Thursday, December 30, 2010

Your way back

It is colder now
than this
the way your
hand moves on
your sleeve
not thick enough for
irony the way
light strikes
when you
reach for
a match only to
discover yourself
a mirror that
won’t budge.
still, you work
your way
back from
the end of
the world.

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Casino Jack"

A long holiday weekend, why not go to the movies, I thought, so I braved the traffic to see George Hickenlooper's new release, "Casino Jack," starring Kevin Spacey.

For me, movies are like lovers. The less you know about them in advance, the more you're likely to appreciate them later. About the only thing I knew about "Casino Jack" was that Jack is Jack Abramoff, a fellow I don't much care about. That said, I do like Kevin Spacey, so I was prepared for two hours of great performances, at least.

I usually like to take a quick glance at the audience when I get to the theatre, and then during the movie to observe reactions of theatregoers. It's never a good sign when the house is half-empty on opening night. As one who avoids movie reviews like the plague until after I see the movie, the lackluster crowd was ominous, kind of like going to a Chinese restaurant with one table occupied.

It quickly became clear, in the first ten minutes, the film wasn't going to work for me, and I wasn't going to be able to sit through it. For starters, it's hard to make a slug like Jack Abramoff appealing. The first sign of bad writing is one-dimensionalism, and it's virtually impossible to portray Abramoff as anything but a slug. Also, I'm not a big fan of gratuitous, and largely random bigotry, even if its intent is to authenticate the worldview of the lead character.

With the exception of Kevin Spacey, an actor who could read a Pizza Hut menu with gusto, the acting was leaden, and heavily scripted. It was as if every line was placed on a scale, and carefully weighed for significance with the kind of preciousness that would upset even the greatest Shakespearean tragedy. While the writer is responsible for the dialogue, the director is largely responsible for its delivery, and one never loses sight of the artifice even for a moment.

Screenwriter Norman Snider was heroic in his efforts to inject levity into an atmosphere of relentless moral morbidity, but he wasn't able to pull it off. The only way a biopic about somebody like Abramoff might work is if the protagonist were to be infused with Faustian qualities, and Woody Allen neurosis, but then he would be totally unbelievable. Believability is not the same as authenticity. The Abramoff portrayed was believable, but in the same way a cartoon figure might be.

Scenes that were intended to evoke a laugh, as in the opening segue when "Casino Jack" asks a guard in federal prison if they serve Kosher meals, had the opposite effect. Instead of provoking people to ponder Abramoff's humanness, the only response from the audience was heckling, jeering, and guffawing. Likewise, naming one of the characters, "Pancho," just isn't funny to me nor, fortunately, to anyone else in this San Francisco movie house.

Disturbingly, though, while there was no laughter when "Casino Jack" called out for "Pancho," there was plenty whenever any reference to Abramoff's Jewish faith came up. This, in conjunction with the incessant popcorn chewing and ice gulping from the people behind me, was enough to make me get up midway through the movie and walk out horrified to think that, in what is widely considered the most liberal city in the country, one would have to silently tolerate guffaws and jeers.

But, more importantly, the movie wasn't able to distract the audience from the audience, but instead languished in one caricature of a stereotype after another.

And, yes, I know how the story ends, but that doesn't matter. One has to care about the protagonist, even care enough to hate him. Jack Abramoff, in "Casino Jack," was only able to generate mild amusement to scorn, and from where I sat, there seemed to be more scorn because of his ethnic and religious beliefs than his egregious misdeeds.

Bottom line, though, I didn't walk out because of the the audience, but the movie. When any theatregoer spends that much time watching and listening to folks around them instead of looking at the screen, something isn't happening in the movie bigtime.

A fine actor, Kevin Spacey, gives a typically virtuouso performance, but it's not enough to rescue the film from mediocrity.

Maybe it's too soon to watch the capers of a con man lobbyist with anything even remotely resembling historical detachment, and a biopic of Jack Abramoff might fare better in another fifty years when "Casino Jack" has been relegated to the rancid, and continually updating halls of history.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

From Michael Winship

Censorship: Toys in the Nation’s Attic
By Michael Winship

In the snows of yesteryear, far away from Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or START treaties or the War on Christmas, I see the movie house of my youth, the Playhouse Theater on Chapin Street, the only one in my small hometown -- except for a nearby drive-in that closed during the winter.

In the colder months, we’d get a short ride downtown to the Playhouse or crunch along the shoveled sidewalks, stepping over or through the deeper drifts, watching out for patches of ice. Sometimes during semester breaks in high school, I’d go to a double feature and, after it was over, walk down an icy silent Main Street late in the night to where my father was closing his store and preparing to drive home.

I’ve written of the Playhouse before; its history of vaudeville and minstrel shows, the smell of antique popcorn, the black velvet darkness inside while the movies ran, the theater illuminated only by the projector’s beam and the soft neon light of a clock hanging to the right of the screen, courtesy of a local jeweler.

