Levees Not War
“The mission here is not accomplished.”

At the Intersection of Jon Stewart and Brian Williams

02/13/15

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Jersey BoysBrian Douglas Williams and Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz both went to high school in New Jersey and held common, low-level jobs before working their way to the top of their respective, and interrelated, professions.

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“Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War.” —Jon Stewart on Brian Williams, The Daily Show, Feb. 9, 2015

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Last week we wrote a piece in defense of Brian Williams, little realizing it was probably already too late, even as other revelations of his storytelling were coming forth, and the social media pile-on was getting heavier by the minute. Then, this Tuesday, Feb. 10, we learned that not only is Williams being put on a six-month, unpaid leave by NBC management, but, even more distressing, Brian’s friend and ours, the widely beloved Jon Stewart, has announced that later this year he’ll step down from his anchor desk on The Daily Show at Comedy Central’s “World News Headquarters in New York,” the job he has held for 16 years. (“Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show”)

It seems to say something about the nature of our society and culture these days that as Jon Stewart announces his departure, a satirical comedian is very likely the most trusted source in news—at least to an entire, younger generation to whom the name Brian Williams is, maybe, vaguely familiar. As media columnist David Carr of The New York Times wrote, “Oddly, Mr. Stewart will leave his desk as arguably the most trusted man in news.”

(In more sad news this week,  David Carr himself died just last night at The New York Times after hosting a Times Talks conversation at The New School in New York with journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras and NSA whistleblower Edward J. Snowden about the new film Citizenfour, directed by Poitras. Click here for a clip of that Times Talks appearance.)

jonstewartDave Itzkoff of The New York Times wrote, “For a segment of the audience that had lost its faith in broadcast and print news outlets or never regarded them as sacrosanct in the first place, Mr. Stewart emerged a figure as trusted as Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow.”

Just think about that for a minute: Cronkite and Murrow. We’d agree, it’s a fair comparison.

As Jason Zinoman of the Times wrote in “A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor”:

“The Daily Show” didn’t just offer insightful, cutting analysis, clever parody and often hard-hitting interviews with major newsmakers. For an entire generation, it became the news, except this report could withstand the disruption of the Internet far better than the old media. If anything, the web only made “The Daily Show,” with its short segments, more essential. Every time a political scandal exploded or a candidate made headlines or a cable fight went viral, the first thought for many viewers was: I can’t wait to see what Jon Stewart will say about this.  [emphasis added]

What Goes Up Must Come Down

Surely the status of being the most trusted man in news is one that Brian Williams wanted for himself, and it may once have been possible, but now that trust may be irretrievable. Further revelations have appeared about Williams’s whoppers, fabrications, outright lies, that make it hard to insist that he should be allowed to stay in his big chair. Even as we went to press with our piece last Friday (we learned later), The Guardian was reporting that New Orleans residents were calling into question some of Brian Williams’s tales about his time covering Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath—some of the very coverage for which we were expressing gratitude.

We said last week, “We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.” A comment from AdHack on the cross-posting of “In Defense of Brian Williams” at Daily Kos answered that quite clearly:

It’s coming out now because Williams told his dishonest recollection of being shot down last Friday, after repeatedly being warned by NBC brass to stop it, and a bunch of military veterans called him on it, which was reported by Stars & Stripes and then picked up by other media. The question really should be: Why did it take so long for this to get out? Veterans have been trying to get out the truth for quite some time. 

Thanks to AdHack for that clarification. We have not found other sources attesting that NBC executives had told Williams to stop telling the tale about being shot down, but AdHack seems to know what he’s talking about.

Not the Only Tale-Teller with a Big Megaphone

We agree, though, with a Carla Wallach of Greenwich, Conn., the writer of a letter to the editor published in The New York Times on Feb. 12:

How sad that the NBC brass couldn’t see that all the brouhaha regarding the news anchor Brian Williams had nothing to do with his work. His fudging the truth regarding the helicopter incident was nearly an act of personal vanity, which is not a rarity among celebrities. So he was not on the helicopter that was fired on, as he claimed, but in one behind it: that’s close enough to death for me. A six-month suspension is too severe. People will have forgotten about the incident in less ethan a month. I will be among those welcoming him back. 

Nightly News with Brian WilliamsTrue, it doesn’t seem fair, especially when you consider the massive lies told in recent years and decades by government officials—too numerous to mention—and that there is an entire network with “News” in its name that does nothing but lie and distort, 24/7. But NBC Nightly News is and should be held to a higher standard of integrity. (See “Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” at The New Republic.)

We just hope we’ll see Brian Williams back on the job in not too long a time. And, again, the attention he helped bring to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast was needed then and is needed still.

On a happier note, it’s Mardi Gras time, y’all (Tuesday, Feb. 17). Let the good times roll . . .

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Further Reading

Jon Stewart Will Leave ‘The Daily Show’ on a Career High Note” (NYT 2/11/15)

A Late-Night Host Seamlessly Mixing Analysis, Politics and Humor” (NYT 2/10/15)

Kings of Their Crafts, but on Divergent Paths: Brian Williams’s and Jon Stewart’s Common Ground,” by David Carr, New York Times (2/11/15)

Brian Williams’ reports on Katrina called into question by New Orleans residents,” The Guardian (2/6/15)

NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest,” Stars and Stripes (2/4/15)

Jon Stewart’s Notable Moments on The Daily Show” (NYT 2/11/15)

Brian Williams Scandal Prompts Frantic Efforts at NBC to Curb Rising Damage” (NYT 2/11/15)

Conservatives Have Waged a 50-Year War to Prove the News Media Can’t Be Trusted” by Nicole Hemmer, The New Republic (2/13/15)

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Photo credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Comedy Central

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In Defense of Brian Williams, New Orleans’ Loyal Friend

02/6/15

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Now He Really Is Under Fire

The veracity of the leading network news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, is in question—by his own fault—and now the sharks and wolves smell blood. A feeding frenzy ensues.    [ cross-posted at Daily Kos ]

Williams has apparently fabricated a story in which a military helicopter he was aboard in Iraq in 2003 was shot down. Other accounts say that his helicopter was never fired upon. He apologized on air on Wednesday night with a less than candid account, and critics aren’t satisfied—but we don’t care.

