Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Who will protect the little girls of Beit Shemesh?

It’s a shame that any 8-year-old girl has to put up with abuse, but the hazing of Naama Margolese by fellow Orthodox Jews—albeit of a different sect—is the best civics lesson we’ve had from the Middle East since the fall of Mubarak. [Photo: Oded Balilty/AP]

When hundreds of religious fanatics can line up on a sidewalk to threaten and intimidate little girls, maybe something is wrong with the Zionist vision that the land of Israel is for Jews and only Jews. As in any exclusionary ideology, disputes inevitably must arise as to who is more racially/ religiously/ ideologically/ whatever-ly pure.

The Haredim spitting at Naama for dressing like a slut (apparently her 8-year-old arms were showing) have decided that they, only they, are righteous enough to know what ‘God’ has dictated to be proper biped behavior. This is the exact parallel of the southern Baptists who seethed with murderous rage at the sight of black girls going to Little Rock High in 1961.

Neither is the incident unusual, according to published reports. ‘I think the whole country needs to wake up, that it’s not just a corner in Beit Shemesh, it’s happening everywhere’, a local told The Christian Science Monitor.

It’s too bad that it took abuse of an innocent Jewish child to wake up people to what has been happening in that part of the world for the better part of a century. Can anyone seriously doubt that Arab schoolchildren have been putting up with stunts like this while no one pays any attention? Any objections would immediately be dubbed Hamas propaganda.

The sight of Orthodox Jewish children being called ‘whores’ by religious zealots does illuminate, however, the absurdity of insisting that Hamas recognize the ‘legitimacy’ of the state of Israel—as if the South African problem could have been solved if Nelson Mandela had just endorsed white supremacy.

When Israeli prime ministers get more respect from Congress than a sitting president, we can’t expect an even-handed Middle East policy from Washington. But it will be amusing to watch all the evangelical Christians eager to hitch their wagons to the Zionist train flounder when Israelis themselves can’t decide who is a ‘real’ Jew.

Israeli political leaders, with other, bigger fish to fry, are apparently concerned about the loose cannons on the ultra-Orthodox right. But then again, they’ve empowered these black-hatted fanatics to harass the Palestinian enemy, and their state is based on giving preference and privilege to persons born to a certain ethnic and religious group. Hard to backtrack now.

In addition, the settlement enterprise has made the most extreme elements into heroes and given them military cover for exactly the kinds of nasty behavior on display this week. Too bad when it turns around and bites you on the improperly draped ass.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Bradley Manning & the above-ground railroad

The Manning ballet now being performed in a military court with a pre-determined outcome is not a legal case but a political one. It is a public spectacle demonstrating for all to see which people in our two-tiered country are to be subjected to punishment and which are to get off scot-free.

Manning is accused of spilling government secrets just as Daniel Ellsberg was once long ago. Ellsberg and Manning acted against the United States government’s pursuit of aggressive war unjustified by any conceivable notion of self-defense.

This is the crime for which the accused at the Nuremberg trials were condemned to death or lengthy prison terms. The prosecutor, U.S. Attorney General Robert Jackson, said that aggressive war was the fundamental cause of all the other crimes against humanity that occurred in the 1940s—including the Holocaust.

So did Ellsberg and Manning violent a statute in releasing classified documents? Maybe, but that’s not why they were put on trial. Let’s look no further than Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby’s outing of an active-duty CIA agent who refused to go along with their plans for war in Iraq. They’re off the hook while Manning faces life in prison.

His real crime is whistle-blowing.

Did W’s lawyers violate treaties and our own laws by providing cover for torture? Who cares? Did Donald Rumsfeld and W himself openly admit to authorizing these heinous practices, condemned by civilized nations for decades? No problem. Under the Obama Doctrine, powerful members of the insider club are not to be bothered with legal action or even investigations of their deeds. Only defenseless 20-year-olds who can first be tortured for months in solitary to soften them up must face trial. And given the powers contained in Obama’s recent defense spending bill, he can keep them there indefinitely if he so chooses, without judicial review.

It’s ironic but entirely appropriate that Manning should be facing this kangaroo court just as the U.S. attempt to conquer and occupy Iraq (‘Operation Iraq Freedom’) has ended in failure. While the appalling costs are totted up--$1 trillion of treasure, tens of thousands of deaths, a society ripped to shreds, ongoing death squad actions and terrorist bombing campaigns so relentless and terrifying (such as yesterday’s) that many yearn for the order and relative safety of Saddam Hussein’s era—American military and civilian officials dare to praise this criminal debacle as a ‘liberation’.

And not only are these statements accepted at face value by a society that has utterly lost its moral compass, new war-mongering campaigns are pushed forward at full throttle—a direct result of Obama’s refusal to hold his predecessors legally and politically responsible for their actions.

Here is a Foreign Affairs trial balloon insisting that yet another country (Iran) has really skeery Weapons of Mass Destruction or soon will and that we therefore must get ready to drop bombs on them. Condi Rice’s ‘mushroom cloud’ was effective propaganda, which turned out to be a lie. Rice never paid a price for her perfidy, so we get another round from another unconcerned advocate of unprovoked war. Now, we are asked to swallow more falsehoods and prepare another bellicose enterprise against a country whose annual military budget is one-seventieth ($10 billion) of ours.

Stephen Walt says:

And let's be crystal clear about what [the warmonger du jour] is advocating here. He is openly calling for preventive war against Iran, even though the United States has no authorization from the U.N. Security Council, it is not clear that Iran is actively developing nuclear weapons, and Iran has not attacked us or any of our allies—ever. He is therefore openly calling for his country to violate international law. He is calmly advocating a course of action that will inevitably kill a significant number of people, including civilians.

But so what? Israel’s increasingly demented leadership is very eager for this attack to take place, which is what really matters. The Israeli tail is wagging the dog in Washington more successfully than ever, so much so that even mainstream mouthpieces like Thomas L. Friedman have become alarmed. It’s ironic that the very country that emerged from the Holocaust is now frantically pushing the United States to violate the core principle of the Nuremberg verdict. And it is a testament to the gullibility, ignorance and moral obtuseness of the American people that a huge sector will go along with it a mere eight years after they were bamboozled into the Iraq disaster in exactly the same way.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Are we bored yet?


How long can we bear these elaborate set pieces over minor details and pretend that they equal a political debate? When will it be fair to wonder if the issue of who ends up in charge of our affairs matters? The latest round of posturing by the intransigent Republicans and the pathologically masochistic Obama White House boils down to how much austerity should be shoveled into the latest package of temporary relief for the masses of unemployed and bruised middle classes. But their debate is not over fundamentals: they only dissent over how much wealth should be pushed into the upper income brackets while the social democratic legacy of FDR is slowly dismantled.

Obama’s tying of a tax break to the Social Security Fund is an appalling scandal that, I anticipate, will ring the death knell for the most successful social insurance program in our history, one that even Bush II could not touch. Once the lowered payroll deductions are well established, it will be impossible to return them to previous levels, and the long-standing falsehood about the Fund’s insolvency will molt into fact. There was no need to boost demand in this way as Dean Baker notes in The Guardian:

‘The only reason to tie the tax cut to Social Security is if the intention is to raise issues about the Social Security tax at some future point.The response of the Obama people to this complaint is that this is the only tax cut that the Republican Congress will approve and that we badly need the stimulus. . . . But if that is the case, it only speaks to the incredible failure of this administration to define the agenda and speak honestly about the economy. It's not surprising that they don't have the political support for more effective stimulus when they abandoned the effort to make the case almost two years ago’.

Yves Smith writing in Naked Capitalism a few weeks ago was more emphatic in agreement that Obama’s early error on the economy trapped him in a downward spiral:

‘The widespread, vocal opposition to the TARP [bank bailout] was evidence that a once complacent populace had been roused. Reform, if proposed with energy and confidence, wasn’t a risk; not only was it badly needed, it was just what voters wanted.

‘But incoming president Obama failed to act. Whether he failed to see the opportunity, didn’t understand it, or was simply not interested is moot. Rather than bring vested banking interests to heel, the Obama Administration instead chose to reconstitute, as much as possible, the very same industry whose reckless pursuit of profit had thrown the world economy off the cliff. . . . Obama’s repudiation of his campaign promise of change, by turning his back on meaningful reform of the financial services industry, in turn locked his Administration into a course of action. The new administration would have no choice other than working fist-in-glove with the banksters, supporting and amplifying their own, well established, propaganda efforts.’


