Thursday, 29 January 2015

Virtuous Germany v/s naughty Greece

We’ll be hearing a lot about the need for countries to pay all their debts and not shirk them, coming from German government officials full of piety about sacred contracts, prudent budgeting and all sorts of similar family values. They’ll insist those naughty Greeks that they mustn’t think of getting out from under their duly acquired obligations, whatever the new Syriza-led government has to say.

They ought to be reminded that a certain European country had its debts forgiven by half in 1953 when creditors recognized that the war-ravaged country was never going to pay in full. That country was Germany, the beneficiary of sensible policy by the victors of World War 2 who did not want to repeat the debacle of the 1919 Versailles settlement. They saw that the decision to impose impossibly harsh conditions led to the instability of Weimar and eventually the rise of Naziism (despite multiple, too-little-too-late rounds of debt forgiveness in 1924, 1929 and even to Hitler in 1934).

Greece is never going to pay off its accumulated debt, which anyone with a grasp of seventh-grade arithmatic can see. Greece’s Depression-level conditions, imposed by the German-led bankers, make it impossible to accumulate enough income even to pay off the interest. Facile talk about structural “reforms” and fiscal prudence are cruel jokes, like telling a child to get an education by chasing after a speeding schoolbus.

Greece will default or being given new loans to roll over the old ones because it cannot pay. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. The only debate is whether the country is to be crushed under north Europe’s thumb permanently or be allowed to come back to life. The default should have happened years ago, but that would have harmed the German and French banks that were on the hook due to their foolish lending to the Greek kleptocracy, the existence of which the whole country now has to atone for. The EU cleverly paid those banks off with new loans and saddled Greek citizens with repaying them, who are now expected to do so by starving and living on the streets. If they have nothing left to hock, well then, sell off the Parthenon—I’m not making this up.

So why is Germany the only country in modern times to be granted debt relief but refuses to do the same when it is holding the credit chits? Perhaps because it can exercise moral authority over the rest of Europe due to its sterling record as a good neighbor?

Syriza has an almost impossible task, and the EU banker mafia, convinced it holds all the cards, thinks it can dictate terms to whomever the Greeks happen to elect. That may be true for now, but the continent has given us ample lessons in unintended consequences. The financier class seems determined to sow the wind, and the ultra-right is standing by ready to offer its peculiar alternative. Europe should pray for Syriza’s success.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Lemebel and "la diferencia"

I’m sure a thousand people in Santiago could tell stories of Pedro Lemebel, the Chilean author who died last week: the guy did not enter a room undetected. That said, here’s mine.

We (a half-dozen Chilean men and I) established a storefront HIV prevention and advocacy group in the late 1980s, which for years was located on Porvenir, a street one block off Avenida Matta in a gritty, commercial section just to the south of downtown. We didn’t have a dime and spent a lot of time—in between cooking up public health strategies that we didn’t know a thing about—just finding a way to pay the next month’s rent. This was before AIDS had become big business when everyone wanted in on the largesse. But we were the only outfit providing information to the gay boys who were quickly getting the infection without knowing it.

(Digression: The Dutch gave the new, post-Pinochet government a million dollars to deal with the epidemic, but none of that ever reached us—it was quickly siphoned off by the party-connected professionals and nonprofit entrepreneurs linked to the new “democratic” health ministry. Four mega-projects were funded with the divvied-up cash, none of which targeted the population that comprised 98% of the early infections. One of them dealt with “street children at risk”, which must have sounded good to someone in a development office in Europe. We funded ourselves by staging a monthly drag show and selling clandestine piscolas.)

Lemebel and his performance-art partner Francisco Casas were active by then doing their famous numbers as the Locas del Apocalipsis, “locas” being Chilean slang for “queen”. They were explicitly homosexual (not “gay”, a term they disdained), and so it wasn't surprising to find them one day sitting on the front step of the office when I showed up around 4 p.m. to open up for that evening’s activities. I knew who they were and invited them in.

I don’t recall a thing about the conversation we had that day except that we were not understanding each other in any language. It was clear that they wanted us to join them in some sort of action or campaign, but we were not at that moment engaged in gay-related advocacy, except indirectly by pointing out the need for a coherent approach to the sexual practices of people endangered by a sexually transmitted disease. In retrospect, we probably were excessively cautious, but this was at a time when no one in our entire organization dared to go on TV even to say the word “AIDS” for fear that grandma would figure out that they were gay (which she would have). So the first public face of the group was your humble blogger, on the Catholic station, channel 13. I believe it was early 1989.

I tried to listen respectfully to what Lemebel and Casas said they were doing, and why, while explaining that we were doing something else. That somehow did not compute for them; they went on their way. Later, Casas denounced me during a public reading as some sort of envoy of U.S. imperialism, which was a rare form of criticism during my many years there. He and his bohemian-intellectual crowd loved to challenge people by asking “desde dónde hablas tú?”, that wonderfully academic posturing about one’s supposed biases that substitutes for a debate about ideas. But he got over it and was cordial later.

