This Week in Holidays
From Michael Schaffer at The New Republic: "The fourth Thursday in November, though, is all ours. And it’s a holiday to be proud of: Humble without being morose, generous without being opulent, old without being irrelevant, intimate but also all about community. At a time of income inequality, the feast that is its central organizing event is made of ingredients that are democratic. In an era of suspicion, it celebrates immigrants. During a period of polarization, it’s something we all agree on. It can be religious if you want, but it doesn’t have to be: Thank the almighty, thank your friends, thank your lucky stars—it’s all good. It can be deeply traditional if you want, but it also doesn’t have to be: As a tale of newcomers interacting with a new land, it almost begs to be adulterated. Just like America. Historians may call its creation story a fairy tale, but it still speaks to our better angels."
This Week in Progress
For decades, the United States and Iran weren't on speaking terms. It's been a complicated relationship since the early 1950s, when our CIA deposed Iran's elected prime minister and inserted Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as Shah. The Shah was ruthless and autocratic, his secret police, SAVAK, thugs and torturers. These abuses led, in 1970, to the Islamic Revolution, in which the Shah was overthrown by a popular uprising and the country came under the rule of the Ayatollah Khomeini, as an Islamic theocracy. This was quickly followed by the seizing of 52 American embassy personnel, who were held hostage for 444 days before being released on the day of President Ronald Reagan's first inauguration.
The Middle East was in turmoil in those years, and American interests were often threatened. In 1983, a Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, was bombed by radical jihadis, killing 241 American servicemen. The group that planned and carried out the attack was a front for Hezbollah, which was sponsored by Iran (officially declared a state sponsor of terrorism in January, 1984).
Iran, meanwhile, was embroiled in the Iran-Iraq war, which stretched from 1980-1988. Under President Reagan, the US officially supported Iraq in that conflict, providing Saddam Hussein's regime with weapons, intelligence, and advice, and removing Iraq from the list of nations that "supported terrorism."
But although we were on Iraq's side (and although we knew that Iran had sponsored the terrorists who killed 241 of our servicemen), President Reagan and his administration were secretly helping arm the Iranians, too. Working through Israel as a front man, we ignored the international embargo (which we officially supported) and, beginning in 1985, supplied Iran with much-needed missiles to use against Iraq. In a twist largely choreographed by Lt. Col. Oliver North, we took much of the profit from selling weapons to a country designated as a "state sponsor of terror," and diverted it to support terrorists in our own hemisphere, the Contras, in direct violation of the Boland Amendment, a law President Reagan had signed in 1982.
Of the Contras, the Catholic Institute for International Relations has said, "The record of the contras in the field, as opposed to their official professions of democratic faith, is one of consistent and bloody abuse of human rights, of murder, torture, mutilation, rape, arson, destruction and kidnapping." The Council on Hemispheric Affairs adds, "The CIA directed forces are among the worst human rights violators in Latin America, responsible for systematic brutality against a civilian population. For its critical role in facilitating the Contra violence, the [United States] Administration must share responsibility as a hemispheric violator of human rights. The Contras have killed, tortured, raped, mutilated and abducted hundreds of civilians they suspect of sympathizing with the Sandinistas. Victims have included peasants, teachers, doctors and agricultural workers."
Still, despite the Reagan administration's "palling around with terrorists," as Sarah Palin might phrase it, the US and Iran remained on nonspeaking terms. And Iran, under its theocratic rulers, embarked on an ambitious effort to achieve nuclear weapons (aided, in part, by President George W. Bush's war against Iraq, which removed the region's greatest obstruction to Iranian power and influence). While we focused on Iraq, which never had the capability to do American harm, and after we had ignored post-9/11 diplomatic outreach from Iran, Iran proceeded full speed ahead on its nuclear program. Ultimately, we appeared to be facing a choice--either let Iran have nukes, or go to war against yet another powerful Middle Eastern nation.
Now, thanks to diplomatic efforts spearheaded by President Obama's administration and run largely by Secretary of State John Kerry, Iran has reached an agreement with us and other major powers to halt its efforts to procure nuclear weapons. Details are still forthcoming, but it's a breakthrough of historic proportions, one with the potential to solve one of the globe's most dangerous situations through the power of negotiation and compromise (and strict economic sanctions). It's a six-month deal during which a more permanent solution will be negotiated, and it's an achievement to be applauded, and built upon. Of course, the neocons hate it, because they reflexively hate anything that won't lead to another war in the Middle East (which would not be fought by them or their children). Their negative response is probably the best possible evidence that the structure of the deal is an overwhelming positive. The president of global security foundation Ploughshares Fund agrees (and, on his side is the fact that he wasn't nearly as wrong about Iraq as the neocons were).
