Friday, 30 September 2011

And justice for all . . .

Amanda Knox may be guilty, or she may not, but at least she has had the opportunity to defend herself in an Italian court of law. The nonstop coverage of her case must reflect considerable interest among viewers in her fate, and tonight’s wrap-up made reference to the ‘judgment’ the Italian system of justice is facing along with Ms Knox given the criticism of its investigative and procedural performance in the case.

Curious, then, that a similar perspective on the U.S. counterpart continues to shine by its absence. There’s a new documentary film here in New York on the case of Omar Khadr, the 15-year-old Canadian picked up in Afghanistan in 2001 and accused of killing a soldier. Aside from the obvious detail that Afghanistan was a theatre of war in which killing is known to occur, we have since learned that this child was tortured by U.S. troops until he confessed and then shipped to the dungeons of Guantánamo where a stream of inquisitors tried to get him to reiterate his confession on videotape—without success.

The film, entitled ‘You Don’t Like the Truth’, is comprised mostly of excerpts from this chilling exercise in police interrogation techniques of a defenseless (and of course lawyerless) minor. Despite New York’s huge film scene where premières with directors present for Q&A are well attended, the crowd at Film Forum was measly. Indeed, the movie is not easy to watch, but then again it must have been a good deal more difficult to live through for Khadr, now in his 20s and still in prison although he’s due to be shipped to Canada for more years of incarceration next month.

What strikes me in observing these two very different legal proceedings with two completely different audiences is the facile racism of the double standards applied: Amanda, the white American girl, should be given a fair shot; Omar, the Muslim kid on a prayer mat, can rot in the Cuban sun because—as the Canadian interrogator says explicitly—an American soldier is dead. It’s pretty clear by the end of the picture that Omar couldn’t have tossed the deadly grenade because pictures from the scene, released to his lawyers years later, show him to be half-dead at the time, face down in a pile of rubble. But the point is not the guilt or innocence of a given prisoner, which does not really concern the jailers, nor their collaborators, nor I do not hesitate to add, us. It’s far simpler than that: the whole exercise is about revenge. Americans got killed on 9/11; Americans got killed in the Afghan firefight; someone has to pay. You’ll do.

A wonderful musical played on Broadway last year about the notorious 1930s Scottsboro Boys case, in which black men riding a freight train were accused of rape by a white woman, which of course in Alabama meant they were guilty or might as well be. Their obviously rigged trials dragged on for years, creating a cause celèbre and a nationwide solidarity movement that kept winning appeals and new trials, which were then rigged again. Eventually, the accused were offered their freedom, but only if they confessed. One refused and died in jail. Even seven decades later the case remains so sensitive that the spectacular production didn’t really catch fire even in liberal New York, and when the cast appeared on the Emmy awards show, they were reduced to performing a jolly-Negro number from Act I completely devoid of any of the play’s discomfiting content.

I think the Emmys producers knew intuitively that Americans today suffer from a gnawing discomfort about the operations of our legal apparatus, even if we remain only vaguely conscious of our anxiety. When political concerns trump the rule of law, the guilt or innocence of individual citizens fades into insignificance. This is a universal phenomenon that no legal system probably ever entirely escapes, but it’s unsettling to realize that the laws we think exist to protect us from unfair treatment, and often do, cannot withstand popular fury or even certain mundane bureaucratic pressures. Take the demented child-molestation-in-nursery-schools witchhunts of the ‘70s and ‘80s when suddenly fundamentalist Christians and liberal feminists alike were discovering anal sex orgies in daycare centers where they in fact had never occurred. Popular passions were assuaged, and many innocent lives were destroyed.

And yet the law is a wonderful thing. Americans, despite our weakness and complicity with the steady deterioration of our citizenship, also intuitively believe in suspects being read their Miranda rights and getting a chance to defend themselves in court. After all, we’ve grown up watching Law & Order, NCIS, CSI and before that The Defenders, Perry Mason and another dozen shows I can’t think of. We love courtroom drama, and we sense that the laborious procedures in place there set a minimum bar for the police and prosecutorial powers that could easily run roughshod over the rest of us as occurs in many countries around the world. It’s taken us at least 500 years to split the roles of judge, jury and executioner so that the high and mighty and their police agents couldn’t peremptorily subject us to the terror of impunity. Now, they say that ‘terror’ is the reason they should get all those roles back.

