Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Poor Lara, the pin-up reporter [Updated]

Just when the humiliation of the big media dinosaurs was beginning to fade away after they got caught holding their respective genitalia by Rolling Stone’s masterful McChrystal scoop (as serially nailed by Jon Stewart, Andrew Sullivan, Frank Rich and my old bud Marc Cooper), along comes the perfectly ridiculous Lara Logan imprudently to reconfirm that they are so far up the military/White House/Beltway power structure’s rectal compartment that they cannot recognize good journalism when it slaps them in the face.

I don’t know who Miss Logan is as I only watch CNN at the gym with the audio muted. She appears to be a beauty pageant winner placed on the screen to attract male viewers not overly concerned with what is coming out of her pretty mouth. If that sounds unfair or sexist, note her answer to Howard Kurtz’s query if there is an ‘unspoken agreement that you’re not going to embarrass [the troops] by reporting insults and banter’.

‘Absolutely, yes . . . there is an element of trust’, quoth Logan.

She then went on to complain that Rolling Stone reporter Hastings had misrepresented himself by pretending to go along with the military hard-ons and then actually reporting what they said instead of burying it in safe innuendo. And, she adds, ‘to be fair to the military, if they believe that a piece is balanced, they will let you back’.

So there we have it: Hastings broke the rules by actually telling the world what Obama’s top general thought of him instead of being worried about protecting his access and his career. And he doubled the sin by not timing his take-down with the insider pack and showing them up as compromised hacks.

Pretty Lara Logan could not have done the same because she knows she wouldn't have lasted two weeks at the loyalist CNN if she had dared to out McChrystal since her bosses are terrified that Fox News will out-jingo them in the cable universe. So she is reduced to looking great standing in front of military hardware.

[Update] Matt Taibbi weighs in on this pathetic hack.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A troubling consistency

I had the pleasure of hearing Yves Smith (who, for the record, is a lady) at a little bookstore here in Manhattan where she was promoting her fascinating book, Econned, (subtitle: How Unenlightened Self Interest Undermined Democracy and Corrupted Capitalism). It’s great to hear someone who knows finance from the inside explain why our inclination to storm Goldman Sachs with pitchforks is entirely justified.

Smith writes a lively blog called Naked Capitalism and is broadly of the pessimist/skeptical school. She argues that the financial industry ‘as now constituted is a threat to the public’. She also thinks the much ballyhooed ‘reform’ bill now slogging its way through Congress to prevent another financial meltdown is pretty much a joke and agrees with the doomsayers that the financiers escaped largely untouched, meaning that eventually they will do it all over again with equally disastrous results or worse.

She is particularly scathing on the arguments being used by the banker lobbyists that certain rule changes (in the derivative area, for example) are bad because they would prevent banks from earning enough money. She uses the car industry to explain metaphorically: ‘If it turned out that a peculiar shared defect meant that all cars manufactured would burst into flames every seven years, it would not be acceptable for car makers to argue, “Well, if you made us fix that problem, our ROE [return on equity] would stink.”’

Finance is arcane enough that no one not really versed in the stuff can entirely grasp the implications of these measures although we can rely on trusted authorities to guide us. But the impression that Obama is too concerned about satisfying the big players at the commanding heights is only reinforced by the news that the shameful Guantámano Bay dungeons may be allowed to remain open because no one in the hopey-changey White House really gives a shit—certainly not enough to risk political capital and a berating by Fox News.

In both cases we see an Administration, duly elected by millions of people eager for a new approach with new priorities, caving to the same people who ran the show during Bush II: the rich and the reactionary. Despite Obama’s lofty rhetoric about eliminating torture and restoring decency, putting an end to Wall Street’s looting and pursuing a peace-oriented foreign policy, instead we get buckling on Guantánamo, no change on rendition, officially authorized assassination campaigns against U.S. citizens, postponement of basic civil rights for gay and lesbian service members, an escalation of attacks against whistle-blowers, impunity for the torturers and a quixotic, probably doomed war in Afghanistan to defend a tyrant and his opium smuggler brother.

We thought we heard a visionary when listening to Obama’s speeches. Instead, we appear to have got a bureaucrat with the instincts of an arbitration judge, trying to broker a deal between opposing sides. Juan Cole pegged it in his essential writings at ‘Informed Comment’:

Obama has largely misunderstood the historical moment in the US. He appears to have thought that we wanted a broker, someone who could get everyone together and pull off a compromise that led to a deal among the parties. We don’t want that. We want Harry Truman. We want someone who will give them hell. We don’t want him to say one day that Wall Street is making obscene profits when the rest of the country suffers, then the next day say that the bankers deserve their bonuses. We don’t want him to mollify Big Oil one day then bash it the next’.

