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January 30, 2009

Is a Military Strategy the Best Option in Afghanistan?

(Photos by Robin Holland)

In the wake of the recent American missile attacks in Pakistan, this week’s JOURNAL explored U.S. bombing policies and how they affect U.S. objectives in Afghanistan and the region. Bill Moyers asked historian Marilyn B. Young and former Pentagon official Pierre Sprey about the effectiveness of targeting Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants when the casualties include civilians.

Sprey said:

“What happens on the ground is for every one of those impacts you get five or ten times as many recruits for the Taliban as you've eliminated. The people that we’re trying to convince to become adherents to our cause have become rigidly hostile to our cause in part because of bombing and in part because of other killing of civilians from ground forces. We’re dealing with a society that’s based on honor... They have to resist being invaded, occupied, bombed and killed. It’s a matter of honor, and they’re willing to die in unbelievable numbers to do that.”

Young said:

“The problem is [that] the focus remains a military solution to what all the other information I have says is a political problem. I don’t care how you slice the military tactic. So long as your notion is that you can actually deal with this in a military way, you’re just going to march deeper and deeper into what Pete Seeger called ‘The Big Muddy”... The point is, if you can’t figure out a political way to deal in Afghanistan then you can only compound the compound mess.”

In contrast, former NPR journalist Sarah Chayes, who has lived and worked in Afghanistan for seven years, told Bill Moyers in December that more U.S. troops need to be deployed there.

“At this point the Taliban kind of military campaign plan is effective enough that you do need troops to prevent them from making military encroachments that are really dangerous. You also need troops to protect the population from the Taliban. There are people who don't like the Taliban but may kind of knuckle under to them because, on the one hand, the government isn't doing anything better for them. And the Taliban are going to kill them if they don't visibly divide themselves away from the government. So you need to be able to protect people from that kind of an intimidation campaign, and that takes troops.”

What do you think?

  • Should the U.S. continue to bomb and otherwise target suspected militants if civilians might be killed as well? Why or why not?

  • President Obama reportedly plans to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan without a timetable for withdrawal. Do you support increasing the American military presence there? Explain.

  • Marilyn B. Young calls for a “political way to deal in Afghanistan.” What political steps might the U.S. take to improve the situation?

  • Bailing Out Higher Ed?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with Vartan Gregorian, president of the non-profit Carnegie Corporation, about the fiscal struggles of America’s colleges and universities – especially those that are public – in the troubled economy.

    “Education is very central to our democracy. You can neglect it, you can get it on the cheap, and you get what you pay for. And if you think education is costly, try ignorance because that will be far more costly.”

    Last fall, Gregorian convened a group of educators to urge Barack Obama to invest in higher education. On December 16th, the group published an open letter [PDF LINK] asking that five percent of the economic stimulus package – estimated at 40-45 billion dollars – go to constructing and upgrading buildings at the nation’s colleges and universities:

    “It is critical that any legislation include a substantial investment in states and their educational systems, particularly public higher education. That investment initially should focus on infrastructure: building essential classroom and research buildings and equipping them with the latest technologies. Construction would meet both the economic and the environmental priorities of the incoming administration... Our nation is losing ground on a number of fronts critical to our future prosperity and national security... Today, only the federal government has the resources and vision to meet these threats to America’s future.”

    In a column for INSIDE HIGHER ED criticizing the letter’s proposal, Jane S. Shaw, president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, wrote:

    “Why did these educators choose capital funding – that is, constructing “essential classroom and research buildings and equipping them with the latest technologies”? Wouldn’t tuition discounts, tax credits, more scholarships, or even faculty salaries be more directly related to the problems they decry?... There’s a reason why states are shelving these “shovel-ready” projects... they are doing so because tax payments have dried up... By asking taxpayers to rev up these projects the administrators are essentially saying that if state taxpayers can’t afford a project, some mythical ‘federal taxpayer’ can... Let’s accept this is about pork barrel politics. It’s not about helping the kids.”

    The economic stimulus package passed by the House on Wednesday and in consideration by the Senate promises $6 billion for construction and renovation at colleges and universities.

    What do you think?

  • Should federal funds intended for economic stimulus go to construction and renovation at the nation’s higher education institutions? Why or why not?

  • With the United States running severe deficits, do you support spending more money as proposed in the economic stimulus package? Do you think it will help resuscitate the economy? Explain.

  • Michael Winship: Dr. Gregorian's 3 R's: Reading, Writing, and Recession

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    Dr. Gregorian's 3 R's: Reading, Writing, and Recession
    By Michael Winship

    That was quite a crowd at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last week. Thousands of students took to the streets in protest. But it wasn’t an antiwar march – the campus has a reputation for a lack of activism. It wasn’t even a pep rally for UNLV’s beloved, championship basketball team, the Runnin’ Rebels.

