Friday, December 31, 2010

The down side to DADT repeal

This post on Truthout just brightened my morning. Blogger Jess Guh gives a cogent analysis of the drawbacks of  the recent repeal of the US military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy for gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. As Guh observes, "yet another oppressed minority group has been pulled into being exploited by the American military-industrial complex."

Guh asks whether she is the "only queer person in the country that is sad about the repeal of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell'?" I would like to assure her that she is not. Whether she knows it or not, Guh's principled criticism of the US military is not something new. Once upon a time, there was a radical lesbian feminist movement that worked to make the world very, very different.

Like most stories that begin "once upon a time," this one is an oversimplification. For one thing, that movement isn't really gone. (That's a blog post for another time.) For another thing, it wasn't just one movement, it was at least 30 of them. We argued about sexuality, about the best way to get rid of racism, about whether to work with male allies, about dozens of other things. But we were clear that we wanted the world to change in fundamental ways. We didn't just want a piece of the pie, we wanted a whole new recipe. We wanted to get rid of patriarchy, capitalism, US imperialism, and to create an egalitarian world. (I pause after writing that sentence. My Facebook friends--some of whom don't know me very well--are going to see this post. Okay friends, if you didn't know about my radical past, I suppose it's time you found out.)

Sometime during the early 1990s, something shifted. As I recall, it started with the first Gulf War, which, if nothing else, was a great propaganda victory for then-President George H.W. Bush. Or maybe the change was inspired a rash of anti-gay ballot measures in places like Colorado and Oregon. All of a sudden, it seemed that instead of working for radical change, everyone wanted to join the army and get married. In such dangerous and rightward drifting times, I suppose it was a natural response for many activists to try not to appear too subversive to the established order.

But the established order has some fundamental problems of injustice and unfairness, and now new generations of activists are discovering this. As Jess Guh writes:
The American military's track record of inclusion is poor by even the lowest of standards. Black Americans were first allowed to serve in the military during the Revolutionary War, when Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, promised freedom to any runaway slave that fought for the British army. George Washington, needing more soldiers, followed suit. I'll let you guess how many of them actually received their promised freedom. Due to fears of giving Black folks weapons and racist doubts that they were mentally capable of being good soldiers, they were not even allowed to officially serve and enlist until 1862 during the Civil War, despite having fought courageously since the revolutionary war. During WWI, US military leaders decided they would rather use black units for suicide missions where they would likely die, instead of sending their white counterparts. For their valiant efforts, no awards or citations would be given to those soldiers of color until 1996, nearly 80 years later.

This philosophy of contempt and "we'll let you serve, but only on our terms" is not limited to race. Women, even those who meet the physical ability requirements, are officially banned from ground combat. But once again, when bodies are needed, the military conveniently changes its mind. In Iraq and Afghanistan, it's been well known that due to manpower shortages,women have been serving in front-line positions identical to those of men, yet there has been no budge in the official policy. And lest you even entertain the notion that the ban represents some sort of arcane but well-intended form of chivalry, consider that a 2003 survey of female veterans found that 30 percent reported being raped while in the military (women serving in Iraq were reportedly being hospitalized for and even dying of dehydration because they would avoid drinking water in order not to have to make runs to the lavatory alone at night). That's not even counting cases of sexual assault and harassment. In 2007, only 181 out of 2,212 reported sexual assaults were referred to courts martial. The equivalent arrest rate for these charges among civilians is five times that.
It's well worth your while to read Guh's entire post, and then to visit her blog.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Time to stop History from repeating himself

Nearly 100 years ago, 146 garment workers, mostly women, burned to death at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Workers could not escape because the fire escape doors to this sweatshop were locked. This catastrophe inspired a memorable speech by labor activist Rose Schneiderman.and served as a symbol of the dangers and indignities suffered by workers. According to Wikipedia, the fire also galvanized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union which,
(w)orking with local Tammany Hall officials such as Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and progressive reformers such as Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, who had witnessed the fire from the street below, pushed for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws. The ILGWU leadership formed bonds with those reformers and politicians that would continue for another forty years, through the New Deal and beyond. As a result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded soon after in New York City, October 14, 1911.
Although unions have been under attack and workers' rights and protections have eroded during the right-wing backlash of the last 30 years, I'd like to think that a catastrophe such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would not occur again. I'd like to think that this fire would be replayed only as a historical exhibit, as part of a work of literature such as Beyond the Pale, by Elana Dykewomon or as the occasion for a commemorative event.

But no. Events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are still taking place today. We know that US manufacturing jobs have been moved to places where workers have even fewer protections than we do in the United States. The results are predictable. According to this post on, those of us who are busily purchasing fashionable clothing as holiday gifts do not know that
the young, destitute women in Bangladesh who produce those clothes in almost slave-like conditions aren’t feeling the holiday spirit after more than two dozen of them were burned to death last week.