There is much more to say about the erosion of our precious judicial guarantees that Obama has now endorsed and aggravated. But today’s development merits a quick notice: it is now officially permitted for the president to determine that a U.S. citizen is an enemy of the state and can be targeted for liquidation with a remote-controlled drone. The White House insists Anwar al-Awlaki was guilty of terrorist acts but saw no need to charge him with any before carrying out extra-judicial murder in a foreign country. How long will it be before we discover that it can also be performed right here at home?

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Requiem for a town

This is the front door of the house in Galion, Ohio, where I grew up. The papers on the front door are foreclosure notices and other legal information from Freddie Mac, apparently the owner of the mortgage note (no doubt collateralized and resold for quick profit to take advantage of the government guarantee). I was told by an old classmate at the reunion that I probably could pick up the property for less than my parents paid for it when we moved there in 1955.

Galion was once a booming industrial town made prosperous originally by its location at the intersection of the old Pennsylvania and Erie-Lackawanna railroad lines. High school graduates from my era could go get a job at the Perfection Auto Body plant, North Electric, Galion Iron Works, Fisher Body in nearby Crestline, Pittsburgh Plate Glass, two overcoat factories and a couple of steel grave vault makers. If you didn’t like that job, you quit and got another one. Now those factories are ruins, and the working class neighborhoods that surround them are wrecks. A local website says 700 houses in the town sit empty.

My only surprise was hearing that crystal meth labs are still rare. However, my old classmates say heroin is big.

So this is what a few decades of deregulation and ‘free trade’ have done to the industrial heartland, thanks to the joint efforts of Democratic and Republican regimes alike. In my early adult years the jobs in Galion started to move south to the anti-union ‘right to work’ states. North Electric, for example, shipped its production to Tennessee.

Not content with moving operations around the U.S. to de-unionize their workforces and save on wages and benefits, the companies soon discovered the marvelous advantages to be found in corrupt, repressive regimes overseas that could provide limitless streams of docile, powerless workers, China being the classic example. How ironic after our McCarthyite 1950s childhoods to find it wasn’t reds under beds that threatened our country but the business elites who would sell out the country to communism.

As many observers more knowledgeable than I have pointed out, despite all the quacking and howling about getting the nasty state out of economic affairs, the United States does have an industrial policy. That policy for decades has been to dismantle domestic manufacturing and globalize it so that the large corporations can shift a greater percentage of earnings to profits and pay out less to workers. Reagan, Bush, Clinton and the rest are in full agreement on this point.

If we had had a worker- or union-based political party with a radical bent, perhaps the industrial transformation, were it really necessary, would have been resisted so that the masters of our universe were forced to do it in a less brutal way. Perhaps transitional planning could have occurred in which communities such as Galion could have acquired the tools to adapt and grow in new directions to take up the slack created by the waning of its industrial golden age.

Instead, its inhabitants were thrown willy-nilly into their own future to sink or swim as they might. Many thousands moved on.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Instructions issued for U.S. Middle East policy

Smoke and Mirrors

We can now see the outlines of the dish we will be served for the next 14 months of the Great Distraction known as presidential elections: Obama will be accused, by the people he did everything to please, of doing everything he should have done but didn’t.

Take the accusation from the neo-Marlboro Man, Rick Perry, that Obama is guilty of ‘appeasement’ and hostility to Israel. (The ‘appeasement’ line is a direct reference to Britain’s disastrous handling of Adolf Hitler in the run-up to World War 2—always a popular meme with Zionist absolutists.) The criticism is bizarre given Obama and Hillary C’s acquiescence to continued settlement building and three years of enabling of Israeli intransigence and refusal to offer anything on Palestine. But Obama dared to suggest the 1967 borders as the basis for a permanent settlement, and he’s now cast as Neville Chamberlain handing over Czechoslovakia to the Nazis.

Meanwhile on the domestic front, Obama has rolled out his election-year populism by calling for a ‘millionaires tax’, which has zero chance of becoming law but may sound plausible to some of his Democratic base. That makes him guilty of ‘class war’ to Madame Bachmann and the party of the rich when in fact he has done a far better job than they could have dreamed of protecting the fabulously, obscenely and criminally wealthy financial sector.

