The Nation

Top Ten Memorial Day Songs


Army 1st Sargeant Shelly Jenkins places flags on graves at Arlington National Cemetery ahead of Memorial Day. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Memorial Day, first known as Decoration Day, originated in the North after the Civil War to commemorate fallen Union soldiers. By the 20h century the holiday had been extended to honor American casualties of all wars. I’ve always thought that the best way to honor the fallen is to prevent needless deaths in the future by engaging in combat only as a true last resort.

In this vein, here are my Top Ten Memorial Day Songs. The list is highly debatable; songs about war and attendant suffering cut across musical genres. Though I proudly claim some hippie roots I’ve omitted played-out classics like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,“ “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Imagine” and “Give Peace A Chance.” I’ve also given short shrift to an important subgenre of heavy metal antiwar anthems like Motorhead’s “1916” and Metallica’s 1989 classic, “One,” and ignored the rich history of punk rock odes to the insanity of war. Use the comments field to tell me what I missed.

1. Loretta Lynn, Dear Uncle Sam

2. Bill Withers, I Can’t Write Left-Handed

3. Bob Dylan, Masters of War

4. Curtis Mayfield, We Gotta Have Peace

5. Joni Mitchell, The Fiddle and the Drum

6. The Jam, Little Boy Soldiers

7. Freda Payne, Bring the Boys Home

8. Bob Marley, War/No More Trouble

9. Eric Bogle, The Green Fields of France

10. Paper Lace, Billy Don’t Be a Hero

Bonus Track: Nick Lowe, What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding

‘Mad Men’ Finale Makes Rush Limbaugh Un‘Happyish’

Coca-Cola commercial

Rush Limbaugh has been all over Mad Men this week, and as you might expect with a TV show about the 1960s revolution in pop culture, his ideological take was almost directly opposite to the discussion in all the recap blogs.

Naturally, Rush saw Mad Men’s depiction of the struggles of women to be fairly compensated for their work, represented by characters like Peggy and Joan, as a form of “militant feminism,” which, he says, “totally screwed up human nature.” Because the women’s refusal to be little more than sex objects “made everybody question what they naturally felt like doing,” cads like Roger and Pete could no longer chase them around the office as brazenly. These “natural behavioral roles,” Rush goes on, “were not automatically questioned and doubted and attacked until the late sixties, when this all intensified.” And as we all know, he’s been the prime victim of such attacks ever since.

But Rush’s complaints about the finale, which he feels TV critics have marched in “lockstep” to deem as “brilliant,” were even more revealing. The series ends, of course, with Don Draper chanting Om on a hilltop at Big Sur, finding a measure of peace and enlightenment at last. Then the screen filled with one of the most iconic ads ever, Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop,” in which a young, multicultural cast sing, “I’d like the buy the world a Coke…”

The inspiration that brought Don back to advertising was, in effect, the antithesis of Rush’s many shibboleths—it was racially and ethnically inclusive; it dreamt of peace and harmony; it practically cried, “One Worldism.” And young women (dressed in shapeless hippie garb, like embroidered peasant shirts) led the idealistic anthem. Visually, it was a radical statement of late ’60s hope.

But for Rush, “the so-called brilliance in the finale was gonna be way over everybody’s head” because most of the audience knows nothing “about the real-life McCann Erickson.” Both the fictional Don and the actual adman who created “Hilltop,” Bill Backer, worked for McCann. Backer got his inspiration not by Om-ing out at a peacenik retreat but by watching how people stranded at an airport cafe in Ireland bonded by drinking a river of Coke.

The key is how you understand “Hilltop.” At the time, progressives saw the well-scrubbed blissfulness of the Coke commercial as a corporation co-opting the counterculture, a perversion of idealism that, as we know now, helped to buy the world more Type 2 diabetes. “Hilltop” was the beginning of corporate manipulation of hipness, cool, and anti-corporate rebellion to move product, so much so that we don’t even notice it anymore. As Joan Walsh adds, the ad bowdlerized “the movements of the ’60s–-civil rights, environmentalism, feminism” to valorize “a company routinely criticized for labor abuses, which faced a boycott over its refusal to leave apartheid South Africa.”

Rush Limbaugh, however, sees “Hilltop” as a highpoint of lefty power. He thinks corporations should never have to suck up to hippies or liberals or “femi-Nazis,” or whatever it is he thinks women, gays, and people of color want.

Interestingly, Mad Men ’s creator, Matthew Weiner, takes neither side. Or rather, he takes Coke’s word for it. “I think it’s the best ad ever made,” Weiner told theTimes. “That ad is so much of its time, so beautiful—I don’t think it’s as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is.”

