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August 31, 2010

Michael Winship: The Awful Price for Teaching Less than We Know

(Photo by Robin Holland)

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

The Awful Price for Teaching Less than We Know
By Michael Winship

Watching Glenn Beck's performance Saturday at his "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, DC, I thought of the novelist Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, the charlatan evangelist who seduces most of those around him with his hearty backslapping and false piety.

Then I realized it wasn't Gantry of whom I was reminded so much as another Lewis character, Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, the politician who poses as a populist, then once elected president turns the United States into a fascist dictatorship, aided by an angry, unknowing electorate and a paramilitary group called the Minute Men.

Read how Sinclair Lewis described Windrip seventy-five years ago in his novel It Can't Happen Here and think Beck: "He was an actor of genius. There was no more overwhelming actor on the stage, in the motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth; but he would also coo like a nursing mother, beseech like an aching lover, and in between tricks would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts -- figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.

Continue reading "Michael Winship: The Awful Price for Teaching Less than We Know" »


March 11, 2010

Do Americans Suffer From an "Allergy to Thought?"

(Photo by Robin Holland)

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talked with New York University president John Sexton for a wide-ranging conversation about religion, the role of higher education in a globalizing world, and the troubling disintegration of civil discourse in today's society.

Sexton suggested that America increasingly exhibits what he calls an "allergy to thought" and that universities are the key to restoring nuance to public discourse:

"This is a pattern that I see: an allergy to thought, to complexity [and] nuance - a kind of collapse into an intellectual relativism where opinions become fact... It's a dangerous thing... I think there's a growing hostility to knowledge in this country... Our national progress is being retarded because we have fallen into this discourse by slogan. We have fallen into this relativism where it's a conversation to stop and say, "Well, that's your opinion. [This is] my opinion...' Go back to the Athenian idea of political speech - it was a search for good answers. We're so far from that today that it's almost ludicrous for me to bring that up, but I want to remind us... We don't listen well as a society. When we listen, we listen in feedback loops to people who are likely to say what it is we think is right... We're in the process, it seems to me, because of this allergy to complexity and nuance, of devaluing the importance of education... I think universities are the last, best hope for pushing back against this because what we do is complexity and nuance."

Some critics contend that many of today's universities refuse to foster a truly vigorous exchange of ideas. Arguing in the WALL STREET JOURNAL that recent high-profile incidents at Yale, Harvard and Duke demonstrate universities' lack of commitment to open dialogue, columnist Peter Berkowitz wrote:

"Professors have a professional interest in - indeed a professional duty to uphold - liberty of thought and discussion. But in recent years, precisely where they should be most engaged and outspoken they have been apathetic and inarticulate... The aim of liberal education is not to guard [students'] sensitivities but to teach them to listen to diverse opinions and fortify them to respond with better arguments to those with whom they disagree... As the controversies at Yale, Duke and Harvard captured national attention, professors from other universities haven't had much to say in defense of liberty of thought and discussion either. This silence represents a collective failure of America's professors of colossal proportions. What could be a clearer sign of our professors' loss of understanding of the requirements of liberal education than their failure to defend liberty of thought and discussion where it touches them most directly?"

What do you think?

  • Does American society suffer from "an allergy to thought?" Why or why not?

  • Do you believe that America's universities encourage open and nuanced debate on the issues of our time? Explain.

  • Are there other institutions you see "pushing back" against sloganeering in favor of honest and intelligent dialogue?


  • January 22, 2010

    Why Did Democrats Lose in Massachusetts?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with liberal academics Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Eric Alterman about why Democrats lost Ted Kennedy's former seat in Massachusetts' special election for Senate and how progressives should proceed from here.

    Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who worked on Obama's 2008 campaign, said that the significance of the Massachusetts election has been overstated, but that the loss reflects the failure of both the administration and its supporters in the general public to maintain the excitement of the campaign:

    "I think a lot of our emotions about this particular seat has to do with Senator Kennedy, the sense that Senator Kennedy was one of the first and strongest voices on health care, and that somehow replacing Kennedy with a Republican who is voting against health care or is likely to vote against health care is a very painful sort of shift.. The changes that may have been happening in the electorate may be these secular shifts that have occurred for some time. They're not just about the moment of this one question about this President... [There's been] a failure on the part of the Democratic Party writ large to tell a better story and just a more accurate story about what's going on... The brilliance of the Obama campaign had to do with creating a sort of outline figure of who Obama was - a figure of change, of hope, a representation of what America most wanted itself to be. But what was amazing was how at the level of very ordinary people, there was an opportunity to project onto Barack Obama all of your greatest hopes... The missing piece is that those same people who had such enthusiasm to tell a story during the campaign have failed to tell those stories during governing."

    Eric Alterman said that the Massachusetts defeat was due to a mediocre Democratic candidate and that President Obama has not fought hard enough to enact the progressive agenda:

    "[Massachusetts is] a liberal state. They went for McGovern. They have gay marriage. They elected a conservative to replace Ted Kennedy, who by the way replaced John Kennedy. It is shocking. The question is what's at the source of the shock. If you ask me, it's the fact that this President and particularly this candidate has not given people an inspiration to turn out the way these same people had an inspiration to turn out a year ago. Barack Obama carried Massachusetts by 28 points. That is a liberal state, and so it should be a shock to the system, but it's not a repudiation of everything that Barack Obama believes, and it's clearly not a repudiation of him for being too liberal, much less socialist. It's equally plausible, and to my mind more plausible, that it's a repudiation of his being unwilling to fight for the agenda that people thought they were electing him for."

    In his syndicated column, conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson argued that Democrats have alienated many voters by arrogantly pursuing policies opposed by a majority of Americans. He wrote:

    "In Plato's ideal society, philosopher kings and elite Guardians shepherded the rabble to force them to do the "right" thing... We are now seeing such thinking in the Obama administration and among its supporters. A technocracy -- many Ivy-League-educated and without much experience outside academia and government -- pushes legislation most people do not want but is nevertheless judged to be good for them. Take the Obama proposal for health care. A large percentage of Americans do not trust those who run the Postal Service to oversee the conditions of one-sixth of the U.S. economy... In fact, on a number of other major issues, polls show more than half of all Americans are at odds with the Obama agenda: more federal takeover of private enterprise, gargantuan deficit spending, and 'comprehensive' immigration reform, for starters... Why, then, does the Obama administration persist with such an apparently unpopular agenda? Like Plato's all-knowing elite, Obama seems to feel that those he deems less informed will 'suddenly' learn to appreciate his benevolent guidance once these laws are pushed through."

    What do you think?

  • Why did Democrats lose Massachusetts' special election for the Senate?

  • Do you expect Republicans to score more victories in November's midterm elections? Why or why not?

  • In the wake of the defeat in Massachusetts, what strategies should progressives pursue?


  • January 15, 2010

    A New Decade

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talked with historian and columnist Thomas Frank about the state of the Union when President Obama took office last January and the lessons of the years he calls "a low, dishonest decade."

    Frank suggested that the scandals of the 2000s, culminating with the economic collapse in 2008, rooted from conservatives' excessive devotion to free markets and contempt for government. He said that Americans are now quickly forgetting the destructive effects of that governing philosophy:

    "Since 1980, in this country we have been in the grip of this pursuit of ever-purer free markets. That's what American politics has been about. That's what has delivered the awful circumstances that we find ourselves in today... The disease of our time is a sort of instant forgetting... If we go back to the decade that just ended... Think of all the crises and the disasters... what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Madoff scandal on Wall Street, and on and on... Those things have all been dwarfed by the economic disaster and the wreckage on Wall Street, but I would say that all of those things are of a piece and flow from the same ideas, and those ideas are the conservative attitude towards government... What conservatism is about in this country is government failure. Conservatives talk about government failure all the time, constantly, and when they're in power deliver government failure... The stuff we've been talking about today... [has] all been forgotten. The financial crisis had the effect of [putting] that stuff down the memory hole."

