Saturday, 31 March 2012

Money bomb!

The $640 million Megamillions jackpot had us all agog this week, and I do hasten to confess the ‘us’ part. I played three times and once hit two of the six numbers. The hour of fantasizing about the fun I would have and the good works I would perform was well worth the three bucks.

Nonetheless, there is something demented about a society that can drum up a fortune of that size for a single person the same week as we witnessed hordes of humanoid figures actively fighting against the provision of basic medical care for the rest of their fellow bipeds. But an even more germane story was not to be found on the steps of the Supreme Court but in the pages of the New York Times business section yesterday. It turns out that in 2011 top hedge fund owners earned at least as much as the lucky gamblers in Maryland and Kansas each, to wit:

Ray Dalio, Bridgewater Asscoation, $3.9 billion
Carl C. Icahn, $2.5 billion
James Simons, Renaissance Fund, $2.1 billion
Kenneth C. Griffin, Citadel, $700 million
Steven A. Cohen, SAC Capital Advisors, $585 million

The article further notes that the hedge fund industry as a whole didn’t do all that well and failed to even beat the major indexes. But just as I blew $3 on the lottery, rich people seem willing to blow $3 million on the possibility of a big payout. Both of us choose to ignore the evidence and have our fun. Fair enough.

But the hedges are not Atlantic City casinos where everyone knows the rules when you walk in. These are the guys whose free ranging across the electronic money world was permitted, encouraged and empowered by Congress and the political duopoly, thereby contributing mightily to the implosion of the real economy four years ago. The Dodd-Frank bill was supposed to rein in these antics so as to prevent a repeat. Instead, we look below the story about the cool $10 billion these five suits walked away with last year alone and find the following:

‘A Bill to Loosen Hedge Fund Marketing’

‘. . . a little known provision in the [JOBS] bill that would relax rules on how investment firms can market themselves to the public. . . .’

‘While the bill could ease the path to fund-raising, it could also introduce new risks to small investors unaccustomed to the complex and risky strategies the firms deploy’. Oh, like maybe the small investors recently burned by Jon Corzine’s MF Global stealing their cash?

Obama’s JOBS bill is the best and most recent example of his profound dishonesty. Touted as somehow favorable to what its acronym promises, the ‘Jump-start Our Business Start-ups Act’ (who comes up with this shit?) will stimulate penny-stock scams and further deepen the already rampant criminality and cynicism poisoning our economic system. Those doubting what I just wrote should consider this one fact: the JOBS bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, including the Paul Ryanites. Any questions?

I’m amazed when visiting the corner delis anywhere around New York to see the constant stream of poor people shuffling in to buy up the gambling tickets peddled to them as a way out of the burdens of their lives, which are easily visible from their postures. Soon we will all get to be like them even if we don’t live check to check. We will place our fragile nest-eggs with Vinnie and Louie at the big banks and pension funds and hope they’ll give some of it back once we’re in a wheelchair and hungry.

The Egyptians knew about institutionalized thievery and bore it throughout the Sadat-Mubarak decades until they couldn’t take it any longer and were ready to die first in their 2011 revolt. We’re just getting started. At times like these I’m glad to have reached a certain age and can anticipate being gone for the much worse to come.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Smart, but not astute

Four years ago Obama captured the national mood. Most of us wanted change badly, and we were looking for something new, a sharp break with the warmongering, corruption, bloody-mindedness, thuggery, celebratory ignorance, and oozing nastiness that emanated from the spoiled-rich-frat-boy environment of Bush Junior. Obama latched onto that yearning; he represented something new, unsullied, audacious (to use his own term), authentic, tuned in to the popular will. He wasn’t a sleazebag, and he wasn’t predictable Hillary who could be expected to usher in another round of principle-free dealing that played the Democratic base while faithfully serving the interests of favored business and financial elites.

