Several rapidly shifting and competing storylines embedded in the recent furor over passage (and subsequent amendment) of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) have produced a great deal of noise but little clarity.
Who actually “won” this battle? Forget mass media narratives. The real answer depends on how closely we’re willing to sift and sort through the civic rubble and rhetorical chaos of this mess.
In the post–Hobby Lobby era, the original Indiana RFRA bill—one of a growing number of states that have some kind of law modeled on the 1993 federal RFRA—departed from the federal template in significant ways. (The immediate impetus for the federal RFRA was protection of the religious rights of Native Americans.) The Hoosier state explicitly recognized the “free exercise” rights of for-profit businesses on an equal basis with that of individuals and faith communities. Indiana’s law even went further than the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision. Moreover, the Indiana statute made this right a defense against private lawsuits brought by individuals—not only against actions brought by government.
The United States is one step from bringing trade sanctions against China for its domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn.
The fact is the US has been one step away since 1993, thanks to a legal petition filed by World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) with the Clinton administration. They did so under the Pelly Amendment of the Fisherman’s Protection Act, which gives the US mandate to punish countries whose nationals undermine international protections for endangered species. Not long after China’s State Council banned domestic trade in tiger bone and rhino horn in 1993, President Clinton put the sanctions on hold, where they remain today.
In July 2014, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) asked the Obama administration to revisit them, providing lengthy documentation to show that China continues to ignore international agreements aimed at stopping tiger trade and allows legal trade in tiger products from tiger farms. The US Department of Interior confirmed it is reviewing EIA’s request.
In an excerpt from At Home in Exile, historian and scholar Alan Wolfe warns that, although the kind of Islamic-inspired anti-Semitism behind the Charlie Hebdo–linked attack at the Hyper Cacher kosher market in Paris is real, it is important not to let these actions overshadow “ongoing efforts at cooperation between the two faiths.”
“How did the Jews get back at Hitler?” run the words of what one presumes to be a joke. “They sent him back the gas bill.” So spoke a British Muslim cleric, Abdullah al-Faisal, to appreciative laughter at a 2001 event in the English city of Luton. One of his listeners then posed some questions: “Should we hate Jews, and when we see them on the street, should we beat them up?” To which the good cleric replied, “You have no choice but to hate them. How do you fight the Jews? You kill the Jews.” These horrific sentiments are cited by Anthony Julius toward the end of Trials of the Diaspora. If Christian anti-Semitism is no longer as powerful as it once was, and if Jewish anti-Semitism is a far-fetched charge, then the most important source of diasporic anti-Semitism may well be the rancid language and all-too-frequent violent deeds emanating from the world’s ever-growing Muslim community, especially, as the Luton story suggests, in Europe, where tensions between these two faiths have been palpable. In a 2008 report, the highly reputable Pew Research Center found disturbing trends in xenophobia and anti-Semitism throughout much of the European continent. Not all such Jew hatred originates with Muslims. Neo-Nazi and ultranationalist parties, such as Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and Svodoba in the Ukraine, while clearly anti-Semitic, contain more than their fair share of native-born Europeans who in all likelihood hate Muslims as well as Jews. But all too much of it does. France in particular has witnessed serious Islamic-based violence against Jewish targets. Toulouse, for example, was not only where four Jews, including three children, were killed by a French Muslim in 2012, but it has also been the scene of repeated anti-Semitic vandalism since. Saudi-run schools in Great Britain, according to the BBC program Panorama, rely on textbooks filled with anti-Semitic words and pictures, including descriptions of Jews as “monkeys and pigs.” Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, which has one of the largest percentages of Muslims anywhere on the continent and whose mayor once suggested that Jews bring hatred on themselves, has experienced record-breaking numbers of attacks, including an explosive placed in front of a Jewish Community Center. A survey conducted by the Belgian sociologist Mark Elchardus found that half of the Muslim schoolchildren in Brussels hold anti-Semitic views. One can argue about why these things are happening. But that they are indeed happening is obvious. Had large numbers of Muslims not made Europe their home over the past decades, anti-Semitism would no doubt still exist there. That so many have only adds to a potentially combustible mix.
A bullet hole is pictured in the window of a prayer room at a mosque in the Sablons neighborhood of Le Mans, western France, on January 8, 2015, after shots were fired and three blank grenades were thrown at the mosque shortly after midnight, leaving no casualties.
The outpouring of outrage and concern following the lethal shooting of twelve people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine is understandable.