    Economist and columnist Thomas Sowell has argued that those blaming the economic crisis on government's failure to regulate may have forgotten that short-sighted government policies from both Republicans and Democrats contributed to the meltdown. He wrote:

    "After virtually every disaster created by Beltway politicians you can hear the sound of feet scurrying for cover in Washington, see fingers pointing in every direction away from Washington, and watch all sorts of scapegoats hauled up before Congressional committees to be denounced on television for the disasters created by members of the committee who are lecturing them... The idea is that it was a lack of government supervision which allowed 'greed' in the private sector to lead the nation into crises that only our Beltway saviors can solve. What utter rubbish this all is can be found by checking the record of how government regulators were precisely the ones who imposed lower mortgage lending standards-- and it was members of Congress (of both parties) who pushed the regulators, the banks and the mortgage-buying giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac into accepting risky mortgages, in the name of 'affordable housing' and more home ownership. Presidents of both parties also jumped on the bandwagon."

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree with Thomas Frank that the 2000s were "a low, dishonest decade?" Why or why not?

  • What should the role of government be in twenty-first century America? What are its capabilities and limitations?

  • What are the key lessons from the last decade that Americans should remember for the next?


  • October 30, 2009

    WEB EXCLUSIVE: Glenn Greenwald

    Acclaimed blogger Glenn Greenwald, recipient of the Park Center for Independent Media Izzy Award, spoke with Bill Moyers this week for the special web-exclusive conversation below.
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    October 23, 2009

    Local Heroes

    In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers reflected on the life and recent death of a fellow Texan and one of his personal heroes, Justice William Wayne Justice. Justice was a veteran federal district judge whose rulings compelled Texas to integrate schools, reform its prison system, and provide public education to illegal immigrants.

    Who are your local heroes? Tell us why you think their contributions have made the world a better place.


    October 20, 2009

    Web Exclusive: More from Mark Danner

    The taping of last week's interview with journalist Mark Danner included more valuable insights and analysis than we could fit into the JOURNAL broadcast. In the web-exclusive video below, Danner shares his thoughts on the nature of evil:
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    October 16, 2009

    Stripping Bare the Body of America

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with journalist Mark Danner, who shared his perspective on how decades of American intervention abroad has shaped our nation and its international reputation.

    Danner explained the significance of the title of his latest book, STRIPPING BARE THE BODY:

    “It comes from a former Haitian President, who survived in office for about four months before being overthrown in a coup d’etat, and he told me and said in speeches subsequently that political violence is like ‘stripping bare the body,’ the better to place the stethoscope and hear what’s going on beneath the skin. He meant that times of revolution, coup d’etat, war, or any kind of social violence going on tend to form a ‘moment of nudity,’ as he put it, in which you can actually see the forces at work within the society stripped bare. It’s like one of those models in biology class, where you see the body, you see all the organs beneath it, and suddenly you see who’s oppressing whom, who has the money, who has the power, how that power is exerted. And that is the time to seize a society and look at it, to x-ray it, and try to understand what exactly is going on in its intimate recesses.”

    What do you think?

    If 9/11, the ‘war on terror,’ and the economic meltdown can be considered political violence that have stripped bare the body of America, what do they tell us about our nation?


    September 18, 2009

    The Death of Conservatism?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with author Sam Tanenhaus about his new book, The Death of Conservatism, and the current state of America’s conservative movement.

    Tanenhaus suggested that today’s conservatism is mostly bereft of substantive ideas and instead consists of extreme reactions against the liberal social and policy agenda. He said:

    “These radical people on the right – and they include intellectuals and the kinds of personalities we’re seeing on television and radio and also to some extent people marching in the streets – think America has gotten away from them. Theirs is a politics of reclamation and restoration... If you are a free-marketeer, or an evangelical, or a social conservative, or even an authoritarian conservative, you can all agree on one thing: you hate the liberals that are out to destroy us. That’s a very useful form of political organization. I’m not sure it contributes much to our government and society, but it’s politically useful and we’re seeing it again today... The paradox of conservatism is that it gives the overt signs of energy and vitality, but the rigor mortis I described is still there. As a philosophy, as a system of government that all of us can learn from as a means of evaluating ourselves, our social responsibilities, [and] our personal obligations and responsibilities, it has – right now – nothing to offer.”

    Reviewing Tanenhaus’ book in THE NEW CRITERION magazine, Manhattan Institute senior fellow James Piereson argued that Tanenhaus ignores much conservative thought while castigating conservatives for failings that are also common among liberals. He wrote:

    “Tanenhaus does not inquire seriously into the reasons why conservatives are uneasy with the welfare state, why some see in it a threat to liberty and others an encouragement to the breakdown of the family and self-government... He acknowledges that there is an important role for conservatism, but it must be a ‘genuine’ conservatism that preserves but does not seek to overturn liberal gains... Many of the sins Tanenhaus attributes to conservatives – overly zealous attachment to principle or ideology, unwillingness to adapt to change, impatience with popular opinion – are on display as much or more among liberals. If Tanenhaus or anyone else wishes to see liberalism in action, he might venture on to an elite college campus where only liberal and leftist views are permitted peaceful expression, or out to Sacramento or up to Albany where liberal Democrats, long in control, have spent their states into near bankruptcy... If conservatism is dead, in short, then so is liberalism, and much else besides.”

    What do you think?

  • Does today’s conservatism, as Tanenhaus suggests, currently have “nothing to offer?” Why or why not?

  • Do you agree with Piereson that today’s liberals have similar flaws to those Tanenhaus describes in conservatives? Explain.

  • Do you expect conservatives to make a comeback in the next few election cycles?


  • July 24, 2009

    Diagnosing Proposals for Healthcare Reform

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with two leading healthcare journalists, Trudy Lieberman and Marcia Angell, M.D., seeking their perspectives on the current health reform debate in Washington. Lieberman and Angell each addressed whether the “public option” proposed by President Obama would actually serve to insure all Americans and who in the private health industry stands to benefit from the reforms under discussion.

    Trudy Lieberman said that Obama’s proposed “public option,” in which the federal government would set up its own insurance option to compete with private insurance plans, has not been explained in detail and would likely not be effective in containing costs:

    “From my vantage point, I don't see that the solutions for controlling costs, that will really control costs the way other countries do, are really in place... We hear about preventive care as saving costs, because intuitively it sounds like it's going to work, but the academic studies show that more preventive care actually raises costs. That doesn't mean it's a bad thing to do, but it's not a good cost saver in the system... [Obama] has been vague right from the very beginning, we have not known exactly what the Obama health plan has been... I see an administration that is trying to keep this playbook going as long as possible, and to commit to as little as possible until the eleventh hour. By then, it’s going to be too late for the American people to know what’s going to await them... As a journalist, that troubles me.”

    Marcia Angell argued that the “public option” would not create the change needed in the American healthcare system and that reformers should advocate for a “single payer” system, in which a single federal agency would replace and eliminate the private health insurance industry:

    “What [Obama] has essentially advocated is throwing more money into the current system. He's treating the symptom and he's not treating the underlying cause of our problem. Our problem is that we spend two and a half times as much per person on health care as the average of other advanced countries, and we don't get our money's worth. So now he says, ‘Okay, this is a terribly inefficient, wasteful system. Let's throw some money into it...’ Obama said in his press conference [that] the worst thing we can do is nothing, the most costly thing we can do is nothing. I disagree with that – you can throw more money into this system and make it even more costly... I think we have to start all over on this, I really do. I think we have to go for a single payer system.”

