Sunday, March 26, 2006

Our Immigration Conundrum

Our immigration policy resembles the ineffective war on drugs. For decades we’ve spent billions of dollars on interdiction and law enforcement yet trafficking only increases. Similarly, the federal government continues to increase spending on border patrol and enforcement to no avail. Indeed, in November 2005, the Migration Policy Institute described how spending has increased since the passage of the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986(ICRA):

"Overall spending on enforcement activities has ballooned from pre-IRCA levels, with appropriations growing from $1 billion to $4.9 billion between fiscal years 1985 and 2002 and staffing levels increasing greatly. Resources have been concentrated heavily on border enforcement, particularly the Border Patrol. Spending for detention and removal/intelligence activities multiplied most rapidly over this period, with an increase in appropriations of over 750 percent.”
I think we can all agree we haven’t gotten our money’s worth. In spite of our efforts, 11 million illegal immigrants currently live underneath our radar. Both the human and economic dimensions of this issue are complex. A new immigration policy that combines compassion with rational innovation is in order. Sadly, our political class appears incapable of rising above the passions, fears, and even greed of their respective constituencies.

Corporatist Republicans prefer cheap low skill labor from our southern border. Migrant workers from Mexico and elsewhere toil in menial jobs most Americans don’t want. Their labor allows American CEO’s to either widen their profit margins or offer more competitive pricing.

Another issue for businesses is high skilled labor. Our education system is not producing enough qualified graduates in the technology sector. Consequently, prior to 9/11 businesses were relying on H1-B Visas to recruit 145,000 high skilled employees from overseas per year. In 2004, that number was capped at 40,000. The business community complains that unless they’re permitted to recruit qualified employees from other countries, they will be forced to relocate overseas – further reducing the number of jobs for Americans.

Meanwhile, organized labor is understandably concerned that low skilled migrants are reducing wages for American workers, while high skilled foreigners are filling desirable jobs. This facilitates insecurity and resentment, as Americans believe they’re competing for a shrinking pie.

Parents in states such as Arizona and New Mexico resent the allocation of resources for teaching students of illegal immigrants. Not to mention the various social services they’re eligible for at taxpayer’s expense. Even the most pro-immigration among us must acknowledge the strain during an era of Republican fiscal mismanagement.

There is also the issue of national security in a dangerous world. It’s simply too easy for individuals with hostile intentions to enter our country and use our own freedoms against us. We learned that the hard way on 9/11. How many of those 11 million illegal immigrants are threats to our society, have criminal backgrounds, or coordinate with terrorists? Even a small percentage can have a catastrophic impact.

Culturally, social conservatives feel besieged by change. Signs in hospitals and schools in both English and Spanish alarm them. They resent multilingual education in schools and claim that America’s national character is endangered. Personally, I think they’re racists.

Their use of words such as “amnesty” and “enforcing the law” is a canard designed to gloss over racism. When it comes to domestic surveillance conservatives are more than happy to ignore the law. However, people with a darker shade of skin speaking a different language must be criminalized for their existence? I don’t think so. Such an approach would
result in chaos and is morally reprehensible. It will only serve to force illegal immigrants deeper underground.

For the Democrats this issue is less divisive. Labor may not like immigration but they really have no choice but to stick with Democrats. Many members of organized labor are Hispanic as well. While some black Americans resent jobs going to Hispanics from across the border as well as a reduction in their wages, the GOP will not benefit from their discontent. Immigration will not be enough to overcame a half-century of Republican racism.

So it’s easy for Democrats to sit back, blast the Republicans for their cruelty and utter sound bites about securing our borders while making it easier for immigrants to become citizens – and future Democratic voters they hope. Everyone remembers how former Republican California Governor Pete Wilson engineered a come from behind victory in 1994 by exploiting proposition 181. Since then California has become a lost cause to Republicans in Presidential elections. Democrats are hoping for the same in southwestern states such as Arizona and New Mexico.

Nevertheless, on this issue Democrats would serve themselves and the country best if they put forward a sensible plan that facilitates consensus. That means supporting President Bush against the xenophobes of his party who appears to be wavering in deference to social conservatives. However, it also means challenging the Bush Administration to extract concessions from the business community.

I propose that the Democratic caucus approach President Bush with the following:

  • Trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA have eliminated jobs in our hemisphere. Migrant workers would not be coming here if they had jobs at home. A security fence will not prevent migrants from entering our country as long as they can’t find jobs back home. Let’s restructure NAFTA and CAFTA so it no longer stifles job creation in our hemisphere. We can also work with leaders in the hemisphere and devise an aid package that increases in proportion to the decrease of migrants crossing our borders. More prosperous neighbors will translate into a reduction of human traffic.
  • Eleven million people are already providing needed labor but we have no accounting of who they are. Far better to make it easier for migrant workers to publicly reveal their identities and give them a path to citizenship if they’re willing to earn it. Threatening them with jail is counterproductive and will overburden our courts and criminal justice system. However, any prospective guest worker must be pre-qualified before entering the country. Those corporations who benefit from cheap labor should be required to pay a “due diligence” tax to determine if any migrant workers pose a security threat or have a criminal background. Otherwise we’ll continue to have illegal immigrants living in this country that are not properly screened.
  • The importing of guest workers is preventing wages from keeping up with the cost of living. If the business community wants to benefit from cheap labor outside the country then it is reasonable to demand American workers keep up with the cost of living. Therefore, the minimum wage must be raised at regular intervals. We can allow the business community to import inexpensive guest workers for menial jobs and raise the cap enabling employers to recruit high skilled workers with H1-B Visas. In return, President Bush and Congress must sign on to increasing the minimum wage every year based on the cost of living and inflation.
  • That children of migrant workers are attending our schools is a fact of life. Social conservatives are simply going to have to get over it. I would rather these children grow up appreciating this country and learning to be contributing members of our society. Today’s child who receives special attention while learning our language may become a premier surgeon saving lives in our hospitals tomorrow. All the more reason to increase funding in education that builds more schools, recruits more teachers, and reduces class size so all children be they English speaking or not get the education they need to become actualized members of society.
Contrary to the propaganda spewing from social conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, the threat to our national character is not from immigrants. The real threat is surrendering to fear and xenophobia as the world becomes more globalized. Once upon a time this country resented Jews, Italians, Irish and Asians from entering our country. Yet they became indispensable threads to our national tapestry. I hope we have not become so cowardly, that a migrant from Mexico or Guatemala cutting someone’s grass in the suburbs or babysitting children is this millennium’s “red scare.” Let’s not forget that most Americans can’t trace their heritage to Plymouth Rock. I certainly can’t.

