12/30/2007 10:07:37 PM
This Thursday, January 3, marks the first major contest in the 2008 road to the White House: the Iowa caucuses. Today, I am driving down to Des Moines to run my romantic visions of American democracy into the cold snow bank of reality.
“The Iowa caucuses are a process so bizarre and byzantine it is either, depending on your outlook, the essence of grass-roots democracy, a quaint anachronism, or perhaps just plain crazy,” Mark Coultan wrote for the Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald. My image of the caucuses comes from the Norman Rockwell painting, “Freedom of Speech,” where a man in a blue-collared work shirt stands up at a town hall meeting. I imagine the man as a farmer, nervously shuffling his feet, saying to the politicians, “Now, I may not know much, but one thing I do know is that the Washington fat cats aren’t looking out for us simple folks.”
That sentimental version of Iowa politics may never have existed. Today, millions of dollars are being spent on advertising and organizing to sway the people of a state with less than 1 percent of the population of the United States. And that state, according to the US Census Bureau, is 94.9 percent white.
Even knowing this, Rockwell’s middle-America imagery remains powerful, at least for me. That’s why I’m headed down there, with visions of democracy dancing in my head. Lacking in both plans and credentials, I’m going to Iowa to see what I can find. You can follow the progress here on the Utne Politics blog.
12/28/2007 3:04:48 PM
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, has rocked much of the world. With so much coverage surrounding Bhutto and the future of Pakistan, a few websites have risen above the fray, offering a deeper understanding of the situation.
For background into Benazir Bhutto, a number of websites have linked to this profile in the New Yorker from 1993.
Himal Southasian, a magazine published in Kathmandu, devoted its upcoming issue to the recent political evolution of Pakistan. Although it was published before Bhutto’s death, the articles give insight into the country’s turbulent political climate.
And the New York Times has a slideshow by a photographer who was present when Bhutto was attacked. To view the slideshow, click here.
12/20/2007 4:52:01 PM
A recent article in Reason about bans on certain anti-war T-shirts made me think back on one of the saddest events of the past year for me. A friend from high school was killed in Iraq in January, and his family threw a good-bye party at the local watering hole for his friends to get together, drink, and tell funny stories about a kid we’d never see again. If you’re lucky enough to have never been to one of these memorials, there are a few things you should know. First, the venues tend to have one of two things in common: a close proximity to God (churches, synagogues, etc.) or easy access to booze (typically a bar or a VFW with a bar). Second, they’re heartrending. Dead young people always are. But the context—a violent death in a faraway country—gives them an even sadder underpinning. Third, there are T-shirts for sale. Always T-shirts. The proceeds usually go to the soldier’s family or a charity—both deserving recipients.
Sadly, this tradition of memorializing dead soldiers is in iffy legal standing in a handful of states. The legal battle began with a Flagstaff, Arizona, anti-war protester who was selling T-shirts that read “Bush Lied...They Died” superimposed over the names of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. An Oklahoma mother, whose son is one of the soldiers named on the shirt, raised objections. In response, Oklahoma legislators imposed a ban on merchandise containing soldiers’ names and images in April 2006. Louisiana, Texas, and Florida all followed suit. And in May 2007, Arizona legislators unanimously passed a bill (free registration required) that made the commercial use of soldiers’ names and images without the consent of their families a misdemeanor crime. But, as Reason notes, “Such bans are almost certainly unconstitutional, since the shirts, though exchanged for money, are clearly political speech.”
Though prohibitions on the state level have weathered considerable opposition—in September a federal judge in Arizona issued a preliminary injunction against the law—U.S. Representatives Dan Boren (R-OK) and Charles Boustany (R-LA) pushed for a national ban in the House version of the 2008 Defense Authorization bill. Amid objections from the American Civil Liberties Union (pdf) and other free-speech advocacy groups, the ban didn’t survive the House/Senate conference committee that hashed out a compromised bill. The issue is far from dead, however. The conference committee requested independent studies by the Secretary of Defense and the Congressional Research Service focusing on legal reviews of the proposal.