Because it was the only show in town, we saw some first-run films but mostly caught up with the big movies after they had played in the cities – if you wanted to be the first on your block, you had to travel to Rochester to see The Longest Day or Mary Poppins; it would be months before they came around to our theater.

But holding the town’s movie monopoly had its bizarre advantages: unusual double features like The Three Stooges in Orbit – and Gigi. And because this was a small town, where everyone knew everyone else’s business and the official motto could have been In loco parentis, if the mob of kids at a Saturday matinee got too unruly the manager would simply stop the movie, walk out on stage and threaten to call our mothers and fathers. I remember this failing only once: at a screening of a Disney movie called Tonka, the story of a wild horse tamed by a young Sioux brave named White Bull. Sal Mineo was hopelessly miscast as White Bull – who could blame us for going on the warpath?

One of the very first films I saw at the Playhouse was White Christmas. I have little memory of that initial viewing – there was a jeep in it, right? – but as the years go by I’ve grown to love its music and cozy holiday sentiment, not to mention the impossible legs of actress-dancer Vera-Ellen.

I went to see it with my mother that first time. She was a bigger movie fan than my father and her eye was critical in more ways than one. Once, the Playhouse’s main attraction was accompanied by a short, French comedy film, much in the style of The Red Balloon, that classic story of a balloon that silently follows a little boy through the streets of Paris. Only in this film the balloon had been replaced by a soccer ball that bounced through the street of Paris.

At one point the ball bounced through a doctor’s office. A woman in a hospital gown was lying face down on the examining table, her bare buttocks briefly exposed. My appalled mother went to the manager and had the offending three seconds snipped from the film.

Years later we laughed about it and agreed that times were different then. And yet they aren’t, of course. Witness the current flap in Washington over the inclusion of an excerpt from a video by the artist and filmmaker David Wojnarowicz in a show at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. Made in 1987 and titled “A Fire in My Belly,” the video is a poignant, fierce message of grief and anger arising from the news that Wojnarowicz’s mentor and former lover Peter Hujar was dying of AIDS.

Eleven seconds of the piece depict a crucifix over which ants crawl, a metaphor evoking, as New York Times columnist Frank Rich described it, “frantic souls scurrying in panic as a seemingly impassive God looked on.”

Outrage was expressed by William Donohue of the Catholic League, a right wing lay organization with no official ties to the Church that seems to exist primarily as a vehicle for Donohue, propelled by his own hot air. The drumbeat was then picked up by conservative Republicans, including the incoming majority leader, Eric Cantor, who threatened the Smithsonian’s funding and described the video as “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.” Speaker-elect John Boehner made similar threats. The Smithsonian caved instantly, and removed the offending video.

Now, first of all, the video was just part of a fascinating exhibit called Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. The whole thing opened on October 30, the day before Halloween, a month before the right discovered it, so if anyone is inclined toward taking offense maybe it should have been Wiccans, other pagans, assorted Satanists and trick-or-treaters.

I know this because, unlike I would guess virtually every one of its holier-than-thou critics, I have actually seen the exhibit. On October 30, in fact, because its opening coincided with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.” Taking a break from the masses filling the capital’s mall, my girlfriend Pat and I sought sanctuary in the National Portrait Gallery and checked out Hide/Seek.

In the interest of full disclosure, I used to write a television series for the Smithsonian; the National Portrait Gallery is one of my favorites of all its museums. And Pat was friends with David Wojnarowicz, the artist in question, who himself was killed by AIDS in 1992.

Hide/Seek, according to the gallery’s website, “considers such themes as the role of sexual difference in depicting modern America; how artists explored the fluidity of sexuality and gender; how major themes in modern art -- especially abstraction—were influenced by social marginalization; and how art reflected society’s evolving and changing attitudes toward sexuality, desire, and romantic attachment.” Art talk, which translated means that the show not only demonstrates the major contributions of gay men and women to contemporary American art but just as important, how their work was affected by years of suppression and finally, liberation.

The Wojnarowicz video was just a tiny part of the overall exhibition – which flows from Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent to Jasper Johns, David Hockney and Andy Warhol – so small that Pat had to point it out to me. I hadn’t noticed it amongst all the other works. But no matter. The Smithsonian was created in 1846, its purpose “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” yet once again it has allowed its intellectual spark to be snuffed by know-nothings and dunderheads. Such cowardice relegates the institution to the role the Smithsonian professes to hate -- “the nation’s attic,” the place where we throw history’s knickknacks, toys and worn out ephemera, unguided by curiosity or unimpeded scholarship.

God knows, Christianity will carry on, despite this minuscule, alleged affront. To paraphrase Jon Stewart, if Christmas can survive the Roman Empire; it can certainly survive this. If it can’t, we’re in worse shape than I thought and I’d just as soon run back to my hometown and lose myself in the comforting darkness of the Playhouse Theater. Too bad the bastards tore it down. Happy Holidays!


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

While we're on the subject...

In light of the season, I decided it was time for a little refresher course on the baby in the manger, so did a Google search for "Jesus of Nazareth."

