Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Saturday, January 31, 2009

From Lincoln to Obama

“The great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night / I mourn’d and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”
--Whitman in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” on Lincoln’s death

As a young man I idolized Napoleon. He reverenced knowledge and learning. He sailed to war in Egypt with an entourage of scientists, mathematicians, inventors, artists, writers and other savants.
He studied the lives of conquerors and famous men of antiquity, “in search of his own image,” as one of his biographers put it. Moreover, Napoleon was a brilliant, front-line general.
But the truth of Napoleon soon dawned on me: he was a monstrous killer, depleting the blood of France and Europe for his own egomaniacal glorification and empire-building.
In contrast, I never tire of reading about Lincoln. He was the greatest president the nation ever had. Indeed, it could be argued that Lincoln is the greatest man America ever produced.
In 11 days the nation will celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. Just 13 days ago America inaugurated its first black president. The symbolism is magnificent. Lincoln the Great Emancipator, Obama the black White House liberator.
The day after the inauguration the New York Times reported that aides of G. W. Bush found the inaugural address ungracious. Au contraire. It was far too gracious. Obama thanked Bush “for his service to our nation.” Actually, Bush did a great disservice to America and the world for eight interminable years.
One of the great things about Lincoln was his character. The word has fallen into disuse. But oldtimers will know what it means: integrity, honesty, compassion, sensitivity, kindness and decency. Lincoln had a powerful conscience with a fervor for justice.
Another great attribute of Lincoln was his magnanimity, a quality that Doris Kearns Goodwin found in her “Team of Rivals.” She called it unprecedented “to incorporate his eminent rivals” into his cabinet and cited it as evidence of a profound self-confidence.
Eric Foner, Columbia University historian, calls Lincoln “the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth.” Lincoln opposed abolition until well into the Civil War. But he finally adopted the positions the abolitionists had staked out much earlier.
I have sought my own image in the life of Lincoln. Countless stories have been told about him, some of them probably untrue in fact but true in spirit. The Lincoln stories, like those of Jesus in the New Testament, instruct us on how to live.
One of my favorite Lincoln stories is of him clerking in a grocery store in New Salem, Ill. He overcharged a customer a few cents and hiked miles to return the overcharge. True or not, the lesson is exemplary.
Then you have Lincoln reading by firelight the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare, both with rich cadences that find echoes in Lincoln’s marvelous speeches.
Obama showed his own self-confidence by choosing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. That confidence was evident from the very start of his first 100 days.
He issued a flurry of executive orders overturning heinous Bush policies: closing the notorious Guantanamo Star Chamber, shuttering CIA secret black site prisons, halting “extraordinary rendition” of detainees for torture, and prohibiting the torture of waterboarding. (Portia says in “The Merchant of Venice”: “Ay, but I fear you speak upon the rack / Where men enforced do speak anything.”)
Obama halted the baleful secrecy of the Bush administration, ordering transparency in government. He directed federal regulators to apply California’s strict standards for tailpipe emissions and fuel efficiency. He reaffirmed a woman’s right to choose abortion. He lifted the odious gag that Bush put on international family planning groups. He abolished four Bush anti-union directives.
Obama restored science to its exalted place over ideology. He will sign a children’s insurance bill twice vetoed by Bush. He signed a fair pay law to overrule a frightening decision by Supreme Court reactionaries approving sex discrimination. He allowed populist anger to burst through his cool façade at the obsceneness of Wall Streeters getting $18 billion bonuses after a bailout.
Above all, Obama has forever removed the second-class citizenship of blacks. They now can realistically aspire to the presidency.
As a black woman from Atlanta exulted at the inauguration: “Today we become Americans for the first time…All the dignity, all the respect and all that comes with being a U.S. citizen.”
For a century and a half hundreds of Americans, black and white, battled magnificently for black civil rights. Among them: King and Malcolm, Douglass and Garrison, Thoreau and Paine, Thurgood Marshall and John Brown, Robeson and Robinson, Du Bois and Garvey, Tubman and Sojourner, Lincoln and LBJ, Jackson and Booker T.
President Obama has achieved King’s dream.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hefty Nevada tax increases essential

