Welcome to the latest installment of news and opinion about life in these here United States. This is usually posted on Friday, but although I thought I had scheduled the post, I actually hadn't. So it's a little late, but the news remains the news, even if it's slightly older news.
This Week in Heroes
Congressman John Lewis (D/GA) is no stranger to heroism. In 1963, as the 23-year-old chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, he helped plan and spoke at the August 28 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. (Here are some remarkable photos of the march, by Leonard Freed.) In 1965, Lewis's skull was fractured during the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, when state troopers attacked the peaceful, silent marchers with clubs and gas. Very few people have walked the walk and talked the talk in as long, determined, and effective ways.
This week Lewis spoke at a rally in Washington commemorating that march, and advancing the unexpectedly ongoing struggle to allow all Americans their rightful participation in our country's elections. “You cannot stand by," Lewis said. "You have to stand up, speak up, speak out, and get in the way. Make some noise! The vote is precious; it is almost sacred, the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society and we’ve got to use it.”
There is no more fundamental right in a democracy than the right to vote. Anyone who supports restricting that right for partisan gain is no friend to freedom. John Lewis has more courage in every cell of his body than any individual who's afraid to let people cast their lawful ballots, and we salute him.
Another undisputed hero is US Army Staff Sergeant Ty Michael Carter (above), who this week became the fifth living service member to earn a Medal of Honor in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. NBC News says "The quick-moving staff sergeant braved a blizzard of bullets to take out Taliban fighters and rescue a wounded brother-in-arms during the Oct. 3, 2009, clash, which left eight American soldiers dead and wounded more than 25 others, according to the Army’s official account of the event. It was the deadliest day for U.S. forces in the war effort that year."
Sgt. Carter's courage and his service are inspiring, and we salute him.
This Week in Voting
Not quite at hero status yet--though he will be if he's successful--is Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R/WI), who was a champion of the Voting Rights Act in the past and who this week said that he wants to fix the Voting Rights Act by the end of 2013, so the damage SCOTUS did to it this summer won't affect 2014 elections. Sensenbrenner said, “The first thing we have to do is take the monkey wrench that the court threw in it, out of the Voting Rights Act, and then use that monkey wrench to be able to fix it so that it is alive, well, constitutional and impervious to another challenge that will be filed by the usual suspects.”
The 202 Democrats in the House will, for the most part, be on board with this effort, because racially motivated voter suppression is currently a Republicans-only game. That means Sensenbrenner will need 20-30 of his fellow House Republicans [and will need Speaker Boehner (R/OH) to let the measure come to the floor]. If they can pass something, the Senate and the president will push it through. And every American who considers the vote a vital part of our democracy will owe a great debt to Rep. Sensenbrenner.
This Week in Speeches
As noted, this week marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. King's words still ring trueand clear today, like chimes of freedom sounding from every mountaintop, every church steeple, every city street and rural lane. President Barack Obama stood on the same steps this week to address the nation, from the perspective of half a century of change, and his speech was less a new idea but an echo of the old, describing where we as a country are doing better and where we've fallen short. The transcript is here, and it's worth reading, watching, or listening to. The president is no Dr. King (and he knows better than to try to be, especially on this occasion), but he's one of the best orators of our time, and a fine writer.
Here are a few brief excerpts:
"Many had gone to segregated schools and sat at segregated lunch counters, had lived in towns where they couldn't vote, in cities where their votes didn't matter. There were couples in love who couldn't marry, soldiers who fought for freedom abroad that they found denied to them at home. They had seen loved ones beaten and children fire-hosed. And they had every reason to lash out in anger or resign themselves to a bitter fate.
"And yet they chose a different path. In the face of hatred, they prayed for their tormentors. In the face of violence, they stood up and sat in with the moral force of nonviolence. Willingly, they went to jail to protest unjust laws, their cells swelling with the sound of freedom songs. A lifetime of indignities had taught them that no man can take away the dignity and grace that God grants us. They had learned through hard experience what Frederick Douglas once taught: that freedom is not given; it must be won through struggle and discipline, persistence and faith."