We Stand with Brian

Our confidence in Brian Williams is not shaken, and we called NBC Nightly News (212-664-4971) to say please keep him on the air. E-mail NBC Nightly News at nightly@nbc.com. We do not claim that he’s done nothing wrong—it looks pretty clear he repeatedly told a lie, with embellishments—but he has done so much good, particularly for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, that “all is forgiven.”

In a particularly rich nugget of hypocrisy, Howard Kurtz, an analyst at Fox News, says, “The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else.” We will not dignify that remark with a response other than to say consider the source: that’s about what we’d expect from fair and balanced Fox News, without which arguably there would have been no Iraq War for Brian Williams to report from. Other conservative voices are piling on. (Just check #BrianWilliams on Twitter—or, better yet, don’t bother.)

There is a tradition of news anchors going to places in the news, among the most famous of which was CBS anchor Walter Cronkite’s trip to Vietnam in 1968 (transcript here), followed energetically by Dan Rather. (Rather went so often to dangerous places—such as to Afghanistan in 1980—that he acquired the nickname “Gunga Dan.”) Such on-the-ground reporting from war zones is often courageous, is surely good for ratings, and brings an enormous spotlight to the place or the issue in the news. It was in this tradition that Williams was in Iraq in 2003. (The New York Times’s television reporter Alessandra Stanley gives a well-rounded overview here. More below.)

In response to Williams’s admission of error (though not of lying) there is much righteous indignation and moral outrage, some of which has elements of accuracy. Of course, many competing news outlets would love to see the leading network news program weakened, its ratings and standing lowered, its anchor disgraced, possibly removed, as CBS anchor Dan Rather was dumped in 2004 following a dubiously sourced report about George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

We do not know what is behind all this—why this story is coming out now, or what really happened.

brian_williams_katrinaWhat we do know is that we and the people of New Orleans and Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have great reason to be steadfastly grateful to Brian Williams for keeping the national spotlight firmly fixed on the region during and after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005. Williams camped out in the Superdome the night before Katrina made landfall, and was on the ground to report the damage and the resulting flood after the federally built levees and outflow canal walls failed.

For months, for years, he reported about New Orleans and environs, its struggles, successes, setbacks, and brave efforts and plucky initiatives to keep the good times—and life itself—rollin’. On the first anniversary of Katrina, on August 29, 2006, Williams took President George W. Bush on a walking interview through the Lower Ninth Ward—a Q&A in which Brian was visibly not taken in by Bush’s rosy account of things. (Transcript here.)

Brian-@-bayou1And in April 2010, after BP’s Deepwater Horizon well blew out and killed 11 workers, Williams reported live from Venice, Louisiana (around the “birdfoot”). On the fifth anniversary of Katrina (August 29, 2010), he anchored three straight nights of news reports from New Orleans and interviewed President Obama, Brad Pitt, and Harry Connick Jr. (Other national networks also commemorated the event with special reports, and Anderson Cooper too was a reliable, loyal friend to New Orleans and environs.)

NBC, through coverage by the late Tim Russert, Martin Savidge, environmental reporter Anne Thompson, and Rachel Maddow at sister network MSNBC, has consistently been the network most dedicated to keeping public attention on Louisiana’s environmental struggles. Brian Williams has been the most prominent and consistent of those nationally broadcast voices.

There are more reasons than these why NBC should hold steady and not even think about making Williams step down, but his loyalty to New Orleans and vicinity explains why we are willing to look the other way and remember that he is not the only prominent person of whom factual integrity is expected who has let the public down.

Damage Control, and Reputation Repair

To be sure, Brian Williams is very well compensated: The New York Times reports that his latest contract for serving as managing editor and chief anchor of NBC Nightly News reportedly brings him $10 million a year. That kind of money could help a lot of jobless, hungry families. (He’s not the only American with an extremely large salary.) Maybe he could create some goodwill by donating one of those millions to the Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America, and maybe another to Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières). Just a thought. (We, too, in our own modest way, contribute to those organizations.)

Brian, Illegitimi non carborundum

A member of our staff who minored in “cod Latin” reminds us of the well-worn phrase Illegitimi non carborundum—“Don’t let the bastards grind you down” (a motto often used by General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in World War II).

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Click here for a news media contact list.

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With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale,” New York Times (2/5/15)

After a Decade Building Trust, an Anchor Starts a Firestorm With One Wrong Move,” Alessandra Stanley, New York Times (2/5/15)

Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in Iraq,” New York Times (2/4/15)

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Honoring Rev. King, Recommending “Selma”

01/19/15

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“Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote. In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland.

“The threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishing of a segregated society. They segregated southern money from the poor whites; they segregated southern mores from the rich whites; they segregated southern churches from Christianity; they segregated southern minds from honest thinking; and they segregated the Negro from everything.” 

—“Our God Is Marching On!”, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965

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Selma: A Hard-Won Turning Point in the Civil Rights Movement

We inserted the advance-screening disc of the new film Selma into the DVD player last night with some trepidation, hoping to like the film, but fearing it would be heavy-handed, simplistic, or possibly loose with the facts, but to our great relief we found it to be none of these. Selma is really good, and we highly recommend it.

The film is focused on a significant turning point in the long Civil Rights movement, when, in February and March 1965, activists decided to make Selma, Alabama, the place to dramatize black disenfranchisement. Of 15,000 potential black voters in Selma, 325 were registered, compared to 9,300 of 14,000 eligible whites. The county sheriff, James G. “Jim” Clark Jr., was a known hothead who wore a lapel pin reading “Never.” Activists knew they could rely on him to overreact and escalate the situation.

The activists’ goal was to march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery (once the capital of the Confederacy). The 54-mile march would take them along route 80, the Jefferson Davis Highway. On March 7, some 600 marchers were driven back by police and troopers with tear gas, nightsticks, and bullwhips from crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge over the Alabama River. Seventeen people were hospitalized. A second attempt, joined by King, was aborted. The third march was successful. Some 3,200 left Selma on March 21; four days later, 25,000 arrived in Montgomery. (The excerpts above are from King’s speech to the marchers after they had reached their destination.)

Selma_posterThe persistence of the civil rights activists in Selma—aided by televised images of horrifying police brutality against peaceful demonstrators—led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The 1965 Voting Rights Act may sound familiar: it was recently eviscerated by five conservatives on the United States Supreme Court on the dubious grounds that federal, legal protections of voting rights for minorities are no longer needed. (See “Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past” LNW 6/26/13.)