SIDEBAR: I cross posted this topic on My Left Wing last night and was pleasantly surpised to learn it was designated a "recommended diary." Click here to review comments from that community as they come in. As of 8:00 AM Eastern Standard Time there was only one.

SIDEBAR II: I'm also including a link to my cross posting of this topic on Daily Kos. Although not a recommended diary by that community, the comments both favorable and otherwise make for interesting reading. Click here to review them.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lancing the Boil

The conservative movement is irredeemable. What William F. Buckley and Barry Goldwater launched decades ago was perverted into a corporate theocracy. In recent days, Kevin Phillips new book American Theocracy, has received much attention for his scholarly analysis of the movement’s legacy. It’s worth reading because Phillips also wrote The Emerging Republican Majority while working on the Nixon campaign. It was published a year later and proved prescient. This time Phillips documents the legacy of a movement he helped launch.

The rumblings of conservative intellectuals such as Phillips and Bruce Bartlett illustrate that the Republican crusade is sucking wind. Even President Reagan’s former speechwriter Peggy Noonan openly asks whether Bush is a liberal.

Bartlett’s and Noonan’s futile efforts to distance conservatism from Bush is reminiscent of Gorbachev’s attempt to distance Communism from Stalin. Gorbachev’s reforms failed to save Communism from its evil ghosts. Similarly, conservatives will never succeed in distancing their failed ideology from Bush. His biography blends all the threads of modern conservatism that is really a marriage of corporate interests and theocracy.

He’s a mediocre man born into wealth, who never had to prove himself in a meritocracy and found religion. Through the network of his family name Bush became President and launched a war that appealed to corporatists and theocrats alike. How much more conservative can one be? Conservatives like to portray their ideology as a celebration of self-made men with optimism. In reality though, the poster boy for conservatism is not Ronald Reagan. It’s George W. Bush – a man with wealth he didn’t earn honestly who believes the apocalypse is just around the corner.

The current attack from Bush by conservatives is a canard. They attack him for reckless spending but as Paul Krugman recently observed, spending is not the cause of our fiscal mess. It’s the tax cuts for the wealthy combined with the Iraq War that they all supported enthusiastically. In criticizing Bush, these conservatives are hoping to define the terms of their surrender.

Hence, an epic political battle is now engaged for what replaces the ugly boil known as modern conservatism. It’s a contest that may take a decade or longer to shake out. Democrats have two choices. Their first option is to be risk averse and opportunistically ride a wave of discontent to power. This can be achieved over time if corporatists are seduced into believing their self-interest resides with the Democrats.

It’s not hard to see that happening. Republicans are in distress and the Democratic Party is rife with corporatists. Simply recall how many Democrats supported the hideous bankruptcy legislation that passed last year. Furthermore, wealthy corporatists typically enjoy a hedonistic life style and might find the Democratic rhetoric of social tolerance more appealing.

If the Democrats pursue this course they may enjoy some short-term political victories. Pro-choice plutocrats, who don’t say mean things about gays and exploit globalization at the commoner’s expense, would then govern the country. Our civil liberties would still be at risk, global warming not addressed, and the threat of illegitimate war always a possibility. Remember, the former nomenklatura of Communist Russia reinvented themselves into a mob-controlled oligarchy. Similarly, the corporatists will simply exploit the Democrat's brand to achieve their ends if we surrender our principles.

I prefer a second option: lancing the boil. It is imperative that authentic progressives, "Crash the Gate" and win on a mandate that expunges both corporatism and theocracy from our body politic. A half victory with Democrats enjoying nominal power while corporatists pull the strings behind the scenes is not acceptable.

To achieve the victory we progressives all want means not compromising out of convenience or expediency. Let’s not simply take back Congress this year by campaigning as if it's 1946 and asking if the American public has “had enough.” Why not earn a mandate for real change and put forth a progressive program of specifics such as national health insurance? The time is ripe for boldness as I wrote on March 18th.

It also means not surrendering to the Hillary Clinton juggernaut in 2008. She is a corporatist in Democratic clothing. Nominating her probably means defeat in the general election for '08. If she did win then the progressive cause would be set back as she is certain to govern in the corporatist ideological center. The tone of a Hillary presidency would be different but her rhetoric a placebo.

As the Republicans continue to collapse in ’06 and ’08 our principles are going to be challenged. Victory’s sweet temptation will make it easy to compromise on values of fairness and social justice. That’s human nature when victory appears and feels close at hand after years in the wilderness. It will be easy to rationalize campaigning not to lose instead of pushing for real change. Let’s keep our eye on the prize. A real victory for progressive values is within our grasp if we continue to push relentlessly. Now is not the time for Democrats to be mealy mouthed and faint hearted. Let's go for the jugular and save our country.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Time For Boldness

The consequences of governance by delusional minds were vividly displayed this week. On March 16th, the Republican-led Senate approved a $2.8 trillion election-year budget that broke spending limits only hours after it increased federal borrowing power to avert a government default. Even more embarrassing, the Republican-led Senate increased the debt limit to nearly $9 trillion.

