Safe States: Safe for Whom?

It’s Halloween. And the political climate is terrifying. Democrats try to assuage their increasing anxieties over Matt Stoller’s, David Sirota’s, and even Lawrence O’Donnell’s challenge (brief as it ever was) to the Democratic voting hegemony.  It’s hard to know how many liberals have noticed Margaret Kimberley’s, Bruce Dixon’s or Glen Ford’s numerous challenges.  And I keep hearing the term “safe state” bandied about. Apparently, the term “safe” is a code for “blue”…or “most people are voting for Democrats, so the rest of you can do whatever you want.”

News flash: Apparently, the term “safe” is not meant to be ironic.

The “safe” state in which liberals have taken refuge induces another soul-searching moment for me. What does it mean to wake up and feel that one is in a safe state?

I don’t mean “my house has 17 locks and multiple metal gates” safe. Or “Friday the 13th and Texas Chainsaw Massacre are only horror movies” safe.  I mean “Those who are anxious to vote for a Democrat and his party who are committed to an extensive top-secret kill list of countless names of people deemed threatening without public evidence,” safe.  What–who–is safe in a state—any state—that has already fallen in line with Fusion Centers—those regional data-gathering centers that record just about everything and anything that is traceable about you? These are the same data warehouses that have enabled the current Administration to decide whose disposition is a threat to the state.  That would be the same “disposition matrix” that the Administration is so excited to use in its never-ending war on random brown people that they don’t like, especially since it justifies the use of pre-emptive policing, decreasing privacy safeguards that used to require warrants, subpoenas and evidence before persons and possessions were spied on, surveilled, searched. Of course, decreasing privacy safeguards for you and me is inversely correlated with increasing privacy and immunity for the state, to protect it from having to share its evidence—with the defense, with the courts, or the public. Not that any of that influenced last week’s findings by a Senate Investigative committee, despite its conclusion that Fusion Centers were an enormous waste of money. Apparently, the upending of privacy was not so much an issue; it was fairly low on the list of objections to the program.

Many of the same folks who rush to vote for Democrats at the national level, and accuse various folks of “racism” and white privilege are conspicuously indifferent about the fact that our liberal Massachusetts Democratic governor Deval Patrick just signed into law a MANDATORY MINIMUM Sentencing law—18 (EIGHTEEN) years after Big Dem Bill Clinton signed it into law. 18 years later, with countless stories about the increasing harassment of many black men and women for “felony” convictions for crimes like having stolen a slice of pizza, and after an increasing drug war–the good people of my “safe” state have barely noticed. As early as 2001–11 years ago–the ACLU issued a statement showing the horrific implications of mandatory sentencing:

“Restrictive sentencing guidelines and statutory mandatory minimum sentences have taken away the discretion of judges to tailor sentences to fit the individual circumstances of particular crimes and offenders. Thus the traditional requirement mandated by the Eighth Amendment that punishment maintain some proportion to the crime committed has been abandoned in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’
 
The result is the sentencing of many non-violent drug offenders to unjustly harsh prison terms where they crowd prisons already filled above capacity….Adding to this problem is the fact that mandatory minimums, designed with the noble intention of reducing the racial inequalities too often resulting from judicial sentencing discretion, in practice simply shifts discretion from the judge to the prosecutor. Prosecutors retain the power to plea bargain by offering defendants plea agreements that avoid the mandatory penalty. Studies have shown that this discretion results in a disparity in sentencing outcomes based largely on race and quality of defense attorney….
 
These harsher sentencing guidelines, and the billions of dollars poured into enforcement efforts, the incarceration of offenders, and the building of new prisons each year, have failed to curb drug use, which is still on the rise.”
 

Eight years later–in 2009, the American Bar Association objected to mandatory minimum sentencing for non-violent offenders and pointed to some of the severe ramifications: length of sentences has increased three-fold. The US incarceration rate is 5 to 8 times higher than Europe. 25% of the world’s population was incarcerated in US prisons (this number most likely excludes prisoners in “detention centers” like immigrants and “suspected terrorists,” who haven’t been charged with any crimes).  As well, people of color were disproportionately targeted under mandatory sentencing for drug laws—noting that crack was the only drug that induces it.

And yet, the outcry against the MA legislature’s passing of this bill this year—in 2012– was muted. Mostly silence even after our Democratic MA governor signed it. And yet, we’re worried that racism and misogyny only occurs under Republicans?  What about the increasing state-led targeting of people of color in one of the most “liberal” states of the Union?  Feeling safe? I’m betting they aren’t.

In addition to fusion centers and mandatory sentencing laws, we also have a “Secure Communities” (S.Comm) program to profile and cross-check the immigration status of anyone—ANYONE (so clearly it must be race-neutral, right? Um, that was sarcasm) who attracts the notice of law enforcement in the course of their duties: migrant women who might be in situations of domestic violence, migrants who have information about crime in someone’s neighborhood, a brown person who’s stopped for a traffic violation. Terrifying undocumented migrants into NOT reporting to the police only facilitates the break-up of communities. The destruction of trust between neighbors. The increased sense of danger among residents.  To his credit, Gov. Deval Patrick tried to resist the implementation of this policy in Massachusetts, only to be strong-armed into a mandatory enforcement by ICE commissioner Janet Napolitano, who works for…a Democratic President under whose watch a more stringent policy resulted in the deportation of 1.4 million migrants in the last 3.5 years. More—MANY—more than under the combined terms of the Bush Administration. Having to compromise with Republicans was the problem, I’m told. News flash #2: ICE deportation policy is independent of Repubican wishes. It is, however, decided in conjunction with POTUS and WH.

Upshot: Latinos and dark-skinned Muslims–especially if they appear remotely suspicious–should expect to have their residences, existence, morality questioned legally. Constantly. Daily. And white people? No worries. Just go on. Get your double skinny latte and be careful not to spill it on the leather seats of your Lexus SUV on your way to work.

Here’s another example of the “safety” of Massachusetts: We are “safe” from the crazy free speech terrorist Tarek Mehanna. Mehanna is a Pakistani-American. YES, he is a US citizen, born and bred. Educated in the US public schools, Mehanna was a pharmacist.  Charged with terrorism, Mehanna was alleged to have trained with a terrorist camp in Yemen for 2 weeks. On his return from Yemen, he began posting writings and fairly critical dissent online. The ONLY thing we have as proof of his terrorist leanings are evidence of his writings and dissent. And those were deemed threatening enough to lose first Amendment protections.  Apparently the first Amendment applies only to people who write things that the US state likes, like swooning propaganda about POTUS’ kill list and uncritical journalism (I’m tempted to put about 20 links. But I’ll resist).

How about Rezwan Ferdaus? Another Massachusetts resident, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi descent, who was convicted of terrorism by making IED detonators per request of undercover FBI agents. He pled—i.e. there was NO trial and so NO public evidence—to charges of attempting to destroy a federal building and “attempts to provide material support” to terrorists.” He was also a drummer in a rock band “Goosepimp Orchestra,” and went by the name “Bollywood.” Until 2010—when he was 25 years old—not 16, 18, or 20—he suddenly evinced an urge to kill Americans—at the prompting of undercover FBI agents. Really? At the age of 25, he undergoes a shift from drummer to terrorist? Clearly, young South Asian musicians need to watch out—they might find themselves overwhelmed by “terrorist leanings.”  Prior to 2010, Ferdaus’ only evidence of “terrorist” behavior was a high school prank—pouring cement on the doors of his high school as a senior, and smoking pot. Yes—such evidence of “terrorist behavior…just imagine. By this rubric, every male white high school senior is well on his way to being a terrorist. Wait. Except of course that they’re white. And Ferdaus is not.

