Saturday, 30 July 2011

We've been screwed

What a pity that the dramatic budget showdown between Obama and the loony-tunes right is a fraud. We could have used a real fight over real visions of the role of state finances in the midst of recession and over government in general, whether it should aid the needy or merely clear a path for rich and privileged.

Unfortunately, the fight was over before it began because Obama’s position is so close to the Tea Party’s own that it can’t find anything substantial with which to oppose him. Want to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block? Done. Want to rewrite history and claim that government spending is the cause of our economic ills? Published. Want assurances that the federal government cannot come to the aid of states as they suffocate under the bankster-created crisis? Signed in blood-red ink. Want the head of Elizabeth Warren on a platter? With parsley or cilantro?

Since Obama has essentially carried out the teabagger program without much prodding, the Republican freshmen do look quite demented, and with such a tail wagging the legislative dog, anything can happen. Not content with Obama’s $4 trillion slash that will leave the poor and middle classes poorer while the top 0.1 percent scoop up what’s left of our lunch, the unleashed wild dogs of Washington roam Capitol Hill looking for something more to scavenge. Given their backgrounds in millenarian Christian cults, they scoff at warnings that they will set off an apocalypse since they fully expect one in any case and, for many, the sooner it comes the better.

More likely, however, is that calmer heads will prevail and realize that the Republican program has been shoe-horned into being by the nation’s first black president. Why, it’s better than Clarence Thomas outlawing affirmative action. And while the liberal troops still in the thrall of the Democratic turncoats wax indignant over right-wing antics, they barely notice that behind their backs the New Deal has been undone.

A truly progressive or even a modestly centrist Democratic president would have taken on the financial elite that drove the world economy off a cliff, taken advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shrink the bloated financial sector and strengthen production, fought for a stimulus package large enough to fill the gap in demand cause by the bankers’ wreckage and insisted that the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy end to restore government fiscal health. He would have railed against any plan to balance the books on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid as a huge majority of the country wishes he would. Now that would have been a fight worth buying a ticket for.

Instead, Obama has run interference for the banks, shoveled cash at them furiously, allowed the paltry reforms to be undermined, adopted Republican rhetoric on entitlements and budget horrors, given away the store on taxes and still scrambles to find more red meat to satisfy the howling hyenas of the right.

I get a slew of urgent e-mails daily from all sorts of progressive groups urging me to sign onto this or that petition to complain about Republican skullduggery. But I’m still waiting for one of them to rise up in glory to blurt out that the grand hope-and-change candidate we all went out to elect has become an emperor not only standing there stark naked but waving his business at us worse than Anthony Weiner ever did.

Behind the phony fight over the silly debt ceiling stands a two-headed political class that has joined forces—despite appearances to the contrary—to impoverish us. Its principal agent is Barack Obama.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Permitted thoughts

What a contrast in the tone of reactions to the Norwegian slaughter once the suspect turned out to be not an Ay-rab but an Ar-yan and a specimen out of a Warner Bros war movie to boot. Remarkably, some news organs promptly decided that ‘terrorism’ was therefore not involved since apparently only officially-designated enemies can engage in such acts. Merely executing dozens of teenagers out of ideological zeal does not qualify.

The New York Times didn’t even bother to apologize for rushing to trumpet that an al-Qaeda-like entity had committed the massacre, saying ‘initial reports’ from ‘some analysts’ had steered them wrong. ‘There was ample reason for concern that terrorists might be responsible’, whined the Times in its own defense. That’s extraordinary. If Arabs did it, it’s terrorism; if a white guy goes nuts with guns, it’s not.

Terrorism is therefore not what you do; it’s who you are.

Note also the howls of indignant outrage from immigrant-bashers that anyone could dare to suggest their steady demonization of dark people could possibly have ANYTHING to do with the lone-wacko-gone-crazy. Why, it’s ‘blood libel’ to suggest anything of the sort, as Sarah Palin would say, and Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, quoted approvingly by the assassin in his mega-screed, actually referred to the rising ‘blood lust’ against her in the blogosphere. Eighty kids get lined up and shot, and right-wing pundits promptly declare themselves to be the suffering victims.

The Jerusalem Post editorialized that, while the tactics employed are heinous, terrible, etc., etc., Mr Breivik’s overall position on the topic is, well, more or less correct. It added that ‘discontent with multiculturalism’s failure must not be delegitimized’ especially since other right-wing murderers might be waiting in the wings. So the liberal zionist position is something like this: Breivik’s tactics are somewhat inappropriate, but given how crazy people are out there, we should do what he says and keep out Arabs.