Confronted with elections this November, some Republicans opted to abandon their “starve the beast mentality” and joined with Democrats to approve more than $16 billion in added spending for social, military, job safety and home-heating programs, exceeding a ceiling established by President Bush. Meanwhile, the House advanced $92 billion in war spending and hurricane recovery money.

Both conservative intellectuals and progressives have lamented the reckless spending of the Republican Party in recent years. Pathetically, the GOP criticizes spending but refuses to acknowledge that Bush’s tax cuts were the catalyst for our current mess. Sort of like an alcoholic who is angry with a DWI accident but avoids talking about their drinking problem.

Democrats are giddy about an opportunity to seize control of fiscal responsibility as their issue. Politically the Democrats can make a strong claim. Kennedy, LBJ, Carter and Clinton were far superior fiscal managers than Nixon, Reagan, Bush I and Bush II. LBJ is especially notable because Vietnam raged on his watch while he launched his Great Society Programs. Nevertheless, his 1969 budget boasted a $3.2 billion surplus. True, LBJ’s budget contained gimmicks but all the chicanery in the world could not do the same under President Bush today.

While both parties jostle over the mantle of fiscal responsibility, two important issues are not receiving enough attention: lost revenue for the states and a widening investment deficit. The Center for American Progress released a report on Thursday about the 2007 fiscal year budget and the impact on states. Their report notes the following correlation between Republican tax cuts and state revenues:

“When the federal government cuts taxes, those tax cuts sometimes cause reductions in state revenue as well. This occurs because most states with individual and/or corporate income taxes use the federal definitions of adjusted gross income and corporate income as the basis for their own income taxes. When a tax cut reduces the amount of income that is taxable for federal tax purposes, it often also reduces the amount of income taxable for state tax purposes.”
The report estimates that new tax cuts in Bush’s 2007 budget will cause states to lose $38 billion over the next ten years. By the year 2016 it is estimated the states will lose $8.1 billion in revenues annually.

Why does this matter? As the years unfold our nation will endure a sickly investment deficit impacting education, homeland security, disaster recovery, entitlement programs and education. Much of this burden is carried on the oppressed shoulders of state and local governments.

Deficits are acceptable if money is spent on programs that society will get a return on. For example, conservatives initially chafed about the cost of FDR’s GI Bill but the investment established a growing middle class and tax revenues increased ten fold.

Bush hemorrhaged the surplus he inherited from Clinton and America has received nothing of value in return: homeland security was not improved after 9/11, “No Child Left Behind” is under-funded, the new prescription drug law is simply a boondoggle for HMO’s and the pharmaceutical industry, both suburban and urban infrastructures are decaying. One could go on and on.

States such as Tennessee are looking to cut back on Medicaid for the poor. The rhetoric used is preventing fraud – which is important. Mostly though cutbacks in Medicaid are going to hurt the working poor and their children.

In recent years we’ve seen Oregon forced to reduce their school year and Oklahoma release violent criminals because they can’t afford to house inmates. Education and health care are always the first targets when cuts are needed to subsidize tax cuts for the wealthy. This is true on the municipal level as well as federal.

Perhaps the most damaging legacy is precisely what was intended: small mindedness among the political class and the nation at large. We don’t think big anymore about addressing challenges such as national healthcare and jobs. If a liberal dared to propose a modern works program on the scale of Roosevelt’s WPA, there would be ridicule on the conservative right and hand wringing among feckless Democrats.

Yet that is exactly what our country needs. Education alone will not generate domestic jobs. America needs a major jobs program designed to employ our own citizens providing livable wages and decent health care. We have schools that require construction to reduce class size, teachers that need to be trained, toxic waste dumps that need to be cleaned, roads in need of repair. Our suburbs are over a half century old and could use a touch up. Not to mention an entire region in the Gulf Coast that remains to be rebuilt. These needs are jobs waiting to be created and filled by Americans.

Meanwhile, health care resembles the old cliché about the weather: everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. We need action, today. Sadly, Democratic politicians are faint hearted about tackling national health care while Republicans merely want the issue to go away. Ironically the biggest supporters today for a national health care policy would probably come from the small business community. Removing the burden of health care for the small business entrepreneur could turn out to be a job stimulus program in its own right.

If Democrats hope to be a worthy governing party their timidity must be jettisoned forthwith. Republican fiscal mismanagement gives them an opportunity if they seize it the right way. That means don’t simply emulate conservative talking points about spending. Rather, Democrats should boldly provide an alternative and unflinchingly address our investment deficit. If we’re going to be indebted to bankers from China and Saudi Arabia, we might as well get something from it.

I propose that Democrats state outright they will reverse Republican tax policy and do the following instead:

  1. Assemble a substantial aid package to bail out state governments from debt;
  2. Implement deficit spending for a large scale domestic jobs program encompassing all fifty states to build schools, modernize infrastructure, clean the environment, train new teachers and rebuild the Gulf Coast;
  3. Launch an ambitious research and development initiative for discovering new sources of renewable energy;
  4. Nationalize health care with a single payer system using Medicare as a model.

This will require deficit spending on a large scale. The Republican noise machine will go crazy because they’re sniveling hypocrites. Long term however our tax receipts will be filled by jobs created by government and small business relieved from health care costs. States will also be in far better shape to deliver needed services on the local level. Such a plan will also renew America’s confidence that we have control over own destiny instead of hidden forces like globalization.