This—notion of skin-color—of race—is not random or shrill. It’s not just a distinction of fact. It is a key conceptual distinction. Of a long-standing cultural-racial bias, which has been long-directed against men with black and brown skins. The assumption of guilt, of evil, of terror, of sexual violence has been a ubiquitous, historically evidenced, implicit charge directed against Black men. As Ida B. Wells and Angela Davis, among others have discussed, these assumptions are among the causes behind the shackling, whipping, and close oversight of thousands of young Black men under slavery—to protect the “virtue” of white women. It was the source of the lynching of thousands of men post-slavery, under Jim Crow.  The source of incarceration of thousands of Black men.

It was extended to thousands of brown men—Latino—and now Muslim: Young Muslim men are assumed to be beholden to the culture of terrorism. The argument is basically as follows: young Muslim men, in places like Palestine, Saudi, Egypt—are raised to understand “terror” as a valid form of expression. “Experts” never bother to illustrate how exactly a “culture” of terror always seems to be associated with brown men raised in Muslim or Arab (and Muslim-American) households, but never in white households like those of Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Terri Nichols, James Holmes or myriad of other perpetrators of mass violence.

It is nonsensical to ascribe a culture of terrorism to any of these shooters–white or brown.* As philosopher Uma Narayan argues convincingly, “culture” is difficult to ascribe to anyone without overgeneralizing, without overdetermining. In fact, we are all very much enveloped in different forms of culture—patriarchal culture, political culture, telenovela culture, fast food culture, exercise culture, yoga culture, sports culture. We pick and choose pieces of it, and many of those pieces overlap with segments of other cultures.  And yet, culture—however we want to understand it—is often deployed to assign either guilt (or praise) by association to someone by virtue of their family/ethnic/religious background. The mainstream media love to discuss domestic violence by brown Muslim men as part of “Muslim culture” and “honor killings,” but I rarely—make that NEVER—hear them discussing rape and domestic violence as part of “patriarchal culture.” In fact, by the same logic, we could argue that beating women and killing men is part of “white culture.” Spurious aspersions, methinks.

Similarly, the FBI, the CIA, the NYPD, the US DOJ have no problems doing the fallacious—the unthinkable: ascribing the most racist, most heinous motives to young men by virtue of their race, religion, or ethnic backgrounds (Black, Brown, Muslim, Bangladeshi, Pakistani—the list is endless)—through the flimsiest associations. In large part, this is because the U.S. has legitimated this way of thinking by building it into the legalized, pre-emptive, hunt for terrorists. Into legal bills such as the USA Patriot Act. NSEERS. The Military Commissions Act. FISA. H.R. 347. NDAA. No-Fly lists. TSA search policies. NYPD Surveillance Operations.  All of these, while ostensibly having a different function–legalize, proceduralize, and reiterate guilt by association: If you look like a terrorist—how often have we heard that?–then there is reason to search you.

Safe state. Indeed.

We know how keen the FBI is to surveil and entrap young Muslim men. In fact, it’s their new talent: find young men, preferably somewhat lost and finding their way in the world—and by all means they should be black or brown and Muslim—and lure them into feeling self-important for a cause other—bigger–than themselves. Hell, when I was 20, radical feminists could have easily lured me into damaging Laura Ashley stores in the hopes of turning young women away from grotesque, high-necked, badly designed frocks.

Is there a difference between the Democrats and the Republicans? Perhaps so. For a very small subset of folks who are still “safe” and can vote “safely” for their Democrat in their “safe” state. That difference is nearly nonexistent and/or rapidly waning when it comes to the quotidian existence of the poor, migrants, and brown and black men and women in every state—who must wake every day to check and see which side of the law they are on—and whose side they must curry favor to, in order to avoid the wrath of the law. Safe states. Safe for whom? Certainly not for young black and brown and Muslim men and women and their families.

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*An older version of this post mistakenly had the following sentence: It is nonsensical to ascribe a culture of terrorism to any of these white shooters.

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The Progressive Retreat from Obama: Who is to Blame?

As you may be aware, Matt Stoller’s most recent Salon column and other progressive critical perspectives, including my own, have met with some heavy outrage when they suggested the possibiity that the Democrats and POTUS weren’t exactly interested in addressing the demands or needs of those liberals and progressives who voted them in. TransEx blogger Robert Prasch weighs in on the controversy.

By Robert E. Prasch

Those following the political blogosphere are, no doubt, aware of vitriol being directed at some long-respected progressive voices who have concluded that it is time to vote third party.  Fatigued by being again, as they were in 1996, 2000, and 2004, asked to vote for the “lesser of two evils,” they are tired of the “same old song and dance.”  And it is old.  Some readers may remember the bumper stickers beseeching us to vote for the Neo-liberal pro-Iraq War Senator John Kerry over the Neo-liberal pro-Iraq War George W. Bush: “Kerry Sucks Less.”

But I want to raise a related issue.  What, exactly, were these now-vociferous supporters of the President doing and saying in late 2008 and early 2009 when the administration was setting in place the personnel, policies, and decisions that laid the groundwork for today’s dispute?  Is it unreasonable to ask how it is even possible that a president, who garnered such fierce and passionate enthusiasm a few short years ago, could even be in such a close election?  After all, he is running against an individual who has spent almost the entirety of his adult life acting as the quintessential predatory capitalist.  Let’s remember that this is occurring even as most Americans outside of the top 10 to 20% tax bracket are continuing to suffer through the worse economic times in anyone’s living memory.  Can we at least agree, Richard Nixon excepted, that this precipitous drop in popularity, despite the “hot hand” he was dealt, represents one of the greatest failures in the history of postwar political leadership?

The reason underlying this monumental failure is not hard to find.  President-Elect Obama and his inner circle fundamentally misjudged the political moment.  The nation was clearly demanding significant change – so much so that they were willing to elect an unseasoned—Black—politician (remarkable given the U.S.’s unflinching history of racism).  Yet Obama and his inner circle somehow convinced themselves that recycling the tired old idea of “triangulation” from the Clinton first term would be their best play.  To that end, Barack Obama and his senior advisors immediately set about alienating their core supporters.  Within two weeks of election day, the Administration announced that Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner–the individuals whose previous records individually and collectively defined what it meant to be monumental failures as public servants–would be placed in charge of the economic recovery.  Their appointments indicated, and their performances amply confirmed, that whatever “hope and change” meant as a slogan, it would in no way apply to the president’s economic policies.  They have, without a doubt, restored Wall Street’s fortunes – what they have not done is restore the fortunes of anyone else.

On December 1st, 2008 the Obama Administration announced that Robert Gates would be retained as the Secretary of Defense.  Gates, let us recall, was more than simply the man George W. Bush appointed to direct his pointless, endless, and immoral wars along with extending them to the rest of the globe via the nascent drone program.  No, as the former Deputy Director of the CIA, Gates narrowly escaped prosecution over his role in the Iran-Contra Scandal.  Even if we allow that the 1991 investigations into his actions were above-board (a stretch), he was far too closely associated with the rampant criminality of the Reagan regime to warrant appointment to dogcatcher, much less to Secretary of Defense.  That he did not belong in a Democratic Administration goes without saying.

What about financial reform?  Did the appointment of Goldman Sachs and Citibank impresarios to innumerable offices at the CFTC, SEC, and elsewhere suggest to any of these die-hard Obama partisans that “hope and change” would play a fleeting role in the Administration’s governing agenda?  If so, when did they come to that realization?  Just to ground the point: Did any of them really think that Rahm Emanuel would lead progressive change within the Democratic Party?  We know that Emanuel spent his entire career as a Clinton-era operative fighting against progressives within the Party.  Did anyone expect that to change when he became the president’s Chief of Staff?  Anyone?  Let’s not even get started on Obama’s vigorous pursuit of Bush’s “free trade” agenda or his not-so-secret plans to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits.

