Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Hit me again, Stern Master

At last we know the source of the government’s failure to identify potential perpetrators of terrorist acts and stop them.

Labor unions.

It’s logical, you see. South Carolina senator Jim DeMint has been way ahead of the rest of us, demanding that Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, Erroll Southers, promise not to allow collective bargaining among TSA employees.

Without collective bargaining, DeMint explained, the TSA now has the ‘flexibility to make real-time decisions that allowed it to quickly improve security measures in response to this attempted attack’.

Of course, if the TSA had had a chief, that might have helped it ‘improve security measures’ too. But I digress, and meanwhile Senator DeMint is on a roll.

If organized labor got involved, he says, union bosses would have the power ‘to veto or delay future security improvements at our airports’. Whew, what a relief!

You gotta hand it to these Republican operatives—they’re shameless. Instead of worrying about whether someone might blame them for the fact that the TSA has been a headless horseman for a year due to DeMint’s anti-union crusade, they go right on the attack.

You have to scroll down to the 30th graf in news stories about DeMint’s obstructionism to see any hint of a robust counter-attack—from a lowly aide to Harry Reid, no less.

I’m constantly dumbfounded by the utter absence of political blood-lust on the Democratic side while their supposed opponents offer them platter after tray of juicy red meat to sink their fangs into.

Imagine if the sides had been reversed and Democrats had been holding up a Bush-era appointee to a security job just as an airplane bomber almost manages to blow up 200 people. Wouldn’t the White House have been out of the gate in seconds to point the finger at the offending legislator for getting in the way of executive power and ‘endangering American lives’?

But that would be asking Barack the Bipartisan to get angry for a moment.

The recently released Taylor Branch book based on conversations with Clinton hint at why the Republican/Democratic relationship is so consistently S&M. Branch relates how Clinton marveled at the wonderful antics of ‘old Jesse’ (Helms) and appreciated his political acumen—no matter how nefarious the outcome for the rest of us.

So it’s just a big game that you can shake your head at, if you’re a responsible Democrat, and laugh at how astutely demogogic your opponents are. No matter what the ultimate impact on the rest of us. The tea-baggers go crazy, call Obama a Nazi and bring guns; their targets look at all this and go ‘tut-tut’.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Lessons from down below

I thought the name Alex Freyre [seated, right] rang a bell when the story broke about the first gay marriage in Latin America, and I looked it up in a chapter on Argentina in a book on AIDS on that continent. He’s described as the ‘saucy, extroverted’ director of an HIV prevention outfit in Buenos Aires and one of the first people to declare publicly that he had the infection back when that act was not for the fainthearted.

The book quotes his journey through the devastating news and an early hospitalization to emotional freedom and activism:

In the hospital I realized that some things didn’t matter anymore, some limitations had just died for me. And plus, there was this idea in my family of supporting me in anything I wanted. The kid didn’t die! We’re so happy! So if I had said, I want to be a transvestite: Great, whatever! They would have said yes to anything.

Freyre’s psychic rebirth also propelled him past the inevitable cynicism that resulted from seeing how easily HIV morphed into one more money-making opportunity for the non-profit sharpies weaned on the country’s corrupt political culture. After his dramatic televised announcement about being HIV-positive, he said his telephone ‘didn’t stop ringing 24 hours a day’.

I spent months answering all the calls, but not one organization or foundation called me to say, Hey, we’d like for you to meet us, to work with us. Nothing. I was left alone, and no organization took advantage of what I could do.

Okay, I confess! I didn’t just read it in that book, I actually wrote it myself. Freyre was one of the bright spots in my research in eight countries, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that he’s found the way to break down one more barrier through his relentless search to find the place that would perform the ceremony (ending up in Usuhaia in Patagonia—last stop before Antarctica).

I wish him and his new husband all the best. Live long! Be fruitful and multiply!—even if you do produce bipeds.

Friday, 25 December 2009

How dare they? A creepy Christmas tale

Here’s a good corrective to the idea that torture is sometimes-maybe-possibly justified because Bad People might want to set off bombs and kill Innocent Americans.

Private first class Bowe Bergdahl is the only known U.S. serviceman being held captive by the Taliban. He was videotaped reading a typical propaganda statement condemning the foreign occupation of Afghanistan.

The Associated Press report on this Christmas gift from the Taliban duly notes that the Geneva Conventions ‘bar the use of detainees for propaganda purposes and prohibit signatories from putting captured military personnel on display’.

Oh yes, the Geneva Conventions! I remember those!

