Roundtable: NOLA Rebuilding, Gay Blood Donors

Topics: Mayor Ray Nagin's plan for rebuilding New Orleans; President Bush's support of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his Iraq War strategy; a New York Times ad paid for by the Sudanese government; and the American Red Cross stance on blood donations from men who have sex with other men. Guests: ER Shipp, journalism professor at Hofstra University; Glenn Loury, economics professor at Brown University; and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. On today's roundtable, more from President Bush defining his position on terror, and New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin wants people to rebuild at their own risk.

Joining us today to discuss these topics and more, Glen Loury, professor of economics at Brown University. He's at member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island. And from our New York bureau, ER Shipp, professor of journalism at Hofstra University, and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

Welcome, and let's start in Louisiana. Mayor Ray Nagin presented his plan for resurrecting New Orleans. He said residents should be allowed to rebuild anywhere as long as they understand they're doing it at their own risk. He said the city will continue issuing building permits, but warned that low-lying neighborhoods, like New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward, could flood again.

Now, this is in response to an unpopular plan that called for turning low-laying areas into parks or wetlands. But E.R., will this hurt the rebuilding if only some people build in these heavily damaged areas?

Professor E.R. SHIPP (Professor of Journalism, Hofstra University): It has the potential for doing that, sure. There's also the question of what kind of infrastructure there would be in some of these neighborhoods that are more likely to suffer from hurricanes. The season starts pretty soon, by the way. I think the mayor is being a bit irresponsible. It may sound politically correct to tell everybody they can come back and build wherever they want to, but this is an opportunity for New Orleans to rethink the environmental soundness of its plans, to rethink how it wants to reshape the city.

CHIDEYA: Glen, you are a professor of economics, an economist. I recently went back to New Orleans and there's so many different competing economic interests. There's homeowners, renters, real estate speculators, federal, state, and local government.

Mr. GLEN LOURY (Professor of Economics, Brown University): Right.

CHIDEYA: How do those economic interests get reconciled? And how should they be reconciled when it comes to rebuilding?

Mr. LOURY: Well, that is the question. I think the mayor is being a bit, sort of, lacking in leadership in not recognizing the need to coordinate the actions of all the parties involved here. And to ensure that people, who don't have otherwise a stake at the table, get represented. The people who were living in rental apartments, for example, who were flooded out, don't have any way really to get back in.

And in general, these low-income areas, which might not be viable environmentally, nevertheless housed an important part of the city's population and culture. And a way needs to be found to give those people a seat at the table so that they can participate in the reconstruction of New Orleans.

CHIDEYA: Michael, how do you give people a seat at the table?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Well, you stop with the publicity gimmicks and you stop with the nonsense. You know, parts of New Orleans are like a ghost town. Are the levees fixed yet? I want to know. What does it mean to rebuild at your own risk? This is getting to be like the situation at Ground Zero in New York City. After four years, in New York City, there's still a big hole in the ground and it's become a tourist attraction.

The ghost town in New Orleans is a tourist attraction. Katrina was a natural disaster, from which we should have learned lessons, and as E.R. suggested, it was an opportunity for imagination, an architectural plan, how to build, where to build, how high to build, the cost of building? What about a new town concept? There is no imagination here. There is no genius here. All there are seems to be is public hearings where there are constant charges of racism. There's a failure of the human intellect there and political, bold leadership.

CHIDEYA: Let me move you, Michael, to another topic. In a press conference yesterday, President George Bush said that the decision about when to withdraw all the U.S. troops from Iraq will be made by future leaders, suggesting that U.S. troops could stay in Iraq at least through 2008. Now, the President also defended Donald Rumsfeld.

President GEORGE BUSH: I think he's done a fine job of not only conducting two battles, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also transforming our military, which has been a very difficult job inside the Pentagon. Listen, every war plan looks good on paper until you meet the enemy. Not just the war plan we execute in Iraq, but the war plans that have been executed throughout the history of warfare. In other words, the enemy changes tactics, and we've got to change tactics, too. And no question that we've had to adjust our tactics on the ground and perhaps the clearest example is in the training of Iraqi security forces.

CHIDEYA: Now, Senator Dianne Feinstein is calling for Rumsfeld to resign. Michael, is there real pressure behind Rumsfeld to get out of office?

