Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Five ways Elliot Spitzer is not Anthony Weiner

The punditocracy is trying to convince us that the implosion of the Weiner campaign seeps automatically over to Elliot Spitzer’s. It might, but they aren’t the same guys by a mile. Here’s why:

1. Spitzer doesn’t lie.

Well, unless you count not telling his wife about the top-dollar prostitutes, which is admittedly not a minor point. However, once the facts were out, Spitzer swallowed the medicine, copped and quit. He did not spend $45,000 of his campaign funds to pretend to be investigating how someone who looks just like him could possibly be stealing his identity to bang hookers. Weiner, by contrast, who compounded his original goofball act by trying to cover it up and then, incredibly, went out and did it all again, is an order of magnitude more deceitful.

2. Spitzer is not trying to push the reset button and go back to where he left off.

Spitzer is aiming for a technocratic gig and conceivably could stay there for years digging around in pension investment contracts and keeping the expert looters away from our hard-earned retirement money. He could also snoop around city spending and keep those guys from carrying out the sorts of egregious scams that have occurred under Bloomberg—the supposed finance expert. Meanwhile, Weiner is trying to get back on the big stage. He was always much cleverer at the sound bite than at legislative achievement, and he needs the limelight to be effective—Spitzer doesn’t.

3. Spitzer may actually be remorseful.

This is tricky because one cannot ‘see into the hearts of men’, as Werner Herzog would say. And sincerity generally should not be admitted as a political category—who cares if our public figures believe what they’re saying? That’s not the point. But in this case, of personal failings that bring the mighty down low, it’s fair to ask whether lessons have been learned or not. In Weiner’s case the negative answer is so painfully obvious that he has ‘turned shamelessness into performance art’ (Maureen Dowd). Spitzer, on the other hand, shakes his head at himself and knows he can only aspire to a modest role toiling in the corners of the system that he once towered above. One catches in him a glimpse of humility, a rare coin in this realm.

4. Spitzer has the right enemies and a lot of them.

Weiner has plenty of people trying to shoo him away, but not because he’s any particular threat to their interests. He’s just a distraction and a laughingstock, but had he not self-immolated, he would be pulling in chits and racking up endorsements and campaign cash from all sorts of dubious types. He’s a crafty political operator who had a saleable product, which was going to be available to the highest bidder(s). But the mere idea of Spitzer in the Comptroller’s job is giving bankers, hedge fund runners and union chiefs sphincter spasms. They’re writing massive checks to get teddy-bear Scott Stringer elected instead. If it were Weiner, they wouldn’t give a shit because they’d know his stint would be business as usual until he could get a new shot at something more glamorous. But it’s impressive how Stringer rolls up the endorsements steadily from all sorts of people across the political spectrum. In part, it’s because he’s a decent enough guy, but it also suggests that Spitzer is scaring the boots off people.

Yves Smith had another densely argued technical piece this week on how pension funds are scammed by hedge funds and their law firms. She knows about this stuff from her gigs at Mackenzie and Mitsubishi, and her columns lately have provided Spitzer with a detailed road map of how to cost these professional crooks mucho cash in a short time. Stringer, by contrast, has neither the chops nor the skills to worry these types even if he had the will. His latest announcement that he would go after welfare cheats taking advantage of Hurricane Sandy relief money is not reassuring—crimes by inept hucksters are the type of low-hanging fruit that the big crooks are more than happy to support.

5. Spitzer is on his own.

This is really just a reiteration of #4, but it’s also worth remembering that Spitzer is now completely outside the Democratic Party structure, a fact pounded home daily as those still inside it line up against him. If he wins, he will owe nothing to anybody and have no reason to think he can go any further in the face of universal hostility and resistance. The only reason he has a shot now is that his entry into the race was such a huge surprise that the party apparatus could barely mobilize in time to block him. That isn’t likely to happen again. In short, Spitzer could set up shop and prepare for a very long tenure making the political establishment uncomfortable, and that, fellow citizens, should gladden our heavy hearts.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Why we need Spitzer

Here’s a good reason to ignore perfectly nice Scott Stringer in the contest to become New York City Comptroller, a sort of inspector general office: Stringer has just announced that he will create, if elected a ‘Sandy Tracker’, some sort of entity that will expose fraudulent use of federal hurricane aid dollars.

