Archive for the ‘American History’ Category

Is the Health Care Reform Act a Civil Rights Act?

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on March 23rd, 2010

59971869Should we consider the health care reform act, which President Obama signed into law today to be a civil rights act? There is good reason to do so. Though the Act is far from perfect, it does represent a commitment by Congress to expand access to a fundamental human right. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and his family, including . . . medical care.” Martin Luther King called access to medical care a civil right. Though our Constitution does not include a right to health care (or any other substantive economic rights), it does give Congress the authority to create such rights. And, in a speech after the passage of the Act, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invoked the Declaration of Independence’s statement that all people are guaranteed a right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Before the vote, Pelosi and other congressional leaders marched through protesters hurling racial epithets, an act that self-consciously harkened back to civil rights demonstrations of the past. The Act falls within the tradition of Congress enforcing the rights of social citizenship – economic rights that are essential preconditions to one’s ability to exercise other civil and political rights.

Strangely, opponents of the Act also think the Health Care Reform Act is a civil rights act, and argue that this is a reason to oppose it. In February, Rush Limbaugh called the Act a “civil rights act,” a “reparations” bill which people should oppose. Last week, Newt Gingrich compared the Act to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, arguing that Obama’s support of the Health Care Reform Act would wreck the Demcratic party like Lyndon Johnson’s support of the 1964 Act did.

How ironic! I have always thought of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as one of the great moments in American history. I also thought that as a society we had achieved a consensus that civil rights were a good thing. What could Gingrich possibly mean by his critique? Johnson was re-elected by a landslide in the fall of 1964, and he relied on that mandate to push through the Medicare Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act the next year. When Gingrich says the 1964 Act wrecked the Democratic party, could he be referring to the fact that after passage of the Civil Rights Act, many of the pro-segregationist southern Democrats became Republican, eventually turning the South from a solid Democratic block to the solid Republican block we have today?

If so, why would Gingrich want to remind us of the southern Republican party’s roots in segregationism and racism? It’s hard not to see a connection between Limbaugh and Gingrich’s remarks and the racial slurs hurled by protestors against the African American and Latino members of Congress on Sunday. Like Congress’ tradition of expanding human rights in acts like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Social Security Act and the Medicare Act, there is an equally strong tradition of using race baiting as a tactic in American politics. One of the vestiges of segregation in our society is the racial disparity that still exists in our health care system. If this act helps to remedy this disparity, then it truly is a civil rights act.

Bill Moyers’ Admonition to President Obama

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on September 7th, 2009

Bill Moyers is quickly becoming the most sane and balanced progressive American voice. Check out the conclusion to his most recent Journal.

September 4, 2009

BILL MOYERS: The editors of THE ECONOMIST magazine say America’s health care debate has become a touch delirious, with people accusing each other of being evil-mongers, dealers in death, and un-American.

Well, that’s charitable.

I would say it’s more deranged than delirious, and definitely not un-American.

Those crackpots on the right praying for Obama to die and be sent to hell — they’re the warp and woof of home-grown nuttiness. So is the creature from the Second Amendment who showed up at the President’s rally armed to the teeth. He’s certainly one of us. Red, white, and blue kooks are as American as apple pie and conspiracy theories.

Bill Maher asked me on his show last week if America is still a great nation. I should have said it’s the greatest show on earth. Forget what you learned in civics about the Founding Fathers — we’re the children of Barnum and Bailey, our founding con men. Their freak show was the forerunner of today’s talk radio.

Speaking of which: we’ve posted on our website an essay by the media scholar Henry Giroux. He describes the growing domination of hate radio as one of the crucial elements in a “culture of cruelty” increasingly marked by overt racism, hostility and disdain for others, coupled with a simmering threat of mob violence toward any political figure who believes health care reform is the most vital of safety nets, especially now that the central issue of life and politics is no longer about working to get ahead, but struggling simply to survive.

So here we are, wallowing in our dysfunction. Governed — if you listen to the rabble rousers — by a black nationalist from Kenya smuggled into the United States to kill Sarah Palin’s baby. And yes, I could almost buy their belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, only I think he shipped them to Washington, where they’ve been recycled as lobbyists and trained in the alchemy of money laundering, which turns an old-fashioned bribe into a First Amendment right.

