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New July 2013

Driving Government Out of Business

Republican operative Grover Norquist used to quip about shrinking government to the point where it would get small enough to drown in the bathtub. You probably thought he was kidding. His joke could be on us all soon enough. Pollsters say the Republican Party is likely to nab at least a slim Senate majority in this year’s mid-term elections. And The Washington Post gives Republicans a 99 percent chance of retaining their firm control over the House of Representatives. The GOP’s Sharp Teeth, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib If the experts are getting these forecasts right, the GOP will completely dominate Congress for the first time in eight years. What could go wrong? Well, a lot. For starters, consider these four pillars of public service that the Republican Party will try to send down the drain. First, there’s Social Security. Their game is to gradually chip away at the nation’s primary retirement benefit program and then privatize it when it runs into trouble. Scores of Social Security offices around the country have already closed even though record numbers of people are turning 65, setting the stage for failure. Then, there’s what passes for affordable health care in the United States. Despite the Republicans’ sneering over “Obamacare,” their backers in the health insurance industry love its requirement that everyone must get one of their plans. Next up on the GOP agenda: replacing Medicare with a voucher system. And don’t forget the public schools. Many Republicans are heeding a push by billionaires to jam as many pupils as possible into charter and online K-12 schools. That means taxpayers are increasingly paying private businesses to educate their kids at ostensibly public facilities. And do kids learn more at brick-and-mortar charters or virtual schools? In a word, nope. Finally, Republicans are tampering with your mail. The U.S. Postal Service is losing money because Congress forced it to pay upfront for future retirement benefits — unlike any other agency — creating the illusion that it’s on a shaky footing. This started the last time the GOP controlled both chambers, when lawmakers produced the cynically named Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act. If Republicans recover their majority in both chambers, this absurd law would be sure to stay on the books. There’s nothing new about trying to replace government services with private ones or substituting contract workers for government employees. And the GOP doesn’t always act on its own. Plenty of Democrats are joining with their colleagues across the aisle to accomplish at least some of these maneuvers. The difference today is money. Thanks to a string of Supreme Court decisions, corporations and wealthy individuals may contribute nearly limitless amounts of money to political campaigns. Later, they demand favorable policies when their candidates win. The result? Social Security, schools, affordable health care, the postal service, and other essential government operations all suffer as the private sector extracts ever larger profits from the public realm. Grover Norquist has compelled most Republican politicians to swear off raising the tax revenue that might cover the cost of delivering essential public services. Is this what Norquist envisioned before he conjured up his his anti-tax pledge? Probably.

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Before the Zombie Apocalypse – These Four Trade Deals Were Ravaging the World

This time of year, the fabric that separates our world from prowling ghouls is at its thinnest. But what really keeps us at YES! Magazine up at night are the international trade agreements constantly being negotiated by the United States and its partners—each one more terrifying than the last. How can something as pleasant-sounding as “free trade” be more threatening than a zombie apocalypse? The devil’s in the details, and the fine print on some of these agreements is enough to curdle a bucket of blood. Whether it’s blocking a ban on chocolate-flavored cigarettes marketed to kids, or rolling back post-2008 regulations on Wall Street, these deals have a way of favoring corporations over people. They’re not popular, as you might imagine, and in some cases people’s movements have been able to stop them in their tracks. In response, proponents of the deals have attempted to slip under the radar by conducting negotiations in secret. Here are four of the scariest deals—and why they’re so abominable. The World Trade Organization, created in 1995 as a re-imagining of an earlier group called the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, is the mother of all trade bodies and sets the rules for the flow of goods and services between countries. The WTO claims its goal is to “improve the welfare of the peoples of the member countries.” But critics say what it really does is force poor nations to open their markets to wealthier ones, who themselves often bend the WTO’s rules. The WTO also gives companies a place to complain about regulations enacted by democratically elected governments. It has found fault with laws protecting public health, the environment, workers’ rights, and other things that would affect industries’ bottom line. Recent rulings have objected to producers labeling certain kinds of tuna as “dolphin safe;” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s ban on sweet-flavored cigarettes that entice kids; and labels that inform consumers what country meat products originated in. The WTO says such labels violate the rights of Mexican and Canadian farmers to a level playing field. The United States sometimes refuses to comply—but risks trade sanctions when it does so. Perhaps most frightening of all, the WTO (along with NAFTA) has spawned a whole new brood of bilateral and regional deals that take the same approach to trade and development. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, if approved, would promote trade between the United States and the European Union. The deal has some bright spots—for example, it would universalize the plugs for electric cars. But American negotiators are also pushing hard to overturn Europe’s ban on imports of U.S.-grown genetically modified crops. Meanwhile, European negotiators and bankers are trying to set Wall Street free from regulations passed after the financial crisis of 2008. According to the nonprofit research group Public Citizen, they want to roll back the Volcker Rule, which restricts U.S. banks from the riskiest investments, and to block efforts to limit the size of banks. When President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada in 1993, he sold it to the people of the United States as a job creator. “NAFTA means jobs,” he said. “American jobs, and good-paying American jobs.” More than 20 years later, the agreement’s dark side is showing. The U.S. government’s own Trade Adjustment Assistance program acknowledges that nearly 900,000 workers in the United States have officially lost their jobs due to the relocation of businesses to Canada or Mexico under NAFTA. Meanwhile, exports of cheap U.S. corn have damaged the livelihoods of Mexican farmers and driven huge waves of migration. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of Mexican-born people living in the United States more than doubled from 4.5 million to 9.8 million. The Trans Pacific Partnership, if approved, would unite 12 Pacific Rim countries into the world’s largest free trade area, comprising 40 percent of the global economy. When he spoke about the TPP in 2011, President Barack Obama, who has made the deal’s passage a major objective of his administration, sounded a lot like Clinton in 1993. Obama said the deal “will boost our economies, lowering barriers to trade and investment, increasing exports, and creating more jobs for our people.” But leaked sections of the agreement’s secret text show the TPP taking more controversial stances—and it has its tentacles on a breathtaking variety of issues. On health care, U.S. negotiators seem to be working at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry, trying to extend the rights of patent-holders to charge more money for medicines. On labor, the TPP makes it easier for companies to move manufacturing to low-wage Vietnam, but offers no enforceable provisions to prevent abuse. On the environment, it preserves the status quo, doing little to prevent the illegal logging and overfishing that are taxing the forests and oceans of the region. Last but not least, advocates of a free Internet are up in arms over sections in the TPP’s intellectual property chapter they say would significantly diminish the free speech rights of web users.

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Is OCA’s “Traitor” Boycott Working?

It’s boycott time again. With less than two weeks to go before voters in Oregon and Colorado decide on ballot initiatives to require mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the Junk Food Giants are at it again. According to the latest numbers provided by the pro-labeling campaigns (as of October 22, 2014), the opposition in Oregon has raised $16.5 million to defeat Measure 92, while opponents of Colorado’s Proposition 105 have raised $14.3 million. Monsanto is the largest donor to both campaigns, with combined donations totaling approximately $8.8 million. While Dow has spent only $668,000 in both states, DuPont Pioneer has dumped a combined whopping $7.46 million into the opposition’s war chests in Colorado and Oregon. But apart from Monsanto, and now DuPont Pioneer, the most prolific donors to the campaigns intent on defeating the Oregon and Colorado GMO labeling initiatives have been large, multinational food corporations. Many of these corporations own organic and “natural” brands—brands we’ve been asking consumers to boycott ever since Big Food helped defeat Proposition 37, California’s citizen-led GMO labeling initiative, in 2012. Has the boycott strategy worked? Aside from a couple of exceptions, the “Traitor” Boycott hasn’t kept Big Food from continuing to spend millions to block GMO labeling campaigns. But there’s evidence that the reputations, and in some cases, revenues, of some of the natural and organic brands have suffered. And even more evidence to suggest that some of those brands’ parent companies, including big anti-labeling donors Coca-Cola and General Mills, are struggling to overcome declining profits and consumer distrust. This much is clear: It’s time to step up the pressure on all of the brands owned by companies that are pouring millions of dollars into defeating your right to know. Big Food Would Rather Fight than Switch The big, multinational food companies are pouring millions into fighting GMO labeling laws for one reason—to protect the profits they make by selling products loaded with cheap, GMO ingredients like hydrogenated cooking oils, sugar (from genetically engineered beets), high fructose corn syrup and trans fats. GMOs are the feedstock for junk food. Even though these corporations make GMO-free versions of many of their brands, for sale in countries that require labeling of GMO ingredients, here in the U.S., companies are digging in their heels to avoid reformulating popular junk food brands. With 93 percent of Americans in favor of GMO labeling laws, has Big Food’s very expensive, very public anti-labeling support made the companies’ brands less appealing to consumers? Let’s take a look at a few of the top funders of anti-labeling campaigns. Coca-Cola: The headlines say it all. “Have a Coke and a…Nevermind,” wrote a blogger at Barron’s this week. “Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors,” according to Slate. Coke’s third-quarter net income was down a staggering 14 percent, compared with the previous year. The company’s answer to consumers’ lack of interest in its product? Its “Share a Coke” campaign, launched in June. The “mass personalization” campaign aims to make people more eager to buy Coke, by putting “ordinary names” on Coke cans and bottles. Nice try, but as one reporter wrote, “Investors waiting for Coca-Cola’s fundamentals to turn around will need strong stomachs.” Coke donated $3.2 million to defeat Prop 37 and I-522, and despite its recent financial woes, has so far contributed a total of $2.27 million to the NO on 92 and NO on Prop 105 campaigns. General Mills: Following a “bleak” fourth quarter, General Mills recently announced a two-year plan to cut costs by $100 million by, among other things, closing two plants and slashing 700-800 jobs. The struggling cereal-maker took a couple of steps this year to try to woo health-conscious consumers. In January 2014, the Minneapolis-based company announced that its Cheerios brand would be GMO-free. (The company said none of its other brands would follow suit and, in September, shareholders unanimously rejected a proposal to dump GMOs from all General Mills products). Just this week, General Mills finalized its acquisition of Annie’s Naturals, a move aimed at boosting sales by capturing a piece of the growing organic sales pie. Annie’s reported 20-percent sales growth in fiscal year 2013. But according to Sustainable Food News, the organic favorite recently reported a first-quarter net loss of $1.1 million, and a 45-percent decline in sales “due to inventory reductions by its largest customer.” The Organic Consumers Association added Annie’s to the boycott list, after the acquisition was announced. General Mills donated a total of $3.2 million to defeat Prop 37 and I-522, and has contributed $1.5 million so far in an attempt to block GMO labeling initiatives in Oregon and Colorado. Kellogg’s: Whether it’s lack of consumer interest in cereals, or growing concern about the ingredients in those cereals—or a reputation tarnished by lawsuits and the company’s support of anti-labeling campaigns—either way, Kellogg’s isn’t doing a lot better than General Mills. According to the Motley Fool: “Sales in Kellogg’s biggest division, U.S. breakfast foods, fell 5 percent last quarter. Worse still, operating profit from that product line was down 20 percent through the first six months of the year.” Kellogg’s doesn’t rank high in the trust department among consumers who favor transparency in labeling. Earlier this year, the Battle Creek, Mich., company paid $5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for falsely labeling Kashi products as “All Natural” or “Nothing Artificial.” Kellogg’s has contributed a total of $1.85 million to defeat GMO labeling initiatives. Hershey’s: The Hershey brand itself is healthy, at least among children and teens, according to the latest Piper Jaffray “Young Love” survey, which ranked Hershey’s second only to iPad. Still, sales are down and the chocolate-maker is looking to the acquisition of Shanghai Golden Monkey Food Company, a leading confectionary in China, to help revive them. Hershey’s donated $800,000 to defeat California’s Prop 37 and Washington’s I-522, and another $500,000 to defeat this year’s initiatives in Oregon and Colorado. The company has only one organic brand on the “Traitor” Boycott list—Dagoba. Pepsi-Co: One giant corporation heavily invested in defeating consumers’ right to know, but still apparently thriving, is Pepsi-Co. Across-the-board sales of soda are down. But analysts say the company’s financial strength is due in large part to strong sales of its Doritos and Frito-Lay brands. One Pepsi brand that isn’t thriving is Naked Juice (also on our Traitor Boycott list). In August, Pepsi settled a $9 million lawsuit for using phrases like “100% Juice,” “100% Fruit,” “From Concentrate,” “All Natural,” “All Natural Fruit,” “All Natural Fruit + Boosts” and “Non-GMO” to describe its “healthy” Naked Juice line. Pepsi is one of the biggest donors to anti-labeling campaigns, having contributed $4.8 million in California and Washington, and $3 million in Oregon and Colorado. Two companies that previously donated to anti-labeling campaigns have been missing-in-action in Oregon and Colorado. Unilever, owner of Ben & Jerry’s, donated $467,000 to help defeat Prop 37 in California, but sat out the battle over I-522 in Washington. The global food company hasn’t directly donated to anti-labeling campaigns in Oregon and Colorado. But Unilever is a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), a donor to all anti-labeling campaigns, and party to a lawsuit against Vermont aimed at overturning the state’s new GMO labeling law, passed earlier this year. Nestlé, owner of Gerber Organic and also a member of the GMA, contributed a total of $3 million to defeat California and Washington State initiatives. So far the company hasn’t shown up on the list of donors to anti-labeling campaigns in either Oregon or Colorado. Did consumer pressure cause Unilever and Nestlé to back off in Oregon and Colorado? We can’t prove that. But we do know that it was fear of consumer backlash, following California’s Prop 37 campaign, that led the GMA to illegally launder millions in donations to the NO on I-522 campaign the following year, in Washington, in order to shield food corporations. What about the organic and natural ‘Traitor’ brands? Organic Consumers Association first launched the “Traitor” Boycott, in 2012, on the premise that the more than one million consumers in our network don’t buy products like Coke, Diet Pepsi and Fruit Loops—but they do buy organic and natural brands owned by Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co and Kellogg’s. Initial response was strong. Consumers signed petitions, harassed brands on social media, called customer hotlines. Especially encouraging were the trends we found, in the year immediately following the loss of Prop 37 in California, as we researched organic and natural health stores for our top Right to Know Grocer’s Contest. A significant number of store owners and managers told us at the time that they were discounting and/or eliminating not only products containing GMOs, but organic (non-GMO) products owned by the parent companies of big donors who opposed California’s GMO labeling initiative. For example, a manager at Eugene, Ore.-based Sundance Natural Foods, told us in early 2013: “Our policy is to investigate the business practices of parent companies. If a brand line of organics happens to be owned by a multinational or national brand identified as a “traitor brand”, we do a practices and policy analysis of the subsidiary company in relation to the practices of the parent company. If we feel that the parent company exerts undue influence on the practices of the organic line, we then begin to phase out or search for ways to reduce brand representation on or shelves.” This week, we checked back with Sean O’Hare at Florida-based Sunseed Natural Foods Co-Op, to ask if the store continues to phase out brands owned by anti-labeling donors, and he confirmed that’s the case. He said Sunseed has replaced some of those brands with alternative “brands with integrity.” Did all this consumer outrage and responsive (and responsible) buying by retailers have an impact? According to April 2014 SPINS data, brands that contributed to campaigns opposing Proposition 37 and I-522 showed a 0.02-percent decline during the first three months of 2014, compared with same-period sales in 2013. Sales of brands that supported Prop 37 and I-522 grew at an average rate of 9.9 percent during the same three-month period. (Source: Sales data from SPINS, an independent information provider for the Natural and Organic industry. 12-week period ending 3/23/2014 versus the same period year prior). One inside source at a major organic retail chain estimated a 20-percent decrease in sales of “Traitor” brands. So, is the “Traitor” Boycott working? We believe it is, as consumers pay more and more attention to GMO labeling initiatives, and who’s spending how much to defeat them. We also believe that by drawing attention to the parent companies of the “Traitor” brands, we’re slowly chipping away at those company images and brands. Maybe not every brand. Maybe not every company. But consumers are having an impact. And there’s no better time than now, while the money is still pouring into anti-labeling campaigns in not one, but two states, to renew the boycott pledge. *Top donors to Colorado’s No on 105 CampaignMonsanto, $4.7 millionDuPont/Pioneer, $3.04 millionPepsico, $1.65 millionCoca-Cola, $1.1 millionKraft Foods, $1.03 millionGeneral Mills, $820,000The Hershey Co., $380,000J.M. Smucker Co., $345,000Dow Agrosciences, a Dow Chemical Company, $300,000Kellogg Co., $250,000Conagra Foods, $250,000Flowers Food Inc., $250,000Smithfield Foods, $200,000(*Source: No on 105 Campaign) *Top donors to Oregon’s NO on 92 CampaignMonsanto – $4.8 millionDupont/Pioneer – $4.46 millionPepsi – $1.4 millionCoke – $1.17 millionKraft – $870,000Land O’Lakes – $760,000General Mills – $695,000Kelloggs – $500,000Dow – $368,300Hershey – $320,000Smuckers’ – $295,000ConAgra – $250,000(*Source: Oregon Secretary of State website)

