Sunday, 27 January 2013

Whirldwinds past and present

Here is an excerpt from an old book I have just read in amazement. Try to guess its provenance and subject matter:

‘Finally, the ground-floor warder took me out into the small exercise yard, overlooked by a watchtower, where yet another warder stood and watched me, without taking his eyes off me for a one moment during the whole of my walk. Thus, five strapping young lads, clearly intended by nature to fulfill production plans on farms and in factories, were employed in exercising one dangerous “terrorist”! Their faces showed nothing but proud consciousness of the importance of their duties and of the trust reposed in them. I could well imagine what their political instructors had told them about us!’

An alert reader will catch the reference to ‘production plans’ and realize that the writer is a survivor of Stalin’s notorious Gulag despite my substituting the word ‘lads’ for ‘peasants’. It is Eugenia Ginzburg’s chilling and terrifying 1967 memoir, Journey into the Whirlwind, one of millions of stories of innocent people swept up in the madness of the purges. Her account of her persecution as a counter-revolutionary, Trotskyist and terrorist [sic] stands by those of Mandelstam’s widow and Solzhenitsyn for insight into the collective insanity that ruled their country for decades, much longer than the Nazi nightmare that seized Europe for a mere 12 years.

And yet how deeply the tale of the proud, peasant guards echoes with the present. Have we not heard these precise sentiments from the rosy-cheeked men and women of Iowa and South Carolina set to watch over the ‘worst of the worst’ imprisoned in Guantánamo? I have. The ingenious torments Ginzburg describes, invented to break the prisoners’ spirits and annihilate them psychologically, are now merely more refined and modernized—but the origins of the intent in the depths of human viciousness are unchanged.

‘Flight’ [Updated]

Denzel Washington and the less frequently mentioned Kelly Reilly convincingly portray a drunk and a heroin user respectively, but leave it to Hollywood to wimp out and give us a cozy morality tale in Flight rather than a more, shall we say, sober view of the phenomenon of addiction. [Photo: Washington and Don Cheadle,]

No spoiler coming here for anyone who hasn’t got around to seeing the movie, but suffice it to say that the juvenile ending undermines the skillfully built narrative and turns this promising film into a forgettable piece of studio fluff. Imagine the same story in the hands of Michael Hanecke or another European director not tempted by the rewards of a cheap finale.

Okay sure, movies are supposed to provide escape sometimes, but why is the pablum we’re served up based on the infantilizing insistence that we get that diet ALL the time? Isn’t there some room for cinematic literature that goes beyond the Dr Feelgood adult equivalent of a Punch and Judy show? Are we really so undeveloped as to need to ‘identify’ with a figure on the screen and then root for them for two hours until the inevitable moral tag appears with the credits? Can’t we have grown-up entertainment?

[Update] After writing this post a few days ago, I stumbled across an interview with the wonderful retiring film director Steven Soderbergh in New York magazine that perfectly illuminated what I was trying to get at:

‘But the alarming thing I learned during [the filming of] Contagion is that the people who pay to make the movies and the audiences who see them are actually very much in sync. I remember during the previews how upset the audience was by the Jude Law character. The fact that he created a sort of mixed reaction was viewed as a flaw in the filmmaking. Not, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’m not sure if this guy is an asshole or a hero.” People were really annoyed by that. And I thought, Wow, so ambiguity is not on the table anymore! They were angry’.

Exactly. Denzel Washington is an uneasy mess for 3/4 of Flight, a real person with moles and blemishes. Then he morphs into a cartoon character, someone we can ‘identify’ with, god help us. And the movie is destroyed.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Can’t make this stuff up Dept.

This is a picture of General Carter Ham of the United States African Command (Africom) measuring the depth of the shitpile formed in West Africa despite careful intervention by himself. The BBC cites Gen. Ham saying the U.S. had failed to train Malian troops on ‘values, ethics and a military ethos’.

This admission was spurred no doubt by the embarrassment of seeing U.S.-trained military officers overthrow the civilian government of Mali a few months ago, providing a huge opening to rebel movements in the desert north to seize half the country. Some of them are Islamist fundamentalists. Big mess.

I wonder, though, if General Ham’s thoughts about ethics and proper behavior are the same as ours or would fit any known dictionary definition. After all, this is the military that invaded and conquered Iraq based on lies that no one bothered to check, that proceeded to destroy that country through mismanagement and arrogance, that imprisoned tens of thousands of locals on flimsy suspicions, that sent hundreds of people to be tortured in the dungeons of the world when not beating the crap out of them itself, that seized and houses anyone who looked dubious in a permanent Caribbean prison without charges, and that continues to drop bombs from drones piloted from Nevada on suspected enemies and probably anyone who comes out to retrieve their bodies.

Quite an ethical standard to live up to if you’re a Malian junior officer. So General Ham & Co. have their work cut out for them.

We’ll be hearing a lot about Mali in coming weeks as Hillary, John, Barack, and Chuck try to figure out what-on-earth-are-we-to-do about these Africans who refuse to obey our guidelines, be they the ramshackle Malian army itself or the rump forces holding the Saharan portions of the country. Friday’s NY Times has a revealing piece about why the Malian army fell apart in the face of the assault by what must be relatively poorly armed guerrillas. Turns out that the guys defending the civilian regime didn’t have much fight in them—hardly surprising given the irregularity of their paychecks and the utter indifference of the local army bosses to anything but their own privileges.

Mali came across my radar recently when it was revealed that the country had to return some millions of dollars to the Global Fund on AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria after having been caught diverting it to the pockets of government officials. The Global Fund is admirably strict about such things and did not hesitate to expose the whole scam, despite the hit the GF itself took in the aftermath. (Many agencies prefer to cover up similar thefts because they don’t want to look bad—never mind that the impoverished beneficiaries are cheated.)

