How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?


Take a look at this story and it will tell you much of what you need to know about how power and politics work in this country. Remember:

1) The Bush administration purposely dismantled FEMA for ideological reasons and left it to incompetent cronies to lap up its crumbs.

2) When Katrina -- one of the world's most easily predictable disasters -- hit, the needs of the poor were ignored and the president remained on vacation for six days.

3) The Louisiana National Guard was off fighting in Iraq.

4) The political structure proved completely incompetent at every level.

5) The media, driven by the dramatic pictures, threw themselves into the story like nobody's business. This was, I wrote at the time, CNN's finest hour in its history. Katrina became a template for galvanizing the nation, as well as for demonstrating to all non-ideologically obsessed Americans why government matters.

6) But of course, the MSM has an attention deficit disorder of the highest order for actual news. Every burp and belch on the campaign trail receives Talmudic disputation, but where the lives of actual people are involved -- even in one of the biggest stories of the decade -- amnesia rules.

7) This lack of attention is a direct result of the lack of political power enjoyed by poor people in this country. Kanye West had it wrong. It's not that George W. Bush doesn't care about black people; it's that he doesn't care about poor people. And why should he? What have they ever done for him (except perhaps, die in Iraq)? What can they do for him? How many troops do they have?

This is why it is so dangerous to our democracy that the extremely wealthy are garnering all the economic benefits of the new economy. As our wealth structure becomes more like a banana republic, so too will our political system. I don't refer specifically to election financing -- which the Internet has done a great deal to equalize -- I mean the power to make oneself heard. The people being poisoned in post-Katrina trailers have no power to make their voices matter. And so, despite all of the above, nobody cares.

Congrats to Spencer S. Hsu and The Washington Post for reminding us, once again, why newspapers matter and why we can't afford to lose them.

Meanwhile, over in East Hampton, check out the comments on this story and you will see why digital news is a superior form to print. What fun! (I admit to strong mixed feelings here. On the one hand, this horrid woman sent me an email right after 9-11 saying we had to kill all the Arabs, even their children. I don't even know her. It was revolting and the kind of thing that has empowered Bush and Cheney to kill so many people unnecessarily. Throw in the nasty comments she made and these pictures are kinda fun. On the other hand, I know from personal experience that when small town cops want to arrest you for some petty violation, they don't really need any real laws to be broken. They can do what they want and their buddies will back them up as a matter of self-preservation. And on the third hand, this will be a publicity boon for her scarily overpriced gallery. So I'll just settle for fun ...)

May 25, 2008

My university -- congrats to all.

These two items appeared in The Nation during the past two issues. I republish them here for the proverbial record.

1) Mind Your Aitches and Tees

In Eric Alterman's most recent "Liberal Media" column, a fact-checker misread her capital H as a double lowercase t, causing the misspelling of Politico's Jim VandeHei's name. She has been sent to remedial penmanship class.

2) Campus Watch, SPME vs. Alterman


Eric Alterman mischaracterizes Campus Watch in his May 5 "The Liberal Media" column, implying that we worked with Paula Stern to deny tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj. He is wrong on two counts: first, Campus Watch never coordinated our work with Stern. We operate independently of any external party, be it Stern or David Horowitz. Second, we do not take positions on tenure questions. We insist on our right to critique professors at any stage of their careers, but we did not call for the denial of tenure to Abu El-Haj.

Alterman also charges that Campus Watch "offers its kosher seal of approval for ideologically kosher academics while attacking all others." In fact, Campus Watch has no litmus test for professors. We critique for analytical failures, politicized scholarship, intolerance of alternate views and abuse of power over students.

WINFIELD MYERS, director, Campus Watch

New York City

Eric Alterman's May 5 column contains inaccuracies. (1) Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), in its online newsletter, reported but did not take a position on the granting of tenure to Professor Abu El-Haj. Despite numerous requests, SPME did not circulate the petition, precisely because SPME, as an organization of academics, supports "the time-honored tradition of politically disinterested tenure." (2) As an archaeologist, Alexander Joffe has standing to comment on the validity of Abu El-Haj's criticisms of Israeli archaeologists. However, he has no official association with SPME, nor does Daniel Pipes. (3) Although Alan Segal publicly opposed tenure for Abu El-Haj, his opposition focused on her scholarship, not her politics.

