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January 09, 2012

Misleading arguments against same sex marriage

Most people have probably heard that Rick Santorum was given a hard time by a group of college students in New Hampshire because of his opposition to same sex marriage, which resulted in him being booed and jeered at the end. You can see the video at the bottom of this news story. What people may not have been noticed is that this was a group of college Republicans, which shows how the younger generation across the political spectrum views giving gays equal rights much more favorably than the old. Homophobia is dying, and dying quickly.

In responding to the question of why he opposed same sex marriage, Santorum exploited a debating trick in which one shifts the point of discussion ever so slightly away from something that is hard to defend against to something else that is easier to defend. The students were not prepared for this and though they sensed that they were getting a non sequitur, they could not quite put their finger on the flaw at that moment. This is not a good thing for Santorum because the students will figure out later what he did and why he was wrong and it will make them angry that he tried to snooker them. I think the jeers at the end were from those who already realized what he was doing but did not get the chance to make their case.

As a former debater, I have learned that there are quite a few tricks that you can use to stymie an opponent and seemingly win a point in the short term but you have to be aware that when people figure out later that they have been tricked, that will backfire on you. So, as a public service, here is some information to anyone to counter the kinds of phony arguments that Santorum made.

What happened during the exchange was this. When a student asked why he opposed same sex marriage, Santorum correctly replied that the burden of the argument is on those who advocate a change in existing law and pressed the student for a reason that made same sex marriage necessary. Put on the spot, the student said (at 2:30) that without it, gay people do not have the right to visit their partners in hospital. Santorum responded (again correctly) that gay people could sign a contract that gave their partners this particular right, so marriage was not necessary to achieve that particular goal.

But this misses the point. It is true that one can sign contracts that enable one's partner to have this or that specific right, but the fact is that when you get married you automatically get conferred on you a wide range of rights, only a few of which can be substituted contractually outside of marriage. If all the rights of marriage could be achieved by signing a single legal contract between two people, then the whole issue of same sex marriage would be moot since we would have the equivalent of civil unions and gay people could have such a legal ceremony and be done with it.

Santorum further said that if same sex marriage is allowed, then the rule that marriage is only between one man and one woman would no longer hold and one would have to allow polygamy as well. He wisely steered away from his earlier claim that allowing same sex marriage to be legal would mean that one would have to also allow marriage to animals and children. This association of homosexuality with bestiality and pedophilia was what resulted in his famous Google problem.

What Santorum was doing here was misleading the audience on the ways in which the rules for marriage can be expanded. In general, marriage has the following rules: (1) only human beings can get married; (2) the number of people who can be married is two; and (3) the two people must consist of one man and one woman. (There are other rules involving age, relationship, and so on that do not add anything to the point I am making here.) Hence when one broadens the definition of marriage, one can do it in at least three ways. One can expand it to include other species, one can increase the number of people involved, one can make more flexible the genders of the people involved, or some combination of all three. What should be obvious is that there is no logical reason why any one option would inevitably lead to any other. What supporters of same sex marriage are saying is that they have no problem with restricting marriage to human beings or that the number be two. It is that they want to relax only rule #3 and allow two people of any gender (male, female, transgender) to marry. The reason for urging this change is so that then there will be equality under the law and that people's rights are not restricted because of their gender or sexual orientation. This is a reasonable, understandable, and to my mind compelling, argument.

So what about relaxing rule #2 and allowing polygamy or rule #1 and allowing bestiality? At present there is no significant constituency pressing for either and so they are moot and bringing them into this discussion is purely a diversionary tactic. It may happen that the day will come when (say) some Mormons and Muslims lead a campaign for relaxing rule #2 and that debate will come to the forefront. I for one would have no fundamental problem with the number of people who are allowed to marry being increased to three or four or to whatever number society deems most suitable. But for the same reasons as above, I would have a problem if they increased it to three and restricted it to (say) just one man and two women. If we are going to increase the number to three human beings then, invoking the same principle of equality, the persons that comprise those three should not be restricted by gender. You should also allow one woman and two men, or three men, or three women, or one woman and one man and one transgender, and so on.

What Santorum was doing was conflating something that is arbitrary (the number of people who can be married) with something that involves a fundamental principle of justice (equal treatment under the law). As an analogy, if one should be needed, it is like the speed limit on a road. People accept whatever number is posted. People also accept speed limit changes from 55 mph to 60 mph or 65 mph as involving merely numbers that are determined based on a variety of prosaic reasons. There is no fundamental principle involved. But everyone would agree that it would be wrong to have one speed limit for male drivers and another for female drivers.

One student during the exchange pointed this out, saying (at 5:40) that she personally did not care if polygamy was allowed but that this issue was irrelevant to the issue of same sex marriage. She was absolutely correct but her view did not get a proper response.

This was not a debating competition where the point is to win. As a lawyer, Santorum should have been aware of everything that I said above and in not acknowledging it, he was either being dishonest and trying to bamboozle the audience or is so homophobic that his reasoning skills completely desert him when it comes to anything involving homosexuality. It could be the latter. As comedian Gary Shandling says in a tweet, "Rick Santorum seems so homophobic that I'm surprised he even allows another man to vote for him."

I think that the students sensed that Santorum was not discussing the issue honestly and was being patronizing and condescending and that was why he was roundly booed at the end. But thanks to the internet, people are going to wise up and the next time he, or anyone else, tries these debating tricks, I hope they get strong push back.

January 07, 2012

Another storm in a teacup

A good indicator of how degraded the political discourse has become in government is the absurd fuss over the recess appointment by president Obama of Richard Cordray to head the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency that Elizabeth Warren designed and which she was considered too controversial to lead. She is now running for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts.

The US Senate, that has blithely ignored or gone along with all the major violations of the law and the constitution that presidents have committed over recent years, has taken umbrage over a minor issue of procedure and privilege, illustrating once again my point that it is not the issues that they fight over in Washington that one must watch closely, it is what they don't fight over.

The Daily Show comments on the latest absurd fuss. I find it impressive how, in a few short minutes, they manage to explain precisely what is at issue, with all its munitiae, while overlaying it with humor.


January 06, 2012

Now we can all be indefinitely detained

On New Year's eve, a time when no one is paying much attention to politics, president Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act. This was a bill that funded the US military for the rest of the fiscal year. But within that legislation was a provision that allows the US government to indefinitely detain without trial even US citizens, by making the entire world, including the US, part of the 'battlefield' which means that anyone can be picked up anywhere and declared to be an enemy combatant and thus stripped of their rights. The administration claims it has the right to indefinitely detain anyone that they, and they alone, assert is 'at war with the United States', whatever that means. This continues the whittling away at habeas corpus, one of the bedrock protections of individual liberty.

According to the ACLU, the legislation was "drafted in secret by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and passed in a closed-door committee meeting, without even a single hearing." It then passed easily in both houses with little or no debate, always a dangerous sign, since such speedy and secretive bipartisan harmony usually means that the general public is getting a raw deal. The Daily Show rightly ridiculed the rushed Senate debate.


The Senate finally voted 93 to 7 in favor of the bill. The only 'no' votes were Tom Harkin (D, Iowa), Tom Coburn (R, Ok), Rand Paul (R, Ky), Jeff Merkley (D, Or), Ron Wyden (D, Or), Mike Lee (R, UT), and Bernie Sanders (I, VT). Notable yes votes were from Al Franken and Sherrod Brown. Ohio's Brown, a supposed liberal, has a disgraceful record of voting for authoritarian legislation such as the Military Commissions Act in 2006 and now this. The House of Representatives voted 283 to 136 in favor with 14 not voting.

Human rights groups have been outspoken in their condemnation of the Act. Human Rights Watch has called it a 'historic tragedy for rights' and its executive director Kenneth Roth has said that, "By signing this defense spending bill, President Obama will go down in history as the president who enshrined indefinite detention without trial in US law."

The far-reaching detainee provisions would codify indefinite detention without trial into US law for the first time since the McCarthy era when Congress in 1950 overrode the veto of then-President Harry Truman and passed the Internal Security Act. The bill would also bar the transfer of detainees currently held at Guantanamo into the US for any reason, including for trial. In addition, it would extend restrictions, imposed last year, on the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to home or third countries – even those cleared for release by the administration.

As Justin Raimondo points out, this legislation "essentially repeals the longstanding Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents the military from engaging in law enforcement on US territory." Obama apologists have, as usual, said that things are not that bad but Glenn Greenwald sets them straight using the direct language of the Act to make his case. Matt Taibbi is disturbed by the muted reactions to this the new law, when the opposition should be vociferous from all sides of the political spectrum.

Those of us who have been following the steady erosion of constitutional rights under the Bush/Cheney and Obama regimes knew this was coming. As is often the case when civil liberties are involved, Obama and the Democrats have played a double game, strengthening the authoritarian powers of government while pretending to care about freedoms. George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley rips into the Act and Obama's duplicity;

Ironically, in addition to breaking his promise not to sign the law, Obama broke his promise on signing statements and attached a statement that he really does not want to detain citizens indefinitely.

Obama insisted that he signed the bill simply to keep funding for the troops. It was a continuation of the dishonest treatment of the issue by the White House since the law first came to light. As discussed earlier, the White House told citizens that the president would not sign the NDAA because of the provision. That spin ended after sponsor Senator Carl Levin (Democrat, Michigan) went to the floor and disclosed that it was the White House and insisted that there be no exception for citizens in the indefinite detention provision.

[T]he insistence that you do not intend to use authoritarian powers does not alter the fact that you just signed an authoritarian measure. It is not the use but the right to use such powers that defines authoritarian systems.

The almost complete failure of the mainstream media to cover this issue is shocking.

On the NDAA, reporters continue to mouth the claim that this law only codifies what is already the law. That is not true. The administration has fought any challenges to indefinite detention to prevent a true court review. Moreover, most experts agree that such indefinite detention of citizens violates the constitution.

There are also those who continue the longstanding effort to excuse Obama's horrific record on civil liberties by blaming either others or the times. One successful myth is that there is an exception for citizens. The White House is saying that changes to the law made it unnecessary to veto the legislation. That spin is ridiculous. The changes were the inclusion of some meaningless rhetoric after key amendments protecting citizens were defeated. The provision merely states that nothing in the provisions could be construed to alter Americans' legal rights. Since the Senate clearly views citizens as not just subject to indefinite detention but even to execution without a trial, the change offers nothing but rhetoric to hide the harsh reality.

The Obama administration and Democratic members are in full spin mode – using language designed to obscure the authority given to the military. The exemption for American citizens from the mandatory detention requirement (section 1032) is the screening language for the next section, 1031, which offers no exemption for American citizens from the authorisation to use the military to indefinitely detain people without charge or trial.

Obama could have refused to sign the bill and the Congress would have rushed to fund the troops. Instead, as confirmed by Senator Levin, the White House conducted a misinformation campaign to secure this power while portraying the president as some type of reluctant absolute ruler, or, as Obama maintains, a reluctant president with dictatorial powers.

For civil libertarians, the NDAA is our Mayan moment: 2012 is when the nation embraced authoritarian powers with little more than a pause between rounds of drinks.

The Daily Show rightly mocks Obama's bogus attempts at pretending that he cares about civil liberties.

So what happens if you or someone you know is captured and detained under this law? Not to worry! Tom the Dancing Bug has a handy information sheet telling you what rights you still have.

January 05, 2012

The short happy (political) life of Rick Santorum

Despite his strong showing in Iowa, there is absolutely no chance that Rick Santorum will get the Republican nomination because the party establishment will shoot him down before he rises too far. The only question is how long it will take before he is crushed. This is because his social views are too out there even for a party that likes to see itself as the guardians of morality. His obsession with sexual issues, especially his reservations about the right to contraception, is too creepy and extreme for even the oligarchy and its media allies and they will never let him get the nomination. For a sample of his positions, see here.

Furthermore, he is already the butt of relentless humor about his name as a result of Dan Savage's efforts and The Daily Show also had fun with him.

Santorum's daughter Elizabeth has complained about it, saying that "It's disappointing that people can be that mean." In her father's defense, she says that she has gay friends who support her father's candidacy based on his economic and family platforms.

One of the telling signs that a particular bigotry is on the way out is when those bigots go out of their way to insist that they do not hate the victims of the bigotry but in fact have such people among their friends. The statements "Hate the sin, love the sinner" and "Some of my best friends are black/Jews/gays/(fill-in-the-blank)" have now become jokes because they are such obvious attempts at hiding their prejudices. Major changes in social attitudes tend to be accompanied by this kind of hypocrisy just before the new attitudes become accepted.

Dan Savage notes that this stage has arrived for gays. As Savage says, "[W]hat does it tell us about this moment in the struggle for LGBT equality that even homophobes like Elizabeth and her dad perceive a political risk in being perceived as homophobic?" Rick Santorum, his daughter Elizabeth, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Donny Osmond, and Sarah Palin all insist that they have gay friends, though those friends are mysteriously invisible. Either they are made up or they exist but do not want to publicly identify themselves and have to explain to others how they could be friends with homophobes. Savage says that reporters should ask who these friends are. Whatever the case, the very fact that such affirmations of friendship are now obligatory is a good sign.

Savage also says that reporters who listen sympathetically when such people complain about how others are being mean to them about their homophobia are not doing their job. What they encounter is nothing compared to the meanness of the policies that they would like to inflict on gay people. It is a good article, and the short video at the end about a gay couple that waited in vain for forty years to get married is very moving.

All those who predicted dire warnings of the collapse of the US military as a fighting force as a result of the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (yes, you, John McCain) should apologize because the military has not fallen apart. Even the celebrated public kiss of two navy lesbians aroused little more than curiosity and celebration, the first kiss on shore being a navy tradition whenever a ship returns to port. Note that a similar photo was also featured on the official website of the US Navy.

We now have had multiple states give equal rights to gay people (at least as far as marriage is concerned), all of which were predicted to signal the end of civilization as we know it. And what has happened? Nothing. Life goes on just as before, as all rational people knew it would. Meanwhile the governor of Washington state is introducing legislation to legalize gay marriage which, if it passes, will make it the seventh state to do so, after New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Iowa and the District of Columbia.

We should just give gay people equal rights now in all areas of public life and be done with it. They are going to get them eventually anyway because it is the right thing to do and rights have always been expanded to include more groups of people, never reduced. The people who fight this trend are going to lose and lose badly and will be looked back in history as villains. And they will deserve it.

In the meantime, we can enjoy all the Santorum jokes that will fill the airwaves in the next few days before he fades off into well-deserved oblivion.

January 04, 2012

God tells Pat Robertson what to expect in 2012

Oh that god, such a tease! After promising Michele Bachmann that she would pull off a miracle in Iowa, he unceremoniously dumped her to sixth place, exactly where she was predicted to be, resulting in her 'suspending' her campaign, which is translated as 'dropping out'. I thought that she would lash out at god for making her look like a fool, but she held her tongue. That's perhaps a wise move since we know how god gets riled for the most petty things and can lash out, like the way he had forty two children attacked by bears merely because they called his prophet Elisha 'baldy'.

It looks like god also abandoned another devoted fan Rick Perry, who came in fifth and has decided to 'reassess' his campaign, which also translates as 'dropping out', although he may have changed his mind and decided to stick it out a little longer.

It looks like god decided, like with Tim Tebow, to throw his weight behind his third string quarterback Rick Santorum, the latest candidate to enjoy the anti-Romney surge. I must admit that I did not see that coming. I thought that the anti-Romney forces would be exhausted after the collapse of their previous hopes Bachmann, Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich.

I think god dumped Bachmann because he is a sexist and prefers to hang out with the guys, especially football players. Via Gawker, I learn that he has also been spending a lot of time with his old buddy Pat Robertson, telling him all that will happen in 2012, including who will be president, though Robertson said he will keep that particular bit of news to himself, probably so that he can make a killing betting on the outcome on Intrade.

It looks like Robertson took notes of what god said during these chats because he gives us direct quotes. Imagine: Direct quotes from god! How cool is that? I don't know why this has not got the entire media to pay attention. Even the woman Robertson is telling all this to does not seem to get all that excited. What a jaded people we have become when god's actual words are ignored.

Did you know that Robertson also only came in second in the Iowa caucuses in 1984 when he ran for president, even though he is so tight with god? So Rick Santorum should not be disheartened that god left him just eight votes shy of first place. It looks like god has this habit of holding back just a little bit. He did go all the way with Mike Huckabee in 2008, only to crash and burn his candidacy soon after. I think god just gets a kick out of messing with his fans' minds.

God truly does work in mysterious ways.

January 03, 2012

God and Michele Bachmann

We all know that god personally told Michele Bachmann to run for president and made sure that she won the straw poll in Iowa last August. But god is somewhat promiscuous in his affections and also told Rick Perry and Rick Santorum that he wanted them to run too. Then god let his attention drift away from politics and wander to other matters, such as helping Tim Tebow get the Denver Broncos into the Super Bowl playoffs. As a result, the three candidates started tanking in the polls and Bachmann is now predicted to come in sixth in today's Iowa caucuses.

But now that the playoff picture is set and god has done right by Tebow, Bachman is sure that god is paying attention to her campaign again and is ready to stun the masses, saying, "We're going to see an astounding result on Tuesday night — miraculous." How does she know this, you ask? Because "We're believing in a miracle because we know, I know, the one who gives miracles." Yes, god has her on his speed dial and is ready to roll.

So Michele is planning on a successful Hail Mary play today, since god seems to have directly assured her that Jesus will haul down the pass in the end zone. Then god can go back to his main interest and guide Tebow to a win over the Steelers on Saturday.

January 02, 2012

Hillary Clinton hypocrisy on internet freedom

Glenn Greenwald eviscerates Hillary Clinton on the issue of internet freedom, pointing out that the things she condemns other governments of doing are the things that her own government is trying to do.

So let's review Secretary Clinton's list of grave threats to Internet freedom and see how it applies to her actions and those of the Obama administration. "Those around the world whose words are now censored . . . who are blocked from accessing entire categories of internet content" – check. Attempting to undermine the Internet's ability to "enliven public debates, quench a thirst for knowledge" – check. "Ideas are blocked, information deleted, conversations stifled, and people constrained in their choices" – check. "Companies turning over sensitive information about political dissidents" and "a company shutting down the social networking accounts of activists in the midst of a political debate" — check. "Those who push these plans often do so in the name of security" – big check.

Internet freedom — preventing government and corporate control of the Internet — is indeed one of the most vital political fights of this generation, perhaps the most vital. There are many people in a position credibly to lead and support that fight. Hillary Clinton and the government in which she serves is most definitely not among them; more often than not, they are among the enemies of those freedoms.

It never fails to surprise me how brazenly our elected officials say one thing and do the opposite on matters of extreme importance. Surely it must be because they do not fear being questioned on such things by the establishment media that reserves its belligerence for the most trivial of issues.

Blacks and the Civil War

Given that the Civil war was about slavery and the emancipation of African Americans, you would think that blacks would be keenly interested in that period of history, to understand the causes and effects of an event that had such momentous consequences for them. In an article titled Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?, Ta-Nehisi Coats says that the opposite is true and addresses the roots of this disengagement that results in "the near-total absence of African American visitors" from famous Civil War sites.

Our alienation was neither achieved in independence, nor stumbled upon by accident, but produced by American design. The belief that the Civil War wasn't for us was the result of the country's long search for a narrative that could reconcile white people with each other, one that avoided what professional historians now know to be true: that one group of Americans attempted to raise a country wholly premised on property in Negroes, and that another group of Americans, including many Negroes, stopped them. In the popular mind, that demonstrable truth has been evaded in favor of a more comforting story of tragedy, failed compromise, and individual gallantry. For that more ennobling narrative, as for so much of American history, the fact of black people is a problem.

The fallen Confederacy's chroniclers grasped this historiographic challenge and, immediately after the war, began erasing all evidence of the crime—that is to say, they began erasing black people—from the written record.

For that particular community, for my community, the message has long been clear: the Civil War is a story for white people—acted out by white people, on white people's terms—in which blacks feature strictly as stock characters and props. We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative. Having been tendered such a conditional invitation, we have elected—as most sane people would—to decline.

It is an interesting article.

December 30, 2011

Murder by drone

Drones have become the weapon of choice that the Obama administration uses to kill people. Under his administration, their use has expanded far beyond what was done before.

In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries… But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation's security goals.

But while the administration tries to persuade us that all the people killed are 'suspected terrorists', the whole program is shrouded in secrecy and they refuse to divulge what standards are used to order the summary deaths of people in other countries. But while the publicized deaths of civilians or Pakistani troops are shrugged off as rare mistakes, there are reports that in a large number of cases, there are suspicions that they don't even know whom they have killed. And of course, everything is shrouded in secrecy, so no one can question them.

What Obama has created is an unaccountable global assassination program that murders anyone that he decides deserves to die. But at the same time, it also murders people who are not targets, people who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, including US citizens. As the Washington Post report above states, "CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives." So two were merely 'suspected' of terrorism, which is the new standard that justifies summary execution. But what about that third person who wasn't even suspected? As long as such people are poor and powerless, who cares if they die?

December 28, 2011

How Republicans punish rich people

It seems like I have been unfairly maligning Republicans as being interested only in enriching the extremely wealthy. It turns out that they are perfectly willing to take away some of their privileges.

In addition, Senate Republican leaders would go after "millionaires and billionaires," not by raising their taxes but by making them ineligible for unemployment compensation and food stamps and increasing their Medicare premiums.

Yes, that will show them. When Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein gets fired and applies for government aid to provide food for his family, won't he be surprised when he is turned down?

Former federal prosecutor calls for jury nullification of marijuana laws

A former federal prosecutor calls upon people, if they serve on a jury, to use nullification as a means to change marijuana laws. He uses the case of Julian P. Heicklen, which I have discussed before.

If you are ever on a jury in a marijuana case, I recommend that you vote "not guilty" — even if you think the defendant actually smoked pot, or sold it to another consenting adult. As a juror, you have this power under the Bill of Rights; if you exercise it, you become part of a proud tradition of American jurors who helped make our laws fairer.

Jury nullification is not new; its proponents have included John Hancock and John Adams.

The doctrine is premised on the idea that ordinary citizens, not government officials, should have the final say as to whether a person should be punished. As Adams put it, it is each juror's "duty" to vote based on his or her "own best understanding, judgment and conscience, though in direct opposition to the direction of the court."

He points out that, "How one feels about jury nullification ultimately depends on how much confidence one has in the jury system. Based on my experience, I trust jurors a lot."

I agree with him.

December 27, 2011

The Ron Paul conundrum

The Republican primary race is getting truly bizarre. Under normal circumstances, someone with Mitt Romney's money, credentials, and establishment support should have by now been able to take a solid lead in the race, given the absence of any other major establishment challenger. And yet his levels of support have stayed at a mediocre 25% while successive opponents have been pecking at his heels, sometimes even overtaking him in the polls for short periods. It is clear that while the party establishment has gone one way, the party faithful is not happy with their choice.

The party establishment did not have any serious concerns about Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum winning, rightly seeing them as fringe candidates who were going nowhere. They seemed to get more concerned about the rise of Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, clearly seeing them as people who could conceivably win the nomination but would flame out in the general election against an incumbent president. The attacks on Cain and Gingrich that sank the candidacy of the former and stalled and, according to some polls, reversed the rise of Gingrich have been to my mind clearly orchestrated by the Republican party establishment. This, along with the slow but steady rate of endorsements of Romney by party leaders, seem designed to send to the party's base the signal that the time for entertaining romantic notions of finding another suitor is over and they should settle down and go with the judgment of their elders.

But it is the curious candidacy of Ron Paul that is causing the party leadership to totally freak out. The problem with Paul is that he is not a loyal servant of the oligarchy. While some of his policies, such as the desire to dismantle large segments of the government, would benefit the oligarchy by ridding them of some of the oversight and regulations that get in the way of their search for unfettered profits, his articulated philosophy is not based on oligarchic subservience and this makes him an unreliable ally. What is worse, his foreign policy is totally at odds with the other leg of oligarchic interests which is to treat the world as their private property and to use the US military to bring to heel troublesome nations that seek independence of US control. And finally, his attitude that Israel is just another country that should have no special claim to US support, and that the current US policy of unwavering allegiance to it is wrong, has sent the neoconservative elements in the Republican leadership into a tizzy.

By all reasonable measures, the results of the Iowa caucuses next Tuesday should be relatively insignificant, apart from being the first official delegate-selecting process. It is an odd process in a state that is not a good mirror of the country as a whole, and in past years the winners have often not gone on to clinch the nomination. Mike Huckabee won in 2008 and faded soon after. Romney did not do well here in 2008 and initially did not put much effort into it this year. But the media has built it into this huge bellwether of public opinion and now that Gingrich is the latest anti-Romney to falter, there is a real chance the Ron Paul might win it, a possibility that is clearly giving the party leadership nightmares. His involvement with some racist newsletters in the past and the support his policies have received from extremist fringe groups are now being unearthed and publicized and you have to suspect that this is coming from sources within the Republican party who are seeking to sink his candidacy.

In case that effort fails, the message now being promulgated by some is that if Paul wins, all it would signify is that the Iowa caucuses are irrelevant. Meanwhile, others are panicking and suggesting that a Paul surge in Iowa and New Hampshire would indicate the need for the party to find a new dark horse candidate, though it is not clear who would fit the bill.

I have thought from the beginning, and still do, that Romney will be the eventual nominee. I have found that in American politics, a reliable rule of thumb is that the candidate with the most money wins. Romney has the resources to last the pace and grind out a win by steadily accumulating delegates until each of his opponents throw in the towel. Only Paul seems to have the organization to stay with him until the end. It will be an ugly win, like a football game that is decided by defense and penalties, but still a win.

The Paul candidacy raises some important general issues for those who are not partisans. When one is confronted with a politician who has a strict adherence to a particular ideology, and one does not buy into that ideology completely, one finds oneself supporting some policies and opposing others. This is the case with Ron Paul's brand of libertarianism. Broadly speaking, I like his stances on foreign policy and his libertarian attitudes towards personal rights and freedoms, laud his demands for transparency in the financial sector and the Federal Reserve, but oppose a lot of his other economic and social policies. Unlike Paul, I do not think that the elimination of government is a good thing. The government and the legal system are the only entities that are big enough to act as a counterbalance to the massive power of business over individuals, which is why we should zealously seek to make them independent agencies working for the general welfare and the rule of law.

But how does one weigh the balance and decide if one should vote for such a candidate or not? Conor Friedersdorf looks at the specific issue of the Paul newsletters and the more general issue of how to weigh the good and bad of candidates in making political choices.

It is a long and thoughtful piece.

December 26, 2011

Revelations about the Haditha massacre

The infamous Haditha massacre that occurred on Nov. 19, 2005, have faded from people's memories.

That morning, a military convoy of four vehicles was heading to an outpost in Haditha when one of the vehicles was hit by a roadside bomb.

Several Marines got out to attend to the wounded, including one who eventually died, while others looked for insurgents who might have set off the bomb. Within a few hours 24 Iraqis — including a 76-year-old man and children between the ages of 3 and 15 — were killed, many inside their homes.

As the reporter says, "Haditha became a defining moment of the war, helping cement an enduring Iraqi distrust of the United States and a resentment that not one Marine has been convicted."

When reports of this got out, it was regarded as a horrifying atrocity and, as usual, was quietly buried. But two weeks ago, purely by chance, a reporter came across in a junkyard files of interviews of the people responsible for the massacre. What the interviews reveal is just how routine was the killing of civilians on this scale.

Chief Warrant Officer K. R. Norwood, who received reports from the field on the day of the killings and briefed commanders on them, testified that 20 dead civilians was not unusual.

General Johnson, the commander of American forces in Anbar Province, said he did not feel compelled to go back and examine the events because they were part of a continuing pattern of civilian deaths.

"It happened all the time, not necessarily in MNF-West all the time, but throughout the whole country," General Johnson testified, using a military abbreviation for allied forces in western Iraq.

One can only imagine the bitterness and hatred engendered in the relatives of those massacred in this way.

December 24, 2011

The oligarchy's feelings are hurt

The oligarchy, so long accustomed to do their looting in peace, has been surprised by the sudden turn in the tide against their rapaciousness and the successful adoption of the Occupy movement's "We are the 99%" slogan now being used against them. You would have thought that they would be smart enough to lay low and hope that the storm passes.

But no, some of them are whining about how their feelings are hurt and contemptuously dismissing their critics as being 'imbeciles' and that those who are so poor that they pay little or no taxes have no right to complain because they have 'no skin in the game'.

Matt Taibbi points out that the reverse is true, that it is the oligarchy that has no skin in the game because are not rooted in any place and thus have no sense of obligation to a geographical community that ordinary people have.

Most of us 99-percenters couldn't even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors. It's called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don't do them, because, well, we live here. Most of us wouldn't take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life's savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India. They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets. They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest. Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Nobody with real skin in the game, who had any kind of stake in our collective future, would do any of those things. Or, if a person did do those things, you'd at least expect him to have enough shame not to whine to a Bloomberg reporter when the rest of us complained about it.

The oligarchy's open display of the depth of their contempt for those not in their class is quite astonishing. I actually think this is a good thing and should be encouraged. The more this Marie Antoinette attitude is put on full public display, the more likely they are to get their comeuppance. As Taibbi ends his piece, "Unbelievable. Merry Christmas, bankers. And good luck getting that message out."

December 20, 2011

Mitt Romney loses one veteran's vote

At a recent campaign stop at a coffee house in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney spotted a man wearing a veteran's cap. Since candidates love to pander to veterans, Romney glommed on to him but it was not quite what he expected. Listen to what the Vietnam veteran says after Romney leaves.

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Israel, US, and WikiLeaks

Bradley Manning, alleged Wikileaks leaker, is finally getting his day in court, even if it is just a military court that does not allow for the full exercise of rights that civilian courts have.

One overlooked aspect of the WikiLeaks releases is what it says about US subservience to Israel's interests. For example, recall the failure of the talks last year between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. M. J. Rosenberg describes how the US government, both the White House and the Congress, is controlled by the Israel lobby led by AIPAC, and says that "here is only one reason that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapsed. It is the power of the "pro-Israel lobby" (led by AIPAC) which prevents the United States from saying publicly what it says privately: that resolution of a conflict which is so damaging to US interests is consistently being blocked by the intransigence of the Netanyahu government and its determination to maintain the occupation."

Israel has shown that it can extort what it wants from the US. Last year, the US requested that there be a moratorium on settlement building in the occupied territories. Israel refused, even rejecting the US offer of a bribe of three billion dollars in return for which Israel would simply have a moratorium on settlement for just 90 days. And despite being publicly humiliated time and again, the US government continues to be servile to Israel.

Apart from being one of the major enablers for these Israeli policies and lavishing the country with huge amounts of aid that enable Israelis to have a high standard of living, the US also provides it with diplomatic cover in the international arena. The US even vetoes UN resolutions on the settlements even when the resolutions are exactly in line with publicly stated US policy. WikiLeaks revealed that the US had secret deal with Israel to expand settlements even as they publicly decry it.

Is there any more glaring indication of the fecklessness of US political leaders and their subservience to Israel? But one notable feature is how few of the leaked WikiLeaks cables deal with Israel. Israel Shamir suggests that this is part of the western government-media subservience to the Israel lobby, which we also saw demonstrated with how they downplayed reports that the US, French, and German leaders view the Israeli prime minister as an incorrigible liar.

The Guardian and the New York Times, Le Monde and Spiegel are quite unable to publish a story unacceptable to Israel. They may pen a moderately embarrassing piece of fluff, or a slightly critical technical analysis in order to convince discerning readers of their objectivity. They may even let an opponent air his or her views every once in a blue moon. But they could never publish a story really damaging to Israel. This is true for all mainstream media.

Furthermore, no American ambassador would ever send a cable really unacceptable to Israel – unless he intended to retire the next month. Yet even supposing this kamikaze ambassador would send the cable, the newspapers would overlook it.

Even with thousands of secret cables about Israel in their hands, the mainstream media delays and prevaricates. They don't want anyone to yell at them. That is why they have postponed publishing the articles. Once forced by circumstance or competition to publish the contents of the cables, you can bet they'll twist the revelations into toady headlines and bury the truth in the final paragraph.

Robert Fisk comments on one aspect of Middle East politics gleaned from the few WikiLeaks releases:

It's not that US diplomats don't understand the Middle East; it's just that they've lost all sight of injustice. Vast amounts of diplomatic literature prove that the mainstay of Washington's Middle East policy is alignment with Israel, that its principal aim is to encourage the Arabs to join the American-Israeli alliance against Iran, that the compass point of US policy over years and years is the need to tame/bully/crush/oppress/ ultimately destroy the power of Iran.

There is virtually no talk (so far, at least) of illegal Jewish colonial settlements on the West Bank, of Israeli "outposts", of extremist Israeli "settlers" whose homes now smallpox the occupied Palestinian West Bank - of the vast illegal system of land theft which lies at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian war. And incredibly, all kinds of worthy US diplomats grovel and kneel before Israel's demands - many of them apparently fervent supporters of Israel - as Mossad bosses and Israel military intelligence agents read their wish-list to their benefactors.

As long as the US continues to be subservient to Israeli interests and impervious to justice, there will be no resolution of the Middle East conflict.

December 18, 2011

Lawrence Lessig on campaign finance reform

The corrupting influence of money on politics in the US is pervasive and entrenched. I had never found any proposed solution that satisfied me. The catch with federally funded campaigns, which is favored by many reformists, is that while it might reduce the influence of lobbyists and big campaign donors, it also tends to favor the two established parties. Until those two parties face a revolt or otherwise genuine threat to their entrenched dominance, there is little incentive for them to not be corrupt.

So I was pleasantly surprised to hear Lawrence Lessig on The Daily Show suggest a reform that might actually work. I have not read his book Republic, Lost: How money corrupts Congress - and a plan to stop it but his idea is that the government would refund the first $50 of people's taxes to them in the form of a voucher that they could donate to any political campaign. In addition, each person would be allowed to donate up to $100 of their own money.

The catch is that this would require a constitutional amendment since the Supreme Court has ruled that money is a form of speech and steadily removed restrictions on campaign contributions.

The interview is well worth watching. In the first part, Lessig describes how the current system corrupts politics and in the second, he discusses his solution, as well as some other options that modern technology allows.

Part 1:

Part 2:

December 16, 2011

The Republican debate

Once again, The Guardian's Richard Adams spares me from having to watch last night's Republican debate by providing an amusing live blog.

December 15, 2011

Donald Berwick explains the Affordable Care Act

Donald Berwick is a highly respected expert on health care who was president Obama's nominee to head the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. So of course he was opposed by the Republicans who are determined to block anything that might benefit people under the act. He was forced to serve for just a limited time by means of a recess appointment and has now stepped down from that post.

Chris Hayes had an interview with him that I highly recommended watching, especially his explanation about the important aspects of the Affordable Care Act. That begins at the 9:00 minute mark.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

December 14, 2011

Police brutality as a consequence of the war on terror

In a comment to an earlier post on the increasing paramilitarization of the police, reader Steve raised the question of the connection between the rise of such policing in the US and the work of the ominously named Department of Homeland Security that was formed in the wake of the events of 9/11.

He is of course absolutely right. At the time that the Orwellian USA PATRIOT Act was rushed through in October 2001 with almost unanimous support in Congress (357 to 66 in the House and 98 to 1 in the Senate, with Russ Feingold being the lone holdout), many of us warned that this was a Trojan horse that would be used to undermine the rule of law and the constitutional protections that had, with a few exceptions, been followed for much of its history. What exceptions had been made were at times of great stress (the Civil War and World War II) and were seen as temporary measures.

The USA PATRIOT Act institutionalized these abuses and made them part of the new normal. Under the guise of fighting the 'war on terror', a threat that is increasingly being revealed as bogus, the DHS was created under the act and has, along with the National Security Agency and the CIA and FBI, been the vehicles that have been used to create a Big Brother state that now routinely violates the rights of Americans in the permanent war on terror.

Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi both look at the roots of the increased use of pepper-spraying as standard procedure, even as concerns are being raised about whether they are as non-lethal as claimed.

One consequence has been that the spread of so-called non-lethal weapons, such as the various gases, tasers, rubber bullets, concussion grenades, water cannons, ear-splitting sound emitters, etc., have had the effect of actually increasing the violence used by police, since the innocuous term 'non-lethal' for weapons that can still cause serious harm actually encourages their indiscriminate use against people. We seem to have reached the stage where we think that as long as people are not killed or dismembered, then whatever is done to them in the name of law and order is acceptable. This is the same kind of mentality that enables people to condone torture.

Two factors are leading to a proliferation of new anti-civilian weapons. One is that massive funding for the so-called 'war on terror' has enabled the DHS to shower military-style equipment on even small police forces that transform them into paramilitary units. While the equipment has been given away freely to local units, the heavy expense of maintaining them is the responsibility of local agencies and is draining police resources away from traditional police work. The other factor at play in driving this is that the huge amounts of money now available for 'anti-terrorism' has created an incentive for companies to come up with new ways of disabling and dispersing crowds. As a result, pepper spray may soon become one of the milder forms of brutality.

James Wolcott describes how ear-splitting sound devices known as LRADs (Long Range Acoustic Devices), more popularly known as 'sound cannons' and used on the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, can cause severe damage on the human body. He quotes an ACLU report that describes what happened to Karen Piper who was present at the scene of G-20 protests in 2009.

On September 24, 2009, Piper, then a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University, decided to observe G-20 protests in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood as research for her book on globalization issues and the responses of bodies like the G-20 to protest activity. She arrived at Arsenal Park around 10 a.m. and saw protestors calmly and peacefully milling around the area. After the protest began, Piper walked on the sidewalk a short distance from the marching protesters, in the company of other curiosity seekers and journalists. When Piper became concerned about rapidly increasing police activity, she tried to leave the area. As she was walking away, police officers activated, suddenly and without warning, an LRAD a short distance away from her. It emitted a continuous piercing sound lasting several minutes.

Piper immediately suffered intense pain as mucus discharged from her ear. She became nauseous and dizzy and developed a severe headache. Since then, Piper has suffered from tinnitus (ringing of the ears), barotrauma, left ear pain and fluid drainage, dizziness, and nausea. She still suffers from permanent nerve damage.

"The intensity of being hit at close range by a high-pitched sound blast designed to deter pirate boats and terrorists at least a quarter mile away is indescribable. The sound vibrates through you and causes pain throughout your body, not only in the ears. I thought I might die," said Piper, now an English professor at the University of Missouri. "It is shocking that the LRAD device is being promoted for use on American citizens and the general public."

Now come reports of the development of lasers that 'temporarily' blind people being tested as riot control weapons in England. Rest assured that they will come here soon, to be followed by 'accidents' in which people end up being permanently blinded because of equipment malfunction or improper use.

We also have the first reports of the predator drones that are being used around the world to spy on and kill people now being deployed in the US.

I remember how, when I first came to the US in 1975, I was unnerved to see police walking around with real guns. Sri Lanka at that time had a civilian unarmed police force, with weapons used only in the most extreme cases. Now it has a highly militarized police with powerful guns, armored vehicles, and checkpoints becoming routine sights. The militarization of the police in the US is now also well underway and soon it will seem normal to see police in riot gear armed to the teeth stationed with armored vehicles at various places in cities.

We should never forget that the prime role of a country's military nowadays is almost always to protect government leaders and the oligarchy from its own people, not from external threats. The external threat is an excuse to intimidate and cow its own people into acquiescence.

December 13, 2011

Yes sir, that's my Bibi

As usual, I did not watch last Saturday's Republican debate, preferring to learn about it from Richard Adams' always entertaining live blog for The Guardian. One exchange that caught my eye was when Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich fell over themselves trying to show who was more devoted to Israel, repeatedly referring to the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as their friend 'Bibi'.

Romney: Of course you [Gingrich] stand firm and stand for the truth, but you don't speak for Israel.
Gingrich: I didn't.
Romney: If Bibi Netanyahu wants to say what you said, let him say it. But our ally, the people of Israel should be able to take their own positions and not have us negotiate for them.
Gingrich: Can I just say one last thing? Because I didn't speak for the people of Israel. I spoke as a historian who has looked at the world stage for a very long time. I've known Bibi [Netanyahu] since 1984. I feel quite confident an amazing number of Israelis found it nice to have an American tell the truth about the war they are in the middle of and the casualties they're taking and the people who surround them who say, you do not have the right to exist and we want to destroy you.
Romney: I've also known Bibi Netanyahu for a long time. We worked together at Boston Consulting Group. And the last thing Bibi Netanyahu needs to have is not just a person who's a historian, but someone who is also running for president of the United States stand up and say things that create extraordinary tumult in his neighborhood. And if I'm president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability and make sure that I don't say anything like this.

Anything I say that can affect a place with rockets going in, with people dying. I don't do anything that would harm that process. And, therefore, before I made a statement of that nature, I'd get on the phone to my friend, Bibi Netanyahu and say, would it help if I say this? What would you like me to do? Let's work together because we're partners.

I find it extraordinary that people running for the leadership of one country would so proudly proclaim their undying loyalty to another country, to the extent that they would not say anything without first getting it approved by the head of that country, even though that head is despised by world leaders as a liar.

I would like moderators at these debates to ask the candidates if there is any issue on which the interests of the US and Israel diverge. Except for Ron Paul, I expect them all to answer 'no', even though such an answer is patently absurd.

December 11, 2011

Proponent of jury nullification may not get a jury trial

I have written before about the important practice of jury nullification, in which juries exercise their option to be the ultimate judges of the validity of laws and have the right, if they think that the law itself is unjust, to acquit someone of a charge even if the person is clearly guilty of violating the law. (See here and here)

Juries have this right because they, not the legislators, are the ultimate judges of a whether a law is just and are the ultimate bulwark against governments that can manipulate the system to pass laws that are not in the public interest. Judges and prosecutors often oppose sharing information about this right with juries, another example of the desire of the elites to prevent ordinary people from exercising any power. Judges want to preserve their right to be the sole interpreters of the law while prosecutors do not want to allow another mechanism for acquittal.

This issue has once again come to the fore. Julian Heicklen, a retired Penn State professor of chemistry, is being charged with jury tampering because he handed out flyers outside a Manhattan courthouse informing those who entered the building (including prospective members of juries) of the right of juries to nullify. (I have written about this particular case before.)

Heicklen has asked for a jury trial, as is his right under Amendment VI and Amendment VII of the Bill of Rights of the US constitution, but this is being opposed because prosecutors fear that he will use jury nullification in his own trial as part of his defense against charges that he is illegally advocating jury nullification. Talk about a Catch-22.

This is exactly why the right to a trial by a fully informed jury is so important.

December 10, 2011

Newt Gingrich and the Republican establishment

As I have said many times before, the Republican party establishment had for a long time fed fiery rhetoric on social issues to its party's base in order to win votes, while following pro-oligarchic policies when in power. But the 2008 election provided indicators that the base was fed up with being used this way and wanted to wrest control of the leadership. I said that the 2012 election would bring this fault line to the forefront and show whether the establishment still had control. This has happened and the Romney-Gingrich contest is a good measure of it. News reports are emerging all over of the party establishment attacking Newt Gingrich and pulling for Romney. (See here, here, and here.) It will be interesting to see how they eat their words and support Gingrich if he should be the eventual nominee.

What is noticeable in this race is that the headliners in the Republican party establishment have so far largely steered clear of making any endorsements. They usually play safe and wait until the result is a foregone conclusion and declare their support for the likely winner. But this time around they may face pressure to endorse Romney in order to help him win.

I must admit that I am surprised that Gingrich, of all people, has emerged as the flag bearer for the anti-establishment movement. After all, he is a career politician and ultimate Washington insider, which should make the establishment favor him, but that very fact, plus that he has a lot of baggage in his past, should make the nutty base of the party skittish. The only explanation I can come up with for this weird reversal is that the party establishment is opposing him, not because they fear his policies which are reliably pro-oligarchy, but because they are rightly fearful that Gingrich is too mercurial and unstable and that he will self-destruct, giving Obama an easy re-election victory. And paradoxically, the party establishment's opposition to Gingrich may be what is making him attractive to the base, who have never quite warmed to department store mannequin Mitt Romney.

The Ron Paul camp sees this struggle, along with the revised party rules for awarding primary delegates, as providing a possible path to the nomination, though that remains a very long shot. Recall that the Obama camp in 2008 also cleverly used party rules to amass sizable delegate totals even when they were losing primaries.

December 09, 2011

After Cain, the deluge

This year's Republican primary has been so wacky that we may think that previous races did not have crazy candidates. That is not true. In the 2008 race, there were also people who were nutty as well as a whole bunch of short-lived candidacies by people who quickly faded into obscurity and whose names you have likely forgotten.

The difference this time is that the multitude of debates has given candidates a much longer shelf-life and visibility, and this is likely to increase the likelihood of attention seekers to run in the future. There is one other new wrinkle this time around. One of the side effects of the candidacies of Herman Cain and Donald Trump is that it will likely spawn a lot of future candidates in their mold: Business people who have made a lot of money and are bored with their lives and want some limelight and excitement in the twilight of their careers. They might look at the way Cain went from obscurity to household name and decide that next time around they too will run for president.

While Cain seemed utterly clueless in thinking that his past would not be examined closely, the more cautious among the future rich candidates would run only if there is nothing in their past that will cause them embarrassment. But even that may not deter some because they are so arrogant that they will not realize that what they consider normal behavior toward others may be viewed differently by regular people. These people have lived so long in the bubble that wealth provides, surrounded by toadies who tell them what they want to hear, that they tend to be arrogant and think that nothing can harm them.

So if there is no Republican incumbent in 2016, expect to see a slew of rich businessmen who have never held elected office running for president, portraying themselves as saviors of the country.

December 08, 2011

Pandering to Israel by politicians and the media

If there is one thing that exceeds the absurd extravagance with which American politicians declare their love for Jesus, it is how they describe their love for Israel. It seems like no level of pandering is enough. Just yesterday, six of the Republican candidates attended a forum of the American Jewish Coalition and fell over themselves trying to outdo each other in supporting the most extreme policies of Israel and criticizing president Obama for not doing enough, even though Obama has been as obsequious in appeasing the Israel lobby as any previous president. Ron Paul was not invited to this gathering because he alone has questioned America's massive subsidizing of Israel's economy and unquestioned support for its dangerous policies in the Middle East.

The pandering to Israel does not stop with politicians either. The mainstream media is also wary of saying anything that could be construed as anything other than whole-hearted support for Israel. The level of self-censorship in the Western media when it comes to Israel is quite extraordinary. For example, at a recent summit meeting, an open microphone picked up the following bit of dialogue:

French president Nicholas Sarkozy: "I can't stand him [Netanyahu] any more, he's a liar."
US president Barack Obama: "You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day,"

Uri Avnery says that this exchange followed a report that German chancellor Angela Merkel had told her cabinet that "every word that leaves Netanyahu's mouth is a lie."

The dialogue was broadcast live to a group of senior French media people, because somebody forgot to turn the microphone off. A piece of luck of the kind that journalists dream about.

Yet not one of the journalists in the hall published a word about it. They kept it to themselves and only told it to their colleagues, who told it to their friends, one of whom told it to a blogger, who published it.

Why? Because the senior journalists who were present are friends and confidants of the people in power. That's how they get their scoops. The price is suppressing any news that might hurt or embarrass their sponsors. This means in practice that they become lackeys of the people in power – betraying their elementary democratic duty as servants of the public.

I know this from experience. As an editor of a news magazine, I saw it as my duty (and pleasure) to break these conspiracies of silence. Actually, many of our best scoops were given to us by colleagues from other publications who could not use them themselves for the same reason.

Luckily, with the internet now everywhere, it has become almost impossible to suppress news. Blessed be the online Gods.

You would think that the news that the heads of three major economic powers so utterly despise the head of a country they publicly support unconditionally would be big news and the leaders would be repeatedly asked about this. But this news item lasted just a couple of days in the American media, disappearing as fast as it appeared.

But as Avnery said, the Sakozy-Obama exchange might not have made it into the media at all if not for bloggers on the internet, so we should at least be grateful for that.

December 06, 2011

Riddle: What is torture in Bahrain but not in the US?

An interesting report came out last week. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) investigating the protests in Bahrain delivered its report last week and said that the Bahraini government had used "excessive force and torture" on demonstrators. (The full report can be read here.) This was significant in that the authoritarian Bahraini government that was responsible for those actions, and was aided by the Saudi Arabian military in its harsh crackdown, was still in power. The fact that they created a commission and allowed such a report to be released is a tribute to the fact that popular protests seen worldwide against the repressive government had created considerable pressure on even such a government to try and mitigate the damage.

The commission used as its definition of torture Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment that says that:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

But although the report said that the government had used torture, the news reports that I read in the US were curiously coy about exactly what actions were considered to be torture. However much I searched for them, I could not get the details. For example, this typical report in the New York Times, which prides itself on being 'the newspaper of record' and usually provides the most details in US media shows how they skated over the issue:

Five detainees were tortured to death while in custody, the panel concluded, and other detainees endured electric shocks and were beaten with rubber hoses and wires.

In Washington, the Obama administration welcomed the report, but said the onus was now on Bahrain's government to hold accountable those responsible for abuses and to undertake reforms to make sure they do not occur again.

The subtle implication in this report is that being given electric shocks or beaten with rubber hoses and wires was not part of the torture regimen. I finally found an NPR story that provided more details.

Using words like torture, mistreatment and threatened rape, the head of the commission said the kinds of things that are rarely said out loud — especially in the conservative, oil-rich Gulf.

The commission head, Cherif Bassiouni, listed abuses he says were committed against protesters who were detained: They were blindfolded, forced to stand for long periods of time, whipped, beaten, subjected to electric shock, deprived of sleep, and exposed to high temperatures and insults.

These acts, Bassiouni said, amounted to torture. [My emphasis]

I now understood why the mainstream media was shy about specifying the acts. These are the very same actions, or even worse, that are done by the US on its detainees and since the US media is deferential to the claims by the US government that it does not torture, this element of the Bahraini report must have caused considerable cognitive dissonance and had to be suppressed. In the US, in an effort to excuse the Bush administration from war crimes, there was hesitancy to say that even waterboarding was torture, so all these other forms of torture have to be also not mentioned.

Eric Lewis, a lawyer whose efforts to prosecute Donald Rumsfeld and the military chain of command for torture were opposed by the Obama administration, blasts Obama for his hypocrisy on torture, comparing his statements as a candidate with his actions as president, and says that by not prosecuting those who committed such acts, he has left the door wide open for the use of torture by any future president.

The president has rejected three clear opportunities to erect a high legal wall against the return of torture: he has made it clear that criminal prosecutions for torture will not go forward; he has opposed the creation of a truth commission to examine events comprehensively; and he has affirmatively intervened to stop civil litigation by detainees against their torturers.

Had President Obama shown the courage of candidate Obama, he would have strongly supported civil litigation under the Constitution against officials who authorized torture. The argument that it involves the courts in foreign policy or causes officials to be wary in their actions is nonsense. The ban on torture should be absolute; it is not a foreign policy or defense issue and it is salutary for officials to know that they will be held accountable for torture.

The Obama administration can't just say, "Trust us." Its challenge was not only to stop the American government from torturing detainees, but to institutionalize the legal infrastructure that would prevent the resumption of torture. President Obama had the opportunity to leave an unambiguous legal legacy that prohibited torture and inhibited the torturers of tomorrow from finding legal cover. Instead, we may reap the whirlwind of his timidity, and soon.

Until such time as we are willing to bring those who commit torture to justice, irrespective of who and where they are, these abuses will continue.

December 05, 2011

Penn Jillette on the current elections

He has an interesting take on the origins of 'Christian' politics in the US and how politicians use religion.

(Via Jeff at Have Coffee Will Write.)

December 04, 2011

Deporting US citizens

The agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency "operate in a secretive judicial environment where detention hearings are held out of public view", according to this news report and this lack of oversight leads to abuses in which even US citizens are picked up, kept in detention for long periods, and even deported.

After a detailed examination of federal immigration records, Prof. Jacqueline Stevens of Northwestern University estimated this year that about 4,000 American citizens were illegally detained or deported as aliens in 2010. In a study published last summer, she found that as many as 20,000 citizens may have been wrongly held or deported since 2003.

"If they can't even protect the rights of citizens, think about the others who are being put through this system,'' Stevens said. "You have agents making life and death types of decisions and there is no check on their honesty.''

A US citizen who was detained for 43 days and almost deported is now suing the ICE agency for $1 million.

Once again, this shows the abuses that inevitably occur when people are given power that they can exercise in secret. Transparency has to be the foundation of a democracy but the government keeps steadily increasing the levels of secrecy under which it operates.

December 03, 2011

And now, peak Gingrich

This year's Republican primary race has to be the strangest in recent history.

As this graph of poll averages from Real Clear Politics shows, the party continues its lurching from one non-Romney to another, with Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich having their peaks of support, while that of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul maintain steady but at low levels, and Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman are also steady but almost non-existent. And of course, at one time we had The Donald, the effects of whose brief cameo appearance is not recorded

RCP poll.png

It says a lot about the modern Republican party that such a repulsive opportunist blowhard like Newt Gingrich is being touted as a clever person, a man of ideas. For a party that has turned its back on science and knowledge in general, their embrace of Gingrich, a man who oozes contempt for everyone else, requires some explaining. I think Paul Krugman was right when he said: "He's a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like." Republicans seem to be impressed by cocky smart mouths (Sarah Palin being the poster child), and repelled by people with real knowledge and expertise.

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The person who has the most reason to be righteously aggrieved by this parade of successive contenders to Romney is Rick Santorum, who must have hoped that his smug religiosity, devotion to the oligarchy, and homophobia would appeal to the not-insignificant bloc of knuckle-dragging Neanderthals in the party. Every time the leading non-Romney stumbled, his hopes must have been raised of being anointed the next flag bearer, only to see others being awarded the prize. One can almost hear him wailing in prayer in his lonely hotel room in Iowa, "Why have you forsaken me, Lord? When will it be my turn?"

