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Is Corporal Punishment a Form of Domestic Violence?

MHP on corporal punishment

Last week, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child after using a wooden switch to spank his 4-year-old son, prompting conversations about the morality—and efficacy—of corporal punishment. In America, corporal punishment isn’t illegal: In fact, it’s legal in every state. Nineteen states permits corporal punishment in schools. Roughly 70 percent of Americans support the use of corporal punishment. Although physical disciplinary actions are common throughout the US, the ramifications are rarely highlighted. On Sunday, Melissa Harris Perry and her panel, including Camilo Ortiz, the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis and Stacey Patton, explored why so many parents still rely on corporal punishment.
—N’Kosi Oates

Is Steve Bisciotti Even Fit to Own the Baltimore Ravens?

Dave Zirin jumped on the phone with The Dan Patrick Show to discuss Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and the allegations that he pressured NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to give Ray Rice a light punishment. Zirin argues that it almost doesn’t matter whether they tried to cover that up or not: “What’s so crazy is that there are two ways to look at it. I mean, either we look at the ESPN story as fact…. [but] even if we believe everything that Steve Bisciotti says, then basically what he said was, ‘Look, we didn’t cover anything up, we just treated this case like the NFL has always treated domestic violence: we didn’t care.’” Making a connection with the former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Zirin wonders whether Bisciotti is even fit to own the Ravens.

- Jessica McKenzie

As US Bombs ISIS in Syria, Even Some Pro-War Pundits Express Skepticism

ISIS Strike

US Navy conducts strikes against ISIL targets, September 23, 2014 (Robert Burck, US Navy)

The war whoops of the pundit class helped propel the nation into yet another doomed military adventure in the Middle East. Ghastly beheadings by a newly discovered enemy were the frightening flashpoint. The president ordered bombers aloft and US munitions were once again pounding battlefields in Iraq—and as of last night, in Syria. The president promised to “degrade and destroy” this vicious opponent.

Here we go again, I thought. This is how modern America goes to war. When superpower Goliath is challenged by sudden savagery, it has no choice but to respond with brute force. Or so we are told. Otherwise, America would no longer be a convincing Goliath. When war bells clang, politicians of every stripe find it very difficult to resist, lest they look weak or unpatriotic. And the American people, as usual, rally around the flag, as they always do when the country seems threatened. Citizens and members of the uniformed military are tired of war, but both in a sense are prisoners of the media-hyped hysteria that is the usual political reflex. Shoot first, ask questions later.

Only this time something different seems to be unfolding. Some of the most belligerent political commentators like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times are beginning to sound, well, wimpish. The new war is only a few weeks old, but Friedman and other prominent cheerleaders are already expressing sober second thoughts.

“How did we start getting so afraid again so fast?” Friedman asked. He ought to remember because Tom Friedman was a leading fear-monger a dozen years ago when the United States invaded Iraq with “shock and awe” destruction. Now the columnist wants us to be cautious. “Before we get in any deeper,” he wrote, “let’s ask some radical questions, starting with: What if we did nothing?”

Radical indeed. In 2003, he celebrated US intervention as a generous gift to the Iraqi people. “The only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today,” Friedman boasted, “is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by both sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics.”

What did Americans learn at the Iraq War? We learned not to believe cocky pundits with their grandiose ideas about how America would use its awesome military weapons to civilize other countries. That war-of-choice doctrine has been America’s foreign policy for the quarter century since the Cold War ended. We have deployed troops and weaponry around the world, looking for trouble in scores of countries. Sure enough, trouble found us.

The big media have been an important component of the US war machine because they transmit and amplify any potential dangers we are supposed to fear. Then the big-foot columnists act like theater critics, righteously questioning if the government performance has been sufficiently vigilant and aggressive. President Obama resisted these go-to-war pressures, hoping foreign policy could be gradually demilitarized. In the end, he surrendered to the battle cries.

Belated second thoughts by elite media may simply be an attempt to paper over their past failures and perhaps dodge blame for this new borderless war they helped promote. The evidence of how the press failed the country in that last war is so overwhelming , bringing it up again is like shooting fish in a barrel. If some pundits feel guilty, they have much to feel guilty about.

