Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Election Day

There was just one race to vote on in my precinct today, the five-way spat between ancient Harlem war-horse Charlie Rangel and the Hispanic challenger, my neighbor Adriano Espaillat (and three other postulants). No one has dared to breathe a word about Rangel’s multitudinous ethical lapses in his 40 years in the House of Representatives, which earned him a stern rebuke and demotion a couple years ago. That’s odd since voters could have been deemed competent to consider that episode and consider it when making their choice.

Instead, as I noted last week, this is a race race. Exhibit A: as I was heading down into the subway yesterday, an Espaillat campaign volunteer was handing out literature to commuters. I didn’t get one. Was it clear from my body language that I am an independent-minded sod not likely to be swayed by a piece of glossy paper? I think not. More likely the young lady was promoting her Latino candidate by selectively canvassing only Latino residents.

I should be cautious about jumping to conclusions—maybe she was running out of flyers and decided to be strategic—but there have been steady hints that the underlying appeal throughout the campaign has been to ethnicity: references to nuestra gente (our people), for example. Rangel’s backers have him running against the Republicans, who are, um, not on the ballot in the primary, while saying nothing of his four opponents. He also has a line-up of the usual suspects providing endorsements including, among the most dubious, Mayor Nasty and Governor Dufus (Koch/Paterson). They trotted out the same line as two years ago, that Rangel should be given the chance to retire with pride with ‘just one more term’. They’ll repeat it in 2014 if he’s still on his feet.

No doubt these pols know what they’re doing and decided nothing would be gained (for them) by challenging Rangel on his stewardship of the public trust. But that’s what this election should have been about—not what color you are.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Who's in charge?

You hear a lot of gloomy eulogies for the Egyptian revolution now, both from knowledgeable people in the country and the usual spurting founts of contemporary wisdom. The narrative is more or less this: popular revolt, nasty old dictator overthrown, army moves in and takes over, parliament dismissed, presidency hollowed out, army wins, The End.

This strikes me as an erroneous conception of how a state is ruled and an oversimplification of the elements that go into domination by a ruler or a ruling elite. As it happens, I’m reading the fascinating Histories of Tacitus, which describe the fateful year of the Roman Empire, 69 C.E. (A.D.), when Nero was overthrown and a parade of new emperors succeeded him. Rome had seen its best days, but it was still going to dominate the region for centuries. Yet its political system was prone to upheaval, even anarchy.

Galba was the regional commander who ousted Nero, but he had hardly settled into his reign as the new emperor when a countercoup took place led by Otho. Tacitus astutely describes the conspiracy but also notes how Galba failed to shore up crucial support among key players, such as the navy, the courtiers, his own soldiers, and last but not least, the mob, including slaves. Each one contributed something to his downfall. So while there is a cabal of disgruntled and ambitious officers alert to his weakness, a whole set of conditions had to be met for their plot to succeed.

This all takes place under a system of absolute monarchy where the emperor held the power of life and death over virtually everyone. It is a brutal dictatorship and yet not a totalitarian one, especially given the turmoil of a recent overthrow. The head guy is vastly powerful, but he cannot control the course of events, only try his best to manage them. Failure is usually fatal.

Another curious part of the story is the role of psychological forces in the ebb and flow of political influence. At a crucial moment when Galba needs to call on the loyalty of his subjects to defend their emperor, the populace is singularly unimpressed. First, they have just witnessed the last absolute ruler, Nero, driven to suicide, so the mystique of kingship falls flat. Furthermore, Tacitus reports that while Nero bribed the masses and bankrupted the state, Galba was a proper tightwad--admirable but unwise under the circumstances. Furthermore, he had massacred a huge contingent of defenseless prisoners upon taking power and thereby alienated many Romans of all classes, especially soldiers.

Egyptians chafed for 40 years under the Mubarak dynasty, and no one doubts that the army remains enormously powerful. But something happened last year that puts an intangible but very real new factor into play. In the inexplicable ways of a nation’s history, Egyptians’ collective will burst forth out nowhere and toppled the dictatorship. The forces unleashed by that event do not disappear, and it is incorrect to claim that the army now holds all the cards. It may possess a monopoly of brute force, but it must either win its legitimacy under new conditions or resort to the sorts of brutality seen in past decades in Algeria or, more recently, Syria.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s naïve belief that a fundamentalist regime was next on the agenda also proved to be illusory. After winning the parliament, they apparently marginalized all other participants in the overthrow of Mubarak by dominating the elaboration of the new constitution. They thought they could have the whole cake and thereby gave the military a chance to recoup lost ground. That was a grave but potentially educational and even salutary error.

