Campus Progress

Five Things College Students Should Worry About Next Fall

It’s the time of year for high school seniors to prep for entering the real world. For many, it means wrapping up classes, choosing a college, and getting ready to go off to school in the fall.

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Mark Zuckerberg Supporting Dirty Energy? Why Facebook Desperately Needs a ‘Dislike’ Button

Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg is facing a wave of backlash thanks to recent moves by his new advocacy group. 

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WATCH Elizabeth Warren: Students Should Get ‘Same Deal’ On Interest Rates As Big Banks

Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced her first bill in the Senate today, the Bank on Students Loan Fairness Act, which would prevent Stafford loan interest rates from doubling this summer by dropping rates for one year from 3.4 percent to 0.75 percent, the rate at which the government loans money to big banks through the Federal Reserve discount window. If Congress fails to act by July 1 this year, interest rates on Stafford loans reserved for undergraduates will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

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The Economy is "Recovering" By Creating More Low-Wage Jobs... Increasingly Filled By Graduates

Last month, the Department of Labor released new job market numbers, which suggests that the economic recovery is perpetuating the trend of college graduates turning to minimum wage jobs. Though there has been significant employment gains, many recent college graduates have been forced to resort to low-wage, low-skilled jobs. There are now 13.4 million college graduates working for hourly pay, up 19 percent since the start of the recession.

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How Student Loans Are Keeping You Out Of The Middle Class

When Vernardo and Claire Simmons-Valenzuela married, they imagined all the trappings of a middle-class life. Soon enough, they had kids. Claire finished a master's degree. They held jobs as an Army medic and a physician's assistant. They dreamed of next steps: owning a home, taking their first vacation in years. Vernardo would return to school for a bachelor’s in nursing. But when payments for the couple's $187,000 in combined student loan debt came due, most of it accrued during Claire’s graduate education, they put those dreams on hold.

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Without Financial Aid: Making the Choice Between Food or School

Thirteen years ago, Rachel Baltazar graduated high school with every intention to go to college. But in those last years of high school, her mom was diagnosed with cancer while she faced domestic violence, herself.

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How Student Loan Debt is Treated Differently Than Other Debt

Current law treats student loans as non-dischargeable debt. In other words, no matter how broke a borrower gets, even declaring bankruptcy isn't going to get you out of paying back your student loans. 

That's why earlier this month, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) re-introduced H.R. 532. This bill is a counterpart to legislation introduced in the Senate in January that would allow borrowers of private student loans to discharge them in bankruptcy.

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Nicholas Kristof is Wrong About Poverty; Education Isn’t a Turnkey Solution

Hey, you! The college graduate working two restaurant jobs to make rent and pay off six figures of student loan debt—yes, you! Award-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof has an idea for how you can improve your economic circumstances: Get an education!

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Millennial Voters Refuse To Be Left Out of this Election

The Millennial generation is the largest, most diverse, and most progressive in American history. In 2008, this generation of played a key role in deciding who would be the next president through support at the polls and mobilizing other voters to build support.  This year, at 46 million strong, not only are Millennials now a full quarter of the voting-age American public, but they also surpass the 39-million-strong bloc of voters older than age 65.

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A Guide to Resisting Debt -- For Students and the Rest of Us

If you want a print copy of Occupy Wall Street offshoot Strike Debt’s first publication, you’ll have to wait. The 5,000 first-run copies of the Debt Resistors' Operations Manual vanished into backpacks, purses, jacket pockets, and tote bags over Occupy Wall Street’s anniversary weekend, and until a second printing, the Occupy guide to debt in America can only be acquired online.

The guide has 122 pages of information about the vagaries of debt. Consider it a manual to the surprisingly secretive world of financial trouble, where more and more Americans—and especially students—are disoriented and lost. 

Nearly 20 percent of American households have student loan debt; last year, student loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time in American history. Graduates who find themselves with incredible financial burdens and few job opportunities face isolation and uncertainty. Though burgeoning student debt played a key role in its inception, the book takes a broader approach, castigating the current economic system for forcing poor and middle-class people to increasingly rely on debt to finance daily necessities.

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Kiss College Tuition Goodbye?


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Could the DREAM Act Actually Pass in the Lame-Duck Congress?

The DREAM Act is back—Harry Reid is pushing for the Senate to vote on it as a stand-alone bill after the Thanksgiving recess.

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Financial Crisis Sends Tuition Costs Sky-High as Colleges Face Crunch

Students are often the last ones given a seat at the budget table when times are good, and the first to be put on the table when bearish economies (or the desire to give tax breaks to millionaires) necessitate painful budget cuts. Certainly, this was the case in the so-called "raid on student aid" in 2006, and is part of the reason that a recent report awarded every state in the country, except for California, an "F" when it comes to college affordability.

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How To Be an Ethical Consumer Without Breaking the Bank

During most of my time as a student at the University of Chicago, I rarely thought about the wider social impact of the vote in my pocket. My prevailing argument against my ethically minded, upper-middle-class friends who always have "disposable income" was that the ethics of consumer choices are relative. If the cost of buying fair- trade coffee over regular coffee means that I had to forgo buying toothpaste that month, then my decision to pass on the "ethical" product could not be branded as socially irresponsible.

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When Abstinence Advocates Attack

The women’s rights advocacy group Legal Momentum organized a hearing on Capitol Hill this Tuesday to publicize its newly released report, Sex, Lies & Stereotypes: How Abstinence-Only Programs Harm Women and Girls (pdf). The report was released as Congress is deciding whether to renew a controversial funding bill targeted at preventing HIV transmission overseas. The legislation is expected to loosen -- but not eliminate -- rules that prohibit the United States from giving money to any organization overseas that teaches anything other than abstinence-only sexual education.

While the hearing promised to be just another boilerplate Capitol Hill event, things got exciting when a handful of self-identified abstinence educators swept into the room. As Legal Momentum Staff Attorney Julie Kay read a litany of reasons why abstinence-only education is inefficient, harmful, and inaccurate as means for educating young people about sex, preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and preventing unwanted pregnancies, one man stood up and shouted, "Who here can admit that if you don't have sex you won't get an STD?" In fact, there are several ways to get an STD without having sexual intercourse -- such as through touching and oral sex. The human papillomavirus (more commonly known as HPV), for instance, can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact.

Jennifer Heitel Yakush, a senior public policy associate at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), noted that "the first, second, and last" components of comprehensive sexual education should be about abstinence, but she emphasized that classes should also include information on how to correctly use condoms and other forms of contraception. Providing this information to young people is vital, Yakush said, so that whenever they do choose to become sexually active they will have all the information they need to remain healthy.

Abstinence-only education funding has a long history of bipartisan support. There are three ways that the programs are funded in the United States: the Adolescent Family Life Act, which was enacted under Ronald Reagan; a section of "welfare reform" legislated under Bill Clinton in 1996; and the Community Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) fund that was instituted in 2000.

Out of these three sources, CBAE has the most stringent rules. To receive money from the fund, a sexual-education program must teach an eight-point set of guidelines, which include lessons such as: “Sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects�; young people should know "how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances�; and why young people should attain “self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.� Financial independence, Kay said, is at best irrelevant to sexual activity. Eight congressional representatives including Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Jim Moran (D-VA), and Henry Waxman (D-CA) have signed a letter asking for the end of CBAE funding. In the meantime, more than a dozen states have already rejected abstinence-only education funding because of the eight-point restrictions.

“The only success [abstinence-only education] had was a political success by pandering to the right wing,� Waxman said at the hearing. He argued that abstinence-only education programs are “demeaning� and harmful to women. “I think we ought to pull the plug on funding them,� he said to applause from the audience.

An attendee who identified herself as a "nurse" and an "abstinence educator" argued that it will just take time for abstinence-only education to work, and compared the teaching method to seat belt laws and anti-smoking campaigns. (Anyone want to call Ralph Nader and see if he’s in favor of abstinence-only education?)

She estimated that it would take at least 20 years for abstinence-only education to make an impact upon young people's sexual activity trends. Yakush noted that perhaps this woman was talking about research first conducted by Dr. Douglas Kirby, who released a report in 2001 called Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. His report, Yakush said, argued that “the jury was still out� on abstinence only education. But an updated report (pdf) released last year by Kirby -- a meta-analysis of all abstinence-only programs -- concluded that on the whole abstinence-only education is ineffective in delaying sexual initiation, reducing teen pregnancy rates, and stopping the spread of STDs. He found that the most effective way to prevent these trends were sex-ed programs that take a comprehensive approach that includes, but is not limited to, abstinence.

The self-described abstinence educator responded by arguing that the very phrase “abstinence-only� is a “pejorative term� and not an official one. Waxman disagreed. “I think you’re wrong about the legislation,� he said. In fact, the first the guidelines says CBAE "has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity." If that's not the definition of abstinence-only education, I don't know what is.

Legal Momentum's report found that CBAE's teaching guidelines included a host of stereotypes. For example, CBAE's emphasis on heterosexual marriage leaves out the LGBT individuals. When LGBT issues are included in abstinence-only curricula, they're often directly associated with spreading disease, Kay said. Clearly, the guidelines about "rejecting sexual advances" targets young women, who are seen as passive and "more likely to be in love" then men who are expected to be sexually aggressive and fear commitment. The danger in perpetuating these stereotypes is that young men and women who fall outside of sexual stereotypes feel marginalized.

Meanwhile, CBAE-style education contains "negative attitudes" toward condom use, often making misleading mathematical analysis to exaggerate condom failure rates. Young people who decide to engage in sexual activity are deterred from using condoms. After all, the reasoning goes, if condoms are viewed ineffective, why would young people use them? The most dangerous part of the teaching, Kay said, is that abstinence-only education suggests that marriage is an umbrella for protection. She pointed to one piece of abstinence literature that read, "If you want to be protected against STDs, just slip on one of these." Inside the card was a photograph of a wedding ring. A number of newly infected cases of HIV and other STDs are married women who believe they are in a monogamous relationship, but, in reality, are not.

Jamilla Taylor from the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) spoke of harmful implications on women abroad who suffer from the funding restrictions on legislation enacted under the Bush administration called President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the international aid designated to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS in places like Sub-Saharan Africa. PEPFAR is focused on a three-point method of prevention: "ABC: Abstain, Be Faithful, and use Condoms if you engage in risky behavior." Unfortunately this isn't particularly helpful to girls in countries like India, Nepal, and Nigeria, where it is common for young women to be married by age 10. In Ethiopia, Legal Momentum’s report says, it's common for girls as young as 7 or 8 to be married. Furthermore, funding for PEPFAR currently requires that a full 33 percent of funds be designated to abstinence education. The global AIDS prevention community has asked for the 33 percent requirement to be stricken from PEPFAR legislation when it is up for renewal this September. This emphasis on abstinence puts young women at great risk; young women aged 15 to 24 make up about 40 percent of new HIV infections worldwide. In southern African countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe, young women are six times more likely to be infected with HIV then men.

The renewed PEPFAR legislation, which Congress is expected to vote on in the next couple of weeks, more than triples the amount of funding allocated to HIV/AIDS prevention overseas. Still, PEPFAR prohibits its funding from use on contraception or abortion, but congressional negotiations have removed a restriction that requires countries to justify spending less than 50 percent of PEPFAR funds on the promotion of abstinence.

Overall, abstinence-only education has not only proven ineffective, but actually harmful to many women and men, especially when it is included as a mandatory element of foreign aid for preventing the spread of HIV and AIDS. Abstinence-only programs are ineffective at best, and deadly at worst, especially for young women who are at a higher risk biologically for contracting many STDs. Congressman Waxman is right: It’s time to pull the plug on abstinence-only education funding.

Choice 101

Reproductive freedom is a complicated, multifaceted issue. Decisions made by state legislators, school boards, or even college campus authorities can affect individual women as much as any Supreme Court ruling. So, to recognize the 35th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, Campus Progress has assembled a brief reading list. If you want to fill yourself in on the basics of every angle of the reproductive rights debate, here’s where to start.

Roe v. Wade

What would happen if Roe were overturned? Ever since John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined the Supreme Court, this chilling question has taken on heightened importance for reproductive rights advocates everywhere. In the June 2006 issue of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Rosen takes an impressively comprehensive look at the fallout that would result from Roe being overturned, from the impact on low-income women to electoral turmoil that could redraw America’s political boundaries.

Parental Consent

Although laws guaranteeing a woman's right to an abortion are on the books, many states persist in making it exceedingly difficult for a woman to obtain the procedure. Some states seek to hamper access by passing parental notification laws. As Jennifer Baumgardner discusses on Alternet, the main problem with these laws, other than their blatant injustice, is that they are actually rather ineffective. Baumgardner recalls how her sister received a judicial bypass to avoid the parental notification requirement 20 years ago, as some women across the country often do today. Yet, while Baumgardner aided her sister in evading their mom and dad, she still encourages young women to discuss this monumental decision with their own parents. She notes that the most important thing is that young women have the ability to make the decision in the first place. “I want to do anything I can to help girls and parents turn to each other, willingly,� she writes.

Contraceptive Access on Campus

Cost can be a limiting factor for college women on the birth control pill. Recently, the co-pays for many oral contraceptives have doubled in price. As noted in Mother Jones, this is the result “of a change in a Medicaid rebate law that means pharmaceutical companies are no longer providing large discounts on some drugs to universities, including, surprise, contraceptives.� Women across the country are being forced to break the bank just to continue with their regular practices, and clinics are struggling to maintain the distribution of inexpensive contraceptives to their clientele. And even after making Plan B available over the counter for more than a year, Salon’s Broadsheet examines how accessible emergency contraception really is. As icing on the cake, according to a recent Associated Press poll, this comes as at a time when a majority of Americans are actually in favor of giving contraceptives to public high-school students.

Abstinence-Only Sex Ed

What do the academics and empirical studies say about efficacy of abstinence-only education? In a July 18, 2007 New York Times story, Laura Beil takes a look at the modern abstinence-only education movement. While the movement’s effectiveness and future are nebulous, the Bush administration is pouring thousands of dollars into abstinence programs across the country. Beil follows recent high school grad Jami Waite, who is the face behind the Virginity Rules campaign, and presents the conclusive facts on abstinence education in this short, yet captivating, piece. Furthermore, Bush has been promoting what choice activists call the “Global Gag Rule,� which restricts foreign aid from promoting abortion or contraception as a form of family planning. The Global Gag Rule Impact Project has a seven minute streamable documentary called “Access Denied� on the deadly effects on women in Zambia.

Abortion and Birth-Control Access for Low-Income Women

Coming just three years after Roe, the Hyde Amendment, an often overlooked and discredited piece of legislation, devastated lower-income women nationwide by removing abortions from the list of health services provided to women on Medicaid, despite the other reproductive services it covers. Louise Melling, Director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, makes a compelling case for the amendment’s repeal, while providing a definitive fact sheet on the public funding of abortions.