Once in office Obama showed that he had misread that mood or had merely played it himself. He dedicated his first year to cobbling together the health insurance reform package now and forever to be known as ‘Obamacare’, forgetting about or dismissing the idea of building a grassroots movement to agitate for the reform, engage with it and ultimately defend it. I personally sat in on a couple of meetings called from the huge lists of Obama campaign workers in which dozens of people discussed their goals, their burning issues and their immediate willingness to pitch in on whatever agenda Obama and his leadership circle settled upon. The infrastructure was in place to counter what would later become the Tea Party assault on Obamacare, had the Democratic Party or Obama’s team chosen to mobilize it.

But they did not. All those meticulous lists of what we—the people who had put Obama in office—wanted and were willing to work on were peremptorily dumped in the White House circular files. No one ever contacted me again UNTIL it was time to send in money to the Re-elect Obama Campaign. (I sent them all back with messages like, “Stop torturing Bradley Manning” and “Get the $$ from your banker friends.” They eventually took me off their lists.)

Historians or reporters more curious than I can find out why Obama and his Dem friends did this. I don’t really care, but in my view that was a critical moment. Obama placed his trust in the diehard Republican opposition and pretended that they would gather ‘round the flag and help him construct a way out of the country’s insanely unsustainable healthcare expenditures. Perhaps he believed his own rhetoric and really thought that it didn’t matter that he was black and a Democrat—ha!

To avoid the Bill & Hillary defeat of 20 years earlier over the same issue, Obama decided to bring some of the powerful economic players into the deal from the start, promising to jettison the single-payer idea in private while pretending to push for it in the early negotiations. We the People were not part of his strategy. His special address to the joint session on health care (the one interrupted by the Remember Fort Sumter delegation in the person of ‘You lie!’ Joe Wilson) included a lame defense of the single-payer notion, but it was clear even then that the expansion of Medicaid/Medicare to cover us all was dead in the water.

Isn’t it ironic to see Obama, despite his pathological insistence on making nice with his enemies, today accused of forcing a Stalinist state down the country’s throat anyway? The openly partisan Supreme Court majority is now expected to blast away at the core of his health insurance reform—the coverage mandate borrowed from conservative think tanks and the Romneycare experiment in Massachusetts—thereby wrecking Obama’s principal signature achievement and quite possibly mortally wounding his presidency.

I don’t think losing a political fight is the worst thing in the world; HOW one loses makes a big difference because it sets up the next clash. What if Obama had fought for a more sensible alternative and gone down swinging?

Of course, that is speculation and hypothesizing, but the anti-democratic spirit of the opposition is very real. Commentators are remarking with amazement at how the conservative Supreme Court justices are essentially ‘legislating from the bench’ and not even shy about it, this after decades of right-wing howling about ‘activist judges’. After Bush v. Gore, this is shocking? Anyone with a pulse can perceive that the reactionary forces afoot in our polity today are not interested in democratic rules or respecting majority wishes. Democrats, instead of mounting resistance, are fully complicit, and Obama is the maximum emblem of that folly. Will he have a change of heart if his painstaking labor over health insurance is pissed away by five guys?

Monday, 26 March 2012

Ruling and overruling [Updated]

The dueling demonstrations outside the Supreme Court today as it takes up the suits against Obamacare is yet another reminder that our fragile democracy hangs by ever-thinner threads. Have we forgotten that a huge congressional majority accompanied Obama into office in 2009 or that he bested Grumpy John McC by a comfortable 7 percentage points? If this wasn’t the voice of the people expressed fair and square, the concept has no meaning.

Furthermore, Obama bent over so far backward during the legislative process to accommodate GOP objections to his proposed health insurance reform that it’s a wonder he hasn’t taken been made an honorary chiropractor. If the inflamed Tea Party Republicans had been concerned about he shape of the reform, they could have exercised their minority views during that year-long debate. Instead, they dug in their heels, turned the process into a shouting match and did their best to sabotage the entire (democratic) process.

Now, left with no recourse in the legislative arena, the die-hards are demanding that unelected judges, whom they have long denounced for ‘legislating from the bench’, proceed to do exactly that. Judicial ‘activism’ was something conservatives have pretended to find appalling when judges ruled in ways they didn’t like on the Miranda rule, desegregation, same-sex marriage, environmental protection and other judicial initiatives to protect the defenseless. Now, these shameless bullies suddenly insist that the courts intervene to wreck the minimal changes Obama salvaged after ceding several football fields’ worth of territory to them in his futile attempts at ‘compromise’.

