Dec 11, 2011

1928 Catholicism = 2011 Mormonism? Or is it Islam?

Historian Robert Slayton has a column in the Times today about the anti-Catholic hysteria that Al Smith provoked when he ran for president in 1928 after four terms as NY governor. This is one of those pieces of history that, in my pessimistic moments, makes me think that we (as a society) haven't actually learned much from the past. It seems pretty clear to us now that it was, indeed, hysteria that caused people to think that, for instance, “if you vote for Al Smith you’re voting against Christ and you’ll all be damned,” or that Smith's election would mean that “you will not be allowed to have or read a Bible.” Shouldn't it be totally obvious to all Americans, then, that the election of a Muslim congressman would not result in sharia law (whatever the right wing means by that) usurping the U.S. Constitution?

Dec 6, 2011

You Know Who Doesn't Need More Cash?

Corporations and their shareholders. A study out yesterday from a group of U. Mass. economists says that major U.S. banks and corporations are in possession of $3.6 TRILLION in cash and other liquid assets, of which at least $1.4 TRILLION isn't necessary for their financial health and could instead be used to create 19 MILLION new jobs. They predict that if all of that money were actually spent on "productive investments and job creation" instead of remaining hoarded in the bank, the unemployment rate could fall below 5% by 2014.

So the next time you hear that raising taxes on rich people and corporations would hurt "job creators" by taking the cash they need to hire people, it's worth asking whether these corporations would even notice if a small bit of that $3.6 trillion left their pockets to help pay for needed government services. When you're swimming in the giant pool of money, you don't notice when the water drops an inch.

Also, check out this interesting take on why raising taxes would create jobs (hint: it's not because rich people would then willingly start paying more taxes).

Does Anybody in Washington Have Any Actual Ideas?

Instead of grading papers, I was procrastinating by browsing Twitter (obviously), which recommended that I check out @NRCC - the National Republican Congressional Committee. So I did, expecting to find something infuriating about the Republicans' positions - but I found something even worse: every single tweet is about Obama and the Dems. Do the Republicans have any actual ideas of their own?

Then I headed over to the NRCC's website, and here's what I found:

Keep in mind that these are the people in charge of shaping the Republicans' congressional campaign efforts and yet they seem unable to actually articulate something they stand for (although they're adept at finding things to oppose). Why is their lead banner about the Blue Dog Democrats, rather than about something the Republicans are actually doing?

But not to let the Democrats off too easy: for comparison, I checked out @DCCC, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Twitter feed. Here it is:

I guess from reading that we know that the DCCC is pro-union (really?) but otherwise it's much of the same: attack, attack, attack. And as for that labor thing - perhaps the DCCC just wants you to buy its merch? The DCCC website clearly shows, front and center, how to buy Dem merchandise (travel mug, anyone?*) and how to contribute money, but the most it has to say about what Dems actually support is this:
Supporting the DCCC is the single most effective step you can take to continue leading our country in a new direction. By fighting to retake the Democratic Majority in 2012 through protecting our Democratic members and electing new Democrats to Congress we can keep moving America forward.
And what does "moving America forward" mean, exactly?

Not to state the obvious, but perhaps we would end up with a more effective federal government if someone in either party came up with and advocated for actual ideas and policies, rather than just attacking the failures of the other side. 

And so begins another day of righteous indignation at our politicians and political system.

*Incidentally, the Dem merchandising program looks a lot like JetBlue's loyalty rewards program:

Nov 29, 2011

For some perspective: Jane Meyer on the successful efforts to stop the Keystone XL pipeline

Related to my previous post about movement-building: Jane Meyer has a nice Talk of the Town piece in last week's New Yorker about the successful efforts to stop the Keystone XL pipeline project, with a brief (but illuminating) comparison to OWS:
Yet the Occupy movement could do worse than to learn from the pipeline protest. The difference between the focussed, agenda-driven campaign fought by the environmentalists and the free-form, leaderless one waged by the Occupiers, the historian Michael Kazin says, is that the environmentalists grasped the famous point made by Dr. King’s political forebear, Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Nov 28, 2011

What makes a "movement"?

Tonight I saw Chris Hedges speak about Occupy Wall Street and his recent books. Although I agree with many of his views, his polemics made me a little crazy - but they did crystallize something I've been thinking about for a few weeks.

Is Occupy Wall Street a movement? Hedges certainly think so, and many others agree. The coiners of the OWS meme even called it "the greatest social-justice movement to emerge in the United States since the civil rights era." But as much as I agree with the basic principles of OWS, I have to say that I don't think it's a movement - not yet.

Historians have painstakingly demonstrated how much time, effort, and organizing it takes to build a sustained social or political movement. For many years now, historians have documented the "long civil rights movement," showing that activists, organizers, and lawyers spent decades laying the groundwork for the explosion of activism that finally made it into the nation's public consciousness between 1955 and 1965. Similarly, scholars like Dorothy Sue Cobble and Nancy Hewitt have shown how the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s grew out of decades of sustained, if quieter, organizing and activism. Analysts of the New Right have shown that organizing began in the early 1960s but did not result in political change for a decade or more - and it found eventual success because the movement's organizers and activists kept at it.

Moreover, these historians have shown how much organizing it takes to build a successful movement - the hard, unglamorous, slow stuff of talking to people about their concerns, developing strategies, undertaking  efforts that fail many times before they succeed, building organizations and coalitions, developing support, identifying goals, and on and on. This stuff takes years or decades, not weeks or months, to successfully achieve lasting change - and even then, that change is often incomplete.

I hope that OWS develops into a sustained movement that definitively changes our country's political conversation and, most importantly, public policies. But we're not there yet, so celebrating the success of the movement seems premature. We are certainly talking more now about economic inequality than we have in years - but for us to still be having those conversations years from now, OWS needs to take the long, slow, movement-building view.

Recommended reading:
Dorothy Sue Cobble, The Other Women's Movement
Nancy Hewitt, ed., No Permanent Waves
Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, "The Long Civil Rights Movement and the Political Uses of the Past," (Journal of American History)
John Dittmer, Local People
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors

I'm back!

It's been almost exactly a year since I started this blog, and I've been thinking about it a lot recently even though I haven't posted since April. I'm getting started again, with plans to experiment with different lengths and formats, and I'm going to aim for 2-3 posts per week. Follow me on Twitter @pastforwardpol to hear about new posts.

Apr 8, 2011

Back to life, back to reality... Gov't shutdown edition

Apologies for being MIA for more than a month. But I'm back, and here's what I have to say:

Republicans don't like Title X, and I don't like Republicans. Or Bill O'Reilly.

Several news outlets are reporting this morning that the government is on the verge of a shutdown because of Republican intransigence over Title X funding and other policy issues, none of which have anything real to do with the budget. Thankfully the Democrats, led by New York's own Senator Chuck Schumer, are standing strong against these efforts, at least so far.

