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Editor’s Note

by Hamilton Fish

Dec 28, 2023 | Opinion


We posted a flurry of notable stories this month, and I thought the holiday break would be a good time to give you a sense of why we chose some of the subjects we covered and provide more background on the remarkable writers who have contributed their thoughts and findings to these pages.

We’ve been publishing landmark articles in the Spectator on the politics, strategies, personalities and funding sources of the Far Right for a number of years, spearheaded by contributing editor Anne Nelson’s seminal work on the Council for National Policy (CNP). Early on, Anne identified the CNP as the hub of the radical conservative coalition that took over the Republican party and subsequently the Congress, and she wrote recently through this lens on the elevation of Christian Nationalist and longtime CNP protege Mike Johnson to the lofty perch of Speaker of the House.

And as a continuing measure of her influence on mainstream coverage of domestic politics, just in this month three national publications – The Atlantic, Salon (twice) and LGBTQNation – cited her reporting in the Spectator on the infrastructure of Far Right.

Our collaboration dates back to the late 1970s and 80s, when Anne contributed to The Nation magazine (where I was publisher), wrote for Maclean’s, the Canadian news magazine, and worked for Aryeh Neier (also a present day contributor to the Spectator) in the early days of Human Rights Watch. In those years she was one of a small group of courageous women journalists who highlighted the widespread human rights atrocities perpetrated by US-backed military regimes in Central and Latin America. Their reporting helped to reframe the Cold War narrative of that era and compel Congress to place guardrails on Reagan policies in the region.

This group included Cynthia Brown, who reported for us at The Nation on Chile, oversaw for many years the prodigious global publications program at Human Rights Watch, and served on the board of The Public Concern Foundation, home to The Washington Spectator, until her death in 2013; Susan Meiselas, the Magnum photographer who famously chronicled the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua; and Julia Preston, who also covered Nicaragua and El Salvador during those years for leading print outlets back home.

I remember the day in the mid-1980’s when Anne returned to New York from one of her reporting trips to El Salvador and sat in on a panel discussion on Central America with Craig Whitney, then foreign editor of The New York Times. She spoke movingly about her experience as a journalist in the region, where in place of the customary interviews with Embassy personnel and the Salvadorian military she had instead sought out the peasants and agricultural workers fighting in the insurgencies and living in villages in the interior with their families. These weren’t conflicts that pitted western democracies against Soviet aggression, as Reagan insisted, they were civil wars, pitting indigenous populations fighting for self-determination against dictatorships aligned with land owners. Listening to her vivid presentation, I remember thinking we were watching in real-time as The New York Times re-evaluated its coverage of the underlying motives behind US intervention in the hemispheric south.

Anne is from Oklahoma and has a special understanding of the powerful claim that Christian Nationalism exerts over bible belt communities, not just in her home state but across the country. She has written for us on the Far Right’s attack on school boards, and it was in her capacity this month as contributing editor to the Spectator that she recruited Josh Cowen to submit his authoritative article, “The Year in Review: Dark Money Vouchers are Having A Moment.”

As Cowen puts it, schools that accept vouchers are often “either pop-ups hoping to cash in on the new tax-payer funded subsidy, or financially distressed existing schools desperate for a bailout.” And worse, as voucher systems expand, “they cannibalize states’ ability to pay for their public education commitments.”

Vouchers do, however, benefit churches and church schools. “In new voucher states,” Cowen explains, “conservatives are openly advocating for churches to startup taxpayer-funded schools.” Vouchers become a key source of revenue for those churches, and many existing religious schools raise tuition almost immediately after vouchers pass.

Shifting gears, we selected two vignettes from Robert Alvarez’s memoir-in-progress that convey some of the drama involved in Bob’s lifelong advocacy on behalf of tougher public health and safety standards in the related fields of nuclear energy generation and weapons production.

Bob’s story is unusual: he led the life of a citizen activist who exposed the hazards of managing high concentrations of nuclear waste, and later as a senior appointee at the Department of Energy, he worked to prevent the department’s vast holdings of contaminated materials from entering the civilian metal supply. 

At a time when there is increasing speculation about the potential role of nuclear power in the green energy future, these pieces pull back the curtain on the under-scrutinized problems associated with disposal and storage of the contaminated by-products of the nuclear age.