About the Film

David Oyelowo’s performance is strong and steady—he portrays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as a fallible human being—and the supporting cast of actors playing Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), the Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo), John Lewis (Stephan James), the Rev. Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), and Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) are convincing and well cast. One strength of the film is that it shows a hard-working and committed network of activists, sometimes in conflict, of which King was the leader, but, naturally, not everyone always agreed with his priorities or methods.

Some good dramatic tension is shown in repeated disputes between members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (founded following the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955–56), of which King and Abernathy and others of their generation were leaders, and the younger Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced “snick”), which played a leading role in the 1963 March on Washington and Freedom Summer (1964). Some of the younger activists had lost patience with King’s insistence on nonviolence—particularly after the murders and beatings by white supremacists during Freedom Summer—and some accused him of Uncle Tomism and derided him behind his back as “de Lawd.” A less impatient member of SNCC was its chairman, John Lewis (now Congressman John Lewis, D-Ga.). At Selma on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965, his skull was fractured by an officer’s nightstick; the scars are still visible.

One weakness in the film was needlessly inflicted by the difficult Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. estate (his children, Martin, Dexter, and Bernice). The producers of this film—including Oprah Winfrey, who appears in the film—were not allowed to use direct quotations of King’s speeches. “The intellectual property wasn’t available to us,” said the film’s director, Ava Duvernay. Thus, David Oyelowo must paraphrase what King said. And many of his speeches are hotter, more radical sounding—more like Malcolm X (who also makes an appearance in Selma)—than the more polished and scripture-infused oratory of the historical Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

We cannot imagine what harm could be done by allowing the producers of a film that honestly, admiringly portrays the courageous work of Rev. King to use his words. (Perhaps the heirs were displeased by the film’s not hiding—but not depicting, either—the fact of their father’s extramarital affairs.) Even with the formidable influence of Oprah Winfrey, who must have tried to persuade the heirs to allow use of his words, perhaps the price demanded was too high, but in any case permission to quote the civil rights leader was not granted.

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Historians, too, have questioned the film’s depiction of President Lyndon Johnson as obstinate, delaying, more of an obstacle than an ally, who insists on doing things on his own schedule of political convenience. Tom Wilkinson’s portrayal of Johnson is good, however, and even if the film’s depiction is contrary to some historical facts, the president’s obstinacy is not extreme, and in the end he bows to the forces of history on the march. (The photo above shows MLK, LBJ, and activists Whitney Young and James Farmer in the Oval Office in 1964 before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.)

Historian William Manchester records the kind of federal assistance the real LBJ sent after Alabama governor George Wallace asked for help in protecting all the outside agitators (including many clergy) who were pouring in in response to MLK’s invitation to join in the march from Selma to Montgomery:

[LBJ] complied by sending 1,863 federalized national guardsmen, 250 U.S. marshals and FBI agents, two regular Army MP battalions, demolition experts to search the roads and bridges ahead of those making the hike, and helicopters to hover overhead. In addition, the hikers were provided with huge tents for overnight stops, a 600-gallon water truck, latrine trucks, ambulances, trucks for rubbish, and scout cars to set up campsites in advance. 

—William Manchester, The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932–1972 (p. 1060)

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Selma to Montgomery in Photographs

Two excellent photo portfolios are A Long March into History: Stephen Somerstein Photos in ‘Freedom Journey 1965’ in The New York Times and “The Long Road,” photographs by Steve Schapiro in The New Yorker online.

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More about Civil Rights at Levees Not War:

Supreme Conservatives Drag U.S. Ceaselessly into the (Jim Crow) Past (6/26/13)

The (GOP-Driven) Decline of Black Power in the South (7/11/13)

Mississippi’s Runoff and Memories of Freedom Summer (6/26/14)

Marching on Washington for Economic and Social Justice (8/29/13)

Read All About the 1963 March on Washington (8/27/13)

In Honor of Medgar Evers and Res Publica (6/12/13)

“There Is a Creative Force in This Universe”: The Poor People’s Campaign, 40 Years before Occupy Wall Street (1/16/12)

How the World Has—and Has Not—Changed in 50 Years: Portraits of Courage, Struggle, and Defiance (1/6/12)

. . . or just click MLK

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Color photograph above, showing David Oyelowo as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., from Selma (2014). Black-and-white photographs below by Stephen Somerstein, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, 1965. The first photo shows John Lewis of SNCC, center, and, behind him to his right, Andrew Young of the SCLC (later U.N. ambassador and mayor of Atlanta). Click on any picture to see a ten-photo slideshow. “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein” is on view at the New-York Historical Society through April 19, 2015.

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front line

walking by

white onlookers

walking in Montgomery

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Après Charlie Hebdo, Thoughts on Free Expression and Islamic Violence

01/9/15

CoverStory-Solidarite-690-938-08192139Will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like their hate-filled, illiberal mirror image, or will we, as the guardians of the modern world, as the custodians of freedom and the occupants of the privileged lands of plenty, go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice? Will we become the suits of armour our fear makes us put on, or will we continue to be ourselves? The frontier both shapes our character and tests our mettle. I hope we pass the test. —Salman Rushdie, “Step Across This Line” (2002)

“Mr. [Didier] Cantat spoke for many when he said the attacks could fuel greater anti-immigrant sentiment. ‘We are told Islam is for God, for peace,’ he said. ‘But when you see this other Islam, with the jihadists, I don’t see peace, I see hatred. So people can’t tell which is the real Islam.’ ”New York Times

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In our first post after wishing for a new year with less “horribilis,” we would like to offer some thoughts about the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris of Wednesday, January 7.

First, along with people around the world, we are shocked and disgusted by the slaughter in Paris, and we send condolences and commiserations to the people of France—especially to the families and friends of those who were killed (eleven staff members and one police officer). Vive la France. Long live the free press and freedom of expression. Some members of LNW work in journalism and publishing, and we remember how some of our colleagues at Viking (especially in the London offices) were at risk during the Satanic Verses fatwa (1989–) against British novelist Salman Rushdie (born into a Muslim family), we feel for the victims and those still at risk.