When you rewrite the rules and dump the agreements that emerged from the world’s horror over the Nazi atrocities, the unthinkable becomes everyday. Unfortunately for the enthusiasts for Guantánmo and waterboarding (a.k.a ‘a little water up the nose’), it’s not so easy to make sure that the other guy is always the one on the receiving end.

The element of the torture debate that has remained strangely absent is exactly this: why should we think that if we do stuff like that that to them, then they won’t do it to us? And when we have publicly declared that it’s justifiable because we have to protect our security at all costs, what is the moral argument to be marshaled when others copy our reasoning?

The Taliban may not have not resorted to placing Pfc. Bergdahl in a darkened room, blasting Arabic music in his ears 24 hours a day, tying him up in stress positions in freezing cells, pissing on Bibles in front of him, making him masturbate in front of female guards, beating him senseless or subjecting him to 20-hour interrogations without permitting him to sleep more than two hours at a stretch.

On the other hand, if they did do all that, they might argue that he could still have ‘actionable intelligence’ to reveal to them about U.S. troop movements in their country. If they did so and were ever to be prosecuted, they could quote George W. Bush to explain their behavior to an appreciative Afghan judge. ‘We were only doing everything we could to protect innocent Afghan civilians from ticking time-bombs launched by drone attacks on their villages’, they could say.

Those who purport to care about the fate of U.S. military personnel should think twice before bragging about the great utility of torture to get bad guys to cough up the facts. Sooner or later, young kids from Idaho are going to pay the price.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Fed's politics of anti-politics

Fed chief Ben Bernancke is the guy who kept banks afloat after being part of the cozy cabal that almost shipwrecked the entire financial system through its self-serving ideological blindness. He apparently did enough things right amidst the crisis so that we have a mere 16% effective unemployment rate nationally rather than a 36% one.

‘It could have been so much worse’ is not much consolation to people who are out of work, losing their homes or facing bankruptcy today. Nonetheless, the fix is in to return this acolyte of Greenspanism to the creepy Temple of Ramses on C Street [below].

Rewarding Bernancke with another term is like giving the guy who got drunk and almost but not quite totaled your car his own permanent copy of your keys.

What is the Federal Reserve supposed to do, according to itself?

1. Conduct the nation’s monetary policy . . . in pursuit of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.

2. Supervise and regulate banking institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation's banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers.

3. Maintain stability of the financial system and contain systemic risk that may arise in financial markets.

4. Provide financial services to depository institutions, the U.S. government and foreign official institutions.

Therefore, Bernancke got one point out of four: he did in fact provide banks with certain ‘financial services’, i.e. huge amounts of money. Everything else was a flop, which would earn him about a D+ in one of his Princeton classes.

I readily confess to being quite ignorant about the implications of various proposals floated by such disparate figures as liberal Democrat Alan Grayson and libertarian Republican Ron Paul on restructuring the Fed and other financial regulatory agencies. But the topic should be as much a part of our political discourse as health financing reform.

Instead, we are being treated to deep bowing from those few reporters ever heard on the topic, whose chronicles are full of the usual banker-promoted clichés about the importance of central bank ‘independence’ (from us, not from them) and the need not to undermine banker ‘creativity’ and ‘financial product innovations’.

Crusty old Paul Volcker, who once had Bernancke’s job, popped that balloon last week when he said that the only ‘innovation’ of any value that bankers had come up in two decades was ATM machines.

Central banks are supposed to guard against politically-motivated inflationary manipulation of the money supply by politicians eager to get reelected. We’ve been convinced that this requires military-style hyper-secrecy about the Fed’s activities (it has less oversight than the CIA) as well as control of far too much of the Fed’s business by bankers it is supposed to be regulating.

The debacle we continue to live through should be enough to explode the notion that these professional Scrooge McDuck poobahs are some sort of ethereal wraiths floating above the political fray. They’ve screwed up so badly that we should get a chance to review and rethink the whole failed system. However, I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

O Come, All Ye Bipeds!

The recent doings of our fellow two-legged ambulants confirm and reiterate how our curious and flawed race hurtles itself ever more eagerly toward collapse by the time-tested strategy of habitat destruction. We’re not the first species to undermine our existence by pooping in one another’s nests, and we won’t be the last.

George Monbiot, a well-known greenie, pens for today’s Guardian the speech that Barack Obama should be giving at the Copenhagen climate protection talks to stop them from collapsing around his ears. It’s a nice speech with good cadences and about as likely to be heard in Denmark this week as ghostly guffaws from King Knut the Great in a surprise cameo from the 11th century.

Monbiot says Obama should pledge American commitment to the difficult process of weaning itself off carbon fuels and boldly promise to shoulder a triple burden: employment upheaval, a new national industrial policy and massive investments in the technological advances needed—which Monbiot compared to the breakneck American efforts to shift to war production in the 1940s.