But the most memorable encounter with the inimitable Lemebel occurred a few years later at some sort of public event in a bar, the specifics of which escape me, except that I was sitting with Leslie Crawford of the Financial Times when Lemebel pulled up, sat himself down at our table and helped himself to our wine without being invited. He turned to Leslie, who was dressed for an evening out, and said, “How elegant you are—like an international prostitute!” No doubt he meant it as a compliment.

Leslie was not amused and said to me, in English, “Did you hear what he said?” Yes, I replied, so we will now speak to each other in a language he does not understand. Which we did. It was quite effective in our goal of driving him off, and I never had the occasion to ”speak with” Pedro Lemebel again. However, I enjoyed his writings and understand that he could be a warm-hearted friend.

Pedro was an artful provocateur, and to say he didn’t know when to quit is both true and meaningless. He startled people; we organized them. While he shook up Chilean culture with his unique style and content, we established an HIV prevention and testing operation and brought awareness and solidarity to many people who fell in the grip of the virus in the terrible early years. No one could do what he did, and our work didn’t interest him in the least. Everyone contributed his part. Vive la différence!

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Mayor de Blasio and Patrick Lynch @ Reichenbach

In the Conan Doyle series, the final struggle between Sherlock Holmes and archfoe Moriarty ends when they both tumble, locked in a final embrace, into the Reichenbach Falls. Moriarty hates Holmes for frustrating his criminal activity, and he is a far cleverer adversary than the mundane evildoers that Holmes easily hoovers up with his detective skills. But the price of his hatred is mutual destruction.

I fear that’s the outcome we can anticipate in the ongoing war between the NYPD union chief Patrick Lynch and our remarkably decent mayor, Bill de Blasio. While more public and private jockeying will follow last year’s disastrous events as the city and its cops figure out how to coexist, the brands of both, the hothead cops-do-no-wrong-ever Lynch and the clumsy political neophyte de Blasio, are damaged, probably beyond repair.

Lynch cashed in on the murders of two cops by a deranged gunman who cited the Garner and Brown cases, thereby trashing weeks of patient, largely pacific protest by thousands of New Yorkers concerned about racial targeting and abuse (myself included). He immediately blamed the protest movement and the mayor for the assassinations just as half of Washington will accuse Edward Snowden if another major terrorist attack ever takes place on U.S. soil. It’s outrageous but resonates with many citizens.

But Lynch overplayed his hand and began to act like someone had elected him mayor. The back-turning funeral incidents and the work slowdown made Lynch look juvenile and dangerous. He successfully demonstrated to one and all that he sees the department as a sort of Praetorian guard that possesses the city rather than merely policing it, a sovereign entity whose corporate spirit mystically brings New York into existence and without which the metropolis will sink back into the primordial slime.

That was a fatal error on the part of the mostly-white leadership of the police union, and the city has turned against Lynch specifically as a demagogue. The work stoppage also exposed the corruption built into everyday police work here as cops are driven to fulfill quotas of arrests and generate lucrative fines that are extracted from mostly minority detainees (a la Ferguson), upon which the city has shamefully come to depend for income. Lynch’s illuminating comment directing the force only to make “necessary” arrests will come back to haunt him both for what it implies (they normally arrest “unnecessarily”?) and for the blatant usurpation of civilian authority.

But de Blasio has probably wrecked his tenure as well with his handling of the admittedly awful situation. While his comments before the cop killings were unpopular with the rank and file, they weren’t false—everybody knows his mixed-race son has to be more careful with the cops and exactly why that is. While de Blasio needed to show understanding of cops’ fears after the killings, he should have simultaneously called them out over their disrespect, not just of himself but of us, the voters who put him in office and who are the cops’ ultimate superiors in our republican form of government. We needed to hear de Blasio remind Lynch and his mob that the people are sovereign, not the NYPD nor its union, and that the city that provides them with firearms has the right to tell them exactly how those weapons will and will not be used. He should have chastised them for thinking and behaving otherwise while holding out the olive branch.

Instead, de Blasio has looked weak, and that never ends well. He’s backed away from the sympathy he once expressed with the protest movement, indirectly reinforcing Lynch’s blood libel. He talks about better protections for cops as if the public’s fear of them has magically dissipated—it hasn’t. Nobody is coming out of this sorry episode looking like they know how to lead the city through the minefield of racial politics and racialized policing. While we await the inevitable next deadly incident, the mayor and the policeman remain locked in mortal combat and heading for the rocky falls below. Conan Doyle was forced to resuscitate Holmes after Reichenbach and bring him back for more stories, but I suspect not even the creator of Sherlock Holmes could write either Lynch or de Blasio into a new chapter.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The question Obama sidestepped

Unless one is amused by Washington theatrics, there were few reasons to watch the State of the Union address last night. No one thinks for a minute that the Republican Congress will pause from its baby-eating program to cooperate with a president that they have largely neutralized with their program of massive resistance to anything he proposes, suggests or even thinks.

