Saturday, 29 September 2012

Lessons from the plague years

As we are in the one-year anniversary month of Occupy Wall Street, it is an excellent time to hurry down to the IFC Cinema and see ‘How To Survive a Plague’ about the origins and history of ACT UP. The AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power arose out of the criminally negligent indifference of Ronald Reagan and his clique who ignored AIDS while the epidemic, now of truly historic proportions, was gathering strength throughout the world. We are still suffering from the effects of that non-decision decision by Saint Ronald of ‘government-is-the-problem’ fame.

The film by David France is an unabashed hagiography of the audacious activists who marched through the streets, sat in at the FDA and the CDC (and Wall Street!), confronted drug company executives, threw blood, blocked traffic and generally made themselves unbearable while publicly exposing their HIV-positive status to the hostile gaze of one and all, a daunting experience even now. There are a number of aspects of this history that are revealing and instructive for us today.

First of all and most germane as we listen to eulogies over the ‘dead’ Occupy movements, the early mobilizations and demonstrations built a crucial base of action. ACT UP could put a few hundred bodies on the street at a given moment, and while the tactic eventually reached the limit of its effectiveness, it was also fundamental. It shone a light on the issues and frequently forced the anonymous functionaries to deal with the people directly affected by their actions who were all up in their face. I hope we can look forward to future Occupy activities by the homeless, the destitute and the unemployed accosting the greedy banksters as they emerge from their gated caves and grotesque yachts although I also expect the 1% to react with ever greater and more murderous fury.

Next, experts were drawn to the activist core: Iris Long, for example, a Queens housewife and retired chemist, quickly saw that the group’s success would be limited until it mastered epidemiology and the logic of drug trials so that its leaders could interact with the scientific and regulatory bureaucracy as equals. They set about doing so, and the suited counterparts promptly took them seriously. The combination of confrontation and expertise was extremely potent, even when the protests seem to be going nowhere—in fact, precisely at that moment.

Then, as the strategy deepened in sophistication, ACT UP also experienced the internal tensions common to all social upheavals and had to confront the loony contingents within its ranks. Movements based on anger attract angry people, and loose alliances that facilitate group action also pave the way for factionalism and anarchy. A few loudmouths will never shut up no matter what, and some ultra elements will have a fit over tactical decisions that look politically impure—and may well be. While Larry Kramer is given the Voice of Reason role in the film, he was also one of the angriest, most prickly, uncompromising and difficult people on the scene right from the start. He’s a typical mixed bag and deserves respect for his role as well as a reminder that he displayed and deployed the same tendencies he’s shown criticizing.

The documentary isn’t easy viewing for anyone who lived through those troubled times and buried their friends, but it ends on an upbeat note as quite a few of the main characters are shown as middle-aged, only slightly ravaged survivors after appearing on screen talking about how they’d soon be dead.

So what sticks out from ACT UP’s history? AIDS and its movement rattled the cage of the entire medical regulatory and treatment apparatus and carved out a role for patient advocates that still resonates today. It’s not an accident (nor an original thought) that the leaders came from fairly privileged backgrounds and believed themselves entitled to life and health. These were people for whom demands that their government do something for them (yes, Mitt!) came naturally. Plenty of people don’t grow up feeling that way, especially those tossed by the wayside in our increasingly selfish culture.

Back to Occupy: rumors of its death are highly exaggerated, and as the grip of the financier class tightens around our collective neck, I believe we’ll see it resurface in a variety of ways. Here’s one: Occupy the SEC continues to intervene as experts, ACT UP style, in the ongoing fight over financial regulation. These are savvy finance professionals who penned, to cite one example, a 100-plus-page letter to the SEC on the Volcker rule contained in the Dodd-Frank bill and continue to oppose and expose the bank lobby’s ongoing attempts to weaken regulation. The estimable Yves Smith from Naked Capitalism is a member and updates us here on their activities.

In retrospect, ACT UP almost had it easy compared to the herculean tasks facing Occupy because, when all was said and done, the medical professionals and research scientists within the CDC and the FDA were fundamentally sympathetic to the patients’ goal—drugs that worked. By contrast, Occupy is up against a government and news media already captured by the financial sector, notwithstanding the presence of surviving allies here and there. But generally speaking, Occupy’s gain is their loss, and that battle is going to be much longer and bloodier and far less forgiving.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The Nanny State covers our ears

The inner rot from the Romney camp proceeds apace (the stench over there must be unbearable by now), and relief sets in at the prospect of their prompt departure. While we heave a sigh of gratitude that they will not swarm in like bees and sting our fragile government to death, something else occurs to remind us that the current occupants of high office in the land are dangerous in their own ways.