When George W. Bush’s war turned sour, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius offered an incredibly lame explanation for the media’s failure. “In a sense,” Ignatius wrote in 2004, “the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn’t create a debate of their own.” The press is not supposed to stir up things on its own? That narrow notion of what reporters and editors are not supposed to do bluntly explains why media heavies in Washington serve their sources among the governing elites, without thinking much about the broader public.

Then Ignatius provided an even more damning excuse for not asking tough questions. “Because major news organizations knew the war was coming,” he explained. “We spent a lot of energy in the last three months before war preparing to cover it—arranging for reporters to be embedded with military units, purchasing chemical and biological weapons gear and setting up forward command posts in Kuwait that mirrored those of the US military.” War is exciting, war is a chance to dress up in camouflage suits and play like real soldiers.

Like Tom Friedman and others, Ignatius is elaborating on reasons why this new war in Iraq and Syria might not work out so well. His columns cite many critical questions, but without actually opposing the intervention. This is progress of a sort, but not so different from what he said during the last Iraq war. Ignatius apologized many times then for overlooking key factors but always retained his support.

”I don’t regret my support for toppling Hussein but I wish…” “I still think the war was a just cause but I worry…” “My own gut tells me this is a war worth fighting but I’m bothered…” “My own mistake was thinking more about the justice of overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime than about the difficulty of building a new postwar Iraq.”

In the sophisticated milieu of Washington policy makers, it is acceptable to question specific policies or strategies, so long as you do not go overboard and denounce the administration’s overall objective. If you do that, you may discover that valued sources will no longer take your calls.

So it is possible that the various commentators criticizing elements of Obama’s war policy are actually reflecting what their government sources tell them and want to see published. The press is often used in this round-about way by agencies that want to lobby the White House on sensitive policy debates but without getting blamed. Sophisticated readers know, for instance, that David Ignatius is regarded as the CIA’s go-to-guy at The Washington Post. His deep sources at the agency trust him not to violate their anonymity or intrude on dark secrets like torture or assassination. Washington insiders know how to read between the lines of unsourced stories and figure how who is pushing on whom.

In that regard, David Ignatius has raised some smart questions about how this war will be fought and the tension with Obama’s vow not to deploy uniformed American ground troops. The CIA, Ignatius pointed out, could help solve the problem if it is given the management role for special forces and for running paramilitary units covertly, the kind of war the agency often directed in the past.

“Let’s be honest,” Ignatius wrote. “US boots are already on the ground and more are coming. The question is whether Obama will decide to say so publicly, or remain in his preferred role as covert commander in chief.” Ignatius conceded that covert war by the CIA would quickly be known by the enemy. Only Americans would be kept in the dark.

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These tactical issues will generate a lot of controversy in Washington, but they do not address the larger question facing American war-making. The US notion that it can pursue lots of little wars wherever it sees bad guys is a doomed concept. Not only do these wars fail their objectives—establishing peace and order—but they literally build recruiting strength for our so-called enemies (most people resent having their village bombed by Uncle Sam). If not this war, then maybe the next war will finally persuade the American public (if not Washington policy hounds) that this open-ended search for enemies is plain nuts. The United States must somehow find ways to back out of its exposure as the singular Goliath willing to fight on limitless fronts. Getting out of this trap won’t be easy, for sure, but neither is the foreign policy of endless war.

The best news I see in Washington right now is that scattered voices in the media and government are beginning to ask the right questions—the same questions Tom Friedman posed but did not quite answer. What exactly are we afraid of? What would happen if we did nothing? Among leading columnists, I have seen only two who are framing the American dilemma in a more straightforward way.

Columnist Eugene Robinson is a lonely voice at The Washington Post arguing for a fundamental shift. He has no touchy-feely illusions about holding hands with jihadists. But he knows repression by military force insures the cultural collision will get worse.

“Political Islam cannot be bombed away,” Robinson wrote. “If it is not somehow allowed constructive expression, it will make itself heard, and felt, in more tragic ways.”

Robinson is a liberal. The other columnist exploring similar terrain is Ross Douthat of The New York Times, a conservative. Douthat suggested a hybrid strategy of containment and attrition that avoids a larger war in Syria and backs away from the illusions that ground warfare leads to nation-building. “It does not traffic, in other words, in the fond illusions that we took with us into Iraq in 2003 and that hard experience should have disabused of by now,” Douthat wrote. “But some illusions are apparently just too powerful for America to shake.”