    No, they came out to raise hell as they never have before because Jim Gibbons, the governor of Nevada, just proposed state budget cuts to higher education of a whopping 36 percent. At UNLV, that could mean a budget slash of as much as 52 percent and possible tuition increases of 225 percent.

    UNLV student and employee Helen Gerth told the LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL, “By the time they get through cutting the budget, this will be a ghost town.”

    Meanwhile, in Tucson, Arizona, a record thousand people crowded into a meeting of the Arizona Board of Regents to voice their outrage at a proposed cut of more than $600 million from the state’s university system. School presidents there say such draconian budget rollbacks could force the elimination of academic departments, even entire colleges.

    Lest you think this is a phenomenon limited to the Great American Southwest, things are bad all over. With state governments looking down the barrel of more than $300 billion worth of deficits this year and next, the long knives are out and money for higher public education is a serial victim. Twenty-six states already have either cut their budgets for higher education, raised tuition fees or enacted a combination of both. When it come to college affordability, a report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “Measuring Up: 2008,” gives a failing grade of “F” to 49 of the 50. Tuition at public four-year colleges is up an average of more than $6500; at two year schools, almost $2500.

    Less and less of that money is going to actual teaching and more of it to administrative and support services. Despite that, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION reports that many college buildings are “outdated, inefficient, even crumbling.”

    The states are paring away at their future noses to save their current financial faces, say leading academics, denying dollars to higher education when it’s more of an absolute necessity than ever, providing jobs, retraining those who’ve been laid off, generating the basic and applied research that in the past has driven a country once world-renown for invention and productivity. As one of those who spoke at the Arizona Board of Regents meeting said, “You cannot cut yourself out of a recession. You must grow your way out.”

    Last October, a meeting was convened in New York City, a gathering of leaders of higher public education who came here to try figure out a way to cope with the current economic crisis and its devastating impact on America’s public colleges and universities. The conference was organized by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the philanthropic foundation that fosters and promotes educational opportunity and increased civic participation, and its president, a human dynamo whose career is testament to the value of a lifetime of learning.

    Vartan Gregorian, the former president of the New York Public Library and Brown University, is a man of erudition and charm with a passion for philanthropy and wider education. The conference of educators he and the Carnegie Corporation sponsored last fall resulted in a two-page page ad published in major newspapers, an open letter to then President-elect Obama asking that whatever economic stimulus package comes out of Washington in the next few weeks, five percent of it – around 40 to 45 billion dollars – go to higher education that will, quote, “propel the nation forward in resolving its current economic crisis and lay the groundwork for international economic competitiveness and the well-being of American families into the future.”

    Gregorian spoke with my colleague Bill Moyers on the most recent edition of BILL MOYERS JOURNAL on PBS and noted that it was during another national crisis -- the Civil War -- that Abraham Lincoln had the foresight to sign the Morrill Act establishing public land-grant colleges and universities. Its purpose, the legislation stated, was, not only to create public institutions of higher learning that would teach the traditional curriculum of science and “classical studies” but “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts… in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

    Lincoln supported the law because he realized the value of education for people who could use the land grant schools not only to advance knowledge but also to learn a trade. Unfortunately, Gregorian said, the public “has the impression that the land grant universities are providing free education to the public. That’s not the case.”

    Public colleges and universities can’t compete with private schools, he said, because the salary differentials are so great, yet, “Eighty percent of our nation’s talent, in every domain, from lawyers to engineers to doctors, come from public higher education.”

    Gregorian includes two-year community colleges as well as four-year schools. “We’re talking about how to build the next generation of our youth to be able to compete globally, and re-engineer our nation’s reemergence in the next phase of global competition,” he explained. “We need all the infrastructure. We need all the engineers, all the doctors, all the computer specialists… We can no longer allow 50 percent of our students not to graduate from high school, or 30, 40 percent to drop out from our universities, especially minorities and others…

    “We need… to participate as citizens in the fate and future of our country… We cannot have a democracy without its foundation being knowledge, in order to provide progress.”

    That need is all the more critical in times of economic crisis and if the states are unable or unwilling to come up with the cash, at least the House version of President Obama’s economic stimulus package that passed this week include billions for higher education, so apparently someone in the administration is listening to the entreaties of Dr. Gregorian and his colleagues. Nonetheless, the legislation still has a long way to go.

    There is an upside to the gloom, Gregorian noted. “Merit always counts, especially when the economy tanks. You find the true value of individuals. I can’t tell you how many people are calling me about going into non-profit business… People have suddenly stopped in their tracks and they’re looking to see what they could do otherwise… People confront themselves, their values. It’s like when you leave a hospital with catastrophic news. You see the world differently.”

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    January 23, 2009

    Expectations for the Obama Administration

    (Photos by Robin Holland)

    This week on the JOURNAL, several prominent progressives discussed their expectations of the next four years with Barack Obama in the White House. Bill Moyers asked what issues they hoped to see the new administration address.