Wanted: a Nevada politician with the courage to tell voters that taxes must be raised steeply and why. The state can no longer bumble along with nickel-and-diming while rending the social fabric.
For years Nevada boasted that it had no corporate, individual, inheritance and gift taxes. It is this free-lunch mentality that rightly enrages education Chancellor Jim Rogers. (Rogers has become a common scold but he is so often so right.) In a recent report, Rogers said:
“Monies generated by newcomers created a Ponzi-scheme economy. Those coming in subsidized those already in Nevada. Over time, neither long-timers nor new residents were required to pay any substantial taxes, causing necessary services, including education, to suffer.”
Gov. Jim Gibbons has proposed a devastating budget: cutting higher education by 36 percent, reducing salaries of state workers 6 percent and slashing state employee health benefits. To call this shameful is putting it mildly. It is nothing less than the destruction of higher education.
The need for a state income tax has been apparent for two decades, long before the new Depression pummeled Nevada. The state is facing a grim $2.4 billion budget deficit in the next biennium.
This is the 21st century but Nevada remains mired in the 19th. It relies heavily on the sales tax, an unreliable source of income.
The sales tax is regressive, the poor paying proportionately as much as do the rich. An income tax would be--or should be--progressive. Wealthier people would pay in proportion to their income.
Another urgent need for Nevada is a great increase in casino taxes. Nevada’s tax on the gambling industry is pitiful, the lowest in the nation. It has a maximum tax of 6.75 percent. In Michigan the rate is 24 percent, Missouri 20 percent and New Jersey 9.25 percent.
Mining too is getting away with grand larceny. CityLife of Las Vegas revealed that industry revenues have been up 13 percent in the past three years yet it has a maximum tax rate on such windfall profits of just 5 percent.
CityLife columnist Hugh Jackson noted that gold mining corporations made $25.5 billion from 2000 to 2007 yet paid taxes to Nevada of just $125.3 million, a gross tax rate of one-half of 1 percent.
The tax code is riddled with mining deductions. The Grant era mining law supports land grabs and giveaways. A corporate profits tax would do wonders for the state’s budget.
A third important source of income would be a state lottery. Yes, administrative costs can eat up to 70 percent of the take. But the 30 percent gained is a boon to straightened state budgets.
A lottery is painless. Say the supermarket bill is $120. It’s so easy to spend another dollar--or five--for a lottery ticket. People nearly never win but it’s an affordable loss. Hope springs eternal. It’s the hope that counts far more than payoffs.
Forty-two states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. But the Nevada gambling industry always defeats lotteries, pretending that a lottery would be unbearable competition. All three of these revenue sources are ignored because no politician has the courage, integrity and vision to campaign for them.
Nevada now has a one-note governor: no new taxes. Never. Ever. His head-in-the-sand adamancy could get him re-elected but it is not governing, it is not leading.
The gambling industry rules the state, getting what it wants, defeating what it does not want. It is concerned solely with its own profits not the good of the state.
This is a vast disservice to Nevada citizens. But the state has no political figure with the guts to say that the state must have hefty new sources of revenue—immediately.
Raising taxes is doubtless a losing position politically. But it is far better to lose over a matter of profound principle than win by being unprincipled, by showing an unconcern about Nevada’s desperate plight.
Everyone wants essential services but no one wants to pay for them. So Nevada is stuck with an archaic system. Education is suffering terribly. Social services have been cut severely. The infrastructure is deteriorating badly.
The state is already near the bottom in things that matter: 44th among the states for student proficiency in reading, math and graduation rates, and failing grades in higher education.
But the governor doesn’t care that Nevada is backward. He will increase that backwardness.
The Nevada Sagebrush, student newspaper at the University of Nevada, Reno, has called for the impeachment of Gibbons. Such feistiness is marvelous. But the Nevada Constitution gives just two grounds: misdemeanor or malfeasance. Maladministration and blockheadness do not qualify.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Obama pragmatism hardly change

