Wednesday, 24 June 2009

March of the Hypocrites

Yet another top-ranking Guardian of Morality has lined up to confess and acknowledge the peculiar potency of that little area of biped anatomy just below the equator. Yes, Disappearing Mark Sanford turns out to have one just like the rest of us but to be less well endowed in the North Pole region where the brains are located.

Why are these guys so predictable? How many of these hilarious but ultimately depressing episodes do we have to live through before getting a life as a country and bouncing the sexophobic religious fanatics out of serious public debate? Is it not ironic that we cheer loudly for the demise of the Iranian mullahs while simultaneously failing to notice that their approach to gender equity and sexual emancipation is not that far from that of Governor Sanford and his pious crew?

I have no doubt that, in private, the robed Robespierres of Teheran are as randy and self-indulgent as a half-ton of Republican anti-abortionists. And Doug Ireland has reported in Gay City News on the nightmare of persecution, arrest, torture and sometimes death faced by Iranian gays—who also relate with depressing consistency that the repressive apparatus is full of perverted closet cases, who can’t wait to force themselves on the detainees in the country’s jails and prisons.

But commentators who wonder how on earth the religious right can sustain their ongoing hypocritical positions about sex, such as Salon’s Glenallen Walken commenting on the last wandering weenie (Senator Ensign), continue to miss the point. We asked ourselves the same thing for years in Chile as the pinochetista parties fought the legalization of divorce year after year despite their own second and third marriages. (They could get annulments for a price.)

How can they shamelessly do one thing and preach another? we marveled. But that was exactly the point. Individual behavior, in their parallel universe, was not important, and in fact merely confirmed the fallen state of sinful (sexual) man (or less forgivingly, woman). As long as these politicians defended the idea and the strict legal fulfillment of traditional standards of chastity, fidelity and all the rest, it didn’t matter whether they slipped up personally now and then. They were almost expected to.

The National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez expresses this approach perfectly in her we-forgive-you column that I saw Tuesday in the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American. ‘A politician’s failings do not render all to which he subscribes morally null’, she writes and adds, ‘Preaching comes from sinners, too’. How convenient.

Of course, this approach would be laughed into scorn if the roles were reversed and we were back observing the foibles of an Edwards or a Clinton. In those cases the guilty are to chased by Furies into the bowels of hell and have red ‘A’s woven into their undershirts throughout eternity.

But there has to come a point where the ‘we’re-just-human-but-you-guys-are-evil’ routine wears itself out. I hope I live long enough to witness the triumph of Iranian women over the bearded skirts now in charge and to see the American right wing immediately side with the opposition and align itself with the ousted clerics. Then they can go back to chanting ‘Bomb-bomb-Iran’ with gusto.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Democracy & Dictatorship

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival premiered a documentary about Russia’s fake democracy last night that was really a paean to dissident Garry Kasparov, who was in attendance. The film is an amateurish muddle and provided no context about the situation in the country, but the images were gripping and fairly self-explanatory, the street protests eerily reminiscent of their Chilean counterparts that I witnessed during the 1980s.

The film does Kasparov, the world’s top chess player for 20 years, no favors by its uncritical fawning, but you gotta hand it to a guy who is rich enough to be stroking his thighs in Monte Carlo and instead fights for democracy back home surrounded by bodyguards to ward off the screaming Putinist thugs, including gaggles of pimply, adolescent mercenaries sneering at him as a turncoat for opposing Lord Vlad.

Kasparov’s allies highlighted in the film looked a little peculiar too, to my mind, but one can’t be choosy in politics, and Kasparov looked indulgently open-minded about them while doing his best to keep the fractious coalition in line.

In the Q&A period following the screening, Kasparov had interesting things to say. He compared the Russian process with Iran and Chile and assured us that though the demonstrations shown on screen (dating from 2006-07) were small, much bigger ones will surely follow. He asserted that the economic conditions faced by the Russian masses are so dire that they will be hitting the streets soon and that the Putin brigades in the streets could even turn against the regime. For example, he said that only a dozen of Russia’s 83 regions were solvent and meeting their salary and pension obligations.

Kasparov’s main criticism of U.S. policy is the tendency to swallow what he says is a completely phony political process. No one pretends that China is a parliamentary democracy, he said, why can’t they see through ours? ‘We’re not trying to win elections’, he equipped, ‘We’re trying to have elections’.

Our countrymen so eager to award wiretapping privileges to the federal government—such as presidents Bush and Obama—might have been sobered by Kasparov’s comments on the Russian way of doing things. Not only are all cell phone and email communications fair game, Russian consumers actually pay for the state’s privileges through a tax added on their mobile charges.

