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

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Obama Administration’s Version of Transparency

As soon as Judge Denise Lind’s ruling in the pre-trial punishment motion for Bradley Manning came out, the ironies began to pile up: It took nearly 2 hours to read her decision. She ruled that although Manning was mistreated at Quantico, she rejected the idea of “any unlawful command influence from superior officers that led the commanding officer of Quantico to keep Manning in restrictive conditions for no justifiable reason.”  For those reasons she refused to dismiss the charges against Manning, although she did give him 112 days’ credit for time already served. And even though it was apparently a long, detailed, decision, the ruling itself could not be released to the public. As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Nathan Fuller pointed out: this lack of transparency is in a case about a whistleblower making information available to the public.

This absence of transparency comes on the heels of a ruling by Judge Colleen McMahon denying FOIA requests for the reasoning behind Obama Administration’s targeted killings. In her ruling, she refers to the fact that relevant information on which she bases her ruling is classified.

And on the heels of the plea taken by ex-CIA official John Kiriakou, whose crime was—not to name—but merely to confirm a suspicion that a journalist already had about a CIA interrogator in the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Compare Kiriakou’s crime with that of Obama nominee John Brennan who (beyond his endorsement of torture and remarkable statement about there never having been any civilian casualties in drone attacks) is accused of being responsible for multiple high-security leaks. For Kiriakou, 3 years in jail. For Brennan—neither arrest, detention, or solitary confinement, but rather Deputy Chief of NSA, which moved him closer to POTUS’ long-held wish for him to become head of CIA.

The most remarkable irony (if that is the right word. Where is Alanis Morissette when I need to consult?) lies in a comparison of the above events to the 2 Presidential Memos that President Obama issued in the first 4 months of his Administration.

On the first day he took office, Jan. 21, 2009, POTUS bragged about the intention of his administrations to create transparency. The first “Transparency” memo (.pdf) was hailed by ProPublica as well as Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

To that end, Obama asserted that

government offices should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.

In his FOIA Memo, also issued the same day, the President loftily refers to Judge Louis Brandeis’ quote about sunlight and disinfectant. It continues on the same righteously lofty vein that was supposed to distinguish his Administration’s policies from the elusive, highfalutin, “we know better than you” tone of the previous Bush Administration:

Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

Mr. “Hope & Change” continues on in the same vein, urging offices not to wait for requests in order to disclose information, but to be proactive in disseminating information.

The last time I checked, the Department of Justice was a government office. So were the CIA, NSA, and DoD. Yet, the trend over the last four years is the continual expansion of secrecy, an ever-increasing breadth of classified information—so much so that as the Senate debated Sen Wyden’s oversight amendments to FISA on New Year’s Day, Senator Feinstein boasted about how she knew that there was important information that couldn’t be shared—because it was classified, but she promised to retrieve it from the room it was in, and to “wave it around” so that everyone would know that it existed and said…something that she knew was important but classified. What we also know, as a leaked memo shows, is that she was doing exactly the White House’s bidding.  See how cool the whole accountability thing works?  Leaking classified information allows us to know what our pols’ intentions really are.

This is part of the series of hypocrisies ironies piling up: as the US government insists on making more and more information confidential, private, and unavailable for oversight, it insists that its own citizens have no right to privacy—none—in their cyber or phone communications, cars, among other activities.  Moreover, by breaching or challenging the punitive rules coming out of the White House and Congress, the only outcome that citizens or non-citizens face is severe punishment ranging from arrest to indefinite detention to solitary confinement. The latter, regardless of Judge Lind’s ruling in Manning’s case yesterday, can only be defined as torture.  The rules are arbitrary—what else can we call them when we have no ability to call our representatives, DoJ lawyers, CIA officials, or President and his staff to account for their actions?

Former Guantanamo Chief Prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis suggested in his interview on Russian TV yesterday that the most severe crime that Bradley Manning committed was to embarrass the Administration and the Department of Justice (see at 1:55), rather than aiding the enemy or harming anyone.

At one point, Obama was thought to have the integrity that the Bush Administration did not, when his FOIA memo clarified that

In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.

The seeming transparency of that memo is augmented by this one on “Classified Information and Controlled Unclassified Information,” issued just four months later in May 2009.  It insists on the centralization of procedures for the public dissemination of information, also stating that

Effective measures to address the problem of over classification, including the possible restoration of the presumption against classification, which would preclude classification of information where there is significant doubt about the need for such classification, and the implementation of increased accountability for classification decisions;

Such a directive should have the beneficial effect of pushing previously presumptively classified information into the “disinfecting” sunlight.  Instead, the defining trend during the first Obama term was the very opposite.

That May 27 memo seems to be directly abnegated by the quiet passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enforcement Act. In effect, the WPEA explicitly re-envisions John Kiriakou’s actions as criminal even as it purports to reinforce protections for whistleblowers. As I wrote when it was quietly signed on the day after Thanksgiving last year, WPEA will criminalizes attempts to speak to agencies or journalists without permission from one’s supervisors.  This provision cuts off the ability to disseminate information informally and casually, and implicitly threatens severe punishments for those who have any sort of relationship with journalists.

Contrary to Samuel Rubenfeld’s bizarre article in the Wall Street Journal, the WPEA insists that email communications will not be protected under this act. Rubenfeld offers as proof of Obama’s whistleblower courage adoring quotations from Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, who claims that

He’s done more to affirmatively protect whistleblowers than any other president

and

Obama wants to encourage internal reporting of wrongdoing.”

“Obama believes that “if there are more protections for internal whistleblowers, there will be fewer leaks of national security information,” Canterbury said. “We share that belief, but that does not de-legitimize the need for external whistleblowers.”

“Sometimes information needs to be disclosed outside the government for there to be accountability,

It’s hard to know whether these are prevarications or the trite misty-eyed aspirations of liberal Obama voters. But whatever they are, the statements are blatantly inaccurate. Notwithstanding Canterbury’s official title, which apparently negates the need to crosscheck her claims with actual content, the bills and memos that purport to protect whistleblowers have increasingly done the opposite.

The “Alice in Wonderland” reference that Judge Colleen McMahon made in her ruling on drone strikes last week is an apt literary allusion to the craziness, the upside-downness, the inversion of meaning of all statements emerging from the White House and…its fore(wo)men?

Today, when a memo is prefaced with a statement about the need for transparency, one can be fairly certain that the purpose of the memo will be the opposite. When the POTUS’ allies insist that they are pushing for the renewal of FISA for the “safety” of the American people, what comes to mind are the Muslim men (who are known to be) in detention in the U.S. and the fear that non-whites have of being arrested, detained, or deported. It is clear that FISA is being used against the “safety” of Americans, and its absence of oversight is used to guard against detecting the misuse and abuse of secret surveillance privileges by government offices.

When Obama insists on nominating Brennan—a man who endorsed torture, denied civilian casualties, and was himself responsible for leaks—to be the next director of the CIA—literally biding his time for 4 years until the furor of Brennan’s notoriously unethical credentials inevitably died down (Feet! To the Fire!), I can only believe that Obama and his Administration are only interested in continuing—as Glenn Greenwald calls it—the never-ending War on Terror.

Perhaps it is hardly shocking that the POTUS–and our Senators and Congresspersons—continually refer to that ubiquitous, irrefutable, state of national security in order to invoke a continual state of emergency. But the unflinching, chest-strutting, arrogance with which they do so—while creating ever-growing secret kill lists and disposition matrixes, is in large part engendered by the voters who continue to rehire them on the grounds that torture, drones, renditions—are tastier, more flavorful, and absolutely more palatable when done by a liberal.

After all, would you rather have Romney?

The Whistleblower Protection Act: Which ‘Disinterested Observer’ Gets to Decide?*

Update (below).

Yesterday, POTUS signed a touted “Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act” which was passed unanimously by the Senate. Relatively short, it appears to strengthen protections against government-led retaliatory acts against government employees who report some evidence of wrongdoing.  On the face of it, it looks as if it leans in a positive direction towards creating space for raising complaints of ethical violations.

And indeed most media stories, from the New York Times to the WSJ blog reported it the same way. As the NYT described:

Capping a 13-year effort by supporters of whistle-blower rights, the new law closes loopholes created by court rulings, which removed protections for federal whistle-blowers. One loophole specified that whistle-blowers were only protected when they were the first to report misconduct.

Truthdig had a slightly more critical take, wondering how this would help Bradley Manning.

Really. A new bill to protect whistleblowers. Let’s take a look (pdf of bill here).

There is a curiously worded section that seems to speak to the same ambiguities that are under dispute in the situations of multiple whistleblowers—most notably Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou, among others.  In Section 102, after a series of clarifications about the range of evidence that an employee “disclosure” can include, there is a description what a disclosure “does not include.”