Many people want to express their shock and grief. They want to stand against the censoring, repressive, and violent impulses represented—symbolically and actually—by the gunmen.
There is no ethical justification for the killings. None. No one “deserved to die.”
Yet the reaction to these tragic killings seamlessly moves forward within an easily manipulated narrative. This story is compellingly shaped by the twin themes of terrorism and destruction of freedom of speech. Because this narrative is framed by the politics of fear, resentment, and vengeance, it has become as volatile and potentially incendiary as the actions that produced it.
As the year comes to a close, we’re looking back to some of our most popular posts of 2014, as well as some gems you might have overlooked. Consider it a countdown of a different sort, a look back at a year that was both volatile and filled with possibility, with posts that reflected both the intensity and diversity of our readers. And consider it a promise, as well, that our 2015 posts will be filled with the same inquisitive spirit and intellectual curiosity. Happy New Year!
The open air book market in Plaza de Armas in Old Havana (La Habana Vieja).
President Obama’s decision to re-establish commercial and diplomatic ties with Cuba caused me to think about what it might mean for publishers, writers, and readers, and to reawaken hopes I had when I visited Cuba almost twenty years ago.
In February of 1995, I traveled to Havana with a delegation of US publishers, writers, and journalists organized by Association of American Publishers’ International Freedom to Publish Committee, a 40-year-old group that has defended freedom of expression around the world through its missions, exhibits, and lobbying activities. Sixty-three publishers joined in creating a Libros USA exhibit of 6,000 books, all of which were donated to Cuban libraries afterwards. (Or most were: an FSG title I’d sent by dissident writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Mea Cuba, never appeared in the display.)
James Baldwin’s “Staggerlee wonders” is a poem of apocalyptic scale, written at a time when the specter of nuclear annihilation hung over the world’s so-called superpowers, held like an axe by the “pink and alabaster pragmatists” of the white power structure, as Baldwin so cuttingly described them. It is a long, furious, and fearless poem, seventeen pages that mix politics with pop culture with black historical and literary references, and snippets of Negro spirituals dripping with venomous irony, all to expose the matrix of colonization and systematic oppression that continued to plague black people in the US—who “don’t own nothing / got no flag,” whose very names remain “hand-me-downs”—well after the civil rights movement was declared victorious, sanctified, then sanitized and anesthetized by those same keepers of red button.
BERKELEY, CA - DECEMBER 08: Berkeley police officers in riot gear line up in front of protetors during a demonstration.
In the past few weeks, the justice system’s inability to hold police officers accountable for the deaths of unarmed citizens, such as 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Mike Brown, and the 43-year-old father of five Eric Garner, has led to protests and increasingly loud calls for reform, investigation, and review of police practices in the use of force. Such calls are not just coming from the young people, progressives, anarchists, and activists who have taken to the streets all across America to voice their outrage and close down freeways, tunnels, bridges, and commerce while decreeing #BlackLivesMatter, but also from white mainstream politicians such as Andrew Cuomo, John Boehner, and even former President George W, Bush.
In response, President Obama has recently announced the formation of a police reform commission headed by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor of criminology, law, and society. He has given them three months to report on best practices in policing and to suggest steps that the executive branch might take to turn back the clock on police use of military grade weapons. When announcing the new commission, the President noted, “There have been task forces before, commissions before, and nothing happens. This time will be different. The president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different,” Obama said also noting that he is planning to pledge $260 million over a three-year period to pay for equipment, as well as training for the police.
I certainly hope this time will be different but I have to say that I am already skeptical given the disconnect between the calls on the part of protestors for federal oversight and the creation of federal policy and guidelines to aid in the prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed citizens, and the President’s response of forming a commission to look into ways to lessen the use of military style weapons that are not generally used to commit such murders. Nonetheless, the President is right that previous commissions have taken up these same issues. He is also right that we as a nation have previously failed to follow their recommendations. So here’s a thought, instead of forming a new commission, why don’t we take a second look at the rejected recommendations of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) from 1968? Sadly, the analysis and conclusions are as relevant today as they were almost fifty years ago.
TEHRAN, IRAN - 01 June 2004: An Iranian couple walk past mural paintings depicting scenes from the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, on a major highway in the Iranian capital Tehran.
