Sunday, May 29, 2011


"I show that size is only development," Walt Whitman.

Happy Birthday, Walt!

May 31

Saturday, May 28, 2011


John Fitzgerald, "Jack," Kennedy would have turned 94 years old on Sunday, May 29th.

I sometimes wonder which of all his extraordinary insights he would consider most relevant now. About WikiLeaks, JFK might want us to remember "A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people."

And, on the subject of the Ryan plan, "If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

But, in light of the military expansionism in the half century following his demise, as President Kennedy has said, "Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind."

It's sobering to think not about how far we've come, but how far we have yet to go to realize his vision of the need for basic human dignity.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

From Michael Winship

Democracy Talks -- Listen Up!
By Michael Winship

Bill Moyers has a new book out. In the interest of full disclosure, I edited the book with him and co-wrote its introduction. And in the interest of what may seem to be shameless self-promotion, I urge you to read it.

If you don't buy Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, borrow it from the nearest local library (Although please keep in mind, we are the sole support of a community of endangered pundits hiding in the swamplands of lower Manhattan. The choice is yours.)

Published by The New Press, the book is a collection of interviews augmented with new introductions and updates, a compilation of some of the best and most interesting conversations conducted during his PBS series from 2007-10, as put together by Bill and the production team. But more than that, Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues functions as an informative and essential primer in contemporary American politics, society and literature, presented with a progressive point of view yet covering the waterfront of ideas and opinions.

The pages encompass a remarkable three years in American history: not just the final years of the Bush White House, but also the turbulent 2008 presidential campaign culminating in the election of our first African American president; the first 15 months of the Obama administration with its fierce debates over health care, financial reform, and escalating the Afghan war; and of course, the global economic breakdown.

We didn't realize it at the time, but as we looked back over what many of the people had to say, we discovered that their thoughtful analysis created a unique portrait of the state of America in those years. What's more, they were remarkably prescient about events that lay ahead.

The economists Simon Johnson and James K. Galbraith accurately predicted that no matter the financial meltdown of 2008, many of the same people who caused it would emerge more prosperous than ever. (Despite high unemployment and stagnant wages for the working class, the Wall Street Journal recently released a study reporting that CEOs at the country's 350 biggest companies saw their pay jump 11% last year to a median of $9.3 million.)

Months before the collapse and our national, ongoing debate on the budget and deficit, historian Andrew Bacevich told Moyers that our economy resembled a giant Ponzi scheme: "This continuing tendency to borrow and to assume that the bills are never going to come due," he said. "How are we going to pay the bills? How are we going to pay for the entitlements that are going to increase year by year for the next couple of decades, especially as baby boomers retire? Nobody has answers to these questions."

Conservatives Ross Douthat, Victor Gold and Mickey Edwards talked about what many see as the death of traditional conservatism, but foresaw emerging from it the inchoate rage that has resulted in the Tea Parties and a resurgence of the radical right, driving establishment Republicans to ulcerous distraction as we approach another pivotal national election.

A few other excerpts:

Biologist E.O. Wilson: "We're the ones that can destroy the world. No other single species ever had anything like that power. And we also have the knowledge to avoid doing it. It's sort of a race to the finish line that we will develop the intelligence and the policies and the decency to bring it to a halt not just for life itself but for future generations before the juggernaut takes us over."

Activist and analyst Holly Sklar: "The rising tide's not lifting all boats. Little crumbs aren't trickling off the table. What's really happened is that so much is being ripped off at the top. It's a level of extreme, almost pathological greed and it's not tolerated in any other of the democracies.'

Health care executive turned reformer Wendell Potter: "One day I was reading President Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage. In the foreword, his brother Bobby said that one of the President's favorite quotes was from Dante: 'The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of great crisis, maintain their neutrality.' And when I read that, I said, 'Oh jeez, I'm headed for the hottest place in Hell, unless I say something.'"

Political theorist Benjamin Barber: "We can't buy the line that government is our enemy and the market is our friend... Government is us. Government is our institutions. Government is how we make social and public choices working together to forge common ground... We've got to retrieve our citizenship."

Civil rights advocate and litigator Michelle Alexander: "Much of the data indicates that African Americans today, as a group, are not much better off than they were back in 1968 when Martin Luther King delivered 'The Other America' speech, talking about how there are two Americas in the United States... These two Americas still exist today. The existence of Barack Obama and people of color scattered in position of power and high places creates an illusion of much more progress than has actually been made in recent years."