On the face of it, this exemption to protected disclosures sounds right. Administrators at any organization make discretionary judgments, and it is an obstacle to question discretionary policy decisions unless there is a compelling reason—like a violation of a rule or law or regulation—to object.  But the wording is interesting: it exempts communications of those disclosures. It exempts leaks unless there is a reason to believe that it evidences a violation of law.

So how are we supposed to know whether it does or doesn’t show a violation of law?

Section 103 tells us that the determination will be made by someone (a Senate Committee?) determining whether a disinterested observer who has access to all the facts would “reasonably conclude” that the disclosure evidenced a violation of a rule or law.

Again, in light of most urgent whistleblower prosecution underway, namely the military trial of Bradley Manning, it’s hard to know whether this bill creates new protective measures or assumes the very question that’s at stake:

Communications that show immoral conduct or unethical policies will be determined to be unlawful leaks—precisely because the gap between immorality and illegality is miles and miles long.

Judging from the last 11 years of US prosecutions of whistleblowers, communications regarding the torture of countless human beings who are assumed to be terrorists, or footage of dropping bombs on civilians who are trying to rescue their families from US attacks—will not show evidence of illegality—even when they show heinous, horrific, evidence of immorality.

The “ideal” disinterested observer, judging from the last 11 years of U.S policies, appears to be similar to the  Neoclassicals’ Homo Economicus: a rational agent who acts purely out of self-interest (which counts as objective action), doesn’t bring “ideology” into his calculations, and somehow often has near complete knowledge.

In other words, the ideal disinterested observer is close to impossible—unless it is someone who sides utterly with the official objectives of US national intelligence and foreign policy.

And sure enough, for the current Administration (and tragically, for any future “electable” Administration), only unmitigated hawks who have complete and uncritical faith in the way the lines of “national security” have been drawn—will count as disinterested observers. Seriously, does Congress want to tell us that it is likely that the US will view these communications through the lens of Medea Benjamin or Jameel Jaffer or Jeremy Scahill? Please. Much more likely, that it will be through the “disinterested” lens of Joshua Foust, Glen Beck, or Ann Coulter.

A disinterested observer who reasonably concludes, i.e. who would interpret that a communication evidences a violation of law qua the US Constitution, will NEVER–under this Administration–be the model for deciding that a classified email or memo or US national intelligence footage of bombs dropping on civilians—is immoral, and therefore constitutes a violation of (human rights) law.

The immediate objection that a Rightwinger or Obamabot will give (as disinterested observers) is that the Constitution can’t be the basis by which to determine that an email or memo or video footage violated a law or a rule—because the Constitution contains principles and not “rules” or “laws.” And therein lies the rub. The gap between immorality and illegality will be closed through the emphasis on rules. Rules. Convenient when persecuting whistleblowers. Not so much when organizing procedural trials, as Kevin Gosztola or Nathan Fuller will tell you.

So Congress and POTUS are probably feeling incredible jubilant and gratified.  Why not? They have managed to re-invent the same dreadful immoral wheel of persecuting whistleblowers while pretending that they’ve made advances in protecting them.

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Update: Also, here is Jesselyn Radack’s analysis of the WPEA. She is also quite critical of it, but on different grounds.

*Revised Title

Post-Election Day 2012: The Good Guys Won, but Did Progressives?

Update I & II & III: Below

Well, here we are. On the other side of that Great American (non)Test. The Democrats won that test: The first Black President was re-elected for a second term. The Democrats retained control of the Senate. The GOP retained control of the House.

The POTUS, re-elected, said in his acceptance speech last night:

Tonight you voted for action. Not politics as usual.

If that is the message, then Democrats have been validated by their victory last night. Unfortunately, many Americans are fine with a murderous foreign policy and heinous domestic policies that violate the US Constitution on multiple levels. Sadly, Democrats have received confirmation that it is a winning strategy to target vulnerable poor white, and black and brown men and women across the United States.  Blindly, Democratic voters have indicated that they believe Timothy Geithner, Lawrence Summers, Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs, David Plouffe and David Axelrod were fine choices for Cabinet and advisory positions.

Unfortunately, that message is accurate.  But if it is the only message received by the Democrats, then we as a society have lost. The Democrats have not heard the message that some segment of the US voting population wants them to be accountable to their progressive voters.  Just because violations of the US Constitution and arbitrary assassination polices and secret kill lists play well to mob approval, that doesn’t mean that the Democrats should engage in it.

My fear in the aftermath of Election 2012: We will return to being as silent, complacent and passive in the face of unconstitutional practices and destructive policies over the next four years as we have been over the last four. This is because at some level, most Democrats believe that “the good guys” are in office.

It is much harder to challenge one’s “own” people. It is more difficult to voice dissent, to express protest, to resist evil when “ours” are in office. Some evidence is here and here and here and here and here and here. The list goes on, and has been repeatedly discussed by a number of us on the left who found these practices to be “dealbreakers” in the words of Conor Friedersdorf.

The POTUS and the Democratic Party have put in place the laws and policies that allow the current and future president the legalized power, immunity, and political repression of American voters—in order to continue the above, and to enact similar policies.  The passage of NDAA and H.R. 347, among a myriad of other policies, are guarantees of that. The Supreme Court and Appeals Court verdicts that enable many repressive policies to remain in place will also promise the immunity to POTUS and others to expand the war on terrorizing US men and women and foreign nationals—here and internationally.

Yes. A Romney Administration would have been “worse,” in that Romney and his GOP could have easily gotten down to the business of political, social, and economic repression. But it would have been able do so with the help of policies put in place by the Obama Administration as well as the Bush and Clinton Administrations. So will every future Administration, Democrat or Republican, if we don’t challenge the expansion of federal and executive authority to police, surveil, arrest, detain and incarcerate us without cause.

The goal of slashing Social Security and Medicare (now uncritically and ubiquitously referred to as “entitlements” rather than a forced savings program) will be, according to Robert Kuttner, Matt Stoller, Robert Prasch, and others, taken up immediately after this election—regardless of which party had won. Had the Republicans won, this agenda could—and would– have been vociferously challenged by a united Liberal/Democratic/Progressive coalition.

The same turn to the right, the same prevarications, the same murderous foreign policy, the same harassment of US and foreign nationals in the United States–under a Republican Presidency– did not go unchallenged under the last Republican Presidency, although they were facilitated by numerous obsequious Democrats in the House and Senate. But the POTUS has been excused from those challenges by those very same critics, who were—are–his supporters.

The President also said optimistically in his speech last night:

We are an American family that rises or falls together, as one nation and one people…We know that for the United States of America, the best is yet to come.

Perhaps this is the most insidious and the most untrue logics of the Democratic Administration. In reality, we know that the success of both political parties—Democrat or Republican—has depended upon the strategy to divide and conquer.

That is to say, the Democratic Party has had a standard agenda of eviscerating a social safety net for all but the wealthiest—bankers, corporations, and millionaires. They have done so all the while boasting of and highlighting the scraps that poor whites and middle-class populations will receive from the state: The Democrats have distracted white and middle-class voters from the pernicious effects of mortgage foreclosures & crappy settlements, the financial crisis, and unemployment by showcasing the aggressive and punitive treatment of US minorities and foreign nationals through (to name only a few). As Matt Stoller has convincingly argued, the majority of the US population—including many whites as well as black and brown populations—is worse off today than the day that Obama came into office in 2009. Than the day the recession ended. The recovery has been bad for most Americans.

This brings me to the final and perhaps most difficult fear: American liberals and progressives have a fundamental difficulty in coming to terms with a problematic racial and gender politics that are waged by a Liberal Black President and his Liberal Multiracial Democratic Party.  It is much easier to attack and challenge a GOP full of Old White Guys. Such challenges confirm our pre-existing worldviews because they lead from a(n accurate) narrative that the gains of whites/Europeans were built on the genocide of indigenous populations, the enslavement and persecution of West Africans, the persecution of Latinos, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, and other minorities throughout the history of the Newer World.

But we must confront a more difficult racial politics, and challenge this Administration to stop pitting the fates of vulnerable and poor minority populations against those of wealthier whites and more privileged minorities. We need to resist the mistaken view that the safety of Americans depends on droning, bombing, and murdering brown U.S. citizens or incarcerating Black Americans. We need to insist that the reproductive systems of wealthier women must not be posed against the evisceration of the reproductive systems and health of Muslim women, or decimating Muslim communities around the world.

My fear is that because the “nicer, kinder, wiser, more likeable guys” have won, we will glow in the supposed victory until the next time comes to vote for the” lesser of two evils.” Except that next time, we won’t be able to tell even the slightest difference.  But maybe my fears will be proven wrong over the next four years.