    In his recent appearance on the JOURNAL, Clinton administration Secretary of Labor Robert Reich agreed that “single payer” is the best idea, but said that it is politically impossible and that the “public option” should be enacted anyway:

    “[The public option] means that average members of the public have a choice, if they want it, of either their private-for-profit insurers like they now use or a public not-for-profit insurer. That public insurer would resemble ideally Medicare, [with] low administrative costs and it would have the economies of scale. It would be so large that it could actually negotiate low drug prices and very low premiums. That’s what the private insurers are scared of, because that means that their profits will be squeezed... Unless they are going to be genuinely pressured to reform through a public option, there is nothing that’s going to change them... The single payer system would be the best of all... Unfortunately, we can’t get there from here because the political forces are just too strong against single payer.”

    What do you think?

  • If instituted, do you think President Obama’s proposed “public option” for health insurance would be sustainable? Why or why not?

  • Is flawed health reform legislation better than nothing or, as Marcia Angell argues, even worse? Should we start over? Explain.


  • Fear and Loathing in Political Discourse

    This week, the JOURNAL reprised a report from last year examining the provocative and often hostile rhetoric used by some right-wing ‘shock jock’ talk radio and cable TV hosts to criticize liberals and liberalism.

    A year ago, a gunman with an expressed hatred of liberalism stormed a Unitarian Universalist church in Knoxville, Tennessee, killing 2 and wounding 6. Several books by right-wing ‘shock jocks’ were found in the killer's apartment, which led some to speculate that he may have been influenced by their rhetoric.

    The church’s pastor, Chris Buice, said on the JOURNAL:

    “A man came in here and totally dehumanized us. Members of our church were not human to him. Where did he get that? Where did he get that sense that we were not human?... Some have suggested that his spiritual attitudes, his hatred of liberals and gays, was reinforced by the right-wing media figures... When you hear in talk radio that liberals are evil, that they are traitors, that they are godless, that they are on the side of the terrorist, that’s hate language. You don’t negotiate with evil people. You don’t live in a community with people you consider to be traitors.”

    In April, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sparked controversy when it issued a report [PDF link] warning that "... lone wolves [individuals acting alone] and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States." Among other factors, the report pointed to the economic downturn, the election of the first African-American president, and fears of gun control as potential drivers for right-wing radicalization. It also warned that "disgruntled military veterans" -- with their military training and combat experience -- could be targeted for recruitment.

    The DHS later apologized to a number of veterans groups that complained about the report.

    Penn State history professor Philip Jenkins argued in THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE magazine that the true threat of right-wing violence and domestic terrorism has been exaggerated by partisans for political purposes. Jenkins wrote:

    “We will hear a great deal about threats from racist groups and right-wing paramilitaries, and such a perceived wave of terrorism will have real and pernicious effects on mainstream politics. If history is any guide, the more loudly an administration denounces enemies on the far Right, the easier it is to stigmatize its respectable and nonviolent critics... Paying proper attention to terrorist threats is laudable, whatever their source, and some right-wing extremists have through the years demonstrated their potential for violence: they need to be watched. Yet almost certainly, a renewed focus on the far Right will develop more out of an ideological slant than any reasonable perception of danger.”

    What do you think?

  • In your view, do right-wing ‘shock jocks’ and their rhetoric bear any responsibility for violent incidents like the shooting in Knoxville? Explain.

  • Do you agree with Philip Jenkins that partisans have used tragic events to stigmatize legitimate opposition? Why or why not?

  • What are your ideas for bringing more civility into political discourse?


  • June 12, 2009

    The Spirit of Thomas Paine, Today

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with historians Harvey J. Kaye and Richard Brookhiser about the complex legacy of Thomas Paine, perhaps the most controversial of America’s founding revolutionaries. (For more about Paine, author of COMMON SENSE, please visit our resources page here.)

    Kaye argued that Paine imbued America with a fundamentally progressive “democratic impulse” that continues in today’s liberal politics:

    “Here’s this guy, essentially off the boat, who picks up on the spirit of America quickly, and he takes that pen of his and figures out how he’s gonna grab hold of that American spirit and turn it in a radical, democratic direction to make a new nation... he took what he recognized in American life, and he inscribes it into the meaning of America, that the democratic impulse would be a model to the world... In terms of the democratic impulse – which never ceased in America – [is that] in every generation progressive movements, from radical to liberal, reached back to the American Revolution... The words they reclaimed were Thomas Paine’s... He did very much look ahead to the idea of economic opportunity, but in a social democratic way, I think.”

    Brookhiser suggested that Paine’s positions on various issues of his time were often impractical, and that his core priorities do not hew to any single political philosophy.

    “[Paine] saw a lot of things that came to be, and he also saw some things that didn’t come to be, and maybe never could come to be... As we see in Paine’s own life, there are problems on this path. In the second revolution he’s involved in, I think he misunderstands what’s going on on the ground in France... Jefferson stuck with the revolution until Napoleon appeared. But then Paine stuck with it after Napoleon appeared... Paine’s visionary quality is both intoxicating and, Paine hopes, transformative... [If Paine were around today and asked about his priorities] I think he would say liberty. I think he would say opportunity and economic opportunity. I think those are the things he would hammer at.”

    What do you think?

    In your view, what is the significance of Tom Paine for today?


    May 1, 2009

    Web Exclusive: Democracy and Empire

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    In the MOYERS ONLINE web exclusive video above, legal scholar Bruce Fein and journalist Mark Danner continue their conversation from this week's JOURNAL. Fein and Danner suggested that America’s interventionist foreign policy has adversely affected its democracy at home.

    Fein said:

    “There can be a difference in the whole idea of what the United States is about, which then dictates what you do. My view is that the United States is about securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. Insofar as that service is a model for others to emulate, fine… The process of trying to export our democracy abroad through military force is going to destroy our own democracy at home… Other people would think, no, the purpose of the United States is to go to every square inch of the planet and bring them what our conception of liberty is.”

    Danner said:

    “The Cold War made the United States an empire. And some people – I was one of them – thought that after the Cold War ended we would, to some degree, come home. The Clinton years, the 90s, were an interesting experiment in that. We had the Bosnian genocide, we had the Rwandan genocide… [Some said] ‘Gosh, America needs to stand for something more… It has to prevent this kind of thing.” And many of them were essentially convinced by President Bush’s arguments that we have to go in and remove the dictators. I thought they were profoundly wrong, and I agree that the United States, insofar as [it] becomes a power that intervenes around the world and fights wars of choice, becomes something wholly other than what the founders imagined it to be.”

    What do you think?

  • Can America maintain both its democracy and an interventionist foreign policy? If no, which is more important?

  • Does America have a national purpose beyond “securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity?”


  • April 9, 2009

    Looking For Lincoln

    This week, the JOURNAL joined with actor Sam Waterston and historian Harold Holzer to present a special hour on the life, legend, and legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

    As Holzer provided context with a rich historical narrative, Waterston breathed life into the words of a diverse group of writers and thinkers who have shaped our nation’s ever-shifting visions of Lincoln as man, as martyr, and as myth. He quoted abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe:

    “When we were troubled and sat in darkness, and looked doubtfully towards the Presidential chair, it was never that we doubted the goodwill of our pilot – only the clearness of his eyesight. But Almighty God has granted to him that clearness of vision which he gives to the true-hearted, and enabled him to set his honest foot in that promised land of freedom which is to be the patrimony of all men, black and white – and from henceforth the nations shall rise up and call him blessed.”