President-elect Obama will never please the pitifully few leftists in America. But does he have to whore after the right-wing?
Take the case of Rev. Rick Warren. Surely any administration that boasts of change would not pick an adamant foe of abortion to give the inaugural invocation.
And not just any foe. Warren endorsed intolerance and discrimination in the California Constitution, urging a ban on gay marriage. He compares same-sex marriage with incest, pedophilia and polygamy.
That is yesterday thinking, not tomorrow thinking.
Or take the Obama choices as military and diplomatic leaders and advisers: mostly hawks and recycled Clintonites. They are the very people who got the nation into two wars.
It’s as if people voted for Obama in disdain for John McCain and got McCain. Obama is keeping Republican Bob Gates as secretary of defense and naming Gen. Jim Jones as national security adviser. Jones, a close friend of McCain, would resume the Cold War by expanding NATO.
Indeed, you know Obama’s choices are bad if right-wingers like Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh pronounce them good.
Then there is hawkish Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. And Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief-of-staff designate, who pushed the disastrous NAFTA in the Clinton White House.
The story is the same on the economic front. Tim Geithner as treasury secretary and Larry Summers as head of the National Economic Council are old Clinton hands. They are corporate Democrats who espoused deregulation and boosted globalization.
Enough of pragmatic politics. The nation needs boldness, not pragmatism, not business as usual, not the same-old, same-old. Obama needs backbone to stifle the absurd reactionary bleats of “lurching to the left.”
Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a soi-disant progressive, says “the country must be governed from the middle.” Straight out of the Democratic Leadership Council playbook!
And how about Eric Holder, attorney general-designate? He has endorsed extension of the heinous provision of the Patriot Act allowing federal agents to demand library and bookstore records.
Ken Salazar at Interior? Too much of a dealmaker. After eight years of environmental devastation under Bush, the country needs an environmentalist not a business tradeoff guy.
Sure, all the Obama appointments are bright. So were “The Best and Brightest,” the sardonic title of David Halberstam’s book about the men who led the nation into the morass of Vietnam. Intelligence is worthless without wisdom.
Obama has so many decisions to make to undo the horror of the Bush regime. But the No. 1 priority should be ending the nation’s two costly, endless and hopeless wars.
People out of work and struggling to buy food and medication may feel differently. But withdrawal from the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is essential to restore the worldwide faith in and moral authority of America.
Chris Hedges of the online Truthdig calls the wars state-sponsored terrorism, defying “every ethical and legal code.” America is the real rogue nation.
Paul Roberts in Progressive rightly urges the halting of gratuitous wars and a slash of “unnecessary military spending, which exceeds that of the rest of the world combined.”
On the up side, the Obama choice for labor secretary, Hilda Solis, is a keeper. She has been an unfailing advocate of workers’ rights, fighting to increase the paltry minimum wage. As a California congresswoman she voted for card-signing unionizing.
Solis is everything Bush was not.
Obama’s green team sounds like another keeper, one that will reverse the rabid Bush anti-environmentalism. Obama chose Steven Chu, Nobel physicist, to run the Energy Department and Carol Browner to coordinate energy and climate-change policies.
Leon Panetta as CIA director? California Sen. Dianne Feinstein complains that he lacks intelligence-gathering experience. Actually, that is a plus. The nation needs a director to abandon spying, torturing, assassinating and overthrowing governments in favor of its original mission of collecting intelligence.
Obama needs courage to do what is right. Among them are rapprochement with Cuba: lifting the embargo, extending diplomatic recognition and ending travel restrictions by Americans.
To end forever the one-sided, pro-Israel policies of America, including the daily outrages toward the Palestinians. He needs steel to forge a two-nation policy, demanding an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands while facing down the potent Jewish lobby.
On his first full day in office Obama needs to end the military’s stupid policy of don’t ask, don’t tell.
None of this is to gainsay the hope that Obama brings to the White House: putting science over Bush politics, putting intelligence over Bush boobishness and putting competence over Bush cronyism.
But, overall, too many of his choices have the stench of centerism for a guy who had promised hope, change and fresh thinking. Obama had to run to the center to win the nomination. As president, he does not -- and should not.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bush reign tarnished America

