor burden on working-class women. In the pending Supreme Court lawsuit, a UPS worker claims she was unjustly denied her right to stay on the job when she was healthy and willing to work. Meanwhile, women like Riggins face significant pregnant-related health problems, but are often denied critical protections and are pushed to work in hazardous conditions. Many workers just want time off, but lack access to paid leave. These barriers disproportionately hurt working women of color and immigrant women.

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Walmart is the country’s largest employer of blacks and Latinos. It wields massive influence over wage levels for poor women of color and shapes standards on labor policies for parents and pregnant workers in the retail industry. The company seems to grasp this—sort of. Following an inquiry about the Riggins case, spokesperson Randy Hargrove stated via e-mail, “Our pregnancy policy is best in class and goes well beyond federal and most state laws,” and for individual disability cases, “we’ll work with our pregnant associates to make sure we provide reasonable accommodations when they are requested.”

But Walmart’s women workers have launched strikes and protests nationwide to demand decent wages and benefits and a fair workplace for pregnant women, and it seems their request keeps getting denied. Even after the new pregnancy policy was announced, activists complained workers were being denied even basic accommodations on the job. These women don’t want best in class, just fairness. So although Walmart didn’t allow Riggins to sit down while working, more and more mothers like her are determined to stand up for their rights at work.


Read Next: Michelle Chen on the Obama administration’s whirlwind deportations

Watch The Colbert Report’s Triumphant Final Song

Katrina vanden Heuvel bid farewell to The Colbert Report along with an eclectic chorus of some of Stephen’s favorite guests: Jon Stewart, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jeff Daniels, Keith Olbermann, Samantha Power, Katie Couric, Matt Taibbi, Charlie Rose, Big Bird… We wish him all the best!

We’ll meet again,
Don’t know where, don’t know when,
But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.
Keep smiling through,
Just like you always do,
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds, far away.
So will you please say hello,
To the folks that I know,
Tell them I won’t be long, (i wont be long)
They’ll be happy to know that as you saw me go
I was singing this song.

What Bernie Sanders and Dwight Eisenhower Have in Common

Senator Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Dwight Eisenhower was right when he warned at the close of his presidency about the development of an American military-industrial complex, as most everyone in the United States and around the world is now well aware.

Eisenhower was also right when he warned at the opening of his presidency about the danger posed by the bloating of military budgets.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed,” the newly inaugurated commander-in-chief told the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in April 1953.

“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people,” Eisenhower explained, as a president who also happened to be a retired general. “This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

The cross of iron has grown a good deal heavier with the passage of time, as a United States Congress that argues about whether the country can afford to pay for Food Stamps and nutrition programs just approved a Department of Defense bill that authorizes $585 billion in Pentagon spending for the 2015 fiscal year. If history is any indication, the actual spending total will turn out to be a good deal more than that once all the supplemental appropriations have been added.

“The United States spends more on its military in absolute terms than any other nation on earth,” notes Germany’s Deutsche Welle. “In 2013, the US spent $640 billion on defense, followed by China with $188 billion and Russia with $88 billion, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.”

The US spending tends to be approved with very little of the questioning that Eisenhower encouraged. In the House the vote to approve the latest Pentagon plan was 300-119. In the Senate, it was an even more lopsided 85-11.

And a number of the latest “no” votes came from Republicans—such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz—who were griping about a provision that designated new national parks and wilderness areas,

But Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders cast a “no” vote on what might reasonably be described as “Eisenhower principles.”

“I am voting no because I have very serious concerns about our nation’s bloated military budget and the misplaced national priorities this bill reflects,” explained Sanders. “At a time when our national debt is more than $18 trillion and we spend nearly as much on defense as the rest of the world combined, the time is long overdue to end the waste and financial mismanagement that have plagued the Pentagon for years.”

Sanders, who is set to take over as the ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, is making an argument for cracking down on budgeting abuses that the Pentagon that liberals and conservatives ought to be able to respect.

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“The situation is so absurd that the military is unable to even account for how it spends all of its money,” says the senator. “The non-partisan watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, said ‘serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense made its financial statements un-auditable.’ ”

That does not make Sanders anti-defense. It makes him a senator who is willing to call out waste, fraud and abuse—and to apply the standards that Eisenhower proposed.

“I support a strong defense system for our country and a robust National Guard and Reserve that can meet our domestic and foreign challenges,” argues Sanders. “At a time when the country is struggling with huge unmet needs, however, it is unacceptable that the Defense Department continues to waste massive amounts of money.”