I agree with these assessments with one exception: that Obama somehow goofed. I give the man credit for his famous smarts and therefore conclude that he is doing exactly what he wanted to do all along, which is save the threatened behinds of the financier class and consolidate their rule. If Obama is using the Republican wacko brigades to enable him to impose a viciously conservative program of wealth redistribution upward while pretending to be the last-populist-standing, his actions make perfect sense as discussed in indignant detail here by Glen Ford.

There is every indication that the coming election season will confirm that the strategy is working brilliantly and that attention will be diverted to the bad, nasty Tea Party brigades while the 99% are well and finely skewered by the Republi-crat duopoly.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

R.I.P. State of Laws

Nadezhda Mandelstam, writing about the Stalinist terror and its aftermath, said, ‘It is a lucky society in which despicable behavior at least has to be disguised’.

Our luck just ran out.

With constitutional lawyer Barack Obama’s signature and the support of all but 7 U.S. senators, the ancient right to be accused of a crime before a judge and defend oneself from the accusation—enshrined in our founding documents by Franklin, Madison, Jefferson and Washington—will soon be history. The inevitable outcry against this casual, almost light-hearted endorsement of the chewing up of lives in the name of state security, will come too late.

Our society, ten full years after the traumatic events of 9/11, has endorsed the concept that the safety of the majority may be used to eliminate any remaining squeamish hesitations about trashing the rights of individuals. And we can be sure that our ruling lords have registered this very welcome message. Their power is now entrenched, and opposition will slowly be mowed down like spring grass.

It is unfashionable here in America to dawdle over the personal stories of victims of our unleashed police state—ironically, perhaps, in the land of Individualism. In honor of the funeral of the key constitutional protection known as habeas corpus, I share below part of the story of Mohammed El Gorani, an ambitious Chadian teenager who sought education in Pakistan and was picked up at a mosque in the post-9/11 sweeps of anyone who looked suspicious. His story will soon be our own:

I was born in 1986 in Saudi Arabia, in Medina, the Prophet’s city. My parents came from North Chad – I don’t know exactly where. They left Chad for Saudi because they believe that if you live in a holy place, it’s easier to go to paradise. They were nomads, from the Goran tribe. When they arrived in Medina, they took the tribe’s name as our family name, so I’m called Mohammed el-Gorani, ‘the Goran’. My parents were camel herders and always had to keep moving to find grass. But when they arrived in Medina, my father did a lot of different jobs: washing cars, working in a shop belonging to a Saudi – you can’t have a shop if you’re not Saudi. There’s a lot of stupid rules about foreigners in Saudi Arabia. When my parents tried to send me to school, they said: ‘Is he Saudi?’

‘No, Chadian.’

‘There are no places left. Come back next month …’

When I was eight, I went to a school run by a man from Chad. He taught anyone who couldn’t go to a Saudi school. I was there four years until my father got ill. Then my brother and I, we had to start working. We washed cars and sold in the street cold water, prayer mats and beads – you can make good money during the Pilgrimage and the Ramadan. I went every month to Mecca with kids from Sudan and Pakistan to sell to the pilgrims. If the police came, we ran away. We had to be careful. If they capture you, they take your money and your stuff. Sometimes they take you to prison and your father had to come and sign a paper. Thus we paid for hiring our house, for the electricity. We changed house seven or eight times, but we always had electricity and tap water. Not like here in Chad.

He became friends with a Pakistani boy who lived near him. We called him Ali.

When I got 14, Ali asked me: ‘How long are you going to keep washing cars?’ He knew I wanted to be a dentist. All my friends had teeth problems, but there wasn’t a good dentist for non-Saudis – they just pull your teeth out. Also foreigners have no way to study after high school. Ali had taught me some Urdu, his mother tongue: numbers, words you need for selling, anything that’s useful with Pakistani pilgrims. Ali told me: ‘You’re good at languages. If you could speak English, you could work in a hotel in Mecca.’ His brother spoke English and had a good job in a hotel. Ali told me about English and computer lessons in Pakistan. ‘Go to Karachi. My uncles and cousins will welcome you, you just need to pay the lessons.’ I told my parents, they refused. My uncles said, ‘You’re crazy!’ but they knew if I decided something I would do it. My goal when I went to Pakistan was to help my family – life was getting difficult.

Without telling anyone, I went to Jeddah to ask for a passport at the Chadian Consulate. The consulate guy told me: ‘You need to change your name and lie on your age.’ I needed to be 18 and I was only 14 or 15. ‘And you need to pay me baksheesh.’ I had enough money. Every day I gave a part of my earnings to my family and saved the rest in a powdered milk tin that I buried in front of the house. On my last day in Medina, I went to see my Uncle Abderahman. I couldn’t say goodbye openly, but in my heart it was goodbye. It was 1 a.m., not a normal time to visit, as I was planning to leave the same night. I took his hands in mine and kissed his head, like we do in our tradition. In the morning, he told my mum I must have left.

‘Maybe he went to Jeddah, like he does usually,’ she said.

‘No, this time he’ll go far away.’

I took a plane to Karachi. Even Ali was surprised. I called his cousins and they came to the airport. Ali’s uncle taught in his house: the lessons lasted six months, three months of English lessons, and three months of English and computer lessons. I planned to go home after those six months. But two months after my arrival, there was 9/11. I didn’t pay attention – I was very busy with my lessons. Every day, I woke up, went to school, ate lunch, played football with the neighbourhood kids, studied, prayed. Every Friday, I went to pray in a big mosque not far from the house. Most of the people praying there were Arabs, because the imam was Saudi and spoke a good Arabic. One Friday, at the beginning of the sermon, we saw a lot of soldiers surrounding the mosque. After the prayers, they started questioning the people. They were looking for Arabs. They asked me: ‘Saudi?’

‘No, Chadian.’

‘Don’t lie, you’re Saudi!’ It must have been because of my accent. They put me on a truck and covered my head with a plastic bag. They took me to a prison, and they started questioning me about al-Qaida and the Talibans. I had never heard those words.

‘What are you talking about?’ I said.

‘Listen, Americans are going to interrogate you. Just say you’re from al-Qaida, you went with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and they’ll send you home with some money.’

‘Why would I lie?’

They hung me by my arms and beat me. Two white Americans, in their forties, arrived. They were wearing normal clothes. They asked: ‘Where is Osama bin Laden?’

‘Who’s that?’

‘You’re fucking with us? You’re al-Qaida, yes!’ They kept using the F-word.

I didn’t understand this word but I knew they were getting angry. A Pakistani was in the room, behind the Americans. When they asked if I was from al-Qaida, he nodded, to tell me to say yes. I wasn’t doing it, so he got mad. The Americans said: ‘Take him back!’ The Pakistani was furious: ‘They’re looking for al-Qaida, you have to say you’re al-Qaida!’ Then they put the electrodes on my toes. For ten days I had them on my feet. Every day there was torture. Some of them tortured me with electricity, others just signed a paper saying they had done it. One Pakistani officer was a good guy. He said: ‘The Pakistani government just want to sell you to the Americans.’ Some of us panicked, but I was kind of happy. I loved to watch old cowboy movies and believed that Americans were good people, like in the movies, it would be better with them than with the Pakistanis, we’d have lawyers. Maybe they’d allow me to study in the US, then send me back to my parents.

They started taking detainees away every night, by groups of twenty. We didn’t know where they were going to, but we thought the US. One day, it was my group’s turn. The Pakistanis took away our chains and gave us handcuffs ‘made in the USA’. I told the other detainees: ‘Look, we’re going to the US!’ I thought the Americans would understand that the Pakistanis had cheated them, and send me back to Saudi.

So my hands were tied in the back and a guard held me by a chain. We were twenty, with maybe fifteen guards. They covered our eyes and ears, so I couldn’t see much. When they took off our masks, we were at an airport, with big helicopters. Then the movie started. Americans shouted: ‘You’re under arrest, UNDER CUSTODY OF THE US ARMY! DON’T TALK, DON’T MOVE OR WE’LL SHOOT YOU!’ An interpreter was translating into Arabic. Then they started beating us – I couldn’t see with what but something hard. People were bleeding and crying. We had almost passed out when they put us in a helicopter.