A Wikipedia entry came up first, which I found immensely instructive. Part of what was listed there reads as follows:

Jesus (aka "Jesus Christ")

Born: 5 BC / BCE
Bethlehem, Judea, Galilee, Nazareth

Died: 30 AD/ CE (aged 33-35) Calvary in Judea, Roman Empire
(according to the New Testament he rose on the third day
after his death)

Cause of
Death: Crucifixion

Nationality: Israelite

Ethnicity: Jewish

Father: God

Mother: Mary

Father: Joseph

According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus was a Jew regarded as a healer and a teacher. He was baptized by John the Baptist.

Once again, Jesus was a Jew. That's right, and a card-carrying Jew. In fact, nowadays, he would be known as a rabbi. So, anyone who condemns the Jews condemns the lord.

Getting into the Holiday Spirit in California

Searching for the holiday spirit anywhere, especially in an economy gone south, is no easy task. But, in a state with double digit official unemployment and countless more only partially employed, Santa would get the DT's going down the chimney here.

Christmas has always existed in a kind of time warp in the land of perpetual sunshine, a state which has experienced biblical flooding lately. Even Noah would need to use sandbags to keep his arc from slipping away.

Generally, in Southern California, the palm trees are in full bloom, if there is such a thing, and one looks forward to going on mid-winter jaunts in a tee shirt and sweats.

On the other hand, here in Northern California, you need a ski jacket and wool-lined boots for a late December walk, and "accessorizing" often involves the umbrella you carry.

So, while the sun was trying to decide whether to come out, and after a week that averaged a monsoon a minute, I went for a drive figuring I'd enjoy the sights while I could still see them.

First stop, of course, was to fill up the tank as, now that the holidays are here, gas prices are bound to go higher and higher. At my local station, the price per gallon for 87 unleaded is now a whopping $3.29 a gallon. As one intent upon looking at the cup as half-full rather than half-empty, I think, not bad; it's down six cents a gallon from the last time I filled up. Not that it matters, of course. If you need a car to get around, gas is one of those items you have to buy like milk. So, I shell out twenty dollars, and the engine starts purring again.

Ready to embark on the rest of my journey, I head towards Main Street which is like every other Main Street you'll come across. Realizing that, after shopping for a few odds and ends, and buying gas, I was out of cash, I decided to stop off at the closest ATM; a task that requires making a left turn at a busy intersection.

Right behind me is a young lady in a Range Rover with a plastic Jesus on her dashboard. She starts getting a bit antsy and, frankly, if she were any closer, she would have sodomized me, but I keep my composure anyway, signal and, as the light turns green, wait until there are no cars coming before making the turn. From her vantage point, she's unable to see a car coming through my windshield, but that doesn't seem to bother her in the least. She blasts me with her horn, and then true to holiday spirit, she flips me off mercilessly.

Undeterred by what they like to call "aggressive driving" in these parts, but what they call "pushy" if you happen to be from New York, I manage to make it out of the bank parking lot in one piece despite the best efforts of the young man clearly text messaging while sticking the nose of his sports car in beween my car and the one in front of me, even though no cars were coming after mine as far as the eye could see. In Washington, they like to call that "triangulating."

I decide to close him out. He doesn't feel a thing, and goes back to text messaging while I move on to my next stop, the post office, to send a package priority mail. As I'm making out the label, the woman directly behind me in line starts to cut in front of me, but she is beaten by another woman who cuts me off from the other side. I mumble something like "WTF?" under my breath, and one of the women turns to me and says "this is a hectic week." And, so it is.

Well, I think, instead of getting indignant, my default position, why not have compassion for those who are less patient, but that would mean having compassion for myself which seems like a redundancy. Somewhat confused by what had quickly escalated from a line in a post office to a metaphysical conundrum, I headed home thrilled at having made a serious attitude adjustment from one who would pull the wigs off both ladies in the post office to one who would rather take a long walk.

Some might think it courageous thing to choose outdoor exercise on a day when the clouds look like they'll burst any second, but I needed the work-out.

I took the usual trail through omnipresent parking lots past the "No trespassing" signs hanging from trees like lost leaves, and down the back streets where I came upon another sign, one I hadn't seen before. This sign was apparently posted by local law enforcement, and read simply, "State law requires drivers to yield to pedestrians." At last, something that reminds me of my youth, and the "Please don't feed the pigeons" signs posted in Central Park. For the first time in my life, I empathized with pigeons. And, being intent on finding the bright side, I thought--well it could be worse. At least they put up a sign.

But, for a state so strapped for cash, I wondered, why aren't pedestrian laws being enforced? Is stopping for pedestrians at crosswalks in California like feeding the pigeons in New York? Is there an abitrariness to how we view life? Why is there even need for a law to tell someone in a vehicle that weighs thousands of pounds that they have to stop for a pedestrian weighing a hundred pounds in the crosswalk. What if the pedestrian isn't in the crosswalk? Are they then fair game?