Regular readers of the Spectator will recognize Steve Pressman’s byline from the dozens of thoughtful columns on economic issues he has contributed over the past five years. I first contacted Steve after I read one of his pieces in The Conversation, which describes itself as a nonprofit, independent news organization dedicated to unlocking the knowledge of experts for the public good. That description certainly fits Pressman. At the start, we agreed that his approach would be to explain economics to the uninitiated. There was intense curiosity among our readers and the wider public about economic policy and the impact of economic factors on our lives, but most economic texts were beyond the reach of the layperson.

Pressman has conducted an accessible clinic on topics that range from how the French social system does a better job looking out for families with children, the inequalities in Trump administration programs, the need to tax financial transactions, taxing the rich, the consequences of Republican tax cuts, and the Republican war on workers, to reforming corporate tax policy, killing off the debt ceiling and, in the current issue of the Spectator, how to deal in the long term with the student debt crisis. Readers can find these and the balance of Steve’s formidable body of Spectator articles by going to the toolbar on our home page at washingtonspectator.org, clicking on Q and entering “Pressman” in the query field.

We’ve posted a new follow-up piece by another regular contributor to our pages, the investigative reporter Barbara Koeppel, who has been writing for several years about civil commitment for the Spectator. These stories deal with one of the third rails in the American justice system, the warehousing of former sex offenders who have completed their prison sentences but are nevertheless permanently confined in jail-like facilities and prevented from re-entering society.

It was a tenet of the Open Society Foundations when I worked there that you could measure a society’s commitment to justice by the conditions on its margins. Surely, any social policy dealing with sex offenders would be a valid test of that premise.

In Barbara’s new piece, she exposes the failure on the part of both public and private facilities to provide adequate health care for detained former offenders, often with fatal consequences caused by incompetence or neglect.

Men who have been diagnosed with cancer and have extreme symptoms are required to wait six months or more for appointments with a doctor. Sick patients in extreme pain don’t get the meds they need, even when they have been prescribed.

In one facility, syringes that were used for vaccinations were re-used in a pain management program, and all the patients in the latter program contracted Hepatitis C from cross-contamination. In another, inmates who tested positive for Covid weren’t quarantined from those who tested negative, and Covid spread like wildfire.

Prisoners were required to fill out false time sheets so that contractors could pad their invoices. If they failed to comply, they were told they would lose their privileges and risk being returned to prison.

“Another inmate hurt his ankle and asked for an x-ray. The clinic finally arranged one four months later. The Moose Lake (a facility in Minnesota) nurse who read the results told him his ankle was sprained and gave him a brace. But as this made his pain worse, he sent a formal request to obtain his results—which showed his ankle was broken in three places. Surgery wasn’t approved, the bones healed badly, he’s in constant pain, and he walks with a limp.”

State bureaucracies and elected officials are under intense public pressure not to release these men into the community, and there are few advocates willing to devote uncompensated time on their behalf. There are 6,000 men in this country in the 20 states that have civil commitment programs. They live in the seams of jurisdictional limbo, waiting to die.

Mark Medish and Alex Rondos are new to our pages, and both have sterling pedigrees from years of service in government agencies and executive offices. They chose for their year-end analysis of scattered conflicts around the globe the ambitious task of constructing a coherent narrative that explains this particular moment in history.

The immediate symptom of the geopolitical malaise, they argue, “is irredentism.”

We are in a period, “which is fundamentally about strife from incomplete decolonization. The key players are former empires reluctant to admit that they are over and those who believe that the end of imperial control deprived them of a new national redemption.”

Russia, China, Azerbaijan, Venezuela, the Palestinians, Sudan, and Ethiopia, for example, are all involved in variants of the irredentist theme.

Acknowledging there is no magic wand, the authors invite a prescription: it falls to great powers like the United States, the UK, the European Union and regional powers of like mind who do not wish for chaos, to use their formidable collective diplomatic capacity to convene – not coerce – parties towards new regional regimes of territorial integrity and non-interference.

There will no doubt be critics and skeptics with contrasting views on this topic—all are invited to contribute their thoughts on this question to [email protected].

Finally, Robert Rudney reminds us of the anomaly that confronts residents of Washington, DC every day. “What do Canberra (Australia), Brasilia (Brazil), and Abuja (Nigeria) have in common with Washington, DC?” he asks. “Like Washington, they are all planned capitol cities. Like Washington, all three cities were the result of political compromises. Unlike Washington, their residents have the right to elect voting representatives in their national congresses.”

With thanks to our friends and supporters and best wishes for this holiday season, from all of us at The Washington Spectator.


Ham Fish


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