Only in a fantasy capital like Washington could Sunday morning talk shows become the high church of conventional wisdom, with partisan shills treated as holy men whose gospel of prosperity always seems to boil down to lower taxes for the rich.

Poor Obama. He came to town preaching the religion of nice. But every time he bows politely, the harder the Republicans kick him.

No one’s ever conquered Washington politics by constantly saying “pretty please” to the guys trying to cut your throat.

Let’s get on with it, Mr. President. We’re up the proverbial creek with spaghetti as our paddle. This health care thing could have been the crossing of the Delaware, the turning point in the next American Revolution — the moment we put the mercenaries to rout, as General Washington did the Hessians at Trenton. We could have stamped our victory “Made in the USA.” We could have said to the world, “Look what we did!” And we could have turned to each other and said, “Thank you.”

As it is, we’re about to get health care reform that measures human beings only in corporate terms of a cost-benefit analysis. I mean this is topsy-turvy — we should be treating health as a condition, not a commodity.

As we speak, Pfizer, the world’s largest drug maker, has been fined a record $2.3 billion dollars as a civil and criminal — yes, that’s criminal, as in fraud — penalty for promoting prescription drugs with the subtlety of the Russian mafia. It’s the fourth time in a decade Pfizer’s been called on the carpet. And these are the people into whose tender mercies Congress and the White House would deliver us?

Come on, Mr. President. Show us America is more than a circus or a market. Remind us of our greatness as a democracy. When you speak to Congress next week, just come out and say it. We thought we heard you say during the campaign last year that you want a government run insurance plan alongside private insurance — mostly premium-based, with subsidies for low-and-moderate income people. Open to all individuals and employees who want to join and with everyone free to choose the doctors we want. We thought you said Uncle Sam would sign on as our tough, cost-minded negotiator standing up to the cartel of drug and insurance companies and Wall Street investors whose only interest is a company’s share price and profits.

Here’s a suggestion, Mr. President: ask Josh Marshall to draft your speech. Josh is the founder of the website talkingpointsmemo.com. He’s a journalist and historian, not a politician. He doesn’t split things down the middle and call it a victory for the masses. He’s offered the simplest and most accurate description yet of a public insurance plan — one that essentially asks people: would you like the option — the voluntary option — of buying into Medicare before you’re 65? Check it out, Mr. President.

This health care thing is make or break for your leadership, but for us, it’s life and death. No more Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. President. We need a fighter.

The word is that President Obama will crack down on the progressives on health care reform. Hopefully, the progressives won’t crack. The President seems to be capitulating to the notion that any health care reform bill is better than none. But that’s, at best, a political calculation, not a commitment to principle. Obama promised to be different. Let’s see whether he can keep his promise.

The End of “an End of an Era”

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on September 3rd, 2009

As I watched Ted Kennedy’s funeral and listened to the coverage of his life and death last week, I heard the phrase “the end of an era” so many times, it convinced me that people should stop using the term “the end of an era.” What does an “era” mean? According to the Oxford English dictionary, an “era” is defined as “a system of chronology reckoning from a noteworthy event.” Perhaps the commentators mean their observation to refer to the era beginning with the birth of Joseph Kennedy Sr.’s children. True, a genertion of Kennedy brothers had passed away now, ending the era of that generation of the Kennedy brothers. True, many of us (including myself, born the year that Ted Kennedy entered the Senate) cannot remember a time when Ted Kennedy was not in the Senate. True, thousands of liberals in America can no longer count on Senator Ted Kennedy to always speak for us in the Senate, and never apologize for being liberal. But what is the point of calling this an “era?’ What more do we learn from this phraseology?

Perhaps those who called Ted Kennedy’s death “the end of an era” intend announce the end of liberalism in America that was most prevalent in the 1960s but lingered until Ted Kennedy’s death. If thatmpphpH7AOUT[1]t is the case, then I must, most emphatically, object, not only to the phrasing but to the sentiment behind the phrase. There remains a strong progressive tradition in the Democratic party, shared by many members of he general public who dop not affiliate themselves with that party. The progressive tradition was most recently re-affirmed by the election of President Obama (with Ted Kennedy’s crucial support) and his numerous Demcratic colleagues in Congress. It is reaffirmed in the polls that show that despite months of the healthcare industry spending over a million dollars a day to fight health care reform, the American public still strongly supports it, and still demands a change to our health care system. So, let’s put an end to this talk about “the end of an era” and concentrate on what we need now. There’s never an end of the era of need for the poor and middle class folks in this country who demand health care reform.