Yet, in a striking coincidence, just a half hour before the Mad Men finale ran Sunday night, Showtime’s new Happyish used the same Coca-Cola commercial to make an even snarkier point.

Happyish takes place in a present-day ad agency, where Thom Payne (Steve Coogan)—who says he’s a whore who works “for Satan”—pitches Coca-Cola on a campaign built around “radical happiness.” His partner advises the Coke reps to model their marketing on the über brand of them all, the Nazi Party. The execs eat it up. In one of the series’s many fantasy sequences (which include Payne having sex with a Keebler elf and running his car over the GEICO gecko, who tells Thom to “fuck off”), we see a look-a-like “Hilltop” ad. As the camera pulls back to reveal the film set, a chubby Hitler stomps out and screams at the warbling hippie youth to amp the feel-good. “I told you to be happy!” he shouts in a paroxysm of Führerness. (How the show gets away with all this is another story.)

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While advertising arguably helps pull Don out of his own personal hell, it’s crushing Thom’s soul. In a weird coincidence, it’s doing the same thing to Rush Limbaugh right now.

Advertisers have been fleeing Rush’s radio show ever since he began viciously attacking then–law student Sandra Fluke in 2012. As advertisers have dropped Rush, so have radio stations. This week, Boston’s WRKO announced that it’s cutting Limbaugh’s talk show from its line-up. This is “the second major radio station in recent weeks to drop Limbaugh’s program,” Media Matters points out. “Limbaugh’s longtime Indianapolis affiliate WIBC severed ties with him in April. WIBC’s parent company noted that Limbaugh’s absence could actually improve its advertiser prospects.”

It’s gotten so bad that one talk-radio consultant is telling stations that “YES-YOU-CAN Sell Rush Limbaugh”—chiefly by “prospect[ing] local retailers who drink Limbaugh’s Kool-Aid” and “guy-stuff categories” like “golf and gadgets and all the other apolitical things Rush talks about.”

Right. Rush is just a golf-and-gadget guy, and Coke is just a bottle of caffeine and sugar water.


Read Next: Leslie Savan on the Verizon-Huffington Post merger

Emma Sulkowicz and the Benefit of the Doubt

(Credit: Carrying the Weight Together / Facebook)

I have to admit, there have been moments when I have doubted Emma Sulkowicz’s story about being raped by her Columbia classmate Paul Nungesser. Not at first—she seemed perfectly credible to me when I spoke to her last year, for a Nation story about campus sexual assault. But then, in December, Ariel Kaminer’s New York Times article about Nungesser came out. “He has gotten used to former friends crossing the street to avoid him,” Kaminer wrote. “He has even gotten used to being denounced as a rapist on fliers and in a rally in the university’s quadrangle.” I couldn’t help but imagine how horrifying it would be to face such ostracization if you were innocent, and to wonder if he possibly could be.

A few months after Kaminer’s story, Cathy Young published a piece in the Daily Beast quoting friendly Facebook messages that Sulkowicz sent to Nungesser just days after the alleged assault. I know that rape victims can behave in ways that, from the outside, seem strange and counterintuitive. I know that they can try to appease their attackers, and that it can take a while for those raped by intimates to admit to themselves what happened. Yet those messages seemed so insouciant and confident. When Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus” came out, about the sexual brutalization of a University of Virginia student named Jackie, I’d felt a flicker of skepticism. If frat boys were really going to lure a young women into a premeditated gang rape as some sort of initiation, wouldn’t they do it somewhere secluded, not at a crowded party? Then I’d suppressed it, worrying that perhaps I was in denial about the true scope of rape culture.

When that story was discredited, one lesson seemed to be not to put aside doubt for political reasons. Perhaps, it occurred to me, much as I wanted to believe Sulkowicz, I should heed the unease I’d felt reading about Nungesser. I didn’t think Sulkowicz was a liar. I wondered, though, if over time she had transformed an ambiguous sexual encounter into something more definitively horrific.

Now that another woman has come forward to write about her alleged assault by Nungesser, I look back on my own thought process and see how doubt can be as reflexive as credulity. I see how easy it is for victims’ stories to be undermined, how simple it is to make a woman—any woman—seem a little bit crazy and prone to exaggeration. The piece, published in Jezebel in response to posters plastered around Columbia calling Sulkowicz a “Pretty Little Liar,” sheds new light on the case and shows how successful Nungesser has been at creating a counter-narrative to Sulkowicz’s. “Every time I read another version of this narrative—that Nungesser merely ‘picked the wrong friends,’ that the complaints against him were a calculated vendetta—my stomach flopped,” writes the anonymous author. “Don’t forget: before he appealed away the conviction, Paul Nungesser was found responsible for sexually assaulting a woman at Columbia. And I’m writing this because that woman was me.”