Through diplomacy, we achieved our goal of eliminating Syria's chemical weapons program. As a candidate, Barack Obama promised a diplomatic effort with Iran. For that, he was called weak and naive by his opponents. But now we're seeing that diplomacy can have a substantial impact. Greater national security through talking rather than shooting is good for all of us.
Side Note: When you hear the right comparing this deal to Neville Chamberlain and Nazi appeasement and Munich, it's important to keep in mind that they said that about Ronald Reagan, Yitzhak Rabin, and Bill Clinton, to name a few. All it means is that those using that comparison don't understand history and really, really don't know what the Nazis were all about.
This Week in the Benghazi Scandal
The attack on American dilpomatic personnel in Benghazi was a tragedy. There have been more than a dozen investigations and reports, and none have turned up any hint of scandal, despite the right wing's insistence that there must be one. It's an event we need to learn from, not one that should be turned into a political hatchet to attack one's enemies.
Unfortunately, the otherwise well-regarded CBS news program 60 Minutes decided to sharpen the hatchet, and built a story around a "source" (whom Fox "News" had turned down because he came asking for payment) who had a book coming out from Simon & Schuster, also owned by CBS's parent corporation. The conflict of interest was enormous, but CBS ignored it (and easily checkable facts) and went with their piece anyway. Media watchdog Media Matters for America was onto the deception by the next day, and stayed on the case, revealing that the "source" was making up his entire account of that terrible night in Benghazi. CBS retracted the report, and now that their internal investigation is done, the correspondent and her producer have been invited to take a "leave of absence." We hope CBS really does learn from this mistake, and that the right will finally stop trying to use the deaths of four Americans as a political weapon.
This Week in Health Care
Various health care notes:
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R/OH) wanted to have an awful experience trying to buy health insurance on the Washington D.C. exchange last week. He did have a temporary setback, about which he sent out a victorious tweet. But then his plan fizzled when he actually was enrolled within an hour (and he never took the call that a representative made while he was first online--that rep stayed on hold for 35 minutes, trying to help Boehner out).
Other folks are getting signed up as well, including people in "one of the poorest and unhealthiest" counties in the country, who are delighted to be able to get health insurance--sometimes for the first time in their lives.
Some conservatives have started to realize that the ACA is essentially a conservative plan, and are getting on board with the idea of improving it rather than destroying it. Other conservatives, unfortunately, aren't having any, and are attacking their fellow conservatives for accepting health insurance reform ideas that originated at the far-right Heritage Foundation.
In the latest polling, 54% of Americans either like the ACA or think it doesn't go far enough. 54% (we're not sure if they're the same 54%) believe the rollout problems will be solved. America's cardiologists strongly support the law, too.
Seniors are saving serious money. The Hill reports: "According to the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services, 7.3 million people who reached the “doughnut hole” in their Medicare prescription drug coverage have saved $8.9 billion on their prescription drugs since the law was enacted in 2010. That’s an average savings of $1,209 per person."
Some people with insurance might lose their doctor. That was true two years ago, and five, and fifteen. It'll be true next year, too. Is the ACA responsible? Maybe, in a select few cases. But mostly it's how the private health insurance industry works, and instead of a socialist single-payer plan, the ACA works within the framework of that industry.
Relax. The ACA ain't going away. Here's why.
This Week in the Vatican
We discuss topics of wealth/income inequality here on a pretty regular basis (see last week's lead piece), because it's one of the factors most responsible for the shrinking middle class and the increasing poverty facing the country, the Great Recession, and the slow recovery from its depths. Most economists agree with this. Now Pope Francis has weighed in, and he agrees as well. (Bonus: handy charts to illustrate some of his major points, and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson weighs in, too.).
Admittedly, the Vatican isn't in America. But ideas matter, truth matters, and Pope Francis is telling important truths here that matter a great deal here at home. Not only does he speak the truth, but he's putting his money where his mouth is, so to speak. We could use more of that spirit here.