Mr. MEYERS: No. The only pressure for Rumsfeld to get out would have to come from the president, and the president yesterday made a big concession and admission. And that is that we are going to be in Iraq even when he's not president, '08. Look, they might as well stick a fork in his presidency. This guy is done, and so there's no impetus for Rumsfeld to get out. The problem here is that speech, after speech, after speech, after speech, they are not working.

They have Orwellian properties to them, fear, war is peace, victory over terrorism, sectarian violence. We have fake news in Iraq paid for by the U.S. government. After three years of war, we have an Iraqi parliament that cannot but for 30 minutes, and adjourns. What kind of situation is this? This is a disaster. Get out!

Prof. SHIPP: Yes, but the president isn't going to get out, so we've got to figure out some kind of options. He said in that news conference that if he didn't believe in the war and didn't believe it could be won, he wouldn't have put those kids over there, meaning the soldiers, many of whom are not kids, by the way, particularly with the experience they've had. So he's not going to get out. I don't know that Congress has the will to insist upon anything.

Mr. MEYERS: They don't.

Prof. SHIPP: So we're stuck there. We've been there three years, in what was supposed to be a relatively short war. More than 2,300 young people have died and countless thousands more wounded. So we are…

CHIDEYA: Sorry. E.R., you know, it strikes me that although we are certainly embroiled in this war, it's not the kind of war that some people think about every day. People with families in the military, yes, and people who are looking at policy, yes, but it's not as if every day we're asked to get up and look at car bombs or anything like that. So is that part of the issue here, that we just don't feel it in a visceral way at home?

Prof. SHIPP: Sure, but the president took it in a different direction. He said that we're seeing too much of the negative side of the war and not enough of what's going on, the rebuilding of infrastructure, the rebuilding of schools, and all of that. So I notice today, that on television networks, correspondents were going out of their way to try to show how they're trying to do those positive stories, but that is dangerous there.

So it's dangerous for the troops. It's dangerous for the press corps. They can help to shape the image, but the President would rather blame the media for undermining the war effort.

CHIDEYA: Glen, can you give us some kind of an overview of what a war might cost in economic terms and also political terms if it extends, say, through the 2008 presidency, whoever becomes president in 2008, if it goes on until 2012, what will this do to our country?

Mr. LOURY: Well, you know, I think Michael Meyers is right. This is a failed policy. We're spending $150 billion dollars a year. We have squandered our good offices with governments around the world. We've inflamed the enemy, as the president is fond of referring to this discontent in the Islamic world. This has been a failed policy.

And E.R. is right. The president is sticking with it. He is betting the farm on this failed policy and I think the responsibility now falls to the American people who get to go to the polls in November to express ourselves, the scales having finally fallen from our eyes, in opposition to this government and the party that is running it. This is a failed policy, no good for the American people, and we need to say so in no uncertain terms at the polls this November.

CHIDEYA: Michael, however, although Democrats have been vociferous in criticizing President Bush, a lot of the Democrats gave him the power to proceed with this war. And some Americans, according to polls, are not necessarily that enthusiastic about a Democratic opposition in Congress, so it's unclear which way that will go. Do you think the Democrats are going to gain enough ground to become a true opposition party in the 2006 elections?

Mr. MEYERS: No. You used the word vociferous. I don't think the Democrat Party has been vociferous at all. Maybe one person in the Democrat Party, their so-called leader, chairman, Dr. Howard Dean has been vociferous, but he's the only one. The Democrats beat a quick path away from everything he says.

No, this Democratic, pusillanimous party is--they are so ridiculous. They are so weak. They are so timid. They are so outrageously un-opposite, un-opposite the GOP, that it's embarrassing for them, and it's embarrassing for anybody who would be motivated to go to the polls.

So no, this is not just President Bush's war. This is a Congressional war. It's the Congress that continues to fund this war. It's the Congress that continues to have deficit spending, and it's the Congress that continues to empower the president through overwhelming numbers of votes for the USA Patriot Act; and this so-called war on terrorism, this phony war on terrorism. It is Orwellian. I'm sick of it.

CHIDEYA: All right, well on that note, I'm going to move ahead to another conflict in the Sudan. Darfur, Sudan, has been called a place of genocide, but the New York Times ran an eight-page advertising supplement paid for by the Sudanese government claiming the country has, “peaceful, prosperous and democratic future.” Now, human rights activists are seething and the Sudanese government probably paid close to a million dollars for these ads, should The New York Times, E.R., face any consequences?

