Truthout Stories Sun, 29 Mar 2015 12:22:30 -0400 en-gb Disproportionate Representation: A Look at Women Leadership in Congress

Political representation is defined as the election of officials, who then stand in for, and speak for a group of their constituents in the legislature, for a set period of time. Unfortunately, moneyed interests, the threat of being "primaried" by the tea party lunatic fringe, and other factors have dismantled this process. Over the last few years, and certainly for most of the Obama Administration, Congress has had a low approval rating - so much so that they have been nicknamed the "Do Nothing" Congress. These elected officials have been voting in lock-step with each other, and often opposite the opinions and desires of the American people. Consider the public's desire to implement some degree of regulations on gun use in this country (In 2012, 54% wanted more strict laws, and 90% wanted to expand background checks), and Congress's unwillingness to even deliberate on the matter. Thus, the questions have to be asked - Who are these congressional members really representing? What values do they represent? Who do they really speak for? What issues do they advocate for? What segment of the American populace do they look like ?

One merely has to take a glance at the collective members of the United State Congress to realize that there is, and has always been, a glaring problem. That problem has to do with representation, and not just political representation. In short, Congress, like The Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, is not an equal-opportunity employer, and yes #CongressSoWhite. Women make up 50.8% of the U.S. population but only 19.4% of the current 114th U.S. Congress. In fact, Congress resembles a frat house where young intoxicated men are replaced with middle age men, and the type of policies voted upon, discussed, and proposed by the recently out-going, also Republican controlled Congress, reflects the group think that occurs with members of a fraternity. In 2010, Senate Republican Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, made a statement and put out a call for action for members of his party -- who are overwhelmingly white, male, and old -- to make their primary focus obstruction in order to ensure that President Obama would not serve a second term. They Tried It, but failed.

However, their actions and historic "obstructionism" have succeeded in impeding the passing of progressive policies such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which was unanimously voted against by all Republican Senators, with women among them. And it is this same level of obstructionism that has allowed the United States to be one of the few nations that has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEADW), despite the document being signed in 1978 by President Carter. Out of 194 U.N. member nations, 187 countries have ratified the document. When considering this, one has to be realistic about whether the election of Senator Elizabeth Warren, or 2016 Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton, to the U.S. presidency, would bring about the passage and ratification of these proposed legislations. The realistic answer would be NO. What we should have learned after the past 6 years of the Obama Administration - and his failed attempts to "reach across the aisle" and utilize bipartisanship in order to pass legislation, instead of having to continuously rely on Executive Orders - is that we have to set our eyes on far more than the Presidency if we want to effect change. And the first step of this process will have to involve addressing the issue of disproportionate representation. Here we will discuss what this looks like in terms of gender.


Snapshot: What Leadership Currently Looks Like in the US CONGRESS?

So, what does the current representation of women in Congress look like?

We can begin with the fact that, despite women (and girls) making up 50.8% of the U.S. population, women currently make up only 19.4% of the 114th U.S. Congress, which took office in January 2015.1 In terms of each chamber of Congress, women make up 20.0% of the Senate and 19.3% of the House of Representatives. 1 A closer look of the 2015 Congress reveals the following:

19.4% of Congress means that women only hold 104 seats out of 5351

20.0% of the Senate means that women hold 20 seats out of 1001

19.3% of the House of Representatives means that women hold 84 seats out of 4351

In the 114th Congress, women have been sent from 31 of the 51 states as members of the House of Representatives1

The Intersections -- Women of Color leadership in the 2015 Congress and Other Elective Offices

Of the 104 women serving in Congress in 2015, 33 are women of color (18 African American women, 6 Asian/Pacific Islander women, and 9 Latinas)2

31.7% of the women in Congress are women of color2

Women of color only constitute 6.2% of the total 535 members of Congress2

There is only 1 woman of color in the Senate 2

Of the 77 women serving in statewide elective executive offices, 9, or 11.7% are women of color. 2

Women of color constitute 2.8% of the total 318 statewide elective executives2

Women of color constitute 5.3% of the total 7,383 state legislators. 2

In the United States's 100 largest cities, 5 women of color serve as mayor2

A Historical Overview

Women, and certainly women of color, have essentially been denied adequate representation in Congress since the founding of the United States. This reality was of course worse for African American women, who were denied their freedom until 1965, and other women of color -- Indigenous, Asian, Latina, who were denied citizenship despite many of their ancestors being on North American soil for centuries. Since 1917, when Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman to serve, a total of 307 women have served in the U.S. Congress; with the vast majority serving in the House of Representatives.1 In fact, since 1917, 35 women have served as Senators, 261 as representatives, 11 as both Senators and Representatives, and 6 as Delegates to the House. 1 When considering the span of 98 years, these numbers may seem like there has been a great deal of progress. However, the problem of disproportionate representation persists. Further, real progress is only being carried out by a few states within the Union. While California has sent the most women to Congress than any other state (39 to date), followed by New York (27 to date), no other state has sent more than 17 women to Congress; and some states, such as Delaware, Mississippi and Vermont, have yet to send a woman to serve in the House or Senate. 1

Past vs. Current Representation

1992 was dubbed the "Year of the Women" due to a surge in the number of female candidates running and eventually being elected to office. However, this exalted year did not change the status quo greatly, as the problem of disproportionate representation has persisted. 4 out of 11 women running for the U.S. Senate were elected, and those victors included Senator Barabara Boxer (D-CA), who recently announced that she will be retiring from the U.S. Senate in 2016, at the end of her term. 24 females were elected to the House during the Year of the Women, and this election increased the percentage of women in the House from 6% to 11%. 1992 thus remains a high mark in terms of the rate of growth assessed by the number of women elected versus incumbents. While 24 new women were elected in 1992, 13 were elected in 2010, and 19 in 2012. However, there are some small signs of progress. In the short period of 2010 to 2015, the number of women who have served in the U.S. Congress went from 260 to 307.

2013 was also celebrated as a year of high achievement for women in Congress, and again the 2015 114th Congress shows signs of small progress. Women make up 19.4% of the 114th Congress, compared to 18% of the 113th Congress. Further, 79 women were members of the House of Representatives, accounting for 17.9% of the body. While the numbers in the Senate have remained constant with 20 - or 20% - of the members of the Senate being women. Still, the following 2013 infographic shows how small this "progress" is in the larger scope of things by illustrating the problem of disproportionate representation.

2015 0329con 1

In terms of inclusion of women of color there has also been minute progress. In the 113th Congress, women of color only made up 4.5% of the total members of Congress, and 30.6% of women serving in Congress. While the 114th has seen a slight increase, where women of color make up 6.2% of the total members of Congress, and 31.7% of the women serving in Congress. Again, the following 2013 Infographic helps to convey that these nominal increases will not be enough to mitigate the problem of disproportionate representation.

2015 0329con 2

The Standouts: Female Firsts in Congress and Feminist Leadership

For much of US history, women were not a part of the legislative system or process. This did not change until the 20th century (144 years later) with the success of the women's suffrage movement, where women of color like Sojourner Truth and Mary Church Terrell were actively involved. The 19 th Amendment passed in 1920 officially granted women in the United States the right to vote. However, the right to vote was not safeguarded for women of color, particularly Black women in the Southern United States, until the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act; which the predominantly White and male, U.S. Supreme court is currently dismantling. In 2014, the court invalidated key parts of the legislation. A critical legislation that many sacrificed, suffered, and gave their lives for.

The following is a brief overview of some of these trailblazing women in U.S. politics:

In 1917 Jeanette Rankin of Montana, a Republican prior to the beginning of the parties "Southern Strategy", became the first woman in Congress, where she served in the House of Representatives. In 1916 she noted that, "I may be the first woman member of Congress, but I won't be the last".3 She went on to serve again from 1941-1943, but did not win re-election due to her anti-war stance, where she voted vote against both World War I and World War II; proving that she was ahead-of-her-time; speaking out against the military industrial complex, well before it had grown to its current size and influence. In terms of feminist leadership, Rankin was a former lobbyist for the National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and her speaking and organizing efforts help to secure the right to vote for women in Montana in 1914. In her campaigns she ran as a Progressive, and during her time in Congress she focused on social welfare issues.

While many remember and praise Ronald Reagan, despite the horrific result of Reaganomics, there was another stage star from California, who made a greater impact on policy and U.S. society, and she was Helen Gahagan Douglas, a New Deal liberal. Gahagan served in the House for three terms, from 1945 - 1951, where she spoke about a range of topics including: equal rights for women, civil rights for African Americans and other people of color, labor rights and the protection of the American worker, food subsidies (all prior to the 1964 Food Stamps Act being signed into law by President Lydon B. Johnson), affordable housing, unemployment insurance for returning GIs, a revitalized farm security program, as well as income-based taxation for farmers and small business owners. Where President Johnson needed to be pushed to act on removing the barriers to the ballot for African Americans in the South, Helen Douglas openly attacked the practice of poll taxes. 4-5 Her political viewpoint was progressive in ever since of the word. Even more remarkable was the fact that she was a White women of wealth and status, who focused on the intersectional issues of the working class and women of color. In fact, many of these issues that she championed remain relevant today, and are those that were widely discussed in the Occupy movement.

Julia Hansen, served as a Democratic Representative from the state of Washington from 1959-1975, was the first woman to chair an Appropriations subcommittee. Appropriations committees are of a great deal of importance, in that they are responsible for setting specific expenditures of money by the government of the United States. In other words, they literally hold the purse strings of Congress. Their actions decide whether a particular legislation, agency, etc. is actually funded, and able to carry out its purpose. Martha Griffiths served as a Democratic Representative from Michigan from 1955 to 1975, and her tenure in office spanned a period that was swept with great social changes, brought about by the implementation of federal policies. Martha was very much part of that process, and she is known as the "Mother of the ERA". Representative Griffith championed the sexual discrimination clause of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment. Her career was groundbreaking in another way: being the first woman to secure a seat on the influential Ways and Means committee.2 The Ways and Means committee is the oldest committee in the U.S. Congress, and it is the chief tax-writing committee, having jurisdiction over revenue and related issues such as tariffs, reciprocal trade agreements, and the bonded debt of the United States, as well as revenue-related aspects of the Social Security system, Medicare, and social services programs.

Bella Abzug, served as a Democratic Representative from the state of New York from 1971-1977, running on an antiwar and pro-feminist platform. Bella openly and apologetically identified as a feminist, and was a staunch civil rights advocate; working to combat the ISMs -- racism, sexism, ableism, etc. -- in American society. During her time in Congress she introduced legislation demanding the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam and authored an institution to end the draft. She was referred to by the epithet Battling Bella, and some would say that it was due to her tenacity and confrontational demeanor. However, it may be more likely due to the fact that she had the audacity and courage to be an assertive woman. Battling Bella actually called for an investigation of the competence of J. Edgar Hoover, the notorious Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and founder of the counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO).6 Representative Abzug also introduced groundbreaking legislation, which called for the amending of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual or affectional preference.7 In 1988, a former aide to Representative Abzug, shared these comments about her legacy, "It wasn't that she was the first woman in Congress. It was that she was the first woman to get in Congress and lead the way toward creating a feminist presence".8

Patsy Takemoto Mink should truly be a household name. Being of Japanese descent, she was the first woman of color to serve in Congress. She was a Democratic Representative from the state of Hawaii, serving in the house from 1965-1977 and again from 1990-2002. A documentary film, Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority, profiles the Representative; covering her battles with racism and sexism, and highlighting how she helped to redefine American politics. She participated and pushed for the passage of the 1960s Great Society legislation. During her time in the House she served on the Committee on Education and Labor, and it was there that she introduced or sponsored the first childcare bill and legislation establishing bilingual education, student loans, special education, and Head Start. Clearly setting the foundation for a more diverse and inclusive educational system in America. She championed many women's issues, which garnered her the title, Mother of Title IX, which passed in 1972, and has recently became part of contemporary discourse, as the federal government tries to grapple with the epidemic of rape culture and sexual violence on university campuses; including the most recent assault to garner the attention of the press, involving a student claiming that he was merely acting out scenes from the movie 50 Shades of Grey. Another one of Representative Mink's great legislative triumphs was the Women's Education Equity Act, which provided $30 million a year in educational funds for programs to promote gender equity in schools, to increase educational and job opportunities for women, and to excise sexual stereotypes from textbooks and school curricula. She was certainly a visionary thinker, and thus was one of the first to raise concern about the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in 2002; which was hastily created in response to terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001. Ultimately, she feared that "the DHS might undermine civil liberties by violating the privacy of American citizens in the name of national security. In favor of full disclosure of government attempts to safeguard the nation from international threats, she proposed that no secrets be kept from the public". Ultimately she feared that the DHS might undermine civil liberties by violating the privacy of American citizens in the name of national security.6

Shirley Chisholm, was a community activist who went on to serve as a Democratic Representative from the state of New York from 1969 to 1983. She was the first African American woman in Congress. In 1972 she became the first woman, first African American, and the first person of color to run for the United States presidency. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. She focused on a variety of causes that impacted the poorest and most marginalized people in the nation. These causes included increases in federal funding to extend the hours of day care facilities, pointing out early on that Child Care was not just a women's issue; and these sentiments were echoed by President Obama in his 2015 State of the Union address. Her other caucuses included: guaranteed minimum annual income for families and assistance for education.