Thomas Jefferson Got the Health Care Crisis Right

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 14th, 2009

Ultimately, Wall Street is at the bottom of our health care reform problems. Insurance companies are corporations that must nurture the bottom line at any cost to American citizens who as patients must rely of the good will of insurantmpphpmz0YNh[1]ce companies.  These companies have little, if any, of that particular commodity. Since the bottom line is shareholder profits, not patient care, insurance companies must deny a variety of claims in order to secure the appropriate–the sky’s the limit of appropriateness–level of profits.  Some insurance practices, regarding individual policies, for example, will surreptitiously renew policies every six months in order to maximize the chances that they will be in a position to deny a claim due to “pre-existing conditions.” Other practices include refusing to insure patients, fine print qualification that can be deadly, caps on lifetime support for patients, discriminating on the basis of gender, and a host of other devices that benefit corporations not patients.  Thomas Jefferson predicted as much.  Consider his words: “I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations [including health care insurance companies I hope] which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance the laws our country.”   –Thomas Jefferson, November 12, 1816. Prescient, as if our third president were writing today. What will we do it about this most egegious injustice?

What’s Wrong with “Big” Government?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 10th, 2009

Americans have been wary of too much government from the Republic’s inception. We fought a revolutionary war against tyranny, twice within the first fifty years of our great nation’s existence, and several times thereafter. And government, our government, was a lot smaller then. But is anyone else getting tired with the inbred American aversion to progressive governmental efficiencies which can bring about the goods and services Americans want and need and which justice requires? After all, we, the people are, in the final analysis, the government. Accordingly, the government should be as capacious as we, the people want it to be. If we want government to be involved in health care, the economy, the financial system, the environment, education, well, then it should be.  That’s what a republican democracy is for, to wit: within the confines of constitutional constraints, here the people rule. Unfortunately, this inbred American aversion goes back as far as our first great President and perhaps made special sense then. ctmpphpgsEIRqConsider the following statement of the debate over whether we should have a bicameral legislature. “[A] bicameral legislature slowed down the legislative process. That was a good thing to many of the framers, who worried about excessive government power.  When Thomas Jefferson questioned the role of the Senate in the 1790s, George Washington allegedly asked:  ‘Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?’ ‘to cool it,’ said Jefferson.  ‘Even so,’ replied Washington ‘we pour legislating into the senatorial saucer to cool it.'” Linda R. Monk, The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution (2003).  But in cooling it, we risk seeding the ground for killing it. Sure sometimes that’s good.  But it’s also good to have a lean self-governing process to which the majority–consistent with preserving minority rights–can have access.  Absent such a viable process, well-funded special interests control the destiny of the American Republic. In these circumstances, the corporations rule, not the people.  That can’t be good for the majority of Americans, can it? I know, I know, the founders created a Republic, not a Democracy. But is this distinction quite as useful as perhaps it once was, if it ever was?.  Most Americans want to live in a self-governing polity where the right to self-government–collective-self-direction–permits us to achieve the benefits of our labor–everyone’s labor–and also the benefits of civilization. Several times in American society the private sector has been given its chance and each time the results were problematic at best at least for most Americans.  I know, I know. American capitalism produced more economic growth than any other nation or system and is currently the envy of and the model for the world. But what has it done for us lately. And what do we call “economic growth without fair distribution”? Perhaps, pre-2007 capitalization has huffed and puffed it’s way out.  Moreover, privatization only occurs in the context of law and law means government. So the private sector is just one of several forms of government. Those ideologically committed to the government of privatization usually are indifferent to the needs and aspirations of the highly variegated forms of American life. Big government is not the problem. Oppressive government is.  And laws protecting the private sector and corporate power while preventing the little guys from effecting change can be as tyrannical as any despotic regime.  As Paul Krugman puts it: “[S]ometimes the private sector is the problem, and government is the solution.”

Can’t we try dropping the jejune dichotomy between government and the good guys and see if we can solve our problems fairly and with the common good in mind? Let’s switch to what should have been our ethos all along–democratic capitalism–where the reflective majority will prevails over those whose self-interest prevents them from seeing beyond the narrow corridors of their own insulated hermitages.