Contrast these reactions with the thought control exercised after 9/11 in which we were told exactly what to think and exactly what to feel for weeks afterward and furthermore were warned that to dissent in the slightest way was essentially treasonous. We were then forced to line up behind the demented conquest of Iraq as a result, based on the ‘mushroom cloud’ scaremongering of Condi Rice et al. Instead, today we are not even permitted to wonder out loud if perhaps-maybe-possibly all the immigrant-bashing rhetoric from raving bigots might have played a role in the deaths of Norway’s children given that the guy who did it quotes them at length.

It took Glenn Beck about ten minutes to decide that the dead were, in fact, like Nazis because they liked to gather in the woods and think political thoughts. Good for Juan Cole for campaigning for the man to be refused air space for all eternity—even though it won’t happen. (I’ll happily join Cole’s call for a boycott and plan to send hand-written notes to all Beck’s advertisers one by one, a far more meaningful act, may I add, than cyber-signing the half-dozen online petitions I’m sent daily.)

Breivik’s act does indeed remind us of Europe’s fascist demons and occurs, not incidentally, exactly as the European unity project is wobbling dangerously and threatening to spin out of control. The Greek debt crisis has been politically unmanageable precisely because nationalist sentiments, not least in Germany, have trumped the European spirit. Fiscal union and a single European treasury has never seemed more far-fetched, and dismemberment of the Eurozone remains a plausible outcome.

Norway's mass response to this heinous crime has been inspiring--sober, dignified and resolute. But storm-clouds are gathering on humanity’s horizon.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Heading Out [Updated]

Will try to check in en route. Wednesday's stop: Ossining and Connecticut.

Back in one piece Sunday 7/24, had to abandon ship, er bike, in Fall River (no Lizzie jokes!) when temp hit 101. More on lessons learned along the way later today and this week.

Saturday, 16 July 2011


I wish that were my own coinage, but alas, it is not. However, it does convey the dimensions of the U.K. scandal gobbling up the poisonous Murdochian squid at the heart of British journalism if indeed that term still applies in this case.

We’ve been unaware of the rumblings across the pond about this scandal for the last several years, and it’s easy to see why we didn’t grasp its implications. After all, chasing after celebrities and engaging in all sorts of skullduggery to get a photo of Sarah Ferguson sucking the toes of her boyfriend while inconveniently married to a Windsor prince was considered fair game, rather nasty and all that, but the price of fame and fortune to those basking in them. We were more dismayed at the viciously partisan tactics employed by Murdoch’s American arm, Fox News.

But the thing crystallized when word leaked out that the Murdoch tabloids had hacked into the phone messages of a disappeared teenaged girl who eventually turned up dead, not merely violating her privacy but even—by erasing messages to make room for more headline-generating data—giving her grieving parents false hopes.

Murdoch had to personally beg the dead girl’s parents’ forgiveness—but it was too late. It was now clear, as one wag put that, that Murdoch’s form of yellow journalism hadn’t just crossed the line but erased it.

Now we’re hearing about the incestuous coziness between Murdoch’s chief lieutenants and the entire British political class, something akin to the Fox-Rove-GOP axis here at home. (All that’s left to round that out would be former one-term president Barack Obama then hiring on as the network’s ‘liberal’ commentator in 2013 in exchange for several millions a year—don’t scoff.)

But this scandal has plenty of staying power. We still don’t know all the facts, and they can only get grubbier. The FBI is trying to see whether Fox/Murdoch minions tried to hack 9/11 victims’ telephones, and the financial regulators should be asking some pointed questions as well, such as, Kindly detail how your company’s accountants posted payments from News International to British police officers, payments often known as ‘bribes’ or ‘payoffs’. Please take your time and answer fully given that false statements are punishable under federal statutes.

