Friday, February 25, 2011

Cheesy and sleazy

Attacks on Unions Barking Up the Wrong Money Tree
By Michael Winship

"More cheese, less sleaze!"

That was the funniest group chant at Tuesday’s rally of several hundred union and other progressive activists outside the Manhattan headquarters of Fox News.

Several "cheeseheads" were in attendance, their noggins topped by the now familiar wedge-shaped, orange hatwear made popular by Green Bay Packer fans. On Tuesday they were out in the twilight chill expressing their opposition not to lactose intolerance but Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s intolerance of organized labor. (Unadorned by cheddar, I briefly spoke at the gathering as president of an AFL-CIO affiliated union, the Writers Guild of America, East.)

Governor Walker continues his obdurate opposition to the state’s public employee unions’ right to collective bargaining, despite a willingness on their part to concede pension and health givebacks he claims would help close Wisconsin’s alleged deficit. Meanwhile, there has been a decided increase on the sleaze end of the cheese vs. sleaze quotient, as evidenced in part by the prank phone call to the governor in which an online newspaper editor impersonating right wing billionaire David Koch elicited from Walker a proposed scheme to lure back, then double cross Democratic state senators who have prevented a quorum by retreating to Illinois. Further, when asked about planting troublemakers amongst the protesters, Walker told the trickster that he and his team had "thought about that" but decided not to. Apparently, all the really good disrupters are tied up in the Middle East.

But of course, this isn’t really about saving taxpayers money but consolidating political power. Walker and such leading lights of the GOP leadership as Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Ohio Governor John Kasich, among others, have decided that public employee unions make great punching bags, effective scapegoats for an outraged electorate and a satisfactory diversion from the real culprits of this grim, economic melodrama -- the Simon Legrees of banking and finance who got us into this meltdown mess in the first place.

As Josh Dorner reported on the progressive ThinkProgress website this week, "Instead of making the tough choices necessary to help their states weather the current crisis with some semblance of the social safety net and basic government services intact, Republican governors are instead using it as an opportunity to advance several longtime GOP projects: union busting, draconian cuts to social programs, and massive corporate tax breaks. These misplaced priorities mean that the poor and middle class will shoulder the burden of fiscal austerity, even as the rich and corporations are asked to contribute even less."

Dorner cites examples: in Arizona, Republican Governor Jan Brewer proposes kicking some 280,000 off the state Medicaid rolls but two weeks ago signed into law $538 million in corporate tax cuts. Florida Governor Rick Scott’s new budget calls for billions of dollars in cuts to essential programs and services to pay for corporate and property tax cuts of at least $4 billion. Rick Snyder, newly elected governor of Michigan, has asked for $180 million in concessions from public employees and more than a billion to be taken from schools, universities, local governments and others, most of which could be avoided if he wasn’t so deeply dedicated to giving business $1.8 billion in tax breaks.

Writing in the February 23 Boston Globe, Mark Erlich, executive secretary-treasurer of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters asks, "While there are legitimate and critical public policy issues about education reform, spiraling health costs, and pension liabilities at a time of state and municipal budget deficits, why is the fault laid at the feet of teachers, police, and firefighters? Today’s pension obligations are the product of massive investment losses, not excessively generous public pensions that, in fact, average about $19,000 a year. For that matter, a 2010 Economic Policy Institute study showed that, controlled for educational achievement, public sector workers actually earn less than their private sector counterparts."

So instead of screaming about the advances public employee and other unions have made to preserve health care, job security and economic justice, angry voters should be asking what or who have been keeping them from obtaining the same. Nor does Wall Street’s pillaging of private 401 (k) retirement plans justify tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye acts of covetous revenge against union pensions. As Erlich writes, "A generation ago, non-union workers often welcomed news of improved wages and benefits for unionized employees, recognizing that a rising tide lifts all boats. But... at a time of sacrifice and insecurity, many would prefer to sink their neighbor’s slightly bigger boat while wistfully hoping for a glance at a yacht in a gated marina."

The American middle class largely exists because of unions; it would be a tragedy of Greek proportions if, in frustration, resentment and fear, members of that class were to turn on labor and bring about their mutual destruction. Conservative Republican governors and their associates are barking up the wrong money tree. Don’t reward corporate greed and malfeasance with yet more tax breaks and a blind eye to windfall bonuses. And don’t punish unions for whatever success they’ve had protecting members and holding on to an ever-dwindling power base of American workers. That’s just plain cheesy and sleazy.


Michael Winship is the former senor writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and current president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Keep those federal judges coming

The decision by a federal judge on Tuesday to dismiss a lawsuit, brought by a Christian group, against the new health care law is proof of just how important federal judicial appointments are.

Judge Gladys Kessler of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against Pat Robertson's group's claim that they oppose the mandate to buy health insurance as unconstitutional on religious grounds.

As The New York Times reports, it's important to note that Judge Kessler was appointed by a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, and the other rulings that Obama's new health care law is "unconstitutional" were both made by judges who were nominees of Republican presidents.

Federal courts are vital to checks and balances. They exist to interpret statutes that Congress enacts, and the president signs. They are also called upon when a question arises as to constitutional validity.

Notably, federal judges, like Supreme Court justices, serve for life, and can only be removed by impeachment. They may, of course, choose to resign, or retire, but a congressional hearing is required before they can be ousted.

In his first two years alone, President Obama has already matched his predecessors, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, in naming two justices of the Supreme Court. He has also managed to pick close to one hundred federal justices, but 45 federal judge nominations are currently waiting for action by the Senate.

There are reportedly 16 vacancies on the U.S. Court of Appeals, more than 80 on district courts, and another 20 anticipated vacancies before the end of Obama's first term. Openings for federal court are unpredictable, and can change the moment a judge decides it's time to retire.

