Monday, March 30, 2009

Kennedy Serve America Act

Full disclosure. I currently run, and years ago was a member in, a program that will benefit from the passage and pending signing of the Kennedy Serve America Act. I am biased.

If you don’t know, the intent of the Kennedy Serve America Act is to increase participation in service activities by making them more attractive and accessible. Among other things, the Act more than triples the size of the AmeriCorps Program; increases from $4,725 to $5,350 the educational award AmeriCorps members can receive after completing their year; provides incentives for middle and high school students to engage in service and authorizes institutions of higher education to be eligible for grants to encourage students to participate in service activities; and expands eligibility for the Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent programs. All steps that are long overdue. However, this is not enough

With all of the incentives that are built into the Act, it does not go nearly far enough to make these opportunities accessible to low-income and working class folks. Members in the VISTA Program, the only AmeriCorps program dedicated solely to alleviating poverty, serving in New York City only receive a living allowance of $13,548 for the year. Before taxes. Let me say that again in case you missed it. VISTAs serving in New York City, receive less than $15,000 as a living allowance before taxes. On this allowance, most Members are expected to cover their housing and associated utility costs (a few sponsoring agencies have housing to offer their Members), feed themselves (more on this below), and cover any other bills they may have with the exception of student loans which can be put into deferment. To put this into a little perspective, when I was a VISTA several years ago my portion of the rent was $500 and my living allowance was no more than $11,388. My rent then would be just about half of the living allowance VISTAs are getting now.

Due to wording in the legislation authorizing the program regarding their living allowance, Members may not be eligible for food stamps depending on how the agency administering the food stamp program decides to interpret the law. This often varies from case worker to case worker. As an aside, I should note that the food stamp program is no longer the food stamp program, but the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Without the assistance of someone, or several some ones, making significantly more money living on $13,000 in New York City is not easy. It is even less so, if you cannot receive the benefits that you should be entitled to because of a semantic technicality.

Aside from the less tangible benefits of participating in a program like AmeriCorps, completing Members have the option of selecting one of two awards. There is a cash stipend of $1,200 and the educational award mentioned above. Both of which, like the living allowance, are taxed. Members are only taxed for the portion of their educational award they use in any given year, but that does not change the fact that they are not able to use the full amount without penalty.

Reading through this, you may come to the conclusion that I think the Kennedy Serve America Act is the worst thing to be signed into law since TARP. You would be wrong. This is a great first step, but that’s all it should be seen as. This should be the beginning, not the end of the conversation about giving a greater priority to service in this country, about making sure that everyone has the ability to make the choice to serve, and about having choices in how to serve. The armed forces shouldn’t be the only financially attractive and/or feasible service option for poor and working class folks interested in giving back and picking up professional skills in a structured environment. Where should the conversation go from here? There are already efforts underway to make the education award non-taxable. Efforts should also be made to make the living allowance non-taxable, particularly if it is to remain at the level it currently is. There should be clarification regarding the eligibility of Members for food stamps. These steps would go a long way towards opening up and diversifying the pool of applicants and making sure that everyone has the opportunity to serve.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Is it Good or Bad that one of America's Great "Journalists" is a Comedian?

God bless Jon Stewart. If it wasn't for the Daily Show, I don't know that I'd be able to watch anything related to the news on TV. Seriously, I can't take it...everytime I manage to watch several consecutive minutes of mainstream media news, I want to throw things at my TV. And I love my TV. It's been so good to me.

The thing is, news (particularly news emanating out of the Beltway aka home for me) is painful. The things our leaders do, the things other leaders'd think you were watching a competition of incompetence. It's so damn pathetic its hilarious. Particularly because nobody calls them on it. Enter the Daily Show. Stewart et. al. have no problem calling a spade a spade. During the Bush years, they didn't really even need to write jokes, things were that preposterous. They would report horrible things, but at least you could laugh. Then cry later. Possibly assault someone on the street walking into/out of a neoconservative think tank. I've never done that, by the way, nor do I condone such behavior. Not one bit. Really. Honestly.