Articles about the 2012 coup noted that the ousted president didn’t resist and scurried off to a comfy exile. Despite the country’s relatively benign reputation, it was known to be deeply corrupt and incompetent, making the coup a cakewalk with hardly any shots exchanged.

So General Ham thinks that with just a tad more attention to things like respect for civilian authority and how not to kill innocent bystanders would have maybe kinda been more appropriate. Just accidentally let that stuff slip by, I guess! Maybe the big brass can get some volunteers from the Iraqi militias to airlift over to Bamako and provide a few tips—things turned out so much better there, due to careful oversight by right-thinking Americans.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

What did it mean?

It’s hard to get a feel for the Inauguration of Obama II and what it might mean given the modest accomplishments, more numerous disappointments and frequent betrayals of the first four years. The tone, however, is much improved and suggests that for all his ostentatious dissing of his liberal base, Obama is smart enough to realize that he has a serious credibility problem with a sizable chunk of it. To say one did not want to be ruled by vapid Mitt and his sidekicks from hell is not the same as being impressed with Obama’s own performance to date.

The most laughable aspect of the post-Inauguration commentary is the absurd whining by prominent Republicans that Obama was ‘too partisan’ and offered nothing in a conciliatory spirit. Huh? Do these guys think we’ve been asleep since 2009 and missed their juvie, frat-boy spite as they openly called for rebellion against anything Obama did, said or wanted? Did they hope we missed the disgraceful ‘You lie!’ from a South Carolina plantation master, the rope-a-dope phony negotiations over Obamacare followed by a unanimous No vote, the Tea Party shenanigans, the debt ceiling debacle, the 1,001 demonstrations of intransigence that began on Day One aimed at making BHO a one-term president, to be sealed by the massive theft of votes on election day 2012? These are the guys demanding hold-hands-and-sing bipartisanship and a chorus of Kum-baya?

I’m old enough to remember Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration in 1981, and I can state from eyewitness experience that bipartisanship and respect for any remnant minority views had NO place in the celebrations in Washington that infamous day or any of the 2800+ that followed. It was all about the people’s unambiguous mandate for a sharp turn to the right—which was called the Reagan Revolution, by the way— and from which we continue to suffer to this day.

Mercifully, Obama did not subject us to more of his futile pursuit of a non-existent middle ground. His rhetoric was provocative and hit several encouraging notes: equality (including the historic reference to Stonewall along with Seneca Falls and Selma), climate change, immigration reform, the role of government, the rightness of the safety net, fairness in income and wealth, and peace.

The question is, what do these nice words mean? How much credence can we give the ringing defense of a middle class when Obama’s own operatives systematically undermine housing wealth—the principal asset of working families—with cover-up after cover-up benefiting the bank fraudsters? (I recommend anyone interested and with a strong stomach to follow Yves Smith’s devastating multi-part critique of the latest Obama-led sellout on rampant criminal behavior in mortgage servicing at her Naked Capitalism blog here and here.)

What can we expect to witness, after hearing Obama’s ringing defense of Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, when the time comes to ‘reform’ or ‘protect’ these programs by beginning the process of whittling them down to Republican-approved size? Why can the richest nation on earth only find ways to save money at the expense of the middle and working classes that Obama just said he wants to salvage? How does his rhetoric of yesterday square with his years-long adoption of GOP talking points on deficit reduction and the debt crisis they suddenly discovered after Bush charged two wars and tax giveaways on the national credit card?

It’s great to hear that climate change is essential to protect our children—worthy sentiments. But will we see the Keystone pipeline approved with some weasel words in a few months and discover it was all a pretty turn of phrase with no content?

And finally as Naomi Wolf pointedly asked in The Guardian, does it make sense to call for freedom around the world when you’ve just put the finishing touches on a security state that includes indefinite detention without charge, permanent storage of every text message a kid sends to his girlfriend, espionage trials for government critics and presidential kill lists?

So, okay, yes, they were nice promises. But is this sobriety or just resting?

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Aaron Swartz Memorial

Suicide is a ‘bad business’, said the critic Cyril Connolly, the tragedy of death compounded by the mysterious agency of the deceased themselves. For the living, the desire to celebrate the life of the loved one is complicated and even undermined by intrusions of blame, regret, or fear of contagion. And yet one must celebrate.

Aaron Swartz, the created of Reddit and other Internet marvels, was by all accounts an extraordinary kid, talented to the level of genius as well as unusually generous of spirit. He was dedicated to the democratization of information, and his disappearance is a terrible blow to that fight.

But the political outrage of his death is that he was hounded by federal prosecutors far out of proportion to his misdemeanors, and that is the logical focus of a memorial service dedicated to his work. The memorial was held in the historic Great Hall of Cooper Union yesterday, the room where Lincoln gave his famous speech opposing the extension of slavery to the territories and the NAACP first met to launch the civil rights movement.

Luckily, that call to action did take place, finally, as Swartz’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman accused the federal prosecutors of being ‘hellbent on destroying Aaron’s life’. But during the first hour that I attended, the Swartz memorial tilted toward the funereal, which while understandable is also a distraction. Let’s hope the friends and family can channel their grief toward the fight to end this sort of all-too-common prosecutorial abuse and, incidentally, put the feet of the liberal establishment to the fire for its ongoing collusion with the Obama attack on whistleblowers and Internet freedom.