The State-Level Battles

As “trigger laws,� laws that would effectively ban abortion in the event of the Supreme Court striking down Roe, have shown the state-level battles are vital. In a piece on, Christine Vestal fleshes out the ongoing state battles between pro-choice and anti-abortion activists, which was fueled by last year’s Supreme Court ruling that banned partial-birth abortions. Vestal highlights the important cases, divisive arguments, and future of abortion rights on the state level.

The Current State of Sex Trafficking and Prostitution

Sex workers, often burdened with societal stigmas and deprived of opportunity, endure extremely dangerous work and have few advocates working on their behalf. But with the growing availability of Web access, they have found a functional vehicle�whether for maintaining anonymity, displaying their creative works, or organizing events to promote safe sex. Juhu Thukral, the director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York City, takes a look into how blogs, MySpace, and email have helped mobilize and unite sex workers on the nation’s streets.

The Problems With Anti-Choice Laws Begin at Conception

Today marks the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the historic Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the United States. It is a legal cornerstone upon which the right to choose and women’s reproductive rights rest. One of today’s challenges to Roe is Colorado’s “Definition of Person� ballot initiative, approved by the Colorado Supreme Court in a 7-0 decision last November. The initiative aims to amend the state’s constitution to define a person as a fertilized egg. If adopted in this November’s election, the amendment would grant the state constitutional protections of inalienable rights, justice, and due process to microscopic fertilized eggs.

This isn’t the first ballot initiative that has sought to chip away at Roe. In 2006, South Dakota attempted to pass an outright ban on abortion. The measure didn’t pass, in part because the measure as written didn’t include exceptions for rape or incest. An eerily similar ban was proposed in Georgia early last year. Louisiana enacted a law giving rights to embryos back in 1986. Today there are many state-level initiatives that seek to give rights to human embryos. The measure that could appear on the ballot in Colorado this November is more evidence that the pro-life movement has begun highly disciplined grassroots movements in the states to implement constitutional amendments. Such amendments would have to be taken all the way to the Supreme Court in hopes of overturning Roe. The Colorado for Equal Rights campaign, or (CER), and its founder, 20 year-old Kristine Burton, are spearheading the “Definition of Person� initiative.

Burton is the oldest of three home-schooled children and graduated high school at the age of 15. At 17, she enrolled in Oak Brook College of Law & Government Policy, a California-based correspondence law school that is overtly religious. The school's Web site says that “Oak Brook emphasizes Biblical standards of moral character and encourages its students to seek the Lord Jesus Christ for wisdom and understanding in their studies. Through the personal discipline of studying and applying Scripture, students maintain the awareness that God is the ultimate moral authority to Whom we are accountable.�

Between now and May 13, CER must gather 76,000 signatures�less than two percent of Colorado’s total population�to add its initiative to the November ballot. Rich Coolidge, spokesperson for the Colorado Secretary of State, says proponents are encouraged to collect closer to 100,000 signatures because the state will verify that the signatures are registered voters by randomly checking 4,000 or 5 percent of the total number of signatures, whichever is greater. If the signatures are deemed valid, the initiative will be added to the ballot in November. Then, all CER would need is a simple majority to make it law.

The CER Web site proclaims it “was founded with the goal of protecting human life.� A downloadable fact sheet (PDF) the organization distributes states the campaign aims “to transform our nation from a culture of death into a culture of life.� Of the two pictures featured, one is of several pre-school aged children and the other is of a fully developed fetus. All are common pro-life rhetoric and images, yet the site never directly says the goal of the amendment is to open the door to outlawing abortion. In practice, of course, that’s exactly what the amendment would do.

The text of the initiative itself doesn’t even mention the word abortion, and active supporters are careful to side step the abortion question. Audrey of the Oak Creek Grade General Store in Colorado, one of CER’s 10 petition distribution points, claims it had not occurred to her that this could lead to a ban on abortion.

Pro-choice organizations say that this initiative is not only the latest strategic assault on a woman’s right to choose but could also threaten access to birth control. Furthermore, they contend that the amendment could have implications far beyond the realm of reproductive health. Toni Panetta, Deputy Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, says that giving fertilized eggs legal rights could potentially make insurance companies obliged to grant fertilized eggs the same health care they would any other insurance customer.

The Colorado initiative would throw all terminated pregnancies in the same category, regardless of the cause. In addition to criminalizing abortion, “it could allow miscarriages to be investigated,� says Jodi Berger, of Planned Parenthood Colorado. In practice, it is nearly impossible to tell which eggs have been fertilized and which haven’t. Some women can miscarry without ever knowing an egg had been fertilized.

Burton dismisses the notion that the amendment will ban abortion or have other unintended consequences. “What we’re trying to do here is define when life begins,� she says. The relevant text of the initiative states that the “terms ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include any human being from the moment of fertilization.� CER, in the meantime, is emphasizing the limited scope of the legislation. “People are trying to overcomplicate the issue so that it’s something it is not…this is about the truth,� Burton says.

But the office of the Colorado General Assembly, ostensibly a neutral body vested with the authority to interpret the language of the initiative, raised the same issues as Planned Parenthood and NARAL. Their Review in Comment memo states, “It appears that the proposed language could affect a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion.� Subsequently, the assembly anticipates that due process procedures could be applied prior to an abortion. Under those circumstances, it’s unclear what form due process would take. The result of the proposed amendment is a legal quagmire.

Berger and Panetta, as representatives of the pro-choice community, are confident that once the Colorado voters are educated about this initiative, they will turn it down. Panetta says Colorado has a history of voting pro-choice and that voters will reject a measure that could ban abortion and curb other reproductive health rights. In fact, Panetta thinks the issue will provide a good platform to engage Coloradoans in a dialogue about reproductive rights.

Burton and the supporters of CER may subscribe to a philosophy where God is the ultimate moral authority, but their conclusions about the point at which life begins have no place in Colorado’s state constitution. On the anniversary of Roe, the right to choose must always be guarded against people like Burton and CER seeking to undo it.

Five Minutes With Eric Schlosser

Is obesity the next big American political issue? With one Republican presidential hopeful, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, gaining national recognition for his personal weight loss and collaboration with former President Clinton to keep sweets out of school, it's possible. One person responsible for raising public awareness of the issue is Eric Schlosser, an award-winning journalist and modern-day Upton Sinclair who penned Fast Food Nation in 2001, a blistering expose of the dark side of the fast food industry: health risks, horrific working conditions and industry efforts to market directly to children.

Now, Schlosser is back with a fast food follow-up, Chew on This, a similar expose written with Charles Wilson; it focuses particularly on the dangers of fast food for children. But Schlosser is now set to reach an even larger audience: In the coming months we'll see a film based on Fast Food Nation, directed by Richard Linklater and featuring big name stars like Patricia Arquette, released across the country. Since we couldn't convince him to sit down with us over a burger, Campus Progress chatted with Schlosser over the phone.

Campus Progress:Fast Food Nation was a dramatic wake-up call for a lot of young people about foods we had all grown up eating. What inspired you to write that book?

Eric Schlosser: Well, I didn't come to it out of any great hatred for fast food, I used to eat it all the time. I did a big investigative piece at The Atlantic Monthly. It was about illegal immigration, it was about farm labor, migrant farm workers, and I told a very complicated story through something simple and concrete: a strawberry. We love strawberries and we eat lots of strawberries, and we eat lots of strawberries without ever thinking that each one of those strawberries has to be picked by hand. So, you want a lot of strawberries, you need a lot of hands. And that article was read at Rolling Stone magazine, and they invited me in to do the same thing for fast food.

Basically, they wanted me to go behind the counter and show all the complex systems that bring you this heavily processed food. I didn't jump at the opportunity because I eat fast food, and I didn't want to write something condescending and elitist putting down the industry, but the more I learned, the more amazed I was, and what was incredible to me was that I would be eating this food all the time without thinking about it, without having any idea where it came from or how it was being made.

Campus Progress: As a writer, I have to tell you the lead to that book is just incredible. You start out in a military base ...

ES: ... Cheyenne Mountain. One of our most top secret military bases, which is inside a hollowed-out mountain in Colorado.

Campus Progress: How do you come up with something like that?

ES: You know, it's not always premeditated. A lot of it comes out of the reporting. I was looking for a place to set Fast Food Nation, and Colorado sounded really interesting to me. It felt like, with the whole conservative religious fundamentalist culture, it was at the cutting edge of change in America. Little did I know how much that culture would take over America.

I decided to set it in Colorado Springs. There are these big military bases, so I applied to visit the base. And while I was there I started talking to them about what they eat there and it just blew my mind that, at that point, and I'm sure its no longer true post 9/11, the Domino's Pizza delivery guy would come right up to the gate at one of the most top-secret, important military installations in the United States. [If] you can get Domino's delivered to the Cheyenne Mountain air station, fast food has really infiltrated every part of American life.

Campus Progress: Tell us a little bit about your new film based on Fast Food Nation and whether you and Morgan Spurlock have a rivalry.

ES: Firstly, Morgan Spurlock: He made a totally disgusting film, but a really funny film. There's no rivalry whatsoever. As a matter of fact, we have a standing agreement that I will testify in his behalf when he gets sued by the industry, and he has promised to testify in mine.

The film that's based on Fast Food Nation is totally different from Super Size Me, and I love Super Size Me. This film is a fictional film, it's an independent film made by a wonderful director, Richard Linklater, who did Slacker and Dazed and Confused. It takes the title of my book and some of the themes but pretty much puts aside the book. There's nobody in the book who's literally in the film. The film is about the lives of some intersecting characters in a small town in Colorado, a lot of the film is in Spanish, some of the crucial characters are illegal immigrants, and in some ways it's an updating of [Upton Sinclair's] The Jungle on the hundredth anniversary of the publishing of that book.

Campus Progress: Why did you write your new book, Chew on This?

ES:Chew on This is aimed at kids, and it's aimed at the people who the fast food industry is heavily targeting with its mass marketing. When I finished Fast Food Nation and the manuscript was all done, I hired a fact-checker from TheNew Yorker, Charles Wilson, and his job was to make sure that every fact was right ... . He came to me with the idea of doing a children's book based on Fast Food Nation, arguing that these kids are being targeted by the fast food industry, they need the same sort of information in Fast Food Nation, and they need an alternate view of the world than the one they're getting from all these ads. So it sounded like a good idea, and I recruited him to help me with it.

Campus Progress: What do you think of the recent announcement of several major soda companies, including Coke and Pepsi, to stop selling their products in elementary and high schools come this fall, and why they might be motivated to do that?

ES: I'd like to think that they were motivated solely by concern for the health of American children. But, whatever their motivations are, I think it's a good thing. The deal was brokered by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and the current governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, a conservative Republican. I think it's a terrific step because it shows bipartisan support for ensuring that kids are eating healthy food in schools. I don't think it's an ideal agreement; it's going to be phased in over a number of years [and] it's a voluntary agreement. But to me it's a sign of the times, a sign that attitudes are really changing and there's a real feeling growing that we can't afford to have these companies marketing unhealthy food to kids in schools. I applaud the move by the soda companies to make voluntary changes, but I also support moves at the state and federal level to put tough restrictions on what kind of food can be sold in schools.

Campus Progress:Fast Food Nation sold extremely well; it raised a lot of awareness. Have you seen any improvement in the issues you talk about, like exploitative labor practices at fast food restaurants and the meatpacking plants that supply them?

ES: In the five years since the book was published, a lot has changed for the better and some things have changed for the worse. I'm not going to claim credit for my book being responsible for all this, but nevertheless things have changed. One of the ways things have changed is there's much more awareness about food. In the last five years there has just been a huge increase in organic production, the sale of organics. Whole Foods is one of the fastest-growing, most profitable food distributors, and they represent a whole different set of values from what McDonald's and KFC do. So you're seeing a big change in eating habits among well-educated people and upper middle class people, and that's good.

There's also a lot more awareness about obesity and the obesity epidemic, which really didn't seem to be discussed much five years ago and now is a huge, huge subject of debate and concern. Cutbacks on soda in schools, Governor Schwarzenegger kicking the junk food and the soda companies out of school, all that is good.

When it comes to worker safety and workers rights in the American meatpacking industry, I think things are much worse than they were five years ago, thanks mainly to the Bush administration, which is very close to the meatpacking industry. I went to Texas after Fast Food Nation was published to interview meatpacking workers there; those are some of the worst conditions I've ever seen. The food safety issues, I think, have gotten much worse, again, because the Bush administration is so close to the meatpacking industry. This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue, ideally, it's a non-partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats both have to eat. Unfortunately, a lot of money flows in Washington from this industry to certain politicians. There's been a real backslide, I think, in food safety measures.

One thing that I also think is worse is the eating habits of the poor and ordinary working people. As the obesity epidemic is growing in this country, it's mainly growing among people at the very bottom. These are the main consumers of fast food. Fast food is increasingly the food of the poor. What I'm hoping to see in the next five years is the same changes in eating habits that have occurred among the well-educated and the upper middle class now need to be extended throughout society, especially for the people at the bottom who are suffering the worst health effects of this food.

A Kid in a Theological Candy Store

(Eds Note: This article appeared originally on

Growing up, I was one of the only kids who sought out religion; in fact, I even made my parents go to church instead of the other way around. Most teenagers have to be dragged out of bed on a Sunday morning, but as soon as I could drive I was attending church (United Methodist) solo. As a young adult committed to my faith I was always interested in discovering and studying its idiosyncrasies. When entering college in the fall of 2002, I found myself reading the Bible nightly and shopping for churches and fellowships all around DC. It took me over a year to find my niche, but it was well worth the wait.

Young religious kids from all over America find themselves in similar situations to mine, navigating the transition from high school to college and attempting to keep their faith. My story gets interesting, however, when I decided to become a pro-faith, pro-choice activist.

Before coming to college, my political views were mostly unshaped, although I definitely had progressive leanings. Entering into the uber-political climate of The George Washington University certainly jumpstarted feelings I had about what was right and just in politics. Then I found myself wondering what role churches should take in declaring what is and isn't just in society and government. I had never been to a church that talked about politics.

But I was part of a church that freshman year that had a lot to say about people in politics. Despite the fact that their congregation was mostly under 30, I found their views stifling and narrow, very un-Christ like in my mind. They preached to love your neighbor as yourself, as long as that love was not for anyone doing something controversial like being an advocate for the freedom of choice, gay marriage, or an end to the death penalty. Pretty much any current debate in America was off limits. Also, the affirmation of other religions being equally sacred in the eyes of God or a supreme being, was a statement this church considered blasphemy. Somehow these teachings did not seem consistent to me with the religion I loved. Thanks to the help of some very supportive people in my life I gathered the courage to leave this.