As I was preoccupied thinking, a car came barreling through and, instead of veering over to the right to avoid me, it came right at me forcing me to stumble and fall into a puddle of water. Oh good, I thought, using my best Panglossian logic, at least now I know those new boots are waterproof!

Undaunted, and resolute, I finished the walk, successfully avoiding getting hit by a pizza delivery truck, two teenagers on bikes, an overzealous skateboarder, and yes a trailer with a poignant American flag draped around an "I support the NRA" decal.

Whether you want to look on the bright side or not, getting into the Christmas spirit sure ain't what it used to be. These days, it might even get you killed. But, some might argue that's appropriate considering what Christmas is about, the fellow born in a manger. And, surely the irony wouldn't be lost on him.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Missing from my Christmas List

All week, I've had this sinking feeling that I'd forgotten someone important on my Christmas list.

This afternoon, a neighborhood bird flew by my window chirping frantically. That's it, I thought, I forgot to feed the birds this week, the usual Parmesan-flavored bread crumbs they seem to like so much.

We must not forget to feed the birds this holiday. They're ever so fragile, and so free.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

From Michael Winship

Mr. President, Put Up Your Dukes

By Michael Winship

In a scene from the new movie, The Fighter, we watch welterweight Micky Ward, played by Mark Wahlberg, take a brutal pounding when he’s thrown into the ring against a bigger boxer. Micky’s been told the fight would be “an easy win,” but he’s driven into a corner, gloves in front of his face, bloodied and helpless as his opponent throws punch after punch.

With just a few days left in the life of the 111th Congress, Michigan’s Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been urging President Obama to support keeping the Senate in session past Christmas, one last bid to pass legislation before the 112th convenes next month, Republicans dominating the House and increasing their numbers in the Senate.

“The way I think the President needs to fight is to say that he is going to use all of the power he has of a bully pulpit and urge the Senate to stay in, right up to New Year’s,” Levin said on C-SPAN’s Newsmakers program Sunday. But, he continued, “I don’t see that kind of a willingness to fight that hard, where he will take that kind of a position and that’s what necessary.”

Instead, the president’s on the ropes like Micky Ward. But he could make a comeback, taking cues from his own past and the examples of two men – each an Obama supporter -- whose recent deaths remind us that there are people of actions and words whose very existence advances America and the cause of democracy in the face of seemingly implacable opposition, within and without.

Richard Holbrooke was arrogant, vaultingly ambitious and did not, as the saying goes, suffer fools gladly. But in his decades of public service and diplomacy he displayed, in the words of former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, “the courage of his convictions, and his convictions were on the side of innocent people bludgeoned by the world’s worst bullies and tyrants. His was a foreign policy pragmatic in its particulars but intensely moral in purpose and perspective.”

I first crossed paths with Holbrooke in 1977, just after President Jimmy Carter had appointed him assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He was only 35, but already had more than a decade’s worth of work experience in world affairs, including his time in 1963 as an officer with the Agency for International Development in Vietnam and a stint on Averell Harriman’s staff at the Paris Peace Talks in 1968. Just for starters.

His greatest success was as chief negotiator of the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended in the war in Bosnia, although, as John F. Harris and Bill Nichols recalled on the website, “Colleagues joked at the time that Holbrooke succeeded… because the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia preferred to end a generations-old blood feud rather than endure another day sequestered with and being badgered by Holbrooke.” He was the embodiment of Hollywood mogul Darryl Zanuck’s credo,” Don’t say yes until I finish talking.”

At his death, as President Obama’s chief envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, he continued to struggle for answers, desperately hoping to find solutions that might bring to a peaceful end America’s involvement in those two mutually desperate countries. He refused to relinquish his belief, as he told The New Yorker’s George Packer, in “the possibility of the United States, with all its will and strength, and I don’t just mean military, persevering against any challenge.”

Holbrooke embraced the sentiment so beautifully expressed in John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address: “Let us never negotiate out of fear, but let us never fear to negotiate,” words crafted by Kennedy with his friend, counselor and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen. Sorensen died October 31st, but a memorial for him was held last week here in Manhattan.

If you were one of those politicians and leaders fortunate to speak Ted Sorensen’s prose, his words not only made you sound smart -- they actually made you smarter. That's because echoing through the resonance of his rhetoric there was learning to be had -- history and philosophy, eloquent and perceptive allusions from the Bible, Pericles and Jefferson, Shakespeare, Lincoln and Churchill. An historical or literary reference in one of his speeches, well honed and to the point, could not only inspire you to action but also send you running for an encyclopedia.

He came by that knowledge via a love of reading passed along to him by his mother, Annis Chaikin, who paid her way through the University of Nebraska working as a maid, and his father Charles, a lawyer who served as that state's attorney general. Writing of his childhood during the Depression in Lincoln, Nebraska, Ted Sorensen said reading allowed him to be "carried afar, on the wings of words."

