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Quite the World, Isn't It?

The moment we've all been waiting for

Well, at least I have. Came home to find in the mail a copy from the advance shipment of The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial. Handsome little bugger, if I do say so myself. And the folks at Rutgers University Press tell me that the books are on their way to distributing warehouses, so should start showing up in stores (and fulfilling advance orders) in a few weeks.

At the same time, the manuscript for Detroit: A Biography, gets shipped off in the next few days (cleaning up a couple of details, but it's for all intents and purposes done). I'm looking forward to a taking a couple of weeks to catch up with some freelance articles and then start forming the next project. I have a couple of things I'm looking into, but am a long way from committing - or getting a commitment.

Oh, and it's a beautiful 80 degrees here today with a brilliant washed blue sky. I suspect a beer on the patio will be in my near future.  Read More 
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Politics, fishing expeditions and the new McCarthyism

I teach an introductory journalism course to college students here in Southern California, and one of the tenets I drill into them during our examination of ethics is that just because you have a legal right to do something doesn't mean you have a moral right to do it. It's a lesson conservative political agitators in Wisconsin and Michigan ought to learn.

Over the past week or so conservatives have filed Freedom of Information Act requests on public university professors seeking emails that mention the Wisconsin labor showdown. There are laws precluding use of public property for political purposes, a sound policy aimed at separating politics from governance (it keeps government workers from using government supplies and property to engage in poltiical activities). But the intent here is purely opportunistic, with anti-labor Republicans seeking to conjure up a "gotcha" moment for university professors sympathetic to labor issues.

The gambit began with requests for emails from the University of Wisconsin-Madison account of highly respected history professor William Cronon. It has moved onto the labor history professors at three public Michigan universities, according to Talking Point Memo, which first reported the Michigan requests (one was received by my longtime friend, M.L. Liebler who teaches at Wayne State University):
An employee at the think tank requesting the emails tells TPM they're part of an investigation into what labor studies professors at state schools in Michigan are saying about the situation in Madison, Wisc., the epicenter of the clashes between unions and Republican-run state governments across the Midwest.

One professor subject to the FOIA described it as anti-union advocates "going after folks they don't agree with."
I'm a firm believer in the Freedom of Information Act, and in open government/open records. But there is also a crushing need for academics to do their work without fear of reprisals. Such protections, including tenure, aim to keep politics -- think the McCarthy era, in which academics, professionals and others were hounded from their occupations by braying condemnations of their political beliefs -- from poisoning academic pursuits. These FOIA requests are nothing more than fishing expeditions that serve no public good, and, in fact, are a detriment because of the chilling effect on academic freedom.

These anti-labor anglers have a legal right to seek the information because these professors are public employees. Pro-labor people have an equal right to ferret out emails by business, economic and political professors, university administrators and others, to see if they, too, have weighed in on the assault on labor from the other side of the argument.

But to do so crosses a moral line. This isn't an act of public enlightenment. It is an act of intimidation. And it should be denounced from the left, right and center. Assuming, of course, that we are indeed a better nation than this. And that we have, indeed, learned from our own ugly past.
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Detroit, the Census, and the responsibility of a nation

A house near Detroit's Chandler Park.
The 2010 Census counts for Michigan were released last week, and it showed the City of Detroit with 714,000 residents, some 100,000 less than most predictions and 1.1 million fewer people than its peak of 1.8 million in 1950.

That collapse of Detroit is the subject of the current book project, which I'm sending off to the publisher in a few days (it's done, just have a couple of bits to clean up). But I took a break last week to write an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times about Detroit, touching on some of the grand pressures that have made it what it is. From the article:
"The collapse of Detroit has roots in intentional de-industrialization by the Big Three automakers, which in the 1950s began aggressively spider-webbing operations across the nation to produce cars closer to regional markets, and to reduce labor costs by investing in less labor-friendly places than union-heavy Detroit. Their flight was augmented by government policies that, in the 1970s and 1980s particularly, forced municipalities and states to compete with each other for jobs by offering corporate tax breaks and other inducements to keep or draw business investments, a bit of whipsawing that helped companies profit at the expense of communities.

"Racism plays a significant role too. Detroit's white flight exploded in the 1950s and '60s, after courts struck down local and federal policies that had allowed segregated housing. That was followed by middle-class flight on the part of blacks and whites as crime endemic to high-poverty, high-unemployment neighborhoods began spreading. It's significant to note that Detroit's inner-ring suburbs have been picking up African American populations as young Detroit families seek safety, stability and more reliable schools. As they run out of the city, its vast socioeconomic problems become even more distilled, more pronounced."
I encourage you to read the whole piece in this morning's LA Times. It really is a national disgrace, and a national indictment, to see what we have let Detroit become. Read More 
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On a (short) look at the Peace Corps' (long) history

The Los Angeles Times today carries a review I wrote of its former foreign correspondent Stanley Meisler's history of the Peace Corps. The book is When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, and as I say in the review it's a pretty good overview. Look at it as taking a survey course in the history of the institution.

