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July 30, 2010

Michael Winship: The Right Manipulates Muslims - and Boy Scouts

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

The Right Manipulates Muslims - and Boy Scouts

By Michael Winship

I was never a Boy Scout but I was a helluva Cub Scout.
Pack 30, First Congregational Church. I rose through the ranks: Bobcat, Wolf, Bear, Lion. I accumulated Gold and Silver Arrow Points, the Cubs' junior varsity version of merit badges. My mom was a Cub Scout den mother and spent a lot of time teaching fake Indian campfire songs and decorating various arts and crafts with poster paint.

But when the time came to transfer to the big guys, the Boy Scouts, I saw years of knot tying and helping little old ladies across the street ahead of me and opted not to re-up. Nonetheless, I feel my time served qualifies me to have an opinion about President Obama not appearing in person at this week's National Scout Jamboree in Caroline County, Virginia.

The Jamboree is a gathering of the clans that takes place every five years or so and this year's is especially significant as 2010 marks the centennial of the scouting movement in the United States. Congratulations. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) is a wonderful organization. Truly.

But the right wing of this country, with the aid of Fox News and other media outlets, has opted to ignore many of the qualities one usually associates with a good scout - trustworthiness, honesty and especially cleanliness - to sling mud at the president for not making a personal appearance at the Jamboree. Instead, he videotaped a message for the lads.

Not exactly a sin on the order of massive oil spills or ethnic purification. But to hear conservative commentators you'd think he had at the very least used the flag to buff Air Force One. All of this complicated by the fact that the president came to New York instead for some fundraisers and an appearance on "The View."

"It's unfortunate that President Obama didn't take the time to promote the Boy Scouts this week, but they should be able to thrive, as they have for the past 100 years, without him." So sniffed Eagle Scout Nik Nelson, writing in The Weekly Standard, where he's an intern.

What these folks fail to mention is that President Obama met with a group of scouts and their leaders just a little more than two weeks ago. In the Oval Office. In fact, the president does so every year, but this year, special attention was given to the centennial.

As Scouting Magazine's official blog reported, "During the White House meeting, the president and the BSA delegation shared their mutual goals for addressing key concerns for our nation's youth: healthy living, service to the community, and environmental stewardship."

Admitting this, of course, would mess with the conservative narrative. Nor, it turns out, is this the first time that elements of the right have shamelessly tried to use the Boy Scouts, of all organizations, to impugn the Obama White House. A whispering campaign via e-mail (in cyberspace, no one can hear you scream) alleged that unlike his predecessors the president has refused to sign Eagle Scout certificates. As it turns out, there was a gap between the Bush and Obama presidencies when blank certificates were sent out.

But, as the debunking website www.snopes.com reports, "Production of new Eagle Scout certificates bearing President Obama's signature... got underway in late 2009 for distribution to Scouts who obtained Eagle rank in Spring 2010. President Obama has also mailed over 13,000 personal letters of congratulation to individual Eagle Scouts, including a September 2009 case in which every single one of the five most senior members of Troop 182 in Palatine, Illinois, earned eagle rank."

Now all of this would be simply silly if not for the fact that this is the pattern: find a bright, shining lie, an often trivial issue, reshape it to your agenda of attack and fear, distort and dissemble, bang it like a drum to rouse the media circus and distract the public - and its public servants - from the critical work necessary to survive as a republic.

The Shirley Sherrod debacle at the Department of Agriculture last week is just one example. The current fight over building an Islamic "mosque" near (not "at") Ground Zero here in Manhattan is another and perhaps the loudest.

Once again, downtown New Yorkers are faced with outsiders telling us our business. Newt Gingrich: "There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over." Sarah Palin: "Many Americans, myself included, feel it would be an intolerable and tragic mistake to allow such a project sponsored by such an individual to go forward on such hallowed ground. This is nothing close to 'religious intolerance.' It's just common decency."

