3/30/2011 12:19:21 PM
When you think of the pinnacle of African beauty, culture, and struggle, chances are you’re not imagining Gwyneth Paltrow, Liv Tyler, or David Bowie. But that’s the controversial angle taken by Keep a Child Alive, whose HIV/AIDS-in-Africa awareness campaign called “I Am African”—which features celebrities, both white and black, in vaguely traditional African garb and face paint above the words “I am African”—is swiftly spreading across city billboards and the internet. (Note: The campaign, started in 2006, has been recently resurrected.) So what’s Keep a Child Alive’s rationale? According to the organization’s website, “Each and every one of us contains DNA that can be traced back to our African ancestors. These amazing people traveled far and wide. Now they need our help.”
Needless to say, dolling up Elijah Wood with yellow paint and bead necklaces is drawing sharp, new criticism.
“For starters, why is it necessary to pose a formulaic African aesthetic in order to be compassionate?” wonders Geneva S. Thomas of Black Spin.
The campaign’s art direction is coherent, yet desperately forced—Sarah Jessica Parker just looks confused made up with the purple fertility line traditionally worn by women in eastern Africa.
“I Am African” ads have been sighted in urban spaces throughout the U.S., particularly in New York City, where thousands of African immigrants live and who, one can only imagine, may not be in the mood while waiting on the subway platform to take in an image of privileged celebrities who have the luxury of walking in and out of an African identity whenever’s clever.
Jenée Desmond-Harris also takes issue:
The angle that the organization has chosen to bring attention to this important issue is nothing short of bizarre. The strongest critics will likely call it disrespectful of African culture. But our only issue is that it seems to require a lot of unnecessary mental gymnastics to connect “We all have African DNA. Even white people. Check out my facepaint!” to “So we have a good reason to care about AIDS in Africa” to “So, let’s help people there get the medication they need.”
How about skipping all that and giving people credit for caring about other human beings—no other genetic link required? “I am human” would have worked just fine.
“But guess what? The campaign is getting attention” Desmond-Harris concedes. “And if it takes blond Gwyneth Paltrow with a blue stripe down her cheek and a giant necklace to make us do a double take, pay attention and hopefully take action, then so be it.”
Sources: Black Spin, The Root
Images by Keep a Child Alive photographer Michael Thompson.
3/21/2011 11:10:16 AM
As bicycling proliferates, so does a new type of urban death memorial: White “ghost bikes” that memorialize cyclists who’ve been killed in collisions with autos. The ghost bikes are equal parts shrine and safety awareness campaign, meant to honor lives and prevent more deaths. Bicycle Times magazine (Feb. 2011) interviewed Meaghan Wilbur, a filmmaker who’s working on a documentary about the phenomenon.
Wilbur has been in touch with bike advocates all over the country about their ghost bike displays, and she notes that not all cities allow the white bikes to stick around:
“Boston takes them down almost immediately after a few days or a few weeks. San Francisco, too. People in both those cities cited reasons like tourism, beautification, graffiti laws, and not having the streets cluttered up with junk. Boston is not too keen on street art and other spontaneously appearing objects. Cycling advocates that I spoke to in San Francisco mentioned that perhaps ghost bikes are less common in San Francisco because the SF Bike Coalition is an incredibly strong voice for cyclists, and therefore there is less feeling that a statement needs to be made. … New Mexico has a state law protecting descansos (roadside memorials), and the Duke City Wheelmen Foundation has so far been successful in getting the state to recognize the ghost bikes are descansos and therefore protected under that law. … Miami installed a permanent memorial including a ghost bike for Christopher Lee Canne earlier this year in Key Biscayne, where his was killed. … Portland, Oregon, also has a couple permanent ghost bike installations.”
I sympathize a bit with both the pro- and anti- camps here. As a year-round urban bike commuter, I understand the bikers’ need to mark the places where their own have fallen, and both bikers and motorists can always use more reminders to be careful out there. Nothing does that quite like the bicycle equivalent of a skeleton.
However, I confess that I became firmly opposed to roadside automobile death shrines on travels through the Western United States, where they were more common than mile markers in some areas, and often unsightly: From a distance, many looked like crucifixes growing out of trash heaps. Some scenic stretches of road began to feel more like funeral routes.
I can’t get too worked up about ghost bikes, though. In urban environments, they don’t intrude much on the scenery, such as it is. And they can have a poignantly haunting quality, which I guess is the point. Several ghost bikes have been placed in Minneapolis, where I live and ride, and each time I pedal past one I think, there but for the grace of Ford go I.
Sources: Ghost Bikes Film Project, Bicycle Times(article not available online), Ghost Bike Minneapolis
Image by Osbornb, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/18/2011 11:04:19 AM
This article was originally published at
When men first made war in the air, the imagery that accompanied them was of knights jousting in the sky. Just check out movies like Wings, which won the first Oscar for Best Picture in 1927 (or any Peanuts cartoon in which Snoopy takes on the Red Baron in a literal “dogfight”). As late as 1986, five years after two American F-14s shot down two Soviet jets flown by Libyan pilots over the Mediterranean’s Gulf of Sidra, it was still possible to make the movie Top Gun. In it, Tom Cruise played “Maverick,” a U.S. Naval aviator triumphantly involved in a similar incident. (He shoots down three MiGs.)
Admittedly, by then American air-power films had long been in decline. In Vietnam, the U.S. had used its air superiority to devastating effect, bombing the north and blasting the south, but go to American Vietnam films and, while that U.S. patrol walks endlessly into a South Vietnamese village with mayhem to come, the air is largely devoid of planes.
Consider Top Gun an anomaly. Anyway, it’s been 25 years since that film topped the box-office -- and don’t hold your breath for a repeat at your local multiplex. After all, there’s nothing left to base such a film on.
To put it simply, it’s time for Americans to take the “war” out of “air war.” These days, we need a new set of terms to explain what U.S. air power actually does.
Start this way: American “air superiority” in any war the U.S. now fights is total. In fact, the last time American jets met enemy planes of any sort in any skies was in the First Gulf War in 1991, and since Saddam Hussein’s once powerful air force didn’t offer much opposition -- most of its planes fled to Iran -- that was brief. The last time U.S. pilots faced anything like a serious challenge in the skies was in North Vietnam in the early 1970s. Before that, you have to go back to the Korean War in the early 1950s.
This, in fact, is something American military types take great pride in. Addressing the cadets of the Air Force Academy in early March, for example, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated: “There hasn’t been a U.S. Air Force airplane lost in air combat in nearly 40 years, or an American soldier attacked by enemy aircraft since Korea.”
