Archive for April, 2013

Movie Review: “The Company You Keep” – posted 4/28/2013

April 28, 2013 4 comments

Watching Robert Redford’s new movie, “The Company You Keep”, was a compelling and entertaining experience. The movie moved right along with good pacing, plot, and a fine collection of characters. The movie is based on a novel by Neil Gordon. I had a degree of trepidation about the movie beforehand. Hollywood can be so superficial, two-dimensional and can get a lot wrong. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by this movie.

Its portrayal of old 60’s radicals was not too bad which is a compliment. It helped that there was so much star power. Along with Robert Redford who acted and also directed, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Sam Elliott, Terrence Howard, and Shia LaBeouf all had meaty roles.

The story revolved around a bank robbery done by the Weathermen over 30 years ago in which one of the robbers murdered a bank guard. The Weathermen in and around the robbery went underground and subsequently created new cover identities. Redford played a widowed public interest lawyer with a young daughter. When a member of their group played by Susan Sarandon is captured by the FBI, the plot is set in motion. Redford has to disappear and goes on a quest. A young reporter played by Shia LaBeouf pursues the story. Along the way, Redford meets up with his old comrades who still remain very distantly connected.

There are some fun things. The interplay between the generations was well done. Both Sarandon and Redford get to voice 60’s style indignation about the young who appear to believe in nothing beyond their careers. I was reminded of a familiar dialogue I have had with my son Josh:

Josh: ” Dad, your generation ruined the world.”

me: “Josh, your generation is a bunch of functional illiterates.”

Redford does actually present a more nuanced view than I am articulating. He shows the range of responses the old radicals had to the crime committed as well as their response to the system they had hated. He is able to use the collection of weathered old radicals to show feelings of regret, pride, anger, loyalty, and pain about choices made as they lived their later, post-Weathermen lives. He also shows growth on the part of his young character who plays the reporter.

Of all the co-stars, I enjoyed the Julie Christie character, Mimi Lurie, the most. Christie played an unreconstructed, slightly unhinged, radical who had not changed since the old days. While her former comrades seemed to have varying degrees of regret about some of their actions, not Christie. She had made the jump to dope trafficker, another way she continued to allegedly oppose the system.

I do think Redford tried to do a sympathetic critique of the old radicals. At one point, one of the comrades who had transformed into a college professor says to Redford about the murder at the bank, “We were supposed to be a peace movement.” I do think that captured the problem reflected in the Weathermen’s craziness.

Looking back, I have a hard time mustering any sympathy for the old Weather viewpoint. While I probably have not seen some of their self-criticisms, I have found most of them insufficiently self-critical. They typically say the war on the Vietnamese and the failure of the government to stop the war led them to take their actions. The “bring the war home” perspective that led to bombings and left wing terrorism was stupid, self-destructive and it legitimately alienated huge swaths of Americans who were sympathetic to an anti-war perspective. The Weathermen reflected a form of impatient, infantile radicalism. They did not understand America and anything about how positive social change can be advanced by radicals and progressives.

In America, we want things quickly. Instead of the patient work of building a movement that is democratic, socialist, and respects civil liberties and the rule of law, the Weathermen blew stuff up. While I respect the sincerity and motivation of old radicals, as has been shown many times, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Redford’s movie provides a good vehicle for discussion of the Weathermen and what was wrong with their approach. Radicals and liberals should without any equivocation endorse non-violence as they pursue change. The Weathermen should certainly not be romanticized and I do not think Redford indulges in that. He is mostly about telling a good story.

I usually find it depressing to check movie listings to see that most of what is coming out is fare for 12 year olds. Looking today, there is Scary Movie V, Evil Dead, GI Joe Retaliation, and the Croods, whatever that is. Not really for adults. “The Company You Keep” is that rare adult movie that comes along too infrequently. I expect it will be particularly enjoyable for boomers.