“Massive resistance” was the term Virginia Senator Harry Byrd introduced into the national lexicon in response to the 1954 Brown decision by the Supreme Court outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Byrd called for the white overclass in the South to dig in its collective heels and defend the Jim Crow system by any and all means; the strategy was unapologetic, sometimes violent and quite effective. Even as the overt racism of the times slowly weakened and was discredited in its crudest forms, the mobilization of the white population to resist integration arguably succeeded. While blacks and whites in the South now mingle in lunch counters and universities, in many meaningful aspects their lives unfold in very separate spheres.

The film Selma shows something of the coalition that gradually pushed back against “massive resistance”: a mass movement of persons ready to face state-sanctioned violence, expert leadership both at the grass roots and recognizable icons, determined allies in the federal government. What is particularly compelling about the movie is that is shows us without explicitly stating it that blacks’ steady organizing and willingness to risk their lives gave the leaders and the politicians an arena in which to act. Without the patient groundwork of the SNCC organizers, who come off in the movie as somewhat unreasonable hotheads, the Selma march could not have taken place.

Obama knew, or should have known, that he was facing a new round of “massive resistance”—his enemies announced it from the rooftops. Joe Wilson’s shout of “You lie!” at an earlier State of the Union address merely flagged it symbolically for all to see. (I often wonder what would have happened if Obama had called him out on the spot, told him off and reminded him that he had won the election and thus spoke for the people.)

That’s the question Obama has never chosen to address: what should his approach have been given that the white people’s party had no intention of giving him an inch. Like the southern segregationists thumbing their noses at the highest court of the land, the GOP used Obama’s electoral mandate as toilet paper. They were so determined to see him fail that the country’s failures domestically and overseas continued to be a source of sniggering delight.

But for the president, none of this is happening. He’s like the patient alcoholic’s wife who calls in to the office to say her husband slipped on the ice or has a nasty cold instead of admitting that he’s hung over. It’s remarkable to sit and listen to the guy pretending to direct the country’s affairs while staring at a roomful of white men (and a few of their horrible women) determined to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The 1950s and 1960s were a prosperous time in the United States, and the role of economic opportunity and spreading wealth in the post-war period in the burgeoning civil rights movement is largely unexplored. Black Americans had ways to earn a living, both down South and in escaping northward to the industrial belt to earn good union wages. Those days are over, and it’s no surprise that with much narrower possibilities for getting ahead and a shredded safety net, people are less combative.

With no mobilized base nipping at his heels, Obama could substitute rhetoric for results. So we got expanded health insurance, but not the right to health; Race to the Top-style corporate education for some, but no relief for the ragged public schools now populated increasingly by poor minority children. A black president watching impotently while the Voting Rights Act that made him possible is dismantled and various forms of poll tax restored.

Obama had a chance to reverse the pauperization of the populace at the end of the disastrous second Bush Administration, and he carefully destroyed it by siding with Wall Street. Now that the alliance of the financier class and the reactionaries of the neo-Jim Crow Republicans has been cemented, they no longer need an Obama to save them from the mess they made in the 2000s. He’s still the boss and can make some interesting moves with his powers like the opening to Cuba and executive action on immigration and the like. But politically he’s used up. The next two years will be a holding pattern while the country decides whether to give the architects of the new “massive resistance” further rope with which to hang themselves and us.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

"Selma"--too real for the Academy

There should be a new Oscar category for whoever managed to make all the actors in the film Selma look so uncannily like the historical figures they were playing. From King and Coretta down to the supporting characters, even the quick Malcolm X cameo, they made watching the picture feel like a strange docudrama combination.

But I digress. The brouhaha over Selma and the Oscars comes to this corner as a major yawn simply because it was so predictable. Politics of any sort makes the film poobahs uneasy (though they crank out ‘topical’ pieces easily enough), but racial politics really gives them loose bowels. When race does appear even in potentially inflammatory works like 12 Years a Slave, there has to be a final alleviating flourish that puts the whole topic back to bed and enables the audience to breathe a sigh of relief, like a horror movie where the evil creatures are beaten back.

After all, any entity that could hail It’s a Wonderful Life (in Auschwitz) as the best movie of any year—as opposed to an obscene mockery of human suffering—has a serious problem of criteria. I look forward to the equivalent film treatment of the 9/11 orphan being convinced that the twin towers collapse apparently burying his father was just a giant CGI stunt. Final frames, “Dad’ll be a little late for dinner, sweetheart, it’s just a game!”

Broadway has a similar problem. John Douglas Thompson did a star turn recently in a one-man show as Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong, but the play never took off—it was too blunt about racial commerce in the music business, so the narrative wasn’t comfy enough. A brilliant musical based on the case of the Scottsboro Boys case did a little better a couple of years ago. But when the cast was invited to perform for the Tonys broadcast, they had to do a sappy number showing the Boys as happy hoboes—nothing about the crushing racism they would soon encounter (or the underlying thread of anti-Semitism cooked up to discredit their defenders and brilliantly portrayed in the tune ‘Jew Money’).