 

Read Next: We cannot win in Iraq

How the Koch Network Exploited the Veterans Affairs Crisis

Pete Hegseth

Captain Pete Hegseth, right, and Captain Flagg Youngblood, testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 1, 2010, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As the scandal over waiting lists at Veterans Affairs hospitals exploded earlier this year, there was widespread outrage—and justifiably so, as the country learned that more than 100,000 veterans waited over ninety days for care or never received it.

An ever-present force in this debate was a group called Concerned Veterans for America. Its leader, Peter Hegseth, frequently appeared on cable news segments about the scandal, and CVA was often mentioned on the floor of the Senate.

Though the group doesn’t disclose its donors, it has for a long while been clear the group is funded in part, or perhaps even in full, by the Koch brothers. Any remaining doubt can now be erased thanks to audio from the secretive Koch donor retreat this summer, obtained by The Undercurrent and reported here.

Hegseth addressed the crowd and not only confirmed that the Koch network “literally created” CVA but explained giddily “the central role that Concerned Veterans for America played in exposing and driving this crisis from the very beginning.”

Most notably, during his roughly ten-minute speech, Hegseth outlined how the group was turning legitimate grievances over Veterans Affairs care into a political weapon to attack both the Obama administration and the idea of government-provided healthcare.

When Kevin Gentry, vice president of the Charles G. Koch charitable foundation, introduced Hegseth to the assembled donors, he noted that “you all helped build a group called Concerned Veterans for America.”

At various points, Hegseth took pains to express his gratitude to the people funding his operation. “Concerned Veterans for America is an organization this network literally created to empower veterans and military families to fight for the freedom and prosperity here at home that we fought for in uniform on the battlefield,” he noted.

“We utilized the competitive advantage that only this network provides: the long-term vision to invest and the resources to back it up,” he continued.

Hegseth also created a distinct impression for the audience that CVA was responsible for bringing the VA crisis to the forefront:

Now, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of months, you know about the crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs. What you probably don’t know is the central role that Concerned Veterans for America played in exposing and driving this crisis from the very beginning.

After years of effort behind the scenes privately and publicly, the scandal eventually made national headlines when initially in Phoenix it was exposed that veterans were waiting on secret lists that were meant to hide the real wait times veterans had at VA facilities of months and months and months.

Indeed, CVA played a key role in bringing the scandal to the national consciousness. In early April of this year, a doctor from the now-infamous Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix retired and went to The Arizona Republic with allegations of falsified data about long wait times for patients.

But despite the story, it remained a local issue. One of the things that helped drive it into the national news was a rally organized by CVA in Phoenix with Republican Representative Dave Schweikert. Not long after, CNN reporter Drew Griffin ran a long investigative piece that sent the story viral.

The scandal surely deserves attention. But Hegseth’s speech is striking for the naked political motivations behind CVA’s advocacy, and what he deems most important:

Perhaps most importantly to this effort, we have created a new line of defense against the march towards socialized medicine, educating veterans and Americans in the process. Veterans have had government-run healthcare for decades. We’ve had the preview of Obamacare, and the scandal has exposed the inevitable result of central planning for all Americans: massive wait times, impenetrable bureaucracy, de facto rationing, wasted tax dollars. It goes on and on.

Throughout this effort, Concerned Veterans for America, along with our network partners, have intentionally broadened the debate to include big government dysfunction generally, further fortifying a new skepticism that AFP and others have brought to what government-run healthcare does.

Even before this year’s scandal, CVA was using problems with Veteran’s Affairs healthcare as a political cudgel against both the Affordable Care Act and vulnerable Democrats. This ad taken against Representative Alan Grayson is a good example, in which a veteran explains his troubles getting care and then says “If you want to know what Obamacare’s going to be like, just look at the VA system.”

CVA operates in the expanding world of 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations that, in reality, are pure political operations. The group’s finances are hard to parse, but it appears much of their spending is on ads targeting Democrats in swing states—late this summer, for example, CVA began a $1.6 million advertising campaign against Democratic Senator Kay Hagan in North Carolina. (Notably, the air time was already reserved by the Koch-affiliated Freedom Partners, but they canceled their buy and turned it over to CVA.)