Poet W.S. Merwin: "The most valuable things in our lives come out of what we don't know. And that's a process that we never understand. I think poetry always comes out of what you don't know. Now, I tell students, knowledge is very important. Learn languages. Read history. Read, listen -- above all, listen to everybody. Listen to everything that you hear. Every sound in the street. Every dog and every bird and everything that you hear. But know that while all of your knowledge is important, there is something you will never know. It's who you are."

This is an eclectic and lively, even cacophonous, compendium of voices with a lot to say, much of it stimulating and provocative. Many of the contributors to Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues are alarmed at the state of the union and the powerful forces of wealth and venality that actively seek the destruction of what little is left of our representative democracy. But something the historian Howard Zinn says in the book also resonates throughout: "The idea of people involved in history, people actually making history, people agitating and demonstrating, pushing the leaders of the country into change in a way that leaders themselves are not likely to initiate... Don't depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done, because whenever the government has done anything to bring about change, it's done so only because it's been pushed and prodded by social movements, by ordinary people organizing."

But don't take my word for it. Read the book.


Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, was the senior writer for Bill Moyers Journal

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Bandleader, clarinetist, and writer Artie Shaw would have turned 101 on Monday. He was born May 23, 1910.

Artie was my mother's first cousin, and nephew of my grandfather, Moishe, to whom he attributed his great musical gift. Moishe was a house painter during the day, but his true love was singing. He was a cantor. Artie told me that no one in his immediate family could even carry a tune, and he was convinced that he was the genetic recipient of Moishe's great gift.

In his memoir, The Trouble with Cinderella, Artie bristled about being thought of as a musician. Playing music, to him, was a gig. The concept that anyone could have such a magnificent gift, and saw it only as a way to make money, fascinates me.

It was a childhood dream of mine to meet Artie. Thanks to the generosity of a music critic with whom I had a drink, I got a hold of Artie's phone number, and called him weeks before a memorial tribute to Allen Ginsberg was to be held in Westwood. We actually met face to face at the Ginsberg memorial.

From 2002 through the first part of 2004, I met with him several times at his home in Newbury Park, and will always be grateful to Artie's assistant, Larry Rose, for helping to facilitate those meetings, and for his graciousness.

Some people you love without even talking to them. Artie was one of them. Oh, yes, I heard all the horror stories about his moodiness, and how nasty he could be, but I saw only warmth, affection, and comradery.

When I gave him a poem of mine,"Managing Gravity," to read, he finished and said only "What kind of mind could come up with that? Gravity as death's manager." Indeed, what kind of mind could understand that, Artie.

What kind of mind could come up with "Shoot for the moon--if you miss, you'll end up in the stars." You must have had a good aim, Artie, cause that's where you are where, like a comet, you raced through leaving a flash of light, and the kind of sound only angels dare to make.

Rock on, Artie, rock on!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Thinking about Allen

Allen Ginsberg would have been 85 years old on June 3rd. I'm thinking of him, and remembering these words from HOWL:

"I want people to bow as they see me and say he is gifted
with poetry, he has seen the presence of the Creator.
And the Creator gave me a shot of his presence to gratify my
wish, so as not to cheat me of my yearning for him."

(Allen Ginsberg, Berkeley, 1955)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

From Michael Winship

The Importance of Being Tony Kushner
By Michael Winship

Coincidence combined with foresight on the part of my girlfriend Pat -- she bought the tickets months ago -- landed us at a performance of Tony Kushner's new play, just days after the executive committee of the City University of New York's (CUNY) board of trustees held an emergency meeting and scrambled to reverse an earlier board decision to table an honorary degree for Kushner.

The resulting serendipity was an affirmation of free speech and of the rightful place of outspoken, often radical thought in an open society, whether you agree with it or not. Tell me that's not worth the price of admission.

Kushner, author of the epic Angels in America and other extraordinary work, initially was denied the degree after objections from CUNY trustee Jeffrey S. Wiesenfeld, who attacked Kushner as unfairly critical of Israel. He pointed in particular to a statement the playwright reportedly made to an Israeli journalist, one which Wiesenfeld pulled secondhand off the website of controversial political scientist Norman Finkelstein: "Israel was founded in a program that if you really want to be blunt about it was ethnic cleansing and that today is behaving abominably towards the Palestinian people. I have never been a Zionist," Kushner was said to have continued. "I have a problem with the idea of a Jewish state, it would be better if it never had happened."

This is not the first time Mr. Wiesenfeld has made waves at CUNY. As the May 11 New York Times reported, "In 2001, he called participation in an October 'teach-in' sponsored by the union [CUNY's Professional Staff Congress] about the 9/11 attacks 'seditious.' In 2006, he blasted a book that Baruch College had chosen for its freshman reading, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, calling it 'deeply offensive' and 'anti-Semitic.'" In an interview with the Times' Jim Dwyer following CUNY's initial rejection of Kushner's degree, Wiesenfeld characterized Palestinians as "people who worship death for their children... not human."