The often discussed similarities between Obamacare and Romneycare—which once represented the Republican answer to our runaway health costs—are laughably obvious (even Rick Santorum can see them). So are the actual measures contained in the massive legislation not really the point? After all, the GOP had ample opportunity to shape the law’s contents to benefit their rich patrons and enthusiastically did so, leaving behind a highly flawed final product that still fails to grapple with the insane costs of American medicine. So if it is not really about policy or coverage or law or insurance pools or Medicaid or the hundreds of other details, what’s the big beef?

In my opinion it’s simple: they’re not in charge, so they’re agin’ it. A similar bill shepherded through Congress by George W Bush would have drawn enough Republican support to pass despite its violations of their allegedly sancrosanct small-government principles. In fact, this is exactly what occurred with Bush’s Medicaid Part D drug benefit that cost the Treasury the better part of a trillion dollars.

The ferocious campaign against the Obama initiative is less about health insurance law than about Obama himself and his audacity in becoming president. How dare a Democrat and a Negro to boot take over on Pennsylvania Avenue? This is NOT DONE. Today’s Republican ‘opposition’ is not really loyal to the democratic system it purports to uphold. It’s a subversive band determined to wreck what escapes its control and to institutionalize its own permanent dominance. Obama’s whining attempts to make his peace with them is a reflection of his party’s refusal to perceive the ongoing attempts by this fifth column in business suits to change the ground rules and rule forever. The tactics they’ve employed so far are child’s play.

[Update]: I am happy to see that the main political columnist at salon.com agrees with me.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

A tale of two cases

Trayvon Martin was shot to death in Florida for buying Skittles in a hoodie. A few weeks before Ramarley Graham was shot to death by cops in his Bronx bathroom for running away from them. The arguments we have and will hear about these cases is that somehow the dead kids acted in a threatening way and caused the shooters some sort of alarm that led them to blast them.

Back in 2006 we had a ‘stand your ground’ case here in the New York area when a suburban homeowner shot at a horde of threatening youths who had chased his son home. One of the attacking gang-bangers died. However, neither detectives, prosecutors nor eventually the jury were impressed with the Floridian idea that people should use firearms for self-defense, and that parent was charged, convicted and did time until he was finally released by the governor.

I intentionally use inflammatory language to describe the particulars of that case because the shooter in this case, one Mr White [below], was black. The ‘gangbangers’ were white kids who had chased White’s son right up to the lawn of his house while calling him ‘nigger’. (That didn’t stop the mother of the dead kid, Daniel Cicciaro, from insisting that ‘Daniel was not a racist’ in her celebration of the guilty verdict.)

It’s sadly not unbelievable that such an egregious double racial standard persists. Slavery was only abolished 150 years ago, and legal segregation was a matter of fact affair within the living memories of some of us. But it’s almost laughable that those reporting on the Trayvon Martin case pretend to tell us something important by relating all the ways in which the trigger-happy shooter does not hate black people.

Earth to base: you don’t have to harbor nostalgia for the Middle Passage to incubate racist attitudes and act upon them. The entire city of New York, for example, puts up with the overtly racist stop-and-frisk practices of the NYPD because the white majority likes the feeling of safety it offers them. Guns for ‘self-defense’ are a matter of holy writ throughout the land, but minority kids—who arguably might actually need them—get prison terms for possessing a firearm. Suburban Mr White found out how many NRA-inspired rights he really has when he utilized a pistol to ‘stand his ground’ while inhabiting dark skin.

One of the many ways in which the current presidential campaign circus is loathsome is the continuous undertone of creepily racist dog-whistling deployed by the favorites of the crazed evangelical/Tea Party right. (The Mitt generally doesn’t tread that ground, which is a rare grace.) The hatred spewed against Obama, who is in fact as faithful a servant of the security-cum-police state as the right-wingers could possibly want, reflects the worst side of our national character. Obama himself, by boosting the powers and limitless resources of the security state and undermining our remaining civil protections, has gone a long way toward empowering these nefarious forces. The next right-wing government we have will point to his precedents with unbridled glee.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Trayvon and the bullies


There’s something profoundly depressing about living in a neighborhood where bullies get away with lording it over people as the heartbreaking Trayvon Martin slaying reminds us. But it’s easy to forget how much bullying is an everyday part of our world and how happy our biped species is to go along with it when one belongs to the bullying team rather than the bullied.