Pat Schroeder, served as a Democratic Representative from the state of Colorado from 1973-1997. She served on the Armed Services Committee, who became a household name after telling Pentagon officials that if they were women, they would always be pregnant, because they never said "no".9 And when asked on how she could be a mother of two small children and a Member of Congress at the same time, she replied "I have a brain and a uterus and I use both".10 With statements such as these, there should be no doubt that Representative Schroeder was a feminist. In fact, much of Schroeder's career was dedicated to women's rights and reforms affecting families; and these issues included: women's health care, child rearing, expansion of Social Security benefits, and gender equity in the workplace. Her contributions include the following: founding of the Congressional Women's Caucus, helping to pass the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which mandated that employers could not dismiss women employees simply because they were pregnant or deny them disability or maternity benefits (yes these rights and benefits were not secured until 1978!), created and chaired the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families (which was subsequently dismantled in 1995, and should rightfully be reinstated), her biggest successes were the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and the National Institutes of Health Revitalization Act.

Carolyn Mosley Braun was the first African American woman elected to the Senate in 1992, during the Year of the Women, and she previously served as a Democratic Representative for the State of Illinois. During her time in office she was referred to as a women's rights activist and civil rights activist; and she even dared to campaign for gun control. However, her career was marred by a scandal involving misconduct and mismanagement of funds.

Nancy Pelosi serves as a Democratic Representative from the state of California. She was also the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives, and is now the minority leader.

In 2012, Mazie Hironon became the first Asian American to serve in the Senate, after previously serving in the House and as the Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii. During her time in office she has cosponsored a number of Bills that focus on safeguarding human rights, women's rights, labor rights, and the rights of marginalized populations. These bills include: S/2687-Access to Contraception for women service members and dependents, S.2625-Access to Birth Control Act, S.2629-Preventative Care Coverage Notification Act, S.2599-Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act of 2014, S.2578-Protect Women's Health From Corporate Interference Act of 2014, S.2223-Minimum Wage Fairness Act, S.2199-Paycheck Fairness Act, and the S.2472-International Women Act of 2014. However her cosponsoring of S.2472 comes with a great deal of irony, being that she cosponsored a number of bills upholding the United States' support of the state of Israel, despite the nation's human rights violations that it carries out against the Palestinian people.

Barbara Lee is a Progressive voice in Congress, who was first elected to Congress in 1998 as a Democratic Representative from California. She advocates for social and economic justice, international peace, and civil & human rights. She is a founding member and Vice Chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus, a member of the Pro-Choice Caucus, receiving a 100-percent rating from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America; and is a founding member of the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus, a coalition of the Congressional Black Caucus, Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Hispanic Caucus. She gained national attention and notoriety in 2001 for being the ONLY member of Congress to vote against the Authorization fro Use of Military Force, following the terrorist attacks on September 11th; showing that she is not afraid of sticking to her ideals and convictions. Unfortunately the other members of Congress gave George Bush what he later proclaimed was a "mandate" to rage war in the Middle East - in Afghanistan and Iraq, killing millions (on both sides), and creating new enemies for the nation, leading to networks such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); all while being the major contributing factor for the current recession that the U.S. is still trying to dig itself out of. Yet, when pundits speak about the failure of this war that has persisted for 14 years, many do not bother to mention the courage and foresight of Representative Barbara Lee. Even more interesting is that many speak about Hilary Clinton, or freshmen Senator Elizabeth Warren, both Caucasian, being frontrunners for the 2016 Democratic ticket; without even considering Barbara Lee, the African American progressive and feminist.


Is the United States Really a World Leader?

American exceptionalism is a theory that the United States is qualitively different from other nations, and the implication is often that the United States serves as a model first world nation; and thus Americans are able to take on a strangely passionate patriotic pride in this exceptionalism. When it comes to many social issues and political institutions, America is indeed exceptional. It is the only post-industrial nation that lacks universal healthcare and paid sick leave, and continues to be one of two hold outs in ratifying a human rights treaty, the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), despite the treaty being signed in 1979 by President Carter. The aforementioned Progressive Congresswoman Barbara Lee is co-sponsor of current legislation urging Congress to ratify the CEDAW.

Further, when it comes to the representation of women in the government, especially at the Federal level, there is certainly a great deal of American exceptionalism. So much so that, in 2014, the United States ranked 84th in worldwide female leadership. In the past several years, there has actually been a steady decline in the status or leadership positions of women in the U.S. government, as outlined below:

· In 2002, the United States ranked 57th in worldwide female leadership; out of 188 countries

· In 2008, the United States ranked 69th in worldwide female leadership.

· In 2009, the United States ranked 71st in worldwide female leadership.

· In 2010, the United States ranked 72nd in worldwide female leadership.

· In 2012, the United States ranked 80th in worldwide female leadership.

· In 2013, the United States ranked 77th in worldwide female leadership.

· In 2014, the United States ranked 84th in worldwide female leadership.


Snapshot: A Look at Women Legislators Around the World

The 1952 United Nations Convention on the Political Rights of Women brought forth a number of provisions, but did not diminish the concerns of equal access to political participation for women. Thuss it was restated in the Article 7 of the CEDAW, which again the U.S. government has failed to ratify. Under this article, women are guaranteed the rights to vote, hold public office, and to exercise public functions. Under Article 8 of the CEDAW, these rights are expanded to include equal rights for women to represent their countries at the international level.

However, despite this well-meaning legislation, women are still underrepresented in governments around the world. Only 21.9% of national parliamentarians were female as of December 1, 2014. Here are some other disheartening statistics:

· As of January 2014, only 10 women have served as Head of State and 15 as Head of Government

· Globally, there are 37 States in which women account for less than 10% of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, as of December 2014

· As of January 2014, only 17% of government ministers were women, with the majority overseeing social sectors, such as education and the family

2015 0329con 3When considering these statistics and the global problem of disproportionate leadership, the U.S. does not seem too exceptional, in that it is merely upholding the status quo. Among the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) is goal Number 3 - Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women. This will not be achieved without the full participation of women in government. Additionally, without achieving this, demanding and enforcing gender equality in other sectors will prove to be hypocritical and impossible.

Still, there have been some achievements for women's participation in government, globally. While the United States continues to be "exceptional" and has never elected a woman as head of State/government, many other nations have. In recent years, these nations include:

  • Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, Germany (Elected 2005)
  • Executive President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia (Elected 2006)
  • Executive President Michelle Bachelet Jeria, Chile (Elected 2006)
  • Minister President Emily de Jongh-Elhage, Nederlandse Antillen (Self-governing Part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands) (Elected 2006)
  • Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller, Jamaica (Elected 2007)
  • Prime Minister Han Myung-sook, South Korea (Elected 2007)
  • President Pratibha Patil, India (Elected 2007)
  • Executive President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina (Elected 2007)
  • Acting President Dr. Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, South Africa (Elected 2008)
  • Leader of the Government Antonella Mularoni, San Marino (Elected 2008)
  • Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Bangladesh (Elected 2009)
  • Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland (Elected 2009)
  • Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, Croatia (Elected 2009)
  • President Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania (Elected 2009)
  • President of the Confederation Doris Leuthard, Switzerland (Elected 2010)
  • President Roza Otunbayeva, Kyrgyzstan (Elected 2010)
  • President-Elect Laura Chinchilla Miranda, Costa Rica (Elected 2010)

One nation to take note of is Rwanda. Although it may be deemed a developing nation, and had suffered economic and social setbacks during the 1994 Genocide, Rwanda proves to be progressive in terms of government. Due to the fact that the country's constitution provides for Ombudsman who act as public advocates, the nation has some of the lowest levels of corruption relative to other African nations. Transparency International actually ranked Rwanda as the 8th cleanest out of 47 countries is sub-Saharan Africa, and the 66th cleanest out of 178 in the world. The nation also ranks first in female leadership worldwide, where it has the highest number of women parliamentarians. These women hold 63.8% of the seats in the lower house of government.

Why Are Numbers Not Enough?

In advocating for the increase in number of women holding political office in governments, we must be cognizant of the fact that numbers are not enough. There is no benefit in having women holding positions of leadership if these women do not advocate for women's human rights and other socioeconomic issues -- racism, police brutality, labor rights, health care access, affordable housing, consumer protections, environmental regulations -- from a progressive standpoint. Electing women who are unwilling to take the necessary stand on these issues - and this is greatly represented by their voting record, and not the lip service that they pay in the media - would only hold up the status quo of gender inequity.

For example, while many celebrate Rebecca Latimer Felton, of the State of Georgia, as being the first woman in the U.S. Senate, one cannot ignore the fact that she was an ardent racist and would certainly not have been an ally to women of color. Take for example her comments from an 1897 speech regarding lynching, "The biggest problem facing women on the farm was the danger of the black rapists. If it takes lynching to protect women's dearest possession from drunken, ravening beasts....then I say lynch a thousand a week". As a Southerner, Latimer Felton condemned anyone who dared to question the South's racial policies, and one can be certain that her discussion about women did not include the Black or indigenous women living in the State of Georgia at that time, who were also subjected to lynchings and mob violence.

Now, take a look at some of the photos of The Texas Federation of Republican Women, which boasts that it is the most powerful women's political organization in Texas, and ask yourself whether this organization and the candidates that it supports and funds look like they consider women of color and the intersecting issues that impact their lives?

Again, it is not enough to have a woman elected to office if she is a racist, blinded by white privilege, or finds some reason to view another group of people - particularly women as "The Other" - outside her scope of representation. It is beliefs like this that later helped usher in the era of Reganomics, with the falsehood of the Welfare Queen and the War on Drugs, which was a nothing more than a War on the Poor and an Attack on the Middle Class. The Welfare Queen story essentially incited, and continues to incite, racial animosity, where Black women (and other women of color) are viewed as being lazy and constantly looking for government handouts when the truth of the matter is that most welfare recipients are white and do not live in urban settings. Yet, the stereotypical view persists and is still used to cut social safety net programs.

Consider the 2014 Paul Ryan Plan, a budget proposal that would get 69 of its budget cuts from programs for people with low or moderate incomes, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This was a hypocritical move coming from the Chair of the House Ways and Means committee considering his dependency on government entitlements, public education, etc. The plan, which would see cuts of $3.4 trillion over ten years (2015-2024) predictably does not include any cuts to the defense budget. Defense contractors and their political allies would not have to be concerned about a loss in profits, which they acquire from the military industrial complex - something President Eisenhower warned Americans about. Of course, the 2014 plan was not Ryan's first attempt at putting forth this budget proposal; it is just more worrisome given the current make-up of the U.S. Congress. In 2012, Ryan put forth a similar plan which was famously rejected by women.

Ultimately, having the wrong women in office only contributes to these disastrous effects of wedge politics and social inequity.

Finally, there is no greater example as to why numbers are not enough than the case of the Paycheck Fairness Act, a proposed law that would make it easier for employees to talk about wages - and thus potentially help women learn whether they earn less than their male colleagues. The law would also force employers to explain or justify why two similarly qualified workers earn different wages. However, it was unanimously voted against by the Republican members of the Senate in 2014, including these four Republican women:

New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte thinks that it would prohibit merit-based pay. She also voted against it because Democrats opposed her amendment to the legislation.

Maine's Susan Collins thinks that the Civil Rights Act the 1963 Equal Pay Act are enough protection to provide equal pay. According to Collins, the proposed law would "impose a real burden … on small businesses." She thinks that women get paid less because of their own choices.

Nebraska's Deb Fischer accused Democrats of politics for putting the bill forward for the second time, this time one week before the congressional recess for midterm elections.

Alaska's Lisa Murkowski is on the Right.

You can read these Senators comments and attempts to justify their actions here.

It was the third time since 2012 that the GOP has voted down the bill. The legislation required 60 votes to move on to debate but received only 52, a unanimous vote from Democrats. Clearly the numbers were not enough, as having these additional women - and votes- in the Senate was not enough, because these women care more about their political party affiliation than advancing women's human rights and social equality. One can make the case that they would not be members of the Republican party if they cared about these things. Their voting record exemplifies why we need to focus on much more than increasing the number of women in Congress. The Paycheck Fairness Act is of course not the first legislation that elicited a unanimous vote against it by Republicans (and of course Republican women) in Congress. In 2013, GOP members in the House voted unanimously against The Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010) which would have raised the nation's minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015, and the rate would have been indexed to inflation each year thereafter. Well, here we are in 2015 and the U.S. minimum wage is still $7.25 per hour. Now, compare that to other post-industrial nations:

2015 0329con 4When looking at women in government and political candidates, we must realize that their being a woman is not enough for our support. We must consider their agenda, look at their affiliations, determine whether they have a feminist platform or one that is at least pro-women's human rights, and review their voting record. For instance, consider the voting record of Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. Here are few highlights:

What's at Stake?

The reason why we must advocate for the inclusion of 'pro-women's human rights' women in Congress and other houses and government is because there is truly much at stake. The War on women is well documented and has been discussed thoroughly. There are attempts to take agency over our bodies, to categorize rape and talk about "legitimate rape", decrease access to birth control and safe abortions, and the list goes on; including the continued rape and degradation of the environment, which are exemplified by ongoing fracking and attempts to approve the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. From an economic standpoint, there is also the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement that will have the greatest and most negative impact on women and children, the groups most marginalized and impoverished in society.

Still, there is the need to ensure the enforcement of Title IX on college campuses as well as investigate the once-silent rape epidemic in the U.S. military. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) still awaits ratification, and American workers are still not guaranteed paid sick leave, extended maternal leave, and child care aid; all of which directly impacts women and children. Thus, legislation such as the Affordable Care Act, despite its flaws and avoidance of the single-payer option, should be protected. The act ensures that all women have access to preventative care such as mammograms and pap smears.