I then started attending Western Presbyterian Church in the fall of 2003 where I found myself absorbing politically enhanced sermons by the ear-full. My pastor spoke about the obligation Christians had to be involved in the political process, that as people of faith, it was unacceptable to witness the tragedies of the world without making steps towards improvement. Taught that God thoughtfully entrusted humans to engage in challenges, despite our feelings of inadequacy, I was encouraged to speak up about the issues that made me passionate. Like a kid in a theological candy store, I got to take all of what I believed and put it into action. For the first time I was surrounded by a group of people who were religious and progressive, something I had not yet found but desperately craved.

I sought out United Methodist connections in DC and found important leaders who encouraged me to participate in the United Methodist Student Movement. Attending two forums I was compelled to speak on behalf of the pro-faith, pro-choice movement and then wrote legislation on HIV/AIDS, comprehensive sex education, and reproductive choice to stir up discussion among young Methodists. I began to carve out my space as a faith-based advocate for choice. I began to find a few allies but unfortunately also a great number of enemies. Certain Methodist students have told me over and over again that I lack heart and have no place in the church. Luckily, I have learned to turn the other cheek.

In the spring of '04, I gathered with more than one million other pro-choice supporters at the March for Women's Lives. It was there that I heard the Rev. Carlton Veazey speak about religion and choice. He captivated me with his words and his spirit when he spoke about an idea that's time had come. He said, "The time has come for the religious people of this country to not only defend the constitutional right of women to choose but also to defend the religious freedom of all Americans. The time has come to proclaim with all our moral power that women's rights are also civil rights and human rights." This message inspired me to get more involved. A few months later I became an intern at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), where Rev. Veazey is the current President. An education and advocacy organization, the Religious Coalition offers many religiously infused viewpoints on reproductive choice and provides resources to communities who prayerfully decide that a woman's right to choose is between her and her God.

Amidst these experiences I began to define what aspects of my faith made me pro-choice. For example, the social principles of the United Methodist Church, speak clearly not only on the sacredness of the life of woman and child, but the right of the woman to be a responsible, moral decision maker. Knowing that these principles, a major part of the UMC's polity and law, stood behind choice empowered me to also stand for choice. And although I continue to struggle with many of the Bible's messages, not once does it mention, let alone outlaw, abortion. The beginning of life is not fully articulated, whether God knows us before we are born, or breathes life into us after birth, (both are described in separate stories of the Old Testament). Once I realized that it was not my role to convey what God might think or do for others, I fully embraced the freedom of choice because of my faith, not in spite of it. Ultimately I believe that God gave everyone free will, hoping that we would always be thoughtful and responsible when using it.

Finally, as I prepare to end my nearly two year internship with RCRC's student arm, Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom (SYRF), I will put the finishing touches on the organization's second SYRF Student Summit ("Putting Faith into Action for Reproductive Justice"). The Summit will focus on religion, choice, and the interfaith movement. I cannot think of a better reaffirmation of my journey this past four years than to be an active part of this powerful gathering of young spiritual pro-choice students.

This country is in desperate need of other young people who share the vision of acting upon their faith, a faith that is full of love and respect for our fellow human beings. It is sad that most of the religious voices heard in society today represent only a small minority of narrow-minded believers who would rather live in a simple world with black and white morals, than a challenging, complex and diverse society. Thankfully, voices like the Religious Coalition, Campus Progress, Tikkun, and more are making room for religious young people who don't side with the right-wing. These groups, coupled with progressive church communities (and other faith groups), are making it known that young people are vital in building and sustaining a more just society.

Has the Long Peak-Oil Emergency Begun?

(Eds. note: this article originally appeared on

The record high price of gasoline has been all over the news in recent weeks. While Americans were smart enough not to fall for the congressional Republicans' ham-handed effort to buy votes with a $100 rebate, polls show that Americans are worried about gas prices, and are beginning to think about changing their energy devouring ways. All of this makes novelist James Howard Kunstler look very prescient.

In 1993, James Kunstler revolutionized the way Americans think about their landscape when he released his first non-fiction book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape. The New York Times described it as "an impassioned rant against suburbia, shopping malls, cheap disposable architecture and the fragmentation of communities fostered by an increasingly mobile, car-oriented culture." He has continued this crusade with articles in a wide range of publications and in his most recent book, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. (Check out excerpts in Rolling Stonehere.)

In this book, Kunstler argues that the world will soon pass "peak oil," the point at which more than half the world's recoverable oil supplies have been used. According to Kunstler, America 's auto-dependent culture and landscape will make this transition to a post-oil economy extremely painful. He predicts potential wars over dwindling oil supplies, massive abandonment of suburban sprawl areas, and, ultimately, a return to the time when people ate locally grown produce and did not commute dozens of miles to work each day.

We caught up with Kunstler to chat about the intersection of urban planning and progressive politics, and what the future will look like if, as he predicts, oil prices just keep rising.

Ben Adler: In your new book, The Long Emergency, you lay out this very, very pessimistic vision of the near American future --

James Kunstler: Well, it's only pessimistic if you think that living in Plano, Texas, is the world's greatest thing, you know?

BA: Well -- okay, that's a fair point -- I guess some of us would say that if Las Vegas really becomes a ghost town as you predict, that would be a good thing.

JK: That would be good for us in many ways -- not least of which is because Las Vegas is the holy shrine of a very pernicious religion -- which is the religion of getting something for nothing; the religion of unearned riches -- which is an idea that is extremely destructive and insidious and has now spread throughout our culture and has given people the idea that earnest efforts are not required to have good outcomes.

BA: Nonetheless, you lay out a vision that is very stark and extreme in what is going to happen to vast swaths of the country -- the South; the Southwest in particular. How do you respond to people who say the laws of supply and demand will dictate that as oil prices go up, the market will move to new kinds of energy and that some market correction will make these circumstances much less dire than you predict?

JK: Well, I wouldn't try to denounce them or anything. There's no question that as a society we are going to be doing some things differently, including some things that will surprise us. And not all of them will be terrible. Some of them will be beneficial. But I think on the whole, that there's a great deal of wishful thinking involved in believing that both the "market" and "technology" will bring some rescue remedy to stave off the discontinuities that we face.

BA: Tell us about your seminal work The Geography of Nowhere, in which you laid out the history of suburban sprawl and its negative effects on the American economy, culture, and landscape. What compelled you to tackle this subject?

JK: I was a young newspaper reporter during the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, and I was working in this brand new building out on this heroic suburban boulevard of commerce -- filled with the big box stores, and all the new malls, and the muffler shops, and all the other accessories of the world's highest standard of living. And so we went through this energy crisis, and it made quite an impression on me. Especially how dysfunctional our suburban living arrangements could become if anything went wrong. And so, I went on to do other things: I worked for Rolling Stone magazine and then I quit that, and kind of retreated to upstate New York to write novels. And after a while, I got back into journalism, focused on our living arrangements in America and land development. Well, we're basically destroying our country and also probably destroying our economy and our future by developing this economy based on the never-ending construction of more and more suburban sprawl. And so I wanted to explore exactly what the nature of this problem was as well as its most visible manifestations -- you know, the endless vistas of nauseating crap that we've smeared all over the landscape.

BA: In the years since it's been published, would you say that you've seen an improvement in the way new communities are being planned, or is it continuing to get worse?

JK: Well, in general, it's continuing to get worse. I was associated over the past 12 years or so with the reform group called the Congress for the New Urbanism which is made up of architects, planners, and some developers, who were trying to do something better -- trying to really revive the idea of a town. However, their work represented a tiny fraction of one percent of all the development done in America, or redevelopment of existing neighborhoods and districts. We have still done incredible damage over the last decade or so to the landscape -- and what's probably worse is that in the absence of having an economy that really produces things of enduring value, we have shifted insidiously to an economy that is based almost solely now on the housing bubble, and all of the activities associated with it like, you know, the creation of more strip malls, and big box stores, and stuff like that. So, the damage out there continues, and is putting us in ever more of a hazardous position.

BA: There have been studies that show the exurbs (far-flung suburbs), where mega-churches often serve as the main source of community, are trending very conservative politically. Do you see any connection between the rise in Christianist Fundamentalism and suburbanization?

JK: I do think that the preoccupation with evangelical religion has, to some degree, been a substitute for the destruction of public life in general, which has followed the destruction of public space. And the thing that's ironic and sort of paradoxical about it is that the whole Christian Fundamentalist sector employs the methods of big box chain retail in order to do their thing -- it all takes place on a massive scale which is rather defeating to the idea of belonging to any kind of comprehensible unit of anything.

BA: For young progressives who want to slow the rate of global warming and want to strengthen American communities following the principles of new urbanism, it seems like such a colossal problem to tackle. What can our readers do on the local and national level to change this pattern of development?

JK: Okay, I will give you a very specific answer to that. And I preface it by saying that the political progressive wing of American politics really ought to be ashamed for being as feckless and foolish as it's been in the last several years by not paying attention to any of these issues. And, one of the signs of that is what I'm gonna say next. We have a railroad system in America that the Bolivians would be ashamed of. There isn't one thing we could do in this country that would have a greater impact on our oil use than restoring the American rail system to something like a European level of service. It's something that we know how to do, the infrastructure is laying out there waiting to be fixed and re-used, and the Democrats are not even talking about it -- and I'm a registered Democrat -- and it ticks me off. I would like to see the politically progressive kids out there start militating to restore the American railroad system. The fact that we're not even talking about that shows me how un-serious we are.

A Log Cabin Divided Cannot Stand

As a queer-identified man who grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist Church in North Carolina, I've spent most of my life flirting with conservatives and gays, but rarely both at once. Sure, at times my worlds have overlapped, like when, in Christian youth group, we'd go proselytize at gay bars with our trying-so-hard-not-to-be-gay former President of the Auburn College Republicans youth pastor. But, generally, these two worlds--the gays and the conservatives (both of which I simultaneously love and hate dearly)--have remained as two clearly distinct spheres in my life.

That is, until this past weekend at the Log Cabin Republican (LCR) National Convention.

For three days, hundreds of gay conservatives from all over the country descended upon Washington, DC for this $400-a-person convention complete with open bars, catered steak dinners, group prayers, readings of the Constitution, and more non-reciprocal meat market staring contests than you could possibly imagine. The Log Cabiners threw around business cards, strategized about elections, planned recruitment of all types, anointed and threw tribute to their favorite charismatic, super-sexy leaders, and desperately (and poignantly) searched high and low for any and every pro-gay Republican leader in the country. (Average distribution: one per 100 square miles)

And, as an "intern," I was at the center of it all: meeting and greeting Andrew Sullivan when he arrived to speak, bantering with Grover "drown Big Government in a bathtub" Norquist at the registration table, overhearing various attendees try to win social points by ambiguously implying that they had slept with LCR President Patrick Guerriero, and talking shop with my dinner table populated by JP Morgan executives.

Determined to immerse myself in the culture throughout the weekend (and avoiding nostalgia for the Republicanism of my youth), I certainly saw my fair share of elitism and puffed up right-wing rhetoric, but I was also surprised and impressed by the genuine sincerity, passion, and struggle of many of the attendees, and in the end became excited about much of the LCR movement.

Rich, white, Reagan-loving gay conservative politics?

One thing worth noting right off the bat is that by and large, the LCR convention was all about white, gay men; there wasn't much space (nor much of a turnout) from lesbians, bisexual or transgendered individuals. The Log Cabin Republican Staff. Can you guess which one's the administrative assistant?

Much of the weekend was spent reminding attendees that there need be no oxymoron in the phrase "gay Republican." (24% of gay Americans did vote for Bush in 2004.) The striking juxtaposition of a "Brokeback Mountain" Wyoming resort package right next to a framed image of Ronald Reagan on horseback in the silent auction drove this leitmotif home with more than a hint of irony.

Over and over again, the speakers expounded on how the philosophy of conservatism, and its insistence on liberty and freedom from the State, created a paradigm for gay identity and expression. It seemed that many attendees had so reworked their own history that Gay Liberation had become a natural outgrowth of Barry Goldwater conservatism, completely disconnected from feminist and left-wing political and social movements. Understanding a lot of LCR members means understanding that many gay Americans don't necessarily see their struggle connected to larger feminist and identity politics movements.

During one particularly embarrassing (and revealing) moment, one of the original LCR founders shouted from the podium: "And because of Reagan's courage as governor, California avoided banning all gays and lesbians from being state teachers." How sad that such a defensive, small-bore, conciliatory act became Reagan's most proudly pro-gay moment, and how much sadder for so many gay people to be unabashedly championing the man who refused to mention the word AIDS for the first five years of his Presidency even as the virus raged across the country and ravaged the gay community.

The Reagan-worship, which seemed quite sincere, really shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as it is fairly consistent amongst almost all conservative movements and groups. Each group molds Reagan to embody their particular core ideology--whether it's economists who hone in on his supply-side leadership, neoconservatives who highlight his aggressively uncompromising foreign policy, or in this case, gay Republicans, who focus on his "inclusive" party building. Take this line of thought far enough (and I'm sure a few LCRers would) and you conclude Reagan did more for gay rights through his reduction of the "death" tax and his promotion of anti-communist paramilitary groups overseas than any hate crimes legislation, nondiscrimination codes, or civil unions benefits ever have or ever will.

This smooth confluence of gay and conservative identities was utilized brilliantly throughout the weekend. By playing on the white gay male cultural stereotypes of conspicuous consumption, hedonistic indulgence, and children-less affluence, and fusing them seamlessly with country club Republican stereotypes dominated by stock options and lavish golf vacations, one begins to think that gays and conservatives are indeed--and always have been--one and the same. (That is, of course, if they reside in the top tax bracket.) Part of the event was tinged with a sense of "we're gay and rich, so hurry up and give us our rights so we can get back to doing what we really want to do: working out and accumulating capital." Several men's method of flirtation was to tell me how big their credit limit was (usually unlimited, of course) with a certain square jawed, jocky superiority. Another guy struck up a conversation by asking, "Do you play squash?" Needless to say, this kind of wealth and status-conscious attitude isn't limited to gay men or to conservatives, but the scene acquired an extra poignancy because I could almost imagine these guys standing in the corridors of power, wearing the same Brooks Brothers shirts as everyone else, whispering, echoing Tony Kushner's Reagan-era Roy Cohn: "I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I'm screwing to the White House."

An earnest LCR grassroots movement

But focusing on these pockets of extraordinary elitism would be to miss the larger point of the LCR conference entirely. It's important to remember that, in a lot of ways, the Log Cabin Republicans are a very organic, nuanced grassroots political movement. Though reductionist parody is always entertaining, to characterize the group as a sex-infused business networking opportunity is both inaccurate and politically limiting. The fact is, that for most of the LCR attendees, their main goal was to create a more inclusive Republican party that can produce a better world for so many gay and lesbian Americans, regardless of whom they choose to vote for.

