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.

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.

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

Update I & II & III: Below

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

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

Tonight you voted for action. Not politics as usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The President also said optimistically in his speech last night:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Election Day 2012: It’s the Day After That Matters

Update I below:

This past weekend I talked with a philosopher friend about her conundrum over how to vote in Tuesday’s election. She was a woman of color and recognized the egregiousness of the policies put in place over the last four years. Her account was informed and clear-eyed. Yet she worried incessantly about life under a Romney Administration.

What I began to say to her was this: Your vote doesn’t matter much. This isn’t because there isn’t much difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates. It’s not because of the electoral college. It’s not because your vote won’t be tabulated. All of these may in fact be true.

But the primary reason that your vote doesn’t matter precedes all of these: between the previous two terms of a reactionary Republican Administration and one term of an anti-Constitutional Democratic Administration, the conditions that will make it easier to manufacture state-led harm have already been institutionalized. They have been made into laws and policies that will continue to wreak havoc on US citizens, foreign nationals, and other countries.  Many of those laws and policies will also now legally protect POTUS and his functionaries (Republican and Democrat) as they continue and expand the vicious economic and political harms, widespread death and destruction, and racial and moral injustice that the United States and the world have had to suffer through over the last decade.  Whether we wake up to a second term of President Obama or the first of a President Romney, whoever is elected will take office in January 20, 2013 with the tools and equipment needed to continue on our current disastrous course.

Voting to reelect the president will not change the course of the pernicious racial politics of the last four years (and the previous Republican Administration) that have devastated the wealth, livelihoods, and liberties of poor folks and folks of color. Voting may be a symbolic act for white folks and folks of color, a practice that represents their sense of solidarity with a Black president. Voting may serve as a symbolic act expressing one’s solidarity with a progressive or non-right-wing politics. I understand the need for expressions of racial- or trans-racial solidarity, even symbolic gestures.  However, it is difficult to interpret a vote for this president as an example of such a gesture. The incumbent administration has done almost nothing that expresses a progressive or protective attitude towards the vulnerable.

You should vote for whomever you want.  Still, it should be acknowledged that such a legacy of racial and political and economic injustice is NOT mitigated by this vote. If you are voting for the incumbent, then you are voting for a President who has quietly and openly waged a war on U.S. poor minorities, which includes increasing the number of African Americans in prison, securing thousands of Muslim men in detention centers without charges, and Latino migrants in deportation centers—for the simple act of migrating without papers. These are crimes only of being human and unwanted.  The current Administration has validated the worst elements of the Bush Administration in affirming that even as larcenous bankers will go unpunished, it is a great crime to be poor.  Even as war crimes go unpunished and its perpetrators retained or promoted to high office, it is a crime to expose their misdeeds. It is a crime to express moral protest. This message has been confirmed by the fates of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and John Kiriakou, among many other brave men and women, such as Occupy protestors who are fighting for the right to challenge injustice.

It is a crime to be Muslim, or Black, or Latino. This was true to for African Americans and some Latinos and Muslims before 2000. However, since 2001, and especially since 2008, that message has been amplified through the harms that have been wrought upon black and brown populations in the US and around the world. This message has been amplified through the expansion of the drug war; increasing incarceration rates for Black and Latino men and women. It has been confirmed through the endorsement and signing of NDAA, S.Comm, preventive detention, kill lists; by helping to expand drone wars on black and brown people around the world and greatly enhance domestic surveillance; by refusing to stop entrapment, FBI framing of foolish young men, by insisting on creating policies empowering the president to whimsically kill US citizens and foreign nationals without any due process or review. I have written about all of these all over this site.

The effects of decades of pernicious policies have taken their toll on a society that has fooled itself into believing that it is more racially liberal than ever before. And what a toll. The same US citizens who believe themselves to be racially and politically progressive with their votes must come to terms with the legacies of their willful blindness. One example: It remains an unforgivable crime to be a black woman in a time of crisis, as Glenda Moore learned last Monday night in Staten Island, as she tried to escape Hurricane Sandy with her two children, aged 2 & 4—and no neighbor would come to her aid as her young boys were washed out to sea. Glenda Moore lost her children and spent the night huddled in a door-step because not a single neighbor opened their doors to give her shelter.

That single story represents the horrors wrought by a society that must wrestle with its racial politics in the face of its first Black president. Voting for a Black president does not solve or alleviate any of these crimes – crimes associated with being human and black.  The same Democratic President has initiated and waged murderous drone wars on black and brown people around the world. Yes, people of color can accept the invitation into white supremacy and wage war on other people of color.  Yes, liberals can wage assaults on the poor and vulnerable in the name of national security.  This is a lesson we have (re)learned from our first Black Democratic President.

Still, if despite the fact-based columns and arguments—written by economists, black policy analysts, lawyerly pundits, former Congressional staffers, and former Inspector Generals of TARP, all reviewing the insidious effects of the series of policies knowingly and consciously pushed and endorsed by this Democratic Administration—don’t convince you that this administration has carefully entrenched the path of the previous Republican administration in abandoning those who are vulnerable and in need—then nothing will change your mind.  So if you are not interested in engaging in a protest vote and what you need to do to feel better is to pursue an unwinnable outcome in this election, then by all means vote to reelect this president.