Ha ha ha.

What (overly toasty) planet does he live on? Monbiot can’t seriously expect any one of these three things to emerge from a country busily debating whether dinosaurs roamed the earth 6,000 years ago while sinking into a slough of opportunistic brinkmanship over how to find enough money somewhere in its $12 trillion annual GDP so that its citizens can take their kids to the doctor.

The G77 (poor and middling) countries threatened to pull the plug on the whole charade earlier this week when the big players refused to countenance binding goals. They’ve got nothing to lose as a continuation of current policy will see them sink literally as well as metaphorically.

The reports coming out of the Danish capital bear titles and headlines such as ‘Chaotic End Game’, ‘Denmark Gives Up’ and ‘Summit in Disarray’. What a surprise!

The corporations eager to undermine the whole accord have been busy and efficient, and their sounding board professional denialists whip up the teabagger crowd to oppose anything thousands of scientists agree on. If Jesus is coming soon anyway, why worry about alarmism from a bunch of silly old Nobel physicists?

Today’s update is that Hillary Clinton is offering $100 billion in U.S. aid if and only if the Chinese act responsibly and reduce their carbon emissions, i.e. immediately start to do what we ourselves have steadfastly refused to.

Copenhagen offers us in one neatly wrapped package the whole spectacle of mass species demise and the incapacity of knowledgeable souls among us to drown out the screeching bipeds swinging through the treetops.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Dennis is Dead

I worked for Dennis de Leon at the Latino Commission on AIDS from 2006 until June of this year and could see that he was not in great health long before he entered the hospital in the summer and did not seem to be bouncing back. The Times had a generous obituary outlining Dennis’s unique contribution as one of the first Latinos in New York to go public with his HIV-positive status.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but it took courage and dedication to leave behind a successful career as a lawyer and member of the city’s civil rights commission to take up the AIDS banner. Even nearly two decades later, Dennis commented that professional opportunities still dry up with depressing frequency for people who decide not to hide their struggle with HIV. As the virus thrives on secrecy, this ongoing environment of stigma and discrimination remains the principal barrier to getting sexually active people to have an HIV test.

That has real consequences. Nearly half of all new HIV transmissions in the U.S. originate among people who are unaware that they have the infection themselves, which is why the folks at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are so eager to turn HIV testing into a routine procedure. However, they haven’t yet come up with a good formula for making that happen, despite experiments like a huge, emergency room-based pilot project or New York’s ‘Bronx Knows’ campaign aimed at getting every sexually active adult in the borough to test for his or her HIV status.

Despite prevalence rates similar to those in Africa among big city gay populations, you hardly ever see a prevention poster or message in the clubs or bars any more, gay or straight. In any case, condom promotion is a nice idea, but it clearly isn’t enough for 50 reasons I won’t go into—any more than it solved straight teenagers’ pregnancy issues. Gay Americans have learned to live with HIV but haven’t a clue how to put a stop to it.

The nonprofits that grew up in the heyday of activism around AIDS don’t have the answer either. After seeing the insides of plenty of them on two continents, I have no problem in saying that despite their innovations and triumphs of the 1990s, they haven’t grappled successfully with the changing circumstances surrounding the HIV epidemic, especially on the prevention side. There, the programs are feeble and repetitive and with such a shrinking reach that they can’t begin to dent the 50,000-plus new annual infections registered in the U.S. year after year. I wish I knew what they should be doing instead.

Dennis never expected to live another 15 years after his public announcement, but he did. He saw the Commission, like so many AIDS organizations from that era, grow into a mélange of programs in which the leaders and staff had to invent themselves from year to year to keep up. He knew a lot and had a lot of history, and he suffered from the usual 501(c)(3) founder’s dilemma—how to turn the entity from an owner-operated Mom & Pop into a solid institution with a vision, a strategy, a research capacity, policy smarts and that spark of creativity that social movements sometimes have but social agencies rarely preserve.

I wish I knew the answer to that question, too.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Return of the Chilean Right

Sebastián Piñera may become president of Chile, which would mean the first elected right-wing government in that country since it was tarnished by its enthusiasm for one Augusto Pinochet.

In fact, it would be the right's first presidential victory since the election of Jorge Alessandri in 1958.

The fact that it’s taken this long for the pinochetista forces to gather enough strength to compete electorally is a testimony to the depth of revulsion the dictatorship engendered. Chilean voters are as susceptible as any to the blandishments of a conservative, pro-business discourse, and had the political right been less identified with Pinochet’s worst crimes, they might have ousted the anti-dictatorship coalition years ago.