Finally in his speech, Hegseth claims that Republican senators were working hand-in-glove with CVA to pass the Sanders-McCain legislation this summer on veteran’s healthcare, and that the Koch network alone is responsible for the “market-based” reforms included in the bill:

Ten days ago, the Senate struck a historic deal, a deal that Concerned Veterans for America was central to in every aspect literally ensuring that the language stay focused on real market-based reform, and we pushed the ball across the Now usually deals in the Senate include only one thing: billions and billions of dollars in more spending. Not this one.

This deal, as with the legislation in the House, was instead built on two market-based reforms that were injected by Concerned Veterans for America and advanced the entire point, the entire way.

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He names the accountability measures that allow quick termination of under-performing VA managers, which was initially advanced by Senator Marco Rubio.

Hegseth then says the “crown jewel” of the bill is the ability for veterans to obtain private healthcare if they are waiting too long in the VA system. “The latter reform, which seems like a no-brainer to everyone in this audience, is a huge development, rocking the core of big government status quo in Washington,” he claims.

Here, Hegseth is engaging in some undue bravado. The option for privatized care is for veterans is significant, though only available to veterans who have to wait thirty days or more for care or live more than forty miles from a VA facility. Hegseth doesn’t mention the provision has a sunset of three years or until funding runs out, whichever comes first.

And speaking of funding, the legislation increases the deficit by $10 billion. That would seem to go against much of the fiscal conservatism trumpeted elsewhere in the donor conference.

Nevertheless, the Hegseth speech is an interesting window into how the Koch network operates: funding an ostensible advocacy group that is, in fact, a relentless political operation—and one that can, with the right situation to exploit, do everything from take out political attack ads to help craft legislation.

Read Next: How the Koch brothers and other family capitalists are ruining America

The Building Blocks of War

Tom Tomorrow

(Click to enlarge) 

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Washington Snubs Bolivia on Drug Policy Reform, Again

Coca leaves for sale in Sucre, Bolivia (Photo by Julie Laurent, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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

Once again, Washington claims Bolivia has not met its obligations under international narcotics agreements. For the seventh year in a row, the US president has notified Congress that the Andean country “failed demonstrably” in its counter-narcotics efforts over the past twelve months. Blacklisting Bolivia means Washington will withhold aid to one of South America’s poorest countries.

The story has hardly made the news in the United States, and that is worrisome. While many countries in the hemisphere call for drug policy reform and are willing to entertain new strategies in that vein, it remains business as usual in the United States.

The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), meanwhile, seems to think that Bolivia is doing a great job, lauding the government’s efforts to tackle coca production and cocaine processing for the past three years. The Organization of American States (OAS) is also heaping praise on Bolivia, calling its innovative new approach to coca control an example of a “best practice” in drug policy.

According to the UNODC, Bolivia decreased the amount of land dedicated to coca plants by about 26 percent from 2010 to 2013. Approximately 56,800 acres are currently under production.

US Opposition

Bolivia has achieved demonstrable successes despite—and perhaps because of—a complete lack of support from the United States: the US Drug Enforcement Administration left in 2009 and all US aid for drug-control efforts ended in 2013. Bearing in mind that US drug policy in the Andes has always emphasized “supply side” reduction like coca crop eradication, the decision is of course a political one. It reflects the US frustration that Bolivia isn’t bending to Washington’s will. Interestingly, most Bolivian-made cocaine ends up in Europe and Brazil—not the United States.

At the same time, Peru and Colombia, both US favorites given their willingness to fall in line with US drug policy mandates, were not included in the list of failures. To be sure, those countries have recently decreased coca crop acreage as well, in some years by a lot more than Bolivia has. Still, they had respectively about 66,200 and 61,700 acres more coca under cultivation than Bolivia in 2013, according to the UNODC’s June 2014 findings. Peru currently produces the most cocaine of any country in the world.

Bolivians have been consuming the coca plant for over 4,000 years as tea, food and medicine, and for religious and cultural practices. Coca, the cheapest input in the cocaine commodity chain, cannot be considered equivalent to cocaine, since more than twenty chemicals are needed to convert the harmless leaf into the powdery party drug and its less glamorous cousin, crack. Still, coca is listed as a Schedule 1 narcotic under the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (the defining piece of international drug-control legislation).

