Saturday, April 14, 2007

Everybody Hates Don Imus

The New York Times
April 15, 2007

FAMILIAR as I am with the warp speed of media, I was still taken aback by the velocity of Don Imus’s fall after he uttered an indefensible racist and sexist slur about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Even in that short span, there’s been an astounding display of hypocrisy, sanctimony and self-congratulation from nearly every side of the debate, starting with Al Sharpton, who has yet to apologize for his leading role in the Tawana Brawley case, the 1980s racial melee prompted by unproven charges much like those that soiled the Duke lacrosse players.

It’s possible that the only people in this whole sorry story who are not hypocrites are the Rutgers teammates and their coach, C. Vivian Stringer. And perhaps even Don Imus himself, who, while talking way too much about black people he has known and ill children he has helped, took full responsibility for his own catastrophic remarks and didn’t try to blame the ensuing media lynching on the press, bloggers or YouTube. Unlike Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Isaiah Washington, to take just three entertainers who have recently delivered loud religious, racial or sexual slurs, Imus didn’t hire a P.R. crisis manager and ostentatiously enter rehab or undergo psychiatric counseling. “I dished it out for a long time,” he said on his show last week, “and now it’s my time to take it.”

Among the hypocrites surrounding Imus, I’ll include myself. I’ve been a guest on his show many times since he first invited me in the early 1990s, when I was a theater critic. I’ve almost always considered him among the smarter and more authentic conversationalists I’ve encountered as an interviewee. As a book author, I could always use the publicity.

Of course I was aware of many of his obnoxious comments about minority groups, including my own, Jews. Sometimes he aimed invective at me personally. I wasn’t seriously bothered by much of it, even when it was unfunny or made me wince, because I saw him as equally offensive to everyone. The show’s crudest interludes struck me as burlesque.

I do not know Imus off the air and have no idea whether he is a good person, any more than I know whether Jerry Lewis, another entertainer who raises millions for sick children, is a good person. But as a listener and sometime guest, I didn’t judge Imus to be a bigot. Perhaps I felt this way in part because Imus vehemently inveighed against racism in real life, most recently in decrying the political ads in last year’s Senate campaign linking a black Tennessee congressman, Harold Ford, to white women. Perhaps I gave Imus a pass because the insults were almost always aimed at people in the public eye, whether politicians, celebrities or journalists — targets with the forums to defend themselves.

And perhaps I was kidding myself. What Imus said about the Rutgers team landed differently, not least because his slur was aimed at young women who had no standing in the world of celebrity, and who had done nothing in public except behave as exemplary student athletes. The spectacle of a media star verbally assaulting them, and with a creepy, dismissive laugh, as if the whole thing were merely a disposable joke, was ugly. You couldn’t watch it without feeling that some kind of crime had been committed. That was true even before the world met his victims. So while I still don’t know whether Imus is a bigot, there was an inhuman contempt in the moment that sounded like hate to me. You can see it and hear it in the video clip in a way that isn’t conveyed by his words alone.

Does that mean he should be silenced? The Rutgers team pointedly never asked for that, and I don’t think the punishment fits the crime. First, as a longtime Imus listener rather than someone who tuned in for the first time last week, I heard not only hate in his wisecrack but also honesty in his repeated vows to learn from it. Second, as a free-speech near-absolutist, I don’t believe that even Mel Gibson, to me an unambiguous anti-Semite, should be deprived of his right to say whatever the hell he wants to say. The answer to his free speech is more free speech — mine and yours. Let Bill O’Reilly talk about “wetbacks” or Rush Limbaugh accuse Michael J. Fox of exaggerating his Parkinson’s symptoms, and let the rest of us answer back.

Liberals are kidding themselves if they think the Imus firing won’t have a potentially chilling effect on comics who push the line. Let’s not forget that Bill Maher, an Imus defender last week, was dropped by FedEx, Sears, ABC affiliates and eventually ABC itself after he broke the P.C. code of 9/11. Conservatives are kidding themselves if they think the Imus execution won’t impede Ann Coulter’s nasty invective on the public airwaves. As Al Franken pointed out to Larry King on Wednesday night, CNN harbors Glenn Beck, who has insinuated that the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is a terrorist (and who has also declared that “faggot” is nothing more than “a naughty name”). Will Time Warner and its advertisers be called to account? Already in the Imus aftermath, the born-again blogger Tom DeLay has called for the firing of Rosie O’Donnell because of her “hateful” views on Chinese-Americans, conservative Christians and President Bush.

That said, corporations, whether television or radio networks or movie studios or commercial sponsors, are free to edit or cancel any content. No one has an inalienable right to be broadcast or published or given a movie or music contract. Whether MSNBC and CBS acted out of genuine principle or economic necessity is a debate already raging. Just as Imus’s show defied easy political definition — he has both kissed up to Dick Cheney as a guest and called him a war criminal — so does the chatter about what happened over the past week. MSNBC, forever unsure of its identity, seems to have found a new calling by turning that debate into a running series, and I say, go for it.

The biggest cliché of the debate so far is the constant reiteration that this will be a moment for a national “conversation” about race and sex and culture. Do people really want to have this conversation, or just talk about having it? If they really want to, it means we have to ask ourselves why this debacle has given permission to talking heads on television to repeat Imus’s offensive words so insistently that cable news could hardly take time out to note the shocking bombing in the Baghdad Green Zone. Some even upped the ante: Donna Brazile managed to drag “jigaboo” into Wolf Blitzer’s sedate “Situation Room” on CNN.

If we really want to have this conversation, it also means we have to have a nonposturing talk about hip-hop lyrics, “Borat,” “South Park” and maybe Larry David, too. As James Poniewozik pointed out in his smart cover article for Time last week, an important question emerged from an Imus on-air soliloquy as he tried to defend himself: “This phrase that I use, it originated in the black community. That didn’t give me a right to use it, but that’s where it originated. Who calls who that and why? We need to know that. I need to know that.”

My 22-year-old son, a humor writer who finds Imus an anachronistic and unfunny throwback to the racial-insult humor of the Frank Sinatra-Sammy Davis Jr. Rat Pack ilk, raises a complementary issue. He argues that when Sacha Baron Cohen makes fun of Jews and gays, he can do so because he’s not doing it as himself but as a fictional character. But try telling that to the Anti-Defamation League, which criticized Mr. Baron Cohen, an observant Jew, for making sport of a real country (Kazakhstan) and worried that the “Borat” audience “may not always be sophisticated enough to get the joke, and that some may even find it reinforcing their bigotry.”

So if we really want to have this national “conversation” about race and culture and all the rest of it that everyone keeps telling us that this incident has prompted, let’s get it on, no holds barred. And the fewer moralizing pundits and politicians, the better. Hillary Clinton, an Imus denouncer who has also called for federal regulation of violent television and video games, counts among her Hollywood fat cats Haim Saban, who made his fortune from “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”

Listening to Les Moonves of CBS speak with such apparent sincerity of how his network was helping to change the culture by firing Imus, I couldn’t help but remember that one of CBS’s own cultural gifts to America has been “Big Brother,” the reality game show that cloisters a dozen or so strangers in a house for weeks to see how they get along. Maybe Mr. Moonves could put his prime-time schedule where his mouth is and stop milking that format merely for the fun of humiliation, voyeurism and sexual high jinks. If locking Imus and his team in a house with Coach Stringer and her team 24/7 isn’t must-see TV that moves this conversation forward, then I don’t know what is.

Resolve to Be Ambivalent

The New York Times
April 15, 2007

One of the essential flaws in President Bush’s Iraq policy is that America comes across as wanting to be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us there.

So in that context, the Congressional efforts to restrict funding for U.S. troops there don’t undermine the war effort. Rather, they support it, by usefully signaling that American patience is wearing thin. The more we send that signal, the better off we and Iraq may be.

Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney signal an unwavering commitment to supply American blood indefinitely to Iraq, and they are overseeing the development of military bases that frighten Iraqis because they look so permanent. The results are perceptions of nefarious American designs on Iraq, consequent Arab suspicions, empowerment of nationalist anti-Americans like Moktada al-Sadr, and an Iraqi government that feels insufficient pressure to make concessions to achieve a political solution. In short, the firmness of our resolve to stay is a military and diplomatic disaster that leads to more Americans coming home in body bags.

The latest poll of Iraqis, by ABC News, USA Today and others, shows that 80 percent of Shiites and 97 percent of Sunni Arabs oppose the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, and over all, 51 percent support attacks on U.S. troops. But only 35 percent want the U.S. forces to leave immediately.

That may seem a contradiction: why blow up Americans now if you still want them to stay a bit longer? But it makes sense to Iraqis, who believe that Mr. Bush is so determined to keep troops in Iraq that killing them today is the only way to dislodge them in a year’s time.

Likewise, Saudi Arabia’s king, Abdullah, felt free to denounce the “illegal foreign occupation” of Iraq, even though he has made clear he wants it to continue for the time being, to protect the Sunni minority.