Ah, but what of gender issues?  Surely there is a difference here worth protecting? It is a well-kept, but slowly leaking secret that President and his men (and women) have engaged in a vicious gender politics as well: the President has–by deciding to decimate the communities in which black and brown women are located—also decimated the safety, psychic/sexual/physical health of black and brown women –in the US and around the world. You may believe that your obligations only extend to other U.S. citizens (a convenient position that allows you to ignore a fairly murderous and heinous foreign policy). Even in this case, it is difficult to ignore the fact that there are already enough Supreme Court Justices to have a majority vote against abortion…if that is an overwhelming concern. We can guess this in part because Justice Sotomayor is already on record as having defending a Bush Administration decision in 2002 to prohibit funding of international organizations that provide abortions. We know this because POTUS pushed to enshrine the Hyde Amendment –which prohibits the funding of abortions— and other horrific effects for women in the Affordable Care Act as a “compromise” with Rep. Bart Stupak et al.  And what of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan?  Besides her support for the evisceration of Medicaid, her most prominent achievement with the Clinton Administration was to write the Welfare Reform Bill – enough said. Who does this affect more but poor women?  For more evidence of the Administration’s policies regarding the economically and politically and racially vulnerable, see my post of the other day. And Matt Stoller’s multiple posts. And Glenn Greenwald’s. And Margaret Kimberley’s. And Bruce Dixon’s. And Glen Ford’s. And Robert Kuttner’s. And Robert Prasch’s. And Bill Black’s. And Yves Smith’s. Just google and read.  None of this material is secret and it was done in the open and reported publicly.

For progressives the real work will begin the day after the elections: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012. As Murtaza Hussain explains, the conditions to ensure the ongoing tyranny of the presidency have been put in place.  With no counter-veiling forces in sight, we can be assured that we will see even more claims to increased executive authority.  That means—regardless of whether Romney or Obama “wins,” the United States Constitution and the rest of us will lose.  An increasing number of people at home and across the globe can be expected to lose our freedoms, lives, limbs, and even our minds — from years spent without charges or even a hearing in solitary confinement—for expressing dissent. Many more of us will be vulnerable to losing those same freedoms, lives, and minds.

None of this will change under either a President Romney or Obama. And if we don’t begin to protest, to challenge collectively, to recognize that our fates are intimately linked, then we cannot even hope for change under future presidents. The conditions of a repressive state have been institutionalized over these last 10 years (and really were already beginning to build well before that—by President Clinton).  What we need to do, over the medium term, is to reclaim what has been taken and is continuing to be taken.

In 2008, I gave public talks about Barack Obama’s fairly worrying centrism, which still appeared slightly preferable to John McCain’s political positions. I pointed to Sen. Obama’s history of extremely illiberal positions on various issues, most visibly to his promise to be aggressive in sending drones to Pakistan, troops to Afghanistan, and his campaign stop at the Congress to vote to renew FISA in August—2 months before the election. But whether I was seduced by the line that this was a racially progressive vote or whether I just hoped against hope that he would be better than his record illustrated, or that he would be better than any Republican, the fact remains that I voted for Obama in 2008.

Perhaps one or two or three of these lines—in the face of undeniable facts that betray that position—still work for you. But if not, then don’t be goaded by the disingenuous position that a vote for Obama is a racially or politically or economically progressive vote. A vote for Romney isn’t any of these things either. And don’t be seduced into thinking that your vote –Republican, Democratic, or Third Party, will make things any less worse.

It’s not our votes that matter. It’s our concerted, organizable, collective challenge–to increasing power, tyranny and devastating economic and racist politics in the United States and internationally—that will matter. That work, much more complicated, tedious, painstaking, and constant, begins the day after tomorrow.

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Update I: I had a great correspondence with @vastleft, whose message at vastleft.blogspot.com today to those who want to discuss “the real work beginning the day after” is to command them to work hard to engage themselves in a fairly awkward sexual act. According to @vastleft, the message is directed to those who are uninterested in pushing beyond the duopoly or to aim for third party votes. My message is different: I don’t endorse voting for either of the duopoly. Still, whether you vote for one of them, or don’t vote, or vote third party, do recognize that none of these decisions erases the problematic effects of a serious racially, politically, economically immoral Administration, which has pushed identical policies as those by the Bush Administration in some ways, and which in some ways has promoted even worse policies.

Safe States: Safe for Whom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe state. Indeed.

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

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

_____

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

The Progressive Retreat from Obama: Who is to Blame?

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

By Robert E. Prasch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prez Debates 2: Indifference and Changing the Premise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veep Debates October 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, according to the Pew report:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democratic Accomplishments At Home since 2008

Slightly updated version

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

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

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

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

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

By the way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same-Sex rights: Some progress here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julián Castro’s Grandmother’s American Dream

On Tuesday night at the Democratic National Convention, San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro gave a moving speech about how his family achieved the American Dream. His grandmother, an orphan, moved at age 6 from Mexico to San Antonio in 1920 to live with relatives. Though she spent her life working at low-wage jobs, cleaning houses and babysitting, to help her family, her move eventually allowed for Julian’s mother to grow up and go to college. Eventually came Julian and his twin brother Joaquin, who grew up to go to Stanford University and then to Harvard Law School.  Notably, they followed in the footsteps of the current President.