    Waterston also gave voice to African-American leader W.E.B. DuBois, who felt that understanding Lincoln’s flaws was essential to appreciating his achievements:

    “No sooner does a great man die than we begin to whitewash him. We seek to forget all that was small and mean and unpleasant and remember the fine and brave and good. We slur over and explain away his inconsistencies and at last there begins to appear, not the real man, but the tradition of the man – remote, immense, perfect, cold, and dead! Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the greatest figure of the nineteenth century... the most human and loveable. And I love him not because he was perfect but because he was not and yet, triumphed.”

    Though Lincoln is generally considered one of America’s best presidents, some revisionists argue that his reputation rests on generations of propaganda. Libertarian scholar Thomas DiLorenzo wrote:

    “[Lincoln historians] routinely refer to him as "Father Abraham" and compare him to Jesus or Moses. They do this because their agenda is not only the deification of Lincoln, but of executive power and nationalism in general... And when some of his more dastardly deeds, such as micromanaging the waging of war on fellow citizens, are mentioned they are always obscured by a mountain of hollow excuses, rationales, cover-ups, and justifications... Lincoln’s (and the Republican Party’s) "real agenda" was the old Hamilton/Clay mercantilist agenda of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, central banking, the creation of a giant political patronage machine, and the pursuit of an empire that would rival the British empire.”

    What do you think? Who, in your view, was the real Lincoln?


    February 6, 2009

    Who was America's Greatest President?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with historian Eric Foner about the life, legacy, and legend of Abraham Lincoln. Foner said:

    “The greatness of Lincoln, I think, is his capacity to grow and change and evolve. Lincoln’s ideas when he dies are quite different from what they were earlier in his life... Sometimes people are president who may have great characteristics, but they’re president in very quiet, calm times and they never have an occasion to demonstrate their greatness. Lincoln’s greatness comes in his response to the unparalleled crisis of the Union and of slavery... The characteristic that I find most interesting in Lincoln is this self-confidence, the ability to think for yourself, coupled with open-mindedness and willingness to listen to criticism... It’s that strong moral compass but willingness to listen to criticism and think anew that I think is the characteristic that leads him to greatness.”

    Although Lincoln is widely considered one of America’s better presidents, a revisionist minority maintains that his reputation is based on generations of propaganda. Libertarian scholar Thomas DiLorenzo wrote:

    “[Lincoln historians] routinely refer to him as "Father Abraham" and compare him to Jesus or Moses. They do this because their agenda is not only the deification of Lincoln, but of executive power and nationalism in general... And when some of his more dastardly deeds, such as micromanaging the waging of war on fellow citizens, are mentioned they are always obscured by a mountain of hollow excuses, rationales, cover-ups, and justifications... Lincoln’s (and the Republican Party’s) "real agenda" was the old Hamilton/Clay mercantilist agenda of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, central banking, the creation of a giant political patronage machine, and the pursuit of an empire that would rival the British empire.”

    What do you think?

  • Who do you think was America’s greatest President? Explain.

  • Could someone look at the same historical facts and justifiably conclude that the President you chose was among America’s worst? Why or why not?


  • January 16, 2009

    Is America “Finally Facing Its Demons?”

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with historian Simon Schama about his take on American history and what it can tell us about our present and future.

    Moyers brought up a prediction Schama had made a few years back that in the 2008 elections Americans “would finally face our demons.” Asked if Americans had done so in November, Schama said:

    “I think we did, actually. Even if we were demurring about taking stock of the magnitude of the many disasters buffeting the United States, history in the shape of massive economic troubles happening at the time of a difficult and indeterminate war made sure that we would... America is not impervious to these great moments of philosophical self-examination. We think of it all as sort of TV slogans and spin, the creatures of opinion management, but there have been moments over and over again – Watergate and the aftermath of Kennedy – when we’ve said ‘We are a great democratic experiment. What has become of us?’”

    What do you think?

  • Did Americans “finally face their demons” in the 2008 elections? Why or why not?

  • Is the U.S. in the midst of a “great moment of philosophical self-examination?” Explain.

  • Schama named two periods in the quote above that he thinks marked such “great moments.” Do you agree? In your view, what are other such “great moments of philosophical self-examination” in American history?


  • December 5, 2008

    Bill Moyers Asks: What's Your Take on What's Wrong with the American Political System Right Now?

    Talking with Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) on this week's JOURNAL, Bill Moyers asked the following question:

    "There is a profound sense in this country that something truly dysfunctional has gone wrong with our system. It ain't working. And they don't hear anybody really addressing the deeper symptoms of that, and it's not working for regular people anymore. What's your take on what's wrong with the American political system right now?"

    (For Senator Feingold's reply, click here.)

    What do you think? Do you think it can be fixed and, if so, how?


    November 7, 2008

    Tracking America's Shifting Political Coalitions

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with economic and political critic Kevin Phillips about the results of the 2008 elections and what they tell us about the future of American politics.

    Phillips, whose 1969 book THE EMERGING REPUBLICAN MAJORITY [PDF link] correctly predicted an era of dominance for the GOP, said:

    "I think the Democrats are going to have enormous problems over the next four years [with] a coalition in which they represent new emerging demographic groups [like minorities and the under-30 vote] but also, based on contributions and political geography, represent the financial community now -- the upper-income groups. And how they straddle this, which is something they've never had to straddle before, especially in difficult times, I think will strain the demographics."

    Pointing to the success of California's Proposition 8, which found strong support from minority groups in its bid to ban gay marriage, Phillips suggested that the victorious Democratic coalition might fracture in years to come:

    "I think that only supports the division between the ordinary people and the financial elites, the fact that blacks and hispanics on some cultural issues are a lot more conservative than the suburbanites in Fairfield Country, Connecticut or Morris County, New Jersey... I can conceive that they would be more open to some of the black conservatives and Republicans who say 'you can't trust those people.'"

    What do you think?

  • Will the Democrats' electoral coalition prove durable over the next several election cycles?
  • Over the next few decades, do you expect Democratic and Republican party platforms to change significantly from those of today?


  • Did America Grant a Progressive Mandate?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with scholars Eric Foner and Patricia Williams about Tuesday's historic election and what it means for America's future.

    Foner suggested that Barack Obama could pursue a progressive presidency:

    "There really is a chance for a new paradigm now, and I think if he moves forward and puts forward a new governing principle for the country, it will be progressive. It's not that we just have to go back and reenact the New Deal or reenact TR's policies, but something which breaks really dramatically from the Reagan ideology... I don't want to say he has the specific policy. But I think it's more of an ethos of public life, a more communal one that looks after the common good and not just individual self-interest as we've been ruled by for the last 20, 30 years, that doesn't seek competitiveness as the sole measure of a society."

    In an editorial, the WASHINGTON EXAMINER argued that Obama and the Democrats carry "a mandate for conciliation, not for ideology":

    "The reason it's not an ideological mandate of the sort given to the conservative Ronald Reagan in 1980 is because, unlike Reagan (who also won a much bigger victory), the liberal Barack Obama did as much to shade his ideology as to proclaim it... He consistently emphasized proposals more often associated with conservatives than liberals: tax cuts, greater numbers of military personnel, and a "net spending cut" for the federal government (even if his spending numbers never came close to adding up)... this victory certainly was not 'a progressive mandate.'"

    What do you think?

  • Did America give Obama a progressive mandate?


  • September 26, 2008

    The Imperial Presidency?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In his conversation with Bill Moyers on this week’s JOURNAL, scholar and former army colonel Andrew Bacevich discussed his vision of what has gone wrong with American government and policy over the last several decades.

