Mojo - January 2010

The World According to Howard Zinn

| Sun Jan. 31, 2010 2:34 PM EST

In his 2002 autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn wrote:


To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.

What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.


There was nothing naive or sentimental about Zinn’s positions. He had seen firsthand the worst that humanity was capable of, and simply chose to confront it as a challenge rather than accept it as our final destiny.

In this excerpt from the 2004 documentary also called Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Zinn describes his experiences as an Air Force bombadier in World War II, which helped inspire his life’s work. The “great question of our time,” he later wrote, is “how to achieve justice with struggle, but without war.”

 

Howard Zinn’s legacy is the millions of people he has educated–and will continue to educate–through his personal example, his writings, and myriad projects based on his work.  Here’s one of my recent favorites, an illustrated video on American empire.

 

This post originally appeared on The Unsilent Generation.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Wash Post Quotes Bogus Tea Party Leader

| Sat Jan. 30, 2010 12:17 PM EST

Looking for further evidence that the Washington Post has lost its edge covering politics? Try clicking on this story.

The piece, titled "Republicans woo 'tea party' members, but face activists' distrust of GOP," tells of RNC Chairman Michael Steele's attempt to bring this outrage movement into the Big Tent. Sounds like the kind of story that would feature lots of voices from the Tea Party.

There's one. The only representative of the Tea Party movement quoted by reporter Philip Rucker is one Dale Robertson, owner of TeaParty.org, who claims to represent 6 million people.  Robertson serves as the face of the "distrust" that the Post tries to portray in the piece. Rucker writes, "Robertson said he has reached out repeatedly to Steele but has been rebuffed. 'He hasn't called me back,' Robertson said. 'I find that disconcerting.'"

Also disconcerting is that the Post published that quote with a straight face. If the paper had bothered to assign someone to cover the burgeoning Tea Party movement, its editors would have known that Robertson doesn't actually represent anyone, except maybe himself. Nor is this the first time Robertson has complained to a gullible reporter that the GOP is ignoring him. But the Post should have known that Michael Steele, a black man, isn't likely to return the calls of a guy who just last week sent out a fundraising appeal featuring a photo of Obama dressed as a pimp.

Not convinced yet that the Post should have at least provided some context on Robertson's complaint about Steele's nonresponsiveness? Then consider this: Last year, Robertson was asked to leave a Houston Tea Party for carrying a sign comparing taxpayers to "niggars."

Like many of the media hounds claiming to represent the grassroots Tea Party movement, Robertson's main credential is opportunism. Last spring, as the movement was taking root, he had the foresight to register a whole bunch of tea party domain names, including teaparty.org, Texas Tea Party, Houston Tea Party, HoustonTXTeaParty, and so on. Then he tried to sell the names back to the actual Texas tea party leaders, making veiled threats about lawsuits over their use of the Tea Party name. The former Navy officer who claims to be running for governor of Texas has even put some of the domain names on eBay, with the stated intent of saving his house from foreclosure. While real Tea Party leaders have distanced themselves from Robertson, the media have embraced him and his false claim that he founded the entire Tea Party movement. Despite efforts by Tea Party leaders to publicize Robertson's phony creds and racist sign-making habits, Robertson has appeared on Fox News, C-Span, Russia Today, as well as a host of radio shows, and he's been quoted with authority in a variety of newspapers. The Washington Post quote, though, is definitely a coup for Roberston, and a true embarrassment for the Post, which really should have known better.