Such laws, either on a state or federal level, are not only an infringement on free speech; they paint the grieving families of fallen soldiers—or anybody else, for that matter—as un-American if they come out against the war. If proponents of these misguided laws can somehow reconcile their cliché-ridden idea of the “ultimate sacrifice”—which these families have certainly made—with unpatriotic behavior, I’d love to see it. Until then, legislators should keep their laws off our dead friends.
12/20/2007 10:30:10 AM
Americans are going to find their wallets shrinking along with their waistlines. Why? The price of food is exploding, reports the Economist. The price of wheat has gone from $200 a metric ton in May to more than $400 a metric ton in early September. Agflation—escalating food prices—normally results from food shortage. The strange thing about this recent bout of agflation is that we have plenty of food. This year humans will have grown 1.66 billion metric tons of grain—a world record. The reason why food prices are exploding is that we’re eating differently.
The world’s growing population has always demanded more grains. But this new boom in demand comes from another source: wealth. Newly wealthy people in China and India want to toast their success with tasty meat. And growing meat takes a lot of grain. In 1985 the average Chinese person ate 44 pounds of meat a year. This year, the average Chinese person ate 110 pounds a year. That’s the taste of prosperity.
There’s another reason for ballooning food costs. Americans have more mouths to feed than ever. And by mouths I mean gas tanks. America’s bright idea to slake our thirst for oil is to convert one-third of our corn into ethanol. Not only are our bellies paying the price for our ethanol-spree, so are taxpayers. Ethanol is bankrolled by hefty government subsidies. The Economist writes:
's ethanol program is a product of government subsidies. There are more than 200 different kinds, as well as a 54 cents-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. That keeps out greener Brazilian ethanol, which is made from sugar rather than maize. Federal subsidies alone cost $7 billion a year (equal to around $1.90 a gallon).
Why such subsidies? The ethanol lobby plays a strong role here. The Utne Reader reports in its May-June 2007 issue that in the 2004 and 2006 election cycles groups connected to the ethanol industry gave $1.2 million to political candidates. So candidates enjoy the double-boon of reaping industry campaign contributions while touting a popular (but largely misunderstood) salve for our environmental woes.
As for the shift in food prices, the bad news is that these changes are probably permanent. The worse news is that while rising grocery bills may put a strain on American bank accounts, the real losers will be poor countries. The Economist cites Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize winner for economics at the University of Chicago, who has figured that if food prices rise by one third, the standard of living will fall 3 percent in rich countries and more than 20 percent in poor ones.
Photo by tlindenbaum licensed under Creative Commons.
12/19/2007 11:49:37 AM
Academic success tastes like an all-beef patty nestled between two sesame-seed buns. At least that’s what McDonald’s wants some schoolkids in Florida to believe. Brandweek reports that in exchange for footing the printing bill, a Seminole County McDonald’s put this ad on report cards (made available by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood). The ad entitled tykes with good grades to a free happy meal. Oh, and diabetes.
Photo by Rona Proudfoot licensed under Creative Commons.
12/19/2007 11:01:14 AM
Democrats.org, the official site of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), announced on Nov. 28 the launch of FlipperTV, an interactive feature that offers free downloads of raw video of leading Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail.
One expressed intention of the service is that this footage will be downloaded by the party faithful and mashed-up into DIY attack ads. Evidence the unapologetic press release, in which the DNC promises that FlipperTV “will allow activists and voters to download video to their computers, edit it to create new user-generated video, and judge the candidates' flip-flips and exaggerations for themselves.”
The beauty of this “crowdsourcing” approach is that it can harness an inventive, eager, and unpaid workforce to facilitate the production of creative attack ads without actually tying responsibility for their content to the party or a particular candidate’s camp—essentially offering the delightfully wicked rewards of going negative without leaving the same kind of bad aftertaste in voters’ mouths.
