Is Violence Cultural?

 

As the #YesAllWomen hashtag trended over the weekend, I tweeted out a few of my own. In response to one of my tweets [about having been menaced on 3 separate campuses by male students who were antagonized by the low grades or critical evaluations that I gave], a friendly tweep asked whether my experiences could be ascribed to a culture of violence. It was an important question, and I didn’t respond as 140 characters seemed to be rather limiting. I want to think through one part of that question here. But I want to note: my comments are not a reflection on my friendly interlocutor; rather, I’m trying to explore my concern about the phrase.

I’m always surprised when the words ‘violence’ and ‘culture’ are placed in close proximity. Much like the phrase “social construction of race,” the notion of a “culture of violence” seems to create an artificial stopping point at what should be the beginning of an analysis. These days, the phrase ‘social construction of race’ indicates a moment in the political development of theories of race rather than some meaningful insight in itself. Similarly, the notion of a ‘culture of violence’ is often the description given to explain the pro-gun discourse that marks the US in international lights, or the massacres that seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in the United States. The most recent one to come to public attention was the one that a young man, Elliot Rodgers, carried out a few days ago. The phrase ‘culture of violence,’ seems to be immediately problematic in several ways. First, it obscures the specificity of various kinds of violence (a shooting in cold blood versus a woman who shoots at an ex-lover in self-defense; a serial massacre by a young man versus a military massacre of a village). I’m not suggesting that they are all horrific or heinous. Rather, I want to suggest that the level and quality of (dis)approval in each case is affected by the conditions and institutions which supported that action. The second, closely related, way in which the discussion of a ‘culture of violence’ is problematic is that it elides state-led policies that endorse certain kinds of violent actions—based on who is committing the violence and who the violence is committed against—rather than on the action in question.

Examples of the second would include executive policies such as a memo that authorized the use of drones to kill people who are suspected of terrorism (or having a governmental body vote in favor of a federal judgeship for the lawyer who co-authored that memo); or the actions of federal judges who exculpate police officers who shoot young black men while sentencing a political protestor to prison for elbowing a policeman for a boob grab, or a range of bills that unanimously approve the pre-emptive policing, or potential detention, or profiling and entrapment thousands of people who loosely fall into the same group as the 19 men who flew into the World Trade Center in 2001.

You get my point.

‘Culture,’ like ‘social construction,’ seems to sidestep an assumption that certain traits are permanently embedded, without confessing to that assumption. It seems that culture is most often used in 4 different ways:

1. As a marker of identity: Indian culture, Russian culture, Irish culture, etc.

2. As a comparative descriptor, such as when praising a group of people affiliated with a certain society as having superlative values: French culture, Western culture, progressive culture.

3. To ascribe ‘primitive’ or ‘regressive’ traits to a group of people who are united on the basis of some practices or beliefs or (mutual) recognition of identity: Muslim/Islamic culture, Black culture, Masculine culture, etc.

4. To describe a set of (negative) practices that people abide by or embrace (wittingly or not), and therefore become part of that group: A culture of: consumerism, rape, terrorism, narcissism, violence.

Over a decade ago, at the first philosophy conference I attended after receiving my doctorate, my excitement melted into despair as I heard the keynote speaker, a white feminist philosopher of some renown, painstakingly describe how Palestinians and other Muslim cultures were more prone to a ‘culture of terrorism’ than those in Western societies. It seemed to link violence to a population while avoiding references to biology, ontology, or nature. [Uma Narayan, Talal Asad and Edward Said have challenged such a link in their considerable writings, but to judge from its frequent invocation, it still seems to remain an easy go-to place.] And in forging this link, the keynote speaker indicated that these actions were compulsive, driven by the culture to which said people belong.

This kind of deployment of ‘culture’ is striking for its complete bifurcation from a discussion of historical, (geo)political, economic, social, legal structures: what is the history of Palestine (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc)? What are the material, geopolitical, social circumstances in which certain men and women engage in certain specific practices? What are the legal structures that punish certain men and women for acts of violence while retaining a blind eye towards others? How do we construe violence or terrorism, when lone individuals or groups associated with non-state entities who blow up cafes become the prime figures of terrorism (and if they survive, will most certainly face punishment at the hands of government or military forces)–while other figures–surrounded by government security personnel as they instruct others to deploy drones against certain persons in Yemen selected by a computer algorithm–are hailed as heroes and voted repeatedly back into positions of power? All this, while those who provide legal validation for such practices are elevated to the nation’s highest courts (the most recent example being, of course, David Barron)?

Such a disarticulation from a discussion of underlying structures entrenches the belief that these practices are inherent – perhaps uniquely so — to the group with whom they are associated. So, to talk of a ‘culture of violence’ suggests that there is a set of violent practices that constitute the fabric of a society, bringing that very society together as a unit, which that society (or some part at least) doesn’t necessarily question, criticize, or challenge.

That may not be the intent of using this phrase, since—in none of the above 4 senses is culture used as a factual descriptor (even when that is the intent of the speaker) but more as a rhetorical descriptor. It is always possible to falsify a statement about culture that presumes that most if not all of its people ascribe to a certain belief. Hindus are not all vegetarian; Not all feminists believe that the hijab is oppressive; Not all Muslims (women or men) believe that the hijab must be worn. The French don’t all believe in republicanism. All of these groups have internal debates about various issues, and it may be impossible without (even with) extensive surveys, to discover which part of the group practices/believes in the belief under question, and whether that part of the group constitutes a majority.

My concern with the above deployment of term ‘culture’, is that the speaker obscures the very structures that s/he claims to take into account by locating violence/narcissism/entitlement/rape in a generic culture. It is true that the phrase ‘culture’ can accurately connote a set of embedded attitudes regarding violence, rape, narcissism or consumerism. But—especially when ascribing these attitudes to a group that is already the subject of criticism—s/he connotes that the actions of these populations are driven by their culture. By ascribing certain events to a ‘culture of violence,’ I wonder if it prevents us from having a more insightful conversation about the specific elements that drive a certain event.

Let me be clear: I do NOT want to exculpate men (or women) who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, or other systems validating hierarchies or endorsing oppression against groups on the basis of race, gender or nationality. These are systems—grounded through laws, economic policies, geopolitical history, and social policies of rewards and benefits–which can engender acceptance about the privileges that accrue to some persons on the basis of being – say — male or white (often without regard to class), or to being middle- or upper-class white women. And while it’s possible to talk of a set of beliefs that seem to be shared by those who benefit from patriarchy or white supremacy, I think it’s much more effective and important to prioritize a focus on systems rather than culture.

A useful followup to this rumination might be to problematize the discussion of “privilege”—as in in white privilege, male privilege, etc. That will be for a future post.

Children murdered, homes foreclosed: How the government makes “mistakes” with impunity

Anyone who’s been at the mercy of the DMV, the IRS, or a health insurance company knows that bureaucracies make mistakes. Most people are accustomed to bureaucracies making mistakes. And even presidential administrations and U.S. Armed Forces make mistakes.

Yet when considering U.S. national security policies, raising the question of mistakes that cost lives is chalked up as a minor issue: “We have to expect collateral damage in wars/drones/bombs/armed conflict.”

If we know that organizations make mistakes, then it’s not that hard to see that organizations without external oversight and accountability will be empowered to make mistakes with impunity.

Not rectifying mistakes, not allowing oversight, refusing to be accountable to an external judicial body is considered by many an abuse of power. But abuse can only be claimed when a state promises to be accountable. If the state claims that it can’t be accountable, can’t be reviewed for mistakes, can’t rectify mistakes because such practices would be dangerous (the reason isn’t really important here), then at most levels, it’s hard to name the state’s attitude as abuse.

Moreover, as journalist Margaret Kimberley points out, the Obama Adminstration has claimed the right to kill American citizens without charge or trial. That’s not an abuse of power. It’s a complete usurpation of power. There is no space by which to claim the Administration should have acted differently by its own lights.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call this, not the abuse of, but the monopoly of power?

In 2005, Rahina Ibrahim was “cuffed, detained, and denied a flight” to Hawaii to deliver a conference paper about sustainable housing. She was allowed to return home to Malaysia, but because her name was on a U.S. government no-fly list, Ibrahim’s visa was subsequently revoked; she was prevented from returning to the U.S., thus effectively ending her doctoral studies at Stanford.  She eventually finished her dissertation in Malaysia, and sued the US government to have her name removed from the no-fly list. But the courts initially ruled that she had no legal standing to sue the US to change its policies because she is a non-citizen, and the US’s efforts to fight terrorism could not be challenged by a foreign national.

Ibrahim persisted, and at least in the most recent round, won.  Despite the US’s best efforts to the contrary, Ibrahim is the first to successfully force the US government to remove her name from the list. U.S. District Court William Alsup’s ruling points out that the US government had erred: an FBI agent confessed to having filled out the No-Fly list form for Rahina Ibrahim in exactly the opposite way as he should have. Alsup had suspected as early as December 2009 that Ibrahim had been the victim of a “monumental” government error.

Murtaza Hussain, in an excellent assessment, points out that Attorney General Eric Holder abused the state-secrets privilege in the Ibrahim case. In an affidavit from April 2013, Holder invoked the state secrets privilege as the reason that the Department of Justice could not turn over the records regarding why her name was put on the no-fly list. Referring to the 2009 State Secrets Policyy established under a young Obama Administration, Holder promised that he would not claim the state-secrets privilege to hide wrongdoing, incompetence, inefficiency, or embarrassment. Nor would he invoke it to “prevent or delay the release of information the release of which would not reasonably be expected to cause significant harm to national security.”

Clearly, Holder lied. The reason we know that Holder lied is because of what was revealed in Judge Alsup’s decision.  In this specific instance, we have clear evidence that the Obama Administration abused its power—on the view that the abuse of power is constituted when an government has promised to behave within certain procedural bounds and legal limits, but has stepped beyond them.

As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Marcy Wheeler demonstrate, the Obama Administration is completely indifferent to its own state-secrets policy, except as a subterfuge. They have invoked it time and time again, for horrendous ends. As Shahid Buttar, head of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, communicated to Gosztola back in 2012 about the invocation of state secrets privilege:

 

the ability of the FBI to “stand above the law” and not answer to any authority when they outright lie or make deliberate misrepresentations about what kind of operations they are or are not conducting. Also, it makes it possible for the Executive Branch to enjoy extraordinary immunity from punishment when incredible abuses of power are committed and cases on torture, warrantless wiretapping or spying are brought forward in court.

State secrets privilege is but one of multiple excuses that the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, has used to expand its own power without any accompanying review or oversight of it. Whether the continued renewal of FISA (which candidate Obama voted in favor of in 2008), the NDAA 2012, NDAA 2013, or a myriad of other laws, under the Obama Administration has endorsed the unchecked expansions of power claimed by the FBI, the CIA (often in collusion with the NYPD, the DOJ. Countless foreigners have been rendered from Somalia, Sweden, and elsewhere, and interrogated without defense lawyers; numerous men have been placed in solitary confinement in prisons around the country, still unaware of the charges against them, with sketchy trials at best. Some of these men have been rendered stateless with the help of the British Home Office, such that their kidnappings could not be contested. Muslim communities all over the United States–in Southern California, Oregon, Minnesota, NY, Pennsylvania, New Jersey—have been subject to spying and entrapment.

Let’s not forget Terror Tuesdays and the Disposition Matrix, where Obama Administration officials gather to determine which alleged terrorist to execute next—without evidence, without oversight, with impunity.

It’s also been recently discovered that the FBI—the agency whose agent made a mistake in placing Rahina Ibrahim on the no-fly list–holds the power to delay the citizenship applications of Muslims—a policy enacted under the Bush Administration but still in effect today.

Mistakes, shmistakes.

The targeting of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the 16year-old U.S.-born son of Anwar Al-Awlaki was a mistake.

Putting post-surgery, wheelchair-bound, Stanford doctoral student Rahina Ibrahim’s name on a federal No-Fly list in 2005 was a mistake.

Hundreds of thousands of people were subject to housing foreclosures due to mistakes.

The Obama mortgage settlement allows for a threshold error rate for mistaken foreclosures.

Killing scores of civilians by drones is a mistake.

Incarcerating innocent (but not guilty) men without charges or trials is a mistake.

Holder’s behavior and that of many of his colleagues in the Obama Administration, such as DNI James Clapper, indicates that they have no problems with mistakes, or with lying about government practices, evading demands for evidence, or concealing violations with law.  This may make them corrupt—on the view that there should be a higher standard of behavior from government officials, one that conforms to consistency and accountability.

To the extent that the Obama Administration has conceded to calls for oversight, it has facilitated pseudo-review boards, as when Obama appointed the DNI Clapper to review the NSA’s protocols. Even the name of the group, “Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies,” indicated no interest in external oversight.

On the view that lying, evading and concealing are the (counter)part and parcel of the Obama Administration’s approach to national security—the other part being that any and all strategies will be utilized without regard to accountability or oversight–because these are necessary actions to protect the public at all costs, then Holder’s and Clapper’s actions don’t reveal an abuse of power, but rather the precise and intended application of power.

 

If the Administration promises to behave within certain procedural bounds–along with the proviso that it will be the sole arbitrator on when and how to proceed to execute its power, whom it will delegate its power, and who will be subject to its power—then we should not name that the abuse of power, but the ultimate monopoly—indeed, the ultimate expression of power–and laud the Administration for resolutely carrying out its own promises and marvel at its own rare consistency!

In fact, as many have pointed out, the Obama Presidency is following in the footsteps of the Bush Administration. It might be more accurate to say that the current Administration is carving out even bigger footsteps for itself, what with its impressive record number of drone murders, solitary-confinement based incarcerations, domestic and global surveillance, deportations of migrants, and its pointed indifference to looting bankers. By claiming the right to wield power without apology in all areas of national security domestic and foreign, and on behalf of Wall Street, the Obama Administration is claiming the status of the Leviathan, as the sovereign authority in Thomas Hobbes’ 16th century treatise on politics is named.

The Leviathan claims both to be the actor and author of the collective will: once people have handed over their consent to the sovereign (demonstrated by abrogating each individual’s rights to kill), then the Leviathan claims that power in the name of the people completely. The Leviathan can do no wrong and admits to no wrong. What’s more, unless a person can find a stronger protector, they have no choice to but to submit to the Leviathan’s authority.

So, the Obama Administration—by refusing to admit that its policies are fraught with mistakes, by refusing to concede that its mistakes have hurt innocents needlessly, by refusing to correct those mistakes in the name of state security—and by resisting all attempts to make it accountable by resorting to incarceration (John Kiriakou), mock trials (e.g., Chelsea Manning) or no trials (Barrett Brown), rescinding passports (Edward Snowden), coercing other sovereign states to incarcerate challengers to its power (Yemen/Abdulelah Haider Shaye), and killing citizens and foreigners alike without review or impunity (whether by drones, financial starvation), it claims to be the ultimate sovereign authority—without challenge, dissent, or resistance. It makes the same claim as the Leviathan.

At some level, the question that needs to be addressed is not whether the Obama Administration is interested in holding itself accountable—it clearly does not—but whether we are interested.

If US citizens are interested in the accountability from an Administration that considers itself to be not only above the law, but is unilaterally creating law and (by extension) determining others’ criminality through its own (often secret) standards, then we have to decide how to wrest back power from an absolutist state. By an absolutist state, I mean an Administration that considers dissent, scrutiny, and criticism from any lowly individual unforgivable, while insisting that its own mistakes (real and contrived) are necessary to its self-awarded status as the ruler of the world.

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This piece was originally published at Salon.com.

Correcting the Poor: The Civilizing Impulses of Homo Corporatus and Private Charities*

This is the next post in my series on Neoliberalism and Charity. Part 1 is posted here and at New Economic Perspectives.

_________________________________

Should anyone—the state or any other source–have an obligation to interfere with you in order bring your best, flourishing, self about?

Certainly, this is the debate that philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and libertarians such as Robert Nozick have engaged in heartily, with a view to socialist frameworks that redistribute resources in order to produce certain kinds of outcomes. Should the state impose certain ideals and goals upon you, and why? There are certainly examples of very good certain state-imposed expectations such as seatbelts or prohibitions against drunk driving, as well as terrible examples, such as state-imposed prohibitions on certain kinds of drugs.

In a neoliberal era, the corollary to above question is whether non-state organizations should have the ability to interfere with you in order to bring about your best, flourishing, self?

This question emerges in the wake of the heralded contrition of Sam Polk, as expressed in a New York Times opinion piece, where he offered a self-congratulatory description of his decision to give up being a Wall Street trader and “money addict,” and instead to form a charity that awards “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms.”

Polk’s charity, Groceryships, on its face appears to be a thoughtful idea.  Indeed, the basic Groceryship is a “scholarship for groceries.”

 Soon a simple one emerged: what if we bought groceries for a family for six months. I imagined a single mom, working overtime to try to put food on her table, and falling short. We wanted to give that mom some breathing room, and her kid some healthy food in the process.

The language of Groceryships is certainly neutral, but tells a story that reveals a number of assumptions about poor folks. In his tale about how Groceryships started, Polk gives a narrative about how he and his physician wife learned about eating better. And how they might be healthier if they ate better (apparently, this was previously unknown to them).  So they got to work, switching to whole foods, eliminating processed and fatty foods. Though they suffered “withdrawal” from their addiction to unhealthy foods, they were able to kick their habit. (addiction seems to be the lens by which Polk understands many phenomena).

We started buying tons of vegetables and whole grains, and cut down on fatty meats, sugar, and processed foods. It was hard. Very hard. Kirsten and I both experienced what we can only describe as withdrawal symptoms—nightmares, panicky feelings, irritability.

After a few weeks those symptoms faded. We found we enjoyed eating healthy and especially how good we felt. We no longer had to battle ourselves about whether to eat another Cheetos, or felt shame about eating too much cake. That everyday battle-stress just faded away. We ate at mealtimes, snacked when hungry, and felt great. After three months, Kirsten got her cholesterol levels tested. They’d been cut in half. She went off Lipitor.

Polk and his spouse were so impressed with the results that they wanted to share their newfound knowledge and to give back to society at the same time.

A few months later, we watched A Place At The Table (sic), a documentary focused on the staggering numbers of Americans, especially children, facing food insecurity. Each day 50 million people in this country (including one in four children) go hungry.

Growing up, my parents struggled, living paycheck to paycheck. But it never got so bad that food wasn’t on the table. Kirsten and I were horrified that so many people—kids!—were hungry. We were especially horrified that many of these kids lived down the street from us. Los Angeles is a segregated city. It’s easy to forget that just a few miles away people were starving.

