Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Maathai Interview (Part 2 of 2)

By Timothy J. McNulty
What other large issues are you working on?

The next area I am really interested in the climate change issue. All this time we have been trying to work for the environment and rehabilitate degraded environment, protect forest, protect soils and generally educate people on the need to take care of the environment. Now we have a new understanding of the phenomenon of global warming, and this phenomenon is going to be very negative on Africa.

As you know, we have a big desert to the north and the Kalahari Desert to the southwest. It has farmers who are still very undeveloped in terms of skills and the technologies they use are very, very primitive. They still use age-old technologies, such as slash-and-burn, that are very destructive to the environment. So I am very engaged in trying to encourage governments to protect the forest. And I have recently become the Goodwill Ambassador of the Congo forest and my responsibility is to raise awareness on the need to protect this forest, not only for Africa, but also for the world.

We usually call the Amazon, the Congo and the forests in the southwest block of Asia the three lungs of the planet. They are extremely important because they are huge carbon sinks (that help reduce) the carbon that is in the atmosphere. So whatever happens in terms of reducing emissions, we need to protect these forests so they are not cut and they do not release more carbons into the atmosphere and that, instead, they continue to help us eliminate the carbons that are already in the atmosphere.

For Africa, the Congo forest is also important because it is like a buffer between the two deserts. It has a lot of potential. It has a massive amount of water, a massive amount of resources and it’s very important that it is managed in a sustainable way. It is almost a scramble for these resources from different nations that are trying to use them either because they don’t have enough at home or they have a particular capacity to take so much – especially in upcoming markets like China and India, and also in the industrialized world.

Because Africa is still undeveloped in terms of technological advancement, she is still not able to add much value in terms of her resources. So she continues to export her resources as primary and raw materials and therefore gets very little comparatively for what she exports. Therefore she still has to import manufactured goods that are extremely expensive and at prices she cannot control.

Whereas when she sells her raw materials it is often those companies that tell her how much they will pay. And because she doesn’t add value, because they are raw materials, if you don’t sell them they will go to waste, things like cocoa, things like coffee, things like tea.

Are you discouraged that these problems seem so cyclical?

That’s why I have written this book, “The Challenge for Africa” to demonstrate that it is easier said than done. There are so many challenges that are not clear, they don’t come to you upfront and you may not experience them until you really go down to do the work. If I had stayed in the University of Nairobi as a professor, I would never really understand this. It’s when you go down in the grassroots and you see it and you recognize that as a force that can interfere with good development…

So my book is partly to reflect on my own experiences and say, yes, we have come a long way and no doubt improved. But we have not gone far enough, and we could have gone far enough if we were a little more committed, if the leadership and religious leaders were a little more committed, if individuals were a little more committed and did not just think of themselves, if they were pushing for the common good.

It is not as if I am looking for a utopian society, but in most societies, whether it is in America or Europe, or Japan, or even now in China and India, you have a critical mass of people and leadership that is really focusing on pushing forward, hopefully without sacrificing certain values and principles.

Who do most want to read your book?

My audience is Africans, intellectuals and the elite because I think I belong to that class and I believe we have a very important role to play, not only to criticize but to be actively involved. Secondly, those of us elites in leadership we are in a position that we really do have to show that we care for our people and that we do not want to continue exploiting them or allowing their exploitation. The other group that I hope will read the book are people who are involved in development, to help understand that development is not a one-track activity, that is holistic and long-term and requires a lot of commitment.

We know that development has not always been honest. There has been almost a partnership, a conspiracy between our own elites and the development partners…Partners have been using the resources that are not properly released by our leaders. The reason they do is because they make money out of it. Sometimes we are told that for every dollar that is invested in the form of aid in Africa, it comes back as four dollars (in African resources), so that is hardly “aid,” it is really very lucrative trade.

And that’s unjust and those injustices are not exposed. They are not exposed because those who are giving us the money are interested in the trade and those who are given the money, the African elites, are not sufficiently committed to their people and are willing to allow that.

Some believe that aid in its present form actually suppresses prosperity in underdeveloped countries, do you agree?

In my opinion, unless the African leadership decides to help its own people, there is nobody who can come from outside and help the people. You have to be willing to help your people…We haven’t seen anybody who will come help you manage your affairs, if you can’t help yourself.

What we have seen is people who will come and promise help but essentially what they will be doing is trade and helping themselves. Whether they are logging in the forests, investing in banks, selling equipment or merchandise, whatever they are doing, they are telling you they are helping, but they are not helping.

