Q&A

Q&A features interviews with writers, economists, social scientists, activists and other big thinkers with important perspectives on issues affecting our democracy.

The American Heroes of Social Justice

Peter Dreier is the author of The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. The book profiles progressive leaders who “have fought to make the United States a more humane and inclusive country” and won — on issues from women’s suffrage and civil rights to the eight-hour work day and the federal minimum wage. (Full disclosure: Bill Moyers is one of the hundred.)

Lauren Feeney caught up with Dreier – a professor at Occidental College – and asked him how and why he compiled the list.

Peter Dreier: The book is about the people and the movements that have made America a better country. It includes profiles of organizers, activists, writers, thinkers, artists, musicians, judges, and politicians. I consulted with many historians, journalists, political scientists, biographers, and others to come up with the list, but the definition of “greatest” was mine. To me, the “greatest” Americans are those who played key roles in the struggles for a more just and decent society. So folks like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Ann Coulter won’t agree with my list. Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, Walt Disney, and Ronald Reagan were “great” in their own ways, but they certainly didn’t challenge the rich and powerful to bring about more democracy and equality. In fact, each of them were on the other side of those battles.

Pete Seeger performs at the Highlander Research and Education Center. The little school tucked away in the east Tennessee mountains was once at the center of the struggle for civil rights. (AP Photo/Tennessee State Archives)

I’ve included some well-known people like Martin Luther King; Rachel Carson, the woman who inspired the environmental movement with her book Silent Spring;  Supreme Court Justices Louis Brandeis, William O. Douglas, William Brennan, and Earl Warren; union organizers Walter Reuther and Cesar Chavez, and three Roosevelts — Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor.

But then there are people that a lot of Americans don’t know anything about at all. Tom Johnson, the progressive mayor of Cleveland; Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, behind-the-scenes organizers in the Civil Rights movement; Alice Hamilton and Florence Kelley, two of the leading settlement worker activists in the early 1900s who led movements to improve workplaces and who fight against child labor; Myles Horton, who founded the Highlander School as a training center for labor and civil rights organizers; community organizer Saul Alinsky, who’s become famous in the last couple years because of attacks on Obama and his alleged ties to Alinsky.

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Defending ‘Obamacare’ In and Out of Court

Wendell Potter (Photo credit: Robin Holland)

Today, the Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments regarding the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. “Obamacare.” At issue: the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance if they’re not eligible for a public plan like Medicare or Medicaid. At stake: the promise of near-universal coverage, and, perhaps, the election.

We checked in with Wendell Potter — once head of communications for health insurance giant Cigna, now an outspoken critic of the industry — to get his thoughts on the case.

Lauren Feeney: What’s at stake when the Supreme Court looks at the constitutionality of the new health care law?

Wendell Potter: If the Supreme Court declares the entire act unconstitutional, or even just the provision that requires us all to buy insurance by 2014, we’ll be pretty much back to square one — with 50 million Americans uninsured.

Feeney: The entire act? I thought the case was specifically about the mandate requiring everyone to have insurance.

Potter: In their haste to get the law passed at the 11th hour, the Senate did not include a severability clause. So, theoretically, the Supreme Court could say if part of the bill is declared unconstitutional, all of it is declared unconstitutional.

In fact, that’s what the insurance industry is saying in the amicus brief they filed with the Court: that if the individual mandate is deemed to be a violation of the commerce clause, then the entire act should be struck down. Their rationale is that if you don’t require everyone to buy coverage, but you still outlaw some of the most egregious practices that the health insurance industry has been guilty of for many years, then their business model won’t be sustainable even in the short term.

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Scrutinizing the Threat from Iran

Jonathan Landay in 'Buying the War'

In the lead up to war in Iraq, misinformation about weapons of mass destruction went virtually unchallenged by the mainstream media. But three reporters for Knight Ridder newspapers (now McClatchy) were skeptical, and their probing investigation of the Bush administration’s justifications for war eventually proved prescient.

Bill Moyers featured the Knight Ridder reporters in his 2007 documentary Buying the War, about the media’s failure in the run-up to the Iraq war. We caught up with one of them, Jonathan Landay, now a senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, to get his thoughts on the current standoff with Iran.

Lauren Feeney: Do you see a parallel between the lead up to war in Iraq nine years ago and the drumbeat of war with Iran that we’re hearing now?