With October only a week away, the ‘surprise’ season is upon us, and the principal candidate for something nasty in the stretch before voting day is a new war in the Gulf. So it is timely that at least someone, somewhere, is asking an important question BEFORE the next war is upon us: What will it cost?

Let us briefly recall that the last two wars that we were sold, Afghanistan and Iraq (let’s not count Libya for now) turned out rather more expensive than we anticipated in both dollars and body parts as well as in prestige and the grudging affection our society and culture sometimes enjoy. They were also a lot easier to start than to end, a constant in war-making activities throughout human history.

So why, now that Iran has become the latest boogeyman that we should fear and possibly attack, and now that we are in thick into the one season of the quadrennium in which policy is supposed to be debated in depth and at length, why is it that we, the citizens of this country, are permitted no debate on the wisdom of waging war on that country?

Way at the top, there is plenty of nervousness about the idea of starting War #3 against a much tougher enemy than the rickety Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Here is the Washington editor of Bloomberg News, no less, one Albert R. Hunt, who pens a ‘personal opinion’ piece on the topic, appropriately titled ‘Americans Deserve Pre-emptive Debate on Iran Strike’:

The last two U.S. presidents have misled voters on the cost of armed conflicts. Amid another election, the drumbeats of war are sounding again. This time the subject is Iran.

There is a robust debate on the virtues and risks of trying to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. That discussion is taking place in Israel.

In the U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney parry over who has the smartest strategy for ensuring Iran doesn’t obtain the enriched uranium to develop a nuclear weapon. Both candidates warn about the dangers of Iran becoming a nuclear power.

There is almost no discussion on the costs of a strike to take out that nuclear capacity -- be it by Israel or the U.S -- in lives, money and regional and global standing.

Hunt goes on to remind us that Bush/Cheney promised Iraq would be a cakewalk and cheap, to boot, so we should do it to take away his weapons of mass destruction. It wasn’t, and there weren’t.

Then Obama insisted we needed a ‘surge’ of increased soldierly presence in Afghanistan to clean up that place and make sure no new bin Ladens appeared. Four years later, the place is in worse shape than ever, and the new bin-Ladenites are multiplying like fungi in a Petraeus dish.

So could we maybe possibly have a little serious discussion of whether we should bomb or support the Israelis in bombing the nuclear facilities of a country of 60 million people that sits along the most strategically sensitive real estate in the world?

This ‘strike’ is being peddled to us again with falsities, starting with the idea that it would be a one-time affair, a quick sortie like the destruction of Saddam’s nuclear installations at Osirik. But once an attack is carried out, what’s to prevent the Iranians from restarting the whole thing? Further attacks? A ground invasion? Having declared war on the country (just for the record, flying over a place a dropping bombs on it is an act of war), how will we react when the inevitable retaliation occurs, like maybe, um, on the New York City subways?

Hunt also notes the output of the Iran Project, chock-full of all sorts of weighty members of the foreign policy/security establishment, who lay out these discomfiting facts. So there is a debate taking place—we’re just not part of it.

By contrast, the citizens of Israel get to debate it fully.

Finally, the consensus at the top was further underscored this week by the delisting of the fanatical sect, Mujahedin e-Khalq (MEK) from the State Department’s terrorist list. This loony Iranian exile outfit supported Saddam Hussein during the worst crimes of his rule, keeps its own members in a state of Moonie-like control, and regularly commits terrorist acts. So why would the State Department decide they’re okay?

Well, as Glenn Greenwald summarizes, they’re OUR terrorists and carry out OUR dirty work, that’s why. And they’ve doled out a whole lot of cash to buy influence in a whole lot of the right places through people like Howard Dean and Ed Rendell. That’s right, nice liberalish Democrats joining the feeding trough like the best junior execs at Bain Capital. We can safely anticipate that our faithful scribes and stenographers from the major newspapers will not be pointing out this anomaly as it does not fit into the Red/Blue divide.

So when Obama and Romney stand there telling us how tough they are/want to be on who gets to attack Iran first and best, that might be the time to call up a Jerusalem newspaper on the Internet and get some sober thinking about the proper course of action. We won’t be getting any from our own guys.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Lonesome highway

A Marx brothers routine is masquerading as a presidential election. But these comedians aren’t funny.