But the conservative thinking on these issues is truly scary. In an interview last night with Charlie Rangel, Bill O'Reilly tried to differentiate between Title X funding and other health care funding, saying that: "Health care is another matter....That has to be taken very methodically because people's lives are affected....Nobody's life is affected by Planned Parenthood."

Perhaps he'd care to actually speak to one of the 3 million women and men who go to Planned Parenthood every year? If he doesn't want to have to be in a room with one of these radical people, he can just hear from them on the interwebs. But, as the Huffington Post points out, O'Reilly isn't the only one oblivious to the people who this actually affects: "The negotiations are dominated by men," Ryan Grim writes. "All of the principal negotiators in both parties are male, as are most of the senior staff involved."

Mar 3, 2011

NATO Kills 9 Afghan Children

Here's the worst story of the past 24 hours (beating out lots of competition for that title): NATO forces in Afghanistan "accidentally" killed 9 Afghan boys who were gathering firewood. Apparently the NATO troops who shot them from a helicopter mistook them for grown men who had earlier attacked a NATO operating base. I put "accidentally" in quotes not because I think it was purposeful, but because I just think it's appalling to excuse the murder of 9 children as an accident.

The story is doubly horrifying precisely because it's getting so little press in the U.S. It was buried on the fourth page of the New York Times and I didn't hear anything about it on NPR this morning. The hourly news headlines did, though, lead with a story about two U.S. soldiers killed in Germany, supposedly by an Islamic militant, although as usual the story didn't offer any evidence for that assumption.

It saddens me that we've gotten so complacent about our country's involvement in two unnecessary wars, and so certain that there's no way to end those wars and get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, that we've basically just started to ignore the atrocities that are going on there in our names. Killings of civilians were among the most important motivators for the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era, but today those killings happen so frequently and with so little news coverage that they barely raise a ripple. If we wonder why "Islamic extremists" are attacking U.S. soldiers in Germany, we might want to start by looking at U.S. soldiers killing children in Afghanistan.

Mar 2, 2011

What’s Really Behind the Attacks on Title X

John Boehner made a very telling comment in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network on Sunday. Discussing the proposed continuing resolution (CR) that will keep the federal government operating for two more weeks, he acknowledged that the Republicans will probably allow Title X’s funding for Planned Parenthood to continue for now, but not in the long term. Here’s his reasoning:

“The goal here again is to cut spending and keep the government open. I met with a lot of religious leaders earlier today to talk about the strategy and I think it’s important that we understand that what we want to do here is win the war not just win a battle. And there will be an opportunity some time in order to win the big war and we're looking for that opportunity. I don't think this short term CR is the opportunity that will get us there.”

So, for all the Republicans’ talk about the need to cut government spending, Boehner admitted here pretty clearly that the fight against Title X has nothing to do with that. Instead, it’s a capitulation to “religious leaders” and pro-lifers, and it actually detracts from accomplishing the goals of “cut[ting] spending and keep[ing] the government open.”

For those of us who support Planned Parenthood and all the other family planning providers out there, Boehner has given us fair warning. He’s planning a “big war,” so if we manage to sustain Title X funding during the current budget battle, we can’t let that make us complacent.

The good news is that Chuck Schumer has big plans to defend Title X: he told a rally on Saturday that the Republicans’ planned Title X cuts will be “dead on arrival” in the Senate. I, for one, am going to be writing him a letter to thank him and tell him to keep up the good work. Are you?

Mar 1, 2011

A CEO, A Public Employee, a Tea Partier, and a Democratic Governor...

This joke has been floating around the internet for the past couple of days: “A unionized public employee, a tea party supporter, and a CEO are sitting at a table with a dozen cookies on a plate. The CEO takes 11 of the cookies, turns to the tea partier, and says, ‘Watch out for that union guy. He wants some of your cookie.’”

Brilliant, and it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so true. I woke up this morning to a radio report  about how the “surplus” income tax on people earning over $250,000 annually in New York is going to expire and talks to extend it are going nowhere, partially because Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn’t support its extension. Instead, in order to balance the budget he apparently favors slashing health care for the poor, firing thousands of public school teachers in some of the state’s neediest neighborhoods, and cutting funding for the city’s already cash-strapped public transit system.

What is wrong with this picture?! Wealthy people in America pay the lowest taxes they’ve paid since before World War II, and to offset that lost revenue state governments around the country, as well as the federal government, are slashing programs for the poor and middle class. Investment bankers and large corporations did most of the work getting us into the economic mess in which we find ourselves – but they’ve largely recovered while everyone else is watching their wages get cut and government services get eviscerated.

Thanks to the influence of those same bankers and multinational corporations, the solutions elected officials are offering are to cut taxes, give those corporations more money, and cut education, health, and social service spending for the rest of us. Goldman Sachs and Moody’s Analytics just completed separate studies showing that these strategies are going to seriously hurt the economic recovery and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs – but it seems that no one in Albany or Washington is listening.

These days the world often really feels like a very, very dark version of Alice in Wonderland.

Feb 22, 2011

Americans Used to Agree on Public Funding for Family Planning. What Happened?

I have a guest post today on Slate's XX Factor blog about the history of Title X, the federal family planning program that House Republicans would like to eliminate. Check it out! I'll elaborate on it here in the next day or two, because it turns out to be hard to summarize my dissertation in 600 words.

100 Years Later, We Know Their Names

There's a haunting story in yesterday's Times about a researcher who has finally managed to compile a list of all 146 people killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire 100 years ago. The haunting part of it is that nobody had managed to do so earlier. I had no idea that until now there were at least 6 people who died in the fire but had never been identified. A researcher named Michael Hirsch has spent the last few years combing at least 30 newspapers from the early 20th century, correlating missing person reports and death notices with public records, charity reports, and descendants' stories to compile the most accurate and complete list to date of those who died in the fire.

This story is a harsh reminder of the anonymity of immigrants' and poor people's lives in early 20th century urban America. All of those who died had relatives and friends in New York at the time who knew they were missing after the fire, but their bodies were burned beyond recognition and their disappearances weren't tracked, even with the enormous amount of publicity that the fire received at the time. Plus, the relatives' grief may have prevented earlier positive identifications. The Times mentions one family who put a notice about a missing relative in the Forward, the Yiddish newspaper, saying that "We believe that he survived the fire, but from great fear and being upset he went mad and is wandering the streets."

It's tragic that it took so long to find these names, but better late than never, I suppose.

Feb 21, 2011

On Wisconsin

I've been inspired by what's going on in Wisconsin over the past week. It's exciting to see some serious labor and progressive activism, for once, and also to see that some Democrats have the spine to stand up to horrendous Republican proposals. It's clear that governor's proposal is just an attempt to decimate one of the last strongholds of organized labor in the country - the public sector - and I'm glad to see how many people all over the country have responded with horror. Did you hear about the pizza place in Madison that's delivered 1,000 pizza orders to the protestors at the state capitol, paid for by supporters all over the country?