I realize many Democrats prefer to sit back and ride a wave of discontent to victory. Perhaps that might serve the short-term interests of Democratic politicians. Ultimately, the worm will turn against Democrats if they implement such shortsighted thinking. The Republicans won with their “had enough” strategy in 1946 only to be turned out of power in 1948.

The current political climate offers the chance to completely reverse our regressive political culture. Let’s give boldness a chance and advocate for our beliefs without apology or fear.

SIDEBAR: I cross posted today's topic in MYDD and it became a "recommended diary." Click here to review comments posted by the MYDD community.

SIDEBAR II: MYDD giveth and MYDD taketh away. Today's post was only a recommended diary for a couple hours.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

About Gerrymandering: Good Policy Is Good Politics

Gerrymandering has shaped American politics since February 11, 1812, when the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law to redistrict the state. A bill was proposed, and passed, by the majority Democratic Party over the vehement protests of the minority Federalists. In the following election, the Federalists garnered over 1,000 more votes than the Democrats, an outcome that resulted in sending 29 Democrats and 11 Federalists to the state senate.

Hence, the Democrats seized more than two thirds of the state senate but received fewer votes than the Federalists. In response to these events, The Boston Gazette, invented the term “gerrymander” after Elbridge Gerry, the Democratic governor, and the salamander, which the most convoluted district supposedly resembled. The politics of gerrymandering only grew in absurdity.

On May 4, 1890, the New York Times reported that Representative McComas of Maryland submitted a report to the House of Representatives from the Committee on the Election of President, Vice President, and Representatives in Congress, his bill to prevent gerrymandering. This was during a period of intense partianship and jockeying for political advantage. When reviewing McComas’s report, it is amusing to note the similarities with our contemporary politics. In one passage, McComas’s report reads,

“The effort to restrain the zeal of political faction by requiring that Representatives shall be elected by districts composed of contiguous territory has not restrained the State from stifling the voice of the minority party in each State by ingenious gerrymandering. Often it is contrived that one voter of the majority party equals three voters of the minority party in electing a Representative in Congress. In Missouri, a compact State, the Fourteenth Congressional District is 240 miles long and for half its length only 35 miles wide. In Mississippi the Third District is 240 miles long, extending from the northern almost to the southern boundary of the State. The other districts intertwine in fantastic shapes. Louisiana also rivals Mississippi in this regard. The popular branch of the National Government has been too much controlled by State Legislatures scheming for political advantages.”
Congressman McComas’s frustration notwithstanding, the Constitution clearly allocates the power of districting to state legislatures following a national census every ten years. Congressman Tom DeLay recently abused that power and exploited his influence with the Texas legislature to muscle through a redistricting plan prior to the 2010 census. DeLay’s
scheme was a flagrant and illegal abuse of power designed to secure the Republican’s majority in the House. Democrats are hoping the Supreme Court will overrule DeLay’s Texas power grab and influence the November elections in their favor. Sadly, I suspect the Supreme Court will support DeLay’s power play.

Ohio is another example of Republican gerrymandering malfeasance in which Democratic voters are hideously marginalized. In California, it is the Democrats controlling the legislature of a large state and drawing the districting map to their unfair advantage.

Prior to the ’05 off year elections, I was solicited by progressive organizations to help Ohio Democrats support a proposition ending Republican gerrymandering and reverse their dominance of the Ohio congressional delegation. I was simultaneously solicited by liberal groups to help defeat Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposition to stop Democratic gerrymandering in that state. Thus I was being asked by liberal organizations to help end gerrymandering in one state but support it in another. Intellectually, I found their simultaneous requests incongruous.

The frustrated liberal partisan in me shouted, “this is war! The Republicans have taken this country over a cliff! They’re corporatists! And racists! And xenophobic nationalistic war mongers! And homophobes! Whatever it takes we have to stop them! Look at what Tom DeLay did in Texas? Look at what happened in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004. They have no principles and we can’t give these bastards any quarter!” In my heart and gut, that’s how I feel.

Upon reflection though, engaging the Republicans in gerrymandering combat is self-defeating. We need to fight fire with water not gasoline. Truthfully, Democrats contributed to this problem when the Congressional Black Caucus entered into an unholy alliance with the Christian Right in the early nineties. Minority representation was secured in districts throughout the country. The price was costly as Democrats surrendered “blue dog” representatives from the south that helped the party preserve their majority. In their place Republicans were able to elect hard-core Christian fundamentalists with little sympathy for minority issues.

This unholy alliance has eliminated districts on a wholesale level containing mixed populations. Regrettable, as a new generation of black and Hispanic leadership has come of age. Politicians such as Congressman Harold Ford and Senators Barrack Obama and Bob Menendez, are capable of competing for a diverse range of voters. The House of Representatives is no longer the people’s house, because very narrow constituencies elect individual congressmen and congresswomen.

Even worse, we have perhaps 100 less competitive seats than in 1994. That is not a field of play the Democrats can effectively compete in over the long haul. More importantly, the country is deprived of leadership that is compelled to be familiar with urban and rural, black, brown, and white. That only serves to reinforce racism and engender unresponsive leadership. Our vital center is no more.

I therefore propose the Democrats renounce gerrymandering everywhere. One benefit is that the party will achieve a public relations coup by appearing to serve the public more than their partisan interest. For too long the Democrats have suffered from a perception that they are the party of “special interests.” Renouncing gerrymandering in blue states and red will demonstrate that as far as Democrats are concerned, the people come first.