Thoughtful commentators (not including the rip-and-read airheads on cable or network TV) describe a complex Egyptian polity with strong currents of moderate Islam, fundamentalist Islam, labor, secular liberals, secular leftists, and remnants of the Mubarak elite and bureaucracy. No doubt the domestic security forces are major players, too. Despite the unfortunate turn of recent events, I sense not a crushed rebellion but a dynamic, ongoing shake-up with many competing interests at play and a revolutionary spirit very much roiling about beneath the surface. Tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets last year and risked their lives for the chance of a better future for their children and their country. That spirit doesn’t dissipate in the flips and flops of palace intrigue. I get the impression that these smug army guys had better watch their Ps and Qs.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Rape: guilty; sex: hung jury

So it’s not okay to sexually molest small children and/or to cover up for others when they do it. That’s good to know, and in a fairly lawless era when it is okay to torture adults and to steal their life savings, progress, of sorts.

The simultaneous decisions in the Jerry Sandusky case and the Father Lynn trial are a curious coincidence in a society that seems not to agree on much but is pretty united around adults keeping their horny mitts off minors. How have we managed to get here?

I perceive two normally hostile worldviews coming together: first, feminism, which awakened society to the deadly yet mostly hidden epidemic of rape and how pervasive it is, as well as its cultural cousins such as body objectification, sexual harassment and victim-blaming.

But if it were only that contingent demanding the heads of the Sanduskys and the Lynns, the outcomes probably would be far less emphatic and the punishments a good deal lighter. No, the Christian fundamentalists, who have spent 30 years trying to roll back the sexual revolution, recriminalize abortion, recloset gays and stop sex ed, have also joined the chorus. They were aghast, too, but less over the sadistic power trip involved in the abuse than for the sexualization of innocent, i.e., sexless, children.

Let us not forget that the Christians and their prosecutorial allies mounted the century’s second-worst witchhunt in the 1970s and ’80s during which many innocent adults were railroaded into prison on wholly fabricated charges, the McMartin and the Friedman cases being two of the more egregious. The surreal narratives built up around these allegations fit neatly into the Bible-thumper worldview, that fallen adults are eager to prey on our babies not yet cursed with menstruation, wanking and other signs of Original Sin.

If serial predators like Sandusky now can be sniffed out at an earlier stage of their crimes and denounced promptly, then we’ve learned a good lesson. I fear, however, that what remains unresolved is teenage sexuality itself. Criminalization, in our ever more litigious culture, is on the rise, both for what used to be a staple of adolescent trainwreckage like knocking up your girlfriend and, in my line of work, the sex lives of people with HIV. Sex researchers can’t even approach certain topics of the sexual behavior of minors (anyone under 18 years of age) as they will find themselves ostracized, threatened and looking for a new job.

So the alliance of feminist consciousness and Christian indignation has served us well in these cases, quite by accident. Meanwhile, the last abortion clinic in Mississippi is about to close, and one out of twelve teenagers in New York City carries the chlamydia virus. Rape is no longer a joke, but sex remains a minefield.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Bipeds eschew reason-chapter CXXLVII

Imagine, if you will, the irony of the government pursuing the hide of Julian Assange with a baying chorus of Republican thugs openly calling for his assassination because he exposed government secrets and, simultaneously, these same defenders of the security state charging the Attorney General for contempt of Congress because he refuses to provide more government documents on an undercover operation—that first came to light through a whistleblower.

Yes, Fast & Furious, the lame Treasury Department scheme to sell weapons to the Mexican drug cartels so that they could trace the guns to the higher-ups, only became known to us because someone within the bowels of the state illicitly transferred the emails and other documents to unauthorized hands. That’s how the system works and how it should work, but it’s an amazing display of double standards to see its beneficiaries howl for blood when the same practice involves something they like, for example, ‘rendering’ terrorism suspects so that they can be tortured in Syrian prisons. That should be protected, but actions by the hated Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms Bureau are fair game.