During a remarkable session early Saturday morning, LCR organizers from all over the country gave a report on their local efforts. What they described was essential and grueling grassroots organizing work: letters to the editor, door-to-door canvassing, attending school board meetings and city council hearings. One LCR organizer explained, "to do effective gay grassroots organizing you have to be in the field, with people, talking to people, doing the hard work of politics, one person at a time."

And who else is going to do this work within the Republican party but the Log Cabin Republicans? Who else is willing to talk to Republican party leaders one by one, reminding them that some of their constituents are not heterosexual? These are people who are active in their churches or their campus Intervarsity chapter; and as church members and conservatives they can speak to fellow church members and conservatives with legitimacy. Perhaps this model can be effective, just as women across the country of all ideologies continue to speak out and demand more equality in the home and in the work place, one by one, little by little. Instead of trying to change the way the world thinks about larger frameworks of sex, power, and gender, these grassroots Log Cabin patriots have a simple plea for the Heartland: We're like you in every way Red State America, but could you just give us a little equality?

In one video shown at the conference, fifty openly gay and lesbian Republican delegates held a passionate, forceful rally asking for the Log Cabins to be able to have a booth at the 1996 RNC Convention. The rally was greeted with fiery, hateful counter-protests and anger from fellow delegates. Yet the LCR's stood firm, passionately defending their right to be there, and stalwartly holding strong to their identities as Republican, Christian, and gay.

Propaganda aside, I was generally impressed with the LCR's earnestness. Many of them are doing the work many people aren't willing to do: working in the heartland, talking to conservative religious leaders, setting up meetings with state-level Republican representatives and senators and asking them point blank why they support anti-gay adoption bills that pull apart American families, or refuse to support hate crimes legislation that better protects gay Americans from violence. And if at least a third of the country is Republican, can we ever arrive at a place of LGBTQ equality without a vibrant gay Republican movement?

Everything in moderation : a principled conservatism?

At the conference, the impacts of the social right-wingers--let's call it the DeLay/Santorum Caucus--were diminished in favor of a very conscious, if at times forced, optimistic focus on the few Republicans--mainly in the Northeast--who are supportive of gay and lesbian issues. Though there was tremendous emphasis placed on a few dozen elected Republicans who had shown courage in supporting gay and lesbian equality, there was nary a mention of the much greater numbers of elected Democratic politicians who were fully supportive of a range of LGBTQ rights.

Two ideological themes emerged: one, the need for LCRs to support all moderate Republicans--from Chris Shays to Christine Todd Whitman to John McCain--and to work to build a politics squarely in the middle; and, two, the need to cultivate a more principled conservative movement rooted in "genuine conservative values."

Congressman Jim Kolbe, a moderate Republican himself, represented the first of these themes. A former aid to Barry Goldwater, Kolbe spoke of what he saw as a link between terrorist nations and anti-gay oppression. Commenting on the male Iranian lovers who were recently executed in Tehran for homosexuality, Kolbe said that the nations that most threaten our national security are also the nations that are most oppressive to gays and lesbians. "Do gay rights stop at our borders?" he asked, and then called for the U.S. to become more active in exporting our way of life into other nations. Of course, Congressman Kolbe made no mention of the potentially deleterious impact that aggressive U.S. involvement in Iran would have on all Iranians, gay and straight.

Openly gay and HIV-positive conservative intellectual Andrew Sullivan best represented the second theme, through a riveting speech about the need to find a new conservative soul grounded in liberty and freedom driven by the spirit of self-critical conversationalists open to the exchange of ideas and always willing to admit mistakes. He eloquently spoke about how the Bush Administration had abandoned true conservatism by disregarding habeus corpus, irresponsibly expanding the federal government, and governing in a fundamentalist, oppressive manner. So much of his rhetoric and philosophy was similar to my own sense of the world (one rooted in vibrant democratic exchanges), yet his message sounded like empty idealism glazed with a hint of British colonialist nostalgia. I mean, how can we all really be free to enjoy our liberty when the structural framework of our society works against so many people?

Making space for not always progressive LGBTQ movements

In the end, I can't say I really believe in the Log Cabin Republican movement--the systems of patriarchy, unchecked corporate capitalism, war-mongering, and homophobia that produce LGBTQ oppression are too fundamentally linked together to separate LGBTQ equality from other issues. But my respect for these people and this movement and my sense of its importance has grown tremendously. Most Log Cabiners I met were rich, out of touch, and self-consumed, but, then again, so are many people, including our leaders on both sides of the aisle. I found myself impressed with their efficiency, lucidity, and positivity. There was something remarkably fresh about being around gay men who were into guns and hunting, and something inspiring about being around people who have the courage to work so intimately with the people responsible for so much hate.

The Log Cabin Republicans will continue to grow as a movement, as gays and lesbians become more mainstream, and younger generations of Republicans far more tolerant of gays and lesbians than their predecessors take over the Republican ranks. Our challenge as progressives is to figure out how we can work together with Log Cabin Republicans on issues we have in common so we can build a more inclusive LGBTQ rights movement. I'm certainly not about to, as LCRers are fond of saying, "come out as a conservative," but I will say that some of the activists I met renewed my hope in the power of the grassroots, in the power of the work people can do in infinitely small ways every day and everywhere, from small towns in Texas to suburban Ohio.

Gay Republicans explicitly pivot between multiple identities. They struggle over whether they dislike James Dobson or Hillary Clinton more, all the while feeling that they are equally despised at different times both for being gay and for being Republican. All of us encompass competing identities, desires, cultures and politics. And as we struggle to create a more participatory body politic and a more thoughtful national political discourse, that we can't simply deny those whose identities we see as contradictory or illogical. Instead, we might need to open up some space.

I'll probably continue to satirize gay Republicans, just as I often deride many straight Democrats. Ultimately, for me, the Log Cabin Republicans are sort of absurd and certainly politically problematic, but they are also at times so powerful and endearing that I find them absolutely essential to our national politics. But, of course, at the end of the day, it's important to remember that things can only go so far. As earnest and courageous as LCR politics can sometimes be, one thing will certainly not change: if you want to make it with a Log Cabin Republican, solid conservative philosophy will only get you so far; presentation, performance, and money is still more than half the game so brush off your American Express Black card and start starching your collars.

Five Minutes with Russell Simmons

[Editor's Note: This interview appeared originally on]

Russell Simmons, hip-hop entrepreneur and activist, was awarded the Freedom of Speech Award at this month's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen for his groundbreaking Def Comedy Jam series, which was a critical forum for launching young, African-American talent like Dave Chappelle into the mainstream. Presenting the award was Center for American Progress President John Podesta.

Simmons is the co-founder of Def Jam, the pioneering hip-hop label that has been home to Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Redman, Method Man and more. He is now a multimedia mogul, with Def Comedy Jam, Def Poetry Jam (hosted by Mos Def), Phat Farm and Baby Phat clothing lines as well as films like The Nutty Professor joining his empire.

In his spare time, he launched the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) in 2001 to provide an organization that is by and for the hip-hop generation. HSAN engages young people in issues ranging from equal access to quality education, freedom of speech, voter registration, youth leadership, economic literacy and opportunity, and the reformation of New York State 's Rockefeller Drug Laws.

John Podesta sat down with Russell Simmons to talk about youth empowerment, yoga, and who the real gangstas are.

 John Podesta:Def Comedy Jam gave the opportunity to marginalized voices in society--[comedians that] didn't have mainstream audience, and through Def ComedyJam you gave them a mainstream audience. Now, with the success of the whole range of platforms that you provide, have those voices really penetrated the mainstream? Or do we still need to work to get the voices of the marginalized into the mainstream?

Russell Simmons: Well, it's an ongoing process. Of course a lot of work has to be done. But it's good that poor people have the mic. I always say that about rappers -- poor people got the mic. They won't give it back. They say a lot of things that make a lot of people uncomfortable. They're voicing ideas that are not otherwise going to get heard in a big way all over the world. There are so many songs that speak truth to power. And they say things -- although you may not get them right away -- about the poverty, the ignorance in the community, the lack of opportunity in the community -- they speak to all those issues. Songs that people are so offended by -- listen closely. Gangsta rappers, they call them. Not nearly as gangsta as the things that inspire them -- you know, a gangsta government that we operate under.

So things that we take for granted, and the things that we push under the rug, they bring up again, make us reassess them, and think about them. The suffering and the poverty in our communities that's not addressed by our politicians is in the forefront of our culture. So it's good that these poets and rappers can say what they're saying.

JP: One of the things that come through loud and clear through rap music, through the poets, through the comedians is that they are authentic voices -- they really have something to say because they're speaking from personal experience. As you look around the political world today, do you hear anything authentic coming from the political people speaking to people, particularly in communities of color?

RS: I'm not listening that much. You know, I support different candidates at different times -- there's always one better than the other. I like that Andrew Cuomo, for instance, [who] is running for Attorney General. I liked what he said about the death penalty when no one else would say it. I liked that he talked about fighting poverty -- not like most politicians. He might have been a little bit of a young Sargent Shriver, someone who wants to inspire people to break the mold. So I hope he really lives up to that. He's talking about a lot of things that don't poll well.

But I like most of the spiritual teachers that tell us the same things that the politicians don't want to talk about. His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke with such a sweet heart, he told us the truth -- the stuff we ignore … about our foreign policy or our insensitivity to our poor…. Politicians don't talk like that. Mostly spiritual people do. So I like listening to those kinds of voices.

JP: Do you think artists are providing a more serious and authentic critique of what's wrong with society today than the political world?

RS: Well, they tell you what people are thinking. Sometimes they know how complex it can be, but sometimes what sounds so complex is really pretty simple. So in other words, the smarter we get, the dumber we get. You know how dumb we can be -- if all of our sophisticates do all the good work. The smart ones, the educated ones put people in ovens, enslave people, bomb innocent people, let people die and complain about the few that die in their backyard. Rude, crude shit -- that's what the smart people do. So the rappers are really good at being the ones who just say what's on their mind, and make what's supposed to be so complex simple.

It's not really discussion about Sudan, Nigeria issue, all these things that are coming up right in front of us. We're still talking about little things that affect us personally, that we think affects us -- it all affects us. I like what Bono is doing. I love what he and Bobby Shriver are doing, that Red campaign, the One campaign -- just raise consciousness and even money for some of the stuff that Bush promised -- like the African AIDS thing.

But of course we spend so much on the war. The money we spend is fucking unbelievable. With people suffering … And no one talks about it! And no Democrat's saying nothing that's inspiring to me. The people with big voices -- politicians. I'm sure they believe what they're saying, but …. they can't say the obvious. Why they can't pay attention to our truth? I mean I think it's the truth …

JP: I think that's what there is a hunger out there for--

RS: Yeah, they're looking for somebody to say something.

JP: The Hip Hop Summit Action Network has done great work in voter registration, they've done amazing campaigns. In recent days, you've chosen to focus on financial literacy, and I think some people were surprised by that -- it wasn't an obvious choice.

RS: The Hip Hop Summit Action Network is about empowerment for the hip-hop generation. Voting is a strong indicator that you're paying attention to your connection to your community and to this country. Taking control of your life is a very, very important thing for people who feel lost, for people who feel locked out. Voting is a very, very important thing. Whether you win or lose, it's your investment -- you're now connected.

So financial literacy is something that's more practical to some, but it's the same thing. You know, you say let me look up my FICA score. Let me see what my credit rating is. Let me have an idea about what I gotta do to have good credit. How do I start to build wealth -- with the few dollars I have, can I make it more? You know, lots of people who go out to the Hip-Hop Summits are really poor -- they say, why are you talking about money? But the Summits are usually about the artists giving them the first and most important thing which is investing in themselves, devoting a night to looking up the score. That is the first step -- one step toward personal empowerment.

Rappers tell them that hard work, dedication, focus and resilience -- faith, also -- these things go into success. With those things, you can't miss. You have to have faith in that process, and what will give you faith in that process is when you see somebody come out of your own community. Eminem hosted three Summits -- this will be his fourth Summit. Nelly hosted two Summits. Snoop Dogg did two. Will Smith did one. Puffy did one. Jay-Z did one. All the artists -- 50 Cent -- all of them have invested. And when kids go to the Summit and see them on the stage, they say, these are people who come from my struggle. And the things the rappers tell them, it's just about taking control. And if you work hard, you can be a success in the world -- a worldly success. It can happen.

JP: Some of this is about personal knowledge, personal responsibility, personal empowerment. Some of it, though, is also about abusive lending practices.

RS: Oh, that's a different subject, a huge subject. Predatory lending -- and all the abuse of poor people, just in general. The people who have the least pay the most for all services.

JP: And is part of the empowerment agenda to try to change that practice politically?

RS: Yeah, to get out of that mud they put you in -- people taking advantage of your condition.

JP: After Katrina, there was a mainstream media focus on the plight of poor people for at least a brief few months. E.J. Dionne, a Washington Post columnist, called it the shortest war on poverty in history. But there are some things that are going on -- there are ballot initiatives on minimum wage around the country.

RS: These [conservative] think-tanks have raised all this money and investment, they really want to fight that minimum wage thing. You want the people to talk about it. You want the cultural people to do the work, because they make the biggest difference. Look what happened -- Governor Pataki gave me the pen, and he signed that change in the drug laws. Bob Ehrlich -- another Republican by the way -- gave us the credit for pushing it and bringing it to his attention. When rappers bring it to your attention, you gotta lay down. You can't have 50 Cent and Mariah Carey telling you about an abusive law that you hadn't heard about -- and they start talking about it, and then Puffy's talking about it, and next thing you know there's a snowball and all the people are point their fingers at you -- if you're a politician, you might do some work. I want to start talking about what can we do to get the artists to talk about this subject. We need help.

JP: Well, we're working with ACORN and some others on minimum wage issues.

RS: I want you to ask a 21-year-old kid from Brooklyn if he's even heard of ACORN. Ask him. Then ask him if he's heard of Reverend Run. Or 50 Cent. Or Snoop Dogg. The leaders of ACORN are talking about that issue -- and they're probably doing some lobbying, some work--

JP: Well, they're doing some grassroots organizing.

RS: Grassroots work? Well shit, all they have to do is get on TV and say it, and people start talking about it. It's a big issue, I think. All the people who are suffering, who are getting the minimum wage today, who need it to be raised -- they don't know that you're working on it. They could know in a matter of days if you spent the money in the right place. In days. Not months, not groundwork and millions of dollars -- days. So it's good to find good partners in your idea to raise awareness on subjects.

JP: So, in the work that is happening on poverty, what is completely missing?

RS: Oh shit. I don't know. Education is first. No Child Left Behind -- what is that? They're all being left behind! Right? It's the war on poverty and ignorance -- I think that's Sargent Shriver, I didn't make that up. That's it. Our schools are like prisons. What about the art programs? The imagination is very important. [My organization] funds 70 art programs in New York -- small, but that's our initiative to try to bring that back into schools. The imagination is how things get done. You have to cultivate creativity. You also have to work on a component that's uplifting for people who are struggling. I'm going to meet next week with the Secretary of Education. I want to bring yoga into the schools.

