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.]
Three young black men were dead at the hands of the police. The police claimed a gun battle, but no weapons were ever found and witnesses said it was an execution. Nonetheless, the officers were not indicted—and the local newspapers were not willing to investigate or press the issue. The community was outraged; the families bereft.
This was not Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. It was 1967 Detroit and Rosa Parks was outraged by the pattern of police abuse and harassment which had led to the 1967 uprising and the lack of police accountability for their violent behavior during the riot.
Two weeks ago, fierce protests erupted in Ferguson following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. While there has been a great deal of criticism of the aggressive police response to the protests, there has been an undertone of concern and fear about the protesters. Many have cast the young protesters as dangerous and reckless and not living up to the legacy of the civil rights movement. Cast as a generation gap, these framings misrepresent these young protesters and the history of the civil rights movement.
NOGALES, AZ: Detainees sleep and watch television in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the US Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center.
Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the “crisis” of Central American children crossing the US-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news. The media stories have been legion, the words expended many. And yet, as the “crisis” leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive), the real factors that would have made sense of what’s been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned. It couldn’t be stranger—or sadder.
Since late June 2014, the “surge” of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news. Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high. And it’s not a debate that stayed near the southern border either. In my home state, Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children—and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried. Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn’t want any more immigrants. The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship, and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues. As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we’ve been hearing in the news.
A young boy stands in the rubble of his destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.
Cornel West recently spoke at a march on Washington in support of Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire between Hamas and Israeli military forces. Despite a string of shaky cease-fires, yet more rockets were exchanged last night, and the future remains undecided.
“This is a human affair,” Dr. West preached. “Any human being who chooses occupation and annihilation is a war criminal, and especially when they’re killing precious Palestinian babies. A Palestinian baby has exactly the same status as a white baby in Newtown, Connecticut, as a brown baby in the Eastside of LA, as a Jewish baby in Israel.” It’s a powerful moment, a reminder of the indiscriminate nature of warfare, and a military occupation in which an estimated 80% of deaths have been civilians.
GAZA CITY, GAZA - JULY 15: Palestinian 4-year-old Sheyma Al-Masri, wounded in an Israeli airstrike within the 'Operation Protective Edge', gets treatment at Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, Gaza on July 15, 2014.
As Israel and Hamas trade blows, and with Israel’s Operation “Protective Edge” entering its eighth day, the casualty count in Gaza continues to climb, with estimates of nearly 200 Palestinians killed and over 1,500 wounded by the airstrike campaign. President Obama recently defended Israel’s right to the bombardment, making a US-brokered peace deal seem further away than ever. It’s a development that adds fuel to an argument that Middle East historian Rashid Khalidi frames in his latest book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. In it, Khalidi—who recently appeared on the radio show On Point to talk about this latest backslide into violence—asserts that, far from being the unbiased benevolent guide to peace between Israel and Palestine, the US has, in fact, been an agent of continuing injustice, effectively preventing the difficult but essential steps needed to achieve peace in the region. The following is excerpted from Khalidi’s introduction to Brokers of Deceit.
In politics and in diplomacy, as in much else, language matters greatly. However debased political discourse may become, however disingenuous diplomacy often is, the words employed by politicians and diplomats define situations and determine outcomes. In recent history, few semantic battles over terminology have been as intensely fought out as those concerning Palestine/Israel.
The importance of the precise use of language can be illustrated by the powerful valence in the Middle East context of terms such as “terrorism,” “security,” “self-determination,” “autonomy,” “honest broker,” and “peace process.” Each of these terms has set conditions not only for perceptions, but also for possibilities. Moreover, these terms have come to take on a specific meaning, frequently one that is heavily loaded in favor of one side, and is far removed from what logic or balance would seem to dictate. Thus in the American/Israeli official lexicon, “terrorism” in the Middle East context has come to apply exclusivelyto the actions of Arab militants, whether those of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hamas, Hizballah, or others. Under these peculiar terminological rules, the actions of the militaries of Israel and the United States cannot be described as “terrorism,” irrespective of how many Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqi, or Afghan civilians may have died at their hands.
April 4, 1968: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., just before making his final public appearance to address striking Memphis sanitation workers. King was assassinated later that day outside his motel room. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Note: On March 18, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. first addressed the striking Memphis sanitation workers and their supporters. With no text beyond a few words sketched on paper, King pinpointed the issue in Memphis that affected workers everywhere, particularly those in the service economy and in municipal jobs. In a few words, King added union rights for the working poor to his campaign on behalf of the unemployed in both the cities and the newly mechanized cotton country. Memphis thus became the first real front of struggle in the Poor People’s Campaign. In the piece below, which originally appeared in “All Labor Has Dignity”, a collection of King's speeches on labor, Michael K. Honey places King's final speech on April 3, 1968, delivered the day before his assassination, in the wider historical context of economic justice, revealing King's commitment—tragically cut short—to aid the struggles of the working poor everywhere.