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Robert Ingersoll and His Walt Whitman Eulogy – posted 4/14/2013

April 14, 2013 2 comments

Sometimes I like to post things just because they are beautiful. Robert Ingersoll’s eulogy to his friend Walt Whitman falls into that category. Ingersoll delivered the eulogy which I have reprinted below in Camden New Jersey on March 30, 1892.
For those who have never heard of Ingersoll, you are not alone. I came across a new 2013 book, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought” written by Susan Jacoby. It introduced me to Ingersoll.
Ingersoll was famous long ago. Although he is unknown now, he had achieved great fame in 19th century America. Known as ‘the Great Agnostic” Ingersoll was a leading proponent of secularism and the separationof church and state.
That summary actually fails to do Ingersoll justice. He could be considered the American Voltaire. I am not sure I grasp why he has been so banished from our history. He is a pillar of American secular tradition. Jacoby writes that Ingersoll stands next to Tom Paine in importance.
A trial lawyer by profession, Ingersoll was renowned for his entertaining and biting oratory. It was not unusual for Ingersoll to give captivating three hour speeches to sold out crowds. He travelled across America, speaking all over, mocking religion and speaking up for science and humanism. He was a strong supporter of women’s rights and racial equality. He had a gift for communicating to wide audiences. He was way ahead of his time.
There really is not anybody like him today. I do think we need to ask why Ingersoll remains so unknown. That question interests me although I think Ingersoll’s obscurity is comparable to quite a few others. I guess it is a matter of what we, as a society, pay attention to and remember.
Because of my own interest in history and also because of curiosity about unsung heroes and heroines, in the next year I intend to write periodically about others, like Ingersoll, who have been unfairly consigned to the historical dustbin. Anyway, here is Ingersoll’s eulogy of Whitman:


Camden, N.J., March 30, 1892.

MY FRIENDS: Again we, in the mystery of Life, are brought face to face with the mystery of Death. A great man, a great American, the most eminent citizen of this Republic, lies dead before us, and we have met to pay a tribute to his greatness and his worth.

I know he needs no words of mine. His fame is secure. He laid the foundations of it deep in the human heart and brain. He was, above all I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy. He was so great that he rose above the greatest that he met without arrogance, and so great that he stooped to the lowest without conscious condescension. He never claimed to be lower or greater than any of the sons of men.

He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.

One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast: “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”

His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth.

He was built on a broad and splendid plan — ample, without appearing to have limitations — passing easily for a brother of mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but giving himself freely with recklessness of genius to winds and waves and tides; caring for nothing as long as the stars were above him. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god.

He was the poet of that divine democracy which gives equal rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great American voice; uttered a song worthy of the great Republic. No man ever said more for the rights of humanity, more in favor of real democracy, of real justice.
He neither scorned nor cringed, was
neither tyrant nor slave. He asked only to stand the equal of his fellows beneath the great flag of nature, the blue and stars.
He was the poet of Life. It was a joy simply to breathe. He loved the clouds; he enjoyed the breath of morning, the twilight, the wind, the winding streams. He loved to look at the sea when the waves burst into the whitecaps of joy. He loved the fields, the hills; he was acquainted with the trees, with birds, with all the beautiful objects of the earth. He not only saw these objects, but understood their meaning, and he used them that he might exhibit his heart to his fellow-men.

He was the poet of Love. He was not ashamed of that divine passion that has built every home in the world; that divine passion that has painted every picture and given us every real work of art; that divine passion that has made the world worth living in and has given some value to human life.

He was the poet of the natural, and taught men not to be ashamed of that which is natural. He was not only the poet of democracy, not only the poet of the great Republic, but he was the Poet of the human race. He was not confined to the limits of this country, but his sympathy went out over the seas to all the nations of the earth.

He stretched out his hand and felt himself the equal of all kings and of all princes, and the brother of all men, no matter how high, no matter how low.

He has uttered more supreme words than any writer of our century, possibly of almost any other. He was, above all things, a man, and above genius, above all the snow-capped peaks of
intelligence, above all art, rises the true man, Greater than all is the true man, and he walked among his fellow-men as such.

He was the poet of Death. He accepted all life and all death, and he justified all. He had the courage to meet all, and was great enough and splendid enough to harmonize all and to accept all there is of life as a divine melody.

You know better than I what his life has been, but let me say one thing. Knowing, as he did, what others can know and what they cannot, he accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all religions, and believed in none. His philosophy was a sky that embraced all clouds and accounted for all clouds. He had a
philosophy and a religion of his own, broader, as he believed — and as I believe — than others. He accepted all, he understood all, and he was above all.

He was absolutely true to himself. He had frankness and
courage, and he was as candid as light. He was willing that all the sons of men should be absolutely acquainted with his heart and brain. He had nothing to conceal. Frank, candid, pure, serene, noble, and yet for years he was maligned and slandered, simply because he had the candor of nature. He will be understood yet, and that for which he was condemned — his frankness, his candor — will add to the glory and greatness of his fame.