    “The Congress, especially with regard to matters related to national security policy, has thrust power and authority to the executive branch. We have created an imperial presidency. The Congress no longer is able to articulate a vision of what is the common good. The Congress exists primarily to ensure the reelection of members of Congress... As the Congress has moved to the margins, as the President has moved to the center of our politics, the presidency itself has come to be less effective...

    Because of this preoccupation, this fascination with the presidency, the President has become what we have instead of genuine politics, instead of genuine democracy... We look to the next President to fix things and, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things. So one of the real problems with the imperial presidency is that it has hollowed out our politics and, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We’re going through the motions of a democratic political system, but the fabric of democracy really has worn very thin.”

    What do you think?

    Do you agree with Bacevich’s assessment? If yes, how can we fix it? If no, explain.

    Bacevich talks about the legislative and executive branches. How does the judicial branch relate to his discussion?


    September 12, 2008

    Poll: Has The Press Scrutinized The Candidates Equally?

    In this week’s JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with journalists Les Payne and Brooke Gladstone about the media and the upcoming elections.

    Gladstone said that press coverage revolves around sensationalism:

    “This [election coverage] isn’t about relative importance. This is about celebrity. This is about putting your finger in the air and following the public mood. Is it news? No. Is it an audience generator? Yes.”

    We invite you to discuss in the space below.


    August 8, 2008

    Bill Moyers Asks: What Should The Next Administration Do About America's Troubles?

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers talked with economist Dean Baker and columnist Bob Herbert about the economy and the political conditions that have contributed to its troubles.

    Bob Herbert said:

    “The class war is over, and we lost... Over the past 30 years or so, Americans’ wages have remained relatively flat. But women went into the workplace, wives and mothers started working. People started putting things on their credit cards. There was a stock market bubble there for a while. We had a housing bubble. People refinanced and stuff. Now, they’re coming up against a wall. They’re not finding a way now to get some extra money to power the consumer economy.”

    Dean Baker suggested that public officials deliberately failed to protect ordinary Americans:

    “All the people who should have been looking out the last six, seven, eight years are all going ‘oh, well, who could have known? Who could have known?’ And they’ll put Alan Greenspan here on a pedestal, because he’s [saying that] he had no idea this was going on. You had to try not to know this was going on. Certainly, someone like Alan Greenspan, our reserve board chair, had all the data I have times a thousand. He absolutely knew what was going on. And he was doing his best to look the other way because you had a lot of big interests who were making a lot of money.”

    Faced with these dire diagnoses, Bill Moyers asked:

    “No matter who wins this election, the next administration will inherit the mess: $10 trillion in debt, two of these wars, stagnating paychecks, growing inequality. What’s the first thing each of you would like to see the next administration do, whether it’s McCain or Obama?”

    What do you think? And, do you expect the next administration to take up any of your suggestions?


    July 28, 2008

    A New Administration, A New Policy On Torture?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with investigative reporter Jane Mayer, whose new book, THE DARK SIDE: THE INSIDE STORY OF HOW THE WAR ON TERROR TURNED INTO A WAR ON AMERICAN IDEALS, chronicles the use of torture by the United States following the events of September 11th, 2001. Mayer addressed what she sees as evasive statements from U.S. government officials about interrogation techniques.


    “The CIA's always said, ‘We did nothing to the detainees that we haven't done to our own people in training.’ And that sounds okay maybe, until you really know what do we do to our people in training. Well, there's a special program inside the military called the SERE program... It stands for survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. What is that program? The program is... mock torture program based on hideous Communist methods of torture that U.S. soldiers have had to endure in the past. They do it in order to inoculate our soldiers, to give them sort of a defensive training. So when they said, ‘Well, we're just doing what we do with our own people,’ they didn't explain that what we're doing to our own people as a special program is Communist torture methods... We copied the methods of the people that we labeled the evil empire, ironically enough.”

    What do you think?

  • How should the incoming administration deal with the question of torture?

  • What specific actions would you like to see the next administration take in terms of future policies?

  • How should they deal with actions taken by the current administration over the last seven years?


  • June 6, 2008

    POLL: Is It Possible To Run A Race-Neutral Campaign In America?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In this week’s JOURNAL, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Ron Walters discussed how race has affected the presidential election process and the media’s coverage thereof.

    Jamieson said:

    “I heard a commentator say, when Senator Obama announced, that he’s running to be 'the first black president'... He’s running to be our president, the president of all of us. And to some extent to say that he’s running to be 'the first black president,' I knew what the commentator meant, but I thought that is problematic for that candidacy.”


    We invite you to discuss in the space below.


    April 25, 2008

    The Controversy Over Wright

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ (TUCC) in Chicago and Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Il) pastor for more than 20 years, who’s been embroiled in controversy.

    “When something is taken like a sound bite for a political purpose and put constantly over and over again, looped in the face of the public, that's not a failure to communicate. Those who are doing that are communicating exactly what they wanna do, which is to paint me as some sort of fanatic or as the learned journalist from the New York Times called me, a "wackadoodle"... I think they wanted to communicate that I am unpatriotic, that I am un-American, that I am filled with hate speech, that I have a cult at Trinity United Church of Christ... To put an element of fear and hatred and to stir up the anxiety of Americans who still don't know the African-American tradition, know nothing about the prophetic theology of the African-American experience, who know nothing about the black church, who don't even know how we got a black church.”

    Some have argued that TUCC’s “Black Value System,” which emphasizes commitment to the “Black community” and “Black family” rather than to communities and families in general, prioritizes racial identity in an inherently racist way. Arguing that Wright himself might be a racist who holds racial animus against certain groups, commentators have pointed to his statement that “white folks’ greed runs a world in need” and to his accusation that the U.S. government “invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color.” Furthermore, Wright’s association with Louis Farrakhan, whose history of anti-semitic and anti-white statements has been condemned, has brought further controversy.

    In contrast, some have come to the defense of Wright's rhetoric and his notion of “the prophetic theology of the African American experience” and black liberation theology. In today’s Dallas Morning News, Gerald Britt dismisses “attempts to delegitimize Dr. Wright and Trinity United Christian Church for its Afrocentric theological emphasis” and argues that the black church “has been admired for its powerful presence within the African-American community; its worship is envied for its emotional freedom.”

    What do you think?


    February 29, 2008

    Election Ads, Narratives, and Political Discourse

    In her conversation with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL this week, media expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson suggested that politicians' campaign ads and other media appearances are akin to puzzle pieces that together form a larger, albeit ambiguous, narrative of the candidates' lives, characters, and campaigns:

    "We elect a person, not a set of issues... The strength of an underlying biographical narrative is extraordinarily important. You can't underestimate its importance when you're attacked, as every candidate will be, with a counter story... One of the things that advertising is able to do is to make some things more important in your decision about who should be president. And so ads are always a contest about what is important as an issue and what is important as an attribute about the candidate... There's an element of emotion in all of this... And we shouldn't lose track of the fact that advertising doesn't exist in isolation. People are drawing material from news, from what they are talking with their friends about, from the front pages into advertising to create a composite message"

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree that Americans vote for candidates as people rather than for their "set of issues?"
  • Can sound bites and 30-second ads sufficiently inform citizens about the issues, the candidates, and/or the policy differences between them? If so, has this happened so far in the race to November?
  • How would you like to see candidates and issue groups use the media to elevate political discourse?


  • February 15, 2008

    An Age of American Unreason?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Conversing with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL this week, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON author Susan Jacoby offered various reasons for what she calls “an overarching crisis of memory and knowledge” in America, including our educational system:

    “You shouldn't have to be an intellectual or a college graduate to know that the sun doesn't revolve around the earth. There's been a huge failure of education. I do agree with many cultural conservatives about this: I think schools over the last 40 years [have been] just adding things, for example African-American history [and] women's history. These are all great additions, and necessary, but what they've done in addition to adding things is they really have placed less emphasis on the overall culture, cultural things that everybody should know. People getting out of high school should know how many Supreme Court justices there are. Most Americans don't.”