I’m all for getting government officials to come clean on their stupidity, but these are police undercover operations, for goodness sake. You’d think the hard-liners would at least nod to the possibility that a minimum degree of privacy might be prudent given their hysterical insistence that Assange be tried for treason for revealing similar things.

And am I living in a parallel universe, or is there something triply mystifying about the brouhaha over American weaponry being shipped to the Mexican drug gangs clandestinely when these same shocked, shocked solons insist that their sales be permitted to proceed openly? Perish the thought that anyone should suggest that automatic assault rifles or back-yard bazookas should be in any way restricted by laws!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Impressive coalition against stop & frisk

White New York has been largely comfortable with the criminalization of black and Hispanic youth over the years as evidenced by the steady support for all sorts of invasive policing techniques inspired by the ‘broken windows’ anti-crime theories of the Giuliani era. But a combination of low crime rates and a constant stream of grotesque police violence has begun to turn the tide against the most egregious manifestation of how poor kids from the rougher neighborhoods are made guilty until proven innocent by the security apparatus of our so-open-minded city—the so-called ‘stop-and-frisk’ procedure.

A friend and I joined the Father’s Day march against the practice, now set to rack up over 800,000 street detentions this year, a 20 percent increase over 2011. That may not be one stop for every non-white kid in the five boroughs, but it might as well be. Tens of thousands of New York teens are accustomed to being treated as criminals based on the way they look, and anyone who denies that this constitutes racial profiling is not proficient in the English language.

What’s worse is that stop-and-frisk is part and parcel of the tendency of NYPD officers to blast away and ask questions (such as, Is this person armed?) later. The indictment for manslaughter of the cop who chased Ramarley Graham into his Bronx bathroom and shot him in the stomach is a good sign, but Graham’s father, who joined the march Sunday, won’t ever enjoy Fathers Day again nonetheless. If black kids like his dead son weren’t systematically targeted for pathetic pot busts to get them quickly registered in the criminal surveillance system, the circumstances that led to the shooting might have played out quite differently.

There were, I would say, 30 to 50 thousand people on that march, lots of organizations, union contingents, gay groups, Muslims, and plenty of sympathetic individuals. It was a silent parade down Fifth Avenue to 79th Street and was only disrupted by a band of demented ultraleftists in front the Met Museum screaming their fool heads off, based on the logic that that their shrill message represented the correct line, which gave them the right to break the agreement not to sloganeer respected by the other 99.99% of us. If the cops planted them as agents provocateurs, it was a waste of money.

Police presence was slight and very low-key, unlike their heavy-handed behavior at other recent downtown demos. I assume they didn’t want to draw any further attention to the event given that it was an impressively dignified show of community opposition to their own practices. Mayor Bloomberg dared to go in front of a black congregation last week and invoke Martin Luther King in defense of his racist policy, but even conservative church ladies—plenty of whom were marching Sunday, too—have had enough. People do want protection against crime, and the residents of Harlem and Brownsville more than anyone. But criminalizing a whole class of people based on their age and color just won’t do.

Monday, 18 June 2012

And now, Spain

The Greeks have behaved themselves by voting the way the European bankers and their hired nannies demanded, and the illusion of obedience to the failed and failing austerity program slapped onto the sorry islands will continue for a while more. It may prove to be a blessing that the leftist Syriza party did not win Sunday as the collapse would likely have been hastened and then blamed on them. This way, the establishment parties can preside over the next phase of the debacle.

But enough of that, Greeks can now go back to eating out of garbage cans and dying of sepsis on the steps of abandoned hospitals. It’s the Spaniards who will take their place as the next set of bad boys and girls who have been spending their allowances in all sorts of naughty ways and must be punished.

The latest development in the ongoing European train wreck was the infusion last week of 100 billion euros into the Spanish financial system, which was designed to boost confidence in the country’s banks and lower Spain’s borrowing costs. It was a colossal failure on both counts; one reason was that the new block of cash was dumped on the Spanish government and became senior, meaning that if Spain starts to go seriously broke, it’s the European-cum-German paymasters who will standing at the head of the line to be paid back first.

Significantly, said the New York Times today:

Most delicate will be whether the Spanish banks receiving the largest cash injections, like the nationalized mortgage giant Bankia, will be forced to impose losses on holders of their subordinated bonds. Those are the investors whose bonds are not backed by collateral and are thus considered more risky.