He wrote a liturgy for mankind; he wrote a great and splendid psalm of life, and he gave to us the gospel of humanity — the greatest gospel that can be preached.

He was not afraid to live, not afraid to die. For many years he and death were near neighbors. He was always willing and ready to meet and greet this king called death, and for many months he sat in the deepening twilight waiting for the night, waiting for the light.

He never lost his hope. When the mists filled the valleys, he looked upon the mountain tops, and when the mountains in darkness disappeared, he fixed his gaze upon the stars.

In his brain were the blessed memories of the day, and in his heart were mingled the dawn and dusk of life.

He was not afraid; he was cheerful every moment. The laughing nymphs of day did not desert him. They remained that they might clasp the hands and greet with smiles the veiled and silent sisters of the night. And when they did come, Walt Whitman stretched his hand to them. On one side were the nymphs of the day, and on the other the silent sisters of the night, and so, hand in hand, between smiles and tears, he reached his journey’s end.

From the frontier of life, from the western wave-kissed shore, he sent us messages of content and hope, and these messages seem now like strains of music blown by the “Mystic Trumpeter” from Death’s pale realm.

To-day we give back to Mother Nature, to her clasp and kiss, one of the bravest, sweetest souls that ever lived in human clay.

Charitable as the air and generous as Nature, he was negligent of all except to do and say what he believed he should do and should say.

And I to-day thank him, not only for you but for myself, — for all the brave words he has uttered. I thank him for all the great and splendid words he has said in favor of liberty, in favor of man and woman, in favor of motherhood, in favor of fathers, in favor of children, and I thank him for the brave words that he has said of death.

He has lived, he has died, and death is less terrible than it was before. Thousands and millions will walk down into the “dark valley of the shadow” holding Walt Whitman by the hand. Long after we are dead the brave words he has spoken will sound like trumpets to the dying.

And so I lay this little wreath upon this great man’s tomb. I loved him living, and I love him still.

The Only Real Danger To Israel Comes From Within by Uri Avnery – posted 4/13/2013

April 13, 2013 Leave a comment

I am reprinting a piece written by Uri Avnery, a long-time leader in the Israeli peace movement. Jon

“Around us the storm is raging / But our head will not be bowed…” we sang when we were young, before the State of Israel was born.

On the eve of Israel’s 65th birthday, this coming Monday, we could sing this rousing song again. And not just out of nostalgia.

Around us, many storms are raging. In Syria, a terrible civil war is tearing the country apart. In Egypt, after the victory of the Arab spring, the country is still in turmoil. The Lebanese state is still unable to impose its authority on the various armed sects, and the same is true for Iraq. Iran is busy advancing its nuclear program, all the while muttering dark threats.

Israel sees itself as an island in the stormy sea, threatened on all sides, ready for the tsunami to hit any minute.

There is something ironic about all this.

The Zionist adventure started with the promise to create a safe haven for the Jews, after centuries of helplessness.

Indeed, stripped of all ideological decorations, that was the central theme of the endeavor. Everywhere, Jews were defenseless, dependent on the mercies of others. Here, in a state of our own, we would be able to defend ourselves, head unbowed.

In other words, for ages we were the object of history, now we were taking our destiny in our own hands, an actor on the stage of history, a nation among the nations.

Before that, Jews were some kind of ethnic-religious entity. With Zionism, the Jews – or a part of them – constituted themselves as a modern nation, able to defend itself against any enemy.

In this sense, Zionism was indeed a roaring success. Its creation, the State of Israel, is now strong and secure.

Or is it? Listening to many of our leaders, the opposite seems to be true.

Years ago, Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, the caustic critic of the Zionist establishment, famously asserted that Israel was the only place in the world where the lives of Jews were in mortal danger. As it turned out, that was not entirely exact.

A few days ago, on Holocaust Day, our Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, declared that we are threatened by a Second Holocaust, perpetrated by a nuclear-armed Iran.

The next day, a group of international hackers, animated by pro-Palestinian sentiments, declared a cyber-war on Israel. They promised to inactivate the main institutions of the country, both military and civilian, governmental and private. As it turned out, the attack failed miserably. No significant damage was caused. But before this became clear, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded by comparing the campaign with the Nazi Holocaust.