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
After Dr. King’s stunning March 18 speech, strike supporters made hurried efforts to bring him back to lead the united labor-community general strike that he had called for. Instead, supernatural forces shut the city down, in the form of a bizarre snowstorm in the South in the middle of spring. Reverend Lawson joked at the time that Mother Nature had fulfilled King’s demand for a general strike. When King finally did return to lead a mass protest march through downtown Memphis on March 28, angry youths, probably egged on by police agents, disrupted it, smashing windows and providing police with an excuse to go on a rampage. Mayhem and murder ensued. Some seven hundred people went to the hospital, and police killed an unarmed sixteen-year-old named Larry Payne. The national news media and reactionary congresspeople, baited by secret memos from the FBI spinning the events in Memphis, condemned King for “running” from the march (he had pulled out when it turned violent). Memphis had now put King’s Poor People’s Campaign trek to D.C. in jeopardy. King vowed to return to Memphis in his quest to lead a nonviolent march, despite opposition from his staff and a number of warnings that he would be killed if he did. He warned his parents and his wife that someone had put a price on his head. As he left Atlanta for Memphis, airline officials delayed his flight for an hour as they searched for a bomb after someone phoned in a death threat against him. On the evening of April 3, King gave one of his most dramatic and prophetic speeches. In the middle of a violent thunderstorm, with tornadoes and lightning touching down in the surrounding area, King arrived at Bishop Charles Mason Temple without a script, with a sore throat, and slightly ill. Violent weather prevented many people from coming, but nearly all thirteen hundred of Local 1733’s members came, as did some of their strongest strike supporters. To this humble gathering, King poured out his last testament. He looked back through all of human history to this particular moment in time and called on people to appreciate their opportunity to once again change history. King placed the Memphis movement into the context of the long struggle for human freedom, as he had done in his first speech in support of the Montgomery Bus Boycott that had begun in December 1955. And he reviewed his years in the freedom movement since that time with gusto and appreciation.
For many of us, the State of the Union is more than just an opportunity for President Obama to publicly frame his policy priorities for the year. It's a moment when all the hopes, struggles, fears, and anticipation of the nation's citizenry crystallize, a moment of reflection and national self-reckoning. And coming after a year of unprecedented congressional gridlock, when continual attacks on the Affordable Care Act resulted in a shutdown of the federal government, and when Edward Snowden exposed the NSA's horrifying breach of public trust, there seems to be a particular urgency associated with this year's address among those who will feel most its repercussions. For those of us in such circumstances, tonight's address is anything more than just a speech.
To that end, we asked a few of our authors, engaged citizens themselves, to speak on behalf of those caught in the political crossfire. What follows is what we hope to hear from our President and what we are afraid we will not hear, both tonight and moving forward into the contested future.
The debate over Humanist chaplains in the military continues this week with Family Research Council president Tony Perkins offering several of the most common sentiments held by those who oppose the effort to create this resource for nonreligious members of the military.
Perkins suggests that nonreligious chaplains are a “bizarre” idea, adding that “by definition, a chaplain’s duties are to offer prayer, spiritual counseling, and religious instruction.” The confusion surrounding chaplains for the nonreligious isn’t new—or especially surprising. The popular connotations of the word chaplain are clearly religious; more often than not, they are explicitly Christian.
But if you look, for example, at Harvard University—where I work as one of two Humanist chaplains alongside Greg Epstein—you will find nearly 40 chaplains representing a plethora of religious and philosophical communities, from atheism/Humanism to Zoroastrianism. For many of the traditions represented in this diverse group, the title of chaplain has little to no historical precedent, but as a group we collaboratively work to expand the definition of the word to meet the needs of Harvard’s religiously diverse community.
There was a time when only Christians were permitted to be military chaplains:
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Jews could not serve as chaplains in the U.S. armed forces. When the war commenced in 1861, Jews enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies. The Northern Congress adopted a bill in July of 1861 that permitted each regiment's commander, on a vote of his field officers, to appoint a regimental chaplain so long as he was "a regularly ordained minister of some Christian denomination."
Although Jews were permitted just a year later, it would be another 132 years before the U.S. armed forces saw its first Muslim chaplain. Definitions change, in other words.
Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, a Department of Defense spokesman, has defended the military’s lack of nonreligious chaplains by saying: “The department does not endorse religion or any one religion or religious organization, and provides to the maximum extent possible for the free exercise of religion by all members of the military services who choose to do so.” The implication is that explicitly nonreligious servicemen and servicewomen are free to consult with a religious chaplain. But for the same reason that a Christian may prefer a Christian chaplain over a Muslim or Jewish chaplain, nonreligious people should be free to seek out assistance from a member of their own community.
As a Humanist chaplain, I frequently hear a version of Perkins' argument (For more on what exactly I do as a chaplain, check out a short piece I wrote last year): “[Advocates] argue that nonbelievers suffer the same fear and pain that affects every service member. But isn’t that why the military has psychologists?” (A serious question: does he mean to imply that religious people don’t visit both chaplains and psychologists?)