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Disposable Life: Jean Franco

Drawing upon her extensive understanding and personal experience of the Latin American region, Specialist Jean Franco maps out the history of state violence as perpetrated against disposable populations, notably indigenous, onto the privatization of atrocity in more contemporary times and what this means for normalizing a fatalistic politics that destroys hope and political transformation.Jean Franco. (Screengrab: Disposable Life)“If you think of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia there were war crime tribunals set up because of atrocities in those places. Those atrocities were absolutely no worse than the atrocities perpetrated in Latin America, and the hand behind the perpetrators was the United States,” says Jean Franco. Launched in January 2014, the histories of violence “Disposable Life” project interrogates the meaning of mass violence and human destruction in the 21st Century. Inviting critical reflections from renowned public intellectuals, artists and writers, this three year project will feature a series of monthly filmed reflections from our illustrious list of participants (see contributors below); a subsequent feature film for public broadcast; accompanying book of complementary essays and associated publications/media articles; along with a series of global events that will bring together the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to offer innovative and publicly engaging forums to inform debate and rethink the ideals of global citizenship. The tenth contribution to our reflections series is provided by the renowned Latin American specialist Jean Franco. Drawing upon her extensive understanding and personal experience of the region, Franco maps out the history of state violence as perpetrated against disposable populations, notably indigenous, onto the privatization of atrocity in more contemporary times and what this means for normalizing a fatalistic politics that destroys hope and political transformation. Franco focuses directly here on the symbolic nature of violence against disposable bodies, onto asking searching questions regarding complicity and who should still be held responsible for past atrocities.

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Trustafarians Will Teach You How to Live

As more and more people inherit considerable wealth, a new class has emerged with progressive ideals and strong opinions about how the rest of us should live.

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Trustafarians Will Tell You How to Live

As more and more people inherit considerable wealth, a new class has emerged with progressive ideals and strong opinions about how the rest of us should live.

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What Would Republicans Do With a Senate Majority?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 9, 2014. Regardless of which party controls it, Republicans will almost certainly control the House, and Democrats will hold the White House. Given how far apart the parties are on almost every major issue, the odds that major legislation will become law in the next two years are scant. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times) By now I’m sure that a lot of Americans, especially in the “Senate swing states,” are wishing that the November election would be over with already. Many are no doubt empathizing with teary-eyed Abigael Evans, the little girl in Colorado who told her mother in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential election, “I’m tired of Branco Bama and Mitt Romney.” (She seemed to be happy, though, when Obama won, which I guess could be taken as evidence that youthful impatience should not always have the last word.) According to Nate Silver’s poll aggregation and prediction site, Republicans currently have a two-thirds chance of capturing the Senate. But as Silver himself would be quick to point out, saying that this means that a Republican takeover is guaranteed would be akin to saying that the best hitter in baseball is guaranteed to fail to get on base the next time he goes to the plate, since the best hitters in baseball get on base about a third of the time, which is roughly Silver’s estimate of the Democrats’ chances of keeping a Senate majority. Election fatigue can often foster election cynicism. An Irish poet once wrote: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Maybe some progressives are asking themselves: would it really be so terrible if Republicans take over the Senate? Maybe Democrats are exaggerating how bad Republican control of the Senate would be, in order to try to gin up Democratic turnout. So perhaps it would be useful for progressives who are asking themselves how bothered they should really be about the prospect of Republican control of the Senate to eavesdrop a bit on what Republicans are saying to other Republicans about what they should do with a majority in the Senate. The Hill reports [my emphasis]: Conservatives salivating over the prospects of a huge victory on Nov. 4 are pressuring House and Senate GOP leaders to go big after Election Day. The right argues leaders should forget about playing small ball and use momentum from the midterms to put big checks on President Obama’s agenda. “People want to see a bold vision. They want to see a real fight on ObamaCare repeal and tax reform that takes a blowtorch to the tax code. They want to see real entitlement reform, not empty talk,” one conservative GOP aide said. As every politically active person should know by now, “real entitlement reform” is an insider euphemism for such things as cutting Social Security benefits by lowering the cost-of-living adjustment and raising the retirement age. Here’s what The Hill says the Republican “moderates” want to do with a Senate majority instead of the Republican conservatives’ more ambitious agenda [my emphasis]: McConnell and Boehner appear more interested in approving an authorization of the Keystone XL oil pipeline; repealing the healthcare law’s medical device tax, which is unpopular with members of both parties; and moving trade legislation. All of these measures could pick enough support to make it to Obama’s desk and win his signature. But, The Hill says, “Conservatives decry this as small ball.” What do conservatives want instead? [My emphasis.] Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) led the pressure campaign on GOP leaders to take a more forceful stance against ObamaCare and the administration’s deferred action on deportations, and he expects to gain new allies if Arkansas Rep. Tom Cotton (R), Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) and Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan (R) prevail on Tuesday. “If all they do is keep their campaign promises, we’re going to be in very good shape because they’re all running as unabashed conservatives, and one of their top priorities is repealing ObamaCare,” said another conservative Senate GOP aide. If we judge by what these Republicans are saying to each other, we can’t say for sure what Republicans are going to do if they take over the Senate, because what they are going to do is going to be the outcome of a fight between “Republican conservatives” and “Republican moderates.” But what we can say is that from a progressive point of view, the possibilities are going to range between “very bad” and “also very bad.” If the “Republican moderates” get their way, the Keystone XL oil pipeline is going to be approved, a huge setback to efforts to reform U.S. energy policies to reduce the threat of “climate chaos.” If the “Republican moderates” get their way, the Trans-Pacific Partnership “trade agreement” is going to be approved, a huge setback to efforts to reform U.S. trade policy to protect labor rights, the environment, and access to essential medicines. That’s if the “Republican moderates” prevail in the intra-Republican fight. If the Republican conservatives get their way, Congress will (also) repeal the Affordable Care Act, cut Social Security benefits, and take away authority from the President to defer deporting people who, aside from being undocumented, have never committed any crime in the United States. This isn’t what Democrats are saying Republicans are going to do. This is what Republicans are saying Republicans are going to do. Suppose that you don’t live in a Senate swing state. Is there anything you can do about this, besides clicking on those emails asking you for money? A lot of people have given serious thought to this question. Here is one example.

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“Green World Rising”: A Call to Save the Earth From Climate Change

“The threat of climate change is very real, but we have the solutions, knowledge, and ingenuity needed to help save our planet…” (Photo: Hagens World)In two previous videos narrated by Leonard DiCaprio and available over at, we’ve seen the dangers that global warming and climate change present for our planet and the human race. We’ve seen how there’s a giant sleeping monster lurking underground in the form of trapped methane gas, and we’ve learned that, if we continue to do nothing to fight climate change, that methane could get released, causing even more problems for the only planet we can call home. Finally, we’ve seen how putting a price on carbon could be one of the best ways to help fight climate change and save the future of not only our planet, but of the human race. Now, the third video in the four-part series has been released, titled Green World Rising. Green World Rising represents a call to save the human race from the devastating effects of global warming and climate change. The video focuses heavily on some of the new solar, wind, and geothermal industries that are at the forefront of creating a greener world for all of us. The threat of climate change is very real, but we have the solutions, knowledge, and ingenuity needed to help save our planet, and Green World Rising talks about how we can put those solutions and that knowledge into action right now.

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The Missing Women of Afghanistan: After 13 Years of War, the Rule of Men, Not Law