As Gregory Ruelhmann of the Augusta, Georgia, weekly Metro Spirit rightly notes, FlipperTV marks the culmination of a much-hyped technological-democratization trend:
[T]here you have it: the surest sign that we’ve made the shift, from TV to cyberspace and from courtesy to base discourtesy. The pundits who anticipated this shift proclaimed that technology would make the presidential race more accessible to us, the voters. They said we would have a bigger say, and they certainly seem to be right. We’re doing a lot of the politicians’ dirty work now from our own laptops.
— Jason Ericson
12/19/2007 10:27:25 AM
Much commentary on rap music has asserted that funny, amusing hip-hop is a moribund sub-genre. In 2005, for instance, Slate reported on the then-popular “Narnia rap” from Saturday Night Live, musing that its goofy style offered what was missing from popular hip-hop. The article’s provocative subtitle—“It won’t save Saturday Night Live, but it could save hip-hop”—suggested that this brand of hi-jinks might serve as a corrective to the genre as a whole. But wasn’t Busta Rhymes goofy? What about OutKast? And, although he is not widely known, the popular indie artist MF Doom did happen to release an entire album about food. All of which is just to say that hip-hop isn’t the unilateral thug advertisement we might pretend it is.
In the Nov.-Dec. issue of Mother Jones, Jeff Chang makes the case that mainstream hip-hop could be poised to re-embrace the socially conscious and politically informed attitudes that mark its history. Detailing some of the politics that have motivated hip-hop artists past and present—he includes a get-acquainted-with-the-facts timeline—Chang argues that hip-hop’s potential as a genuine, widespread social movement faltered when corporate rap evolved into a “monoculture”—“a bland array of hosts and hostesses for the Bling Shopping Network.”
While Chang doesn’t delve into whether hip-hop lost or retained its political flavor at the local level, he does emphasize the focused activism of various local groups that have tapped into hip-hop culture, such as Boston’s Youth Organizing Project, Brooklyn’s Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and Milwaukee’s Campaign Against Violence, which blend politics and culture, activism and rap. Observing the impact of these organizations and the more obviously political gestures of artists such as Kanye West, one wonders when we might stop imagining what hip-hop is and actually hear it.
12/13/2007 1:45:48 PM
Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee may be winning the media’s attention on the campaign trail, but he has struggled to get a real hearing from many activists and leaders in the Republican base. It’s an odd situation: In a GOP field marred by multiple divorces and social-issue flip flopping, Huckabee stands out as a former Southern Baptist minister with solid social-conservative bona fides.
Much of the mainstream media coverage of Huckabee’s chilly reception among national leaders has focused on their anxieties about his electability—his shallow campaign war chest, his limited crossover appeal in a general election. Writing for the American Prospect online, Sarah Posner gets the story right: Huckabee’s biggest hurdle with movement conservatives is the fact that he combines his social conservatism with far more liberal views on economic issues, and he’s not afraid to say so. He’s the compassionate conservative that George W. Bush promised to be.
This may play well in Iowa, where Huckabee recently surged ahead in the polls. But the world in which national-level conservative power brokers live doesn’t look that much like Cedar Rapids. The Club for Growth is outwardly hostile toward him, and even the religious right heavyweights—many of whom have long been in bed with economic conservatives—haven’t coalesced behind him.
It remains to be seen just how much influence these leaders have over voters, many of whom may be attracted to Huckabee precisely because of his category-busting brand of conservatism.
Photo: IowaPolitics.com, licensed under Creative Commons.
12/12/2007 1:36:32 PM
Last week the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced that incarceration remains a thriving growth industry in the United States. According to the agency (pdf), by the end of 2006, 1 in 31 American adults were under penal supervision—either in prisons or jails, or on probation or parole. Then, this week, the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Sentencing Commission took aim at the disproportionately harsh sentences meted out for crack-cocaine offenses, suggesting that Americans and their democratic institutions might finally be waking up to the gross racial disparities haunting our prison system.
That’s all good news, but there’s still much work to be done, especially on the state level, where most of the country’s inmates originate. As Glenn C. Loury reports in “America Incarcerated” (reprinted from the Boston Review in our Nov.-Dec. issue):
One-third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. The other two-thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.