It's not uncommon for presidents to use recess periods to make appointments. Importantly, there hasn't been one recess appointment to the federal courts on Obama's watch.

George W. Bush made so many recess appointments that "recess" could have been his middle name.

As of 2009, approximately 3,000 individuals have been appointed to federal judgeships. They earn about $170,000 a year which is about what a member of Congress earns. Chief Justice John Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, has been vocal in urging an increase in judicial pay. Clearly, Judge Roberts doesn't think "austerity" should apply to anyone on the bench.

Of the 3,000, nearly 2500 are district court judges, and about 700 serve on courts of appeals.

Despite exhortations against "judicial activism" from the previous administration, it's no secret that appointment of federal judges is political. Not surprisingly, given that two-thirds of the presidents in the past thirty years have been Republicans, a majority of the federal judges have been Republican presidential nominees.

President George H.W. Bush got to pick two Supreme Court justices, and about 200 federal judges in one term. He was just warming up when.

In his eight years in office, President Clinton matched his predecessor in terms of the number of Supreme Court appointments, as well as appointing 400 federal judges. The two generations of Bush combined are responsible for nominating more than 500 federal judges.

If the trend continues with contrarian, and uber-conservative Republicans now in charge, we may expect to see any legislation the president tries to put forward, over the next two years, subject to litigation of one sort or another. After all, it's not considered a "frivolous" lawsuit when a member of the "austerity" club is behind it.

Given that the average age of justices, on the Supreme Court anyway, is somewhere around 65, there is a strong possibility that Mr. Obama will have the opportunity to nominate at least one more justice to the Supreme Court, and fill perhaps twice the anticipated federal judicial vacancies.

It would be in the best interest of both the president and the country if Mr. Obama would begin pushing those 45 federal judicial nominees through the Senate, and filling every federal vacancy he can. Not to move, and move quickly on this can only be seen deliberate compliance with a dangerously reactionary agenda.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wholly owned

The United States: a wholly owned subsidiary of the Supreme Court

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Patriarchs Strike Back

After three hours of mind-numbing debate, and on the eve of the President's Day holiday weekend, the House passed an amendment sponsored by an Indiana Republican congressman, Mike Pence, which effectively cuts off all federal funding to Planned Parenthood. As Politico reports, the measure won by a comfortable margin of 240-185, with 11 Democrats voting in favor.

Rep. Pence has reportedly been involved in the movement to stop legal abortion for years, and contends that Planned Parenthood has been too invested in facilitating a procedure that gives women control over their reproductive destiny.

Some Democrats took to the House floor, and lambasted the bill calling it "a war on women." Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler, from New York, asserted that the Pence measure is unconstitutional in that it discriminates by targeting a specific group, or organization.

Meanwhile, from out of so-called left field, California Congresswoman, Jack Speier, made a public confession, on the House floor, that she ended her pregnancy twenty years ago, before she was in Congress. It was courageous of her to speak up, and she is right that having an abortion is about the most difficult decision any woman can make.

But, in a press release, according to the Associated Press, Rep. Speier walked back her emotional disclosure by saying she didn't want to have an abortion, that "the fetus slipped' from her uterus," and "could not survive," thus distancing herself from women who end their pregnancies as a matter of choice. Sounding more like Sarah Palin than a congresswoman from San Francisco, Ms. Speier then said, "I lost the baby."

It's precisely that kind of talk, and that kind of thinking that emboldens mostly scared middle-aged white males to try to roll the clock back to the days when the true mark of manhood was keeping their women barefoot and pregnant.

Ms. Speier is certainly smart and educated enough to recognize the difference between a fetus, and a "baby," so why all the pandering to the center? Engaging in even casual relations with the kind of thinking that blurs boundaries between those two entities is setting the table for the lack of social consciousness that would produce an amendment like this in the first place.

Wannabe blue dog Democrats are, in the end, more dangerous than conservative Republicans. They engender the illusion of being progressive when the only thing they "progress" is the centrist, right-leaning agenda of their opposition.

Make no mistake, defunding Planned Parenthood isn't about reducing the number of legal abortions, or a return to family values at all, but is instead about the usual neo-con suspects, and their enabling spouses, trying to return to the good old days when men held the purse strings, as well as the keys to the bankruptcy gate.

This measure which is part of the 2012 federal budget, and would divest Planned Parenthood of federal funds, isn't about limiting access to legal abortion; it's about limiting access to the boardroom where women's presence is now being felt.

As the New York Times noted last February, women now represent nearly half of the workforce while fully 60% of college enrollment is female, and has been for at least a decade. Women tend to have higher grades, and men tend to "drop out in disproportionate numbers."

While there are now more working women than men, we are a far cry from gender equity when it comes to pay which may go a long way toward explaining why there are more women in the work place. Just one year before President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, legislation that calls for equal pay, women reportedly earned 22% less than men. Not only do women work for less, but women are still willing to do jobs that men would never consider doing. Know any male nannies, for example?

Obviously, it never occurred to Mr. Pence, or his patriarch friends, that the college degrees they covet, and the jobs they think they're losing to women are not Planned Parenthood's responsibility, but instead that of big business which continues to rake in greater profit by underpaying women, as well as "downsizing" the jobs formerly held by white collar males.

Maybe those who voted in favor of the Pence amendment don't have daughters because if they did they'd also realize that what Planned Parenthood has done for nearly a century is to supply women with the information, and the tools, necessary to make responsible reproductive choices, as well as avert unwanted pregnancies. To make an organization founded in 1916, long before Roe v. Wade, synonymous with legal abortion is to take ignorance to a whole new level.

The Pence amendment isn't really about patriarchy any more than it's about Planned Parenthood. It's about economic empowerment, and reifying an infrastructure of domination that has as much to do with empire building as anything else. The vote in the House is a chain reaction that has mostly affected rich white males, a concern that the pendulum is swinging, and that they will no longer be the ones holding the reins.