What Castro omitted to mention last night or on other occasions where he has insisted that President Obama’s actions have benefited Latinos tremendously is that the American Dream was much more plausible for Mexican migrants in the 1920’s than it is today. There isn’t much information about the circumstances of Julian Castro’s grandmother’s migration, but according to historian Harvey Levenstein, by the 1920’s,“…half a million Mexicans were counted legally crossing the southern border. The number of Mexicans who did not bother with the immigration formalities was not known, but it was certainly not insignificant.”

Whether or not Julian Castro’s grandmother was a legal migrant, her family didn’t have to worry about her “legality,” because it hadn’t yet become an issue. It was only beginning in the 1920’s that there was an increasing drive to restrict migration from Mexico, driven in large part by the labor union AFL, headed by Samuel Gompers. Gompers and other AFL leaders, had been trying since 1919 to restrict immigration from Asia, Europe, and Mexico.  They were unsuccessful until 1924, when they reluctantly included Canada along with Mexico in the immigration bill that passed.

In fact, during the same period that tens of thousands of Mexicans were migrating at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, U.S. hostilities had been directed against Asian migrants for some time.  Chinese immigrants, brought in the mid 1800’s to work on the Trans-Pacific railroad, had outlived their usefulness for the American state. Worried that they would now compete with white American workers for jobs, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, deporting all Chinese immigrants unless they were merchants. In 1907, the US made an agreement with Japan to restrict Japanese migration. Due to many factors, including Indian agitation against the British colonial government for self-rule in the 1910’s, severe restrictions on Asian immigration were placed on East Indian and other Asian immigrants in 1917.  With the passage of the Asia Barred Zone Act—its name reveals all–migrants from India, Afghanistan, the Middle East, and the Pacific were prohibited from entering the US, unless they were students, merchants, or diplomats.  The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, along with the beginnings of restrictions on Mexican immigrants, restricted Asian immigration to 2% of the recorded Asian population in the United States at any given time.

But another forgotten fact: the southern border between the U.S and Mexico had been under contestation even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo, when the U.S. had successfully annexed large swaths of Mexican territory, including California, Texas, “New” Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah.  The U.S., in an ever increasing game of “drawing lines in the sand,” had given Mexican nationals residing in those areas three years to decide whether they would become U.S. citizens (along with promises that they would be able to keep their ranches and farmlands).  During those three years, and even after, despite the promises of the Treaty, there were many challenges to the ownership of rancheros’ lands, which went all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Court almost uniformly took land away from Mexicans even when they had changed their allegiances. The controversies over Mexican migration were perhaps diluted because the annexation of Mexican land—along with many broken promises–were fresh in the minds of American politicians and judges. But given the barring of Asian immigration, the US had also quietly looked to Mexico for its cheap labor, which quieted the hostilities against Mexican immigrants until the late 1920’s.

That was when deportation became an enforceable practice.  In her book, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, historian Mae Ngai points out that a miniscule number of people–about 2000 annually–were deported between 1908-1920, mostly from hospitals, asylums, and jails.  By 1924, Congress had imposed much more restrictive immigration laws, along with a newly created Border Patrol.  For the first time, “illegal entry” came with potential imprisonment and fines.  Mexican immigration became increasingly scrutinized and restricted, even as the Mexican population grew. According to Ngai, the population of South Texas doubled in size between 1920 and 1930, to 322,000, and the “ethnic Mexican population” grew to nearly 1.5 million by 1930. As well, she points out, more than 400,00 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were “repatriated” in the 1930’s. Mexicans who remained in the U.S. in the 1930’s despite the increasing restrictions were able to become a significant economic presence, and in 1943, the story changed: Mexican immigration was channeled through the “Migrant Labor Agreement,” between the U.S. and Mexico to provide cheap labor for U.S. farms, more commonly known as the Bracero program.

This is a rather broad sketch of the rich, dynamic and vibrant history of migration—and especially Mexican migration—to this country.  Clearly there is much more to this history, as well as to the moving—but selective–history that Julian Castro told last night.  Americans, including the Convention-goers have appeared to have forgotten the history of the last century. But they have also forgotten a more recent history: one in which the current Democratic Administration has deported over 1.2 million undocumented migrants during the previous four years—many more so than its Republican predecessor.

It is true that the Obama Administration has recently reversed its position on the deportation of undocumented migrants, if they fit certain requirements, like being under 30 and having migrated with their parents before they were 16. But the reversal, which occurred less than 5 months before the November election, is not an executive order—it’s a provisional suspension of the policies of Department of Homeland Security. As such, the durability of this reversal is in serious question, along with its timing. It occurred near the end of a term in which the war on migrants was harsh and unrelenting, and “defers action” for 2 years for approved applicants on the matter of deportation. Will it last after a potential re-election of the President?

If Julian Castro’s grandmother had been orphaned in Mexico today, would she have been able to immigrate to the United States to live with her relatives? And if, by some miracle, she had migrated but without papers, would she have been able to stay? Would she have been able to be proud of her Ivy League-educated twin grandsons?  To say the least, her status would have been affected by the vicissitudes of the President’s inclinations and re-election prospects—not to mention her age, whom she arrived with, and a host of other uncontrollable circumstances. One wonders whether the American Dream would be possible for Grandmother Castro today. I suspect not.