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree with Jacoby that America faces “an overarching crisis” of civic irrationality and ignorance?
  • If so, to what extent does the problem lie with America’s educational system? Politicians? The media?
  • Do these outlets reflect the priorities of interest groups more than essential knowledge for the public good? What reforms would you recommend to promote civic intelligence?

    (NOTE: Another interview with Susan Jacoby from the Moyers archives is available here.
    Several viewers have written in stating that the Constitution does not specifically state that the Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution or all judicial review. Some legal scholars maintain that Article III does imply it and many argue that Marbury V. Madison only formalized that authority. )


  • Where Does (And Should) The Money Go?

    In the JOURNAL this week, WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO? authors and budget scrutinizers Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson contend that Washington’s fiscal irresponsibility is propelling America toward troubled times.

    Scott Bittle said:

    “Eventually, if nothing is done, by 2040 every dollar the federal government has will be taken in by Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the money we’ve already borrowed... Right now, one of the few areas of bipartisanship in Washington is the willingness not to deal with the problem... The war is certainly making our financial problems worse. But it’s not the sole cause and it’s not the sole answer."

    Jean Johnson said:

    “People don’t realize that the country has been in the red 31 out of the last 35 years, in good times and bad... There is no way to solve this problem without either raising taxes or cutting programs, or doing some of both. Right now that is a political death sentence, and we have to change that... We’re all gonna have to give a little and we’re all gonna have to live with some things that are not our first choice, but not doing anything is so much worse.”

    What do you think?

  • How, if at all, do you suggest the tax code be altered to ease the government’s fiscal crunch?
  • What, if any, programs should be reduced or cut to balance the budget?
  • What other suggestions do you have to bring the federal budget into the black?


  • Bill Moyers Rewind: Susan Jacoby

    This week, Bill Moyers speaks with Susan Jacoby, author of THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON. In the clip below of a 2004 interview from NOW WITH BILL MOYERS, Jacoby discusses her previous book, FREETHINKERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM.

    Watch Video

    We invite you to respond in the space below.


    February 8, 2008

    Bill Moyers' Reading Recommendation

    Last week, Bill Moyers asked viewers what book, other than the Bible, they recommend the next President bring to the White House. In the clip below, he reviews many of your submissions and reveals his own pick for the future President-elect.

    Watch Video

    We invite you to continue sharing your thoughts on Moyers' and others' recommendations and submitting your own suggestions for Presidential reading.

    (Please note that due to your overwhelming response our "complete list" keeps growing and growing. We invite you to view our books feature, complete with slideshow of popular suggestions and video of authors, as well as, peruse all the suggestions on the blog.)

    Here are the current top titles.

    • Naomi Klein, THE SHOCK DOCTRINE

    • Howard Zinn, A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

    • Kim Michaels, THE ART OF NON-WAR

    • Jared Diamond, COLLAPSE

    • Chalmers Johnson, BLOWBACK triology

    • Tom Paine, COLLECTED WORKS/COMMON SENSE

    • Al Gore, ASSAULT ON REASON/AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH

    • David Cay Johnston, FREE LUNCH

    • George Orwell, 1984/ANIMAL FARM

    • Naomi Wolff, THE END OF AMERICA: LETTERS TO A YOUNG PATRIOT

    • Greg Mortenson, THREE CUPS OF TEA

    • Barbara Ehrenreich, NICKLE AND DIMED

    • Barbara Tuchman, MARCH OF FOLLY

    • Doris Kearns Goodwin, TEAM OF RIVALS

    • David Korten, THE GREAT TURNING

    • John Steinbeck, THE GRAPES OF WRATH

    • Ayn Rand, ATLAS SHRUGGED

    • John Dean, BROKEN GOVERNMENT

    • John Perkins, CONFESSIONS OF AN ECONOMIC HITMAN

    • James Carroll, HOUSE OF WAR

    • Thomas Friedman, THE WORLD IS FLAT

    • Lao Tzu, TE TAO CHING

    • Tim Weiner, LEGACY OF ASHES

    • Dr. Seuss (THE LORAX, HORTON HEARS A WHO, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO, IF I RAN THE ZOO)


    Is Amnesty a Winning Strategy?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In his conversation with Bill Moyers on this week’s JOURNAL, Hispanic evangelical Samuel Rodriguez argues that Republicans’ opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants could undermine the GOP’s prospects for attracting Hispanic voters:

    “The Republican Party really had it going on. I mean, they really made significant inroads. 44 percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush in the 2004 elections... All of a sudden, the Republican Party is hijacked de facto by the Sensenbrenners and Tancredos... There's an anti-Latino, a nativism, xenophobic spirit emerging out of the Republican Party. As a result of that, the Republican party will be hard pressed to engage anything close to 25 percent in the 2008 elections. And they may lose the Latino vote for two or three generations...

    [The Latino evangelical vote can be decisive] if the Republican Party nominates a candidate that addresses the issue of immigration reform, that really repudiates the xenophobic and nativist threat, and that apologizes... The question is whether or not McCain will continue to be committed to an immigration reform platform. I mean, there's an incredible amount of push back from the conservative voters in the Republican Party.”

    Polling from Rasmussen confirms Rodriguez’ assessment that many Americans oppose amnesty, but suggests that the “incredible amount of push back” might come from more than just conservative voters:

    “Fifty-six percent (56%) of American adults favor an enforcement-only approach to immigration reform. Only 29% are opposed. However, support falls sharply when 'a path to citizenship' for illegal aliens already in the United States is added to the mix. Just 42% support the more 'comprehensive' approach while 44% are opposed.”

    What do you think?

  • From where do you think opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants is coming?
  • Should either or both parties campaign on an amnesty platform? Why or why not?
  • What are your thoughts on extending amnesty to illegal immigrants?


  • February 7, 2008

    Kathleen Hall Jamieson Answers Your Questions

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Last week, media expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson, accepted viewer questions regarding the road to November.

    Her response is as follows, and we invite you comment below:

    Continue reading "Kathleen Hall Jamieson Answers Your Questions" »


    February 1, 2008

    The Case of Lurita Doan and the GSA

    You may have been familiar with the scrutiny of Blackwater¹s mercenary army, or followed the troubles with oversight at the State Department, but chances are you hadn¹t heard of Lurita Doan. She isn¹t exactly a household name. So it might be surprising that, as head of the General Services Administration, Doan oversees $500 billion dollars worth of federal assets.
    capitol


    On the JOURNAL, Rep.Henry Waxman explains how an investigation that started with leaks about possible favoritism in awarding government contracts eventually uncovered documents and testimony that convinced Waxman that Doan had violated the Hatch Act, a law prohibiting federal employees from using government resources for partisan purposes. Waxman was so shocked by what the Committee found that he took the unusual step of asking Doan to resign at the end of the hearings. The Office of Special Counsel, which conducted a separate investigation of Doan, concluded that Doan should be "disciplined to the fullest extent for her serious violation of the Hatch Act and insensitivity to cooperating fully and honestly in the course of our investigation." Yet today Doan still heads the GSA.
    Watch Video

    Be sure to check out Exposé's coverage of the scandal.

    What do you think about the Doan case? Do you think there should be another avenue of recourse for the American people to hold political appointees accountable for their behavior?