    Columnist David Sirota answered the question as follows:

    “I think first and foremost he’s got to stick to his campaign promise, which he seems to be doing, on the issue of Iraq... I think that is a baseline issue considering he campaigned on that not only in the general election but in the primary. I think, in a more broad kind of way, people want him to be more embracing, which he is, of the role of government in addressing issues of economic inequality [and] income stagnation.”

    Author Thomas Frank said:

    “We need hearings to find out what went wrong on Wall Street, just like in the 1930s where they had hearings that went on for years... It’s judgment day for Wall Street, and we need really strong oversight... Bring in tough regulators. They’re out there – they know what they’re doing. Bring them in. Turn them loose on Wall Street.”

    Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, who was affiliated with the Obama campaign, shared her view:

    “I think the recovery of New Orleans continues to be the central democratic litmus test of our time, that what does and does not happen in the context of recovery for the Gulf Coast tells us whether or not we value community, what we’re gonna do about environmental injustice, whether or not we’re gonna provide affordable quality housing, and whether or not we truly believe that we are a racial democracy, one in which people of all races get to contribute. So for me the recovery of New Orleans is central. [Also,] the question of American racial health disparities and of poverty and income disparities in American health... And the final is we’ve still got very serious basic civil rights issues, and among them is the question of marriage equality for gay men and lesbians.”

    What do you think?

  • What agenda must President Obama pursue for you to consider his administration to be progressive?

  • What are your top priorities for the new administration?

  • Michael Winship: Walking Down to Washington

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    Walking Down to Washington
    By Michael Winship

    The image from Barack Obama’s inauguration that will stay with me forever is people walking. Walking from wherever they lived or were staying in Washington, DC. And all headed for the exact same place.

    In the hours before dawn on January 20th, they already were moving down Connecticut Avenue outside my brother and sister-in-law’s apartment: groups of two and three and four or more; some wearing backpacks and carrying signs, quietly converging on the National Mall.

    For many, shoe leather was a familiar form of protest. For years, they had walked or marched to speak out against bigotry, poverty and hunger; against violations of human rights; against wars in Vietnam and Iraq. They had marched on the Pentagon and from Selma to Montgomery, but this time they were putting one foot before the other in celebration.

    I had taken Amtrak down from New York City two days before. Among the passengers, a jumble of different languages but in almost every conversation, the name, “Barack Obama,” clear as a bell.

    The train was full, and then packed as we left Baltimore, following the same route Obama’s whistlestop tour had taken the day before, jammed with visitors on their way to DC. A schoolteacher from Missouri took advantage of the short train ride to talk to her students about A. Philip Randolph, the African American labor and civil rights leader who organized African American sleeping car porters in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963.

    She told me she had planned her trip in October. “When I saw those 100,000 people at the Obama rally in St. Louis, I thought, ‘This is a done deal,’” she said. “’I’d better make my reservations.’” She announced to her fellow faculty she’d be taking an extra day or two off after Martin Luther King’s Birthday. “One of them said, ‘That’s not a real holiday.’ I didn’t say a word. She was not going to spoil my Obama moment.”

    That afternoon, we trekked to the Mall for the afternoon “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial, 17th Street lined with vendors peddling buttons, posters, hats, hand warmers and everything but Barack Obama Dessert Topping (there were Obama perfumes and air fresheners). The hundreds of thousands who came to see Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Pete Seeger and James Taylor, among others, were just a foreshadowing of the millions who would arrive on Tuesday.

    So, too, were the friendliness and high spirits of the crowd, despite the cold, but often tested by a lack of coordination among the various police and security forces on hand. They seemed to know how to get people where they wanted to go but not how to cope once it was time to for everyone to head home. It was an all too familiar story – there was no exit strategy.

    Monday was a day of parties and events, and already, trying to get from point A to point B in downtown DC was a challenge made nearly insurmountable by flying roadblocks, unloading trucks and the tendency of tourists to leap out of cars, blocking intersections to take pictures of the Capitol – using the cameras of every passenger, one at a time.

    At the three House of Representatives office buildings, shivering people lined up by the hundreds as it seemed every single Congressman or state delegation had simultaneously scheduled receptions. Once you got inside, at moments the scene was just a few degrees of separation from that party after Andrew Jackson’s 1825 inauguration when voters trashed the White House until they moved the spiked punch to the front lawn, setting a standard for Beltway bacchanalia only surpassed when the Redskins play a home game.

    But Tuesday morning, everything and everyone came together and it was wondrous to behold. The predicted day of overcast gave way to bright sunshine. On every street people walked and walked until they reached the Mall and filled it to maximum capacity with anticipation. I have been in massive demonstrations there since the Vietnam moratorium in 1969, and none of them could compare. In the words of one little girl, it was bigger than Six Flags.