But the responsibility does lay to a very large extent with the African elites, especially those of us who are in the government. It is very important for us to speak about this in a transparent way, in an open way, and ask questions about justice, ask questions about equity, and ask questions about accountability on both sides.

Media often help hold leaders accountable but currently the U.S. media, especially newspapers, are in financial trouble. Is it in the same elsewhere?

In Africa, we are still very reliant or dependent on the printed word for information. Television is still not accessible to a lot of people, especially outside the towns and cities. Now radio is much more accessible. There was a time during Moi’s time, when radio was very restricted. That was part of the gains we made during our struggle for greater democracy.

If there is one thing that is a revolution is the Internet and the mobile phone. In 2002, we had an election in Kenya that was historic because for the first time we were able to get rid of (President Daniel arap) Moi, whom we had tried previously to get out of office without success. (Moi ruled from 1978 to 2002.)

There were many factors that enabled him to be defeated but one of them was the mobile phone. During the campaign, we had been able to change a very fundamental law, that is to say that votes will be counted where they are cast. Because quite often the interference with the votes was during the transfer from where they were cast to where they were counted. Sometimes boxes would disappear or they would be stashed with extra votes.

Through the mobile phone, people were able to send to the newspapers, and radio stations and television stations the results of the votes from where the votes were cast and counted and that was a transformation that must have sent shock waves to a lot of president or candidates who rely on rigging elections by interfering with the votes…

We still are a long ways to having the Internet. Most of us have to go to cybercafes to access information, to access a computer, so it will be some time. But mobile phones are moving like wildfire.

In a recent op-ed column, you wrote of your admiration for President Obama.

I think Obama represents a great opportunity for Africa because he has roots, Africa roots, and so he can use his style. He can challenge the African leadership and he can urge the African leadership to embrace good governance, which is their biggest problem. And to eliminate corruption which is another great problem. Corruption sometimes goes hand-in-hand with an excessive, luxurious life at the expense of their people.

It’s okay for you to have a private jet, to have a large entourage, to have 30-40 cars following you and going ahead of you. But really when you live in a poor country and you know that you’re people are starving, it begs the question why you feel you need so much luxury around you.

So I think these are some of the issues that I hope Obama would challenge them and they would feel obliged to do, because he is the president who is really inspiring not only the leaders but young people. Young people in Africa are very excited about Obama.

They (the leaders) need to understand that Obama is a product of a society that nurtures and allows potential to be exploited. And one of the points I raised in that article is, would African leaders be challenged to create an environment in Africa that little Obamas would not have to come to America to experience their potential, that they could do so back home. That ought to be the challenge for African leaders.


Maathai Interview (Part 1 of 2)

By Timothy J. McNulty
Freedom Museum/ What issues most concern you at the moment?

Maathai/ My current issues are basically the same I have been concerned about all my life, because they just seem not to disappear. Mostly human rights issues. Just when you think you have overcome, they come back in a different way. Right now in Kenya we are really almost reliving what we thought we had escaped, especially violation of human rights and almost a state tolerance to extrajudicial killings of people they think are “bad people.” But our Lord does not allow anybody to kill anybody just because they think they are “bad”. So that area just never seems to go away.

In America, I suspect we take many human rights for granted even while they may seem very generous to others.

Yes, it’s very much about the basic freedoms, freedom of speech, of access to information, of sharing information. In the past it was very difficult for Kenya to have different television stations, different newspapers, different radio stations. We broke that finally and we managed to open up that access to information. Now we have more radio stations than we can listen to.

But in many other countries, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression quite often is not there. The freedom of expression is the one most often infringed upon, both physically but especially by instilling fear in people so that they do not express themselves.

You mean the fear is unseen?

Yes, and that is what the state likes, then people censor themselves.

Freedom of religion is something we cherish, but even that can be most contentious.

Religion is extremely important and we know that Africans are expressing very intense religious experiences at the moment, whether they are doing so by becoming Muslims, which is expanding very fast, or whether they are doing so as Christians, which is also expanding very fast. They are very religious and what one wants to see is religion that is not used, as Karl Marx would have said, as an opiate to silence the people, to make the people accepting that whatever is there is God’s will and that they should not challenge it. When religion is used that way, then religion becomes a destructive force.

But when religion is used to empower, to inspire, to give people hope, to give people energy to do things, then of course it can be a very powerful force.

