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November 25, 2010

Michael Winship: Cranks Resist Security at Airports -- and in the Senate

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

Cranks Resist Security at Airports -- and in the Senate
By Michael Winship

To paraphrase that cult movie classic, Eating Raoul, frisk me, pat me down, make me write bad checks. If it keeps my flight from falling out of the sky, do what you must. Just don't expect breakfast in the morning and a thank you note.

Because let's face it, as onerous as you might think these new airport body scans are, not to mention the pat downs with benefits if you refuse the scan, they may be a necessary part of life in these United States circa 2010. Facebook already has wiped out most vestiges of your privacy; the Transportation Security Administration simply takes care of the rest.

Not that there aren't problems, bugs that have to be worked out as these systems go through their shakedown phase. Overly aggressive and handsy TSA inspectors, for one. And according to The Washington Post, a scientist claims there's a "cheap and simple fix" to the scanners that would "distort the images captured on full-body scanners so they look like reflections in a fun-house mirror, but any potentially dangerous objects would be clearly revealed," thus quelling the protests of those who object to real-time, nude outlines of the human body.

The former nuclear weapons designer, who helped develop the scanners at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says he offered the solution to Department of Homeland Security officials four years ago during the Bush administration but was "rebuffed."

There's also some concern about radiation, although the Associated Press reports the TSA claim that "radiation from one scan is about the same as a person would get from flying for about three minutes in an airplane at 30,000 feet, where atmospheric radiation levels are higher than on the ground. That amount is vastly lower than a single dental X-ray.

"You would have to go through scanners more than 1,000 times in one year to even meet the maximum recommended level -- and even pilots don't do that." (So why are pilots and flight attendants being allowed to duck the scanners? Just asking.)

And here's an interesting tidbit from Amy Goodman's Democracy Now website on November 23: "As the national debate over airport screening practices intensifies, little attention has been paid to the increasing lobbying power the manufacturers of full body scanning machines have in Washington. USA Today reports L3 Communications has spent $4.3 million on lobbying, up from $2.1 million in 2005. L3 has sold nearly $40 million worth of machines to the federal government. Lobbyists for L3 have included Linda Daschle, the wife of former US Senate majority leader Tom Daschle. Meanwhile, Rapiscan Systems has spent more than $270,000 on lobbying so far this year, compared with $80,000 five years earlier. The company made headlines last year when it hired former US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff who has become a prominent proponent of body scanners. The CEO of Rapiscan's parent company, Deepak Chopra, recently traveled with President Obama on his three-day trip to India."

(And no, not that Deepak Chopra. The New Age guru would determine your terrorist potential by evaluating your aura, no machines or strip searches necessary.)

In any case, if you're contemplating staging a protest while in line at an airport this holiday weekend, in the name of all that's holy, please don't. I'm not flying anywhere this week, but think of the 1.6 million Americans who are and show a little common sense and thoughtfulness. Also ask yourself, would I be doing this if George Bush were still in the White House urging me to be patriotic and patient? And to shop my terrors away at the mall?

Besides, when it comes to security, frankly, there are more important things to worry about than some anonymous, federal rent-a-cop scanning your privates for grenades.

Like North Korea. On Tuesday, it shelled the island of Yeonpyeong, killing two South Korean soldiers and wounding 18 military personnel and civilians. The attack occurred just days after Stanford University nuclear scientist Siegfried S. Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory was shown a secret North Korean uranium enrichment facility. The New York Times noted, "The development confronted the Obama administration with the prospect that North Korea country is preparing to expand its nuclear arsenal or build a far more powerful type of atomic bomb." Nuclear technology they've already demonstrated they're willing to sell to the right bidder.

Just one of the many good reasons that in its lame duck session the United States Senate should ratify the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty with Russia: to maintain stability and strengthen the alliance with that former Cold War enemy that helps keep North Korea -- and Iran -- in line. And to restore on-site inspections of Russian missile sites and storage facilities to prevent nuclear weapons from disappearing into the hands of terrorists, state-sponsored or otherwise. And to limit the number of strategic warheads held by the two nations.

The treaty needs 67 votes for ratification, which means eight Republicans must support it along with all 59 members of the Democratic voting bloc. But some are trying to hold off the vote until the new Congress in January, when 14 Republican votes will be required for the necessary two-thirds majority. That doubtless would put a stop to START, and seriously undercut our worldwide credibility.

This is foolish, dangerous partisanship, plain and simple; Republicans denying President Obama even the most sensible initiative just to further undermine his chances for reelection without regard to the international consequences, which include a possible strengthening of Russian hardliners, an end to that nation's cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, and a general destabilization of the balance of power.