“The problem for Romney right now isn’t that he’s running with Sarah Palin. It’s that he’s BECOME Sarah Palin.”–Mike Lupica, NY Daily News

It’s hard to dream up what kind of boner Romney will flash publicly next, but the only question is when, not if. The GOP has now boxed itself so far into the psycho corner that it cannot operate outside its own parallel universe. Romney was never their favorite because what they demand—a groveling, mean-spirited reactionary who can win elections—does not exist outside of cartoons. Even their Saint Ronald would have had a hard time surviving in the bizarro-world they have created.

Their true loves like priggish Rick Santorum or wild-eyed Michelle Bachmann could not survive because they aren’t billionaires, and for the most part the billionaires won’t touch them. The big bankers and hedge funders, the tech buccaneers or Wal-Mart trustees, require a slightly less tenuous grip on reality because that’s where the money is made. By constantly recurring to demagogy from the Fox-led Fantasyland for short-term advantage, the Rovian geniuses have debased politics and intimidated their enemies. But now they don’t know what to do with the loonies they let loose.

Romney looked credible because he came from the business world rather than the inside of a Cracker Jack box. He had been a passably competent governor of a blue state. He would have continued contentedly as a socially tolerant moneyed Republican if that breed had not been driven into extinction. Then, forced to turn pandering into a higher art form, he lost whatever ability he might have had to exercise the prudent opportunism that politicians require.

The distressing part of nuttiness is that after a short adjustment period, it becomes the new normal due to the malleability of bipeds under duress. The hardly shocking revelation that Mitt Romney thinks anyone less adept than himself at milking the system is a chump and a deadbeat is a notion that can be comfortably shared by a slice of the electorate. But for the rest of his conservative base, those for whom the dream of middle-class comfort and prosperity is quickly dissipating and who actually need the government to save them, the only viable strategy remaining for Romney’s campaign is a blatant appeal to racism, to equate said chumps and deadbeats with blacks and illegal Mexicans. I expect we will see a turn in this direction promptly.

“This is a guy whose religion forbids him from drinking alcohol. Could you imagine what he’d say if he was shitfaced?”—Jon Stewart

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The curse of God

Anti-American riots all over the Muslim world provoked by the deranged output of a phony ‘filmmaker’ who also happens to be a drug dealer, serial fraudster and government informant are a sad diversion of the Arab spring. The incidents may die down, but it’s worth remembering that the Iranian revolution of 1979 went down this road into its present unenviable state when the wacko brigades decided that the U.S. embassy should be stormed and its occupants made hostages. Iran has never recovered from that dumb move, and the leaders of Islam-based resistance to the region’s tyrants, like Egyptian president Morsi, have to decide whether they want to score cheap points over non-issues like the YouTube video or act like grown-ups.

Morsi’s opportunistic wink-wink at the embassy attack in Cairo cost him a lot, including a telephone spanking from a rather important person in Washington, D.C., and the abrupt departure of a western business delegation looking for ways to invest in Egypt. His country is in no condition to fritter away opportunities for growth given the crushing poverty and unemployment that his Muslim government is going to have to address. Religious fervor has a lot of appeal, but eventually people kind of want food, too.

The religious nuttiness is also painfully familiar after decades of inflamed, martyrdom from the Christian zealots here. Just like the Allah-charged masses, indignant believers think that improper treatments of their holy symbols give them the right to toss bombs on the infidel. We do it more elegantly, as the Mittster would say, by waging deadly wars against Christ’s enemies in Iraq, Yemen or the mountains of Pakistan while the bearded ones can only manage to get an RPG into a diplomat’s car. But it’s the same spirit of self-righteous narcissism animating both.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Ignorance is Strength

Nearly thirty years ago, I naively went to a rally staged by Avanzada Nacional in the Caupolicán amphitheatre in Santiago. I knew AN to be a right-wing entity, but I didn’t realize exactly what kind of right-wing: it was essentially the political arm of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s secret police. I sat placidly in an upper tier taking notes by myself with my journalist credentials hanging around my neck waiting for the big guy to appear. When Pinochet finally took the stage, dozens of burly guys sitting around me leaped to their feet and, to my innocent surprise, gave him the Nazi salute. Fairly soon after that, I lost my notebook to a couple of them and finally figured out that it was highly imprudent of me to be there at all.

Some months later, I was doing a story on the small Jewish population of Chile and tracked down the head of the local branch of B’nai B’rith to see what Jewish community leaders had to say about the dictatorship. It turned out that Jews in Chile weren’t bothered by military rule any more than other middle-class Chileans, many of whom had had big problems with the Allende government in the 1970s and welcomed Pinochet’s coup. People uninvolved in political or union matters might be vaguely troubled by the rumors of killings or disappearances, but Jews as such were not targeted—unlike the openly anti-Semitic dictatorships ruling neighboring Argentina and Uruguay.