Wisconsin has a long history of progressivism so it makes sense to me that this fight is happening there, but it's also why it's incredibly infuriating that the governor is such a rabid conservative. Wisconsin was the home of Victor Berger, the first socialist elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (in 1910),  as well as leading Progressive politician Robert La Follette and many of the other major voices of the Progressive movement in the early twentieth century. It was the birthplace of many labor laws and other reforms that we take for granted today, including the nation's first worker's compensation law. La Follette and the other Progressives fought the political power of railroads and other big corporations by breaking up monopolies and taxing corporate profits, helped create one of the nation's strongest public university systems, and regulated factory safety and work hours. Milwaukee had socialist mayors from 1910 until 1941.

I hope that the current effort to erode the collective bargaining power of Wisconsin's public employee unions doesn't set the kind of precedent that the 20th century progressive reforms did. What has upset me most about the whole situation was seeing pictures of the counter-demonstrators who came out yesterday to yell at the union activists. I hate that we have a political climate right now that pits "taxpayers" against "workers," failing to recognize that they are often the same people, and that those "workers" provide services that the "taxpayers" need, want, and appreciate. It is in all of our interests to make sure that public workers are well-compensated, not least because they help set a model of compensation that includes full benefits and retirement packages. I recognize that most American workers don't get those things anymore, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't all get them. The answer is not to demand the destruction of the few remaining jobs that provide a real safety net, but to demand that ALL of us get that kind of a safety net.

Feb 18, 2011

Reminder: Women Are Capable of Carefully Considering Their Decisions

New Hero Alert: Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who last night stood up on the floor of the House of Representatives and told abortion opponents that, having had a late-term abortion herself, "for you to stand on this floor and suggest that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought, is preposterous.” Thank you, Rep. Speier, for reminding all of us of something that should be obvious: that women have brains, consciences, and values, and they use all of those things to decide whether or not to carry their pregnancies to term.

Feb 15, 2011

Playing Chicken With Women's Health

Now that the Republican House is up and running, as part of the GOP's pledge to focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” they’ve decided to target…wait for it… women’s health. Did you know that America’s unemployment crisis was caused by too many low-income women having access to high-quality gynecological care?

In all seriousness – some illustrious members of Congress have decided that a great way to cut the deficit would be to cut the funding for women’s health care that’s provided through a legislative provision called Title X of the Public Health Service Act. Title X provides grant money to health care providers to subsidize care for poor women. Nearly 5 million women get care from nearly 5,000 health care centers through this program. 

So what’s the problem? Well, for some conservatives, there are several. The general problem is that this care comes under the rubric of “family planning,” and conservatives don’t like to think that women are independent enough to have access to birth control and to be able to make wise decisions about how to use it. Never mind that along with birth control comes preventive gynecological care, screening for diseases like diabetes and hypertension, counseling about safer sex, and other primary care that poor women often don’t get anywhere else.

The specific problem is that about a third of these women get their care through Planned Parenthood clinics. Conservatives Do Not Like Planned Parenthood.

No Title X money has ever gone to pay for abortion care, and indeed Planned Parenthood and other recipients have to enact all kinds of artificial barriers within their practices in order to make sure that’s true – but they do so, in compliance with the law. Nevertheless, conservatives are just sure that Title X money is funding abortions. That’s their line, anyway, but I’m pretty sure the problem isn’t just abortion: it’s the whole idea of women having control over their own bodies and reproduction (and, therefore, their own lives) that freaks out lots of conservatives.

I’m writing my dissertation about Title X and other government programs that pay for family planning services for low-income women, and here’s why: in 1970, when Congress passed Title X, it did so *unanimously* in the Senate and by an overwhelming margin in the House of Representatives. At the time, supporters called access to birth control a “fundamental human right” for women. If there’s anything about the Nixon years that I’m nostalgic for, it’s this: the broad acceptance of the idea that women should be able to decide when they have kids. That  just doesn’t seem so radical, but apparently now, 40 years later, House Republicans think it is.

Feb 8, 2011

Jezebel on Women's "Fitness" Magazines

I've decided to start posting some of the best things I read on the interwebs here (and not just because it's easier than coming up with my own stuff to say all the time), so here's the first:

As a woman who loves running and other forms of exercise because they make me feel strong and help save me from my own head, I particularly appreciated this Jezebel takedown (er, analysis) of women's so-called "fitness" magazines. I wish there were good women's running magazines out there, or a good women's equivalent of Outside, which seems to specialize in putting half-naked men on the cover alongside headlines like "Road Tested: The World's Manliest Minivan." But alas, we're stuck with crappy magazines that tell us how to lose weight and look pretty while we exercise.

Here are a couple of choice excerpts from the Jezebel post:
We've long suspected that "fitness" is secret ladymagcode for "neurotic thinness," and a perusal of three of this month's "health" and "fitness" offerings- Self, Fitness, and Women's Health has shown that there's some serious subliminal self-worth eroding shit going on. Readers are sold the idea of being healthy and strong and fit and end up with a stack of weight loss ads and splashy graphics about having pretty hair. The pervasive "lose weight" message is fed to us like a dog pill slathered in peanut butter, and we're expected to just take it and go happily scampering off.
Women's fitness magazines are packaged and sold as an alternative to the sex obsessed man pleasing tips of the Cosmos of the world, but they're the same shit in a different package. They're still telling us that the way to be happy is to be conventionally attractive and thin and firm and toned, to occupy the socially acceptable amount of space. They're not about pleasing yourself; they're about pleasing others, and their suggestion that they're anything beyond that is insulting and condescending. Where's the magazine that promises to help you squat 150 pounds by June? Where's the guide to starting your own football league? Where's the secret to eating foods that will satisfy you after pounding out a 10 mile half marathon training run?

Cultural Divide: Motherhood Edition

I saw this headline today and rolled my eyes: "Mothers-to-Be Are Getting the Message." I assumed it was either yet another article about neurotic upper-middle class women or yet another article offering undue advice for pregnant women. But it turns out it was neither: it's about a highly successful program (text4baby) that sends regular text messages to women who have a hard time accessing prenatal care and don't read the piles of What to Expect books that accumulate in wealthier homes. The messages offer timely advice, based on the mother's due date, on topics like nutrition, finding doctors, and preparing for birth. A broad coalition of women's health providers and organizations have worked together to design the program, and the CEO says that they are designed to be supportive rather than moralizing: "We worked on tone," she said, "so the messages sound like they're coming from a friend. Not 'you should do this' but 'have you thought about this?'" 96% of women who get the text messages say they would recommend the program to their friends.

My reaction to the program – both initially and upon reading more carefully – made me think about the broad cultural divide between rich and poor, relatively speaking. (Maybe it’s better to say it’s a divide between the highly-educated cultural elite and the rest of America?) The most recent explosion of public discussion about mothering came in reaction to Amy Chua’s new book, Battle Hymn of The Tiger Mother, which contains advice (some tongue-in-cheek) about how to raise highly-educated, successful, ambitious children ready for admission to the Ivy League. What a different target audience, though, than the mothers in the text4baby program.