    Yes, there were too many official standing room tickets with room for too few people (I was one of those with a ticket who couldn’t get in) and yes, trying to exit the city via rail that afternoon was an experience I wouldn’t wish on a Fox News analyst. (Again, no exit strategy – at Union Station, hundreds were haphazardly herded cheek by jowl into a far too narrow passageway and slowly, crushingly shoved through a single narrow exit. I finally popped through like a grape, just in time to catch my train.)

    Still, it was worth it. For the ceremony, I wound up with folks at an open house in an office building that overlooked the crowds and the north side of the Capitol. We saw most of it on TV sets but with our own eyes caught glimpses from the balcony of the motorcade heading up the Hill, the cannons firing their 21-gun salute, the helicopter carrying the Bushes away (some of the people near me took off their shoes and faked a toss in the chopper’s general direction).

    Whether you voted for or against President Obama, you couldn’t help but be caught up by the display of spirit, support and yes, patriotism. The gathered millions were inspired by each act of the ceremony, through Aretha and Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma and poet Elizabeth Alexander and civil rights veteran Joseph Lowery, paraphrasing the late, great bluesman Big Bill Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White Blues.”

    And the speech, of course. John F. Harris wrote in POLITICO, “With one swift stroke—just 18 minutes of words, delivered with a stern tone and a steel gaze—Barack Hussein Obama sliced through the usual clutter and ambiguities of American politics and revealed what it looks like when history turns on a pivot.”

    There will be disappointments – big ones, perhaps – there will be mistakes and missteps, there will be times when the actions of this new President may infuriate as often as inspire. And the problems we face are daunting.

    But on Inauguration Day, as I saw those hundreds of thousands making their way to see the swearing-in, walking and rejoicing in that moment, I thought of Sister Pollard, the older woman of whom Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke, who walked to and from work every day during the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott.

    My feet are tired, she said, “but my soul is rested.”

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    January 16, 2009

    Bill Moyers Responds to Viewer Feedback

    Bill Moyers responds to viewer feedback to last week's essay on the violence in Gaza.

    PLEASE NOTE: This essay contains images of casualties from the conflict in Gaza. Some viewers may find the images disturbing, but they are in context and germane to the subject matter.
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    Exchange Between Bill Moyers and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League

    Following Bill Moyers' reflections on the events in Gaza on the JOURNAL last week, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman sent him this letter:

    Mr. Moyers,

    In less than a thousand words, you managed to fit into your January 9 commentary: (1) moral equivalency between Hamas, a radical Islamic terrorist group whose anti-Semitic charter cites the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East and perhaps America’s greatest ally in the world; (2) historical revisionism, asserting that Canaanites were Arabs; (3) anti-Semitism, declaring that Jews are “genetically coded” for violence; (4) ignorance of the terrorist threat against Israel, claiming that checkpoints, the security fence, and the Gaza operation are tactics of humiliation rather than counter-terrorism; and (5) promotion of an individual, the Norwegian doctor in Gaza, who has publicly expressed support for the September 11 attacks.

    I have seen and read serious critiques of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, and I have disagreed with many of them. Your commentary, however, is different, consisting mostly of intellectually and morally faulty claims that do a great disservice to the PBS audience. It invites not disagreement, but rebuke.

    On one point you are correct – “America has officially chosen sides.” And rightly so. Fortunately for our nation, very few of our citizens engage in the same moral equivalency, racism, historical revisionism, and indifference to terrorism as you. If the reverse held, it would not be a country that any decent person would want to live in.


    Abraham H. Foxman
    National Director
    Anti-Defamation League

    In response, Bill Moyers sent Mr. Foxman the following message:

    Dear Mr. Foxman:

    You made several errors in your letter to me of January 13 and I am writing to correct them.

    First, to call someone a racist for lamenting the slaughter of civilians by the Israeli military offensive in Gaza is a slur unworthy of the tragedy unfolding there. Your resort to such a tactic is reprehensible.

    Earlier this week it was widely reported that the International Red Cross “was so outraged it broke its usual silence over an attack in which the Israeli army herded a Palestinian family into a building and then shelled it, killing 30 people and leaving the surviving children clinging to the bodies of their dead mothers. The army prevented rescuers from reaching the survivors for four days.”

    When American troops committed a similar atrocity in Vietnam, it was called My Lai and Lt. Calley went to prison for it. As the publisher of a large newspaper at the time, I instructed our editorial staff to cover the atrocity fully because Americans should know what our military was doing in our name and with our funding. To say “my country right or wrong” is like saying “my mother drunk or sober.” Patriots owe their country more than that, whether their government and their taxes are supporting atrocities in Vietnam, Iraq, or, in this case, Gaza.

    Contrary to your claim, I made no reference whatsoever to “moral equivalency” between Hamas and Israel. That is an old canard often resorted to by propagandists trying to divert attention from facts on the ground, and, it, too, is unworthy of the slaughter in Gaza. Contrary to imputing “moral equivalency” between Hamas and Israel, I said that “Hamas would like to see every Jew in Israel dead.” I said that “a radical stream of Islam now seeks to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth.” And I described the new spate of anti-Semitism across the continent of Europe. I am curious as to why you ignored remarks which clearly counter the notion of “moral equivalency.”