From my review:
Despite his clear affinity for the Corps, Meisler doesn't gloss over the problems, from ineffective volunteers to wrong-headed staffing goals and policies. His final chapter asks, "Does the Peace Corps Do Any Good?," and it's a good question to ponder. Statistically, much of the work done by volunteers has had limited effect on making broad changes in the quality of life for the world's impoverished.

But, as Meisler argues, some gains can't be measured by a bureaucrat's spreadsheet. And in many ways, the Peace Corps' gains might have come to the U.S., as legions of former volunteers used their experiences as springboards to public service careers, including such political figures as former Sen. Christopher Dodd, Carol Bellamy (who went from New York City politics to lead the agency for a time) and Donna Shalala, the former secretary of Health and Human Services.
I should note that while Meisler and I both worked at the Times, we've never met. Read More 
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Op-ed: We're asking the wrong question

The Sacramento Bee today carries an op-ed I wrote about the policy implications of the Japanese nuclear catastrophe, and looking at the assurances we are given that nuclear energy is safe - a response to the natural question embedded in the plume of dispersed radiation predicted to waft over Southern California today.

But we're asking the wrong question. We shouldn't be wondering whether it is safe; we should be wondering whether the risk is worth the benefit. I say, no. From the article:
Most of California is blessed with an enviable climate that promises intense, harnessable, sunshine nearly every day of the year. There is no environmental risk to capturing solar energy, and it is indefensible that the state does not require all new buildings include solar panels on the roofs. (The state already is making strides toward tapping wind power, though more could be done). ... sometimes the solution to problems moves beyond dollars and has to be weighed against risk. Requiring solar panels to all new construction, including building additions, would add relative pennies to the cost of buildings that sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is something state energy policy officials should be pursuing with vigor, while the rest of us begin to shake loose of our assumptions of what is safe, and what is sustainable.

We need to start asking ourselves the right questions.
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On nuclear energy, human folly, and human error

There are many churning emotions involved in watching from afar the events unfolding in Japan. The earthquake and tsunami, coming just a few years after similar events obliterated hundreds of thousands of lives in Indonesia and around the Indian Ocean, defy words. And a volcano in southern Japan has suddenly roared back to life.

The natural disasters are bad enough. Now we watch nervously as Japanese power workers struggle to keep the cores in nuclear power plants from melting down and adding yet another layer of catastrophe to the natural disasters. At this moment, they seem to be failing - the workers were evacuated as another explosion rocked the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

The most chilling part of all of this comes in the news that today's catastrophe was due to human error. From the Los Angeles Times:
Engineers had begun using fire hoses to pump seawater into the reactor — the third reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 complex to receive the last-ditch treatment — after the plant's emergency cooling system failed. Company officials said workers were not paying sufficient attention to the process, however, and let the pump run out of fuel, allowing the fuel rods to become partially exposed to the air.

Once the pump was restarted and water flow was restored, another worker inadvertently closed a valve that was designed to vent steam from the containment vessel. As pressure built up inside the vessel, the pumps could no longer force water into it and the fuel rods were once more exposed.
Workers failed to check the fuel gauge on a pump. Another worker simply shut a valve. And now a manmade nuclear disaster looms. We are told constantly by the people who want to build these things that nuclear power is safe, that all safeguards are taken, that experts are in control. Obviously not. And increasing nuclear energy production in the U.S. is part of the Obama administration's approach to reducing our reliance on foreign oil sources for our energy. It's a policy that flirts with disaster, and that is based on a failure to imagine the excesses of nature, and of human incompetence.

I don't see the logic in risking mass deaths and an uninhabitable environment for the sake of cheaper light bills or lower factory production costs. Nuclear power generation is not safe. Even low-level nuclear waste creates massive disposal problems in a world with finite resources, and finite places to store such things. Add in the human propensity to do the unimaginably stupid - not watching a fuel gauge on a crucial power generator qualifies - and we are creating our own recipe for self-annihilation. Maybe nuclear energy can be produced safely. But that safety can't be guaranteed, as we're seeing. Why would we accept this risk, given the potential damage from failure?

Nuclear energy is not safe. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, the West Valley Project, Hanford and other examples have all shown us that. Our power companies cannot be trusted to safeguard our well-being. These power sources need to be abandoned. This is a monster that we have created. It is a monster we need to curtail. Better a worldwide economic depression because of lack of energy, than a worldwide catastrophe because, in our hubris and our thirst for wealth, we think we can control the uncontrollable.

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The 2011 LA Times Festival of Books, and me

Some more good news to announce: I'll be appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books again this Spring, this time at the new venue at the University of Southern California (Used to be held at UCLA).

Details can still change but at this point I'll be talking about The Fear Within on a panel called "History: Democracy and Its Discontents," at 12:30 p.m. on May 1 (May Day, fittingly enough - I'll have to remember to wear red). The moderator will be author/journalist Celeste Fremon. So far, only one fellow panelist has been lined up - my former LA Times colleague Barry Siegel, author most recently of Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane crash, A Landmark Supreme Court Case and the Rise of State Secrets, a riveting look at the sketchy legal case behind the legal precedent that gives the federal government the right to not respond to subpoenas if it invokes a "state secret" excuse. (Barry also offered a wonderful blurb for my book, so I owe him lunch). The third panelist is to be named later.

