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February 18, 2011

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

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 16, 2011

Michael Winship: An Egyptian Voice of Democracy Says, Tell Old Pharaoh, Go

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

An Egyptian Voice of Democracy Says, Tell Old Pharaoh, Go
By Michael Winship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"See you then."

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

February 5, 2011

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

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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