The defunding bill now goes to the Senate where, hopefully, it will be stopped, but it's scary that a measure like this would even see the light of day, or late night in Congress.

The president has taken a major step toward solving the problem of putting more men back to work by giving women equal pay, but there are those who want instead to put us flat on our backs and ensure that the only kind of "labor" we know about is the kind that lasts a matter of hours.


The "war on poverty" has now become a war on the working poor.

Michael Winship on "States of Denial"

Across the US, GOP Lawmakers Build States of Denial
By Michael Winship

Forced at gunpoint this weekend to clean out a lot of old paper files in anticipation of some home improvements, I ran across some articles and obituaries I had saved following the death, a little more than five and a half years ago, of the late, great Ann Richards, former governor of Texas.

One of them related the story of how Governor Richards was approached by the ACLU, which was disturbed by the presence of a Christmas crèche on the grounds of the state capitol in Austin. "You know," she replied, "that's probably as close as three wise men will ever get to the Texas Legislature, so why don't we just let them be."

Yet another late, great woman of Texas, journalist Molly Ivins once said of that same august body, "All anyone needs to enjoy the state legislature is a strong stomach and a complete insensitivity to the needs of the people. As long as you don’t think about what that peculiar body should be doing and what it actually is doing to the quality of life in Texas, then it’s all marvelous fun."

This comes to mind in the wake of this week’s release of "Texas on the Brink," a pamphlet published annually by the Texas Legislative Study Group, a group of Democratic state lawmakers. According to their research, much of it corroborated by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Texas Legislative Budget Board, in 2011, "Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation. Texas is dead last in the percentage of residents with their high school diploma and near last in SAT scores. Texas has America’s dirtiest air... Those who value tax cuts over children and budget cuts over college have put Texas at risk in her ability to compete and succeed."

Over the years, such statistics and other damned shenanigans have led many to debate whether Texas is indeed the rightful landlord of the nation’s worst statehouse. As someone with a mother’s Lone Star blood flowing through his otherwise anemic northeastern veins, I write this with no small amount of perverse pride. But in the last couple of weeks a lot of other states have been giving Texans a run for their money.

Last week, the Utah Senate passed a bill that would make the Browning M1911 semiautomatic pistol the state’s official firearm. Senate President Michael Waddoups read a letter from a seventh grader praising the bill because the M1911 is used to kill Nazi zombies in the videogame "Call of Duty: Black Ops." Waddoups said the kid is "doing some thinking." You betcha. The Associated Press reported, "The letter closes with the child acknowledging that guns can cause violence when used in a bad way, but guns also show other countries who is the boss." American exceptionalism at its finest.

In Missouri, State Senator Jane Cunningham has introduced a bill that would, in the words of progressive website ThinkProgress, "dramatically claw back" state child labor restrictions, including the prohibition on employment of children under the age of fourteen and regulations on the number of hours a child may work during the day. South Dakota was contemplating -- but just tabled, thank goodness -- a bill that critics feared would expand the definition of justifiable homicide to include the murder of doctors who provide abortions. Idaho’s debating a bill to nullify Obama’s health care reform and in Arizona legislators are sponsoring one that would allow the state to nullify any Federal law it doesn’t particularly care for.

I would ask what’s gotten into them but I think we all know. As noted by Tim Storey, senior fellow of the National Conference of State Legislatures, since the midterm elections, "There are now more Republican state legislators (3,941) than at any point since they held 4,001 seats after the 1928 election... Twenty-two state legislative chambers changed majority control in the 2010 election cycle -- all in the direction of the GOP." Many of the newly elected members were endorsed by Tea Party organizations or have rushed to embrace the Tea Party’s inchoate, right wing agenda as a means to safeguard reelection.

In so doing they have opened a Pandora’s box of legislative mayhem that not only plays to the social conservatism that would return us to the days of Cotton Mather and the ducking stool but which also uses the Tea Partiers’ lust to slash spending as a dodge -- not to balance budgets and eliminate deficits, as they claim, but to further stifle government and other institutions dedicated to the common good.

This is supremely manifest in renewed efforts by governors and statehouses across the country to enact right-to-work laws and restrict wages and benefits for members of public service employee unions.

According to the AFL-CIO, legislators in at least 11 states, including Minnesota, Ohio, New Hampshire and Missouri are proposing anti-union laws that would cut pay and lower standards of living for workers. The labor organization claims,"Instead of creating jobs and solving the problems of middle-class working families, some state politicians are... saying 'Thank you' to the corporate CEOs who financed their 2010 election victories by pushing legislation to cut good jobs, lower wages, threaten job safety and weaken unions.' (Full disclosure: I am the president of a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO, albeit a small one that neither endorses candidates nor has a political action committee.)

This push most dramatically has come to a head in Wisconsin where, in the name of austerity, newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker is attempting to stamp out public workers’ collective bargaining rights. His attack on the unions -- including a threat to call out the National Guard -- has been met by outrage and a mass exodus of Democratic legislators out of the state, thus denying Republicans a quorum at the Wisconsin Senate in Madison. (You may recall that Democrats in Texas pulled a similar ploy in 1979 and 2003 by hiding or going on the lam to nearby states, including Oklahoma and New Mexico. This prompted New Mexico’s then-Attorney General Patricia Madrid, a Democrat, to announce: "I have put out an all-points bulletin for law enforcement to be on the lookout for politicians in favor of health care for the needy and against tax cuts for the wealthy.")

Although Governor Walker claims Wisconsin is in desperate financial straits, the state had been coping better than most and, according to Madison’s Capital Times newspaper "has managed so well, in fact, that the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau recently released a memo detailing how the state will end the 2009-2011 budget biennium with a budget surplus."