JP: That actually raises the last question I wanted to ask you -- it's my Oprah question, so don't answer it if you don't want to -- you're very into yoga. It's a big, meaningful part of your life. It maybe seems a little incongruous for a hip-hop mogul to be into yoga, but how did you get into it? What about it do you want to pass on?

RS: Let me say one thing about yoga. If you were to go down the block to that nice yoga studio here in Aspen and had all of them vote, they would all be more compassionate, and loving, and giving. You couldn't find a state or a city that would vote more on the side of helping others than you'd find in that small group there. And if you would have all those people vote all over the country, it'd be a different country. The idea of yoga is a union with something better -- that's what it means. It's a spiritual practice that's the basis of all religion -- it's a simple thing. Christians talk about Christ consciousness; Buddhists call it Nirvana. There's a name for it in every faith, and that's what you're working towards -- yoga. And I think it's a great thing that some schools in Chicago and Florida and other places are experimenting with it -- and I want to push that, because I think it will make a better society if people practice it.

Five Minutes with Helen Thomas

[This interview appeared originally on Campus Progress.]

Helen Thomas has been an iconic face in the White House press room for decades. She covered an unprecedented nine presidential administrations while gaining a reputation as a thoughtful, tough reporter. While working for United Press International for 57 years, Thomas took on the boys' club of political journalism, becoming the only female print journalist to travel with President Nixon to China and the first woman to hold posts in the White House Correspondents' Association and the National Press Club. Though Thomas proudly sat in the front row of the press room for decades, she was moved to the back in 2003 by a Bush Administration that she frequently peppered with critical and challenging questions, and has been called on less and less frequently because, she speculates, "they didn't like me … I ask too mean questions." She is now a regular columnist for Hearst.

Campus Progress sat down recently with the "first lady of the press" over a cup of very black coffee to talk about women journalists, comparing wars, and undying curiosity.

Campus Progress: Do you have any advice for young journalists?

Helen Thomas: Oh, go for it! It's the greatest profession in the world. And you should view it as public service--when you are informing the American people, you are doing the greatest thing because you cannot have a democracy without an informed people. It is an education every day. I only feel sorry for those who had to leave it to put the kids through college. But I think once you get hooked on being in journalism you will never, never, ever feel the same way. I've seen so many reporters look back in longing for the days when they were starving to death, working 14, 15 hours a day, going to offices where they walk up four flights of rickety steps, and they loved every minute. I just think it takes great dedication. And the pay is too low, the hours are too long--but you never leave when the story's breaking, and stories never break on your time.

CP: In the last couple of years, aspiring journalists have seen many professional journalists censoring themselves and avoiding asking the tough questions.

HT: I think that there's a real deterioration in journalism. Unfortunately, everybody with a laptop thinks they're a journalist today. They don't have any professionalism, they don't have any standards, and we have been infiltrated by that. Plus there is the corporatization of all the media companies. It's a tragedy to have one-newspaper towns with no competition, and having the media broadcast outlets think that entertainment is more important than the issues. So I think that the profession is changing radically, and it has not commended itself very well in the last year in terms of plagiarism, fabrication and so forth. So I think they have to do a lot of soul-searching, but I'd say that the preponderance of reporters are very dedicated to the values and standards of accuracy and honesty and credibility. One thing about this profession: you do not last long if you make a big mistake, because our report cards are on the front page every day.

CP: You covered the White House for a very long time--which presidents and presidential press secretaries do you think were the most honest and forthcoming?

HT: Which president? None. Some press secretaries really tried to wear two hats--you have to be a schizophrenic. On one hand, you're speaking for the President of the United States, for the whole federal government, for the American people and on it goes. That's one hat. The other hat is to speak to the reporters who are but a transmission belt to the American people. I think much depends on how much a president wants the American people to know. This Bush administration is the most secretive I have ever covered, and I think the most secretive in American history since the time presidents have been covered.

All presidents think that most information involving government and the White House belongs to them, to their domain, and I think it belongs in the public. I don't think they should have these secrets--I think it's unconscionable the hold they have. I mean, I didn't know the Brits ran any ports until this started! And it's all decided by a secret committee that decides whether we sell our ports? This is a shock to me, and I think I'm so dumb to have not known that. But why didn't I know it? Because it's not been on the public record at all.

Well, back to the thing: I think that the greatest press secretary was Jerald terHorst. He served for one month with President Ford. He had been a newspaper man in this town, for Detroit news, for 29 years--he knew everybody and everybody knew him. He was a man of trust.

He was appointed press secretary by President Ford who was a sudden president, and he was saying "the long national nightmare is over," Nixon resigned. While Jerry was serving, he got a call from a couple of newspaper colleagues and friends on a Friday and they told him that there were rumors that President Ford sent emissaries to San Clemente and that they were working on negotiating a pardon for Nixon. He went to the counsel of the White House, who is the chief lawyer, and he was told that was not true. Jerry came back and told the reporters no, nothing to it. Then on Saturday, I think, he got the word from Ford that he was going to pardon President Nixon and he was so devastated.

I think that Jerry terHorst was a man of great integrity, tremendous integrity. All press secretaries are placed in dilemmas like that- except for these press secretaries now, they are robots! They all promise never to lie but they shade the truth all over the place, they dance around because the president didn't want them to tell anything.

CP: When you were just starting out, what was the position of female journalists and how has that evolved?

HT: Well, I was very lucky--I had parents who couldn't read or write, but they wanted everyone to be in education. And the one thing they never told me was that it was a man's world. So everyone in our family--nine kids--we all chose what we wanted to be on the assumption you're in America, right? And you can do anything you want.

In high school, I was a sophomore and I saw something that I had written in English class in the paper, and I was hooked for life. I had a byline, my ego swelled--I said, "This is it!" I mean, who needs anything else?

When I started out, there was kind of an automatic reflex to assign a woman who comes knocking on the door of the newspaper--if there's any slot it would be on the woman's pages, which is ok because there's lots of news in that field. But it was the tail end of World War II, and they were drafting every young man who had a pulse. If he was breathing, he was going to war, and that left a lot of slots in the hard news offices for help. So women suddenly became the thing to hire.

But after the war, it was a real shocker to me. We had about nine women fired from our office. I was hiding under a table, knowing this. But they wouldn't have wanted me; I was going to work at 5:30 in the morning and I was simply a gofer, really. The presumption was that these male reporters, young men, 21 years old, 22 years old who had usually been in college, would want to come back to these jobs for $24 a week. They came back as colonels, captains, commanders and so forth. And they looked at those girls and said "Hell no!"

I hate to think that World War II helped me get started--I mean that's the tragedy. That was true in medicine, law, all these professions--women had a tough, tough time. Still--they're not there yet. They should never give up the battle for equality.

CP: So, what was your most outrageous experience as a young female reporter?

HT: Outrageous? Every day! Outrageous.

Well, the Press Club we couldn't go--you had to be escorted by a man if you were going to get a cocktail or dinner or something. That was shocking. Even though we were on beats with men, toe-to-toe in competition, they did not take us in until 1971. And it was because the Club was down on its uppers, financially, and needed our money, needed our dues.

In 1959, I was President of the Women's National Press Club. All the press clubs at that time cabled Moscow because it was the start of the co-existence era and Eisenhower had invited Nikita Khrushchev to come. Well, it was a tremendous story, because we were going to talk to the Russians. We newspaper women were determined not to be left out on that. And as it happened, whenever there was a foreign visitor up to that time, the State Department would automatically put them at the National Press Club for a luncheon for their one appearance for the press in Washington. Well, we knew that was going to happen and we started screaming. We made so much noise that they arranged that thirty women reporters, for the first time in history were allowed to sit on the floor of the National Press Club.

CP: Obviously you have a reputation for standing up to power and asking tough questions in the press room. Can you identify a particularly difficult moment where you felt like backing down?

HT: I, back down? No way!

I view the press conference as absolutely indispensable for a democracy. There is no other institution in our society, no other forum where a president can be questioned. If he's not questioned--and it could be a "she" someday-- he could be a king or dictator! There's no accountability at all. Sure, Congress can subpoena them, but they're not going to do that unless it's dire. So I think that if you have a chance to ask a question of a president, you shouldn't blow it--you should really nail him in some way.

I think that press conferences are extremely important, and this president holds the fewest. But it's the reporters' fault because they don't clamor. Something has happened to the press.

CP: What do you think has happened?

HT: Starting after 9/11, they rolled over and played dead--they were so afraid of being called unpatriotic and un-American and they thought the American people were watching on television. They lost their guts and they did a lousy job. It was so clear, for two years, that President Bush wanted to go to war. Every day on the podium in the press room, we heard Ari Fleischer and then Scott McClellan say in one breath, "9/11--Saddam Hussein--9/11--Saddam Hussein--9/11--." So later on when they said, no, Saddam Hussein had no links with them it was a little late in the game.

CP: Can you compare the media coverage of the march to war in Iraq and the subsequent events there to other wars that have occurred during your time in the press room?

HT: This one is totally controlled. I think that embedding reporters was good to save lives but they certainly have not done the story. You never really saw the war. You didn't see the invasion of Baghdad really. You didn't see the bombs. You didn't see the victims or anything else. I've asked all the people on the networks--"Oh," they said, "that was too gruesome, we couldn't do that." Well, that's war. The Pentagon and the White House had total control of the news. In Vietnam, a reporter could hop on a helicopter, get some help from the military and go anywhere they wanted--they wrote the story and they also wrote how futile it was becoming. And now we have a system where the Pentagon is planting favorable stories in Iraq and, well, God knows where else.

CP: You think that might be happening in the American media as well?

HT: I think every time Rumsfeld briefs, it's baloney! Here's a man who signed off on torture, and then when he finally saw the photographs, he had a little bit of conscience… We've killed people in torture. That's not us--is it? Where is the outrage?

I can say all of this because I'm a columnist now. Before, I never bowed out of the human race. I permitted myself to think, to care, to believe--but I didn't permit myself the luxury of having it in my copy. I wrote the dullest copy--he said, she said, he added, blah blah. I was afraid of a verb that might convey my feeling--but everybody knew I had a megaphone otherwise, with my friends and so forth!

CP: Now that you are working on your column, is there anything you miss about reporting?

HT: I honestly believe that the wire services do the best job of informing the American people. I don't think my opinion is worth two cents, really, but I do think information is so important--and straight information, unbiased as humanly possible.

CP: There has been a huge change in the last 20 years with the rise of the right-wing shadow media. Even before the internet and before Fox News, which has become huge, you had the New York Post, the Washington Times--all these newspapers that are basically doing right-wing opinion journalism.

HT: I think it's terrible, really, that they have dominated now. I mean, they're not giving you news. They're baiting people. Practically every liberal commentator has been wiped out--I mean Moyers, Donahue, you can name them. It's a tragedy in my opinion, and I think that part of it the blame is the media or corporations who really think they can make a lot of money with people screaming at each other. The right wing has dominated … and of course the middle ground Republicans don't have a say any more.

CP: So what news outlets do you rely on? Do you use the internet much?

HT: Well, I read my email with trepidation--"you're ugly, you're awful, you should retire"--and I write back "You must be living a dull life if you insist on living mine!" And on it goes. Every day I go to the Starbucks near the White House and read the Washington Post, New York Times. That's indispensable, I think. That's your homework. And then when I walk into the office I turn on CNN and keep it on. I think they've lost a lot of ground. They were magnificent when they started, but trying to emulate Fox is a joke. So I hope they'll get back their high standards.

Why do you have to be a beautiful blond woman to be in journalism? But I admit when I go on television I say, "do you have a makeup artist? Please, take half these chins away!"

CP: What do you want to be remembered for?

HT: As a fair reporter. It's very simple: I can say that off the top of my head. I love reporting. I think I'm the luckiest woman in the world to have picked a profession where even when I am dead tired and not wanting to get up in the morning, I'm still very excited and I have undying curiosity. I don't want to miss anything while I'm around.

A Wal-Mart Grows in Wyoming

In Rock Springs, Wyoming, the winds are so fierce that they will slam your car door against your leg if you don't pay attention. Because trona and coal mining are the main industries in town, generations of families fill graveyard shifts that are both physically demanding and life threatening.

Shaped by the natural resources that surround it, Rock Springs is filled with small businesses that cater to the needs of its residents. Growing up in a family that started its own business, Smyth Printing, I was raised to believe in the importance of customer service, fast turn-around, and quality products. For twenty-five years, my parents have established partnerships within the community. City Market was the local grocery store where we shopped. I got my hair cut at Lynn's beauty salon and ate cookies at Fred's bakery.

Now, all of those businesses have been wiped out and in their place stands a massive concrete box called Wal-Mart. This economic giant looms across the street from Smyth Printing and has terminated the business we did with these independent stores. The literal shadow it casts over the shop is a constant reminder of the threat it poses to my family's livelihood. As my parents grow older, I realize that our business is a leg that could get slammed in the door of Wal-Mart.

From a young age I have observed and participated in the process of offering a distinctive, personalized approach to the business world. After school I began answering the phones by saying, "Good evening; Smyth Printing. How may I help you?" I practiced those words a million times in my head so my father wouldn't give me his typical speech, "Dealing with the customer and making a good first impression are crucial to running a successful business."

If I was far from the phone I would sprint to pick it up, because it wasn't allowed to ring more than three times before somebody answered it. I watched my dad run the press smoothly and efficiently. My mom, the graphic artist, worked directly with the customer to create a product they wanted. If a customer wanted a business card with a picture of a bucking bronco, she created it. If they didn't like the way it looked, she re-did it. It was as simple as that. Wal-Mart doesn't have a printing department yet, but I wonder how long it will be before they add it to their repertoire.

According to Wake Up Wal-Mart, "Over the course of a few years after Wal-Mart entered a community, retailers' sales of mens' and boys' apparel dropped 44 percent on average, hardware sales fell by 31 percent, and lawn and garden sales fell by 26 percent."

Is the world of small businesses on the verge of extinction? Working for Smyth Printing during the past two summers of my college career, I have begun to master a trade. I can handle thousands of sheets of paper, work the monster cutter without losing a finger, and precisely pad or collate NCR paper (that would be a kind of carbon paper to you). Hospital forms are three-hole drilled and shrink wrapped in hundreds. The wrap-around books are scored to 1/2 inch, folded, and stapled. Rather than relying on commercials or full page ads in the newspaper, our salesperson goes out into the community every day to personally advertise our services. Boxes are hand labeled and packed when a product needs to be shipped. We reach out to the community with our own hands, sponsoring Little League and United Way.

