Friday, 29 March 2013

Liberal shapeshifting

We can see how the mayoral race here in New York is going to shape up now that former liberal-turned-Bloomberg-lapdog, Christine Quinn, has a testy primary race on her hands. It will be an exercise in cynicism like those only the Big Apple can produce.

Quinn, an out lesbian who just married her partner, is a very typical product of our city’s politics, a veteran good guy/gal with a long-standing, strong base in local services and historically on the right side of many issues, who, as they creep closer and closer to the top, molts into a tool of corporate selfishness and the police mafia. Periodically, when votes are needed from the liberal-minded public, they carefully shift ground to conserve their progressive sheen, then once elected go back to doing favors for the power elites. The quintessential example, pardon the intended pun, is the late Koch, a truly horrible man who also started out as a downtown liberal.

It’s almost laughable to read about yesterday’s sudden compromise on sick pay guarantees for the city’s workers, shamefully described by the business-friendly outlets like the Times as ‘forcing’ employers to provide this benefit (why not say ‘granting workers the right of’? I mean, we’re talking about people being fired for falling ill, for chrissake. But I digress.)

Quinn as city council president has prevented the measure from coming to a vote, which is earning her very high marks from the businesses who like to keep wages and benefits low and are no doubt crucial sources of campaign cash. The 51 council members would have passed the requirement long ago had they been given a chance to represent our wishes in a democratic fashion.

They weren’t, but then Quinn got roundly booed last week at a debate—hosted by the wonderful editor of Gay City News, Paul Schindler—where she shared the podium with four primary rivals who were delighted to make mince pie out of her opposition to sick pay. Suddenly her business-friendly posture was looking like an electoral liability, and presto-chango! a vote is imminent.

Look forward to more of this, such as Quinn’s blatant pandering on the appallingly racist stop-and-frisk tactics of the NYPD by calling for the creation of a police Inspector-General. That enabled Bloomberg and the cops to get all pretend-mad at her and peel off a couple layers of her damaging association in the popular mind with the outgoing regime of the increasingly insufferable three-term billionaire mayor.

Quinn clearly remains the front-runner and will attract many well-to-do sophisticates who would cringe at a Mitt Romney type but want to preserve all their privileges and do nothing about the grotesque economic inequality that reigns here. They’re eager for young black kids to be as queer as they want, but rarely get too exercised about the cops putting their hands down these kids’ pants allegedly looking for guns.

But I predict that she will get a run for her money as the other mayoral wannabes slam her as nothing more than Bloomberg in a skirt. She needs 40% to avoid a run-off vote, and Bloomberg with all his millions only won by 5 points last time. A lot of people are pissed off here, times are tough, and there’s no guarantee that someone as close to Mr Moneybags as Quinn will have an easy ride into Gracie Mansion.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Equality -- a curious and elusive concept

The News Hour (PBS) just aired an interview with Denise Kiernan, author of a new book, The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, about the female workers of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who in the 1940s played a role in constructing the atomic bomb. They did this, according to Kiernan, while completely in the dark about it. [Photo: James Edward Westcott/National Archives]

Ray Suarez asked her to discuss the difficult and limited roles assigned to women back in the 1940s, within living memory and yet so remote from our modern ideas of what’s proper and fair. The women were secretaries and nurses but barred from technical or administrative roles as a matter of course.

It’s timely, too, on the same day we see Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg formulating her opinion on same-sex marriage, another startling shift in mass consciousness about who we are as people. The New Yorker has a profile this week of Ginsberg, who finished first in her law class at Columbia, but received exactly zero job offers upon graduation and ended up in an obscure post where she had to learn Swedish to unravel the intricacies of that country’s legal system.

But while some things change and evolve, others don’t. Suarez never thought to pause in his laudatory interview to consider the subtler messages embedded in Kiernan’s title—such as, How exactly did the ‘women who helped win the war’ do that? Why, by helping to build a weapon that incinerated the civilian populations of two major cities. Did they reflect on that? Did they discuss it? We know the men mostly didn’t; did the women? Was there something in their restriction to the domestic sphere that might have made them think about the families their Atomic City-birthed device just evaporated? It’s amazing—and revealing—that a professional journalist in a liberal venue could spend 10 minutes on that story and never even think about the tens of thousands of human beings on the receiving end of that patriotic project. But American women had a great chance to excel.

Suarez also had nothing to say about the total absence of black women in the photos of the Atomic City ‘girls’. Did the barriers facing women even apply to non-white females? Were they invited to come live in Atomic City as part of the war effort, say as maids, or was Tennessee-style segregation and the close proximity of all those white men going to make that a tad too complicated?

