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Five Stories Making the Buzz In 2006

How progressives can jump-start the national conversation about five of the most important issues of 2006.
 
 
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Despite Bush's dismal approval ratings, the war of the frames -- how we talk about the big news and big ideas in the culturesphere -- was won by the conservatives in 2005. Think of the catch phrases of the year: The "War on Terrorism," "Intelligent Design," the "War on Christmas," even "cut and run."

These phrases may have caught on because of the efficacy of grassroots right-wing groups, but they also stuck because they are active, concrete phrases with strong verbs and easily pronounceable names. But we can do that and one better, right people?

Below are five of the biggest stories I predict we'll be buzzing about in 2006, and some suggestions on how to start talking about them now.

1. Don't Spy on Me: The Unwarranted Unprecedented Wire-Tap Scandal

Think of those poor folks in other countries whose governments never listen to them. Well, ours listens all right, even into our private conversations. Bush's school-yard defensiveness has yet to defuse what may prove to be the biggest story of 2006: the first time in history a sitting president has admitted to an impeachable offense: illegal spying on American citizens. Without warrants and with a greenlight from Bush, the National Security Agency has gathered reams of information from the telephone and Internet communications of U.S. citizens.

So far, public reaction has been muted. There are a couple of lawsuits in the works, and a few congress members have suggested at least beginning an investigation into impeachment. A new Justice Department investigation into the leak will keep the story in the news, but the focus will be more on who broke the story to the New York Times than what's wrong with the eavesdropping in the first place.

So how to talk about the spy scandal in 2006? Bush's unapologetic spying without warrants is emblematic of this administration's disregard for civil liberties for both citizens and noncitizens alike. The spying scandal is also interlinked with the administration's acceptance of (and complicity in) the use of torture, which is one reason it's critical to keep this story alive in 2006.

If such actions are allowed to continue, they represent the time when the "War on Terror" became the excuse for complete disregard of the U.S. Constitution. Readers gave some good suggestions on how to frame this issue. My favorites: pictures of Bush with elephant ears and T-shirts that say: "My Government Listens To My Every Word" and "Illegal Spying Is An Impeachable Offense."

2. The (Continuing) Disaster in Iraq

While the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will shrink in 2006, the number of needless deaths there will only increase. Since the time "Mission Accomplished" was declared in Iraq (May 1, 2003), 2,035 Americans and well over 25,000 Iraqis have been killed there. [Sources HERE and HERE.] While each new election in Iraq is followed up by Bush speeches about how we're on the road to getting the hell out of there, the truth is there is no end in sight. Let's call it the Debacle in the Desert. The Great Mistake. Or, simply, the Iraqi Quagmire.

But 2005 was also the year when Cindy Sheehan showed us the best strategy for changing people's minds: keep it personal and speak from experience. Perhaps that explains the proliferation of options for veterans against the war: Gold Star Families for Peace, Veterans for Peace, Veterans Against the Iraqi War and Iraq Veterans Against the War are all active groups made up of military families.

Amadee Braxton, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, explained why she's hopeful for 2006. "Veterans of the Iraq war and those still serving are the ones most capable of explaining the differences between the war the Bush administration portrays and the reality of the war on the ground," she said. "Most of the veterans realize, when they're over there, that they're viewed as an occupying force; not as liberators but as target practice.

"Americans were lied to," she continued, "and Iraqi veterans are uniquely qualified to describe the disastrous consequences of that lie."

Iraq Veterans Against the War has made two priorities for 2006. They plan to take on any politician who continues to support the war, whether Democrat or Republican. They also want to emphasize the connections between spending money on the war and domestic cuts at home; including cuts in basic social services and our abilities to handle domestic emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina. Their slogan? "Support Our Troops: Bring Them Home"; and "Take Care of Them When They Return."

