Current Comment

A Halting Start

If the Secretary of States closing talk was any measure, last weeks conference in Annapolis, Md., got the Middle East peace process off to a halting start. Condoleezza Rice, usually full-voiced and self-assured, read her remarks in a weak and uncertain manner, like a rank amateur. Her obvious lack of confidence in her own message was a metaphor for the event. Apart from gathering representatives of 49 nations and international organizations, the conference achieved little more than setting a schedule for Israeli and Palestinian officials to meet regularly for negotiations over the next year. No new ideas were advanced, no schema for negotiation ratified, no pressure applied. Popular opposition to the talks was manifest on the streets of Jerusalem, Nablus and Gaza. If there is to be a new Palestinian state by 2009, then the major issues need to be worked out in no more than six months, so there will be time to bring the uncertain populations and fractious political coalitions on board and to plan for implementing the accord. The timing is critical. In particular, achieving peace requires that both sides find a new way to engage Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza and a majority in the Palestinian legislature. Only determination by the United States to grasp the nettles represented by Hamas will make this happen. But President Bushs parting remarks to the Israeli and Palestinian leaders augured no intense involvement on his part: I wish you all the best.

Demolitions in New Orleans

The scheduled mid-December demolition of 3,000 public housing units in New Orleans in the wake of the hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 has prompted over 40 human rights organizations to decry a move they see as an injustice to low-income residents. In a letter to federal officials, including Alfonso Jackson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, they argue that the pending demolitions fail to take into account findings that the units are largely sound. Nevertheless, without the advance knowledge or consent of residents, contractors have already begun emptying apartments and throwing out personal documents like Social Security cards. There is no clarity as to whether already displaced persons will be granted adequate alternative housing. The letter also notes that an independent survey assessing the number of displaced residents who wish to return to the city is not yet complete.


New Orleans is not alone in experiencing the demolition of large segments of its public housing. In Chicago, HUD destroyed more public housing units than it replaced. Thirteen thousand demolitions there have forced 20,000 people from their homes, and many clients are now left waiting for new quarters. Actions like those pending in New Orleans and tear-downs that have already occurred in Chicago and elsewhere exacerbate the nations lack of affordable housing and threaten an increase in homelessness for financially vulnerable people. Underscoring the sense of crisis, Catherine Albisa, executive director of the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, has said of New Orleans: Every moment we fail to act is another unit demolished, another grandmother evicted, or another child who finds him or herself doing homework in a shelter.

Out Tancredo-ing Tancredo

Civility wilted in the heat of the CNN/YouTube debate on Nov. 28, in which several of the Republican presidential candidates, few of them being entirely accurate or fair, accused the others of being soft on illegal immigrants. The invective even escalated to the point where Representative Tom Tancredo, whose own virulent opposition to illegal immigration sometimes looks like irrational xenophobia, declared that the candidates were trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo.

The Democrats, of course, have had their own moments of incivility, sometimes driven by the seemingly irresistible need in American politics to have scapegoats. But illegal immigration is a particular preoccupation of Republicans, so most of the Republican contenders include in their stump speeches vigorous denunciations of so-called illegalsa bit of rhetorical red meat for the caucusing lions. Some candidates, however, refuse to pay the butchers bill. Senator John McCain told the crowd that he was saddened by the tone of the debate and that Americans should recognize these are Gods children as well and they need some protections under the law and they need some of our love and compassion.

Mr. McCain is right, and his lackluster standing in the polls is likely the price he is paying for it. Yet immigration is intensifying into one of the nations most pressing public policy problems and is of great concern to the independent voters who may make the difference in this election. As a result, the risk of demagoguery is high. Politics is nastiest when race or class is involved and this issue involves both. Politicians of both parties should be mindful of Senator McCains admonition and watch their rhetoric.

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