And he’s probably right, though it’s also possible that the last American plane shot down in aerial combat was U.S. Navy pilot Michael Scott Speicher’s jet in the First Gulf War. (The Navy continues to claim that the plane was felled by a surface-to-air missile.) As an F-117A Stealth fighter was downed by a surface-to-air missile over Serbia in 1999, it’s been more than 11 years since such a plane was lost due to anything but mechanical malfunction. Yet in those years, the U.S. has remained almost continuously at war somewhere and has used air power extensively, as in its “shock and awe” launch to the invasion of Iraq, which was meant to “decapitate” Saddam Hussein and the rest of the Iraqi leadership. (No plane was lost, nor was an Iraqi leader of any sort taken out in those 50 decapitation attacks, but “dozens” of Iraqi civilians died.) You might even say that air power, now ramping up again in Afghanistan, has continued to be the American way of war.
From a military point of view, this is something worth bragging about. It’s just that the obvious conclusions are never drawn from it.
The Valor of Pilots
Let’s begin with this: to be a “Top Gun” in the U.S. military today is to be in staggeringly less danger than any American who gets into a car and heads just about anywhere, given this country’s annual toll of about 34,000 fatal car crashes. In addition, there is far less difference than you might imagine between piloting a drone aircraft from a base thousands of miles away and being inside the cockpit of a fighter jet.
Articles are now regularly written about drone aircraft “piloted” by teams sitting at consoles in places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Meanwhile, their planes are loosing Hellfire missiles thousands of miles away in Afghanistan (or, in the case of CIA “pilots,” in the Pakistani tribal borderlands). Such news accounts often focus on the eerie safety of those pilots in “wartime” and their strange detachment from the actual dangers of war -- as, for instance, in the sign those leaving Creech pass that warns them to "drive carefully" as this is “the most dangerous part of your day."
When it comes to pilots in planes flying over Afghanistan, we imagine something quite different -- and yet we shouldn’t. Based on the record, those pilots might as well be in Nevada, since there is no enemy that can touch them. They are inviolate unless their own machines betray them and, with the rarest of imaginable exceptions, will remain so.
Nor does anyone here consider it an irony that the worst charge lodged by U.S. military spokespeople against their guerrilla enemies, whose recruits obviously can’t take to the skies, is that they use “human shields” as a defense. This transgression against “the law of war” is typical of any outgunned guerrilla force which, in Mao Zedong’s dictum, sees immense benefit in “swimming” in a “sea” of civilians. (If they didn’t do so and fought like members of a regular army, they would, of course, be slaughtered.)
This is considered, however implicitly, a sign of ultimate cowardice. On the other hand, while a drone pilot cannot (yet) get a combat award citation for “valor,” a jet fighter pilot can and no one -- here at least -- sees anything strange or cowardly about a form of warfare which guarantees the American side quite literal, godlike invulnerability.
War by its nature is often asymmetrical, as in Libya today, and sometimes hideously one-sided. The retreat that turns into a rout that turns into a slaughter is a relative commonplace of battle. But it cannot be war, as anyone has ever understood the word, if one side is never in danger. And yet that is American air war as it has developed since World War II.
It’s a long path from knightly aerial jousting to air war as... well, what? We have no language for it, because accurate labels would prove deflating, pejorative, and exceedingly uncomfortable. You would perhaps need to speak of cadets at the Air Force Academy being prepared for “air slaughter” or “air assassination,” depending on the circumstances.
From those cadets to Secretary of Defense Gates to reporters covering our wars, no one here is likely to accept the taking of “war” out of air war. And because of that, it is -- conveniently -- almost impossible for Americans to imagine how American-style war must seem to those in the lands where we fight.
Apologies All Around
Consider for a moment one form of war-related naming where our language changes all the time. That’s the naming of our new generations of weaponry. In the case of those drones, the two main ones in U.S. battle zones at the moment are the Predator (as in the sci-fi film) and the Reaper (as in Grim). In both cases, the names imply an urge for slaughter and a sense of superiority verging on immortality.
And yet we don’t take such names seriously. Though we’ve seen the movies (and most Afghans haven’t), we don’t imagine our form of warfare as like that of the Predator, that alien hunter of human prey, or a Terminator, that machine version of the same. If we did, we would have quite a different picture of ourselves, which would mean quite a different way of thinking about how we make war.
From the point of view of Afghans, Pakistanis, or other potential target peoples, those drones buzzing in the sky must seem very much like real-life versions of Predators or Terminators. They must, that is, seem alien and implacable like so many malign gods. After all, the weaponry from those planes is loosed without recourse; no one on the ground can do a thing to prevent it and little to defend themselves; and often enough the missiles and bombs kill the innocent along with those our warriors consider the guilty.
Take a recent eventon a distant hillside in Afghanistan’s Kunar Province where 10 boys, including two sets of brothers, were collecting wood for their families on a winter’s day when the predators -- this time American helicopters evidently looking for insurgents who had rocketed a nearby American base -- arrived. Only one of the boys survived (with wounds) and he evidently described the experience as one of being “hunted” -- as the Predator hunts humans or human hunters stalk animals. They “hovered over us,” he said, “scanned us, and we saw a green flash,” then the helicopters rose and began firing.
For this particular nightmare, war commander General David Petraeus apologized directly to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has for years fruitlessly denounced U.S. and NATO air operations that have killed Afghan civilians. When an angered Karzai refused to accept his apology, Secretary of Defense Gates, on a surprise visit to the country, apologized as well, as did President Obama. And that was that -- for the Americans.
Forget for a moment what this incident tells us about a form of warfare in which helicopter pilots, reasonably close to the ground (and modestly more vulnerable than pilots in planes), can’t tell boys with sticks from insurgents with guns. The crucial thing to keep in mind is that, no matter how many apologies may be offered afterwards, this can’t stop. According to the Wall Street Journal, death by helicopter is, in fact, on the rise. It’s in the nature of this kind of warfare. In fact, Afghan civilians have repeatedly, even repetitiously, been blown away from the air, with or without apologies, since 2001. Over these years, Afghan participants at wedding parties, funerals, and other riteshave, for example, been wiped out with relative regularity, only sometimes with apologies to follow.
In the weeks that preceded the killing of those boys, for instance, a “NATO” -- these are usually American -- air attack took out four Afghan security guards protecting the work of a road construction firm and wounded a fifth, according to the police chief of Helmand Province; a similar “deeply regrettable incident” took out an Afghan army soldier, his wife, and his four children in Nangarhar Province; and a third, also in Kunar Province, wiped out 65 civilians, including women and children, according to Afghan government officials. Karzai recently visited a hospital and wept as he held a child wounded in the attack whose leg had been amputated.
