Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Are we really heading for underdevelopment? I

[Reflections on the meme of "is U.S. a 3rd world country?" - Part I]

Buenos Aires – Back in South America, I remember immediately upon picking up the local newspaper how journalism here frequently serves as a vehicle for communication among elites rather than informing the public. Our own educated citizenry is shrinking rapidly, but most countries on this continent never made much effort to create one, so the nation’s affairs are largely handled by a tiny slice of the populace. This explains how a newspaper article can begin with this lead:
Eight days after the conflict and just as the 10-day time limit set by the Airport Regulatory Commission expires, the CEO of Lan Airlines, Igacio Cueto, travels today to Buenos Aires to meet with authorities for talks to try to reach an agreement.

If you don’t know 90% of the information behind this mysterious story before opening the newspaper, you can’t make much sense of the text. Careful reading of what follows might give you an idea of what it’s all about, but there is little attempt to help you get there. That’s because no more than five or six thousand people in the two countries involved in the dispute (Chile and Argentina) need to know about this episode, and they’ll be up to date. The rest of the population doesn’t need to know, so why go to any particular trouble to explain it to them? They can be left in the dark like medieval parishioners sitting through the Latin mass: the priests know what they’re saying, and the rest of you just repeat-after-me.

Latin America has been doing somewhat better economically, and the politics are generally stable in contrast to the terrible days of military dictatorship. So we hear little about the continent and don’t realize that despite ‘growth’ at respectable levels, the class structure of most L.A. countries remains as congealed as ever. Slight improvements in income at the bottom have not translated into the incorporation of a broader sector of the citizenry into the nation’s social and political life, except as spectators. Despite hard-fought electoral campaigns, the same family surnames occupy most of the high-profile posts and legislative seats of the major parties, and the usual suspects recycle themselves endlessly in the administration of policies that deviate only marginally from the elite consensus.

Is the U.S. moving in a similar direction? One way to tell will be through observation of how news is transmitted to us by informed writers (not to be confused with celebrity gossip or TV shoutfests). Is there an obscurantization process underway by which the average reader is left mystified? For example, is the Wall Street Journal’s admirably clear style evolving into insider-ese with jargon replacing standard English usage? If not, then some aspect of our political culture is surviving and can be resuscitated eventually when conditions permit.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Mayor of New York

The papers came out with their endorsements this weekend. Here are mine.

For Mayor: Bill de Blasio

I had a hard time settling on this guy because he has some demagogic tendencies that I dislike. His grandstanding over St Vincent’s hospital was over the top given that he had no visibility on the issue until election time. Perhaps that’s not entirely his fault, but getting arrested over the possible shutdown of another hospital in Brooklyn a few weeks back was equally grandiose and looked crass. Nonetheless, he’s pushed the hospital/health care access issue back to center stage in the mayoral race where it should have been in the first place. He’s good on police abuse, good on the growing income divide, and strikes a defiant tone, which might indicate that he means business. Hard to say, but our best bet.

The other candidates have slowly self-eliminated as possibilities, starting with Quinn who reminded us this past week that she is a Bloomberg clone who only recently started to move out from under his dominance because she needed to look NOT like a Bloomberg clone. She got religion at the very last minute on stop & frisk and allowed that vote to come forward because there is a strong consensus now in the city to put a stop to it. But she keeps repeating that Ray Kelly should continue as police chief, which means her sudden change of heart on his policies is phony. It’s too bad because Quinn is not a dummy, and it would be cool to have an out, married lesbian as mayor. But she allowed herself to get pulled too far into Bloomberg’s orbit, and we’re done with the both of them.

Bill Thompson seemed like a respectable possibility, but over the past few weeks he’s made unsettling noises, moving to the right even of Quinn in some cases. His alliance with Republican godfather Al d’Amato is creepy. And where has he been while Bloomberg went hog-wild for the last four years? Thompson ran against him in 2009 and did remarkably well despite being outspent by gazillions to one. His low profile suggests he was just waiting around trying not to make anyone mad so he could come back now. Next.