I believe that Cole is right, that Obama could go down as the worst president since Jimmy Carter and for the same reason, too: an inability to develop a fighting worldview that can resist the organized, reactionary fury of the shadow state, the corporate elite and the Christian bigots. Instead, he manifests a hapless me-tooing after the worst tendencies of his enemies under the misguided belief that they are reasonable people seeking a responsible, half-way outcome. General McChrystal more accurately reflected their feelings in his scornful comments to Rolling Stone, but it’s nothing more than the usual output from Fox, congressional Republicans and tea-party favorites like Palin. If Obama can’t hear them he’s suffering from a serious case of denial.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Is Obama a big pansy?

His wishy-washy stance on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell would make you think he’s afraid of being called one. Now we get to see one way or the other: his top general in Afghanistan just committed an unpardonable act of insubordination and has been called onto the carpet.

Stanley McChrystal always sounded like a dubious sort, and the bureaucratic infighting among the foreign policy establishment over the ongoing debacle in Afghanistan has been as intense as a bombing campaign over Tora Bora. But Obama really doesn’t have a lot of options after McChrystal’s public trashing of his civilian boss in Rolling Stone—anything less than getting handed his ass and his marching papers will mean Obama is a figurehead who is not in command.

The worst outcome of this episode would be a big show of a stern private lecture followed by a public spanking on the White House lawn with McChrystal then allowed to go back to work. That would make Obama a laughingstock and confirm the creeping suspicion, based on his fanatical desire to make nice with everybody no matter how much they trash him, that he’s desperate for approval and has no balls.

A Chilean political scientist once told me, ‘Soldiers are like maricones (fags): all over the world, they recognize each other’. If Obama can’t insist on the respect of his own generals, there’s no reason the rest of the world will either. This is a bigger test than any congressional dogfight or spat with the Republicans—this is about whether we have an adult in charge of our future.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Slick and oily—banks crush regulatory reform

While we helplessly await the verdict from Mother Nature on how many decades or centuries it will take to restore the Gulf of Mexico after BP’s assault on it, the news is not good in one area wholly under the control of human agency—the financial system—where the limp controls to be applied to the behemoths who destroyed 8 million jobs are being finalized.

‘Reconciliation’ is the process by which differing House and Senate versions are merged into one, and it is a lobbyist’s paradise as they can get their paid lackeys in Congress to slip in favorable language. But the raw material contained in the bills to rein in the big banks was never adequate, and the final result is likely to be more window-dressing than true protections against another collapse.

Despite the bizarre spectacle of Wall Street now getting pissed off at Obama, essentially for ruffling their feathers with no permanent impact, nothing coming out of the dysfunctional legislative branch will seriously impede the ongoing takeover of the commanding heights of the world economy by the parasitic banks.

It’s amazing how Obama and his party never miss an opportunity to bobble every powerful circumstance handed to them on a silver tray. What more propitious moment have we had in recent history to slap some serious restrictions on the cancerous banks and restore the role of finance to its rightful and boring role in support of business activity, instead of a giant gambling playground for the testosterone-impaired.

Reform of the deadly derivatives casino, spearheaded by the unlikely senator from Wal-Mart, Blanche Lincoln, refuses to die despite the indifference and lack of support from the White House, which saved its energy to block the Brown-Kaufman amendment that would have broken up the six biggest banks and then bragged about it.

Simon Johnson at The Baseline Scenario describes how Obama, while appearing less a handmaiden of Wall Street than his Republican predecessors, does their job, and some would argue, does it better for being less obvious:

‘Simply claiming that the president is “tough” on big banks simply will not wash. There are too many facts, too much accumulated evidence, pointing exactly the other way. The president signed off on the most generous and least conditional bailout in world financial history. This is now widely understood. The administration has scrambled to create some political cover in terms of “reform”—but the lack of substance here is already clear to people who follow it closely, and public perceptions will shift quickly’.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

O Zion

If the Christians ever get their way here and establish an official state religion, this is the scene we can look forward to once the various denominations launch their holy wars over who is a True Believer and who an apostate and, not incidentally, which sect should get the reins of state control and channel to itself the juicy subsidies.