November 29, 2011

What now for the Occupy movement?

The Occupy movement in many cities have been forced to fully or partially vacate their sites and people are wondering what's next. Chris Hedges has been doing some excellent reporting on the movement and in a recent piece titled This Is What Revolution Looks Like he argues that the movement has exposed the bankruptcy of the oligarchy. The oligarchy thinks that by forcibly disrupting the demonstrations and evicting the encampments, they will destroy the movement and force the occupants to go back to meekly accepting the status quo.

The rogues' gallery of Wall Street crooks, such as Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs, Howard Milstein at New York Private Bank & Trust, the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers and Jamie Dimon at JPMorgan Chase & Co., no doubt think it's over. They think it is back to the business of harvesting what is left of America to swell their personal and corporate fortunes.

He says they are wrong.

The historian Crane Brinton in his book "Anatomy of a Revolution" laid out the common route to revolution. The preconditions for successful revolution, Brinton argued, are discontent that affects nearly all social classes, widespread feelings of entrapment and despair, unfulfilled expectations, a unified solidarity in opposition to a tiny power elite, a refusal by scholars and thinkers to continue to defend the actions of the ruling class, an inability of government to respond to the basic needs of citizens, a steady loss of will within the power elite itself and defections from the inner circle, a crippling isolation that leaves the power elite without any allies or outside support and, finally, a financial crisis. Our corporate elite, as far as Brinton was concerned, has amply fulfilled these preconditions. But it is Brinton's next observation that is most worth remembering. Revolutions always begin, he wrote, by making impossible demands that if the government met would mean the end of the old configurations of power. The second stage, the one we have entered now, is the unsuccessful attempt by the power elite to quell the unrest and discontent through physical acts of repression.

Hedges draws upon his long experience as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times to draw parallels between what is happening in the US and what he saw in crumbling despotic regimes elsewhere.

George Orwell wrote that all tyrannies rule through fraud and force, but that once the fraud is exposed they must rely exclusively on force. We have now entered the era of naked force. The vast million-person bureaucracy of the internal security and surveillance state will not be used to stop terrorism but to try and stop us.

Despotic regimes in the end collapse internally. Once the foot soldiers who are ordered to carry out acts of repression, such as the clearing of parks or arresting or even shooting demonstrators, no longer obey orders, the old regime swiftly crumbles.

The signs of collapse are everywhere. It begins when bystanders, impressed by the stoicism and doggedness of the protestors, defect from their usual stance of neutrality or subservience to the state and ruling class and into the ranks of the protestors.

The process of defection among the ruling class and security forces is slow and often imperceptible. These defections are advanced through a rigid adherence to nonviolence, a refusal to respond to police provocation and a verbal respect for the blue-uniformed police, no matter how awful they can be while wading into a crowd and using batons as battering rams against human bodies.

Hedges wrote this on November 15 before the police actions that occurred at UC Berkeley and Davis. In Berkeley, 70-year old Robert Hass, a professor of poetry, former poet laureate and Pulitzer prize winner, couldn't believe what he was hearing of police viciously beating students and hurriedly went with his wife to see if the reports were true. He described what happened to them when they found themselves face to face with police in the now familiar paramilitary riot gear assembled in riot formation.

Once the cordon formed, the deputy sheriffs pointed their truncheons toward the crowd. It looked like the oldest of military maneuvers, a phalanx out of the Trojan War, but with billy clubs instead of spears. The students were wearing scarves for the first time that year, their cheeks rosy with the first bite of real cold after the long Californian Indian summer. The billy clubs were about the size of a boy's Little League baseball bat. My wife was speaking to the young deputies about the importance of nonviolence and explaining why they should be at home reading to their children, when one of the deputies reached out, shoved my wife in the chest and knocked her down.

My wife bounced nimbly to her feet. I tripped and almost fell over her trying to help her up, and at that moment the deputies in the cordon surged forward and, using their clubs as battering rams, began to hammer at the bodies of the line of students. It was stunning to see. They swung hard into their chests and bellies. Particularly shocking to me — it must be a generational reaction — was that they assaulted both the young men and the young women with the same indiscriminate force. If the students turned away, they pounded their ribs. If they turned further away to escape, they hit them on their spines.

None of the police officers invited us to disperse or gave any warning. We couldn't have dispersed if we'd wanted to because the crowd behind us was pushing forward to see what was going on. The descriptor for what I tried to do is "remonstrate." I screamed at the deputy who had knocked down my wife, "You just knocked down my wife, for Christ's sake!" A couple of students had pushed forward in the excitement and the deputies grabbed them, pulled them to the ground and cudgeled them, raising the clubs above their heads and swinging. The line surged. I got whacked hard in the ribs twice and once across the forearm.

One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O'Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

What popular movements have is a process of ebb and flow. Because they are loose and unorganized and lack money, they tend to occur in waves, with periods of dormancy in between. The key question is whether subsequent waves build on the previous ones and get larger.

When you see elderly and 'respectable' people, members of the class that would normally favor law and order and ally themselves with the oligarchy and against the rabble in the streets, willing to switch sides and put their own bodies on the line, you are witnessing a sea change.

November 28, 2011

Iowa faith forum

Susan Jacoby has a nice article on the Iowa debate last Saturday that turned into a faith fest, where many of the candidates competed to demonstrate their personal sufferings. She asks, rightly, why we should care about their personal tribulations in selecting a president.

Boo-hoo, gentlemen. Having endured the ordinary vicissitudes or the extraordinary and unfathomable tragedies of life and having sought the help of whatever God in whom you believe has absolutely nothing to do with your suitability for the nation’s highest office. An atheist would face the same tragedies without invoking God’s help and that, too, would have nothing to do with his or her fitness for the presidency.

The Iowa forum was a triumph of the union of psychobabble and public religiosity that has come to dominate American politics.

Honest candidates, men and women of genuine virtue, do not present their own suffering as a qualification for public office.

Christians have this bizarre notion that suffering is somehow a good thing, that we are better for it, rather than as something unfortunate to be overcome as best as one can. These people are steeped in the Christian mythology of sin and suffering followed by redemption as the way to become a better person and they want to impose that form theocratic thinking on the country.

November 27, 2011

Tribunal finds Bush and Blair guilty of war crimes

Via Glenn Greenwald, I learn that the seven-member Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Tribunal in Malaysia, that was headed by that country's former prime minister and had an American law professor as one of its prosecutors, found George W. Bush and Tony Blair "guilty of "crimes against peace" and other war crimes for their 2003 aggressive attack on Iraq, as well as fabricating pretexts used to justify the attack." Greenwald further says that the tribunal

was modeled after a 1967 tribunal in Sweden and Denmark that found the U.S. guilty of a war of aggression in Vietnam, and, even more so, after the U.S.-led Nuremberg Tribunal held after World War II. Just as the U.S. steadfastly ignored the 1967 tribunal on Vietnam, Bush and Blair both ignored the summons sent to them and thus were tried in absentia.

The tribunal ruled that Bush and Blair's name should be entered in a register of war criminals, urged that they be recognized as such under the Rome Statute, and will also petition the International Criminal Court to proceed with binding charges. Such efforts are likely to be futile, but one Malaysian lawyer explained the motives of the tribunal to The Associated Press: "For these people who have been immune from prosecution, we want to put them on trial in this forum to prove that they committed war crimes." In other words, because their own nations refuse to hold them accountable and can use their power to prevent international bodies from doing so, the tribunal wanted at least formal legal recognition of these war crimes to be recorded and the evidence of their guilt assembled.

A different panel of this same tribunal will hold hearings on the charges of torture against Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and others.

Boy, are those Malaysians dense, thinking that the Nuremberg principles were meant to be applied impartially to everyone. Don't they realize that war crimes can only be committed by those whom US presidents declare to be enemies of America? US presidents, their allies, and any one who acts under their orders can never be guilty of war crimes, whatever they do. How hard is it to understand such a simple rule? Those Malaysians must be pretty stupid.

It is worth reading the whole Greenwald piece, as he is also one of those naïve people who believes in the rule of law.

November 23, 2011

Our corrupt Congress

60 Minutes blows the lid off how members of Congress are legally allowed to use the inside knowledge to which only they have access to make money on the stock market and in other deals. This is why so many of them leave Congress as multi-millionaires.

How is this legal? Because in making the insider trading laws, Congress exempted themselves from the laws that apply to everyone else.

Notice how much bipartisan harmony there is on matters like this?

Even disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who went to prison for his role in political corruption, says in an interview about his new book Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption From America's Most Notorious Lobbyist that "I think the great tragedy in American politics is what is legal, not what is illegal."

In the second part of the interview he talks about what needs to be done to clean up the bipartisan corrupt rot that has set in, and which he once took full advantage of. He says the so-called reforms that Congress enacts are a joke. He provides a good way to address the problem, which is the list of reforms that he, as a lobbyist, would have hated to see enacted because they would have made his job so much harder.

First, he says that once you are in Congress or are a staffer on Capitol Hill, you should face a permanent ban on working as a lobbyist. (Elsewhere, he described how lobbyists get our 'public' servants working for them. Once they see a Congressperson or a Congressional staffer who could be helpful to them and who is also hardworking and efficient, they tell him or her, "We would like you to consider working for us once you leave here." That person usually is hooked and then willing to work on their behalf on legislation even while still working for Congress so that they don't jeopardize their chances of a lucrative career if they should leave or be forced out of government.) Second, he says that, "If you're a lobbyist or you hire a lobbyist or you're at the public trough getting government grants or contracts or whatever, you can't give one dollar politically, federally. If you make the choice yourself to do that, then you have given up the choice to give politically." Third, he recommends term limits so that lobbyists would be forced to go through the tedious process of cultivating and eventually 'buying' new members on a regular basis. Finally, Congress should not be allowed to exempt themselves from the laws they pass for others.

I think that while many people suspect that Congress is corrupt, they do not realize how deeply the rot has spread. We are not talking about a few bad apples here and there, though once in a while there will be an uproar over one or two egregious examples of corruption and someone will face a ritual punishment. Those are the equivalents of the sacrificial virgins of earlier times, designed to protest the others from wrath. In this case, what they fear is the wrath of the people not of gods.

November 22, 2011

The supercommittee throws in the towel

My prediction that the point of the supercommittee was a way to gets cuts in social programs passed in Congress was wrong. Although that may have been the plan all along, it seems like the devotion of the Republicans to enriching the already superrich was too strong to overcome their desire to inflict pain on the poor, and so no deal was reached.

So what about the automatic triggers of $600 billion each in defense and non-defense spending that are supposed to go into effect automatically, and the prospect of which was supposed to be so dire that it would force the supercommittee to come up with a plan? The $600 billion is social spending will cause severe pain to ordinary people but the oligarchs and their agents in Congress do not care about that. It is the $600 billion in defense cuts that is the cause of Congressional angst.

It looks like since those cuts only go into effect in 2013, Congress thinks that it has time to find a way to avoid it. It will not be easy. The legislation that created the deal will have to be repealed by a new law passed by Congress and president Obama has promised to veto any such measure, though Obama's promises cannot be taken seriously.

I frankly do not know how this will play out now. There are too many variables at play. But expect to see a lot of posturing and grandstanding and finger pointing. In other words, the normal working of Congress.

November 21, 2011

Invoking the mercy rule on Herman Cain

Herman Cain is continuing in full gaffe form suggesting, in response to a question about the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, that he thinks the president can overturn US Supreme Court rulings.

Elsewhere, Cain said that the Taliban are in the new Libyan government, perhaps because he thinks that Libya and Afghanistan share a common border.

In some sports one has the 'mercy rule' in which teams, once they are sure of victory, deliberately hold back from further scoring in order to avoid embarrassing their opponents. It is time to for me to do that for Herman Cain. He has become such an easy target, such a laughing stock, and so obviously inept that it seems no longer worthwhile to comment on any more of his absurdities.

So Herman, gaffe away. I am done with you. Unless it is really, really funny.

Clever UC Davis students

Here is another view of the long silent walk of UC Davis chancellor Linda Katehi to her car after the contentious press conference on Friday after the pepper-spraying atrocity.

I have to hand it to the students. This was one of the most effective strategies they could have adopted. The dead silence with which they watch her walk was far more effective at showing her impotence than her being jeered or yelled at.

A rally is being planned at noon today (Pacific time) on the UC Davis campus.

The creeping paramilitarization of the police

The government response to the Occupy Wall Street movement has been to unleash the police to forcibly clear the protestors from various sites. The crackdown has many of the signs of paramilitary actions: dark uniforms and hard enveloping black helmets with visors that hide the faces, brandishing large truncheons, with tasers and guns on their hips, widespread use of pepper spray and tear gas, rough treatment of peaceful protestors irrespective of age and whether they are resisting.

Here are some photos of recent events, where the police look like the storm troopers from Star Wars. We should note that this look by the police is deliberately created. It is not merely meant for their own protection but also to intimidate people, not just the protestors they are confronting but anyone who sees the events in newspapers and on TV and on the web who might think twice before joining the protests and having to personally confront storm troopers.

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Up to now, the fact that the police still have visible names and numbers on their uniforms act as a restraint on the brutality, since they can be singled out and punished, however mildly, for excesses. The real danger comes when even those identifiers are covered up, because then there will be little restraint. This may well happen since some of the more aggressive police have already been identified for shaming and police chiefs may say they need the anonymity to 'protect' their people from retribution.

The next stage in paramilitary actions come when the uniforms become generic and the vehicles unmarked, preventing identification of even the police units involved let along individual officers. Then we are approaching the stage of the death squads that operate with impunity in so many countries and where people that are perceived as opponents of the government simply 'disappear', to be never seen again. We are not there yet, but vigilance is required to make sure we do not.

The Egyptian military government has recently been cracking down hard on demonstrators there, causing many deaths and using the police tactics in the US as justification. Gawker comments that when watching the video footage of police beating protestors with sticks and dragging them by the hair, it is hard to tell if we are seeing events in Egypt or in the US, except that the chyrons are in Arabic.

Yes, we have become the model for the Egyptian military junta.

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November 20, 2011

UC Davis chancellor faces backlash

This video of students massively protesting being excluded from a media press conference by the university chancellor Linda Katehi, who is facing demands from her own faculty to resign, is gripping. Using the 'mic check' technique that is one of the great innovations of the Occupy movement, they get their voices heard.

The last minute of the video, where the chancellor walks a silent gauntlet of students to her car, is striking and should give pause to other officials who think about using the police to brutally suppress peaceful protestors.

Here's an interview with one of the students who were pepper-sprayed who describes what happened in the time leading to the police action and afterward.

Which side are you on?

From reader Tim, I received this animation from The Guardian that explains the growth of inequality in the US.

The reason I back the Occupy movement is not because they have specific demands that I agree with. Long time readers of this blog know that I, along with scattered others, have been railing against the increasing power of the oligarchy for years with little or no effect. But thanks to the heroic actions of the people in the Occupy movement, within the space of just two months that topic is now front and center, with even the mainstream media forced to discuss it.

The Occupy movement is not asking for this or that specific demand. It is a bit much to ask the movement to provide solutions to the problems facing the global economy. That is the proper role of governments. But the way the government goes about suggesting solutions depends upon the way they view the problem. And their current perspective is that of the oligarchy.

The Occupy movement is saying that the system is corrupt to the core and that the perspective that should be adopted is that of ordinary people. It is only when the oligarchy and their political and media allies are frightened of our numbers that we will see any fundamental change in perspective. That is why the oligarchy will try to crush the Occupy movement before it can gain further strength. Those who ask for specific demands or quibble about whether a march or setting up a protest line or a tent is legal are not only missing the point, they are actually diverting attention from the more important question of for whose benefit the government is working.

In an earlier age, the oligarchy unleashed similar attacks on another people's movement, the unions, which were also seen as a threat. This famous union song by the great Pete Seeger is from that time.

The Occupy movement is forcing all of us to confront the same question again: Which side are you on?

November 19, 2011

Confrontation with police at UC Davis

In a further example of the growth of paramilitary practices in the US, watch a policeman walk up and down a line of sitting students at Occupy UC Davis and squirt pepper spray directly into their faces, as if they were a row of weeds.

After some initial confusion, the other students react, chanting "Shame on you!" and massing and surrounding the police and advancing on them as they slowly back away. At some point, using the effective 'open mic' technique that has become ubiquitous as a result of the Occupy movement, the students offer the police the chance to take their weapons and leave, which they do amidst chants of "You can go!", averting further confrontation.

It is clear from the coordinated efforts to forcibly uproot the Occupy movement that the oligarchy views it as a threat, not major one at the moment, but with the potential to become so if not crushed quickly. Chris Hayes uncovers a story in which a lobbying group warns the American Bankers Association of the danger and offers to help them counter the movement.

If South American countries prosecute their war criminals, why don't we?

Latin American countries used to be notorious for having dictators who ruthlessly repressed their own people, used death squads and torture indiscriminately, and demanded and received immunity for their acts. The rest of the world looked down at them for their lawlessness. Almost all of those dictators were strongly supported by the US.

But things are different now. In this interview, Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, talks about the changes, how those countries are opening up the dark past and revealing the details of the abuses. One country Uruguay has even revoked the amnesty that was once granted to the perpetrators and says that it will treat all the abuses as crimes against humanity.

The vaults of the CIA, FBI, National Security Council, and the State Department contain documentation that would, if released, prove invaluable in tracking down and prosecuting those criminals. But since the US is fully engaged in the same kinds of lawless practices, such as torture, murder, and self-immunity that those countries used to indulge in, it is unlikely that they will release the documents.

While the Latin American countries are trying to write their past wrongs, many of their past excesses can be seen in current practices in the US, such as the use of paramilitary tactics on the Occupy Wall Street protestors. When you see police in riot gear with batons and gases strong-arming unarmed protestors, irrespective of age or whether they are even resisting, it is eerily reminiscent of what used to be commonplace on the streets of Buenos Aires or Montevideo. We do not have (as far as I know) death squads acting within the US killing off the enemies of the government, though they do act overseas with drones being the weapon of choice.

November 18, 2011

California gay marriage verdict

The California Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the backers of Proposition 8 that banned gay marriage in that state do have the standing to sue in the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a District Court judge's ruling that the proposition violated the US constitution. Hence their appeal can go forward. If the court had ruled the other way, the District Court opinion would have gone forward and gays would have been able to marry.

I think the verdict is the correct one. Usually, it is the state government that pursues any appeals to court decisions that overturn laws but in this case the governor and attorney general of California had both declined to appeal the District Court ruling. I am uncomfortable with the idea that government officials should be given the power to prevent a full legal hearing of an issue. The backers of a proposition should have the right to pursue the legal process to its end.

Although this is a setback for gay rights, a more important principle is at stake and that is that government officials should not be given the power to determine who gets their day in court.

I think this setback for gay rights is temporary. The march for equal rights is unstoppable and that day will come soon, both in the courts and in public opinion.

Bye, bye, Herman, it's been fun

It is becoming clear that Herman Cain's 15 minutes of fame are up. So what caused the rise and fall of Cain? The fall is perhaps easier to explain than the rise. While I think he could have survived the fact that he is ignorant about almost anything other than the restaurant business or that he seems to be a creep when it comes to women, the combination of the two was too much even for the Republican party's crazy base. The relentless mockery has taken its toll. As one could have expected, The Daily Show mined a rich vein of comedy out of Cain's latest gaffe over Libya. It was brutal.

He is no longer their darling and their new heartthrob is, incredibly, Newt Gingrich. It is surely an indication of how desperate they are and how much they dislike Mitt Romney that they are now pinning their hopes on yet another arrogant blowhard, someone whose candidacy was declared dead just a short while ago and will be dead again soon.

The Republican party primaries are providing further evidence of the reality of the 27% crazification factor, that argues that 27% of the electorate is willing to support even the craziest of candidates or issues. That was roughly the size of the support that Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain reached before their stars faded and that group looked for a new crazy person to venerate.

But what caused Cain's rise in the first place? Reader Tim sent along this very amusing clip in which Rachel Maddow marshals the evidence that Herman Cain is a performance artist whose entire campaign was a spoof, and that he kept sending out coded messages that indicated it was all a joke but that we missed them. And this was even before the Libya fiasco. Calling Cain a performance artist could be construed as an insult to genuine performance artists, but in recent days that term has become synonymous with anyone who is pulling a complex prank or hoax. (Incidentally, while I like Rachel Maddow, she is a little too hyper for my style. But I like that fact that she has her own show and presents views and guests that might not get a hearing otherwise.)

Maddow was being facetious (I think). I don't think Cain started out as a hoax candidacy. I think that he was just another one of those rich former businessmen who are arrogant enough to think that they are really smart and can run the country but did not seriously expect to succeed in their campaign. It likely started out as a vanity project to get him a brief moment of the limelight. I think he may have been truly surprised by the fact that crazy policies that feed the prejudices of the base, delivered with arrogance and condescension, struck a chord with so many party faithful that he started to think he had a serious shot at the nomination, not realizing that slogans only take you so far and that increased prominence brings increased scrutiny. This, coupled with the fact that Republican party's real power brokers were probably terrified that someone as unelectable as he would get the nomination, resulted in him getting hammered from even those within his party, so that his campaign started taking on water and sinking rapidly. It is noticeable that Republican party stalwarts, and this includes Fox News, did not rush to provide Cain with a full-throated defense, a sure sign that they want him gone.

Conversely, Romney has been saying all manner of contradictory and bizarre things and yet he has escaped any serious criticism from the Republican establishment commentariat. The Republican party leadership clearly wants Romney, reckoning correctly that he will advance oligarchic interests and has the best chance of winning in 2012. It will be interesting to see how they undermine the Gingrich boomlet.

The party leadership doesn't really care about Romney's dubious stands on social values that the crazy base of the party really cares about and has resulted in the latter creating a movement that is dedicated to preventing Romney from getting the nomination. The person who must be most chagrined is Tim Pawlenty. He would have been the most credible not-Romney who could have got the support of both the party leadership and the crazies except that he was knocked out by the idiotic and absurdly unrepresentative Ames, Iowa straw poll right at the beginning.

So it is time to say farewell to the Herminator.

November 15, 2011

Libya? Let me try answer #3

Herman Cain's response to a question about Libya makes Rick Perry's flub during the debate pale in comparison. It is painful to watch Cain struggling to remember what he has been told to say about Libya and not confuse that answer with other rehearsed answers. After about ninety seconds of complete incoherence, he then launches into one of those non-answer answers that seasoned politicians have perfected but he is just learning to do. He seems to make the weird claim that the US intelligence services had important information about the situation in Libya that they did not share with Obama which was why he made bad decisions, though Cain did not specify what it was he disagreed with.

The crackdown begins

It looks like cities have begun to crackdown with a vengeance against the Occupy movement all over the country. The police are using tough tactics and it is clear that the movement cannot combat such force. Stephen Colbert showed what happened at Berkeley.

But even if the protestors are driven out, they have achieved one big victory and that is to change the national conversation to the critical issue of inequality and oligarchic rule. That is the one key issue of our time and the discussion about what to do about it is long overdue.

November 11, 2011

Standing by your man

The Herman Cain harassment story is turning into a long-running saga with each day seemingly bringing forth a new complainant and him changing his story accordingly. According to initial polls, the sexual harassment settlements do not seem to have hurt his standing amongst his fan base in the Republican party. His fundraising seems to be going well too.

I am not surprised. One of the things that characterize a sizable chunk (~20%) of party loyalists is that once they make an emotional investment in a candidate because they think he or she is 'one of them', they will stick with that person whatever happens, even if that requires them to abandon positions that they once held.

I suspect that this attitude has always been there but I first noticed it in its most extreme form back in 2008. People who would condemn sex outside of marriage and look down as a bad parent someone whose child had a baby out of wedlock, completely abandoned that stance when it was revealed that Sarah Palin's daughter was pregnant while still in high school. I wrote then:

I have been impressed by the ability of some of the Republican party and its conservative Christian base to pivot so quickly, suddenly celebrating things like teenage parenthood that they would have normally been swift to condemn as incontrovertible evidence of the increasing sinfulness of the nation as a result of taking prayer out of the school and teaching evolution. Now because the person whom they like has these things going on in her family, we are hearing paeans for them as being 'real people', that such things show that the Palins represent 'heartland values'.

I suspect that had McCain nominated someone who later was revealed to be a serial killer but who said he loved Jesus, opposed abortion, and favored policies that favored the wealthy, these same people would suddenly say that 'real Americans' have prison records and the ability to kill without compunction is just the kind of toughness we need in a national leader in order to deal with terrorists. They would also decry as wimps the Democratic candidates because neither had the gumption to shoot a man, just to watch him die.

So far I have not heard anyone say that being charged with sexual harassment is a sign that Cain is a real man, someone with passion and drive who does not play by the rules of namby-pamby society but knows what he wants and goes for it and that is the kind of leader the country needs. But I would not be surprised if someone does. The closest they have come is to make the extraordinary claim that 'sexual harassment' is a 'meaningless' charge that does not exist is reality but is largely a scam to sue powerful and wealthy people. This will no doubt come as a surprise to many people in the workplace.

Things may change if the charges keep coming. Even the most loyal supporter may realize that at some point, even if they are personally willing to overlook the fact that their man is a creep, he is damaged beyond repair and unelectable.

Whatever develops on the harassment front, it is becoming apparent that Cain is an unpleasant, arrogant, egotistical, and self-important man who is used to pushing people around to get his own way. His arrogance is on display in this long profile of him in the New York Times by T. A. Frank.

And is it any wonder that Herman Cain has shed a lot of high-level campaign staff members, both within his national organization and in crucial early states like Iowa and New Hampshire? Most of these former staff members have signed nondisclosure agreements, and others would speak to me only off the record. None of them recall their former boss as a sexual harasser. But they do speak of a man so egotistical that careful self-policing would never really enter into the realm of consideration.

They also speak — bitterly — of a candidate with zero interest in policy. They speak of events canceled at the last minute to accommodate any available television interview. They speak of unrelenting self-absorption, even by the standards of a politician.

But they don’t speak of someone who can’t win.

Cain, when flustered, is very different from Cain the motivational speaker. He grows stiff, his jaw tightens and his blinking speeds up. Meaningless phrases (“It was a joke to the extent in the context of the views that speech”) pile up in a panic.

An interview with Piers Morgan the next day went just as poorly, with Cain, supposedly a pro-life absolutist, offering a full-throated endorsement of a woman’s right to choose. “What I’m saying is it ultimately gets down to a choice that that family or that mother has to make, not me as president, not some politician, not a bureaucrat,” Cain said.

This had to be it for his campaign. The past few days had been disastrous.

Cain’s next set of poll numbers: solid lead.

Let us pause here to make a necessarily severe assessment: to say that Herman Cain has an imperfect grasp of policy would be unfair not only to George W. Bush in 1999 but also to Britney Spears in 1999. Herman Cain seems like someone who, quite frankly, has never opened a newspaper.

Frank's article also has a long quote from Cain's book where he describes how the number 45 keeps cropping up in his life and therefore he ascribes a mystic significance to it. This is despite the fact that he majored in mathematics in college, and thus should be able to see the fallacy of his reasoning.

But there are warning signs that this support for Cain might be soft and that repeated new allegations may sap the enthusiasm of even the most ardent supporter.

November 10, 2011

Republican debate live blog

I did not watch the Republican debate yesterday but this live blog of the event by The Guardian's reporters makes for fun reading.

In defense of Rick Perry

Media coverage of yesterday's Republican debate has zeroed in on Rick Perry's inability to remember the third of the three government departments that he said he wanted to eliminate.

Commentators are saying that this is the last straw for Perry. This may be true, given the shallowness of the political campaign and the people who cover it. But looked at dispassionately, why is it such a big deal? Which one of us hasn't had such a moment? I know I have when giving public talks. Even at faculty meetings it very often happens that people forget the point that they wish to make even as they are trying to make it and we just move on because it is so common. In Perry's case, he must have been nervous because his prior debate performances have been panned so badly. So I can understand why, when he did not immediately remember something, his brain froze.

While following this crazy Republican primary, I have to say that the one candidate whom I have got to like better as it went on is Perry. All the Republican candidates favor policies that I abhor, but on a personal level, Perry has a kind of appealing goofiness, a relaxed congeniality that is really quite appealing. In my opinion, even his widely ridiculed New Hampshire speech revealed a playful side. If it was because he was drunk, we at least know that he is not a mean drunk. His fellow Texan George W. Bush had a sneering, arrogant, supercilious, and condescending attitude to mask his ignorance that made him obnoxious. Bush had all the characteristics of a cruel and petty bully. Herman Cain is in the same mold as Bush, a thoroughly unlikable character. Perry, on the other hand, does not seem to have that same meanness or think that highly of himself and seems to be self-deprecatory. His 'oops' at the end of his flub was a telling indicator that he takes these things lightly, always a good sign.

As to the other Republicans, Mitt Romney has a smarmy, phony quality, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann seem to be crazy religious nutcases who are quite capable of instituting vicious and hateful polices because they truly believe god wants them to do so, and Newt Gingrich is under the irritating delusion that he is some kind of genius when he is just a political hack long past his expiry date. Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, and Perry are the only candidates whom I feel I could discuss politics with without being tempted to throw things at them.

I can understand why Perry is such a political powerhouse in his home state where he has lived and worked all his life. If he is familiar with the issues, his genial personality can work powerfully in his favor. His problem is that he is simply out of his depth on national and international matters and he does not have the debating smarts to mask his lack of knowledge or the bullying arrogance to intimidate his critics.

November 08, 2011

Pandering on the pledge

Just recently I wrote about how easy it is for people to gum things up by pandering to religion and patriotism. As if to support my point, Republicans state legislators in Michigan have introduced legislation that would require all public school children to recite the pledge of allegiance each day.

In 1942, West Virginia passed a law requiring that students salute the flag each day while reciting the pledge of allegiance which at that time did not end with the words 'under God'. The US Supreme Court ruled such actions unconstitutional in 1943, with Justice Robert Jackson writing in his majority opinion:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

November 07, 2011

Chris Hedges speech to Occupy DC

The audio of a nice speech, accompanied by an excellent montage of photos from across the country.

Chris Hedges Speaks @ Occupy Washington from KLL Video Productions on Vimeo.

(Thanks to Tim)

Voting NO on issues 1, 2, 3 tomorrow

Tomorrow is election day and apart from local city council and school board elections, I will be voting 'NO' on all three ballot initiatives.

Issue 1 (TO INCREASE THE MAXIMUM AGE AT WHICH A PERSON MAY BE ELECTED OR APPOINTED JUDGE, TO ELIMINATE THE AUTHORITY OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY TO ESTABLISH COURTS OF CONCILIATION, AND TO ELIMINATE THE AUTHORITY OF THE GOVERNOR TO APPOINT A SUPREME COURT COMMISSION) deals with raising the mandatory retirement age for judges, among other things. I have no strong feelings either way on these matters but it is a constitutional amendment and I think that one should change the constitution only if there are very strong reasons to do so.

Issue 2 (REFERENDUM ON NEW LAW RELATIVE TO GOVERNMENT UNION CONTRACTS AND OTHER GOVERNMENT EMPLOYMENT CONTRACTS AND POLICIES) deals with repealing the law that was passed restricting the collective bargaining rights for government workers. A successful 'no' vote will result in the bill being repealed.

Issue 3 (TO PRESERVE THE FREEDOM OF OHIOANS TO CHOOSE THEIR HEALTH CARE AND HEALTH CARE COVERAGE) nullifies the federal health care reform measures. While I was not a big fan of the reform, it does provide some benefits to people who need them. In addition to opposing the measure on these grounds, it is also a constitutional amendment, another factor against it.

November 06, 2011

Why religion and patriotism make for easy pandering

One of the reasons that I dislike the concepts of patriotism and religion is that they allow people to grandstand without achieving anything substantive. For example, all it takes is for someone to suggest that meetings should begin with the pledge of allegiance or a prayer to put everyone else present in a bind. While it would make perfect sense to oppose the idea as a waste of time, some would be reluctant to do so out of fear that they would be seen or portrayed as opposed to those two sacred cows, god and country.

For example, just last week Congress actually debated and passed a bill that re-affirmed "In God We Trust" as the national motto. Why waste time on this absurdity? Because president Obama had casually said at some meeting that the motto was "E pluribus unum", which actually used to be the country's unofficial motto until 1956 when a formal motto of "In God We Trust" was adopted during the period of cold war hysteria, presumably to distinguish the US from the godless commies. And yet, this absurdity passed by a margin of 396 to 9.

The Daily Show shows what should have been the reaction to this kind of nonsense.

November 05, 2011

Michael Bloomberg plays the Democratic party leadership's game

Matt Taibbi has an excellent rant about the way that people like NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg manages to win over the upper-middle-class liberal Huffington Post types while advancing the most reactionary economic policies. He is essentially playing the traditional Democratic party con game: as long as you take progressive stands on choice, gay marriage, and the like, you can siphon money to the wealthy and beat up on the powerless and still have the crowds lap it up applaud you. The fact that he is a Republican makes him even more attractive to this crowd.

Bloomberg’s great triumph as a politician has been the way he’s been able to win over exactly the sort of crowd that was gathering at the HuffPost event that night. He is a billionaire Wall Street creature with an extreme deregulatory bent who has quietly advanced some nastily regressive police policies (most notably the notorious "stop-and-frisk" practice) but has won over upper-middle-class liberals with his stances on choice and gay marriage and other social issues.

Bloomberg’s main attraction as a politician has been his ability to stick closely to a holy trinity of basic PR principles: bang heavily on black crime, embrace social issues dear to white progressives, and in the remaining working hours give your pals on Wall Street (who can raise any money you need, if you somehow run out of your own) whatever they want.

But most of the article is devoted to ripping apart Bloomberg's analysis of the financial collapse that seeks to avoid placing blame on the financial oligarchs. You really should read the whole thing.

November 04, 2011

When acquittal still gets you a life sentence

To really appreciate how debased our legal system has become, one has to go no further than to read this news report by Carol Rosenberg of The Miami Herald about the pending trial of a person accused of involvement in the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000.

The U.S. military tribunal for the USS Cole bombing suspect has no power to free a captive found innocent of war crimes but shouldn’t be told the terror suspect could be held for life anyway, Pentagon prosecutors said in a court document made public Wednesday.

Defense lawyers want the judge presiding at the death-penalty trial of Abd al Rahim al Nashiri to notify would-be jurors that acquittal of war crimes won’t necessarily mean the Saudi-born captive walks free from the U.S. prison camps at Guantánamo.

It's bad enough that the rules of the military tribunal are such that if the accused is found guilty he can be executed, but if he is acquitted the Obama administration can still imprison him for life. But the administration does not even want the jury (consisting of all military officers) to be told this piece of information, probably fearing that they may not want to participate in what is a kangaroo court or a show trial that were emblematic of some of the worst governments in history.

Scott Horton of Harper's Magazine quotes Robert H. Jackson, a Supreme Court justice then on special leave to handle the prosecutions at the Nuremberg trials who said, "The ultimate principle is that you must put no man on trial under the forms [of] judicial proceedings if you are not willing to see him freed if not proven guilty."

But such quaint considerations of human rights and justice no longer apply. We decide first who is guilty and deserve to be punished and then have a trial to get that result.

Big Brother is watching us

[Update: Today the Associated Press reports that the CIA monitoring everybody's tweets, Facebook pages, chat rooms, etc. as well.]

Via reader Jeff, I came across this excellent article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker on whistleblower Francis Drake and the vigorous attempts by the Obama administration to prosecute him.

At the heart of its case is the attempt by the government to invade people's privacy. The government claimed that it needed the ability to gather information on people's communications as a way to fight the war on terror. But spying on the conversations of Americans in America is against the law. Some people at the National Security Agency developed a program called ThinThread that collected information while people's identities were kept secret. It was only if terrorism was flagged that the identifiers would be revealed. This, they felt, would at least partially preserve the privacy of innocent people by identifying only those against for whom there were serious grounds for suspicion. Thus ThinThread was a way to collect data while preserving privacy. But this tool was ignored because apparently what the government wants to do is be able to single people out by name and snoop on all their communications. This makes Richard Nixon's plumbers and enemies list seem quaint by comparison.

Mayer's article reveals the extent to which the government spies on all of us all the time.

[Matthew] Aid, the author of the N.S.A. history [The Secret Sentry, 2009], suggests that ThinThread's privacy protections interfered with top officials' secret objective—to pick American targets by name. "They wanted selection, not just collection," he says.

[N.S.A. crypto-mathematician Bill] Binney, for his part, believes that the agency now stores copies of all e-mails transmitted in America, in case the government wants to retrieve the details later. In the past few years, the N.S.A. has built enormous electronic-storage facilities in Texas and Utah. Binney says that an N.S.A. e-mail database can be searched with "dictionary selection," in the manner of Google. After 9/11, he says, "General Hayden reassured everyone that the N.S.A. didn't put out dragnets, and that was true. It had no need—it was getting every fish in the sea."

In December 2005, the N.S.A.'s culture of secrecy was breached by a stunning leak. The Times reporters James Risen and Eric Lichtblau revealed that the N.S.A. was running a warrantless wiretapping program inside the United States. The paper's editors had held onto the scoop for more than a year, weighing the propriety of publishing it. According to Bill Keller, the executive editor of the Times, President Bush pleaded with the paper's editors to not publish the story; Keller told New York that "the basic message was: You'll have blood on your hands." After the paper defied the Administration, Bush called the leak "a shameful act." At his command, federal agents launched a criminal investigation to identify the paper's source.

The Times story shocked the country. Democrats, including then Senator Obama, denounced the program as illegal and demanded congressional hearings. A FISA court judge resigned in protest. In March, 2006, Mark Klein, a retired A.T. & T. employee, gave a sworn statement to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which was filing a lawsuit against the company, describing a secret room in San Francisco where powerful Narus computers appeared to be sorting and copying all of the telecom's Internet traffic—both foreign and domestic. A high-capacity fibre-optic cable seemed to be forwarding this data to a centralized location, which, Klein surmised, was N.S.A. headquarters. Soon, USA Today reported that A.T. & T., Verizon, and BellSouth had secretly opened their electronic records to the government, in violation of communications laws. Legal experts said that each instance of spying without a warrant was a serious crime, and that there appeared to be hundreds of thousands of infractions.

Mark Klein, the former A.T. & T. employee who exposed the telecom-company wiretaps, is also dismayed by the Drake case. "I think it's outrageous," he says. "The Bush people have been let off. The telecom companies got immunity. The only people Obama has prosecuted are the whistle-blowers."

Note how Bill Keller, then editor of the allegedly liberal New York Times, withheld the story for more than a year at Bush's request until after Bush was re-elected in 2004.

The government went after Thomas Drake, a senior executive at the NSA, as the suspected leaker and used the 1917 Espionage Act against him, basically accusing him of being a traitor.

Finally the case against Drake collapsed and he was let off with a minor punishment. This was reported as a setback for the government but the idea of such prosecutions is two-fold: to win if possible and punish the whistleblower but even if they lose important cases, their goal is to let all potential whistleblowers know that the government will make their lives hell if they told outsiders what the government was up to, even if it was illegal. But as Glenn Greenwald points out with case after case, Obama's hypocrisy on whistleblowers is matched by some in Congress who feel free to lecture other countries about the need to protect whistleblowers while advancing draconian legislation at home to punish them. Now the FBI is seeking even greater surveillance powers.

As this cartoon by Tom Tomorrow points out, although Obama on the 2008 campaign trail praised whistleblowing as "acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, [and] should be encouraged rather than stifled", once in office he has been one of the most vicious prosecutors. His cruel treatment of Bradley Manning for his alleged leaking to WikiLeaks is unforgivable. All this goes on while the public's attention is diverted elsewhere on relatively trivial government intrusions.

big-government-intrusion.gif

November 02, 2011

Rising tensions over the Occupy movement

The police and authorities in various cities have started to crack down on the Occupy movement and evict them from their sites. The worst such incident using force occurred in Oakland where police used tear gas and so-called 'non-lethal projectiles' (an euphemism for anything other than bullets) with one victim suffering brain injuries when he was hit by a projectile fired by the police and is now awaiting brain surgery. A general strike has been called for in Oakland today.

The Oakland mayor and police chief have received calls for their resignations and are now trying to distance themselves from the brutality that they unleashed. What makes it worse for them is that the victim, rather than someone who could be dismissed as a dirty hippie and therefore underserving of sympathy, is a US marine veteran who had served two tours in Iraq. This has put authorities everywhere on the defensive, though it hasn't stopped them from trying to remove the protestors.

This week's violent clashes with police in Oakland appear to have re-energised the Occupy movement in America, creating political liabilities for civic leaders across the United States, who had seemed poised to follow Oakland's lead and, in some cases, issued orders to clear the streets.

The Oakland protesters were back in force on Wednesday night, 24 hours after they were supposed to be gone for good, demanding the resignation of the city's mayor.

The Daily Show had a segment on the Oakland crackdown.

Stephen Colbert also spoke about it.

I think the authorities are underestimating the widespread but quiet sympathy that exists for the Occupy movement. A lot of people in the US feel politically impotent, that they have no say in the decisions that are made. They may not know what exactly the Occupy movement hopes to achieve but they know that that a small and very wealthy cohort of individuals are manipulating the political system for their private benefit and that the Occupy protestors are the only ones doing anything about it, and for this they are grateful. And the movement has already achieved had one major effect: The conversation has now shifted to talk about jobs and income inequality and in terms of the 1% vs. the 99%, and not about the deficit.

Meanwhile in Egypt there was a demonstration and march on the US embassy, starting at the now iconic Tahrir Square, in support of the Occupy movement and in protest of the police actions against the Oakland protestors. Given that Tahrir Square was the inspiration for protest movements around the world, this was a fitting symbol. There are also protests in Greece over the bailout package that will, like the bailouts in the US, is not meant to bail out the people of Greece but to siphon public money to recompense the big banks for the losses they sustained for their risky behavior. It is interesting how the French and German and US governments are horrified that the Greek government is planning to put the bailout plan to a referendum, as if the thought of people having a say in their country's future is something to be deplored. And big protests and a march on the G20 meeting today in Cannes resulted in the police blocking the marchers from entering the city. The war against the oligarchy is going global, as it should.

Chris Hedges and Amy Goodman, two of the best journalists around, appeared on the Charlie Rose show and provided a thoughtful look at what is going on and what the events symbolize. This took place last Tuesday before the Oakland crackdown so that was not discussed.

October 31, 2011

The Republican comedy road show

I am beginning to wonder if Herman Cain and the entire Republican field are not performance artists and the whole campaign is one big act. Take a look at this long new internet ad from Herman Cain, which is even weirder than the previous blowing smoke ad.

At least the production values have improved a lot. But this ad demonstrates perfectly the fact that the campaign seems to be oblivious to jarring notes. The first part is quite clever and amusing. Then when the actor steps out of the role at the 1:40 mark and becomes presumably himself, he acts like a egotistical and self-important jerk who is rude to the crew. Why would the ad's producers think that an endorsement from such an unlikable person would be a positive thing? And what's with that slow creepy smile at the end that seems to be becoming Cain's trademark?

Stephen Colbert generates more ad ideas for the Cain campaign in the same vein.

In a comment to my earlier post, John suggested that these odd ads may be a smart strategy on Cain's part since the smoker ad has attracted so much attention. I am not convinced. Being talked about is good to gain name recognition but Cain's among Republican voters is already high at 80%, so he does not need more buzz. What he needs to do is convince people that he is a credible leader. It is one thing to have people laugh with you at something clever and funny that you put out, it is quite another to have them laugh at you for seeming to be a little strange. Coming out with ads that are ridiculed even by the people in your own party, such as this parody by Jon Huntsman's three daughters, is not a good sign.

If it was only people like me who are laughing at the antics of the Republican field, trying to outbid each other in pandering to the looniest segments of their party's base, that would be one thing. But even Republican party stalwarts are sounding the alarm. Neoconservative columnist John Podhoretz is one of those clearly worried about the looniness that seems to have overtaken the Republican party although, as Charles Pierce correctly points out, he and his fellow 'moderate' and 'sensible' Republicans benefitted for over three decades because of their careful cultivation and grooming of the crazy base that is all grown up now and biting the hand that fed them. Podhoretz scolds Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney as if they were children, saying:

Memo to the Republican field: You’re running for president. Of the United States. Of America. Start acting like it.

Stop proposing nonsense tax plans that won’t work. Stop making ridiculous attention-getting ads that might be minimally acceptable if you were running for county supervisor in Oklahoma. Stop saying you’re going to build a US-Mexico border fence you know perfectly well you’re not going to build.

Give the GOP electorate and the American people some credit. This country is in terrible shape. They know it. You know it. They want solutions. You’re providing comedy.

Enough with the foolishness. Stop it. Stop it now.

But it is too late. All these conservatives and neoconservative Republican party stalwarts calling for sensible behavior are the ones who sowed the seeds of this behavior. They cannot complain if the plants are now strangling them. Back in November 2008, I pinpointed the precise moment when they lost control and that was John McCain's nomination of Sarah Palin to be his running mate. That let loose the furies that we now see driving the party's agenda.

If they want to pin the blame on someone, it should be John McCain.

October 29, 2011

Drone killings

Nat Hentoff cites Morris Davis, a professor of law at Howard University, who says that the continuous killing by the US of people around the world (Americans and non-Americans alike) in the CIA-run drone program is, apart from being a moral abomination, a clear violation of law because the CIA is a civilian organization and thus does not even have the fig leaf of 'combatant immunity' that the military can use to justify its killings.

October 28, 2011

Signs of strong support for Elizabeth Warren

Since I contributed to Elizabeth Warren's campaign for US senator from Massachusetts, I get email updates of the campaign. I must admit that I was impressed by the size of this turnout in Framingham when she went to a volunteer meeting. Such a huge crowd in a relatively small town for such a meeting more than a year before the election is extraordinary and augurs well for her campaign.

photo-framingham.jpg

I suspect that such enthusiasm is a spin-off from the energy generated by the Occupy Wall Street movement, since she has been such a sharp critic of Wall Street practices.

Losing the capacity for shame

Glenn Greenwald has the details of the drone killing that killed the 16-year old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the son's 17-year old cousin, and seven others while they were reportedly having a meal. The US government will no doubt spin some story to justify their action. The standard operation is to immediately put out some self-serving lies and not worry about them unraveling later, since few people worry about corrections once the initial impression has been made. Nowadays they don't even have to bother doing that since the killing by a US drone of a US teenager by the US government aroused hardly any interest. Just another ho-hum event.

In fact, starting with Saddam Hussein's sons and with Mohammed Gadafi being the latest, celebrating the deaths of whoever has been named a major enemy and exulting over the display of their brutalized corpses with whoops of triumph, akin to one's favorite football team scoring a touchdown, has become the norm. Glenn Greenwald is worth quoting at length:

As I wrote previously, "no decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for Gadaffi, just as none harbored any for Saddam." And it's understandable that Libyans who suffered for four decades under his rule (like Americans after 9/11 or Muslims after years of violence and aggression in their countries) would be eager for vengeance. Nonetheless, and regardless of what one thinks about Gadaffi or the intervention, summarily shooting a helpless detainee in the head is one of the most barbaric acts imaginable — under all circumstances — but Gadaffi's gruesome death nonetheless sparked waves of American jubilation and decrees of self-vindication this week.

It is difficult to articulate exactly why, but there is something very significant about a nation that so continuously finds purpose and joy in the corpses its government produces, while finding it in so little else. During the Bush years, I frequently wrote about how repetitive, endless fear-mongering over Terrorism and the authoritarian radicalism justified in its name was changing — infecting and degrading — not just America's policies but its national character. Among other things, this constant fixation on alleged threats produces the mindset that once the government decrees someone to be a Bad Guy, then anything and everything done to them (or ostensibly done to stop them) is not merely justified but is cause for celebration. That was the mentality that justified renditions, Guantanamo, vast illegal domestic surveillance, aggressive war against Iraq, and the worldwide torture regime: unless you support the Terrorists and Saddam, how could you oppose any of that?

That character-degradation is produced at least as much by conditioning the citizenry to stand and cheer, to beat its chest, to feel righteous and proud, each time the government produces a new dead Bad Guy. Even at its most necessary and justified, the act of ending a human life with state violence should be a somber and lamentable affair. There's something bloodthirsty about reacting ecstatically. To react that way when guilt is unproven (Awlaki), or when the person is unknown (most drone victims), or is killed by acts of pure barbarism (Gadaffi) is the mind of a savage. But it's now been more than a decade since 9/11, and this has been the prevailing mentality in America continuously since then (to say nothing about the lengthy, brutal wars fought before that). What happens to a citizenry and a nation that so frequently erupts into celebratory dances over the latest dead body its government displays?

What's perhaps most revealing about these death-celebrations are how reflexive — how visceral — they have become. For a President to claim the power to target his own citizens for death — and to do so in total secrecy, with no rules or oversight — is literally one of the most radical powers that a political leader can seize. The Fifth Amendment's guarantee of "due process" was intended to prohibit exactly that, as was the Constitution's heightened requirements for proving "Treason" in a court of law. Had George Bush seized this power, it would have led the list of progressive "shredding-the-Constitution" grievances against him. But all of that was washed away in the celebrations over Awlaki's death, drowned out by the blind ritualistic war cry of He was Bad and so I'm glad he's dead!

Constantly celebrating the people we kill — dancing over their corpses — is now one of the most significant and common American rituals shaping our political culture. One of the most consequential aspects of the Obama legacy is that this mentality has become fully bipartisan. And it's hard to see how this will change any time soon: once one goes down that road, it's very difficult to turn around and go back. That's true both individually and of a nation.

Even the Los Angeles Times notes the remarkable expansion in the use of deadly force by Obama, saying:

For a president who promised to end the gunslinger ways of his predecessor, Barack Obama has proven himself comfortable with the use of lethal force… All told this year, he has sent U.S. troops into action on land or in the skies of seven countries on two continents.

Now he has added Moammar Kadafi to the list of enemies eliminated.

"This comes at a time when we see the strength of American leadership across the world," Obama said from the White House Rose Garden, tabulating his achievements with language that betrayed a trace of bravado.

Our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president Obama is really on a roll now, deliberately killing foreigners and US citizens with abandon. And as the deaths of al Awlaki's son and nephew indicate, even adolescents and children are fair game. As Jacob Hornberger says, "The assassination of 16-year-old American Abdulrahman al-Awlaki confirms that we now live in a country whose government has the unfettered authority to assassinate anyone it wants, adult or minor, foreigner or American, and remain mute about it."

Amy Davidson wonders in The New Yorker how far along we have to go on this road of celebrating the killing and imprisoning of even children and adolescents before we begin to ask ourselves who or what we have become. How young must the victims get before we recoil in horror? At long last, have we no shame?

UPDATE: Rick Santorum raises the ante saying that the US should actually cold-bloodedly murder any scientist who may be working on nuclear weapons programs for countries the US or Israel does not like. And this person is seeking the presidential nomination of a major party.

October 27, 2011

Ron Paul causes some embarrassment

During the ritualistic chest-thumping of the last Republican debate about how the candidates would never negotiate for hostages, Ron Paul created an awkward moment when he reminded them that the sainted Ronald Reagan had traded arms for hostages with Iran. Watch.

October 26, 2011

Why US troops are leaving Iraq

Recent news reports have said that the US is making arrangements for a complete troop withdrawal from Iraq by December 31. I said five years ago that I felt that there was bipartisan agreement in the US to keep troops in that country indefinitely as part of its ambitions for global empire, mainly because the US was investing so much money to construct massive, permanent, military bases in addition to the largest embassy in the world. This did not look like the actions of a country that was planning to leave any time soon. So the announcement of a 'complete withdrawal' requires some explanation.

The picture has been confused by the White House's contradictory statements. While they try to pacify their antiwar supporters by acting as they actually wanted this outcome and are fulfilling a campaign promise for withdrawal, they are also trying to counter their Republican critics, who are blasting them for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and demanding that the US continue to keep its troops there, by pointing out that the December 31, 2011 deadline was actually negotiated by George W. Bush with the Iraqi government back in 2008, in something known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that was subsequently endorsed by the Iraqi parliament. It was what allowed the US to continue to keep troops in the country beyond the earlier December 31, 2008 deadline.

The story gets even more complicated. The idea seemed to be that the SOFA would be re-negotiated later to extend that deadline beyond 2011. And in fact, contrary to the idea that this withdrawal outcome was something Obama wanted in order to keep his campaign promise, the Obama administration has been negotiating with the Iraqi government to extend the deadline and the withdrawal announcement was caused by the Iraqis being adamant about not allowing it. In fact, the White House is still negotiating for a continuation, even after the withdrawal announcement.

Why are the Iraqis balking at an extension? The main reason is that the US is insisting that US troops have immunity from the Iraqi government for any actions in that country. But many events involving US troops killing civilians have angered Iraqis, and the idea of giving immunity that might be seen as condoning and even encouraging further such actions was seen as a non-starter by a significant segment of the Iraqi population.

One incident that has caused particular outrage was the release in May of this year by WikiLeaks of a US diplomatic cable of a massacre in 2006 by US troops, as reported by the McClatchy news service. (Warning: Heartbreaking photo of dead young children accompanies the story.)

A U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks provides evidence that U.S. troops executed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, including a woman in her 70s and a 5-month-old infant, then called in an airstrike to destroy the evidence, during a controversial 2006 incident in the central Iraqi town of Ishaqi.

But Philip Alston, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, said in a communication to American officials dated 12 days after the March 15, 2006, incident that autopsies performed in the Iraqi city of Tikrit showed that all the dead had been handcuffed and shot in the head. Among the dead were four women and five children. The children were all 5 years old or younger.

It is likely that the anger at reports of such incidents, and the natural feeling that people who committed such atrocities must be brought to justice, torpedoed any efforts by the Nouri al-Maliki government to obtain the immunity required by the US.