I guess the truth is that we had known that; we’d just never taken ownership of our responsibility to do something about it. That day, we decided to help.

Polk recognizes the correlation between poverty and hunger, but he frames this correlation in the language of “choice” and options:

Hunger in America looks strange; there is a definite correlation between food insecurity and obesity. You’d think that people who can’t afford food would be rail thin, but it’s often the opposite. People that struggle to make ends meet tend to opt for the cheapest calories, processed/fast food. They often live in Food Deserts, areas where nutritious produce is simply not available. (Emphasis mine)

Perhaps the implied causation was inadvertent. Perhaps Polk recognizes that such “opting” is the result of being short of cash. In which case, the solution would be to distribute sufficient money to buy healthier food. And certainly, that seems to have been the initial idea, but Polk frames the solution in these terms:

…we realized that mom could also use some nutrition education and group support. We remembered how difficult quitting sugar and processed/fast food was for us, and we realized that a structure of support would be helpful, necessary.

It suggests helpfully, liberally, perhaps due to no fault of their own, that poor moms don’t know much about nutrition.  So, families who receive a “Groceryship” will be supported not only financially, but medically, educationally, and emotionally. Support typically means resources are available to help one advance towards a goal, but not mandated. By contrast, mandatory resources are not forms of support, but a form of discipline: if you must avail yourself of a resource, then you are not supported, rather you are compelled.

Groceryship awards are not merely the distribution of groceries with the “option” of attending nutrition classes; rather the classes are required. “Poor moms” who apply for the meritorious award must swear their allegiance and commitment to attending nutrition classes, “weekly meetings” and to do weekly homework. It’s as if they were young, naïve, subservient children.

Indeed, Polk acknowledges that his program is different from “but can be used in conjunction with SNAP (food stamps) which provides financial to support to struggling families (link not in original),

 but doesn’t insist the money be spent on healthful foods, or teach families how to prepare and shop for those healthy foods.” (emphasis mine)

In that simple sentence, Polk reveals more of his (limited) worldview: the state “does not insist that the money be spent on healthful foods.”

Had Polk searched, he would have found that, if anything, food stamps severely constrain the purchase of healthy foods. According to the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, the maximum monthly budget for a family of 4 (i.e. those who have no other income) on food stamps is $632.

That boils down to $5.64 per person per day. Whole Foods, expensive as it is, accepts food stamps; there are multiple sites where families have accepted the “Thrifty Whole Foods” challenge to shop for whole foods on a food stamp budget. I’ll let them tell their stories—many of which have various helpful hints about how to shop and cook on a limited budget.

In short: it is possible to cook healthy foods on a severely restricted budget. But healthy foods require adequate kitchen facilities to process and cook them.  Poor families, who can presumably afford housing that is cheap (cheap because landlords don’t make repairs to provide decent stoves, rat- and cockroach-proof storage, adequate refrigerators needed to store fresh foods), often do not have those facilities, therefore tenants are forced to choose processed, sealable, storable foods.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, time (or more its scarcity) becomes a severe constraint if a “poor mom” is also working or doesn’t have access to child-care so that she can schlep to her Whole Foods easily/quickly, and also process said healthy foods. The issue of access to transportation that allows her to get to her Whole Foods will also, chances are, constrain her free cooking time further.  But all of these constraints raise another urgent issue: namely the assumption that someone who is both cash- and time-poor is expected to cook whole foods after long, difficult, days. How many working professionals are expected to cook full, healthy meals after a full day of work?

Aside from the sheer difficulty of spending money on “healthful foods,” there is also the issue of why any state should impose a certain standard on those who are dependent upon public monies for survival, when it does not impose the same expectations on the rest of its citizens.  It calls to mind Isaiah Berlin’s discussion of positive liberty.

For Berlin, positive liberty–defined as the ability to “be my own master,”[1] is least harmful when I am able to decide how to live my own life, to make my own decisions, rather than to have to depend upon external forces. As a counterpart to negative liberty, namely that where I would be protected from being harmed by others and the state, positive liberty allows me to find a way to flourish, to decide how I want to live.  In this idea, Berlin marks an idea that re-emerges a decade later in Hannah Arendt. Arendt criticizes the “Social,” that dimension of society that is subsumed by the economy, where one’s acts are instrumental—where one works in order to make a living.[2]

For Arendt, this idea undermines our very humanness. It coerces us into thinking only about life, about living, rather than acting, understood as great words and great deeds. The economy, with its inducement to consume, to work in order to live and consume—was anathema to Arendt. Arendt was critical of the notion that one’s goals must have utility. Being healthy is exemplifies this idea: Health has become naturalized as an end in itself, but in fact is about usefulness: to be less of a drain on society, to be aesthetically pleasing, to appear successful.

To be fair, Arendt’s is precisely not a socialist ideal, where one’s needs are met through a communal society, where one hunts, fishes, reads, in the model of a balanced life. Nevertheless, Arendt’s fear comports with Berlin’s, who skeptically asks:

“What, or who, is the source of control or interference that can determine someone to do, or be, this rather than that?”

To find a way to flourish without being forced to live out another’s expectations for you—this was both Arendt’s and Berlin’s concern. This question was a challenge to the authoritarian state whose creeping influence, in their experiences, had been detrimental, to say the least.

But the creeping state is not the issue at stake with regard to Sam Polk and Groceryships. Rather, the issue of state-imposed expectations has been derailed with the forceful emphasis on civil society as the arena by which to solve various social and economic problems.

Civil society, a term that G.W.F. Hegel used to indicate that arena where the public and private meet, has a distinctly different sense today. Whereas Hegel circumscribed civil society as that where the individual and the state can interact through intermediate organizations such as guilds, or unions, today’s civil society is that arena where the state has dialed back its obligations in order to allow private organizations and individuals to pick up the slack.

Polk’s charity, like that of many others (such as Teach for America, charter schools, Kiva) that have sprung up in the last several decades, reflects the success of a paradigm that has emerged over the last 3 decades. This paradigm endorses private, faith-based, or “non-profit” charities as the foundation of civil society (defined as a non-government sector). These organizations, endorsed by every U.S. President since Ronald Reagan, have facilitated the evacuation of a public safety net—an evacuation that goes hand in hand with the deregulation of the banking industry, and the steady erosion of unions, public pensions, and labor protections.

Certainly, it is unreasonable to expect that the state can or will address all levels of public need. But private non-governmental charities have fewer Congressional or procedural inhibitions  what they may demand of the constituents that they claim to want to help, such as the ability to impose certain behavioral features.

Groceryships imposes many strings for the mere flaw of being poor.  According to the rules of applying for a Groceryship, being poor apparently means one chooses to eat unhealthily. Being poor apparently means that one is “addicted” to fast foods and sugar (this isn’t such a far-fetched idea for Polk, who frames his past actions in finance as the result of an “an addiction” to wealth).

Thus, to be eligible for a Groceryship, poor moms can’t have excessively large families (“no more than 3 children”), and be only moderately poor. And they “must” need/want/be eager/be motivated/be ready to adopt a healthy lifestyle, to want to be healthy, to be open to new ideas. See here.

Groceryships’ expectations fit into the neoliberal paradigm that I discussed in another piece, namely that poor people, more so than the non-poor, have an obligation to be moral, aesthetically reasonable, healthy, happy, and eager about it.

The most vulnerable—or as I say elsewhere, those who are perceived to be unruly—are seen as scary, dangerous, frightful because they are seen as “failures” due to their personal characters rather than through their circumstances: Why are they poor? Why don’t they eat better? Why are they fat? Why are they rude? Why are they noisy and loud?

If the poor just worked harder, smoked less, didn’t do drugs, shunned McDonald’s and cooked more, then they too could be as aesthetically pleasing—and perhaps as successful and happy as Sam Polk and his spouse.  This is one of the pernicious implications of a neoliberal economic model: the poor are expected to fulfill the aesthetic and moral expectations of the upper-class of what it means to live “a good life,” to flourish. And they are subject to those who are precisely in a position to be able to dictate the life goals for those who are more vulnerable.

Being poor means that if one wants to have one’s poverty relieved slightly or temporarily (remember, the Groceryship is for 6 months, after which one still remains poor), one is at the mercy of the ex-money addict Sam Polk and his neoliberal buddies, who are cheered for “helping the poor.”

Let’s remember that Polk’s money-addiction days were part of a milieu—a group of traders/financiers/bankers who were engaging in a set of practices that were both induced and condoned by state power and general pre-financial crisis societal approval. That is to say, his role in JP Morgan Chase, or other financial corporations who contributed heavily to the banking crisis (including mortgage foreclosures on the working class and minority populations) was seen as a positive contribution, until around 2008/9. Moreover, the state—both Congress and the Executive Branch–continues to condone it through (pro-banking) legislation that allowed CEOs to receive large bonuses in spite of their roles, or through supposedly punitive legislation that slapped banks lightly on their wrists, and paid out less than $2000 per person to those who lost their homes over a three year period. Moreover, this settlement changed nothing in the relationship between the borrower and loan servicing company.

By framing Polk’s actions within an individualizing framework (be it therapeutic or moral conscience), and without locating them in a larger political/cultural structure, this frame precisely engenders the kind of glorification that is showered upon Polk, by Jacqueline Novogratz and many others such as Rachel Cook, Jessica Jackley…and the Nobel Peace Prize winning innovator of microfinance himself, Mohammed Yunus, who are engaged in similar, if not identical, shifts.

What Polk et al. appear to be doing here is making a move from a “corporate free market” to a “non-profit free market,” which in no way challenges the idea that poverty and wealth are exclusively about individual choices. Rather, Polk’s (and Novogratz and Yunus) shifts still emphasize the ideology and primacy of the “free market,” coupled with a rhetorical emphasis on hard work, along with individual moral, personal, social accountability for darker or non-American population.  In Yunus’ case, micro-lending is tested in Bangladesh; for Novogratz, it’s taken to East Africa, India, Pakistan and Ghana, and for Polk, it’s applied to black and Latino populations of Southern California.

But there is another aspect of this that is also troublesome: the self-satisfaction experienced by these “free market successes” who reclaim their moral sensibilities through the act of walking away after making millions in profits and then turning to “help the poor” on their terms. They are cheered for their charity work (in an individualist frame) without being asked about their participation in a financially corrupt, morally bankrupt “free market” system that allowed these individuals to “flourish” at the expense of millions of individuals who are unable to access the free market system because they don’t have the connections or “moral luck” to have been born in the right place at the right time.  As economist Dean Baker clarifies in his book, The Conservative Nanny State, there is nothing “free” about the free market: it is rigged to benefit those who already have at the expense of those who don’t.

As well: this kind of neoliberal framework ensures that the ruling class will shape the poor, by forcing them to behave, reshape themselves through these seemingly neutral, or generous, charities in Sam Polk et al.’s own ill-informed visions of what it means to be a successful citizen.

This, then, is an expression of Michel Foucault’s biopolitics: those who are induced to cultivate themselves in the image of the ruling class are those who are the most vulnerable—subject to the whims and dictates of the wealthy and the powerful.  This is the success of the neoliberal paradigm: it renders to Homo Corporatus (or Homo Wall Streetus) the freedom and flexibility to shape the actions and character of the most vulnerable to those who have the money, the power, and the favor of the state; simultaneous Homo Corporatus’ contributions, the results of plunder and the corporate nanny state—are read as an individual/private acts of generosity to help those who are most needy, those were rendered needy through institutional/governmental/financial practices.


[1] Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” p. 131. In Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford U Press: 1969.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, ch. 6. University of Chicago Press, 1958.

*Updated version. Thanks to Robin James, Janine Jones, and Robert Prasch for their helpful comments.

 

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

The Clintons: Back on the campaign trail with the help of the New York Times

This article was published at Salon.com on December 4, 2013 under the headline, “New York Times’ blind spot on Clinton and race.”

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The New York Times published a piece this week in the service of the Democratic Party’s campaign for the 2016 elections that reveals a grave misunderstanding of recent history. Reporters Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin profiled the tactics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, the 42nd president of the United States, to restore their fragile relationship with African-Americans in anticipation of the former’s 2016 presidential run. The Times frames it as an attempt to “to soothe and strengthen their relationship with African-Americans,” apparently strained after Bill’s 2008 comments about the Obama presidency.

Here is the motivation they assign to the Clintons:

This task [of courting the black vote] has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Mrs. Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016.

It would have been illuminating, and accurate as well, to distinguish between Democratic Party functionaries and Democratic voters in their description; I don’t see much in the way of Democratic politicos’ “push to the left”: NDAA 2012/2013, bank bailouts, the ACA, among other laws, don’t strike me as overly progressive.

Chozick and Martin assiduously cover the various black leaders with whom the Clintons have consorted since Hillary’s resignation as secretary of state earlier this year. Along with that coverage is a telling, if not accurate, description of Bill Clinton’s legacy, which Hillary will surely be relying on to vouch for her “progressive” credentials. Here is perhaps the most remarkable paragraph of the article:

Mr. Clinton has a rich, if occasionally fraught, history with African-Americans. He was a New South governor and a progressive on race who would eventually be called “the first black president” by the author Toni Morrison. But he infuriated blacks in 2008 when, after Mr. Obama won a big South Carolina primary victory, he seemed to dismiss the achievement by reminding the press that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice and calling Mr. Obama’s antiwar position “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Many African-Americans took Mr. Clinton’s fairy tale comment to mean that Mr. Obama’s candidacy itself was a hopeless fantasy.

It is true that black Americans were mightily irritated by Bill’s comments. But that’s hardly the only source of the injury.

(Un)surprisingly, even as Chozick and Martin tritely repeat Toni Morrison’s description of Clinton as the first black president, proudly repeated by Bill (and ad nauseam by mainstream media), they don’t offer any context for her remarks.

Morrison, writing in the New Yorker in 1998, was reflecting on the Republicans’ move to impeach Bill Clinton in the aftermath of revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, his intern at the time. She says:

African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”

It is clear that Morrison is poetic and pained here. She analogizes the experiences faced by Clinton to those faced all too often by black men. There is much that can be said about this piece. But the cynicism of Clinton and his supporters is such that her phrase was co-opted as an endorsement of his “progressive” politics, rather than what it signaled at the very least; it is a searing insight into the inferior, abject status of black men in the United States at the end of the millennium. And here is Morrison in her own words in 2008.

But Chozick and Martin, in their own perhaps subconscious cynicism merely repeat Morrison’s endorsement and omit any discussion of Clinton’s policies during his two terms as president, or during his time as governor of Arkansas.

The first “black” president and his partner in devastation proudly designed the prototype of Clinton’s famous 1996 welfare reform bill when he was the governor of Arkansas. Women who applied for aid from the state were required, among other indignities, to name the potential fathers of their children. Yes, yes, save your objections: This policy was created to search out “deadbeat dads,” and get them to pay child support.

But somehow it never occurred to many — not the press, not white liberals, not liberal feminists, much less the Clintons (if they cared at all) — that such a reform would only be effective in further humiliating already poor women, women who, had they other options, would never have resorted to the state for help. Here’s a brilliant letter from a Seattle feminist to N.O.W. back in 2007, which sets out the various assumptions and implications of welfare reform.

The ballast for welfare reform exploited the racial antagonism against black women that was inflated and gained momentum under Ronald Reagan’s administration. But as many, from Barbara Ehrenreich to digby to Jason DeParle, point out, the Clintons and their Democratic buddies endorsed the righteous smokescreen that “workfare” was needed to teach the poor how to keep a job rather than asking for money, and to teach poor (black) women “chastity training.” Patronizing? Racist? Those words don’t even cover half of it, especially as they’re accompanied by the convenient selective amnesia about the legacy of slavery and the still-existent practice of institutional discrimination against blacks. We can see this in the history of the drug war, the prison industry, red-lining, not to mention plain old-fashioned racism as seen in our public school system, post-secondary admissions practices, and employment across multiple industries.

Hillary’s express support for welfare reform enabled Bill to get the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed. Peter Edelman, a senior Clinton appointee who resigned in protest of the bill, pointed out that this was the “worst thing Bill Clinton has done.” Due to the remarkable efforts of the “first black president” and his wife, and like-minded “liberals” and conservatives who believed that the poor needed to be taught to climb out of a “culture of poverty,” welfare was no longer the entitlement that it had been for decades (and should have remained as such). Rather, it was transformed into a sporadic privilege periodically and provisionally bestowed on the poor, all the while leaving millions more in poverty. As Edelman pointed out in 2011, that 1996 bill made things much worse for the poor: “There are now people who cannot find work, and who cannot get welfare.”

Needless to say, Democrats and Republicans have managed to augment, enhance, exacerbate the level of nationwide poverty through its support of banking deregulation and absence of serious sanctions for bankers and subprime mortgage companies.

When Chozick and Martin write about Bill Clinton as a “progressive on race,” I have to wonder which criteria they use to measure. They use certain famous black politicians’ comments (such as those of Democratic Rep. James Clyburn or Rep. Elijah Cummings) or public gestures (such as sitting next to “friend and rival” and former Democratic Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder at Howard University’s May 2013 commencement) at face value and out of context. To gauge race progress by which friends a white Democrat sits next to — doesn’t this strike anyone as uncomfortably close to the “Some of my best friends” cliché?

Why not consider the effects of NAFTA and WTO, which decimated the manufacturing industry that employed enormous numbers of African-Americans? Many journalists and left economists have detailed the detrimental impact of the offshoring of corporations, the forgiveness of taxes, the eradication of labor protections for foreign nationals who work at formerly American companies. Why does none of this figure into the assessment of “racial progress”? Even one paragraph might have allowed for the possibility that the Times was engaged in some critical questions about the releases and information that they were being fed by the Clinton campaign.

Why not consider the effects of the 1996 Immigration Reform Bill, which was a precursor to the enormous anti-immigration tide that has swept the country, enhanced by the right-wing and neo-patriotic impulses of both Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks?

Why not consider the effects of the 1994 Crime Bill, which heralded in “three strikes” legislation at the federal level, also signed under the “first black president”? The expansion of the death penalty in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Death Penalty Act?

I can hear objections that Hillary should be able to run on her own record. OK, why not examine a few of her votes? Remember, it was Sen. Russ Feingold — not Sen. Clinton, or Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, or Secretary of State John Kerry — who stood up against the USA Patriot Act, as a harbinger of a (by now) vengeful, 12-year, racist and arbitrary tide of vitriol against Muslims in the U.S., Iraq, Afghanistan, U.K., Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere in the world. How about on the 2002 authorization to invade Iraq? AUMF 2005? The 2007 surge in Iraq? She voted in favor of them. To her credit, she voted against the 2008 FISA bill, citing checks on presidential authority, even as elsewhere she has been in support of increasing it. How does she feel about WikiLeaks? Edward Snowden? The death penalty (supports it, but not for Iran).