    And although I specifically referred to “the rockets from Hamas” falling on Israel and said that “every nation has the right to defend itself, and Israel is no exception,” you nonetheless accuse me of “ignorance of the terrorist threat against Israel.” Once again, you are quite selective in your reading of my essay.

    Your claim that “the checkpoints, the security fence and the Gaza operation” [I used the more accurate “onslaught”] are not humiliating of the Palestinians is lamentable. I did not claim that these were, as you write, “tactics of humiliation rather [emphasis mine] than counter-terrorism,” but perhaps it is overly simplistic to think they are one and not the other, when they are both. Also lamentable is your description of my “promotion” of the Norwegian doctor in Gaza when in fact I was simply quoting what he told CBS News: “It’s like Dante’s Inferno. They are bombing one and a half million people in a cage.” The whole world has been able to see for itself what he was talking about, and as one major news organization after another has been reporting, is reeling from the sight.

    And, to your claim that I was “declaring Jews are ‘genetically coded’ for violence,” you are mistaken. My comment – obviously not sufficiently precise – was not directed at a specific people but to the fact that the human race has violence in its DNA, as the biblical stories so strongly affirm. I also had in mind the relationship between all the descendents of Abraham who love the same biblical land and come to such grief over it.

    From my days in President Johnson’s White House forward, I have defended Israel’s right to defend itself, and still do. But sometimes an honest critic is a government’s best friend, and I am appalled by Israel’s devastation of innocent civilians in this battle, all the more so because, as I said in my column, it is exactly what Hamas wanted to happen. To be so indifferent to that suffering is, sadly, to be as blind in Gaza as Samson.


    Bill Moyers

    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?

  • Michael Winship: Inauguration Day Is Time to Move On

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    Inauguration Day Is Time to Move On
    By Michael Winship

    As Barack Obama prepares to be sworn in, I recall an old National Lampoon record album – record albums, remember those? – from the final weeks of the Watergate scandal that comically suggested that President Richard Nixon be given a “swearing OUT” ceremony. There followed a series of blistering curses and calumnies directed at the soon-to-be departed and disgraced chief executive, delivered by someone impersonating the Reverend Billy Graham.

    You have to wonder if amidst all the fanfare and hoopla Barack Obama isn’t quietly swearing a bit beneath his breath as he beholds what his about-to-be-predecessor has left for him. Hercules mucking out the Augean stables is as nothing to the heaps of bungle and botch confronting the next commander-in-chief.

    Not that there’s anything new about freshly inaugurated presidents inheriting a mess. George Washington, who took the oath of office on the balcony of Federal Hall here in New York, at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets, was taking over a newly independent, penniless collection of squabbling states that couldn’t even pay the soldiers who had won the Revolution. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton had to negotiate a bailout from the Banks of New York and North America just to cover the salaries of the President and Congress.

    When Abraham Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1861, his hand on the same Bible Barack Obama will be using, the union was dissolving into Civil War. Jefferson Davis already had been inaugurated as president of the Confederacy just two weeks earlier. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, whose inert and inept presidency had done nothing to prevent the union’s imminent collapse, told him, “If you are as happy on entering the White House as I am on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed,” then skipped town to his country estate near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (A little more than four years later, he would drive his carriage to the Lancaster depot and stand in silent tribute as Lincoln’s funeral train passed.)

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of course, became president as the country was shivering and starving through the fourth winter of the Great Depression. Twenty-five percent of us were unemployed, stocks had plunged seventy-five percent after the Crash of ’29 and new investment and industrial production were non-existent.

    So it has been throughout America’s stormy past: two steps back for every three forward, periods of boundless optimism countered by times of fear and desperation, a government alternately depended upon or despised.

    The crises Barack Obama faces may not seem as overpowering as those confronted by Lincoln or FDR, but perhaps no other president has taken over a government in such total and complete disrepair. For the last eight years, George Bush has ruled over a government the very concept of which he and his cronies loathed.

    As right-winger Grover Norquist – once described by the Wall Street Journal as the Grand Central Station of conservatism – infamously opined in 2001, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” This, apparently, was the Bush team’s fantasy, although rather than reduction, they seemed to have favored a strategy of malign neglect and abuse to get the job done.

    It’s not just the financial meltdown and Katrina and Iraq and Afghanistan and alleged violations of civil liberties and the Constitution – although especially chilling was this week ‘s Bob Woodward interview in the Washington Post with retired judge Susan J. Crawford, convening authority of military commissions – the woman in charge of determining which Guantanamo detainees should be brought to trial.

    She told Woodward the military tortured Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Saudi who allegedly was planning to be the 20th hijacker on 9/11. "I sympathize with the intelligence gatherers in those days after 9/11, not knowing what was coming next and trying to gain information to keep us safe," she said. "But there still has to be a line that we should not cross. And unfortunately what this has done, I think, has tainted everything going forward.”