It did not help the US that since Bush signed the agreement, party members representing cleric Muqtada al Sadr have gained significant strength in the Iraqi parliament, winning 40 seats in the 2010 elections and gaining eight seats in the cabinet. al Sadr has close ties with Iran and is adamantly opposed to any extension for US troops.

Even after the withdrawal, the US will still have a major military presence in Iraq, consisting of a small army of private military contractors working for the State Department. They have similar military capabilities to the US army and their role will be to protect US interests, including the massive embassy and five consulate-like outposts spread around the country. The State Department is keeping secret its plans for this private army and denying the usual government oversight committees any jurisdiction. This is not a good sign because these private armies lack the discipline and accountability of the regular military and the State Department has little experience with overseeing such a quasi-military operation. It was private contractors that were responsible for the 2007 event when Blackwater security personnel killed 17 civilians in a rampage at a crowded traffic circle in Baghdad. The company renamed itself Xe Services after that event.

It seems likely that the US will continue its negotiations for an extension right down to the wire.

(See Glenn Greenwald for more here and here.)

October 25, 2011

Is Herman Cain stupid?

Clearly the panel on Bill Maher's show think that Cain could give Sarah Palin a run for the title of the most ignorant and confused high-profile politician in recent times.

One thing that panelist Joshua Green said shed a lot of light and that is that although Cain is described as the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza, that was from a long time ago. What he has been doing for the last fifteen years is touring as a motivational speaker. People who do that can get used to blathering self-help messages tailored to get a rousing response from the audience right in front of them without bothering about whether it makes sense or contradicts what they said to another audience at another time and place.

Cain's latest campaign ad also has to make you wonder at his judgment. Look at what happens at the 40-second mark. Can you imagine any other candidate letting that pass?

October 23, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement gains allies

The Occupy Wall Street movement is broadening its base and gaining more allies every day. Now a group called Occupy Writers has joined in that contains such famous names as Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Lemony Snicket, Barbara Ehrenreich, Naomi Klein, and Ann Patchett, some of whom have contributed original writings, such as the thirteen observations by Lemony Snicket, a few of which are given here:

  • People who say money doesn’t matter are like people who say cake doesn’t matter—it’s probably because they’ve already had a few slices.
  • There may not be a reason to share your cake. It is, after all, yours. You probably baked it yourself, in an oven of your own construction with ingredients you harvested yourself. It may be possible to keep your entire cake while explaining to any nearby hungry people just how reasonable you are.
  • Historically, a story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.

Meanwhile Saturday Night Live broadcasts a press conference by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

October 20, 2011

Oligarchy to Democrats: Show us some love or else!

The strategy of the Democratic party has been to preach a populist message while serving the interests of the oligarchy, mollifying their supporters with support for social policies that the oligarchy does not care about. They have managed to play game successfully for some time but the Occupy Wall Street movement threatens to unmask that strategy and expose the harsh reality of politics.

The OWS movement has attracted wide popular support and the Democrats risk alienating their base if they go against it and so they have gingerly supported it. As this report says: "President Barack Obama and other top Democrats are parroting the anti-corporate rhetoric running through the Occupy Wall Street protests, trying to tap into the movement's energy but keep the protesters at arms' length."

But even this tepid support has enraged the oligarchy, who do not take kindly to the people they view as their servants getting all uppity and criticizing them, They are demanding that the Democratic party disassociate themselves from the movement or face the cut-off of contributions.

After the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent a recent email urging supporters to sign a petition backing the wave of Occupy Wall Street protests, phones at the party committee started ringing.

Banking executives personally called the offices of DCCC Chairman Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and DCCC Finance Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) last week demanding answers, three financial services lobbyists told POLITICO.

"They were livid," said one Democratic lobbyist with banking clients.

The execs asked the lawmakers: "What are you doing? Do you even understand some of the things that they've called for?" said another lobbyist with financial services clients who is a former Democratic Senate aide.

Democrats' friends on Wall Street have a message for them: you can't have it both ways.

It will be interesting to see how the Democratic party tries to walk that tightrope. I predict they will try to cobble together some cosmetic changes that will appease the protestors while leaving oligarchic interests largely intact.

Obama has secret evidence of Iranian plot

There has been widespread scoffing at the claims by the Obama administration that they had uncovered an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to the US. Justin Raimondo rounds up some of the views of analysts who find the story, in which the key plotter turns out to be a bumbling, alcoholic, used-car salesman, quite incredible. Much of the skepticism centers around the fact that the alleged mastermind seems to be hardly competent to get through a normal day, let alone plan and execute a complex operation. Juan Cole thinks that he may well be clinically insane.

Julian Borger of The Guardian raises many unanswered questions about the allegations, of which one is key:

The key evidence that the alleged plot was serious was the $100,000 wire transfer. It came from a foreign bank account, but that cannot be an Iranian account because such transfers are impossible under US law. The money must have come from a third country, but which? And how can the US authorities be so sure the foreign accounts were under the control of the Quds force?

In a blog post, the editorial page editor of the LA Times asks a question that is rarely asked in the corporate media:

But wait a minute. Two weeks ago, the United States assassinated one of its enemies in Yemen, on Yemeni soil. If the U.S. believes it has the right to assassinate enemies like Anwar Awlaki anywhere in the world in the name of a "war on terror" that has no geographical limitation, how can it then argue that other nations don't have a similar right to track down their enemies and kill them wherever they're found?

It's true that the assassination of Awlaki was carried out with the cooperation of the government of Yemen. That makes a difference. But would the U.S. have hesitated to kill him if Yemen had not approved? Remember: There was no cooperation from the Pakistani government when Osama bin Laden was killed in May.

It's also true that there's a big difference between an Al Qaeda operative who, according to U.S. officials, had been deeply involved in planning terrorist activities, and a duly credited ambassador of a sovereign country. Still, the fact remains that all nations ought to think long and hard before gunning down their enemies in other countries.

As the United States continues down the path of state-sponsored assassination far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, all sorts of tricky moral questions are likely to arise. But this much is clear: The world is unlikely to accept that the United States has a right to behave as it wishes without accountability all around the globe and that other nations do not.

Glenn Greenwald reminds us that it is extremely rare that anyone in the mainstream media points out the obvious double standards that are at play in US foreign policy.

So if the plot turns out to be yet another case of the US government using money and arms to lure some loser into agreeing to a plot that would be unmasked with great fanfare, what is the point? What is the goal of publicizing this? Stephen Walt is puzzled. Patrick Cockburn suggests a 'wag the dog' strategy now that Obama is seeking to rally support for his re-election campaign.

The most likely motive for the Obama administration's vigorously expressed belief in the plot is that it is preparing the ground for the 2012 presidential election. Mr Obama's economic and social policies are failing and his only undiluted successes have been the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. By dramatising how he frustrated the fiendish plots of the Iranians, Mr Obama can present himself as the president who kept America safe, or at least protect his national security political flank from criticism by the Republicans.

Many of the mysteries of American foreign policy make perfect sense when related to the overriding need of those in power in Washington to get re-elected.

But all these skeptics need not worry! Obama says that he can prove that it is all true and is pushing ahead with plans to plans for more sanctions against Iran, if not outright war. But, of course, the evidence must be kept secret and we simply have to take his word for it. Now that he has taken upon himself the right to order the murder of anyone he deems to be a terrorist, this seems like a small thing to ask, no?

October 19, 2011

What was that outfit?

Bachmann.jpgI usually avoid commenting on the looks, clothing, and general appearance of politicians but I must say that I was startled to see photos this morning of Michele Bachmann's outfit at yesterday's debate. What with the gold buttons, Nehru jacket collar, and epaulets, she looked like she was auditioning to be the commander of the spaceship in the next film in the Star Trek series.

I am curious if people who are knowledgeable about such matters think it was a good choice for a presidential debate.

Herman Cain's 9-9-9 plan under fire

This chart from the Tax Policy Center shows that Herman Cain's much publicized 9-9-9 plan will raise taxes on those earning less than $200,000 per year while lowering taxes for those above, with a huge windfall for the millionaire class. Matt Yglesias puts the numbers into a chart that show how incredibly regressive it is.

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Cain's plan got him attention because of its catchy title. But because it is his only concrete proposal, it is going to hurt badly as the reality of its impact sinks in. He can stave off the inevitable for a while by claiming that all his critics are wrong or have misunderstood it or by weirdly repeating the phrase 'apples and oranges', but when even rabid anti-tax nutcases like Rick Santorum says that this plan will raise taxes on 84% of the people, he is in trouble. There is no way that this turkey is going to fly.

I was amused by Cain in yesterday's debate urging people to ignore all the analysts and do the math themselves. He must be depending on the poor math skills of the general public to save his plan.

Update: jpmeyer in the comments gives an even better graph by Jared Bernstein of the impact of Herman Cain's plan.

October 18, 2011

What Occupy Wall Street has achieved

There are those who criticize the Occupy Wall Street movement, complaining that they don't have concrete demands and have not proposed any solutions to the problems. I disagree with that criticism. It seems to me a bit much to expect an unorganized group of people scattered over the globe to come up with solutions to big problems at a time when the US government is so dysfunctional, when it lurches from one crisis to another and is not even able to carry out its minimal function of passing a budget, and when the global economy seems to be so shaky that world leaders seem to be at a loss as to what to do.

What is important is that the movement has highlighted the fact that the problem is with the system itself, not with specific policies that the system creates. As Glenn Greenwald says:

Anyone who expressed difficulty seeing or understanding what motivates these protests revealed many things about themselves. None is flattering. The only thing that’s surprising is that these protests didn’t happen sooner and that they’re not more widespread and intense. I think it’s become increasingly clear that that is likely to change, and soon. Like the Arab Spring, the rapid growth of these protests should be a permanent antidote against defeatism. It’s unclear what these protests will accomplish — that still depends on how many people join them and what they cause it to be — but, already, they prove that the possibility always exists for subverting even the most seemingly invulnerable power factions. That hasn’t happened yet, but the possibility that these protests are only in their incipient stages is one of the more exciting and positive political developments in some time. It’s been clear for quite awhile that unrest and disruptions — and the fear which they alone can put in the hearts and minds of those responsible for widespread ills — are absolute prerequisites for meaningful reform (our fundamentally corrupted electoral process certainly can’t and won’t accomplish that). These protests at least reflect the possibility, the template, for that to happen. And anyone expressing confusion about why these protests are erupting is almost certainly someone invested in keeping things exactly the way they are.

What I am surprised at is how much the movement has achieved. It has spread across the country and the globe. The Guardian has an interactive map of the 951 protests in 82 cities. It has galvanized people who had thought things were hopeless. From being largely ignored or viewed with scorn and derision, it is now being taken seriously by the ruling elites. It is dominating the news with even the corporate media being forced to give respectful coverage. It has changed the conversation, with the focus now aimed squarely at the income and wealth gaps between the oligarchy and the rest of us, and the excessive power of the global financial elites. The slogan "We are the 99%" has caught on and brought scrutiny to bear on the 1%.

The movement has also forced politicians to tread gingerly, to avoid being seen as on the wrong side. President Obama and the Democratic party leadership, although friends and protectors of the oligarchy, have taken pains to try and act as if they sympathize with the movement. Even Eric Cantor, the Republican party leader who initially condemned the movement as a 'mob', now says he can understand their frustration. The bankers on Wall Street are complaining that the politicians that they bought are not publicly siding with them against the protestors. But even they have been forced to grumble privately because to attack the protestors publicly is too hot politically.

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(Cartoonist is Drew Sheneman. See also Tom Tomorrow.)

The general public is also warming up to the movement with significant majorities agreeing with the main points being made. Even Karl Denninger, one of the founders of the Tea Party, expresses sympathy with the Occupy Wall Street movement and says that the strategy of having a permanent occupation and avoiding calls for a single set of demands is a good one. "The problem with protests and the political process is that it is very easy, no matter how big the protests is, for the politicians to simply wait for the people to go home. Then they can ignore you…. One of the things that the Occupy movement seems to have going for it is it has not turned around and issued a set of formal demands. This is a good thing, not a bad thing."

As Matt Taibbi points out, the Occupy Wall Street movement transcends the tired left-right, liberal-conservative, Democrat-Republican narrative that the oligarchy and its media like because once you do that, partisans respond to the bugle call and line up accordingly and fight with each other. They do not like to see a critique of the system as fundamentally corrupt because that is a unifying message that will work against them.

All this must be causing some concern to the oligarchy. Will the political allies of the oligarchy try and disperse the movement by force? There have been attempts at this but the use of seemingly excessive force by some NYPD officers has backfired and now there are investigations of two senior officers. Nowadays almost everyone has mobile recording devices and I am surprised that the police seem oblivious that the days are gone when they could randomly attack peaceful demonstrators and escape repercussions because they could not be identified.

It is only when the oligarchy is fearful that they have overplayed their hand and are losing control of the discussion that any meaningful change will occur. The Occupy Wall Street movement is starting to create that fear. That is why it must be supported.

October 14, 2011

To vote or not to vote

Recently at a dinner someone made a comment that one hears often, that those who do not vote in elections have no right to then complain about the government's actions or the way society is run. The speaker was implying that voting is the admission price one pays for the privilege of entering the public debate.

I disagree with this sentiment, for many reasons. For one thing, one can have principled non-voting. If one thinks the system is rigged, and that elections are merely a façade designed to give legitimacy to a corrupt political system, then not voting can be a very principled and political act. In such cases, not voting is akin to a boycott, or voting with one's feet. There is a reason that almost all totalitarian societies still feel obliged to hold fraudulent elections in which the ruler gets an overwhelming majority, because elections tend to confer at least some legitimacy on the winner, even if it is rigged, as long as participation is reasonably high. This is why in many autocratic countries people are forced to vote or the ballot boxes are stuffed with counterfeits, while opponents of the regime urge people to boycott them.

Those who say that one must vote in order to have a public voice in policy debates tend to be of the opinion that elections in the US still provide us with real choices and thus not voting must mean that people are too lazy or indifferent to bother to register and vote, and thus are not deserving of a voice. Even if it were true that people are too apathetic to vote, why should such people not be entitled to have a say in public debates? When people have been beaten down and see no hope, while they may not actively boycott elections, they may simply disengage from a political system that is perceived as merely a game of musical chairs. Yet they may well have valid concerns and deserve to be heard.

The election system in the US is partially rigged, not in the sense of pre-determining which individuals will be the winners but in that the nominees of the major parties are in the pockets of the oligarchy and their eventual nominees will be servants of the oligarchy. Thus the only choices we have are those involving social issues that do not affect oligarchic interests. But one cannot totally dismiss the value of even that limited choice. At least on the margins, it could matter who wins office, since the holders of elective positions can affect the lives of real people. Who gets appointed to judiciary and regulatory bodies and how much money is allocated to serve the needs of the underprivileged can have a major impact on the lives of some of the neediest people.

Yes, both major parties care mostly about protecting the interests of the oligarchy but the supporters of Republicans tend to be more callous and ruthless about the poor than the supporters of Democrats. Countering that is the fact that Democratic party can more easily get away with hurting the poor because of the perception that they care about them.

And this is what poses the quandary. Should we not vote to show our displeasure with an oligarchic system? Or should we vote so that we can influence policy on at least social issues? Those of us who see the election system as rigged to present us largely with choices between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, both controlled by the oligarchy, always face a wrenching decision at election time. It would be nice if the system in the US made it easier for third parties to form to give us more choices. In the UK and Canada, they now effectively have three-party systems. It is true that third parties have not resulted in fundamental changes in those countries as yet, but it does provide more choice and opportunities for a break from oligarchic control.

I have on occasion broken free of the two-party trap. In 2000 I voted for Ralph Nader because there really was little difference between the stands that Al Gore and George W. Bush took on the issues of that election. I have to admit that after the Bush-Cheney regime unleashed its mayhem in Iraq and Afghanistan, I felt some guilt about possibly being complicit in helping them come to power, even though no one could have foreseen the events of 9/11 that provided the opening for those actions. But now that Barack Obama, who promised even more change than Gore, has been elected and has turned out to be terrible on issues of civil liberties and war, I suspect that Gore would have likely been as bad as Bush if he had been president after 9/11. The oligarchy keeps a tight leash on those who it allows to hold high office.

It is also not clear that third parties are good agents of change. Maybe true change comes about through pressure politics, by actions in the street that can really frighten the elected officials, whoever they are, that they are losing control. The Arab spring was a model, as is the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Because of all these reasons, I feel conflicted every time elections come around and there is no candidate that I feel strongly positive about. I come from a tradition that inculcated in me a sense that it is one's duty to vote and I have a long history of voting whenever the occasion comes around. I feel strongly the tug to the polling place that I find hard to resist. And yet I often feel almost dirty after doing so, that by voting I am simply perpetuating a bad system by participating in it and voting for the least worst candidate. This is why I refuse to wear the "I voted" stickers that they hand out at polling places. I do not necessarily see it as a badge of honor or a sign of civic virtue.

I personally feel much better about voting on issues, where one can take a definite stand. In elections in Ohio on November 8th, I will enthusiastically vote NO on Issue 2, the referendum that seeks to repeal the law that the Republican-controlled legislature and governor passed removing collective bargaining rights for state employees, and another NO on Issue 3 that seeks to pass a constitutional amendment that effectively nullifies the health care reforms that were passed.

October 12, 2011

Rising Cain

I must admit that the rise of Herman Cain to becoming a major player in the Republican primaries took me by surprise. According to the latest PPP poll, he leads nationally with 30%, followed by Romney with 22%. "If the race came down to a two way match between Cain and Romney, Cain leads 48-36. Cain would pick up Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum's supporters. Romney would get Huntsman and Paul's. Cain would absolutely crush Perry in a head to head, 55-27. He would win over the supporters of every other candidate, including Romney's by a 56-24 margin."

Since I had not given much credence to the idea that Cain would win the nomination or the presidency, I had not really taken the time to examine too closely his stands on the issues or ponder what kind of president he might make.

But even if Cain is a truly awful person to lead the nation, the fact that there is a possibility that the two parties' nominees for the next presidential election could both be people of color signals that the nation has come a long way in its acceptance of minorities in leadership positions.

Both Obama and Cain are obliging servants of the oligarchy, no doubt, but that is a given the way that the election system is currently set up. That particular hurdle will be harder to overcome than even electing a gay, non-Christian, minority woman as president.

The latest scary terror plot

So I turn on the radio this morning and hear Tom Gjelten of NPR regale me with a sensational story of how the US government had busted a plot by the Iranian government to collude with a hit man associated with the Mexican drug cartels to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador in a restaurant in the US, along with hundreds of bystanders. As always, faithful government stenographer that he is, Gjelten (in his case NPR stands for National Pentagon Radio) excitedly passes on uncritically what he hears from the US government.

But I no longer believe what the US government says (unless it provides credible evidence, which it almost never does) because they have proven themselves to be serial liars. It does not seem to give Gjelten pause that all the other breathless revelations of plots against Americans in the US turned out to be cases in which the perpetrators were lured by US government agents who then unmasked the plots with great fanfare.

Glenn Greenwald (The "very scary" Iranian Terror plot) and Justin Raimondo (Iranian Terror Plot: Fake, Fake, Fake) share my skepticism.

Here's Greenwald:

To begin with, this episode continues the FBI's record-setting undefeated streak of heroically saving us from the plots they enable. From all appearances, this is, at best, yet another spectacular "plot" hatched by some halpess loser with delusions of grandeur but without any means to put it into action except with the able assistance of the FBI, which yet again provided it through its own (paid, criminal) sources posing as Terrorist enablers. The Terrorist Mastermind at the center of the plot is a failed used car salesman in Texas with a history of pedestrian money problems. Dive under your bed. "For the entire operation, the government's confidential sources were monitored and guided by federal law enforcement agents," explained U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, and "no explosives were actually ever placed anywhere and no one was actually in ever in any danger.'"

But no matter. The U.S. Government and its mindless followers in the pundit and think-tank "expert" class have seized on this ludicrous plot with astonishing speed to all but turn it into a hysterical declaration of war against Evil, Hitlerian Iran.

Then there's the War on Terror irony: our Hated Enemy here (Iran) is a country which had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. Meanwhile, our close ally, the victim on whose behalf we are so outraged (Saudi Arabia), is not only one of the most tyrannical and aggressive regimes on the planet, but produced 15 of the 19 hijackers and had extensive and still-unknown involvement in that attack. If the U.S. is so deeply offended by the involvement of a foreign government in an attack on U.S. soil, it would be looking first to its close friend Saudi Arabia, where "elements of the government" were likely involved in an actual plot rather than a joke of a plot.

Here's Raimondo:

This story is very scary – not because it's credible, or believable, because it is neither. However, it's the most frightening story I've heard in quite a while because it shows that the US government is bound and determined to go to war with Iran, no matter what the consequences. Throwing caution to the winds, our rulers have decided to go all out against Tehran – all the better to mask our current economic malaise under the damage done by the tripling and quadrupling of oil prices. This way, Obama can blame our crashing economy on Tehran, rather than his own discredited policies – and sideline the Republicans, who have been criticizing him for being "soft" on Iran.

The making of American foreign policy is all about domestic politics. By preparing the country for war with Iran, Obama will not only defang the GOP, but also appease the all-important Israel lobby, which has been beating the war drums for years.

What Obama and his gang are hoping is that the American people are too tired, too beaten down, and too broke to care enough about this latest exercise in war propaganda to question it. Certainly the "mainstream" media, which is Obama's loudest cheering section, isn't about to question it.

Will the public buy this story uncritically? Or have they wised up enough to demand, "Show us the evidence"?

October 11, 2011

"Why the elites are in trouble"

Chris Hedges has been doing some powerful writing on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here is an excerpt from his latest essay with the above title.

Even now, three weeks later, elites, and their mouthpieces in the press, continue to puzzle over what people like Ketchup want. Where is the list of demands? Why don't they present us with specific goals? Why can't they articulate an agenda?

The goal to people like Ketchup is very, very clear. It can be articulated in one word—REBELLION. These protesters have not come to work within the system. They are not pleading with Congress for electoral reform. They know electoral politics is a farce and have found another way to be heard and exercise power. They have no faith, nor should they, in the political system or the two major political parties. They know the press will not amplify their voices, and so they created a press of their own. They know the economy serves the oligarchs, so they formed their own communal system. This movement is an effort to take our country back.

This is a goal the power elite cannot comprehend. They cannot envision a day when they will not be in charge of our lives. The elites believe, and seek to make us believe, that globalization and unfettered capitalism are natural law, some kind of permanent and eternal dynamic that can never be altered. What the elites fail to realize is that rebellion will not stop until the corporate state is extinguished. It will not stop until there is an end to the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, those being slaughtered in our imperial wars and tortured in our black sites. It will not stop until foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students no longer have to go into debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops, and our relationships with each other and the planet are radically reconfigured. And that is why the elites, and the rotted and degenerate system of corporate power they sustain, are in trouble. That is why they keep asking what the demands are. They don't understand what is happening. They are deaf, dumb and blind.

October 10, 2011

The oligarchy exposed

Critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement have asserted that their goals are not clear and they don't have solutions, although it is pretty obvious (as this Tom Tomorrow cartoon says) that economic injustice is their main grievance. But Paul Krugman points out that the hysterical response to the Occupy Wall Street movement is a telling indicator of the fact that the protestors have achieved one major goal: they have put the role of the financial oligarchy in causing the nation's problems in the spotlight and they are squirming and want to shut down the discussion. They much prefer to do their work in the shadows.

The answer, surely, is that Wall Street's Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They're not John Galt; they're not even Steve Jobs. They're people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.

Yet they have paid no price. Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers, with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees — basically, they're still in a game of heads they win, tails taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower rates than middle-class families.

This special treatment can't bear close scrutiny — and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny.

October 08, 2011

Ted Rall on RT America

Political cartoonist and columnist Ted Rall is one of the people indefinitely occupying Freedom Square in Washington DC as part of the October 2011 movement. He talks about what they are hoping to achieve, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the state of US politics. Well worth listening to.

October 07, 2011

There really are death panels

Unlike the ones that exists only in the fevered imagination of opponents of health care reform who labor under the delusion that these panels exist to decide who should get medical treatment and who should be left to die, these death panels are real and consist of people who decide in secret which Americans deserve to be killed by the president, using the entire military apparatus at his disposal.

This report confirms what was reported as far back as in February 2010 when Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, said in a Congressional hearing that the intelligence community had the right to kill Americans abroad who have been deemed to be a threat.

So our government thinks it has the right to send roving gangs of assassins anywhere in the world to murder anyone whom the president has decided must die. It is astonishing to me that people are not outraged.

Glenn Greenwald has more. As usual, political cartoonist Ted Rall nails it.

October 06, 2011

Police beat and pepper-spray the Occupy Wall Street protestors

It looks like the trouble with the police that I feared has already begun.

Occupy Wall Street Arrests; Fox 5 Crew and Protesters Hit by Mace, Batons: MyFoxNY.com

The Guardian covered the march and also the clash with police, with more video.

How will the oligarchy respond to Occupy Wall Street?

As long as the Occupy Wall Street movement remains fairly small and contained, the oligarchy can treat it with condescension, in the expectation that it will dissipate with time. The reaction of the political leadership has been cautious with few venturing comments. Mitt Romney, as unoriginal as ever, has called it (sigh) 'class warfare' and that it was 'dangerous' but dangerous for whom he did not specify. Herman Cain reached new levels of the smugness that afflicts so many rich people, saying, "Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself!" Some people at the Chicago Board of Trade seem to think that mocking the movement is a good idea and, like the champagne swillers in New York, display a sense of ignorance to the legend of Marie Antoinette. These people have no idea of the rising level of anger in the country.

The movement has latched on to succinct slogans that capture the essence of the problem, like "We are the 99%" and the chant "Q: How do we end this deficit? A: End the wars, tax the rich." These are dangerous messages for the oligarchy because they are simple and right on target. As a result, the movement is gaining public support nationwide and growing, and even linking to global protest movements. Nearly a 1000 people turned up in Philadelphia on Tuesday night merely to organize the occupation in that city on October 6th.

The movement is also gaining mainstream acceptability. Even chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke (Ben Bernanke!) said in Congressional testimony that there was "some justification" for the protests and that "At some level I can't blame them. Nine percent unemployment and slow growth is not a good situation." Editorial cartoonists are also spreading the message about the revolt against the 1% epitomized by Wall Street.

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Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! interviewed Kevin Zeese and Dr. Margaret Flowers, two key organizers of the October 2011 movement that was planned six months ago for an indefinite occupation of Washington DC starting today, and that has coincided in a symbiotic way with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

As the movement grows and expands, I fully expect at some point in the near future that the repressive apparatus of the state will be brought in to quash it. I am certain that right now there are high-level discussions amongst members of the oligarchy on how to derail the protests. It will be difficult to forcibly disperse the peaceful occupiers since the initial protestors were mostly educated, white, middle-class, young people (though yesterday's march was much more diverse in terms of age and color) and baton-charging, tear-gassing, and arresting them in large numbers would not look good on TV. The usual method of dealing with such situations is to dispatch some provocateurs to mix in with the protestors and then create divisions and destruction and confrontations. The purpose will be two-fold: to lower public sympathy for the movement by associating it with violence and to provide an excuse for harsh measures to 'restore law and order'. I hope the organizers are prepared to combat this tactic

The rising tensions surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement reminds me of the mood in the classic 1967 song For What It's Worth written by Buffalo Springfield band member Stephen Stills in the wake of an assault by the Los Angeles Police department on young people during that turbulent period.

October 05, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street movement spreads

Movements in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement are springing up in 184 cities and growing rapidly.

Locally, tomorrow (Thursday, October 6th) Occupy Cleveland begins its action at noon at the Free Stamp sculpture site at Willard Park at East 9th and Lakeside. On Saturday the 8th there will be an Occupy Cleveland General Assembly in Public Square from 3:00-6:00 pm. More details are here. As one might expect with a fast-moving, all-volunteer spontaneous movement, things are somewhat chaotic.

Graphic artists have donated downloadable posters for people to use.

Today is National Student Walk-out Day, where college students around the nation are encouraged to walk out of their classes at noon to protest rising tuition and debt.

Meanwhile, read the moving testimonies of people from all walks of life who explain why they are the 99%.

"We Are the 99%"

wearethe99.jpegThe idea that increased unemployment and a vast and growing gap between a rampaging oligarchy and the rest of the population could lead to riots and other forms of trouble in the US is something that some of us have been warning about for some time. But it was still startling to hear someone in the oligarchy like the mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg say the same thing. He suggested that the popular uprisings that happened in Egypt and Spain could happen here too. Of course, he thinks that this would be a bad thing, but the fact that a member of the oligarchy saw the potential of such a thing happening here is significant.

He said this just before the Occupy Wall Street movement began on September 17 to create a permanent protest site to block off Wall Street. Initially they were stopped by the police but they managed to overcome that obstacle and have now set up permanent camp. Glenn Greenwald says there are signs that the oligarchy is getting nervous and they are, as usual, using their lackeys in the establishment media to try and belittle and undermine the protests.

Mass movements rarely have very targeted goals, at least at the beginning. They tend to have overlapping areas of concern that coalesce around one or two ideas that everyone can identify with. In Egypt for example, there was widespread dissatisfaction with the cost of living, unemployment, corruption, censorship, repression, etc. that coalesced around the goal of getting rid of Mubarak. Even the American Declaration of Independence consisted of a long list of complaints, many of them quite esoteric that hardly anyone remembers anymore. But all agreed on the need to eliminate rule by the king of England.

The current unrest in the US is qualitatively different from those that took place in the 1960s. Those were fueled by the Vietnam war and racial tensions due to the civil rights movements. While those were also dominated by young people, the current unrest seems to encompass a wider group that is more diffuse and less focused on specific issues and consisting more of an inchoate sense that somehow the system is completely rigged to benefit the very few at the expense of the many and needs to be changed. But the central focus that the rule by the 1% oligarchy located largely within the confines Wall Street is bad and must go is a message that is catching on. The slogan "We are the 99%" is ingenious in the way it highlights the essential problem. More and more attention is being focused on the 1% problem in the US.

Just like the people in the Arab spring, it is young people who have seized the initiative to actually get out and do something about a problem that old fogeys like me have been merely complaining about. Journalist Chris Hedges visited the scene and described what he saw as a ray of hope. Hedges writes that the young people camping out there represent the best among us because they have identified the enemy and are taking a stand and now the rest of us have to choose where we stand.

There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt taking place on Wall Street and in the financial districts of other cities across the country or you stand on the wrong side of history. Either you obstruct, in the only form left to us, which is civil disobedience, the plundering by the criminal class on Wall Street and accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil. Either you taste, feel and smell the intoxication of freedom and revolt or sink into the miasma of despair and apathy. Either you are a rebel or a slave.

Choose. But choose fast. The state and corporate forces are determined to crush this. They are not going to wait for you. They are terrified this will spread. They have their long phalanxes of police on motorcycles, their rows of white paddy wagons, their foot soldiers hunting for you on the streets with pepper spray and orange plastic nets.

Those on the streets around Wall Street are the physical embodiment of hope. They know that hope has a cost, that it is not easy or comfortable, that it requires self-sacrifice and discomfort and finally faith. They sleep on concrete every night. Their clothes are soiled. They have eaten more bagels and peanut butter than they ever thought possible. They have tasted fear, been beaten, gone to jail, been blinded by pepper spray, cried, hugged each other, laughed, sung, talked too long in general assemblies, seen their chants drift upward to the office towers above them, wondered if it is worth it, if anyone cares, if they will win. But as long as they remain steadfast they point the way out of the corporate labyrinth. This is what it means to be alive. They are the best among us.

The choice of which side we should be on is not that hard. After all, we are the 99%.

October 04, 2011

So how's 'the most transparent White House in history' faring?

In yesterday's post I wrote about an anonymous government official who said that the justice department had prepared a secret memo saying that Obama's order to murder Anwar al-Awlaki was legal but they refused to release it or reveal the reasoning.

David Shipler and Conor Friedersdorf pose the obvious question: Why is this document secret?

The usual arguments for secrecy, that it will put some people in harm's way or impinge on their privacy rights or reveal some critical government information that would be harmful to the country's national interests clearly do not apply in this case. This is presumably a legal document that would be of interest mainly to scholars. So why not tell us how the government arrived at the important conclusion that Obama can order the death of any US citizen without any oversight by any body?

The only answer that I can think of is that the government is afraid that legal scholars will rip their argument to shreds and that it will be seen to have no merit. Much better for them to keep it secret, using the "If we reveal this information, the terrorists will have won" mantra that seems to inexplicably satisfy so many people.

During his 2008 presidential campaign Obama promised that his administration would "run the most transparent White House in history" and some commentators even wondered if such excessive transparency might be a bad thing. It is clear that that worry is unfounded because that promise has turned out to be a joke. Obama is making even the Bush White House seem like a glass house.

UPDATE: Scott Horton rips apart the Obama hypocrisy on this issue. The exchange between Jake Tapper and White House press secretary is quite incredible.

The 'Occupy Wall Street' movement

I must admit that the Occupy Wall Street movement took me by surprise. Back in June, I had written that one of the lessons of the Arab spring was that one needed sustained protests and demonstrations and occupations, day in and day out, to bring about major changes and that the US practice of one-day demonstrations, usually on a holiday, was ineffective however large the turnout. I pointed to the October 6 movement to create a permanent protest site in Washington DC in the vicinity of the White House and Congress, as a sign of such a movement emerging.

When I first heard reports of groups of young people occupying Wall Street to protest the corporate takeover of the US government, I thought it would be ephemeral, that these idealists would be there for a short while and then it would fizzle out. I also worried that it might shift the focus away from the October 6th movement and thus harm it. But I was wrong. What started out as a seemingly spontaneous occupation and protest movement that was greeted with condescending snickering of the "Oh, these kids today, what will they think of next?" has grown into something quite big. They have used their own website to publicize their message, and there is even a newspaper called The Occupied Wall Street Journal, with a starting print run of 50,000, that has been published.

These protests were initially treated with some disdain by the media, portraying the protestors as young and clueless with no clearly defined goals and agenda. We even had the sight of well-dressed people, possibly Wall Street executives, drinking champagne and laughing at the protestors from the balcony of a tony restaurant, as if they had never heard of the legend of Marie Antoinette. Even some liberal commentators treated them with disdain. But the message of the young people is quite clear and correct. They have identified the business interests symbolized by Wall Street as a maleficent force in American politics and are using the occupation to demonstrate it. What they are doing is inspiring people to get off the couches, leave their keyboards behind, and take direct action.

What is interesting is that it is also ceasing to be purely a young people's movement. The protests seem to be catching on and spreading with trade unions and community groups joining in. Pilots in uniform also showed up. The protests are now spreading to other cities including major ones like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and smaller ones.

As a result, after some initial silence, the media have been forced to pay attention. Although the protests began on September 17, up until September 26 NPR had scorned the protests as not worth covering with its executive editor for news saying that it was because "The recent protests on Wall Street did not involve large numbers of people, prominent people, a great disruption or an especially clear objective", although it covered small groups of Tea Partiers with great gusto. But after NPR was shamed by media commentator Jay Rosen pointing out their neglect, they have now started giving coverage on a regular basis. Another journalist got arrested along with many others and wrote about his experience. Some 'prominent people' like Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore have dropped by, which should make NPR happy that its news standards had been met.

As the occupation and protests have grown, so has the repressive police tactics being employed by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. It is clear that the occupation has stopped becoming a laughing matter for the oligarchy as the police have started to use considerable force to disrupt the protests. In this scene, it looks like mace or pepper spray was used on some women who had been penned in by plastic mesh and did not seem to have done anything threatening that could have warranted it. Then last Sunday the police seemed to have first encouraged the protestors to march across the Brooklyn bridge and when they were halfway through, penned them in using plastic netting (a process known as 'kettling') and arrested over 700 of them. You can watch a video of the event.

What do the demonstrators want? Given that it is a loose and spontaneous coalition of young people, it is too much to expect a coherent single platform. Bloomberg has tried to deflect attention from the real targets of the protests, the oligarchy centered on Wall Street of which he is a member and protector, by saying that the protests are targeting the middle class, which is patent nonsense.

The movement has in fact issued a manifesto that lists their demands. But the specific demands are, in some sense, less important than the general goal. What these young people have done is placed their collective finger unerringly on the problem: 1% of the population in the US has become a monster that is devouring the other 99% and the heart of that beast lies is in the financial sector in Wall Street.

Their slogan "We are the 99%" has increasingly resonated with the public because in their bones people know that it is true, which is why the movement seems to be growing.

October 03, 2011

A lawless nation

There were some responses to my post on the topic of state-sanctioned murder, with defenders of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki saying the usual things, that the US is at war with al Qaeda and since al-Awlaki was supposedly a leading member of that organization, Obama was justified in ordering his killing. It is now being reported that another US citizen was killed in the attack but since he was in the same car as al-Awlaki he was presumably a Very Bad Person Who Also Deserved to Die, since the bar for killing anyone has become so low.

It should be pointed out that all the claims of al-Awlaki's importance, his supposed links to various actions, have come almost entirely from anonymous government sources in leaks to the media, with little or no evidence provided in support. There has been no attempt whatsoever to follow the normal procedures of even starting the process of establishing guilt, including the most minimal ones like issuing an indictment. But of course those things are now seen as the quaint obsessions of pedants, to be readily discarded in our lust for the blood for whoever happens to be the current Enemy of the People.

Of course, foreigners have long been considered entirely expendable in the Great War on Terror, in which hundreds and thousands now lie dead. We have already decided that the president can pick up people anywhere in the world, hold them indefinitely without access to family or lawyers, torture them, and create kangaroo courts with guaranteed convictions for those occasions when we want to create a facade that we still have some sort of legal system operating. What al-Awlaki's killing has done is crossed a boundary that says that Americans overseas can also be summarily killed. That is progress of a macabre kind, that no nationality exceptions exist.

The only boundary that has not been crossed is the president's right to murder US citizens within the US itself. But this is a mere technicality. It looks like all Obama has to do to cross even that line is churn out massive amounts of propaganda to convince the public that some person is a public enemy and then the entire military machine of the US, plus the FBI and the police, will be put into operation to carry out his execution orders. And the people will cheer when the execution is carried out because they will have been repeatedly told (by the president of course) that a Very Bad Man Who Wanted to Harm Us 'has received justice' and that our glorious and benevolent leader has saved us from that fate without wasting tax-payer money with frivolous concerns about legality and morality.

Is all this legal? Who cares? Laws and due process and the constitutional guarantees of protections of life and liberty are the concerns of wimps who don't understand that We Are At War With a Mighty Enemy Who Seeks to Destroy Us, even though estimates of their number are pitifully small and they are scattered about the globe and poorly armed. We must fear them because those people are Evil Incarnate and are devious enough to find a way to take over the entire US and enslave us all.

But for those who have some niggling qualms about whether we are acting within the rule of law, don't worry. Of course it is legal! Why, the president's own justice department has issued a ruling saying it is legal, so that's all right then. Actually it did not actually issue such a ruling. What it did was anonymously leak a story to reporters that such a ruling existed somewhere.

The Justice Department wrote a secret memorandum authorizing the lethal targeting of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-born radical cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike Friday, according to administration officials.

The document was produced following a review of the legal issues raised by striking a U.S. citizen and involved senior lawyers from across the administration. There was no dissent about the legality of killing Aulaqi, the officials said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. The administration officials refused to disclose the exact legal analysis used to authorize targeting Aulaqi, or how they considered any Fifth Amendment right to due process.

But hey, these days, that's all we need, right? We have got used to being informed by those infallible, authoritative, and impartial sources, the anonymous government official, that things are being done in our name according to secret policies that we cannot be told about but that we must have faith in our great and benevolent leader that he always acts in our best interests. That's the new democracy, folks!

Let's look at the state of play. We have now reached the stage where the president has the sole power to (1) decide when we are at war; (2) decide with whom we are at war; (3) decide where the battlefield is (the whole world, apparently); (4) decide who is deserving of summary death; (5) use the entire police and military apparatus to carry out the murder; (6) judge whether his own actions are legal; and (7) keep everything secret.

Woe unto anyone who has the temerity to cross this mighty ruler. He can find himself declared to be an Enemy of the People and crushed like an ant or blasted out of existence by a drone, along with any other unfortunate persons who happen to be in the vicinity. And the people will cheer. The despots of the past could only dream of having such powers.

My question to those who think that all this is perfectly fine and morally justified is whether they think, now that they have abandoned the constraints of the constitution, that there exist any limits whatsoever on the president's power. Is there anything that he cannot legally do in the War on Terror?

October 02, 2011

We're #1 …

… when it comes to imprisoning people. More than 1% of Americans are in jail. The US has 4.25% of the world's population and but 25% of all prisoners.

Even I was surprised at some of the statistics about the use of cheap prison labor in the US. According to Stephen Fry, American prisons produce "100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet proof vests, ID tags and other items of uniforms, 93% of domestically used paints, 36% of home appliances, 21% of office furniture, which allows the United States to compete with factories in Mexico… You get solitary confinement if you refuse to work!"

(Via Boing Boing.)

September 30, 2011

State-sanctioned murder

Reports are coming in that a US drone strike in Yemen has killed Anwar al-Awlaki. If confirmed, this would mean that the US government has murdered a US citizen purely on the orders of president Obama. The media are relaying the anonymous and self-serving claims of the intelligence community that al-Awlaki was a top al Qaeda operative, 'seemed' to have instigated attacks against the US, and was 'reported' to have had links with terrorist groups, and similar allegations. But all skirt the issue of the legality of this act, let alone its morality.

When the dust settles, what we are left with is the stark fact that the US president ordered and carried out the murder of a US citizen without any due process of any kind. He had no trial, no formal charges were made against him, no efforts to extradite him back to the US, nothing. Obama decided that al-Awlaki must die and he was killed by Obama's agents. It has all the hallmarks of kings in medieval times ordering the beheadings of their opponents or mob bosses ordering hits on their rivals.

Back in 2002, another US citizen Kamal Derwish was killed in an airstrike in Yemen but back then in the bad old George W. Bush days, the government felt obliged to say that his death was collateral damage and that they were unaware that he was in the car that was destroyed. But with our Nobel Peace Prize winning, constitutional scholar president, even such transparent excuses are not required because many of those who were on the alert for abuses by Bush now seem quite comfortable if the death sentence is signed by Obama. Even before this event, Jonathan Turley said that the Obama presidency may be the most disastrous in our history for civil liberties. One can only shudder at what further abuses are in store.

What I would like to know is in what way the killing of al-Awlaki differs from the heinous crime of 'killing his own people' which was laid at the feet of people like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghadafi and which formed the basis of war crimes accusations against those two people and war against the countries they led.

Glenn Greenwald has more.

September 28, 2011

Brave Saudi women

It looks like scores of Saudi women are challenging the absurd ban on them driving and are willing to bear the barbaric punishment for doing so, which consists of a lashing. I am not sure if any woman has actually received that punishment or whether fear of international embarrassment has prevented the government from actually carrying it out.

The seductive appeal of the mega-rich politician

During the 2008 presidential election and for a brief time during the current election, there was a boomlet of support for billionaire mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and for windbag Donald Trump to run for president. They were part of an enduring pattern in American politics in which some people yearn for a rich man to ride in and save the nation. The thinking seems to be that since they are so rich, they must be smart and competent and also do not need to seek funding from big money sources and can thus be independent and not beholden to 'special interests'.

A couple of decades ago, H. Ross Perot was the person that elements of a desperate nation turned their eyes to. The Perot phenomenon was a puzzle. Not the man himself, who seemed to be typical of the kind of person who has spent his life acquiring great wealth, used his subsequent power to push people around, and now, in the twilight of his career, wants more power, a bigger stage, and a greater share of the limelight. Nor is it puzzling to observe people with such blatantly autocratic tendencies constantly talking about how much they want to do 'what the people want'. This kind of hypocrisy is so common in public life that it only causes surprise to the most naive of political observers. No, it is not Perot the person that was the enigma. It is the question of why so many millions of people, both in the 1992 presidential campaign and again in 1996, found him so attractive as a leader, just as they do Bloomberg or Trump now.

There is a possible explanation, one that is inspired by a typically lucid essay written by George Orwell over seventy years ago, titled simply Charles Dickens. Orwell analyzed the politics of Dickens as revealed in his writings. He pointed out that Dickens "attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached." In that sense, Dickens "was certainly a subversive writer, a radical, one might truthfully say a rebel". And yet, Orwell points out, Dickens managed to be a ruthless critic of many venerated aspects of English society without becoming personally disliked, becoming an English institution himself in his own lifetime. "Dickens seems to have succeeded in attacking everybody and antagonizing nobody'" Orwell notes. How could this happen?

Orwell answers his own question by pointing out that Dickens' real subject matter in his novels was that of the urban middle class, not the working class. While his protagonists suffered enormous hardships, Dickens seemed to imply that their problems were mainly due to the qualities and personalities of the people with wealth and power who controlled the institutions that impinged on his protagonists' lives, and not because of the structure of the institutions themselves. In other words, Dickens' criticism of society was almost exclusively moral, not structural. Orwell summarizes Dickens' message as simply: If people would behave decently, the world would be decent.

Orwell supports this thesis by pointing out that the happy endings in Dickens' books were largely achieved by the timely arrival of a wealthy person who solved all problems by scattering money around to the deserving. Dickens never seemed to explore the possibility that the institutions themselves, by their very nature, might tend to favor the rise of people with the very qualities he deplored. Dickens also ignored the question of how the rich benefactors who finally saved the day could remain so prosperous if they flouted the laws of the currently operating economic system by giving pay raises and gifts all around.

The huge success of Dickens' books, even in his own lifetime, shows how appealing is his view of the world. It provides a simple explanation for society's problems and, more importantly, provides hope that things could be improved quickly, provided the appropriate well-intentioned rich man shows up. The timelessness of that message was nowhere better illustrated than in the enthusiasm that billionaire H. Ross Perot generated. Journalists breathlessly reported on Perot's activities and people all over the country responded enthusiastically to his candidacy. What is interesting is that the support for Perot came before people had even heard exactly what his message was or what he planned to do for the country. Somehow, that did not seem to matter. Perot, an inexhaustible fount of homespun phrases, was going to 'look under the hood, figure out what was wrong, and fix it.' It was that simple.

In many ways, Perot then and Bloomberg now fit the model of the classic Dickens savior, the rich person whose possibly dubious methods of acquisition of wealth are conveniently obscured by the haze of time. Perot liked to be portrayed as a disinterested rich man who was appalled by the way the country was run and simply wanted to make everything right and was willing to use his own money to do so. Even his lack of experience in politics and government was seen as a plus. Given Orwell's analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that many members of the middle-class seized on his presence in politics as the one that provided the most hope for them. If Warren Buffett were twenty years younger, you would see likely similar enthusiasm for him to run for president too.

Ultimately, the most significant aspect of the periodic upsurges of enthusiasm for Perot then, and Bloomberg and Trump now, may be that they provide a measure of the number of voters who feel left out of the system, fearful for their future, and yet unable to see that the root cause of their problems lie with the nature of the institutions of power and the kind of people they nurture and produce. For such voters, the search is still going on for Dickens' good, rich man, untainted by the evils of the system, who will solve all their problems.

September 26, 2011

The dumbness of crowds

Whoever coined the phrase 'the wisdom of crowds' may have second thoughts about it after seeing the crowd reaction at the Republican debates. Most people do not watch political debates at such an early stage in the process, so what gets registered in the public consciousness is what the media and pundits focus on after each debate. So far, appalling audience reactions seem to have become the story and this cannot be good news for the Republican party.

In the first debate, there were loud cheers for the record number of executions carried out in Texas. In the second, what is remembered was the yelling out that the person without health insurance deserved to die. In the third debate, Rick Perry even got booed for standing by his policy of allowing the children of undocumented people to pay in-state tuition for college, saying "If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart."

Yes, Rick Perry, who got such loud cheers in his first debate for his cheerful attitude towards executing people, got booed for being a softie.

In the third debate we had a gay soldier asking Rick Santorum what he would do as president about gays in the military. Santorum gave a weird answer (to loud cheers) where he not only said that he wanted to bring back 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (a policy that had long become an embarrassment even for those who opposed equal rights for gays), but seemed to go further and suggest that everyone in the military should not even talk about or have sex of any kind. Good luck with that policy!

But what was astonishing was that the soldier got booed for just asking the question. Yes, the crowd's intense homophobia even overcame their normal desire to grandstand about patriotism and pander to the military, and not a single candidate on the stage spoke out against that awful display. Either they approved of the behavior, were stunned that the crowd reacted that way and were rendered speechless, or did not have the guts to rebuke those who booed because they feared alienating the nutters who seem to be the most energetic segment of their party and the ones who bother to come for these debates.

It is true that noisy mob reactions are rarely representative of the feelings of a large crowd, and reflect merely those of its more vocal elements. But still, the theatrics are not good. I have no idea how this is playing out in Republican homes across the nation but surely it can't be helping? Is the Republican party in increasing danger of alienating even its own supporters? Surely even many Republicans, except for the loonies, must be turned off by their party's image as one of angry haters who revel in death and discrimination?

Who knows what the crowd will do at the next debate but this cartoon suggests that we should be ready for anything.

debatecrowd.jpg

September 25, 2011

Baby steps

The Saudi king has decreed that women in that country will be allowed to vote and hold office. Of course, women still face immense restrictions in that repressive and backward country due to the dominance of Islamic law, but this is progress nonetheless.

September 24, 2011

Highlights of the Republican debate

For those of us who did not watch the last Republican debate, The Daily Beast has compiled a set of what it considers the best moments.

Ridiculous hypotheticals

Rick Perry is taking a beating even from conservatives for his poor showing in the debates. While conservatives have focused on his fluffing of a chance to attack Mitt Romney, others have pointed to is his incoherent response to what he would do if told at 3:00 am that Pakistani nuclear weapons had fallen into the hands of the Taliban.

I have to partly defend Perry on this particular point. Granted, his stringing together of non-sequiturs (what was India doing in that mix?) was Palinesque in its baroque quality. But posing these kinds of ridiculous hypotheticals to people is unfair. Do they expect a candidate to have thought through every possible emergency situation and have a readymade strategy to articulate? If Perry is to be criticized at all, it is for even attempting any specific answer instead of simply saying, whatever the crisis presented, that he would immediately convene a meeting of his national security advisors to devise a response.

Also, why do these questions always have the dreaded phone call coming at 3:00 am? What difference does the time make? Do they think that the president, groggy from being awakened and annoyed at a pleasant dream being disrupted and wanting to go back to sleep would say, "Dammit, just nuke 'em!"

September 22, 2011

Elizabeth Warren on Morning Joe

I feel sorry for Elizabeth Warren. Now that she is running for the US Senate in Massachusetts, she will have to deal with an endless stream of preening media personalities who delude themselves that they are journalists.

A prime example is Mark Halperin, who asks her what she would do about the military threat from China. My first reaction was, "What the hell? Why are you asking about something that is so far down the list of concerns?" But the smug expression on Halperin's face answered my question. I recognized immediately the obnoxious student that all teachers have encountered who thinks up a question on an obscure topic because he thinks it will impress his peers if he can stump the teacher. There is, of course, no reason why Warren should have thought deeply about this particular issue since it is clearly not high on her list of priorities and, being a veteran college instructor, she knew exactly how to deal with such smart-alecks.

Similarly another so-called journalist Mike Barnicle framed his question with such a long preamble that one lost interest in it long before he got to the end. What these people want is to get face time on television, not inform and educate the viewer.

Watch Warren answer these questions well enough and with much greater patience than I would have been able to muster.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

September 21, 2011

Elizabeth Warren on the underlying social contract

What she says is absolutely correct. What is sad is that it needs to be said at all.

September 20, 2011

Surprising showing by Warren

Initial polls show Elizabeth Warren has jumped to a small 46-44 lead over incumbent senator Scott Brown, and that Brown's approval numbers are declining.

The Tea Party mentality

The Plain Dealer had a story on the front page yesterday that summed up perfectly the attitude of the Republican party.

The concrete sound barriers erected along the highways to shield nearby residents from noise were crumbling long before the advertised 20-year life expectancy was reached, presumably because inferior concrete had been used. Repairing them will cost the Ohio transportation department more than $1 million per mile, money that is hard to come by these days when governments are being squeezed by the demand for tax cuts.

What struck me was the comment of one resident who said, "It looks terrible. I know they don't have the money, and I don't want my taxes to go up to fix it. But they need to do something."

Really? No doubt she expects magic elves to do the repair work for free once they have finished helping out the shoemaker.

September 19, 2011

Public opinion on civil liberties and security

Glenn Greenwald points out that the popular claim by politicians and media figures that the public is willing to sacrifice civil liberties in return for security is in fact not supported by opinion polls.

September 18, 2011

A prime example of Villager idiocy

The dream world of Villager punditry is truly something to behold. Take William Cohan who has a suggestion in the Washington Post for Elizabeth Warren, who has just declared her candidacy to run for the US Senate seat in Massachusetts currently held by Republican Scott Brown.

Seven weeks removed from the political reality that cost her a job as one of the nation’s best-known — and controversial — advocates for consumers and the middle class, Elizabeth Warren now officially wants to return to Washington as the junior senator from Massachusetts. But if she is really serious about wanting to help working Americans and reform Wall Street, Warren should consider a different line of work: She should get a job as a partner at Goldman Sachs.

The idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds.

No, it is as crazy as it sounds, if not crazier. The idea that Elizabeth Warren, after railing for years at how banks like Goldman Sachs have been profiting while impoverishing the middle classes by taking advantage of deregulation and lax oversight by the government, could simply pick up the phone and ask Goldman Sachs to hire her to reform it, and that Goldman Sachs would offer her a partnership in order to reform itself is doubly bizarre.

The only way that this could happen is if there is cynical collusion between Warren and Goldman Sachs in which Warren is just another cynical academic on the make and agrees to uses her reputation for integrity to get a high-paying job providing cover for Goldman Sachs for the pretense that it is serious about reforming itself. But if that is the case, then this demolishes Cohan's argument that this move would help in reforming Goldman Sachs and Wall Street.