On September 29th, power in Afghanistan changed hands for the first time in 13 years. At the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as president, while the outgoing Hamid Karzai watched calmly from a front-row seat. Washington, congratulating itself on this “peaceful transition,” quickly collected the new president’s autograph on a bilateral security agreement that assures the presence of American forces in Afghanistan for at least another decade. The big news of the day: the U.S. got what it wanted. (Precisely why Americans should rejoice that our soldiers will stay in Afghanistan for another 10 years is never explained.) The big news of the day for Afghans was quite different — not the long expected continuation of the American occupation but what the new president had to say in his inaugural speech about his wife, Rula Ghani. Gazing at her as she sat in the audience, he called her by name, praised her work with refugees, and announced that she would continue that work during his presidency. Those brief comments sent progressive Afghan women over the moon. They had waited 13 years to hear such words — words that might have changed the course of the American occupation and the future of Afghanistan had they been spoken in 2001 by Hamid Karzai. No, they’re not magic. They simply reflect the values of a substantial minority of Afghans and probably the majority of Afghans in exile in the West. They also reflect an idea the U.S. regularly praises itself for holding, but generally acts against — the very one George W. Bush cited as part of his justification for invading Afghanistan in 2001. The popular sell for that invasion, you will recall, was an idea for which American men had never before exhibited much enthusiasm: women’s liberation. For years, human rights organizations the world over had called attention to the plight of Afghan women, confined to their homes by the Taliban government, deprived of education and medical care, whipped in the streets by self-appointed committees for “the Promotion of Public Virtue and the Prevention of Vice,” and on occasion executed in Kabul’s Ghazi stadium. Horrific as that was, few could have imagined an American president, a Republican at that, waving a feminist flag to cover the invasion of a country guilty mainly of hosting a scheming guest. While George W. Bush bragged about liberating Afghan women, his administration followed quite a different playbook on the ground. In December 2001, at the Bonn Conference called to establish an interim Afghan governing body, his team saw to it that the country’s new leader would be the apparently malleable Hamid Karzai, a conservative Pashtun who, like any Talib, kept his wife, Dr. Zinat Karzai, confined at home. Before they married in 1999, she had been a practicing gynecologist with skills desperately needed to improve the country’s abysmal maternal mortality rate, but she instead became the most prominent Afghan woman the Bush liberation failed to reach. This disconnect between Washington’s much-advertised support for women’s rights and its actual disdain for women was not lost upon canny Afghans. From early on, they recognized that the Americans were hypocrites at heart. Washington revealed itself in other ways as well. Afghan warlords had ravaged the country during the civil war of the early 1990s that preceded the Taliban takeover, committing mass atrocities best defined as crimes against humanity. In 2002, the year after the American invasion and overthrow of the Taliban, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission established under the auspices of the U.N. surveyed citizens nationwide and found that 76% of them wanted those warlords tried as war criminals, while 90% wanted them barred from public office. As it happened, some of those men had been among Washington’s favorite, highly paid Islamist jihadis during its proxy war against the Soviet Union of the 1980s. As a result, the Bush administration looked the other way when Karzai welcomed those “experienced” men into his cabinet, the parliament, and the “new” judiciary. Impunity was the operative word. The message couldn’t have been clearer: with the right connections, a man could get away with anything — from industrial-scale atrocities to the routine subjugation of women. There is little in the twisted nature of American-Afghan relations in the past 13 years that can’t be traced to these revelations that the United States does not practice what it preaches, that equality and justice were little more than slogans — and so, it turned out, was democracy. Taking Sides The American habit of thinking only in the short term has also shaped long-term results in Afghanistan. Military and political leaders in Washington have had a way of focusing only on the most immediate events, the ones that invariably raised fears and seemed to demand (or provided an excuse for) instantaneous action. The long, winding, shadowy paths of history and culture remained unexplored. So it was that the Bush administration targeted the Taliban as the enemy, drove them from power, installed “democracy” by fiat, and incidentally told women to take off their burqas. Mission accomplished! Unlike the Americans and their coalition partners, however, the Taliban were not foreign interlopers but Afghans. Nor were they an isolated group, but the far right wing of Afghan Islamist conservatism. As such, they simply represented then, and continue to represent in extreme form today, the traditional conservative ranks of significant parts of the population who have resisted change and modernization for as long as anyone can remember. Yet theirs is not the only Afghan tradition. Progressive rulers and educated urban citizens have long sought to usher the country into the modern world. Nearly a century ago, King Amanullah founded the first high school for girls and the first family court to adjudicate women’s complaints about their husbands; he proclaimed the equality of men and women, and banned polygamy; he cast away the burqa, and banished ultra-conservative Islamist mullahs as “bad and evil persons” who spread propaganda foreign to the moderate Sufi ideals of the country. Since then, other rulers, both kings and commissars, have championed education, women’s emancipation, religious tolerance, and conceptions of human rights usually associated with the West. Whatever its limitations in the Afghan context, such progressive thinking is also “traditional.” The historic contest between the two traditions came to a head in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation of the country. Then it was the Russians who supported women’s human rights and girls’ education, while Washington funded a set of particularly extreme Islamist groups in exile in Pakistan. Only a few years earlier, in the mid-1970s, Afghan president Mohammad Daud Khan, backed by Afghan communists, had driven radical Islamist leaders out of the country, much as King Amanullah had done before. It was the CIA, in league with the intelligence services of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that armed them and brought them back as President Ronald Reagan’s celebrated “freedom fighters,” the mujahidin. Twenty years later, it would be the Americans, spearheaded again by the CIA, who returned to drive them out once more. History can be a snarl, especially when a major power can’t think ahead. Whether by ignorance or intention, in 2001-2002, its moment of triumph in Afghanistan, the U.S. tried to have it both ways. With one hand it waved the progressive banner of women’s rights, while with the other it crafted a highly centralized and powerful presidential government, which it promptly handed over to a conservative man, who scarcely gave a thought to women. Given sole power for 13 years to appoint government ministers, provincial governors, municipal mayors, and almost every other public official countrywide, President Karzai maintained a remarkably consistent, almost perfect record of choosing only men. Once it was clear that he cared nothing for the human rights of women, the death threats against those who took Washington’s “liberation” language seriously began in earnest. Women working in local and international NGOs, government agencies, and schools soon found posted on the gates of their compounds anonymous messages — so called “night letters” — describing in gruesome detail how they would be killed. By way of Facebook or mobile phone they received videos of men raping young girls. Then the assassinations began. Policewomen, provincial officials, humanitarian workers, teachers, schoolgirls, TV and radio presenters, actresses, singers — the list seemed never to end. Some were, you might say, overkilled: raped, beaten, strangled, cut, shot, and then hung from a tree — just to make a point. Even when groups of men claimed credit for such murders, no one was detained or prosecuted. Still the Bush administration boasted of ever more girls enrolled in school and advances in health care that reduced rates of maternal and infant death. Progress was slow, shaky, and always greatly exaggerated, but real. On Barack Obama’s watch, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton renewed American promises to Afghan women. She swore repeatedly never to abandon them, though somehow she rarely remembered to invite any of them to international conferences where men discussed the future of their country. In the meantime, Karzai continued to approve legislation that tightened restrictions on the rights of women, while failing to restrict violence against them. Only in 2009, under relentless pressure from Afghan women’s organizations and many of the countries providing financial aid, did Karzai enact by decree a law for “The Elimination of Violence Against Women” (EVAW). It banned 22 practices harmful to women and girls, including rape, physical violence, child marriage, and forced marriage. Women are now reporting rising levels of violence, but few have found any redress under the law. Like the constitutional proviso that men and women are equal, the potentially powerful protections of EVAW exist mainly on paper. But after that single concession to women, Karzai frightened them by calling for peace negotiations with the Taliban. In 2012, perhaps to cajole the men he called his “angry brothers,” he also endorsed a “code of conduct” issued by a powerful group of ultra-conservative clerics, the Council of Ulema. The code authorizes wife beating, calls for the segregation of the sexes, and insists that in the great scheme of things “men are fundamental and women are secondary.” Washington had already reached a similar conclusion. In March 2011, a jocular anonymous senior White House official told the press that, in awarding contracts for major development projects in Afghanistan, the State Department no longer included provisions respecting the rights of women and girls. “All those pet rocks in our rucksack,” he said, “were taking us down.” Dumping them, the Obama administration placed itself once and for all on the side of ultraconservative undemocratic forces. Why Women Matter The U.N. Security Council has, however, cited such pet rocks as the most durable foundation stones for peace and stability in any country. In recent decades, the U.N., multiple research organizations, and academicians working in fields such as political science and security studies have piled up masses of evidence documenting the importance of equality between women and men (normally referred to as “gender equality”). Their findings point to the historic male dominance of women, enforced by violence, as the ancient prototype of all forms of dominance and violence and the very pattern of exploitation, enslavement, and war. Their research supports the shrewd observation of John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth century British philosopher, that Englishmen first learned at home and then practiced on their wives the tyranny they subsequently exercised on foreign shores to amass and control the British Empire. Such research and common sense born of observation lie behind a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions passed since 2000 that call for the full participation of women in all peace negotiations, humanitarian planning, and post-conflict governance. Women alter the discourse, while transforming unequal relations between the sexes changes men as well, generally for the better. Quite simply, countries in which women and men enjoy positions of relative equality and respect tend to be stable, prosperous, and peaceful. Today, for instance, gender equality is greatest in the five Nordic countries, which consistently finish at the top of any list of the world’s happiest nations. On the other hand, where, as in Afghanistan, men and women are least equal and men routinely oppress and violate women, violence is more likely to erupt between men as well, on a national scale and in international relations. Such nations are the most impoverished, violent, and unstable in the world. It’s often said that poverty leads to violence. But you can turn that proposition around: violence that removes women from public life and equitable economic activity produces poverty and so yet more violence. As Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong put it: “Women hold up half the sky.” Tie our hands and the sky falls. Women in Afghanistan have figured this out through hard experience. That’s why some wept for joy at Ashraf Ghani’s simple words acknowledging the value of his wife’s work. But with that small, startling, and memorable moment came a terrible sense of opportunity wasted. Some in the international community had taken the rights of women seriously. They had established women’s quotas in parliament, for instance, and had written “equal rights” into the Afghan constitution of 2004. But what could women accomplish in a parliament swarming with ex-warlords, drug barons, and “former” Taliban who had changed only the color of their turbans? What sort of “equality” could they hope for when the constitution held that no law could supersede the Sharia of Islam, a system open to extreme interpretation? Not all the women parliamentarians stood together anyway. Some had been handpicked and their votes paid for by powerful men, both inside and outside government. Yet hundreds, even thousands more women might have taken part in public life if the U.S. had sided unreservedly with the progressive tradition in Afghanistan and chosen a different man to head the country. The New Men in Charge What about Ashraf Ghani, the new president, and Abdullah Abdullah, the “CEO” of the state? These two top candidates were rivals in both the recent presidential election and the last one in 2009, when Abdullah finished second to Karzai and declined to take part in a runoff that was likely to be fraudulent. (In the first round of voting, Karzai’s men had been caught on video stuffing ballot boxes.) In this year’s protracted election, on April 5th, Abdullah had finished first in a field of eight with 45% of the votes. That was better than Ghani’s 31%, but short of the 50% needed to win outright. Both candidates complained of fraud. In June, when Ghani took 56% of the votes in the runoff, topping Abdullah’s 43%, Abdullah cried foul and threatened to form his own government. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hustled to Kabul to lash the two men together in a vague, unconstitutional “unity government” that is still being defined but that certainly had next to nothing to do with electoral democracy. Both these men appear as famously vain as Hamid Karzai in matters of haberdashery and headgear, but both are far more progressive. Ghani, a former finance minister and chancellor of Kabul University, is acknowledged to be the brainy one. After years in academia and a decade at the World Bank, he took office with plans to combat the country’s notorious corruption. He has already reopened the superficial investigation of the Kabul Bank, a giant pyramid scheme that collapsed in 2010 after handing out nearly a billion dollars in “loans” to cronies in and out of the government. (Ghani may be one of the few people who fully understands the scam.) Abdullah Abdullah is generally credited with being the smoother politician of the two in a country where politics is a matter of allegiances (and rivalries) among men. As foreign minister in the first Karzai cabinet, he appointed a woman to advise him on women’s affairs. Since then, however, his literal affairs in private have become the subject of scandalous gossip. In public, he has long proposed decentralizing the governmental structure Washington inflicted upon the country. He wants power dispersed throughout the provinces, strengthening the ability of Afghans to determine the conditions of their own communities. Something like democracy. The agreement between Ghani and Abdullah calls for an assembly of elders, a loya jirga, to be held “within two years” to establish the position of prime minister, which Abdullah will presumably want to occupy. Even before his down-and-dirty experiences with two American presidents, he objected to the presidential form of government. “A president,” he told me, “becomes an autocrat.” Power, he argues, rightly belongs to the people and their parliament. Whether these rivals can work together — they have scheduled three meetings a week — has everyone guessing, even as American and coalition forces leave the country and the Taliban attack in greater strength in unexpected places. Yet the change of government sparks optimism and hope among both Afghans and international observers. On the other hand, many Afghans, especially women, are still angry with all eight candidates who ran for president, blaming them for the interminable “election” process that brought two of them to power. Mahbouba Seraj, former head of the Afghan Women’s Network and an astute observer, points out that in the course of countless elaborate lunches and late night feasts hosted during the campaign by various Afghan big men, the candidates might have come to some agreement among themselves to narrow the field. They might have found ways to spare the country the high cost and anxiety of a second round of voting, not to mention months of recounting, only to have the final tallies withheld from the public. Instead, the candidates seemed to hold the country hostage. Their angry charges and threats stirred barely suppressed fears of civil war, and fear silenced women. “Once again,” Seraj wrote, “we have been excluded from the most important decisions of this country. We have been shut down by the oldest, most effective, and most familiar means: by force.” Women, she added, are now afraid to open their mouths, even to ask “legitimate questions” about the nature of this new government, which seems to be not a “people’s government” consistent with the ballots cast — nearly half of them cast by women — but more of “a coalition government, fabricated by the candidates and international mediators.” Government in a box, in other words, and man-made. Knowing that many women are both fearful and furious that male egos still dominate Afghan “democracy,” Seraj makes the case for women again: “Since the year 2000, the U.N. Security Council has passed one resolution after another calling for full participation of women at decision-making levels in all peace-making and nation-building processes. That means a lot more than simply turning out to vote. But we women of Afghanistan have been shut out, shut down, and silenced by fear of the very men we are asked to vote for and the men who follow them… This is not what we women have worked for or voted for or dreamed of, and if we could raise our voices once again, we would not call this ‘democracy.’” Ask yourself: Would you?

Continue reading The Missing Women of Afghanistan: After 13 Years of War, the Rule of Men, Not Law

Here’s What Women Want: The Economy Unrigged So It Works for Them

(Image: Putting a vote via Shutterstock)An Associated Press-GfK poll published this week indicates that women are shifting to favor the Republican party. “Women have moved in the GOP’s direction since September,” the AP reported. Just a month ago, 47 percent of female likely voters favored a Democratic-controlled Congress, the AP reported. “In the new poll, the two parties are about even among women; 44 percent prefer the Republicans, 42 percent the Democrats.” Is this a sign that Democratic candidates are failing to address what women need and care about? In “Women Voters: The Base of the New Populism,” the latest memorandum published through the Campaign for America’s Future’s Populist Majority project, we aggregate the polling that shows what women want to hear from congressional candidates this election cycle. Contrary to what pundits might infer from polls such as the latest from the AP, the memo says that a majority of women have “strong populist views” and “look to government to create opportunity in the economy through progressive reforms and regulations.” But if the AP poll is any indication, not enough women are hearing that message from Democratic candidates. The poll revealed that the economy remains the top priority in this election cycle, with 91 percent calling the economy “extremely” or “very” important. The GOP, according to this poll, has increased its advantage as the party more trusted to handle the issue, with 39 percent siding with Republicans and 31 percent Democrats. Meanwhile, The Washington Examiner, a conservative weekly, published a cover story by Mona Charen on “what women voters want” and how Republican candidates can win them. She argues that the Democratic party has erred by basing its appeal to women on demonizing Republican candidates’ view on reproductive rights–particularly abortion and birth control. A “single-minded focus on the gynecological,” she calls it – with a heavy dose of caricature. “Democrats lie about their opponents’ view on abortion because only by presenting Republicans as extremists can the issue work for them,” she writes. Charen, however, misses the mark. Democrats in the past have harnessed the support of women – particularly unmarried women – not only because of the Democrat’s social agenda but because of its progressive economic agenda. Reproductive issues are only a small fraction of the Democratic campaign. The “women’s economic agenda” released last year by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, which includes such items as the Equal Pay Act and child-care support for working mothers, are key reforms in this overall agenda. Yet, the AP poll should serve as a warning to Democrats that women – especially unmarried women – are about so much more than reproductive issues. That warning was echoed this week by R. Donahue Peebles, a real estate developer and vice-chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation who has also been a major fundraiser for President Obama. “I can’t count the number of times my wife has gotten direct mail pieces from candidates this election cycle about a woman’s right to choose,” he said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “… Why don’t we ask the question about why aren’t there more women as CEOs? How do we promote more entrepreneurship among women? How do we respect women as heads of households? … The Democrats should be speaking to that issue and owning that issue and they’re not.” The Populist Majority memorandum on women and the economy shows how candidates can take ownership of a progressive agenda that addresses women’s real-life needs. Contrary to Charen’s outrageous statement in the Examiner that single women are to a point looking “to the government to be a husband,” women simply want government to end the rigging of the economy that causes them to face greater economic hardship and societal burdens than men.