Instead, the four-party Concertación para la Democracia has occupied the presidential palace non-stop since the junta was disbanded in 1990.

Piñera is a mega-millionaire and a sort of Berlusconi figure, but my recollections of his 2000 attempt to become president suggest a guy who is less alarming than the typical reactionary, ultra-Catholic apologists for the dictatorship who populate the right-wing parties. He could turn out to be a sort of unpredictable, Michael Bloomberg-ish president with a CEO mentality and a relatively non-dogmatic approach.

In that case he wouldn’t be all that different from the parade of dullards and suits that have led the country under the Concertación since Pinochet ran all alone in his 1988 plebiscite—and came in second. (There’s a danger in giving the people the chance to vote YES or NO.)

Chileans had high hopes for the return to democracy, and they’ve been pretty disappointed. The pleasant face of Michelle Bachelet, the country’s first female president, renovated the Concertación’s image four years ago when she beat out Piñera by a nose.

But the real victor all along in Chile has been neoliberalism and its aftermath, which all the presidents have administered to a greater or lesser degree since Pinochet installed the system by ripping out the throat of any opposition.

So although it’s too bad that the direct descendants of Pinochet are creeping close to La Moneda once again, it’s a far bigger pity that the whole country continues to be his legatee.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Obama in Oslo

I heard nothing in Obama’s Oslo speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that undermines my prior conclusion—that the Nobel is ours for throwing out Bush.

It’s not unprecedented for the Nobel committee to award the PP to a sitting head of state, nor for the recipients to be less than admirable personages. We forget that joining Martin Luther King, Jr., were Henry Kissinger, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Teddy Roosevelt.

De Klerk, the last apartheid ruler of South Africa, won the prize, too, despite the system he stood for, along with Nelson Mandela.

The point of the prize is not that the recipient is a nice person but that he or she did something to advance peace, and sometimes it’s nothing more than putting an end to gross abuses with which they had been entirely complicit.

Our triumph was reflected in Obama’s call to restore the idea of ‘standards that govern the use of force’, the ones that Bush and Cheney told the world to put up its collective rectum.

Obama spoke of multinational institutions and UN peacekeeping forces and reminded us that he ordered the prohibition of torture and the closure of the Guantánamo prison camp. (Good to be reminded since the latter hasn’t happened yet, and I have serious doubts about the former.)

He had a lot of balls accusing Iran of provoking a nuclear arms race in the Middle East while remaining silent on the country that introduced those weapons there (Israel). But of course he couldn’t have said that without triggering a mudslide of epic proportions back home.

Also hard to swallow was the line about the U.S. as a ‘standard-bearer’ in the conduct of war. Let’s recall that phrase when the commission of inquiry on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is eventually empaneled.

But the boilerplate in his speech was tempered by decent ideas, like strengthening international cooperation to avoid war, re-raising the profile of human rights, economic development to undermine the causes of war, recalling the special case of genocide. Et cetera.

Obama the president is becoming a little annoying with his penchant for those hold-hands-and-sing moments in his speeches. He’s not really saying anything all that new, nor saying it all that terribly well. But the fact that he’s not hurtling the planet towards the apocalypse is, by contrast, modestly reassuring.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Chilean Bombshell

Yesterday’s announcement in Chile of indictments against individuals linked to the Pinochet dictatorship for poisoning former president Eduardo Frei is an 8.0 earthquake in that seismically challenged country in the midst of its presidential elections.

Forensic investigators found traces of thalium and mustard gas in the remains of the popular Christian Democratic president who preceded Salvador Allende. I’m too far away in time and distance to have a feel for the impact, but it is remarkable to open the electronic front page of the profoundly reactionary El Mercurio to see what that Pinochet-boosting sheet has to say for itself.

El Mercurio predated Fox News, but then again the neoliberal Pinochet predated Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom took a leaf out of his book. We ignore the lessons of that southern laboratory at our peril.

Frei was a key figure in the middle ground of Chilean politics during the polarization of the Allende-Pinochet years. After early support of the military takeover, he turned against Pinochet and was the natural figurehead of the burgeoning opposition.

Apparently, that was enough to get the late dictator working on ways to eliminate him. The details to come will no doubt be extremely juicy.

But back to the reactions: today’s Mercurio ignores the Frei assassination story completely and headlines a minor, self-generated story about the similar positions of the Socialist presidential candidate and the miniscule Chilean Communist Party on the issue of Pinochet’s 1981 auto-amnesty.

That’s typical mercurial guilt-by-association calculated to reinforce its ruling elite audience’s demented anti-marxist paranoia.