Fair enough, Scotty boy, we need to make sure no one scams FEMA out of a few thousand. But the Comptroller’s office oversees billions in city pension funds. I notice you’re not setting your sights on the vast fee-scamming practiced by Wall Street that extracts cash from hard-working average citizens. No wonder the Democratic establishment is desperately trying to make sure you win and Eliot Spitzer doesn’t. They’ll be delighted to watch you haul in a few losers while the real hustlers in private equity chuckle in their yachts.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Egyptian military opens fire on crowd

The anti-Morsi demonstrators who poured into the streets a few weeks ago chanting, ‘The army and the people are one hand’ might be suffering a few pangs of guilt now that the Egyptian people’s army has staged a deliberate massacre—as well they should be. It was their political cover that gave and continues to give the generals permission to slaughter Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the streets and to drum up charges against the imprisoned former president. Post hoc criticism of military ‘excesses’ doesn’t change that.

Morsi gravely miscalculated the meaning and significance of his narrow electoral support. He mistook numbers for power and thought that the ‘legitimacy’ provided by the polls would trump all resistance. Perhaps there’s some peculiar logic in a party so single-minded about the role of a supernatural being in people’s affairs maintaining to the bitter end such blind faith in the mystical power of a vote despite the country’s revolutionary upheavals.

It’s now pretty clear that the success of the anti-Morsi demonstrations had a lot to do with clever work by influential remnants of the Mubarak regime, wealthy businessmen and the deeply MB-phobic security forces. One doesn’t have to fancy religious fundamentalism to regret that the reactionaries who benefited from the Mubarak dictatorship now have the upper hand.

The revolutionary youth and unions that toppled the dictatorship two years ago now see the fruits of their sacrifices being reaped by the generals and their rich allies. Perhaps they regret cheering so loudly when the military issued an ultimatum to Morsi, an elected, albeit autocratic, president and then promptly arrested him. If a president more to the liberals’ liking comes to power one day, what’s to prevent the army from bouncing him out, too? Egypt could start to look like Pakistan or imitate the old patterns of Turkey or, for that matter, Latin America where militaries long formed a shadow state.

Muhammed El-Baradei and the other civilians who rushed to the generals’ side after their coup to offer to replace the guy they couldn’t beat in the voting now look like accomplices to mass murder. The Coptic Pope might be rethinking his eager post-coup backslapping as well, given the possibility that resentful fundamentalist Muslims will consider Egypt’s Christians—10% of the population—even more worthy of reprisals.

It’s encouraging that some of the democratic organizations like the April 6 Movement are distancing themselves from practices like the army’s deployment of snipers to assassinate Egyptians expressing their political beliefs. Given the descent of Syria into a nightmarish state of permanent war and trouble in neighboring Libya and Tunisia, the Arab Spring is desperately in need of some good news.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Weiner not right in the head

Never could figure out why people are so enamored of Anthony Weiner in the first place, but the latest episode of compulsive behavior should put a dent in his unquenchable ambitions. Not that people’s sexual behavior should be of particular interest to voters—after all, Mayor Koch successfully protected his personal closet throughout his three terms and later life despite his habit of throwing his undies in the faces of guys he had just met (including one of my former bosses).

But Weiner demonstrably has a screw loose to have thought nothing of sending more racy photos by phone to his female conquests AFTER making himself a national laughingstock the first time. You have to wonder about the long-suffering wife pitching in to save his sorry ass instead of saying, Let’s go home.

My own objection to Weiner is not his randy sex life—perish the thought—but his opportunistic and unfortunately very skillful usage of every hot-button issue that pops up. The guy is a non-stop PR machine, deploying techniques learned at the knee of sleazebag Charles Schumer, but there’s nothing behind it except personal ambition. In fact, Weiner is a virtual reincarnation of Koch—aggressive and mean-spirited, but also wise-cracking and just entertaining enough to make New Yorkers laugh and give him a pass.

If Weiner had been born in Alabama, he’d be a starlet on the Tea Party circuit denouncing taxes and gun control. He has a lot of psychic energy, and now we can see once again—in case we missed it the first time—that it comes from being cuckoo. It’ll be good to see him back out of the mayor’s race or get beaten at the polls, but we can also count on him to pop up again for a new electoral cycle after the latest mess dies down—the man can’t help himself.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Birds of a feather

There are two nominations being discussed now for important posts in the Obama Administration. For a supposedly smart guy, it’s hard to imagine how on earth he could want two utter incompetents to join him in what must be a lonely second term. But such is the perverse logic of our current political culture that Lawrence Sommers, a failed gambler, and Ray Kelly, a racist asshole, should be angling for top jobs.