Another benefit is that Hispanic and black politicians will become more competitive in statewide races. I would like to see black and Hispanic women competing in statewide races for a change. Presently, minority representatives are only identified with narrow constituencies because of gerrymandering. The nation would also benefit if white representatives were compelled to moderate their positions to garner votes from minorities.

Obviously, the Democrats can’t unilaterally disarm. The Democrats should therefore assemble at a mid-term national convention and publicize a platform the party can rally around on a wide spectrum of issues. This platform should contain a protocol that Democrats will fairly apportion districts in the state legislatures they control if Republicans do the same. If the Republicans refuse, Democrats will own the moral high ground. In this instance, good policy is good politics.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

National Socialism With A Human Face

It is abundantly clear that today’s Republican Party is no longer an advocate of conservative principles. Sadly, Republicans are an unholy trinity of corporatism, religious fanaticism, and National Socialism. This unholy trinity solidified into an iron triangle under President Bush. Apparently, the iron triangle is disintegrating. The Dubai port controversy illustrates that a conservative crack up is in full swing while America is in the nascent throes of nationalism.

Republican corporatists favored DP World, a company owned by the Dubai government taking over some American terminal operations. In fairness, numerous national security experts did not object to this transaction either. However, the Christian Right is filled with hatred for Islam and Bush has stoked the flames of nationalism for five years. Consequently, congressional Republicans rebelled against the Bush Administration and joined the Democrats in thwarting it.

I readily acknowledge that legitimate concerns about a nation with pre-9/11 ties to Al Quaeda owning a company running American terminals were raised. Perhaps, on the merits this transaction needed to be thwarted. Also, it must be acknowledged that the 9/11 commission and many Democrats, including John Kerry in 2004, consistently expressed concerns about our port security.

However, this case wasn’t made on the merits. This was about the American public hearing “United Arab Emirates” repeatedly in news coverage and we all know it. I could care less about millionaires in Dubai losing out. However, I am deeply concerned about my country’s psyche and blowback resulting from five years of Republican nationalism.

George Orwell wrote the following in his prescient classic “1984”:

“Patriotism is love for your fellow countrymen above all others. Nationalism is hatred for all others beyond all else."
If that quote from Orwell gives you pause, consider this dictionary definition of National Socialism:

“n: a form of socialism featuring racism and expansionism [syn: Nazism, Naziism]”
That is the course Republicans have unleashed and anyone who doesn’t see it are deluding themselves. Big brother has expanded exponentially under this “conservative” President in a manner that would make socialists blush using national security as cover. Furthermore, Iraq isn’t about national security or liberating a people from tyranny. It is a war of choice exploiting racism against Arabs after 9/11 and imperialist designs for their oil. We have yet to renounce any claim on permanent bases in Iraq. Nor will we.

The knee jerk reaction among many progressives is to screech about the evil Republican Party, blame the biased corporate media, and vent about feckless Democrats. I’ve done my share of all of that and with justification. This goes far deeper however.

I regret to say that our country has a cascading virus of xenophobia. This is nothing new in our history. We’ve seen it before. But it is somehow more disquieting in a world with raging globalization, Islamic fundamentalism, and proliferating weapons of mass destruction. I don’t want my country to be swept up in the backwash of bile sweeping this planet. Perhaps I am an idealist. I believe my country has a sacred mission to lead by example and appeal to humanity’s better instincts. Instead we appear to be led by the dark impulses of fear, greed, and gratuitous violence.

Our politicians merely reflect it. We see it in the immigration debate under the cover of national security. As for Dubai, hooray the deal was stopped! Does anyone feel safer?

One may see a positive side to all of this. The corporatists inside the Republican Party will engage in a brutal civil war with the Nationalist Socialist wing of their party. Corporatists profit from globalization, find the cheap labor of immigrants desirable, and the labor of foreign workers even more desirable. Although Bush exploited nationalism to keep power in 2004, he is clearly on the side of corporatists. The recent summit with India illustrates what side of the divide Bush is on. So does the Dubai controversy. Hence, some conservatives have become disillusioned with Bush, and are having an “epiphany” as Paul Krugman noted in his New York Times column yesterday.

Bush's comments yesterday were tragically surreal:

"In order to win the war on terror, we've got to strengthen our relationships and friendships with moderate Arab countries in the Middle East."
This coming from the President whose Administration sadistically tortures Arabs abroad and denies them due process of law at home. Bush is confronted with the sentiments he stoked to justify an illegal and immoral war.

But we let it happen. We’re to blame. The silent majority of this country was misled because it wanted to be misled. It hungered for vengeance against an unseen enemy and Bush provided the vehicle. Those of us who questioned and protested were in the minority.

Where we go from here frightens me. Obviously, Bush and the Republican Party are not an effective bulwark against this stain on America’s soul. How can they be when their power is contingent upon fear? Or when so called “moderate” Republicans rely on the appeals of xenophobic nationalism to deliver tax cuts for the rich? Sadly, Democrats seem gleeful at the prospect of getting to Bush’s right in order to obtain power themselves. We’ll see this as the immigration debate unfolds in the next couple years.

We want protection from them. The citizens of India poised to take our jobs. The regime in China that fuels its economy with slave labor, infringes upon our copyright laws, and finances our deficit spending. Those brown people crossing our borders, taking jobs, and costing money. Even the Gulf Coast wants protection from our own citizens because those damn victims of Hurricane Katrina need to be housed and schooled. Nobody wants to pay for them but many want to blame them for crime. You know what those people are like. In a time of economic uncertainty as well as vulnerability in our national security, everybody wants to be protected from them. Arabs, gays, the Jewish Zionists, black people from New Orleans who just might have the temerity to better themselves after a disaster.