Senator Coburn’s Misreading of the Tenth Amendment

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on July 17th, 2009

It sometimes seems that it is just those people who insist on understanding the Constitution by attending to its plain meaning that get this meaning wrong.  No better example exists than Senator Tom Coburn’s misstatement of the Tenth Amendment in today’s confirmation hearings:

You know, I — people call me simple, because I really believe this document is the genesis of our success as a country. And I believe these words are plainly written, and I believe we ignore them at our peril. And my hope is that the Supreme Court will re-look at the intent of our founders and the 10th Amendment, where they guaranteed that everything that wasn’t spelled out specifically for the Congress to do was explicitly reserved to the states and to the people. To do less than that undermines our future.

But that’s not what the Tenth Amendment says: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the ptmpphprcldyw1.jpgeople.” This doesn’t come close to saying that “everything that wasn’t spelled out specifically for Congress to do was explicitly reserved to the states and to the people.” This might be what Senator Coburn wants the Tenth amendment to say, but that’s just judicial activism, legislating from the bench, making, not interpreting law. Indeed, Senator Coburn’s interpretation of the Tenth Amendment is closer to a similar, but much stronger “states’ rights” provision in the Articles of Confederation, the first American charter replaced by the United States Constitution. Here’s the relevant provision “Article II. Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence, and every power, jurisdiction, and right, which is not by this Confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.” (Emphasis added) There’s no “expressly,” “spelled out specifically,” or “explicitly reserved to the states and to the people” in the Tenth amendment. If Senator Coburn is going to object to going beyond the plain words of the Constitution, shouldn’t he be required to know what those words are?

Racial Justice After Ricci

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on July 9th, 2009

As we sit back after the end of the Supreme Court term, and get ready for the nomination hearings on another Justice, it’s worthwhile to consider what the government can do to try to reduce racial injustice in our society. Despite the long history of race discrimination new-haven-minority-firefighters.pngin our country which has subordinated racial minorities, Ricci is just the latest in a line of cases where the Court makes it clear that it will apply the highest level of scrutiny to government attempts to remedy that history. What is a city like New Haven to do to attempt to provide more opportunities for upward mobility to government employees of color? Standardizes tests, like that in Ricci, could theoretically be useful to reduce the level of discretion in hiring and promotion decisions. Less discretion should mean less opportunity for race discrimination. Yet given that one of the many issues that plagues communities of color if poor public education, it is not surprising that job and promotion candidates of color don’t score as well on written standardized tests.

After Ricci, cities like New Haven better be sure that the test is valid before they use it, because afterward, it’s too late to discard the results no matter how discriminatory their impact might be. Could cities like New Haven try to remedy the racial disparity by giving extra points on the promotion scale to candidates of color? No way, the Court has made that clear. Theoretically, they could lobby their local government officials for help.  Yet under the current Supreme Court’s jurisprudence, it’s hard to see what those local officials can do, except as Bobby indicates below, hope that candidates of color can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and improve their situation on their own.

The Controversy over Judicial Review Continues

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 16th, 2009

Lawrence Goldstone’s book, The Activist: John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, and the Myth of Judicial Review (Walkertmpphpwjom001.jpg 2008) promises to be an illuminating contribution to the controversy over whether judicial review, let alone judicial supremacy, was made up, as Justice Scalia contends, or rather in some sense intended by the Founders and ratifiers of the Constitution.  Chapter Two is one of the best discussions of the idea of a revisionary council I’ve come across as well as plainly demonstrating the radical conflict over the Court’s role in such a council and just what its independent role should be. It seems clear the Convention cannot be used as dispositive evidence that the role of the Court to strike down legislation somehow was assumed or that there was anything resembling a consensus on just what this role should be.  I haven’t finished reading the book yet, but if the first few chapters are any indication of what’s to come, I eagerly await Goldstone’s narrative.