Still, religion is often a dividing rather than a uniting force.

Yes, religious people enjoy power, they don’t want to admit it, but they enjoy power. And power can be very corrupting because you can decide that whatever it takes to have that power, you will use. I am sure there are people who enjoy that power of religion and that position they enjoy, a position that almost forbids challenge. So that nobody comes to tell you “I don’t think what you are saying is right.” We don’t see too many Martin Luther at the moment.

Last year, Kenya had a very dividing experience after the election. One of the facts was that religions were split. Just as the country’s leaders were split, so too were religious leaders who tended to support the candidate from their community rather than support the candidate they thought who was best for the country, or for the values they hold. You would think religious leaders would be above the politics and say this candidate is the best… After the violence, religious leaders felt so bad they apologized to the public.

Religion can be a very powerful force but it can also divide. Religious leaders can influence people much more than the politicians because they claim they are speaking in God’s name. If they are, it is very difficult to go to God and ask him “Did you really say this?”

End Part 1


Lessons of the Holocaust

By Nathan
I think it would be nearly impossible to count how many stories, films, documentaries, books, memoirs, and works of art have been made that depict, discuss and analyze the Holocaust. And just when I thought that I had heard every unimaginable story of survival and pluck as well as every disgusting and deranged tactic to harm other human beings, some new tale surfaces that sheds new light on the breadth and depth of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Last night’s program with Thomas Buergenthal was one such example. Judge Buergenthal, a Holocaust survivor who now serves as the single American judge on the International Court of Justice, recounted his personal narrative about how he survived as a child the death camps of Poland. Buergenthal was interviewed by Howard Reich, Tribune journalist and author, about his new memoir A Lucky Child. Buergenthal, who was just 10 when he was separated from his parents and sent to die in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, survived by his wits and—as any survivor knows—shear luck.

The audience of nearly 200 people who gathered at the brand new Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie was riveted by Buergenthal’s story—from his narrowly escaping the gas showers, to surviving the Auschwitz death march, to being reunited with his mother after the war. What made Buergenthal’s account even more astounding was the cool, clear, and tempered manner in which he delivered his saga. He, like many survivors of the Holocaust, has been able to master and redirect his anger and bitterness and has made it a personal mission to educate people about genocide and the need for reconciliation.

The horrors of the past were tied to the atrocities of the present when one audience member asked a question to Buergenthal about the necessity for investigating the instances of torture of detainees at the hands of Americans during the War on Terror. Judge Buergenthal, who made clear that he was unable to address the propriety of legal action against interrogators and those who authorized harsh tactics because of his position with the International Court, instead offered commentary about a nation’s need to confront its own injustices. He opined that, whether or not convictions are made, it is in our nation’s best interest to have the full truth come to light—and that knowing and understanding what happened is the only way to address and correct any wrongdoing. Like any road to recovery, the first step is acceptance.


Wangari Maathai: Inspiration and Action

By Nathan
I have to admit that, when I was originally approached to bring Wangari Maathai as a speaker for the Freedom Museum, I didn’t even know who she was. After meeting her and hearing her speak this week, I have no idea how I never knew; but am thankful that now I do.

For those of you who are like I was just a few days ago and are unfamiliar with Wangari Maathai, her biography is an amazing one. In short, Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt Movement. She is an environmentalist, a human rights activist, and a member of Kenya’s parliament. Her actions are esteemed world wide, and have earned her numerous awards and recognitions—perhaps most notably a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

The premise of Wangari’s mission is simple. In Kenya—as is the case in much of East Africa, and even around the world—soils have been eroded by the destruction of forests. Soil compaction means poorer harvests. Poor harvests lead to hunger. Hunger leads to political unrest and violence. Furthermore, carbon producing industries have contributed to air pollution and arguably an increase of greenhouse gases. In both cases, trees are the answer. Planting trees allows for greater absorption of carbon dioxide as well as prevents soil erosion.

In 1976, Maathai introduced the idea of community tree plantings. The intended outcomes were two-fold: repair environmental damage and employ citizens—namely women. In much of Africa (as is the case many other places), men control all of a family’s wealth. Employing women allows them to earn income, provide for families and rehabilitate homelands. What a simple and powerful idea.