This division reminds me of something else I’ve been hearing about recently: in the midst of national concern about our failing public schools, there is a new movie making the rounds that critically examines the highly pressurized environment of wealthy suburban and private schools. From the movie’s website: “Race to Nowhere points to the silent epidemic in our schools: cheating has become commonplace, students have become disengaged, stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant, and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.” I haven’t seen the movie, but from what I’ve read it’s an impassioned indictment of one segment of our society's obsession with college applications, and the resulting distortions of adolescents’ lives.

Both of these cases highlight for me the extreme disconnect between different Americans’ experiences because of class, geography, and educational access. I don’t think we can successfully address many of our most pressing social and political problems unless we start to bridge the gap between those experiences.

Feb 7, 2011

Food for Thought

I was talking with someone yesterday who became a teacher in the mid-1960s and has been one ever since (and a brilliant one at that - she was my kindergarten and first grade teacher). She said that she thinks one of the things that happened to public education in the last half-century is that, after the women's movement helped open doors to a wide range of careers for women, our schools lost a lot of their best teachers and would-be teachers. Because teaching had been one of the only careers easily available to college-educated women, many of the smartest and most ambitious women from the pre-1960s generations became educators. After the women's movement, though, many of those women turned to other careers, not least because they saw teaching as one of the old-school "women's jobs" that were symptoms of a more sexist age.

I'm not sure what I think of this hypothesis, so I'm throwing it out there. Do you think that a broadening of women's career options was one of the many reasons the quality of public education declined in the past 40-ish years?

Feb 5, 2011

"Not My Earmarks!" Is the New NIMBY

Shocking revelation: turns out that people like government spending that benefits them, just not government spending that benefits other people. Around the country, people are discovering that the Tea Party candidates they elected to Congress are keeping their campaign promises to eliminate earmarks, but voters hadn't really thought about what that would mean for the earmarks that benefited their own communities.

So here we have the classic "not in my backyard" problem turned inside out. That problem occurs when people think things ranging from integrated schools to sewage treatment plants are good for society, in theory, but don't want to actually have them in their own neighborhoods. This problem is that they think that government spending is bad, in theory, but they DO want to have it in their own neighborhoods.

Taxation and government spending are really at the crux of organized society, it seems to me: we all pool our resources in order to pay for the things that a society needs but individuals can't provide. When we say that we don't want our tax dollars going for earmarks for people across town, or across the country - but we do want earmarks for ourselves - aren't we in effect saying that we don't want to be part of a society with those people across town or across the country?

Feb 4, 2011

The Myth of Reagan's Tax Cuts

Great story on NPR this morning about the enduring myth that Ronald Reagan refused on principle ever to raise taxes. Grover Norquist, for instance, claims that "we're spending too much, not taxing too little. It can be turned around. It was, in fact, when Reagan cut taxes. Tax hikes are what politicians do when they don't have the determination or the competency to govern."

Here's the trick, though: Reagan did cut taxes severely in his first year in office - but then he raised them 11 times before his presidency was over. As historian Douglas Brinkley, the editor of Reagan's diaries, explains, "Ronald Reagan was never afraid to raise taxes. He knew that it was necessary at times." Over time, these tax increases sliced his original tax cut in half.

Why did Reagan have to raise taxes? Because, try as he might, he couldn't find a way to cut the federal budget enough to make up for the revenue lost to his 1981 tax cuts. Sure, he decimated lots of important federal programs - but he raised the defense budget so much that he was faced with a choice of higher taxes instead of a higher deficit. He chose the taxes.

Republicans today, though, who claim to be his heirs, seem to be making the opposite choice. They refuse to even consider tax increases* and continue making exaggerated claims about how they're going to cut federal spending.

I recently attended a presentation by some distinguished historians about studying the 1980s, during which they made the point that the whole decade is overshadowed by the larger-than-life mythical persona of Ronald Reagan. David Stockman, Reagan's budget director, now talks about Reagan-worship as a kind of religion, and Brinkley says that calling Reagan only a tax-cutter is "outright revisionism, if not fabrication of history."

For us to really understand the 1980s, and for us to make progress today, we have to stand on the solid ground of reality, not myth. And that reality is that governments need money, and it's painfully obvious to everyone right now that they don't have enough of it. We cannot possibly cut spending enough to significantly cut the deficit while still funding necessary programs; we will have to find new ways of raising revenue. And that will mean tax increases of some kind, and the sooner we can all agree on that and start debating what kind of tax increases we want, the better off we will be.

* I put an asterisk on this because one of the major things that's left out of the conversation about tax increases is other ways that our governments (federal, state, and local) raise revenue. These are things like the lottery (accounting for $17 billion in 2006), highway tolls, fees for services (did anyone else's car registration costs just go up?), and the like. All of these are regressive taxes, costing proportionally more of a poor person's income than of a rich person's, and some of them - like the lottery - draw revenue overwhelmingly from poor people, who should least be paying it. These revenue sources are often hidden from public view in our discussions of "taxes," and people who argue for tax cuts are then shocked - shocked! - when their highway tolls go up.

Feb 3, 2011

Ensuring Real Reproductive Choice for All Women

The NY Times reports today that the Obama administration is trying to figure out a way to require health insurers under the new health care law to pay all birth control costs – that is, to eliminate co-pays and deductibles for birth control. This is another sign of what a terrifically pro-choice president we have right now: he not only wants to protect abortion rights but he also wants to ensure that all women have a truly robust set of choices they can make about reproduction.

There’s an interesting class dimension to this. The federal government already pays for low- or no-cost birth control services for low-income women through various programs that have been in place since the mid-1960s. Now the Obama Administration seems to be recognizing that adequate birth control can be cost-prohibitive even for women whose incomes aren’t low enough to qualify for the existing federal programs. 

At the same time, though, we’re faced with a Republican Party that is trying to eliminate all abortion coverage from private insurance plans by implementing tax penalties for any plans that continue their coverage. As David Waldman explains at Daily Kos, there is a bill pending in the House of Representatives that would eliminate the current tax-deductibility of any health insurance plan that covers abortion. Right now, if an individual or an employer pays for health insurance, that payment earns various tax credits and deductions. But if this legislation is enacted, any insurance plan that includes abortion coverage would no longer be eligible for those deductions. Since that would be a huge cost to individuals and to employers providing health benefits, the end result would be that those consumers would demand that insurance companies exclude abortion coverage in order to retain the tax-deductible status of their plans.

Moreover, the bill would write the Hyde Amendment into permanent law. This Amendment, which prevents Medicaid and other federal money from paying directly for abortion services and therefore has tremendous effects on poor women, has been on the books since 1977 but currently has to be renewed every year, which at least provides pro-choicers an opportunity to make their case. But the new law would end that yearly renewal and permanently forbid the federal government from spending money on abortion services.