Bullying in the form of chattel slavery is an organic part of our national history, so it should not surprise us that the systematic intimidation of black youth is woven into the fabric of everyday life. As I never tire of harping about, here in liberal New York City the police are authorized to bully black and Hispanic teen males regularly through the use of the ‘stop-and-frisk’ procedures that wise Mayor Bloomberg constantly endorses.

And this harassment of the city’s minority teens via 700,000 race-based police stops per year only thrives because the comfy residents of the middle-class white neighborhoods are down with it. If THEIR kids were getting treated like criminals every time they left the house, Obama-loving Upper West Siders would be having fits.
And it would stop.

But there’s a deeper level of bullying that we continue to endorse or tolerate unconsciously, reflected in the bizarre campaign against Iran for daring to having a civilian nuclear industry as permitted under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which it is a party. (Its supposedly worried neighbors, the nuclear-armed Israelis, have not.) Non-proliferation is sometimes dressed up as a short-term goal leading eventually to the reduction or even elimination of nuclear weapons entirely. This recent piece in the London Review of Books suggests that if you believe that, there’s a nice bridge for sale a few miles from here.

The United States first discovered nuclear weapons and remains the only country in history to drop them on defenseless civilians. I’m told that was a pretty terrifying event for those on the receiving end, not that anyone would dare use the T-word now to describe it. While campaigning relentlessly against any unfriendly states daring to acquire nuke capabilities, Mr Nobel Peace Prize himself signed off on another $85 billion to ‘modernize’ our own nuclear arsenal over the next ten years so that we can continue to rattle them at anyone who might want to acquire nukes without U.S. permission. This is considered normal, but really it’s just bullying on the world stage.

Not that this is anything new in biped history stretching back several tens of thousands of years. It’s just a sad corrective to the idea that human beings have evolved much when we see the death of a 17-year-old kid who went out for a bag of candy and died because the bullies in charge belong to a different tribe.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Money talks in Illinois

The increasingly bizarre GOP nomination narrative utilizes a language not spoken by the rest of us humanoids and, I suspect, not well understood even among those clapping their flippers at Mitt and Rick. But one thing remains clear to any upright mammal still paying attention: put enough money out there, and you grind the opposition into gravel.

The Mitt outspent Santorum 7 to 1 in Illinois and finally managed to beat him while failing to do so the week before in the wastelands of the South. Perhaps the sweater-vested champion of not screwing will rebound in Louisiana, perhaps not. Nonetheless, the battered Repub team eventually will settle on one of this motley crowd for whom they feel no great love.

Once that happens, however, the game will take on an entirely new tone and shape. Who cares about love when you’ve got cash? Once these preliminaries are over, it will be all Obama-hate, all the time, and the money they have used to pummel each other will be unleashed against the usurping Negro. It won’t matter much who the not-Obama guy is because Fox Nation doesn’t need to like him. He isn’t there to attract their gentle sentiments but to focus their mean-spirited, embittered and resentful rage. Once that blast of negativity gets turned onto the dopily passive, let’s-hold-hands-and-sing occupant of the White House, this film is going to look quite different.

I’m terrible at predictions of this sort, but I don’t buy the current optimism that the Republicans have gone so far off their inflamed heads that the country will seek some reasonable middle ground come November and opt for Obama again. I think it’s at least as likely that we’re witnessing a creepy replay of 1980 when Jimmy Carter stumbled into his re-election campaign with no popular or populist narrative, imitating the right-wingers unconvincingly and paving the asphalt driveway for the nightmare of the Reagan ‘revolution’, whose nefarious effects are still with us three decades later.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Those Asiatics, indifferent to human life, as usual

We’re going to hear a lot about the psychological state of Robert Bates, the Ohio boy-cum-butcher of Afghanistan, but it won’t include much analysis of Obama’s failing counter-insurgency strategy and certainly nothing that would suggest an organic error of strategy and judgment, much less motives. Since we’re the good guys by definition, whatever happens is just bad luck or another narrative of ‘rogue’ elements or individuals suddenly ‘snapping’.