Sorensen described himself as "a Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian… surely a member of the smallest minority among the many small minorities that made this country great.” Although he was kidding, there was nonetheless within him a compassion and understanding that permanently embroidered his heart on his sleeve, whether it was integrating Lincoln's municipal swimming pool when he was in college or writing a Kennedy address on civil rights in the hours after Governor George Wallace was made to stand aside from the doorway of the University of Alabama and allow entrance to African American students. Sorensen was a man who sought justice; a man of peace, humanitarianism and idealism; a man of discretion, commitment, and loyalty not only to his colleagues but his country.

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." Those, too, are words from the 1961 inaugural address Sorensen and Kennedy wrote together, as true today while we’re debating tax cuts and the estate tax.

Just words. But President Obama, as I know Ted Sorensen told you, just words are how a president operates, how a president engages a country. Put up your rhetorical dukes -- we know it’s what you’re good at when you want to be and the spirit moves you. At the end of The Fighter, Micky Ward triumphs and becomes light welterweight champion of the world. This fight is only over, sir, if you throw in the towel. Many fear you already have done so. Now’s the time to start proving them wrong.


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Obama Tax Cuts: The Esau Principle

Remember Esau?

In the Old Testament, Esau was the fraternal twin of Jacob, and the oldest son of Isaac and Rebekah. He was first in line to receive what was then a large inheritance, long before the notion of "estate tax" was a glimmer in anyone's eye, but he sold his birthright to his brother for a plate of lentils.

I can't help thinking of Esau now that the Senate approved the president's extension of all the Bush tax cuts, including those granted to the wealthiest 2% of the population, and wonder if giving up his birthright, the Democratic platform on which he ran, is a wise move for Obama.

Don't get me wrong. Hunger for hunger's sake is never worth it. Compromise is necessary. Arguably, if not for compromise there never would have been a Declaration of Independence, but there comes a time to draw a line in the sand. Sooner or later that time must come. The debate over the keepers of the keys to the safe has only been deferred not resolved.

Just think of what might have happened if the original colonists had decided to compromise with the Brits.

Now the compromised tax plan migrates to the House where it either becomes yet another nail in the coffin of congressional regulation of runaway wealth, or an opportunity to revisit those "new deal" values that have long separated the Democrats from the Republicans.

This is not just about renewing a deficit-building, egregious tax reduction to those who least need it in this country. This is about selling a platform that claims to defend the rights of workers for some crumbs from the table of the financial elite.

This is not just about tax cuts, but a tip of the hat to deregulation, and smaller government where government is most urgently needed.

Just when it looked like we were approaching fiscal sanity with assurances from the Obama administration of greater oversight into dubious bank practices, and lending companies, the deregulators are now the comeback kids. From Rand Paul to Sarah Palin, the mantra of "smaller government" and free markets is merely repackaged trickle down Reaganism. While George W. Bush might like you to think it was his idea, it was actually Ronald Reagan whose supply-side economics first conceived of tax shelter safety nets for millionaires.

But, anyone who views tax cuts to the rich as a way to job creation by way of consumer spending doesn't understand that cutting taxes to the rich will only mean increased spending on yachts, Mercedes, and trips to the Carribean.

The added padding to the pockets of the upper 2% may mean that more Porsches will be sold; stores like Nordstrom's, and Saks will experience a boost, but this will do nothing for consumer sales generally. The best impetus for jobs is to put more money into the hands of the greatest number of Americans who will only be minimally impacted by a one year payroll tax furlough.

Further, this compromise only shows that the stage has been set for when the Republicans regain control in January, and that Congress and federal regulators will go back to being subservient to the banks and big business that put them there.

The man set to replace Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, Spencer Bachus, Republican from Alabama, as reported by Raw Story, recently said "In Washington, the view is that banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and regulators are there to serve the banks." And, Rep. Bachus must think that we are there to serve the banks, too.

If so, he is not alone. With their Citizens United ruling, the Supreme Court proves that they are there to serve the corporations and the special interests. Moreover, their support of so-called Second Amendment rights only proves the high court's fealty to the gun lobby.

On December 14th alone, there were two public shootings; one at a school board meeting in Florida where a gunman miraculously missed everyone except himself, and another at a barber shop in a Sacramento mall which took the life of the 30 year old while her two year old waited in the car. This is where that Court ruling took us. Greater entitlement for those who think it's their constitutional right to own, and brandish firearms.

When the Court rolls over for lobbies, and big business, Congress and the president can't be far behind.

Clearly, the resurgence of conservative Republican values nationally doesn't mean complete deregulation. By blocking a challenge to the new law that requires anyone under 18 to notify their parents before obtaining an abortion, a Superior Court judge in Alaska shows that regulation flourishes when it comes to a woman's reproductive choices.

But, those who consider the right to life something that pertains only to embryos will raise their eyebrows at the notion of anyone selling their birthright for a plate of food. Those who say "never let the perfect be the enemy of the good" might think otherwise.