It’s a good corrective to the celebratory mood about how gay Americans are becoming more and more mainstream to recall that we’ve got plenty of blind spots still operating.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Iraq warmongers mostly have got away with it

Is there anything more conducive to biped-inspired despair than the review at Year 10 of the Iraq debacle? Not just what happened then, but what is happening now; and not just (or even particularly) what is happening in Iraq, but what we see around us here at home.

It’s bad enough that that war was shepherded into being by vast, cynical lies, cost orders of magnitude more than what was casually promised would be required, and featured staggering levels of incompetence at every stage of its execution. But what is worse is that no one really has been punished for these appalling crimes.

The only mild expressions of regret we hear are sad recollections of how much ‘we’ lost, starting with the pointless deaths of 3,000+ American troops.

What better evidence for the conclusion that the biped species is deeply flawed and racing towards doom? Even the bloodthirsty denizens of Homer’s epic had occasional sympathetic thoughts for the victims of their martial heroes. We seem not even to notice that there are enemies to be slaughtered and foreign states to be left in ruins.

The always masterful Juan Cole reviews the sordid details here; each of his points could be the subject of an extended rant and even indictment. But I found particularly poignant this guest column by an Iraqi resident of the U.S. observing how easily we applaud the men and women in uniform marching through our airports. Are we really so mono-maniacally focused on our own comforts that we fail to appreciate what those uniforms mean for people who never threatened us and yet whose society we completely destroyed?

The 10-year anniversary is really a celebration of unaccountability, from the revolting showcase given to Cheney, to the ongoing career successes of collaborators like Rice, Yoo and the whole neocon cabal. Instead of the crushing discredit that should have kept them out of our political debate and away from power for 50 years, the neocons now join hands with the Israel lobby to pump up demands that we go out and do it all over again, only bigger and stupider, i.e., by making war with Iran.

Day by day, we experience ever greater financial pressures, cutbacks in services and needed government outlays, the breakdowns stemming from mass unemployment steadily worsening. But no one lays the blame for our economic woes at the door of those who decided to spend a trillion dollars on foreign wars and failed attempts to ‘rebuild’ cities in the Iraqi desert while the cities of Oregon and Pennsylvania deteriorated.

Displaying ourselves as dishonest, bumbling, arrogant, ruthless, indifferent to the suffering of non-Americans, and clueless even about our own long-term best interests—that is the legacy of the dumbest war since Vietnam. And yet if we look at the way the Vietnam disaster was digested after it ended 40 years ago, we will not be surprised. Then too, the regrets were mostly limited to the death and destruction of our own golden youth, and even the controversy over the mournful-rather-than-heroic Vietnam War Memorial in Washington never once touched upon the issue of the 2 million Vietnamese human beings that we had put to death for no good reason. Nor is that a topic for today.

Aggressive pursuit of conquest and empire was pretty much discredited by the Nazi-led Holocaust, but now that the world’s largest and most powerful democracy has settled on this course, it’s back in force despite the Iraqi failure. So the deaths of 60 million people in mid-century that set up the world most of us were born into did not teach the two-legged nations all that much. How many will die in the next worldwide slaughter-fest?

On the bright side, Cole concludes that U.S. dominance of the Middle East is evaporating, despite all the attempts to maintain control through compliant and corrupt Arab dictatorships. I hope to live long enough to see this shift play out and enjoy the wailing and gnashing of teeth in Washington over no longer being able to control people’s lives halfway around the world. No doubt they will turn their attention onto ours with redoubled energy.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

WTF is going on in Europe?

It’s hard to keep up with the avalanche of developments over the Cyprus case, but despite the relative absence of concern here and the odd non-reaction of financial markets, it sure looks as though the thing could still blow up.

Many geniuses, PhDs and Leading Personalities were involved in the brilliant EU scheme to seize insured deposits from the trusting Cypriots, who committed the crime of saving money and placing it in banks. It’s breathtaking and restores faith in the superior wisdom of one’s plumber. But then the Cypriot legislature bucked all recent trends and the chin-stroking predictions of world punditry by telling the Germans/EU overlords to shove it.

I don’t think we’ve fully grasped the implications of the EU’s attempt to violate perhaps the most fundamental precept of the money system: states guarantee and protect our cash if we put it in a bank.

Alas, no longer.