John Liu was my early favorite, and he has a good record as city comptroller in uncovering corrupt practices under Bloomberg. But he ran into a campaign finance scandal early on and sank into last place. His team’s actions were illegal, and they got caught. But it felt like a set-up, which would make sense if the people Liu exposed had powerful friends. He stayed in the race and could be an interesting force in the future given the city’s growing Asian population. But now that he’s not a contender, and the race is very tight at the top, I’m saving him for later.

Then there’s Anthony Weiner.

For City Comptroller: Elliot Spitzer

I’ve written about this one before, and the only thing left to add is how interesting it has been to see all the Democratic establishment line up against Spitzer and to support inoffensive Scott Stringer, the bland career pol who thought no one wanted this glorified auditor job and decided to go for it when it became clear he was too minor leagues for the mayoral slot. I saw Stringer speak at a fund-raiser a while back, and he’s a perfectly nice bureaucrat and as inspiring as a Methodist sermon. Spitzer is a threat to the big boys, and they know it. We want him. Badly.

For Public Advocate: Leticia James

This is de Blasio’s current job, and it comes with almost no budget and little clout. But it’s a platform to stir the pot from, and obviously a stepping stone to grander, city-wide things. James is the Brooklyn councilwoman featured in the film, Battle for Brooklyn, where she clearly sided with the urban planning advocates against the developer mafias. She’s been term-limited out of her council seat and is making a move for a larger audience. Her main opponent is Daniel Squadron, another seed from the Chuck Schumer Tree of Sleaze. Squadron seems all right, but then again so did Anthony Weiner who came from the same place. If Schumer is for it, I’m agin’ it.

For Manhattan Borough President: Robert Jackson

A whole slew of unknowns are battling for this spot, also largely ceremonial. I encourage people to vote for my outgoing city councilman, Robert Jackson. I see a lot of these guys at local events, and you can quickly tell who has an original take on things, thinks strategically, and goes to bat for the community. Jackson represents uptown where all the poor people live, and his opponents, while apparently worthy community activists, come from neighborhoods where average rents are in the 3-4K range and sometimes a lot more. Nuff said.

Primary votes are notoriously poor for turnout, so a few people paying attention can make a big difference. With the Democratic margin so overwhelming, and no one of interest on the other party lines, this Sept. 10 vote should be the definitive one. There are some real choices here; let’s act.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

On a lighter note

A friend and I pedaled up to the Berkshires last weekend, a trip of about 100 miles by car (I would say a good 115-120 by bike given the side roads, mountain detours and occasional wrong turns). It took us two days, and we had a blast. The weather was cyclist-fantastic (room temperature and overcast) as we ate our way up the Hudson valley. A 6 a.m. departure from my Inwood flat put us well into the foothills by 9, and we breakfasted in Stamford, Connecticut with the bleary-eyed locals.

The route northeast from New York isn’t very touristic, and there aren’t many options for lodging in the obscure towns off the main routes. Quaint New England WASP havens like Sharon, Connecticut, will have their B&Bs for $200 a night, booked well in advance for Saturdays in the summer, but your basic Comfort Inn or Motel 6 are scarce. Our tongues were tasting asphalt after about 11 hours, and we were on the lookout for a place to crash when our last hope before dark, a decent-looking motel in Dover Plains, New York, turned out to have a ‘We are Closed’ sign on the office window.

Being a child of the communitarian 60s, I immediately started asking random passers-by if they knew of any place to get a room for the night, any Hispanic families looking to earn $50 or an abandoned schoolyard that we could occupy without getting busted by the state police (whose HQ was just down the road). Wouldn’t you know it but a friendly guy with a pony tail drove up in a massive truck and went to work for us, phoned his wife, consulted with the liquor store owner, and finally said, ‘You’re coming home with me’. And we did.