Let’s start with the execreable Sommers, who is most famous for saying that women aren’t very good at math and science (now being discussed as a possible replacement for Bernanke at the Federal Reserve). This surreal statement wasn’t enough to send him packing to a remote mountain cave for life, but as this post by Yves Smith details at length, there were many previous reasons to dislike the guy especially for his colleagues at Harvard University, where he was president.

Sommers ignored all expert advice on investing the multi-billion-dollar Harvard endowment by people with a proven track record and insisted on getting his mitts on the dough directly. He proceeded to blow through $2 billion of it before being bounced, providing many juicy commissions for his Wall Street buddies. Obama then rewarded him with an influential position in Washington. This should tell us something important about Obama, but remarkably few people have got the message.

Kelly is our police chief here in New York, responsible for the radical criminalization of all black and Hispanic males, especially those roughly around Trayvon Martin’s age. He persecutes dissidents, bullies the elected politicians and generally acts like the head enforcer for an East European politburo. The Murdoch press loves him and is promoting him to be the next head of Homeland Security. Here are all the reasons why that should not happen.

Obama may not appoint either of these goons, but he hasn’t dismissed the idea—quite contrary. If he and his gang feared popular disgust as they briefly did during the Occupy heyday, they wouldn’t dare.

I’m too weary to argue with people who think the problem facing our nation is the bad old Republicans, who admittedly are losing their few remaining marbles by the minute. That’s true enough, and yes, they represent domestic fascism in the bud. But with these two corrupt and loathsome elements representing the alternative, anyone still thinking the Democrats offer some sort of credible answer is almost equally cuckoo.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Rule[r]s of law

And speaking of legality, the government line on NSA-depantser Edward Snowden, repeated ad nauseam from all available parapets, is that he has been charged with crimes and should come ‘home’ to respond. This sounds ever so reasonable fair because, after all, we have rules, right? He broke them, right? So all nations near and far should do the decent thing and cooperate with our legal system by making him come face judicial proceedings with full guarantees, etc., etc.

The soothing tone does not mean, however, that there is any policy consistency behind it any more than Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law is color-blind. Consider the exactly contemporaneous case of ex-CIA station chief in Milan, Italy, Robert Lady, who has been convicted in an Italian court of kidnapping. And not just any kidnapping. Lady, according to the uncontested trial results (he flew the coup and so was tried in abstentia), led a team leading led a team of two dozen criminals in the pay of the U.S. government who in 2003 snatched an Egyptian citizen off the streets and shipped him to Egypt where he was summarily tortured. This was done in gross violation of the right to asylum for political persecution (by Hillary’s great friend Hosni Mubarak). The U.S. refused to do anything to facilitate the trial, and the agents remain at large.

Lady has been hiding out in Panama and was arrested there a few days ago. But instead of insisting on the sacred rule of law in this case, the U.S. government put pressure on that tiny country, which promptly buckled and handed Lady back to the Americans. So much for the safety of political exiles enjoying legal residence in a NATO country.

So keep that case in mind when you hear all the Obama-Kool-aid-drinking liberals whine about how Snowden broke his secrecy agreement and, mercy me, we can’t just be going around letting people do illegal things, now can we? After all, we might then have assassins, kidnappers and torturers running loose everywhere.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Our litigious, unfair, world

At the same time that the state acts in increasingly lawless and arbitrary ways in its treatment of us, its citizens, we seem addicted to resolving everything through lawyers and courts. As the nightmarish Trayvon Martin case sadly illustrates, legality is not the same as justice, and as we pile ever more sensitivity to laws (and especially lawsuits) into our daily existence, the idea of fairness that should backstop all this lawyering and judging threatens to disappear.

There is a billboard near my domicile that I see regularly on the elevated No. 1 subway line that reads: “INJURED? YOU MAY BE ELIGIBLE FOR A LARGE CASH REWARD”. It is accompanied by the smiling faces of two lawyers who from their happy visages must be enjoying a booming business.

The only thing left out of that message is the word, “GREAT!” There is something amiss when illness or harm is a thing to be celebrated, but tort lawyers now drill the idea into all of us that any misfortune can and should be monetized. This is perverse. Not only does this instant ambulance chasing add no value to our collective well-being, it blocks any possibility of learning from the normal course of human error.

I saw an example of this recently involving the case of a patient who sought PEP at a local hospital emergency room. PEP stands for ‘post-exposure prophylaxsis’, i.e., the HIV treatment that when taken immediately after a dangerous event can block the establishment of HIV infection. It has been used for years in hospital settings to treat needlestick injuries involving infected blood. When administered promptly, PEP can mean the difference between a life-long medical condition and a harmless scare.