When the Argentine economy melted down after the 2001 stiffing of international creditors (for which that country continues to be dinged by the burnt hedge funds et al.), I interviewed a lady waiting in line at the Spanish consulate while her niece applied for a visa. Young people were pouring out of the country then as their prospects were so grim at home. (Ironically, Spanish youth would be delighted to be living in the Argentine economy today.)

I asked this woman of 50 or so if she had lost savings when the banks seized up and blocked access to depositors’ funds. She laughed heartily and said, ‘I haven’t left any money in a bank in 20 years’. And, she added, she had once run a clothing business that employed 22 seamstresses.

In any other setting, the woman would be a crackpot. But as it turned out, she was far more astute than her supposedly sophisticated peers who thought a deposit guarantee meant that their deposits were guaranteed. She had kept her cash under the bed or bought inflation hedges like gold coins. Banks? Don’t make me laugh.

That is the sentiment that the European financiers and their political lapdogs have unleashed by showing anyone paying attention that keeping one’s money in a bank puts you at the mercy of a dictator in Brussels who cannot be impeached, defied or voted out. So why did they do it?

One salient fact is that Cyprus did not have any big debt rollovers due until June, so a more reasonable solution could have been worked out calmly and deliberately. So what was the big rush? After all, the new president of that tiny state, Nicos Anastasiades, was only elected at the end of February and had hardly figured out where his desk is when he was summoned to the continent and bullied by the EU ‘negotiators’ with an ultimatum: accept this crazy scheme, or watch your country go down the tubes.

Things did not work out quite as expected for the northern European (mostly German) bosses. So once again, the question is why do this? All sorts of conspiratorial theories are afloat, and while these cannot be dismissed outright, I think we should never underestimate the blunt force of ideological rigidity and the steady drumbeat of propaganda that Germans have been consuming in recent years about how virtuous they are in contrast to the lazy, spendthrift Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, and all those darkish people down there. If that sounds ridiculous, think of what we have to deal with here when discussing the War on Drugs, gun control, climate change, taxes, and healthcare. I rest my case.

But there are many additional possible factors: there is apparently a tug of war playing out over Cypriot gas reserves in the adjacent seas, and there is evidence that the Europeans have wanted for a while now to use Cyprus to smack down the Russians.

There’s also a lot of loose talk about Cyprus as a money-laundering center for the Russian mafia and oligarchs, which is really the height of hypocrisy given the exact same behavior as practiced by Luxembourg, the British Channel Islands, our own Caymans and, for that matter, Delaware, for pity’s sake. Shaxson’s Treasure Islands is a good corrective to anyone laboring under delusions about the aromas surrounding the finances of the western powers, and we need go no further than the recent non-prosecution of HSBC for laundering the billions of Mexican narco lords for confirmation.

Whatever the explanation for how we got here, there is no clarity at all about where we are going. I think at a bare minimum we are entering a new phase of financial lawlessness in which the average person will enjoy even less protection against the blatant criminality and theft being practiced by the banks. Simultaneously, it will become even clearer that elected officials worldwide mean less in the decision-making process than central bankers and the gargantuan megabanks to which they answer.

Surprisingly, this bizarre episode has not generated much negative reaction from world financial markets—so far—which perhaps can be explained by the fact that the bondholders and hedge funds exposed to Cyprus have remained exempt from any sacrifice (unlike elderly retirees and mere workers). But the potential for a serious blow to the creaky operations of this irrational system remains, and if it happens, the ensuring chorus of WHOCUDDANODE? will be defeaning.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Barack's bankers

JP Morgan Chase was raked over the coals all day Friday in a Senate subcommittee hearing in which our august solons displayed a surprising degree of real bipartisan agreement on the subject of whether giant Wall Street banks like JPMC are out of control. The answer seems to be a resounding YES, and even though these pols are beholden to and dependent on finance bucks for their careers—which means actually doing something about it remains a remote possibility—they also maybe vaguely worried that things might completely fall apart. For which they will be roundly and rightly blamed.

The hearing came one day after the release of a damning report on JPMC’s huge losses in the derivatives market last year, which would be strictly their problem were the bank not so gargantuan as to put the entire financial system at risk if they manage to blow themselves up. Michigan veteran Carl Levin patiently interrogated bank execs and exposed their dissembling and rank bullshit over hours of delightful examination, which I listened to while working from home on other things. Even John McCain came by to join in and asked decently well informed questions. (Sadly, no other Democrats turned up, which speaks volumes about their priorities and paymasters.) It was a reminder that the legislative oversight function can still work when someone wants to exercise it—too bad it’s no longer in operation in civil liberties or foreign wars. But I digress.