The paper editorialized, "To the extent that there is an imbalance -- Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit -- it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January. If the Legislature were simply to rescind Walker’s new spending schemes -- or delay their implementation until they are offset by fresh revenues -- the 'crisis' would not exist... Unfortunately, Walker has a political agenda that relies on the fantasy that Wisconsin is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy."

It’s all part of that notorious separate reality in which Republicans and the right have taken up seemingly permanent residence. Democrats can hope the other side has overreached. The party will fight to win back the many seats they’ve lost in the states. But then again, as another wise elder of Texas politics once said, if you took all the fools out of the legislature, it would no longer be a representative body.


Michael Winship, former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Reader Privacy: House Votes Thursday

For a moment, it looked like Congress was about to fight extensions of the U.S. Patriot Act.

On February 9th, the House voted against extending three particularly pernicious provisions that would give the government access to business records, as well as allow for roving wiretaps. A "roving" wiretap is one that allows for surveillance of a suspect even when they use a different telephone line, or e-mail address. The third provision, the "lone wolf" clause, enables covert monitoring of a non-U.S. citizen.

Well, pushing aside the Fourth Amendment which requires a search to be based upon "probable" cause, and one that is specific about "the place to be searched, and the person or things to be searched," and despite the fact that at least one highly vocal member of Congress, Michele Bachmann, claims to be a big fan of the Constitution, the Senate just voted to extend those provisions another ten months through December, 2011.

Less than a week after the initial House vote, FY2011, passed by a margin of three to one (three Republicans to one Democrat) to the chagrin of many Democrats who tried, unsuccessfully, according to The Nation, to get a motion passed to ensure that any future surveillance is in keeping with the Constitution.

The President, a constitutional lawyer, was onboard with Republican leadership in urging the extension on the grounds of "national security."

So, in the spirit of compromise, and working to eliminate another egregious provision, Reps. John Conyers, Jerry Nadler, and Ron Paul have written an amendment which they have added to an appropriations bill scheduled for a vote on Thursday. The amendment effectively prohibits the government from searching library records, circulation and patron lists, as well as bookstore records and files.

Further, the amendment will essentially eliminate Section 215 of the Patriot Act which, for all intents and purposes, has endeavoured to turn librarians and booksellers into shills for federal intelligence agencies.

It's been nearly a decade since a bill erroneously named after "patriots" first passed, and no serious measures have been taken to revisit, and revise the legislation.

If you think you're entitled to read what you want privately, and without big brother peeking over your shoulder, then show your support for librarians and booksellers by contacting your elected representative to insist they pass the appropriations bill on Thursday with the Conyers, Nadler, Paul amendment in place.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Michael Winship on Egypt

An Egyptian Voice of Democracy Says, Tell Old Pharaoh, Go

By Michael Winship

"The culture of democracy is still far away."

That's what Egypt's Vice President Omar Suleiman told a group of the country's newspaper editors on Tuesday. It was just two days before President Hosni Mubarak reconfirmed that he had no intention of resigning until September. But on Friday, Mubarak was gone.

Suleiman had said the continued demonstrations in Cairo and across the nation were "disrespectful" of Mubarak and warned of "the dark bats of the night emerging to terrorize the people," a threat that sounds more Transylvanian than Egyptian. But the blood of the more than 300 demonstrators who have died in Egypt was all too real.

Mubarak, Suleiman and other holdouts of Egypt's ancien regime believed that the popular uprising could be held at arm's length, that the freedom movement was simply angry over the price of wheat.

They should have listened to the words of a middle-aged Egyptian woman named Olfa G. Tantawi. Perhaps they would have realized sooner that the culture of democracy was not far away at all, but right at their very doorstep, insistently knocking.

A few years ago, Tantawi, a mother of two, was a student of my friend Craig Duff when he taught as a Knight International Journalism Fellow at the American University in Cairo. Recently, she wrote him this letter, variations on which have appeared on a few websites. I offered to keep her identity secret but she told Craig, "Please use it all and use my name; really the seal of fear is broken... Please use it and thank you for circulating, I am really concerned that some parts of the picture are not seen nor felt."

She wrote: "The Tahrir Square story is unbelievable. Today, already thousands of people are there and more and more are flooding the streets, all my friends and relatives are either in the square or on the way to go. These are people whose relation to politics and activism used to be to read the story in the newspaper and discuss it over lunch or dinner. Everybody is there right now including my 70-year-old aunt...

"I spent the day there, late at night I went back home. Behind the safe doors of my house, suddenly it was a vacuum of fear. We had to watch the Egyptian media's false propaganda. They told Egyptians that the protesters in the Tahrir Square are causing serious damage to the economy and endangering the safety of the country. In other, allegedly more independent Egyptian media channels, some of the most influential writers and analysts were trying to sell to the people the idea that it is time to go home, you made it people, just give the current government enough time to make it right again...

"Angry and worried I shifted to the news flowing from other international media channels. As usual, their intense focus is on the fights, the bloodshed and the terror, they ask questions about who is leading, what about the Muslim Brotherhood, and the other opposition leaders? They speak to irrelevant people, who [are not] part of the event...

"Then again today back to the square to find that the number of those who support the uprising is increasing tremendously. The charm of the Tahrir Square is attracting more and more people; some flew all the way from the United States, Canada, Germany, London and even South Africa to be there in the square at this very moment of ultimate hope. Others are coming from different Egyptian governorates, simple people who came a long way because they believe that this is a true revolution fighting for their rights and they were determined to give it all their support.

"One very simple lady from the rural Fayoum governorate told me, 'I am here to support the youth,' and added, 'When Mubarak's grandson died we all felt for him, we dressed in black and cried for the innocent child, why on earth is he now doing this to our sons? How many mothers are now crying for a child who is dead or lost?'