What amazes me is that these Villager pundits actually get paid to churn out this drivel.

September 17, 2011

Cornel West also becomes shrill

The occasion of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial causes Cornel West to decry the oligarchic control of the US.

The age of Obama has fallen tragically short of fulfilling King’s prophetic legacy. Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.

As the talk show host Tavis Smiley and I have said in our national tour against poverty, the recent budget deal is only the latest phase of a 30-year, top-down, one-sided war against the poor and working people in the name of a morally bankrupt policy of deregulating markets, lowering taxes and cutting spending for those already socially neglected and economically abandoned. Our two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer merely alternative versions of oligarchic rule.

September 16, 2011

Sexual politics in the US

Michele Bachmann is continuing to take a well-deserved pounding on her irresponsible publicizing of a claim by some person she said she met who said that her daughter had become mentally retarded as a result of taking the HPV vaccine.

What started out as an effective attack on Rick Perry, suggesting during Monday's debate that he had issued an executive order mandating that the vaccinations be given to all young girls in Texas in return from contributions from the vaccine manufacturer Merck, has now become an albatross around her own neck. In doing so, she has deflected attention not only from Rick Perry but from the important question of how drug companies are unduly influencing decisions about health policy.

NPR interviewed Steven Miles, the bioethicist at the University of Minnesota who offered a $1,000 reward if Bachmann could provide "a properly signed medical release form so that these documents can be reviewed by highly qualified neurologists to see if this claim is true." Bachmann has not responded to NPR's queries about this challenge to produce the document. Miles further said that, "If we had a vaccine that would prevent a nonsexually caused cancer that affected 10,000 women a year, this would be a no-brainer. This controversy over the HPV vaccine is about the sexual politics in the United States. It is not about the medicine."

Miles is absolutely right. The thought that somewhere some people might be having sex outside of marriage totally freaks out the religious right.

The end of the US postal service?

In a further sign of the steady deterioration of the US infrastructure, the US postal service may become the next victim of the oligarchy's drive to eliminate anything that does not benefit themselves. The US postal service is an institution that is committed to serving people all over the nation and it delivers mail to even the remotest parts of the country at the same cost to anyone anywhere. So those of us in the cities where the volume of mail is large essentially subsidize the mail services of the more remote areas. It is a socialized system (i.e., one that spreads the cost over the entire population and thus makes it affordable to everyone) and thus targeted by those who oppose any measure that promotes the general welfare. Chuck Zlatkin describes the campaign to destroy the postal service. If it succeeds, the US will be the rare (only?) country that does not have a national mail system.

Phil Rubio explains to Stephen Colbert how the postal service has been shackled and the efforts being made to save it.

September 15, 2011

Elizabeth Warren for US Senate

She made the announcement yesterday that she will be running for the US senate in Massachusetts. Her website is ElizabethWarren.com.

The oligarchy will pull out all the stops and pour money into this race to try to prevent her winning. People are going to troll through her past and drag her through the mud. This election will be a good indication of whether an earnest, centrist, political amateur can defeat the oligarchic machine and its professional cadres. I sincerely hope so.

My daughter moved to Massachusetts last month to go to graduate school and will likely work on this campaign. Although I live in Ohio, I gave the Warren campaign a contribution yesterday because improbable candidacies need money early.

Searching for Bachmann's source

Two bioethicists are offering up to $11,000 for the identification and release of the medical records of the person whom Michele Bachmann claimed became mentally retarded after getting the HPV vaccine. These kinds of irresponsible statements can cause great harm if not quickly challenged, as we saw with the claim that the MMR vaccination causes autism, and the media's idiotic 'balanced' approach that treats even empirical questions as matters of opinon ("Some say this but others say that") does nothing to dispel them.

I am glad that in this vacuum, private citizens are stepping up to clear the record.

"These types of messages in this climate have the capacity to do enormous public health harm," [Steven Miles, a U of M bioethics professor] said of why he made the offer. "The woman, assuming she exists, put this claim into the public domain and it's an extremely serious claim and it deserves to be analyzed.

Bachmann is sensing trouble and trying to wriggle out.

Bachmann somewhat walked back her comments Tuesday on Sean Hannity's radio show, where she said she had "no idea" if the HPV vaccine was linked to mental illness. "I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist, I'm not a physician," Bachmann said. "All I was doing is reporting what this woman told me last night at the debate."

No, you are none of those things. But you are a high profile elected official running for the presidency, which means that your words get hugely amplified and so should know not to pass along stories that have the potential to cause panic and harm until you have had time to substantiate them. Why is that so hard to understand?

Cold-hearted libertarians

During Monday night's Republican debate, in response to a hypothetical question from the awful Wolf Blitzer, the audience and Ron Paul seemed comfortable with the idea that a young person who is uninsured but suffers a life-threatening condition should be allowed to die because he chose not to buy health insurance. The alternative of a socialized single payer medical system where everyone is covered without exception, the norm in almost all developed countries, is of course too ghastly to contemplate for these lovers of personal freedom.

It turns out that the question was, at least as far as Paul was concerned, not that hypothetical after all. Kent Snyder, Ron Paul's campaign manager in his run for the presidency in 2008, died at the age of 49 of complications from pneumonia, penniless and uninsured, because the premiums he would have had to pay to buy insurance were too high because of pre-existing conditions. The death of someone who was so close to him, purely because he could not afford health insurance, does not seem to have influenced Paul in the least. Instead, being the true believer he is, he eulogized Snyder as a martyr to the libertarian cause, which I am sure Snyder's bereaved mother, who was also stuck with her son's medical bills, deeply appreciated.

A self-described libertarian posted this comment on the above article about Snyder's death: "My personal belief is that it is not society's responsibility to deal with the uninsured. In extreme circumstances (national disasters for example), perhaps. My tax dollars need to go to basic government services, nothing else. I don't need to fund the NEA, someone's family planning mistake or alternative energy companies, etc, etc. I'm sorry to appear callous but its not my responsibility to take care of a total stranger. We are all adults here, presumably, lets deal with our own issues ourselves."

I am always amused by libertarians' careful inclusion of the 'basic government services' and 'national disasters' exemptions to their general 'keep the government out of everything' policy. It usually means that they want the government to intervene only to help when they themselves are in need. These libertarians tend to be well off owners of property and are self-centered hypocrites, wanting the government to provide only the services that they want and benefit from. So they want things like police and a military and a fire department and good roads because those things benefits and protect their property, and they can afford to pay for everything else. They also want a national disaster exemption because earthquakes and hurricanes do not distinguish between the rich and poor and could hit them too. If you are a consistent libertarian, surely you should support the idea that those services too should also be the product of the free markets? Why shouldn't people organize and pay for their own police and fire departments and pave the roads they drive upon?

Fortunately, not everyone embraces the cold-hearted libertarian philosophy that the wellbeing of total strangers is not our concern. Watch this video in which a motley group of strangers from all walks of life spontaneously come together, risking serious injury, to rescue a motorcyclist who was trapped under a burning car. They are hesitant and frightened, not sure what to do, but something about the plight of a fellow human being drives them to feel they must help and they come together to lift the car and drag him out.

Of course, there is a difference between the way one responds to an immediate need that one sees in front of one's eyes and how one reacts to people who are suffering out of sight. But the difference is not as great as one might think. The impulse to help others in need is universal. News reports afterwards said that the motorcyclist survived. The rescuers did not know what drove them to help but as soon as the woman who looked under the car said that he seemed to be alive, it galvanized everyone to take collective action.

This is why I think that the libertarian philosophy of having the government not take responsibility for the general welfare of the people will never take root beyond the ranks of a small, smug, affluent, minority. There is something deep within most people that causes them to be stirred and respond to the plight of others in need. I believe that it is biological and primeval and cannot be extinguished by the oligarchy and the manipulative politicians who are its servants, who seek to stoke the selfish instincts of people in order to benefit themselves.

I will trust my life in the hands of ordinary people over doctrinaire libertarians any day.

September 13, 2011

An easily frightened nation

In his weekly radio address just prior to the orgy of memorializing on September 11, 2011, president Obama boasted that "They wanted to terrorize us, but, as Americans, we refuse to live in fear."

How long are we going to deceive ourselves that that is true? You may have read about the panic aboard an airplane on September 11 when some passengers were reported by their fellow passengers to have acted suspiciously. Now read the account of one of those people who was deemed to have been acting strangely.

Home of the brave, indeed.

Religion in American politics

One cannot help but observe a sharp rise in religious belief and anti-science feeling in American politics. Almost all the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination either wear their religion on their sleeves and proudly proclaim their religious fervor at every opportunity (Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain) or support at least some policies that are counter to science and seem to be religion-based (Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich). Only Jon Huntsman seems to be exempt from this particular feature although his policies in general are extremely pro-oligarchy. The fact that he's getting nowhere, at least in 2012, shows how strong this religious feeling is.

This has created a sense of alarm in some circles, with people fearing the emergence of some kind of theocracy if any of these candidates should win. When people see Bachmann praying lyrically about the end times in the clip below, they get fearful of what she might do if she were to become president.

On the radio program Fresh Air, Terry Gross recently interviewed Rachel Tabachnick about her series of articles on the rise of the Dominionist movement in American politics. This religious strain says that it is the duty of Christians to take over the government and run it on Christian principles. These Dominionist groups are close to Rick Perry and helped sponsor his recent day of prayer. (See the box for links to Tabachnick's articles.)

But despite the increasingly visible and vocal role that religion is playing in politics, I myself am not too alarmed about the seeming rise of the so-called religious right. Rather than seeing it as a precursor to a revival of religious obscurantism or the establishment of a theocracy, I see it instead as the last gasp of a dying movement, a fire that burns brightly just before the flame sputters out. This does not make it harmless because a bright but short-lived flame can still cause serious burns. But it does mean that we can afford to be more measured in our response and not over-react.

The reason that the religious right has been able to achieve the current level of prominence is because their beliefs have been given legitimacy in the public sphere, as if they were deserving of being taken seriously as part of the national dialogue on important questions, rather than as holders of fringe beliefs akin to astrology. The public and media have treated religion talk in politics with kid gloves. If a politician says, "My faith requires me to promote policy X", that is treated as something that cannot be questioned, when the proper response should be, "Why should your faith have any relevance in this discussion?"

It is often the case that movements take their most extreme form when they feel they are under siege and that the end is near. The leadership tends to fall into the hands of the true believers who tend to double down, becoming more rigid and doctrinaire, adopting an increasingly Manichaean mindset that sees the world split between friend and foe, true believer and heretic, with so-called 'moderates' weeded out as being unreliable allies. For a brief time, the movement gains cohesion and purpose and strength, before finally collapsing.

This is what I see happening in American religious politics. The Republican candidates mistook the rabid enthusiasm by some for Sarah Palin and Tea Party ideas as a sign of a mass movement and started catering to them, when in reality they are a minority and an increasingly disliked one at that. While this attracted more true believers, it also alienated others who felt this was too extreme. This has led to a negative spiral where party events have turned into almost cult-like religious events where the candidates who say the most extreme things get the most enthusiastic response, inspiring them to even greater extremism. This is what seems to be happening in the Republican debates and caucuses. This essay by a Republican operative who left/was forced out from the cult (thanks to readers Peter G. and Norm for the link) and this cartoon by August J. Pollack pretty much says it all.

While one reason why I think that truly religious politicians will ultimately be defeated is due to the general decline in religion, the other is that the oligarchy has little patience for this kind of thing. While the oligarchy is ruthless, greedy, and self-serving, they are not stupid. They are quite willing to use religious zealots as foot soldiers in their campaign to get the government to serve their needs, but they do not want these people to actually occupy the seats of power because they want political leaders who take their directions from them and not from god. What we will see in the coming days is a slow and steady campaign to undermine the candidacies of those who seem likely to really believe the religious rubbish they utter, as opposed to someone who adopts a religious stance out of political expediency. (The verdict on where Rick Perry stands on this spectrum is not yet in.) The process has already started with Republican functionaries and even Fox News and other conservative outlets starting to leak negative stories and provide negative commentary about Palin and Bachmann.

If, by some remote chance, a truly religious nutter manages to overcome this internal opposition and actually become the Republican nominee, watch the oligarchy swing its support behind their reliable ally Barack Obama.

September 12, 2011

What, me worry about terrorism?

Via Progressive Review, I learn that the chance of:

Being killed by a terrorist is 1 in 20 million
Being struck by lightning is 1 in 6 million
Being executed in Texas is 1 in 1 million
Dying in a bathtub is 1 in 800,000
Dying in a building fire is 1 in 99,000
Dying in a car accident is 1 in 19,000

Until the terrorism threat approaches that of a car accident, I don't see any point in worrying. So let's shut down the national security state and bring back civil liberties and the rule of law.

September 11, 2011

The reckoning to come

In this interview on Canadian television, journalist Chris Hedges, author of the book The Death of the Liberal Class adds texture to the bleak picture that I have been painting of the consequences of the complete oligarchic takeover of the US.

(Thanks to Norm)

The ACLU on the state of civil liberties

Glenn Greenwald's discussion on the ACLU report on the steep decline of civil liberties in in the US in the wake of that event is well worth reading.

The preamble to the ACLU report highlights the four major ways in which freedoms have been seriously compromised.

Everywhere And Forever War

The report begins with an examination of the contention that the U.S. is engaged in a "war on terror" that takes place everywhere and will last forever, and that therefore counterterrorism measures cannot be balanced against any other considerations such as maintaining civil liberties. The report states that the United States has become an international legal outlier in invoking the right to use lethal force and indefinite military detention outside battle zones, and that these policies have hampered the international fight against terrorism by straining relations with allies and handing a propaganda tool to enemies.

A Cancer On Our Legal System

Taking on the legacy of the Bush administration's torture policy, the report warns that the lack of accountability leaves the door open to future abuses. "Our nation's official record of this era will show numerous honors to those who authorized torture – including a Presidential Medal of Freedom – and no recognition for those, like the Abu Ghraib whistleblower, who rejected and exposed it," it notes.

Fracturing Our "More Perfect Union"

The report details how profiling based on race and religion has become commonplace nationwide, with the results of such approaches showing just how wrong and ineffective those practices are. "Targeting the American Muslim community for counterterrorism investigation is counterproductive because it diverts attention and resources that ought to be spent on individuals and violent groups that actually pose a threat," the report says. "By allowing – and in some cases actively encouraging – the fear of terrorism to divide Americans by religion, race, and belief, our political leaders are fracturing this nation's greatest strength: its ability to integrate diverse strands into a unified whole on the basis of shared, pluralistic, democratic values."

A Massive and Unchecked Surveillance Society

Concluding with the massive expansion of surveillance since 9/11, the report delves into the many ways the government now spies on Americans without any suspicion of wrongdoing, from warrantless wiretapping to cell phone location tracking – but with little to show for it. "The reality is that as governmental surveillance has become easier and less constrained, security agencies are flooded with junk data, generating thousands of false leads that distract from real threats," the report says.

September 10, 2011

'Campaign Obama' returns

After selling out to the oligarchy during his presidency, now that election season is back, expect to see Obama return to his feisty populist campaign mode and try to fool ordinary people once again that he really cares about their interests.

In January 2010, my disgust with Obama had reached the point where I said the following:

It used to be the case that I would detest hearing or watching George W. Bush speak. The disjunct between his smug and lofty words about democracy and freedom and the reality of his crass polices was simply too much to take. During the campaign I enjoyed hearing Obama's speeches because he seemed to be making thoughtful statements about important issues and appealing to the best in people. But now I cannot bear to listen to him either. I find galling the unctuous hypocrisy of his words. If anything, the gap between his words and his deeds is even greater than that of Bush, because he promises more and delivers less.

Now Matt Taibbi has also reached that stage. Recently at an airport he was forced to choose between sitting at a crowded gate with lots of screaming children and another area that was nearly empty and quiet except for a TV showing Obama giving his Labor Day speech. He says he chose the former:

Listening to Obama talk about jobs and shared prosperity yesterday reminded me that we are back in campaign mode and Barack Obama has started doing again what he does best – play the part of a progressive. He's good at it. It sounds like he has a natural affinity for union workers and ordinary people when he makes these speeches. But his policies are crafted by representatives of corporate/financial America, who happen to entirely make up his inner circle.

I just don't believe this guy anymore, and it's become almost painful to listen to him.

I wonder how many people have come to the same realization.

September 09, 2011

Undeserving poor

In Act 2 of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion (which became the hit play and film My Fair Lady), Eliza Doolittle's father Alfred complains to Henry Higgins how 'middle class morality' tends to shun poor people like him because they are the wrong kind of poor.

"What am I, Governors both? I ask you, what am I? I'm one of the undeserving poor: that's what I am. Think of what that means to a man. It means that he's up agen middle class morality all the time. If there's anything going, and I put in for a bit of it, it's always the same story: "You're undeserving; so you can't have it." But my needs is as great as the most deserving widow's that ever got money out of six different charities in one week for the death of the same husband. I don't need less than a deserving man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot more. I want a bit of amusement, cause I'm a thinking man. I want cheerfulness and a song and a band when I feel low. Well, they charge me just the same for everything as they charge the deserving. What is middle class morality? Just an excuse for never giving me anything."

I was reminded of this when reader Norm sent me this news clipping.

freefoodbringshomeless.jpg

A lawless elite

Glenn Greenwald talks with Chris Hayes about the increasingly lawless class that we have created.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

September 08, 2011

What happened to the others?

I did not watch yesterday's debate, of course, but in reading the coverage today was startled by the fact that it seemed as if only two people, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, took part. There was practically zero coverage of any of the other six though they presumably said things. Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich might as well have not been there, and Buddy Roemer was actually not there, not having been invited in the first place.

It looks like the media has started the winnowing process in earnest by deciding who is worth covering.

This must be particularly galling for yesterday's media darling Bachmann who just a couple of weeks ago was sought after by every news talk show following her first place showing in the meaningless Ames Iowa straw poll. She is learning that media suitors are awfully fickle. She is not one to go quietly into the night so watch for her to ramp up the crazy to try and regain the spotlight.

Applause for death penalty

Look at what happened during the Republican debate yesterday.

Although I disagree with them, I can understand those who support the death penalty as an unpleasant necessity. What I find sick is enthusiasm for it.

August 31, 2011

Iowa Tea Party fiasco

There is an interesting soap opera developing with Sarah Palin and Christine ("I am not a witch") O'Donnell over who will appear at some event in Iowa on Saturday.

So will they both show up on Saturday and exchange icy stares? Or will they both skip the event, leaving the organizers in the lurch? Tune in and see!

August 29, 2011

Important First Amendment ruling

Recently there has been a spate of events where police have prevented ordinary people from recording them and even public meetings of congresspeople.

In a ruling on Friday, the First Circuit Court of Appeals has now said that such prohibitions violate the First Amendment.

Simon Glik was arrested for using his cell phone's digital video camera to film several police officers arresting a young man on the Boston Common. The charges against Glik, which included violation of Massachusetts's wiretap statute and two other state-law offenses, were subsequently judged baseless and were dismissed. Glik then brought this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his arrest for filming the officers constituted a violation of his rights under the First and Fourth Amendments.

In this interlocutory appeal, the defendant police officers challenge an order of the district court denying them qualified immunity on Glik's constitutional claims. We conclude, based on the facts alleged, that Glik was exercising clearly-established First Amendment rights in filming the officers in a public space, and that his clearly-established Fourth Amendment rights were violated by his arrest without probable cause.

It is firmly established that the First Amendment's aegis extends further than the text's proscription on laws "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," and encompasses a range of conduct related to the gathering and dissemination of information. As the Supreme Court has observed, "the First Amendment goes beyond protection of the press and the self-expression of individuals to prohibit government from limiting the stock of information from which members of the public may draw." First Nat'l Bank v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 783 (1978); see also Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557, 564 (1969) ("It is . . . well established that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas."). An important corollary to this interest in protecting the stock of public information is that "[t]here is an undoubted right to gather news 'from any source by means within the law.'" Houchins v. KQED, Inc., 438 U.S. 1, 11 (1978) (quoting Branzburg v. Hayes, 408 U.S. 665, 681-82 (1972)).

The filming of government officials engaged in their duties in a public place, including police officers performing their responsibilities, fits comfortably within these principles. Gathering information about government officials in a form that can readily be disseminated to others serves a cardinal First Amendment interest in protecting and promoting "the free discussion of governmental affairs." Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S. 214, 218 (1966). Moreover, as the Court has noted, "[f]reedom of expression has particular significance with respect to government because '[i]t is here that the state has a special incentive to repress opposition and often wields a more effective power of suppression.'" First Nat'l Bank, 435 U.S. at 777 n.11 (alteration in original) (quoting Thomas Emerson, Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment 9 (1966)). This is particularly true of law enforcement officials, who are granted substantial discretion that may be misused to deprive individuals of their liberties. Cf. Gentile v. State Bar of Nev., 501 U.S. 1030, 1035-36 (1991) (observing that "[t]he public has an interest in [the] responsible exercise" of the discretion granted police and prosecutors). Ensuring the public's right to gather information about their officials not only aids in the uncovering of abuses, see id. at 1034-35 (recognizing a core First Amendment interest in "the dissemination of information relating to alleged governmental misconduct"), but also may have a salutary effect on the functioning of government more generally, see Press-Enter. Co. v. Superior Court, 478 U.S. 1, 8 (1986) (noting that "many governmental processes operate best under public scrutiny").

In line with these principles, we have previously recognized that the videotaping of public officials is an exercise of First Amendment liberties. (All emphases mine)

This is an important blow against the repressive use of the state apparatus.

The shape of things to come

I tend to be generally optimistic about progress in almost all areas of life. For example, I think we are making progress on important areas of social values. We have seen huge improvements in attitudes on race and gender and it is only a matter of a short time before equal rights for gays will also be taken for granted. The rights of animals are also increasingly being respected. Compared to even just a century ago, we have made tremendous advances in expanding the circle of those we think worthy of treating justly.

On the religious front too, the prognosis is good. I think the decline of religion is irreversible. We may never be able to eliminate religion completely but relegating it to irrelevancy is likely although that will take time and pockets of religious fervor will continue to exist. I think that religion will end up like astrology, something that never goes away but becomes largely harmless, with those who take it seriously being looked upon with amused indulgence.

When it comes to the environment, I have mixed feelings. While there is some serious concern about the degradation we have caused, I think that there is still hope that it can be turned around and that we have not passed the point of no return.

The one exception to this generally sunny outlook is when I turn my gaze to the economic and political situation in the US. Here I think the future looks very bleak indeed and I see nothing but disaster in store. The rapacious looting by the oligarchy, the domestic war being waged to further impoverish the poor and middle class, the interminable and multiplying foreign wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, the semi-war in Pakistan, and possible soon-to-be wars in Iran and Syria), coupled with a political system that seems increasingly disconnected from reality, have created the conditions for collapse.

The US ruling class elite are in a state that is typically found during the last gasp of an empire: greedy, wasteful, bloated, hypocritical, contemptuous of the needs and feelings of the mass of people, arrogant in its view that its military supremacy will enable it to meet all challenges, and unmindful of the rot that is eating away at the foundations of the republic

I occasionally get the question as to what we should do to reverse this trend. To be quite honest, I don't know that we can. I feel like we are on a massive ocean liner headed straight towards a reef. Although the speed does not seem to be that great, the sheer momentum of the massive vessel is such that there is nothing that can be done to stop or reverse its direction in time before the crash occurs, even assuming that the people on the bridge commanding the vessel (i.e., the oligarchs) want to do so. The only thing to be done is to alert people so that they can brace themselves for the impact and prepare them to start anew picking up the pieces and repairing the damage.

What form the crash will take and what the fallout from the crash will be is something that I cannot foresee, just as I cannot predict what will emerge from the rubble. Post-collapse situations, like post-revolutionary ones, are highly unpredictable and their direction can be swayed by relatively minor events. What we can say for sure is that many people are going to be hurt.

When the crash will occur is also hard to predict. What keeps civilized societies functioning is the social compact that persuades people to voluntarily obey certain norms of behavior with the expectation that others will too. When that compact is seen as being ignored with impunity by some people, you breed general contempt for the norms and open the door to chaos. When people see how the ruling class loots in open contempt of the general expectation of having responsibility for the greater good, they begin to wonder why they should subject themselves to those norms. The symptoms of impending trouble are a rising level of social unrest consisting of grumblings, protests, demonstrations, strikes, vandalism, and even rioting as people begin to realize how bad things are, how bleak their own futures are, and start to take the law into their own hands.

The warning signs are so obvious that I cannot believe that the oligarchy and its political and media lackeys do not see them. I think they do, which is why the looting has reached such reckless levels. In the excellent documentaries Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2006) and Inside Job (2010) you see the top people on the inside realizing that the situation is unstable and too far gone to remedy, that the crash is coming, and trying to make as much money as possible and escape while they can, destroying the lives of millions of people in the process. It would be a big mistake to think that the corruption was confined to just the institutions depicted in the films. They are merely indicators of a rot writ large.

In watching the Enron documentary, what struck me was that the key perpetrators of that fraud were actually prosecuted, convicted, and sent to jail. Chairman Ken Lay (a close friend of the Bush family) was found guilty in 2006 and faced 20 to 30 years in prison but died before sentencing. Chief Executive Office Jeffrey Skilling was sentenced to 24 years in jail and fined $45 million. Chief Financial Officer Andrew Fastow was sentenced to six years in prison and fined.

Those were the good old days. It seems so quaint that at one time people actually went to jail for major financial crimes. The oligarchy soon put a stop to that nonsense. Now they control the government and the regulatory agencies so thoroughly that no one risks going to jail for using their big institutions to enrich themselves at the expense of others. Despite the massive scale of malfeasances during the financial debacle of 2008, as far as I am aware not a single person went to prison. The only people who are prosecuted are relative small-timers like Bernie Madoff who make the mistake of swindling other rich people.

We now have a class of people who seem to believe that they have immunity from any legal consequences for their financial actions. That should tell us all we need to know about how bad the situation is.

August 28, 2011

How the US outsources torture

Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill says that the US government and the CIA now use secret prisons in Mogadishu, Somalia to house and torture prisoners that they pick up in the rest of the world.

August 25, 2011

What the Pledge of Allegiance is really doing

Having young children recite the Pledge of Allegiance always seemed to me to be a somewhat disturbing thing, smacking of childhood indoctrination, even leaving aside the 'under god' part. This video captures the problem with it.

(Thanks to Fu Dayi)

August 24, 2011

The Bush-Obama presidency

David Bromwich, a professor of literature at Yale, argues that there is a remarkable continuity between the Bush and Obama presidencies. He repeats the warning that I have made earlier, that Obama and the Democrats are in fact more dangerous to the fortunes of the not-wealthy than the Republicans were.

In these August days, Americans are rubbing their eyes, still wondering what has befallen us with the president’s "debt deal" -- a shifting of tectonic plates beneath the economy of a sort Dick Cheney might have dreamed of, but which Barack Obama and the House Republicans together brought to fruition. A redistribution of wealth and power more than three decades in the making has now been carved into the system and given the stamp of permanence.

Only a Democratic president, and only one associated in the public mind (however wrongly) with the fortunes of the poor, could have accomplished such a reversal with such sickening completeness.

A certain mystery surrounds Obama's perpetuation of Bush’s economic policies, in the absence of the reactionary class loyalty that accompanied them, and his expansion of Bush’s war policies in the absence of the crude idea of the enemy and the spirited love of war that drove Bush. But the puzzle has grown tiresome, and the effects of the continuity matter more than its sources.

Bush we knew the meaning of, and the need for resistance was clear. Obama makes resistance harder. During a deep crisis, such a nominal leader, by his contradictory words and conduct and the force of his example (or rather the lack of force in his example), becomes a subtle disaster for all whose hopes once rested with him.

Bromwich looks in detail at which advisors the president likes to keep and which ones he is quick to jettison and sees a pattern that points to Obama's willing complicity in the looting by the oligarchy.

Meanwhile Glenn Greenwald argues that the increasing surveillance powers that the US and UK governments have developed to spy on and monitor their own citizens is because they are afraid of the growing anger among their populations at the fact that most people are being marginalized while a very few are doing well. The governments will need this information to crack down on possible mass protests in the future.

This year, the Obama administration began demanding greater power to obtain Internet records without a court order. Meanwhile, the Chairwoman of the DNC, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, is sponsoring a truly pernicious bill that would force Internet providers "to keep logs of their customers’ activities for one year." And a whole slew of sleazy, revolving-door functionaries from the public/private consortium that is the National Security State -- epitomized by former Bush DNI and current Booz Allen executive Adm. Michael McConnell -- are exploiting fear-mongering hysteria over cyber-attacks to justify incredibly dangerous (and profitable) Internet controls. As The Washington Post's Dana Priest and William Arkin reported in their "Top Secret America" series last year: "Every day, collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion e-mails, phone calls and other types of communications." That is a sprawling, out-of-control Surveillance State.

One must add to all of these developments the growing attempts to stifle meaningful dissent of any kind -- especially civil disobedience -- through intimidation and excessive punishment. The cruel and degrading treatment of Bradley Manning, the attempted criminalization of WikiLeaks, the unprecedentedly harsh war on whistleblowers: these are all grounded in the recognition that the technology itself cannot be stopped, but making horrific examples out of those who effectively oppose powerful factions can chill others from doing so.

There is already a lot of anger in the US. This is often taking inchoate forms and directed at the wrong targets out of ignorance (the Tea Party is a good example of this) but the ruling class cannot depend on that happy state of affairs continuing forever.

August 22, 2011

The escalating war on the poor

The ruling class and their media lackeys do not even make an attempt anymore to hide their contempt for the poor and their desire to crush them completely. If they keep this up, who knows what will happen.

Part 1:

Part 2:

August 21, 2011

Matt Taibbi talks with Keith Olbermann on the SEC covering up Wall Street crimes


August 19, 2011

How John McCain destroyed the Republican party (and Tim Pawlenty)

When the history of the Republican party is written, John McCain will have to share the brunt of the blame for its demise, and the central piece of evidence will be his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. To support this contention, I am going to indulge myself with a highly self-referential post.

I wrote on September 3, 2008, soon after he announced her selection:

Someone once said that the most common last words expressed by reckless men before they do something stupid is: "Hey guys, watch this!" The McCain decision strikes me as exactly one of those ideas, something that looks bold and daring and exciting in the heat of a brainstorming session where a few people are trying to "think outside the box" and make a stunning impression, but where all the negatives only show up in the cold light of day. It is then that you realize that there is a very thin line separating 'thinking outside the box' from 'being out of your mind'.

I think that this decision is going to haunt McCain. His and her ardent supporters are trying to put on a good face and saying that this move is a 'game changer'. I think they are right but not in a good way for him. It risks changing a narrow race into a blowout victory for Obama.

And so it turned out.

I believe that the seeds of Tim Pawlenty's failure as a presidential candidate were also planted by that same event. As I wrote a few days after the 2008 election:

On election night, Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, one of the reported four finalists to be McCain's running mate, was interviewed just after Obama had become elected. I knew the others in the running (Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge) and I could see why the campaign might not be excited about them, since they both seemed kind of dull and stodgy, not adding much to McCain's appeal. But I had never seen Pawlenty before and he seemed to me to have many of Palin's positives (youth and energy and ideology) without all of her obvious negatives.

Pawlenty spoke fluently and well about the issues that drove the campaign, and graciously about Obama. Furthermore he is an evangelical Christian and is solidly in step with their anti-abortion, anti-gay agenda, although in the early 1990s he was not quite as hard-line. As he spoke, I became increasingly mystified as to why McCain had overlooked him for Palin.

But while being the vice-presidential candidate in 2008 would undoubtedly have helped Pawlenty in 2012, it was not being overlooked that hurt him so badly. The real problem was that the Palin selection opened a Pandora's box within the Republican party, releasing furies that have divided the party and in the process destroyed his presidential hopes. As I predicted in November 2008:

This is where the battle lines are going to be drawn within the Republican party. What is happening now is that the culture wars that were used in the fights against Democrats is becoming a weapon to be used within the Republican Party, to determine who the 'real Republicans' are. The Southern strategy tactics of dividing the country on cultural issues that worked so well for the Republicans on the national level for nearly four decades, has now suddenly turned in on itself and is being used to divide up the party internally in order to see who will lead it and in what direction it will go.

This is why the jockeying for leadership within the Republican party will be interesting to watch, as various candidates try to keep their names in the public eye while at the same time trying to gauge which way the wind is blowing.

Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who was short-listed as a possible vice-presidential candidate, might serve the bill. He seems to have the required positions on social issues such as abortion, gay rights and stem-cell research, though he does not seem to flaunt his religion, perhaps because of that famous Minnesota reserve.

But earlier in his career he had softer stands on abortion and stem-cell research and supported anti-discrimination laws against gays. He is also one of the few evangelicals to support actions to combat global warming, and these will hurt him with the true believers.

While Pawlenty should be acceptable to the social values base of the party, it is not clear if he gives out that special frequency signal that only true believers can hear that enables them to identify those who are truly one of them and thus support them enthusiastically.

We now know the answer to that last question: No. For Michele Bachmann, the answer is yes.

The final nail that McCain drove into the Republican party coffin is that by putting one of their own into the running mate slot, he gave the social base their first real taste of power. Until then, they had been successfully manipulated by the Republican leadership into delivering their votes and energy to the establishment candidates the party chose, while being kept out of leadership positions. That changed in 2008. As I wrote in July 2009:

The old-style conservatives seem to have been routed and are even more marginalized than before. At this stage, they look like people unhappy with what the Republican Party has become and not sure if they can bring it back to what they see as sanity or whether it is hopelessly under the control of nutcases and they need to look for a new home.

The second group [the rank-and-file social values base for whom guns, gays, abortion, stem-cell research, flag, religion, homosexuality, and immigration are the main concerns] has not grown larger but has grown more militant. It is digging in its heels and demanding to be in the party leadership and will not go back to their former role as mere foot soldiers. This group has always been made use of by their party leaders but never given a real shot at leadership. McCain's choice of Palin changed that. For the first time, they felt that one of their own was close to the driver's seat and they are not returning to the back of the bus.

And so it has turned out. We saw the rise of the Tea Party as the manifestation of this phenomenon. We now see candidates for the nomination swearing fealty to the most extreme positions of this group. It seems obvious that the Republican party establishment is worried that they have lost control of their party's agenda to a bunch of loonies. Republican David Frum has been quite harsh about the direction his party has taken, and the desperate search for a 'savior candidate' (Paul Ryan or even people like Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels who have been emphatic about not seeking the nomination) are further symptoms of this unease.

The oligarchy cannot be happy about this development. They need both party leaderships to be smooth manipulators of the system who can deliver the fiscal and economic policies that enrich them under cover of the noise generated by extreme social policies, so that whichever party wins, the oligarchy's interests are advanced. They are not social issues ideologues that believe in the crazy policies and slogans that are used to inflame voters, particularly at election time. As the process moves forward, it will be interesting to see how the oligarchs try to shoot down the candidates they dislike and advance the candidacies of 'sensible' people like Romney or Huntsman.

This is the headache that John McCain created for the Republican party with his impulsive and ill-thought out decision in 2008.

August 18, 2011

Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, and the media narrative

The Daily Show had an excellent piece on the extreme lengths that the media have gone to in ignoring Ron Paul's candidacy for the Republican nomination, that reached comical levels following his near tie with Michele Bachmann in the Ames straw poll.

Glenn Greenwald points out that both Paul and former two-term New Mexico governor Gary Johnson have been effectively declared non-persons and makes the persuasive case that this is because neither of them fit into the pre-ordained media narrative because of their stances on war and civil liberties.

[W]hat makes the media most eager to disappear Paul is that he destroys the easy, conventional narrative -- for slothful media figures and for Democratic loyalists alike. Aside from the truly disappeared former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (more on him in a moment), Ron Paul is far and away the most anti-war, anti-Surveillance-State, anti-crony-capitalism, and anti-drug-war presidential candidate in either party. How can the conventional narrative of extremist/nationalistic/corporatist/racist/warmongering GOP v. the progressive/peaceful/anti-corporate/poor-and-minority-defending Democratic Party be reconciled with the fact that a candidate with those positions just virtually tied for first place among GOP base voters in Iowa? Not easily, and Paul is thus disappeared from existence. That the similarly anti-war, pro-civil-liberties, anti-drug-war Gary Johnson is not even allowed in media debates -- despite being a twice-elected popular governor -- highlights the same dynamic.

GOP primary voters are supporting a committed anti-war, anti-surveillance candidate who wants to stop imprisoning people (disproportionately minorities) for drug usage; Democrats, by contrast, are cheering for a war-escalating, drone-attacking, surveillance-and-secrecy-obsessed drug warrior.

Greenwald also makes the important point is that the media pouring so much resources into covering the trivialities of politics during the interminably long election cycle (now lasting 18 months) means that government can act without much scrutiny during that time.

NPR's Talk of the Nation on the Monday following the straw poll, devoted a large segment of their program to discussing the candidacies of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, showing that they follow the media herd as well. They had to fend off questions from annoyed listeners as to why they were ignoring Paul. The host's weak response was that they were focusing on the 'new' people who were getting the 'buzz' and that Paul did not fit the category.

Justin Raimondo also looks at what the media silence on Paul's candidacy says about their agenda, and how the very brazen way in which they are deliberately ignoring Paul is now becoming a story in itself.

The media's refusal to report Paul's growing support, beyond grudging acknowledgement that he's come in from "the fringe," reflects its institutional bias in favor of the right-left red-blue narrative that has, up until now, dominated American politics, and in which so much of the news industry is heavily invested. This narrative doesn't allow for any significant deviations, and certainly not on the presidential level: all must submit to its tyranny, in spite of its archaic and increasingly obstructionist character. What it obstructs is any meaningful challenge to the functioning of the Welfare-Warfare State. If one party is in power, welfare is given more weight than warfare, if the other takes the throne, then welfare is given the axe. In any case, these two aspects of the modern American state are inextricably intertwined, as "defense" spending in the age of empire becomes just another dollop of pork to be ladled out to corporate and political interests – and welfare becomes a way to keep the disgruntled quiescent in wartime.

Think of the media as the Greek chorus to the two "majors," with different media actors cheerleading one party and razzing the other – but never straying outside the bounds of the red-blue narrative, with its rigid definitions and litmus tests. This mindset is encoded in the two-party system, and institutionalized in our ballot access laws, which privilege the two "major" parties – the very same two parties that have led us down the path to endless war and imminent bankruptcy, and are now running away from their dual responsibility for the present crisis.

Roger Simon also thinks that Paul is getting shafted and finds some telling clues about how political narratives are structured.

There was a deliciously intriguing line in The Washington Post's fine recap of Ames on Sunday. It said had Paul edged out Bachmann, "it would have hurt the credibility and future of the straw poll, a number of Republicans said."

So don't blame the media. Here are Republicans, presumably Republican operatives, who said if one candidate wins, the contest is significant, but if another wins the contest is not credible.

I myself have mixed feelings about Ron Paul. I like the fact that he opposes all these wars that the US is waging and the militarization of foreign policy and his civil libertarian and anti-Wall Street stances. I dislike his positions on some social issues, find his desire to eliminate almost all of government too extreme, and do not understand economics well enough to confidently judge his desire to return the US to the gold standard. But there is no doubt that he is far and away the candidate who discusses the issues most substantively and not in clichés and sound bites aimed at pandering to the base. He undoubtedly elevates the level of political debate. But that is another reason for the media to ignore him. It would require them to actually talk about monetary and foreign policy and other boring stuff. It is much easier and way more fun to talk about Michele Bachmann's husband or Sarah Palin's latest publicity-seeking stunt or Rick Perry's swagger.

I hope that Paul does well if for no other reason than to have the smug condescending looks of the media establishment wiped off their faces.

August 17, 2011

Obama worshippers

I recently had a conversation with a liberal friend and pointed out how shocking it was that Obama had asserted the right to summarily order the killing of American citizens abroad. My friend was not aware of this until I told him. I expected him to be appalled but instead he said that he trusted Obama to do the right thing and that if he ordered such a killing, the person probably deserved to die. When I continued to criticize Obama for his assertion of autocratic powers, he asked me whether I would vote for Obama or Michele Bachmann in the next election. He seemed to think that this argument clinched his case.

I find such attitudes truly incredible. Even if people think that Obama is a good guy looking out for the interests of ordinary folks (a doubtful proposition at best), it is astonishing that they are unconcerned that whatever dictatorial powers they give to him will also be available for use by any future president, including a Bachmann.

The protection of freedoms and civil liberties has to lie in the hands of laws and constitutional protections that are vigilantly guarded, not in assuming the good intentions of individuals.

August 16, 2011

The idiotic Ames straw poll

I watched with some amazement the Ames straw poll. The process is truly bizarre and yet for some reason it was treated as some kind of major political event. A straw poll, as the name implies, is a quick way to see which way the wind is blowing at one particular instant, and it is absurd to use it for anything more. And yet, such a poll resulted in the elimination of Tim Pawlenty from the Republican race.

Just think about it. Less than 17,000 votes were cast. As of 2008, there were 206 million voting age citizens. So 0.008% of the voting age population, all located in a small part of the country and representing very narrow interests, denied the rest of the country the chance to decide if they thought Pawlenty would make a good president.

Let me make it clear that I am not holding a brief for Pawlenty. I did not like his politics and he showed that he was willing to pander to the nutty base of the party as enthusiastically as the rest. For all I know, he may have run an awful campaign in Ames. But he did not seem to be obviously insane and did serve as a governor of a major state for two terms and this should at least count for something. The point I want to make is that it is crazy to allow such a narrow segment of the population to have such a major voice in determining who should or should not be the president and allow them to summarily eliminate candidates who, at least on the basis of their resumes, deserve to be taken seriously.

In his fine book Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (2010), constitutional scholar Richard Beeman describes the extended discussions the Founding Fathers had during the summer of 1787 as they tried to figure out the best way to elect a president. The problem they faced was that the president had to represent the nation as a whole but the state of communications was so poor and travel so difficult that, apart from war hero George Washington, they feared that the public scattered across the thirteen states would not have the knowledge to vote for someone who was outside their region or state. They feared that a truly democratic election in which each citizen cast one vote directly for the president would result in each state's voters choosing their 'favorite son' for president, leading to an inconclusive result. They were also somewhat contemptuous of the wisdom, integrity, and intelligence of ordinary citizens and feared that they could be easily manipulated into voting for self-seeking and unscrupulous but charismatic politicians.

Hence the Founding Fathers developed the complicated indirect voting system that we call the Electoral College, whereby the voters in each state would vote for Electors who would in turn vote for the president. The hope was that these Electors would be from among the best and the brightest people in the state and most knowledgeable about national affairs and thus would cast an informed vote. But even this safeguard was considered insufficient since they feared that the numbers of Electors from each state was so small (varying from three each from Rhode Island and Delaware to twelve from Virginia) that they could be too strongly influenced or manipulated or even bribed by ambitious state politicians to vote for them. Hence they put in an additional requirement that each Elector had to cast two votes, at least one of which should be for someone from outside their own state. The hope was that it was from the votes cast for an out-of-state candidate that a truly national figure would emerge.

But they added even more precautions. If as a result of this process, no single candidate emerged with a majority of votes in the Electoral College, then the House of Representatives would vote from among the top five candidates. In this final election, each state's delegation would have just one vote. They hoped that this elaborate process would allow for the election of someone who could rise about the parochial interests of his home state and represent the interests of the new nation as a whole.

In April 1789 George Washington was elected the first president under this system, having received every one of the Electoral College votes cast. But of course, the main concern was not about Washington, who was always expected to be a shoo-in for the post, but to ensure that someone close to his stature would be elected once he left office.

But look what we have now. Unlike in 1787, we have rapid travel and almost instantaneous universal communication so that all voters everywhere have access to information about all the candidates. The difficult conditions that the founders designed their system to overcome no longer apply. And yet, rather than having a system that takes advantage of the elimination of those constraints to select a truly national candidate, what the Ames straw poll illustrates is that we have actually gone into reverse, granting a tiny, self-selected, and highly parochial group the right to decide who are the candidates worth considering and whom to eliminate.

The whole process is also profoundly anti-democratic and corrupt. The candidates buy tickets ($30 each) to enable people to participate, with the candidates acting like carnival barkers luring people to their particular sideshow. Michele Bachmann spent $180,000 to buy 6,000 tickets, of which almost 5,000 voted for her.

The media elevated this non-event to something of significance and also skewed the interpretation of the results. Ron Paul essentially tied with Bachmann in the vote (the difference was less than 1%) and yet the media treat her as if she was the sole winner and ignore Paul.

The most important quality that a candidate needs to possess to win the Ames straw poll is the ability to coax and bribe a tiny group of people to vote for them. This is precisely what the Founding Fathers sought to avoid. So why are we giving this non-event so much prominence instead of consigning it to the oblivion it deserves?

August 15, 2011

The problem with some liberal commentators

When I made my own predictions about what would likely happen in the budgetary process with the so-called Super Committee, it was even before the members of the committee had been selected because according to my model of how politics works, when it comes to basic issues of the economy, the decisions are made off-stage behind the scenes by the oligarchy and the political leadership, and the people deliberating these things in public are merely actors giving us the impression that they are deciding things.

It is important to note that the actors themselves may be quite sincere in thinking that they are autonomous agents, freely deciding the issues. But the reality is that by the time they reach those positions, the people who might do something that the oligarchy does not want have long been filtered out, because the system works well in creating the kinds of pressures that result in pre-ordained conclusions. The personal views of politicians become important only in those cases where the oligarchy does not care about the outcome (guns, gays, abortion, pledge of allegiance, burning the flag, compact fluorescent light bulbs, etc.)

This model differs considerably from the standard approach because many liberal commentators tend to still have enormous faith in the good intentions of the politicians who say they have liberal goals. For example, now that the Super Committee has been constituted, there has been considerable analysis of the past record and statements of its members, with a view to getting clues as to how they might decide. Steve Benen runs the liberal Political Animal blog over at the Washington Monthly. He is good source for political news because he scours the wire services for news and aggregates it is a useful way. But a recent post of his illustrates the basic flaw with many liberal commentators who place their faith in the supposedly good intentions of Democratic leaders rather than paying attention to what they actually do.

After listing Nancy Pelosi's nominees to the Super Committee, people whose past records suggest that they may well agree to cuts in entitlements and no increase in taxes on the rich, he says the following:

I suspect the key takeaway from the House Democratic selections is that all three are key, close allies of Pelosi, and they will very likely be representing her interests during the negotiations.

Since I like Pelosi and agree with her expectations for the process, I consider this a positive development.

He is hopeful about the outcome because he 'likes Pelosi' and agrees with her 'expectations' for the process. But let's look at Pelosi's rhetorical trajectory, which is the standard Democratic one of first raising expectations amongst the base of the party and then slowly talking them down. On August 2, this was her position:

At a pre-recess press conference Tuesday afternoon, TPM asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) whether the people she appoints to the committee will make the same stand she made during the debt limit fight -- that entitlement benefits -- as opposed to provider payments, waste and other Medicare spending -- should be off limits.

In short, yes.

"That is a priority for us," Pelosi said. "But let me say it is more than a priority - it is a value... it's an ethic for the American people. It is one that all of the members of our caucus share. So that I know that whoever's at that table will be someone who will fight to protect those benefits."

Then on August 4, she began the familiar backtracking, using the 'trigger' of automatic cuts as the excuse:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) says her caucus will be broadly united in a fight to protect Medicare and other successful programs from cuts when the committee convenes to reduce deficits by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years. But neither she nor the people she appoints to that committee will publicly draw bright lines.

Far from suggesting that the Democrats she appoints on the committee will keep a wide-open mind to cutting benefits for seniors, she emphasized that her caucus is broadly unified against such measures. But she also said House Democrats on the committee will work toward a solution that's better than allowing an enforcement mechanism -- $500 billion in defense cuts, and domestic spending reductions, including a two percent cut to Medicare providers -- to take effect. (My italics)

Then a little later she appoints people to the Super Committee who might well give in on cuts to Social Security.

That's how it works. In this strip from 2010, cartoonist Tom Tomorrow describes Obama's use of this same strategy during the health care debate.

Benen is a thoughtful person and generally good on issues so I do not want to be too hard on him. But his willingness to trust in the good intentions of democratic politicians symbolizes the weakness of mainstream liberal commentators. He reminds me of Kevin Drum at Mother Jones who said on an earlier occasion:

If it had been my call, I wouldn't have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he's smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.

These people keep putting their trust in the good intentions of Democratic politicians, however many times their expectations are dashed. I am not sure why.

When the inevitable sellout occurs, watch for the Democratic leadership to proclaim it as a big victory because they supposedly prevented something much worse.

August 12, 2011

The GOP debate

I of course did not watch the Republican candidates debate last night. Why waste two hours of my life? But this minute-by-minute report on the proceedings by Michael Scherer was fun to read and tells me what I missed.

August 11, 2011

The emerging dark side of flash mobs

Flash mobs started out innocuously enough. Groups of people would pre-arrange to meet at a particular location and engage in what was essentially a form of street theater, 'spontaneously' breaking into opera arias in department stores or Handel's Messiah in shopping mall food courts at Christmastime, or performing some sketch and the like, with the bystanders initially taken by surprise but enjoying the performance once they caught on. It was fun and meant to entertain and educate and enlighten.

The advent of social media has enabled people to arrange for flash mobs to appear with very little notice and no prior organization and this has led to new forms of flash mob behavior. This has been of considerable value for organizing protest demonstrations in repressive countries, as we saw with the Arab spring. These were not for fun but had a serious social purpose.

But a darker side to flash mobs is now emerging and Cleveland has seen its share of them. Large numbers of young people are being notified at short notice by social media to gather at a location purely for the sake of disrupting the lives of people in that area. Recently we had a case where a street fair in the suburb of Cleveland Heights was suddenly invaded by a large number of young people who are reported to have rampaged through the crowds attending the fair, knocking over people and stalls, stomping over people's property in the surrounding neighborhoods, and seemingly bent on just destroying the enjoyment of the people attending a local community event. As a result, that city has imposed a curfew that prohibits young people being on the streets in the evening unless accompanied by an adult.

Soon after, the Fourth of July fireworks display that is put on in my town also suddenly saw the arrival of about 500 youths who again tried to rampage through the large crowd assembled to see the show, but apparently the police were ready for them and managed to control to situation before it got out of hand.

What complicates the situation is that the young people in these mobs are almost all black and not from the small communities where the disruptions occurred (which are both racially integrated) but from the neighboring large city of Cleveland, so this has raised racial tensions. There are concerns that the curfew policy is racially motivated and will only be enforced against unaccompanied black youth. It seems that the city of Philadelphia has adopted a similar curfew policy to deal with flash mobs there.

In one of the community meetings that followed one of these incidents, a young man tried to explain the actions by saying that young people had nothing to do because the community did not provide adequate outlets for them, and that this kind of behavior was a backlash to that state of affairs. I must say that I have very little sympathy for this point of view. I do not think that it is the obligation of the community to provide amusements for young people and am baffled that they feel entitled to it. When and why and how did this feeling originate? Is it because young people today grow up with their parents taking them hither and yon to organized events so that they have not developed the ability to amuse themselves?

At the risk of sounding like a cranky old man (which I am but that is neither here nor there), when we were young the thought that our parents or the community had to provide avenues for our entertainment never occurred to us. When we had free time, we young people would get together and organize our own amusements, which often just consisted of hanging around talking or organizing pickup games on vacant lots or going to see films, and the like. We were pretty much left to ourselves and yet I do not recall being particularly bored.

Frankly I simply cannot understand the mentality of the young people who are taking part in these destructive flash mobs. There seems to be no motive other than to spoil the enjoyment of ordinary people taking part in a community event. What enjoyment does one get disturbing the peace and frightening and even injuring total strangers? After all, the events that were disrupted were free and open to everyone so it is not as if they were being excluded.

Now there are reported cases where flash mobs are being created for the purpose of looting, taking advantage of the fact that they can send out the call to the mob, gather, loot, and disperse before the police can arrive.

In some ways, the phenomenon of flash mobs that form purely for the purpose of disrupting events and attacking people is more disturbing than those which either have theft as their explicit goal or where some people use demonstrations and other forms of social protest as an opportunity to create chaos and then steal, as seems to be what is happening in England right now. These are disturbing but at least they seem to have some rational basis, however slight.

My sense of bafflement as to what is gained by these purely disruptive flash mobs is similar to my reaction to vandalism. What does one gain by simply defacing and destroying things? It does not benefit you in any way. It merely degrades the very community and the environment that the young people themselves live in, making their situations even worse. Destroying things and creating trouble and fear among ordinary people just because you think you can and want to, with no other purpose in mind, bespeaks a seriously antisocial mindset. It reminds me of the disturbing dystopian futuristic Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange (later made by Stanley Kubrick into a film), where the young toughs terrorize people just for the fun of it.

It is a bad sign when young people start destroying their own communities and daring the authorities to come after them for no apparent reason but seemingly just to show that they can.

August 10, 2011

When did the American empire start to decline?

Stephen Walt traces the beginning of the end to 1990 and the first Gulf war, which ushered in an era of American hubris about its ability to direct events in the Middle East to its and Israel's liking.

It is noteworthy that he does not ask if the American empire is in a state of decline. He takes that as a given. The question is what has caused it.

It seems pretty obvious to me too that the US is heading for a major crash because of its unsustainable policies, a combination of oligarchical looting at home and disastrous wars overseas. What puzzles me is why more people, especially those in the upper levels of government, don't see this and take the necessary steps to avert the catastrophe.

Maybe Tom Tomorrow's cartoon from 2010 is right.

August 09, 2011

Crazy eyes

I fully expect the Tea Party to go on the war path over this Newsweek cover photo of their icon.

bachmann-coer1.png

When the same magazine published a cover photo of Sarah Palin during the 2008 campaign that I thought was quite nice, I was taken aback at the protests that her wrinkles, pores, and facial hair had not been airbrushed away.