But when I related what I had witnessed at the AN rally, the comfortable and unconcerned Jewish leader across the desk merely shook his head and assured me that no, I had not seen the Nazi salute. I was mistaken. To this day, I recall that conversation with amazement: Pinochet was not an anti-Semite; ergo, I had not seen what I had seen. It did not occur.

Just yesterday, I took to a framing shop my signed portrait of the 1968 Olympic protest by athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos who gave a black-gloved, black power salute from the winner’s podium. The gesture rocked the country in the months just after Martin Luther King’s assassination and linked them symbolically with the militant movements of the era. Smith spoke last weekend at a screening of a documentary on the incident—which is where I got the signed poster—and related how he had been followed around by the FBI for decades afterward.

When I mentioned that history as related by Smith, the owner of the frame shop shook his head and denied that that had occurred. No, not for 30 years, he insisted. Just impossible. Like the Chilean Jew serenely certain of his world, the white Manhattanite store owner knew what actions his government’s agents do and do not perform. They don’t follow black athletes around and hound them out of jobs; they don’t snoop on them and read their mail for decades after a simple protest. That is not possible. It did not occur.

I recall this facile self-delusion when reading about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the Obama Administration’s better-kept secrets since the mainstream papers seem unconcerned about it. The TPP is a cornucopia of goodies and giveaways for the tobacco, oil, pharmaceutical and other 1% interests, and some 600 corporate lobbyists are all in on the draft provisions—but we’re not.

The TPP is being pitched as a ‘free-trade agreement’ (ho hum), but in fact it’s a wholesale delivery of our democratic controls, such as they remain, to the corporate goon squads. Its articles will undermine environmental protections, labor rights, and Internet freedom by placing the power to dictate those terms in a supra-national triumvirate of corporate lawyers, all in the name of preserving ‘free’ trade.

A few leaks have revealed the bad news, but even members of Congress with oversight over trade matters can’t get hold of the negotiated drafts. Once passed through fast-track congressional maneuvers that prevent ‘special interests’—like you and me—from having a say on the details, we’ll be stuck with a mega-NAFTA that will further hollow out what’s left of our industrial base and make us permanent peons to the international corporate lords.

I’ve read some about this and hope others do, too. A few groups are whipping up opposition, like Avaaz’s million-signature petition. But how many people eager to vote Democrat in two months to avoid the skeery horrors of a Romney-Ryan regime would believe that the TPP is really as bad as all that? After all, Joe Biden just praised American workers in a big convention center, and Barack Obama promised to preserve Social Security. TPP as the corporate death-star? Not a possibility. Is not happening. Will not occur.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Ryan & Rahm: true, true love

So here’s a real fight: on one side, Chicago’s schoolteachers. On the other, Obama’s former chief of staff, now mayor, Rahm Emanuel. And shoulder to shoulder with Rahm, today’s favorite rich nutcase Ayn Randite, Paul Ryan. What bracing clarity, what a refreshing dip in an icy mountain stream!

Just listen to Ryan(R) lauding the union-crushing moves by Emanuel(D):

Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teacher’s union strike is unnecessary and wrong. We stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel [and] with the children, and we stand with the families and the parents of Chicago because education reform, that’s a bipartisan issue. This does not have to divide the two parties.
Indeed it does not! Because the two parties’ positions on turning public education into a commodity for profiteering are identical. The Chicago teachers’ rearguard action against privatization and the next round of massive looting of public property now underway is exposing this nasty little secret, just days after the love-fest between the Democrats and their glassy-eyed boosters who won’t feel themselves getting screwed until the pain hits the middle thoracic vertebra.

As David Dayen writes in Firedog Lake, the ‘Waiting for Superman frame’, meaning rah-rah for charter schools and down with lazy, selfish teachers, has become the received wisdom of both parties, the mainline media and the cultural elites. That makes sense since the cultural elites have given up on public education and don’t send their kids to public schools—starting with Mayor Rahm himself, whose kids wouldn’t be caught dead in one.

The tactics are plain enough to see: starve public schools into failure, put 40-50 students in classrooms without air conditioning, make sure they don’t have books or materials for the first few weeks, then impose a rigid testing regime and make teachers the scapegoats when the deprived students can’t read nor do their sums. Then wreck the teachers’ unions as the only obstacle to packaging up education as a for-profit commodity and sell the newly released goods, now no longer publicly owned, to their hedge fund friends.