Prof. SHIPP: Well, that's for its readers and other advertisers to say, I suppose, but The Times is approaching this as strictly a business decision. Somehow, the First Amendment is involved and all of that, but it really does, to borrow Michael's words that he's used a couple of times now, Orwellian, to have the government in Sudan trying to convince the world that it is now a democratic society that is safe for all of its inhabitants. We know that the opposite is very true.

CHIDEYA: And Glenn, you know, one of the columnists at the New York Times has just been absolutely out there, Nicholas Kristof…

Mr. LOURY: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: …criticizing the Sudanese government, so it puts The Times in an especially strange light because one of their editorial employees has been so far out there. You know, can you really separate business and the editorial side when it's a situation this grave?

Mr. LOURY: Well, I think you should.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LOURY: I mean, I think the free speech argument here is bogus. I mean, the spokesman for the Times is quoted in the newspaper as saying, in accepting this advertisement we do not endorse the politics, trade practices or actions of the country or the character of its leaders. Perhaps, but you do further their ends. Can they not know that? It's impossible that they cannot know that.

Ms. SHIPP: And I'm sure that there are other instances where The New York Times and other newspapers have rejected certain advertising supplements, such as this particular one from the Sudanese government. So at some level, someone has to exercise some moral authority; but the rationale this time around is that it was more or less a business decision.

CHIDEYA: Michael, another topic.

Mr. MYERS: Mm hmmm.

CHIDEYA: The American Red Cross has supported a lifetime ban on blood donations by men who have sex with men. Now, the organization is reconsidering its position, the Red Cross is prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to do a risk assessment that could reverse a 16-year-old ban excluding any man who has had gay sex since 1977 from ever donating blood. So that means that if you've had gay sex since 1977 you can't give yesterday, today, tomorrow, next week, whenever.

Is this an issue of rectifying undue discrimination or should the ban stay in place, Michael?

Mr. MYERS: This policy is an ignorant as the advertisement for the Sudanese in The New York Times. Look, this is reminiscent of the bias against Haitians in the 80s when they excluded Haitians from giving blood. The safety of the blood supply cannot be based on donors' answers to questions, by the way, about their sexual partners. Beyond that, you cannot exclude the entire segment of the population based on some stereotype or prejudice.

There is people on the down low, there is heterosexuals who are at risk, you get AIDS through unprotected vaginal and anal sex and through the use of (unintelligible) and dirty needles and so the transmission of AIDS is clear. Anybody can be at risk, so the point for me is, is there a reliable blood test? And unless there are reliable blood tests, everybody is at risk. But you cannot single out certain parts of the population based on their sexual practices and what they say their sexual practices are. It's just an ignorant policy and the FDA ought to know better, the courts ought to know better and all the leadership should be revamped and rehauled and just eliminate all that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: E.R., what do you think?

Ms. SHIPP: Well, this is one of those vestiges of the hysteria that ran through the country quite rampantly in the 80s when AIDS was just being “discovered.” People feared that you could get AIDS by touching someone with AIDS, by shaking a hand, by sharing a dish, all of those kinds of things.

The blood situation goes back to that crazy period. We've come a long way, so it's about time that we address the exclusion of people as a group. And I think there's a practical side; the blood banks aren't' getting a sufficient supply of blood if they keep excluding entire groups and we'll have a hurricane season and we'll need blood because of the war effort. So, I think this has a practical side also.

CHIDEYA: Certainly we are in a blood crunch. You mentioned the war, hurricane season; it's a time when there is a great need. Glenn, what should be done, not only to deal with the question of who should be allowed to donate, but how do you generate donations in a time of need like this?

Mr. LOURY: Yeah, well, I think we have a case of profiling here of, you know, homosexual profiling and it's subject to all the criticism that you would make of racial profiling or anything else. I think Michael hit on the key point though, you need to have reliable ways of testing the blood supply, you can't be basing the security of the blood supply on people's answers to these kinds of questions. So I think that's the key thing.

CHIEDYA: So we've talking with Glen Loury who's a professor of economics at Brown University at member station WRNI in Providence, Rhode Island, and also with contributors in our New York bureau: E.R. Shipp professor of journalism at Hofstra University and Michael Myers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. MYERS: Thank you.

Ms. SHIPP: Thank you.

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CHIDEYA: Next on NEWS AND NOTES the man behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was his legal council, speech writer and right-hand man in the fight for civil rights. We'll hear from Clarence B. Jones.

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CHIDEYA: You're listening to NEWS AND NOTES from NPR News.

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