Israel’s rival Hasidic Jews are going at it again in what calls itself a religious democracy, exposing that contradiction in terms more deeply with every passing day. The zionist founders having created their state on the apartheid principle that members of their religious group would have special privileges over and above the territory’s indigenous populations, modern-day Israelis now must face the conundrum of deciding who is the truest of the true Jews.

It’s not an idle debate as wealth, land and power are at stake. Having enabled and empowered the orthodox, then the ultra-orthodox, then the ultra-ultra-orthodox, pumped up their nationalistic and enthusiastically racist tendencies, allowed them to become a Jewish Ku Klux Klan and roam with impunity over the conquered 1967 territories, subsidized their yeshiva network and pandered to their narrow-minded, confessional political parties, Israeli society now faces a Frankenstein slipping ever further out of the superficially secular authorities’ control.

The controversy described into today’s New York Times reminds me of the demented disputes chronicled in Gao Yuan’s breathtaking Born Red about his adolescence in the midst of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. He narrates how ever more purist revolutionary factions sprang up among his classmates as groups of inflamed teenaged ideologues without enough common sense to slice bread competed to denounce more of their teachers, seize school buildings and even kill each other.

That’s merely a variation on what the Yahweh-fearing Hasidim are on about, with their banners threatening ‘Don’t Touch the Messiah’ hanging from the schoolyard rafters and their religious paraphernalia. As long as they merely ostracized and abused Arab non-Jews, no one much cared. But it was inevitable that eventually each fraction would insist that they and only they know how to be Jews and that everyone else is an irrelevant and probably dangerous imitation. And thus the religious whirlygig of time brings its nasty revenge onto the Jewish state.

Our own Founding Fathers, imperfect as they were, knew better than to start up the new nation with people ripping each other’s eyes out over religion. They wrote the disestablishment clause into the Bill of Rights, and the country has had a flourishing religious culture ever since, strengthened by the hands-off position of the state. Battles over belief are as rampant as ever, but they do not lead to coups d’état or public burnings of heretics—or haven’t yet. The Bible-thumpers don’t know how lucky they are and how the strict dividing line between church and state keeps them relatively united instead of plotting how to kill each other.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Breach in the torture regime: Nuremburg Code violations

Torture is forever. Like severe trauma in an individual, its effects may burrow deep within the psyche only to resurface a month, a year, or three decades later, especially upon the occurrence of a newly traumatizing event.

A society that tortures inflicts this wound on itself along with its victims, not in some vague moral sense but concretely. As our nation, with the full knowledge and general complicity of its citizens, embarked on a torture regime after 9/11, the consequences of that Mephistophelean pact eventually and inevitably will ooze forth as turbid slime.

A report released this week by Physicians for Human Rights on illegal experimentation on human subjects is an important crack in the wall of impunity. PHR outlines how Bush’s lawyers, John Yoo and Jay Bybee (now a sitting judge, god help us), constructed memos to protect our national torturers from legal liability in case they were ever prosecuted for their acts. But as always, something had to go wrong.

The 30-page PHR report, entitled ‘Experiments in Torture: Evidence of Human Subject Research and Experimentation in the “Enhanced” Interrogation Program’, will make some as yet unidentified psychologists and medical doctors mighty nervous. It painstakingly points out, using documents in the public domain, that the Guantánamo/Abu Ghraib/Bagram torture regime relied on human experimentation to compile the data that would provide a legal shield for the torturers.

Human experimentation is defined as research on human beings or their identifiable private information whose aim is to ‘develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge’. It has been strictly regulated under our legal system even since the world collectively threw up upon learning of the Nazi atrocities, including concentration-camp experiments on prisoners.

First under the Nuremberg Code and later refined after the Belmont Report through the statute known as the ‘Common Rule’, the United States adheres to internationally-recognized norms and has developed detailed regulations that govern all federally-funded research with human beings.

The 1979 Belmont Report emerged after revelations about the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which rural black males in Alabama were allowed to sicken and die of syphilis without treatment so that white doctors could study the progression of the disease. That made the scientific community sit up and take notice of itself in the post-civil rights era.

Sixteen federal agencies, including the CIA, are governed by the Common Rule. There is even an Office for Human Research Protections housed in the Department of Health and Human Resources.

The Common Rule is very strict about research involving human beings: you cannot perform it if it causes harm to the subject even if the overall goal is to promote the ‘greater good’. There are no exceptions for foreigners or detainees. On the contrary, prisoners are considered an especially ‘vulnerable population’ along with children, the institutionalized and pregnant women, for whom extra protections are required.