Robert Fisk in The Independent takes notes of a curious statement made by the U.S. Army’s top Afghanistan commander, General John Allen, last month after two American officers were gunned down inside the country’s interior minister (assassinations that have not, incidentally, resulted in any arrests). ‘Now is not the time for revenge’, said Allen. ‘There will be moments like this when your emotions are governed by anger and a desire to strike back’.

How amazing that a military commander has to tell his troops in the field to ‘resist whatever urge to strike back’. Sounds as though General Allen was worried in advance that a nocturnal slaughter mission might be on the minds of some of his worthy soldiers. What does it say about a strategy of protecting the locals and winning their hearts and minds from the evil Taliban when you have to ask your grunts to please not go out and murder them in vengeance? Which they then proceed to do anyway.

Little by little, the fa├žade is crumbling, and the nasty truth is harder and harder to stuff back in the closet. Despite all our armaments and vast expenditures, the decade-long war in Afghanistan is lost, and the sooner someone dares to recognize that sorry fact, the better. (And the cheaper—it’s now costing us $2 billion a week).

Military defeat is never popular, and within my living memory the utter horror of looking like a loser impelled Nixon and Kissinger to war crimes. They doubled down on the lost cause in Indochina so as not to preside over the inevitable U.S. retreat, probably out of macho pride. (Kissinger has never suffered for this hubris and has done quite well for himself ever since.) Nixon managed to escape the thankless role by being impeached, then Gerald Ford was saddled with it and was promptly ousted at the first opportunity.

Obama also went along with the idea that his generals could win the Afghan war—have military leaders ever argued that they can’t?—and thereby made it his own. His new campaign video doesn’t even mention it, and if the situation further deteriorates, Obama’s re-election chances could well suffer, as they should.

Glenn Greenwald cheers sarcasticallyat the inevitable self-congratulations being heard here at home over the very proper outrage we humanitarian Americans feel over this shameful episode. He cites those two overflowing fonts of conventional wisdom—NPR and the Washington Post—thus (WP writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran on Morning Edition): ‘Obviously, over at home here in the United States I think people’s sense of revulsion at this act, the shooting, has been far greater.’

Get that? Even when slaughtering the locals, it’s we in the United States who are more upset by it, not local people burying their dead children. Just wait until Sergeant Bates goes on trial for this modern My Lai massacre: the blogs and newspapers will be jammed with indignant letters from veterans and military worshippers demanding that the poor guy be sent to a restful mental hospital and be given anti-depressants.

Or as NPR’s Steve Inskeep said to sum it all up: In Afghanistan, ‘human life is already cheap’.

Monday, 12 March 2012

What unfathomable mystery?

Hillary Clinton finds the massacre of Afghan civilians in their beds by a rogue U.S. sniper ‘inexplicable’, but I don’t. After all, didn’t the Republican presidential candidates just excoriate Obama for apologizing over the Quran burnings of a week ago? Didn’t golden-haired Mitt just insist that ‘America doesn’t apologize’, meaning ever about anything? Didn’t half the comments on the YouTube video of GIs pissing on Taliban corpses a month ago include cheers and bravos for the neat genito-urinary statement? Isn’t the mayor of liberal New York City quoted daily saying that NYPD spying on mosques is okay because ‘terrorists’ might be lurking there? Aren’t we continually reminded by the Obama-led Democratic establishment that we must accept a police state because dangerous enemies wish to attack us? Why wouldn’t a half-crazed vet with four combat tours decide to slaughter a few suspects on a midnight crusade? What took him so long? [photo: AP]

It’s just amazing to listen to the CBS News on this incident and hear Scott Pelley pause to editorialize that it was just one ‘lone’ nutcase who committed this war crime while 90,000 other good soldiers are out there just being a great bunch of guys. Can anyone imagine a similar posture after William Calley was discovered to have murdered 100 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1969? In the much-maligned ’60s, such behavior caused unmediated revulsion and led to the collapse of support for a pointless war against a civilian population. Why doesn’t that happen today? Instead, we are subjected to a parade of official spokespeople in and out of uniform mouthing their careful talking points, that this ‘incident’ will not deter us from our glorious mission, that it would be a ‘tragedy’ if the crimes caused us to change course—or as Hillary put it at the UN without a hint of irony, to weaken our commitment to ‘protect’ the Afghan people (!).