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The 0.01 Percent’s “I Reap All” Accounts

“The government sets limits on IRA contributions to curb this abuse, but there’s still more loophole than restriction.” (Photo: Lendingmemo)Do you remember when Mitt Romney’s IRA made headlines during his failed 2012 presidential campaign? That outsized retirement stash estimated at between $20 and $102 million probably led President Barack Obama to propose limiting the buildup of IRA values. It turns out that Romney’s gigantic IRA was no fluke. At least 9,000 wealthy Americans have amassed $5 million-plus sized IRAs. Indeed, the former Massachusetts governor’s use of a monster IRA to defer taxation is modest compared to others. Meet Max Levchin. When he helped launch Yelp, Levchin had the foresight to place at least 7 million of his original shares of Yelp stock in a tax-sheltered Roth IRA when he acquired it. The Ukrainian-born entrepreneur has sold off some of those shares since then, so estimating the size of that Roth mega-IRA requires some guesswork. Based on Yelp’s recent trading range, it easily could exceed $275 million. Roths weren’t around when Romney began stuffing his IRA with spectacularly good investments, so his fortune is stuck inside a traditional one. There’s a tradeoff between Roth and traditional IRAs. Contributions to traditional IRAs are tax-deductible while contributions to Roth IRAs aren’t. Conversely, distributions from Roth IRAs aren’t taxable, whereas distributions from traditional IRAs are. In other words, while the earnings from traditional IRAs are tax-deferred, the earnings on Roth IRAs are tax-exempt. That gives Levchin a huge advantage. While Romney saved a few thousand bucks in taxes when he established his IRA, the Yelp founding father will save millions, possibly billions, when the money comes out. Levchin’s advantage doesn’t end there. You see, he’s only 39. If his Roth IRA fortune grows at a 6 percent rate of return until he reaches the former GOP presidential hopeful’s age of 67, he’ll have amassed over $1 billion, entirely tax-free. If Levchin attains a 10 percent rate of return, his Roth IRA will be worth $4 billion by then. Of course, if he continues to invest in successful start-ups (Levchin also helped launch PayPal and Slide), his gargantuan Roth IRA could grow to $10 billion or more, all tax-free. Levchin’s advantage will continue after retirement. After reaching age 70-1/2, Romney must start drawing down his traditional IRA and paying tax on the distributions. Not Levchin. Even though it completely contradicts the supposed purpose of the IRA — to fund retirement — he can let his Roth IRA accumulate until he dies. That tax windfall will continue to amass after death. His children, now toddlers, will be required to draw down the Roth IRA, but only gradually, over their lifetimes. Max Levchin’s gigantic tax-exempt investment fund, masquerading as a retirement account, could potentially last until the end of this young century. There’s one thing both IRA schemes have in common: They’ve got nothing to do with retirement. For Romney and Levchin, it’s all about avoiding taxation. The notion that these men will ever rely on their IRAs for living expenses during their golden years — the official purpose of these accounts — is beyond laughable. The government sets limits on IRA contributions to curb this abuse, but there’s still more loophole than restriction. Although the average IRA balance continues to climb, clocking in around $92,600 as of June, it’s only a fraction of the balance held these super-sized IRAs. Could Congress end this giveaway enjoyed by the nation’s least-needy people? Easily. And it should focus on Roth IRAs, where the abuse potential is far greater. First, the rules should require that Roth IRAs be distributed during their owners’ retirement years. That’s the point of a retirement account. Second, the tax-exemption should end at death. The IRA is there to fund the owner’s retirement, not confer a lavish tax benefit on his heirs. Third, tax exemption should be limited, perhaps to the first $2 million dollars of distributions. Regulators can’t stop Roth IRA owners from realizing outsized gains, but there’s no sound reason for the tax exemption to be unlimited. After all, the goal is to help Americans save for retirement, not shield multi-million dollar fortunes from tax.

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Beware the Fear Industrial Complex

“And I’m afraid of the disconnect between white kids who pay to get locked in jail for kicks and black kids who can’t walk down the street without getting kicked and harassed by police.” (Image: Fear via Shutterstock)Be Afraid. Be very afraid. That is the message to moms (and dads too, but they tend not to be as susceptible). Be afraid of strangers, as well as friends and family too. Be afraid of bugs and dirt outside, and snot and germs inside. Be afraid of cars and bikes and motorcycles and anything with wheels. Be afraid of stairs and cribs and co-sleeping and swaddles. Be afraid of plastic and lead and vaccines and un-vaccines and asbestos and bad things in the water, air and soil. But rest easy, for every fear there is a corresponding product: something that you can buy to make you feel safer. There are wipes, cleaners, sensors, helmets, nanny cams, stranger danger seminars and locks for everything that can open. Security and peace of mind are available for a price. I knew that. But I didn’t know how far it went until I was sent a product pitch for Piper Security. Their tagline is: “with Piper you are always at home.” How horrible is that? It is a home monitoring system that will send you text messages or emails when people come and go, and it provides two-way audio and video monitoring — meaning you can yell at your kids remotely. The system allows you to stay on top of what is happening in your home while you are away (or provides a high priced illusion of that experience). Notice, I am not linking to this product. This is a fear industrial complex. I don’t like it, but I get it. There are things that can harm our kids and people want to be prepared and safeguarded. But what I really don’t understand is the flip side of the fear industrial complex: fun-fear, which is an industry unto itself. ‘Tis the season of fear, haunted houses, ghosts, ghouls and goblins. Masks, makeup and mayhem are for sale. It is a major industry at this point. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spend nearly $7 billion on Halloween annually. That fact alone is enough to make me swear off the season entirely. But, in truth, I grew up with a bit of a bah humbug about Halloween. My brother and I were not allowed to trick-or-treat as kids. Our parents and the other adults in our community saw Halloween as a teachable moment. We gave out candy, sure — but one year we stapled notes with facts about world hunger to the mini candy bars. Most of it ended up in the gutter at the top of our block. Another year, we tried to collect money from the trick-or-treaters for UNICEF. The kids thought it was a trick and we got no money from them. Still, another year we gave out homemade popcorn and apples. We told the grown-ups no one would take it because that was the year of the razor-blade-in-the-apples warnings. Needless to say, we ate a lot of stale old popcorn that weekend. This routine of disappointment for the kids in our neighborhood meant that after a while only the youngest or most intrepid and comprehensive trick-or-treaters hazarded a ring on our bell. It’s surprising we never got egged for our troubles. By the time I was old enough to buck the family prohibition on trick or treating, I was eschewing all refined sugar and way too cool to dress up. So, I pretty much missed the boat on the holiday. Halloween is a big deal around where I live, in New London, Conn. A lot of farms do corn mazes and pumpkin patches and all manner of wholesome seasonal activities. But then there is the fun-fear too. Our local newspaper just ran a feature on “room escape attractions.” I thought it was a typo. Eventually, though, I figured out what they were talking about. You pay money — like $60 per person — to get locked in a room, handcuffed to another person. In order to get free, you need to solve riddles and find clues to get the key and escape within a time limit. Oh, and you get to wear a prison jumpsuit and get your picture taken afterwards. In a nation with the world’s largest prison population — 2.3 million at last count — most of whom are locked up for nonviolent, relatively minor infractions, this is an unconscionable disconnect. I would hazard a guess that thousands of those locked up right now could be free for less than $60 — overdue child support, unpaid fines or court fees, stealing something worth less than what people pay for the fun of being locked up. The New London Day promoted this fun-fear phenomenon in the midst of reporting on the death of a young black man in local police custody. Jail is campy fun if you are white, wealthy and quick with trivia, but not if you are Lashano Gilbert. A Bahamian visiting relatives in New London, this 31-year-old medical student was tased while being arrested. The police brought him to the hospital where he was medically cleared and then discharged him back into police custody. Police tased Gilbert again a few hours later, when he escaped from his cell and reportedly attacked an officer. He died on the way to the hospital. So, this Halloween, I am afraid. But not of goblins, ghosts, the crazy cost of costumes, or the cavities my kids might get from eating too much candy. I’m afraid of the police — not for myself as a white person of privilege — but for the kids and young men in my neighborhood. And I’m afraid of the disconnect between white kids who pay to get locked in jail for kicks and black kids who can’t walk down the street without getting kicked and harassed by police. My multi-racial, mixed-income neighborhood doesn’t need my fear, though — it needs my vigilance, my voice and my solidarity. So, I will work on that, as I enter this fun-fear season in my own way. We’ll trick-or-treat on our block, welcome the gaggle of kids who scuff up our front porch, and we’ll try to see it as a time to dismantle the enduring bogeymen of racism, violence and inequity — one mini candy bar at a time.

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Dear White People (and Black and Brown People, Too), Please Go See This Film

Justin Simien’s just-released movie, Dear White People, updates Spike Lee’s School Daze and Bamboozled and explores a great multiplicity of identities as well as the afro-surreal experience of being black and submerged in whiteness.(Image: Dully Noted | Homegrown Pictures | Code Red Flms) Truthout can only survive through reader support – click here to make a tax-deductible donation and help publish journalism with real integrity and independence! At the climax of Dear White People, a minstrel-style house party, complete with white students wearing blackface, causes what the media call a “race war” at elite Winchester University. At the film’s heart, however, all the main characters who are black are masking, too. These black students slowly – though perhaps not consciously – recognize that they’ve joined the ranks of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We,” which includes generations of African-Americans who “wear the mask that grins and lies.” Though the black students do not wear the mask of racial mimicry and appropriation associated with minstrels, they do wear the mask of acceptability, of moderation, of, even, whiteness (and, even, blackness). Both masks, the ones worn by white students parodying black people and the ones worn by black students to appear less threatening, are worn at Winchester. And, in the film, Winchester is a microcosmic symbol of the United States, of white privilege in America, of the persistence of racism also at the heart – in the hearts of Americans. Directed by Justin Simien and starring the superb Tessa Thompson, Dear White People has benefitted from a smart online campaign that equals, if not exceeds, the talent of edgy sketch comedies like “Saturday Night Live” and “Chappelle’s Show.” Presented as “The More You Know PSAs” and State Farm-style “Racism Insurance” ads, Dear White People online examines everyday encounters between white and black Americans with fact-based lessons on how white folk can check their own racism. Crossing the vast minefield that still separates black and white in this country is a task Simien does well, even when black and white are joined in one brown body. Thompson plays mixed-race Sam, host of an on-campus radio show, aspiring filmmaker and reluctant leader of black students seeking power over their residence hall at Winchester. That she is often afraid, unsure and nervous when speaking in front of groups makes her fearless confidence when positioned behind a microphone more powerful. Like all her peers at Winchester, Sam is fast-thinking, fast-talking and poised. Also like her peers, she is a young person coming of age within the gates of an institution ill-equipped to nurture diverse students of promise into the leadership roles their Ivy League educations should ensure. Perhaps those closest to the institution, the two sons of Winchester administrators, one black, one white, best prove this point. That the most privileged of each race remains most handicapped by his father’s legacy at Winchester speaks volumes about the failure of all US institutions to bring out the best in all Americans. Black students, including the dean’s son, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), survive, even manage to thrive despite – and not because of – the inept adults at Winchester. The most privileged young white male of all, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), is brash and popular, but also indecisive, unimaginative and more than a little bit dangerous – all a consequence of his inherited status as the son of Winchester’s president. Please Note: Spoiler Alert (Below) Just as the film examines the black-white binary with stunningly fresh intelligence, Dear White People also examines sexual orientation and the extra burden members of the LGBTQ community who are also black must shoulder. Lionel Higgins, played by Tyler James Williams of “Everybody Hates Chris” fame, experiences violence in nearly every scene he occupies. Unable to cope with racism in the gay community and afraid of homophobia in the black community, Lionel is ostracized and fetishized, sometimes simultaneously. Marginalized, objectified, voiceless, friendless, his physical assault in the party scene is just a new form of the emotional and psychological punishment he receives for simply existing. Lionel gathers allies, though, so his eventual victory is both a welcome relief and completely believable. Dear White People is a skillful film. References to other films and filmmakers only enhance the audience’s appreciation for the level of craft it achieves. The casting choice of Dennis Haysbert (the real-life voice and face of Allstate Insurance) as Troy’s father is just one of many winks Simien gives that link his online campaign with the feature film. Much of what works in the film is subtle, even sublime. Filled with arresting images and powerful scenes of microaggressions and racial bias, the feature narrative goes well beyond merely shocking the audience, as Sam’s white lover Gabe (Justin Dobies) urges her to do after she screens her reinterpretation of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in class. Gabe tells Sam to hold up a mirror to the school community, and she does, earning her film within the film much deserved and resounding applause. Sam’s student film unmasks the hip-hop house party and reveals a horror show, with drunken participants simultaneously mocking authentic black culture and painful black subjugation while exploiting racist stereotypes to titillate and “eat the other.” That these horror shows go on, especially during Halloween, on college campuses all around the country, only magnetizes the full extent of the macabre aspects of eating and regurgitating blackness. Dear White People unmasks this horror and the ghouls that produce it. The film also unmasks the black characters who seek inclusion. Sam desires inclusion among her fellow black students, but is slowly able to literally and figuratively let down her hair and fully express not only the white half of her biracial identity, but also her deep and mutual love affair with a white student. Their public expression of a private love, a simple gesture of hand-holding, is one of the most poignant moments in the film. The other important female character, Colandrea “Coco” Conners, played by the irresistible Teyonah Parris, literally and figuratively removes the blond wig that symbolizes her desire for white privilege and also hinders her expression of personal (black) power. Her cool strength through most of Dear White People is a mask, and, when the film concludes, she emerges even more powerful, fully capable of verbally challenging Troy and, despite the status he inherits from his daddy, preventing him from reducing her to the category of side chick or fling. It was time for a young black filmmaker to update Spike Lee’s School Daze and Bamboozled. With great attention paid to black female intersectionality and open examinations of black LGBTQ life, Justin Simien explores a great multiplicity of identities and the afro-surreal experience of being black and submerged in whiteness.