Note that the oh-so-liberal Boston prosecutor in his case is sometimes mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate for statewide office. We’re being gobbled up by smiley-faced operatives all P.C. friendly to gay rights and birth control pills while doing the 1%’s bidding, and it’s time to wake up from that cozy dream.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Guantánamo-mortgage fraud link

A chilling piece in the Friday New York Times gives a hint of the appalling illegality that was and is being practiced against defenseless mortgage holders as the big banks drive a Shermanesque swath of looting and pillaging through the country’s middle and lower-middle classes. It explains that the much trumpeted ‘review’ of foreclosure abuse by the Office of the Comptoller of the Currency (OCC), the most blatantly captured of the faux regulatory agencies, has been hurriedly dismantled. Instead, millions of homeowners will get a token payment, and the banks will get a clean slate.

Here’s an excerpt from the article entitled [take note] ‘Bank Deal Ends Flawed Reviews of Foreclosures’:

‘Christine Lucier, 32, of Northbridge, Mass., received a letter in March 2012 from Bank of America notifying her that she was behind on her mortage payments and in foreclsoure. She thought she was having a nightmare because the bank had evicted her in 2008. She learned that the bank had inexplicaibly reversed her foreclosure in November 2010 [without telling her]. Since then, the two-bedroom colonial house had been looted by vandals and stripped of its wiring and copper piping. “My life has been turned upside down, and I have to go through foreclosure again”, said Lurie.’
But the article doesn’t begin to capture the full extent of the economic terrorism practiced against home-buyers and completely misses the intent of the phony ‘foreclosure review’ exercise, which the economic and financial blogs warned about from the start. Perhaps Jessica Silver-Greenberg, the Times’ writer doesn’t know that background, or perhaps she can only hint at what she sees perfectly well—that the review process was set up by Obama/Geithner to fail.

On January 4 Naked Capitalism published a guest column from someone calling himself Luxtexente who says he was one of those hired by the OCC to review foreclosures. The full post is available here under the headline ‘“Independent” Reviews Were Controlled by Banks, Which Suppressed Any Findings of Harm to Foreclosed Homeowners’.

Luxtexente explains that he, like many others involved, was a fully qualified loan reviewer with all the experience and technical knowledge needed. Hundreds of highly qualified real estate professionals and even lawyers signed up to participate in the massive file review believing that they had a mandate to fix abuses and errors to benefit some of the millions of people whose lives had been wrecked by the 2008 apocalypse. He then demonstrates how the OCC and its banker overlords systematically gutted the entire process.

‘Our instructors were from the banks and lenders. I didn’t like that idea. . . . However, the training was interesting, and seemed straightforward, review the file, find the problems, and report them so they could be fixed. The goal, make wronged borrowers whole again as nearly as possible or so we thought.

‘After the training we arrived on the “floor” to begin a more in-depth training. We learned at that point that there was nothing ready for us to work on, but this nothing paid well, we could wait. . . . We began in January, by April there were 500 of us at the location I was in, and it was projected to reach 750 by June. Forty of us were actually reviewing files. [Note this ‘waste’ of staff time and money—it will be important later.]

‘This is where we began to see the sham of the project. By the time I began reviewing files, there were on 57,000 files to review. The trigger for a review was that a borrower had to file a written complaint with the OCC. The problem with getting people to write a complaint was that all the advertising was direct mail to their homes and only to people that had been foreclosed on between January 2009 and December 2010. At a meeting involving the entire staff across the country (by phone) the question was asked, “Why just direct mail?” The answer: “TV, radio and print media would attract too many of the wrong people, and the banks and lenders didn’t want that.” When it was mentioned that it was two to three years after the borrower had been evicted, we were told that “they should have put in a forwarding address with us”. I was dumbfounded. How could they expect people who lost everything to the bank to keep updating their addresses with the bank? It made no sense. But we kept plugging away at our task knowing now the battle was going to be tougher than we thought’.
Then there was the issue of who was supervising the ‘independent’ reviewers:

‘Any findings we made came directly under the scrutiny of the bank. Any arguments over our findings and whether they should be changed or not could and often did result in termination from the program without cause or warning, and we had no recourse because we were contractors’.

Then getting to the meat of the review process, Luxtexente and his peers quickly realized that the procedures were actually taken from a long-lost text by Franz Kafka:

‘The situation was becoming heated as Claim Reviewers (as we were called) began finding more and more issues of law, not to mention, incompetence, and immorality and poor judgment. . . . However, the bank and the OCC did find a solution. Take the questions out of the tests we were doing that asked about issues of law. So one test that had 2200 investigative questions (there are about a dozen tests for a file review) now became about 550 questions. Issues of law were removed. At another of our group meetings we were told that if a borrower did not specifically cite the law or statute that was violated in their complaint that we were not to address a violation of law found in the file as it was now irrelevant to the issues at hand. When the questions was asked “how is a borrower going to know if a specific law or statute was violated since they are not trained in the law?, the answer was that we only address what the borrower specifically complained about’. [emphasis added]

We are beginning to see the radical engineering of the ‘review’ process that took place under the watchful eye of Geithner and Obama: make it a Potemkin village that looks nice enough to pass at a news conference, but make no attempt to actually repair harm to individuals.

It gets worse:

‘The complaint form also didn’t mention to the borrower that they had to be specific about issues of law [even though, as Luxtexente says, without that specificity, the reviewer cannot act—so there are rules, you just don’t get to know what they are].