In the case of Michele Bachmann, not only do we see manic eyes, but also wrinkles, and who knows what else that I did not notice but I am sure will be highlighted by those who pay close attention to these things.

August 08, 2011

A Secret Patriot Act?

One of the worst pieces of legislation was the USA PATRIOT Act that was rushed through in the wake of 9/11 and enabled some of the worst abuses of civil liberties.

The original act was bad enough. But now two US senators have charged that "the government has a secret legal interpretation of the Patriot Act so broad that it amounts to an entirely different law — one that gives the feds massive domestic surveillance powers, and keeps the rest of us in the dark about the snooping."

The two senators have called for an investigation but the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by the awful Diane Feinstein of California, has refused to allow this information to be revealed. Feinstein has been one of the most ardent supporters of the national security state apparatus, more concerned about protecting the powers of the government than the rights of people.

Natural experiments and Medicaid

In research, the gold standard is to do a double-blind study in which you compare the effect of some intervention on a test group with that of a perfectly matched control group. But sometimes this is not possible, say if one is doing historical research or the conditions of the research are not amenable to being controlled by the researcher. Ethics considerations limit what one can do with animal and human subjects and if the trial might result in either group being denied a valuable benefit, such studies will be disallowed. For example, it might be valuable to know what the effect of some chemical is on infant development but it would be unthinkable to try out the experiment on test groups of infants if there is the risk of harm.

In cases such as this, researchers look for 'natural' experiments in which the desired experimental conditions occur naturally. Natural experiments are particularly valuable when it comes to medical research where the double-blind randomized trial is the ideal.

Such a natural experiment overcame the problem of determining definitively if Medicaid produced benefits for poor people or not. It would not have been ethical to divide the population randomly into two groups and give Medicaid benefits to one and deliberately deprive the other of them, as would have been necessary to create the appropriate protocols. As a result of this restriction, no definitive studies could be done to prove the benefits of Medicaid and thus opponents of Medicaid were able to argue that Medicaid was of no use and should be eliminated.

But in Oregon, budget woes resulted in a natural experiment occurring. Since the Oregon government had money to cover only 10,000 of the 90,000 eligible Medicaid patients, it created a lottery system in which only the winners obtained benefits, thus effectively creating a database of a large pool of subjects who could be randomized and matched in terms of other variables. Researchers seized upon this opportunity to study the effects of this difference.

Health economists and other researchers said the study was historic and would be cited for years to come, shaping health care debates.

"It's obviously a really important paper," said James Smith, an economist at the RAND Corporation. "It is going to be a classic."

Richard M. Suzman, director of the behavioral and social research program at the National Institute on Aging, a major source of financing for the research, said it was "one of the most important studies that our division has funded since I've been at the N.I.A.," a period of more than a quarter-century.

Researchers who used the resulting data to study the issue found in the first phase that people on Medicaid had better health outcomes than those not on it.

Those with Medicaid were 35 percent more likely to go to a clinic or see a doctor, 15 percent more likely to use prescription drugs and 30 percent more likely to be admitted to a hospital. Researchers were unable to detect a change in emergency room use.

Women with insurance were 60 percent more likely to have mammograms, and those with insurance were 20 percent more likely to have their cholesterol checked. They were 70 percent more likely to have a particular clinic or office for medical care and 55 percent more likely to have a doctor whom they usually saw.

The insured also felt better: the likelihood that they said their health was good or excellent increased by 25 percent, and they were 40 percent less likely to say that their health had worsened in the past year than those without insurance.

They benefitted in non-medical ways too.

The study found that those with insurance were 25 percent less likely to have an unpaid bill sent to a collection agency and were 40 percent less likely to borrow money or fail to pay other bills because they had to pay medical bills.

Thus being on Medicaid made people's lives a lot less stressful.

Those who seek to deny poor people benefits in order to increase the wealth of the rich will try their best to find other reasons to do so. But this research is so definitive that it should end this particular argument.

August 07, 2011

Judge rules Rumsfeld can be sued over torture

Despite the strenuous efforts of the Obama administration to cover up torture by getting the lawsuit dismissed, a federal judge has allowed a torture suit against Donald Rumsfeld to proceed.

This is the second time a judge has allowed such a suit. Rumsfeld appealed the previous one and no doubt this will be appealed too but anything that causes these torture authorizers to sweat over the possibility of going to prison is a good thing.

August 05, 2011

Sara Palin fan biopic update

I am sure that everyone is curious as to how The Undefeated is doing. On its third weekend, the number of theaters showing the film dropped from 14 to 4, resulting in gross receipts of $5,080, which I estimate works out to about an average 13 people showing up for each screening.

The total gross for the film so far is $112,078 which means that the producers are taking a financial bath but I fully expect them to recoup their investments (and more) when they release the film globally. I hear that Palin is really big in Kazakhstan because they can also see Russia from their houses.

August 04, 2011

The debt deal 'compromise'

The Onion gets it right again.

How a smoothly run oligarchy works

One sign of a smoothly functioning oligarchy is when everyone is so in agreement with what needs to be done that they don't even have to discuss things.

David Corn writes about how this manifested itself in the debt ceiling vote. Despite all her public talk about how she disliked the deal, Nancy Pelosi came through for the oligarchy.

August 02, 2011

Matt Damon interviewed about teachers

The interviewers have this weird idea that if people are really insecure about their jobs, they will work better. Damon lets them have it, but nicely. Listen to his very last words.

Matt Stoller also becomes shrill

Matt Taibbi continues to tell it like it is about the latest deal.

The Democrats aren't failing to stand up to Republicans and failing to enact sensible reforms that benefit the middle class because they genuinely believe there's political hay to be made moving to the right. They're doing it because they do not represent any actual voters. I know I've said this before, but they are not a progressive political party, not even secretly, deep inside. They just play one on television.

The Democrats, despite sitting in the White House, the most awesome repository of political power on the planet, didn't fight at all. They made a show of a tussle for a good long time -- as fixed fights go, you don't see many that last into the 11th and 12th rounds, like this one did -- but at the final hour, they let out a whimper and took a dive.

We probably need to start wondering why this keeps happening. Also, this: if the Democrats suck so bad at political combat, then how come they continue to be rewarded with such massive quantities of campaign contributions?

It strains the imagination to think that the country's smartest businessmen keep paying top dollar for such lousy performance. Is it possible that by "surrendering" at the 11th hour and signing off on a deal that presages deep cuts in spending for the middle class, but avoids tax increases for the rich, Obama is doing exactly what was expected of him?

Thanks to reader Vincenzo for pointing me to this post by Matt Stoller. Stoller, a Democratic party insider, even uses the term oligarchy, saying, "When you look at Obama’s governing role, he is clearly a servant of American oligarchs."

If enough people start talking like this, Obama and the Democratic party leadership could be in real danger of their supporters seeing through their act as being people who want to do the right thing but being continually thwarted by the mean old Republicans.

In order to try and repair relations with their base, watch for them to throw them some goodies in the form of policies on social issues that the oligarchy does not care about. The recent decision by the Department of Health and Human Services, starting August 1, 2012, to "require health insurance plans to cover all government-approved contraceptives for women, without co-payments or other charges" is one such step. The repeal of the absurd "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military is another. We may even see efforts to repeal of the awful Defense of Marriage Act.

All these are very good things that should have been done long ago. But we should see them for what they are, attempts to buy the allegiance of their base while they continue to be subservient to the oligarchy.

August 01, 2011

Countering Obama's apologists

In a post titled The myth of Obama's "blunders" and "weakness" Glenn Greenwald tries to put to rest the excuses put forward by Obama apologists that he was forced against his will into this deal. In particular, read his email to one such apologist John Cole laying out the case

Meanwhile economist Jared Bernstein explains what is actually in the proposed deal and what is likely to happen down the road if it passes.

And so it goes

The political theater that is US politics is unfolding in ways that should be drearily familiar by now.

Once again, Obama and the Democratic leadership have 'reluctantly' and with 'great regret' been 'forced' to give up every thing they say they value because those nasty Republicans and their Tea Party caucus threatened to bring the country to ruin. They had to 'compromise' on what they really, really wanted to do (raise taxes on the rich and close tax loopholes) in order to 'save the nation'.

Right.

The next phase of the drama is for the Villagers and the Very Serious People to hail this 'bipartisan compromise' deal that averted a supposed catastrophe. Those liberals and other Democratic supporters who are critical of the terms of the deal will either express amazement that their party's leaders are such rotten negotiators (see Robert Reich and Paul Krugman) or urge everyone to rally round the party because the alternatives are so much worse. All the Democratic party needs to do is to raise the specter of Michele Bachmann in order to get their frightened base to fall in line and support whatever sellout plan the party proposes.

Matt Taibbi warns about another huge gift to the oligarchy, the corporate tax holiday (also known as the 'tax repatriation holiday), that is going to be snuck into the deal somewhere along the line. Also watch for the other shoe to drop in this deal as it seems as if the 'bipartisan commission' that is part of the deal has been given triggers that will lead to cuts in the social welfare net in the coming year.

Oddly enough, although the Democratic party's base should be the ones demanding that this deal be scuttled, in reality it is only the Tea Party which has the gumption to defy its party's leadership. Of course, if they do and the deal goes down in flames, the Democratic party leadership will only use the subsequent 'crisis' as an opportunity to be 'forced' give the oligarchy even more goodies.

I am not by nature a cynical person. But when it comes to predicting how politics in the US will play out, I have found that you can’t go far wrong in picking the most cynical view to be the right one.

The danger of manufactured crises

The debt ceiling brinkmanship is a manufactured crisis where none needs to exist. It is becoming clear that for a small but determined group within the Republican party led by the Tea Partiers, the national debt and deficit financing, rather than being simply another option in a nation's fiscal policy, has become an obsession, a dangerous ogre that must be slain now. They are adamant about not raising the debt ceiling, and seem to think that forcing the US to default could be a good thing, because it would create chaotic conditions that could lay the groundwork for their ultimate dream, a balanced budget constitutional amendment.

But what should not be forgotten is that despite the Tea Partiers, it was always clear to me that the debt ceiling would be increased because the oligarchy wanted it and the fact that there was until yesterday still no public agreement between the two parties' leaderships and the White House suggested to me that this so-called crisis was a purely artificial one, manufactured to advance other goals.

Assuming that August 2 is a hard deadline for raising the debt ceiling, that placed some limits on what could be done by then. While raising the debt ceiling by itself would be a simple piece of routine legislation, tying it to complicated plans that involve a lot of major changes in budgetary policy (let alone the absurd idea of a constitutional amendment) would require elaborate legislation that would require quite a bit of time to work out. I simply could not see how it could be done in a few days, although this article discusses how Congress can work very fast if it has to.

What worried me is that crises are useful for the oligarchy because it can use them to rush through changes that, if there were time for the public to digest them, would cause an outcry. I suspected that plans (and the accompanying legislation) had already been prepared and were going to be sprung on us at the last minute as an emergency 'must pass' option to 'prevent a catastrophe', similar to the way that the bailouts of the Wall Street banksters was forced on the country in 2008. The Tea Party caucus that is determined to block any deal that raises the debt ceiling was playing right into the hands of the oligarchy by allowing the leadership of both parties and the White House cover to claim that we were headed for a crisis that required dramatic action.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, seems to share my concerns:

In this respect, the crisis over the debt ceiling is the answer to the prayers of many people in the business community. They desperately want to roll back the size of the country's welfare state, but they know that there is almost no political support for this position. The crisis over the debt ceiling gives them an opportunity to impose cutbacks in the welfare state by getting the leadership of both political parties to sign on to the deal, leaving the opponents of cuts with no plausible political options.

To advance this agenda they will do everything in their power to advance the perception of crisis. This includes having the bond-rating agencies threaten to downgrade U.S. debt if there is not an agreement on major cuts to the welfare state.

This means that the battle over the debt ceiling is an elaborate charade that is threatening the country's most important social welfare programs. There is no real issue of the country's creditworthiness of its ability to finance its debt and deficits any time in the foreseeable future. Rather, this is about the business community in general, and the finance sector in particular, taking advantage of a crisis that they themselves created to scale back the country's social welfare system. They may well succeed.

It looks like Baker is another economist joining Paul Craig Roberts and Jeffrey Sachs in the ranks of the shrill. The always shrill Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi also see right through the Obama and the Democratic leadership's game.

While preparing the first draft of this post yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, I wrote the following: "We need to watch out for a 'grand compromise' that emerges at the last minute in a 'spirit of bipartisanship' that 'must pass' for 'the good of the country' and will be immediately hailed by the Villagers and the Very Serious People as being a 'courageous' move that shows 'statesmanship', because such a deal will undoubtedly further enrich the oligarchy and undermine the social welfare system even more."

I didn't have to wait long. The Wall Street Journal reports this morning that Harry Reid used almost those exact words in announcing the deal that Obama and the Democratic and Republican leadership have agreed on: "I am relieved to say that leaders from both parties have come together for the sake of our economy to reach a historic, bipartisan compromise that ends this dangerous standoff."

While details have yet to emerge, what seems to have been agreed upon is no new revenue increases (so much for Obama's promise that he wanted a 'balanced' approach that included tax increases on the rich or the closing of loopholes that they benefit from) and immediate cuts in spending that will hurt ordinary people even more, followed by more such cuts in the coming year.

Oligarchic politics is so depressingly predictable because they make up the rules of the game and control the key players. Once you have figured that out, you see right through the fake crises and the phony drama.

July 30, 2011

Keeping track of the government's checking account

For those who like to know the details of how much money the US government takes in (and from where) and how much it spends (and on what), the US Treasury publishes a wealth of figures.

In particular you can see the activity in its 'checking account' on a daily basis. Thursday, July 28th is the last day for which the figures are available and we are told that the government started the day with about $74 billion, took in $112 billion and spent $132 billion, leaving it at the end of the day with $54 billion.

You can see what is causing concern if you look at the last column that gives the fiscal-year-to-date figures. (Note that in the US, the fiscal year starts on October 1 and ends on September 30 of the following year.) It shows that the government started the fiscal year with $310 billion, and for the year so far had receipts of $9,108 billion and expenditures of $9,364 billion. So we have had a drop of $256 billion in just ten months, an average burn rate of $26 billion per month, which is why we are so close to emptying the account.

But the monthly figures can fluctuate wildly so the average rate is not a good predictor of what will happen in the short term. (Caution: When reading the monthly table, note that for some reason monthly deficits are entered as positive numbers and surpluses as negative.)

July 29, 2011

The Norwegian government's reaction to the mass murder

Following the mass killings in Norway that, on a per capita basis, inflicted a death toll that was greater than that of 9/11, the government is treating it as a criminal matter and prime minister Jens Stoltenberg said that "I hope and also believe that the Norway we will see after will be more open, a more tolerant society than what we had before."

Yes, his response is to want to make the country more open and tolerant.

Oh, those silly Norwegians. Don't they know that that the proper response to a mass murder is to declare it to be a terrorist act, proclaim a war on terror that involves bombing and invading countries whose populations have the same religion as the killer, harass your own population by subjecting them to all manner of intrusive surveillance to make sure they are not up to no good, suspend constitutional rights by detaining people indefinitely without trial on the flimsiest of suspicions, create kangaroo courts to guarantee convictions and secret prisons overseas, and torture and kill those in custody?

US IKEA plant to unionize

I wrote earlier about how IKEA's sole US factory was treating its workers really badly (see here, here, and here).

Thanks to reader Fu Dayi, I learn that the factory is going to unionize. What helped in the unionization efforts was the public shaming that IKEA received which was damaging its reputation as a good employer.

This should lead to better working conditions.

July 26, 2011

Collateral damage caused by government shut down

While many of us wonder what might be the long-term ramifications of a government default and shutdown if the debt ceiling is not raised by August 2, for many people this is not merely an academic exercise but a real and immediate danger.

Recall that about half of American households are 'economically fragile' in the sense that in an emergency they could not lay their hands on $2,000 within 30 days. They live from paycheck to paycheck. What will happen to such households if government employees get furloughed and don't get paid or to similarly situated seniors if the social security checks don't go out? How will they pay their rent and mortgages?

This should be a sobering reminder that politics is not a game. Ordinary people get hurt.

How the oligarchy speaks

Oligarchies are most effective when they work in the background, out of the public eye, getting their way by having political leaders carry out their bidding. The oligarchy usually prefers to use establishment academics and the media and the bond rating agencies to speak on their behalf but they seem to have become worried that those subtle, behind-the-scenes ways seem to have failed when it comes to raising the debt ceiling, forcing them to come out more in the open.

Wall Street has pretty much openly told the Republican party leadership that the kabuki theater had gone on long enough and to raise the debt ceiling. In a highly unusual move, a broad segment of the oligarchy sent an open letter to Obama and every member of Congress (though I suspect that the real targets were the debt-ceiling holdouts) that the ceiling must be raised.

Warren Buffet played his usual role of speaking for the 'soft' face of the oligarchy (i.e., the down-home, aw shucks, 'good' rich guy) when he publicly predicted that the ceiling would be raised. A 'prediction' of this sort is usually just a hint as to what the speaker wants others to do. Ben Bernanke has also warned of the dire danger of not raising the ceiling.

The major bond ratings agencies like Moody, Fitch, and Standard and Poor have warned that the US government's credit rating would be lowered if it defaulted. The opinions of the ratings agencies should be highly discredited since these were the same agencies that gave the highest ratings to the worthless mortgage-backed securities that fueled the madness that led to the collapse of the housing market that has harmed so many people. But while their assessments of credit worthiness are worthless, they are a major voice by which the oligarchy makes its views known.

Although the debt-ceiling negotiation drama has continued, what made me think that there would be no default is that the ultimate voice of the oligarchy, the stock market, has remained seemingly unperturbed. If there were real fears of a default, it should have tanked. While that may still happen, so far the oligarchy seems convinced that the ceiling will be raised. Commentator karoli sees things slightly differently, suggesting that the reason for the stock market's stability is that the oligarchy does not want a budget deal because they care more about keeping their taxes low than about higher interest rates. They would prefer no deal, even if it results in a US government default, if the alternative is a deal in which their taxes are raised.

Economist Paul Craig Roberts, former Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury and Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal, is another formerly solid establishment economist, a conservative counterpart to Jeffrey Sachs, who like him has become shrill. In a must-read analysis, Craig says that:

The downgrade threat [by the credit ratings agencies] is not credible, and neither is the default threat. Both are make-believe crises that are being hyped in order to force cutbacks in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Washington’s priorities and those of its presstitutes could not be clearer. President Obama, like George W. Bush before him, both parties in Congress, the print and TV media, and National Public Radio have made it clear that war is a far more important priority than health care and old age pensions for Americans.

The American people and their wants and needs are not represented in Washington. Washington serves powerful interest groups, such as the military/security complex, Wall Street and the banksters, agribusiness, the oil companies, the insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, and the mining and timber industries.

Craig argues that even if no debt-ceiling deal is reached between Obama and Congress, there will still be no default because the US is in the unique position (unlike Greece and the other European countries also struggling with debt) that it pays its debt with its own currency.

The US government will never default on its bonds, because the bonds, unlike those of Greece, Spain, and Ireland, are payable in its own currency. Regardless of whether the debt ceiling is raised, the Federal Reserve will continue to purchase the Treasury’s debt. If Goldman Sachs is too big to fail, then so is the US government.

I must admit that I don't understand in detail how US deficits are financed. The relationship between the US Treasury and the Federal Reserve, the way that US Treasury bonds are bought and sold, the way that new dollars are printed to finance the debt, are all things that are somewhat opaque to me but Craig is the kind of person who would know.

Paul Krugman is an establishment economist who has so far has remained within the approved range of 'respectable opinion', viewing the Democrats as liberal and the Republicans as conservative and the failure of Democrats to exploit their winning hands and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as being largely due to their poor negotiating skills. But the debt ceiling debate has exasperated even him and he has started saying some shrill things. I don't know how far he can go before he too gets booted out of the Village.

How many more establishment economist types need to become shrill before the message gets through to the general public that it is the domination of the US economy by the oligarchy that is the real problem here, not the debt ceiling or the budget or Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid? These people and their enablers in government and the media are driving the US into a very deep ditch.

July 25, 2011

Palin film continues to bomb

The second weekend of the Sarah Palin fan biopic The Undefeated saw the film being expanded to 14 cities from the original 10 but reporting gross box office receipts of just $24,000, a decline of 63% from the first weekend.

To the calculators! With apologies to Tbogg, who has been mocking chronicling the film's performance so far (see here and here and here), but the above results mean a weekend average of $1,714 per city or $571 per day or $143 per show (assuming four shows per day) or 18 people per showing (at $8 per ticket).

I think it is safe to say that if you want to see the film, you need not bother about buying tickets in advance, unless they are showing it in people's living rooms.

This must really hurt, you betcha. After all, the distributors carefully chose cities that are supposed to be friendly to her, such as Grapevine, Texas.

Which raises the question: Where are all the real Merkins who see Palin as the nation's savior? Surely she has more fans than this? Why aren't they showing her some love in return for the joy she brings to their lives?

The oligarchy forced into the open

I do not tend to follow micro-politics (who's up, whose down, what the latest rumor is about this or that, how the polls vary from day to day) carefully because doing so not only consumes all your time but it prevents you from seeing the more important big picture. I prefer to focus on macro-politics, politics on the large scale and longer time frames. However, there are times when macro-political theories impact micro-political events and the debt-ceiling debate is one such case.

I have been writing about how the US is run by an oligarchy that is fronted by the Democratic and Republican parties. The issues that the oligarchy is united on (ones that financially benefit themselves) are agreed upon by the two parties and usually take place so quietly and behind the scenes that we are not even aware of it (much of the legislation passed by Congress and the regulations implementing them by the committees is of this form) or when it cannot be avoided becoming public (as was the case of the massive bailouts of the financial sector in 2008) is done with a grand show of bipartisanship and rushed through as matters of supposedly extreme urgency that gives the rest of us no time to participate in the process at all, let alone mount a protest.

The debt ceiling debate is another case where the oligarchy has been forced to emerge from the shadows and try to more overtly influence events.

So who makes up the oligarchy and how does it make its wishes known? The oligarchy is not a hierarchy or secretive cabal that issues orders. Such a crude system cannot be effective for long. It is a loose alliance of the top people in the business, financial, and media sectors, all of whom all share the same goal of enriching themselves at the expense of the general public. This tends to create a uniformity in general thinking, though it can differ in details. These people tend to move around in the same circles as top government officials so a lot of the oligarchy's wishes are communicated informally. The rapidly revolving door by which top government and business officials switch roles is another mechanism to ensure uniformity in thinking. The oligarchy's lobbyists, who pretty much have taken up residence in the halls of government and contribute heavily to congressional and presidential campaigns, also exert constant pressure to ensure that politicians know what they should do.

The major media (which is also owned by the oligarchy) also contributes when it interviews business leaders and selected intellectuals and reports their opinions which can then reach a wider audience. A lot of so-called 'think tanks' (The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, etc.) are also created and funded by the oligarchy, along with prominent university academics who are sympathetic to oligarchic interests (see the great documentary Inside Job for examples of the latter). The chair of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Secretary can always be relied upon to be reliable spokespersons for the oligarchy since they almost always have close ties with them and often emerge from their ranks and go back to them when their terms of office are over.

This is how an informal consensus becomes created about what the 'best' course of action (i.e., what benefits the oligarchy) is for any given situation and those who are outside this consensus can then be dismissed as radicals and extremists and 'shrill'.

When it comes to the debt ceiling, I wrote the following back in November of last year:

Despite Republican rhetoric about opposing the rising national debt, the oligarchy needs the government spigots to be kept open and so I predict the Republican Party will agree to raise the debt ceiling, all the while hypocritically wailing and gnashing their teeth at what a bad thing it is. It will be interesting to see how well their supporters respond to such a blatant betrayal of what they were promised.

It has indeed been interesting to see how this is being played out in the current debt ceiling debate. I did not pay too much attention to the day-to-day drama of the talks between Obama and the Republicans or worry about the US defaulting on its debt because I felt that the oligarchy was united in wanting the debt ceiling raised and thus it would happen. This is because a default would trigger a lowering of the US's debt rating which would require it to pay higher interest rates on the money the government borrows which in turn would raise interest rates all round. Since it is a fairly good rule of thumb that interest rates are inversely correlated with stock prices, and the oligarchy is devoted to keeping stock prices high, I felt it was a no brainer that they would push for passage of a debt ceiling increase to prevent a steep stock market decline.

It looks like that is what is mostly happening. The stock market has not panicked yet (in fact, it rose somewhat the last week) and the yield on US Treasury bonds (a key predictor of interest rates) has remained pretty much stable for the month of July.

However, it has also become clear that some vocal elements of the Republican party (such as the Tea Party caucus) are not as yet quite adept at picking up the subtle cues that tell them what they must do and who the real bosses of the country are, and are balking even when those cues are translated for them by their party leaders in more direct terms. They seem to be true believers of the idea that raising the debt ceiling is a horrendous evil and not merely a fairly routine procedure that was made into a marquee issue simply to win votes in the 2010 elections.

Given this high level of obtuseness on the part of the Tea Party, the oligarchy has to be more direct in conveying its message and it is interesting to observe it coming out in the open and start cracking the whip.

Next: How the oligarchy speaks

July 24, 2011

Trying to make sense of the insane

In reading about the horrific tragedy in Norway, I was trying to think of how, even to a diseased mind, it would make sense to mow down a large number of trapped unarmed young people. How could you possibly think it would bring credit to your cause (whatever it is)?

I know I may be engaged in the futile pursuit of trying to make sense of the actions of someone who has to be crazy, but such people do not seem to be crazy in the sense of having no idea what they are doing. This guy was clearly a coldly calculating person, planning the murders with great precision.

So what is it that causes their calculations to go so awry in the one particular area of gauging the likely reactions of ordinary people to their actions? Why can't they see that it will cause people to recoil in disgust?

July 22, 2011

Obama's negotiating skills

As the debt-ceiling talks drag on, Democratic party supporters keep getting alarmed at getting regular reports that he seems to be willing to give away the store to the Republican crazies who are clearly losing the public relations battle, and keep wondering why he seems to be such a lousy negotiator.

It is important to bear I mind what I have said repeatedly. Obama and the Democratic party leadership are not trying to get the best deal from the Republicans. They and the Republicans agree on what they want to do (cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits and provide more tax breaks for wealthy individuals and corporations) because that is what their bosses, the oligarchy, want.

What Obama is trying to negotiate is a way to get all these things without completely alienating his party's base. He will go as far as he can get away with. That is why all these trial balloons keep getting floated and then denied.

July 20, 2011

Is political involvement a luxury or a necessity?

Those of us who follow politics closely, and think that it is important to do so for the future of ourselves and the nation and the world, tend to be frustrated by people who do not seem to care or whose understanding of politics does not rise above the most naïve and simplistic sloganeering ("Cut government spending!" "Get rid of government regulations!", "All government is bad!", "Lower everyone's taxes!", "Cut social services!", "Eliminating foreign aid and waste will balance the budget!"). We wonder how these people, many of whom belong to the middle or lower-middle classes, cannot see that they are actually harming their own interests, by undermining the very things that make current their lives tolerable or even desirable.

Such ignorance about the reality of politics also makes them easy prey for those unscrupulous politicians who do know better but use these slogans to deflect attention from the things that affect almost everyone (such as health care, salaries and benefits, working conditions, and public and social services) to those highly emotionally-charged issues that directly affect only a small fraction of people in any tangible way (such as abortion and gay and gun rights) or are almost entirely symbolic (prayer in schools, ten commandments in public places, flag burning, etc.).

Why, we ask ourselves, don't these people invest at least a little of the time that is devoted to Casey Anthony or sports to learning more about how society really works? One answer may lie in a disturbing new survey shows that half of America's families are in a state known as 'financially fragile' in that they "would not be able to cope with an unexpected expense that required them to come up with $2,000 within 30 days" which is the amount of money and time that "reflects the cost of an unanticipated car repair, home repair, medical or legal expense."

This is worrisome. It is not hard to imagine a situation where one might suddenly need $2,000. To know that you could not lay your hands on it even in 30 days must be very stressful. Financial counselors advise people that they should have six months income saved to cope with emergencies. This study suggests that this is completely out of reach for most people since $2,000 would cover only two weeks for a family that earns the median income.

Perhaps as a result of this, people may be too busy trying to make ends meet or worried about their immediate state of affairs to seek deeper causes. And when they do have some free time, they would rather escape into a fantasy world where they can forget their worries. So we have people choosing to spend their discretionary time in pursuits other than politics, seeking escapism. It used to be the case that during difficult financial times in the past, attendance at films and sports events rose. This may not be true anymore since the prices of these forms of entertainments have risen considerably, to be replaced by TV watching.

It is interesting that poor people have disappeared from our TV landscape. It seems to me that there are very few comedy shows nowadays that have central characters who are poor or working class, perhaps reflecting the fact that people don't want to see their own lives reflected on the screen. Instead they want to see their lives as they hope it might become. For example, are there any contemporary equivalents of All in the Family, The Honeymooners, or Sanford and Son, all of which involved working class families living lives that were consistent with their incomes?

Even the shows that do not have rich characters show them having lifestyles that are absurdly extravagant. Some of the Friends, for example, did not have steady jobs or had jobs waiting tables and yet they lived in apartments in New York that would have been impossible on their income. In Married With Children, the father worked as a shoe salesman in a retail store and the mother stayed at home and yet they managed to live in a nice home. Is this why Americans are notorious for living beyond their means, living in housing that they cannot really afford and pursuing lifestyles that can only be supported by going into debt, because they think that this is how people who have jobs like they do should be able to live? Seinfeld may have been the exception in that era, with the title character living in a modest apartment, doing his laundry in a public facility, etc. (As should be obvious from the programs mentioned, I stopped watching regular TV about a decade or so ago so I may be wrong about the current state of affairs.)

In the US, it is possible that political activism is largely perceived as just another form of recreation that some people can afford to indulge in or choose to do so, while others need ways of entertaining themselves to take their minds off their worries. A case can be made that until the realities of politics whacks people upside the head, political involvement will not be seen as a necessity by enough people for them to want to get seriously involved.

July 19, 2011

How the mighty fall

The sudden fall of powerful people is an interesting phenomenon to observe, especially if they are old. Egypt's president Hosni Mubarak was seen as an invincible strongman, ruling his country with unquestioned authority. But when he couldn't quell the street protests, in a matter of days he began to look, even when he was still head of state, like a confused old man who seemed to have lost his grip. This new perception of decrepitude further emboldened the opposition and undoubtedly accelerated his departure.

We are observing the same phenomenon with Rupert Murdoch. This arrogant man was as recently as a week ago viewed as a powerful business genius to whom the political and business elites bowed obsequiously, treating his every utterance as if he were an oracle. Now suddenly, he looks like an old dodderer who has 'lost the plot' and does not seem to quite know what he is doing. Even the photographs that are now published of him smiling weakly give the image of clueless feebleness, and are causing the media to pile on.

Being photographed out with his personal trainer, with his jowly jaws, and spindly knees sticking out of his running shorts, the mighty mogul had very clearly aged. Then, those pictures of him alongside someone who could have been a matronly nurse in mufti in his silver-grey Range Rover showed him looking not just old but fragile, too. You could almost see the power seeping from him.

His performance at the parliamentary inquiry today further strengthened the impression of someone who seems to be losing his grip but it is not clear whether this was a charade, pleading ignorance of most things as a way of forestalling any attempt to place the blame on him.

Those who worked for people like Murdoch and stayed silent when they were still seen as invincible now feel freer to defect and spill the beans. People who would not have crossed him in the past, and would have sought to curry favor with him, are now showing some backbone. For example, the British political leadership of all parties had long been under Murdoch's thumb. But now the new Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, who had been seen as a lightweight whose tenure could well have been brief, has seized on this issue to make his name, aggressively attacking prime minister David Cameron for his close association with Murdoch's people, much to the delight of his party's backbenchers who had been disgusted at the sight of their previous leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown toadying to Murdoch.

We should not underestimate Murdoch, though. Such arrogant people who are used to getting their way will, when faced with a real threat, stoop to anything to wriggle free. There are still enough people in Murdoch's media empire who will try and protect him because their jobs depend upon being in his good graces. It is going to be interesting to see how this plays out.

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"Suck it up and cope"

David Sirota provides ten case studies of rich people who seem to be so completely oblivious to the raging and widening inequalities in the US and the resentment it breeds that the apocryphal story of a princess (wrongly attributed to Queen Marie Antoinette) who upon hearing that the poor had no bread helpfully suggested "Let them eat cake" immediately comes to mind.

One of Sirota's examples is billionaire Charles Munger who, in a 2010 speech to University of Michigan students, said that the unemployed, the homeless and the impoverished, whose lives are being torn apart by the recession, should stop whining and instead should "Suck it up and cope." Yes, those very words. Sirota also said that Munger "first lauded bankers as people who "saved your civilization" and then urged all Americans to bow down and "thank god" that the bailouts preserved the financial industry's profits."

I have to warn you that reading those ten case studies of out-of-touch elites (and their enabling journalistic sycophants like the New York Times financial correspondent Andrew Ross Sorkin) will cause your blood to boil. I couldn't get through it without wishing that the Dickensian tumbrils would once again roll up to take these people to their well-deserved fates.

The New York Times even had a piece on how hard it was for someone to live in that city on less than $500,000 per year, never mind that the median household income there in 1999 was about $38,000. As Sirota says, "when you see a newspaper article during the recession about how difficult it is to live on far more than the average American's income, you can be forgiven for thinking you are reading either (a) the Onion, (b) the in-house newsletter of 18th-century Versailles or (c) an old clip of NBA guard Latrell Sprewell infamously saying a $7-million-a-year contract was an insult because "I have a family to feed.""

So why aren't the masses right now readying their pitchforks? Instead why are so many of them, especially in the tea party, venting their anger at public school teachers, police, and firefighters, while saying that we should give the rich even more money? This has been a perplexing problem for which the media must take some share of the blame. But Matt Taibbi provides a valuable insight. He says that it may be because the paths of the very rich and the rest of us no longer cross.

All of this is a testament to the amazing (and rapidly expanding) cultural divide that exists in this country, where the poor and the rich seldom cross paths at all, and the rich, in particular, simply have no concept what being broke and poor really means. It is true that if you make $300,000 in America, you won't feel like you're so very rich once you get finished paying your taxes, your mortgage, your medical bills and so on.

For this reason, a lot of people who make that kind of money believe they are the modern middle class: house in the burbs, a car, a kid in college, a trip to Europe once a year, what's the big deal? They'd be right, were it not for the relative comparison -- for the fact that out there, in that thin little ithsmus between the Upper East Side and Beverly Hills, things are so f----- that public school teachers and garbagemen making $60k with benefits are being targeted with pitchfork-bearing mobs as paragons of greed and excess. Wealth, in places outside Manhattan, southern California, northern Virginia and a few other locales, is rapidly becoming defined as belonging to anyone who has any form of job security at all. Any kind of retirement plan, or better-than-minimum health coverage, is also increasingly looked at as an upper-class affectation.

It also works the other way -- the poor have no idea what real rich people are like. They apparently never see them, which is why the political champions of middle America are at this very minute campaigning in congress to extract more revenue from elderly retirees and broke-ass students while simultaneously fighting to preserve a slew of tax loopholes for the rich, including the carried-interest tax break that allows hedge fund billionaires to pay about half the tax rate of most Americans.

To most people, the undeserving rich guy is the ex-police lieutenant down the street who's been collecting a six-figure pension for years after spending two decades writing traffic tickets before retiring at 43. Seeing that guy lounging in the dugout pool you paid for with your constantly rising property taxes is enough to piss anyone off, which is why it's not hard to understand where a lot of that Tea Party anger is coming from.

But if you want to see a real a------, you have to somehow get invited to things like the $5 million birthday party of another guy on Sirota's list, private equity creep Steven Schwarzman. After throwing his elaborate fete for himself, Schwarzman -- who is said to make $400 million a year, and made $600 million when his company went public -- compared Barack Obama to Hitler for even considering rolling back his carried-interest exemption, which, again, allows him to pay 15% taxes while some of the rest of us pay twice that or more. "It's a war," he said. "It's like when Hitler invaded Poland."

If you think your local Andy Griffith is a greedy pig because he retired in his forties and built an addition to his garage with your tax money, try hanging out with a guy who eats $400 crabs, throws himself $5 million parties where he is serenaded by Rod Stewart and Patti Labelle (who sang "Happy Birthday"), and then compares the president to Hitler when word leaks out that he might have to pay taxes at the same rate as a firefighter or a kindergarten teacher.

So will this state of affairs continue forever?

What we do know is that often a single event can rapidly catalyze public opinion. In the Murdoch phone hacking scandal, the British public had tolerated for decades the stories of the hacking into phones of celebrities and politicians and the wining and dining and bribing of police to not pursue these charges. It took the revelation of the hacking of the voicemail of a murdered 13-year old school girl to cause the sudden eruption of outrage that threatens the once invincible Murdoch empire.

It is hard to predict what kind of single event might cause the US public to suddenly realize that the very rich view them with utter contempt and have been treating them as suckers for years.

I think that a hard rain's gonna fall. I just don't know when or what will trigger it. But when it comes, "Suck it up and cope" may well replace "Let them eat cake" as the symbol of arrogant cluelessness.

July 18, 2011

Obama's goals and strategy

One of the interesting features of the current discussions involving raising the debt ceiling is how Obama keeps offering cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits as part of the deal. This does not surprise me because I have repeatedly said that the best chance for the oligarchy to cut these programs that they do not care about is when a Democrat is in office because then the defenders of these programs drop their guard, thinking that the president will defend their interests, not realizing that his primary goal is to serve the oligarchy.

Obama's supporters seem to think that this is just a clever strategy on Obama's part, that by linking it to some tax raises for the very rich, it will cause the Republicans to reject the plan, thus making them appear unreasonable. I disagree. Offering something in negotiations that you actually oppose on the assumption that the other side will reject the entire deal is very dangerous because there is always the small chance that they might accept and also because in future negotiations you cannot refuse to consider those proposals if brought forward by the other side.

Matt Taibbi argues persuasively that Obama does not want a progressive deficit deal. He actually does want to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow also has Obama's number.

July 15, 2011

The few, the proud, The Undefeated. Actually, just the few. In fact, just one

Whose bright idea was it to release the new Sarah Palin fan-biopic on the same day as the final Harry Potter film? Is it any surprise that there was only one person in the theater who was there just to interview audience members? Two other people came in not knowing anything about the film but guessing from the title that it was an action flick. They left after 20 minutes.

That gave me an idea. Maybe Palin and her husband should have ditched their idiotic bus tour and instead made a real action movie, a remake of Easy Rider, with them playing the roles of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the original, roaming the country on their Harley Davidsons looking for the real America and living off the land by killing and eating moose. And Michele Bachmann could take the Jack Nicholson role, a kindred soul they meet and pick up while riding through Minnesota.

And instead of getting shot, in the remake they could be the ones packing heavy heat and killing off America's enemies (gays, non-Christians, city dwellers, people who live along the two coasts, minorities, immigrants, non-Tea Partiers, etc.) with powerful automatic weapons.

I bet that would beat Harry Potter at the box office.

The ridiculous debt ceiling negotiations

Stephen Colbert provides the best summary I have seen to date of the absurd discussions involving raising the debt ceiling.

It was always obvious that the debt ceiling would be raised because the oligarchy demanded it and the Republican party leadership, like that of the Democrats, are their faithful servants. The Republican leadership had assured the financial and business world that the ceiling would be raised and everyone, including Obama, knew this. So the Republican idea of holding the ceiling 'hostage' to demand other concessions was laughable on its face. How can you use hostages as a negotiating tool if both sides agree that the hostage would be released unharmed? All Obama had to do was insist that the ceiling be raised with no conditions and it would have happened.

The only reason for this spectacle was for both party leaderships to create a made-for-media drama that would allow them to arrive at 'compromise' policies that would further benefit the oligarchy while hurting everyone else, all the while claiming that they were forced to take this drastic action to 'save the hostage'.

It is still possible that there will be such a deal but where things seem to have gone awry is that the Republican party base does not understand how this game is played and took at face value all their leadership's rhetoric about how raising the debt ceiling was a horrendous evil that should never be agreed to unless a steep price were paid. Now that time is running out, they have to find a way to wriggle out of the situation.

Colbert further discusses the issue with Naftali Bendavid, the congressional correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

July 13, 2011

Call to prosecute high level US torturers

In a press release accompanying a new 107-page report, Human Rights Watch says:

Overwhelming evidence of torture by the Bush administration obliges President Barack Obama to order a criminal investigation into allegations of detainee abuse authorized by former President George W. Bush and other senior officials, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Obama administration has failed to meet US obligations under the Convention against Torture to investigate acts of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees, Human Rights Watch said.

The 107-page report, "Getting Away with Torture: The Bush Administration and Mistreatment of Detainees," presents substantial information warranting criminal investigations of Bush and senior administration officials, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and CIA Director George Tenet, for ordering practices such as "waterboarding," the use of secret CIA prisons, and the transfer of detainees to countries where they were tortured.

"There are solid grounds to investigate Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Tenet for authorizing torture and war crimes," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "President Obama has treated torture as an unfortunate policy choice rather than a crime. His decision to end abusive interrogation practices will remain easily reversible unless the legal prohibition against torture is clearly reestablished."

If the US government does not pursue credible criminal investigations, other countries should prosecute US officials involved in crimes against detainees in accordance with international law, Human Rights Watch said.

"The US has a legal obligation to investigate these crimes," Roth said. "If the US doesn't act on them, other countries should."

Obama has clearly demonstrated that he is not going to do anything about this because he too may face similar charges in the future. What we have to hope is that independent-minded prosecutors in other countries will take up the cause. The fear of arrest is likely to continue to prevent Bush, Cheney, and their fellow torture cronies from visiting many countries. It serves them right to be treated like criminals.

July 12, 2011

Looking behind the budget debate curtain

As usual, we are being treated to the kabuki theater of debt ceiling/budget negotiations as being a high stakes conflict between the Democrats and Republicans, when all the while what is happening backstage is that both parties are acting as the agents of the oligarchy.

Here are some articles that need to be widely read, by Ralph Nader, Matt Taibbi, Paul Krugman, Glenn Greenwald, and Frank Rich, on why those who look to Obama and the Democrats to fight for economic justice are doomed to be disappointed.

In defense of 'flip-flopping'

One of the curious features of American politics is how the pejorative label of 'flip-flopper', if successfully pinned on a candidate, can seriously hurt that person's electoral chances. The term is used to describe someone who has made a 180-degree turn on some issue, taking a position now that is diametrically opposed to one he or she took before. This issue dogged John Kerry's candidacy in 2004. Some people pay a surprising amount of attention to this question, even to the extent of looking into what a politician said or did even as far back as in college or high school. Journalists sometimes pore over a candidate's past statements on some topic in order to confront them with some contradiction.

Behind this there seems to be this assumption that someone whose views have never changed during his or her entire adult life is more virtuous than someone who has changed. But is this a reasonable assumption? Why is holding steadfastly to one's views all through one's life seen as such a good thing? After all, as time goes by, we learn more things and acquire life experiences and these can cause us to re-evaluate our positions. Why is this a bad thing? The economist John Maynard Keynes, when he was confronted with an old statement that contradicted his current views reportedly riposted, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Even if this story is apocryphal, it illustrates the fact that changing one's views is sometimes the most reasonable thing to do.

When I look back on my own life, I can see many areas where my views have changed dramatically. I used to think that US involvement in Vietnam was a noble thing. I now think is was an atrocity. I used to be a devout believer in god and now am an atheist. I used to disparage the feminist movement as making much ado about trivial things but now realize what an important role they played in the drive for women's equality. I used to be indifferent to gay issues but now strongly support their move towards full equality. If I think harder, I am sure that I can come up with more examples of my own flip-flopping on important issues. But I don't see myself as a rudderless person, drifting this way and that on the basis of whims or expediency.

Perhaps the crucial issue is motive, that it is acceptable to change one's mind because of new facts or because one has been persuaded by arguments, but that to do so for the sake of political expediency is to justly invite criticism This is the charge currently being laid against Mitt Romney, that he changed his views from his time as governor of Massachusetts merely because of his desire to appeal to the evangelical Christian tea party base of the Republican party, requiring him to make increasingly emphatic affirmations that what he says he believes now represent his core beliefs, that he always had these beliefs, and leading to contortions to show that his previous positions were consistent with them.

Leaving aside the specifics of Mitt Romney, changing one's public views to meet external needs without actually changing one's beliefs lays one open to the charge of hypocrisy or opportunism and that may seem to be obviously wrong. But is it that clear cut? Surely hypocrisy is also not always a bad thing? Suppose some elected official really thinks that women should not be in leadership positions or that gay people are sinners who will go to hell or that all Muslims are particularly susceptible to terrorist influence. But this person is also smart enough to know that to say any of those things publicly is to doom the chances for election. If such a person adopts a neutral stance or even asserts support for equality for those groups, surely that hypocrisy is better than his adamant opposition? In fact, don't we want politicians to be people we can influence to vote our way? Political demonstrations, marches, rallies, etc. are all designed to pressure public officials to take actions that they might not take otherwise. Why is it such a bad thing for elected officials to be swayed by public opinion to take actions that are contrary to their own beliefs?

To my mind, what is truly inexcusable in politics is lying, where a politician says one thing while campaigning for office and does the opposite after being elected, even though nothing else has changed. That is something that should be strongly censured and punished by the voters. But even here one has to be careful not to be too rigid and to carefully take into account the important caveat about nothing else changing. In real life, things can change and one should not hold people to account for taking those changes into consideration when forming policy. This is why I disapprove of these pledges that some candidates are forced to sign as a condition of support. Right now there seems to be an epidemic of such pledges on the Republican side, requiring pledges against raising taxes, gay marriage, and so on.

If the facts change, good governance may require a change in policy and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as a good case can be made as to why the change is necessary.

July 10, 2011

The curious case of 'the American Taliban'

John Walker Lindh seems to have disappeared from the news. Now his father has a long article in the Guardian outlining in detail the events leading up to his capture and arguing that his son was an innocent and naïve person who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thus became one of the first casualties in the 'war on terror' run amuck, in which anything goes as long as it is supposed to be 'fighting terror'.

July 09, 2011

The lies of war

It seems like every time the US wants to attack another country, we hear stories of appalling atrocities committed or about to be committed by that country that requires that "WE MUST ACT NOW! THERE IS IMMINENT DANGER OF SOME VAGUE CATASTROPHE! NO TIME TO WEIGH THE OPTIONS! NO TIME TO CONSULT CONGRESS! NO TIME TO SEEK PEACEFUL RESOLUTIONS! WE MUST START BOMBING IMMEDIATELY TO AVOID DISASTER! AND DON'T FORGET HITLER!"

And once the war is well under way, we are told, "Oops, sorry, things were not so bad after all but nobody could have known that then. We cannot change course now because it would only show weakness. So the war must go on"

Patrick Cockburn tells us that the Libyan war is no exception to this pattern.

Camp Wingnut

Say you are a Tea Party true believer. Where could you send your child to summer camp so that that they are not in danger of being brainwashed by camp counselors all of whom are well known as seeking to advance the Commie-gay-atheist agenda? You create your own camp, of course, based on those run by Christian groups like the one shown in the film Jesus Camp.

So what delights await the lucky children sent to such camps?

One example at Liberty: Children will win hard, wrapped candies to use as currency for a store, symbolizing the gold standard. On the second day, the "banker" will issue paper money instead. Over time, students will realize their paper money buys less and less, while the candies retain their value.

Still another example: Children will blow bubbles from a single container of soapy solution, and then pop each other's bubbles with squirt guns in an arrangement that mimics socialism. They are to count how many bubbles they pop. Then they will work with individual bottles of solution and pop their own bubbles.

"What they will find out is that you can do a lot more with individual freedom," [Jeff] Lukens said.

They certainly will, Jeff Lukens!

But I think that this does not go nearly far enough and the camp could be made even better. So here are a few of my suggestions for improvement.

  • Children should be told that if they get into trouble while swimming, not to expect other children to save them since each person must succeed or fail on their own and being rescued by others merely encourages dependence on the nanny state.
  • If a child gets a gift of food treats from his family, he should not share it with others but eat it on his own, all the while lecturing the others that he deserves it due to all the hard work he put in to be the child of rich parents.
  • No team sports or group activities will be allowed whatsoever. Each child must only do individual activities to inculcate the lesson that we all succeed and fail on our own.
  • Around the campfire at night, each child will read aloud a chapter of Atlas Shrugged with the naughty bits redacted.

I offer these suggestions gratis purely to advance the cause of wingnuttia. No need to thank me, Jeff Lukens.

July 08, 2011

Hypocrisy about cyberwar

One of the crucial steps by which the US entered a state of permanent warfare was when acts of 'terror' (however one defines that politically malleable word) shifted from being criminal acts that could and should be treated as lying within the province of law enforcement agencies, to political acts that required a military response such as bombing and invading countries or extra-judicial ones such as setting up kangaroo courts where the normal processes did not apply but convictions could be easily obtained or even where people could be held without trial indefinitely.

In a previous post, I said that cyberwar is the latest device by which people are made to feel as if they and the nation are under a state of perpetual siege. It was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped and computer hacking became a basis, not for criminal prosecutions, but to start a war. The US government has now said that "computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war, a finding that for the first time opens the door for the U.S. to respond using traditional military force." It looks like we are being prepared for yet another war to be started.

What is interesting (though not surprising) is the double standard the US government uses on this issue. When the group known as Anonymous launched a DDOS (distributed denial of service) attack on those companies like Amazon, PayPal, Visa, that stopped dealing with WikiLeaks as a result of government pressure, the US government strongly condemned the action, using noble language about how awful cyberwarfare was and the danger of limiting the free flow of information. Attorney General Eric Holder promised to do everything necessary to find the culprits and punish them harshly. However, there was no similar investigation of the much more highly sophisticated cyberattack on the WikiLeaks website that occurred two weeks before, which had all the indications of being sponsored by the US government.

As another example, Hillary Clinton has demanded internet freedom for those abroad while simultaneously pushing for restrictions and increased government snooping capabilities on people in the US, even demanding access to people's Twitter accounts. It also turns out that the US Chamber of Commerce is accused of involvement with a group of military contractors in a hacking plot aimed at progressive groups. What are the odds that Clinton will call for a full investigation by the Attorney General into this?

Similarly, while the US government said they deplored the Mubarak government's attempts to restrict the use of the internet during the height of the protests, al Jazeera reports that a US company based in California called Narus (which is owned by Boeing and does internet surveillance work for the US government) helped Egypt in that effort. This shadowy company would not talk to al Jazeera to answer their questions. Is the US government going to investigate the actions of Narus? Don't hold your breath.

But perhaps the most breathtaking example of hypocrisy is that both the US and Israel publicly bragged about being the creators of the worm called Stuxnet, "the most sophisticated cyberweapon ever deployed" that supposedly attacked the computers involved in running Iran's nuclear reactor and caused problems. So if the US and Israel use cyberwarfare to attack Iran, it is the occasion for public self-congratulatory high-fives, while if the people of another country hack into US computers, it is considered an act of war that could warrant even military retaliation.

NPR had a series of stories in May (part 1, part 2, and part 3) on the 'covert' war being waged against Iran which is in addition to the open economic warfare of sanctions. These reports discussed the 'covert' actions involve bombings in that country, cyber attacks, and assassinations of Iranian scientists, without once raising the issues of hypocrisy, let alone legality, of such actions. (I put the word 'covert' in ironic quotes because it is being openly discussed as if it were above-board, the only secret aspect being the actual details.)

As always, the test of whether someone is speaking in good faith is to see how we would react if the tables were turned. What would be the reaction if the Iranian media openly talked about Iran's covert actions against the US and Israel involving cyberwarfare and assassinations of scientists? I think the answer is obvious.

July 05, 2011

Letting torturers go free

The slide into lawlessness by successive US administrations has been aided by the courts which have been cowed by the 'war on terror' to essentially give carte blanche to the administration to do whatever it claims it needs to do to 'keep us safe'. For example, it was ruled that Jose Padilla could not even sue Donald Rumsfeld and others who were responsible for the brutal treatment he received. The Obama administration has continued the process, covering up its own crimes and those of its predecessors while making token gestures towards upholding the rule of law.

Glenn Greenwald gives the full sordid story:

In August, 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder -- under continuous, aggressive prodding by the Obama White House -- announced that three categories of individuals responsible for Bush-era torture crimes would be fully immunized from any form of criminal investigation and prosecution: (1) Bush officials who ordered the torture (Bush, Cheney, Rice, Powell, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld); (2) Bush lawyers who legally approved it (Yoo, Bybee, Levin), and (3) those in the CIA and the military who tortured within the confines of the permission slips they were given by those officials and lawyers (i.e., "good-faith" torturers). [My italics]

Got that? All the people who authorized torture are immunized from prosecution, as are those who followed those authorizations, creating an almost perfect closed loop of immunity.

Of course, Obama has to find some way of sanctimoniously claiming that we are still a nation of laws and not men. Hence the only people who are at risk of any prosecution are those low level people whose actions overstepped even those broad categories of authorized abuses. It has announced that it will investigate just two of the most egregious of the many prisoner abuses by low-level people that occurred in the so-called war on terror, meaning that everyone else goes free.

Over 100 detainees died during U.S. interrogations, dozens due directly to interrogation abuse. Gen. Barry McCaffrey said: "We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them during the course of that, both the armed forces and the C.I.A." Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who oversaw the official investigation into detainee abuse, wrote: "there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes. The only question that remains to be answered is whether those who ordered the use of torture will be held to account."