The U.S. military did not weep. Instead, it rejected this claim of civilian deaths, insisting as it often does that the dead were “insurgents.” It is now -- and this is typical -- “investigating” the incident. General Petraeus managed to further offend Afghan officials when he visited the presidential palace in Kabul and reportedly claimed that some of the wounded children might have suffered burns not in an air attack but from their parents as punishment for bad behavior and were being counted in the casualty figures only to make them look worse.
Over the years, Afghan civilian casualties from the air have waxed and waned, depending on how much air power American commanders were willing to call in, but they have never ceased. As history tells us, air power and civilian deaths are inextricably bound together. They can’t be separated, no matter how much anyone talks about “surgical” strikes and precision bombing. It’s simply the barbaric essence, the very nature of this kind of war, to kill noncombatants.
One question sometimes raised about such casualties in Afghanistan is this: according to U.N. statistics, the Taliban (via roadside bombs and suicide bombers) kills far more civilians, including women and children, than do NATO forces, so why do the U.S.-caused deaths stick so in Afghan craws when we periodically investigate, apologize, and even pay survivors for their losses?
New York Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin puzzled over this in a recent piece and offered the following answer: “[T]hose that are caused by NATO troops appear to reverberate more deeply because of underlying animosity about foreigners in the country.” This seems reasonable as far as it goes, but don’t discount what air power adds to the foreignness of the situation.
Consider what the 20-year-old brother of two of the dead boys from the Kunar helicopter attack told the Wall Street Journal in a phone interview: "The only option I have is to pick up a Kalashnikov, RPG [rocket-propelled grenade], or a suicide vest to fight."
Whatever the Taliban may be, they remain part of Afghan society. They are there on the ground. They kill and they commit barbarities, but they suffer, too. In our version of air “war,” however, the killing and the dying are perfectly and precisely, even surgically, separated. We kill, they die. It’s that simple. Sometimes the ones we target to die do so; sometimes others stand in their stead. But no matter. We then deny, argue, investigate, apologize, and continue. We are, in that sense, implacable.
And one more thing: since we are incapable of thinking of ourselves as either predators or Predators, no less emotionless Terminators, it becomes impossible for us to see that our air “war” on terror is, in reality, a machine for creating what we then call “terrorists.” It is part of an American Global War for Terror.
In other words, although air power has long been held up as part of the solution to terrorism, and though the American military now regularly boasts about the enemy body counts it produces, and the precision with which it does so, all of that, even when accurate, is also a kind of delusion -- and worse yet, one that transforms us into Predators and Terminators. It’s not a pretty sight.
So count on this: there will be no more Top Guns. No knights of the air. No dogfights and sky-jousts. No valor. Just one-sided slaughter and targeted assassinations. That is where air power has ended up. Live with it.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the
American Empire Project
, runs the Nation Institute's
. His latest book is
The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s
(Haymarket Books). To listen to a TomCast audio version of this post, read by Ralph Pochoda, click here or download it to your iPod, here.
[Note of thanks: To Bill Astore, TomDispatch regular, for bringing his expert eye to bear on this post; to Christopher Holmes, superior copyeditor, who is now undoubtedly doing his best to get by in Japan (and is on my mind); to Jason Ditz, of the invaluable website Antwar.com, the rare person who continues to write regularly about the civilians who die in America’s wars, and to Ralph Pochoda for doing the audio version of this piece.]
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt
Image by mashleymorgan, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/16/2011 10:58:17 AM
This post was originally published at Care2.
The very essence of democratic rule may be about to die in Michigan.
If Gov. Rick Snyder (R) gets his way soon he will have the ability to unilaterally declare a “fiscal emergency.” Once such an emergency is declared he would then have the power to dissolve the entire municipal government of wherever this “emergency” exists, dismiss the elected officials with no replacement election to follow, seize control of local civil services and, last but certainly not least, cede control of taxpayer money, services and powers to private corporations.
Anyone else sense the Koch brothers lurking in the shadows?
Like other power grabs in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, this one is couched in terms of needing to wrest control away from the people and their unions in the name of financial austerity.
Snyder is like his other Tea Party Republican governors a product of crony-capitalism at its worst. After campaigning on concepts of limited government and democratic by-the-people rule, once in power Snyder, Walker and the others have almost immediately taken the unprecedented steps of trying to secure unilateral authority in the hands of the executive branch of government and granting unto themselves the ability to reward their corporate backers with the keys to the taxpayer safe.
It's not just the idea of the governor overriding the will of the electorate for the sake of his corporate overlords that is so offensive, it is that no one seems to care. The Michigan voters don't seem to understand the power grab at play and most of the media has decided to ignore the story for more pressing matters like the Charlie Sheen meltdown.
If Snyder does get this bill through in Michigan, and it is likely he will, then the citizens of Michigan will have, perhaps unwittingly, given up their right to determine who governs at their consent.
Don't let Governor Snyder steal Michigan's rights!
3/16/2011 10:03:15 AM
This article was originally published at
New Deal 2.0
There is no doubt that this terrible earthquake is worse than the Kobe tragedy of 1995. Kobe was a 7.4 on the Richter scale, but the quake that hit Sendai was 8.9 — many hundreds of times more powerful. And then there was the tsunami. The devastation is so great that no one knows how catastrophic it is likely to be in the end. But the worst of it lies ahead.
Consider: In the case of an 8.9 quake, the odds are there will be one aftershock of more than eight on the scale and 10 of more than seven. So far we have only had one that has been more than a seven. Meanwhile, aftershocks are moving toward Tokyo. The quakes so far have weakened buildings far, far from Sendai, including in Tokyo, making them vulnerable to more shocks. In effect, there may be several Kobes ahead that will be hitting installations that are already now prone to collapse or malfunction.
Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, called this the greatest tragedy since World War II. People are slowly beginning to imagine how the country will cope going forward, but it didn’t take the blink of an eye for the fiscal deficit hawks to descend in force. They suggest that Japan can ill-afford another big round of government expenditures, given what they call its looming “national insolvency.” How must it feel to people in shock to hear the news bulletins telling them that their government is broke and unable to help the population? Particularly when it isn’t true.
Media folks like to cite Japan as Exhibit A for the failure of aggressive fiscal policy. But this was not always the case. Prior to the end of the bubble era, Japan “chose” a low employment path — essentially holding the employment ratio constant — with high aggregate demand, which generated rapid growth in productivity. Policy makers maintained demand at a high level through a combination of very large government deficits, high investment demand, and generally a high flow of net exports after 1980. However, toward the end of the 1980s, the government deficit rapidly fell and the budget moved to balance in 1990. When the U.S. “double-dipped” in the early 1990s recession, and as other Asian countries began to effectively compete with Japan for world markets, foreign markets demanded fewer Japanese products. Then came the Asian financial crisis, followed shortly afterward by the bursting of the high tech bubble in the US. Together, these negative influences lowered aggregate demand and contributed to a deep and prolonged recession. The country’s “stop-start” fiscal policy, undertaken from the mid-1990s until around 2003, didn’t help. Japan suffered from repeated and misguided attempts to elevate budget reduction above employment and growth policies. As recently as last year, this fiscal stance remained firmly entrenched in Tokyo. During the Upper House elections, Japan’s Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, publicly mooted doubling the country’s consumption tax from 5% to 10% in order to “fund” the public deficits.