To repeat: all of the appointments listed above were announced before the inauguration.  They were announced before the president revealed that he had no intention of keeping a broad range of campaign promises.  Before he began to prosecute the brave whistle-blowers who reported upon Bush-era war crimes and unconstitutional surveillance.  Before he dropped charges against all of those who actually committed these crimes.  These latter inconsistencies, we now know, made sense because the Administration was on the cusp of doubling-down on the very worst – really grotesque — Constitutional abuses of the Bush era.  Let us be clear, no president has ever claimed the right to kill American citizens, at its own discretion, for reasons untold, and without any outside review of its decision.

My point is a simple one: a betrayal has indeed occurred.  It was not instigated by Glenn Greenwald, Matt Stoller, the Black Agenda Report, or any other progressive voice.  All these writers have done is put these betrayals before the public.  The people who betrayed the once-vibrant and hopeful 2008 coalition that elected Barack Obama president are lodged in the White House.  Their betrayal was not a consequence of circumstance.  It was the inevitable playing out of decisions taken before January 20th, 2009.  The above list of appointments amply affirms that Barack Obama and his leading advisors knew, at the moment that the oath of office was taken, that their priorities and agendas would be in many, if not most, instances antithetical to the priorities and agendas of its supporters.  There was to be, neither then nor later, a glass “half-full” or even a “quarter-full.”  If anyone tells you otherwise, just ask him or her to show you the glass.

The fact is that the Obama Administration, like the Clinton Administration before it, knowingly engaged in a cynical wager.  They bet that they could pursue a host of policies fundamentally odious to their core supporters and yet be reelected.  The calculation depended on the premise that rank-and-file Democrats would have no other option.  Unsurprisingly, the Obama Administration and its surrogates have invested considerable time and energy convincing its former supporters that there is no option.

Anyone who has ever gone shopping knows that their bargaining power depends ultimately upon his/her willingness to walk away.  The ability to walk away explains why the service we get from our local dry cleaner is significantly better than what most of us get from our local cable provider.  When you have a choice, and demonstrate a willing to take that choice, you become empowered as consumer (I might add that the same is true of labor markets, which explains why most employers prefer a higher level of unemployment than their employees).  Right now, a deeply cynical reelection campaign is betting that progressives will be too afraid of Romney to seek to empower themselves.  This, let us remember, has been the strategy pursued by an increasingly right-wing Democratic National Committee for close to thirty years.  Every four years we are asked to vote for the lesser evil.  In a couple of weeks we will all learn if this plea will pay off again.  The question is, will we learn?  Will we learn to bargain with a faithless leadership of the Democratic Party?  If not this election, then when?

But, let us be clear.  Win or lose, Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama will all be fine.  They win either way.  Lucrative lobbying, banking, and advising jobs await all of them.  “Speaker fees,” often six-figures, will be plentiful.  The gravy awaits, and it’s all good.  Of that we can all rest assured.  What of the economic fortunes of the vast majority of the American people?  Obama’s former supporters?  The unemployed?  Underwater homeowners?  The victims of fraudulent foreclosures?

Well, here’s some news: He’s just not that into you. We’re adults.  It is time to get over it.  You owe him nothing because he has done nothing for you and plans to do nothing for you – unless you count the positive harm of cutting Social Security and enacting the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  If voting for such a person “rocks your boat,” feel free.  But surely it can be understood why more than a few people may feel differently.

Emily Hauser’s Disgusting Indifference to Women of Color

Update I & Update 2: Below

On yesterday’s on-line “HuffPo Live Debate” on supporting Obama, between Daniel Ellsberg, Daily Beast writer Emily Hauser, and Naked Capitalism writer Matt Stoller, Hauser quickly distinguished herself by trying to shame Stoller into shutting up about basic economic facts that pertained to women and illuminated POTUS in a less than sterling light.

It was the usual run of the mill “white women’s” discussion, reminiscent of the pablum that Katha Pollitt was spewing in January of this year. Hauser scolded Matt Stoller for suggesting that anyone might have a serious “deal-breaking” problem with various policies of POTUS/Democrats.

the suggestion that my life and the life of my daughter, and the life of my mother, sister, and friends is more or the less the same under a Republican as it is under a Democrats is so wildly mistaken as to be delusional, frankly.

Here’s Hauser on the most important implications for the “50% of Americans who are women”:

A woman’s right to choice…A women’s right to bodily autonomy. A woman’s right to be a person. And we’ve seen the Democrats working to stem that tide.…But that doesn’t mean that I’ve agreed with everything [Obama’s] done, or everything that’s been done in Congress while [Obama’s] been there, not even by my fellow Democrats… We’re seeing the Democrats working to stem that tide …But I never expect to agree with everything everybody does, least of all of someone who has to be president of all Americans, least of all me and my fondest dreams

She continues:

But as a woman who’s raising my daughter, I tell you what, there’s no comparison that can be made between life in these United States under a potential Romney Presidency and life here under a second term with Obama.

Thank goodness that Emily Hauser has reminded us to focus on what’s important.

Reproductive rights matter. Plenty. But apparently—and this will be news to the Democrats and to a number of American feminists–they’re not the only issue that women—or men–should care about. To hear the Democrats and NOW and many other repro health organizations, the differences between O and R are HUGE—when it comes to women’s issues.  It’s true that O has mild leanings in favor of reproductive rights. But as I’ve written about over and over again on this blog—they’re mild and rather unaggressive in defending those rights. I’m thinking of Sec. of HHS Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to prevent access to OTC contraception despite widespread support; exempting Catholic organizations from providing contraception under Obama Health Insurance Subsidies (let’s just stop calling it Obamacare. It’s NOT healthcare. It’s a subsidy that draws insurance companies into the mix). It doesn’t count as big in O’s favor that he nominated 2 supposedly pro-choice Supreme Court justices (of which the only proof we have that they’ll be pro-choice is that they’re women), one of whom sided in favor of a conservative decision to limit access to reproductive rights. Of the other one, Kagan, very little favorable can be satisfactorily determined on the issue of choice.

Framing the feminist liberatory potential of an Obama win in the second term on the reproductive choice reduces women to (one—narrow—aspect of) their sexuality. It also ignores how many women—poor white women and women of color have either never had easy access to reproductive rights or have had their access slowly eroded well before now.

It is true that Obama supported and pushed through the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which gives women a more flexible statute of limitations to sue for discriminatory wages; it doesn’t actually mandate that women be paid the SAME as men. Thank the good old religion of free markets for that. The Market! The Market! The Market will provide!

I’m going to extend Emily Hauser’s call to remember what’s important. Let me go out on that delusional limb to consider what the past 11 years—including the most recent 4– has brought women who are part of 50% of Americans AND the world.

Women and their well-being have been aggressively under attack by the current and previous POTUSes. Both the Republicans AND Democrats have attacked women’s psychic, physical, and social/economic well-being.  From a global perspective, like the penumbra of the Articles listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the well-being of a woman—any woman— depends on a range of rights that guarantee safety, well-being, keeping her children safe and protected, ensuring her community is intact because, in fact, it is in “the community in which alone the free and full development of [her] personality is possible.” And that includes a “cultural right to self-determination,” as has been suggested by some in the human rights community.

I know that international constitutions and conventions aren’t big in Hauser’s crowd, what with enemy combatants and all. But they’re a whole lot more protective of the interests of humans than American discussions. So I’m going to keep with that premise.

Such a perspective means that One’s Community Matters. That same view includes the right to be part of a continuing community, where a woman’s family, neighbors, friends, and extended relatives are intact, safe, and free of harm—from others and by the state.  When the daily existence of a woman consists of living in fear that her community is slowly being eviscerated, through drones, invasions, assaults, rapes by an invading army, sanctions, and open cultural vilification or outright hatred (as in the case of Islamophobia), then her well-being is no longer intact. Her psychic and physical and social existence is no longer safe from harm.