Read Next: John Nichols on why Dick Cheney is wrong about the torture report

How Should Journalists Cover Sexual Assault?

Salamishah Tillet

What responsibilities do journalists have when reporting on sexual assault? In the past few weeks, two high-profile cases have ignited a heated debate on just that question. One of those cases is an alleged rape case at the University of Virginia first reported by Rolling Stone, the details of which have since been thrown into question by an article in The Washington Post pointing out possible inaccuracies in the magazine’s reporting. The second case involves the numerous allegations of sexual assault made against Bill Cosby. Salamishah Tillet, Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, joined Melissa Harris-Perry to discuss her latest Nation piece, Why It’s So Hard to Write About Rape. She explains, “[There is] that skepticism that journalists are supposed to always have when it comes to covering a story. And then we have this kind of inherent skepticism, not inherent, a socialized skepticism against the stories of rape survivors. And when they come together as this moment has produced, there’s a sense to kind of restore the integrity of journalism without necessarily protecting the rights of victims.”
—N’Kosi Oates

One Hand Washes the Other

Last week’s puzzle wasn’t quite thematic, but it was built around a few entries that interacted closely with each other. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t solved it yet, suffice it to say that there are certain entries in the puzzle that are defined (and/or clued) only in terms of other entries—and vice versa.

This sort of mutual cross-reference is a trick we like to invoke from time to time. The most common motivation is to use it as a vehicle for showing off a pair of long anagrams. For example, Puzzle #3264 included this matched pair of clues:
   1 (OPERATING COST)  Expense for a business ruined 27 (9,4)
   27 (PROGNOSTICATE)  Predict 1A inaccurately (13)

Or in Puzzle #3300:
   13 (ISAAC STERN)  Violinist playing 21 (5,5)
   21 (ASCERTAINS)  Discovers unlucky 13 (10)

Some skeptics might complain about these clues, because in each case neither one can be solved without reference to the other. If you’re a firm believer that each clue in a cryptic crossword should be its own independent solving challenge, for example, then you’d be apt to see these as not quite fair.

But we believe that a clue should be considered in the context in which it appears. And if there’s helpful information from somewhere else in the grid that can lead a solver to the solution, there’s no reason not to use it. For many solvers, this adds to their enjoyment: The penny drops for both clues in quick succession, usually after letters are provided by crossing entries. And for expert solvers, it is interesting to see how early in the game they can crack the pair. During a test-solving session, we were stunned to see crossword champion Tyler Hinman get OPERATING COST / PROGNOSTICATE before entering a single letter into the diagram.

In fact, such mutually reinforcing clues are just an extreme case of a more general technique that many constructors use freely, namely the one-way cross-reference. In those cases, one clue is solvable on its own, and a second then relies on that answer. The two most common uses are as anagram fodder, as in this pair from Puzzle #3343:
   19 (BEEP)  Buzzer on front of porch makes sound heard in the street (4)
   2 (REPUTABLE)  Ultra-19 eccentric is well-regarded (9)

or as part of the definition, as in this pair from Puzzle #3320:
   24 (SATAN)  Old Nick took a chair on the outskirts of Austin (5)
   23 (EVIL)  Upset to be like 24 (4)

These cross-references aren’t as snazzy as the circular constructions, which have a little whiff of M.C. Escher about them. But both are useful resources in a constructor’s bag of tricks and, we hope, an entertaining change of routine for the solver.

This week’s clueing challenge: MUTUAL. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

What ‘The Colbert Report’ Taught Us About the Psychology of Conservatives

Stephen Colbert

(Photo: Comedy Central)

No one thought that Stephen Colbert, the character, would last this long. His right-wing, self-regarding, bloviating pundit was a shtick, a bit, good for a year or two, tops.

As Colbert said Monday of the soon-to-retire Michele Bachmann, “Godspeed, Michele, Godspeed. I cannot believe you kept up that crazy conservative character for eight years.”

But for nine years now Colbert has been reminding us that politics, and the right-wing shtick in particular, is a performance.* For his last show, tonight, the Grim Reaper will reportedly be taking him out. But we can thank his longevity in part to the still longer reigns of his sources of inspiration—“Papa Bear” Bill O’Reilly, of course, but also Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Steve Doocy, and the Fox News mindset itself.

We can also thank these last nine years to the very thing that made them seem improbable: as a character, and not merely a critic, of the right, Colbert held a unique key to the riddle of modern conservatism: How do they keep getting away with it? Why have so many conservatives turned into such small-minded haters and deniers of science, of reality? Voters tend to disagree with their actual policies, so why do they keep voting for them?