I also worry about some aspects of this Obama Administration effort to end out-of-pocket costs for birth control. My basic concern is that people exaggerate the direct effects of making birth control widely available. As the Times says, about half of all pregnancies in America are unintended, but that has not changed substantially in a while, and it’s not clear from the past fifty years of experience that the broader availability of birth control alone reduces the incidence of unintended pregnancies. Helping women attain reproductive self-determination is a complex process that involves their educational attainment, economic prospects, sexual relationships, and status in society, which can't be accomplished with a daily pill, no matter how cheap that pill is.

Most importantly, the article concludes with a claim by a Brookings Institution scholar that “We have rigorous evidence that every dollar invested in family planning saves more than a dollar in welfare and social service costs for children that result from unintended births.” This claim is nearly fifty years old and was one of the main reasons that the federal government began to subsidize birth control services for poor women in the mid-1960s. In this case, it's entirely irrelevant since the proposed regulations have nothing to do with government expenditures, but instead are about how private insurance companies spend their money. The fact that it even came up in this context indicates how much we stigmatize poor women's (i.e. welfare recipients') reproduction and see it as a cause of our society's problems. 

I’m all for the universal accessibility of high-quality birth control and family planning care, but I worry a lot about seeing birth control as a panacea for very complex problems. Affordable, safe, and reliable birth control must be available to every American woman, but that is only a first step to ensuring that all women have reproductive autonomy. And it’s time to stop seeing women’s reproductive decisions as a component of fiscal policy. Whatever the effect on the government’s bottom line, access to high-quality family planning services is something we as a society should provide to all women.

Feb 1, 2011

"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised": A Clarification

As I watch the revolution unfold in Egypt, I find myself with lots to learn and not a ton to say because I just don't feel like I understand the situation well enough to contribute to the conversation. But I have heard, more than once, a reference to Gil Scott-Heron's song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," because of the use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. For instance, one of my favorite historical bloggers, Historiann, wrote a post called "The Revolution Will Be Tweeted and Facebooked As Well As Televised," and on All Things Considered last night Michele Norris said, in a report on Al-Jazeera's coverage of Egypt, "so the revolution was televised."

But I think these references are missing the point. The song's message was that people would have to get up off the couch and participate because "the revolution will not be televised....The revolution will be live." It was a critique of the numbing effect of the mass media, represented in 1970 (when Scott-Heron wrote the song) by television and advertising. Twisting it to say that the revolution will be televised/tweeted/internet-ed subverts the enormity of what's happening in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. The internet may be an organizing tool, but the revolution is not just being tweeted: it is happening live, right now, and hundreds of thousands of people have gotten off their proverbial couches to join in.

Jan 31, 2011

Fighting Over the Founders - Or Not

We all know that there's been lots of talk about "the founders" recently, especially as the Tea Party and the right wing have been using factually inaccurate references to "the founders" to bolster their political arguments - like Michelle Bachmann claiming that founders like John Quincy Adams* "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States"** or Glenn Beck arguing that the 3/5 clause in the Constitution was actually written "because if slaves in the South were counted as full human beings, they could never abolish slavery."***

So I was amused to see 

this yesterday in a fellowship description for historians:
 "The project should address the history and/or legacy – broadly defined – of the American Revolution and the nation’s founding ideas....Please note that neither the fellowships nor the Starr Center have any political agenda or orientation. We encourage a broad reading of such terms as ‘founders’ and ‘founding ideas.’” [bold in original]

Clearly the current vogue of using and mis-using the founders has frightened some scholars and funders-of-scholars.

* John Quincy Adams was the 6th President of the United States. He was 9 years old when the Declaration of Independence was signed and 20 when the Constitution was written. He was not, therefore, one of the signers or writers – although his father, John Adams, was.

** No matter how you define the “founders” – as the people who wrote and signed those documents, or who fought in the Revolution, or whatever – many of them owned slaves and many, if not most, defended the institution of slavery. See: 3/5 compromise.

*** The 3/5 compromise had nothing to do with abolishing slavery – unless Beck means that it helped galvanize opposition to slavery 70 years after the Constitution was ratified. The compromise helped save the Constitution, because during the Constitutional Convention both northerners and southerners seemed likely to walk out if they didn’t get their way on the question of how slaves would count for purposes of taxation and of apportionment in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. In large part the southerners worried that, if only free whites were counted, they would be outnumbered in the House of Representatives (because the white population of the north was greater than that of the south) and thus that slavery would be abolished by an act of Congress. The compromise had the effect of giving free white men in the slaveholding states much more relative political power than their counterparts in non-slaveholding states – and, if anything, of protecting slavery for the following seven decades as Congress repeatedly voted to expand slavery (see: Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act…).

Gender is confusing

The NY Times reports this morning on an effort at Wikipedia to increase the number of women who contribute to its entries - because according to a study last year, only 13% of those who contribute to the online encyclopedia are women. I find this frustrating and befuddling, especially because Wikipedia seems to be the ultimate anonymous forum in which asserting your knowledge has few, if any, negative effects. The people at Wikipedia, including the female head of the Wikipedia foundation, would like to reduce the gender disparity, but they're not really sure why men dominate so much. Intriguingly, this statistic mirrors the gender breakdown of contributors to the nation's op-ed pages and other opinion forums, according to the Op-Ed Project, which works to develop strong female voices on the opinion pages.

For a long time I've been curious to get a good explanation of why men dominate Jeopardy. I suspect it has something to do with confidence in one's knowledge, but that's just a hypothesis. In any case, I wonder if it's related to the Wikipedia issue, and the op-ed issue - whether all are representations of women feeling less capable than men of sharing their knowledge assertively with the world.

Jan 26, 2011

The Toxic Mix of Race, Economics, and Education

Yesterday I saw this disturbing headline: “Black Mother Jailed for Sending Kids to White School District.” Then I read the article, which explains that a mother living in Akron, Ohio registered her kids in the nearby suburban school district of Copley Township, using her father’s (the kids’ grandfather’s) address. She was charged and convicted for tampering with court records for lying on school enrollment forms, and her father was charged with grand theft for allegedly “stealing” the $30,500 that the school district spent educating the kids. Both of these charges are felonies. The mom has been sentenced to 10 days in jail and 3 years of probation, and if her conviction stands she won’t be able to complete the teaching degree she’s working towards because she’ll have a felony on her record.

I dug around the internets (sic) a bit and found a few more interesting tidbits of info about this case. First of all, the school district apparently tried to get the charges reduced to misdemeanors and settle out of court but the prosecutor refused to negotiate. Secondly, the judge clearly wanted to make an example out of the mom: she explained that she sentenced the mom to jail “so that others who think they might defraud the school system perhaps will think twice.” County officials say they get fewer than 5 cases each year of students registered for schools outside their home districts. I find it pretty horrifying, then, that since this “criminal case is the only one anyone remembers in Summit County,” prosecutors picked a poor black woman living in housing projects in Akron to target. Thirdly, the school district hired a private investigator to follow the mom (and other parents suspected of similar deceptions) around town and track her kids’ movements to and from school. The investigator testified during the trial “that he conducted what amounted to daily surveillance of Williams-Bolar's activities on school mornings, using a video camera to follow the route she drove with her children,” according to news coverage.