Meanwhile, our news media slip further into the grip of Pravda-like conformity and obedience. An entire segment on CBS tonight was dedicated to polling the GOP candidates for their views on Afghanistan, not including, of course, the obvious question to the Mitt: Do you think we should apologize NOW? Even more incredible, Ron Paul, the one guy who would have unequivocally urged withdrawal from the whole debacle, was not included in the survey, and everyone pretended not to notice the omission.

We chortle gleefully at the pathetic Republican primary circus, but Obama remains a weak, uninspiring figure whose mystique dissipated in the first year of his term. These incidents reveal that our political culture has mutated into something unrecognizable with no moral compass whatsoever, and the creepy robots and inquisitors of the right are far more natural expressions of it than the smooth-talking law professor from Harvard.

NYC Crime Stats are Bullshit

It’s official, the famously successful New York City crusade against major crime is all made up.

The Village Voice has a piece this week on an internal NYPD report never made public, which confirms what Bloomberg and Kelly have been denying for several years—that the department systematically cooks the books to show that the rates of big crimes like murder, rape, armed robbery, etc., are going down. This is done by throwing up endless obstacles to people trying to report these crimes, downgrading them to lesser offenses and/or simply losing the paperwork.

Simultaneously (and not incidentally), police officers are also pressured and ultimately forced to increase their notorious ‘stop-and-frisk’ temporary arrests, now running at 684,000 per year, overwhelmingly directed against blacks and Hispanics. This is supposed to show that the department is actively engaged in crime prevention via police-state surveillance of non-white males, a strategy which enjoys the unspoken support of the city’s influential white minority. Young black or Latino men in New York now expect to be pulled over and patted down by cops as a routine part of their lives.

And take a moment to read up on the department’s creepy, East German-style campaign against Adrian Schoolcraft, the police officer who tried to report this statistical manipulation to his superiors. He was subjected to harassment at work to shut him up until finally being seized in a nocturnal raid on his home and confined to a locked psychiatric unit. Luckily, he was smart enough to tape record this event along with his precinct captain’s daily orders to meet arrest quotas—which the department continues to deny exist.

The Voice ran a five-part series on this scandal that ever-so-liberal Mayor Bloomberg helps to cover up. Meanwhile, the current mayor and his principal deputy, Christine Quinn, continue to defend the department’s racist campaign against the city’s Muslim population, now the target of permanent, ethnic snooping. Quinn will parade herself as a progressive in next year’s mayoral race, featuring her marriage to a female partner. We will be expected to cheer the fact that she’s a nice lesbian while ignoring her complicity with these criminal activities by the Great Liberal City’s cops.

I also note in passing that my cycling club, Transportation Alternatives, has a depressing article in this month’s Reclaim magazine about the NYPD’s permanent refusal to pursue traffic-related crimes, including those that cripple or kill cyclists and pedestrians. There are four hair-raising tales of fatal bike accidents, all of which the department failed to investigate properly, mishandled or destroyed evidence, lied about and eventually laughed off as unimportant.

And finally, the NY Fire Department was told this week that it would have to pay $128 million to black applicants who have been systematically excluded from the city’s 95 percent white force. FDNY will also have to hire 300 new black firefighters in the ongoing, 40-year saga of resistance to desegregation. There is as yet no word whether the white FD hierarchy will make a final massive-resistance to the court orders by standing in the firehouse doorways.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The quality of mercy

The dust-up over the Kony/Uganda child soldiers video is a great opportunity to review our culture’s increasingly weird attitudes toward charitable giving. Are the videographers heroic crusaders cleverly tapping social media for a good cause, or are they self-indulgent, neo-colonial exploiters engaging in an updated version of White Man’s Burden? Something in between or a little bit of both?