The Gender Gap in College Admissions

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 8:12 PM EST

Women outnumber men in both applications to college and degrees earned, so much so that gender affords some male applicants the extra boost they need to gain admission. Is this practice fair? And more importantly, why are fewer men applying to and graduating from college? The Los Angeles Times gives an interesting take on these questions in this editorial. An excerpt: 

A 2007 analysis by U.S. News & World Report, based on the data sent by colleges for the magazine's annual rankings, found that the admissions rate for women averaged 13 percentage points lower than that for men. But percentages don't tell the whole story. It could be that the men were stronger candidates, or they might have applied in areas of engineering and science where women's numbers are still lower. But such justifications, even if true, are unlikely to fully explain these numbers. At schools such as the University of California, where admissions rely overwhelmingly on statistical measures of academic achievement such as grades and test scores, the disparities don't appear. Far more women than men applied to UCLA—the UC's most selective campus—last year. The university accepted about the same percentage of each, with a slight edge to the women. As a result, the freshman class has close to 800 more women than men.

In recent years, several college leaders have admitted that their institutions give a boost to male applicants to maintain gender balance on campus. Most students of either sex, they point out, prefer such balance. If Vassar accepted equal percentages of each sex, women would outnumber men by more than 2 to 1.

The dean of admissions at Kenyon College in Ohio, a formerly all-male school, brought the matter to broad public attention in 2006 with an Op-Ed article for the New York Times describing the dilemma of her admissions office. "What messages are we sending young women that they must . . . be even more accomplished than men to gain admission to the nation's top colleges?" Jennifer Delahunty Britz wrote.

Public Doesn't Care About Filibusters

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 6:08 PM EST

Earlier this week, New Mexico senator Tom Udall, a freshman Democrat, introduced a resolution that, should it succeed, would set in motion a process that could lead to the elimination of the filibuster at the start of the 112th Congress next January. (If that sentence sounded unnecessarily clunky and complicated, well, welcome to the Senate.)

Udall's resolution seeks to reverse the long-held notion known as the "continuing body" theory, which posits that Senate rules transfer from one Congress to the next, and thus can only be changed by a two-thirds vote (or, more likely, an act of God). "Continuing body" sounds like a great name for a New Age healing ritual, but it's a really lousy way to run a government: as a result of the built-in impediments to reform, the Senate operates on a set of rules that only a handful of its members ever voted for. Instead, Udall contends that every Congress has the authority to set its own rules, under Article 1 Section 5 of the Constitution. He's probably right.

Beyond the Immediate Needs in Haiti

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 5:58 PM EST

In the days since the January 12 earthquake pummeled Haiti, aid has poured in from around the world through governments, the United Nations, and non-governmental organizations. And while the immediate relief work has been difficult and at times frustrating, workers on the ground there have made one thing clear: We should be thinking in terms of decades, not days, when it comes to assisting the tiny nation.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, staffers for a number of NGOs in the country emphasized the need for long-term support. The outpouring from private citizens has been substantial; InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based NGOs focusing on global poverty, this week reported that Americans have given $350 million to support relief work. Much of that is helping meet immediate needs for food, water, medical supplies, and shelter. But with the devastation already retreating from the headlines, the needs for the next months, years, and possibly decades should not be forgotten, they said.

"We're not talking years as in 2, 3 or 5... but more of the long-term solutions for Haiti," said Amy Gaver, director of international response and programs at the Red Cross. "Haiti has needed a global solution for systemic problems for a very long time." The relief work, said Graver, should include planning for sustainability, with a focus on the long-term and a plan for organizations within the country to assume control of rebuilding.

Mario Flores, director of disaster response field ops at Habitat for Humanity International, said as many as 200,000 houses were severely damaged, and 1.2 to 1.5 million people face displacement. "Haiti had a lot of problems before the earthquake; the earthquake has only exacerbated those problems," said Flores. NGOs and governments working in the country, he said, should take the time "to really think through what the long-term recovery is going to look like."

The quake and resulting exodus from Port-au-Prince is also stressing other areas of the country as an estimated one million city dwellers return to the countryside. George Packer explains the country's long-term needs vividly in a piece in the New Yorker this week as well.

The country's extreme poverty and fraught politics, of course, have both intensified the impacts of the natural catastrophe. "The situation before earthquake was quite precarious," said Kathryn Bolles, director of emergency health and nutrition at Save the Children. Relief, then, must also seek to address the bigger challenges in the nation. And it's also compounded by concern that this recent quake may be a prelude to more extreme seismic catastrophes in the region, and the ever-present danger of severe tropical storms.