    January 25, 2008

    Rethinking The Criminal Justice System

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Conversing with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL this week, author John Grisham said:

    “We still have two million people in prison in this country right now. Two million. Our prisons are choked, they’re so full. And most of them are non-violent. Most of them – and we’re spending between $40,000 and $80,000 somewhere to house them, every guy in prison. Now, somebody’s not doing the math here... Lock the bad ones away. But you gotta rethink everybody else. You gotta rethink the young kids who are in there because of crack cocaine. They need help. And if they serve five years they get out there and do the same thing over and over again. The system’s getting worse.”

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree with John Grisham that our criminal justice system should be rethought?
  • Why do you think the system works the way it does?
  • What reforms to our criminal justice system would you recommend?


  • January 18, 2008

    Democratization, U.S. Foreign Policy, and The Middle East

    In his conversation with Bill Moyers on this week’s JOURNAL, journalist Craig Unger said:

    “It does seem at times we don’t seem aware of the consequences of our actions. We go around talking about democracy, but the Saudis, of course, are a brutal theocracy. There’s not much in the way of human rights there. The whole vision of democratizing the Middle East, I think, really, in practical terms, has fallen by the wayside. And America’s objectives really, when it comes down to it, seem to be Israel’s security and oil... The whole vision is in tatters right now. And it’s very unclear what options the United States has... Our policies are so full of contradictions. And I think if you go back to the roots of it, it was built on so many misconceptions that a lot of this is coming home to roost.”

    What do you think?

  • Is Unger correct that Israel’s security and oil are the foundations of America’s policies in the Middle East?

  • Does U.S. involvement with and support of non-Democratic regimes undermine the goal of “democratizing the Middle East?” Is that an appropriate objective of American foreign policy?

  • How would you reformulate American foreign policy to fit the world of 2008?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)


  • Leveling The Playing Field?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Conversing with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL this week, investigative reporter David Cay Johnston said:

    "Get rich by working hard, working smarter, coming up with a better mouse-trap. Don’t get rich by getting the government to pass a law that sticks the government’s hand into my pocket, takes money out of it, and gives it to you. That’s not right. That’s not a fair playing field. Adam Smith warned again and again that it is the nature and tendency of business people to want to put their thumb on the scale and, even better, to get the government to put the thumb on the scale for their benefit... You need entrepreneurs to have a good society. I don’t have any problem with entrepreneurs. But we need to have a system that also fairly distributes... When we have people who make billon-dollar-a-year incomes and pay 15 percent taxes and janitors who pay the same tax rate and school teachers who pay a 25 percent tax rate, something’s amiss."

    What do you think?

  • Is America’s present tax system unfair? If so, what do you suggest?

  • Does government have the responsibility to pursue redistribution of wealth? If so, what are reasonable expectations for such a policy?


  • Is Cynicism Un-American?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Reviewing Professor Harvey J. Kaye’s book THOMAS PAINE AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA in THE NEW YORK TIMES, historian Joseph Ellis wrote:

    “'The promise of America' that Paine glimpsed so lyrically at the start cannot be easily translated into our 21st-century idiom without distorting the intellectual integrity of its 18th-century origins... In the wake of Darwin's depiction of nature, Freud's depiction of human nature, the senseless slaughter of World War I and the genocidal tragedies of the 20th century, Paine's optimistic assumptions appear naïve in the extreme. What a reincarnated Paine would say about our altered political and intellectual landscape is impossible to know. Kaye hears his voice more clearly and unambiguously than I do, a clarity of conviction that I envy. My more muddled position is that bringing Paine's words and ideas into our world is like trying to plant cut flowers.”

    Responding to this review in his JOURNAL interview, Kaye said:

    “I got to the end and I thought, 'How sad. The loss of hope, the loss of aspiration - how un-American,’ I almost said... Americans should always be trying to plant flowers. There are ways of sprouting things anew, and that’s what America’s about. We have no reason to fear. We have no reason to be cynical, no reason to be desperate...

    We need to have this kind of confidence in our fellow citizens that they somehow are able to take advantage of that confidence. It's our job to join with our fellow citizens and join them in the courage that we have.”

    What do you think?

  • Is cynicism about the direction of the United States “un-American?”
  • How much can “confidence in our fellow citizens” cure the ills of our body politic?
  • If such confidence can be effective, how can ordinary citizens “plant flowers” for a better nation and world?


  • Moyers on Clinton, Obama, King and Johnson

    LBJ and Martin Luther King, Johnson Library
    Watch Video

    We invite you to respond by commenting below.


    January 11, 2008

    Grievance, Black Politics, and Black Identity

    In his conversation with Bill Moyers on this week’s JOURNAL, scholar Shelby Steele said the following:

    I am black and happy to be so, but my identity is not my master. I’m my master. And I resent this civil rights leadership telling me what I should think and what issues I should support this way or that way. And that’s where, in black America, identity has become almost totalitarian... You [must] subscribe to the idea that the essence of blackness is grounded in grievance, and if you vary from that you are letting whites off the hook. And we’re gonna call you a sell out. We’re gonna call you an ‘Uncle Tom’... I was gonna have a life or I was just going to be a kind of surrogate for blackness... but you enter an exile where the group identifies you as someone who is a threat, and part of being black is despising or having contempt for people like me.

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree with Steele's contention that today’s black identity is “grounded in grievance?”
  • Is ideological diversity within the black community limited by an imperative to not "let whites off the hook?"
  • To what extent are racial divisions and classifications reinforced by minority group identity?


  • January 4, 2008

    Crashing The Parties?

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    Discussing elections with Bill Moyers on the JOURNAL this week, Kathleen Hall Jamieson highlighted the importance of citizens left out by the polarized and exclusive process of selecting Presidential nominees:

    “You could say that at issue in both Iowa and New Hampshire is going to be: Where are the independents going and what does that say about the country? We tend to think, because the primaries are so structured around party, that this is about Republicans and it's about Democrats. And Ron Paul only gets into this discussion because he comes in as a libertarian but runs as a Republican in the party... But we forget in the press that people who vote and the people who are governed are not only Democrats and Republicans. There are libertarians there. There are undecideds there. There are people who legitimately say ‘I don’t identify with any of this. I’ll call myself independent.’”

    In his interview with Moyers, Ron Paul suggested that America’s two-party system belies our democratic rhetoric.

    “We send boys over there to promote democracy in Iraq, but we don’t really have democracy here. If you’re in a third party, if you’re in the Green Party or Libertarian Party, you don’t get any credibility. You can’t get on debates. You can’t get on ballots hardly at all. It’s very, very difficult. And the two parties are the same. You don’t really have a democratic choice here.

    Foreign policy never changes. Domestic fiscal policy, the welfare entitlement system never changes. Monetary policy won’t even be discussed. And that’s both parties. The vehicle that you use I think is not as relevant as the message. And that has been what has driven me, the fact that we need to change course in this country.”

    What do you think?

  • Does the two-party system adequately provide citizens with real choices on various issues? If not, can citizens reform the parties to change this?

  • Does the two-party system essentially mandate the exclusion of serious third-party contenders?

  • As Ron Paul’s Web-based, grassroots-driven campaign has seen some success, do you think the Internet can democratize the political process and/or the two-party system?


  • December 20, 2007

    Is It Time For A New Constitutional Convention?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In his appearance on this week's BILL MOYERS JOURNAL, legal scholar Sanford V. Levinson suggested that various challenges that face our nation, including political gridlock, can be traced to issues with our 220 year-old Constitution and might best be addressed with a new Constitutional convention. Levinson discussed his vision of such a scenario:

    "I would have 700 or so of our fellow citizens chosen at random. Meet for two years, pay them the salary for those two years of a Justice of the Supreme Court [or] United States Senator because they would be fulfilling the highest possible function of citizenship. Give them time to reflect and learn about these issues... The only way you would ever get significant change is if you convince people across the political spectrum... If, on the other hand, you had a convention taken over by single issue zealots, whatever the single issue is, then the most likely thing is that the convention would just break down. People would simply start shouting at one another, and then it would never be ratified."