When a woman’s son or spouse or father or brother or cousin or uncle or nephew faces hourly risks of the following: being droned to death; being arrested for unknown reasons; disappearing into the indefinite detention hole for days, months, years at a time; rendered somewhere far away to be tortured; then she can no longer count on the right of cultural self-determination—because her culture is being demolished. Her family is being destroyed. Her community is disappearing. And her ability to determine herself disappears right along with the rest.

Now, I’m not big into sister-talk, but for the last 11 years (and yes, for the innumerate, that includes the last FOUR as well), my daily routine has involved waking up hearing about one or several of the following, and wondering about the women whose lives are shattered through the following policies and practices (and if the details bore you, or you don’t want to be confused with the facts, skip past the blue):

In the United States:

-More than 1 in 5 children live in poverty in 2011. That’s an increase from 1 in 6 children in 2000.

-1.2 million migrants deported in the last 3 years by the Department of Homeland Security (and that’s only in the first three years under a Democratic president).

-46,000 parental deportations of migrants who had US born children (and that’s just from the six month period of Jan-June 2011).

-1 in 9 Black men are in prison. 1 of 3 Black men can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.  These numbers aren’t diminished by the active drug war continued under the current Administration.

-African American & Latino homeowners suffered disproportionately more housing foreclosures than white men or women. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, 17% of Latino homeowners, 11% of African homeowners are at risk for losing their homes. I have not been able to extract the number of women affected, but it’s safe to say black and brown women of color have also been disproportionately affected.

The current Administration did not cause these foreclosures. But according to Neil Barofsky, under Pres. Obama, the Treasury department deliberately and cynically did not use TARP money to help these homeowners despite the express bipartisan intent of the US Congress.

At most, the 49-state mortgage settlement brokered under President Obama will be at most a palliative, if not in fact harmful to these same families.

-Between 800-1000 Muslim men—or more–who are arrested on trumped-up charges made possible by the USA PATRIOT Act (which allows for pre-emptive policing, warrantless surveillance, indefinite detention, interrogation).

-The entrapment, surveillance, and racial profiling of Muslim men in hundreds of mosques under the NYPD and FBI.

-the death of US citizens under the age of 16, like Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Senior Obama Advisor Robert Gibb’s response (at 2:40 in clip) to whether that was a moral move on POTUS’ part was to point out that Al-Aulaqi should have found a “far more responsible father.” Of course.

-A series of laws, designed and passed to allow the maximum, least-documented, aggressive targeting of Muslim men ALONG with maximum immunity for US government officials and security-related employees. There are so many. Just go read Glenn Greenwald. For the last 5 years.

Internationally:

35,000 have perished in Pakistan, where the US is waging a “shadow” war against “terror groups and militants.”These are deaths from direct violence: bombings, gunshot wounds, missile strikes, etc.

-A celebrated DRONE Program targeted towards militants in Pakistan. More than 3000 militants and civilians will have been killed, more than the number of those who died in the US on September 11, 2011. Other countries being droned include Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Philippines. Soon to be added: Mali.

-A celebrated “Secret Kill List,” configured and for the authority of the current POTUS.

-As of yesterday, the Secret Kill list will be expanded into a disposition matrix which will make the War on Terror a permanent part of the lives of men and the other 50% of US inhabitants—an ever-increasing list of name of people to kill—gathered by way of National Counterterrorism Center. Here’s an excellent piece that connects the dots.

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When American feminists tell me about the importance of protecting reproductive rights, do they believe that Black, Latino, undocumented, Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani women have reproductive rights, too? Or is that one of those areas where we just can’t expect the Dems to protect “my fondest dreams”? Do we have obligations to hold the Dems accountable for active harms to women around the world?

When Emily Hauser tells me that about POTUS and the Dems’ aggressive attempts to “protect” the bodily autonomy of women—in the face of facts that dispute it, such as increased incarceration rates, poverty, unemployment, mortgage foreclosures for Black and Latina women, and increased every-other-kind-of-targeting for well-being of the brown (most often Muslim) women, I have to wonder what she thinks about the following:

Does the imprisonment/solitary confinement/indefinite incarceration of men–who are Muslim, black, Latino, Asian–count as a “gender issue”?

Does the economic and political detriment to women from having their sons, spouses, brothers, fathers entrapped and arrested–count as “a feminist issue”? By economic and political detriment, I mean the social ostracization, the material effect of the loss of income, the political vulnerability of having a male who is potentially the head of a household.

Does the deportation of hundreds of thousands of men AND women—and the separation of U.S. citizen/children from their parents annually count as an issue that “affects” women? By “affect,” I mean the the psychic, material, social vulnerability to survive, to thrive, to live free of fear and harm.  Does the legal adoption of those children to U.S. citizen parents and the subsequent break-up of families count as a “woman’s” issue?

And before someone tells me that that’s a patriarchal question—that women should be able to make their own decisions and survive independently of “their men,” let me suggest that we look around the US for a quick min: It’s a patriarchal society.

When Emily Hauser insists that she “can’t get everything for free,” I wonder what she thinks of the price black and brown women have to pay for their “reproductive rights.” That price is a hell of a lot more costly than hers: Her family isn’t being decimated through deportations, entrapments, surveillance, and indefinite detentions. There appear to be few male relatives in her life who are being decimated. And if there are, she doesn’t appear to care. Not so for most Muslim women.

To the ridiculous argument offered in that HuffPo Live “Debate” that we must support Obama, even thought he “is doing things that are disillusioning to us,” I agree: It IS disillusioning to have the POTUS take the lead on the extra-legal murders of people he and his staff think are terrorists—without EVER offering evidence. It IS a bit disillusioning to hear about a “disposition matrix.”  It IS disillusioning to wake up every day and hear about NSA, the CIA, the FBI, and the NYPD harassing Muslim men—who are the family members of Muslim women. Interrogating them. Incarcerating them indefinitely and without charges. Running kangaroo courts. Yes. A bit disillusioning. A bit.

When Daniel Ellsberg (and implicitly) Emily Hauser agree that the POTUS is a murderer, but still good on reproductive rights, I can’t help but think that Mr. Ellsberg, Ms. Hauser, just want to vote for Obama and the Democrats, regardless of ANY facts that detract from the ascription of his supposed moral righteousness. Regardless.

What a remarkable feat of hypocrisy, racist-guilt-tripping, and righteous wealthy American myopia to tell Matt Stoller and all the men that he’s supposed to stand in for, that “[he] doesn’t get to have a say on [her]body,” but that Hauser can cheer and clap as she anxiously runs to the polls to vote for a guy and his party who have aggressively, enthusiastically, and eagerly harmed the bodies of the loved ones of many, many US citizens and foreign nationals here and abroad—brown, black, Muslim,–their children, their spouses, their fathers, their brothers?

Emily Hauser’s feminism is the kind of feminism that deprioritizes the multiple dimensions of the well-being of black and brown women, in order to protect one aspect of women’s lives to detriment of so many others.  In light of these facts (which shouldn’t be taken to confuse your ideological commitments), I’d describe Hauser’s voting advice as telling Women of Color to “please f*ck off.”

**********************

Update I: I initially omitted the following facts because they happened before 2008. But because they are related to international women’s reproductive rights, I think they bear mentioning as part of the list of atrocities that the US has waged. Dem or Repub or 3rd party, it’s still our collective government waging the assault–and many Democrats voted to go into Iraq, as we know.

Iraqi women have suffered severe reproductive problems and have had children with birth defects as a result of years of cluster bombs: 1 of 2 children born in Falluja has birth defects. That’s 50%. One in Two. Between 2007-2010, 1 in 6 births ended in miscarriage.