When Evo Morales became president of Bolivia he worked to modify the Convention, and in 2013 eventually wrested from the UN the right to allow limited coca production and traditional consumption within Bolivia’s borders. In the process, all Latin American countries except Mexico (which supported the US-led objection) supported Morales’s mission.

The Bolivian Model

 

The basics of Bolivia’s approach to reining in coca cultivation are fairly simple. Licensed growers can legally cultivate a limited amount of coca (1,600 square meters) to ensure some basic income, and they police their neighbors to ensure that fellow growers stay within the legal limits. Government forces step in to eradicate coca onluy when a grower or coca grower’s union refuses to cooperate.

This grassroots control is possible because of the strength of agricultural unions in Bolivia’s coca-growing regions and because of growers’ solidarity with President Morales, himself a coca grower.

Another incentive is that reducing supply drives up coca leaf prices, which means that producers can earn more money for their families. As one longtime grower and coca union leader from the Chapare growing region put it, “It’s less work and I make more money.” This income stability, combined with targeted aid from the Bolivian government, means that many coca growers are able to make a living wage and diversify their livelihood strategies—investing in shops, other legal crops and education.

It also helps that the violence and intimidation at the hands of the previously US-backed Bolivian military has come to an end. People remember what is was like, and many still suffer from injuries sustained during different eradication campaigns. One coca grower, for example, had her jaw broken so badly by a soldier as she marched for the right to grow coca that she cannot be fitted for dentures to replace her missing teeth. She emphasized that life is so much better now because it’s less stressful. People do not want to see a return to forced eradication campaigns.

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No one is pretending that Bolivia’s coca control approach means the end of cocaine production. Some portion of coca leaf production—by some estimates, about 22,200-plus acres’ worth—is still ending up in clandestine, rudimentary labs where it is processed into cocaine paste.

Furthermore, because it is squeezed between Peru, a major cocaine exporter, and Brazil, a growing importer, Bolivia has found it increasingly difficult to control cocaine flows. As a result, despite increased narcotics seizures by Bolivian security forces under Morales’s government, drug trade activities within Bolivia’s borders by some accounts have actually increased over the past few years.

Nevertheless, and for better or worse, the country’s new method of coca control yields results and undeniably satisfies the US supply-side approach, yet Washington maintains its hardline stance against the county. In the present geopolitical context, when even US drug-war allies Colombia and Mexico are calling for new approaches to controlling narcotics, the US rejection of the Bolivian model further undermines Washington’s waning legitimacy in the hemisphere.

Read Next: A wake for Scottish independence

Karl Rove Has a Democratic Candidate for Governor ‘Arrested’

Karl Rove

Karl Rove (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Karl Rove has committed felonies—uh, not felonies, I mean smears. To avoid any confusion, I’ll repeat: Karl Rove has not been convicted of committing felonies. But he has committed smears (not unlike the one I just committed on him). And, virtually unnoticed by the media, he has smeared again, yesterday on Fox News Sunday.

It was recently revealed that Paul Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor of Kansas, had a most awkward moment sixteen years ago. Police raided a strip club near Coffeyville for drugs and found Davis, then 26 and unmarried, getting a lap dance. He wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing, no charges were brought against him, and even in Kansas, lap-dancing isn’t illegal.

Still, the lap-dance story is fair game for supporters of Sam Brownback, the embattled Republican governor who’s running for re-election. On Meet the Press yesterday, Grover Norquist, for example, interrupted his anti-tax talk to relate the lap-dance incident (“with the naked lady”), which Thomas Frank later shot down as ancient small fry.

But over at Fox, Rove dramatically raised the stakes for Davis, saying that Kansas’s possible future governor had been “arrested”:

The governor’s race in Kansas is close. However, late last week, it was revealed that the Democratic candidate for governor had been arrested—or not arrested, he’d been detained briefly a number of years ago when he was an attorney for a strip joint and the police found him getting a lap dance.

Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace let it slide, presumably because Rove corrected himself. But the “correction” allowed Rove to repeat the word “arrested,” a word that, even when used in the negative, Fox viewers can now associate with Davis and repeat until it seems true. No small thing when many diehard Republicans in Kansas are so disgusted with the devastation wreaked by Brownback’s tax cuts, that they’re actually considering a vote for Davis.

Of course, Rove may have simply made an honest slip of the tongue. But “Bush’s Brain” has a long list of such ambiguous slips.

Most recently, he suggested that Hillary Clinton had suffered a “traumatic brain injury.” Several months after her December 2012 fall, which caused a blood clot, Rove said, “Thirty days in the hospital? And when she reappears, she’s wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury? We need to know what’s up with that.” She was hospitalized for three days, not thirty, and later that day Rove tried to deny (while simultaneously reinforcing) his innuendo, saying, "Of course she doesn’t have brain damage.”

“You could believe Rove’s denial—but you would have to ignore virtually his entire political career,” as George Zornick wrote in The Nation. “For decades Rove has been circulating nasty, personal rumors about political opponents and placing them in the public conversation, all while obscuring his fingerprints, making the rumors become the opponent’s problem, not his. It’s page one of his playbook.”

A protégé of the late Lee Atwater, the GOP dirty trickster who once boasted that “states’ rights” and “tax cuts” could be used as code words for “nigger,” Rove has been associated with whisper campaigns suggesting that his clients’ opponents were homosexual (Texas governor Ann Richards in 1994), pedophiles (a Democratic candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, also in ’94), or mentally impaired (John McCain in 2000). “Other rumors tied to the Rove-led campaign” in 2000, writes Think Progress, “included allegations that McCain’s wife had a drug problem and that his adopted Bangladesh-born daughter was an ‘illegitimate black child.’”

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Rove is sparing Davis the “mental” and “homo” tags, but having him “arrested” just might do the dirty trick. (And it might help obscure reports, cited by Davis, that the FBI is investigating the fund-raising and lobbying practices of Brownback associates. Brownback has denied any wrongdoing.)

As for Davis, a Kansas state representative, he released a statement to Politico on Saturday. “When I was 26 years old, I was taken to a club by my boss—the club owner was one of our legal clients,” he said in the statement. “While we were in the building, the police showed up. I was never accused of having done anything wrong, but rather I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

On Fox, Rove was, once again, in the right place at the right time to say the wrong thing.

 

Read Next: This Is Exactly How Karl Rove Works

Why Has Obama Caved to the ‘War Party’?


More ABC news videos | Latest world news

On Sunday, Katrina vanden Heuvel joined ABC’s This Week for a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s plan to use air strikes against ISIS and whether he even has the authority to unilaterally make that decision. “I think the president has surrendered to the war party, in both parties, to a media that has lathered up hysteria about a threat that is not an immediate threat to this country,” vanden Heuvel said. She praised Obama’s previous declaration that our foreign policy should be “don’t do stupid stuff,” but also observed that “too often in this country we equate doing something with doing something militarily.”
—Jessica McKenzie

Aging Jazz Artists Sound Note of Protest

Jimmy Owens at Justice for Jazz Artists

Jimmy Owens closes out his testimony at the Justice for Jazz Artists hearing at City Hall. (Photo William Alatriste, courtesy of the New York City Council)

Jazz is cool. Retirement is not. In a subculture built on improvisation and fierce individualism, how do aging artists settle down? Defying the genre’s reputation for freewheeling lifestyles and entertainment-industry exploitation, the elders of New York’s vaunted jazz scene are partnering with the city’s labor groups to shine a spotlight on their struggle for economic security.

Justice for Jazz Artists, a campaign led by local musicians and American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 802, aims to create a pioneering pension system for jazz musicians—similar to the plan many Broadway and session musicians already use. But unlike some of the city’s more stably employed artists, in orchestra pits or recording studios, many jazz artists are non-union and spend decades living from gig to gig, playing for just a cut at the door or a wad of cash. Reflecting a deep history of jazz musicians struggling to live off their talent and getting preyed upon by commercial forces, their pay rates often barely cover rent, much less a retirement nest egg.

The proposed fund would allow a musician to be vested within a few years of regular contributions, and upon retirement, start collecting monthly payments, which could range from a few hundred to about $2,400, depending on their current salary.