Like all Masters of the Universe, Murdoch badly misread the scope of this debacle and thought he could use his usual combination of threats and succulent emoluments to get his way. Instead, his bid for a U.K. satellite company not only collapsed after a unanimous vote in Parliament, he’s undoubtedly going to have to give up his remaining minority stake. His son James went from heir-apparent to next up on the guillotine. Murdoch himself may be lucky to escape an orange jumpsuit. In any case I expect to see the entire NI operation under brand-new management, or ownership, soon.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Snoops brought low

Like Watergate, the accelerating implosion of the Murdoch empire was provoked by breaches of privacy. Richard Nixon, as part of his successful game plan to crush the pointy-headed McGovernite liberals and the ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’ who opposed his continued slaughter in Vietnam, authorized spying on them and other dirty tricks, then tried to cover up the wiretapping, snooping and manipulations through payoffs and dissembling. Eventually and ironically, he was brought down by his own tapes of his own conversations, hoist on the petard of eavesdropping as a way of life.

The Murdoch octopus, comprised of British tabloids, The Times of London, the Wall Street Journal, Fox and until recently a major British cable company, may face a similar fate and through similar means. After making life hell for anyone who stood in their way by snooping on them, tracking their movements almost before they made them, hacking their cellphones, intimidating them and possibly blackmailing them, in the spirit of J. Edgar Hoover, with dossiers on their secrets—in short, by using the cover of journalism to campaign relentlessly in favor of the empire’s pecuniary interests, Murdoch’s minions now face the blinding spotlight that they have made a facet of British life. No one will pity their discomfort, and if god is indeed great, it will be severe.

Is it not curious that abuses of the sanctity of private life can generate such political earthquakes? Murder victim Milly Dowler’s family was consumed with grief over the loss of their teenage daughter to a sexual psychopath, but Murdoch’s media machine could not see past the succulent headlines to be gathered from the victim’s phone messages. A public indifferent to the annoyances of movie stars pursued by photographers was appalled. Similarly, Nixon’s ‘plumbers’ thought his enemy’s psychiatrists could have useful data to marshal against the boss’s critics and so burglarized a shrink’s offices in an attempt to humiliate Daniel Ellsberg. No one was safe, no private space immune.

While illicit spying has triggered these political avalanches, popular revulsion is not over the snooping per se but the hubris generated by snoopers’ vast powers. People react to the implications of placing such capacity in the hands of the mighty. If the president himself can wiretap his enemies and send out the IRS to harass them over taxes, who can stop him? If Murdoch’s tabloids can buy your medical records and bribe chief investigators at Scotland Yard, how is that so different from dictatorship?

The Cold War presented the contrast between a lively, open society with citizens unafraid of their governments and the frightening Big Brothers of the eastern bloc where secret police overheard everything and threatened the dissident with Siberia or simply the social annihilation easily accomplished by an authoritarian state. Yet once the Soviet Union disappeared, it is we who are fair game for the insatiable maw of the security apparatus, fed by the threat of terrorism and perversely eager to keep it alive to justify further intrusions into our e-mails, our library borrowings and our private telephone conversations.

Carl Bernstein is quoted in The Guardian today saying that this is ‘the beginning, not the end’ of the seismic event. With Murdoch’s protected favorite, Rebekah Brooks, now having resigned, it is evident that the man behind the curtain is frantically pulling at the levers but producing no smoke. We’ll see how much he enjoys being the story instead of controlling it.

But in the long run the Bush-Obama spying/snooping extravaganza will have to face scrutiny, too, for example, over this shameful episode. Our bought-and-paid-for members of Congress lose no sleep over the gross abuses contained in the Patriot Act and barely debated its renewal after the current administration requested it. This does not mean the citizens they purportedly represent will forever share their indifference.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Oh Bliss, Oh Ecstasy

Get ready for some real fun: Britain’s Watergate is here and promises to provide months of joyous entertainment and much deserved suffering of the truly and appallingly awful.

The British version of Fox News has taken a huge hit after one of Murdoch’s slime-soaked operations, News of the World, was found out hacking into the voicemails of crime victims and relatives of those of died in the subway terrorist bombings. Incredible as it seems, their reporters interfered with an ongoing police investigation and even deleted messages to a missing woman [above]. She was later found dead.

Needless to say, the Brits are not amused.

Here in the U.S., we are accursed with the steady rotting of political discourse caused by Fox, Limbaugh and other purveyors of hysteria, but it’s nothing compared to the role played by the Murdoch media empire in the Old Country, something much closer to the soft coup achieved by Berlusconi in Italy. In both cases media deregulation and consolidation allowed vast powers to be accumulated in the hands of a single billionaire, thereby subverting the democratic process as illuminated here.

In the Italian case Berlusconi used his businesses to take power directly; Murdoch preferred to exercise it from the wings. But in Britain the game may be up as many further chapters of the scandal are anticipated.