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Update I. Glenn Greenwald has an excellent column that also considers the impact of a second-term win for the Democrats.

Update II. An old column by Randy Fried, “Your Brain on Obama: Waiting for the Man,” previously published at Counterpunch, is up at Black Agenda Report. Long, important and relevant.

Update III. As we know, Obama was declared the victor by 11:15 last night. This morning, less than 12 hours later, reports of deaths by drones of several individuals in Yemen were reported. Strikes could only have been approved by the POTUS, as Joshua Hersh reports. No negotiations with Republicans are necessary to approve them. The second Democratic term has begun.

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.

Democratic Accomplishments At Home since 2008

Slightly updated version

In my earlier post on White Privilege (which you should read before reading this), I argue that it does us little good to distinguish between whether the Dems care about “civil rights” at home more than their attention to rights violations against foreign nations and foreign nationals.  Now, let’s talk about the charge that the Democrats are a safer bet on a number of issues that concern libs and progs. I am willing to entertain the argument—from a liberal or progressive viewpoint–that the POTUS/Dems are a better bet to protect the interests of citizens and folks of color. Here’s a just a brief review of his/Dems’ record on all non-War on Terror-related issues (I write about those all over this blog).

The Environment: Here’s what comes to mind immediately:

Fracking.  As the Boston Globe reports, POTUS hailed fracking as awarding thousands of new jobs. Great. But at what cost?

The process requires huge volumes of pressurized, chemical-laden water to break apart rock. Not only does it consume scarce water resources, a particular concern in the West, but it poses a threat of contamination if the fracking water is spilled or migrates into aquifers. The industry insists such risks are nearly nonexistent.
 
In the western part of Colorado, preservationists worry that scenic federal lands will be threatened by energy companies eager to take advantage of fracking technologies. On the east side of the Rockies, north of Denver, where there are more voters, entire suburban communities are rising against what they consider a potentially hazardous industrial activity in their backyards. The water used in fracking often contains chemicals known to cause cancer and other human health problems.
 

Clearly, if the industry insists that the threat of contamination is non-existent, then we should believe them. Right? Because what do they have at stake? They’re not in it for the money or anything like that.

By the way:

Environmentalists have been especially dismayed that Obama’s Department of the Interior, in new fracking regulations that apply to leases on federal lands, required drillers to publicly reveal the contents of fracking fluid only after drilling operations have taken place, not before.

Tar Sands Pipeline. POTUS has put off of a decision until after 2012 elections. In light of his other anti-environmental moves, I’m not confident about this major move to environmental degradation.

 British Petroleum. Obama was the biggest recipient of BP’s cash. After the initial disaster, it’s true that POTUS paid lip service to making BP accountable…and have we heard absolutely anything about BP since 2010?

Off-shore drilling. This is an area where Obama’s plan to drill (notice—Not NOT drilling) got overtaken by the House’s more ambitious plan to expand off-shore drilling. So, here’s what the POTUS’ compromise got us: Nothing. If one is going to go down fighting (and by the way, what exactly did the Dems get done under their solid majority until mid-term elections), why not just NOT give in at all?

Labor: 3 FTA bills, dead under the Bush Administration, revived and pushed through under the present Democratic administration. Notice that FOX news is crowing about this. POTUS/Dems are GOOD for the 1%. So apparently, “protecting labor” means passing a bunch of bills that enable US companies to move overseas, engage in “Free Trade” without labor protections—in China, and with the latest, the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Malaysia and Brunei (Hot bed of labor protections there, huh?).
Notice also that our previous Democratic President, the oh-so-liberal Bill Clinton managed to one-up George Bush I by promoting and signing the 1991 NAFTA which spurred the impetus to push jobs to Mexico, forego labor and union rights, and approve sub-par wages for Mexican citizens. Oh, I forgot: we’re supposed to root for the Democrats because they protect labor. Sorry, I lost the script.

Perhaps I’m being paranoid about labor rights and protections being undermined by the TransPacific Partnership. But we can’t find out, can we, because it is one of the least transparent agreements to date.

Health-care: According to some progressive economists, Obamacare is hardly healthcare reform, but rather a subsidy that draws insurance companies squarely into the mix. Great for a bunch of folks who can generally afford health-care, but by and large, puts unemployed and poor folks of a certain income at risk of being penalized if they don’t buy health insurance. Some progressive economists suggest that while Obamacare is being touted as a victory, but it isn’t much of one for poor people and people of color who are already having trouble making ends meet.

Banking: Need we discuss the colossal failure of POTUS and the Dems to manage, scold, punish, fine the bankers?  Read anything, ANYTHING, by Matt Taibbi, Bill Black, Matt Stoller, Sheila Bair, and others, who have discussed this failure ad nauseum. Last time I checked, the banking failure is hurting tons of folks at “home” in the U.S. And I don’t see anyone pointing to POTUS’ courageous stance in resisting the banks.

Mortgage Settlement: Again, need we discuss the colossal failure on the part of Kamala Harris to negotiate an adequate compensation package? See here and here. Neil Barofsky has a new book about the futility of their demands for accountability.  Who is this hurting? Clearly, those families who were hoping to be rescued from losing their houses in the sub-prime mortgage fiasco.

Social Security: A number of progressive economists think that there is a plan to cut Social Security right after the election; and others such as Dean Baker believe that the idea that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme is a myth.

Incarceration. I’ve written about this over and over again. No win here for black and brown US citizens. No win here for migrants and foreign nationals. None.

Drug war: Again, no win here. According to Michelle Alexander, it’s expanded and contributed to the systematic mass incarceration of Black and brown Americans.

Same-Sex rights: Some progress here:

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell: Yes, As POTUS and Dems were to be one-upped by a federal judge, they came out in favor of DADT. Very late in the game. And need I remind anyone that it was under Democratic President Clinton’s watch that DADT was instituted? The cycle of life.

Same-Sex Marriage: Yes, as of June of this year—the day AFTER a referendum banning it was passed in North Carolina. The POTUS had 3 years to come out in favor, and was notorious for not being in favor well before his election. The attention to timing is crucial here.

Reproductive Rights: Dem HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius managed to reject an initiative that approved the OTC birth-control pill, even after the bill had passed.

POTUS gave the Catholic Church an out from having to provide insurance for birth control to its employees.

POTUS did manage to include a co-pay free birth control provision.

Violence Against Women Act: Depends on which feminist you ask. Better for US women than for women migrants. Will come back to this in another post.

White Privilege, American Privilege: Does It Make Sense to Be More Concerned with Rights at “Home”?

Updated Version

I love how white folks are going around deploying “white privilege” pejoratively at this particular moment, 6 weeks from the elections. I think the term is useful and can be illuminating in demonstrating racial and political economic hierarchies   But if white folks are going to use it responsibly, the term should be placed up front, followed by a verb, object, and citation to someone—preferably a writer or activist of color– who explains and puts the term in context.

I wonder if they know that lobbing it against someone else doesn’t make them racially or morally superior, it doesn’t exculpate them from their own (white) privilege, and it doesn’t actually do the work of explaining their concerns.

I also don’t think “white privilege,” as deployed by whites, is a particularly illuminating term in pointing to some of the serious issues that trouble people like me.  After all, we know plenty of folks of color who have accepted the invitation into white supremacy, and helped design policies that induced the suffering of many folks of color—through the architecture of torture, justifying rendition practices, cementing the extra-legal category of enemy combatant, among other things: Condoleezza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Yoo—and that was under the Bush Administration. But plenty of folks of color are doing it today: Governors Nikki Haley & Bobby Jindal on eradicating social structures, reproductive choice, etc. Really, the privilege in question is American (whitish or liberal) privilege: the privilege of not having to know (or know about) foreign nationals or feel particularly obliged to them, or know about the harms done to them, simply because the wars, jingoism, and aggressive foreign policy of the US empire won’t affect you.

White supremacy. Pretty loaded word. As philosopher Charles Mills uses the term in his book, white supremacy is defined to talk about the system of power that is designed to keep whites in power. Mills uses it to talk about the Racial Contract—both as the counterpart of the Social Contract and its foundation. The Social Contract—the one that ensures that white folks will have access to equal and reciprocal rights, can only do so on the backs of black and brown folks, who are sub-persons, in Mills’ terms. And we’ve seen plenty of what this Racial Contract leads to–I write about it here and here and here. But it is certainly possible for brown and black folks to accept the invitation to move ranks—for plenty of good reasons—to escape vulnerability, persecution, harassment. But there are also less than compelling reasons, like doing the work of white supremacists for them: being the architect of torture, of rendition, leading the charge to invade other countries. It’s not unusual that folks of color are invited to do this—and may have some compelling self-interests to do so; but it doesn’t mean that we should refrain from criticizing them, or constantly be subject to charges of racism.