So what happens if Wal-Mart decides to open a printing department and make itself an even more super Super Center? Every time I come back to this town, I discover vacant lots where small businesses used to live. These holes weaken the structure of our community and corral the citizens to shop at Wal-Mart.

Wondering how such an enormous business functions in comparison to Smyth Printing, my dad and I cross the street to explore the Super Center. As I gaze down at the shopping list, I mentally note we need bread, milk, and toothpaste. We park the car and head toward the bustle and neon lights. Behind the sliding doors, a man and woman stand on opposite sides. I smile at these "personal greeters" and only receive blank stares in return. After passing the two statues rendered in human form, I realize this place is filled with a variety of name-brand products and generic employees. I wasn't looking for a two-armed bear hug, but some signs of life would have been nice.

I guess the poverty-level wages they are paid could dampen their pleasant personalities. "In 2003, sales associates, the most common job in Wal-Mart, earned on average $8.23 an hour for annual wages of $13,861. The 2003 poverty line for a family of three was $15,260."

We grab a cart and devise a game plan to maneuver efficiently through this oversized building. A lady with her handful of children accidentally rams our cart, initiating the bumper car ride towards the toothpaste. Passing city blocks of clothing, jewelry, and kitchenware, we finally approach the personal hygiene section where I scan the array of colors, shapes and sizes that are offered on the massive toothpaste shelf.

Finally, I discover Crest Original but it is located three feet above me so I search for an employee to help. The first one I spot can't stop because he is being called by management to the baby clothing section. The second one works strictly in the mechanical department and is already behind schedule on an oil change, so I track down a metal ladder myself. To cap off this rather impersonal, compartmentalized shopping experience, we are herded out through the check-out chute and into the parking lot with the echo of "have a nice day" ringing in our ears.

Back across the street at Smyth Printing, my parents have established a small business whose primary focus is narrowly defined by a particular trade, not five or six. While the nation's largest retailer is struggling to defend itself from public attack on their poverty wages and stingy health care plan, we are looking for ways to keep my family business afloat. While carrying boxes of envelopes into Hemphill Trucking, the owners chat with my father about the booming natural gas wells up North.

Back in the van we head to our next location and continue the same routine that we have performed for close to thirty years. Yet, I can't help but notice how the number of deliveries has shrunk considerably during the past two years. How long my family business is going to survive I can't predict, but quietly trying to persevere isn't going to cut it -- families with small businesses need to start talking about our situation. Perhaps Wal-Mart does represent inevitable economic winds of change; nonetheless, we need to fight to protect the small businesses and independent spirit of towns like Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Confessions of a Beauty Pageant Drop-Out

[Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Campus Progress.]

It was with a combination of contradictory emotions -- familiarity, estrangement, anticipation, disdain, and even a twinge of regret -- that I tuned in and watched the Miss America Pageant last month. Why? I'm not your average viewer or loyal fan.

No, I was a teenage beauty queen.

It might have been a long shot, but had circumstances been slightly different, I could have been in Las Vegas competing for that crown myself. As an insider, I want to correct some of the most common misperceptions about Miss America's image of women, but I also understand some of the deepest flaws in the organization's brand of feminism.

Raised in a conservative Republican family, I entered and won my first pageant at the age of 11. I was constantly encouraged to look beautiful, even sexy, from very early on. It was fun, and it was a mutually beneficial experience. I got to dress up in gorgeous, expensive gowns and command the attention of hundreds of people while on stage, and my mom got to dote on me and rake in quality time as we drove all over Southern California on weekends for different competitions. It was like Little League, but with high heels and bustiers instead of cleats and jerseys.

After we moved to Texas when I started high school, I went on to earn such titles as "Miss Teen North Texas" and "Miss Dallas Teen" in the younger age categories of the Miss America and Miss USA systems. Toward the end of high school, I burnt out on pageants and stopped entering, much to the very vocal dismay of my mother.

During college, I experienced a dramatic ideological leftward shift (also to the very vocal dismay of my mother), which at first made me ashamed of my prior participation in the pageant circuit. Ultimately, however, my newfound progressive beliefs brought me full circle, and I returned to pageants more determined than ever to make it to Miss America.

To be sure, I do not defend all pageants. Some are entirely without merit. The Jon-Benet-style contests I entered as a child are decided almost exclusively on the basis of appearance. Winners earn little more than a gaudy tiara and a 5-foot trophy, and the pageant directors walk away with a ton of cash bilked from gullible parents who unfailingly believe -- and try to prove -- that their child is just the cutest kid in the whole world.

Or, for instance, though the Miss USA Pageant (part of the Miss Universe system) includes an interview phase and the winner does some charitable work, it is a for-profit enterprise owned by Donald "The Donald" Trump and NBC. Founded in 1952 by Catalina Swimsuits as a product promotion tool, it seeks women as models. Just watch the show (it's coming up in April) and you can't miss all of the product placement interspersed throughout -- the reigning Miss USA hawks everything from suntan lotion to flashy diamonds. So the formula is simple: the most attractive woman makes the best spokesmodel and, therefore, the best Miss USA.

But, I swear, Miss America is different! Why else would a proud lefty feminist like myself want to enter a local preliminary with dreams of winning a state and then national title? The short answer: money, celebrity, and a cause.

The non-profit Miss America Organization proudly proclaims itself to be the world's leading provider of scholarship money for women, offering over $45 million to American women last year alone to pay for higher education. After crowning the new winner on Saturday, Deidre Downs, Miss America 2005 and a Rhodes Scholar finalist, will enter medical school at the University of Alabama with the help of a whopping $50,000 scholarship. I have designs on medical school myself and could certainly use the assistance.

The organization's stated purpose is to "[empower] young women to achieve their personal and professional goals, while providing a forum in which to express their opinions, talent and intelligence." In fact, despite the high profile of the swimsuit competition, a substantial majority of a contestant's score is based on the talent and interview competitions. The scoring system ensures that, often, the winner isn't necessarily the one with the most obviously comely figure or brightest smile.

Every contestant is required to enter with a platform, a cause to advocate during a year-long speaking tour should she win, about which a panel of judges asks rapid-fire questions during the interview. The most common selections are comfortably non-controversial, such as literacy education or breast cancer awareness, while some women have ventured into hotter topics with surprising ease; Miss America 1998's platform was a relatively progressive vision of AIDS prevention and treatment.

It was this aspect of the competition that appealed to my own progressive activist ideals. I had fantasies of using the built-in fame and PR resources of the Miss America title to advance my personal vision of large-scale public health reform in the United States. My plan involved advocating for universal health insurance, expansion of the National Health Service Corps and public health infrastructure, incentives for the practice of evidence-based health care, and mandated adoption of electronic medical records by all hospitals and clinics, among other reforms. Anyone can speak to student groups in vague platitudes about "awareness" of drugs or diseases. I wanted to make a concrete difference in policy and thought I could get more press attention now as Miss America than I'll probably ever be able to get once I become a public health official.

Yes, it would be a purely strategic move. But Miss America advocating progressive public health reform would be sort of like Nixon going to China, right? My platform, while admittedly overly ambitious, stood out in its detail and goals. Plus, I thought I could show the Miss America Organization, my fellow contestants, and the public that even a borderline hippie could win the Miss America title and do some good through relatively unorthodox titleholder advocacy (and maybe, just once in a while, trade in those colorful tailored business suits for some worn-out cords).

So it was with some excitement that I entered the Miss Arlington pageant in February of 2005. But my delusions of grandeur quickly evaporated. All of my prior reasons for quitting came flooding back to me. The heavy make-up, the smothering smell of endless cans of hairspray, the excited backstage patter about wardrobe selections, pushy stage mothers primping and fussing over their daughters, spending hours on end with my body bound up in tight undergarments.

And I remembered the subtle dishonesty of it all. I found the local competition utterly oblivious to the true substance of contestants' lives. When the Miss America finalists were asked on Saturday about a childhood experience that challenged them, neither the judges nor the audience really wanted to hear about the deep problems that I'm certain many of these women have experienced because doing so would simply be uncomfortable. Take the first runner-up, Miss Georgia, a young woman who grew up in the South with a blonde mom and an Asian dad. She took an unusually bold move for a pageant contestant by even mentioning race, noting that in her youth, she experienced taunts because of her background. But still, she glossed over the mammoth issue of racial rifts in American culture with perfect pageant sheen. She acted like her encounters with racism were only discrete moments that existed exclusively in the past, that the ongoing racial dynamics of America couldn't puncture the supposedly color blind pageant world bubble. It seemed that she was "over it," having purged her childhood trauma from her perfect heart, body and brain.

But that's what viewers want. They want "cute," they want neatly packaged problems articulated as profundity, and many of the contestants were eager to oblige. I chose my daddy as my escort for the evening wear competition. Kids made fun of me because of my big glasses and gangly limbs, and it made me a stronger person. Viewers and pageant organizers don't want to confront the process of being a woman. They want to see the product of being a woman -- a complete package with challenges overcome, plus honor roll status and a rockin' bod.

I enjoyed or at least tolerated all of these things as a teenager. But in the midst of the Miss Arlington pageant, I realized I had changed too much to endure them for even a day as an adult.

And then, of course, I won -- the first step toward lthe 2005 Miss America pageant -- based largely on my platform-based interview score, the highest of the contestants.

I gave up my crown just one week later, after what was for me the final straw: I learned how little say I would have if I were to win the national or even state title. Miss America must sign her life away for a year in a contract that obligates her to be, first and foremost, a public relations tool for the pageant--wearing what they tell her to wear and giving prepared speeches at fundraising events. Time to pursue her own cause is limited at best.

Under the weight of so many compromises, I finally gave up on pageants once and for all. Still, the media hype about this year's culminating contest compelled me to be one of 3.06 million people to tune in to the Miss America Pagent last month. They said it was going to be a return to tradition, and I wanted to see what that might look like.

After watching, I found the changes to be minor and irrelevant. They brought back the Miss Congeniality award and did away with reality show-style gimmicks that had been adopted in recent years to try to boost ratings. But those were replaced with new gimmicks, hardly traditional, such as live satellite feeds from a Miss America house party in Maine, live blogging from the pageant, and a hunky host from one of the most popular (and sex-filled) shows on television.

Watching the show in light of my own complicated pageant history, it wasn't tradition or lack thereof that struck me. Instead, it was my sense that the Miss America Organization's anti-feminism is found less in its eternally popular swimsuit competition and more in its ironic ability to take smart, talented women -- many of whom will go on to become physicians, attorneys, professional opera singers, and teachers -- and transform them into living, breathing public relations props who must ignore their whole selves that got them that lucky gig in the first place.

The Truth About Universal Health Care

[Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Campus Progress.]

There are numerous pathologies (such as a fear of increasing the size of the federal government) in the American political climate that prevented Universal Health Care (UHC) from succeeding. For many, blind faith in the free market and the sentiment that "private is always more efficient than public" is the motivation for dismissing such a sweeping reform initiative.

The trouble with UHC isn't that it's politically infeasible, financially ruinous, or inefficient, because none of the above is true. The largest impediment to implementing UHC is that it has yet to receive a fair trial in this country.

There are over 40 million people in the U.S. who do not have any health insurance. For a country touted as the most powerful in the world, that figure is appalling. Ensuring that every individual has free access to health care should be an imperative of any fair and just society.

Health care, contrary to what those on the right would argue, is not simply a commodity to be bought and sold according to the market, but rather it is a basic human need. As such, it should not be limited to only those who are able to pay for it. Even some conservatives will reluctantly sympathize with the spirit of social justice inherent in UHC, but skepticism about the political and financial feasibility of UHC frequently color their arguments against it.

So, let's debunk five myths about UHC.

Myth #1: It would be too expensive

Rather than cost more money, UHC would actually reduce the cost of health care. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that UHC could save up to $14 billion annually by spreading the risk evenly over the entire population, eliminating deductibles and co-pays and making preventive medicine available to the poor and uninsured. The federal government already subsidizes private health insurance in the form of tax deductions.

Private insurance companies also spend billions on administration and overhead, advertising, and determining and inspecting patient eligibility, all while trying to make a profit. UHC would not be burdened with some of those costs, like advertising, and unlike private business, it could run at a loss and still be viable. The pressures of profitability would no longer close the door for millions of Americans and drive up costs. As a result, Americans would effectively pay less for health insurance than they do now, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Myth #2: It would require a HUGE, inefficient bureaucracy

The current system is already a HUGE, inefficient bureaucracy! As previously mentioned, much of the unnecessary overhead and micromanaging in the system now could be eliminated if UHC were implemented. For example, the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in determining patient eligibility would be completely unnecessary if everyone were eligible and covered. Insurance companies spend an estimated 25 cents of every dollar on administration. Canada, which already has a comprehensive UHC in place and still manages to pay 70 percent less per citizen on health care, spends about the equivalent of about 12 cents of every dollar on administration.

Myth #3: It would restrict patient choice

How can we even begin to talk about choice when 40 million Americans don't have any health insurance at all? "Choice" really isn't an appropriate topic for those who can't afford health care. Many of the chronically sick are simply denied coverage by private insurance companies because they aren't good financial investments. The concept of choice probably doesn't resonate much for people in this situation, either. But even for those who are insured under the current system, HMOs and insurance companies alike restrict patients to a strict list of complying physicians. UHC wouldn't directly dictate what doctor you have to see in order to get treatment and would thus enable more choice in selecting a physician than the current system would for many, if not most, Americans.

Myth #4: It would be a socialist seizure of the medical industry

It would be nothing of the sort. Socialized medicine would entail hospitals and doctors becoming employees of the state. UHC only provides funding for people's health care, but doesn't provide the health care itself. The only difference is that health care insurance plans would be funded by the state. Hospitals, physicians, and other health care employees would all remain part of the private sector. Competition between doctors and hospitals would not be eliminated. Although using the "s" word in attacking UHC has proven effective in frightening the populace, UHC would be no more socialist than Medicare and arguably less so than public education. Granted the far-right would gladly see both of those programs destroyed, but the overwhelming majority of Americans would not.

Myth #5: UHC would impede economic growth

An added benefit of UHC would be that private business would no longer have to worry about health-care benefits, and employees wouldn't have to remain in unpleasant jobs just to keep their benefits. Benefits wouldn't interfere with wage increases, and employers would have more financial mobility. The recent problems General Motors has been having with maintaining health benefits for its workers while trying to remain financially afloat have been well-documented. GM estimates that health-care benefits account for nearly $1,500 of the price of every car they build and sell. Many other companies are switching to "temporary" or outsourced jobs in order to avoid paying benefits. Not only would UHC relieve businesses of having the burden of providing health insurance for their workers, but the workers would also be unconditionally covered regardless of where they work.

Given that worker mobility has increased tremendously in the last 100 years, and that the number of jobs held by the average worker in his or her lifetime is considerably higher (about 9 to 10 jobs per lifetime), people are frequently between or changing jobs. UHC would work well with the high turnover rate in many jobs by maintaining coverage even during periods of temporary unemployment.