This is a treaty endorsed, as Steven Benen of Washington Monthly has pointed out, not only by the leaders of NATO but by six former secretaries of state and five former secretaries of defense from both parties, seven former Strategic Command chiefs, national security advisers from both parties and nearly all former commanders of US nuclear forces. Not to mention Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen, who described START as "essential to our future security."

But to many hard line Republicans, like the cranky travelers who balk and rage at scans and searches, security may no longer be the priority it once was. Not when there's a presidency to destroy.

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




November 18, 2010

Michael Winship: Don't Ask, Don't Care

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

Don't Ask, Don't Care
By Michael Winship

Although I grew up in a small town, I live in the West Village of Manhattan, New York City, just three blocks from Christopher Street and the Stonewall Inn, where in 1969 a police raid led to angry demonstrations that marked the start of the gay rights movement. Yet in most ways my neighborhood is just like yours. We all co-exist. Kids go to school, business owners complain about the economy, everyone - straight or gay -- is worried about jobs.

I also work in an industry - journalism, media and entertainment -- in which men and women of diverse sexual orientation make extraordinary contributions ever day, informing, delighting and annoying audiences of every age, gender, shape and hue. No problem.
Granted, a few members of that audience are bigots and pinheads, probably unaware that their favorite show or song was created by a team of imaginative people with social and personal lives unlike their own. So let's keep them out of this.

Because it's about this gays in the military thing. Listen, Congress. The majority of the people have spoken - as many as 78% of them in a May CNN poll, 50% in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey. And it's not so much "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," as simply, "Don't Care."

Don't care if homosexual men and women openly serve in the armed forces as long as they do their job and defend their country. Don't care what military men and women and men and men and women and women do in their spare time as long as it doesn't involve minors, criminal activity or abuse. Don't care because it's none of our business.
I knew for sure that public and military opinion were changing on this issue exactly eight years ago, when I was guest lecturing at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. The school is just down the road from Fort Campbell, home of the 101st Airborne Division, and many of Austin Peay's students are active duty military personnel, veterans and family members.

Keep in mind that not so long ago, at Fort Campbell in 1999, Private First Class Barry Winchell, who had been dating a male-to-female transgender performer he met at a club, was verbally and physically harassed and eventually murdered by another soldier. But just a short time later, the young men and women with whom I spoke seemed fully comfortable with their gay and lesbian friends and comrades-in-arms, far more concerned with the safety of colleagues and loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan than how they behaved when the lights were out. In fact, these students frequently hung out together in gay or straight or transgender bars in nearby Nashville, at ease with their own and each others' sexuality.

But now, despite wide public acceptance, the Senate may strip the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" from the defense appropriations bill to prevent a filibuster, just part of the continuing spirit of legislative negativity and resistance that denies the reality of everything from nuclear arms proliferation (the START Treaty) to climate change.

It's all so reminiscent of that old Groucho Marx song, "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It." Because the man threatening to filibuster is the Groucho - er, Grouchy - of the United States Senate, the newly reelected John McCain.

As vividly and hilariously illustrated this week by both Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow, the Senior Senator from the State of Cantankerous has shown that he can play a childish game of "Step over that Line" until well past bedtime, even after the bugler blows "Taps." First, he said he'd consider backing repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell if the military's top brass recommended it. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen did just that (as did their commander-in-chief, Barack Obama).

Not good enough, said McCain back in February. Before he'd go along he needed to see a study thoroughly surveying the military point of view.

Questionnaires were sent this summer to 400,000 active and reserve troops and 150,000 military spouses. The results are officially due December 1 but word is out. The November 11 Washington Post reported, "More than 70 percent of respondents to a survey sent to active-duty and reserve troops over the summer said the effect of repealing the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy would be positive, mixed or nonexistent, said two sources familiar with the document. The survey results led the report's authors to conclude that objections to openly gay colleagues would drop once troops were able to live and serve alongside them."

Still not good enough, McCain said on Sunday's Meet the Press. He wants hearings and another report - this one "to determine the effects of the repeal on battle effectiveness and morale" (despite the fact that the December 1 report apparently does just that).
"McCain has said he wanted to hear from rank-and-file troops," Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese said. "He just heard loud and clear from them through the study. But he doesn't like the answer - and is stonewalling, trying to run out the clock on repeal by calling for congressional hearings."

An old Navy man like you should know when the boat has sailed, Senator McCain. Just this once, forget John Paul Jones and give up the ship. Remember the words of your conservative mentor, the man whose seat you inherited in the Senate, Barry Goldwater. In 1994, he wrote, "The conservative movement is founded on the simple tenet that people have the right to live life as they please as long as they don't hurt anyone else in the process."