In short, yes, there are some—debatable—improvements with regard to issues that affect mostly middle- and upper-class U.S. citizens. But this is hardly a proud record of accomplishments that should be touted as representing “Americans.”  I’m listing the differences on a new page—both to support my position, but also because I don’t want to distract from the argument here. See here if you are interested.

Really, the idea that we must look so hard to find substantive difference between the two parties suggests that at so many levels, empire has finally taken root.  Empire. White Supremacy. Gawd, such loaded words. And yet, really, this is where the U.S. is. Empire is deployed to justify actions and unite those at home against the Other overseas, who have been subject to conquest.

Hannah Arendt, wrote about the links of race and capitalism as embedded in empire in the Origins of Totalitarianism in 1948.  As she explored the roots of empire in the early 1900’s, she found the “inner contradiction between the nation’s body politic and conquest as a political device” an obvious one.” (1948, 128)  But the failure of this contradiction leads to one of two outcomes: either a fully united national consciousness of those who were conquered…or tyranny. Empire was meant to unite folks at home, to insist upon the moral good done abroad, and to expect their conquests to like it.

Arendt pointed out that the drive to expansion and conquest was fueled by the desire for money to make itself and for power (the state) to follow money (the bankers and capitalists). Imperialists wanted “to expand political power without the foundation of a body politic”—without having a political structure that managed and checked capital and secured rights.

Sound familiar? Here is Arendt again:

“The secret of the new happy fulfillment [of the bourgeoisie’s desire to have money beget money]  was precisely that economic laws no longer stood in the way of the greed of the owning classes. Money could finally beget money because power, with complete disregard for all laws—economic as well as ethical—could appropriate wealth. Only when exported money succeeded in stimulating the export of power could it accomplish its owners’ designs Only the unlimited accumulation of power could bring about the unlimited accumulation of capital. (Arendt 1948, 137)
 

History repeats itself at this moment. This is why it does us little good to separate out “our” obligations to “our own” from our obligations to “Others.” If we try, then we engage in a false disconnect. What happens internationally is intrinsically linked to what happens in the U.S.   Foreign policy influences domestic policy, by insisting that we have to band together against the Other—or it brings the same mentality—and similar policies abrogating rights protections back home—in the form of NDAA, the expansion of FISA, Indefinite detention, wiretapping, FBI databases and fusion centers. Capitalists influence foreign policy in line with their own interests–and consistently in line with domestic policy that lines up with their interests. This seems clear when looking at the list of accomplishments on the parts of the Democrats.

Glenn Greenwald, Jonathan Turley, and numerous others, including myself, have been making this point repeatedly.  This is why I think the term “white privilege” deflects attention from what’s at stake: there is absolutely a privilege in being able to ignore what’s happening abroad, or to insist on our moral superiority or exceptionalism. As Sam Holloway points out:

It’s very revealing that the most consistent argument in favor of supporting Barack Obama (when better options are clearly available) is that the other corporate option (Romney) will be worse. Crystal ball access notwithstanding, this is a terrible justification. It’s a clear demonstration that millions of us are willing to allow atrocities to be visited upon others as long as our own privileges are left more or less intact. We don’t care how many foreign brown children Obama exterminates as long as the wealthier among us still has access to health care, abortions, etc. Let’s be clear– I’m not suggesting those are trivial issues. However, if you accept a situation where you have access and others don’t, then you are reducing these basic human rights to privileges. The same goes for your right to due process; if you tolerate Obama’s extrajudicial killings, then you are saying that life is a privilege that you deserve and that others do not. In addition to being morally reprehensible, this approach leaves you open to having your own privilege (to health, security, life, etc.) revoked at any time.
 

Isn’t this what we’ve been seeing? In the deportation of migrants, drone attacks, indefinite detention, NDAA 2012, H.R. 347, suppression of speech? These issues are inseparable—when they happen to others, they are used to justify “our” privilege—in this case, American privilege. But “our” privilege can be revoked using the same laws, same authority (or lack thereof) that were used to kill vilified U.S. citizens like Al-Aulaqi, to detain, harass, and confine U.S. citizens without fair trials—like Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna, Bradley Manning—these will be used against “us” too–starting with the most vulnerable, dark, and threatening first.

Having the right to have my contraception paid for won’t protect you or me against that immoral use of power to hurt, humiliate, torture, incarcerate—lawfully. The violations of bodies of Black and brown folks are intrinsically connected to the lack of respect for the bodies of black and brown women–in the US and elsewhere.  And Mitt Romney may be worse on some of these issues—but his ability to harm all of us will have been made much easier by the likes of our past 2 POTUSes—Democrat and Republican—and the current Administration. Not to worry. That is the devastating future of American –and not just white–privilege.

John Knefel: Adnan Latif Wrote to his Lawyer About Why He Wanted to End His Life

This article is reblogged from Alternet.org. It is a must-read and sheds more light on the needless and groundless circumstances that led Latif to give up all hope on his ever leaving Guantanamo Bay.I will refrain from calling this a tragedy: a tragedy is thought to be inevitable. Latif’s incarceration and suicide were anything but. What happened to Latif is a travesty. And there is plenty of blame to be assigned: to the past and current Presidential Administrations; the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Military, for starters.

What happened to Latif is still happening: and not only to Guantanamo detainees. Incarceration without due process rights, under unjust circumstances or false evidence is a regular event that happens to thousands of minorities–men and women–everyday in the United States: in U.S. prisons and detention facilities that hold migrants and refugees. More on this in a future post.

Dead Gitmo Prisoner’s Tragic Letter About Why He Gave Up on Life

by John Knefel

September 13, 2012  |

Adnan Latif was found dead in his cell on September 10th, 2012, just a day before the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. He was 32. Latif, a Yemeni citizen, had been detained at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, despite a 2010 court ruling that ordered the Obama administration to “take all necessary and appropriate diplomatic steps to facilitate Latif’s release forthwith,” due to lack of evidence that he had committed any crime. He suffered at the hands of the US government in ways that most people can’t begin to comprehend, and his death should be a reminder that the national shame that is Guantanamo Bay lives on and now enjoys bipartisan support.

Reexamining a letter  he wrote to his lawyer David Remes in December of 2010 shows the depths of his despair near the end of his life. His letter begins simply. The first paragraph is just one devastating sentence: “Do whatever you wish to do, the issue is over.” He then goes on to describe Guantanamo as, “a prison that does not know humanity, and does not know [sic] except the language of power, oppression, and humiliation for whoever enters it.”

“Anybody who is able to die,” Latif writes, “will be able to achieve happiness for himself, he has no hope except that.”

He continues:

“The requirement…is to leave this life which is no longer anymore [sic] called a life, instead it itself has become death and renewable torture. Ending it is a mercy and happiness for this soul. I will not allow any more of this and I will end it.”

Latif attempted suicide in 2009 by slitting his wrists, and his attorney, David Remes, has said that he tried to kill himself on other occasions as well.

A car accident in 1994 left Latif with a head injury, which he was attempting to get treated in Afghanistan when he was captured near the border by Pakistani authorities. In January, 2002, he was sent to Guantanamo, with the unfortunate distinction of being one of the first detainees. According to the ACLU, Latif was cleared to be released in 2004, 2007, 2009, and again in 2010 by US District Court Judge Henry Kennedy. The Obama DOJ appealed the 2010 decision, in part because of a policy of not transferring detainees to Yemen, and so Latif remained in custody – not because of what he had done (which was nothing), but because of where he was born. The decision to appeal his release wasn’t a holdover from the Bush era. That was an affirmative decision made by the Obama administration, and any supporters who hoped Obama would close Guantanamo Bay should understand that fact.

Latif is far from the only prisoner still held at Guantanamo despite being okayed for release. “Over half of the people left in Gitmo have been cleared for years,” said Cori Crider, Legal Director at Reprieve in charge of managing litigation on secret prisons,who has represented clients detained at Guantanamo. Crider went on to say that although conditions at the prison are better than they were in 2002, indefinite detention is enough to break people.  “That young man, who was, say, twenty when he is seized, is thirty. He sees his life slipping away from him with no sign of release. Hopelessness takes lives at Gitmo now.”

There are, unsurprisingly, international legal ramifications to Latif’s death as well. “When a Government deprives a person of their liberty and keeps them in detention, it exercises almost complete control over that person’s security and well-being. Because of this control, if a person dies in custody, there is a presumption under international law of government responsibility,” said Professor Sarah Knuckey, Former Advisor to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. “Thus, for any death in custody, the government must accept legal responsibility, or affirmatively demonstrate that it was not responsible for the death.” The understandable reaction that this is merely another example in an already disgracefully long list of international crimes committed since 9/11 only underscores how radical and warped US national security and foreign policy has become.