What is this? Paranoia? Manipulation? Political gimmickry? All of these and more?

In the span of nine days, Israel is experiencing three national events. Each with sirens howling, official ceremonies, endless speeches. All TV, radio and print media totally devoted to the subject of the day.

Last Monday was Holocaust Day. The entire country turned to the memory of that awful chapter of history. At 10 o’clock, to the sound of the sirens, the whole country came to a standstill. Cars stopped in the middle of the road, men, women and children got out and stood at attention. Survivors still alive – mostly over 80 – told their horrible stories, listeners shed tears.

At Yad Vashem, Netanyahu made his standard speech – Never again… We shall not… the Iranian bomb… Second Holocaust…

Tomorrow evening will be Memorial Day. The country will mourn for the many thousands who fell in Israel’s numerous wars. Bereaved parents will lay flowers on the graves of their beloved. Politicians will make speeches about the lives so nobly given up for the nation to prevent a Second Holocaust.

The next day will be a day of joy. Without an interruption, the sirens will announce the end of Memorial Day and the beginning of Independence Day. Speeches about the sacrifices of the fallen will be superseded by speeches about the glories and achievement of the state, which rose so miraculously from the ashes of the Holocaust. In the center of festivities stand Israel’s armed forces, among the strongest and most efficient in the world.

The close proximity of these three dates is not accidental. It is a conscious attempt to imbue generations of Israelis with the idea that Israel is under constant threat, like the Jewish communities in Europe throughout the centuries, and that the IDF is the sole guarantor of our national and even individual security.

Many people consider this a manipulation, as indeed it is. Under Netanyahu, this has reached new heights (or depths). Jewish victimhood is bandied about as a totem that sanctifies all our policies: the occupation, the settlements, the oppression of the Palestinians, the rejection in practice of peace based on the two-state solution.

It is also a political ploy. The constant reminders of existential dangers – in Iran, in Syria, in Egypt and elsewhere – are designed to rally the population around the leadership. In the recent election campaign, Netanyahu presented himself as a “strong leader for a strong state”. Never mind that he is actually a weakling, notorious for succumbing to foreign and internal pressures. Fear-mongering is his most effective instrument.

However, it would be a great mistake to discount Israeli fears as artificial. They are quite real.

Foreigners are often amazed to hear Israelis asserting in the same sentence, literally in the same breath, that “Israel is a regional power”, and that we shall not go “like lambs to the slaughter”, as Jews were alleged (by Israelis) to have done in the Holocaust. Both halves of this sentence are real. They live side by side in the minds of most Israelis.

No one who has been in Israel on Holocaust Day can have the slightest doubt about the huge impact that the Holocaust continues to have on our minds. Most of us (myself included) have relatives who perished in the Shoah. The profound sense of victimhood, the fears and apprehensions are deeply ingrained in us. It would be almost impossible to eradicate them in a few years.

Yet we must overcome them, because they have no relation with current reality and prevent us from rational behavior.

The simple fact is that Israel is a strong state, and will remain so for a long time to come.

We have a very strong and efficient military, more than sufficient for meeting any foreseeable threat. The Arab spring has at least temporarily removed several military menaces. That is true also for the real or imagined nuclear threat from Iran. No Iranian leader would ever risk the total destruction of his country, with its thousands of years of civilization, in order to destroy poor us.

But a strong military is only one component of security. There are many others.

In 65 years we have built a solid and strong economy, more resilient than much bigger and stronger economies around the world. In several areas, such as high-tech, science, medicine, agriculture and the arts, we belong to the premier world league. Israel’s intimate relations with the No. 1 world power seem safe for a long time to come and of huge advantage in many fields, even given the gradual decline of US power.

The revived Hebrew language is vibrant and firmly entrenched. Israeli democracy, though under constant threat, seems to be able to withstand the onslaught. We can surely be proud of what our society has achieved, practically from scratch.

The only real dangers facing Israel come from within. Mad policies, the continued occupation, the permanent war, the encroachment of fundamentalist religion – these are the real causes for worry.

I am pointing this out not in order to inflame a sense of triumphalism, but on the contrary.

In Israel, it is the Right which thrives on fear and constantly invents new threats, in order to deny peace and promote a sense of “the whole world against us”. They depict our state as just another beleaguered ghetto, facing a perpetual danger of annihilation.