These are hardly left votes. These are hardly liberal votes. These are hardly racially progressive votes.

Let’s not judge whether someone is a “race progressive” — especially a politician — by the utterances of his/her friends. Presumably, journalists understand that the notion of an alliance does not confirm the truth of one’s race politics; it merely demonstrates that all other concerns have been provisionally subordinated in order to further one particular goal. Sure, we can call it pragmatic, strategic, realpolitik. But regardless of the term used, journalists — of all people — know that citing such alliances does not offer a valuable insight or confirmation about the truth of one’s politics.

I tell my students that if they want to write about politics effectively and forcefully, they must major in something other than journalism: history, sociology, ethnic studies, politics — something other than a field that disciplines its students to forget that accurate narratives have a long-seated, deeply buried history that cannot simply be articulated through a repetition of sound bites aired by corporate news media or covering poll results. Facts, those snippets that refer to a certain state of the world, must be assembled and grounded by searching through indirect, long-buried records that have long slipped the public (and corporate media’s) memory. Such an excavation requires the skills of an archaeologist and the critical distance of an outsider — not the propitiatory writing skills of someone familiar with the well-worn seat of an election press bus or who lunches with his subjects on a regular basis.

Of course, that assumes that establishment media such as the Times is interested in reportage from a critical perspective. Perhaps that’s the most flawed assumption of all.

Why our best students are totally oblivious

Why our best students are totally oblivious:

While being up in arms about popular injustices, they’re educated how not to see race, empire and colonialism

This past week, I taught my first classes of the semester. The college where I teach attracts young men and women who are generally left of center. Some of them are the children of progressive activists and academics. Many of the students who enroll in my courses hope to spend the rest of their lives ending poverty, racism, sexual oppression, among other forms of injustice. As such, they are an extremely aware crowd.

In one of my courses, which deals with race, philosophy and legal theory, I listed a series of names on the board and asked students to describe who they were: Trayvon Martin, Yusuf SalaamShaker AamerAafia SiddiquiJosé Padilla. Nearly every student in the room was familiar with the first name, and could give in excruciating detail the facts of the case and trial, and the questionable laws used to defend George Zimmerman in public discussion. Most of the students knew immediately that Yusuf Salaam was one of the Central Park Five who, despite their innocence, had been convicted of raping a woman and had spent years in prison. They were making astute connections to New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, racial profiling, “stand your ground” laws (yes, even though these were not explicitly part of the Zimmerman trial, they are relevant). You may not have known some of these details, but they did. As I mentioned, they’re rather politically aware.

Not a single student recognized the other three names.

In another course on political philosophy that also began last week, several students had only the faintest idea that Guantánamo was a prison, and could not describe who the prisoners were, why they were there, or why it mattered.


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These were illuminating reminders for me. Most of these students are not to blame for not knowing. They were born between 1992 and 1995. A few are slightly older. For them, the U.S.-led War on Terror is a constant background in their lives. They have few memories of a time when the U.S. was not waging war in the Middle East. They grew up in the shadow of the first Gulf War. But shadows are just that: observable, yet elusive, ungraspable. In the same way, the War on Terror, unless it has affected them directly, is neither unfamiliar, nor completely familiar. It’s not close enough for them to know which questions to ask in order to have a clear picture; yet it’s too close to know what the opposite of a War on Terror would look like.

The context in which my young progressive students can know so much about some populations and nothing about other populations who face analogous circumstances is worthy of pause. It is true that most of us find it difficult to remember names and figures when they cycle through the mainstream news hour for less than a few minutes, for only a day or two. We know Trayvon Martin’s name because there were assiduous protests surrounding his death, and because the mainstream news media became interested in it. The names of so many young black men who died similarly will not be known to us because of the absence of organized protests and the lack of media interest.

Similarly, the names of Padilla, Siddiqui and Aamer have not been mentioned for quite some time in the mainstream news cycle to which my students are attuned. When they were noticed, the mentions were generally brief and in the context of the state’s successful fight against “Terror.” In certain spaces, there have been continual protests and excellent critical coverage. But few dissents against the U.S.’s sustained foray into empire — through drones, torture, indefinite detention and other means — have commanded alert and aggressive attention from our patriotic and subservient mainstream media.

My students’ lack of knowledge of most things related to the U.S.’s war on terror indicates other predictable and alarming things: The principle of preemptive policing — jailing men indefinitely without charges, torturing them — is commonplace and no longer (if ever) worthy of shock. The racial profiling of Muslim men, because it is done in the context of an explicit state-led war, is difficult to be alarmed about without challenging the moral credibility of the government that leads it.

If racism is discussed, it is, correctly, within the context of the U.S.’s morally troubling and murky history of slavery. But the discussions are not usually linked to the equally troubling history of colonialism and conquest of indigenous populations. The U.S.’s history of racism against migrants such as Asians and Latinos is perhaps better known for some. But it is difficult to be a “good citizen” and still be critical of the ideological war that the U.S. wages on Muslims — especially in the midst of the U.S.’s ever-continuing attacks — covert, drone, explicit.

My students’ lack of knowledge about the effects of the Global War on Terror on men and women in the U.S. indicates to me that they are the successful product — even in the elite grammar/high schools from which so many of them graduated — of a patriotic and “morally upstanding” education. They have learned that many institutions — like their schools — work in their favor, even on their behalf. They have not come face to face with prisons, border police, customs officials, NYPD or hostile judges. They have learned how not to see race, empire and colonialism while being up in arms about the more popular facets of injustice — even though these are closely linked: the environment, sexual and reproductive rights, and “wringing bias out” of our hearts.

The latter phrase is invoked by President Obama in a speech, given after the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial: “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” This question reduces racism to an individual failing, a problem of conscience, rather than one of laws (drug and three strikes, preemptive policing, racial profiling), institutions (carceral, banking, social, state, military, cultural), ideologies (lynch law, slavery, empire, national security, surveillance, the War on Terror), and accepted culture.

The president’s follow-up question — “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” — elides the complex interplay of ideology, institutional power and political circumstances in ascribing morality to any individual person.

When young black men are arrested for petty theft, it becomes commonplace to discuss their “individual moral failings.” When senior, often white, investment bankers embezzle money, they are rewarded with bailouts, bonuses and bona fides.

When a young Somali-American woman sends less than $2,000 to Somalia to aid the poor, she is convicted of aiding terrorists, and given extended prison time. When HSBC Bank skirts material support statutes by laundering $850 million, they are fined less than a month’s profits.

When young Muslim men speak critically of the U.S.-led wars against predominantly Muslim countries, they are immediately assumed to be terrorists.

Are the judgments ascribed to each of these groups about character alone? I would suggest they emerge from a history of ideological biases, cemented by unaccountable institutions, including the last two presidential administrations. These judgments are embedded in the political discourse spun by political authorities. They guarantee that only those who are poorer, darker or less powerful will pay — heavily, disproportionately, with their lives. These matters are hardly only about the bias in our hearts and judging the content of one’s character.

Within the American tradition of adventure-packed action movies and the 30-minute news cycle, individual failings are easier to focus on, to obsess over, to judge, to be outraged about.

Cultural worldviews, pernicious politics, racial histories and ideologies are more difficult to disarticulate. They require reading histories and thinking through multiple logics, and weeding through numerous laws and political contexts.

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This article appeared in today’s edition of Salon (www.salon.com).

Edward Snowden: The Great Criminal

As Edward Snowden’s name is bandied about, with a debate emerging over whether he is a hero or a criminal, whistleblower or traitor, the words of philosopher Walter Benjamin come to mind.  In his 1921 essay, The Critique of Violence, Benjamin discusses the law’s goal to pursue the monopoly on violence:

The law’s interest in a monopoly of violence vis-a-vis individuals is not explained by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by that of preserving the law itself; that violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.

Here Benjamin restates one of the fundamental goals of classical liberal political philosophy, at least for philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, namely to eliminate the use of violence from everyone except the state and its duly appointed deputies. This is why in Locke, the state ‘agrees’ to protect the rights of individuals in exchange for individuals giving up their right of retribution and punishment. The right of violence becomes the sole provenance of the state, whether through the death penalty, prisons, or defense of the state itself.

However, as we also know, the state monopolizes and regulates the use of violence in the interests of those who have the most influence over the state: these wealthy men who decide the personification of the state. In the 1600’s English North America, this would have been white Englishmen. In the 1910’s, Benjamin was interested in the role of workers in challenging the monopoly of state violence.

Understood in this way, the right to strike constitutes in the view of labor, which is opposed to that of the state, the right to use force in attaining certain ends. The antithesis between the two conceptions emerges in all its bitterness in face of a revolutionary general strike. In this, labor will always appeal to its right to strike, and the state will call this appeal an abuse, since the right to strike was not “so intended,” and take emergency measures.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, unions aroused a widespread secret admiration from a public that was weary of the state’s imposition.  Today, as Occupy and other movements point out, the most influential are still the 1%–though the colors, sexes, and sexualities of this privileged demographic have been somewhat expanded.

For example, Locke’s story of slavery is more accurately read as the story of colonialism –and eventually—imperialism. Strangers attack Englishmen. Englishmen fight back and win. They have the right to kill the strangers, but grant them their lives in exchange for their agreeing (at least implicitly) to be slaves. It is, an apologia for the conquest of American Indians. But in the modern moment, it is a story that is replicated by Samuel Huntington in the “Clash of Civilizations.”

Back to Benjamin, who is thought to have committed suicide in Southern France as he was trying to flee from the Nazis.  Here is another excerpt from the “Critique of Violence”:

The same may be more drastically suggested if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public. This cannot result from his deed, but only from the violence to which it bears witness.

How might this apply to Edward Snowden? Snowden’s ‘crime,’ if you will, was that he disrupted the state’s ability to protect its monopoly of violence by exposing its widespread surveillance activities.  He did this despite the widely claimed fears of interested parties that doing so would “undermine national security,’ and in the face of the state’s insistence that these activities are justified and justifiably secret. In this sense, the fact that he challenged the prerogatives of the state itself, makes his alleged ‘crime’ so much more transgressive than, for example, merely lying to Congress about weapons of mass destruction, starting a war with a random nation in which tens of thousands die, or torturing rendered persons. None of these latter crimes are a threat to the state itself, and for that reason may be readily forgiven and forgotten.  Manning and Snowden are, however, ‘great criminals’ in that their actions embarrassed and undermined state power.  They can never be forgiven or forgotten.

So, for a significant portion of the public, there seems to be an–open or perhaps grudging…admiration of Snowden because he has dared to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. He challenges the state even as he acknowledges that the state will use every resource at its disposal to exact its revenge. We know from the tragic example of Aaron Schwartz that challenging the Department of Justice will require endless resources, from millions of dollars of legal know-how and the filing of endless FOIA requests. We know from the example of John Kiriakou that even going through formal channels of whistleblowing—including being

 

“the first CIA officer to call waterboarding “torture”; to reveal that the CIA’s torture program was policy rather than a few rogue agents; and to say it was wrong”

 

will not stop the state, even a state led by a “transformative presidency,” from making sure that no one disturbs its monopoly on violence.

In this case, therefore, the violence of which present-day law is seeking in all areas of activity to deprive the individual appears really threatening, and arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the mass against law. By what function violence can with reason seem so threatening to law, and be so feared by it, must be especially evident where its application, even in the present legal system, is still permissible.

What makes Snowden so interesting is that it appears that he is an old-fashioned “believer” in the American project—someone who wanted to fight the good fight, to uphold American principles and ideals, as the US government has long professed is also its mission. He contracted to work for defense contractors who in turn worked with the NSA, and for that reason did not begin his (short-lived) post-military career with misgivings about the American imperial project. As he got to see the how its affairs were being misconducted, he continued to believe in “doing the right thing.”  What also makes Snowden remarkable is his awareness that

[T]he “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.

Whether or not one agrees with his actions, whether or not his politics and ideology mesh with the ideas of the right or the left–it will always be a remarkable sight to a see a lone person stand up to the Leviathan, composed as it is of its myriad eyes, all watching, waiting, to clamp down on any threat, no matter how trivial to it relentless monopolistic pursuit of violence—and power.

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This piece was republished in Salon on June 19, 2013 as “Edward Snowden’s real crime: Humiliating the state.”

A “Roadmap” to Restoring Our Constitutional Liberties

Hi, folks–FS here. Apologies to followers of this blog for not having posted for a while. The term knocked the wind out of my sails, as the saying goes. I hope to have a new piece sometime in the next day or so. In the meantime, TransEx blogger Robert E. Prasch proposes a set of reforms to address the latest wave of news concerning NSA leaks and the general encroachment upon Constitutional protections.

A “Roadmap” to Restoring Our Constitutional Liberties

Robert E. Prasch

From Bush to Obama: Continuity You Can Believe In

Edward Snowden’s revelations have collectively stripped away the last shred of hope that the Obama Administration or the Congressional Democratic Leadership have established or intend to establish any meaningful changes from the dangerous precedents laid down by the openly and unabashedly anti-Constitutional Bush Administration. Indeed, the actions of this Administration arguably represent an even greater betrayal of American values, as they have provided the imprimatur of bi-partisanship to the shredding of our long-standing Constitutional rights. Unsurprisingly, the Obama Administration now finds that its greatest cheerleaders and apologists are the former consigliore of George W. Bush’s disgraced Administration. No less than former White House flak Ari Fleischer has happily tweeted that “Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. O[bama] is carrying out Bush’s 4th term.”  The Administration’s newfound friends confirm the old adage, “If you lie down with dogs, expect to wake up with fleas.”

How bad is it?  Consider the stance now being taken by The New York Times, a newspaper that once worked hand-in-glove with the Bush Administration to amplify its pro-Iraq War propaganda and then, less than a year later, cooperated in covering up that same Administration’s massive and illegal domestic wiretapping program until after the 2004 elections were safely over. Yet these new revelations are so bad that the Times, despite its long and pitiful record of subservience to executive power, claims to be shocked. Its editors have concluded that the Obama Administration “has now lost all credibility on this issue.” (The phrasing of the sentence suggests that the Administration retains credibility on other issues. We can only speculate as to what issue or issues they have in mind. Prosecuting fraudulent bankers? Supporting meaningful financial reform? The 49 State Mortgage Settlement? Closing Guantanamo? Renditions? Bush-style “Free Trade” Agreements? Drone Warfare? The restoration of due process of law to Americans that the executive branch suspects of terrorism? But I digress). In the same editorial the Times also, and correctly, dismissed Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s pathetic justification of the these massive surveillance programs as “absurd.” Happily, they refrained from implying that Sen. Feinstein retains credibility on other issues.

What Should Be Done?  Lessons from the Democrats’ Undermining of “Financial Reform”

But, one might ask, how should we proceed?  This is an important question.  While it is impossible to formulate a detailed answer so soon after these revelations, it is not too early to sketch out a strategy. As we consider our way forward, it would be useful to remember the hard lessons learned in the course of an earlier episode in which the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congressional Leadership felt compelled to act in a situation where “success” would mean taking substantive action against their largest donors, their personal ambitions as politicians, and their deepest political instincts as so-called “Centrists” or “Clinton Democrats.” That issue was the reregulation of the financial system in the wake of the greatest financial debacle since 1929. The bill that emerged, a veritable monument to doing nothing while presenting the appearance of attending to the public’s interest, was the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010.

Let us briefly recall how that process unfolded. Immediately after the crash occurred, the public was repeatedly told that the debacle was the consequence of a “panic,” and for that reason we should rest assured that nothing was wrong with either the nation’s financial system or its most prominent firms. All that was needed was some “temporary liquidity,” after which all would be well. Remarkably, Timothy Geithner’s Treasury Department and the Too Big To Fail banks never wavered from this story, and regularly deployed “creative accounting” to support it.  To their regret, the public failed to be persuaded despite the best efforts of the financiers, their kept politicians, and industry-friendly regulators.

Seeing that this initial ruse had failed, their second ploy was to stall for time. To that end, they argued that the system was “complex,” and for that reason “rushing to enact reforms” would be unwise. Time would be required, and the crisis would have to pass, before the nation should even start to consider reregulation. Translated into plain speaking, the Administration and its Congressional allies wished to postpone any push for reforms until such time as the public’s outrage had died down and Wall Street’s political hegemony had been restored. Massive and ongoing bailouts greatly facilitated the latter goal. As to the former, American incomes continued to decline, unemployment remained high, housing prices continued to tank, and constituents remained angry.

With the 2010 mid-term elections approaching, and with the Democrats dominating Congress for the two years immediately following the Crash of 2008, it became evident that the Party leadership would have to do “something” if they were to retain any standing with a public whose anger remained palpable. This was the basis of their third and final ploy – passing a regulatory reform bill that was designed to fail, conjoined with a public relations blitz proclaiming a great victory that would end Too Big To Fail while greatly stabilizing the financial system and its most prominent firms. In Washington, appearance is substantially more important than performance. This, in the final analysis, explains why the Congressional Democratic Leadership gave the nation the Dodd-Frank Act instead of substantive financial reform.

Looking to the Future: The Obama Administration vs. Meaningful Reform of Surveillance State

With the above understanding of the politics of futility in mind, we can now turn to formulating a strategy for achieving some meaningful and lasting reforms. We can begin with their first step – denying that a problem even exists.  Those following the news will have observed that the Administration and its Congressional allies have already embarked on this line of argument. The President and leading Democratic Party senators, most prominently Harry Reid and Dianne Feinstein, are already telling us that this week’s revelations are “overblown,” that it is all “hype,” and that “nothing is amiss,” etc. Check that box.

As they are unlikely to be believed, we can anticipate that they will soon move on to phase two. Again, and in parallel with the effort to not reform the financial system, we should expect to be told that intelligence-gathering programs and agencies are “complex,” that their “mission is sensitive,” that we need to “slow down,” that we must “deliberate carefully” so as to bring about “the best possible reform”, etc. As a wrinkle on this theme, we should expect to see a major effort made to distract us with long-running debates or disputes over the personality or quirks of Edward Snowden (In this, David Brooks has taken the lead with an Op-Ed that is idiotic even by his standards, and that is really saying something). The point of such stalling techniques, as it was with financial reform, is to allow the scandal to become “old news.” If this should come to pass, Congress will be able to talk the issue to death, and perhaps even get away with doing nothing at all (the failure to reform the gun laws despite the public’s outrage after the massacre of schoolchildren and their teachers in Newtown nicely illustrates the power of this approach).