We must keep in mind that there is much at stake, and there are attempts to erode women's human rights. Within literally weeks in office, the newly minted Republican-majority Congress attempted to push through an anti-abortion measure, the "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act", which was surprisingly defeated due to the moderate members of the GOP. House GOP members actually broke rank with their party, protesting the language of the bill that required women who seek an exception to the ban due to being raped, having to back up their claim with a formal police report. Although this defeat is welcome news, it does not mean that there will not be even more attempts to curtail the reproductive rights of American women. Which makes the efforts of Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen (NH) and Jackie Speier (CA) seem even more important. On February 4, 2015, the two introduced the Access to Contraception for Women Service-members and Dependents Act. In applauding the efforts of the Senators, the National Women's Law Center described the legislation as such: A critical piece of legislation that will ensure all women who rely on the military for health care receive comprehensive contraceptive coverage and counseling. The bill will give these women equal access to the same comprehensive birth control coverage, education and counseling at no cost that all other federal employees and tens of millions of other women now enjoy, thanks to the Affordable Care Act. The bill also ensures that servicewomen will receive comprehensive family planning counseling and are provided the information they need to plan if and when to have a child.

Strategies to Increase Women's Political Leadership

There is certainly no easy way to increase women's political leadership, and that is one of the reasons why much has not changed since Jeannette Rankin entered Congress 99 years ago. However, the United States cannot continue to claim that it is a world leader while ignoring this disparity in representation that threatens the status of women in this country. This disparity is shown with the constant attempt to legislate what a woman can and cannot do with or to her body, as well as with social policies that continue to allow gender-based wage discrimination. Here are just a few strategies that should be implemented to increase participation and improve the political representation of women in the U.S.:

Encourage more women, especially women of color, to become more interested and involved in politics and governance in order to cultivate more viable candidates for office. According to the Center for Women and Politics of Rutgers University, in 2008, 60.4% of eligible females voted (70.4 million) while 55.7% of eligible men voted (60.7 million), compared to 48.6% of women, and 46.9% of men in 2006. The fact of that matter is that more women vote in U.S. elections than men, however there only option are only male candidates.

CHECK voting records and hold women in office accountable. Let them know that we are paying attention and that we expect them to vote in a matter that truly represents the needs of women. During the 2010 midterm elections, female (mostly White) voters shifted to the Republican party despite the horrific anti-woman legislation and attacks on social programs, depended upon by many women, that the party was proposing. This shift speaks to the issue of White privilege, where White women voters who are not burdened with stereotypes and racist propaganda such as the Welfare Queen or illegal immigrant worker coming for American jobs, and who do not have to cope with a myriad of intersecting issues, often and more readily shift their votes between the two parties without giving much thought to the detrimental effects of their "swing" vote.

VOTE and support the right women candidates; and this includes voting at the local level where the candidates who eventually seek national office begin their careers and decided upon legislation that would most directly impact your lives.


Required Quota


Quota for women must not be less than 30% for charter of political parties


Women granted at least 30% of positions in all "decision-making organizations"


PR elections have a 50% quota for women for 56 positions. Majority elections 30% for 243 seats


30% quota for women candidates for political party elections


30% quota for women on a candidate list; one of the first three names on the list must be from each gender


Candidate lest must be 20% women, or parties cannot register


Candidate lists must be equal

Bosnia & Herzegovina

33% of candidates must be of the underrepresented sex


On candidates list, one out of 3 must be a woman


On candidates list, the total number of either gender must not be lower than 35%


On candidate lists, minimum 33% of each gender


On candidate lists minimum 40% and maximum of 60% of each gender

Costa Rica

Candidate lists must be 40% of women


30% quota for women in party and general elections


30% quota for women on party lists


30% quota for women on candidate lists


Candidates must be one-third women


30% quota for women

Source: Catalyst. Catalyst Quick Take: Women in Government. New York: Catalyst, 2012.

It is perhaps time to follow the lead of countries such as Rwanda, Angola, Korea, Albania, France, Macedonia, Belgium, Uzbekistan, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Costa Rica, Panama, Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and many others in post-industrial nations, as well as those in the Global South, and put in place legislation to increase the representation of women in national government. Yes, this would be a quota that would ensure that a minimum number of seats in the national government be reserved for women. Doing so may be the only way to ensure that women are represented in a manner which closely reflects their concerns and numbers in society; and to also ensure that women's issues are not debated over by a room full of men.


1. Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). Eagleton Institute of Politics. Rutgers, State University of New Jersey. Fact Sheet. Women in the U.S. Congress 2015

2. Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). Eagleton Institute of Politics. Rutgers, State University of New Jersey. Fact Sheet. Women of Color in Elective Office, 2015

3. Winifred Mallon, An Impression of Jeannette Rankin" The Suffragist (March 31, 1917)

4. Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 1st sess. (12 June 1945): 5977

5. Congressional Record, House, 79th Cong., 2nd sess. (2 August 1946): 10771-10772.

6. Karen Forestel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 19

7. Congressional Record, House, 94th Congress, 1st sess. (25 March 1975): 8581

8. Susan Baer, "Founding, Enduring Feminist Bella Abzug is dead at 77, 1 April 1998, Baltimore Sun: 1A

9. Llyod Grove, Laying Down Her Quip; For Rep. Pat Schroeder, A Hard-Hitting Decision, 1 December 1995, Washington Post: F1

10. Current Biography, 1978: 368

News Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Schumer's Choice: To Succeed Reid, He Must Back Iran Deal

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks to reporters in New York, Oct, 26, 2014. (Photo: James Estrin/The New York Times)Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) speaks to reporters in New York, October, 26, 2014. (Photo: James Estrin / The New York Times)

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has announced that he will not run for re-election. Reid has endorsed Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) to succeed him as Democratic leader.

But in order to succeed Reid as Senate Democratic leader, Schumer is going to have to pay a price: he's going to have to back President Obama's multilateral diplomacy with Iran, which Bloomberg reports could produce a "framework agreement" this weekend. Some of Senator Schumer's New York constituents might not like that, but as the soldiers say, they'll just have to "embrace the suck." Senate Republicans may think it's ok for them to try to undermine a diplomatic agreement. But the prospective leader of Senate Democrats isn't allowed to do that.

On Thursday, Schumer officially became a co-sponsor of the main Republican bill in the Senate designed to blow up the Iran talks: the Corker-Menendez bill. The Corker-Menendez bill would give the Republican Congress an immediate veto over any deal with Iran, which everyone understands would kill any deal. The administration has threatened to veto the Corker-Menendez bill if it is passed by Congress. Republicans who want to derail the talks have been seeking a veto-proof majority for the Corker-Menendez bill, which means they are trying to get a bunch of Senate Democrats - like Schumer - to agree to help them undermine President Obama.

Schumer will have to make a choice. If he maintains his support for the Corker bill, he would help kill the talks. But then he would never be the leader of Senate Democrats. If he wants to be leader of Senate Democrats, Schumer will have to support President Obama on Iran diplomacy.

When the news broke that Reid was retiring and Schumer was being considered to replace him as Senate Democratic leader, Ilya Sheyman, executive director of Political Action, said, "Supporting reckless legislation that undermines President Obama's diplomacy with Iran and risks a dangerous, unnecessary war in the Middle East should disqualify anyone from leading the Senate Democratic caucus. Sen. Schumer needs to withdraw his support from the Corker and Menendez legislation."

You can add your voice to MoveOn's here.

Opinion Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Sustainable Living Means Making Big Changes; Why Can't We Face Up to It?

Get used to bike riding – cleaner cars won't be enough.Get used to bike riding - cleaner cars won't be enough. (Image: Riding bicycle via Shutterstock)

Despite the significant risks for human and non-human life, greenhouse gas emissions (GhG) are still rising. Something has to give – and that something would appear more significant than those with the power to stimulate change are willing to admit.

The UK government’s Global Calculator is a good example. This recently released tool allows us to model the compatibility of our food, travel, housing and work environment with national targets to limit climate change. The climate secretary, Ed Davey, reckons the calculator shows “everyone in the world can prosper while limiting global temperature rises to two degrees, preventing the most serious impacts of climate change.”

Yet even the most ambitious changes the tool advocates deviate little from our current “normal” patterns of behaviour – supposedly “essential” appliances still include tumble driers, while under the “extremely ambitious” scenario, the urban car would still account for 29% of journeys (currently 41.5%) per year. Meat is included as a core component of daily meals, and very few indicators relate to diet. It remains to be seen which government would adopt the “extremely ambitious” changes.

This isn’t what a sustainable future looks like. It isn’t even close. Do we really need tumbledried clothes, or to eat meat every day?

Transitioning to sustainability will require profound changes in our everyday ways of living, particularly in westernised countries. It requires changes that are much more significant than simply doing the things that we currently do, but more efficiently.

It’s not about driving more efficiently to reduce the GhG emissions of the commute, but perhaps leaving the car at home, cycling to work – or working from home.

While tools such as the one above enable people to calculate their carbon footprint, they tell us little about the changes we’d actually need to make, and how these changes would affect our daily lives.

We Are Capable of Big Changes

Humans are adaptive creatures, able to move homes, jobs, retire or have children – all of which require us to break down and rebuild our existing ways of doing things.

Consider how eating practices change with retirement. Many retirees find themselves with the time and desire to begin growing their own food in an allotment or their gardens. Retirement might provide the flexibility to shift energy-intensive cooking and laundry to daylight hours, taking advantage of solar energy.

But retirement can also mean being less environmentally sustainable. The significance of food can diminish as a result of children leaving home or the loss of a partner. Ready meals (which are often worse for the environment) might take the place of cooking from scratch. And, as food becomes a leisure activity, this can involve more car journeys.

The point is that people can and do make major life transitions, and these moments are big opportunities to go green. But also, that talking about “going green” as a significant change to how we currently live doesn’t have to be as daunting a prospect as it might first seem.

Sustainable Transitions?

So, rather than a Global Calculator that simply tells us whether or not we’re helping fight climate change, we suggest a more useful tool would be one that supports us in making a metaphorical “U-turn”. This tool would guide us through a process of throwing our lives out of kilter, and renegotiating and exploring more sustainable ways of being.

It couldn’t pull any punches. Rather than focusing on “things” and “stuff”, like a more efficient boiler or a washing machine that does eco mode, such a tool would have to be framed in terms of shifting practices – grow and cook more, eat little (or, better still, no) meat, work and travel less, wear more layers to keep warm and rely less on the heating, buy less “stuff”, and so on.

But that’s not to say that living sustainably is easy. Significant changes to our lives are difficult and disruptive, even more so when current policies and infrastructures don’t comfortably support them (for example: public transport systems, expectations of appropriate work clothes). And so we should design tools that encourage us to make transitions towards sustainability that are themselves more sustainable.

While big changes are needed, we should work towards them in smaller, more manageable steps. But, nonetheless, steps that involve reconsidering practices, not just tweaking them. After all, encouraging someone to think that switching washing machine, or buying a more efficient car is enough, is misleading. Far better to change practices entirely, so that driving less or line drying clothes becomes the new normal.

Opinion Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
France: Hatred a la Mode

Éric Zemmour's Le Suicide français was the second-best-selling book in France last year, and the most argued over. In the book, Zemmour adopts a prosecutorial tone, and one thing becomes very clear the deeper one gets into his book: He does not give a damn about his Muslim fellow citizens. He has contempt for them - and wants his readers to share his view.

(Image: French and European Publications Inc.)(Image: French and European Publications Inc.)Le Suicide français
By Éric Zemmour,
Paris: Albin Michel, 534 pages, 23 euros (paper)



For three days the sirens never stopped in Paris. They began on the morning of Jan. 7 right after two French Muslim terrorists infiltrated the offices of Charlie Hebdo in the Marais and killed 12 people. A police dragnet spread out as the killers veered through the city before they escaped in the direction of Rennes. The next morning a young policewoman was shot dead on a street near a Jewish school just outside the freeway ringing the city and again the police spread out. On Jan. 9 television stations reported that another terrorist had taken hostages at a kosher grocery store near the Porte de Vincennes, and through the window of my office, which gives onto the Seine, I heard a steady stream of police and military vehicles rushing to the scene throughout the day. And then ambulances, which meant the news was not good.

Yet somehow it did not feel as if lightning had struck. Of course no one had predicted the spectacular assaults that took place. But throughout 2014 a series of disturbing events had in a sense primed the French public for them. Within days of the killings one began to witness a retrospective narrative developing, which suggested that "all the signs were there" but "they" - the government, the police, journalists - refused to recognize them. Untrue, but it is not a hard story to sell.

It all began in May when Mehdi Nemmouche - a Franco-Algerian petty criminal who had converted to radical Islamism in prison and then gone to Syria to join jihadist groups fighting there - walked into the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels and calmly murdered four people with an assault rifle and revolver. He had been inspired by Mohamed Merah, the terrorist who in March 2012 assassinated three Muslim French soldiers in Toulouse and Montauban, 30 miles away, then massacred a teacher and three students in a Jewish school in Toulouse. Merah's last victim was a little girl, whom he turned toward the surveillance camera before shooting her in the head. The public's response focused less on the victims than on the fact that Merah - who was killed by police while hiding out in an apartment in Toulouse - was then celebrated as a hero on social media by French Muslim sympathizers.

The battlefield successes of ISIS last summer brought more reasons to worry, as news reports circulated about devastated French families whose children, boys and girls, many recent converts, were leaving France to join jihadist forces. Four young men from one French country village, for example, were killed in Syria in a single week in October. The most dramatic case was that of Maxime Hauchard, a 22-year-old convert from a small Norman village, who, along with another French convert, was spotted in an ISIS video in November participating in the slaughter of 18 Syrian soldiers and an American aid worker. A few weeks before, an experienced French mountain travel guide was captured by jihadists in Algeria's Djurdjura Mountains while going to visit friends. He was shown in a video kneeling and wearing a blue T-shirt, and then we see his severed head. He was the sixth such French victim over the past five years.