All of which augurs a huge national yawn as we prepare for a full year of even more deeply debased political non-debate. But what else could we expect of embarrassing television spectacles like the CNN ‘Dancing with the Pols’ show last week purporting to be a serious discussion of our future? Why don’t we just ask Alec Tribec to stand the candidates behind the little Jeopardy boxes with smiley-face name tags (‘Newt!’, ‘Ron!’, ‘Mitch!’) and award the presidency to whomever can provide the best question for the answer, ‘Mental state characterized by lack of empathy and an inflated sense of self-importance’?

Monday, 19 September 2011

Legalized prostitution at CBS

CBS Evening News just ran a story about the explosion in prescriptions of the morphine-like painkiller Oxycontin—something like 3 billion doses per year (could that possibly be?)—much of it diverted to illicit use. The curious aspect of the report, which featured a Michael Moore-ish confrontation with a suspect pharmacist in Florida, was that there was not ONE mention of the company that produces this drug now being siphoned off in vast quantities to the contraband market.

We’re particularly aware of pharmaceutical opiates here in New York after the gruesome and terrifying pharmacy massacre that occurred on Long Island this past June in which a crazed addict mowed down two druggists and two unlucky bystanders during a robbery. The bizarrely casual mayhem gave us a clue to the dangers of this new mass addiction, one that hasn’t fully penetrated pop culture just yet.

A fellow I met a while back who works in drug counseling in an upstate New York city told me that addiction to pharmaceutical painkillers is the number one problem they see today. Once the addicted run out of pharmacy options, they then turn to street heroin buys—quite a reversal from the classic drug scenes of yesteryear.

For the record Oxycontin is produced Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Connecticut. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Purdue’s Olympic-level figure skating along the edges of legality:

In May 2007 Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $19.5 million in fines relating to aggressive off-label marketing practices of OxyContin in 26 states and the District of Columbia. In specific, the company encouraged dosing more frequent than the recommended interval of 12 hours and did not fully disclose the risk of hazardous or harmful use.

Later in May 2007 Purdue Pharma and three of its top executives pleaded guilty in a Virginia federal court to charges that they misbranded OxyContin by representing it to have ‘less euphoric effect and less abuse potential’ than it actually has and by claiming that people taking the drug at low doses could stop taking it suddenly without symptoms of withdrawal. The FDA had not approved these claims. The company and the executives were to pay $634 million in fines for felony and misdemeanor misbranding.

In October 2007 officials in Kentucky filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for misleading health care providers and consumers ‘regarding the appropriate uses, risks and safety of OxyContin’; as of mid-2008, however, the case had been ‘consolidated with other lawsuits into a single multi-litigation suit’ in a federal court in New York.

A lone pharmacist in a pathetic strip mall with a dubious prescribing history is an easy target for big, bad TV guys. But given the relevance of the producer company’s aggressive promotion of its drug and the increasing social cost of this vast web of over-prescription, wouldn’t it have been appropriate for the CBS ‘reporter’ to have unleashed his cameras on the top executives of Purdue also? Could the huge amount of televised drug-pushing, er, advertising, which earns large sums of money for CBS’s owners, have anything to do with this glaring omission?

Wednesday, 14 September 2011


Bipeds ruling nations are not, generally speaking, a healthy set of specimens, but in some periods of history the loonies have to dissemble. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more, and it makes the world is a more dangerous place than usual. All the talk this week is about banking crises and chronic unemployment. Let’s not forget war.

The teetering French banks, just downgraded this morning by one of the corrupt rating agencies, have been labeled ‘Credit-Anstalt 2.0’ by some wags. That was the name of the Austrian bank whose collapse marked the real start of the Great Depression, foreshadowed but not really caused by the 1929 stock crash. A Euro functionary sounded quite desperate when sounding alarms this morning about the dangers to the whole EU project.

Meanwhile, tectonic shifts are occurring in the Middle East as Turkish PM Erdogan is visiting revolutionary Egypt to openly forge an anti-Israel bloc. A Guardian correspondent wrote:

Erdogan arrived in the country accompanied by an army of 200 Turkish businessmen and has announced plans to increase investment and establish a formal strategic co-operation council between the two nations. With Egypt’s military junta on the back foot over recent pro-change protests and the breaching of the Israeli embassy during a protest in Cairo last week, this trip has come at a particularly sensitive time.

