Thursday, September 20, 2007

News of Jena finds us, and the news media, asleep


It seems we still live in two Americas.

This week, one is cracking jokes about “don’t taser me bro,” after a Florida incident in which overzealous campus police did just that, and again seems riveted by wall-to-wall cable coverage of “all OJ, all the time, the Las Vegas Sequel.

I suspect much of this America long ago lost interest in the daily carnage in Iraq and lost touch with the daily inequities that are just part of life in this land of much-touted opportunity.

And the other America? It made its voice heard today when tens of thousands of mostly black Americans marched on tiny Jena, La., outraged by a town and story barely breaking into the consciousness of white America, but long on the radar, the websites and radio stations, of black-owned media.

Jena, news reports recount, is a place where three white boys were suspended from school for three days last fall after hanging nooses off a tree where typically only whites congregated – until a black kid had the temerity to sit there.

Jena, too, is a place where six black boys initially were charged with conspiracy to commit second-degree murder after beating up a white kid in what news accounts describe as a racially motivated fight in December. One of the six was convicted of a lesser charge – and faced up to 15 years in prison -- until a judge ruled that he shouldn’t have been tried as an adult. He’s already spent a year behind bars.

The news accounts I’ve found leave murky whether there was any direct relationship between the two incidents. And at least some of the Jena 6, as they’ve come to be called, had been in trouble before.

But please: Three days suspension from school vs. 15 years, or one, in prison? Is that equitable justice in America, 2007? And why is this story only now breaking into my consciousness? Is it less important than “don’t taser me bro?” Is it less important than all OJ, all the time? I don’t think so. I don’t think those marchers coming to Jena today from all over the country think so either.

For whatever the reason, however, the gatekeepers of this country’s top news organizations messed up. They badly misjudged or just plain missed this important story. Writes The Washington Post, “The prosecutions in Jena … and the racial clashes that preceded them received scant news coverage.” A quick comparison of stories devoted to OJ, or even the tasering incident vs. Jena shows no contest: Jena comes in a distant third.

Which leads me back to those two Americas.

I don’t believe race is the only determinant of which America each of us lives in today. Nor do I believe any but the slimmest minority of those riveted on OJ but oblivious to Jena would advocate, tolerate or in any way accept those who sling nooses over tree limbs. But as a society, we, and in this case particularly white America, at times seem just oblivious, numbed by a popular culture and, increasingly, a news culture that feeds us a steady diet of entertainment and information that too often diverts our attention from, rather than focusing it on, what really matters.

That’s true when it comes to our long, grinding and, in the view of many, unwinnable war in Iraq. And its true when it comes to domestic issues, issues of justice and civil rights and immigration. Except for those who can’t simply walk away, can’t change the color of their skin or the status of their papers, too often we, and the news media charged with informing us, have checked out.

Just as many of us – for and against the war in Iraq – consider it someone else’s fight (the soldiers, the military’s, the politicians), many of us believe the struggle for Civil Rights belonged to another generation, in another time. No problem here. No problem now. Case closed.

Well, in Jena, La., today people are marching – by the tens of thousands. Most, though not all, will be black. To them Jena is just one more reminder, one more indignity nearly 150 years after the end of slavery, that justice is not color blind in America, that justice is still not equal in America, that not everyone has the luxury of shopping in malls in oblivion or sitting in Starbucks over a non-fat latte. That if we want a democracy, that if we want liberty, that if we want freedom, we have to fight for it, to sacrifice for it, to stand together for it, to get off our duffs and do something about it. We always will.

Whatever the nuances of the Jena case, whatever its ultimate resolution, to
the protesters for their actions, I say, thank goodness.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Beyond the Politics of Equivocation


“To go before or with … to show the way.”

That is the first definition of the verb “to lead” in my online dictionary, Not surprisingly, the dictionary also says that leaders are those who lead.

Too bad, on the war on Iraq, that I can’t find a single sustained, vocal leader in the top ranks of the Democratic Party.

Tomorrow, Army Gen. David Petraeus will tell the world that the “surge” in Iraq is working. I haven’t been privy to an advance copy of his speech. I don’t need one. For weeks now, President Bush and his spin machine have been playing Petraeus and his generals as if they're marionettes.

Patraeus’ words will hold no surprises. He’ll tell us, in so many words, that, “We’re kicking ass.” It’s the new story line: Because we’re tough and have stayed the course, things in Iraq are getting better. Not that the American people are really fooled. They want facts.

So what have our Democratic leaders in Congress and the presidential nomination race done? For the most part, they've cleared their throats and shuffled.

I don’t understand why just one of them can’t tell the truth – can't say that even if we’ve brought some slight stability to parts of Iraq, we don’t have a chance in hell of sustaining it, of reversing the war’s course. That American soldiers will continue to bleed there, year after year after year, unless someone draws a line now. That our soldiers, as one officer of the Shiite Mahdi Army told The New York Times, are captives in the very country that we tore up and are now trying to mend.

Why can’t a leading Democratic candidate quote the words of Lt. Col. Steve M. Miska, deputy commander of a U.S. brigade trying to control northwest Baghdad? He told The Times, “We’ve essentially stalled the sectarian conflict without addressing the underlying grievances.”

Why can't a leading Democratic candidate stand up and ask, “How many American boys and girls still must die to bolster George W. Bush in his ever-changing lie?”