We will not, however, echo thousands or millions of others who are saying “Je suis Charlie.” For one thing, we had never heard of the publication before Wednesday. Also, we don’t claim to be that brave—nor are we that reckless. Although we defend and depend upon freedom of speech and the principles of a free press—particularly for investigative journalism into corporate or governmental wrongdoing—it is our opinion that Charlie Hebdo was being unnecessarily, irresponsibly provocative, poking a hornet’s nest over and over, for fun and profit. Of course they did not deserve to be harmed, much less massacred. But, in a country that has about a 7 percent Muslim population, and after a fire-bombing of their offices in 2011 (in response to a satirical front-cover depiction of the Prophet Muhammad), and with police protection for the editor, they had to know that they were running a very serious risk of bloody retribution by incensed, offended believers. (We also thought Sony was extremely irresponsible in making and hoping to profit from a film about the fictional assassination of an actual, living head of state, but that’s another matter.)

Now, there is a long and life-sustaining tradition of satire in France (and it lives on, for example, in New Orleans’s satirical Carnival krewes), as there is in Britain, and any publication should be able to print anything it wants—particularly if the satire is directed at errant politicians and the rich and powerful when they obnoxiously throw their weight around. It is also true that devout Muslims are not noted for their sense of humor. But we do not know what it’s like to grow up Islamic, so we don’t understand how irreverent (or any) depictions of the Prophet Muhammad can be blasphemous; we’ll have to take their word for it.

By personal heritage and by Louisiana’s historic ties to France, we may be more sympathetic to France and French culture than the average American, but for many years we have also been friends with more than a few Muslims (from Egypt, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, etc.), so this atrocity pulls us in more than one direction.

And yet, but now . . . Even liberal, tolerant Americans and other westerners are saying enough of the familiar excuse that “[this latest atrocity] is not Islam; Islam is peace.” We want to hear the grand ayatollah and other prominent mullahs and imams denounce this kind of violence, but it seems we never do. Could it be that they have denounced the killings, but for some reason their denunciations are filtered out by a biased western media? We don’t think so.

(Former president George W. Bush did a good thing when shortly after September 11 he emphasized that “Islam is peace,” and gave signals that Americans should refrain from acts of retribution against innocent Muslims. Maybe he was asked to say this by his close family friend Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. In any case, it was the right thing to do, and we commend Bush for having made the statement.)

JeSuisCharlieThis blog has tried to be tolerant of Muslims and understanding of their grievances. As stated in a previous post, since high school and college days we’ve had quite a few friends from the Middle East, and we admire and respect and sometimes love them. But we have no tolerance for extremists of any kind, foreign or domestic. (See “Anti-Islamic Furor Helps al Qaeda, Endangers America,” LNW 8/23/10)

There is some hope, however, that this view is shared by moderate Muslims. Last week Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said in a speech to Egypt’s clerics, “It is unbelievable that the thought we hold holy pushes the Muslim community to be a source of worry, fear, danger, murder and destruction to all the world. . . . You need to stand sternly.”

Meanwhile, Think Progress says the Associated Press reports that Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the head of a Lebanese Hezbollah group, “said extremists who murder and behead people have done more harm to Islam than ‘anyone else in history.’ ” Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also denounced the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center (though not on the Pentagon).

We are not alone in wanting to hear the ayatollah and prominent mullahs firmly and clearly denounce jihadist killings—not only September 11 but also the bombings and attacks in Madrid (2004), London (2005), and Mumbai (2008), etc.—as well as ISIS’s calls for slayings of non-Muslims by “homegrown” killers in western countries. (On the Jan. 7 show, Rachel Maddow lists recent random, low-tech killings by jihadist extremists in London, Australia, and elsewhere.)

In late September 2005, while many Americans were still reeling from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published some editorial cartoons of Muhammad under the headline “The face of Muhammad.” A hot controversy about self-censorship and criticism of Islam ensued. Read more about it here.)

A few months later, after stormy protests (and about 200 deaths) around the world, Christopher Hitchens published a piece in Slate, “Stand Up for Denmark!

You wish to say that it was . . . a small newspaper in Copenhagen that lit the trail? What abject masochism and nonsense. It was the arrogant Danish mullahs who patiently hawked those cartoons around the world (yes, don’t worry, they are allowed to exhibit them as much as they like), until they finally provoked a vicious response against the economy and society of their host country. . . . The hypocrisy here is shameful, nauseating, unpardonable. The original proscription against any portrayal of the prophet, not that this appears to be absolute, was superficially praiseworthy because it was intended as a safeguard against idolatry and the worship of images. But now see how this principle is negated. A rumor of a cartoon in a faraway country is enough to turn the very name Mohammed into a fetish-object and an excuse for barbaric conduct. As I write this, the death toll is well over thirty and—guess what?—a mullah in Pakistan has offered $1 million and a car as a bribe for the murder of ‘the cartoonist.’ This incitement will go unpunished and most probably unrebuked.

—“Stand Up for Denmark!” Slate, February 21, 2006, and in Christopher Hitchens, Arguably: Essays (2011)

Why are these satirical cartoons being printed in the first place? One reason could be that there is among Europeans a profound impatience and intolerance of immigrants who refuse to assimilate, who stay in their own close-knit neighborhoods, insist on wearing attire (including the hijab) from a world that is alien to Europe, and seem to hate or keep at a distance the culture into which they have settled. The widely admired historian Walter Laqueur explained the situation in his 2007 book The Last Days of Europe (the title refers in part to the continent’s overly permissive immigration policies).

Many of the immigrants of 2006 live in societies separate form those of the host countries. This is true for big cities and small. They have no German or British or French friends, they do not meet them, and frequently they do not speak their language. Their preachers tell these immigrants that their values and traditions are greatly superior to those of the infidels and that any contact with them, even with neighbors, is undesirable. Their young people complain about being victims and being excluded , but their social and cultural separateness is quite often voluntary. Western European governments and societies are often criticized for not having done more to integrate these new citizens. But even if they had done much more, is it certain that integration would have succeeded? For integration is not a one-way street.

Do these immigrants identify with their new homeland? If you ask them, they will frequently tell you that they are Muslims (or Turks or Nigerians) living in Britain, France, or Germany. They get their politics, religion, and culture from Arab and Turkish television channels. . . . However, they have no wish to go back to Turkey or Algeria—this is their country and they show it; no one should have any doubt about it.