But the most striking thing about this is the racial overtones of the situation, reflected in the fact that the original article I saw, which granted was on a website called, had the title “Black Mother Jailed for Sending Kids to White School District.” This speaks to the enormous de facto segregation of our schools today: urban Akron schools are, de facto, black, and suburban Copley Township schools are white. America’s schools are more segregated now than they were in 1968, and successful programs that created economically and racially integrated schools have been systematically dismantled. This is true even though lots of studies have shown that kids – including very poor kids – do better in economically-integrated schools than in economically-segregated ones. Do I even need to say that the same is true of racial integration?

Our system of local control of school districts (and therefore local dollars) has long been connected to segregation, and clearly it continues to be so. Historian Matthew Lassiter, in his book The Silent Majorityshows that beginning in the 1970s, suburban white parents zealously defended the racial segregation of their schools by arguing that such segregation was merely the result of natural economic forces, and was therefore constitutional. What they failed to acknowledge, though, was the massive government intervention that had created the suburbs themselves, especially in a former Rust Belt state like Ohio. Why are suburbs so white? Partially because our government failed for decades to enforce race-neutral housing laws. Why are poor black people living in public housing concentrated in declining urban centers, rather than in the suburbs? Because that’s where the government built public housing! Had that housing been built in Copley Township (the suburbs) instead of in Akron (the urban core), this story might look very different. 

I find it appalling that we care so little about other people that we’re unwilling to help pay for the educations of people outside our own town or city boundaries – but, of course, many of those town boundaries were drawn specifically to exclude people of other races or economic classes. Here’s a solution to the Ohio case to consider: if those two school districts just merged, the county could drop its case and provide a good education to all kids, black and white, rich and poor. Too bad it’s just not that simple. 

Jan 25, 2011

Still Trusting Women, 38 Years Later

Saturday was the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s been some internet chatter about abortion rights over the past few days. I often shy away from writing about this because I generally feel like the debate about abortion is just beating a dead horse – everyone has said everything there is to say about it a thousand times over, and I’m not sure what new ideas I can add to the debate. Plus, I spend many, many hours every week thinking about birth control and abortion (see: dissertation) and it’s hard to distill those thoughts down into a blog post. But in honor of the occasion, I’m going to try.

Plus, abortion is back in the news. Last week we learned that Republicans across the country are introducing a record number of anti-abortion laws in state legislatures, aiming to restrict access to abortion even more than it already is (88% of American counties have no abortion provider); that Congressional Republicans are working to make federal limits on abortion access even more stringent, effectively trying to force health insurance companies not to cover abortion; that even in New York City, the “abortion capital of America”, abortion is “complicated”; and that, as always, poor women are getting the worst treatment – and no one is paying attention. By the by, earlier today I was reading Michelle Goldberg’s book The Means of Reproduction and found that the same guy who’s sponsoring the latest Congressional anti-abortion legislation, New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith, has spent lots of time lobbying Latin American countries to ban abortion – because, apparently, interfering with women’s lives here in the U.S. isn’t enough for him.

For me the most cynical anti-abortion arguments are those tying abortion to racism – especially when these arguments are made by white people with little demonstrated interest in actually fighting racism. Rick Santorum is the latest to get into this game. Remember him? He’s a former Senator from Pennsylvania who lost his 2006 re-election campaign by the largest margin of any sitting Senator since 1980. Last week he said this in an interview about abortion:

"The question is -- and this is what Barack Obama didn't want to answer: Is that human life a person under the Constitution? And Barack Obama says no….I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, 'We are going to decide who are people and who are not people.'"  The implication was clearly that because of the history of slavery, African-Americans must be anti-abortion.

Ta-Nehesi Coates has a brilliant takedown of this statement in which he picks apart, piece by piece, the analogy Santorum was trying to draw between abortion and slavery. As Coates admits, though, his post lacks any analysis of the way gender operates in this statement, so I’m going to add that, with a bit of history thrown in for fun.

For a very long time black women in America have been faced with coercion in reproductive matters. In slavery this included rapes by slaveowners resulting in pregnancy and confiscation of their children to sell; in this century it has included forced and uninformed sterilization, confiscation of children for unproven offenses (ranging from being in an abusive relationship to drug use), lack of access to gynecological care, and inaccessible abortion care resulting in forced childbearing.

In the 1960s, when the use of birth control became more widespread, a myth spread that “the black community” believed that birth control was a government effort to carry out genocide by limiting the number of black babies. This myth has been perpetuated ever since and is often used by anti-abortion activists. Melissa Harris-Perry wrote a fabulous article in The Nation last year about efforts of this kind by Georgia Right to Life, saying that “Georgia Right to Life has revived this racial masquerade by portraying its opposition to reproductive rights as a campaign for racial justice.” As Harris-Perry beautifully points out, Georgia Right to Life (like other pro-lifers) doesn’t seem nearly as concerned about ensuring a good quality of life for actual black children as it is about black fetuses.

Anyway, back to that myth. The truth is more like this: in the 1960s, there was a vocal segment of male leadership in the Black Power movement that argued that blacks needed to increase their numerical presence in order to gain more power in America. They called on black women to have more babies to further the cause. Jesse Jackson said in 1971, for instance, that “Virtually all the security we have is in the number of children we produce.” (Jackson later changed his mind and became a support of reproductive rights, including abortion rights.) Many black women, though, did not like being told how or when to reproduce by black men any more than they liked being told by other people. As Jennifer Nelson demonstrates in her book Women of Color in the Reproductive Rights Movement, black women were among the first to develop a truly robust concept of reproductive rights that included the right to decide when to have children (that is, to not be forcibly sterilized), the right to decide when not have children (access to birth control and abortion), and the right to take care of their children once they were born (child care services, living wages, adequate medical care, etc.). Frances Beal, a SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) activist and founder of its Black Women’s Liberation Committee, wrote in 1969:

“Black women have the right and the responsibility to determine when it is in the interest of the struggle to have children or not to have them. It is also her right and responsibility to determine when it is in her own best interests to have children, how many she will have, and how far apart and this right must not be relinquished to anyone. The lack of the availability of safe birth control, the forced sterilization practices and the inability to obtain legal abortions are all symptoms of a decadent society that jeopardizes the health of black women (and thereby the entire black race)….”

The fallacy that “the black community” has long opposed birth control speaks to a deeper issue: as with many social movements, men in the Black Power movement were seen to speak for the movement as a whole, and indeed for the entire race at times, silencing women’s voices on an issue that was, indeed, hugely important to them.

So back to Rick Santorum and Barack Obama: Santorum tapped into this long history, perhaps more than he knew, when he questioned the right of “a black man” to pronounce a verdict on abortion. But Obama had the best answer of all: when he was asked during the presidential campaign what his position on reproductive rights was, he answered “I trust women. Period.” And to me, at the end of the day, that’s absolutely what it’s all about.  