When Wangari walked out onto the stage at the Thorne Auditorium on Wednesday evening, she immediately electrified the audience. The crowd of more than 500 people leapt to their feet, offering a thunderous ovation. Dr. Maathai offered insightful perspective on the environment, the challenges that face Africa and our globe, and the importance of individual action. After a discussion of about 30 minutes with moderator Jerome McDonnell of Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview, the floor was opened to audience questions. Dozens of people queued up to ask their question to Wangari.

What amazed me most about the questions was not just the insightfulness of the askers, but the overwhelming number of questions that began with “what can I do to help?” and “what advice would you give someone who wants to get more involved?” It was also one of the most diverse audiences I have encountered at a Freedom Museum program—not just ethnic and racial diversity, but age range as well. Families, children, school mates, senior citizens—they all came to hear Wangari’s inspirational words.

After the Q & A portion (which lasted over one hour), I opened the stage door for Wangari to exit the dais. Another ovation for her was given as she walked out. What impressed me most about Wangari Maathai was not her dedication to protecting our planet and her passion for improving the lives of her countrymen and all global citizens, but the way she energized the audience with her grace, honesty, humor, and humility. She exemplified how freedom is not just a concept to be debated and discussed, but a living thing that requires thoughtful action and clear purpose.


Marketplace Manifestations

By Shawn Healy
My op-ed piece that ran in the Monday edition of the Chicago Tribune created quite a stir if reader feedback is any indication. Some of my critics were scathing, others constructive, and all contributed to the “marketplace of ideas” enabled by the First Amendment that I defend in the column.

What follows is a sample of their writing, and my responses to each.

You have to be kidding. I thought that the first amendment was in place to allow speech of all types as long as not dangerous to the public (yelling fire in a theater). I do not believe the First Amendment means that public schools need to promote all types of speech. Mr. Ayers is free to speak wherever he is welcome. Noon at Tribune Plaza would be great. However, Mr. Ayers is not entitled to an invitation anywhere.—William J. Peters

You are correct Mr. Peters in your point that the five freedoms of the First Amendment are not absolute. Boston College is a private university and therefore exempt from the dictates of the First Amendment. Naperville North is supported by taxpayer dollars and is a public institution, meaning the First Amendment is in play. Justice Abe Fortas, writing for the majority in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), said that “freedom of speech does not end at the schoolhouse gate.” The Supreme Court has proceeded to curtail student speech in successive decisions during the intervening four decades.

In this case, the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier (1988) ruling governs, permitting administrative censorship of speech facilitated by the school, assemblies included, for “legitimate pedagogical reasons.” However, just because the Naperville superintendent is on solid legal ground, it doesn’t mean that he reacted appropriately. In inviting Ayers and later rescinding the offer, he taught students that freedom of speech exists to the extent that a majority (or even a vocal minority) agrees with it.

Where is The Freedom Museum's article about Ann Coulter (another divisive figure) being kept from the public college podium because some advocacy group didn't like what they thought the students might hear (and believe me, I am not a big fan of hers.)--Renee Baker

Ms. Baker, I am no fan of Bill Ayers myself (nor Ann Coulter for that matter). This issue is much larger than either of them. As a college student, I was often frustrated when various conservative speakers, from Ward Connerly to David Horowitz, were shouted down by hypocrites on the left who only wanted their personal beliefs confirmed. I defend Bill Ayers so that Ann Coulter, Christian voices, even the leader of the Minuteman Militia can also speak on campus and elsewhere.

In my current duties at the Freedom Museum, I do my very best to cast aside my personal biases when I speak or write. I believe that through offering a balanced perspective on various freedom-related issues, we can spawn a civilized debate that advances our democratic society. Such conversations are sorely lacking nowadays as ideologues prefer to retreat to their respective echo chambers. More than anything, we live the legacy of Robert R. McCormick, who considered the principles of the First Amendment inviolable.

The last sentence of your commentary restored some faith in the previous sentences of your commentary. "Who knows, in a market place where ideas are forced to compete both parties may actually learn something from one another" However no where in your commentary did I see you make mention of universities that will allow all types of groups speak but the United States military is refused that opportunity. I also did not read a sentence that supported the rights of an organization that is opposed to abortions to speak on a college campus. I believe and I hope it is your belief that all ideas forced to compete are not denied a forum in the universities and colleges of this nation.—John Alukos

Amen, Mr. Alukos. I am every bit as disgusted as you when these groups are denied their constitutional rights and academic freedom is curtailed in the process. Our college campuses should serve as bastions of free thought and not self-contained social cascades. When conservative causes are censored I promise to raise my voice once more in support of the marketplace of ideas where truth emerges through competition.