12 Years ended with Solomon Northrup finally liberated thanks to white allies’ intercession. Schindler’s List showed us a few hundred Jews who survived the death camps—fair enough as it’s historically accurate, but a bit of a cop-out. At the end of The Diary of Anne Frank, the final voiceover is a quote from her journal that ‘People are basically good,’ even while her family is being carted off to certain death. Lincoln, the most recent and comparable treatment to Selma, gave us the successfully passed 13th Amendment (complete with cheering “Negroes” in the galleries who apparently had nothing to do with its passage).

The problem with all these happy endings is that they let us off the hook too easily. The villains in those historical accounts are not Jasons or Freddy Krugers, but real people swept up by the historical forces that produced them and made them into monsters. By focusing on the few who got away, it subtly convinces us that the dangers are always avoidable, that a clever protagonist (by projection, us) will always find an escape.

Selma doesn’t escape this criticism, either. (And the heat it took for the LBJ-Hoover scene is deserved.) It finishes on a slightly facile, triumphant note without adding the obvious follow-up message in the final credits that the Voting Rights Act was just shredded by the Supreme Court to undermine black voting strength in preparation for 2016.

Nonetheless, Selma is a radical breach in that feel-good wall because it puts the movement of masses front and center even while allowing historical agency to figures such as King and LBJ. If for no other reason, the profoundly conservative, commercial empire represented in the Oscar vote would feel estranged. We are shown that collective action—not just individual heroics—is key to solving social ills. Who’d want to give a prize to that?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

EU to Greece: "The beatings will continue until morale improves"

While Europe licks it wounds over the shocking assault on Enlightenment values embodied in the slaughter of cartoonists, the ongoing assault on democracy (also an Enlightenment value, last time we looked) waged there by the banker class and its political toadies continues apace. Greece now has the chance to reverse that trend. Predictably, the suicidal elites are scrambling to crush the attempt by fair-minded Greeks to save the continent’s sorry ass.

Greece has been subjected to a punishment regime by the EU poobahs, who realized a few years ago during the euro crisis that they had screwed up badly in the creation of their single-currency zone. But the money boys were determined to have someone else pay for their mistakes. It’s a long story that one can read in the financial press: over-borrowing by governments and private entities in the southern tier countries (Greece especially but also Italy, Spain, and Portugal as well as Ireland) led to a run in their bond markets that threatened huge losses to German and other northern European banks. Instead of biting the bullet and admitting that those banks had lent money foolishly, the EU in cahoots with the IMF and the European Central Bank forced ‘bail-outs’ onto those countries whereby their citizens shouldered the losses, and the banks escaped. Sound at all familiar? It’s exactly what Obama engineered for us.

The difference is that we have our own currency, and socialized losses are spread around. Also, national safety net measures like unemployment compensation and food stamps can alleviate in part the devastating effects of mass unemployment while also generating the new purchasing power that can kick-start economic growth—classic Keynesian measures that the U.S. has long applied (although the Tea Party wackos would like to end that consensus and increase overall pain). But Greece and Portugal and the others, enslaved by the unified currency, cannot devalue and cannot replace lost demand with government spending. Facing compounding interest in condition of deep recession, they are being forced to slash everything and extract cash from the impoverished populace through onerous taxes, only to find that their debt totals accumulate. Europe’s treatment of the Greeks is like beating joggers with poles because they cannot catch up to a speeding automobile.

One wag has termed this approach ‘fiscal waterboarding’.

At long last Syriza, once a minor leftist party, stands a good chance of winning the national elections in Greece on Jan. 25 (meaning they may come in first—in Greece’s multiparty system, no one ever gets a majority). This party insists that Europe face reality and reschedule the unpayable Greek debt based on a plan to create conditions for renewed growth and prosperity to replace the permanent hard-labor camp that the country has been turned into. Listen to economist Yanis Varoufakis, a parliamentary candidate for the Syriza ticket, explain the details here.

Instead of welcoming this opportunity to find a reasonable, negotiated solution to an otherwise intractable problem, the tiny banker-politician-media elite that has Europe by the short ones is determined to undermine the Greek people’s democratic choice. German politicians openly threaten the Greeks with dire consequences if they dare to vote for the ‘wrong’ candidates 11 days from now.

The al-Qaeda thugs who walked into a newspaper office and fired deadly weapons at scribes yearned for an imam-dictator who would tell people what to do and beat them into obedience. It’s appalling to see how far such ideologues will go to terrorize and intimidate the liberal-minded who reject their view of religion. We shrink from such violent acts because we believe in the importance of the free expression of ideas as a cornerstone of our way of life, that open debate and disagreement are key to finding our way to proper governance and to solving the problems that arise among us. Europe’s nightmare of 70 years ago led to a reaffirmation of these beliefs and sentiments and a determination never to succumb to an al-Qaeda-like spirit again. But memories are short-lived, it seems.