As the long-term challenges begin to become clear, the greatest need is still for monetary donations. Here's a list of some of the most effective NGOs to give to.

Golf-Loving, Ethically Challenged Rep. to Retire

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 5:38 PM EST

Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), who has recently come under fire for his shady charity, won't seek reelection in the fall. In a statement released this afternoon, the nine-term GOP congressmen attributed the abrupt announcement "to the recent diagnosis of my wife" with an "'incurable' autoimmune disease." No mention was made of allegations made surrounding the Frontier Foundation, a six-year-old educational nonprofit that has bankrolled golfing trips for the congressman instead of handing out scholarships. The Internal Revenue Service is still determining whether to investigate Frontier and Buyer, its "honorary chairman."

While Buyer's decision can be read as a victory for government accountability groups, it is less clear what effect it will have on voters in Indiana. A Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesperson crowed to The Hill, "Instead of drinking Eric Cantor and the NRCC’s Kool-Aid, House Republicans continue to show a lack of confidence in their ability to take back the House as Republican retirements are mounting and their own members refuse to invest in the [National Republican Congressional Committee]." Questions about the foundation did little to damage Buyer's lead in the opinion polls—Republicans maintain a 14-point edge in his district. With a less ethically challenged candidate, it now seems even more likely that the GOP will hold Buyer's seat in the 2010 midterm elections.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

US Makes Copenhagen Climate Pledge Official (Sort of)

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 4:28 PM EST

The United States committed to cutting emissions 17 percent by 2020 under the Copenhagen Accord on Thursday. But it attached a pretty big caveat. The commitment only takes effect if Congress passes legislation requiring those reductions. That's one very monumental "if."

The US was responding to a Jan. 31 deadline by which all countries who had joined the Copenhagen Accord in Denmark in December had to list their non-binding pledges to cut greenhouse gases. The US promised to cut emissions "in the range of 17%, in conformity with anticipated U.S. energy and climate legislation, recognizing that the final target will be reported to the Secretariat in light of enacted legislation."

The US Climate Action Network has been keeping track of commitments from other countries. Only 26 countries out of 192 countries have associated with the accord so far (the document was so hotly contested that no nations agreed to formally sign it.) However, those countries represent approximately 72 percent of total worldwide emissions.

While the US commitment is wishy-washy, on Friday the Obama administration did announce a plan to reduce the federal government's emissions 28 percent by 2020. White House Council on Environmental Quality chair Nancy Sutley told reporters the aim was for the government to "lead by example."

And it's not a small example: the federal government is the country's largest individual consumer of power, representing an estimated 1.5 percent of the country's total energy use. It spent $24.5 billion on electricity and fuel in 2008, and it is responsible for 500,00 buildings, 600,000 vehicles, and purchases $500 billion in goods and services each year. Sutley estimated that if the government meets its targets, it would save 205 million barrels of oil each year and would be the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the road.

Of course, this is only a drop in the bucket when compared to the emissions produced by the entire US. But after Obama's disappointing comments on energy in his State of the Union address earlier in the week, it was a welcome piece of good news on the environment front.

 

O'Keefe Might Have Been On To Something

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 4:26 PM EST

James O'Keefe, the conservative activist of ACORN video fame who was arrested this week for his involvement in an alleged hare-brained scheme to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu's phone lines, posted a statement today claiming that the real aim of the caper was to prove that Landrieu's office wasn't answering constituents' calls. The explanation for why he, and three accomplices dressed up as phone company workers, allegedly entered a federal building under false pretenses has come off as laughable. Which is too bad. O'Keefe's suspicion about the Louisiana senator is a common one, particularly among Tea Party activists, and not just in Louisiana. Many of them are convinced that members of Congress are ignoring them, largely because the activists have a nearly impossible time getting any live person on the line in their offices.