We landed at another airstrip. It was night. Americans shouted: ‘Terrorists, criminals, we’re going to kill you!’ Two soldiers took me by my arms and started running. My legs were dragging on the ground. They were laughing, telling me: ‘Fucking nigger!’ I didn’t know what that meant, I learned it later. They took off my mask and I saw many tents on the airstrip. They put me inside one. There was an Egyptian (I recognised his Arabic) wearing a US uniform. He started by asking me: ‘When was the last time you saw Osama bin Laden?’ ‘Who?’ He took me by my shirt collar and they beat me again. During all my time at Kandahar, I was beaten. Once it was like a movie – they came inside the tent with guns, shouting: WE CAUGHT THE TERRORISTS! And they put us in handcuffs. ‘Here are their guns!’ And they threw some Kalashnikovs onto the ground. ‘We’ve been fighting them, they killed a lot of people!’ All that was for cameras, which were held by men in uniforms. I was lying on the ground with the other prisoners. They brought dogs to scare us.


Mohammed el-Gorani was 14 years of age when he was arrested and sent to Guantánamo. Read the rest here:

Britain’s version of the "paranoid style"

Amid the to-ing and fro-ing of the unwieldy European Union over its uncommon currency, the Brits have managed to distinguish themselves for clumsiness and may pay a steep price. Tory PM David Cameron reacted to the latest save-the-euro scheme by picking up his marbles and withdrawing across the channel, saying that the UK would veto any change in the operative EU treaties rather than subject its financial sector to new rules that might cost it cash.

While this dramatic huffing and puffing was cheered by the tabloids and the permanently aggrieved nationalists (the ‘Euroskeptics’), the Brits soon found themselves in a certain unenviable solitude as the other 26 EU member nations more or less went along with the tentative plans, which in any case are far from a done deal and may flop spectacularly just as all prior magic bullets deployed to date. Nevertheless, in diplomacy and especially EU diplomacy, splendid isolation is the one thing a country wishes to avoid. But in the short run, it’s popular.

We see the same here in the Greatest Country Ever as the America-Firsters insist on special treatment and special rules and subject anyone daft enough to question them to Foxocide. This was the attitude deployed against, for example, the International Criminal Court designed to bring war criminals and genocidists to trial—and which the U.S. is not above utilizing despite refusing to join the treaty as it would subject U.S. personnel to its rules.

Another demented manifestation is Obama’s follow-up to the spy drone falling out of the skies over Iran by asking for it back. Um, right. This would totally work if farmers outside of Pittsburgh suddenly came upon an enemy spyplane, they’d just package it up nice and call UPS.

It’s the same mentality at work when W and then Obama insisted that U.S. soldiers and mercenaries in Iraq not be subjected to local laws (failed); when they undermined the Kyoto global warming treaty so that we can continue to churn out greenhouse gases (succeeded); and when they built protectionist measures into the ‘free-trade’ pacts that are all the rage so that our professional classes and intellectual property-holders are safe from competition while our workers must go toe-to-toe with Chinese wage slaves and malnourished Cambodian seamstresses (succeeded wildly).

What these measures have in common is that they play well to nationalists and xenophobes and always will. Bipeds are pretty much convinced that their particular affinity group is special and should be recognized as such while fairness and as sense of a worldwide commonweal mean nothing. It will come as a nasty shock, however, when other countries eventually acquire the power to apply the same principles to themselves. One day, Chinese and Indian leaders will stick their tongues at us while the rising oceans lap at the shores of Miami and Manhattan. We have every right to burn more coal, they will say, under the rules you have set.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Will Iowa 2008 be repeated as farce?

Those who witnessed the Iowa caucuses four years ago reported two phenomena: the impressively well oiled Obama operation on the ground and the surge of grassroots support for him that very few had anticipated. In retrospect, it seems easier to understand the unattractiveness of Hillary Clinton as the inevitable candidate who would usher in a marginal flip back to the Democratic version of business-as-usual. She represented amorphous centrism, for some (complicity, for others) rather than a clean break with the disastrous W years, most starkly symbolized by her endorsement of the Iraq aggression and conquest. Obama captured the yearning for a new approach.

Well, we know how that turned out, but the yearning hasn’t gone away, and if anything is stronger than ever on both sides of the red-blue divide. That, I believe, contributes to the Republican base’s inability to lose its virginity to the Mitt: they know he’ll be a good provider, but there’s no passion. He’s predictable, pragmatic and exudes perfect-hair more-of-the-sameness.

I suspect this year’s surprise is going to be Ron Paul, the marginalized, ignored, and mocked candidate treated as mostly a joke. He’s blunt, uncompromising, lively, and consistently radical, yet he doesn’t sound nasty or mean-spirited like the others. His campaign ads display a youthful, hip aesthetic, and his libertarian views set him apart from the Washington establishment, which constantly does him the favor of pretending he doesn’t exist or shouldn’t—a reaction not lost on voters.

Alone among the GOP contenders, he thinks wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere are a bad idea, and he dares to suggest decriminalizing drugs along with dismantling whole government departments and smashing the Federal Reserve. For a confused teen with an anti-government worldview, this odd combination can make a lot of sense.

Paul’s poll numbers are already substantial in Iowa, and the caucuses are a month away. The Grinch is riding high, but the recent spotlight should burn off a good deal of his sudden luster. Romney remains Romney, alas, and the others have speed-dated themselves into the back corners of the dance hall. In an electoral season with more volatility than the Dow Jones industrials, a Paul surge makes perverse sense.

Not that his winning in Iowa would necessarily mean much. But it would throw the masters of the universe into a whole new panic, and that would almost make the agonizing prospect of a whole year of this foolishness bearable.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Two signs of shifting winds

Obama made a populist-sounding speech this week in Kansas, just down the way from the John Brown memorial. If Americans still studied history, this would not be the first figure one would expect a politician to be associating with, given that if the man were alive today, he’d be sitting in a 4 x 4 cell in Guantánamo.

But I digress. Obama had a lot to say about the unfairness of our current tax and income structure and even summoned the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt (not the conqueror, the trust-buster). He praised the ‘largest middle class’ the world had ever known, foreshadowing his prompt acknowledgment that the ‘basic bargain’ generated by the Depression and the war to create said middle class has ‘eroded’. So far, no earth-shaking novelties. His critique is red meat for the Democratic base: the benefits of growth have flowed to the top while ‘everybody else’ is struggling. OMG, the man is about to ‘mic check’ and carry his sleeping bag down to Zucotti Park.

It gets better: ‘breathtaking greed’, ‘hard work stopped paying off’, ‘those at the very top grow wealthier than ever before’. Obama’s rhetoric is back to 2008—would he perhaps be running for office?

The creepy part of Obama’s speech, however, is how mismatched his lofty words are from his own actions. This is the guy who held perhaps the most powerful cards since the 1930s to break the power of the financier class that he now criticizes when the banksters crawled to Washington pleading for a lifeline to save their institutions. Instead of extracting real concessions and curbing their power, what did he do? He permitted Geithner and Bernancke to pour cash into the largest banks virtually in secret (the details are coming out only now with Bernancke feverishly resisting); perpetrators like Goldman Sachs suffered no haircuts on AIG exposures; banker bonuses a year after the crisis were as obscenely huge as ever; no investigation has been conducted into the sneaky mortgage practices that Obama now dares to criticize, and the few serious attempts to do so (Schneiderman in new York, Coakley in Massachusetts, Masto in Nevada) face concerted Administration attempts to undermine them; no Justice Department prosecutions have been brought against any major players; Elizabeth Warren, the consumers’ advocate, was boxed into a corner and marginalized; mortgage relief for homeowners has been a fraud via easily-gamed programs like HAMP; and on and on.

Obama talks a good game, especially when he wants votes. Maybe he even believes that stuff, which some people will care about. (I don’t.) But in wielding vast executive powers at a time when the entire country would have supported actions to alleviate the gross unfairness embedded in our system, Obama buckled. He folded while holding a straight flush and now wants us to take his rhetorical flights at face value.

Meanwhile, here in New York State our governor has just shifted gears as well. After weeks of insisting that tax breaks for the state’s millionaires’ were sacrosanct, Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday that Albany’s huge budget deficit requires that the super-rich pay some, too. It’s not a great deal, but Cuomo saw the need to use the word ‘fair’ or ‘fairness’ three times in his 60-second sound bite.

This shows the impact of the Occupy movement and the growing consensus that the system is stacked against the 99%. But it’s far too early to crow victory. This is a tactical retreat by the Democratic accomplices of big money, not a change of heart. There is no rediscovery of the core value of a progressive tax system that provides social services, and public transport, education, environmental protection and infrastructure will continue to absorb the costs of the financial crisis and the radically resliced pie that is now becoming a permanent feature of our class society.

Meanwhile, the GOP circus makes it pathetically easy for ambitious Dems to don the heroic robes of people’s champion while doing very little. With a cariacature like Newt Gradgrind—er, I mean Gingrich leading the opposition and calling for the return of child labor, it’s pretty simple to look humane by contrast. But no one should expect praise for endorsing the Emancipation Proclamation or the abolition of foot-binding.