Some students and members of our local community visit psychologists, but they come to me and my colleague Greg for different reasons. Psychologists are medical professionals who diagnose and treat behavior and mental processes; chaplains are not. Psychologists provide an important but altogether different set of services than we do. We are available to talk with members of our community about how their nonreligious values inform their actions, and how their worldview helps them respond to and process tragedy. We are there to listen, but we can also share some of our thoughts and share from our experiences—something that most psychologists do not do. We can also go to members of our community, rather than wait for them to come to us, to connect them to a community of their peers—another role a psychologist alone can’t play. Finally, and significantly: going to a psychologist is non-confidential in the military, so chaplains play an important role in that context.
So what about the debate surrounding the use of the word chaplain? Personally, I don’t feel particularly attached to it. But when it is the standard used for other community care practitioners, as it is at Harvard and in the military, then it should be applied across the board. I feel similarly about the debate over whether to call legally-recognized same-sex partnerships “marriages” or “civil unions;” when one term is normative and certain groups of people—minority groups that have historically been marginalized—are excluded from using it, then the distinction is problematic.
“Atheist chaplains are like vegetarian carnivores. They don’t exist!” Perkins writes. He’s likely just trying to be clever, but allow me to clarify: we do in fact exist, Tony, and we’re here if you’d like to talk. Hopefully that will soon be the case for members of the military, too.
For more information on Humanist chaplains in the military, click here.
At the risk of being labeled a Tea Party toady or
right-leaning deviationist, I have to ask if the severing of the Supplemental
Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) from the
Farm Bill by the Republican House Majority isn’t an opportunity worth taking
advantage of. And in the same breath, I have to ask if the lockstep resistance
to that move and piling on of liberal vituperation isn’t yet more evidence that
the left-leaning social policy machine is running on empty.
Federal spending on the food stamp program has been pushing
north of $70 billion a year. It has been justifiably credited with keeping many
people’s heads above water during the Great Recession while modestly
stimulating local economies. Representing some 70 percent of the current Farm
Bill– the rest being divvied up between the much reviled agricultural commodity
programs and the much beloved conservation and sustainable farming programs– food
stamp support has allegedly relied on an unholy alliance of sorts between Big
Agriculture and anti-hunger advocates. “I’ll support billions in agricultural
subsidies if you support tens of billions in SNAP benefits. That way we can eat
our food stamps and high fructose corn syrup too!”
By tearing asunder that which unlikely partners hath joined
together, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor put a lot of federal spending in
play for the government downsizing Neanderthals. As Emerson once noted, “There
is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatives,” and what can be
meaner than taking food away from hungry children? Though doing marginally
little to pull the current 50 million food stamp recipients out of poverty, the
program is one of the few tools that government has to mitigate it worst effects.
That being said, one can’t help but ask if we didn’t see
this dramatic House action coming. After all, food stamps have been under siege
for years, even before their association with President Reagan’s nefarious
welfare queen remark. Getting their start in a somewhat different form during
the Great Depression (not Recession),
and codified in its present form as the first executive order of President
Kennedy, food stamps and the food benefits they bestow reflect two sides of the
American character. Being as compassionate as any people, we simply don’t have
the heart to let anyone starve to death. But being up-by-the-bootstraps
individualists, Americans generally blame the poor for being poor and don’t
trust them to spend the taxpayer’s largesse wisely. Hence food stamps can only
be spent on food, and not any other of life’s necessities.
But even then the hapless food stamp user must run a
gauntlet of consumer scorn. The smug conservative shopper will ask aloud why
“those people” are buying filet mignon with their food stamps, while righteous
foodies ask why “they” are allowed to buy Coca-Cola, Twinkies, and host of
other highly disparaged processed food products.
Being a food stamp recipient isn’t for sissies. Not only do you
wear a bull’s eye on your back for every cost-cutting politician to take aim
at, your purchases are relentlessly scrutinized and the subject of a never
ending public critique. You endure derision from every quarter all for the
princely sum of about $5 a day.
Whether we have more food stamp spending or less begs the
question of why such a major act of social policy that nobody, including the
recipients, seems to like, continues unreformed and unevaluated. With a national poverty rate locked at 15
percent and a near-poverty rate bringing the combined numbers to well over 30
percent, food stamps provide some relief but no solutions. With overweight and
obesity affecting 65 percent of the population and eclipsing hunger as
America’s number one diet-related health problem, food stamps do little to
encourage healthy eating and less to discourage unhealthy eating. And with high
unemployment, low wage jobs, and few prospects for growth— other than big box
stores and casinos— leaving the economy stuck in neutral, the $70 billion in
federally generated buying power helps Kraft Foods (food stamps are 1/6 of its
sales), but nearly nothing to infuse local economies with new energy.