First, those "dissenting voices" were parents of the kids in that classroom. They were voices of taxpayers who would pay for the facilities that would have hosted that class. They were the voices of a public concerned about placing a suspected domestic terrorist on an ideological pedestal.

Second, there's a huge difference between a publicly-funded high school and a privately-funded university. It was freedom of speech in action that pushed school authorities to retract the misguided invitation.

As a U.S. citizen, there is no question Bill Ayers has a right to speak, as he does as professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. At the same time, "dissenting voices" have a right to keep him from spouting his angry, anti-American rhetoric on high school aged students attending class per the state's compulsory attendance law.--Fran Eaton, Editor, Illinois Review

Ms. Eaton, I concur that the dissenting voices were parents, but they canceled out an equal number of affirmative voices of taxpaying parents. I agree that Mr. Ayers’ past actions are reprehensible, but Naperville North officials knew this going in. Indeed, it this notoriety, for better or for worse, that makes him an interesting, if controversial, speaker.

As to your second point, the dissenting parents did exercise their First Amendment rights, and in this case, the hecklers won. By rescinding Ayers’ speaking invitation, the Naperville Superintendent suggested that freedom of speech is malleable and subject to the whims of a vocal minority.

Finally, just to clarify, Ayers was not scheduled to speak to the entire school. Instead, students enrolled in classes with related curriculum were eligible to attend on the condition that they furnish signed parental permission slips.

Good point but where does religious freedom play into the equation? Notre Dame is a Catholic organization and Catholicism is the largest denomination of the largest religion (Christianity) in the world and the Catholic Church has never wavered in its stance on life. So don’t they have the right to freedom of religion?—John Miller

Notre Dame’s existence as an institution is an embodiment of freedom of religion under the First Amendment, Mr. Miller. They are free to exercise their Catholic beliefs, and apply them as an ideological litmus test for speakers that occupy the pulpit they provide. In this case, President Obama’s status as the leader of the free world trumped his contrary views on abortion and stem cell research, among other issues.

Do you really believe that Naperville North's decision not to have Bill Ayers speak is a 1st Amendment issue? How silly. You are a director of a "Freedom Museum" and you have no idea what freedom is. People have a right to express themselves, they do not have a right to have their opinions expressed wherever they want, be it a newspaper, website or school. In fact, I demand you publish this email on the homepage of your website. If not, you are guilty of the same stifling of free speech that you accuse BC and Naperville North of. As my lawyer wife and I were laughing over breakfast today at the stupidity of your premise, I turned to my 18 year old daughter and told her she should try to get a job in the non-profit sector when she gets out of school. The competition must be very easy.--Jerry Wood

Ouch! I’ll allow my previous responses to address the finer points of your critique, but will reprint your email verbatim, Mr. Wood, as a sign of my commitment to the marketplace of ideas powered by the First Amendment. I sincerely hope that your daughter flourishes in an environment of academic freedom as she enters college, and welcome her to apply for a position with the Freedom Museum upon graduation.


Tinkering with Political Corruption Reform

By Dave A
I listen intently to discussions among people who care about corruption in politics and who believe they know how to "fix" the problem. Generally, their solutions feel to me more like tinkering with periphery issues rather than dealing with the core problem. The talk of campaign finance reform, recall and term limits, all are well intentioned and may indeed have some positive effect though I feel they miss the mark entirely.

I would like to see their discussions address what I think is the root cause of corruption in government. I believe that the system, through a variety of well-intentioned reforms over the years, almost demands some level of influence pedaling. Specifically, there are two core problems with modern politics which necessitate massive flows of campaign donations and which explains why politicians are so beholden to donors rather than to serve the broader public good.

First, and perhaps the most powerful reason: Government is so big, so omnipresent, so dominant in our lives and controls so much spending that if someone can afford to influence an outcome in their favor, they'd be a fool not to try. Frankly, successful people and businesses rarely get to be successful without being / hiring smart and ambitious people who have learned how the system works. The stakes are just too high for them to sit on the sidelines. This isn't to say that all are motivated to engage in illegal activity, to the contrary, it's really the legal activity that presents such a problem. Legal contributions to support their candidate / influence legislation comes in the form of campaign contributions to candidates, Political Action Committees, 527s, political parties and, finally, personal spending on political speech. When given an incentive to improve their bottom line by lobbying for legislation for a new project or to put their competitors at a disadvantage, the money will flow, regardless of limits and other tinkering.