Monday, 5 December 2011

President of Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan mourns departure of Herman Cain from presidential race

My fellow Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stanians:

It is with deep sadness and disappointment that I must announce to you that our much ignored and almost unperceived country has lost its greatest champion in its history: Herman Cain’s candidacy is no more. [gasps, weeping, lamentations, boos, cries of ‘No!’]

I know all of you thrilled with anticipation at the prospect of our tiny, forgotten, indeed pre-forgotten, entity being at long last recognized as a respected partner in the community of nations, despite our barely perceptible national territory on the sides of the world’s steepest mountains. While this accident of topography makes us invulnerable to attack, as almost-president Cain has astutely noted, it also makes it extremely hard to find us without a map. Even with a map. In fact, Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stanians are notoriously hard to pin down about anything, including our own geography. This could have changed, but alas, our defender has bowed to the ruthless pressures of great power politics, and we have been shoved aside once again by other claimants on the world’s attentions, such as Sikkim, Nairu and the Solomon Islands [female ululations, chants of “9-9-9”]. Thank you, I completely understand your feelings.

While it is a bitter burden that we must bear, having come so close to our long-sought yearning to appear in Webster’s Gazeteer of the World, this meteoric but dazzling moment in the eyes—or at least the imaginations—of the entire world must inspire us to greater efforts in the pursuit of recognition. Or even perception. We must never waver in our determination, nor abandon our dream. Our dream of existing and being recognized as such, by trudging ever forward on the trail that Cain, our champion, has blazed. May the flag of Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan, once we invent it, flutter proudly over these virtually horizontal toeholds that we call home and may our descendents take up the challenge advanced so courageously by Herman Cain, to make our reality at long last, real.

Liberal new York, ah yes

We sail upon a sea of blue here in the Empire State, but underneath that satisfied self-image of diversity, tolerance and sophistication is a rather brutal class society and often a painfully corrupt one. Our new governor, Andrew Cuomo, reflects this paradox neatly in his highly ambitious person (2016 is only four years away, wink wink).

Cuomo pulled together diverse forces on the same-sex marriage fight and helped persuade some Republican state senators to break ranks and support it, a remarkable feat and a highly lucrative one as his campaign war-chest balloons with all that grateful gay cash. He was rightly lionized at the PRIDE events in June, but his achievement only demonstrates that rich people can be both open-minded and stingy.

The recession has clobbered the state’s accounts, and while Cuomo slashes spending on all fronts, he has refused so far to even contemplate extending the so-called ‘millionaires tax’ that would provide the state a sorely needed additional $5 billion, or just about enough to cover two years’ deficits. Cuomo trots out the lame excuse that higher taxes will cause the comfy to flee to neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey, which is just silly.

One area that is getting slammed, as usual, is public transport. The city’s subway system receives about half of its operating and capital budget from Albany, without which a ticket would be $5 instead of the current $2.50. After the collapse of the system during the bankruptcy of the 1970s, New York bounced back and made the trains safe and pleasant to ride again. It was a key element in the city’s renaissance, so often attributed solely to the get-tough policing associated with Giuliani.

My very hip bicycling/urban policy group, Transportation Alternatives, reports in this month’s magazine that Cuomo has barely spoken to transit authorities and seems wedded to the Clintonian-centrist idea that viable Democratic candidates for national office have to act like Republicans. That means refuse to tax rich people and to starve public services. This approach has made Obama so popular among his natural base that a worldwide Occupy movement sprang up comprised of indignant youth. But the blind faith in this failed strategy persists.

Across the Hudson, Governor Christie (the fat one) stirred up major poo by canceling the planned tunnel under the river that would have alleviated commuting for his residents. Some people hated it, some people loved it; but at least New Jersey residents now have a clear choice.

We should be so lucky. Now we have a cost-cutting, millionaire-coddling ‘liberal’ governor who will be opposed by cost-cutting, billionaire-coddling ‘conservatives’. The subway system and in the long run the city itself will suffer, but don’t expect these short-sighted pols to offer us a real alternative. Austerity is the new religion, and all must bow down before its mighty banker-popes.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Banks safe, millions to die

Economists and sometimes foreign policy wonks talk about ‘opportunity costs’, meaning the things one can’t do because of the decision to do something else. Crudely speaking, it refers to the fact that one can’t buy a product with cash already spent on other things. Nor can a state send its national guardsmen to put out a forest fire if they’re fighting a war halfway around the world. One can only buy a pencil or a gumdrop with the same nickel.

As World AIDS Day approaches (Dec. 1), the stark opportunity costs of a decade of war and the prioritization of banker profits can be observed with depressing clarity as the highly successful effort to slow down the epidemic is being systematically drained of support. The Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis just announced that its Round 11 of grant funding to the hardest-hit countries must be canceled as donor governments fail to honor their replenishment pledges. The big European development agencies, funded largely by their respective states, cannot commit the promised money as everyone is scrambling to backstop the shaky euro.

As Fund official Stephen Lewis remarked in a ringing denunciation of the donor governments’ collective failure, political leaders have made sure that Wells Fargo could make $4.1 billion this quarter, Bank of America $6.2 billion and JPMorganChase $4.6 billion despite having blown up the world economy. And why stop at banks? Oil companies like BP, Exxon and Shell, hustling us to doom with fossil fuels made $5.1 billion, $10.3 billion and $7 billion respectively. But the measly $1.2 billion needed by the Global Fund cannot be found anywhere, and these same corporate behemoths haven’t contributed a penny either while simultaneously joining the political assault on all governments so as to starve them of cash.

Among those governments reneging on their pledges of support to the Global Fund is good old Obama’s, which can find $1.9 billion per day to fund military activities, but not the promised $1.33 billion per year he promised to fight the three scourge diseases. It’s a rather excellent summary of how the economic system has become our master, indifferent to the fates of peoples, replacing the savage pharaohs and insular monarchies of prior eras.

Lewis acidly quotes all the pious phrases mouthed by Blair, Obama, Bush and many others when making these fine promises to much praise and fanfare (and headlines). But when it comes time to pony up, they’re nowhere to be seen. Keep that in mind when the flood of cynical b.s. comes raining down from on high tomorrow.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Has Obama's next war already begun?

The story around the ‘accidental’ attack on a Pakistani border post emits a foul smell not just because two dozen theoretically allied troops were killed, possibly in their sleep but because it has the markings of a deliberate massacre.

The NATO command’s quick promise to launch a ‘thorough investigation’ is reminiscent of Kissinger’s similar vow once he ‘learned’ of the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia, which in fact he and Nixon had ordered. While mistakes certainly can and do happen in war, the timing of this one immediately prompts a question, Is the U.S. at war in Pakistan or at war with Pakistan? Is all the breathless wanking about Iran just saber-rattling while the next front has already been opened?

The tone of comments from Washington about the state of affairs in that country has been increasingly belligerent. In September a top U.S. general said the so-called Haqqani network, responsible for many deadly attacks in Afghanistan, ‘acts as a veritable arm’ of the Pakistani intelligence service, and Obama’s spokesman didn’t contradict him. Hillary Clinton said during her October visit to Pakistan that the country had to shut down the ‘safe havens’ being used by this group in the border region, using language described as ‘unusually harsh’.

The usual anonymous State Department sources added that Clinton also had threatened that the U.S. would ‘act unilaterally’ against elements like the Haqqani network on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Did anyone assume such unilateral action included firing on the supposed allies’ own soldiers?

Clinton’s ringing statement of principles should win a prize for modernist irony with phrases like, ‘No one who targets innocent civilians of any nationality should be tolerated or protected’. The dozens of Afghan children wiped out in drone attacks should be grateful that they were not officially ‘targeted’ by the videogame drone runners at CIA headquarters. But lookout kids, Hillary’s patience has worn thin, said the commentariat, no doubt after the U.S. Embassy was besieged by the Taliban forces in downtown Kabul for nearly 24 hours. That would be annoying if you’d spent ten years and a trillion or so dollars ‘pacifying’ the place. But ignominious failure has not generated any enthusiasm for a wind-down of this endless and, with bin Laden dead, pointless war.

All these martial phrases recall the notorious threat reportedly issued by Bush-era official Richard Armitage just after 9/11, that the U.S. would gladly ‘bomb [Pakistan] back to the Stone Age’ if cooperation in the hunt for bin Laden were not immediately forthcoming. He denies it, but that’s less important than the constant citing of the apocryphal quote, which has the same intimidating effect. In any case, the message was pretty clear: do our bidding vis-à-vis Haqqani or else. Was two dozen soldiers bombed in their barracks the ‘or else’ part?