"Many analysts in the media speak of Egypt's economy, they say that the economic growth did not trickle down to the poor and this is why this is happening. This is too simplistic. This revolution is not about poverty or need. The people in the streets from all walks of life, rich and poor are there because they want freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom...

"In the media they speak of an international community afraid of a power vacuum, they speak of a fear from Islamic radicalism. Others speak of the absence of the building blocks of democracy. This is exactly because they do not understand the nature of this revolution. The people, literally for the first time in history, are taking the lead and deciding for themselves. The government will continue to make its concessions and offers, and the street is the judge. It is a different process where the voting is a continuous process, as the street reacts to the government announcements and measures.

"The absence of a person or a group of persons as a recognizable leadership group or figures is intentional. The intellectual young people who started all this are actually leading by spreading awareness among the people in the square rather than by giving orders, and this is making the pressure of the street crowds even more forceful, simply because it is the people rather than this or that specific name who [are] reacting and deciding...

"The people need a guarantee that whoever rules will at the end of the day, month, year go back to his home knowing that his initial identity is [as] an Egyptian citizen and not an everlasting ruler. Up till now the Egyptian government failed the transparency exam, trying hard to hide what is happening in the square from the eyes of the world...

"The story of the Tahrir Square is not about who is with Mubarak and who is against; it is about a truly civilized, very peaceful people who decided to regain control of their destiny...They will forever be responsible and work to rebuild the whole country."

Now that the rule of Egypt has been turned over to the military, the next days and weeks will reveal whether Olfa Tantawi's vision of a new Egypt will approach reality or simply stand as a poignant and painful reminder of a dream smashed to bits by armed might and repression.

"Insha'Allah, in a year's time you should come for a visit," she closed her letter to Craig. "I believe and hope you will find a very, very different Egypt.

"See you then."


Michael Winship, former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Obama vs. Chavez

President Obama is planning to cut about $4 billion from a federal program that provides heat for the poor, and this in the middle of one of the worst winters in years.

As the Associated Press reported last week, and Sunday's New York Times confirms, the plan for the 2012 budget would slash the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program by 50% to its lowest level in three years. While the source of this speculation is anonymous, there is not a hint of anonymity from the House where GOP majority leader, John Boehner, released with alacrity an outline for what he thinks will shave $35 billion in federal spending, and which would virtually wipe out heating assistance to the poor.

Some, like Massachusetts senator John Kerry, say that cuts to the program would affect more than three million families.

One can only gasp at tea party suggestions that Mr. Obama is a socialist when looking at what Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez does to keep the poor people in his country warm. Chavez's "fuel for the poor program," in 2005 alone, shipped low cost heating oil from Venezuela at 40% below wholesale prices.

With the help of Citgo, according to the Democratic Underground, President Chavez also used some of Venezuela's prodigious oil profits to keep poor residents of the South Bronx warm that winter.

What is the American president doing to encourage oil companies in this country to share some of their obscene profits to defray some of the government's humanitarian costs? This administration is too busy granting amnesty in order to recover what amounts to nickels and dimes in taxes from international business behemoths who have been sheltering billions while evading the IRS.

And, cutting the program that assists low income families with their heating bill is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. If House GOP majority leader, John Boehner, gets his way other equally draconian measures will be taken to trim $35 billion off the record $1.5 federal budget deficit. As the AP reports, other social programs slated to be rolled back fall in the fields of education, food safety, law enforcement, and the environment.

The Republican leadership wants to eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, AmeriCorp, as well as family planning services. Lord help pregnant women who happen to be hungry because a nutritional program to assist them is slated for slashing by nearly 10% from what it was last year.

As you know, this isn't about reducing the budget deficit. This is about eliminating social programs in the name of reducing the budget deficit. This is about what conservative, tea party Republicans, and their friends, mean by "smaller government." One wonders what would happen if a proposal for "smaller government" actually were to hit Boehner and his country club friends below the belt.

If it's smaller government they want, then why not start with laying off those 87 new Republican members of the House who scream the loudest about the need to reduce the deficit. Why not start issuing pink slips to those who bark the loudest about smaller government, like John Boehner, for starters. Let's see how far these folks can stretch their unemployment checks. Those who initiated what is now known as "welfare reform" can only appreciate the need for legislation that might justly be called "Congressional reform."

Think about what a savings this would represent at $174,000 per year for each member of the House in salary alone, factoring out insurance and other perks. Better still, why not cut the House in half, meaning that instead of 435 elected representatives, we'll only have something like 218.

And, while we're in the neighborhood, how about downsizing the Senate from 100 to only 50? Given that senators also earn about $174,000 a year, and serve for six years, this in itself would be impressive.

Let's take it to the next level, and cut Congress by 50%. Even the founders might agree that it's better to keep one family warm in a blizzard than to endure a filibuster regardless of what's at stake.

Cutting the Congress in half will work best, of course, when taxpayers recover the $3billion a week, $156 billion a year, we now spend on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Come to think of it, we spend in one week as much on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as some are thinking of cutting annually from a program for federally funded low income heating subsidies.

Why not also cut the Supreme Court in the name of a smaller government, or better still, give a few of the justices furloughs like Schwarzenegger did for state workers in California. We can start with Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts. Since it's a lifelong appointment, give them each a couple of decades of unpaid vacation time.

Keep in mind, too, that as of last year, a Supreme Court judge earns about $224,000 a year. As life expectancy is expected to approach 100 in the foreseeable future, a lifetime tenure means an ever expanding federal budget.

Another option that might work is, instead of nine justices at $224,000 a year, how about five Supreme Court justices with a rotating court of five one year, and four the next? Just think of the savings, over 50 years, when one also factors in salaries and related expenses of the associate justices.