Tens of thousands of Afghan women live on soil poisoned by depleted uranium (which has a half-life of 4.5 billion years), resulting in an 18-fold increase in the rate of cancer from 500 cases in 2004 to over 9000 cases in 2009? The damage to their reproductive systems is untold.

Update II (Oct. 27, 2012): In her column, “Not Voting for Obama,” Margaret Kimberley of the Black Agenda Report has another analysis of the harms wrought by the current Democratic Administration.  As she says:

If Democrats also believe in wars of aggression and bail outs and subservience to finance capital, Republicans are only left with abortion and gay marriage as issues to differentiate themselves.”

This conclusion, says Kimberly, has been brought on by progressives themselves:

“It is a lack of progressive activism which has precipitated this crisis. In the absence of strong and coordinated opposition to Democratic Party duplicity, progressives meekly go along with whatever bad deals are presented to them and then recoil in fear every four years when they are told that the barbarians are at the gate. Republicans only help make the case for this complicity with openly racist and misogynistic policies.” 

GiTMO Tribunals: Righteous Reasons to Abandon the US Constitution?

After my last post, Thomas Drake, a former NSA official, pointed out that the circus of the Guantanamo Bay show-trials were the consequence of the US’s discarding of the “legal architecture” of the Constitution.

Drake, who successfully resisted the government’s attempts to persecute him for whistleblowing, is technically correct.  A range of practices, including torture, pre-emptive policing, indefinite detention, surveillance, warrantless wiretapping—were condoned and legitimated through post-facto legislation passed with “bipartisanconsensus and executive orders.  But there’s something special about the divorce between Gitmo and the Constitution. From the very beginning of the Bush Administration’s decision to use the US military camp on the island of Cuba, it seems evident that the whole point was to abandon the legal architecture.

The Bush Administration’s decision to imprison captured terror suspects at Gitmo–without warrants, time limits, outside observers to monitor treatment, or a clear legal framework–enabled the one of the first gaping territorial holes through which to run as far away as publicly, socially, journalistically, Americanly, acceptable from the Constitution and international law.  The inherent blurriness of the “principles” that anchor the legal possibilities of Gitmo stem from the fact that it is an extra-territorial U.S. territory, a U.S. military base that houses captured prisoners of war but renames them “enemy combatants.” And so the extra-Constitutional Entertainment Emporium was opened.

As Daphne Eviatar, Senior Counsel, Human Rights First’s Law and Security Program, pointed out several days ago, whether the Constitution is applicable in Guantanamo has been in question since the moment it opened til now, 11 years later.  Moreover, the “question” if we can call it that—of whether the US Constitution will apply—will not only remain unanswered, but the US Army Judge who is presiding over it, will play cat and mouse with the 5 defendants and their lawyers:

Judge James Pohl: “Give me a concrete example, and I’ll tell you what applies.”

This kind of toying is in spite of the fact that the US and the defense attorneys agree in all but 1 of 25 pre-trial motions that the defense filed. Regardless, there is still no articulation of whether the US Constitution will provide the set of rules to be followed.

The urgent question now is not whether–but why–legal architectures get changed. There’s probably a million part answer to that. I promise–a little search in Lexis-Nexis will confirm that.

One important answer begins from the point about the state that I made in a previous post: the purpose and the intention of the state are divergent—perhaps even conflicting. If that makes sense, then we can see easily that the urgent concern of those in power to stay in power requires suspending judgment in the face of widespread hysteria. This is what we saw in the immediate days after September 11, 2001:  The rush to be in control (Giuliani), to vow “justice out of love” (Bush), to insist that the actions of 19 stood in for an entire “cultural” worldview of terror—these impulses amplified the need to cut that swath of weeds called Constitutional protections (mistaken as safeguards against hasty, irrevocable actions) in favor of aggressive, decisive action.

And indeed, the USA PATRIOT Act–the first bill in the aftermath of 9-11 to overturn the legal architecture of the US Constitution–was passed with almost no objection (98-1 in the Senate with the lone naysaying vote from Russ Feingold, D-WI, who lost his seat in 2010). Even Paul Wellstone (D-MN) voted yes. Kay Landrieu (D-LA) was absent for the roll call vote.

It was the first of innumerable demonstrations of the widespread insistence that an elected or appointed official be on the right side of the War on Terror, i.e., in favor of it. The visceral hysteria was reflected every time a member of Congress and the Senate voted in favor of measures to expand the scope of power, of authority, of an aggressive boast to be “in charge.”

As Hannah Arendt says in her sobering reflection on the events of 1930’s Europe,

Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. (Arendt 1951, 353)

The broad patriotic, Americanly, belief in the lying world of consistency resulted in an extreme anxiety for the rest of the American populace who are on the receiving end–in this case, of the WoT–those who were, or assumed to be, or were empathetic to Muslim men, women and children.  To be Muslim in the US meant–still means–living in anger or in fear of waking up and not be sure which side of the law you will find yourself on any given day.

And for those who were wielding that stick of the WoT, from the Bush Administration and fellow Republicans to—the supposed challengers—the Democrats who allied themselves with Bush & Co., they intuitively knew that the drive to increase the scope of power requires an increase in the scope of immunity from the abuses of power.

This point is slightly different from one that Glenn Greenwald makes in his book, With Liberty and Justice for Some:

…even the most well-intentioned leader will eventually abuse his power if he is not constrained by law. Indeed, and somewhat paradoxically, a ruler’s belief in his own virtue actually renders abuses of power more likely, since he can rationalize all manner of arbitrary and capricious measures: I am good and doing this for good ends, it is therefore justifiable.” (Greenwald 2007, 5)

My point is the counterpart of Greenwald’s: most politicians intuitively understood that well before September 11, abuses of power, especially in the name of virtue and justice, will require immunity eventually–and they can/will plan for it. There are many ways to obtain immunity, for example, such as post-criminal pardons a la Scooter Libby.  But that is not the most dependable version of a future escape plan in case of trouble.

Instead, immunity itself takes the forms of

  1. expanding power in the form of bills that entail increasing space in which to act without safeguards.
  2. Taking advantage of loopholes in already-existing regulations.
  3. Deliberately creating grey spaces (legally, geographically, politically) in which extra-legal measures, loopholes, and outright aggressive acts can be embraced.
  4. Limiting what others know about the cards you have (hence the impetus to insist on an ever-expanding scope of privacy).

Clearly, #4 comes into play in war, in poker, and in the courtroom.  The less others know, the more you can spring surprise attacks, the more you can make people gamble on their best hopes, and the fewer chances that someone else will be able to call you out on the dirty tricks that you play to win.

Hannah Arendt again:

The only rule of which everybody in a totalitarian state may be sure is that the more visible government agencies are, the less power they carry, and the less is known of the existence of an institution, the more powerful it will ultimately turn out to be (Arendt, 1951, 403).

A few pages before, Arendt ruminates on the nature of state power under ambiguous conditions:

…this permanent state of lawlessness found expression in the fact that a ‘number of valid regulations [were] no longer made public. Theoretically it corresponded to…the dictum that ‘the total state must not know any difference between law and ethics’ (Arendt, 1951, 394).

As we know, #3 and #4 violate the rule of law—the same rule of law that is invoked to force “ordinary” wrongdoers—those without power– to be accountable. That’s what it means to incarcerate poor minorities for petty crimes while allowing powerful wrongdoers like former Sen. & Gov. Jon Corzine, (and also a leading fundraiser for POTUS) to garner millions of dollars in bonuses. By contrast, in the business of war, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange have upended #4. They have not been allowed to walk away.

In the Grey Zone of Guantanamo, at least #3 and #4 apply. I’ve already discussed #3 above. But as I discussed in my last post, #4—limiting what others know about the cards you have—has been a key concrete strategy on the part of the Department of Justice and the U.S. Army—by virtue of being able to take refuge in #3.