Tony Kushner pushed back hard. In an open letter to the CUNY trustees, he described Wiesenfeld's charges as "a grotesque caricature of my political beliefs regarding the state of Israel, concocted out of three carefully cropped, contextless quotes taken from interviews I've given, the mention of my name on the blog of someone with whom I have no connection whatsoever, and the fact that I serve on the advisory board of a political organization with which Mr. Wiesenfeld strongly disagrees."

He continued, "My opinion about the wisdom of the creation of a Jewish state has never been expressed in any form without a strong statement of support for Israel's right to exist, and my ardent wish that it continue to do so, something Mr. Wiesenfeld conveniently left out of his remarks."

But, Kushner added, "I believe that the historical record shows, incontrovertibly, that the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes as part of the creation of the state of Israel was ethnic cleansing, a conclusion I reached mainly by reading the work of Benny Morris, an acclaimed and conservative Israeli historian whose political opinions are much more in accord with Mr. Wiesenfeld's than with mine; Mr. Morris differs from Mr. Wiesenfeld in bringing to his examination of history a scholar's rigor, integrity, seriousness of purpose and commitment to telling the truth."

(Kushner's entire letter is worth reading. You can see it at: Jeffrey Wiesenfeld's statement to the CUNY trustees can be found at:

To put it mildly, Tony Kushner has a lot on his mind and he expresses it at length in his work, often brilliantly. His new play at New York's Public Theater is a rowdy, rambling, funny and heartbreaking tale that tackles nothing less than a dissection of the intellectual history of the last century; a deft analysis of the left, organized labor and sexual politics --told through the story of a dysfunctional family in a Brooklyn brownstone whose patriarch is contemplating suicide. Whew.

The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (or iHo, as Kushner has dubbed it) is a nod to George Bernard Shaw's "The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism" and the writings of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. Both are referenced in the almost four-hour piece, as are Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Garibaldi, Chekhov, Angela Davis, Pete Seeger, New York's nearly forgotten, socialist Congressman Vito Marcantonio... and Yoda.

This is a play filled with ideas and insights, fiercely entertaining and beautifully acted, its dialogue sometimes so fast-paced and overlapping, a Robert Altman movie seems dozy by comparison. As John Lahr wrote in his New Yorker review, "Out of this bubbling mélange comes an unexpectedly powerful and bittersweet taste of our post-imperial moment; the fractious household can be read as a metaphor for America, its characters perilously poised between remembering and forgetting, between community and atomization."

Kushner's is an important, moral and empathetic voice in a time when such powers of perception and eloquence are rare. And while you may differ with him, there's not a thing he has argued that isn't debated in the Israeli media virtually every day; far more openly, in fact, than here at home.

Anyone who would attack the depth of commitment to his Jewish faith must be unaware of the entire body of his work, including not only Angels in America but also his adaptation of A Dybbuk, his children's book Brundibar, even his script for the Steven Spielberg motion picture Munich, co-written with Eric Roth, a brooding reflection on violence and the ambiguity of evil that tells the story of the assassination team sent to kill those believed responsible for planning the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.

"I decided long ago that my job as a playwright is to try to speak and write honestly about what I believe to be true," Kushner wrote the CUNY trustees. "I am interested in history and politics, and long ago I realized that people uninterested in a meaningful exchange of opinion and ideas would selectively appropriate my words to suit their purposes. It's been my experience that truth eventually triumphs over soundbites, spin and defamation, and that reason, honest inquiry, and courage, which are more appealing and more persuasive than demagoguery, will carry the day."

The death of faith and the corruption of ideals are major themes in Kushner's new play. In their initial rush to judgment, the CUNY board abandoned faith in the fundamental principle of free speech and at first allowed themselves to be corrupted by a cowardly expedience. It was, as CUNY chair Benno Schmidt said, "a mistake of principle and not merely of policy."

Now, on June 3, Tony Kushner will receive his degree. Briefly, the day has indeed been carried and the bullies held at bay. Until the next time. Stay tuned.


Michael Winship is a senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Extradite Dominique Strauss-Kahn

If the authorities in New York decide to try International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of alleged attempted rape, sodomy, and false imprisonment of a 32 year old French maid at the five star Hotel Sofitel, the French government should insist Strauss-Khan be extradited to France to face charges.

As Fox, Daily News show, the sensationalist news climate in the U.S. renders it impossible for any prominent figure to get a fair trial on sex charges. Blame it on our Puritanical roots.