It can also be used after an episode of risky sex, and there is a protocol in place to offer it in emergency rooms throughout the city. The kid who sought it, an out-of-town visitor, had reason to fear infection and asked a hospital ER for it. But he unfortunately ran into at least two nurses who had never heard of it. External intervention turned the situation around, and the patient finally got the treatment after insisting, but a less assertive or connected visitor would not have. A messy brouhaha ensued, and ACT UP, which has resuscitated itself as an advocacy and monitoring organization, staged a protest action last week.

In a sane world involving a mature organization, this sort of miscue would lead to proper soul-searching, review of procedures and a search for performance improvement. Instead, the hospital involved curled itself up like an institutional porcupine, refused to admit any of the facts, emitted PR spin worthy of a politician in a whorehouse, in at least one case blatantly lied, and exploited the patient’s gratitude for the service he eventually did obtain with tendentious quotes from his thank-you email.

None of which made sense to me until I thought about the hospital’s immediate fear of a lawsuit. Nothing would prevent the patient, were he to find himself HIV-positive anyway, from bringing an action accusing the hospital of responsibility due to the PEP delay. Instead of a search for the truth, the hospital immediately retreated to the lawyerly position based on the overriding principle of ADMIT NOTHING.

Civil suits should be extreme measures that we resort to when harm has occurred through negligence and with two goals in mind: to prevent further misconduct and to compensate the injured party. Our current system does neither of these things well and in the process undermines the opportunity to learn from honest human mistakes. If we were protected by a more benign safety net and could rely on the government to care for us in time of medical or other needs, there would be less urgent chasing after vulnerable institutions by passles of guys in suits. And there might be more creative energy devoted to making things work better instead of pretending that nothing ever goes wrong.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

What more to say about the Trayvon tragedy?

Every so often, an event occurs that crystallizes an historical moment in the collective consciousness, for better or worse, resonating far beyond the specific details. It may be optimistic (a fault of which I am seldom accused) to think that the farcical process of ‘justice’ in the Trayvon Martin case is such a revelatory incident. But not only must it stir any heart, the reactions suggest that it has jarred some of our tenacious habits of denial. We’ll see if it lasts.

The Martin case is so patently unfair and intolerable that it has stirred to action many people more accustomed to resignation. That is significant. A general sense of helplessness and futility is essential to sustain oppression and injustice.

Sharpton was on TV here Wednesday night saying that the response to the verdict is not going to be three days of disgust and then on to the next issue. He described plans for actions in 100 cities, and the NAACP, meeting in Orlando by chance, apparently is digging in for a long campaign, too. The Justice Department’s investigation on civil rights grounds remains active, which could keep the case alive and newsworthy. Then there are civil lawsuits, which require a lower standard of proof.

None of those things in themselves will be enough to keep people in the streets and demanding an overhaul of not just laws but attitudes and habits as well. But they will help. Meanwhile, I am hoping that a few more people will connect the dots to the other major story that has attracted much more of a ho-hum, business-as-usual response: the appalling extent of the National Snoopcurity State.

While many have expressed dismay or even shock at the incredible Zimmerman verdict, note that few black people say they are surprised. That’s because the idea of living in a police state where the system is completely stacked against you is not a foreign concept to them. Just as white-majority citizens can be dumbfounded by the Trayvon assassination, in part because they cannot believe such things would ever happen to them, similarly non-dissident, non-Muslim Joe Q. Publics are prone to shrug off the government ear on their cellphones as something that, in the end, won’t affect them.

That’s the difference between people targeted by the legal/security apparatus and those permitted to go about their business unmolested, as outlined tidily by the inestimable Glenn Greenwald, the author of many of the NSA exposés in a Harper's interview.

There’s an important distinction between people who are extremely privileged and who believe in and obey pieties and orthodoxies — people like [New Yorker columnist Hendrik] Hertzberg, who aren’t dissenting from anything and who are basically defenders and supporters of political power, the royal court. The real measure of how free a society is isn’t how its good, obedient servants are treated; it’s how dissidents are treated. And if you go and do any kind of investigative journalism and talk to whistleblowers, or talk to people who are dissenting or are otherwise engaged in activism against the government, or journalists who do that, you find this incredibly disturbing, intense climate of fear. Nobody will talk unless they’re using very sophisticated encryption technologies. So yeah, good little New Yorker writers who love Obama . . . you know, he’s right. For him it is abstract and conjectural. But for people who are engaged in actual critical thinking and opposition to those in power, surveillance is menacing. It intimidates people out of engaging in real dissent.