Side Note: Some conservatives are up in arms about the State Department moving our embassy to the Vatican. But the Vatican doesn't think it's a big deal, so really, it's just another case of conservatives looking for something to attack the administration for. The facts don't support the outrage. The Bush administration began the process, buying the buildings to be used and planning for the switch. The new location is actually closer to the Vatican than the old one (there are no foreign embassies within Vatican City itself), the embassy staff isn't being reduced at all, contact with Vatican officials won't change, and the move will save taxpayers $1.4 million a year. It will also enhance diplomatic security--which, given their freak-out over Benghazi, one would think conservatives would be in favor of. Is a little ideological consistency too much to ask?
This Week in Shopping Local
If, like many Americans, you're planning to do some shopping this weekend, you can do your own community a favor by shopping at locally owned small business. Don't send your hard-earned money to some distant corporate headquarters where most of it will be paid out to a couple of top executives. Spend it in your town, where the income gap between the store owner and the employees is often barely a gap at all. Those folks will spend it locally, too, and your community will be the better for it. Get back an extra ten bucks by using the American Express card that you registered for Small Business Saturday. Or, you know, cash is always good.
This Week in Case Studies
There's an interesting social experiment under way in the northern midwest. In 2010, Wisconsin swung hard to the right with a Republican legislature and Governor Scott Walker, while neighboring Minnesota elected progressive Governor Mark Dayton and, in 2012, gave him a Democratic legislature to work with. It's only been three years, but so far, the results are dramatically different. Walker promised 250,000 jobs in his first term; so far the state has only created 90,000 and is 34th in job creation nationwide. Dayton's is the fifth-fastest growing state economy in the country, with an unemployment rate of only 4.8%, lower than before the start of the recession.
These are only a few data points, and a real experiment would require more elapsed time and more straightforward comparison. Still, on the basis of available evidence, it appears that taxing the rich, embracing health care reform, and increasing spending on education are having better results than attacking labor unions, slashing education spending, and cutting taxes.
This Week in Rank Hypocrisy
Senator Ted Cruz (R/TX) is the single individual who bears the most responsibility for October's disastrous and expensive government shutdown. He advocated tirelessly for it, he held meetings with House Republicans at which he pushed them to ignore their own Speaker and take the hardest possible line, he ran ads attacking his fellow Republican senators around the country if they disagreed with the tactic. He's generally despised by most of his Senate colleagues from both parties. He refuses to endorse the very conservative senior senator from his own state.
So when he was asked on Sunday about the effect of Senate Democrats using the "nuclear option" that was passed in order to let the president be the president, Cruz's response was probably not meant to be ironic, but it was hard to tell for sure.
HUNT: Will it complicate passing budgets or debt ceilings or anything?
CRUZ: Of course it will. I mean, it will poison the atmosphere of the Senate...
Seriously, Senator? Is there any air left that you haven't already poisoned?
This Week in Not Getting It
Former half-term Alaska governor Sarah Palin accepted MSNBC host Martin Bashir's apology this week (see TWiA weeks 24 and 25 for the full story). But as offensive as Bashir's comment was, it wasn't nearly as offensive as Palin comparing the national debt to the scourge of slavery. When will Palin apologize for that vile comparison? We're still waiting. But we're not holding our breath.
This Week in the War on Christmas
This Week in How You Can Help
This week, TWiA launches a new feature. Each week in this spot we'll showcase an organization that's working to meet the needs of Americans who are down on their luck or in a state of need. If you can toss a couple of bucks toward one of more of these groups, that'll help. If you can volunteer some time, that'll help, too.
We'll start with World Hunger Year, an organization founded by musician Harry Chapin and Catholic priest-turned-broadcaster Bill Ayres, that helps feed the hungry through many different avenues around the country. Among numerous other programs, WhyHunger works to support summer food programs that feed kids who get their breakfast and lunch at school (sometimes their only substantial meals) during the summer months. They run the only National Hunger Hotline (1-866-3hungry), which people suffering a hunger emergency can use to get immediate help locating food resources. Currently their annual Hungerthon is going on. All year round, but especially at this time of year when so many of us are enjoying Thanksgiving feasts, too many of our fellow Americans are going to bed hungry, and WhyHunger is trying to help. Find them at whyhunger.org.
This Week in Bears
Just when you thought bears couldn't get any more adorable.