We liberals keep banging our heads against the wall of their illogic, and in frustration sputter the only explanation we can think of: “They’re… they’re… they’re INSANE!”

Instead of trying the key from the outside, as most critics of the right must, Colbert jiggled it from the inside, counterfeit though his key was. By inhabiting their heads via a character, Colbert could demonstrate, four nights a week, how right-wing psychology works.

And so in his last “Formidable Opponent” segment, the rabid-right Stephen said that America would never torture. The more moderate Stephen countered that the Senate report proves it does. To which the first Stephen replies, “Oh, I’m not talking about the actual country. I’m talking about the idea of America. The idea of America would never torture….And that, my friend, is why I choose to live in the idea of America.”

You can’t stick with that kind of truthiness-based character (and play him in public appearances off the show) without some sympathy for him, and even for conservatism itself.

Colbert expressed that sympathy by showing that beneath his character’s assertion of omnipotence and certitude, there’s a fragility, one that’s also buried in most of the real-life blowhards and their dittoheads.

If they stop clapping, Tinker Bell will die. If they stop nodding in agreement, or step off the reservation of Tax Cuts, Guns, and Built It Myself, they could get Other-ed. If you stop stampeding in one direction, you get trampled.

Every night, Colbert’s character would steel himself to stay on the straight and narrow path out of fear.

His braggadocio disguised the fact that he was a coward and a big baby. (In that, the character closest to Colbert would be Lawton Smalls, Marc Maron’s old right-wing foil who’d break down and sob when he could no longer maintain his political delusions.) Every now and then Colbert would come apart at the seams, hiding under the desk, or going off on how we have to wipe bears off the face of the earth! Conceivably, bears stood for Russia, as in the Reagan “Bear in the Woods” commercial, or maybe for Papa Bear. But more likely, Colbert’s bear fear was fear itself, an irrational dread of something he’d never encounter, like death panels or jack-booted government thugs coming to take his guns. Were they going to take “Sweetness,” the pistol he’d caress and which was, as far as we know, Stephen’s only serious love interest?

More frequently, though, Colbert would ride fearlessly straight through his absurdities, oblivious to any problems at all. That was the Inspector Clouseau aspect of Colbert. It’s the character’s odd innocence and the real person’s heart that combine, I think, to create so much affection and outright love for Colbert.

I’ve always said that I appreciate Jon Stewart (and I really, really like John Oliver), but I love Stephen. I laugh so hard I cry, and in crying, I swoon.

It’s commonly thought that Stewart does the harder-hitting political satire. But Colbert, softly sheathed in fiction, can actually bite much deeper. Colbert is in fact more of a threat to O’Reilly—who seems to actively dislike him—while O’Reilly and Stewart are mutually supportive buds.

On occasion, Colbert shared in Stewart’s left-and-right false equivalencies—as he did by co-hosting the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in 2010. But Colbert also does things closer to the activism that Stewart tends to find so uncool. Like when he testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about the plight of migrant farm workers, or when, in one of the most brilliant, ballsy moments in comedy ever, he hosted the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner. Standing just feet from President George W. Bush, Colbert, the character, said:

We’re not so different, he and I. We get it. We’re not brainiacs on the nerd patrol. We’re not members of the factinista. We go straight from the gut, right sir?…

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The greatest thing about this man is he’s steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.

But Colbert bit most deeply into the attending Beltway journalists, who famously found him unfunny:

Over the last five years you people were so good—over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn’t want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew.

But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the Decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put them through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you’ve got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction!

It’s hard to imagine that the nonfiction Stephen Colbert would say anything like that to a guest on The Late Show. But you never know. He’s amazed us before.

*I was on the O’Reilly show years ago, arguing in defense of Martha Stewart, who was then headed to prison. After our joust, as I was getting up to leave, O’Reilly said to me, “The audience loves this stuff.” As if he was admitting it was all for show.


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How Bad Can Marco Rubio and Congress Muck Up the Cuba Shift?

Marco Rubio

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

President Barack Obama announced a new era in US relations with Cuba Wednesday morning in which diplomatic ties will be reopened, along with a US embassy in Havana, while business and travel restrictions are eased.

These changes can be accomplished by executive order—but the next president could reverse them, and only Congress can lift the embargo. The permanence and depth of Obama’s policy shift thus remains in doubt.