Of course, we already knew there had been other accusations: Nungesser has faced repeated investigations and disciplinary hearings, though he’s ultimately always escaped any finding of guilt. An ex-girlfriend accused him of “intimate partner violence,” including non-consensual sex, but the university dropped the case against him after she stopped answering e-mails. The author of the Jezebel piece says Nungesser followed her into a room at a party, closed the door behind them, and grabbed her, refusing to listen to her protestations; she ultimately pushed him off her and rushed out. She brought a complaint, which was initially successful; after a hearing, he was put on disciplinary probation. But he appealed, and when she declined to participate further, the judgment was overturned. Then, just last month, Nungesser faced yet another tribunal for sexually assaulting a male victim known pseudonymously as Adam, who lived in his dorm. Again, Nungesser was vindicated.

Viewed from one angle, of course, the multiple accusations confirm one another. But for Nungesser’s defenders, the fact that he was repeatedly cleared, even under evidentiary standards far more lax than those in a court of law, suggests that he was the victim of collusion by students who wanted to see him punished one way or another. The fact that two accusers ultimately declined to follow through strengthens this story.

Young, one of Nungesser’s most dogged media allies, describes the scenario this way in a recent Reason piece: “If Nungesser is innocent, it is entirely plausible that Sulkowicz and [his ex-girlfriend], who met at a party and discussed their history with him shortly before they filed charges, may have genuinely goaded each other into the conviction that he abused them…. It is also entirely plausible that [the Jezebel writer] and Adam either reinterpreted their past encounters with him, or even fabricated stories in the sincere belief that they were helping eject a rapist from the house and supporting his victims. The problem is…a campus culture that fetishizes trauma and turns ‘survivorship’ into a cult.”

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The Jezebel author, however, doesn’t sound like a cult member. She sounds like someone who values her privacy and scrupulously followed the rules when she decided to press forward with her charges. “When I filed the complaint against Paul, I didn’t know it would turn into a national event. It was over a year before Emma started carrying that weight, months before what happened at Columbia helped sparked a national dialogue about rape on college campus,” she writes. “I was just trying to do the right thing.”

She explains how even after going through a “horrible and draining” trial, she was initially willing to fight it again when Nungesser appealed, despite having graduated and just started her first full-time job. “I tried to follow through with the process, until I started feeling frustrated beyond belief with Columbia’s incompetence: they kept doing things like calling me in the middle of the day at work to talk about a sexual assault,” she writes. “Eventually, I withdrew from the process. Why should I trust a system that had given my assailant another chance? Without any of my previous testimony allowed to be used at the trial, he won. I wasn’t surprised.” Since then, she’s tried to avoid publicity, to “decline interviews and stay small and quiet,” she writes.

It is sad that she realizes that having been “small and quiet” will bolster her credibility. But she is right. Sexual-assault victims are in a double bind. If they try to remain anonymous and put the incident behind them, their attackers escape with impunity. If they demand that the world recognize what happened, they’re tarred as liars, drama queens, or hysterics. There will be something in their past, something in their behavior that can be used to call whatever they say into question. The inevitable vagaries of real life, the way it always resists conforming to pat dramatic convention, will be used against them.

“If you’re reading this and doubting Emma—if you’re reading this and doubting me—please ask yourself why I’m taking the time to write this,” writes the Jezebel author. “Ask yourself why I filed a complaint against someone I had considered a friendly acquaintance (before my assault). Ask yourself why four unrelated people have taken the time and energy to come forward and file complaints against him. Read Jon Krakauer’s Missoula. Get outside what happened on Columbia’s campus. Try to realize that our stories are everywhere, on every campus, and we’re not all activists like Emma or unreliable sources like Jackie. Some of us are quiet about our stories even if we’re completely sure.”

Absent physical evidence, the rest of us can’t be completely sure of anything. But for me, at least, it’s sobering to see, even in myself, who gets the benefit of the doubt, and what I should expect if I should ever need it.

Read Next: Michelle Goldberg on what happens when you slash funding for public universities

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Economic Inequality Is the Crisis of Our Time

Katrina vanden Heuvel on Sophie&Co

Katrina vanden Heuvel (Russia Today)

With six Republicans and two Democrats officially in the race, America’s seemingly never-ending presidential campaign is in full swing. The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel joined RT’s Sophie&Co to discuss how a new wave of social movements might alter the upcoming election.