The Israeli peace camp must resolutely stand up against this world view. Israel is strong, and because it is strong it can take risks, make peace with the Palestinian people and the entire Arab and Muslim world.

65 years ago, when we were a population of hardly 650 thousand people, my generation had this self-confidence. Our heads were unbowed. We must rediscover this now.

URI AVNERY is an Israeli writer and peace activist with Gush Shalom. He is a contributor to CounterPunch’s book The Politics of Anti-Semitism.

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A Hidden Insidious Plague: Emotional Abuse – published in the Concord Monitor 4/4/10 – posted 4/7/2013

April 7, 2013 1 comment

I had never previously posted this piece on my website. I wrote it back in 2010. It was published back then in my local paper, the Concord Monitor. As I had written previously there were some articles that I never had put up before. This is one of them. Jon

When I think about domestic violence, the image that comes to mind is a physical assault like a slap or a punch. It could be Rihanna getting beaten by her ex-boyfriend, singer Chris Brown. Or it could be something more horrific like the domestic violence-related murders of Phyllis Marchand, Suzanne Vernet, and Melissa Charbonneau, three New Hampshire women, that occurred last year.

To the extent emotional abuse is acknowledged, it is a secondary, background aspect of domestic violence. You can’t see it like you can see a black eye, a bruise or a broken bone. Nor is it easily quantifiable. Whether it has a history would likely depend on which partner in a couple you believed.

Emotional abuse is heavily contested terrain. In any couple, both parties can claim it, and it may be hard to know where the truth lies.

New Hampshire’s domestic violence law defines abuse as a laundry list of criminal acts such as assault, interference with freedom and harassment. It also includes criminal threatening. It does not include name-calling, belittling, berating, excessive screaming or extreme personal argumentativeness.These behaviors are probably too hard to prove with a high degree of reliability. As a society, we are not prepared to criminalize this conduct. Emotional abuse falls into a gray area that the law has a difficult time getting at.

What I am calling emotional abuse is behavior used to control, degrade, humiliate and punish a spouse or partner. It wears the person down. It makes her or him an object of constant blame. It robs the person of self-esteem and weakens self-confidence. Eventually, fear of the anger of the abuser controls the victim. So much energy is expended figuring out how not to get the abuser angry that there is no energy left to fight back against the controlling behavior.

The victim of emotional abuse is something of a torture victim. Except Abu Ghraib prison is the victim’s own home. Or, maybe a more accurate way to describe it is that the prison is a black site and outsiders don’t know the torture victim lives next door.

While no one case can adequately convey the variability and mutations of emotional abuse, I want to tell a story about a married couple I will call Randy and Laura – out-of-state lawyers I knew well who were married for more than 20 years.

Before they got married, Randy found a sexy backless red dress in Laura’s closet. He asked her where she got it, and she explained that the dress was a gift from a former boyfriend. Randy then burned the dress.

At the time, they had not been dating for long. Randy profusely apologized, and Laura let it go. It proved to be a missed red flag. Laura subsequently got pregnant. And while she voiced some misgivings, they got married. Not long before they started dating, Laura had been sexually assaulted. She fought off the attacker but the experience left her shaken. Randy appeared on the scene initially as a chivalrous protector.

After the marriage, Randy’s pattern of name-calling, constant argument and berating dramatically escalated. He called Laura a liar, a bitch, argumentative, manipulativeand untrustworthy. He accused her of his own bad behaviors. His flair was turning reality upside down.

They had two children, and issues around the kids turned into another battleground. According to Randy, Laura was too permissive as a parent. He did not simply speak the truth on all occasions – he defined reality.

If there was a disagreement when they were out driving, Randy would force Laura out of the car, even in dangerous neighborhoods. Sometimes, he would come back to offer a ride. He always had to get the last word in.Randy liked to stay calm in his constant irrational arguments, using his evenness as a way to push Laura over the edge. His demeanor said that as long as I am calm, you cannot describe anything I do as abusive, no matter how cruel.

After many years, Laura moved out. Randy showed up at Laura’s new place and tried to kick her door in. The husband of a friend intervened to protect her. Randy backed down.

As a lawyer, Randy knew domestic violence law inside and out. The door-kicking incident aside, he walked the line of the law, and he had a litany of excuses for bad behavior. Laura also knew the law, but she feared Randy’s reaction if she filed a protection-from-abuse order. She also doubted the abuse allegations would fly because of Randy’s deviousness and the law’s narrow definitions of abuse.