Even if Congress doesn’t lift the embargo, the degree of opposition on Capitol Hill will significantly affect Obama’s attempted policy shift. Senator Marco Rubio openly threatened during a press conference Wednesday that the Senate would not confirm an ambassador to Cuba, and he also promised to work against any funding for a new US embassy. Senator Lindsey Graham joined in that threat.

Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage, jumped to the front of the Republican response to the new policies and seems to be leading the charge.

His first line of attack dovetailed with traditional GOP criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy: in a statement not long after the news broke Wednesday, Rubio called the shift “just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost.” Rubio also blasted the White House for turning its back on Cubans who face repression from the Castro regime. “The president and this administration have let the people of Cuba down,” he told reporters later.

Rubio also attempted to frame it as a populist issue, with a twist of animus towards liberal elites: “While business interests seeking to line their pockets, aided by the editorial page of The New York Times, have begun a significant campaign to paper over the facts about the regime in Havana, the reality is clear,” his statement said.

No doubt some on the left will share Rubio’s ostensible concerns about free-market exploitation of Cuba, if not for entirely different reasons. (White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest further invited this line of attack when he literally read from a Chamber of Commerce press release from the briefing room podium Wednesday afternoon.)

Rubio was joined in his vehement criticism by House Speaker John Boehner, the chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee Edward Royce and the chairman-for-now of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez.

Menendez is a Democrat. However, the incoming Republican chairman of Senate Foreign Relations, Bob Corker, issued an entirely neutral statement on the policy shift towards Cuba.

So will Congress lift the embargo? Will it go so far as to block an ambassador? On the one hand, the opposition of the House Speaker and the (soon-to-be) ranking Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations is a bad sign. Rubio also chairs a key Foreign Relations Committee on the Western Hemisphere. And “no, Congress won’t do anything” is a safe bet, generally speaking. But members of both parties also support normalized relations—Republican Speaker Jeff Flake flew to Cuba to see imprisoned American Alan Gross home on Wednesday—and Americans favor lifting the embargo.

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Unfortunately, presidential politics may trump a rational discussion in Congress.

Elections have a way of freezing domestic politics: just since November 4, Obama has signed sweeping immigration orders, released the CIA torture report and normalized relations with Cuba, while Congress finally passed an appropriations bill for the 2015 fiscal year. None of this was feasible in the heat of midterm election campaigning, and the 2016 presidential election may soon act as a vise once again.

Thanks to the traditional (though rapidly shifting) conservative politics of Cuban Americans, along with some pure happenstance, the likely GOP presidential field is top-heavy with Republicans who oppose normalized relations with Cuba.

Along with Rubio, Senator Ted Cruz is also a Cuban-American who opposes lifting sanctions against Cuba. Cruz also criticized Obama’s shift in a statement. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who announced just this week he is “actively exploring” a presidential run, has long-standing political ties with conservative Cuban-Americans in his state and already announced he, too, opposes Obama’s actions.

The primary debates next year will likely give a huge, and arguably disproportionate, voice to the exact Republicans who most oppose normalized relations with Cuba. Maybe one of them will win the White House and wipe out Obama’s executive orders—but even if that doesn’t happen, it’s easy to see how the election might pressure Republicans in Congress to fall in line and drag their feet on legislative action.

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Did Barack Obama Just Win Florida for the 2016 Democratic Nominee?

Flags US and Cuba

(AP/Franklin Reyes)

That was pretty impressive! In a coordinated set of press conferences, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro came as close to complete normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States as is possible short of repealing Helms-Burton. The New York Times writes:

The United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century after the release of an American contractor [Alan Gross] held in prison for five years, American officials said Wednesday.

In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast. In addition, the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government.

There’s a lot at stake in this policy turn-around, including for broader US-Latin American relations. But out of all of Obama’s post-midterm initiatives, this one is pretty deft: It nicely boxes potential Republican presidential nominees into a corner, especially pulling the rug right out from under Jeb Bush, just as he was basking in his “I-may-be-running-after-all” tease.

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Bush sounded completely flatfooted and off-guard this morning: “I don’t think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime.” He did grudgingly say he was “happy for Gross’s return.” Polls will tell, but Bush—along with Marco Rubio and any other potential nominee—is going to have to come up with a better soundbite. Even if this doesn’t play well in Florida, which I think it will, Obama, with this move, has just finally nationalized the Cuba question.

Who could possibly advocate (except these guys) going back to the way things were? That is, it will no longer be enough to pander to a small margin of extreme-right-wing Cubans in Florida on the issue. That will be particularly difficult for Jeb Bush, because of his family’s deep ties to Cuban anti-communists, going back to his father’s days as CIA director.


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