Carl turned out to be a hilarious biker dude with a gigantic Harley Hogg in the garage, seven children and a big heart. We sat up talking about life and finally sank into comatose sleep on his living room floor. Wife Colleen bustled around getting us food and putting out towels for us to shower, and we were sorry to have to leave the next morning after such a serendipitous taste of the wonderful old days when people were not immediately terrified of each other and intuitive sharing was part of the country’s ethos.

So here’s some love for Carl & Colleen of Dover Plains, New York.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Burial of Bradley Manning no surprise

When the president publicly told his subordinates in the armed forces what the verdict was to be in the Bradley Manning trial, it was clear that the security state had taken yet another step in the slow-moving coup that began in 2001 and has accelerated under the Democrats. Obama, we may recall, announced that Manning was guilty of breaking the law (not that that seems to matter when dealing with torture, snooping, robbing people’s homes through bank fraud, etc. But I digress.) Given that the trial is occurring in a military court, those in charge of the proceedings thereby were informed that they had better come through with the proper verdict.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Pinochet’s former Justice Minister, Mónica Madariaga, in her Providencia apartment about 25 years ago in which she described her frustrations during her years as a private lawyer after serving in the Chilean dictator’s cabinet. She said she might have the facts on her side but not the all-important connections to power that she once enjoyed. ‘I present a tightly argued 50-page brief with overwhelming evidence to buttress my client’s case’, she related, ‘and then a call comes from the junta to the judge saying, “We need this one.” And that’s that, a one-line statement: Reversed. No reasons’.

Tut-tut, many will say, we’re not living under a military regime, it’s not a fair comparison. No, we’re not, and we do not have a secret police entity making a habit of snatching people out of their beds at 2 a.m., never to be seen again. (Out of airports, yes.) Governors and presidents don’t phone the country’s top lawyers to tell them how to rule. Correct again, but why should they when the message can be relayed in other ways?

One of the things I heard repeatedly in Chile upon arriving in the 10th year of military rule (it was to last 17) was how surprised the country’s citizens were to witness their solid, stable democracy, with its multiple political parties and regular transfers of power between elected governments, suddenly and quite literally go up in smoke, to be replaced by one of the most scientifically brutal and perverse regimes in the memory of a continent that is no stranger to violence. What staggered their imaginations was the depth of the hatred of the entrenched elites for the poor and their middle-class allies who dared to demand a fairer share of the nation’s wealth and a chance for a decent life. Well-to-do Chileans, including my interlocutors’ own family members, crowed for blood and cheered the slaughter of the leftist party cadres and their union allies. I myself witnessed two elegant ladies strolling through Parque Forrestal after an anti-Pinochet demonstration screaming for the police to ‘kill the Indians!’

So the decision to lock up Bradley Manning for most of his adult life should not shock us any more than the security state’s targeting of Glenn Greenwald’s boyfriend/spouse in a London airport. These people are not playing by any known rules, and their boss, Barack Obama, is not an honorable man. One of our few remaining defenses is to anticipate and prepare for their predictably bad behavior.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Good massacres v/s bad massacres

No one is looking particularly heroic in Egypt these days, but the blood lust of the country’s armed forces is horrifying. To coldly murder hundreds of demonstrating civilians, even when provoked, is criminal and bodes ill for the entire region’s future.

A close second is the smugly self-interested commentary from our punditocracy which, as usual, places U.S. imperial interests first and human life second. This changes radically, of course, when the party doing the killing is the Enemy du jour, like Ahmadinejad or Kim. But the Egyptian military is officially part of Our Team, so the response to them mowing down 600 mostly unarmed civilians and wounding untold thousands more is heavily nuanced and couched in cautious phrasing. Listening to Shields and Brooks tonight on The News Hour, it became clear that the DemoRepublicrat duopoly is in cozy agreement despite the ongoing plots to cut each others’ throats. It was as though both sides concur that we should do whatever is necessary to maintain our power and the accompanying cash flow from the entire known universe, then we can knife each other over who gets their mitts on it.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s tactics of continued resistance seem bizarre given the imbalance of forces—a ruthless army backed by half the population—but they are clearly driven by a belief system that has its own internal logic. Knowing that the continuation of street demonstrations only will mean a higher death toll among its members, they seem undeterred and in some cases almost eager for ‘martyrdom’, a.k.a. death. One can imagine the generals observing this display and quoting to themselves the powerful Athenians of antiquity as they faced down the rebellious Melians: ‘We bless your innocence but do not envy your folly’.