If it looked as if Congress (or a new president) might actually bring the troops home, the tone might change, and we might start hearing pleas for us to stay a little longer.

Look, neither I nor anyone else has a good solution to the mess in Iraq, and there is a real risk of a genocidal bloodbath after our departure. I’m not sure that the policy I’ve been advocating (a timetable for withdrawal within one year, accompanied by a clear renunciation of permanent bases in Iraq) would work. But I am sure that no American policy will ever succeed as long as we want to be in Iraq more than the Iraqis want us there.

There’s a parallel with South Korea, where the U.S. troop presence outraged Korean nationalists for decades. We showed great public resolve and determination to stay in Korea, and there was constant resentment at our troops’ behavior and at the land taken up by our bases. It was an article of faith among many Koreans that we were there not to protect them but for our own dark purposes.

Then a few years ago, Donald Rumsfeld ordered U.S. troops pulled back from the border with North Korea, and there was talk of slashing the U.S. troop presence. Suddenly, the U.S. force in Korea didn’t seem so inevitable or permanent. Instead of grousing about the U.S. troops, some Koreans began to worry about the risk that they might be withdrawn. By showing ambivalence of our own, we actually created more support for our troops.

You saw something similar in former Soviet bloc countries like Mongolia, where ordinary people used to roundly denounce the way they were exploited by the Soviets. Then with the collapse of old military and economic arrangements in 1990, the former satellites shifted to worrying how they would get by without the Soviets.

That’s the kind of change of tone we need in Iraq, and it would have a second salutary effect.

The best hope for peace in Iraq is a political settlement, in which Shiite leaders make political concessions to bring Sunnis out of the insurgency and into decision making. That’s the only real way out of this civil war. But as long as Shiite leaders see that Mr. Bush is determined to keep troops in Iraq to protect their rule, they don’t make the necessary compromises.

So instead of signaling that we will stay in Iraq to the last gasp, President Bush should be showing ambivalence of his own, signs that our commitment is not open-ended. He seems incapable of that.

Now Congress is rising to the occasion — and the resulting battle over troop funding sends the right signal to Iraq and the world, that we might actually pull out. In this case, a mixed message is the right message.

The Age of Darwin

The New York Times
April 15, 2007


Standing on a hill in East Jerusalem, amid the clash of religious and political orthodoxies, stands a musty old museum devoted to human progress. When you walk into the Rockefeller Museum with its old-fashioned display cases crowded with ancient pottery shards and oil lamps, you can begin by looking at the stone tools of early man. Then you proceed room by room through the invention of agriculture and cities, winding up finally with the statues and reliquaries of the medieval era.

What you’re really looking at is a philosophy of history. The museum was set up in 1938, when scholars still spoke confidently of mankind’s upward march from primitive culture to higher civilization. History is portrayed here as a great, unified story, with crucial pivot moments when humanity leapt forward — when people first buried their dead, when they moved from animistic faiths to polytheism, when they learned to cultivate reason and philosophy.

These days, historians hate those kinds of unifying grand narratives, and the idea that history is a march of progress upward to the present. Yet I have to confess, I loved the Rockefeller Museum. Though it’s dense and dry, it rekindled the University of Chicago flame that lingers in every graduate’s soul and got me thinking all sorts of Big Thoughts. I also had the sensation — which I used to get during those sweeping old Western Civ courses — of seeing my own time from the outside, from the vantage point of some ancient spot.

And it occurred to me that while we postmoderns say we detest all-explaining narratives, in fact a newish grand narrative has crept upon us willy-nilly and is now all around. Once the Bible shaped all conversation, then Marx, then Freud, but today Darwin is everywhere.

Scarcely a month goes by when Time or Newsweek doesn’t have a cover article on how our genes shape everything from our exercise habits to our moods. Science sections are filled with articles on how brain structure influences things like lust and learning. Neuroscientists debate the existence of God on the best-seller lists, while evolutionary theory reshapes psychology, dieting and literary criticism. Confident and exhilarated, evolutionary theorists believe they have a universal framework to explain human behavior.

Creationists reject the whole business, but they’re like the Greeks who still worshiped Athena while Plato and Aristotle practiced philosophy. The people who set the cultural tone today have coalesced around a shared understanding of humanity and its history that would have astonished people in earlier epochs.

According to this view, human beings, like all other creatures, are machines for passing along genetic code. We are driven primarily by a desire to perpetuate ourselves and our species.

The logic of evolution explains why people vie for status, form groups, fall in love and cherish their young. It holds that most everything that exists does so for a purpose. If some trait, like emotion, can cause big problems, then it must also provide bigger benefits, because nature will not expend energy on things that don’t enhance the chance of survival.

Human beings, in our current understanding, are jerry-built creatures, in which new, sophisticated faculties are piled on top of primitive earlier ones. Our genes were formed during the vast stretches when people were hunters and gatherers, and we are now only semi-adapted to the age of nuclear weapons and fast food. Furthermore, reason is not separate from emotion and the soul cannot be detached from the electrical and chemical pulses of the body. There isn’t even a single seat of authority in the brain. The mind emerges (somehow) from a complex light show of neural firings without a center or executive. We are tools of mental processes we are not even aware of.

The cosmologies of the societies represented in the Rockefeller Museum looked up toward the transcendent. Their descendants still fight over sacred spots like the Holy of Holies a short walk away. But the evolutionary society is built low to the ground. God may exist and may have set the process in motion, but he’s not active. Evolution doesn’t really lead to anything outside itself. Individuals are predisposed not by innate sinfulness or virtue, but by the epigenetic rules encoded in their cells.

Looking at contemporary America from here in Jerusalem and from the ancient past, it’s clear we’re not a postmodern society anymore. We have a grand narrative that explains behavior and gives shape to history. We have a central cosmology to embrace, argue with or unconsciously submit to.

Friday, April 13, 2007

More Con Than Neo

The New York Times
April 14, 2007


Usually, spring in Washington finds us caught up in the cherry blossoms and the ursine courtship rituals of the pandas.

But this chilly April, we are forced to contemplate the batrachian grapplings of Paul Wolfowitz, the man who cherry-picked intelligence to sell us a war with Iraq.

You will not be surprised to learn, gentle readers, that Wolfie in love is no less deceptive and bumbling than Wolfie at war.

Proving he is more con than neo, he confessed that he had not been candid with his staff at the World Bank. While he was acting holier than thou, demanding incorruptibility from poor countries desperate for loans, he was enriching his girlfriend with tax-free ducats.

He has yet to admit any real mistakes with the hellish war that claimed five more American soldiers yesterday, as stunned Baghdad residents dealt with bombings of the Iraqi Parliament, where body parts flew, and of a bridge over the Tigris, where cars sank.

But he admitted Thursday that he’d made a mistake when he got his sweetheart, Shaha Ali Riza, an Arab feminist who shares his passion for democratizing the Middle East, a raise to $193,590 — more than the taxpaying (and taxing) Condi Rice makes. No doubt it seemed like small change compared with the money pit of remaking Iraq — a task he once prophesied would be paid for with Iraqi oil money. Maybe he should have remunerated his girlfriend with Iraqi oil revenues, instead of ripping off the bank to advance his romantic agenda.

No one is satisfied with his apology. Not the World Bank employees who booed Wolfie and yelled, “Resign! Resign!” in the bank lobby.

Not Alison Cave, the chairwoman of the bank’s staff association, who said that Mr. Wolfowitz must “act honorably and resign.”

Not his girlfriend, who says she’s the suffering victim, forced by Wolfie’s arrival to be sent to the State Department (where, in a festival of nepotism, she reported to Liz Cheney).

And not his critics, who say Wolfie has been cherry-picking again, this time with his anticorruption crusade. They say he has used it to turn the bank into a tool for his unrealistic democracy campaign, which foundered in Baghdad, and for punishing countries that defy the United States.

Wolfie also alienated the bank by bringing two highhanded aides with him from Bushworld, aides who had helped him with Iraq. One was the abrasive Robin Cleveland, called Wolfie’s Rottweiler. The other was Kevin Kellems, known as Keeper of the Comb after his star turn in “Fahrenheit 9/11,” where he handed his boss a comb so Wolfie could slick it with spittle for TV. (Maybe his girlfriend didn’t get enough of a raise.) Like W., Wolfie is dangerous precisely because he’s so persuaded of his own virtue.

Just as Ms. Riza stood behind her man on the Iraq fiasco, so Meghan O’Sullivan stood behind W.

Ms. O’Sullivan, a bright and lovely 37-year-old redhead who is the deputy national security adviser, is part of the cordon of adoring and protective female staffers around the president, including Condi, Harriet Miers, Karen Hughes and Fran Townsend.

Even though her main experience was helping Paul Bremer set up the botched Iraq occupation and getting a reputation back in Washington “for not knowing how much she didn’t know,” as George Packer put it in “The Assassins’ Gate,” Ms. O’Sullivan was officially promoted nearly two years ago to be the highest-ranking White House official working exclusively on Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was clear that she was out of her depth, lacking the heft to deal with the Pentagon and State Department, or the seniority to level with W. “Meghan-izing the problem” became a catch phrase in Baghdad for papering over chaos with five-point presentations.