Just before Christmas the French public was again put on edge. One Saturday a Muslim convert whose Facebook page was full of radical Islamist material walked into a police station outside of Tours crying "allahu akbar," pulled out a long knife, and stabbed three policemen, nearly killing one, whom he may have been trying to behead. He was shot and killed. The next day a Muslim man with severe psychological problems and screaming the same thing drove into a Christmas market in Dijon, killing one person and wounding a dozen more before trying, unsuccessfully, to commit suicide. The following day another mentally unstable man babbling something about the children of Chechnya did the same thing in Nantes, killing a shopper at the market and injuring many more. The holidays were quiet, but one week into the new year the three French-born Muslim terrorists struck in Paris.

This cascade of events is largely why the killings provoked more horror than surprise in France: They "fit" into something already there. An additional reason is that for the three previous months a highly polemical debate had been taking place about a right-wing book that offered a grandiose, incendiary, apocalyptic vision of the decline of France in which French Muslims play a central part. Though it was only published in October, Éric Zemmour's Le Suicide français was the second-best-selling book in France last year, and the most argued over. It is one of those political tracts that seems to be printed on litmus paper, its meaning and force changing depending on whose hands are flipping the pages. Already the terms zemmouriste, zemmourien and even zemmourisation have entered the political lexicon.

Never was a book better timed. For those who had already adopted Zemmour's vision as their own, everything we have since learned about the Paris assassins - their petty crimes and drug dealing, their troublemaking in schools, the failure of teachers and social workers to help them, their contempt for the law, their embrace of fundamentalism and devotion to jihadism, their heartless filming of their murders and delight in committing them - serves to confirm that the country is mortally ill and its institutions in decay. For those who resist his vision, or what they imagine it to be without having read Le Suicide français, the book can only serve the explicitly xenophobic National Front and its president Marine Le Pen, who polls suggest would come in first if a presidential election were held today. A prophet, or He Who Shall Not Be Named? In either case, one cannot understand the French reaction to the present crisis without understanding the phenomenon of Éric Zemmour.


Zemmour is less a journalist or thinker than a medium through whom the political passions of the moment pass and take on form. The son of North African Jews, he began his career writing editorials for Le Figaro, then started appearing on television and radio where he would give intelligent and unpredictable commentary on the issues of the day. Though clearly on the right, he seemed like a fresh, affable voice, an épateur of the Voltairean sort in a new, McLuhan-cool style.

That Zemmour is no more. Today he is an omnipresent Jeremiah who telegraphs the same message, day in and day out, on all available media: "France awake! You have been betrayed and your country has been stolen from you." But his populism is nothing like that of the Poujadist movement of the 1950s or of Jean-Marie Le Pen today. He is a genuine intellectual - or what you might call a counterintellectual of the sort the French right produced in the interwar years and who sees others in his guild as the country's prime traitors. He is well educated, literary, stylish, light on his feet, a happy warrior who never raises his voice even when delivering bad news. And in Le Suicide français there is a lot of it.

It is a steamroller of a book. There are 79 short chapters, each devoted to a date supposedly marking France's decline. (Chapter title: "See Lisbon and Die.") Zemmour does not transform them into a continuous narrative or even try to explain how they are connected. The connections are meant to be felt; he is a master of affect. Revisiting so many Stations of the French Cross sounds unbearable, but it is a testament to his skill as a writer and slyness as a polemicist that the book works.

The list of catastrophes and especially betrayals is long: birth control, abandonment of the gold standard, speech codes, the Common Market, no-fault divorce, poststructuralism, denationalizing important industries, abortion, the euro, Muslim and Jewish communitarianism, gender studies, surrendering to American power in NATO, surrendering to German power in the EU, surrendering to Muslim power in the schools, banning smoking in restaurants, abolishing conscription, aggressive antiracism, laws defending illegal immigrants, and the introduction of halal food in schools. The list of traitors is shorter but just as various: feminists, left-wing journalists and professors, neoliberal businessmen, antineoliberal activists, cowardly politicians, the educational establishment, European bureaucrats and even coaches of professional soccer teams who have lost control of their players.

Some of the chapters are, as the French say, hallucinants - unhinged. Those devoted to Vichy have attracted the most criticism. Zemmour is angry with Jacques Chirac for making his famous speech in 1995 apologizing for France's complicity in the murder of its Jewish citizens during the Occupation - a cowardly act, Zemmour snaps, that turned "the Shoah into the official religion of the French Republic."

In a similar vein he attacks Robert Paxton, the American historian of Vichy and the Jews, who he claims singlehandedly turned the French against their history by dismantling the narrative of French innocence and resistance that De Gaulle constructed after the war to restore the country's pride. One can argue about the uses and misuses of De Gaulle's account, but Zemmour goes further, insisting that Vichy actually tried hard to save French Jews, which it did by coolly sacrificing foreign ones - a claim that numerous historians were quick to refute. It is so untenable that even Florian Fillipot, the modernizing vice-president of the National Front, dismissed Zemmour, declaring on television that "there is nothing, absolutely nothing from Vichy experience to defend. Vichy was not France, France was in London. It was the Resistance that saved the Jews."

Chapters like these make Zemmour sound like a mere crank. But in the others he scores enough genuine points that a sympathetically inclined reader will soon be prepared to follow him into more dubious territory. He is not the sort of demagogue who nails his theses to the door and declares, "Here I stand, I can do no other." Zemmour is more fluid, his positions and arguments constantly being refreshed, like a Web page, with new facts and fantasies. This creates a trap for his critics, who have obligingly jumped in. Not content to expose his exaggerations and fabrications, their instinct - a deep one on the French left since the days of the Popular Front - is to denounce anything someone on the right says, so as not to give comfort to the enemy. Their thinking is: If it is 4 o'clock, and Éric Zemmour says it is 4 o'clock, it is our duty to say it is 3 o'clock. Which guarantees that twice a day he will be able to look at his sympathizers and say, "You see what I mean?"

Zemmour's views are simply too eclectic to be labeled and dismissed tout court. And they can be surprising. Like everyone on the French right, he is a self-declared patriot nostalgic for national grandeur, and his prose turns purple whenever he quotes from De Gaulle's speeches or recounts the triumphs of Napoleon. But high on his list of national traitors is the French business class. He scolds CEOs who have outsourced jobs or planted box stores in exurban areas, effectively killing commerce in small towns and villages, whose streets have emptied, leaving only juvenile delinquents. He charges bankers and financiers with betraying workers and the nation by pushing for full European integration and abandoning the French franc.

He makes much of the fact that, as others have noted, the images on the euro currency lack any historical or geographical references. One sees only bridges that connect nowhere with nowhere, and architectural elements that float in vacant space - apt metaphors for what has happened to the European nation-state. The Revolution, which freed France to determine its own collective destiny, has finally been reversed by Brussels. "The aristocratic Europe of the past and the technocratic oligarchy of today have finally gotten their revenge on the incorrigible French."

Arguments like these can be found in the countless left-wing antiglobalization pamphlets that fill the tables of French bookstores today. But Zemmour tosses them into a mix with more familiar right-wing arguments, like his attacks on the Sixties generation for promoting radical feminism and defending large-scale immigration. He insinuates that all these things are connected. A decade ago he published a broadside titled "Le premier sexe" about how feminism confused gender roles and emasculated men. In Le Suicide français he attacks feminism for how it affects women, arguing that it just liberated men from marriage and responsibility, leaving large numbers of women as divorced single mothers who age and die alone - stock arguments on the American right, but also among some post-Sixties feminists.

But Zemmour is driving in a very different, nativist direction. Ever since their loss in the Franco-Prussian War, which was ascribed to cultural and physical weakness, the French have been obsessed with their birthrate. Today it is relatively high by European standards, but appears - the government refuses to collect statistics on ethnicity - to be sustained by higher rates among families of North and Central Arab African immigrant "stock." This has become a major obsession on the radical right, whose literature is full of predictions of an imminent grand remplacement that will silently turn France into a Muslim country through demographic inertia.

Zemmour never mentions this theory, he simply drops a quote from a speech made by former Algerian president Houari Boumediene in 1974, proclaiming that the southern hemisphere would conquer the northern one through immigration and reproduction: "The wombs of our women will bring us victory." Due to feminism, Zemmour implies, the wombs of white women have shriveled up. And due to multiculturalism, the flood of fertile immigrants is allowed to continue. This is one more reason why French Muslims should be considered, as he has recently been saying, "un peuple dans le peuple" - a classic motif of European anti-Semitism that he has readapted to meet the present danger.

The French term for multiculturalism is anti-racisme, and its history is wrapped up with the development - and decline - of the left. Writers like Pascal Bruckner and Alain Finkielkraut, who came from the left, have long argued that left-wing activists made a disastrous mistake in the 1970s by abandoning the traditional working class, which was offended by the culture of the Sixties, and turning toward identity politics. Deserted, the workers turned to the National Front and adopted its xenophobia; in response, the left formed organizations like SOS Racisme that defended immigrants and fended off any criticism of their mainly Muslim culture.

The republican picture of a France that could and should turn peasants and immigrants into equal citizens was replaced by the picture of a racist nation that after repressing its colonial subjects abroad consigned them to an underclass at home. By now, so the argument against the left goes, this antiracism is the central dogma of mainstream politics, and has stifled the will to integrate Muslims from immigrant backgrounds into French society, with disastrous results - first and foremost for Muslim youth. Worse, it has stifled open discussion by stigmatizing as racist anyone who raises questions about these developments.

Finkielkraut has made this strong case but in a tragic register recently in "L'identité malheureuse." Zemmour adopts a prosecutorial tone, and one thing becomes very clear the deeper one gets into his book: He does not give a damn about his Muslim fellow citizens. He has contempt for them - and wants his readers to share his view. It is one thing to say, as former president of SOS Racisme Malek Boutih has, that the antiracist rhetoric of victimization has blinded the French to the real threat of fundamentalist Islam brewing in the poor urban areas. It is quite another to dismiss out of hand, as Zemmour does, the enormous independent effects of poverty, segregation and unemployment in making people in those areas feel hopeless, cut off, angry, and contemptuous of republican pieties. The quartiers in which they live are modernist architectural disaster areas, brutal in appearance and run down, and far from the few jobs the French economy generates. Incarceration policies throw young offenders in together with seasoned criminals, including jihadist recruiters, and once they have records they are nearly unemployable. Dropout rates are high, which is why one sees teenage boys milling about on the streets during the day, causing trouble.

The list of policies that contribute to all these conditions - and, if changed, might help to ease them - is long. And France could change them while at the same time policing the streets, maintaining authority in the classrooms and teaching the republican values of laicity, democracy and public duty - which one would think Zemmour would favor. But for a demagogue like him it is important to convince readers that the rot is too deep, the traitors too numerous, for a patchwork of measures to have any effect. To follow his suicide metaphor, it would be like devising an exercise regimen for a patient on life support. On the book's last page we read that "France is dying, France is dead." There is no final chapter on what is to be done to revive it. He leaves that to his reader's imagination.

Successful ideologies follow a certain trajectory. They are first developed in narrow sects whose adherents share obsessions and principles, and see themselves as voices in the wilderness. To have any political effect, these groups must learn to work with other sects. That's difficult for obsessive, principled people, which is why at the political fringes one always finds little factions squabbling futilely with each other. But for an ideology to really reshape politics it must cease being a set of principles and become a vaguer but persuasive outlook that new information and events only strengthen. You really know when an ideology has a grip on someone when he takes both A and not-A to be confirmations of it. American conservatism followed something like this trajectory over the past 50 years, as distinctions between the old right and neoconservative intellectuals disappeared and a common, flexible doxa developed that could serve unreflective politicians and media demagogues alike.

The French right may be advancing on that trajectory today. Those on the right include pro-European businessmen, anti-European and anti-American Gaullists, traditionalist Catholics opposed to abortion and gay marriage, poor working-class whites who live uneasily next to poor Muslims, and, at the extreme fringe, nativists who want to expel those Muslims. On particular policies, their views are by and large incompatible.

But Éric Zemmour has made a large gift to the factions of the right with Le Suicide français. He has given them a common set of enemies; he has given them a calendar of the enemies' crimes; he has made them feel that there must be some connection between those crimes; and he has stirred them to an outraged hopelessness - which in politics is much more powerful than hope, as the current American president has learned. If the different parts of the French right still have trouble working together, they have just received a vision of France that they can all subscribe to. This at a time when the country is trying to wrap its collective mind around one of the great tragedies and challenges in its recent history.

After the collapse of the Maginot Line in 1940 and the quick end to the drôle de guerre, the great question in France was how to explain what Marc Bloch called "a strange defeat." A similar exercise in retrospective prophecy has now begun and French journalism is focused on little else. What is extraordinary about Éric Zemmour's book is that it was published before the terrorist attacks, but can now be - and is being - read as the chronicle of 17 deaths foretold. Yes, the publication of Le Suicide français was well timed, at least for its author. For France, not so much.


© 2015 The New York Review of Books
Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Opinion Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
The Yemen Crisis: Could Domestic Conflict Grow Into Protracted Regional War?

As Saudi Arabia and Egypt threaten to send ground troops into Yemen, we look at the roots of the crisis. While many analysts have described the fighting as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, journalist Iona Craig says the fighting stems from a domestic conflict. "People try to frame this as an Iran versus Saudi kind of battle, which it has now become. But it is very much because of domestic politics," explains Iona Craig, who recently spent four years reporting from Sana'a. We also speak to Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor at The Guardian, about the decades-old history of Saudi intervention in Yemen.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Yemen and the Saudi-led bombing campaign, we're joined by two guests in London. Iona Craig is back with us, journalist who was based in Sana'a for four years as Yemen correspondent for The Times of London, awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2014. And Brian Whitaker is with us, former Middle East editor for The Guardian. He now runs the website, which covers Arab politics and society, where he wrote a new report on "Yemen and Saudi Arabia: A Historical Review of Relations."

