The Irony of MLK Day 2013: A Renewed Invitation into White Supremacy

I wonder how many consider today to be a magnificent symbolic coincidence rather than a Manichean irony: today, we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the greatest civil rights leaders of modern United States history—a man who went to jail to defend the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of minorities and to speak against injustice at home and abroad.  Today, we will also commemorate the re-election of the President of the Unites States and the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner—a man who supports a drug war that incarcerates hundreds of thousands of black and brown minorities; kills U.S. citizens and foreign nationals; eviscerates civil liberties for alleged terrorists and citizens alike; deports 1.5 million migrants and separate parents from their children; protects bankers while allowing poor homeowners to lose their homes; and persecutes whistleblowers without mercy.

There are those who insist that the wrongs of the last four years should be attributed to the malevolent impulses and political calculations of Congress. It is true that Congress can’t be exculpated from its decade-long foaming submission to the American drive to control what it refuses to try to understand, namely the War on Terror. Its shills and hacks have quickly leaped on the bandwagon to push (lean?) forward to sanction a military budget bill that continues the expansion of the drone program and the U.S.’s continued military presence in Afghanistan along with the expansion of bases in large swaths of Africa, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Congress enthusiastically pushed for the renewal of FISA in 2008 (along with the eager support of Senator Obama). In 2013, Congress again with the relentless leadership of Senator Dianne Feinstein, pushed for the passage of the renewal of FISA (without oversight) for five years, along with the passage of NDAA 2012 and 2013, despite the clear purpose of those bills to eviscerate the separation of powers. Congress eagerly endorsed Obama’s loud requests for unilateral presidential authority to arrest and detain any and all persons that it deems a danger to the United States—US citizens and foreigners alike.

With a couple of exceptions, our politicians in Congress are without initiative or honor.  But Congress is not the source of numerous other wrongdoings.  My optimism for this Presidency has all but evaporated in the face of Obama’s policies—unhampered by Congress–designed to tear apart families in the United States and around the world.  I cannot celebrate the second inauguration of the POTUS, under whose watch in the last 4 years, the minds and lives of thousands of innocents have been broken, if not downright destroyed. By drones, invasions, bombs, torture, solitary confinement, renditions, due process-less proceedings, secrecy, and lack of accountability or transparency.  Instead, I will be retracing the steps that have led to the amorality of the Democratic Party and the Presidential Administration that has been able to retain and expand some of the most heinous policies of the previous Republican Administration, and which has been able to initiate some horrifically destructive policies of their own (click on the link to see just a few of the actions I have in mind).

Today, some writers will invoke Dr. Martin Luther King’s courageous April 4, 1967 speech, and rightfully so. King calls for us to see the connections between the fight for civil rights at “home” and the injustice of the U.S.’s incursions, bombings, deaths, and destruction abroad.  He tells us of the response by those who are puzzled by his challenge to US continued attack in Vietnam:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?

In his long, detailed, passionate response—which is as apt today as it was in 1967, Dr. King pointed to one source of his awareness of the links between peace and civil rights:

It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

It is a prescient statement that resonates with the imperialist policies of the United States today. The men and women who enthusiastically endorse sending our young people to war will not suffer the same hurtful ramifications as those men and women who are sent to war–or those on the receiving end of drones, bombs, guns, and destruction. Dr. King’s speech itself is long, insightful, poignant and courageous. Please take some time to read it today if you haven’t already.

What, if anything, has changed between the circumstances of American imperialism in the 1960’s and today? I think it is this: that more and more men and women of color have been invited into the offices of White Supremacy to share in the destruction of other men and women of color who are vulnerable, disfranchised, and rapidly being eviscerated through the policies of a multi-racial white supremacy.

As philosopher and political activist Dr. Cornel West pointed out last week, if Dr. King were alive today, he would have been detained and arrested for his associations with then-terrorist Nelson Mandela, under the auspices of NDAA. Dr. King might have also been arrested for his political speech, namely, his ability to rouse millions with his stirring calls for political justice in the face of American-led atrocities.