But W. was comfortable with Meghan, and Meghan-izing, so he reckoned that a young woman who did not report directly to him or even have the power to issue orders to agencies could be in charge of an epic bungle, just as he thought Harriet Miers could be on the Supreme Court.

This vacuum in leadership spawned the White House plan to create a powerful war czar to oversee Iraq and Afghanistan, who could replace Ms. O’Sullivan when she leaves. The push to finally get the A-team on the case is laughably, tragically late.

The Washington Post reported that at least five retired four-star generals have refused to be considered; the paper quoted retired Marine Gen. Jack Sheehan as saying, “The very fundamental issue is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Shock Talk Without Apologies

The New York Times
April 14, 2007

There has to be an Imus event every once in a while. Ethnicity being the volatile thing it is, gratuitously inflammatory remarks have to be discouraged, so bounds of acceptable speech have to be clarified. Clarity comes when, inevitably, someone oversteps and gets slapped down.

Maybe this particular boundary could have been clarified with less punishment, given how abjectly Don Imus has apologized. Still, there had to be a price, and, compared with the prices paid in some multiethnic societies (remember Yugoslavia?), this is a bargain.

But is America’s machinery for stigmatizing bigotry really working coherently?

If social harmony is the goal, sanctions should be focused along the ethnic fault lines that are most precarious. The black-white boundary is such a line, given both the history of oppression and ongoing economic disparities between blacks and whites. But what about the line between Muslim America and Judeo-Christian America?

Here, economics isn’t the issue. American Muslims are better educated and wealthier than Muslims in Western Europe — one reason homegrown terrorism has been a problem in Europe and not here. Still, given that jihadist leaders around the world would love to ignite American strife, and given how few radically aggrieved Americans it takes to commit terrorism, this ethnic boundary is dicey, and worth minding.

Which brings us to Ann Coulter. Full disclosure: Ms. Coulter once cited an Op-Ed essay I wrote for this newspaper about the Danish cartoon controversy as evidence that people like me had “affection” for terrorists. Thus ended any claim I might have to evaluate her work objectively. If you want a subject on which I report and you decide, today’s not your day.

In a speech last year before the Conservative Political Action Conference, Ms. Coulter used the word “raghead.” This is a dual-use slur, applied to both Arabs and Muslims, but she was talking about an Iranian, so presumably she was focusing on the religious dimension (consistent with her post-9/11 advice that we “invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”) The word raghead — whose only function is to denigrate — seems as legitimately offensive to Muslims as Mr. Imus’s utterance was to blacks. The difference is that Ms. Coulter didn’t apologize.

Brace yourself for the seismic damage done to her career. The leaders of CPAC reassessed their relationship with her and ... invited her back to speak the next year, an occasion she used to trot out the word “faggot.” And Ms. Coulter continued to be interviewed respectfully on CNN and (again and again) on Fox News — treatment that presumably wouldn’t be accorded a pundit who used the “n-word” without apology.

Why the Imus-Coulter disparity? Maybe part of it is that Ms. Coulter isn’t as structurally susceptible to sanction as Mr. Imus. She doesn’t have her own radio or TV show, so advertisers on CNN and Fox have two degrees of separation from bigotry. Still, there are pressure points big enough for an Al Sharpton to find. Ms. Coulter’s column appears in newspapers with major advertisers.

Maybe the problem is that Muslims don’t have an Al Sharpton. And, truthfully, I wouldn’t wish one on them. But couldn’t they at least have an NAACP?

Actually, they have something like that: the Council on American-Islamic Relations. But CAIR is tarred by such people as Daniel Pipes for alleged sympathy to terrorists. I don’t personally trust Mr. Pipes’s judgment in Muslim-related matters, but I haven’t done the dissertation it would take to get to the bottom of his indictment. What I do know is that if Muslims never achieve the political organization that can get mainstream respect, and indeed feel that all attempts at political organization draw special scrutiny because Muslims are viewed with special suspicion — — well, that won’t help matters.

I’m not making a moral argument. If I were, I would get into homophobia and anti-Semitism and other varieties of bigotry. This is a pragmatic argument about social cohesion. By my lights, the two American fault lines most likely to become chasms in the long run are between blacks and whites and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

And if anything, I’d say that the second fault line is the more treacherous. America has already done things abroad that are helping to make the “clash of civilizations” thesis a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s not make that kind of mistake at home.

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, runs the Web site

Loosening the Stem Cell Binds

The New York Times
April 13, 2007

The Senate easily approved a bill this week that would free embryonic stem cell research from the worst shackles imposed by the Bush administration. The House passed its version earlier. A substantial majority of Americans tell pollsters they support embryonic stem cell research. Yet one man, President Bush, and a minority of his party, the religious and social conservatives, are once again trying to impose their moral code on the rest of the nation and stand in the way of scientific progress.

Mr. Bush is threatening a veto, and neither house had enough votes for the bills on initial passage to override him. Concerned voters will need to ratchet up the pressure on recalcitrant Republicans to help stop the president from killing the second enlightened stem cell bill in less than a year.

Under the president’s current policy, federal funds can be used to support research on only some 20 stem cell lines that have limited scientific value. Many of the lines are deteriorating or contaminated, and the group as a whole lacks the diversity needed to conduct a wide range of studies. There is no doubt that progress is being hampered. The director of the National Institutes of Health, who had initially been a good soldier in trying to live within the president’s policy, told the Senate last month that American science would be better served if the nation let researchers have access to more stem cell lines.

The restrictions on federal financing have led to absurdly complicated and costly maneuvers. Scientists are forced to buy extra equipment and laboratory space with private money to perform off-limits research while using equipment and supplies bought with federal money on the permitted stem cell research. In a shocking example cited during Senate debate, a California researcher who had been cultivating stem cells in a makeshift privately financed lab suffered a power failure but was unable to transfer her lines into industrial-strength freezers in another lab because they were federally financed. Two years of work melted away because of this inanity.

The Senate bill would greatly expand the available stem cell lines by tapping into the thousands of surplus embryos left over at fertility clinics. The bill would allow federal support for research on stem cell lines derived from embryos originally created for fertility treatments but not needed for that purpose and thus doomed to be discarded. The donors would have to give their informed consent and could not receive any financial or other inducements to donate their surplus embryos. In a nod to the religious conservatives, the bill also calls for research on alternative techniques to derive stem cells without the use of human embryos, an approach that is certainly worth pursuing but is deemed less promising by most experts.

At the same time, the Senate passed a bill proposed by supporters of the president’s policy that seeks to derive stem cells from embryos that might be judged “naturally dead,” perhaps because they were considered unsuitable for transplantation at a fertility clinic. This is a poorly considered proposal that can only be deemed a diversion from the main business at hand — the need to free American science from the chains imposed by the president.

Our Prejudices, Ourselves

The New York Times
Op-Ed Contributor
April 13, 2007

AMERICA is watching Don Imus’s self-immolation in a state of shock and awe. And I’m watching America with wry amusement.

Since I’m a second-class citizen — a gay man — my seats for the ballgame of American discourse are way back in the bleachers. I don’t have to wait long for a shock jock or stand-up comedian to slip up with hateful epithets aimed at me and mine. Hate speak against homosexuals is as commonplace as spam. It’s daily traffic for those who profess themselves to be regular Joes, men of God, public servants who live off my tax dollars, as well as any number of celebrities.

In fact, I get a good chuckle whenever someone refers to “the media” as an agent of “the gay agenda.” There are entire channels, like Spike TV, that couldn’t fill an hour of programming if required to remove their sexist and homophobic content. We’ve got a president and a large part of Congress willing to change the Constitution so they can deprive of us our rights because they feel we are not “normal.”

So I’m used to catching foul balls up here in the cheap seats. What I am really enjoying is watching the rest of you act as if you had no idea that prejudice was alive and well in your hearts and minds.

For the past two decades political correctness has been derided as a surrender to thin-skinned, humorless, uptight oversensitive sissies. Well, you anti-politically correct people have won the battle, and we’re all now feasting on the spoils of your victory. During the last few months alone we’ve had a few comedians spout racism, a basketball coach put forth anti-Semitism and several high-profile spoutings of anti-gay epithets.

What surprises me, I guess, is how choosy the anti-P.C. crowd is about which hate speech it will not tolerate. Sure, there were voices of protest when the TV actor Isaiah Washington called a gay colleague a “faggot.” But corporate America didn’t pull its advertising from “Grey’s Anatomy,” as it did with Mr. Imus, did it? And when Ann Coulter likewise tagged a presidential candidate last month, she paid no real price.

In fact, when Bill Maher discussed Ms. Coulter’s remarks on his HBO show, he repeated the slur no fewer than four times himself; each mention, I must note, solicited a laugh from his audience. No one called for any sort of apology from him. (Well, actually, I did, so the following week he only used it once.)