“We’re looking at a populist moment in this country,” said vanden Heuvel. “Economic inequality has become the crisis of our time.” Citing the fast-food workers' movement and Mayor de Blasio’s recently unveiled inequality agenda, vanden Heuvel expressed optimism that the growing political momentum in the streets is provoking a shift in Democratic policy.

“We are in the fight of our lives for people’s control of corporate power and our democracy, but the fight is on,” said vanden Heuvel.

James F. Kelly


Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on why the GOP still doesn't get it on Iraq

An NBA Player Is Missing the Playoffs Because the NYPD Broke His Leg—Why the Sports-Media Silence?

Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha

Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha (AP Photo/David Tulis)

The NBA Finals may be determined by an act of police violence. This is an incendiary fact, yet a curious media silence surrounds the saga of injured Atlanta Hawks guard Thabo Sefolosha. The nine-year pro has been absent from the playoffs after a group of New York Police Department officers broke his leg in April following a late-night confrontation outside a Chelsea nightclub. The police accounts about what took place conflict dramatically, with video that emerged of a group of officers surrounding Sefolosha, with one brandishing a nightstick. Sefolosha, with assistance from the National Basketball Players Association, is planning a lawsuit against the City of New York. How this is not a continual firestorm is, frankly, bewildering. Given that there is a national movement confronting racialized police violence, and given that last winter saw the most prominent players in the NBA—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, even Kobe Bryant—speaking out in solidarity with this movement, it seems like a story too magnetic to ignore. It’s also unprecedented. My first editor told me, “The sun going up is beautiful, but it’s not a story. The sun not coming up, now, that’s a story.” This is the sun not coming up. It’s a narrative that would appear ripe for big-budget investigative reporting, regular updates, or even chatter. It would especially seem tailor-made for an era in sports media when everything is numbingly over-discussed; an era when Tom Brady’s vigorously rubbed footballs or the presence of adorable children at NBA press conferences qualifies as subjects of endless debate. But somehow it’s not.

Now, as the Hawks square off against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals, this story should be re-emerging with a vengeance, and not only because Sefolosha is the only Hawk with deep playoff experience, as well as an effective defender of Cavs’ all-world superstar LeBron James. In game one, Hawks guard Demarre Carroll, their top playoff scorer and chief defender of James, went down with a knee injury. This has elevated Sefolosha’s absence from nettlesome to near-cataclysmic. Now, without Carroll or Sefolosha, the Hawks might as well assign a matador to guard James with a red cape. (Carroll’s situation, which initially looked gruesome, is officially day-to-day at this point, and he should be back later in the playoffs, although how effective he’ll be with a hyper-extended knee is anyone’s guess.)

Yet Carroll’s injury did not provoke a re-examination of what happened to Sefolosha. This near-silence has been across the sports media landscape, so it feels churlish to pick on one example, but it was both too high-profile and too evocative to ignore. On Thursday morning, Mike Greenberg, hosting ESPN’s national Mike and Mike radio show, talked about how the Hawks could possibly be able to guard LeBron without Carroll, and mentioned Thabo’s absence as well. In describing for his audience why Thabo isn’t playing, all Mike Greenberg said was, “We all know what happened there.” That was it. No mention of the NYPD, the conflicting stories, or the fact that NBA players have gone out of their way to speak about police mistreatment. Just “We all know what happened there.” Actually, we don’t all know what happened there, and that’s the point. Instead of retelling or even illuminating what we know, this line was dead on arrival. And yet “we all know what happened there” were six words more than most sports media offered this past week. Even the notably outspoken TNT team of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley had nothing to say about it on Inside the NBA, broadcast immediately after the Hawks lost to Cleveland and in the aftermath of Carroll’s injury. Yes, given Shaq’s history as a volunteer police officer and Barkley’s own comments about the Black Lives Matter movement, it might not have exactly been a rousing call for social justice, but to not even mention it was bizarre. Even Marv Albert discussed Sefolosha briefly during the broadcast. But to the TNT studio team, he was the invisible man.

I spoke to nine NBA journalists, editors, and television producers on and off the record about why this story has been objectively under-discussed. One might think they would say it’s because fans either don’t care about someone viewed as a role player or because it’s a polarizing topic and the audience will rebel if sports pundits get too political. But that’s not what I heard.

Michael Lee, The Washington Post’s national NBA writer, penned a terrific piece about the case with a series of quotes from NBA players and told me that it was his most viewed story of the entire season.

As far as a fan backlash, Sekou Smith of NBA.com and host of their Hang Time podcast has been one of the few to discuss it at length and e-mailed me that he has received “no backlash at all. I have no idea why it has gone so far off the radar. Perhaps he’s not a big enough name for our sensationalized 24-hour news cycle? The ignoring of it is just strange.”