Tough titties, one might say, except that the non-collateral bonds referred to are not some arcane financial instrument shuffled among overpaid MIT grads at Deutsche Bank, but rather the nest eggs of frugal Spanish retirees.

A comment on Naked Capitalism fleshed out what happened in Spain, which should promptly remind us of our home-grown financial shenanigans a la sub-prime and CDOs. Here’s how the counterpart in ever-so-modern Iberia worked, according to ‘Bobito’:

Some years ago Spanish banks and cajas [the government-owned regional banks] began actively promoting to their retail customers what in Spanish are known as participaciones preferentes, and other financial instruments, as I understand it essentially preferred stocks, . . . For the most part these customers were retirees and ordinary savers with little or know financial knowledge, and they accepted the offers because they sounded good (perhaps too good). To some extent the risks of purchasing such instruments were actively concealed or obfuscated (i.e. they were presented as like a savings account, but with returns). To say it less charitably—the banks perpetrated a massive and conscious fraud. The reason that so much subordinated debt is held by ordinary retail customers is that they had no idea what they were purchasing. People should be in prison for this, and it would only compound the criminality to wipe out the savings of thousands of not very well off people.

It’s hard to over-emphasize this: the people now set to get hammered by the ‘restructuring’ of the collapsing Spanish banks are the banks’ own retail customers who put their money into unsecured bonds because the nice lady behind the desk said it was a good idea and essentially just like a deposit.

Edward Hugh at EconoMonitor describes these savers thus:

. . . this measure would penalise the very people who help keep Spain’s banking system together, those small savers who forwent going for holidays on credit to Cancun, Thailand or Japan and failed to increase their mortgages in order to buy lavish SUVs in an attempt to save for their retirement. These are the people who now face the prospect of losing their precious savings to cover the losses generated by those who did both of the above.

So there we have it: the banks get saved from their folly, and those foolish enough to trust their branch bank managers’ advice are set to lose their patiently accumulated net worth. Voila, another round of the Bush-Obama approach to financial panics: save the banks at all costs while dumping the burden onto gullible consumers who did what they were told. And what are the chances that criminal prosecutions will follow any of this as has (not) occurred here at home? This is what modern casino capitalism has brought us to, but don’t expect it to be described that way on CNN or in the pages of the chin-stroking papers. Oh no, it’s going to be all about whether Spain will ‘tighten their belts’ and ‘accept reforms’ or dare to ‘reject the bailout’ like the Greeks almost did. Next set of victims!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The people’s choice

Two nations go to the polls today, ostensibly to determine their own futures with the exercise of suffrage, to declare by their votes who it is they wish to lead them and, in very general and rough terms, where. But are the Greeks and the Egyptians really doing any such thing?

Greek voters find themselves presented with a range of choices among parties and personalities, but in essence the options boil down to two, both unattractive and neither one representative of what the majority might be said to want. On the one hand are the doomsayers of the political class insisting that the country must grow up and not defy its paymasters in Frankfurt, Brussels and Berlin. This posture, shared by both the traditional leftish (PASOK) and rightish (New Democracy) parties, is described as ‘accepting the need for reform’ and similar phrases alluding to the messy and long-standing Greek arrangements of tax avoidance, featherbedding of state payrolls and cozy corruption—that is, the exact system these two parties installed and managed for decades.

On the other hand, Syriza and the refusnik parties describe their approach as standing up to the central European bankers by insisting on a different deal. They argue that the years of austerity have failed and merely driven the country to collapse, making the debt burden balloon into unsustainability. They tap the average Greek’s despair, outrage and suspicion of German motives. Yet no one wants to walk the plank of a Euro exit, so they clamor for reopening negotiations and, indirectly, of turning the gun being held at Greece’s head back at the EU itself since no one knows where a showdown will lead.