Face it, if a Pentagon general, his salary paid with my tax dollars, can label homosexual acts as “immoral” without a call for his dismissal, who are the moral high and mighty kidding?

Our nation, historically bursting with generosity toward strangers, remains remarkably unkind toward its own. Just under our gleaming patina of inclusiveness, we harbor corroding guts. America, I tell you that it doesn’t matter how many times you brush your teeth. If your insides are rotting your breath will stink. So, how do you people choose which hate to embrace, which to forgive with a wink and a week in rehab, and which to protest? Where’s my copy of that rule book?

Let me cite a non-volatile example of how prejudice can cohabit unchecked with good intentions. I am a huge fan of David Letterman’s. I watch the opening of his show a couple of times a week and have done so for decades. Without fail, in his opening monologue or skit Mr. Letterman makes a joke about someone being fat. I kid you not. Will that destroy our nation? Should he be fired or lose his sponsors? Obviously not.

But I think that there is something deeper going on at the Letterman studio than coincidence. And, as I’ve said, I cite this example simply to illustrate that all kinds of prejudice exist in the human heart. Some are harmless. Some not so harmless. But we need to understand who we are if we wish to change. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should confess to not only being a gay American, but also a fat one. Yes, I’m a double winner.)

I urge you to look around, or better yet, listen around and become aware of the prejudice in everyday life. We are so surrounded by expressions of intolerance that I am in shock and awe that anyone noticed all these recent high-profile instances. Still, I’m gladdened because our no longer being deaf to them may signal their eventual eradication.

The real point is that you cannot harbor malice toward others and then cry foul when someone displays intolerance against you. Prejudice tolerated is intolerance encouraged. Rise up in righteousness when you witness the words and deeds of hate, but only if you are willing to rise up against them all, including your own. Otherwise suffer the slings and arrows of disrespect silently.

Harvey Fierstein is an actor and playwright.

After racial slur against women athletes U.S. talk show host Don Imus taken off the air

By Jerry White
13 April 2007

CBS Radio cancelled the “Imus in the Morning” syndicated radio program Thursday after a week of controversy over racist comments by talk-show host Don Imus directed against members of the Rutgers University (state university of New Jersey) women’s basketball team. The move followed the cancellation of the program on the MSNBC cable television network, which had been simulcasting the show since 1996.

In the week since Imus called the mostly black players “nappy-headed hos” there has been a great deal of posturing and hypocrisy by various media executives, corporate sponsors, politicians and civil rights officials. What they have all failed to explain, however, is how someone who has long been associated with such gutter-level remarks managed to enjoy a 30-year career, a $10 million annual salary and the friendship, until now, of scores of prominent politicians, presidential hopefuls and media personalities who lined up to be guests on his show.

Broad layers of the population, including the young women athletes themselves, responded with disgust to the incident. Here was a multi-millionaire loud mouth attacking a group of hard-working and dedicated young women, members of an underdog team that had made it to the national college championship game. While reactionaries such as Republican presidential candidates Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain ran to his defense, the public overwhelmingly sympathized with the players who spoke with dignity about the pain they felt being degraded before a national radio and television audience.

It is another story entirely when it comes to the official reaction of the media, corporate and political establishments. The shock and indignation of CBS Radio and MSNBC officials—who waited a week before deciding to take Imus off the air—was less than sincere. After all, they have paid the radio host tens of millions of dollars to pollute the airwaves with his celebration of backwardness and his particular brand of misanthropy. He is, moreover, just one in a long line (Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Jerry Springer, etc.) who has been used to drag public discourse to the lowest possible level.

Nor could it come as a great surprise to the media executives and corporate backers of the “Imus in the Morning” show—which was syndicated to 70 stations around the country by CBS Radio and simulcast by MSNBC cable television network—that the talk show host and his on-air colleagues regularly use the show to make vile statements about minorities, women and immigrants. For years he has been making comments even worse than those he aimed at the young women basketball players from Rutgers.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, for example, has mounted several campaigns against the show for its repeated references to Arabs as “rag-heads” or “goat-humping weasels.” On November 12, 2004, over live shots of a sea of grieving Palestinians mourning the death of Yassir Arafat, Imus and his cohorts denounced Palestinians as “stinking animals” who “eat dirt” and suggested that the US bomb the funeral to “kill ’em all right now.”

A week later Imus, doing a voice-over parody of General George Patton, denounced an NBC television crew for video taping the murder of an unarmed and wounded Iraqi prisoner by US Marines. The tape, he said, would provide “the sons of bitches we are fighting ... with another cozy ‘al Jazeera moment’ for the Muslim masses to respond to with their routine pack-of-rabid-sheep mentality.” Imus then defending the cold-blooded murder, saying the Marine had lost a comrade to a “booby-trapped rag head cadaver” the day before.

Significantly these statements—which legitimize anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry in the US—did not provoke any action by CBS or MSNBC, apart from a perfunctory apology. As far as the corporate and media establishment were concerned, these vile remarks may have lacked decorum, but they didn’t “cross the line”—no doubt because they served the overriding media aim of conditioning the public for ever greater crimes by US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This racist and chauvinist track record did not halt the parade of politicians who considered the Imus show a useful means of promoting their campaigns. The show’s many guests included former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Democratic senator and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry, Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator Joe Lieberman and former Tennessee Democratic Congressman Harold Ford. Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on the show January 11 and was a phone-in guest on the April 4 program—the very day Imus made his remarks about the Rutgers team.

In addition, scores of reporters, including NBC’s Tim Russert, Newsweek senior editor Jonathan Alter and New York Times columnists Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich, all appeared regularly on Imus’s show. In turn, the latter has been featured on NBC’s “Today” show, ABC programs “Prime Time Live” and “20/20”, and on CBS’ “48 Hours” and “60 Minutes.” He has also been a guest of Charlie Rose, David Letterman and Larry King. In 1996 he hosted the Radio and Television Correspondents’ Association Dinner for Bill Clinton. The following year Imus was named as one of Time magazine’s “25 most influential people in America”; he was also on the cover of Newsweek in 1999.

His talk show is devoid of genuine insight and humor. While distancing himself from the most extreme right elements of the Republican Party, the talk show host adopted a confused populist and libertarian shtick, combining periodic complaints about the war and mistreatment by the rich and powerful with an embrace of political and social reaction. Imus presented himself as a renegade and an outsider—a man always on the verge of a tirade and about to say something rude, even to the powers-that-be. One media critic, Susan Douglas, noted, “For many of his listeners, Imus turns the tables on money, power, and entitlement”; his show is a place “where polite people in prestigious and influential jobs have to ‘suck up’ as Imus puts it, to a man who breaks all the rules of bourgeois, upper-middle-class decorum.”

This is largely imaginary, Imus is no rebel. He is a millionaire media figure who, in the case of the Rutgers players, was deriding a group of hard-working young people, underdogs in every sense of the term. Mean-spirited, undemocratic and racist, Imus is a product of the vast social divide in America. When push comes to shove, he thoroughly identifies with the rich and powerful. And it was no accident that every right-wing pundit and commentator took to the airwaves to denounce his firing.

The response of the Jesse Jackson-Al Sharpton “civil rights” industry to this controversy was predictable. These petty-bourgeois leaders have nothing penetrating to contribute to the debate. They can’t explain the phenomenon or trace Imus’s reactionary comments to their source, the shift to the right of the media establishment, its vast enrichment and its efforts to whip up social backwardness. The intervention of Sharpton and Jackson is entirely self-serving. They use this episode, as nearly every other one, to advance their own status within the American establishment, to use their role as “spokesmen” for the black community as a leverage to draw them closer to the corporate sponsors who were pressured to pull their ads from the Imus program.

After first proposing a two-week suspension, both MSNBC and CBS Radio—in the interests of preserving their own brand names and placating their corporate sponsors—pulled the plug on Imus. All the accompanying rhetoric about racial unity, values and respect are so much hot air.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

For God’s Sake

The New York Times
April 13, 2007

In 1981, Gary North, a leader of the Christian Reconstructionist movement — the openly theocratic wing of the Christian right — suggested that the movement could achieve power by stealth. “Christians must begin to organize politically within the present party structure,” he wrote, “and they must begin to infiltrate the existing institutional order.”

Today, Regent University, founded by the televangelist Pat Robertson to provide “Christian leadership to change the world,” boasts that it has 150 graduates working in the Bush administration.

Unfortunately for the image of the school, where Mr. Robertson is chancellor and president, the most famous of those graduates is Monica Goodling, a product of the university’s law school. She’s the former top aide to Alberto Gonzales who appears central to the scandal of the fired U.S. attorneys and has declared that she will take the Fifth rather than testify to Congress on the matter.

The infiltration of the federal government by large numbers of people seeking to impose a religious agenda — which is very different from simply being people of faith — is one of the most important stories of the last six years. It’s also a story that tends to go underreported, perhaps because journalists are afraid of sounding like conspiracy theorists.