For now, the closing of News of the World, one of Murdoch’s favorite vehicle for recycled sewage, has generated some hilarious about-faces among its soon-to-be-unemployed staff, who all see themselves as victims of a terrible injustice. The Guardian quotes one:

‘The phones on the news desk have been ringing all week with people shouting the nastiest, most vile abuse’. Sort of like what happens when Fox News gets you between their cross-hairs, isn’t it?

The accused top execs are being followed by a media scrum of the sort they usually generated for others. We can only hope that god does in fact exist and that these painful harassments last for months or years.

The coverage of the sudden shift in the fortunes of the Murdoch family [below right] in Britain is massive and particularly focused on whether their current bid to further consolidate the empire with another television channel, known there as BSkyB, may be sidetracked. But a long analysis in The Guardian provided a sharp reminder of what is at stake in this long stare in the foully stinking heart of British politics.

The jointly-signed piece recalls how dependent former Prime Minister Tony Blair was upon Murdoch’s support and in the end how comfortable with the improperly symbiotic relationship. Just before pledging full support to W’s disastrous invasion and conquest of Iraq, Blair was on the phone to Uncle Rupert nearly a dozen times, no doubt getting assurances of the tabloid publisher’s support.

So while millions of people in the U.S. and the U.K. poured into the streets to denounce the unnecessary and criminal war, the voice of the people meant nothing. Blair backed the slaughter of hundreds of thousands on a vote of 1 to 0.

That is the perverse and dangerous system that Hacking-gate threatens at long last.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Scary Movie 2012

Frank Rich’s profile on Obama entitled ‘Something Rotten’ appeared in New York magazine this week, Rich’s first major essay since leaving the Times. It’s a fair, devastating take-down, all the more so because Rich is sympathetic and had high hopes for the Obama presidency. But it breaks very little new ground. It catalogs Obama’s serious weaknesses and states the obvious: that his re-election is in big, big trouble. In a sane world against a remotely credible opponent, Obama would be a huge underdog.

Of course, we haven’t inhabited a sane world for some time, which is troublesome not just because some complete wacko may soon be in charge, but because a presidential election year brings out the worst in those benighted creatures on two legs and their weak leaders. I also fear what could come next, not just next November but the whole tedious stretch leading up to it. We really have no idea how Obama would react upon facing defeat, and he has not been the least bit shy about wielding and adding to the vast powers his predecessors bequeathed him.

There are two arenas in which I find Obama’s instincts particularly worthy of anxiety if not alarm: the New Deal legacy and the international sphere, specifically the Iranian bugbear.

As to the former: Rich argues that Obama’s biggest mistake was not slapping down the finance industry when it was on the ropes. By throwing it a taxpayer-funded lifeline without extracting anything important in return (the lame reforms in Dodd-Frank are a mild and scarcely relevant exception), Obama mortgaged his administration to the idea that returning quickly to the failed, old ways would restore economic health. He thereby re-energized the rapacious banking sector, whose natural allies are his mortal enemies in the GOP.

Obama now has no real constituency left in economic policy: the Tea Baggers think he’s the anti-Christ; many of his erstwhile boosters see him as a sell-out; and Mary & Joe Main Street are unemployed or underwater and cannot trust him. Only the tiny minority of die-hard Democrats will follow Obama into the Valley of Death even if a large additional slice eventually sickens at the thought of Bachmann and Romney on the evening news and throws him their votes. But I do not anticipate long lines at the polling stations as in 2008.

So where does Obama go from here, having tossed his chance for an appealing populist, neo-Rooseveltian stance? All signs point to further pandering to the rhetoric and demands of the greedy, swallowing the GOP deficit mania whole hog and desperately seeking BFF status with people who would like to see him in livery welcoming their guests at the front gate. We can anticipate the usual pattern of Obama giving up the farm before negotiations begin, then throwing in Mom’s retirement cottage when the opposition digs in its heels.

But why stop there? The scenario could get much worse: why merely lose in the budget talks when you can give away even bigger prizes?

For example: Obamacare is a big, fat target for the incoming Republicans should they come back to haunt us next year. But what if a new Grand Compromise were made attractive to them? Why couldn’t Obamacare be a model for dismantling the single-payer government-funded healthcare monoliths that Republicans have been aiming at for decades? Force seniors and the poor to buy Obamacare-style insurance instead of guaranteeing them free medical services, and voila, the budget is freed up for more tax reductions.