But as developer Sharif El-Gamal told Jordana Horn of The Jerusalem Post, "Those aren't my neighbors, my friends or my New Yorkers. A vocal minority have come out to amplify their own agendas of hate and bigotry that have nothing to do with my project." He notes, too, as have many others, that calling it a mosque is an exaggeration. "There will be a mosque component, which will be a separate not-for-profit component of the project," Gamal said. "It's going to be a small component in a community center, just like the 92nd Street Y has a synagogue."

This is not to deny the emotions that always will be stirred by 9/11, especially by the friends and families of those who died there, but as Padraic O'Hare, director of the Merrimack College's Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College, wrote in The Washington Post. "Build a house which nurtures and cultivates less wounded, less ego-driven and more just and peaceful Muslims, people of real and healthy prayerfulness? Hand me the shovel."

Meanwhile, as the citizenry has its attention diverted by xenophobic anti-Muslim harangues, on Thursday night, Republicans in Congress killed the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act to help emergency workers and others near Ground Zero. As the New York Daily News reported, the bill "would spend $3.2 billion on health care over the next 10 years for people sickened from their exposure to the toxic smoke and debris of the shattered World Trade Center. It would spend another $4.2 billion to compensate victims over that span, and make another $4.2 billion in compensation available for the next 11 years."

GOP members called it a "slush fund." Is there a merit badge for classy?

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

July 21, 2010

Michael Winship: Don't You Know There's a War On?

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

"Don't You Know There's a War On?"
By Michael Winship

A recent headline on the New York Daily News website was blunt: "In case you've forgotten," it read, "we're at war."

The story was about the deaths of six Americans in Afghanistan in five separate attacks and one accidental explosion, all on the same day. The day before, coalition forces had mistakenly killed six Afghan civilians when an artillery strike missed its target; the day after, the Taliban would kill eleven Afghan policemen and a district governor.

It is the deadliest year of the war in Afghanistan, now the longest in American history. And although for most of us it's out of sight, out of mind, each day, the numbers continue to slowly creep up. So far this year, 241 Americans have died, 60 of them in June, 39 in July, according to the website iCasualties.org.

On July 12, the independent watchdog Afghanistan Rights Monitor reported, "In terms of insecurity, 2010 has been the worst year since the demise of the Taliban regime." By the group's calculations, 1074 civilians had died so far in 2010, although the much-discussed restrictions on rules of engagement have lowered the number of civilian deaths caused by international forces. The majority -- 61 percent -- died in insurgent attacks.

All of which is to say, whatever it is we're trying to do in Afghanistan -- fighting the so-called global war on terrorism, waging a counterinsurgency, nation building -- it isn't working. And in
continuing to fight this conflict we are not only guaranteeing the continued destruction of that faraway land but our own country as well, lives and treasure pouring into futility abroad as double dip financial disaster threatens on the homefront.

For an American military already stretched to the cracking point, the human cost spreads beyond the immediate casualties of the battlefield. June was the worth month ever recorded for US Army suicides, the service reported last Thursday, with soldiers killing themselves at the rate of one per day, 32 confirmed or suspected in all. Twenty-two of them had been in combat; ten had been deployed two to four times. What's more, by the spring of 2009, according to The Washington Post, "The percentage of the Army's most severely wounded troops who were suffering from PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] or traumatic brain injury had climbed to about 50 percent, from 38 percent a year earlier."

The one bit of good news: "Senior commanders have reached a turning point," the Post reported on Sunday. "After nine years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they are beginning to recognize age-old legacies of the battlefield -- once known as shellshock or battle fatigue -- as combat wounds, not signs of weakness. [Army Vice Chief of Staff] Gen. Peter Chiarelli... has been especially outspoken. 'PTSD is not a figment of someone's imagination,' Chiarelli lectured an auditorium of skeptical sergeants last fall. 'It is a cruel physiological thing.'"

Yet many remain unconvinced and military medicine suffers from a chronic shortage of money and personnel -- neurologists especially -- to provide the care so desperately needed. Like so much else associated with this war, the solution remains out of reach.