Continue reading Dear White People (and Black and Brown People, Too), Please Go See This Film

Mandatory Rehab Is Just the Newest Front in the War on Drugs

The yard at the Albert M. “Bo” Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center in Trenton, New Jersey, March 13, 2012. The Bo Robinson center is run by a company with deep ties to Gov. Chris Christie that dominates New Jersey’s system of large halfway houses, where there has been little state oversight, despite widespread problems. (Photo: Richard Perry / The New York Times) The past few months have seen a wide variety of political leaders extolling the virtues of drug treatment over incarceration. Major Republican figureheads are now on the bandwagon – perhaps none more voraciously than Chris Christie, who recently announced at a summit on addiction destigmatisation, “There but for the grace of God go I – that’s how I look at addiction.” He has also offered a solution: “When you give people the tools to save their own lives, that’s God’s miracles happening in their own lives.”The yard at the Albert M. “Bo” Robinson Assessment and Treatment Center in Trenton, New Jersey, March 13, 2012. The Bo Robinson center is run by a company with deep ties to Gov. Chris Christie that dominates New Jersey’s system of large halfway houses, where there has been little state oversight, despite widespread problems. (Photo: Richard Perry / The New York Times) From Maya Schenwar, Truthout’s Editor-in-Chief, comes a hard-hitting and personal exploration of the enormous damage prison causes by severing millions of people from their families and communities – and the practical alternatives to incarceration that can create a safer, more just world. Get the book Locked Down, Locked Out before it’s available anywhere else, only via Truthout! Click here to order. The past few months have seen a wide variety of political leaders extolling the virtues of drug treatment over incarceration. Major Republican figureheads are now on the bandwagon – perhaps none more voraciously than Chris Christie, who recently announced at a summit on addiction destigmatisation, “There but for the grace of God go I – that’s how I look at addiction.” He has also offered a solution: “When you give people the tools to save their own lives, that’s God’s miracles happening in their own lives.” What are those tools? One of Christie’s triumphs is a 2012 bill that allows New Jersey counties to impose mandatory sentences to drug court – in other words, forcing non-violent drug offenders to enter treatment in lieu of jail time, whether they want to or not. It’s a strategy that’s been hailed by Democrats and Republicans across the country as an ideal alternative to incarceration for drug users. However, when it comes to crime, punishment and public health problems, quick fixes are rarely the most effective solutions. The drug treatment mandate is no exception. While the shift toward mandatory treatment is certainly an improvement over incarceration for people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offences, mandatory treatment often still involves uprooting and confining people in an ostensible effort to make society safer. Even when it comes to treatment programs that don’t mirror the isolation-driven practices of prison, the mandate fuels a situation in which the state dictates what people are doing with their time, their bodies and their life choices. And mandates like these disproportionately dictate the choices of people of colour: though white people are more likely to use drugs, black people are more likely to get arrested for them. If we are really striving for a public health approach to drug-related problems, addiction treatment must always be an option, not a mandate. Drug use is often framed as the one arena of human health that shouldn’t involve personal choice. Quitting cigarettes is optional. So is taking antibiotics for a nasty case of strep throat. If you’ve got cancer and opt to forego chemotherapy, that is your decision. But if you’re a drug user, the logic follows, there’s no way you can lead a worthwhile existence unless you stop. However, the vast majority of people who use illegal substances are not physically dependent on them – and that even some of those who did live with dependencies still prioritise housing, food and other basic needs over their drugs of choice, contrary to popular perceptions of drug users. Meanwhile, treatment centres often function on principles similar to those of prisons, confining people in close quarters and imposing heavy surveillance and a strict schedule (and sometimes keeping them on lockdown). Often, there are stringent limits on outside contact, though visits are usually permitted much more frequently than in prison. Treatment centres aren’t required to facilitate residents’ post-treatment search for housing or jobs and, as with prison, it’s difficult to maintain relationships with folks on the outside that might prove helpful in the future. Even when treatment is mandated, the array of choices at stake is often dramatically determined by social class. As with the enormous race- and class-based oppression that shapes every stage of the criminal legal system, a treatment mandate means different levels of liberty and different levels of disconnection, depending on your racial privilege and financial assets (or lack thereof). Less harsh or restrictive sentences are much more likely to be granted to white defendants. And defendants with the economic power to do so can often choose a high-priced, fancier rehab facility instead of the usually underfunded public one. Doing so usually means more individualised care, more comfortable living spaces, more nutritious food, more family involvement and more freedoms. Meanwhile, one group of drug users is especially underserved by policies focused on treatment as an incarceration alternative: those who wish to enter treatment entirely of their own accord. Even as enthusiasm rises for sending people to treatment centres instead of prison, in many places it’s still quite expensive to get good elective care for addiction. As a former New Jersey drug court prosecutor put it, “The only way you can get the state to pay for drug treatment is to commit a crime and thereafter be sentenced to drug court.” If our leaders want to – as Chris Christie put it – “give people the tools to save their lives,” those tools need to be made available to all people who feel their health is in danger. Even the most well-meaning liberals must ask themselves: If shepherding live human bodies – usually bodies of color – off to prison to isolate and manipulate them without their permission isn’t ethical, why is shipping those bodies off to compulsory rehab an acceptable alternative? Some studies have posited that “quasi-compulsory” rehab might be ok, ethics-wise, as long as folks are also given the option to go to prison. But when the choices are confinement versus confinement, brutal caging versus gentler caging, what kind of liberty is that? Can freedom be boiled down to a game of choose-your-own-cell?

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Stop Telling Women to Smile

Brooklyn-based painter and illustrator Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is taking it upon herself to stop street harassment by creating a series of posters pasted in public places. Entitled Stop Telling Women To Smile, the series features portraits of women responding to daily dialogues they might face walking down the street. The series aims to empower women, allowing them to take control of their surroundings. “Yelling or whistling at a woman on the street like she’s a dog who will come when you call, or telling a woman to ‘Smile. It can’t be that bad. You’d be so much prettier if you smiled,’ dehumanizes her. It reduces her purpose to pleasing the male gaze. The posters, answering that reduction with confrontation, are meant to show street harassers that they are not entitled to women’s smiles or any other part of them.” – Madison Carlson of Feminspire.

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Unbelievable GOP Statements on Voter Suppression

You would think that making it easier for citizens to vote would be something for everyone in a democracy to celebrate. But the shocking remarks by these six government officials — some of whom will be on the November ballot — tell a different story. Governor Chris Christie: Same-Day Voter Registration Is a “Trick” and GOP Needs to Win Gubernatorial Races So They Control “Voting Mechanisms” Earlier this week, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spoke at a US Chamber of Commerce gathering in Washington, DC. In his comments, The Record reports that Christie “pushed further into the contentious debate over voting rights than ever before, saying Tuesday that Republicans need to win gubernatorial races this year so that they’re the ones controlling ‘voting mechanisms’ going into the next presidential election.” This isn’t the first time Christie’s come clean about GOP intentions at the ballot box. In August, while campaigning in Chicago for Bruce Rauner, the GOP candidate challenging Gov. Pat Quinn, Christie complained that Illinois would become the 11th state to permit same-day voter registration this November — a move supporters say will increase turnout and improve access. Christie didn’t see it that way, calling it an underhanded Democratic get-out-the-vote tactic. Christie said of Quinn: “I see the stuff that’s going on. Same-day registration all of a sudden this year comes to Illinois. Shocking,” he added sarcastically. “I’m sure it was all based upon public policy, good public policy to get same-day registration here in Illinois just this year, when the governor is in the toilet and needs as much help as he can get.” He added that the voter registration program is designed to be a major “obstacle” for Republican gubernatorial candidates. Fran Millar: Georgia Senator Complains About Polling Place Being Too Convenient for Black Voters Georgia state Senator Fran Millar (R-Dunwoody) wrote an angry op-ed following the news that DeKalb County, part of which he represents, will permit early voting on the last Sunday in October. The voting will take place at the Gallery at South DeKalb mall. Here’s what Millar wrote in The Atlanta-Journal Constitution: “[T]his location is dominated by African-American shoppers and it is near several large African-American mega churches such as New Birth Missionary Baptist… Is it possible church buses will be used to transport people directly to the mall since the poll will open when the mall opens? If this happens, so much for the accepted principle of separation of church and state.” Millar, who is senior deputy whip for the Georgia Senate Republicans, promised to put an end to Sunday balloting in DeKalb County when state lawmakers assemble in the Capitol in January. Doug Preis: An Ohio GOP Chair Says We Shouldn’t Accommodate the “Urban — Read African-American — Voter-Turnout Machine” In 2012, Republican officials in Ohio were limiting early voting hours in Democratic-majority counties, while expanding them on nights and weekends in Republican counties. In response to public outcry, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted mandated the same early voting hours in all 88 Ohio counties. He kept early voting hours from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays from October 2 to 19 and broadened hours from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from October 22 to November 2. But he refused to expand voting hours beyond 7 p.m. during the week, on weekends or three days prior to the election — which is when voting is most convenient for many working-class Ohioans. Here’s what the Franklin Party (Columbus) Ohio GOP chair, Doug Preis, and close adviser to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said about limiting early voting. “I guess I really actually feel we shouldn’t contort the voting process to accommodate the urban — read African-American — voter-turnout machine.” (And yes, he actually said “read African-American,” that wasn’t inserted.) Greg Abbott: Texas AG Says Partisan Districting Decisions Are Legal, Even if There Are “Incidental Effects” on Minority Voters The 2010 Census results showed that 89 percent of the population growth in Texas came from minorities, but “when it came to fitting those new seats in the map, Republican lawmakers made sure three of them favored Republicans, who tend to be white,” according to the Associated Press. The Justice Department claims that Texas lawmakers intentionally redrew the state’s congressional districts in order to dilute the Hispanic vote. Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is running for governor of Texas, wrote the following in a letter to the Department of Justice defending the state’s voting maps: “DOJ’s accusations of racial discrimination are baseless. In 2011, both houses of the Texas Legislature were controlled by large Republican majorities, and their redistricting decisions were designed to increase the Republican Party’s electoral prospects at the expense of the Democrats. It is perfectly constitutional for a Republican-controlled legislature to make partisan districting decisions, even if there are incidental effects on minority voters who support Democratic candidates.” Ted Yoho: Only Property Owners Should Vote While running for a Florida congressional seat in 2012, Ted Yoho suggested that only property owners should have the right to vote, as you can watch in this video. Here’s what he said: “I’ve had some radical ideas about voting and it’s probably not a good time to tell them, but you used to have to be a property owner to vote.” He also called early voting by absentee ballots “a travesty.” And yes, Yoho won the election, and is now a member of Congress. Don Yelton: North Carolina GOP Precinct Chair: Voter ID Law Will “Kick Democrats in the Butt” and Hurt “Lazy Blacks” The Daily ShowGet More: Daily Show Full Episodes,The Daily Show on Facebook,Daily Show Video Archive In an interview last year with The Daily Show, Don Yelton, a GOP precinct chair in Buncombe County, North Carolina, defended the state’s new voter ID law, saying so many offensive things, he was asked to resign the day after it aired. Yelton admits at the start of the segment that the number of Buncombe County residents who commit voter fraud is one or two out of 60,000 a year. The interview correspondent, Aasif Mandvi, replies that those numbers show “there’s enough voter fraud to sway zero elections,” and then Yelton replies, “Mmmm…that’s not the point.” He goes on to say that “if it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.” and then adds, “The law is going to kick the Democrats in the butt.” After the segment aired, the Buncombe County GOP Chair issued a statement on Yelton’s comments, calling them “offensive, uniformed and unacceptable of any member within the Republican Party” and called for Yelton’s resignation. He obliged.

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What Has Greed Cost the United States?

Do you want media that’s accountable to YOU, not to advertisers or billionaire sponsors? Invest in independent media – donate to Truthout today! “There should be no place for raw, naked greed in in the US.” (Image via Shutterstock)Gordon Gecko was wrong. Greed is not good. It’s very, very bad. And, it’s destroying the US a little more each day. This morning on MSNBC’s conservative “Morning Joe” show, rock icon Graham Nash had this to say about the Koch brothers. He’s right. Greed is threatening to destroy our entire planet. And it’s not just greed in the fossil fuel industry. It’s become virtually impossible – if not totally impossible – to name a single major industry in the US that “We The People” aren’t subsidizing and that hasn’t turned into a functional monopoly. Think about it. Each year, we give away billions to Big Oil. We give billions to Wall Street. We fork over our hard earned money to private prison corporations, health-care giants, and giant transnational fast-food corporations. That’s all money that’s coming out of our pockets, money that was taken as our tax dollars from “We The People.” And, we’re giving away these billions despite the fact that those industries and corporations are raking in massive profits all by themselves. Take McDonald’s for example. That fast-food giant, whose workers are struggling to survive and provide for their families, has seen its profits soar by more than 130 percent in recent years. Yet, you and I are being forced to pick up the slack, and help McDonald’s employees survive. A study by the National Employment Law Project found that McDonald’s low wages cost US taxpayers nearly $1.2 billion each year. And, a separate study found that in total, the fast-food industry’s low wages cost “We The People” around $7 billion annually. Virtually every societal problem in the US today can trace its roots back to the overwhelming levels of greed that have taken over our economy and society. But, while greed is destroying the United States, other countries are saying not so fast, and are putting people ahead of profits. Take Denmark for example, which has managed to take a lot of greed out of the equation. While fast-food workers here in the US are fighting for a modest minimum wage increase to $10.10 per hour, the base wage for fast-food workers in Denmark is the equivalent of $20 per hour, two-and-a-half times more than what most US fast-food workers are earning per hour. As Hampus Elofsson, a Danish fast-food worker, told The New York Times, “You can make a decent living here working in fast food. You don’t have to struggle to get by.” But it’s not just the wages that are better in Denmark. Worker benefits are also far better than they are here in the US. Danish fast-food workers get five weeks paid vacation, paid maternity and paternity leave and a pension plan. They also have to be paid overtime if they work after 6 pm and on Sundays. And, believe it or not, the fast-food corporations operating in Denmark are going along with these better wages and benefits. They’ve accepted the fact that, in Denmark, people have to come before profits. Martin Drescher, the general manager of HMSHost Denmark, an airport restaurants operator, told The New York Times that, “We have to acknowledge it’s more expensive to operate. But we can still make money out of it – and McDonald’s does, too. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be in Denmark.” He went on to say that, “We don’t want there to be a big difference between the richest and poorest, because poor people would just get really poor. We don’t want people living on the streets. If that happens, we consider that we as a society have failed.” Imagine that: a fast-food industry executive who cares about wealth inequality, and who doesn’t want people struggling to survive and provide for their families. Meanwhile, back here in the US, we have corporate executives in just about every industry who don’t give a second thought to wealth inequality and the struggles that US workers are facing. As long as profits keep rolling in, that’s all that matters. The US needs to take a page out of the Danish playbook. We need to start asking ourselves some serious questions about our economy, society, and values. We need to be asking ourselves, “What’s happened to the ideas of civic and moral responsibility in in the US?” And, we need to be asking ourselves, “Are we here to serve the economy, or is the economy here to serve us?” There should be no place for raw, naked greed in in the US. It should be tightly regulated and controlled – it should be seen as the mental illness and social illness that it is. Greed is not what our country was founded on, it certainly isn’t what it was built on, and it’s not what’s going to make the US great again.