There are ample accounts of what was discussed and the details of interest, including live blogging by both Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone and Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism, plus good accounts in The Guardian and elsewhere. These observers picked up on many juicy moments of truth (and falsehood). The summary for people without the patience to delve into the details is that the bank took a huge shitpotful of money, some of it federally guaranteed deposits, and gambled with it. Then lost. Then lied about it.

As we learned in all too recent memory, this behavior is extremely dangerous for the rest of us because a big trading operation like JP Morgan can bring down the walls of Jericho in a twinkling once people fear they are insolvent and won’t be able to pay their debts. Banks don’t pass around money, despite appearances; they trade on faith, and when they start faking it, the system freezes up. Money and credit flow, which means they have to remain in a liquid state. Lying, stealing and fraud turns them to sludge or concrete, and we promptly teeter on the brink.

What was not discussed at any point—and the main disappointment of the session, in my opinion—was the question of legality. There were misrepresentations, yes, there was deception, yes, there was books-cooking, yes there was in fact fraud against shareholders, yes yes yes. But no one said, Were these actions crimes? If that question doesn’t eventually get asked, all the satisfying public humiliation of these bloated bankers is merely that, a moment where they have to squirm and we get to rub our hands. Then they go home with their billions and have the last laugh. All in a day’s work!

The other take-home lesson is that the usual narrative liberals tell each other about the bad old GOP reactionaries being responsible for our ills doesn’t float here. These guys are being protected and enabled by PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA and his Department of ‘Justice’. Oh Lord, let the scales fall from our eyes, and may we see the light.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

His Popeliness

Spare me the moaning about how homophobic the new pope is, or his opposition to abortion. This is news? I have a different question: is he as obsessed with people’s private parts as the last two guys, or isn’t he?

It’s conceivable that a new papacy might turn its collective celestial gaze toward other issues rather than continue the relentless fixation on whether people are screwing too much. (It might also be prudent for these guys given their not-all-that-hidden and hypocritical lives—but I digress.) So let’s have a look at who this guy is and if there’s any room for optimism.

First of all, the Argentine Catholic hierarchy is a real horror: it’s one of the episcopates where any intrusion of actual Christianity was most successfully excluded for decades, culminating in its truly shameful performance during the slaughter of that country’s own citizens by the neonazi military in the 1970s and 80s. It suffered no consequences from this complicity with mass murder, which is entirely consistent for an institution that also did piss-all during the Nazi Holocaust, as exemplified by its canonized former pope, John Paul II, who spent the war years within a day’s drive of Auschwitz. There are virtually no records of the Polish church doing anything, ever, to report to the Vatican that 2 million citizens were being rounded up and slaughtered, and there is a lot of evidence that the Polish population, inspired by one of the more reactionary forms of Catholicism, basically thought it was a pretty cool idea. See the recently published Golden Harvest as well as the classic Hannah Arendt account, Eichmann in Jerusalem, for details—they’re beyond disturbing.

That said, Francis Número Uno is a Jesuit and apparently pretty uninterested in luxury and wealth, both potentially positive signs. Jesuits actually read books, and not just prayer books; the guy could turn out to be not a dope. He’s made some interesting gestures around HIV/AIDS, like washing the feet of patients—gimmicky, but I don’t see Mitt Romney doing it—and has even waffled on condom use.

The voluntary poverty thing sounds even better given the hugely corrupt ambiance around Vatican banking and other church wealth. If he’s for real on that score, he should get a food taster fast.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Gay lib - Palestinians not invited

The downtown writer and activist Sarah Schulman finally broke down the creepy right-wing censorship imposed on her work at the New York LGBT Center by insisting that her critical posture toward Israel was legitimate expression and not anti-Semitism, loud threats from porn empresario Michael Lucas notwithstanding. Schulman [inset] spoke at the Center [above] last night.

Lucas had a major cow two years ago when the Center rented space to a group called Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QAIA) to hear Schulman read, which was too much for the owner and frequent star of Lucas Entertainment, who threatened to pull major donors away from the Center’s always tenuous operation. Center leadership buckled on its core principles, which was a shame although one can imagine the unattractive alternatives they were faced with: submit to pro-settler intimidation or lose big bucks.