JUDITH S. JACOBSON, vice president, SPME

Alterman Replies

New York City

I stand by every word in my column. First let's note that neither letter writer points to a single error of fact. The problems they point out are either "implied" or not stated at all. However, with regard to Daniel Pipes's Campus Watch, I think readers would benefit from knowing more about Pipes and the kind of work in which he and his organization engage. According to my colleague Matthew Duss at the Center for American Progress:

"Pipes spearheaded a campaign against the Khalil Gibran International Academy in New York, a public school focused on Arab culture and language. The campaign eventually caused the resignation of the school's principal, Debbie Almontaser. Pipes based his hostility to the school on what he called 'the basic problems implicit in an Arabic-language school: the tendency to Islamist and Arabist content and proselytizing.' Needless to say, Pipes offered no evidence for that claim. In keeping with his stated belief that Arab- and Muslim-Americans deserve to be subjected to 'special scrutiny,' Pipes apparently thinks the question of whether Barack Obama practiced Islam as a child is so important to the future of the Republic that since December he has penned three articles on the subject, always making sure to apply a thin veneer of 'scholarly rigor' over what is in fact an attempt to smear by insinuation and innuendo" (see

Given their involvement in so many campaigns of this nature, it would have been irresponsible of me not to include Pipes and Campus Watch in my discussion of the tenure question.

With regard to SPME, I appreciate Judith Jacobson's efforts to clarify the work of her organization. It certainly does not deserve to be lumped with Campus Watch, which is why I avoided doing so. Universities have long-established processes designed to insulate the tenure process from the political passions of the day. Any interference in that process is contrary to the principle of academic freedom.


J Street responds to TNR's silly hatchet job...

Did everyone read Rosanne's wonderful blog in the NYT? Read it here.

(It's kind of annoying how well the woman writes, I have to say, what with everything she does better than the rest of us, too ...)

From TomDispatch:

In a path-breaking piece, Frida Berrigan focuses, as no one else yet has, on the Pentagon's massive expansion on just about every front during George W. Bush's two terms in office. This may be the greatest story never told of our time. It might, in fact, be the most important American story of the new century and, while you can find many of its disparate parts in your daily papers, the mainstream media has yet to offer a significant overview of just what has happened to the Pentagon in these last seven-plus years. This suggests a great deal about what isn't being dealt with in our world. How, for instance, is it possible to have a presidential election campaign that goes on for years in which the size of the Pentagon never comes up as an issue (unless the candidates are all plunking for an expansion of American troop strength)?

Berrigan covers, in fascinating detail, seven major fronts on which the Pentagon has expanded its power and its powers since George W. Bush took office -- in Washington, nationally, and globally. These include: The Pentagon as budget-buster, diplomat, arms dealer, intelligence analyst and spy, domestic disaster manager, humanitarian caregiver, and global viceroy as well as ruler of the heavens. It's quite a list, and while some mainstream media attention has gone into the Pentagon's budget-busting capabilities these last years, its mission creep and leap when it comes to the State Department, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and local, state, and civilian authorities involved in dealing with natural or other disasters has yet to be fully reckoned with.

Berrigan concludes: "As the clock ticks down to November 4, 2008, a lot of people are investing hope (as well as money and time) in the possibility of change at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But when it comes to the Pentagon, don't count too heavily on change, no matter who the new president may be. After all, seven years, four months, and a scattering of days into the Bush presidency, the Pentagon is deeply entrenched in Washington and still aggressively expanding. It has developed a taste for unrivaled power and unequaled access to the treasure of this country. It is an institution that has escaped the checks and balances of the nation."


Three audio books and a new set of Keepnews Collection CDs from Concord:

Richard Price, Lush Life (Audio, read by Bobby Cannavale)

Charles Bock, Beautiful Children (Audio, read by Mark Deakins)

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, (Audio, read by Scott Brick)

You've probably heard about what a great social realist, sorta cop novel, is Lush Life, which takes place on the Lower East Side of New York City, and was written by Richard Price, who, of late, is best known for writing a bunch of episodes of The Wire, but has been one of my favorite novelists since Vin Scelsa recommended his first book, The Wanderers, over the air on WNEW-FM during the New York City newspaper strike of summer 1978. His Cornell novel, The Breaks, holds a special place in my heart. I listened to the audio, released by Macmillan Audio, and well read by Bobby Cannavale -- Cannavale plays a lot of characters in New York-based dramas, such as Third Watch, 100 Centre Street, and Law & Order. I had a little trouble keeping the characters straight for a while but I really enjoyed it. More information is available at

Following a brief interlude with Balzac's Le Père Goriot, I checked back into the contemporary realism hotel with Charles Bock's Beautiful Children. What a sad and beautiful wonder this novel is. At times I actually had to fast-forward the iPod because, as a dad, what I was hearing/reading was too painful for me to bear. This is Bock's first novel but he cooked it over a decade and it reads as if written by a literary master with a great journalist's eye for detail, both in sight, sound, and language. A triumph to be certain, but a deeply disturbing one on the order of what Dickens once did, allowing, naturally, for changes in time, place, and culture. (I'm a little confused by the Amazon listing for the audio book here. It lists only an abridged version, but I'm pretty sure the one I listened to -- which Mr. Bock was good enough to send me himself -- was unabridged. Mine was read, quite well, by Mark Deakins as well. In the words of David Byrne, I think I better let the mystery be...)