And yet it would be perhaps folly on our part to count out these highly motivated fanatics. They remind me of the scenes of the Iranian revolution of 1979 during which vast masses of people poured into the streets of Teheran to face the Shah’s bullets, confident that the result would be heaven either in this life or the next. A movement with that kind of motivated cadre is going to be around for a while.

Meanwhile, it’s better after having a meal not to listen to much of the predictable reasoning about why the U.S. should not cut off military aid to these thugs. People here can go to jail for years for sending a donation to some obscure Somali outfit that has the wrong religious ideology. But the entire political class endorses funding these uniformed terrorists, and that’s just business as usual. Nauseating.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Against race-based policing

A federal judge slammed the New York Police Department yesterday with a ruling that its notorious stop-and-frisk policy was unconstitutionally discriminatory and violated our rights to be presumed inoocent of wrongdoing unless there was probable cause—not including belonging to a member of a racial minority or living in a high-crime neighborhood.

As anticipated, the reaction from Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD was completely hysterical. Bloomberg announced that the city would ignore the ruling and anyone telling them to go along with it is a murderer. (We assume this label does not include the stop-and-frisk-loving uniformed cop who followed Ramarley Graham into his Bronx bathroom and shot him—but I digress.)

Commissioner Kelly was just as bad, wailing that the judge’s remedies to assure fairness in police treatment of citizens was going to hobble (or in the Murdoch tabloid’s term, ‘cuff’) the cops.

What ever happened to, If you’re innocent, you shouldn’t worry?? How curious that the cops suddenly don’t think it’s benign and harmless to be filmed constantly while you’re going about your usual business. Why are they so upset IF THEY’RE NOT DOING ANYTHING WRONG?

Well, glory be, having one’s every move videotaped and stored DOES have a chilling effect after all. Fascinating how once the cameras are turned on the powerful, suddenly they are intrusive, annoying, unfair, offensive, and whatnot. I wonder how they would feel about their internal communications being uploaded to the NSA database and stored for use in future investigations and trials.

The reaction from the city’s five Democratic candidates eager to take over Bloomberg’s job was fascinating and should guide our voting choices in three weeks. Comptroller John Liu has insisted from the beginning that the stop-and-frisk policy had to go; by total coincidence, his campaign was under investigation for two years for finance irregularities, his treasurer was indicted, and he will get no matching funds.

Christine Quinn, the frontrunner, thinks a little tweaking should be applied to the policy but that all in all, it’s a pretty effective crime-fighting tool, sort of like beheading in Saudi Arabia where crime rates are very low.

Anthony Weiner probably has an opinion about stop-and-frisk that balances the thoughts of people totally against it with the thoughts of people totally for it and expertly parses the difference so that each will think he agrees with them. But who cares about Anthony Weiner?

Bill de Blasio has been critical of stop-and-frisk without saying he’d eliminate it, and suddenly, remarkably, he’s leading! This relatively unknown figure has fairly good positions although a very slight accomplishment record, and he has shamelessly broadcast his biracial family in his ads. But since New York is now completely race-blind, and the police department does NOT racially profile anyone, his mixed-race son’s prominence has nothing whatever to do with his recent bounce in the polls.

As commentators have surmised, the blow to stop-and-frisk is at least partially a result of popular indignation and mobilization against it. Meanwhile, Stephen Walt, the international affairs expert, wrote a thoughtful piece on the ruling entitled ‘America’s Paranoid Stop & Frisk on a Global Scale’. In it he compares the NYPD approach to security to Obama’s style of drone warfare:

‘Stop and frisk’ is essentially an act of preemption or prevention: the suspect hasn't committed a crime, but the police go after the person on the basis of the thinnest of suspicions, like a bulging pocket or the loosely defined ‘furtive gestures’.