I hope that the grotesqueness of the Zimmerman outcome will alert my more breezily insouciant peers to the dangers of passively awarding more and more powers to the policing/snooping apparatus. The Zimmerman-Martin case shows how easy it is to manipulate a legal proceeding and cook up the desired results if the system is stacked against you. We need a state that is vulnerable enough to give us a fighting chance at self-defense, not an all-seeing monolith that can crush its enemies like bugs.

It is naïve in the extreme to think that a legal apparatus that can flick away the life of Trayvon Martin and smugly declare itself in fine working order does not or will not eventually take a similar view of the lives of the rest of us if we dare to raise our heads. There are plenty of historical precedents for that, and we delude ourselves if we think no such thing could possibly happen here.

Greenwald again:
Sometimes it is hard to convey why privacy is so important because it’s kind of ethereal. But I think people instinctively understand the reason it’s so important because they do things like put passwords on their email accounts and locks on their bedroom and bathroom doors, which reflect a desire to keep others out of certain spaces where they can go to be alone. That’s a way of making clear that they value privacy. And the reason privacy is so critical is because it’s only when we know we’re not being watched that we can engage in creativity or dissent or pushing the boundaries of what’s deemed acceptable. A society in which people feel like they’re always being watched is one that breeds conformity because people will avoid doing anything that can prompt judgment or condemnation. This is a crucial part of why a surveillance state is so damaging — it’s why all tyrannies know that watching people is the key to keeping them in line because only when you’re not being watched can you really be a free individual.

Sunday, 14 July 2013


There was a heavy air of grief at the Union Square rally this afternoon. A silent circle expressed the speechlessness of many at the grotesque injustice of seeing George Zimmerman go free after stalking and killing a teenager minding his own business. Will this outrage alert our sleep-walking fellow bipeds that all is not well in our justice system?

It is hardly news to non-white citizens, but the rest of us have been lulled into indifference by the smooth PR leadership of our non-white president while he systematically deepens the Bush-era dismantling of the few remaining protections that keep us marginally safe from arbitrary abuse.

There ‘may be flaws in the justice system’ cautiously intone our newscasters on NY1 cable. Ya think? And yet the ongoing scandals of trumped-up charges against people of Arab descent or Muslim belief by an out-of-control security state draw scarcely a yawn—protect us at all costs! cry the easily persuaded, thinking that the powerful have their safety and welfare in mind.

Is this unfair? Does the spying, dungeon-running state really have anything to do with the racist habits of yesteryear rearing their ugly head through this legal lynching? We condemn Zimmerman for profiling Trayvon Martin, but we give the NYPD a pass to stop and frisk a half million black teenagers and the FBI to profile and entrap halfwit Somali immigrants into bomb plots.

So we say, as I have heard otherwise sophisticated liberals proclaim, Go ahead, snoop on our email and telephone calls because we who have ‘done nothing wrong’ have nothing to fear. As the Athenians said to the Melians before slaughtering them, ‘We bless your innocence but do not envy your folly’. Calling upon the gods to save us because we are virtuous is mere superstition.

Instead, we need reality-based thinking and action to preserve our fragile freedoms. The mighty are preparing the ground to crush us when we dissent from their highway robbery, which we will inevitably do as they squeeze us out of our livelihoods. If Trayvon Martin’s death is not to be utterly depressing, let him be today’s Emmett Till, a violent reminder but also a rallying cry against evil forces threaten our collective future.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Egyptian coup not benign

Now that the dust has settled over Cairo, what happened and the shape of things to come is marginally clearer. The diverse reactions there, in the region and here at home are reminiscent of the six blind men describing an elephant. Still, there are some more or less recognizable facts:

-While the Egyptian military staged a coup by removing an elected president from office, the popular movement remains potent and cannot (yet) be marginalized.

There was considerable debate about whether the army moving in and physically seizing its putative civilian commander was really a ‘coup’—I find the hair-splitting rather absurd. Yes, there was huge popular support for the action, but isn’t there always? Except for palace coups among dictatorial factions, mass mobilization is a common factor in military takeovers. There were plenty of people in the streets of Santiago in 1973 baying for Allende’s head along with those ready to die to defend him.

That doesn’t mean the Egyptian army can do whatever it likes. However, it has now coopted the civilian movement and lured it into endorsing the military’s own supra-national character. One of the creepiest aspects of the Chilean military’s outlook during their dictatorship (a vision which undoubtedly persists to the present) is that it was and is consubstantial with the Chilean nation, which is to say (and was said to me explicitly), that if the army were to disappear, Chile would cease to exist. Ergo, WE are the nation, not you mere citizens.