All this is nothing new. Obama distinguished himself during the 2008 campaign by taking a more warlike stance toward Pakistan even than hawkish Hillary, and his administration was barely a week in office when the drone attacks started up on Pakistani territory, an early sign of the Bush-Obama continuity on war.

Obama’s people always say that the Pakistani objections to the drone attacks are pro forma and understood by both sides as not to be taken seriously. That’s a convenient explanation. Another one is that Pakistan is too weak to do anything about it. India is more and more the U.S. favorite in the region—Obama visited Delhi in 2010 and snubbed Islamabad by not stopping by for tea—and the Chinese, Pakistan’s historical ally, don’t want trouble. Pakistan gets a billion and half dollars of aid annually from the U.S. and nowhere else to go for it.

Jeremy Scahill, who writes on military issues, says this about how Obama is ‘radically expanding’ the U.S. war in Afghanistan deeply into Pakistan’.

‘Whether it is through US military trainers (that’s what they were called in Vietnam too), drone attacks or commando raids inside the country, the U.S. is militarily entrenched in Pakistan. It makes Obama’s comment that “[W]e have no intention of sending U.S. troops into Pakistan” simply unbelievable’.

‘For a sense of how significant U.S. operations are and will continue to be for years and years to come, just look at the U.S. plan to build an almost $1 billion massive U.S. “embassy” in Islamabad, which is reportedly modeled after the imperial city they call a U.S. embassy in Baghdad. As we know very clearly from Iraq, such a complex will result in an immediate surge in the deployment of U.S. soldiers, mercenaries and other contractors’.


But there’s a big problem with this relentless expansion of the Afghan war into a country of 175 million increasingly hostile people. Although the U.S. can inflict a lot of pain, the long-term goals enunciated by Obama and Clinton may be impossible although we shouldn’t count on their uniformed advisors ever to admit it. In an era of non-stop budget slashing, we’ve already spent the farm on pacifying Afghanistan and succeeded in antagonizing 20 million people while propping up a corrupt nutcase president and his heroin-trafficking brother. Al-Qaeda and other like entities can be crushed, but new ones can also emerge. Does Obama plan for an even larger—and vastly more expensive—permanent occupation of Pakistan? Is that why our Social Security checks have to be slashed?

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The limits of shamelessness

I saw Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism on the PBS News Hour Thursday, an unusual showcase for someone so defiantly critical of both Democratic and Republican postures on economic topics. (Outfits like PBS usually permit ‘debate’ only when strictly bounded by the two major parties such that their differences, while often real, just as often mask deeper agreement on core issues. It is probably not an accident that Smith was invited onto a show sponsored by Bank of America on perhaps the least-viewed day of the year. But I digress.)

The subject was the lack of criminal prosecutions for fraud emerging from the financial crisis of 2008, whose aftereffects remain with us. Four experts were invited to comment, limiting them to two substantial comments each in the ten-minute segment. Three of the four trotted out lame excuses: the cases are SO complicated; the regulatory agencies have SO few staff; the requirement to prove intent is SO high a bar. Smith demolished those arguments to the extent possible in three minutes (the evidence of fraud is massive, the Nevada attorney general is prosecuting with a tiny operation, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires CEOs to sign off on the company’s books and attest to their accuracy).

But more significant, to my mind, was what was left unsaid. No one argued that the accusations of fraud are false, that the bank execs should be left alone, that they’re ‘doing God’s work’, as the inimitable Blankfein said, that the prosecutions are a partisan Democratic attack, that free markets should be left alone to function according to their inherent perfection, that attacking banks is an expression of foolish, Luddite anarchy. One of the four was a former Republican congressional aide and certainly would have gladly poured on those arguments had he dared. But he didn’t.

Contrast that silence with the active defense of torture, indefinite detention, military tribunals, and the wholesale stripping of our Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Amendments. While many objections to these abuses continued to be voiced, whole presidential campaigns are being mounted to actively defend such worthy acts as waterboarding and all the rest of it. My conclusion is that the banker class is extremely isolated, and this should have interesting consequences if another financial panic ensues, as appears more than likely given the ill winds blowing in from Europe.

P.S. One comment on Yves’ blog referred to the ‘Petroleum Broadcasting Network’, which given the steady stream of insufferable bullshit from Chevron featured there, strikes me as very fair.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The MFs at MF Global

MF Global Investments is the name of a rather fly-by-night hedge fund operation established on Wall Street fairly recently. It collapsed a few days ago and has been tentatively found to have lost between $600 million and $1.2 billion of its clients’ money in the course of throwing good money after bad. It did so, the investigators now swarming around its chaotic bookkeeping now believe, by illegally shifting the cash from client accounts into its casino trading operation. In short, it is alleged to have committed the same kind of crimes as the so-called ‘rogue traders’ that cost Barings, UBS and SocGen vast sums.

One notable difference is that the guy in charge of this no-longer-shocking rip-off was until recently the Democratic governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine [above]. Will he do time? After all, a billion bucks is rather more serious, you would think, than the three-dollar bottle of water looted by a guy in Britain during their recent riots—for which said thief received a six-month prison term. We need to resuscitate Victor Hugo and have him rework Les Misérables.

MF Global is another chapter in the ongoing destruction of the rule of law, but the bright side on this occasion is that certain powerful constituencies were ripped off. You know something is up when a leathery old dinosaur like Chuck Grassley is stirring his horny tail shingles over the latest debacle.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission should ‘do everything possible’ to get to the bottom of this, said Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa. Oh, you mean the Commission that you and your GOP buddies have done everything in your considerable power to intimidate, dismantle, starve, browbeat and harass into irrelevance since government cannot solve any problems, but rather is the problem? Good luck getting that entity moving on restoring the cash to your Iowa farmers who used MF Global to hedge future crop and livestock prices.

‘Unlike the big banks, the average farmer who lost money in this fiasco can’t afford to hire an attorney and attend proceedings in a Manhattan courtroom’, said Grassley in an insouciant display of cynicism.

Grassley’s Iowa is where a group of sell-out state attorneys-general periodically gather to find a way to give the TBTF banks a free pass over their looting and wrecking of the economy through mortgage chicanery. His state’s AG, Tom Miller, is at the heart of this scheme whereby the banks would pay a paltry fine in exchange for immunity from things like the robo-signing scandal, fraudulent foreclosures, document counterfeiting, and the mass crushing of homeowners now slipping into poverty. Obama and team are fully behind this plan to further entrench the 1% and reward criminality—the current White House version of ‘bipartisanship’.

Luckily, a few AGs are resisting, like our own Eric Schneiderman, whose election I am happy to have supported monetarily. Schneiderman and prosecutors from Delaware and Nevada are investigating and should be presenting some interesting civil and perhaps criminal cases in coming months. (Hilariously, Miller kicked Schneiderman off the negotiating team for objecting to the sell-out.)

Obama wants to bury all this fraud and ‘turn the page’ as he did with the torture scandal of the Bush era. Republicans are naturally silent because they’re fully complicit. But loyal capitalists, wherever they may be hiding, ought to be demanding a real clean-up with real consequences because, as the MF Global fiasco illustrates, the entire financial edifice requires trust. When clients cannot even be certain their cash deposits are protected from the Wall Streets gamblers, then the game is very close to up. I am already reading advice in the financial blogs that people should hoover up any assets they have and put them promptly into explicitly government-backed and -guaranteed securities because nothing is sacred, and nothing is safe.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Shame

This remarkable video of the Occupy Davis incident—in which a line of armed cops responds to students sitting on the ground and refusing to leave by pepper spraying them as if they were insects—reveals the growing moral force of the popular movement and why the ruling elites are increasingly alarmed.

You can almost read the mind of this poor mook cop, guns and equipment dangling off him at every angle: uppity civilians are refusing to obey my order; therefore, I will assert my authority in the easiest, most effective possible way. No doubt he’s been at a dozen training courses sponsored by Homeland Security or the anti-terrorist network and long ago lost any sense of what policing is supposed to be about or how democratic societies are theoretically different from thug dictatorships.

The students, however, were not so easily intimidated and promptly performed what could become a defining moment of Occupy history. They began to chant, ‘Shame on you!’ and faced the cops down, even pushing them back. This was a brilliant, intuitive discovery of the moral force of righteousness, and Occupiers should replay it on the sides of buildings from coast to coast. The cops suddenly lose their bearings entirely: one moment they think they’re the revered guardians of public order; the next they’re exposed as bullies. Their faces tell it all: they don’t know if maybe the kids aren’t right.