By remaining steadfast in their allegiance to illegal overtures in domestic and foreign policy, Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Deval Patrick, Susan Rice, Carmen Ortiz, Preet Bharara and other leaders of color have helped the structures of White Supremacy profit and flourish: The imperialist state has extended its hand to brown and black “liberals” in order to help them into the reigning structures of Imperialism.  It has been remarkable to watch leaders of color as they refuse to challenge the wrongful legacy of colonialism and Jim Crow.  Yes, the civil rights of whites have also been slowly scrubbed away, but—with the exception of poor whites—it is much less than the wide-scale evisceration of the peaceful ability to live for Muslims in the U.S., Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Malians, Afghans, Iraqis.

I think there is another question that we must come to terms with: What is the function of an African American president in a society that has clearly not come to terms with its legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, legalized slavery and racial apartheid in the form of mass incarceration and the widespread criminalization of Blacks?

As Prof. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out unflinchingly, given the history in this country, how is it even possible that we could have elected a Black man to the presidency in 2008?

This brutally frank and funny 29 minute interview is worth watching in its entirety. But FF to 4:35 to hear some of Bonilla-Silva’s answer: The successful election of Barack Obama was an invitation to do the dirty work of White Supremacy for it.  He points out that in Puerto Rico, where he grew up, it was hardly unusual to see black leaders engage in the same racial apologetics and detrimental politics that the former colonial Spanish and current American government engaged in vis-à-vis Puerto Rico’s inhabitants. It doesn’t surprise him that this can be so.

There are many other such examples that we can choose from that illustrate similar white supremacist dynamics. Take for example, the White Supremacist government of Rhodesia that selected Bishop Muzorewa to take over the daily administration of its racist state.

But we have even more recent and better-known examples: Bush Administration’s former Secretary, Condoleeza Rice, DOJ attorney John Yoo (author of the Torture Memos), and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who created the marvelous quick-sandlike legal structure of Guantanamo and others.  Their invitations into white supremacy were still novelties, but identifiable because they did so under the auspices of a Conservative Administration that could make few credible claims to anti-racist activity. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration and the Republicans were able to promote their claims to be non-racist by using the presence of these individuals as cultural symbols to distract many of us—especially and including liberal Democrats in the Senate and Congress—from its overt return to a racial mission in the Middle East under the auspices of a colonizing/civilizing project. The War on Terror could thereby be couched as an ostensible hunt for justice and legitimized aim for retribution.

In order to engage the issue of state-led racism initiated, deployed and conducted effectively by men and women in power, we must address a system of multiracial white supremacy. This is a terrifying and politicized term. But we need to wrap our minds around it.  A multiracial white supremacy is a system of power that has invited in—or exploited wherever it could– people of color in order to wage institutional, legal, political assaults on other black, brown, and poor people—at “home” and internationally.

Four years ago, Ethnic Studies Professor Dylan Rodriguez wrote a frank and prescient assessment of the election of the first Black President. It is still painful to read, because it is still relevant. In 2008, Rodriguez wrote:

Putting aside, for the moment, the liberal valorization of Obama as the less-bad or (misnamed) “progressive” alternative to the horrible specter of a Bush-McCain national inheritance, we must come to terms with the inevitability of the Obama administration as a refurbishing, not an interruption or abolition, of the normalized violence of the American national project. To the extent that the subjection of indigenous, Black, and Brown people to regimes of displacement and suffering remains the condition of possibility for the reproduction (or even the reinvigoration) of an otherwise eroding American global dominance, the figure of Obama represents a new inhabitation of white supremacy’s structuring logics of violence.

The only phrase I would change is “new inhabitation.” It is no longer so.