After I fired off a series of tweets about why the media was not discussing this story more, three people from ESPN reached out to me to talk and say that they agreed. To be clear, this does not usually happen out of ESPN HQ in Bristol. People don’t air their anger with the company except in extreme circumstances. The only other time I’ve had that experience of people reaching out to me from inside the tent was when ESPN pulled out of its partnership with PBS’s League of Denial documentary about the NFL and head injuries. They did not want me using their names or exact words, out of concern of reprisals. Regarding Sefolosha, it’s fair to say that they were frustrated about the lack of resources, airtime, and enthusiasm devoted to what they saw as a monster story. They also said that they were rebuffed when they raised devoting regular time to it on ESPN’s flagship show SportsCenter. The only concrete reason one received was “people not being particularly interested in the Hawks compared to other teams in the playoffs.” They all conceded that there was little audience appetite for more Hawks coverage, but believed that the story was bigger than just the fortunes of one team.

I was able to connect with Rob King, ESPN’s Senior vice president, overseeing SportsCenter, for comment. He e-mailed me the following: “The suggestion that there has been a broader decision to spike the story is ludicrous and disappointing. We understand with great clarity the potential significance of this story and continue to report it. As for ‘discussing it more on SportsCenter,’ this is a story that deserves greater illumination, which means information, not mere discussion. That takes reporting, and that’s how we’re proceeding.”

To be clear, no one suggested that the story was “spiked” just that it was deprioritized, which is self-evident given the absence of regular coverage. That said, King’s comments that the largest entity in sports media will be all over this story as it develops is very welcome. Yet there are aspects of King’s statement that raise questions. His dismissal of people who want to “discuss” this case, in other words to analyze it without new information, is peculiar given that ESPN just “discusses” issues that affect sports constantly. Also, the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” also doesn’t just report on breaking news but breaks the news through its own investigative reporting. The recent award-winning work on Qatar’s labor practices as they prepare for the World Cup by the E:60 team, led by Jeremy Schaap and seen across several of their media platforms, is evidence of this. (Another ESPN show, Outside the Lines, has frequently covered the broader landscape of NBA players and the Black Lives Matter movement.) Also, given the incredible access ESPN has to NBA players, it is unclear why they aren’t asked their thoughts about Sefolosha. This isn’t an irrelevant question. Almost the entire Cleveland Cavaliers team wore shirts against police violence and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Asking them about Sefolosha is more than logical. It’s obvious. But—at least by my research—it hasn’t happened on ESPN since the conference finals began.

One Cavs player, Kendrick Perkins who was a teammate of Sefolosha in Oklahoma City certainly hasn’t been shy about expressing his thoughts. He spoke at length to Michael Lee and said, “I was very shocked because Thabo is so laid back. He’s so not drama. He runs away from drama.” Other former teammates have also chimed in, like Pistons guard Reggie Jackson who said in a powerful piece by Vince Ellis for The Detroit Free Press, “I think a lot of people fear black males, so it’s scary. I’m not gonna lie, it’s kinda unfair at times as a black male. Only thing that I feel protects us is probably the celebrity status and being an NBA player, but nobody’s off limits when you see what happens to a former teammate like Thabo.” This is a perspective that ESPN’s viewers, many of course who don’t have to deal with fears of police violence, ought to hear. There are no shortage of NBA players willing to give some copy on this issue if asked.

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It is certainly true is that despite their 60-win season, the Atlanta Hawks garner less national interest that any of the other teams remaining in the playoffs. But it doesn’t explain why the Atlanta media, as the team competes in their first NBA conference finals in franchise history, has been so lackluster on this story. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has 30 articles in its archives that contain the words “Thabo” and “police” although the overwhelming majority comprise either offhand mentions, wire reports, or short updates on the case. It’s not that there isn’t local interest. Just by tweeting about Sefolosha, my twitter handle trended in Atlanta, according to Trendsmaps. That’s kind of absurd. One Atlanta-based journalist said to me, “When it’s talked about on sports radio it’s just blame Thabo for being out late and move on. Not much deeper than that.”

The more I spoke to people, the clearer it was that this story has not garnered more coverage because of how the media police themselves. One person at Yahoo Sports said to me, “We censor ourselves. We’re risk-averse. White columnists feel like they’d get the story wrong, and black columnists don’t want the responsibility and risk of having to be the ones to write about it. We end up in a state of paralysis.”