As one who is inclined to opt, when hungry enough, for a plate of lentils over anything on paper, it is hard not to sympathize with Obama in doing what he thinks is right for the neediest among us. The vast majority of working and middle class people would be adversely affected if all the Bush tax cuts would be allowed to expire. When passed by the House, the longterm unemployed will have their benefits extended by another year, a good thing, and the majority of the rest of us will have a one year payroll tax holiday. In the short term, passing this measure is the only sensible thing to do.

But, in the long run, it is not in the best interests of the leader of any party that purports to value economic justice that wants to end a gross, and growing disparity in wealth, to postpone another battle, and risk being known as the president who made the Bush tax cuts permanent. As of today, they are no longer Bush's tax cuts, but Obama's.

This is not to suggest that the president should let all of his predecessor's tax cuts expire, but instead that he take responsibility that those cuts are now his just as Lyndon B. Johnson inherited the war in Vietnam, then escalated it. It is up to the House to insist on those amendments to the tax bill that guarantee the tax breaks to the upper 2% will expire in two years.

The bill must stipulate that the two year extension of tax cuts to the rich are nonrenewable. Yes, that's right--nonrenewable. One simple word can radically change the course of history.

The House might also move to raise the corporate tax to 35%, and enjoin the IRS to collect all back taxes on some 400 companies that received TARP money, which would amount to many millions of dollars.

There must also be an amendment ot the bill to cut take the revenue for the one year payroll tax cut from the defense budget and not from social security. To do otherwise would amount to selling one's birthright not for a plate of food, but for a pile of manure. People who are hungry have a hard time standing on principle, but we sometimes have no choice.

Importantly, too, overturning the "Make Work Pay" tax credit the Obama administration inaugurated in 2008 might actually mean a tax bill for millions of Americans while giving the wealthiest among us a tax break.

Hold on to your birthright, Mr. President. Franklin D. Roosevelt would say if you must strike a deal with the devil, make sure it comes with an expiration date.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Michael Winship on "Premature Capitulation"

The Heartbreak of Premature Capitulation

By Michael Winship

There’s this old joke about the French Revolution. A group of prisoners is lined up before the guillotine. One by one, their heads are lopped off. Then, the next man is put in place. The lever is pulled, but the blade stops just inches above his neck. This must be a sign of divine intervention, the judge in charge declares, and the man is freed.

The same thing happens to the next prisoner, and the next and the next. Finally, as the very last man is prepared for execution, he looks up at the mechanism and exclaims, “Wait! I think I see your problem!”

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you President Barack Obama, providing needless aid and comfort to those who would do him wrong, handing over his own head without a fight, afflicted with a curious syndrome we men of science have decided to call Premature Capitulation.

Backing away from myriad campaign promises, giving in to health care, economic stimulus and financial reform compromises -- in some ways these were par for the course, the unfortunate price of governing and politics in a polarized America. But in the few weeks since the midterm elections, the affliction of Premature Capitulation has become more and more endemic, whether it’s dissembling on our policy in Afghanistan or backing away from a moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank, announcing a Federal workers’ wage freeze (which would have been appropriate for the higher ranking civil servants but is pandering to the right and downright cruel to those government employees who barely make enough to live on) or the continued kowtow to the moneyed interests who, if they pat him on the back, do so only to find the place to insert their knives.

And now this deal to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years, continuing breaks for the wealthiest Americans, as well as a similar extension of the capital gains top rate – 15% -- and a raise of the estate tax exemption to $5 million per person, with a maximum rate of 35%. In exchange, Obama is supposed to get a 13-month extension of unemployment benefits for the long term jobless, an expanded earned-income tax credit, equipment purchase write-offs for businesses, a reduction in the Social Security payroll tax and continuation of the college tuition tax credit.

Not so bad, you may think; in fact, many are viewing what Obama has gotten as a de facto second stimulus, but chances are Republicans would have yielded to public pressure on unemployment, especially during the holiday season, and as James Kwak points out on The Baseline Scenario website (which he founded with economist Simon Johnson), “The Bush tax cuts were always bad policy. After the last election, President Obama will be able to accomplish precious little. But he could easily have killed the Bush tax cuts and thereby done more good for our nation’s fiscal situation than anyone will be in a position to do for many years to come.

Killing the tax cuts would alone reduce the national debt by roughly as much as the deficit commission’s entire proposal. And killing the tax cuts was the path of least resistance. Obama could have done it by doing nothing. Or he could have done it by taking a strong negotiating position and being willing to walk away from the table…

“Instead we got a two-year extension as part of an overall package that adds $900 billion to the debt… And Obama will no longer be able to say the tax cuts were a mistake made by President Bush that he was letting expire. Now he owns the mistake.”

What’s more, while the president’s brief announcement of the deal Monday night was matter of fact, the press conference on Tuesday – calling out progressives as sanctimonious purists -- was a defensive display of petulance more appropriate to the sandbox than the White House.