If one were really serious about limiting campaign donations or the impact of corruption, I believe, the ultimate solution is to limit the ability of government to impact / influence our lives. In short, reduce the size and scope of government. A smaller government will tax less and obviously spend less - assuming we reduce our borrowing - and a small government will impose fewer laws and regulations. With less at stake, there will be less incentive to try to influence the outcome.

In our modern world it is perhaps impossible for some to fathom this possibility. The federal government alone employed almost 15 million people in 2006 We rely on the government for permission to engage in all forms of business, protection from any variety of evils and to provide a social safety net from an expanding set of social-ills. I acknowledge that turning back the clock on this expansion may be impossible for some to consider but I think the discussion has to be had. As long as our government is as powerful as it is, people will have an incentive, legal and illegal, to influence the decisions of government. That can't be ignored in reality though apparently, it can be ignored in almost all discussions on how to limit the influence of money in politics.

The next systemic problem we have is federal campaign donation limitations or more precisely limits at the current federal level of $2,400 per donor to a candidate per campaign. In the aggregate, after 30 years of campaign contribution limits, I believe what we have done is turned our election process from that which attempted to select the most qualified candidate to a process which now selects for the best fund raiser. The winning candidate has to have stamina, good looks, a good voice, be an easy talker, patient and flexible on his / her positions. In short, it's a popularity contest that is won based on the candidate's ability to monetize his / her popularity. Candidates must appeal to a wide base of supporters rather than a smaller number of wealthier donors. The larger the pool of donors, the more flexible / vague a candidate has to be in order to capture donations.

Many citizens are pleased that wealthy donors are subordinated to the masses of small donors and I won't argue that there is some value to this. However, it would be foolish to ignore the fact the existing rules have created new realities / problems. Longer election cycles - necessary in order to reach large numbers of small donors - along with the voter fatigue it brings. We also see pandering to populist movements and well organized sub-groups such as conservative religious groups, the environmentalists, the NRA, the unions, etc. Politicians must constantly raise money for the next election and as such, they are always acting with a time horizon of a few years regardless of whether they face problems that demand a longer time-horizon for a solution. It is only the rare politician that can afford to / has the courage to take the long view. As a result we face an $11 trillion dollar federal debt currently and by some estimates the real national debt is really $56 trillion based on current commitments less expected revenue In addition many states and local governments face deficits (Illinois' is approximately $11 billion and Chicago's is in the vicinity of $500 million). Politicians literally can't help themselves. In order to maintain their jobs, they have to appeal to voters. This is done by buying votes with the latest spending plan to meet the need of all the constituent groups.

While the "old" days of wealthy donors propping up candidates had serious limitations, the solutions to these problems - limits on campaign donations is limited also and rooted in the technological era of the 70s with only moderate adjustments for inflation and tinkering with rules and regulations. We need a complete, modern review of whether campaign donations are working and if so, at what cost. I would contend they aren't working and that modern technology (databases and the Internet) make the better solution to be instant / near instant public disclosure of all contributions. This transparency would be sufficient for all interested parties to be made aware of conflicts / potential conflicts of interest. I would place no limit and simply let the light of day serve to inform voters.

In court, there is a notion that the "trier of fact" either the judge or a jury, should be afforded the opportunity to hear all relevant evidence and make up his / her / their mind about the merits of the evidence. In the realm of campaign contributions, I'm in favor of letting the voters consider the influence of donations and judge accordingly for whom they should vote. Each candidate's opponents and the press (old and new media) will play the role of disclosing potential conflicts so there's no need to worry that the information will never see the light of day.

Put together, the dual influences of massive modern governments with its incentives to influence the process, coupled with campaign contribution limits, have created our modern political system. You can love it or hate it but if you're going to talk about how to fix it, I hope at least you'll consider alternative root causes and solutions.


Pulverized Pillars

By Shawn Healy
I have suggested in a series of previous posts that the gradual extinction of print media poses perils for our democracy, and two Princeton researchers found preliminary evidence in support of this contention, methodological concerns aside. Slate's Jack Shafer slays this "myth" in a March 27 column titled "Democracy's Cheat Sheet?"

He begins by brushing aside a recent proposal to turn newspapers into nonprofit organizations, pointing to the fact that they would thereafter be forbidden from making political endorsements.