Not everyone has been paralyzed, however, and it’s not always the case that the media silence themselves. There are still those columnists willing to play police if one of the brethren gets out of line. Turner Sports sideline reporter and former longtime print journalist David Aldridge spoke lucidly and directly about Thabo case in the middle of a live telecast. In just over a minute of airtime, Aldridge managed to report on Sefolosha’s surgery and the reaction of the franchise, and had breaking news comments from the new executive director of the NBA Players Association, Michelle Roberts, who confirmed that it were conducting its own investigation and said, “The best I can tell you is that there is no video at all to justify the way the police treated them.”

For his trouble, he was treated to a column in the New York Post by the reliably awful Phil Mushnick titled “David Aldridge ignores stabbing details to unfairly bash NYPD.

The “details” that Mushnick felt were omitted were basically that Sefolosha was asking for it by being out at 4 am. Charming.

But Mushnick plays the role of buffoon with regularity and is an easy foil. This kind of media policing is the exception. A more apt analysis is probably that the sports media world does not want to be perceived as criticizing or even discussing the role of police in our society, particularly in the black community. One can understand why someone in a position of authority on a newspaper or at a network could identify this as an excessively polarizing subject and, without breaking news generated by Thabo Sefolosha’s camp, unnecessarily hazardous. But not putting a spotlight on such an unprecedented set of circumstances also represents an impulse to not unnecessarily upset the police or their supporters. This impulse appears to be even stronger than the drive for ratings or page views. This impulse represents a timidity that takes a story which could act as a lens toward educating people about a national crisis and consigns it to the dustbin. Meanwhile as thousands march in solidarity with Freddie Gray’s family in Baltimore, or gather in New York’s Union Square to say that the lives of black women matter, Thabo Sefolosha is on crutches. His team needs him and the NBA Finals hang in the balance, but he has a broken leg courtesy of the NYPD. Nope, nothing to see here.

Read Next: Dave Zirin on Brazil and the aftermath of the World Cup

LA’s Minimum Wage Workers Just Won $15 an Hour—How Many Will Actually Be Paid That?


Laphonza Butler, President of the United Long Term Care Workers’ Union,  joins workers demanding the Los Angeles City Council to vote to raise the minimum wage in May 2015. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes )

Nearly half of Los Angeles just gave itself a raise. Following a wave of state and local minimum-wage bills and initiatives, Los Angeles became one of the largest cities to dramatically raise its hourly base pay and join Seattle to hit the magic $15-an-hour demand pushed by labor and community groups nationwide.

The City Council approved 14-1 this week an unprecedented minimum-wage increase, phased in over five years, covering up to 800,000 people and adding an estimated $5.9 billion in new income.

Workers currently earning the minimum wage make about $19,000 annually. Hotel workers led the way last year by pushing the city to set a sector-specific $15 hourly base pay. And the protests of the past year led by fast food and other low-wage workers has focused the legislative conversation around the figure at the center of the Fight for 15 movement.

Though some firms will face financial strains under the wage mandate, which is indexed to inflation, advocates anticipate the stimulus will help alleviate inequality by redistributing opportunity more fairly across the city’s polarized social landscape: the poorest households are concentrated in neighborhoods that will benefit the most from the wage increase, particularly for black and Latino workers, according to the think tank Economic Roundtable (ERT). This will also help generate more than 46,000 new jobs while pumping more than $400 million into local tax coffers.

“What we have been seeing happening is a real movement demanding a wage that families can live a decent life and be able to afford the basics,” says Laphonza Butler, head of the long-term care workers union SEIU-ULTCW, part of the Raise the Wage Coalition. Now other cities face pressure to follow suit, including New York, where the hardscrabble campaigners behind the first fast food strikes are now rallying around Governor Cuomo’s initiative to raise the industry’s pay through a special wage board.

Still, with sky-high housing costs, Los Angeles will remain unaffordable for a large swath of low-income families, even on a steady job at $15 an hour. But advocates hope the new wage, which is tied to paid sick leave, will provide a stronger baseline for workers to organize around, especially if they have the other half of the Fight-for-15 demand: union rights.

The higher wage floor should have “a positive impact on the negotiating opportunity for all workers. And if anything else, it’s an opportunity to move the economy forward in a way that in some ways has been held back by stagnant and low wages,” says Rusty Hicks, head of the LA County AFL-CIO.

But there are other questions of sustainability that LA should examine now that it has lifted the wage floor.

First, will workers actually be paid? Nearly 90 percent of the city’s low-wage workforce suffers wage theft regularly; every year, “Low-wage workers lose 12.5 percent of their income to wage theft,” with little recourse against their bosses. One UCLA study showed that “between 2008 and 2011 only 17 percent of workers who obtained a judgment against their employer ever collected any of the money.”