But the anti-hunger orthodoxy that SNAP is a vital part of
the nation’s safety net and must never be altered goes unchallenged. Whenever
an innovation is proposed, e.g. Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prohibit the use
of food stamps to purchase sugary soft drinks, the program’s pit bull defenders
bare their teeth threatening to rip the limbs off heretics who might modify even
one of SNAP’s holy sacraments. It may be that they are in bed with Wal-Mart and
others who have tragically dumbed-down American wages and whose workers are
subsidized by the food stamp program, or it may be that they are riveted to the
notion that they are all that stand between a modicum of food sufficiency and
mass starvation. Either way, the tenaciousness of their enterprise, which
opposes food stamp change at any cost, is only matched by an equally fervent
brand of conservatism embodied by the Tea Party. The result: A program now more
than 50 years old remains largely unchanged even though the nation that it
helps feed has changed in myriad ways.
Imagine a corporation or major private institution that did
not conduct research and development, kept the same product line for
generations, and never engaged in strategic thinking. That enterprise would be
out of business (or subsidized by the federal government). While a nation’s
social policy is albeit more complicated and subject to a host of conflicting winds,
it cannot go unexamined by those who genuinely care about people and their
communities. Anti-hunger advocates will say that any meaningful examination of
the food stamp program opens a Pandora’s Box that allows Tea Party-ites to
wield their machetes, but that process is underway already; better to get out
front with new ideas and positive energy.
Both history and biology amply demonstrate that change is
inevitable, and that those who resist the need to adapt and reinvent in the
face of new exigencies are eventually subject to denigration, decay, and
decomposition. While we cannot realistically count on the Republicans (though I
think exceptions do exist) to enthusiastically embrace a food stamp reformation
that places poverty reduction, nutritional health, and sustainable agriculture
above basic caloric intake, we might expect more from food stamps’ stalwart
defenders as well as progressive forces within the food movement.
The time to re-think food stamps is upon us. If the best and
most compassionate don’t do it, if we don’t find a way to build a model 21st
century social program around the bones of an aging 20th century
program, food stamps will become nothing more than carrion for circling vultures.
The trial of Whitey Bulger continues at the Federal Courthouse in Boston. One of the witnesses "on deck" for the prosecution is Paul "Pole Cat" Moore, so here's a timely excerpt from All Souls: A Family Story from Southie by Michael Patrick MacDonald. All Souls is, among other things, an excellent guide to Southie under Whitey Bulger's criminal empire. In this excerpt, MacDonald describes Pole Cat's connections to the local boxing world, the popular rock club the Rathskeller (or "The Rat") and Bulger's drug-dealing operations.
Hard hitting Frank MacDonald of South Boston met and defeated a very comparable Jose Miguel from Cranston, Rhode Island. Frank totally devastated his opponent with a series of crippling punches to the body which succeeded in incapacitating Miguel, who was of great courage but unable to fathom Frank’s awesome body attack—congratulations Frank, and corner men Paul "Pole Cat" Moore and Tommy "Stove Man" Cronin.
—South Boston Tribune
Frankie was one of the few young people in the neighborhood not being dragged down by drugs and crime in 1980. His boxing career was one of the only things that brought good news to the streets of Old Colony in those days. Frankie was fast becoming a neighborhood hero, not only in Old Colony, but all over Southie. Everyone knew who he was, and he had a nickname now, "Frank the Tank," for his "hard hitting" style that was bringing him championship titles, from Junior Olympics bouts at Freeport Hall in Dorchester to the New England Golden Gloves tournament in Lowell.
Mary and Kathy said all their girlfriends talked about Frankie’s looks, and the guys who hadn’t yet got caught up in the world of drugs talked about getting a ripped body like Frank’s. He was working out seven days a week, running from Old Colony, through the Point, around Castle Island, and back to the project, always in his combat boots from his days in the Marines—and sometimes he ran backwards. Frank was welcome all over Southie. The little kids in the neighborhood would run after him, asking him questions about his bouts and begging him to show how he knocked out his opponents. That’s why Frankie was so intent on being what they called "a stand-up guy" in Southie. That’s what they called anyone who would never snitch, even if it meant doing a life bid because of it. But in Frankie’s case, it just meant he was clean-cut. Sure, he knew all the top gangsters in the neighborhood; anyone with Frankie’s status in the Southie boxing world would. But he never got involved in their rackets, stayed away from the dust and coke they were pumping into the streets, and refused to work for Whitey, telling Ma that he never wanted to be "owned."
But still Frankie had "the boys," as we called Whitey’s troops, working in his corner as he fought his way through four years of New England Golden Gloves championships, starting out as a two-time middleweight champ in the novice class, and ending up a light heavyweight champ for the whole region in 1982 and 1983. South Boston Tribune articles always pointed out the sound advice and leadership "the boys" were giving Frank in the ring:
Following closely the instructions of trainer Paul "Pole Cat" Moore and manager Tommy Cronin, Frank pursued his opponent most aggressively with a savage body attack which . . . wore down O’Han to the point of becoming a bit careless and somewhat frustrated . . . at being unable to figure out MacDonald’s technique. Frank, once again following the instructions for his corner, succeeded in landing a barrage of lefts and rights to the jaw and head of his adversary. This will prove to have been a most excellent victory for Frankie in the upcoming bouts he is to have.