28 workers were killed when a massive blaze broke out in an unsafe, multi-story sweatshop known as the "That's It Sportswear" factory in the Ashulia industrial park just north the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. With a number of the exits blocked, most of the victims were burned to death, some trampled to death, some killed by suffocation and others jumped from the flames to their death. Several dozen more suffered severe burns.
According to post author Benjamin Joffe-Walt, the factory, owned by the Ha-Meem group, supplies clothing to more than a dozen US clothing companies and retail stores. The December 14 fire was the latest in "a series of deadly incidents in clothing factories in Bangladesh." For instance, a similar incident in February took the lives of 21 workers. Joffee-Walt also reports that:
Last week's fire also came just days after deadly protests over clothing manufacturers' failure to implement a required 80 percent increase in the minimum wage to 3,000 taka a month (about $42). That's right folks, the workers who were burned alive while making $25 T-Shirts were likely being paid some $24 a month, less than $1 a day.
To sign an online petition calling on US clothing companies and retailers to demand better conditions for the workers, follow this link. More suggestions for activism can be found here. One Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was too many. We don't need any more.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bernie Sanders is right

Social media and mainstream news sources have been all a-twitter about Senator Bernie Sanders’s long speech on the floor of the US Senate on Friday against the flawed tax cut deal worked out between Republicans and President Obama.

I haven't been able to find a good summary of the major points made by Sanders in a speech that lasted more than eight hours. But there was a link to this Rachel Maddow commentary on Sanders's Facebook page, and here is a link to the transcript of the entire speech. Here's a brief sample from close to the beginning:
Economists on both ends of the political spectrum believe that if we are serious about addressing the horrendous economic crisis we are in now, 9.8 percent unemployment, there are far more effective ways of creating the jobs we have to create than those tax proposals. With corporate America already sitting on close to $2 trillion cash on hand, it is not that our friends in corporate America don't have any money, we have to help them. They have $2 trillion cash on hand. The problem is not in my view that corporate taxes are too high; it is that the middle class simply doesn't have the money to purchase the goods and products that make our economy go and create jobs.

I think if our goal is to create the millions and millions of jobs we need, and if our goal is to make our country stronger internationally in a very tough global economy, I would much prefer, and I think most economists would agree with me that a better way to do that, to create the millions of jobs we have to create, is to invest heavily in our infrastructure.
If you would like to tell your own US senators and representative how you feel about the tax cut deal, you can do that via

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The trouble with Obama's tax deal

The controversy has been bubbling for several days over President Obama's tax cut deal with Congressional Republicans.

As the Los Angeles Times puts it, this deal would "extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all taxpayers, keep jobless benefits flowing for 13 months and continue a series of tax breaks for the middle class." It would also include "a GOP-backed proposal to revamp the estate tax and lower Social Security payroll taxes by 2 percentage points to put more money into workers' pockets."

Listening to Obama defend this deal, I was impressed by his sincerity. I think the man really thinks he would be putting the economy and ordinary working people in danger if he fights the Republicans instead of compromising. But I think he's wrong.

For one thing, as Chuck Collins points out over at AlterNet, this deal tends to further concentrate wealth in the hands of the very richest US citizens, while taking money away from ordinary citizens. For another thing, as The Other 98% point out, we as a nation have a lot better uses for $700 billion than extending a tax break to the very wealthiest citizens. On top of all that, this "compromise" is bad politics for the president. Paul Krugman argues persuasively that this deal makes Obama's re-election in 2012 less likely.

Worst of all, as Dean Baker points out, the temporary two percent cut in Social Security included in the package could actually open the way to a right-wing attack on Social Security:
Democratic officeholders have had difficulty standing behind tax increases for the very richest people in the country. It is difficult to imagine them sticking their necks out for tax increases that will hit low and middle-income workers. In other words, it is very plausible that in the 2012 election, Democrats will feel the need to take the Republican pledge that they will never raise taxes. This means that the reduction in Social Security taxes may not be for just two years, it may be for the indefinite future.

In principle there is nothing wrong with financing a portion of Social Security benefits with money from general revenue. This was in fact the original intention of President Roosevelt when he designed the program. However, the fact is that the program has always been financed exclusively by the Social Security tax that is taken from workers’ wages. This makes the tax regressive, but it has the advantage that workers can quite legitimately say that they have paid for their benefits. This will be to some extent less true if a portion of the funding comes from general revenue rather than payroll taxes. In short, getting funding from general revenue opens a new line of attack on the program.
For all of these reasons, I hope that House Democrats are successful in their attempt to keep this plan from passing without serious renegotiation.