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.

_____

*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.

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.

*********

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.

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

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”

Argo: Iran, Empire, and American Privilege

Spoiler Alert: (I point to the obvious ending of the movie; it’s a spoiler if you know nothing about the events of Iran 1980).

Update: See below.

It is very alienating to be in this country right now if you refuse to accept the premise that the lives of Americans have more worth than those of foreign nationals.  By right now, I mean three weeks before the national elections to determine who will oversee the American Empire for the next four years. Last night, based on a brief description on a commercial movie site, I tweeted outrage about the timing of a new movie, Argo, produced by Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and others. The description mentioned the true-story rescue of 6 American Embassy staff from the Canadian Ambassador’s residence in 1980 during a tense moment in Iran’s history, and one of several especially tense moments in the history of Iran’s relationship with the United States. The movie is staffed by great lights, including Adam Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, Kyle Chandler and starring Ben Affleck as the CIA operative who rescues the Americans.

It is hard not to be seduced by the great production and staff—what’s not to love about Affleck? He’s hot, smart, with good politics generally—and by the comic plot of the rescue, which requires the Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, played by John Goodman, to assist Antonio Mendez, the CIA operative, figure out a plan to help the 6 American Embassy staffers leave Iran. Initially, I felt sheepish about my outraged tweet, and worried about my skeptical preconceptions about the timing and tone of the movie.

My skepticism had been enhanced by the prominent production presence of George Clooney, whose assertive embrace of the Democrats during several key egregious moments in the last four years—notably after the extra-legal assassination of Osama Bin Ladin—remains prominent in my mind.  There are funny, absurd, and delightful moments in this film, whose title is a play on a joke and catchphrase used by Ben Affleck’s, Adam Arkin’s and John Goodman’s characters: “Argo Fuckyourself.” But I am not offering a film review.

While the details of the film may not be completely accurate in trivial ways, it is technically quite “accurate” in its rendering of the logic of the moments leading to the rescue by the CIA, including the brief moment when the mission was temporarily aborted. It is a refined film, which makes it difficult to do anything other than sympathize with the Americans and worship Tony Mendez, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, who refused to leave his charges even after the clandestine mission was shut down. In fact, aside from a dramatic story, the not-so-subtle subplot of the movie appears to be the celebration of the CIA as a competent organization. More, it declares that the CIA is vital to the “cooperation” between great nations. Indeed, there is a slogan to this effect that springs onto the screen against the backdrop of heart-swelling patriotic music. As alarming, it urges us to trust the CIA with lives and livelihoods of the nation, its citizens, and the world more generally.

Even more telling is what is not said but what is shown: The movie “properly” offers a brief—very brief–introduction in narrating the history of Iran from the 1950’s until the 1980’s.  The (unplanned but certainly familiar) ingenuity of this film is its easy resonance with Dem VP Biden’s assumptions, articulated two nights ago in his debate against Paul Ryan: the easy and urgent priority of the value of 6 American lives—worth so much more than the other lives (that the US) sacrificed under the installation of the Shah. In fact, those 6 American lives justified a planned top-secret mission into the confusion of post-revolutionary Iran.

The unrest was a direct consequence of what was once thought to be the US Empire’s greatest moments (the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister), but was soon recognized as one of the biggest mistakes of the American Empire under whose auspices the CIA precipitated a chaotic revolutionary moment.

Indeed, the authenticity of the original footage, the film’s zeal to “stick to the facts,” makes it much easier to inhale the spectacle of crazy imams, zealous armies and well-educated (and well-armed) Revolutionary Guards rushing here there and everywhere to shoot on sight those whom they suspect of treason to the Islamic Republic. There’s no disputing that these things happened. There is no dispute that the American 6 were “innocent” of wrongdoing, and make for sympathetic victims. They were “ordinary Americans,” which heightens the heroism of the CIA—going in under such dangerous circumstances to rescue them. The heightened contrast between the worthy Americans and the unvalued brown folks is seen in the fate of Sahar, the housekeeper of the Canadian Ambassador. She is seen suspiciously and then sympathetically as her loyalty to her boss and his guests is revealed. But even as we understand that her life is at severe risk—and that her rescue will not be by the CIA but left in her own hands, the attention is fleeting.

The story of this film just happens to resonate with the story that we have been hearing for months. It is the story that justifies the sanctions upon Iran (with increasingly frequent references to the threat of nuclear war in the hands of the same ‘crazy’ imams and their minion Mahmoud Ahmedinejad). It is the story that drives Bibi to throw his hands up in frustration as POTUS—thus far—refuses to invade Iran. It is the story that confirms the political and moral weight of American Empire. And as importantly, it is the story that reaffirms the decisions made by the CIA on behalf of American Empire. It validates the CIA’s existence, it valorizes its supposed competence.  It is the fantasy of a CIA that has probably never existed—and certainly not now—as we recall the incident of the CIA agent who shot two Pakistanis last year, whose story was covered up by an embarrassed US—at least for a few days.

It is hard not to recall the events in Benghazi last month as U.S. State Department rushed to lie about the circumstances of the deaths of US Embassy Staff and Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.  Remember the initial narrative we received from the State Department: mobs of Muslims were furious at the satire and insults of the (much cruder anti-Muslim) movie made by Sam Bacile, and invaded the US embassy to kill 5 staff, including Stevens. The ensuing “correction” that the mobs in Benghazi were responding TO the killing of Stevens and other Embassy staff—barely registers.

Indeed, the recent complicity of the media and State Department in depicting Libyans as hordes of teeming zealots and savages who couldn’t tolerate being badmouthed in a crappy movie comes to mind. It resembles scenes in Argo that depict hordes of Iranian men who lose their tempers as one of the American six takes a photograph for the “film” that they are supposedly shooting.

Even as it engages in these reinscriptions of “crazy” Muslims and seething Iranians, Argo seduces, assures, and comforts. It balances its savage-ization of Iranians with alternate scenes that intimate that ordinary Iranians are forced to submit to the fundamentalist aims of its unfortunate religiously zealous dictators. The suspense of waiting to see whether the Americans will be able to escape Iran before the Revolutionary Guard catches on to them, is heightened by the frequent splicings of masses of darker-skinned folks chanting and shouting; menacing dark and bearded men in uniforms aiming rifles at other Iranians; and a hijabi member of the Revolutionary Guard reading out statements condemning the United States for its imperial behavior.

Technically, there are no single facts or details that are grievously “inaccurate” in the portrayal of this event. The flaw lies in the way the facts are massaged and assembled to reflect a patronizing Orientalism, and of course, Islamophobia (I have taken issue with this term from time to time, but I believe it is accurate here).  Towards the movie’s end, as the Americans barely managed to catch the SwissAir jet that would whisk them away, the scene is interspliced with laughing, infantilized images of the Revolutionary guards who have been gifted with animated scenes from the faux movie that the “Canadian filmmakers” are supposedly there to research.

They, along with the teeming brown hordes, are contrasted with an unabashed, if warm and moving, embrace of the priority of (white) American lives—protected and facilitated by the help of the US’ neighbors to the north. In this movie, we hear Joe Biden’s contemptuous insistence to Paul Ryan that Afghans need to step up, that American lives are more valuable. We hear Madeleine Albright’s insistence that the deaths of so many Iraqi children (under Clinton-era sanctions) were “worth it.” We hear the reinscription that American lives are always worth more, are worth clandestine CIA operations. And of course, it enables the justification and valorization of the CIA less than 3 weeks before the US national elections: it reiterates what is already an uncontroversial point for Republicans and Democrats.

We hear the media’s uncritical acceptance of these positions by the US government.  That is part of what renders this film so problematic: there is no critical assessment of the assumptions of the journalists and other raconteurs who covered these events thirty years ago—as there is no such assessment by most journalists in the MSM today. As Glenn Greenwald pointed out in his assessment of Martha Raddatz and faux objectivity, journalists can better inform their audience when they come to terms with their own biases. I would say: Moviemakers, too.

The others in the theatre where I saw the film may have been warmed by this feel-good story of American exceptionalism and superiority. I was chilled.

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

Update: Sarah Shourd, an American who along with two friends, was captured in July 2009 on the Iran-Iraq border, offers an overlapping assessment of Argo. Thanks to @standardherald for the link.

Veep Debates October 2012

In response to someone’s query, here are some thoughts about last night’s spectacle:

I don’t generally care about, or watch, debates—in part because although experts seem to think that there is something substantial to be gained from watching two figures joust on stage, and to prize the quicker riposte, the better jab, the more aggressive stance—nothing gets learned on the floor. I watched this year because it was finally possible to watch with a group of astute critics who share some of my worldviews, albeit electronically on Twitter.

But there is little truth that gets gleaned from the debates, in part because to the extent that one is listening for facts and figures, the numbers are thrown around and contorted recklessly, which requires being a numbers keener or researching them while speakers are jockeying for airtime and attention in the span of four-minute answer sessions.

So, it’s about the spectacle. And in terms of spectacle, the rhetorical discourse matters, of course. These are veep candidates cheering on their respective Presidential candidates. I was highly uncomfortable with the aggressive in-your-faceness of Senator Joe Biden, who claimed intimacy with “Bibi,” and wanted us all to know about his exploits with Israel leaders, as if he were Uncle Joe at Thanksgiving dinner telling us about his wild times in Vietnam. Similarly, the contempt and aggression with which he labeled the arena of the “Ayatollah’s” knowledge, and again, later, the sneer with which he chastised Paul Ryan about sending “Afghans, Paul, Afghans. Afghans” into Command East—a dangerous and militarized part of Afghanistan, because it was highly dangerous–was chilling.

The unspoken context made it clear that the lives of Afghan troops were less valuable than American troops, and therefore it was better to send them in to deal the extreme dangers there. There were a number of moments where Biden and Ryan echoed the justifications for imperialism given by Theodore Roosevelt and other defenders of empire 100 years ago– about “helping” Afghans save themselves. That was one of the most uncomfortable moments for me—when Biden, knowing that he was in front of millions of viewers, could take refuge in the aggression of openly defending the value that the lives of Brown troops are more expendable than the lives of US troops. Unwinnable even when he insisted that “Afghan troops step up. Step up.” Step up? To what? To clean up the decimation of their country? He felt comfortable sharing and reveling in white patriarchal condescension. He echoed it again in the chest-beatings about having “eliminated Osama Bin Ladin”—without due process, of course. This is the man who I’m supposed to vote for to represent me.

I expect nothing from Ryan or the Republicans ever, and so I was not disappointed—and perhaps even pleased to see how he managed to hold his own and to respond without losing his pace or thoughts.  Imperialism is certainly a position that he and his party endorse, so there is no big surprise there. He was deft and smooth around defending his folks against the charges of cutting Social Security and Medicare, even as we understood that his words were a deft rhetorical spin around any verifiable fact.

There was something troubling about Biden’s charge that “Ryan voted to put two wars on a credit card.” My discomfort came from three sources. 1)  Biden voted for them as well. 2) Biden’s lack of understanding of how wars are paid for in his own society: the money comes from, as the Kansas City economists point out—the Federal Reserve. It is not based on debt (“credit card”). 3) the memory of his role in pushing through the “Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005,” bubbled up. This bill, which was devastating to working families, reminded me of the absence of evidence that the Dems care about working families. See here for Arianna Huffington’s and Jackson Williams’ astute critiques.

The reproductive rights discussion was disingenuous on both of their parts. Ryan is a chameleon on abortion issues, although he’s towing a new Romney line about outlawing abortion. Biden engaged in some consistent fear-baiting with the specter of two open Supreme Court seats. But it’s hardly clear to me how the last two Supreme Court appointees are representative of the politics of liberals on most issues. Whether they will vote to protect reproductive choices for women remains to be seen. And obviously, we’ve been lied to consistently by the Dems—so hanging on to their words for hope is a little like escaping from a burning house by climbing down a piece of thin twine. It may or may not work.

Protecting Women and Children: France, Drones and Disingenuous Justifications

Formerly Titled: Protecting the Honor of Women and Children: Allons-y!

Update I [below]

Any day now, I expect that the US will do the right thing and invade France–or at least send stealth drones–to manage the Gallic descent into degradation and chaos. The French judicial system just today has acquitted 6 of 10 men who gang-raped two teens repeatedly; it gave the remaining 4 men fewer than 3-year sentences. It gets worse: because of time already served, only one man was returned to prison. The two women were in their teens, and were raped for years by “scores” of men. I can’t summarize it. Here is the description in today’s Guardian:

The alleged Fontenay-sous-Bois attacks took place between 1999 and 2001. One night returning from a cinema, aged 16, Nina, described as a tomboy who was good at school, said she was grabbed by a local group of youths, taken to basement cellars in the flats, raped and subjected to a series of brutal sex attacks by scores of local boys. The extremely violent, prolonged sex attacks by large groups of boys continued daily, in car-parks, stairwells, apartments, cellars and the empty playground of a local nursery school. She said there would be “at least 25” youths present during attacks in which she screamed, protested, cried and vomited. One witness described 50 boys “queuing” to attack her.

Threatened that her flat would be burned down if she spoke out, she was afraid to tell her mother, who noticed she was washing eight to 10 times a day.

The women kept quiet for years about the attacks until 2005, when Nina was left unconscious by one final brutal beating following years of abuse and finally told a female police officer. Psychiatric experts had agreed that both women were the victims of rape.

We know that the French have long had a history of devaluing women and their testimony regarding rape and sexual assault. Remember the French’s response to the allegations of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual assaults? Scores of French denizens, including philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, rushed to defend him. They couldn’t believe that such a celebrated figure, the head of the IMF no less, could ever have done such a thing–despite the detailed accounts of Tristan Banon, the French journalist and god-daughter of DSK’s second wife, who described having to fend off the advances of the “rutting chimpanzee.” The Guardian’s account seems to confirm the same French’s attitude towards the gang-rape charges.

Clothilde Lepetit, a lawyer for one of the women, now in her 20’s, described the trials as “a judicial shipwreck. Here is another excerpt from the same article:

Another lawyer for the women, Laure Heinich, asked: “What sentence makes sense when one hears that gang-rapists are given a three years suspended sentence?” The case, which has gripped the country, has highlighted the problems in historic rape investigations where material evidence is lacking and much rests on the women’s word. Lawyers for the women said they felt the women’s testimony had not been respected during the trial.

Amid surprise at the verdict in France, the justice minister, Christiane Taubira, said there could be grounds to appeal. “Personally, I’m shocked by gang-rapes, by every form of aggression against women and I think we have to create conditions so that the facts are established and those guilty can be effectively identified.”

The women’s minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, said the case had shown that better education on sex and sexuality was needed in schools.

Sounds like the descriptions we hear of Pakistan. Vallaud-Belkacem is wrong: we need more than better education on sex and sexuality in France. We know that the French adore democracy, reason, and political freedom, because Ayaan Hirsi Ali has told us so. From the outrage gleaned, it makes sense that the rape trials were shams and that democracy is missing in France.

And where democracy and civilization are missing, we must be consistent in our stance against terror and anti-women actions. After all, we brought our beloved troops into the clash of civilizations between the Middle East and the freedom-loving “Developed World.” We needed to help replace the sovereign authority and sham judicial system of Iraq—and our troops did it! They not only toppled Iraqi oppression, they won their hearts and minds. Now it only makes sense—I’m sure Niall Ferguson would agree—that we must reintroduce democracy to the former light of the western model of fraternité, liberté, egalité—in the form of an invasion, or at the very least, drones.

Why am I so sure? Because we have heard from various elements that the vicious attack by the Taliban on the 14 year old Pakistani girl indeed confirms–justifies the POTUS’ decision to continue a (no-longer-stealthy) drone war. As Paul Whitefield of the Los Angeles Times sagely points out:

And this isn’t the horrible “honor killings” or acid attacks or whatever that we read about. This is a group attempting to kill a young girl to make a political statement.

How do you deal with such people? Sadly, I say you have to fight fire with fire.

Gibson’s right. People are cowering in terror in their homes in Pakistan, fearful of U.S. drones. But there are many kinds of terror, and in Pakistan, too much of it is home-grown.

So at this point, those terrible, deadly drones help Americans — and girls like Malala Yousafzai — sleep at night, knowing that they keep the Taliban from doing the same.

Paul Whitefield seems pretty content to discard due process and instead depend upon the razor sharp intel (and unverifiable for national security purposes) that justifies countless assassinations of foreign and U.S. nationals, interrogations (cf Maher Arar, Omar Khadr, Adnan Latif), torture, renditions, the declaration of wars on terror in “any” parts of the world where the United States sees that lives of women are at stake. He echoes Former First Lady Laura Bush’s sentiments, who informed us under her spouse’s Administration that we needed to invade Afghanistan because women were suffering under the Taliban. I take solace in the concern of American women-feminists—looking out for their oppressed counterparts—and I look forward to their consistent and applied pressure on their spouses to do the right thing in France. So I’m expecting Whitefield and other feminists to champion and endorse an invasion of France along with Cleveland, Texas (see below), and elsewhere where women can’t expect to sleep safely at night—or during the day.

Irony aside—let me say clearly that what happened to Malala Yousafszai, the 14 year-old outspoken activist shot by the Taliban in Pakistan is unjust, outrageous and shocking. According to mainstream media, it has—and should have–sparked outrage in Pakistan. In the United States, the widespread attention to the shooting is notable in the near eclipse of attention to the violence targeted against women all over the U.S., Canada, and other “first world” Western nations. I can’t help but wonder about the outrage—especially in contrast to the continued gang-rape of the two French teens, the gang-rape of the 11 year old in Cleveland, Texas by 20, TWENTY, men—a rape by the way that induced the denizens of Cleveland, TX to lay blame upon the victim for being promiscuous, for dressing too provocatively (and we think the Taliban are the only bass-ackwards group out there?). It makes me physically ill to consider the way an entire town flanked to protect the 20 men involved in raping her. I’m waiting for U.S. Armed Forces to invade Cleveland, Texas, or maybe send some drones in to bring some civility to those adults.

It makes me equally physically ill to hear the smug, righteous screams of Americans who exploit the horrific Taliban attack on Malala Yousafszai to justify the deaths of 2000-3000 men.

[An aside: these are the numbers that we have if we take seriously the report that “only” 1/6th to 1/3rd of the victims who’ve died from drone attacks since 2004 were civilians. And that’s before we try to reconcile that statement with the “Living Under Drones” Stanford/NYU report released in the last month that

All reporting of government accounts of “militant” deaths should include acknowledgment that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as “militants,” absent exonerating evidence. Media accounts relying on anonymous government sources should also highlight the fact of their single-source information and of the past record of false government reports.

Avid followers of the drone “debates” will be familiar with American Security Fellow Joshua Foust’s criticism of the report—including the charge of “bias” of small sample size of interviewees, and nonrandom interviewees, i.e. concluding that the report did not try objectively to count who really was a civilian victim and who was not. They might also be familiar with Kevin Gosztola’s and others’ ensuing challenges and exchanges to Foust as well as Gosztola’s challenge to Reuters reporter Myra MacDonald. The fairly obvious and definitive point of rebuttal was that it’s a bit hard for dead civilians to prove their innocence. And by extension, that the numbers are most likely severely deflated. Apologies to those of you who found that statement a bit obvious.]

The retroactive justification of an eight-year systemic drone war on Pakistan (ramped up 400% under the present Democratic POTUS) with a country with whom we are not officially at war–is heinous and morally despicable. It reminds me of the various right-wing charges of moral equivocation in 2002 as critics of the war on Terror suggested that the U.S. historical presence as an empire might have had something to do with the attacks upon the Twin Towers. How ironic that the apologists for the drones in Pakistan are engaging in a similar, morally problematic game of retroactive justification and moral equivocation.

If we really care about protecting the safety and security of women and children then presumably, those same defenders of drones will rise up to demand that we send in the National Guard and Active forces to France, Sweden, the UK, and the rest of Europe-where children have been captured, tortured, raped. If we really care about protecting the safety and security of dissenters and activists, then presumably, those same defenders of drones will rise up to demand the release of Julian Assange, Bradly Manning, Tarek Mehanna, and hundreds of others who have insisted that they want a life. Those same defenders will demand a repeal of Section 1031 of NDAA 2012, FISA, H.R. 347, and countless other erosions upon free speech, whistleblowing, and dissent in the U.S. [I am preparing for the onslaught of detractors who will call me batshit crazy for insisting upon a dose of skepticism with respect to assurances by the U.S.—or any government—about actions taken to protect its citizens that require secrecy and confidentiality. See every post I’ve ever written in the last year on PATRIOT Act, NDAA, FISA, H.R. 347, etc. Despite those seductive assurances, shockingly, I still tend to feel that I’m owed an accounting for the state’s actions in form of legal procedure. Must be PMS.]

I’m waiting, Paul Whitefield, Joshua Foust, Myra MacDonald, and others—to join forces to protect the safety of women, children, and activists around the world. Anyone? Hello? Hello?

Update:

Sadia Toor has an excellent article, “Imperialist Feminism Redux,” in Dialectical Anthropology. There, she argues seriously & clearly against the imperialist mentality that justifies drones, wars, invasions, i.e. what I am satirizing in this piece. Thanks to @avelokiteshvara for the lead.

Jill Biden, Democrats and USAID: Doing Good by Doing Good

Watching television a couple nights ago, I found myself watching a gritty, in-your-face advertisement featuring Jill Biden advocating for relief for “dying children in Africa.” The ad was sponsored by USAID, and it was playing 4 weeks before the elections. What’s wrong with that, you ask. It’s not like she was stumping for her husband or the President or anything.

Here’s the ad (USAID will love me for posting it, I’m sure).

Hmm. Really? She wasn’t stumping?  When you watch that advertisement, does the first thing that run through your mind involve concern for dying “children in the horn of Africa”? By the way, I’m loving the complete lack of distinction between any given region, country, state in the “Horn of Africa”?  And if the reason to run the ad is really about dying children in Africa, why not get Lara Croft herself to do the ad, given her role as humanitarian ambassador for all issues African?

Biden is one of a bunch of celebrities who signed up to represent USAID exactly 1 year ago, according to their press release, including, Uma Thurman, Josh Hartnett, Geena Davis and Chanel Iman, Lance Armstrong, and Anthony Bourdain. I will grant that I don’t watch a lot of television, and so I’m unable to have a sense of how often ads featuring these other celebrities have played during the last year—or even for that matter, during the last month.

But it’s more than interesting that USAID wants to run that ad at this moment—an ad featuring the wife of the incumbent Democratic vice-president. I’m not seeing a similar ad from Ann Romney—and I’m guessing, given her Mormon leanings, that she’s pretty darn sympathetic to fighting droughts, famines, and wars that kill “children in Africa.” Why isn’t she featured? Do you honestly think she would have turned down an opportunity to promote her favorite causes—a) Mormon proselytizing, b) imperial concern for poor black children in far away places, or c) her hubbalicious (not necessarily in that order)?

I’m not suggesting some conspiracy or collusion between USAID and Jill Biden. I’m sure that they never discussed the mutual advantages of having free Democratic advertising. And that’s exactly the problem: tacitly, all sides were presumably aware that they were entering into a negotiation to feature her at the beginning of the run up to the 2012 presidential elections. And it’s a win-win-win for all sides. USAID gets to be affiliated with the Democrats. The Democrats get to be affiliated with USAID, not to mention the free advertising that circumvents campaign rules. And they both get to live vicariously through Bono and Christmas 1984.

.

Why do “Third Parties Never Work”? Collusion and the Presidential Debates

Regardless of what you thought of the first round of 2012 presidential debates, the spin job began well before 8:30 pm last Wednesday. If you opened up the New York Times Op-Ed page Wednesday morning, you might have found yourself gently lulled into believing all was good with the presidential debate world. Newton Minow, the former head of the Federal Communications Commission, and on the current board of the “non-profit” Presidential Debate Commission, assured us seductively—in true NYT statesman fashion–that the debates were the only thing left of what was good in the current round of politics.  Sure, Minow conceded, there was a little kerfuffle back in the 1980 debates when the League of Women Voters objected to the collusion between James Baker III and Robert S. Strauss to control the format of the debates, and withdrew its sponsorship.

Critics have sometimes charged that the debates, and their format and substance, are controlled by the two major parties and campaigns. This was once true.”
 

But since then, the debates have been on track. After all, Minow assures us, he’s been on the “bipartisan non-profit Commission on Presidential Debates since 1987,” and he’s been zealously guarding the debates—mind you, they resisted a collusion between George W. Bush and John Kerry in 2004, which attempted to “force [them] to accept a 32 page ‘memorandum of understanding’ setting out debate details,” but luckily Minow and his esteemed statesmen colleagues refused and Kerry and Bush backed right back down.

Compare this story with the one told by George Farah, the founder of Open Debate and the author of No Debate: How the Republican and Democratic Parties Secretly Control the Presidential Debates. Farah’s version is a little different from Minow’s, which is why, I suspect, he interviewed with Amy Goodman rather than finding himself on the Op-Ed pages of the NYT.

Farah explains in more detail than does Minow the exact conflict of interest that lead to the break-up between the presidential candidates and the League of Women Voters: Farah’s version includes that fact that Walter Mondale AND Ronald Reagan “vetoed 80 of the moderators that the League of Women Voters had” suggested, leading to the ultimate breakup between the candidates and the civic organization.  Farah also points to the collusion between the Democratic and Republican candidates in 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2004 to exclude third party candidates. Only in 1992, when Ross Perot ran as an independent, was he allowed to join the presidential debates—and that was because George Bush Senior thought it would help him pull away votes from the Democrats. He was wrong. An interesting fact to ponder for naysayers who insist that third party politics can never work. Further confirmation? All candidates fought to exclude Perot from the 1996 debates.

Further, for anyone who wonders why third party politics, which seem so reasonable, are such an impossibility, Farah’s interview with Goodman provides some answers:  contrary to Minow’s narrative, the “Commission on Presidential Debates,” despite its name, is neither a governmental organization nor a non-profit. Rather, it is a private corporation sponsored by Anheuser-Bush and other companies. The move away from civic sponsors such as League of Women Voters, which organized it on a shoestring ($5k) budget, enables the CPD to engage in a series of nefarious collusions: private contracts that determine the exclusion of 3rd party candidates, to refuse to allow any serious questions to be asked, to include select audiences that would cheer for the candidates. Of course, CPD had bipartisan chairs: Frank Farendkopf and Paul Kird, the former heads of the Republicans and Democrats respectively. Bipartisanship—rather than evoking neutrality—suddenly takes on a new meaning: they worked together to exclude the possibility of third parties.

Even more astonishing was the response that Farah got when he asked Fahrenkopf how he felt about having “beer and tobacco companies [pay] for the most important election”: Fahrenkopf’s response? “Boy, you’re talking to the wrong guy. I represent the gambling industry.”

Farah, according to his own self-description, has spearheaded a campaign to divest the CPD from its affilations with various private corporations, including Philips Electronics and BBH, on the grounds that the encumbrance of corporations was “fundamentally anti-democratic.” But there remain seven other corporations, including Southwest Airlines, the International Bottled Water Association, several law firms and others who are still sponsoring the CPD.  Let’s be clear: None of these corporations are non-partisan.

The history of the CPD  in 1996 gets even more nefarious. Says Farah:

Bob Dole was desperate to keep Perot out of the presidential debates because he thought Perot would take more votes away from him. Bill Clinton did not want anyone to watch the debates. He wanted what George Stephanopoulos told me was a non event because he was comfortably leading in the polls. So they reached an outrageous agreement: Bill Clinton agreed to exclude Perot on the condition that one of the three debates was canceled, and the remaining two debates were scheduled opposite the World Series of baseball, and no follow-up questions were asked.They got not Perot, they got two debates at the same time as baseball and they had no follow up questions, and that’s exactly what President Bill Clinton wanted, by design, the lowest debate audience in the history of presidential debates. Who took the heat? Not the candidates. The candidates never paid a political price. The polls after the debate showed 50% of the public blamed the commission. Only 13% blamed President Clinton, and only 5% blamed the Bob Dole.

 

So the impression the public received was to blame the commission -not entirely inaccurately,  Notice also the rightward turn, which began at the beginning of Bill Clinton’s first term and kept going.  But the FCC, which apparently criticized the CPD in 1992 and 1996, dealt them some forces to be reckoned with: so the CPD changed some of the rules under pressure. They decided to invite third-party candidates who had 15% percent of the vote to come and debate with them. In other words, a complete impossibility, as Farah points out.  Even Congressional funding of candidates requires winning only 5% of the popular vote.

Clearly, collusion is the proper term to describe what the two presidential parties have done to manage the election framework: they have gotten together and figured out how limit the terms of entry, to limit the number of speakers, the content of the questions, and to tame/discipline anyone who manages to get out of line.

So, what does this anecdote tell us?  The reason “3rd parties never work” is not because God decrees it as such. In fact, third and fourth and fifth parties and their candidates, far from being impossible to sustain in the American voting system, are in fact so easy to sustain that the two major presidential organizations are fearful of them and will stop at very little to prevent them from joining the debates. The message to us should be that the ability to force the conversation to become more expansive, more diverse, more inclusive is much less difficult than we might have imagined.  The only thing that third parties make impossible is for the conversation to remain the same: they can force the conservatives and the neo-cons to listen to voters, to insist on the inclusion of awkward and difficult issues, and to require answers from the behemoths, even if it’s just in the short term.

But for these possibilities, we need to stop paying homage to “tradition,” and the trite line that “3rd parties have never worked”—and ask WHY that’s the case. We need to stop allowing elder statesmen like Minow to seduce us into the George and June Cleaver view that American politics is based on a nice, fair, innocuous playing field. The truth is far from it, as far in fact, as the NYT is…and is more likely to be found across town at sites like Democracy Now.

White Privilege, the Dems, and the Rhetoric of “Care”

To read some of the exchanges over the last week in the blogosphere, apparently “white privilege” means that one doesn’t attend to race and class issues at home, but instead privileges “foreign policy” and “national security” issues. This implies that there is privilege in worrying about the bodies and violations to foreign nationals over the bodies of brown and black Americans. Ok, let me grant that assumption for a second.  Still, I wonder why issues such as warrantless wiretapping, surveillance, unlawful (and supposedly “lawful,” warrantless) detention of US Muslim men of South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds, the nullification of judicial review, the assassination of not just 1, but multiple, US citizens, the incarceration of U.S. citizens (black and brown), should be deprioritized by American voters. Are these not issues that should be of concern especially to folks who are unencumbered by an excess of “white privilege”?

Still granting the assumption that worrying about foreign issues involves undue privilege: I wonder, after considering some of the policies that the present Administration has supported and backed (from NDAA 2012, Expansion and Renewal of FISA, Expansion of prisons, expansion of DHS deportations of migrants; expansion of detention centers), in which ways have U.S people of color and poor  people benefited under the present Democratic Administration? There may be some, such as college loans forgiveness, and the absence of a concerted attack on reproductive rights. But there are certainly anti-choice Dems, such as Harry Reid, who have managed to stifle somewhat. I would hardly call Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ decision to revoke access to OTC contraception a big win for pro-choice folks.

According to a number of progressive economists, the top 20% has remained pretty unaffected by the present Democratic Administration, and I’m betting that includes some of the folks lobbing around the “white privilege” accusation.  Could it not be the case that one is exemplifying white privilege by deciding that one should be loyal to the Administration and the Democratic Party in the face of a range of demonstrable discriminations against certain kinds of minority populations? In the face of violations to certain kinds of brown and black bodies? Does such a loyalty not imply that those who are in a position to make choices are simply refusing to see the world that they themselves have made, by insisting on a repeated loyalty to the Democratic Party, despite the years of abusive behavior on the part of the Dems? Charles Mills calls this “the epistemology of ignorance,” namely that state of the world in which whites refuse to see the world that they themselves have made.

According to a report by the Pew Research Center, “Median wealth fell by 66% among Hispanic households and by 53% among black households during the financial crisis, compared with a fall of just 16% among white households.”

Presumably, the President so cared about the devastating impact to US populations of color that he was going to support California Attorney General Kamala Harris to get as much from the banks as she could, right? POTUS’ response was to pressure Harris to accept a ridiculous settlement with the 5 BIG BANKS of $25 billion dollars, which cashes out either to $750 or $840—yes, you read that right– per household for families who lost their houses due to subprime mortgages.

Again, according to the Pew report:

“A disproportionate share of Hispanics live in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which were in the vanguard of the housing real estate market bubble of the 1990s and early 2000s but that have since been among the states experiencing the steepest declines in housing values.”

Take a look at those quotes again. This is not a “white privilege” issue. It affects U.S. minorities more so than whites. Clearly, the Big Banks must have “cared” about those homeowners, too, right? They must just have been broke, to pay so little. Right. According to today’s Bloomberg, “Even as U.S. unemployment has remained above 8 percent for 43 months, the country’s biggest banks are making almost as much as they ever have.” Namely, a combined $63 billion in profits.  The original rescue was signed by Bush, but what exactly did O require in terms of accountability from the banks? Anyone?

As I mentioned in my last post, the privilege of deciding that the lives of others are easy to sacrifice, the privilege of deciding that certain civil rights are more important than human rights violations will backfire—This is nationalist privilege—American privilege, to be exact. And it has already backfired.  We are seeing the backlash in all kinds of cases—cases like that of Dr. Shakir Hamoodi, Sami Al-Arian, and hundreds of others.

Ultimately, I don’t care who Democrats vote for because I accept the argument that “the structure is broken.”  If it’s broken, voting for the Democrats yet again isn’t going to fix it. Instead, it’s going to amplify the message that Democratic voters have sent for the last 20 years: Please, screw us again. Abandon your constituents for yet another 4 years. And we’ll reward you as you move even further to the right after every term—we’ll send you the message that “we like it, we love it, and we want more of it.” It’s a state-of-emergency politics: It’s an emergency, so we have to vote for the “lesser evil” of 2 states. And the cycle will continue.

If voting for the incumbent accords with your conscience, then by all means do so. If you, like me–despise the Democratic record on wars, drones, murders, assassinations, detention, torture, solitary confinement of foreign nationals without charges (and that includes migrants of various nationalities—since solitary confinement is used more and more widely), but still feel that this vote matters, voting for POTUS is a better option to other options, do what you need to do.

But don’t bake me a dungpie and tell me it’s my birthday. Just tell the truth. Tell the truth about the Democrats’ record on civil liberties issues, on NDAA 2012, on H.R. 347, on S.Comm, on detention policies, on migration policies, on deportation policies. Don’t tell me that the Democrats “care” more, or that “Obama’s heart is in the right place,” or “he would have done more if we didn’t have a GOP-led Congress (um—again, how did that stop the Dems from getting things done in the first two years under Obama?), or that he’s pro-union, or that innocent civilians aren’t getting killed, or that the Affordable Care Act involved actual health care reform, or that Obama’s not interested in cutting Social Security, or that the Dems “care” about civil liberties or human rights violations.

And by the way, how does one know whether Obama or the Dems “care”? Just because they say so? If POTUS is willing to lie about not wanting the U.S. government to be able to kill Americans (thanks, Sen. Carl Levin), then why wouldn’t he lie about whether he “cares” for you, me, or black and brown folk?

Why don’t the same folks who insist that we must vote for the Dems believe that the Republicans “care” just as much? Because of their track record, I hear. Ok, that’s my standard for the Democrats, too. For those who insist that POTUS/Dems cares about poor black and brown folks, I’ve explored the track record on “care” all over this site. For some examples, see here and here and here.

A friend whose political insights I respect tremendously suggested that she was voting for the incumbent precisely because there are racists who will vote against him because he’s black. I can respect that.  Others suggest that they’re voting Dem to “prevent GOP access to power.” Okay, I can live with that—but I don’t buy that this will increase the likelihood that poor folks, folks of color in the US and internationally will be less vulnerable to having social safety nets or economic structures decimated by Democrats.

Just do what you need to do, but stop insisting that folks who reject the false dichotomy between the lives of U.S. folks of color, black and brown, and the lives of international folks of color are “conservatives,” or libertarians.

And the day after the election, for those of you who feel like you had to vote for the Democrats as the least crappy option among crappy options, please, let’s start pursuing the viability of a third party. We need to change the conversation, we need to hold the Democrats accountable for abandoning voters, poor folks, black and brown folks—in the US and elsewhere. Only the threat of not being re-elected, of losing “winnable votes” will bring them around.