In Southie having the gangsters in your corner, in the ring or on the streets, meant that you had the ultimate protection and power. Grandpa didn’t believe that, though. He had warnings for all of us, from his own days as a longshoreman on the Southie docks, where he said he’d worked alongside some men who ended up in the Brinks robbery of 1950, "the big one." Grandpa always told us how the rule on the docks was to keep your mouth shut about the rackets you saw. He said many a time the longshoremen were lined up by the cops and asked to step forward and speak about crimes. That’s how a waitress from the local diner got killed, after she stepped forward among the silent longshoremen. She was found murdered the next day, her blood scrawled into the letters snitch all over her cold-water flat. Grandpa had another rule of his own for the underworld: "Watch out whose hand you shake," he told us. He said there was no such thing as a gangster giving something without wanting more in return. "They’ll give you a quarter for a dollar any day," he said. Grandpa had been trying to get closer to us since Kathy’s coma and had even bought a condo in City Point. He got a closer look at the neighborhood, and he kept coming around the house cursing "that fuckin’ Whitey Bulger, a no-good bum if there ever was one," and wondering if the Bulgers were even Irish at all, with Senate President Billy Bulger’s insulting Irish brogue imitations at drunken St. Paddy’s Day festivities. "They’re a shame to the Irish altogether," he said, "and what respectable Irish person would name their kid William?" he asked. "That would be like a Jew naming a kid Adolf."
Kevin started to go to the Rathskeller downtown, where Frankie along with some of the other boxers and some of the boys were working as bouncers. They were big and tough looking, and good for keeping the college students and punk rock types in line. Frank’s corner man, Pole Cat Moore, worked at the Rat, and introduced Frankie to Ricky Marino, an ex–state trooper, who became Frankie’s best friend. Then there was Kevin "Andre the Giant" McDonald, not to be confused with my brother Kevin "Mini Mac" MacDonald. He was a Southie champion too. Ricky and Paul Moore were pretty high up in what the papers in later years would call the "Southie underworld." But Frankie knew his little brother wasn’t going to get involved in their plans, no matter how much he wanted to. They were too high up to be bothered with Kevin, who despite his involvement in some of the big stuff was still just a kid to guys like these. They also had a position to maintain, and weren’t about to bring someone with Kevin’s potential into their rackets.
My brother Joe would go to the Rat too, whenever he was on leave from the Air Force. Joe told Ma it was weird how Frankie’s friends pulled each other aside when they were "talking business." We all knew Joe was the tattletale in our family—he told Ma everything—and the boys must have sensed this too. But one night at the Rat, he did overhear Pole Cat Moore telling Ricky that he’d be getting his cocaine directly through Whitey’s Colombian connections, rather than going through Ricky. Pole Cat had a job with the Boston Housing Authority, and an apartment with his brother, right next to ours on 8 Patterson Way. Pole Cat never touched the stuff. He was too into his body, coming and going from our building with a gym bag and a clean white towel around his neck. But he was starting to make a killing on the coke, by the looks of the number of kids knocking on his door day and night. Joe said he would know if Frankie was into that stuff, though, and that Frankie had never been involved in Pole Cat’s huddled conversations with Ricky at the Rat.
Then I started showing up at the back door of the Rat most nights. Ever since I was fifteen I’d gone there to see bands. Frankie’s friends knew who I was, and snuck me downstairs through the piss-puddled hallways, to where the bands played. Frankie snuck me in too, but he didn’t know I was there on weeknights, and I told his friends to keep it quiet. I hadn’t returned to Latin School since Kathy’s coma. They’d tried to make a deal with me that I could be promoted, despite all my absences, if I left Latin and went to Madison Park High School in Roxbury. "Yeah, right," I said, "and be the only white kid in the class."
Latin had been my only escape from the busing, and now I felt guilty for messing it up. I couldn’t believe I was a high school dropout. I’d always been the straight-A student Ma bragged about, along with Johnnie, and Davey. For a while I was still pretending to go to school, even after Kathy was out of the coma. I’d wander around Boston all day, freezing at bus stops when I didn’t have money for the three-hour-long coffee refills at Mug and Muffn, trying to stay awake after a night at the Rat. Ma eventually found a letter I’d written to myself about my guilt for being a dropout, and she was bullshit that I had pulled one over on her. She confronted me about it and said I’d have to go right to work the next day. She too knew high school in Roxbury wasn’t an option. That’s when I switched from pretending to go out to school every day to pretending to go out looking for a job. I was still freezing at bus stops, or getting warm at Mug and Muffn; and I still snuck out of the house at night to go to the Rat.