Make no mistake, there is no question that attempted rape, and false imprisonment are serious crimes. But, there are equally serious questions as to whether or not the narrative in the press has obviated any plausible defense such that, before a trial date has even been set, the prosecution rests.

And, in what the Bush administration would like us to believe is the "new normal," a trial by jury has instantly morphed into a trial by fury. In light of this, the logical thing for Strauss-Kahn's counsel to do would be to request a change of venue.

Whatever illusions we had of the presumption of innocence have been routinely dispelled by the railroading of such political figures as John Edwards, Gary Hart, and Bill Clinton.

The tabloids and the paparazzi ultimately stalked Edwards for months until they found the smoking gun which consisted not of establishing a covert "kill squad" to assassinate foreign leaders, but instead to have a secret love affair while his wife was dying of cancer. Poor judgment--yes, poor character, maybe, but criminal activity; not. That said, there are ongoing efforts to prosecute Edwards.

No rational person can expect the IMF head to get a fair trial in the U.S. where that the last president we impeached was for lying to a grand jury about his extramarital affair with an intern.

Not one plausible argument has been put forward by anyone in the mainstream American media about the amazing coincidence that a man who may be said to have a history of aggressing on women would get caught so close to a pivotal presidential election in France. That is, except for the New York Times which notes that "Well before Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s arrest there had been reports that Mr. Sarkozy was gathering information to discredit Mr. Strauss-Kahn should he run for president."

There have been many different accounts of what happened in that hotel room on Saturday afternoon before Mr. Strauss-Kahn's departure for his flight back to Paris. One account suggests that the maid, whose identity cannot be released, was dragged from the foyer into the bathroom, and that she was later treated for minor injuries.

Every account so far agrees that the chambermaid entered Kahn's room thinking that he had already checked out, something that has happened to me once or twice when I forgot to use the chain lock, or put up the "Do Not Disturb" sign. All accounts agree, too, that he had just gotten out of the shower, and was naked when she entered. I don't know anyone who takes a shower with his clothes on, do you? Where it goes from there is dicey, and the details get murky.

As the NYT also suggests, there are some in France who believe the Sofitel incident was a "set-up" masterminded by French president Sarkozy to ruin his biggest rival. Mr. Kahn is widely considered Sarkozy's Socialist nemesis.

Ostensibly, something criminal, or extraordinarily embarrassing, would force someone to flee a hotel room the way Strauss-Kahn did, but there hasn't been one narrative put forward in his defense. He's already been effectively prosecuted by the Murdoch-controlled media, in the U.S., which would incline to favor a Sarkozy win.

I'm not one for conspiracy theories, but is it random, and irrelevant that this happened at the Hotel "Sofitel," a French hotel, and the maid, too, is rumored to be French, and this event coincidentally happens in the lead-up to a major presidential campaign? No one would be so cynical as to suggest that the maid lied, only that she may have been persuaded to exaggerate a bit, or not tell the whole story.

But, regardless what happened in that hotel room, Mr. Kahn is now in U.S. custody, and should litigation be pursued in this country, remember that U.S. law requires a trial by one's "peers." This would mean that Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Erik Prince, and others would be among those selected to sit on the jury. Doubtless, they will be unavailable for jury duty.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Victory for the President, but a Defeat for the Rule of Law

Following the raid in Pakistan and killing of Osama bin Laden, wives and children of the al Qaeda leader are crawling out of the woodwork. Bin Laden reportedly had as many as four wives, and anywhere from 20-26 children, 11 of whom are sons, most of whom have, according to The Telegraph, taken refuge in Iran.

His wife, the one wounded by Navy Seals in the compound attack more than a week ago, was 35 years bin Laden's junior which may explain why the bin Laden basement tapes reveal a dissheveled, emaciated, and thoroughly exhausted man who can barely hold a remote. Videos of the 54 year old show him watching news clips of himself. Who knows, he may even have been watching an episode of "All In The Family" in syndication?

Indeed, given his potency and had it been his wish, his sperm could have been used as a weapon of mass destruction in itself, so prolific was he.

Reuters now says that Omar bin Laden, the fugitive's fourth eldest son, is contemplating legal action against the U.S. "to determine the true fate of our vanished father." The younger bin Laden insists that the disposal of his father's body by burying it at sea is humiliating, especially in light of his father's prominence, and that it desecrates Islamic tradition.

Omar bin Laden also argues that it was, from the outset, never the U.S. government's objective to capture his father, but to kill him in that raid.

Whether there is merit to this argument or not, or whether there is any way to justify the actions of the Navy SEALs in accordance with international law, there remains a baffling question. Why, with an immediate family large enough to start a professional football team, not to mention numerous cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, in-laws, did it take nearly ten years to locate that Osama bin Laden?

