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2008-12-23

25 Years of the Harper’s Index

Guests

Rick MacArthur, Publisher and president of Harper’s Magazine. His latest book is called You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.

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Harper’s Magazine is marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of its popular monthly feature, the Harper’s Index. The Index reports sometimes funny, often sobering political realities through statistics and unusual figures. Turn to this month’s edition, and you’ll find out things like how much the Bush campaign paid Enron and Halliburton for use of corporate jets during the 2000 recount, or the estimated total calories members of Congress burned giving President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union standing ovations. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Harper’s Magazine is marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of its popular monthly feature, the Harper’s Index. The Index reports sometimes funny, often sobering, political realities through statistics and unusual figures.

Turn to this month’s edition, and you’ll find out things like how much the Bush campaign paid Enron and Halliburton for use of corporate jets during the 2000 recount, or the estimated total calories members of Congress burned giving President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union standing ovations. You can find the answers to these and many more in the special three-page, twenty-fifth anniversary Harper’s Index in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine.

I’m joined right now by Harper’s Magazine publisher Rick MacArthur. Welcome to Democracy Now!

RICK MacARTHUR: Delighted to be here, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what are some your favorites in the Harper’s Index, a retrospective of the Bush era?

RICK MacARTHUR: Well, some of my favorites are funny, and some are amazing, and some are depressing. I mean, the ones that really caught my attention this month — and this is extra long. Normally we just have one page, forty statistics. This time it’s expanded, because of eight years of Bush requires a little bit more research. But minimum number of times that Frederick Douglass was beaten in what is now Donald Rumsfeld’s vacation home: twenty-five. Now, that’s in the realm of tell me something I didn’t know. This I did not know.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, wait one second. I just want to explain, since I have visited this place in St. Michael’s, for people to understand that Frederick Douglass, who was enslaved as a teenager, given over to a slave breaker named Edward Covey, his home was called Mount Misery.

RICK MacARTHUR: OK.

AMY GOODMAN: And he was beaten there. They tried to break Frederick Douglass there. That property today, Mount Misery, is owned by none other than the former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. And I visited. I went down Mount Misery Road. And there on the end, there’s the Secret Service. This was when he was Secretary of Defense. Got out — I got out with my video camera. I thought, could Donald Rumsfeld not know this history? And there was a stake in the ground, and it said "Mount Misery." That’s where Frederick Douglass was tortured.

RICK MacARTHUR: And has anyone asked Donald Rumsfeld if he knows the significance? Presumably he knows it now, if he didn’t when he bought it. Yeah, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I went to the local black church, and I asked some of the folks who were in the sanctuary before mass what they thought of Donald Rumsfeld owning that property where Frederick Douglass was tortured. And they said — one woman said to me, "I can’t comment right now. I’m in church."

Keep going.

RICK MacARTHUR: But this is the thing about the Harper’s Index, is that the numbers pose questions. That’s the whole point. This is a continuing conversation. So you can think about this, and then you read the statistics that come after the Frederick Douglass number. Estimated number of juveniles whom the United States has detained as enemy combatants since 2002: 2,500. Minimum number of detainees who were tortured to death in US Custody: eight. Minimum number of extraordinary renditions that the United States has made since 2006: 200. And then, date on which USA Today added Guantanamo to its weather map: January 3, 2005. Now, we try to liven it up with numbers like the weather map number. But the point of this, obviously, is to show the continuity in American history, Frederick Douglass being beaten, tortured before the Civil War and detainees, “foreign fighters,” quote/unquote, being tortured in recent times, in modern times. Things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to imagine.

AMY GOODMAN: Days after the US invaded Iraq that Sony trademarked “shock and awe” for video games —-

RICK MacARTHUR: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —- one. Percentage of the amendments in the Bill of Rights that are violated by the USA PATRIOT Act, according to the ACLU: fifty.