—Laqueur, The Last Days of Europe, pp. 7–8

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We’ve probably said more than enough . . . for now. Many of us will continue to reflect on what it is we’re doing, what we have gotten ourselves into—never forget the West’s thirst for oil that has brought our corporations and armies into the Muslim lands in the first place,  and the complicated legacy of European colonialism—and how we can live together in this globalized, intermixed world. It’s an International World, after all, and we have to find ways to live together. We hope that the Muslim clerics will heed the call of Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Let’s close with the final two paragraphs of Salman Rushdie’s “Step Across this Line” (the source of the epigraph above), an address given at Yale University not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001 (The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, February 25 and 26, 2002):

Even before the attacks on America, I was concerned that, in Britain and Europe as well as America, the pressures on artistic and even intellectual freedoms were growing—that cautious, conservative political and institutional forces were gaining the upper hand, and that many social groups were deliberately fostering a new, short-fuse culture of easy offendedness, so that less and less was becoming sayable all the time, and more and more kinds of speech were being categorized as transgressive. If it was important to resist this cultural closing-in before 9/11, it’s twice as important now. The freedoms of art and the intellect are closely related to the general freedoms of society as a whole. The struggle for artistic freedom serves to crystallize the larger question that we were all asked when the planes hit the buildings: how should we live now? How uncivilized are we going to allow our own world to become in response to so barbaric an assault? 

We are living, I believe, in a frontier time, one of the great hinge periods in human history, in which great changes are coming about at great speed. On the plus side, the end of the cold war, the revolution in communications technology, great scientific achievements such as the completion of the human genome project; in the minus column, a new kind of war against new kinds of enemies fighting with terrible new weapons. We will all be judged by how we handle ourselves in this time. What will be the spirit of this frontier? Will we give the enemy the satisfaction of changing ourselves into something like their hate-filled, illiberal mirror image, or will we, as the guardians of the modern world, as the custodians of freedom and the occupants of the privileged lands of plenty, go on trying to increase freedom and decrease injustice? Will we become the suits of armour our fear makes us put on, or will we continue to be ourselves? The frontier both shapes our character and tests our mettle. I hope we pass the test.

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“Vive la France.” Click here for President Obama’s remarks written in a condolence book at the French Embassy in Washington on Thursday, Jan. 8. Video here.

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New Yorker cover illustration by Ana Juan; broken pencils illustration by Lucille Clerc.

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Annus Horribilis : 2014 in Review

01/1/15

New Year
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Good Riddance to a Bad Year

In a speech in late 1992, Queen Elizabeth II used the phrase “annus horribilis” to describe Great Britain’s no-good, very bad year (tabloid-quality marital troubles of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, a fire at Windsor Castle, etc.). The term is derived from the Latin annus mirabilis (wonderful year). As the queen said about 1992, we feel about 2014: “not a year on which [we] shall look back with undiluted pleasure.”

First, though, let’s open with some good things that happened in 2014 that give us cause to hope that 2015 may bring more mirabilis and less horribilis.

Public health. Overall, the American medical establishment, led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, managed pretty well in handling the cases of Ebola that arose in the U.S. (Try not to be freaked out by TV “news” coverage of this topic; as with weather events, the more alarmist their coverage, the better for their ratings.)

ACAIn other healthy developments, the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, brought more good news for the general public (though not for Fox News). In “Tidings of Comfort” (12/26/14), New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says that in its first full year of full implementation (its provisions were phased in gradually after its passage in 2010), “the number of Americans without insurance fell by around 10 million. . . . premiums were far less than predicted, overall health spending is moderating, and specific cost-control measures are doing very well. And all indications suggest that year two will be marked by further success.”

Economy. Krugman points out that although economic recovery from the 2008 crisis has been slow, recent performance has been comparatively healthy, with steady increases in job creation and 5 percent growth in the U.S. economy overall. Some 6.7 million jobs have been created since Obama took office, compared with 3.1 million at the six-year mark under George W. Bush. If it were not for congressionally mandated austerity, the recovery would have been much better.

(Krugman does not mention this, but the recovery was strong enough in 2014 that, if we were living in normal, level-playing-field political conditions, without the artificial factors of gerrymandered congressional districts and unlimited dark money mentioned below, this year’s midterm elections should have gone more than usual in the favor of the president’s party.) For more on the president’s performance, see Krugman’s excellent and persuasive “In Defense of Obama” (Rolling Stone, 10/8/14).

Executive actions. President Obama took several positive actions on several important issues that do not depend on the constipated Congress to take effect. In November he used an executive action to grant a reprieve to nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants and to strengthen border security.

People’s Climate MarchAlso in November, Obama made a landmark agreement with China to cut greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 and to rely more on renewable sources of energy and on nuclear energy. Following on the massive People’s Climate March of Sept. 21, 2014, in which more than 400,000 marched in New York City as delegates were gathering at the United Nations, this agreement provided substantial good news for the environment and reason to hope for more progressive green achievements. (They can’t come too soon: the “climate change” the earth is undergoing may already be irreparable. But enough: we’re trying to focus on the positive here.)

And, in the kind of bold surprise we welcome and hope to see more of, in mid-December, President Obama announced that after nearly 55 years of diplomatic estrangement, the United States will normalize relations with Cuba and unfreeze the trade embargo, an agreement worked out with behind-the-scenes assistance from Pope Francis and the Vatican and the government of Canada.

About That Annus Horribilis . . .

We each have our own reasons, but it seems to be a widely shared view that even by the standards of this grim new century 2014 was a bad year—and it was already looking bad by the summer. “In this summer of global tumult” began a piece in The New York Times (“As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way,” 8/16/14). A general sense of gloom and dread was helped along by the fact that 2014 was, as many news outlets were commemorating, the centenary of the outbreak of The Great War.

In international affairs, there was Russia’s annexing of Crimea and troublemaking in Ukraine; the continuation of the dreadful Syrian civil war (two years and counting: some 76,000 died in Syria this year, including 3,500 children) and the related rise of ISIS (aka ISIL, or Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq; the very destructive Israel-Gaza war that erupted in July; and of course the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. But wait: there’s more.