You have to credit the deficit hawks with consistency. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” This kind of consistency is now embraced by small-minded politicians who continue to peddle a falsehood when over 10,000 people are now presumed dead.
Let’s be clear: Japan does not face a fiscal crisis in the sense of going broke. Japan has a sovereign currency, and therefore its government has always had the capacity to purchase anything and everything for sale in yen. But the country’s fiscal situation has been weakened by the inconsistent “stop/start” policies that have been adopted over decades, which in turn have led to sluggish economic growth, creating the huge budget deficits that the fiscal hawks now regularly decry. When you have a collapse in private spending, then public spending has to increase both in absolute terms and as a proportion of GDP to make up for that if you want output growth and incomes to be stable.
Even allowing for Tokyo’s inconsistent application of fiscal policy over the past two decades, it is worth noting that had the Japanese government continued its planned deficit reduction in 1997 and not provided further budgetary stimulus by 2003 (when the Ministry of Finance finally abandoned its futile “fiscal consolidation”), the situation would have been significantly worse than what it already is. To acknowledge that persistent budget deficits do not cause interest rates to rise and do not cause hyperinflation does not imply that the policy options embraced by the government have all been good. But simply stated, things would have been much worse in their absence (with much higher corresponding budget deficits).
Globally, today’s deficit reduction fetishists suffer from collective amnesia: they have already forgotten that fiscal policy has saved the world from a Great Depression. The policy response adopted in 2009, although insufficient (to judge from the presence of still high levels of unemployment), put a floor on global aggregate spending power and virtually demolished everything you’ll read in modern mainstream macroeconomic textbooks about the efficacy of fiscal versus monetary policy. Yet some three years after the great financial crisis of 2008, and now within hours of the worst human tragedy to befall the Japanese people in decades, we have completely lost track of what’s happened. And so we are basically setting ourselves up again for the next crash.
In the specific case of Japan, the social situation in the wake of this catastrophe will become untenable unless the government provides further fiscal support. Naturally, people will debate about how they might do that given that you can only build so many highways or bridges. But today the case for rebuilding basic infrastructure after one of the biggest earthquakes of the last century is a policy no-brainer. And even after the obvious reconstruction tasks facing Japan, an aging society brings greater demand for personal care services, and that is one labor-intensive growth area that should still be targeted by the government.
Perhaps the deficit hawks hate government spending so much that they are prepared to tolerate the mass unemployment and massive wealth losses that would accompany a zero discretionary fiscal response. Are they also suggesting that we should risk a nuclear meltdown as well in pursuit of this principle, given the damage to the country’s nuclear reactors? That would be truly cheating future generations, because the costs of not intervening with fiscal policy in this kind of circumstance would bequeath a disastrous environmental legacy to Japan that would last for decades, possibly centuries, as any resident of Hiroshima or Nagasaki could easily attest. Beyond that apocalyptic point, when you lose your home because you can no longer pay the mortgage after losing your job, the wealth impact is huge and long-lasting.
An earthquake of this magnitude is something one would never wish on any country. Given the reservoir of social capital that has sustained Japan through two very difficult decades, the country is probably better equipped than most to deal with this terrible situation. And if it finally moves Tokyo’s policymakers beyond their misguided deficit reduction obsession, then the resultant policy response will represent the most honorable way of respecting the memory of those 10,000 or more who lost their lives, to say nothing of the millions who are now suffering from the tragedy. To retreat into stale arguments about how the government can’t “afford” to help at a time like this not only reveals economic illiteracy, but also the moral bankruptcy at the heart of the neo-liberal agenda now driving today’s policy makers globally.
Marshall Auerback is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, and a market analyst and commentator.
Source: New Deal 2.0
Image by Official U.S. Navy Imagery, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/11/2011 12:08:06 PM
Infuriated, disenfranchised people have been lambasting the divisive Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court case, which politically granted corporations the same rights as individual citizens, since it was written into law in 2010. A swelling, bipartisan mob is flexing political and activist muscle—sometimes in a darkly funny manner—in order to repeal the law.
Recently, the court decision has become the target of Annie Leonard’s Story of Stuff animation-cum-activism project. In “The Story of Citizens United v. FEC,” Leonard portrays corporations as soulless, hulking automatons that plant darling politicians into elected office by fiat. One of the short’s more interesting (read: sickening) segments is Leonard’s lesson on the 400-year history of corporations, and how they’ve incrementally gained a stranglehold on the American political process.
If you haven’t yet been outraged by the malicious judicial decision, familiarize yourself by watching “The Story of Citizens United v. FEC” below.
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3/10/2011 1:00:24 PM
In response to the congressional hearings being held today by Representative Peter King of New York about so-called radicalization of U.S. Muslims many (mostly conservative) voices are dismissing concerns that the hearings may be seen as a sort of witch hunt against Muslims, hearkening back to the days of Japanese internment camps. The argument goes that no one outside of the small group plotting terrorist acts in the name of Islam should be worried by the hearings. Rep. King, we are told, is only probing those who pose a threat to the U.S., which does not include the vast majority of freedom-loving, American-flag-toting Muslims in the U.S. Never mind for the moment that King has had an anti-Muslim agenda for years, saying that it is unfortunate that “we have too many mosques in this country.” Putting that aside, what interests me today in regards to these hearings is actually the reaction from the right to a couple of things that happened in 2009 and late last year.
Way back in ‘09 the Department of Homeland Security released a report warning against right-wing extremism in this country. Immediately, concerned parties on the right, including Rep. King, cried foul, saying among other things that the report amounted to little more than an attack on conservatives. Though the report specifically targeted “rightwing extremists,” that didn’t stop conservatives from aligning themselves with those the report was about, such as when Glenn Beck sarcastically proclaimed himself an extremist for predicting the country’s economic meltdown and offering his viewers tips for “preparation” in response to the meltdown. Michele Bachman called it “a hammer coming down on interest group after interest group that apparently the Obama Administration perceives as a threat to us.” Michelle Malkin called the report “a sweeping indictment of conservatives.” And King criticized the report for looking at the wrong group, saying that Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano “has never put out a report talking about look out for mosques. Look out for Islamic terrorists in our country. Look out for the fact that very few Muslims come forward to cooperate with the police.If they sent out a report saying that, there would be hell to pay.” (Is this hell to pay, Representative King, or just some Americans exercising their rights?)