The shoe-thrower in Baghdad provided a metaphor for the unmitigated disaster of the eight-year monarchy of G.W. Bush. The toss illustrated the utter contempt for Bush, the worst president in U.S. history.
Bush leaves the White House with a deep moral stain that includes torture, kidnapping for torture abroad, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. He disgraced the presidency. He left America at its all-time low in world prestige and all-time high in domestic abhorrence.
Jane Mayer writes in “The Dark Side”: “For the first time in its history, the United States sanctioned government officials to physically and psychologically torment U.S.-held detainees, making torture the official law of the land.”
Bush squandered blood, money ($3 trillion) and moral currency in two unnecessary wars. He promulgated the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive warfare.
His domestic policies were retrograde. Tax cuts for the wealthy. Deregulation and more deregulation with a madness for privatization. The powerful fear factor after 9/11 greatly aided his reactionary agenda.
History, far from absolving Bush, will judge him as an ignoramus, an unlettered, uncultured dolt. He was shallow and hollow. A buffoon, a worldwide embarrassment.
E.L. Doctorow savaged Bush in an essay: “His mispronunciations and malapropisms suggest a mind of half-learned language that is eerily compatible with his indifference to truth.”
Bush was a son of privilege, a draft dodger during the Vietnam War. He occasionally served in the Texas Air National Guard, a “champagne” posting gotten through dynastic pull. He constantly failed in business but always failed upward because of powerful connections.
Abortion violated Bush’s religious principles so he constantly undercut the landmark Roe v. Wade. His first body blow was a global gag rule on abortion providers. His last was the “right of conscience” to refuse abortion services.
Stem cell research? So what if it could lead to medical breakthroughs for the good of mankind. Bush took orders from a higher power.
He put conservative ideology over the truths of science. He destroyed the social contract and elevated property rights over human rights.
Bush trashed the environment. To him, global warming was a myth to be ignored if not laughed at. He compromised federal agencies and departments, turning the Justice Department into a political fiefdom. He refused to allow photos of 4,000 American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in coffins.
He sealed his father’s presidential records because they might reveal terrible secrets. Russ Baker in “Family of Secrets” wonders if the Bush-friendly CIA murdered the Kennedys for ideological and political reasons.
Bush II stacked the judiciary with ugly conservatives who will influence the law for decades. He rejected the world-honored Geneva Conventions. America alone among Western nations refused to sign a U.N. resolution to decriminalize homosexuality.
The Constitution? A trifle. Bush decided the law. Civil liberties? Worth trampling for what he falsely called national defense. The FBI under him infiltrated lawful, peaceful groups. It allowed agents to gather information on citizens without evidence of wrong-doing. Bush issued signing statements declaring what he wanted congressional laws to mean.
His hubris was monumental. When an aide suggested that tax cuts for the rich might be bad policy, Bush chastised him: “If I decide to do it, by definition it’s good policy.”
Bush’s meanness was glaring. Not satisfied with ruining the country for eight years, he did his damnedest over his last three months to desecrate it further. His departing administration issued “midnight rules” presenting gifts to business and industry.
Items: He greatly weakened the Endangered Species Act...Having desecrated Yellowstone with snowmobiles, he said loaded guns were just wonderful in national parks…He made it easier for coal companies to dump rock and dirt into streams and valleys…He blocked California’s effort to regulate tailpipe emissions…He ruled that new power plants need not install technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Bush was adept at the blame game. Financial woes of the auto industry? He called it the fault of the United Auto Workers, demanding still more wage slashes. Yet the UAW made concessions in 2003, 2005 and 2007 contracts. Big Business? Oh, it’s all right to use bailout money to pay absurd salaries and hand out huge bonuses.
As for Vice President Dick Cheney, he was the svengali behind Bush. America has had evil men in power before: Mitchell Palmer, J. Edgar Hoover and Joe McCarthy. Cheney joins them.
Cheney said he had better things to do than serve in Vietnam. He called waterboarding entirely appropriate in the bogus war on terror. He said wiretapping was fine.
Bush and Cheney were totally unfit to be president and vice president. It speaks ill of the American people who twice put them in office over far better men.