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Concerned About ISIS, but Also About Endless War? Back Limits on the Use of Force

Polls show the majority of Americans think that Congress should debate and vote to use military force. Congress members can show that they back the public’s desire for a Congressional debate by supporting a new bill setting limits on use of force. You can urge your representative to back the bill.President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting of more than 20 foreign defense chiefs regarding operations against the Islamic State group, at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, October 14, 2014. At right is Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Photo: Doug Mills / The New York Times) The support of readers like you got this story published – and helps Truthout stay free from corporate advertising. Can you sustain our work with a tax-deductible donation today? In response to the US bombing of Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Iraq and Syria, which Congress has never explicitly approved, members of Congress long concerned about presidents and Congresses skirting the constitutional role of Congress in deciding when the United States will use military force have introduced H. Con. Res. 114, “Urging Congress to debate and vote on a statutory authorization for any sustained United States combat role in Iraq or Syria.” When Congress returns from recess after the election in November, it will still not have debated and voted on a sustained US combat role in Iraq or Syria, even though a “sustained combat role” is obviously what the Pentagon is doing and plans to do. Polls have shown that the majority of Americans think that Congress should debate and vote. Members of Congress can show that they back the public’s desire for a Congressional debate and vote by supporting H. Con. Res. 114. The resolution, which currently has 23 cosponsors, says that Congress: 1. should debate and vote on whether the United States should be involved in sustained combat in Iraq or Syria; 2. does not support the deployment of ground combat troops in Iraq or Syria; 3. should ensure that any grant of authority for force is narrowly tailored and limited; and 4. should ensure that any grant of authority for force includes robust reporting requirements. These points in the “resolved clause” of H. Con. Res. 114 provide a set of four principles that the president, members of Congress and the American people can agree on for considering any authorization of force against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 1. Debate and Vote: The president claims that he has authority under existing law to do what he’s doing without new Congressional action; whether we agree with that or not, Congress should debate and vote. The public have said they want it. The president has said that he would welcome Congressional action. A debate and vote will hold Congress accountable, forcing our elected officials to take positions on the record, which is a key part of their jobs. 2. No US Ground Combat Troops: The president has said that he will not use US troops in a ground war in Iraq or Syria. Most Democrats and many Republicans agree that he shouldn’t, but some Republicans have suggested that US ground troops should be deployed to combat, and many Americans fear that that the president will be pressured into abandoning his commitment not to use US ground troops. Enacting the president’s promise into law will kill the pressure for using US ground troops by showing that it’s not just the president: Congress doesn’t want to use US ground troops either. While US Special Forces are being used near combat, and that certainly does create serious risks, most members of Congress and the public correctly see that as fundamentally much less risky than a large deployment of regular US soldiers to combat. If the use of US ground combat troops is barred, far fewer US soldiers will be at risk; the risk that they are taking will be much smaller; the risk to foreign civilians from the U.S. military presence will be much smaller, and the relative role of U.S. forces relative to other forces will be much smaller, as it should be. The president has rightly insisted that the struggle against ISIS is not going to be won by the US militarily; diplomatic, political, and financial efforts to weaken ISIS, and military action by US allies, will determine whether ISIS is defeated. Barring the use of US ground troops will help ensure that the role of US military force does not become too great relative to nonmilitary means and military action by US allies. 3. Authority for the use of force should be narrowly tailored and limited: Congress should not hand this president or any future president a “blank check” to use force in Iraq and Syria however he or she might want, as Congress gave President George W. Bush before he started the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003. President Obama himself has said that an authorization of force should be targeted and focused. Many in Congress and the public support the president’s actions so far but worry about “mission creep” and a “slippery slope” that could lead to a war in Syria against the Syrian government. Congress can prevent that by limiting the targets of an AUMF to ISIS, Nusra, and other Al Qaeda-type groups, as Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and others have proposed. Senator Kaine and others have also proposed including a time limit, or “sunset,” on any authorization of force. This will ensure that the war can’t drag on and on without Congress having to debate and vote on whether the war should continue. Senator Kaine has proposed a “sunset” of one year. 4. Any grant of authority for force should include robust reporting requirements: During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and also in the policy of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, Congress, the media, and the public have had trouble getting access to basic information about what the US military and intelligence agencies were doing – basic information that Congress, the media, and the public have the right and need to know to be able to judge the effectiveness, wisdom and morality of US military actions. For example, there is no official public record of how many civilians have been killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, although we know that the US government collects this information. US officials have claimed that reporting by media and human rights groups has overstated civilian casualties from US airstrikes, but these US officials haven’t had to “show their work.” Already since the US began bombing Syria, accounts of civilian casualties from U. airstrikes by US officials have diverged from accounts by independent human rights groups. The more members of Congress support H. Con. Res. 114, the stronger will be the bloc of members preparing to limit the use of force. You can urge your Representative to cosponsor the resolution here.

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“You Got Into My Heart Violently, but You’re There”