Now think about the United States' use of drones or special operations forces to conduct ‘targeted assassinations’ of suspected terrorists. In many cases, U.S. officials have some reason to think somebody might be planning a terrorist operation, but the person isn't actually doing it when officials decide to take the individual out. Notice that this policy goes way beyond mere ‘stop and frisk’: if the United States can't apprehend someone it thinks might be dangerous, these days it just blows the person away and calls the individual a ‘suspected terrorist’ afterward.
Read the whole essay here and then reflect upon the Bush/Obama imperial style settling in and occupying not just foreign lands, but our own.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Obama's Greatest Show on Earth!

The burgeoning scandal over government snooping into our personal thoughts and writings led Obama to stage a news conference last week, ‘staging’ being the operative word, given that his fallback response to complicated and messy realities is to emit earnest rhetoric and declare the problem solved. Perhaps this habit is related to his extraordinary success in parleying a fairly thin record of achievement into the keys to the White House, which certainly could cause one to develop excessive faith in one’s magical powers. Rather than, for example, the state’s grave crisis of legitimacy in 2008 that he temporarily eased. Imagine what pitchfork sales would be like if Bush and Cheney or their clones were the ones presiding over the vast expansion of police powers that we read about daily.

Obama told elegantly phrased whoppers in his statement to the assembled reporters, but as befits a lawyer and expert parser of English, he could probably mount a successful I-did-not-have-sex-with-that-woman defense. He assured us that the NSA was not ‘listening to’ Americans’ phone calls, but he pointedly did NOT say that the NSA was not collecting tapes of them to be listened to later.

He also made soothing statements such as this one:

I am comfortable that the program currently is not being abused. I’m comfortable that if the American people examined exactly what was taking place, how it was being used, what the safeguards were, that they would say, you know what, these folks are following the law and doing what they say they’re doing.

People who are annoyingly accustomed to getting their way in life and imposing their views on others often say things like, ‘I really think’ or I’m comfortable with. . .’ What they mean is, ‘Because I am special, when I say I really, really believe X, then X is the case’. They equate their feeling of certainty with reality because they are so used to having people go along with them as part of their power and privilege. Since they face contradiction only rarely, they lose the ability to distinguish between the world and their perception of it.

The problem for Obama arises when we open the newspaper the next day and read the latest revelation about what is really going on inside those opaque NSA beehives full of our Internet search data and private emails. Such as the discovery that police departments around the country have been illegally utilizing stolen personal data to mount common criminal cases and then lying about it to judge, thereby undermining what’s left of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. Forget those cop shows you see every night in which struggling detectives have to dig up evidence and bring in bad guys—they’ve been fed private dirt from the feds for 20 years, and we’re just now finding out about it.

Of course, the average citizen will promptly dismiss these doings as irrelevant to their personal lives because they’re not engaged in drug dealing, bomb plots, or even cheating on their taxes (much). But this is short-sighted in the extreme. Nothing stands between Obama and the police/security apparatus that he commands from utilizing the exact same tactics against legitimate political action and dissent, such as the Occupy movement (which undoubtedly was undermined in precisely this way), foreign policy critics, defenders of human rights, or commercial adversaries of U.S.-based corporations. And if they have this power, they will surely use it.

Obama also stubbornly refuses to admit that the lengthy history of covering up these snooping activities now gives the lie to his assurances that they are telling us the truth and nothing but the truth about them now. We still have elected U.S. senators stating publicly that there is a whole lot more that they wish they could say but are prevented by law from doing so (Wyden: ‘We cannot even tap out the truth in Morse code’.) We have an Internet service provider shutting down while submitting to a gag rule that prevents its owner from telling us why. Yet Obama blandly insists in front of the assembled news media that he sees no reason why people should mistrust him, and because he is not George W. Bush, many gullible people believe him.