When Will the Republican Attack on Civil Discourse End?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on June 9th, 2009

Jon Voigt has joined the Republican distillers of venom and vitriol absent facts, arguments, and reasoning. Consider: “Are we supposed to sitting and waiting, watching for the possibility of a new Holocaust? Who’s going to take the responsibility to keep America, I mean Israel, safe. I’ll tell you why this really scares the hell out of me. Everything Obama has recommended has turned out to be tmpphpbmaixv1.jpgdisastrous. . . .  It saddens me greatly to think we were the great powerful good in the world. We as Americans knew America to be strong. We were the liberators of the entire world. We are becoming a weak nation. . . . Obama really thinks he is a soft-spoken Julius Caesar. He think he’s going to conquer the world with his soft-spoken sweet talk and really think he’s going to bring all of the enemies of the world into a little playground, where they’ll swing each other back and forth. . . . We and we alone are the right frame of mind to free this nation from this Obama oppression. Let’s give thanks to [Republicans] for not giving up and staying the course to bring an end to this false prophet, Obama.” The utter lack of content in this diatribe and the fact that some people believe it serves as legitimate public dialogue is anathema to everything the Founders of this great nation hoped to achieve by “beginning the world anew.” Yet, Voigt and his cohorts steeped in this visceral American superiority have no idea what a deliberative democracy and its public discourse is supposed to be like. Obama, like any other American leader, should be subject to severe, reason, and insightful criticism. Voigt has got the severity right, but where’s the reason and insight? The inanity of much of what passes for Republican political discourse does a great disservice to republican democracy and the Constitution upon which it is based. I do not believe that thoughtful Republicans would take this even remotely seriously if responsible Republican political leaders and journalists spoke up against its poisonous effect on the future of the nation.

Sotomayor and Race

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on June 4th, 2009

Given the years of virulent racism that minorities in our country have faced throughout our history, it is a bit shocking to see right wingers like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh accuse Suprefinal-4.jpgme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic ever nominated to that Court, of being a “racist,” based solely on one remark that she made in a speech seven years ago.   On this subject, I highly recommend Charles Blow’s recent New York Times editorial, “Rogues, Robes and Racists.”   As Blow notes, there is no evidence in Sotomayor’s life, legal career or judicial record of her ever acting like a racist.  Blow contrasts Sotomayor’s record with that of Chief Justice John Roberts, who was reported by Newsday magazine to have made racist and sexist jokes while working in the White House for the President Reagan.  What is most significant is that Roberts didn’t just talk the talk, he has spent his entire career walking the walk, working to roll back the civil rights gains of women and minorities from the 1960s and 1970s.  As Bobby notes below, quoting Jeffrey Toobin, Roberts has continued this pattern as Chief Justice, ruling against criminal defendants, non-white civil rights plaintiffs (he ruled in favor of the white plaintiff challenging the use of race to avoid the re-segregation of Seattle public schools) and plaintiffs suing corporations.  Does that mean Roberts is a racist?  Not necessarily, but as Blow observes, there is a heck of a lot more evidence of his racism than there is of Sotomayor’s.

Blow’s editorial is so powerful and eloquent that I really don’t have much to add.  What I can add, however, is a bit of context to the speech that has gotten Sotomayor into so much hot water.  In a speech during a symposium on Latino judges, hosted by La Raza Law Journal, Judge Sotomayor said that “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”  Why would Sotomayor say such a thing?  It is clear from reading her speech that Sotomayor was asked to comment on how her experience as a Latina woman colors her perception of issues on the bench.  This subject is understandable given the Critical Race Theory roots of the La Raza publication that hosted Sotomayor’s speech.  At the risk of over-simplification, one theme of critical race theory is questioning the assumption that law is neutral and un-biased, and examining the ways in which our laws reinforce the existing power structures in our society, including the privileging of the concerns of white people, men, and the rich.

I have no idea what Sotomayor thinks about critical race theory, but it is clear from her speech that she is responding to this CRT critique of the law.  In her speech, Sotomayor describes her personal experiences as a “NewYorkrican” and acknowledges that these experiences have an effect on how she sees the world.  But in a much less quoted remark at the end of the speech, Sotomayor goes on to observe, “I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires.”  That’s the most we can hope for from any judge, and Sotomayor’s judicial record reflects the fact that she has been pretty successful at it.

In his majority opinion striking down two local school districts’ attempts to use race as one factor in school assignments in order to reduce racial stratification in the public schools, Justice Roberts famously noted, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  I agree with Roberts’ sentiment, but I also agree with the Critical Race Theorist view that race discrimination is more complicated than Roberts’ remarks suggests – that we are all affected by unconscious bias.  Given the choice between Roberts’ overly simplistic remark and Sotomayor’s sophisticated evaluation, and the choice between their records on racial issues, I prefer Sotomayor.