Back in 2002, CNN did a broadcast on "Osama's Women" and, four years earlier, correspondent Peter Bergen interviewed bin Laden himself. What was the intelligence agency under George W. Bush doing not only in the months immediately before the attack on the World Trade Center, but in the months afterwards? Why did it never occur to anyone to find a way to subpoena, and question a member of bin Laden's family to get at his whereabouts?

Why was the al Qaeda leader effectively rendered irrelevant by the Bush administration, and so quickly? Why did they instead choose to focus on plundering and occupying Iraq in the name of laying claim to weapons of mass destruction that were never found instead of looking into bin Laden's whereabouts? Why the confusion about who was responsible for the World Trade Center bombing when Bill Clinton fingered bin Laden nearly a decade before? Why was Saddam Hussein linked, and executed for a crime with which he had no connection?

How is it that the CIA, under Leon Panetta, was able to do in a little more than a year what the same agency couldn't do in eight years of George W. Bush? Clearly, it's about priorities, yes? But, why was sending a signal of strength to al Qaeda not Mr. Bush's number one priority? Did he forget who the enemy was in the "war on terror," or was he, like his sidekick Dick Cheney, merely unable to shoot straight?

How can any reasonably intelligent individual be expected to believe anything that comes out of the mouth of an elected official again?

Yet, according to a recent NBC poll, 80% of Americans now say they approve of the president's surgical removal of a pesky adversary. That must mean, then, that 80% of Americans believe that Osama bin Laden was the problem in much the same way that a staggering number of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11.

Factoring out any moral or legal considerations, just as the raid on Khaddafi's Libyan compound by Reagan's elite forces only served to neutralize and silence the Libyan leader temporarily, no lasting peace can ever be secured by the discharge of a bullet. To think otherwise essentially amounts to shadow boxing with a basic historical truth.

What happened in that compound in Pakistan in the end amounts to little more than rearranging the furniture on the Titanic. The infrastructure of global inequality is still in place.

In the end, while he may have had a $25 million bounty hanging over his head, and may have been the most reviled man in the world, Osama bin Laden was a human being. Surely the "taking out" of one human being won't go far in addressing the underlying causes, global socioeconomic disparities, that are currently transforming Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Bahrain in unknown ways.

No American, since Ronald Reagan praised him as a heroic freedom fighter, has had anything good to say about Osama bin Laden. But, we don't pledge to restore the rule of law by making just one little exception for one "bad guy" or another. That's why it's called the "rule" of law.

President Obama has proven to the birthers that he is, in fact, an American citizen, and to the radical right that he is the commander-in-chief. Now, he has to prove to the rest of us that he is the statesman we elected him to be.

Monday, May 09, 2011

From Michael Winship

Forget the Rich: Tax the Poor and Middle Class!
By: Michael Winship

Nothing is certain but death and taxes, it used to be said, but in the madcap times we live in, even they're up for grabs.

No matter what proof the White House provides that Osama bin Laden indeed has had his bucket kicked -- and at this point even al Qaeda admits he's dead -- there still will be uncertainty. Whether they ever release those damned photos or not, a lunatic few will continue to insist that Osama's alive and well and running a Papa John's Pizza in Marrakesh.

As for taxes, having to pay them is no longer a sure thing either, especially if you're a corporate giant like General Electric, with a thousand employees in its tax department, skilled in creative accounting. You'll recall recent reports that although GE made profits last year of $5.1 billion in the United States and $14.2 billion worldwide they would pay not a penny of federal income tax. Chalk it up to billions of dollar of losses at GE Capital during the financial meltdown and a government tax break that allows companies to avoid paying US taxes on profits made overseas while "actively financing" different kinds of deals.

It gets worse. In 2009, Exxon-Mobil didn't pay any taxes either, and last year, they had worldwide profits of $30.46 billion. Neither did Bank of America or Chevron or Boeing. According to a report last week from the office of the New York City Public Advocate, in 2009, the five companies, including GE, received a total of $3.7 billion in federal tax benefits.

As The New York Times' David Kocieniewski reported in March, "Although the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less... Such strategies, as well as changes in tax laws that encouraged some businesses and professionals to file as individuals, have pushed down the corporate share of the nation's tax receipts -- from 30 percent of all federal revenue in the mid-1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009."

What's greasing the wheels for these advantages is, hold on to your hats, cash. Over the last decade, according to the NYC public advocate's report, those same five companies -- GE, Exxon-Mobil, Bank of America, Chevron and Boeing -- gave more than $43.1 million to political campaigns. During the 2009-2010 election cycle, the five spent a combined $7.86 million in campaign contributions, a 7 percent jump over their 2007-2008 political spending.