Brian, let's begin with you. Can you lay that relationship out? The significance of Saudi Arabia now bombing Yemen with the U.S. supporting Saudi Arabia?

BRIAN WHITAKER: Well, it's a long and complicated relationship, really. You know, we have—Saudi Arabia is a rich, conservative monarchy, and on the other side, we have Yemen, which is very populous, it's very poor, and it's republican. And those two are separated by a border of about 1,500 miles, which is very difficult to police. I think, generally, among the Gulf monarchies, there's a certain level of apprehension about Yemen, partly because it's not like them.

And if we look at their relations with Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia was created as a state in 1932; within two years of that, there was a war between the Saudis and the Yemenis, which resulted in the—Yemen ceding some ethnically Yemeni territory to Saudi Arabia. And as part of that deal also, Yemenis were allowed to work in Saudi Arabia on quite generous terms, and that led to large numbers of Yemenis working in the kingdom and sending remittances back to Yemen. That was quite a rocky relationship, as well, because in the early 1990s, when the Saudis didn't much like Yemen's attitude to Saddam Hussein, several hundred thousand Yemeni workers were expelled from the kingdom.

We also had the North Yemeni Civil War in the 1960s, where we saw the Saudis intervening on behalf of the royalists, and the Egyptians intervening on behalf the republicans. So that was a military struggle. And then, in the mid-1990s when North and South Yemen became—have become unified, but then a war broke out between the North and the South. The Saudis were supporting the southern separatists.

And, of course, most recently, in 2009, when the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was having one of his six wars against the Houthis, the Saudis joined in then with a bombing campaign to help. So, there's a long history, and also there's a long history, apart from military things, of Saudi involvement in Yemeni politics, which has often taken the form of payments to tribes, politicians and so on—you know, the sort of things other people would probably call bribes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, in effect, then, the Yemenis have functioned almost as a reserve labor force for Saudi Arabia? You were mentioning it. They also function that way for other states in the region? And also, you mentioned there were—the unification of Yemen. But for a time, there was actually—wasn't there a left-wing government in South Yemen?

BRIAN WHITAKER: Indeed. The only Arab Marxist government was in the South, and that disappeared in 1990 when North and South became unified. Then, the southerners had second thoughts about it, and a war broke out in 2004, which lasted a few weeks. And so, basically, the Saudis were, at that stage, supporting the—as they were then, the ex-Marxists who had ruled the South. So it's a curious relationship because, at some time or other, the Saudis have supported most of the different factions within Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, what do you feel is most important to understand right now? And can you talk about the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting that took place yesterday, a kind of Sunni meeting?

IONA CRAIG: Well, I think at the moment in Yemen, you have to realize that the situation has got to where it is now largely because of domestic politics, as well. People try and frame this as an Iran-versus-Saudi kind of battle, which it has now become, but it's very much because of domestic politics. And the reason the Houthis have been able to get to where they are today is very much because of the support of Yemen's former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has been plotting this for some time, certainly, you know, at least since 2012, 2013. And although they're old enemies, they are now supporting each other in this battle. So, this came about, really, because Saleh was granted immunity by the GCC in the deal that he signed at the end of 2011. And these are the very same people that are now bombing him today, so there's quite a deep irony in the situation that's going on right now. And although Saleh hasn't been doing that overtly, it was clear and very evident to me when I was on the ground in September, when the Houthis took Sana'a, that those men that were in plainclothes with Houthi stickers on their Kalashnikovs were in fact the Republican Guard. They were saying it openly, and people recognized them as former Republican Guard soldiers who were under the command of Ahmed Ali, Ali Abdullah Saleh's son. So I think you have to be—you know, it has to be quite clear that although you talk about the Houthis being supported by Iran, they're actually, on the ground, being supported by Ali Abdullah Saleh much more than there is any evidence that they're being supported by Iran at the moment.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Iona Craig, as the civil strife in Yemen grows, do you have any sense of what's going on with the jihadi forces within Yemen, and obviously, the United States' big concern, the drone strikes that have repeatedly been targeted within Yemen by the United States?

IONA CRAIG: Well, I think the issue now is the counterterrorism policy for the U.S. has pretty much vanished, in the sense that the National Security Bureau, that was really set up by the Americans, the Yemeni intelligence agency, in order to gather human intelligence to counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is now the hands of the Houthis. In addition to that, the counterterrorism troops that were being trained by the Americans, that all stopped last Friday when the Americans finally left. And now the Saudis, backed by America, are bombing military bases across the country. So, it's certainly feasible that amongst all of that the counterterrorism troops are going to be impacted by that.

Now, as far as what the jihadist groups' reaction is to—for al-Qaeda, certainly, you know, for them, they're going to be able to take advantage of this kind of mess that's going on in Yemen, whether that means being able to take weapons as military bases are vacated, knowing that they're going to be hit—if the Houthis haven't already taken those weapons themselves. But it is going to be an opportunity for them, particularly as it's going to polarize the society within Yemen itself. This sectarian element will become, you know, a self-fulfilling prophecy, and therefore that will, almost inevitably, in some way, drive some people into the hands of al-Qaeda. Even if they're not before, they may find themselves fighting on the same side of al-Qaeda in order to defend themselves and their territory.

AMY GOODMAN: This issue of the U.S. role with Iran in all the different places now—working with Iran, if you will, in Iraq, although they kind of deny this; working against Iran in Yemen right now; and negotiating with Iran around a nuclear deal—Brian Whitaker, can you talk about the significance of this?

BRIAN WHITAKER: Well, obviously, there are quite a few ironies in that situation. The latest I've seen today, though, is that Iran doesn't seem particularly interested in getting more deeply involved in Yemen at the moment. And that might be quite a smart move. I think the Americans would also be probably leaning on them not to step things up in Yemen, in order to secure the nuclear deal. I think that—for the Americans, I think the nuclear deal is probably the priority at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: At this point, Iona Craig, what do you feel needs to happen? You know, we have President Obama famously recently saying that Yemen is the one major success story in the war against terrorism. What do you think, as you listen to a man I'm sure you know well, Farea Al-Muslimi, on the ground in Sana'a under the bombardment, saying, "What our country needs is investment in the economy, is education, is not more bombs"?

IONA CRAIG: I mean, certainly, most immediately, is some sort of political settlement to get out of this current crisis. But by pushing the Houthis this far, by deciding to bomb Yemen, I don't think—the indication from the Houthis at the moment is they are not prepared to back down, which means more bombing and the possibility of even ground troops. The Houthis, you know, have been fighting in Yemen for over 10 years now. And I think the real risk is, if ground troops are involved, that this could be a very protracted and long, borne-out conflict, which is going to impact Yemenis massively.

You know, what Farea was saying was really depressing, but absolutely true. The economy has all but collapsed. The government—not that there is one, really, but there isn't the finances to prop up the civil service indefinitely, and not even for many more weeks. You've got 16 million people in need of humanitarian aid, and that was before this conflict started. So, I think for Yemenis on the ground at the moment, there is this real risk for them that this becomes a long, drawn-out process, where the Saudis are saying it will be a few days of aerial bombardment in order to reduce the military power of the Houthis. But they know this territory. They've been fighting in Yemen, in the highlands in Yemen, for 10 years. If the Saudis or the Egyptians decide to take them on on the ground, this could be a very long process.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona Craig, we want to thank you for being with us, journalist based in Sana'a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London, just recently awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. Brian Whitaker, thanks so much for being with us, former Middle East editor for The Guardian, now runs the website We'll link to that. It covers Arab politics and society. Wrote the new report, "Yemen and Saudi Arabia: A Historical Review of Relations." This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I'm Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

News Fri, 27 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Yemen Does Not Need Another War: Report From Sana'a as Saudi Attack Enters Second Day

A Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign has entered its second day in Yemen. The Saudi-led airstrikes are intended to thwart the advance of Shiite Houthi rebels after they seized control of the capital Sana'a last year and deposed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi last month. On Thursday, Hadi left his refuge in Aden for Saudi Arabia. At least 39 civilians have reportedly been killed so far in the airstrikes. Amnesty International reports the dead include at least six children under the age of 10. Saudi's bombing campaign has been backed by the United States, Gulf states, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Sudan. We go to Sana'a to speak with Farea Al-Muslimi, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center. He recently tweeted: "I'm a 25 year old Yemeni man. I've seen at least 15 wars in my country. I don't need more. I need some help and education & economy; not guns."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to Yemen, where a Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign has entered its second day. Saudi Arabia has targeted Houthi Shiite rebels and has been backed by the United States, Gulf states, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and Sudan. The Saudi-led airstrikes are intended to thwart the Houthis' advance after they seized control of the capital Sana'a last year and deposed President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi last month. On Thursday, Hadi left his refuge in Aden for Saudi Arabia. At least 39 civilians have reportedly been killed so far in the airstrikes. Amnesty International reports the dead include at least six children under the age of 10. Many analysts fear the Yemen crisis could escalate into an all-out proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has backed the Houthis. Iran denounced the Saudi-led assault as an attempt to, quote, "foment civil war in Yemen or disintegrate the country."

AMY GOODMAN: Saudi Arabia has reportedly mobilized 150,000 troops near the border. Egypt is saying it's also prepared to send ground troops into Yemen if necessary. The United States has aided the bombing campaign by creating a joint planning cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate U.S. military and intelligence support. Arab foreign ministers, meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Thursday, endorsed the idea of forming a unified Arab military force.

We go directly to Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, to speak with Farea Al-Muslimi. He is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center. He's based in Sana'a. He recently wrote an op-ed headlined "Welcome to Yemen, Where Only Violence is a Certainty." He last joined us in 2013 when he was in the United States to testify before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the U.S. secret drone program. And if you want to know what's going on in Yemen, just follow his tweets.

I want to welcome you to Democracy Now!, Farea Al-Muslimi. Talk about what's happening on the ground now in the capital.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Thanks, Amy. It's good to be back with you. Sana'a right now has witnessed over the last few days multiple airstrikes led by Saudi Arabia in a big, longer plan version—new military operation called the Decisive Storm, which is backed by Saudi Arabia, other Gulf countries and other regional countries. This comes in response to the Houthis' full seizing of power in the capital of Yemen. And since last week, the political crisis in the country has entered a new dangerous level, when the Yemen air force, under the Houthi, controlling the capital, struck the presidential palace in Aden, where fled President Hadi was living. And I think, by that point, it was the time when the Gulf and the region decided to interfere. Currently, there has been multiple civic casualties of these strikes, but most of the times they are also strikes targeting military bases around the country, which are under the loyalty of either former President Saleh or the Houthis, who are accused by the regional and internationals of cooperating in this full military coup. Obviously, this comes after four years of a poorly learned political solution in Yemen, known as the Yemen model, which was backed by the United Nations and clearly ended up creating more violence than peace in Yemen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about this issue of all of these outside powers trying to effect deals or arrangements for the internal strife within the country?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Say that again, please?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I said, what about this issue of all of these outside countries—the United States, the U.N., Saudi Arabia—attempting to negotiate deals for how Yemen should be run?

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: I mean, obviously, this is an outcome of the way that the specific model that was enforced by these countries for the last four years have ended up failing. That's one part. But the new part in this is this has been now shifted from a political model, that was a massive story about how political transition should run, into a model of direct front lines for a regional obvious war between Saudi Arabia and the Iranians. Obviously, this is—this is, I think, a new regional order, you can now say, called the Decisive Storm. It's getting more than—bigger—more than just about Yemen. And it's being a new card being played by the regional states in the negotiation of the Iranian nuclear fire, obviously using Yemen as a fuel for a struggle that has nothing to do with the Yemenis.

AMY GOODMAN: Farea, you tweeted, "I'm a 25 years old #Yemen-i man. I v sen at least 15 wars n my country. I don't need more. I need some help n education & economy ; not guns." Another tweet: "I sadly can promise you that the sir strikes cost tonight could have saved Yemen from this years ago if if was put into its economy." Talk about the situation now in Sana'a, the bombardment that you and other Yemenis are going through, and this connection that you're describing.

FAREA AL-MUSLIMI: Obviously, Yemen has gone through a lot of conflicts in the past. And what I was trying to say in this specific tweet, probably, is that the last thing Yemen needs at the moment is an intensive military intervention in a country that is already loaded with so much conflict and over the last three years has gone through even more conflicts because of how this was run. And, obviously, this is important because even when Yemen was being promising a state, according to the Yemen model, it was not backed up with an economic Marshall Plan. The commitment to Yemen's stability was always reactive, based on fear from al-Qaeda, which obviously has ended up in creating more violence than stopping violence.

There is a huge problem in Yemen. We have more than half of the population right now under huge—for need of humanitarian assistance. The economy is literally dead. Life has been like that. The services are bad. The already low level of low, poor services that existed are even now harder to have, like electricity, water, and basically security and safety.

So far, right now, there is a matter of—there is a problem of a slow inversion or a slow take of Yemen into a new Libyan version that will not ultimately create peace in Yemen. And, obviously, a military solution, we have tried that so many times in Yemen, and it did not win. The military—the wars happened in Sa'ada with six wars, and then in the south, and then many wars with al-Qaeda. Obviously, there is a problem with this way of handling political problems in the region.

In fact, if there is a—if there had been enough economic support, I think we could have already—you know, we could have stayed away from this chaos, how things had led to. And most importantly is, if there is a will to commit to Yemen's stability and peace, there is a deep need to show that in an economic plan. Make Yemen part of the GCC. Give it easier for Yemeni youth to get jobs in the Gulf. A security solution have approved itself in a country like Yemen many times wrong and have counterproductive, and will always remain like that if you do not solve the roots of the problems. And the current way how things are run is obviously going anywhere but toward peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Farea Al-Muslimi, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Farea Al-Muslimi is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center. He is speaking to us from Sana'a, Yemen. We will link to his op-ed, "Welcome to Yemen, Where Only Violence is a Certainty." And we hope you'll join us in the days to come to continue to report on your country.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to London. We will be speaking with Iona Craig, a journalist who was based in Sana'a for four years, and also we'll be joined by Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor for The Guardian. This is Democracy Now! We'll be back in a moment.