And then there was the outrage from some conservatives that any of their actions might be associated with one “whack job” who acted alone and shot and killed a number of people in Tucson, Arizona last year. When that tragedy occurred, those voices pleaded with us to blame the individual and nothing more. Not society. Not rhetoric. Not signs with crosshairs. Certainly not them. Acts of violence, they said, are the responsibility of the individuals who commit them. We should not, they told us, look any further than those individuals.
Yet now we have a congressional hearing explicitly naming not individuals who have perpetrated acts of violence and terror, but a larger supposed trend. “Congressional investigation of Muslim American radicalization is the logical response,” King states, to repeated warnings about homegrown terrorism.
So as the hearings begin some of those who took offense to that DHS report on rightwing extremism and the (according to them) misplaced blame for the AZ shootings can’t see why others might worry that King’s hearings may look like an attack on an entire group. It seems impossible for them to take into consideration how this may be seen as a hearing against a religion and not against any sort of act of terrorism or any individual acting with terroristic intent.
The hypocrisy is what really gets you, isn’t it? Even if you don’t disagree with the intent of the congressional hearings, you have to admit that, in the end, the response to such things all just depends on whose ox is being gored.
Oh, and then there’s this, which brings into question the very foundation upon which Rep. King is trying to stand:
Source: Mother Jones, Think Progress, The Huffington Post, Politico
3/7/2011 3:46:46 PM
It was reassuring, in the midst of Wisconsin’s labor strife, to see a New York Times/CBS News poll showing that many Americans sympathized with the workers. A majority of the people surveyed opposed weakening collective bargaining rights or cutting the pay or benefits of state workers to reduce state budget deficits.
It was very telling, however, to see where that sympathy dropped off. The richest Americans, it turns out, are the ones who are most eager to slash away:
Although cutting the pay or benefits of public workers was opposed by people in all income groups, it had the most support from people earning over $100,000 a year. In that income group, 45 percent said they favored cutting pay or benefits, while 49 percent opposed it. In every other income group, a majority opposed cutting pay or benefits: Among those making between $15,000 and $30,000, for instance, 35 percent said they favored cutting pay or benefits, while 60 percent opposed it.
That’s right, a solid majority of people making only $15,000 to $30,000 a year—that’s near or below the poverty line for many households—still mustered compassion for the public workers’ cause, while the biggest earners were much more eager to roll over the workers because times are tight.
The poll hearkens back to other surveys that have shown lower-income people give a greater proportion of their income to charity, and to a study done last summer by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley, showing that poor people are in general more altruistic than rich people.
Could it be that the rich, unsatisfied with simply always getting richer, are now getting meaner?
Source: New York Times, Greater Good
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3/7/2011 10:41:36 AM
Sometimes in the midst of partisan trench warfare and the 24-hour media spin-cycle, it’s hard to remember that our de facto two-party system and our country were founded on a fresh and edifying principle: liberalism. Both Democrats and Republicans misappropriate the concepts of classic liberalism, a set of tenets boosting individual liberties and laissez-faire economics.
As you read the previous sentences, you undoubtedly started recalling very specific images and ideas. Tea Party. Social Darwinism. Big Government. Ron Paul. Don’t tread on me. But there are compelling (and swiftly forgotten) philosophical, economic, and moral ideas underpinning even the most visible manifestations of liberalism, the speakers at LearnLiberty.org collectively argue. In an attempt to dispel pervasive misconceptions of classic liberalism, LearnLiberty has started producing a number of informational webinars—at worst they’re surreptitious, at best educational, and either way didactic.
Progressives be warned: LearnLiberty is a side-project of the Institute of Humane Studies, a non-profit which has received financial support and leadership stints from the much-demonized Koch family. That being said, many of the site’s webinars are given by academics, hailing from Rhodes, Duquesne University, George Mason University, and Harvard, among other institutions. More importantly, when presenting “ideas of a free society”, the lecturers’ arguments are often calm and cogent—a far cry from the populist, incendiary tactics of cable news.
Try this exercise: Ask yourself what a libertarian is, brainstorm for about 30 seconds, and then compare to the video below. Now who sounds irrational?
(Thanks, Hit & Run.)
Image by joewcampbell, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/4/2011 12:20:55 PM
Modern design, high-risk banking, economic growth, and jaw-dropping panoramas of the surrounding cityscape. These things all come to mind when you hear the word “skyscraper.” But—as the New York Times reports from Caracas, Venezuela—perhaps it’s time to start associating skyscrapers with social justice, poverty alleviation, DIY construction, and anarchism. The “Tower of David,” a 45-story high-rise and one of Caracas’ many failed development projects, has been appropriated by about 2,500 squatters as Venezuela reels in the wake of economic and housing crises.
The crafty community has figured out how to wire-in electricity and install slapdash plumbing in the bottom 28 floors (thus far). One can find a beauty salon and a dentist, if in need. Bodegas—nearly every story hosts one—supply residents with groceries and cigarettes.
Although thousands have newfound shelter, conditions remain dangerous:
The smell of untreated sewage permeates the corridors. Children scale unlit stairways guided by the glow of cellphones. Some recent arrivals sleep in tents and hammocks [. . .] Few of the building’s terraces have guardrails. Even walls and windows are absent on many floors. Yet dozens of DirecTV satellite dishes dot the balconies. The tower commands some of the most stunning views of Caracas. It contains some of its worst squalor.
Take a tour of the Tower of David and meet the intrepid denizens in the video below.
Source: New York Times
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3/2/2011 1:09:18 PM
In these dark times, a whole cavalry of fiscally conservative knights quest to slay the civil-liberty-scorching, deficit-belching dragon of Big Government and save our miserly populace from economic terror. But these gallant soldiers are all armed alike: with threats of tax cuts and illusions of grandeur. Quixotically, the fiscal conservatives will face the dragon and, like those before them, perish. Enraged, the dragon will mete out vengeance on the hapless, defenseless commoners. Or at least that’s how the tax-cut fairytale goes, argues former Reagan budget director David Stockman.
Although not a Democrat, Stockman’s views on budget-balancing and deficit reduction—as profiled by Mother Jones—are entirely out sync with the Republican Party’s. And what’s more, Stockman sees the cut-and-spend strategies of contemporary conservatives as grossly adulterated Reaganomics. Mother Jones’ David Corn summarizes Stockman’s account of authentic Reagan-era tax policy:
In the ‘80s, Reagan and his White House crew were eager to cut income taxes across the board. The aim, he asserts, was to fix the slumping economy, not to starve the beast of big government. Republican leaders on the Hill were initially skeptical—they insisted that the White House pass spending cuts before Congress tackled the tax side. “The honest-to-goodness fact,” Stockman says, “is that in February 1981, there wasn’t close to a Republican majority for tax cuts without any accompanying or coupled spending cuts. The idea of supply-side in its purest form”—that tax cuts fuel economic growth that yields increased tax revenues—“was only embraced by a handful of junior Republicans, plus Jack Kemp.”