If our criminal justice system is to resurrect its credibility, states will have to take the feds’ cue and shed their status as warehousers of low-level offenders of color.
12/12/2007 8:59:05 AM
Are you concerned about the environment, public health, alternative energy, local economies, corporate welfare, or domestic or global poverty? Ever buy, prepare, or eat food? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you have a significant stake in the farm bill.
In a recent piece in Vermont’s Seven Days, Ken Picard and Mike Ives ask a variety of Vermonters—farmers, activists, elected officials—for their thoughts on this far-reaching piece of legislation. The responses offer some fresh insight into the tangible effects of this terribly complicated, tremendously important bill. A couple examples, on subjects you might not have considered:
- The Vermont Farm Bureau’s Tim Buskey’s biggest complaint with the bill is its exclusion of an amendment creating a guest-worker program for year-round workers. Three-fourths of the state’s agricultural revenue comes from milk production, an industry for which existing seasonal guest-worker programs are unhelpful.
- Helm Nottermann raises Holsteins and sells burger patties at farmers markets. He has his eye on a possible provision that would allow him to sell his meat, which is certified by the state but not the USDA, across state lines. It’s not that he wants to start shipping it clear across the country, he tells to Picard and Ives. “You know, New Hampshire is pretty close to here,” he says.
Thanks to a deal reached last week, the long-stalled farm bill is moving again. The Senate is debating an agreed-upon number of amendments and may vote on the bill by the end of this week. But all signs indicate that the final version will at best include some modest steps away from the status quo. It looks like some of the people Picard and Ives talked to will have to wait another five years for a chance at meaningful change, and so will the rest of us.
12/11/2007 4:55:09 PM
Remember Black People Love Us? Or, for that matter, A Modest Proposal? The Predatory Lending Association (PLA) follows in this fine tradition of satire.
The PLA’s website offers professional payday lenders a variety of tools to help them target the working poor, “an exciting, fast growing demographic that includes: military personnel, minorities, and most of the middle class.” Highlights include the Working Poor FinderTM, a chart on the relative merits of predatory lending and indentured servitude, and the “Myth vs. Reality” page (which relies heavily on market fundamentalism boilerplate ad absurdum).
The satirical website is interactive, sharp-looking, loaded with content, and solidly deadpan. Inevitably, not everyone gets the joke. The site is so subtle, its almost-credible tone so consistent, that it’s an easy mistake to make. What’s more, real payday lenders might even find the site’s tools and extensive information genuinely (if only slightly) useful.
(Thanks, the Street.)
The Predatory Lending Association’s logo is licensed by
12/7/2007 11:37:23 AM
A new group of coupon-clipping, middle-classed philanthropists are changing the way Americans give to charity. Baltimore’s Utne Independent Press Award-nominated Urbanite Magazine reports on giving circles, a style of philanthropic organization that’s breaking the big, rich, white mould of moneybags like Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates. Members of giving circles give small donations that are then bundled together to make a big impact. This lets donors use their local knowledge to shape how their donations are used.
“Giving circles definitely represent the democratization of philanthropy,” says Daria Teutonico, director of New Ventures in Philanthropy at FRAG, “but some community foundations use their knowledge of community needs and their knowledge of making grants to help giving circles grow and develop.”
Giving circles let concerned citizens get involved in their communities by working directly with the organizations that they donate to. For more on giving circles, and tips on how to give wisely without a ton of cash, take a look at “Giving Till it Helps,” an excerpt from WorldChanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century that Utne Reader reprinted last holiday season.
12/7/2007 10:31:45 AM
Just a little over a week after putting organic foods on the chopping block, Montana’s Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program announced Dec. 1 that it’s putting them back on the table, Richard Ecke reports in the Great Falls Tribune.
Montana WIC announced that the financially stretched program was going to nominally exclude organic versions of familiar WIC program staples—such as milk, eggs, and cheese—from its approved foods list, the Missoula Independent reported on Nov. 22. But the state quickly reversed that position because of a lack of data demonstrating how much money the measure would actually save, according to Jo Ann Dotson, chief of the Family & Community Health Bureau, which administers the program. Dotson also noted that the state’s large number of organic farms played a role in the decision.