But this conspiracy is no theory. The official platform of the Texas Republican Party pledges to “dispel the myth of the separation of church and state.” And the Texas Republicans now running the country are doing their best to fulfill that pledge.

Kay Cole James, who had extensive connections to the religious right and was the dean of Regent’s government school, was the federal government’s chief personnel officer from 2001 to 2005. (Curious fact: she then took a job with Mitchell Wade, the businessman who bribed Representative Randy “Duke” Cunningham.) And it’s clear that unqualified people were hired throughout the administration because of their religious connections.

For example, The Boston Globe reports on one Regent law school graduate who was interviewed by the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Asked what Supreme Court decision of the past 20 years he most disagreed with, he named the decision to strike down a Texas anti-sodomy law. When he was hired, it was his only job offer.

Or consider George Deutsch, the presidential appointee at NASA who told a Web site designer to add the word “theory” after every mention of the Big Bang, to leave open the possibility of “intelligent design by a creator.” He turned out not to have, as he claimed, a degree from Texas A&M.

One measure of just how many Bushies were appointed to promote a religious agenda is how often a Christian right connection surfaces when we learn about a Bush administration scandal.

There’s Ms. Goodling, of course. But did you know that Rachel Paulose, the U.S. attorney in Minnesota — three of whose deputies recently stepped down, reportedly in protest over her management style — is, according to a local news report, in the habit of quoting Bible verses in the office?

Or there’s the case of Claude Allen, the presidential aide and former deputy secretary of health and human services, who stepped down after being investigated for petty theft. Most press reports, though they mentioned Mr. Allen’s faith, failed to convey the fact that he built his career as a man of the hard-line Christian right.

And there’s another thing most reporting fails to convey: the sheer extremism of these people.

You see, Regent isn’t a religious university the way Loyola or Yeshiva are religious universities. It’s run by someone whose first reaction to 9/11 was to brand it God’s punishment for America’s sins.

Two days after the terrorist attacks, Mr. Robertson held a conversation with Jerry Falwell on Mr. Robertson’s TV show “The 700 Club.” Mr. Falwell laid blame for the attack at the feet of “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” not to mention the A.C.L.U. and People for the American Way. “Well, I totally concur,” said Mr. Robertson.

The Bush administration’s implosion clearly represents a setback for the Christian right’s strategy of infiltration. But it would be wildly premature to declare the danger over. This is a movement that has shown great resilience over the years. It will surely find new champions.

Next week Rudy Giuliani will be speaking at Regent’s Executive Leadership Series.

Imus in the Hornets’ Nest

by Dick Cavett
The New York Times
April 11, 2007

Don Imus must feel as if he has been run over by a cement truck, which then reversed and backed over him.

It’s probably true that the women on the Rutgers basketball team are not Imus fans and, as he says, they probably didn’t know who he is. It would be interesting to know exactly how the ladies got the bad news. Did someone say, for example, “A broadcaster announced on the air that you have undesirable ethnic hairdos and that you are prostitutes”?

Imus claims he doesn’t know how this happened and brought the ceiling down on him. As one who has had many opportunities to misspeak and to offend — and has taken them — I know how he feels. Much of the show’s appeal has to do with the entertaining danger in watching Imus and his colleagues dance on “the line” and sometimes on either side of it. This time he stepped off the starboard side onto a hornets’ nest, to mix metaphors.

Is there not a sort of a conundrum in everyone’s agreeing that the words are horrible, and not fit to be broadcast or heard — and then hearing them re-aired every 20 minutes on most TV channels? Not even euphemizing the H-word. Some of the seeming astonishment expressed about how well-spoken, attractive, articulate and self-possessed the basketball players are — all true — at times bordered a bit uncomfortably on Obama’s being called (surprisingly?) “articulate” and “clean.”

Would a white team be surprisingly articulate?

I don’t know all the questions to be asked about this. Some of them would be: Who said the words? What was the context? How damaging were the words meant to be, and how damaging were they in fact? What is known of the speaker? Is he a racist? Does he discriminate against black people? Has he ever done anything good for them?

It has reminded me of a hilarious old black comic I saw once at the Apollo Theater — the best house for comedy. In style, he affected lack of education and worked in dialect. “White folks sometimes seem amazed to see us folks can stand up on our hind legs.” (Audience giggles.) “And SPEAK.” (Big laugh.) “Sometimes I think they gonna offer me a dog biscuit.” (Pandemonium.)

At such times as this, the camera-shy reverend Al Sharpton can be counted on to pop up, this time in Draconian mode. He wants Imus out, gone, the show canceled and Imus dead, professionally at least.

Hold on a minute, Your Amplitude.

Millions like this show. All kinds of people, from college professors to firemen to actors, writers and — I’m told even G.I.’s in beds who have survived both Iraq and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Nobody in his right mind defends what Imus said. Certainly not Imus. For decades, he has been an equal-opportunity offender. For many the combination of this style plus his contrasting high-quality guest list add up to the program’s quirky appeal. But it was inevitable that one day, as just happened, a land mine was stepped on by the risk-taking host. It shouldn’t be confused with Hiroshima.

Imus retooled his show and himself from an earlier persona, making it a program that welcomes a who’s who of guests. This very upgrading makes the blunder stand out in starker contrast than it would if his show were solely goofball, escapist entertainment.

I’ve noticed over the years that the hate-mail, get-’em-off-the-air crowd always tries to constitute itself as a pressure group that will “write to all your sponsors.” They want to not just get you off the air but — to savor the full enjoyment — bring you to your knees financially. In rare cases where they have succeeded, the health of their target has been destroyed. This is what that old bag Lillian Hellmann did to Mary McCarthy.

But Imus, I’m sure, has a shekel or two stashed away in case he were bounced or just decided to chuck it. He is a reader and would not be at a loss to fill his new free hours.

What is Donald Imus really like? I appear on his show sometimes, but I don’t pretend to know what all is concealed by the mask he works behind as an entertainer. He appears to be white, gentile and a family man. He’s a skilled conversationalist, an experienced broadcaster, a wry humorist and, lest we forget, an authentic philanthropist.

In addition, he belongs to a few minorities himself. He is a blonde, a genuine cowboy, a recognized bugler and one of three people in the media who pronounces both C’s in arctic.

The final irony of all this is that when the suffering is past, good is likely to come of it. But if you change, Donald, don’t throw away all of the old Imus. We don’t want you to come back as Pat Boone.

Vonnegut (1922-2007)

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." -- Mother Night

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Paying the Price

The New York Times
April 12, 2007

You knew something was up early in the day. As soon as I told executives at MSNBC that I was going to write about the “60 Minutes” piece, which was already in pretty wide circulation, they began acting very weird. We’ll get back to you, they said.

In a “60 Minutes” interview with Don Imus broadcast in July 1998, Mike Wallace said of the “Imus in the Morning” program, “It’s dirty and sometimes racist.”

Mr. Imus then said: “Give me an example. Give me one example of one racist incident.” To which Mr. Wallace replied, “You told Tom Anderson, the producer, in your car, coming home, that Bernard McGuirk is there to do nigger jokes.”

Mr. Imus said, “Well, I’ve nev — I never use that word.”

Mr. Wallace then turned to Mr. Anderson, his producer. “Tom,” he said.

“I’m right here,” said Mr. Anderson.

Mr. Imus then said to Mr. Anderson, “Did I use that word?”

Mr. Anderson said, “I recall you using that word.”

“Oh, O.K.,” said Mr. Imus. “Well, then I used that word. But I mean — of course, that was an off-the-record conversation. But ——”

“The hell it was,” said Mr. Wallace.

The transcript was pure poison. A source very close to Don Imus told me last night, “They did not want to wait for your piece to come out.”

For MSNBC, Mr. Imus’s “nappy-headed ho’s” comment about the Rutgers women’s basketball team was bad enough. Putting the word “nigger” into the so-called I-man’s mouth was beyond the pale.

The roof was caving in on Mr. Imus. More advertisers were pulling the plug. And Bruce Gordon, a member of the CBS Corp. board of directors and former head of the N.A.A.C.P., said publicly that Mr. Imus should be fired.

But some of the most telling and persuasive criticism came from an unlikely source — internally at the network that televised Mr. Imus’s program. Women, especially, were angry and upset. Powerful statements were made during in-house meetings by women at NBC and MSNBC — about how black women are devalued in this country, how they are demeaned by white men and black men.

White and black women spoke emotionally about the way black women are frequently trashed in the popular culture, especially in music, and about the way news outlets give far more attention to stories about white women in trouble.

Phil Griffin, a senior vice president at NBC News who oversaw the Imus show for MSNBC, told me yesterday, “It touched a huge nerve.”

Whether or not Mr. McGuirk was hired for the specific noxious purpose referred to in the “60 Minutes” interview, he has pretty much lived up to that job description. He’s a minstrel, a white man who has gleefully led the Imus pack into some of the most disgusting, degrading attempts at racial (not to mention sexist) humor that it’s possible to imagine.

Blacks were jigaboos, Sambos and Brilloheads. Women were bitches and, above all else, an endless variety of ever-ready sexual vessels, born to be degraded.