The report also called Erdogan a ‘media star’ as thousands of Egyptians cheered his arrival at the Cairo airport. ‘With his strong rhetoric on Turkish-Arab unity, high-profile satellite TV chatshow appearances and photogenic walkabouts in the capital—including an impromptu and warm meeting with street protesters campaigning for regime change in Syria and Yemen—Erdogan did little to hide his intention of positioning Turkey into a leadership role at the heart of the Arab spring’.

In case no one has noticed, Israeli leaders are not characterized by sober moderation. They operate from a permanent siege mentality even when on a winning streak; now, by alienating everyone, they’ve managed to give themselves real motive for concern.

How hard would it have been for the Israelis to apologize for killing civilians aboard the Turkish aid ship? For that matter, why not welcome Palestinian statehood at the UN and be done with it? Instead, the nutcase and openly racist Israeli foreign minister indulges in cheap, sophomoric insults with the result that the long-term alliance with Turkey is perhaps mortally wounded.

But apologies from the die-hards in Tel Aviv are as likely as polite debate at Fox News. These reactionary elements have been so empowered for so long and have intimidated and browbeaten their adversaries into such cowed defensiveness that they are no longer capable of behaving in their own best interests. This, IMHO, is a feature of our age, and an ominous one—we cannot expect our leaders to pursue even their own goals in a rational fashion.

The Israelis must be particularly edgy given that their only real ally in the world—us—is overstretched and weakened by domestic strife, including an economy that refuses to jump-start. So as things deteriorate on a variety of fronts simultaneously, the threat of sudden, game-changing reactions rises sharply.

On that note I observe that the inimitable Dick Cheney, instead of having to spend his time working with his lawyers to defend himself from the charges of crimes against humanity that he merits, is once again stirring the pot for the attack on Iran that he couldn’t convince W to authorize when they were in office.

Cheney phrases this war-mongering as a mere belief that Israel ‘would’ bomb Iran if the former felt threatened but then quickly adds that Iran is in fact ‘an existential threat’. Case closed.

It goes without saying that a little pre-electoral war-making never did any politician any harm—especially if it can be dressed up as victory. Is there any evidence that Obama would hesitate to go this route? I see none.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Insomniac early warning

Up at 3 a.m. reading the European papers online. Will the next banking crisis start today? Greek bailout deal collapsing. . . French banks to get a downgrade. . . Eurozone leaders have no strategy. . . markets signaling another big thumping. . . world economies in the toilet. . . .

Sunday, 11 September 2011

More nasty in the 9th district

A special election to fill the vacated House seat of Anthony (‘All-in’) Weiner is expected to provide yet another snapshot of parochial selfishness in Wonderfully Liberal New York. David Weprin [above, left] was tapped for the thankless chore of running by the local Democratic machine because nobody more ambitious wanted to bother with a district that is slated to disappear in the next reapportionment. He was expected to dutifully show up and vote with the Democratic minority in a legislative chamber reduced to meaninglessness by the extortionists of the Tea Party.

But then former mayor and perennial asshole Ed Koch showed up to endorse his Republican opponent and Tea Party favorite, Bob Turner [right], for the completely bizarre reason that Obama needed a good mid-term slap for being so tough on Israel. Huh? I guess not authorizing Tel Aviv to launch drone missiles at Iran means you’re unreliable as a Zion-booster.

Weprin, as an orthodox Jew representing a state assembly district full of bloc-voting Hasidim, could hardly be taken as weak on the topic of Israel. But Koch said the heavily Democratic Brooklyn-Queens district should ‘send a message’ on Israel to Obama by electing a Republican.

But there’s another side to this race: Weprin is also vulnerable because he supported same-sex marriage in the recent vote in Albany, and that’s an issue that gets a lot of sidelocks on fire. It’s ironic that Koch, a lifelong bachelor who suffered from anti-gay innuendo during his political career, should help gang up on one of the guys who made this courageous vote. Same-sex marriage probably moved another orthodox Jewish Brooklyn Assemblyman, Dov Hikind, to endorse Weprin’s Roman Catholic opponent.

Koch is retired and didn’t have to wait to be dead to get his name on a bridge (the former Queensboro). So it’s hard to parse out what exactly motivated him to get involved in this peculiar way. Maybe he just misses being a player. But Koch has had a troubled relationship with gay issues—in the recent PBS documentary on the origins of gay emancipation, he makes a rather shocking admission that he backed the notorious raids on the Stonewall Inn because the street kids and riffraff that patronized it were annoying the neighbors. Who knows, maybe he resents the way things have evolved and how young people can live.