The grandmother in Isabel Allende’s wonderful early book The House of the Spirits says, ‘We don’t give alms to help the poor but to make ourselves feel better. The poor don’t want charity; they want justice’. Or words to that effect, but in any case a bracing corrective to facile do-gooderism.

Which is not to say that worthy ‘charities’, broadly defined, should shrivel up and die or that we should stop making donations to them. It does point us in the right direction when doing so, however, i.e., towards making a difference in people’s lives rather than satisfying our own temporary discomfort in the face of human misery. I say ‘in the face’ because the cheapest, most cynical nonprofit hustlers inevitably push unpleasant images there precisely to make us feel bad and cough up the cash, as in my latest favorite, Foreign Child with Harelip. They are the institutional equivalents of beggars who display their scaly stumps on street corners so that you’ll give them a dollar.

How a society organizes and promotes charitable giving is never ideologically neutral. For starters, we have to ask why a given activity should be handled by private parties rather than the state. In my Chile days one would constantly be invited to benefits for a poor family whose child had an expensive disease and needed some unimaginable amount of money to pay for treatment. Of course, under Pinochet poor people couldn’t get decent medical care for anything other than a nosebleed, so the whole block had to sell brownies and hot dogs for a month if a kid got leukemia. But this state of affairs resulted from political decisions by the country’s rulers, who openly served the well-to-do. One donated but knew that in a sane world such campaigns would not need to exist.

Sudden emergencies were a different matter, but even in those cases the lack of perspective was notorious. I recall the fund-raising activities that enjoyed official backing after the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s when the TV news was full of heart-rending pictures of African babies on the verge of starvation. Chileans dutifully attended and put in their coins, but when interviewed had no clue about Hutus, Tutsis, or what country it was all happening in. ‘I don’t know anything about all that, but I just feel terrible when I see those poor children’, said one lady typical of those forking over their donations.

I recall her comments to this day because she didn’t realize she was giving money to the perpetrators of the genocide who ran the Hutu refugee camps that were the beneficiaries of that collection. I only knew because the Hutu priests in charge openly blamed the Tutsi victims for what had happened in later interviews.

Meanwhile, Chilean supermarkets had initiated the practice—now common here among the big chain stores—of asking people at the cash register to donate their change to the company’s favorite charity. In Chile this was often Catholic anti-abortion groups or other dubious entities. You were made to feel cheap and heartless if you refused to let them take your pennies for forwarding to these outfits, and not incidentally the whole exchange made you forget that you had just paid your hard-earned money to the company, which came off as the good guys, oh-so-concerned about human welfare and not, perish the thought, crude material gain.

This is now S.O.P. at Duane Reade, Staples and probably a ton of other stores that I do not patronize. I’ll bet the tobacco companies are furious they didn’t think of it first: ‘Five cents off the price of every pack of Camels goes to help orphan children in Zimbabwe!’

The Susan G. Komen breast cancer scandal of a couple weeks ago is another good example of the politics of philanthropy. Who not directly involved in that world would have suspected that this eminently inoffensive-sounding operation housed a crew of ambitious businesswomen eager to please their corporate backers by stiffing Planned Parenthood? By their historic goof, they ripped the lid off their own hidden agenda.

Unfortunately, finding a place to send our charitable dollars that will use them as we intend is not an easy task. But if we just want to feel good for a couple of minutes, anywhere will do.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Ron Paul's welcome reminders


Ron Paul may be the only presidential candidate still in his right mind. Listening to Paul’s address to a crowd in Idaho Falls last night was startling for the iconoclastic daring it displayed in these oddly conformist times. Paul objected to the legalization of murder by the government (explained at length by Eric Holder on the same day). In his mild and avuncular way, Paul said the government is so huge and out of control that its agents can now spy on us and kill us with impunity.