The unspoken lesson that we can draw from Julian Castro’s story is that the American Dream was in reach for his family—not only because they worked hard—this is true of many families—but because their ability to migrate wasn’t in question. But the American Dream has already been unrelentingly prohibited for the many families deported and broken apart under the Obama Administration. Maybe we should take a long hard look at that history and ask ourselves whether the President will prohibit the Dream again, if elected for another term.

Turley and Cusack on the U.S. Constitution

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

SHANNYN MOORE: JUST A GIRL FROM HOMER

Editor’s Note from Shannyn Moore:  Read This.


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

By John Cusack

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

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

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

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

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Guest Post: On Voting Strategically in 2012: The Ultimatum Game

Today, I’m putting up another guest post by Robert Prasch, analyzing the “ultimatum” politics of the Democratic Party, more specifically, of the Democratic National Committee. Important, timely, provocative. Read on…

 

On Voting Strategically in 2012: The Ultimatum Game

By Robert E. Prasch

Department of Economics

Middlebury College

Over the past year, many disappointed progressives and liberals have resigned themselves to voting for the president’s reelection, despite their full understanding that the Administration has nothing but contempt for all that they hold dear. They ask, “Well, what can we do”?  This is a reasonable question and it deserves a thoughtful answer.

What Can We Do In Light of the National Democratic Party’s Tilt to the Right?

Before formulating the answer, let us recall that this question has emerged on multiple occasions over the past thirty-five years.  Some might believe that this has been an unfortunate series of accidents, but it was not.  It can be ascribed to the strategy laid out in the early 1980s by Rep. Tony Coelho, who was then the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and to the powerful influence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), founded in 1985.  Each of these groups worked long and diligently to end the Democratic Party’s long association with New Deal-type legislation so as to increase its appeal to economic elites.  Additionally, they worked hard to sever the Democratic Party’s association with anti-war causes and the extensive 1970s effort to expose and place limits on the executive branch’s capacity for war-making, covert action by the CIA, domestic spying, and associated “dirty tricks.”

By 1996, this effort had come to full fruition.  That year liberals and progressives were asked to support the reelection of a president who had spent his first four years working tirelessly to promote corporate-dictated “Free Trade Agreements,” the irresponsible de-regulation of finance, the vigorous privatizing of any and all government functions, the Defense of Marriage Act, and ever-more punitive measures against the poor and undocumented.  That candidate was, of course, Bill Clinton.  In 2000, we were asked to again validate these rightist policies by electing Clinton’s vice-president, with the sole modification being a commitment to forgo sexual antics with the interns.

In 2004, Senator John Kerry firmly promised a return to Clinton’s Neoliberal agenda while repeatedly telling us that, despite everything that had occurred or been revealed in the interim, he remained steadfast behind the 2002 vote that he, Hillary Clinton, Joseph Biden, and so many other Senate Democrats gave to support of George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure.  It goes without saying that Kerry was and remains an enthusiast for any and all corporate-directed “Free Trade” agreements, financial deregulation, imperial expansion, and – of course – the stripping away of Constitutional protections.  Believing that they had no choice, millions of anti-war voters nevertheless validated the script laid out by the now-DLC controlled Democratic National Committee (DNC).  It is, I would suggest, past time for liberals and progressives to question this learned response.  Despite the rhetoric coming from Washington, it is NOT true that liberals and progressives owe their vote to whatever pseudo-liberal figure happens to be favored by the major donors and associated grandees of the DNC.

On Voting Strategically

The good news is that we do have a choice.  The bad news is that it may not be the one that we would wish for, but it is a choice nevertheless.  Moreover, handled adroitly, it could pave the way to better choices in the future.  Stated simply, I believe that we should “vote strategically.”  However, strategic voting necessitates that we begin by analyzing the structure of the “game” that constitutes the elements of the increasingly-bitter contest between American liberals & progressives and the leadership of the DNC.  As it turns out, this rivalry mimics what is known as the “Ultimatum Game.”  Once the contours of this game are understood, we can revisit our strategies, and begin to think of a way out of our current dilemma.

The rules of the Ultimatum Game can be readily described.  Consider a game with two players and one round. The first player is given $10.00 in one-dollar bills to split with the second player according to any distribution selected solely at the former’s discretion (i.e. $10 & $0; $9 & $1; $8 & $2; … $0 & $10).  The second player’s sole decision is to “accept” or “reject.”  If the second player “accepts,” the distribution proposed by first player becomes the final distribution of the cash and the games ends.  If the second player “rejects” each player is awarded $0 & $0.  That is the game.  Now, what is the predicted solution?

If the game is known to be of only one round in duration, and the players are motivated solely by self-interest, then the “dominant strategy” of the first player is to offer a $9 & $1 distribution, and the “dominant strategy” of the second player is to “accept.”  Why do they accept?  Well, accepting renders the second player “better off” as $1 is unambiguously greater than $0.  Undoubtedly they will be irritated by the first player’s lack of generosity, but as their only way to express that irritation is to petulantly “reject” the offer, thereby causing a distribution of $0 & $0, they find themselves without a substantive alternative to “accepting.”  So far, so good.