“A world power failed to safeguard peace and human rights and from saving me. I will do whatever I am able to do to rid myself of the imposed death on me at any moment of this prison.”

Adnan Latif’s letter is in full below. (Click to read a larger version)

Turley and Cusack on the U.S. Constitution

I rarely do this, but this is a must-read column by progressive activist/actor John Cusack, followed by a very long, but urgent, conversation between Cusack and Constitutional Law Prof. Jonathan Turley. It will make liberals and progressives in the US extremely uncomfortable, but it’s time to feel uncomfortable: there are some serious questions that need to be addressed in the face of the November 2012 elections, and Turley and Cusack lay out clearly what’s at stake–morally, politically, internationally. Skip to the last six paragraphs if you’re short on time.

SHANNYN MOORE: JUST A GIRL FROM HOMER

Editor’s Note from Shannyn Moore:  Read This.


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By John Cusack

I wrote this a while back after Romney got the nom… in light of the blizzard of bullshit coming at us in the next few months I thought I would put it out now

Now that the Republican primary circus is over, I started to think about what it would mean to vote for Obama…

Since mostly we hear from the daily hypocrisies of Mitt and friends, I thought we should examine “our guy” on a few issues with a bit more scrutiny than we hear from the “progressive left”, which seems to be little or none at all.

Instead of scrutiny, the usual arguments in favor of another Obama presidency are made: We must stop fanatics; it would be better than the fanatics—he’s the last line of defense from the corporate barbarians—and of course the Supreme Court. It…

View original post 10,196 more words

Election Year Redux

When it rains…2 posts on Translation Exercises on the same day! This one, by me, follows on the heels of the sobering piece by Marcellus Andrews.

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As I’ve said repeatedly, by the time the New York Times acknowledges my reality, it must be obvious to the most comatose of creatures. On Tuesday of this week, The New York Times’ Jo Becker and Scott Shane published a long piece that appeared to have very intimate knowledge of Obama’s strategy on counterterrorism.   It was a weird mix of criticism and glorification of the POTUS.  The title was a bit on the breathless side: “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will.”

On the critical side:

1. The article pointed Obama’s unadulterated interest in centralizing and accumulating as much executive authority as possible to determine who would be next on the “Secret Kill” list.

“Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.”

 

2. It seemed to confirm what the crazies on the left (myself included) have been saying for over 3 years, namely that

“[w]ithout showing his hand, Mr. Obama had preserved three major policies — rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention — that have been targets of human rights groups since the 2001 terrorist attacks.”
 

3. It pointed to criticisms that Obama’s own conservative staff had leveled about the personal assassination program, ranging from lack of accountability, indiscriminatory assassination of civilian adults and children (Children? Killed by Military? Why does that sound so familiar this week?). Folks as Neanderthal on the spectrum as:

Obama’s ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron P. Munter, who “has complained to colleagues that the C.I.A.’s strikes drive American policy there, saying “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,” a colleague said.”

 

Dennis C. Blair, the former director of national intelligence “until he was fired in May 2010,” [w]ho is quoted by the NYT  as commenting, “The steady refrain in the White House was, ‘This is the only game in town’ — reminded me of body counts in Vietnam,” said Mr. Blair, a retired admiral who began his Navy service during that war.”  A former head of national intelligence who served during Vietnam? Suggesting that Obama’s war is like Vietnam?

William Daley, chief of staff for Obama until 2011: “One guy gets knocked off, and the guy’s driver, who’s No. 21, becomes 20?” Mr. Daley said, describing the internal discussion. “At what point are you just filling the bucket with numbers?”  Given that Daley’s not the sharpest knife, how obvious must it be that Obama is hoarding power for himself much like squirrels accumulate acorns in the late fall?

4. It raises the question of whether the “single digit figures” of civilian deaths could be accurate:

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”
 
 

Wow. It bothers this guy that random people killed by drone strikes are automatically assumed to be militants, just because the drones hit them where they lived. Hmm. The upstanding moral conscience of those surrounding the POTUS makes me shiver in awe. Given that fact that they’re dead, the more urgent question might be why so few pols are interested in effectively challenging Obama’s accumulation of power to decide who lives and who dies. A little arbitrary friend/enemy distinction is happening all around us. Which means it could happen to you, too. Carl Schmitt, anyone?

Now, on the warm, puppy-love, side:

  1. Becker and Shane point out how Obama’s acute constitutional lawyerly background would have no deterrent effect on diluting or minimizing the war on Muslims that was initiated under the Bush administration. If anything, Obama’s strength has been to figure out how to weave and finesse a path that bypasses Constitutional principles—even as he pretended that he was keeping campaign promises to shut down Guantanamo Bay and ban torture:

What the new president did not say was that the orders contained a few subtle loopholes. They reflected a still unfamiliar Barack Obama, a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric. Instead, he was already putting his lawyerly mind to carving out the maximum amount of maneuvering room to fight terrorism as he saw fit.

2.  The article suggests that the supposed near-miss on Christmas 2009 by Underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab seemed to push Obama toward a more aggressive anti-terrorism stance).

He asked them to use the close call to imagine in detail the consequences if the bomb had detonated. In characteristic fashion, he went around the room, asking each official to explain what had gone wrong and what needed to be done about it.

“After that, as president, it seemed like he felt in his gut the threat to the United States,” said Michael E. Leiter, then director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

More aggressive counterterrorism stance, and I might add, more illegal. But really, let’s think back: wasn’t Obama’s edgy anti-constitutionality approach already in play by February 2009? Remember, in August 2008, he returned to Washington, DC from campaigning to record his vote in favor of the renewal of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). He had done nothing to abate ICE’s policy to step up on deportations of migrants (and no, this is hardly just a policy affecting migrant workers. Secure Communities, implemented in October 2008, targets anyone that the police come across in the course of their duties that might have immigration violations. This too is a counterterrorism policy, per the description of S.Comm on ICE’s own website:

In a memo issued by ICE Director John Morton in June 2010, ICE outlined the way it prioritizes removals. Specifically, ICE prioritizes the removal of those who pose a danger to national security or public safety, repeat violators who game the immigration system, those who fail to appear at immigration hearings, and fugitives who have already been ordered removed by an immigration judge. 

3. It points to Obama’s “pragmatic” reasoning in helping “maintain his options” with regard to renditions, detention, assassinations, drones, and less precise massacrous events, i.e. those that were to be certain of avoiding civilian deaths. (Regarding the term “massacrous”: is there such an adjective? I think we need one, given the long-standing popularity of mass murders by the state).

The NYT also offered a bit of accuracy at the conclusion of the article:

Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”

Blair is certainly right: strikes, like rounding up and deporting innocent civilians in the name of fighting crime, like prosecuting kangaroo court cases against young Muslim men like Tarek Mehanna and Fahad Hashmi (and so many others) for “terrorism.” As Blair insists of drone strikes, these are all politically advantageous strategies—no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness, plays well domestically, and unpopular only in other countries.

But along with that accuracy came a bit of sentimental disingenuity:

But Mr. Blair’s dissent puts him in a small minority of security experts. Mr. Obama’s record has eroded the political perception that Democrats are weak on national security. No one would have imagined four years ago that his counterterrorism policies would come under far more fierce attack from the American Civil Liberties Union than from Mr. Romney.
 
 

Come on, NYT, really: Some of us called this one, and insisted that Obama would be no more interested in abiding by the constitution than Bush.  And here we are in June 2012, with four months til the next election. Kind of feeling like Charlie Brown. The Dem have snatched that football away time and time again. Long past time to walk away from the field and look for a new president. But change is coming. And it is not something I can believe in.

Abdulmutallab, POTUS, and Al-Awlaki: NPR Stenographers and Post-Assassination Apologias

Yesterday, a US judge sentenced Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to life in prison without parole for eight felony counts, including attempted murder and attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. You will recall that on Christmas Day 2009, Nigerian-born Abdulmutallab boarded a Northwest Airlines flight  from Amsterdam to Detroit with an explosive device planted in his underwear. The bomb did not go off, though Abdulmutallab was burned in the effort.

Several interesting facts to note: First, Abdulmutallab, unlike Anwar Al-Awlaki, was not a US citizen. Second, Abdulmutallab received a US criminal trial, and by many accounts, seems to have been accorded due process: He was charged publicly; he was read his Miranda rights; and he was given a court-appointed lawyer, whom he dismissed. As Glenn Greenwald suggests, due process is possible when trying suspected terrorists. Third, the evidence on which Abdulmutallab was convicted was given by several witnesses who were on the plane (more evidence of due process). Fourth, Abdulmutallab has apparently admitted under questioning by the FBI, to have trained with Anwar Al-Awlaki and Al-Qaeda in Yemen. Fifth, we are not privy to the conditions under which the confession was obtained. Sixth, there are many statements by British newspapers, US officials, and Yemeni reporters that link Abdulmutallab to Al-awlaki, but we don’t have any official evidence.