Ten years ago, a series of horrific images started streaming across the internet, showing Iraqi internees at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in “various poses of shame and degradation,” as writer and former soldier Aidan Delgado put it, while US soldiers leered in the background. Delgado was stationed at Abu Ghraib when the scandal broke. “I am amazed to see the depravity and variety of the abuse but I am not surprised at all that it happened,” he writes in The Sutras of Abu Ghraib, which tells the story of Delgado’s transformation from a young enlistee to conscientious objector after witnessing firsthand the brutality of the Iraq occupation and the abuse of unarmed Iraqis at Abu Ghraib:
Some dark and obscene atmosphere had built inside the prison camp, so much so that it had turned ordinary, decent men into ghoulish caricatures. Sergeant Toro’s prisoner-transport story had reinforced my impressions of the harsh and repressive environment. It was common knowledge that guards would threaten and manhandle the prisoners—such conduct was almost a badge of manhood. Being tough with the detainees was just part of being a “good soldier” and a team player. The way the younger MPs referred to the prisoners and to the Iraqis in general made this no secret. I had heard about the sexual nature of the photographs: the forcible nudity, the simulated homosexual acts, the videotaped sex between guards and prisoners, but I was taken aback by the particular intensity and sadism of the photographs. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all the hardship, the mortars and attacks, we had become oppressors. We had become sadists. We had become torturers.
A window at Left Bank Books in St. Louis displays titles in their Black Lives Matter Reading List
Before moving to Boston in 2012, I spent several years working for Left Bank Books, St. Louis’s flagship independent bookstore. Founded in 1969, the store has maintained a strong commitment to community, and has gained a reputation as a platform for social and political discussion. Their author event series has hosted the likes of Hillary Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Madeleine Albright. This week I checked in with one of the store’s co-owners, Jarek Steele, to ask about the bookstore’s response to the death of Mike Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent rallies, protests, and demonstrations.
Daniel Barks: I’ve seen bits and pieces of the store’s (and the staff’s) activities regarding Ferguson since August through social media, but maybe you can give a clearer picture of how the store has responded.
Jarek Steele: Early on we talked about Ferguson in our staff meeting. We talked about how Left Bank Books has always been more than just a bookstore, and that we had the opportunity (and responsibility) to use it to facilitate a public conversation about race, policing, and St. Louis’s history and current practice of segregation. We wanted to celebrate the courage it takes to openly talk about race, make mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Our staff is about ¼ non-white at the moment and very queer, so this message was not unwelcome.
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 04: Hundreds of protestors gather at Foley Square in New York, United States on December 04, 2014. A Staten Island grand jury voted against criminal charges for New York City Police a white police officer Daniel Pantaleo who was accused of using a chokehold during an arrest of Eric Garner.
Let me see if I understand what just happened. Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City police officer in July. The NYC Police Department prohibits the use of choke holds. Garner’s death was ruled a homicide. And the grand jury will not indict the officer involved. Is that about it?
“Again the system has failed us. “How? How? I don’t know how.” —Jewell Miller, who has an infant daughter with Eric Garner
All true. A New York grand jury failed to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man, this past July. Sadly, I’m not surprised. After the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri failed to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, another unarmed black man, it’s what I expected.
Rev. Al Sharpton (L), President of the National Action Network, Esaw Garner (C), widow of Eric Garner, and Emerald Garner (R), daughter of Eric Garner, hold a press conference December 3, 2014 in New York, after a grand jury decided not to charge a white police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, a black man, days after a similar decision sparked renewed unrest in Missouri.
“Hell No!” That’s what Esaw Garner said in refusing to accept the apology of the policeman who killed her husband Eric in New York City. And that is what I am saying today. I would like to write something erudite and wise, but those facilities fail me just now. I am feeling great empathy for the rage Louis Head (Michael Brown’s stepfather) unleashed in Ferguson, Missouri when he yelled, “Burn this b**** down!”
Metaphorically channeling the 1969 recording by Miles Davis that “sent a shiver through a country already quaking,” I am at a loss for words to fully capture my “Bitches Brew” of feelings. Miles led the revolution for jazz. I see it as a soundtrack for society—the one where, in 1969, I was a mere five years into the modicum of Civil Rights that forbade denial of equal protection under the law. In 2014, I continue to yearn for those rights to be applied—equally.
Perhaps what hurts most right now is my lack of surprise about what should be surprising events. Eric Garner and Michael Brown are merely two names on a very long list; to which I hasten to add the more than two dozen black women who have also been killed by law enforcement officers in recent years. It wasn’t a surprise when Darren Wilson was not indicted in Missouri. Nor was it a surprise when Daniel Pantaleo was not indicted in New York. It is not a surprise that an unarmed black person is shot every 28 hours by police, nor that black men are incarcerated at ten times the rate of whites.