In keeping with this administration's logic, and in the so-called spirit of compromise, why not make the cuts bipartisan? After all, if a Democratic president can even consider reducing a federal program that provides heat to low income people, then both parties have effectively put abandoning the poor, and working people of this country squarely on the table.

Okay, so maybe the founders wouldn't like reducing the number of elected representatives, and even appointed justices, by 50%. Maybe this isn't what the Republican leadership has in mind by the term "smaller government." Maybe they mean only those pesky little agencies like the EPA, AmeriCorp, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Budgetary allocations for the Pentagon, homeland security, and the FBI are actually being increased; the FBI by 4% alone while a nutritional program for pregnant women is being slashed by that same amount.

What's more important to the "family values" right-to-lifers? More federal raids, or more federal lunches? Looks like Boehner and his gang already answered that question.

Time to take a deep breath, and demand bigger cuts to to the Pentagon, which would represent a savings of hundreds of billions a year, as well as so called "intelligence" agencies that frustrate the White House claims anyway. Time to put homeland security on the table. Anyone who thinks of "homeland security" as anything other than a sugar pill seriously needs to be evaluated.

The president must understand, and agree that moving forward is a good thing, yes, but not on the backs of working men, and women, and not on the backs of the poor.

Any plan to cut federal heating assistance to low income families in half must never see the light of day, or those who support it, regardless of their party affiliations, must only meet with political defeat.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

birthday message...

On his 100th birthday, Ronald Reagan has a message for Sarah Palin:

Friday, February 04, 2011


Fate may be cruel, but nothing is worse than bad lighting.

Remembering Maria Schneider

Guess maybe Maria Schneider's death yesterday struck me especially hard because, in a profound sense, we were living parallel lives at the time the movie for which she is most famous, "Last Tango in Paris," was released.

Back then, I was a spunky first year graduate student living in a furnished room near Washington Square Park. Like Schneider's character in "Last Tango in Paris," I was involved in an intense, sexual relationship with a man twice my age, and about as old as Marlon Brando was in the film; mid-40's. My lover was a dashing, elegant, European fellow who, on occasion, played chess with Samuel Beckett in Paris.

It's hard to forget our frequent rendezvous at the Chelsea Hotel, making love on velvet lounge chairs surrounded by original art, and bottles of Cognac. At the Chelsea, especially back then, one expected time to stand still as only it does for a great cinematographer. Time moves too fast for the rest of us.

Thanks to fortifying myself with wine, beer, and grilled cheese sandwiches, I was a bit heavier then, so when "Last Tango" came out, friends saw a resemblance between me and Ms. Schneider. But, any similarity there was had little to do with her libidinal verve, but instead her voracious appetite for adventure. She was daringly, and dangerously herself. This must have come through as clearly in life as it did on film.

So, when hearing that the Grim Reaper managed to seduce, and claim her as his own yesterday as Marlon Brando before her, it was as if someone absconded with a piece of my girlhood. Those of us who were young and sassy once along with Maria Schneider are now forced to recognize that we, too, will soon be entering that nameless, anonymous erogenous zone which the Grim Reaper likes to think of as his playground.

Ms. Schneider certainly must have given death a run for his money just as she did Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris." Art often outpaces mortality as only art will outlive us all.


Michael Winship

For the US in Egypt, Blowback Is a Bitch
By Michael Winship

Almost seven years have passed since I spent some time in the Middle East. The closest I get to the opinions of "the Arab street" these days is the fellow who runs the delicatessen a block away from me. Mohamed is Egyptian, with family living in Cairo and outside the city. All of them are safe -- as far as he knows.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak must go, Mohamed says, but he fears that regardless of the promises, Mubarak will figure out a way to keep his henchmen in power and the brutal legacy of cruelty and torture will continue.

So much is confusing or unknowable; so much took everyone by surprise or remains to be seen. American intelligence already is being criticized for not being on top of the situation. Stephanie O'Sullivan, the White House nominee for principal deputy director of national intelligence told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday that late last year the CIA warned President Obama "of instability [in Egypt] but not exactly where it would come from... we didn't know what the triggering mechanism would be."

But how much could they have known, really? This is the Butterfly Effect writ large and in cosmic collision with realpolitik; small changes quietly accruing to create immense, unpredictable consequences for the global power dynamic.

Who can calculate where that first flutter of the lepidopteran wings took place? Long ago and faraway perhaps, but eventually there were two significant deaths: in December, the self-immolation of a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi, harassed to suicide by Tunisian police, and last June's murder of young Egyptian businessman Khaled Said, beaten by security men in Alexandria. Demonstrations in the wake of Bouazizi's death led to the overthrow of Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali; their success further inspired those who had marched in Egypt to protest the fatal attack on Khaled Said and led to millions making common cause in Cairo's Tahrir Square, across the country and beyond.

"I swear by Almighty God that I cried with joy to see Egypt reborn in Tahrir Square on Tuesday night," Emad El Din Hussein wrote in the independent Egyptian newspaper Al Shorouk. "... Members of Muslim Brotherhood, Nasserists and Marxists were all present; you could recognize them from their physical appearance and the way they spoke or dressed. But they were few and far between... The majority of those present were ordinary citizens... thousands of people mingled together shouting different slogans and singing together... other demonstrators sat talking about poverty, unemployment and violation of human dignity."

This week, in the shadow of the Egyptian Museum, filled with antiquities reflecting glories past, they battled Mubarak's thugs and goons, the warring sides using equally ancient weapons of stone and fire, even men with whips riding horses and camels. Then the guns came out. So far, the Egyptian Third Army stands in between, firing warning shots and using water cannons to put out the flames of Molotov cocktails, but not shooting into the crowds. As this is written, no one knows for sure where it's all headed. Clearly, as pressure mounts from within and without, there are deep internal rifts within the Egyptian government.