Corn clarifies that Reagan did jointly cut taxes and spending, but the culture of tax reduction grew much faster than the culture of expenditure slimming. Reagan would go on to pass a number of tax hikes to jump-start the economy. The result, argues Corn, was ideologically consequential:
Republicans took the wrong lesson from that episode, Stockman contends: that big tax cuts are economic magic. For GOPers to argue, as they do nowadays, that only permanent tax cuts spark economic activity is “totally inconsistent with what we used to argue in the 1980s,” Stockman notes. “These were two-year tax cuts, and they’re praising them as Republican doctrine.”
Any respectable, armchair dragon-slayer should offer solutions of their own. Stockman’s suggestion to regain fiscal sanity? “First, cut military spending by $100 to $150 billion a year [. . .] His second point is classic deficit-hawkery: Apply a means test to Medicare and Social Security. His third: ‘Massively raise taxes.’”
Source: Mother Jones
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3/1/2011 3:42:35 PM
What has happened in Egypt, and what is still happening there today—people seem to be seamlessly pouring in and out of Tahrir Square—feels very personal to me. I’m a Palestinian-Egyptian-American (though lately I’ve been finding myself proudly saying I’m an Egyptian-Palestinian-American). My grandfather was one of the group of Free Officers who, in 1952, marched to Montazah Palace—where I would one day go swimming and later make out with my first boyfriend—and instructed King Farouk to leave Egypt forever. I was told this story often as a child, and I felt proud of it. Only later, on my visits to Egypt as an adult, did I begin to question whether that was really the last needed revolution in Egypt, or whether it ultimately did the Egyptians any good. My grandfather died a year-and-a-half ago. It feels today like a symbolic death; a passing away of the old guard to make way for the youth of Egypt who have taken their fates into their own hands.
It also feels personal to me because as an Arab-American, and as an Arab-American novelist, part of my daily activism has to do with writing about Arabs and Arab-Americans in ways that break both Arab cultural taboos and existing Western stereotypes. I treat my characters as human beings, deserving of flaws and dignity and a real future. And yet, the story that surrounds me, the story that persists in the media and in some literature today, is that Arabs are dangerous; that Arabs are savages in need of squashing or children in need of saving, or both; that Arabs are a violent people who don’t deserve to shape their own destinies—because they would elect terrorists. (Look at all the fear-mongering that happened the first days of the revolution, and that persists in the media about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.) That’s the story that I fight against every day when I sit at my desk, and so it thrills me and moves me in ineffable ways that Arabs have been seen on televisions and in newspapers and websites everyday for weeks protesting peacefully for their rights to self-rule, dignity, and freedom.
One of the most amusing moments in the protests came when Mubarak’s regime claimed that the protesters were paid agents from the West; people who didn’t really want to protest or have an organic, authentic desire for change. The same rhetoric is being used in Libya, when Qaddafi calls his protesters “drugged cockroaches.” It reminds me of the letter my father wrote me when he officially disowned me over writing what he deemed a “dirty book.” Someone must have paid me or influenced me or convinced me, he said, to write about sex and masturbation. He could not fathom that I would want to write about these things because they are authentic interests of mine; that I genuinely choose to go against the silence that was prevalent in my upbringing surrounding sexuality.
Now, when I try to write about this new Egypt, I think, I‘m just a fiction writer, what the hell do I know? But it’s precisely women and fiction writers such as Ahdaf Soueif and Nawal el-Saadawi who have been reporting from Egypt and participating in protests. Nawal el-Saadawi was called a few days ago by Al-Jazeera “The mother of the revolution.” She was arrested under Sadat and exiled by Mubarak. In spite of all this, she still managed to agitate against and help outlaw female circumcision in Egypt a few years ago. She also “symbolically” ran against Mubarak in 2006. In an interview last Wednesday, she said she was putting together a list of female activists she wanted the movement to consider for President of Egypt.
Women in Egypt faced daily sexual harassment under Mubarak and their legal rights were and continue to be limited under an archaic family law. When I was there in 2007 I swore I would never go back, because of the way men treated me on the street. In a recent poll, 83% of Egyptian women say they were sexually harassed in public. I think this poll shows how serious the problem is, and I have a personal theory now that 17% of Egyptian women are shut-ins.
Female protesters saw Tahrir Square to be a kind of utopic environment where women had a voice and were not sexually harassed. A friend of mine in Cairo says there’s now a man down the street from her house who holds up a sign all day that reads: “Men: Do not harass the women of your country.” But unfortunately, revolution is not a light-switch. When Mubarak stepped down, it did not mean that rapists instantly disappeared from the streets—see what happened to Lara Logan for example—or that respect for women was turned on as quickly as a song. This is a long process. I hope the women and activists of Egypt do the work to ensure that all of society there, including women, will be treated with dignity and respect.
I am reminded now of a tweet I saw the other day from a Filipina activist who was remembering her own country’s people power revolution in 1986. Moments later, a teenager replied to her in a tweet, “What happened? Where did we go wrong?” The activist tweeted back, “We did not realize a revolution goes on and on and on and must be nurtured 4ever. U make me cry with your question.”
Women in 1919 in Egypt were told to go home after the revolution, just as American women were told after WWII that their help in factories was appreciated but that they needed to get their aprons back on and head to the kitchen where they belonged. Activists are watching very closely to see how or if women will figure into the new Egypt, and I hope they keep watching and also that they are inspired by their participation in their own revolution to continue to elbow their way in.
What is happening across the Arab world today, literally today, this frenzy of concurrent demonstrations in Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen—what we are seeing, feels like a new Pan-Arabism to me, different from the one we saw in the ‘60s. This time, it’s not foreign entities and agents the people on the street are protesting, it’s the very story they’ve been told: that they are a chaotic and savage people that need the iron fist of a decades-long government for their own good; that they don’t deserve dignity or freedom because they would squander it; that they are violent and infantile. Arab men and women the world over have stopped believing this story about themselves, and in doing so, have shown the world that the story was never anything more than a fiction.
Read “Loosely Based” from the July-August 2010 issue of Utne Reader, where Jarrar reflects on the perils of writing about family
Randa Jarrar is the author of the critically acclaimed novel A Map of Home. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Five Chapters, Guernica, The Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, and The Progressive. She was chosen to take part in Beirut39, which celebrates the 39 most gifted writers of Arab origin under the age of 40.