The question now is how long the “Imus in the Morning” radio show will last. Just last month, in a reference to a speech by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in Selma, Ala., Mr. McGuirk called Mrs. Clinton a bitch and predicted she would “have cornrows and gold teeth” by the time her presidential primary campaign against Senator Barack Obama is over.

Way back in 1994, a friend of mine, the late Lars-Erik Nelson, a terrific reporter and columnist at The Daily News and Newsday, mentioned an Imus segment that offered a “satirical” rap song that gave advice to President Clinton on what to do about Paula Jones: “Pimp-slap the ho.” Mr. Nelson also wrote that there was a song on the program dealing with Hillary Clinton’s menstrual cycle.

So this hateful garbage has been going on for a long, long time. There was nothing new about the tone or the intent of Mr. Imus’s “nappy-headed ho’s” comment. As Bryan Monroe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists told me the other night, “It’s a long pattern of behavior, and at some point somebody has to say enough is enough.”

The crucial issue goes well beyond Don Imus’s pathetically infantile behavior. The real question is whether this controversy is loud enough to shock Americans at long last into the realization of just how profoundly racist and sexist the culture is.

It appears that on this issue the general public, and the women at Mr. Imus’s former network, are far ahead of the establishment figures, the politicians and the media biggies, who were always so anxious to appear on the show and to defend Mr. Imus.

That is a very good sign.

The Fatalist

The New York Times
Published: April 12, 2007

Lexington, Va.

In August 2003, John McCain returned from a trip to Iraq and began a campaign to increase the number of troops fighting the insurgency. In the fall of 2005, McCain returned from another trip to Iraq and said it was time to shift strategies — time to protect Iraqi neighborhoods and not run around chasing bad guys.

McCain watched the Bush administration reject his ideas while prospects for victory slipped away. As months stretched to years, he grew angrier at Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for their active arrogance. He grew frustrated with parts of the Pentagon and the State Department for their lack of any sense of urgency. He became exasperated by his friend President Bush, for his elemental failures at statecraft.

But most of all he grew sadder, in a deep way you probably have to be him to understand. He didn’t think he’d see his country slide toward defeat again in his lifetime, and sometimes the melancholy seeps out of him.

“For four years we’ve been screwing this up,” he said yesterday. “Too often we’ve misled the American people with talk of Dead Enders and Mission Accomplished.”

Now the administration has belatedly adopted his recommendations, and he is in the midst of a presidential campaign. In some ways, this campaign is like the one he ran eight years ago. There have been reports of a bloated staff, but in fact the same people who were around him then are around him now: Mark Salter, John Weaver, Rick Davis and a rotating crew of former P.O.W.’s like Orson Swindle who are his conscience and his boon companions.

McCain still has the same likes and dislikes, the same romantic interest in history books and novels, and the same tendency to tell stories from Hanoi Hilton days in a matter-of-fact style you and I might use for a college anecdote.

But other things are different. In 2000, the McCain campaign was an exhilarating ride upward, and then, in South Carolina, a quick, furious descent, as McCain responded with self-destructive anger to the dishonorable tactics he perceived Bush was using against him.

This time McCain has been gradually sliding in the polls, and he has responded not by panicking or by changing, but by surrendering himself to the fates. He’s had a wonderful life, he feels, and if he is not president, it will be no tragedy. At first I thought he was making pre-emptive excuses for a possible defeat, but after observing him closely I concluded this is a fatalism that Navy fliers must often adopt as they go into combat.

And there’s a stubbornness to him now, too, which was not evident on the Straight Talk Express. The atmosphere is much harsher toward him, and you can see the hardness he must have used to resist his Vietnamese jailers.

And most of all there is the war, which looms epic in his mind, making the political jabs that consume campaign days seem trivial. He comes back to the stories all day long: the 19-year-old who already has three Purple Hearts, the kid who was shot through the eye and who got up and walked to the ambulance.

In the shadow of their fighting, he says, he has an obligation to seek victory as long as there is any chance of it. He has a duty, he says, to support the strategy he still believes in, and perhaps ward off the worse cataclysm that would come from chaos and early withdrawal. Far from avoiding this potentially killer issue, he’s embraced it.

He gave a speech at the Virginia Military Institute yesterday that was an extended argument for giving the surge a chance. The problem with his approach is he doesn’t grapple with the psychology and culture of the Iraqis, upon which all else depends. His focus is largely military. But no one can doubt the substance and seriousness of his views.

He’s been consistent and steady these past few years, while others have flickered. He’s been offended by Democrats who laughed and celebrated during the passage of withdrawal legislation. Yesterday he criticized them in a way that was harsh but thoroughly considered.

But in the long run, his embrace of Iraq may not hurt him as much as now appears. In 10 months, this election won’t be about the surge, it will be about the hydra-headed crisis roiling the Middle East. The candidate who is the most substantive, most mature and most consistent will begin to look more attractive and more necessary.


The U.S. health care system: Sick and getting sicker

Socialist Worker
April 13, 2007

ELIZABETH LALASZ explains why the U.S. health care system is a nightmare for so many people--and how it could be different.

A RECENT CBS/New York Times opinion poll revealed the depth of dissatisfaction with the U.S. health care system.

Nine out of 10 people believe the health care system needs “to be completely rebuilt,” according to the poll. Even more telling, almost half of people--49 percent--said they would be willing to pay up to $500 more a year in taxes if this meant everyone in the U.S. would be covered by health insurance.

Next to the war on Iraq, health care--or the lack of it--has become the most important issue in U.S. politics.

And for good reason. Whether for the uninsured or the underinsured, for health care workers or families trying to protect against the worst--that is, for almost everyone except the executives and shareholders who run the industry--the health care system isn’t working.

Politicians from both parties have been forced to propose solutions to the crisis. But it will take tougher medicine than what most political leaders are offering to cure the sickness of the system.

THE LAST time health care took on this significance in the national debate was more than a decade ago, when Bill Clinton promised on the campaign trail in 1992 that he would fix the system if elected president. Clinton and his wife Hillary liked to point out the number of uninsured after 12 years of Republicans in the White House: 35.5 million.

Now, more than a dozen years after the Clintons’ health care “reform” collapsed in a mess of half-measures and concessions to business--and following the Bush administration’s meddling on behalf of health care corporations--the number of uninsured is one-third higher, at 46.6 million.

That’s more than the combined population of Oregon, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kansas, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming--with every single person facing financial destitution if they or a family member get sick or injured.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost one-third of Latinos are uninsured, along with about one-fifth of African Americans. Fifteen percent of children aren’t covered, nor are 17.7 percent--or one in six--of full-time workers, nor even 11.2 percent of families classified as middle income, with household earnings between $50,000 and $75,000 a year.

These numbers will only get worse under the current system. Health Affairs, a policy journal, estimates that the number of uninsured Americans will grow to 56 million by 2013.

Even the most basic medical care can be out of reach for those at the bottom of the health care ladder. According to the Access Project, a Boston-based health care resource center, half of all personal bankruptcies and one-third of all credit card debt are caused by illness or medical bills.

In their book, Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity, authors Susan Starr Sered and Rushika Fernandopulle write:

Without consistent access to competent medical care, uninsured Americans are left to their own devices to manage their health problems. Thus, Mexican Americans and Anglo Americans in the Rio Grande Valley cross the border into Mexico, where drugs that are prescription-only in the United States are sold over the counter. College-educated uninsured residents in Massachusetts often know someone who knows someone who knows a doctor willing to write a prescription or give out free drug samples without seeing or examining the patient.

Across the country, many Americans take only half of a prescribed drug dose so that their medicine lasts longer. They share prescriptions with friends and relatives. When their medicine runs low, they skip doses until they can afford to refill. And they play a high-stakes guessing game when they choose which of the several prescriptions ordered by the doctor they can afford to purchase in any given month.

The consequences of such gambles can be deadly. According to the national Institute of Medicine, lack of health insurance causes 18,000 unnecessary deaths every year--the equivalent of six times the number of people who died in the September 11 attacks.

THE EXPLANATION for how this is possible in a country as wealthy as the United States lies in the one-sided class war waged by employers against workers. The era of the “American Dream”--when working people could aspire to decent wages and solid benefits--is over, and the chipping away at employer-provided health care coverage is one reason why.

According to a study on the uninsured by Families USA, a national advocacy group for health care consumers, in 2004, 63 percent of workers had employer-sponsored health insurance, representing a decline of as many as 4 million since 2000. Nearly half of all small employers don’t offer any health care.

Even among workers with insurance through their employer, the burden is increasingly being shifted onto them. Employee “co-payments” for health care--once unheard of, at least at union workplaces--are now the rule. Plus, the aim of the managed-care “revolution,” with its HMOs was to “ration” health care, with insurance bureaucracies often forcing patients to jump through hoops, even for emergency treatment.