When Laura went to Randy’s house to help the kids with homework or for other reasons, he sometimes confiscated her car keys, her pocketbook or even her client files. On one occasion, he grabbed some files and threw them into the snowy front yard. Laura remained afraid to get angry because when she did, he became his most unreasonable. Everything she did was designed to avoid upsetting him, but she never succeeded.

Although Laura separated from Randy, she never could follow through on divorce. She contacted lawyers and once got as far as drafting a complaint to initiate a divorce. But she never filed court papers. She was scared of the fight with Randy and believed it would be better for the kids if she maintained a separation without divorcing. She knew how he was as a separated spouse. She did not know how he would be as a divorcing and divorced spouse.

Meanwhile, Randy used access to the kids as a way to control her. Although they theoretically shared custody, Laura let her kids live at his house. He forbid them from staying at Laura’s apartment. She accommodated him out of fear of rocking the boat. Randy had threatened to leave the country and snatch the kids, and Laura took that threat seriously.

When one of Laura’s relatives confronted Randy about his abuse, Randy forbid the relative from having any contact with the children.

Although she tried to deflect attention away from the fact of her own abuse, Laura suffered horribly because of it. She died at an early age because of cancer.

In her book Trauma and Recovery, Dr Judith Herman states that the methods of establishing control over another person are based upon the systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma. It is disturbing to know that the emotional abuse inflicted on Laura and other domestic violence victims is consistent with coercive techniques as described by hostages, political prisoners, and survivors of concentration camps.

Right now, emotional abuse remains subterranean, largely outside the law. Maybe someday a society better attuned to understanding will figure a way to address emotional abuse as well as a way to hold perpetrators accountable.

Open Letter From Former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration re NPR story – posted 4/6/2013

April 6, 2013 1 comment

I am not going to comment on Chana Joffe-Walt’s recent reporting on NPR about disability which received wide circulation. There were many responses. I will, however, post the Open Letter from 8 previous Social Security Administration commissioners, published on April 4, which I think also deserves wide circulation. Jon

April 4, 2013

As former Commissioners of the Social Security Administration (SSA), we write to express our significant concerns regarding a series recently aired on This American Life, All Things Considered, and National Public Radio stations across the U.S. (“Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise of Disability in America”). Our nation’s Social Security system serves as a vital lifeline for millions of individuals with severe disabilities. We feel compelled to share our unique insight into the Social Security system because we know firsthand the dangers of mischaracterizing the disability programs via sensational, anecdote-based media accounts, leaving vulnerable beneficiaries to pick up the pieces.

Approximately 1 in 5 of our fellow Americans live with disabilities, but only those with the most significant disabilities qualify for disability benefits under Title II and Title XVI of the Social Security Act. Title II Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (DI) benefits and Title XVI Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits provide critical support to millions of Americans with the most severe disabilities, as well as their dependents and survivors. Disabled beneficiaries often report multiple impairments, and many have such poor health that they are terminally ill: about 1 in 5 male DI beneficiaries and 1 in 7 female DI beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits. Despite their impairments, many beneficiaries attempt work using the work incentives under the Social Security Act, and some do work part-time. For example, research by Mathematica and SSA finds that about 17 percent of beneficiaries worked in 2007. However, their earnings are generally very low (two-thirds of those who worked in 2007 earned less than $5,000 for the whole year), and only a small share are able to earn enough to be self-sufficient and leave the DI and SSI programs each year. Without Social Security or SSI, the alternatives for many beneficiaries are simply unthinkable.

The statutory standard for approval is very strict, and was made even more so in 1996. To implement this strict standard, Social Security Administration (SSA) regulations, policies, and procedures require extensive documentation and medical evidence at all levels of the application process. Less than one-third of initial DI and SSI applications are approved, and only about 40 percent of adult DI and SSI applicants receive benefits even after all levels of appeal. As with adults, most children who apply are denied SSI, and only the most severely impaired qualify for benefits.