The latest poll has the Teabagger up by six points, pretty amazing in a heavily Dem district. In any case the national buzz we’ll hear if the Dems lose this by-election won’t have much to do with gay marriage or Israel, however. It will be interpreted as yet another repudiation of the Obama team’s management of the economy and its political irrelevancy. Meanwhile, Koch will have helped put an end to the career of an orthodox Jew who dared to buck his peers’ oppressive posture on sex.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Head fake?

Obama’s speech showed that he in fact does know how to package a case, present it forcefully and mobilize the power of his office to create political facts. So he isn’t clueless after all, he just hasn’t wanted to use these tools up to now.

So what does the New, Improved Obama propose? To respond to the jobs crisis he (finally!) acknowledges by raiding the Social Security piggy-bank. Cutting in half the payroll tax—which has kept Social Security solvent for 80 years despite the full-throated campaign to declare it bankrupt—means that to restart the economy’s sputtering engine, the national retirement system should be further undermined.

There is also some spending in the emergency proposal, to which we can fully expect the Republican Furies to object. But if they are smart, they will go along with it to nail down the huge prize Obama is handing them by offering to turn their dire prophecies about Social Security insolvency into a reality.

I’ll have to read the fine print, but my first impression is that this progressive-sounding proposal is the worst thing to emerge from the Obama White House yet. Does the president secretly belong to the Tea Party?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

GOP pre-coronation ceremony

I don’t get the gloating and laughing over the increasingly surreal crop of Republican presidential candidates unless it’s a meant as open-bar-at-the-apocalypse fatalism. But the idea that these people are so far off the sanity scale that their display serves the other camp is delusional. [photo: AP/Chris Carlson]

The political Pollyannas are going to spend so much ink on the distraction of presidential electioneering that it may keep GDP positive for the next few quarters. But I see no indication that the Republicans’ choice of a nominee will make much difference given that to have any sort of contest, be it in war or baseball, there must be two opposing sides. What side does Barack Obama represent?

For example, we’ll hear a lot today about Rick Perry calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme. Obama doesn’t use that term, but he falsely pretends that the 80-year-old national pension guarantee program requires immediate first aid. For whom do I vote if I think the program should be defended vigorously and not raided in the name of bogus ‘deficit reduction’? Why do we think people concerned about that will rush out to support someone who openly promises to trash it?

Poor, clueless John Huntsman endorsed science, immediately showing the futility of his campaign. He thereby skates dangerously close to outflanking Obama from the left. The president’s buckling to the polluters on clean air shows that Democrats don’t let science stand in the way of political expendiency/cowardice either. Where do people concerned about green issues put the X? What makes us think they will bother?

And why should nasty bloodymindedness such as that displayed by Perry on the death penalty will disturb or mobilize significant numbers of people? The every-sperm-is-sacred Christian crowd has never shied away from cheering for death when it involves people they dislike, be they Afghans, Iraqis or prisoners in Texas. Given Obama’s silent indifference to civilian casualties, official use of drone-delivered assassination as a foreign policy tool and complicity with torture, where are people with a concept of human rights supposed to collect?

For the Republican juggernaut—soon to be strengthened with limitless oceans of cash—to be slowed down in the least, there would have to be an opposing force. I see no signs of one whatsoever. I therefore conclude that the big build-up over the presidential nomination nod is already an anti-climax. Obama was useful to the ruling elite in giving the appearance that something fundamental was going to change. He promptly protected the war criminals and the ran interference for the financier thieves. That done, he’s not needed any more. The new team is already in charge, and the specific assignments that will be distributed—including commander-in-chief—are a mere detail.

Monday, 5 September 2011

British MI6 use of Qaddafy

The cover-up of British-Qaddafy secret service links, including rendition and torture of detainees, is unraveling.

Tripoli was overrun by the rebels so quickly that Qaddafy’s over-confident minions did not manage to destroy all incriminating documents, an outcome that the NATO allies must be quite unhappy about. But the truth is quite rapidly—‘trickle’ may not, in fact, be the right term.

Human Rights Watch has apparently discovered a letter from Mark Allen, the head of MI6’s counter-terrorism unit, to Qaddafy’s chief henchman: ‘I was grateful to you for helping the officer we sent out last week. I am so glad’. Allen also refers to ‘the remarkable relationship we have built over recent years’.