All too often, health insurance policies fail people when they actually get sick or injured--and it turns out that needed treatment isn’t covered. Thus, it isn’t only the uninsured who end up with massive medical debts. According to Steffie Woolhandler, cofounder of Physicians for a National Health Program, three-quarters of people driven into bankruptcy by illness started out with insurance.

All these trends are the result of health care costs increasing at a rate that far surpasses inflation. From 2000 to 2006, according to government statistics, health insurance premiums rose by 87 percent--compared to an increase in workers’ income of just 15 percent.

The corporate giants of the health care industry are the big winners. The pharmaceutical giant Johnson and Johnson made profits of $10 billion in 2005, followed closely by Pfizer at $8 billion in earnings, according to Fortune magazine. The drug companies Proctor and Gamble, Merck, Amgen, Abbot and the insurer UnitedHealth Group are all among the 50 most profitable of U.S. Fortune 500 companies.

Naturally, that means a big paycheck for health care executives. Johnson and Johnson’s CEO received salary and bonuses worth $28 million last year. When former Pfizer CEO Henry McKinnell left the company, he got benefits worth $180 million, according to the AFL-CIO.

NO WONDER the CBS/New York Times poll showed so many people believe the health care system has to be “completely rebuilt.” But what would it be replaced with?

Right now, leaders of both parties are coming up with proposals that they claim would provide “affordable health care for all.” In reality, they will do nothing of the sort.

George Bush’s plan, unveiled during his State of the Union address in January, would use tax incentives to encourage movement from an employer-based health insurance system to one in which individuals buy health insurance on their own. Workers who purchase health insurance would get a fixed deduction from their taxable income--$7,500 for an individual plan and $15,000 for a family plan.

The stated intent of the proposal is to equalize individual and employer-based health insurance markets--but on the basis of the least comprehensive coverage. The tax incentives are designed to get people to buy cheaper plans--and so spend their health care dollars “more wisely.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the Bush plan:

will significantly erode the employer market...A flat subsidy that encourages the purchase of the “leanest” (least comprehensive) insurance plan possible potentially siphons off the younger, healthier people into the individual market and destabilizes employer risk pools. The flat exclusion will likely affect few people in the beginning, but as health costs rise faster than the exclusion amount, it will cause further employer erosion in years to come.

In short, the Bush plan is designed to accelerate the shift of workers out of so-called “Cadillac” health insurance policies and into bare-bones plans. That will mean more out-of-pocket deductibles on the “basic” plan, leading people to use fewer health care services--and for anyone who doesn’t comply by getting insurance, income tax penalties.

Most health care reform packages under serious consideration, including Bush’s, are modeled on Massachusetts legislation enacted in April 2006 by then-Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican presidential hopeful who wants to build support as a conservative who nevertheless accomplished something on health care.

What he accomplished is another matter. Massachusetts law now requires residents over age 18 to obtain and maintain health insurance coverage, starting on July 1, 2007. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, tax penalties for residents who don’t comply could run between $2,000 and $5,500 a year.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill passed overwhelmingly by both houses of the legislature that would have brought the state one step closer to truly universal health care under a single-payer system modeled on Canada’s. In his veto remarks, Schwarzenegger stated, “Socialized medicine is not the solution to our state’s health care problems.”

Instead, Schwarzenegger pushed through a plan very similar to Massachusetts’, which would require all residents to purchase health insurance. Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry is thrilled. “The California proposal could expand the industry’s market to 4 million to 5 million currently uninsured Californians,” the Wall Street Journal noted hopefully.

These plans have been accompanied by rhetoric about “universal coverage.” In reality, they are designed to further push health care costs onto working people.

THERE IS an alternative proposal backed by growing sections of the labor movement and even a small number of Washington politicians: a single-payer health care system.

The single-payer system is so named because all people would belong to a single publicly administered pool that pays all medical bills--in effect, an expanded and improved Medicare system covering every person.

Such a system would eliminate the vast administrative waste perpetrated by the insurance companies. According to Web site launched by the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CNA/NNOC), the driving force for the single-payer legislation that Schwarzenegger vetoed in California--under private insurance, more than 30 percent of every health care dollar goes to administrative costs, compared to just 3.2 percent in the Medicare system.

Under most single-payer proposals, health care providers would remain as they are now, mostly private--in other words, nothing like the image painted by apologists for the current system who claim that a single-payer system would force patients to get in line and take whichever doctor or medical facility is available next. In reality, the restrictions on care currently imposed by insurance companies and health care executives are much harsher.

Hospitals would receive a global budget to cover their annual costs, and providers would be paid according to a fee schedule--they would not bill patients. Employers and employees would pay a payroll fee--like the one already taken from paychecks for Medicare.

Because government expenditures cover 60 percent of U.S. health care costs, U.S. taxpayers are already paying more than half the cost of national health insurance--and aren’t receiving it.

According to advocates, 95 percent of people would pay substantially less for health care than they currently do. Coverage would be “portable”--eliminating the fear of losing insurance that keeps many people in jobs they would like to leave. Workers who go on strike or suffer on-the-job injuries would never have to worry about losing benefits.

The single-payer system is in use throughout the world, including Canada, virtually all of Europe, Argentina, Brazil, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Australia. Mexico and South Africa are attempting to implement such a system.

While the health care systems of these countries are certainly not without problems, their advantages are obvious. In 2004, the U.S. spent $6,100 per capita on health care compared to $2,250 per capita on average in countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that had national health insurance programs.

When Taiwan shifted from a U.S. health care model to adopt a single-payer system in 1995, it boosted coverage from 57 percent to 97 percent, with little if any increase in overall health care spending.

For the first time in more than a decade, there is momentum for change on health care. On the federal level, a proposal for a single payer system sponsored by Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) has been endorsed by 239 union organizations in 40 states. In California, the CNA/NNOC is continuing to push for statewide single-payer legislation.

It will take a powerful effort to overcome the resistance of the insurance and health care industry to any genuine reform. But a single-payer system is the only way to bring the U.S. closer to making health care a human right.

As Marilyn Clement, national coordinator for Healthcare-NOW, a coalition that supports single-payer, said, “Overwhelmingly, people are trying to find incremental responses instead of a national response. They are still putting forward the same proposals as last summer, such as ‘the first step is to get national health care for children.’ Well, that’s good, but we won the election. It’s time to escalate our hopes.”

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Daddies in a Panic, and Mommy, Too

The New York Times
April 11, 2007


The mind reels at the mind.

The Times’s science section devoted itself yesterday to the topic of Desire, the myriad ways in which the human mind causes the body to get turned on.

It now seems that instead of desire leading to arousal, as researchers once believed, arousal may lead to desire.

The brain, as D. H. Lawrence once wrote, is a most important sexual organ [syd note: also, famously, Woody Allen's second favourite], and men and women have extremely varied responses to sexual stimuli.

As Natalie Angier, The Times’s biology expert, noted, research has shown that women differed from men “in the importance they accorded a man’s physical appearance, with many expressing a comparatively greater likelihood of being aroused by evidence of talent or intelligence — say, while watching a man deliver a great speech.”

This could explain why many Republican women are so frustrated. They have been deprived of the bristly excitement of hearing their men on the stump delivering great speeches for quite some time now.

The Daddy Party, sick with desire for a daddy, is like a lost child. John McCain, handcuffed to the Surge, announced yesterday he has the support of Henry Kissinger. Why not just drink poison? As the Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi slyly said, “Leave it to Mitt Romney to shoot himself in the foot with a gun he doesn’t own.”

Rudy Giuliani, already haunted by the specters of Bernard Kerik’s corruption and Judy Nathan’s conjugal confusion, yesterday made things worse. He did the same thing John McCain did in South Carolina in 2000, a sickening pander the Arizona senator told “60 Minutes” Sunday that he did “for all the wrong reasons.” As Marc Santora reports from Montgomery, Rudy said he would leave the decision about whether to fly the Confederate flag over the Alabama State Capitol to the people of Alabama.

Even cable news showed little interest in President Bush’s big speech on Iraq yesterday, as he continued to excoriate Democrats for hurting the troops by trying to get an exit strategy, a day after Moktada al-Sadr’s spokesman denounced the Liberator as “the father of evil, Bush” while Sadr thugs burned and shredded American flags and shouted, “Leave, leave occupier.”

Four years ago, the conservative commentator Kate O’Beirne thrilled at the sight of President Bush strutting in his flight suit and mocked Bill Clinton’s doughy thighs, noting, “Women don’t want a guy to feel their pain, they want a guy to clean the gutters.” But on “Meet the Press” Sunday, she sorrowfully admitted that Republicans had lost their national security swagger because of Iraq, and now have “a real brand name problem” and “a competency problem.”

“It used to be people thought they might not much like big government, but they can run it,” she said of her party’s leaders. “Now they seem to like it fine, but not be able to run it at all.” A point underscored by this week’s Time cover: “Why Our Army Is at the Breaking Point.”

As Adam Nagourney and John Broder report in today’s Times, Republican leaders are despondent and jittery as they watch their major candidates strain in sycophantic ways to prove their ideological credentials even as they see W.’s administration and war turning into an ever-tighter noose. Watching the Democrats’ fund-raising advantage with alarm and astonishment, they concede it will be tough to hold the White House.