‘For example, in one case I reviewed the borrower paid approximately 25K to reinstate his mortgage. Then he began to make his mortgage payments as agreed. Each time he made a payment, the payment was sent back stating he had to be current for the bank to accept a payment. He made three payments and each time the response was the same. Each time he wrote and called stating he had sent in the $25K to reinstate the loan and had the canceled check to prove it. After several months the bank realized that they had put the 25K in the wrong account. At that time that notified him that they were crediting his account, but because of the delay in receiving the reinstatement funds into the proper account, he owed them more interest on the monies, late fees for the payments that had been returned and not credited and that he was again in default for failing to continue making his payment. The bank foreclosed when he refused to pay additional interest and late fees for the banks error. I was told that I shouldn’t show that as harm because he did quit making his payments. I refused to do that’.

Another one:

‘More often than not a borrower would be foreclosed on even though the bank had said they could apply for a modification if they would send in the financial paperwork required. The borrower would do this, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or more times, and the bank would “loose” the paperwork time and time again, until the house was finally foreclosed on. The borrowers would call, write, and call immediately after faxing the paperwork, be told it was received only to be denied later because they failed to send in any paperwork. The banks argument was that there was no harm to the borrower because they didn’t send in the paperwork, even though more often than not with a little searching the paperwork would be found in the system somewhere’.

Luxtexente lists a half-dozen similar cases; the accounts are interminable, painfully similar, and could be multiplied by hundreds of thousands of cases nationwide.

How did the contracted reviewers react to this obvious manipulation? Luxtexente says any signs of resistance were met with threats:

‘So many times I was told to not argue because I could be let go without notice or cause, it was difficult to hold my tongue. [Incidentally, the reviewers were ALL let go without notice this week anyway.] Most people would change the results and simply make notes in the system about being ordered by management to make the changes. But the banks and lenders control the notes. Others left the position’.
Of course, if the institutions being ‘reviewed’ are in charge of the review and could be found liable for monetary damages or even criminal charges, it’s not hard to imagine exactly this outcome. One would have to think Barack Obama is not a smart man to assume this was an accident.

Now it also becomes clear why the reviewers like Luxtexente were made to sit around twiddling their thumbs for several months while receiving hefty paychecks, rather than begin the file review process. After pumping millions of dollars into the ‘review’ with scanty results, the banks could then argue that a ton of money was being wasted that could much more profitably be passed along to the injured homeowners, wouldn’t that make much more sense? The advantage was that it would all be a muddle with specifics swept under the rug, which was much better for the banks at whatever cost.

And thus the settlement announced Friday in which the class of homeowners will all be tossed a few hundred bucks whatever their circumstances, the ‘review’ process is junked as impractical and messy and too complicated and not worth the bother, the banks will write a business-as-usual check, get a wrist-slap, and then Geithner and Obama will say, We Did the Best We Could, Stop Whining.

How was it so easy to generate this massive PR operation on the public? I repeat, it was set up to produce these results. The reviews were to be paid for by the banks themselves, rather than by the regulatory agencies. That might sound good at first (yeah, make the bastards pay), but it enabled the banks to assert control over the whole process, which is what Obama wanted. Given that banking regulators make a fraction of what they could earn in the private (banking) industry, it was a built-in conflict of interest in a regulatory arena that is already suffering from fatal capture.

So that was the mechanical failure incorporated from the start. But as the account reveals, explicitly setting aside the law was also part of the package. You can’t make up this stuff, but we should take note of it because it is exactly the same procedure used to justify torturing defenseless prisoners and keeping them locked up in dungeons without charges or trials.

We think we get security from harm in exchange for permitting the rule of law to be suspended Kathryn Bigelow-style. Instead, we get a ruling elite now empowered to turn us into slaves. This is one result.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013


Gabby Giffords, the Arizona ex-congresswoman shot by a right-wing loony two years ago, is to be applauded for weighing in on the need for changing our crazy gun culture. It was heartbreaking to watch her try to put sentences together in her interview with Diane Sawyer and see the damage done to her young brain and her sadness over everything she’s lost. She said Tuesday on ABC that she’s become angry post-Newtown massacre and has decided to join the campaign to establish civilization in the USA. (Well, she didn’t phrase it quite that way.)

But the early moves from some of the principals in what is going to be a long-term battle against the gun lobby are not terribly encouraging. The Obama Administration led by VP Biden is hosting a series of meetings to discuss what to do, which makes sense. But why is the National Rifle Association invited as announced today? Gun manufacturers and their paid shills like LaPierre & company are the sworn enemies of sensible gun policy. You don’t sit down with them to work out a reasonable compromise—not if you want to get something done that will have an effect.

There is a precedent in the decades-old anti-smoking lobby, now institutionalized in the explicit prohibition contained in the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control on any participation AT ALL by tobacco industry representatives in government policy-making bodies or public health discussions of any sort. This is based not just on the vast and well documented industry attempts to undermine and subvert all restrictions on tobacco use, including the perversion of science and the secret suborning of anyone they could get close to, but also the stark fact that the interests of tobacco marketers and the public health are fundamentally at odds.

Such an uncompromising posture sometimes is difficult for reasonable people to accept. Why not hear the other side out at least? the argument often goes. What’s to be afraid of?

The answer is that the government or tobacco control advocates get nothing from such meetings while the industry gets a lot. On the ropes for its blatant lies and decades of peddling death to unsuspecting consumers, the tobacco industry now needs to reinvent itself as a caring, listening concern. That is, it has to convince people that while its product is controversial, the industry itself is open-minded, understanding, serious about acting responsibly and ready to meet its critics halfway. That’s why Altria and BTI give away millions in charity and love to get their company logos on rock concerts, museums, or any public project that will accept its cash. It’s Pablo Escobar providing food to the impoverished of Medellín (for which they loved him).