A time-honored variant of this venerable strategy is to form an “official” study group to examine reforms. Assuming that Congress and the Administration pursue this approach, we should expect a “bi-partisan” commission featuring “sound” persons who can be relied upon to discover that nothing is amiss. Ideal candidates for such a commission would be Sec. of State John Kerry, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former CIA and DoD heads Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, and any of a large number of potty-trained “experts” from the usual beltway think tanks, all of whom will solemnly promise to “look tirelessly into possible abuses.”  If, thereafter, sufficient political pressure remains, expect a bill that is long, complicated, and vaguely worded. For performance, it will call for intelligence agencies to be monitored by, at most, deeply conflicted parties in opaque processes. In short, it will be legislation resembling Dodd-Frank.

Four Guidelines for the Achievement of Meaningful Reform

The failure to reform Wall Street provides several lessons that collectively point to four necessary components of any successful strategy to bring our nation’s bloated and overreaching intelligence agencies (and their contractors) to heal.

First, and of most importance, it must be understood that the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congressional Leadership will resist any and all meaningful reform with every means at their disposal. To that end, we can expect them to continue to prosecute and vilify whistleblowers while libeling critics and reformers. They will also continue to stir up fears that are, to be blunt, as beside the point as they are beneath the dignity of anyone who thinks of themselves as the citizen of a free nation.

Regrettably, such fear-mongering is so prevalent that it must be addressed directly. Since 9/11 we have been repeatedly told that giving up our liberty and privacy is worthwhile as it enables the government to “Keep Us Safe.” Those who make this argument should be reminded that the best-fed, healthiest, and safest animals live in zoos. Seriously, folks, living and thriving as a free people in a free nation involves a degree of risk. But is there anyone out there who thinks that it isn’t worth it? Everyone who has ever volunteered for the armed services has already answered this question. I would submit that it is well past time for the citizenry at large to honor the commitment of our young servicemen and women by agreeing to live with the immeasurably small risks we must shoulder to live as free people in a free nation. Let us recall that our heritage is not one of bowing to fear. Two hundred and forty ago Americans willingly took up a substantial risk. They fought the world’s largest empire so that they might live as citizens rather than subjects. Does their sacrifice mean nothing to us today?  Has July 4th been reduced to one more great day for a BBQ?

The second condition we must take into account is the fact that the public’s attention span is limited.  No one is more aware of this than the Administration and its Congressional allies. To achieve meaningful reform we cannot allow the process to be diverted into endless “hearings,” “commissions,” “inquiries,” etc.  This is especially the case if these hearings are exclusively staffed by the usual suspects. We can only allow such an investigation to take place if it is short in duration and led by former Senator Russ Feingold or one of the Oregon Senate delegation.  Otherwise, forget it.

Third, we must demand simple laws featuring bright lines and clear performance criteria. Rules that are simple and clear can be easily and readily monitored by any interested citizen or group of citizens. An example from finance was the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that separated investment banking from commercial banking. If you were in one business, you could not be in the other. Full stop. It was simple to state and simple to regulate (the lines only became grey after the banks induced the Federal Reserve to make them grey, but that is another story).

In spying, we developed equally simple rules after the Church Committee hearings of the 1970s. NSA and CIA could conduct their activities overseas, but not in the United States. Americans could not be investigated without a warrant from an independent judge (although the secrecy granted to the FISA court and its opinions must be wholly and radically rethought). Again, we want simple laws that are easy to monitor and thereby difficult to elide or evade.

Fourth, we must be ever mindful that the intelligence agencies being subjected to reform will not like it and can be expected to put up a powerful and unceasing resistance. The reason is simple.  As with the equally pathetic “War on Drugs,” there is a massive amount of easy money to be “earned” in the course of spying upon one’s fellow Americans.  Moreover, it is a line of work where one is primarily rewarded for who one knows, not what one knows. What this means is that meaningful reform will undermine comfortable and highly lucrative careers in the “Making Us Safe” business.  With so much at stake we should anticipate vigorous resistance, not limited to highly damaging smear campaigns against any persons or groups pushing for meaningful reform. Also, in the event that binding rules are passed, the leadership of these agencies will almost immediately begin reaching out to their political allies, and especially to their contractors, to have any substantive rules repealed, “reinterpreted” (a task that now appears to be a specialty of the Office of Legal Council), or reworked.  Happily, while blocking the ability of these agencies and their allies to unravel reforms may be difficult, it is not impossible. But, success requires that we be pro-active.

The place to begin is by significantly, and I do mean significantly, reducing the resources available to these agencies. This immediately shrinks the size of the prizes to be gained and thereby the interest in going after them. And let us be clear, these agencies are effectively the “anchor firms” of enormous private sector industries with substantial political reach. Any reform that fails to reduce the bloated budgets of these behemoths will not stick for long. As speed is of the essence, the process of cutting back should resemble the manner with which one deals with a massively overgrown hedge. Begin by hacking back the overgrowth with large indiscriminate swings. Only after the bulk of the trimming is accomplished should one return to the task with an eye to shaping its appearance. So, for example, cutting NSA’s budget by 33% the first year, followed by another 10% over each of the next three years would be a great start. Again, the point of such cuts is to substantially reduce the political power of these agencies and the innumerable contractors who feed at the trough of their porcine budgets. Half measures will be insufficient if we are to get the genie back in the bottle. I should add that publishing the actual budgets of these agencies is essential. Despite the shrill claims that will undoubtedly be made to such a suggestion, publishing these budgets will in no way or manner put the public at risk. Why? Because in this world of doubt and uncertainty one of the few things about which we can be sure is that the Chinese, Russians, Israelis, and all major European powers already know just how much money each of these agencies have been allocated. Only American citizens remain in the dark.

The CIA, we should briefly note, is a qualitatively different problem.  The reason is that they field what is essentially a small army.  The problem with this force is that it is solely and exclusively accountable to the President. That Presidents like having a small army that they can use on a whim should not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, an army that can be deployed at the behest of a single individual goes strongly against every known or imagined notion of  “checks and balances.” To make matters worse, our experience with CIA special operations has in no way or manner validated this Constitutional loophole. The record has not fluctuated between good and bad. On the contrary, it has been a continuous string of disasters. The blowback and loss of moral authority that the United States has experienced from CIA misadventures in Guatemala, Iran, the Bay of Pigs, Cambodia, Afghanistan, El Salvador, the Iran-Contra scandal, “Black Site” prisons, rendition programs, ongoing Drone Wars in at least a dozen nations, etc., have been individually and collectively intolerable.  It must end.

The CIA’s record of repeated failure suggests a problem, one that runs to the core of that institution and its lack of accountability. Which is the reason that it must go. In 1991, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced the “End of the Cold War Act” that would have abolished the CIA altogether while moving its (very) few useful functions into the State Department. He tried again in 1995 with the “Central Intelligence Agency Abolition Act.”  Now would be an excellent time to revisit this wonderful idea. Moreover, the successful closing of that agency would send a clear message – one that is nicely designed “pour encourager les autres.” To repeat, the CIA does not need to be reconfigured or reformed, and its leadership does not need to be reviewed or reshuffled. It needs to be shut down. Period. It is of particular importance that its special operations branch be closed. Again, not reformed or recalibrated, but closed. If the President wishes to have a war with another nation, or a particular group within another nation, let him or her argue for and receive explicit Congressional authorization.

Related to this is another essential precondition to the achieving, and especially the sustaining, of substantive reform of our intelligence agencies. We need to eliminate any and all “contractors” (a.k.a. mercenaries) from the payrolls of every branch of the United States government. This includes the Pentagon, all intelligence agencies, and the State Department. The rule should be simple – if you are authorized to carry or operate a weapon in the service of the United States government you will wear an appropriate United States military or police uniform (unless you have been specifically and temporarily assigned to undercover duties).

Likewise, everyone working for an intelligence agency should be an employee of the United States government and earning a government salary. This is important for three reasons. The first is that private firms can and do give political donations, lobby our representatives, and provide our elected officials and their staffers with cushy post-electoral sinecures. Now, it is one thing to lobby for a padded no-bid contract to provide copy-paper to the Pentagon, but it is another thing altogether to lobby for the initiation or continuation of a state of conflict. The second reason is that government employees are considerably harder to fire than private sector employees (although the rules are substantially more lax in areas such as intelligence and Homeland Security – a fact that must be changed). With greater job security, lower-ranking employees who witness wrong-doing have more protection in the event that they attempt to talk to superiors, inspector generals, or members of Congress about what they have seen. The third reason is that uniformed military and intelligence agents are paid considerably less than the fat-cats working for their private-sector counterparts. Contrary to the collective wisdom of the District of Columbia, this is not a fact to be deplored. On the contrary, it is to be proclaimed from every rooftop. When these professions earn below “market rates” we can be certain that everyone who opts for the job must be motivated by something other than the salary. Being “believers” in the importance of their mission, such persons will be more likely to speak up or, as a last resort, become whistle-blowers in the event that the leadership of their agency is heading down the wrong path. Whistle-blowing, as we have seen, is often the last – and for that reason a critical — check on out of control government programs and agencies.

So, to reprise, a successful strategy to restore our Constitution must, (1) recognize that the Obama Administration and its Congressional allies are firmly on the wrong side of the issue, (2) push for immediate and substantial reforms without allowing the process to be stalled by talking it to death in Congress or waiting around for pointless reports from commissions staffed by the usual Washington sycophants, (3) place an emphasis on clear, simple, transparent, and easy-to-monitor rules, and finally (4) significantly defund the beast, with special attention to eliminating the CIA and all outside “contractors” and mercenaries. By design, this list avoids speculating on the specifics of the rules we will need to put in place to restore our privacy and liberties against an overreaching government. Nor does it cover what penalties should await those who violate such rules. But achieving and sustaining meaningful reform requires more than good ideas, it needs a strategy for getting there. If the disappointing outcome of the effort to reregulate the financial system has a silver lining, it is that it has given us some insight into how we should proceed against well-entrenched interests.

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Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College. Click here to read more of his posts.

GiTMO Prisoners, Their Hunger Strikes, and Our Humanity

The Guantanamo Hunger Strike Should Remind Us of Prisoners’ Humanity

—and Reawaken Ours.

Recently, Olga Khazan, The Atlantic’s global editor, wrote a piece doubting the effectiveness of the hunger strike being led by Guantanamo detainees since February 7. The strike, begun in protest against the prisoners’ Korans being rifled, has taken on a much larger significance: It is a protest against the continual incarceration and brutalization of the prisoners, some of whom have been there, without being charged, since the opening of prison 11 years ago. The actual number of strikers varies, depending upon who is reporting. According to a military spokesman, there are 39 strikers, with 11 being force-fed nutritional supplements through their noses. The lawyer for Shaker Amer, one of the detainees participating in the hunger strike since it began, reports that there are 130 strikers.

Khazan’s main argument is that hunger strikes are most effective when conducted by a sympathetic group. It is, in several ways, a bizarre conclusion to draw. What does it mean to say that the GTMO detainees are an unsympathetic group? Unsympathetic to whom? To that crowd for whom unilateral Executive declarations of guilt—without public charges, evidence, or trial–are to be received uncritically, much like religious faith? Or perhaps to reporters like Robert Johnson who, as Glenn Greenwald reports, clearly believes Guantanamo is a vacation paradise with first class food. Clearly, that’s not the group to whom the detainees are appealing. After all, if that were true, they wouldn’t be atrophying in frigid cells, suffering kidney and urinary tract infections from nonpotable water, worrying about whether the next beating they received from a 300 lb guard was going to paralyze them for life, or whether they would ever be released.

On the other hand, a group of people who has been detained for 11 years without being charged–with anything–is a remarkably sympathetic group for those of us who are committed to the rule of law, who object to violations of procedure, and the imperious expansion of state authority. Judging from the length of this strike, as Amy Davidson states, something has gone very wrong at Guantanamo. But something went wrong 11 years ago, and has yet to be rectified—namely that ANY populace ANYWHERE would tolerate men being imprisoned without trials, evidence, charges for any sustained period time.

Khazan is correct that the GTMO detainees will receive no sympathy from the current Presidential Administration. That is precisely the motivation to strike publicly. Since when have hunger strikers ever had the sympathy of the institutions or regimes against whom they are striking? Neither suffragettes nor the students in the Tiananmen protests against Chinese state authorities, nor anti-colonial leaders such as M.K. Gandhi ever had a sympathetic ear from the authorities to whom they were appealing.

Yet the use of hunger strikes by the above groups is fundamentally different from hunger strikes conducted by prisoners. Even though groups such as Black prisoners in Soledad State Prison in 1970 or those in Walpole State Prison in 1980 were hardly ‘sympathetic,’ their acts were publicly compelling. I would suggest that it is because prisoners are among the most reviled of populations that a hunger strike by them is such a compelling act.

It is not hard be exposed to the sheer loathing of a group who has been been caged: the image—real or imagined—of a person caged, treated like a wild animal, is an effective way to pre-empt sympathy. For many, it raises questions about the moral and intellectual status of the prisoner. They must be guilty or behaviorally unpredictable, or savage, or cruel, or ready to hurt, maim, or rape you. These are the (intended) associations of imprisoning someone—regardless of whether the punishment was meted out procedurally. The imprisoned are reduced to terrifying, dangerous creatures. We saw this in the pictures of Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, as well as in the descriptions of prisoners that came from top officials. As Major General Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Guantanamo prison in 2004, was reported to have said of the detainees:

… [T]hey are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you’ve lost control of them.

The commanding element of a hunger strike as a form of protest is precisely that it doesn’t harm others physically. That absence of harm to others is part of the hunger strike’s command to pay attention: it is the antithesis of how a vilified population would be predicted to act in protest or outrage. Instead, the hunger strike is an act of harm to oneself. It involves deprivation to oneself—of nourishment. It involves a re-orientation of oneself: towards death.

There is the another arresting element of a hunger strike conducted by a prisoner: it is plainly the last resort of a being who has nothing else with which to bargain: no other tool, no other leverage, no other allies who can advocate effectively or successfully for those who are striking. The prisoner who engages in an hunger strike uses the only means left at his disposal–his life–which ostensibly is the only leverage that he can have control over. In that imagined spectacle—communicated only through lawyers and journalists–the hunger strike reintroduces us to the humanity of a person who is—at least physically—hurting no one else but himself. It brings up associations of martyrdom, suffering, moral decisions—uniquely human associations. A third and most powerful element of the hunger strike is the insistence that this one aspect of someone’s existence—one’s humanity, one’s ‘aliveness’—will not be ceded to any other authority.

That might be why, historically, there have continually been moral prohibitions against suicide, whether through religious teachings or state policies: ending one’s life is the one thing that—in ordinary circumstances–others’ authority cannot physically compel you to refrain from. This explains why, in prisons, the relevant authorities make every effort to deny a person the ultimate decision that is available to free people—the decision to live or die.

As Jonathan Hafetz said in a recent Guardian article,

A hunger strike provides detainees with a way to reassert some measure of control over their own lives. By refusing to eat, they force the world to recognize their existence and humanity and to confront the reality of their continued imprisonment. Legal rulings can be rationalized or ignored in a way that a dying prisoner cannot.

But in fact, even that control is wrested away: Notice that I didn’t refer to one’s “aliveness” as the only leverage which one does have control over. It used to be that the purpose of the state—as understood through Hobbesian or Lockean social contract theory—was to monopolize the power to kill: In return for ceding the right to kill in self-defense, you would be guaranteed protection by the state. Part of that protection included managing and controlling the freedom of others who were a danger to you–those who broke the law—hence, arrests, charges, trials. But alongside the discarding of procedure, the state is increasingly trying to monopolize the control of one’s life (aliveness), that is, to seize the only remaining leverage that a prisoner might have—the ability to control his aliveness.

In the current moment, as the Guantanamo prisoners strike, the state is trying to misappropriate this final degree of leverage from the Guantanamo prisoners—even though they may not—yet—be successful. That is increasingly the definition of imprisonment: to have not merely your physical and political freedom wrenched away, but to have your freedom to decide whether to live–or die—eliminated. We see the elimination of the control over one’s life in supermax prisons, solitary confinement, psychiatric wards. ‘By control over one’s life,’ I don’t mean one’s ability to move or make quotidian decisions—about food, destination, associations, prayer, or speech—although those too—but over one’s actual alive-ness, for lack of a better distinguishing term.

On Tuesday, Kevin Gosztola reported on some of the abuses of Guantanamo detainees, 86 of whom have been authorized for release under the Obama Administration. His report came from Clive Smith, an attorney for Shaker Amer. Smith filed a report to an American court that detailed his conversation with his client, a British citizen, by phone. Amer has been detained without charges since the prison’s opening 11 years ago–but cleared for release twice during that time. He is a liaison between guards and prisoners, and has been an advocate for the other prisoners. Amer charges that he and other prisoners are beaten by the guards, subjected to forced cell extractions, deprived of sleep—among other forms of torture–and run the risk of having their backs broken, limbs broken. As well, they must endure the impositions of medical professionals who are trying to disrupt the hunger strike. It is a form of torture: the forced feeding through tubes that are painfully inserted through prisoners’ noses; the refusal to listen.

“Good! They deserve it,” some will say—even though these prisoners haven’t been charged or tried or have ever had any evidence shown of their guilt. And that is one of the main reasons that the news about the hunger strikes in Guantanamo are gaining in momentum. As of now, the US government brazenly refuses to listen to or release even the half (86) of those detainees whose innocence has been—at least tacitly–confirmed through their clearance for release. But the increasing attention might force it to change its position: There are reports of protests by activists in Sana’a and Kuwait City agitating for the release of the men who have been subject to unimaginable tortures for the last 11 years—and are now facing death.

The (imagined) spectacle, the panic of the military guards, and the forced feeding of 11 detainees, should make us all wonder about the casual acceptance of the dehumanization of these prisoners. This dehumanization began with their initial capture and continues with their uncharged, indefinite, infinite detention, and coming to a head now: with their continued torture, beatings, and maltreatment—all for crimes that the Executive Branch assumes but has no evidence to support. But even more, it should impel us to forcefully reject the horrific policies conducted by this administration: by protest, by legal means, by public vocal outrage.

In America, Journalists “Push Back”: The Magnificent Hypocrisy of Touré

Update (2/17/13) below:

Yesterday, the news of the leaked Department of Justice white paper brought on a flurry of “debates” about whether POTUS’ ever-expansive rationale for targeting U.S. citizens was acceptable. The rationale is that a mere suspicion WITHOUT evidence that a U.S. citizen was a senior official in Al-Qaeda (designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.) is an acceptable basis to target him via a drone strike.