But as far as the United States and Egypt are concerned, one thing is certain: blowback -- the unforeseen consequence of our policies abroad -- is a bitch. "For too long," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair John Kerry wrote in The New York Times this week, "financing Egypt's military has dominated our alliance. The proof... tear gas canisters marked 'Made in America' fired at protesters, United States-supplied F-16 fighters streaking over central Cairo." All because, Kerry said, there was "a pragmatic understanding that our relationship benefited American foreign policy and promoted peace in the region."

Or, in the words of a 2009 American embassy cable, part of the Wikileaks document dump, "The tangible benefits to our... relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the US military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace."

In exchange, we willfully paid little or no heed to the Egyptian dictatorship's abuse of human rights, despite its role in radicalizing such terrorists as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's operational and strategic commander. In fact, our strategy of rendition in the wake of 9/11 -- sending terror suspects to other countries for interrogation -- took advantage of Egypt's torture cells. As Jane Mayer writes in her book, The Dark Side, and on The New Yorker magazine's "News Desk" blog, Omar Suleiman, Egypt's new vice president and the former head of the country's general intelligence service, was "the CIA's point man in Egypt for renditions." Former US Ambassador to Egypt Edward S. Walker, Jr., described Suleiman as "very bright, very realistic" and "not squeamish."

One of those whose rendition Suleiman helped oversee was Al Qaeda suspect Ibn Sheik al-Libi, who told the CIA, according to a bipartisan report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, that he was locked in a tiny cage for more than three days, then beaten because, at the behest of the United States, the Egyptians wanted him to say that Saddam Hussein was going to give Al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons. "They were killing me," he told journalists Michael Isikoff and David Corn. "I had to tell them something," and so his coerced confession wound up in Colin Powell's now notorious address before the United Nations in February 2003, justifying war against Iraq.

Ironically, blowback from the propaganda offense claiming the existence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction now enhances the credibility among Egyptian protesters of a man that same campaign tried to discredit -- Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and, according to the BBC, a big fan of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld (I am not making this up).

During the buildup to the invasion of Iraq and since, he has needed a sense of humor. Insisting that his agency's investigations proved that WMD's did not exist -- followed by his moderate stance on the Iranian nuclear program -- led to angry attacks by the Bush administration, especially from Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, and even the tapping of ElBaradei's telephone. They attack him still, yet in this current crisis he is, as one journalist wrote, "about as much of a liberal secularist as the US could realistically hope for."

A new "pragmatic understanding" is necessary by which, in the words of Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami, we dispose of our forked tongue, one moment lecturing on democracy, the next offering support to dictators.

If blowback shows us anything, as she writes in The Nation magazine, "A pro-American dictator is not a guarantee of protection from extremism; more often than not, his tyranny creates the very radicalism he was supposed to stop.

"The future of Egypt looks uncertain," Lalami continues, but if fears of Islamic extremism cause us to falter in our support of the pro-democracy movement, "What is certain is that siding with a repressive regime against the Egyptian people, especially against young Egyptians, will turn these fears of extremism into a reality."


Michael Winship, former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Bastille Day in Egypt

Curious, isn't it, how much of the commentary about Egypt's current uprising is hyperfocused on the fact that Egypt happens to be in the Middle East while tending to ignore the larger historical framework in which this current revolt finds itself. Granted, the region is incendiary, but the issues behind the unrest of the past ten days won't disappear with a simple change in command, and Egypt is begging for the underlying issues to be addressed.

What's happening in Cairo today is principally not much different from what happened in Paris on Bastille Day back on July 14, 1789. This is a garden variety revolution that is being viewed through the lens of religion merely because the uprising happens to fall in an area where conflagration often accompanies religious differences. But, despite the best efforts of the radical right wing, the movement to overthrow Hosni Mubarak is squarely based on economics, and politicsl disenfranchisement. In that sense, it is not unlike the French who rose up against King Louix XVI.

Essentially, the Egyptian uprising has nothing to do with Islam, only little to do with social media, and is mostly about the Egyptian economy. The unemployment rate there is 9.4% as of 2009, and over 90% of unemployed Egyptians are young people between the ages of 15-29 which has resulted in much frustration for those unable to find the kind of jobs they need to have a decent lifestyle, and their parents.

Accounding to the Population Council, (, approximately 70% of unemployed Egyptian young people say they're unemployed because work is unavailable to them.

And, while there are many protestors on Cairo streets who are older, the vast majority are those most directly affected by unemployment.

More than two hundred years ago, those who took to the streets in Paris were also attacking the ruling class of their country whose feudal, and aristocratic privileges mirror those of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The French Revolution was prompted by a financial crisis in which the lower classes, and workers absorbed the greatest tax burden, and there was an unfair distribution of wealth as there is in Egypt where the government is completely out of touch with the plight of that country's unemployed youth. Of course, the difference is the French had a declared monarch while Egypt has had the illusion of democratic elections.

The indigent of France went after the Bastille fortress not just for its arms, but as a symbol of royal power and entitlement in much the same way many unemployed Egyptian protestors went after presidential apartments, and symbols of Egyptian culture. Notably, deteriorating economic conditions, as well as egregious economic disparity are to be found at the core of both insurrections.

You'll remember, too, that the king of France, Louis XVI, was executed under a new republic that ushered in the Enlightenment, as well as the twin components of inalienable rights, and modern era notions about citizenship.

So, it is then that Egypt is having a Karl Marx moment, as well as a date with modernity. The seeds of that country's discontent, like that of its neighbor Tunisia, reside in the limited economic opportunities of the vast majority of its people, as well as in the unequal distribution of the country's assets.

While western media have mentioned economic factors, they have largely depicted Mubarak's shutting down the Internet, and loss of access to social media as the cause of the rebellion when it was merely the catalyst. One must never confuse the catalyst with the cause.