Following the minimum-wage hike, alongside newly proposed state legislation to strengthen penalties against firms that violate wage laws, the Raise the Wage coalition is pressing the City Council for a major expansion of staff and funding for enforcement, including more dedicated labor investigators and meaningful penalties on employers who evade wage laws. Labor activists hope to establish a self-sustaining local regulatory regime that both penalizes violators and deters future abuses, Hicks says, in order to “fund real wage enforcement in a way that protects the wage but doesn’t result in a long-term drain on the general fund.”

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Systematic wage violations could also be reduced by moving the most marginalized workers from the underground to the aboveground economy. ERT estimates that in the lowest-paying industries, one in three low-wage workers are undocumented, and two-thirds of the undocumented work in the informal economy, which leaves them structurally unstable, and “often unable to demand wages commensurate with their skills and productivity.”

So if Los Angeles can’t fix the industries that flourish on stolen wages, the government can at least help the undocumented access formal employment—starting with the Obama administration’s two key deportation relief programs: deferred action for young people who came as children (DACA), and the newly proposed program to relieve some undocumented parents (DAPA). According to ERT, “The median hourly wage for a full-time DAPA- or DACA-eligible worker is $10, compared to that of authorized workers at $17.” Altogether, the programs “are projected to raise wages for 15,000 eligible workers above the $15.25 threshold.”

Finally, while boosting the city’s low-wage economy is vital, real sustainability means improving its ecology too. While it moves toward a $15 minimum wage by 2020, the city is still lagging severely on the path to meet federal mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

ERT recently mapped its economic analysis onto an environmental evaluation of regional industries, showing that low wages and relatively high emissions go together in many of the city’s worst jobs. For example, restaurant and bar workers earn less than $18,000 a year, but the sector pumps out 15.56 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions, compared with information-based jobs that pay about quintuple that in wages, but produce just half a metric ton of harmful emissions.

Since Angelenos will lose out in the long run if higher incomes only drive more destructive production and consumption patterns, researchers urge city policymakers to develop “industries that have a light environmental footprint and pay sustaining wages to their workers.” ERT President Dan Flaming says via e-mail that the wage increase may help some less-environmentally damaging service industries become more socially sustainable. Meanwhile the long-term stimulus “will also increase public revenue available for infrastructure investments,” which could boost, for example, renewable energy. “It would be beneficial for LA to link infrastructure investment to goods and services procured from local businesses,” he adds.

Durable social transformation for Los Angeles demands not just higher wages for its poorest workers, but a loftier political vision, for reinvesting the public dividends in a greener future.


Read Next: Michelle Chen on EU’s disastrous response to the refugee crisis

Stephen Cohen: The White House Policy Pivot on Russia

Kerry and Putin

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia, on May 12, 2015 (Alexei Nikolsky/RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Almost two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry went to Sochi. And last week on the The John Batchelor Show, The Nation’s Stephen Cohen explained why it mattered: In meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Cohen said, Kerry was signifying that the “White House policy towards Russia during the last year has failed.”

President Obama’s strategy has been to “isolate Russia and bring its leadership and the person of Putin to his knees,” Cohen explained. Obama had hoped that the new Cold War would force Russia to “make the concessions that the United States and NATO wanted in Ukraine.” Clearly, that has not happened and, as Cohen said, the White House is now making a “pivot in the Ukrainian crisis.”

Putin’s decision to meet with Kerry, Cohen continued, is a “very big symbolic diplomatic deal” that points to the possibility of a thaw in the new Cold War. The question now is: “What’s the new American policy?” And how will Obama convince Putin to cooperate on Ukraine? This, Cohen said, is “the major international crisis of our time.”

—Khadija Elgarguri

Read Next: Stephen Cohen on why Mr. Kerry went to Sochi

What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 5/22/15?

Toni Morrison

(AP Photo/Alfred A. Knopf)

Queen Arsem-O’Malley focuses on grassroots labor organizing, youth-led social movements, anti-carceral feminism, and critiques of mainstream media.

The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison,” by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. New York Times Magazine, April 8, 2015.

“We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes,” Morrison said in her 1981 keynote address at the American Writers Congress. “We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.” In this profile of Toni Morrison, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah looks not only at her writing, but also her work as an editor as a contribution to the civil rights movement and the powerful societal consequences of both.

Avi Asher-Schapiro focuses on US foreign policy, politics in the Middle East and South America, and technology issues.

Sentenced to Death in Egypt,” by Emad Shahin. The Atlantic, May 19, 2015.