Lucas was particularly indignant because Israel had been so open-minded not only about gay issues but also his business activities, including filming, in contrast to its neighbors. He’s certainly right on that score—no one can imagine popular gay porn emerging from, let’s say, Egypt these days. But ironically perhaps, Schulman has a term for precisely this sort of homophile apologetics: pinkwashing.

Schulman, a veteran of ACT-UP and a prolific novelist and playwright, had the credibility to face down the bullies although it took a while. Apparently, the two-year-old controversy has blown over enough to enable her to win back the right to state her case. Lucas growled that he had ‘no time to be fighting with the spineless LGBT Center’ which given the circles he moves in, sounds about right. It’s yet another example of how much less room for critcism of Israel there is in New York than in Israel itself because anyone who dares do so is immediately labeled a ‘hate group’, in Lucas’s words.

As soon as the ban was lifted, our probable future mayor, lesbian Christine Quinn, promptly denounced the Center for ending its censorship, saying it opened the door to actions that might ‘delegitimize Israel and promote an anti-Israel agenda’. Other local pols, either openly gay or popular in the LGBT scene, joined in. New York’s famed liberalism does have its limits, you see.

It also reminds us how comfortable some sectors of the gay scene are with things as long as they can go about their business and enjoy their sexual and personal lives without interference. If one can have an interesting gay life in Tel Aviv, who cares what goes on in the dusty territories with the religious fanatics?

It’s admirable that other parts of the diverse New York gay scene is able to produce something as edgy and challenging as QAIA, and of course there are also Palestinian gays who could tell us plenty about not just the settler oppression but the dangers of ostracism and worse back home with the Arab homophobes. It’s by no means a simple and clear-cut issue, but at least the Center has returned to its mission of providing a space for everyone to state their gay case, even when there’s furious disagreement in the ranks.

Meanwhile the London Review of Books carries a neat piece this month from Yonatan Mendel, a despairing Israeli leftist who notes that the big and hugely surprising virtual winner of the latest Knesset elections there was a bland faux-centrist grouping led by a TV personality who has nothing much to say about anything except to repeat the crudest forms of default racism rampant among his countrymen.

Another candidate, Naftali Bennett, used Obamanoid, hold-hands-and-sing language, which sounded almost credible if you suspend your critical faculties. Mandel writes:

Bennett said that he was calling on voters to “join the new house we established in Israel . . . all you of you, including men and women, religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, Druze and Arabs”. It was hard to say what was more bizarre: the distinction he was making between Arabs and Druze or his notion that Palestinian citizens of Israel would vote for a party called Jewish Home, one of whose candidates suggested a couple of years ago in a Florida church that it would be “incredible” if the Dome of the Rock were blown up. You can see it on YouTube.

Kind of like calling on black Mississippians to vote for the White Citizens Council.

Mendel points out that no Israeli government in its entire history has had a single Palestinian cabinet member, and with current trends the very idea is laughable. Given that Arabs make up 20% of the population, I’d like to hear Lucas’s explanation about why that doesn’t constitute ‘apartheid’ and why raising issues like these make one part of a ‘hate group’.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Rand Paul’s Mr Smith Moment

When reasonable people remain silent, should we shun a loony who speaks out?

I’m a little disturbed by the mad rush to trash Rand Paul for staging a showy filibuster against Obama’s assassination policy from people who might be thought to harbor some reservations about it. ‘Grandstanding’ and ‘non-existent dispute’ are two prominent terms in David Corn’s entirely typical account for Mother Jones, which strike me as the same sort of half-truth of which he accuses Paul.

The immediate topic of the marathon speech was about whether Obama has arrogated to himself the right to kill American citizens on American soil, and Corn parses the particularities of that, falling back on the Administration’s argument that in case of military attack, one retains the right of military self-defense. Obviously.

But there is a very real dispute that goes beyond this misleading example given that Obama has authorized targeted killings of hundreds if not thousands of people, including most notoriously an American citizen not charged with any criminal act and, following that, his 16-year-old son, apparently for the crime of being the guy’s kid.

Those killings took place in Yemen, so Paul quite legitimately wanted to know if Obama thinks he can do the same thing here. Okay, right, Paul’s probably stores saltines in a bomb shelter, thinks there are black helicopters and prays to Ayn Rand at night. Who cares? If corrupt liberals like Feinstein and Schumer refuse to ask these questions, I’ll settle for a wacko.