Rodriguez ends his essay with the following:

At best, when the U.S. nation-building project is not actually engaged in genocidal, semi-genocidal, and proto-genocidal institutional and military practices against the weakest, poorest, and darkest—at home and abroad—it massages and soothes the worst of its violence with banal gestures of genocide management. As these words are being written, Obama and his advisors are engaged in intensive high-level meetings with the Bush administration’s national security experts. The life chances of millions are literally being classified and encoded in portfolios and flash drives, traded across conference tables as the election night hangover subsides. For those whose political identifications demand an end to this historical conspiracy of violence, and whose social dreams are tied to the abolition of the U.S. nation building project’s changing and shifting (but durable and indelible) attachments to the logic of genocide, this historical moment calls for an amplified, urgent, and radical critical sensibility, not a multiplication of white supremacy’s “hope.”

Instead, we saw the precise inverse of Prof. Rodriguez’s calls for action: Not only invocations of “white supremacy’s hope,” but languor and denial. In the last 12 months, we heard a constant (white) feminist and (multiracial) liberal moral “shaming” of those—especially whites–who attempted to point to a reality-based truth.  In this sense, the last four years have enhanced the wishes of a dominant power structure that deflects charges of racism through the public responses of “post-racist” liberal feminists, Democrats, and pundits who support African Americans and other minorities in leadership positions while marginally attending to the systemic force-feeding of a US military with black and brown bodies; while remaining silent in the face of the mass penalties that brown and black people face in this country under the auspices of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs; massive foreclosures on homes disproportionately affecting minorities; and in one of the latest international affronts to people of color—while insisting on Israel’s “Right of Self-Defense” in the face of what is clearly a bullying and brutish beat-down of a long oppressed Palestinian population.

What is egregious about the latter is not only the clear indifference and neglect of basic human rights for a group of people whose land has been increasingly diminished, but the willful blindness and insistence that those who have been imprisoned, brutalized, emaciated through sanctions, bombs, and sheer daily terror at the end of the legal machinery and weapons of a colonial police state—are on an equal playing field with a state with sophisticated arms funded and supported by the United States.

As we enter the second term of a Presidency that has proved that the wide-scale destruction of black, brown and Muslim peoples for political gain can be conducted spectacularly and quite profitably, I wonder what it will take for Americans to take stock of their racist and imperialist legacy to challenge the injustices waged at home and abroad? Is it even possible to remember the legacy of Dr. King without being ashamed at the intentional destruction of people of color at home and internationally? And if we can, doesn’t that say more about the dessication of the American moral conscience than anything else?

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The Deaths of Innocents: How to Understand “Collateral Damage”

Today, TransEx guest blogger Robert Prasch weighs in on the moral debate over the ethics of  US-led drone strikes and “unintended” casualties. He offers a provocative analogy that sheds some insight on the rhetoric of collateral damage.

 

Robert E. Prasch

By Robert E. Prasch

The devastating massacre that took place a few short weeks ago in Newtown moved hearts across the world.  It also rekindled several debates, one of which had  to do with the contrast between the West’s – fully understandable — horror at the mass death of children in Newtown, and the striking absence of an emotional response to the deaths of children “mistakenly” killed in U.S.-directed drone strikes.  This debate has received a significant amount of attention in the blogosphere, and less attention in the overseas press.  It has not been taken up at all by the United States mainstream press.  Moreover, in contrast to gun control, no major political party is interested in curtailing the United States’ several drone wars, despite its highly dubious ethical and legal foundations.