What is the beleaguered Greek voter to do? His pension is slashed, his elderly parents are eating out of garbage bins, the local hospital has no medicine, the city busses no longer run, and now the tourist trade is drying up out of fears of unrest. How are average Greeks, who work more hours per year than the supposedly virtuous Germans, to vote for their own future? They will trudge to the polls, or not, aware that the decisions about their survival will be taken elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Egyptians are living their own version of political manic-depression. After the euphoria of revolution, the heady promise of a real elected government suddenly has morphed into a demoralizing choice between the ancien régime and Islamic fundamentalism with the army standing by to gloat. A Mubarak-era court dared to wipe out the results of the recent parliamentary vote, smashing in one stroke the elaborately choreographed process for writing the country a new constitution. Tens of millions vote, but six guys in black robes decide the country’s future.

Yet despite the turmoil, attempts by the Mubarak remnants to put the genie back into a pre-revolutionary bottle are probably not going to work. The Muslim Brotherhood and other religious parties misstepped by not broadening their appeal and raising fears of a confessional dictatorship; the Tahrir Square secularists and youthful leftists didn’t build electoral machinery. These errors can be corrected, but votes cast in eventual elections will show the results of their efforts, not magically produce them.

Here at home, we have a similar lesson on display, should we choose to learn it. The Wisconsin recall effort failed where the fight against Governor Walker’s reactionary measures had achieved a measure of success. Once the campaign was channeled into traditional two-party electoral politics, the air went out of that tires on that bus.

Elections are a powerful symbol, and they operate as a check on the discretion of the mighty. But clicking the ‘like’ button does not a social movement make. If citizens are atomized, passive and ignorant, the act of voting becomes debased and shades into meaninglessness. By contrast, if they are awakened and ready to defend themselves, an election regains substance and heft even when lost. It will be fun to watch the totals come in showing who has accumulated more ballots in Greece and in Egypt, but these are mere chapters in the stories of peoples.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Stealing from the rich—NOT DONE!

Contrast, if you will, the treatment meted out this week to high-flying Ponzi schemer and all-round scumbag Alan Stanford and the red carpet testicle-worshipping performed by the Senate Banking Committee on JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon.

Stanford received 110 years in prison without parole for bilking his high-rolling customers out of a cool $7 billion. He certainly deserves to leave us forever, but Dimon doesn’t even risk losing his job, an apt sign of our polity’s sinking moral codes.

The assembled senators—who with few exceptions looked like they would like nothing better than to trade places with the man from JPM—frequently argued that, hey, what’s a couple of billion when you’ve made $19 billion last year alone? Ya win a few, ya lose a few.

That misses the point. Why is Dimon’s or any bank making such huge profits so soon after a crushing downturn in economic activity that has been barely reversed? The 19 billion on the plus side should be as worrying as the 2 billion (which probably will turn into twice that once the story dies down) in the red. A major TBTF bank, propped up by oceans of cheap cash from the Fed, should not be outperforming the entire economy to that extent and could not be unless it is engaged in systemically dangerous gambling. They cash in when it works, and we pay for the losses if it all explodes.

But to leave the Dimon-fellating aside, where are the criminal charges against other destroyers of wealth, like Lehman’s Fuld or the execrable Angelo Mozillo of Countrywide who was eminently chargeable for pumping up the sub-prime debacle and walking away with a gargantuan fortune? Or the hundreds of cases that could have been made against robo-signers, fraudulent foreclosure firms, document-forgers in the mortgage servicing industry, and the like?

The difference, sad to say, is that Stanford stole from the rich, which is punishable by death. The rest merely stole from working people who do not own senators or cable networks and can be stiffed with ease.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Obama getting exactly what he deserves on leaks

It’s just great to see the McCains and the Grassleys and the Lindsey Grahams slaughtering the Obama Administration over the constant leaks showing how tough and hands-on the prez is when it comes to disrupting the Iranian nuclear industry and assassinating undesirables. These are the juicy details pouring out of the government at the same time as the Obama team is seeking to put away Bradley Manning for life because he told on them.

As Glenn Greenwald has documented exhaustively, our current leaders have a grotesque double standard when it comes to unfriendly leakers and whistleblowers, whom they persecute mercilessly despite Obama’s lies campaign promises about transparency, and friendly ones, i.e. themselves spilling all kinds of confidential stuff about what a swinging dick the boss is. This was supposed to attract super-patriotic cheers, which it has from the Republican reactionaries like Peter King, who thinks it’s great that Obama ignores his base and further dismantles the rule of law.