"These tax breaks were put in place to promote growth and create jobs, not bankroll the political causes of corporate executives," Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said. "... No company that can afford to spend millions of dollars to influence our elections should be pleading poverty come tax time."

And by the way, those campaign cash figures don't even include all the money those companies funneled into the 2010 campaigns via trade associations and tax-exempt non-profits. Thanks to the Supreme Court Citizens United decision, we don't know the numbers because, as per the court, the corporate biggies don't have to tell us. Imagine them sticking out their tongues and wiggling their fingers in their ears and you have a pretty good idea of their official position on this.

Meanwhile, last week Republicans like Utah's Orrin Hatch, ranking member of the US Senate Finance Committee, grabbed hold of an analysis by Congress' nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and wrestled it to the ground. The brief memorandum reported that in the 2009 tax year 51 percent of all American taxpayers had zero tax liability or received a refund. So why, the Republicans asked, are Democrats and others so mean, asking corporations and the rich to pay higher taxes when lots of other people -- especially the poor and middle class -- don't pay taxes either?

Hatch told MSNBC, "Bastiat, the great economist of the past, said the place where you've got to get revenues has to come from the middle class. That's the huge number of people that are there. So the system does need to be revamped... We have an unbalanced tax code that we've got to change."

All of which flies in the face of reality. As Travis Waldron of the progressive ThinkProgress website explained, "The majority of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes don't make enough money to qualify for even the lowest tax bracket, a problem made worse by the economic recession. That includes retired Americans, who don't pay income taxes because they earn very little income, if they earn any at all.

"And while many low-income Americans don't pay income taxes, they do pay taxes. Because of payroll and sales taxes -- a large proportion of which are paid by low- and middle-income Americans -- less than a quarter of the nation's households don't contribute to federal tax receipts -- and the majority of the non-contributors are students, the elderly, or the unemployed."

What's more, ThinkProgress notes, "The top 400 taxpayers -- who have more wealth than half of all Americans combined -- are paying lower taxes than they have in a generation, as their tax responsibilities have slowly collapsed since the New Deal era.” In the meantime, "working families have been asked to pay more and more."

So maybe death and taxes are no longer certain, but one thing remains as immutable as the hills. In the words of another golden oldie, there's nothing surer -- the rich get rich and the poor get poorer.


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

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Passing the Buck to Pakistan

Without fanfare, last January, and at the insistence of Attorney General Eric Holder, the FBI rounded up more than 100 suspects in a series of early morning raids that spanned three states: New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

As the Associated Press reported, the suspects were all believed to be members of the Gambino and Colombo crime families, and were accused of organized crime activities, as well as what Holder called "truly senseless murders."

You might recall the image of these Mafia "high value detainees" being rounded up, and led off during the raid in New Jersey. The federal agents who led the mission didn't look all that different from the Navy Seals in Pakistan credited with taking down Osama bin Laden.

Instead, we deployed some of our most highly trained servicemen to take the life of one fragile, middle-aged man thousands of miles away from home. No one doubts that bin Laden was dangerous in his day, but few would consider him to have been more than a figurehead, a Don Corleone without the Corleone.

Setting any moral or legal considerations aside, what it boils down to is, the Navy Seals were employed for what could well have been treated as a criminal matter from the outset. Not only would prosecuting those who perpetrate acts of terror on the domestic front the same way organized crime families are prosecuted have saved us money, it would have saved many lives; more American lives than were lost on that fateful day in September.

In the end, the United States spent billions, arguably trillions of dollars, and more than nine and a half years, on what amounts to a glorified FBI raid.

There is also another important analogy between the round-up of about 100 organized crime operatives and the hunt for al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As the president himself has admitted, back in 2009,, there are maybe 100 members of al Qaeda currently in Afghanistan. Yet, we have more than 100,000 service members stationed there at a ratio of about 1000 to 1. Does it really take a thousand trained U.S. forces to take down one member of al Qaeda? Does it also take more than the $100 billion spent for war in Afghanistan, according to U.S. News, in 2010 alone?

Yes, of course, that's right. We're not in Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda anyway. They were in Iraq, remember? Oh, wait a minute. There were no al Qaeda in Iraq until after the U.S. invaded and occupied that country, and intelligence sources have said that the presence of al Qaeda has continued to grow, esp. since it was bin Laden who originally went to Afghanistan in the 1980's as a "freedom fighter," with great accolades from President Reagan and funding from the CIA, to train what is now known as the Taliban.