Image by monasosh, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/1/2011 1:29:20 PM
This article was originally published at
What if you went to a restaurant and found it rather pricey? Still, you ordered your meal and, when done, picked up the check only to discover that it was almost twice the menu price.
Welcome to the world of the real U.S. national security budget. Normally, in media accounts, you hear about the Pentagon budget and the war-fighting supplementary funds passed by Congress for our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. That already gets you into a startling price range -- close to $700 billion for 2012 -- but that’s barely more than half of it. If Americans were ever presented with the real bill for the total U.S. national security budget, it would actually add up to more than $1.2 trillion a year.
Take that in for a moment. It’s true; you won’t find that figure in your daily newspaper or on your nightly newscast, but it’s no misprint. It may even be an underestimate. In any case, it’s the real thing when it comes to your tax dollars. The simplest way to grasp just how Americans could pay such a staggering amount annually for “security” is to go through what we know about the U.S. national security budget, step by step, and add it all up.
So, here we go. Buckle your seat belt: it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Fortunately for us, on February 14th the Obama administration officially released its Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget request. Of course, it hasn’t been passed by Congress -- even the 2011 budget hasn’t made it through that august body yet -- but at least we have the most recent figures available for our calculations.
For 2012, the White House has requested $558 billion for the Pentagon’s annual “base” budget, plus an additional $118 billion to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. At $676 billion, that’s already nothing to sneeze at, but it’s just the barest of beginnings when it comes to what American taxpayers will actually spend on national security. Think of it as the gigantic tip of a humongous iceberg.
To get closer to a real figure, it’s necessary to start peeking at other parts of the federal budget where so many other pots of security spending are squirreled away.
Missing from the Pentagon’s budget request, for example, is an additional $19.3 billion for nuclear-weapons-related activities like making sure our current stockpile of warheads will work as expected and cleaning up the waste created by seven decades of developing and producing them. That money, however, officially falls in the province of the Department of Energy. And then, don’t forget an additional $7.8 billion that the Pentagon lumps into a “miscellaneous” category -- a kind of department of chump change -- that is included in neither its base budget nor those war-fighting funds.
So, even though we’re barely started, we’ve already hit a total official FY 2012 Pentagon budget request of:
$703.1 billion dollars.
Not usually included in national security spending are hundreds of billions of dollars that American taxpayers are asked to spend to pay for past wars, and to support our current and future national security strategy.
For starters, that $117.8 billion war-funding request for the Department of Defense doesn’t include certain actual “war-related fighting” costs. Take, for instance, the counterterrorism activities of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. For the first time, just as with the Pentagon budget, the FY 2012 request divides what’s called "International Affairs" in two: that is, into an annual "base" budget as well as funding for "Overseas Contingency Operations" related to Iraq and Afghanistan. (In the Bush years, these used to be called the Global War on Terror.) The State Department’s contribution? $8.7 billion. That brings the grand but very partial total so far to:
The White House has also requested $71.6 billion for a post-2001 category called “homeland security” -- of which $18.1 billion is funded through the Department of Defense. The remaining $53.5 billion goes through various other federal accounts, including the Department of Homeland Security ($37 billion), the Department of Health and Human Services ($4.6 billion), and the Department of Justice ($4.6 billion). All of it is, however, national security funding which brings our total to:
The U.S. intelligence budget was technically classified prior to 2007, although at roughly $40 billion annually, it was considered one of the worst-kept secrets in Washington. Since then, as a result of recommendations by the 9/11 Commission, Congress has required that the government reveal the total amount spent on intelligence work related to the National Intelligence Program (NIP).
This work done by federal agencies like the CIA and the National Security Agency consists of keeping an eye on and trying to understand what other nations are doing and thinking, as well as a broad range of “covert operations” such as those being conducted in Pakistan. In this area, we won’t have figures until FY 2012 ends. The latest NIP funding figure we do have is $53.1 billion for FY 2010. There’s little question that the FY 2012 figure will be higher, but let’s be safe and stick with what we know. (Keep in mind that the government spends plenty more on “intelligence.” Additional funds for the Military Intelligence Program (MIP), however, are already included in the Pentagon’s 2012 base budget and war-fighting supplemental, though we don’t know what they are. The FY 2010 funding for MIP, again the latest figure available, was $27 billion.) In anycase, add that $53.1 billion and we’re at:
See the number continue to rise in the rest of Chris Hellman's essay on
Panel image by
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3/1/2011 12:25:05 PM
This article was originally published at
New Deal 2.0
In remarks at the FDR Library on the 75th anniversary of the WPA, Gray Brechin gave this speech reminding us of the multifaceted impact of this successful government program.
As you all know, we Americans have been marinated in a fundamentalist ideology for the last 30 years. You know the drill: government is so inefficient and corrupt that any taxes we pay for it are extortionate and wasted. There’s a corollary to that so often repeated that it’s become common wisdom despite the fact that it’s flat-out wrong. It goes: “Everyone knows that the New Deal didn’t end the Depression, the War did.” The latter cliche has served to belittle stimulus initiatives undertaken by both Presidents Roosevelt and Obama. But it’s also more generally used as argument-ending proof that government stimulus programs to create jobs and get the nation out of an economic crisis are futile or actually prolong the catastrophe. The implication is that only a good worldwide bloodbath can do that — ironically enough when all limits are taken off of government spending. (In fact, as Amy Goodman reported, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner said that President Bush told him that “the best way to revitalize the economy is war and that the United States has grown stronger with war.”)
These twin mantras are repeated by people who have no idea that they use the New Deal every day. They ride over New Deal roads, enjoy public parks, cross bridges and drive through tunnels, use airports, hospitals, and libraries, and some even send their kids to schools and colleges built by New Deal agencies. We take for granted the public health that comes with clean drinking water that my grandparents could not. The PWA totally rebuilt the Chicago waste water system so that Chicagoans no longer had to drink their sewage. Much of this was put in place 75 years ago in the depths of the Great Depression in order to get out of it. Contrary to what we’re repeatedly told, those programs worked; they employed millions of men, women, and youth, collectively lifting the country rapidly out of the Depression. Moreover, post-war prosperity was largely built upon the back of New Deal public works, which were then new. They are seldom, if ever, acknowledged for contributing significantly to that prosperity.
About six years ago, I was looking for a project more uplifting than the kind of environmental writing I’d done before. I thought it would be fun to work with a photographer to document what the WPA had done in California. I knew a little about the CCC and nothing about the PWA, NYA, CWA, FERA, or the REA. What followed happens to everyone who undertakes this kind of research: it’s as if you were walking through a dense overgrown jungle, where you discover a strange ruin. You begin to dig and find that it’s an immense building, and then that there are other often magnificent buildings connected by roads and canals, stadiums. It’s more than just a city or a network of cities: it’s a whole civilization that we built just 75 years ago, then allowed to be buried and forgotten as if by a volcanic eruption.