Unfortunately, the security state doesn’t like Obama anyway, and they’re going to crush him. (The man just refuses to believe he isn’t invited to be part of their club.) The constant leaks from inside have provided a nice homerun ball to the Romney campaign and its surrogates, and I for will enjoy watching them hit it out of the park. Did he think he’s get a reward for letting the Bush-era criminals off the hook?

The announcement by Holder that there would be an internal investigation may not be enough to quiet the howling wolves. The whole story should percolate along right into the shank of the election season.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Finally, momentum against stop-and-frisk

An unusual coalition is building to confront Bloomberg’s awful stop-and-frisk law that lets the city cops criminalize all non-white males and treat them like shit. The latest and most positive development is that the city’s influential LGBT groups have weighed in definitively and endorsed a Father’s Day march against the disgusting and racist practice. It was heartwarming to see the gay leadership at a news conference in front of the Stonewall Inn this week with Sharpton and other black figures who usually have to denounce the cops’ excesses pretty much alone. Unions were represented, too, as well as the NAACP.

The NYPD is on track to record 800,000 street stops this year, a 20 percent annual increase. Black and Hispanic kids in certain neighborhoods can expect to be pulled over by cops and patted down weekly. There’s even a term for any kid who hasn’t had his turn yet: a ‘stop-and-frisk virgin’. The alleged idea is to take guns off the streets, which must be the last gun control measure permitted in the entire 50 states by now. But it’s directed at those you know, wink wink, other people, so it’s okay. Cops also love to use marijuana busts to get the kids fingerprinted and their data into the criminal system, where they can stay for life.

The gay and lesbian powers are a little hesitant about confronting Bloomberg on this or any other issue since he’s in their corner on marriage equality and other hot-button issues. Gay politics just comes backed with a lot more cash and privilege than the people usually objecting to black teenagers getting pushed around, which is what makes this so interesting.

But there’s an intersect that has awakened the LGBT crowd to stop-and-frisk abuse: harassment of underage gay kids, especially transgenders. The issue has been brewing for a number of years, and the TG contingent has become better organized and more vocal about the repeated incidents. It’s a small step from there to seeing the larger picture: that the kids aren’t getting stopped just because they’re young queens with no place to hang out, but because they’re young BLACK queens with no place to hang out.

Paul Schindler, editor of the excellent Gay City News, came out strongly against stop-and-frisk in an editorial and a front-page feature and noted the significant presence of our city council president, ambitious Chrstine Quinn, at the announcement. Quinn, who just married her female partner, is angling to be the next mayor, and though she is a shameless hack who has nested comfortably underneath Bloomberg’s undershirts for a decade, her flip against stop-and-frisk is a strong signal. That and the backing of the gay lobby are turning up the heat on the cops just a year from the race to succeed Mayor Mike, who continues to insist that stop-and-frisk is a great idea.

Here’s a chance to make a difference: join me at the Father’s Day event, June 17, 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, 12:00 noon.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Will Rangel be ousted after 42 years?

Because New York is a solid blue state, we will be spared the political garbage soon to spew onto the airwaves attempting to explain to us who should preside over the further impoverishment of the middle and working classes. We’ll just have to tune in to catch some of the crap being fed to our New Jersey neighbors where the race will be a bit tighter.

We do have some votes of interest, however, including the stubborn refusal to retire of Congressman Charlie Rangel, the Harlem boss whose 15th congressional district includes my modest domicile in the upper reaches of Manhattan. Redistricting has deleted a slice of the Upper West Side from Rangel’s 15th district and added a big chunk of heavily Latino Kingsbridge and Norwood in the Bronx all the way up to Fordham University. In fact, due to the loss of population in the state, Rangel’s 15th is now the 13th. Here’s a nifty interactive map that shows the old and new districts in helpful colors.

Because the new boundaries of the old Harlem-based district have pushed the Hispanic population from 45% to 55%, Rangel is being challenged by Adriano Espaillat, a one-term, Dominican-born state senator. Espaillat, who previously sat on the city council, is also my neighbor on Park Terrace West and a nice fellow by all appearances although I wish he wouldn’t set his SUV in the illegal space next to Isham Park. I guess public service does have its privileges.