Paul’s filibuster was a ‘stunt’ from a ‘crass operator’ raising ‘a phony issue’, writes Corn. So how do you really feel about him? But did Paul really ‘distract from the real concerns’ with his action? I don’t think so. As Corn himself writes,

There are real controversies and disputes regarding the administration’s drone policy. The White House has declined to show the public the legal justification for its drone strikes overseas against suspected terrorists who are American citizens, and it has been reluctant to share legal memos on this matter with members of Congress and their staff, thus impeding oversight of these constitutionally dicey assaults. The White House has not answered questions on its general use of lethal drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

Yes, there are real controversies and disputes, and you’d never know that from listening to a whole shelf of safe, sane, reasonable and thoroughly cowardly Democrats. Paul shone the spotlight on presidential murders and thereby drew the ire of Lindsey (Pretty Boy) Graham and John McCain, who promptly praised Obama’s ruthlessness. Who’s the real ‘crass operator’?

I think the nutcase from Kentucky opened up a national debate by doing something flashy, showy, grandstandy, opportunistic, partisan, self-serving and also extremely useful. Democrats and Obama Kool-Aid drinkers should take advantage of it and stop sounding like apologists for the dismantling of our Constitution just because it’s being perpetrated by a guy they like.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

"Beyond the Hills" - why Romanian cinema is so good

Watching a film from eastern Europe after sampling the latest from Hollywood is like visiting parallel universes. Even the best studio movies can’t help telling us not only what is happening but what we are supposed to feel about it.

By contrast, Polish, Czech or Romanian movies like Beyond the Hills, which I saw last night by the Romanian director Christian Mungiu, force you to glean the information just as you do in life, by picking tiny gestures out of the background and adding them up. The goods are there embedded in long, slow takes that give the impression of lives lived in real time—and without musical prompts to explain what emotion should be experienced—which is why these movies often stretch well past the two-hour mark. They require an investment, and there are no shortcuts; but the rewards can be great.

Mungiu is known for a harrowing film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, about getting an abortion in the Ceausescu era (plot summary: avoid this experience). This one is just as eerie in a completely different way: it mostly occurs in a strangely retro orthodox monastery where the sisters draw water from a well and use gas lamps, following a routine that looks alternately cozy and cracked. Modern Romania intrudes from the edges, but its attractions are highly dubious as well, from brutish nurses and dysfunctional transport to vaguely referenced goings-on at the orphanage where the two women protagonists spent their childhood.

There’s plenty of drama and even melodrama in the course of the nearly three-hour exposition, including exorcism, no less. But the telling details look almost accidental: in the very first sequence at a railroad station, an arriving passenger rushes to greet her friend with intense joy and rushes into her arms. If you’re not watching closely, you don’t even notice that she ignores an approaching train to do so.

Little by little and with the lightest of touches, this film lays bare an entire society, yet does not judge so much as mourn that there is not much room for women in it.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Torture now okay--but only if needed

The post-9/11 debate over the ‘ticking timebomb’ scenario was a hugely successful exercise in social grooming to prepare us for today’s torture-lite regime. We recall that this discussion, which reached even into the pages of The Nation and other liberal-ish venues in the early 2000s, was about when, how and under what circumstances it would be kinda-sorta okay to torture people. The debate turned almost exclusively on the mythic hypothetical of a terrorist suspect who knew that an attack was about to occur and could be compelled to spill the beans, thereby enabling us to suck our thumbs and contemplate precisely how many racks, electric cattle prods and waterboards would we then decide to apply to save these thousands of innocents.

People who have lived under governments that torture as a matter of state policy immediately grasped that this was a phony debate that should never have taken place. Such bizarre scenarios were mere window-dressing for the real aim, which was to enable our government to torture anyone it damn pleased and get away with it, and that is exactly what happened. The Bush/Cheney/Dark Side apparatus promptly took the mere existence of the debate as a resounding ‘Yes!’ and proceeded to apply ‘enhanced interrogation’ to anything that moved, including the obviously innocent, some of whom still reside at Guantánamo today. Anything to keep us SAFE.

No one was prosecuted for torturing bound and caged human beings except whistle-blowers or hapless low-level enforcers who didn’t have enough sense to cover their tracks. And that’s the situation Barack Obama chose to bury with pious murmurings about looking to the future and not the past.

So now we have an even faster descent into moral depravity as leading Republicans express outrage that Obama would dare to actually bring a terrorist suspect to trial rather than shipping him off to our official dungeon and beating the fuck out of him for the next 20 years. Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law is actually to get a trial in a courtroom, imagine that. As the Guardian article explains,

The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, accused Barack Obama of putting his desire to close Guantánamo ahead of the country’s security needs. The decision denied the intelligence community the opportunity to interrogate Suleiman Abu Ghaith to obtain information about possible harm to the US, McConnell claimed.