Jonathan Landay: There’s been some effort to draw parallels between the Iranian program and the Bush administration’s case about the late dictator Saddam Hussein. The fact is, in Saddam’s case there were enormous amounts of evidence produced by U.N. inspectors showing that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction programs had been discovered and eliminated. And after the inspectors were thrown out, Saddam wouldn’t have been able to reconstitute the country’s nuclear program by the time the Bush administration came to office.

The situation is completely different with Iran. There are IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors in the country, so what Iran is doing is known.

The fact is that over the last several years, beginning with the discovery of an undeclared uranium enrichment site near the holy city of Qom, it has become apparent that Iran is increasing its production of what’s known as low-enriched uranium.

A satellite image shows a suspected nuclear enrichment facility under construction inside a mountain located north of Qom, Iran. September 2009. (AP/DigitalGlobe)
A satellite image taken Sunday Sept. 27, 2009 shows a suspected nuclear enrichment facility under construction inside a mountain located north of Qom, Iran. (AP/DigitalGlobe)

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Simon Johnson on Making Banks Play Fair

Simon Johnson

Simon Johnson

Simon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He is also a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C.; co-founder of The Baseline Scenario, a blog covering the global economic and financial crisis; and a contributor to Economix, a New York Times blog. He last appeared on the Journal in 2010 with James Kwak to talk about their book, 13 Bankers: The Wall Street Takeover And The Next Financial Meltdown, and Congress’ plans to reform Wall Street after the financial meltdown.

We caught up with Johnson this weekend to find out how those reforms are progressing and to discuss last week’s financial news, including the results of the Federal Reserve’s stress tests, in which 4 of the nation’s 19 banks failed, the ongoing saga of the much commented upon Volcker Rule, and a certain resignation letter you may have heard about.

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‘Inexcusable’ Indifference to Extreme Poverty


Frances Fox Piven is a political scientist and activist who has been writing about poverty, welfare rights and protest movements for nearly half a century. The Nation, where Piven has been a long-time contributor, calls her “legendary.” Recently, Piven has become well known to another audience. Since Glenn Beck placed her at the root of one of his famous chalkboard graphs, accusing her of plotting to “intentionally collapse our economic system,” Piven has been covered throughout the conservative blogosphere. We talked to Piven about rising inequality, poverty, and the condition of the safety net, as well as her sudden and un-intentioned notoriety.

Lauren Feeney: There’s been a lot of talk recently about growing inequality — how the richest of the rich just keep getting richer. But what’s going on with the poorest of the poor? MORE

A ‘Spring Resurgence’ for Occupy?

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard has been covering Occupy Wall Street since its first dramatic days at Zuccotti Park. She began as a freelancer for The New York Times. After it was revealed Lennard was personally and publicly sympathetic to the cause, she left the Times and picked up her pen for Salon. We spoke to Lennard about her thoughts on Occupy’s next act — what she calls a ‘spring resurgence’ — as well as the nature of ‘objective reporting’.

Lauren Feeney: What does the Occupy movement, which packed up its tents for the winter (largely by force, and with some exceptions), have planned for spring?

Natasha Lennard: The huge mass of different Occupy groups never stopped meeting and planning throughout the winter — even if Occupy’s public presence diminished. Much of this planning has been about a spring resurgence, recognizing the importance of being out on the streets, and that this can only really kick off in reasonable weather. MORE

Hell and Back Again: Telling Truer Stories of War

Danfung Dennis’s Academy Award-nominated documentary Hell and Back Again shields the audience from nothing in its portrayal of the war in Afghanistan and an injured Marine’s return home. Now Dennis is taking his quest to capture raw reality a step further with Condition One, an iPad app that allows users to navigate images from battlefield and beyond.

We reached Dennis via Skype in California, where he’s awaiting the Academy’s decision this Sunday night.

Lauren Feeney: What’s wrong with traditional portrayals of war?

Danfung Dennis: There’s this mythical version of war that’s romantic, that portrays it in a heroic light, with honor and glory. It’s a deeply ingrained representation that has been around since the beginning of war — after the war is over, there’s this storytelling which focuses on the side of it that is exciting and adventurous. The stories commonly focus on a very small aspect of war, that of combat, and for a young man it’s very intriguing — this idealization of a man defending his country. MORE

Going Behind ‘The Vaccine War’

Frontline extensively covered the immunization controversy with “The Vaccine War” in 2010, and many of its findings are just as relevant in 2012.  This week, we spoke with Jon Palfreman, the documentary’s producer, to learn what he discovered while making the documentary, and how it applies to the current debate.