Now, let us reexamine the Ultimatum Game in the event that play is extended beyond a single round.  Let us suppose that all players understand that the game will be played for an indefinite number of rounds.  Under this changed situation, the second player has an opportunity to “discipline” the first player for treating her unfairly.  If the first round offer is an ungenerous $9 & $1, the second player can say “reject.”  Yes, she will give up $1, but her refusal “costs” the first player $9.  Ouch.  The first player, recognizing the possibility of a punitive refusal, and knowing that they will be playing against the same rival for the foreseeable future, has a clear incentive to improve the initial offer they make to the second player.  Depending upon her aversion to risk, traded off against her desire to earn as much as possible before the game ends, she may initially offer $7 & $3, or even $6 & $4.  If she is anxious to achieve a rapid agreement, the first player might even appeal to our widely-shared ideal of “fairness” by offering an initial distribution of $5 & $5.  Please note, as this is important, that the improved offers made in a repeated game are not induced by a commitment to “fair play,” but by self-interest.

The Ultimatum Game in Practice: The DNC vs. Rank-and-File Democrats

With the above in mind, let us return to the “game” played between the grandees and donors who dominate the DNC and the overwhelming majority of registered party members whose preferences, interests, or dispositions are liberal, progressive, anti-war, anti-Too Big To Fail financial institutions, or simply pro-U. S. Constitution and supportive of the rights of habeas corpus.

The DNC, as we have repeatedly seen, is pre-disposed to neglect or despise the hopes and wishes of their core voters.  Nevertheless, the DNC must retain their votes if they are to win elections, which is a necessary condition for achieving plum executive branch postings and the lucrative post-political careers as lobbyists and deal-makers that follow seamlessly to those who have been blessed with such appointments.  For that reason, they must convince anyone who will listen that all elections are – in the language of game theory – contests featuring a single round.  For this reason, the Administration, its spokesmen, and their proxies on MSNBC are “playing the game” correctly as they try to convince wavering or disappointed liberals and progressives that this election is the most critical in living memory.  Once this premise is established, any and all discussions with malingerers and discontents can be devoted to highlighting the relatively modest differences between the major party candidates.  And, let me be the first to agree, there may be some differences.  Drawing again from the example above, $1 is unambiguously greater than $0.  But, let us be honest, how big are these differences?  On the Constitution?  On Overseas Wars?  On corporate-scripted trade agreements?  On ongoing criminality and malfeasance within our bloated and broke Too Big To Fail banks?  Seriously, does anyone who is not a senior executive at a failed and corrupt financial institution benefit from keeping Timothy Geithner or Eric Holder in office?  I think not.

This, then, brings us to the 2012 election.  What should we do?  In light of profoundly right-wing tilt of the DNC and the Administration on such a vast range of the nation’s most pressing issues, how can liberals and progressives avoid wasting their vote?  I submit that we should recognize that the DNC has long been playing the “Ultimatum Game” with its supporters.  Moreover, in an era of big money politics they will be playing this game for the foreseeable future.  In all honesty, it is past time for liberals and progressives to refuse to cooperate with the DNC’s powerful political insiders who have repeatedly demonstrated nothing but contempt for them, their ideas, and their ideals.  We did not set up this “game.”  The DNC did.  But that does not mean that we have to play along with them.

Consciously turning our back on the Neoliberal, pro-war, and anti-Constitution DNC does not mean that we should stay home this fall.  On the contrary, we should devote our energies to rebuilding the base of liberal and progressive politics in our towns, cities, and states by working ONLY for local candidates that we like, admire, and trust.  If the above analysis of the game is reasonably accurate, and I believe that it is, the DNC will forced to present us with better “distributions” in future years once they come to learn that substantial number of liberals and progressives are willing to “reject” bad offers (but, before that occurs, expect a torrent of abuse from them).  This year, as with so many times in the recent past, we will be expected to participate willingly and happily in our own political irrelevance.  Enough is enough.  This time, make your vote count.  Don’t play along.

Election Year Redux

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

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

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

On the critical side:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Post: “Where is My Half Glass?”

The brilliant Robert E. Prasch, an economist at Middlebury College, reflects on the Obama Presidency.

President Obama, Where Is My “Half Glass”?

By Robert E. Prasch

Since deftly managing the Congressional “debate” over health care to eliminate the public option, the White House has found itself criticized increasingly by voices from within the Democratic Party. President Obama and his spokespersons were irritated to discover the following: those Democrats who wrote the checks, pounded the pavement, and got out the vote for “Change You Can Believe In,” really wanted change.  Who knew?  Robert Gibbs, David Axelrod and the President himself have all made it clear that they view such critics as childish “purists” unsatisfied with a “glass half full.”  I have only one question.  “Where is my half glass”?

Let us briefly review the administration’s performance on four areas of great concern to those who supported Barak Obama in 2008.  These include the financial crisis & economy, the endless Bush wars, the shocking erosion of civil liberties, and increasing unaffordable health care.