NPR’s reportage of it was a remarkable act of breathless apologia. Dina Temple-Raston, who wrote a well-researched expose of the FBI’s attempt (in an act of unmitigated racist profiling) to infiltrate a group of Muslims after September 11, 2001, covered the sentencing. I used to appreciate her work in the early days after September 11, especially her sober and balanced attempt to consider how Muslims were being received in the American Political Arena. Temple-Raston and Melissa Block, pointed breathlessly to Abdulmutallab’s confession, given as testimony in his trial, that he had joined Anwar Al-Awlaki for several days of intense training in preparation for this event.

Here’s an excerpt from their exchange:

BLOCK: Dina, we heard you mention the American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Talk about his role in this plot.
 
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes. Well, you remember Awlaki is that radical cleric who may be best known as a propagandist for al-Qaida’s arm in Yemen. He had this huge presence and a Facebook page and a lot of English-speaking followers. What we knew about Abdulmutallab was that he had said he was inspired by him. What is new are these details that came out in this court document that was supposed to help the judge make a decision about the sentencing. And that document revealed the extent of Awlaki’s role in the plot.
 
Abdulmutallab told investigators that he went to Yemen in search of Awlaki, and he wanted to martyr himself. And he eventually actually went to Awlaki’s house in the desert and trained with him for several days. And he said Awlaki connected him with an al-Qaida bomb maker who actually constructed the underwear bomb and even helped him make his martyrdom video.
 
BLOCK: Was Abdulmutallab basically saying that al-Awlaki was the mastermind, the instigator ordering this attack then?
 
TEMPLE-RASTON: Yes, essentially. And the reason why this is so important is because Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen late last year. And it was a very controversial strike because Awlaki was born in New Mexico. He’s an American. And the Obama administration said he was operational – was an operational threat. But they provided any (sic) evidence to back that up. The release of these details from the Abdulmutallab case are a start. And we’re expecting the attorney general, Eric Holder, to talk about the legal justification for killing Awlaki any time now.
 
I mean, we understand that there’s a speech being prepared to at least address the issue. And we don’t know when that speech is going to be given, but it seems that the details in this Abdulmutallab filing could be readying the ground for that. (my emphasis)
 

This confession, to hear Block and Temple-Raston, would confirm—no, prove—that President Obama was correct to have assassinated Al-Awlaki even though he gave no evidence for the killing. The two stenographers, as Glenn Greenwald has aptly described, seemed to concur that the confession would become post-facto proof that would vindicate the POTUS and the AG Eric Holder in their decision. They completely—forgot? ignored? the fact that Abdulmutallab’s confession had little to do with the initial controversy over Al-Awlaki’s murder—namely the absence of due process, the absence of any (let alone objective) evidence, the decision to kill an US Citizen by sending Navy Seals into another sovereign nation without permission. Abdulmutallab’s confession has little bearing on exculpating Obama’s use of the unilateral, autocratic, power in ordering the killing of Al-Awlaki as a US Citizen. The supposed confession seems to confirm some bizarre post-assassination fact to Block and Temple-Raston, along the lines of an  “I told you so”: “See, he (POTUS) was right to use arbitrary autocratic power!!” Indeed, it would appear that Temple-Raston and Block have given up nearly all critical skills, which I suppose is what is owed to become foremost stenographers on National Public Radio.

LGBTQ Young People of Color Mic Check

Clearly, these young folks get it: they understand the importance of transracial, transnational, solidarity. And they make clear that they are understand that anti-queer politics, homophobia, imperialism, homonationalism, and racism  are linked and must be seen together. If they can get it, why can’t other progs? Props to LGBTQ Young People of Color. Fierce, Sharp, Insightful. Gives me hope.

Progressives, Truth-telling, and Human Rights Issues

Revised version:

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald’s mentions of my Jan. 6 post on this site, and thanks to the readers who stopped by, as well as to those who left comments.  After watching the Greenwald-Pollitt bloggingheads clip that aired yesterday, my concerns from that post remain. I want to respond to a couple of points:

First, Greenwald asks for Pollitt’s response (19:24; Pollitt’s answer at 22:10) to my argument that the war on terror viscerally impacts men and women of color and their children. In fact, I argue that it has eviscerated significant segments of the Iraqi civilian population, the reproductive systems of women, and Afghan population, as well as citizens and foreign nationals who are Muslim/Middle Eastern/South Asian (MEMSA) in the United States. I insisted these were not insignificant side issues, and that progressives and Democrats have the privilege of not having to be affected by them.

Pollitt’s response: “If she is right, then Black people and people of color would be voting for Ron Paul in droves. Are they?” She clarifies that she said that “Leftish women and people of color” were silent, not that every person was silent. Fair enough to the second point. But to her first response—she assumes the very thing that is under question, namely whether folks –white or non-white—should vote for Paul.  I can be right without African-Americans or Latino Americans or other citizens of color deciding to vote for Ron Paul.  In fact, Ron Paul’s candidacy is a moot issue, and even if it weren’t, I do not  want to suggest that folks should vote for Ron Paul. What I would like, however, is to engage in some serious truth-telling of the variety that Arthur Brisbane and NYT might want to pursue one day:

President Obama didn’t offer a racist presidential campaign in 2008. But he did promise to expand the number of troops he sent to Afghanistan; he was on record as being against gay marriage; against the constitutional protections of privacy (signing up for the renewal of FISA while on the campaign trail, giving telecomm corporations immunity for collaborating with the government); in favor of the 2006 renewal of the USA Patriot Act (which he renewed again last year); in favor of the death penalty (although he wanted to reform it); in favor of immigration reform (on the order of a guest worker system), and in favor of closing Guantanamo (briefly creating the impression that he wanted to extend civilian trials to detainees), and in favor of the protection of reproductive rights–a promise that he’s broken.

Once in office, President Obama continued to send US troops to decimate Iraq and Afghanistan, even with a Democratic majority in the House and Senate until the mid-term elections. That is not a compromise; it is an assertive, decisive uncompromising action.  This Administration, the Department of Homeland Security worked actively to promote to deport nearly 400,000 migrants from the US annually for the past three years.* The claim that he is a feminist or liberal does not ring true when we examine the current President’s refusal to make the “morning after” pill available over the counter, or when we look at the abortion restrictions in the 2010 healthcare bill. The Healthcare program that was endorsed and passed under the current Administration is a spin-off of the Romney health-care plan in Massachusetts, and which includes a penalty against those citizens who are poor but not too poor.  These are not feminist acts. These are not anti-racist acts. These are not liberal acts.

I’m not sure that Pollitt understood the basis of my comments in my Jan. 6 post. My frustration emerged from what appears to be an accepted distinction between the rights of US nationals and those of “international Others.” Those Others include foreign nationals in our midst (from Gitmo detainees, the tortured, and undocumented migrants) and international populations who’ve been the victims of US-led wars. Not only does there appear to be divergence, but among progressives, there seems to be a prioritization of the rights of US nationals at the expense of international Others.

The war on terror, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (where we still have 15,000 “contractors”/troops), should be on every single feminist and liberal and progressive table where politics are being discussed (e.g., Democratic fundraisers, Occupy movements across the country, etc.).  The question of due process for US citizens (white, African American, Latinos or other populations), but also for foreign nationals are crucial—whether they are or aren’t MEMSA’s.

Civil protections such as due process, habeas corpus, the right to a trial, right against warrantless search and seizure, are not only political safeguards: they are protections for folks who are vulnerable to violence or exploitation. When such states or organizations can act against vulnerable populations (whether US minority communities or Muslim foreign nationals) by removing these, then the extinguishing of civil protections becomes a human rights issue—regardless of national borders.  If so, then we have moral—not just political—but moral obligations to international populations. Greenwald, describes a similar mandate from Martin Luther King’s 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech:

King notably added another reason why he felt compelled to prioritize issues of war: “another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1964; and I cannot forget that the Nobel Prize for Peace was also a commission.” As he put it: “ This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.” (my emphasis) If only that award were similarly understood today. His essential point was that nothing good could possibly happen in America so long as it continued on its path of warfare and bombing and invading foreign countries, and it was therefore necessary to prioritize protests against the war on at least equal footing with every other issue.

Like Martin Luther King in 1967, I don’t think we can trade in the human rights of foreign nationals for the rights of US nationals (and lucky for us, under the current Administration, we don’t really have to make this choice anymore)—not without a seriously blighted conscience about the fates into which we force international Muslim populations.  I’m going to end this post with a quote from Hannah Arendt, one of my favorite philosophers, but I will talk about this division in a new post tomorrow.

Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they became stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights they were rightless, the scum of the earth.” Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), ch. 9.

*The earlier version of this post incorrectly reported 46,000 deportations of migrants. In fact, 46k represents the number of parental deportations of migrants who had US born children, from the six month period of Jan-June 2011, according to Seth Wessler, who reported the original story in Colorlines.

Pollitt’s Perplexity about Pundits on Ron Paul

Revised:

It may be time to stop reading the Nation even earlier than March of this election year. Katha Pollitt engages in a serious distortion of Glenn Greenwald’s position (among others) that we need to pay attention to politicians such as Ron Paul, who are raising questions about President Obama’s continuation of the same policies as GW Bush. Somehow, despite Greenwald’s umpteen ad nauseam disavowals, this point is equated—no, identified –with “support for Ron Paul.” Pollitt also muses on the fact that she hasn’t seen a lot of “leftish white women and people of color” who have supported Paul, but if they do, they are staying pretty quiet about it.

Note, first of all, the old-school-lefty sweeping style of lumping all people of color with “leftish white women.” Women of color can’t have their own category–because they’re too complex and unruly with all their different identity-politic distinctions (y’know: Latina, African-American, Asian, Asian American, South Asian, African, Indigenous, Mestiza, etc.), and so at least “people of color” can address them all in one big sweep. Also, the unwieldiness of mentioning them distinctly will cut into the too-important and limited space of the Nation’s columns.

I can hear the talkback now: Q: What is it with those identity politics anyway? Can “they” just put them aside for the purposes of political solidarity? A: NO. No, “we” can’t. To be fair, that question was not articulated by Pollitt, but by plenty of other libs/progs NEVER in print but often in semi-private and casual conversations. That publicly unspoken question speaks to one of the problems with Pollitt’s post. She may not be speaking for “people of color,” but she’s certainly using “their” collective silence to make a point about the sycophancy of white male pundits in relation to other strange white men.

I wonder why Pollitt needed to point out “people of color” have not supported Ron Paul publicly. Does “their” absence on the Ron Paul platform somehow reaffirm her point about the (white?)“mancrush” for Ron Paul? It may appear to do so, but it’s a strawmancrush. People of color may not have spoken out because they have not reason to support Paul, true. Or they may not articulate support for his anti-war positions because they don’t want to be associated with Paul, given his questionable past positions on race. Or they may fear, as Glenn Greenwald points out repeatedly, that speaking in support of a stance will be CONFLATED with support for the politician. Still, a number of commentators, black and white, have pointed to the troubling policy decisions made or continued under the Obama Administration (and that are only being raised by one political candidate–a libertarian Republican–during this election season). Cornel West has been raising questions about Obama’s policies, as have Paul Krugman and Greenwald. Glenn Loury has recently raised some urgent questions about Ron Paul’s economic proposals to return to the gold standard and eliminating the Fed–EVEN as he points to the fact that Paul is our only anti-war candidate. As Corey Robin points out, a very sad fact for us on the left, because politicians on the left are not raising them.

But HERE FOLKS! I am a brown woman (in case my bio didn’t clue you into that), and I am downright livid at policies passed during the Obama administration (which a number of folks will attest that I anticipated before the 2008 election), which are even worse than expected. I am as livid with progressives who affect a casual? studied? indifference to the Administration’s repeated support for warrantless wiretapping (remember Obama’s vote during the 2008 election season when he took a break in campaigning to return to Washington to vote for the renewal of FISA; for his support of the Justice Department’s withholding of evidence (and even habeas corpus) from detainees on grounds of national security; his commitment to indefinite detention (NDAA was not the first time it’s arisen. We saw his support in the gesture to move Gitmo detainees to a federal prison in Illinois—with only a casual suggestion that they might receive civilian trials—only to watch it die quickly under even modest resistance. Guantanamo is still open with detainees languishing); the expansion of troops into Afghanistan in the first part of his term; the unceasing drone attacks in Pakistan, etc.

Does that mean that I am a fan of Ron Paul? No. Do I admire the fact that he’s articulating an anti-war platform? Yes, but very cautiously and very sadly, given his other questionable positions. As Corey Robin points out, folks who are anti-war have only Paul to look to. And in part, we have only Paul to look to, because of “white leftish women” like Katha Pollitt, who says,

“I, too, would love to see the end of the “war on drugs” and our other wars. I, too, am shocked by the curtailment of civil liberties in pursuit of the “war on terror,” most recently the provision in the NDAA permitting the indefinite detention, without charge, of US citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism. But these are a handful of cherries on a blighted tree.”

Really? Half a million Iraqi civilians dead? Dozens of Pakistani children dead because of drones (or more. We are not allowed to know)? The reproductive systems of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women decimated by decades of US-led chemical warfare ? The curtailment of civil liberties of legal residents (and not merely citizens) in the US? The indefinite detention of tens of thousands of migrants, documented or otherwise? Those migrants include Latinos, South Asians, Arabs, Middle Easterners, Muslims from other parts of the world–detained not just for migrating without papers, but for merely being suspected of terrorism and held without charges, without lawyers, without family knowing, without judicial review–without a way out. These are what an anti-war position would resist. Seriously? Pollitt believes these are cherries on a blighted tree?

Apparently the last time Pollitt checked, women were half the population in the United States. Last time I checked, women were half the population in the parts of the world that the US is decimating. I’m going out on a limb, but I’m guessing that they care about their reproductive systems being trashed. They probably also care about their children dying. I’m wondering what Pollitt thinks about the ripping apart of migrant parents from their children–by deporting at least 46,000 of them* under the Obama Administration? My understanding is that these children all had parents. And apparently those parents cared about them.

This is what Pollitt thinks are trivialities to neglect in the 2012 elections? Pollitt is extremely worried about the world of Ron Paul, in which “there would be no environmental protection, no Social Security, no Medicaid or Medicare, no help for the poor, no public education, no civil rights laws, no anti-discrimination law, no Americans With Disabilities Act, no laws ensuring the safety of food or drugs or consumer products, no workers’ rights.”

How does Pollitt feel about Obama’s initial support of the Tar Sands Pipeline? About helping bailing out Wall Street bankers using the millions of dollars that could have been spent to keep poor folks from losing their houses through robo-signings of foreclosure papers, or helping save the pensions of long time auto workers? About Democrats voting to spend trillions of dollars to send US men and women to war in which they lose their minds, if not also their limbs, and then come home to inadquate medical care, if any, and to perpetual unemployment? Is she really trustful of an FDA that can barely regulate pharmaceutical drugs?

I expect much more of presidents who dismiss their constituencies’ outcries for a return of constitutional safeguards such as habeas corpus, due process, judicial review, congressional approval before engaging in invasions, who want an end to the drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. I expect much more from folks who claim to be progressive and engaged in these outcries during the reign of George II, but have no interest in speaking publicly about the continuation of these same outrages under Obama’s rule (Let’s face it: that’s what it is: a move to increasing autocratic rule, and the most recent signing of NDAA can make no other point).

But like Ross Perot in 1991 (whose third-party candidacy created the space to challenge NAFTA) and Ralph Nader in 2000 (who raised questions about corporate politics and party complicity), the presence of Paul is raising serious questions about some elephants in the room. How do we expect solidarity among folks of color when the cost-benefit analysis is played out by pitting the issues that concern white folks and some US folks of color against issues affecting international populations or other US folks of color, as Pollit does in her column?

Here’s another question: why must I make this claim as a woman of color? As a South Asian woman? As a migrant? Why can’t I make this claim as a US citizen, pure and simple? Why can’t I make this claim simply as a progressive? Somehow that pisses me off. The collective indifference of thousands of progressives, even in OWS, to the minute attention paid to those foreign policies that don’t take an enormous leap of imagination to see the deaths, the bodily and psychic harm, the mutations that result from chemical warfare, that have affected hundreds of thousands of PEOPLE of COLOR. Yes. And I am a “People of color” making this point. For better or worse, Ron Paul is noticing it. I don’t care what his motivations are (again, I AM NOT SUPPORTING HIS CANDIDACY. Glenn: maybe you should have put your alerts in all-caps, like I did). He is raising the questions.

In general, I tend to agree with old-fashioned Southern liberals (Ann Richards, Molly Ivins, Jim “armadillo guy” Hightower), etc. Southern libertarians or anything elses, less so. So, I’m not surprised by Paul’s primitive and bass-ackwards views on affirmative action, race, gay rights, women. But then again, I don’t expect much of libertarians, in the same way that I expect little of conservatives or neo-liberals. And I am pleased when they raise an issue to which I am sympathetic.