Europe for years has been on a steady course toward a new form of authoritarian rule, that of the bankers, by the bankers and for the bankers. Citizens of half of Europe have been deprived of their sovereign right to determine their own futures as the ECB and banker-owned politicians impose their technocrat allies in one seat of government after another. Greece may reverse that trend and save the European Union from its march toward reaction. Before that happens, expect defeaning howls of alarm from the mouthpieces of the plutocrats likely to lose out as a result.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo attack an omen of breakdown

I noted that the week of the slaughter of cartoonists in Paris was also the anniversary #13 of the arrival of prisoners to the Guantánamo dungeon, a reminder of the great triumph of Osama bin Laden who managed with his nefarious assault on New York to undermine one of the key pillars of western democracy, i.e., the rule of law.

Of course, bin Laden didn’t do this; we did it to ourselves through the persons of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and the neocon cabal, whose machinations were later excused by the Democratic Party apparatus under Barack Obama and, ultimately, by the American people. If the populace had valued its principles more, there would have been support for a leader who dared to put terror suspects on trial in courtrooms and insisted on proof of guilt. Alas, we preferred revenge and have paid a heavy price for it.

It remains to be seen how much of the Enlightenment legacy that originated in France over 200 years ago will survive the latest assault on free speech. Not that our rhetorical worship of freedom of conscience and expression extends very far in practical terms—our president has plenty of boilerplate to serve up about it but can’t bring himself to stop the Saudis from publicly torturing a blogger who dared propose reforms in that medieval kingdom with public beatings.

You’d think a kingdom that has permitted its oil barons to fund the Islamic State that marauds through the region beheading reporters, kidnapping little girls and slaughtering infidels would draw some attention from official Washington—but alas, not even liberal Democrats dare denounce the petro-state allies.

But we still have a semblance of public debate while the fetishization of Security proceeds. Meanwhile, France is already deeply in the grip of ultra-rightwing politics, and the latest shock will only further strengthen the ascendency of Marianne Le Pen and her neo-fascist legions, especially given the French elite’s acquiescence in the insane suicide-by-austerity program imposed by Germany’s bankers. What unemployed 25-year-old in France or anywhere in the Eurozone would not be tempted by Le Pen’s promise to smash the EU and reset the nation’s course? Fear and dislike of foreigners adds the perfect xenophobic condiment to the tasty dish.

Reading the commentary here and especially the Comments sections of articles about the Charlie Hebdo events, I am struck by the tendency to see the incident as an act of war and to filter one’s reactions accordingly. Many condemn the murders while those sympathetic to America’s adversaries condemn the condemnation; no doubt those hostile to Austro-Hungarian rule in Central Europe had similar sentiments about the assassination that set off World War I. People are so predictable—violent acts rarely bring out our better qualities, and cooler heads are unlikely to prevail.

Friday, 9 January 2015

What about the Saudi extremists?

If our prez and other westerners are concerned about religious extremism, they have an excellent opportunity to make their voices heard in a way that would be much more effective than more condemnations of the Islamic State (run by men who cheer them).

Obama, Hollande et al. could publicly denounce Saudi Arabia for its plans to publicly flog Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience Raif Badawi for the crime of “apostasy.”

Badawi is imprisoned and facing official torture by our Saudi allies because he started a blog called “Saudi Arabian Liberals.” Fox News probably thinks he deserves 1,000 lashes (his actual sentence, plus ten years) just for the choice of names. But allegedly we here in the occidental capital of “Freedom” don’t believe in thoughtcrime.

Our Saudi allies plan to mete out 50 lashes tomorrow, January 10, followed by another 950 over the subsequent 20 weeks. If Badawi is still alive after all that, he can then begin his 10-year prison term. All for expressing opinions far milder than anything printed in Charlie Hebdo.

Badawi’s lawyer already got a 15-year prison term for his work defending human rights. Luckily, Badawi’s family managed to escape to Canada. I think now’s an excellent time for both Canada and the U.S. to come out publicly in defense of freedom of expression and against religious obscurantism and the systematic torture of dissenters.

Or will this gross hypocrisy escape notice once again?

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Death worship

Amid the horror of seeing peaceful scribes slaughtered at their desks, I am reminded of the phrase I first heard in Beirut in the middle of the Lebanese civil war: "No matter how bad things are, they can always get worse."

It’s not precisely relevant to the Charlie Hebdo case, but worth considering how short-sighted reactions to things not going precisely how we want can lead to unintended consequences. One need not be a fan of Vlad the Impaler Putin to recognize that the delight of the Pentagon with the revived Cold War is profoundly dangerous. Putting the squeeze on Russia and crushing it economically may look like a winning strategy to chase Putin back into a Kremlin hole. But our masters better be careful they don’t ditch the devil they know for another of unknown characteristics—who would then inherit the Russian nuclear arsenal.

We dismiss the current jockeying for geo-strategic position as business as usual, but at our peril. We know too much to play around with human proclivities for irrational violence.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Update: De Blasio versus the Lynch, er, group

The boys in blue had their little hissy fit again this weekend, turning their backs on Mayor de Blasio for the second time despite the instruction from their supposed boss, the police commissioner. But their little rolling coup is starting to get old, and the winds may be shifting.