RICK MacARTHUR: Right, right. And the signing statement. Did we see this — I’ve lost track of the signing statement. The number of signing statements that Bush has signed which are in contravention of the laws that just got signed by Bush. In other words, this is something that still hasn’t really been adequately debated. The point of the signing statements is to say I don’t feel I am obliged to enforce this law.

AMY GOODMAN: So he signs the law. Then he quietly signs the signing statement.

RICK MacARTHUR: Right, writes the signing statement: this is the reason I don’t believe I have to enforce this law. On the more prosaic, money side of the ledger, we have numbers like — this is again during the Bush era — total value of US government contracts in 2000 that were awarded without competitive bidding: $73 billion. Total in 2007: $146 billion. I mean, this is extraordinary. When you talk about the abuse of power by the Bush administration or by Bush himself, you look at that number and you get a sense of where we are as a country.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you do the research for the Index? Tell us the history. How did it start twenty-five years ago?

RICK MacARTHUR: Well, Lewis Lapham, when he was cooking up this idea for the new format — we still call this the new format of Harper’s Magazine twenty-five years later, because it’s 158 years old. The magazine is 158 years old. And he said, so often he read a story in the New York Times or the Washington Post, and there was really just — the only interesting thing in the story was one or two numbers. Now, if you could just put those numbers on a page and put them next to another number that amplified the first number, you have an idea of what we were driving at.

And what we found out very quickly in the early days of researching the Index was that a lot of numbers in the newspaper are false or inaccurate. But they do lead you to other numbers that are accurate. And one of the things we’re very proud of is that we fact-check the Index very, very thoroughly.

So what happens is people see a number or they look for a number, they put it in the computer, and the number frequently sits there for a month or two waiting for a partner. Sometimes the number stands by itself. It’s just in and of itself so interesting. It goes right into next year’s index. I mean, I just submitted one about tree stealing in upstate New York, in the Adirondacks, which I think is emblematic of what’s going to become a depression. People are stealing lumber out of the Adirondacks, because they’re desperate for money. And there’s going to have to be new enforcement for tree stealing.

AMY GOODMAN: Number of incidents of torture on prime-time TV networks, TV shows from 2002 to 2007: 897.

RICK MacARTHUR: But the one that goes with it — it’s gone up tremendously, because there was one — the one above it, if you can find it, is lower. But the point is, is that torture has become mainstream. It’s become a mainstream cultural item in America.

AMY GOODMAN: Number in the previous seven years: 110.

RICK MacARTHUR: 110. So there’s been a tremendous dramatic increase in the number of torture scenarios in mainstream entertainment, because people are getting used to the idea. It’s become part of the culture. It’s not so shocking to people anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: So now you have a book, The Harper’s Index Book (Volume 3), edited by Charis Conn and Lewis Lapham, introduction by George Plimpton.

RICK MacARTHUR: Right. Well, that’s —-

AMY GOODMAN: That was the beginning, a while ago.

RICK MacARTHUR: That was a little bit out -— it was a few years ago. But the thing stays current and stays actual and exciting, because of the — go ahead, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Minimum number of pheasant hunts Dick Cheney has gone on since he shot a hunting companion in 2006: five.

RICK MacARTHUR: Five, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Days after Hurricane Katrina hit that Cheney’s office ordered an electric company to restore power to two oil pipelines: one. Days after the hurricane that the White House authorized sending federal troops into New Orleans: four. Portion of the $3.3 billion in federal Hurricane Katrina relief spent by Mississippi that has benefited poor residents: a quarter.

RICK MacARTHUR: Right. And one thing you’ll notice is the difference between the Harper’s Index in the ’80s and today is that it’s much more ambitious.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

RICK MacARTHUR: Budget — in October ’85, we had numbers like budget per episode of Miami Vice: $1,500,000. Under that, budget of the Miami Vice squad in 1984: $1,161,741. One episode of Miami Vice cost more to produce than the entire annual budget of the real Miami Vice squad. But that reflected a kind of a sillier time. And now it’s become more serious in some ways.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick MacArthur, I want to thank you for being with us. Congratulations on twenty-five years of the Harper’s Index.

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