War! War! War! War!

I should welcome almost any war for I think this country needs one.
Teddy Roosevelt in letter to a friend, 1897
There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again.
Eugene O’Neill

You don’t have to be pacifist or a Quaker to be outraged by perpetual U.S. wars staining the pages of history. America is a warfare state.
Howard Zinn in his classic, “A People’s History of the United States,” underlines this warmongering: “It had instigated a war with Mexico and taken half of that country. It had pretended to help Cuba win freedom from Spain and then planted itself in Cuba with a military base and rights of intervention.
“It had seized Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and fought a brutal war to subjugate the Filipinos. It had ‘opened’ Japan to its trade with gunboats and threats…It had sent troops to Peking to assert Western supremacy in China and kept them there for more than 30 years.”
America insisted on an open door policy in China but a closed door policy in Latin America. It maintained those closed doors with interventions under the bogus Monroe Doctrine.
“It engineered a revolution against Colombia and created the ‘independent’ state of Panama in order to build and control the Canal,” Zinn writes. “It sent 5,000 Marines to Nicaragua in 1926 to counter a revolution and kept them there for seven years.
“It intervened in the Dominican Republic in 1916 for the fourth time and kept troops there for eight years. It intervened for the second time in Haiti in 1915 and kept troops there for 19 years. Between 1900 and 1933 the United States intervened in Cuba four times, in Nicaragua twice, in Panama six times, in Guatemala once and in Honduras seven times.”
In an intervation that few Americans know about, the nation sent soldiers to Vladivostok and Archangel seeking to overturn the Russian Revolution of 1917. That was the real beginning of the Cold War.
President Wilson, seeking “to make the world safe for democracy,” entered World War I after German submarines sank merchant ships with some Americans aboard.
But Richard Hofstadter in “The American Political Tradition” labeled the casus belli a “rationalization of the flimsiest sort.” The Brits too had been intruding on the rights of American citizens on the high seas but that was OK because they were allies.
World War II was one of the few just American wars. But it was soon followed by the unjust Korean War.
In 1958 America dispatched Marines to Lebanon to “stabilize” it and to watch over Mideast oil. In 1961 American-backed forces invaded Cuba. Next up: Vietnam.
“From 1962 to 1972 the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history made a maximum military effort, with everything short of atomic bombs, to defeat a nationalist revolutionary movement in a tiny, peasant country--and failed,” Zinn writes.
In 1970 America launched an air war on Cambodia. Next: Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama and in the Gulf War in Iraq.
The sainted Carter maintained a huge War Machine. Reagan in 1982 sent Marines to intervene in a Lebanonese civil war.
Clinton ordered bombing of Baghdad on a shaky pretense. In Operation Monica, Clinton called for air strikes in Sudan and Afghanistan. He waged war in Yugoslavia.
U.S. troops are bogged down today in unwinnable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet the Pentagon is planning to add more than 20,000 troops in Afghanistan in the next 18 months, bringing the total to 58,000. It’s goal: the hopeless task of conquering Afghanistan.
We heard that story before: how more troops were absolutely necessary in Vietnam. But that story ended in abject failure. It should have. The United States had no business being there.
The same scenario is unfolding in Afghanistan. It will end the same way: abject failure. The country is simply unconquerable. The ostensible reason for being there was to capture Osama bin Laden. But that is no justification for war.
The nation never learns. Yet it preaches peace and goodwill throughout the world--unless nations are socialistic, back the Palestinians and are on the evil empire list.
Many members of Congress know better. But they do not dare oppose wars. They know that they will be called unpatriotic and disloyal, soft on terrorism and betrayer of U.S. soldiers.
This brief survey is hardly definitive about all U.S. wars and interventions. But it is overwhelming proof of a nation at permanent war.
President-elect Obama is hardly reassuring when he says that still more soldiers must be poured into the Afghanistan quagmire.
It’s doubtful that America will ever have a political leader with the vision and boldness to say what Macbeth said to Macduff: “Hold, enough!”