Even among those who still publicly declare victory is within grasp there is uncertainty and doubt, their arguments a threadbare tapestry behind which it's increasingly difficult to hide. Despite this week's international conference in Kabul with Secretary of State Clinton in attendance, and despite the announcement that President Karzai has agreed to create local defense forces that will augment the police and military, little real progress is being made in creating any semblance of stability in Afghanistan. The ferocity of the insurgency continues
to intensify, the size of their bombs grow larger and more deadly. Last week's fatal attack on an Afghan police base in Kandahar was described by an experienced US Army Airborne captain as "definitely well-planned and coordinated much better than anything we've seen before." A preview
of coming attractions as some 10,000 Afghan and coalition troops prepare to escalate fighting aimed at clearing out the Taliban's Kandahar strongholds.

But even if we were to "win," what then? As Tom Engelhardt wrote last week on the website TomDispatch.com, "We would be in minimalist possession of the world's fifth poorest country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's second most corrupt country. We would be in minimal possession of the world's foremost narco-state, the only country that essentially produces a drug monocrop, opium. In terms of the global war on terror, we would be in possession of a country that the director of the CIA now believes to hold 50 to 100 al-Qaeda
operatives ('maybe less') -- for whom parts of the country might still be a 'safe haven.' And for this, and everything to come, we would be paying, at a minimum, $84 billion a year."

Meanwhile, McClatchy News reported Thursday on two Kabul glamour spots, the Fig Health Centre and the Kabul Health Club, where the expatriate community can relax with a hot stone massage or an Arctic berry facial: "One spa treatment at Fig would be a month's salary for most Afghans in a country with a 35 percent unemployment rate, a pervasive culture of state-sanctioned corruption and constant dangers posed by the war with the Taliban."

Abdul Farani, owner of the Kabul Health Club told McClatchy, "I believe in the value of a peaceful environment. We can rise to the levels of angels or sink to the level of devils and what's different is the environment."

In case you've forgotten, we're at war.

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

July 12, 2010

Michael Winship: On the Foul Line with the Chamber of Commerce

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

"On the Foul Line with the Chamber of Commerce"
By Michael Winship

I may be one of the only Manhattan residents not disappointed with LeBron James' televised announcement that, "This fall, I'm going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat."

You see, when the basketball superstar was contemplating signing with the New York Knicks last week, he came house hunting in my tragically trendy, downtown neighborhood, and news soon broke that he was looking at a $12.9 million fixer upper - with high ceilings -- directly across the street from my apartment building.

Visions of permanently camped-out paparazzi and crazed fans - in an area already besieged by Carrie and Samantha wannabes on the "Sex and the City" bus tour - had me scanning the real estate websites for a cottage small by a waterfall, preferably near a subway stop.

Sure, there would have been advantages to LeBron James as a neighbor- carpooling, for one - but all I need at this stage of life is yet another reminder of someone far younger, richer, and better coordinated than I am.

James' new deal reportedly is worth $110 million. And while fans in Cleveland are calling him all sorts of rotten names, depressed and angry that he's deserting their beloved Cavaliers, nonetheless I presume that he would make a more congenial local resident than, say, other rich folk about whom The New York Times reported on Friday.

Many seem to have found yet another way to take advantage of the gruesome economy some of them helped to create, skipping out on their mortgages "at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population."

According to the newspaper, "More than one in seven homeowners with loans in excess of a million dollars are seriously delinquent, according to data compiled for The New York Times by the real estate analytics firm CoreLogic. By contrast, homeowners with less lavish housing are much more likely to keep writing checks to their lender. About one in 12 mortgages below the million-dollar mark is delinquent.

"Though it is hard to prove, the CoreLogic data suggest that many of the well-to-do are purposely dumping their financially draining properties, just as they would any sour investment."

There's little concern among the wealthy about the impact these defaults have on their communities. "The rich are different: they are more ruthless," Sam Khater, CoreLogic's senior economist, told the Times. "... If they're going delinquent faster than anyone else, that tells me they are doing so willingly."