It wasn't until the 1990's that bin Laden reportedly became disenchanted with his former boss, and formed al Qaeda whose mission was to express that disenchantment. The first bombing of the World Trade Center, in 1994, was attributed to bin Laden.

The son of a wealthy Saudi family who made its money in construction, bin Laden was believed to have planted himself in a cave on somewhere on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In the Bush years following 9/11, and after the invasion of Iraq in 2002, the narrative that bin Laden was hiding out in Tora Bora seemed to work just fine. Bush didn't seem to think finding bin Laden was all that important. After all, the al Qaeda leader served his purpose just fine. His role was to provide a pretext for the invasion and occupation of a previously sovereign state. Mission accomplished. Iraq was effectively
deconstructed, only instead of getting the bin Laden family involved in reconstruction, those defense contracts went to Halliburton, Blackwater (now XE), and the oil barons. Bush and company reckoned there may be even more money to be made in Iraqi reconstruction as there is in oil.

But, now that the narrative has changed, and we learn that for the past several months, maybe even years, Osama bin Laden was living in a compound he had built only a short distance away from a military installation, not on the border of Pakistan, but well within the interior, there is outrage from the U.S. How could anyone think for a moment that bin Laden live so close to a military installation in a fortress like that without collusion from the Pakistani government, administration officials now ask. It seems only reasonable that someone should have known. Why didn't they report it to the U.S.? Senator Feinstein, Secretary of State Clinton, and others think it might be time to cut off Pakistan's allowance.

But, until recently, the CIA and the ISI appear to have been on the same page. Taking out bin Laden was not rocket science for either intelligence agency. For cripe's sake, the guy had family members, and even a courier. The U.S. knew about bin Laden's whereabouts, but timing is everything. Perhaps the Pentagon was waiting for hostilities between the U.S. and Pakistan to percolate to such a degree that we would find it in our national security interest to take him out.

When he was alive, Osama bin Laden was a convenient excuse for our invasion of Iraq and, now that he's dead, he's just as likely to be the pretext for racheting up our ongoing military campaign against Pakistan.

Clearly, blaming Pakistan for not providing intelligence if they knew where bin Laden is passing the buck. Why not blame U.S. intelligence, during the George W. Bush years, for being lackluster in their pursuit, and limiting their target to the region between Afghanistan and Pakistan which, conveniently, just happens to have provided a pretext for the invasion of both countries.

More importantly, consider the rank incompetence on the part of elected officials who, in the months immediately preceding the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, had credible intelligence that a major landmark was going to destroyed by a bomb planted on an airline, and they did nothing about it?

Would the FBI had succeeded in finding more than 100 members of organized crime families in three different states if they narrowed their search to the border that separates New York from New Jersey?

The covert drone operation, which has been roundly condemned in Pakistan for months now, was only phase one of a deliberate campaign to expand U.S. influence from Iraq to Afghanistan, and now to Pakistan. This was evident when Musharraf was forced to step down.

If the U.S. mission in the region was anything other than an exercise in empire-building, the so-called war on terror would have been treated, deservedly, as a criminal matter, and not an excuse for military expansionism.

Now, we need to be looking not at the corpse of Osama bin Laden, but instead at the cost of these gruesome wars.

Michael Winship

Obama/Osama Trump William, Kate -- and Trump
By Michael Winship

This has been the kind of week that makes news junkies wig out in a frenzy of adrenalin and information overload while driving to distraction people who try to write weekly pieces like this one.

Just when you think you’ve got a topic nailed down and sit down at the keyboard to sweat it out -- bam! -- along comes another headline that diverts your attention and dropkicks all your plans out the window.

One thought had been to go the semi-frivolous route and write something about the Royal Wedding -- all that costly pomp and circumstance signifying nothing, the anachronistic irrelevance of monarchy in a 21st century democracy -- or maybe my search for the hollow tree where elves make those Whoville hats worn by some of the guests.

I might even have confessed that my former wife and I, married the same summer as Prince Charles and Princess Diana, spent part of our London honeymoon standing in line to see their wedding gifts on display at St. James Palace, an array of conspicuous consumption that ranged from priceless china, crystal and silver to a Megamix food processor, two hand-knit ski caps and an assortment of tea cozies.

But then there was the president’s release of his "long-form" birth certificate, confronting those who insist he was born in Africa and confirming what most of us have suspected all along. Dear God, he’s an American!

While to some a Honolulu hospital may seem as foreign and faraway as the moons of Jupiter -- remember, this remains a country where less than a third of the population has a passport -- Hawaii is indeed one of these United States, even if they do sell exotic delicacies like Spam with rice and eggs at the local McDonald’s.