    A few weeks ago, the nonpartisan, investigative Center for Public Integrity, released an in-depth report titled “Broken Government,” a chronicling of more than 125 of what the center calls “systematic failures across the breadth of federal government,” from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the Federal Labor Relations Authority to NASA. You can read it at: http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/broken_government/.

    “Many of the failures are rooted in recurring themes,” the Center reports. “Agency appointees selected primarily for ideology and loyalty, rather than competence; agency heads who overruled staff experts and suppressed reports that did not coincide with administration philosophy; agency-industry collusion; a bedrock belief in the wisdom of deregulation; extensive private outsourcing of public functions; a general failure to exercise government’s oversight responsibilities; and severely slashed budgets at understaffed agencies that often left them unable to execute basic administrative functions.” Whew.

    In its defense, the White House has turned out three tomes of its own, all of which may be read at http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/bushrecord/index.html.

    One of them is titled, “100 Things Americans May Not Know about the Bush Administration Record.” The 100th thing is, “Directed Unprecedented Preparations for a Smooth Presidential Transition.” Not a moment too soon, some would say. Time to move on.

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    January 9, 2009

    Employees' Free Choice?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    This week, the JOURNAL explored the present state – and potential future – of America’s unions.

    As of 2007, approximately 12 percent of America’s workforce was unionized, down from 20 percent in 1980 and a height of more than a third of U.S. workers in the mid-1940s. Last year unions spent heavily on campaign contributions for Democratic candidates and to promote controversial legislation known as the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT summarized EFCA as follows:

    “The key provision of the Employee Free Choice Act could make it more feasible for the workers of smaller businesses to unionize. Under current law, in order for a union to be recognized at a business, 30 percent of the workers of the business in question must express support for joining a union. This is then followed by a secret ballot election where half of the workers must vote in favor of joining. The Employee Free Choice Act would make this election unnecessary and allow the union to be recognized through a process known as "card check." A majority of workers simply need to sign cards expressing their intent to join the union, and this process need not be secret.”

    Supporters of EFCA contend that larger unions might empower workers and help rebuild the middle class, while opponents argue that scrapping the secret vote could subject workers to coercion and intimidation. Former Senator George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972, explained his opposition to EFCA in a column for the WALL STREET JOURNAL:

    “As a longtime friend of labor unions, I must raise my voice against pending legislation I see as a disturbing and undemocratic overreach not in the interest of either management or labor... There are many documented cases where workers have been pressured, harassed, tricked and intimidated into signing cards that have led to mandatory payment of dues. Under EFCA, workers could lose the freedom to express their will in private, the right to make a decision without anyone peering over their shoulder, free from fear of reprisal... To fail to ensure a vote free of intimidation and coercion from all sides would be a betrayal of what we have always championed.”

    Responding to critics' objections, JOURNAL guest and EFCA supporter Leo Gerard, International President of United Steelworkers, said:

    “What is a greater vote than putting my name on a card, signing my name and saying I want this union?... The fact of the matter is that kind of myth is the myth that's created by the union busters... [Bosses] come into the workplace now and call the worker into the room and say, 'you know, buddy, if you join this union we're gonna move this plant to Mexico. Now go out and decide to vote.' What are you going to do when your family and you are making $9 an hour, $10 an hour, and the boss is taking home $10 million? What are you going to do with your so-called 'secret ballot' vote?"

    What do you think?

  • Do you support the Employee Free Choice Act? Why or why not?
  • Would larger and more powerful unions have a positive effect on the U.S. economy? Explain.
  • In the global economy, Americans increasingly compete against workers from nations with lower wages and standards of living. To what extent can unions protect American workers from these pressures?

  • Ask the Reporter: EXPOSÉ on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL

    This week, BILL MOYERS JOURNAL collaborated with EXPOSÉ: AMERICA'S INVESTIGATIVE REPORTS to tell the story of journalist David Heath from THE SEATTLE TIMES as he investigates earmarks and uncovers stories of waste and abuse in Washington.

    We'd like to thank David Heath for agreeing to answer your questions. Please post below, and we will post his response in a few weeks.

    Bill Moyers reflects on Middle East violence

    Bill Moyers reflects on the recent violence in the Middle East.

    PLEASE NOTE: This essay containins video and images of the Israeli and Palestinian casualties – including children - in Gaza as well as the Pulitzer prize-winning photo of the nude Vietnamese girl running from napalm bombing. Some viewers may find the images disturbing, but they are in context and germane to the subject matter.
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    We invite you to comment in the space below.

    Michael Winship: What Am I Bid for the American Wild?

    (Photo by Robin Holland)

    Below is an article by JOURNAL senior writer Michael Winship. We welcome your comments below.