Less than one month after the historic November 2008 election, we were informed that “Hope and Change” would include neither the financial sector nor the economy. This occurred on November 28th with the announcement of two critical appointments.  The first was that of former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a chief architect of the policies that set the groundwork for the 2007-2009 financial crisis, to head President Obama’s National Economic Council.  The second was that of Timothy Geithner, former Clinton Undersecretary of the Treasury and then President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank (NYFRB), as the new US. Treasury Secretary.  Geithner informed the US. House of Representatives –very truthfully– that he “had never been a regulator.”  The sad part is that the Federal Reserve and specifically the NYFRB has a substantial role in bank regulation and regulatory policy, a role in which he clearly and most publically failed. Several months after taking office, President Obama declared that he would reappoint Ben Bernanke to chair the Federal Reserve System.  With these three leading the way, can we be surprised that the Obama Administration never devised serious policies or took substantial action on financial reform, Too Big To Fail banks, rampant mortgage and bank fraud, high and persistent unemployment, or mortgage relief?.  Can we be surprised to learn that his idea of a jobs program was to push through President Bush’s “Free Trade” agreements?  Is anyone surprised to learn that he is now considering cuts to Social Security?

By contrast to the economy, candidate Obama frequently stated his commitment to Bush’s Middle East wars.  His attachment to the status quo was signaled the day after the Summers/Geithner announcement when it was revealed that he would reappoint Bush’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates (This, of course, was the same Robert Gates who narrowly avoided indictment for lying to Congress over his role in the Reagan Administration’s Iran-Contra Affair).  Officially, the US war on Iraq ended this past summer, but that event occurred according to a timetable set up by Bush–and only because Obama could not negotiate blanket immunity for US soldiers in the wake of the Wikileaks revelations.   Before shifting to another topic, I would also advise readers to take a moment to review the size of the “training” and “security staff” that have been left behind in Iraq, along with the size of the forces stationed in Kuwait and the other Gulf States.  Do not think for a millisecond that anyone in the Middle East is unaware of the size and lethality of the army and naval armada the US has stationed in their midst.  (For those who may imagine that this is about “promoting democracy” in the region, I have a one-word refutation – Bahrain.  YouTube has numerous videos featuring Bahraini police, and their ally, the Saudi Arabian army, shooting peaceful protestors.  And let us refrain from discussing the almost daily atrocities occurring in Egypt, or the out-of-control predator drone program).

What of civil liberties?  Here the record is genuinely appalling.  The prisoners of Guantanamo Bay continue to languish without proper judicial hearings, and the extended pre-trial treatment of Bradley Manning is criminal by any standard of measure.  Obama’s vigorous attack on whistleblowers who shed light on the idiocy and mendacity of the bloated bureaucracies associated with the national security apparatus is an ongoing scandal.  In fairness, candidate Obama did “tip his hand” on these issues when he suspended his campaign so that he could fly to Washington to vote in favor of retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies that violated the law, and profited mightily from, working with Bush and Cheney on illegal wiretapping programs.  Moreover, he has never deviated from Nancy Pelosi’s early insistence on blanket immunity for all Bush administration officials who lied to Congress, promoted or engaged in torture, war crimes, etc. The record, apparently, is not sordid enough.  On December 23rd 2011 Obama signed a bill co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain granting the President, on his own whim, the ability to imprison anyone, anywhere — American citizen or not — for an indefinite period without an attorney, charge, jury trial, or any other kind or variety of review.  Goodbye 4th Amendment, you will be missed.

Finally, a word about “health care reform.”  This bill neither “gives” nor “provides” anyone with health care or health insurance.  On the contrary, it mandates that everyone purchase his or her own policy.  There is a some commitment to providing subsidies to those who cannot afford a policy – but anyone who has ever followed politics knows what will happen to it when budget cutting season returns (they also know that when the subsidies go, the mandate will surely stay).  The bill also embodies a vague commitment to reducing health care costs that is not worth the paper upon which it was written.  Elementary economics tells us that if health insurance policies are subsidized they will rise in price.  This tendency will be even more pronounced if people are forbidden from deploying their single greatest negotiating tool – the threat to leave the market altogether.  Obama’s “accomplishment,” if we can call it that, is to provide even more money and market power to the single largest obstacle to affordable health care – the private insurance companies.

Alarmed by trends in the then-new administration, columnist Bob Herbert called attention to them while identifying a core flaw in the thought processes of its apologists, “Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barak Obama is in the White House” (New York Times, June 22nd, 2009).  Two years have passed since Herbert wrote these words.  So I ask again, if Obama’s 2008 supporters have received a “half glass” on the four issues summarized above, then where is it?  At this point, I can’t even see the glass.

Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College where he teaches courses on Monetary Theory and Policy, Macroeconomics, the History of Economic Thought, and American Economic History.  His latest book is How Markets Work: Supply, Demand and the ‘Real World’ (Edward Elgar, 2008)

Voting Model #3: The “Lesser of Two Evils”

This one gets trotted out around March of every election year. And around March of election year, I stop reading, or even casually glancing, at the Nation and every other pseudo-liberal magazine whose writers stuff their critical perspectives deep into the back of their closets—you know—the perspectives that they used to criticize the incumbent for the prior three years—in order to jump on the “lesser of two evils” bandwagon. And the chorus goes something like this: “Who would you rather have? The Democratic candidate who’s pro-choice (see VM #2) or the Republican candidate who’s anti-abortion?” This refrain is usually followed up by, “He (the Democrat) is the lesser of two evils,” after all.