The benefit would be financed through the savings that clubs have accrued from a sales tax repeal on their admission fees. The program would mirror AFM’s existing multi-employer pension plan, which collects contributions from concert halls and other established venues to support participating musicians, ranging from orchestra players to radio jingle singers.

Now hoping to organize in the relatively small jazz clubs, musicians and activists are now publicly campaigning for a comprehensive collective bargaining arrangement that would include “fair pay, adequate pension contributions, protection of recording rights,” and a grievance process. Musicians and activists testified at a City Hall committee hearing last week, and while hearing their pleas, lawmakers weighed a non-binding resolution supporting their demand for a pension and collective bargaining rights.

Local jazz legend Jimmy Owens, with more than sixty years of playing trumpet and flugelhorn under his belt, told Council members that many local artists “don’t, or will not have large Social Security contributions. They will not have a pension, unless they started one themselves.… We find that jazz artists, as they get into their older age, get called less for work. At the same time, they work less, maybe…than before, because of health.” But with the financial security of stable pension payments, he said, “This money not only helps musicians, it helps to keep the music alive.”

The retirement plan has been in an impasse since 2005, when labor activists negotiated a deal with owners of clubs like Birdland and Iridiuim to lobby for a state sales tax break, on the condition (what the union calls a “handshake agreement”) that, in tandem with saving on taxes, the clubs would pay into the pension fund. The club owners’ trade association, Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs, at the time endorsed the proposal to then-Governor George Pataki, in a letter stating, “A number of major clubs have agreed to direct the savings from the admission tax exemption to performers’ health and pension benefit funds.” But by the time the proposal worked its way through Albany’s sausage-maker, the most important aspect was missing—a direct mechanism for actually collecting the contributions and investing clubs’ revenues in pensions. The clubs never established a collective agreement on making direct payments into a pension plan. And now, the union argues, the clubs are benefitting from the tax savings without following through on their earlier commitment to artists. Club managers have countered that they had simply served as a “pass-through” for the sales tax, so no money is being hoarded, and the plan would be financially unworkable anyway.

Club owners did not comment publicly to The Nation, but in past media reports, and speaking on background last week, managers expressed skepticism about the union’s organizing efforts and the financial and logistical burdens of a formal collective bargaining agreement.

The campaign says it has not been able to revive formal talks with the clubs, so it is driving forward with raucous demonstrations, including musical protests outside top clubs and public appeals to both fellow musicians and policymakers.

John O’Connor, Local 802 AFM Recording vice president stated, “Though we must acknowledge the important role the clubs have made in advancing the art of jazz, we must also recognize that it is the responsibility of those who employ these musicians to help correct the injustice. Local 802 is eager to work with any nightclub willing to do the right thing.”

The pension dilemma reflects a broader problem of precarity besetting the city’s creative workers. Far from the stereotype of the elite “creative class,” today’s “starving artists” get all the hardship and little of the romance of urban legend, wrestling with unstable, low-paying jobs and a soaring cost of living. A typical club musician in New York might earn just $75 to $125 per gig. This chronic impoverishment in turn saps the talent of local art, music and theater scenes.

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Building a career in jazz has always hinged on a combination of pluck and luck, but now new institutions have emerged to fill a need for sustained care for older artists. Owens praised the work of the Jazz Foundation, for example, which has aided musicians facing economic hardship with charity funds for housing, food and other emergency needs. But too many artists are struggling to survive, he said, “because the places they work don’t pay into the pension fund…. You need to help us now, in some way.”

Owens counts himself as “one of the lucky ones” because he has managed to build his own retirement fund as a self-employed artist, which allows him to help support pensions for his accompanying musicians as well, but at a price. “In 1972,” he said, “I pretty much gave up playing in the clubs” in order to do more jobs that allowed him to shore up his finances.

For musicians who spend their lives enduring such hard compromises for a labor of love, a pension would be a modest payment on the debt the city’s jazz culture owes to its most faithful talents. As Owens performed a mournful solo rendition of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” before his City Hall audience, the tune expressed the bittersweet undertone of the artist’s plight: however many accolades they win, the struggle for creative fulfillment too often costs them their dignity; the codas of their careers, at least, deserve to go out on a high note.

Editor’s note: the post was updated to show that the resolution has not yet passed the City Council.

 

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