    What Am I Bid for the American Wild?
    By Michael Winship

    We've all seen those sitcoms or movies in which someone stumbles into an art auction and, not knowing how it works, idly scratches his nose or pulls his ear and finds himself the owner of a Rembrandt.

    Better yet, there's one of my all-time favorite films, NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Surrounded at an auction by the bad guys, Cary Grant makes outrageous bids and yells insults until the police arrive and unknowingly haul him off to safety. (“How do we know it’s not a fake?” he shouts about one painting. “It looks like a fake!” A woman sitting in front of him turns and replies, “You’re no fake. You’re a genuine idiot.”)

    The Friday before Christmas, a college student in Utah who‘s neither fake nor fool pulled a Cary Grant at a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction of oil and gas leases for land between two of the most austerely beautiful national parks in the United States – Canyonlands and Arches.

    Tim DeChristopher, a 27-year-old environmental activist and economics major at the University of Utah, was protesting the auction outside a government office building in Salt Lake City and decided to see what would happen if he went inside. Instead of being immediately hustled out, he was asked by a clerk, “Are you here to bid?”

    He showed his driver’s license and was given a paddle, no questions asked. Then, as his incredulous roommate looked on, DeChristopher started bidding. “It was just raise my arm as often as possible, Bidder No. 70,” he told a reporter, “I was trying to make it obvious I was there to disrupt the auction.”

    But before you could say, “Going, going, gone,” DeChristopher had “bought” 13 lease parcels – around 22,500 acres – for some $1.7 million and, according to BLM officials, driven up other bids by about half a million dollars. At that point, people started to complain and he was taken away by BLM security. Among his competitors: Kerr-McGee, a subsidiary of Anadarko Petroleum, the country’s second biggest independent oil producer.

    The auction was part of the fire sale the Bush administration has been holding as it winds down, selling off oil and gas parcels as part of an apparent overall strategy to further carve up American wildlands and deregulate the environment as much as possible before noon on January 20th. The White House may as well have a sign on the fence that reads, “Final Days! Everything Must Go!”

    At the end of October, the BLM adopted Resource Management Plans for five field offices in Utah that oversee around 8.7 million acres of public land. Almost immediately, oil and gas lease sales of 360,000 of those acres were announced. Environmental groups filed suit to stop the sale of 100,000 of the acres near national parks and monuments until the National Park Service could do an environmental impact analysis. Nonetheless, the auction at which DeChristopher became a surprise bidder went ahead.

    In a November editorial, The SALT LAKE TRIBUNE described the Resource Management plans as “an eleventh-hour effort of Bush’s BLM to eliminate federal protections for Utah’s redrock treasures and give extractive industries… a virtual free hand,” a belief echoed by Tim DeChristopher in a blog entry he wrote the day after the auction. “When faced with the opportunity to seriously disrupt the auction of some of our most beautiful lands in Utah to gas and oil developers, I could not ethically turn my back on that opportunity. By making bids for land that was supposed to be protected for the interest of all Americans, I tried to resist the Bush administration’s attempt to defraud the American people.” Some of the land, he said, was selling for as little as $2.25 an acre.

    The BLM is contemplating restaging the auction. And whether Tim DeChristopher’s case will come before a Federal grand jury remains up in the air – no one’s even sure whether he broke any laws, and an investigation is ongoing. A legal defense fund has been established and they’ve even started trying to raise $1.7 million to buy the leases upon which he bid (As of Friday, January 9, $45,000 in contributions had come in, enough for the initial payment, DeChristopher said, but the BLM says it’s too late – he’s already in default.).

    There’s a website – www.bidder70.org – and DeChristopher’s legal team includes powerful Utah defense attorney Ron Yengich and Pat Shea, who ran the Bureau of Land Management during the Clinton administration’s second term.

    Shea told The SALT LAKE TRIBUNE that he admires DeChristopher’s “integrity of purpose” and suggested to the Associated Press that the ease with which his client gained access to the auction – without a bond or other proof of the ability to pay – was indicative of the Bush administration’s “rush before the door slams behind them: ‘Let’s get as many leases out as possible.’” During his BLM tenure, Shea said, access was more tightly controlled.

    Tim DeChristopher’s spur-of-the-moment action comes from a long tradition of civil disobedience in America and the belief that, in the oft-quoted words of the June Jordan poem he cites on his blog, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

    He wrote, “We have been told that the best we can do is to sign an Internet petition and send our donations so that Big Green could hire lobbyists to fight our battles. The upswelling of grassroots energy is finally responding that we are willing and able to do much more.”

    Please note that the views and opinions expressed by Michael Winship are not necessarily the views and opinions held by Bill Moyers or BILL MOYERS JOURNAL.

    January 2, 2009

    Bill Moyers & Michael Winship: Making 'Duck Soup' Out Of 2009

    As 2008 ends and this New Year begins, with all its fledgling promise despite turmoil and crisis, it’s also that time when the media offers its lists of ten best or worst this and that of the previous year, an exercise that simultaneously entertains and infuriates.