It was sad to hear this otherwise thoughtful and intelligent man wind up his remarks with an endorsement of the invasion of Iraq in the name of ‘action against dictatorship’. I can’t imagine that will win him many points among his countrymen. But in a normal state he would have the right to his opinions and not be hauled before a judge every time his party wants to march down a Moscow street. Meanwhile, I’ll be curious to see if the massive discontent he predicts for Russia in coming months or years comes to pass.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Seductions of a police state

Stalin, like Nero, took his poetry seriously, perhaps not for its aesthetic qualities but as an expression of independent thought and feeling, which are always dangerous to a dictator because they suggest the possibility of dissidence. (I’m sure Kim Jong-Il supervises its production very closely as well.)

What this meant for the writers and intelligentsia of the early Soviet period is hard to fathom from the outside, but an account by the widow of Osip Mandelstam entitled Hope against Hope is a window into that bizarre netherworld of Stalinist repression and later terror. It was published in the early 1970s, I believe, and a copy came into my hands through inheritance of some of my late uncle’s books. It is a remarkable gem.

Osip Mandelstam was sympathetic to the Bolshevik revolution but later wrote a 16-line poem in which he calls Stalin a murderer of peasants. His ironic comment that ‘only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed’, turned out to be prophetic. He died in a Siberian work camp shortly after his second arrest.

Nadezhda Mandelstam did not consider herself a writer, but her account is not only utterly gripping as a narrative but a stylistic marvel. Her erudition, insight and sheer toughness come through on every page.

I also recommend it highly to all those impatient to dismantle our civil liberties as quickly as possible in the name of ‘protecting the American people’ or ‘defending our way of life’ as similar phrases ring throughout her 500-page description of Stalinist discourse and its practical applications in a totalitarian state. It is much easier to scapegoat the weak and whip a frightened populace into complicity with abuse than it is to defend the rule of law and the rights of the accused to due process.

She outlines how the revolutionary ideals that sounded so attractive and obvious to her generation became clubs in the hands of the secret police and justifications—readily accepted by many—for waves of purges and human suffering on a staggering scale.

Here is Mrs Mandelstam on the insidious and permanent effect of the 1937 terror and its aftermath. Note how creepily recognizable are her descriptions of the leadership of one of the major crimes against humanity of our century:

In all their different incarnations, our guardians were always sure they were right and never knew what it was to doubt. They always boldly claimed to know just by looking at a seed what its fruit would be, and from this it was but a step to decreeing the destruction of any seedling they thought was useless.

She also revisits constantly the theme of a society’s moral bankruptcy as an outcome of repression and a stimulus to its further deepening:

Every grand idea eventually goes into a decline. Once this has happened, all that remains is inertia—with young people afraid of change, weary middle-aged ones craving for peace, a handful of old men horrified at what they have done, and countless petty myrmidons repeating by rote the phrases they were taught in their youth.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

Amid the shattering crystal and collapsing deck chairs in Albany, there are faint glimpses of renovation, which is devoutly to be wished. Amazing as it may seem, the hilarious spectacle of a few elected pols doublecrossing their party colleagues for quick, personal advantage is opening a wedge for reform that the Democratic takeover of both legislative houses last November promised but did not deliver.

For any reader out of state, here is the background: New York’s state government has been for decades the preserve of three men: the governor and the two majority leaders of the Senate and the Assembly, Joseph Bruno (R) and Sheldon Silver (D). They made all the major decisions for so long that voters could be forgiven for hardly noticing that we sent other legislators to the state capital and even a governor now and then. Whoever won, Bruno and Silver were always in charge.

The statehouse rules were so stacked in favor of this solonic dictatorship that Silver and Bruno were like Roman consuls without the one-year term limit imposed by the ancients. They doled out legislative favors and slices of the budgetary pie so that any elected official who wanted a pothole fixed in the home district had to bow to their will.

Then last November Bruno retired amid a slew of legal difficulties related to the usual (by Albany standards) dubious business dealings. That set off a scramble to overturn the Republican edge in the upper house and make new things happen. Theoretically, anyway.

The Democrats did win the Senate by a two-vote majority, but what happened instead was not in the script. A trio of city-based Democratic senators promptly held out for major goodies, threatening to bolt and vote with the enemy party if they didn’t get them. Harlem Dem Malcolm Smith finally kept them in check and replaced Bruno, but at the cost of substantial concessions, including juicy posts for the blackmailers and effective backsliding on the same-sex marriage bill that a Democratic majority was supposed to assure. (One of these extortionists is an evangelical fanatic.) But Smith had the top job—until this week.