Jonathan Kozol, who has a new book out just this month, reported the same thing 40 years ago, and nothing has changed: the pundit poobahs keep saying that ‘money doesn’t matter’, that teacher enthusiasm and spirit is the key to good schooling. But lo and behold, every time someone looks into how much money is being spent on kids, surprise, surprise, it’s the wealthy families who make sure their kids’ schools have good resources, and the poor kids who get bupkis. So money really does matter after all as, underneath all the blather, everyone knows perfectly well.

But the nation’s huge expenditures on education at all levels provide a fine opportunity for the financiers to bulldoze their way in, scoop up the cash and leave chaos in their wake—now that their handiwork with the mortgage market, for which they have suffered zero pain, has wrecked that source of loot.

It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to learn that Emanuel worked with a tea-party group to shout down school-teachers in community meetings, even going to the extreme of paying protesters to go to school closings. As the ‘greedy teachers’ are being pilloried in the media, no one notices that the head of the Chicago public system, David Vitale, is a banker. Here’s his C.V. from Forbes:

Chair of the Urban Partnership Bank (2010-present); Chairman of DNP Select Income Fund, Inc. (2009-present), DTF Tax-Free Income Inc. (2009-present) and Duff & Phelps Utility and Corporate Bond Trust (2009-present) (investment companies); . . . former Executive Vice President of First Chicago Corporation, Vice Chairman of The First National Bank of Chicago, Vice Chairman of First Chicago NBD Corporation and President of The First National Bank of Chicago.
However, it looks like Emanuel underestimated the teachers union and the support they still enjoy among parents. Meanwhile, a certain election campaign is taking place, and as Lambert Strethner writes in Naked Capitalism, ‘Obama is between a rock and a hard place. He can’t support the teachers, not only because the Rs will jump on him but because the teachers are striking against his own education policies. On the other hand he can’t condemn them for the strike and turn off many teachers around the nation who not only vote but are activists in elections'.

So Obama is reduced to saying he’s ‘for the children’, a deliciously meaningless blast of not even hot air.

Sign at a teachers rally: ‘Fighting to make CPS a district where Rahm would send his kids’.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Chicago schoolmarms kick Democratic butt

We can safely assume that a teacher’s strike against his former chief of staff taking place in his home town during the two most crucial weeks before the election is not exactly what Barack Obama wished for at his last birthday party. But Rahm Emanuel’s notorious bully-boy negotiating style has run up against a union not so easily intimidated and astute enough to see that they have powerful cards to play.

The Democrats just ended a well-orchestrated propaganda blitz known as a political convention aimed at convincing voters that there is a profound difference between the two parties, that one represents stingy, bloated moneybags and the other is the home of decent working people. How embarrassing, then, to have Mitt Romney immediately come out against the striking teachers and line up alongside a distinctly uncomfortable Mayor Emanuel.

The underlying problem for Obama and Emanuel is that on the issue of how to ‘reform’ education, they are in full agreement with the privatizers of the Romneyoid right wing and have been carrying out the Republican program for the last four years. Obama’s education secretary is none other than the former superintendent of Chicago’s school, Arne Duncan, a favorite of the teach-to-the-test brigades eager to weaken teachers’ unions and job security to pave the way for private actors, despite the glaring lack of evidence that any of these changes will improve educational outcomes. (See Diane Ravitch’s withering critiques here and here and her take-down here of the awful film ‘Waiting for Superman’.)

It is most inconvenient for the voters now being whipped into action to save the Obama presidency suddenly to discover that, on this central concern of the entire nation, the two big parties pretty much see eye to eye. This dropped fig leaf makes the strike a disaster that has to be cleaned up toot sweet, and I suspect frantic calls are now occurring between Washington and Chicago in which Rahmie is on the receiving end of the tongue-lashings. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer fellow.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Soaring back to earth

An excellent antidote for the hallucinations and mirages induced by the Democrats’ convention last week was the book Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street while Rescuing Wall Street, which I read simultaneously. The author is Neil Barofsky, former Inspector General of the Treasury’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), which was established to take a planeload of toxic assets off the banks’ balance sheets and thereby save their undeserving hides during their 2008 near-death experience.

Barofsky’s job was to oversee the execution of TARP, which even before he came on board in the late Bush Administration was shoveling tens of billions of taxpayer dollars out the door with few if any controls. You’d think all the moaning and gnashing of teeth about irresponsible government spending would mean that Barofsky would enjoy a golden throne from which to ensure fair play, efficiency and honesty.

You would, of course, be wrong. While everyone had to pretend to care about those things, the real motivation of TARP was to hoover up as many billions as could be found and mainline them into the rickety banks’ track-marked veins while they struggled back toward solvency. In this mission, Democrats and Republicans, Bushites and Obamanians, were in full accord. Barosky was promptly exiled to a dank basement in the Treasury’s dungeon and blocked at every turn by bureaucrats determined to undermine him, first by Bush appointees and then by the Geithner team. Only certain much-maligned members of Congress were willing to back Barofsky’s quixotic efforts.