I had my own group of friends at the Rat. While Frankie, Pole Cat, Andre the Giant, and the rest of the gang hung out upstairs, I was down in the basement with misfits from all walks of life. Some were working-class kids, others were suburban white-picket-fence types, and others were rich. "What’s a trust fund?" I remember asking. "Ah, man, it’s nothing—just ’cause my dad’s rich doesn’t mean I am. I gotta wait on it. Got a dollar for a beer, dude?" But wherever these people came from, they didn’t like it. I’d always preferred black music—soul, then disco, and now hip-hop and rap. The words made more sense to me. But I also liked the energy and rage of punk rock; I just couldn’t relate to the lyrics about life in the suburbs, and having strict parents. Then I discovered the original version of punk, from England. I’d never thought about the fact that there were poor and working-class English people who hated the Queen, and her mother, and the whole British establishment. I could get into that. This was a movement of people who didn’t fit in where they came from, and they’d made that cool. I could get into that too.
Punk music became an escape for me, but I still had to come back to Old Colony every night. I often hitched a ride with Frankie’s friends, the whole way home not knowing what to say to men as powerful as "the boys." Other times I had punk rockers drop me off on the outskirts of Southie, so they wouldn’t see that I lived in the project, or accuse me of being a racist for living in my neighborhood. But I was protecting them too; I didn’t want them to get bottles thrown at them for being different in Southie.
A narrative history of the John Birch Society by a daughter of one of the infamous ultraconservative organization's founding fathers
Long before the rise of the Tea Party movement and the prominence of today’s religious Right, the John Birch Society, first established in 1958, championed many of the same radical causes touted by ultraconservatives today, including campaigns against abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, labor unions, environmental protections, immigrant rights, social and welfare programs, the United Nations, and even water fluoridation.
Worshipping its anti-Communist hero Joe McCarthy, the Birch Society is perhaps most notorious for its red-baiting and for accusing top politicians, including President Dwight Eisenhower, of being Communist sympathizers. It also labeled John F. Kennedy a traitor and actively worked to unseat him. The Birch Society boasted a number of notable members, including Fred Koch, father of Charles and David Koch, who are using their father’s billions to bankroll fundamentalist and right-wing movements today.
The daughter of one of the society’s first members and a national spokesman about the society, Claire Conner grew up surrounded by dedicated Birchers and was expected to abide by and espouse Birch ideals. When her parents forced her to join the society at age thirteen, she became its youngest member of the society. From an even younger age though, Conner was pressed into service for the cause her father and mother gave their lives to: the nurturing and growth of the JBS. She was expected to bring home her textbooks for close examination (her mother found traces of Communist influence even in the Catholic school curriculum), to write letters against “socialized medicine” after school, to attend her father’s fiery speeches against the United Nations, or babysit her siblings while her parents held meetings in the living room to recruit members to fight the war on Christmas or (potentially poisonous) water fluoridation. Conner was “on deck” to lend a hand when JBS notables visited, including founder Robert Welch, notorious Holocaust denier Revilo Oliver, and white supremacist Thomas Stockheimer. Even when she was old enough to quit in disgust over the actions of those men, Conner found herself sucked into campaigns against abortion rights and for ultraconservative presidential candidates like John Schmitz. It took momentous changes in her own life for Conner to finally free herself of the legacy of the John Birch Society in which she was raised.
In Wrapped in the Flag, Claire Conner offers an intimate account of the society—based on JBS records and documents, on her parents’ files and personal writing, on historical archives and contemporary accounts, and on firsthand knowledge—giving us an inside look at one of the most radical right-wing movements in US history and its lasting effects on our political discourse today.
Beacon Press calls Boston home. While we are all back at work this week, we mourn the lives lost in the bombings and the pursuit of the suspects, and our thoughts are with their loved ones and the victims still recovering from their injuries in our area's hospitals. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino have set up a fund to help those most affected by the bombings: One Fund Boston.
We have found words of comfort and valuable analysis from our authors in the days since the Marathon bombings.
Scott Korb (Light Without Fire) and Suhaib Webb (Imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center) co-wrote this piece for the New York Times answering attacks against American Islamic communities by Rep. Peter King and others:
Mr. King’s hypothesis, and the widespread surveillance policies already in effect since 9/11, assume that the threat of radicalization has become a matter of local geography, that American Muslims are creating extremists in our mosques and community centers.
But what we’re learning of the suspects, the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, suggests a different story, and one that has itself become familiar: radicalization does not happen to young people with a strong grounding in the American Muslim mainstream; increasingly, it happens online, and sometimes abroad, among the isolated and disaffected.
“Children take cues from their parents about how to make sense of all kinds of events in the world,” said Groves. She urged parents to assess their own feelings, and then determine what they will say and how they will say it before having a conversation with their kids. “I think that parents need to just give themselves permission to collect their own thoughts.”
Honesty is critical, she added, noting that opening a dialogue with children signals that it’s OK to discuss a difficult subject. “If parents take the initiative to bring it up, it makes the topic less scary to start with.’”