This debate turns, then, on how we in the West perceive the violent deaths of these non-Western children.  Two possible answers emerge.  The first is to maintain that “their” children simply aren’t worth that much anyway.  Hence, their deaths are insufficient grounds for concern.  It is a racist perspective, but it is consistent.  The second answer agrees that the violent death of any child, anywhere, is an equally terrible tragedy, as Falguni Sheth and Glenn Greenwald have argued.  Yet, many holding this view also contend that while they would agree that a tragedy occurred in Newtown, a similar moral status should not be ascribed to the many children who are the “accidental” casualties—even when these are the routine and predictable consequence of drone strikes.  To this line of thinking, the perception that a tragedy has occurred must turn upon the context of the death of the child and the motivation behind the killing.  The mere fact that one or more children have died by violence is insufficient to establish that a tragedy has occurred.  Consequently, the name ‘Adam Lanza’ is reviled for being the perpetrator of the Newtown massacre, but to suggest anything even remotely like a similar condemnation of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is to associate oneself with a “lunatic fringe.”  Why is that?

The oft-repeated answer is that Adam Lanza intended to massacre children, whereas the approximately 200 children killed by President Barack Obama’s predator drone strikes were inadvertent.  In the military parlance that has been all-too-willingly adopted in this country, the latter were collateral damage (even when the term does not legally describe CIA-led drone strikes).  This answer suggests that the mere fact of a child’s death should have little relevance in our evaluation of the ethics of an action taken if killing a child was not the set priority of the person taking that action.  It just happened.  Bummer.

As an aside, I would, like to believe that even those who support the predator drone program might want the president to apologize, or at least offer condolences, to the families who have lost children in these strikes (Please do not tell me that he has not done so because the program is “secret.” Most people living outside the US know exactly which government is organizing and executing these attacks).

Let’s return to the ethical calculation implicit in the ascription of the deaths of 200 children to collateral damage:  To highlight the salient characteristics, I will draw upon an analogy:  the decision to use a pharmaceutical drug.  We have all been exposed to the advertising of drugs that – we are told — can cure one or more ailments.  We are also aware that each drug advertisement concludes with a list of warnings about known “side-effects.”  However, as a matter of simple biology, drugs do not have “side-effects.”  They only have “effects.”  Calling the positive outcomes “effects,” and the bad outcomes “side effects,” is simply a spin by the drug manufacturer’s marketing department that is designed to appeal to our hopes of a positive result.

In an organism as complex as the human body, the effects of a drug are probabilistic.  That is to say that, after an adequate number of clinical trials, researchers can acquire a defensible estimate that a given drug–let us call it N–will have the effects A, B, and C, with the probabilities x, y, and z.  Let us suppose that effect A, which occurs with probability x, is a highly desirable outcome.  Perhaps it can save a patient from death by heart disease.  However, as mature and informed adults, we also understand that if drug N is used often enough, by enough people, the undesirable effects B and C will occur with probabilities y and z.  This latter reality is the basis for the government-mandated warnings on TV (Obviously, any given person using N might be “lucky” and only experience A, or they might be “unlucky” and only experience B and C without the benefit of A occurring).

Every society and adult considering the use of N must weigh the benefit of A, subject to the probability of it occurring, against the risk-adjusted damage to society and ourselves that may be anticipated in the event that B and/or C occurs.  In some cases, such as curing a heart condition, we may calculate that the risk is worth taking.  But what if A is simply a cure for teenage acne?  We may decide that the risks outweigh the benefits, although we can be sure that teenagers, famously known for undervaluing risks, will protest.

Drawing upon the above, let us return to the matter of missiles launched by predator drones into someone else’s country.  Even if we assume (although we have little reason to do so) that such strikes support good outcomes, it’s still the case that – as with the drug described above – the destruction wreaked by these missiles cannot be nicely codified into intended targets (good) and collateral damage (bad).  On the contrary, they destroy everything and everyone around them upon detonation.  Period.  In a manner parallel to a drug company’s sales pitch, the U.S. government classifies some deaths as “good” if it exclusively kills “targeted terrorists” (how this term has come to encompass all military age males has been much discussed by others).  Anyone else killed, whether a group en route to a wedding party or children who happened to be nearby, are subject to a cover-up or labeled “collateral damage.”