Or, even more succinctly and famously, in a 1993 letter Goldwater wrote to The Washington Post: "You don't need to be 'straight' to fight and die for your country. You just need to shoot straight."

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


November 11, 2010

Michael Winship: Riding the Rails, Looking for Work

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

Riding the Rails, Looking for Work
By Michael Winship

Now that an entire week or so has passed, it's possible to make a cool, complete and objective assessment of the meaning of the 2010 vote. Thus, ladies and gentlemen, it becomes clear what this election was all about: jobs.

I mean, just look at Monday's Washington Post: "The record-breaking campaign showered billions of dollars on a broad array of companies, including broadcast conglomerates, polling firms and small-town restaurants, according to a Washington Post analysis of expenditure reports. Candidates spent at least $50 million on catering and liquor, $3.2 million at country clubs and golf courses, and $500,000 on pizza, coffee and doughnuts, the records show...

"The spending came at a fortunate time for many businesses struggling with tepid growth and a national unemployment rate stuck near 10 percent. Experts predict that total spending for the congressional midterms will approach $4 billion, putting it on par with the $3 billion 'Cash for Clunkers' program in 2009 aimed at boosting auto sales."

Who says stimulus programs don't work? Or that all that insane corporate spending on the elections didn't do some good? Gosh darn it, if you're an aspiring barista, you'll be thrilled to learn that Democratic campaigns spent $24,000 at Starbucks, Republicans $17,000. And gym rats and personal trainers, be of good cheer. According to the Post, "The Democratic National Committee spent $41,000 for memberships at a Results gym about seven blocks from its Washington headquarters," keeping its candidates in physical trim if still flabby when it came to policy, decision making and vote getting.

Not unexpectedly, the largest amount of this free-flowing cash and whatever job creation accompanied it went to the broadcasters who sold airtime for that constant din of campaign ads that plagued us over the last weeks and months - an estimated $2.5 billion worth of revenues. Then there were the media buyers and campaign consultants, pollsters, direct mail and printing companies, caterers -- not to mention banks, credit card and check processing concerns, including Bank of America, American Express and ADP. Those financial heavyweights pulled in $140 million from the election cycle, as if they needed it.

Of course, the ones who do need it are the close to 15 million Americans still without employment, despite Friday's Labor Department report indicating that 151,000 jobs had been gained in October.

As Catherine Rampell explained in the November 5 New York Times, "The jobless rate has not fallen substantially this year, largely because employers have barely added enough workers to absorb the people just entering the labor force. And even if the economy suddenly expands and starts adding 208,000 jobs a month -- as it did in its best year this decade -- it would still take 12 years to close the gap between the growing number of American workers and the total available jobs, according to the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project" (Gentle readers may recall that the Hamilton Project was founded by former Clinton treasury secretary, Citigroup mogul and Obama economic advisor Robert Rubin as a haven for Wall Street Democrats dedicated to the Clintonian principle of growth tied to deficit reduction and free trade.).

"I am open to any idea, any proposal, any way we can get the economy growing faster so that people who need work can find it faster," President Obama said on Friday, but it's to be hoped that his openness doesn't extend to caving into the GOP and continuing permanently all of the Bush tax cuts - at a budget-bursting cost of almost $4 trillion over the next ten years.

Better to focus on infrastructure and more specifically a complete overhaul of the nation's transportation system, creating jobs and opportunities that can't be outsourced. But while the President is in full support of this - especially the expansion of high-speed rail service -- sadly, it seems Republicans are determined to undercut any such formula, scuttling programs in the name of a favorite mantra, slashing government spending.

Already we've seen New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie pull the rug out from years of planning and anticipated benefits by killing a proposed rail tunnel under the Hudson River that would have doubled commuter traffic in and out of Manhattan and created, according to its proponents, an estimated 6000 construction jobs. There's no denying that it was the most expensive public works project in the United States nor that the cost to the state would be in the billions, but the long term benefits would far exceed that initial cost.

Newly-elected Republican governors Rick Scott of Florida, John Kasich in Ohio and Wisconsin's Scott Walker all campaigned on turning down Federal stimulus money for high-speed rail links in their states. But according to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, former Republican congressman from Illinois, "The bottom line is that high-speed rail is a national program that will connect the country, spur economic development and bring manufacturing jobs to the U.S. It will also transform transportation in America, much like the Interstate highway system did under President Eisenhower."

And as noted in a recently released report from the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, the result of a September 2009 conference co-chaired by Bush transportation secretaries Norman Mineta and Samuel Skinner, "The United States can't compete successfully in the 21st century with a 20th century transportation infrastructure -- especially when its chief trading partners, including not only the advanced economies of Western Europe and Southeast Asia but also rapidly developing countries like China, are making significant investments in cutting-edge transportation technologies and systems." This could lead, the report said, to "a steady erosion of the social and economic foundations for American prosperity in the long run."