News Fri, 27 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Why Is Climate Denier David Koch on the Board of Top Science Museums? Letter Urges Cutting of Ties

The nation's top museums are facing calls to cut ties with billionaire funders who profit from global warming. In an open letter, a coalition of climate scientists, museum experts and environmental groups says science and natural history museums should stop accepting money from fossil fuel corporations and individual donors like the Koch brothers. Koch Industries has extensive energy industry holdings and has funded climate denial. David Koch is a board member of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. One of the most controversial exhibits is a Koch-backed installation at the Smithsonian that promotes the theory that humankind evolved in response to climate change. The letter is the creation of a different kind of museum — the new, mobile Natural History Museum, which seeks to "highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature." We are joined by Beka Economopoulos, co-founder and director of the new Natural History Museum, who coordinated the letter to 330 science and natural history museums, and by James Powell, one of the scientists who signed the open letter. Powell is a geochemist, former president of the Franklin Institute and former president and director of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today's show with a look at how the nation's top museums are facing calls to cut ties with billionaire funders who profit from global warming. In an open letter, a coalition of climate scientists, museum experts and environmental groups say science and natural history museums should stop accepting money from fossil fuel corporations and individual donors like the Koch brothers. Koch Industries has extensive energy industry holdings and has funded climate denial. David Koch is a board member of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. One of the most controversial exhibits is a Koch-backed installation at the Smithsonian which promotes the theory that humankind evolved in response to climate change.

The letter sent Tuesday is the creation of a different kind of museum, the new mobile Natural History Museum, which seeks to, quote, "highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature" and "affirm the truth of science." The letter reads, quote, "When some of the biggest contributors to climate change and funders of misinformation on climate science sponsor exhibitions in museums of science and natural history, they undermine public confidence in the validity of the institutions responsible for transmitting scientific knowledge. This corporate philanthropy comes at too high a cost," the letter says.

Well, for more, we're joined by two guests. Beka Economopoulos is a co-founder and director of the new mobile Natural History Museum and coordinated the letter sent from Nobel laureates and other scientists to 330 science and natural history museums. And in Santa Barbara, California, James Powell is with us, one of the scientists who signed the open letter. He is a geochemist, former president of the Franklin Institute and a former president and director of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. His new book is called Four Revolutions in the Earth Sciences: From Heresy to Truth. We invited the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to join us, but they have not responded.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! James Powell, let's begin with you. Why did you sign this letter?

JAMES POWELL: Well, thank you very much, Amy. It's good to be with you. I signed the letter because I feel very strongly that the most fundamental obligation of science museums is to get the science right. And when you have on your board someone who has gotten the science wrong and who is a billionaire and is sitting at the table when trustee decisions are made, you at least give the appearance that your exhibit might be tainted and might not be giving the best science. And, in fact, with the Smithsonian exhibit that you talked about, I think that's not just an appearance, but it's actually the reality—the notion that we can evolve our way out of global warming. I like to say my grandchildren are already here; they're present on the planet. They're not going to evolve by the time they're my age. What is going to happen is that the world is going to be a much more dangerous place.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you were at the—you served at the—what was it? The Los Angeles County Natural History—the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. You were director of it.


AMY GOODMAN: Museums need money. What do you tell fellow directors around the country?

JAMES POWELL: Well, that's right. We are in a real bind. Museums do not have much money of their own. If we want to build a major exhibit, it's going to cost millions of dollars. We have to secure that money from gifts, from someone. However, I think you have to build a firewall between the donor and the construction and ideas that go into the exhibit. And I take the Smithsonian's word that they did that. However, if you have a major science denier, not just someone who denies it personally, but who is funding denialism with tens of millions of dollars, you don't have to have that person sitting at the table with the exhibit designers. It is known what that person thinks. It is known what their beliefs are. So I think if you back it all the way back, you would say you shouldn't have such a person. You shouldn't have a science denier on the board of a science museum. It's a contradiction in terms, and you're just going to get in trouble, so find the money somewhere else.

AMY GOODMAN: Beka Economopoulos, talk about the group of people who have signed this letter and why you got involved.

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: It's a tremendous list of dozens of the world's most prominent scientists, including several Nobel laureates who have signed this letter. We initiated it as the Natural History Museum, our own Natural History Museum that just launched this fall, because we were very concerned that energy companies and the Koch brothers gain social license and cultural capital from an association with these scientific institutions, while they bankroll climate science disinformation and efforts to block action on climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: So what are you doing now?

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: So we're calling on the museum sector—in particular, museums of science and natural history—to cut ties to the fossil fuel industry. That means, one, dismiss climate deniers and oil billionaires from your boards; two, cancel fossil fuel industry sponsorships; and, three, divest from your financial holdings in the fossil fuel industry.

AMY GOODMAN: And what has been the response of museums?

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: So far, no comment from the largest museums that we've called out for having David Koch on their board. However, we'll say that there's been a lot of traction within the overall museum sector. The American Alliance of Museums, which is a consortium of all the country's—or most of the country's museums, has blogged about this. We're going to be joining their convention in a few weeks' time. It's the world's largest museum convention. We'll be exhibiting as the Natural History Museum. And we invite museum professionals who are sympathetic to this effort to get in touch with us. We'd love to hear from you, especially if you work at the New York and D.C. natural history museums.

AMY GOODMAN: Why target museums?

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: You know, there are more museums in the United States than Starbucks and McDonald's combined. The museum sector represents vital societal infrastructure. They are so relevant for conveying information, for educating the youth and the public. And people have a tremendous amount of faith in the validity of these institutions. And when museums accept these contributions, it undermines the trust that the public place in them. And that, in turn, undermines a trust and faith in science, in general. And so, you know, museums hedge to this notion of authoritative neutrality, as if neutrality were even a thing. Howard Zinn said you can't be neutral on a moving train. So, fossil fuel companies are driving this train off the end of the Earth. And we don't have the luxury of time here, so we're asking museums to, yes, to take a stand, absolutely, to re-evaluate their roles in a time of profound environmental disruption and climate crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: James Powell, it's not only talking about not having fossil fuel industry fund exhibits, but also calling for these large institutions to divest. There's a student divestment movement across the country getting institutions to—their educational institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Can you comment on it in the museum world?

JAMES POWELL: Yes, I can. And I was also a college president during the debates over divestment from South African-related stock. If you own stock in a company, you do that because you believe that company is going to succeed, and you're going to make a profit. You are then a partner with that company. And the way the fossil fuel companies make profits is if they sell more fossil fuels, which produces more carbon dioxide, which makes the train move a little faster, to use Beka's analogy. So, I'm a very strong believer that colleges, universities and museums should not be invested in fossil fuel companies. It's not even a good investment, if you look at the future, because the reserves of these companies, which are a major part of their valuation, at some point we're going to decide these can't come out of the ground, they have to stay there. And if those companies have not adapted by going to some other form of renewable energy, then—

AMY GOODMAN: James Powell, I want to thank you for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We have to end it there—former president of Reed College and Franklin & Marshall and former president of the Franklin Institute and former director of the Los Angeles County Museum—Natural History Museum. And thank you so much to Beka Economopoulos.

BEKA ECONOMOPOULOS: And please, folks, go to

JAMES POWELL: Thank you. Thank you.

News Fri, 27 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
How Much Is Your Arm Worth? Depends on Where You Work

At the time of their accidents, Jeremy Lewis was 27, Josh Potter 25.

The men lived within 75 miles of each other. Both were married with two children about the same age. Both even had tattoos of their children’s names.

Their injuries, suffered on the job at Southern industrial plants, were remarkably similar, too. Each man lost a portion of his left arm in a machinery accident.

After that, though, their paths couldn’t have diverged more sharply: Lewis received just $45,000 in workers’ compensation for the loss of his arm. Potter was awarded benefits that could surpass $740,000 over his lifetime.

The reason: Lewis lived and worked in Alabama, which has the nation’s lowest workers’ comp benefits for amputations. Potter had the comparative good fortune of losing his arm across the border in Georgia, which is far more generous when it comes to such catastrophic injuries.

This disparity grimly illustrates the geographic lottery that governs compensation for workplace injuries in America. Congress allows each state to determine its own benefits, with no federal minimums, so workers who live across state lines from each other can experience entirely different outcomes for identical injuries.

Nearly every state has what’s known as a “schedule of benefits” that divides up the body like an Angus beef chart.

Workers are awarded a portion of their wages up to the state maximum for the specified number of weeks assigned to each body part. But depending on those numbers, the final amounts can vary widely.

The loss of an arm, for example, is worth up to $48,840 in Alabama, $193,950 in Ohio and $439,858 in Illinois. The big toe ranges from $6,090 in California to $90,401.88 in Oregon. Some states even put a value on the loss of a testicle.

While these benefit tables are just one part of a larger workers’ comp system, they provide a vivid picture of the wildly divergent, sometimes nonsensical patchwork of laws that enrages employers and employees alike.

“What’s the difference? You lose your leg, it don’t matter where you lose it,” said Eric Bennett, whose insurer says he’s only entitled to the Alabama max of $44,000 for the leg he lost at a fertilizer mill. “It should be the same. A leg is a leg.”

The calculus of such losses can be dehumanizing. One worker at a Jasper, Alabama, sawmill lost her thumb and every finger save her pinkie when her hand was dragged through the rusty gears of a scrap wood conveyor. But instead of paying the larger sum for her entire hand, the mill’s insurer has offered her only the benefits for each individual finger.

Given their profound impact on people’s lives, how much compensation workers get for traumatic injuries seems like it would be the product of years of study, combining medical wisdom and economic analysis. But in reality, the amounts are often the result of political expediency, sometimes based on bargains struck decades ago.

Such decisions are part of greater rollback in protections for injured workers nationwide. Over the past decade, a ProPublica and NPR investigation found, state after state has slashed workers’ comp benefits, driven by calls from employers and insurers to lower costs.

In fact, employers are now paying the lowest rates for workers’ comp than at any time since the 1970s. Nonetheless, dozens of legislatures have changed their workers’ comp laws, often citing the need to compete with neighboring states and be more attractive to business.

The changes have forced injured workers’ families and taxpayers “to subsidize the vast majority of the lost income and medical care costs generated by these conditions,” the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a report issued Wednesday that echoed several of ProPublica and NPR’s findings.

Alabama’s amputation benefit, long among the nation’s stingiest, sent Lewis into just the kind of downward spiral workers’ comp was intended to prevent.

“I mean, I done lost everything I owned,” said Lewis. “I lost my house, three brand new vehicles. There wasn’t no way that that amount of money was going to replace what I’d lost.”

After foreclosure, Lewis and his family moved from their three-bedroom stucco home in a new development in Albertville to a rundown single-wide trailer on the outskirts of town.

On the other side of the Alabama-Georgia border, Potter has been able to maintain some semblance of his former life.

The Georgia maximum for a lost arm is $118,125, more than double that of Alabama. More importantly, workers who lose a limb in Georgia are entitled to two-thirds of their wages until they return to work or, if they can’t, for as long as they live.

While Potter’s hardly getting rich off workers’ comp, the $285 a week he receives has prevented his family from going under.

“I’m lucky,” he said, upon hearing what happened to Lewis. “As of right now, we’ve lost one vehicle and one’s falling apart. But we’re making it work. I can’t imagine if I had to go through what he has went through.”

Origin in Hammurabi’s Code

The idea of assigning a value to the loss of a body part dates back to Mesopotamia. Around 2100 B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur decreed that a man should pay a certain amount of silver for causing the loss of a foot (10 shekels) or a smashed limb (one mina).

The same concepts run through the better-known Code of Hammurabi and on throughout history.

When the first workers’ comp laws were adopted in America in the early 1900s, legislators inserted similar language as a way of bringing some uniformity to the uniquely harrowing circumstances of individual injuries.

Typically, under workers’ comp, employers are required to buy insurance that covers medical bills and part of workers’ wages until they’re able return to work, a benefit called “temporary total disability.” For the most severe injuries, after which people can no longer work, the insurance covers ongoing lost wages under a benefit called “permanent total disability.”

In between is a large gray area known as “permanent partial disability,” where workers are deemed able to work in some capacity but have suffered serious injuries that will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Outside of medical costs, permanent partial disability is the most expensive and therefore most controversial part of workers’ comp. Nearly 40 percent of injured workers with lost-time claims receive “permanent partial” benefits, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance, a nonpartisan organization that studies programs such as Social Security, unemployment insurance and workers’ comp.

The benefits are meant to compensate workers for their loss of function as well as for future lost wages, but economists have found they don’t come close, falling short even in states far more generous than Alabama.

A 2004 study by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Michigan, noted that 10 years after their injuries, workers awarded permanent partial benefits had lost about 55 percent to 70 percent of their earnings.

In part, this reflects that many workers who receive benefits for partial disabilities under workers’ comp never return to work. Some, like Lewis, are eventually deemed permanently disabled by the Social Security Administration and receive monthly checks from the federal government.

A Bargaining Chip

One of the things that makes Alabama’s approach to permanent partial disability benefits so perplexing is that almost everyone seems to agree that it’s unfair.

The amount of lost wages covered — capped at $220 a week — was set by the legislature in 1985. But unlike other parts of Alabama’s workers’ comp law, it was never tied to inflation.