One of many examples will suffice, especially given the repeated references to it during the Democratic sales pitch just ended: the auto bailout. Barofsky didn’t have any problem with the provision of emergency aid to Detroit automakers, but he did try to insist on a fair accounting of the disbursed cash and justification for its attendant policies, such as the decision to close thousands of auto dealerships and throw thousands out of work in the midst of a deep recession. Barofsky found that there was no credible justification for the rush to dismantle the dealerships, and he dared to say so, drawing heated fire, lies, and nasty leaks from the White House.

It’s important to keep this perspective when listening to Bill Clinton and Joe Biden sing the praises of themselves as defenders of the common folk: when the Democrats held huge margins in Congress and occupied the White House, they poured money into the car companies without a second thought about tens of thousands of jobs that could easily have been preserved. Instead, their corporate geniuses (like Steve Rattner, the New York property developer who ran the auto bailout) took advantage of the bankruptcy crisis to break contracts and screw small business owners.

Barofsky comes back to this theme repeatedly in his book: the excessively bank-friendly choices and rushed decisions by Geithner and in the end Obama himself eventually backfired politically and harmed the Democrats’ image among the general populace.

In fact, he accuses Geithner of pretty much giving birth to the Tea Party through the poorly designed and hastily executed HAMP program that was supposed to help people refinance their underwater mortgages (and instead caused them vast suffering, including to people who were not even delinquent).
When Geithner dismissed all criticism and pushed the ill-conceived program into operation, the famous Rick Santelli rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange followed, sparking the reactionary movement that cost Democrats dearly in the mid-term elections.

Does this mean there is no difference between the two parties and that I’m saying we should placidly await fascism? That’s another straw-man argument unworthy of response. While the corruption is vast and deep all around, the Republican half of the duopoly also includes serious mental derangement, which is no small matter when it sets in among the powerful. But it’s a fantasy to think that the people we just heard filling their pie-holes with solidarity for the masses are going to defend us. When Obama returns for a second term, the impoverishment of the middle and working classes will accelerate.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Fine words--what if they were true?

What the Guardian calls the ‘thumping’ endorsement by Bill Clinton of the sitting president last night reminds us, if there were any doubt, that Obama is a Billary clone, a mainstream conservative largely captured by the financial elites and the security state who occasionally evolves toward a decent position on certain issues when the political cost is not too high. Bill Clinton, dismantler of welfare, signer of the Defense of Marriage Act, and promoter of job-killing NAFTA, somehow manages to sell himself as a liberal hero, all lessons Obama has thoroughly absorbed.

Every four years, however, an appeal must be made to the constituencies desperate for someone to take their concerns to heart, and a political convention is a great showcase for stirring rhetoric, whether there’s any substance behind it or not. But while talk is cheap, there’s symbolic value in what does get said and by whom.

My personal favorite from last night was Sister Simone Campbell [photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite] of the social justice group Network, who gently inserted a jalapeño pepper up the clerical bunghole by reminding the audience that Catholic dogma includes concern for the weak, the ill and the infirm—not just the uterus. She even called it her ‘pro-life’ position to rub it in a little more. So much for the Vatican’s declaration of war against the unruly nuns who refuse to abandon their work and stand around streetcorners with bloody fetus pictures.

Sister Simone’s discourse was refreshing as one could safely assume she was not talking charity for the poor while simultaneously funneling cash to rich bankers. The same cannot be said for the assembled Democrats whose current hero presides over a Treasury Department in hock to Citibank and JPMorganChase. I am currently reading Bailout by Neil Barofsky, the former Inspector General of the failed Trouble Assets Relief Program (TARP), and I don’t recommend it for the last hour before bedtime. Your dreams will include a lot of violence.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

"Look forward, not backward"

As a tribute to the great Democratic Party during its national convention, I will spend the next three days making a joyful noise upon a trumpet. Tonight’s Cantata: Barack Obama, the “Let’s All Be Loyal Americans and Forget About That Torture Thing-y” President.

Those current with Obamaspeak on the issue of torture will recognize the phrase in my headline as Obama’s summary argument for not pursuing criminal charges against the U.S. government officials who tortured prisoners to death, once thought to be a heinous act. The defense used by our Nobel Peace Prize winner is that rejected by the judges at Nuremberg: they were following orders.