Any measure to reduce gun violence in the U.S. is going to result in the sales of fewer weapons, and anything the gunmakers’ lobby will agree to will not be effective in doing that. It contradicts their raison d’etre. There is nothing to talk about.

However, if the goal is to reduce the heat on our political leaders by looking reasonable and concerned while doing nothing costly to themselves, then by all means, bring the NRA to the table! And have a bountiful lunch while you’re at it!

As for Giffords’ new political outfit just announced with her husband, it’s probably fine to have an anti-gun PAC out there to balance the NRA’s cash although I wonder what established groups like the Brady Campaign think about the drain on their shared donor base.

In any case, missing from the latest wave of indignation is any attempt to pin the violence on the NRAs’ defenders politically. When Giffords was shot in 2011, Sarah Palin (remember her?) had just published a reactionary screed complete with cross-haired target signs over certain congressional districts, including that of Giffords. What a wide-open opportunity to slam her and her whole huntress mystique with the real-world impact of her facile nastiness and, by extension, the whole surreal Tea Party/tinfoil hat universe.

But Gifford’s intimates and the horde of flabby liberals that came after responded with nothing more than the usual grief-stricken horror—appropriate, surely, but not very astute when the movement against these ongoing crimes needs to be tougher, sharper and, well, more targeted, especially when the perpetrators are not mere psychos but ideologues encouraged in their descent over the edge by the vicious rhetoric of today.

It’s an old, old tactic exploited promptly by the right-wingers when protests they don’t like turn violent. They paint the entire movement, whatever it is, with the broad brush of associative guilt and demand, purple-faced, that its leading spokespeople denounce the acts of violence just committed. It’s corny, but it works, and victims of political assassination like Giffords should use it to confront the guilty. By making them pay politically, you reduce the ease of the next hit.

Monday, 7 January 2013

On the other hand, sleazy Hagel is actually a good choice

While the naming of Brennan to the CIA is yet another sign of moral bankruptcy, [see below], the nomination of ‘Chuck’ Hagel to be secretary of defense is a rare and welcome sign of the U.S. government putting its own interests ahead of the state of Israel’s. The ensuing howls of inflamed outrage emanating from all sorts of neocon, settler zionist, and Israel-firster enclaves is deafening. We’ll see if the Obama camp displays uncharacteristic firmness and gets it way. I’m not optimistic.

Hagel is known to be cautious about going off to war in foreign lands based on a vague faith in the rightness of American arms and aims, and that is a remarkably unpopular position in Washington these days despite the sorry debacles resulting from the last two outings in Iraq and Afghanistan. You’d think that having lied to the American people about Saddam Hussein’s weapons and bankrupted us in that endeavor and the incompetent non-peace that followed that someone, somewhere inside the Beltway would be hesitant to go out about repeat it all once again. Hagel, unusually, apparently is just this personage. As many are pointing out, he actually knows what war is like having participated in it, unlike the war-eager chickenhawks slipping in and out of D.C.’s dark corridors like conspiratorial prelates haunting Vatican alleys.

It’s not germane to the present discussion, but just because Hagel is not a warmongering asshole, doesn’t mean he carries no dubious baggage: in fact, he carries along a strong whiff of electoral fraud. He had a long-time interest in a company that made electronic voting machines that are easily hacked and manipulated and won his first Nebraska Senate seat with an unusually hefty margin against a popular former governor.

Hagel hid his links to the company until reporters cornered him and pointed out the impropriety of having one candidate in a race owning a major stake in the company counting the ballots. Nonetheless, Hagel swept to victory by 15 percentage points after all the polls showed him running neck-and-neck against his opponent. (Maybe the polls were done by Rasmussen.)

As Robert Caro has taught us at encyclopedic length with reference to LBJ, people who gain public office through fraud sometimes do decent things once they get there. And it’s hardly a new phenomenon in our history either. But it kind of undermines the whole idea of elections if it doesn’t really matter where you put your X.

You know it’s bad when Berlusconi is the voice of Reason

Mad Silvio says, "Why be sane?" He has a point.


Italy is now looking less cooperative with the worship of the Austerity God mandated by chief Walkyrie Angela Merkel, and lo and behold it’s none other than Silvio Berlusconi who is causing the banker oligarchs to get nervous.

Italy has had a non-elected ‘caretaker’ prime minister for over a year now after the country’s most important (and entirely surreal) right-wing politician got squeezed out. But now he’s back after having re-made nice with his erstwhile partners of the Northern Alliance and threatens to upset the applecart of continued grinding misery for all of Europe except the financial elite. Europe’s most famous sybarite has been saying for a while that Austerity is not the medicine it’s cracked up to be--this is, of course, Heresy.

It’s not immediately clear why anyone would hold a vote in Italy or any European country these days given that the governing program is all laid out in advance for whichever party poobah takes superficial ‘control’: cut spending, cut pensions, cut benefits, cut services, sell off state-owned assets and hope that some day in 2022 things will turn around once all those useless old people are dead and the excess working-age population has emigrated to Australia. Or Latvia!

Berlusconi is shameless, but his presence in the race is interesting because he’s just shameless enough not to do what he’s told. One expects the center-left Democrats to make all kinds of proper noises about protecting the working and middle classes and then do the exact opposite after winning—kind of like Joe Biden. Berlusconi might too, but he’s enough of a maverick and wacko to figure out a way to tell the banker cabal to go stuff itself, if for no other reason than the fact that they forced him out of office just when he was having fun.

Torture-endorser passed over in 2009 will NOW become CIA Director.

Yes, that’s right, Obama couldn’t get away with Bush-era thug John Brennan four years ago, but now that we’ve got used to him throwing his base under the bus before breakfast, he doesn’t even have to explain himself.