The Obama administration has finally responded to the grassroots movement of marches, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and hunger strikes organized by communities around the country. For six years this movement has demanded an end to the administration's policy of mass deportations.
Relief from deportation for four to five million of the eleven million people who lack legal immigration status is a step in the right direction. But it is only a step. Deportation relief is a stopgap measure. We need permanent solutions so that those receiving deferred status are not vulnerable to a possible Republican administration and Congress that can easily reverse it, putting in danger those people who have come forward.
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 05: Activists hold a protest near the Manhattan apartment of billionaire and Republican financier David Koch
Today is Election Day and, whatever our political affiliation, we can be sure that big money players with deep pockets will play a large part in the outcome. Which is exactly how they want it. Between 1980 and 2008, the incomes of the bottom 90 percent of Americans grew by a meager 1 percent compared to a whopping 403 percent for the top .01 percent. In an excerpt adapted from their 2012 book, Billionaires’ Ball: Gluttony and Hubris in an Age of Epic Inequality, Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks explore the real origins of the Tea Party’s “grassroots” movement, and the secret world of the Koch brothers’ conservative money machine fueling America’s escalating inequality.
Barely a month after Barack Obama had been sworn in as the forty-fourth U.S. president, riding a wave of immense popular support with his “Yes, we can” rallying cry echoing around the country and the world, a voice seemed to appear from nowhere saying, “No, actually you can’t.” Ostensibly, it came first from Rick Santelli, a relatively obscure investment manager-turned-commentator on CNBC, who denounced Obama’s plans to help struggling American homeowners as “promoting bad behavior.” In a wide-ranging rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on February 19, 2009, Santelli said, “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party in July. All you capitalists that want to show up to Lake Michigan, I’m gonna start organizing.” Within hours, a protest movement had swung into action on the Internet, talk radio, and cable TV, and rallies were scheduled across the country for the following week.
To Mark Ames and Yasha Levine, journalists who had written for an expatriate newspaper based in Moscow, there was something fishy about the whole affair. “As veteran Russia reporters, both of us spent years watching the Kremlin use fake grassroots movements to influence and control the political landscape. To us, the uncanny speed and direction the movement took and the players involved in promoting it had a strangely forced quality to it.” Ames and Levine noted that, only hours after Santelli’s rant, a previously inactive website called ChicagoTeaParty.com, which had been registered six months earlier by a right-wing activist, sprung to life, declaring itself the official home of the Chicago Tea Party. Whether or not Santelli was part of deliberate plan to launch the Tea Party—he denies that he was—Ames and Levine quickly pointed out what other journalists have later confirmed: that the apparently spontaneous outburst of disaffected Americans was greatly helped along by an organized and sophisticated campaign ultimately funded by two of America’s richest men, Charles and David Koch. In many ways, the emergence of the Tea Party as a potent force in American politics can be seen as the culmination of almost four decades of behind-the-scenes effort on the part of the billionaire brothers.
Protesters at the People’s Climate March, photo by Tom Hallock
Climate change is happening, and faster than scientists expected. Polar ice caps are melting faster, island nations are going underwater, the ocean is acidifying and warming. In the US, we are suffering catastrophic droughts from California to Texas, along with severe flooding in the East. The answer is to stop burning fossil fuels, but the World Meteorological Organization says that, in 2013, CO2 rates in the atmosphere were rising faster than ever. So what can we do? On Sunday, September 21st, hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe converged in Manhattan to show the world exactly how critical the issue of climate change is to them, and to demand action. Beacon’s Senior Editor Alexis Rizzuto and Associate Publisher Tom Hallock were there to bear witness. We recently spoke with them about their experiences at the march and why climate change is fast becoming one of the most important issues of our time.
Labeled a “domestic terrorist” by the McCain campaign in 2008 and used by the radical right in an attempt to castigate Obama for “pallin’ around with terrorists,” Bill Ayers is in fact a dedicated teacher, father, and social justice advocate with a sharp memory and even sharper wit. Public Enemy, now available in paperback, tells his story from the moment Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, emerged from years on the run and rebuilt their lives as public figures, often celebrated for their community work and much hated by the radical right. In the following excerpt from the book’s prologue, Ayers tells the story of how he came to play an unlikely yet prominent role in the 2008 presidential election.