"For over a decade, working Americans of all races have seen their wages and incomes stagnate. Even as corporate profits soar, even as the pay of a fortunate few explodes, inequality has steadily risen over the decades. Upward mobility has become harder. In too many communities across this country in cities and suburbs and rural hamlets, the shadow of poverty casts a pall over our youth, their lives a fortress of substandard schools and diminished prospects, inadequate health care and perennial violence.
"And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many, for the black custodian and the white steelworker, the immigrant dishwasher and the Native American veteran. To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business."
***"And that's the lesson of our past, that's the promise of tomorrow, that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it. And when millions of Americans of every race and every region, every faith and every station can join together in a spirit of brotherhood, then those mountains will be made low, and those rough places will be made plain, and those crooked places, they straighten out towards grace, and we will vindicate the faith of those who sacrificed so much and live up to the true meaning of our creed as one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
This Week in the Right Thing
Senator Ted Cruz (R/TX) was interviewed on CNN over the weekend, and was asked about his campaign to shut down the federal government* unless the president and Congress agree to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Cruz admitted that he doesn't have the votes at the moment, but added that he believes a new paradigm--a "grass roots tsunami" will rise up to make the case for him. He said, "And that new paradigm is the rise of the grass roots, the ability of grass-roots activists to demand of their elected officials they do the right thing."
What's not entirely clear here is what Cruz thinks "the right thing" is. Denying millions of people medical care? Forcing Americans into bankruptcy because they can't pay exorbitant medical bills? Or shutting down the federal government and throwing a huge monkey-wrench into our economic recovery? Would Cruz prefer that people lose their homes and watch their bank accounts dwindle because of medical expenses or because he forces the economy into a new recession?
We need elected officials who take a serious interest in helping the country deal with its problems, not in creating new problems where none existed previously. This kind of tear-the-country-down thinking is destructive** to the core, and voters shouldn't reward it.
*Side Note 1: It's worth pointing out that Republicans polled oppose shutting down the government, 53% to 37%. Among all Americans, it's 71% opposed to 23% in favor. That number is hard to achieve in our divided society. So the stunt Cruz, Rand Paul*** (R/KY) and Mike Lee (R/UT) want to pull is very unpopular with real people, even if it looks like fun to a few extremist senators who are opposed to their constituents having health insurance.
**Side Note 2: The other potential economic pitfall under discussion, for reasons no Republican can actually elaborate on, is the coming debt ceiling. We've raised it dozens of times, uncontroversially, because it is not controversial; it's merely the mechanism by which we pay the bills we've racked up. But Speaker Boehner is threatening to blow it up (last time he did that, though he eventually conceded and raised it, just the threat cost us a million jobs). And, almost comically, his spokesperson says, "The speaker's comments are consistent."
This Week in Branding
Last week, we wrote this: "And as more benefits reach more people, it's likely to become ever more popular (though again, most people will never realize they're being helped by it, even as it holds costs down, provides better coverage, and cuts the deficit, because they won't be interacting with some governmental body called 'Obamacare')."
This week, case in point: "A middle-aged man in a red golf shirt shuffles up to a small folding table with gold trim, in a booth adorned with a flotilla of helium balloons, where government workers at the Kentucky State Fair are hawking the virtues of Kynect, the state’s health benefit exchange established by Obamacare. The man is impressed. 'This beats Obamacare I hope,' he mutters to one of the workers."
It's already helping Americans by the score, whether they know it or not. It's only going to get better. The right should stop fighting it and work to make it the best it can be.
This Week in Sarin
The world is rightfully outraged that the embattled Syrian government has apparently used the nerve gas sarin against its own people. That outrage might lead to the US becoming embroiled in yet another war in the Middle East, although President Obama has been trying hard to resist pressure to engage militarily. The Iraq War was a foreign policy blunder of the worst kind, incredibly costly in lives and treasure. Obama doesn't want to repeat that mistake, but the use of nerve agents might be too atrocious a crime to not respond.
Secretary of State John Kerry made the case forcefully this week: "What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear: The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable and — despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured — it is undeniable."We're glad to see Congress exercise its Constitutional role in authorizing the use of force, but sadly, they don't seem terribly interested in ending their summer vacation early. Here's a quick summary of the situation in Syria.