The background is that Qaddafy’s years as a notorious bad-boy and terrorist enabler came to an end when Tony Blair and George W Bush realized that he could come in quite handy as a ruthless sonofabitch on the U.S./U.K. team rather than a ruthless, freelance sonofabith. They then incorporated his corrupt regime into their web of torture stations to which anyone suspected of al-Qaeda ties could be easily disappeared.

The discovery by Human Rights Watch also included the unsurprising news that British intelligence was cooperating with the Chinese Communists to spy on Muslims in western China and that the Chinese state arms agency was trying to sell weapons to Qaddafy in the weeks before his overthrow. (The Chinese denials on that one are quite hilarious given that they pretend that this entity was acting on its own without orders from the top.)

How marvelous it would be if someone, somewhere could start drumming it into people’s heads that the supposed architect of the Lockerbie airplane bombing, the one that sent American citizens’ bodies exploding over Scotland, was then made a partner in an ultra-secret CIA-MI6 ‘security’ operation. This is the price we are asked to pay for being ‘safe’.

Jack Straw, Blair’s foreign secretary at the time of the invasion of Iraq to seize its ‘weapons of mass destruction’ AND during the time of the now-discovered joint spy venture with Qaddafy, issued the following non-denial denial about the cache of secret papers. Note the weasel words employed:

The position of the British government—successive British governments, not least when I was British foreign secretary—was very clear. And that was that we were opposed to unlawful rendition, we were opposed to any use of torture or any other similar methods and not only did we not agree with it, we were not complicit in it, nor did we turn a blind eye to it . . . . No foreign secretary can know all the details of what its intelligence agencies are doing.

Anyone versed in the reading of these legalistic contortionist acts can see immediately that the last line cancels out all the preceding b.s. A fair translation would read: ‘The position of the government—not what actually happened but the position we hid behind—was obviously to behave, i.e., to not do A, to not do B and to not do C. But then we went ahead and did the opposite, and if we get caught, some poor shit way down the food chain is going to get it in the neck, not me’.

A human rights group named Liberty, whose representatives just recently walked out of a phony ‘investigation’ into British renditions last week, demanded a new procedure to get to the bottom of the constant tissue of lies.

Director Shami Chakrabarti said, ‘The latest scandalous revelations of intimate trading of “detainee debriefings” with the Gaddafi regime render the [previous] process completely inadequate. . . . We urge the government to understand the gravity of what happened under the last administration and to think again whilst there is still time to rescue Britain’s reputation in the world’.

That implies that Britain cares about its reputation, which is not an idle question. Torture is still the nail upon which the ‘West’ insists upon hanging its last shred of credibility as a haven of human rights and the rule of law. We will see if the British ruling elite, awash in scandal and incapable of exercising leadership while the world economy heads into the toilet, stubbornly clings to its criminal practices.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

The DNC discovers bad manners

Let’s do a recollection experiment: when the Tea Party burst onto the scene to denounce Obama’s health insurance reform in 2009, how many times did we hear their Republican enablers chide or attack them as impolite, rude, obnoxious, rowdy, threatening, counter-productive, screamers, or media-hounds—all of which terms could reasonably have fit on a number of occasions?

Someone could do an Internet search of the coverage, but I’m pretty confident we would find that the GOP pols benefiting from tea-bagger rage to undermine Obama stayed mum about their bad behavior. Now check out this report from Iowa about how local Democratic Party stalwarts promptly trashed the only people out raising hell about the threats to Social Security by attending a Chuck Grassley town hall meeting and getting in his face.

‘It’s unfortunate that they continue to mistake screaming for persuasion and embarrass themselves in this manner’, party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said in a statement released Wednesday.

‘They need to focus on getting results and not on getting on TV’, Sam Roecker, communications director for the state Democratic Party, told The Huffington Post.

Aside from the obvious retort that ‘getting on TV’ is fully equivalent to ‘getting results’ in this TV-driven political day and age, it’s curious that the state Dem poobahs in Iowa seem so much more exercised by displays of populist rage than by Republican attacks on our well-being. But then again, that makes perfect sense given that their boss, Barack Obama, is part and parcel of the assault.