This new principle, accepted by the civilian partners eager to replace Morsi with themselves, enables the military guys to view themselves as guarantors of any eventual democracy and to pretend that they are neutral patriots rather than ambitious politicians (and entrepreneurs). Juan Cole points out that this is ‘extremely dangerous’. It was short-sighted of democratic figures like the Coptic Pope and el-Baradi to stand beside General al-Sisi hours after the takeover and applaud. What’s to stop the generals from doing the same to them someday, and what moral authority would they have to resist? They could have offered tacit support from the sidelines while preserving the principle of military subordination to civilian rule, even if only as a fig-leaf.

-The army’s hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood is profoundly anti-democratic and murderous.

The image of the photographer targeted and murdered by a soldier, i.e., recording his own death on film, is eerily reminiscent of a scene from The Battle of Chile, and it doesn’t get any nicer if we contemplate Morsi’s ham-handedness. The fact that soldiers killed 50 people at one go is terrifying even if they were provoked especially given that the Brotherhood’s rivals suddenly don’t care about soldiers firing live rounds into a political demonstration. Once again, this is short-sighted and foolish; sober democratic leaders would at least take some prudent distance from such actions instead of celebrating the destruction of their political rivals. Reminder: these security forces gleefully tortured people for decades under Mubarak—do the democrats really want to turn them into heroes?

-The sudden stabilizing of the economy suggests a right-wing boycott campaign against Morsi.

Yet another disturbing parallel with the campaign against Allende’s socialist experiment is the sudden disappearance of gas lines and the end of electricity outages just days after the coup. Forces hostile to the Brotherhood’s government, including remnants of the Mubarak regime, must have seen the deep anxiety about an Islamist state among the secular left and knew how to take advantage of the opportunity to sabotage Morsi economically. The democratic movement was supported with huge secret donations from a top oligarch who brags about it now.

-The United States wants security and stability—with or without democracy.

Obama’s announcement a few hours ago that the military would get shiny new fighter aircraft is a cynical reminder of Washington’s priorities. As long as pro-American generals remain firmly in charge, all rhetoric about democratic processes and the Egyptian people’s welfare will remain empty talk—just as it did during Mubarak’s dictatorship. If the U.S. had any real interest in the Arab Spring as a democratic movement, Obama would have held off until new elections had taken place and a new civilian was at least nominally in charge. Pushing the reward forward says that the U.S. would be perfectly comfortable with a puppet regime in which the military calls all the shots behind a democratic veneer.

In summary, Morsi and his band of brothers were idiots, and the opposition hasn’t been nearly as clever as it thinks. Islam is not the answer—neither is military tutelage.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Spitzer return provoking squeals

The pundits had their panties in knots about Eliot Spitzer’s return to politics (he announced yesterday for the city Comptoller’s job) after remaining mostly silent about Anthony Weiner’s alarmingly successful late run at the job of mayor of New York. Most of them said Spitzer’s timing was off, that he looks like a Johnny-come-lately, that he’s upsetting the political class and that he was going to lose. Except for the upsetting part, they’re all wet.

I suspect the real reason that Weiner gets a pass and Spitzer a dump truck of poo-poo on his lawn is that the former state A-G is far more dangerous than the skinny professional pol out of the Schumer camp. Weiner is slick enough to sound scrappy in front of any given audience, but nobody familiar with his career will be worried that he will upset any powerful forces out there from builders and developers to bankers or suburban car owners (despite his latest opportunistic campaign photo in a bicycle helmet).

Spitzer, on the other hand, went right after corrupt Wall Street firms and earned their unending enmity. Had he been in charge (instead of the turncoat Eric Schneiderman) during the mortgage banking scandal, things might be a whole lot different. He should be smacked for stupidity in letting his taste for expensive hookers ruin his and our best chance at a progressive governorship, but his run for the lowly office of Comptroller is very promising.

From that post, Spitzer would have the authority to monitor and audit city spending, which is rife with incompetence and corrupt practices. This is exactly what we need, and the fact he might actually dedicate himself to doing the job rather than using it as a springboard for higher office is even more encouraging.

Spitzer might also be believed when he says he wants to do a good job and has a credible record on all sorts of progressive issues like drivers licenses for the undocumented and same-sex marriage before it was safe. On the negative side, he was an arrogant prick and alienated pretty much everyone, but maybe he’s learned a lesson or two from his come-down. I’ve seen his opponent, the previously unopposed Scott Stringer, now Manhattan borough president, and he’s an inoffensive career pol unlikely to rock any boats.