But most important of all, they cut all the spin out. Instead of giving a damn about what each party said, they attacked the absurdity of the arguments themselves. And everything was absurd. Particularly Ted Stevens and his expertise on the internet/a series of tubes. I digress. You didn't get talking points from each party, seeped in lies (do I think one party lies much much more than another? Yes. That doesn't excuse the other party for its crap, though). You know, like the news is supposed to do.

This is the problem. Jon Stewart is not a journalist. The Daily Show is not a news show, per se. It is not competing with the CBS Evening News. It does not have the resources to have a bureau in Jerusalem to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It doesn't have a bureau in Baghdad. For the love of god, it has to use a blue screen to make it appear that its correspondents are reporting live from DC! And, oh yeah, why would they? It's a comedy show. A comedy show that does so well because it reports the truth about American politics without filters - something that makes it hilarious.

This "feud" between Stewart and CNBC has been great...and terrible. He obliterated Jim Cramer on an interview, and has gone to town on the financial cheerleaders that helped make this crisis happen. It is clearly not a gimmick. Stewart was obviously seriously infuriated, and his grilling of Cramer makes that point clear. But why is this terrible? Because...why is Jon Stewart the dude doing this? Why did Jon Stewart ask David Gregory why the media doesn't report about the illegal Israeli settlements and how that kills the peace process? Why did Jon Stewart have to tell the Crossfire hosts their partisan hackery (no actual news, just reporting and/or making love to the spin) was hurting America? Why did Jon Stewart have to shout down his friend John McCain on insane views on Iraq for two entire segments of an interview?

I think Bill Moyers was right. Jon Stewart is the Mark Twain of our time. The problem is, he's having to do the media's job. Sure, I don't expect CNN anchors to drop as many f-bombs as he does. Though that would be awesome. I do expect them to report...THE NEWS! If they want to highlight the views of different parties on an issue, fine. But that's not the about some real freaking analysis? Do some research on topics you're reporting on. We need to know how much money we spend on our military bases overseas, how many of them there are, and what they do to public opinion of the citizens of whatever country they're in. We need to know how much money allocated to private contractors in Iraq has gone "missing". We need to know if welfare recipients are actually able to obtain adequate job training to enable them to get jobs once their cycle on welfare is finished. We need to know which industries are financing which politicians when contentious "American public versus corporate interests" issues are up for votes in Congress. We don't need to hear Republican or Democrat talking points on issues that have no real facts and don't really contribute much towards our understanding of issues. There's a place for that, and I'm not suggesting we cut that out, but that should NOT be the main focus of the news.

The issue is, the media might be structurally incapable of actually doing its job adequately. Since the 1970s, we've seen a major consolidation of the news. A handful of companies now own most of the mainstream media. That by itself isn't necessarily a problem, but the issue is, the FCC basically abandoned its duties with the 1996 Telecommunications Bill (which let consolidation happen to a degree previously never granted), and their regulations in general. Instead of insuring that the media does something, namely provide us a public good (good journalism) in exchange for the massive amounts of free money they get (through free use of airwaves, etc.), the FCC has opted to protect the media as a private entity. As a result, commercialism has infiltrated the press to a major degree, leading to a race for the bottom line. Instead of providing us a public good, the deregulated media has focused on making profits.

The thing is, good journalism costs money. You need financing to do good research, to have foreign bureaus, etc. Why is Fox News so profitable? Because it spends little on its actual news...shocking. Foreign bureaus have been the biggest casualties over the past 30 years - the level of downsizing and outright elimination of these bureaus is why no journalists know anything about foreign policy. Why did we get Iraq so wrong? Well, because we had no eyes and ears on the ground. Real media would have had inside sources, developed over years of being in the region, who could have gotten us the actual info that Iraq didn't have WMD. But, of course, we didn't have them. Instead, we had a media that used the Executive Office, DoD, and State as their sources for over two-thirds of their stories leading up to the invasion. Do you think those agencies had any incentives to, I don't know, not tell the whole truth???? Preposterous. As a result, how many Americans and Iraqis have died?