Thanks to the Obama DOJ, that is no longer in question. The answer is resoundingly clear: American war criminals, responsible for some of the most shameful and inexcusable crimes in the nation's history -- the systematic, deliberate legalization of a worldwide torture regime -- will be fully immunized for those crimes. And, of course, the Obama administration has spent years just as aggressively shielding those war criminals from all other forms of accountability beyond the criminal realm: invoking secrecy and immunity doctrines to prevent their victims from imposing civil liability, exploiting their party's control of Congress to suppress formal inquiries, and pressuring and coercing other nations not to investigate their own citizens' torture at American hands.

I predict that even this ‘investigation’ will turn out to be a sham with no finding of culpability. I suspect that the cases will be quietly dropped. Already noises are being made that because these cases are 'old' and because of the code of secrecy that surrounds the actions of the military, it might be hard to build a case against the culprits, suggesting that the ground is already being laid for nothing happening. As NPR reporter Carrie Johnson says:

Well, former prosecutors are telling me it's still going to be quite difficult to win an indictment by a grand jury, and eventually possibly any kind of conviction. And there are several reasons for that. One is that the evidence in these cases is very old - eight, nine and 10 years old. Or maybe it was never collected on or near the battlefield.

Finally, nobody in the government wants to squeal on his or her colleagues in the intelligence community.

So there we are. Imagine the outrage if a foreign government that tortured or murdered US citizens announced similar immunity for the perpetrators.

July 03, 2011

People don't realize how much they rely on government programs

It is now the fashion to claim that the government should stay completely out of people's lives and that we should manage on own own. What many of the people who make such claims do not seem to realize is that they are the direct beneficiaries of many government programs.

Steve Benen points out a chart shows the enormous number of people who say they have not used a government social program who have in fact benefited in some way or other.

This kind of cluelessness is only possible because, unlike the private sector, the government rarely broadcasts the fact that they are giving you a benefit. The public works signs that say "Your tax dollars at work" may be the only exceptions.

The most obtuse of such people may be the actor Craig T. Nelson who in a TV interview with Glenn Beck condemned government aid to the poor as coddling, giving himself as an example of someone who heroically struggled through difficult times entirely on his own. "They're not going to bail me out," Nelson said. "I've been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No. No."

July 02, 2011

Astute observation …

… from Paul Krugman:

[T]he surest way to get branded as not Serious is to figure things out too soon. To be considered credible on politics you have to have considered Bush a great leader, and not realized until Katrina that he was a disaster; to be considered credible on national security you have to have supported the Iraq War, and not realized until 2005 that it was a terrible mistake; to be credible on economics you have to have regarded Greenspan as a great mind, and not become disillusioned until 2007 or maybe 2008.

July 01, 2011

The corrupting influence of Washington

It should not be a surprise that those who need a job sometimes have to say and do things that they may not agree with. We can understand such behavior when it is done by people occupying lowly positions and who have few options. What is more surprising is when people who have perfectly good and secure careers are willing to betray the principles they stood for simply to be close to power.

Harold Koh, former Dean of the Yale law school and now adviser to the State Department, who used to be a strong voice for the rule of law and opposition to the imperial presidency, provides a sad but perfect case study of this phenomenon. He has become this administration's John Yoo, an academic who is willing to provide the rationale for whatever his boss wants to do. In Yoo's case the issue was torture. In Koh's it is the absurd claim by Obama that the US is not engaged in hostilities in Libya as envisaged by the War Powers Act. Like Yoo, Koh could have easily afforded to stand on principle and even enhanced his career and reputation by doing so. But instead he sold his soul.

As Gene Healy says, "It's the kind of story you hear again and again in D.C. -- on the right and the left -- of principles sold out for the dubious rewards of "access" and "relevance." This town is "Hollywood for the Ugly" in more ways than one."

Glenn Greenwald sums it up:

[I]t's easy to see how Koh has risen from token liberal placed in an inconsequential "advisory" position at State to the face of the Obama administration and prime Presidential spokesman. As Barack Obama himself has repeatedly shown, and as his underling Koh has dutifully learned, one does not advance in Washington power circles by adherence to any sort of principle or actual conviction. One accumulates power by saying anything and everything necessary to acquire and hold onto it: one key reason I now all but disregard what Obama says, and watch only what he does.

Who is a terrorist?

As far back as in 1946, George Orwell described in his classic essay Politics and the English Language how politicians deliberately corrupt language so that certain political terms no longer have any core meaning but become infinitely malleable, designed to fit whatever need the politician has in mind.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.

In their landmark book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman showed how such distortions of language form an essential part of the process by which the populace is made to acquiesce in, and even approve of, actions that would seem horrific if they were called by their true names. They showed how the media plays a crucial role in this kind of propaganda system, in which crude forms of censorship become unnecessary because the government and the media represent the same interests and speak the same manipulative language.

Glenn Greenwald looks at the case of two Kentucky men accused of terrorism and how this word has become the latest victim of the process Orwell described and become infinitely malleable in the service of political ends.

I've often written that Terrorism is the most meaningless, and thus most manipulated, term in American political discourse. But while it lacks any objective meaning, it does have a functional one. It means: anyone -- especially of the Muslim religion and/or Arab nationality -- who fights against the United States and its allies or tries to impede their will. That's what "Terrorism" is; that's all it means. And it's just extraordinary how we've created what we call "law" that is intended to do nothing other than justify all acts of American violence while delegitimizing, criminalizing, and converting into Terrorism any acts of resistance to that violence.

Just consider: in American political discourse, it's not remotely criminal that the U.S. attacked Iraq, spent 7 years destroying the country, and left at least 100,000 people dead. To even suggest that American officials responsible for that attack should be held criminally liable is to marginalize oneself as a fringe and unSerious radical. It's not an idea that's even heard, let alone accepted. After all, all Good Patriotic Americans were horrified that an Iraqi citizen would so much as throw a shoe at George Bush; what did he do to deserve such treatment? The U.S. is endowed with the inalienable right to commit violence against anyone it wants without any consequences of any kind.

By contrast, any Iraqi who fights back in any way against the U.S. invasion -- even by fighting against exclusively military targets -- is not only a criminal, but a Terrorist: one who should be shipped to Guantanamo. And this notion is so engrained that no media account discussing this case would dare question the application of the "Terrorism" label to what they've done, even though it applies in no conceivable way.

The Obama administration has provided more examples of egregious political manipulation of language. Justin Raimondo looks at the risible claim that what Obama is waging in Libya is not a war but a 'kinetic military action' and that the sustained bombing of another country does not constitute 'hostilities' and thus he is not bound by the War Power Act.

Jonathan Shell says that Obama is simply continuing the practice of his predecessor in abusing language to serve his illegal and immoral purposes, that Obama's not-war is similar to Bush's not-torture.

For the Obama administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of congressional authorization, it had to challenge either law or the common meaning of words. Either the law or language had to give.

It chose language.

If Orwell thought things were bad in 1946, imagine what his reaction would be today.

June 30, 2011

The disastrous Middle East policies of US and Israel

Henry Siegman makes in more detail the point that I made recently, that the US and Israel are pursuing policies that will lead to disaster in the Middle East.

Lawrence Davidson says that the rising numbers of Israeli Jews who are leaving or planning to leave that country permanently is a sign that they too are concerned about the future. The ones who remain are amongst the most fanatically religious and ideological. He adds, "This is what happens when any group gives itself over to a doctrine, be it racial, religious or political, which destroys all notions of common humanity. That is what the prevailing ideology of Israel has done."

June 29, 2011

What makes a government legitimate?

Currently in the US the willingness to mount a sustained protest against injustices is usually lacking. Even the tea party movement, while very vocal, did not take to the streets on a continuous basis. The closest we came to that in recent days was in Wisconsin when there were continuous protests at the state capital against the laws eliminating collective bargaining for public employees. For a while those mass protests spread to Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Why didn't they take root and spread?

Part of the reason is the fact that in the US voting is still perceived as a viable mechanism for change. This gives the government in power a legitimacy that people are unwilling to challenge. Many people in the US are wary of change that comes about through mass mobilizations in the street because of the sense that elected governments are more representative of the views of the population than crowds of demonstrators, however large.

This raises the question of what makes a government legitimate. One could argue that a government that gets into office as a result of a vote of the people has a presumptive claim to legitimacy, while authoritarian governments that seize and retain power without a vote of any kind are presumptively illegitimate. Those countries that have a tight grip on almost every aspect of their people's life and can intimidate them into submission (such as North Korea and Burma) are clearly seen as illegitimate.

But things are not that simple. After all, many authoritarian governments (such as in Zimbabwe) conduct elections. Even Hosni Mubarak in Egypt had 'elections' that he regularly won by a landslide. Such elections are hardly free and fair since the rulers monopolize the media, restrict, arrest, or otherwise threaten their opponents, rig the ballot boxes, and so on. So the legitimacy of a government ultimately rests on something more subjective, whether large numbers of people in a country feel that their government is legitimate and is responsive to their needs. In Egypt, people clearly felt that it did not, and were willing to challenge it.

In the US, elections are also rigged but not in an obvious way. Here it is done by creating a system in which money rules. The extremely long election season, the dominance of two parties that are merely factions of a single pro-war/pro-business party, a media dominated by corporate interests, the important role that television advertisements play, all conspire to make the ability to raise large sums of money the most important criterion for getting elected to high office, and effectively rules out anyone who wants to challenge the oligarchy. The legitimacy of American governments can be questioned but the abuses are not as yet blatant enough to cause vast numbers of people to take to the streets and demand change.

Conversely, some authoritarian governments that do not hold elections may have more claims to legitimacy than those that do. Take for example China. It is undoubtedly an authoritarian government. It too controls the media to some extent, arrests dissidents, and cracks down on too much open dissent. With its huge population it should be possible to get millions of people into the streets to protest against the government if they felt strongly enough. But the people have not as yet done so, suggesting that they are not as yet willing to challenge the government's claim to legitimacy.

So how does one measure the legitimacy of a country's government? The above discussion suggests that one important measure is the ability to mobilize sufficient numbers of people to challenge the government on important issues, people who are willing to risk arrest, beatings, torture, even death for their rights and by doing so are able to inspire enough people to join in the protests that they paralyze the government and even make the military, the ultimate power, hesitant to move against them.

In Egypt, the demonstrators inspired the organized worker trade groups to join them in the later stages and this was an important step in delegitimizing the government. Currently in Greece there have been ongoing protests against the government's austerity measures that are being forced on the people because of pressures from the IMF and France and Germany as a condition for getting aid that will eventually go to the banksters to bail them out of the crisis they were largely responsible for in the first place. The Greek trade unions have joined the protestors and are calling for general strikes.

The attempt to create a sustained mass protest beginning on October 6 that I wrote about yesterday is an attempt to relight the fires that flickered briefly in Wisconsin. The oligarchy in the US and its representatives in the US in the Democratic and Republican parties have been successful so far in their policy of divide and rule by pitting ordinary people against each other, public sector workers against private, whites against ethnic minorities, blacks against Hispanics, and so on. They will try to create such divisions again among the October 6 movement participants.

In the US, organized labor is often part of the Washington establishment and not eager for a confrontation in the streets and so they tend not to throw their support wholeheartedly into mass movements that they cannot control or which do not serve their narrow interests. This may change in the US as workers find themselves squeezed between losing their jobs overseas and facing cutbacks in wages, benefits, and public services at home. Sandy Pope, a 55-year old woman, is an insurgent candidate running for the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, wants to make that union more independent of the Washington establishment.

But in the US, it is the unorganized and diverse middle class, even though getting steadily impoverished, that is the most significant group. How they respond to the protests will be a significant factor in its success. If the tea party groups ever realize that they have far more in common with the October 6 groups than with the oligarchy they have chosen to side with, then we might witness the beginnings of a real movement for change.

Update on the Gaza peace flotilla

It looks like the Israeli government is nervous about the peace flotilla leaving Athens for Gaza and has been involved in some clumsy efforts by front groups to stall or stop it.

One effort involved raising bureaucratic objections with the Greek government, claiming that the boats were not properly insured.

Then a video that tried to discredit the flotilla organizers by claiming that they are dupes of Hamas and discriminate against gays has been exposed as a hoax and is suspected to have been produced with the aid of the Israeli government.

'American Spring' in the fall?

Although it seems to have stalled somewhat, the 'Arab Spring' of mass movements that resulted in the ouster of the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threatens the despotic regimes of Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen is undoubtedly inspiring. It shows that sheer people power, the willingness of large numbers of unarmed people to mount a sustained challenge to the rulers, can result in significant change. (In the case of Libya, the uprising was armed and the intervention of the US and NATO into the conflict means that we can no longer consider this as part of the Arab Spring but more along the lines of a civil war with outside involvement.)

It might be wondered why these kinds of mass demonstrations worked in those countries when similar mobilizations fail in the US. After all, we saw repeated massive demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq with hundreds of thousands of people marching on Washington, and the Bush-Cheney regime went ahead with that war anyway.

The difference is that in the US these demonstrations are for a single day, usually a Sunday, and after it people go back to their normal lives. The government knows this and can just ride out the event. In the Arab countries, it was the willingness of people to make the demonstrations permanent, to stay day after day, risking arrest, injury, and even death, that caused a crisis for the authorities. It showed a commitment and determination that inspired more and more people to join them.

This fall there will be another attempt in the US to mobilize people in the streets but it will not be the usual one-day demonstration. On Thursday, October 6, which is the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan, a broad coalition of people and groups representing a wide spectrum will attempt to organize a demonstration at the Freedom Plaza in Washington DC which is located between the White House and the Capitol building. This movement is basing itself explicitly on the one in Tahrir Square in Cairo, and similar to that, the groups pledge not to leave until their demands are met. They are seeking commitments from at least 50,000 people willing to occupy the square permanently.

Will it happen? And will this work to bring about real change? It is in the nature of mass mobilizations that they take on a life of their own and it is hard to predict how things will turn out. Syndicated columnist and cartoonist Ted Rall, who has long been critical of the high level of political apathy in the US, is hopeful:

I used to work for Democratic candidates. I was a campus activist. I marched in protests.
But, in the 1980s, I quit politics. I was fed up. The Left was impotent and inept. They didn't want to change things. They were content with theater. Bad theater at that: dorks on stilts, boring speakers, stupid slogans, the same old chants. "The people, united, will never be defeated!"

Except—we were defeated. We didn't even fight.

Our protests were poorly attended. The media ignored us. And we always lost. Even the Democrats didn't care about us or our opinions. By the time Bill Clinton won in 1992, the progressive wing of the party was good for one thing: voting Democratic.

Along with millions of others, I drifted away.

Now, finally, for the first time in decades, I am excited.

We can change everything. Here. In America. Now.

The idea behind October 6th is simple: to recreate Tahrir Square two blocks away from the White House.

"We are not packing up and leaving this time," says Tarak Kauff, one of the October 6th organizers. "We are preparing to stay as long as we possibly can or until some basic demands are met. If we are driven out, we will return."

In other words, clear your calendar for the 6th, the 7th, the 8th…however long it takes for the Obama Administration to yield to key demands, including immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and the other wars. Participants are being asked to sign a pledge to attend at http://october2011.org.

I am not sure how the government will react if there is a huge permanent presence in Washington right under its nose. Will it arrest large numbers of people in an effort to disperse them? Will it send in riot squads and tear gas and beat up the protestors? The government now has coercive powers far exceeding those it had when it unleashed violence on the demonstrators in Chicago in 1968. And if it does use those repressive powers, how will the general public react? Will they side with the government or will they support the protestors? Or will they change channels and watch American Idol?

We should be realistic. Political consciousness in the general public seems to be mired between apathy and obsession with the trivial. But there is a chance that this might catch on because the underlying economic conditions are so brittle. Even if this event does fizzle out, that is no reason to despair because what we are seeing is a qualitative and positive shift in strategy. By focusing on the successful climaxes of earlier mass movements (equal rights for women, civil rights in the US, Indian independence), we mistakenly think that simply being in the right was sufficient for victory. We forget that those successes were built on the foundation of many earlier failures. We have to remember that for future generations to succeed, we have to be willing to fail and not be discouraged. As I. F. Stone put it so well:

"The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you're going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing -- for the sheer fun and joy of it -- to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it."

June 28, 2011

New peace flotilla on its way to Gaza

A 10-ship flotilla of boats seeking to challenge Israel's blockade of Gaza is setting sail from Athens any day now. NPR had an account of the flotilla on today's morning news show.

Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walker is among the fifty or so Americans planning to be on one of the boats. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern is another and he writes about the real possibility of a repeat of the violence that Israel unleashed on the Mavi Marmara a year ago when it was part of a similar flotilla.

Of course, when it comes to Israel, the US government abdicates its role of trying to protect its own citizens. Recall the way it did not protest when a US citizen Furkan Dogan was killed by Israeli forces on the Mavi Marmara. Hillary Clinton seems to be giving the green light for Israel to attack the flotilla and the US State Department is warning Americans taking part in the flotilla that they may be prosecuted.

Israel initially warned any journalists on the flotilla they that they would face a ten-year ban on entry to Israel, presumably to discourage them so that there could be no independent reports of what may transpire. But they later rescinded that order.

Jon Huntsman's 2016 strategy?

In yesterday's post I said that Huntsman's entry into the Republican race did not make much sense in terms of 2012. But if you think beyond the 2012 elections and look to 2016, it may be a smart move. For starters, few outside Utah have heard of Huntsman and name recognition is important in winning elections. By running now, even if he loses, by the time 2016 campaign starts he will be seen as a familiar face. John McCain, Bob Dole, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan all had losing runs for the Republican presidential nomination before they later succeeded, and the latter two then went on to win the presidency on their first try.

Furthermore, the first time you enter the national political scene by running for major office, you face a sudden scrutiny of your past life, both personal and professional, that can throw up awkward information that needs to be explained away and distracts from your campaign. Just ask Sarah Palin whose family life and career became the stuff of soap opera. Since the media craves novelty, it is good to get all that baggage out of the way early on when the stakes are not so high, so that it becomes old news by the time the races that really matter come around. So running in 2012 allows Huntsman to see what is the worst that can be thrown at him.

But the most important factor is the general political dynamic at play. The economy is not doing well, unemployment is high, and the nation is draining its resources by waging three increasingly unpopular wars. These factors would normally doom an incumbent president running for re-election. George H. W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992 when conditions were not nearly as bad as they are now. But the Republican party is not in a position to take advantage of this prime opportunity because the tea party movement, although it is splintering into factions and is likely to become irrelevant soon, still has enough residual strength to wield veto power over the 2012 nominee and seems determined to want a true believer as the Republican candidate. Bill Clinton was able to win in 1992 by being a political chameleon and seizing the political center (in addition to being aided by Ross Perot's independent candidacy) but the Republicans now seem determined to only nominate someone whose swears allegiance to a long list of right wing extremist positions.

The supposedly serious elements in the Republican party who have been alarmed at the unserious direction the party has taken seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that the party nomination will go to someone who is either just plain nuts or is not nuts but has to take so many nutty positions to win the nomination that his candidacy is doomed in the general election. This seems to be the fate of Mitt Romney, whom I pick to be the eventual 2012 party nominee based on a simple but reliable political model which is that the candidate with the most money wins.

Obama winning re-election in 2012 may be viewed with horror by the Republican base but not by the oligarchy. The serious elements in the Republican party realize that Obama's policies on all except some social issues (like gay rights and abortion) are highly congenial to the oligarchy, so they can easily live with him. I see the medium term strategy of the Republican party traditionalists being to concede the 2012 election to Obama and focus on finding someone for 2016. The expected defeat in 2012, especially if it is a rout that drags down Republican candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives, will hugely diminish the influence of the tea party leaving the so-called 'adults', currently marginalized, in a position to regain control.

So after the 2012 debacle, expect the Republican party to blame the loss on too much adherence to the tea party agenda and to look for an 'adult' to be their next candidate, someone who is anti-abortion (which will continue to remain non-negotiable for the Republican party) but is not locked into an increasingly unpopular anti-gay and anti-science agenda, someone who is pro-business and for lower taxes and will look after the interests of the wealthy but can also appeal to a broader constituency simply by not appearing to be a nutcase. In short, an anti-abortion Republican Obama. Someone like Jon Huntsman.

So based on that rather convoluted analysis, here is my prediction. Most likely Romney will gain the nomination by being a faux loony, being pushed into that losing position by a semi-loony (Tim Pawlenty) and real loonies (all the rest of the current field except Huntsman), and will then handily lose the presidential election. This will be followed in 2016 by the party selecting a more 'adult' candidate.

June 27, 2011

The curious candidacy of Jon Huntsman

I have been paying only the most superficial attention to the specifics of the race for the Republican presidential nomination because it is far too early in the process for it to serve as anything other than fodder to fill the inexhaustible appetite of television and the blogosphere for content-free political speculation.

But I have been intrigued by the entry into the race last week of Jon Huntsman, former two-term governor of Utah and until last month US ambassador to China. It is not because he brings anything new and exciting as a candidate. He seems to be pretty much the standard-issue rich, middle-aged, white, male, cautious, politician. As such, he seems to have nothing to distinguish himself from an already crowded field of people with much greater name recognition. So why enter a race in which he has such little chance of winning?

On the surface of it, Huntsman has many formidable obstacles to success. One is that he is a Mormon, always a problem for the evangelical Christian base in the Republican party. A recent Gallup poll says that 20% of Republicans would not vote for a Mormon for president. (The figure is 27% for Democrats). The other is that he was appointed as ambassador to China by Barack Obama, the first Kenyan-born-and-raised Muslim socialist who seeks to create a fascist dictatorship in the US, starting by having the government take over the health care system and instituting death panels to kill off the sick and elderly. Or so many of the Republican party faithful seem to think. Being willing to serve in the administration of the anti-Christ would seem to be a serious drawback.

But despite those obvious negatives, Huntsman came second in a recent straw poll at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans even though he did not personally attend and it was held before he had formally declared his candidacy. This surprised observers and there were charges that Huntsman's advisors had paid people to show up and vote for him. Ron Paul came first and Michele Bachmann came third in that same straw poll, which tells you something about the mood and views of the attendees at that event

But in addition, while Huntsman is your standard Republican pro-business, lower-taxes, anti-abortion candidate, he has refused to sign the anti-tax pledge and also has views on climate change and civil unions that are anathema to the party faithful, as can be seen in this interview with Time magazine:

Can you talk a little bit about how you came to favor civil unions for gay couples?

I’ve always been in favor of traditional marriage and thinking that you open Pandora’s Box when you start to redefine it. But we’ve had friends who are gay and we’ve heard horror stories [about hospital visitation and legal rights], and I thought it was an appropriate time.

You also believe in climate change, right?

This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community – though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

He thinks gays deserve to have some legal rights? He respects science and the professionals behind the science? That's crazy talk. These are heresies in the current Republican party climate and are likely to doom his candidacy. But it has served to make him a favorite of the media who are fawning over him the way they did over John McCain in the days when McCain successfully wore his mask as a 'maverick'. Now that it has been stripped away revealing him to be nasty, vindictive, and cranky, the media needs a new person to hail as 'serious', and 'willing to rise above partisan politics', which are the media's designated desirable qualities. The way one shows those qualities is by occasionally taking a position that is against one's own party. The risk of this strategy on the Republican side is that the more the media likes you, the more suspicious the party's base is of your commitment to their causes, so convinced are they of the absurd idea of the media as liberal.

Huntsman seems like a smart man so why is he choosing to enter a race when it seems like certain defeat? The answer may be that he is treating the 2012 election as merely a stepping stone for the real prize, the 2016 nomination.

Next: The 2016 strategy

June 26, 2011

Separating fact and fiction in Afghanistan's history

Robert Parry sets the record straight.

LulzSec 'retires'

The anarchic hacker group LulzSec that I wrote about just a few days ago announces that it is disbanding. Whether this is a temporary or permanent move is unclear but it is inevitable that similar loose confederations of hackers will form and reform.

The Daily Show looks at the hacking issue.

New York makes the Pope cry

Despite a Republican controlled state senate and opposition from the powerful Catholic Church, gays have won the right to marry in New York state, joining Vermont and the District of Columbia as the only places where this happened legislatively. In four other states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire) the change came about because courts ruled that denying gays this right was unconstitutional.

This is major progress in the march for equality for gays, a goal that is undoubtedly going to be attained. Like slavery, denying equality for gays is so manifestly unjust, so lacking in any rational basis, that future generations will shake their heads and wonder how the hell it could have taken us so long to realize that it was wrong.

In the midst of a generally reactionary political climate in the US, we should savor this achievement.

So congratulations, New York!

June 25, 2011

Republican holy warrior

The ever-entertaining and acerbic Matt Taibbi aims his keyboard at Michele Bachmann. He warns us that even though she is indubitably nuts, treating her as a joke candidate who can be dismissed is a mistake. Here is a small sample from the article which is worth reading in full for the glimpse it gives us at the sorry state of politics today where we have to even pay attention to such a candidate.

In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you've always got a puncher's chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of completely batshit crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy, late-stage Kim Jong-Il crazy — crazy in the sense that she's living completely inside her own mind, frenetically pacing the hallways of a vast sand castle she's built in there, unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.

Bachmann's entire political career has followed this exact same pattern of God-speaks-directly-to-me fundamentalism mixed with pathological, relentless, conscienceless lying. She's not a liar in the traditional way of politicians, who tend to lie dully, usefully and (they hope) believably, often with the aim of courting competing demographics at the same time. That's not what Bachmann's thing is. Bachmann lies because she can't help it, because it's a built-in component of both her genetics and her ideology. She is at once the most entertaining and the most dangerous kind of liar, a turbocharged cross between a born bullshit artist and a religious fanatic, for whom lying to the infidel is a kind of holy duty.

Snickering readers in New York or Los Angeles might be tempted by all of this to conclude that Bachmann is uniquely crazy. But in fact, such tales by Bachmann work precisely because there are a great many people in America just like Bachmann, people who believe that God tells them what condiments to put on their hamburgers, who can't tell the difference between Soviet Communism and a Stafford loan, but can certainly tell the difference between being mocked and being taken seriously. When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.

June 24, 2011

Cyberwars, a new front in the permanent state of war

There has been a recent spate of news stories about attacks on computer systems of various businesses. Most of these attacks seem to be for criminal purposes, to gain access to people's personal information to commit identity theft, credit card fraud, and the like.

But some hacker groups (such as LulzSec and Anonymous) have different motives. They recently announced that they are "uniting in a campaign aimed at banks, government agencies, and other high-profile targets, and they are encouraging others to steal and leak classified information."

These two hacker groups are not out to steal money or business secrets on behalf of competitors or kill people. They perceive themselves as righting wrongs and, in the case of LulzSec, to have fun while doing so. LulzSec and Anonymous seem to have as their intention to attack and subvert those organizations that are seen as doing wrong and opposing transparency, and are fighting government and corporate secrecy that lies at the heart of the control systems and which enable them to get away with their crimes. This is why the US government and businesses have taken such a vicious approach to news organizations like WikiLeaks, and the term 'cyberwars' has started to be used

The idea of secretive people or groups acting on behalf of transparency or to help ordinary powerless people to right the wrongs perpetrated on them by powerful and evil people, institutions, and governments tends to strike a chord. They form the romantic legends of history (Robin Hood, William Tell) and are the stuff of comic book heroes with their secret identities. It is perhaps no accident that the group Anonymous uses the V for Vendetta mask as its icon.

The US and other governments cannot afford to let these groups grab the imagination of the public as being fighters for justice. It cannot run the risk that these groups will be seen as the good guys. And so there has been a campaign to confuse the transnational, anarchic, and political computer hackers with those groups that seek to use hacking for merely monetary gain or those serving the interests of one nation against another.

As part of this propaganda war, there are ominous reports that nations hostile to the US (such as North Korea, China, and Iran) may try to infiltrate the computer systems in the US and disrupt or even paralyze their military systems. We receive warnings that these are grave threats to the security of the US and hence of its people.

To me, all this fear mongering sounds eerily familiar to the way in which the war on terror was ramped up. Stoking people's fears that their lives are in danger from vague threats is the standard mode of operation of governments that seek to control them. Could it be that that the government needs a new threat because people are getting a little jaded about the war on terror, especially since the main bogeyman Osama bin Laden is no longer around? The silly color-coded alert system has been laughed out of existence and there are increasing grumbles about the many annoying rules that airline passengers are subjected to, particularly in the US.

It is to be expected that with the ubiquity of computers and the widespread sophistication of computer users, we should see an increase in hacking. So the frequent news stories of this or that company having its systems attacked should come as no surprise. Some people will do it with criminal intent, others simply to prove that it can be done. There will be an escalating war between hackers and security systems, just as there is with ordinary crimes.

But we have to be vigilant is preserving the difference between political actions and criminal actions. The government seeks to criminalize everything that might erode its wall of secrecy, which is why it is pursuing WikiLeaks and whistleblowers with such vigor.

In the fight for democracy, the actions of political hacker groups that seek greater transparency and the exposure of wrongdoing may be one of the few means by which people can fight the trend towards increasingly dictatorial governments.

June 23, 2011

A climate of fear

Glenn Greenwald describes how the Obama administration is continuing (and even expanding upon) the Bush-Cheney program to make people fearful of exposing the wrongdoings of the government.

A perpetual war state of mind

George Orwell's novel 1984 had as its background theme the idea of the world being split up into three great military powers permanently at war with each other but with regularly shifting alliances. Orwell's novel was published in 1948 and was extrapolating from the power structure following World War II, with the world carved up into three regions, those within the sphere of influence of the US, those within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, and the rest of the world that came to be known later as the non-aligned bloc of nations.

With the end of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union dismantling itself and essentially conceding military dominance to the US and China not yet emerging as a major power, there was a brief period when it was hoped that this would lead to a flowering of real prosperity as a result of the 'peace dividend', as the wasteful expenditures on militaries that were no longer needed would be re-directed to improving the lives of everyone.

That hope died quickly but not because Orwell's dystopian vision in its pure form seems likely to occur soon. While there are signs of a tri-partite military world order centered around the US, Russia, and China being recreated that could turn into states of actual war between militaries, that does not seem to be the direction we are headed. The 'wars' of this century are more likely to be multipolar economic ones, with the US, Europe, Russia, Japan, China, India, and Brazil all reaching some level of economic parity in the near future and competing for dominance.

But it is within the US that one element of Orwell's dystopian vision is clearly emerging and that is of a nation whose people are exhausted and bowed down by thinking they are in a state of permanent war against some vague and ill-defined but somehow ominous enemy. Successive US governments, and the oligarchies behind them, have discovered how useful it is to have people living in this state of fear, so that they willingly give up their rights and freedoms in order to be kept 'safe' from the unseen threats that are supposedly all around us, in addition to being willing to spend vast sums of public money to feed the inexhaustible appetite of the military-industrial-financial complex.

One way in which people can be anesthetized to being in a state of permanent war is to get them used to the idea of wars all around them all the time, and this is helped by the ease with which war metaphors are introduced into the public discourse. It seemed to start out innocuously with 'wars' on poverty, hunger, cancer, and so forth, which were clearly metaphorical. The use of these metaphors had the benefit of getting people to think of the war word 'war' in a positive light, as something that can be noble and worthy of support.

Then we had the war on drugs, and the word war became less of a metaphor and more of the real thing, with armed action both domestically and overseas. The war against drugs was the first real permanent war, something that has no end because it is being waged against an amorphous and decentralized enemy and there is no measure by which you can determine if you have won. This made it the perfect prototype for creating a state of permanent war because the war will continue as long as the government says it needs to continue.

The next major step of course was the war on terror. Unlike in the case in the war on drugs where many of the so-called enemy, both users and dealers, are actually living amongst us and could be our neighbors, with this new war, the enemy are clearly 'the other', foreigners, aliens, 'not one of us', and all restraints on the government are off. As Glenn Greenwald writes, in the US today the word 'terrorist' seems to be reserved for "anyone -- especially of the Muslim religion and/or Arab nationality -- who fights against the United States and its allies or tries to impede their will." This is why there is such strong opposition to using the word 'terrorist' to describe people like Timothy McVeigh and the members of the various domestic armed groups that have attacked and killed Americans because of their ideological beliefs that the government or other organizations must be destroyed. The 'war on terror' serves its purpose of spearheading the elimination our constitutional rights only as long as it is seen as abrogating the rights of others and not of 'us'.

Those who hoped that the death of bin Laden would mark the beginning of the end of the war of terror were wrong. As Karen J. Greenberg, the executive director of the New York University Center on Law and Security, writes:

The administration was visibly using the bin Laden moment to renew George W. Bush's Global War on Terror (even if without that moniker). And let's not forget about the leaders of Congress, who promptly accelerated their efforts to ensure that the apparatus for the war that 9/11 started would never die. Congressman Howard McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was typical. On May 9th, he introduced legislation meant to embed in law the principle of indefinite detention without trial for suspected terrorists until "the end of hostilities." What this would mean, in reality, is the perpetuation ad infinitum of that Bush-era creation, our prison complex at Guantanamo (not to speak of our second Guantanamo at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan).

In other words, Washington now seems to be engaged in a wholesale post-bin Laden ratification of business as usual, but this time on steroids.

This is why I believe the war on terror will never end or at most will be replaced by some new and equally vague threat that will justify the same restrictions on our civil liberties. As 1984 illustrated, a state of permanent war is simply too useful a device for controlling populations.

Next: The next new shiny endless war?

June 22, 2011

At least she's consistent

After quitting halfway through her term of office as governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin has now quit halfway through her bus tour of America.

Another excellent Glenn Greenwald piece

Among other things, it deals with the usual Orwellian world of language manipulation where 'troop withdrawals' don't actually mean what you think it means, the growing realization that Obama's justifications for the war in Libya are ridiculous, the accelerating assault on civil liberties, and how 'liberal' apologists for Obama are actually serving the conservative cause.

Read it here.

What we have lost in the so-called 'war on terror'

Radley Balko compiles a list of all the things that we have lost in the Glorious War on Terror. He said that he compiled this list simply off the top of his head without doing a lot of research but it seems pretty complete to me. Here is his complete listy:

  • We’ve sent terrorist suspects to “black sites” to be detained without trial and tortured.
  • We've turned terrorist suspects over to other regimes, knowing that they'd be tortured.
  • In those cases when our government later learned it got the wrong guy, federal officials not only refused to apologize or compensate him, they went to court to argue he should be barred from using our courts to seek justice, and that the details of his abduction, torture, and detainment should be kept secret.
  • We've abducted and imprisoned dozens, perhaps hundreds of men in Guantanamo who turned out to have been innocent. Again, the government felt no obligation to do right by them.
  • The government launched a multimillion dollar ad campaign implying that people who smoke marijuana are complicit in the murder of nearly 3,000 of their fellow citizens.
  • The government illegally spied and eavesdropped on thousands of American citizens.
  • Presidents from both of the two major political parties have claimed the power to detain suspected terrorists and hold them indefinitely without trial, based solely on the president's designation of them as an "enemy combatant," essentially making the president prosecutor, judge, and jury. (I'd also argue that the treatment of someone like Bradley Manning wouldn't have been tolerated before September 11.)
  • The current president has also claimed the power to execute U.S. citizens, off the battlefield, without a trial, and to prevent anyone from knowing about it after the fact.
  • The Congress approved, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a broadly written law making it a crime to advocate for any organization the government deems sympathetic to terrorism. This includes challenging the "terrorist" designation in the first place.
  • Flying in America now means enduring a humiliating and hassling ritual that does little if anything to actually make flying any safer. Every time the government fails to catch an attempt at terrorism, it punishes the public for its failure by adding to the ritual.
  • American Muslims, a heartening story of success and assimilation, are now harassed and denigrated for merely trying to build houses of worship.
  • Without a warrant, the government can search and seize indefinitely the laptops and other personal electronic devices of anyone entering the country.
  • The Department of Homeland Security now gives terrorism-fighting grants for local police departments across the country to purchase military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, which is then used against U.S. citizens, mostly to serve drug warrants.

If the government had issued all these new policies suddenly, there would have been a revolt (at least I like to think there would have been). But all these things were introduced gradually and by both parties, after the public had been softened up by a continuous drumbeat of fear-mongering. It is only when the full list is compiled that we see how far we have sunk.

This is the danger of creeping authoritarianism.

June 21, 2011

Paying for people's services

There is a 78-year old Austrian billionaire named Richard Lugner who likes to have women celebrities as his dates at a fancy ball that is held every year in Austria. He reportedly pays them as much as $150,000 for the pleasure of their company and in the past has squired such well-known names like Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and Andie MacDowell. Apparently there are complicated financial negotiations that have to be gone through by representatives of both parties before the deals are finalized and contracts signed. It all seems a bit much for a few hours of socializing.

I had naively thought that people asked their friends to partner them to social functions and so this commercial aspect surprised me. It also struck me as quite odd but I could not quite put my finger on the reasons for my negative reaction. I have argued that what consenting adults do should be of no concern to others so why shouldn't people charge others for the pleasure of their company? One would guess that he people mentioned are quite rich and it is a little strange that they would feel the need to do this. I mean, does Paris Hilton really need the money? But we know that some people, however much they have, always seem to want more. If you are doing nothing one evening and someone offers you $150,000 to go to a ball with them, what is wrong with accepting that offer?

Also, is this any different from people being paid to attend any other events? Politicians like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann charge people to have their photographs taken with them. And when people are willing to pay money to listen to a speaker, even though they know pretty much in advance what he or she is going to say, aren't they just paying for the privilege of being in the speaker's presence and to get a chance perhaps to have a brief conversation?

Taken further, how is this different from paying people for their services? Although I am not a celebrity, some people are willing to pay for me to come to their venue and give a talk, so I am also selling my services, even if my personality and name (and definitely my looks) by themselves have no marketable value.

I finally figured out what was bothering me about this commercial aspect. While it is partly the fact that it is blurring the difference between social interactions (which are supposed to be free of financial considerations) and commercial interactions (for which fees are charged), what really bothers me is not that these people are doing anything wrong but that we do not extend the social acceptance of paying for services to a wider range of people and services.

In particular, we treat sex workers to a different standard. For example, prostitutes are also paid for sharing with others the pleasure of their company and providing services. Why are they prosecuted and treated like criminals in so many countries, when the rest of us are able to sell our services and even be admired for doing so? When Richard Lugner gets to spend some time with a famous woman by paying for her presence, it is considered acceptable, if a little tacky. But if the agreement also involves having sex as part of the deal, the entire transaction is viewed with disdain and can become illegal and the people involved subject to harsh criminal penalties.

It is this double standard that drives sex workers into the underground economy and creates conditions in which they can be exploited and abused because they are operating outside the law and thus cannot easily call upon society to protect them.

June 19, 2011

Progressives and elections

Veteran political observer Sam Smith tries to provides some guidance as we enter the fairy tale period known as the presidential election season where desperate people pin their hopes on some leader to take us out of the mess we are in, not realizing that the game is rigged and that wars, assaults on civil liberties, and giveaways to the rich will continue whoever wins.

There has been over the past few decades a steady deterioration of the political difference between national Democratic and Republican politics, most notably with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Today it is hard to define that difference given the strong bipartisan support for several illegal wars, the unconstitutional Patriot Act, and a bottomless desire to bail out Wall Street, and a stunning indifference to the financial problems of everyone else.

It's more sensible to regard the two major parties as Mafia mobs fighting for control of a region known as the United States.

This isn't to say that there isn't a difference between them. But it's about survival, however, not politics. The Demos tend to do less damage to our lives than the Repubs. Both mobs may beat the shit out your father, but the Demos are less likely to harm your children or your grandmother.

If America is to be saved, it will because of movements outside the mainstream political game. It's always been like that and will continue to be so.

So enjoy the fairy tale that is bubbling up around us. Vote for the bastards who will be do us the least harm. But if you want to be part of the story – and you are whether you desire it or not – then that only thing that will really matter is what you do outside the voting booth.

Classifying the Republican candidates

There are so many people running for the Republican nomination that it is hard to keep track of them all, so I decided to make it easier by classifying them according to what I thought their intentions are. The asterisk is for those who are being coy and have not yet declared that they intend to run.

  1. Those who are serious about the 2012 election: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Mike Huckabee*
  2. Those who are using this as a dry run for 2016: Jon Huntsman, Rick Perry*
  3. Those who are using this to gain visibility and promote ideas: Ron Paul, Gary Johnson
  4. Those who are using the election to promote/enrich themselves: Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin*
  5. Those who think that god wants them to be president or have otherwise lost touch with reality: Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Rudy Giuliani*

Some people may belong in more than one category. Palin, for example, could easily be put in 1, 2 and 5 as well but I limited myself to just one. Feel free to argue with my sorting. I may have also overlooked someone, the field is so crowded.

But where is my favorite candidate Alan Keyes? No major election is complete without the man who set the standard for the crazification factor. Run, Alan, run! God is calling you to save the nation!

June 17, 2011

Fake lesbian bloggers

idog.jpg

This famous cartoon from 1993 in the early days of the internet has gained new relevance with the recent revelation that a supposedly lesbian blogger in Syria who had reportedly been kidnapped was actually an American man living in Scotland. What is more, the supposedly lesbian co-owner of the website on which this fake Syrian lesbian posted has also been revealed to be a (different) American man, a US military veteran no less. They say that they were doing this to raise the awareness of gay and lesbian issues and of the troubled situation in Syria.

What is the matter with these people? Don't they realize that by creating these fake identities, they actually diminish the causes they supposedly support, not to mention the credibility of real people who might be in danger and needing help?

The Daily Show comments on this weird story.

June 08, 2011

Circuses

Glenn Greenwald captures precisely my own feelings on the Anthony Wiener episode and what it tells us about the state of politics and the media in the US.

There are few things more sickening -- or revealing -- to behold than a D.C. sex scandal. Huge numbers of people prance around flamboyantly condemning behavior in which they themselves routinely engage. Media stars contrive all sorts of high-minded justifications for luxuriating in every last dirty detail, when nothing is more obvious than that their only real interest is vicarious titillation. Reporters who would never dare challenge powerful political figures who torture, illegally eavesdrop, wage illegal wars or feed at the trough of sleazy legalized bribery suddenly walk upright -- like proud peacocks with their feathers extended -- pretending to be hard-core adversarial journalists as they collectively kick a sexually humiliated figure stripped of all importance. The ritual is as nauseating as it is predictable.

I am as titillated as the next person by salacious gossip about people I know either personally or as public figures. I won't pretend that I turn away in high-minded purity from such stories. But I wonder about the health of a society in which the private lives of people escape from the gossip columns of the tabloids (which is where they belong, if at all) and become a major obsession. It seems to indicate a society that seeks distractions because it does not have the stomach to confront the far more serious issues it faces.

As Greenwald says:

Can one even imagine how much different -- and better -- our political culture would be if our establishment media devoted even a fraction of the critical scrutiny and adversarial energy it devoted to the Weiner matter to things that actually matter? But that won't happen, because the people who comprise that press corps, with rare exception, are both incapable of focusing on things that matter and uninterested in doing so. Talking about shirtless pictures and expressing outrage about private sexual behavior -- like some angry, chattering soap opera fan furious that one of their best-known characters cheated -- is about the limit of their abilities and their function.

Greenwald's whole post is, as usual, well worth reading.

June 07, 2011

The pro-war one party state

Glenn Greenwald says that the war on Libya should dispel any doubts that what we have is a pro-war one party state that does not care about legality.

June 04, 2011

Example of how the Israel lobby works

M. J. Rosenberg relates a first hand account of what he experienced in 1988 when, as an aide to a US senator, he was at the receiving end of the intimidation that is delivered to anyone who crosses the lobby.

Stephen M. Walt has more on the nature of the 'special relationship' between the US and Israel.

June 03, 2011

Implications of the recent Middle East protests

Surely all freedom and justice loving people have to welcome the rise of ordinary people in revolt against autocratic rulers that we have seen in the Middle East. The events of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen have shown that ordinary people are able to overcome fear and dare their governments to crack down on them, while being unarmed to a large degree. Libya is the one country where the line between an unnamed popular uprising and an armed civil war became blurred and with NATO now fighting on behalf of one faction it is no longer clear where popular sentiment lies.

Veteran political analyst Tom Englehardt argues that it is hard to find precedents in history for this level of mass uprising. (Note that this was written back in February before the US and NATO got involved in Libya.)

Never in memory have so many unjust or simply despicable rulers felt quite so nervous — or possibly quite so helpless (despite being armed to the teeth) — in the presence of unarmed humanity. And there has to be joy and hope in that alone.

Even now, without understanding what it is we face, watching staggering numbers of people, many young and dissatisfied, take to the streets in Morocco, Mauritania, Djibouti, Oman, Algeria, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and Libya, not to mention Bahrain, Tunisia, and Egypt, would be inspirational. Watching them face security forces using batons, tear gas, rubber bullets, and in all too many cases, real bullets (in Libya, even helicopters and planes) and somehow grow stronger is little short of unbelievable. Seeing Arabs demanding something we were convinced was the birthright and property of the West, of the United States in particular, has to send a shiver down anyone’s spine.

The nature of this potentially world-shaking phenomenon remains unknown and probably, at this point, unknowable… That the future remains — always — the land of the unknown should offer us hope, not least because that’s the bane of ruling elites who want to, but never can, take possession of it.

Nonetheless, you would expect that a ruling elite, observing such earth-shaking developments, might rethink its situation, as should the rest of us. After all, if humanity can suddenly rouse itself this way in the face of the armed power of state after state, then what’s really possible on this planet of ours?

Another veteran journalist John Pilger writing on the same day has this to add:

The revolt in the Arab world is not merely against a resident dictator but a worldwide economic tyranny designed by the US Treasury and imposed by the US Agency for International Development, the IMF and World Bank, which have ensured that rich countries like Egypt are reduced to vast sweatshops, with half the population earning less than $2 a day. The people’s triumph in Cairo was the first blow against what Benito Mussolini called corporatism, a word that appears in his definition of fascism.

How did such extremism take hold in the liberal West? "It is necessary to destroy hope, idealism, solidarity, and concern for the poor and oppressed," observed Noam Chomsky a generation ago, "[and] to replace these dangerous feelings with self-centred egoism, a pervasive cynicism that holds that [an order of] inequities and oppression is the best that can be achieved. In fact, a great international propaganda campaign is under way to convince people – particularly young people – that this not only is what they should feel but that it’s what they do feel."

Like the European revolutions of 1848 and the uprising against Stalinism in 1989, the Arab revolt has rejected fear. An insurrection of suppressed ideas, hope and solidarity has begun.

In the US fear has been successfully used to keep people docile and accepting of the most atrocious violations of their constitutional rights. The oligarchy will be viewing the fearless uprisings in the Arab world with some concern and you can be sure that there will strenuous efforts to make sure that those feelings of hope and courage do not spread to the US.

June 02, 2011

Hope for the Middle East?

If, as is possible, the UN General Assembly in September recognizes a Palestinian state based at least somewhat on the 1967 borders, what happens next? In the short run, nothing much. The Palestinians have little power and the US will exert all its influence to make sure that nothing changes significantly. But that could change if non-violent protests in the region against Israeli policies become a mass movement.

What will happen if masses of unarmed Palestinians and Israelis march together the way that Gandhi and his followers marched in India to combat British rule? The recent Nakba demonstrations that resulted in Israeli forces killing about 20 unarmed Palestinian demonstrators and wounded hundreds on May 15 in a crackdown on the borders with Syria and Lebanon is one possible precursor, suggesting that the Israeli government will act with brutal force.

Even if the Israeli forces shoot and kill many unarmed protestors, the US government and media will downplay these events and not express outrage, just as they are downplaying the killings of unarmed people in Bahrain and Yemen, in the former country by foreign troops (Saudi Arabian). But as the British discovered with Gandhi, attacking unarmed people and jailing their leaders is usually counterproductive in the long run. It stiffens the resolve of people rather than undermining it, and throws up a multitude of new leaders to take the place of those incarcerated or killed.

In his article titled Salt march to the Dead Sea: Gandhi's Palestinian reincarnation in the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine (subscription required), David Shulman says that Gandhian nonviolent methods are catching on in Israel and Palestine though it is by no means a mass movement yet.

New forms of civil disobedience are spreading within Israel, driven by peace activists and ordinary citizens who are fed up with the blatant injustice of Israeli policy and who are increasingly prepared to break the letter of the law when the law is discriminatory, indeed racist. You can read about some of the people involved in Michael Riordon’s fine book Our Way to Fight. As Palestinian independence comes nearer— hopefully, to become a reality this year—there will be more and more instances of such protests inside Israel and, in some cases, by Israelis working inside the occupied territories, together with Palestinian partners.

Make no mistake, when it comes to Israeli activism, we’re not talking about anything like a mass movement. But I’m not sure that numbers are the best indicator of what’s to come. The Israeli settlers who hijacked the entire political system to their utterly destructive goals some three decades ago numbered, initially, at most a few thousand. I think that even a few hundred brave individuals prepared to face the riot police and the soldiers and the courts in the name of the Eighth Commandment may, with the help of the outside world, be enough to spark the change.

No one can say what form the revolutionary fervor currently sweeping the Arab world will eventually take in Palestine. It may very well be directed, first, against the centers of power in Gaza and Ramallah (Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, respectively; up-to-date studies show a sharp decline in popular support for the former). Eventually, however, the tide will turn against the Israeli occupation; the Israeli government has no effective response to a situation where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians decide to assert their freedom, one can hope, in nonviolent ways.

When I look at the Palestinian issue, I often feel a sense of despair because things seem so hopeless. It seems the parties are so entrenched so as to never permit a just solution. Then I remind myself that I used to feel the same way about South Africa, that the whites would never give up on their iron rule over the blacks, that Nelson Mandela would die in prison, and that it would end up either as a bloody mess or as a long slow strangulation of the black people. And change emerged, largely peacefully.

The catch is that for all their many faults, neither the British nor the Afrikaaners or the liberation movements were driven by religious fanaticism. It is different in the Middle East. Daniel Levy points out that the ultra-orthodox Jews known as the Haredim is one of the fastest growing groups in Israel. That is not a good sign. The dominance of religion usually makes peaceful resolutions of conflicts harder because each side thinks their god is the right one and he supports them.

But we must have hope. As Shulman says:

Hope is a spiritual act, far removed from, say, optimism, a rather shallow option. So let me say it: there is hope, today, in Palestine, more than I’ve ever seen before. The Israeli government is doing what it can to destroy it, but I doubt that the government will succeed.

I hope that he is right. I have pretty much given up hope that governments will do the right thing. They are too captive to either moneyed interests or to the narrow sectarian religious and political groups that the media pays so much attention to. But I do have hope that when ordinary, right thinking people join up with others who seek to live normal, dignified, decent lives, and are willing to put their lives on the line to achieve this, great things can happen.

Gandhi and Martin Luther Ling showed that it can be done.

June 01, 2011

Gandhi's disciples in the Middle East

The winds of change sweeping over the Middle East are indicators of what the future might hold for Palestinians. What has been hopeful is that movements to demand justice in Egypt and Tunisia based on mass non-violent marches and protests have borne fruit. On the other hand, similar movements in Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain are being violently suppressed. Libya is a special case in that the opposition took up arms early and have allied themselves with the US and NATO and is thus more like an armed insurrection against the government.

There are signs that non-violent mass mobilizations of the Egypt-Tunisia-Yemen-Bahrain model might develop in Palestine as well. That part of the world might not look like fertile soil for Gandhian principles to take root but in an article titled Salt march to the Dead Sea: Gandhi's Palestinian reincarnation in the June 2011 issue of Harper's Magazine (subscription required), David Shulman describes the actions of Palestinians and Israelis who are looking to the Gandhi model of non-violent resistance to Israeli policies. He says that masses of unarmed people, inspired by the events of the current Arab Spring and the possible declaration of Palestinian statehood at the UN General Assembly in September, could lead to a major challenge the status quo.

No one can say what form the revolutionary fervor currently sweeping the Arab world will eventually take in Palestine. It may very well be directed, first, against the centers of power in Gaza and Ramallah (Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, respectively; up-to-date studies show a sharp decline in popular support for the former). Eventually, however, the tide will turn against the Israeli occupation; the Israeli government has no effective response to a situation where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians decide to assert their freedom, one can hope, in nonviolent ways. I hope that some of us, at least, will have the privilege of standing beside them, sharing the risks, when that day comes. Here is another irony to contemplate—that of Palestinians in 2011 successfully adopting the method Gandhi recommended to the Jews in the 1930s.

He describes three of the people who are taking the Gandhian approach.

Abdallah Abu Rahmah, from the village of Bil’in, who was released from the Israeli military prison at Ofer, after fifteen months’ detention, on March 14. He is a central figure in the ongoing campaign by the village against the Israeli government’s appropriation of a large portion of its lands in the course of building the huge concrete separation barrier or wall, situated in this case, as in many others, on Palestinian land far to the east of the Green Line, the old international border.

Bil’in has become the stuff of myth in Palestine. This small village forged a grassroots nonviolent protest that has been sustained for more than six years with remarkable tenacity, despite continuing casualties—two killed and hundreds wounded by the Israeli army. (The weekly demonstrations, which start off with a peaceful march to the wall, inevitably deteriorate into violent clashes between the soldiers, who fire tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes live ammunition at the protesters, and young village toughs throwing rocks.) Abdallah is thirty-nine years old, a teacher, and a father of three young children. He has read Gandhi and Mandela. He is soft-spoken, charismatic… You can see why the army is afraid of him; what Israel is doing in Bil’in, as in most places in the Palestinian territories, is indefensible, and Abdallah is perfectly capable of explaining why to the world at large.

Then there is Ali Abu Awwad, who runs the Palestinian Movement for Non-Violent Resistance from his offices in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, south of Jerusalem. He read Gandhi’s writings in what he calls “my Palestinian university”—an Israeli prison, where he spent four years in the early 1990s… Ali is tall, handsome, fluent in several languages, precise in formulating his thoughts, which seem to come from some irreducible core of experience; he is a Gandhian who has improvised a vision, and a method, suited to the particular circumstances of Palestine.