While the public desires security against the powerful forces of globalization and easy scapegoats, it doesn’t want it to be unduly ugly. Rather Americans desire National Socialism with a "human face." For five years George Bush with his combination of swagger and façade of regular folks appeal has embodied that face. He no longer can due to his lame duck status and political weakness. But National Socialism with a human face is what the public craves and the political party or candidate that can wrap it in the right package will emerge victorious.

I hope my Democratic Party can stand tall against all this. I suspect some will cynically exploit the prevailing national sentiment while others of principle such as Russ Feingold, will eventually be foiled by the silent majority. Even if the Democrats recapture Congress this November and the White House in ’08, it may just be National Socialism with health care. Or Weimar Republic redux?

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Grandpa Rosenberg's America

Recently I’ve been thinking of my grandfather. I didn’t know him well because he died when I was 8. As I reflect upon his life, my memories of him and the numerous anecdotes I’ve been told – I can’t help but wonder what he would think of our country today.

Irving Rosenberg’s story resembles that of many immigrants from his generation. At the age of 16 he escaped Poland prior to Hitler’s September 1939 invasion with his six brothers. His father was a man of great foresight and correctly diagnosed the storm that was brewing from Nazi Germany. My great grandmother opposed her children leaving for America and even chased my grandfather with a broomstick prior to his departure. Thankfully she didn’t get her way or I never would’ve been born.

My grandfather was a self-motivated man of discipline, integrity and values. He believed in self-improvement to get ahead, mastered the English language, and worked hard. Fortunately, he came to this country when the great middle class was beginning its ascendancy following the Depression. During his era, a work ethic was sufficient to establish oneself in a trade and earn a decent living. My grandfather never became an entrepreneur nor did he join the professional class as a lawyer or doctor. He remained a working stiff throughout his life in the garment industry where he rose to be a valued manager in a factory. In those days it was possible for such a man to raise two kids as he did, save his earnings, and even buy a summer cottage. My grandmother never had to work. She had plenty of outside activities in the community but primarily focused on her children. And they were able to afford health insurance for themselves. All this was possible then. His job was never outsourced to another country.

My mother once told me that she remembers teasing him as a little girl while he was figuring out his taxes. An otherwise gentle man he sternly rebuked her and said, “I am proud to pay taxes in the United States of America.” Grandpa Rosenberg was a patriot and he truly believed his tax dollars went for a noble cause: preserving the greatest country in the world. From his perspective America was a beacon of prosperity and decency. It was the country that saved him from certain death, liberated the world from fascist totalitarianism and represented the side of freedom in the Cold War. He was a New Deal Democrat devoted to the ideals of his adopted country. America was standing up for right and giving him a good life. He was therefore quite happy to do his part and pay taxes. It would never have occurred to him to “starve the beast.”

I think about that anecdote with my mother whenever I read or listen to some conservative greed monger earning a six-figure salary and whining about taxes. How many people rationalized putting this President in power simply because of pure selfishness? Many of them claim to be “social moderates” yet they’re quite content to redistribute the tax burden from the wealthiest among us to laborers who can’t keep up with the cost of living. My grandfather would no doubt rebuke me for putting it this way, but I can’t help myself: such people who empowered the reign of indecency sweeping America today couldn’t carry my grandfather’s jock. He was a real man.

To be sure America was not an idyllic place in his era. Racism and anti-Semitism were blatant staples of American life. Gender discrimination was the norm. Blacks were not equal under the law and I recall hearing how his co-workers didn’t want to believe that Jesus was Jewish. It also had to be unnerving to escape the Nazis, come to New York and hear the anti-Semitic rants uttered by Father Coughlin from Madison Square Garden on the radio. He lived through periods of hysteria with McCarthyism and misguided military ventures in Korea and Vietnam. Yet even with America’s imperfections there remained a prevailing sentiment of optimism and progress. The little guy had a piece of the American dream in Grandpa Rosenberg’s America. Stability and security were not simply purviews of the mega rich. Our culture valued work over wealth and individuals like him benefited.

One could also feel reasonably confident in the competence and intentions of our leadership. Eisenhower may not have been as progressive as he would’ve liked but at least one could respect the President. Even the devious Richard Nixon at least had something between his ears when an emergency presented itself – it’s doubtful Hurricane Katrina would’ve played out the same way on his watch. Yes there was corruption, abuses of power, and misjudgments in both parties. America’s imperfections and regulation by fear did not solely manifest itself under the current administration. But our civilization was moving forward albeit with setbacks and traumas. Progress is never a straight uninterrupted forward line but it was the trend for much of my grandfather’s life.

It doesn’t feel that way today. The conservative movement finally achieved critical mass when George W. Bush took the oath of office in January 2001 after decades of political agitation from exile. The results are a staggering display of callous incompetence. These people know how to seize power and keep it. They have no idea how to use it for the greater public good. Under their rule wages have declined while personal bankruptcies, health care costs, college tuition, energy costs, and the number of uninsured and poor Americans continue to increase. The government is populated by incompetent chuckleheads who view public service as an entitlement program for cronies to enrich themselves. Public service agencies such as FEMA have simply become another stronghold for corporate welfare and even national security was hijacked by greed. Hence is it any wonder that this group ignored warnings that Osama Bin Laden wanted to attack America and drew up plans to invade Iraq so the monied interests that put them in power could profit?

My grandfather was also a quietly religious man. Decency and treating others with respect was part of his overall being. He was secure enough in his beliefs that he didn’t need to proselytize to anyone about them. The exploitation of religion to drive wedges between people would’ve disgusted him. Furthermore, the debasement of America’s reputation from torture scandals would’ve have profoundly saddened him I think. For him the “culture of life” was more than a mere slogan – it was how he lived.