Much of the Republican opposition points to maintenance and upkeep costs but as champion blogger John Cole notes, "Turning down a billion dollar train because you will have to pay 8 million a year in maintenance is like giving away a free car because you might have to one day buy windshield wiper fluid."

That, friends, is something else this year's election was all about: the triumph of shortsighted thinking over facing up to the long range difficult problems that threaten our future. Fasten your seatbelts; it's going to be a bumpy two years.

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


November 2, 2010

Michael Winship: Restore Sanity: A Report from Waaaay in the Back

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

Restore Sanity: A Report from Waaaay in the Back
By Michael Winship


Mistakes were made.

"Let's face it," a fellow rallygoer admitted. "We committed several tactical errors this morning."

As you may have heard, the worst part of Saturday's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC, was getting there.

We probably should have gotten up earlier. A lot earlier. Arriving at the Metro station nearest our hotel, my girlfriend Pat and I stood with dozens of others on the platform as train after train arrived, each so packed with rally attendees, their faces practically pressed to the window glass, it was impossible to get on board.

Finally, Pat suggested we take a train in the other direction, get off in the suburbs, then turn around, trying to get ahead of the mobs -- a good strategy that proved equally futile; there were just too many people. By 3 pm, the city's transit system reported that 350,000 passengers had ridden the system, the normal total for an entire Saturday. As yet another crammed train arrived, a nearby frustrated traveler sighed plaintively, "Is there anyone left in Maryland?"

Forsaking the subway for a bus ride, we finally got within walking distance, dropped off in Foggy Bottom near the State Department. So by the time we trudged over to the Mall to see Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert we were more than an hour and a half late for the big event and the crowd had reached perhaps a quarter million people. Meaning we saw the backs of a lot of heads and only occasionally, dimly could hear what was happening on the podium. Cat Stevens was there, right? (We caught up later, via C-SPAN.)

But it was worth it just to share in the overall exuberance of the crowd, although with Election Day glowering on the horizon sometimes it did feel a wee bit like On the Beach, with all those Australians boisterously singing "Waltzing Matilda" right before nuclear extinction.

And, as reported, the signs and banners were great. Good humored, they ranged from expressions of the silly and benign ("It's Very Nice to Be Here," "I Have a Sign") to the more pointed sentiment ("This Is a Democracy, Not an Auction," "Gay Nazi Mexicans Are Raising Our Taxes") to the intentional non sequitur (my personal favorite: "7-11 Was an Inside Job").

It was certainly the largest gathering I've seen at a DC rally since the anti-Vietnam protests of the late sixties and early seventies. And contrary to the predictions of some, it was not dominated by the young -- seniors were well-represented and stories abounded of planes and trains (including ours from New York) filled with older Americans on their way to Washington, exuberant fans of Stewart and Colbert sharing a message of rationality and wit triumphing over bellicosity and chaos.

But for all the laughs and congeniality on a sunny autumn day, for all the genuine rejection of right-wing cant and hypocrisy, there were a couple of things that seemed slightly askew. For while, as Stewart said of the media, "The 24-hour politico-pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder," unfortunately for us, neither do irony and jokes effect lasting solutions. Nor do they necessarily bridge the gap with those, as journalist James Maguire wrote, covering the rally for The Washington Monthly, "far more displaced by the long recession... Those folks don't want to 'restore sanity,' they want to restore their jobs."

What's more, Maguire asks, "Is this just a comedy skit writ large, a ginormous living diorama of a Daily Show 'live at the scene' report? Or is it, under cover of irony... an effort to influence the course of politics in the direction Stewart's humor so obviously leans?"

Comedians injecting themselves into the American political scene are nothing new. As David Bianculli points out in his book, Dangerously Funny, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Gracie Allen, W.C. Fields, and even Howdy Doody staged mock presidential campaigns. In 1968, Pat Paulson of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS actually had a professional political consultant for his faux White House run ("I don't want to be any more than I am today," the candidate claimed. "A common, ordinary, simple savior of America's destiny.").

Jon Stewart and his superb writing team have claimed to be nothing more than the kids who make wisecracks from the back of the classroom, never to be taken seriously as newsmakers or opinion leaders. But that hasn't really been true for a long time and now Stewart's standing in front of the class, lecturing at the blackboard.

Is that appropriate? And does it matter? Whether or not you agree, he's still the funniest teacher in school. Maybe, as a sign at Saturday's rally declared, "We Should Do This More Often."

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


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