Now two completely different renegades have popped up to decide they are going to vote with the Republican minority and get themselves a cozy set-up, too. And while one of them is now wavering, a third player, Manhattan liberal Tom Duane, has sent out unmistakable signals that he might be open to doing a deal to get his legislative priorities on the agenda—starting with marriage equality.

Speculation is that the Republicans are so thirsty to get back into the game that they may be willing to drop their long-standing opposition to the gay marriage bill, especially given national trends and their own increasingly bleak electoral prospects. At this stage, anything can happen—and probably will.

Duane’s move may be opportunistic, but he is not a sleazebag, and his threat raises the current circus to a new level. A little-noticed element of the frantic negotiations now taking place is a possible rule change that would dismantle the autocratic rule of the Senate leader and empower our elected officials to get their bills and projects a hearing without having to kiss the big guy’s rump year after year. If so, the June chaos eventually could turn out to be a good thing, the opening salvo in the fight to dismantle the Albany Triumvirate once and for all.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Vaudeville is Back!

There’s liberal(ish), sophisticated New York City, which for all its many faults, does manage to keep up appearances for the most part. Then there’s Albany, our state capital, which does not. The latest escapades are ably illustrated by Wednesday’s New York Post page one picture of a clown. The paper even sent a clown upstate for photo-ops on the Senate lawn.

The jokesters responsible are two nominally Democratic state senators, Pedro Espada, Jr., and Hiram Montserrate, who conspired over recent weeks to switch their votes to the Republicans thereby throwing control of the upper house back to them—after only five months of Democratic domination. And they didn’t disappoint the Post yesterday, as Espada led a horde of reporters down the stately Greek-temple halls holding a key aloft after his erstwhile Democratic colleagues locked up the Senate chamber and turned off the lights.

Governor what’s-his-name weighed in with his usual commanding presence by lamenting the loss of working time to the state’s army of lobbyists. You can’t make this stuff up.

The two turncoats don’t have much to lose. Montserrate is facing charges for slashing his girlfriend’s face with a broken bottle, and Espada is being investigated by the state attorney general for siphoning state money into a highly dubious nonprofit. These are the two guys currently determining our state government’s future. According to the New York Times, Espada was pissed because the new Senate leadership wouldn’t continue its prior complicity with this legal milking of the public purse.

Not that ousted majority leader Malcolm Smith won any awards for competence during his five-month tenure. The Times also reported that Smith alienated a major donor and one of the main backers of the Democrats’ November 2008 takeover by blackberrying in front of him during a meeting. The story rings true given Smith’s narcissistic crowing about his modest origins and personal triumph upon reaching the top spot—sort of a mini-Roland Burris.

Given the notoriously gridlocked and feudal atmosphere in Albany, in which three guys in a room divvy up the pie and make all the important decisions, it was probably inevitable that the departure of one of them, former Republican majority leader Joe Bruno, eventually would prompt a back-alley knife-fight of this sort.

In addition, the whole spectacle prompts speculation about what would have happened had Smith and the Democrats not bowed to pressure from other dissident members of their raggedy party when the job assignments were passed out last fall. At that time, some Bronx Democrats threatened to bolt to the Republican side if they didn’t get everything they wanted, and Smith gave in on most of it.

Of course, that would have entailed a game of chicken in which the Democrats risked losing control of the chamber. But if open rebellion hadn’t been rewarded then, perhaps this latest display wouldn’t have got off the ground.

Hard to say where it will all shake out, and disdain for the state legislature is nothing new in New York. Most of the pols will be duly reelected anyway, and people will go back to grumbling about Albany dysfunction.

But if our total loser governor thought he had a chance for a comeback in 2010, this episode is a pretty good sign that he’s dreaming.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

I kicked Barack Obama’s ass (a little)

How hilarious is this logic?: we railroad the entire country into a war on false pretenses, but then insist no one criticize what we do there because that would ‘put our brave soldiers at risk’(!) We’re not responsible for the situation in which they find themselves as the advance troops in a war of conquest; rather, YOU are the disloyal bad guy for pointing out that the people in country X don’t wish to be killed and tortured, which we authorized (and encouraged) the troops to do. Marvelous.

The greatest disappointment of 2009, Year One of the Obama Administration, is the extent to which he and his team have seamlessly absorbed and utilized this twisted thinking. Ironic that those of us who voted and worked for ‘CHANGE’ should now have hopeless reactionaries like Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman standing shoulder to shoulder with Obama to uphold and defend the Bushite legacy.