Here’s the translation on the chorus: “Who would you rather have? The good looking, charming, suave, well-dressed, ivy-leaguer with New England reserve and Northern accent? Or the ignorant fratboy with the menacing smile, crude manners, and vacuous personality who so reminds me of the bad guy in any James Bond movie that I’d rather jump off a bridge to my death than be forced to shake hands with him (again, see VM #2)?” And just in case y’all think I’m picking on Obama, go back and reread the Nation in 1992 (Bill Clinton v. George Bush I), 1996 (Bill Clinton v. Bob Dole), 2000 (Al Gore v. George Bush II), and 2004 (John Kerry v. George Bush II).

And here’s the translation on the “lesser of two evils” refrain: Sure, there isn’t much distinguishing them: they’re both neo-liberals on economic policy[1]; they both want to cut Social Security and Medicare; they’re both pro-war, pro-imperialist expansion, pro-warrantless surveillance, pro-rendition, pro-indefinite detention.

But still, we have to vote for the Democrat, because there are some IMPORTANT differences, after all: The Dem is pro-choice (see VM #2), he’s pro-environment (see VM #2)[1]; and the Democrat wants healthcare reform.

At bottom, the refrain really means: “Hey, Bill/Al/John/ is one of us (see VM #1). He talks like us; he went to school where we went/wanted to go (even though the Georges did also); he seems like someone I’d be friends with, and after all, I’d vote for my friend if he was running, so….” Huh? This is what counts as “the lesser of two evils”?

Evil is evil. Period. It can’t be quantified, unless you’re a Benthamite utilitarian and you’re ok with selling out black and brown folks overseas for some more time to rest nice and comfy in your own house. Black and brown folks—especially poor black and brown folks– at home have not been sold out; they’ve just never been allowed to buy in. The reproductive rights of black women have been taken away time and time again—through forced sterilization, through the absence of access to reproductive service and medication, and through the absence of access to affordable healthcare—and no, Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts’ mandatory purchase-healthcare (which was the model for national healthcare) does NOT solve that problem. What about the civil rights of black men, you ask? Wait, I’m don’t understand. What are those? Are those the ones that the Democrats signed away in the 1996 “3-strikes You’re out” bill, which managed to find a way to put away an even larger swath of black men and other men of color. As of 2002, over 2 million were imprisoned–remember, this is before the War on Terror was well underway. What about the civil liberties of brown and Muslim men? Umm, have you not been paying attention?

So to folks who buy into this model: please don’t pretend that you are voting for someone who will enable better possibilities for someone other than you–certainly not for migrants and U.S. indigent, poor, or working-class folks of color. You may be voting for someone who will maintain the status quo for yourself and others in your socio-economic class. That’s fine. But imperious self-righteousness is hardly a good argument. And don’t worry, you’re being sold out, too.

A vote for a “lesser” evil is still a vote for evil. And the 12th hour urge/guilt-trip/admonishment to vote for the Democrat is a bit like hurling a bucket of water at a house that’s going down in flames because you surrounded the fireplace with parched Christmas trees and then started a blazing fire. Yes, it’s an emergency, and supposedly some water may be better than none, and yes, I understand that we’re supposed to band together to put out the fire. But we let the damn fire happen in the first place. That election fire can’t be put out by a few buckets of water (aka, a last-minute capitulation to the “lesser of two evils” guilt-trip).

Look, the Democrats have been kicking liberal/progressive types in the teeth for at least the last twenty years. “Vote for us,” they say, “else this country will be sold out.” Vote for us, or else you’ll have a deregulated banking industry. Vote for us or else you’ll have spies everywhere, warrantless surveillance, bankers gone wild, payoffs to the rich, and your reproductive rights will be peeled back. Vote for us, or else you’ll lose your civil liberties. So, we’re supposed to vote for Democrats in order to be protected from the havoc that the Republicans could cause. Hm. But as I recall, Bill Clinton signed a series of bills into law— Immigration Reform, Anti-Terrorism, Welfare Reform, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Glass-Steagall Act–among others, that heralded much of the bleak world in which we now live. Al Gore, John Kerry, and even Hilary Clinton were on the same bandwagon (remember the “are you tough enough to push the button ads?)

Hand in hand with this argument, is the loyalty supposedly articulated by George Clooney, which has been righteously circulating around Facebook: “I’m a firm believer in sticking by and sticking up for the people whom you’ve elected.” (Is it too coy to point out that this quote comes from a man who just dumped his umpteenth lover?) Unconditional loyalty is for sports teams, your family/friends, and your pets.

Ah…if only the Democrats could heed the loyalty argument for their constituencies. Stick by us and we’ll stick by you. Anything else is nothing short of an abusive relationship: you kick your voters in the teeth and then insist you love us and that we can’t throw you out.

So, what to do? I’ll respond more in a future post, but in the meantime, let me just say this: the national elections don’t matter at this point. We need to work on local races, local elections, alternative institutions. And why do we need to accept the “two-party option” that grounds the “lesser of two evils” vote? In the short term, we have no options. But we need to retain a historical memory, and build with a view to the long-term future. Abusive relationships need to be abandoned.


[1] see NAFTA (1993), Glass-Steagall Act (1999), Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act (1994), Colombia, South Korea, Panama Free Trade Agreements (introduced by George II during his time in office, but remained unpassed. These free-trade agreements were passed recently in October 2011), the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (2000), among others.