Managing the eligibility process for the disability system is a challenging task, and errors will always occur in any system of this size. But the SSA makes every effort to pay benefits to the right person in the right amount at the right time. When an individual applies for one of SSA’s disability programs, the agency has extensive systems in place to ensure accurate decisions, and the agency is home to many dedicated public servants who take their ongoing responsibility of the proper stewardship of the programs very seriously. Program integrity is critically important and adequate funds must be available to make continued progress in quality assurance and monitoring. In the face of annual appropriations that were far below what the President requested in Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2012, the agency has still continued to implement many new system improvements that protect taxpayers and live up to Americans’ commitment to protect the most vulnerable in our society.

It is true that DI has grown significantly in the past 30 years. The growth that we’ve seen was predicted by actuaries as early as 1994 and is mostly the result of two factors: baby boomers entering their high-disability years, and women entering the workforce in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s so that more are now “insured” for DI based on their own prior contributions. The increase in the number of children receiving SSI benefits in the past decade is similarly explained by larger economic factors, namely the increase in the number of poor and low-income children. More than 1 in 5 U.S. children live in poverty today and some 44 percent live in low-income households. Since SSI is a means-tested program, more poor and low-income children mean more children with disabilities are financially eligible for benefits. Importantly, the share of low-income children who receive SSI benefits has remained constant at less than four percent.

Yet, the series aired on NPR sensationalizes this growth, as well as the DI trust fund’s projected shortfall. History tells a less dramatic story. Since Social Security was enacted, Congress has “reallocated” payroll tax revenues across the OASI and DI trust funds – about equally in both directions – some 11 times to account for demographic shifts. In 1994, the last time such reallocation occurred, SSA actuaries projected that similar action would next be required in 2016. They were right on target.

We are deeply concerned that the series “Unfit for Work” failed to tell the whole story and perpetuated dangerous myths about the Social Security disability programs and the people helped by this vital system. We fear that listeners may come away with an incorrect impression of the program—as opposed to an understanding of the program actually based on facts.

As former Commissioners of the agency, we could not sit on the sidelines and witness this one perspective on the disability programs threaten to pull the rug out from under millions of people with severe disabilities. Drastic changes to these programs would lead to drastic consequences for some of America’s most vulnerable people. With the lives of so many vulnerable people at stake, it is vital that future reporting on the DI and SSI programs look at all parts of this important issue and take a balanced, careful look at how to preserve and strengthen these vital parts of our nation’s Social Security system.


Kenneth S. Apfel

Michael J. Astrue

Jo Anne B. Barnhart

Shirley S. Chater

Herbert R. Doggette

Louis D. Enoff

Larry G. Massanari

Lawrence H. Thompson

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Book Review: “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left” by Landon R. Y. Storrs – posted 3/31/2013

April 1, 2013 3 comments

I came across this book when it was mentioned by Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker piece about the the New Deal. Being both a federal government employee and a long-time progressive, I was curious about the history.

There are significant gaps in American history as conventionally taught. Unfortunately, what is generally remembered about our collective past leaves much out. Even books that aspire to fill in gaps or present alternative pictures leave out much. Storrs, a University of Iowa history professor, takes up the worthy goal of describing the years around the New Deal and after. I must say I was shocked by how little I knew of the events described including the activists, the organizations and the inquisition which ultimately decimated the New Deal Left.

The role of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his witchhunt have received attention. However, the loyalty investigations into federal employees has a murkier, less illuminated history. Storrs went to great lengths to unearth some of this buried history and she does a good job of showing the devastation that ensued.

In a more general way, Professor Storrs adds to our knowledge of the progressive and feminist aspects of the New Deal which have been insufficiently appreciated.She shows that there was quite an active leftist and feminist presence in both the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. The FDR administration attracted many young radicals of both sexes to Washington DC. Storrs says initially they came for government jobs – not because of any confidence in the progressive possibilities of the New Deal which many derided.

She mentions Arthur “Tex” Goldschmidt, Elizabeth Wickendem, Felix Cohen, Wilbur Cohen, Thomas Emerson, Pauli Murray, Mary Dublin, Catherine Bauer, and Leon Keyserling, to name some of the activists. Each of these individuals (along with others I am not naming) had compelling personal stories in their own right and Storrs does a fine job of presenting the personalities and their respective roles.

Storrs shows they were a very lively, creative, and idealistic crowd who added enormously to the social and intellectual life of Washington DC. They reflected a wide range of left perspectives but all were committed to raising the living standards of poor and working class Americans. As Storrs writes:

“They advocated raising wages through unionization and wage-hour laws, combating unemployment through planning, public works, and generous relief and social insurance policies and further protecting purchasing power with national health insurance, public housing and consumer rights.”