There are Gandhian figures within Israel, too—foremost among them, perhaps, Ezra Nawi, a tough-minded, soft-hearted plumber who, I think, has never read a line of Gandhi but who has reinvented Gandhian-style protest on his own, largely in the harsh region of the South Hebron Hills. Predictably, an Israeli court recently sent him to jail for a month, and the judge wrote a long decision concerning, what else, the virtues of law and order. (The circumstances in this case involved the gratuitous destruction by the army of Palestinian shacks and tents at a place called Umm al-Kheir; Ezra tried to stop it by throwing himself in front of the bulldozers and then running into one of the shacks.)

What is notable about the Gandhian model is that it can draw upon a potentially much larger base of volunteers than armed uprisings. Not only do the Gandhian ideals inspire more people (since most people have a distaste for perpetrating violence) almost anyone, of any gender, age, physical capability, can take part in sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations and feel they are contributing to the cause. I recall during the protests in England during the lead up to the Iraq war, an elderly lady phoned a protest organizer to say that while she could not take part in the marches because she needed a walker to get around, she was able and willing to lie down in the middle of the street if that would be helpful to stop the war from being started.

Martin Luther King showed that Gandhi's way was not limited by the specifics of geography or culture. Let's hope that it can spread to the Middle East too.

May 31, 2011

The near term outlook for the Middle East

As the Israel lobby uses its power over the US government to keep stalling while the Israeli government and its settlers encroach on Palestinian land, we should try and see where this process might lead. Richard Falk, Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University, says that Israel's lack of interest in arriving at a two-state solution is obvious:

In many respects, Obama's speech, aside from the soaring rhetoric, might have been crafted in Tel Aviv rather than the White House. It is a tribute to Israel's extraordinary influence upon the US media that has been able to shift the focus of assessment to the supposed Israeli anger about affirming Palestinian statehood within 1967 borders. It is hardly a secret that the Netanyahu leadership, aside from its shrewd propaganda, is opposed to the establishment of any Palestinian state, whether symbolic or substantive.

This was much was confirmed by the release of the Palestine Papers that showed that, behind closed doors - even when the Palestinian Authority made concession after concession in response to Israeli demands - the Israeli negotiating partners seemed totally unresponsive, and appeared disinterested in negotiating a genuine solution to the conflict.

Obama's speech in which he spoke of negotiations for a Palestinian state "based on 1967 borders with mutually-agreed swaps', rather that being a sell-out of Israel is actually a huge concession to them and encourages even further Israel in the expansion of its illegal settlements policies in the West Bank and means that Israel can demand even more land from the Palestinians in return for removal of some settlements. As Falk says, "If anything this is a step back from the 1967 canonical and unanimous Security Council Resolution 242 that looked unconditionally toward "withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territory occupied in the recent conflict""

Falk adds that once you take away his rhetorical skills, Obama's failures on the Middle East become transparent.

With these considerations in mind, it is not at all surprising that Obama's approach to the Israel/Palestine conflict remains one-sided, deeply flawed, and a barrier rather than a gateway to a just and sustainable peace. The underlying pressures that produce the distortion is the one-sided allegiance to Israel, saying: "Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempt to single it out for criticism in international forums."

This leads to the totally unwarranted assessment that failure to achieve peace in recent years is equally attributable to Israelis and the Palestinians, thereby equating what is certainly not equivalent. Consider Obama's words of comparison: "Israeli settlement activity continues, Palestinians have walked away from the talks." How many times is it necessary to point out that Israeli settlement activity is unlawful, and used to be viewed as such - even by the United States government - and that the Palestinian refusal to negotiate comes while their promised homeland is being despoiled not only by settlement expansion and settler violence, but by the continued construction of an unlawful barrier wall well beyond the 1967 borders. Obama never finds it appropriate to mention Israel's reliance on excessive and lethal force, most recently in its response to the Nakba demonstrations along its borders, or its blatant disregard of international law, whether by continuing to blockade the entrapped 1.5 million Palestinians locked inside Gaza or by violently attacking the Freedom Flotilla a year ago in international waters - while it was carrying much needed humanitarian aid to the Gazans - or by the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem.

Falk suggests that the events of the so-called Arab spring might have the effect of bypassing the weak and ineffectual Obama government in favor of more direct action.

In a profound sense, whatever Obama says at this point is just adding more words which are beside the point. He has neither the will nor the capacity to exert any material leverage on Israel that might make it more amenable to respecting Palestinian rights under international law, or to strike a genuine compromise based on mutuality of claims. Palestinians should not look to sovereign states, or even the United Nations, and certainly not the United States, in their long and tormented journey to realise a just and sustainable destiny for themselves.

Their future will depend on the outcome of their struggle, abetted and supported by people of good will around the world, and increasingly assuming the character of a nonviolent legitimacy war that mobilises moral and political pressures that assert Palestinian rights from below. In this regard, it remains politically significant to make use of the UN and friendly governments to gain visibility and legitimacy for their claims of right. It is Palestinian populism, not great power diplomacy, that offers the best current hope of achieving a sustainable and just peace on behalf of the Palestinian people.

There are moves for the Palestinians to request the UN General Assembly that meets in September to vote on Palestinian statehood, most likely based on the 1967 borders. Israel is fiercely opposed to this move and its lobby in the US will make sure that the US does all it can to thwart it. But unlike the Security Council, there is no veto power in the General Assembly so the US will have to strong-arm as many countries as it can to try and reject the move.

But this is not going to be easy. Most of the rest of the world has seen through the US-Israeli 'peace process' charade a long time ago and realize that Israel has no intention of voluntarily allowing a Palestinian state and has to be forced into accepting one. Only those countries that desperately need the US for whatever reason will oppose this move.

May 30, 2011

Annoying public piety

Today is Memorial Day in the US, which is meant to commemorate those killed in wars while serving in some military capacity, though over time people also use it to commemorate the deaths of any loved ones. While there are official events such a parades and flag flying and laying of wreaths at war memorials and in cemeteries, the day coincides with the onset of summer-like weather, and thus is seen as the beginning of the season for summertime activities. Since 1971, when the date was shifted from the fixed May 30 to the last Monday in May, people in the wintry regions of the country have seen this three-day weekend as the date to signal the emergence from their winter cocoons and organize barbecues and picnics and go to amusement parks and the like to take advantage of the warm weather.

This does not sit well with some people and without fail you can expect to see opinion pieces and editorials and letters to the editor of your local newspaper complaining that Memorial Day is not being treated with the solemnity it deserves.

I don't understand these scolds who want to be able to dictate what other people should do and feel. If you want to treat the day solemnly and think deep thoughts about life and death, go ahead, knock yourself out. But if others want to use a holiday to enjoy themselves, let them be. As long as the fun-seekers don't get in the face of the solemn ones and vice versa, there really should be no problem.

I remember as an adolescent feeling bored one Good Friday (which is a government holiday in Sri Lanka) after going to our church in the morning for the traditional three-hour service. I asked my mother whether I could go and see a film. Since I was a religious boy, I felt that I was asking for something not quite appropriate since it did not seem right to go and enjoy myself on the day that we were supposed to commemorate Jesus dying for our sins, which is a pretty big deal. So I fully expected her to say no but she cheerfully agreed. I think she had the healthy attitude that no one was genuinely grieving about an event that (supposedly) happened 2,000 years ago and that one should not overdo the piety. Having me mope around the house was not benefiting anyone.

I have grown increasingly impatient with these public grievings over past events by people who have no connection to the events or the people being commemorated. It seems to me to have become mainly occasions for hypocritical sanctimony by elected officials who try to outdo each other in public piety. We can expect to see an orgy of this on the tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001.

May 27, 2011

The death of the two-state solution

In the US you will hear a lot of talk about the so-called peace process for the Middle East that never seems to go anywhere. You will also hear a lot about the two-state solution. But you rarely hear about the situation on the ground while this is going on. Take a look at this BBC map that shows how Israel has steadily encroached on the West Bank over the decades. (While Israel has relinquished formal control of Gaza, the harsh blockade they and Egypt imposed on that land means that they still dominate life there. Fortunately it looks like the new Egyptian authorities are going to lift the blockade.)

Palestine.gif

If you strip out the portions of land in the West Bank that are under Israeli control, this is what you are left with (via Balloon-Juice).

Palestine2.jpg

The areas in which the Palestinians are confined look like an archipelago, similar to the islands that comprise the Maldives or the Philippines. But it is much worse. At least in those other countries, people can freely go from one island to another, with only water as a barrier to travel. As a result of settlements and roads and walls that have been illegally built by Israel, the Palestinians are subjected to having to go around high barriers and pass through humiliating checkpoints as they go from one reservation to another. The splintering of land is even worse than the Bantustans for black people created by the white South African government during the worst days of apartheid.

It should be obvious why such maps are rarely published in the US media because it becomes immediately obvious that the so-called peace process has been a farce, meant to stall for time while successive Israeli governments steadily encroach on the West Bank while they and the US pretend that they want to strike a deal with the Palestinians. The Israeli governments have no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian state. Indeed it was in looking at these maps, that I came to the realization that the two-state option is already dead. The settlers who have encroached on Palestinian lands are the most extreme religious zealots who think they are fulfilling some divine mandate to occupy all the land and they want still more.

Those who try and argue that the periodic tiffs between the Israeli and US governments (like the dressing down that Netanyahu just gave Obama) is some kind of kabuki prior to advancing the peace process simply cannot see that Israel has been negotiating in bad faith and the US has enabled it. The US has long ago ceased to be the so-called 'honest broker' in the process.

As far as I can see, the goal of the Israeli government is to seek to either make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they will leave or at some point forcibly expel them from the occupied territories or keep them as a second-class people indefinitely. But such a strategy runs the serious risk of boomeranging. Jeffrey Goldberg argues that the Israeli government, by making a Palestinian state impossible, is actually creating the conditions to destroy itself as a Jewish state because time and demographics are on the Palestinian side. He says that the current policies will "hopelessly, ineradicably, entangle the two peoples wedged between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea." That will leave Israel with the following options:

Either the Jews of Israel would grant the Palestinians the vote, at which point their country would lose its Jewish majority and its identity as a refuge for the Jewish people, or it would deny them the vote, and become an apartheid state. The latter option is untenable, of course: Many Jewish Israelis would be repulsed by this thought; other nations that already consider Israel a pariah would now have just cause; and Israel would lose its last remaining friend, the U.S., because no American -- including and especially young American Jews -- would identify with a country reminiscent of pre-Mandela South Africa.

In my opinion, the two-state solution is rapidly ceasing to be viable. The question is what will happen as more and more people realize this.

May 26, 2011

Israel's prime minister dictates America's Middle East policies

It is no secret that the Israel lobby exerts enormous power over US policy in the Middle East. John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt described the structure of the lobby, how it operates, and the results of its actions in their book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy and you can read my three part review here and here and here. The power of the lobby is such that even the publication of such a book by two establishment scholars (Mearsheimer is at the University of Chicago and Walt is at Harvard University) caused controversy and their long article on this topic that was a precursor to the book was rejected by American publications that led to it eventually being published in England in the London Review of Books.

But despite this awareness of the dominance that the Israel lobby exerts over American foreign policy, there are occasions when the level of US obsequiousness to Israel surprises even seasoned observers. Last week President Obama made a speech on the Middle East in which, among other things, he called for a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue based on the 1967 borders plus mutually agreed swaps of land.

The speech caused Israeli Prime Minister Netanayhu to throw a major hissy fit and publicly rebuke Obama, and outline what he 'expected' him to say when the two met a few days later. And in the joint press conference following that meeting, Netanyahu proceeded to publicly lecture Obama on the Middle East, even though, as Mearsheimer points out, it is the Palestinians who had some justification in being disappointed by Obama's speech.

Even Jeffrey Goldberg, an American journalist who writes for The Atlantic and is one who is extremely sympathetic to Israel and has even served in the Israeli army, thinks that Netanyahu went too far.

For whatever reason, I tend to react strongly when a foreign leader disrespects the United States, and its President. I didn't like it when Hugo Chavez of Venezuela insulted President Bush; I don't like listening to Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan lecture the U.S. on its sins, and I'm not happy when certain Pakistani leaders gin-up righteous indignation about American behavior when it was their country that served as a refuge for the greatest mass murderer in American history.

And so I was similarly taken aback when I read a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday that he "expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both House of Congress."

So Netanyahu "expects" to hear this from the President of the United States? And if President Obama doesn't walk back the speech, what will Netanyahu do? Will he cut off Israeli military aid to the U.S.? Will he cease to fight for the U.S. in the United Nations, and in the many international forums that treat Israel as a pariah?

As a result of his comments, Goldberg says he received a ton of hate mail with the usual insults, that he was a Nazi and so forth, that are hurled at anyone who dares to criticize Israel.

What we saw in this episode was the spectacle of a leader of a country that is the single largest recipient of US aid (both in absolute and per capita terms) and is entirely dependent on US aid and military support, having the temerity to humiliate the head of its benefactor country and spell out what he expects him to say. What makes this even more astounding is that just last November, Netanyahu had met with Hillary Clinton and the joint statement issued after the meeting had the identical phrasing that Obama used. (via Andrew Sullivan.)

If any other foreign leader, especially of a country that receives so much money from the US, had criticized the US president, political leaders and the media here would have been outraged and demand that aid be cut off immediately. But not when it comes to Israel. What Israel and its US lobby have come to expect is total acceptance of their agenda. This Onion item titled "Government Official Who Makes Perfectly Valid, Well-Reasoned Point Against Israel Forced To Resign" is meant to be a parody but is uncomfortably close to reality, since the head of AIPAC, the most powerful component of the Israel lobby actually warned Obama that he should not be even-handed when dealing with Israel and the Palestinians.

Look at how members of the US congress were falling over themselves to assure the head of a foreign government that they stood with him against their own president. Netanyahu was invited to speak to the joint session of Congress (a rare honor) and he received a reception that can only be described as adulatory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a rapturous reception worthy of a rock star from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle on Capitol Hill on Tuesday - a stark contrast to last week’s tense White House visit.

His speech to a joint session of Congress was repeatedly punctuated by sustained applause, laughter and more than two dozen standing ovations. It also received some high praise from bipartisan admirers.

Harry Reid, the leader in Congress of the same party as the president that Netanyahu insulted, fawned over Netanyahu. Can you imagine this happening with any country other than Israel? As James Wolcott describes it:

So I turn on the TV and there's Bibi Netanyahu addressing Congress--he had taken advantage of Obama's absence to have himself sworn in as president of the United States!

And there was that traitor, vice president Joe Biden, sitting in the back with benign acceptance of that unprecedented coup d'tat!

I didn't quite fathom the details of the speech but every time Netanyahu mentioned Israel, the assembled rose to their feet and fingersnapped approval like beatniks at a bistro.

What a sickening display of obeisance for a foreign leader crowning himself president-for-a-day while Obama is in Ireland drinking Guinness and flying to England to ask the royal newlyweds how things are going.

I will let Glenn Greenwald provide the final word: "In sum, the same faction that spent the last decade demanding fealty to the Commander-in-Chief in a Time of War upon pain of being accused of a lack of patriotism (or worse) now openly sides with a foreign leader over their own President. The U.S. Congress humiliates itself by expressing greater admiration for and loyalty to this foreign leader than their own country's. And because this is all about Israel, few will find this spectacle strange, or at least will be willing to say so." He ends, "In any event, please remember that you must not speak of the immense power of the Israel Lobby lest you reveal yourself to be a conspiratorial hatemonger. I hope that's clear."

May 25, 2011

Avoiding public debate on major issues

Two of the enduring myths in American politics is that there is deep animosity between the two major parties and that the US Senate is the greatest deliberating body in the world. But as Glenn Greenwald points out, backroom bipartisanship is the norm when it comes to serving the interests of the one-party state, such as extending the USA Patriot Act. Public debates are either largely symbolic where the outcome has been pre-determined or involve issues that are not important to the pro-war/pro-business one party that rules this country. The idea of having a genuine debate on an important issue in which the outcome is not pre-determined is viewed with horror by the leadership of both parties.

The extent to which the Senate goes out of its way to avoid discussing major legislation in public is described well in this letter in response to the Greenwald post, in which Senator Rand Paul describes how little work is done by the Senate and how hard it is to get the Senate to debate important issues, such as war. The method of choice to prevent a debate on anything is what is known as a 'fake quorum call'.

May 16, 2011

Interview with Inside Job producer Charles Ferguson

I reviewed the film here.

May 11, 2011

Corporations should not have the same rights as people

The doctrine that corporations are 'persons' and thus have the same rights as human beings originated in 1886 under dubious circumstances and there is a movement to repeal it. Greg Coleridge of the American Friends Service Committee has forwarded to me a petition to repeal this doctrine.

Dear friend,

In May 1886 United States Supreme Court clerk J.C. Bancroft Davis, former president of the Newburgh and New York Railway Company, inserted a headnote to the United States Reports pertaining to the Court's decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

Thus without a formal court ruling, this simple act set a precedent and effectively established corporations as legal persons entitled to the same rights as living, breathing persons under the 14th amendment.

What has followed is 125 years of case law giving corporations Constitutional Rights leading to the destruction of our democracy at the hands of greedy corporations. The most recent, of course, is the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission that opened the floodgates of corporate money in elections. From the environment, energy, and healthcare to jobs, education and the economy, the greed of big multi-national corporations is laying waste to the American dream, and our democracy.

The 125th anniversary of the Santa Clara Railroad case is upon us. AFSC has for more than 15 years been addressing corporate constitutional rights. As an endorser of Move to Amend, we at the Northeast Ohio AFSC hope you'll mark this anniversary by signing the petition at Move to Amend.org. Our shared goal is to collect 125, 000 signatures for the 125th anniversary of corporate personhood.

We must come together to reclaim our democracy for living, breathing, people by eliminating corporate personhood through Constitutional amendment.

Whatever issue arises, at its root you'll find a corporation standing between "we the people" and the solution. If we are to "secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity," then we must put an end corporate personhood.

Please sign the Motion to Amend

Democratically yours,

Greg Coleridge
Director

PS - You can help Move to Amend get to 125,000 signatures. Find out more here!

I have added my name to the list of over 111,000 signatures. I hope you will too.

May 09, 2011

More lies emerge about the bin Laden story

As is usual in these situations, information is now coming out that many of the details surrounding the killing of bin Laden, such as that he was armed and was killed in a firefight, were false, which makes his killing highly problematical. Other lies were that he used his wife as a shield and that he lived in luxury in a palatial mansion. No doubt this was part of a propaganda effort to discredit bin Laden in the eyes of his admirers by portraying him as a soft and cowardly hypocrite, not a warrior. It turns out that though the compound was large, the house itself was modest with not even air-conditioning, and much of the land was used to grow vegetables and keep chickens and a cow.

Another false story surrounded the photograph of Obama and his national security team staring intently at something. We were led to believe that they were watching a live feed of the raid on the bin Laden compound, perhaps even the shooting of bin Laden himself. Now that story has also been thrown into doubt since it has emerged that the feed went dead for about 25 minutes after the raid began. It turns out that even the photos that appeared in the next day's papers of Obama speaking to the nation were staged after he had actually finished speaking.

At this point, all that I am willing to believe is that 80 commandos arrived in three helicopters of which one was destroyed, they killed bin Laden and two other people and wounded a woman, captured some computers and documents, and dumped his body into the ocean.

Attempted murder of Anwar al-Awlaki

For obvious reasons, it is generally considered a crime for any government to engage in extra-judicial killings, in effect executing people without giving them the benefit of a trial. The governments that are infamous for operating such death squads are looked upon as rogue regimes. There are some occasions where the killing may be justified, such as on a battlefield or someone who is violently resisting arrest. If such restrictions are removed, governments could (and would) send people around the world to kill anyone they perceive as an enemy. This is why the Obama administration created those lies in the immediate aftermath of the bin Laden killing, that he was armed and resisted arrest and that he died in a firefight.

But in the euphoria that followed the bin Laden killing, the country seems to want to ignore the potential illegality of the act and the Attorney General has even promulgated the extraordinary doctrine that his killing was an "act of national self defense", presumably to pre-empt any talk of illegality. In the Great and Glorious War on Terror, we have now given the US government the unilateral power to kill anyone it pleases and simply make up reasons why it is allowed to do so.

Those who raise concerns about such behavior are dismissed because it seems self-evident to many people that bin Laden deserved to die and they don't care how he died. But, as Noam Chomsky points out, there is a real danger in giving the government this kind of freedom to kill people with impunity because governments never have enough power and will use any event to further chip away at all the restraints on them. The Obama administration was quick to take advantage of this freedom. Just a few days later there are reports that the government tried to kill the Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen with a targeted missile strike that missed him but killed two other people.

It is important to realize why this is so serious and has to be vigorously protested. al-Awlaki is a US-born citizen who is not a soldier and was not even on a battlefield when the attempt to kill him was made, since the US is not at war with Yemen, at least not yet though with the number of wars expanding this may just be a matter of time. Furthermore, he has not been accused of committing any actual crime. What he is accused of is inciting other people to attack US government targets, which by itself is not a crime. If it were, any number of militia movements in the US would have all their members in jail. Furthermore, these are just accusations and have only been made by the government to the media. As far as I know, there have been no formal grand jury indictments against him.

So what we have now is a situation in which the government has simply asserted the right to declare a US citizen guilty by press release, and then kill him anywhere in the world even if he is not on a battlefield. It so happens that al-Awlaki was in Yemen when the attempt to murder him occurred but this is a technicality. If the government is allowed this extraordinary leeway, what is to prevent it killing US citizens even in the US? If this power is left unchecked, it means that no one is safe from summary execution by the agents of the US government.

There is no question that the Obama administration will use the support generated by its killing of bin Laden to expand its power even further and there is no telling where this process will end up. This is why Democratic administrations are so dangerous to basic liberties. So many of the people who would have vociferously protested this assault on the basic rule of law if Bush or any other Republican were in office are now nowhere to be found or are making excuses for these actions or even glorying in showing that Democratic presidents can also be 'tough'.

It is of course true that the US government has over its history ordered the killing of many people it considered inconvenient. The CIA has long been in the political assassination business. But the government knew that such actions were illegal and thus they were done covertly and officially denied. And there was always the remote possibility that someone could be held accountable for doing something illegal and this served as a check on more rampant abuses.

But that slim restraint been removed altogether and now government officials proudly announce their illegal attacks. Are we really willing to officially create rogue governments by giving them the right to murder you or me simply on the say so of some official in the government? The acid test is how we would react if a foreign government sent out death squads to the US to kill US citizens that it deemed as 'enemy combatants'. As Chomsky says, "We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic."

Glenn Greenwald has more on the al-Awlaki killing attempt.

May 08, 2011

Sarah Palin in India

After the last election when the interviews she gave to the media turned into debacles, Sarah Palin has avoided them, except for those where she knows she will get softball questions from friendly hosts on Fox News.

But on a recent trip to India to give a speech, she agreed to an interview with the Editor-in-Chief of India Today, perhaps not realizing that other countries also have real journalists. That interview did not go that well, either.

May 06, 2011

Sanitizing the truth about Guantanamo

Chris Floyd reports on how the New York Times buried those facts in the latest WikiLeaks release on Guantanamo to hide the details that were embarrassing to the US.

Almost as sickening as the atrocities themselves, however, is the way the release has been played in the New York Times, whose coverage of the document dump will set the tone for the American media and political establishments. The Times' take is almost wholly devoted to showing how evil and dangerous a handful of the hundreds of Gitmo detainees were, and to justifying Barack Obama's betrayal of his promises to close the concentration camp. We are treated to lurid tales (many if not most of them extracted under torture, but who cares about that?) of monsters seething with irrepressible hatred of America, and so maniacally devoted to jihad that they inject themselves with libido-deadening drugs to ward off any sexual distractions from their murderous agenda.

There is almost no mention in the Times coverage of the many innocent people -- including children -- who spent years in the concentration camp, athough the main story about the documents does note, in an eyeblink, the case of one prisoner who was falsely imprisoned on the word of an Afghan official trying to hide his own complicity with insurgents. (Damn treacherous furriners!)

He points out that the international press had no difficulty discerning the real story in the same dossier, as this except from the Guardian shows:

The US military dossiers, obtained by the New York Times and the Guardian, reveal how, alongside the so-called "worst of the worst", many prisoners were flown to the Guantánamo cages and held captive for years on the flimsiest grounds, or on the basis of lurid confessions extracted by maltreatment. The files depict a system often focused less on containing dangerous terrorists or enemy fighters, than on extracting intelligence.

Among inmates who proved harmless were an 89-year-old Afghan villager, suffering from senile dementia, and a 14-year-old boy who had been an innocent kidnap victim. The old man was transported to Cuba to interrogate him about "suspicious phone numbers" found in his compound. The 14-year-old was shipped out merely because of "his possible knowledge of Taliban...local leaders"

The documents also reveal ... Almost 100 of the inmates who passed through Guantánamo are listed by their captors as having had depressive or psychotic illnesses. Many went on hunger strike or attempted suicide.

The full Guardian dossier on this latest release also has an analysis by Julian Glover who says:

The leaked files published by the Guardian and the New York Times reveal horror that lies only partly in the physical things that were done to inmates – the desperate brutality of heated isolation cells, restraining straps and forced interrogation.

But what is given new prominence by these latest Guantánamo files is the cold, incompetent stupidity of the system: a system that tangled up the old and the young, the sick and the innocent. A system in which to say you were not a terrorist might be taken as evidence of your cunning.

It didn't work, much of the time. These files show that some of the information collected was garbage and that many of those held knew nothing that could be of use to the people demanding answers from them. Far from securing the fight against terror, the people running the camp faced an absurdist battle to educate a 14-year-old peasant boy kidnapped by an Afghan tribe and treat the dementia, depression and osteoarthritis of an 89-year-old man caught up in a raid on his son's house.

Other cases are just as pathetic. Jamal al-Harith, born Ronald Fiddler in Manchester in 1966, was imprisoned by the Taliban as a possible spy, after being found wandering through Afghanistan as a Muslim convert. In a movement of Kafkaesque horror the Americans held him in Camp X-Ray simply because he had been a prisoner of its enemy [My italics]. "He was expected to have knowledge of Taliban treatment of prisoners and interrogation tactics," the files record.

At times, I have feared that obsessing over the injustices of Guantánamo Bay has become a surrogate for a wider hatred of America. Read the files, and you'll realise that obsession is the only possible humane response.

I would have said that what happened and is still happening at Guantanamo should be the nation's everlasting shame, if I didn't feel that we had lost the capacity to feel shame.

May 05, 2011

The bin Laden photos

I don't understand what is driving those people who demand that the photos of the dead bin Laden be released, other than the need to satisfy some prurient interest or to gloat. It is not that photos of dead people should never be published. Publishing the images of war dead and wounded can play an important role in highlighting the tragic cost of wars. But bin Laden's photographs would serve no such a purpose. It would be more like publishing the photos of people executed for crimes or shot in gunfights and seems like a partial step backwards to the days of public executions to satisfy people's blood lust

While I am in general in favor of not keeping information secret, such information should have some public benefit. What benefit would be gained by releasing the photos? It will not serve as proof that bin Laden is dead because die-hard skeptics can claim that the photos are faked, just like some are claiming that Obama's birth certificate is a fake or that the moon landing was faked or that the Bush administration was behind the 9/11 attacks. They will then demand the release of the videos. There will never be definitive proof that will satisfy the skeptics and at some point you have to take the circumstantial evidence in support of a basic fact as conclusive, though one can legitimately have doubts about specific details.

I don't see any reason to doubt the claim that bin Laden was killed in this attack. I don't see any upside for the Obama administration to fake the news about the death and plenty of downside. So many people are involved that a lie could easily be revealed and blow up in their faces. Furthermore bin Laden had faded from the news a long time ago and the sense of urgency to capture him had dissipated to a low level of nagging dissatisfaction, so why create such a sensational falsehood?

I think it is very clear that the US government wanted bin Laden killed and not captured alive. The fact that he was unarmed and they were able to carry his dead body out along with computers and other stuff suggests that they could have easily overpowered him and taken him alive if they had really wanted to.

While he should have been given a fair trial, we seem to have gone long past the stage where people concern themselves with such quaint old-fashioned legal niceties and now live in an age of summary justice. While a captured bin Laden might have been a useful source of information, what to do with him would have been so problematic as to outweigh the benefits of treating him like a criminal. An open trial might have revealed embarrassing information about the former links between him and al Qaeda and the Taliban with the US and Pakistan. A secret trial or a kangaroo court comprised of a military tribunal followed by an execution would have been long drawn out and had negative implications. People in the US already get into hysterics about giving low-level Guantanamo detainees a trial in civilian courts or to even house them in prisons on the US mainland. Imagine their reaction if bin Laden were to be held in a US prison.

I think it is clear that the commandos had orders to kill him, although killing an unarmed person is a potentially illegal act, which is why Attorney General Eric Holder has conveniently come up with the novel doctrine that it was justifiable as an act of 'national self defense', whatever that is.

Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, said that they were not certain that bin Laden was in the house, which clarifies another mystery which was why they carried out a high risk operation like they did without simply sending in a drone to bomb the building. After all, it is not like the government worries that much about innocent civilians being killed in their air strikes.

If they had held on to the dead body, that would become a hot potato too. What could they do with it? Where could they bury it? If his family asked for it, how could they respond? Once they had possession of the body, they would have to find ways to get rid of it. Later summarily dumping it into the sea with the whole world watching would have been explosive. It was this reason, rather than any concern to follow Islamic customs, that I think led to the hurried burial at sea, so that the world was presented with a fait accompli.

I think the US government carried out the mission this way because they wanted to make sure that bin Laden was dead, that they had proof, and also did not want his body and funeral and grave to become political symbols. I think it is reasonable to conclude that the bare bones of the story, that the US government gave the order to kill bin Laden and bury his body at sea, is true. The release of the photos and videos will not add anything to it.

May 04, 2011

Not everybody reacted with cheering

Some people reacted to the death of bin Laden with hooting and cheering and raucous celebrations, as if this serious and somber event was like their home sports team winning a big game. But not everyone, even in New York City, responded this way.

I was not sure if this was a hoax video, in which a normal subway ride taken at some other time had had the voice added. It looked like the person doing the shouting had also taken the video and I was not sure why he would post a video that made him look foolish, unless he thought that the apathetic response of the people revealed the lack of patriotism of people living in the bicoastal areas who, as we are repeatedly told, are not 'real' Americans like those in the mythical 'heartland'.

It was the non-reaction of almost everyone in the subway car to someone shouting about anything that was surprising to me and made me suspect a possible hoax. If I had been there, I would have at least looked around to see who was making such a ruckus.

But I am not a New Yorker. Maybe this is how they react to anyone trying to get their attention in a public place.

May 03, 2011

So much for transparency

Remember the Obama campaign event in San Francisco is which a woman sang a song protesting Bradley Manning's treatment? It appears that the White House is miffed at the reporter who released the video and is threatening to exclude her newspaper the San Francisco Chronicle from future events.

Implications of bin Laden's death

Patrick Cockburn is one of the most knowledgeable and experienced reporters whose analyses of events in the Middle East I always take seriously. His analysis of what bin Laden represented while alive and what his death means is worth reading.

May 02, 2011

After bin Laden

When my daughter called me at 10:30 last night to say that Obama was going to make an announcement, I figured that it must be something the White House considered good news, since no politician rushes out late on Sunday night with bad news.

When it was leaked out soon after about the death of bin Laden, I felt a curious sense of anti-climax. I realized that it was because I had long felt that bin Laden was a spent force and had become just a symbol, to some a source of inspiration and to others a convenient specter with which to frighten people and continue wars and assault civil liberties. Both sides will find new reasons to continue their present course.

Although I would have liked to seen bin Laden arrested and brought to trial, I realize that I am a relic of a bygone era where the idea of summary justice and execution is seen as abhorrent. I had always considered the events of 9/11 a mass murder and not an act of war, and thus saw the problem as one for law enforcement and not as a military issue. But in the present climate in which even the thought of trying low-level captives in Guantanamo in regular courts seem to drive our political leaders into hysterics of fear, there was no possibility of bin Laden ever standing trial. So the reports that the commandos had been given orders to kill him and not even try to capture him and bring him to justice did not come as a surprise.

I did find the reports of raucous celebrations in Washington and New York to be unseemly. The death of anyone, however much we dislike them, is not an occasion for scenes similar to those following sporting victories. It reminded me of the gloating over the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons, with front-page displays of their bloodied corpses. I am certain that photos of the dead bin Laden were taken and it is only a matter of time before they are revealed as the speedy burial of his body at sea will undoubtedly create speculation, at least by the dead-enders who doubt Obama's eligibility to be president, that this whole event was a hoax staged by him for political gain. It would not surprise me in the least to hear this theory propounded in the days to come and that 27% of the public believes it.

Were the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of two countries to kill this one person worth it? Not to my mind. It struck me that the manner of bin Laden's death, the result of actions by a small commando unit on the basis of precise information obtained by intelligence agents as to his location, was something that did not require the massive death and destruction unleashed by a nearly decade-long war waged in two countries, coupled with the dismantling of centuries old constitutional safeguards protecting civil liberties at home.

May 01, 2011

Obama and Bradley Manning

The Watergate burglary that eventually caused the Nixon presidency to unravel was a relatively minor incident that became a symbol of his corruptness and disregard for the law. The Bradley Manning case may become a similar problem for Obama, something that dogs him everywhere, even though he has committed much worse actions that he should be held accountable for such as escalating wars and starting new ones, authorizing torture, indefinite imprisonment without trial, etc.

While we already know that Barack Obama is as imperialistic in his foreign policy as any president before him, Glenn Greenwald says that in the case of Bradley Manning he is now descending to Nixonian levels in his disregard to the niceties of domestic law.

The descent into barbarism accelerates

And so, just as was predicted, the US and its NATO allies have escalated the attacks and broadened the targets and have started murdering the family members of leaders it dislikes, even if it includes small children. Gadhafi's 29-year old son and his three children, all under 12 years of age, have been murdered by a NATO air strike that targeted the compound where they lived.

Of course, NATO justifies this as an attack on a "military structure" and part of the "command and control structure" of the military. Right. Small children routinely hang around in high-level military buildings during wars. Presumably the school for disabled children that was also bombed by NATO was being used to train those children for the military. Imagine the reaction if a foreign power bombed the White House and killed the Obama children. Would we excuse the action because the White House is also a "command and control structure"?

And NATO is outraged, simply outraged, that some of its embassies and the UN offices have been attacked in retaliation, saying that such actions were "deplorable' and "yet another breach of Gaddafi's international obligations." Such nasty people, these Libyans, not following proper diplomatic protocols.

Presumably these latest murders are meant to force Gadhali to leave office. Can anyone explain to me how this is any different from a hostage taking by thugs where someone is threatened with death to them or their loved ones unless they give in to the hostage takers' demands?

But I am sure there will be many people willing, even eager to take up my challenge. Juan Cole, who has become the biggest cheerleader for the Libyan war, has already started the process of excuse-making.

In the coming days we can expect to hear a lot from the bipartisan warmongering class and the Obamabots (who cannot believe that their beloved leader can do any wrong) to come up with all manner of imaginative and not-so-imaginative excuses (expect to hear a lot of Hitler analogies) to make this latest atrocity not just excusable but even admirable.

April 29, 2011

It's uncanny

A SurveyUSA poll finds that despite Obama releasing the so-called long-form birth certificate, "18% still have doubts and another 10% say the document released by the White House is a forgery."

The total number of skeptics add up almost exactly to the famous Crazification Factor number of 27%.

And there's more. According to the same survey "Both 27% who have seen the certificate and 27% who have not seen the certificate say the matter is still an open item for debate." In other words, the people in the Crazification world are totally impervious to evidence.

Donald Trump and the birthers

On his MSNBC show, Lawrence O'Donnell lashes out at the racism that motivates people like Donald Trump and others who question Obama's eligibility to be president (and even his academic record) and the media's complicity (particularly NBC) in allowing these crazies to have a platform.

It seems like quite a lot of people simply cannot stomach the fact that a non-white person with a foreign-sounding name could be the president of 'their' country.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Bernie Sanders on The Daily Show

The independent socialist senator from Vermont says what I have been saying for some time, except far more clearly and succinctly and without using the word oligarchy. It was clear to me that Sanders thinks that most Democrats are also representing oligarchic interests but since he caucuses with them, he pulls his punches slightly.

I am not sure if Jon Stewart really believes that the Democrats and Republicans are deep ideological enemies or whether he is just saying that to provide a foil for Sanders. The two-part extended interview is well worth watching in full.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Bernie Sanders Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

April 27, 2011

This will not end the nonsense

The release of Obama's 'Certificate of Live Birth' will not satisfy the birthers.

But it will be interesting to see what flaws they can come up with about this new document.

UPDATE: James Fallows gives the press the lashing it deserves for its role on this birther thing and should be the last word, but unfortunately it won't.

The vanishing of privacy

While I tend to be scathing about the general vacuity of the mainstream media in the US, there are a few reporters whose investigative work is excellent. One of them is Dana Priest of the Washington Post. I had been meaning to draw attention to her excellent series on the way that the government monitors people.

One key point that emerges from her story is that all you have to do is just one thing, however innocent and innocuous, that is deemed to be suspicious by any authority for you to be placed on a watch list that results in all your personal data and all your actions accumulated in the data banks for investigators to peruse.

Glenn Greenwald points out the dangers of this and the way that it contrasts with the government insisting that everything it does is secret.

That's the mindset of the U.S. Government: everything it does of any significance can and should be shielded from public view; anyone who shines light on what it does is an Enemy who must be destroyed; but nothing you do should be beyond its monitoring and storing eyes. And what's most remarkable about this -- though, given the full-scale bipartisan consensus over it, not surprising -- is how eagerly submissive much of the citizenry is to this imbalance. Many Americans plead with their Government in unison: we demand that you know everything about us but that you keep us ignorant about what you do and punish those who reveal it to us. Often, this kind of oppressive Surveillance State has to be forcibly imposed on a resistant citizenry, but much of the frightened American citizenry -- led by most transparency-hating media figures -- has been trained with an endless stream of fear-mongering to demand that they be subjected to more and more of it.

Of all the surveillance state abuses, one of the most egregious has to be the Government's warrantless, oversight-less seizure of the laptops and other electronic equipment of American citizens at the border, whereby they not only store the contents of those devices but sometimes keep the seized items indefinitely. That practice is becoming increasingly common, aimed at people who have done nothing more than dissent from government policy; I intend to have more on that soon. If American citizens don't object to the permanent seizure and copying of their laptops and cellphones without any warrants or judicial oversight, what would they ever object to?

Recent news reports reveal that Apple's iPhone and Google's Android phones track and record your every move even when the location detection option is turned off and to serve marketers.

All these developments have caused some alarm amongst privacy advocates but I suspect that most people will not care. After all, people now voluntarily give out their private information on social network sites, information that those sites can harvest and sell to marketers and pass on to governments. People seem to either take the attitude that if you are doing nothing wrong then you should have nothing to worry about or have resigned themselves to the idea that the government and private companies can gain access to information about our private lives to a degree that would have been unimaginable just a couple of decades ago.

Are we past the point of no return when it comes to personal privacy? I suspect so. We have to live with the fact that anything we do is in principle knowable by others.

Is there a real danger to this loss of privacy? Yes. In addition to enabling companies to try and manipulate us, there is an special danger from governments. What governments fear most is when people start sharing dangerous ideas about democracy and freedom and human rights and start organizing around those subversive concepts. Getting wind of those things early and neutralizing key people enables government to control its populations which is why historically governments have depended on informants and spies and detection devices to monitor their own people. What the new technology has done is enable this to be done more easily.

On the other hand, human ingenuity should not be underestimated. People will find ways to use the same technology to get around the snooping. WikiLeaks, for example, has pioneered ways of getting information out that was not possible before. Also the sheer volume of information that is transmitted suggests that it can drown the signals in massive noise, even with sophisticated packet sniffing software that can look for keywords. The catch with all those devices is that if you narrow the search fields you might miss things while if you broaden it you get swamped.

And finally, technology and force can only take you so far. When enough people are united around a common ideal and rise up in unison, even the most repressive and technologically advanced governments will fall.

April 26, 2011

The case for pacifism

Pacifism, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is "Belief in or advocacy of peaceful methods as feasible and desirable alternatives to war; (espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs. Also: advocacy of a peaceful policy or rejection of war in a particular instance."

We see that there are three meanings of the word in common usage. Most peaceful people would have no trouble agreeing with the first and third meanings. It is the middle one that requires the "espousal or advocacy of) a group of doctrines which reject war and every form of violent action as a means of solving disputes, esp. in international affairs" that causes problems, since it seems to reject the war option under all circumstances and it is not hard to conjure up a scenario in which war seems the least worst option.

While I hate war, I have never considered myself a pacifist. But Nicholas Baker in his article WHY I'M A PACIFIST in the May 2011 issue Harper's Magazine makes a compelling case for pacifism. In doing so, he tackles head-on the seemingly unanswerable argument that all pacifists are immediately confronted with: What would you have done about Hitler? He calls this assumption that going to war against Hitler was the correct thing to do a 'dangerous myth of the Good War', and that accepting this myth unquestioningly has enabled future wars.

Baker says that the objective fact that six million Jews were killed suggests that the war policies that were advocated failed in their mission of saving lives and should cause us to seriously reconsider whether other policies might not have saved them.

In fact, the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forward proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people. They weren't naïve, they weren't unrealistic—they were psychologically acute realists.

Who was in trouble in Europe? Jews were, of course. Hitler had, from the very beginning of his political career, fantasized publicly about killing Jews. They must go, he said, they must be wiped out—he said so in the 1920s, he said so in the 1930s, he said so throughout the war (when they were in fact being wiped out), and in his bunker in 1945, with a cyanide pill and a pistol in front of him, his hands shaking from Parkinson's, he closed his last will and testament with a final paranoid expostulation, condemning "the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry."

The Jews needed immigration visas, not Flying Fortresses. And who was doing their best to get them visas, as well as food, money, and hiding places? Pacifists were.

Baker's article looks at what pacifists were saying and doing in the run up to that war and describes the heroic efforts of a group of US and British pacifists who sought to save the Jews and avoid World War II.

Kaufman was one of a surprisingly vocal group of World War II pacifists—absolute pacifists, who were opposed to any war service. They weren't, all of them, against personal or familial self-defense, or against law enforcement. But they did hold that war was, in the words of the British pacifist and parliamentarian Arthur Ponsonby, "a monster born of hypocrisy, fed on falsehood, fattened on humbug, kept alive by superstition, directed to the death and torture of millions, succeeding in no high purpose, degrading to humanity, endangering civilization and bringing forth in its travail a hideous brood of strife, conflict and war, more war."

Pacifism at its best, said Arthur Ponsonby, is "intensely practical." Its primary object is the saving of life. To that overriding end, pacifists opposed the counterproductive barbarity of the Allied bombing campaign, and they offered positive proposals to save the Jews: create safe havens, call an armistice, negotiate a peace that would guarantee the passage of refugees. We should have tried. If the armistice plan failed, then it failed. We could always have resumed the battle. Not trying leaves us culpable.

Baker says that Hitler was basically using Jews as hostages to discourage US entry into the war. In any hostage situation, the prime objective must be to save the lives of the hostages and just as attacking a hostage taker usually results in the deaths of the hostages, the US entering World War II and the military options that were pursued sealed the fate of the Jews and effectively signed their death warrants.

The shift, Friedlander writes, came in late 1941, occasioned by the event that transformed a pan-European war into a world war: "the entry of the United States into the conflict." As Stackelberg puts it: "Although the 'Final Solution,' the decision to kill all the Jews under German control, was planned well in advance, its full implementation may have been delayed until the U.S. entered the war. Now the Jews under German control had lost their potential value as hostages."

In any case, on December 12, 1941, Hitler confirmed his intentions in a talk before Goebbels and other party leaders. In his diary, Goebbels later summarized the Führer's re- marks: "The world war is here. The annihilation of the Jews must be the necessary consequence."

Baker says it is easy to be seduced by the logic if war.

"We've got to fight Hitlerism" sounds good, because Hitler was so self-evidently horrible. But what fighting Hitlerism meant in practice was, largely, the five-year-long Churchillian experiment of undermining German "morale" by dropping magnesium fire- bombs and 2,000-pound blockbusters on various city centers. The firebombing killed and displaced a great many innocent people—including Jews in hiding—and obliterated entire neighborhoods. It was supposed to cause an anti-Nazi revolution, but it didn't.

What instead happened was that the massive bombing of Germany was blamed on the Jews who bore the brunt of the retaliation. In June of 1942 in the Warsaw ghetto, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote of the Germans "They are being defeated, their cities are being destroyed, so they take their revenge on the Jews" and added "Only a miracle can save us: a sudden end to the war, otherwise we are lost."

I was struck by how that failed policy of using bombing to undermine morale and create opposition to the government is still being pursued in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. What aerial bombing seems to do is either make the victimized population shell-shocked and dispirited or arouse anger against those doing the bombing and strengthen people's allegiance to their governments, rather than undermine it.

So the Holocaust continued, and the firebombing continued: two parallel, incommensurable, war-born leviathans of pointless malice that fed each other and could each have been stopped long before they were. The mills of God ground the cities of Europe to powder—very slowly—and then the top Nazis chewed their cyanide pills or were executed at Nuremberg. Sixty million people died all over the world so that Hitler, Himmler, and Goering could commit suicide? How utterly ridiculous and tragic.

When are we going to grasp the essential truth? War never works. It never has worked. It makes everything worse. Wars must be, as Jessie Hughan wrote in 1944, renounced, rejected, declared against, over and over, "as an ineffective and inhuman means to any end, however just." That, I would suggest, is the lesson that the pacifists of the Second World War have to teach us.

It is not easy being a pacifist when warmongering and bellicosity seem to rule the day. Baker's article is bound to result in hostile letters to the editor appearing in subsequent issues. The article is not available online (I believe) without a subscription. It is very tightly argued and the few short excerpts I gave here do not do it justice so I recommend that readers check it out for themselves.

April 25, 2011

Syrian crisis escalates

The situation in Syria seems to be getting seriously worse, with the government security forces killing large numbers of people attending demonstrations and even funerals.

This violence has led the US and UK governments to express 'concern' and when the US expresses concern about the actions of the government of an Arab country, one has to fear, given recent history, that bombing will soon follow. The warmongering editorial board of the Washington Post is already demanding that Obama take action in Syria, though not specifying its precise nature.

There is a considerable lobby in the US that seeks the overthrow all the governments in the region that are perceived as unfriendly to the US and Israel and make them into client states. Syria is not too friendly to the US but not too hostile either (it has been of use to the US in torturing people on its behalf) and it has no oil, making it not that desirable a target for attack. The Bahraini and Yemeni governments are also launching brutal attacks against their own people but they are seen as allies and that should forestall any attacks, or even harsh criticisms, against those countries.

Creating a client state in Iran is the prize that the warmongers really seek which is why the slightest indication of Iranian involvement in another country is trumpeted as a sign of its malign intentions. Saudi Arabia has actually sent troops to Bahrain to lethally quell the protests there without any remonstration from the US. But if Iran were to send in troops to aid (say) the Libyan government, all hell would break loose.

Another WikiLeaks scoop

Glenn Greenwald provides details on the latest revelations about Guantanamo and how the American press downplays the information that is unflattering to the US while the foreign media zeroes in on the truly awful things, such as "how oppressive is this American detention system, how unreliable the evidence is on which the accusations are based, and how so many people were put in cages for years without any justification."

Escalation in the 'not war' against Libya

The US, France, and Britain rushed the UN and NATO to intervene in Libya allegedly in order to prevent an imminent massacre of 100,000 people, although the evidence to back up this charge was slim and looks increasingly like an alarmist lie to get public support for starting a war in Libya, similar to the lie about Saddam Hussein's imminent nuclear weapons that was used to steamroll the US public into starting that war.

Recall that the initial intervention was supposed to be a "limited humanitarian intervention, not war" to prevent the use of the Libyan air forces from attacking civilians. Then the air war shifted to attacking the Libyan armed forces on the ground wherever they are. Then the British, French, and Italian governments announced that they were sending in 'advisors' to help the rebels. The US already has acknowledged that CIA operatives are already working in the country. Now NATO has bombed Gadhafi's compound. It should be obvious that preventing a massacre was just a pretext for the US to start a new war against yet another country.

The US has now ordered sending in Predator drones. It is important to realize that this is a non-trivial escalation. The drones have been used in Pakistan and Afghanistan for, among other things, targeted attacks on individuals (though they frequently go astray and kill civilians with the most recent incident occurring just yesterday that killed five women and four children) and one wonders who the targets are in Libya. The fact that the drone announcement came so soon after Gadhafi felt confident enough to jauntily ride around Tripoli waving to people while standing through the open sun-roof of a car suggests to me that the US might be targeting him or his close associates or even his family for summary execution. This would not be unprecedented. Recall that that in 1986 Reagan ordered the bombing of Gadhafi's compound, killing his daughter and injuring his sons.

NPR had discussions on this option last Friday morning and again in the evening and it was sickening to hear supposedly 'serious' people so casually discuss the possibility of the US government murdering people including foreign leaders, although they avoid the harsh but accurate words 'murder' or 'kill' and prefer the softer euphemism of 'take out', as if the victim was being invited to a baseball game or the zoo. It become perfectly acceptable for the US president to act like a gangland boss and order 'hits' on his enemies.

Maybe Obama thinks that since he got a Nobel Peace Prize after merely escalating an ongoing war in Afghanistan, he can get another one by actually starting a new war in Libya. Or maybe David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy think that they could get a Peace Prize too. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian wonders if the British Prime Minister realized what he was getting the UK into in Libya and sees parallels with the 1956 Suez debacle.

It looks like we are witnessing the beginning of a long-drawn out civil war in Libya with the involvement of the US, Britain, and France rising to meeting the increasing needs and demands of the anti-Gadhafi forces. This strange policy of using external forces to supposedly 'level the playing field' between warring factions in another country only ensures that the 'game' will never end and that people will continue to suffer. This is why I think the drones have been brought in, to kill Gadhafi or at least kill enough of his family and close associates to force him to leave or to create a coup. NATO can then declare victory and leave the people of Libya to sort through the mess left behind, making sure that the US controls the oil supplies of course.

While all this is going on, a lot of innocent people are going to get killed. The western forces intervening in Libya steadfastly deny any intention of sending in ground forces but I cannot see how that can be avoided if the current stalemate continues, as seems likely, and the drones do not succeed in quickly winning the civil war for the anti-Gadhafi forces. After all, the drones have been used extensively in Pakistan, killing large numbers of people, including civilians, with no decisive outcome.

One thing that drone attacks are good at doing is creating widespread anti-American sentiment. As Glenn Greenwald notes about its effects in Pakistan:

Can someone who defends these drone attacks please identify the purpose? Is the idea that we're going to keep dropping them until we kill all the "militants" in that area? We've been killing people in that area at a rapid clip for many, many years now, and we don't seem to be much closer to extinguishing them. How many more do we have to kill before the eradication is complete?

Beyond that, isn't it painfully obvious that however many "militants" we're killing, we're creating more and more all the time? How many family members, friends, neighbors and villagers of the "five children and four women" we just killed are now consumed with new levels of anti-American hatred? How many Pakistani adolescents who hear about these latest killings are now filled with an eagerness to become "militants"?

The NYT article dryly noted: "Friday's attack could further fuel antidrone sentiment among the Pakistani public"; really, it could? It's likely to fuel far more than mere "antidrone sentiment"; it's certain to fuel more anti-American hatred: the primary driver of anti-American Terrorism. Isn't that how you would react if a foreign country were sending flying robots over your town and continuously wiping out the lives of innocent women, children and men who are your fellow citizens? What conceivable rational purpose does this endless slaughter serve? Isn't it obvious that the stated goal of all of this – to reduce the threat of Terrorism – is subverted rather than promoted by these actions?

We seem to have this strange policy of denying that the goal of the Libyan not-war is 'regime change' while insisting that the not-war will continue until Gadhafi is removed from office. Both things cannot be true.

April 24, 2011

Making sense of Palinspeak

One of the curious features about Sarah Palin that invites considerable mockery is the way she expresses herself. What does one make of the following, uttered just before the 2008 election?

We realize that more and more Americans are starting to see the light there and understand the contrast. And we talk a lot about, OK, we're confident that we're going to win on Tuesday, so from there, the first 100 days, how are we going to kick in the plan that will get this economy back on the right track and really shore up the strategies that we need over in Iraq and Iran to win these wars?

Or this, referring to Hillary Clinton:

When I hear a statement like that coming from a woman candidate with any kind of perceived whine about that excess criticism, or maybe a sharper microscope put on her, I think, 'Man, that doesn't do us any good, women in politics, or women in general, trying to progress this country.'

John McWhorter takes a stab at trying to understand why Palin speaks the way she does. He is a linguist whose book The Power of Babel I have praised before. He used to be a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley but is now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and is someone whose politics are at the conservative end of the spectrum and so cannot be accused of simply attempting to take a partisan shot at Palin. He seems genuinely intrigued at the way her thought processes work.

Palin is given to meandering phraseology of a kind suggesting someone more commenting on impressions as they enter and leave her head rather than constructing insights about them.

Part of why Palin speaks the way she does is that she has grown up squarely within a period of American history when the old-fashioned sense of a speech as a carefully planned recitation, and public pronouncements as performative oratory, has been quite obsolete.

What truly distinguishes Palin's speech is its utter subjectivity: that is, she speaks very much from the inside of her head, as someone watching the issues from a considerable distance.

This reminds me of toddlers who speak from inside their own experience in a related way: they will come up to you and comment about something said by a neighbor you've never met, or recount to you the plot of an episode of a TV show they have no way of knowing you've ever heard of. Palin strings her words together as if she were doing it for herself — meanings float by, and she translates them into syntax in whatever way works, regardless of how other people making public statements do it.

Palinspeak is a flashlight panning over thoughts, rather than thoughts given light via considered expression.