I'm not saying companies shouldn't make profits. I actually tend to be more of a free market person than not (even though I don't think the type of "capitalism" we have is a good thing). But when it comes to a public good like the media, our main watchdog over the government, and an entity that is supposed to provide us quality journalism in exchange for free use of airwaves, etc., the whole "profits" business needs to be thrown aside. If a news corporation wants to make money, fine. Just don't let it compromise journalistic standards. If it does, then you don't get free use of the airwaves. If only the FCC did its job, we wouldn't be in this mess today.

Yes, "new media", such as blogs (like this one!) are great, and have broken some major stories...Talking Points Memo comes to mind with the AG/Gonzalez scandal, but they don't have the resources ABC or CBS do. If we come to rely on people who are doing their own research from their laptops to report the news accurately, we're in trouble. No matter how brilliant and bad-ass I am, for instance, I can't just up and go to Baghdad to check with some sources about some behind-the-scenes negotiations on the Status of Forces Agreement. You need resources to really report the news. "New Media" isn't supposed to compete with "real media"'s supposed to supplement it, and provide commentary on issues. Instead, we get real news from TPM, etc., and nothing but commentary from CBS, ABC, CNN, etc.

The scary thing is, most Americans have no clue about any of this stuff. Sure, some think the media is not the greatest, but they have no idea how much of a structural problem it actually is. The whole media model we have in place right now is built to fail. If a US president wants to launch an illegal war, I honestly don't think the press, short of massive grassroots opposition (and I mean more than the peak of Vietnam), can stop them. For the so-called leader of the free world, that is deplorable.

It's not like the media is going to tell us they're doing a terrible job. Most politicians won't, either...a weak press makes it easier for them to do their jobs aka catering to special interests. Only a major level of awareness of the problem at the grassroots level, and then major action, can do anything. Or else we'll have to watch comedian Jon Stewart become our generation's Edward R. Murrow instead of Mark Twain. As much as I love his show, that would be a tragedy of the greatest magnitude.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Political posturing is killing this country

There are two major events in the past week that have brought the ire of the legislators. Though not exclusively, the GOP was especially galvanized to criticize these happenings. The events were the 2009 spending bill, but more specifically the nearly 8,000 earmarks legislators had placed in them. And the recent bonuses granted to AIG employees amounting to $160 million. While these are two unrelated events the unifying aspect is the way the GOP has used them to create political wedge issues. And they have done so in a manner that is so transparent that it’s hard to believe people buy it.

First, the earmarks:
Last week, Congress passed and President Obama signed a $410 billion spending bill. This was a bill that should have been passed prior to the beginning of the 2009 fiscal year on October 1, 2008, but it was delayed and a continuing resolution enacted to buy Congress some time to pass the bill. While the bill should have been passed prior to the beginning on the 2009 fiscal year, Democrats bet that a President Obama (or had McCain been elected, President McCain) would be more amendable to the party’s budget priorities. But I digress.

The real issue with the spending bill last week was not the delay in its passage, but according to the GOP, the problem was earmarks. In fact, the problem was some 8,000 earmarks placed in the bill by members of Congress. While we could have a complete discussion of earmarks, and why or why not they are the bane of the budget process, that isn’t the issue. The issue is that the GOP was criticizing President Obama for signing a bill with all of the earmarks that many Republicans had placed in it. It’s like ordering a chili-half smoke from Ben’s Chili Bowl and then complaining when they bring your food because it has chili on it. Hopefully, you are as confused as I am.

Ultimately, the issue is not the earmarks at all. It isn’t the number of earmarks or the amount of those earmarks. It isn’t the fact that those earmarks comprised approximately 1.3% of the spending bill. It isn’t even that President Obama had campaigned on the fact that he would attempt to improve the budget process, specifically mentioning the thousands of earmarks. The real issue is that the Republicans put these earmarks in the bill. They placed them there, so they could tell their constituents at home that they brought that convention center or highway or building on the local university to their district or state. These same republicans who are criticizing President Obama for signing a bill with earmarks did so merely days after putting in funding for their own pet projects. They are simply trying to posture themselves politically.

