Violence is Not Power: Meditations on Obama’s Second Term

Revised 1/7/12, 3:25 pm.

Pervasive violence is the ever-louder siren of the U.S. state’s impotence. It is the beacon of this nation’s inability to garner respect by adhering to Constitutional principles. At the risk of being obvious, I have in mind principles such as the freedom to dissent; to challenge the state, to be free of undue invasions of privacy; to have a trial framed by charges, evidence, and clear, fair procedures. These are the principles which would—could–challenge the US’s increasing quest for violence as the means of political control at home and abroad. This quest, paradoxically, revitalizes loyalty among its people even as it drains the existential serenity of those elsewhere in the world.

By violence, I include overt violence, such as the kidnapping and rendition of black and brown men to the U.S; the drones directed towards South Asia, East Africa, and the Philippines; the detention and incarceration of men without charges, lawyers, fresh air. Solitary confinement.

By violence, I include psychic violence, such as warrantless wiretapping and surveillance of US citizens, residents and foreigners (sic); the silent spying on mosque-goers, protestors; the deportation of migrants by the millions; the separation of parents from their children by the hundreds of thousands; the fear of arrest by men and women who give money to charities and legal defense funds of groups deemed often ex post terrorist organizations; the deliberate withholding of justice for poor homeowners scammed by mortgage companies.

By violence, I include the existential violence enveloped in the fear that being Muslim, Black, or Latino marks you as a magnet for police attention. As a magnet for kidnapping. A magnet for arrest and endless incarceration without appeal. For drones. Bullets. Deportations. Among other kinds of invasions and violations.

Sociologist Max Weber talks about the state “as the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is, allegedly legitimately violence of the state.”

All modern states were founded on violence. On conquest and genocide and slavery.  That history was elided, concealed through the abiding fiction of the social contract. The logic of the social contract was that men agreed to give up violence in order to abide by principles of respect and reciprocity. What we call rights and duties. A social contract.  And even that Social Contract is founded on violence. It is a racial contract, one where the rights and duties of certain men were based on the eclipse of the rights of others: African men, women, and children. White women.

But social contracts—despite their origins– can be useful. Like the Constitution, they can make clear what our expectations are of each other.  They can change, evolve, adjust—but their chief basis is the reciprocity of respect and freedom.

This is why there is something so earth-shatteringly irrevocable when a state based on a social contract, on a Constitution such as ours, declares a—continual–emergency by citing the threat of cultural, racial minorities and political minorities—of Muslims qua terrorists. Of Black men qua drug dealers. Of Latinos qua undocumented migrants. Of all who are political dissidents or whistleblowers who publicize the nefarious actions of elites.

What is it that propels people to endorse their government’s shift from representing them to overseeing them like an abusive parent? Since when do Americans seek comfort in a parent who oversees every move, micromanages every action, punishes every step that it construes as a misstep, who locks their child in the closet for howling in pain? Since when do we endorse political leaders who embrace beatings and torture as implements of security?

The ingenuity of the transition from political representation to state-incurred violence is that it is always—always—done with an array of equipment that makes that violence seem technical, impersonal, clinical.  This is why it seems so natural to move from a society where we elect politicians to represent us with constraints–to one where we license them to expand their powers immeasurably while correspondingly narrowing ours.

As the formidable Miz Arendt point out:

Violence—as distinct from power, force or strength, always needs implements…the revolution of technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare.

Crises of the Republic, Part I, On Violence

She refers to physical violence and its dependence on technology. Technology such as atomic weapons, missiles, long-range high power assault rifles —and now, drones, cybersurveillance, wireless interception of phone and email communications.  It is technology that becomes increasingly sophisticated in distancing the soldier, the pilot, the government IT specialist, from his targets. Less sophisticated is the distance in distinguishing the target from the bystanders.

Beyond the R & D advances of the US Armed Forces, we can add a range of old-school equipment to that list: torture rooms, undercover CIA operations, prisons in far away places, military bases in Djibouti. These are “necessary” equipment for the purposes of cinching security, to “nip danger in the bud.”

To Arendt’s point, I would add that physical and psychic violence intimately depend upon their own technologies. In particular, three kinds of technologies go hand in hand with violence:

Technologies of law, eager politicians, and enthusiastic citizens.

Technologies of law, as we have witnessed abundantly, include those that instigated the upside-downness of our legal world with categories like pre-emptive policing, (legal and illegal) enemy combatants, and terrorists.

They include the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commisions Act of 2006. But we shouldn’t forget the long, continual series of laws that have helped cement and entrench this world of violence.

More recent technologies of violence include the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (which legitimizesafter the fact–John Kiriakou’s criminality perfectly). FISA with its absence of oversight provisions and its latest 5-year renewal, and not 3 as proposed by Sen. Leahy. The NDAA 2013 which, like last year’s version, again legitimates the President’s and US Military’s authority to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone—anyone—that they suspect of terrorism. This year’s version prohibits the closure of Guantanamo Bay’s extra-judicial prison.