I’ve started to get glossy mailings in anticipation of the Democratic primary later this month, which is the real election for this seat. (The whole area is not exactly Republican-friendly territory—Obama won 93% in the old Rangel district four years ago.) Rangel, going for his 23rd consecutive term, is refusing to run against Espaillat at all—his material exclusively talks about the nasty Republicans and their nefarious intentions. Few would disagree up here, and it’s probably a wise approach given Rangel’s recent bad news on ethics violations and the loss of his powerful committee chair two years ago.

Espaillat has steered clear of dragging that dirty laundry into the campaign although no one’s forgotten it. I wish there were clear policy differences between the two of them that one could identify, but there aren’t. Unfortunately but probably inevitably, it’s a race based on race: people are very likely to vote their ethnicity, and that gives Adriano a slight edge to be the first Dominican in Congress, for whatever that’s worth. He won’t be running for president though—he was born on an island that the U.S. never formally annexed.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Cuomo calls for halt to city's pot scam

There is movement, at long last, against the outrageous NYPD practice of stopping young black and Hispanic kids and busting them for pot through subterfuge and lies. Governor Cuomo set a fire under the city burgers’ comfy behinds by calling on the state to make pot arrests equivalent to a traffic fine rather than a criminal misdemeanor.

This decade-long and blatantly racist pot campaign is an excellent illustration of how neo-liberal management techniques dovetail neatly with more sinister social engineering. One need not be a tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist to perceive the nefarious outcomes, which are the same whether or not a giant Evil Brain is behind the whole scheme.

New York’s crime statistics are a highly contested matter, the maker and breaker of political careers, most notoriously that of Rudy Giuliani whose triumph over Broken Windows is now the stuff of legend. Cop bosses and mayors just love to get their major crime stats down, and one ongoing scandal here is how they manipulate victims of serious offenses to get the incidents downgraded and make the top guys look good. At the same time, the management geniuses want to show ‘productivity’, which entails exactly the opposite—lots of arrests.

What’s the solution? Well, New York led the way back in 1977 in the trend to decriminalize marijuana as society came to realize that pot is a relatively benign substance and quite a nice one, too. But after several years in which the city ignored reefer, Bloomberg became mayor and promptly decided that he could extend the Broken Windows concept and at the same time criminalize virtually any minority male in town. The tool was a massive rediscovery of Reefer Madness.

While small amounts for personal consumption were not grounds for arrest under the 1980s reform, you couldn’t go around smoking weed in public. So cops suddenly began using their stop and frisk powers (800,000 stops expected this year alone) to cajole hundreds of thousands of black and brown kids into showing any Mary Jane they had on them with false promises that they’d then be let go. Once the kid brought out the stash, he was popped for having it in ‘public view’. After averaging no more than a thousand pot arrests a year in the 1980s, the city now busts 40,000 to 50,000 people annually. Last year saw an all-time high of 55,000. All these kids immediately get saddled with a record and are thus crippled in the increasingly rigged race for employment and survival. Gazillionaire Bloomberg’s term in office has meant criminal records for pot possession for 400,000 mostly young people, only 15% of whom are white.

Commissioner Ray Kelly supposedly told the NYPD officers to stop doing harassment pot busts last fall, but so far they’ve either ignored him or understood that he didn’t mean it. So enter Cuomo who has a good nose for popular issues that are ripe for harvest.

Bloomberg and even Kelly are supporting the change, which must mean that the old scam has outlived its usefulness. They are probably giving ground on pot so that they can split it off from the stop-and-frisk policy itself, which they eagerly want to preserve. New York magazine points out this week in its Approval Matrix that cops stopped and patted down 120,000 Latino and black adolescents last year—out of a total of only 170,000 in that age group citywide. A majority of the white minority in liberal old New York consistently tells pollsters that they think that policy is just fine.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Bloomberg the downsize [king]

Mayor Bloomberg is an authoritarian prick, and so sometimes it’s fun to watch him bulldoze the guys who normally get their way by buying up politicians not sitting on $20 billion in their bank accounts. His latest surprise attack is an order to ban large sugary drinks in the city, which promptly raised howls of indignant outrage from the outfits merrily peddling these liquid calorie bombs.

I was in the Bronx last week for my job and met with hospital officials who informed us that in some of their poorer neighborhoods, 50 percent of the patients at primary health facilities suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetic syndromes. So when we glimpse those lithe 30-somethings bounding like springboks along the footpaths in Central Park, it’s good to recall that pretty much half of the city’s poor are wrecking their health with carbohydrate overdoses.