Democrats are cynical enough to sell this to their base, and who would stop them? The party machinery would immediately go to work to convince us that it’s the ‘best deal we can hope for’ and will ‘preserve’ these programs for future generations, etc., etc., blah blah.

That’s a cynical view, to be sure, but here’s one to top it: why shouldn’t Obama greenlight an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities next year? Because he got the Nobel for peacemaking once upon a time? Pardon my chortle. The Israelis are itching to do it; the neocons would cheer; the Democratic establishment would grumble and go along. Many liberal Jews would be ecstatic. A few wise dissidents would warn of dire consequences, but three quarters of Congress would stand on their chairs to support it.

Rich has little to say about what drives Obama; perhaps he finds our president too opaque to read. Or maybe Rich doesn’t really care—I don’t. He says Obama ‘falls hard’ for Ivy League white guys like Rubin, Summers and Geithner and doesn’t try to explain it further. He concentrates on what he thinks Obama has to do to turn his unsteady ship around and win re-election. That’s exactly what I’m afraid of, too.

Monday, 4 July 2011

DSK took the IRT down to Main Street, USA

Did the former head of the IMF try to rape a hotel maid, and if not, what the f*** was going on last month?

Dominique Strauss-Kahn was all set to become president of France and instead ended up wearing an ankle bracelet and doing the perp walk through lower Manhattan. The French are justifiably skeptical when not appalled at the way the accused are guilty until proven innocent under the American justice/media roasting system. Did political considerations play a role in the unfolding debacle?

First, as we know now, the sterling credibility of the main witness against DSK is now tarnished beyond repair as she was found to be lying about the gang rape she said she had suffered back home, lying about what she did after the DSK incident and hiding the huge cash deposits she had received into a series of bank accounts. She’s also tight buddies with a dubious sort sitting in an Arizona jail for drugs trafficking. Some shortcomings in yer police work there, as Frances McDormand’s sheriff in Fargo would say.

It must be cause for considerable chortling among the many people swept up in the NYPD nets and charged with serious crimes based on equally flimsy evidence and who do not have the resources to meet a $6 million bail as DSK did. For example, the fellow arrested for the wild shooting spree on the Coney Island boardwalk a few weeks ago that resulted in the death of a young girl swore to reporters that he didn’t do it—what are the chances he will be railroaded by a system eager to ‘solve’ this case and put someone away for it?

However, incompetence does not equal conspiracy. Manhattan D.A. Cyrus Vance, Jr., is getting smacked around a lot for the high-profile sloppiness with which the case was handled, and he deserves the hot-seat after climbing into the office on the old-boy network rather than merit. But by all accounts he’s not a scumbag, and it was his own office that revealed the DSK accuser’s unreliability.

A much more curious element is the role of police commissioner Ray Kelly, outlined in a fascinating piece by NYPD gadfly Leonard Levitt on May 30. Turns out Kelly is some sort of BFF of French president Nicolas Sarkozy who stood to benefit mightily from the downfall of his principal rival. Kelly is known to be particularly harsh on leakers, but his reaction to the full airing of the anti-DSK case in the early days drew only a pro forma rebuke. No doubt the French press will make considerable hay of the Kelly-Sarkozy friendship now that the whole case is wobbling.

While DSK may soon be off to France to pick up the shards of his mighty career, the fallout here in New York may continue for quite some time. The maid is now facing a grilling about her asylum application, among other things, and it would be interesting to know if she was living in a special residential facility based on faked medical records, the fake daughter that she apparently used to lower her tax liabilities or some other modification of the facts. An immigrant hotel maid with $100,000 in cash in a bank account that she forgot to mention certainly does have some explaining to do.

Of course, women who are not model citizens can also be raped, but now seems like a good time to await more facts and not rush forward to accuse or defend anyone until they are clarified. Nevertheless, while remaining in the hypothetical realm, let’s keep in mind that lying to obtain asylum is not a victimless crime given that plenty of people who really are persecuted and threatened face skeptical bureaucracies and are turned away precisely because people have learned to game the system so cleverly.

The case illustrates how media glare can be both violent and salutary, can shred reputations fairly or unfairly while also providing a window of opportunity to get to the bottom of things. It would be nice if reporters were equally assiduous in delving into facts when less glorious beings than DSK are among the accused.