For other pundits who insist that holding Obama to such difficult standards is racist, since after all Bill Clinton was a neo-liberal white president who engaged in some pretty dubious domestic and foreign policy in the first term and still got re-elected by Democrats: I have news. I was pissed in 1996. And there was the same lesser-of-2-evils guilt tripping that revolved around gathering support for the “centrist” incumbent. The Clinton Administration was the harbinger of some pretty serious human rights violations, as I see it: The 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, 1996 Welfare Reform Act (PRWORA), and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsiblity Act (IIRIRA), the “3 Strikes” (1994 Crime Act). All of those are crucial pieces of the road to indefinite detention and the eradication of civil liberties for US people of color. But we had the same guilt-trip in 1996 that we had in 2000, 2004, 2008, and again today: We have to do a cost-benefit analysis to see how “we” (read White Leftish Women and Men, and some segment of “People of Color”) stand to lose more personal benefits if we vote for the “worse” of 2 evils than for the “lesser” of 2 evils. It is always interesting to see how “we” couch the vote for the lesser of 2 evils in terms of how it will help “Other people” (even as it mostly helps us assuage our consciences and ensures that our status quo will not get worse.

Essentially, Pollitt’s column comes down to this: We want solidarity among liberals and progressives—but only on terms determined by WHITE leftish women and a segment of white men and some people of color. So it’s fine to be critical of President Obama and other Democrats. But DON’T suggest that a Republican–a conservative Libertarian–might raise a substantial issue that puts the libs/progs in an awkward spot. Especially NOT during Election Year. We can forgive a Democrat who’s continued a war that has killed and maimed Arabs, Muslims, poor folks of color who are NOT citizens of this mighty White-serving country (and killed and maimed thousands of US soldiers, too), but don’t funk with Pollitt’s reproductive rights. Certainly Obama has not expanded access to reproductive options to women without healthcare. I’m completely in support of the rights of middle- & upper-class white women to have abortions, but I’m also in support of the ability of US poor women & women of color, along with international women of color (poor or otherwise) to have access to reproductive health as well. Drones in Pakistan and chemical warfare in Iraq (yes, I know—Obama has “withdrawn” US troops from there—but only b/c Iraq wouldn’t let the US stay), and remaining in Afghanistan doesn’t exactly enhance access to reproductive rights for women. Nor does it facilitate clean air, water, or an unpolluted environment.

Here’s my other question: Why does this have to turn into a “guilt by association” debate? Why can’t we discuss the questions that are being raised as serious and important questions, rather than referendums on voters’ or pundits’ moral character? I don’t have to like Ron Paul (and why do we need to LIKE our politicians?). I don’t have to have dinner with him. He doesn’t need to be a friend. He is raising the questions that every other liberal and progressive and feminist (yes, including you, Katha) should be raising and forcing the Democrats to address. As Greenwald has pointed out, these issues only become outrage-worthy when the Republicans are spearheading human rights violations, because it gives the libs and progs a lever by which to claim political superiority. The silence on the Democrats’ record of human rights violations is deafening. And they’re more than cherries on a blighted tree. They’re dead bodies on the blighted conscience of Americans.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported 46,000 deportations of migrants. In fact, 46k represents the number of parental deportations of migrants who had US born children, from the six month period of Jan-June 2011, according to journalist Seth Wessler, who reported the original story in Colorlines.

Voting Model #1 cont’d: “They’re so interesting…I would love to have dinner with them” vote

A friend told me the other night that her mother voted for Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential elections because she thought Roslyn Carter looked uptight, whereas Nancy Reagan seemed much more appealing. I think that many folks find this voting model appealing, even if not consciously, and I wonder why. A similar logic has become the basis of a popular college-application question: Who would you most like to have dinner with, and why? Eager college applicants (myself included) choose unusual famous figures who will somehow reflect how impressive the essay-writer really is. Applicant gets accepted to her favorite college and somehow internalizes the logic: namely that the famous figure with whom she wants to have dinner reflects something admirable about herself.

I ended my previous post by pointing out that people will believe whatever you tell them you are, even if that self-representation is, let’s say, less than completely precise. That’s not such a bad thing in most areas of our lives. We all have certain versions of ourselves that we’d prefer that people see. When folks do see our preferred versions of ourselves, we make them our friends and lovers. When they see us differently from our preferred self-representations, we fight, reconcile, forgive or break up with those friends. And we also have tendencies to change or want to change our self-representations. This is why it was so popular to “go west, young man.” If you wanted to “remake” yourself, you moved to a new place with a new version of yourself and made new friends (it’s also why totalized surveillance in the form of FBI databases and CIA fusion centers are problematic—but that’s for another post).

I take away several things from this:

1. We tend to be friends with folks because we like their self-representations. But we’re not necessarily harmed when they change their self-representations, in large part because their actions probably don’t have an immediate impact on us. So, if I have a friend who was pro-union in college but becomes a union-busting lobbyist afterward, I may not respect her for it, but I can probably live with it–as long as we never discuss her work. Depending upon the nature of our friendship, I might take up the option of calling her out on it, discussing, reconciling, disagreeing, or ultimately ending the friendship because I am so troubled by her vocation (Yes, I know that Aristotle wrote about different types of friendship). But the consequences can be managed, at least at a personal level.

2. We think well of our friends, and can even imagine supporting them for office because we like and support who (we think) they are. But in most cases, we’re not called upon to do so, because for most of us, our friends don’t run for office. And we may like/deal with friends whose principles are odds for us, but we don’t have support them financially, work on their campaigns, or vote for them. We can even withdraw our support for family members whose politics we disagree with. See for example, Candace Gingrich-Jones on her brother, Newt.

3. The opposite conclusion is more problematic: voting for someone because we like their self-representations, or because we can imagine them being our friends. The image that they project may not (usually is not) accurate (more on this below). The effects of voting for someone whose self-representation is inaccurate/misleading/deceptive could lead to widespread and disastrous results for many more folks than just myself. Of course, it could have a happy opposite effect, but I can’t think of any examples.

On the accuracy of public self-representations: Walter Benjamin has a brilliant essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There are many insights to be gleaned from this piece, written in 1936. Benjamin points out how the invention of the camera enables a forum that influences, even prescribes, how a true emotion is reflected publicly. The “authenticity” of the emotion, which we might otherwise ascribe through our myriad interactions with a person, can now be extracted through the trust of the camera. At the end of Casablanca, we get a 3 second screen shot of Ingrid Bergman’s eyes filled with tears as Humphrey Bogart assures her that they’ll always have Paris. We know that this means their love was true, their love was lost, and Bergman’s heart is broken. As Benjamin notes so wisely, “This permits the audience to take the position of a critic, without experiencing any personal contact with the actor. The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” (Benjamin 1936, VIII). Can Ingrid really be sad if her eyes aren’t filled with tears? Can Bogey really be heartbroken if he’s not drowning his sorrows in whiskey?

Judgments about the moral stature of a person (in the public eye) are suspect to begin with, especially if they’re based on physical features, fashion sense, or weight (think about the snarky comments about New Jersey governor Chris Christie when he was reported to consider running for president). But he’s also one of the few politicos who nominated (AND defended) the appointment of a South Asian Muslim lawyer to the New Jersey Superior Court.

(I know that Benjamin has a much deeper critique about the convergence of capitalism and technology, aesthetics, and the evacuation of authenticity through the vehicle of mass reproduction, about which much more can be said. Really, I do. I already mentioned that his essay was brilliant.)

On political judgments based on public persona: What does a charming smile, gentle temperament, or well-modulated voice tell us about a person’s political convictions? President Lyndon B. Johnson managed to push through some pretty decent civil rights and affirmative action legislation, rough redneck though he was. On the other hand, his foreign policy decisions left much to be desired. But his personality didn’t necessarily reveal that much except he was an interesting character to quote in newspaper articles.

On the political character of a candidate based on their spouse: Yes, I too was enamored of Michelle Obama. I love (what I think) I see of her character, her accomplishments, her ideas (those that were publicly aired), her beauty. But her public persona tells us very little about her spouse’s political judgments and capacities. It doesn’t even tell us that much about the caliber of the White House dinners that (in a classic patriarchal holdover) as First Lady, she is supposed to be overseeing.

On the romantic, heroic, character of a political candidate, based on his and his public-relations firm’s stories about his upbringing, see Saturday’s post.

Conclusion:

A public figure with charm, good-storytelling skills, and heroic background (i.e. someone I’d like to have as a dinner guest) ≠ good political commitments, political sense, conviction, or administrative skills. Our judgments about a candidate based on video clips, numerous though they be, are fairly undependable.

NB: Perhaps this post is ridiculously obvious. But before November 2008, how many times did you think that Obama’s polished, charming, cosmopolitan self would guarantee us much more progressive politics than Bush’s crude, fratboyish presence?


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