I am reminded of a similar although much more vicious incident during my years reporting from Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Shortly after the notorious degollados murders (the word means, ‘those whose throats were cut’), there was a memorial ceremony in the main Santiago cemetery for the three victims. These were high-ranking Communist Party leaders who were snatched off the streets—in one case as the man was leaving his children at school—and later found dead in a field near the airport.

Memorials such as these were always swarming with heavily armed cops desperately trying to provoke any sort of incident so that they could start cracking heads and hauling people in. (The corrupt press would then blame the victims for starting ‘violence.’) Family members in attendance often had lost relatives to the torture dungeons of the regime or had them disappear never to be seen again. So the rage and resentment was right on the surface, and the attendees had to exercise enormous self-control to avoid giving the goons an excuse.

One of the dead men came from a well-known artist family, and his father, Roberto Parada, began to read a poem, which was entitled, ‘Ode to a Vile Bastard’ while his mother, the stage actress María Maluenda, and the widow, Estela Ortiz, looked on. The cops confidently circulated through the crowd, jostling the mourners and ready to pounce. But Parada just kept reading his screed against the regime and by extension those of its enforcers present, despite the vast imbalance of weaponry and ostensible power. It was an inspiring moment. Then Estela Ortiz then took the stage and let loose a volley of defiant denunciation that I only wish I had had the presence of mind to record. She was utterly fearless and directed her words right into the faces of the cops, cursing them as animals and cowardly thugs of a corrupt regime.

Little by little, the cops began to fall back. The looks on their faces were exactly what we see in the Davis video: surprise, then guilty shock. They suddenly saw themselves for what they were: armed goons harassing the mourning families of the civilian victims of the state that paid them.

Occupy’s radicalism is, in my opinion, precisely there: it is turning the tables on the smug exploiters and making it no longer cool for them to sit atop the pyramid flashing their filthy fortunes. Bankers are no longer the smartest, the hippest, the cleverest, the guys to meet, the A list with the hot babes—they are quickly becoming pariahs, and this, more than anything, will undermine their cozy get-rich-quick schemes.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Occupy = Vote (Not)

Our Mayor One-Percent’s crackdown on Zucotti Park may boomerang as soon as today. The Occupy movement could never thrive as an experiment in Utopian community while mobilizing against the greedy, ruling elite, and now there is a chance its attention will sharpen on the latter while issues of sleeping arrangements and where to find a potty become secondary. No doubt there was a certain creative spirit generated by maintaining a headquarters in the tiny plaza, but it was always temporary. I’ll be curious to see what ideas percolate up next about how to proceed, such as the suggestion that people in the neighborhood start to take in Occupiers so that they can sleep offsite and still stick around. Today’s demonstration should also give us an idea of the strength of the forces sympathetic to OWS and what they/we all have in mind.

A lot is being written about the nationwide coordination of the evictions and the role of Homeland Security, the FBI and probably the Obama Administration. None of this should come as a surprise to anyone not in a coma. The Occupy movement is a gigantic headache for the entire political class, and occasional pious bleatings of sympathy aside, neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are eager to see it grow and coalesce further.

It’s a bit surprising to see even sophisticated observers like Hendrik Hertzberg in the New Yorker miss the point in this regard as they gently urge OWSers to get back into the ‘political’ game and grasp—poor, innocent lambs that they are—that sooner or later it’s all about who wins elections. The Tea Party, these commentators point out, had a major success by channeling its energies into the 2010 elections and thereby imposing the current crew of lunatics on the entire country, despite their relatively low numbers. Or as Hertzberg wrote on Nov. 7, ‘Ultimately, inevitably, the route to real change has to run through politics—the politics of America’s broken, god-awful, immutably two-party electoral system, the only one we have.’

But OWS and its larger constituency have better instincts than that. They know that the electoral game is rigged and that the promises made in November are easily shredded by Christmas. What better demonstration of that fact than the ongoing disgrace of the Obama Administration itself, which systematically marginalized the popular forces that got it into office and folded the uprising against the Bush-era crimes into an electoral machine that it promptly dismantled once the job was done. The right wing, especially the Christian conservative movement, refused to play along with the GOP in that way and kept its potency.

No, OWS is much more a cousin to the rebellions of the 60s and 70s, which is why its propaganda doesn’t even address who’s running for what nor declare itself either for or against any of those guys as candidates per se. Its denizens don’t denounce Obama; they just ignore him. Obvious enemies of the 99% like Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker get mic-checked and harassed, but that doesn’t reduce Occupy Chicago to a voter canvassing operation for his Democratic counterpart. The core of Occupy is direct action, disruption, denunciation, confrontation, and the like, not letter-writing campaigns nor patient tolerance of proxies, even the well-meaning ones, in city councils or state legislatures. That hasn’t worked, and there’s even less reason to believe in it now that corporations can buy that entire system out of their petty cash boxes. As for the ‘route to real change,’ we’ll see about that. I don’t think the civil rights, antiwar, or women’s movements suffered from Hertzberg’s poverty of vision.

Yes, Hendrik, people haven’t forgotten that electoral democracy is better than dictatorship, and no doubt many millions will head out to vote in primaries next year. But as elected European leaders are sidelined in one country after another in favor of ‘technocrats’ willing to do the bidding of the French and German bankers, why should anyone delude himself that the worthy custom of suffrage will save us from subversion at the top?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

"Occupy" the mind

I told someone just last night that the physical occupation part of the Occupy movement was not sustainable in the long run, but that if the authorities tried to smash it by force, they might well regret their decision. The movement can easily assume new forms that the 1% will find even harder to control, and now that Zucotti Park is being dismantled in the usual heavy-handed fashion—with an attempted news blackout to boot—the tactical skirmish is only going to get more interesting.

My neighborhood’s city councilman, Ydanis Rodríguez, is reportedly under arrest with a bleeding head wound. No doubt the cops decided he looked suspiciously Hispanic.

The stupidity of the 1%-defending powers has consistently stimulated the growth of the Occupy movement, and I don’t doubt this will be a further contribution.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Plumbing the depths of moral bankruptcy

Americans still capable of focusing on human decency rather than their own comfort should shudder with revulsion at the cheerleading for torture that occurred in the latest Republican presidential debate. These displays of willful ignorance and bloody-mindedness are farcical, but we scoff at our peril—history has too many examples of the vast damage that can be inflicted by buffoons.

For those who missed the spectacle, Bachmann openly welcomed torturing detainees in dungeons because it has worked so well to date. (Members of the audience stopped pulling the wings off butterflies and cheered wildly.) Cain said torture was bad but waterboarding doesn’t count as torture because he heard a general say so. Only Huntsman and Paul came out against drowning people repeatedly to make them talk—note their rank in the opinion polls.

This repugnant display will generate more ammunition for those voices obsessively convinced that we must save our republic by lining up behind Barack Obama. But Obama is the one individual who did most to enable Saturday’s celebration of viciousness. It was Obama who tried to close Guantánamo, met resistance and then dropped the subject. It was Obama who declared three months into his term that we must ‘look to the future’ and not even consider criminal investigations of ‘our’ torturers.

It was Obama who arranged for a new super-max facility to be built (in his home state of Illinois, no less) to house never-convicted detainees in inhuman conditions of isolation, even though they have been convicted of no crimes in any court.

The justification for this shredding of our 500-year-old system of legal protections for the accused, which dates from the resistance to the arbitrary power of the monarch, is that these particular accused are terrorist bad guys. How do we know? Someone in authority, preferably wearing a uniform, said so. Obama has done nothing to resist this mentality, and the argument that he was powerless in the face of right-wing fury is simply an excuse. We have no idea what would have happened if Obama had taken a firm stand against torture and lawlessness because he never did. And despite compromising away his principles, the attacks rain down upon him as a Muslim symp and a weakling anyway.

We have the worst of all worlds, and the torture regime is now an established part of our legal and political landscape with impunity for the perpetrators. The implications are chilling.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Glug, glug . . . [redux]

So Herman Cain, the implausible, yet real black cracker from Georgia, now passes into the dustbin of history hoist on his own excessively favored petard. The GOP seems cursed forever to relive in ever new ways its morbid fascination with the wanderings of the Clintonian phallus; it flails ineffectually at Obama, wishing that it could focus its hate through discovering a sexual offense in someone who seems contentedly married to a comely wife.