As I contrast my late grandfather’s value system with our current leadership I can only reach one conclusion: he would not approve.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

ILJ Awards for February 2006

Intrepid Person of the Month

This past month Yahoo! had a bull’s eye on its back for outing Chinese journalist Shi Tao – although he was actually sentenced in April 2005. While the focus on Yahoo! is certainly justified, I think it’s even more important to honor the man in the eye of the storm.

There is no greater threat to totalitarian regimes than truth. Indeed, it was the communications revolution as much as Western military might that brought down Eastern Europe’s “Iron Curtain” between 1989-1991. Those who dare challenge the status quo of totalitarianism by exposing its evils to the outside world represent freedom’s hammer. Such individuals are also putting themselves in severe jeopardy. Tao is serving a 10-year prison sentence with forced labor in Chishan Prison, Yuanjiang City. The charge against him was “revealing state secrets abroad.” Specifically, Tao transmitted emails to websites based outside China, containing a memo sent to journalists by the Chinese Communist Party concerning the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Tao hoped to aid journalists abroad in their coverage of any unrest that the Chinese government would try to cover-up.

While these facts were widely disseminated, the tapestry of Tao’s life has not received the same scrutiny. There is a human being behind the name Shi Tao. He was born in 1968 in Yanchi City in the northwest region of China. I was surprised to learn that he is a published poet; founding the Zhuxi Literary Society while a teenager attending school. Tao studied poetry and politics at East China Normal University, where he founded the urban poetry group Woting and served on the board of the Shanghai University Associations of Poets. Shanghai's City Poetry was especially influential to Tao as he began publishing poems in state run literary journals with a national readership, such as Shanghai Wenxue and Mengya. In 1989 he participated in the student demonstrations that ended in the Tiananmen Square massacre.

After graduating in 1991, Tao worked for a year as a teacher in Xi-An City, before pursuing his career in journalism. His career advanced as reporter, editor, and director in Xi-an, Taiyuan and Changsha.

Tao also published numerous pieces of poetry, including “Borders of Heaven,” which was published by Shanxi People's Publishing House in 2002. However, Tao had to sacrifice his development as a poet for his work as a journalist. Perhaps he could have made his mark as a poet but the quest to champion truth took precedence.

Thanks to Yahoo’s complicity, Tao has been forced to sacrifice something even more precious than his poetry: his personal freedom. Tao is not allowed to write anything while in prison, except for letters to his family.

When originally apprehended in November 2004, Tao reportedly had a heart condition and ulcer. Not surprising given the stress this man had to live with. In Chishan, Tao’s forced labor consists of processing jewels.

On a personal note, Tao and I are nearly the same age and I can’t help but wonder what I would've done in his place. Tao could've easily taken the path of least resistance and been a careerist, writing newspaper articles that conformed to the Communist Party’s wishes. Or he simply could have pursued a career in poetry and opted not to make political waves. Too many Americans, including myself, take our freedoms for granted while someone like Shi Tao is willing to put everything on the line for the cause of transparency and truth. Meanwhile, here in the United States truth has been raped and violated these past five years by a cabal of corporatists, neo-cons, religious zealots, and a cowardly media. Our apathetic public has let it happen.

May the example of Shi Tao serve as a symbolic reminder to remain vigilant in the pursuit of truth in our own country. I would rather meet someone like Shi Tao than a garden-variety politician or stenographer masquerading as a professional journalist any day.

Republocrat of the Month

Once again I am compelled to name a Senator from my home state of New York as the Republocrat of the Month. Senator Charles Schumer is an intelligent man with a pugnacious style I used to admire. I especially appreciated the way he took down Senator Al D’Amato in 1998. D’Amato was notorious for his rough and tumble campaigns and Schumer demonstrated skill and toughness in defeating him. Schumer was also a steadfast defender of the Constitution during the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton while serving on the House Judiciary Committee and again in the Senate. However, he went along with President Bush too easily after 9/11 and his recent publicity stunts regarding the Dubai Port fiasco can’t conceal that Schumer is part of the problem.

Schumer used his influence as the head of the Democrat’s Senate Campaign Committee to deny Paul Hackett access to financial donors. Undermining a candidate’s ability to raise money in a large state such as Ohio is analogous to wiping him off the ballot. Hence, Schumer withheld the power of choice from Ohio Democrats and that is utterly despicable.

Washington Democrats such as Schumer who survived the party’s debacle in 1994 have a perverse pathology. They played triangulation games with President Clinton to preserve their position in the '90s and then took the path of least resistance under President Bush. As a result, these Washington Democrats that Schumer epitomizes have become a self-gelding machine of ineptitude with no core. Survival has not resulted in wisdom for this group of Democrats. Instead, navigating through turbulent political waters has imbued Democrats such as Schumer with an off-putting combination of timidity and hubris. Both qualities were on display in his behind the scenes party machine intervention in Ohio. Timidity because these Democrats fear an independent outsider like Hackett they can’t control. Hubris because of a chronic belief their judgment is superior to that of voters. Remember, the party leadership wasn’t enamored of candidate Barack Obama two years ago either.