I'll update the blog when more details, including the specific site for the panel, are available. It will be followed by a book-signing, so if you plan to attend the Festival of Books please bring (or buy there) your copy of The Fear Within (available for pre-order at online sites and independent bookstores) and I'll be happy to sign it for you. Read More 
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The kind of thing that makes an author very happy

Two of the defendants among supporters at a rally. Library of Congress photo.
From the forthcoming Publishers Weekly, the leading trade journal in the book industy:

The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial
Scott Martelle. Rutgers Univ., $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8135-4938-5

In this illuminating examination of a troubling episode in America's past, veteran journalist (and PW contributor) Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West) recounts the celebrated 1949 trial of 11 American Communists for violating the Smith Act, which outlawed advocating overthrow of the government by force. All were public spokesmen of the minuscule American Communist Party. During nine stormy months, the prosecution was reduced to quoting Karl Marx and obscure Communist texts to prove that the defendants had advocated violent revolution. Martelle presents convincing evidence that the judge favored the prosecution, goaded by defense lawyers who the author admits were tactless and quarrelsome. In the end the judge sent every defendant and many of the lawyers to prison. Few readers of this gripping history will quarrel with Martelle's conclusion that the defendants suffered for expressing unpopular opinions. Further, says Martelle, many Americans, including political leaders, continue to proclaim that those who want to destroy America should not be permitted to "hide behind" the Constitution. Photos. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/14/2011 Read More 
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Maybe I should thank Rep. Pete King

This feels like time-warp territory, and the House Un-American Activities Committee is back in full swing. It's called the House Homeland Security Committee now, led by U.S. Rep. Pete King (R-NY) and the target of the new generation of hearings is radical Islam. But the template is clear, and its existence serves as proof that we, as a nation, have learned little from the errors of our past.

One of the points of my forthcoming book, The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial, is that U.S. government has a long history of cracking down on First Amendment (and other) rights during times of stress, a history Geoffrey Stone detailed in his Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism from 2004. So maybe I should be thankful these folks are bringing this dark past back to life.

The Los Angeles Times had a brief item about L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's showdown with the committee today, and the dialog is straight from the McCarthy era.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca shot back at a congressman who warned him during a congressional hearing Thursday that a Muslim group the sheriff supports is affiliated with terrorists and is "using" him.

The reference to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, whose Southern California branch Baca has allied with, came during a controversial House hearing on the question of whether American Muslims are becoming radicalized.

"You are aware" that CAIR is affiliated with Hamas, Rep. Chip Cravaack (R-Minn.) said.

"No I'm not aware," Baca interrupted.

"Let me bring this to your attention ... I'm trying to get you to understand that they might be using you," Cravaack said.

Baca, noticeably irritated, told the congressman that he is aware of no criminal allegations have been made against CAIR. If there were any such allegations, he said, "bring them to court."

"We don't play around with criminals in my world," Baca said before the packed hearing.

Great response by Baca. But what's next? "Are you now, or have you ever been, a Muslim?" This is deplorable conduct by our elected representatives. Combine it with the rank opportunism of the anti-union push in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Tennessee, and the State of Michigan moving to give its governor the power to rule municipalities by fiat, and you have to wonder why more people in more places aren't exercise the First Amendment right to free assembly - while we still have it. Read More 
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On David Broder, and the passing of a class act

I've been in a bit of a funk since reading the news this morning that David Broder had died of complications from diabetes. He had, for decades, been one of the best and most influential political journalists in the country, a standing surpassed only by his gentlemanly and generous manner.

David's longtime colleague at the Washington Post, Dan Balz, wrote this very nice tribute summarizing neatly what made David so influential. I've been a fan of his work since the early 1970s, when I was first thinking about going into journalism, and was drawn by his political coverage. It was, as I mentioned to Balz in an email exchange earlier today, one of the reasons I gravitated to campaign coverage.

Two anecdotes. I crossed paths with David several times over the years, which was a bit of a rush for me. During one trip David asked me to join him for dinner in some remote spot where he, of course, had eaten many times before. His cell phone rang while we were at the table, and it was his wife. He chatted for a moment and then said he was having dinner with a friend and would have to call her back. He overstated the relationship (we barely knew each other) but it was a moment of personal pride, and one that I cherish, that he would use the word. His inclusiveness should be contagious.

Another time during the 2004 primaries David and I were on the same bus in some significant primary state (2004 Kerry campaign in South Carolina? Edwards' bus? I don't recall specifically, and the specifics don't really matter). I had complained about having to write two stories to be ready depending on what the primary day results would be. The LAT hadn't sprung for the full exit poll data, or at least wasn't forwarding it to me. Late in the afternoon David wandered back and asked if he could sit down next to me, then flipped open his notebook to where he had written down the exit polls through the second cycle and said something to the effect that it might help me decide which version of the story to spend the most time on. It's one thing to share with a colleague; something else to so generously help out someone who in theory is your competition. It was a small moment but obviously memorable moment, and indicative of what a class act David was, beyond being a tremendous journalist.

None of us is irreplaceable. But David was pretty damn close. Read More 
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