The amount is now the lowest in the country. Providing just $11,440 a year, it is below the poverty line for a single person and not even half the poverty line for a family of four. And benefits for arm amputations, for example, end after four years.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Sister Lynn McKenzie, a Catholic nun who used to be a workers’ comp attorney and state mediator. “There’s no way you can feed a family on that, much less have a roof over your head.”

Even the head of the Alabama Defense Lawyers Association — a group that typically represents big employers and insurance companies — agrees.

“It’s an injustice what they’re doing,” said Dudley Motlow. “It’s just too low. How much money do you have to make to be considered poor folks in this country?”

Until the last decade, lawyers for injured workers used various loopholes to get courts to consider extenuating circumstances and obtain higher benefits. But since 2002, the Alabama Supreme Court and the Court of Civil Appeals have made it increasingly difficult for workers with traumatic limb injuries to get anything more than what’s outlined in the schedule of benefits.

Judges in many states can take into account a worker’s age or education when determining compensation for such injuries. Not in Alabama. There, a worker with a crushed hand who’s only done manual labor his entire life — and may be permanently out of work — receives no more compensation than a worker whose hand is less important to his job.

“What you’re doing is saying, ‘We don’t give a damn if you’re a brain surgeon or a hobo on the side of the railroad tracks — you’re going to get the same amount of money,’ ” Motlow said.

Some Alabama judges have decried the state’s paltry remedy for life-altering injuries, even as they’ve acknowledged there’s little they can do about it.

“The trial courts of Alabama see these workers leave our courtrooms week after week, without the ability to support themselves or their families, because of their on-the-job permanent injuries,” wrote Judge J. Scott Vowell of the Jefferson County Circuit Court in Birmingham in a lengthy 2008 ruling. “They leave our courthouses with relatively small ‘lump sum’ checks in their pockets and after that is spent for their necessities, who knows or cares what becomes of them?”

Vowell called the $220 cap “manifestly inadequate,” but said it was up to legislators, not courts, to fix it, though he noted that injured workers “have no effective lobbying group to speak for them.”

“Perhaps,” he wrote, “if the public were made aware of the unfairness of the present system, reform could be accomplished.”

But Vowell’s call has gone unheeded by Democratic and Republican political leaders alike.

Attempts to raise the cap have been met with demands from the business community to reduce benefits elsewhere. Employers complain that Alabama’s workers’ comp system covers certain medical costs more generously than other states and guarantees lifetime benefits to workers deemed permanently and totally disabled even if they live to 100.

Lifetime benefits remain the norm in the vast majority of the country, but several states, including Florida and North Carolina, have passed laws in recent years cutting off workers’ comp benefits at or near retirement age. Others, such as Mississippi, have long limited permanently disabled workers to no more than nine years of benefits.

“I could give you a list of some other things that in Alabama are unfair to the employer,” said Charles Carr, whose firm Carr Allison represents Walmart, Tyson Foods and Liberty Mutual Insurance, among others. “I say that what we should do is we should fix both sides of those inequities.”

Carr contends that increasing one workers’ comp benefit without addressing others would make doing business in Alabama more expensive than in other states in the Southeast.

“This state has got to remain competitive,” said Carr, who is also executive director of the Alabama Self-Insurers Association, a group of companies large enough to pay their own claims without buying policies from insurance companies. “We’re not going to be able to attract industry if our overall workers’ compensation costs are out of control.”

Currently, Alabama’s average premium costs rank in the middle of the pack, workers’ comp data shows. Arkansas and Mississippi are cheaper, while Louisiana and South Carolina are more expensive. Georgia’s rate is about the same.

The only way to fix the problem, Carr said, is to get all the special interest groups to stop fighting. He called on Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley to form a “blue-ribbon” committee made up of representatives for workers, employers and the medical community to come up with a compromise.

But McKenzie said the notion that injured workers should have to give something up to raise the $220 cap is “fixing it on the backs of those who are hurt the most.”

“That’s what I think is morally wrong.”

A Tale of Two Arms

The aroma of fried chicken drifts from the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant on the shores of Lake Guntersville. Day and night, trucks rumble in and out of the front gates through white wisps of smoke that emanate from the plant.

Lewis got his start there in 1999, when it was still owned by Gold Kist, following the path of his mother, who worked there as a meat grader for 32 years.

“If you weren’t working there, you pretty much weren’t making any money,” Lewis said, referring to the region’s limited job opportunities.

Before his injury, Lewis earned an average of $870 a week including overtime. His wife also worked at the plant, and their combined income supported a middle-class home and life for them and their two children.

Lewis worked at the feed mill next to the processing plant, loading trucks with chicken feed for the company’s various poultry farms nearby. Corn and soybeans would pour out of the towering concrete silos through a downspout, and run along a conveyor, known as a chain auger, to be made into feed.

One of Lewis’ main jobs was to make sure the corn and soybeans didn’t clog the spout and stop production. When that happened, Lewis had to use a long metal rod to try to unjam it.

The day after Thanksgiving in 2006, Lewis was at the tail end of a 20-hour day that started at 3 a.m. and kept going when another worker called in sick. He’d been jabbing at a clog for about 25 minutes around 10:30 p.m., he said, when he decided to do what he and others usually did when clogs were really tough: He climbed up on the chain augers to get a better angle.

But this time, he said, one of the metal covers on the auger hadn’t been bolted down. His boot slipped, and Lewis fell hands first into the auger.

He hung there about 4 to 5 feet off the ground, he said, until the auger tore his left arm off and he came crashing down in the mud.

The emergency medical technician told him that he would likely bleed to death before they reached the hospital. Lewis survived, but his arm had to be amputated first below his elbow and later two inches above due to infections.

At first, Gold Kist refused to pay workers’ comp, claiming that methamphetamine use caused the accident. Lewis denied the accusation and a judge quickly dismissed the company’s argument, saying it had failed to present enough evidence to even bring the allegation to trial.

Lewis was awarded temporary wage-replacement benefits while he was out of work and coverage for two prosthetic arms — a standard one with a metal hook and an advanced one with an electronic hand that could be controlled with the remaining muscles in his amputated arm.

After nearly a year of recovery, Lewis’ doctors said his condition had stabilized, and he went back to work in a light-duty job. The assignment didn’t last long, though, and Lewis soon found himself back out at the feed mill.

Meanwhile, the dispute over the permanent partial disability benefits to compensate him for the loss of his arm dragged on. Gold Kist was acquired by Pilgrim’s Pride, which filed for bankruptcy a couple of years later. Pilgrim’s Pride then sold a majority stake to a Brazilian meat company as part of its plan to exit bankruptcy. This delayed Lewis’ case.

Pilgrim’s Pride did not respond to numerous requests for comment, and the attorney who handled the claim for the company said he couldn’t discuss it without his client’s permission.

Back at the feed mill, Lewis said, he did a series of jobs with one arm — pulling ropes, climbing ladders and turning a heavy wheel to control the flow of chicken feed. One day in March 2009, Lewis lost control of this wheel and the force tore the rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Lewis filed a second workers’ comp claim for the new injury, even as he awaited payment for his first.

Finally, in March 2013 — six-and-a-half years after his injury — the claim for his arm was settled. A doctor determined he had lost 95 percent of his arm, which under the law is worth 211 weeks of pay at $220 per week, or $46,420. Tired of waiting, Lewis decided to take the money upfront and agreed to a lump sum payment of $45,000. Minus attorney’s fees and costs, he was left with roughly $33,500, about nine months’ salary.

Five months later, the company settled the claim for his torn rotator cuff. Though that injury was far less significant, Alabama considers injuries to the shoulder as affecting the body as a whole. That meant Lewis could get out of the draconian benefit schedule and obtain higher compensation under a different part of the law. His settlement: $47,500.

“It blowed my mind,” said Lewis, now 35. “I mean, I got awarded more for a rotator cuff than I did losing a whole arm. It’s messed up.”

Lewis and his family now survive on his wife’s wages at Walmart and his monthly Social Security disability check.

‘Complete and Total Garbage’

About a month after Lewis’ case settled, less than 15 miles over the state line in the northwest Georgia town of LaFayette, Josh Potter was working at Unique Fabricating, an automotive supplier that made sound buffers and other insulation materials for the throng of foreign automakers that had come to the South.

Potter operated a die press, boxing up the parts it stamped out and pulling off the waste material. He was standing on a platform with a mat on it when he lost his balance and fell face first.

Instinctively, Potter put out his hands to catch his fall.

“I didn’t even realize my hand had went under the head of the machine,” he said.

The machine crushed his hand. There was nothing doctors could do but amputate it.

“It was like dust,” Potter said. “There was no fixing the bone.”

Unique Fabricating declined to comment; its insurer is paying Potter’s claim.

Like Lewis, Potter was fitted with two prostheses — a standard one with a hook and an advanced electronic one with a movable hand that makes him look sort of like Robocop.

While Georgia has cut benefits to less seriously disabled workers, it has created a designation called “catastrophic” for amputees like Potter and others who suffer devastating injuries. The state ensures these workers aren’t left without any income.

Before his injury, Potter was earning between $400 and $500 a week — about half of what Lewis was making. He and his family lived with his wife’s father, who was ill. They had plans to build a house on the property one day.

The accident caused them to shelve those plans for now and readjust their finances. With workers’ comp, they’re still able to cover their half of the mortgage and pay their bills. But with less money coming in, Potter’s wife can’t afford to miss a day at her convenience store job. And they can’t go on family outings to the zoo or amusement park anymore.

“It might just be $60 to $80,” Potter said. “But that’s a big thing for someone who’s low-income already. I’m not rich, but I don’t feel like I’m poor.”

After hearing what Lewis received in Alabama, Potter said, “I’m thankful for what I’ve got now."

“I mean, he lost a part of his life for a company, and they’re not even going to make it where he can live maybe not comfortably, but decent,” he said. “To me, that’s complete and total garbage.”

News Sat, 28 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
What Lies Behind the Recent Surge of Amazon Deforestation

After declining by more than 70 percent in recent years, deforestation in the Amazon is soaring. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, scientist Philip Fearnside explains what's driving the clearing of the Amazon and what needs to be done to once again bring deforestation under control.

Ecologist Philip Fearnside has lived and worked in the Brazilian Amazon for 30 years and is one of the foremost authorities on deforestation in the world's largest tropical forest. A professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Fearnside has focused his work on how to sustainably develop the Amazon in the face of enormous pressures to cut and clear the forest.

Fearnside is now watching with alarm as, after a decade of declining deforestation rates, the pace of cutting and forest clearing in the Amazon is on the rise again. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Fearnside

explains the factors behind the resurgence in deforestation, including a slowly improving global economy, rising commodity prices, and recently enacted Brazilian laws and policies that are encouraging the development of the Amazon. Fearnside warns that this great tropical forest will sustain even graver losses if Brazil's newly re-elected President Dilma Rousseff — who is backed by large landowners and agribusiness interests — doesn't change course.

Yale Environment 360: Deforestation is now rising dramatically in the Brazilian Amazon. When did this begin?

Philip Fearnside: Deforestation went up a bit — they call it the hiccup — in 2013, but now in just the past six months there has been an explosion. Deforestation, as measured from images taken by Brazil's DETER satellite system, far more than doubled from September 2014 through January 2015 over what it had been during those same months a year earlier.

The government hid these figures before the recent election. The August and September data would normally have been released in October [before the October 26th presidential election]. But they sat on the data, and it was not disclosed until the end of November. It's a scandal.

e360: This comes as a surprise to many observers who thought that Brazil had the deforestation problem under control. Rates of deforestation actually declined from 2004 until 2012. How do you account for these earlier declines?

Fearnside: The exchange rate with the Brazilian real hit a peak in 2002. From almost 4 reals to the dollar, it went all the way down to 1 ½, which means if you are exporting things like soybeans or beef, all your expenses are in reals and you get paid in dollars, and they are worth half as much in Brazil, so it's not nearly as profitable. At the same time, you had international commodity prices going down. The soybean peak was in 2003, it crashed in 2007, and beef prices were in a similar downward trajectory. Those two factors — the exchange rate and commodity prices — together explain basically all of the decrease in deforestation until 2008.

e360: What happened after 2008?

Fearnside: From 2008 to 2012, commodity prices recovered. The exchange rate didn't recover until the end of that period. But what changed in 2008 was a Central Bank resolution that ties financing for agriculture and ranching — to buy tractors and fertilizers and such — to having a clean record with the environment department, IBAMA. If you have cut the forest illegally and have an unpaid fine, you don't get financing. This blocking of credit is something with real teeth in it, and there are no appeals. It had a big effect, especially on the large landowners. So commodity prices recovered and yet deforestation still stayed low.

e360: So now deforestation rates are rising sharply. How do you explain this dramatic change?

Fearnside: One factor is the new Forest Code, which became law in 2012. It weakens critical environmental protections and also offers an amnesty for all those who violated environmental laws before 2008. So if you cleared illegally, you got away with it. And the expectation is that if you clear illegally now, sooner or later there will be another amnesty that will forgive your past crimes. On the other hand, if you actually obeyed the law, you lost money. So the incentives are very perverse.

Another thing is that the prices for soy and beef are now high, and the exchange rate has been going up in the past few months, making it more profitable. These are the big factors that are leading to more deforestation.

e360: How does commercial logging factor into the deforestation problem?

Fearnside: Timber extraction doesn't come up in the numbers as deforestation. It's not like clear-cutting in the northwestern U.S., where you cut all the trees and there is basically just bare ground left where there was forest. Here you just take out the most valuable timber and most of the trees are left standing. So the satellite will show it as forest. Nevertheless, it is very important for deforestation, because logging is one of the big sources of money that pays for the people who deforest. You're selling timber and using the income to clear forest for cattle pasture or plantations. To get the timber out, you also need to build temporary roads that facilitate the entry of people who clear the forest for farms. There are various ways that logging speeds up deforestation.

e360: How much illegal logging is going on?