In a nation whose middle class was still struggling if not drowning in a protracted recession and widespread unemployment since the economic collapse of 2008, while corporate profits reached record highs (“In 2013, after-tax corporate profits as a share of the economy tied with their highest level on record [in 1965], while labor compensation as a share of the economy hit its lowest point since 1948.” [NYT 8/31/14])—the already poor and jobless were further stressed by interactions with heavily armed police. In the first eight months of 2014 in the United States there were more than 400 deaths from police shootings.

Disturbances of the Peace

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Here in the homeland, American society was disturbed by the still mysterious shooting on August 9 of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The death sparked outrage and dramatic protests against brutality and excessive militarization of police departments around the United States. The choking death on July 17 of a black man named Eric Garner while in police custody (“I can’t breathe,” he gasped eleven times)—he was suspected of illegally selling loose cigarettes near the Staten Island ferry—was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner. In December a grand jury decided to not indict the police officer in the death; this decision, just a week after a similar decision in Missouri to not prosecute the officer who shot Michael Brown, prompted widespread protests in New York and around the nation with the themes “Black lives matter” and “I can’t breathe.” Tension persists in (among other places) New York City, where the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio are not seeing eye to eye. Large numbers of officers physically turned their backs on the mayor when he spoke at the funeral service several days ago of one of two officers killed in Brooklyn by a lunatic from Baltimore seeking revenge for African Americans killed by police.

“Hell No You Can’t!”

MoneybagsOne more category that should be mentioned, like it or not, is the depressing outcome of the 2014 midterm congressional elections. (So depressing, in fact, that this blog was at a loss for words for several months.) Although victorious, empowered Republicans crowed that the American people had spoken (for them and against Obama, naturally), we attribute their success to (1) gerrymandered congressional districts tailor-made for conservative dominance; (2) unlimited “dark money” from corporations and political action committees following the Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision (2010); and (3) voting rights restrictions that limited voting by minorities, college students, and other likely Democratic constituencies after the Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). (See “Dark Money Helped Win the Senate,” The New  York Times Editorial Board, 11/8/14.)

Perhaps equally disheartening, though, and certainly more infuriating, is the chronic cowardice of establishment Democrats. Dem candidates distanced themselves from President Obama and shrank from speaking up about the party’s accomplishments and defending its historic programs. (See “A Failure to Communicate—Not a Failure to Govern” [LNW 11/3/10].) As our friend Cousin Pat from Georgia at Hurricane Radio has said many times, the Democratic Party cannot ally itself with Wall Street and still expect support from the middle class and working class at election time. (See his “Why the GOP Is Going to Win in November” [9/28/10])

We pray that progressive activists will multiply and press the Democrats and independents to push for progressive policies. One of the developments to which we’re not looking forward is the looming 2016 presidential election. We do not salivate at the prospect of Hillary Clinton as the Democrats’ candidate, but if she is the candidate the Republicans most fear, then perhaps she should be the Democrats’ leader in 2016. But HRC is a Wall Street, big-money Democrat, like Chuck Schumer, and her credentials do not bode well for peace or progressive causes. On our wish list is more of populist, independent thinkers like senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. We hope that, at the very least, Warren and other liberals and defenders of the middle class will be able to push Clinton toward more progressive talk and action.

Falling Stars in the Obituary Pages

Another way of looking at the year’s toll is by considering the obituaries of entertainers and authors in 2014—some of which were not death from natural causes. Philip Seymour Hoffman (46) and Robin Williams (63), among the greatest talents of any age, both took their own lives after giving immeasurably to world culture, both in humor and in pathos. Other great lives that ended this year include Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers, Shirley Temple Black, poets Maya Angelou, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnell, Mark Strand, and the global-stature novelists Gabriel García Márquez and Nadine Gordimer, as well as the popular mystery writer P. D. James.

Power to the People

LNW_USA.sleeveWe hope for a better year this next time around, but we know that 2015 is not going to be better just because the previous one was a grind. But we will do our part, “every day, in every way,” and will try to contribute to a better city, a better nation, a better world. We hope you’ll join us in trying to give to civic affairs, for example, not only through occasional contributions to progressive groups (see our blogroll, lower right column, for Anti-War and Environment groups), but also by making our views known to newspapers and elected officials: phoning mayors, members of Congress, writing letters to the editor, and so on. Let’s encourage, congratulate, thank, and support those who do good, and when elected officials are off-track, let them know. (See our Political Action page for contact information.)

Wishing you and yours a better time in 2015, and strength through peace.

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Top illustration from New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Ferguson, Missouri, photograph by BBC News.

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Nathaniel Rich on the “National Crisis” of Louisiana’s Disappearing Coast

10/9/14

Waterworld.NYTM.cover

“I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage.” —Nathaniel Rich

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In “Behind the Cover Story,” Rachel Nolan speaks with Nathaniel Rich, a New Orleans resident and author of last Sunday’s powerful and authoritative New York Times Magazine cover story “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”—about how he came to write the piece, and possible consequences if the lawsuit fails . . .

Along the way, Rich hails The Lens of New Orleans as “a fantastic local investigative news site.” We could not agree more. 

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Behind the Cover Story: Nathaniel Rich on the Legal Battle Over Louisiana’s Land Loss

You have lived in New Orleans for some time now. How did you first become aware of the massive land loss in Louisiana?

I was ignorant about coastal land loss before I moved to New Orleans four years ago, but that changed quickly. Louisianians have known about the loss of their wetlands for decades, but relatively few people outside the state seem to be aware of the problem or its scope. This is disturbing because it is a national crisis, endangering the existence of New Orleans as well as a large percentage of our energy infrastructure and shipping trade. It’s not just nature lovers who should be concerned. Anyone who cares about energy independence, trade or national security should be concerned.

Awareness of the issue is growing, however. Several excellent reports have been published in the last few weeks. One was published through a partnership between ProPublica and The Lens, a fantastic local investigative news site. Called “Losing Ground,” it’s a graphic representation of coastal land loss. Another is “Louisiana Loses Its Boot,” by Brett Anderson, published in Medium. Anderson makes the case for a new official state map that would reflect Louisiana’s changing shape.

How did you first hear about this lawsuit, and come to think that John Barry might be interesting to write about?

nathanielrichphoto-articleInline-v2I learned about it when Barry announced the lawsuit at a press conference last July. I expected that a lawsuit taking on the entire oil and gas industry—perhaps the largest environmental lawsuit in the history of the planet—might receive major national coverage, but it hasn’t come close to getting the attention of, say, the Keystone pipeline.