The objections to the mayor’s ukase followed a familiar script: that the real starch problem was in the stiff collars of the nanny state, daring to dictate to Free Men what they could and could not do with their alimentary canals, i.e., an exact repeat of the fight over smoking in bars. Sure, it’s not the same issue, but one would expect something more inventive from the lobbyists who were all over the personal freedom implications but offer no alternative means for weaning the city’s bloated kids off their sugar highs.

I haven’t read all the arguments, but I begin by being massively unimpressed with Don’t Tread On Me-type objections from citizens who don’t give a crap about Obama’s kill lists or the 800,000 annual stop-and-frisks carried out by cops in this city. The pro-sugaroids can go mainline high-fructose corn syrup for all I care, which doesn’t mean Bloomberg is not an arrogant bully. He’s that too, and they deserve each other.

Scummish Scott has powerful allies; workers don't

Wisconsinites will probably keep Governor Walker in office tomorrow thanks to an obscene flood of cash from rich people, but the poster boy of union-busting already has suffered a crippling defeat. No first-term officeholder wants to spend most of his time fighting off a credible recall challenge even if it fails. All that out-of-state money that looks likely to give him the edge has exposed him as a stalking horse for the national campaign to unravel what’s left of the New Deal. Walker is a pathetic hack, and even if he wins, he loses.

Some commentators have expressed dismay at the notoriously lackadaisical reaction of the national Democrats to tomorrow’s obvious curtain-raiser on the November elections, especially noting the miserly sums provided to their Wisconsin counterparts to fight Walker. But these innocents presume, on the basis of no evidence, that union-busting is somehow disturbing to the Obama party. It isn’t. In fact, since the passage of right-to-work laws in the 1950s, the Democratic machinery has barely managed to fight a credible rearguard action against the steady erosion of union membership and clout, notwithstanding the Dems’ expectations, usually fulfilled, that the remnants of the blue-collar workforce will faithfully trudge along behind whatever ambitious, Clintonoid, business-friendly suit that emerges from the neo-liberal thicket.

Union backers will grumble and curse if Walker squeezes out a win and remains in office, but they shouldn’t be disheartened. The independent and largely spontaneous outpouring of opposition to Walker’s assault on their livelihoods and citizenship was its own victory and prepared the way for the next battle--in stark contrast to the usual channeling of citizen energies into electing Democrats who promptly abandon them. Replacing the scummish Walker with a generic Democrat, while it would be a delicious moment, isn’t half as important as way Wisconsinites have exposed the lines of battle for all to see. The lame support from Obama is part of this illumination, and if a Walker come-back presages defeat for the Democrats later in the year, they will have only themselves to blame.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Diplomacy and genocide, by Kofi Annan

Lord Unctious, the former UN Secretary General, is on stage again emitting pious bleating noises in the next armchair over from Bashir al-Assad, the world’s latest mass murderer. This week he called upon ‘everyone with a gun’ in Syria to put them down, thereby equating the regime’s roving death squads with the people trying to protect civilians being slaughtered. This is entirely consistent with the performance of a world-class do-nothing who stood by as UN chief during both the Rwandan genocide and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia, yet still gets work. Diplomacy is a marvelous thing.

Annan was incapable of even sounding much of an alarm over Rwanda, and the fact that liberal heartthrob Bill Clinton didn’t want to be bothered by the fate of unimportant African peasants might have had something to do with it. Once it was too late, everyone said they were really, really sorry and agreed that they had certainly exercised bad judgment. So that fixes that.

Meanwhile, the mishandling of the Libyan affair a year ago has limited the UN’s usefulness in this case, and it is a pity that no one can do much while Assad proceeds to slaughter thousands of people. The original UN mandate in Libya was to prevent a similar round of mass murder by Khaddafy, who openly promised it when the eastern part of the country rose up against him. But then NATO took advantage of the green light to actively intervene and overthrow him, which the Russians and Chinese hadn’t signed on for and don’t want to see happen again, and who can blame them given the recent bellicosity directed at Iran.

No one has much moral high ground in this depressing scenario, and although the continuing horror must be weakening the Syrian regime’s support, experts don’t agree on what will happen next. One despairs of the biped race when mass insanity takes over--let it be over soon.