Whether organics will remain safe in the state’s program is up in the air. Plans are still moving forward to implement adjustments in March that will specify (like many other states already do) that WIC checks can only be used to purchase the least expensive brand available at the time of purchase—a policy that will effectively exclude many organic items.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds WIC programs, leaves the designation of approved foods to state agencies (though they tend to be similar from state to state) and keeps no central record of approved items. Dotson told Ecke that she believes Montana is the only state that allowed organics in the first place. If you know of a state with a different approach to organics, let us know about it in the comments section below.
12/4/2007 5:02:34 PM
The town of Manassas in northern Virginia has become a flashpoint in the US immigration debate. In July of 2007, Prince William County, where Manassas is located, passed a law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants. Police officers in the county are now required to check immigration papers when they stop suspected illegal immigrants for other crimes. Immigrant rights advocates cried foul, saying the laws required racial profiling. Anti-immigration activists continued their fight for the right not to have to press “one” for English and “two” for Spanish.
Four young documentary filmmakers are chronicling the debate in what they’re calling an “Interactive Documentary” posted on YouTube. Bypassing the usual lag time between filming and releasing, filmmakers are releasing the documentary in segments, encouraging interaction between the Manassas community and the internet community at large.
Although the films are not without bias, they give near-equal time to both immigration and anti-immigration advocates. The filmmakers aim to explore “alternatives to the intense polarization that is hindering progress on the immigration issue.”
You can watch one of the films below, or you can watch them all in order by visiting the website youtube.com/user/9500Liberty
For more information on the US immigration debate, read Putting a Stop to Slave Labor from the March/April issue of Utne Reader.
12/3/2007 10:31:08 AM
Indian women are donning pink saris, grabbing sticks, and cracking heads for human rights. A group known as the Gulabi Gang (gulabi means pink in Hindi) has decided to fight for human rights, literally. The all-female, pink-clad vigilante force is exposing corruption in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest regions. They target men who beat or blackmail their wives by attacking the men with sticks. Soutik Biswas of the BBC News spoke with Sampat Pal Devi, the leader of the gang. "Mind you," she says, "we are not a gang in the usual sense of the term. We are a gang for justice."
12/3/2007 9:41:19 AM
“Traditional” marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At one point in time, “traditional” marriage meant choosing a spouse of the same race, or upholding a husband’s right to rape his wife. Heck, Romeo and Juliet were driven to suicide when their parents tried to force them into “traditional” marriages. The star-crossed lovers chose to be difficult and marry for love.
Conservatives, however, argue that “traditional” marriages is the building-block of our society. Right now, they say, that building block is under attack by swelling divorce rates, changing gender roles, and homosexuals.
In response to such chicken-little arguments, Stephanie Coontz writes in Greater Good that the institution of marriage is better off now than it was thirty years ago—divorces, gay marriage, and all. The past thirty years have been a “messy revolution” that has democratized the institution of marriage.
There are three steps the United States should take to further strengthen marriage, according to Coontz:
First, Americans should help the poor. Staying in a committed relationship and raising children is more difficult for poor people. Rasing the minimum wage and improving poor communities could create better marriages.
Second, Americans should institute more family-friendly work policies. Coontz reports that only half of the workforce in the United States qualifies for maternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Those lucky enough to qualify get a mere 12 weeks off, without pay. By law, mothers receive at least two weeks of paid maternity leave in 121 other countries, but not in the United States. Changing the Family and Medical Leave Act would be a good start to bringing the United States up to the world-wide standard. After that, we can start catching up to countries like Belgium, France, and Italy, where, according to Coontz, “nearly all children are enrolled in full-day, quality preschools from the age of three until they begin primary school.”
Finally, people could admit that there’s more than one, heterosexual, married way to raise a family. Passing discriminatory laws that don't protect single, divorced, or gay parents actually hurts the institution of marriage. Non-traditional families in America are here to stay, and Coontz argues that it's unproductive to insist otherwise.
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