Barry is a true obsessive, and I’m drawn to writing about obsession. I was fascinated to see a writer abandon a successful writing career, at least temporarily, in order to devote himself to a cause. In my experience, writers are happiest when they are alone in a small room with their work, so Barry’s decision to sue 97 oil and gas companies seemed to me especially radical, and indicative of an unusual personal commitment.

Oil and gas companies conceded responsibility for 36 percent of the land loss. Why don’t the companies pay for 36 percent of the damage to the coast—at the very least as a P.R. move?

Because nobody is making them. The oil and gas industry did not become the most profitable industry in the history of human civilization by accident. Why would an oil company volunteer to donate millions or billions of dollars when nobody is requiring them to? P.R. campaigns come a lot cheaper than that. Shareholders wouldn’t stand for it. Besides, every oil company has a different level of liability. You need some authority to determine how much each company owes. That’s what the lawsuit intends to do.

Who or what is responsible for the rest of the lost land?

Levees, primarily, mostly those built on the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers. The levees prevent flooding, which deposits sediment into the marshes and builds land. Of course without levees you couldn’t have cities in southern Louisiana. This is one reason it’s difficult for the state to press the oil and gas industry for reparations. Historically, Louisiana has pushed aggressively for the construction of levees, which may be an even greater cause of land loss than the canals and wells dredged by the industry. Thousands of dams built on the Mississippi’s tributaries, which reduce the river’s sediment load, are another factor. Then you have global warming. The land is sinking, and the sea is rising. It’s a pitiful combination.

If this lawsuit fails, what does the future look like for Louisiana?

If the Coastal Master Plan is not fully funded, the coast as we know it will be gone. Over the next century the towns and cities will be abandoned. New Orleans, if it continues to exist, will be an island. The coast might be doomed regardless, but the Master Plan at least gives it a fighting chance.

What might this whole fight in Louisiana mean for Bobby Jindal’s presidential ambitions?

I’m not a political analyst, so I couldn’t speculate with any authority about the next presidential election. Nearly everybody I interviewed in Louisiana, however, believed that Jindal’s extreme hostility to the lawsuit was motivated, at least partially, by his national political ambitions. He is in his final term as governor, after all, and he won’t likely run for state office again. Politically he no longer has much to gain, or lose, in Louisiana. But if he wants to run for president, he will need to win the support of big money. The defendants in the levee-board lawsuit include the Koch Brothers, ExxonMobil and Shell Oil—three of the Republican Party’s top donors. As William Goldman wrote: Follow the money.

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Read “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” by Nathaniel Rich in The New York Times Magazine (10/5/2014).

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 Photo of Nathaniel Rich by Meredith Angelson for The New York Times.

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Highlights from “The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever” in The New York Times Magazine

10/6/14

Whitehall Canal, in the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary.Jeff Riedel@NYT“The idea of making the industry live up to its legal responsibility is not going to die.”John M. Barry

Yesterday, Sunday, Oct. 6, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story titled “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever.” Aside from the cover of Time, a story does not get much more prominent coverage than a cover article in the magazine of The New York Times. Nathaniel Rich, who has written intelligently and sensitively about New Orleans (see here and here), now gives an overview of the environmental reasons why the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (SLFPA-E) last July filed a suit against nearly 100 oil and gas corporations for failing to honor the terms of their licenses to do business in the wetlands of Louisiana and have caused catastrophic environmental damage to the state’s land. Rich also profiles the leader of that lawsuit, author and environmental activist John M. Barry, who was until recently the vice president of SLFPA-E, and the unprecedented efforts of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, with the help of compliant or fearful legislators, to kill the lawsuit in the state legislature rather than let it work its way through the courts.

Read All About It—And Restore Louisiana Now

Following are some highlights from “Waterworld.” We hope you will forward this post, or the article itself, and also check out John Barry’s new foundation, Restore Louisiana Now. We also urge you to join us in pressing the Jindal administration and the Louisiana state representatives to support efforts to make the oil and gas industry pay for the damage it has done and to restore the critical wetlands that act as a buffer against hurricane storm surge. Scientists say about every 2.5 square miles of wetlands absorbs a foot of storm surge. The oil and gas industry has already conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss—but they have not paid for damages. Jindal’s plan, apparently, is to let industry off the hook and to let the Coastal Master Plan for restoration to fall on the taxpayers—a curious position for an anti-tax politician.

This politically ambitious governor, who imagines he has a chance at becoming president of the United States, continues in his efforts to bend the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East (intended to be politically independent) to his will. The lawsuit’s attorney has requested that a federal judge rule on the constitutionality of a controversial bill, pushed for and eagerly signed by Jindal, that would kill the lawsuit. The judge will hear that motion, along with motions filed by oil companies to dismiss the suit, on Nov. 12.

From “Waterworld: The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever”

Each hour, Louisiana loses about a football field’s worth of land. Each day, the state loses nearly the accumulated acreage of every football stadium in the N.F.L. Were this rate of land loss applied to New York, Central Park would disappear in a month. Manhattan would vanish within a year and a half. The last of Brooklyn would dissolve four years later. New Yorkers would notice this kind of land loss. The world would notice this kind of land loss. But the hemorrhaging of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands has gone largely unremarked upon beyond state borders. This is surprising, because the wetlands, apart from their unique ecological significance and astounding beauty, buffer the impact of hurricanes that threaten not just New Orleans but also the port of South Louisiana, the nation’s largest; just under 10 percent of the country’s oil reserves; a quarter of its natural-gas supply; a fifth of its oil-refining capacity; and the gateway to its internal waterway system. The attenuation of Louisiana, like any environmental disaster carried beyond a certain point, is a national-security threat.

Canals dredged by the energy industry south of Lafitte.The land loss is swiftly reversing the process by which the state was built. As the Mississippi shifted its course over the millenniums, spraying like a loose garden hose, it deposited sand and silt in a wide arc. This sediment first settled into marsh and later thickened into solid land. But what took 7,000 years to create has been nearly destroyed in the last 85. . . .