The following is excerpted from the new paperback edition of Studs Terkel’s oral history of death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith, with special thanks to his publisher, the New Press. “The Other Son”Maurine Young In contrast to her husband’s introspective nature, she is outgoing, a large-boned woman, overflowing with gusto and ebullience. She frequently laughs out loud. I’m a forty-six-year-old woman of Jewish-Gentile descent — my father’s a Jew, my mother’s a Gentile. My parents divorced when I was young, and I was raised by my stepfather — raised Catholic. He was a truck driver. My younger brother, Mark, became a truck driver. I went to public school. But I went to the Catholic catechism every Wednesday. I did the confirmation and all that kind of stuff. I got close to age twelve, thirteen, and I began to see what I was saved from. I was saved from Hell. But what Catholicism wasn’t teaching me was what I was saved to. They didn’t tell me how to live with God and experience a taste of Heaven on Earth, now. So I began to pull away from the Church. It just didn’t meet my needs. If I read my Bible I saw that it said very clearly to worship God, then why were people worshiping statues? To me that looked like idolatry. So, as a young teenager, I started asking questions. Then I began to wonder what is this all about? I know that there’s a God, and I know that He loves me, but what else is there? How do you live now? I lived in a very difficult, alcoholic home, and early in my teens began to experiment with drugs — do whatever I felt like doing. In the one sense, I had the Ten Commandments ingrained in me, so I knew what was right and wrong — but I didn’t really care about the consequences. I didn’t really understand the value of a God who loves me, and that because He loves me, I should act loving towards him, which means act loving towards everybody else. I was very, very selfish. I had been working part-time jobs since I was fourteen. A couple of weeks after I graduated from high school, my dad said, “Get out of the backyard, sitting in your bikini, and get your butt downtown and find a job.” So I went downtown and found a secretarial position. I was seventeen. And then I moved out when I was eighteen, to live with my boyfriend. That didn’t work out. Moved back home and met Steve not that long afterwards, in March of 1975. We moved up here to Rogers Park and had a family. We had twins in May of 1977, Andrew Needham and Samuel Richard, born on different days — May 7 and May 8. And then in 1982, in August, we had Philip; and then in 1987, December, we had Clinton. I was working as a floral designer, part-time, in Skokie. Steve was tuning pianos. Andrew went out to cash a check with his brother and didn’t come back. He was shot by a young man who had easy access to a handgun and who had graduated from high school the day before and was looking to move up in the gang that he was in, the Latin Kings. He shot Andrew, probably because Andrew didn’t back down with his mouth. He knew that gang members were idiots and didn’t mind telling them what he thought of them when they made signs at him. He was in our car. When I got to the hospital and found out that he was gone, and I asked the boys what happened and they told me, I said, “Well, you know what? There’ll be no retaliation for this. I just want to make that clear.” Men usually want revenge; women, too, but men usually much quicker. Women will stew for a while. I knew that revenge was wrong, but I also knew that I hated what these kids had done and knew that they deserved to be punished. I pulled out some old journals from that time. These notebooks. Here’s an entry that I wrote July 13th of 1996. Andrew was murdered June 10th of 1996. It reads: “It’s been sixty days since Andrew left us. Forced out of his body by Mario and Roberto. Please, Lord, let justice be served. Plus, punish them. Let them not have a free life.” That’s how I felt. I did not want them to be free, and I was real glad that the police had seen what had happened. I’m going to backtrack a tiny bit. My twins were three months old. I was sitting on the beach with them. Somebody came up to me and said, “Could we talk to you about Jesus?” And I said, “It’s a public park, it’s a free country, you can sit down.” So they started talking to me about Jesus. This lady turns to me and she says, “So how’s your life?” And her words shot into my chest like a sword. I’m thinking, Oh my God, what does she know? I had just had the twins. I was not coping. I was smoking massive amounts of marijuana. I was up twenty-four hours a day, not knowing how to keep these little babies on a schedule. I was fantasizing throwing one of them out the window. I was having what now I understand to be severe post-partum psychosis. I didn’t have any help. I was really just trying to hold on… So I began to tell this lady and her friends how poorly I was doing. She said, “Would you like to commit your life to Christ again?” And I said, “I really would. Because I realize I’m not doing very well by myself. Something is missing.” So I did that and I prayed that day. Since that day, I’ve been learning how to parent, and to let God love me, and to love and forgive others. Nineteen years later, when this happened with Andrew being murdered, I said, “OK, I know who I’m following.” What would Jesus do? It was pretty clear. He says: Love your enemies — I consider these little guys my enemies that killed my son. Pray for those who use you, forgive as God has forgiven you. So I thought, OK, what does that mean? Looking back at another journal… this is from January of 1997. I wrote: “What are the obstacles to forgiveness? How can forgiveness free us? How can it free me? Well, first I needed to know that I must face my own pain and grieve. And not keep anger on, sort of as a suit of armor. Admit the wrong that was done to me and experience the rage. But be honest with God about my pain and why. Releasing my anger to him and pardoning the offender makes me feel vulnerable, even out of control. But what’s my choice? If I hold my anger, it will destroy me.” And then I also wrote, “It’s OK to be afraid of being hurt again.” So, obviously, the whole idea of forgiveness was there in the back of my mind the whole time, and I kept thinking: I want to kill them, I want to see them fry. But God says forgive… And I kept going back and forth thinking, How do you do this? Scratching my head. Then I realized I could make the choice and trust that the power to do it would be there. Because I know that my faith, which is just my yes, is the glue that holds God’s power to his promises. And He’s promised that He would do what I ask, He would do the right thing in my life. I’m going to have the faith and forgive and trust that He’s going to take care of it all. So I finally did that about July of 1997, about six months after what I just read to you. I forgave and wrote Mario in prison a letter. He was eighteen, my son was nineteen. I told him about my life. I just wanted him to know how I was raised, and that I had done plenty of things that needed forgiving and God forgave me. So how could I withhold forgiveness from him? I couldn’t. That I love him and God loves him and I forgave him. I didn’t know that at the same time, he was writing me a letter. As I remember, he was begging forgiveness, saying how sorry he was, how he wished he could bring Andrew back, even trade places. And I believed his letter was sincere. But his letter was unnecessary for my forgiveness. I had been asking to see him. It’s one thing to write to someone and say you forgive them — it’s another to physically touch them and say you forgive them. It would help me in my healing and him in his, I knew. I felt compelled to do it. I had been asking through his priest when was a good time. Mario kept saying, “I’m not ready. Mrs. Young is pushing too much. I’m not ready.” He was terrified. He thought I might hit him or something. He was not ready to face me. That was July of 1997. I didn’t get to see him until December 17th of 1998. So it took more than a year and a half before he was ready. And I waited. We did correspond. And then I went to visit him with Father Oldershaw, and a retired schoolteacher by the name of Arlene Bozack. She had been visiting him. When we first got there, the assistant warden, who was Hispanic, was crying. He said, “Mrs. Young, why are you here?” I said, “Well, I’m here to offer forgiveness to the young man who killed my son.” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “Because I care about him, I love him. It’s the right thing to do. I want to do it in person.” He said, “In all my years, this is the first time I’ve ever seen this happen. I really commend what you’re doing.” He was this big, tough-looking Hispanic warden. I see Mario for the first time. He couldn’t look at me. He had his head hanging down. They sat us around a small round table with four attached seats, told us where to sit. Everybody kept looking at me very suspiciously, like I was going to just jump on this kid and beat the hell out of him. Mario’s got his head hanging down, and all of a sudden he kind of looks, and he can’t make eye contact. I saw that his whole body was starting to shake. All four of us prayed. It was me, Father Oldershaw on my right, Mario was across from me, and Arlene Bozack was to his right. I grabbed both Mario’s hands from across the table, and I looked at him in the eye, and I said, “I just want you to know that I’m glad to be here.” I knew I had to go first. He just shook his head. Slowly, but surely, the conversation started. Little chitchat, we all took turns talking. I wanted to know about his family and how they were doing. Because the shame that he brought on them — especially being an Hispanic family — that’s so important. And then the conversation changed a bit because I felt like, OK, it’s time for this little guy to hear what he’s done to us. The consequences of his actions. I began to tell him the difficulties that each of our family members was having. As I went through, person by person, saying, one young man’s suicidal, the other one can’t focus, or whatever the problems were for each of us, he listened. He held Arlene’s hand and he trembled and he wept, but he listened. At some point in the conversation I said, “I love you like you’re my son, like you’re one of mine.” And I was like, “I can’t figure out how this happened!” [Laughs] I thought I was nuts. I didn’t tell him that. I was thinking, I gotta be crazy. So I said, “I love you like you’re my own son. You got into my heart violently, but you’re there. So this has to be a miracle. God did this. Because I didn’t do this. But, as a son, you have responsibilities to know what’s going on and to pray for us, to communicate with us regularly. You’re part of the family now.” Then he pulled out his Bible. I said, “Mario, there’s a Scripture that meant a lot to me and helped me take this step. I wanted to tell you what it is. It’s in Romans, in the twelfth chapter. It says, ‘Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.’” I said, “My reaching out and extending and forgiving was my responsibility, and it didn’t depend on whether or not you accepted that forgiveness. I had to do that.” It also says, “Never take your own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God.” Then I said what was really important was when I got to verse 21. It says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” I said, “Mario, that really meant a lot to me. Because I wanted to win. I did not want this evil thing that you and Roberto did to us to win. I wanted good to win. So that’s why I forgave you and that’s why I love you.” He was speechless. He looked at me like I had two heads. [She roars with laughter.] He stared at me like: I don’t know what she’s talking about — she’s from another planet. It wasn’t quite sinking in. But he was listening. I heard later that he was confused and didn’t understand it, but it was beginning to make sense. He was actually holding his Bible open to this spot, looking at it over and over and over again. We talked, and then I got to hold him. That was really, really special. Here’s another reason I thought I was crazy: I’m sitting across this little table from him, and it’s all I can do to stay in my seat. I’m thinking: What’s wrong with me? Am I having a nervous breakdown? Everything in me wanted to leap over the table, grab hold of this kid, and rock him like a baby, just hold him. The urge was so overwhelming. The compulsion was so overwhelming, I was afraid that if I couldn’t keep control, I’d be in really big trouble with the guards and the warden. So I resisted that urge the whole time. On the way back home, I was thinking about it, and then I talked to Arlene and Father Oldershaw. I said, “I’ve got it! I know what was happening. I was getting a taste in my body of how much God loves us. He loves us so much that He wants to leap over the table, grab hold of us, and just rock us because we’re his children.” That love, that forgiveness — I got a taste of what it must have been like for Jesus when he was here and walked the Earth among people that he loved so desperately, so wonderfully. I got a taste of it! As time went on and we kept corresponding, I did go see him again there, and it was good. I really began to see him maturing, through his letters and through visiting him. I was training him, I was mentoring him — to help him to grow up, to help him in his spiritual walk. His letters changed. They became clearer, he became more willing to take total responsibility. I saw no excuses anymore, I saw a person that was squarely saying: This is where I am and this is where I should be, and God’s changing me right here, and probably being here saved my life. He’s working as a chaplain’s assistant now… [Sighs]… I’m convinced that if I did not forgive and I held on to my anger, that I probably would have become mentally ill. Maybe killed myself, maybe hurt someone else. I felt like God’s hand was on me and he was squashing me into a pancake: You gotta do this — this is the right thing. I knew that there were great things ahead, although they terrified me, the thought of going out into new territory. Because, I’ll tell ya, I was not a very forgiving person most of my life. I used to hold things against whoever did what to me. It really took the murder of my son and the forgiving of his killer to teach me how to forgive everybody around me. I began to realize: My husband’s not going to be Mr. Perfect. My parents haven’t been perfect parents. My children are not perfect children. My friends are going to let me down. That’s a given. Because they’re human, like I am. There is one perfect, that is God, and He loves me. And that’s good enough for me. So, by forgiving them, like I did Mario, it freed me to really love. My love was, like, stopped up in a bottle or something. It came out in little bits. But for the most part, it was stopped up until I forgave this kid. And then it was like whoosh — this is what I’ve been missing my whole life. [Belly laugh] I saw Mario just this last month. I’ve met his mom and his dad. They don’t speak any English, but usually one of his sisters is there to interpret. Most of the time, all his mother can do is hold on to me and cry. She’s a very sweet person. “ER”Dr. John Barrett He is Chief of the Trauma Unit at Cook County Hospital, Chicago. He still has an Irish brogue. “In 1966, the Trauma Unit here was actually the first of its kind in the nation. It’s dedicated to people who, more than being sick, are injured — patients who have been subjected to what we call intentional injury, violence. It’s gunshot wounds, stabbings, personal assaults. Other trauma centers see patients who predominantly are victims of unintentional injury: automotive wrecks and falls. Our experience here has been inner-urban, lower-socioeconomic groupings; predominantly young, predominantly male, and predominantly penetrating trauma: gunshot wounds and stabbings.” I am the third of four sons. My father was a mail carrier, my mother was a dressmaker in Cork. The family really struggled to make sure that all of the sons went to university. My two elder brothers did science — chemistry and physics. I wanted to do something that was scientific in nature but more people-oriented. There was really no family tradition of medicine, but medicine seemed to fill my criteria. I can recall my eldest brother, Frank, saying, “This is a terrible waste of time — you don’t have to be intelligent to be a doctor.” It’s not as if it’s rocket science. There’s nothing terribly difficult to understand in medicine, there’s just an awful lot of it that you have to remember. I always wanted to be a general practitioner. In my final year of medical school, I did a rotation with the then-professor of surgery, and I loved it. At the end of the rotation he said, “Well, Barrett, what are you going to do?” I said, “Well, Mr. Kiley, sir, I’m going to be a general practitioner.” He looked at me and said, “Barrett, there’s the makings of a great surgeon lost in you.” So that’s why I decided to do surgery. I realized that what I really, really enjoyed was the injured patient. It’s such an acute event: the patient is perfectly healthy, then something traumatic happens, and within a matter of seconds they are injured. They’re a great surgical challenge because they’re bleeding, they generally need surgical intervention. The epitome of those patients is the gunshot wound. Despite all the terrible things you hear about Northern Ireland and all the violence, where I was in the South we saw no gunshot wounds. I actually had to come to this country to see gunshot wounds. I have found that surgeons have a certain personality. They tend to be very action-driven, very egocentric, frequently overconfident — especially trauma surgeons who will act very quickly with a minimal amount of information. That may not be the person you want to be your lawyer or your priest, but that’s the person you want to be your trauma surgeon. They tend to be supremely confident in themselves, and that’s why many people don’t like them. They tend to demean other people. It goes with the territory because you have to be damn confident in yourself if your job is to start cutting people open at the drop of a hat. People, when they hear that you’re a surgeon, they immediately look at your hands because they imagine there’s something unique about the surgeon’s technical ability. That’s not true at all. People have said you can teach educated apes how to operate — I’m not sure if that’s true — but it’s the decision-making process, not the technical stuff. If you ask me to talk about life and death, the first thing I would think of is my patient. You begin to realize there’s not a sharp distinction between life and death. When is a person alive and when is a person dead? We have, for instance, patients who come in who are clinically dead: their heart has stopped beating, they are not breathing, their pupils are fixed and dilated. But we have them. The Chicago Fire Department paramedics are excellent — they get them in here fast. They’ve been without vital signs for a short period of time. You can still resuscitate some of them, you can bring them back… Was it two weeks ago? — we had a man who was stabbed in the heart, came in clinically dead. We immediately opened his chest, released the pressure from his heart, sewed up his heart, and he actually recovered. He can’t have been dead because we got him back, but he was clinically dead. It’s not a very firm line; there’s a gradual blending from where you’re alive to where you’re dead. The people I see who are dead are in general young people who have suffered a calamitous event — they’ve been shot. You try your best. They’re either dead when they arrive or generally die fairly quickly after they’ve arrived. You can’t resuscitate them. The first thing that strikes me about it is, it seems such a waste… You’re looking at a human body, and as a surgeon you know its intimate details: the anatomy and the sinews and the arteries and the veins, and they’re now dead. This wonderful perfect machine is now no more. It’s frequently the smallest thing that has killed them. A stab wound to the heart will kill one person and it won’t kill the next. It seems to be such a capricious thing. What I really think a lot about is when children die. When adults die from trauma, you feel they have some degree of responsibility insofar as they chose to be in that place at that time. When a child dies, you think: Why did that happen? Five minutes’ difference would have changed the entire course of events. And parents ask you the same thing: “Why did it happen, doctor?” You try to explain: “He was shot, we did the best we can.” That’s not the answer they want. They want to know why this person who was awake, alive, and healthy this morning is now dead. You don’t have that explanation as a surgeon. The first thing I feel, I feel angry, angry that they died, that I haven’t been able to save them. To me it’s almost like a personal defeat. I know in a logical sense that’s not true. I didn’t shoot them. It wasn’t my fault that there were guns on the street. Remember how I characterized the surgeon? The surgeon is supremely self-confident. We whip them back from the jaws of death, we have the scalpel, we have the decision, we have the technology, and we have a system in this hospital that’s supposed to save them. But you can’t save them all. We don’t lose a lot, but we do lose them. So initially I feel angry. That passes fairly quickly because I then say to myself: What could we have done that we didn’t do? Actually, we talk about it as a group: Could we have acted quicker, recognized this quicker? Because even though this particular patient is dead, we may be able to improve care for the next patient. Then I think: What a waste! A total, absolute waste. Especially now. I’m fifty-five years old. It makes you think about your own mortality. We really don’t realize what a precious gift life is. We take it for granted. I’ve always taken it for granted. My children are growing up, my daughter is going to college this year, I’m growing older, and I’m surrounded by people who are brought in, some of whom die. It is a very, very fragile thing we have that can disappear. The stuff that you worry about… Are you going to get the house painted? The basement floods occasionally. My God, the car keeps breaking down… It’s all so trivial… We should really realize that the greatest gift we have is time, and that means you’re alive. When the patient comes in, you might see someone who’s covered in blood. I don’t see someone covered in blood, I see somebody who has technical challenges. A gunshot wound to the chest with hemothorax, we need to get a chest tube in, determine the rate of bleeding, and make effective interventions. So right then and there, I’m not thinking great philosophical thoughts — I’m in a mechanical, operative mode. You just go boom, boom, boom… It’s like a very organized, choreographed dance. But then at the end, he dies. Then you say, “Let’s look back at the dance. Did we do something wrong, could we have done something better?” You do tend to become a little philosophical as you grow older. I’m convinced that the solution to all this violence is not surgeons. We need to somehow prevent it. I come from Ireland, a country that has national health insurance. Every resident is insured. I’m an American citizen and I love being one, but I can’t understand why we can’t ensure that every resident of the country actually gets adequate health care. I’m so happy to work here at the County Hospital, because that’s part of our mission statement: We will not turn you away. People refer to us as the hospital of last resort. I think that that’s a very noble thing. People say, “Why did you stay?” It’s so perfectly logical to me. Here’s what I wanted: I wanted to be a surgeon who dealt with patients who required surgical intervention. Those are gunshot wounds. I also want to be able to teach people. I think it’s important that you pass on your skills. And to even do a little research, to maybe improve the care of the patients. Patient care, education, and the research, all three things I’m doing here. The money isn’t the greatest, and there are frustrations working in the public sector — but compared to what I’ve gotten out of it, I am one of the most fortunate people that you’ll ever meet. I would actually pay money to do this job. They pay me to do what I love to do. When you lose a patient… I think every doctor has their own way. It’s not something they teach you in medical school, and they really, really should. Physicians and health-care people in general need to have a far greater degree of sympathy toward their patients, toward the patients’ family. No one ever taught me how to talk to a family and tell them that their loved one was dead, especially in a trauma situation. It’s one thing if a patient has, say, cancer and they become ill and then they die — it tends to be a process. You get to know your doctor, you finally realize the end is inevitable, you may have time to talk to your loved one. Trauma is different. What happens in trauma is this eighteen-year-old leaves the house in the morning, perfectly healthy. Then the mother gets a call at two o’clock, it’s the Trauma Unit at Cook County Hospital: “Your son’s been shot. Please come in.” When she walks in, she’ll see me. She doesn’t know me, she’s never met me before, and I am now going to tell her that her son is dead. So how do I do it? The first thing that I do is I try to put myself into their situation. What they want to know is, is he alive or is he dead? I think you need to tell them that. Some people start telling them about he was shot and he came in and we did this and we did that. They’re really trying to impress the family with the work that they did to save him. That’s not what the family wants to know: they want to hear if he’s alive or if he’s dead. That’s what I tell them. I say: “You don’t know me, I’m Dr. Barrett, I’m the senior surgeon here tonight.” They won’t even remember my name. Sit them down. Sit down with them. Look into their eyes. If you can, hold on to them and say, “It’s bad news.” And they’ll say, “Is he dead?” Or they just look at you. You have to use the word, you have to say it: “He’s dead.” If you say he’s “expired,” he’s “passed away,” they don’t hear that. You have to say he’s dead. Then, then they react. They generally go into disbelief: “No, no, it’s not true — I can’t believe it… How could it happen…” Or they say, “It can’t be him. Are you sure? ” All you do then is you just let them grieve. I think it’s actually helpful for them to come and see the body. I think that’s important. He’s all covered in blood, there’s tubes in him. That doesn’t matter. They want to see that person, they want to see that face. I say to them, “It’s OK to hold him, if you want to kiss him, if you want to talk to him.” I think it’s important to do that because, afterwards, they’ll go through that scene in their mind over and over and over again. “I remember the night they called me from the County and I came in and this is what happened, and that is what happened…” It’s very important to put yourself into their shoes, but you’ve got to say the word “dead.” You’ve got to give them the finality of it. I ask residents, “How would you do it?” They’re trying to explain to the family what they did: “He came in, we intubated him, we did this, we gave him blood, we gave him CPR.” The family isn’t even listening to that! They’re not listening to it. After you’ve said he’s dead, they won’t listen to anything for a long time. Once they’ve calmed down, it’s important to tell them the absolute truth. “I don’t know what the circumstances surrounding the shooting were, but as far as I can tell, he was unconscious very rapidly after he was shot. He never regained consciousness. I don’t think he suffered.” Just tell them the truth, it’s always the best thing. When you die, you die. Your body rots. Everyone knows that. There’s no argument about that. But there is a spirituality to us. If you want to call it a soul, you can call it a soul. I think of it more as the thing that allows us to choose to do good or evil. You kind of fall on one side or the other. You tend to be on the side of the good or the side of the evil. You can personify this as being God and the Devil. You can call this spirituality your soul, or not your soul, but whatever it is, I do believe it continues after your body is dead. I’m not sure that thing that’s going to exist after I’m dead would say to itself, “I am John Anthony Patrick Barrett and I remember everything about John Anthony Patrick Barrett” — I don’t think it’s that simple. I do believe in an afterlife, but I don’t believe that it’s up there in the clouds somewhere with angels flying around beating their wings, and God is an old geezer with a long beard. Let me try it a different way. You do things that live on after you. Each of us, as we pass through life, influences others. You leave behind you a legacy of things you did and people you influenced. So even if you don’t believe in a life after death, you’ve had an influence. And people say, “I haven’t had any influence. What did I do? I worked in a steel mill all my life, I didn’t actually do anything. Got married, had a few kids…” Well, you did — you had an effect as you went through life, and it was either a good effect or an indifferent effect or a bad effect. That effect continues on. I have two children, and they’re going to have influences on people and they’re going to do things. I’m also a teacher: I’ve taught lots of people, hundreds, perhaps even a thousand people that I have influenced in a very fundamental fashion. Many of them are now surgeons themselves. There’s little pieces of me that exist in all of that. So even though you’re dead, you’re not gone. If you said, “What do I think makes me different from other surgeons?” the short answer is I don’t know… But I will tell you I think it’s a word called “empathy.” I have the ability to think and feel like the other person. I don’t know where I got that, but it’s something almost instinctive. Maybe that’s what doctors need to have. If doctors are supposed to comfort, you’ve got to understand that the person is suffering; you’ve got to kind of live in your patient’s shoes. I don’t care if you’re a Hindu or a Jew or an atheist, it’s all fine to me. I certainly don’t believe that there’s only one true religion and one true God and only one way of getting to Heaven. If you believe in your particular belief, I respect that. You’re gonna get to Heaven every bit as fast as I am, and in fact even faster probably. I remember the first dead person I ever saw — my mother’s father. I would have been probably four or five years old. I remember a big commotion in the house, getting dressed up and washed and cleaned and being on my best behavior. He was laid out in a morgue. I recall the body. He was in the casket. It was an open casket, and he didn’t look like granddad. It was this pale waxen look — it wasn’t him. The second one I ever saw dead was in Ireland. I think I was probably eighteen or nineteen years of age, and I was out on my bicycle. There was a guy who had crashed his motorcycle into a car. As I arrived at the scene they were getting the body out — and he was dead. And they were getting him out and I remember he was covered in blood. I haven’t thought about this in a million years. I remember, as they took him out, he had his watch on. I remember the second hand of his watch was still ticking. Why do I remember that? I think it was the thing that I talked about before. He was fine, and now he’s dead… but his watch is still going on. If you had been born a hundred years ago, Studs, you wouldn’t have lived this long. Yet you’re still living a very productive and fruitful life. There comes a time when we really do have to balance that, though. Now, how do you make those decisions? These are actually not decisions that your doctor alone can or should make. Especially those of us who are technologically driven. If you were dying from something that I think I can cure by operating on you, I am going to try and convince you to have the operation. You may have a totally different perspective on life. I think medicine needs to acknowledge that. Sometimes it’s not the patient, it’s the patient’s family who say, “I want everything done.” How much of that is driven by them because they want to be able to say afterwards, “Well, we did everything”? It makes them feel comfortable… It isn’t a huge problem in trauma because we really do try to do everything, because the patients are young. But if I am at the stage where I’m absolutely convinced that the patient is going to die but I can keep the patient alive longer, I think what you need to say to the family is not, “What do you want me to do?” What I say to them is, “If the patient in the bed could talk to us, what would he say, do you think? You know him, he’s been your son or your husband. You know his approach to life. What do you think he’d say?” Then they begin to think: What would he say? They’re surrogates. I don’t want to know what they want to do because they’re filled with guilt and anguish, and half of them want to do this and half of them want to do that. I want them to tell me what they think he would do. Then there’s the question about physician-assisted suicide. I can understand the sort of logic that says the patient is in absolute agony, the patient wants to die, and they want me to help them to die, but I don’t subscribe to that. I think there’s a huge difference between pushing someone into a river and having them drown, and seeing someone in the river drowning and doing nothing, letting them drown. If you look at the cases of physician-assisted suicide, man, you’d better be damn sure that you’re doing the right thing. You need to be damn sure. I mean, surer than capital punishment. You need to be sure that whatever it is the patient has is totally incurable and cannot be relieved. You’re dying because you’re in intractable pain? We can take care of it, I mean, we really can. This feeling that they’re turning to say, “Kill me, doctor…” They’re not depressed? There’s nothing we can do to help that depression? I don’t think I ever personally would feel so confident that I would do that. I actually believe in capital punishment. It’s rare for a doctor to say that, because doctors are trained in the preservation of human life. And it’s probably even rarer for a professed Catholic doctor to say that. But I believe that there are some people who should be killed. There are justifications for taking human life — predominantly self-protection. If somebody is going to kill you and the only way you can save yourself is by killing them, then you are justified to kill them. That can be extrapolated into a just war, if there ever is such a thing. Now, let’s go to the individual. I don’t think we should execute people as a deterrent, although it is the ultimate deterrent for the person you’ve executed. I think there are some people in this world who are evil: they murder other people. So I would need to have a person who has committed heinous crimes, and I would include in those heinous crimes, rapes. I also am very concerned about people who kill police officers, or even politicians, because they’re protecting us. I would also need to know that there is no way to rehabilitate him. So that might mean that he has committed the crime many times. I would need to know that he continues to be a risk. People say, “Well, why don’t you lock them up for the rest of their lives?” I’ve seen these people. They will try to kill other inmates. They will try to kill their custodians. They will try to kill the guards. They are intrinsically evil. They cannot be rehabilitated, and they continue to pose a risk to their captors. They deserve to die because they are a threat to us, not because we’re trying to frighten other people from committing the crime. They would have to be guilty much more than beyond a reasonable doubt. They exist — I’ve seen them. There are people like that in the world. When I’m dead, there will be this thing that is left like the body of my grandfather. That I don’t care what you do with it. It’s like when I go to the barber, he cuts my hair. Do I worry about the hair? I don’t give a damn what he does with it. You want to burn me? I don’t care. Actually, whoever is left who’s going to be responsible for my dead body, they need a ritual to bury me. So, sure, I’m sure there’ll be a little ceremony and they’ll be singing songs and ringing bells and lighting candles and smoking incense. I don’t care what they do. Because that thing in that coffin, that is not me. Now that I’m fifty-five, I actually think about dying. I didn’t think about it when I was twenty, or thirty, or forty. But I’ll soon be sixty. And there’s a whole bunch of stuff I intend to do yet. I’ve got big plans. My mother, she’s alive and she’s ninety years old; my father lived until he was eighty-six. I hope that I’ll live a long time. But I can grapple with it now: I can see myself dying. I think the process would be messy, the actual dying, death. But I don’t think I would be particularly bothered by the fact that death is inevitable. I’m not embracing death, but I’m not afraid of it. There are also the things you’ve done during the time you’ve spent on this earth that are going to remain behind, in some way, shape, or form, forever. If I’m dead and people come to my graveside and look at my tombstone, do you know what they’re going to say? They’re going to say, “Who was he?” You want to know who I am? If I wanted to have anything written on my tombstone, I would have, “Ask my children or ask my students.” I actually never thought of it quite that way. That wouldn’t be a bad epitaph. Copyright © 2001 by Studs Terkel. This excerpt originally appeared in Will the Circle Be Unbroken? published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