    What do you think?

  • Do you agree with Levinson that many of America's challenges are rooted structurally in our aging Constitution? As Levinson asks, "Is the Constitution sufficiently democratic?"

  • Do you think holding another national Constitutional convention would be a good idea? Is it feasible?

  • If there were to be another Constitutional convention, which issues would you like to see addressed?


  • December 7, 2007

    New Media, Political Discourse, and the 2008 Elections

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    In her conversation with Bill Moyers this week, Kathleen Hall Jamieson has this to say about some of the impact of the Internet on the political process:

    "There’s more information available than there ever has been, and it’s more easily retrievable. So we can, within minutes, locate candidates’ issue positions, contrast them to other positions, search news interviews with the candidates where they’re held accountable for discrepancies between past and current positions… And you can hear in the candidates’ own voices their arguments for those issue positions, sometimes at great length – greater than you’re going to find in ads or greater than you’re going to find in news."

    And new media is having other effects as well. Barack Obama has a formidable presence on Facebook, including one group with more than 400,000 members - while the largest opposing Hillary Clinton has more than 600,000. And in a development that stunned many analysts, Ron Paul used the Internet to raise more than $4 million in a single day despite minimal coverage from the mainstream media. In fact, this week a new-media driven grassroots movement for Dr. Paul announced that it has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch a blimp in hopes of garnering media attention.

    What do you think?

  • How is new media impacting the 2008 Presidential race?

  • Will Internet activism be an effective way to marshal votes in primaries and elections?

  • Is new media a net positive or negative for the nation’s political discourse?


  • Religion In Politics

    In this week’s edition of the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers asked Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Melissa Rogers about Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s high-profile speech regarding his Mormonism, highlighting the following quote:

    "Given our grand tradition of religious tolerance and liberty, some wonder whether there are any questions regarding an aspiring candidate’s religion that are appropriate. I believe there are."

    This is a debate with deep historical roots that has long defied easy categorization into "left" vs. "right" terms. While some liberal figures - like Jimmy Carter - have embraced linking religious principles to their political values, a number of conservative statesmen have taken stands arguing for the stringent separation of church and state. In 1981, Republican U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater said:

    "On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.

    I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in 'A,' 'B,' 'C' and 'D.' Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of 'conservatism.'"

    (For more on Barry Goldwater and Bill Moyers' interview with Goldwater staffer Victor Gold, click here)

    What do you think?

  • Is it acceptable to ask candidates questions about their religious faith? If so, which questions?

  • Is it appropriate for a candidate to promote, as Mike Huckabee has, their religious viewpoints as part of their appeal?

  • What is the proper relationship between candidates’ religion and their decisions when they reach office?


  • November 2, 2007

    News Polarization & Ethnic Media

    In this week’s JOURNAL, WVON Chicago radio program director Coz Carson says:

    “There’s a great deal of mistrust for mainstream media when it comes to African-American issues. So when we approach people, when we ask them to speak to us, they feel like they’re speaking with family, they’re speaking with people who understand their plight.”

    A paper from Stanford University's Political Communications Lab about political preferences and news polarization argues that since “people prefer to encounter information that they find supportive or consistent with their existing beliefs” there is a “real possibility that news will no longer serve as the ‘social glue’ that connects all Americans… [as they turn] to biased but favored providers.”

    What do you think?

  • Can this conclusion be applied to ethnic media as well?
  • Does news coverage from specific ethnic media outlets for specific ethnic groups contribute to the polarization of the news?
  • Do ethnic media serve their communities in ways the mainstream media can’t? If so, how?


  • October 12, 2007

    Difference, Dissent and Tyranny

    This week on THE JOURNAL, Anouar Majid, professor of English at the University of New England, explains that dissent in communities is vital to maintaining social, cultural and intellectual curiosity. Stifling disagreement and smothering debate, he believes, can have dangerous effects on a civilization:

    People who cannot live comfortably with differences always have a tendency to slide into tyranny. That's why we have to maintain vast differences within every society...to prevent those practices from ever taking root.

    Yet even though constructive conversation is often desirable, is it always possible? As Bill Moyers asks Professor Majid:

    You can't have a conversation with somebody who doesn't think you're human, a conversation with somebody who wants to kill you, somebody who thinks you're subhuman, somebody whose purpose is to manipulate you, right?

    How would you answer Bill Moyers' question? We invite you to respond by commenting below.

    Photo: Robin Holland


    September 27, 2007

    A Crisis of Capitalism?

    In his interview with John Bogle, Bill Moyers cites this article from THE NEW YORK TIMES. which examines more than 1,200 nursing homes purchased by large private investment groups.

    The piece, "At Many Homes, More Profit and Less Nursing" reports that:

    "The TIMES analysis shows that managers at many other nursing homes acquired by large private investors have cut expenses and staff, sometimes below minimum legal requirements..."

    "...In recent years, large private investment groups have agreed to buy 6 of the nation's 10 largest nursing home chains, containing over 141,000 beds, or 9 percent of the nation's total."

    The article further details residents from one home who died from what family members call negligent care, while investors profited millions.

    Bogle calls this a "national disgrace," contending that:

    "There are some things that must be entrusted to government and some things that must be entrusted to private enterprise. "

    Do you agree?

    How do we determine what falls into the responsibility of private investment and what is better handled by government?

    Photo: Robin Holland


    August 3, 2007

    A New American Dream?

    It was James Truslow Adams who first coined the term "The American Dream" in his book THE EPIC OF AMERICA written in 1931. He writes that the American dream is:

    "...that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

    It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."

    But Barbara Ehrenreich, who has lived, worked and fought along side low-wage workers has witnessed the growing disparity of wages between the rich and poor. The hopes and dreams of many of the workers she's been hearing from seem to differ from the definition above. Says Ehrenreich:

    "There was one woman who said something to me that was so poignant. Speaking of her hopes for the future, she said, 'My big wish would be to have a job which if I missed work one day, like for a child home sick or something, I would still be able to buy groceries for the next day.' And I thought, yeah, that's quite a hope."

    How would you define the American Dream?

  • Has it changed for you over time?
  • Do you think your children or even your grandchildren will define it the same way?

    Photo: Robin Holland


  • July 13, 2007

    Bill Moyers Essay: The War Debate

    Click the picture above to watch Bill Moyers' essay on the ongoing war debate in Congress.

    Then tell us what you think by commenting below.


    June 25, 2007

    Extended Interviews with Four Muslim Women

    As you saw in last week's interview with Imam Zaid Shakir, Journal Producer Candace White spoke with four Muslim women in the San Francisco Bay area about being a Muslim woman in America:

    Saliah Shakir is the wife of Imam Zaid Shakir. Like him, she converted to Islam during a tour of duty with the Air Force.

    Sadaf Khan studied at Zaytuna for four years and is now the Institute's Office Manager. She is also the Institute's fundraising coordinator and at the start of the 2007 school year, will assist in coordinating school curriculum.

    Marwa Elzankaly is a litigation attorney and currently a provisional partner in her firm. She earned her law degree from Santa Clara University in 1999 and passed the bar the same year.

    Uzma Husaini works as an editor in Zaytuna's publications department which includes SEASONS Journal and the Zaytuna Curriculum Series. She received her ijazah (license) to teach tajweed from Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi. She teaches a weekend class in Qur'anic recitation at Zaytuna as well as a class in Islamic studies at Las Positas Community College in Livermore, CA.

    For extended interviews with all four women, click here. And as always, please join the conversation by commenting below.


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