The Graham-Lieberman Amendment that was shot down yesterday would have empowered Obama to withhold further Abu Ghraib photos on the grounds that the actions portrayed there are so terrible that the release would endanger American soldiers associated with this behavior. Even more marvelous! Therefore, in the future whenever we do shit that is really disgusting, that is grounds for suppressing the information because the revelation would make us look terrible and engender resentment from the victims.

This is the moral sewer into which Obama has allowed himself to be dragged.

Given that we are not yet a dictatorship, some of us mobilized to denounce this scandal. I personally phoned my congressional representative’s office (Charlie Rangel) and spoke to a guy named Anthony who was very cordial and interested in what I had to say. He knew something about the Freedom of Information Act and pointed out that it provides for national security exceptions.

I acknowledged this but replied that the Graham-Lieberman measure was designed to override the law and simply deliver arbitrary power to the president to suppress the material without court review. This precedent would mean the death of FOIA, a law that has served us well for 40 years as a check on government abuses.

The two senators whined that Americans will now be exposed to danger, exactly the mentality that Bush and Cheney used on us for eight years to justify everything they did. Who cares if innocent Iraqis are ‘exposed to danger’ and much worse? Piss on them and their country, too, right? The racist and colonial overtones of this episode are particularly revolting given that they are now defended by the nation’s first non-white president.

I don’t know if Charlie Rangel got the message that one of his constituents was incensed by this maneuver, but the amendment was taken out of the conference committee text. I think of it as a modest little reminder that we Obama fans aren’t gulping down everything on his menu.

Extra credit question: What U.S. senator often in the news lately is rumored to keep an apartment in his home state to rendez-vous with his secret boyfriend?

Boumedienne v. United States

The shame of the Lakhdar Boumedienne case—no doubt the first of many that will emerge from the Guantánamo dungeons—is not merely that an innocent man was subjected to grostesquely inhumane treatment.

The truly criminal behavior is not what was done to him by the thugs representing the U.S. government during his pointless seven-year detention. No, that an employee of the Bosnian equivalent of the Red Cross was picked up by American intelligence agents and flown to Cuba to be tortured and abused for seven years based on zero evidence is just the back story.

The real headliner is how our supposedly civilized society, from justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, past the legislative branch and down through a very substantial portion of public opinion, went along with it every step of the way. And continues to do so.

Unproven allegations about plans to attack a U.S. embassy were enough to drag Boumedienne, an Algerian relief worker living in a war zone, into open-ended custody while the entire American political class actively conspired to dismantle our treasured individual protections against the crushing power of the state. Centuries of distaste for the cruel procedures of the Star Chamber and the Inquisition went out the window as Bush, Cheney and half of Congress babbled on about ‘the worst of the worst’ and ‘terrorists’ conspiring against our safety. Evidence was not required.

Few dared to raise the question of whether, among the hundreds swept up in hasty dragnets during a war, some might be innocent.

The Boumedienne case led to two historic Supreme Court decisions in which a 5-4 majority defended the habeas corpus concept against the Bushite monarchy. What moral depravity could be operating in the mind of a Justice Scalia as he voted against Boumedienne’s right to a review of the evidence against him, adding inflammatory warnings about how the ruling in the prisoner’s favor would ‘cause more Americans to be killed’, as if Mr Boumedienne were a priori responsible for that by the fact of his arrest?

However, I see from the comments section following many of the news reports on the case that the utter lack of evidence against this man has no impact on the many true believers who object to the ‘constant criticism’ of our fighting men and ABC’s ‘sensationalism’. Ah well.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Get out of our sight

Philip Mudd, jinxed not by his surname but by his acts, is no longer in the running to become head of Homeland Security’s intelligence division, a.k.a. its top spy-guy. He withdrew when it became clear that his role in the bureaucracy of torturing prisoners would come up for review in the confirmation process.

‘A chill wind is blowing through the intelligence community as operatives and analysts are now being forced to consider shifting political sands along with the national security decisions they make’, said Mudd-loving Michigan Representative Pete Hoekstra.

Yes, Congressman, that is called ‘democracy’—you should study up on it someday.

The ‘political sands’ referenced would be our national revulsion at the practice of torturing defenseless prisoners as a means of increasing our safety, whether or not said victims actually are guilty of anything.

Indeed, the rack, the thumbscrew and burning at the stake are no longer acceptable procedures to be used in rooting out witches, heretics and common criminals among us, despite Hoekstra’s and Mudd’s best efforts. Instead, we must fall back on boring old DNA analysis, forensic science and videotaped interrogations of subjects aware of their Miranda rights. How tedious.