The difficulty with this naïve classification is that we now – for better or worse — have observed an enormous number of missile strikes, so we have a good idea of the likely distribution of effects.  Even if we accept the government’s own classification which, as we know, is overwhelmingly biased against concluding that innocents died (again, assuming that the government has legitimate grounds to conduct these attacks), then we must acknowledge that those ordering further attacks have found the death rate of innocent persons and other people’s children to be within the zone of predictable but tolerable outcomes.  Why tolerable?  Because we have enough information to estimate the rate of innocent deaths to be expected per-missile-launched and the program is still continuing.  It follows that such a calculation has been made, if only implicitly, and the calculus – at least to those making the decision – has been found to be within an acceptable range.

I also want to highlight an important disanalogy with the pharmacological example given above.  If I decide to ingest drug N in the hopes of effect A, but end up suffering from results B and C, the decision and its consequences all accrue to me and those who care about me.  A most notable quality of the drone program is that its benefits (if any) accrue almost exclusively to Americans, while the associated costs and risks (which are known to be substantial) are being borne almost exclusively by “Foreign Others.”  Moreover, it is not a stretch to suppose that these latter persons may not wish to live every minute of every day worrying about the chances that someone very far away – oops! – mistook the “disposition” of themselves or their loved ones to be correlated with actual or potential hostility towards a faraway nation. (Also neglected by the Administration and the mainstream media is any consideration that the hostility of the communities being bombed may grow in tandem with the size and duration of this missile program).

In light of the above, American citizens have a right to know the explicit or implicit formula that validates the “costs” of killing a certain number of other people’s children per-missile-launched as weighed against the (presumptive) “benefits” of killing a certain number of persons who have exhibited a subset of the as-yet-still-secret “dispositions.”  The contours of this calculus are something that should be, at a minimum, the subject of a substantial public discussion and full accounting by the highest echelons of our government.  Are four persons of “bad disposition” worth the life of one innocent child?  Is the break-even number six?  Perhaps it is ten?   We are entitled to this answer and its underlying logic.

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.

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.

Race, Murder, and Mayhem in America: Considering the Links

Glenn Greenwald is right to be skeptical of any direct causal links between the horrific events such as the Sikh Temple Massacre or the Joplin Mosque and US foreign policy. As he pointed out yesterday,

there are usually a diverse array of complex motives (psychological, emotional, ideological, religious) that drive individuals to engage in violence of this sort, and an equally diverse list of complex causes (legislative, political, cultural) as to why our society fosters and enables it.

And to be fair, most white men who have grown up in the shadow of 9-11 do not shoot up theaters and temples or burn down mosques. But I want to try to be clearer about the links that I’m trying to argue for:

Dylan Rodrigues, a scholar in Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside and author of a great book on Black Radicals in prison, has argued that we need to pay attention to the parallels between the massive numbers of Black and Latino men who are in prison, and our tendencies to incarcerate Muslim men in Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib. These parallels can alert us to a certain carceral mentality that is mirrored in a country’s international and domestic policies. A number of philosophers and sociologists have argued along similar lines, including Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, and Loiç Wacquant.

Similarly, in my last post and a number of others, that is what I’ve tried to argue that we need to consider: when Dharun Ravi sets up a camera to spy on his gay roommate’s trysts, or Wade Michael Page shoots up a Sikh temple, when US soldiers rape Iraqi women, urinate on dead bodies, and shoot civilians in cold blood in Iraq, we need to move beyond the level of shock and start thinking about the larger political and legal and cultural mentalities in which these events happen.

In particular, we live in a country in which the federal office that oversees the strict regulation of immigrants, visitors, and—yes—citizens, guards the homefront through border security, pre-emptive policing of people’s social, political and financial activity, their emails and phone calls, i.e., “counterterrorism.” That office, ceremoniously renamed the Department of Homeland Security six months after September 11, 2001, is an ostentatious chest-beating symbol of waging a war on “threats to national security.”