Shafer references the Princeton study and acknowledges a legion of scholars and industry insiders lament the collapse of the age-old economic model for print media, but quickly turns these arguments on their head. He argues that our nation survived its first century without anything resembling the current objective, professional journalism that has prevailed since 1900. Early newspapers were organs of political parties, and freedom of the press, Shafer implies, was cast as a means of protecting these forums.

His most damning statement reads, "I can imagine citizens acquiring sufficient information to vote or poke their legislators with pitchforks even if all the newspapers in the country fell into a bottomless recycling bin tomorrow."

He concludes, "All this lovey-dovey about how essential newspapers are to civic life and the political process makes me nostalgic for the days, not all that long ago, when everybody hated them."

Shafer's piece is valuable in that it offers a divergent viewpoint from someone within the industry, be it an organization that exists only in cyberspace. However, at the risk of redundancy, I feel compelled to refute his thesis.

Newspapers and other members of the so-called "mainstream media" offer a single place where Americans of all ideological, gender, racial, ethnic, and economic stripes can gather a common set of information that binds us together in a shared sense of what is transpiring locally, in Washington, and across the globe. The blogosphere and other "new media" alternatives, Slate included, offer an ideological taint that most often attract audiences who want their preconceptions confirmed. The rampant polarization that cripples our politics will be further escalated within the vaccum of vanquished newspapers.

Beyond shared information, newspapers partake in the leather to the ground reporting that uncovers corruption and other forms of political malfeasance that undermine the public trust. This is both time-consuming and expensive, both reasons the practice is in the process of being scaled back or nixed altogether. If the watchdogs are put to sleep, who will guard the proverbial cookie jar?

Should Shafer hold up the blogosphere as the solution, I respond with the question of why this domain most often follows, rather than leads, our national discourse? It is well-known that television and radio outlets read the morning paper and report out the stories embedded within. In the wake of newspapers, expect them to search for "low hanging fruit" that borders on infotainment rather than the hard-hitting exposes their print peers currently enable.

To borrow from the title of Neil Postman's still-relevant tome, we are Amusing Ourselves to Death as the vital pillars of our democracy are pulverized before our unconcerned eyes.


Bleeding at Both Ends

By Shawn Healy
Who is to blame for the imminent death of print media? According to the April issue of the American Journalism Review, the finger is pointed squarely at the Associated Press (AP). Paul Farhi, in an article titled "A Costly Mistake?," looks back at the decision the AP made a decade ago to sell its content to AOL and other internet providers for online distribution of content.

From the beginning, the AP was the primary provider of news for CompuServe, Prodigy, and Excite, and migrated to Yahoo, MSN, and the Huffington Post as the latter sites assumed the high traffic mantle. Most recently, news aggregating giant Google has gone so far as to integrate AP stories into its own template rather than linking to other sources.

While the AP has benefited from this digital explosion, the news organizations that have owned the nonprofit cooperative since 1846 have floundered, forced to compete directly with news aggregating portals powered by their own work.

Certainly, the AP is not solely to blame, as nearly all news organizations offered their content free of charge on their own web sites. This has bred an assumption shared among readers that "If you won't offer it to me for free, another site surely will."

Instead of boosting the prominence of its members' web sites from the outset, the AP orchestrated a coup de grace. In the aftermath, newspapers are ending their affiliation with the AP out of both disgust and a feeling that the content it provides for syndication is overly ubiquitous.

The AP and its member organizations essentially made news into a commodity, sacrificing pricing power, and leader to reader migration to the web without proportionate advertising revenues to finance the high costs of original reporting.

Farhi writes, "In a sense, the AP is now suffering from the business equivalent of an autoimmune disease, when the body turns on itself. The AP has been strengthened by customers from outside the newspaper circle. But those new customers have helped foster a competitive climate that has weakened the health of newspapers, which could threaten the newsgathering ecosystem that the AP brought into being 163 years ago."

The tourniquet to stop this proverbial bleeding is elusive, but may emerge from the very organization that punctured the skin. The AP is in the process of exploring a "cooperative passport program" where readers would pay a single price for universal access to online news content. My fear is that this would lead to further abandonment of news consumption altogether, the other piece of the multivariate equation that plagues newspapers.

Their salvation is not a predestined outcome, and the AP is now pursuing other defensive measures, including filing suit against aggregators who profit from the free dissemination of their content while hiding behind the "fair use" fortress.