Weiner, on the other hand, is going for a high-profile leadership job that would reawaken his least attractive traits. He’s combative, pushy and loves to be on top, and this is a city that goes for that type—it elected Ed Koch three times. I hope we aren’t about to saddle ourselves with his reincarnation.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Egypt 2.0 [updated]

Revolutions occur when the coercive apparatus of the state splits, and a new configuration is born. It’s a rare event and a dangerous one as the power vacuum can lead to violent and/or repressive outcomes. But it’s also an amazing display of popular sovereignty, a time when individuals are willing to bare their chests to the bayonets in hopes of a brighter future for succeeding generations. Generally speaking, our biped race has few noble moments—revolutions can be one of them.

I think people will be analyzing and writing about the Egyptian revolution(s) 100 years from now, and the events of today are far from the last chapter. I don’t pretend to know anything more about Egypt than what I pick up from newspapers and smart observers, but here are my tentative conclusions to date:

-Morsi is a dolt. You squeeze into power on a slight majority almost by default because the run-off opponent is a holdover from the ancien régime, and the first thing you do is convince everyone that you’re a closet Mubarak in a bushy beard. Everything Morsi did from his takeover a year ago was high-handed, authoritarian, clannish, sectarian and largely incompetent. He alienated everyone except his narrow base of supporters, and his response to criticism was ‘I won! I won! I get to decide everything!’ Huh? There wasn’t a vast popular uprising that killed 1,000 people? You don’t have to include the rest of the country in your clubby wet-dreams? Brutish, deluded, clueless.

-The incoming government needed to address two urgent priorities: consolidation of the democratic structure and economic recovery. Morsi failed on both resoundingly. The Muslim Brotherhood’s shenanigans surrounding the writing and passage of the new constitution reflected open disdain for the idea of a consensual, nationwide, inclusive process in which everyone could be heard and minority rights protected. The Brotherhood is now exposed as indifferent to secular society, medieval on women, hostile to non-Muslims and fixated on social mores rather than the people’s wellbeing. Even that wouldn’t have been a deal-breaker if they had respected the democratic process, but they didn’t.

-All the news accounts and features suggest that the economic situation for the average Egyptian is dire and getting worse. While that wasn’t Morsi’s fault a year ago, the lack of progress today is. By building a broad coalition to tackle the hardships together, the MB might have bought time and held off popular resentment with the promise that after a rough period, things would eventually improve. But Morsi thought he could bull his way forward alone and didn’t need any allies among perfidious unbelievers. Not so much, as it turns out. Right up until his last hours on the job, Morsi kept chanting ‘I won! I won!’ and repeating the word ‘legitimacy’ 60 times per speech, meaning he still didn’t get it.

-Speaking of which, Morsi appeared congenitally incapable of learning on the job. While his support ebbed away steadily month by month, he displayed very little knack for shifting course and trying a different approach—although a few appointments had to be withdrawn in the face of opposition. Speaking of which, one of the all-time dumbest things he did was his June decision to name a former terrorist figure from Gamaa Islamiya as governor of Luxor in Upper Egypt last month, exactly where that group massacred 60 foreign visitors—just the thing to endear one to the local population eking out a living on tourism! You gotta wonder if all that praying hasn’t addled the poor man’s brains.

-The military staged a coup (people want to debate this, but I don’t see the point.) They moved in when things were clearly breaking down quickly and with 4 million people in the streets showing no signs of leaving. Ideally, Morsi’s government would have collapsed of its own weight, but the risk of street violence between factions may have pushed the army to act quickly. The Brotherhood now could retreat to its historic position of hostility toward the military and with good reason given the record. So it would be prudent to keep the arrests and other repressive tactics to a minimum and let the MB return as a political faction, forced to obey the democratic spirit, whether they feel it or not. However, if the troops produce martyrs through heavy-handed tactics, the MB is large and organized enough to make serious trouble for a long time to come.

-The soldiers didn’t have a great time during their 18 months in power after the overthrow of Mubarak, so theoretically they should be eager to get on with it and not make the same mistakes as in the first round. A new constitutional process could go a long way toward reassembling the various factions in the unity government that the Islamists showed no interest in building.

-That said, Morsi was an elected president who came to power by democratic means. So the sight of the army bundling him off to house arrest is a disturbing one and not to be applauded unreservedly. We have plenty of historical precedent that this is not the ideal way to end a crisis, and it is fervently to be hoped that the country will not have to resort to this procedure again.