Beneath the surface, the oil and gas industry has carved more than 50,000 wells since the 1920s, creating pockets of air in the marsh that accelerate the land’s subsidence. The industry has also incised 10,000 linear miles of pipelines, which connect the wells to processing facilities; and canals, which allow ships to enter the marsh from the sea. Over time, as seawater eats away at the roots of the adjacent marsh, the canals expand. By its own estimate, the oil and gas industry concedes that it has caused 36 percent of all wetlands loss in southeastern Louisiana. . . .

A better analogy than disappearing football fields has been proposed by the historian John M. Barry, who has lived in the French Quarter on and off since 1972. Barry likens the marsh to a block of ice. The reduction of sediment in the Mississippi, the construction of levees and the oil and gas wells “created a situation akin to taking the block of ice out of the freezer, so it begins to melt.” Dredging canals and pipelines “is akin to stabbing that block of ice with an ice pick.”

The oil and gas industry has extracted about $470 billion in natural resources from the state in the last two decades, with the tacit blessing of the federal and state governments and without significant opposition from environmental groups. Oil and gas is, after all, Louisiana’s leading industry, responsible for around a billion dollars in annual tax revenue. Last year, industry executives had reason to be surprised, then, when they were asked to pay damages. The request came in the form of the most ambitious, wide-ranging environmental lawsuit in the history of the United States. . . .

When John Barry met with Congressman Bobby Jindal (2006): In Washington, where Barry lives for part of the year, he met with a freshman representative from the state’s First Congressional District, which includes much of southeastern Louisiana: Bobby Jindal. He begged Jindal to demand action from the White House [following Hurricane Katrina]. New Orleans couldn’t count on its mayor, or on the governor, he said; the city needed a hero on Capitol Hill. After speaking for two hours, Barry recalled, Jindal said that taking a leadership position on Hurricane Katrina “didn’t fit his timing for running for governor.” (Jindal, who declined to comment for this article, was elected governor in 2007.) “I left in total disgust,” Barry said. . . .

The state did have a plan in place to rebuild the barrier islands and coastal wetlands. Originally published in 2007 and revised in 2012, the so-called Coastal Master Plan was endorsed by scientists, as well as the oil and gas industry. . . . The state, however, had not figured out how it was going to finance the Coastal Master Plan. The main source of funding would be the settlement from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil-spill lawsuits, which is expected to be as much as $20 billion. That would leave about $30 billion.

Barry believed that other oil and gas companies should also contribute. His argument was simple: Because the industry conceded responsibility for 36 percent of land loss, it should pay its part: $18 billion would be a start.

near Myrtle Grove, La.[Barry] knew that nearly every company that has operated in the marshes since the 1920s has used permits obliging them to maintain and repair any environmental damage it caused. In 1980, Louisiana began adhering to a federal law that required companies operating in the marsh—a list that includes ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Shell, BP, Chevron and Koch Industries—to restore “as near as practicable to their original condition” any canals they dredge. After consulting with legal experts, Barry became convinced that most companies never filled in their canals and that the state had failed to enforce the law. In fact, many of the projects listed in the Coastal Master Plan called for plugging canals that should have been restored years ago. . . .

“Louisianians who make money in oil buy politicians, or pieces of politicians, as Kentuckians in the same happy situation buy racehorses. Oil gets into politics, and politicians, making money in office, get into oil. The state slithers around it.” These sentences, written by A. J. Liebling in 1960 at the dawn of the deep-water offshore-drilling era, seem quaint when read today. Louisiana no longer slithers in oil; it drowns in it. It is also high on natural gas, thanks to the recent boom in hydraulic fracturing. And at some point along the way, the state, which has the oil and gas, ceded political control to the industry, which needs the oil and gas. . . .

One peculiarity about the fight over the lawsuit is that few industries are in greater need of coastal restoration than oil and gas. The next major hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast will put at risk billions of dollars of industry infrastructure—refineries, oil tanks, terminals and pipelines. This is why the industry endorsed the Coastal Master Plan. A second oddity is that Jindal, a hero of the anti-tax faction of the national Republican Party, who last year tried to eliminate the state’s corporate and income taxes, has now put himself in the position of allowing the largest single bill facing his state—for the balance of the Coastal Master Plan—to fall almost entirely upon taxpayers.

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Check out Restore Louisiana Now, and see the video  from the Coastal Conservation Conversation held at Loyola University on August 20 (highlights video clips here). Thanks to Ms. Anne Mueller of The Lens, a major sponsor of the Conversation.

Also, see Nathaniel Rich’s new piece in The New Republic, “Louisiana Has a Wild Plan to Save Itself from Global Warming (too bad the state is being destroyed from within),” and his review of Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books, “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Land Loss in 1984 compared with 2014

1984–2014

 

Map source: Jamon Van Den Hoek, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Map note: Land areas are derived from Landsat imagery. Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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Louisiana’s Vanishing Wetlands and “Most Ambitious” Enviro Lawsuit Featured in New York Times Magazine

10/3/14

John BarryThis weekend you’ll want to go to your nearest newsstand and buy a copy of the Sunday New York Times and go straight to the Magazine for an article of major importance. The cover shows an oil industry “shortcut” canal sliced through Louisiana’s Barataria-Terrebonne estuary, overlaid with the words “Every Hour, an Acre of Louisiana Sinks into the Sea. Who Is to Blame?” The article, by Nathaniel Rich, focuses on the “high-stakes fight [that] has broken out over who is to blame—and who should bear the astronomical cost of restoring the coast” as the Louisiana wetlands continue to vanish into the Gulf of Mexico. Every year Louisiana loses 25 square miles of land. Every day, 50 acres.

Rich spends quality time with John M. Barry (right), the widely respected author of the award-winning Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America and vice president of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority–East that filed an historic lawsuit in July 2013 to force about 100 oil and gas companies to pay for damages to Louisiana’s coastal wetlands. (Click here for more about the lawsuit; see also “Understanding Louisiana’s Environmental Crisis” on our Environment page.)

We’ll have more to say about this well-written article in the next few days—just wanted to alert you that it’s coming, and to urge you to “read all about it,” and spread the word. Buy the Sunday paper—help keep the presses rolling.

Nathaniel Rich, by the way, a novelist, is the son of New York magazine contributing writer and former New York Times columnist Frank Rich. In July Nathaniel reviewed Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History and Sheri Fink’s Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital for The New York Review of Books in a fine piece titled “The Heart of New Orleans.”

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Photographs by Jeff Riedel for The New York Times.

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