Mr. President, up to now at least, progressives have been the loyal opposition. You’re wasting ammo on the wrong guys. Stand up, aim in the right direction, and fight. Because if you think the tax breaks will lead to further logrolling or concessions from congressional Republicans you’re wrong. Now that they’ve gotten what they want, for the next two years of your term they will not yield much of anything else. Their nihilistic, scorched earth brand of politics leaves nothing behind but ash.

And so this latest compromise may prove a Pyrrhic victory. Or is that being premature?


Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.

Monday, December 06, 2010

President John F. Kennedy

JFK's Secret Society Speech, 1962

(cut and paste the link into your Web browser)

Sound familiar?

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

the First Amendment to the Constitution

Friday, December 03, 2010

What You Won't Find in WikiLeaks

For an administration that came to power pledging greater transparency, so far the machinations of its Departments of Defense and State have only been revealed through a cinema verite Rolling Stone interview with the top general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, followed by the carefully calibrated, and immaculately timed release of a quarter million cables and other classified documents.

In this the information age, it should come as little surprise that information can be used as a weapon. Similarly, the withholding of information is often the most powerful ammunition a government has against those it governs.

In that context, all the hooplah about WikiLeaks effectively managed to deflect attention away from even greater wrongdoing on the part of a government that has made a cottage industry of justifying its dubious wars, and immunizing those telecommunication companies that unwittingly help keep those dubious wars afloat.

The irony of a government that is livid about violations of its privacy, and what it regards as the theft of classified cables and other documents is rich when you consider that government is simultaneously engaging in eavesdropping and collecting the private correspondence of its own citizens.

Now, thanks to the stalwart efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union and, as The Washingon Post reports, we know that the federal government has managed on several occasions to skirt whatever legal restrictions are in place to protect the privacy of Americans. We now know, too, that this surveillance of e-mails, Web searches, telephone and cell phone calls has not only continued, but even escalated in the past two years.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU was awarded access to 900 pages of "secret internal documents," many of which were heavily redacted, but that show the federal government has indeed violated "legal limits" of what is permissible under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Amendment Act of 2008. Yet, the silence from government officials is palpable when it comes to the nature, or number of times there has been a breach.

Once again, we break the law, then we make it law.

For all their outrage about mass distribution of what were meant to be classified, personal communications between diplomats and by world leaders brainstorming on how to deal with Iran, there has been widespread congressional agreement, on both sides of the aisle, on legitimizing the interception of our calls, and e-mails. Moreover, there has been institutional apathy when it comes to any kind of authentic oversight.

It was a lame duck president, George W. Bush, who signed the FISA Amendment Act of 2008, a measure that changed the original 1978 FISA Act by granting the government expanded surveillance powers, and by immunizing from liability telecommunication companies that cooperated with the government. The amended FISA allows for warrantless eavesdropping on foreign targets if the attorney general deems that surveillance is urgent. The term "urgent," by the way, is not defined.

Apart from "probable cause," the 1978 act required a warrant before any phone could be tapped, or letter seized as would seem logical given the Fourth Amendment injunction against "unreasonable search and seizure."

Consider that the 2008 amended FISA was enacted because the process of obtaining a warrant in order to tap the phone of an alleged terrorist was considered too cumbersome, so it was discarded often enough to bring it to the attention of the American people and Congress.

In the "new normal," the original FISA wasn't good enough for the Bush administration. They wanted to make it easier to legally monitor electronic, and other communications, and to weaken the standard of proof and requirements for warrants. Ironically, even though HR 6304 was intended to give intelligence agencies a wider berth, there is still a need to circumvent legal restrictions. We are now faced with having to amend the amended version.

Though the Obama administration promised greater transparency, it has delivered even more secrecy, and one hears hardly a peep about a campaign to target and data mine law abiding Americans that continues to this day. Is it just "enemy combatants" for whom there may be an "urgent" need to monitor? Antiwar groups like Green Peace have been subjected routinely to monitoring by the FBI. Doubtless, Julian Assange didn't end up on Interpol's "red notice" list without having first been the recipient of some heavy duty electronic surveillance. Not surprisingly, a few noses get bent out of shape when those who are monitored end up monitoring them.

While the attorney general's office insists there is greater protection of civil liberties, and more oversight today than there was back in July, 2008, a spokesperson for the ACLU calls for "more public disclosure" of FISA violations, and urges a debate about whether to keep FAA, or amend the amended version before it expires in 2012.

Why doesn't the story of expanded government surveillance have teeth in the press? FISA violations aren't nearly as sexy as revelations about Khaddafi's extracurricular activities with a blonde nurse. The Khaddafi story is bound to sell more Pampers than one that calls out intelligence agencies for breaking the law.

There are more in Congress who will read Bob Woodward's latest book than have read the USA Patriot Act, yet they voted to approve one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation of all times, and one that paved the way for a measure that effectively legalizes neutralizing the need for warrants and reasonable proof.

Still, the hubris, and hypocrisy of those elected officials who call for prosecuting Julian Assange for treason is inescapable. Who knows, maybe someday the release of 250,000 cables and other actions by WikiLeaks' founder may even be seen as a public service.