As the campaign season moves into higher gear later this year, the chattering classes will focus on the mud flying in the battle for the GOP nomination. But this more significant story will occupy only the sidebars if it gets told at all: the ferocious campaign by the Democratic machine to squelch effective dissent against the multifaceted Obama sellout—even when said dissent is not even directed at him.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Natural disasters--another way to crush the weak

The Great Hurricane of 2011 has come and gone, and the city managed quite well though the suburbs are still a mess nearly a week later with very serious damage. Here in town, there was some carping and moaning about evacuations and transit shut-downs given that nothing much happened, but the mayor’s team—never fully recovered from their poor showing at last winter’s blizzards—were not going to be caught erring on the side of excessive confidence. [Photo: Natalia Jimenez, Newark Star-Ledger]

My neighborhood had a few downed trees and a lot of water. If no one had told us it was a hurricane, we wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual. The streets were quiet and deserted all weekend, which is a sight to behold in New York and rather pleasant in a slightly unsettling way. The enforced indoor weekend wasn’t terrible even though the television channels were seized by narcissistic TV ‘personalities’ who jammed their vapid commentaries down our throats just like the subway panhandlers who say they are ‘sorry to disturb you’ and then torture everyone mercilessly until they’re paid off.

Wheedling and cadging are the recourse of the trapped poor (and the dysfunctional, but I’m not referring to them), and it is very annoying but understandable if there are no alternatives. A sensible and well-ordered society would suppress it ruthlessly in public spaces (like subway cars) and offer people services instead, rather forcibly, thus: Hungry? You can get a meal through an established procedure; if you don’t want it, stay out of people’s faces. Of course, if the hungry routine is bullshit, then piss off up a rope.

This digression has a point, please bear with me. The laughable Republican reaction—insisting on a pound of flesh, er budget cuts, before hurricane relief is forthcoming—made me recall my first-hand observations of disaster aid in the area around Valparaíso in Chile during the earthquake of 1985, a far milder one than the gigantic 2010 follow-up. Although horrible Eric Cantor backed down, it’s a good moment to think about how relief efforts reflect a society and what it tells us about our country to see the attitudes and practices on display when Mother N strikes.

An acquaintance told me that in a prior hurricane some 15 years ago, FEMA came through the flooded Jersey suburbs and essentially handed out $1,000 checks to anyone in the affected area based on the reasonable assumption that people with property in a flood zone would need to fix things or buy things, which would cost them money. Therefore, the government could give them some without making too much fuss about it. If someone with a Maserati in the driveway also picked up a payment, or a sharpie scammed the Red Cross for a free blanket, nobody’s hair caught on fire.

By contrast, the Pinochet regime immediately treated Chileans made destitute and/or homeless by the earthquake as suspect chiselers. I interviewed one general in charge of relief efforts who waxed on a great length about how people always wanted stuff for free, how disasters enabled dishonest people to take advantage, and on and on. Meanwhile, a stream of trucks full of donated clothing passed through the nearby military base at Tejas Verdes, and the local people immediately started hearing tales of how the guys in uniform were selecting all the best stuff for themselves.

On the ground, people weren’t getting much help aside from grim meals in the temporary shelters. Instead of effective aid, the military state responded with—surveys. Those who could still live in their damaged homes received regular visits from a series of government reps whose job was to provide no assistance to people in need but to gather statistics on them. I remember one distraught woman sinking into furious despair after her seventh or eighth visit from a bureaucrat with a clipboard asking the same questions she’d already answered but who could give her no information about when this precious data might be channeled into some useful purpose.

People caught in this trap laid by a cynical, corrupt system concerned solely with producing some pointless statistics to make itself look good on TV promptly will recur to begging, hustling and petty thievery. They will prey upon the unwary, including each other, and make life annoying as hell for anyone they think they can browbeat into shedding some spare change. Equally cynical charities will spring up to turn their suffering into melodrama with the proper narrative arc to make donors feel good and neutralize criticism. What will not happen is systematic, long-term solutions to the victims’ problems, which were worsened by the natural disaster but in very few cases actually created by it. (A rare exception is the sort of slow, steady work by true local development experts like my old friends at EPES.)

Similarly, here at home we should anticipate further deterioration in our treatment by the state in the direction of this familiar, sorry dynamic. Blame-the-poor and favor-the-rich attitudes and measures have become ever more deeply embedded as automatic responses to any such occurrence. A parallel can already be seen clearly in the mortgage mess where the same philosophy is operating, i.e., it’s not that the banks are crooked, it’s greedy homeowners who thought they could afford a big mansion and then crapped out on their payments. Expect more of the same.