The Bush gang apparently forgot all about that inconvenient detail. The PHR report makes fascinating reading because it illustrates how, in their eagerness to provide legal cover for the torturers, the Bush operatives ignored the implications of gathering systematic evidence on waterboarding and other torture techniques and of employing health professionals to do it. These doctors and psychologists monitored victims to check oxygen levels in the blood and the effects of sleep deprivation, and they even recommended changing the water used in waterboarding to a saline solution to prevent hyponatremia, or a life-threatening drop in the salt levels in the blood.

All this was to give the perpetrators of the torture grounds to claim that they were making a ‘good faith’ effort to avoid causing serious harm. But as the report puts it, ‘This strategy therefore may have effectively employed one criminal act to protect against liability for another’.

It adds, ‘Illegal and non-consensual human experimentation can constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity, when its perpetration is systematic and widespread’.

When I lived under Chile’s military dictatorship complete with a secret police that was expert in the ways of inflicting pain and protected by a judiciary entirely in the pocket of the top thugs, no one could imagine that those criminals would ever be brought to justice. And yet, the structure of impunity gradually crumbled and left them exposed to both prosecution and public repudiation.

One curious breach in the wall of impunity occurred when human rights lawyers devised a novel strategy about the disappeared: they argued that the country’s amnesty law—carefully worded to protect those who threw political prisoners into the sea from helicopters—only applied to crimes committed in the past. But ‘disappearance’ could be seen as an ongoing crime: there is no body, no proof of murder, no official accounting for the prisoner. Anyone known to have been detained, even if many years have passed, argued the relatives’ attorneys, is still technically kidnapped today.

The concept of ‘disappearance’ as an ongoing crime was accepted by Chilean courts, and the floodgates were opened.

The Ph.D.s and doctors and shrinks who signed off on these the CIA human subject experiments, loyal patriots all, should be careful to keep their names a secret. Otherwise, things might get uncomfortable when they get ready to present a paper at their next international conference.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Winning with losers

The White House’s anonymous sniping at the Arkansas labor movement for daring to get uppity and oppose the corporate-shill Democrat Blanche Lincoln was a revealing moment. Some Rahm Emanuel clone hiding behind journalistic anonymity said the $10 million the state’s unions spent unsuccessfully trying to defeat her was money ‘down the toilet’, prompting local AFL-CIO and SEIU leaders to remind the Obama team that unions represent workers and are not a tail to be wagged upon command by Democratic Party hacks in fancy suits.

What a contrast to the usual bemoaning of all long-shot candidacies with the ‘can’t-win’ meme (why we had to dump Jesse Jackson for the triumphant Michael Dukakis, for example). Lincoln was always a miserable candidate and is now given a 3% chance of surviving her Republican opponent in the fall. But while the union-backed challenger stirred up real interest among grassroots activists—the kinds of people who put Barack Obama in office—the White House and the reliably anti-union Bill Clinton pulled out all the stops to support a Blue Dog turncoat, despite her vote against health insurance reform.

So actually winning office turns out to be not so important after all, but locking arms with the powerful is. No one should be surprised at Clinton’s loyalties—after all, he loves palling around with George Bush, Sr. The question now is, Does Barack Obama’s instinct lead him in the same direction? Evidence accumulates that the answer is yes.

In any case, the scorn heaped on the netroots and labor from the White House is a curious posture from a party that needs both to win elections, especially now that the Republican Supreme Court is furiously opening the electoral floodgates to corporate cash. While the GOP struggles to tame its wacko wing and reassert its corporate base, the Democrats are acting as though its own corporate base is more than enough, that it doesn’t need actual troops. With displays like this week’s, they will get their wish.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Israeli humor

If there were any further need, here is a good indication of how comfortable Israeli society is with its self-image as the eternal victim and—not incidentally—how this official state martyrdom turns its citizens into moral pygmies capable of pissing on the graves of its victims.

We would have to reach back into the horrors of a recent war or perhaps the torture regimes of Latin America of three decades ago to find a comparable spectacle: a powerful elite eagerly shoving each other out of the way to celebrate its own cruelty and stomp on the miserable.

This vile mockery of the Turkish-led flotilla and the civilians killed by Israeli commandos could be produced by chortling adolescent pricks anywhere. But a state that would join in the laughter is not only morally bankrupt but irreparably blinded by its own arrogance.