In the case of the trials of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and his four co-defendants, the inability to depend on a clear legal framework creates the “shapelessness”—the ambiguity–of the structure, but it does not explain it (Arendt’s phrase 1951, p. 398).

As we’ve seen over the last week, the increased drive to “privacy” is invoked to protect national security interests.  But in fact, the ability to take refuge in immunity and gain a serious foothold in the sheer unrestricted power to harass and justify the act of harassment, comes from taking away someone else’s ability to call you out.

As Thomas Drake says, the US did abandon the US Constitution. But then again, whether convinced of its own righteous pursuit of justice or just playing it safe, they found every reason to abandon it.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Increased Privacy, and National Security: The Guantanamo Bay Spectacle

Update (below):

I wonder what goes through the minds of the prosecutors and Army Judges involved in the 9-11 staged spectacles surrounding various “terrorism-related” activities.  Yesterday, in Guantanamo Bay, at the show pre-trial for death-penalty proceedings for Khalid Sheik Mohammed and several others, Edward Ryan, the US Justice Department prosecutor asked for more restrictions on the release of “hundreds of thousands” documents having to do with the September 11 attacks. As the LA Times reported, Ryan

asked the military commission judge to bar the public release of much of that material to protect secret law enforcement investigative techniques and information about clandestine terrorist activities.

I reread those words in light of the numerous actions of the part of the US, and wonder if anyone of the participating parties—the US Army Judge who oversees the trial, or the prosecutors understand that they are dispelling any doubt about whether they are running a kangaroo court.  Apparently, Ed Ryan and his colleagues are under the impression that we haven’t heard about their “secret” law enforcement techniques.

Edward Ryan continues with his argument:

“That material, he said, includes ‘911 calls from individuals trapped inside the burning towers to people who may have rented rooms or mail boxes to Mohamed Atta or one of the other hijackers.” Atta, one of the engineers of the hijackings, piloted one of the passenger jets into the World Trade Center.”

The United States government has records of calls made by people from inside the WTC to Mohammed Atta or other hijackers? The Department of Justice has other–clear, primary, damning information from secret law enforcement techniques? And it’s taken 12 years to bring Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to trial?

Let’s just keep going. This is better than reading Kafka.  Ryan points to the fact that similar restrictions were imposed Timothy McVeigh and Zacarious Moussaui. But McVeigh was charged, tried, and sentenced to death by 1997, within 2 years his attempts to bomb the Oklahoma City building.  Moussaui was found guilty in 2006—less than 5 years after September 11—of planning attacks in concert with the group of 19.

“Other materials, Ryan said, deal with “military operations that are sensitive” and the “names of suspected terrorists and the strategies they used to communicate with one another, their operational nicknames and code words.”

Apparently, the US Department of Justice is concerned that some part of the gazillions of people who populate the 7 continents might learn about the counterterrorism techniques deployed by FBI, CIA, the US Army, Military, and Navy in the 12 years since 9-11. I’m here to tell you about some of the secret—effective–law enforcement techniques that the US has used over the last decade. With this, I join the ranks of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange in releasing top-secret information:

–the decades long renditions-program maintained by the CIA, which scooped up Syrian-Canadian engineers like Maher Arar and sent him back to Syria to be tortured and put in solitary confinement for 10 months.

-the entrapment and targeting of hundreds of Muslims in the United States.

-the federal (and state) governments’ relentless zeal in passing successive laws and policies that expand the scope of policing powers (NDAA, H.R. 347, SB1070, S.Comm, renewal of the Military Commissions Act, FISA).

-The highly touted extra-legal assassinations of Osama Bin Ladin (marveled, boasted about by POTUS himself, and rehashed in excruciating detail on 60 Minutes, a book by one of the Navy Seals involved in the killing (somehow not banned as giving “highly classified information”), and gleefully reviewed from multiple angles in Vanity Fair, including the Leon Panetta’s and POTUS’s own deep thoughts on the matter of extra-legal assassination, and multiple rags professing to be part of the critical watchdogs called the media.

-the much announced extra-legal assassination of “Al-Qaeda’s #2” Anwar Al-Aulaqi, a US citizen and

-extra-legal assassination of his U.S. citizen, 16 year old son Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi.

–the subsequent drone attacks that have supposedly killed multiple Al-Qaeda terrorists in Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

–the killings of multiple other potential #2’s in line to Osama Bin Ladin.

I wonder if Ed Ryan finds the repeated bombing and drone attacks and complete abrogation of human rights on the part of the US—do those endanger national security? Does the NYU/Stanford Drone Report on the murders of more than 2000 civilians (and countless “militants”—defined as those who come to take care of their injured and dead in the immediate aftermath of attacks by drones)—endanger national security? How about the Columbia Report, “Civilian Impact of Drones: Unexamined Costs, Unanswered Questions,” which points to the broad range of executive and legal measures that enable any future president to kill broadly, vastly, and with ease? Are these also endangering national security?

Back to Ryan’s argument before U.S. Army Judge James L. Pohl:

“Ryan said that once the materials are handed over to the defense in the discovery phase of the case, the government does not want many of them made public in court filings or testimony, or released to the public in other ways.”

‘Discovery,” he said, “is not a public process. It’s not a source of open public access.’”

I can accept that. It’s not a public process. Got it. It needs to be secret from the “public.” Apparently, the “public” include the defendants and their lawyers, too.

“Defense attorneys asked for some modifications, especially the government’s request that the five defendants not be allowed to see any of the sensitive or classified material.” (my emphasis)

Apparently release of documents would reveal the incredible plethora of information about terrorists and their activities and contacts. It would prove irrefutably that KSM and Walid Atta and others are terrorists who want to hurt America. That in turn would endanger national security?

I wonder how the abrogation of the due process and violation of the human rights of 800 prisoners in GTMO over the course of the decade enhance national security. I wonder how national security concerns were protected by holding a number of children among them, like Omar Khadr, and clear innocents like Adnan Latif, whose repeated exoneration was ignored, until finally, he killed himself. Especially in light of the fact that the families of these prisoners and their communities are probably pretty pissed off if they weren’t before.

Clearly, national security isn’t the issue here. The drive to increase “privacy” is correspondingly a drive to increased immunity from the charge of lawlessness in the name of law. As Yemeni –based lawyer Haykal Bafana tweeted to me this morning:

What is at issue is US ability to plausibly deny that that they have initiated, perpetrated, and engaged in the most focused, expansive, and the unqualified campaign to target an international and domestic population of Muslims—merely because they could. And where they couldn’t engage in those processes, the state—under the aegis of GW Bush and the Republicans—with the unabashed help of Democrats from 2001 until today—has passed laws that would allow for the unapologetic harassment, torture, and persecution of Muslims.  There isn’t enough time in all of our years put together to lay out every instance of persecution on this site, although many lawyers, activists, human rights organizations, and pundits are on the case.  Again, Bafana states the profound truth:

Despite the still persistent charges from outraged domestic and international dissenters, US Department of Justice and US Army Judges appear to think that their actions can withstand scrutiny from international observers. As bizarre, they appear to believe that their actions are not already transparent. One doesn’t need access to classified materials to understand that the spectacle in Guantanamo is a parody of justice.

If we turn our attention to the show-trial at Fort Hood of former US Army Psychiatrist Malid Nidal Hassan, the same impression arises: Nidal Hassan’s trial for the killing of multiple people on Fort Hood Army Base has been repeatedly delayed as the trial judge Col. Gregory Gross has ordered that Nidal Hasan must shave his beard because it shows disrespect for the Army proceedings. Nidal Hasan—arguing that he is close to death and that it would be a sin to shave at this point, has refused to shave. Gross’ response has been repeatedly to fine and place Nidal Hasan in contempt multiple times. He rejects Nidal Hasan’s explanation because the sign “of his religious faith hasn’t been sincere enough.”