As it happens, even that already flimsy brief is not true: the architects of the two best-known cases, just dropped by Attorney General Holder, went beyond the supposed ‘orders’ provided by John Yoo and the other Bush lawyers. Notwithstanding the legal acrobatics performed by W’s highly trained consiglieri, the still-unnamed perpetrators of these acts went beyond the vast leeway given to them, resulting, in the most notorious case, in death with a smiley face (that of Lynndie England [above] grinning over the corpse). Civilized society, which does not include the United States at present, was horrified. But only poor Lynndie and her gang did any time.

Obama said all along that it is more important to focus on what will happen in the future than what occurred in the past, and on this point I entirely agree albeit with a slight twist. Now that torture is an accepted part of the U.S. security toolkit insofar as practicing it will result in no punishment, we can look forward to its being applied with gusto whenever the occasion arises. That’s one part of the ‘future’ that apparently does not worry our citizens.

But the reverse is also true. If torture can be applied BY the U.S. military and its attendant intelligence services, it can and will be applied TO them as well. No one seems to have thought much about that.

I wonder what young kids in Wyoming and Indiana contemplating a stint in the army would think if their service included the possibility of being snatched by an enemy battalion and tortured under the Obama Doctrine. (After all, GIs might well know of drone missiles set to attack innocent civilians, which would then justify, under the Alan Dershowitz/’ticking time-bomb’ argument, whatever it takes to get the information out of them.) Given that these are now the rules of war, they should be informed in advance of what they are getting themselves into.

When such incidents occur, no doubt Americans everywhere will be outraged and demand revenge. But they will be hard pressed to demand legal accountability now that Obama has made torture just one of those unfortunate things that happen in war. Americans can no longer say the torture regime was an aberration, and for that we can thank the guy speaking on Thursday night.

Monday, 3 September 2012

New York notes

It’s primary season again in New York State, and presidential distractions aside, there are enough amusements to hold our momentary interest.

The state GOP is waging a futile and refreshingly pathetic battle against Hillary’s replacement, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand has been a pleasant surprise after being named by Gov. Goofball to fill the empty seat. No one need succumb to illusions that her shift of positions from upstate Blue Dog to citified liberal reflects a sincere change of heart. It’s not inconceivable but irrelevant. Her positions on important issues fits with Gotham values, and she’s managed to avoid too obvious pandering to the heavy zionist bloc—unlike our oily senior senator, Charles Schumer.

Gillibrand won me over by voting against Obama’s extension of the Bush tax cuts, which placed her in the 20-strong minority among her party that makes a show of representing lower-income citizens. She’s unopposed in the primary and might as well be in the November general election. The tottering state Republican party put up an unknown that is trying to convince us that Obama is a threat to freedom of religion. Send it to Selma!

Closer to home, my neighbor Adriano Espaillat ran for Congress on the Look! I’m-Dominican! platform and narrowly lost out to Harlem barnacle Charlie Rangel who was weakened by his publicized ethics failings. Espaillat should have slammed him for corruption, which might not have changed the outcome, but would have been healthier than the race-race that we got. Now Rangel’s machine buddies have put up an opponent to harass him for re-election to the state senate and his (and my) district.

But the true pass-the-popcorn fun arises from the thudding sound produced by the fall of Brooklyn Democratic machine boss and state assemblyman Vito Lopez who has been exposed as a serial groper by a whole passel of office interns. Even better, the hitherto untouchable Sheldon Silver, who as Assembly prez presides over all things in Albany like an unelected consul, was caught facilitating a payoff to the female plaintiffs—with state cash, no less.

Grabby Vito now faces a criminal investigation for sexual harassment. He attracted brief attention among the Wall Street Occupiers last year when innocent young Brooklynites went to see him to offer their services to a progressive, party-based, 99%-er platform. He told them to fuck off.

To add to the fun, Eric Schneiderman, the turncoat state’s attorney, also has been scorched. Schneiderman is fresh from selling his soul to the Geithnerites at Treasury by wrecking his very promising investigation of the banks’ role in the mortgage scandal and has explaining to do for his part in this insider cover-up. His announcement of a new investigation of private equity funds (like Romney’s Bain Capital) and their tax shenanigans is very timely as it will provide headlines favorable to the Obama re-election effort—and will help to cover Schneiderman’s sorry and unredeemable ass.

Queens of Tampa

A brilliant and peculiar documentary now playing here in New York was the perfect way to digest Tampa although a cast-iron stomach is needed for both. The Queen of Versailles (photo: Matt Schonfeld/Magnolia Pictures) tells the story of David Segal and his beauty-queen wife Jackie, both of humble origins. At the beginning of the picture, they are in the process of building a $100 million palace in Orlando, set to be the largest single-family home in the country. Segal’s money comes from his Westgate Resorts, a time-share vacation empire built on a helium balloon of credit and working class marks easily persuaded to spend money they don’t (or soon won’t) have.