    Forced at knifepoint to make such lists, at least ours would be a little different. One would be favorite headlines of the year from THE ONION, the hilarious weekly that doesn’t bill itself as “America’s finest news source” for nothing. If you can read it without laughing, you probably have been paying too much attention to your 401K.

    Some of the ones we liked best:







    Of course, the problem THE ONION’s editors have is that reality too often resembles parody. Take the story of Chip Saltsman, the guy campaigning to be chairman of the Republican National Committee by promoting himself with a CD featuring a song called, “Barack, the Magic Negro.” That ditty, you’ll recall, was made famous on Rush Limbaugh’s minstrel show, as sung by an Al Sharpton impersonator. Even THE ONION couldn’t come up with that one.

    Or the claim by Governor Rod Blagojevich that those wiretaps actually reveal how hard he’s been working for the people of Illinois. And the circus that ensued when he tried to appoint Roland Burris, a veteran Illinois politician, to Barack Obama’s Senate seat – the one the governor allegedly was ready to sell just weeks ago to the highest bidder – and Senate Democrats said, “No.”

    No? From members of Congress for whom pay-for-play is as casual a game as Tic-Tac-Toe? Look at New York’s Senator Charles Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. According to THE NEW YORK TIMES, the week after he attended a breakfast of financial high rollers and promised them that Democrats would make sure their $700 billion bailout got through Congress, those same fat cats sent $135,000 in campaign contributions.

    Or New York Congressman Charlie Rangel, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, who reversed himself on a tax break for a business called Nabors Industries the same month that company donated $100,000 to a City College school for public service named after – all together now, class – Charlie Rangel.

    Life imitates satire – and vice versa. Which brings us to our other unusual list. The best movies of… 1933.

    Naturally, the original KING KONG is on our list. So are THE INVISIBLE MAN and 42ND STREET. But our number one choice: The Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP.

    Why? Because as we enter this final month of the Bush years, the parallels are remarkable. Sometimes it feels as if we live not only in the United States but also in the side-splitting state of Freedonia, the imaginary country in which DUCK SOUP takes place. In 1933, a time much like now of calamity, fraud and peril, the Great Depression gripped America. Franklin D. Roosevelt had just become President and declared a New Deal, while in Germany, Adolph Hitler was named chancellor, the beginning of the Third Reich.

    As all of this was taking place, the Marx Brothers – there were four of them then; Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo – shot DUCK SOUP, a comedy that almost inadvertently transcended slapstick, becoming a trenchant send-up of power and vanity and the disastrous consequences of both.

    Freedonia is bankrupt and asking for a bailout – sound familiar? The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, played by the redoubtable Margaret Dumont, says the only way she’ll come up with the money is if the country appoints as its new leader Rufus T. Firefly – played by Groucho, as only a true clown can play a charlatan. He sings, “The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn’t know what to do with it. If you think this country’s bad off now, just wait ‘til I get through with it.”

    Cabinet meetings are run with a decorum worthy of contemporary Washington. (Finance Minister: “Here is the Treasury Department's report, sir. I hope you'll find it clear.” Groucho: “Why a four-year-old child could understand this report. Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can't make head or tail of it.”)

    Freedonia’s Axis of Evil includes neighboring nation Sylvania, and Groucho/Rufus Firefly handles diplomacy with all the tact of a neo-conservative. In anticipation of a meeting with his rival’s ambassador, he says he will offer his hand in friendship. But suppose the ambassador doesn’t do the same? “A fine thing that will be,” says Firefly. “I hold out my hand and he refuses to accept it. That will add a lot to my prestige, won’t it? Me the head of a country, snubbed by a foreign ambassador! Who does he think he is? …Why the cheap ball-pushing swine, he’ll never get away with it, I tell you! He’ll never get away with it!”

    Before you know it, the two countries are at war for no good reason, the rabble-roused, flag-waving public buying in as if taking directions from cable news.

    DUCK SOUP is now seen as one of the great antiwar comedies of all time, right up there with Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR and Stanley Kubrick’s DR. STRANGELOVE (written with Terry Southern and Peter George).

    Back in 1933, the world situation was grave and it was hard to hear the laughter over the sounds of civilization collapsing. Our chuckles today compete with the sound of renewed violence in the Middle East, melting glaciers sliding into the sea and champagne glasses shattering on the gold bricks of Wall Street.

    Our situation may not be as desperate as the one that faced the first audiences of DUCK SOUP, who found in darkened theaters some relief from the grim world outside. Our current woes, nonetheless, are real, which maybe is why a little humor is the best antidote. As Beaumarchais, that 18th century playwright who doubled as a politician said, “I quickly laugh at everything for fear of having to cry.” This, from a man who managed to survive the French Revolution. So Happy New Year – but keep your fingers crossed.

    A Companion Blog to Bill Moyers Journal

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