McConnell was quite explicit about why the evil Ay-rab had to be shipped off to the Cuban black hole:

“At Guantánamo, he could be held as a detainee and fulsomely and continuously interrogated without having to overcome the objections of his civilian lawyers”. [emphasis added]

What admirable clarity! We want him there because the rule of law will not apply, which is how much we care about that dusty old Constitution. If it will make us safer, we want it.

But the White House spokesman Josh Earnest brushed aside McConnell’s claim [that the spooks need the guy in Cuba]. “With all due respect, that’s not the assessment of the intelligence community”, Earnest said.

Note that Mr Earnest did NOT argue that torturing someone is wrong or that the U.S. has a system of laws that govern the process of accusation, trial and punishment. He argues strictly from utility and efficiency, i.e., we can get everything we need from bin Laden fils-in-law without having to torture him. Earnest also explicitly stated that the accused had committed crimes, which used to be left to that old-fashioned thing called a jury.

Earnest and his boss Mr O. thereby leave open the possibility and in fact probability that if a future case in which torture might actually give us good data, it will be duly applied. The only guiding principle is whether it will work.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Joel Klein, Hoowah

I realize that headline may be a little harsh—so my apologies in advance to hard-working prostitutes who may feel insulted by this association.

Klein, a former Bloomberg favorite as commissioner of education for eight years, has kept a fairly low profile lately given his embarrassing timing in becoming a highly-paid minion of scum Rupert Murdoch just as the appalling tabloid scandals burst open in Britain, you know, the ones where Murdoch’s employees were caught tapping the cellphones of the parents of kidnap/murder victims.

But that blew over, so Klein now has resurfaced to promote the Amplify Tablet, a device that is to be placed in the hands of K-through-12 pupils to improve their educational performance and, not coincidentally, the earnings of the Murdoch empire.

So there we have it: all that propaganda about how to repair ‘failing’ schools, all those diatribes against selfish teachers who refuse to be graded by test-score matrices, all that campaigning against unions, all those school shutdowns dictated from on high by King Mike with no community input—it was a marketing strategy to sell new gadgets.

Klein’s in the Business section of the Wednesday NY Times [no link--paywall] proudly showing off the handy-dandy device. Murdoch & Co. no doubt hope the Amplify will be forced onto the laps of millions of kiddies to the tune of many wonderful millions of dollars in diverted education spending, once teacher unions have been crippled and that $500 billion cash stream can be channeled away from frontline workers over to the private sector. This will be accompanied by reams of optimistic pronouncements about how much learning will emerge from little electronic boxes full of magical data and, no doubt, vast new testing procedures.

The possibilities to refine and automate testing and other types of vigilance are ample. As the Times piece explains,

If a child’s attention wanders, a stern ‘eyes on teacher’ prompt pops up. A quiz uses emoticons of smiley and sad faces so teachers can instantly gauge which students understand the lesson and which need help.

Gosh, we adults really missed out by being born too early! Just think how much fun it will be for schoolchildren to plug themselves into electronic monitoring devices that track their attention levels second by second! No wool-gathering there, Charlotte, you’re not going to earn your smiley-face!

No doubt the Klein/Murdoch hordes, fresh from finding out what distraught parents were saying on their cellphones when their children went missing, are also looking forward to the data mining possibilities when kindergarteners start using their devices. I can’t wait to hear about the algorithm some smarty-pants grad student is writing somewhere to figure out what brand of tennis shoes kids will want to buy based on their Amplify test scores.

Will the Klein/Murdoch sales pitch work? Well, as the article reminds us, Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ program to bring technological innovation to the classroom is a potential funding source.

So I take it back, Klein isn’t really a whore. He’s actually a pimp, the guy who provides access. After eight years of faithfully carrying out Bloomberg’s attacks on teachers, Klein has transitioned smoothly into the next phase of the plan: to get teachers out of the way and install computer screens with Murdoch-produced curricula. Klein is therefore a remarkably successful example of a high-end procurer—opening the door for the marketeers to get their hands on millions of children.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Hugo = the revolution. So now what?

Venezuelans can be forgiven for being ‘stunned and wary’ upon realizing that the great Hugo Chávez has actually died, given how they were fed a steady diet of the leader’s quasi-immortality for the last decade and a half.