Spring 2008, Chicago
It was a mid-April evening, the sweet smells of springtime upon us and the last light reluctantly giving way outside the front window, when my graduate seminar ended and everyone pitched in to clean up. A dozen of my students were spread out in our living room, cups and dishes scattered everywhere, small piles of books and papers marking specific territory. Until a moment before, all of us had focused intensely on the work at hand: thesis development, the art of the personal essay, and the formal demands of oral history research. As a professor for two decades, my favorite teaching moments often popped up during these customary potluck seminars at our home—something about sharing food in a more intimate personal setting, perhaps, or disrupting the assumed hierarchy of teacher authority, or simply being freed from the windowless, fluorescent-lit concrete bunkers that passed for classrooms at my university. But the seminar was done for this evening, and as students began to gather their things, a self-described “political junkie” clicked on the TV and flipped to the presidential primary debate, well under way by now, between Hillary Clinton and the young upstart from Chicago, Barack Obama.
It’s that time of the year again, a time when readers, writers, and publishers everywhere are reminded of the fragility of free speech, even within a country that purportedly protects it. Though this will be the 32nd year of the annual freedom to read celebration, the reality is that book banning is still distressingly common. “It takes guts to take a stand against censorship,” free speech activist Chris Finan recently remarked in response to the banning of Emily M. Danforth’s teen novel The Miseducation of Cameron Post. Finan is president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and author of From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America, the first comprehensive history of free speech in America for general readers, and a book that should be required reading for Banned Books Week.
It’s been an interesting summer for those of us who study the legal and cultural developments surrounding mobile devices. At the end of June, the US Supreme Court unanimously(!) ruled that law enforcement officials must get a search warrant before reviewing the contents of of a cellphone seized during an arrest. [See Riley v. California, 573 U.S. ___ (2014)]. This may well have been the most important pro-privacy decision in the past 45 years, and it deserved far more attention and celebration than it received.
The discussion of the Court’s cellphone decision, however inadequate, was utterly swamped by the media monsoon following the news that nude photos of numerous celebrities (perhaps more than 100, including such cultural icons such Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Mary E. Winstead, and Kirsten Dunst) had been hacked from their Apple iCloud accounts. Wholly apart from sucking the oxygen out of the global news cycle for the better part of a week, the massive celebrity hack made it clear that when it comes to privacy, nothing sells like sex.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo meets with supporters at the Hotel Trade Council during a reelection campaign event on September 8, 2014 in New York City.
The September 9th gubernatorial primary in New York State was, in essence, a referendum on the record of Governor Andrew Cuomo, a conservative Democrat. Although the result was never in doubt, the margin of victory has been taken as a measure of satisfaction with his policies and his prospects for higher office. His opponent was a little known and underfunded progressive Democrat in the mold of Elizabeth Warren: Professor Zephyr Teachout, a law professor from Fordham University. Prof. Teachout, while losing the election, scored an important victory by taking 34.3% of the vote to Mr. Cuomo’s 62.2% (Randy Credico took 3.6% of the vote).
This was the strongest challenge to an incumbent governor since primaries were instituted in New York State (1970). Although Cuomo scored victories in the most populated counties, Teachout won half of New York’s 62 counties. The Teachout vote seemed to be motivated by at least two important issues: the perceived corruption of the Cuomo administration and the issue of permitting hydraulic fracturing in New York. Teachout is the author of the recently released Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United(Harvard University Press, 2014) and is considered a strong opponent of corruption in government. She also is an outspoken opponent of unconventional oil and gas extraction, and favors banning the practice in New York State.
This piece originally appeared in David Bacon’s The Right to Stay Home, which combines incisive reporting on the resistance of Mexican communities to the economic policies that drive migration with the voices of activists themselves as they reflect on their experiences, analyze the complexities of their realities, and affirm their vision for a better world. The Right to Stay Home is now available in paperback.
In Guelatao, the town in the Sierra Juarez where I live, our main crop is corn. It’s a very healthy life. We get up early and have coffee to get ready to work. Your machete has to be sharpened, and then you walk to your field. It can be twenty minutes or two hours away. There’s no machinery for our farms, and the hillsides are very steep. When we need help, we ask for it from our neighbors, and when they need it, we give it to them. When we finish work in the field, we gather wood on the way home for cooking.
Our main problem is that the prices of agricultural products have fallen dramatically. The price for corn doesn’t cover the costs of growing it anymore, so many people have chosen to leave to get the money they need to buy food. The prices for coffee have also fallen, and people have migrated for that reason too. [In May of 2011 coffee sold for about $2.90 per pound, and a year later, in June 2012, it had dropped to $1.55 per pound—almost in half.]