Which part of this ridiculous battle between a US Army judge and a suspect suggests that this engagement is anything other than act of pure unadultered, unaccountable, power—an act designed to humiliate and squelch Nidal Hasan as part of a public spectacle designed to send a message to millions of religious Muslism? Since when are American non-Muslim Army judges able to distinguish sincere religious belief from falsehoods? What exactly in their careers has equipped them to make this distinguished judgment?

Does the US Army or the Department of Justice—or even the present Administration wonder about how their actions are received by the international arena and international press?  Do they think that news of their rulings will somehow increase the trust of international observers as the US makes claims about caring about human rights violations in…well…anywhere else in the world? Except for Palestine of course. No human rights violations there.

Do they wonder about how US citizens fare when traveling abroad in the light of all of these “measures” to protect national security? Unimpeded acts of torture, lawlessness, incarceration, confinement, and kangaroo trials—in case it isn’t obvious—can only increase the national insecurity at home and threaten Americans travel abroad—even and especially for those who wish only to live in peace with Muslims around the world.
Update:

Haykal Bafana reminds me that his second tweet is in fact a quote from Shakespeare. Precisely, it’s from Act III, Scene I of the History of King John (1596).

Prez Debates 2: Indifference and Changing the Premise

After getting through the second round of Prez debates last night (with the forceful help of some astute Twitter companions), I thought I’d do another short assessment of the debates. And then I shrugged, turned off the TV and Twitter, and opened up a book to read.

Last night and this morning, as I read some of the rehashes, I find myself wondering why I’m so indifferent to these debates. Yes, it’s true: there is very little difference between them and every single answer pointed in that direction. Yes, both candidates were lying, and that is reason to be outraged. It’s even true that Obama was “more assertive/aggressive” (take your pick), and I suppose—that Romney was a bully (it’s a little strange to hear that word being bandied about so casually in the middle of a spectacle whether his other “victims” are 1) the sitting President and 2) a highly touted mainstream media talking head, Candy Crowley—and the entire production is a carefully orchestrated play.

I suppose the main reason for indifference is that one cannot be outraged by something when one has so few expectations. It is the primary reason that I have been nearly mute about the R’s (Romney, Ryan and the Repubs) for—the entire election season, and mute about the Repubs since 1988, when the infamous reign of King Ron ended, but the legacy of his battle on welfare, women, and children, was taken up, continued, and expanded by his four successors—Rebublicans (the Bush dynasty) and Democrats (Clinton/Obama).

My outrage arises when or someone—and by extension—some political party, that I thought I could rely on decides it has different loyalties altogether—notice that I said different loyalties—not different priorities.  I understand how it might be important to help out the rich once in a while so that you can pay them back for supporting your campaign, or how it might be important to step back on a campaign promise or two to ensure that some form of social infrastructure –like lending money to the banks to help them from going under—might be needed for the “larger purpose” of “saving the economy.” (Apologies to Matt Stoller for the blatant counterfactual. This is just a hypothetical).

But when someone—or their party—keeps telling you that ‘they’ love you, care for you, and are working so hard to protect you—all the while doing their best to enforce policies and structures that are hurting (mostly) everyone to whom you have some deep-seated commitment, it’s hard not to be faced with a moment of serious reckoning. It’s even harder not to have a “come-to-Shiva” moment when the folks all around you—your friends, your family, your go-to-pundits love, LOVE, this fellow & party that is hurting everyone around you, or—if they admit that he’s horrible—heinous–to everyone you are committed to, but he’s better than the other guy. I have plenty of examples of such heinous policies all over this site.

So what does the reckoning come down to? Acknowledgment that the framework is entirely different from the one typically taught in Political Philosophy 101.  In fact, John Locke and Rousseau are wrong: the purpose of the state may be to protect its constituents—but that is not its intention. Rather, the intention of the state (and its functionaries) is to remain in power.  The most efficient, productive, way to do that it to decide who it needs to ally itself with in order to maintain power.

If we start from that premise, then suddenly a lot of things become clearer: What those (who aren’t part of the 1%, and whose politics are committed to the 98%) want and what the state wants are not only different—they’re in fact antithetical. And so, from that premise, it’s not a surprise that the state won’t act on the behalf of the groups to which they/we are committed. Though unsurprised that the state is uninterested in the 98%, I have to admit some continual surprise that —in the form of the Democrats, the DNC—the state has decided to continue, expand, and (even wage new) war on the 98%–in the United States and especially internationally.

But from the perspective of last night’s debates—there is no surprise. Yes, there is a lot of red-faced blustering and crowing of Chris Mathews et al. over at MSNBC, Nation, CNN, HuffPo, of Chris O’Donnell and Andrew Sullivan (I mean, doesn’t that tell you something about the Democrats’ priorities?) about the “win” that Obama had. By the way, what win?? What does it mean to win a staged performance where the tracks are already set, and you are anchored in one of the two closely aligned grooves? Where 3rd party candidates Jill Stein and her vp nominee Cheri Honkala were arrested outside of the debate site at Hofstra last night, as they were trying to stage a sit-in?  Free speech and protest rights have been undermined–not just by the Republicans but by Democrats.  See my post on H.R. 347 here.

It is not possible to believe anything other than nothing will change–or that it will get worse–under either party.

But the other lesson that can be learned when reading the framework differently—when we see that the intention of the state is not to protect, but to maintain itself–is that States are only responsive to the pressure that challenges their ability to remain in power. Yes, yes: this means that civil society organizations, ngo’s, activists need to find new strategies to pressure those in power. That’s a different direction.  Part of those strategies might include putting the Dems on notice by refusing to endorse, vote, or lobby for them. (Yes. The Nation. I’m talking to you. Among other press, activist organizations, and ‘liberal’ lobby groups.)

The Democrats believe that to maintain power, they need only be assured of serving the 1% (or 2%)—in order to obtain the power and money that they need. In the meantime, the only other part of the strategy is to reassure, comfort, seduce some part of the remaining 49% or 50%–to promise that the Dems love their disfranchised, disenfranchised (sic), and marginalized peeps without providing any proof—in fact by offering smooth lies that can be easily swallowed, absorbed, and regurgitated by “liberal pundits.” (Yes. MSNBC. I’m talking to you.) If this is right, then at some—at any–level, these debates don’t matter, the elections don’t matter for the purposes of making any inroads into political, legal, social justice.

This is why the inclusion of 3rd party candidates would have been crucial: in order to unsettle both the Republicans and Democrats from the safe, comfortable perch by which they can swing their legs back and forth and kick dissenters out of the way. Right now, nobody’s won. The whole thing is lost.

The Business of Health Insurance and “Obamacare”: What Can We Expect?

Pretty dangerous to be over at Hofstra last night; there were alot of reckless numbers and false statements flying around.  I’m sure there are plenty of excellent rehashes that will be posted, if they haven’t been already. So instead of rehashing the spectacle or valorizing the aggression, I’m just going to post a relevant piece by TransEx‘s very own Robert E. Prasch, who also blogs at New Economics Perspectives and Huffington Post.

Prasch breaks down the myth that Obamacare is about health-care reform. Originally posted over at New Economic Perspectives (the website for the Kansas City School of Economics) yesterday, his column is a clear description of what the ACA in fact is.  It can be printed out and put in your back pocket for easy reference the next time you run across Nicholas Kristof or Andrew Sullivan. Check it out.

And if you want to read some other analyses by Prasch on some of the issues discussed during the debate, links are below.