Fearnside: A lot of the logging is illegal, there's no question. But even if you follow all the regulations to the letter and log legally, it's not sustainable, because of all sorts of loopholes that have been put into the regulations. Some companies are granted concessions on federal or state land. To qualify, loggers have to come up with a forest management plan. With forest management, the idea is that you divide up the forest into parcels and you take the big trees out of one parcel one year and out of another in another year. After thirty years you come back to the first parcel and the trees will have grown back and you take out the big ones — so that's the idea, you just keep on going round and round and this will be sustainable.

So theoretically, you are going to sit there for 30 years doing nothing, with no income before you harvest it again. But nobody is going to do that. Nothing obliges people to do this forever. So you say you've changed your mind, you've decided to clear it for pasture. Other people just sell the land off. Is it likely that the new owner is going to sit there for 30 years waiting for the new forest to grow back? It's just not going to happen. You have these loopholes that have been inserted in the law, so that all of the logging that is happening — on paper it is all sustainable, but in practice it really isn't.

e360: What impact has this kind of logging had on the forest?

Fearnside: For one thing, selective logging makes the forest much more vulnerable to forest fires, because there are all of those dead treetops drying out in the forest. People driving around with a bulldozer in the forest wind up killing many other trees. You've opened up the canopy, so you have more sunlight coming in, more wind coming in to the forest and drying things out. It makes it much more likely to catch fire, and sets a degradation cycle into motion that ends up destroying the forest after a while.

e360: Isn't global warming also contributing to the fire problem? Is fire something new in Amazonia?

Fearnside: Over the centuries, there have been occasional forest fires. Studies looking at charcoal in the soil have shown that there have been four mega forest fires in the past 2000 years, so it is more or less one every 500 years. But now fires are happening far more often, generally during big El Niño years. El Niño leads to drying, especially in the northern part of the Amazon. It happened in 1982, 1997, and 2006. We had destructive forest fires in the northern part of the Amazon.

Now we have another phenomenon that has increased even more quickly than El Niño — though El Niño has increased a lot — called the Atlantic Dipole. El Niño is caused by warming of the surface waters in the Pacific Ocean. The Atlantic Dipole is a warm patch of water in the tropical part of the North Atlantic. It results in drought and forest fires in the southwestern part of the Amazon, in Acre state and neighboring areas.

This happened in 2005, and then five years later again in 2010. You have water warming in this part of the Atlantic that has traditionally been [cooled] by a lot of dust in the air, much of it coming from the deserts in Africa and industrial pollution in Europe. The dust has functioned as a kind of shield — some of the radiation from the sun hits these dust particles instead of hitting the water. With global warming, you have more rain globally and that is cleaning the air of the dust, so more of the sun's energy is actually reaching the water and warming it up in that part of the Atlantic, and it leads to droughts in the western Amazon.

e360: The Amazon forest is said to create its own climate. Transpiration from the trees creates clouds, which in turn produce rain. What impact does cutting the forest have on rainfall?

Fearnside: You know, there is a big drought now in Sao Paulo. It's not something that you can conclusively pin on deforestation. But a lot of the water in Sao Paulo comes from the Amazon. It's water that has been recycled through the trees, so if you cut [the forest] down and turn it into a cattle pasture, that water isn't going to go to Sao Paulo anymore, it is going to flow straight into the Amazon River, [then] into the Atlantic. If you keep clearing the Amazon, you'll end up with there being a permanent drought, not just a one-year thing. You're not going to have that transport of water vapor to Sao Paulo. It will have a big impact all the way down to Argentina. Argentina is very worried about deforestation in the Amazon. There are also connections to North America and other parts of the world as well, so deforestation would have some effect on rainfall in North America in important agricultural areas in the Midwest, for example.

e360: Recently re-elected Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has pledged to push rural development. What impact might this agenda have on the Amazon forest?

Fearnside: You have the so-called PAC, the five-year plan for the acceleration of growth. Dilma is known as the mother of the PAC. It consists of a list of projects, building roads and dams and so on, projects that will lead to more deforestation.

The most dramatic case is the proposed BR 319 Highway, which would link Manaus in the center of the Amazon with the arc of deforestation in the south, where 80 percent of the deforestation has occurred, along the southern and eastern edges of the forest. If the actors in the arc of deforestation — companies, individuals — move out of that region into the rest of the forest, it changes everything. It isn't just that one road; a series of side roads that are planned will open up that big block of intact forest in the western Amazon. Once you build a road like that a lot of what happens is no longer under the government's control — people moving into the forest and so on. The government may go after them, but it usually ends up legalizing what has happened.

e360: So what needs to be done to bring deforestation under control?

Fearnside: Some effective measures include taxing land speculation, stopping subsidies and fiscal incentives for development that leads to deforestation, greatly reducing road building, and ending the practice of allowing pasture as an "improvement" for establishing land tenure. The government also needs to have much tighter controls on major development projects. And an important part of any solution is to pay rural populations a stipend for preserving forests and the ecosystem services they provide, like watershed functions and storing carbon. If the government doesn't start enacting some of these measures soon, the forests of Amazonia will be lost.

e360: Are you pessimistic?

Fearnside: It's very important not to get fatalistic about this. There is a tremendous tendency with the Amazon to say the problems are so great, the forest is going to be cut down no matter what you do, so you might as well worry about something else. That's a self-fulfilling prophecy if you believe it. The opposite is also true: If you say deforestation is down, nobody does anything either. So it's very important that you keep focused on the problem.

There are lots of groups working in Brazil putting pressure on the government to change course. Brazil is a very diverse place, including the Brazilian government. Even though most of what is going on is pushing for more deforestation, you have 39 different ministries and thousands of people in the government, and that includes many people who are very concerned about these things. So it's important not to become fatalistic.

News Fri, 27 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Radical Walt! (Whitman, That Is)

Walt Whitman had a craving for a society so different from our own, the opposite of the dog-eat-dog morals that govern neoliberalism quite as much as neoconservatism. But the negatives that seem so powerful today and need so desperately to be overcome would, in the eyes of Whitman and his scholarly personal disciple, John Marsh, surely be overcome.

(Image: Monthly Review Press)(Image: Monthly Review Press)In Walt We Trust,
By John Marsh,
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015, 229pp, $25


It is always a bit of a surprise when Americans learn that a poet or any writer taught in basic literature classes was terribly radical, perhaps suspect in the day for dangerous ideas or behavior and, in some ways or at least among some audiences, barely acceptable even now. Walt Whitman's homosexuality, pretty much undisclosed to the public for generations, has become since the 1960s the subversive side of Walt's reputation, and for good reasons. His same-sex imagery is pretty clear as well as brilliantly poetic in his writings and assorted wonderful anecdotes (like his possible interlude with a visiting Oscar Wilde) seem to confirm suspicions. Never mind that the term "homosexual" was not used in his lifetime; gender relations were so differently configured that he could kiss, cuddle and such without the conclusions that later generations drew for themselves and others.

That Walt was still more radical has been known to insiders since the intimate young friend in Walt's last years, later ardent Philadelphia socialist Horace Traubel, convened an annual Walt Whitman Fellowship event with notables that included socialist champion Eugene V. Debs. Traubel's Conservator magazine, a literary weekly of politics and culture, brimmed full with the same message, including Traubel's own Whitmanesque poetry. In the time between the last publication of Leaves of Grass during Walt's days, and his sweeping recognition as a modern poet, Traubel and his circle had done much to keep the Whitman legend alive.

In Walt We Trust is a sprightly, extended essay or first-person peroration by a young lit prof who felt a ton of frustration and heartache, or at least headache (self-medicating with alcohol, he tells us), and in despair, threw himself at Whitmania. That is, the poetry, the life, the setting and the aura. The project was obviously successful and not only because of the resulting book. He feels, he insists, better about life, death and even sex - the trifecta that pretty much wraps up human earthly possibilities. But he had to take a gloomy field trip to Camden, New Jersey, to get his mind in place.

Camden, of course, is a boat ride from Philly, a ride that teenager Traubel took regularly to meet the aged poet, and in the 19th century, a lovely place. Now it is a mess, one more part of destroyed-urban Jersey, industry-abandoned, drug-infested, with its poor and nonwhite populations struggling just to get by. Especially depressing to Marsh is the cemetery monument to Walt, mostly because the whole idea of Whitman belonging in one spot rather than the world (like the scattered ashes of WWI martyr Joe Hill, for instance) is offensive, and for that matter, the monument is in a ruined site, unlikely to be visited by the masses who still read and love Whitman.

Marsh makes a happier trip to Brooklyn, where Walt spent decades, and rides a modern counterpart to the famed ferry that transported the poet to Manhattan. He goes onward to Washington, DC, visiting the very federal Patent Office building where Whitman tended the wounds of Civil War soldiers, including some Confederates, eased their suffering and often enough their dying. Scores of Whitman scholars have visited the same sites, preparing scholarly papers and volumes, while, others - and not only scholars - have engaged in sentimental journeys and still engage in them. It is hard to think of a radical American poet since Whitman to inspire quite so much outpouring of emotion, although in recent decades, Philip Levine or Toni Morrison devotees might perhaps compare in passionate fan outpouring.

The ultimate source of Marsh's own passion for Walt can be found in what Horace Traubel and friends, within a memorial volume published a few years after the poet's death, called "Cosmic Consciousness." Whitman notoriously treated the body as holy rather than unclean, as the standard Christian version would have it, and argued in his poetry and prose that since nothing in the universe is ever lost, individual death is no big deal. This sounds straightforward today, in postmodern mentality, as credible in the wacky sense that anything, any philosophy no matter how apparently strange, is about as credible as any other. Why should the evangelical excesses of assorted politicians in Congress or the state houses be considered less weird? Whitman's beliefs were shocking for most mid-19th century Americans, insufficiently comforting in the decade after the Civil War, when so many sought heavenly rewards for martyred husbands, fathers and sons. Perhaps more shocking yet: Sex is or should be not only divine, but also fun! As in,

Come closer to me,

Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,

Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess

And this in a poem more about egalitarian economics, a fair chance for everyone, than about eros! The cheerful meeting of contraries was never far from his mind.

We can pause to wonder at Whitman's own sources of inspiration. The mind-traveling Swedish royal scientist of the 18th century, Emanuel Swedenborg, had inspired poet William Blake, several of America's founding fathers, and Emerson (himself a Whitman admirer). John Chapman aka Johnny Appleseed, the tree-planting pacifist of the frontier, himself a mystic of Whitmanian qualities, dreamed of founding a Swedenborgian college in Ohio.

American Spiritualism hit its peak during the 1850s, and Whitman, no avowed disciple, may have been its truest poet. Walt We Trust is dedicated to showing us what grandeur Walt intended for an expanded human spirit. If we look a little further to the political left, we find Victoria Woodhull, the notoriously avowed free lover and publisher, printing the first US edition of the Communist Manifesto in her newspaper. Woodhull was also president of the American Spiritualist Association.

Whitman was never quite so political. But in the optimism of his youth and early middle age, the expansion of the soul that he had in mind seemed to him within reach for all Americans, at least from the stance of his own social class, the artisans in an expanding economy. Leaves of Grass, in ever-new editions, would preach the egalitarian truth for all to hear, as he became (in his projections) the people's poet.

And then, in the era after the war, came the downfall of the era's sweeping idealism - woman's rights to abolitionism - and with that downfall, the exposure of what he called "the great fraud of modern civilization." The consolidation of the new order brought the "shameless stuffing [oneself] while others starve." Taking a hard and pained look around, he saw "the depravity of the business classes of our country" growing ever greater.

Whitman could not go much further than this, even while blessing the commonest working person's labor and life, the impoverished mother and child, as equal to any in dignity and rights. In the years shortly before his death, as Horace Traubel was copying down six volumes of conversations, Whitman admitted to his young admirer, "I'm a good deal more socialist than I thought I was. Maybe not technically, politically so, but intrinsically, in my meanings." Later on, after a prominent English socialist intellectual had visited the two men, Traubel pressed the point, asking what about political platforms and such. "Of that I am not sure," Whitman admitted, "I rather rebel. I am with them in the result - that's about all I can say."

Very likely Whitman was indulging the young devotee. He may also have been responding to the intellectual enthusiasm around the publication of two great utopian novels, William Morris' News from Nowhere, a literary masterpiece, and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, no literary masterpiece but a huge best seller. Socialism, or at least the idea of socialism, seemed to be coming into its own even as Whitman faded away.

Others, notably the gay British essayist Edward Carpenter, were busy preaching the glory of the body by the 1890s; Oscar Wilde was famously ridiculing sexual (and every other kind of) hypocrisy; and Henrik Ibsen was nailing the double-standard. These and others were making way for what seemed certain to be a better, because freer, century ahead. Whitman had laid down the shamefulness of sexual shame decades earlier,

Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex

Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers

Behind and beyond the Sex Talk was the craving for a society so different from our own that it would become a republic of affections, something like the opposite of the dog-eat-dog morals that govern neoliberalism quite as much as neoconservatism. Of course it would mean the end of homophobia, along with so many other phobias. But the negatives that seem so powerful today and need so desperately to be overcome would, in the eyes of Whitman and his scholarly personal disciple, John Marsh, surely be overcome. That's the dream, unrealized.

In the accompanying comic, artist Sabrina Jones gives us a glimpse of Whitman's visionary sensibility. More of her interpretation is on display in the comic anthology Bohemians.#.

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Paul Buhle co-edited Bohemians (2014) and has been a sentimental admirer of Horace Traubel as well as Walt Whitman most of his adult life.

Opinion Sun, 29 Mar 2015 00:00:00 -0400