It’s hard to have a believable “debate” when folks who should be aware and up-to-date on the Administration’s doings are ignorant, skeptical, or indifferent. Those were the reactions of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, when she was challenged about the legitimacy of WH-directed kill lists and drone strikes. This clip is from last fall, after the second Presidential debate at Hofstra University. Wasserman-Schultz–an elected Congressional representative from Florida–has NO idea about the secret kill list whatsoever (FF to 00:25 and again to 00:35-60 for “the look”):

Wasserman-Schultz appears confused and skeptical when asked about the kill lists. In fact, she has the same blank look on her face that Touré, a political commentator for cable tv’s “left-leaning” MSNBC’s SpinCity, does when his co-hosts Steve Kornacki and S.E. Cupp confront him about the fact that a drone was used to kill 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, the son of the alleged “#2 official in Al-Qaeda.” His father, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, was killed by drones on Sept. 30, 2011, 2 weeks AFTER John Brennan, the Obama nominee to be the next director of the CIA, argued for upholding transparency and rule of law when deciding the targets of drone strikes. Abdulrahman was killed exactly 2 weeks later. Both father and son were U.S. citizens.

Compare Wasserman-Schultz’ reactions to those of Touré on the same topic (unfortunately, this clip won’t embed on this site, so you’ll have to click it. It’s short, and I promise it’s worth your time).

https://www.mrctv.org/videos/watch-two-far-left-msnbc-hosts-actually-support-doj-drone-memo

Touré was embroiled in a controversy last year with Piers Morgan over the death of Trayvon Martin, whose 18th birthday would have been yesterday. Martin’s ‘crime,’ as “journalist” Geraldo Rivera and prosecutors allege—was not that he was black, but that he was wearing a hoodie in an exclusive gated community. Touré was especially critical of Morgan about not having interviewed George Zimmerman–who shot and killed Martin–and his brother Robert, critically and forcefully.

You will see from the below clip one such heated discussion between the two of them where, invoking certain nativist sentiments, Touré insisted that because Morgan was not American, he didn’t understand true journalistic rigor.

Morgan is hardly an icon of journalistic responsibility, but Toure’s comments are remarkable and self-righteously patronizing:

Let me explain to you a little bit at what’s at stake here. This is a major moment in American history and America’s reaching a bit of a boiling point in terms of dealing with this issue. And when we allow for misinformation and obfuscation and people to become confused about the truth about what’s going on, then we become part of the problem and not part of the seeking a solution.

He continues to berate Morgan for “being a part of the problem” for allowing the Zimmerman brothers to come on the air and spread misinformation and lies that “we know many people will believe.”

Do you know that in the hallways of MSNBC we were laughing at you today? We wouldn’t even take ‘em–standards of practices at MSNBC wouldn’t even let them through the door. (1:15)

I’m hardly a fan of Piers Morgan; but Touré’s response was an especially interesting one. Remember this part from the SpinCity clip?

If you join Al-Qaeda, you lose the right to due process, you become an enemy of this nation. And you’re committing treason. And I don’t see why we should expand (sic) American rights to people who want to kill Americans. This is not criticizing the United States. This is going to war against the United States.

Treason is a charge that can be leveled at a U.S. citizen, not a “foreign” enemy. He is also surprised to learn that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki is American minor. Take a look again at 00:34.

Touré: What do you mean a 16-year old who is killed? I’m not talking about civilians.

Steve Kornacki and S.E. Cupp (the ‘conservative’) assure Touré that they are talking about a 16 year old Denver-born teen who was killed. Touré looks confused.

Touré: If people are working against America, then they need to die.

According to Touré’s own standard, he is part of the problem. Is MSNBC laughing at Touré, one wonders?

There is a certain nativist, if not xenophobic, consistency on Touré’s part. Rightfully insisting on paying attention to the racist context surrounding Martin’s death, he nevertheless challenges Morgan’s attitudes on the grounds that Morgan is not “from here.” For all of Touré’s understanding about the racial context of unfair murders, he appears to be ignorant of and indifferent to the fact that a young Muslim (American) boy was killed by a drone under the auspices of the POTUS.

We see a similar nativism in Touré’s sentiments about restricting due process to “Americans”—even after he learns that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki IS American. [Not to worry though, Kristal Ball jumps in to assure us that this issue is not “black and white,” but “definitely one of those areas of grey.” As S.E. Cupp points out, killing 700 children through drone strikes is hardly “an area of grey.”]

According to Touré (5:30), what Morgan understands as “challenging” interview subjects is barely critical, barely journalistic. Says Touré:

What you understand as challenging, perhaps, maybe that’s what goes in England. That’s not what we do in terms of challenging in America…I would have liked to see him pushed and challenged, more followup, more pushback, more research to understand.

Really? Considering that Touré’s “version” of critical (“leftie”) journalism takes the form of vociferous unwillingness to ask for proof of one’s “terrorist credentials,” or to question the validity of the white paper (never mind the range of “counter-terrorism” law that has increasingly shrouded executive decisions in secrecy), I have to wonder what it is “that we do here in America.”

Touré goes on this vein for another 10 minutes: a lecture to Piers Morgan about aggressive journalism, and how impossible it is that Zimmerman’s story is true, so “at that point, we can’t give him a light pushback; we have to give him a much tougher follow-up than that.” (6:20).

I’m waiting for Touré’s tough follow-up on POTUS’ kill lists, the WH’s Terror Tuesdays, and the white paper on targeted killing. As Touré snidely pretends to be impressed that Morgan has been covering the Trayvon Martin story for “a whole week, wow!” I’m wondering why Touré knows not at all about the 2011 murder of 16 year-old Awlaki or of the deaths of 700 children by drones.

Given his anger over Martin’s death and apparent ignorance about who Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was, or what his crime was (namely that of having an “irresponsible father”), one could accuse Touré of having double-standards about the value of the lives of African American v. Muslim American 16 year old-teens, not to mention his own hypocritical indignance about Morgan, given that Touré is vociferously spreading misinformation.

Even then, his position regarding the white paper on targeted killings is that America is being attacked, Al-Qaeda is fighting a “post-geographic” war, and therefore the President, as the Commander-in-Chief is correct to decide who to kill–in secret and without any due process.

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The last person in this thread is correct; her words point to Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England–back in the 1760’s–when they had kings with political clout (Book 1, Ch. 7):

THE king, moreover, is not only incapable of doing wrong, but ever of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness.

One wonders how exactly how our “left” political class is “leaning forward.” If they dare to concede that wrong is done, it’s purely an accident. Which must make it morally acceptable.

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Feet to the Fire! Or is it “Lean Forward”?

______________________

Update (2/17/13): This article by Jemima Pierre on Black Agenda Report is a MUST READ. Written one year ago, it is dead-on accurate and precise. Pierre compares the assassinations of Trayvon Martin and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki. Pierre, rather than Touré, should have been on this segment of The Cycle–without spin.

On the Regulation of Firearms

Robert Prasch thoughtfully unpacks the firearm regulation debate.

Robert E. PraschAlmost two months after the massacre in Newtown, and six months after Aurora and Oak Creek, our political classes show some signs of taking an interest in gun control.  I say some signs as the President has reiterated his deep concern for “rural gun culture” and Senator Harry Reid is on record as being unenthusiastic.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, amazingly, is largely on the correct side of this issue.  I guess there is a first for everything.

To enhance our understanding of the problem, we need to define some terms.  The next step is to consider the several parts of these crimes so as to reveal where intervention may be most effective.  Hopefully, such an exercise gets us away from the fatuous “pro-gun” vs. “anti-gun” narratives that generate more heat than light.

A Definition and a Few Facts

Mass shootings and serial murders are each forms of mass murder. In the United States, mass murders are, statistically speaking, a relatively minor element of the death-by-firearm problem. However, mass shootings are different from serial murders in that the latter occur over a period of time.  Additionally, serial murderers often target a specific type of person or persons (rival mobsters in the case of mafia hit-men, young couples in the case of the Son of Sam, or prostitutes in the case of the Green River killer).  However, though mass shootings are a small part of the problem, they induce the greatest “headlines.”  The reason, besides their intrinsic horror, is that their victims are often drawn from populations that — statistically speaking — are substantially less likely than others to be the victims of gun violence (Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, the Amish of Lancaster County, etc.).

Of the approximately 30,000 people killed by firearms in the United States during any one of the last ten years, just short of 2/3rds have been suicides.  Of the approximately 10,000 people murdered by gunshot, about 2/3rds were killed with a handgun.  Shotguns and rifles account for somewhat less than 10%.  The data on the variety of firearm used in the remaining 25% of murders seems to be unknown or unrecorded.  Some writers have invoked these statistics to suggest that “assault weapons” are too small a part of the overall problem to warrant regulation or an outright ban.  But their conclusion is founded upon the erroneous belief that a handgun cannot be an assault weapon (The Austrian Ministry of Defense clearly thought otherwise in 1980 when it selected Glock as the manufacturer of its semi-automatic pistols).

The Three Components of the Problem

Speaking analytically, mass shootings have three components: a malevolent shooter (or in a very few instances, shooters), one or (typically) more firearms, and a target location.

Examinations of what have by now become a tragically large number of such episodes points to an emerging “profile” of the “typical” mass shooter.  They are overwhelming white, male, between 17 and 35 years of age, and from small towns.  Most of them exhibit a fascination with violent games and movies, combined with little if any prior military experience (Wade Michael Page is an exception, although his poor record resulted in a General Discharge from the US Army, rendering him ineligible for reenlistment).  While, ex post, it has been found that most perpetrators were depressed, few of them had an “official record” at least in part because, being psychopaths rather than psychotic, they had few interactions with mental health professionals, and for that reason were not identified as a threat to society.

Let us turn to the qualities of weapons.  Relative to murderers and even serial murderers, mass shooters are more likely to use firearms that can be described as “assault weapons.”  Now, it must be understood that “assault weapon” is a popular but loose category, one that requires elaboration.  Usually implied in this term are semi- and fully-automatic rifles and handguns with detachable magazines that can hold ten or more rounds.  Precision requires a bit of context.

Soldiers are defenseless unless they can fire their weapon.  It follows that periods when the weapon is being reloaded are moments of vulnerability unless the soldier is being “covered” by companions.  As most mass shooters operate alone, the moments spent reloading are the single best opportunity for bystanders to charge the perpetrator, thereby bringing an end to their rampage.  As an example, the Tuscon shooting came to an end when Jared Lee Loughner attempted to change the 33 round magazine on his Glock semi-automatic pistol, which presented Patricia Maisch with an opportunity to grab it as other bystanders wrestled him to the ground.

In the 18th century, a well-trained soldier needed between 15 and 20 seconds to “prime and load” a musket after firing.  This means that four rounds a minute were his maximum sustainable rate of fire.  The bolt-action rifles that eventually replaced this weapon in the 19th century were not only more accurate, but the expended cartridge could be rapidly discharged and the firing chamber reloaded by merely pulling back and rotating a bolt on the side of the weapon.  This would take only 4-5 seconds depending upon the experience of the rifleman (today’s models, such as the Remington 700, a widely used hunting rifle with a 3 to 5 round internal magazine, are even faster).  The result was a substantial advance in the weapon’s offensive and defensive value.  Offensively, more shots may be fired per minute.  Defensively, there is less “down time” between shots, which reduces the rifleman’s vulnerability.

Let us consider the phrases “semi-automatic,” “fully-automatic,” and “selective fire.”  The quality of being “automatic” is all about reducing the lapse of time between the firing of rounds — an essential quality for any weapon to be useful for military or police purposes.  A semi-automatic weapon, which can be either a rifle (such as the A-15) or a pistol (such as the Glock), has the following quality. Upon pulling the trigger once, the weapon will fire, discharge the spent cartridge, and load a new round in the firing chamber without any further action on the part of the person firing it.

In the case of a fully-automatic weapon (such as the M16), all of the above will occur and the weapon will continue firing until such time as the person operating it releases the trigger, the magazine containing additional rounds empties, or the weapon jams.  The only factor limiting the rate of fire of a semi-automatic weapon is the speed with which one can pull the trigger.  By contrast, the limitation on the rate of fire of a fully automatic weapon is exclusively mechanical.  Consequently, the latter can fire at rates of between 450 and 900 rounds per minute (obviously, a soldier will have nowhere near enough ammunition on hand for this to be a sustainable rate of fire).  Finally, a selective fire weapon, such as the M16 (the military version of the A15), can be switched at will from semi- to fully- automatic.  Its most modern version, the M4, allows for an additional choice, a three round “burst.”

The final factor to consider is the locations favored by mass shooters.  As with their personalities, many factors are present, but the number of recent tragedies allows for the identification of some patterns.  In general and perhaps unsurprisingly, mass shooters are drawn to places where substantial numbers of unarmed persons congregate.  This suggests that these individuals are interested in killing while seeking to avoid a fight.  We do not see them going after “hard targets” such as police stations or border posts.  On the contrary, the locations they select have much in common, perspective-wise, with the violent video games and movies they seem to favor – where the “action figures” can act upon others without themselves being targets in any meaningful sense.  Stated simply, mass shooters are not “tough guys.”  Taken as a whole, they are distinctly cowards.  While they are clearly suicidal, they seem anxious to avoid a painful death.  While they are willing to kill themselves with a bullet to the head, or surrender to authorities, they appear equally anxious to avoid being shot in the course of their crime.  Of course, and most sickeningly, they do appear to take pleasure in imposing pain (and death) upon masses of people whom they have not met or otherwise interacted with.

What Can We Do?

From the above, it seems that there are essentially three “points of entry” for preventive measures.  We may enhance the monitoring and regulation of individuals.  We may enhance the regulation and monitoring of weapons. Or we may enhance the regulation and monitoring of spaces where large numbers of unarmed persons gather for fun, prayer, learning, or shopping.  Let us consider each of these, in rank order of their undesirability.

Greater Monitoring and Regulation of People

 For the past twenty years, there has been a strong and uninterrupted push by governments across the English-speaking world to increase the monitoring and surveillance of the citizenry.  CCTV cameras are ubiquitous in the United Kingdom and rapidly gaining ground across the United States and Australia.  National ID cards were a fascination of the Labour Party in the U.K. and are periodically raised in the United States.  Private data collection, NSA’s massive monitoring of all our communications, the evisceration of FISA under the flimsy guise of reform, data fusion centers, the insidious but persistent push for a national biometric data-base, and other efforts have each and severally been embraced by the political classes.  Whatever happens with firearms regulation, and we are already seeing it in the several Democratic Party proposals for “immigration reform,” we can be sure that increased monitoring of the citizenry will be part of the plan.  We already select whom to kill in Pakistan and elsewhere on the basis of a “disposition matrix,” and those who may or may not board an American flagged commercial aircraft are selected, secretly of course, by the same methods.  You can be certain that many of those who rule over us are itching to extend these information-based technologies to gun ownership for reasons other than the safety of the citizenry.

Just in case you do not know, a disposition matrix determining whether or not you could own a gun would likely draw upon criteria such as the status of your student loan, your credit rating, your employment history and whether or not you change jobs frequently, whether or not you adhere to an unpopular religion, things you have said by email or on your Facebook page, etc.  These and many other criteria could all be factors in the construction of such a matrix.  Again, as with those being barred from commercial aircraft, you would be deemed guilty until proven otherwise, you would not know the rationale for your having been barred, and there would likely be few, if any, grounds for appeal.  Big brother knows best.  As is always the case in these matters, being poor or individualistic are prominent “red flags.”  In short, the program would be just one more form of enforced homogenization of the population and its attitudes.  As mentioned, we have enough of this in the United States already.  Lets not present our government with yet one more rationale to secretly monitor and manage the population.

Securing Places Where the Public Congregates

What about securing more of the locations where innocents congregate?  This has been the “solution” advanced by the National Rifle Association and other self-styled 2nd Amendment protectors.  Their proposal is that more of us should carry weapons, and especially concealed weapons, in the hope that a modification of risk-factors will deter future shooters who, as indicated above, usually do not have any inclination to fight.  Now, if our focus is narrowly and exclusively to address the problem of mass shooters, this is not a completely stupid idea because, as we have seen, these are not “tough guys.”  Being fearful of pain and lacking much military experience, they are not prepared to handle the chaos of a shootout, even if (as would be likely) they had the inherent advantage of superior weaponry over a random civilian who happened to be nearby with a small pistol tucked into their handbag or under their coat.

Where the NRA is mistaken is in their belief that comparative firepower is the only consideration.  We know that suicides and accidental shootings rise sharply in households owning a gun, so it is likely that the total number of firearms deaths would rise.  Also, as fewer and fewer people have had any experience with the military, we have ever-fewer persons with any exposure to combat training.  Among other risks, we face the danger of a teacher’s weapon being grabbed by someone with evil intent, or of a civilian mistakenly shooting an innocent person in a panic.  Training America’s teachers, to say nothing of any substantial portion of civilians, in close-quarters combat, fire-discipline, and gun safety would seem to be both impractical and too expensive to be a serious solution.  Finally, the proposal to hire retired cops to wile away the day snoozing by the doors of our schools simply provides additional targets and the illusion of safety without adding much in the way of a deterrent.  Why?  Because the shooter will always have the element of surprise and it is unrealistic to expect an armed guard to be able to nullify that advantage by remaining at maximum vigilance throughout their shift.

Regulating the Qualities of Legally-Owned Weapons

This brings us to the qualities of the weapons circulating amongst the public.  Now, before we begin, let us be clear that the United States has always regulated the public’s access to weapons.  None of us can own or operate an F-18 fighter jet, a tank, or an artillery piece.  Neither may we own a heavy machine gun with its fully automatic features and light-armor-piercing .50 caliber rounds.  The principle as to whether or not the government may regulate the public’s access to certain classes of weapons has long been settled.  Our contemporary dispute is solely and exclusively about the variety of weapons that we may or may not own.

Let us, then, jump straight to the conclusion.  There is no reason why any law-abiding American civilian would ever need a semi- or fully-automatic weapon.  Rapidity of fire rather than accuracy is the only reason for such features and that quality, in itself, makes such weapons unsuited to our neighborhoods.  Moreover, there is no reason why a civilian would need a magazine that can hold more than seven rounds.  They should be banned.  I will add that the gun legislation recently passed by New York State’s does not “grandfather” large magazines already in the public’s possession, and I believe that any federal legislation would be wise to follow that example.  The problem is not the age of large magazines, it is their existence.  We don’t want them around.  Our police don’t want them around, and they should be illegal.  To ease the burden on those who purchased them in good faith, the government could offer to buy them back, perhaps at a reduced rate over time.  After a fixed period, owners of such magazines should be subject to non-trivial fines and other penalties.