‘We are Chávez, Chávez is us!’ said one sign I read announcing his transubstantiation into the Body of the People, an apt echo of the mystical trappings of his reign. Perhaps someone will propose that mourners take communion at his funeral today using wafers of processed chavista writings and boiled in cabbage leaves.

Another good reason for shock and dismay among the citizens is the steady stream of lies and obfuscations delivered by the people around Chávez as his cancer progressed beyond hope of recovery. That didn’t stop them from making sure he won another 6-year term. As it happened, despite their promises that Chávez could serve another term, he never made it to his own inauguration.

Much has been written about Chávez’s attempts to give the poor of Venezuela a chance at a decent life, and it’s an indictment of his predecessors’ indifference to that task that the country took a sharp turn toward caudillismo. But neither does that excuse the hash Chávez made of his opportunities, which will now play out for all to see. It’s hard to be optimistic.

For starters, there is zero reason to anticipate that the country’s divisions will be resolved through democratic processes, compromise or negotiation after Chávez systematically destroyed any institutional channels for dissent and lambasted his adversaries with relentless name-calling so that anyone not glassy-eyed with ecstasy over Chávez quickly was touted as--and became--a mortal enemy.

At heart, the death of the big guy is yet another lesson in the dangers of concentrating all powers in the hands of one person or building a social movement on a cult of personality. Chávez might have ruled for another 30 years like a left-wing Stroessner, but sooner or later his departure would have ejected the country from the political deep freeze into which he stuffed it long ago.

Once that happens, the meats start to defrost; and if they were rotten when you put them in, they’ll still be rotten when you take them out.

Operation successful, patient dies

We’ve now settled into Sequester World with automatic cuts in government spending taking place without anyone’s direct action, and while blame can be dispensed as one’s wishes according to party or ideological loyalty, another possibility is that our rulers have achieved exactly what they wanted, including both the nutcake ravers and the coolly reasonable guys based in the White House. Maybe this is where they wanted to be all along, presiding over a crippled state. After all, the Dow Jones just hit an all-time record, so things are perking along just fine—if you own stock.

The Europeans led the way with their completely failed austerity program in response to the imbalance in state spending caused, in turn, by the recession. It makes no sense at all as expert commentators have repeated in every key as the cutbacks merely deepen the economic slump and push the countries further into debt (Greece first, Ireland, Portugal, now Spain, now Italy, and who knows which will be next). But it is an excellent way to smash the social safety net that Europe devised as a counterbalance to the now disappeared socialisms of the east.

Here at home, we have the Obama version of austerity, which is peddled to us as deficit reduction and which is assumed to be an urgent matter largely because the Republicans have said it is. The economic machine is revving up, and production is increasing, so who cares if it is occurring in China or the Philippines rather than Kentucky or Illinois? Has there ever been such America-firster jingoism unleashed on us and the world while at the same time less concern about the well-being of actual American? Our senators spend whole days raging about dangers to Israel or the consulate burned down in Libya, but they could care less about the destruction of Detroit.

Now that everyone is just sitting back doing nothing about the automatic spending cuts, we have become accustomed to the idea that there is no money for anything and won’t be for pretty much ever. A report issued yesterday here in New York described the city’s worst crisis of homelessness in history, and one can see from the proliferation of panhandlers that the ranks of the marginalized are bursting. But Obama is not blamed for having given away huge negotiating chips (like the Bush tax cuts, now made permanent) and paving the way for the loonies to make things worse.

Yves Smith warns at Naked Capitalism that the stratospheric Dow should not lull anyone to sleep:

The Fed has been trying to reflate asset values to goose the real economy. What it has done instead is goose the incomes of the top 1% while everyone else is on the whole worse off. But the central bank is suffering from a very bad case of “if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” syndrome. It’s unwilling or unable to admit that its program is working only for a very few.

She goes on to argue that the U.S. economy is suffering from a number of deep, structural weaknesses and that policymakers’ provision of Amazonic rivers of cash will do nothing to resolve them. So it’s possible the top guys really haven’t a clue, but then again maybe they know exactly what they’re doing—they just hope we don’t figure it out.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Hey, here's a cool idea! Let's all cut our own heads off!

Scientists announced today at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infectious Diseases (CROI) that they had cured a newborn of HIV infection, a feat never before accomplished.

Simultaneously today, an old ACT-UP warhorse, Gregg Gonsalves, tweeted that the sequester would cut the NIH budget by $1.6 billion, PePFAR by $280 million, the CDC by $289 million, the FDA by $209 million, and HRSA (which includes Ryan White monies that provide treatment) by $365 million.