Mr. Nagourney and Mr. Broder quote Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who now lectures at Princeton, saying that the party does not have any candidates who are compelling. “I just don’t know,” he adds, “how they can run hard enough or fast enough to escape the gravitational pull of the Bush administration.”

Except for Larry Birkhead, all the “Who’s your daddy?” brio this week belongs to Senator Barack Obama, who told David Letterman he would not be Hillary’s second on a ticket, and who remarkably managed to beat her on primary fund-raising with a more democratic and recyclable pool of donors.

That feat of strength led to the hilarious spectacle of Terry McAuliffe, who had been using the Bush-Cheney line of you’re-with-us-or-agin’-us to try to bully Democratic fat cats into giving solely to Hillary, telling ABC’s Jake Tapper: “Ultimately, forget the money. You’ve got to get the votes. And right now, Hillary wins in that category.”

Like the panic in the Daddy Party, the crazed sputtering in the once-dominant Mommy Camp is something to behold.

Hillary has been wielding Bill as a bludgeon on support and money. If you were ever behind him, you’d better fall into line behind her. But doesn’t that undermine her presentation of herself as a self-reliant feminist aiming to be the first Madame President? If you can only win by leaning so heavily on your man for your muscle, isn’t that a benign form of paternalism?

Upsetting the Balance

The New York Times
April 11, 2007

Masai Mara, Kenya

Surely of all God’s creations, none is more beautiful than the sunrise on the Masai Mara grassland, Kenya’s spectacular nature reserve and a backdrop for the movie “Out of Africa.” The sun’s ascent here is like a curtain going up on one of Mother Nature’s richest ecosystems. Through the day you can be greeted by a bull elephant in hot pursuit of a cow, serenaded by tropical boubou birds, intimidated by two lionesses devouring a warthog, amused by the cattle egrets riding on the backs of African buffalos and impressed by how each small cluster of topi antelope “assigns” one topi to stand on a small hill and keep watch for predators while the others graze. Everything seems in perfect balance.

Except ... behind the curtain, deforestation, the poaching of wildlife and now climate change present a trio of threats to the Mara, which have Kenyans, and all those concerned about biodiversity, worried.

Over the last 10 years, “the weather has changed,” explained our Masai naturalist, Daniel Memusi. “All of a sudden it is becoming unpredictable. ...April has always been a rainy month — every afternoon and all night. You expect rain, but no rain.” If the few scattered rains this April don’t become more intense, he added, the farmers who just planted their crops will have serious problems. “This should be a very wet month for anyone who knows the Mara, but instead the rains came in January and February,” he said.

One should never extrapolate about climate change from any single ecosystem or brief period. But as The Times’s environmental reporter Andrew C. Revkin recently noted, scientists say it’s increasingly clear “that worldwide precipitation is shifting away from the equator and toward the poles.”

“Rainfall has changed dramatically in the last 30 years — it is less predictable now,” said Julius Kipng’etich, director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, which manages Kenya’s Noah’s ark of endangered species. If climate changes bring more severe droughts and floods, and the animal migrations are disrupted, “the brand of the Mara dies,” added Mr. Kipng’etich, referring to Kenya’s “Lion King” grassland. That would really hurt Kenya’s economy. “When every Kenyan meets a wild animal, they should bow and say thank you.”

Kenya also has to worry about deforestation and poaching, although poaching is now under better control. Kenya’s forests have been reduced from 10 percent of the country’s landmass at the time of its independence in 1963 to 2 percent today, while in the same period its elephant population went from 170,000 to 30,000 and its rhino population from 20,000 to around 500. “When you see a rhino today, you are very lucky,” said Mr. Kipng’etich. “Your children or grandchildren may never see one.”

Climate change could worsen this. The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just concluded that two-thirds of the atmospheric buildup of heat-trapping carbon dioxide has come — in roughly equal parts — from the U.S. and Western Europe. These countries have the resources to deal with climate change, and may even benefit from some warming. Africa accounts for less than 3 percent of global CO2 emissions since 1900, the report noted, yet its 840 million people could suffer enormously from global-warming-induced droughts and floods and have the fewest resources to deal with them.

“We have a message here to tell these countries, that you are causing aggression to us by causing global warming,” President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda told an African Union summit in Ethiopia last February. “Alaska will probably become good for agriculture, Siberia will probably become good for agriculture, but where does that leave Africa?”

A study by Oxfam, entitled “Africa — Up in Smoke,” noted that in line with climate models, droughts in northwest Kenya appear to becoming more frequent. It profiled the impact on the nomadic pastoralists of Kenya’s northwest Turkana region, who graze cattle, camels and goats. They’ve always known droughts, but because they are now more frequent, families and animals have less chance to recover.

The Turkana people, said Oxfam, call this more persistent drought “ ‘Atiaktiak ng’awiyei’ or ‘the one that divided homes’ because so many families split up to survive, migrating in all directions.”

It really is wrong that those least responsible for climate change should pay the most. “My recommendation is that the biggest polluter pays,” said Mr. Kipng’etich. “We are one planet, one system.” He has a point. He deserves an answer.

In a Courageous Village, Ballots Bring Bullets

The New York Times
April 10, 2007


President Bush has become a bosom buddy of President Pervez Musharraf and sealed that friendship with $10 billion in military aid, but any American official who praises Pakistan’s “democracy” might want to visit this bullet-scarred village in the Punjab.

Dummerwala held free local elections here last year. But many people voted the “wrong” way, causing the candidate of the local feudal lord to lose. So a day after the election, a small army of gunmen arrived and began rampaging through the houses of the clan members who opposed the lord’s choice.

Waheed Rahman, a top student, 14 years old, who dreamed of becoming an engineer, was wounded in the opening minutes of the attack.

“When he was shot, Waheed fell down and begged for water,” said his father, Matiullah. “They were surrounding him. But they just laughed and shot at the water tank and destroyed it. Then they ripped the clothes off the women and dragged them around half-naked.”

For the next two hours, the attackers beat the men and abused the women, destroyed homes, and told their victims that the feudal lord had arranged for the police to stay away so he could teach them a lesson.

Indeed, the police did stay away. Even when two of the villagers escaped and ran to the police station, begging the officers to stop the violence, the police delayed moving for three hours.

By the time it was over, a woman was dying, as was Waheed, and many others were wounded.

The attack here in Dummerwala is a reminder that democracy is about far more than free elections. In Pakistan, many rural areas remain under the thumb of feudal lords who use the government to keep themselves rich and everyone else impoverished.

For real democracy to come to Pakistan, we’ll need to see not only free elections and the retirement of President Musharraf, but also a broad effort to uproot the feudal rulers in areas like this, 300 miles south of Islamabad. That’s not easy to do, but promoting education is the best way to combat both feudalism and fundamentalism.

Instead, we’ve been focusing on selling arms and excusing General Musharraf’s one-man rule.

Husain Haqqani of Boston University calculates that the overt and trackable U.S. aid to General Musharraf’s Pakistan amounted to $9.8 billion — of which 1 percent went for children’s survival and health, and just one-half of 1 percent for democracy promotion (and even that went partly to a commission controlled by General Musharraf).

The big beneficiary of U.S. largesse hasn’t been the Pakistani people, but the Pakistani Army.

General Musharraf has done an excellent job of nurturing Pakistan’s economy, but he is an autocrat. As Asma Jahangir, a prominent lawyer in Lahore, told me: “Until now, Pakistanis have hated the American government but not the American people. But I’m afraid that may change. Unless the U.S. distances itself from Musharraf, the way things are going Pakistanis will come to hate the American people as well.”

Just last week, General Musharraf’s secret police goons roughed up and sexually molested Dr. Amna Buttar, an American doctor of Pakistani origin who heads a human rights organization. Dr. Buttar says that she had been warned by a senior intelligence official not to protest against the government and that she was specifically targeted when she protested anyway.

When our “antiterrorism” funds support General Musharraf’s thugs as they terrorize American citizens, it’s time to rethink our approach. Imagine if we had spent $10 billion not building up General Musharraf, but supporting Pakistani schools.

One place we could support a school is here in Dummerwala. After the attack, the victims in the village were so panicky that they pulled all their children out of school.

“They say, ‘If you don’t cooperate with us, we will kill your sons,’ ” said Tazeel Rahman, one of the victims. “This is not democracy. This is a dictatorship. This is terrorism.”

(When I interviewed the attackers, they insisted that the victims had simply killed themselves. They compensated for this wildly implausible version of events by sending an armed mob to persuade me of its merits.)

We Americans could learn something about democracy from the brave people here. The villagers insist that if they are still alive and allowed to vote, they will again defy their feudal lord in the next election.

We in the West sometimes say that poor countries like Pakistan aren’t ready for democracy. But who takes democracy more seriously: Americans who routinely don’t bother to vote, or peasants in Dummerwala who risk their lives to vote?

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