Rather than tolerating a system that is set up to make as much money as possible instead of guaranteeing health-care coverage for the highest number of people possible, Americans should seriously consider UHC. We should be disgusted with the injustice of a system devised to insure precisely the people who don't need it (those who are healthy and can afford it) and turn away those who do (the poor and chronically sick).

Until we devise a system that enables every member of society to gain equal access to quality health care, our claim to be the greatest country in the world will perpetually ring hollow.

A New Year in New Orleans

[Editor's Note: This story was originally published on Campus Progress.]

Christmas in New Orleans. Mumbled profanities were all I could muster as a good friend and I drove through the newly plowed streets of his 9th Ward neighborhood. This used to be civilization. This was his existence for a solid 19 years before he moved to another part of the city for college. But still, he was lucky, unlike many of his neighbors whose homes wore spray-painted badges signifying body counts.

Some houses were atop cars, some were piggybacked on other houses. Other houses lay in shambles. Some houses, however, still stood. These were the testaments to human architecture. All were surrounded by testaments to the floodwall's inability to fight off the deluge. How many millions spent in the name of the public good lined the pockets of politicians and contractors? And what would've been the fee to keep these streets debris-free? New Orleans has been relegated to Third World nation status, the public's modern-day Babylon and our leaders' favorite political talking point.

Entering the fourth month of the Katrina aftermath, I looked everywhere for tangible evidence of improvement. The streets were changed, though barely improved. Even in the French Quarter, the epicenter of the tourism industry, life continued beneath an ominous cloud. Day and night, you see the bustling of "contractors," following the smell of money, anxious as sharks sniffing out blood. There's an eerie stench of opportunism in the air, mingling with the odor of uncollected trash, stagnant water and old refrigerators shut with duct tape to contain the rotten food from months prior.

My Christmas tour of New Orleans was my second trip home since Katrina. During my first trip home, or to what used to be home, I went from room to room trying to find what remained in my waterlogged house. Still, I was thankful that I was far removed from my old first-floor apartment on Napoleon Avenue -- in the middle of a flood zone that was then under 10 feet of water. The treasure that I found were photographs, lots of them. They were mostly ruined. Browns and blues, hues of greens and yellows created psychedelic swirls -- vivid colors that once captured moments in my family's past. I even ran across an absurdly ironic page from the local Yellow Pages, stuck to a photo album, that read "How to Stay Safe in a Hurricane."

Before my family emptied out our house that day, before we sat down to a donated Thanksgiving meal of turkey and various canned goods, I drove around town. My grandmother's house -- where I used to go for my pre-Catechism breakfast of butter and toast -- was a ruined shell. The corner where my cousin told me there was no Santa Claus was cluttered with rotting and moldy pieces of wood.

Now, on Christmas, one month later, though life for New Orleanians is barely improved, the city has a very different feel to it. The French Quarter's atmosphere is now very reminiscent of the West during the era of expansion: Locals work the taverns and hotels for gold miners entering the newest Yukon town, wild-eyed with dreams of riches, gambling and a good show.

This carpetbaggery is a threat to all that is New Orleans. My home was the starving artist of this country. A poor port city with a large black population, its people a tribute to its history, New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz music, French-Southern cuisine and the almighty Italian-American muffuletta. Struggle tends to spawn some of the greatest art, and New Orleans saw struggle. And with a single storm, the question that we're left asking is, "Will New Orleans ever be able to assume its identity again?" And with the city's less than pristine political history, there can only be uncertainty in response.

Gentrifying a city without residents is relatively simple, especially when most residents aren't homeowners. Trem, the Marigny, the 7th Ward and neighborhoods closest to the French Quarter and business districts are the obvious targets for neighborhood redevelopment. They were the foundation of the city's "laissez faire" attitude, the places where musical talent simmered beneath complex socioeconomic underpinnings -- where class, race and family name meant everything. But where are the people who lived in these areas? Houston. Atlanta. D.C. And many of them aren't coming back -- either afraid of another Katrina or feeling that there may be nothing to come back to.

Frankly, I'm not sure when I'll be back either. But for those of us who got to experience New Orleans as it was, we're just thankful for the time we got to spend with her.

Speaking to other professionals who had to leave the city to follow their career paths, most say they'd instantly return if they could simply get a job. And now, when rebuilding is so vital, the most important element -- people who really care about rebuilding, living and working in New Orleans -- is a scarce resource.

The human element is required for every level of New Orleans' rebuilding. Professionals are scattered throughout the country, the working class is dislocated -- and all that is left is a crooked system, little by way of real political constituencies, and millions in federal funding up for grabs. New Orleans needs a stalwart leader to coordinate the rebuilding effort and provide a way back for those scattered souls who are ready to rally to the ultimate cause -- home.

But driving through these streets, all I see is politics as usual.

Raw Deal

A small minority of American industrialists never accepted the New Deal. In particular, they viewed our basic retirement insurance program, Social Security, as un-American. The journey of the anti-Social Security agenda from a fringe idea, disparaged by mainstream conservatives, to its modern apotheosis in this year's frightening privatization effort is ably chronicled by columnist Joe Conason in his new book The Raw Deal: How the Bush Republicans Plan to Destroy Social Security and the Legacy of the New Deal.

Conason explains how a few multimillionaires funded far-right think tanks that relentlessly pushed for the abolition of Social Security, cleverly re-branding the effort in terms of "privatization" and then "personal accounts." These ideas migrated from the far-right to the mainstream. Or was the mainstream migrating to the far-right? In any case, we interviewed Conason, whose writing appears regularly in and The New York Observer, and who can be heard every Friday from 2 to 3 p.m. on the Al Franken Show on Air America Radio, to shed some light on this and other issues.

Obviously, you conceived of this book when Social Security was under a much more immediate threat than it is right now. Do you think that Social Security privatization will be attempted again, and could you hazard a guess as to when?

The urge to privatize or abolish Social Security is a generational goal of conservatives. It's something that they have wanted to do since the very beginning of the program seventy years ago, and it comes in waves - the first big wave was the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which was defeated, to a degree, on this issue.

The second wave was an attempt when Ronald Reagan became President, and that was defeated because progressives controlled the House of Representatives, led by Tip O'Neil, and stopped any notion of cutting or privatizing Social Security then.

Twenty years later, George W. Bush became President, and the conservatives behind him were, I think, even further to the right than Reagan, were determined to do that during his presidency. Clearly they've had two setbacks - one when the stock market tanked in 2001 after the Social Security Commission had tried to come up with a privatization plan - and now, following the last election, he tried again and it has, so far, failed again. I have no doubt that they will keep after this. The one thing you can say about conservatives, particularly this generation of conservatives, is that they're extremely determined to achieve their goals. They're very self-confident, and they have a strong belief in what they're doing, and they happen to be backed, in this case, by the powers financially. My guess, then, would be that if they maintain control of both houses of Congress next year that they will come back to this within the term.

Clearly there was a mobilization effort around this issue that seemed pretty effective. What would you suggest is the most effective way to try to stop the privatization campaign, should it come around again?

The mobilization that took place last year around this issue was effective because those who might have wavered on this issue, really in either party, have been held to account very specifically by activists. In other words, I'd say if there's a member of Congress in Florida or Pennsylvania who had said, "I think privatization is a good idea" or "I might vote for that," that information was immediately transmitted to a large network of activists who then mobilized people to let that member know that that was an unacceptable position. In my view, it worked. What it meant was that you had a block of members of Congress who were not going to move on that issue.

So if Social Security privatization comes up again the way to prevent it is to flood the wavering congressmen and senators with emails?

Well, other ways too. If they show up at a town meeting, be there. Phone calls, letters to the editor - all of the tactics that were used by progressive organizations, specifically the Campaign for America 's future, AFL-CIO… Rock the Vote was involved, a lot of groups got involved - there was a broad spectrum of tactics that were used to try to make it clear that not only were most people opposed to this idea, but they would not forget a member who would try to do this.

You were a very articulate defender of President Clinton during the impeachment hearings. Now you have conservatives looking very hypocritical saying that perjury isn't really such a big crime. Obviously, you can speak to that, but I'm also wondering if you could speak to the reverse accusation - that you are taking a harder line with Scooter Libby.

There's a difference between thinking that perjury is a serious crime and that President Clinton perjured himself, and that even if President Clinton perjured himself in the Paula Jones case, that that was an offense meriting impeachment. I don't think anyone is calling for President Bush or VP Cheney to be impeached over this matter yet.

Secondly, what is the nature of this perjury - what is it about? President Clinton was tried for perjury in the Senate and found not guilty. So, to me he had to pay a fine, he was disbarred for a period in Arkansas, he did not escape the embarrassment or sanction for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. I don't think he should have escaped sanctions for it - I believed he should have been punished for what he did, but not impeached. If Scooter Libby lied before the grand jury and before the FBI in order to protect a conspiracy to expose Valerie Plame's identity, he should be punished. I don't have the slightest qualms about that. The hypocrisy is completely on the other side where people once told us that no matter how insignificant the underlying reason for the lie is, even if we have a perjury trap and invade someone's private life, that they should answer to the full consequences of that before the law, to now say that perjury and obstruction of justice are not important crimes here - that's absurd! It's hard for me to imagine that they can go on television and say this without laughing.

You talk a lot in the book about how Social Security privatization was an idea that's been hatched and nurtured by right-wing think tanks over the years. What do you see as the major progressive policy shift that we should be pushing?

The most important thing right now is what's called the Apollo project. It's the transition to a different kind of economy. All the benefits that would flow from that, not just for the environment, but for employment, for health - this is what I think is the fundamental project of this generation - weaning ourselves from the petroleum and carbon-based economy and figuring out how we're going to have economic growth and raise standards of living around the world without destroying the planet in the process.

You go on the Al Franken show. Do you think that liberal talk radio is successful thus far, and if not, do you think that there's something about the way it's being done that's causing it to fail? Do you think that a little more anger from the left to mimic the right might be more effective?

Air America, I think, is doing well - it will improve and do better. People should keep in mind that it took a while for Rush Limbaugh to catch on. It took a really long time for Fox News to. I also think the fact that the right is so angry about Air America already…it's a really good sign.

Burying College Grads in Debt

Congratulations, parents of the Class of 2009! As you read this, your child is settling into the routines of college life: ill-timed early morning lectures, inevitable all-night cram sessions, and the search for parties on a now fairly familiar campus.

While the pleasures of college life remain the same, the economic security that a degree used to guarantee has disappeared. This fall, the Class of 2009 joins the ranks of an emerging debtor class composed of educated young adults.

The average student borrower now graduates with $27,600 of debt, almost three and a half times what it was a decade ago. 84 percent of black students and 66 percent of Latino students graduate with debt. And 39 percent of all student borrowers graduate with unmanageable levels of debt, according to the Department of Education.

After graduation, young people confront unaffordable rents in markets like San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago or New York, where the majority of young adults pay between 30 and 50 percent of their income to rent.

And what income? Between 2000 and 2003, wages for college educated men and women between 23 and 29 years of age were down 3.5 percent and 1.2 percent respectively. In this flat, stagnant job market, most new opportunities are in jobs like burger flipping and jeans folding. Manpower, a temp agency, is the biggest private employer in the country. Many jobs in more desirable and competitive industries have salaries starting in the low $20,000s that offer little by way of benefits or healthcare.

Add to that young people's average credit card debt of over $4,000. Set aside your stereotypes of irresponsible youth: Over 70 percent of undergraduates use credit cards to buy school supplies, food and textbooks. 24 percent use their credit cards for tuition. Credit card companies are becoming the high-interest student loan industry of last resort. When it's all totaled up, young people spend 25 percent of every dollar earned on paying off debts and loans.

Federal policy isn't keeping pace with reality. Soaring education costs and inflation have not been met with aid increases. Caps on federal student loans have forced students to seek private loans, which were up from $1.1 billion in 1995-96 to $10.6 billion in 2003-04.These loans have much higher, often predatory, interest rates.

Today, the average Pell Grant covers only 40 percent of college tuition, compared to 77 percent 25 years ago. And under President Bush, the Department of Education revised Pell Grant eligibility guidelines, effectively excluding almost 100,000 young people from the program and reducing grant money for another 1.2 million.

This month, the U.S. Congress poured salt in the wounds: The Senate recommended slashing $14 billion in student aid programs as part of the budget reconciliation process. The House of Representatives proposed nearly $9 billion in similar cuts, forcing the average student borrower to pay an additional $5,800 in already unaffordable debt. Despite some unusual Republican dissent in the ranks, late last night, the budget bill passed by a razor thin margin. The final bill included $50 billion in cuts including $14.3 billion in cuts to federal higher education funding � the largest cuts to federal student loans in American history. (Though the reconciliation bill received much negative response from Democrats and even a few Republicans, very few people spoke out against the education cuts, focusing instead on issues like Medicare and food stamps.) Eighteen-year-olds now must borrow tens of thousands of dollars to invest in themselves � because their country will not invest in them.

Moreover, federal tax policy isn't exactly working in the favor of young people making low wages. We can't ask our buddies in the White House to just write off our student loan payments. We pay taxes on each and every dollar that we make in wages, tips, and salaries. We don't have stock portfolios, houses, and other assets to re-structure our tax liability. We bear the full brunt of life without loopholes � but forget fairness: struggling to limit the size of a hurricane-wrecked federal budget, Congress has made it clear that they are prepared to treat us a good deal worse than they already have � before they dare close the loopholes, shut down the giveaways, and trim the no-bid contracts for the well-connected and well-off.

Parents: remember that youthful knot in your stomach as you looked at the world after graduation and wondered about your place in it? We do that too. Only we look at the world as twenty-somethings sandbagged with the kind of debt that, until recently, would have taken decades to accrue. Recent surveys by the Cambridge Consumer Index and the Education Department confirm that student borrowers are deferring major life decisions like the purchase of a first home or marriage.

Energetic young college grads could soon invest in start-ups, emerging markets and new technologies if we entered adulthood burdened only by our high expectations and ideals. Educational debt hobbles the very group of risk-takers and innovators that has historically rejuvenated the American economy when, like now, it starts to flag. Love us, hate us, tolerate us � young people are your future. Fail to invest in us at your own peril. Thirty years from now we won't be able to take care of our parents if we're still living in a converted closet in a group house.

So here's our counter-offer: We need common sense policies that relieve the debt burden on students and recent graduates. Parents of students and recent graduates: tell them not to cut one dime of student aid. Tell them you'll remember how they voted and promise to hold them accountable. We'll do the heavy lifting, but we need you to let Washington to know that you're watching and that you care about the issue.

Work with us now to affect change, and we promise we'll never have to trade you into the traveling circus for a week's worth of Ramen noodles or sell you on eBay to cover the rent.

