" /> Bill Moyers Journal: May 2011 Archives
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Photo of Bill Moyers Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Bill Moyers Journal
Watch & Listen The Blog Archive Transcripts Buy DVDs

« April 2011 | Main

May 25, 2011

Michael Winship: Democracy Talks -- Listen Up

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Michael Winship.

"Democracy Talks -- Listen Up
By Michael Winship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few other excerpts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




May 19, 2011

Michael Winship: The Importance of Being Tony Kushner

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Michael Winship.

The Importance of Being Tony Kushner
By Michael Winship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Kushner's entire letter is worth reading. You can see it at: http://www.thenation.com/sites/default/files/user/20/54643560-Letter-to-CUNY-Trustees-05-04-11.pdf. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld's statement to the CUNY trustees can be found at: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/06/transcript-of-cuny-trustees-speech-on-kushner-award.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


May 10, 2011

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

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Michael Winship.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 4, 2011

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

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Michael Winship.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


THE MOYERS BLOG
A Companion Blog to Bill Moyers Journal

Your Comments

Podcasts

THE JOURNAL offers a free podcast and vodcast of all weekly episodes. (help)

Click to subscribe in iTunes

Subscribe with another reader

Get the vodcast (help)

For Educators    About the Series    Bill Moyers on PBS   

© Public Affairs Television 2008    Privacy Policy    DVD/VHS    Terms of Use    FAQ