Voting Model #2: The “pro-choice/environmentally friendly” vote

In this post, I continue down my list of problematic presidential election voting models. Today’s model, #2 on that list, seems to have become a very popular one over the last two decades.  Most people who consider themselves progressive think it’s a good idea to look for candidates who are pro-choice or environmentally friendly. I find it to be a fairly problematic one for several reasons.

1. It’s not clear that this category is an accurate or satisfactory litmus test of the political credentials of the candidate. I want to be clear: I am furiously, firmly, steadfastly, immovably in favor of reproductive rights and active protection of the environment. But a presidential candidate who claims to be pro-choice does not necessarily have a commitment to support legislation that protects reproductive rights.  In fact, the very language of “choice” is a regressive language, as Marlene Fried reminds us: it recalls a language of individualism. One can be pro-choice and against abortion (yes).  It allows a broad and ambiguous base of support for “reproductive rights.”

2. Being pro-choice or green can be a social stance without any structural teeth. One can be pro-choice and still not be an active advocate for the distribution of public monies to support reproductive rights for women who may not have funds or transportation easy access to the services.  It would be important/enlightening to scrutinize the candidate’s pro-choice platform with regard to her/his position on the following: social services; the allocation of government monies for social services; public aid; health insurance (and remember health insurance doesn’t guarantee access to reproductive services), the endorsement of better access to social services (like public transportation, location of clinic  in rural areas, the availability of advocates and medical personnel who can be comforting supports to women seeking reproductive services, etc.).

3. A pro-choice candidate is not automatically a progressive candidate; it’s possible to be pro-choice and environmentally friendly and be a libertarian or liberal (without ever naming him/herself as such). A libertarian pro-choice candidate might say that the state needs neither to interfere  nor prohibit nor support a woman’s reproductive decisions (as reflected by the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits monies for abortion services to be extended through Medicaid). By extension, the liberartarian also need not endorse legislation that distributes monies or services that enable access to reproductive decisions.  A liberal pro-choice candidate might articulate a “strong” commitment to reproductive rights, again, without endorsing legislation to enables women to make use of those rights.  A liberal pro-choice candidate can still subscribe to conservative family ideologies that limit access to reproductive rights.  Similarly, a self-described “pro-environment/green” candidate need not be progressive; they can be libertarian or liberal –or downright conservative, endorsing anti-immigration policies on the dubious grounds that immigrants that destroy our environment (and if they do so, it’s in order to provide services to wealthy Americans). One also wonders how immigrants become the villains, while DuPont, Dow, and BP are seen as real environmental heroes.

4. Pro-choice/green candidates typically don’t describe themselves as liberal or libertarian. This is a no-brainer: they/their handlers are trying to cast as wide a net for voters as possible, and it’s easier to insinuate one’s pro-choice/green politics in order to attract a wide constituency. I mean, really: can any one ever seriously “be against” the environment? In many ways, a “green” (and often, a pro-choice) stance is more of rhetorically appealing than it is informative.

Rather than be taken in by a candidate’s “pro-choice” stance, it’s probably more effective to explore whether a pro-choice candidate iis also pro-social services, pro-civil liberties or whether they are pro-corporation, pro-banks, against progressive taxation for the upper 1%, might give us a better sense of how substantial or facile their pro-choice/green stance really is.

By the way, there are women in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan (countries formerly or currently under assault by the United States). I’m betting those women also care about reproductive rights.  When considering a pro-choice candidate, it might be important to ask what their position on invading those countries is. It might also be informative to ask what 10 years of cluster bombs and depleted uranium deposits have done to the reproductive systems of women in Iraq? It might be equally as informative to find out how 10 years of bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan, oil fires in Kuwait and Iraq, and other chemical assaults have affected women.

This issue brings up the additional question of “which constituencies” one aligns oneself with when one votes.  It may not be a conscious alignment, but it forms the contours of our voting preferences.  Voting for a candidate on a single (seemingly uncomplicated) issue such as reproductive rights or the environment, when his/her stance on issues such as war, invasions, and empire is credibly supportive tells us that the voter (that’s you) has chosen certain constituencies to favor (e.g., “women” qua women in the United States) to protect over others such as international civilian population (who include women of color, non-wealthy women, children) who will be innocently subjected to drone attacks, bombs, covert wars. These international civilian populations will surely also include black and brown men, and if the last decade is any indication, often Muslim men and women.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a cost-benefit vote. One calculates the cost of voting for a president who has promised to be pro-“choice”/”pro”-environment while also promising to invade other countries with the anticipation of large casualties. If this is your model, then okay. But keep in mind that you are trading hostages in the process, and the casualties will still be casualties as the result of your political choices.

Can these casualties be mitigated? Hard to say. It’s not clear whether a presidential candidate who puts forth pro-choice/environmentally friendly in lieu of/without committing to progressive stances on structural and foreign policy issues will actually support pro-choice or environmental issues. Over the last few decades, we have become all too familiar with this trade-off.

A more effective approach would be to explore whether a presidential candidate who claims to be in favor of protecting reproductive rights is also in favor of protecting social services, access to health care, and civil liberties or whether s/he is aligned with protecting corporations, banks, health insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies.  This might give us a better sense of whether a pro-choice/green stance is really substantial or merely facile.

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

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

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

I take away several things from this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion:

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

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


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