In the meantime, rest assured that what WikiLeaks did was child's play compared to what this government is doing, each and every day, to its own citizens in the name of national security, and with impunity.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Michael Winship on seeing red

As Bees in Honey Drown: Bad Buzz from the Capital Hive

By Michael Winship

Bees in Brooklyn are producing honey that’s bright red in color. Or, as The New York Times described it, “an alarming shade of Robitussin.”

No, it’s not a sign of the Apocalypse. Apparently, the insects have been sipping nectar on the wrong side of town. The theory is that they’ve been imbibing runoff filled with Red Dye No. 40 and corn syrup from a factory that processes maraschino cherries for desserts and mixed drinks. I’m not kidding.

Maraschino cherries could just be the start; soon the bees may be dining on cocktail onions and flying with those little paper umbrellas bartenders stick in mai-tai’s. Or worse, drunkenly singing karaoke. Okay, now I’m kidding. But the real bottom line? Like so many other Americans, even though nearby farmland is filled with fresh fruit and vegetables, rich in nectar, pollen and other healthy stuff, the bees prefer junk food.

Coincidentally, news of this ruby-hued dietary phenomenon came on the same day that the United States Senate, that hive of rancid rhetoric and inertia, actually passed something nutritional -- the food safety bill. While far from perfect, the legislation represents the most sweeping overhaul of regulations in seven decades and will, as The Washington Post observed, “require food manufacturers and farmers to use scientific techniques to prevent contaminated food… delivering a revamped safety system that would confer vast new authority on the Food and Drug Administration, accelerate the government's response to outbreaks and set the first safety standards for imported food.”

The vote was 73-25. "It's an unusual and shining example of how bipartisanship can work in Congress," said Erik Olson, director of the Pew Health Group food programs.
Bipartisanship? What a concept. But don’t get used to it. The website Talking Points Memo reported on Wednesday that, “According to a letter delivered to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid this morning, Republicans will block all debate on all legislation until the tax cut impasse is bridged and the federal government has been fully funded -- even if it means days tick by and the Senate misses its opportunity to pass DADT, an extension of unemployment insurance and other Dem items.”

The letter, signed by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and all the Republicans in the Senate, proclaims, “While there are other items that might ultimately be worthy of the Senate's attention, we cannot agree to prioritize any matters above the critical issues of funding the government and preventing a job-killing tax hike.”

Harry Reid’s reply: “My Republican colleagues… know that the true effect of this letter is to prevent the Senate from acting on many important issues that have bipartisan support. With this letter, they have simply put in writing the political strategy that the Republicans pursued this entire Congress: Namely, obstruct, delay action on critical matters, and then blame the Democrats for not addressing the needs of American people. Very cynical, but very obvious. Very transparent.”

Transparent when Republicans – and some conservative Democrats -- are determined to continue tax cuts to the wealthy, and if they can, make them permanent. Never mind that much bemoaned mega-deficit (not to mention those 2.5 million Americans whose jobless benefits end this month).

But here’s another coincidence: The website reports, “Nearly a quarter of the incoming class of 84 House Republicans have assets of at least $1 million, according to a Politico analysis of financial disclosure forms, a sign that this anti-Washington, anti-establishment crowd of congressional freshmen has been quite successful in the private sector…
“Nearly half the current Congress -- 261 lawmakers -- already have assets exceeding $1 million, according to a recent report from the Center for Responsive Politics [CRP], and that number appears to be growing. Last year, 237 lawmakers made the mint club.”

In a moment of classic understatement, CRP spokesperson Dave Levinthal told Politico, “There’s a possibility they could be out of touch with reality because they don’t have to live it themselves.”

You think? Because not only do we have the members of Congress with considerable earned or inherited wealth blindly ignoring the huddled masses. There are also, of course, the generous corporate benefactors of the elected – more bountiful than ever in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision -- eagerly anticipating the service they bought and paid for when they funneled vast amounts of cash, millions of it in anonymous contributions, to the candidates of their choice. Tax breaks, deregulation, stymied reforms – you name it. When you can afford to buy your own reality, everything is honey.

Nothing – NOTHING – will restore any semblance of representative democracy in this country until we mobilize and adopt a constitutional amendment that overturns that Supreme Court ruling. In his forward to an updated report from the progressive citizens’ group People for the American Way, Jamie Raskin, American University professor of constitutional law (and a Maryland state legislator) writes, “ Citizens United tore down the wall of separation between corporate wealth and public elections, a wall that has protected popular democracy against the tyranny of fat cats and plutocrats for a century at least.

The 5-justice majority in the case overthrew decades of precedent to declare that billion-dollar corporations have the same political rights as citizens do, meaning that while all citizens can write campaign checks from the same personal accounts that we buy groceries and pay utility bills from, CEOs can spend tens of millions of dollars from their corporate treasuries to get pliant politicians elected to serve the corporate will.”

Makes you see red, doesn’t it? Time to sting back.

Michael Winship is senior writer at Public Affairs Television in New York City.