At the beginning of the story, all is well, credit is cheap and the Segals’ eight children roam about their vast starter castle attended by a bevy of Filipina maids and nannies (at least one of whom left her own children behind to spend her life cleaning up after Jackie’s). Halfway through, though, the financial panic hits, and Segal’s $600 million Vegas crown jewel teeters on the verge of foreclosure.

The metaphor for where we are at as a nation is all too obvious, and because the filmmakers don’t overdo the mockery of the family, we grasp their worldview without facile distancing. It’s not a pretty sight and says a lot about what we were subjected to last week.

While we can sniff at the Segals’ nouveau riche displays, we also see that their grandiose consumerism is congruent with our dominant beliefs, perhaps best summed up in one of David’s lines: if you can afford it, you should have it. What’s the point of earning a billion dollars, he might have added, if people can’t see it? Any concept of scale, appropriateness, one’s impact on others is not just missing—it would require a brain transplant. Segal embodies the Thatcherite dictum: ‘Society doesn’t exist’.

And yet Jackie is not a pharaoh; she does not consider lesser beings mere animate chunks of meat that exist for her pleasure. She is self-made, American-style; she remembers her own past as a waitress and a struggling high school girlfriend. While smiling for pictures with her husband and George W. Bush, Jackie can worry about David’s laid-off employees and shrug off the loss of most of her household help.

Filtered through the kitsch prism of the Segals’ lives, the Republican festival of self-indulgence becomes no less disturbing but, at least from the delegates’ viewpoint, oddly humanized—which is disturbing in a whole new way. The Segals don’t set out to cause harm; they merely cause it. They illustrate the sad truth that sins of omission are easier and thus more frequent than crimes.

However, there is one important exception, alluded to early in the film: Mr Segal’s role in pushing Florida into the Bush column in the contested 2000 election. It’s chilling to contemplate that 200 thousand Iraqis had to die because David and Jackie wanted a half-million-dollar stained glass picture window and a private jet.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Kabuki, Act I

Who can fail to be dumbfounded at the idea that millions of people in possession of their rational faculties could rush to the voting booths and declare, Yes! Please impoverish me and turn over all my resources to rich people! Yet as demonstrated by the bizarre, insular pep rally just concluded in Tampa, that is exactly what we will witness in two short months.

However, this disconcerting spectacle of a massive auto-eliminatory impulse ravishing our bipedal brethren is merely a screen saver, a preliminary warm-up act. It has the same effect as the regular announcement by the New York subway bosses that fares will go up a dollar in six months. After the expected hue and cry, they settle on a rise of ‘only’ 50 cents, and we’re all relieved.

Given the stupefyingly bland sloganeering masquerading as a political program, the most interesting aspect of the GOP event is what was not said. In fact, doddering old Clint Eastwood merits perverse applause for going off-script long enough to say ‘Guantánamo’ and ‘Afghanistan’, two words studiously avoided by both major parties. How about that? You’d think that the country’s war-making activities and its criminal justice procedures might merit a lively debate once every four years, but in fact the establishment consensus is overwhelming on both. I’m reminded of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin’s gentlemanly agreement to say nothing about same-sex marriage in 2008 since the Republican position was crystal clear, and the Democrats had no intention of giving their gay constituency anything. Next question!

Robotic Milt and Scary Paul play the same role for the beleaguered voters here that Pinochet did for the first Chilean elected government after the 17 years of dictatorship—to scare people into obedience. I’ll never forget the Christian Democratic operative telling a film crew I worked for that Pinochet, who remained as commander-in-chief of the armed forces after being ousted as president, was like a caged lion (his metaphor) that the circus-masters, i.e., his party, could take out periodically and parade around. The crowds would shrink back from its roars and were then easy to boss around.

Romney and Ryan state openly that it’s time to dismantle the New Deal; Obama dissembles in mock horror but prepares to do so. The raw-meat-eaters in Tampa blindly cheer the military-security complex; Obama has their back and forgives their crimes. Republicans gloat when judges approve execution of criminals; Obamaissues the kill orders himself.

Are there differences between the two parties and between a Republican and Democratic administration? Of course there are, important ones. There were also differences between the Emperors Augustus and his relative Caligula, and anyone living through both would have had a clear preference. But neither reign did anything to preserve the republic or prevent the Roman descent into autocracy and barbarism.