Five Minutes With John Edwards

Hurricane Katrina raised awareness about the desperate poverty that so many residents of the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana live in every day. But John Edwards has been talking about American poverty since long before Katrina made landfall.

After a career of representing individuals against corporations in personal injury suits, he ran for the Senate from his native North Carolina and won. Six years later, in 2004, he ran for president, making poverty alleviation and greater equality a central theme of his campaign, and he continued to do so as the Democrats' nominee for Vice-President.

Now he is pursuing those objectives as director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and as Honorary Chair of the Center for Promise and Opportunity in Washington DC.

Tell us a little about your Project Opportunity college tour, why you think it's necessary, what you want it to accomplish and how?

Well, my view is that after Hurricane Katrina we have an extraordinary opportunity. The country is hungry to do something about poverty, not only on the Gulf Coast , but in America. And so many times in my life I have seen what impact students and young people can have. I saw it in the 1960s when I was a teenager -- when students led the fight for civil rights and they spoke out against the war in Vietnam. They had a huge impact on their own country, not just for that time, but forever. And I think we have that kind of opportunity available to us now.

So what I'm gonna do is go to ten college campuses to get young people engaged in fighting against poverty: to get 'em to come to the event that we have on campus, and to commit to at least up to twenty hours of community service, and to advocate for policy ideas, projects, that can do something about poverty in America. Actually in some campuses we're focused on community service and others we're focused on advocacy for policy ideas.

We have ten campuses, on every campus we have a core group of students who are doing the organizing, getting people to the event and helping determine what it is in the community we're gonna ask young people to do. So bottom line is, we're gonna get more students, more young people involved in their communities, and find that they can make a change in poverty.

In light of all the reports of voter disenfranchisement in Ohio and other swing states what are the steps you think we need to take to make sure that every vote is counted next time?

What I think is more important than focusing on the last election is focusing on moving forward and on what we should do to make sure our election system works the way it should. I think there was a lot of evidence and a lot of anecdotes in our last election about the voters being unable to cast their votes. We know there were people in Ohio that had to wait many hours just to be able to vote, while people in other areas, in some cases in more affluent communities, were able to vote in minutes -- that's not the way our election system is supposed to work. These are also some of the things we saw in the 2000 elections, particularly in Florida.

We have important work to do to make sure that everybody is confident that when they go to the polls, they'll be able to vote, and they'll be able to cast their vote in a reasonable amount of time, and they will be certain that the vote they cast was counted. Those things include making sure that we have the resources in place, particularly in poor voting precincts, to have adequate equipment -- it means making sure that we have an audit trail for the voting process.

Beyond that, I think we should take the election process out of the hands of partisan politicians and instead set up non-partisan election officials and election boards to monitor what's happening so that we know that the election process works appropriately. We live in what is supposed to be, to the rest of the world, a shining example of democracy. And we also live in the most prosperous area on the planet. There is no reason for anyone, in the process of our elections, to have a question about whether their vote counts.

What do you think students should do, especially southern progressive students, to counter the conservative influences on their campuses?

Well, we've heard a lot of talk about moral issues. Some people use that language to divide America. The truth is that poverty is the great moral issue that faces our country, here, within our own borders. The fact that we have 37 million people who live in poverty is wrong, morally wrong, in a country of our wealth. Some people think about this as, you know, they lump everybody who lives in poverty together, and they think of this as charity.

Here's the truth: the truth is that people who live in poverty fall in one of two categories: they either have serious bills or physical disabilities. For those people, helping them get by is in some ways charity, because we believe as Americans that that's what we should do. For the rest, and that's the majority of people who live in poverty, they are either employed or employable. For those folks, it's not about charity. It's about fairness and justice, because the rest of the country depends on them to provide the services they provide, whatever jobs they have.

I think what we want to do, I grew up in a rural town in the South, is give people a fundamental sense of fairness, of justice -- that it's not right for people to be working two jobs, in some cases, both parents -- in a two parent family, two parents are working two jobs -- they're working four jobs between the two parents -- it's not right for them to be doing that and not be able to at least provide a minimum standard of living for their family. So, I think talk about this as a moral issue, and talk about it as a fairness issue, because I think most people, whether they're a Democrat or Republican, will be responsive to that.

We were also wondering if you could talk to us about your College for Everyone program in North Carolina that you launched a few weeks ago.

This is an idea that I talked about in my own presidential campaign. The idea is that any young person who has taken college prep work, who is qualified to go to college, and has stayed out of trouble, and is willing to go to work ten hours a week will be able to go their first year of college completely for free -- tuition, books etc, paid for.

And what we've done to test the validity of this idea is found a place in eastern North Carolina , one the poorest counties in North Carolina , but the community is committed to doing something about their kids having a chance. And what we've done is, in Greene County, privately, we've raised the money for it to implement the program. In Greene County if you have taken all the prep courses, not gotten into trouble and commit to work ten hours a week, then your tuition and books will be paid for. The idea is many young persons who would not have gone to college will get a chance to go.

We've seen some numbers in recent articles saying that the income level at which a white family is more likely to vote progressive than conservative has been dropping from about $50,000 to $25,000 per year in the last three presidential elections. When progressives such as yourself are putting forward an economic platform that is beneficial to white working class families, why do you think it is that they aren't voting for you? And what can progressives in general do to alleviate that? What might you do if you're thinking about running in 2008?

Let me talk in general about what I think it's important for progressives to do. I think first of all to the key to success in today's political world is exhibiting strong leadership. People are worried about jobs, healthcare, and safety, and certainly worried about the war in Iraq and the impact it's having on our country and the people serving there. For all those reasons people want leaders who exhibit strength. Strength comes from conviction. Strength does not come from looking at yesterday's poll to figure out what it is we're supposed to say. We need to stand up with strength and backbone for what it is we believe in.

If the country sees that confidence in our leadership they will follow, because the reality is that what people care most about -- jobs, healthcare -- they trust us more than they trust the other side. They have to see that we will not walk away from our core beliefs whether they are popular or unpopular. And one indication of that is our willingness as a party and as a political movement to stand for doing something about poverty in this country.

DIY Argentina

The police still come once a month to empty the illegally occupied hotel, and might have succeeded by now if not for the hundreds of European tourists filling the available rooms to capacity.

In 2001, a victim of a quarter century of neoliberalism, the Hotel Bauen, went bankrupt and closed, firing all of its workers, many of whom went without work for a full year. Today the former lowest ranking staff � cleaning people, dishwashers, and receptionists � run the enterprise democratically, without a management hierarchy and with a nearly flat wage scale.

The cooperative owners took a vacated hotel with no rooms ready for guests, and transformed it, investing over a quarter million pesos in new beds, televisions, and a new restaurant on the ground level. Today, the enterprise employs 50 more people than when the workers opened it, and will continue to need more workers as they finish renovating the remaining 20% of unopened rooms over the next three months.

Hotel Bauen is one of more than 170 companies, ranging from bakeries to auto parts factories, that were once bankrupted and abandoned and have now become thriving worker-run empresas recuperadas, or “recuperated companies.� In a nation where around 1 in 5 are out of work and many remain frustrated and distrustful toward the government, this kind of do-it-yourself movement has gained considerable support.

It used to be that Argentina was considered the prosperous “Europe of Latin America.� But years of brutal dictatorship in the 1970s not only caused the death or “disappearance� of thousands of individuals, but also destroyed the economy. Years after the economic crisis began in 1976, democracy returned and the country began to take on various neoliberal economic policies of the IMF. But then, in 2002, Argentina reached the “inflexion point.� Unemployment reached 21.5 percent. During 2002 and 2003 poverty rates remained over 50 percent. One banker with whom I spoke said about 90 percent of Argentine companies went bankrupt during the crisis, with the failures concentrated in the industrial sector.

Beginning with the dictatorship, a succession of administrations have followed neoliberal economic doctrine, privatizing state services, introducing labor “flexibility� laws, and ending subsidy or tariff programs designed to protect local businesses. When traveling around Buenos Aires to talk to the workers of the cooperative factories, I rode private buses, private subways, and used privately sponsored street signs to find my way. The Argentine state is dead.

Yet daily needs have persisted, and workers across the nation decided that they did not have the option of unemployment, and chose to continue working even if their bosses were no longer handing out paychecks. Over the Argentine winter (that would be summer here) I spoke with workers in eleven cooperatives, including Hotel Bauen.

Most workers are not revolutionaries, yet their participation in this nationwide trend is revolutionizing the politics and economics of the nation, particularly in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (Gran Buenos Aires), where the vast majority of the empresas recuperadas are located.

The first empresa recuperada in Capital Federal, the capitol of Argentina and the center of Gran Buenos Aires, was the Cooperativa de Trabajo Vieytes, Ltda., also known by the former private company’s name of Ghelco, a sweets company that produces candy, fudge and ice cream. The former owners of Ghelco told the workers the factory was closing as the crisis worsened, then hired new workers at lower wages.

When the veteran Ghelco employees learned that the factory was operating under new, low wage conditions, 43 of them occupied the sidewalks around their former place of employment, preventing the new workers or owners from entering. More than two months later, the owners and creditors abandoned the factory, and in July a judge ruled that the constitutional right to employment allowed the workers to reopen the factory as a cooperative.

On July 14, 2002, the 43 former employees of Ghelco formed the Cooperativa de Trabajo Vieytes, Ltda., and began production with an 800 peso loan from Union y Fuerza, an empresa recuperada from the Province of Buenos Aires. Since the recuperation of the factory, 10 new workers have joined the cooperative as production has grown. Cooperativa Vieytes now has clients in Spain, Brazil, and Uruguay, as well as in Argentina.

Wages have increased along with production, and the workers earn more now and receive better benefits than they did with the private company. They have achieved these successes without management; the old managers left with the owners. Moreover, they have expanded production without the incentives of graduated wage scales; all socios, or members of the cooperative, receive the same pay.

Many Americans have so internalized the virtues of specialization and individualized material incentives that we find it difficult to conceive of any other system. The capitalist organization exists through natural law, we are taught. In Argentina, I found a different set of natural laws that produced radically different results.

Manuel Ruiz, a maintenance worker in Vieytes, told me that he works harder under the cooperative, both because he is an equal part-owner and because of the material rewards. Since the cooperative’s founding, he has bought a house and a car, neither of which he could afford with the private company. Another employee told me his pay is three times higher in the cooperative than in the private company.

Manuel also appreciates the cooperative benefits. If he needs to stay home with a sick child, or if he is sick himself, he still receives full pay for that day. The cooperative provides medical insurance as well. He has 15 days of paid vacation per year. Finally, Vieytes has regular training workshops to train workers in their positions and in other skill areas so that its workers are better prepared for a variety of labor every successive year.

The daily conditions of work have improved as well. When Manuel needs some coffee or te mate, a common tea drunk in Argentina, he is free to make some. When he has finished his maintenance work, he goes and works in other parts of the factory, helping other workers.

While I was talking with Manuel, Jose, the security guard and communications director, was helping on the assembly line. Several Vieytes socios told me that they can produce more when they have flexibility in the factory. When the bosses were here, if they finished their task they would pretend to continue working to avoid appearing lazy. Now they find other workers in the company who need help.

Because all employees learn how to do multiple jobs, there is never a work slowdown or stoppage because somebody is unable to come in to work. The flexibility of daily labor also is a constant training program for all the workers, and represents an investment in human capital that may pay individual dividends should the factory close one day. This departure from the Taylor model of “scientific� labor organization is a humanizing process; every worker plays an integral role in the factory, and could not simply be replaced with a low skilled worker to fulfill a single task on the assembly line.

Given the dignified working conditions and economic security of working at Vieytes, it is not surprising that the socios work harder. One finds evidence of the efficacy of their commitment to the factory in a large new contract with Nestle, which will allow the cooperative to invest in several new machines and continue to expand production.

Socios of Cooperativa de Trabajo B.A.U.E.N. demonstrate the same level of commitment to their enterprise. When 38 former employees first occupied the closed hotel in March of 2003, none of the bedrooms were ready for guests, and half the first floor was closed off. Initially, the cooperative could only rent out the “salons� on the second floor for birthdays and other parties. Using that money, they began to renovate and open the rooms one by one, while architecture students from the University of Buenos Aires built a bar in the formerly closed off portion of the first floor.

By the time I visited Bauen, 80 percent of the rooms were open, the bar was busy all the time, and there was a constant stream of visitors flowing in and out of the hotel. The hotel was so busy that the only time I had the opportunity to speak to most workers was during their lunch break. The socios and socias of Bauen are fiercely proud of their hotel. They have created 80 new positions of employment as they have opened more rooms, and rejuvenated a potent symbol in Capital. Presidents, soccer stars and other notables used to stay in the hotel, and from the workers’ perspective the reopening, renovation, and improvement of Bauen represents broader possibilities of economic recovery for Argentina.

That future is far from certain. These co-ops are largely illegal. Though the government has set up an office to help those who want to reopen closed businesses, legal battles continue between owners and workers. There have been clashes with police over eviction notices at a few factories.

The former owner of Bauen has allies in the city government who have refused to expropriate Hotel Bauen for the workers as they have with dozens of other cooperatives in the city. So the Bauen workers hold demonstrations every few weeks and are working with a variety of leftist and centrist government Diputados (deputies, or legislators) as well as a grassroots collective of cooperative factories to promulgate a law of expropriation that will make it legal for workers to reclaim abandoned factories and continue running them.

If the movement of empresas recuperadas is going to continue to generate secure, dignified employment for Argentina, the regional and national governments will have to become more active in expropriating additional factories and also by instituting credit or subsidy programs. While some cooperatives such as Vieytes and Bauen can self-capitalize, some cannot, and in the absence of loans from banks, the government will have to provide either credit or subsidies to some cooperatives.

While the government of Capital Federal has instituted a subsidy program in coordination with faculty from the University of Buenos Aires, the amount of money is small and is inadequate to capitalize some empresas recuperadas with antiquated machinery. Moreover, some delegates from the city government are aligned with reactionary forces, including the owner of the Hotel Bauen.

If rightist forces recover in upcoming elections, owner seizures of worker-run factories could become a possibility, although the owners are currently poorly organized, with their political power dependent upon personal rather than organizational connections. Thus, today there is not a concerted governmental effort in Capital Federal, much less at the national level, to support the empresas recuperadas, and a reversion to a neoliberal paradigm would pose a grave threat to the cooperatives’ existence.

Finally, until the national government reforms the bankruptcy laws to place workers and creditors on equal standing, future bankruptcies will probably result in abandoned factories rather than functioning sources of work and production.

Regardless of the government response, however, the current success of the cooperatives in generating employment in the face of the worst crisis in Argentine history speaks to the human potential to envision and create a future based on human needs. Rather than accepting the dictates of a dehumanizing economic model, the cooperative workers of Argentina are building an economy based on human necessities, a model from which an increasingly polarized and impoverished American society could learn.

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