For one thing, it’s not clear how long the 38,000 cops we pay for (quite handsomely, when you add it all up) can get away with not doing any work. No one has used the word ‘strike,’ as least not yet, but that’s essentially what is going on. The giveaway was Patrick Lynch’s announcement that his membership would limit itself only to ‘necessary’ arrests and ticketing rather than whatever else they’ve been doing all these years. It’s as if the city’s nurses had walked out on elective surgeries and promised only to make sure no one keeled over dead.

Given the public’s uneasiness about policing being pretty much suspended, I wouldn’t bet on Mr Lynch and his merry mob to be able to hold out on this work stoppage for very much longer.

Mike Lupica, the Daily News columnist I follow closely for a barometric reading of the vague center of city politics, continues to insist that De Blasio has to make it up to the NYPD, but his column today falls back on amorphous complaints on how he’s made them feel bad. How exactly?

No reasonable people in the city, whatever their politics, would ever suggest that de Blasio hates all cops because he hated stop-and-frisk, or because he told his son to take great care in his dealings with cops, or even because he used the word “alleged” when describing an attack on two members of the NYPD by protesters, even as we were all being assured that these protests were about as dangerous as a pillow fight.

But the idea that the divide between de Blasio and the cops somehow created itself — or that the cops created this situation — is as wrong as demonstrators going right back to the streets before Officer Rafael Ramos was laid to rest, as wrong as more police holding their own demonstration in Brooklyn on Sunday. We honor nobody’s memory that way.

So de Blasio is charged with opposing stop-and-frisk (which is a big reason he got elected with 70% of the total vote), warned his biracial son about dealings with the city’s cops and said so, and used the word “alleged” when describing a charge still in the pre-indictment phase, exactly as every newscaster in the country does for very good legal reasons. This is why he’s the bad guy? Patrick Lynch can say that de Blasio’s comments also led to two cops being gunned down by a nutjob. That makes as much sense as me saying that Patrick Lynch’s own blowhard bullshit got them murdered.

A week ago Lupica was breathing fire and siding with the cops, as were many New Yorkers appalled at the cowardly assassinations. Now, however, he’s wondering how far tens of thousands of organized, heavily armed guys can go in defying civilian authority. He should have thought of that in the first place.

Meanwhile, the cops need their members to be on best behavior because every new incident is going to be grist for the ongoing confrontation between them and the rest of the city. Lynch’s guys were not aided this week by the report of an off-duty cop identified as the man who assaulted a female subway employee and then tried to run off (but was stopped by a group of riders). Nor did today’s Johnny Knoxville imitation by another cop, who apparently decided to joyride on a cruiser hood before getting tossed into the street.

And that doesn’t include the inevitable escalation of violence against the next unarmed black or Hispanic guy. After all, according to Lupica, the problem isn’t abusive police officers who harass and assault people instead of protecting them, it’s Mayor de Blasio hurting officers’ feelings.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Dangerous peace avoided in the nick of time

Touts and pundits now tell us with unconcealed glee that the U.S. economy is the world champ once again, outpacing sickly Japan and Europe, trouncing the BRICs and generally proving the superiority of our financial engineers. Democrat-boosters remind the ingrate public that Obama has presided over steadily improving growth rates, sometimes even endorsing his policy of free money for the TBTF banks and zero interest rates that make it nearly impossible to eke out a retirement income on the nest eggs we are supposed to spend our lives accumulating.

The fine print, however, does tell an interesting story about what is spurring the growth that has the Dow hovering at the oxygen-short altitude of 18,000. CNN Money reported in a year-end note that the third quarter’s remarkable 5% spurt included all sectors on the upswing—consumer spending, housing, exports, business investment and government outlays—all of which rose by tidy percentages.

But the biggest driver of America’s new-found prosperity: military purchases, up by a whopping 16 percent in the third quarter.

This is curious given the long, slow winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the return of thousands of deployed soldiers, the reduced need for equipment and weaponry, Obama’s pledge to draw a line on the $3 trillion or so that those adventures have cost us and future generations. In addition, the ‘sequester’ that was sold to us as so necessary to stave off ruinous government budget deficits is just now supposed to start applying to the war departments, given that the social side suffered its cuts long ago.

According to a fascinating account by Andrew Cockburn in Harper’s magazine, however, a very convenient new/old enemy appeared just in the nick of time: the Russkies. (The Islamic State/Daesh was another handy one, but in the long run it is too piss-ant to matter and certainly no credible threat to North America.) If U.S. ‘defense’ industries needed a new excuse to kick the Washington money tree and cause new billions to drop into their ready arms, Putin’s seizure of the Crimea and trouble-making in Ukraine certainly fit the bill far better.

Cockburn reviews well-known elements of the Ukraine/Crimea story and adds juicy details. His account not only rings true but also offers a compelling explanation for why the U.S. would do everything to avoid the possible settlements that Putin offers to defuse the situation and enable everyone to pull back from the revived Cold War with all the dangers to European peace that it implies.