The Counter-Arguments

But what of hunters?  Many people hunt for sport, but we should not ignore the fact that hunting makes a difference in the food budgets of many families.  Moreover, with the United States vigorously renewing its commitment to neoliberalism under Barack Obama, we can expect that the median family wage will to either continue the declines it suffered during his first term or the stagnation of the Bush terms that immediately preceded it.  Happily, the rules proposed above in no way impede hunting.  Hunters have freely selected their weapons for years and, for reasons of weight and accuracy, they overwhelmingly prefer bolt-action rifles.  Unsurprisingly, and for the same reason, the US military’s M24 sniper rifle is modified Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, so we can be confident that it is the superior firearm when accuracy is the primary consideration.

But what of defending our homes?  After all, with neoliberal economic policies, local budgets have been under pressure for decades.  One consequence has been a reduced police presence in the neighborhoods of the poor.  Simultaneously, that most stupid of all American wars – the War on Drugs – is continuing to support the growth of gangs.  For these reasons, many of our poorest citizens have been forced to contend with greater rates of violent crime even as they are increasingly dealing with it on their own. Are they not entitled to weapons with which to protect themselves?  While aggregate statistics support the propositions that increased gun ownership is correlated with increased accidental gun deaths and an increased probability of being the victim of a shooting, it is unreasonable for us to smugly suggest that statistical aggregates should define the choices of every citizen or family.  That said, it is hard to understand why any household would need a Glock semi-automatic pistol with one or more 19 or 33 round magazines for self-defense.  Anyone anticipating the possibility of such a destructive shootout in their home should be asking themselves some questions about what kinds of goods they are storing in that home.  The point is simple.  For most of the past hundred and fifty years, people who have felt the need for an additional level of home or personal protection have been well served by revolvers such as those manufactured by Smith & Wesson.  The ability to fire 5-7 rounds without reloading should be more than enough to deter anyone attempting to break into a home or, failing that, delay their progress until the police arrive.

In light of the above, the only constituency clearly harmed by the rules such as those proposed above would be “gun enthusiasts.”  Some people, as we know, enjoy owning and firing automatic weapons.  And let us be clear, they are not criminals and have no criminal intent.  While others may not share their taste in recreational activities, we should acknowledge that for some Americans laws such as those proposed here would constitute a positive harm.  However, all laws restrain the actions of a few in the interests of society.  This is no exception.  The point is to make such laws only when necessary.  Sadly, we cannot allow the recreational pleasures of a minority keep military-grade “weapons of mass destruction” legally available for anyone who can afford to purchase them.

There is a final point to consider.  A popular bumper sticker observes, “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”  This may be true.  But automatic weapons are complicated to use, especially if one is planning a mass shooting.  Potential perpetrators who have not had the benefit of military training will need opportunities to learn to use them and maintain their skills, which will be difficult if such weapons are illegal.  That, in itself would constitute a substantial addition to public safety.

List of POTUS-led Actions during President Obama’s First Term

Please read this post first, which links to the following list:

-The 2012 decision to change habeas corpus rules for remaining GiTMO prisoners. This meant that they no longer had access to the evidence against them, access to their lawyers, and to force detainees to resort to military tribunals. Tribunals are not bound by the U.S. Constitution, which is one of their biggest flaws. How can the US maintain integrity when scolding other countries about human rights violations, when it refuses to abide that framework for its own practices?

-An official commitment to continue the policy of renditions, that is, kidnapping and detaining foreign nationals for months, occasionally flying them to the U.S. to be “officially charged.”

– Led by US Attorney General Eric Holder, The Department of Justice’s continued harassment of foreign nationals, by pursuing them aggressively on the basis of little evidence. See the examples of Tarek Mehanna, Rezwan Ferdaus, and Fahad Hashmi, to name a few. In each of these cases, US Attorneys of color (Carmen Ortiz and Preet Bharara) pursued excessive charges against them, allowed them to remain in solitary confinement for years at a time before allowing them to have trials. And then they were charged with “conspiracy” to commit terrorist acts. Conspiracy charges require an extremely low threshold of evidence for convictions.

-The DoJ’s refusal to release 86 prisoners, including now dead Yemeni national and accidental bystander Adnan Latif, from GiTMO. The DoJ refused to released Adnan Latif despite being cleared THREE times by the Department of Defense, and a Court’s mandate as long ago as 2009. Latif was found dead in his cell. The US Army calls it a suicide. Truthout’s Jason Leopold has damning evidence to the contrary.

-The DoJ’s refusal to remand Canadian citizen Omar Khadr (detained as a child in 2002 and imprisoned at GiTMO Omar Khadr (detained as a child) back to Canada until September 2012.

-The secret, private kill list of those who are deemed to be a danger to the US and its citizens, which correspondingly grows longer and longer with each new extrajudicial execution undertaken by the Obama Administration.

-Over 300 drone strikes on countries that have never been declared to be targets of war or enemies of the United States.

-Nearly 200 children killed by US-directed remote drones. They are of course “unintentional” tragedies. Unless they are 16 and above and therefore defined as militants (in which case the number of children, by American civilian standards, will increase drastically.

-Nearly 2000 civilian deaths by drones. That means grandparents, parents, shopkeepers, lawyers, schoolteachers, brothers, sisters, nieces, cousins.

-The disposition matrix, which appears to make the War on Terror endless.

-The Department of Justice’s decision to prosecute whistleblowers who challenged wrongdoing. I am referring, most recently, to ex-CIA official John Kiriakou, who will serve more time in prison for confirming the name of a CIA torturer to a NYT journalist Scott Shane– than that torturer will. Of course, we can point to ex-NSA’s official Thomas Drake’s persecution by the DoJ, along with that of Pfc Bradley Manning, and the general harassment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who remains holed up in the London digs of the Ecuadorian embassy after receiving political asylum on the same grounds.

-Obama’s urging of the Yemeni President Saleh to reverse his decision to pardon Yemeni journalist Abudelelah Hider Shaye, who had just completed 2 of a 5 year prison sentence. Obama professed to be concerned about “his association with Al-Qaeda.” The Yemeni President quickly accommodated Obama’s request, even though as Jeremy Scahill reports, Shaye was arrested for revealing that the December 2009 Cruise missile strike that hit 41 Yemenis (21 were children) at a wedding party was directed by the U.S., and not an accident perpetuated by the Yemeni government, which took credit for that strike.

-Congress hardly prevented Obama from ending human rights violations at GiTMO, like those reported by former detainees David Hicks, Sami Al-Hajj, and Moazzem Begg.

-Congress hardly induced Obama to threaten not to sign NDAA 2012 if the Senate didn’t include a provision about giving the President unchecked authority to arrest and detain US citizens or foreign nationals anywhere in the world.

-Somehow, Obama forgot to send out a press release refusing to sign NDAA 2012 & 2013 if Congress “prevented” him from closing Guantanamo. I’m sure it was just an oversight.

-Between 2009-2012, under President Obama’s watch, the Department of Homeland Security has deported 1.5 million men and women in 4 years. Among them are 250,000 parents of U.S. citizen children who were separated from their parents as result of these deportations.

Time Magazine’s 2012 Person of the Year: A Celebration of the Indifferent Voter

It is the second time that Time has given Barack Obama this award. In 2008, Obama won the first time, ostensibly for making history as the first Black president of the U.S. This year, Obama managed to beat out Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teen who fought for education for girls, and was attacked by the Taliban for it. There were other—much less–distinguished luminaries, including Hillary and Bill Clinton.

Clearly Malala did not pursue the winning strategy: she did something constructive, and became a hero for risking her life and standing up to bullies, who shot her for it. She should have pursued a different strategy: capitulate to the bullies, repeat their stance even when you know it’s wrong (Israel has a “right to self defense), pursue rights-depriving legislation, expand authority for yourself, and all the while promising that she “will use all the powers of this office” to make sure terrible things don’t happen again—well after massacres occur over and over again. Perhaps she should have invited folks whose family members were murdered to remotely related celebrations at the White House and assume that such gestures would make amends for terrible injustices.

Time’s Editor Richard Stengel gave some reasons for why they chose Obama (over Yousufszai):

But he’s more than just a political figure; he’s a cultural one. He is the first President to embrace gay marriage and to offer work permits to many young undocumented immigrants.

Obama also has a kill list and disposition matrix. He has insisted on the executive power to arrest, detain, and incarcerate anyone he chooses for an indefinite period of time—without charges, evidence, or access to lawyers, due process, or even company in jail (witness the solitary confinement and humiliations awarded to Pfc Bradley Manning, hailed as a whistleblower for turning over evidence of ethical wrongdoing to Wikileaks). He reserves the right to drone civilians and children in 6 countries and counting. He entrenched the Hyde Amendment—the one that restricts federal funding for abortions–in his infamous health insurance bill of 2010.

Since his first election in 2008, Obama sent over 30,000 troops in Afghanistan. He promised to withdraw them but only because Afghanistan wouldn’t allow the U.S. to stay. His Administration promised to help oversee Afghanistan’s transition to democracy, only to protest vehemently when the Afghan legislature wanted to preserve the notion of due process.

In March of this year, Obama insisted that a Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Hider Shaea (or Shaye), remain in prison, ostensibly because of his “association” with Al-Qaeda, which in fact is his propensity to interview Al-Qaeda. But Shaea’s real crime was reporting a December 2009 Cruise Missile strike launched by the U.S. Air Force, which killed 41 people —21 of them children– at a wedding party. It is unknown whether any terrorists, who were supposedly being targeted, were killed.  Shaea, who was convicted in 2010, was on the verge of being pardoned by the Yemeni president, until President Obama called President Saleh and “expressed his concern” about Shaea’s release. The pardon was immediately reversed.

Somehow, surprisingly, the editors at Time Magazine did not mention those accomplishments. What they did say, however, was that:

The President feels a responsibility to advance the values he sees reflected in the changing electorate.

Really? No candidate HAS EVER felt this before.

Of the nearly 66 million people who pulled the lever for him, Obama says, “The choice that they made was less about me and more about them, more about who they saw themselves to be.” It’s a lovely sentiment for a winner, but even if Obama’s right, the question now is, Who exactly do they want to be? And can Barack Obama take them there?

And how exactly, did the “people” who voted for Barack Obama in the last election see themselves? Well, I can tell you how I see them.

They were voters…who were unafraid of being arrested, incarcerated, or held in solitary confinement. Voters who were indifferent to drone strikes or the thousands of deaths of children and innocent civilians in far away countries—whom they would never meet, encounter or need to think about. Voters who do not live in fear of being surveilled by FBI or CIA in mosques around the country. Voters who don’t worry that the President has too much arbitrary authority to use against citizens. Voters who are not troubled by the massive number of deportations organized under the Obama Administration (1.4 million—more than under both Bush terms). Voters who don’t get their news filtered through the mainstream media—in other words, Voters who read TIME magazine.

Apparently, they saw Obama as

One man, despite his failures, [who] had voters like you in mind.

Voters like “you”?  According to Rush Limbaugh, Obama was elected by the low information voter. Limbaugh’s translation: stupid people. My version: voters who just don’t care about facts.  And indeed, Time Magazine confirms both of our translations.

As Limbaugh said:

Richard Stengel, who is the editor of TIME Magazine, explaining why they chose Obama. [He] essentially says that they chose Obama because he is a symbol, the champion, of the new low-information American. It’s kinda funny to listen to it,” Limbaugh began before playing Stengel’s explanation as follows:

“He won reelection despite a higher unemployment rate than anybody’s had to face in 70 years. He’s the first Democrat to actually win two consecutive terms with over 50% of the vote. That’s something we haven’t seen since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And he’s basically the beneficiary and the author of a kind of new America, a new demographic, a new cultural America that he is now the symbol of.”

Limbaugh also noted that Stengel said: “15% of voters actually don’t care about politics. These are the people we didn’t know who are gonna show up at the polls who actually like Barack Obama, in the sense they feel like he’s outside of politics.”

It is the first time that Rush Limbaugh and I have ever agreed on anything. I keep looking out the window for flying pigs.

Newtown, CT: The Culture of Terror and the Failure of the National Security Agenda*

Yet again. Yes, again. Another heinous massacre in Newtown, CT. When I read of the details on Friday, I didn’t plan to write about it. I didn’t want to write about it.  I wanted to lose myself in the heated discussions over the misleading and graphic depictions of torture in Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty, in the Twitter project of NYU student & artist Josh Begley, who is tweeting every drone strike between 2002-2-12, in the details of the pre-trial motion hearing of Pfc. Bradley Manning as reported by Nathan Fuller and Kevin Gosztola and others; in the discussions of the conflagration of the meaning of terrorism in NY courts.  I wanted to consider those “national security” issues that form the basis of my work.  But in fact, the horrific event that occurred in Newtown, CT is also a national security issue. It is the result of the failure of the National Security Agenda put in place in the US since 9/11.

There isn’t one dominant definition of national security, but it might be safe to suggest that in the U.S., national security relates to domestic and foreign policies created in the name of fighting the “War on Terror.”  The policies of National Security relate to waging wars on sovereign Middle Eastern nations on the pretense that they have hidden WMD’s, or that their women need saving from Afghan men, or that they have nuclear weapons technology that will be used against us if we don’t level sanctions. National security refers to the hunt for alleged terrorists through pre-emptive policing, warrantless and indefinite detention, torture, solitary confinement. National security refers to the solitary confinement, humiliation, and abuse of whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning for turning over evidence of ethical wrongdoing by the U.S. armed services to transparency organizations such as Wikileaks.

The media coverage of the Newtown murders and the memorial speech given by President Obama would lead us to believe that what happened on Friday in Connecticut is worlds away from national security issues, because effective national security lies in rooting out terrorists. And we know that terrorists operate in dark shadowy cells, in the basements of mosques—in Kandahar, in Sana’a, in Abbottobad, in Queens, Brooklyn, Paterson, NJ, Lodi, CA. Terrorists don’t walk up to schools in grassy, leafy, quiet New England towns, with semi-automatic rifles in their hands, and after killing their mothers, force their way in, and shoot twenty 6 year olds multiple times at close range. Terrorists don’t have Asperger’s. Well, maybe they do. But only if they’re Muslim.

The media reports and the corresponding images of the heinous massacre in Newtown, CT have done their utmost to distinguish the unique tragedy of this shooting, to humanize the beautiful young children whose families grieve for them so heavily. Everything we hear about Adam Lanza reinforces that this was a random tragedy, fueled by the easy accessibility to guns. It had nothing to do with the Culture of Terror. Nothing to do with National Security.

Doesn’t it? In fact, the latest shooting of schoolchildren is the latest evidence that the national security project of the U.S government has failed.  The shooting in Newtown, CT is but part and parcel of a culture of shooting children, shooting civilians, shooting innocent adults, that has been waged by the U.S. government since September 12, 2001.  It has been directed by two United States Presidential Administrations, and has intensified under the second President, a Democrat.

And let there be no mistake: many of “us” have directly felt the impact of that culture: Which “us”? Yemeni parents, Pakistani uncles and aunts, Afghan grandparents and cousins, Somali brothers and sisters, Filipino cousins have experienced the impact of the culture of killing children. Families of children who live in countries that are routinely droned by the U.S. Air Force. Families of children whose villages are raided nightly in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Culture of Terror has been waged insistently through Pres. Obama’s policy of drone strikes. Or by U.S. Cruise missiles, as the one that targeted a Yemeni wedding party in 2009, in which 20 adults and 21 children died.  The Culture of Terror is intensified when the journalist who reported that strike was jailed—at the command of POTUS—and remains in jail to this day.  The Culture of Terror was waged insistently on the day that the same President was re-elected–when another drone strike was launched in Yemen, and 3 more people died. The Culture of Terror was perpetuated when the US insisted on the right of Israel to “self-defense” in Gaza—in the face of the systematic, legal, theft of land and the disproportionate “targeted” killings of Palestinians by the Israeli government.

And in case, you have forgotten: here are the numbers for Israel’s “self-defense” in Palestine:

From January through September 2012, Israeli weaponry caused 55 Palestinian deaths and 257 injuries. Among these 312 casualties, 61, or roughly 20 percent, were children and 28 were female. 209 of these casualties came as a result of Israeli Air Force missiles, 69 from live ammunition fire, and 18 from tank shells.In 2011, the projectiles fired by the Israeli military into Gaza were responsible for the death of 108 Palestinians, of which 15 were women or children, and the injury of 468 Palestinians, of which 143 where women or children. The methods by which these causalities were inflicted by Israeli projectiles breaks down as follows: 57 percent, or 310, were caused by Israeli aircraft missile fire; 28 percent, or 150, where from Israeli live ammunition; 11 percent, or 59, were from Israeli tank shells; while another 3 percent, or 18, were from Israeli mortar fire.

The Culture of Terror has been consistently, repeatedly, enforced through the innumerable practices of rendering and torturing Muslim men and women alleged to be terrorists. Without ever providing evidence of their terrorist activities. The Culture of Terror is waged every minute that Bradley Manning is incarcerated in solitary confinement for having turned over documents that show the immoral, illegal, reprehensible practices of our U.S. Armed Services at the behest of the POTUS.

The Culture of Terror is reflected in the mass shootings in Oak Creek, WI, in Newtown, CT, in the 60 other places where mass shootings have occurred in the last 3 decades in the U.S. It is reflected in the deaths of countless children (2700 children in 2010) in the United States through needless and random gun violence—despite restrictions on guns. It is avoidable violence. The Culture of Terror is reflected in the “See Something, Say Something” posters, directed by the Department of Homeland Security, found all public transportation systems in the U.S. In the Pamela Gellar anti-Muslim posters posted all over NYC and Washington DC.  The Culture of Terror is reflected in the deportation of over 1.4 million migrants over the last four years. In the separation of 46,000 children from their parents (only in a 6 month period in 2011) . In the jailing of Dr. Shakir Hamoodi for sending money to his family in Iraq despite the needless sanctions imposed by the U.S.  In the refusal to allow a Muslim U.S. veteran fly home from Qatar to see his mother until the prolonged intervention of journalists and advocacy groups made it happen. In the fear that contributing to Bradley Manning’s or Julian Assange’s legal defense funds will render ordinary innocent citizens vulnerable to arrest and jailtime and similar privation of Constitutional rights. In the development of ever-longer kill lists and “disposition matrixes.”