Coincidentally, recently declassified CIA documents show that in the 1980s, although the Reagan administration knew that Saddam Hussein had sarin and intended to use it, the government provided Iraq with satellite intellligence showing where their Iranian foes were and how best to deploy their weapons. According to Foreign Policy, "In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq's war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that Hussein's military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent."
(Of course, Iran was our enemy by then in part because in 1953, the CIA had helped overthrow Iran's prime minister and installed our own guy, the Shah, who became a tyrant. When the Iranian people were finally able to get rid of him, they had no love for those who put him in power and kept him there.)
We here at TWiA World Headquarters are glad that we have an administration in place now that's opposed to the use of sarin, and not complicit in it.
Side Note: A very complex and potentially dangerous international situation is not made better by the absolutely irresponsible antics of elected officials like Representatives Louie Gohmert (R/TX) (who, frankly, has made a career out of throwing around absurd charges as if a member of the US House of Representatives has no duty whatsoever to deal with issues in a factual manner, and can be as reckless as the lowliest talk-radio host) and Lee Terry (R/NE), who both claimed this week that the Assad regime has WMDs that came from Saddam Hussein's stockpiles. Gentlemen: those stockpiles didn't exist. There is not a trace of evidence that any WMDs were ever moved to Syria. Any functional member of Congress can know that and should know that. If you don't know that, then it's time to resign your seat and let someone with some tiny sliver of intelligence and understanding take it.
This Week in Leaks
Journalist Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down, etc.) gets to the root of what bothers us about the Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden cases--not leaks per se, because sometimes leaks are clearly in the public interest--but the indiscriminate, unthinking nature of their massive leaks. Bowden writes, "Whatever danger Manning (who has now asked to live as a woman named Chelsea) poses to American society can be avoided by denying her access to Pentagon computers. Snowden may have found a way to punish himself worse. He has turned himself into an enduring symbol of idiocy by fleeing the oppressive grip of Barack Obama for the open arms of that great civil libertarian, Vladimir Putin. Both Manning and Snowden strike me not as heroes, but as naifs. Neither appears to have understood what they were getting themselves into, and, more importantly, what they were doing."
This Week in Homelesseness
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both took the issue of homelessness seriously, and implemented efforts to do something about it. And they succeeded--despite the great recession and high unemployment, homelessness dropped 17% between 2005 and 2012.
That's the good news. The bad news is that if Congress doesn't end the sequester (or makes things worse by defaulting on the debt or shutting down the government), the numbers could rise again in a hurry.
This Week in School
A new report out shows a positive correlation between investments in education and higher wages/lower tax burdens. In states where more people have college degrees, average wages are higher, productivity is higher, there's less poverty and therefore less need for spending on social safety nets, than in states with fewer educated residents.
Meanwhile, another new study shows that massive student loan debt leads to lifetime loss in earning potential, depressing the overall economy and hindering growth. “Student debt’s financial impact won’t just be felt by the nearly 39 million Americans who currently have student loans. The drag of student loans on indebted households’ purchasing power and ability to save will slow an already-sluggish growth for the entire U.S. economy. If we wish to avoid this fate, we need to take immediate action to both reduce the burden of existing student debt and prevent future debt from piling up even higher.”
Putting them together seems to tell us that public investment in education is not only vital to the country's future because we'll need an educated workforce to compete in the high-tech, globally interconnected future, but because the economic benefits of that investment make the return on it something we can't afford to pass up. And anyone who wants to abolish the Department of Education is seriously lacking in foresight and judgment.
This Week in Jobs
Between 2000 and 2011, more jobs were created at the very high and very low ends of the pay scale, while middle class jobs disappeared. This is a result of several different forces working in concert, including increasing hostility toward unions* and efforts at keeping the minimum wage low or nonexistent, along with technological change and outsourcing. It's bad news for recovery efforts, though, and bad news for the American economy as a whole. And it makes the above note on education all the more crucial.