Yes, Mubarak likely clamped down on access to the world wide web in response to the threat posed by social media sites to enable young people to organize, it's doubtful that anyone, especially Mubarak, could expect that one gesture to ignite the phenomenal response, and bring out the hundreds of thousands of people in Tarhir Square that we've seen over the past several days. It is equally unlikely that what happened in Cairo was a copycat of what happened earlier in Tunisia.

Once started, the wildfire of economic discontent spreads rapidly. No surprise then that American journalists, like CNN's Anderson Cooper and ABC News's Christiane Amanpour face angry crowds. Cooper was reportedly struck by pro-Mubarak forces, and Amanpour by a group of young Egyptians who defiantly proclaimed that they "hate Americans."

America, widely regarded by the rest of the world, as the rich kid on the block even in its most depressed moments, could readily be evoked as a symbol of power and world domination. Egyptian concern may be well-founded as the western media has managed to sway public opinion to intervene in the internal affairs of otherwise sovereign states. Arguably, too, there might be deep-seated worry that the U.S. might try to micromanage whatever reform comes in the wake of Mubarak's inevitable departure.

Importantly, western efforts to incite fearmongering by suggesting a "domino" effect in the region with the suggestion that, if the Muslim Brotherhood, or any other group identifying itself overtly with Islam were to take over in Egypt, it could lead to a nuclear holocaust is the same kind of thinking that got us into the Cold War with the Soviet Union. This point of view is not only flat out wrong, it is dangerously wrong. The only thing that might result is more concessions from Israel which is also inevitable.

Any wink and nod attempt to stir Islamophobia is one that must be met with immediate rebuke as it's not only irresponsible, but inflammatory. In a recent television interview, 2012 Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, spoke strongly about the threat posed by what he hesitated to call Islamic fascists outright, but that was clearly what he meant.

We only view the revolution in Egypt through the lens of Islam because it's happening in a predominantly Muslim country, and it gives neo-conservative elements in America the opportunity to wage their own xenophobic dominionist jihad.

Make no mistake, the uprising in Egypt has about as much to do with Islam as the French Revolution had to do with Catholicism.

The Egyptian people deserve an enthusiastic thumbs up for at least addressing the huge economic disparity in their country while we, in the U.S., essentially gild ours.

George Soros

Why Obama has to get Egypt right
By George Soros

Revolutions usually start with enthusiasm and end in tears. In the case of the Middle East, the tears could be avoided if President Obama stands firmly by the values that got him elected. Although American power and influence in the world have declined, our allies and their armies look to us for direction. These armies are strong enough to maintain law and order as long as they stay out of politics; thus the revolutions can remain peaceful. That is what the United States should insist on while encouraging corrupt and repressive rulers who are no longer tolerated by their people to step aside and allow new leaders to be elected in free and fair elections.

That is the course that the revolution in Tunisia is taking. Tunisia has a relatively well-developed middle class, women there enjoy greater rights and opportunities than in most Muslim countries, and the failed regime was secular in character. The prospects for democratic change are favorable.

Egypt is more complex and, ultimately, more influential, which is why it is so important to get it right. The protesters are very diverse, including highly educated and common people, young and old, well-to-do and desperately poor. While the slogans and crowds in Tahrir Square are not advancing a theocratic agenda at all, the best-organized political opposition that managed to survive in that country's repressive environment is the Muslim Brotherhood. In free elections, the Brotherhood is bound to emerge as a major political force, though it is far from assured of a majority.

Some have articulated fears of adverse consequences of free elections, suggesting that the Egyptian military may seek to falsify the results; that Israel may be adamantly opposed to a regime change; that the domino effect of extremist politics spreading to other countries must be avoided; and that the supply of oil from the region could be disrupted. These notions constitute the old conventional wisdom about the Middle East - and need to be changed, lest Washington incorrectly put up resistance to or hesitate in supporting transition in Egypt.

That would be regrettable. President Obama personally and the United States as a country have much to gain by moving out in front and siding with the public demand for dignity and democracy. This would help rebuild America's leadership and remove a lingering structural weakness in our alliances that comes from being associated with unpopular and repressive regimes. Most important, doing so would open the way to peaceful progress in the region. The Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation with Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate who is seeking to run for president, is a hopeful sign that it intends to play a constructive role in a democratic political system. As regards contagion, it is more likely to endanger the enemies of the United States - Syria and Iran - than our allies, provided that they are willing to move out ahead of the avalanche.

The main stumbling block is Israel. In reality, Israel has as much to gain from the spread of democracy in the Middle East as the United States has. But Israel is unlikely to recognize its own best interests because the change is too sudden and carries too many risks. And some U.S. supporters of Israel are more rigid and ideological than Israelis themselves. Fortunately, Obama is not beholden to the religious right, which has carried on a veritable vendetta against him. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is no longer monolithic or the sole representative of the Jewish community. The main danger is that the Obama administration will not adjust its policies quickly enough to the suddenly changed reality.

I am, as a general rule, wary of revolutions. But in the case of Egypt, I see a good chance of success. As a committed advocate of democracy and open society, I cannot help but share in the enthusiasm that is sweeping across the Middle East. I hope President Obama will expeditiously support the people of Egypt. My foundations are prepared to contribute what they can. In practice, that means establishing resource centers for supporting the rule of law, constitutional reform, fighting corruption and strengthening democratic institutions in those countries that request help in establishing them, while staying out of those countries where such efforts are not welcome.

The writer is chairman of the Soros Fund Management and the Open Society Foundations, which support democracy and human rights in more than 70 countries.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

a poem

I think
I wrote
a poem
today, but
I can’t
where I
left it.
harder to
where I

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


"On now. Dare it. Let there be life,"

James Joyce

Feb. 2, 1882 ad infinitum