Continue reading “You Got Into My Heart Violently, but You’re There”

This Nation of Cowards

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, center, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at a news conference on Ebola in New York, October 24, 2014. The governors of New York and New Jersey on Sunday stood by their decision to require medical workers who had contact with Ebola patients in West Africa into quarantine, despite deep concerns about the impact it might have on fighting the epidemic and the lack of clarity about exactly how the plan would work. (Photo: Katie Orlinsky / The New York Times) This story could not have been published without the support of readers like you. Click here to make a tax-deductible donation to Truthout and fund more stories like it! It is likely that most of us, myself included, will live out our entire lives and die without ever meeting someone who willingly and purposefully volunteers to spend their vacation thousands of miles away, tending to people with diseases that make the talking heads on CNN and Fox want to hide under the bed. Kaci Hickox, a nurse from Maine who graduated from Johns Hopkins, is one such person. In 2010, Hickox traveled overseas with the organization Doctors Without Borders to treat people suffering from yellow fever, one of several trips she made with that organization. Until last Friday, she was in Sierra Leone for a month, spending her vacation time helping to treat people infected with Ebola, the virus that has been burning through western Africa at an unprecedented rate. Kaci Hickox went to one of the most unstable countries in the world to help fight a deadly disease because someone had to, and so she raised her hand. On Friday, she came home to a timorous nation of cowards. That same day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo teamed up with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to establish a mandatory 21-day quarantine for any health workers returning from West Africa. When she landed at the ironically-named Liberty International Airport in Newark, she informed an immigration official that she had just returned from Sierra Leone, and was immediately hustled into a room. For the next several hours, she was questioned harshly by several people wearing bio-suits without being told exactly what was going on. According to her, nobody seemed to be in charge. One man whose gun was visible under his bio-suit, in Hickox own words, “barked questions at me as if I was a criminal.” After several hours passed, she was brought to University Hospital in Newark in a speeding sirens-blaring lights-flashing caravan of eight police cars. Upon arrival, she was stuffed into a quarantine tent with scant furniture, a port-o-potty, no shower, no television, no books, no radio, no nothing, and was informed that this would be her home for the next twenty-one days. Kaci Hickox, in her own words: I had spent a month watching children die, alone. I had witnessed human tragedy unfold before my eyes. I had tried to help when much of the world has looked on and done nothing. At the hospital, I was escorted to a tent that sat outside of the building. The infectious disease and emergency department doctors took my temperature and other vitals and looked puzzled. “Your temperature is 98.6,” they said. “You don’t have a fever but we were told you had a fever.” After my temperature was recorded as 98.6 on the oral thermometer, the doctor decided to see what the forehead scanner records. It read 101. The doctor felts my neck and looked at the temperature again. “There’s no way you have a fever,” he said. “Your face is just flushed.” My blood was taken and tested for Ebola. It came back negative. I sat alone in the isolation tent and thought of many colleagues who will return home to America and face the same ordeal. Will they be made to feel like criminals and prisoners? Hickox began raising Hell about her treatment and the violation of her basic rights. The right-wing blogosphere launched itself into action, denouncing her for being a Democrat and dismissing her complaints because she voted for President Obama. Gov. Christie, one of the duo who ordered her mandatory quarantine, stood by his decision because, as he said, it was his job to protect the citizens of New Jersey. His concern for his constituents was evident, given that he was more than a thousand miles away when he defended his quarantine policy, campaigning for Rick Scott in Florida. On Monday, Christie was forced to retreat, announcing that Kaci Hickox would be “allowed” to serve out the remainder of her mandatory quarantine at home. “Allowed.” “I didn’t reverse my decision,” said Gov. Christie later on Monday while still being so deeply concerned for his constituents that he was still campaigning for Gov. Scott in Florida, when pressed on his sudden change of heart. “She hadn’t had any symptoms for 24 hours. And she tested negative for Ebola. So there was no reason to keep her. The reason she was put into the hospital in the first place was because she was running a high fever and was symptomatic.” Lies. Hickox had no fever. She was not symptomatic. She remains so. Yet she has been “allowed” to go home from involuntary detention by a politician who clearly doesn’t have the facts, but made sure she would be detained, as he campaigns for another politician in the Sunshine State. New York Gov. Cuomo, the other side of this mandatory quarantine coin, took the time to invite any health worker detained after returning from their heroic work to “read my book” as a way to pass the time. One can understand why he would choose a civil liberties crisis to pitch his deep thoughts: at the time of this publication, Cuomo’s book has sold less than a thousand copies. That’s not a very impressive sales number for a salesman selling himself as Vice-Presidential material in the run-up to the 2016 election…and then he, like Christie, backpedaled on hos mandatory quarantine plan. The American Bar Association has weighed in on the legality of the Christie/Cuomo mandatory quarantine program. “States are required to protect civil liberties during public health emergencies,” they wrote. “Quarantine and isolation orders must be conducted in accordance with substantive and procedural due process, and any restrictions of civil liberties should be legal and as minimally restrictive as reasonably possible.” Kaci Hickox would seem to agree. According to Reuters, Hickox intends to file a federal lawsuit on the grounds that her involuntary confinement was a violation of her civil rights. When she wins that suit, I will raise a toast to her: a woman who volunteered to send herself into peril to assuage the suffering of others, who returned home with no fever and no symptoms, but was quarantined like a bug in a bottle because two craven politicians decided to catch the frantic media-driven wave and show how they were being Tough On Ebola in the War On Ebola, to the detriment of Kaci Hickox and other health workers who have more courage in the moon of their pinkie fingernail than those two governors have in their whole pander-prone bodies. “Allowed.” “The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny,” Aesop tells us. These days, the tyrant will justify that tyranny by playing to the fears of the people. Kaci Hickox is but one example of a nation that has entirely surrendered to those fears, both real and imagined, because those fears are a facile way for TV networks to get ratings, and for politicians to get coverage by stoking those fears, which creates more fear, which generates ratings, which makes political careers. Lather rinse repeat. This is what happens in a nation trained to be fearful by a media and political establishment which profits from that fear. We have seen it with terrorism, and with WMD in Iraq, and Bird Flu, and “They’re coming for your guns,” and immigration, and now ISIS, and in so many other moments as well. Now, it is Ebola, which is dangerous to be sure, but not to the point that we explode the Bill of Rights, again. For the record, it seems the CDC would seem to agree. This is what happens to an ill-informed populace which is not taught to be strong, and fair, and true to the ideals of its founding, but is instead convinced by the very entities tasked to protect and inform them that they are, actually, about to die at the hands of this week’s bloviated threat. This is how a nation of cowards is made. Mission accomplished.

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