Brennan is everything we thought made George Bush/Dick Cheney loathsome, but endorsing torture and illegal spying and making up things about drone warfare and assassination programs doesn’t bother Barack Obama. That’s because—face reality, gang—Barack Obama endorses these things, too.

Here’s the direct outcome of the short-sighted posture by many friends who all last year said, ‘Yes, but. . . .’ And followed with all the reasons objections to Obama were moot because the other team was SO MUCH WORSE.

It became quite annoying in those online fora and Facebook threads when one tried to inject criticism of the Great Guy from Illinois into the discussion. The answer was usually an indignant and self-righteous accusation that any suggestion of refusing to back the big O was nothing more nor less than paving the way for the Baddies. This was not only NOT DONE but also NOT DISCUSSED AMONG REASONABLE PEOPLE.

I cant count the number of patronizing comments along that line I received for reminding the Demo-acolytes that their guy had feet of clay. Well, now we have the result: things that were not important to Obama’s backers during the campaign are not important to HIM now. How about that?

Curiously, those groups who warned Obama’s campaign early on that they would not be pitching in to help his re-election unless they actually got something from him—Hispanics and gays—reaped substantial rewards. There was, in quick succession, the end to Don’t Ask, the miraculous ‘evolution’ on same-sex marriage, and the Dream Act.

But liberals refused to contemplate telling Obama’s campaigners that they were upset about Guantánamo, drone strike assassinations, renewal of the Constitution-shredding Patriot Act, the kill list, etc., etc. They got nothing.

As a 2008-participant in the Obama campaign, I started to receive funding pitch letters and even invitations to join the canvassing teams again that assembled in New York. I sent them back with messages like, ‘Stop torturing Bradley Manning’ and ‘Get the cash from your banker friends’. Eventually, they gave up. But when I sent back a reply-all answer to the canvasser group trying to recruit me that read, ‘Sorry, I won’t be working for Mr Kill List this time’, I got a puzzled reply from one young lady: ‘What do you mean, Mr Kill List?’

Go back to sleep, darling, don’t bother your head about it.

I recall that during the highly successful popular mobilization against the Vietnam War, one thing you almost never heard was this: Oh, you mustn’t denounce Lyndon Johnson for causing all this slaughter in Asia. He’s the liberal! Just think what kinds of bad guys could come next!

I have no doubt that the crimes and abuses underway will get bad enough so that many, many people blinded by Obama’s slickness or blackness or shamelessness (or that of his successors) will see that they have been had and will start to object. Until then, we’ll continue to get a ferociously right-wing program inserted gently up our collective recta with a careful dosing of olive oil because we didn’t object when we had the chance. And now it’s too late.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Okay to torture, not okay to expose it

Okay, let’s review: torture is a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it, according to Kathryn Bigelow, director of (“it’s just a movie”) Zero Dark Thirty, because otherwise we would never find and assassinate bin Laden. And people who illegally tortured defenseless detainees under George Bush should not be prosecuted for doing so, according to one Barack Obama, because we have to ‘turn the page’ on this history, i.e., forget about it.

But wait! We can resuscitate said history for one purpose: to prosecute ferociously anyone who dared to leak news of torture to reporters. Thus we have the scene of former CIA employee John Kiriakou heading off to a 30-month prison term after being intimidated into copping a plea to avoid the Draconian charges leveled at him under the Espionage Act. (He could have got 50 years.)

What does it mean to prosecute insider whistleblowers under a law meant to stop espionage> Espionage is giving state secrets to foreign agents, i.e. spying. But Kiriakou has never been accused of handing anything to foreigners or to representatives of foreign powers. He is charged exclusively with TELLING US things the government does not want us to know, i.e., details of prisoner torture through leaks to reporters.

As former Justice Department lawyer Jesslyn Radeck, herself a persecuted whistleblower, explains, Bush II’s record on protecting those who expose government wrongdoing was miserable, but Obama’s has been far worse. The shameful torture of Bradley Manning and the possibility that our modern Daniel Ellsberg could face life in prison for exposing war crimes outdoes even the Bush team’s reckless disregard for the safety of those who blew the whistle on Abu Ghraib. And she notes that Obama’s relentless and ruthless campaign against leakers is a direct assault on our precious right to know what the fuck is going on.

Only dictatorships or authoritarian regimes equate journalism with disloyalty. But while we are not allowed to know anything that Obama doesn’t want to let us in on, he and his NSA/CIA/Homeland Security buddies, by contrast, get to read ALL our emails, record ALL our telephone conversations and store ALL our text messages from here to eternity, without any judicial oversight or warrant process, and with any gross illegality promptly covered up. This is one of the worst betrayals by Obama who mouthed all sorts of pious sentiments while portraying himself as a liberal and getting himself elected, only to promptly jettison all that civil liberties crap once in office.

During his first campaign, for example, Obama said this: ‘Such acts of courage and patriotism [whistleblowing], which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled’. Ha ha, good one.

Kiriakou’s prosecution and now jailing is the final blow to our national moral compass, which was thrown off by 9/11, undermined by the ‘ticking-time-bomb’ debate (which enabled people to start thinking that maybe torturing people was sorta, kinda, sometimes okay), further decimated by ethical horror shows like Kiefer Sutherland’s 24, and finally blown up for good by Bigelow’s channeling of Leni Riefenstahl. When decent men go to jail for objecting to torture, and torturers are officially protected from the merest inquiry, something is very wrong.

Oh, and just one question for all the liberals so eager to re-elect Obama last November: did you raise this issue with his campaign before sending in your donations?