Emad Shahin—an Egyptian political scientist at Georgetown University—was just sentenced to death in his home country. Here, he responds to the charges of “espionage” and “conspiring to undermine national security.”

Cole Delbyck focuses on LGBT politics, East Asia and representational issues in film and television.

Sexy Times at the Annual Twin Peaks Festival,” by Travis Blue. Butt Magazine, May 6, 2015.

When I grow up, I want to be…Laura Palmer? There are fans of Twin Peaks and then there’s Travis Blue, who modeled his life after the sexed-up, teenage drug addict at the center of David Lynch’s cult classic. Over the course of six fan-organized Twin Peaks festivals, Blue documents his sexcapades with various men while always keeping reminding himself WWLPD (What Would Laura Palmer Do)—“He wanted to cuddle, but I didn’t think Laura would do that.”

Khadija Elgarguri focuses on MENA issues including women’s rights, the relationship between foreign policy and cultural change, and women’s roles in protest movements in the region.

Gazans reach beyond blockade through start-up.” Ma’an News Agency, May 20, 2015.

128 Gazan businesses were destroyed during last year’s bombardment by Israel, which claimed around 2,200 Palestinian lives and further crippled the blockaded strip in which two thirds of young people—most of whom hold degrees—are affected by unemployment. After GDP declined by 15 percent, two Gazans opened “a gap in the blockade,” by starting a software firm that primarily staffs young female programmers. The dire state of unemployment was exemplified when 400 people applied for 10 jobs, but one of the founders says the high demand signals that Gazans aren’t “just...waiting for humanitarian aid.”

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James F. Kelly focuses on labor, economic inequality, world politics and intellectual history.

Qatar: Promising Little, Delivering Less—Qatar and migrant labour abuse ahead of the 2022 Football World Cup.” Amnesty International, May 20, 2015.

Despite a fair amount of media scrutiny, a new report from Amnesty International says that Qatar, the host nation of the 2022 World Cup, has failed to improve conditions for its workers. Faced with obvious human rights abuses, FIFA sponsors Adidas, Coca-Cola, and Visa have urged Qatar to pursue reform measures, yet none of these mega-corporations are threatening to withdraw their sponsorship. It’s a shame that the Beautiful Game’s biggest event is mired in a seemingly endless web of corruption.

Ava Kofman focuses on technology, popular science and media culture.

Blood and Glory,” by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. The New Inquiry, May 13, 2015.

In the weeks following 9/11, immigrants began to clean the rubble at Ground Zero, making $60 for 12-plus hour days while their contractors worked with deals over hundreds and thousands of dollars. In a lyrical, swooping essay, Villavicencio lays out the case that “the bodies at Ground Zero were made heroic; the immigrant bodies that cleaned them up, less so.” Linking scientific and legal notions of personhood to the shadow labor of necropower, she reveals Ground Zero as an exemplary site for thinking through how the state brings certain lives back after death and lets others die while they're still alive.

Abigail Savitch-Lew focuses on urban policy, labor and race.

Why My Charter School Needs a Union,” by Dave Woo. In These Times, May 8, 2015.

“I have serious concerns about how resources are allocated by my own charter network,” says teacher Dave Woo, after he learned through FOIA requests that his charter school network spends a quarter-million dollars annually renting a downtown space for administrative activities. Challenging the demonization of unions, he describes them as a mechanism for accountability. For me, this begs the question: why not take the celebrated innovations developed by some charter schools and simply integrate those innovations into a unionized, public school system?

Hilary Weaver focuses on reproductive rights, feminism and related political, health and education issues.

What Young Feminists Think of Hillary Clinton,” by Molly Mirhashem. National Journal Magazine, May 18.

This time around, Hillary Clinton's campaign will aim to impress the millennial crowd—especially those interested in the women-focused causes Clinton champions. Mirhashem's narrative, featuring millennial feminists, proves that this group expects a lot of the feminist icon, should she earn the desk in the Oval Office.


Read Next: What Are ‘Nation’ Interns Reading the Week of 5/8/15?

May 22, 1967: Langston Hughes Dies

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes in a 1943 photo taken by Gordon Parks for the US Office of War Information. (Library of Congress)

Langston Hughes died on this day in 1967 after four decades of profoundly influencing black culture and, indeed, American life generally. His breakthrough essay was published in The Nation in June 1926. Solicited by future editor Freda Kirchwey as a response to a piece the magazine had run a week earlier by the prominent black journalist George Schuyler, who argued that there neither was nor should there be a specifically black culture, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was a sort of a mission statement of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes continued to write essays and poems for The Nation until the year he died.

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing Water Boy, and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

May 22, 1967

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.