In each and every one of those instances, the Culture of Terror is organized and directed by the U.S. government. And in each and every one of those instances, the Culture of Terror reflects a failure of the goal of National Security.  Because the goal of National Security cannot—can never succeed—if some among us must live in fear of being arrested, persecuted, imprisoned without charges, susceptible to being tortured or killed for being Muslim, Arab, hijabi, religious, the son of a suspected terrorist, a political dissenter, a whistleblower…

The project of National Security is the project of forcing us to live in fear of each other, of cutting social services to families whose members have severe neurological, psychological illnesses–in order to fund an increasing Culture of Terror. The National Security project is the project of allocating “2/3 of a trillion dollars” for 2013 alone: for the purpose of continued US military presence in other sovereign nations. The National Security project is to reward banks and financial institutions with even more money for their achievement of plundering the life-savings of thousands of ordinary citizens. For gratuituously rendering Americans homeless through subprime mortgage foreclosures.

What is the difference between the heinous tragedy that occurred last Friday in Newtown, CT and the instances that I mention above?  The key difference–Attorney General Eric Holder, POTUS Obama, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, Sec. of Defense Leon Panetta—will tell you, is that the poor children in Newtown, CT were the innocent defenseless victims of a lone gunman, whereas the U.S. is in the full-fledged battle of combatting terrorism—which makes the murder of innocent civilians, of innocent children an unfortunate collateral damage. They will tell you that the housing crisis was the unfortunate result of greedy bankers, but they tried to punish the bankers. They will tell you to “Look forward, not backward.”

But in fact these are not the primary differences. The primary difference is that the U.S. has legitimated the Culture of Terror—and the failure of National Security—by insisting that needless violence, the random deaths of thousands of children and adult women and men, the gratuitous incarceration and solitary confinement of thousands of young men without charges is a necessary approach to “solving” terror.

The second primary difference is the complete lack of accountability—demanded from or given by– the U.S. government, the U.S. Congress—on the issues of unjust wars and invasions, human rights violations, damaging racial profiling, illegal drone and missile strikes, and countless other damage to ordinary citizens in the US and around the world. The third primary difference is that the same Liberals who are shocked by the shooting at Newtown, CT, in fact have legitimated the Culture of Terror by endorsing, voting for, and re-electing POTUS and his murderous terrorist Administration–instead of demanding accountability.

And that same legitimation—and the absence of outrage at the murders of thousands of innocent civilians around the world—whose parents, families, grieve identically to the families of the youngsters and teachers who tragically, horrifically died in Newtown, CT—shows the massive failure of our National Security agenda and the “War on Terror” in the era since 9/11.

Yet again. Yes, again.

___________________

*Revised.

Saving Afghan Women? NDAA 2013 Exploits Feminism to Justify Western Imperialism

Recently, the US Senate passed a measure designed to increase security for Afghan women as America gets ready to leave the country. The provision in question, according to the New York Times, “offers hope for the Afghan women who fear they will be even more vulnerable to harsh customs and the men who impose them after American troops withdraw from Afghanistan.” With its passage, some might believe that the United States demonstrating its commitment to feminism. That might be too quick a judgment.

Sen. Bob Casey, one of the sponsors of the measure describes it thus:

The legislation would require a three-part strategy to promote the security of Afghan women and girls by monitoring and responding to changes in women’s security, improving gender sensitivity and responsiveness among Afghan National Security personnel, and increasing the recruitment and retention of women in the Afghan National Security Forces. The Department of Defense would also be required to include an assessment of actions taken to implement the strategy and its results in its semi-annual reports to Congress on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan.

This provision is sponsored by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). In light of the stories of Taliban repression of women, this provision suggests that Casey and Bailey-Hutchison really care about the fate of Afghan women. Let’s review their feminist records, shall we?

Casey, a Democrat, voted for Sen. Roy Blunt’s ““Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” in March of this year. One of the most controversial aspects of the Health Insurance bill, it enabled employers to opt out of providing abortion and contraceptive coverage, along with “any other health treatment based solely on the undefined determination of the employer’s religious and moral beliefs, including prenatal care, childhood vaccinations, cancer screenings, and mammograms.”

As Kate Michelman points out, that vote was consistent with Bob Casey’s earlier votes against stem cell research funding back in 2007. Even though the bill passed, Pres. George Bush vetoed it– to his infinite credit. Was that the end of the story? Not quite: To show HIS feminist solidarity, President Obama enacted the ban against federal funding of stem cell research law through Executive order.

Hutchison’s feminist credentials are more ambiguous. Although until 2006, she sat on the board of The Wish List, PAC that endorsed pro-choice Republican candidates, she is hardly pro-choice. The National Right to Life Committee gave her between 93% and 100% on her anti-choice views over the last few years. Conversely, NARAL has given her between 0%-20% based on her consistency in voting to restrict access to abortion. As a Representative, Hutchison did work to sponsor legislation that would allow victims of rape to keep their names out of the press. But that was almost 40 years ago.

There is little in the description that confirms a chivalrous or feminist impulse to save Afghan women. The measure indicates a commitment to implement a security system that reflects and sustains American presence in Afghanistan.  Moreover, rebuilding Afghanistan in the image of the US facilitates a structure that would allow the US an excuse to rush back when it deems that the new political order is not going according to plan. We saw an example of this when the US objected to the Afghan insistence on upholding due process in its new justice system.

What exactly is the danger that Afghan women face from other Afghan men? Patriarchy? Violence? Sexual assault? Being vulnerable to violence when leaving the house? I have no problem believing that Afghan men can be sexist, misogynist, and harmful to women, just as I have no problem believing that men (and women  in positions of power) from all over the world can be sexist, misogynist and harmful to women. But there is a serious question about the relative comparison that Afghan men are MORE sexist, misogynist, and harmful than men anywhere else in the world, and that Whites (and elite People of Color who are part of White supremacy) are needed to save them from the harms of their male family and community.

That is to say, the rhetoric of this provision eclipses the danger that Afghan women have been in UNDER the presence of US soldiers for the last 5 years. The number of reported instances of rape, mayhem and plunder that U.S. male soldiers have inflicted on Afghan and Iraqi women in the 11 years since the U.S. has sent troops into these countries suggest that the impulses of Casey and Hutchison need to be considered against the backdrop of the violence that Afghan women have suffered in light of the US military presence. See here and here and here for just a few instances in which U.S. soliders have not only raped Afghan women or girls, or set fire to entire families. And these are only in those cases where the accusations against them have been aired publicly.

Given the range of stories of similar assaults by U.S. soldiers, I wonder how that differs from their lives under US military over the last few years, especially as US soldiers have not been held accountable for their extracurricular activities such as wartime rape, village burnings, and assault

As scholar Gayatri Spivak points out, this is the age-old story of imperialism: White men saving brown women from brown men. But it IS a story: a piece of propaganda that is used to justify military actions and condemn Others.  In the same way that well-intentioned imperial governments invaded India to plunder resources and expand their global authority while convincing themselves that they were bringing civilization to the savages, the U.S. tells itself the story that it is a peacekeeper and protector of women.  A peacekeeper who invades and creates mayhem in a country by enabling its soldiers to rape Afghan women without punishment.

In terms of misogyny and sexism, the U.S. should have faced sanctions or been invaded already for its neglect in addressing the systematic rape and violence that are faced by women in various parts of the United States–by fundamentalist Christians, football coaches (plural), schoolteachers, among various men. The United States, according to recent UN statistics on sexual assault (Excel pdf)has among the top 10 rates of rape in the world—some of the other countries including UK, Belgium Sweden, South Africa, and Botswana. I’m sure there are biases of self-reporting, but let’s be clear: the US is hardly a feminist refuge.

If all goes well, the above measure will be included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, an annual budget measure which, over the last few years, has included little known provisions pertaining to the scope of presidential and military power in relation to the US’ War on Terror.  Last year’s NDAA made headlines as it included provisions Sec. 1031 and 1032, which authorized the US president to arrest or detain any US citizen or foreign national—anywhere in the world—on suspicion of terrorism. And that was in addition to a number of other objectionable provisions, as convincingly argued by ACLU’s Kade Crockford:

…the 600-page NDAA of 2013 authorizing 2/3rds of a trillion dollars in spending for the armed forces was before Congress. Introduced on March 29, 2012, by the time the new defense bill was voted on in mid May by the House it contained some troubling provisions. Sections 1221 and 1222 essentially authorized war with Iran. Again, the NDAA severely restricted the executive branch’s ability to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo. An amendment termed “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act” which was added to the NDAA permits the government to create and distribute pro-American propaganda within the US to counter al-Qaeda propaganda, striking down a long-standing ban.

This year’s NDAA will may yet make headlines in the US because of another recently passed measure, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, to retract the power of the President to detain US citizens without cause. While a laudable move, it leaves intact the US presumptive authority to arrest Muslim men or foreign nationals assumed to be terrorists, and to detain them indefinitely without charges or trials.

The real danger to Afghan women is the United States’ arbitrary claim to decide the terms of security: to decide who will be subject to violence, when, and at what costs. The security of Afghan women may be increased if they follow an American political order; still, they and other foreigners have already been subject to the danger and the violence of U.S. imperialism–through rapes and violence committed by US soldiers under the auspices of America’s self-justification to wage a imperial war abroad and at home. Those parts of the U.S. imperial mission to civilize and uplift will hardly make Afghan women, or men more secure.

American Politics and the Blurred Distinction Between Principles, Policies, and Personalities

Apologies for posting less frequently than usual. I’ve been traveling, which has made it difficult. Robert E. Prasch fills in today with an insightful post on the misapplication of categories. And I’ll have a new column within the next couple days.

Robert E. Prasch

One of the difficulties in following American politics is that words often lose their meaning in the course of partisan argumentation.  But thinking clearly, requires attending to the meaning of words and the concepts to which they refer.  One area where much work is needed is in the distinction between principles, policies, and personalities.

Principles, by definition, are “hard and fast rules.”  As such, they are not subject to negotiation.  Not for money, momentary political advantage, monetary reward, or any reason at all short of the direst of emergencies – and perhaps not even then.  In the political realm, our society has sought to elevate certain moral and procedural principles to the status of “rights.”  Long and painful experience has shown that we regret the consequences that follow, almost inevitably, from setting aside those rights.  Knowing this, we have deemed these rights to be “inviolate.”  This, as American schoolchildren used to know, is the idea underlying the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the several ensuing Amendments, etc.[FS1]   This special status is also important because we know, again from hard experience, that in the midst of emergencies, tragedies and panics (real, imagined, or induced), that the citizenry can be induced to set them aside.    We also know, again from hard experience, that our elected officials can be counted upon to lead the call for the suspension of our rights.

For example, consider that there is no Constitutional Amendment forbidding our elected officials from banging their heads against the nearest wall.  This is probably because history, experience, and introspection, all suggest that they are disinclined to do it, and that little of importance is at stake for our society or polity in the event that some of them decide to pursue such an activity.

By contrast, our Constitution forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures,” while insisting on a positive right to a “speedy and public trial,” along with a right “to be confronted with witnesses.” The reason is that circumstances have appeared and reappeared in which a majority of voters and elected officials insist that “this time is different.”  Hence they claim that “in this exceptional case” there are reasons to violate these principles (otherwise known as the 1st, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 14th Amendments to the Constitution).  As  principles, these Amendments cannot and should not be set aside to appease the roar of a crowd, or because an influential person or group persons believes that doing so might be an “expedient” or “pragmatic” way to achieve a particular and popular end (one invariably advantageous to the party making the argument).

In contrast to principle, policy is about the government’s approach to a particular problem or issue.  For example, the government may enact a policy designed to reduce the use of gasoline in that hope that doing so will improve the balance of trade while aiding the environment.  As with all policies, some will “win” and others will “lose,” but it is important to observe that no principles are at stake, just interests.  Policies cover a range of approaches to problems that can be discussed reasonably by reasonable people.  It is understood that, as a consequence of differing interests and perhaps political philosophies, different people may arrive at different conclusions.

The same cannot be said about principles.  So, when the minions of a sitting President of the United States work diligently behind the scenes to craft and then enact legislation granting the executive branch the authority to seize, imprison indefinitely, and kill United States citizens without “due process of law,” then what we are seeing is not a “policy difference,” the merits of which reasonable people may reasonably debate.  Rather, we are seeing the violation of our core principles as they are clearly described in the Constitution.  Only two positions can be taken on this issue: (1) ally with those who believe that we should live in a republic governed by laws, or (2) ally with those who do not.  By clear and distinct contrast with the Bush and Obama Administrations, I count myself as among those who wish to live in a free republic.

Moreover, I maintain this position unapologetically.  Most damning of all, by the standards of the District of Columbia, the White House, and the mainstream media, I am unashamed by my dogmatism.  But, the situation is even worse.  I fully, and with every ounce of contempt I can muster, dismiss the idea that we are living through a period of history featuring such unique, unprecedented, and extreme dangers that Constitutional protections can, and should, be abrogated.  Living as a free citizen in a free republic involves risks.  But, as we look around, it is evident that the risks are minimal and the costs – in lost liberties and out of pocket expenses — are massive (We can begin with the 230,000 employed by Homeland Security and the approximately 200,000+ employed at various “intelligence” agencies such as NSA, CIA, and others).

Let’s turn to personalities.  For the past several decades, we have been asked to judge political candidates exclusively on the basis of their personality.  Are they optimistic?  Do they have a lovely wife?  Have they had an affair?  Have they ever transported the family dog on the roof of the family car? I do not care.  I do not care about a politician’s family, their love-life, or the travel arrangements of their pets.  As a citizen, I just don’t care, and neither should you.  Adherence to the Constitution and an ability to formulate and “sell” compelling policies should be the foundation of political success in a well-functioning polity.  Not personal foibles or failings.

Why, then, does personality play such a role in our politics?  Two reasons come to mind.  One is that matters of principle and policy may be difficult to interpret, especially in a world featuring massive expenditures on disinformation and partisan “spin.”  Another, more disconcerting reason, is that the major parties represent the same elite interests and for that reason are not all that different on a wide range of issues.  For example, both parties are committed to establishing and maintaining U.S. hegemony across the Middle East.  Both parties are anxious to set aside Constitutional protections so as to further concentrate power in the executive branch.  Both parties are fully committed to protecting the nation’s largest and most useless financial institutions.  Both parties are anxious to pursue any and all “Free Trade” agreements designed by and for the Fortune 500 companies.  Both parties are committed to rolling back the meager income security that Americans receive from Medicare and Social Security.  Both parties understand that they will respond with alacrity and zest to the needs expressed by the upper 7-10% of the population as measured by income and wealth, even as they essentially neglect or assault the interests of the rest.  The leadership of both parties are fully aware of this convergence, and I would submit that they have not fooled as many Americans as they think.  However, just because they share a broad consensus should not be interpreted to mean that each party’s leadership is not anxious to garner the spoils of governing to themselves, their sponsors, and their camp followers.

In short, the focus on personalities, and the partisan bickering that follows from it, is not symptomatic of divergence, but rather signifies the convergence of political perspectives between the major parties.  Moreover, this convergence of the parties behind an agenda designed largely by and for economic elites can be more readily masked if differences of personality can made to substitute for discussions of substantive content.  So we should expect to see even more excited discussions about marital affairs and the travails of family pets as we witness the continuance of the bi-partisan push to set aside the core principles of republican government and the pursuit of economic policies designed to benefit a privileged minority at the expense of the rest of us.

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

Thanksgiving Fun: The Prez’s Memo on Insider Threats…and Anti-Whistleblowing Pursuits?

Updated below.

Last Wednesday was Nov. 21, the day before a long Thanksgiving weekend when most journalists, employees, and majority of the American populace are distracted by traveling or preparations. On that day, the POTUS signed the below Presidential Memorandum.

National Insider Threat Policy and Minimum Standards for Executive Branch Insider Threat Programs

MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES

SUBJECT: National Insider Threat Policy and Minimum Standards for Executive Branch Insider Threat Programs

This Presidential Memorandum transmits the National Insider Threat Policy and Minimum Standards for Executive Branch Insider Threat Programs (Minimum Standards) to provide direction and guidance to promote the development of effective insider threat programs within departments and agencies to deter, detect, and mitigate actions by employees who may represent a threat to national security. These threats encompass potential espionage, violent acts against the Government or the Nation, and unauthorized disclosure of classified information, including the vast amounts of classified data available on interconnected United States Government computer networks and systems.

The Minimum Standards provide departments and agencies with the minimum elements necessary to establish effective insider threat programs. These elements include the capability to gather, integrate, and centrally analyze and respond to key threat-related information; monitor employee use of classified networks; provide the workforce with insider threat awareness training; and protect the civil liberties and privacy of all personnel.

The resulting insider threat capabilities will strengthen the protection of classified information across the executive branch and reinforce our defenses against both adversaries and insiders who misuse their access and endanger our national security.

BARACK OBAMA

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In light of the breathless pursuit of whistleblowers under the Obama Administration,the significance of the memo appears clear in some ways. But in other ways, its added benefits to the voracious pursuit of Executive power by POTUS and his DOJ staff are as of yet hard to pinpoint.  Still, from the first paragraph to the last, this 183 word document is short, ambiguous and pointed in its wording.  It refers to a “National Insider Threat Policy and Minimum Standards for Executive Branch Insider Threat Programs (Minimum Standards).” I haven’t been able to find a copy of the Minimum Standards Policy: but it appears to be a template by which to shield the national intelligence apparatus from classified information leaks by high-level employees, who presumably have access to “vast amounts of classified data on available on interconnected United States Government computer networks and systems.”

The Program appears to be authorized to monitor and intercept all “classified” communications by national intelligence employees for the purpose of pre-empting1. National security threats or 2. Whistleblowing. Or both.

As noted above, the memo’s timing is noteworthy. Also of note: exactly one week before this memo was signed, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon blocked the passage of NDAA 2013 through Congress without a public debate. Wyden cited several serious concerns about sections 505, 506, and 511, all of which involve internal national security threats.  As most news junkies will remember, NDAA 2012 was controversial for Sec. 301, which gave POTUS the authority to direct the arrest and detention of any US citizen or foreign nationals anywhere in the world on suspicion of terrorist activity. It was hotly discussed in the month before its passage and signing into law by POTUS, who initially insisted that he was not interested in such expansive executive authority. The blatant falsity of that position was revealed by Sen. Carl Levin, who pointed out before the Senate that in fact, the White House had threatened to veto the bill unless it explicitly included the section for expansive indefinite detention powers by the Executive.