In fact, as reported by The New York Times, Hawaiians consume more Spam than any other Americans, a habit that dates back to World War II. If I were to write a whole piece about this I’d note that there are more varieties of Spam sold in Hawaii than anywhere else, including Spam Garlic, Spam Bacon, Spam with Cheese, Spam with Tabasco, Spam Turkey and Spam Lite (Monty Python fans: insert gratuitous Spam joke here).

But I digress. You have to observe with some bemusement that not so long ago, there were Republicans campaigning for a change in the Constitution that instead of denying access would have allowed foreign-born citizens -- Henry Kissinger or Arnold Schwarzenegger, to be precise -- to become president. But of course, those two are white Europeans (and it’s a little known fact that Kissinger, like Arnold, has won the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding title an incredible seven times).

I’m guessing that none of those same Republicans would have challenged whether Henry K. had grades good enough to get into Harvard, where he received his BA, MA and Ph.D. Which brings us to Donald Trump, who not only embraced the racism of the birther movement but also sought to rouse the prejudices of affirmative action haters by demanding to see Obama’s academic records, implying that the president did not have the grades for Columbia and Harvard Law School but was admitted solely because of his skin color. ("I heard he was a terrible student, terrible. How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? …I have friends who have smart sons with great marks, great boards, great everything and they can’t get into Harvard.")

All of this was ample fodder for a column, too, but President Obama and Saturday Night Live’s Seth Meyers so deftly and surgically skewered Trump at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner that a piece devoted to the Trumpster suddenly seemed superfluous. Meyers especially lobbed zinger after zinger while The Donald silently sat there at The Washington Post’s table as grumpy-looking as Sam the Eagle on the old Muppets show. (Ever the class act, Trump told Fox News afterwards that Meyer’s delivery "frankly was not good. He’s a stutterer...")

By Monday, though, Trump was suggesting a moratorium of several days on "debating party politics," using a call for patriotism as a diversion, diving for cover behind the successful killing of Osama bin Laden, memories of 9/11 and the women and men of the military -- trying to avoid for a while at least the media attention he usually covets. Suddenly, comparisons are odious, especially to one whose vitriol and bullying, "You’re fired!" management style stack up so unfavorably when held up against what White House counterterrorism advisor Jack Brennan described as "one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory."

For in the end, the story of the week was those Navy SEALS on the ground in Pakistan whose forty-minute firefight eliminated the man who epitomized the horror of worldwide terrorism. In the weeks and months to come, whether his death changes anything, whether it shortens war or makes America safer or eases the anti-Islam xenophobia that so diminishes us – that will be something to write about.


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

Monday, May 02, 2011

A "feel-good" moment for the country

There isn't a soul old enough to remember the look of horror on the face of people running from the World Trade Center while the buildings were burning who doesn't want to share in the celebration of news that the architect of that disaster, Osama bin Laden, is no longer walking among us.

Likewise, no one will deny that the elimination of bin Laden is an historical milestone. But, lasting peace will never come about through vengeance, or bloodshed. Lasting peace can only be accomplished through tolerance, compassion, and understanding.

The work is not done. Only a symbol has been removed. The underlying causes that produced the monstrous crimes of bin Laden still remain. As a planet, we must address those causes. We must work to end global hunger, and economic inequality. We must work to end world poverty.

I'm sure President Obama would agree how important it is that we educate ourselves about those whose views differ from our own, and embrace those differences. We must not look to blame Muslims, but say, as the president rightly did on Sunday, that "bin Laden wasn't a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims." Now more than ever, it's imperative not to think of followers of Islam as bin Ladens in training any more than we think of those who follow Christianity as Hitlers in training.

To those who say, "the dude needed to be taken out," okay. That may be true. We have centuries of jurisprudence that might wish to phrase it differently, but no one wants to deny a "feel-good" moment for a country for which, in the past decade, those moments have been few and far between. But, feeling good only lasts a moment, then reality sets in, and unless the work begins in earnest to make this place a liveable place for all of us, there will be even fewer feel-good moments to come.

It has become almost customary for the United States to act in ways that defy international law, Geneva, and the Constitution, so why we should we start now? "Justice has been served;" well, that may not be exactly what the framers had in mind. Having said that, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who can honestly say they shed a tear on hearing that Osama bin Laden lost his life in such a violent way. Those who live by the sword die by the sword, and that maxim excludes no one.

Ultimately, justice is the result of a process, not an act. However tempting it is to think that the demise of one person will lead to the cessation of conflict, it simply isn't true. It is easier to destroy a symbol than a way of thinking. Until true justice is served, this planet will be wracked with plagued by senseless, horrific acts of violence, and equally senseless acts of revenge