For example, why would Hillary Clinton and others repeatedly compare Putin to Adolf Hitler, not as accidental verbal mis-steps but intentional attempts to provoke and stir outrage? Such inflammatory language from seasoned diplomats can only be ways to poison the atmosphere and wreck possible reconciliation. Or why insist on eventual NATO membership for Ukraine when that, above all, was the trip-wire for Russian reaction (or over-reaction, if you prefer)?

Cockburn quotes Mike Rogers, the incoming head of the House Intelligence Committee, who sums up the new situation nicely: “Vladimir Putin has solved the sequestration problem for us because he has proven that ground forces are needed to deter Russian aggression.”

Setting aside individual intentions, the logic of business opportunity explains the overall trend: American companies are readying themselves for new Happy Days in which Congress signs off on whatever spending scheme comes before them that promises to chase the Russian bear back into his cave. Fortunes are to be made, and careers to flourish. We citizens will be told that these outlays are crucially necessary to protect us from foreign threats while we are simultaneously peddled the myth that there is no ready cash for luxuries like health, education, infrastructure or the wellbeing of the disadvantaged.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

No pain, no gain

Drug culture is always evolving and changing as the popularity of substances rises and falls or a given drug ‘scene’ becomes predominant. Lately, anyone close to the substance abuse world as a counselor, therapist, or functionary of the criminal justice system knows that prescription opioids have become the drug of choice in many cities. People become addicted to ‘oxy’ (Oxycontin) or other varieties of these pain-killers, bug their doctors for refills, eventually go scrip-shopping in search of legal access to more of the potent pills, and finally run out of options and turn to street heroin as a cheap back-up. Mexican smack is plentiful, but the crushable and snortable pills are very hot products.

PurduePharma has earned over $27 billion on the sale of Oxycontin just in the United States, and I am betting that the executives of that prosperous firm are aware that much of their product is being diverted into illicit channels for consumption by addicts. Actually, they recently requested that the Food and Drug Administration withdraw their 1995 approval of their product.

So does this mean a drug company got religion and saw the error of its ways? Not exactly. As explained in this two-page annotation of the Purdue letter in the January issue of Harper’s magazine, the pharmaceutical firm already has a new version, supposedly with greater illicit-use protections built into its formulation, on the market. The original Oxy hasn’t been for sale since 2010, so the withdrawal application is a bit of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

So why do it? Well, wouldn’t ya know, a generic version of the painkiller was about to get a toehold on the market from another company, so the requested withdrawal of the Oxy authorization, just a month before the patent expiration date, was a way to block competition. That keeps the profits rolling in on the new, improved Oxy that pill mills can crank into the bloodstreams of addict from coast to coast.

Purdue paid over $600 million in fines in 2007 after its top executives pleaded guilty to charges of fraudulently marketing their killer product. That comes to about 5% of gross sales, undoubtedly a manageable business expense—though perhaps they couldn’t deduct it as such. Meanwhile, some 17,000 people a year die of opioid poisoning or overdoses, the most famous being actor Heath Ledger. In short, business is booming.

Friday, 2 January 2015

What's next with the NYPD?

The next chapter about policing and the rights of citizens to be secure in their bodies will unfold this week as the second murdered cop is buried, probably with the same juvenile display of snubbing of the mayor by the NYPD as occurred last week.

We’re often told that many cops are well-intentioned public servants and that we shouldn’t generalize about them or raise slanderous slogans like NYPD = KKK. That’s probably true, and it would be nice to see some of them display that decent, civic attitude by refusing to play along with Lynch’s inflammatory and, in fact, subversive defiance of civilian authority. Every time they cops as a body support police union head Patrick Lynch’s insistence that the force is independent of the civilian authority and will set its own terms of employment and deployment. By doing so, they are behaving like a fascist army independent of democratic control and popular sovereignty. If individual cops don’t like being viewed that way, they can make choices.

There are a number of possible developments of interest in the cop-mayor standoff this week, aside from the second funeral. Labor unions may have something to say about the police union’s antics, which should be interesting as many of them support De Blasio. It will be curious to see how much they support the cops’ right to engage in collective bargaining versus how much alarm they feel at the scot-free treatment of the Staten Island chokeholder in the public death of Eric Garner.

Meanwhile, the obvious work slowdown ordered by Lynch is having the curious effect of fulfilling one of the demands of the movement against police abuse and overreach—the stop the petty harrassment arrests that have characterized the “broken windows” policy inaugurated by Commissioner Bratton during his first term of office under Giuliani. As the Atlantic columnist Matt Ford pointed out, cops announced that they would only perform “absolutely necessary” arrests, immediately raising the question of whether the hundreds of loitering, disorderly conduct, marihuana possession and other quota-fulfilling charges have anything to do with keeping the city safe. Lynch and his buddies better be careful that they don’t accidentally prove that the force is a bloated army of occupation heavy with excess personnel. People may also realize how much cops are revenue agents for the city, charging poor people with loads of bullshit misdemeanors to extract hefty fines from them Ferguson-style.