In the name of Homeland Security—a hallowed reference to Nazi Germany’s urge to purify their own “heimat”–we have seen the prevalence of United States’ domestic and foreign policies: state-led surveillance of its own people, of the decision to harass foreigners until they leave, i.e., “self-deportation,” of Muslim communities, to incarcerate Muslim men without habeas corpus or a serious legal defense, to outlaw political protest, to give the U.S. president full authority to assassinate and incarcerate “terrorists,” and to the fact of state-led mass destruction in the form of drones, rockets, bombs, chemical warfare and guns?

Why then, talk about white supremactists as if they are loners or part of private gangs? Shouldn’t we remember the US’ emphasis on the Homeland when we watch these shootings and mosque-burnings? When we see images of war and strife in the Middle East? Is it such a strange leap to think of US domestic and foreign policy as part of white supremacist, racial contract, as political philosopher Charles Mills argues (read his book for more on this; it’s clearly written, even for non-philosophers)?

As Greenwald says:

A country which venerates its military above all other institutions, which demands that its soldiers be spoken of only with religious-like worship, and which continuously indoctrinates its population to believe that endless violence against numerous countries is necessary and just — all by instilling intense fear of the minorities who are the target of that endless violence — will be a country filled with citizens convinced of the virtues and nobility of aggression. (the links are in his original piece).

He’s right. I think there’s something else going on as well. At the risk of stating the ridiculously obvious, we live in a country (and still at a time) that has a very difficult time with race politics: And it’s not merely about racial antagonisms having to do with Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis or South Asians and Arabs generally. It has to do with racial hostilities that are legislated against Latinos and Blacks (and by this term, I include all folks who are the victim of anti-black racism, not just African Americans)—and Americans turning a blind eye to these hostilities that are waged against black and brown folks, while expecting white men to act out the scripts of entitlement: declaring and waging war, AND deploying black and brown and working-class whites to war. Americans cheer when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts within the confines of state-led policies and laws—and are shocked when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts outside of those institutions and laws.

Again, Charles Mills calls this the epistemology of ignorance, that is when whites and elites are completely baffled by—and claim NOT to understand– the very same world that they (through slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, mass criminalization through anti-terror and drug laws)—produced. Mills coined this term, the epistemology of ignorance, hand in hand with the racial contract back in 1997. Can you imagine the furor he caused then?

I agree with Mills—mostly.

As importantly it has to do with the very difficult time we have in calling our political leaders to account whether they are white or non-white; but at the present moment, we are having an especially difficult time calling our current President, who is black, into account—especially for those of us who are politically progressive and constructively race-conscious. The tensions that lie in this political dilemma—during this election year—are enormous. But it doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s racially destructive policies: like deporting 400,000 migrants a year; like tearing apart families through forced deportation; destroying childhoods through indefinite detention and deportation of their parents without judicial review.

So, taking a page out of Mills’ book, I would suggest that another term that better describes what’s happening today: the epistemology of indifference. White and elites understand perfectly well the world that they have produced. And those liberals AND progressives who vote for them—despite this knowledge—are guilty of the epistemology of indifference: they know and they don’t care. At least, they don’t care enough to reject the false choices handed to them by the Democratic Party.

It doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s imperially expansive policies. It makes us callous, indifferent, and frankly, part of the problem. Calling him to account doesn’t necessarily make one a racist, unless you are calling him to account because he is black. Similarly, not calling him to account because he’s black is also problematic.

Race in America is an enormously tricky terrain to navigate carefully, justly, ethically. But it needs to be addressed alongside our policies of violence, of invasion, of mass murders in the name of a Secure Homeland, and in ways that don’t celebrate OR vilify single individuals. Rather, we need to clearly, firmly, effectively call those politicians and appointees to account: by voting with our feet to find leaders who share their moral principles, and reject officially sanctioned mass-murders and wars, instead of promoting them as solutions to the racial fears and xenophobia of Americans.

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.