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Dump Charles Hynes

I am constantly reminded how easy it is to create a police state and how close to one we live in for those not protected by social status and a little cash. If the criminal justice system decides to go after you, there isn’t a whole lot you can do, which is why the Obama-approved snooping now part of our daily lives is so dangerous, despite what people think (i.e., Oh, I’m innocent, so I don’t have to worry!)

This week’s Village Voice has yet another hair-raising tale of how the cops get their way at all times, on this occasion through the offices of the morally corrupt Brooklyn DA, Charles Hynes. Hynes has attracted some decent press lately by prosecuting Nechemya Weberman, a Hasidic for child molesting, but this welcome event obscures the fact that he let them accused Hasidic men off the hook for decades until a New York Times expose create a fire under his seat. That led even the Murdochian NY Post and Ed Koch to chime in for reform. And Hynes’ electoral base (since DAs here are elected) is precisely the Orthodox/Hasidic groups whose voters listen for what the rabbi says to do and then do it, thus producing vast majorities that have enabled Hynes to turn back challengers from the other big Brooklyn population: black people.

And now the Hasids are hopping mad because Neehaman was not only charged but convicted, to their great astonishment. Here’s a creepy video of the black suits raising a big legal defense fund for the accused, dismissing any thought that he might be guilty. After listening to their comments, one is left with the feeling that their underlying attitude was, And if he is, so what?

Meanwhile, other people not so well connected end up sitting in jail for months or even years while city lawyers known for judicial misconduct and promoted systematically by Hynes continue to stonewall any attempt to shared exculpatory evidence with the defense, as required by law. Hynes also had no trouble indicting a social worker for negligent homicide over a case of an abused child because she failed in her oversight duties, which looks a bit like overkill unless you think about the electoral benefits of a show trial over a popular cause and the juicy headlines you can pull down by looking tough.

Hynes is up for re-election this year when city politics warms up with a race to replace mayor Bloomberg. It would be encouraging to see the Working Families Party, remnants of the Occupy organizations and the reform Democrats operating outside the sleaze-filled borough machine get involved in retiring this creep. Meanwhile, if you get arrested in Brooklyn or anywhere in New York City, say nothing until your lawyer arrives. Innocence is of little interest to the our system, just convictions.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Deficits are terrible! except when they're not

Isn’t it interesting how all talk of tax-and-spend excess, government profligacy and the urgent need to reduce deficits goes flying out the window as soon as a hurricane/ natural disaster comes flying in, followed by distressing scenes of damage to the gee-whiz-just-regular-folks?

New Jersey governor Christie made political hay Wednesday with a blistering attack on his fellow Republicans for not ponying up the Sandy relief money PRONTO. That is, he blasted them for acting in accordance with their anti-tax, anti-spending rhetoric even though—how dare they??!!—Christie’s constituents, especially including beach-residing white people, were the ones affected this time.

A Washington Post blog article today points out that the federal share of disaster relief has risen steadily in recent years while private insurers contribute less. States of course, can do little as they have been bled white by Republican-led, Democrat-complicit reductions in their tax base, on top of assaults on federal revenue-sharing in obeisance to the Austerity God. But when they want the cash for their pet projects, boy are they ready to turn purple and demand to get it right effing now!

Ezra Klein cites a new study in the blog about this mission creep toward Uncle Sam and away from private insurers about who picks up more of the costs of disasters. Given the lawlessness with which insurance companies operate in general (see Spike Lee’s film on Katrina, When the Levees Broke, for some graphic examples), along with their now-immunized-from-prosecution finance sector brethren, this is hardly surprising. Furthermore, natural disasters are just getting interesting due to rising sea levels and rapidly shifting weather patterns—we can expect tons more fun in this arena.

It’s a good reminder that the cut-cut-cut, oh-no-we-can’t-afford-that ideology that dates to the Reagan years and now has been endorsed by Obama is religion, not science. When the burn-and-slash brigades find things they want and need, money always, always will suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Cliff post-mortem

It’s fairly easy to put together a case that Obama played John Boehner and the Republicans like a harp and got a favorable deal by splitting off the Tea Party crazies from everyone else. But that assessment obscures the enormously favorable hand Obama was holding and the fairly weak deal he ended up with. The final terms only look decent by comparison with the ongoing demand from the wacko brigades that we members of the 99% should be out building pyramids, then die.

It is by no means clear that they will be frustrated in this goal.

A lengthy play-by-play of the negotiations in Politico describes how Boehner tried to put together a consensus settlement under the old Washington rules of give and take because Boehner, unlike his hooting and cawing GOP majority, saw that the automatic expiration written into the Bush tax cuts meant Obama could do nothing and win. Everyone’s taxes would shoot up, the federal government would be facing administrative hell, and the Republicans would get the blame. So Boehner entered discussions looking with which to sell his base on the inevitable tax rises on the rich that was central to Obama’s re-election.

But that howling hound dog GOP base is so fanaticized that it couldn’t see that Obama was handing them the farm if they would just effing take it. In exchange for a tax rise for people earning a half million a year (let’s call it ‘middle-class creep’), they would get to nail down the government-strangling Bush cuts on everyone else forever. Our last chance to get tax revenues back to where they were under Clinton is now gone for good.

In exchange, none of the nightmarish trial balloons floating during the talks and accompanying media war—cuts to Medicare, extending the retirement age, ‘chain-linking’ Social Security inflation adjustments—were included for now, and thus we got past the stupid poison pills involved in the ‘fiscal cliff’ without much immediate damage. Which is not to say these ‘suggestions’ won’t be back—Obama keeps saying they will be.