I am now finishing up the audio of Nancy Isenberg's revisionist biography of Aaron Burr. I concur with Jill Lepore that it's a fine piece of work. In her Times review, she called it "eloquent and inspiring" and "full of insight and new research." I strongly recommend it. Still, talk about your author's Stockholm Syndrome. There is almost nothing that Alexander Hamilton does in this book without a sneer, a whine, a stabbed back, a hypocritical air -- you get the point. Too often, authors end up hating their topics. This one shares his hatreds, which I guess is preferable, albeit far from ideal. It's read by the "Golden Voice Scott Brick," who is a pro at this kind of thing, and here you can hear why.

Concord Records, Keepnews Collection, Fourth Installment

I've been remiss in not highlighting the newest set of historic releases from Concord Records, which spotlights classic jazz albums produced by the legendary Orrin Keepnews. The fourth and most recent installment includes four titles: "Brilliant Corners" by Thelonious Monk (1956) is among my favorites of the Monk oeuvre, while "Blue Soul" by Blue Mitchell (1959) was an entirely new (and welcome) discovery. "Portrait in Jazz" by the Bill Evans Trio (1959) and "Bags Meets Wes!" by Milt Jackson/Wes Montgomery (1961) may be familiar to some of you, but they had gone over my head or under my radar, as it were. I feel a little guilty about recommending these because I find this kind of classic bop so much more congenial than more contemporary jazz and it is those players and composers who need the support. But, what can I say. It was a great moment in musical -- indeed cultural history. All the reissues were originally issued by Keepnews' independent jazz label Riverside Records, but the Concord editions have 24-bit remastering from the master tapes and liner-note commentary from the producer. More information is available here.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Mason Hogan

Hometown: Wilmington, NC

Thank you for setting the record straight (again) on the Florida recount. A few weeks ago, Scalia was on C-SPAN telling Brian Lamb it didn't matter that the Supreme Court handed Bush the election because the recount done by the media showed Bush would've won anyway -- Scalia was explaining his "get over it" remark from earlier in the week. It's not Mr. Lamb's nature to challenge such BS but we can't let people like Scalia get away with letting that lie become the accepted version of history.

Name: Roberta Kelm

Hometown: Sunnyvale, CA

I'm not sure I'm strong enough to watch Recount either. But I think the lesson to be taken from both 2000 and 2004 is to not put all your eggs in one basket, and to run in enough places that one or two states won't sink you.

Name: Gordon Walter

Hometown: Fort Wayne, IN

A little net surfing has taken me to your May 23 comments on Recount and the 2000 election in Florida. You didn't mention the deliberate and false rejection of many voters as felons, as described in detail in Greg Palast's little book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Even more than ballot problems, that maneuver undoubtedly cost Gore the election. It remains to be seen what Florida will do this next time.

Name: John B

Hometown: Des Moines, IA

I'm a fan of Chris Matthews to the same extent that I'm an expert astrophysicist (not at all), but I certainly have to give him credit for one of the most entertaining exchanges I've ever seen him involved in. It pretty well epitomizes the behavior of nearly every conservative talk show host. Credit the insightful Leonard Pitts for writing the column that brought this to my attention.

Name: Mark Cashman

Hometown: Yonkers

Small correction to Mr. Pierce's reference to the great Band live recording, "Rock of Ages": It was recorded at the old Academy of Music (later the Palladium, now an NYU dorm) on 14th St. in Manhattan.

Eric replies: Did I let that pass? Shame on me. I saw the Band's final shows there, in '76, I believe, with one Diana Roberta Silver, for the record. See the boy with stage fright ...

Name: Hobson

Hometown: New York

I also found the waterboarding in Iron Man distracting from the fun of the movie and rather in the vein of 24 -- but added to that was Iron Man's return to the village being terrorized by the same people who captured and tortured him. He overcomes them and then leaves the one bad guy to the mercies of the people he has been terrorizing. It seemed a rather Ramboesque revenge fantasy. You're an evildoer and deserve whatever you get.

My favorite character in the film was the robotic arm with the fire extinguisher, especially when it just couldn't seem to obey his command not to follow him and not to gas him unless there actually were flames.

Eric replies: I saw it last night. It was, I think, the most violent movie I've ever seen. My favorite character wasn't, however, a fire extinguisher; it was Gwyneth for goodness' sakes. I also saw Indy and Baby Mama this week. Karen Allen sure is a good-looking 55, huh? Baby Mama bites, however, and is incredibly classist. I had to talk the kid out of everything she learned in it. The other movies I saw this movie-going weekend were Reprise, which I liked much better once it ended, and Billy Wilder's Hold Back the Dawn, which was playing at Walter Reed, and turned out to be one of the most beautiful films I can remember seeing. And I can't figure out how it eluded me until now, but I was thrilled to be able to discover it under near perfect movie-going circumstances, even if I was the youngest person in the theater by, oh, 25 years.

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