Or perhaps they have, only for their words to be swallowed in a stew of position briefs. That's not enough.

This is a call for courage -- for a Democratic candidate or party leader to get – and stay -- angry and on message. To speak out unequivocally and repeatedly. To risk the right’s counter-attack. To say, again and again, that we’ve fumbled the real war, the one against Osama Bin Laden, by exhausting our troops and our nation’s psyche in Iraq, spilling blood and endless billions on the scorched Earth of a country that never was much more than a colonial construct anyway. To demand that we get out -- and not five years from now.

This, in other words, is a call for leader.

The American people are waiting.

It won’t be Hillary. She’s got too comfortable a margin in early polls and too big a commitment to winning. She’s too deeply enmeshed in the vote that took us to Iraq in the first place. She’s plenty smart, but can be counted on the be plenty safe while the Bush boys spin their latest fantasy, their latest story line to a press corps that, with some notable exceptions, seems perfectly willing to pass it on with little skepticism – at least until some courageous Democrat steps up and demands more than half-baked compromise, at least until the American people get mad as well as weary, turn out in the streets instead of merely turning off the news.

But how about you Barack Obama, you who boasts of being the one wise enough to oppose the war in the first place? How about you John Edwards, you who was wise enough to apologize, early, for voting to send the troops? I know, I know.. Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, even Republican Ron Paul have said without a lot of wiggling that it’s time to bring the troops home. They’ve tried their best.

But their calls, at the back of the pack, are not enough. Someone who can command attention needs to speak out. Someone, in debates and on the Senate floor, has to get angry and stay that way, day after day. To steep themselves in the hard-gathered facts that the elite media have provided – in books, in articles, in television documentaries. And then to simplify, to use those facts as if they were propaganda, in slogans and slick phrases, because that is how the Bush Administration has convinced sizable chunks of America that it actually was Saddam Hussein who bombed the World Trade Center and that, given the chance, he’d have dropped the Big One, too.

It’s clear that an elegant lie, simply and repeatedly told, can fool huge swaths of the people much of the time. That’s the lesson of this world of 24-7 news. Unless, at least, there is a counterforce. Unless someone pushes back with an equally elegant truth, repeated just as simply and just as often.

But that takes guts. It takes someone willing to risk losing – the presidential nomination, control of the Senate or House, the battle for public opinion – in order to risk winning. It takes a leader.

Only that person would not lose. The American people are fed up. They are hungry for someone to speak truth to power and for someone in power to speak the truth. They want a leader.

That’s what The Boston Globe heard when it sent its reporters across America to hear the public’s views on the war.

:Lsten to Stu Michael, a Republican from Wheaton, Ill., who still supports the surge.: “It’s the old adage of trying to close the barn door after all the animals are out … Does anybody have an answer?”

Or to 23-year-old Chris Dolezilek, who, in Holton, Kan., seemed “eager for real information.”

“I want to make my own decisions,” he told The Globe. “But I can’t get any information because there’s so much false information out there.”

Are you listening Democrats?

Barack Obama. John Edwards. Anyone. Stand up. Speak up. Lead us from the stinking graveyard of Iraq War spin.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Redrawing the lines of Republican family values

I published this opinion piece on


This time the Republicans wasted no time. They buried the body while it was still warm.

Less than a week after news broke that Sen. Larry Craig had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges in connection with a police sex sting this June in the men’s bathroom of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Idaho’s conservative senior senator announced his resignation.

The speed of Craig’s resignation -- just a few days after he insisted his guilty plea had been a mistake and announced, “I am not gay. I have never been gay” -- said a lot.

At first glance, it showed that the righteous Republican Party, the one that brought us Rep. Mark Foley’s congressional page follies a year ago, figured it couldn’t afford another festering case of family-values hypocrisy in the run-up to next year’s presidential election.

But the cold-blooded haste with which the Republicans this time drew and quartered one of their own has tapped another oozing seam of party hypocrisy. Wasn’t it just last month that Republicans stayed mum at the news that Lousiana Sen. David Vitter’s name appeared in the client list of the infamous D.C. Madam? Have you heard anyone calling for his resignation?

Vitter, one of the most unctuous of the family-values sanctimonious on Capitol Hill, sailed through the incident with a brief (and undoubtedly humbling) admission that he had sinned. Larry Craig never had that chance. In Republican circles, it seems Larry Craig’s sins, which despite his guilty plea he has denied, are beyond forgiveness.

Perhaps I'm being harsh, but I can only conclude that if you’re a right-wing Republican it’s OK to talk about the sanctity of the family while diddling a member of the opposite sex behind your wife’s back. But it’s not OK if you’re so much as considering making whoopee with a member of the same sex.

Now there’s morality at work.

Republicans, of course, already have developed talking points to differentiate the two cases. Craig, Republican pundits and talking heads have pointed out, pleaded guilty to a crime (although not explicitly to soliciting sex). Vitter did not.

That, however, is hogwash, points out Joshua Micah Marshall on his blog,

“For one thing, confronted with evidence that he made use of a prostitution service, Vitter conceded immediately that he'd ‘sinned,’" Marshall notes. “I'm not an expert in the subject, but as I understand it, paying for sex is a crime, and Vitter publicly acknowledged that he'd violated this law. He would have been subject to criminal charges, but the statute of limitations ran out.”

Oh …. Whatever.

Where is Karl Rove when the Republicans really need him?