Jan 21, 2011

Some Thoughts About Sargent Shriver

Earlier this week Sargent Shriver died at the age of 95, prompting P. to say “oh, he’s in your dissertation, and he died, so that means your dissertation is really about history!” Thanks, P. But yes, Sargent Shriver does play a substantial role in my dissertation, which is about a topic people don’t usually associate with him – birth control – so it offers a pretty unique vantage point from which to think about his legacy.

Shriver was John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the first director of the Peace Corps. Within months of taking office, Lyndon Johnson appointed him to lead the war on poverty, which would become one of Johnson’s signature initiatives. Shriver helped shape the Economic Opportunity Act and was the first and most important director of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), which carried out a whole range of anti-poverty initiatives during the 1960s, from Head Start to job training to the creation of community health centers.

From within the OEO, Shriver led the distribution of the federal government’s first grants to set up family planning programs in poor communities, which is how I came to him. Although he was devoutly Catholic and initially opposed birth control (and always abortion), he came to recognize that locally-run family planning programs were an important way for poor women to take charge of their own lives.

That was his style: he believed in community control of anti-poverty programs and he was willing to experiment with nearly any strategy that could help ease poverty. Donald Baker, who was the general counsel of the OEO, later recalled of Shriver: “He just delighted having around him people who were able to work on new ideas and find  imaginative ways. The last thing he would ever have wanted to do was administer an agency that was handing out money in a routine way, putting it in an envelope and sending it off year after year after year.” He cared deeply about helping the poor in America and around the world, and he was willing to tempt controversy in order to establish the most effective programs. When controversy came his way as a result of the OEO’s family planning grants, he adamantly defended their importance.

Bono published an op-ed in the Times this week describing his memories of Sargent Shriver’s legacy from the 1960s. “His faith demanded action, from him, from all of us,” Bono wrote. “For the Word to become flesh, we had to become the eyes, the ears, the hands of a just God. Injustice could, in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Be Overcome.’” I'm not usually given to religious thinking, but this seems to me a pretty eloquent statement of all of our responsibilities to help make the world a better place. 

Sargent Shriver’s death this week is particularly striking because it comes at the same time as the Republicans prepare to eviscerate many of today’s poverty assistance programs. The House Republican Study Committee released a report a few days ago outlining a “Spending Reduction Act of 2011” which purports to reduce federal spending by $2.5 billion over the next 10 years. How? By cutting a lot of programs important to the poor, especially women. Proposed eliminations include, incidentally, family planning funding, and also the Legal Services Corporation (which provides lawyers for the poor, most of whom are women seeking help with domestic violence, custody, and eviction cases), the Community Development Fund, and the Hope VI program to renovate and restore public housing. The Committee would also like to eliminate various environmental programs, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, high speed rail grants, and public financing of presidential elections.

So, WWRSSS? What Would R. Sargent Shriver Say? The war on poverty was truly a high point in our nation’s history of anti-poverty efforts. It was a time when everything was on the table: from the highest levels of the federal government came the mandate to experiment with lots of anti-poverty initiatives to see what worked. Contrary to some conservative talking points, this was not just about giving out cash. Lyndon Johnson was fond of saying he wanted to give “a hand up, not a handout,” and he told an aide during the launch of the war on poverty, “Now, you tell Shriver, no doles. We don’t want any doles.” The whole effort was based on a belief that poverty had to be attacked on all fronts, and that the only organization capable of such a “war” was the federal government. And that came from a foundational understanding that the most affluent nation in the world had a responsibility to guarantee a basic standard of living to all of its citizens, including the poorest. It’s up to us to carry on this legacy by fighting as hard as we can against today’s reactionary Republican proposals.

Jan 20, 2011

"The Ballot or The Bullet," Malcolm X and Joyce Kaufman

After Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot on January 8, a lot of (liberal) people argued that the political vitriol of the past few years was to blame. Joyce Kaufman, a conservative radio host, emerged as a prime example of this trend because last summer, she told a Tea Party rally:

“I am convinced that the most important thing the founding fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave me a Second Amendment. And if ballots don’t work, bullets will. I’ve never in my life thought that the day would come where I would tell individual citizens that you are responsible for being the militia that the founding fathers designed – they were very specific. You need to be prepared to fight tyranny.”

When I heard that, my mind went back forty-seven years to Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Speaking in Cleveland in April 1964, Malcolm X used the conveniently alliterative juxtaposition of “ballot” and “bullet” to argue that African-Americans needed to turn to black nationalism to strengthen their communities politically and economically. Specifically, they had to use their voting power to elect candidates who would represent their needs. His anger that day focused on politicians – especially in the Democratic party – who failed to recognize Black voting power, protect Blacks’ voting rights, and represent the African-Americans who voted for them. As he told his audience, speaking of Lyndon Johnson and Congressional Democrats, “they have got a con game going on, a political con game, and you and I are in the middle.”

Of course, he had more radical demands than for Blacks to exercise their voting power. He also argued that all members of Congress elected “from a state or a district where the voting rights of the people are violated,” who were therefore elected by constituencies that excluded Blacks, “should be expelled from Congress.” Because Blacks made up numerical majorities in many of these districts, he insisted that when free and fair elections were finally held, Black candidates would win these seats.

First and foremost, then, he argued that Blacks should use all available power to attain representation in the government and to strengthen their communities from within. But then he got to the bullets, saying that “if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet.” If Blacks were not able to gain full political representation appropriate to their numbers, they would have to take more dramatic steps to ensure that representation. 

Probably the most controversial thing he said was: "We will work with anybody, anywhere, at any time, who is genuinely interested in tackling the problem head-on, nonviolently as long as the enemy is nonviolent, but violent when the enemy gets violent….[W]here the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it's time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. It is constitutionally legal to own a shotgun or a rifle.” 

This recommendation, of course, terrified many whites, both liberal and conservative, and infuriated many black civil rights leaders working in the nonviolent tradition. The FBI’s file documenting its investigation into Malcolm X (not solely related to this speech, of course) amounted to over 4,000 pages. Malcolm X never turned violent himself, although he did die from an assassin’s bullet less thab a year after giving this speech.

I’ve been mulling over the two speeches since the Giffords shooting but still can’t decide what I think about the relationship between political speech and political violence, which is why I haven’t written about this sooner. The first thing that struck me is the similarity in message: both asserted their ultimate Constitutional right, enshrined in the 2nd Amendment, to defend themselves from tyranny when their government failed to provide protection. But we interpret these speeches very differently, based primarily on our own political persuasions and our understandings of the contexts in which Malcolm X and Kaufman spoke.

My strongest feeling is that words have consequences – but they have many consequences, to many people, and their meanings are not always so obvious. A group of scholars called Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” the 7th most important American speech in the 20th century. I’m fairly confident that no one will give a similar honor to Joyce Kaufman, which I think testifies to the fact that we have to interpret political speech not only by the words it contains but also by the context in which it is contained. The words “ballot” and “bullet” meant very different things to Malcolm X and Joyce Kaufman, and they used those words in totally disparate contexts. I don’t think either speech directly caused any violence, but I do think they both reflected and contributed to political climates in which deep tensions in the American political system exploded into violence, both literal and figurative. Let’s just hope that the wave of assassinations of the mid- to late-1960s has no parallels in the next few years. 