-The American role so far has been prudent. We know that Washington’s primary interest is security, not democracy and not the living standards of hungry Egyptians. Obama wants to protect Israel and reaffirm the strategic alliance with Egypt’s military, and political stability could and should further that aim. It’s not helpful for the U.S., given its historical role as Mubarak’s principal backer, to do anything but stay out of the transition, not take (obvious) sides, and reiterate its support for democratic principles and actions even if no one believes it.

May you live in interesting times.

[Update] Commentators much better informed than I have emphasized that having Morsi removed by the army is, in Juan Cole's words, extremely dangerous and could backfire. The Guardian editorialized against the coup, and I admit that the sight of opposition leaders and the Coptic cardinal standing next to the army chief for the announcement of the takeover was chilling. Cole concludes:

Egypt’s future stability and prosperity now depends on whether the officer corps and youth are mature enough to return to pluralist principals and cease persecuting the Muslim Brotherhood just because Morsi was high-handed. Their media has be be free and the 300 officials have to be released unless charged with really-existing crimes on the statute books. And it depends on whether the Muslim Brotherhood is wise and mature enough to roll with this punch and to reform itself, giving up its cliquish and cult-like internal solidarity in favor of truly becoming a nation-wide, center-right, democratic opposition party. If they take this course, they have a chance of emulating Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and one day coming back to power . . . . If the Muslim Brotherhood adherents instead turn to terrorism and guerrilla actions, they will tear the country apart and probably blacken the name of political Islam for decades.

At the moment, neither of those two groups is demonstrating the maturity and high-mindedness that would reassure me about the prospects for a genuinely democratic transition.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Direct action

It’s fascinating to watch the way that elusive thing called power is created, wielded and destroyed through the pull and tug of social forces, Egypt being the most dramatic example. But even cynical Americans can see that fired-up citizens taking a determined stand can wipe the smile off a few faces—like Texas governor Perry’s.

The Muslim Brotherhood squeezed into power a year ago after the amazing Egyptian revolution followed by an 18-month interregnum of military rule. Elections and democratic process opened up the possibility of real participation for 80 million citizens.

The MB managed a tiny majority of the final vote despite not representing half of the electorate—in the presidential run-off, the choice was the MB’s Morsi or a representative of the Mubarak regime. But Morsi immediately acted as if his group had led the revolution alone and that winning a vote meant you became a sort of elected pharaoh.

Morsi’s party proceeded to marginalize other political tendencies, impose its will through the hastily-written constitution rammed through a bogus parliament, stack the courts, attack free expression and generally confirm the fears of anyone who thought he was a Muslim Lenin intent on forcing an Islamic state on Egyptians who had a lot of other things in mind. For a while, it looked as though he would get away with it.

What a different scenario that country would be in today if the MB had had the patriotic good sense to try to rebuild the state and society through a genuinely democratic process in which everyone got something and no one got everything. It would have been a free-for-all with plenty of chaos and passion, but Egypt would not today be standing on the abyss. Since the army does not want to find itself back in charge formally, the country could get a chance for democracy 2.0 despite the fractured nature of the non-Mubarakian, anti-MB opposition. Or it could be the beginning of something really terrible.

I wish someone who knows the situation would write about how the Brotherhood could have missed its historic opportunity so resoundingly and embarked on this self-immolation when a more cooperative, less authoritarian approach was so obviously available. I wonder if it has something to do with its name, the ‘Brotherhood,’ so aptly reflective of the profoundly misogynist world-view that sustains Islamic fundamentalism. It’s a simplistic thought perhaps, but when men are so determined to rule the domestic sphere as dictators, when do they get a chance to experiment with and understand democratic equality?

It’s oddly similar in a perverse way with the goings on in the Coathanger State, Texas, where fundamentalist men are determined to put uppity women back in the kitchens through the domestication of their reproductive function. But Texas women, like their Egyptian counterparts, have had a taste of liberation. They demonstrated in the dramatic midnight scene in the Texas legislature that direct action—not waiting around for the next election—could have an impact and shift the momentum.

Texas may still pass Draconian anti-abortion laws against the will of the populace. Ohio has done so, and other states could still follow. I suspect, however, that the uprising of Texas women may mark the beginning of the end of the ‘pro-life’ counterrevolution. The Jesus Brotherhood has had a long ride, but the sight of fed-up women taking to the streets and NOT waiting for the spineless Democrats to act in their name signals a new chapter in this and perhaps other ongoing battles.