The disagreeably TMI details of Cain’s forays up the skirts of job-seekers (recalling Joan Rivers’ career-making joke on Carson: ‘Are men threatened by smart women? What guy ever reached up a woman’s dress looking for a library card?’) are unseemly, but no Fox commentator can condemn them as inappropriate. Kenneth Starr’s Monica-gate performance, his careful parsing of the trail of semen stains up a certain blue garment, remains within living memory. Our biped politics have always been driven by the exigencies of the male organ, but the modern politicization of the bedroom, stirred to life by the ‘60s and exaggerated beyond farce by the Christian ‘80s, now places it in our, um, faces far more immediately. There is no escape from its heavy-veined demands.

The end of Cain’s brief aurora borealis was yawningly predictable, but his success at Republican speed-dating, while it lasted, reflected some of that coven’s loony core values: contempt for the vulnerable, faux populism in grating tones, ignorance as virtue, the whole mythology of personal superiority reflected in access to ample supplies of cash. Even Cain’s groping was financed by siphoning expense money from a corrupt lobbying system in which luxury suites and high-end snatch were coin of the realm. Cain must be dumbfounded to suddenly realize that his participation in this business as usual is now the cause of his downfall.

The real tragedy for Cain, as outlined by a New York magazine commentator this week, is that his goal of becoming a Sarah Palin-like celebrity and cash in massively on the inspirational lecture circuit is now endangered. He has become a laughingstock while also exposed as a sleaze, probably a fatal combination. But his intuition was faultless: politics as spectacle, the New Hampshire primary as reality television. Maybe he can court Kim Kardashian, and put his hand up her dress live for the cameras.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

How dare these Greeks vote? [Updated]

The EU endgame is illustrating that we now live under not democracy nor even oligarchy but simple bankocracy. If we resuscitated Aristotle, he’d have to rewrite Politics entirely as rule-by-the-global-moneylenders surely never occurred to him as a possibility. No doubt he’d curse us for awakening him from a pleasant 2,500-year sleep for such vulgarity and refuse to enable the (ever more) Dismal Science as dignifying superstition and wizardry.

[cartoon by Martin Sutovec @Jack’s Political Cartoons]

It is remarkable how completely and utterly the core neoliberal presumptions have collapsed in the face of the European debacle: that democratic capitalism signaled the End of History, that this glorious final stage of human development would usher in a permanent state of blissful well-being based on the popular will, the primacy of markets and peace among (roughly similar) nations. But things haven’t quite worked out according to that plan.

As usual, it was biped hubris that monkeyed up the works. Had Merkel and Sarkozy been able to force their banker overlords to absorb the losses of an early Greek default a year or two ago, the rolling EU train wreck probably could have been avoided or at least postponed to more prosperous times (if those ever return again). But this is demanding passion fruits from a sycamore tree. The autistic brains who rule the financier universe, as wonderfully portrayed in the new film Margin Call, are incapable of the long view and want only more, more, more, preferably today but in any case no later than next week.

Geithner and Obama are now demanding of the European ‘allies’ that no peripheral Mediterranean upstarts be permitted to stiff Citibank and JP Morgan as U.S. banks are just as exposed to the new blood-letting as their European counterparts. No doubt Obama’s Democratic team concurs with Merkozy that any hint of putting the Greeks’ fate to a vote by themselves is anathema—another fine Greek word.

Uncertainty and instability have reigned for a good year now, and I read no convincing predictions of what will come next. But this shlumping along cannot go on forever, and I suspect some resolution is approaching, some defining event that, while not conclusive, emphatically points our fragile world in one direction or another. Outright Greek default, of course, is one possibility, an increasingly likely one given the disarray at the top in Greece and the danger that the replacement for the current mortally wounded government will be no government at all. That would cascade through the EU’s and the world’s banks with nasty consequences although it would probably focus the minds of our fractious leadership a good bit.

Another is some form of authoritarianism to get the unruly Greeks (and anyone else getting ideas) back in line. Francis Fukuyama notwithstanding, History has not in fact ended, and the fall-back position of ruling elites has been muscle from the times of australopithecus. One would have to be very innocent to suppose that that option is off the table. Meanwhile, silly assertions of popular sovereignty, like Papandreou’s plebiscite on the debt peonage deal, will not be tolerated.

[Update] I see the economics editor of The Guardian, Larry Elliott, agrees with me. The money quote:

‘The latest phase of Europe's sovereign debt crisis has exposed the quite flagrant contempt for voters, the people who are going to bear the full weight of the austerity programmes being cooked up by the political elites. . . . To the extent that governments had any power, it has been removed and placed in the hands of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. What matters to this group is what the financial markets think, not what voters might want. It is as if the democratic clock has been turned back to the days when France was ruled by the Bourbons.’

Elliott adds that this would be disturbing even if the austerity medicine being administered were working. It is not.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Who will police the police?

Police rallied outside a Bronx courthouse a few days ago to denounce the prosecutors who dared to indict their fellow officers for the ‘professional courtesy’ of fixing parking tickets. Gang leader Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, shouted and stamped his feet over the dastardly arrests since, as he insisted, ‘taking care of your family’ is not a crime.

This headline and story followed two days later: [bold highlights added]

‘Brooklyn Detective Convicted of Planting Drugs on Innocent People’

By TIM STELLOH, New York Daily News

The New York Police Department, already saddled with corruption scandals, saw its image further tainted on Tuesday with the conviction of a police detective for planting drugs on a woman and her boyfriend.

Before announcing the verdict, Justice Reichbach scolded the Police Department for what he described as a widespread culture of corruption endemic in its drug units.

“I thought I was not naïve,” he said.

“But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”

The case was rooted in a far larger tale of corruption in Police Department drug units: Several narcotics officers in Brooklyn have been caught mishandling drugs they seized as evidence, and hundreds of potentially tainted drug cases have been dismissed. The city has made payments to settle civil suits over wrongful incarcerations.

During the trial, prosecutors described the corruption within the Police Department drug units that Detective Jason Arbeeny worked for. One former detective, Stephen Anderson, who did not know the defendant, testified that officers in those units often planted drugs on innocent people.

The detective’s lawyer, Michael Elbaz, tried to discredit the most important prosecution witnesses, Yvelisse DeLeon and her boyfriend, Juan Figueroa. Ms. DeLeon had testified that the couple drove up to their apartment building in Coney Island and were approached by two plainclothes police officers. She said she then saw Detective Arbeeny remove a bag of powder from his pocket and place it in the vehicle.

“He brought out his pocket,” Ms. DeLeon told the court. “He said, ‘Look what I find.’ It looked like little powder in a little bag.”

In the department’s Brooklyn South narcotics unit, for instance, drugs seized as evidence are not counted or sealed until they reach the precinct and can be handled by multiple officers along the way, Justice Reichbach said, adding that such unacceptable practices “pale in significance” to the “cowboy culture” of the drug units.

Anything goes in the never-ending war on drugs, and a refusal to go along with questionable practices raise the specter of blacklisting and isolation,” he said.

The accused, 14-year veteran detective Jason Arbeeny, faces only four years in prison for ruining people’s lives with phony accusations, ironically far fewer than the terms he saddled his victims with.

But ‘anything goes’ in the war on drugs and, needless to say, its capitalized first cousin, the War on Terror, and that simple phrase illustrates how Dick Cheney, Barack Obama and all their little friends are playing not just with fire but a warehouse full of Roman candles in setting whole categories of their enforcers above the law. Police states don’t just appear overnight—they require careful preparation, indoctrination and coaching, and a populace complicit with its crimes. Ours is eager to the point of embarrassment.

Note the similarities between Detective Arbeeny’s tactics and those loved by our Homeland Security teams: you find a guilty party and then figure out how to create evidence around them. So far, the terrorist-hunters haven’t been accused of total fabrications, but what’s stopping them? The day they face NYPD-style quotas to keep their funding intact cannot be far off.

Incidentally, there is a direct line between these abuses of policing power and the criminal behavior of the still-untouched Wall Streeters and their collaborators, the money-churning mortgage packagers and servicers. The nearly dead mortgage market may, in fact, turn out to be the one place where impunity’s consequences most quickly become obvious for the indifferent masses as they see the value of their principal asset—home equity—go up in smoke. This already has happened to millions, but many, many more could suffer a similar fate unless the ongoing legal shenanigans are investigated, exposed, prosecuted and thereby stopped. The Obama/Geithner team’s insistence that all will be well if we just let the banks get away with all their crimes is going to end badly—how is the housing market ever going to recover if people cannot trust even the deeds to their own properties?