Now personally, I think there are some earmarks that are great and I’m sure that we have all benefited from a few earmarks over the course of our lives. But to request an earmark and then turn around and criticize the bill for being too full of earmarks, is simply ridiculous.

Second, AIG bonuses
As I mentioned before the earmarks and AIG are connected, but simply in the way that these legislators are posturing. Now AIG, the infamous financial insurance group, which has exacerbated this financial crisis, has paid more than $160 million to employees in the form of bonuses. Should AIG have paid these bonuses? Absolutely not. Nobody should be rewarded for running a company the way the folks at AIG ran theirs. But let’s put this in perspective; $160 million is not that much money in terms of the federal budget or the operating budget of a major financial institution. (In fact, its about three times as much as the total amount of earmarks requested by Senator Cochran (R-MS) Ultimately, the legislators who are jumping on AIG are sensing that the public has had about enough. And they are attempting to position themselves as the populist legislators that they haven’t been since being elected.

While these criticisms may seem focused on Republicans, they are not exclusively for them. Democrats are doing it too. My problem with all of this is that legislators are focusing more on political positioning than they are on solving the real problems we have in the country. And we do have real problems; serious problems. And I assure you that these politicians who are preaching their own message of populism in the last 24 hours probably care little about actually solving the problems that we face. There are 45 million Americans without health insurance and far more without an actual source of health care. There are states with double digit unemployment. The stock market has tanked. We are still entrenched in a war in Iraq that we never should have started. And clinging to any gains made in Afghanistan. Our federal deficit is growing at an amazing rate, but more importantly the debt of consumers and small business is mounting and forcing many to close their doors. There is little liquidity in the credit market, which is further impacting every business in the U.S.

So yes, we have problems. Major problems. But the key is to start to fix these problems, to try to address them. We need serious people in Washington to do this. People who care more about the people than the posturing. We need people who care more about creating solutions than illustrating problems. And most importantly, we need people who are willing to put aside party politics to work to benefit all Americans. There are people like this. There are people who care about improving things, who care about rebuilding this country and restoring its image. I think its time that we listen to these people instead of the political posturing and the hypocritical attacks.

Friday, March 13, 2009

3 years?? Are you f*&king kidding me??????

Muntadhar al-Zaidi was sentenced to 3 years in prison this past week. Al-Zaidi is the journalist who threw two shoes at Bush in Iraq a few months ago, during Dubya's disgraceful legacy tour. The quotes from the incident have often been lost in the coverage, and I think they are very important. Before throwing the first shoe, al-Zaidi yelled "this is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog." The second shoe was preceded by "this is for the widows and orphans and all those killed in Iraq." Really powerful stuff.

Back when it happened, I thought (along with many others) that al-Zaidi, a respected journalist, should be considered for the Pulitzer. He took a great risk to make a strong statement against Bush, a man that is responsible for so much suffering in Iraq. He was reportedly beaten quite severely in jail. And now, thanks to a court system that the CPA through Paul "Viceroy" Bremer set up, this man has been sentenced to three years in jail. This is an absolute outrage. Sure, throwing his shoes was not exactly "appropriate", but that was the whole point. There are few things as insulting in Arab culture as throwing your shoes at someone. And his two comments...everyone knows the "dog" one. But the media never mentioned the second one. That was his raison d'etre. This war has led to a level of death in Iraq that few Americans even begin to understand. How many women lost their husbands? How many children lost both their parents? How many lives have we destroyed? Sure, it's easy to look at statistics here, and use the language of "strategy" to dehumanize the situation. Al-Zaidi couldn't really do that. Iraqis can't do that. If they're fortunate enough to be alive and fairly healthy, they get to see hell every single day. And a journalist like him, covering this continued tragedy...imagine how much carnage he's seen. Then think about the fact that the man who is most responsible for that horror comes to your country near the end of his term to tout the progress that has been made in an effort to boost his own legacy. This man whose war has devastated your country. He was there for a PR tour. He had the nerve to act triumphant. So, yeah, there was nothing more appropriate for al-Zaidi to do than throw his shoes, even though he knew the police would brutalize him. They focused on his words, not just his act, all over the Arab and Muslim world. There's a reason people consider him a hero...and it's not just some reactionary "he threw his shoes at that Bush devil" thing. No, it's because what he said, what he decided to take a stand against. He was unwilling to let Bush have his PR victory in a land he turned into hell, for all those whose lives Bush has destroyed.