Therefore, Obama gave away his strong position and ended up with a weak one. The next round of negotiations will be on the federal debt limit, and there the House majority has shown its determination to claw back concessions, starting with ‘entitlements’, which means anything benefiting people who don’t own a Lear jet.

On a side note, it was amusing and appropriate to see Peter King (notorious Long Island racist) and NJ governor Christie go completely batshit over the delays in Hurricane Sandy relief money and lay into their fellow Repubs. Interesting that no one is suggesting ‘means testing’ benefits for people who lost their vacation homes to a natural disaster even though the logic is exactly the same for that kind of insurance as for Social Security and Medicare.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

How to denounce

More to digest on the fiscal-non-cliff non-deal later, but first let’s review some bracing rhetoric emitted an hour ago by New Jersey governor Chris Christie on Congress’s failure to pass the Hurricane Sandy relief bill:

‘Shame on you, Congress’.

‘If the people of New Jersey feel betrayed by what happened last night, then they have good company, I’m with them’.

‘We’ve got people down there who use the citizens of this country as the pawns on a chessboard. Our people were played last night as a pawn. That’s why people hate Washington DC. Last night, my party was responsible for this’.

‘I won’t get into my conversation with the Speaker, but I will tell you there’s no reason to believe anything they say’.

Asked if he would campaign against Republicans who stopped the Sandy aid bill, Christie replied:

‘We’ll see. Primaries are an ugly thing’.

Interpretation by The Guardian: ‘Nice majority you’ve got there. Shame if anything should happen to it’.

As to whether John Boehner should be re-elected speaker, Christie said:

‘I’m not a member of the House, I don’t get a vote. I don’t care’.

Translation: No.

Conclusion: Christie has now placed himself to the left of Barack Obama on the issue of Republican obstructionism, who wouldn’t be caught dead even THINKING rude thoughts of this sort.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

So we all agree--taxes are evil?

It’s hard to get many details of the inane, last-minute deal cooked up by the sorry-ass solons in Washington (although delightful to see that they didn’t get time off for the holidays). Given the importance of what their bosses decided, it would be nice to read a newspaper article stating clearly what the gist of the agreement is.

However, one thing is clear enough: the ‘compromise’ now being trumpeted as an Obama victory includes his predictable caving on the principal issue of his recent re-election campaign: raising taxes on people earning $250,000 or more annually. The new figure is $400,000, which Obama didn’t blush to announce while surrounded in his photo-op by ‘middle-income persons’ [above] cheering him on.

Where to begin to dismantle this travesty? If challenged on his abandonment of the main argument Obama made to get our votes, Obama’s handlers will argue that those whose incomes fall between 250K and 400K are set to lose their Bush-era tax cuts down the road (no doubt subject to further ‘negotiations’). Raise your hand if you think that deal will stick when no one’s looking.

The entire ‘fiscal cliff’ nonsense was the result of a series of prior deals Obama foolishly agreed to when facing the intransigent congressional loonies two years ago, including his unnecessary agreement to let the Bush tax cuts continue, thus worsening the deficit everyone’s now got their panties in knots about. Only true Beltway wonkers will know or care about the details, but we see consistently that Obama will never use the enormous power at his disposal to push back against the steady chipping away at the New Deal/Great Society safety net that should be his top priority. And for which, incidentally, people have elected him twice.

The whole focus on raising taxes for a few comfy sorts is really a distraction anyway, notwithstanding the importance of a fairer tax structure. What we need is an emergency plan to counteract chronic, deep unemployment, which would promptly restore substantial health to the government’s accounts. Instead, we get a faith-based move in the direction of Euro-style austerity in the name of budget balancing, like that which has been so successful over in Greece and Portugal.

Obama is the principal culprit in this sleight-of-hand because he constantly pumps up the phony discourse painting the state as just another, rather larger, household that must cover its debts just like Mom and Dad do. This makes no sense during a persistent post-recession weakness that threatens to never end. As Michael Hudson from University of Missouri-Kansas City (a surprising hotbed of anti-neoliberal thought), explains, this is all part and parcel of the demonization of taxation itself to gain our complicity in our own destruction:

‘The emerging financial oligarchy seeks to shift taxes off banks and their major customers (real estate, natural resources and monopolies) onto labor. Given the need to win voter acquiescence, this aim is best achieved by rolling back everyone’s taxes. The easiest way to do this is to shrink government spending, headed by Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Yet these are the programs that enjoy the strongest voter support. This fact has inspired what may be called the Big Lie of our epoch: the pretense that governments can only create money to pay the financial sector and that the beneficiaries of social programs should be entirely responsible for paying for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not the wealthy. This Big Lie is used to reverse the concept of progressive taxation, turning the tax system into a ploy of the financial sector to levy tribute on the economy at large’.

That’s why the Democrats always join their alleged GOP rivals in celebrating the needs of the ‘middle class’ while refusing to even acknowledge the existence of the lower ones (which must be there somewhere for there to even exist a ‘middle’). People at the bottom don’t pay much in tax, so the exclusive focus on the Holy Middle is an excellent way to undermine tax-paying by anyone. Now that Obama has set out to convince us that 450K a year equals ‘middle class’, the concept will soon mean ‘anyone who has to pay these annoying things at all’.

However, instead of the old notion of being a middle class society comprised of people who went off to secure jobs and looked forward to minimum comforts for themselves and their children, we are regressing to a state where only inherited wealth can assure one of a decent life. If Mitt Romney were president, this would be glaringly obvious. Obama, by contrast, looks like something less venal and so is the Man of the Hour for the banker/rentier class to push through its nefarious program. Will anyone in the political and moral swamp known as the Democratic Party stand up to him?