The equivalent here would be Beck and O’Reilly reacting to the news that George Bush and Osama bin Laden were pen pals with a feature on ACORN.

And indeed, Mercurio has a nice front-pager about Chilean magicians—presumably including those on its own staff who can make the biggest story of the decade disappear from its pages.

Now that we have Fox, we can see how a shamelessly crude propaganda organ backed with enough cash can position itself within a society and make itself indispensable, just like El Mercurio did, despite thumbing its nose at any semblance of respect for facts. Through its steady diet of smug indifference to anything outside its Weltanschauung, it pounds a discourse into the consciousness of the populace, much like the thugs in Orwell’s 1984.

Thus the cliché about our evolution into a third-world country has its application in the mediatic sphere as well.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


Outsiders coming to New York tend to see the city as its own universe, but taking up residence here quickly brings you into contact with the hard, cold reality known as Albany. Several things have happened this week to remind us that while our lives may be administered by King Bloomberg I, they are governed by the efficient solons of our state capital.

I say ‘efficient’ because the system they have devised is marvelously adept at shoveling cash into the pockets of its corrupt administrators while setting up future generations for bankruptcy. An ignorant outsider might surmise that this is done through a cozy alliance between the two major parties, both of which accuse the other of fiscal irresponsibility while battling mightily to make sure their favored constituents du jour feed at the public trough.

For decades this system was controlled by the iron triumvirate of Democrat Sheldon Silver (the Assembly Speaker), Republican Joe Bruno (the Senate Majority Leader)[left] and whoever happened to be the governor, who, being around for a mere eight years, threatened this arrangement at his peril.

Bruno is now waiting for a jury to rule on eight corruption charges steeming from his blatant influence peddling and private enrichment, and his statements to the waiting news media are illuminating. ‘Some people don’t understand about business’, Bruno whined to NPR this morning. Killjoy prosecutors who don’t want to see a guy make a buck, Joe was saying, illustrating the special Albany way of doing things.

Meanwhile, gay lobbying groups struggled mightily last year to throw out Bruno and get a Democratic majority in the Senate. Having done so, they logically expected an up-or-down vote on marriage equality for same-sex couples, which they got this week—and were clobbered on it 38-24. Eight of their supposed votes-in-the-bag allies, most of them from liberal-ish New York boroughs who had no trouble taking that useful gay money for their campaigns, voted no. One of them, Hiram Montserrate, just beat an assault rap for slashing his girlfriend’s face with a piece of glass. (Turned out it was an accident, wink-wink.)

It will be interesting to see what backlash this crude betrayal generates, if any, as the highly charged civil rights issue continues to rankle and the shiny new Democrats prove as indifferent as the bad-old Republicans.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Obama’s Taxi

Commentary abounds on the new Afghanistan strategy, which looks a lot like the old Iraq strategy. They both place a high, perhaps top, priority on making the disasters caused by frivolous warmaking look less like defeat.

The triumphal march into Baghdad was supposed to usher in an era of Middle Eastern democracy and nonstop feeding at the oil trough by happy U.S. corporations. Instead, Bush and Cheney achieved the following: an invigorated, lunatic, anti-Semitic, quasi- military regime in Iran; disappearing business opportunities for anyone associated with the American occupiers; domestic bankrupcy and crushing fiscal deficits; habeas corpus protections, that once distinguished us from monarchies and dictatorships, on the ropes; the national soul pawned on the altar of Security.

What will be the eventual balance sheet on Afghanistan when the postponed withdrawal inevitably comes?

Instead of reading the endless reactions to what Obama said, I spent last night watching Taxi to the Dark Side, a 2007 documentary about how U.S. troops killed a peasant taxi driver named Dilawar at Bagram prison near Kabul. There, soldiers—pumped up with post 9/11 chauvinism and ticking-bomb apologetics for torture—were set loose on a kid caught up in local politics. Since they believed Bush-ite ravings from their superiors that the driver was a deadly terrorist, all their Christian upbringing back in Nebraska didn’t alert them to the possibility that teenagers maybe shouldn’t be beaten to death.

The filmmaker sympathizes with these disoriented and untrained prison guards who took the rap for Rumsfeld, but personally, I can’t share in the ‘just doing my job’ defense. We’ll see how long those excuses last when the harrowing techniques developed by the CIA and the military to turn human beings into lumps of quivering protoplasm are learned—and employed—by our ever-increasing enemies against kids just like these.

Obama is pretty worried about looking like the guy who ‘lost’ Afghanistan, but he is a lot less concerned about what was lost here at home, despite his campaign promises to stop presiding over a lawless military regime that murders teenage boys.