It is now Israel—not the Palestinians—who ‘never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’, and although the consequences of each incremental act of defiance of basic decency may not be immediately visible, the effect is cumulative. From the outside it seems odd that a tiny state with a few million inhabitants would speak and behave as if it will never require the sympathy of the world’s peoples because it has accumulated many warplanes and missiles and powerful friends.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Recovery or Relapse?

It is too depressing to read about the total impunity surrounding the murder of an American citizen by pirates—not of Somali nationality—on the high seas. So I turn instead to another distracting topic: lay observation of the economic news.

A week ago the Spanish government eked out a drastic program of spending cuts to satisfy the financial markets worried about that country’s debt burden. This was considered necessary because otherwise Spain would be penalized by the big banks and forced to pay higher interest rates.

So what happened? The lower government spending resulting from the austerity program was seen as stunting Spain’s growth prospects—and interest rates went up anyway. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Europe’s economy looks increasingly as though it is headed into a cul-de-sac: the European states, first the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain), then Thursday Hungary and now even Belgium and France, are all in the bankers’ sights for liquidity and even solvency problems, and any solution threatens further deterioration of economic conditions. In short, they have a version of the problem we had two years ago and may have again shortly. Many of those who purport to know say the spillover will reach us as inevitably as BP’s oil will enter the Gulf Stream heading for the Atlantic.

In fact, here at home Wall Street for several weeks has looked like a pea-green boat tossed upon cloudy seas with wild swings in every direction. Despite the generous bonuses being paid out by the happy banker class to itself, its traditional arrogance fully restored, the problems it created for us all appear not in the least resolved.

Employment is anemic, and the excess housing supply from the bubble years overhangs that grim market, stifling consumption as over-extended householders fret over their economic future. Skeptical economists debunk excessive optimism, and one even announced the ‘double-dip’ recession is upon us already.

It adds up to an abruptly nervous state of affairs. No one really knows if the ‘recovery’ is on track or a mirage in the desert. Meanwhile, the lame financial reforms passed by Congress and actively shaved and weakened by the Obama White House to avoid antagonizing Wall Street have left the perpetrators of the worst economic crimes of the last 50 years unpunished and ready to start all over where they left off.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Let My People Go [Update]

One must dip into Thucydides or Arrian for accounts of warfare as practiced by Sparta or Alexander the Great or revisit the Homeric legends of the Achaians at the walls of Troy to appreciate the Israeli siege of Gaza and its 1.5 million entrapped inhabitants. The classic authors described how hoplite armies would rampage through a territory, ‘lay waste’ to crops in an attempt to starve the civilian populations, coax them out of their fortified cities to battle the foreign troops, then if victorious, arrange for surrender and incorporation of their city-state into the invaders’ empire. Or alternatively, slaughter the male population and sell the women and children into slavery.

Those were the rules, and they made ancient life even more nasty, brutish and short than would have resulted from the underlying physical conditions of their existence. We haven’t advanced very far, have we? Biped instincts for domination by force of arms survive intact, with the losers peremptorily reduced to peonage and servitude.

It is not a pretty sight to observe the New York political elite, Democratic and Republican alike, rush to the defense of the Israeli assault without even stopping for a prudently respectful silence while the dead are being buried. No doubt they are being roundly threatened by their fund-raisers if they dare to deviate from the party line—that Israel is the victim and anyone who questions it is the Middle Eastern equivalent of a nigger-lover.

Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer, Kirsten Gillibrand, figures who score courage points by taking on the absurd Glenn Beck or the greedy Wall Street banks, promptly line up behind those who send naval commandos to shoot at ships carrying food and supplies to the walled-off Gazan ghetto. The Orwellian discourse is on Israel’s ‘survival’ as if people lounging on the beaches of Tel Aviv suddenly were without sufficient caloric intake. And these are the ‘liberals’.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton calls for a cooling off period and a return to ‘calm’. Imagine how tranquil she and the mediatic echo chamber would be had the Iranian Navy decided to shoot up a civilian flotilla in international waters and kidnap 800 foreign nationals? And tone-deaf Joe Biden asks, ‘What’s the big deal here?’

The Biblical stories of the Israelites chafing under Egyptian enslavement provided a powerful metaphor to African Americans in the ante bellum period as the old spirituals like ‘Go Down, Moses’ suggest. What will it take to burst the balloon of illusion and awaken us to the appalling immorality of America’s decades of enabling of these modern pharaohs?

[Update]I see that the same historical allusion occurred to the incomparably smart and knowledgeable Juan Cole.