First, a clip from the Frontline show:

Theresa Riley: How long did it take to make “The Vaccine War” and what inspired you to make it? MORE

Decoding the Political Buzzwords of Election 2012

With the Republican presidential primary debate season drawing to a close, we asked linguist Geoffrey Nunberg to decode some of the language heard on the campaign trail thus far, including words and phrases uttered in 19 debates, nearly $70 million worth of political advertising, countless stump speeches, interviews and media appearances.

Lauren Feeney: What does “dog-whistle politics” mean? Have you heard any examples during this primary season?

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg: It was originally about using coded expressions that evoked a specific message for one group while sounding innocuous to others. George Bush talked about “people of faith” as if he was talking about religious believers of any sort, but Karl Rove made it clear the phrase meant conservative Catholics, Charismatics, Pentecostals and the like. Nowadays, though, the phrase can be just a question of plausible deniability. Newt Gingrich’s references to the “food stamp president” go straight back to Reagan’s talk about “strapping young bucks” using food stamps to buy “T-bone steaks.” That’s not really dog whistle, anymore — it’s at a frequency that anybody can hear. MORE

Bill McKibben on Climate Change and the Keystone Pipeline

We caught up with writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben this afternoon via phone to ask him about the 24-hour campaign that his organization, 350.org, and over 40 other environmental and progressive groups are working on today. They’re asking people opposed to the Keystone XL oil pipeline to sign a petition and email their senators to tell them that they are against the pipeline.

Theresa Riley: What do people need to know about the Keystone Pipeline?

Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben: The Keystone Pipeline would connect the tar sands of Alberta with the Gulf of Mexico so that oil can be exported off the continent. Those tar sands are the second largest pool of carbon on the planet besides the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. It was burning the oil fields of Saudi Arabia — more than anything else — that raised the temperature of the planet a degree already. If we go to the second Saudi Arabia and do the same thing, then we’re not behaving wisely. MORE

Bill Black on Financial Fraud Investigations

We checked in with banking fraud expert Bill Black for his take on the ongoing investigation into the U.S. financial crisis. Today’s the deadline for the multistate foreclosure settlement between state attorneys general and the major banks. If the purported $25 billion deal goes through, it will provide some relief to those who have experienced foreclosure (or are in danger of it) and require banks to overhaul their foreclosure practices.

Theresa Riley: Last week there were many rumors about the types of fraud that will be covered in the multistate foreclosure settlement. Initially there were reports that it would be limited to robo-signing abuses — and then there were reports to the contrary. What is expected to be included in the settlement?

Photo by Robin Holland

William Black:  The newest (pro-release) rumors are that the current draft of the settlement includes some releases for mortgage origination fraud and secondary market fraud, but that those releases are limited. We are not told how limited. MORE

Putting a Stop to Bullying in Schools

Last week marked the 9th annual National No Name-Calling Week, a national effort to call attention to hurtful words and bullying in schools. We checked in with Dr. Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), to see how it went.

No Name-Calling Week website homepage

No Name-Calling Week website


How did this year’s No Name-Calling Week go?

Eliza Byard: There’s been a lot of buzz around this year’s No Name-Calling Week. Events and programs related to No Name-Calling Week took place in thousands of schools across the country in communities like Kewanee, Illinois; Fort Scott, Kansas; Asheville, North Carolina and Mandeville, Lousiana. Massachusetts went a step further and Governor Deval Patrick designated last Wednesday as “No Name-Calling Day” in the state. We also witnessed an interesting development with the Boy Scouts of America endorsing the event despite the organization continuing its anti-LGBT policies.
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Shedding Sunlight on Campaign Donations

In this enlightening Q&A with Moyers & Company producer Gina Kim, The Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller shares her insight on Super PACs, campaign finance transparency, and the value of new journalistic technology.


Gina Kim: What are super PACs? Are they a threat to our democracy?

Ellen Miller: Transparency for political donations to candidates, to parties and entities that are involved in elections has been part of the political system since the days of Watergate. Arguably the biggest scandal at that time related to secret money in politics. So in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision two years ago, the failure of the Congress to act was a problem to provide a disclosure system to capture all the new money coming in. MORE

Mother Jones Editors Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein on Dark Money

“Grotesque income inequality is just a symptom of our larger political disease,” say Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein, co-editors of Mother Jones magazine. They’ve devoted the most recent issue of their magazine to investigating and diagramming the obscure, complex ways that money influences politics in a post-Citizens United world.  If you’re part of the 99% (and even if you’re not), you’ll likely find it both riveting and infuriating.

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