At Guernica, Rafia Zakaria (whose book The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is forthcoming from Beacon Press next year) wrote why attacks in America are "far more indelible in the world’s memory" than bombings in other places where they happen more frequently:
There may be fewer victims and less blood, but American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response. Within minutes American victims are lifted from the nameless to the remembered; their individual tragedies and the ugly unfairness of their ends are presented in a way that cannot but cause the watching world to cry, to consider them intimates, and to stand in their bloody shoes. Death is always unexpected in America and death by a terrorist attack more so than in any other place.
It is this greater poignancy of attacks in America that begs the question of whether the world’s allocations of sympathy are determined not by the magnitude of a tragedy—the numbers dead and injured—but by the contrast between a society’s normal and the cruel aftermath of a terrorist event. It is in America that the difference between the two is the greatest; the American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war. The very popularity of the Boston Marathon could be considered an expression of just this. America is so secure and free from suffering that people have the luxury of indulging in deliberate suffering in the form of excruciating physical exertion; this suffering in turn produces well-earned exhilaration, a singular sense of physical achievement and mental fortitude. The act of running a marathon is supposed to be simple, individual—a victory of the will over the body, celebrated by all and untouched by the complicated questions of who in the world can choose to suffer and who only bears suffering.
In America, just about everyone is some sort of hyphenated hybrid of race, religion and ethnicity/nationality. Irish-Catholic-American, African-American Pentecostal, Jewish-American secular Humanist, and so on. As Walt Whitman said, "I am large / I contain multitudes."
When interfaith cooperation is done well, it not only helps people from different faith and philosophical backgrounds get along, it creates space for the diverse identities within each of us to become mutually enriching rather than mutually exclusive. When interfaith events raise the question, what do I have in common with people of different religious and national identities, the natural internal dialogue that ensues is: What do my own diverse identities have in common with each other?
Religious extremists try to separate people's various identities and pit them against each other. The extremists that got to the young London 7/7 bombers somehow convinced them that their Muslim identity was at war with their British identity, and the former had to destroy the latter. While the facts are still coming in, this may also have been the case for the Tsarnaev brothers. It was a clash civilizations in their souls.
In a nation of hybrids, it's important to have loyalty to both sides of the hyphen. What if the Tsarnaev brothers were involved in discussions with people from other backgrounds about how their faith identity was mutually enriching with their nationality and citizenship? Perhaps they would have been less susceptible to the divide-and-destroy tactics of extremists.
At her Being Both blog, Susan Katz Miller (Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, forthcoming Fall 2013) speaks about her Boston ties and the ways that interfaith communities and families can offer solace:
We do not need to share a conception of God in order to comfort each other. No matter our religious beliefs or lack thereof, we can still pause to sing together, meditate together, hug each other.
I write as someone who chooses to live fulltime in this “interfaith space.” Interfaith families raising children with dual-faith education experience the benefits of interfaith celebration and contemplation and mourning–the synergy, the joy, the healing of reflecting together as an interfaith community–week in and week out. And as we model interfaith love, and radical inclusivity, we hope to play some small part in preventing intolerance, alienation and violence in the world.
At Huffington Post, Rabbi Marc Schneier (co-author of Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation about the Issues That Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims, forthcoming Fall 2013) speaks out against the tainting of American Muslims with the actions of the Tsarnaev brothers:
Since Friday (April 19), when the news broke that the likely perpetrators of the bombings, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were Muslim, many of the top American Muslim spiritual and organizational leaders have unequivocally denounced the Boston Marathon bombings as morally repellent and antithetical to the basic values of Islam. Their passionate comments on this issue; following the hundreds of pronouncements by Muslim leaders in the years since Sept. 11, 2001 denouncing terrorism and violence need to be heard and acknowledged; especially by those who knowingly or unknowingly continue to peddle the canard that American Muslim leaders turn a blind eye to -- or even approve of -- terrorist acts committed by fellow Muslims.
Some of the stories we tell about the nation are delusions that cloak weaknesses and wrongs, which fester unacknowledged. David Ortiz brags that "nobody is going to dictate our freedom," and I assume he hasn't heard of the Patriot Act or warrantless wiretaps, much less the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act. Dennis Lehane can be excused for declaring that "they messed with the wrong city," but don't take seriously his confidence that not much will change: "Trust me," he adds implausibly, "we won't be giving up any civil liberties to keep ourselves safe because of this."
Of course we will. We've been surrendering liberty in the hope of keeping ourselves safe for the past decade. The marathon bombings will hasten our surrender of freedom from the watchful eye of law enforcement. The Boston Globe is already clamoring for additional surveillance cameras, which are sure to be installed to the applause of a great many Bostonians. You can rationalize increased surveillance as a necessary or reasonable intrusion on liberty, but you can't deny its intrusiveness, or inevitable abuses.
On Radio Boston yesterday, Judge Nancy Gertner (In Defense of Women) and Alan Dershowitz spoke about the legal issues surrounding the Tsarnaev case: venue changes, death penalty charges, the definition of weapons of mass destruction, Miranda warnings, and more. Listen here.