3. Barricading the Border

Now that we've made a mess out of Iraq, it's time to mess up our own borders. Although there's not a single documented case of someone illegally crossing the Mexican-American border into the U.S. and becoming a terrorist (remember those 9/11 hijackers had valid visas), that's no reason not to turn the border into a prison. This coming year will bring a lot of posturing about the border, and also probably a wave of anti-immigrant legislation. A bill recently approved by Congress tightens border enforcement, eases deportations and stiffens sanctions against businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. It calls for a 700-mile-long fence along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border and would convert almost 11 million immigrants into felons. It would penalize anyone -- be they relatives, clergy or good Samaritan -- who helps an undocumented immigrant.

Groups like No More Deaths, an all-volunteer organization with over 2,000 members that helps injured and sick immigrants crossing the border believe the only way to create compassionate immigration reform is to give it a human face. "The current conversation about immigration is based on fear and misunderstanding," says Geoffrey Boyce of No More Deaths. "It's not based on fact, concern about safety, or even really about jobs."

Both conservatives and progressives can agree on one thing: current immigration policy doesn't work. But No More Deaths and The National Coalition for Dignity and Permanent Residency for Immigrants, believe it's immigrants who suffer the most from this policy. "The United States would not exist as it does without immigrants," says Boyce. "Everyone has a personal story to tell that is so different from the image of immigrants you see portrayed by this administration."

4. Unnatural Responses to Natural Disasters

While the Bush Administration isn't ready to admit it, for everyone in New Orleans and Southeast Asia, as well as most of the rest of the world, global warming is officially real. A recent international conference in Montreal in December 2005, convened in part to get rogue nations to accept the Kyoto Protocol, was" too painful to watch," according to author Bill McKibben, in part because the U.S. continued to derail any efforts at enforcing environmental regulation.

According to Sierra Club Canada, a 50-percent reduction in global emissions below 1990 levels would be required to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Since there are no plans for this to happen, best keep an umbrella on hand and have an evacuation plan in your pocket for 2006.

"People shrug their shoulders and say we can't do anything about nature," says Ben Jurgen, an environmental activist from New Orleans, "but we can do a lot before and after to minimize the damage." The key for progressives in 2006 will be to make the connection between overseas and domestic spending priorities.

5. The Right To Mother -- At the Right Time

No one's exactly sure about John Roberts, but with Samuel "Scalito" Alito poised to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the Supreme Court, there's no doubt reproductive rights will either be hammered away at or outright beaten. The terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice," never that accurate to begin with, have become increasingly irrelevant. Most people, given a choice between life and the abstract concept of choice, would chose life. Besides, women have pointed out that "choice" was not always the key factor in determining whether they have abortions; often economic, social, personal or other factors they didn't have control over forced their decisions. Yet despite a new urgency to protect reproductive rights, progressives still flounder when it comes to how to talk about it.

NARAL, one of the oldest and largest reproductive rights lobbying groups, has changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Not exactly catchy. And its big campaign, to prevent Alito from becoming a Supreme Court justice, is called "Stop Anti-Choice Alito."

The National Organization of Women, the other big feminist and reproductive rights group, calls its campaign: "Save Women's Reproductive Freedom." Not much more accurate and a bit wordy to rally the troops.

The most successful attempt at coalition building and framing of reproductive rights happened in April 2004, when over a million women joined the March for Women's Lives in Washington. In 2005, SoapBox launched "I Had An Abortion" speak-outs and T-shirts, very popular with young women. The trick for 2006 is taking this personalizing of the reproductive rights experience and translating it into effective political and legal strategy. Perhaps 2006 will be the year the idea of "life vs. choice" finally dies and a real debate takes its place.

These are only five of the big stories for 2006. In the interest of starting off the year optimistically, I've omitted new plagues and diseases, a possible invasion of Iran, and the continued spread of religious fundamentalism at home and abroad.

Happy New Year to you, and may you spend it in conversation about the issues closest to your heart.

Rachel Neumann is Rights & Liberties Editor at AlterNet.