Not entirely unexpected behavior, when the gap between the richest and the rest has becomes so vast that the highest percentile can barely see us, even when they stand on top of their wallets for a better view. And not surprising at a time when the Supreme Court, through the Citizens United decision and other rulings, has determined that wealthy corporations are people, too, with license to run roughshod (albeit in very nice shoes) over the democratic process, freely spending their fortunes on candidates who will do their bidding, all in the name of the First Amendment right to free speech.

Sam Stein of The Huffington Post website reported last week about a chart circulating in Washington of ten "Republican aligned institutions," the amounts of money they spent on federal elections in 2008 and the amounts they intend to spend on this year's midterms.

Stein writes that, "If their pledges are fulfilled, these ten groups will unleash more than $200 million in election-focused spending - roughly $37 million more than every single independent group spent on the 2008 presidential campaign combined. This time around, almost every single penny will be going to Republican candidates or causes."

He added, "A Democratic operative makes the case that the total could rise to roughly $300 million if it includes additional pledges for campaign spending from Americans for Prosperity, promising $45 million, the Club for Growth, $24 million, the National Rifle Association, $20 million, and the Susan B. Anthony List, $6 million."

Jon Youngdahl, national political director of the labor union SEIU said, "We fear that due to Citizens United these numbers are only going to grow. I fear these are the first signs of that growth" (The Washington Post reported last month that SEIU has budgeted about $44 million for federal and state political activities this year. The AFL-CIO had not released its figures.).

At the top of the "Republican aligned" list is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has committed $75 million to the midterms, more than twice what they spent on federal elections just two years ago.

A profile of Chamber president and CEO Thomas J. Donahue in the current issue of Washington Monthly notes that while 96 percent of the Chamber's membership is small businesses with fewer than 100 employees, "it is also beholden to a cadre of multinationals whose interests are often inimical to those of small business. In 2008, a third of its revenues came from just nineteen companies."

Approximately eight of every ten dollars the Chamber gives in political donations go to GOP candidates. Former Chamber economist Lawrence Hunter says the organization "views itself as a shadow-government policymaking body" and the Washington Monthly article notes that for big business, "a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover."

It cites the example of medical companies who were against health care reform. For manufacturers "who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work."

Quoth Tom Donahue, "I want to give them all the deniability they need." Swell.

According to the Monthly, Donahue keeps a plaque on his desk that reads "SHOW ME THE MONEY," a sentiment with which a hotly sought after athlete like LeBron James can identify. James is going to Miami to be with fellow free-agent stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Donahue knows who his Super Friends are, too: big business, the conservative, naysaying obstructionists in Congress and their candidates, poised to take back the majority. If successful, they'll wind back the clock and make Democrats feel as if the last two years were an easy layup from under the basket.

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

July 8, 2010

Michael Winship: This Fourth of July, Celebrate "1776" -- The Movie

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

"This Fourth of July, Celebrate "1776" -- The Movie"
By Michael Winship

As we commemorate the Fourth of July, one of the joys -- and there are many -- of life in these United States is that you never know what the hell we, the people, will say next.

There's the delightful teenage girl in Montclair, New Jersey, who when informed this week that the nice married couple nearby had been arrested as Russian intelligence agents, joked to The New York Times, "They couldn't have been spies. Look what she did with the hydrangeas."

On the other end of the comedy spectrum there's House minority leader John Boehner, who scoffingly told the conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that financial reform was akin to "killing an ant with a nuclear weapon." Yep, the bank-fueled economic meltdown that created those 8 million U.S. job losses and $17 trillion in lost retirement savings and net worth was one heck of an anthill. Good one, John.

But one remark that really floored me occurred last week when I was interviewing FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski before an audience at the Silverdocs documentary film festival just outside Washington, DC. At the end of the conversation, which covered everything from net neutrality and broadband access to the fate of investigative journalism in cyberspace, we took questions from the audience. One gentleman had several brief policy questions and then, of all things, asked Genachowski to name his favorite movie.

"'1776,'" the chairman instantly replied, with "Fiddler on the Roof" a close second.