This sort of discourse and mindset has been around for a while in Idaho, a favorite haunt of paranoid, neonazi militias that consider Social Security to be a Stalinist plot. But Obama has just fulfilled their crackpot fantasies by saying the president can authorize assassinations of anyone, anywhere, including American citizens.

Some, though not all, of the lines in Paul’s speech that brought cheers and shouts of outrage from the creepily reactionary crowd could have been painted on signs at Occupy Wall Street. When the Democratic-liberal establishment and blogosphere are folded into the tent and eagerly place party loyalty above principle, it’s weirdly unsurprising that this intersection should occur.

Alone among our “leadership,” an anti-government, right-winger is the only voice in the campaign warning of the dangers of encroaching authoritarianism. Liberals, blinded by the presence of an unthreatening figure at the top, willingly sign off on the consolidation of arbitrary state power. When someone nasty later uses these powers, they will be the first to shout, “Unfair!”

Sunday, 4 March 2012

War is not about splitting the difference

In the one-sided war campaign masquerading as a debate over Iran's behavior, the issue of Israel's behavior has disappeared completely. Land-grabs, the Wall, all the many forms of race-based harassment directed at the Palestinian and Israeli Arab populations–issues that Obama once dared to raise, albeit obliquely—are now gone from public discussion.

This convenient refocus offers an answer to Juan Cole's baffled wonderment today as to why our major media have ignored the recent elections in Iran that strengthened the anti-nuclear conservatives and weakened the figurehead Ahmadinejad, who has trumpeted the nuclear advances. The scholarly Cole points out that the results are highly relevant to the alleged nuclear proliferation worries of the U.S. and European establishments. If they want Iran to put aside any nuclear ambitions, asks Cole somewhat plaintively, why not pay this some attention?

In my view Cole accidentally answers his own question. Iran's nuclear capability is not the underlying concern, but rather regime change. The centrifuges and uranium enrichment play exactly the same role as Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction: an excuse for the Tel Aviv-Washington alliance to do exactly what it wants. If Iran completely capitulates, new demands undoubtedly wll follow to justify deeper and more permanent sanctions and the rattling of bigger and better sabers.

The accelerating march toward open hostilities, in addition to being extremely dangerous for the well-being of actual persons, also threatens to illustrate in tragic form the shortcomings of Obama's approach to policy negotiations, i.e., start at the mid-point, then begin ceding ground. When haggling over the fine points of Medicaid funding or the like, this deal-at-any-cost mentality delivers far too much to the intransigent disloyal opposition. But the damage theoretically could be reversed.

Not so with war. Obama's failure to stake out a principled starting position in defense of long-term U.S.--not Israeli—interests has allowed Netanyahu to browbeat and bully him just as Boehner, Cantor, Grassley and McConnell did over health insurance reform and the Bush tax giveaways.

Obama seems to view his office and himself in Clintonian terms, as the chief conciliator among the mighty. This is uninspired non-leadership in the best of times; at critical moments over war and peace, it means we are cast adrift, unable to guide events and forced to react to them. The times call for an Eisenhower, a leader with the credibility and determination to protect our interests vigorously, which requires acting tough not just toward the easy targets among the enemies and adversaries but toward unruly and opportunistic allies. Obama has never shown himself capable of that, with the exception of dissing people like you and me as whiners.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Breitbart's purified exit

NPR reported on the surprising death of hatchet man Andrew Brietbart at the age of 43 in such reverent tones you'd think he were known for dedicating his life to rescuing feral kittens. How could a Very Serious news entity like NPR fail to mention that Breitbart achieved real fame via the sleaziest racist scam of recent memory -- the distorted video that ruined the career of Shirley Sherrod, a civil servant and, not accidentally, a black female who dedicated her life to aiding poor farmers. But Breitbart's career as a scumbag was hardly knicked by NPR and other broadcast outfits, which speaks volumes about the corruption of our political and media cultures.

I'm all for charity towards the dead, even public figures, but not for whitewashing their shortcomings to please certain still-alive sympathizers. Breitbart was not just a "controversial" or "polemical" figure. He was an immoral dirty trickster whose tactics should have been universally condemned long before his death. In a sane world, he would have been a desk clerk snarling at customers at a Quality Inn.