Last month, I hung out with a group of activists from the Tea Party Patriots who were in DC trying to lobby the Senate against the health care bill. Mark Meckler, one of TPP's national coordinators, told me at the time that he was convinced that his senator, Barbara Boxer from California, had her staff take the phones and fax machine off the hook at night so that people couldn't leave messages or send faxes. He said he'd actually checked several times to see if he could get through to her office at 3 a.m., but says he never had any luck. That was one reason he camped out for hours in her office that day--to see if her staff ever answered the phone. I might chalk this up to conservative paranoia, except that when I tried calling Boxer's DC office just now, I had a pretty similar experience. When I pressed "3" to speak to a staff member, I was put on hold for a minute and then disconnected. Other reporters apparently have the same complaint about Boxer, and I've had similar experiences with other senators, most recently trying to get through the main line of the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). (His press secretary is still ignoring me.)

I suspect that the Tea Partiers are right: These aren't isolated incidents, which makes me wish that O'Keefe hadn't been such a bonehead and had actually, as he said, "used a different approach" to his investigation. A real expose on how little members of the Senate connect with constituents might have forced a few of them to at least staff up the phone lines. As it is, dealing with a Senate office is often worse than trying to get customer service from Comcast. No wonder the Tea Partiers are mad!

Obama and House GOP Bring Question Time to US

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 4:20 PM EST

Update: Read about Demand Question Time, a campaign by a cross-partisan group of bloggers, techies and political consultants, including Mother Jones' David Corn, who are calling on the White House to make Q&A sessions between Obama and the GOP a regular event. The campaign's website is here.

That was must-see TV.

President Barack Obama spoke to an issues retreat held by House Republicans on Friday afternoon and demonstrated two things: 1. he's damn good, 2. this sort of face-off should happen all the time.

Obama opened by effectively delivering typically well-designed remarks. But what followed was historic: House Republican members asked him questions. It was the closest the United States has seen to the question time conducted in the British Parliament. The atmosphere wasn't as raucus. There was no shouting, no pounding on tables. Everyone was very polite. But the GOPers did try to press the president on tax cuts, health care reform, the budget, the stimulus, deficits, and their gripes about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Obama treated their queries with respect, answering them on substantive terms. He walked a fine line: talking about the need for bipartisan cooperation but also forcefully calling out the Republicans for their extreme rhetoric. At one point, he said that if the Republicans were going to describe his health care overhaul as a "Bolshevik plot," then there couldn't be much opportuntiy for collaboration. He explained that by demonizing the plan in such a fashion, the GOP was not allowing itself any room for compromise, for it would then face the wrath of its Tea Party wing.

UBS: Bank Bailout Good Guy?

| Fri Jan. 29, 2010 3:19 PM EST

At this week's congressional hearings on the AIG bailout, Swiss bank UBS received some undeserved praise.

UBS was one of eight large investment banks that benefited from the now-infamous backdoor bailout of AIG—resulting in government cash infusions totaling $182.5 billion—in the dark days of September 2008. At the hearing, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, Neil Barofsky, revealed to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that UBS was the only bank willing to settle its soured credit default swaps (CDS) contracts for less than their face value. Why did UBS play ball when all the other banks didn't? As the Washington Independent reported, "Barofsky speculated that the firm probably simply recognized that the American taxpayers 'had taken the global economy on its back.'"

The financial crisis has proved time and again, big banks don't account for taxpayers—except when they need their help. And that's the more likely explanation for UBS' good behavior during the AIG rescue. Like the rest of the global financial industry, UBS was hurting from the subprime mortgage meltdown. (The bank's colossally bad bet on the US housing market—it had already written down $38 billion in bad loans as of April 2008—earned UBS the nickname Used to Be Smart.) But unlike its intransigent peers on Wall Street, the Swiss banking giant also faced the mounting threat of a US federal investigation. It was in no position to play hardball.