Yes, "1776," the film version of a Broadway musical comedy by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone that turned the signing of the Declaration of Independence into a song-filled romp through eighteenth century Philadelphia. Ben Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson even dance down a staircase in Independence Hall.

You could have knocked me over with a quill when Genachowski said it. But truth be told, "1776" is a favorite of mine as well. I wouldn't rank it anywhere near such greats as "Casablanca" or "Chinatown" or "The Godfather" or "Some Like It Hot" and "The Thin Man" (to name but a few), but I saw the movie when it first came out in 1972, still tune it in when it pops up on cable and have even seen a couple of staged revivals of the original play, one at a dinner theater in Maryland where between scenes the actors playing delegates of the Continental Congress served up prime rib and strawberry shortcake.

Yes, it's corny; many of the jokes are groaners and some of the lyrics edge toward crossing that "Spinal Tap" fine line between stupid and clever. But there's something deeply stirring about seeing the Founding Fathers as human beings, their foibles broadly drawn, their desire for freedom duking it out against prejudice, self-interest and resistance to change.

"What's so terrible about being called an Englishman?" Continental Congress delegate John Dickinson asks Benjamin Franklin. "The English don't seem to mind."

"Nor would I," Franklin replies, "were I given the full rights of an Englishman. But to call me one without those rights is like calling an ox a bull. He's thankful for the honor, but he'd much rather have restored what's rightfully his."

In some ways, this sparkly paean to patriotism is a subversive little hand grenade, its liberal politics woven into the plot at a time when Richard Nixon was still in the White House. In an exchange that stings even more now than it did then, John Hancock tells John Dickinson, "Fortunately there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy," and Dickinson replies, "Perhaps not. But don't forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich, than face the reality of being poor."

When the movie version was released its producer, Jack Warner -- allegedly at the behest of Nixon -- removed a song, "Cool, Cool Considerate Men," sung by the loyalist, conservative delegates who smugly shout, "We have land, cash in hand, self-command, future planned!" According to "1776" writer Peter Stone, "The opponents of independence were very much involved in commerce and profits, so they were very much allied to modern conservatives. Nixon didn't want Americans to be reminded of this as he faced re-election in 1972, and the country was preparing to celebrate it's bicentennial. I think that's why he hated the song, and why Jack Warner took it out."

Luckily, the missing footage was found and has been restored to the version we see today on TV and DVD.

"1776" is a reminder that the embrace of the status quo in the face of revolutionary ideas is nothing new. Nor is bloody legislative compromise or our ongoing frustration over a Congress mired in petty squabbling, unable to take action.

At the beginning of the story, John Adams sings, "A second flood, a simple famine, plagues of locusts everywhere, or a cataclysmic earthquake, I'd accept with some despair. But no, You sent us Congress! Good God, Sir, was that fair?" Later he laments, "I have come to the conclusion that one useless man is called a disgrace; that two are called a law firm, and that three or more become a Congress!"

But the Tea Partiers and Glenn Becks of America who scorn government and who have tried turning the Founding Fathers into libertarian deities will find little comfort in "1776." As Franklin says in the film, "We're men, no more no less, trying to get a nation started against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed." Rather than fall hopelessly into endless name-calling and mudslinging like today's, ultimately these men engaged in forthright debate and overcame ideological differences that threatened to stop their revolution before it began. They managed to produce a nation, an experiment outlined in a Declaration of Independence that is, as the movie version's John Adams says, "a masterful expression of the American mind."

And they did so realizing, as a character in the film says -- quoting the words of conservative icon Edmund Burke, member of the British Parliament -- that a representative owes the people not only his industry, but his judgment, and he betrays them if he sacrifices it to their opinion.

So watch the movie and see what you think (Turner Classic Movies is paying it on the Fourth of July). I'd match "1776" against "The Last Airbender" or that "Karate Kid" remake any day.

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

July 3, 2010

W.S. Merwin -- The New Poet Laureate

W.S. Merwin has just been named the new Poet Laureate for the United States. View Bill Moyers interview with Merwin below:

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