And what does he get for his courage? Three years in jail. This is a travesty. He goes to jail for throwing shoes at a man who made the decision to illegally and unjustly carry out a war and occupation, based on cooked intelligence, that has made Iraqis long for the Hussein years, and that man gets to retreat to a life of luxury and set up his Freedom Institute at Southern Methodist University to basically defend his decisions as president. Perfect. This ruling is an absolute crime, and we need to stop it from happening. How? For starters, make sure people know just what happened. And don't make it a many thought it was hilarious that he threw his shoes at Bush. Yeah, it was funny, but also incredibly serious - I think it was one of the most purely honest actions against the war and occupation. So, people need to be serious about, ha, no way, the shoe thrower is going to jail? This is a serious indictment against the type of system Bremer set up in Iraq, and the entire scale of justice in terms of the war. Three years for a non-violent act of opposition to the war and occupation...three years. That's incredibly unjust. Though, if his appeal is denied, and they send al-Zaidi to jail for three years for this, Iraqis in return should be allowed to try Bush and his Iraq War cabal for crimes against humanity in an Iraqi court. How's that sound?

Monday, March 9, 2009

International Women's Day: March 8th

Yesterday, March 8th, was International Women's Day. IWD is now an official holiday in China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, etc with flowers and small gifts. In some countries IWD has the equivalent status of Mother's Day where children give small presents to their mothers and grandmothers.

The 2009 Theme is: Women and men united to end violence against women and girls. I missed it, did you? A chance to celebrate myself and reach out to women around the globe, no less! Well, I am doing a belated recognition today and I invite you to join me if you missed it, too.

In fact, many events extend into this week - for example, Alice Walker is marching with Code Pink into the Gaza Strip as part of Women's Day to protest the destruction caused by Israel and hold the US government accountable.

Given that in the US alone, one out of every six American women have been the victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, and that globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime, we all share the responsibility to continue to educate our communities about the cycle of violence and advocate for the victims who face so much shame in coming forward to challenge their attackers, whether the attackers are individuals or administrations.

Visit their site to learn more about Women's Day events, recent news about policy and legislation around the world to benefit women's issues, and to see what corporations sponsor Women's Day events

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Press Release

Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival

March 11, 2009 - March 14, 2009

On March 11, 2009 at 8 pm, the Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival will make its debut at the world renowned Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As one of the few Palestine film festivals to take place in the Midwest, the Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival will surely bring attention to the growing number of films made about and by Palestinians.

The Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival brings you an array of comedy, drama, fiction, non-fiction, features, shorts, and experimental films, which all showcase the diversity and strength of Palestinian cinema. These films represent the true nature of Palestinians and the Palestinian narrative, in stark contrast to the bias and stereotypes that mainstream news and media present. The breadth of the stories and the emotions expressed in these films know no bounds.

The opening night feature film, Salt of This Sea (Dir. Annemarie Jacir), starring acclaimed spoken word poet Suheir Hammad, screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008, and was Palestine’s official submission to the 81st Academy Awards. It is also known to be the first feature-length fictional film to be written and directed by a Palestinian woman.

Other films in this year’s line-up include Laila’s Birthday (Dir. Rashid Masharawi), Driving to Zigzigland (Dir. Nicole Ballivian), Carried by the Wind (Dir. Adam Sebire), Hardball (Dir. Suha Arraf), Make A Wish (Dir. Cherian Dabis) and Slingshot Hip Hop (Dir. Jackie Salloum), which was an official selection at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

In light of the recent tragic events that took place in Gaza, the Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival will be donating part of the proceeds from ticket sales to the established charity United Palestinian Appeal.

The Ann Arbor Palestine Film Festival debuts on March 11, 2009 at 8pm and runs until March 14, 2009. For more information on film schedules and tickets, please visit: