Sam Polk and his civilizing mission

A shorter, cleaner, version of this article was published over at Salon.com on Jan. 23, 2014. Here’s the messier, longer, less clean version:

Part I (yes, a few more parts to come):

In the Sunday New York Times, former trader Sam Polk has a weepy confessional candid opinion piece, “For the Love of Money,” about his addiction to money, and how he’s overcome it (but not before pocketing the millions, mind you). It doesn’t really stand out, whether as contribution to the genre of former plunderers financiers, or a redemption narrative. But it is helpful in understanding the “pipeline” from the “free market” to the neoliberal (bio)politics of charity.

You see, Sam Polk locates his “addiction” within the context of his addictive personality, to cocaine, to alcohol, and finally, to money. He points out that he was the child of a Willie Loman-like father, who always wanted to be rich, always dreaming the big dream, but who never got there. I suppose, inpart, his piece is supposed to locate his desires as part of a quest to fulfill his father’s dreams. But even in this, he doesn’t stand out. After all, many children grow up to be adults who strive to fulfill their parents’ hopes for success, however that turns out.

But the issue that really pisses me off troubles me is his proseletyzing zeal (like the kind that envelops ex-smokers and new vegans or philosophy students who’ve just discovered Foucault) with which he points out that having all that money really isn’t that great, and that it’s better put to use in distributing among the less fortunate.

Conspicuously absent in Sam Polk’s heart-warming confession is any description of the role he played in a financial sector that led to one of the most destructive economic decimations since 1929, and to a widespread societal poverty or misery. Apparently, his only sin was gluttony.

And voila: back to a moral accounting. After all, this is a Judeo-Christian framework, isn’t it?.

What better way to atone for one’s sins than to confess and pursue redemption by distributing alms to the poor. And coincidentally, it dovetails with the ongoing neoliberal mode of addressing widespread social crises: increase pressure on “civil society” to remedy hunger, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, access to reproductive rights social problems through private charity.

As we know, these are social problems created through the decimation of federal budgets, because its much more urgent to feed the chickenhawks by funding the War on Terror through its respective bureaucracies: the NSA, DHS, ICE, the DoD, etc., etc. And they’re created by the same corporations who are now bereft of the voracious, graciously hedge funded presence of Sam Polk.

But then again, maybe redemption has an upside. Here’s what Sam Polk has decided to do in his saintly afterlife: he has created a charity that “gives” six months of groceries to needy families (those who make less than $40,000 annually). You might think, kudos to Polk! Wow, what a guy!

But as we know, nothing in life (that actually matters) is ever free. In a very beautifully worded story, Polk and his beloved physician spouse, watch a show about eating more healthily. Spouse bursts into tears at the new idea (New? Really?) that eating more whole foods and grains will make her healthier. And sure enough, after a few weeks of better eating, the Polk clan feel better, lose weight, get off Lipitor, lower their cholestorol, etc.

So they decide to share their newly discovered insights to (drumroll, please)–say it with me:  Help. The. Needy. Watch out, Bill and Malinda!

And how will they do so? By using their So. Cal networks to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to commit more money for poor families to be able to buy better food? By hounding the California State legislature to expand welfare budgets? By using his former Wall Street influence to pressure their Senators DiFi and Barbara Boxer to start winding down the War on Terror so as to make local foods more affordable? To re-allocate defense spending in favor of transportation subsidies?

Um, in case you haven’t guessed already, no.

Instead, the Polk family (and there are many of them listed on the website; check it out) will “award” grocery scholarships to those who REALLY want it (I kid you not).  Yes, the allusion is certainly to “merit”—because not every single poor family is worthy of eating well, simply by being alive—instead they must commit to taking weekly nutrition classes, meetings, counselors, tests, etc.

Much like a Christian charity, where the needy must accept a healthy lecture on their sins along with their dinner, the Polks have created a cult of granola, in which the needy will be helped only if they realize that it is in their own best interest to eat better.

Apparently, that is what is missing for poor people: knowledge and know-how about nutrition, at least according to Sam Polk and Doctor Spouse. Not money, time, or the social space and dignity to arrange their own lives on their own terms, but “rewards” with strings attached.  That’s because—remember–the poor don’t have beliefs; they only have compulsions and misguided beliefs and ideas. True moral uplift means the poor must be cultivated in the image of Southern Californians and other bourgie liberals who focus on the body as the site of virtue. You are what you eat. So fat, dark people (let’s face it, that’s who Polk and friends are targeting—look at the website!) must be cultivated to seek self-improvement. Morality, yet again, is individual. To hell with pressuring the state to reallocate funds for a well-funded social infrastructure enabling people to decide how to live a healthy life (say, expansive healthcare, subsidized public transportation, no-strings attached food subsidies. Just a thought).

Groceryships reveals Sam Polk to be the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (surely you haven’t forgotten his failed ban on large sodas). Just add photogenic dimples, long sunbleached hair and a tan.

“What’s wrong with helping poor people eat better?” you ask “Even you eat kale and legumes on a regular basis. Are you such a classist hypocrite that you want to deny poor people that chance, too?”

It is true. I am more into granola and yoga these days than in my youth. But it is a decision that I made after years of a diet weighted toward animal proteins and fermented grape and barley. And my partner has mostly disdain for it and doesn’t join me. And doesn’t have to. Because each of us can afford to make the decisions we like without having to account for it to anyone else (except to my mother, who was a strict religious vegetarian tee-totaler her entire life. No eggs, no meat, no booze, no cigs—licit or otherwise. But she died after succumbing to diabetes, breast cancer twice (20 years apart), kidney failure, high blood pressure and cholesterol, all before she hit 70. She lived a fairly healthy life. But there are no guarantees. And she, like me, offered no explanations or accountability to anyone.

And that is the point. The ability to live a dignified life should not be dependent upon the whims of others—or on one’s personal (lack of) wealth. And if one or many do not have sufficient money—perhaps because they lost their already meager homes, wealth, and livelihood in the course of the recent financial machinations and ensuing crash (with hedge fund traders, among others, at the helm), then they should certainly not have to be at the mercy of private monies funneled by the formerly predatory do-gooders who are seeking a new colonizing mission (to help the poor learn how to eat healthily!)–to redeem their immoral souls.

The perhaps not-worst aspect of this is the sheer condescension of the former parasites. They preach nutritional moral uplift for the poor (not because they don’t have time and energy and money, because they don’t know better, apparently). But wouldn’t subpoenas to testify about legalities of their previous business dealings be a better way to save their own souls? Now there’s real redemption.

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Will We Ever Close Guantánamo Bay Detention Center?

I’ve drifted away from blogging the last few months, but hoping to put up some original pieces soon. In the meantime, here’s a piece that I published over at Salon last month. Guantanamo has been on my mind ceaselessly, especially as I teach my Global War on Terror course this term.

I’ve been writing away, and so more pieces on other topics to be post over the next few weeks…

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January 11th marked the 12th anniversary of Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, which, according to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is the “least worst place to house” men suspected by the U.S. government links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

But Rumsfeld’s statement reeks of incredulity. Beginning with the Bush administration, the U.S. has done more than merely house them. Through its military and medical personnel, it has inflicted physical brutality, extended torture, solitary confinement, force-feeding upon these men, all the while remaining publicly indifferent, even righteous, about the absence of charges, due process and legitimacy of the imprisonment.

Of the nearly 800 prisoners who have been confined there, 115 remain. Eleven were released in the last five months, twice as many as were released the previous three years.

Yet, as artist and writer Molly Crabapple pointed out in her recent Guardian column noting the prison’s anniversary, we also know — we have for some time — that over half of all the detainees who have been imprisoned there were handed over for U.S.-paid bounties, rather than because they were hostile or dangerous enemies of the U.S.

Crabapple is not asserting this as a fantasy of her own making. She cites an important but not widely known report written by Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, lawyer Joshua Denbeaux, and several Seton Hall law students. The Denbeaux are legal counsel to several of the detainees. In their report, the authors show extensive evidence that over half (55 percent) of the 517 prisoners that they profiled committed no hostile acts against the U.S. or its allies. Of those 517, only 41 (8 percent) are “characterized” as al-Qaida fighters. One hundred ninety prisoners had no connection to al-Qaida, and 86 had no links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. And of those 517, 445 were captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies.

Offering a large bounty doesn’t disprove the assertion that these men were a serious threat. But when a government creates these classifications without external accountability, and it is supported in this by a supine judiciary, the circumstances do present a serious — overwhelming, unmitigated — doubt about whether these prisoners are a danger to Americans. The Denbeaux have made evidence of this doubt available since 2006.

What should have amplified this doubt even further for all of the serious, fact-finding, mainstream media is that the Combatant Status Review Board – enacted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, and which has no incentive to be critical of the U.S. government — also made the same evidence of this doubt available as early as 2005.

As striking was a second report published by the Denbeaux group. This report pointed out that of the 72 groups recognized as terrorist organizations by the Department of Defense, 52 of them (72 percent) are not on any of the terrorist-watch lists maintained by the State Department. By this measure, the DoD keeps its own list of terrorist groups that are neither reviewed, confirmed nor double-checked by any other government office. As the Denbeaux report concludes,

This inconsistency leads to one of two equally alarming conclusions: either the State Department is allowing persons who are members of terrorist groups into the country or the Defense Department bases the continuing detention of the alleged enemy combatants on a false premise. (my emphasis)

Given that we have had few further terrorist acts committed within the confines of the United States by foreign nationals in the last decade, the second conclusion is more likely.

What is striking about this truth today is that it is possible to state it in print in established media such as the Guardian. Even as several more prisoners were released this past month, there appears to be a slight opening in the conversation, one enabling human rights advocates’ criticisms to echo for more than a few seconds.

This was not the case a decade ago, when early critics of the Bush administration’s policies tried to suggest that there was little proof that captives brought to Guantánamo were a danger to the U.S., and that the prison should not be treated as a “legal black hole.” Those critics’ voices included several U.N. high commissioners for human rights as well as Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, and American lawyers such as Michael Ratner, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Michael Posner, the head of the Lawyers’ Committee. But their criticisms were drowned out by officials and polls indicating that Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of the prison and the inhumane treatment meted out to Afghan men.

Indeed, the original head of Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Mark Lehnert, recently confirmed his own early doubts. Writing forcefully, Lehnert insists that Guantánamo never should have been opened, and many of the detainees should have never been sent there.

As cynics will suggest, that is how politics works, as even a casual perusal of American history reveals to us.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were incarcerated across 10 prisons for little reason other than the fear shared by the U.S. government and non-Japanese populace alike. The fear, suspicion and contempt acted on by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was that these civilians, if allowed to live in the populace freely, might turn their freedom toward aiding the “enemy,” the Japanese government.  This fear was pursued, despite the Roosevelt administration’s knowledge that these civilians, many with American citizenship, had few ties to the country of their parents’ origin.

These same residents had been scapegoated by the U.S. for decades. In 1913, in California, a law stripping Asian non-citizens of their businesses had been passed. That law was a mere continuation of decades of policies designed to manage the “Japanese problem,” as historian Greg Robinson’s book, “By Order of the President,” informs us. By May 1942, many Asians, residents and citizens alike, were being ordered to board trains and buses to whichever “internment camp” they had been assigned, with only what they could carry with their own two hands. At that point, nearly any Japanese American families who still owned businesses had to forfeit them as they were dispatched to stark campsites, thousands of miles away from their towns, any towns where they might be in danger of talking to other non-Asians. (See here for a remarkable pictorial spread published by the Atlantic several years ago that show some moments from that period.)  The internment had the extended benefit of politically and socially ostracizing the internees. Friends, if any remained or wished to claim that mantle, would have found it prohibitive to visit them.

I visited one of those former camps about six years ago—Manzanar Camp, which sits at the foot of the Sierras, just outside of Death Valley. A U.S. park ranger, with a degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine, had painstakingly curated the camp, whose vast desolate grounds had been denuded of most traces of that shameful period (scroll down for photos of what Manzanar looked like in 1943). In the main auditorium — the only structure that was left standing — the ranger had retrieved or reconstructed several barracks in which these families lived. Each housed several families of four, five, seven, eight or more: grandparents, babies, young children, teenagers, newlyweds and others. According to accounts made by former inhabitants of other camps, such as Tule Lake in Northern California, the sheds would be marked by makeshift curtains to divide the rooms into smaller, closet-like sleeping areas, for some semblance of privacy in which occupants could retreat for a while. Other inhabitants remarked on the unceasing wind that threatened to drive them mad, along with the fine layer of sand that covered every possession, including tablecloths, beds, makeshift dressers or dry goods.

Outside the auditorium, the vast grounds were marked by signs indicating where the canteen had been erected, and the school for the children had been built. There were maps that indicated the order of other structures, including watchtowers to ensure that none of the civilian internees escaped. Also remaining were traces of some old Buddhist gardens, created by some of the internees in an effort to bring beauty and life in that desolate, dry place.

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Buddhist gardens in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

As well, there were several burial places, marked by stones. One was as small as 2 feet, marked by the usual ring of stones, and several toys, indicating that an infant was buried there.

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An infant’s grave in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

I remember that the map indicated a building marked as a fire station, which presumably held water to be deployed in the likely event that a blaze might decimate the brittle wood buildings that sat on the desiccated land.

Manzanar was one of 10 camps to which American citizens and residents of Japanese descent were incarcerated during the remainder of the war. There, as with the prisoners in Guantánamo, the internees attempted to challenge their resistance in a myriad of ways, procedurally and physically.

As well, there was another group, nearly forgotten, who were also victimized by the U.S. Several thousand Japanese Latin Americans were arrested by their own governments (mostly Peru) and shipped to U.S. camps, including one in Panama.  The U.S. had hoped to trade them to Japan in exchange for American prisoners of war (it was unsuccessful). Many of these men and women, like their U.S. counterparts, had little actual connection to Japan. They had their passports confiscated. They remained in these camps for the duration of the war. After the war, betrayed by their home countries, both groups were essentially homeless, due to no fault of their own. They had no desire to return to Japan or the countries that had betrayed them, and the U.S. had revealed itself to be a hostile land.

Even though I had previously studied the historical and political aspects of the internment of Japanese Americans, thanks to the effort of this ranger, that trip to Manzanar foregrounded for me the extreme consequences of the unthinking panic legislated at the executive and congressional level little over 60 years ago.

It reminded me of the collective panic that recurred just over 12 years ago, a panic cynically exploited by U.S. leaders and representatives. Though these functionaries might have been zealous to protect their country, they could not see past their immediate interests to the moral stanchions of judicial procedures and habeas corpus, or to the effects of their short-sightedness: the ubiquitous ether of injustice that still mars this country’s reputation.

It appears that this is how politics has worked again and again. But such politics can only work when leaders and functionaries can savor the successes of their deal-making with immunity; when their decisions are not expected to be compelled by moral dictates, when they are affirmed and rewarded for their egregious human rights violations by being reelected; when military commanders and politicians prioritize “the masculine logic of the security state,” as the late philosopher Iris Marion Young called it.

This country and its leaders have never figured out how to redress wrongdoing. The U.S., beginning with President Ronald Reagan, paid out $1.6 billion to the 82,000 descendants of the Japanese internees, along with an apology. But these “reparations” can not make up for the damage done to an entire people; and it has little effect if no lessons are learned from such recent mistakes.

As Carol Rosenberg points out, in the intervening decade, the suspicions against these prisoners have diminished, perhaps because the panic has abated and many more have had time to reflect on the hasty actions that have led to Guantánamo. Many prisoners have been released, finally. The next remedy is obvious, but it will take a moment of courage by the current administration to enact it.

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A version of this article was published on Salon.com on Jan. 16, 2014