Another little remembered technology of violence: H.R. 347, which criminalizes protestors by making it illegal for them to stand near a public building or Secret Service officers with a sign or with “threatening intent.”

But of course, legal technologies of violence aren’t just limited to laws.  They also include US court decisions—and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear appeals–that criminalize members of charities—or people who give money to them. They include judges’ insistence that they can’t challenge the illegality of drone strikes. Etc. Etc.

Technologies of eager politicians can be found in seemingly liberal upholders of the Constitution. A most recent example would be Senator Dianne Feinstein, who insists that we must give as much information to the NSA as possible in order to catch the terrorists who are in our midst. She simultaneously insists that the NSA knows who to surveil or not surveil, and that its reasons are too dangerous classified for the rest of us to know.

Such technologies of violence can be located in POTUS and his Administration, who demand the authority to assassinate, kill children with drones, arrest and detain, to surveil at whim. Or to collaborate with bankers to ensure that bailout money goes to the perpetrators of fraud, and not its victims.

This technology is replete with smiles, fine suits and coiffures, and the assurance that they are working in the interests and safety of their citizens. It comes with the additional ingredient of insisting that human rights violations in China must be addressed. That the genocidal intentions of Iran and Palestine must be addressed. And condemning the dictatorial powers of the Venezualan and Ecuadorian Presidents. Um, right.

Perhaps the most efficient technology is that of enthusiastic citizens who vote and vote and vote again for politicians who openly assure them that they only want the best for their “constituents.” It is a dangerous technology, this technology of willing self-described liberal citizens who claim to revere the principles of freedom, privacy, and known laws, while insisting that POTUS is constrained by his Congress, his staff, his difficult legacy as the first Black President.

This technology is accompanied by an all-too-easy amnesia (or is it dissociation?).  As Thomas Harrington writes,

…[W]hen a Democrat gets elected to office, it seems that this calculus suddenly changes…[w]hen I confront people whom I know voted for Obama and his party with this desultory and undeniably accurate bill of particulars, they act as if it had little or nothing to do with them and their vote.

In fact, then, the most effective technology of violence under a Democratic Presidency is the denial of facts. It is the willful amnesia that one of “their own,”—a liberal, a community activist, a constitutional law professor, a person of color (and his racially diverse Administration), a cosmopolitan—has taken the lead in violating the sanctity of human beings: through death, destruction of foreign lands, punishing journalists, torturing whistleblowers, kidnapping young men, and killing children. All the while, using secrecy, disposition matrices, surveillance—and–immunity laws—to breed the fear of God into us if we dare dissent.

The second most effective violence is the insistence that destroying and marginalizing one’s own people is better when it comes from a liberal.  As Ethnic Studies Professor Dylan Rodrigues presciently wrote back in 2008—in the aftermath of the Barack Obama’s first victory (the piece is worth reading in its entirety):

To be clear: the political work of liberation from racist state violence—and everything it sanctions and endorses, from premature death to poverty—becomes more complex, contradictory, and difficult now. The dreadful genius of the multiculturalist Obama moment is that it installs a “new” representative figure of the United States that, in turn, opens “new” possibilities for history’s slaves, savages, and colonized to more fully identify with the same nation-building project that requires the neutralization, domestication, and strategic elimination of declared aliens, enemies, and criminals. In this sense, I am less anxious about the future of the “Obama administration” (whose policy blueprint is and will be relatively unsurprising) than I am about the speed and effectiveness with which it has rallied the sentimentality and political investment (often in terms of actual dollar contributions and voluntary labor) of the purported U.S. “Left.

As we witness the nomination and selective framing of Drone collateral death denier and Torture endorser John Brennan by the POTUS for the Director of the CIA–can there be any doubt of how apt Prof. Rodrigues’ words are?

The state’s struggle is not one for political power (defined as that which represents the flourishing of its people)—but for control—to decide the dividing line between flourishing and emaciation, between success and immiseration, between bodily sanctity and bodily violation and destruction, between political freedom and abject fear.  Between life and death.  That struggle for control is a voracious hunger. It is the hunger to monopolize violence—to insist that violence belongs to the state—as an efficient, effective—and legal means to manage its people.

And yet, this Administration’s most effective legacy is the dissemination of fear. Dissemination of evisceration. Of bodily violations. Of the destruction of countless innocent lives.

Liberals who embraced this second term have enabled the continuation of an empire under multicultural leadership—one which continues, expands, and intensifies the war on people—especially on brown and black and Muslim peoples—through an array of technologies, which are so clean, precise, and beyond refute for so many liberals—those who helped perpetuate this war by re-electing the very people who continued it under the mantle of Freedom and Democracy.

Looking forward, not back.

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

Robert E. Prasch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Democratic Accomplishments At Home since 2008

Slightly updated version

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

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

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

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

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

By the way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same-Sex rights: Some progress here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated Version

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar? Here is Arendt again:

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

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

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

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

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

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