*Side Note: Next Monday is Labor Day, a day on which we should reflect on the advances that organized labor has given us, including sick days and weekends and paid vacation time, an end to child labor, and safer working conditions than much of the world enjoys.
This Week in When Freedoms Collide
Despite concerns in some quarters about a "Nanny State," anyone who's ever lived in another country knows that in the United States, freedom is a comparatively limitless resource. That's kind of the point. Except for one thing, which people should always keep in mind: None of us lives in a vacuum. We are inextricably linked to our neighborhoods, our communities, our cities and states and nation. As the country's population swells (along with the world's), that interconnectedness becomes more and more critical.
This week a measles outbreak was reported in a Texas megachurch at which church leaders had previously encouraged congregants not to be vaccinated against measles and other contagious diseases. (Since the outbreak, that tune has changed, though they're still pushing medical advice that's not just questionable but boneheadedly wrong). We have the freedom not to be vaccinated and not to vaccinate our kids. But that freedom runs up against the freedom of other people not to be exposed to a disease that was supposedly eradicated in the US more than a decade ago.
We have all sorts of freedom, here, including the freedom to be stupid. But freedom comes with obligations. We have the freedom to eat Big Macs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day, if we want. But if we can't pay our medical bills when our heart inevitably gives out, then everyone else's health care gets more expensive. The loss of our productivity at work puts a greater burden on our coworkers, and has a negative impact on the economy as a whole.
We have the freedom to smoke ten packs of Marlboros a day. But if the butt we toss out the window ignites a wildfire, then we've put lives and property and public landscapes at risk. And not only are wildfires destructive in the moment, but trees and plants store carbon dioxide--until they burn or decompose. One year's ever-more-ferocious fires increases the atmosphere's carbon load, making the fires in years to come more devastating still.
We have the freedom to drive a behemoth that gets ten miles to the gallon. But by doing so, we're contributing yet more carbon to the blanket that's smothering the globe.
We have the freedom to fill our houses with guns, but we should keep in mind a few basic facts. Where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths--this is true at the national level, the state level, the county level, the city level, the neighborhood level. It's an undeniable truth--guns lead to gun deaths. Whatever self-defense fantasies we might harbor, if we have a gun in the house it's far more likely to be used by one member of the household against another (or in a suicide) than to be used in self-defense. It's far more likely to be stolen than to be used in self-defense--so congratulations, we just provided a gun to a criminal. Yes, we have a "tradition" of gun ownership, but so does every other country on the globe, because when guns become an available technology, people own them. But not every country fetishizes them like we do, and as a result most other countries have far fewer gun deaths per capita than we do. You or I might be the exception to the above facts--but we're far more likely to be another sad statistic.
We're not saying that laws are never passed for the sole reason of restricting people's freedom--laws that tell us who we can love or how consenting adults can use their sexual organs come to mind. But for the most part, laws are a reminder that there is only one of you and only one of me, but lots of everybody else. If we pass a law saying everybody has to get health insurance, that's not aimed at taking away our freedom to not have health insurance, it's aimed at preserving the freedom of other people to not have to pay our bills. A law that requires people to pass a background check before buying an assault weapon is not there to take away our freedom to carry a gun, it's there to preserve the freedom of other people to not be shot.
Next time we woriy about the "Nanny State" abridging your freedom, we might do well to take a minute to see whose freedom it's defending. Chances are, there are a lot more of them than there are of you or me.
This Week in Mayors
Newark, NJ Mayor (and Democratic senatorial candidate) Cory Booker may or may not be gay*. He's not saying, he says because he likes challenging people's homophobia. And he's right--though there's no evidence that he's gay, it really doesn't make any difference to his ability to do the job.
His opponent, Republican candidate and former Bogota, NJ Mayor Steve Lonegan's response? "It's kind of weird, as a guy I personally like being a guy."
To us, that's kind of weird. Gay guys are, as far as we can tell, still guys. And when was the last time, if ever, that Lonegan pulled a woman from a burning building? When it comes to who's the manliest in the race, it's Booker by a mile.
This Week in Bears
Okay, pandas aren't really bears. But they might as well be. Here's a list of the best panda videos of all time. Prepare to squee.