The modern American typically relates warmly to the use of English to the extent that it summons the oral — "You betcha," "Yes we can!" -- while passing from indifference to discomfort to the extent that its use leans towards the stringent artifice of written language. As such, Sarah Palin can talk, basically, like a child and be lionized by a robust number of perfectly intelligent people as an avatar of American culture. And linguistically, let's face it: she is.

I think he's right. Palin is ignorant about a lot of things and arrogant in her ignorance but is not unduly stupid.

April 22, 2011

Bradley Manning protest

While Obama was giving a talk at a fund-raising event in California for his 2012 re-election campaign, one of the attendees interrupted him by taking off her jacket revealing a t-shirt that said "Free Bradley Manning" and singing a song denouncing his continued detention. It should be noted that this was not some hippie protestor but occurred at an event for wealthy campaign contributors who had paid up to $35,800 to attend.

According to a BBC report, witnesses said that Obama was 'visibly displeased' and the woman was escorted out of the room and two of her fellow protestors left with her. Poor man. It must be so annoying to be reminded of one's hypocrisy while dispensing campaign pieties and pretending to value high principles.

Although the government commits many violations of human rights that are even worse than what is happening to Manning, his treatment has become a potent symbol and I hope it dogs Obama wherever he goes.

The 27% Crazification Factor

The number of contenders courting publicity by publicly flirting with the idea of running for the Republican party's nomination for president seems to be growing exponentially, ranging from those who are crazy to those who are pretending to be crazy in order to attract the crazy base of the party, though it is hard to tell the difference between the two groups. Me, I am waiting for the King of Crazy, Alan Keyes, to throw his hat into the ring to indicate that the craziness has reached a critical mass and we are truly off and running.

Some observers are bemused that Donald Trump has been leading the other contenders in some polls and is able to garner support in the mid-20% range, purely on his crazy birther shtick. His performance does not surprise me in the least because we now have, thanks to Keyes, a benchmark that says that the craziest of candidates can get 27% of the population to vote for him or her. It is only when candidates crack the 27% mark that I start to take them seriously.

How did such a precise number of 27% become the standard for craziness? In 2005, the website Kung Fu Monkey identified what it called the Crazification Factor.

John: Hey, Bush is now at 37% approval. I feel much less like Kevin McCarthy screaming in traffic. But I wonder what his base is --

Tyrone: 27%.

John: ... you said that immediately, and with some authority.

Tyrone: Obama vs. Alan Keyes. Keyes was from out of state, so you can eliminate any established political base; both candidates were black, so you can factor out racism; and Keyes was plainly, obviously, completely crazy. Batshit crazy. Head-trauma crazy. But 27% of the population of Illinois voted for him. They put party identification, personal prejudice, whatever ahead of rational judgement. Hell, even like 5% of Democrats voted for him. That's crazy behaviour. I think you have to assume a 27% Crazification Factor in any population.

John: Objectively crazy or crazy vis-a-vis my own inertial reference frame for rational behaviour? I mean, are you creating the Theory of Special Crazification or General Crazification?

Tyrone: Hadn't thought about it. Let's split the difference. Half just have worldviews which lead them to disagree with what you consider rationality even though they arrive at their positions through rational means, and the other half are the core of the Crazification -- either genuinely crazy; or so woefully misinformed about how the world works, the bases for their decision making is so flawed they may as well be crazy.

John: You realize this leads to there being over 30 million crazy people in the US?

Tyrone: Does that seem wrong?

John: ... a bit low, actually.

Barack Obama has been extraordinarily lucky in having weak or nutty candidates as opponents in his major races. In his 2004 run for the US Senate seat in Illinois, his Republican opponent flamed out and quit after a sex scandal, and publicity-seeker Keyes, a Maryland resident and ever eager to enter a high-profile race, parachuted in as a replacement less than three months before the election, and ended up getting the above 27% of the vote. That's why the blogosphere has embraced the 27% figure as the potential support on any issue, however nutty.

Then Obama faced the ridiculous McCain-Palin ticket in the 2008 presidential race but they still managed to get 46%. This seems absurdly high when you consider the quality of the ticket but not when you consider that a Keyes-Trump ticket could pull in 27%.

Given that the Republican party has entangled itself in the overblown rhetoric they used to win sweeping congressional victories in 2010 and cannot seem to wriggle out, their eventual candidate who runs against Obama in 2012 will either be a complete nutter or someone who had to act like he or she was a nutter in the primaries in order to get the party's nomination, which then becomes an albatross during the general election and lead to another easy Obama victory.

Where have you gone, Alan Keyes? 27% of the nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

April 21, 2011

Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington

US photographer Chris Hondros, along with British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, were killed in Libya yesterday.

Hondros was the person who took the iconic photographs of what happened to an Iraqi family, especially a terrified little Iraqi girl, just after her parents were killed by US soldiers at a checkpoint in Tal Afar in 2005.

I cannot see that picture without the sickening brutality of war being brought home to me once again. I wrote about war and death and the impact such photos before.

Journalists like Hondros and Hetherington take great personal risks in order to remind us that was is not a video game but that real people, ordinary people, innocent people, suffer and die unnecessary deaths because of the ambitions and power lusts of a few.

And now they have become the latest statistic.

April 20, 2011

Bradley Manning update

Perhaps in response to the international criticism they have received for the harsh treatment of Bradley Manning, the government announced that he will be moved from the brig at the Marine corps base at Quantico, Virginia to a prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

How much his treatment will improve remains to be seen.

April 19, 2011

Debt ceiling kabuki


I predicted back in November after the elections that the debt ceiling would be raised because the oligarchy wants it. But the issue will be used as political theater in order to stick it even further to the poor and middle classes. That kabuki is now being played out. The opening act, as expected, is for the Republican Party to demand concessions (i.e., more cuts in funding for government services that do not benefit the oligarchy or the Pentagon) in return for raising the ceiling.

The US Chamber of Commerce, a major voice of the oligarchy, has said that it wants the debt ceiling to be raised and has warned the Republican party not to play games with this particular issue. The debt rating agency Standard and Poor's also got into the act and fired a warning shot across the bow, changing its outlook on the US credit rating to negative, signaling that they thought that going into default would be very bad for the US.

The oligarchy does not care about deficits or the debt but they do care about the government defaulting. While the oligarchy would like to get even richer, they are not stupid and may fear that the Republican party leadership has lost control and the party is now in the grip of the crazies that do not know how to play the game properly and actually believe their rhetoric about the deficit and thus may go too far and actually cause a default.

So if Obama wanted, he could simply demand that the ceiling be raised with no conditions attached because the oligarchy wants this and the Republican party leadership is subservient to them too. But instead, Obama has said he is willing to 'negotiate' with the Republicans and will undoubtedly give in to some of their 'demands'. This has been Obama's manner of operating, to carry out a charade in which he gets other people to act like they are twisting his arm so that he looks like he is being forced to do what he wanted to do all along.

The Democrats election season begins

You can always tell when the presidential election season begins in earnest for the Democrats. That's when they suddenly discover that the base of their support consists of the less well off in society. So after giving the oligarchy almost everything they want during the first part of their period in office, they suddenly start spouting progressive rhetoric.

Last Wednesday, Obama gave his own plan for cutting the deficit and pleased his base by seeming to discover that they were still around. He first attacked the spending on wars and the tax giveaways to the rich, conveniently downplaying his own complicity in both.

We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program – but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts – tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.

He also re-discovered his party's commitment to the promises of the Great Society and attacked the Republican party's plan to destroy Medicare and Medicaid.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that ten years from now, if you’re a 65 year old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck – you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone’s grandparents who wouldn’t be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves.

He gave a rousing promise to defend the social safety net, the way democrats always do when they are running for office.

I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.

That includes, by the way, our commitment to Social Security. While Social Security is not the cause of our deficit, it faces real long-term challenges in a country that is growing older. As I said in the State of the Union, both parties should work together now to strengthen Social Security for future generations. But we must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans’ guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

He also seemed to notice the governmental actions that have led to rapid increases in wealth and income inequality that have characterized the last three decades.

Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs?

There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. There’s nothing courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.

He once again invoked the Democrats favorite "They forced me into it!" ploy to excuse his own party's complicity in the process.

In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. And I refuse to renew them again.

Beyond that, the tax code is also loaded up with spending on things like itemized deductions. And while I agree with the goals of many of these deductions, like homeownership or charitable giving, we cannot ignore the fact that they provide millionaires an average tax break of $75,000 while doing nothing for the typical middle-class family that doesn’t itemize.

My budget calls for limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2% of Americans – a reform that would reduce the deficit by $320 billion over ten years.

He also offered some vague promises on cutting Pentagon spending. Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities says that Obama's plans for reducing the deficit using a ratio of two-thirds cuts in spending to a one-third rise in revenue is weighted too much on cuts and will cause real hardship.

The things that Obama didn't say tell us more about his priorities than the things he said. As many observers have noticed, the easiest way to significantly cut the deficit is to do nothing at all. Because then the Bush-Obama tax cuts would expire on December 31, 2012 and that would take care of most of the problem. But of course, Obama will ultimately give in to oligarchic demands to preserve those cuts. Rich people love their tax cuts.

When Obama agreed to a two-year extension on the Bush tax cuts in December 2010, I could not help but notice that the new deadline is just after the presidential election. Call me cynical, but my sense was that he would vigorously campaign against renewing the tax cuts but once safely re-elected would reverse course and go along with them and with cuts on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, saying regretfully that he was forced to do so by the mean old Republicans.

I would be really pleased to have my predictions proved wrong.

April 18, 2011

Paul Ryan, the oligarchy's errand boy

The class war by the oligarchy continues apace.

The recent budget deal that was struck by Obama and the Democrats with the Republicans to finalize the budget for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year lavished some more gifts to the oligarchy, cutting spending for science, education, health care, and the environment while defense spending got an increase of $5 billion.

Once that was out of the way Paul Ryan, the Republican congressperson from Wisconsin who is chair of the House budget committee, presented the Republican budget plan for the future, which was dutifully slobbered over by the elites in the media and business circles as 'serious, 'brave', and 'thoughtful' because it attacked the poor and the middle classes and gave even more to the oligarchy. In the bizarre world of elite media commentary, it has become the norm to be praised when you kick the powerless in the teeth and grovel before the wealthy.

Paul Krugman describes Ryan's plan as essentially a fraud.

Last week, Mr. Ryan unveiled his budget proposal, and the initial reaction of much of the punditocracy was best summed up (sarcastically) by the blogger John Cole: "The plan is bold! It is serious! It took courage! It re-frames the debate! The ball is in Obama's court! Very wonky! It is a game-changer! Did I mention it is serious?"

Then people who actually understand budget numbers went to work, and it became clear that the proposal wasn't serious at all. In fact, it was a sick joke. The only real things in it were savage cuts in aid to the needy and the uninsured, huge tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and Medicare privatization. All the alleged cost savings were pure fantasy.

Matt Taibbi also excoriated Ryan's proposal in his usual style.

Paul Ryan, the Republican Party's latest entrant in the seemingly endless series of young, prickish, over-coiffed, anal-retentive deficit Robespierres they've sent to the political center stage in the last decade or so, has come out with his new budget plan.

Republicans, quite smartly, recognize that there is great political hay to be made in the appearance of deficit reduction, and that white middle class voters will respond with overwhelming enthusiasm to any call for reductions in the "welfare state," a term which said voters will instantly associate with black welfare moms and Mexicans sneaking over the border to visit American emergency rooms.

The problem, of course, is that to actually make significant cuts in what is left of the "welfare state," one has to cut Medicare and Medicaid, programs overwhelmingly patronized by white people, and particularly white seniors. So when the time comes to actually pull the trigger on the proposed reductions, the whippersnappers are quietly removed from the stage and life goes on as usual, i.e. with massive deficit spending on defense, upper-class tax cuts, bailouts, corporate subsidies, and big handouts to Pharma and the insurance industries.

Like Krugman, Taibbi takes to task the media for their willingness to declare the Ryan's plan as 'bold', 'courageous' and 'daring', saying that "a huge part of the blame for the confusion and the national angst over our budget issues has to be laid at the feet of media a------- like [David] Brooks, who continually misrepresent what is actually happening with national spending."

Brooks then goes on to slobber over all of Ryan's ostensibly daring proposals, from the Medicare block grants to the more obnoxious Medicare voucher program (replacing Medicare benefits with vouchers to buy overpriced private insurance, which Brooks calls the government "giving you a sum of money" to choose from "a regulated menu of insurance options").

What he doesn't mention is that Ryan's proposal also includes dropping the top tax rate for rich people from 35 percent to 25 percent. All by itself, that one change means that the government would be collecting over $4 trillion less over the next ten years.

The last ten years or so have seen the government send massive amounts of money to people in the top tax brackets, mainly through two methods: huge tax cuts, and financial bailouts. The government has spent trillions of our national treasure bailing out Wall Street, which has resulted directly in enormous, record profit numbers – nearly $100 billion in the last three years (and that doesn't even count the tens of billions more in inflated compensation and bonuses that came more or less directly from government aid). Add to that the $700 billion or so the Obama tax cuts added to the national debt over the next two years, and we're looking at a trillion dollars of lost revenue in just a few years.

No matter what, Ryan's gambit, ultimately, is all about trying to get middle-class voters to swallow paying for tax cuts for rich people.

This cartoon by Tom Toles says it all.

toles04072011.jpg

April 17, 2011

Lessons from the IKEA story

Some of you may have heard about the dissatisfaction at the way that IKEA is treating workers at its US plant in Danville, Virginia. This was unexpected since the Swedish firm has a reputation as "a good employer and solid corporate citizen" back in its home country.

Workers complain of eliminated raises, a frenzied pace and mandatory overtime. Several said it's common to find out on Friday evening that they'll have to pull a weekend shift, with disciplinary action for those who can't or don't show up.

Some of the Virginia plant's 335 workers are trying to form a union. The International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said a majority of eligible employees had signed cards expressing interest.

In response, the factory — part of Ikea's manufacturing subsidiary, Swedwood — hired the law firm Jackson Lewis, which has made its reputation keeping unions out of companies.

The dust-up has garnered little attention in the U.S. But it's front-page news in Sweden, where much of the labor force is unionized and Ikea is a cherished institution. Per-Olaf Sjoo, the head of the Swedish union in Swedwood factories, said he was baffled by the friction in Danville. Ikea's code of conduct, known as IWAY, guarantees workers the right to organize and stipulates that all overtime be voluntary.

So why is it that a company that has a sterling reputation in Sweden transforms into an abusive employer when it operates in the US?

Laborers in Swedwood plants in Sweden produce bookcases and tables similar to those manufactured in Danville. The big difference is that the Europeans enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government-mandated five weeks of paid vacation. Full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days — eight of them on dates determined by the company.

What's more, as many as one-third of the workers at the Danville plant have been drawn from local temporary-staffing agencies. These workers receive even lower wages and no benefits, employees said.

Swedwood's Steen said the company is reducing the number of temps, but she acknowledged the pay gap between factories in Europe and the U.S. "That is related to the standard of living and general conditions in the different countries," Steen said.

Bill Street, who has tried to organize the Danville workers for the machinists union, said Ikea was taking advantage of the weaker protections afforded to U.S. workers.

"It's ironic that Ikea looks on the U.S. and Danville the way that most people in the U.S. look at Mexico," Street said. [My italics]

This should really come as no surprise. What keeps companies from abusing their workers is not some mystical corporate ethic or the benevolence of the bosses. That may be true in small businesses where there is a personal relationship between the owners and all the workers. In large businesses and corporations the workers are simply cogs in a machine or statistics in a spreadsheet and there the driving principle of is simple: maximize profits. That's it. And they will do whatever it takes to achieve that.

The only things that prevent abusive practices are strong unions coupled with strong laws that protect people and maintain national standards. As the US continues to eliminate those safeguards, its workers will be increasingly treated even worse and there will come a time when being treated like Mexican workers will be seen as the good old days.

April 13, 2011

Obama's intentions

Glenn Greenwald points out what I have been saying all along, that Obama's goals are not what his supporters think they are.

April 11, 2011

Glass houses and stones

I was wondering how long it would be before some country that is lectured on human rights by the US government would turn around and hurl its own abuses back at it. It would have to be a country that was independent enough of US influence. Well, it looks like China has taken the lead, in response to Hillary Clinton's criticism of human rights in China.

According to Reuter's "The United States is beset by violence, racism and torture and has no authority to condemn other governments' human rights problems, China said on Sunday, countering U.S. criticism of Beijing's crackdown." China also said that the US's advocacy of free information flow was contradicted by its efforts to shut down WikiLeaks.

Now that China has said it, how long before other countries justify their own abuses in a similar fashion? When one country denies human rights to people, it starts a downward spiral in which other countries justify their own abuses by saying "Why pick on us when they do it?"

Pressure builds on Obama over treatment of Bradley Manning

A long list of law academics, some of whom have been considered supporters of president Obama, have signed a letter strongly protesting the cruel treatment of Bradley Manning.

The existence of this letter was reported in the London Guardian:

The list of signatories includes Laurence Tribe, a Harvard professor who is considered to be America's foremost liberal authority on constitutional law. He taught constitutional law to Barack Obama and was a key backer of his 2008 presidential campaign.

Tribe joined the Obama administration last year as a legal adviser in the justice department, a post he held until three months ago.

He told the Guardian he signed the letter because Manning appeared to have been treated in a way that "is not only shameful but unconstitutional" as he awaits court martial in Quantico marine base in Virginia.

The intervention of Tribe and hundreds of other legal scholars is a huge embarrassment to Obama, who was a professor of constitutional law in Chicago. Obama made respect for the rule of law a cornerstone of his administration, promising when he first entered the White House in 2009 to end the excesses of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

I hope US news outlets pick up on this and publicize it widely.

How civilians get killed

We frequently get reports of how civilians, including women and children, get killed in air strikes by drones and other military aircraft. But why does this keep happening, when the technology is now supposed to be so advanced that people can be identified at long range? Surely you should be able to at least be able to make out children to alert you that you are not engaging fighters?

This article, based on military documents and transcripts of cockpit and radio conversations obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, describes in detail how one such tragedy came about. It shows the power of confirmation bias, how when you are determinedly looking for something, you interpret events as supporting your beliefs even if they do not.

April 07, 2011

Brutality in Bahrain

While attention is focused on Libya, the authorities in Bahrain, aided by Saudi Arabian forces, are brutally cracking down on demonstrators in that country, turning it into an 'island of fear'.

Joe Stork of the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the apparent police beatings featured in the latest pictures as "extremely disturbing".

"Bahrain is now a state where the police are acting with complete impunity. There is no accountability, not even an effort to cover up what is going on," said Mr Stork, HRW's Middle East and Bahraini expert.

Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition [NOAC]

This is a wonderful local organization that is trying to stop the US's endless wars around the world. You can get more information at its website or by phone at 216-736-4716 or email to noacinfo@aol.com.

They are having a demonstration to end US/NATO Military Strikes on Libya.

'Stop US/ NATO War on Libya' Demonstration - Come to the Rally and Judge for Yourself
Friday, April 8, 3-4:30 pm,
the Federal Bldg., Lakeside Ave. and East
9th St., downtown Cleveland

They are also taking people to a larger rally in NYC on April 9 but the bus is already full.

STOP THE WARS/BRING WAR DOLLARS HOME RALLY AND MARCH
New York City, Saturday, April 9th, 2011

The Cleveland bus is full. The rally and march couldn't come at a more urgent time with wars and occupations throughout the Middle East increasing and a US government shut-down looming at midnight, Friday.

As Congress dithers and hithers on a budget resolution to keep the government functioning, the "800 pound gorilla in the room" - actually $700+ billion gorilla of a military budget - continues to be ignored.

How's this for a plan to help balance the budget?
Shut Down the Wars and Occupations.
Shut Down US Military Bases.
Shut Down producing cold-war military weapons.
Shut Down funding military mercenaries abroad.

-----------------------------------

Contact Your Federal Elected Officials

As those who gather in New York City on Saturday send these and other anti-war/re-order our budget priorities messages, you can send a similar message wherever you are. On Friday and Saturday (it's fine to leave a message), call or email anyone of the following federal officials to express your views:

NAME / PHONE / FAX /
Sen Rob Portman (800) 205-6446 (216) 522-7097
Sen Sherrod Brown (216) 522-7272 (216) 522-2239
Rep Dennis Kucinich (216) 228-8850 (216) 228-6465
Rep Marcia Fudge (216) 522-4900 (216) 522-4908
Rep Steve LaTourette (440) 352-3939 (440) 352-3939
Rep Betty Sutton (330) 865-8450 (330) 865-8470
Rep Tim Ryan (330) 373-0074 (330) 373 0098
Rep James B. Renacci (330) 489-4414 (330) 493-9265

EMAIL
Emails can be sent thru forms
For US Senators
http://senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm
For US Representatives
https://writerep.house.gov/writerep/welcome.shtml

Thank you!

It's good to be the king

Barack Obama steadily accumulates king-like powers, an affinity for an imperial presidency that he deplored when Bush/Cheney displayed that trait in office.

PolitiFact finds that in the way he has gone to war against Libya, Obama has done the 'Full Flop', their term for an unambiguous 180-degree switch from what he said as a candidate, which was that, "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

But that is not the only 'Full Flop' by Obama. As a candidate he advocated strong transparency and praised whistleblowers as important in preventing waste, abuse, and inefficiency and promised them greater protections. As president, he now attacks whistleblowers and journalists with a passion that exceeds even Bush/Cheney. The mainstream media did not seem to care as long as the targeted whistleblowers were merely government employees. Now that the ever-deferential New York Times is also being targeted, it will be interesting to see how they respond.

Glenn Greenwald talks about how Obama is now even attacking our Miranda rights. But everything is sunny in Obama Land where he can do no wrong and his reputation as a constitutional scholar remains unsullied.

[T]he good thing about being Barack Obama is that you're justified in what you do even when you first do X and then do Not X.

Thus, when you argue that wars need Congressional approval, you're standing up for the Constitution; when you start a war without Congressional approval, you're a humanitarian. When you announce you will release torture photos in the government's possession, you're a stalwart defender of transparency; when you change your mind two weeks later and announce you'll conceal those photos, you're standing up for The Troops. When you give Miranda warnings to Terrorism suspects, you're honoring the Rule of Law and protecting American values; when you turn around and deny those very same rights, you're showing your devotion to Keeping us Safe.

Barack Obama must be channeling Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI in the film The History of the World, Part 1 who did anything he wanted without suffering any consequence, all the while saying, "It's good to be the king."

Obama is enabled in this by the amount of deference he receives from his followers, which is similar to what Bush/Cheney received from their fans. For example, Kevin Drum is a blogger at Mother Jones who can be labeled a centrist. He recently wrote about his concerns about Obama's decision to attack Libya:

So what should I think about this? If it had been my call, I wouldn't have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I'd literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he's smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust his judgment, and I still do.

This is quite extraordinary. It is one thing to say that when someone whose judgment you respect disagrees with you, it gives you pause. That pause presumably makes you investigate further until you can justify your prior judgment or learn something new that changes your view. It is quite another to say that you would simply take that judgment over your own when you disagree.

One could also say that on an issue which one has no expertise to evaluate and arrive at a reasonably informed judgment because of the technical knowledge involved (say climate change or details of evolutionary theory or cosmology or monetary policy), one goes with the judgment of people whom one trusts to have the required expertise and judgment.

But that is not the case with Libya, which involves principles and policies that can and should be publicly articulated as part of the process of persuading the Congress and the nation that going to war is justified, unless one thinks that Obama has reasons that he cannot divulge to the country. But then we are entering "We have secret information that Saddam Hussein has WMD" territory and we know how that ends up.

James Madison got it right when he said, "I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedoms of the people by gradual and silent encroachment of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations."

April 06, 2011

Cowardice

The Obama Department of Justice has announced that it is giving up on the original plan to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged leader of the 9/11 plot, in a regular court in New York City and will instead use a military tribunal in Guantanamo. This is shameful. As Glenn Greenwald says:

Indeed, as I've documented before -- virtually every country that suffers horrible Terrorist attacks -- Britain, Spain, India, Indonesia -- tries the accused perpetrators in its regular court system, on their own soil, usually in the city that was attacked. The U.S. -- Land of the Free and Home of the Brave -- stands alone in being too afraid to do so.

Related to that: the notion that political opinion in America would not allow Obama to do anything differently on these issues is empirically disproven; he ran on a platform of opposing all the measures he now supports and won decisively. By itself, that proves that -- when these debates are engaged rather than conceded -- these positions are politically sustainable. Obama adopts Bush Terrorism policies because he wants to and has no reason not to -- not because doing so is a political necessity.

Finally -- and as is usually true for this excuse -- the notion that "Congress made him do it" is totally false: aside from the fact that the Obama administration long ago announced that it would retain the military commission system, the White House -- long before Congress acted to ban transfers of detainees to the U.S. -- removed decision-making power from the DOJ in the KSM case and made clear it would likely reverse Holder's decision.

[UPDATE: Dahlia Lithwick also excoriates the Obama administration on its reversal.]

Elsewhere, Jason Ditz recounts the history of excuses on not closing Guantanamo.

April 04, 2011

The US-Saudi Arabia deal on Libya and Bahrain

Things are never quite what they seem on the surface when it comes to international affairs. Pepe Escobar writing in the Asia Times describes what went on behind the scenes prior to the Arab League resolution on Libya.

Fighting back against oligarchic greed

On Wednesday, April 5 from 2:00-3:30 (Eastern time) there will be a live video stream of Fight Back USA! a national teach-in on "Austerity, Debt, Corporate Greed (and what YOU can do about it)."

197 campuses are participating but for some reason my own is not on the list as yet.

The rise of racism and religion in Israel

Israel has a long history of awful treatment of the Palestinians, treating them in a way that has been compared to the apartheid system used by the white minority in South Africa to oppress the blacks. But Israel has got even worse in recent days. Ran Ha Cohen describes the rise of outright racism in Israel. Israeli police are even reported to be illegally arresting arrest five-year old Palestinian children.

The occupation of Palestinian is becoming so ugly that New Yorker editor David Remnick calls for it to end and has led even strong supporters of Israel like Jeffrey Goldberg (who has served in the Israel Defense Forces) to speculate that Israel could soon no longer claim the label of being democratic. Ilan Pappé, a professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter in the UK and director of the university's European Centre for Palestine Studies, goes further and says:

Israel is definitely not a democracy. A country that occupies another people for more than 40 years and disallow them the most elementary civic and human rights cannot be a democracy. A country that pursues a discriminatory policy against a fifth of its Palestinian citizens inside the 67 borders cannot be a democracy. In fact Israel is, what we use to call in political science a herrenvolk democracy, its democracy only for the masters. The fact that you allow people to participate in the formal side of democracy, namely to vote or to be elected, is useless and meaningless if you don't give them any share in the common good or in the common resources of the State, or if you discriminate against them despite the fact that you allow them to participate in the elections. On almost every level from official legislation through governmental practices, and social and cultural attitudes, Israel is only a democracy for one group, one ethnic group, that given the space that Israel now controls, is not even a majority group anymore, so I think that you'll find it very hard to use any known definition of democracy which will be applicable for the Israeli case.

The growth of outright racist views often voiced by rabbis, and its tolerance by the Israeli government and higher echelons of society, is causing some concern within that country amongst people who fear the emergence of a theocracy: "Hundreds of rabbis sign a manifesto prohibiting Jews from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews, yet no response is heard from the justice minister. The chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliahu, continuously incites and no criminal or disciplinary procedures were commenced against him."

As Juan Cole points out, the racism in Israel is already quite overt as can be seen in the restrictions on interfaith marriage.

Israel, like Lebanon and some Muslim countries, for the most part makes no provision for civil marriage, requiring individuals to marry within the religious law of their sect. Israel’s rabbinate opposes civil marriage in part out of fear it would encourage inter-faith marriage. At the moment, couples of different faith heritages in Israel must go to Cyprus or elsewhere abroad to marry, and have the marriage recognized on their return. Such a marriage cannot be performed in Israel itself.

It is no secret that Israel, and its lobby in the US, have been urging a military attack on Iran. US leaders routinely threaten Iran with the possibility of a nuclear attack by saying that 'the nuclear option is not off the table'. Israel makes sure everyone is aware that it can and will attack Iran at a moment's notice if given the green light by the US, and both countries have repeatedly and recently invaded other countries in that region. And yet it is Iran, which has not attacked any neighbor for over a millennium, that is portrayed in the media here as the dangerous extremist nation, while the US and Israel are the 'moderates'.

I have been puzzled by Israel's preoccupation with Iran since the leaders of Iran are not stupid and are not likely to use any nuclear weapons it manufactures because of certain and overwhelming retaliation. It seems pretty obvious to me that if they seek nuclear weapons at all, it is as a deterrent to attacks on them by the US and Israel. I am more fearful of the Israeli or US governments using nuclear weapons because they refuse to deny that they are willing to use them (and the US has used them in the past) and there is no deterrence to their use.

Juan Cole provides a possible explanation for Israel's preoccupation with Iran, based on cables released by WikiLeaks. Apparently Israel is concerned that the rate of immigration is slowing down and that its demographic edge over the native Arab population might soon disappear.

The Jewish Agency, which was created to promote the immigration to Israel of Jews all over the world, has conceded that the era of mass immigration by Jews is over. This peaked in the 1990s when hundreds of thousands of Jews -- and many non-Jews -- flooded into the country after the Soviet Union collapsed.

This year, the Jewish Agency expects around 18,000 Jews to move to Israel from the United States and elsewhere and the number is likely to dwindle.

Israel's demographic makeup has undergone dramatic change in recent years. Out of a population of around 7 million, one-fifth are Palestinian Arabs. Another large minority is made up of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are non-Jews as defined by Jewish religious law, or Halaka.

The rise in power of right-wing orthodox Jewish religious groups and their attempts to impose their absurdly restrictive lifestyle on the still significantly large secular population is causing tensions within the country. What is happening is that the new immigrants from Russia and the former Eastern bloc countries seem to be more anti-Arab, pro-settlement, and hard line nationalists. The Israeli government may be fearful that if Iran did manage to produce nuclear weapons, then its Jewish population that has been made so fearful of Iran would emigrate in even larger numbers, worsening the demographic problem. The government's own polling says that one-third of Israelis would emigrate if Iran developed a nuclear weapon. The people who are most likely to leave are the more secular modernist elements, leaving the country even more firmly in the grip of its religious extremists. If this happens it will result in an Israel that looks like the Jewish equivalent of mullah-dominated Islamist states in which the religious nutters impose their crazy rules on everyone, whether they are believers or not. One Israeli Minister warns that Israel is already turning into Iran.

Whenever religion gains influence over a government, the results are bad. Religion is a menace and we would all be better off without it.

April 01, 2011

Presidential letter to his successor

There is a legend that each outgoing president writes a letter to the person succeeding him and on his last day in office leaves it in the desk in the Oval Office for the new president to read. The contents of the letters are not revealed but based on the pattern of history, I think I have figured out what it says.

It consists of a single sentence: "Bomb another country."

March 31, 2011

The Imperial Presidency marches on

Glenn Greenwald discusses how the doctrine that the president is unconstrained by either the Constitution or the Congress is being advanced even more vigorously, that "the Obama administration is arrogating unto the President the unilateral, unrestrained right to start wars in all circumstances, whether or not the U.S. is attacked." And Obama's defenders are using the same arguments they criticized when Bush's defenders used them when he similarly ignored the constitution.

Greenwald adds:

Then there's the notion that Presidents in the past have started similar wars without Congressional approval. That's certainly true, but so what? The fact that an act is commonplace isn't a defense or justification. That "defense" was also a common refrain of Bush followers to justify their leader's chronic unconstitutional acts and other forms of law-breaking: Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and FDR interned Japanese-Americans, so why are you upset that Bush is acting outside the law? The pervasiveness of this form of thought underscores the dangers of learned acquiescence: once a government engages long enough or pervasively enough in a certain form of criminality or corruption, the citizenry is trained to accept it and collectively ceases to resist it, even learns to embrace it. What Obama is doing in Libya is either lawful or it isn't on its own terms; whether other Presidents in the past have acted similarly (and they have) is irrelevant.

One's views on the desirability of the Libya war have absolutely nothing to do with whether Obama has acted legally and/or whether his theories of presidential power are valid. This, too, should have been decisively settled during the Bush years, when Bush followers invariably argued that Bush was justified in eavesdropping without warrants or torturing because of the good outcomes it produced (Keeping Us Safe) -- as though Presidents have the power to violate laws or transgress Constitutional limits provided they can prove that doing so produces good results. The one and only safeguard against tyranny is that political leaders are subjected to the constraints of the Constitution and law (we're a nation of laws or a nation of men, said Adams: you must choose). To argue that you're supportive of or indifferent to lawless acts because of the good results they produce is simply another way of yearning for a benevolent tyrant (and is another way of replicating the mindset of the Bush follower).

Ayn Rand the moocher

Ayn Rand is a current favorite among the oligarchy and its serf-like tea party followers since she saw successful people as achieving things entirely on their own with no help from others or society, opposed all taxes as stealing by the government, called for the elimination of all government redistributive efforts, and attacked as weak those who need governments and others to help them in times of need. She called them 'looters' and 'moochers'. The Randians are at the forefront of cutting government programs that do not benefit the oligarchy.

But a recent report reveals that Rand herself was a hypocrite. When she became ill with lung cancer late in life, she applied for and obtained social security and Medicare benefits under a different name name. It should not be surprising that she was a hypocrite and sought out government help when she needed it. They are all like that. Look at the way Wall Street rushed to the government for assistance when the financial system tanked. They only oppose government helping those who are not part of the oligarchy.

I have read only one of Rand's books, The Fountainhead. I am aware that her magnum opus is Atlas Shrugged and it forms the basis for the Galtian fantasies of the oligarchy, but The Fountainhead was such an awful book that I have little stomach to read any other work by her, especially since they are so long. It was not only the politics of the book that I found objectionable but mainly her writing style which consists of characters who have no depth and are merely types, existing mainly to take positions and make speeches that advance her philosophy. Subtlety is not her strong suit.

Mission creep in Libya

We are witnessing the inevitable mission creep in Libya.

The original stated goal was to create a no-fly zone supposedly to prevent the Libyan government using their air power to attack innocent civilians. That quickly changed into destroying the Libyan air forces even while they were on the ground. Then the US-led NATO air attacks started targeting those Libyan forces that were fighting rebel forces and threatening to push them back. Then the air attacks started hitting those Libyan forces that were away from the fighting, even those in their barracks.

Now the air attacks are supposedly targeting munitions stores. We are also told that CIA operatives have been in Libya for several weeks already meeting with rebel forces and that Obama has authorized covert support for Libyan rebels, which likely means including supplying arms. This escalation in involvement has happened remarkably rapidly.

So what is going on? Obama says that Gaddafi must go but that regime change is not part of the mission. Taken at face value, what we seem to be seeing is the US acting as the de facto air force of the Libyan rebels, and slowly increasing its contribution to the war effort to balance ay success by Gaddafi's forces. In other words, the goal seems to be to create either a stalemate or marginally tilt the balance in favor of the rebels.

What is the point of this? After all, a protracted civil war causes immense pain for ordinary people and results in the destruction of a country's infrastructure, causing long term hardships.

And what if Gaddafi stays in power and his forces can withstand the current NATO campaign? The US is far too deep into the conflict now to allow that to happen. So expect to see the next stage of ratcheting up, with bombings of supposedly military targets in cities as a sign to the Libyan people who still support him that his government is incapable of protecting them and thus pressuring them into rising up against him and join the rebel forces. Then we will begin to receive the inevitable reports of a hospital or a school or a mosque or marketplace being hit, resulting in civilian casualties, which will of course be regretted as unfortunate 'collateral damage'.

So we will end up with civilians killed, the very thing that the US action was supposed to prevent. No doubt the dead and their families will be pleased that they were killed by a 'humanitarian' military force rather than by their own government.

And that will set the stage for the final step, sending in US troops or surrogates from other countries or mercenaries.

Russian Television tallies the real cost of America's many wars.

The oligarchy's war on the rest of us

The Daily Show points out that even paying no taxes at all is not enough for the oligarchy.

Stephen Colbert reports on the attacks on working people by state governments. The state governments want to roll back all the benefits and protections that labor unions have given us, and allow employers to have unfettered power over their employees. Collective bargaining has been the way that individuals who have no economic or political clout could gain some bargaining power.

Michael Moore on The Colbert Report points out that just 400 people in America have more wealth than 150 million. And that is still not enough for them. They want to have as much as 250 million and are aided in their greed by the federal and state governments that they have bought, and the dupes amongst the tea party crowd who have no idea that they are being used as fodder for the further enrichment of the oligarchy and will be tossed aside as soon as they have served their purpose.

The country has long been engaged in a one-sided class war that has been waged by the oligarchy on the rest of us. Now people are beginning to fight back as the nakedness of the greed and power grab becomes apparent.

March 29, 2011

Is the president a lousy negotiator?

Paul Krugman is a politically savvy man so it surprises me that even he thinks that the reason that the Republicans and the oligarchy are getting their own way so easily on fiscal issues is because Obama is a lousy negotiator.

As I have said over and over again, the Democrats negotiating strategy is to betray the middle and working classes that support them and give the oligarchy as much as they can while acting as if they were forced into it or were outmaneuvered. Since even people like Krugman and other liberal commentators seem to have bought it, it means that they have succeeded.

The Democrats behavior is perfectly understandable if you bear this simple rule in mind: When it comes to any policy that the Democrats say they espouse but which hurts the interests of the oligarchy, the Democrats do not want a strategy that will win, they seek one that will lose.

March 28, 2011

The incredible whininess of the oligarchy

Glenn Greenwald has another excellent piece on how the US oligarchs, as represented by the Koch brothers, are so greedy as to be delusional, seeing themselves as the oppressed ones, fighting against a President Obama who in their eyes is a 'dedicated egalitarian' who has 'internalized Marxist models' and is 'the most radical president we've ever had as a nation' because he has had 'antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life'.

Greenewald contrasts this with the reality:

Since Obama was inaugurated, the Dow Jones has increased more than 50% -- from 8,000 to more than 12,000; the wealthiest recieved a massive tax cut; the top marginal tax rate was three times less than during the Eisenhower years and substantially lower than during the Reagan years; income and wealth inequality are so vast and rising that it is easily at Third World levels; meanwhile, "the share of U.S. taxes paid by corporations has fallen from 30 percent of federal revenue in the 1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009." During this same time period, the unemployment rate has increased from 7.7% to 8.9%; millions of Americans have had their homes foreclosed; and the number of Americans living below the poverty line increased by many millions, the largest number since the statistic has been recorded. Can you smell Obama's radical egalitarianism and Marxist anti-business hatred yet?

Then there are those whom Obama has empowered. His first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is a business-revering corporatist who made close to $20 million in 3 short years as an investment banker, while his second, Bill Daley, served for years as JP Morgan's Midwest Chairman. His Treasury Secretary is undoubtedly the most loyal and dedicated servant Wall Street has ever had in that position, while Goldman Sachs officials occupy so many key positions in his administration that a former IMF and Salomon Brothers executive condemned what he called "Goldman Sachs's seeming lock on high-level U.S. Treasury jobs." Obama's former OMB Director recently left to take a multi-million-dollar position with Citigroup. From the start, Obama's economic policies were shaped by the Wall Street-revering neo-liberal Rubinites who did so much to serve corporate America during the Clinton years. Meanwhile, the President's choice to head his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness -- General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt -- heads a corporation that "despite $14.2 billion in worldwide profits - including more than $5 billion from U.S. operations – [] did not owe taxes in 2010": an appointment the White House still defends.

Yes, these are definitely the actions of a doctrinaire egalitarian determined to destroy the capitalist system in the US and usher in a Marxist dictatorship.

March 27, 2011

The oligarchy never has enough

This scene from the 1987 film Wall Street captures perfectly the attitude of the oligarchy towards the rest of us. It is their insatiable greed that will be their downfall.

March 25, 2011

The war on public schools

The way that teachers and unions were attacked in Wisconsin and Ohio was really a covert attack on public schools in particular and the public sector in particular. The war against public schools is now becoming more overt:

Texas Congressman Ron Paul told the crowd government wants "absolute control" of the "indoctrination" of children. Paul spoke along with Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Georgia businessman Herman Cain.

"The public school system now is a propaganda machine," Paul said, prompting applause from the crowd of hundreds of home schooling families. "They start with our kids even in kindergarten, teaching them about family values, sexual education, gun rights, environmentalism - and they condition them to believe in so much which is totally un-American."

Really? Children in public schools are indoctrinated to be anti-American?

Steve Benen points out other examples, including Rick Santorum:

And campaigning in New Hampshire, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who's homeschooled his seven kids, wasn't subtle about his disdain for the American institution.

...Santorum took a swipe at public schools. "Just call them what they are. Public schools? That's a nice way of putting it. These are government-run schools," he said.

Santorum added that the Head Start program is a Democratic conspiracy to bring "more children out of the household" in order to brainwash and "socialize" them.

As Benen notes, "By most modern standards, these are the kind of remarks that would bring a presidential campaign to a humiliating end, but by today's GOP standards, it's just Tuesday."

As I have repeatedly said, the oligarchy seeks to destroy any sense of collective obligation and responsibility and make the US a land of individuals grabbing as much for themselves as they can. We are truly living in crazy times.

March 24, 2011

Bradley Manning demonstration

Here is a news report on the demonstration that took place last Sunday at Quantico base in Virginia to support Bradley Manning that ended in some arrests.

The road to ruin

The current war on Libya was sanctioned by United Nations Security Council resolution #1973 that was passed on March 17 and authorized "all necessary measures … to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya." It should be noted that the resolution expressly excludes "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory" which means that another resolution will be required if bombing alone does not result in the removal of Gadhafi from power and they want to send troops in.

The resolution passed with ten votes in favor and five abstentions. It is noteworthy that apart from Germany, the other four abstentions consisted of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, countries that constitute the newly formed so-called BRIC bloc, that is emerging as an economic counterweight to the US and Europe.

Immediately after the vote both Russia and China issued very critical statements on the bombing campaign. Since either of them could have vetoed the resolution, it seems highly hypocritical for them to complain now since they had to have known what was coming. (Even if they had vetoed it, the US, Britain, and France would have found some other pretext for bombing, but that is not the point at issue here.)

So why didn't China and Russia veto the UN resolution? I wonder if they want to lure the US and its NATO allies into these wars so that they will simply bleed themselves dry by one misbegotten military adventure after another. Russia, in particular, learned this painful lesson first hand when the US lured them into a long, costly, tragic, and ultimately losing war in Afghanistan. Maybe this is their revenge.

Stephen Walt discusses how the neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the US, supposedly on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, are actually very similar when it comes to taking the country to war.

The only important intellectual difference between neoconservatives and liberal interventionists is that the former have disdain for international institutions (which they see as constraints on U.S. power), and the latter see them as a useful way to legitimate American dominance… So if you're baffled by how Mr. "Change You Can Believe In" morphed into Mr. "More of the Same," you shouldn't really be surprised. George Bush left in disgrace and Barack Obama took his place, but he brought with him a group of foreign policy advisors whose basic world views were not that different from the people they were replacing.

Libya is another example of how we really have just one pro-war/pro-business oligarchy that rules the country.

Walt also wonders if whether China may not be the ultimate beneficiary of the Libyan war, saying "And who's the big winner here? Back in Beijing, China's leaders must be smiling as they watch Washington walk open-eyed into another potential quagmire."

It might seem to a naïve or conspiracy minded observer that there is some plan being implemented, aided by the political leadership, to deliberately drive America into the ditch. Look at all the efforts currently underway to defund the government and thus destroy public services so that libraries cut back, regulatory agencies are made toothless, public schools are undermined, workers are impoverished, retirement funds are looted, national parks are destroyed by development, logging and mining, roads and bridges fall apart, police and fire protections and other social services are reduced or eliminated, all the while waging more and more wars on other countries that not only cost a lot but breed anger and resentment against the US.

Of course, such an explicit plan is unlikely and is unneeded. All these things are happening as a logical consequence of an oligarchy run amok that seeks only to advance its immediate short-term interests by cutting taxes on the wealthy and eliminating any form of government oversight and restraint and doesn't give a damn about anything else. When coupled with outside forces that seek to draw the US into expensive overseas military adventures and overblown internal security measures (these are, after all, the stated goals of al Qaeda), we are well on the path to the implosion of a once powerful country.

March 23, 2011

Truth or Treason: Panel discussion on WikiLeaks

I will be on a panel discussing WikiLeaks on Thursday, March 24 at 5:30 pm in Nord 310 on the Case quad of the CWRU campus. The other panelists will be Laura Tartakoff and Pete Moore from the Political Science department.

The event is organized by the CWRU chapter of the Young Americans for Liberty and is free and open to the public. Pizza and drinks will be provided.

March 22, 2011

And now, another war

So now the US (along with the UK and France) is at war with Libya.

I find it incredible that the US goes so casually into war, as if bombing a country was just another foreign policy option. Now the government does not even go through the bother of making up lies to justify its actions of the kind that we were regaled with in the run up to the Iraq invasion, such as weapons of mass destruction, mushroom clouds, haven of terrorists, etc.

The US has used its superior airpower so routinely and frequently that in one sense what is happening in Libya not new. The list of countries that have been bombed by the US is long and growing longer by the day. (This is an old list and does not include Pakistan.)

Korea and China 1950-53 (Korean War)
Guatemala 1954
Indonesia 1958
Cuba 1959-1961
Guatemala 1960
Congo 1964
Laos 1964-73
Vietnam 1961-73
Cambodia 1969-70
Guatemala 1967-69
Grenada 1983
Lebanon 1983, 1984 (both Lebanese and Syrian targets)
Libya 1986
El Salvador 1980s
Nicaragua 1980s
Iran 1987
Panama 1989
Iraq 1991 (Persian Gulf War)
Kuwait 1991
Somalia 1993
Bosnia 1994, 1995
Sudan 1998
Afghanistan 1998
Yugoslavia 1999
Yemen 2002
Iraq 1991-2003 (US/UK on regular basis)
Iraq 2003-05
Afghanistan 2001-05

Because the US can use its air power with little risk of casualties, aerial bombardment has become the preferred option when the cry goes up to 'do something, anything' when some conflict arises somewhere but it is not at all clear what needs to be done or indeed if the US should do anything at all. This kind of war is loved by some liberals and Democrats who resent being seen as wimps. So they love it when they get a chance to launch so-called 'humanitarian wars' that involve just bombing, such as in the Balkans when Bill Clinton was president and now in Libya with Obama. These bombing campaigns seem to make the War Party elites giddy with pleasure as they see so-called 'smart bombs' attacking their own chosen 'bad guys'. NPR's Tom Gjelten is already gleefully talking about the heavy damage inflicted, living up his reputation as the correspondent from National Pentagon Radio.

What is slightly new is that in Libya the US has decided to intervene in a civil war. It has now seemingly decided that it can intervene in a civil war in a country if it does not like the way that war is progressing. But civil wars are always messy and who is in the right and who has legitimacy is rarely clear. What is the current intervention meant to achieve? It seems to have as its purpose to prevent Gadhafi's forces from retaking some of the cities held by the rebels, so the US has essentially sided with the rebels. But who are the rebels? What do they stand for other than being against Gadhafi? Or is that alone good enough to support them militarily? Suppose the air campaign does succeed in creating some sort of stalemate between the two sides. Then what? Surely the three western countries are now pretty much committed to removing Gadhafi from power and thus will be uncomfortable with a stalemate. There is an inexorable logic to these campaigns. They start out attacking military targets. Then when that fails to achieve the desired results, they target infrastructure such as power and water supplies. And when that fails they go for outright terror by hitting high visibility targets in urban areas. All these things ruin a country and produce huge numbers of deaths. (Josh Marshall shares some of my other concerns about the Libyan intervention.)

Let's not forget that Libya is a relatively prosperous country and has the highest Human Development Index of all the countries on the African continent. This index is a composite measure of wellbeing, especially child welfare, and is based on life expectancy, literacy, education, and standards of living. Will a sustained bombing campaign throw it into poverty? Remember that Iraq used to be one of the most developed countries in the Middle East before the sanctions and war took effect, making it impoverished.

The US has already come under charges of hypocrisy in attacking Libya while not doing anything about the parallel situations in Yemen and Bahrain. While the US and other countries bomb Libya because of its harsh response to an actual rebellion seeking to militarily overthrow the government, it ignores the killing of non-violent demonstrators in the streets of Yemen and Bahrain by those governments. Normally the mainstream media is so deferential to the US government that they never ask these kinds of embarrassing questions about why there are such obvious contradictions in its policy. And they can avoid doing so because the uncomfortable parallel usually occurred in the past and thus can be dumped conveniently into the memory hole. But in this case it was unavoidable because the rebellions in those other countries are going on at the same time. It is interesting to watch people who support the Libyan attacks try to avoid answering the question of why the two situations are treated so differently, even though Bahrain is using foreign troops (most from Saudi Arabia) to attack its own people.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has banned all demonstrations but that country is immune from any repercussions from the US for anything. After all, fifteen of the nineteen people directly responsible for the attacks of 9/11/2001 were from Saudi Arabia. If the fifteen had been from (say) Syria, that country would have been bombed the next day.

The real problem is that the constitutional requirement that only Congress can declare war is now completely ignored. The framers of the US constitution (Remember that document? Kept in the national archives? Supposed to protect the people from authoritarian rulers?) recognized that war was a deadly serious business and that going to war was not a decision to be made lightly. They were well aware that the Executive branch and the president would use wars to further their narrow and selfish goals if they could, so they gave the power (Article 1, Section 8) to declare war to Congress so that an exhaustive debate by the people's elected representatives would take place before such a momentous decision was made.

But the Executive branch has usurped that function on its way to creating an authoritarian state and the spineless Congress is only too willing to give up this prerogative since it enables them to avoid taking responsibility for making a decision and they can then waste their time on trivialities and carp from the sidelines about tactics.

March 18, 2011

The weird anti-intellectual climate in the US

You would think that on issues that should be politically neutral (like climate change and evolution) there would be tendency for the views of political liberals and conservatives to converge with increasing education as the essential facts and arguments become better understood. And in general, you would be right, except for the US. Here it seems that ideology trumps facts and reason.

March 17, 2011

More on the Ray Davis release

David Lindorff, who has been following this story closely, reports on the background to the deal that resulted in the acting CIA chief in Pakistan being freed.

The chances are slim to none that Davis will face any serious investigation in the US for his actions, despite assertions by US government officials to the contrary.

Obama's political expediency

It looks like Obama has stopped paying even lipservice to his ringing promise during his election campaign to close down Guantanamo. Glenn Greenwald points out that his excuse (repeated by many of his supporters) that the Congress forced him to back down is the kind of political sleight-of-hand that Obama is becoming increasingly good at.

It is true that Congress -- with the overwhelming support of both parties -- has enacted several measures making it much more difficult, indeed impossible, to transfer Guantanamo detainees into the U.S. But long before that ever happened, Obama made clear that he wanted to continue the twin defining pillars of the Bush detention regime: namely, (1) indefinite, charge-free detention and (2) military commissions (for those lucky enough to be charged with something). Obama never had a plan for "closing Guantanamo" in any meaningful sense; the most he sought to do was to move it a few thousand miles north to Illinois, where its defining injustices would endure.

The Daily Show points out the obvious.

Cartoonist Ted Rall envisages Obama's kinder-gentler Guantanamo, while Tom Tomorrow captures Obama's political expediency.

March 16, 2011

Noam Chomsky interviewed by the BBC

He talks about the current situation in the Middle East and the US.

I like the bit towards the end where the interviewer asks him why, at the age of 82, Chomsky has not mellowed!

Keep fighting Noam! You are an inspiration to us all.

(Thanks to Norm)

Ray Davis freed

The CIA station chief jailed in Pakistan for the murder of two people has been released after the victims' families pardoned him (something apparently possible under Pakistani law) after receiving an undisclosed amount of 'blood money' as compensation.

The feckless John Kerry

Congressman Dennis Kucinich sent a letter to the Defense Department in response to their stalling for over a month on his request to visit Manning.

My request to visit with Pfc. Manning must not be delayed further. Today we have new reports that Manning was stripped naked and left in his cell for seven hours. While refusing to explain the justification for the treatment, a marine spokesman confirmed the actions but claimed they were 'not punitive.'

Is this Quantico or Abu Ghraib? Officials have confirmed the 'non-punitive' stripping of an American soldier who has not been found guilty of any crime. This 'non-punitive' action would be considered a violation of the Army Field Manual if used in an interrogation overseas. The justification for and purpose of this action certainly raises questions of 'cruel and unusual punishment,' and could constitute a potential violation of international law.

Dennis Kucinich has the decency to protest the treatment of Manning. Contrast this with the weasely behavior of John Kerry and his feeble attempt to find excuses for the appalling treatment of Bradley Manning.

This US senator from Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, is rapidly proving himself to be a totally vapid politician, notorious for sonorously going on and on during Senate hearings, who seems to be more fond of hearing his own voice than of standing up for anything. Here is Kerry during Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearings when his introductory comments went on for so long that she looked like she would fall asleep.

Then there was the time when it was discovered that multimillionaire Kerry, married to an heiress, owned a $7 million yacht but avoided paying Massachusetts taxes by keeping it in a neighboring state.

But a far worse example was in 2007 he continued to blather on, and even attempt to joke, while Andrew Meyer, a University of Florida student who questioned him at a public meeting, was wrestled to the ground by campus security offices and tasered even though he had done nothing to merit such harsh treatment. (This was the famous 'Don't tase me, bro!" incident.) Kerry did not do anything even as the student's screams of pain reverberated through the auditorium. You can see the horrifying video.

To some extent I can understand politicians acting cynically, and even criminally, for personal gain, even if I do not excuse them for doing so. What I truly despise are those politicians like Kerry for whom it would cost nothing to do the right thing (like ask for decent treatment of Andrew Meyer and Bradley Manning) but do not have the common decency to do so.