By Robert E. Prasch

Over the past couple of years there has been considerable back-and-forth over what has been accomplished by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA).  While a short post cannot survey the entirety of this multifaceted law, several elementary confusions have been repeated in public discussions and should be addressed in the interest of clarification.  The most urgent of these is to point out that, despite the Act’s (deliberately misleading?) title, it addresses neither the practice of medicine nor its cost.  At most a government-sponsored institute has been authorized to find and make suggestions.  The Act, then, is not about making health care affordable, but an effort to make health-care insurance affordable – a related but separate topic.  To understand the implications of this, we must consider the business of health insurance.

Private Health Insurance is a Business

The health insurance business is–it cannot be overemphasized–a business.  While its advertising may suggest otherwise, we would do well to remember that business differs from charity in ways that matter.  Being private for-profit businesses, health insurance companies are engaged in the pursuit of profit.  If the health insurer is a corporation, and many of them are, their profits are expected to show steady growth over time so as to satisfy “Wall Street expectations.”  This is not always easy, and firms must be vigilant if they are to achieve these targets.  As is the case for any and all businesses, revenues must be greater than expenses if health insurance companies are to show a profit.  Without profits they will soon cease to exist.  But before this occurs, senior management will be fired.  As they understand this, we should expect these managers to make every effort to avoid this outcome. None of this, it should be noted, implies that health insurers are more or less moral than other firms.  Business is business.  With that point cleared up, let us turn to specifics.

The revenues of health insurers come from customer premiums and the returns on their portfolio of earlier premiums that have been invested.  Their usual portfolio can vary, but it generally consists of government and corporate bonds (about 65%), corporate stock (about 10%), mortgages (including some mortgage-backed securities), cash and other liquid items, and other assets.  Expenses can be broken down into essentially three components.  The first includes all marketing costs, paperwork, and related overheads.  The second is wages for workers and bonuses for bosses.  The third, and by far the largest expense, is the payment of claims.

From the above list it is evident that insurance company profits can rise in one of four ways: (1) revenues from current premiums or past investments can rise (which may imply higher premiums and/or riskier investments),  (2) marketing, paperwork and overhead costs can be reduced, (3) wages and bonuses can be reduced, or (4) payments for claims can be reduced (or at least rise more slowly than revenues).

Given that the payment of claims are, by far, an insurance company’s largest single expense, it is reasonable to suppose that they will work diligently to control or even reduce them.  To this end, they hire staff to negotiate with hospitals and others over the appropriate charges for services provided.  Similarly, they employ a staff to direct customers into lower cost options, assert that the “normal and standard cost” for a given procedure is lower than the bill presented (which means that the patient must shoulder a disproportionate share of the payment even if their insurance contract suggests that they always pay a fixed percentage), or find some grounds to decline care altogether which in the past has included finding grounds for cancelling the policy.

For patients and their families, these cost-reducing decisions can be, as innumerable stories and research has shown, medically and financially devastating.  It is clear to everyone with a beating heart that these – essentially business decisions — are fraught with moral implications.  Yet, of necessity, insurance companies must think of them as part of their normal business operations.  One is reminded of the cliché line uttered by mafia movie assassins, “Sorry man, it ain’t personal, its just business.”

This difference in perspective raises a crucial observation.  Every society must decide, by some process, how goods and services are to be distributed amongst the population.  Most of us would agree that some items, such as ice cream or the vagaries of current fashions in clothing, are best left to markets.  The difficulty, and this is the largely unmentioned issue, is that most of us also believe that decisions fraught with profound moral implications – such as life and death — should not be left to the vagaries of the market.

If this supposition is correct, then the problem with privately-provided health insurance is less with the specific performance of the firms involved than with the fact that many, if not most, of us consider basic health care to be closer to a right than a commodity to be distributed according to the contingencies of price and income.  As such, we find the normal business decisions of health insurance firms, decisions that are necessary and essential to their business operations, to be at best amoral if not immoral.  That people are awarded bonuses for denying care to people they have not met, and on the basis of little more than a cursory look at a chart and some statistics based on national averages, strikes most people as wrong.  Again, if this were the market for ice cream or fashionable clothing, our response to the cost control efforts of for-profit health insurance companies would be very different.  But it is evident that firms are routinely making decisions that are fraught with the deepest moral significance.

Obamacare: What Does It Do?

As mentioned, when reading popular discussions, blogs, and more than a few newspapers, one is left with the impression that many people are confused about the distinction between health care and health insurance.  Stated simply, the PPACA does not grant anyone, anywhere, a guarantee of adequate health care.  The Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute that has been founded as part of the Act may, at best, fund investigations designed to uncover and publicize inefficiencies in the delivery and cost of health care.  But they cannot mandate changed practices.  At best, these revelations can be accompanied by exhortatory language.  Someone, somewhere, somehow, is then supposed to do something.

What PPACA does do is require that every American find a way to acquire health insurance.  Most likely, as in Massachusetts, this will be enforced through the tax code.  This suggests that those without health insurance will have to pay for insurance out of pocket and then await compensation in the form of a tax rebate.  If this is indeed the plan, it should raise important questions concerning the liquidity or credit-worthiness of America’s poorer households and the many well-known issues surrounding predatory lending that were not addressed in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.

Perhaps it is obvious, but it also needs to be stated, that on its own the health insurance mandate modifies neither the incentives nor the profit motives of private health insurers.  That said, some useful changes are embodied in the Act.  For example, in exchange for the law’s producing just under 50 million new health insurance customers through its mandate, health insurance companies will be required to spend 80-85% of the premiums they receive (depending upon the firm’s size) paying for health care and, additionally, to cease terminating contracts after the disclosure or revelation of “pre-existing conditions.”  Now, with the additional revenues anticipated from millions of new customers, the first of these requirements may or may not prove to be an imposition.  I would, however, caution everyone to be wary of the accounting rules used in calculating what is known in the industry as the Medical Loss Ratio.  It is often, and correctly, said that the devil is in the details (this is especially the case when an industry can employ legions of lobbyists).

As to the second requirement, it speaks only to the grounds by which a proposed course of care may be refused.  Let us consider the problem logically and from the perspective of a profit-seeking firm.  If there are potentially grounds, from A to Z, by which to deny or modify a proposed course of care, and grounds A are excluded, that still leaves grounds B to Z.  Perhaps none will be found applicable and the care in question will be duly authorized.  But perhaps alternative grounds can be identified, and it should be evident that the incentive to find such grounds remains.  Maybe the insurance company will find the course of care proposed by a patient’s doctor to be “overly experimental” or “unlikely to be effective” in light of statistics based on national averages that they may have on hand but whose source or author they will refuse to disclosure (believe me, I have tried).  Alternatively, they may declare that the “normal and standard cost” of the course of care proposed is one-half of what the hospital charges, thereby forcing a family to “chose” between a course of care and penury.  These problems can be expected to remain.

According to the American Journal of Medicine, 62% of all the people who declared bankruptcy in the year prior to the financial crisis, 2007, were ruined by an illness they could not afford.  Worse, the majority of those who declared bankruptcy that year were covered by heath insurance.  Stated simply, health insurance, even assuming that it actually becomes affordable to everyone, will not end of the dread of financial ruin in the event of a severe illness.

This brings us to the matter of the how much assistance will be provided to help families meet the mandate.  We are told that everyone up to 400% of the poverty level will be eligible for a subsidy (based on a sliding scale).  Given the current political environment, with its bi-partisan vogue in favor of austerity, I will leave it to the reader to speculate whether or not these subsidies will remain adequate as health costs and thereby health insurance premiums continue to rise.  We can be certain, however, that the mandate will remain in place long after the subsidies become inadequate.  And, what of the days when American families had to chose between adequate care and penury?  Such dire choices will remain a part of our reality the day after the PPACA has become fully operative and every day thereafter.

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Other relevant posts by Robert E. Prasch:

“What to Look for After the Election: Social Security Under Assault”

“The Obama Administration, the 49 State Mortgage Settlement, and the Spin: A Study in Shamelessness”

“Dealing With the Unemployment Problem”