This year’s NDAA pursues a similar expansive, pre-emptive power on the part the US state. Wyden explains his objections to sections 505 and 506 here. Section 506 is more troubling than 505: according to Wyden, it would prevent unauthorized, unclassified briefings form intelligence agency experts unless they were on the record. This section does 2 things: it prevents intelligence experts from informing the press about issues that they and the public should be given an inkling about. Second, it buttresses the DOJ’s legal authority to go after unauthorized leaks. Wyden’s objection to Sec. 506 stems from his view that “authorized, unclassified background briefings from intelligence agency analysts and experts are a useful way to help inform the press and the public about a wide variety of issues, and there will often be good reasons to withhold the full names of the experts giving these briefings.”

The third section that gives Wyden pause—correctly—is Sec. 511, which would authorize the head of National Intelligence to punish wayward whistleblowers by shutting down their pensions—an effective obstacle to airing wrongdoings, to say the least, especially by lifers who are close to retirement.

So, how does the Thanksgiving memo fit in? Hard to say, given the strange decisive yet ambiguous wording of the memo and the unknown details of the Minimum Standards Program. But this memo appears to break down the obstacle correctly created by Wyden’s opposition to NDAA 2013.  In effect, it seems to imprint an Executive decree that allows National intelligence officials to legally monitor all cyber-doings by its employees so as pre-empt them from passing on any unfavorable, unethical, or unseeming information to any sources outside the agency—even if for the purposes of ethical accountability:

“These elements include the capability to gather, integrate, and centrally analyze and respond to key threat-related information; monitor employee use of classified networks; provide the workforce with insider threat awareness training; and protect the civil liberties and privacy of all personnel.

Still, it feels a bit redundant. Is it? Or Is it a new angle on espionage-prosecution policy to augment all the hard work and efforts of DOJ over the last 4 years?

It’s not too coy to point out that the document comes on the heels of a protracted prosecution of John Kiriakou, a former CIA agent who blew the whistle on torture. It is also signed as the military trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning on charges of espionage and “aiding the enemy,” begins in Fort Meade, MD. Manning, who has been kept in solitary confinement continuously since May 2010, while deprived of multiple basic humanitarian needs all for turning over classified documents to Wikileaks. It was an act that, in different proportions, has created havoc for both Manning and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  Manning’s trial has gotten little notice, but is being covered by excellent advocacy journalists such as Kevin Gosztola and Nathan Fuller.

One final point: This memo appears to cement or clamp down even further on potential whistleblowers. By contrast, as financial regulator and anti-fraud expert William Black mentioned to me last night, the recently passed Dodd-Frank bill seems to lean in the other direction. It puts forth a strong anti-retaliatory provision, known as the “Bounty Hunter provision,” which allows whistleblowers in private corporations to sue for millions if they can provide the SEC with solid evidence that their activities were met with attempts to fire them.

Speculatively, what better way to pound another nail in the defilement of Constitutional checks and balances than to sign a deliberately ambiguous memo enabling National Intelligence officials to monitor and police their employees–using some new lens? Or just to police even more closely for signs of conscience or morality? We know both sides of that coin: leaks and threats to national security are how government officials, who are only a knife’s edge away from complete immunity, describe the moral calls to accountability on the parts of still concerned citizens and government public figures.

The persecution and prosecutions of Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Bradley Manning, were part of a series of never-ending moments designed to find new ways to expand the immunity of government officials, who continue to engage in wanton wrongdoing and who want the unencumbered capacity to monitor, police, and threaten anyone in their offices who dares to disagree. This memo—at the risk of being underdramatic—seems to be another ode to the expansion of executive authority.  Kudos to POTUS. Another year, another splintering of the few fenceposts remaining that were meant to restrain him and his posse. Check, mate.

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Update (9:51 am EST): Here’s another speculation about the weird timing and wording of the memo:

Marcy Wheeler has this compelling argument about the timing of the public “release” of the “Drone Rule Book.” In the last paragraph of her post, she argues, it might have to do with backdating the logic behind targeted killings in the event that someone down the line like the Hague might order some accountability. I agree, and wonder if this Memo isn’t part of some effort to keep closer tabs on what National Intelligence employees release, so as to avoid inconsistencies between an Administrative effort to backdate the logic behind the Rule book and emails or other classified communications?

From the post over at emptywheel:

These awkward targetings are almost certainly precisely the reason the Administration refuses to make more information about its targeting program public: because they prove the program was never as orderly or legally sound as the Administration publicly claims. So the “rule book,” purporting to show the reasoned deliberations behind these screw-ups, might be one way to spin them as reasoned (and legal). I have suggested that some of the public statements about the drone program might have served as legal cover if ever anyone thought to prosecute Administration officials for killing civilians. Perhaps this “rule book” was designed to do the same?

Thus far, most of the treatment of the “rule book” has presumed it was meant to be prescriptive, and it might well have been. But it’s also possible the “rule book” was meant to be (falsely) descriptive, an effort to spin the program just as a group of potential critics got read into the program.

Update: Matthew Aid’s take on this seems to support my suspicions: this “rule book” is about the eventual review of this program.

A State Department official who recently left his post for a better paying job in the private sector admitted that there is deep concern at State and Justice that sooner or later, a court in the U.S. or in The Hague will issue a ruling on the question of the legality of these missions, which many in Washington fear will go against the U.S. government position that these strikes are legal.

Power, Ethics, Etiquette: The Liberal Sincerity of MSNBC Journalists

Updates I & II below:

I’m having difficulty seeing what others on Twitter have called the ‘mean-spiritedness’ and ‘antagonism’ of Ohtarzie’s latest post, “The Cable News Heroism of Chris Hayes.” His piece emerged after a prolonged exchange on Twitter with journalist Jeremy Scahill.  Ohtarzie gave a fair analysis of the significance of ‘left’ figures like Hayes within the context of corporate “liberal” media: Chris Hayes’ role (like those of Rachel Maddow, Melissa Harris-Perry, etc.), is largely symbolic and limited to the degree that MSNBC finds him useful. Hayes’ status as the host of a progressive forum on TV may have been true once, and he might even believe that he is an effective progressive journalist–but self-deception is a rather dependable refuge for the best of us.

There is little worthy in defending someone — Hayes, Chomsky, Obama, Maddow — by insisting that “their intentions are good/sincere/honest/liberal/left.”  As Hannah Arendt points out, bureaucrats and functionaries don’t wake up in the morning believing that they have insincere intentions.  Ditto mass murderers, presidential candidates, and your husband. Adolf Eichmann thought he was abiding by Kant’s universal moral law. That shows you how vacuous the categorical imperative can be. This is, as she points out, how the extreme ordinariness—the banality—of evil reveals itself: by seeking shelter in “sincere beliefs.”

Insincere intentions are the stuff of fairy tales. They are the simplest way to turn the banality of evil into the thrill of spotting a villain. This is why Hollywood directors are filthy rich.  The “sincere” beliefs view is helpfully reinforced by seeking confirmation from other like-minded folks—and friends. It is not convincing to critics. Rightfully. I am neither suggesting that Chris Hayes is evil nor that Jeremy Scahill, an excellent journalist, is at fault for pointing to Hayes’ sincerity. The former is too pat a description.  The latter is a natural impulse of friendship, but still a weak defense of Hayes’ shift toward Democratic apologia. There is something corrupt about the argument that one’s sincerity makes one a “good” anything—person, journalist, teacher, parent.

Ohtarzie writes:

[this is] why I consider most establishment lefts fundamentally toxic: their principled, analytical moments are inseparable from the ways in which they more frequently and potently subvert them…

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of presidential elections…to mass indoctrination, mass distraction, and movement killing, where they accomplish a great deal.

I would add that the toxicity of subverted principles is even more all-encompassing: it is a constant undertow that threatens to subsume you. It emanates from everyone you work with. Unless you are forceful in resisting, there is a tide that’s flows over you unceasingly. It becomes something you find—want–yourself to be part of. It is a damn sight more pleasurable to be a part of a crowd that has sincere intentions, gets paid well, believes in liberal principles, and looks the other way collectively, than to find oneself eating brunch alone in one’s tiny kitchen, or awkwardly greeted by upwardly ascending colleagues.  The natural response, then, becomes the willingness to acquiesce to the coercion imposed by that tide, that undertow, and of course, to the source of one’s bread—in this case, the defense contractor/corporate employer—and one’s social “network”: those with whom one aspires to be on friendly, intimate terms: other well-known corporate reporters, high visibility newsmakers, and of course, the POTUS himself and his functionaries.

It is at some level natural and to be expected that one will be less critical of the failings of those whom one knows personally or is friends with: one can see those failings in a more holistic aura of other “positive” characteristics. This is also part of why politicians curry favor with journalists and lobbyists curry favor with politicians: the line between business and pleasure becomes happily blurred. It is much more difficult to criticize or challenge someone whose sense of humor, holiday gatherings, or box seats you share.

It is not strange—nor wrong–for Scahill to locate Hayes within the context of his more positive lights. Nor might it be strange for Hayes and Maddow to do the same with Obama. Except that part of Hayes’ and Maddow’s jobs are to keep the President and the Democrats accountable. Which means that “listening to the President’s thoughts on economic messaging” is a dubious project—given that it is a journalist’s job to assess the message, not to help shape it.

This may be why “ethics”—along with physical and social distance from the subject of one’s writings–are useful: because they guide us during those confusing moments when our lust to be counted in another’s intimate circle conflicts with doing our jobs: being on intimate friendly terms with the boss, one’s dissertation advisor, the subject of one’s dissertation or biography, the enemy, or an important news source.

But the denial of that conflict of interest is all-too-rewarding.  As Ohtarzie says,

…the price all widely known public lefts from Rachel Maddow to Chomsky must pay to sit at the grownups’ table is agreement that a quadrennial, unconditional allegiance to whomever happens to be the Democratic presidential candidate is both tactically sound and socially responsible.

It is one thing to capitulate to the aspiration to success reluctantly, perhaps with a divided heart and mind. It is quite another to engage in the exhortatory jubilation that Hayes evidenced here (this was on my mind before I read Arthur Silber’s post, but he appears also to have found it vomitorious):

[I can’t successfully embed the clip, so here’s the link to the clip with transcript.]

This was perhaps one of the most noxious displays of Hayes’s turn to Democratic partisanship.  It wasn’t just a quiet “ode” to the labor of democracy, but an exhortation of the triumph of Obama’s victory. What made it especially troubling was not the description of his brother’s “the countless hours on the road,” although by the calculus of “hard work,” this victory could also have been Romney’s and his staff, no?

Sixty to ninety hours a week, 52 weeks a year for five years, my brother worked to get Barack Obama elected president, and then from his perch as the Nevada state director this time around, to get him re-elected. I’m biased of course, but to me, Tuesday’s victory was Luke’s victory as much it was anyone else’s.

It was not the exultation in the face of a year of arguments–among progressives and liberals about the miniscule differences that could be used to distinguish the “right” candidate from the “left” candidate–that was disturbing.

No. What made it especially sickening was the craven excitement exhibited by Hayes, given the months of shows on race, drones, the faltering economy, the mortgage foreclosures, constitutional violations, etc. As I watched, I wondered how to reconcile his joy with his factual awareness of the violations and punitive treatment of vulnerable and poor populations, people of color—citizens and foreign nationals. Was it

A deep self-deception? Perhaps if we were to believe Hayes’ defenders that he “means well.”

Amnesia? Somehow he forgot the years of outrages that he himself discusses?

Indifference? To interpret Hayes’ “Dashle-like” response that Freddie DeBoer diagnoses, and invoked by Ohtarzie?

To watch Hayes toasting his brother’s victory in the aftermath of yet more drones sent into Yemen (on the day of the election)–while being acutely aware that more people had died in the intervening 4 days between the re-election of Barack Obama and Hayes’ show—made my blood run cold. This man is supposed to hold politicians accountable.

That brings me back to the point with which I began:  Several Twitter followers described the stark tone of Ohtarzie’s post as “mean-spirited” and “antagonistic.”  They seemed to imply that Ohtarzie was guilty of a breach of etiquette—that one must be “polite” in one’s criticisms. I did not see the “impoliteness.” But I am all too aware that the purpose of “etiquette” is to smooth the frictions of social life, of social interaction. One is polite so as to avoid conflict–as we see in the traditional advice to avoid discussing “religion, politics, and sex” at family gatherings–with one’s fellow journalists or Democrats, or to avoid being dismissed as irrational or crazy—especially when brown or Black. I don’t think rudeness and spite are always political acts. But being openly, unflinchingly disagreeable is an important step towards the political.

The criticism of Ohtarzie’s “antagonism” belies one answer to the very question that is under dispute: Apparently there are those who believe that etiquette should be used to smooth out the criticisms of progressive journalism. But in fact, the answer has been much more deadly to the 4th estate. Etiquette and social intimacy are inevitably successful tactics to induce “progressive journalists” to exploit their radical credentials while accepting the invitation into the corporate fold. At extreme political cost.

Liberal sincere intentions. Doing well by doing good.

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Update I: It’s as if the NYT and I coordinated today. Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson: Art of Power has an Op-Ed in which he endorses “Socializing as a Political Tool.” Obama, he says, should invite his opponents to dinner; it “ameliorates” differences. Bien sur!

Update II: Anonymous posted this link in the comments section below, but I wanted to highlight it here. It is another excellent post by Barry Eisler on a similar topic, “You Will Be Assimilated.” Gut-clenchingly candid in its assessment of the signs of journalists selling out. Must read.

Holding Their Feet to the Fire: Are We or Aren’t We Serious?

Robert E. Prasch

The reelection of Barack Obama has induced two responses from liberals and progressives.  On the one hand, there is palpable relief that Mitt Romney and the Republican Party will not be running the show.  On the other, multiple voices are saying,  “It’s time to hold their feet to the fire.”  Liberals and progressives, it seems, are belatedly willing to admit a truth that was literally unspeakable before the election – that the record of the Obama Administration has not met expectations, and that Republican obstruction can account for only a portion of the shortfall.

Holding some person or institution accountable is an act of power.  Many liberals and progressives believe that the recent election has brought about some – as yet undisclosed — change in the American political landscape that grants them a measure of influence over the leadership of their party, including the White House.  This is a leadership, let us remember, that has resolutely turned its back on the entreaties of its own supporters for most, if not all, of the past decade.  In some way or manner – again undisclosed — we are to believe that the second Obama Administration will find itself obliged to adopt an agenda that more closely coincides with the people who voted for “hope and change” in 2008.  That is to say, those millions of voters who thought that they had restored their nation to a degree of sanity, but were instead disappointed to find George W. Bush’s foreign policy and surveillance state greatly enhanced, corrupt and failed bankers were granted a free pass at home, and whistle-blowers facing criminal charges even as the war criminals they exposed were excused or promoted to high office.

Were the Obama Administration to take up even a portion of its 2008 platform, it would certainly be a welcome turn of events.  Unfortunately, and despite the implicit claim of so many, I have yet to hear a single compelling reason why this Administration would wish to become responsive to the hopes of liberals and progressives.  After all, the elections are now done, so why change?  Let us recall that Robert Gibbs refers to liberal and progressive critics as the “loony left,” David Plouffe calls them “bedwetters,” and no family newspaper can print the adjectives favored by Rahm Emanuel.

So again, why would the Grandees of the Democratic Party suddenly change direction?  Why would they now turn to a more liberal or progressive legislative agenda?  What is in it for them?

Nevertheless, we are told that liberals and progressives will hold the Administration’s “feet to the fire.”  I applaud this new-found commitment to hold Democratic officials accountable, but would it be unreasonable to ask “how” they intend to accomplish this end?  Given that they have offered the party leadership, no matter how odious, unconditional support in the 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, and 2012 elections, are they planning to change their strategy now?  If so, to what?  What leverage will they be bringing to the table?  Any specifics?

To clarify the issue, let us consider it from the perspective of those at the heights of the Democratic National Committee.  What lessons have they learned over these past five elections?  Specifically, what lessons have they learned from spurning the hopes of their liberal and progressive base?  Let me put this another way:  which penalty or penalties has the leadership of the Democratic Party incurred by knowingly, deliberately, and intentionally voting and governing in a manner that has been largely anathema to the party’s disproportionately liberal and progressive base?  Let us review:  their actions (as opposed to their periodically moving speeches) have been systemically pro-war, pro-drug war, anti-Civil Liberties, in favor of shameless pandering to Wall Street, in favor of any and all shamelessly pro-corporate “free trade” agreements, largely anti-immigrant, and indifferent (at best) to organized labor.  So, to ask again, what has been the penalty?

The leadership of the Democratic National Committee has learned, over and over again, that once they ascend to office that they will incur no penalty from liberals or progressives no matter how poorly they serve their supporters or the nation.  They have done more than learn this lesson, they have acted on it.  I suggest that they will continue doing so until the strategy ceases to work for them.

For this reason, I offer a suggestion.  If liberals and progressives would like to change the behavior of the senior leadership of the Democratic Party, they will have to modify the incentives.  It will be necessary to deny, or at a minimum threaten to deny, the DNC something they ardently desire.  What they desire is elected office and the perks that normally accrue to those who have used the offices they have held to serve well-placed firms and industries.  Yes, they talk about hope, change, and other ideals, but their record is long enough, and persistent enough, to reveal their true priorities.

Now, at this point in history, liberals and progressives do not have the ability to change the Party’s leadership as they are too entrenched.  But we can deny them electoral victories until they learn to grant us at least a portion of what we want.  In a previous post, I outlined an approach to strategic voting based on elementary game theory.  I am open to the idea that other strategies might be more effective.  The essential point is that liberals and progressives need to find a way to make their voices heard in the Democratic Party that promises a greater degree of success than compliantly voting for whatever right-of-center hack is currently being advanced as “the lesser of two evils.”  By now, our current predicament should be clear.  We may not be a majority of the nation’s voters, we may not even make up a majority of registered Democrats, but our voice is almost unheard in the national debate, and this must to change.  What we need is a concrete proposal to take us somewhere else.  That, and nothing less, will put us in a place to “hold their feet to the fire.”

Is this, one might ask, a risky strategy?  Yes.  Might it cost the Democrats a few elections because of disunity?  Yes.  Is it unpleasant to rebel against the leadership of a party to which so many have had, and so many still harbor, long-standing emotional and political attachments?  Yes.  But holding the powerful accountable has never been easy.  If it were, we would not be in this conundrum.  However, if the liberals and progressives are serious about “holding their feet to the fire,” they will be willing to take these risks and bear some costs, including some losses at the polls.  Over the next couple of years, we will find out if liberals and progressives are serious about changing their relationship to their party’s leadership by holding them accountable in the only way that matters.