But here’s where the analogy falls apart: unlike a forgotten civilization, we use this vast cultural and physical infrastructure all the time without knowing it. If you mapped them, you would see that both New York and DC are largely New Deal cities, and the great cities of the Sunbelt such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, and Los Angeles were largely creations of the New Deal as well.
These are all things that I learned as I delved deeper. I quickly found that this huge legacy in one state alone couldn’t be contained in a book, nor could uncovering it be done by just two people. So the book morphed into “California’s Living New Deal Project” — ‘living’ because millions of people and generations have benefited from the New Deal without knowing it, including strident critics of the Roosevelt administration. Indeed, they do not want to know it because to do so would fatally undermine that fundamentalist ideology I mentioned at the beginning.
With a seed grant from the Columbia Foundation and help from the Labor Institute at UC Berkeley, we built an interactive website now based at the Department of Geography, where I have an office. I work with others to map what the New Deal did for one state, relying upon a network of informants — historians, historical societies, librarians, teachers, government employees, and just people interested in the New Deal, as well as research that I and my colleagues do. As the eminent California historian Kevin Starr said to me, it’s just like a WPA project: a collaborative effort in which we are constantly learning from each other and seeing the landscape anew.
The WPA is best known of the public works agencies because it left plaques and markers, though nothing commensurate with what it achieved. The PWA left far fewer markers, the CCC and CWA none at all. Most New Deal projects are unmarked, so we are constantly being surprised. For example, we only recently discovered from records of the city park commission that the WPA planted 15,000 street trees in Berkeley, trees now in their maturity, overarching the streets and making the town extremely pleasant. WPA workers improved every park in San Francisco and, we suspect, the same is true across the country. You will sometimes find yourself in a forest, as I did in Georgia, where all the trees seem to be about the same age: 75 years. You could well be enjoying some of the 3 billion trees planted by the boys of the CCC, but none of this is marked. I have not yet figured out how to map the innumerable check dams and culverts built by the CCC to save our soil.
Little of this is known, since the New Deal was interrupted and then killed by WWII. Because of that, the records that I thought I would rely on at the Library of Congress and National Archives are sketchy to nonexistent.
Last year, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities asked me to deliver the opening address at their annual conference in La Jolla. I put together a show of the immense expansion in federal aid to public education in all of its dimensions during a few years of the Great Depression, compared with the equally dramatic contraction of public enlightenment in our own time. The 200 college presidents were astounded when I showed them that New Deal agencies built thousands of schools, entire college campuses, magnificent academic buildings, public libraries and museums, zoos and aquariums, and teaching hospitals. Many of these buildings are embellished with murals and sculptures as well as uplifting inscriptions such as ENTER TO LEARN, GO FORTH TO SERVE or WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE IN THE LIFE OF A NATION YOU MUST FIRST PUT INTO ITS SCHOOLS.
The people responsible for building this invisible New Deal archipelago had a big idea: they believed they were building a civilization worthy of the name, a democratic civilization that would endure and be a beacon to the world then darkening with the fundamentalist ideologies of those times. They had no idea that we would let it fall into ruin because we were persuaded that we should not have to pay taxes, as, for example, the governor and university administrators are now doing at the University of California because (as they say) they have no alternative. The example of the New Deal shows that there is an alternative — it’s a matter of priorities.
Compare that munificent New Deal legacy with an amendment that Senator Tom Coburn attempted to tack on to the Obama stimulus package last year. Here it is: “None of the amounts appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used for any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, swimming pool, stadium, community park, museum, theater, arts center, or highway beautification project…” With the exception of gambling establishments strategically placed at the beginning of that sentence, all of these projects are things that WPA workers built and that we enjoy today, and about half of them are educational.
Or ponder an inscription in cream-glazed terra cotta on a magnificent PWA-built high school in Salem, Oregon: ENTER TO GROW IN WISDOM. Compare that with a new advertising campaign by Diesel jeans. It advises teenagers BE STUPID. That is, in a nutshell, the public, as opposed to the private, interest.
This progressive dismantling of the social contract has created in its wake an immense demoralization across the nation. To paraphrase the president who successfully launched us on the course to this decay and discord, it’s nightfall in America. Rediscovering New Deal sites is therefore not just an antiquarian exercise. In their high purpose, their fine materials, their superb craftsmanship, the New Deal sites reveal an ethical dimension that neoliberal expedience has largely killed. They teach us that we are all in this together, that we are a community. They give us our moral compass back. That, for me, is their chief value.
I recently took the train across the country to give a talk in Hyde Park; I recommend it if you want to see for yourself how we are letting our cities and our physical infrastructure literally rust away, how we have become a gaudy but empty piñata. But all across the country I could look out my window and see public schools, post offices, water towers, parks and athletic fields built by New Deal agencies and still in use. No small town was untouched by the New Deal: I suspect that taxes did not seem so onerous when you saw them coming back to your community in those useful public assets that Senator Coburn wanted excluded from the stimulus package. Few in the most Republican-voting states know that their most beloved parks date from the New Deal, or that farmers still deliver their produce on all-weather farm-to-market roads built by WPA or CCC workers. Few know, when they are inspired by patriotic images of the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument, that these were restored by the WPA and the PWA. Those agencies left no markers to remind us that they had been there.
It’s time to change that: we at UC Berkeley Geography are seeking funding to expand our California Living New Deal into a National Living New Deal inventory that will involve thousands of Americans in a collective act of rediscovery. Doing so, both young and old will learn the pleasures of doing primary research, but we’ll also learn to see our country — and our responsibilities as adults — with fresh eyes.
And finally, I hope that we will at last honor the ingenuity and compassion of those visionaries with whom Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt surrounded themselves — people who believed it was their Christian and Jewish duty to help those less fortunate, that it is better for society to uplift rather than to punish people, and far cheaper to build schools rather than prisons and worldwide military bases. I hope we will also honor the hard work with which our parents and grandparents successfully dug out of the Depression. We hope that through our own work, we will remind Americans what we, at our best, can accomplish together. And we might just learn the meaning of that sentiment by the Roman poet Virgil over the door of the enormous WPA-built County Administration Building in San Diego: THE NOBLEST MOTIVE IS THE PUBLIC GOOD. For my money, that sentiment beats the command from the private sector to BE STUPID.
Gray Brechin is an historical geographer, visiting scholar in the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography and founder and project scholar of
California’s Living New Deal Project
Source: New Deal 2.0
Image by Cogdogblog, licensed under Creative Commons.
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