Claire Conner’s father was a national spokesperson for the John Birch Society for more than thirty years; her mother was also a staunch follower. Conner holds a degree in English from the University of Dallas and a graduate degree from the University of Wisconsin. Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right(coming in July from Beacon Press) gives an inside look at one of the most radical right-wing movements in American history and shows how it impacts our politics today.
Every year, during
Holocaust Remembrance Week, the people of the United States promise to “never
forget” the six million who perished in Hitler’s death camps. I make the same
promise. Then I add my own personal vow—to never forget Dr. Revilo P. Oliver, a
classics professor from the University of Illinois and a founding member of the
John Birch Society. Using an energized, anti-Communist right wing network,
Oliver peddled his revised history of World War II; one in which the Jews
invented the Holocaust and foisted the story of their imaginary persecution on
an unsuspecting world. I heard Oliver spin his vile “Holohoax” ideas right in
my parents’ living room.
In late 1958, my
parents became the first two members of the John Birch Society in Chicago. They
were welcomed into the brand new organization by founder, Robert Welch, who
introduced them to Oliver. Welch and Oliver were personal and professional
friends. Over the years, Welch often described Oliver as one of the “ablest
speakers on the Americanist side.”
Any friend of Welch
got a warm welcome from my parents. The first time I met the man, however, he
gave me the creeps. His long face was exaggerated by black hair slicked back
with greasy pomade, bushy eyebrows and beady eyes and wide handlebar mustache.
I never saw Oliver smile. But his lips often curled in a nasty snarl,
especially when he was berating someone who dared to disagree.
Oliver was a frequent
contributor to National Review,
William F. Buckley’s magazine, and to the John Birch Society’s magazine, American Opinion. In the pages of these
journals, he expressed some of his most controversial positions including a
1965 slam against the United States for “an insane, but terribly effective,
effort to destroy the American people and Western civilization by subsidizing .
. . the breeding of the intellectually, physically, and morally unfit.”
Oliver peppered his
speeches and his articles with racial slurs and discredited historical
assumption. In his role as a member of the John Birch Society speakers’ bureau,
he railed against Communist subversion inside our government while insisting that
President Roosevelt tricked the United States into World War II in order to
help his friend, Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator.
Along with this
interpretation of World War II, Oliver peddled his version of the Holocaust,
one in stark contrast to everything I’d learned from our Jewish neighbors and
my own father. Gone were the yellow stars and the death camps. Gone were the
gas chambers and crematoria. Even the witness of American soldiers who
liberated Buchenwald and Dachau was repudiated. Instead, Oliver said that there
were no gas chambers and no exterminations.
My parents parroted
Oliver. The Holocaust stopped being so terrible, the death camps turned into
detention camps. Jews were imprisoned because they were traitors, not because
of their faith. The “Final Solution” became fiction, and the Nazis were loyal
military men following orders.
I’d met Jews with
tattoos on their arms. I’d seen photographs from Buchenwald. I knew that
millions of men, women and children were gassed and their ashes coated everything
when the fires roared. I knew all of this as well as I knew my name. I was not
even 14 and I thought my parents had lost their minds. Dr. Oliver had helped
No matter what Revilo
Oliver said, he continued to serve (with my father) on the John Birch Society
National Council, the inner circle of the organization. My parents drank in
everything he said and repeated most of it, almost verbatim. Robert Welch heaped
praise on Oliver for his outstanding contributions to the Birch cause.
All of this Oliver
devotion stopped abruptly in July of 1966, when Oliver headlined the New
England Rally for God, Family, and Country, an annual Birch-sponsored festival
held in Boston and billed as a reunion for conservative Americans. In his
speech, “Conspiracy or Degeneracy, Oliver talked about “vaporizing” Jews as
part of the “beatific vision.”
generated an avalanche of negative press, followed by internal Birch turmoil on
how to respond. Oliver had said all of this and more for years and every single
member of the Birch leadership had heard him. But time this was different. Oliver’s
public and blatant racism sounded like it echoed John Birch Society policies.
And the press covered it.
In early August,
Welch told council members that Oliver had resigned. In a split-second, he
vanished from my parents’ conversation. They pretended that Oliver had never
been a Birch leader or a personal friend.
Revilo Oliver lived
the rest of his life as a hero to neo-Nazis, skin heads and white supremacists.
His views never moderated. In 1982, twelve years before his death by suicide,
Oliver wrote that democracy would only be possible by “deporting, vaporizing,
or otherwise disposing of swarms of Jews, Congoids (Africans), Mongoloids and
mongrels (mixed-race) that now infest our territory.”
Oliver put an
indelible mark on the John Birch Society, built a network of Holocaust deniers and
recruited countless followers to spread his message of hate. This year, the theme of the Holocaust
Remembrance is “heeding the warning signs.” There is no warning sign of more
significance than the continuing presence of Holocaust denial in our public
life. We can’t begin to understand today’s deniers if we don’t take a hard look
at the man who fueled the denial movement.