Also extremely revealing was Obama’s resentful crack about Glenn Greenwald’s gradual release of more and more information about the official government espionage against its own citizens.

“These leaks are released drip by drip, one a week, to kind of maximize attention and see if they can catch us at some imprecision on something’.

True, The Guardian’s reporters have been clever to avoid the Wikileaks trap by parceling out what they have learned about the government’s illicit actions bit by bit and filtering it carefully, thereby sidestepping any tendentious accusations about ‘aiding the enemy’ but also making is harder and harder for Obama and his generals to lie to us.

It’s all just so unfair.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

The racism that dare not speak its name

You can see your career dissolve before your eyes with the use of a certain word starting with N, which I hear several times a day on the subway—but I digress—and yet other blatant forms of racist b.s. get a free pass.

We woke up today to news that the Jackie Robinson statue in the Rockaways was defaced by a neo-nazi. Live reports from that scene were detailed, repetitive and full of indignant vox-pops. It’s not nice to write racist messages on the monument to a human rights icon.

Meanwhile, Ramarley Graham’s parents learned, also yesterday, that the cops who followed their teenaged son into his house and upstairs to the bathroom where they shot him dead will not face charges. The grand jury that reheard the case—after some dubious ‘technical’ disqualification of the original manslaughter charge, and refused to reindict them.

One again, murdering thugs in uniforms get off because their victims are black kids. But don’t dare say that we live in a racist city.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Snowden 2.0

The Snowden Affair is now part of our landscape, and the airport lounge aspect of the story is mercifully over. There has been much thoughtful and informed commentary on it, so I can only add one or two notions.

1. Hyper-partisanship is actually a good thing in this case. If the GOP/Tea Party wackos weren’t so obsessed with doing Obama damage to the point of indifference to the fate of the republic, they probably wouldn’t blink at the revelations of nonstop NSA snooping inside our emails and Internet searches given that they believe in the all-police, all-the-time style of governance. But since Obama is presiding over it, they’re agin’ it, and for once we stand to benefit.

2. Glenn Greenwald and his colleagues at The Guardian are handling the Snowden revelations masterfully. Unlike the Wikileaks approach of publishing thousands of documents and eventually losing control over them, Snowden recruited reporters to sift through the material and report on it, thereby sidestepping the more serious objections that they were endangering intelligence operations and/or methods.

At the same time, by not letting the U.S. government know everything that they know at once, Greenwald can tease out snooper dupes like Rep. Mike Rogers and get them to blurt tendentious spin that the next round of revelations promptly disproves. It is a wonderful display of counter-hubris given that the guys who used to hold a monopoly on the secrets and could say any damn thing now cannot do so. It must be quite uncomfortable for them to realize that now if they make up shit, someone can come along and prove them to be lying through their teeth. This completely alters the terms of the debate and empowers congress-critters who are serious about clipping the NSA’s wings.

3. Nothing much is likely to come of all the protestations and indignation although it has got to rankle at least a little bit that all these elected officials don’t know what the fuck is going on in the executive branch that they’re supposed to oversee. However, there is enough of a rebellion afoot that it is marginally possible some sort of pullback will be forced upon the spying apparatus. Given the technological capacity we now know it has, one could envision a way of registering the snooping process such that we could retrace exactly whose email/phone logs/ Internet searches were analyzed, to what end, when and by whom. Forcing the spies to leave a trail of their actions might be one way put a dent in their scarily vast powers.

4. It is particularly revealing of the paper-thin liberalism of our New York Democrats like oily Chuck Schumer who is now jumping up and down like a fat brat deprived of his video games over Snowden and his Russian protectors. Schumer was always on the side of power, and his occasional progressive sheen is mere convenience. (It’s no accident that Anthony Weiner started out life as one of his staffers.) Count on Schumer to support Israel, the cops and the CIA under all circumstances. Gay marriage gets thrown in for good measure, but don’t be fooled.