This most welcome development is another sign of how the torture albatross will weigh on all those even slightly associated with it for decades to come. Anyone who got near this nauseatingly criminal activity will be haunted and cursed by it until the end of their miserable days. I hope they suffer a lot.

Meanwhile, Obama’s scandalous attempt to ram through Congress special dispensation for himself to arbitrarily ignore the Freedom of Information Act may be running into trouble. Obama wants this bill (conveniently introduced by two reactionaries: Lieberman and Graham) to help him avoid a court challenge on releasing the Abu Ghraib photos. If he fails, it will be yet another sign that our unescapable national confrontation with institutionalized torture is coming soon.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Obama in Cairo

Obama’s speech to the Egyptians is the sort of pious boilerplate to which I have always had an allergy, but in terms of content it’s pretty hard to beat if only because it relocates our foreign policy outside of the Van Allen radiation belt. The drenched neocon ravings of the Bush years were so extraterrestrial that a sober recapitulation of reality sounds like a doctoral thesis by an interdisciplinary team at M.I.T.

Obama sounded a little pedantic to my ears in patiently reminding everyone that there are both Israelis and Palestinians living in the Middle East and that not all Muslims like to commit violent acts. This shouldn’t be terribly impressive under normal circumstances, but for painfully obvious reasons, it was.

His speech stroked Arab and Muslim cultural pride, acknowledged what bugs them and appealed to them for partnership—pretty much the strategy he has used with congressional Republicans since January. Let’s hope he gets more cooperation from the Saudi monarchs and Hamas.

All the same, there were definite nuances that sounded quite fresh and unusual. For example, Obama said Israeli settlements in the occupied territories ‘violate previous agreements’, a sharp retort to the current Tel Aviv line that they got the green light from Bush to do whatever they want.

Obama also referred to the ‘Holy’ Koran several times, not something we got used to hearing from the evangelical Christians around W.

He also held up our pluralistic example as something worthy of being emulated although the current state of tolerance for religious diversity in the U.S. is open to debate after the assassination of an abortion doctor last week.

Many commentators have said already—some in advance of the event itself—that the real message of Obama’s speech is him giving it. The image of a mixed-race leader representating a majority white population has got to trigger a psychological disconnect for some listeners in the Arab world who wouldn’t think of supporting someone not of their tribe or ethnicity or religion. Given who he is, Obama could afford to be generous because anyone who is listening to him is forced to concede one of his main points: America isn’t so easily summed up. He embodies new possibilities and challenges his listeners to make the most of them.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Keep my family safe--screw everyone else

The most glaring omission in the rhetoric coming from President Obama justifying his about-face on Guantámano (which utilized, as The Daily Show demonstrated last week, many of Bush’s exact phrases) is any recognition that some of the individuals held there might be innocent.

What a sorry commentary on the state of our nation and our fading civil libertarian traditions that the great liberal icon of the age can wax on about his ferocious determination to protect ‘the American people’ as a collectivity, while refusing protection to individuals facing false accusations. While ignoring the rule of law and the presumption of innocence, he dares to declare that certain unjudged, untried prisoners are dangers to the populace simply because he says so. (W at least heard it directly from God.)

Last week, as Obama rationalized his continuation of the Bush-era disdain for habeus corpus, a 43-year-old convicted child rapist won a new trial after an appellate court found that his 1985 conviction was flawed. Bernard Baran was the first victim of the notorious ‘child care sex abuse’ witchhunts, but his case is less well-known than that of the Los Angeles McMartins. He almost certainly never laid a finger on any of the children in his care, but being a gay high school dropout with no money, he couldn’t resist the judicial lynching he was subjected to at age 19. [Image: Baran leaving jail in 2007]

Baran then spent 22 years in prison, and as an accused child molester that turned out to be not so nice. He was raped on his fourth day of incarceration and over his two decades locked up suffered numerous broken bones and other injuries. Some of his original accusers, including children of violent parents with drug addiction problems, immediately recanted, but as in the McMartin case, those denials were not taken seriously—only the accusations. An openly homophobic prosecutor led the charge and, according to Baran’s defense committee, promised child witnesses a trip to Macdonalds if they said yes to all his questions.

The Christian-led sex panic and anti-gay crusade brought about these horrific abuses, but instead of reminding us that mass political and religious hysteria can lead to gross injustices that require an iron commitment to due process, Obama is ceding the moral high ground to right-wing screech radio and the basest, most selfish instincts of our society. And he does so while standing in front of the Constitution, a document increasingly more revered than heeded.

[Baran, 19, at the time of his arrest.]