But for depth of analysis of the meaning of the cop revolt, leave it to the Brits, specifically David Bromwich in the London Review of Books, who frames a discussion of the U.S. Senate torture report within the context of the Garner killing. Bromwich lays out in depressing detail not only the actions covered in that report but how the Obama and Bush Administrations constructed a seamless web of impunity in which none of the perpetrators, liars, conspirators, defenders and coverers-up of the torture regimen have suffered the slightest penalty. (The Intercept is doing a devastating series on how many of the torture insiders have cashed in handsomely and are enjoying financial gain along with their immunity from both prosecution and even the merest hint of moral shaming.)

Using the Garner case as a touchstone, Bromwich notes that the application of torture was once anathema, like slavery.

It is said that people have always tortured. Indeed they have, and so, too, have people always had an appetite for slavery. But the judgment of slavery in the 21 st century is very different from what it was in the 19 th; and before 2001, the same had come to be true of torture; it was understood as an atrocious practice which no one should defend and no one should want to get away with. This was the recent heritgage that Bush and Cheney tore to shreds.

And I would add, that Obama definitively buried with his call to “turn the page--” a phrase used by one Augusto Pinochet in his time about exactly the same sort of accusation.

Obama has arrogated to himself the right to preside over a system that can torture without punishment, lie about torture without sanction, and suppress the truth about torture without embarassment. While the torture regime, the waterboarding and the black sites of Thailand and Romania allegedly have been superseded (though we have no way of knowing for sure and certainly not at Guantánamo), civilian death by drone remains official policy, ordered every Tuesday by a simple flourish of the president’s signing hand (the left, in this case). No wonder the local cops feel aggrieved when they are criticized for applying the same principles in their efforts to control the streets: fists, muscle, mass arrests, prisons and all the accoutrements of Cheney’s “dark side.” It must seem unfair that the security apparatus in Washington and Langley, Virginia, get to run their own affairs and blow off their civilian chiefs while Pat Lynch’s boys get called out on the carpet for a lousy chokehold gone wrong.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Lord Jeb v. Lady Hillary - kill me now

We are in 2015, which means that it’s only 23 months to the next PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION! If the thought of the Niagara Falls of ink on that boring topic that will come gushing at us from all directions doesn’t make you retch, you have a cast iron stomach.

Imagine the glee with which the Blitzers and O’Reillys and other yapping heads will regale us with every eyeball-clawing detail of the Jeb Bush-Hillary Clinton matchup. Will the Yorks rule us, or the Lancasters? A mere 550 years have elapsed since the last Wars of the Roses; the question continues to burn in the hearts of men.

But wait—are we not small-r republicans in our bones, deeply committed from the earliest stirrings of the nation to the idea of popular sovereignty and against hereditary privilege? Didn’t John Adams and George Washington rise up against the illegitimate power of the English monarch and declare that “We the People” were going to do thus and so?

A curious article in the London Review of Books suggests we might not only toss some chilled refreshment on that notion but that in fact the Founding Fathers were a good bit less upset with George III than with the supposedly democratic forces arrayed in Parliament. Colin Kidd writes (in a review of The Royalist Revolution by Eric Nelson):

It was precisely George III’s failure to behave like a despot, his prim reluctance to invoke the cause of his North American dominions in defiance of Parliament, which compelled the American patriots to reject the king.
In this reading the early rebellion of the colonists was not against royal power at all, but in support of it and against the parliamentary ‘usurpation’, if you will, of the royal prerogatives by such things as imposing the tax on tea and all the rest. After all, the colonies were formed from land grants awarded by kings, well before the 1688 Glorious Revolution that had formalized the constitutional nature of the British monarchy. As late as 1775, Alexander Hamilton (no less) could write of George III as ‘king of America’ and speak of a ‘compact’ between the colonists and his royal personage.

Things had changed a year later, and the Declaration of Independence severs the relationship between the colonies and the king for good. But it does so without even as much as mentioning the British Parliament. In the interim, Thomas Paine had stirred the soup vigorously with Common Sense, painting the monarch in Old Testament terms as a modern Baal, and the title of king was quickly anathemized.

Not, however, royal-ish prerogatives, which survived in the concentrated power of the presidency and obviously has metastisized like radiated marigolds ever since. While we know George W resisted any attempts to reify a royal ambience within his hugely prestigious person, Kidd notes that the power of veto given the presidency in the Constitution is arguably monarchical in nature:

Is the dynasticism of the Bushes and Clintons really so alien and un-American? Were the Founders the simon-pure paragons that posterity imagines?
President #2 John Adams’ son J.Q. became president #6 just 24 years after his dad, and other political scions could easily have emerged had Washington, Jefferson, or Madison produced (white) male heirs. Like so many things we are so sure we’re against these days, a scratching of the surface reveals that they might have been there all along.