This is a party in desperate need of new blood from beyond the beltway. Paul Hackett, on many levels is the ideal candidate for Democrats to re-brand their party as compassionate and tough. He’s an Iraqi war veteran with populist credentials, not fearful of mixing it up with Republicans but in the cultural center on issues such as guns. His opponent Sherwood Brown is an insider but with admirable qualities and an impeccable progressive pedigree. As a more experienced campaigner with a proven track record to raise money, Brown might be the better candidate to unseat incumbent Senator Mike Dewine. One can also make a plausible case that Brown would make a better senator than Hackett. I readily concede that if I was an Ohio voter I might have chosen Brown over Hackett. However, I would’ve wanted to have the power of decision for myself. Schumer, who recruited Hackett in the first place concluded his judgment was above that of Ohio voters. John Nichols writes in The Nation that Brown is the better choice but misses the point entirely. Choice is precisely what Schumer and the rest of the Democratic leadership denied the voters of Ohio. I expect such anti-democracy tactics from Republicans. It has no place in the Democratic Party.

Brezhnev Republican of the Month

I was poised to give this award to the Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff following the recent revelations about Hurricane Katrina combined with the controversy over port security. However, New York Republican Congressman and the Chairman of the House Committee for Homeland Security, Peter King overtook Chertoff with his recent performance on Meet the Press when Tim Russert challenged him about port security:

MR. RUSSERT: I—gentlemen, the Democrats have—are saying very loudly that they have tried repeatedly to put more money into port security. Benny Thompson, Democrat on your committee, Congressman, he tried to increase spending by a billion dollars, he wanted to double the number of oversea port inspectors, he wanted to put radiation portal monitors. And every time, the Republicans said no, you voted no. Do you regret now opposing some of those measures to improve port security?

REP. KING: Tim, we have voted to increase port security dramatically, it’s gone up almost $2 billion since four years ago. Almost 100 percent is screened, it’s not actually examined. But even, you know—people use a number that only 5 percent of the cargo is actually examined. Even Senator Clinton the other day, said 15 is maximum. So it’s between 5 and 15, we do have to do more. I support doing more. In fact, my committee is holding hearings next month, Congressman Lundgren, Congresswoman Harman are holding hearings on the issue of port security. More does have to be done, but a lot has been done also.

MR. RUSSERT: So the Democrats were right?

REP. KING: No, we—no, a lot more has to be done. The fact is you don’t just throw money at it, you do it in a way that works. Well, half this technology the people are talking about doesn’t work that well, and the idea is how do you do it? You can’t be examining every piece of cargo that comes in, it’s to do it effectively and also to do it in a way that doesn’t stop world commerce. Having said that, we realize more has to be done. But their idea, in all due respect, often is throw money into it. And you—again, the idea is to do it in an effective, smart way. I think more should be done, and I’ve said that all along. I had hearings last year as subcommittee chairman, having hearings now that I’m full chairman, and we are going to move forward. I think Susan Collins is really moving the right direction.

How has King used his power of oversight as Chairman to improve port security? Furthermore, what has he done as Chairman to faciliate more accountability from the Bush Administration as well as influence them to upgrade their capacity to respond to natural disasters? Doesn’t he bear any responsibility for not anticipating FEMA’s inability to coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security? Doesn't he represent co-equal branch of government and retain special responsibilities as Chairman of this committee?

In recent weeks, King has exploited the Dubai controversy to appear independent from Bush and credible on national security. King reminds me of the Soviet Communists who criticized others about Chernobyl to deflect from their own culpability. His public relations bait and switch are reminiscent of those very same Soviet Communists. Perhaps if Congressman King took his oversight responsibilities seriously in the first place, the Administration might not have attempted this end around regarding Dubai and been more prepared to respond to Hurricane Katrina. Heck of a job Congressman King. Well done.

The Pravda Award

It was suggested to me recently that I add an award category to illustrates the media’s complicity with our current political environment. So I created the monthly Pravda Award. As followers of the Cold War may recall, Pravda means “truth” in Russian and was the name of a prominent newspaper in the Soviet Union that the Kremlin utilized to deliver state sponsored propaganda.

Contrary to conservative Republican propaganda the so-called liberal media bias is a myth that has been skillfully debunked by Media Matters among others. The preponderance of evidence suggests the media is heavily tilted towards disseminating conservative misinformation. Although this is old news to progressives, many are not aware of this bias. It is my hope that such a monthly award will help educate the public about this virus and empower them to make more informed judgments.

I was prepared to select Brit Hume of Fox News for his shameful performance interviewing Vice President Dick Cheney following his hunting accident. It seemed like the perfect choice because Brit Hume is the anti-Shi Tao. However, Elizabeth Vargas of ABC News surpassed Hume on the last day of the month with her interview of President Bush.

As Media Matters noted on their website today:

“During an exclusive interview with President Bush on the February 28 broadcast of ABC's World News Tonight, co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas repeated White House distortions and uncritically accepted Bush's answers -- even though some were demonstrably false. Vargas echoed the White House line -- which, as Media Matters for America has noted, is not credible -- that Bush ‘doesn't read the polls.’ She ignored a House Select Committee's criticism of the White House on its response to Hurricane Katrina despite using that same report to question Bush during the interview, even though the report's findings contradicted Bush's claim that the ‘problem that happened in Katrina’ was that the White House lacked ‘good, solid information from people who were on the ground.’ Vargas also omitted the key distinction that a Dubai company seeking to take over operations at port terminals at six major U.S. ports is state-owned -- an omission that allowed Bush to suggest that anti-Arab sentiments were the source of criticisms of the deal rather than concerns with national security. Finally, Vargas's interview ignored a number of current issues, including warrantless domestic spying and the Plame investigation -- despite her having found the time to ask Bush: 'What do you think you were put on this Earth to do?'"
Her performance was utterly pitiful and unworthy of a journalist bearing the special responsibility interviewing a head of state entails. I didn’t think it possible to have a more odorous performance than Brit Hume’s interview with Vice President Cheney. Vargas proved me wrong and earned the Intrepid Liberal Journal’s first monthly Pravda Award.