Friday, 28 October 2011

Policing OWS [Updated]

The New York Police Department has been getting some bad PR lately, all of it richly deserved. Here’s a roundup:

[from the NY Times]: ‘Eight current and former New York police officers were arrested on Tuesday and charged in federal court with accepting thousands of dollars in cash to drive a caravan of firearms into the state’. The laddies in blue were also accusedof organized cigarette smuggling, and from the sound of the wiretap quotes, pretty much anything else they could rip off and resell. These free-lance capitalist stalwarts in uniform have ties to a notorious neighborhood in Brooklyn that, um, tends to have a low incidence of street crime, wink wink.

In another case, a former police officer recently testified in court that he and his colleagues planted drugs on innocent (black) men to meet their arrest quotas and—believe it nor not—earn overtime. (One can imagine the camaraderie in the canteen: ‘Hey, Tony, let’s go frame a few [deleted] and charge the extra hours so we can make our boat payments.’) Hundreds of drug cases were then thrown out as the evidence was, quite reasonably, judged to be tainted and unreliable. The false-arrest lawsuits are just beginning.

The entire issue of arrest quotas was roundly denied by NYPD higher-ups when it first surfaced; then the Village Voice published a four-part series based on secret tape recordings of precinct meetings in which cops were ordered to meet their (non-existent) quotas. Oops!

Then there’s sexual assault, which is getting a lot of media attention here due to the serial gropers and rapists preying on women. Turns out one of them might be a cop—an active-duty officer got caught exactly one block from my Inwood apartment building using his service weapon to threaten and rape a schoolteacher, and detectives are trying to decide whether he was responsible for other assaults around town.

There’s more! Indictments were just handed down today in a gigantic ticket-fixing case in the Bronx where cops routinely made sure that friends and relatives never had to pay like other poor slobs without family connections to corrupt bureaucrats and their enforcers. Anyone who has to face the permanent agony of parking in this city will be dancing a jig in glee at the sudden appearance of Lady Justice.

Ironically, the big gun-running bust may have originated from a ticket-fixing investigation when the anti-corruption squad started listening in on cops to see who was involved and got an earful of their other activities. But the connection is less accidental than it may seem at first glance, and the discovery hardly serendipitous.

When the ticket-fixing scandal broke a while back, a disturbing number of commentators tended to brush it off as no big deal, Aw well, just a guy doing someone a favor. Patrick Lynch, the loathsome head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (who cheered the death of unarmed Sean Bell in a hail of police bullets—50 of them, to be exact—a few years ago) immediately criticized the investigation and insisted that ‘this thing’ should and could have been handled differently, i.e., in secret and with kid gloves, the way the cops are used to being treated.

But allowing cops to fiddle with parking tickets is extremely dangerous, and the city should be applauded for not tolerating it—finally. If the police force is allowed to evolve into a Mameluke-type caste of professional muscle beholden only to itself, it’s only a matter of time until a few rogue elements decide to take the next logical step and become a criminal syndicate. Why not? Who’s going to stop you if you’re the one who decides who gets arrested?

Only the naïve will believe that the ambitious gun-smuggling cop gang is the sole dubious operation inside the NYPD, despite all the stern finger-wagging from top officials. Aside from the overtly criminal scams, there is a much larger secret-handshake pact in force in the city, one that includes the real criminal masterminds: the thieves on Wall Street and the fancy cast of socialites who thrive on their loot.

OWS has astutely understood, in its amorphous, non-hierarchical way, that the NYPD’s constant stop-and-frisk practices are part and parcel of this control system. New York cops stopped 700,000 people last year, almost all of them black or Hispanic males. Willie Hazzard [right] has been harassed in this way 17 times while walking down the street, often with his two children. His Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn has recorded 14,000 cop stops—equivalent to one per resident. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there’s no arrest. The department insists there’s no racial profiling involved, an assertion some children under age 4 are thought to believe.

All this comes from the famous “Broken Window” crime-prevention theory associated with the Giuliani era, but the result is huge numbers of black and Latino kids busted for pot even though white youths smoke it more. Those arrested are then saddled with a criminal record for the rest of their lives, just the thing to keep them out of the ever-shrinking labor pool. Since we already have the largest prison population per capita in the developed world, the real unemployment rates are really much higher to start with.

Wall Street benefits from the huge pool, created by its system of organized looting, of nobodies deprived of a decent living, and the city’s cops cooperate by harassing minority youth squeezed into the economic margins with no prospects. So let us not be surprised as the city power structure finds new ways to besiege and repress OWS at the bidding of its banker friends. Today’s announcement that the fire department will inspect the encampment’s generators is a good example: pointless attention to formal rules in the service of the guys who wipe their asses with the law each morning before breakfast.

[Update]: I see that Lynch led a group of several hundred NYPD officers to the arraignment of the ticket-fixing colleagues and insisted that they should be let off because ‘taking care of your family’ and of people who ‘support police’ was NOT A CRIME.

So here are a few questions for Mr Lynch:

If it is okay to alter official police department documents to protect family members from parking violations, would it also be proper to do the same to protect them from, say, a breaking-and-entering charge? A rape charge? A hit-and-run charge?
If not, what are the criteria to determine the difference between what is NOT A CRIME (despite being listed as one in our statutes) and what should, in fact, be considered an actual crime?

Who should make that decision? You? Any NYPD officer? The precinct captain? Charlie Rose?

Those citizens of New York who are not related to police officials do not have their instant get-out-of-jail-free card available. You did mention similar benefits for those who ‘support police’? How does one go about obtaining that designation? Is there a membership card? How much are the dues? To whom should they be paid? Can I use a credit card, or do you prefer cash?

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Vote with your feet

The disconnect between the electoral spectacle that embodies our formal democracy and life back on earth is becoming more stark by the day. Tunisia has shown us an excellent example of how to run a workable parliamentary system by shortening the campaign season to a few weeks, rather than than the 18 months of relentless abuse we are now subjected to, every bit as exasperating as subway harangues from wheedling beggars and screeching religious nutbags. (Tunisian turnout was an impressive 90 percent.)

But the most annoying part of the Chinese water torture known as election year hasn’t yet begun: the nonstop whining we are about to experience from appendages of the Democratic Party telling us what we ‘must’ do to stave off the greater GOP evil by dutifully lining up with the current team. One of the recurrent themes we will be hearing is that of the crucial importance of controlling nominations to the Supreme Court, which will fall to the K Street lobbyists if Obama does not return.

It’s true Obama’s nominations have been a rare bright spot, and Sotomayor and Kagan are holding the line admirably though without much effect so far. And therein lies the nub: the Supreme Court, being a political institution, is influenced by the currents and overall zeitgeist of the society in which it resides. To date, the radical ideologues put there by the Repubs have had clear sailing to do their will because opposition to their designs on our democracy are so toothless—starting with the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania.

FDR had a notoriously recalcitrant Supreme Court that kaboshed his New Deal innovations one after another. But he had the winds behind him, and eventually (despite or perhaps because of the dust-up over his 1937 court packing scheme) the Court buckled and stopped standing in the way of his reforms.

By contrast, the New York Times Magazine noted in August that Obama hasn’t even bothered to push his appointments to the federal bench, from which Supreme Court appointments usually emerge. Bush placed 13 of his guys on federal appellate courts during his two terms; Obama so far—zero. In fact, Obama has failed to insist on 80 vacancies to federal district and appeals courts, choosing instead to shy away from confirmation fights. Instead of fighting, he waits for his sworn enemies to make nice, and meanwhile we get awful decisions like Citizens United (that made corporations into persons with First Amendment bribery, er, advertising rights legal).

Occupy Wall Street is much more likely to influence the shape of future judicial decision-making than this or that Demo pol boosted into office with obscene sums of Wall Street and K Street cash. We can stand around debating whether people must vote for these jamokes or refuse to do so, and there will be consequences either way. But the actions we need today are not in the polling booth; they’re in the parks, the meeting halls and yes, the police precincts.

P.S. Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism demolishes the latest Obama mortgage relief scheme. She calls the plan ‘yet more proof that this Administration is not about to inconvenience banks to help homeowners and communities. It has tools in its power that would change the incentives for banks and make them far more willing to do what the overwhelming majority of mortgage investors would prefer, which is to provide deep principal mods for viable borrowers, [force] banks to write down seconds, and tak[e] an aggressive stance on foreclosure fraud. . . . But just as the banks and their captured governments in Europe seem intent on grinding down entire economies to extract their pound of flesh, so are banks in the U.S. continuing to operate a doomsday machine that grinds up housing with no regard for the economic and social costs’.

Does anyone seriously think the pushback on this ongoing scandal will come from Washington, rather than the streets?