Both paths may neutralize the most promising aspect of online news, namely its viral nature. Many of us now consume news through RSS feeds, links on social networking sites, or simple email forwards, abandoning the home page of news sites altogether. By tangling the web instead of enabling its infinite expansion, the AP and its constituent organizations may induce the premature death of an industry now wobbling uncontrollably through the web.


Transformative Times

By Shawn Healy
Is Barack Obama a transformative president? It is far too early to arrive at such lofty conclusions a mere 77 days into his presidency, but we may place forward the parameters by which we would answer the question. Two University of Wisconsin political science professors, Ken Mayer and David Canon, took a preliminary stab at this much debated subject during a breakfast program at the Mid-America Club in Chicago last Friday.

According to Mayer, a transformative presidency is marked by six qualifications:
1. Partisan realignment.
2. New techniques of public mobilization.
3. Altered foundations of political legitimacy.
4. Changed expectations of presidential behavior.
5. Major and enduring policy change.
6. Often (not always) a crisis.

Simply stated, "has the president changed the laws of political behavior?"

Mayer placed forth evidence in favor and against the case of Obama as a transformational president. On the plus side, Obama is:
1. Pushing the most ambitious domestic policy agenda since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and perhaps even Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.
2. Changing the scope of federal intervention into the economy, specifically, assuming an equity stake in private corporations.
3. Using new mobilization strategies, namely email, blogs, Twitter, and other forms of social networking sites.
4. Associated with high (perhaps excessive) expectations.

Taken together, Obama has the ambitions of a transformative president, but the verdict is not solely up to him.

The evidence against Obama as a sea change includes:
1. Modest electoral results. While FDR won 42 of 48 states in 1932 and 58% of the popular vote, Obama won only 22 of 50 and 53%.
2. No support for claims on partisan realignment or "third way" legislative coalitions as fierce polarization has resumed as scheduled.
3. To the surprise of many, early indications suggest that Obama is pursuing foreign policy objectives similar to his predecessor, George W. Bush.
4. Public opinion of Obama has returned to "normal," pre-inaugural levels. This is illustrated by favorability/ unfavorability rating aggregations posted on

Moving forward, Obama's ambitions place him at great risk of perceived policy failures. He has "gone public" in unprecedented fashion, which may have the effect of solidifying opposition to his policies and shedding additional light on his failures. He must also manage expectations, and account for the fact that he will eventually assume ownership of ongoing problems, unable to deflect them to Bush and others.

Canon presented a more optimistic take on Obama's transformative qualities, pointing to his grip on younger voters, his undeniable ability to transcend racial politics, his ambitious policy agenda, and an opportunity to usher in a "new kind of politics," acknowledging that the latter has yet to materialize.

Canon cautioned us that historical perspective is important here; this is not 1933 and the depths of the Great Depression. The nature of our economic problems are decidedly different, and unlike their predecessors of the 1930's, the Republican Party is actually offering policy alternatives this time around. FDR was also in a much stronger political position with Congress. He enjoyed Democratic majorities of 313-117 in the House and 59-36 in the Senate, while Obama comes in at 254-178 and 57-41 (including Franken).

Also different is the fact that FDR received strong Republican support for his agenda, while Obama's early returns with the GOP has been almost universal opposition. While this is that largest Democratic majority in Congress since 1993, Obama must contend with the fiscally conservative "Blue Dog Democrats" who hold the balance of power in the House.

As the minority party, Republicans can pursue one of two courses: bipartisanship or offer an uncompromising alternative policy vision. They have chosen the latter, pushing the politics of confrontation as polarization continues to reign, making it much more difficult for Obama to be transformative. Few substantive roll call votes attract more than 5% of the Republican vote. This compares to 35-40% in the 1930's, and 40-45% in the 1960's.

Simply stated, moderates have disappeared in both parties, leaving polarization in their wake. As a result, it is now much more difficult to build bipartisan coalitions.

In sum, Canon and Mayer provided for an illuminating discussion of the Obama presidency not yet three months into his first term. The Freedom Museum promises more of the same on April 30 at the DuSable Museum of African American History from 6-7:30pm, in a program titled "First 100 Days of the Obama Presidency." Admission is free, but please click here to register in advance. Journalist Deborah Douglas will moderate a distinguished panel that includes: author Richard Thompson Ford, Lake Forest College professors Carrie Nordlund and Siobhan Moroney, and yours truly, Freedom Museum Managing Director and Resident Scholar Shawn Healy.

Hope to see you there!


Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at