The great majority of these progressives were outside the orbit of the Communist Party (CPUSA). An irony of the witchhunt is that so many leftists who were critical of the CPUSA were caught up in the relentless machinery of the loyalty investigations. It appears that many independent leftists had a more fluid identity and were not that engaged in ideological self-definition. For a period, social democrats, Socialists, and Communists all tried, with some degree of success, to push the New Deal to the left. Left-leaning New Dealers argued for the importance of mass purchasing power for working people. One wonders why that focus is not resurrected today when politics are so stuck on austerity and deficit-cutting.

I must say I was completely unaware of consumer groups like the League of Women Shoppers (LWS). Storrs shows the effective advocacy of the consumer movement. She said the LWS had 14 chapters across the country with 25,000 members. The LWS described their agenda this way:

“We work for high wages, low prices, fair profits, progressive taxation, adequate health protection and housing for all and the ending of racial, religious and sex discrimination in employment.”

I did not appreciate how many progressives of all stripes were working in the federal government in the 30’s and 40’s. Part of the conceit of the New Left has been its self-perception of reinventing politics. There was a lack of awareness of left movements that preceded it. One tragedy of the left is the history of discontinuity where every new generation of leftists seems to start over without learning from the past. I do think this is an example of what Gore Vidal called the United States of Amnesia. The left, to the extent there is any left currently remaining, is still plagued by this.

The strength of the New Deal Left does help to put into perspective the ruthless response from the Right. Stepping back, the loyalty investigations are almost a paradigm for how to destroy a social movement. Using the fear of communists in the federal government, a fear that was vastly overplayed, the Right demagogically and strategically attacked people on the left. Anyone in the federal government who was perceived as powerful or close to power attracted special interest. Loyalty investigations were a great way to bring down your political enemies. I was struck by the sheer volume of loyalty investigations. When leftists were preoccupied with proving their loyalty, their ideas became suspect. Instead of a focus on public policy, leftists were put on the defensive, always having to explain how they were not disloyal. It was a good way to get people off their game.

Storrs shows how long-running, persistent and demoralizing the loyalty investigations were to New Deal leftists. There always seemed to be more congressional committees investigating and once a target was in the crosshairs, the witchhunt did not give up easily. Storrs shows how the process forced compromise. While there were a wide range of responses to the loyalty investigations, some leftists denied their pasts and misrepresented their history politically to try and get the investigators off their backs. For many, there were serious issues of economic survival because the blacklist severely narrowed employment opportunities. The witchhunters tried to ruin people financially as well as in other ways. The FBI often urged the Justice Department to prosecute loyalty defendants on perjury charges. Storrs shows the other tools used: deportation for foreign-born civil servants; passport restrictions; loss of government research grants for academics; and loss of federal retirement benefits if there was evidence of perjury. Loyalty defendants were subject to surveillance and they widely believed they were wiretapped.

I thought Storrs’ observations about the antifeminism of the Old Right were quite interesting. She showed the multiple, contradictory stereotypes at play around women, gays and Jews. Right wing fears did not stop with fear of communism. Storrs says that right wingers associated communism with men’s loss of control over wives and daughters, effeminate men, and homosexuality. Homophobia took the form of assuming that gay people were automatically security risks because of their presumed susceptibilty to blackmail. Loyalty defendants had to show they were “normal”.

Storrs also shows how the right wing media of the day, the Hearst and McCormick papers, worked closely with the Dies Committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and Senator McCarthy’s subcommittee. A slew of conservative columnists and congressional committee members worked collaboratively to promote the witchhunt. Their allegations had wide circulation. Just the charges, regardless of truth, had devastating consequences.

While the decline of communism has taken the wind out of the sails of current day witchhunters, we still have examples of people like Senator Ted Cruz and former Representative Allen West saying that they have a list of communists in government. While such accusations seem unhinged, I think it would be a mistake to ignore them. The harm such irresponsible accusations caused to the New Deal generation of leftists was crushing, traumatic and long-lasting.

Contemporary allegations of this nature must get a very forceful response. Given the Right’s overall lack of repentance for this sordid episode, I would worry about a new incarnation of these type attacks in the future. Professor Storrs’ book is a cautionary, educational tale. She deserves credit for going into this black hole and finding very important stories that really have never been told widely before.