Jan 18, 2011

At least they're honest...

I just saw that on Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor candidly acknowledged that the upcoming debate over raising the debt ceiling will be "a leverage moment for Republicans," who will use the negotiations to get some of the stuff they want from Obama. He also admitted, though, that the Republicans will eventually have to agree to raise the debt ceiling because the alternative is a U.S. government default. I don't know much about negotiation, but it seems to me that having admitted that he will eventually vote to raise the ceiling, he has already lost some of that leverage. So now we get to wait and see how it will play out.

Also, check out my earlier post about the coming debt ceiling debate.

Fifty Years of Perma-War

Fifty years ago yesterday, three days before he left office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower delivered his farewell speech to the American public and coined the term “military-industrial complex.” It was a remarkably prescient speech and since we’re now embroiled in two seemingly-endless wars, I thought this would be an appropriate time to recap what Eisenhower said.

Coming from a president who was elected largely because of his military background (he led the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II) and because he opposed a policy of "non-intervention" in Korea, his speech was a remarkable call to retain “balance” in our government and prevent military interests from dominating the political process. He noted that, for the first time, the United States had created a “permanent arms industry of vast proportions” in the early years of the Cold War. Until World War II war production had been accomplished by pre-existing civilian industries shifting focus, as the auto and airplane industries did to produce vehicles for the army during WWII. But after World War II the factories that had sprung up to create war materials never shut down. Instead, because the Cold War threatened hot war any moment, those production facilities, and the companies running them, became a permanent part of our military – and our economy.

“The total influence [of the military] -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government,” Eisenhower said. “We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications….In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

He warned in particular about the potential for military interests to influence our government so much that they “endanger our liberties or democratic processes.” And indeed this has happened: military contractors like Blackwater (now Xe Services) and Northrup Grummon help determine U.S. government policy through their lobbyists. Our wars get separate budgetary accounting from all other government programs, and those budgets are protected from cuts more than any other kind of government spending. As the Gulf Coast's residents struggled to pay their bills and keep their homes after last summer's oil spill, BP continued to pull in hundreds of millions of dollars in federal military contracts.

Eisenhower further warned that, “as we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage.” Yet every day our deficit balloons and we refuse to pay today for the services our country needs now. We have, indeed, mortgaged our grandchildren’s future to pay more than one trillion dollars for two needless wars – while at the same time we refuse to pay for our children to get an education that will help them, and our country, prosper.

On an issue that I care about personally – the funding of our nation’s universities – Eisenhower was equally astute. He observed that as government research contracts increased exponentially in the Cold War era to fund scientific and military research, “the prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever presentand is gravely to be regarded.” Even more ominously, he said, “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” And today we are seeing a major threat to academic disciplines that cannot bring in government research dollars for their universities – namely, the humanities. Funding for the humanities is dropping precipitously in universities across the country, and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities face constant budget threats to their already miniscule appropriations. In the meantime, when military leaders announce budget cuts, it’s front page news.

It’s not often that I agree with proclamations of American exceptionalism, especially from the mouths of Republicans, but here’s one I can throw my weight behind: “America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.” We must always remember that military and economic power can win us submission but not friendship around the world.

And, to conclude with Eisenhower’s words:
“We pray that peoples of all faiths, all races, all nations, may have their great human needs satisfied; that those now denied opportunity shall come to enjoy it to the full; that all who yearn for freedom may experience its spiritual blessings; that those who have freedom will understand, also, its heavy responsibilities; that all who are insensitive to the needs of others will learn charity; that the scourges of poverty, disease and ignorance will be made to disappear from the earth, and that, in the goodness of time, all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.”

Jan 14, 2011

Roundup of Historical Commentary on the Arizona Shooting

I do have some of my own thoughts to share about the Arizona shooting, but first I want to point you to some of the best things I've read this week putting those shootings in a longer historical context. I don't agree with everything these people say but I think their writing is thoughtful and genuinely contributes something to our understanding of the shootings.

The New York Times hosted an online discussion about "Assassins and American History," asking "Does political speech lead to political violence?" "We can't know," says presidential biographer Robert Dallek, adding that "only one thing seems certain...the ease with which perpetrators can acquire the means to commit mass murder." Jill Lepore calls the question itself "troubling," and asks instead, "Shouldn't we be demanding more than that our leaders' political speech be, merely, not incendiary? Ought it not, instead, elevate?" Oh, for the days of Thomas Jefferson! Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute argues that political speech has often been incendiary without inciting violence, not least in the 1800 presidential election. What assassins have in common, he insists, is mental illness – not political ideas. True, says historian Steven Mintz, but political violence has spiked during “periods of civil unrest and bitter partisanship” throughout American history. Catherine McNicol Stock adds an economic view to Mintz’s assessment, saying that “times of extreme economic and social dislocation create a landscape ripe for political extremism -- expressed in both words and deeds.”
But I think Julian Zelizer sums up my thoughts in this discussion best when he writes, “even without violent consequences, the kind of political acrimony that we have witnessed feeds a dysfunctional culture where citizens and politicians turn their opponents into enemies and vilify those with whom they disagree. This creates the potential for dangerous actions and, at a minimum, makes political dialogue impossible. The fact that so many people instantly wondered about the connection between political speech and the shootings in Tucson suggests that something has gone wrong in the way that we debate political issues. Too much is at stake, and the risks are too high to continue with this kind of toxic political culture.”
Over at SalonGlenn LaFantasie describes about a long “American tradition of political violence” going back to the 17th century, and argues that this is the legacy of a nation having been born out of a violent revolution. His argument is a bit circular, since as he notes this political violence existed long before the nation of the United States did, but I still think he makes some interesting points.
David Greenberg argues that "of course" the shooting was political, in the same way that many assassination attempts throughout history have been - because there is "an artificial distinction we routinely draw between political and psychological motives."
But the Secret Service disagrees: NPR’s Morning Edition had a piece today about a 1999 Secret Service study of 83 assassination attempts  since 1949, in which researchers interviewed the assassins or would-be assassins. The study reached an interesting conclusion: the common theme among the perpetrators was that they felt invisible and believed that killing a political leader would bring them fame and attention. A psychologist who led the study concluded that “It was very, very rare for the primary motive to be political, though there were a number of attackers who appeared to clothe their motives with some political rhetoric."
And finally, in my head I keep coming back to the words of noted public intellectual Ani DiFranco, who wrote in the wake of the Columbine shootings: “and schoolkids keep trying to teach us / what guns are all about / confuse liberty with weaponry / and watch your kids act it out / and every year now like christmas / some boy gets the milkfed suburban blues / reaches for the available arsenal / and saunters off to make the news / and the women in the middle / are learning what poor women have always known / that the edge is closer than you think / when the men bring the guns home.”